The Dark Master

November 3, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Oz Asia Festival

Space Theatre, Adelaide, October 29, 2019

(Director: Kuro Tanino)

Japanese rural inns are a mainstay of horror films and video games.  The Dark Master merges these genres when a hapless young backpacker (Koichiro FO Pereira) is bizarrely inveigled into running a once popular bistro in an undefined area of Japan (possibly Osaka).  The former proprietor (Susumu Ogata), who may or may not have operated the inn for the last 30 or 35 years, disappears upstairs and issues instruction to his apprentice, via earpiece.

The young traveller, who has never so much as boiled an egg, learns quickly how make umama (?), steak and fried rice for the customers, who return as word of the marvellous food travels. The audience hears the instructions via their own earpieces, but the effect is lost somewhat as the dialogue is in Japanese, but the surtitles are in English.

The set is marvellous, if static. A dingy diner/restaurant complete with working kitchen is the one room in which all action takes place, and unfortunately, from some seats in the Space Theatre, entrances and exits were blocked from view. Close-ups of the cooking on a large suspended screen did not quite work, not gelling with the action and being rather blurry.

The actors are accomplished, the action fast, the overall effect a clever blend of fable and film noir. There is some unnecessary titilation from grafted-on prostitute characters.  The political message is a little obscure.  The previous restauranteur had suffered in the so-called “Lost 10 Years” or “20 Years”, when Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1991. The new restauranteur (who also says he has been in business for 30 or 35 years, although in reality it is a few weeks or months) is under threat from a current very real menace to Japan [That would be China? – Ed.].

The script seems unpolished, the action slightly hysterical, but overall The Dark Master is a most engaging play, with the bonus of interesting if slightly doubtful recipes.

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Wagner Returns (in shimmering gold and black)

November 3, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WAGNER |

Wagner Gala, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, 2 November 2019

TVC descended on gloomy, beautiful Hobart for the much awaited return of Nina Stemme, currently the world’s greatest soprano (only the 2nd person to be awarded the Birgit Nilsson Prize, for those for whom awards matter), with the great bass baritone John Lundgren, who gave us a night of selected Wagnerian hits in concert format.

Stemme made a big splash in Hobart in 2016 singing excerpts from Tristan und Isolde with Stuart Skelton. No Tristan this time unfortunately, but the programme was ideally suited to the leads: The Wotan and Brünnhilde tête-à-têtes from Walküre, Act II, scenes I and III, together with the “Ride,” and then, after the interval, The Overture from The Flying Dutchman followed by an excerpt from the Hollander’s Monologue, which Lundgren – who played the part in Stuttgart – did superbly, aided by the TSO Chorus, hidden somewhere up near the ceiling.

The final pieces brought a splendid evening to a close: Siegfried’s Funeral Music (Trauermarsch to you) and Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene (Götterdämmerung). Stemme, looking fine in a shimmering gold and silver ‘glo-weave’, showed why she is the star of the moment, combining (even in concertised form) the humanistic acting sensitivities of a Callas with the superb Wagnerian voice of a Nilsson or a Norman.  Marko Letonja, conductor of the 2016 concert, brilliantly kept the mighty TSO on track, playing fast and yet with feeling.

It was an excellent evening, and one could gladly have stayed on for more. But by the time we ‘saw the World End,’ there was nothing left but flowers and standing ovations.

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A Joke With No Laughs: “Joker” is the Worst Movie of the Year

October 26, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Todd Phillips) (2019)

Joker is All Dog, from snout to tail. It displays a breathtaking conceit as to its own importance, a delusion, in fact, of grandeur, and of relevance. It shamelessly rips-off much better films such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. It is completely tired and lustreless; it is neurotic and incoherent; it is inept, pretentious and self-indulgent; it has no insights to offer, just tritely psychologised solemnity that gets so murky it’s (almost) funny. In fact there is a special kind of unredeemed awfulness throughout the entirety of what we might loosely call ‘the production.’ When the lead character smothered his mother with a pillow we just had to hit the bar.

Arthur Fleck is a failed clown and psychopath in a town like Gotham (circa 1976, or 1982, or now: whatever) who badly wants to get on the Murray Franklin TV show. But he isn’t funny, he isn’t talented, he isn’t humble, he isn’t even nice. (When his closing-down-sale sign is stolen and he is beaten, we longed to join in.) That’s because his Dad may be a nasty millionaire Republican, and when your clown-gig is terminated, your medication is cancelled, your girlfriend rejects you, your acts of heroism (whilst, absurdly, venerated) go unrewarded, and no one understands your jokes, the only way out is TV standup, right?

