Last night's viewing - Storyville Survivors: Despicable Dick BBC4

 

 

The crude shorthand for Storyville Survivors: Despicable Dick would be My Name Is Earl as rewritten by Annie Proulx. My Name Is Earl because Joshua Neale's sort-of road movie shared a narrative backbone with Greg Garcia's sitcom about a "guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks". Just like Earl, Richard Kuchera, in Alcoholics Anonymous for 20 years and frustratingly stuck somewhere between steps eight and nine (list those you've harmed and make amends to them), had finally resolved to clear some of his very considerable karmic backlog and he let Neale ride along with him as he did so. Annie Proulx because Kuchera, his family and friends are spread across some of the bleaker states of the American Midwest and because the mixture of pain and comedy and belated regret in the film was vividly reminiscent of her writing. The crude shorthand doesn't quite do it justice, though, because it was its own thing entirely – one of those films you wonder why you're watching at all until you suddenly realise it has you entirely in its grip.

"I used to be a dick and the essence of this journey is to try to be more of a Richard," Kuchera announced as he set off on his pilgrimage of contrition, heading out from a trailer marooned on a South Dakota prairie. It was an overneat line, and (as it turned out) typical of Kuchera's suspect glibness when it came to the language of remorse. He is a man, you realised later, in whom charm has turned pathological and his apologies were less an exercise in true contrition than a novel means of getting some attention. But the intriguing thing was that you could still see how easily people might have been charmed. In old photographs, Dick had the florid moustache and gleam in the eye of a 19th-century cowboy, a handsome rascal out on the Western fringe of respectability.

Some sequences were just flat-out funny. Talking to his son Greg about the possibility of a meeting with his first wife, Nola, Dick suggested that "maybe the thing for me to do would be to just show up". "Don't get shot!" said Greg, who happened to be sorting ammunition cases at the time. But then Dick sat down with Nola and you saw her trembling at the memories he'd summoned up (including a suicide attempt and the occasion when he tried to push her out of a moving car). Even Greg – who'd been abandoned when he was six by his father in favour of a hitchhiking trip around the world – was still visibly angry at his father's appetite for easy resolution.

There was a lot to be forgiven. Visiting his friend Tex in Omaha, Dick reminisced about the time he'd tried to get Tex's wife into bed. "We were buck-ass naked as I recall or close to it," he said, with more fondness in his voice than the situation perhaps called for, and then another memory distracted him: "Where did the bear rug fit into that whole episode? I think there'd been more than a little booze involved." But Dick was laying down fresh offences too, for future apologies. Visiting his current girlfriend, Beth, Dick tried to persuade her to accompany him to a strip-club as a birthday treat. "I don't want to," she said firmly. "I accept that," replied Dick, who is practised in the rhetoric of the group session. The next frame, a shot of the Kongo Klub, revealed that Dick got what he wanted anyway. The film ended with a family reunion in Las Vegas – a kind of out-of-town convention for Dick Survivors that began in strained jocularity and ended with Kuchera with his fingers in his ears, declining to listen to the grievances of those he'd wounded. He never made it to Richard in my view, but it was fascinating watching him try.

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