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

This article received the Ivan Hutchinson Award for Writing on Australian Film in the 2015 Australian Film Critics Association Film Writing Awards

Film review – The Rocket (2013)

30 August 2013
The Rocket: Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe)

Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe)

The Laotian environment as portrayed in writer/director Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket is both one of immense natural beauty and one of environmental degradation, danger and death. It is a country where a large portion of its population live traditionally in hut villages, but also a country suffering from substantial environmental problems due to commercial exploitation of the forests and water catchments. Laos has also had the most bombs dropped on it per capita than any other country in the world. The Rocket portrays Laos as a country of complex contradictions, all of which form a rich backdrop to the central story of a boy and his family trying to find a new home.

The Rocket continually captures the contradictions of Laos, but juxtaposing images of death with images of life. The tone is overall celebratory and hopeful as despite what gets thrown at the characters, and they do go through significant hardship, life prevails. The first major juxtaposing occurs at the beginning of the film depicting the birth of lead character Ahlo. The birth scene is dark, ominous and full of conflict between Ahlo’s mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) and his paternal grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) who believes Ahlo is a cursed baby. Death is present in this scene as Ahlo’s twin brother is stillborn and Taitok tries to convince Mali to kill Ahlo. The film then cuts to the present day to reveal Ahlo as a boy (Sitthiphon Disamoe) bursting with life and energy, laughing in delight as he plays on a swing.

Ahlo is a character who defies hardship through the way he finds beauty and potential in the world, and the film frequently shows us his perspective to demonstrate this. When Ahlo and his father Toma (Sumrit Warin) attend a briefing about a new dam that will flood their village, Ahlo leaves his father to hear the bad news to instead swim in an existing dam. The dam is shot to physically dominate the frame, reinforcing the almost violent way it was imposed onto the land. The audible hum of the machinery is also imposing. However, when Ahlo climbs the dam to dive in and swim, the moment is one of tranquillity as he glides through the water and looks down on the sunken statues that would have belonged to previously displaced people. The swimming sequence is intercut with shots of Toma watching the cynical corporate video explaining that he has to relocate. The crosscutting suggests that Ahlo’s spirit still prevails against the all-powerful multinationals who are casually threatening to destroy his way of life.

Many of the juxtapositions are also darkly ironic. Most pronounced are the shots of the unexploded bombs lying dormant in the vegetation. Bomb violence is never explicitly depicted, but its threat to human life is suggested through the one-armed man who drives the bomb collection cart and a shot of a drying jacket with holes blasted through it after being in range of an exploding cluster bomb that Ahlo and his friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) accidentally play with. And yet Laos is a country where a day of celebration is based on building and firing rockets in the sky to defiantly shake up the sky gods.

Building the rocket is an example of combining technology and traditions to create a symbol of hope. It is a fitting metaphor for the future of Laos as led by Ahlo’s generation. By comparison the character that represents the old era is the mysterious character known only as Purple (Thep Phongam). He is cynical about traditions and customs, yet also bitter and angry at past foreign interference and contemporary inequality. He refuses to elaborate on his connection to the American army during the 1960s and 1970s when Laos was involved in the Vietnam War, and yet he adores James Brown, a distinctive part of American culture. Cunning, resourceful, friendly and funny, he is also an alcoholic, untrustworthy and hiding a dark past. Like so many aspects of The Rocket, Purple is a mix of ironic contradictions.

The film’s irony is also expressed in the way it both challenges and potentially reinforces the superstitious belief that Ahlo causes bad luck. On a rational level it is cruel and foolish to hold a young boy accountable for so much misfortune, but the way The Rocket creates links between Ahlo’s actions and specific outcomes suggests that such a belief has some tangible grounding. In one scene, after naively taking food from a shrine, Ahlo attempts to return it and triggers a new chain of events that causes problems for his family. The further irony is that the problems are not caused by taking the food, but by trying to return it, reminiscent of No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007) where the protagonist is not punished for stealing drug money, but for when he attempts to act morally by bringing water to a dying man.

