Monday, February 19, 2007

Hey, we could hire a barn and my uncle could lend us a piano

Urban Cinefile( is a web film site that reports on the Australian film scene at great length and in a constantly lively way. It gives you reviews, interviews, box office stats and much more. It’s produced by Andrew Urban and Louise Keller with a little help from others and you have to buy a subscription to get its full service. It’s now been going ten years and Andrew and Louise had a party to celebrate at the Chauvel Cinema on 19 February. They invited lots of industry heavyweights and made some sing for their supper by participating in a forum to discuss ‘The Future of Movies’. Lined up across the top table were George Miller, Zareh Nalbandian, Kim Williams, Simon Van Wyk, Chris Fitchett, and Peter Giles. I could give the designations of those attending so you’d know who was there on behalf of whom but it doesn’t matter because I only want to ponder on what George Miller and Kim Williams, the CEO of the only national cable/subscription TV service, said.

The evening was heavy with talk about the possibilities of new technology. There seemed to be some consensus that it was here to stay but there was also a consensus that no matter what technology was available nothing was going to replace what Kim Williams frequently referred to as the compelling story. It was a little surprising that the Hollywood model was front and centre though moderator Urban repeatedly mentioned the place for everyone, down to the mobile phone film makers, that the internet represented.

Australian films and film-making didn’t get much of a mention for quite a while. Even Peter Giles, described as the Film and Television School’s ‘new media guru’ seemed to want to concentrate on the possibilities of spin offs and other synergies associated with movies and computer games, blockbuster territory. Not something that a quality Australian film-maker seeking an entrĂ©e into the world’s great film competitions and arenas ought to give a bugger about. Which is where I keep coming back to but... Sorry I digress…..

Towards the end Andrew did focus on where this left the Australian film-maker. For George Miller the answer was rather breathtaking. Australia, he said, is a young country and doesn’t have much narrative to tell. In fact we have already used up our cultural heritage and regurgitated it through our cinema. George says a country with only 200 years of history, though he nodded towards the excellence of Ten Canoes, noting how it goes beyond that 200 years, makes life difficult for a film-maker because you ‘cant get any more juice out of it’. According to George, in the 70s, when the film-making revival got going, we quickly caught up with our history, George did a lot of that catching up personally, especially when Kennedy Miller got the franchise to produce all of Channel Ten’s drama and knocked out The Dismissal, Body Line, Cowra Breakout, The Bangkok Hilton and so on. “Our whole history was covered.” Interesting, and I suspect at least partly a heartfelt response/routine George has slowly perfected as more and more people ask him why he doesn’t make ‘Australian’ movies.

There was a little discussion about distribution and delivery of Australian films Andrew Urban's dichotomy of the blockbuster going into hundreds of multiplexes or even stadiums and the little films you might see on the internet didn’t really come to grips at all with the fates of the several dozen feature films, minimum, likely to be made each year as the new cheap ways of getting a movie produced kick in.

In this little debate, Kim Williams was rather let off the hook for he runs a company which could, on its own, or even supported by those mostly uselessly expended AFC marketing funds, provide a platform for the hundreds (not tens) of Australian films made each year that otherwise limp through a few festival screenings and then disappear. These are the films that get submitted to the short film festivals, the docos that screen only at the capital city film festivals, the low budget digital features the festivals might or might not show or the movies that might have a night in the glare at venues like ACMI.

A Foxtel digital channel devoted exclusively to such Australian films could run like the AFL Footy Channel, every film gets to be replayed just like every match goes on. There could even be panel discussions, (a TV camera stuck in front of Paul Harris and the Film Buffs Forecast crew would be a good start), interviews, introductions, seasons and classic revivals. The equivalent of the 1977 AFL Grand Final could be endlessly replayed at key ratings moments and you wouldn’t need to pay Wayne Carey salary levels. Film-makers would probablybe pathetically grateful for the attention.

It wont happen of course. It’s too simple. For a couple of million bucks the whole circulation of Australia’s film heritage would be taken care of and it would be another reason for the nation to leap aboard subscription TV. But, it wont happen for it would involve taking pork barrel funds out of the hands of bureaucrats that they are handing out as largesse to country electorates by paying to fit out country cinemas for digital screenings. That is the apparent alternative and Kim Williams and John Porter must shake their heads at its inefficacy when they see the AFC spending ludicrous amounts of money fitting out country cinemas to take digital screenings of Australian films that will offer some hours a week or a month. Who knows how many but it wont be much. In the meantime, as the future looms the recipients will have the facility available to go looking for digital versions of the latest American blockbusters. National Party electorates will be grateful, even pathetically grateful, but I doubt it will add much to the sum of Australian film awareness.

