Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

26 March 2014
Mike Bishop as David Yale

Mike Bishop as David Yale

My article on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead for Senses of Cinema as part of their Key Moments in Australian Cinema series:

The anger that seethes throughout John Hillcoat’s debut feature film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, can be felt in almost every scene. Anger is explicitly articulated, acts of violence resulting from anger are depicted or described, and in scenes without overt expressions of anger it can be felt underneath the despair, cruelty and hopelessness that have resulted from a corrupt prison system. Every character who appears on screen (as opposed to the voices on the intercom and the people shown in news reports and pornography) is either a prisoner, a prison officer or, in one instance, a policeman. Nearly all of them have reasons to be angry as they are all at the mercy of an unidentified external bureaucracy who want the anger in the prison to manifest as violence to justify harsher prison conditions and the funding of new facilities to deliver the required brutality.

Head over to Senses of Cinema to read the full article


Joss Whedon’s character archetypes: The Avengers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

2 May 2012

My latest column for Killings, where I compare Joss Whedon’s take on the Marvel superhero characters as they appear in The Avengers to his Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters:

Whedon is clearly a fan of the Marvel characters, and that is why he is able to write for them with such assurance and affection. He hasn’t changed the characters, but made them live up to their potential in the same way that he took characters from teen and horror films and made them so much more in Buffy.

Head over to Killings to read the full article and leave a comment.


The Art and Ideology of Walt Disney

25 March 2012

This article was written in response to the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition, which was on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from Thursday 18 November 2010 to Tuesday 26 April 2011.

Tangled

Tangled

In 1937 Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (William Cottrell et al), the first ever full-length animated feature film. It was also full colour and the first ever film to use Disney’s new cel-animation technique to such an extraordinary extent. It was an enormous ambitious project that Disney had begun three years earlier and during its development Hollywood insiders referred it to as ‘Disney’s Folly’. However, despite the doubters Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made cinematic history and is still regarded as not only one of the greatest animated films ever made but also one of the all time great American films.

In 2010, 37 years later, Walt Disney Studios released its 50th feature length animated film, Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard). Based on the story of Rapunzel, Tangled is similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in that it is also an adaptation of a classic European fairytale; in fact both are based on Brothers Grimm fairytales. Tangled also had a three year production but this time the challenges faced by the artists were how to best utilise computer-generated and 3D animation techniques to create the characters and world of the film.

Timed to coincide with the 6 January 2011 release of Tangled in Australia cinemas, the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI) is currently displaying the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales exhibition. Originally created for the New Orleans Museum of Art, Melbourne is the exhibition’s second location and on display are over 600 items from the last 80 years of Disney animation. Some of the rarely displayed treasures from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library include concept art, storyboards, maquettes (character models used by the animators to draw from) and original animation cels.

While the focus of Dreams Come True are the items from the Disney ARL, the exhibition also attempts to examine the fairytale origins of key Walt Disney Studio films in order to explore the rationale behind why the original European morality tales were changed so significantly for the animated films. As well as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Tangled the exhibition looks at some of the early short films that originated from fairytales plus other much-loved feature films Cinderella (Clyde Geronimi et al, 1950), Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959), The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker 1989), Beauty and The Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991) and The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009).

Unlike the Il Etait une Fois, Walt Disney (Once Upon A Time, Walt Disney) exhibition that was on display in Paris, France and then Montréal, Canada during 2006 and 2007, Dreams Come True is focused on presenting the evolution of artistic ideas from within Walt Disney Studios rather than looking too closely at external sources. While Il Etait une Fois looked at the inspiration that Disney and his artists found in painting and early cinema (with a fascinating examination of the German Expressionist influence on the Disney films), Dreams Come True predominantly looks at the stages in which the various characters and settings for the Disney films would change throughout production. This does provide for some fascinating insight into things like character development. For example, the early sketches of Snow White reveal that at one point she resembled an adolescent Betty Boop, which would have given the finished film a very different focus given the sexual nature of the Betty Boop character.

