Looking for Alibrandi

In a year when Australian cinema revenue fell for the first time in over a decade and the consumption of home-made cinema dropped almost everywhere in the world, the Australian Film Commission (AFC) announced that the little Aussie film industry had battled to its highest ever point domestically, doubling its share of the box-office to almost 8% or $54.2 million (1). Typically filmed in limited locations, on low-budgets, with short shoots and small casts, eight locally produced features took over a million dollars each. Four – The Dish, The Wog Boy, Looking For Alibrandi, Chopper – were outright hits. What were these films about, what did they say?

The year opened with Nick Giannopoulos as The Wogboy (Aleksi Vellis), an ethnic comedy pitched for universal comprehension. Taking advantage of surveying anomalies and tapping into a sizeable ethnic niche market, it set an all-time, opening week record and from this initial success built its hype to take in a total of $11.5m for the year. The film also signalled the themes that were to dominate the year in Australian popular film: Australian identity, especially a safe type of multiculturalism, and an obsession with masculinity at the expense of women’s stories.

The year closed with advance screenings of Mallboy (Vince Giarrusso), the socio-psychological drama about a suburban, underclass family. Although we are yet to measure its commercial success, Mallboy, which was included in the 2000 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, has been widely acclaimed. It also provides for an interesting comparison with The Wogboy: if the latter is an old-fashioned, slick, lightweight comedy about a man who is still a boy, then Mallboy is a bumped-up-from-16mm, ambitious, modern story of a boy forced to play the role of a man. If any trajectory continuing into the future could be suggested, it would bode very well indeed for a maturing screen culture.

Nothing though could match the loyalty shown by the public toward The Castle’s ‘Working Dog’ team and the Seachange stars cast in Rob Sitch’s The Dish. It ultimately easily out-boxed all-comers to become one of the most successful Australian films of all time. Taking almost $17m, it was still being heavily programmed into the New Year. With considerable international potential, it is an impressive indicator of the capacity of ‘creative teams’ with Graeme Wood’s cinematography the surface sheen on an inventive Australian myth.

Director, Paul Cox (Man of Flowers, Lonely Hearts, A Woman’s Tale, etc.), told the Adelaide Review (Jan 2001) that political repression gave Iran the most humane and visionary cinema in the world. He went on to point out though, that what Australia lacks in repression-induced soul, it makes up for in diversity, which this year stretched to what he termed the “strangely hideous” Chopper ($5.7m) to the “small” Looking for Alibrandi ($8.3m).

Few who saw these two films will dispute that they are illustrative of a diverse film industry. Despite the huge promotional support they received, however, many in the public will have baulked at seeing Kate Woods’ Looking for Alibrandi on suspicion of it being ‘Wog-girl’ (the sequel), while Chopper created a slight roar on the basis of its morally compromised central character. Restricted to over-eighteens, Chopper‘s (Andrew Domenik) success was remarkable and international sales and local video rentals will ultimately give it a very long reach indeed. Me, Myself and I (Pip Karmel) at $2.7m and which I have yet to see, headed the remaining releases, which include: Bootmen (Dien Perry), My Mother Frank (Mark Lamprell), Better than Sex (Jonathan Teplitzky) and Innocence (Paul Cox).

From 2000, we’ll remember international family-based films like American Beauty, and All About My Mother, which between them took out the mainstream and foreign-language Oscars and Golden Globes. Sam Mendes’ debut was the gonzo sitcom which had Kevin Spacey’s character re-jigging his relationships with women as he was forced to accept their humanity in rediscovering his own. Pedro Almodóvar reached a new peak when he portrayed love and motherhood through the warm performance of an angelic Cecilia Roth. From the UK came Wonderland, visually somewhat Chopper-like and starring Gina McKee as one of three sisters who negotiates post-humanism with hope. In this, Michael Winterbottom’s hand-held images looked a lot like the Lars von Trier ‘Dogme 95’ (certified-and-otherwise) offerings, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, the latter of which completed his female-focused trilogy.

International viewers of our films, on the other hand, would have been amused by our blokey titles, intrigued by the ubiquitous ‘bimbo’ characters and surprised not to see any indigenous people. Heterosexual romance was a constant, however, there were other themes that drove the stories of the more commercially successful scripts. The most successful films also, interestingly, told stories that were uniquely Australian.