Throughout The Rocket Ahlo carries the burden of having people believe he is the cause of all misfortune that befalls his family. The accusations laid against Ahlo are unbearably harsh and while the physical journey to find a new home is the film’s narrative thrust, it is Ahlo’s emotional journey to cast off any doubt that he is the cause of bad luck that gives the film its heart. This emotional journey also defines the warm, good humoured and compassionate tone of the film. While the film contains its insightful ironic contrasts and confronting subject matter, it never succumbs to being an arduous or distancing viewing experience. Instead, it is an extremely rewarding and entertaining film made all the stronger for the integrity and cultural details that underpin it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Lore (2012)

20 September 2012

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl)

In 2009 Michael Haneke made The White Ribbon, a striking study of the children who would become the generation responsible for Nazism as adults. The Australian/German co-production Lore could be regarded as an unofficial companion piece about the generation that followed; the children of Nazi sympathisers. Shot in crisp black and white with deeply focused depth-of-field, The White Ribbon visually presents an attitude of stark oppositions and order to represent an emerging fascist and authoritarian mentality. In a striking contrast Lore is misty, filled with dark colours and mostly shot with a handheld camera to suggest a lack of stability in post-World War II Germany where the war is lost and the country’s dictatorship has ended. This almost dreamlike view of the world belongs to the film’s protagonist Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), a teenage girl from a pro-Nazi family, who must travel across country with her younger siblings. Not only is her physical journey an arduous and difficult one, but her entire belief system is being turned upside-down as she begins to learn what the Nazis really stood for and the atrocities they committed.

Along with an excellent crew that includes cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and sound designer Sam Petty, writer/director Cate Shortland has created an evocative series of landscapes and soundscapes for Lore to move through on her quest towards safety, moral clarity and emerging sexuality. Her feelings for a mysterious and possibly dangerous young man Thomas (Kai Malina) further confuses her as she experiences desire as well as the racial disgust her parents instilled in her. Shortland uses devices such as low lighting and shooting through glass and water to create an uncertain and strange view of the world. Nothing is as it seems anymore.

Similar to the protagonist in Shortland’s previous feature film Somersault (2004) Lore is a tactile person who seems to need to touch things around her to make sense of what is going on. The sense of texture in the film is most effective when Lore touches the freshly glued photos of Holocaust atrocities. Her fingers come away with glue still stuck to them, which then remains as if the realisation of what the Nazis did has travelled physically through her and she is now stuck with the horrific knowledge.

Lore frequently wears blue and is often associated with water. The colour blue and water motifs are often used to indicate life, but water can also symbolise transformation and blue can also symbolise melancholy. In Lore both are also used to represent Lore’s strange innocence, despite her racist upbringing, and the potential for the tides of time to wash away people in its path. Water is used by characters attempting to cleanse themselves yet paradoxically it is often associated with violence.

There are so many more touches that make Lore the accomplished film that it is – Max Richter’s rhythmic score used to build intensity and Lore’s chapped lips making it look like she is wearing lipstick, linking her physical hardship to her sexuality. One remarkable early scene has the ash of incinerated Nazi documents raining down on Lore and her sister Liesel (Nele Trebs), evoking the stories told by people living in towns near concentration camps about the human ash from the ovens falling from the sky.

Lore’s sexual, intellectual and ethical coming-of-age journey is expressed by Shortland’s highly subjective rendering of the landscapes that Lore and her siblings physically move through, where they are confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust and war, and have to make awful decisions in order to survive. This is a film rich in symbolism and ideas, which would have been overwhelming or too obvious if handled by a less talented filmmaker. However, Shortland has done an extraordinary job making such a bleak story into a deeply fulfilling and beautiful film. Lore is an impressionist survival film and an existential war film, and also something truly singular and remarkable.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Glamour over grit at the AACTA Awards Ceremony

7 February 2012

I’ve recently become one of the regular film and television columnist for the Kill Your Darlings blog Killings. For my first piece I wrote about last week’s 2011 Samsung Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) award ceremony and Channel 9 broadcast:

The AACTA awards are an attempt to rise above the negativity and celebrate our local achievements. However, by focusing so much on mainstream appeal, celebrity and glamour, the ceremony and the broadcast may have lost its original audience – the people who are actually passionate about Australian film and television.

