Monday, December 14, 2009

Solrun Hoaas

Our friend the film-maker and, more recently, print maker Solrun Hoaas died last Friday 11 December, aged 66, after what might be described as a short illness. Karen and I have gathered some thoughts together and I have attached some additional thoughts offered by Andrew Pike and Merrilyn Pike. I hope they will remind you of Solrun’s life and her achievements and, if you are hearing of her for the first time then you may be curious enough to check out a couple of websites which have more biographical and filmographical information about her here. and

Solrun was born on 15 August 1943 in Trondheim, Norway to missionary parents who had been in China before the war. She was the only girl and had three brothers. After the war the Hoaas family returned to China, but the revolution in 1949 saw them move to Hong Kong for a year, then to Kobe, Japan, where they lived throughout the ‘50s and part of the ‘60s. The home was a Lutheran church school in the Aotani district of the city. After attending the Norwegian primary school in Shiotaki near Kobe Solrun went to the Canadian Academy, an international school in that city. Upon graduation from its high school she spent a year in the United States, then travelled to Norway where she enrolled at the University of Oslo, majoring in socila anthropolgy. In 1969 she received a Japanese Ministry of Education scholarship to do graduate studies at Kyoto University and that is where she met Roger Pulvers. They were married in February 1970 in Kyoto and divorced in 1982.

Karen and I met Solrun and Roger when they arrived in Canberra in the early 70s. They both threw themselves enthusiastically into the local theatre scene, Roger as a writer and director, Solrun as a designer. We knew that they had met and married in Japan, a country where Solrun had also spent much of her childhood and adolescence as the daughter of Christian missionaries.

As it happened Karen and I came back to Melbourne in 1980, the same year that Roger was appointed to a job with the Playbox Theatre. When Solrun arrived she was admitted to the post-graduate course in film production at Swinburne College. We kept in touch. Solrun was a prolific film-maker and one of her films went on at my 1981 Melbourne Film Festival. It was her graduation film for Swinburne In Search of the Japanese, a satiric study of Australian incomprehension of Japanese/Australian relations.

We came back to Canberra in 1985 but we were close friends by this stage and our years in Melbourne saw us sharing each other’s company frequently, especially at Christmas. In one memorable Christmas a boat load of Solrun’s relatives were visiting. Her niece Guro-Marte was doing a part of her medical degree at an Australian hospital and the family descended to join her. All told another ten people or so from Norway joined us around the Christmas table for an especially festive occasion.

Her films, which she continued to make prolifically, by now were being distributed by Andrew Pike’s Canberra company Ronin Films and she had ambitions to make dramatic features. Before that could happen she with Karen as co-producer and some funds from Andrew Pike had got funding from Film Victoria, for an hour long documentary on Japanese war brides. This was to become Green Tea and Cherry Ripe. It was filmed in Melbourne and post-produced in Canberra. For six months or so Solrun lived in Canberra again, the office next to mine in the deepest reaches of the backstage of the Canberra Theatre became an editing suite, the editor Stewart Young lived in our house in Narrabundah (Heights), and the film took shape. Eventually it went out on national TV and I imagine the odd copy is still purchased from the Ronin Films back catalogue. It’s a touching documentary about a group of women that Solrun located and with whom she maintained friendships thereafter

Solrun then got funding for a script she had written for a dramatic feature about a Japanese War bride living in Australia in the 50s. Part of the funds derived from the direct investment in the project by a major Japanese distributor which Solrun negotiated personally. Karen had to decide whether to join the film production or stay with the Electric Shadows Bookshop she had opened. She stayed with the bookshop and Denise Patience came on board as Producer. Aya starred Nicholas Eadie and the Japanese actress Eri Ishida. Regrettably it didn’t click with the Australian public and Solrun never got another chance to do another feature film.

This wasn’t for lack of trying or lack of enthusiasm. She wrote a large number of scripts, many of them dealing with themes involving Australia and Japan, but they were not received sympathetically. Undeterred she continued to travel to Japan and also accepted invitations to visit South Korea. As was Solrun’s wont, she pushed the authorities until she got a visa to North Korea as well and, seizing the moment and using the new digital technology, put together a remarkable little film about her travels. This was Pyongyang Diary one of the first films to show anything of what life is like in this odd and very secretive society. It earned her more than a little money, some festival screenings and an ASIO interview. She followed this film with another documentary about North and South Korean relations, Rushing to Sunshine which also had some international success.

In recent years Solrun had devoted much of her time to studying and practising print making. She was an inveterate student, constantly enrolling in classes to study new technologies, and latterly getting herself very involved in print-making classes. Much of the visual material she used for her prints derived from stills of her own films which she reworked and recoloured into quite remarkable pieces of art. In the last year or so she had been represented in a number of group shows and had solo exhibitions at Gasworks Arts Precinct, the Joshua McClelland Print Room, the Benalla Gallery and the Albion Street Gallery in Sydney.

