Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia Fair

First I have some questions about well, an amazing movie. Clunky start, finish like some old time John Ford picture. Only Baz does close-ups as big as those or does someone else? Did Mandy Walker also photograph Tracey Moffat's Bedevil? Some of the shots look the same, particularly the studio interiors. David Wenham doing his whining act would be good if he hadn't done it before most notably in that movie where he appears as a witness at a Royal Commission. No chemistry between Hugh and Nick. Nick starting to look old but trying to hide it. Was all the stuff about Aborigines being warned that the film refers to dead people and the roller title at beginning and end about the stolen generations in the version the Oz critics saw? Are Aborigines now requiring that a fictional film referring to dead non-existent Aborigines requires a warning? Must ask Bordwell what his shot clock comes up with for average length of shot. 2.7 million feet of film and according to an ad in Inside film never less than six cameras running. Really?

"That was good" said an old lady nearby. "Not them again" said another old dear when we held the script about the The Stolen Generations for a moment. Interesting demographic emerging. Is it people closer to forty than twenty who will go to it. If so it defies all box office activity these days. Was there a scene with a pedophile priest shot or contemplated.

He's never dull but Snowy River made me more tearful, and was probably about as manipulative.


Tucked away at the Chauvel is Youth Without Youth, the first film by Frances Ford Coppola for over a decade. It brings him full circle. His first official film the no-budget horror flick Dementia 13 was also barely in the public gaze, or at least the critical gaze. Yet I found it quite remarkable, the only film all year with enough plot and mystery and intrigue and ideas to make me want to see it again as soon as possible. The great man is so far out of the loop these days that he’s getting his money from smallish French and Italian producers and distributors, shooting in cheap foreign locations and minimising costs by film on HD. It might have been sad indeed, as such circumstances have been for many as they attempted to keep going in the face of general indifference. But Coppola’s rigorous methods and intelligence are on full show. Coppola has adapted a story, or is it a novel, by a Rumanian writer Mircea Eliade. The book was given to him by an old friend, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago. I think the story posits the idea of a man who at the moment of his death is hurled back in time to relive the events of his life. This gives him an opportunity to be somewhat reflexive, and reflective, about things and he conducts his life again through a conversation with an all-knowing double. Coppola films it with a classical camera style. There are according to the director, only two occasions when the camera moves. The energy is generated in the editing and staging and not by an application of the current fad for unruly hand-held camerawork. Youth Without Youth wasn’t something I expected and it turned out to be the most involving experience I’ve sat through in a long time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Not having seen Australia I am at a disadvantage to thousands of others who have been herded into previews and advance screenings. I am aware however of two interesting emerging phenomena. The film seems to have been summed up in five critical words; “good but not great” and “long”. The most interesting response was in, of all places, R. Murdoch’s very own Sunday Telegraph. I read the piece by a young woman columnist sitting in a cafĂ© at Berry. I expected to find it online but its not there so I cant tell you her name and my recall wont necessarily be perfect. This is what I took to be the gravamen of the piece from less than perfect memory. 1. Baz wanted to make a film about aboriginal dispossession. 2. This is a no-no. It would be regarded as dark and depressing (note those words) so to do. 3. That story has already been told anyway and no one went to see it. It was called Rabbit Proof Fence. 4. Baz thus made a love story involving whitefellas from different classes and embedded within his story set in the outback the 'real' story. 5. The ‘real’ central character is the young Aboriginal who goes through all the horrors that whitefellas have inflicted on blackfellas over a couple of hundred years. 6. Baz’s minders did not want journalists to ask Baz questions about this element of the subject for fear it might turn the punters off. There was a lot more including digs at the campus post-modernists and how they say you can tell stories. That I thought was interesting and I’ll take it with me into the movie.

The second interesting phenomenon is more to be expected. The opportunity has been taken to hop into the rest of the recent, i.e, the last decade or so, Australian film production and, in passing, attack David Stratton for being too generous towards Oyster Farmer in particular and other unspecified films in general. That Oyster Famer review seems to have assumed the status of the single defining event that caused Australian audiences to turn off going to Australian films. The latest right wing mavens to take up this challenge, after Michael Duffy and that ratbag Andrew Bolt (as my late dad always referred to him), were Greg Sheridan in his secondary guise as editorialist on The Australian and the ludicrous Miranda Devine. I say only one thing. The fact that they all obsessively return to this minor matter, scatering their vitriol and insults along the way is amazing to behold. Sheridan insults the intelligence further by gratuitously slagging off Ivan Sen’s wonderful and prize-winning Beneath Clouds as well. I was always convinced that John Howard's press office ke[t an eye on Stratton's opinions. A ;little too pinko for their taste and when the opportunity presented itself Sheridan stuck the boot in. It seems that the demise of the Howard office with its endlessly updated clipping service for selected warriors is sorely missed.

