How theatre is saving the soul of Australian fillums ~ theatre notes

Thursday, February 21, 2008

How theatre is saving the soul of Australian fillums

But does Australian film know this? Lately, TN - lynx-eyed in all things theatrical - has noticed that a number of theatre artists are quietly invading the hallowed realms of cinema. But they're not jumping up and down at the edge of the crowd shouting "Me! Me! Pick me!" like Donkey in Shrek. No, these theatrical types - used perhaps to the unglamorous task of getting the job done with almost no money - are just getting out there and doing it. Instead of blinking in the headlights of an industry that wants to turn Australian films into a low-rent version of Hollywood, or buckling under a bureaucracy that panics at any sign of artistic seriousness or originality, they are making their own rules.

It's traditional for film types to scoff at the theatre, but these people are winning prizes and plaudits. There's Chunky Move's utterly charming 10-minute documentary, Dance Like Your Old Man, directed by choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, which has so far taken home three "best documentary" prizes, beginning with the Melbourne International Film Festival gong. There's Mark Constable, a fine theatre actor and director, who took the second prize at Tropfest recently with his self-written, self-acted, self-directed (and self-funded) short film Uncle Jonny.

And there is local Dogme-style auteur Oscar Redding, whose astonishing version of Hamlet, shot at night in the mean streets of Melbourne, opens next week at the CUB Malthouse. I hope that you've booked your tickets: this will be a rare chance to see this film, which evolved from an equally astonishing Poor Theatre production performed in a Northcote shop front in 2004. It premiered at last year's MIFF, creating a lot of excitement - at least among theatre types - but you can be sure that, given the nervousness of Australian film distribution, it won't be coming to a cinema near you. Fortunately for those who like their Shakespeare hot, the Malthouse is briefly turning the Tower Theatre into a boutique cinema and giving it a season. If you missed it first time around, now is your chance.

And now, via Oscar Redding again, I've encountered Hell's Gates. Redding's involvement this time is as an actor and script adviser; the film is actually the brainchild of Jonathan Auf Der Heide, who took time out of a career as an actor - I first saw him, as a very young actor, in the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project - to study film directing at the Victorian College of the Arts. Hell's Gates is his graduating film, and - wholly deservedly - scored the three top prizes for his year.

It's fair to say it's brilliant. It's based on a very grim true story: an escape from the notorious penal colony of Port Arthur by eight convicts, who struck out with limited food supplies across the wilds of Tasmania and, unable to feed themselves off the land, ended up eating each other. I first read this story in Robert Hughes's history of convicts, The Fatal Shore, and at the time I wondered why no novelist or playwright or artist had tackled it. It's as dramatically intense as anything out of Dostoevsky, it has the murderous absurdity of Kafka and the bloody logic of a Webster revenge tragedy, and it's wholly our own. (Bizarrely enough, ABC-TV is making a documentary re-enactment of this story as well: it must have struck its time.)

I'm told the short film was made for a grand total of $13,000. I don't know how Auf Der Heide and his crew conjured such breathtakingly lush cinematography out of their minimal budget - the film includes panoramically brooding landscape shots worthy of Planet Earth, and has a visual depth and clarity that you associate with infinitely more expensive productions.

It's also beautifully acted (the cast features some notable theatre actors, including Greg Stone, Oscar Redding and John Francis Howard), beautifully scripted and beautifully edited, and features a haunting score by theatre composer Jethro Woodward. It's not hyperbole to say that this genuinely poetic film recalls Werner Herzog (it bears affinities with Aguirre: The Wrath of God, but lacks Herzog's Eurocentric shonkiness), or that in its poetic rhythms, particularly in how it makes landscape a character in the film, it has qualities you see in the work of Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick.

And it consciously reaches towards Senecan tragedy - the film opens with a startling and blackly ironic quote from a 1786 edition of the London Morning Post: "This thief colony might hereafter become a great empire, whose nobles will probably, like the nobles of Rome, boast of their blood". With neither false drama nor rhetorical bombast, but rather a poetically-inflected, unflinching realism, it unfolds a bleak fable about the self-devouring nature of colonialism. In short, it's the kind of thing that makes TN's heart beat fast with excitement.

However, in the space of 20 minutes Auf Der Heide can only tell part of the story. So cast and crew are off to the wilds of Tasmania in July, in a quest which seems to this soft-skinned urbanite to be of almost Quixotic difficulty, to shoot the feature-length version on a laughably tiny budget. I wish them luck; if the resulting feature bears out the promise of the short, this will be a film to watch out for. Whether such a film can make any purchase in the current context of the Australian film industry remains to be seen. I don't doubt I'm partial, but I think that the local film industry has largely forgotten that film can also be an art. Maybe these theatre types will jog its memory.