Another key difference between the two exhibitions is the design and layout. The French exhibition was a mixture of the objects with large wall props, atmospheric lighting and audio/visual content to create a range of moods and environments for the visitor as they passed through. On the other hand, Dreams Come True adopts a more traditional approach of simply containing artworks hung on coloured walls, objects in display cases and selected clips from the films played on screens dotted around the exhibition – some requiring headphones for small numbers of visitors to privately experience at a time and some playing publicly, which provides an effective soundtrack for the exhibition. A markedly different use of the ACMI screen gallery space to the recent Tim Burton exhibition, Dreams Come True is sparser but this does allow for larger groups of people to pass through the exhibition more comfortably.

The final difference between Il Etait une Fois and Dreams Come True that is worth commenting on is that while the French exhibition explored the various criticisms of the powerful Disney hegemony on popular culture throughout the world (even displaying subversive anti-Disney works of art) Dreams Come True carefully avoids such content. This is not surprising or unreasonable considering it is an exhibition curated by Walt Disney Studios and the exhibition does to an extent acknowledge the cultural impact of the Disney films in terms of re-packaging the fairy tale stories. Various quotes by Disney that adorn the exhibition walls grapple with this issue, such as the one stating, ‘The fairy tale film – created with the magic of animation – is the modern day equivalent of the great parables of the Middle Ages.’ Indeed, this quote displays the extent in which Disney openly embraced the idea that his versions of the fairy tales were to become the dominant ones for 20th century audiences.

The Dreams Come True exhibition begins by showing the different types of stories that Walt Disney Studios appropriated for their short animated films, which date back as far as 1922. In what is perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition, we see on display artwork and excerpts from early animations based not only on fairy tales but also on fables (cautionary tales such as Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare), folk tales (exaggerated stories of real or mythical human triumphs such as the American John Henry stories), myths (such as Ovid’s story about King Midas) and nursery rhymes (which frequently contained political and social commentary). However, Walt Disney was predominantly drawn to the European fairy tales, which combined many aspects of fables, folk tales, myths and nursery rhymes with magical and fantastical elements plus core moral lessons.

Disney certainly believed in the preserving the basic essence of the original fairy tales and the exhibition quotes him saying that, ‘The screen version must perceive and emphasise the basic moral intent and the values upon which every great persistent fairly tale is founded.’ On the other hand he also states, ‘Literary versions of old fairy tales are usually thin and briefly told. They must be expanded and embellished to meet the requirements of theatre playing time’. The various placards in the Dreams Come True exhibition that are used to introduce the artwork from the key films, discuss the extent in which the violence and horror of the original fairy tales were toned down by Disney. So how do we as modern audiences grapple with the idea that Disney changed so much of the stories to maintain his perception of their moral intent while making sure the resulting films would be as popular as possible?

In many cases the changes seem reasonable considering the brutal and sadistic content of the original stories that seemed more designed to make children neurotic rather than instil real values. For example, the cruel trials and tortures that Hans Christian Anderson subjected many of his protagonists to frequently evoke Old Testament-style morality where only through suffering and terrible sacrifice can one achieve spiritual superiority (Tatar 2002: 302). The modern Walt Disney Studios film The Little Mermaid is far more palatable than the 1837 Anderson version where the price the mermaid (named Ariel in the Disney film) has to pay for becoming human is to have her tongue cut out and endear unbearable pain while walking.

On the other hand, some changes seem naive such as changing the meaning of The Pied Piper story in the 1933 Silly Symphony short. The original versions of the Pied Piper story serve as a warning to children to not put their trust in strangers, especially strangers offering them temptations. In Disney’s Silly Symphony version the children are rewarded for following the Piper by escaping from labouring in the adult world to enter the magical Happyland. Removing the dark edge from the original variations of the story, where the children usually end up dying, Disney lost the important cautionary message behind this early stranger-danger story.

