the filmmaker underdog and the australian way

bruno starrs on alec morgan’s hunt angels

Alma (Victoria Hill) & Rupert (Ben Mendelsohn) at Vogue

Alma (Victoria Hill) & Rupert (Ben Mendelsohn) at Vogue

Alma (Victoria Hill) & Rupert (Ben Mendelsohn) at Vogue

LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN VERSION OF TIM BURTON’S ED WOOD (1995), HUNT ANGELS (ALEC MORGAN, 2006) IS A BIOPIC ABOUT A NOT VERY SUCCESSFUL, BUT VERY PASSIONATE, PAIR OF FILMMAKERS STRUGGLING OUTSIDE THE HOLLYWOOD RUN SYSTEM IN THE EARLY YEARS OF CINEMA. STARRING BEN MENDELSOHN AS THE FAST-TALKING RUPERT KATHNER AND VICTORIA HILL AS ALMA BROOKS, HIS ALLURING YOUNG CAMERAWOMAN, THIS SAD TALE OF THE DUO’S PERSISTENT BUT DOOMED STRUGGLE TO TELL AUTHENTIC AUSTRALIAN STORIES IS PORTRAYED IN SUMPTUOUS BLACK AND WHITE ART DECO STYLE.

Seamless computer manipulation embeds the two actors into stills and newsreel footage from the 1930s and 40s and intercuts them with interviews of still living contemporaries. Hyper-stylised mise-en-scène is reminiscent of film noir. Costuming and makeup is authentic to the period and immaculate. Even the transitional wipes from re-enacted footage to present-day interviews have the feel of the 30s. The use of matting and green-screen recording of the two actors playing the forgotten filmmakers integrated into hundreds of archival images has resulted in a documentary film consisting of 281 special effects shots, which “deploy…contemporary electronic means to fuse together the story of two filmmakers ‘lost’ from our written history with ‘lost’ images of Sydney of the era in which they lived” (Alec Morgan, “Re-telling history in the digital age: The scripting of Hunt Angels”, Scan: Journal of Media, Arts, Culture).

With more chutzpah than talent, Kathner and Brooks made nineteen films before ‘Rupe’ died of a brain hemorrhage in 1954 at the age of 50. Unfortunately, none of these bear scrutiny today, especially when stacked against the better funded works of their contemporary cinemateurs such as Charles Chauvel, whose Rats of Tobruk (1944) scuttled Kathner and Brook’s own plans of a desert war saga. Despite being pioneers in Australian cinema, their contributions don’t even rate a mention in the Australian Film Institute’s A Century of Australian Cinema (1995). The short-lived screenings of their films took place only in the so-called ‘flea-pits’ of Sydney, because, as David Stratton points out, “the two main cinema chains were majority owned by foreign companies (Hoyts by 20th Century Fox and Greater Union by Rank Organization)“, (“A true Aussie gem”, The Weekend Australian, December 2-3, 2006), and these cinemas could only play films sanctioned by the Hollywood owners.

Distribution was monopolized by Hollywood companies, too. Rarely were Australian-made features screened and Kathner and Brooks were under constant financial strain, with many of their filmmaking ventures being little more than scams to milk money from gullible investors, or ‘angels’. Morgan explains their appeal: “They were partners in moviemaking, love, and (as it turned out) crime” (“Lost city of the senses”, Scan: Journal of Media, Arts, Culture). For their Pyjama Girl Murder Case (1939), Australia’s first ‘true crime’ movie, Alma stripped and lay in a bathtub, pretending to be a corpse that had been steeped in formalin for five years, because access to the real thing was denied by the NSW Police Commissioner, “Big Bill” Mackay. The pair’s earlier break-in to the Sydney University Medical Faculty to film the body failed due to lack of a replacement bulb when their only lighting rig blew. Finally, to get permission to continue with the film, Kathner manufactured death threats against himself and ‘leaked’ them to the media: “Big Bill” relented and the film was completed.
Hunt Angels

Hunt Angels

Hunt Angels

After a state ban on bushrangers in film was overturned in 1946, the pair’s Ned Kelly film, The Glenrowan Affair (1951) employed numerous different leads according to whomever they could con. The movie’s ‘stars’ came from grazing properties around Victoria’s ‘Kelly country’ and contributed financially in return for the leading role. As a result Kathner and Brook’s ‘Ned’ was variously short, tall, fat and thin. Although the feature films with which they unsuccessfully took on the Hollywood stranglehold have all but sunk without a trace, with none ever turning a profit, Kathner and Brooks did contribute significantly to the newsreel genre, by depicting the actual misery and squalor of the Depression era in their Australia Today pieces of 1938-40, which were in stark contrast to the artificially optimistic Fox-Movietone News and Cinesound Review newsreels. Morgan laments the habit of historical surveys of Australian film to overlook the newsreel at the expense of features:

Because of the exclusion policies of Fox and Cinesound, moving images of the poorer, noir world of Sydney that Kathner and Brooks inhabited and filmed are missing from our popular memory. Generations have grown up seeing a Depression-era Sydney depicted as a sunny, prosperous place with beaches full of happy bathers and bronzed lifesavers. Even today, because of their easy access, the Fox-Movietone and Cinesound News collections are the most extensively used sources of factual footage of that era. (“Re-designing the past imperfect: The making of Hunt Angels”, Senses of Cinema, 2006).

By depicting Depression-era Australia as it really was, Kathner and Brooks should have earned a place in Australia’s cinematic history, but their fringe existence has meant they have been under-screened and overlooked…until now, that is.

Biopics of filmmakers have not been common in Hollywood: apart from Burton’s Ed Wood, Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998) about horror film director James Whale also springs to mind. Morgan’s work is the first biopic of an Australian filmmaker: biopics here have included a sports star, Dawn Fraser in Dawn! (Ken Hannam, 1979); criminals, Mark ‘Chopper’ Reid (Chopper, Andrew Dominik, 2000) and Brendan Abbott (The Postcard Bandit, Tony Tilse, 2003); a writer, Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career, Gillian Armstrong, 1979); a pianist (David Helfgott in Shine, 1996); and Ned Kelly in a plethora of films. One commonality in Australian biopics is the recurring theme of a unique individual’s struggle against the establishment. But the underdog need not win: Albert Moran and Errol Vieth note in Film in Australia in their chapter on the Australian biopic: “there is no obligation on the genre to trace an ever-upward path on the part of its central figure. Triumph and affirmation may only be incidental moments in the biographical film” (Film in Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge UP, 2006). Kathner and Brooks were certainly underdogs.

Nevertheless, Hunt Angels serves as an instructional piece for contemporary Australian filmmakers, who have it comparatively easy. Since the 1970s Australian filmmaking has been greatly assisted by the state film development organisations in what has been called The Revival. Before this financial revitalisation, cinema in Australia was a mostly US lead affair: 95% of films screened were US productions distributed by US firms and shown only in cinemas they approved. This was the hostile environment in which Kathner and Brooks operated. Paul Kathner says in the film: “My father wanted to tell Australian stories—he was fed up with the Americanization of films.”

It is this passion to break away from Hollywood controlled production, distribution and screening and to tell Australian stories that drove Kathner and Brooks. It is this same intention to do things in an anti-Hollywood way that seems to have driven Morgan to choose two movie-making failures to be the subject of a film. Moran and Vieth write of the Australian biopic, “What matters is not the historical importance of the life but rather that the life actually happened. Beyond that, generic form and style intervene to ensure that the biographical subject becomes a screen subject.” Morgan creatively uses Art Deco style and form to turn a forgotten biographical subject into a captivating screen subject, something that would never have seen the light of day were it a story about two unknown filmmakers in Hollywood. Instead of choosing a successful Australian cinematic legend like Charles Chauvel, the subject of numerous historiographies, Morgan has disclosed the quondam reality of our lesser-known Australian movie-making background. As David Stratton has said of Hunt Angels, “if you care anything about local cinema, the result is essential viewing.” Hunt Angels has filled in a small blank in our cinematic and cultural history, re-coloured an effective whitewash of the Depression-era wretchedness of Sydney by Hollywood sanctioned sanitised newsreels, restored a nation’s previously censored memory, and done so with an unmistakable anti-Hollywood sneer.

Hunt Angels won the 2006 Film Critics Circle Australia Award for Best Feature Documentary and the Atom Award for Best General Documentary.

Hunt Angels, writer-director Alec Morgan, cinematography Jackie Farkas, lead compositor and visual Fx supervisor Rose Draper, visual effects consultant and post-production supervisor Mike Seymour, production designer Tony Campbell, costumes Margot Wilson, editor Tony Stevens, composer Jen Anderson, producer Sue Maslin; Palace Films with Film Art Doco and Blusteal Films, 2006 www.huntangels.com.au

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 24

© bruno starrs; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2007