Looking back fondly on a lost Australiana, The Dish was also about our place in the world, in particular our relation to America. It was not PM John Howard’s mythical, moral (but in reality often cruelly repressive and deceitful) 1950s but rather the supposedly lamentable late 1960s that this film was concerned with. Our national irreverence was epitomised by scientists playing the PM’s beloved game of cricket on a radio-satellite needed by NASA to communicate with its lunar-landing mission. This was a time when political dissent was rife, freedoms were fought for and defended, diversity tolerated and military and other leaders questioned. The Dish glorified ‘old-fashioned values’ yes, but these were larrikinism, workplace democracy and lying to authority. It also playfully subverted the moralistic posturing of our party system depicting an ineffectual but well-meaning local MP and an evil, visiting PM.

While The Wogboy couldn’t avoid some issues of politics, work and media power, it ultimately shied from dealing with them. It only ever wanted to make us laugh, as was clear from its opening sketch-like gags. We can certainly say unequivocally that by the end of the year 2000, Nick Giannopoulos’ mission to claim the word ‘wog’ for his people had been accomplished. Like Vince Colossimo’s character in Chopper, ‘Euro-wogs’ are now mainstream Australian. Two of the hit films, The Wogboy and the school-prescribed, book-based, Looking for Alibrandi, made previous waves of immigrants the well-represented darlings of our cinema. My Mother Frank was a little over-cautious in not allowing its ‘ethnics’ into the story after populating the university to look like the United Nations, leaving Giannopoulos paradoxically, as the only one openly clinging to the old racist ideas. Embarrassingly, his stereotyped yet lovable ‘new Australians’ were intellectually slow, emotionally immature, gullible and aggressive. He also played his own hairy-faced mother and revealed his ‘disabled’ friend to be a compo fraud. All that without suggesting any positive value of migration to this country. On the other hand, the real ‘wogs’ now, Asians, ‘illegals’, Aborigines, women, were all-but omitted from the year’s screen stories.

The films that weren’t specifically Australian and that appeared on the surface to be apolitical naturally tended to push archaic, conventional gender, cultural and class politics. Better than Sex and Innocence were old-fashioned stories of well-heeled, heterosexual, urban romance that predicated ideals of monogamous, possessive and compromising relationships between people who had the money to do whatever they wanted. The idle-rich, strict-Catholic, squatter-class, family story My Mother Frank made the same assumptions.

Better Than Sex‘s advertising slogan ran – “a one night stand that goes wrong for all the right reasons”. It proposed that a no-strings-attached night of fun was impossible and showed insecurity and possessive tendencies overtaking the well intentioned but fated bonkers, David Wenham and Susie Porter. She, as ‘Cin’ was bedecked in crucifix jewellery in this film that said white weddings were right, while sex for fun was wrong. ‘Passion’ was OK but not ‘lust’. It was tricky moral stuff condoning a woman abandoning her work, her interests and her friends to pursue a bloke she knew very little about. The implication was that neurotic, emotional attachment was better than sex but we weren’t shown or even told why.

Innocence championed the bonking of an old flame both as an act of ‘love’ and as grounds for exiting a life-long marriage. The elderly were incited to seek out their first crushes with a view to giving their lives belated meaning. Again, there was, fatally, very little exploration of the characters’ personalities and lives, with only lots of talk about ‘love’. The more popular films were the least moralistic, more depicting than didactic.

Bootmen raised the interesting issue of the role of work in how people are defined and explored how more glamorous ambitions might fit within the normal ‘work’ model. Issues of loyalty, families and especially masculinity were raised in all-dancing scenarios set in the steelworks. Incredibly, there was no suggestion that there was anything ‘gay’ or ‘wussy’ about tap-dancing. In fact the whole town seemed to be doing it. Grown blokes were shown crying too, which was a powerful and commendable development rarely seen outside of politics and sport in this country but it still didn’t justify the tendency to dispense with female characters across the board (as rarely seen outside of politics and sport in this country).