Unfortunately, we can’t let star Joaquin Phoenix off, either. Far too old to play Arthur Fleck, having no visible understanding of the shambles and shenanigans of his character’s ‘journey,’ Phoenix’s performance contains nary a glimpse of subtlety or credibility. He comes across like Arnold Horshack from ‘Welcome Back Kotter,’ only without the charm. The film is supposed to concern the genesis of a supervillain, not the masturbatory, sanctimonious self-aggrandizement of an actor let off the leash.  It’s enough to give anti-Americanism a bad name: They’d be better off staging a troupe draped in stars and stripes, wielding butcher knives and singing ‘Send in the Clowns.’

Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) meets Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) again.

“We’re doing a read-through, or you’re not talkin’ to me…”

All one has to do, in sum, is paraphrase Lousie Corbin, who brilliantly tore apart another pile of pretension, Last Year at Marienbad:

Historians of the future who are concerned with the Decline of the West would do well to glance at this so-called motion picture, and to ponder the reasons for the fatuous things that are currently being said in its praise…The simple truth about [Joker] is that a not untalented filmmaker [Phillips] has foresworn the hard work artistic creation entails and has allowed his immature and meaningless fumbling to be promoted by those who wish to convert Western culture into an irrational confusion.’

“Ma….Pleeeeeease…stop calling me…”

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October 26, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

By Jaha Koo

(Oz Asia Festival – Space Theatre, Adelaide 25 October 2019)

TVC has had problems with rice cookers before – but never like this.  Hana (the quiet one) makes the rice (which smelt very nice); Duri (the alpha one) talked about making rice, but mainly traded pungent barbs with the florid one, Seri, who came with coloured L.E.D and a boppy soundtrack (the local brand name for the cookers is “Cuckoo”). Their owner, auteur Jaha Koo, uses these appliances as a trope for the plight of his nation, South Korea, in the wake of the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s. His bête noire, or one of them, is Robert Rubin, President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, who led the $50b IMF bailout described as Sth Korea’s ‘Day of Shame,’ and his thesis appears to be that the country, in agreeing to the ‘rescue,’ traded fiscal rectitude for national independence, putting lots of folks under plenty of heat and pressure. The idea is that ordinary people – who had little to do with creating the crisis – were pressure-cooked and scooped-up, packed and spat-out like the cakes of rice assembled at the finale.

This is a clever piece: in slightly over an hour, with a combination of telerobotic by-play (the Cuckoos observe Asimov’s 3 Laws and turn on each other instead) projected images (some very confronting – be warned*) and direct speech by Koo to the audience, the layers of damage done to the people’s psyche after the economic crisis – through various stats, oral autobiography, and some deeply personal, tragic, vignettes – are reprised in a very dark and moving way.

We have to take issue with the central thesis: that this state of flux and economic repression can be solely attributed to the assistance-with-strings given in 1997-98.  We would hazard a guess that the writer/director/actor is not a fiscal conservative. He probably rejects the real causes and effects of the crisis: too many countries in Asia lacked fiscal discipline, engaged in crony capitalism, had inflexible exchange rates and massively over-valued assets – the price exacted by the US (on behalf of the IMF), and Japan and Australia (the only countries to provide additional assistance to help Korea adjust to the downturn) was to require better monetary policy, balanced books, and increased productivity, which over time led to increased confidence, better investment, higher employment, and a rise in the standard of living.

In the final analysis, however, this is not the real point. Jaha Koo is like a Dickens who can’t provide a remedy, or even perhaps an explanation, for the prevailing malady. But he can vividly describe the symptoms, with accuracy, with humour, with anger, and with compassion. Cuckoo gave us that.


[*suicides, isolation and acute social withdrawal, unemployment, a sense of ennui, malaise and despair – these are some of the symptoms at play in Cuckoo, and they can be hard to watch and hear. But subject to warning viewers with particular vulnerability, we thought none of them are presented or imagined in any gratuitous or exploitative way.]
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October 20, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Bong Joon-ho) (2019)

Mercury Cinema, OzAsia Festival, Adelaide, October 2019

Parasite begins as broad comedy, turns dark, and ends in ambiguity. The down-at-heel Kim family, ‘semi’ basement dwellers living in squalor, inveigle themselves, one by one, into the retinue of the rich and flashy Park family. The machinations by which they become attached, in turn, as tutor, art therapist, chauffeur and housekeeper are amusingly (though improbably) done. (We particularly liked the references to over-hyped abstract expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the ‘artist’ referenced by Kim’s ‘art-expert’ daughter after a brief surf on Google).

