Framed in modern-day Sydney, Emulsion (2006) follows the demise of a handsome and prominent television soap-opera Actor (Matt Le Nevez), who accidentally drives over a Whore (Victoria Thaine) in the early hours one morning after partying with his Agent (Tyler Coppin). Like every other reliable and magnanimous talent agent you’ve ever met, this one takes just under three seconds to remind Actor of his inappropriate blood-alcohol level and its potential ramifications to his career – a career that is nibbling on the ear of Hollywood and is about to make second base – and convinces him to leave the scene. Whore lays comatose in hospital while the police hunt for the perpetrator of a hit and run. The tainted sports car goes to the shop, the mobile phone is disposed of and a false identikit of a car jacker – who’s, oh let’s say, of Middle Eastern appearance – is delivered to a keen young Cop (Ella Scott-Lynch), who is as drawn to the idea of unravelling the Actor’s predictable alibi as she is to knowing what his chest hair tastes like.
Haunted by guilt and already flinching from knife-swipes of conscience, the Whore’s fiancé, Dealer (an embodiment of a bad conscience perfectly cast by habitual scene-thief Toby Shmidt), appears as a blackmailer, adding to the Actor’s increasing anxiety. The pressure is all consuming and starts to take its toll on him, manifested in a near mental meltdown causing hallucinations and psychological slights of hand. The Actor is jolted out of denial and complacency by the prostitute’s random and sudden apparitions – paranoia descends, the rehearsed lines don’t stick the way they used to, and the normally welcome flash bulbs of paparazzi feel as though they only shine black light on his sins. But now Hollywood looks like a sure thing and the Actor gladly fingers an innocent man to save himself and, while the audience wholly detests his almost total self-absorption and lack of conscience, we now begin to fear he might just get away with it. But even if this weren’t film noir, this is Jonathan Ogilvie, and even God himself can’t help you if you’re a man in a Jonathan Ogilvie scenario.
Emulsion is the first feature film by a director who has earned his name as one of the very few people in the world to have his short films screen in back-to-back Cannes film festivals (1996 and ‘97). Despondent Divorcee (1996) and This Film is a Dog (1997) are both driven by aloof and cool male characters that resist the movements of fate with seemingly sincere actions to improve their lots, only to have their motives weighted by a blind selfishness that steers them to conclusions filled with more pain than they began with. In short, they are attracted to fates worse than death.
In spite of the success with Cannes, it has taken a further ten years for Ogilvie to complete his first feature. To hear it is shot on Super 8 brings surprise, instant intrigue and instant doubt. Once viewed, its lo-fi, no-budget statistics actually reconcile perfectly with the film’s philosophy and intentions. Its simple crime-driven story, doomed romance and honest cynicism play out amid detached, even lonely, framing that wears its sparse and sharp dialogue like scars. Jaded, jazzy and occasionally elegiac music by The Necks’ Chris Abrahams strengthens the noir tones yet retains its character to exploit the occasionally dreamlike atmospherics that conceal then tempt elements of the subconscious. The female characters, namely Cop, are not the pliable, saintly whores noir is used to. In fact, in this one she lives. What sets it apart from noir ultimately makes it an exemplary addition to it.
In this case, Ogilvie delivers content over form, marking the film’s most distinguishing quality as the satire of the script itself. Like many a good film noir, this was directed by an expatriate – this one from New Zealand. Their alien experience of the social and the cultural make them ideal candidates for critique, an opportunity clearly relished by Ogilvie, in that the natural inclinations of the noir animal have been manipulated to suit the darker, unpretentious Australian humour used to such particular effect in his earlier short films. Memorable noir has always drawn its greatest impact through timing. The difficulty in shaping moments and allowing scenes to stand alone in time, as with Jean-Pierre Melville or Robert Siodmak, is apparent. So, Ogilvie turns on and exploits the parameters wherever possible in his direction of the cast.
The entire cast seems to have been selected largely on their understanding of timing to produce comic result and they do so in a knowing, reserved style – an all-the-greater achievement considering production limits. (One would surely see higher profile professionals flounder by such tethers.) The combination is not something we’ve seen noir or Australian cinema do very well, yet its meeting here produces some of the funniest and most galvanic, though barbed, lines you’re likely to hear from an Aussie satire in some time. The acuity of the humour is such that one could catch one’s self trying for a moment to discern whether an independent filmmaker of his character assembled the film noir setting to accommodate the satire or vice versa. Without really knowing it, Emulsion behaves like a product of post-war noir because of its efforts in satire, absorbing the political and public inconsistencies the cultural climate has generated into itself like a black hole and spitting it back out with chipped veneer so the fatuous can’t be mistaken for truth so easily.