Video: Trailer for Hell's Gates


Anonymous said...

Well, I may have to reserve judgment until I've seen the whole thing, because the trailer evokes exactly the kind of student film earnestness I loathe with every fibre of my being.

I need to start doing creative work again...

Anonymous said...

Weddings Parties Anything, of course, based the amazing "Tale They Won't Believe" on Robert Hughes' version of the Franklin River cannibals. Best thing the Weddos ever did, to my mind, and it definitely qualifies as art.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. Maybe the trailer wasn't a good idea... :) It gives only the barest glimpse of what I like, but that's all I could find online. Matt, see the whole thing and then make your judgement (and leave "student" out of it). It's not earnest, unless Tarkovsky is earnest too: one of the things I enjoyed in it was in fact a lightness of touch.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Thanks anon for the WPA vid - yes, it's fantastic.

genevieve said...

Alison, am I being a bit thick, or are you excluding Marcus Clarke from your non-list of previous treatments of those cannibals?

Alison Croggon said...

No, Genevieve, it's me being thick. I totally forgot about For The Term Of His Natural Life. Mea culpa; though really I was thinking of contemporary works, and that almost qualifies as a source text. Do you know of any other treatments?

Anonymous said...

Believe me, I always leave student out of it.

Anonymous said...

re: Hell's Gates (all of them), have you heard that Julian Meyrick is leaving the MTC?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Werner - yes, indeed, Meyrick's resignation was reported some time ago. I have been told - in no uncertain terms - that he resigned in order to pursue his academic work, and has left the MTC in perfect amity.

To return to topic: I'm slightly puzzled by your response here, Matt, and uncertain myself how to respond. You're perfectly welcome to disagree with me; but is the problem that I was impressed by a student film (albeit made with some post-student artists whom I respect highly), or that the trailer doesn't bear out the claims I make for it? I'm the first to admit they are arguable, but they are, all the same, the responses I had, and how it resonates within my artistic vocabulary. I attempt to look at any work free of claims to legitimation or illegitimacy - hence my dislike of terms like "mainstream" or "fringe". After all, Ivan's Childhood was a "student film" too.

More generally: I see people who are film-makers, people whom I respect as artists, who have made considerable achievements in their field, and what I see is them getting fucked over by the "film industry", over many years. It is quite painful watching something being slowly broken. Hell's Gate - and the other films I mention here - expresses another possibility. One that may only exist for those who have the energy and time and youth to work so hard for no money and with such purity of purpose.


You have a most interesting blog.

Stay on groovin' safari,

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Ms. C, I didn't mean to confuse. I think my blunt (and admittedly opaque) comment has been misread as an attack.

When I say that I leave "the 'student' out of it", all I mean is that I like to approach student work (be it cinematic, theatrical, visual, musical, etc.) as I would approach that of so-called professionals (be they mainstream, fringe or otherwise, to employ the labels you dislike so much). When I was at film school, it used to grate at me terribly when lecturers and students alike would praise clearly sub-par student work on the grounds that "it's pretty good for a student film." I subsequently vowed (literally, in the film school newsletter) to hold every film that came out of the place, including my own, to the same exacting standards that I held the films of ever other filmmaker, living or dead, regardless of budget, institutional input (educational or state), and so on. Obviously, it's impossible to pass judgment on something (or at least to completely understand it)without having some idea of the context in which it was produced, but these things should not get in the way of an overall assessment of quality.

Murali K. Thalluri's terrible 2:37 was marketed almost completely off the back of the film's production history - Thullari was said to have written it in a twenty-something hour burst after he tried to commit suicide and had supposedly been inspired by the suicide of a friend - and to some extent was able to avoid the entirely valid accusations that it was derivative, exploitative and offensive on the grounds that it was nevertheless very close to his own experiences. Except that the entire back story was then called into question (there was no record of Thalluri's friend having existed let alone commit suicide) and was more or less revealed to a bit of a marketing gimmick. Too bad the film had already been released to relatively positive reviews, even though most of the critics had not been reviewing the film so much the context in which they had been told it was made: "It's pretty good for a film by a guy who tried to commit suicide and was grieving over the death of a friend." "It's pretty good for a student student film." "It's a pretty good piece of theatre for a Fringe show." And so on...