However, not all the changes that Walt Disney made to the original fairy tales were bad ones and in fact the act of adapting them to accommodate what he believed to be contemporary vales and attitudes was no different to what various other storytellers had done before him. The Brothers Grimm, for example, were so keen to preserve the sanctity of motherhood that in their versions of popular fairy tales, such as Snow White (Sneewittchen) and Cinderella, both published in 1812, they changed the original conflicts between biological mother and daughter to conflicts between a step-mothers and step-daughter (Tatar 2002: 80). So Disney was by no means the first to adapt fairy tales for audiences at the time as many of the versions of the fairy tales that may be mistaken as the originals or definitive, were accordingly adapted as well.

What is more of a concern is not that Walt Disney adapted the fairy tales by removing so much of the violence and horror, but how he used the stories to express his own values through the guise of family entertainment. His love for the magical fairy tale world also resulted in extremely questionable depictions of race, gender and class in a fantasy world where monarchical rule was frequently unquestioned and women, racial minorities and socially subservient classes knew their place. Walt Disney’s membership of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and his allegiance with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI), strongly indicated his conservative and fiercely anti-Communist beliefs, which are reflected in the idealised plutocratic view of the world in many of his films.

Even non-fairy tale Disney films reinforced the rightful rule by the privileged perspective, often demonising lower classes who dare to challenge the system. For example, the butler Edgar is the villain in The AristoCats (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970) for simply acting against his mistress when she decides to leave her fortune to her cats instead of him, her loyal servant for several decades. Even Scar in The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) is motivated to commit his crimes due to his anger over his little nephew being first in line to the throne before him. Questioning, or even worse preventing, born-to-rule traditions is a major sin in the Disney universe.

Non-whites, or animals distinctively adopting stereotypical looks and behaviours associated with non-white races, are portrayed either as figures of ridicule or down-and-out characters who are happy in their poverty. The now rarely seen Song of the South, a 1946 feature film that mixes animation and live action, was criticised at the time of release by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for the ‘impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship’ in the way it depicts the happy-go-lucky kindly old slave character Uncle Remus in the Deep South in the second half of the 19th century (Cohen 1997: 60–68). Although sympathetic characters, the jive-talking crows in Dumbo (Samuel Armstrong et al, 1941) are an example of anthropomorphic animal characters perpetuating African-American stereotypes. It would not be until The Princess and the Frog in 2009 when African American characters were given lead roles as the heroes.

While The Princess and the Frog signalled a progression in the depiction of race for Walt Disney Studios, it still reinforces the myth of lower classes being happy in their place in class-base communities and the idea that one can only really aspire to greatness by either marrying into aristocracy or royalty, or discovering that one was aristocracy or royalty all along, as in the case of Tangled. Furthermore, this is also tied into one of the most persistent problems with the Disney films, the fairy tales in particular, where the young female heroes are frequently depicted as either aspiring to become a princess or can only find true happiness through becoming a princess.

The core message of Walt Disney Studio films of pursuing your dreams to achieve what your heart truly desires is a sound one but all too often the goal or reward is the unobtainable one of becoming royalty. Rapunzel in Tangled is yet another Walt Disney Studios lead character who begins as an unfulfilled virgin whose coming-of-age is signified by her getting married and (in her case) discovering that she was a princess all along. It is a very conservative depiction of what young women should aspire to.

The older Walt Disney Studios films are a lot more problematic as the agency is taken away from the young female heroes. Certainly in the case of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, the lead characters lose a significant amount of what agency they had during the majority of the film when the prince characters, who are mostly kept in the background of the narrative, finally turn up at the end and supposedly win the day by agreeing to marry the girls. At least from Sleeping Beauty onwards the princes started to become fully rounded characters who actively did something to earn their credentials, as opposed to simply showing up.

The goals of wealth and status may still remain but at least in modern Walt Disney Studio films like Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, the female protagonists are assertive and active characters, making far better role models than their more passive predecessors. The modern Walt Disney Studios films also give the females heroes far more empowerment than they did in the original tales. Female servitude was a big theme in many classic fairy tales and it is believed that some early versions of Beauty and the Beast were designed to prepare young girls for arranged marriages to older men (Tatar 2002: 58). The original Rapunzel stories reflected the practise of isolating or segregating women from the male population (Tatar 2002: 105).

