Three Dollars

Elliot Perlman’s complex and polemical novel Three Dollars (1998) must, at first reading, have seemed too dense and literary a text to endure the translation into a screenplay, let alone a lucid and moving film. Perlman, in prose both poetic and crisp, skewers a complex of contemporary monsters from the religious mantras of Economic Rationalism and Globalisation to the sad drift of universities towards a user-pays and managerial model. That the book is also a touching love story might seem too difficult a core to extract, yet Robert Connolly’s movie has managed to capture both the narrative and emotional drives of the book while becoming something other: an original and touching movie of ideas.

The winner of numerous book awards, including the Betty Trask Prize in the UK in 1999, Three Dollars has been a clear voice in a rearguard action against the prevailing orthodoxies of another of what W. H. Auden in his poem on the cusp of World War II, September 1, 1939, had called a “low dishonest decade”. The novel must seem bracingly clearheaded to anyone who has survived the PowerPoint-driven blandishments of the new economy invoked by Friedrich Von Hayek and the rest. For Three Dollars, novel and film, is at all times a jeremiad against all the facile idiocies of what New Labour calls the Third Way. As Eddie Harnovey says of the share market: “The price of a share will rise or fall depending on whether the majority of investors think it will rise or fall.” (1)

Exactly. It is this snappy turn of phrase that distinguishes Eddie and is also precisely the type of playful way with words that also suits actor David Wenham’s own delivery and screen persona so perfectly.

Robert Connolly was perhaps the only contemporary Australian filmmaker who might have been reasonably expected on their past work to be able to pick up such threads and retain Perlman’s intricate and original energies while injecting his own brand of economic and sociological scepticism into the brew. Mr Ikegami’s Flight (1996) conveys a strong sense of the city as machine, its bewildered and touching protagonist, Ikegami (Kazahuro Muroyama, who also appears in a key, though smaller, role in The Bank), trapped in a modern hotel awaiting the birth of his child back in Japan. This short film established key images in Connolly’s œuvre: the lonely intelligent figure adrift in a city where he is a player, certainly, yet also somehow always out of the power loop.

Connolly’s first feature as director, The Bank (2001), had upped the philosophical ante considerably. In the movie’s satisfyingly high-concept plot, there is more at stake than a man’s sense of self in a big city. Connolly’s script is constructed as a thriller but conceived as a close engagement with corporate banking culture as represented by the eponymous bank and its gung-ho boss, Simon O’Reilly (Anthony La Paglia). Offered a devil’s pact by a young IT genius, Jim (David Wenham) – a chance to predict any sudden stock market aberration and hence allow the bank to cash in hugely – O’Reilly accepts the Faustian deal and, of course, the bank pays the price. Financial hubris is laid low, but the final message is as much a warning as a celebration. The screenplay makes this explicit.

O’REILLY: We’ve now entered the age of corporate feudalism and we are the new princes.

JIM: If we could predict the next stock market crash the suffering that could be avoided would be huge!

O’REILLY: The shareholders are our people, they are our society. The public can look after itself.

As well as offering a strong sense that corporations are out of control, The Bank also features the stylistic elegance that has marked Connolly’s vision to date. The city – and the bank building – are depicted as a kind of post-modernist fever dream, all reflective glass. Blue-tinted images are a central part of the distancing ‘look’ of Connolly’s vision. This is a world “inhabited and run by computer software, where corridors hum silently and the characters are dressed by Armani, colour keyed to the air-conditioned elegance. Cars glide along post-modern Melbourne bridgescapes, elevators quietly hum, humans are reflected in mirrors and doors. Connolly’s camera keeps its distance, even the love making is gliding, angled, glass-distorted” (2).

It’s all very visually satisfying and clearly Connolly has a deep-seated fascination with (and, equally clearly, a repulsion from) the corporate world. In this respect, his work has a much more European feel in its intellectual engines than most Australian movies. The city is conceived of as a machine much like Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century prison system for grinding people. And the city itself is an economic system, much dysfunctional, all of it brutal.

Three Dollars

Three Dollars, as both novel and scenario, offers what the sillier script manuals (and funding body middle-management) would refer to as an ideal hero’s journey, if not a descent into a contemporary hell. Eddie Harnovey is an archetypal homme moyen sensuel, intelligent, articulate and loving. He’s the sort of bloke who would always put family and his sense of right before career, and in one sense that is what the story is all about. Naturally, such attitudes make him unfit for survival in the globalised economy and so it is his fall that Three Dollars chronicles. Clearly co-scriptwriters Elliot Perlman and Robert Connolly have worked in some unusual harmony, for there is no sense of loss or stress at what has had to be elided from the novel to fit procrustean script demands.

