When his 27A won the Australian Film Award for Best Fiction Film in 1974, producer Haydn Keenan brandished the trophy at the august assembly and declared something like, “To all those who said we couldn’t do it – get stuffed!” He and his director Esben Storm had to struggle to get their feature film made without assistance or encouragement from what passed for a film establishment in those days.
Eight years later he was doing it again – making a film that didn’t fit narrow, play-safe ideas of what sort of feature films ought to be developed in Australia. He directed this one himself, and Storm was one of the principal actors. Released in 1983, Going Down carries an acknowledgment of those people in the industry who “helped when we were down and the rewards were not great, and who don’t believe that bigger is necessarily better”.
Non-commercial filmmaking (its proud badge of “experimental” soon to be trivialised by industry and media) largely emerged in this country in the 1960s. It was remarkable both in creative energy and formal diversity – consider these three names: Thoms, Cantrill, Winkler – and internationally respected. We had our major artists, and good reason to be proud of them, but they weren’t chic and they weren’t box office. The arts and education establishments for the most part ignored them.
Commercial dramatic film – illusionist, narrative, manipulative – made its breakthrough soon after. Admittedly there had been locally produced screen drama on television since the ’50s, but it seemed incurably derivative and formulaic. After the exciting early ’70s the Australian feature film was ready to develop into a national – not parochial – art form as “experimental” film had done, with a corresponding creative diversity.
It was a time for artistic curiosity and exploration, encouraging ideas, developing talent, educating a public. Changes in international film production were making an impact on the trade here, with the old Hollywood studio system in retreat and foreign language cinema significantly penetrating local exhibition. But a feature film industry – especially one that’s getting started – needs money, and investment all too soon became subject to an unexamined orthodoxy sustained by dogged veterans in whom the spark had died, craven administrators and snobbish consultants.
Going Down did not conform to such orthodoxy; as a reflection of contemporary Australia it proffered too dark a looking glass. It tells you something about Australian culture that commentators on the film at the time and since – not that there were many of them – expect(ed) their readers to share their expectations when they trod the tottering bridge between stodgy British and flashy American models of emulation. Quite a few refer to the characters as exemplars of “youth” or “punk”, the subject matter as “raw”/“shocking”/“outrageous”, and at least one historian has attributed to it a spirit of “protest”.
The strengths of Going Down elude such terms, but many commentators presume to squeeze films into habitual frames of reference, only to find odd ones deficient when they don’t fit comfortably (except, of course, for films actually promoted as “odd”, in which case “oddity” becomes another heading on the evaluator’s checklist).
Consider some of those conventional terms: “youth” have things to explore, choices to make; “punk” suggests a chosen lifestyle, implying alternatives not chosen; “protest” implies ideals – in our culture, at least. Except for Karli (Tracey Mann), the principals of Going Down are adults with appetites but without hope. Unlike the youths and the punks they are not proactive from day-to-day. They inherit no past, they aspire to no future. They aren’t interested in “choices” or – Deity forbid –“vocation”. “Damnation” is meaningless to them. They don’t speak that language, they have long broken free of class and family expectations (“free” – there’s a hollow jest), and their peers have no expectations of them. In existential terms they might be said to have only Self, not Role.
For virtually all reviews and most critiques a synopsis is the starting point. The allocation of social Roles and synoptic relationships to the characters constitutes comprehension, underlies both analysis and evaluation of the film. It’s the unwritten “contract” between drama and audience, and reviewers are its executors. Is that a convention or a rule? In either case, Going Down defies it.
Traditionally, the figures of tragedy commence as Self and proceed to Role, the figures of melodrama proceed from Role to Self. But the protagonists of Going Down don’t proceed they merely exist.
Add to this the fact that Going Down has precious little narrative tension, which can be seriously discomforting for an audience whose habitual pleasure (their “fix”?) resides in the meshing of variations in the what-happens-next process. This is a what-happens-now movie, but without the customary compensations of cerebral detachment or liberal condescension to the misfortunes of others.