The title itself encases a society’s amorous concern with image and its translation into the perverse worship of celebrity (a fact too well spelled out with the number of media stories of Paris Hilton in Australia recently ranking a very close second only to the hanging of Saddam Hussein). Early on in the film, Policewoman comments to her suspect (who thinks he looks innocent but is blessed with the most guilty-as-fuck face you can imagine) that the current cop-lingo for ‘criminal’ is ‘actor’ – a person begging to be believed, to be saved – to be superficially accepted in place of the whole, lest his true self be revealed to a vengeful public.
At its heart, the film reacts like it’s in love with the notion of duality: its psychological and cultural formations especially, in that it’s simultaneously fascinated and angered by it. This duality exists in every element and plane of existence by its nature. Like a piece of film, everything in Emulsion exists with two profiles but gets through life by choosing to focus on the one side that serves them only: the police, while mostly caricatures of their television counterparts, don’t seem to struggle with their moral or legal duties – the Serpico film poster in several scenes a typical reminder – and are happy to let a deadly accident become an incident and simply snuff itself out, since a celebrity is involved. (As Woody Allen reminds us: society will forgive you of anything if you’re rich.)
The sentiments are repeated in the figure of the fiancé who turns out to be the pimp and, remarking on Actor’s admiration of Bondi Beach calls it “a slum by the sea”. Even the environment is duplicitous in Ogilive’s noir. Actor is the most shallow and yet the best example of this disparity between truth and reality. Unlike most other film noir, where it’s common for the protagonist to meet his fate with the minimum of resistance or a chilled expression of acceptance, the Actor is active in trying to elude the closing walls around him, doing whatever possible to outsmart his destiny but succeeding only in deluding himself.
In many scenes, you sense that Actor is trying to feel something. He actually searches for conscience, as if aware internally that he should be feeling worse than he does for what he’s done. The sensation creeps into Actor’s expressions and positions constantly, then instantly falls away as Ogilvie repeatedly offers Actor opportunities to realise the gravity of his wrongdoing, but he continues on – oblivious. The simplest and best example is found in the break-in of Whore’s apartment, where he is faced with a bust of the Buddha and simply moves it aside and continues with the break in after no more than a passing glance at it. Even when we are lead to believe that Actor is attempting to reset the lost balance, we are lead only to Actor’s own vanity and gratification. To read this as social comment is unavoidable, but gladly Ogilvie does not preach. He is as formed and informed by celluloid’s contributions to cultural tides, social and public opinion, and hence morality itself as much as the rest of us, and recognises that celluloid’s acceptance as truth is something as omnipotent and wholly constant. Through the act of shooting on Super 8mm film, Ogilvie scratches the fragile surface to peer through the norms’ a society holds close. It’s the ultimate gag representing a brilliant role-reversal against the ‘system’ of cinema (the sporadic use of colour systematically placed to further suggest the point). This desire especially feels like the motor running Ogilvie and filmmaking.
Ogilvie ensures that the beauty of Emulsion is in the crafting of the mood and the experience, and without question, if you can’t laugh in this film, there is something clinically wrong with you. It’s hard to imagine any director in Australia – with our romance with the short filmmakers who are encouraged to make really overpriced short films – opting to bypass our disembodied funding bodies and go into feature film production like this. It is hard to imagine, but it’s happening and as the recent Pop Corn Taxi screening in Sydney and its lauded reception at the Brisbane International Film Festival prove, Emulsion is another of 2006’s Australian low-budget miracles that have absolutely no reason not to be distributed nationally at the very least.
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HUSSAIN CURRIMBHOY: Most people would have a hard time taking Super 8 seriously, especially for a feature. How hard was it to convince actors to take part in the film?
JONATHAN OGILVIE: It would be interesting to survey people’s consciousness of Super 8. For people of my generation [40 plus], Super 8, particularly Kodachrome, conjures lost childhood and family history, but for younger viewers, who have had their lives recorded on video, I’m not sure if this connection would hold so strongly. Certainly the cast of Emulsion were not particularly knowledgeable about Super 8, and were firstly intrigued by the camera and packets of film, and secondly amazed by the abstract quality of the B&W Super 8 image. When Toby Schmitz saw the results of the camera tests that he helped me with, his response was that the images, mostly of him walking on Bondi Beach, defied time and place.
Because most low- or no-budget films are shot on video, I think actors have an expectation that the image will be naturalistic, thin and none too pretty. The Emulsioners were therefore delighted to discover that their non-naturalistic performances were matched by the non-naturalistic abstraction of the grainy black and white.