Of course, I am more than aware that you were not suggesting that HELL'S GATE is good "for a student film", but rather that it's good regardless of who made it. I'm just saying, that's what my comment meant.

As for my initial reference to "student film earnestness", while I maintain that I try not to let a film's origin determine how I approach it (at least to the extent that this is possible), I do nevertheless feel there's a student film genre, so to speak, and that earnestness is one of its key characteristics!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Matt - we're on the same page then. The problem with written conversation is the inability to read tone, as I too have often found, having offended people with comments meant to be ironic and taken straight.

And I think we're saying the same thing, though we can have a long (and probably dull and certainly well worked over) discussion on things such as subjectivity, objectivity and context. All one can do, as someone who responds to and writes about art, is one's best. Myself, I don't believe, and never have, in the objective critic stance, it's a useful fiction; but I do believe in an informed - and arguable - subjectivity (a la the Brustein stance quoted in a recent post). For one thing, it's more fun.

Anonymous said...

Alison. If I am correct (which I think I am), you might have missed the points made in Werner's comment - if you read a little more closely, I think you'll see, he seems to be having a friendly little dig at you (re: Hell's Gates), albeit obliquely. Whilst pointing out that the title of the film in question is actually in the plural.

Alison Croggon said...

Andrei, Werner, nice of you to drop in and give me a poke. I just read through the article again and fixed up my typos. Maybe - well, it's not maybe, definitely - I haven't had a good week, but hey, I stand by it all.

Aside from a few isolated, well-intentioned and literate souls, do you think the bureaucracy and financial structuring of the film industry here encourages work of any real ambition? How often do you see Australian films that step aside from a few given conventions that are relentlessly applied throughout the process to weed out anything that is actually, say, dynamic, interesting, and that doesn't spell everything out as if audiences are fools? Do we really want Australian films to aim so consistently for the middlebrow, and then miss so comprehensively? Do you ever get the uneasy suspicion that if Bergman (say, but there's another theatre director) delivered the script for The Seventh Seal, he'd be told to run away and work on his plot points and character development?

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, and in the cold light of Saturday morning, I also stand by what I said about Hell's GateS.

Anonymous said...

"Do you ever get the uneasy suspicion that if Bergman...delivered the script for The Seventh Seal, he'd be told to run away and work on his plot points and character development?"

Not if Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman were attached to the project.

Unfortunately, despite what funding bodies tell you, the "package" is often more important than the script.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah yes, but then the film would have been rewritten by Russell Crowe. I'm sure the "package" was important for The Seventh Seal too - I mean, what would it have been without the sardonic beauty of Max Von Sydow? (Yes, I've been doing a bit of dvd watching lately...) But in this case, "package" meant "vision", not "$$$$".

I don't mean by this argument, btw, that I think Australian theatre artists should head off and save the movie business from itself. I think it's a bad idea, and its soul is probably beyond redemption anyway. The movie business won't be grateful, Margaret and David - if they encounter these films at all - will complain that they're too serious (did you ever see David's interview with Ken Loach? just embarrassing). And these artists can do more work in the theatre anyway. But while they're there, I think it's interesting.

Anonymous said...

If you're interested in checking out Russell's influence over the scriptwriting process, (not to mention a cautionary tale about why our movie business needs saving) you should read this Sydney Morning Herald article about his decision to pull out of the Aussie film, Eucalyptus:

My favourite bits are the comments attributed to some of the writers on Gladiator:

...One of the film's scriptwriters, John Logan, has claimed he was fired "because Russell Crowe was dissatisfied with the work I had done and made his unhappiness known to all". "I had never seen an actor wield his power so boldly," he said.

His replacement, the British screenwriter Bill Nicholson, did not fair much better. He said Crowe complained about his character's final lines. "[Russell] said, 'I'm not going to speak this shit,' " Nicholson recalled.

But the film's director, Ridley Scott, persuaded Crowe to have a go, and the result won him an Oscar. "Russell said, 'It was shit but I am the greatest actor in the world and I can make even shit sound good'," Nicholson said.

genevieve said...

My word, must read the whole of this commentary later - but for now, no, Alison, The Term of His Natchril was all I could think of at this point.
Published 1870-72, in serial form at first in the Australian Journal, after the Argus commissioned Clarke to report on 'the history and legacy of the convict system' at Port Arthur in 1870. Not sure if that makes it a source, I think Gabbett (the cannibal) is only borrowed from the real guys.