Shirley Barrett’s first film, Love Serenade (1995), featured one of the most memorable characters in recent Australian cinema: the burnt-out radio announcer Ken Sherry (George Shuksov), a long-nosed, grizzled ’70s throwback with a taste for Barry White songs and a hilariously sleazy line in seductive patter. About halfway through the film, the two sisters competing for Ken’s affections (played by Rebecca Frith and Miranda Otto) make an extraordinary discovery: on either side of Ken’s ears are strange openings that resemble gills. Ken Sherry, in other words, is not just a fishy character. In some mysterious but literal sense, Ken is a fish.
One of the main characters in Barrett’s new film, Walk The Talk (2000) is a Gold Coast club singer named Nikki Raye (played by singer Nikki Bennett, in her first acting role). Like Ken, Nikki has hit a downturn in her show business career. Also like Ken, she functions for the viewer as something of a blank slate, an often unreadable presence who passively allows herself to become the object of erotic fantasy. Nikki is a kind of deflated Aussie version of a femme fatale, a strung-out blonde bimbo whose entire personality seems bleached of energy and thought. Late in the film its hero, inept talent agent Joey Grasso (Salvatore Coco), congratulates Nikki on her ability to “keep a cool head in a crisis”. “Yeah, well”, she responds, “I have a very slow heartbeat. I’m similar to the tennis player Bjorn Borg in that respect”.
This tendency to account for characters in non-psychological terms, by depicting their bodies as physically abnormal or inhuman, links Barrett to what Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka have labelled the Gothic tradition in Australian cinema – all the freaks and mutants that have filled local screens from The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1973) to the Mad Max trilogy to Welcome To Woop Woop (Stephen Elliot, 1998). These Gothic touches can seem rather desperate and random in Barrett’s work, because she’s a stylistically restrained and not particularly physical director; her liking for the grotesque creates a tension in her work that I will return to later. Still, it’s true that Barrett tends to shun psychological explanations for her characters’ strange actions. In her films, as Dermody and Jacka say of the Australian Gothic style in general, “characterisation is born…out of deliberately pathological, rather than social or psychological, kinds of stereotype” (1). Even the most seemingly ‘normal’ of Barrett’s characters rarely boasts a conventionally ‘fully-rounded’ personality. Driven by pathological energies that are treated as inexplicable facts of life, they rationalise their desires with clichés and borrowed slogans; they may strive for love, fame or glory, but it’s impossible to take anything they say or do without a grain of salt.
If this is true of Nikki, who gives the impression of barely having two thoughts rattling round in her head (her career goal is to “meet some guy with a shitload of money”) it’s even more true of Joey, a clueless go-getter in his mid-twenties whose life is one continuous hard sell. Joey is dedicated to a philosophy of life gleaned from self-help books and motivational seminars; he has an intense, wide-eyed gaze and a limitless ability to shrug off setbacks, and he’s painfully sincere even when he’s conning people. Bonita (Sacha Horler), Joey’s tough-minded paraplegic girlfriend, is by comparison the film’s voice of reason, but she too is easily fooled: she helplessly lets herself be exploited by Joey, who uses the compensation from her car accident to fund his shonky talent agency, and she dutifully submits to the unwise counsel of Pastor Bob (Robert Coleby) the fatherly minister at the local evangelical church.
Foolish, irrational belief is everywhere in Walk The Talk. Most central is Joey’s belief in the importance of “following your dream”, a doctrine he preaches with a fervour that manages to drag both Nikki and Bonita along with him. The episodic plot follows Joey in his obsessive attentions to Nikki (his newly launched agency’s only client) and his struggle to revive her flagging career; his plans repeatedly fail due to a combination of his own incompetence, Nikki’s erratic behaviour, and plain bad luck. Since Joey is doomed to fail similarly at everything he attempts, the film is a parody not only of self-help manuals and the like, but of all ‘feel-good’ movies where battlers triumph against the odds – the formula behind a slew of recent Australian films from Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1993) to The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1998). Along the way, Barrett manages to work in a series of tacky retro musical numbers (starting with “The Impossible Dream” over the opening credits) and show us some of the less glamorous corners of the Gold Coast entertainment industry. Joey promises Nikki stardom, but in the end the best he can do is get her a lunchtime gig at the local RSL club, where the band deliberately sabotages her performance as she croons to an audience of dozy pensioners.
