The Goddess of 1967

Perhaps the best word that describes the distinct quality of Clara Law’s latest film The Goddess of 1967 (2000) is postmodern. Unlike any other contemporary Australian feature-filmmaker, she betrays an astute, experimental attitude to the medium, an inclination to gather and juxtapose markedly different people and places and disparate cultural meanings (the outback, machine and modernity, the city) and a strong interest in states of transition, dislocation, and isolation. In Goddess, a blind girl “B.G” (Rose Byrne) and Japanese man “J.M.” (Rikiya Kurokawa) journey through the Australian outback in a Citroen named ‘Goddess’ toward a ‘heart of darkness’ or primal, originating point that ultimately sets the soul of the young blind girl free. Intermittently punctuating what is essentially a forward-journey-back-in-time are flashbacks of the past, mainly of B.G.’s past but also J.M.’s, a Roland Barthes quote, and advertising footage and statistics celebrating the superiority in design and manufacture of the Citroen. However, despite the postmodern sensibility and sophisticated experimental play with sound, music, camera work, colour and the landscape, ideas of character and story remain essentially conventional and clichéd throughout Goddess, producing a strange mismatch effect throughout the film.

As Stephen Teo recently pointed out, Goddess shares a lot in common with Law’s earlier film Autumn Moon (1992) (1). Both centre on a relationship between a young girl, isolated from her family, and a Japanese man, who is funny and amusing but ultimately warm and an important solace. Both also emphasise landscape in heightened ways though a particular choice of music and shot composition. If the landscape only emphasises each characters’ isolation and absolute aloneness, it is their relationship with each other that enables them to experience harmony and completeness – if only temporarily. In both Autumn Moon and Goddess, the two sets of characters experience moments of joy and epiphany together – the most beautiful illustration being the fireworks sequence in Autumn Moon.

There is no doubt that Clara Law is a sophisticated, intelligent director. As mentioned previously, she has a keen sense of visual language and knowingly and avidly manipulates elements of mise en scène to her own ends. The entire opening sequence of Goddess is a playful illustration of this – for the first 5-10 minutes, not a word is spoken as one set-piece after another, with music a key identifying factor, reveals important plot details and peculiarities relating to J.M.’s character.

What is most fascinating about Law, and co-writer and producer, Eddie Fong, is their passion for stories about what it means to be human and especially what it means and how it feels to be human during times of transition, migration, isolation and tragedy. In the Clara Law films I have seen, her characters grapple with this feeling of either being in a new place and new culture (Floating Life [1995]) or of being in a moment neither here nor there, spinning, if only momentarily, on an existence that is temporary, stuck in a limbo of stasis edged between movement and change (Autumn Moon). Throughout these films and now in Goddess, Law betrays a yearning passion to mine the inner worlds of her characters, to find out what it is that makes them cry, laugh, dance and desire. But she is not all serious. In fact, her films are peppered with moments of strange, quirky humour both in the characters and their interactions with others. It is fascinating the way her films regularly alter in tenor from the lyrical to the quirky.

In Goddess, Law throws up various metaphors. The Citroen, revealed to be a “family car”, is like a vessel, a veritable time-travelling machine that links one generation to the next. The various scenes in which the characters are driving in the car and the accompanying strange surreal feel as though the car were floating, wonderfully illustrates this idea of the Citroen as a personalised vessel travelling in an alternate time-space continuum. In the film’s swift and clever association of meanings, J.M.’s desire for the ultimate material possession eventually translates into a spiritual and deep connection with B.G., whose identity becomes synonymous with the Citroen. All that B.G. is today is a consequence of her past. And Goddess posits the past as that which holds the key to the future. So that the metaphor of the blind character is rather contrived – everyone is blinded in their journey toward the future unless they have reconciled the past. Despite the obligatory backstory provided for J.M., it is really B.G. who is the centre of Goddess and through whom Law and Fong explore and voice their humanist sensibility.

In defining their characters, Law and Fong give landscape a vital role. If the Hong Kong of Autumn Moon was a place of isolation and the diasporic settlements throughout Floating Life, posts constantly de-centred from home, the outback landscape in Goddess is a harsh, wide open plane upon which all sorts of evil and ugliness is able to breed. In defining their central character as one who emerged from this landscape, and who is consequently an integral part of it, Law together with DOP Dion Beebe have fashioned a unique array of images and sounds. Rose Byrne’s brilliant red-orange hair seems to have directly morphed from this environment, and Beebe’s painterly tableaux of the character in foetal position at the foot of a tree or rushing forward along the horizon away from a blazing fire are haunting images. Unlike B.G., J.M. emerged from somewhere completely surreal and otherworldly – Tokyo. Within the economy of symbolism and meaning which Law has set up in this film, Tokyo signifies a truly postmodern place – that which can only be figured in a beautiful swirl and blur of images and colour – and with J.M. as its postmodern satellite marking the Australian outback landscape with his ‘difference’. B.G.’s unquestioned intimacy with the landscape is hinted several times throughout the film in her affinity with the animals (especially the dingos who protect rather than harm her; the lizard she automatically recognises) and objects of nature (for example the tree she clings to as a child becomes the tree, years later, she gravitates to for comfort after a rough night). Unlike her mother, Marie (Elise McCredie) B.G.’s religion is the law of the outback – the trees, the animals, the roads, its sounds and textures.

