This new edition is a cause for celebration. First published in 1986 when Joe R. Lansdale was little known, and re-issued in 2001 by Subterranean Press, the wonderful US indie publisher, The Magic Wagonhas sadly been unavailable since then. Well, not only is it now easily available because it’s a Kindle edition, the price is a mere $2.99. It’d be worth it at triple the price. And, even better, this early Lansdale fiction remains one of his very best. In fact, it’s worthy of the title classic: a funny, quirky and utterly charming literary fiction, brilliantly told.
Set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century, The Magic Wagon is the tale of Buster Fogg’s life as well as other eccentric characters that he encounters. By the time he’s 17, his life has been pock-marked by tragedy, yet Buster tells you about each sad event in such a way as to make them Candide-like – tragic-comic, even farcical.
It reads like a combination of an S. E. Hinton novel (Rumblefish, The Outsiders), in its convincing account of a boy’s youth and, throughout, a feeling that if Jorge Luis Borges had ever written a literary, magical Western, I think he’d have been proud to have the result that is The Magic Wagon.
This powerful movie about drug addiction and materialist society is co-written by Hubert Selby, Jr. – and based on his own brilliant, harrowing novel of the same name – and director Darren Aronofsky. Aronofksy is known for a number of distinctive films, including most recently The Black Swan, besides Pi, his first, best and most controversial film, besides this one here; The Wrestler (which gave Mickey Rourke his come back role and opened the doors for him to Hollywood once again, albeit in a limited fashion compared with his earlier success and fame); and, of course, the highly wackidoodle The Fountain). Requiem for a Dream, both the film and the original novel are overwhelming, incredible experiences: nightmarish, and provocative, and always convincing about the world of drug-addiction (both illegal and legal). (You can buy the book with free worldwide delivery here and the Region 1 DVD with same delivery here. For a Region 2 DVD, just click on the image to your left. )
What makes this especially disturbing and powerful – though never exploitative or morally judging, like some movies about drug addiction – are the brilliant montage sequences that inter-play between the drama (trauma) of Burstyn’s story and three other lives. These are her son, played by the actor Jared Leto; his co-accomplice drug-dealing and drug-taking friend, played very well by the under-rated Marlon Wayans and mostly known for his silly Hollywood comedies; and a moving performance by Jennifer Connelly, drug-addicted, estranged from her rich parents, girlfriend to Leto’s character, and who gives in to sexual exploitation in exchange for the drugs she so desperately needs. Recommended without reservation; albeit with a caveat…It’s important to note that if you feel you could not cope with the ugly, underbelly reality of drug-addiction, then I’d stay well-clear of the film.
However, should you wish to – and I hope you do – there are three strong justifications reasons to watch it/buy it/rent it and know that it is truly one of the most stand-out films of recent years:
1. It has the most amazing, deservedly Oscar-winning performance for Best Actress, as performed by Ellen Burstyn and is truly one of the best performances ever in cinema, by an actor or actress. She is truly phenomenal as she portrays her character’s devastating downward psychological spiral as a result of doctor-prescribed diet pills. The only disgusting, shameful thing about the Oscars in this regard, is that in 2001, when Burstyn was up for nomination, bizarrely, incomprehensibly, Julia Roberts won for her pathetically easy role as a loud-foul-mouthed lawyer’s assistant in Erin Brockovich (understandably, some critics and bloggers referred to the character as Erin Brockobitch – perhaps a bit strong and it sounds cruel, but I think the term reflects the strength of feeling if injustice in awarding the Oscar to Roberts and not to Burstyn).
2. The ensemble cast works incredibly well together, from Jared Leto, to Marlon Wayans (who should have gone on to do to bigger and better, more demanding roles – he clearly has the talent), Jennifer Connelly (also her best role to date), besides all the supporting cast.
3. The original musical score (by Clint Mansell), cinematography (Matthew Libatique) and editing (Jay Rabinowitz) are truly outstanding. Clearly a tremendous amount of artistic dedication from all involved in the film and energy went into the structuring and filming, to make this the tour de force it undoubtedly is.