Sammy Blue (Kim Farrent, 2000)

Intro

The following are various ideas and impressions from the ten screenings I attended at the 2001 St. Kilda Film Festival. It is, of course, impossible to provide ‘fair’ assessments of fifty or so films in a single article, especially when each has been viewed only once over a total period of three days. This chronicle is deliberately fragmentary, but it’s also bound to contain much that is biased, inattentive or just plain wrong.

Disclaimers aside, let’s get things rolling…

– JW

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Reviews

The following is a discussion of films that screened in Competition Sessions 7, 11, 14-21

Competition Session # 7

When is a film not a film? While digital video is now a low-budget norm for narrative filmmakers, the work in this all-Betacam session shows a tendency to exploit the format for its harsh abrasive qualities, like the taste of smoggy air, or the effect of instant coffee on an empty stomach. There’s also a sense that the captured video footage is just grist for the digital editing mill, where raw sounds and images can be cleaned up, layered, amplified and transformed. Perhaps the two least successful inclusions are But It’s Political (Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2001) and Breathe (Nina Williams, 2001), both quasi-non-narrative mood-pieces that work on a collage principle, bringing together disjunctive elements of modern life. But It’s Political in particular adopts an ‘I am a cinematic DJ’ pose, mixing murky glimpses of clubland with the ramblings of a deranged homeless guy. Courtin-Wilson previously made the more conventional documentary Chasing Buddha (2000), with its remarkable scenes of bonding between a rough-as-guts nun and US prisoners on Death Row, but no comparable empathy is visible here. Angel Food (Julia Bourke, 2001), a piece of computer animation, tells a Hans-Andersen-like story about a runaway strawberry: it has many adroit touches (including a wittily varied score) and should guarantee its director a brilliant career making fruit juice ads. In The Home (Matthew Saville, 2000) offers the postmodern paradox of a spoof of dated instructional films – dinky intertitles, shaky black-and-white images – in a visual format inferior to the supposedly primitive originals. Again bringing together the raw and synthesised aspects of video, The Last Boy In The World (Patrick Connelly, 2001) is a sappy parable about losing touch with real, authentic Nature: a boy dreams of being stranded on a barren alien planet (portrayed as a surreal video art landscape) but then wakes up with a renewed appreciation for every blade of grass. So cherish the earth, people.

Three longer narrative works are more substantial. Dancing In The Dust (Jenny Lowdon Kendall, 2000) makes the issue of Aboriginal ‘stolen children’ the basis for an elaborate four-generation soap opera. By failing to disguise the rough edges, video gives the various exemplary vignettes a naive, presentational quality, as if performed by the local Historical Reenactment club. There’s a degree of polish in the filmmaking but the widescreen format seems literally a waste of space – the simple oppositions virtually demand the tightly-framed shot-reverse-shot patterning of TV. Despite any amount of clunkiness the film remains moving, while showing how readily dramatic treatments of this theme fall into the familiar modes of women’s melodrama. Work? (Sean Byrne, 1999) is a reflexive mockumentary in which a team of students set out to film a sex worker in her first days on the job, then debate the ethics of helping the story along. In just over ten minutes, the film ties a knot worthy of Godard or Mohsen Makmalbahf around questions of prostitution, voyeurism, agency and truth, not failing to implicate the audience. Sophisticated and convincingly ‘real’ in its portrait of a tough, modern young woman, it ultimately came across as a bit too studied for its own good (though it might not have done if the conceit had been played out at greater length).

My pick for the session is Turbulence (Matthew Bate, 2001) about two young boys drifting round a shopping-centre carpark. The episodic narrative includes one or two film-buff homages but the sense of a world falling apart is inseparable from the video format and its easy slide into distortion. When the hero gets knocked out the sound becomes muffled and woozy, while images from a security camera suggestively reduce the characters to pixels on a screen. It’s another vision of an urban wasteland, but now a return to nature is merely a further stage in abjection: at the climax the kids head out to a dried-up, muddy field encircled by drains and power-lines, where the plot threatens to swerve into horror before back-pedalling to a sort of happy end.

