The Deep Archive: Annemarie Jonson, Bad Boy Bubby’s sound design

Annemarie Jonson

Much has been made of the suburban setting of Rolf de Heer’s classic arthouse film Bad Boy Bubby. But it wasn’t so much the Adelaide’s spaces but its sounds that interested our writer Annemarie Jonson. A lifetime of imprisonment in his family home means that anti-hero Bubby (Nicholas Hope) isn’t the most verbal character ever. While dialogue is sparse, Rolf de Heer and his nine-person-strong sound team aurally plunge us into the mind of a man who has never heard a violin or a choir or a shitty pub band, “who lives trapped in an underworld crawling with crunchy roaches and humming with fluoro light.” Jonson shows us that this vivid, energised soundscape is key to embedding us deeply in Bubby’s strange, subjective view of his tiny world. In the film’s sideways statement about the claustrophobic nature of the Australian suburbs, its twitching aural landscape completely blows apart the myth of the benevolent, tranquil quarter-acre block. Since Jonson’s article, Adelaide has built on its cinematic reputation as a suburban site for depravity and despair (Snowtown and The Babadook), creepy incest-inflected family drama (Beautiful Kate) and at the less horrific end of the spectrum, late-in-life ennui (A Month of Sundays). Bad Boy Bubby remains the template.

This is the fourth instalment in our series The Deep Archive, which selects highlights from RealTime’s rich, 20-plus-years of publishing. LCH


Sound Boy Bubby

RealTime 3, October-November 1994

Annemarie Jonson listens to Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby appeared like some perverse teratology in a cinematic landscape strewn with sequins, high camp reprises of Abba and the ‘irrepressible larrikinism’ that passes for the 90s version of 80s Crocodile Dundeeism. The movie emerged from the chthonic underworld of suburban Adelaide more than a year ago, scoring the Grand Jury Special Prize at the 1993 Venice Film Festival before being picked up by Roadshow for local distribution — hence the bizarre juxtaposition at mainscreen cinemas of Bubby’s coming out, Priscilla’s odyssey and Muriel’s wedding.

Bubby is a feral Kaspar Hauser, teleported into the fin de siècle antipodes. He lives, or rather subsists like a virus dependent on his psychotic mother in a putrid, windowless cesspit set in an apocalyptic industrial wasteland. Bubby passes the time by committing unspeakable acts on the family pet and resident vermin. (Has the RSPCA seen this film?) He fears God and mother in equal amounts and regularly ‘services’ the latter. Bubby has never seen the world nor another human being in his 35 years; since mother dons a gas mask each time she leaves, he’s convinced he’d asphyxiate in the noxious outdoors. Like an ancient married couple in a hermetically sealed universe, the two are set in their quaint little quotidian rituals: she washes him, feeds him sugared bread and milk, and thrashes him; he fucks her, fondles her pendulous breasts and applies her lipstick — Princess Pink. (This movie, incidentally, is a psychoanalytic minefield. It scores an A+ for misogyny and rampant breast fetish. Dr Freud, the chaise longue for Mr de Heer please!)

The deeply pathetic ‘comfort’ of Bubby’s subsistence is shattered when his ‘Pop,’ a drunken low-life with a sideline as a cleric who ‘stepped out’ 35 years ago, returns to compete for mother’s affections. This cataclysmic event completes the Oedipal interdiction. Bubby is catapulted into the social order, but not before he improvises a Gladwrap Christo to sever family ties.

Bubby’s pilgrimage through contemporary Australian suburbia is a mix of violent abuse, the kindness of strangers and humanistic empathy. It takes in environmental degradation, disability, institutionalisation, religious fanaticism, pub rock and quantum physics. Norman Kaye appears in bizarre cameo as an atheistic, church-organ playing physicist who initiates Bubby into the chaotic mysteries of existence: “All we are are random arrangements of atoms. We don’t live, but our atoms move about in such a way as to give us identity and consciousness.” But one of the most interesting things in this quite remarkable film is the central role of sound. Bubby is an acoustic tabula rasa: he reflects like an aural mirror all that he hears, memorising and mimicking voices and sounds in a kind of innocent echolalia.

Bubby’s aural disposition is reflected in the film’s sound design by James Currie. The sound was recorded primarily via binaural radio mics attached to Bubby’s wig (a system devised by Fred and Margaret Stahl) through which we get to earwitness Bubby’s life. In the first part of the film the claustrophobia of Bubby’s dungeon is heightened by the incessant hum of the fluorescent lights, whining like the nervous system in an anechoic chamber. Currie ‘magnifies’ the small, inconsequential, normally unheard sounds of the everyday in Bubby’s underworld: the scraping of the shaver on his cheeks, the dripping of the tap as he waits motionless for his mother’s return, mixed into the sound of Bubby’s piss dripping through his chair, the rubbing and swishing of the flannel as mother washes Bubby down. And Bubby’s voice, close mic-ed against the spare, aural backdrop cuts through like a knife as he hisses at the cat, crunches cockroaches and punctuates the near silence with occasional bursts of monosyllabic babytalk.

When Bubby finally sets himself free the aural epiphanies begin in earnest. One of his first encounters is with a celestial Salvo choir mysteriously plonked in the Adelaide docks and reverb-ed to the heavens. Walking past a warehouse after robbing a service station, Bubby is mesmerised by the sound of a violin. When Bubby is thrown in jail, a phalanx of kilted bagpipe players appear out of nowhere and Bubby goes ballistic trying to locate the source of the sound. Once released Bubby is drawn into a cathedral by a brilliant Messiaen-like organ improvisation by Kaye. A member of the band which Bubby joins — yes, he stumbles into a vocation as a spoken word performance artist — performs an Islamic chant as he relates to Bubby a potted history of religious jihads through the millennia.

The aural preoccupation of the film reminds us of the epigraph to Hauser: “Do you not hear the pitiful screams all around us, which are commonly called silence?” But this is a little tragic and portentous for de Heer’s often very funny film. As it happens, Bubby ends up in a perverse kind of marital bliss, gamboling with his progeny in a semi-suburban quarter acre — adumbrated by an industrial plant spewing carcinogens over the pansies.

Annemarie Jonson wrote for RealTime and worked on its editorial committee in the 1990s. With Alessio Cavallaro, she co-edited its OnScreen supplement. She has a PhD in art theory from the University of Sydney and is CEO of the Sherman Centre for Culture & Ideas, launching 2018.

18 July 2017