Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Time

The Australian Film Institute announced that it is moving to establish an Australian Academy for the purpose of expanding and improving what are now known as the AFI Awards. The announcement is a tacit admission that the AFI’s only remaining real purpose has devolved down into managing and presenting its annual awards. Its claim to be Australia’s foremost screen culture organisation no longer has any validity and the announcement regarding the establishment of an Academy simply recognises this fact. For most of the last couple of decades the AFI has been slowly gutted and shredded of any of the duties undertaken by other national film institutes. Government funding for these activities has over time been callously, ruthlessly and in some cases ridiculously withdrawn. But it is now where it is.

The AFI was at one time an organisation which provided research facilities for scholars, managed a library of independent Australian and foreign films, exhibited cutting edge other stuff in its own cinemas, published material on film culture, history and production, managed a national cinematheque and ran the AFI Awards. Drip by drip the activities dried up and now only the awards remain though a check of its website indicates some other small and probably inconsequential activities are undertaken. Even the status of the Awards is under challenge with the emergence of the IF Awards as a rival for public funding and attention.

At present AFI members and film industry professionals vote for the AFI Awards in a complicated system that does not require those voting to see all the entries. Whether this produces the best result rarely matters. It usually produces the only result ever likely. Our good films are so few that egregious mistakes rarely occur. So…where are we now.

1. The AFI has lost its authority and its prestige. It is fighting for attention and relevance and has only its Awards with which to fight. It will get no extra help from the Federal Government funding body. (That body is now operating at such a level of philistinism as to produce despair. If this needs examples you need look only as far as the withdrawal of funding from Real Time and from the world’s greatest internet film site, Senses of Cinema).

2. We need a prestigious and valued Awards system to recognise and promote excellence

3. The models are those of the American and British Academies as well as those national arrangements that hand out the Cesars, the Davids and the Goyas.

4. The people who make up the industry have to become intimately involved and in particular those who are the high achievers have to put body and soul into the transformative effort.

If the AFI is to get this done it will no doubt be over a few bodies who nostalgically long for the return of days when the AFI did all he things mentioned above. It may also be over the bodies of the general members who no doubt still enjoy attending the AFI Award screenings. But an Academy made up of the industry’s long time best and brightest, if that’s what’s envisaged, does not have a place for them.

In creating an Academy, which I would expect would need to be followed by a name change to reflect this sole task, the AFI and those nostalgic for what once was should feel no guilt. Times have changed and the work the AFI once did and the things it once sold memberships for is being done by such institutions as the AFTRS and university film and media departments, continuing education, ACMI, GOMA, the NFSA, the Media Resources Centre of SA, the National Cinematheque (notwithstanding its total absence from the biggest city in Australia), the myriad of festivals, the expansion of film circulation via DVD, cable, online downloads and the coming national broadband network. When you think back to even thirty years ago most of those didn’t even exist.

The AFI played a major role in bringing many of them into existence but that role is over and if it is to achieve anything in the future it will be by massively expanding the profile and prestige of a national awards system whose voting is respected by the public and whose activity (sole) is the source of national interest. Good luck Al Finney. ….and maybe under this regime the now late Cecil Holmes might even gain the recognition that has long been denied him by the current system!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Suburban snow job

Spoiler alert. Some of the key plot elements of Snowtown are discussed here.

Success comes in the most unlikely places. I saw Snowtown just after it got a rave review in the Adelaide Advertiser and was announced as the winner of the audience popularity award at the Adelaide Film Festival. Wiser heads from outside the jurisdiction told me to ignore this home town bias. So as the film about the bodies in the barrels in the bank screened in a Sydney preview theatre, I squirmed with the rest of the audience during its slow revelations of paedophilia, murder and a few other unpopular human activities and felt distinctly uncomfortable in its most brutal sequence, a long torture/killing during which the young man at the centre of the film finally joins in the mayhem. I kept wondering who would want to put themselves through the unedifying ordeal of watching this movie and indeed paying to be put through it.

I found it interesting that the film-makers were concerned to show their social and community concern and the press book, which a friend passed on to me, set out in detail not merely how the production had been informed by consultations with the community to ensure respect but also by casting locals in many of the parts including key roles. The mother and the son were both amateurs who were spotted somewhere in the vicinity. Earnestness of intention was manifest.

Added to that, there are two sequences during the film where the locals sit around drinking, swearing and discussing things and they focus on what should be done to homosexuals, paedophiles and other social undesirables to rid the community of them once and for all. In the second of these discussions the smiling visage of the protagonist serial killer is a smirking, slightly superior presence, goading and provoking those in attendance to be ever more explicit about their desires to take revenge and inflict physical punishment on perceived miscreants. They are scenes where the roots of frustration, ignorance and a predilection for violent solutions are unearthed among the working and under classes of the suburbs. They are I suppose also an explanation as to why there was no great community outrage at any mysterious or unexplained disappearance of gays and others from that local community. I suspect that any locals seeing the film might take exception to this portrayal of callousness and indifference arising from their homophobia.

