FilmJuice have my review of the Australian short film collection The Turning, based on Tim Winton’s short fiction collection of the same name.
Short films as undeniably a good thing: Their reduced run time means that they are not only cheaper to make, they’re also less thematically demanding in that it is easier to come up with an interesting idea that will sustain a ten minute short film than it is to come up with an idea that will support a 90-minute feature film. The fact that short films are considerably shorter than feature films also means that they are a lot cheaper to make and so ambitious filmmakers can experiment with short films in a way that they simply cannot do at feature lengths. The problem with short films is that they are incredibly difficult to sell… indeed, no stable market for short films exists outside of a Horror genre that has somehow managed to maintain its fondness for anthology formats. The Turning is an attempt to rekindle the market for art house short film by getting 18 different directors to make short films based on stories taken from an award-winning short fiction collection in which some of the stories share characters, themes and recurring motifs. As I point out in my review, the idea of using the motifs in a short fiction collection to bind together a set of short film does not really work as:
while Winton’s short stories connect using recurring characters, themes, and motifs, the production’s failure to create a sense of visual continuity means that almost none of the recurring motifs or re-used characters survive the transition from book to film. What this leaves is a series of short films that only inter-connect in so far as they often share a fascination with regret or alcoholism, and frankly those types of themes pop up so often in art house film that they seem accidental.
In fairness, I can see why the producers chose the path they did as making the connections in Winton’s fiction work on film would have required not only the imposition of particular actors for particular parts but also a shared visual palette that would have seriously hampered the vision of the individual directors. This reminded me quite a bit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as creating a sense of visual continuity between the films has robbed individual directors not only of the power to cast for themselves but also to shape the look of their own films. In the case of the MCU, the need for visual continuity has resulted in films that look depressingly similar but, in the case of The Turning, the lack of visual continuity means that a curated collection of short films comes across as almost completely unconnected. Swings and roundabouts I guess…
Another thing that really struck home when watching The Turning was quite how male-gazey the films directed by men turned out to be compared to those directed by women. One of the recurring saws of this blog is that art house film has ossified around a set of visual shortcuts that contain sexist assumptions but seeing similar characters and themes tackled by both men and women really drives home the extent to which female directors are more willing to question those shortcuts than their male counterparts. Having said that, the single most objectifying film in the entire collection is directed by a woman so it’s evidently not just men who fail to unpack their own cinematic vocabularies.
FilmJuice has my review of Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here, an Australian mystery/drama that is not to be confused with David Leland’s oddball British tragedy of the same name.
Set between Australia and Cambodia, Wish You Were Here is a great-looking film that is hamstrung by its director’s self-indulgence and borderline racism. The plot revolves around a pair of Australian couples who visit Cambodia and have a great old time until one of the group disappears. Understandably distraught, the remaining holiday makers limp back home and begin worrying about the disappearance of their friend and the fact that reporting his disappearance to the authorities might shine a light not only on their illegal activities but also their dysfunctional relationships. I say that the film is borderline racist as it falls into the familiar trap of using a non-white culture as backdrop for the breakdown of white middle-class lives. Colourful marketplaces, yay! Maimed beggars and brown dudes with machine guns, boo!
However, more interesting than Darcy-Smith’s use of lazy racist stereotypes is his failure to fuse the mystery and kitchen sink drama genres:
Darcy-Smith’s mistake lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between mysteries and dramas: The focus of a mystery is on leading the audience through a particular narrative while the focus of a drama is on unravelling the complexities of character. While psychological mysteries can sustain a hybridisation of the two genres, Wish You Were Here is ultimately a story about a missing tourist and not an exploration of why the characters are the way that they are. As you would expect from a plot structured around a missing person narrative, the characters only have as much depth as that central mystery requires meaning that while Darcy-Smith gives his actors vast amounts of time in which to explore their characters, the characters they are exploring are neither particularly deep nor particularly interesting. If Darcy-Smith wanted to direct a character-based drama then he should have written a script about character and not about an extraneous mystery. In a way, it’s a bit like turning up at the cinema to watch Avengers 2 only to discover that the director has decided to focus on the inner life of the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier. There’s nothing wrong with making a film about the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier but if you do then at least go to the trouble of working from a script that explores the character’s background and how they got recruited into SHIELD. Don’t just turn on the camera, leave them emote and expect the audience to be as fascinated by the results as the people doing the acting! That would make for a dull Avengers 2 and it certainly makes for a dull Wish You Were Here.
It is interesting that positive reviews of this film tend to point to the central performances of Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price as while both do well and are accorded a good deal of time and space, neither character is particularly complex or engaging. They’re just vaguely unhappy middle-class people who can’t talk about their problems. In truth, I’m not convinced that either performance was really all that worthy of commentary, though I do think that Darcy-Smith made their performances the focus of the film.
FilmJuice have my review of Ted Kotcheff’s sensational Australian film Wake in Fright.
Released this week by Masters of Cinema, Wake in Fright is one of those films that stays with you forever. Set in the middle of the Australian outback, the film is structured around a descent into madness after a middle class school teacher gets stuck in a working class mining town called The Yabba. Initially smug and contemptuous of the working class culture that surrounds him, the teacher is forced to make friends and make do and so finds himself drinking, gambling, hunting and fighting… his life one bender after another without room to think or breathe. However, rather than being a simple critique of working class habits from a middle class perspective, the film broadens its critique to all of Australian society:
Kotcheff uses John’s journey through The Yabba as a means of exposing the violent alcoholic nihilism that lurks beneath the surface of the Australian national image. John’s reactions are obviously quite bourgeois and, presented on their own, might have resulted in a film that spends over 100 minutes sneering at working-class Australians. However, the film’s use of John as an emotional touchstone is intriguingly refracted through the impressions of two other characters, a middle-class drunk (Al Thomas) whose wit and discernment become less and less obvious the drunker be becomes and an educated nihilist (Donald Pleasence) who has chosen to embrace the Yabba-lifestyle because he sees all forms of social, moral or spiritual advancement as a sign of vanity. The result is a film that manages to walk a fine line between demonising elements of working-class Australian culture and expressing real empathy as to why these people have come to think and act the way they do. There’s a wonderful scene late in the film where John hitches a lift with a trucker who invites him in to have a drink, terrified that another drink might send him back into the Yabba’s downward spiral, John refuses the drink only to be insulted and described as mad. How could anyone avoid descending into alcoholism when refusing to have a drink with a complete stranger is treated as a mortal insult?