The Kims have to sit up by the toilet for their wifi

For a while, all is well, and the Kims are living it up, at home and at the Park’s ritzy minimalist mansion, although there are the odd upstairs-downstairs irritations. But then the former housekeeper they squeezed out comes calling, the Parks return from a holiday inconveniently early, and – like Million Dollar Baby – the story transforms from a robust and knowing amusement into a Tarantino-esque horror show.

The film is superbly made – it looks a treat, and the cast is uniformly terrific – a special shout out for Song Kang Ho as the dodgy head of the Kim family, and Cho Yeo-jeong as the glib and overly trusting Mrs Park.

There’s an obvious social sub-text here, contrasting the ways in which the affluent feed off the poor (and, such as in films like The Servant, vice-versa), and a fair bit of the film, possibly too much, contains metaphors in the service of that sub-text. And some of the relationship dynamics are overheated. But these do not detract from the richness of the piece, which never descends to the didactic. The Varnished Culture felt the end to be both poignant and just. Parasites abound, and they get under the skin with great ingenuity, as did this film.

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Amazing Leonardo

October 20, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | ART, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Jesus Garces Lambert) (2019)

Made to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, “Amazing Leonardo” has its moments but seems to suffer from constraints of more than budget.

This is potted dramatic biography of the great artist, of which much is known through his notes and the art history of Vasari; here we tend to focus mainly on work during his patronage in Milan by its Duke, Ludovico Sforza, (informed by the work of art historian Pietro C. Marani of the Politecnico di Milano, who assisted Walter Isaacson in his recent book.)

Italian A-lister Luca Argentero (Eat Pray Love) plays Leonardo, who seems neither to age nor change clothes from 1475 to 1519, and we see several episodes from his life: apprenticeship under Verrocchio on Baptism of Christ, his nascent solo work such as the Annunciation, the extraordinary but unfinished Adoration of the Magi, the famous portraits, the Virgin of the Rocks, and the Last Supper, re-imagined here as a cinematic set piece.

It is a pleasant show – worthy emoting, a few nice locations (though Leo’s studio throughout seems as changeless as his face or clothes), tasteful addition of music, and via C.G.I., some surreal touches, but it doesn’t come close to encapsulating Vinci’s genius (indeed, what could, apart from gazing at the paintings?)

Within the limits we have hinted at and featuring a cast small as an Ed Albee play, the film relies on thoughts spoken by Leo and others, and much is made of the polymath’s relentless curiosity and multi-faceted talents (though his maths were poor and his war machines never tested). The result is pretty thin; the best thing about this production is that it may inspire a new bunch of talents to look more closely at a talent that puts them – all – in the shade.

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The Conformist

October 13, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci) (1970)

Italian Film Festival, Adelaide, 2019

Judas hanged himself, or at any rate thought he could not avoid hanging himself, because the people who had suggested the betrayal and paid him for it did not then have the courage to support and justify him; but he would not kill himself nor give himself over to despair, because behind him…he saw the crowds collected in the squares to applaud the man under whose command he served, and, implicitly, to justify him, the man who obeyed orders. His final thought was that he was receiving nothing, in the absolute sense, for what he was doing. No thirty pieces of silver for him. It was just a matter of duty, as Orlando would say. The analogy changed colour and faded away, leaving behind nothing but a faint trace of proud, satisfying irony. If anything, he concluded, what mattered was that the comparison should have occurred to him, that he should have worked it out, and, for a moment, found it just.”   

Action and reaction; if you want to see how post-war Italy reacted to Mussolini’s fall, check out the first part of The Secret of Santa Vittoria. The petty officials who imposed fascist rule were subject to reprisals aplenty, and sensible Italians dispensed with any lingering admiration for Il Duce, embracing the new paradigm. 25 years after their warrior statesman was hanging upside-down from a lampost at a Milanese service station, Bertolucci produced his masterpiece* based on Alberto Moravia’s superb 1951 novel (from which the quote above is drawn). In this compelling character study, Marcello Clericci is ‘available,’ aching to do duty by whoever will accept and foster his fervent desire to normalise.

And why the fervour? Well, how about a drug-addicted Mother and a lunatic Dad; the belief that as a child he murdered the over-sexed chauffuer; the carrying of latent longings and feminine leanings that must be and are ruthlessly suppressed, Marcello is burdened not by guilt (his po-faced confession to a prurient priest is a delight) so much as by the drive to fit-in. As a member of the fascist secret police, given the important task of tracking down and nixing his old College Professor in 1930s Paris, Marcello (beautifully under-played by Jean-Louis Trintignant in a rich and subtle turn) is a perfect cipher.