The film eschews the linearity of the novel and indeed the published screenplay reveals the extraordinary extent to which there is a further disruption to the chronological line than even the final script allowed. For example, a cursory read of even the first few script pages reveals that scene 4 of the final draft leapfrogs to become finally scene 155, and, of the first 20 scripted scenes, 15 are cut or reappear elsewhere in the finished film.

The released film now opens with the final scenes of Eddie’s ejection from his government job for reasons which will not become apparent until the climacteric of Three Dollars. This winding and disrupted narrative never lets us lose sight of the essential ‘goodness’ of Eddie and in this, David Wenham’s remarkable performance, pitched at a level of extreme quietness (as was his work in much of The Bank), is responsible, a perfect blend of casting serendipity and co-operative filmmaking clarity of intent and execution.

In many ways this story of a decline and slow fall in the mean streets of the new millennium is a simple love story. But a cautionary tale perhaps, in which love is at all times threatened and under siege from the exigencies of getting by in the new ‘best practice and total quality management’ managerial universe that is an indivisible part of the new global economy that Perlman and Connolly so loathe.

Whereas in all his previous films, from Mr Ikegami’s Flight through Rust Bucket to The Bank, Connolly’s directorial style has been consistently marked by this crisp formalism of framing, composition and colour, in Three Dollars, he and cinematographer Tristan Milani, have worked with a different palette and camera-stylo. As we follow Eddie’s journey through Melbourne’s grubbier streets out to his suburban and shaded home, the camerawork is less calm and classical. Often, as in the scenes in both the refuge tea room (SC 204) and the key scene at home (SC 153), where Tanya (Frances O’Connor) loses it and lashes out at Abby (Joanna Hunt-Prokhovnik) in their own kitchen, Milani’s camera is edgy, handheld or Steadicam, tight and careless of the professional/technical imperative of ‘the good shot’. The result is a film that is often visually unsettling. There’s a constant sense of being on the edge of disintegration – as is Eddie himself, a narrator rendered unreliable by his inescapable drive to laugh off all setbacks with a joke. Connolly wisely has kept this narratorial voice from the book and it acts as a glue to stitch the disjointed narrative flow of the film, to keep it coherent.

In terms of landscape, the film alternates between the paradigm of the city (uneasy, dangerous, dwarfed by the new tower blocks) and the country, accessed by train journeys that reveal the decaying edges of the city as Eddie sets out for or returns from the country, majestic but ruined by chemicals and threatened by development. The only refuge for Eddie is his own home: a late Victorian renovation framed with a little garden, a refuge but in the end also a creature of mortgage and the threatened loss of the family itself.

If Eddie’s voice (as both voice-over and direct speech) is clear and inflected with humour, not so the official speech of the forces assembled against him. A pre-occupation of both movie and book, along with the new economics, is that corollary of world’s best practice: managerial mumbo jumbo, the hypocritical politesse of management and public speech. That curiously hollow man, Gerard (David Roberts), the archetypal MBA master of no trades, feigns kindness while firing Eddie, having engineered his ‘restructuring out’ from the department. Gerard offers to get some cardboard boxes for Eddie’s stuff “Do you need any boxes? I could get you some boxes, different sizes if you like.” (SC 161). Following this, Gerard uses weasel words to let Eddie know that his severance entitlements have been utterly eaten away by managerially inflated ‘travel expenses’ that will leave Eddie without the consolation of a tin, let alone a golden, handshake. This is what the “deification of the market” (Perlman, 2005: xv) has led us to.

In a preceding scene, Eddie, after a final managerial act of false ‘support’, has been forced to consult a departmental psychiatrist to discuss his ‘problems’, which are, of course, entirely of middle-management’s (that’s to say, Gerard’s) devising.

GILES: Do you think you have problems, Edward?

EDDIE: I have a wife and daughter to support and I’m out of work. Aren’t I? Giles? Am I out of work?

GILES: Are you afraid of your problems?

EDDIE: Yes, I am afraid. I’m afraid of losing my house. I have a mortgage repayment to make every 14 days, failing which the bank can sell my house. I am afraid of being another unemployed chemical engineer with no chance of finding a job. But that doesn’t make me ill or disturbed. (SC 168)

In a later scene, when Eddie takes his torn suit jacket to a tailor (Julie Forsyth), the language is that of competition and industrial ‘excellence’.

TAILOR: To be frank, anything less than weaving wouldn’t be worth it.

EDDIE: Worth it to whom?