It’s only a couple of weeks ago that Solrun rang to say that she had been diagnosed with a cancer. There was some hope that it might be operated upon but further tests would determine that. Last Friday she went to hospital for a scan, suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. Only a matter of hours later it was decided that the life support systems should be turned off. It was shockingly sudden.

We are left with extraordinary memories of a wonderful person. Our walls at home are decorated with a number of her prints and they will serve as a constant reminder of the life and work of a great and loyal friend with whom, for the first time in a couple of decades, we wont be sharing Christmas. We will miss her.

Geoff Gardner & Karen Foley

Andrew Pike writes

Filmmakers often make much of the fact that their second features are harder to “get up” than their first, and that’s certainly true of Solrun. After her first feature, AYA, the components never really came together for a second film, though she kept working away at screenplays. Some of these scripts were superb works and maybe they can now be published, or even better produced posthumously. Two stand out in my memory. THE OKINAWAN DAUGHTER was a large-scale piece about an Australian retiree who travels back to Okinawa to look for the Okinawan woman with whom he’d had an affair during the Allied occupation of Japan. It’s a screenplay rich in romance and drama and action, and it would have been a perfect vehicle for Bill Hunter or Tony Barry, but sadly it never found the right producer. On a more personal level, MISSIONARY KID was a reflective autobiographical “essay” film about Solrun’s experience growing up as the child of Christian missionaries in Japan: it was a very moving and beautifully crafted work that was so unconventional that it never really had a chance of finding production funding. Ronin put some money into another documentary project to be called something like IN SEARCH OF MIYOSHI UMEKI, attempting to trace (or reconstruct) the life story of the Japanese actress and singer, Miyoshi Umeki, after she had won an Oscar for her role in SAYONARA and had done a few other films and a stint on TV before disappearing from public view.
Solrun had some loyal supporters at Film Victoria and the Australian Film Commission although the wider Australian film industry often ignored her work. While this caused her much frustration, she never gave up developing brilliantly original and distinctive treatments and screenplays that were works of art in themselves, and all of which remained determinedly idiosyncratic and pure to her own vision. She never sought to sacrifice her artistic ideals or aspirations for simple financial gain. All of the projects that she developed reflected her superb use of language and her rich cultural background in Australian and Japanese literature and history. The characters and stories and ideas that she created were strong and hauntingly beautiful. Nothing she did was tentative. As a writer she could have easily adapted her screenplays into novels or short stories but she never seemed to want to do that, as though that would mean giving up on them as films.Solrun’s completed works remain a great tribute to her persistence in the face of quite severe odds. Her Hatoma series, which she filmed by herself, with no assistant, and with minimal funding on a remote island in southern Okinawa, were an extraordinary achievement: the films were shot on 16mm without synch sound, over a period of many months, and often under very difficult conditions. They still screen today in Japan.Her film on Judith Wright, AT EDGE, is an experimental work rather than a conventional documentary, with sound that moved deliberately in and out of synch, much to the confusion of librarians who would sometimes ring to say there was a problem with their video or DVD. Regardless, it still circulates quite widely.Her other documentaries have reached wide audiences. GREEN TEA AND CHERRY RIPE on Japanese war brides in Australia, still has enthusiastic viewers and hasn’t dated at all. And the first of her two Korean films, PYONGYANG DIARIES sold well to TV internationally and to the ABC here in Australia.It was fascinating to see her work her way through the production and completion of AYA, another film in which Ronin invested a considerable sum. The final film was very true to the script, and she took confident command of every stage of the process, working closely with producer Denise Patience. I remember especially her enthusiasm for the music (released on a 45rpm disc, still boxed in bulk in the depths of my garage) – both the original compositions by Roger Mason and the 1950s Japanese pop songs which she had found and cleared for the film. The editor of AYA, Stewart Young, remembers Solrun as being well-organised and well-prepared, and that she always knew what she wanted, more so than most first-time directors. That was very much our impression too as her backer and distributor. Her confidence and cultural sophistication made her an excellent teacher and she taught many short courses and gave lectures for AFTRS and other institutions. She often helped filmmakers and artists in other fields find their way in Japan. She certainly helped me a great deal with contacts and to enrich my first deep immersion in Japanese culture. I remember vividly trekking with her into remote mountain villages to Japan to attend traditional festivals which she would film often under very daunting conditions which never seemed to bother her.Personally, she was a loyal and stimulating friend. Many years ago she frequently baby sat my daughters, Harriet and Georgia, and much later took an active interest in what they were doing. We were often given amazing masks to “store” indefinitely because she didn’t have room for them in her little Melbourne flat. As her distributor, she could often be exacting about how she’d like things done, but she was never wrong and never unreasonable. We all admired and respected her work and her professionalism and above all the quality of what she was wanting to do. She was open to all forms of art and always embraced the artistic endeavours of other people and could be very supportive and encouraging to us all as our projects developed. We will miss her keenly.
From Merrilyn Pike: I saw Solrun as the genuine article, in terms of her absolute commitment to following her sense of living for the art, whichever it was she was engaged with, and whatever it cost her. And it cost her a lot, though in the end she has such a fine body of work as a legacy.My feeling of connection with Solrun comes partly from a shared feeling for Japanese culture and aesthetics, with which she was imbued, and I always valued that she could bring such a broad culture, including a deep knowledge of European drama and literature as well as her Japanese background, not only to her art but to her everyday conversation. These conversations were always stimulating, and I am sorry there will not be any more of them.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Delayed Reactions

