Cult Australian Cinema

Fred Schepisi’s forthcoming The Eye of The Storm

September sees the release of The Eye of the Storm, directed by Fred Schepisi and based on the novel by Patrick White. It’s Schepisi’s first film in eight years (not including the award-winning HBO mini-series Empire Falls), and his first film made in Australia since A Cry in the Dark in 1988. MarvMarsh takes a look back at one of his best films, while other MostlyFilm contributors choose some of their own favourite Australian films. Sadly, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course didn’t make the cut.

THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH

By MarvMarsh

When I first saw this film over twenty years ago, it burned itself into somewhere at the back of my brain and has stayed there ever since. It was a surprise, then, to discover on rewatching recently that I had misremembered the build-up to the pivotal scene of the film. What I hadn’t misremembered, though, was that scene’s power.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith follows the results of an attempt by white settlers in 1900s Australia to assimilate a child of white and Aboriginal parentage into a white society that repeatedly rejects him. A missionary couple consider that his mixed race makes him an excellent prospect for redemption, as they view it, from his Aboriginal upbringing, and so take him in and begin the task of adapting him for white society. Jimmie takes to it with a relish that is unfortunate – at one stage he even joins the army and assists in a raid on an Aboriginal settlement – given that for all his efforts to assimilate he is doomed to fail. It is also of course unfortunate in that it is a rejection of his Aboriginal cultural heritage but, as the title implies, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is primarily about his experience; it is secondarily an attempt to represent white – Aboriginal relations in turn of the 19th century Australia. Though of course the former is inseparable from the latter, his response to degradation is about being human.

So, that scene. Jimmie’s attempts to gain acceptance in the face of the outright racism (“Do you have any religion other than nigger”) that as a matter of course slams the door in his face, lead him to marry a white woman. Even with a white wife, he lives on the fringe of white society, accepted so far but only so far, and even that small concession can be summarily taken away. When it is, when he is denied an advance of groceries to feed his family (the newborn child is not his, though he believed it would be) as had always been the arrangement, it is an indignity too far, and he snaps.

The violence of his response, when it finally comes, is extraordinary. Not because it is a festival of blood and gore but because it is sudden and brutally real. In a scene moments before, we see Jimmie put down his gun and pick up an axe, as if the violence of a gun is insufficiently expressive of his rage. He needs something more basic, although at this stage he hasn’t decided what he will do. What he does is race up to the door of the white people’s house and bury his axe into a woman’s shoulder. He then leaps into the room over her prone body. That leap seems symbolic of his decision to act, he literally jumps in with both feet. After that, Jimmie and his Uncle chop at human bodies, murdering women and children, a look of stunned horror on the face of the Uncle as he realises what they are doing. The director, Fred Schepisi, has said that what he wanted to show was “anti-violent violence” and that seems about right. There is nothing good happening there.

I think this is a tremendous film. It is often made up of broad strokes, particularly in the first half, and one might wince a little at the obviousness of the flecks of blood floating in milk and the cracked eggs on the floor during that scene. Schepisi has denied it was intended as symbolism but that matters little since it’s right there on screen. The second half, with Jimmie and his brother Mort on the run and, in Jimmie’s case, committing further atrocities, is tense, horrifying and sad. It is a film that speaks about the grievous crimes perpetrated against the Aboriginal people and it also speaks about the moment to moment nature of being human. Jimmie’s Uncle, after being convicted of murder, explains to the court: “You’d think it would take a good while to make up your mind to kill someone and then to kill them, but take my word for it, it only takes a second.”

Wake In Fright

By AmbroseChapel

“This whole country’s about one stop over-exposed” – Brian West, Wake in Fright’s cinematographer, on arrival in Australia.

The classic Australian story is one of hardship, loneliness and manliness, and takes place in the remote parts of the country: the outback, the desert, the bush. Those are the stories non-Australians like to hear about us, and they’re also the stories we like to hear about ourselves.

It’s all nonsense of course. The vast majority of Australians live in big cities, and nearly all of us live within fifty miles of the sea. We’re fussy about our lattes and our favourite show is Master Chef. The number of people who actually live in the ancient, poetically barren heart of Australia is practically a rounding error. But why let that ruin a good story?