It’s a rich mix as they say and not without its detractors. I saw one tirade against the film delivered by some fresh-faced ranting know all on morning television. The know all did make one point however in wondering why the film had not been classified R. I thought that it warranted that as well though I have for decades been told that I am a fuddy duddy where it comes to matters like watching a few fingernails prised from their sockets.

But the surprise to me is that Snowtown has opened to very good business indeed. This may be partly explained by the mostly very supportive reviews it has received and its prize at Cannes, described in a press release by the film’s publicist as the “President of the Jury Special Award Grand Prix 2011 Critics' Week”. The first weekend screen averages on its 16 screens were over $10 grand. It might rake in a million or more if it keeps going at that rate.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sidney Lumet - New Yorker

Way back in 2004 I fronted up to a screening in one of those high quality but low comfort repertory cinemas in Paris where the then editor of Cahiers du Cinema, Emmanuel Burdeau, introduced a revival of Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. Made in 1959, based on a play by Tennessee Williams and starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, it was a film that had taken on interest in the forty plus years since its release and subsequent plunge into near-oblivion. If its authorship was placed anywhere it would have been with Williams and no doubt the studio which made it was hoping for a repeat of the success of the earlier Brando/Williams movie A Streetcar Named Desire. Lumet, explained Burdeau, was not a director in whom Cahiers nor most other of the ‘serious’ critics had any interest back in the late fifties and early sixties. His first films were literary and/or theatrical in their origin and Lumet himself appeared to be just another of those technicians who had graduated from live New York television, a place where earnestness, importance and left-liberal sensibilities were predominant. At least that’s the picture we got, not having any opportunity to see any of the so-called legendary live presentations by the likes of directors as dissimilar as Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer and Lumet. Andrew Sarris lumped him into the ‘Strained Seriousness’ level in his seminal tome and it took a while for there to be any disagreement about that. Notwithstanding this somewhat neutral to negative view he was regarded as a good director of actors and over the course of a long career, from start to finish, I think he was one of those directors who when Sidney came calling, actors would say what time do you want me there rather than how much are you offering. After dealing with Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil, Lumet had the misfortune to make the earnest Fail Safe (1963) at the same time as Kubrick made Dr Strangelove. But his career was into full stride and during the decade of the 60s he seemed to be a reliable director with a broad range of subjects, most of them with a violent edge. Notable successes were The Pawnbroker (1965), The Hill, a heavyweight expose of military prisons during WW2 starring Sean Connery as a prisoner and a sadistic Harry Andrews, an adaptation of the Mary McCarthy’s literary sensation The Group and the second Le Carre adaptation and the first on-screen George Smiley (James Mason), The Deadly Affair. It was hard to escape the idea that he was a director for hire with a good sense of quality material, a metteur-en-scene of some skill but not an authorial figure. What began to emerge in the 70s was Lumet’s ability to tell robust and exotic stories of life in the various strata of New York society. He never relocated to Los Angeles, preferring to live his life in Manhattan and his familiarity with the quirks of that city started to feed into a line of his work that marked out his territory. Starting with the crime story The Anderson Tapes (1971) again starring Connery as an ex-con who embarks on an elaborate robbery without understanding that the art of surveillance has dramatically increased and improved since he went up the river, Lumet managed to make a small group of his forty four films about police and criminal life on the streets of New York. That group will forever be the work that underscores his reputation. Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), Family Business (1989), Q & A (1990), Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) and, in one of those astonishing bits of bravura with which just occasionally old directors finish off their careers, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). There are more than a couple of masterpieces in that group and Lumet seemed to be able to bring to this his specialty subject an eye for the various milieu of New York that opened up the city to scrutiny from a perspective that suggested a unique fondness and amiable love for the place and all its foibles. What diminished Lumet’s standing over the course of his long career was his preparedness to take on other things no doubt on a whatever comes along basis that the director for hire must take to keep the wolf from the door. What else can explain his willingness to get involved in such mediocre projects as The Wiz, Guilty as Sin, The Appointment, Murder on the Orient Express, A Stranger Among Us (an amazing misfire given its New York setting, but what can one expect of a movie with Melanie Griffith cast as a hard-boiled cop!) and several others. There were of course a couple of big time triumphs as well, most notably the Oscar-winning Network, a film which still strikes a chord, notwithstanding its rabble-rousing sensibility which one might have thought otherwise anathema to Lumet’s liberal outlook. The other triumph is his less well-known contribution as writer and producer to the TV series 100 Centre Street (2001 & 2002) in which Alan Arkin stars as an agonising liberal judge trying to deal humanely with the flotsam that comes before him each day. This is brilliant television, as good in its day and its way as The Wire would also be later in the decade. Here, in his quintessential New York setting, Lumet and his collaborators were able to put on the screen a parade of the quotidian reality of his beloved city and he did it without fanfare in a quiet and clearly generous way. Sidney Lumet died in his Manhattan home on Saturday 9 April aged 86.