When I recently left for Vancouver I had a short list of books to buy that haven’t been published or distributed here. (We have much to thank the British publishing cartel that runs things here.) They included four of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels, a highly praised novel based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s love life, “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan and the new George Pelecanos, ‘The Turnaround’. I headed into the excellent Chapters bookshop in downtown Vancouver and gathered them all up, and more, including an unnoticed Elmore Leonard and a wonderful surprise, a book titled “The Easiest Thing in the World’, the unpublished fiction of the late George V Higgins.

Higgins essentially started a new stream of American crime fiction some forty years or so ago with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle’. He wrote books about his local crime milieu, mixing in the elements of local politics, corrupt churches, even more corrupt government officials, and focussing especially on the low life. His narratives moved along via their characters’ speech and his ear for dialogue and criminal argot was marvellous. His criminals were mostly a newly described form of the urban poor, living in cheap housing, making ends meet with cheap jobs, never knowing when the law would catch them. They did things like supplied guns or set buildings on fire or manhandled recalcitrants. None of it was high-paying. Donald Westlake’s urban gang, was a later comic variation on this form of criminal behaviour. (The gang leader Dortmunder’s wife worked a day job in a supermarket and stole stuff so that the couple could eat.) Higgins’s (and Westlake’s) criminals probably would have made more money, and had less aggravation, if they had worked a steady job. Higgins was largely devoid of humour if not of irony but his influence now spreads far and wide, well into mainstream fiction. His successors write gritty fiction set in the regions outside New York and LA, often located in the criminal heartlands where police don’t go and murders, robberies and drug trafficking are the order of the day.

George Pelecanos is one of the most notable of Higgins successors. He writes razor sharp stories of Washington DC low life and the police who battle to keep a modicum of control and laces his narratives with an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music. No scene takes place where you don’t get a sentence telling you what’s playing on the car radio or drifting out from an open window. On the cover of The Turnaround there is a photo of the author with the inscription that he is producer and writer for The Wire. Now I had heard of this US TV series but, like The Sopranos and The West Wing, haven’t seen a single episode. Watching these things on commercial TV is out of my bailiwick. The pain of 17 minutes of ads per episode is beyond torture. But I’ve frequently been urged by Rod Bishop and Bob Gardini and others to give in and buy or rent the DVDs.

But a day after finishing Pelecanos splendid new book, a dark tale of youthful stupidity that crosses the racial divide and twists around to eventual redemption, there at JB Hi-Fi are the first four seasons of The Wire for $19.98 each. “Boy are these selling” says the singleted and ear, nose and lip pierced youth behind the counter and so I start. Needless to say the story is that I am a now an officially registered addict. The first series takes the old Howard Hawks/Rio Bravo trope of gathering together misfits, drunks and social incompetents into a crack team to take on the drug lords of Baltimore. Their individual and eccentric skills complement each other perfectly of course, after the usual comic misunderstandings. But the story, as in the best of American crime fiction, gets down into the back blocks where the police are barely competent, sexist, prejudiced, venal and mostly just potter along. They are trying to maintain order in a city where there is a gun murder most days of the week.

The second series is more ambitious, a look at Baltimore’s ailing port and docks. The longshoremen’s union is down to a hundred or so members because the work has disappeared. The union leader, a good/bad guy has hatched a cunning plan to get more state investment but needs money to grease the palms of politicians who will make the decision. He is pursued relentlessly by a senior police (as they call themselves) because he got in first to donate a window to the local Polish Catholic Church. The union leader funds his campaign by facilitating large scale theft and smuggling on the docks but things go wrong when a container full of Russian whores being smuggled in is opened to reveal 13 dead bodies. The complex interaction of black and white politics, the ever present drug scene, prison and street milieus is, well, even more addictive.

