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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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 9

31 July 2011
Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard was the film I was most looking forward to this year and the screening I went to was its world premiere, where director Richard Lowenstein revealed that it had only been completed at 5pm the previous day! I am aware that there is a danger with heaping praise on a documentary simply because you like its subject matter, but in the past I have enjoyed docos about subjects I’m not interested in and I have been critical of docos that have poorly presented things I am passionate about. So with as much objectivity as possible, I really do think that Lowenstein and his team have done a wonderful job conveying the life and times of Rowland S Howard. The interviews, music clips and archival footage are woven together beautifully to capture the type of person Howard was during key parts of his life and to also convey the power of his music. Both his song writing and guitar playing are celebrated to express the intensity of The Birthday Party in concert, the legacy of the song ‘Shivers’ and the power that Howard’s later work had on whole new generation of music fans. Autoluminescent is a highlight of the festival and a rare doco that I’d happily watch again, and hopefully soon.

[EDIT 7/11/2011: Read a full review of Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard]

Before the Howard doco I caught another Australian film: Ivan Sen’s Toomelah about a troubled 10-year-old boy who befriends the local drug dealers. Toomelah has a lot in common with Mad Bastards since it not only features actor Dean Daley-Jones in a supporting role, but it’s about absent fathers and disconnection from culture in an Indigenous Australian community. Sen captures the dynamics of the community by filming on location and predominantly using non-professional actors living in the former Mission in rural New South Wales. While overall not as compelling as Mad Bastards, Toomelah features a very strong performance by Daniel Conners as the boy searching for adult guidance in a situation where there doesn’t seem to be a lot on offer.

The Kid with a Bike

The Kid with a Bike

Similarly to Daniel in Toomelah, 11-year-old Cyril in The Kid with a Bike is full of rage and looking for a father figure after being abandoned by his own dad. Despite finding a woman who seems willing to care for him, Cyril is drawn to a local drug dealer. A few days ago when discussing Win Win, I mentioned the trend in films where a troubled youth is taken in by a kindly family. The Kid with a Bike is a pleasing antidote to the simplicity of some of these films as it presents Cyril as a really difficult boy, to the extent that you question why a virtual stranger puts up with him. The reason is because she’s a good person who can see past the horrible behaviour. A main theme in the film is the consequences of choosing whether or not to forgive and give a second chance to somebody who has done wrong. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike typically contains their brilliant faux cinéma vérité look, where the cinematography is expertly crafted and controlled despite the film looking like it was shot on the run. There is also an incredible sensation of movement throughout the film with Cyril constantly running and cycling towards a promise of something that he’s always too late for.

[EDIT 12/3/2012: Read a full review of The Kid with a Bike]

MIFFhaps
MIFF fatigue conquered me yesterday as I slept through my alarm and missed the International Shorts – O Canada! program, which I was really looking forward to. I had previously seen the excellent Sophie Lavoie and the Spike Jonze/Arcade Fire film Scenes from the Suburbs won’t exactly be difficult to track down, but I had wanted to get the big screen experience. On the other hand, I got my first proper nights sleep since the festival began and ate a meal that was hot and home-cooked. Just when I thought my MIFF fatigue had lifted my wife asked me why I was sitting at my computer miaowing like a cat. Trying to communicate with cats is a thing I do sometimes, except I’m usually aware that I’m doing it.

One fun thing to note in screenings now is who still loudly laughs at the advertisements that play before every film. It’s a good way of spotting who in the cinema is seeing their first film at the festival, as the regular attendees are pretty familiar with the gags in the ads by now. Having said that, the MIFF ads this year are so good that I’m still enjoying them and I’m enjoying hearing other people respond to them for the first time. I still find the VicRoads ad quite cute too, but I’m hearing voices of dissent about that from elsewhere. Somebody even described it as this year’s Yalumba Wine ad, which I thought was harsh.

Show us your MIFF
Those of you on Twitter probably already know Paul Anthony Nelson, who has a remarkable ability to ever so concisely sum up his responses to films in 140 characters or less on his account @mrpaulnelson. An ill-timed work assignment prohibits him from seeing the 60-odd films he’d hoped to see this year, but he’s still aiming for the low 50s. He’s been coming to MIFF since 1998, where he saw four films from a Blaxploitation retrospective and fell in love. This year his highlights have been MelancholiaMartha Marcy May Marlene and Super. Attending the Australian premiere of Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and sitting within ten feet of director Quentin Tarantino, one of his heroes, has been his biggest MIFF highlight to date. Paul jokes that  Tarantino has since taken a restraining order out against him. I’m not sure if that really is a joke. To get through the festival Paul recommends plenty of Vitamin C wherever possible, always having muesli bars on hand and taking a break between films every so often, if only to check out the wonderous Festival Lounge at the Forum. Paul’s all-time favourite film is The Godfather, which he describes as ‘cinematic perfection if that is possible’. Outside of MIFF you can hear Paul talking about films on the Hell is for Hyphenates podcast, encouraging others to write about films at Why I Adore and making his own films through his production company Cinema Viscera.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Feature and short film picks

8 July 2011

Melbourne International Film FestivalIt’s almost Melbourne International Film Festival time, so I’m starting up the MIFF diary yet again. This year I’ll be seeing and reporting on a lot more films than in previous years as I’m taking part in the 60th anniversary MIFF blog-a-thon. The deal is that I need to see and report back on 60 films during the seventeen days of the festival. That’s on average 3½ films per day. It’s a bit daunting to be honest and I’m apprehensive about how much I’ll be able to appreciate all those films let alone write anything intelligible about them! However, I’ve willingly signed on so will give it my best shot.

