Living with a film

Michael James Rowland

Christos Tsiolkas, The Devil's Playground

Christos Tsiolkas, The Devil's Playground

Christos Tsiolkas
The Devil’s Playground
Currency Press & ScreenSound Australia, 2002
ISBN: 0868196711

Christos Tsiolkas’ introduction to film came while acting as a translator for his movie-fan Greek mother. But it didn’t take long for the precocious inner-city Melbourne boy to fix his tastes and branch out on his own, frequenting the inner-city art house circuit, under-age, undercapitalised but addicted to cinema.

He first saw Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground at the age of 12, during its 1978 theatrical release, and somewhere between the opening titles, water shots, Simon Burke, the wanking scene, Nick Tate, and Bruce Smeaton’s closing score—Tsiolkas’ life turned on its heel.

Tsiolkas’ entertaining account of his initial and subsequent viewings of this classic Australian film is the first release in a new series from Currency Press and ScreenSound Australia. At each sitting he sifts through the context of the experience, teasing out meaning and looking deeper and harder at exactly what went off in his head 24 years ago.

I don’t believe that past experiences can be recalled and remain true to the original—the act of remembering unavoidably alters recollections. We change history daily to form our own narratives and Tsiolkas’ book is as much about this as anything Schepisi intended. I don’t say this facetiously. To discover how The Devil’s Playground unfolded in the mind of 12-year Greek Australian boy, then a 20-year old gay man, then a 30-something professional writer, is to dip into another’s life in a very engaging way. It’s as truthful a reading of a film as I could hope for.

It begins in 1978 with Tsiolkas regularly trekking off to the movies with his mother, in a pact of mutual benefit. She gets a translator and regular movie companion, and he gets access to adult films and a newfound enthusiasm for Clark Gable. Then one summer’s day, lured by a trailer for The Devil’s Playground depicting boys having showers and a craggy Nick Tate, the young Tsiolkas enters the cinema on his own.

In the darkness, Tom Allen—a bed wetting, masturbatory, 13-year old schoolboy with a smile that will take him halfway around the world (played by Burke with such immediacy it’s almost documentary)—looks back at Tsiolkas. This is where it all changed. Movies, for Tsiolkas, would never again be limited to mere fantasy or entertainment. In the raw gaze levelled from one boy to the other, cinema was promoted from an interest to a passion and Tsiolkas experienced an elevated expectation of what it should deliver.

It’s now 1989 and Tsiolkas’ second viewing of The Devil’s Playground involves a dinner party conversation, a rented video and a cigarette afterwards. Was it as good as the first time? Well the focus has shifted. The boy is now a man, living with his lover and, having inherited some of his father’s political urgency and a raft of his own generation’s causes, taking on the world.

This time it’s the film’s adult priests that draw the 20-year old’s eye. Who are they? The film is set in 1957 in Victoria, so what do they think about the split in the ALP, the rise of the Democratic Labor Party, Doc Evatt and that prick, Bob Santamaria. Their silence is a void in the story.

The film is still good (even though it’s on video) but he thinks Schepisi’s 1978 film of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is better, harder, braver.

Tsiolkas’ third viewing happens on a cold day in 2000, back in a Melbourne cinema. He leaves troubled by Waite’s (Tom’s friend) lack of resolution in the final act but this is forgotten on overhearing a conversation between 2 young men who’ve also seen the film. Sitting in close proximity to Tsiolkas in the pub they dismiss The Devil’s Playground as plotless, private school rubbish. Tsiolkas has to fight an urge not to scream at them.

By this time Tsiolkas has seen his novel Loaded made into a movie [directed by Anna Kokkinos]. As an accomplished storyteller and an industry player, he knows enough to lament a national cinema that has fallen short of his expectations.

He began his journey with the wide-eyed Tom Allen. Has he now become the Teutonic Brother Victor? Tsiolkas refrains from calling the men in the pub “Lara Croft loving cock-suckers” and instead catches the tram home.

In conclusion, Tsiolkas writes the scenes he’s imagined into The Devil’s Playground over the years. This is my favourite part of the book, especially where Tom gets to fuck Nick Tate.

I sat through 3 years of cinema studies where every Thursday night we would gather for a screening of an important or significant film and discuss it afterwards. The human brain is a wonderful thing, weighing on average just over 2 pounds, wrinkled like a walnut, with the colour and consistency of porridge. Yet somehow the interactions of its ten billion cells produce all that we call the mind—our capacity to think, hope, believe, imagine and speak lyrically about films for longer than the time it took to watch them. In this task Christos Tsiolkas is funny, smart, insightful and occasionally crude (usually with Nick Tate in mind). I find myself turned on afresh to Padre Padrone, Pasolini, Pauline Kael, Iranian cinema, the evils of the DLP and most of all the potential of cinema to excite. Tsiolkas would make a great dinner-movie date but if he can’t make it, read the book and rent the video.

Christos Tsiolkas is the author of novels The Jesus Man and Loaded, adapted into the screenplay Head On. His plays include Dead Caucasians, and he edits the journal Refo with George Papaellinas.

Michael James Rowlands’ films, The Existentialist Cowboy’s Last Stand (also a book) and Flying Over Mother, were both nominated for AFI awards. He is the author of Ten Drawings of the Jungle, and his new work Life Advice for High Plains Drifters will be published by Cowboy Books in October.

The Australian Screen Classics series is edited by Jane Mills. Next are Adrian Martin on the Mad Max films and Louis Nowra on Walkabout.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 5

© Michael James Rowland; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003