7, 11, 14-21

Competition Session # 11

For all its slick digital imagery, Cement Tree – Life In The Fast Lane (Luke McGowan, 2001) is a basically modest comedy that packs half-a-dozen types of parody into as many minutes. The crash-and-burn style – no shot lasts more than a couple of seconds – is dictated by a very simple idea: getting us into the headspace of a blustering petrol-head the film dubs Roger The Road Rager. Continuing the yobbo motif, The Fortune Teller (Edwina Exton, 2001) is a flatly staged anecdote with one memorable repeated close-up: a sauce-spattered meat pie being shoved into a footy fan’s mouth. It’s natural that low-budget short films should gravitate to examining everyday rituals such as meals, but where other cultures celebrate food, Australians seem more likely to underline the grossness of bodies and eating. The films that follow head in the same direction (though it’s always hard to know how far such links were intended by the programmers). Bangers (Andrew Upton, 2000) has an uncharacteristically frantic performance by Cate Blanchett, who spends most of the movie alone on screen, talking to a cat and cooking a meal for her unlikeable mother. With repressed passions seething, food preparation becomes a kinky ritual – ever seen a tomato sauce bottle rubbing against someone’s thigh? While the film is suggestively ambiguous, stylistically it doesn’t quite bring off the idea of building up domestic routines into grand mock-heroic gestures.

Cheek To Cheek (Beth Armstrong, 2000) refers us back to The Fortune Teller with an identical close-up of a chewing mouth, as a fogey chokes to death on an Anzac biscuit (a great black-humour gag). Billed as ‘the celebratory story of a woman who rediscovers life, love and dancing,’ the film is less off-putting than this sounds: the transformation of its elderly heroine, while clearly liberating, has a dangerous and even pathological aspect. Most adventurously, her fantasy world is brought to life by having her cherished pet dog intermittently played by a human actress: when the two women dance naked in the backyard it’s a transgressive epiphany out of Patrick White. The ending may cop out on the darker hints, but this is still the pick of the bunch here.

Most of the sessions in the Festival mix 35mm film, 16mm and video (a mainstream bias shows up in the total exclusion of Super-8, which remains the cheapest, most readily available film format). The patchwork of different textures brings home the truth that despite advances in video technology, film still tends to look much, much better. However, all the cinematography in the world wouldn’t save Blood And Ash (Emma Freeman, 2000), a plush allegory about a young woman (Maya Stange) riding off on a timeless quest. With Lord Of The Rings being shot in New Zealand, it’s interesting to see the Australian bush used as a comparable fantasy landscape, but this piece of New Ageism is overblown, humorless, and clumsy as storytelling. Still, Stange and Rachael Maza – as a mysterious stranger encountered along the way – are charismatic.

7, 11, 14-21

Competition Session # 14

Three disparate films linked by the theme, already noted a few times, of longing for a more natural, innocent world. In Sammy Blue (Kim Farrent, 2000) the troubles of a small boy are set against the idyll of a beach holiday. It’s attractively photographed and a filmmaking instinct is visible as Sammy moves between sea and land: the magic wordless bliss of swimming underwater contrasted with the heedless corrupt adults chattering round their picnic tables. But as drama it’s sentimental and hardly affecting. The computer-animated Cog (Irina Goundortseva, 2000) is another parable about the beauty of life being ground down by an industrial society. In a metal dystopia, a single flower blooms… Cartoons have a long history of this kind of schmaltz, and the digital medium is especially apt for constructing inorganic creatures and landscapes: the sentient machines here are stiffly animated but fetchingly comic, assembled from metal rods and wheels like walking can-openers. However, the social critique doesn’t amount to much.

New Skin (Anthony Hayes, 2001), which runs nearly an hour, is one of the more substantial Australian films I’ve seen this year. A slice-of-life drama about a junkie (Hayes) and his pregnant girlfriend (Jessica Napier), this possesses in spades the quality known for a period as ‘grunge’ (and, much earlier, as ‘funk’). Besides being a more recognisable picture of young adults than anything currently on the ABC, it compares favourably to more expensive treatments of the addiction theme, taking the common-sense attitude that junkies aren’t doomed romantic outcasts so much as mundane people leading mundanely fucked-up lives. The faux-naif videography gives characters and settings alike a dull, bleary surface as if viewed through a window of cheap plastic – an ugliness-equals-truth aesthetic possibly inspired by the Dogma pranks of Lars von Trier and friends. But if squalor and the threat of violence are everywhere, thankfully Hayes resists the urge to hammer his characters into the ground, in the style of Requiem For A Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000). Instead, the narrative drifts from one incident to another, falling short of either catastrophe or permanent redemption.