TAILOR: To either of us … I’ve got a business to run, as you can see. (SC 188)

As she is speaking, the camera reveals, behind a glass window, two hardworking, intent Asian piece-workers at their sewing machines in a cell-like room: International Best Practice at work!

Two key characters recur throughout the film as markers of both past and future possibility. The figure of Amanda (Sarah Wynter), more trope than fully realized character, appears (as Eddie points out) “every nine and a half years”. Amanda is Eddie’s lost childhood playmate, whose snotty, grimly expedient mother decides that little Eddie is not a socially redeeming friend for her beautiful daughter. Amanda is played as a rather ditsy daughter of Australia’s haute bourgeoisie by Wynter, who brings a glacial dottiness to the role. She exists as a kind of lost or forlorn hope, a dream of beauty set against the all too fragile loveliness of Eddie’s true love, Tanya.

The character of Gerard also exists as a kind of floating index to the threats that will cohere to threaten Eddie throughout his life and certainly at the climax of the film. Gerard (who may or may not have been Sarah’s lover) has drifted by as Eddie’s rival for the love of Tanya at University and, finally, as his managerial nemesis in the department. Sarah and Gerard both exist as markers of illusory places Eddie need not go to maintain his integrity and also offer rewards which Eddie finds ultimately both threatening and silly. That Gerard can casually destroy Eddie’s career is further proof that he lives in a world that has no place for Eddie, Tanya or Abby.

It is in this imagining of the possibilities of family, the trinity at the centre of both film and book (Tanya, Eddie and Abby), that the story finds its true centre. This is the family revealed in all its playfulness, sheer, touching foolishness and terrifying vulnerability. From the first time we see Eddie return home and tiptoe up the stairs to discover Tanya and Abby singing, his smile carries a piercing sense that all this may be at risk – and it is. Robert Connolly shoots these scenes loosely, and we eavesdrop as Eddie lets us sense what he sees throughout what he may so easily lose. And though the film eschews the linearity of the novel’s spin into chaos and redemption, the chopped time line never abandons this central fear of Eddie’s that he, that they, will lose it all for a moment.

W. H. Auden had ended his quietly apocalyptic poem, 66 years before, thus:

Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police
We must love one another or die.

Three Dollars makes a claim for a love and loyalty as powerfully as any Australian film for a long time. If Connolly and Perlman are right, then the greatest threat to our suburban dreaming comes from the economic theory and practice that are the current gospel.

In filmmaker Robert Connolly, maybe at last Walker’s long quest (Point Blank, John Boorman, 1976) for a buddy to help destroy ‘The Organization’ is finally realised.

* * *

Robert Connolly interviewed by Jonathan Dawson

Robert Connolly

Recorded at Hobart Studios of the ABC, 26 April 2005; ABC Producer John Sluis

JONATHAN DAWSON: If there’s one film writer-director in Australia who actually seems to have something to say and keeps on wanting to say it in different ways, that film director is Robert Connolly. Right from the moment he sprung from the Australian Film Television & Radio School with his graduating film, Mr Ikegami’s Flight (1995), through to his rather black and ominous short Rust Bucket (1996), to producing The Boys (1998) for director Rowan Woods, then to The Bank (2001) and now Three Dollars (2005), Robert Connolly’s always had a specific and quite powerful reaction to the way the world’s going in terms of globalisation, economic rationalism, the individual against the system, and the city as machine.

Robert, you obviously went to the Film Television & Radio School with some ideas about the world in mind. Your first film, Mr Ikegami’s Flight, is very much about an individual trapped in the city. Is that still with you, that idea?

ROBERT CONNOLLY: Yeah, I guess so. There is inherently a huge amount of drama in stories that place an individual in the context of a bigger society, whether it be the corporate world of the bank or the corporate world of Mr Ikegami’s Flight. Maybe in Three Dollars, it is more the world of government, public service. And so you find great dramatic possibilities in placing these characters there and seeing what happens when you’re writing.

Beyond that, it does come out of my own interest in these questions, particularly at this moment in history – how we live our life in the face of corporate power as opposed to political power. Subsequently, issues of ethics and morality in those corporate worlds are quite important.

As for Mr Ikegami’s Flight, I’ve never really looked back at it like that, but I think you’re right to draw a thread.

JD: It’s also present in the very cool and polished style you bring to the way you project the world at us. In Mr Ikegami’s Flight, this steely, upfront Sydney skyline is permanently present, the oppressive sky; Mr Ikegami is a kind of little pixie of a man, utterly sweet. The same in Rust Bucket, where your hero, in a simple attempt to defraud an insurance company, finds himself in terribly dark waters. And The Boys, of course. And The Bank.