As I point out in my review, the film functions almost like a non-genre revisionist western in so far as it sets out to debunk and deconstruct the national icon that is the Australian bushman. Interestingly, while the Australian film industry has produced a number of revisionist westerns (including the excellent Red Hill, which I wrote about a couple of years ago) almost all of them are devoted to addressing the various ways in which white Australians mistreated Indigenous Australians. One of the ways in which white Australians mistreated indigenous Australians is by making them invisible and perpetuating the myth that Australia was an uninhabited landscape before the arrival of the white man. As I point out in my Red Hill piece, this tendency to make indigenous Australians disappear is actually being perpetuated by the fact that all of these films about terrible white people are themselves directed by white people! As a result, Wake in Fright‘s decision to pick a fight with the predominantly white bushman and give his culture both barrels is far less problematic than most of the real Australian revisionist westerns.
There’s also a lovely bit in one of the interviews included on the DVD where someone describes how the first Australian screenings went quite badly with one person standing up and shouting “this ain’t us!” to which a member of the cast responded, gloriously, “Sit down mate, this is us!”.
This film is really something special.
THE ZONE has my review of an interesting Australian film by first-time director Ben C. Lucas. Wasted on the Young is stylishly shot high school mystery in very much the same tradition as Rian Johnson’s Brick. Aside from the intriguing plot and the deliciously chilly cinematography, what really grabbed me about this film was its attempt to get inside the head of contemporary teenagers whose every move is recorded by CCTV cameras and whose every thought is captured by social media:
As William Gibson’s recent writings have suggested, there was a point when society changed and certain ideas ceased to be science fictional. Yesterday’s cyberpunk futurism is today’s kitchen sink realism. Similarly, many old realist touchstones appear to be little more than genre affectations tainted by reactionary nostalgia. We no longer live in a world where women can afford to be bored doctor’s wives. Virginia Wolfe once described George Elliott’s Middlemarch as one of the few British novels written for adults but when read today, the book appears about as realistic as a quest to destroy a magical ring. By borrowing elements from the hard-boiled and cyberpunk genres while simultaneously downplaying the fictional character of these elements, Lucas is attempting to capture what it feels like to grow up in a world with its own set of realist touchstones and its own set of worries and concerns.
Watching it I was reminded not only of the more recent works by William Gibson but also the short stories of Tim Maughan (some of which I reviewed a little while back). What unites these works is a realisation that, rather than simply adding to an already existing world, the internet and social media are changing the world by sculpting how young people learn to see and react to the world. Literary theorists have spent the last 100 years bemoaning the fact that we are now modern and as such have severed our ties to the gods of our forefathers. Similarly, transhumanists spend much of their time banging a drum for the change that will come with the arrival of the Singularity. The more I read and the more I think about today’s youth, the more I realise that there is no great Death of Pan or Birth of the Singularity… there’s just some old fucks dying and some young fucks taking their place. Society is in constant evolution and social media is one particular area of genetic drift. In 10 years (let alone 100), people will wander what it was like to live without the internet and so any work of art that does not engage with the social changes created by the internet must be seen as little more than a side-show.
Gibson’s decision to re-position himself as a mainstream writer rather than a genre writer is the product of two forms of change: Firstly, society has changed to the point where science-fictional ideas are now realistic ideas. Secondly, Gibson needed to leave genre because genre has no interest in writing about the world that we are currently making for ourselves. Wasted on the Young is yet more evidence that science fiction has run its course as both a literary tradition and a sub-culture as it is easily as cyberpunky as any of Gibson’s recent novels and yet it presents these scientific and social ideas as nothing more than grindingly mundane realism.
History is one of the key battlegrounds in the war for social progress. When used correctly, history confers not just a sense of tradition and legitimacy but also a sense of inevitability: Why bother fighting to change society when things have always been the way they are? Why bother fighting to overthrow the status quo when history tells us that there are no viable alternatives to the existing model? To control history is to control the narratives that govern society and to control the narratives that govern society is to govern society’s moral compass.
Once a group controls all the narratives and sets the moral tone of the discussion, all they need to do in order to win an argument is to present themselves as being history’s natural endpoint. Indeed, it is one thing to criticise the morals of the ruling elite and the moral righteousness of the status quo but it is quite another to pick a fight with the implacable Darwinian logic of human history. By staking out the historical high ground and claiming to be the culmination of long-standing historical processes, defenders of the status quo can make their critics appear not merely wrong but ignorant and downright delusional. One spectacular example of this type of thing is Francis Fukuyama’s infamous decision to celebrate the end of the Cold War by asking whether America’s victory over the Soviet Union marked the end of history. By attempting to claim American liberal democracy as history’s logical end point, Fukuyama was making a bold political claim namely that in the grand scheme of things, All Paths Lead to Us. Thus, the Soviets were not merely wrong; they were fighting against history’s oceanic tide. Another example of the battle to control a society’s historical narratives can be found in the evolution of the cinematic Western.
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