Now add this: there is no “safe place” for the audience in Going Down. Viewer be warned: enter at the level of the protagonists or remain alienated from them and their circumstances. There is no dramatic vantage point, no psychic distance from which to observe (hence judge) them.
Laugh – if you can – with rather than at them: a fine line to tread. Here’s a test (a valid metaphoric application of “litmus test”, a term so often misused in journalism): Jane crawling in search of a dropped tab ends up under the straddled crotch of a vomiting man. Did you find that funny – or disgusting? Answer that and know your place in relation to Going Down.
When Karli accuses Michael (Esben Storm) of having stolen her money the audience is bereft of a clue to the answer. Granted, there were a couple of possible indicators: the cutaway to Karli’s bag on the kitchen table, and later the passing remark, “Do you really think he’s honest?”, but I doubt that many viewers would mark them as “clues” to be held in reserve until the narrative validated them as such. I find this scene extraordinarily tense – because its exegesis is unreadable.
If this film has a dramatic logic (there’s matter for debate: does it? is it at fault if it doesn’t?), it is not the conventional kind which promises/is bound to deliver an answer. No matter how impenetrable Michael’s denial may be in this scene, the unwritten law of what-happens-next assures the audience that the answer will emerge eventually. Going Down doesn’t deal in such assurances. When “the truth” is revealed – Michael did steal her money – we ought to be surprised. The dramatic timing of the revelation, the recognition of the envelope “planted” well back in the narrative, allows us to proceed from surprise to sharing Karli’s regret that her suspicion has been confirmed.
Karli differs from her friends in being proactive, but she shares much of their ethos. A problematic term: “ethos” – I don’t want to argue it here. What, then, confirms their friendship? Not an explanation of this – but a demonstration – comes in the epiphanic moment (I found it so, but I don’t want to argue about “epiphany” either) when Jackie and Karli share an almost perfunctory snort before rejoining the ”action”. The matter-of-factness of their actions is momentary but richly synecdochic, insightful. Keenan’s directorial style eschews reliance on a “privileged” shot to underline the point; to some in the audience it may seem there is no point.
You don’t have to be streetwise to appreciate the cynical humour of the conclusion to the scene in the pharmacy; it has a sense of witty closure about it without compromising its realism. The idea is in the script; its execution on screen gains much from the implacable blandness of the professional man behind the counter. This role – a “cameo” – is played by Richard Brennan, better known as a film producer. Cameos are often an excuse for indulgence and foolery, but this one is a gem. I called the humour “cynical”, which implies a value judgment; perhaps I should have said “ironic”, in which one attitude co-exists with its contradiction? Brennan’s is not the only incisive cameo: Leila Blake comes across as the real thing in her portrayal of a sex industry madam, a film role which usually suffers from cliche and/or mannerism.
After the pharmacy scene the little girls do their tough childish best to extort Michael. Their attempt is endearing in its futility, and in a conventional picture it would have led to a moment of wry sentimentality (masquerading as compassion). Such moments are the pressure valves for drama which is getting rigid about its commitment to realism. But Michael’s response is “Piss off, kid”, without a throb or quaver of kindness. It’s funny – I believe so – but there’s no “feel good” for the audience here, and if it feels ”true”, it hurts.
Going Down is not played in the key of realism only. For at least one reviewer the most memorable parts of the film are the lyrical (no, I’m not going to insert discussion of the aesthetic spectrum invoked by that term) passages of sunset and sunrise over the inner city of Sydney. I take them to be ironic in function, a corrective to cliches of sentimentality (“beauty”) and moralism (“vice”). Technically they demonstrate skill absent from most dialogue and action scenes. I take this to be a pointer to a stylistic choice to dispense with the display of such skill.
