The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi, 1976)
by Scott Murray
In 1953, Tom Allen (Simon Burke) is one of many boys being prepared for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary. Instructed by kindly and severe Brothers, Tom battles bed-wetting (seen as a weakness of mind rather than the bladder) and nascent sexual thoughts.
When Tom’s mother moves into a nearby guesthouse, Tom goes to visit her. A young girl, Lynette (Danee Lindsay), tosses pebbles at him from a terrace. They chase each other through the sombre woods, toppling onto a pile of autumn leaves and Tom being blessed with his first brief kiss.
Returning to the guesthouse, Tom is soon running in the woods again with Lynette. A fine shower of rain leaves jewel-like droplets on their clothes. They seek protection under a gnarled tree.
Lynette reveals that she is leaving in the morning. Tom already knows. It is a moment he has long been dreading. Surely it spells the end of first love, the dimming of the only ray of warming light in a young life ruled and repressed by the dogma of a structured faith.
Lynette says she will write. She turns to face him with a radiant smile. It is the kind of smile that forever warms the heart, turning sadness into joy and making one grateful for the very existence of love and desire. One could call it God’s greatest gift.
Tom, revealing the fear we all have that our flaws will become noticed and our loved one disappointed, tells Lynette he is a poor letter writer. Lynette calmly and confidently assures him that she is not.
Tom suggests that she pretend to be his cousin because all his letters are opened and read. For a moment, it seems as if this far-off imposition by the church will shatter the fragile tenderness between them. But no, these two will continue to strive to find their way to happiness, for however long and in whatever form, despite the attentions and strictures of others.
As Lynette rests her head gently on his shoulder, Tom gazes up and out into his future.
Writer-producer-director Fred Schepisi is a National Living Treasure and this shot is my favourite in the troubled but wondrous history of the Australian Cinema.
Yes, there is more visceral power in the track-forward along the highway to an injured Max (Mel Gibson) in Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981), more poetry in the eerie journey down the river in Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955) and more brutal truth about this Antipodean isle in Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971). But nothing touches me quite so tenderly as the sight of these two standing under a tree.
Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992)
by Darragh O’Donoghue
Although Strictly Ballroom sympathises with its central love story – Romeo and Juliet social and familial conflicts given extra charge by the marginalisation of immigrant family of Fran (Tina Morice) – it never allows it to dominate at the expense of the world that surrounds it. Hence, the sublime epiphany of the dénouement, which repairs the rupture of the prelude, where the preparations of dance partners for a regional contest were filmed in a slow-motion Eden of music and movement, with dance a ritual both social and hieratic, before a Fall prompted by the serpents of language and competition: “Come on a 100!”
The much-maligned Doug (Barry Otto) mutters, “I don’t like competition.” This is an unpopular view in a world that structures itself, its rituals and its social relations around the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship. We might expect the film to unavoidably endorse this world, as genre dictates it build up to victory in this competition. But the final isn’t directed as a spectacular climax. The primary focus on the two leads is consistently diverted by subordinate actions. The music is cut off; Fran and Scott (Paul Mercurio) are disqualified.
Predictably, they engage in a defiant display of dance skill, grace and originality; unpredictably, this doesn’t exacerbate opposition, it heals it. Like spiritual fumigators, they circle the contested ballroom space; with democratic beatitude, it is opened to everyone to dance. Competition is transcended by harmony, redemption, forgiveness. Fran and Scott replace the negative, oppressive connotations of ‘strictly ballroom’ with a utopian dance floor, just as the film unites irony and sincerity, shallowness and depth, modernism and populist, realism and camp, originality and cliché, differences in age, gender, sexuality and class.
If there is one set-piece that epitomises the magic of Strictly Ballroom, it is the 14-minute sequence shot to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” (sung by Morice, epitomising Luhrmann’s karaoke æsthetic); as that song choice indicates, it cross-cuts the two ‘times’ of classic melodrama: the timeless, emotional, bodied world of the incipient lovers, their dance practices suspended in space and time, and the ‘real world’ where weeks whizz by, signalled by language, society and the violent, disembodied crossing-out of days on a calendar towards the red-circled goal of the Pan Pacifics final.
Nevertheless, the sequence visualises the thematic shift away from individual excellence and the romantic couple. It begins with Scott dancing alone, proving by his skill the justice of his decision to break the established rules. He is watched by Fran, representative of the ‘ordinary’ viewer; she initiates the typical push-pull manœuvres of the romantic comedy, displaced onto the couple’s dancing practice. This, however, is cross-cut with both the noisy world of Scott’s extended family, friends and rivals, and the private realm of Doug, Scott’s dad, the film’s true emblem of the individual repressed by social mores, finding release in music and dance. Doug moves joyously indoors to Latin rhythms while Fran and Scott rumba on the roof, international commerce and dreary domesticity co-existing in the conjunction of a huge, spangley Coke billboard and clothes-line drooping with underwear. The difference between these two worlds collapses when Doug dances on the roof and the younger pair move inside, just as the climactic invasion of the dance hall will subsume individuality and the couple into a visionary collective.
Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971): New Wave and New Beginning
by Adam Bingham
The Australian new wave of the 1970s has many features in common with other canonical new national cinemas that have, since the 1960s, variously characterised emergent European, Asian and latterly South American filmmaking. In one key respect, however, it is unique among a myriad of les Nouvelle Vagues: Australians did not direct its flagship productions, the films that heralded its birth and instigated its commercial and artistic viability. These films are Ned Kelly (1970) by the British Tony Richardson, Wake in Fright (1971) by the Canadian Ted Kotcheff and, most famously, Walkabout (1971), by another Brit, Nicolas Roeg.
Each of these films brings an outsider’s penetrating and unflinching gaze to specifically Australian themes and subject matter. The latter two, in fact, narrativize their foreign perspective in stories revolving around English characters adrift in a hostile, alien Australian environment. Whereas Kotcheff’s film focuses on and subverts the Australian ideal of pioneer masculinity and group mateship, Walkabout is a response to the enormous, inimical otherness of the unconquerable Australian outback landscape. The opening scene of Roeg’s film is particularly masterful in establishing the director’s abiding concerns, and introducing a number of dichotomies that will reverberate throughout the fragmented narrative and thematize the director’s approach to ‘Australia’.
Chief in this regard is the John Fordian clash between civilization and the wilderness, which opens out into a discourse on artificiality and nature. The whole, remarkably dense and compressed, opening sequence is bracketed by identical tracking shots (with a third roughly half-way through) that move left to right along a brick wall and out on to the particular locale in which the subsequent scene will play out: namely, the city and then the outback. The first time we see this it appears a natural part of the landscape that it reveals; when it is repeated, it strikes one as completely anomalous, as discordant as the Karlheinz Stockhausen music that is initially heard on the soundtrack. It is, like the young girl (Jenny Agutter) and boy (Lucien John), who remain nameless throughout to highlight their status as allegorical figures rather than specific people – an artificial, constructed entity that seems monolithically out of place in the natural wilderness of the bush, much as the schoolhouse does in Peter Weir’s thematically comparable Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).
This dichotomy is reinforced in the central characters of the brother and sister. They are both introduced in and around school: the girl, in particular, is first seen in elocution lessons where the loud, collective pronunciation connotes everyone essentially learning to be the same. In other words, being moulded as good students and citizens: as automatons. Following this, the siblings will remain in uniform for a long time as the film progresses. Indeed, they only shed these clothes incrementally, as though they were the shallow, exterior trappings of a socially constructed and conditioned identity that has been left behind in the ‘civilised’ world.
The film follows the two siblings and their father making their separate ways home: the sister and father through a veritable metropolis of teeming traffic, noise and crowds; the younger brother, who crucially is never actually seen in class, so who has thus not yet been moulded into a civilized adult, is seen amid trees in the more prophetically natural milieu of a lush expanse of grass. At home, there is then a summation of the artificiality of these characters’ lives, as the brother and sister swim in a pool that is located immediately beside an open expanse of water (Sydney Harbour). It is a perfect crystallization both of their insular, unthinking separation from nature, and also of the proximity of civilization and its other; a proximity that belies the divide between them; belies the fact that the latter will prove to be “the happy highways where I went. And cannot come again.”
From this perspective, Walkabout anticipates a number of films and filmmakers who would emerge in Australia in the early 1970s, especially Peter Weir and such films as Picnic and The Last Wave (1978).
Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)
by Aaron Goldberg
“She’s the last of the V8s. She sucks nitro, phase 4 head.”
There are many wonderful ‘shots’ in Mad Max, which still stands as one of the most beautifully lensed, edited and composed Australian films of all time. I’ll let other people articulate what those are in my florid words than me, but my own personal favourite is the unveiling of ‘the Engine’: “She’s the last of the V8s, she sucks nitro, phase 4 head.”
Now the obvious Freudian/Delleuzian/post-modern/lazy, etc., etc., etc., response, is that ‘the engine’ – and visually so in this case – is the unconscious representation of the phallus. But this is what is so cool about this shot. The camera zooms in slowly, seductively, ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) gently tweaks it for more power. It purrs, he’s seduced, in awe, dumbstruck and suffers a petit-mort all in one shot. Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) declares: “He’s in a coma man, he loves it!”
For a country that invented such wonderful philosophical concepts as “the female eunuch”, a concept it seems would define sexuality in the Australian cinema for way, way too long, here we have a proud one-finger salute in this single shot. Max has just been (mind)blown! But in this same moment a Faustian pact has been unconsciously made. Max will discover further down the narrative that ‘the Engine’ will become his new love interest, signalling Mad Max as the first truly ‘Ballardian’ movie. He will be cruelly denied the flesh; this brief mating ritual with this crude, high-powered lube-loving machine will soon define his fate.
I remember vividly the experience of seeing Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981) in a packed-out Rosebud Cinema down in the Mornington-Peninsula in the early 1980s. (I was too young to see the shocking, ‘transgressive’ R-rated Mad Max and had to see it later on video.) It blew my mind, the first truly transcendent Australian cinematic experience. The theatre was packed with mix of locals and migrant-Australians who loved their cars more than their mothers (or maybe not). The hyped murmurings after the movie were in regards to Max’s tricked out super-powered ‘Charger’. It was the engine that means the most – “What the fuck was than reh?”, “Nitro, man”, would be the reply, “My cousins, bothers, mate does them mods”. It was a warm communal afterglow that we all must of felt, after being unceremoniously blown by the purring, screaming force of ‘the Engine’.