The Deep Archive: 1994, Adam Cullen reviews Free Willy

I knew he was a boozing, oversized personality in the art world. I knew he gained infamy for his don’t-give-a-fuck approach to painting, slapping fluoro acrylic across the canvas with abandon. I knew he won the Archibald Prize in 2000 for a portrait of David ‘Diver Dan’ Wenham. And I knew he’d shot a journalist on his Blue Mountains property, several years before his premature death at age 47 of abundant, accumulating health problems.

But I didn’t know that badarse painter Adam Cullen had once written for RealTime—in the capacity of film critic. Once. Reviewing, of all things, Hollywood family film Free Willy—a “spineless mollusc of misplaced inspiration” involving a heartwarming cross-species friendship between a “juvenile delinquent” and a “rubbery-skinned lozenge.” Beyond being a sterling contribution to the spite-filled genre of Takedown Criticism, Cullen’s piece contains some brilliantly concise insights, including “most Americans have something wrong with their sense of self-parody.” He can write. Alas, he didn’t write for us again.

In this first installment of our new series, The Deep Archive, we highlight the weirdest, smartest, most luminescent pieces from unexpected and illustrious writers and their artist subjects, largely from undigitised editions of RealTime in the 1990s. Lauren Carroll Harris

Free Willy: or One More Time for Daddy

Adam Cullen takes his critical hacksaw to performing animals.

RealTime #2, August 1994

How long has it been since you’ve seen a movie that makes pancreatic fluid rise and swim gently in the back of your mouth as you rock backwards and forwards humming? I thought Man Bites Dog (1992) was a special offer—up to date, probably one of my favourites—but this spineless mollusc of misplaced inspiration deserves instant applause for vulgarity. Remember Salo? Free Willy makes it look exactly like what it is—an ultra-daggy 70s art design film.

On a purely narrative level, Free Willy is a jaundiced filmic lump held together by a sinewy, but brilliantly sardonic, plot. You may go thinking it’s a mere under-12s film, but be prepared to be sickened to the point of oral satisfaction. Free Willy is an emission into our collective darkness.

Enough of the praise. A filthy rich juvenile delinquent is sent to stay with foster parents. They have longings to be nuclear, but like most Americans have something wrong with their sense of self-parody and, in this case, their reproductive organs. This is the edifice from which relations between rubbery-skinned lozenge Willy and the juvenile delinquent begin. The delinquent lands a job at the poolside, meets the captive orca Willy, realises they share a rare kind of public flux and teaches him to perform a cavalcade of astounding tricks.

On opening day, Willy decides that he’s too smart to perform for this fair, so he starts acting like a dumb whale. As a result, the owners of the centre decide to get rid of Willy and claim the insurance money. Very civil. Very civic. Willy is inevitably released into the bay of a local fishing village by the delinquent, his foster parents with a martyr complex and an Indian man who collects miniature whale sculptures.

Free Willy is a filmic abomination about a squeaking, pumped-up limbless icon and the equipment of fixation and hatred. It’s high-strung, convoluted and you get the feeling your psyche will buckle at any moment. If you’re bored with art-house pretension and artistry or if you don’t feel at home with the bio-mass, go and buy the video for a unique excursion into the distillate of evil.

Adam Cullen (1965-2012) was a leading Australian visual artist and provocateur.

22 May 2017