George Pelecanos wrote the scripts of a couple of episodes in the first two series but in the third series he has been promoted to producer and you assume it was he who brought in some additional celebrity talent to write some of the episodes. Richard Price and Dennis Lehane among others get credits for an episode each. So, I’m half way through series three. It’s working its magic all over and the box with series four is awaiting. All this for $19.98 each for 12 hours or so of prime viewing per carton. Heavenly really.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Revolution in the air

Who can tell a moment when the human heart is moved. In Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer young ballet student Li Cunxin, enduring the agonies of classical ballet training during China’s years of Cultural Revolution, watches an ‘illegal’ videotape of Mikhail Baryshnikov, gently soaring the air in a series of solo steps and leaps so simple, graceful and beautiful that he, and we, are in emotionally wrought awe.

The dynamic trajectory of the film changes instantly. Li can no longer be just a dancer seeking his 'freedom'. He has to be a great dancer. He has to produce a similar awe as that produced by Baryshnikov all those years ago in a dorm at ballet school.

To Beresford’s credit, as we start to see more of Li as a mature dancer stunning American audiences in his adopted country, the director does something unusual. At least these days it's unusual. He lets us see it. The camera placement for the dance sequences is absolutely precise, classical one might say. Beresford’s remark that before embarking on filming he went back and watched a host of Fred Astaire pictures is something we ought to take seriously. Maybe he saw Yolanda and the Thief or The Bandwagon or Funny Face or Silk Stockings, all by acknowledged Hollywood masters with the luxury of a big studio support and budgets to match.

Whatever the inspiration, the film, almost suddenly, moves up a few notches. We become more intensely involved with the characters and their dilemmas. But mostly we want to see more of Li Cunxin’s dancing and we are grateful that Beresford decided to show as much as he did. By the end, I was rather hoping that we would see, in the fashion of some of the great Metro masterpieces, the whole of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, rather than just some edited highlights. Like Oliver Twist, we wanted more. Sadly not to be.

For a director who has routinely coarsened his subject matter, and it was quite an achievement to coarsen the already vulgar Barry McKenzie comic strip as well as those two David Williamson adaptations, frequently encouraged over-ripe acting turns and only ever seemed to half edit his films, I have to say I was astonished at how good and emotionally satisfying Mao’s Last Dancer was. The second half in particular is probably as good as anything Beresford has done before. Who would have thunk it.

So, having got this far why not go further and say how much such filming differs from others once on offer or shortly to be on offer. It serves as a sharp reminder of just how easy it is to ignore the classical principles of telling a story with music or dance on film. I fear that the descent has been largely caused by those who make video clips for MTV, a source of reference that needs to be deeply discouraged. Baz Luhrman’s photography and editing on Moulin Rouge was so deeply inefficient in showing the actual dance, as opposed to vague colour and movement scenes was the worst recent example.

The forthcoming Bran Nue Dae, which premiered recently at the Melbourne International Film Festival follows another tack and seems to have decided early on in the film-making process to seek to appropriate the look of happy and enthusiastic amateurism that made the stage original such a heart-warming and unique piece of theatre. The producer of the film was even so bold as to say, and I paraphrase from memory, that nobody involved in the movie knew how to make a musical and they just made it up as they went along. The happy enthusiasm doesn’t stand up to the rigorous scrutiny of the camera and the musical and dance sequences, the raison d’etre of the piece, are simply one mess after another. That’s a pity.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Direct Speech

A long, long time ago, back in the sixties and into the seventies, the British director Peter Watkins established a certain reputation for himself with his first film, made for TV, Culloden (1964). Thereafter he made The War Game for the BBC. The films were made as if they were newsreels of the time. An unseen interviewer observed momentous events and directly questioned participants in the Battle of Culloden and survivors of a nuclear explosion. They became Watkins themes, anti-militarism, anti-state authority and anti-nuclear politics and his technique in telling his stories remained rather uniquely his for some time at least.

Watkins was seeking a new immediacy, a direct confrontation, head to head, face to face, between people on the screen and people in the audience. He wanted the barrier of the theatre's wall to be broken down. It was very effective and shocking to some. The BBC refused to show The War Game on TV but allowed it to be screened in theatres. It was feared that people might confuse it with the real thing if they tuned in without any foreknowledge of what the director was up to. Memories of Orson Welles famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast were invoked.

Watkins went on to apply his technique to other less directly confronting subjects, the mystery of pop idolatry and its use by the authorities to keep the population quiet in Privilege and the life of the Norwegian painter in Edward Munch. The methods in my view wore out their welcome and seemed affected, predictable and precious by the mid seventies, which was about the time that Watkins stopped finding money for his work and went into other fields. Since then I've seen two of his works, a personally presented slideshow about nuclear weapons installations in Europe full of forebodings about nuclear war and a long piece done for TV, recorded digitally in a factory with litle pretence at realistic settings, about the Paris Commune which BIFF showed some years ago. The latter again uses the technique of actors speaking directly to camera as if being interviewed by an unseen reporter.