(According to Chris Fitchett 700 people came out in Singleton to see the Tropfest hoopla. Wait till they offer The Ister or a Tom Zubrycki doco or the like and see how much enthusiasm is manifest.)

I suspect that Kim Williams despairs of how pea-brained and regulatory the Australian film industry is and always has been. In fact he said as much in his quiet way. Bureaucrats focus interminably on things they can control. (Like scripts. To segue back to another oft-repeated point, our writers come first in any discussion. At the forum Stephan Elliott announced he’s given up being a ‘film-maker’ and now describes himself as a writer. That’s smart. He continues to eat that way. )

But Stephan’s gripes at selling projects didn’t get to the nub of what’s happening. Notwithstanding where the AFC might be trying to lead us, the next emerging problem will be to get all the movies we make into the public arena. That is going to be the key problem to be addressed and it's hard to see digitally equipped cinemas in Yarram or Devonport rushing into screen Call Me Mum. A smaller and smaller percentage of feature length films will get into theatres for starters. If we make forty five or so films a year, as Chris Fitchett hopes, it will mean that ever more films are condemned to maybe three or four public screenings at some festival or event somewhere before they disappear forever. If you manage to make a movie you deserve better and so do the poor sods who put their time effort and money into it. The answer lies in a digital satation all of their own. Who knows, people may even statrt to watch it.

As I said... I digress ....and I rant. Thanks Andrew and Louise. That was a stimulating evening and please stick around for at least another decade.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Fascination of Tyrants

The Last King of Scotland reveals yet again the fascination we have for tyrants and the way their brains work. Let me quickly pass by Forest Whitaker’s fine performance, apparently already a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar, which I assume has a lot of note perfect imitation of the dictator’s public face. The jokey press conference towards the end is probably readily available as a research material and would allow a skilled actor with some technique to replicate it exactly. The private Amin remained an enigma until now when we have Whitaker’s impersonation of him to fill in the gap. It’s the same trick that Bruno Ganz was called upon to do in Downfall and Issey Ogata did in The Sun. The telemovie Archangel, based on Robert Harris’s novel about a revival of Stalinism that might arise if some hidden progeny were unearthed, takes this a step further. Its trick is to invent a plot to reinstate Stalin’s son and heir and hence his methods of managing the Russian state. The suspense is in how, not if, it will be foiled. This is all endlessly fascinating and, as Harris’s novel shows, isn’t confined to the movies.

More generally, the representation of the modern tyrant will show his love for children, at least his own or those close to him, his superstitions, any odd eating habits and his weaknesses. Amin’s shame as his flatulence is cured is the perfect embodiment of the necessary moment of personal weakness. The film uses the Scottish doctor Nicholas Carrigan and his impetuous and often weak decisions as a surrogate for us all. We are easily seduced by forceful charm. We are easily frightened by the mildest threat. It takes a lot of violence before the citizen stands up.

In the meantime, the story always has this horrible fascination because the dictator himself must be made an attractive figure, full of personal charm, endlessly caring for his immediate loved ones, always ready with a little speech or homily about doing good for the country and its people. Kevin McDonald’s movie gets all this right. The young Dr Carrigan is easily seduced into a life of luxury and lust. The latter particularly which almost leads to his end when he seduces an out-of-favour Amin wife. The portrait of a Uganda sinking into an ever deeper economic and social mess is far less clearly done. The sense of documentary which is conveyed by the photography stops well short of that though the moment when we discover that Amin has resorted to the use of a double no doubt intends to reminds us of the evils of Saddam Hussein as well as that of the Ugandan himself.

The film ends rather abruptly. Carrigan tries to escape, is caught and then we experience the gruesome method by which it is proposed to kill the doctor, and which commences before our very eyes. It bears comparison only with a similar moment in Miike’s Ichi the Killer. Before that rush to the end Carrigan’s inevitable speech about Africa being different and needing a strong hand is a gentle reminder of how easy it is to tolerate the intolerable. All told, a fascinating film.