The lack of establishing shots in most scenes throws the viewer into the milieu of the characters without those precious seconds of cognitive and emotional preparation – the seconds we don’t think about until they’re missing. We do miss them, don’t we?, conditioned as we are to the habitual coddling of mainstream cinema. The shock (I’m using the word here, I refrained from using it in relation to the subject matter of the film) is a valid dramatic technique; the problem is that the viewer is sometimes – perhaps too often – disoriented; i.e., physically disoriented, as distinct from culturally or emotionally disoriented. For instance, there aren’t clues in the interior setting to tell us when Karli is in her father’s home, although we get a wide shot of her driving away which suggests some genteel suburb.
There are only a few examples of “privileged” shots: attention controlling close-ups and cutaways: Karli’s bag on the kitchen table, the woman cop at the disco. These work against the sense of authenticity which realism requires. The serious drawback for me here is the frequent practice of cutting between singles in group dialogue scenes. Apart from the theoretical consideration of the risk of compromising realism there is the practical result that some performances seem too emphatic – forced. Two of the three credited screenwriters, Moira MacLaine-Cross and Julie Barry, were also principal actors: playing Ellen and Jackie respectively. I can appreciate that this might have imposed special pressure on them when speaking words they wrote for themselves.
Nonetheless it seems to me that most of the cast – not only the writers – adopted the acting strategy of what emotion do these words need? rather than the strategy of what emotion needs these words? The former strategy reverses the reality of what it is representing; hence it risks being perceived as “overacting”, even when a character’s behaviour is “cool”. The possibility of such perception is increased when the actor is covered in a single.
I found this a real problem, but many commentators have praised the principal performances. I admired Tracey Mann in the central role because her performance was controlled and variable, not all on the surface.
David Argue is credited in two roles (I think I spotted him in a third, as a spruiker). Both roles indulge his considerable performance skill. But that’s another problem for me: I kept seeing Argue doing his thing; he got between me and the characters he was portraying. When that happens to a general audience what you’ve got is entertainment, but at a price – realism is compromised.
Other compromises: the arbitrary insertion of the poetry-bashing cyclist, and the climactic rush to the airport, both of which I would have welcomed readily and enjoyed (that chase on the freeway is funny) in a less bleak portrayal of urban Australia. I wonder – which I shouldn’t have to do in a thoroughly realistic representation – whether I should be reading as “clues” (the sociological equivalent of backstory) such elements as the remarkably clean walls of an otherwise shambolic squat, “Michael” rather than “Mike” or “Mick”, etc.
I’ve been talking about realism without attempting to define it. Let this suffice: it is the closing down of the psychic distance between the illusion and the viewer, who thereby gains a stronger sense of sharing, not merely witnessing, the emotional force field of the characters. The probability of the dramatised events and speech is co-extensive with the world they represent, and characterisation is constrained to behavioural observation without “privileged” camera placement and/or editing.
The consequence of this representational process is that the viewer comprehends external actions and internal motives along the same lines of inference as she/he brings to everyday experience, and thus may bring the same breadth of response to the drama as to everyday experience. This is in contrast to stylised representation which may be more concentrated in its effect, but leaves some part – possibly the major part – of the viewer’s emotional field untouched, unchallenged.
Like its 1975 forerunner, Bert Deling’s Pure Shit, a junkies’ walpurgisnacht in the mean streets of Melbourne, there is no place for either sentimentality or self-pity in this picture – even in its moments of indulgence – and no sense of condescension to its motley bunch of losers. That is the strongest factor in my ongoing admiration for Going Down.
It’s a mixed-up piece of work, and I confess it left me feeling mixed-up (being an old East Sydney boy myself). But I celebrate the fact that it was made, and that it can still find an audience a quarter of a century later, when many of its “worthy” contemporaries have little to offer beyond nostalgia.
For students of the cultural history, the songs selected for this film should provoke informed comment of which I am incapable.
Going Down will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday 7 August at 9:15 PM.