Friday, May 28, 2010

Walsh St Wager

The bet that Animal Kingdom makes is that audiences wont be sated by the extravagant vulgarity of Underbelly and will be prepared to come out to the movies to see something resembling a film a clef about another notorious piece of Melbourne’s criminal past. It shares one interesting element with The Wire. The most odious characters are neither the criminals nor the police but the lawyers. In The Wire the character who most makes your blood boil as he efficiently, and for high fees, frees his criminal clients from jail, turns a blind eye to gangland executions and exploits every loophole is the egregious lawyer who cheerfully gets his clients off a host of major violent crimes. In Animal Kingdom we accept gangland executions, revenge killings of and by police, the murder of a child, but we find really disgusting the amoral behaviour of the solicitor Ezra White, portrayed as a man of straightforward, nothing surprises me, efficiency by Dan Wyllie and, even worse, the smiling female criminal barrister who get their clients off. It’s an interesting turn of events. Somehow the notion of watching criminals do what they do has always been fascinating and touches something in us that admires slippery behaviour even when it’s violent. Watching lawyers go about their legitimate business of defending the interests of their crooked and violent clients is stomach turning.

The character of Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) also has some elements of interest. In a couple of scenes his psychopathic side gets a run through. The murder of the girl/child of course is one but at other times such as the scene where he meets his brother in the supermarket or harasses his brother Darren with questions as to whether he’s gay you get just a touch of a sense of the obsessive. The questions to the ‘gay’ brother are done in an outwardly friendly way along the lines of I don’t mind one way or the other but I just want to know but, like all psychopathic behaviour, Pope doesn’t know when to stop. But the scene ends with a whimper. It’s hard to know just how much Ben Mendelsohn’s performance throttles this aspect of Pope’s behaviour. Mendelsohn is not the sort of actor you cast when you are looking for someone whose mere demeanour can convey threat or menace. David Wenham has dibs on that trope but he’s already been there and much more effectively.

The best Oz feature film to delve into the domestic lives of the criminal underclass remains Rowan Wood’s The Boys. That was a film where the sons, at least all bar John Polson’s wimp, could turn violent at a moment’s notice and you believed it. Fuelled by drugs and life choices, they were far more animalistic than the relatively ‘sane’ family here where only one mad dog, Craig, stands in for the uncontrolled and impulsive. Michod actually seems to want to emphasise the ‘nice’ suburban nature of the family, carefully setting his action in houses set among quiet tree lined streets.

The image we have of the criminal and police classes in the noughts is physical similarity. The crims, at least the Williams and Morans who appear in the paper are all overweight as if they have too much time to sit around at home eating or in cafes drinking cappuccinos. Policemen today, especially detectives in suits, are rotund and have round bald heads as if they have been over fed on too many late night Chinese noshups. (Even Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness has a paunch.) Or maybe with the cops at least somewhere there’s my memory trace of watching sixty hours of The Wire and seeing the police team dominated by guys like Bunk or the Sergeant or even McNulty who just eat and drink too much. (Except of course for the magnificent musculature of Lance Reddick as Daniels who gets to show off his pecs and abs at regular intervals, especially after he leaves his ambitious wife and takes up with the ambitious prosecutor.) In Animal Kingdom the ultra wiry Guy Pearce’s only nod to cop normality is a poorly cultivated moustache.

The one character/performance that is note perfect is that of James Frecheville as Josh. He captures perfectly male teenage hesitancy, insecurity, inarticulacy, diffidence and an ability to bottle up all the emotion. His hunching of his shoulders and downcast look has an exactitude about it that one hopes springs from great acting. In one so young it is remarkable to see.

Otherwise David Michod’s mise-en-scene is fairly lacklustre in giving his quite engrossing script any extra oomph. The scene where Josh runs away from Pope, begs a lift and, just as we think he might be getting away, has the car slammed, is done as near to blandly as you’ll ever see from a director who presumably has misspent his youth, like all others of his generation, watching Scorsese and David Lynch pictures. You have to wonder whether TV shooting styles, fear, good taste or simple reticence produced such a damp squib moment. It just moves the story along rather than giving some rawness and visceral excitement of the kind you find in the French Mesrine diptych for instance. Which I guess is about where the film mostly lands.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rescued from the Waters - Fritz Lang's House by the River

Fritz Lang may be among the best-served directors for DVD extras which open up his films and enlighten audiences in ways that criticism on the written page rarely contemplates. Almost everything he ever made seems to have been released, including his silent films, and the range of extras, commentaries, special essays and so on seems to be bigger than for anyone else. The DVD of his 1950 film House by the River provides one such most enlightening extra – a forty minute plus recitation by Pierre Rissient as to the how the film was lost and then found.

When Pierre first came to Australia back in the 1970s he enquired then as to any likely interest in obtaining the Australian rights to the film. When I asked him how it was that he was able to offer them he went into one of his man of mystery modes and would only say not to worry they were legitimately in his keeping. Eventually I think he sold a print of the film to the National Library’s Film Lending Collection. The copy should now be held in the National Film and Sound Archive.