By now the technique is no longer, may never have been, something unique to Watkins work. It's been deployed by low-budget film-makers everywhere. The employment is not even frequently used for political analysis or highly ambitious subject matter. Australian films as diverse as the pooh joke movie Kenny and the low budget horror story Lake Mungo give it nods. But it seems to be back most notably and for greatest effect in Neill Blonenkamp's District 9, a science- fiction movie filled with spaceships and aliens set in a state battling to contain citizen hysteria at the invasion of the Earth by a bunch of downtrodden and rather bedraggled refugees.

The refugees, a million or so of them cowering in a junked and broken down spacecraft hovering over Johannesburg, are allowed entry under strict conditions and promptly tossed into a Soweto like camp where they are allowed to eke out livings, scavenge for food, become increasingly lawless, accumulate illegal weapons and involve themselves with shady criminals exploiting their status and breed in massive numbers. They are repulsive in every sense to those seeking a quiet well-ordered existence and repulsive as well in their looks. They are dubbed prawns and they move with astonishing speed and strength but show little other signs of wishing to bring down the established order.

But the established order, fearing them, wants them moved to safer conditions where a better eye can be kept on them and thus the entry is paved for Wykus van der Merwe, a venerable South African name, once the surname of the country's cricket captain among other achievements. Wykus being where he is is the result of nepotism but the slow thinking dill throws himself into the task with huge energy and when inevitably betrayed by politicians with surprising resilience. He first knows what he wants to do - read the prawns their rights, confiscate their weapons and move them to a concentration camp. I need say no more, the parallels with South African politics, the plight of refugees everywhere, state indifference, fear and hatred of strangers come bursting out. When he discovers what it feels like to become such a person he rises up in protest.

District 9 is the best commercial entertainment of the year thus far and it was made by a bunch of unknown South Africans and Peter Jackson and his intrepid CGI masters at Wing Nut Productions in New Zealand. Its galling really that Jackson can do this but it proves once again that an ounce of real talent is much better than a ton of government intervention, script conferences, mentoring, fresh drafts, and layers of bureaucracy. The money follows Jackson because he has skills and visions that nobody else has. (I wish he hadn't bothered to apply those skills to Tolkien, but that's another story.)

But I cant help wondering just how much the way of telling the story in District 9 owes just a bit to the techniique and political fervour of the long ago and now sadly overlooked Peter Watkins and the lonely course he pursued around the world seeking to present a new form of political discourse about the threat of the state.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Donald Westlake

Someone emailed about my earlier blog on Westlake that was prompted by a viewing of the Costa-Gavras film The Axe. I mentioned that in one very funny Westlake gave over some time to spoofing and ridiculing Australian tabloid journalists. The book was Trust Me on This (1988)and it spawned a sequel Baby Would I Lie (1994) which had the added joy of spoofing and ridiculing the country and western music scene. The latter had the great joke about Elvis Presley suddenly materialising in a box at a theatre and saying he had to dash because he had just spotted Glenn Miller at a local supermarket!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Tremor of Forgery

Looking back I think I may have first become fascinated with forgery as a pre-teenager reading those novels and memoirs of derring do in World War 2. Books like The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story and so on were filled with information about forged passports and identity papers which stood up to scrutiny and caused the Germans to be outwitted by supersmart Brits, Aussies and Yanks so unfairly incarcerated. Later spy fiction made a contribution and then in 1967 or ‘68 there was the line uttered by Orson Welles in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whats ‘is name when he says of a painting something like: “It’s one of sixteen Vermeers in the world, thirty three of which are in America”. Later on, the most thrilling ongoing character in modern literature, Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, introduced us to his skills at forgery in the first book of the series and went on to have a continuing relationship with the painter Derwatt, whose paintings he sold at high prices on the market, notwithstanding suspicions they were forged. Derwatt was supposed to have died you see, but in fact, in a cunning career move, he had faked his death in order to drive up his prices and was happily alive and out of harm’s way in New York, gleefully painting previously unknown Derwatts which Tom was slipping into the market at premium prices. I hope you got that. Wim Wenders made a movie of the first Ripley/Derwatt story, one of his best, called The American Friend. Nicholas Ray, by then sick, old and crotchety played Derwatt most memorably

I once met Highsmith and she told me how she loved writing about Ripley because she could let him get away with just about anything including murder. Her readers wanted it that way and she was happy to oblige. It satisfied a lot of her own darker impulses to be able to write about a character with so many unredeeming features, make him attractive and allow him to manipulate other people’s propensities towards illegality when tested.