Competition Session # 15

An array of mainly comic films, arranged roughly in order of depth. Frequently the observations are aimed at a narrow audience – whether you laugh depends on how closely you resemble the filmmakers. The problem doesn’t really arise in Jam (Matthew Saville, 2001) which goes all noir about a guy trying to have breakfast. (As an opening title says: ‘Based on a true story.’) Marty (Chris Hobart and Stuart Elmslie, 2001) is an attempt at an Aussie teen comedy: hoping to raise the money to buy new sneakers, a boy accepts a dare to eat a spider. Innocuous in the extreme, the film gives the impression of being made by, for and about rather strait-laced private schoolkids. Boy Next Door (Caroline Grose, 2001) differs from the first two films in that I actually found it funny, at least once I got used to its uniquely annoying protagonist (Olivia Pigeot) who threatens to break the land speed record for flirting. Formally nothing special, it’s a neat anecdote with a pleasingly unexpected combination of naturalism and fantasy. While Boy Next Door was entertaining even if you didn’t connect much with the heroine’s dating hassles, I felt definitely outside the target audience for Just Do It (Sarah Hatherley, 2000) in which two thirtyish women discuss their lives while walking round a park. This struck me as slow, imprecisely crafted and over-enamoured of Alice Garner’s fey hippie-chick persona, but if you’re a fan of the lifestyle columns in The Age you might be entertained (admittedly, a clever twist ending partly redeems the film by acknowledging its solipsism).

Of these four, only Just Do It was shot on film, but this matters less in a genre that depends largely on scripting and performance. Reverse (Michael Kelleher, 2001) is also an actor’s film, but this gentle, underpowered drama might not come to life on video at all. Running for nine minutes, it plays out essentially in ‘real time’ as a newly married woman (Daniela Farinacci) says farewell to the house where she grew up. Although Farinacci seems too young for the role, the limits placed on the narrative give it an emotional resonance – like seeing a single photo from a family album, with the past and future merely touched upon or implied.

The highlight of the session is Delivery Day (Jane Manning, 2000) which takes us inside an illegal garment-making business run by a family of Vietnamese migrants. As the title suggests, the film takes place over a single day, moving sitcom-like between several low-key subplots: eleven-year-old Chang is trying to persuade her mother to attend her school’s parent-teacher night, while her older brother flirts with one of his co-workers. Delivery Day belongs to a contemporary genre of ‘multicultural’ comedy-dramas that create humour through moments of cultural dissonance – traditional music competes with FM hits and memories, the brother plays basketball while an older relative is highly suspicious of a Foxtel salesman who comes to the door. But if some of the characters are more open to the outside Australian world than others, Manning’s use of a child’s viewpoint and a light, airy colour scheme (since the characters are surrounded by fabrics, it seems natural to have a predominance of yellows and blue-greens) lets us feel that this ‘sweatshop’ is, indeed, a world in itself. As the camera moves from room to room with little Chang, we marvel that so much activity and beauty could be confined within what looks, when we finally see it from outside, like an ordinary suburban house.

Competition Session # 16

Returning from a break, I missed the first film in this session, Just Not Cricket (Matt Wheeldon, 2001). The Last Pecheniuk (Ness Alexandra, 2000) taps into the cultural/ethnic identity theme by presenting a woman at odds with her Russian background. Tricked out with re-enactments, archival footage, and introspective diary musings by the filmmaker, it’s ultimately as boring as any extended home movie of someone else’s relatives. Royal Wulff (Leonard Yip, 2001) is a video that would prefer to be film: although many of its images look either murky or washed-out, I quite liked its simple, restrained treatment of friendship and loss. However, even given that it’s about two old men and their shared love of fly-fishing, the pacing is non-existent.

After these two, In Transit (Mike Daly, 2000) woke me up – it’s a condensed seven-minute horror film that makes great play with flickering blue lights, security cameras (again), and the screeching sounds of trains. Since I failed to follow the plot, I’ll just copy down the official synopsis: “A boy journeys into his own dark underworld where he is confronted by the vengeful father of his imagination.” Then again, the film is also described in the program as a documentary, so who knows? Equally accomplished in atmosphere but less reticent about plot and character, Left Lane Ends (Sofya Gollan, 2000) suggests a close study of Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) right down to the insomniac hero and lines like “plastic is the greatest invention of the twentieth century.” Taking the Fincher film as a model, this manages some striking colour contrasts in its city-at-night imagery and sets up a number of absurd narrative puzzles that are barely resolved, implying either an over-casual approach to storytelling or a preview of coming attractions.

