Looking for a sense of place

Dan Edwards

Cracker Bag

Cracker Bag

Issues of personalised sexual politics have dominated cinema screens since the late 1990s, taking precedence over politics. While this trend is not necessarily reflected in most of the Australian features nominated for the 45th Annual AFI Awards, the 2003 nominees in the Short Fiction category all reject any ‘big picture’ social or political commentary to focus on interpersonal relations, memory and frustrated sexual longing. In these films, characters exist in narrow worlds of heated desires and obsessions, living out their dramas in generic settings.

Cracker Bag (director Glendyn Ivin) for example, is ostensibly set in early 80s suburban Australia. A young girl named Eddie steadily works at earning enough small change to purchase fireworks from the corner shop. At home she is taunted by her older brother and haunted by the sounds of her mother’s telephone arguments with the family’s absent father. Eddie channels all her energy into assembling a firework stash, which will be unleashed cracker by cracker on fireworks night. Inevitably, when the night arrives it ends in disappointment.

There are many touches in the design of Cracker Bag to remind viewers of the relatively recent time when we all lived without home computers or mobile phones, and even the smallest child could purchase explosives. Essentially, however, these elements are window dressing, forming a backdrop that is never integrated into the main character’s emotional journey, creating the sense that with a few surface alterations the same story could have been set anywhere, at any time.

Similarly, Preservation (Sofya Gollan) is a period piece with very little to say about its historical setting. It tells the story of a young, repressed female taxidermist living in late 19th century Sydney, nurturing an obsession with her dead father through frequent visits to a spiritualist photographer. Early in the film, she takes in a lodger who is nursing his own deep grief at the loss of his wife 2 years earlier. A sexual tension develops between the 2 as they each wrestle with their memories and unwillingness to let go of the past.

The drama primarily unfolds in the young woman’s cavernous house which is filled with the preserved corpses of dead animals. Given the characters’ obsessions with dead relatives and ossified memories, the hermetically-sealed nature of the world we see on screen is at least thematically justified, but the viewer never really gets a sense that these characters inhabit a wider societal context. The setting appears more like a theatrical backdrop sketched in with a few historical markers.

The Visitor (Dan Castle) is a contemporary drama which focuses on a middle-aged gay man living alone, coming to terms with the death of a relationship with a younger man. The beautiful cinematography from Richard Milchalak provides an effective contrast between the sun-drenched glare of the beach, where the central character spends time wistfully observing the bronzed bodies of local surfers and the dark interiors of his apartment at night, where he broods over his memories. As in Cracker Bag and Preservation, the pivotal relationships in the film, while containing no real surprises, are effectively handled, but could have unfolded anywhere. The main character lives in what looks like Sydney’s eastern suburbs, but there is no engagement with a world outside his immediate, non-specific surrounds.

The lack of specificity in the settings of these 3 films is not necessarily a problem when each is examined individually. Not every movie should be expected to offer a commentary on the time in which it is set, nor do its themes necessarily have to resonate on a broader social, political or historical level. As a trend which seems to infect much Australian cinema across the board, however, this “fear of specificity” is frustrating, and reflects a deeper fear of creating films in Australia that might demand or require any kind of intellectual engagement beyond a fairly prosaic emotional response.

This is not to suggest we should be seeking a cinema of didactic political agit-prop, or social-realism in the style of Ken Loach. A filmmaker like Swedish director Lukas Moodysson has shown it is possible to create highly effecting humanist dramas which contain very few characters, yet which resonate in many ways with the broader currents of the times in which they are set. Moodysson’s Together is both an examination of how human beings long, and often fail, to be “together”, while also offering a nuanced and extremely subtle reflection on the social and political currents streaming across mid-70s Europe. Based on the shorts nominated for AFI Awards this year, it’s hard to imagine any of our emergent filmmakers coming close to pulling off a similar feat.

Having said that, the 4th Short Fiction nominee, Roy Hollsdotter Live (directed by Matthew Saville) was refreshingly unequivocal in its affirmation of a particular physical setting. Although it once again focused on a relationship in crisis, the noirish lighting and passages of expressionistic editing effectively evoked the smoky, well-worn interiors of Melbourne pubs, plunging the viewer into the unique atmosphere of the rain-swept city. This alone set Roy Hollsdotter Live above the other Short Fiction nominees. The gritty sense of place was also bolstered by Darren Casey’s complex lead performance. By turns amusing, obnoxious, charismatic and repellent, Casey never failed to hold the audience’s attention with a face as worn and weather-beaten as the pubs his character frequents.

None of the films nominated for the Short Fiction award this year represents anything new or innovative in content or form, but Roy Hollsdotter Live at least created a cinematic world that bore some recognisable relationship to our own. However the generically Australian settings of many of our films perhaps goes some way to explaining why so little Australian cinema seems to resonate in any effective way with Australian audiences.

The Atlab AFI Award For Best Short Fiction Film and the Award For Best Screenplay In A Short Fiction Film were won by Cracker Bag.

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 19-20

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003