That’s all about what Lee Marvin in Point Blank calls ‘The Organization’. Clearly you have strong feelings about corporations!

RC: Yes, I do. I think you’re looking for some way of showing a physical presence of the world that is oppressing the character that you’re following in the film. With Mr Ikegami’s Flight and The Bank, the presence of the city, and a kind of almost overpowering sense of the city is a physical embodiment of that corporate world, is quite similar. Certainly my observation of the world and the shift towards embracing economic rationalism as some form of religious doctrine has seen a shift away from discussing the impact of contemporary life on individuals. This fascinates me and I feel that, the further we’ve gone down an economic rationalist path, the more the questions that these films throw up become relevant.

JD: The Bank really struck a chord with audiences. You did a clever thing, of course, by making it a kind of a thriller and by very naughtily introducing chaos theory as a plot device, which gives you a world land speed record in daring.

The audience really went with you, because of the thriller elements, and because you follow David Wenham’s wonderful Everyman as he tries to bring down the monster headed by O’Reilly [Anthony La Paglia], but also there’s the look and the hook which you bring to your movies now, and it’s you, and I guess your cinematographer, Tristan Milani. He brings a marvellous kind of cool quality to your work, doesn’t he?

RC: He does. Our ambition is to make films that engage with a broader audience. When I moved from theatre after producing The Boys as a stage play, I did so because, even as successful as it was as a play, I didn’t feel that the small audience I was reaching justified the effort. I really feel that there is a way in which to create a cinema æsthetic that engages a wider audience without actually needing to be a rarefied art cinema æsthetic.

Tristan and I, with Three Dollars, actually talked a lot about simplifying our æsthetic further, so that in some of the most intense dramatic moments you feel like you’re observing the drama unfold, rather than feeling like you’re in the hands of a filmmaker artificially constructing it. And part of the trick there is to conceal the filmmaker’s hand a bit, to be less showy, but obviously no less controlling in the way we use the camera to tell the story and to emotionally affect the audience.

JD: It’s more fluid looking. The Bank is quite a stately work in some ways. Everything’s beautifully set up: the shots, the art direction, Alan John’s music. All of that’s elegant. In Three Dollars, it’s much more tight and grainy.

RC: Yes, it’s looser. We knew that, after The Bank, to tackle the more human personal micro scale of drama in Three Dollars we had to loosen up our visual style a lot and that the more formal nature of The Bank wasn’t the right æsthetic. And so we worked very hard at finding out how to do that. That involved Steadicam occasionally, and handheld. It involved, interestingly, more flexibility on the day when we were shooting – kind of an ability to throw the preparation out the window and just respond on the day to what was happening; let the drama unfold and try and have the camera in the right place to capture it.

click to buy "Three Dollars" at Amazon.comJD: Elliott Perlman’s Three Dollars is a dense novel which is full of ideas, as well as a touching love story at the heart of it. Did the book find you, or did you find the book?

RC: I was given it. I was given it, interestingly, for my 30th birthday by a friend, filmmaker Daniel Nettheim [Angst, 2000], and I read it as a single man at a different phase of my life, with completely different sensibilities to the ones that I brought back to it after The Bank, because I made The Bank after reading it.

When I read it the second time, I was married, I had a child on the way, I had a mortgage. And all of a sudden this other political dimension lifted off the page. Having said that, I guess The Bank hides the politics within a genre thriller. It kind of slips under the radar.

I think Three Dollars was a different, tougher nut to crack in that respect, because the politics of Elliott’s novel are much clearer and we were very keen not to be didactic. So there was a common level of discussion amongst all the creative ensemble I work with about how we were going to sneak this one under the radar.

JD: Well, you’re taking on the Australian government. You’re taking on Blairite New Labour. You’re taking on Thatcher and Reagan, because you’re basically saying that globalisation ….

RC: … has failed the individual.

JD: Absolutely.

RC: Economic rationalism has, too!

JD: Absolutely.

We should also say that Three Dollars – the novel and the film – is a love story. There is a moment when what is at stake is set up. Eddie [David Wenham] goes home and there’s his wife, Tanya [Frances O’Connor], his daughter, Abby [Joanna Hunt-Prokhovnik] … and there’s his little smile. It’s the most exquisitely sweet moment. Every audience I’ve been with has gone, “Ahhh.” And you just think, “He mustn’t lose this!” And, of course, what you’ve then set up is all the ways in which the contemporary world you can lose it. The guy should be safe. But he’s more at threat in the bureaucracy where he thought he’d be safe and be able to live out his happy little domestic suburban existence.

