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.