The original Wake In Fright novel did try to spoil that good story. It’s the story of John Grant, a sensitive, cultured man who works as a schoolteacher in a remote mining town and can’t wait to get back to the bright lights of Sydney. He’s repelled by the dull, brutish nature of life in the hinterland, but he’s signed a contract and the only way he can escape is to buy his way out. When he tries to gamble his way to freedom, he ends up worse off than ever, flat broke and marooned in the fictional mining town of Bundanyabba, his lot thrown in with a hard-drinking crew including Jack Thompson in his first big role and Donald Pleasance as the struck-off Doc Tydon. Pleasance is understated, menacing and steals every scene he’s in.

If life was nasty, brutish and short in Grant’s one-horse town, it’s far worse in Bundanyabba. The manly Aussie blokes who take him under their wing are nothing like the noble horsemen, salt-of-the-earth farmers or laconic bushrangers who we like to suppose inhabit the outback. They drink, brawl and wrestle homoerotically, and they shoot kangaroos in a scene animal lovers will want to skip, although no animals were harmed for the making of the film. There is pretty much only one female character in the film, and her role serves only to highlight Grant’s drunken impotence. The film builds to a powerful, expressionistic climax as he descends into madness.

So, it’s if it’s just a tale of a man being lowered against his will into a bear pit, why do we care? Perhaps what saves it is director Ted Kotcheff’s sympathy for the bears themselves. Kotcheff’s parents were European emigrés to Canada, so he has a natural sympathy for Grant, the refugee from a subtler world. But he also acknowledges the humanity of the drunks, reprobates and scoundrels who so horrify Grant, and sees that part of the repulsion he feels is because of their reaching out for human warmth and contact.

According to some people, Wake In Fright, although received coolly by Australian audiences, revitalised the entire Australian film industry when it came out in 1971, and its raw, squalid energy won it a Palme D’Or nomination. And according to Kotcheff, a then-unknown Martin Scorsese sat behind him at the Cannes screening and was so audibly blown away by it people were shushing him. Wake In Fright was a lost film — quite literally physically lost for many years, until a full negative was rescued from a dump bin in 2007 and after painstaking digital restoration by the Australian Sound and Film Archive, re-premiered at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival and re-shown at Cannes, one of only two films ever to have that honour.

[available on DVD, in Australia at least]

Dogs In Space 

By Spank the Monkey

The authentically terrible Dogs In Space. The band, I mean, not the film. Although…

When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968, it seemed like the most perfect depiction of the future we could get. Nowadays, it looks more like a time capsule of the sixties: the look, attitudes and philosophy of the year of its making keep pushing themselves into the foreground. In a similar fashion, Dogs In Space may be ostensibly about late 70s Melbourne, at the height of the ‘little band’ scene – but in 2011, it’s got more to say about its 1986 production than its 1978 setting.

There’s no denying the technical skill involved. Writer/director Richard Lowenstein has a large ensemble cast occupying the squat that’s his main location, and he does everything to make sure they all get a share of the screen time. Long, complex Steadicam shots glide from room to room: Altman-esque sound mixing (with every actor wearing a radio mike) allows him to subtly switch the focus of a scene with a change in audio levels. And the music is pitched perfectly, with the band Dogs In Space being just terrible enough: good enough to make it onto the bill at a local club, not so good that anyone other than their friends would pay to see them.

But a couple of decades on from when I was first wowed by the film, it’s lost a lot of its impact. This time round, it struck me just how plotless it is, with virtually all its protagonists being utterly passive: it’s a good job a couple of them are junkies, otherwise it wouldn’t have an ending. There are lots of details that ring true, which presumably come from Lowenstein’s own experiences, but time and again they’re overwhelmed by a gratuitous stylistic flourish which takes you out of the world of the film. And that goes double for the final reel, which lurches horribly into full MTV mode, determined to make its climactic tragedy look as pretty as possible. Though to be fair, some of that is just down to bad luck: [SPOILER] when the lead character turns his life around by cleaning himself up and becoming a rock star, it has something of a hollow ring to it, simply because he’s played by Michael Hutchence. Oops.

NOISE

By KasperHauser

There were two films called Noise released in 2007. The better known of the pair features Tim Robbins going nuts in Manhattan. The other is this film by writer-director Matthew Saville, perhaps best known in Australia for his TV work, which includes Big Bite, We Can Be Heroes, The Secret Life of Us and Cloudstreet.