The full column is available at Killings

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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Film review – Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (2011)

7 November 2011
Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

Rowland S. Howard

Singer/songwriter Rowland S. Howard hailed from the early Melbourne punk scene where at the age of 16 he wrote ‘Shivers’; a frequently misinterpreted cynical masterpiece about over-dramatised teenage heartbreak. Howard’s abrasive and revolutionary guitar playing drew acclaim from the likes of Kevin Shield (My Bloody Valentine), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag), however, his early career playing in Melbourne, London and Berlin saw him in the shadow of fellow Birthday Party member Nick Cave. A tragic romantic and frustrated artist, Howard found a new surge of professional and personal fulfilment, plus wider recognition, just prior to his death at the age of 50 in 2009.

Directed by Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn, Autoluminescent contains extensive interviews with Howard, who speaks with eloquent and intelligent self-awareness. The documentary also includes revealing interviews with friends, family and colleagues, including Cave, Mick Harvey, Wim Wenders and Lydia Lunch. The resulting portrait of Howard is affectionate, complex and engaging. Most important is the amount of music included in the film, which weaves its way through the narrative to brilliantly encapsulate his legacy.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 392, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – Mrs Carey’s Concert (2011), Region 4, Madman

27 September 2011

Mrs Carey’s ConcertTwo popular genres come together in this Australian documentary – the backstage musical and the inspirational-teacher-saves-troubled-students drama. Karen Carey is the music director at the Sydney girls school MLC, which holds a concert involving 1200 girls from the school at the Sydney Opera House every two years. The next concert is approaching and Mrs Carey’s Concert documents the challenges that lie ahead, especially in terms of involving reluctant, difficult and under confident students.

The fly-on-the-wall approach taken by directors Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond recalls the approach taken by Nicolas Philibert in his 2006 film To Be and to Have about a primary school class in rural France. Similarly, Mrs Carey’s Concert conveys an enormous amount of information about its subjects simply through observation and strategic editing. During the climax of the film, which of course is the concert, cutaway shots to the faces of key players in the film communicate everything that the audience needs to know about what the various moments mean to them. This graceful and unobtrusive editing creates a work that feels authentic and non-judgemental.

The two dominant stories that emerge are those of ‘problem’ students, Iris Shi and Emily Sun. In Iris’s case she is extraordinarily extroverted and precociously disruptive, to the point of being infuriating. Over the course of the film we see the teachers gently but firmly appeal to her better nature and their patience is remarkable, as is how well they conceal just how much in charge of the situation they are. By the time Iris is telling the camera how well she reads people in order to manipulate them, her bravado feels overcompensated to the point that she becomes a strangely sympathetic figure. There is something ultimately sad about her.

Mrs Carey's ConcertEmily is a different challenge for the staff. While her troubled past is mostly behind her, and only mentioned in the film rather than shown, she severely lacks the passion and confidence to reach her true potential as a gifted musician. Her journey is the most rewarding in the film as the focus is not on her musical talent – that is taken as a given – but on her ability to find the inner strength and emotional investment to be truly great. The full extent of her back-story is strategically revealed late in the film to put her tentativeness into context and watching her transformation is extremely rewarding. One scene involves her having to tell the orchestra what a particular piece of music means to her. For a brief moment she lets down her guard to describe how she feels, before catching herself out and retreating back inside herself again. Such moments are what define Mrs Carey’s Concert as being more than simply a documentary about privileged schoolgirls putting on a concert.

Like the payoff at the end of the fiction film The Concert, Mrs Carey’s Concert delivers an emotionally charged and satisfying experience. The sound mix allows the music to really surround the viewer and interestingly any voiceovers removed from what is on screen at the time come from the back speakers so that the immediate story remains in the foreground. It is also worth watching the end credits through to the very end as the final music wonderfully sums up what the film has been about and is also rather sweet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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