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New Films, Same Struggle

40th Melbourne International Film Festival, June 7-22, 1991

Are we together? Are we the same? What is to be done?

- Alex to Johnny and Manny in Dead to the World

Huzzah Productions’ Dead to the World had its world premiere screening at the festival, and, in a filmmakers forum held the following day, a member of the audience asked the Huzzah team whether the high degree of stylisation (i.e. the expressionistic usage of sound, colour, etc.) made the film somewhat "soulless". This is as good an entry as any into an examination and evaluation of Dead to the World (directed by Ross Gibson) as well as some of the other new Australian features screened at the festival – Proof (Jocelyn Moorhouse), Holidays on the River Yarra (Leo Berkeley), and Stan and George's New Life (Brian McKenzie).

To Huzzah's credit, they answered that yes, perhaps the film is slightly soulless, with editor Andrew Plain saying that it contains "maybe one too many experiments". I say "credit" because, alongside the Welles/Toland-like bravado of the film's production, Huzzah display a tremendous humility and (more words from the forum) a "sincere responsibility". A responsibility, a crucial, politically-informed one, to Australian cinema as a whole. Dead to the World is thus, in its difference from most Australian releases, the most necessary of films. Ross Gibson and the rest of the Huzzah team (Adrienne Parr, Andrew Plain, John Cruthers) have fashioned a film that, basically, looks and sounds different. Whilst that alone is enough to make the film immediately significant and worthy, the effects of that difference, within the film itself, need to be assessed.

The stylisation in Dead to the World simultaneously heightens and dissipates its exposition on morality and integrity. The multiplicity of characters foregrounds the overall struggle between good and evil (to label it crudely), each character being an embodiment of one of these forces. Thus, audience identification is with the theme, not the people. This Brechtian approach finds its sharpest moment at the end, in a triumph of messy sublimity: the battle is over, but the struggle continues. The last shot is profoundly nightmarish and a vindication of the film's extreme visual and aural style.

Where the film tends to fall down is not necessarily in the excessive style per se, but in its implicitly underlying philosophy. The strangely not-quite postmodern usage or genre elements inevitably creates a gap between serious intent and mere "playing", making the film practically "untouchable" (the shots and sounds are "right" a priori) and somewhat insincere (hiding behind genre devices). The danger of this kind of assimilation, where one thing can soon turn into another, is within the film’s story also: is Alex's action an action of "survival", or is it the result of an insidious homogenisation of good and evil? That there is only a flippant causal justification for the film’s overall style (i.e. a modern/knowing language for a modern/knowing subject) is also part of this general problem.

While Dead to the World seems to resemble Do the Right Thing in many respects, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof seems to take its cue from sex, lies and videotape: a love-impotent protagonist with a perverse "hobby" purges the past and is now ready to live properly. The crucial difference is that, in the earlier film, the narrative and psychological movement is also towards the love connection of Graham and Ann. That is played with in Proof, but abandoned, producing a surprising and unsatisfying ending. That there is no payoff or change for Celia is mystifying because the film had built her up as a relevant, rather than minor, character.

Compared to the vitality of Dead to the World, Proof is very much a safe, user-friendly film. The overall style is classical: the fluidity of the camera matches the (perceived) continuity of the world. Within this stable context, the psychological portraits drawn are clear and explainable – there is no mystery or complexity here. It’s not surprising that the film is and will be popular – it is completely transparent. Indeed, the sequences of sex, violence and comedy in it smack of the chase for a mass audience. They are well done but for the most part gratuitous (the giveaway is the shot of Celia seen from above as she mounts Martin). In the acting department, Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe give uninspired, superficial performances – only Genevieve Picot rises above the tepidity of it all.

One of the striking elements of the characterisations in Proof is the movement towards a neutrality, a common sense, away from immature psychological games and illformed perceptions of reality. Dead to the World rejects this lack of intelligent characters and vital concerns, but Leo Berkeley’s Holidays on the River Yarra is very much in line with it, in the portrayal of the central character Eddie (idiosyncratically played by unknown Craig Adams), although an allowance can be made because of Eddie's age. Holidays on the River Yarra has numerous problems, both structurally and fundamentally. The richness and imaginativeness of the last third of the film – on all levels – is negated by the preceding hour or so. To begin with, just as in Proof, there is an imbalance of characters and their importance: the loudness of Mick overshadows the passivity of Eddie to a detrimental degree. Compare it to the effectiveness of Robert Bresson's Mouchette, which has a similar storyline. The character played by Claudia Karvan is also neglected, not only by Leo Berkeley but by Eddie. Eddie seems to intuit and understand the existence of friendship, love, etc., making his fatalistic adherence to the ‘lone wolf" syndrome unlikely and contradictory. Mouchette never had the chances offered to Eddie. That perhaps makes the characterisation of Eddie by Berkeley quite brave, suggesting as it does the co-existence of redemption and resignation. As in Bresson's film, Berkeley unmercifully takes us to the depths of a living, feeling soul, to the point where that soul feels itself irreconcilably estranged from the world.

The overall style of the film is problematic because it strangely alternates between, on the one hand, conventionally upfront and music-filled dramatic representation, and on the other hand, Bresson or Rohmer-like "impressionism". The end result is that the film is either too slow or too fast, depending on which of these two modes the viewer is in. This schism is also reflected by the film not quite being a genre piece and not quite a social realist piece. The dose of reality that hits Eddie towards the end is diluted because his initial vision of adventure was not socially driven. Holidays on the River Yarra is certainly a strange mix of a film.

The struggle to marry the elements of style, theme, character and narrative structure has best been won by Brian McKenzie with his new film Stan and George’s New Life. Look at the music: overdone in Dead, streamlined in Proof and Holidays, it is distinctive and expressive in Stan and George. The cinematography and production design work in the same clean and simple way, creating an Akerman-like formal insistence which intensifies the everyday material. It is no coincidence that Dead to the World's stylisation works best when the camera is away from its overdrawn characters and on cars, the moon, a plane. McKenzie is of course noted for his portraits of "ordinary people", but one should not forget his sharply delicate style – the opening sequence in Stan and George is breathtaking.

There are many things to admire in the film: the intelligence and strength of Stan and George; the integration of personal and social themes; the organic plot development and resultant thematic riches. Stan and George's great story - great because it is about battling the forces of despiritualisation - is marred only by a last half hour which is too episodic and an overall tone which tends slightly towards whimsy (inevitably lessening the impact of the film, with comedy cushioning the subversive message, as in Blake Edwards’ Micki and Maude.)

All four of the films examined here are low-budget (each having a budget of $1.2m or less) and three of them are directorial debuts. The government funding bodies responsible should be commended, but not uncritically. For example, in a forum on funding held during the festival, Peter Sainsbury of the Australian Film Commission suggested that the current escalation of film budgets could mean that films budgeted at the AFC ceiling of $1.2m might have to be shot on 16mm. The formal beauty of a film like Stan and George's New Life (or the stylistic bravery of a Dead to the World) would then disappear, of course.

But that is only one small issue in the perpetual overall problem of the commerce and art equation. The main concern currently is that there is a feebleness of attitude apparent. This manifests itself in the prevailing strategy of bringing films to audiences rather than vice versa. And this is all strictly a moral problem: the moral necessity of making good films and getting them shown and analysed.

The struggle continues …

© Bill Mousoulis July 1991
This article was first published in Filmnews, July 1991.