Chopper was an altogether riskier venture, cutting deeper into the gristle of Aussie masculinity. With the screen Chopper’s seething insecurity always threatening to spiral into brutality, it portrayed an extreme of a type of macho behaviour that all too commonly surfaces in personal relationships in this country. Some people, however, were irked that there weren’t laws against making movies about people like Chopper Read, perhaps especially as it turned out he is currently living happily and serenely in rural Tasmania instead of being punished for eternity.

By focusing our interest on the psychological forces at work rather than sensationalising the violence in Read’s life, writer-director Domenik, made a responsible and fascinating film. Chopper and his cruel yet pathetic, shell-shocked dad were also a model of the pivotal father-son relationship seen in other films like the scathing and fierce dad in Bootmen, the politician father in Looking for Alibrandi and Mallboy‘s careless and brutal dad. Kinder father figures were harder to come by, being more likely to occur in a widowed boss as in The Dish than in an actual father.

Indeed, if you were to accept The Dish‘s close-knit scientific team with its respect and loose hierarchy as a ‘family,’ (and this would otherwise be political suicide), intra-family relationships were of central concern in all of the films except for Better than Sex.

Looking for Alibrandi was a coming of age film focussing on a young woman whose family was of Italian heritage and full of loaded, hidden secrets. It showed our philosophical and ethnic diversity and, despite romantic subplots, was really about reconciliation through revealing the truth of the past. As in The Castle, the door to universal and metaphorical applications was opened by an astute observance of the microcosm of a realistic family.

It’s no slight on the talented Pia Miranda that she takes the award for ‘Only Woman In a Leading Role.’ Perfectly cast as the schoolgirl on the verge of womanhood, ballet-trained and ‘Neighbours‘-honed, she shone throughout this film, showing a full range of human expression. Greta Scacchi displayed all the warmth of the best of Australian multiculturalism as her mum, while Elena Cotta as Nonna, made up the three generations of compelling and endearing women. Their triangular relationship, revealed through charming bilingual interplay, was the heart of this film.

‘Dead women in a supporting role’ was a much more competitive category, featuring as they did, as the lead man’s wife in The Dish, Better than Sex and Innocence, plus as the lead man’s mother in Bootmen and Chopper. All these surviving husbands stood out quite starkly against the odds of Australian life expectancy and might have been trying to say something about our unbalanced national psyche. (Only My Mother Frank had a dead husband, haunting proceedings via the inspired medium of exploding tins of botulised pineapple.)

Where women were alive, many tended to be rather one-dimensional and weak of heart or mind. Even when she was the only woman, most films had a ‘bimbo,’ while those with strong female characters were greatly enhanced by such a presence. Telling performances came from Kate Beahan in Chopper, Abie Tucker in Wogboy, and Marta Dusseldorp in Innocence, while only Mallboy joined Looking for Alibrandi in presenting a range of women you’re likely to see in real life.

Through apparently objective observation, Mallboy offered some insights into how some kids in this country are forced to care for exploited and confused adults, whose no-doubt romantic dreams had turned into a more nightmarish reality, with negative emotions impacting on everyone. Nell Feeney played the self-medicating, feisty young mum self-destructively clinging to the remnants of her past relationship with the father of her three children. Through her, desperation and frustration is transmitted to the next generation. When he’s not absent through incarceration, dad bludges smokes from his kids and beats up their mum.

Maybe masculinity was a subject we needed to examine this year. The Dish didn’t have a ‘male’ title, but it was probably the blokeyist of the lot, revolving around an all-male scientific team with only one female (bimbo) character getting any screen time. The titles of Wogboy, Bootmen and Mallboy speak for themselves and Chopper too, is famously known to be a bloke. While, to be fair, My Mother Frank is a furphy title for a film concerning a woman and her son, even the sought-after ‘Alibrandi’ is a bloke in the title of this rarity, a women-centred story.

Looking for Alibrandi is based on a very successful novel by Melina Marchetta, which headed even Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s phenomenally successful, boastingly autobiographical works in the ‘most stolen books’ stakes. The more popular films all had experienced writers and long periods of literary development behind them. Mallboy was the fruit of seven years of work on a story from the youth worker knowledge of a successful songwriter who had an interest in the nuances of spoken language. The result was a strong story able to be told visually with wonderfully natural dialogue. Giannopoulos too, had been writing about his subject matter for theatre and television for over a decade. The Dish was the freshest, though still drawing on the proven skills of the ‘Working Dog’ team who had a wealth of television experience.

