Caught in the arthouse outhouse

Mike Walsh



The Emirates AFI Awards need to be all things to all people. They have to be industry awards, and antipodean Oscars, as well as reflecting the high-toned claims for capital C Cultural relevance in which the film industry indulges to justify keeping its snout in publicly-funded troughs.

The cost of the awards system finally caught up with them last year. Previously any feature could be entered and all films were toured around the country for the voting membership. This produced an impenetrable thicket of films that only the hardiest of cineastes could struggle through to reach the ballot box on the other side.

This year, films must have a distributor in order to be eligible. This has taken out the undergrowth, leaving 13 of the taller trees. It also constitutes a realistic intervention in recognising that, as much as we all lionise production, distribution is the most important component of the industry. Australian cinema loads all of its energies into development, but a film with no distributor is a tree falling with no one to hear it. This year Moulin Rouge (Fox) opened on over 250 screens and grossed $27 million domestically. The Dish (Roadshow) peaked on 284 screens, grossing $17 million. The rest of the Australian cinema spent the year in the arthouse outhouse. Daylight came third before Mullet which did heroically to gross south of a million dollars after opening on 9 screens and expanding to 15.

Moulin Rouge is the central film in this year’s field. It is the quintessential product of the If We Build It They Will Come philosophy. Well, they came, they brought money and shiny trinkets like Nicole with them, and now the question remains: is this a good thing? The fate of the film at the awards will be a judgement on its status as one possible future for the industry. When Arthur Philip turned up he found that the locals took the trinkets but maintained a suspicious distance. Two hundred and thirteen years later and the jury is still out on this as a strategy. Moulin Rouge may possibly win Best Picture, though if they ran the awards like Big Brother, I suspect it would also be the first eviction.

Meanwhile, in the golden fields of theory, we might nod wisely in Baz’s general direction. Ah, the pastiche! Ah, the dazzling play of the empty signifier (and signifiers don’t get any emptier than Nicole in this film)! Surely all films must be like this in the brave new world of the postmodern, where we know there is nothing but the reworking of cliche! Though, of course, if all films were like this, Baz would be no big deal. Instead, he is a distinctive innovator who is trying to import these notions from the avant-garde into the mainstream.

In the other corner, we have Mullet, the skinny kid fighting above his weight and being careful not to throw too many punches. If things go wrong for the Tall Poppy, he might be the one left standing at the end of the night. Perhaps this would be fitting given that David Caesar’s film is exemplary of several trends within Australian cinema. It is firmly in the mainstream of a formally conservative ‘cinema of quality’ accentuating themes of personal growth.

Dramatically, it is a good instance of the dialogue-driven actorly cinema, which results from the dominance of theatrical values in Australia. The increasing emphasis on script development means that more has to go onto the page, encouraging the primacy of dialogue. This is ironic given that one of the major thematic strands to emerge this year is the inarticulacy of the Australian male. Characters in Mullet spend an enormous amount of time talking around their problems, such as the inability of blokes to express love.

What do you get if you cross Ewan McGregor with Ben Mendelsohn? Noah Taylor in He Died With A Felafel in His Hand, another bloke whose problem is that he is unable to express love. He smokes Gauloises, covers his wall with photos of Anna Karina and Sartre, plays at being the writer as loser, Henry Lawson updated to pomo wanker. This is ironic bohemian fantasy for those who can’t afford Fox Studios. It is all excellent fun, until the film decides that it’s time to settle down and get serious—the thematic equivalent of getting a job. I guess we all have to grow up sometime but Richard Lowenstein’s strength is his comic version of Australian urban subculture.

Anthony LaPaglia in Lantana is a cop unable to express love. This sets up common ground between him and Geoffrey Rush, who is also unable to…well, you get the picture. Ray Lawrence takes this material and runs it through the stylistic system of a director like Atom Egoyan. Characters circle each other with motifs leaping from one to the other in a tightening spiral of transference and condensation. The camera prowls slowly and the music oozes unease. While the film walks the line between brooding and ponderous, its use of a detective plot also raises the question of genre filmmaking in Australia.

