Daniel Nettheim

The Beat Manifesto (1994 Australia 18mins)

Prod: AFTRS Dir: Daniel Nettheim

Cast: Joel McIlroy, Ralph Cotterill, Melanie de Ferranti, Alex Norcos, StevenVidler, Peter Carmody.

The annual Yuletide flood of graduating student films from universities as well as the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) means that many auteurs disappear forever from the critical, let alone public consciousness, well before New Year. The sorts of films that tend to stick out – and attract the interest of the usual suspects (the ABC, say, or SBS and Beyond International, perhaps a few others) – are often genre-haunted: toying expertly with the latest share house melodrama, or perhaps offering a stylish meditation on loss, full of AFTRS-housestyle flashy underwater shots. Some of the directors, writers and cinematographers even get work – if they stay in Sydney, though this can take a while. Café life in the seaboard cities hums with cineastes waiting, waiting.

Daniel Nettheim’s The Beat Manifesto had more luck than most. An elegant black and white comedy on Art and Betrayal (as usual), the film was elevated above many others of that year by genuine wit, style and a solid narrative. Anything but the simple exercise in stylistics and nostalgia that might be expected, this shortish (at 18 minutes) film has a real edge. Almost a decade on – after Nettheim’s first feature (Angst, 2000) has flickered all too briefly in the cinemas, The Beat Manifesto looks even better. It has aged very well.

The story deals with Hamish (Joel McIlroy), a young farmer and poet (perhaps a Les Murray in waiting?) who has decided to leave the farm and become a real poet. We hear his poem, a rather striking and brutally simple elegy for a slaughtered lamb and sense the hint of a real poet. In this risky business of toying with literary motifs in a film, the script (by Nettheim, Matthew Schule and Tony McNamara) is successful. The featured poem itself sounds, well, authentic – a fact which makes the central gag of the film work even better.

As Nettheim pointed out in his introduction to the film’s first national broadcast (Short Cuts, ABC, 1995) “…like many sheep farmers Hamish dreams of travelling to New York and becoming a Beat Poet. Less commonly known is that the beats lived and worked by a set of fundamental rules, known as The Beat Manifesto.” But of course! The irony is heavy – and intended to be. Hamish will catch a bus down to Sydney and fall in with a bohemian con man Bill Darcy (Ralph Cotteril). Hamish reads out his poem and Darcy, sensing free airline ticket at the least, decides to introduce the lad to the ‘authentic’ life of the poet. The film now breaks up into five chapters: they embody the usual litany of a poetic manifesto – forsake all but first hand experience, destabilise the mind. The mantra is a familiar one! Now Hamish will live life at the edge to improve his poetry.

The Beat Manifesto manages to have its cake and eat it too. The visual style (especially Moira Moss’ cinema verité style black and white work) is just right – the pacing and cutting serve the comedy, the performances are spot-on.

Naturally, ‘chicks’, drugs (“destabilise the senses!”) and a visit to jail are on life’s menu. Along the journey, two great pieces of onscreen fatuity in the shape of performance poetry (Polly Seddon performing ‘This is Art No 1’ and ‘Car Alarms’ with Philip Sandberg) are both deadly as satirical set pieces and all too familiar from more solemn settings for such stuff. The Beat Manifesto shoots down a lot of pretentious ducks along the trip.

The ending, with Hamish (Candide revisited) betrayed and Darcy reading a familiar poem to an adoring cafe crowd in the Big Apple, is beautifully set up. But the success of Nettheim’s joke lies in the thinly veiled hint that maybe much artistic advice (even extending to film schools?) can be a double edged sword and Manifestos and Mantras are generally little more than minefields of useless rhetoric. Artists beware!

That the film went on to win two AFI awards (for Best Short Film and Best Screenplay), as well as screening at the Venice and other international festivals, suggests that the film gets through on several levels other than that of the well-told joke. Certainly the tilts at pretension and romantic posturing (by whatever name) seem as right now as they did in 1995.

Clearly too the subtext concerning romantic assertion of the value of experience is one that bears interrogation from time to time. Not just in the interests of young artists but in the context of a national industry that is so heavily studded with complex and centralized funding systems, mentors and ‘professional’ codes. If only managers and producers at both funding bodies and favoured production houses had actually got the joke. But then maybe Daniel Nettheim would never have got to make Angst – let alone get away with a film title as literary as that! But in a funding environment where filmmakers are increasingly nervous of criticizing the system, the actualizing metaphor of The Beat Manifesto has greater resonance than ever.

The Beat Manifesto remains a film well worth seeing more than just once – and given the effective disappearance of Angst, it remains a calling card in part unanswered.

About The Author

Jonathan Dawson recently retired as Associate Professor in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Griffith University (Queensland) and is now Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He has written and directed scores of films, television series and documentaries. He is also a major contributor to Ian Aitken’s The Encyclopaedia of Documentary Film, including the essay on Australian documentary cinema. Sadly, in the intervening years since writing this piece, the author has passed away.