Dreams Come True is a celebration of Walt Disney and Walt Disney Studio’s work producing short and feature-length animated films that have entered popular culture and the public consciousness so effectively. The exhibition fully succeeds in displaying the immense technological and artistic contributions that Disney made to animation and seeing so many items from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library is indeed a unique privilege. The exhibition also makes a convincing case for the versions of the fairy tales as told by the Disney films to be regarded as the versions most relevant to today. However, the degree in which the values of the Walt Disney Studio films reflect or shape social attitudes towards class, race and especially gender is a discussion that goes beyond Dreams Come True.

Bibliography

Cohen, Karl F, (1997), Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America, McFarland & Company, Jefferson

Tatar, Maira (ed), (2002), The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, WW Norton & Company, New York

Originally published in issue 61 (Autumn 2011) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

The book is never better than the film

23 March 2012

My latest column for Killings, where I look at film adaptations of novels, was published a couple of days ago:

The value of a novel adaptation is primarily how well it works as a film, and to a lesser extent, how well it expresses the essence of the source material rather than how well it mimics it. The book is never better than the film; the two are incomparable. It’s not reasonable to critique a film for not functioning in the same way that a novel does. A film may fail on cinematic grounds, but it should not be accused of failing on literary grounds.

Head over to Killings to read the full article and leave a comment.


The Movie Man: Martin Scorsese

4 February 2012

Martin Scorsese

There are few filmmakers who rival Martin Scorsese’s contribution to cinema. The 69-year-old New Yorker is part of the passionate and highly film-literate moviemakers (including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) that started their careers in the 1970s during the New Hollywood era. These directors created the modern blockbuster and came to define American cinema.

Whether making gangster films, period films or biopics, Scorsese explores aspects of masculinity, identity and violence. His protagonists are often loners in a chaotic world trying to make sense of the madness around them, grappling with issues of guilt, penance and spiritual enlightenment. Nostalgia plays a big part in Scorsese’s films, but so do regret and loss. Many of his films end ambiguously, with a sense of irony or with the main character on the decline. Frequently working with the same crew, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker on almost every film, and the same actors (such as Robert De Niro and, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese is one of the few American auteurs, as his films can be regarded as a personal expression of his author-like direction.

Many of Scorsese’s early films reflected his childhood as the son of Catholic Italian immigrants living in New York. While attending film school in the 1960s he made a handful of short films before making his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). It starred his then-preferred leading actor, Harvey Keitel, as a typically Scorsesesque troubled man. The film contained some hallmarks of his later films with its focus on Italian-American communities, life-on-the-street feel, and a rock soundtrack. Following Boxcar Bertha (1972), which he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, Scorsese made Mean Streets (1973). This film announced his arrival as a filmmaker of note, and was the first time Scorsese worked with De Niro, capturing the stories, characters and atmosphere of Little Italy in New York City, where Scorsese grew up.

After his under-appreciated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), a rare Scorsese film with a leading female protagonist (played by Ellen Burstyn), he made his masterpiece. Taxi Driver (1976) featured De Niro as an insomniac Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle, who descends into violent madness. The film coined the phrase ‘are you talkin’ to me’, inspired the 1981 assassination attempt on US President Ronald Reagan and remains one of the greatest cinematic portrayals of paranoid psychosis. More importantly, Taxi Driver established Scorsese’s favourite techniques of using slow motion and fluid tracking shots to convey the subjective experience of his protagonists.

Reflecting his love of different cinematic movements from all over the world, a Scorsese film will often blend cinema-vérité techniques with the dreamlike imagery of avant-garde films. These elements were stunningly combined in Scorsese’s 1980 biopic, Raging Bull, with De Niro as the turbulent boxer Jake LaMotta. This black-and-white epic portrays masculinity at its most violent, reprehensible, pitiful and tragic. Taxi Driver might be the masterpiece, but Raging Bull is the definitive Scorsese film.