With its focus on a fast-talking idiot bent on taking the showbiz world by storm, Walk The Talk has reminded several critics of Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1983), almost certainly a conscious reference point. Rejecting psychology in a different way from the ‘Gothic’ Australian films cited earlier, The King Of Comedy belongs to a strand of American cinema that conceives identity as something fundamentally unstable and improvised, a matter of working and reworking one’s public image. In Scorsese’s movie, Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) believes that by patterning his behaviour after his idol, talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), he can in some sense become Langford; miraculously, he succeeds in realising this dream, transforming himself from a ‘schmuck’ into a celebrity on the basis of a single appearance on Langford’s show. Joey’s Americanised gospel of self-help, which he applies to Nikki and Bonita’s lives as well as his own, works in much the same way. All you need to do is imagine yourself being successful, then behave as if your fantasy is real. ‘Walk the talk,’ the mantra that provides Barrett with her title, sums up this idea of identity as successful performance. Hence most of Joey’s energy goes into maintaining a slick level of self-presentation, impersonating his fantasy of an ideal Joey Grasso who’s ‘highly focused’ and always in control.
But where The King Of Comedy ultimately seems to endorse Rupert’s mad quest for celebrity, Barrett casts a cold eye on Joey’s cherished dreams. Shot in washed-out bluish tones, the film examines its rundown, underpopulated Gold Coast locations – clubs, casinos, shopping malls – from a perspective closer to Nikki Raye’s glassy anomie than Joey’s proselytising mania. If aspects of Walk The Talk are derived from The King Of Comedy, another important influence on Barrett in both this film and Love Serenade is surely the Jane Campion of Sweetie (1989), one of the first films to rework the conventions of Australian Gothic from a feminist point of view. (The title character in Sweetie is a pathologically disturbed woman who barks like a dog and – once again – dreams of a show business career.) Neither Barrett nor Campion are the kind of feminists who worry about providing ‘positive role models,’ but both are scathing about the mutual exploitation and self-delusion involved in relationships between men and women – and merciless towards the blustering pretentions of men in particular. Barrett keeps her visual style simple, avoiding showy camera movements and rarely trying to match Sweetie‘s stiff, angular compositions. Yet it’s perhaps from Campion that she’s learnt to direct a quizzical gaze at images surreal in their mundanity – Joey having an epiphany in a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, or Nikki leaving her kids to play at the bottom of her drained swimming pool (“they’re pretty much trapped in there”, she tells Joey when he drops by).
While neither Sweetie nor The King Of Comedy has a conventionally sympathetic main character who acts from easy-to-read motives, both draw a lot of energy from the unpredictable craziness of their protagonists – who are understood largely in terms of their uninhibited physical and social behaviour. It’s no fault of Salvatore Coco, whose performance is both effectively stylised and touchingly restrained, that Joey lacks this feral edge: he retains a likeable, naive charm, and while he may be close to madness he’s the opposite of a wild and crazy guy. On the contrary, preparation and focus are his watchwords. Whenever Joey speaks, Coco gives the impression that he’s carefully repeating monologues he’s already recited a million times over in his head. These speeches are often long, nearly always in complete sentences, delivered in an eager, monotonous sing-song Italian accent: this is a guy who prepares a set of cue cards before he makes a declaration of love. When Joey’s plans go wrong, it’s occasionally because he hasn’t thought things out carefully enough, but more often it’s because his approach is too rigid. He’s unable to respond appropriately to a situation as it unfolds, because he insists at all costs on sticking to his script.
