the rhythm of the night

kirsten krauth immersed in lawrence johnston’s new film

Lawrence Johnstons's Night

Lawrence Johnstons's Night


This isn’t the first Lawrence Johnston film to explore the delicate balance between light and dark. In his previous feature documentary, Eternity, he sinks into the mysterious and moody world of a man who walks the streets and creates at night, beyond the halo of neon, writing one word over and over on the Sydney sidewalks in a perfect copperplate script: gold chalk on black asphalt. Poet Arthur Stace is a shadowy figure who, in Johnston’s melancholy film, emerges out of the darkness after he literally “sees the light.”

The only place to see Johnston’s latest feature doco Night is at the cinema. From an extraordinary opening that captures the violets and aquas of swirls of lightning caught in a violent score recorded in Poland with the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra by composer Cezary Skubiszewski (who also featured in films The Pianist and The Three Colours trilogy), we’re led into a dreamy, meandering evocation of what night might mean, tracing its themes through the ideas of coming home, contemplating the stars, going out to party and dance, the buzz and lows of shiftwork, bad dreams and blackouts, and ways of looking at the moon. Like the mood pieces Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, Johnston’s film doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. It’s about capturing moments, fleeting feelings, transitions.

Australian voices drift over landscapes bringing new poetic definitions: a man sees sunset as light and dark vying and negotiating; another speaks of the beauty of the word ‘evening’ as a smoothing, a drawing, of the harshness out of light. Like a giant lava lamp, the beauty of the film releases and lets go. A windmill stutters. Majestic landscapes—Uluru, the Olgas—point to the stars. Children speak and make their usual simple but profound insights. As night clouds drift at an abandoned drive-in, a boy talks of how small the stars make him feel. A parent advises that when a child is about to die, to look closely at the “beloved’s eyes”, for in the nights to come they will be only stars. Home movies of the Page children dancing and dagging for the camera in their PJs captures that sense of excitement/loss that bedtime brings—what you’re missing out on when the lights go out—interweaving with David Page (writer and actor, and composer for Bangarra Dance Theatre) talking about his nocturnal adventures: how he was dared to climb out and, clinging to the gutters, work his way around the house, past his parents’ window. Adam Elliot (Oscar winner for Harvie Krumpet) gives his usual hilariously skewed perspective, saying that he loved blackouts as a child because it meant that he was allowed to hold his willy, because no-one else could see.

Johnston is especially interested in bodies, how they move through time and space. At the disco bowling alley the footage is beautifully choreographed, the run-up and let-go of sending a ball hurtling to the pins becomes a precise then free dance, capturing the joy in women as they make a strike, hug and cheer together. As the intimacy of night “forces you out of your eyes and into your other senses”, the film becomes full of sounds and textures. As a couple describe swimming at night, the sensuousness of their words and the water mix: the woman moves through the ocean “like velvet…almost a different element”; the man feels the water as “a woman”, taking on the sheen of skin.

Like all great docos, there are contradictory elements at play. A woman speaks of her love of coming home after work, opening that door to a sanctuary. But a man reminds us of the violent changes happening around us, communities displaced and disintegrating; the ability to ‘come home’ is diminishing. A man remembers the moon filling him with romantic yearning; a boy knows the moon protects the Earth from comets; a priest says that on full moon nights there’s no question, he has “more confused people to deal with.” A man says you can get away with more at night, you can lie, under the cover of darkness; but a cop knows that catching criminals at night is like “falling off a log”—if you pull random cars over at 3 or 4 in the morning, there’s a high chance that they’ll be “up to something nefarious.”

What’s unusual about Johnston’s doco is that it captures the faces of people in repose. As they experience the night—catching a train home, waiting at the station, sitting at their desk in a blindingly lit office—there’s a stillness to them that you don’t often see. People interacting with others are usually animated, passionate. This film visits them alone, unaware of the camera. An interviewee suggests that your rhythms, the lines of journey, become different at night. As you walk in and out of pools of light, you become “closer to yourself” without the long “vistas of vision.” This sweet captured intimacy often reminds me of the works of Bill Henson—an artist also enamoured with the dark and who features here too as one interviewed—especially his photos of groups of people gathered at traffic lights, unaware they are in the frame, waiting for the green man; or his series on children at the opera (Paris Opera Project 1990/91), their faces still and bright out of the liquid darkness. In Night an exquisitely beautiful fragment on churchgoers, set to Nina Simone’s Everything Will Change, focuses on children holding candles, their faces glowing as if lit from within as they pray.

There’s a healthy and popular argument emerging for the slow food movement, and I like the idea of a parallel one for slow film. Prepared carefully, using hand-picked and home-grown ingredients until the flavour’s just right, shared lovingly with friends and family, taking hours to consume, a day to digest. This film continues to raise ideas and imaginings and haunts me for weeks. I emerge into the dark-and-light of Market Street to catch a train, blending again into the cityscape, watching my fellow passengers heading home one foot in front of the other, deep into the night.

Night, writer, director, producer Lawrence Johnston, producer Lizzette Atkins, cinematographer Laurie McInnes, editor Bill Murphy, composer Cezary Skubiszewski, sound designer Livia Ruzic, distribution Dendy

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 19

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 February 2008