Competition Session # 17

There’s no special link between these films except most were slight. Game Boy Game Boy (Stuart Zielger, 2001) shows a couple squabbling in a restaurant while their children comment from a distance. You can’t go very deep in four minutes, and the snap ending is corny, but a well-observed script gains interest from what still seems (in movies, anyway) like a role-reversal: a faintly catty actor, currently between gigs, complains of the insensitivity of his high-powered businesswoman wife. Mean Cuisine (Jeremy Stanford, 1999) is an orthodox one-gag student film starring Frank Woodley of Lano and Woodley fame: notable for its reliance on sound, it works well enough up till the weak ending. O.M.P.U.D. (Sue Wildman and Giles Hamm, 2000) features more niche-market comic observations: isn’t it funny how businessmen are obsessed with mobile phones? Ocean And Bird (Anna Jeffries, 2000) dubs a seemingly ad-libbed conversation over wide shots of a car driving by the sea. At first the dialogue seems so rambling and banal you assume the film can’t be any good, but Jeffries, unlike most of these filmmakers, does have a formal idea she works through to the end. It’s a tricky case – affecting but also meretricious.

The Lighter (Patrick Hughes, 2001) is a brief, cynical gag film. The Club (John Janson-Moore, 2000), a documentary about a surf club, walks the line between commemorative nostalgia and a more interesting story no-one quite wants to tell. If you ignore the terrible title, Love (Ratz Bander, 2001) is a dance psychodrama that comes closer to experimentation than most of the films screened, but seems overproduced and less than serious. Episodes In Disbelief (Ann Shenfield, 2001) combines pencilled animation with reminiscents of the filmmaker’s childhood and twee speculations about the cosmos. If you’ve watched Eat Carpet, you’ve seen it all before.

There’s a tendency to place longer narrative works at the end of each session: not coincidentally, these are often the highlights. In this category was Martin Four (Ben Hackworth, 2000) a thoughtful drama about the close relationship between two distinctive characters: a quietly suave young man (Todd MacDonald) and his romantic, overbearing mother (Susan Lyons). Perhaps too elliptical for its own good, as if the theme wasn’t quite worked out, this is probably the only film in the bunch I’d like to see again.

Competition Session # 18

Back with the junkie theme, Trish And Mouse (Tamara Cook, 2001) wallows in condescension and self-indulgence. The actors are all too clearly amused by pretending to be bogan losers – the film seems to be based on routines they improvised after drama class. Looking For Harvey (Jeremy Weinstein, 2001) was easily the worst film I saw at the Festival, but it remains transfixing as psychodrama – a spectacular display of chutzpah, empty hype and self-abasement. Having scored a ticket to the Cannes Film Festival, this resourceful young doco-maker sets out to exploit the surname he shares with Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein: on this slim pretext, we see him trying to crash a ‘private beach,’ bragging about his production company, and engaged in cringeworthy publicity stunts. On the available evidence Weinstein is closer to a real-life Rupert Pupkin than anyone you’d ever want to meet, but there’s a certain poetic justice in having him train his overwrought hero-worship on the producer of The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1997).

A precisely opposed study in pathology, Bartleby (Peter Saintsbury, 2000) adapts Herman Melville’s pre-Kafka short story about a clerk (Robert Menzies) who meets all requests with the gentle statement “I would prefer not to.” The acting is fine (if theatrical) but the film is tedious in the manner of BBC dramatisations of classic literature. A forthcoming American version starring Crispin Glover (!) should provide an interesting basis for comparison.

Once again, they’ve saved the best for last. ICQ (Greg McLean, 2001) is a sci-fi thriller that puts a modern spin on the idea of cinema as a tool for male voyeurism: now that video can be streamed across the Internet, it’s possible to interact with a loved one visually and aurally in ‘real time’ even while he or she remains mysterious, untraceable, out of reach. An unforgettable noir image: the hero sitting at his PC in his bare warehouse apartment high above the city, running his fingers across the screen where his dream girl is tantalisingly present and absent at once…

Competition Session # 19

Murky netherworlds are again the order of the day in Punch Me I Love You (Armand De Saint-Saluy, 2000), a horrendously unpleasant video about a disturbed family. Shot in murky black-and-white, it strives for the nightmare quality of Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1976) but its enclosed setting and dependence on repeated dialogue bring it closer to bad theatre. A Sense Of Smell (Edwina Throsby, 2000) reflects on smell as the key to memory, as the narrator heads for Paris in search of lost time. Lateral thinking then leads her to interview a perfume designer, a baker, etc. As an essay film this has its moments, but like most of these journey-to-the-past documentaries it’s over-confident that the filmmaker’s personal history will be of general interest. X-Shop (Bernie O’Halloran, 2001) combines live-action and animation as a woman locked in a sex shop overnight is amazed to see the toys and magazines magically come to life. To say the least, the strangely innocent premise doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the dancing vibrators are fun.