Bertolucci’s film is what Hollywood would hate: a mixture of gritty realism and expressionistic touches, and plenty of weird decadence; full of jump cuts, enigmatic glances, Bergman-like still shots, flashbacks and flash-sideways, The Conformist is splendid albeit a tad talky and draggy at times. It is shot and coloured beautifully (and strategically). A fair part of the picture turns on Marcello’s loveless marriage to good-time girl Guilia (Stefania Sandretti) who finds fun with his mistress, Anna Quadri (a regal and feisty Dominique Sanda), who conveniently is married to Marcello’s College mentor and enemy-of-the-State Luca Quadri.  Hanging about meanwhile is Marcello’s muscleman, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin – he was Don Fanucci in The Godfather II) who is terrific as an enthusiastic embracer of fascist thuggery.

The film is ultimately Marcello’s however: the ghastly ease with which he turns-on his former Masters once the wind has changed is beautfully done (and perhaps a dark take on Italy’s own historical “deceptive mirage.”)

[* The Conformist may only be rivalled by Berolucci’s film of the same year, The Spider’s Stratagem]

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Malibu Drive

October 11, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Modern Music, MUSIC, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

The Railway Hotel, Port Adelaide, Saturday 28 September 2019

A cover band with street cred, “Malibu Drive” had and gave a great time at the Port on Saturday Night a couple of weeks back.

Whereas bog-standard pub bands comprise guitar, bass, drum and one mediocre lead vocal, here was a 7-Man Monster with as many good vocalists as Fleetwood Mac has.  This line-up carries a big repertoire and enables them to traverse numerous genres with ease (see programme notes below).

The house was full: and full of Funk, Pop and soft Rock, delivering joy to a cross-section of groovers of all ages (including dinosaurs such as The Varnished Culture’s staff).  The classics were delivered with taste and respect, but the arrangements made them seem somehow new and fresh. Hardy perennial “Africa”, for example (in the past a mere guilty-pleasure that we had to deny liking), was sensational in live performance, as was the Chicago rocker “25 or 6 to 4.”  The sound is busy but not crowded, tight but not regimented, leaving plenty of scope for improvising and riffs. The players cohered beautifully. They are:

Philimon Araya (Vocals) – Like a young Bruno Mars, Phil is pretty cool and full of delight in performance mode;

Billy Beger (Synthesizer, Keyboards, Vocals) – Very versatile and great either as a back-up or lead vocal – he nailed “Burning Love”! – and offered an impressive original piece, “Marilyn” that suggests the possibility of more original material;

Brandon Bartholomeusz (Saxophone) – Brandon seemed to be getting the most attention from the female portion of the crowd, and why not? After all, he was adept on sax, that quintessential 1980s instrument of romance, which enhanced songs such as “Easy” and “Rock With You”;

Sebastian Brook (Bass) – Bass underpins all decent pop songs, and, looking like a cross between the great bassist Bruce Thomas and Harry Potter, Brook kept the show on the road with an impeccable performance;

Simon Possingham (Drums) – To be a true drummer, Simon will have to learn how to behave badly (e.g. throw-up in a sink or heave a TV set into a hotel pool). But he’s got the chops down pat;

Stuart SmithJohn Stoddart (Guitars, Vocals) – last but not least, whether as punctuation or in soaring solo, the guitars powered through it all.

All in all, a great night.  Keep an eye out for Malibu Drive: Happily, you won’t find Mel Gibson ranting at this ‘Bu!


PROGRAMME NOTES: Malibu Drive’s set was (in alphabetical order):

Africa (Toto)

Am I Wrong (Anderson .Paak)

Are You Gonna Be My Girl (Jet)

Baby Come Back (Player)

Blame it on the Boogie (Michael Jackson)

Burning Love (Elvis Presley)

Dancin’ in the Moonlight (Toploader)

December 1963 (Oh What a Night) (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons)

Easy (Commodores)

Escape (The Piña Colada Song) (Rupert Holmes)

Flash Light (Parliament)

Finesse (Bruno Mars)

Freakin’ Out the Neighborhood (Mac DeMarco)

Get Down On It (Kool & the Gang)

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) (ABBA)

Hey Ya (OutKast)

Marilyn (Malibu Drive)

Move Your Feet (Junior Senior)

Moves Like Jagged (Maroon 5)

Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) (Billy Joel)

The Power of Love (Huey Lewis and the News)

Redbone (Childish Gambino)

Rock With You (Michael Jackson)

September (Earth, Wind and Fire)

Sir Duke (Stevie Wonder)

Still Feel (Half Alive)

Stuck in the Middle With You (Stealers Wheel)

Sweet Life (Frank Ocean)

Treasure (Bruno Mars)

The Trouble With Us (Chet Faker + Marcus Marr)

25 or 6 to 4 (Chicago)

Wake Me Up Before You Go Go (Wham!)