“You’re a great fuck, but you’re a very ordinary detective,” observes Kelly McGillis of the Susie Porter private eye in The Monkey’s Mask. This is a neat observation of the split in priorities of Australian films. They tend to shy away from action-based genre narratives with goal-oriented protagonists, as this is too much like fighting the Americans on their own turf. Instead they try to be the great fuck, to explore the interpersonal nuance rather than the narrative pleasures that are typically at the heart of genre.

Risk is atypical in taking its genre narrative more seriously. In the context of the Australian cinema, this is indeed a risky undertaking. The conventions of film noir are easier to identify than to replicate. Claudia Karvan, for example, gets left holding the bag both in the story and the performance area, where she makes an unlikely femme fatale. But she seems like such a nice girl.

The Bank, Robert Connolly’s populist thriller, tries to compromise with genre on several fronts. Its thrills are worked into dramatic confrontations rather than externalised into action. Once again, dialogue has to drive the film, resulting in periodic lapses into didacticism. Its other way around action-based spectacle is the quotation of lush nostalgic style, with Bernard Herrmann music and Saul Bass title sequence and graphics thickening the action.

I’ve stressed the closeness of Australian cinema to theatre. The most obvious example is Silent Partner which leaves Daniel Keene’s play essentially intact. I don’t have a problem with this—Andre Bazin once noted that one of cinema’s strengths was its ability to enhance theatrical drama—though too often the influence stops at an overwrought theatrical performance style. This film adopts a very unromanticised view of what it is to inhabit the lower economic depths, which makes the publicity for it as an ultra-low budget film particularly apt. Let’s launch into interpretive space and see the film as metaphorising its own impoverished circumstances. To make Australian films is to be poor, and to be poor is to be crushed but, improbably, to survive.

Perhaps this is why Clara Law seems a perverse presence in the Australian cinema—an established director who migrated to Australia. After her diaspora film, Floating Life, we have her landscape film, The Goddess of 1967. The perversity extends to her treatment of landscape, all bleach bypass, and accentuated blues. It is interesting to see her revisiting the terrain of Nicholas Roeg and Walkabout, when so much local filmmaking is trying to ground itself in the specificity of urban cultures.

Yolngu Boy and Serenades mark a welcome return to Indigenous themes in Australian film after last year’s silence. Yolngu Boy, made by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, strives to be cool in order to win the respect of its primary youth audience. There’s rock’n’roll, petrol sniffing, and the hyperactive camera style of a generation that has absorbed rock videos straight into its central nervous system. It resists the impulse to preach for as long as possible.

Mojgan Khadem’s film Serenades deserves credit for delving into a social history rarely seen in our cinema. The heroine moves between Aboriginal culture, Christianity and Islam, all of which are seen as variant forms of patriarchy. The coalition of interests between Afghanis and Aborigines is a potentially interesting one, as is the observation that women are doubly marginalised within these formations. At the point when our heroine has no alternative but to reclaim some sense of Aboriginal identity, however, the jig is up. Aboriginality functions as a vague form of nature worship and a position of victimhood.

La Spagnola, like Yolngu Boy, is very conscious of the value of stylistic flourish. Set against the postwar migration experience in the skippy badlands, this film tries to reappropriate the stereotypes of southern European migrants. OK, so the women scream, the men are dumb and horny, and they all wave their arms around a lot. But at least they have decent music and they know how to cook! Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown on the verge of Sydney, although there is no formal experimentation to shock or act as an alternative focus of interest as there is with Almodovar at his best.

Let’s end by returning to the question of popularity. The Castle opened up fresh vistas for Australian film a few years back. Here was a film that was able to break out of the government subsidy, niche-market bracket and connect with a broad Australian public. The standard criticism was that it wasn’t much to look at. I found this to be a refreshing change as Australian films are often Beautiful, especially when they are nothing else. The Dish arrives as an attempted corrective. If I had to describe it in a word, that word would be burnished. Surprisingly little happens in the film, but much of it happens at the magic hour. In an industry which generally cares more about getting films made rather than watched, the quiet efficiency of this film’s success stands out as a beacon of unfashionable success.

If I was a betting man, I’d be looking at the each way odds for Mullet. (It seems wussy to back Moulin Rouge for anything but a win.) The romantic in me (sorry Baz, I know that’s a cliche) might also be prepared to lose a few dollars on He Died With A Felafel In His Hand.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 16

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001