I also once met the film-maker Errol Morris. It was early in his career when he had brought his second film Vernon, Florida to the 1981 London Film Festival. He was a nice guy and he sent his film out to Australia the next year. After that he gradually made for himself a very significant reputation as a documentarist able to extract truth from situations and people where it’s not readily apparent or always on offer. Thus my attention was caught recently noticing on the New York Times website that Errol Morris had posted a series of pieces on the subject of a forger on a blog under the series heading Bamboozling Us. Heading straight for it as fast as the nation’s intolerably slow download speeds will allow, I read a fascintating account of the life and career of one Han van Meegeren and his forging of a Vermeer that he sold to Herman Goring and which for some time was regarded by leading art experts as authentic.

I suspect Errol wanted, or maybe still wants, to turn this into a movie, though I can see how the subject would lack the visual punch that are a feature of the director’s work. None of the active participants are alive and Goring even blew up his mansion where the painting was displayed to stop the Russians getting their hands on his legacy. The big Nazi gave the painting to a servant near the end of the war suggesting she could live comfortably off the proceeds for the rest of her life. She handed it in. It’s a fascinating story with a lot of resonating moments for those who follow a thread that in my case at least runs from Colditz to Welles (himself fascinated by forgery and whose F for Fake studies another high ego practitioner of the art, Elmyr de Hory) to Highsmith, Ripley, Rene Clement, Alain Delon, Wim Wenders, Denis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Nicholas Ray, then much later the book and the film of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and all the way through to Errol Morris (ignoring if possible Liliana Cavani’s godawful remake of the Highsmith novel with John Malkovich, hopelessly miscast once again, as Ripley). Morris indeed takes it full circle as his interest is in a forger from the Nazi era who was called to account for activities at the end of WW2. Van Meegeren faked eleven Vermeers including the one he sold to Goring. Morris’s interest is not just in how the forger and his forgery work but also on whether this forger was a Nazi himself and thus used his skills to ingratiate.himself into the Nazi inner sanctums. These and a whole host of other big and small ideas are explored in the seven part series that Morris posted here at

It has obviously drawn a lot of interest as Errol’s most recent post notes that there have been more than seven hundred responses published since it started to appear. The latest post this week at
contains additional information so the series may not yet be over. For myself, the fascination remains lingering but awful for in this age of Bernie Madoff I still seem to at least half-admire people with skills sufficient to bamboozle the wealthy into believing anything you tell them or sell them.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Simple as that

Recent events have been enlivened by a Popcorn Taxi screening of Bert Deling’s Pure S, an evening organised to coincide with the film’s three disc DVD release. For those who don’t know I’ll be brief. Pure S was made for $28,000 back in 1975. Bert Deling had previously made Dalmas a film which ran off the rails,perhaps intentionally, and which was also a record of that running off. Dalmas had a bit of notoriety, was given a few weeks in a couple of art cinemas and then faded out of sight.

Bert Deling was a legendary cinephile, first surfacing at Melbourne University and later shifting to Sydney. He was imperious and supersmart and as he made his journey he attracted followers, some bemused, some utterly committed. Pure S was to be a film about drug addiction and part of its funding and much of its scripting emanated from contact with the Buoyancy Foundation, a drug rehabilitation charity with some unorthodox, out of mainstream, views about treatment. This was a time when heroin usage was small, unstructured and not in the hands of the mafia and the police forces.

The film was intended as an antidote to the standard views about junkie life and focused on a day or so as four addicts in search of hits went about acquiring their fixes by any means that occurred to them – buying, stealing, begging all featured. Deling used some actors who were involved in Melbourne’s alternative theatre scene at La Mama and the Pram Factory. Those living on the theatre’s premises in the Tower were both models and participants. The lead was played by the hyper-energetic Gary Waddell as a foul-mouthed stop at nothing junky. Waddell was an actor then and still is. He was also then an addict.

The producers and director wanted to call the film Pure Shit but the exigencies of censorship, newspaper advertising and popular taste caused it to be shortened to Pure S. Everyone knew what it meant anyway. The film then had the good fortune to be described as “The most evil film that I’ve ever seen” by the Melbourne Herald’s then film critic Andrew McKay. Watching the package of extras I wondered what happened to him. Bert Deling, not gracious towards more than a few people on the extras, says at one point, with glee, “we track(ed) this guy down. His story was that he was an alcoholic whose partner had said to him you either give up me or you give up the alcohol. He chose to give away the alcohol but he had not reached the organic point where you do give it up. So he was at that point a kind of frozen addict to his own addiction and he got hot hot and he thought everyone else would get hot (seeing Pure S). Andrew McKay is not one of the many interviewed on Disc 2 of the DVD pack but it would have been fun to track him down.