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October 1, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Darren Aronofsky) (2017) -1*

Directed into a stinking ditch by Aronofsky (whose Black Swan at least one of us in the TVC office quite liked), mother! is a complete whackadoodle of a movie. Whack. A. Doodle. (But not in a good way like, say, Aronofsk’s Requiem for a Dream or  The Lobster). After meretriciously deluding the sad, unsuspecting viewer with a set-up that invokes Rosemary’s Baby, The Others, the Book of Genesis and “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Darren goes completely off piste, off his head and off the (exhausted and ravaged) planet.  The metaphoric Garden of Eden gives way to the Hell of other people.

“Hi there! I’m Eve” (of destruction)

In what seems like a big joke at the audience’s expense, the resulting hours and hours (it seems) of irritating, repetitive, inexplicable, pointless, revolting and pretentious goop leave the viewer no less sad, but certainly less liable to be duped again. If you find yourself in a Get Out or A Clockwork Orange situation and have no choice but to watch this drivel, don’t waste brain cells speculating about what’s going on. Let us do the work for you – none of it makes sense or is even vaguely interesting in any literal, allegorical, metaphysical or cinematic way. Watch it if you like riot scenes and suspicious looking floorboards. But really, don’t. Just don’t.

Taking the piss

We give it half a star for Jennifer Lawrence’s wigs and half a star for Michelle Pfeiffer’s sneer. We take off half a star for a Babadook house and another half for Javier Bardem’s weird nose (yes, that’s the appropriate level of consideration). Javier, by the way, is becoming the Raul Julia of off piste acting – either well over or well under.  mother! is a Mother of a misstep for a not-untalented auteur, who has an ambition way beyond his powers at present: “for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” By the way, like the Old Testament deity, we deduct another star, out of sheer resentment. (* – * = 0.)

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Kris Kristofferson

September 20, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Modern Music, MUSIC, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide, 17 September 2019

Kris is a versatile man: a scholar, a soldier, an actor (of sorts) and a country music living legend. If we sound snippy about his film career, it’s because they’ve been so many more misses than hits (think Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Last Movie, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or Heaven’s Gate – those last 3 would grace many a worst-list) – but we’ll give him inter alia: Blume In Love, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and though he’s oddly cast, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.

He’s in his 80s now, ye gods, yet the gravelly voice, perhaps not as strong, remains clear, and the songs, with the country feel and the sensitivity of a poet who majored in English Lit., have their own sonorous resonance. Kris & ‘The Strangers’ played a great two-hour set Tuesday night (The Strangers are best known as the back-up band for singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, and are Scott Joss (fiddle and vocals), Doug Colosio (keyboards & vocals) and Jeff Ingraham on drums).

Kristofferson was the star of course, tall and venerable centre-stage, but he also let Joss shine on fiddle and often in a duet or as a lead vocal. (I closed my eyes and heard Merle, especially on some of the Haggard covers, such as Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) and Okie from Muskogee.) And the keyboards and soft drums were just right.

We couldn’t, in the dark theatre, compile a full play list (if anyone can supply it please do so) but there were a bunch of highlights in a night of musing about mortality, hangovers, heartache and high hilarity, and we recalled and enjoyed Here Comes That Rainbow AgainSunday Morning Coming Down, Me and Bobby McGee, Help Me Make it Through the nightJesus Was a Capricorn (“Some folks hate the whites, who hate the blacks, who hate the Klan/Most of us hate anything that we don’t understand” ), I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, I’d Rather be Sorry, For the Good Times, Why Me, Shipwrecked in the Eighties, Darby’s Castle, Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again), Broken Freedom Song, Casey’s Last Ride, Feeling Mortal, Best of All Possible Worlds, Jody and the Kid, Sing Me Back Home, Just the Other Side of Nowhere, The Pilgrim, Chapter 33* , finishing with Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.

It’s fair to say the band did much of the heavy lifting, but there is still power as well as poignancy in the Silver Fox, as well as true Texan charm and manners (manners not least of all: he appeared dead on time, did the time, and left the crowd standing).

*He’s a poet, he’s a picker
He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

(The Pilgrim – Chapter 33)

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