The good news is that as well as covering the festival here I’ll also be covering it on the Plato’s Cave podcast with my fellow hosts Josh Nelson and Tara Judah. We won’t be doing our usual Monday night/Tuesday morning show during the week beginning 25 July because on Thursday 28 July from 7pm-8pm we’ll be broadcasting a live Max Headroom MIFF special on Triple R. We’ll then upload that show Friday morning, in case you can’t tune on Thursday night, and record a new podcast-only MIFF show the following week at the usual time. We’ll also be discussing our picks of the festival in the next episode (week starting 11 July) so subscribe now if you haven’t done so already.

Speaking of festival picks, I thought I’d share the ten films and three short film packages that have most caught my attention. I’ve tried to pick films that to the best of my knowledge aren’t getting released in the near future, although some do have Australian distributors already. (Cerise Howard has put together a very useful list on her blog along side her intriguing recommendations for what to see.) I’ve actually seen a number of the films already scheduled for a theatrical release this year including Senna and Jane Eyre, which are both excellent films and would certainly be rewarding to see in the festival environment.

Feature films

Autoluminesscent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminesscent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard
I can’t think of any filmmaker more qualified to make a documentary about the great Rowland S. Howard than Dogs in Space director Richard Lowenstein. It’s a perfect combination of director and subject matter. Also, my wife introduced me to Howard’s solo work so this is a bit of a personal pick for me!

Beauty and the Beast
I’ve wanted to see Jean Cocteau’s 1946 avant-garde fairytale film for a long time so having the opportunity to see it on the big screen is an incredible opportunity.

Armadillo
It was a shame that I, like most Australians, didn’t get to see the war documentary Restrepo in the cinema so I’m making sure I see this one, which has been a sensation in Denmark and from all accounts is extraordinary documentary filmmaking.

The Unjust
I really enjoy contemporary South Korean cinema and the promised mix of social critique, complex narrative (I’m expecting not to be able to follow it), dark comedy, tragedy and action sounds so much like my sort of thing.

Melancholia
It’s the latest film by Lars von Trier and that’s enough for me. I haven’t always liked his work, but he is so unpredictable that I always make a point of seeing what he’s done next. Plus, his previous film Antichrist was one of my highlights during MIFF 2009.

Cold Fish

Cold Fish

Cold Fish
Sion Sono is another director that I now always seek out. Love Exposure was another film I saw during MIFF in 2009 and I’ll never forget seeing Suicide Club at MIFF many, many years ago. Sono’s Guilty of Romance is also screening this year and I’ll be at that too.

The Turin Horse
I’ve never seen a film by Béla Tarr, not even his widely acclaimed Werckmeister Harmonies. The Turin Horse is supposedly his final film so I guess better late than never to get on board. It’s reportedly a very meditatively and observational film about peasant life – in other words, the kind of film some people find absorbing while others find dull. I usually fall into the former camp when it comes to such films so I’m really keen to see this.

A Stoker
I like to see a handful of disturbing, bleak and soul destroying films each year and this Russian parable about the collapse of the Soviet Union sounds suitably gruesome, brutal and darkly humorous.

I Am Eleven
This is another very personal choice as I’ve been aware of Genevieve Bailey’s work since the days when I used to be involved in the 15/15 Film Festival. Her films have always possessed a sincerely humanist quality and this documentary (her first feature) sounds no different.

Surviving Life
My paranoia with MIFF is that I’ll miss a gem that I can’t see elsewhere and that paranoia was exemplified when I almost didn’t notice this film in the program (thank you again Cerise Howard for pointing it out!) This is the latest by filmmaker/animator Jan Švankmajer who is one of the few contemporary filmmakers that can be accurately described as a surrealist. One of my first ever MIFF experiences was seeing his version of Faust and I’ve loved everything he’s done since.

Short films

Stardust

Stardust

I’m also going to explore the short film packages this year. Until I was asked to be a judge for last year’s MIFF Shorts Awards, I didn’t really give short films the attention they deserved. I’ve since seen the error of my ways, plus I’ve had a sneak peak on what’s on offer this year, as a result of writing for the program, and there’s some great stuff. All the packages contain films that are worth seeing, but I’ve narrowed it down to the following three:

International Shorts – O Canada!
I’m mainly going to this because it includes Scenes from the Suburbs, the Spike Jonze/Arcade Fire collaboration. From this program I have already seen the very simple single-shot film Sophie Lavoie and was extremely impressed.

International Shorts – Misfits
I’ve seen most of the films in this program but am more than happy to see them again, especially Jonathan Caouette’s All Flowers in TimeHowever, the two films I haven’t seen are the ones that do sound the most interesting: the South Korean psychological thriller Ghost and the Swedish zombie film The Unliving, which sounds like it may deliver a fun, refreshing spin on the genre.

Experimental Shorts 2
Slave Ship
and Another Occupation sound fascinating plus I really want to see Endeavour and Stardust again, but this time on the big screen. Stardust is directed by Nicholas Provost who won the Best Experimental Short Film award last year for Long Live The New Flesh. I think Stardust is even more impressive.

OK, that’s it for now. I can’t make opening night due to a prior engagement and I’m seeing films back-to-back over the first few days, but hopefully diary entries will start appearing soon after the first weekend.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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