With this view swirling around the Commonwealth Film Censor banned the film for public screening. Due to some determined efforts and some legal smarts eventually the film was unbanned, and producer Bob Weis hired the tiny Melbourne cinema, the Playbox and put it on himself. There had been since rough cut stage when more money was sought from the Government to complete it, a total lack of enthusiasm for the project even from those in the bureaucracy who had provided some funding for production. Oz films were then already tending towards good taste, historical subjects and literary adaptations.

A film which wanted to sound like His Girl Friday in the speed of dialogue delivery and look like a slice of American maverick indy in your face realism wasn’t what the authorities thought the government should be hurling money at. Slowly it faded from view. It wasn’t rescued by overseas festival or critical appreciation either. There’s some suggestion it wasn’t even screened publicly outside the country but this, like a lot of the stories that surround the film’s pre-production, production, post-production and public reception is now so bound up into myth and legend, some of it quite possibly the result of drug-addled memory, may never be really settled. Deling for instance impugns Peter Weir on the DVD by referring to a Government funded anti-drug movie. In fact the film, No Roses for Michael was directed by Chris McGill. Weir made another, somewhat autobiographical film called Michael, some years earlier.

But…cut to the present. The Popcorn Taxi and other screenings around the capital cities of the new print have been cause for much rejoicing, nostalgia, score settling, and reminiscence. The key figures involved in the film – Deling, Waddell, photographer Tom Cowan, editor John Scott and composer Martin Armiger all seemed happy, healthy blokes when they sat around and answered questions, got a few things off their chest, made people laugh and generally enjoyed the limelight. Deling did resort, as he looked at the packed theatre, to the old one of “Where were you when I needed you” attributing its first utterance to Josef von Sternberg, though von Sternberg’s autobiography attributes it to D W Griffith.

The new 16mm print itself was to be projected but the projector broke down and a switch was made to DVD. The NFSA restoration probably had very little to work with. The low budget and all the haste always contributed to something that had lots of flaws. Subtle lighting, particularly in the dark interiors of rooms and cars at night was not one of its hallmarks. Still its all back there on screen as best they could do in the circumstances. Neil Foley at Beyond Home Entertainment has put in a prodigious amount of work to get it done.

The extras on disc 2, consist of much reminiscing are interesting without being revelatory in any way. There are some very pleasurable moments however. John Flaus compares Pure S to Ozu in its compassion. Bob Ellis, ever the curmudgeon seems to spout a view that comprises a mixture of hatred, envy and wonder and cant resist the grandiloquent demand: “I do want to see the roll call of the dead who star in this film, who have died of drugs since being rather excited by the experience of their publicity in this film. And I want Bert to perhaps stand on a lawn in Canberra and offer an apology like the PM for those he has damaged. In brief “Fuck him”.

Yet the boys seemed to have survived the events intact and questions at the Popcorn Taxi screening seemed to indicate that everyone was alive and well. It’s hard to say. No women are interviewed on the DVD and it would have been nice to here something from Helen Garner or Carol Porter, whose performances are frequently given high praise throughout. Instead there are more acolytes and followers on show, including Richard Lowenstein who happily admits now about his own later contribution to what he calls “the micro-genre of the good time junky film”. I knew all about that one at the time, being a member of the Films Board of Review who resolutely refused to alter the R Certificate awarded to it for just that reason.

Another great pleasure is to have an audio CD of the fabulous songs composed by Armiger and others from some of the legendary Melbourne bands and musicians of the day – The Toads, Spodeeodee, Armiger, Red Symons, Jane Clifton, Paul Dixon especially. There is a note by Armiger in the accompanying booklet giving some additional detail and, for the first time, all the music credits are included on the film along with all the production credits. At the time it went out without any credits and was preceded by seven minutes or so of music played while black leader unspooled before the title card. Those seven minutes have been cut.

So it’s back and its on the shelves and I’m standing in Readings Bookshop last Friday, no more than a hundred metres from the old Pram Factory site and a man with long curly hair walks in and says “Pure Shit…Pure Shit.” “Yes” says the salesperson, “over here”. “Jesus, 34.95!” exclaims the curly haired one. “Yes it has lots of extra”. He takes a copy and walks to cash desk and I’m standing behind him with a copy of Wajda’s Maids of Wilko (having bought a copy of Pure S at the screening). The man’s phone rings. “Yes….yes…this is the Snowman….how do you know….you’ll just have to take my word that I’m the Snowman.” And he exits onto Lygon Street.

This is the Oz DVD of the year – a paean to enthusiasm, a tribute to an amazing one off, a revival of a time when there was more than a bit of subversion in the air and adventure in our cinema.