The film was made by Lang at Republic Studios. It was the only time that Lang made an American film that was not distributed by one of the majors of the day. Lang claims it was “offered to him” though it is easy to see why he would be attracted to the story of murder and the astonishing effect it has on those involved. The killer is liberated and believes himself to be a superman above the law. His brother is inadvisedly implicated and assumes all the guilt. But it had no stars who might sell a ticket.

Pierre Rissient recounts the tale of how the film fell through the distribution cracks in post-war France, notwithstanding that a legion of cinephiles, including all the famous later film directors, were keen to see it. He took it upon himself to track down the film and investigate the situation regarding the rights. The story of this effort, of many years, is recounted in the recitation that is an added extra for the DVD which is released in the US on the estimable Kino label. I recently bought a copy in Spain released under the exclusive label issued by the FNAC chain. The only drawback to the Spanish release is that the Spanish subtitles, while inserted electronically, are not removable so they have to be viewed as well.

The film was made for a studio that would normally fall into the poverty row classification. But, as Louis Hayward says when confronted by the facts of his disreputable life, “sometimes cheap perfume can be very exciting.” The script, the staging, the photography and the music score by the highly regarded George Antheil bespeak of a determined effort by Republic to do something of value. Antheil started as an experimentalist writing music to accompany Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mecanique (1924) and had a separate concert hall career all the while. He composed music for De Mille, Ben Hecht and Nicholas Ray among others but his film credits are small by comparison with many others who worked for over thirty years in movies. The photography by Edward Cronjager is similarly superior and its use of shadows and darkness deserves comparison, as Pierre mentions, with the work of John Alton. The photography stands up very well especially when compared with the work that was done for Lang on other later films. A number of those films, but especially, Human Desire (1954), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1961) all have a cheap look about them as if their budgets prevented them being made with anything other than the flattest glare. House by the River stands this test of comparison very well.

For anyone interested in Lang’s work House by the River is essential viewing, not perhaps among his handful of very greatest films but surely one which explores the director’s themes with some subtlety. The DVD is even more essential because it sets down the effort that was made by Pierre Rissient, acting alone, to save the film from oblivion. The recounting of the story is fascinating in itself. We have a lot of reasons to be grateful that it’s now all there for us, a couple of mouse clicks and a credit card away.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Who's to Bless and who's to Blame

And so the the Salo saga ends….for the moment. For close to thirty five years Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo has been occupying the minds of Australia’s film censorship authorities and a lot of others. If you would like to get the full blow by blow details and many more besides you can go here to a splendid website devoted to many mind-boggling concerns with film and other censorship

What’s interesting and has attracted little recent attention over those 35 years is to note just who was in charge at the time. I think I've got this right.

In March 1976 when the film was initially banned those who did so had been appointed by the Whitlam Government. In 1992 when an attempt was again made to import it the film was initially banned by appointees of the Hawke Government. A successful appeal was upheld by the Review Board chaired by another appointee of the Hawke Government, Evan Williams, still currently the Australian’s film critic.

In 1998 when the film was re-banned, the decisions were taken by appointees of both the Keating Government, most notably the Convenor of the Board Barbara Biggins, who had been put there by Attorney-General Michael Lavarch to replace Evan Williams, and by the Howard Government. Ms Biggins was quick to fire off a salvo to the press when the latest un-banning occurred.

In 2010 when the film was passed for DVD release, the decision, and the subsequent appeal which also ended in favour of releasing he film, was made by still serving appointees of the Howard Government. The Classification Board is chaired by long time John Howard friend, confidante and former ABC Chair Donald McDonald who himself apparently voted in favour of releasing the film.

For most of the last twenty years, the politician who has shown most interest, indeed a dogged interest, in the matter is one time National Party and now Liberal Party Senator Julian McGauran. To gain an understanding of the degree of debate McGauran has indulged in the website above refers to much of his efforts in the Parliament. McGauran's most recent responses have included the following: (Salo) “is a handbook for deviants and could trigger crazed minds”…. “Salo is not another pornographic movie with consenting adults but a movie that depicts children.”…” Our chief censors have just made the job of vice squads around the country harder.” …” The lifting of the ban is detached from community standards and leaves no line in the sand – sending our censorship laws into outer space.”

Right… we get the idea, although I’m not sure we even still have vice squads and, yes, I guess its hard to have a line in the sand in outer space….enough already but perhaps its worth reminding ourselves of an earlier remark by McGauran when the film was re-banned in 1998: "I'm actually over the moon that the artists have been pulled back into line ... You must remember I'm National Party - artistic merit doesn't mean much to me. The Sydney-style view ... doesn't amount to a row of beans."

So there… prepare to read reports of just how disgusting the film is all over again when the DVD reviewers get to work…and remember it was a mate of John Howard who did it, or at the very least, was one of those who did.