Between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull Scorsese made the homage to Hollywood musicals, New York, New York (1977) and a concert film of The Band, The Last Waltz (1978).

Throughout his career, Scorsese’s love of music is expressed on his soundtracks, which alternate between original scores by composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Philip Glass and Peter Gabriel, and eclectic pop and rock compilations. He also produced the 2003 documentary series, The Blues, and has made documentaries about Bob Dylan (No Direction Home; 2005), the Rolling Stones (Shine a Light; 2008) and most recently George Harrison (Living in the Material World; 2011). He even directed the ‘Bad’ music video for Michael Jackson in 1987.

Scorsese’s 1980s films were slightly left-of-field ventures. And, with the forgettable exception of The Color of Money (1986; a sequel to the Paul Newman classic of 1961, The Hustler), they are fascinating. The King of Comedy (1983) cast De Niro as a struggling comedian trying to get the attention of a famous talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis. It’s Taxi Driver as a critique of showbiz. After Hours (1985) was a low-budget surreal comedy about a man in New York trying to get home one night. Of most interest was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a highly controversial film that depicted what Christ’s life may have been like if he didn’t die on the cross and lived as a mortal man. Despite accusations of blasphemy, the film remains an extraordinary examination of spirituality and faith.

In 1990, Scorsese made the gangster masterpiece Goodfellas. It’s classic Scorsese: violent, focused on the Italian-American mob, ending with a whimper rather than a bang, featuring De Niro among others, and full of iconic music and visual flourishes. Following his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, with De Niro playing the vengeful former convict Max Cady, Scorsese made Casino (1995), which functioned as a sort of unofficial but far more violent follow-up to Goodfellas. The final ‘conventional’ Scorsese film of the 1990s was Bringing out the Dead (1999), where he teamed up with writer (and also director) Paul Schrader for the forth and final time after previously collaborating on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation. Dead was an almost black comic retelling of Taxi Driver, this time featuring an exhausted paramedic played by Nicolas Cage.

After Goodfellas, the two standout 1990s films for Scorsese were the less obvious The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun (1997). An adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, Innocence did not seem like a typical Scorsese film, but its New York setting and melancholic male protagonist, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), were Scorsese hallmarks. Likewise, a film about the 14th Dalai Lama initially seemed an odd choice, but Kundun displayed Scorsese’s command of using film style to convey the experience of a male protagonist in a world he struggles to comprehend. Just as Scorsese’s other religiously themed film, Last Temptation, attracted controversy, so did Kundun – this time from the Chinese Government, which wasn’t pleased about a film depicting the exiled Tibetan leader sympathetically.

The past decade has seen Scorsese repeatedly collaborate with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, starting with the disappointing period crime drama, Gangs of New York (2002). The director–actor partnership with DiCaprio picked up in 2004 with the impressive biopic, The Aviator, about the notoriously reclusive film producer and aviation pioneer, Howard Hughes. In 2010 the pair worked together on Shutter Island, one of Scorsese’s most misunderstood films (the complex, subjective film style used to signal the true nature of DiCaprio’s US Marshal character was mistaken for giving away the ‘twist’ ending, which was in fact not a twist at all).

Scorsese’s 2000s peak came in 2006 with The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama, Infernal Affairs. Once more full of Scorsese’s trademark crime violence and psychopathic male characters, The Departed was a complex film about identity and loyalty. Some audiences were annoyed that Scorsese had remade a recent and much loved Hong Kong film, while others preferred Scorsese’s less melodramatic and more straightforward version. The Departed finally earned Scorsese an Academy Award for Best Director (he had previously been nominated five times).

The importance of what Scorsese has done for cinema cannot be understated. Not only has he made numerous American classics, he has also long campaigned for the need to preserve older films. He has made documentaries about American and Italian cinema, and is endlessly championing films from all over the world. He co-created the Film Foundation in 1990, and the World Cinema Foundation in 2007 (both organisations are dedicated to the preservation and restoration of films).