Lack of spontaneity seems to be Barrett’s problem as well. She’s more of a satirist than either Campion or Scorsese, yet her very skill at comic point-scoring seems to imprison her as a director, enclosing everything in ironic quotation marks and reducing characters to one-note ciphers. (Sacha Horler, whose character comes closest to being a ‘three-dimensional’ person, is also the actor most short-changed by the script.) Much of Walk The Talk seems too muted and stiff for high comedy, yet at times the humour is disconcertingly bald and obvious – as when Pastor Bob delivers a smarmy lecture on the duty of wives to submit to their husbands, then remarks that his wife contemplates this lesson while she’s doing the washing-up. At other times a kind of brittle, reflex sarcasm makes it hard to know what tone Barrett is aiming for. When Pastor Bob urges his flock to reach out to street kids with “the gift of soup”, it’s telegraphed as a punch line, yet it’s hard to see anything intrinsically ridiculous about a church donating food to the homeless. You get the feeling Barrett is aiming for a kind of cosmic absurdist perspective: there’s a portentousness about the way Joey’s bumblings are allowed to play out at length, as if they were part of some deep vision about the pointlessness of human struggle. Yet as often happens with wittily knowing, highly verbal filmmakers – like the Coen brothers or Todd Solondz – the characters and situations seem too calculated to be mysterious or resonant; they’re thinly imagined and easily judged.
My favourite scenes in Walk The Talk come when the film’s comic energy is allowed to outrun its carefully maintained arty flatness. The best of these is a set-piece where Joey arranges an audition for Nikki with a jaded record executive (played by Jon English in one of Barrett’s cruelly funny bits of iconic casting – as an emblem of ravaged ’70s manhood, English is up there with Ken Sherry). Needless to say, everything that can go wrong does, but when Nikki saunters into the room in a spangled low-cut blue dress it’s as if she’s arrived out of another movie: her drop-dead presence seems to have nothing to do with the vague, pallid, disaffected woman we’ve met in earlier scenes. She starts belting out Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” like a born trouper – wiggling provocatively, draping herself over the record executives, doing everything she can to put the song across. The audience is stunned – and even more so when Nikki reaches the climactic line of the song, “she pulled a gun and shot him down”. Out of nowhere, she pulls an actual gun and starts blasting away into the ceiling, as if possessed by the spirit of the words and music.
Alongside the cool detachment of most of Walk The Talk, it’s a fantastic, euphoric moment. Once again, the basis of it seems to be the idea of ‘walking the talk’ – Nikki sees no distinction between performing a song and acting out its lyrics for real. And it’s the most bizarrely literal, physical kind of performance imaginable: there’s never any convincing explanation for why Nikki chooses to sabotage her own comeback, except that her brassy, theatrical presentation of the song could be taken to license any kind of outrageous gesture. (Later on, she claims she pulled the gun as a publicity stunt; more suggestively, we gather that Nikki’s past history gives her ample reason to act out a bitterness towards men.) It’s as if the film has just been plodding along till this point – and then it suddenly takes off into a crazy world where anybody might break loose at any moment from what’s normally thought of as ‘reality.’
Most of Barrett’s satire assumes an unbridgeable gap between ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ – the characters are supposed to be laughed at because they get the two confused. Yet this bleak determinism is continually lightened by Barrett’s own tentative dabs of surrealism – and the tension between these two impulses is what makes Barrett’s films interesting. Joey believes, for example, that Bonita will one day be able to walk again after her car accident; doctors say this is impossible. Probably this is an example of Joey’s destructive optimism: he shouldn’t encourage Bonita in false hopes. Yet if Ken Sherry in Love Serenade can turn out to have gills, who can say what physical miracles Barrett’s other characters might be capable of? No matter how merciless and superior Barrett’s work seems, there are always moments when she’s forced to turn and embrace the wonderful freakiness, tackiness and madness of her characters. As Nikki is possessed by her song, the film itself gets carried away, lifted up in turn by that same irrational freedom.