Friends have already started emailing me and no doubt others will after having sat through the mammoth amount of material assembled. Rod Bishop, a leading figure in the fight to get the film shown at the Perth Film Festival, writes after going through the whole box “Fiona and I can’t get enough of it. We’ve almost finished the Extras. It’s brought back a whole time and place – you can almost smell the Back Theatre and The Tower at the Pram. The memories and recollections of those interviewed are by and large priceless. Sooner or later, we’ll get around to watching the re-master, but at the moment it’s the least interesting bit. Neil’s done a fantastic job – a real labour of love.. Brilliant stuff. DVD Box Set of the Year."

Bruce Hodsdon also writes: “The attention Samson and Delilah has been getting aided by the Australian's headlining of it as our finest film (and DJS's 5 star rating which I cant remember when it was last bestowed) is not to be begrudged. My first reaction to what appeared to be a piece of over hype nevertheless led naturally to "well, what is our "finest film?" In that context it doesn't seem so much of an overstatement. A recent reviewing of the pristine new print of Pure Shit just about convinces me that, taking everything into account, it deserves that accolade. It was screened in Brisbane last Friday night with Bert and Gary Waddell in attendance as part of a tour around the country to promote the dvd release of PS - a truly excellent package of three disks worth the price alone for a disc of the complete rock numbers composed for the film (but necessarily used only in part). There are a range of interviews and reunions with cast and crew and endorsements and appraisals of others including Flaus. The standout is Bert himself speaking of PS, Dalmas, the drug scene then and now, the oz industry as he sees and has experienced it and a lot more. Bert's older and wiser but still charismatic.

That’s a view shared by more than a few and it may spread as this extraordinary DVD, a mixture of loving archaeology, disjuncted memory and complete affection starts to circulate.

On that suggestive note, let me urge you to rush out and buy. It’s $29.95 at JB Hi Fi and $34.95 everywhere else.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dubya done and dusted

I assumed that Oliver Stone would engage in much speculation about George W. Bush in W. his portrait of the President. I was indeed looking forward to them as no one else really goes where Stone goes when he decides to chance his arm with a portrait of the well-known. Since the middle of 1999 when it became clear that Bush would be the Republican candidate, throughout the rest of that year as Al Gore crashed and burned, then as Republican judicial appointees contrived to award him the verdict notwithstanding the popular vote nor the obvious intent of the citizens of Florida, I’ve cordially despised the 43rd President of the United States and nothing he did in his Presidency eviced an iota of sympathy for him. This even manifested itself in my participating in marches for the first time in decades when he took the US and its acolyte John Howard’s Australia off to a foolhardy and vainglorious war. I settled in to Stone’s speculations and representations very comfortably.

Do we otherwise know that Colin Powell snaped back at Dick Cheney along the lines “Don’t talk to me like that Mr Five Deferments”. If it never happened then we have to be grateful to Stone for creating the legend. There are similarly brilliant moments scattered throughout. When Richard Dreyfuss’s marvellously reedy rendition of Dick Cheney launches into a tirade of choked up vengeance, a presentation that reeks of homage to Dr Strangelove, in which he proposes how America will use the Iraq war to solve its long term energy supply problems, you get a mesmerising glimpse of pure evil. It may be satirical but you believe every second of it, especially the contempt and the malice that lurk therein. When George W. goes to bed and dreams of his father provoking him into an Oval Office fist fight you get an an Oliver Stone piledriver image of the weak bastard who spent his life pissed off that his father doesn’t like or admire him.

(It’s mildly amusing that Stone adopts an almost hagiographical stance about Bush Sr, a nondescript President that no one recalls with any warmth and one who was belted by Bill Clinton in the only real contest he ever fought. )

There are other incidental pleasures as well and no doubt more than a few conform with other long held prejudices. Thandie Newton plays Condoleeza Rice as the befuddled intellectually inadequate loyalist she undoubtedly is. Toby Jones, last seen playing the odious Swifty Lazar in Frost/Nixon plays Karl Rove as the smartest kid on the block, the only one of the male entourage to actually like Bush the man and the one who can see the political potential for someone with an extraordinary y and probably unique mix of laziness, street smarts, smooth talk, ambition, hatred, envy, fear of failure and a knowledge that any inadequacy can be overcome by hard work when it matters. Stone evinces sympathy when he focuses on Bush’s legendary fitness campaign, his three miles a day, probably the only thing that stood between him and complete disintegration in the face of disaster all round. Without it he may well have lapsed back to drinking or worse just as Nixon did in his dark days.

Josh Brolin’s performance seems note perfect. If you want to see Bush portrayed as the man out of his depth, here’s the opportunity. Maybe the Academy was too frightened to even contemplate nominating Brolin for his work. When you consider that the contest for best actor came down to a couple of actors working on our nostalgia quotient in different ways you can see why. Maybe, in the way of these things he’ll get something for something less worthy at some other, safer time.

So, what’s the best film of the moment with all these Oscar nominees and Berlin launches floating round the multiplexes. I surprise even myself by saying that its Oliver Stone’s W.