HC: Shooting Super 8 doesn’t give you a lot of room for long takes or even many reverse shots. How did Super 8 affect your directing?
JO: Each roll of film ran for about 2.5 minutes, which, assuming you’re not making Rope [Alfred Hitchcock, 1948], is a long take regardless of the camera gauge. Funnily enough, the shortness of the rolls actually influenced me to shoot scenes longer than I probably would if I were shooting six-minute 35mm rolls or ten-minute 16mm rolls [or 90-minute videotape], the rationale being that it was better to shoot off a whole roll than risk running out halfway through a take.
HC: The almost Ego/Id kind of desire that runs throughout the film has appeared in every art form before it was even named or recognised. What inspired Emulsion and did the theme come to you with the story, or was it something you wanted to express especially with film noir?
JO: Yes, the ego/id conflict sounds dead intellectually but is in actuality a seminal and popular dramatic theme. The Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner) franchise – Murtaugh (Danny Glover) representing the cautious ego and Riggs (Mel Gibson) the reckless id – is an obvious example of how well it fits the ‘Buddy Movie’ genre.
My intention with Emulsion was to layer the abstracted qualities of B&W Super 8 over a story template that more or less conforms, in terms of pace, action and plot, to a classic psychological thriller. The inspiration came from no one or two particular sources but my subconscious memory of the many film noir thrillers I have watched and loved. Just this morning I watched Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place  again and was amazed by how many similarities it has with Emulsion.
The script originated from an attempted adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, wherein the portrait was updated to the captured film image. However, I struggled with the specific supernatural qualities of the book and I abandoned the project some years ago. When I had the idea to rework the script as a specific Super 8 production, I threw out the illusions to the book in favour of less-concrete indicators of Actor’s internal conflict. The supernatural is still suggested with Whore’s comatose appearances, but these are moderated by the suggestion that they might be figments of Actor’s guilty conscience. Conversely, Dealer is intentionally presented so that he might also be a figment – Actor is the only character that ever sees him – until the final moment when Cop finds his body.
HC: You told me before that you had the script for a while before you actually made it. How long have you had the script for, and what made you snap and decide to shoot on Super 8 and say to hell with funding?
JO: The film was conceived from the get-go as something I could achieve off my own bat. Of course, the further I got into it, the more I realised I had underestimated the costs and the complications. But as the man says in that Scottish play: “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as going on.”
HC: What films were you watching during the gestation of the script and pre-production?
JO: American Psycho [Mary Harron, 2000], Rope, La Maman et la putain [The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1975], Mulholland Dr. [David Lynch, 2001], Bande à part [Jean-Luc Godard, 1964].
HC: A lot of expatriate/diaspora filmmakers seem to have a preoccupation with travel and/or airplanes in their work. I’m not only talking about the shots of the Qantas Boeing in This Film is a Dog and again in Emulsion, but also the fact that your most-recent 50-min film, JetSet , was set in an airport – not to mention the desire to escape the country is what motivates Actor to identify the wrong man in the movie. Why do you think this is such a recurring element in your imagination?
JO: I think that comes down to Groucho Marx’s famous quote. “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member.” It is a self-loathing edict that I can absolutely relate to and is probably the reason why I am drawn to lives and experiences different from my own.
Specifically, JetSet, while set in a departure lounge, is about status not travel – a no-mans land of the soul, similar to Jean Genet’s No Exit, although I only read that play after I made the film. In Emulsion, Actor’s desire to escape is primarily about his need to be a star. If the gig had been in UK rather than USA, I’m not sure it would have had the same urgent attraction. As Godard said, “America has colonised our imaginations.”
HC: Andrew Bujalski has had a lot of success with his films that have been shot on very cheap 16mm. He’s now doing much-bigger-budget films, yet is planning more low-budget, scaled down, personal films on the side. Would you return to Super 8 film again?
JO: It would absolutely depend on the project, but there is nothing on the horizon that screams out to me Super 8. I do have an idea for a ‘semi’ autobiographical post-punk coming-of-age story set in New Zealand, but that one’s speaking to me in 16mm.
HC: And, finally, can you please set the record straight once and for all and tell me how you set Mathew Modine on fire on a film set?
JO: On the set of Full Metal Jacket [Stanley Kubrick, 1987], I set fire to Matthew Modine when the 1st AD waved a gas flame bar in front of the smoke machine I was operating, turning it into a flame-thrower. Mathew’s eyebrows were scorched but he was otherwise unharmed and was very gracious about it. He makes no mention of the incident in The Full Metal Jacket Diaries, but thanks the SFX crew, of which I was a member, and includes a number of photos of us.