Noise begins with a multiple homicide on a Melbourne commuter train (there are parallels here with real life events. In interviews, Saville has said that he started writing Noise the day after the infamous Port Arthur massacre in 1996, when 35 people were shot dead by a lone gunman in Tasmania), and initially centres on the one survivor from the incident, Lavinia Smart, played by Maia Thomas. The second plot strand, which gradually develops into the main focus of the film, tells the story of Constable Graham McGahan, played by Brendan Cowell. McGahan suffers from tinnitus and dizzy spells and, after asking for sick leave, instead finds himself manning a police caravan near the scene of a separate murder incident, because that’s seen as ‘light work’.

Despite its striking opening scene, Noise is not an action-packed thriller or a lurid, serial killer shocker. It’s more of a character study of a community trying to come to terms with these horrific crimes. In fact, this sort of police-procedural drama is something that usually works better on TV; a slowly developing mystery with various plot strands and a rich cast of characters. Even the minor characters seem fully fleshed-out and believable, despite having no more than a few minutes of screen-time each. Fans of recent Danish series The Killling should find plenty to enjoy here. The fact that Noise achieves something similar inside 105 minutes is quite a feat.

Also worthy of praise are the film’s sound design, the naturalistic dialogue, and Saville’s subtle direction. At times it appears that various things are being flagged up for the audience to take notice of, which may seem like telegraphing the identity of the killer, but these serve more to highlight McGahan’s lax attitude towards his duties. He may be a decent guy, but, preoccupied with his health, he seems unwilling or unable to do any proper detective work.

Noise hasn’t received much attention outside of Australia (where it won various awards), apart from a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. I think it’s an intriguing film and an impressive achievement, especially for a debut film, and deserves a wider audience.

BAD BOY BUBBY

By Indy Datta

I’ve seen maverick director Rolf de Heer’s twisted take on the holy fool microgenre just twice – the first time was on a rented VHS tape in the early nineties, the second time last week in glorious high-def widescreen, courtesy of Eureka’s recent BluRay edition. In the intervening 15-ish years, I’ve thought of Bad Boy Bubby as a film that has cult status, but only in a parallel universe inside my own head; de Heer’s other films have barely been distributed in the UK (the more comfortably marketable ethno-arthouse Ten Canoes being the high profile exception), and he is neither prolific enough nor, seemingly, consistent enough as a film maker to be regularly feted on the international festival circuit. And yet; here’s the BluRay, in a world where many well-reviewed contemporary films (which will almost always already exist as high-quality digital assets) are deemed too niche to financially merit a BluRay release. And yet; here’s Rolf de Heer on the commentary track, talking about people having Bubby-themed weddings, with clingwrapped dead cats (fake, I assume, except maybe among the really committed fans) being carried instead of bouquets. It’s strange to realise that I’m not the only one who’s never been able to forget, for example, the scene where the church-organ playing industrialist first introduces Nicholas Hope’s Bubby to the idea that there may be no God, while our point of view pulls back endlessly from him and Bubby through the cavernous vault of a power station, the ranks of turbines dwarfing the people around them, Bubby eventually becoming a vanishing point speck, the viewer becoming more like an absentee god with every foot the camera recedes.

It is scenes I remembered from Bubby, rather than plot. For most of the film’s running time, there is no plot – just a series of events connected only through the presence and consciousness of Bubby, released into the world as a child in the body of a 35 year old man after a lifetime of captivity and sexual abuse at the hands of his mother. As Bubby bounces from one misadventure to the next, serially taken up and abandoned at whim by the people he encounters – with the lines between love, sex, pity and indifference faint to invisible – the film this time around started to feel like a feature length riff on the Also Sprach Zarathustra sequence in Being There – in which Chance, thrown out of the life he knows and into the world, seems suspended in a paradoxical state between being born and dying until something or someone can tip his existence one way or the other. Most of what befalls Bubby is harsh and upsetting, and the sound and visual design, which puts the viewer as much as possible in Bubby’s shoes, can be hard going at times, but de Heer finds a delicate balance between perspective and compassion. When Bubby finds a home of sorts, and love, in an institution for the severely physically and mentally disabled, it feels deserved. The other plot strand that eventually emerges, of Bubby falling in with and then becoming the lead singer of a rock band (his disturbed rantings being mistaken for avant-garde performance art by the audience) feels comparatively rather pat. As a general rule I can’t be doing with art that mocks the credulity of the audience, but on the whole, this is still one of the most compellingly peculiar and distinctive films I’ve seen.