Acknowledging a speedier writing process, Paul Cox’s story of sexual obsession, Innocence, was hailed by some incurable romantics as “Lovely”. The voiceover ending though, “The only way to be happy is to love, everyone and everything,” seemed to be a contradictory afterthought, retracting the whole thrust of the plot. Looking for Alibrandi had a similar voiceover coda but it served its story, giving it an open-ness which placed the promise of ‘happily ever after’ in a more realistic frame.

Our actors, as always, are largely at the mercy of script quality and direction. In the year that actor Nicholas Cage was marvellous in Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead but was dead himself in Gone in 60 Seconds, Sam Neill was comfortable and believable in The Dish but otherwise in My Mother Frank. The fact that The Wogboy had Derryn Hinch unable to convincingly play himself need not then damn his acting career either. He might just need a better part or better direction.

Great performances, on the other hand, were many and include Eric Bana and Pia Miranda as the leads in Chopper and Alibrandi. Bana’s performance was most recently described in the December issue of Sight and Sound magazine as “startling” and “remarkably deft”. Award-winning Kane McNay was in good company with Nell Feeney, Maxie Rickard and Sarah Naumoff in Mallboy while Marta Dusseldorp was widely noted in Innocence. Overseas, Rose Byrne won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival while Beth Buchanan’s performance carried the winning short film there and Guy Pearce impressed audiences in the forthcoming Memento.

Our films generally looked very good for their budgets but sometimes fine craft was not adequately supported by the quality of the script. In the footsteps of Strictly Ballroom and Grease, Bootmen was one of the year’s more formulaic offerings. With ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, clunky dialogue and the verbalisation of ideas that had already been expressed visually, the fine cinematography, editing, wardrobe, hair, design, etc. were all-but wasted. The Dish was similarly conventional; though it did use a more expensive, classical style to focus our attention on a far more original story. The natural interchanges in the Chopper and Mallboy conversations were the highlights of well-written dialogue for the year.

Chopper was also particularly well lit with inventive colour design, and had striking shots from Kevin Hayward and Geoffrey Hall. Production designers, Patrick Reardon and Terry Ryan (both Muriel’s Wedding) didn’t distance the film too much from the present time and in that way the focus was kept on the characters and relevance maintained. Mallboy also showed a sensitivity to the Australian suburban environment with Brian Alexander apparently knocking on doors in suburban Sunshine, asking to take photos of lounge rooms to get the ‘big TV, videos, fluffy toys, ashtrays and no books’ look, just right. Incidentally, these two films were not afraid to go a little under-time and retain tautness, a major asset.

Even the less successful works could rarely be faulted for craft with Innocence ‘s visual blandness only conspicuous because the film was spiced with the wild, Chris Doyle-esque, Belgian footage from Jan Vancaillie. Similarly, the spell of Better than Sex‘s warm, naturally-lit and airily designed interior was only broken a couple of times by voyeuristic, unflattering close-ups and inexplicable camera movements.

Perhaps it was the year when Australian audiences were given what they really wanted to see, novel local films with lots of our self-claimed trademark humour. The domestic market was still small but much bigger than expected and the more successful films were all thematically very Australian. The public treated themselves to films which confirmed their experience, challenged them in other areas and didn’t preach. The presence of especially ex-Seachange TV personalities seemed crucial to, but no guarantee, of success. For all our cinema’s diversity, only The Dish ventured toward the bush and flashed back thirty years earlier from the present day. The year’s films were set, essentially, in our cities and now.

A country’s cinema, whether Iran’s or ours, is part of the national psyche. Honest films about such a pervasive issue as masculinity can entertain and heal society but there are many untold stories and diverse perspectives yet to nourish a growing audience. A new year, though, always holds the potential for Australian stories that confront our history and our present with humanity and vision.

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Endnotes

  1. All figures accessed from Australian Film Institute press release http://www.afc.gov.au/news/media/medrel/15_Jan012.html

About The Author

Andrew Bunney contributes to dB Magazine, Tribe, Filmnet and Adelaide's 3D Radio and has recorded two albums of his own songs.