RC: He isn’t safe. The research we did showed the mechanisms whereby people can be ejected even from the Public Service now have tightened up. And, if anything, the film may be a couple of steps ahead of the game in terms of the Coalition’s control of the Senate, which is coming up, and its planned Industrial Relations reforms. The idea that we can safely take a job within a Public Service-type environment and plan for the future in an era of short-term contracts has led to probably a greater level of economic insecurity amongst people that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War. We really are in a time of great economic insecurity as evidenced by the last election where probably the most expedient government I can recall won an election by appealing to people’s fear of interest rates rising. Now, if we truly are at the end of ten years of economic growth and things are so wonderful, then people shouldn’t be worried about a few percentage shifts in interest rates. But they are worried. They are worried that they’re two pay packets away from losing everything. We’ve shaped a lot of these feelings into the story.

JD: I think you’ve elegantly dramatised what are otherwise rather abstract ideas. Elliott Perlman’s novel is full of angry diatribes. When Frances O’Connor’s character, the wife, loses the job at university, there’s a full-on authorial rave about the way in which universities are becoming driven by extraneous economic factors and relying on the student turnover. There are notions like Economic Rationalism, Total Quality Management, World’s Best Practice: all those insane mantras which literally threaten our character Eddie in Three Dollars, his family and his sanity. It seems to me you’ve put at risk in the drama all the things which I think people are yet to become aware of.

RC: Well, that would be terrific. I hope that is the case. There is this representation to us that we are at a time of great economic growth and I just keep looking around and seeing a society where the basic foundation elements of what a society like Australia should be have been eroded in terms of health, education and a basic intellectual life, which has been destroyed by an anti-intellectual government over ten years. I remember on the Harbour Bridge after the last election there was a banner that said, “Australians have voted to live in an economy not a society”, and for me that summed up my current view what life is.

JD: You’ve turned it into blood and drama, which I think is a remarkable achievement. But you did it with The Bank and I think the stakes are considerably up, because you’re now talking about an entire world that is moving towards some sort of insane obsession with apparently quantifiable economic perfection, which isn’t gonna happen.

RC: I saw a statistic the other day that some huge majority of the population would prefer more money to be put into social services than further tax cuts. And I thought, “Gosh, if only one side of politics would have the courage to embrace that point of view, rather than a country which says – much like the character Eddie in the film is confronted by this challenge – ‘Come with me and just turn a blind eye to a few things for your own good. Don’t worry about this and that. If you come with me, there is a bountiful, plentiful safe place where you can live.’” And, of course, Eddie Harnovey can’t turn a blind eye and there’ve been people who’ve described it as a flaw in his character – this very basic human care and concern for others.

JD: He talks too much but then, of course, that’s the nature of drama, isn’t it? Instead of all those seminars that teach you World’s Best Practice and have people holding hands and forming fairy circles, maybe they should show Three Dollars and then open up the instructive weekend of ‘self improvement’.

RC: That’s a great idea. I’d love that to happen.

Credits
Director: Robert Connolly Producer: John Maynard (Arenafilm) Screenplay: Robert Connolly and Elliot Perlman (based on the novel Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman DOP: Tristan Milani ACS Composer: Alan John

Key Cast
Eddie: David Wenham Tanya: Frances O’Connor Amanda: Sarah Wynter Abby: Joanna Hunt-Prokhovnik Nick: Robert Menzies Kate: Nicole Nabout Gerard: David Roberts

Robert Connolly Filmography

Mr Ikegami’s Flight (1995) – scriptwriter, director

All Men are Liars (Gerard Lee, 1996) – associate producer

Rust Bucket (1996) – scriptwriter, director

The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998) – producer

The Monkey’s Mask (Samantha Lang, 2000) – producer

The Bank (2001) – scriptwriter, director

Three Dollars (2005) – co-scriptwriter, director

Further Reading

W. H. Auden, September1, 1939

Robert Connolly and Elliot Perlman, Three Dollars (screenplay) (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005)

Jonathan Dawson, “The Boys from the Bank – The Bank”, Senses of Cinema, no. 16, September–October 2001.

Elliot Perlman, Three Dollars (Melbourne: Pan Macmillan, 2005)

Endnotes

  1. Elliot Perlman, Three Dollars (Melbourne: Pan Macmillan, 2005), p. 88.
  2. Jonathan Dawson, “The Boys from the Bank – The Bank”, Senses of Cinema, no. 16, September–October 2001.