The man loves cinema, which is what is so beautifully expressed in his latest 3D family film, Hugo (2011). Not only does Hugo celebrate the wonders of films from a previous era, it introduces a whole new generation to the joys of cinema. Unlike his many protagonists, Scorsese is not about to fade into obscurity. Indeed, he is making films that are as remarkable, inspirational and unpredictable as anything else he has done during his extraordinary career.

The Big Issue, issue 398Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 398, 2012

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Why I Adore Dogs in Space

18 November 2011
Dogs in Space: Anna (Saskia Post) and Sam (Michael Hutchence)

Anna (Saskia Post) and Sam (Michael Hutchence)

I first saw Dogs in Space (written and directed by Richard Lowenstein) when I was in my twenties, some time in the late 1990s, about a decade after the film was released in 1986. It was a revelation. I’d never seen a film that felt so distinctively Melbourne in a way that I could recognise. Also, up until that point, I’d never seen an Australian film that felt so influenced by New Wave European cinema in its almost anarchic abandonment of traditional narrative structure. I had seen plenty of ‘worthy’ Australian art-house films (which I also love and cherish) but not something this playful and rebellious. It was instant love. I remember on at least two occasions introducing friends to Dogs in Space, and their response was always one of anger: ‘Why the hell haven’t you shown this to me before?’ they demanded.

And yet, Dogs in Space  is about Melbourne in 1979, when I’d only been alive for a few years. I’m not at all qualified to comment on the authenticity of what takes place in the film. It feels slightly exaggerated, but the testimonies in the 2009 documentary We’re Livin’ on Dog Food suggest that it’s not. What I did identify with was a spirit; the legacy of which I was experiencing at the time, living in share houses in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. Like the Dogs in Space characters, I was a middle-class kid from the suburbs who was somewhat ‘slumming’ it – too old to live at home and too young to commit to anything that felt like a real job. And that’s what the film captures – the desire of youths to deconstruct themselves from mainstream society and rebuild themselves into something ‘real’, regardless of their background. Dogs in Space makes a point of reminding the audience that punk in Australia was a cultural movement embraced predominantly by the middle-class, but that didn’t make it any less charged or meaningful.

The film begins by defining how it situates itself within Australian culture. After brief 1957 archival footage of early Soviet space launches, which includes sending Laika the dog into orbit, Dogs in Space opens with a menacing shot of a beat-up car idling in the night. One of its very rough-looking occupants sticks his head out of the window and, in the most nasally Australian twang, snarls to an unseen passer-by, ‘Hey! Dog-face! Show us your snatch!’ The scene looks like it belongs to any number of Ozploitation films of the era, combining a Mad Max aesthetic with distinctly bogan pub rock culture.

Dogs in Space: Anna (Saskia Post) and Sam (Michael Hutchence)

It’s a very specific image of Australian identity and one that is introduced at the start of Dogs in Space so it can be quickly shot down in flames. There are other faces to Australian culture and until then, and mostly since, those faces are not given much attention. These alternate faces are of course the punks of late 1970s Melbourne who are introduced in the film, camping outside a David Bowie concert. The car-load of obnoxious bogans screeches up to torment them, but are quickly dispensed with and sent on their way. This film is not for them, or those who identify with them. Instead it’s for a subculture that briefly thrived in inner-city student share houses and venues around Australia, whose legacy introduced and developed some of Australia’s most celebrated music.

The film’s title sequence then concludes with a slow approach shot of the film’s main setting: a run down house in Richmond filled with various occupants who are either living there legitimately, squatting, or simply hanging out. Over the top of the soundtrack different pieces of media float by: the opening titles of Countdown, a station identification for iconic Melbourne radio station Triple R and Molly Meldrum talking about the Bowie gig. The various characters who filter through the house are an assortment of musicians, political activists and folks just wanting to have a good time. They have sex, listen to music, take drugs and throw parties. One of them is even trying to study for his engineering exams.