TURKEY SHOOT

by Gareth Negus

Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1982 film Turkey Shoot (aka Blood Camp Thatcher, aka Escape 2000) is part of the wave known as Ozploitation; the Australian exploitation films that became popular after the country’s strict censorship relaxed enough to introduce an R rating, and which flourished until the mid 80s. Some of these films made a virtue of being Aussie through and through; others attempted to disguise their origins, importing Hollywood stars – or at least familiar faces who were too faded or too drunk to get a job back home – in order to look like the American product produced by the likes of Roger Corman.

Plenty of British companies tried the same trick; Hammer, one of the UK’s best known production houses, picked up Brian Donlevy to play Professor Quatermass, and Bette Davis for The Nanny. A later example is Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and its sequel, which seem to be set firmly in the mid-Atlantic. The idea is to avoid scaring off local audiences who might be wary of cheap, parochial attempts to do Hollywood, while increasing the chances of distribution in America. This can create something with the pace and excitement of Hollywood exploitation cinema, but with a point of view unique to its country of origin; Mad Max is probably Australia’s best example. Or it can create a ham-fisted rip off. Turkey Shoot, impressively, manages to straddle both extremes.

The film is set in the future, in an unnamed country. We might assume it’s meant to be Australia, but as every lead actor has a different accent, it could be anywhere. Our hero and his romantic interest are Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey, so we’re straddling the continents already; the villain is Brit Michael Craig, a face guaranteed to ring a vague bell with anyone who watched a lot of BBC drama in the 80s.

We do know it’s a fascist state. Much of the background to the society was apparently contained in the hefty chunk of script that had to be junked when much of the budget fell through just before filming started. It doesn’t matter; we can tell which way the land lies from the slogans (“Freedom is obedience! Obedience is work! Work is life!”), the warning tannoy announcements (“Promiscuity is permitted within reason… Homosexuality is a capital crime”) and, most of all, the fact that the warden of the prison camp is called Thatcher, after the then UK Prime Minister.

A graduate of the urbane pipe-smoking school of villainy, Charles Thatcher likes to invite his evil mates round to play the most dangerous game, and hunt down some of the prisoners. The hunters include a sadistic lesbian, played by a pound shop Joan Collins, and a guy whose neatly trimmed facial hair brings to mind Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder II. The latter is partnered by a bizarre freak; supposedly a super-strong terror, his joke shop werewolf make up provokes laughter at every appearance, even when he’s ripping someone’s toe off and eating it.

There’s certainly plenty of gore in the film, none of it very convincing. In the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, Trenchard-Smith explains that “stunts may be expensive, but blood is cheap… I decided to turn it into a high camp splatter movie.” Steve Railsback, in the same documentary, prefers the term “a piece of crap.” Both points of view are legitimate, and not mutually exclusive. It’s shamefully derivative, occasionally pretentious (it closes with an HG Wells quote, “revolution begins with the masses”), deliberately crude and gleefully, gratuitously violent. No wonder it’s stood the test of time.

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4 thoughts on “Cult Australian Cinema

  1. I’m glad I didn’t rewatch Dogs In Space now. But is the coda not supposed to be more of the fantasy?

    I will watch it to see if some of the bits I remember from my late teens – shooting up adrenaline, the chainsaw – are as great as they are in my memory. I could pretty much recite the film from memory, 20 years after I last watched it.

    1. Jim> It’s a possible reading of the ending, but I think a generous one – the song’s played a little too straight to fit into the previous fantasy sequence. Also, I’d always assumed that the choice of ‘Rooms For The Memory’ as the song suggested that this was all meant to be Sam looking back on his youthful indiscretions. There are still great bits scattered throughout the film, though, and I suspect you’ll still love Chainsaw Man.

  2. The documentary that Frank mentions, Not Quite Hollywood, is well worth a watch. My favourite line from it is Barry Humphries talking about ‘Barry McKenzie Holds His Own’ and he says ‘If only Picnic At Hanging Rock had more chundering in it, it would have been an even greater film’.

    I was originally going to write about The Last Wave, but changed it to Noise at the last minute. It does seem wrong leaving Peter Weir out of a piece on Aussie cinema, but I’m sure he’ll get over it…

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