Miss Fortune (Andrew Henderson, 1999) is a one-gag film that takes thirteen minutes to get to its predictable punchline. The Last Hand (Andrew Sully, 2000) is only four minutes but hardly gets to a punchline at all. By default, I suppose the highlight of the session is Motel (Bonnie Elliot & Anna Fraser, 2000). A couple travel across the country accompanied by an arty voiceover – only certain kinds of narrators ask questions like “What is the velocity of desire?” Slowed-down and blue-tinged, the images deliberately lack present-tense immediacy and are designed to seem like photocopies of photocopies, fading memories of Godard or Wong Kar-Wai. You can get sick of these intelligent, wistful films.

Competition Session # 20 and # 21

I didn’t catch all the films from either of these sessions so it’s easiest to lump them together. It’s notable that throughout there have been very few films that broach political issues – with the exception of the kind of ‘identity politics’ (based mainly around ethnicity) that fades quickly back into the personal. Here, a couple of documentaries make the same themes more explicit. Representative is Seaside Searching (Rachel Mather & Yael Zalchendler, 2001) produced as part of a community TV youth training project. Various residents of St. Kilda and Port Melbourne are asked to comment on topics like feminism (they approve), Aboriginal reconciliation (they approve) and the Federation centenary (doesn’t mean much). The danger with this kind of enterprise – punctuated by footage of skateboarders, shopping strips, the beach – is that the argument for tolerance and diversity can easily turn into an ad for the funky bayside urban lifestyle. But the impulse is decent and the interviewees are charming, making this probably the pick of the two sessions. Coming vaguely under the same ‘community project’ heading is You Are Everything (Patrick Connelly Burns, 2000) a thirty-second bundle of overlapping video images suggesting an SBS station ID and apparently cast with ‘young disadvantaged teenagers from Tamworth.’ I bet they felt honoured by their moment of fame, if they didn’t blink and miss it.

Stories And Songs Of The People – They Came For The Gathering (Fiona Cochrane, 2000) documents a concert featuring mainly Aboriginal singer-songwriters, who are given a chance to hold forth about the attitudes and experiences behind the music. Less satisfying is Jimmy Little Messenger (Marcell Lunam, 1999) a tie-in with the recent album where this veteran singer covers songs by Paul Kelly, Nick Cave et al. Little is a fascinating figure but this promotional doco doesn’t pretend to come to grips with his ambiguous legacy as one of the first Aboriginal media stars. Neil Douglas – The Feather In The Flood (Leonie Summerville-Smith, 2000) is another documentary that tends to the uncritical in its portrait of an Australian environmentalist and painter. However, Douglas is a livelier interview subject than Little and makes some interesting comments about art and the Australian landscape.

Alongside these documentaries were a rather scrappy bunch of fiction films. The Collective (Norah Mulroney, 2000) is another blend of live-action and animation: the execution is fine but the theme – a butterfly collector gets his comeuppance – holds few surprises. Wee Jimmy (Ian Dixon, 2000) again takes on the popular theme of a child growing up between two cultural identities; the depiction of an immigrant Scottish family suggests first-hand observation but the story has a TV patness (particularly at the end). A double tragedy set in China and Melbourne, Days Of Being (Chi Yen, 2000) is another tricky case. “Memory is to the past what destiny is to the future. Both are concrete, both are certain.” If you can swallow this portentous romantic rhetoric there’s enough storytelling confidence to make the film watchable.

7, 11, 14-21

Conclusions

Viewing this number of short films in a few days is a somewhat artificial exercise: I doubt many patrons of the Festival got through more than a couple of sessions. Moreover, the haphazard programming often made it hard to stay focused – maybe the organisers should consider grouping films more explicitly by genre or subject-matter.

At least in the main program, demanding or openly experimental films were largely absent, though it could reasonably be said that this simply isn’t that sort of festival. The recurring themes – family and cultural ties, romantic relationships, a variously expressed feeling of alienation from the modern world – were about what you’d expect from a youngish group of Australian filmmakers. Stylistically most of what was on offer could be roughly divided into two groups: a more-or-less carefully inflected naturalism, and a pumped-up style that drew inspiration from commercials, action movies, music videos and so on. To some extent it would be true to say that the first group (at its best) tended to use film and the second to use video, but then there were also rawly naturalistic videos like New Skin and films like Intransit that embraced the visceral, spectacular possibilities of the 35mm experience. There were achievements in both categories, though clearly I responded more to the longer naturalistic works.