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Just Like Cinema
36th Melbourne Film Festival June 5-14, 1987

Just Like Weather (Allen Fong, 1986)

There's something fairly typical about the Melbourne Film Festival (and any film festival for that matter): the middle-class, middle-aged people are found at the evening sessions of cosy European cinema, whilst the cineastes and critics brave the mornings to check out the latest modernist-cinema offerings - Godard, Akerman, etc. It is within this context that I found myself one weekday afternoon watching a Hong Kong feature with maybe 30 or 40 other people in the cinema, and well, marvelling at what I was seeing.

Just Like Weather is the third feature from director Allen Fong. His previous film Ah Ying played at the film festival two years back and is a loving and understated study of a young woman's yearning for an individual life, away from her family and the caring of them. It is like an Ozu film, although somewhat more casual and detailed, and without that majestic static camera. Just Like Weather gets away from Ozu and into something altogether more rare, funky, strange something more akin to Wayne Wang's Chan is Missing.

The film is basically a look at a young couple's on-off marriage (and their on-off move to America.) But what makes the film anything but basic is its beautifully schizo nature, which sees it at once being a documentary and a fiction film. Thus, all the actors play themselves, in several senses: they dramatise past events of their lives; they are interviewed by the film-maker; and they just live their lives, with the camera recording the proceedings. This plurality of approach isn't jarring in any way, and it gives the film an edge that is missing from a film with a similar background also shown at the festival, Blake Edwards' That's Life! Edwards' film also features actors the film-maker personally knows, who are related, who are playing roles close to themselves, etc. but if one didn't know that, the film would be just another mainstream film. Therefore that edge (of knowing this isn't just fiction) is missing, thanks to American film parameters/limitations. Allen Fong's film operates in a sort of magical free-space, whilst Blake Edwards has to fill the spaces between the frames as it were (Fong has made one movie, Edwards two: the story of Hollywood.)

The most startling aspect of Just Like Weather is its structure, especially in terms of chronology. Let's say a film has a 10-event schedule, event No.1 occurring first in time, etc. Allen Fong has placed his events like this: 9, 1, 3, 5, 7, 2, 8, 4, 6, 9 (yes, a whole scene is repeated), 10. This serves to disrupt any normal processes of identification (there's no psychology here, no cause-and-effect, no emotional build-up, just moments and scenes happening) but it emphasises the up-down, hot-cold nature of the couple's life together. And the pieces in the end come together with an astonishing force (for example, the scene that is repeated is extended, opening up its meaning) and one is left practically gaping.

Fragmentation as a cinema technique is nothing new, but only as applied to space (Bresson, Godard), not time. Chronological time is never abandoned, just bracketed occasionally, under: memory, dream, precognition, etc. There are bits in Godard's new video Grandeur Et Decadence where it's done, but even these bits have the sadness of memory about them. Allen Fong plays it straight, and that's exactly what marks his film overall: the coolness of the mise-en-scene, the natural beauty of the images, the sureness of the pace. One of the shots I remember most is a 15-second close-up of the couple's locked hands as they walk along a busy railway platform. For Fong it's just another moment, not emphasised, not eulogised, but it's very expressive of the film's meaning: Just Like Weather is essentially a Borzagian faith-in-love dissertation, but realistic rather than romantic.

For the second half of this short article of mine, I'd like to look at some of the Australian films in the festival, especially the shorter ones. The best of these were in the 2-hour Super-8 programme. There was no Super-8 from overseas this year, so the programme had only Australian films, 18 of them, ranging from 3 minutes to 15 minutes in duration. I will not try to discuss the films as a whole here, as it could get messy (Super-8 isn't popularly labelled "hyper-eclectic" for nothing, you know.) Instead I will just canvass some individual titles.

Gary Warner's latest film Resistance Today is yet another addition to the Sydney Super-8 canon of appropriation films (i.e. shooting off the TV.) This is as fine as the best of them (Mark Titmarsh's Legion, Michael Hutak's Train of Events), but without the usual referencing/allegiance to post-modernism. And so the film looks out, not in, looks forward, not back. Resistance Today is of that affecting, extraordinary cinema we can witness in Chris Marker's Sunless: apocalyptic and Utopian.

Another film that seems to embrace (and find hope in) the end of the world is Piero Colli's The Son and the Heir. Its narrative is vague and unusual, but it speaks eloquently of a dead present, muddled past, and sublime future. Its main character is stuck in a barren time and place, but he realizes he must be the son and the heir to what has come before him. This film mixes reality with dream, the past with the present, the personal with the social. It is all concise, strategic, and brilliant; and, dare I say, the best example yet of a brave and new cinema arising from the rumblings of Super-8.

Jo Hampton's Gold Green Black, on the other hand, is nothing new, but nothing terrible either. Many of the traits of experimental cinema are evident here, but what I like the most about the best of Jos films (this one and Self-Exposure) is the plaintive use of silence (as a counterpoint) on the soundtracks. It creates a feeling of heartbreak and longing that is tender and beautiful. This, for me, helps to alleviate the otherwise irritating constancy (in image, in sound) of a film like Gold Green Black.

It really is a cliche (if a somewhat easily accepted and secretly dismissed one), but the most exciting cinema happening in Australia at the moment is on Super-8. Looking at the other Australian short films in the festival, this is proven correct. It's indicative of the state of things that the most rigorous and resonant short films are being made by multi-media artists - David Chesworth (Insatiable) and Philip Brophy (No Dance). So much for a film culture.

Two of the shorts, Saccade and Pallisade, came highly touted, in various ways - Carlo Buralli's Saccade mainly through the program notes: "An impressive film debut with a confidence and vision that marks Buralli as a talent definitely worth watching." Whoever wrote that deserves to be shot. This is dead cinema, informed by a silly notion of psychological examination - you get lots of meaningful looks, but really, you get nothing. As for Pallisade, it's not undeserving of its prize at Cannes, but Id just like to say that Salik Silverstein and Alex Proyas did it first and did it better, with their horrific Groping in 1981.

The story of Australian short films is the story of half-interesting films (at best): John Cumming's laboured Recognition, Rowan Woods' delightful but padded-out Kenny's Love, Margie Medlin and Jasmine Hirst's smart-arsey With Inertia. Getting closer to feature length, there's Tony Mahood's 100% Wool, which is 58 minutes in duration. Compare this film's coda (an inane, corny song-and-dance) with that of Just Like Weather (the film-maker's question of "Are you happy now?" to the actress, and her honest, shaky reply) and one can immediately see the respective cinema philosophies at work, one safely inward, the other adventurously outward. That's just like cinema - whilst it is dead and wasteful most times, it can also be alive and precious at other times, and forever dreaming itself forward.

My top ten films of the festival:

1. Golden Eighties (Dir: Chantal Akerman) feature

2. Grandeur Et Decadence (Jean-Luc Godard) video feature

3. Faire La Fete (Anne-Marie Mieville) short

4. The Son and the Heir (Piero Colli) Super-8 short

5. Just Like Weather (Allen Fong) feature

6. That's Life! (Blake Edwards) feature

7. Morena (Anne-Marie Crawford) Super-8 short

8. Resistance Today (Gary Warner) Super-8 short

9. Insatiable (David Chesworth) video short

10. Poto and Cabengo (Jean-Pierre Gorin) feature

Bill Mousoulis June 1987
This article was first published in Filmnews, July 1987.