Never Mind "Local Color"—That’s a Bruise!

Camera obscura view of Aberystwyth

Last week, my best friend was in town for a visit. Ever since I left our native Germany some twenty years ago to live abroad (first in the US, now in the UK), our time together has been short and rare. I have learned to accept the brevity of our reunions; but treating them as special occasions has often bothered me. Not that it would be a waste of time just to flop and chat; then again, that is what we do apart almost daily while on the phone with each other. So, as if our get-togethers weren’t special enough, I somehow feel obliged to make my friend’s journeys here worthwhile by planning something out of the ordinary.

This time around, though, there was less time and still less money for the “special,” given that most of our hours and pounds are being spent on renovating our house in town. Okay, so I tried to pass off a seven-hour roundtrip in a van to pick up a bathtub as a sightseeing tour—but much of my German friend’s visit was passed in the appreciation of local color: the blue bells, the silvery sea, and the lush greenery of nearby Hafod, a Picturesque, man-made landscape that was an inspiration to Britain’s Romantic poets.

Then there was a hike up Constitution Hill just behind our future home to look through the lens of the camera obscura (pictured), presumably the biggest in the world. Yes, there is plenty to see in Aberystwyth. As one Victorian traveler expressed it, it is worthwhile coming here just to see the sunset.

So much for the daytime highlights. What about evening entertainment? How fortunate, I thought, that the local cinema was screening films of local interest—a Welsh-language picture about a 1970s comedy act that hit it big in the Valleys but dreamed of Vegas (Ryan a Ronnie) and a British biopic about Michael Peterson, a man born in this very town. Not a dignitary, mind, but a celebrity nonetheless—a nonentity of guy who, lacking all other ambitions, reinvented himself as Charles Bronson, thug.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2009) is not a traditional biography. It is no more a character study than Friday the 13th, even though it is more concerned with its own glamour than with the ugliness of its subject. The film does not attempt to debate whether nurture or nature (the radioactive Irish Sea, say) turned a boy into a beast, to explain what went wrong along the way to a maturity unreached.

Bronson makes no mention of Peterson’s birthplace, which, given the violent subject, must be a relief to those engaged in trying to sell the town as a seaside resort. Besides, the home Peterson made for himself is solitary confinement, in which he spent most of his life. Thirty years and counting—without a murder charge to his discredit.

The film’s homophobia aside—its muscular, naked, supposedly “unadulterated” violence comes across as less freakish than the cultured, artistic and presumably fey who seek to entrap, educate, or exploit Peterson—Bronson is most disturbing in its refusal either to accuse or excuse the man. It simply displays, thereby giving its yet living subject precisely what it—along with the public—appears to crave most: celebrity. It is a nightmarish picture of a good-for-nothing who achieves fame—like a roid-raging Paris Hilton (High-security Hilton?)—without doing anything deserving of our notice, let alone our praise.

Bronson is the anti-Elephant Man: “I am not a human being,” he seems to insist, “I am an animal.” He is a sideshow act entirely satisfied with his own conspicuous marginality.

If the film argues anything, it is that our inability to pin Peterson down is what terrifies us most, what compels us to watch and forces the authorities to keep him under lock and key. With this makeshift thesis, the shallow if stylistically intriguing Bronson, which favors art direction over the use of a moral compass, attempts to justify its approach, making a virtue out of its superficiality by denying us access into the mind it is incapable of penetrating.

I took my visitor to see Bronson in hopes of catching a glimpse of our little town and of learning something about its darker past. Instead of shades of local color, though, I was dealt a rather nasty shiner.

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