an unpredictable auteur

thomas redwood: dutch tilt, aussie auteur, the films of rolf de heer

Rolf de Heer on location for Ten Canoes

Rolf de Heer on location for Ten Canoes

Rolf de Heer on location for Ten Canoes

WE NEEDED A BOOK ON ROLF DE HEER. BY COMMON CONSENSUS HE IS THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED, INDEPENDENT AND IDIOSYNCRATIC DOMESTICALLY BASED AUSTRALIAN FILMMAKER WORKING TODAY. HE’S MADE A DOZEN FEATURES. HE’S WON MAJOR PRIZES AT VENICE AND CANNES. HE RUNS WHAT IS PERHAPS AUSTRALIA’S MOST SUCCESSFUL INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING COMPANY, VERTIGO PRODUCTIONS. IN SHORT, WHERE THE CAREERS OF OTHER LOCALLY BASED ‘AUTEURS’ HAVE DRIED UP QUICKER THAN YOU CAN SAY “ABC”, DE HEER HAS FLOURISHED AS AN INDEPENDENT IN THIS COUNTRY FOR 20-PLUS YEARS.

So why haven’t we had a book on him until now? At a time when vast sections of film libraries are being filled with books on Bollywood and Chinese cinema, why is this most inspiring of local filmmakers neglected? Ignoring the most obvious reason (that most Australian film scholars aren’t interested in Australian cinema) young Brisbane-based author D. Bruno Starrs suggests a different answer in his new short book Dutch Tilt, Aussie Auteur: The Films of Rolf de Heer. For Starrs, the most pertinent barrier to the Australian film public’s appreciation of de Heer as an auteur is the radical variety of his oeuvre.

Historically understood, an auteur is supposed to make a certain kind of film (a “Bergman”, a “Tarantino”) that bares the unmistakable stamp of the creator’s vision. The problem with de Heer’s work, Starrs points out, is that the director presents us with a thinly linked array of “projects”, each with very different narrative, stylistic and thematic concerns. Though some of de Heer’s films beg comparison (The Tracker and Ten Canoes), most are completely dissimilar (take Bad Boy Bubby, Epsilon and The Quiet Room for example). Further complicating matters is the fact that de Heer denies authorship of at least one film, Dance Me to My Song, which he attributes to the film’s scriptwriter and lead actor Heather Rose.

Starrs also notes that de Heer often makes movies for “no other reason than to keep a roof over his family’s head.” Where the auteur proper keeps crews waiting months for the right light, de Heer unabashedly compromises his films to fit a given circumstance, often restructuring his narratives around a feasible shooting schedule, budget or casting process. It’s almost as if de Heer is entirely unconcerned with making ‘Rolf de Heer films.’

In light then of the looseness of de Heer’s work, how do we (and should we?) understand Rolf de Heer as an Aussie auteur? This is the question that guides Bruno Starrs’ brief sketch of de Heer’s oeuvre.

For Starrs, the links between de Heer’s films are to be found not so much in their technical characteristics as in their unconscious preoccupations. Though noteworthy for his distinctive use of sound (specifically, his unusual use of a character’s subjective auditory experience) de Heer’s authorial signature is, in Starrs’ view, to be located in the unconscious ways the director perceives his Australian environment. A Dutch born immigrant who came to Australia as an eight-year-old (after several years in Sumatra) de Heer carries, Starrs suggests, an implicitly marginalised perspective on his narratives. De Heer’s films reflect what Starrs calls a “Dutch tilt”, a strangely askew, semi-evident eccentricity, the view of a gentle stranger who talks funny, quietly observing an Anglo-Australian culture of male aggression and suburban conformity.

Pointing to the “unlikely protagonists” of films like Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me to My Song and The Quiet Room, Starrs succeeds in demonstrating how de Heer engages his audience in an experience of marginalisation, of seeing and hearing what the white Australian world looks and sounds like from the outside. In a different way, Ten Canoes (certainly one of de Heer’s best films) offers Australian audiences an experience of difference and marginalisation by telling its story in the indigenous Ganalbingu tongue, in Ganalbingu narrative structure, with Ganalbingu characters. In this case it’s the non-aboriginal Australians who are marginalised from the real Australia.

Starrs notion of de Heer’s “Dutch tilt” provides an interesting concept with which we can understand the director’s films relative to their national context. Unfortunately, the “Dutch tilt” theory remains seriously undercooked. Though a talented writer, Starrs is also conspicuously flippant. Instead of dexterously elaborating his key idea by charting de Heer’s authorial signature, Starrs makes do with a series of discrete and often embarrassingly brief essays in which the discussions remain consistently unrelated to the central thesis. The brevity, disjointedness and pedestrian nature of Starrs’ discussions ultimately make this a negligible study at best, slap dash at worst. It’s a shame really. We needed a book on Rolf de Heer. We need another one.

D Bruno Starrs, Dutch Tilt, Aussie Auteur: The Films of Rolf de Heer, DM Verlag, 2009, 104 pages, ISBN: 978-3-639-16834-1

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 22

© Tom Redwood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2010