"Cowardy Custard." I am not sure whether this translates
across the Atlantic from Britain. Essentially it is the equivalent of
'chicken.' Young kids taunt each other with it or at least they did
back in the daze when I was one. I don't know the origins of the phrase
but my guess is that the colour of custard has something to do with
it. Young Adam is a film about a character
called Joe who is a coward and he is involved in a visceral sex scene
Memoirs of a Justified Sinner OR How to be Yellow. It's simple. You
make a mistake. One stupid mistake, an accident. But no one catches
you and no one knows you were involved. So you keep your mouth shut.
Goodbye innocence—not that there was much in the first place—hello
guilt. But you get away with it. The only problem is that someone else
gets the blame. What can you do?
You keep your head down. You watch while the whole thing spirals out
of control. You act the casual observer. Intervention is impossible
now. Your conscience keeps nagging, but you push it below the surface.
You hide in your job. You find a lover. You use the lover to distract
the emptiness. You disgust yourself. But you hang on to your secret
because you are alone and it is all you have to protect yourself.
If only that conscience would let you go. The voices are getting louder.
You have to do something. So you run. But you don't get far. Curiosity
gets the better of you. You walk into the lions' den and you watch the
feeding frenzy. You know it will be you they're after if they even sniff
your secret. 'It was an accident!' you want to scream, but you know
they've got the taste for blood. Now you start to care. You want so
much to make it stop but nothing's going to prevent it now. So you join
the crowd and stand as close to the action as you can. You know enough
tomake it end, but you do nothing. You watch. Closer. Closer. Closer.
Urging yourself to do something. And then it's over. You walk away.
It's easy to be a coward. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut.
Except Joe (Ewan McGregor) isn't really a coward, he is just not heroic.
He makes mistakes like we all do. I guess that makes him an antihero.
Heroes are for children!? Maybe most of us adults would find it easier
to do the right thing if it wasn't so frightening or inconvenient. Maybe
sometimes we don't even know what the right thing is. Sometimes we get
paralysed. In a way that's what this film is. It's a paralysis film—an
Young Adam is based on a novel by Alexander
Trocchi—a Scottish 'beat' writer and therefore almost by definition
an honourary American—not that you'd want to have him; he escaped
from New York in the early sixties with a mandatory death sentence hanging
over him for selling heroin to a minor. Hardly likely to get a visa
nowadays. Don't lock up your daughters though, he's long dead. Ironically
the core of the book is about the lunacy of the death penalty. But it's
more than that, it's a good old fashioned 'beat' story. As Tilda Swinton,
who plays Ella, Joe's central victim, says, "Young
Adam is about the crisis of the alienated intellectual and it's
about the whole question of spiritual loneliness. These are our themes
now. We're living in another beat time. That's why it's important to
talk about loneliness and alienation because it's everybody's deal."
What about the custard? Well we couldn't have all this dark and broody
existential stuff without a bit of romance to sweeten the medicine.
Beatnik food sex games—is it possible to get more romantic?
If you see Young Adam, you don't have to
like Joe, Ella or any of the other characters. Maybe if you watch a
film about someone who is worse than you are, you might end up feeling
better about yourself. Maybe you might feel a little more like a hero.
P.S. It's funny how a crowd is an anagram of coward.