The warriors seem to have collectively decided that apart from Australia (with its themes of aboriginal dispossession, the nation’s unpreparedness for military attack and its setting in a harsh, uncompromising landscape notwithstanding), the rest of our recent cinema is ‘dark and depressing’ as noted above. Occasionally someone remembers Happy Feet and Kenny in this context even though the latter got depressingly dull towards its end. Maybe this isn't the same as depressing. Nobody, except maybe Philip Adams, apparently thinks Mad Max is either dark or depressing. Maybe it’s when the film has both characteristics that it causes a problem.

Someone who continues to feed this into the debate is Brian Rosen, the now film industry feather duster, who continues to find a sympathetic ear with a couple of journalists, most notably Michael Bodey and Gary Maddox. Rosen apparently absolves himself from any responsibility for this state of affairs notwithstanding that he was the head of the Film Finance Corporation for half of the Howard years and decided where the money would be spent. That has given offence to some and you can read one response to it, and to The Australian’s editorial, by Rod Bishop, former and much admired head of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School here at Urban Cinefile.

Monday, November 10, 2008

National Pride

We all have our prejudices. Some say that the reason that the Coen Bros Burn After Reading was a dud at the domestic box-office, after a strong opening week, is that it is viciously anti-American. It proposes a US intelligence establishment full of vain, selfish, pompous dunderheads, chronically incapable of understanding even the simplest fact or comprehending the most obvious event. They are contemptuous of husbands, wives, colleagues and rivals. (“Shall I inform the FBI?” “Oh God no. Don’t bring those idiots in on this!” …or something like that, says one.)* The working class stiffs, toiling away for a low hourly rate at a gym, who move the plot along when they stumble on what they think are state secrets, are also vain, stupid egocentric and selfish.

The actors called upon to deliver this raucousness are brilliant at portraying such vanity. In fact, making the movie must have been a hoot for all those Hollywood liberals involved. Even the usually abysmal John Malkovich is perfectly cast as an alcoholic analyst shafted in a bit of bureaucratic byplay. Never in fact has such fun been had from a Coen Bros movie, despite a lot of attempts. Even the editor of Sight & Sound, not renowned for a sense of humour, found the movie affecting enough to describe it as “a minor Coens comedy with major stars goofing off”. Very kind.

Notwithstanding, Americans apparently, and American critics especially, though they get the joke, don’t like it. Australians on the other hand are going to it in such numbers that it is defying all attempts to knock it off the box office leadership charts.

But Australians are not immune to this syndrome. The only time I went to Cannes, along with the world’s film critics, I had the misfortune to suffer through Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream, a film which played fast, loose and inventively with Aboriginal mythology. Needless to say the white guys were the bad guys. The rest of the world judged it largely as another of Herzog’s badly directed japes at civilisation but the Australians went apoplectic at the thought that the world might believe Herzog’s inventions were, rather like Bruce Chatwin’s in his novel “The Songlines”, the product of documentary reportage.

Philip Adams, then Chair of the AFC, was so enraged as to write a “Dear Werner you are a complete idiot” open letter published gleefully in the Cannes daily press. If there had been an organisation called Handwringers Anonymous we would all have been forced to join, such was the collective dismay.

The poor sods who try and control the cinema in China also have to suffer such indignity frequently as well. Each year a bunch of tyros with digital cameras go into the streets, back alleys and byways of far flung outposts of the celestial empire, usually without troubling even the local authorities for permission, and make movies like Xiao Wu, Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain and Little Moth to name just some. At Vancouver this year there was Sweet Food City among others. All of them are portraits of how the underclasses, the left behinds, the forgotten and the misbegotten go about their daily lives in tough times. Blatant misrepresentations no doubt abound, but as the Coens and Herzog know, these only serve to make the movies smarter, more pointed, more accessible and, frankly, more interesting to the wider world. Those whose sensitivities are affected, like genteel critics, po-faced officials, censors and rabid nationalists wont be given more than scant regard. So be it always.

*That may be why a film like Traitor, is so boring and, after its main twist is revealed, predictable, in its attempts to be fair to all sides. In so doing it employs a principled and highly ‘moral’ FBI agent as a key protagonist. Who can believe that? Americans I guess.