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Mark La Rosa


La Rosa, At Last   by Michael Filippidis

This article was originally published in the Melbourne Super 8 Group Newsletter, No. 69, May 1992.

If the recent screening at the Glasshouse Function Room on March 10 of four of Mark La Rosa's films proves anything it is that Mark La Rosa is a true believer when it comes to the cinema. The screening of March 10 illustrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that for La Rosa the eternal subject of cinema is cinema itself. In La Rosa's cinema classical narrative rubs shoulders with avant-garde experimentalism and documentary with fiction. Such is the range of La Rosa's interests that with only a few films to his name he is capable of producing substantial contributions to each genre. In this respect he resembles Godard the formalist as much as he does Godard the classicist (if such an appellation is possible for Godard).

The first film, Private Island, is a series of three, at most four, images taken from Hitchcock's Psycho in which passages of dialogue from the film are incorporated as a counterpoint to the changing combination of images; the effect of this startlingly alive with reverberations as the combination of frozen image and dialogue produces a defamiliarization effect which makes us attend to both La Rosa's experiment and to Hitchcock's original as though we were encountering it anew. There is a paradox here, for insofar as La Rosa's film, Private Island, is a new film never before encountered, its images and sounds are not. Both the sounds and images of La Rosa's images of La Rosa's experimental film are so well known, so classic, that there is a sense in which Private Island exists at two levels: a) as a completely new film work never seen before, b) as a classic of Hollywood cinema. The result, as I have said, is to produce a new encounter with Psycho but one which I would stress is not a disinterested one for it is imbued with La Rosa's own approach to Psycho. The title Private Island is derived from a moment of dialogue between Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in which Leigh philosophizes about the universal need for a place of one's own: "a private island" to which one may escape. The choice of dialogue as well as juxtaposition of images is thus determined by a theme: the notion of a private island as a haven or hell. In all of this the film remains playful in its choice of combinations making for some amusing moments which reverberate with formalist significance as they illustrate the power of sound over sight.

Bridget Among the Ten Thousand Things

It is this fascination with sound which one could say characterizes the films at the March 10 screening. This is perhaps most easily seen in Bridget Among the Ten Thousand Things where an excruciatingly slow pace yields an answer to a mystery: namely, the source of the sound we hear throughout most of the film's black visuals. These black visual images and mystery sounds are interrupted at ever decreasing intervals of time by shots of backyard scenes which are accompanied by a portentous sounding voice singing what sounds like a religious piece; this portentous accompaniment is subverted at the end when it turns out that the song breaks out into a jovial celebratory mode at precisely the moment when all is revealed to us. A formalist joke but a good one nonetheless, BATTT is an exquisitely judged work, which is why the first few minutes are so bewilderingly slow, painful even, as the narrative (or what narrative there is) needs all that time of frustrated curiosity to build up the mystery and, as it turns, the joke.

Small Blue Thing was, by La Rosa's own admission, the least satisfying work on the programme. As an attempt to document the sixteenth birthday of a girl in the suburbs it suffers from what La Rosa himself has rightly called an unfocused quality due largely to the film's inability to enter the world of its subject at a deeper level than it does. Originally, La Rosa had hoped that the girl involved in the project, and who also appears in La Rosa's Working Week, would contribute more to the script and thus establish a closer rapport with the audience. Without this personal rapport between the subject and the audience Small Blue Thing becomes a film in which popular music and fashion images are juxtaposed with scenes of the girl shopping for a party outfit; the theme of the film has become the tyranny of images over our notions of ourself as well as on our expectations. All of this is very admirable though hardly original but the point to be remembered here is that La Rosa is a filmmaker who, like Godard before him, reminds us of the need to break free from the tyranny of the image. This is a theme which all four films deal with explicitly, as in the Bonnie and Clyde image which haunts Working Week or implicitly by way of a formalist exercise in visual and sound juxtaposition such as in Private Island and Bridget Among the Ten Thousand Things.

Working Week

Next comes Working Week, La Rosa's Breathless only now set in Broadmeadows with a touch of Bonnie and Clyde go to Bourke Street thrown in. As a sidenote one recalls that it was Godard and not Penn who was originally going to direct Bonnie and Clyde when the film was still on the drawing board. All of these postclassical Hollywood allusions are not to suggest that Working Week is a newer than New Wave film, at least, no more than the restrictions of Super-8 non-professional filmmaking require it to be. What it is though, is La Rosa's first attempt at a sustained narrative. Working Week takes as its starting point Bonnie and Clyde but it manages to avoid the trap of slavishly following the model by having a quiet ending as opposed to the big bang-up ending of the original Bonnie and Clyde. In La Rosa's film the act of betrayal happens so easily and so quietly that for a viewer trying to predict the ending of the film and who remembers the Penn original it may seem that the film takes a potentially anticlimactic turn. Not so! For the film, after all, is about Broadmeadows teenagers and not the Barrow gang: this being the case one cannot help but comment that two out of the four films screened were about adolescents - a reflection on La Rosa's own sympathy for adolescents - and that in each case he bestows upon his teenage protagonists the dignity that their desires and desperation demand. In any case, Working Week bears the stamp of a filmmaker who is not a moralist as such but an observer of life's little victories and defeats.

The use of colour in scenes where the boy and girl are in shops is perhaps a bit too obvious but in a film which examines the relationship between images and expectations such a move is legitimate when one considers the role of black and white in Bonnie and Clyde; in that film it is the frozen images of the Barrow Gang which are in monochrome and which present for posterity a hyper-criminal pose which the rest of the film shows to be far from the truth. A particularly effective sequence in Working Week is the one in which the girl waits while the boy walks into a store to steal a portable TV; the use of music as a complement to the tension of the scene is outstanding. In all, Working Week is an achievement not to be ignored and certainly not to be dismissed. One looks forward with eagerness to La Rosa's next film.

Michael Filippidis, May 1992.
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Melbourne independent filmmakers is compiled by Bill Mousoulis