This wide-open land encourages a form of atheism, embodied in the character Grandpa (Nicholas Hope) and his statement “we’re free to do whatever we like out here” – a mutant hippy character who freely crosses the borders of family, love, and sex, claiming that he is free to make love to all his daughters and granddaughters. His vile nature is cloaked beneath a ‘civilised’, elegant exterior symbolised in his life-long winemaking and drinking habits. Goddess seems to say it’s a matter of bad luck that one is born into the hands of such a man and that the only way to eject him from one’s soul and spirit is to confront him directly.

Law’s experimental spirit and humanist concerns are ultimately weighed down under a series of themes (the dominance of the past over the present, incest, victimisation, Catholicism) explored in an essentially heavy-handed, overblown and clichéd style.

The structure of the film is curious. Law has always shown an interest in mosaic storytelling, weaving together disparate narratives from other times and places, that in some unique and synergetic way shed light on each other. This is an inclination that fits her disdain toward cause and effect narrative and shows the relation between things in lateral, less literal ways. In Goddess, the design of the structure becomes obvious: the further along B.G.’s journey toward the origin of her childhood, the clearer and more frequent the past emerges. However, the random movement back in time and the random point in time at which the flashback begins strangely goes against the rhythm of the car-journey and consequently seems forced and even confusing. The relation between the past and the present throughout these random flashbacks hardly resonates at all.

It could be said that there are many filmmakers working in fiction who are genuinely interested in the souls and hearts of their characters and who are especially apt at exploring spiritual, transcendental themes within a medium as materialist as film. Perhaps Robert Bresson is the ultimate figure here. But whereas Bresson revealed moments of beauty and transcendence in everyday characters and actions, with an intense focus on the physicality and materialism of characters’ actions, Law constructs in Goddess a symbolic system of humanist concerns which is far from subtle, complex or mysterious. Like Bresson in Mouchette (1966), she focuses on tragedy and pain as moments of human truth and beauty. But like her blunt characterisation of cultural stereotypes (the ‘drummer boy’, the man at the “oldest bar in the outback”), the values of good and bad throughout Goddess are too crude to be seriously affecting. A flashback three years earlier reveals an overweight bush character, ‘drummer boy’ (Tim Richards), brutally forcing himself upon B.G., who had kindly offered him her friendship. After a horrible night of abuse, the film cuts to the next morning and the shot of B.G. in foetal position at the foot of a tree protected by dingos. It is just one of the many shots throughout the film that signal, through a dramatic score and tableau-like imagery, the vulnerability of this character and her sensitivity in a wide cruel world. Goddess continuously strikes its emotional notes in this manner – by pitting the good, the innocent and vulnerable against the blatantly evil and ugly, consequently reducing the film to a facile, pretentious exercise.

Goddess is also constrained by a programmatic quality in the characters and the story. In particular, the blind character is burdened to carry the film’s humanist metaphors – most obviously the one that often we journey forward blinded or hampered by the past. So that the gesture of the final shot – B.G. and J.M. driving into the future, their hands covering their eyes – is a crude and blunt conflation of theme, metaphor and action. And for all the film’s constant displacing of the narrative through shifts in time and place, and for all its stylistic boldness, careful colour coding, and postmodern complexities Goddess‘ narrative collapses into a reductive, caustic, simplistic moral platitude along the lines of – in order to get on with our lives we must simply face the horrors of our past.

Law places her characters in a vast cosmic design according to which they are bound to repeat the same self-destructive actions and thoughts. This is embodied especially in the mother character, Marie, who is locked in a perpetual state of victimisation and disempowerment. Deluded by Catholic notions of guilt and lacking B.G.’s feisty attitude, Marie is denied empowerment, which is reserved for the film’s hero. The weight of the past expresses itself in B.G.’s character in her fascination with death – the names of dead people announced on the radio that is her “favourite program”, the candid, amused way she describes the details of blood and brains scattered across the house, the “sound” of death she forces J.M. to hear as the flies splatter against the car dashboard – and her automatic independence of all people (illustrated in how she instructs the young girl never to trust anyone). But this is just another caustic move – over the course of the film, it becomes obvious that she is like this because of the tragic circumstances of her background and her forced isolation. And that she will overcome these character traits once she has resolved her past.

But perhaps the most unsatisfying part of Goddess is the way the material within the flashback sequences is presented. Law’s treatment of the character of Grandpa and the themes of victimisation, religion, and incest is overly heavy-handed and one-dimensional. The ‘heart of darkness’ scene, in which the full grotesque-ness of Grandpa is revealed in almost comic-book style, is overly dramatic and indulgent.

Despite the filmmakers’ admirable intentions and stylistic competence, The Goddess of 1967 is ultimately undermined by a denial of the full clinching of style and content. Its dazzling postmodern landscape ultimately collapses under the weight of reductive and simplistic ideas of character and story. Autumn Moon remains for me the modest masterpiece in Law’s career – the haunting emotional quality in the freeze frame of the face of its young protagonist caught in a changing world bears the trace of a fine filmmaker.

Endnotes

  1. Stephen Teo, Autumn Moon, Senses of Cinema, February-March 2001.

About The Author

Fiona Villella is a freelance writer and former editor of Senses of Cinema.