The almost complete absence of a narrative allows the film to simply indulge in scene after scene of chaotic activity. Some characters we get to know, some are just fleeting fragments. Orchestrated long shots convey the energy and excitement of gigs and parties. Strands of music performances and conversations flow in and out of the film to make it a series of impressionist fragments that, once combined, make some sort of brilliant sense.

Dogs in Space soundtrackThe soundtrack, produced by Ollie Olsen, is one of my favourite film soundtracks from Australia or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It includes songs by Iggy Pop, Gang of Four and Brian Eno plus an assortment of songs from Melbourne’s ‘little band scene’. Many of the songs are played in the film by the original performers, including Marie Hoy (who delivers one of the greatest covers of Rowland S. Howard’s ‘Shivers’), Primitive Calculators and Thrush and the Cunts. Then there are the songs sung by Michael Hutchence, lead singer of pop group INXS and the film’s star. Hutchence’s character in the film is based on Sam Sejavka from The Ears, so appropriately Hutchence performs a couple of Ears covers, including the titular ‘Dogs In Space’. However, the stand-out for me is ‘Rooms For The Memory’ as it’s a brilliant fusion of post-punk and pop, linking the period the film is set in to the period the film was made in, and making it a catchy and eventually devastating song to finish the film with.

And what about Hutchence, in what would sadly be one of his few acting roles? As the hedonistic, wild, self indulgent, magnetic and handsome Sam, he’s a bizarre Aussie Jim Morrison: reptilian, lecherous, pretentious and extraordinary. He is instantly recognisable as a creative genius who, through self-indulgence, is screwing up his life and the lives of those around him. You start off thinking Sam’s a bit of a prat and then get seduced by his carefree confidence and charismatic recklessness. This is all turned on its head in one of my favourite scenes when his mother shows up to do his laundry and bring him a hot dinner. Not only is his persona demythologised, but you also see the true extent of his selfishness and lazy sense of entitlement. And yet he is so confident, so carefree and so likeable, making him a wonderfully chaotic antihero to structure a chaotic anti-film around.

Dogs in Space: Luchio (Tony Helou) and Tim (Nique Needles)

Luchio (Tony Helou) and Tim (Nique Needles)

Then there is Saskia Post as Anna, Sam’s beautiful and tragic girlfriend who knows he is leeching off her, but can’t help being drawn back to him. Post provides the heart of the film, looking after the more vulnerable drifters who come through the house and being patient and tolerant of Sam, way beyond the call of duty. She radiates every time she is on screen with her combination of punk attitude and classical Hollywood beauty. The rest of the supporting cast are too extensive to mention and I latch onto somebody new on every viewing. However, I have a particular soft spot for Tim (Nique Needles) who looks so sad while pretending he was going to quit the band that have just kicked him out. I also love Chris Haywood’s cameo as the uncle with the chainsaw, and poor old Luchio (Tony Helou) who is trying to study for his exams amid the parties, band rehearsals, noisy sex and general mayhem – I once had a Luchio year.

Dogs in Space is one of the very few Australian films that reflects an Australian identity that I can relate to, even though it depicts a period and scene that I never knew. It’s affectionate and critical of Australia’s middle class punks; celebrating the scene while also providing a mournful coda for how it would all come to an end. Energetic, youthful, frequently hilarious and ultimately so sad, Dogs in Space is an Australian counter-culture classic to which I continually return, and introduce to new like-minded friends – who are inevitably annoyed that I haven’t shown it to them sooner.

Originally published here on the AFI blog.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Making stupidity a virtue in Hollywood is dumb

21 September 2011

My article on the depiction of experts in cinema appeared on the Comment & Debate page in The Age today.

We are living in an era in which expressions such as ”over-educated” are used to mock those who have conducted years of research in a specific area and words such as ”intellectual” and ”academic” are terms of abuse.

The full article is available on The Age website


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