Van Diemen's Land“Writers who have nothing to say always strain for metaphors to say it in.”

– Florence King

1. Anorexics, bulimics and the smorgasbord

For every metaphor for the cinema – Godard’s goodwill for a meeting, Bazin’s window on the world, the cinema as a machine célibataire – one can usually think of at least a couple of metaphors for cinephilia. One of the more evocative and celebrated of these is Quintín’s bulimic-anorexic dichotomy: what he calls the “my videotheque is too empty” and the “life is too short” schools of movie love. That Quintín’s categories invoke eating disorders is, political correctness aside, wonderfully wry and self-deprecating; it is also a clever extension of the vocabulary we use when we speak of “devouring” films, needing time to “digest” them, and belongs to the same lexicon of metaphors as the claim that certain films were so bad as to have made us sick.

This is the same lexicon drawn upon by those who speak of films festivals as “smorgasbords” or “feasts”. (As someone who has previously employed, and prefers, the metaphor of the frontline dispatch to characterise film festivals, I have to admit that these foodie constructions strike me as somewhat fatuous and uninspiring – not to mention rather too close to “consumption” and the crass commercialism that term can connote – but one can perhaps see the appeal.) And of Quintín’s two categories, there can be no doubt that the bulimic seems somewhat better suited to such a smorgasbord. Anorexics, while by no means left out at a festival, can nonetheless find the going tough. (“I can only see so many films in a day!” is a common refrain.)

While the distinction between the two groups does not exactly imply a preference for quality or quantity (after all, bulimics purge the lesser films from their memories almost as soon as they’ve seen them), it can occasionally appear that way. Certainly, it seems safe to assume that Sydney’s more anorexic movie-going types, upon learning that this year’s film festival would be seven days shorter than last year’s, and have thirty per cent fewer films on show, were instilled with the not-unreasonable hope that such a significant reduction in quantity might conceivably lead to a concentration in quality. As a bulimic-turned-anorexic who went somewhat bug-eyed by the end of the last festival he covered, and vowed never to put himself through such pains again, I was among those harbouring such hopes and, for the most part, was not disappointed. While the passage of time has allowed me to put my initial ecstatic response into perspective – an ecstatic response I discuss further below – and has thrown its more middlebrow tendencies into sharp relief, I think it is fair to say that the scaled-down festival worked, cinephilic bulimia and its coterie of adherents be damned.

2.  Paths, webs, and lines of flight

I have written in the past on curation as creation, on the ways in which an artistic director or film festival programmer can be an auteur in her own right. (And with three of the country’s five major festivals directed by women, my use of the generic female pronoun here is less an attempt to make a political statement as a simple observation of a fact that is, perhaps, a political statement all of its own.) Clare Stewart is clearly one of those to whom such a label might be affixed. Her third at-bat since stepping into the role, as well as being shorter than it has been in the past, was also marked by its willingness to play with the categories into which a film festival’s line-up is so often organised. Instead, in other words, of the usual geographic, generic and formal categories – Australian cinema, world cinema, documentary, and so on – Stewart’s third festival was based up what she described as “experiential considerations,” pathways through the cinematic thicket based on the way certain films would make one feel. Flipping through the festival program, one could plot one’s ten-day course through festival according to whether or not one wanted it to  “give me a kiss”, “take me on a journey” or “fire me up”, finding those films that would “make me laugh”, “push me to the edge” or “freak me out”.

To some extent this was a bold move: a break away from the standard, never entirely satisfactory, cordoning off into unhelpful if not downright arbitrary categories of most film festival fare. But in practice, the festival’s new programming schema wasn’t much helped by its scheduling, which, roughly speaking, left most of the Asian cinema for the second week of the festival, and which was characterised in the first by an abundance of European and American films, thereby creating implicitly precisely the sort of geographical division that the programmers were arguably trying to avoid, making it easy to fall back into the regular habit of grouping films along reductive national lines. Not that doing so along so-called experiential, but in actual fact generic, lines – for what were these “paths” but “romance”, “action”, “comedy” and “horror” under new and not particularly original names? – was all that much less reductive.

Certainly, Australia’s contribution was always going to be considered in national terms, regardless of how many “paths” or “considerations” the country’s contribution was spread across. But it quickly became apparent that neither approach – nationalistic or experiential – would be particularly helpful to connecting or grouping that contribution. For while it is true that films like Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate and David Caesar’s Prime Mover – the latter exhibiting its maker’s usual flair for the spare poetry of ocker speech – can easily be situated within a fairly straightforward framework of Australian national cinema, those like Khoa Do’s Missing Water and Jonathan Auf Der Heide’s Van Diemen’s Land merely proved the extent to which such frameworks are prone to, almost always immediate, collapse. The two films could not be more different: the former, with its cool and for the most part effective theatrical austerity, and wince-inducing dialogue, a curious cross between Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and a standard-issue soap opera, and the latter a hypnotic and Herzogian meditation on Australia’s penal origins, with a chilling central performance from Oscar Redding and cinematography that could go head to head with any Australian landscape standard-bearer and give it a run for its money.

Wake in FrightThen there’s Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), which is surely one of the best films ever made in this country, but which complicates any simplistic notion of national cinema on the grounds that Kotcheff is a Canuck, Gary Bond and Donald Pleasance, the film’s above-the-line stars, were both British, and its screenwriter, Evan Jones, was born in Jamaica. (Kenneth Cook, who penned the novel on which the film is based, was admittedly a local, as were a number of its cast, including Chips Rafferty and a much buffer-looking Jack Thompson.) That this was counted, and should be counted, among the festival’s Australian offerings, goes without saying, though the borders of that category are automatically rendered more porous, if not entirely irrelevant, by its inclusion. (One hopes – but somehow cynically doubts – that we might see more such brutal and brutally honest oddities now that Screen Australia has exploded its definition of “Significant Australian Content” to include any film that demonstrates a so-called “cultural imperative” regardless of the nationalities of the principles involved. That this also means, however, that “a film which is pre-produced, shot, and post-produced in Australia, by Australians, will not necessarily qualify as an Australian film,” is another matter entirely, and just goes to show again the problem – long faced by the good people behind the Miles Franklin Literary Award, with their at times controversial emphasis on work that “presents Australian life in any of its phases” – with categorisation along nationalistic lines.)

But if the run-of-the-mill nationalistic category, however implicit in this instance, may have been, experiential categorisation wasn’t a whole lot better. It would be difficult to see all but the most superficial commonalities between Caesar’s Prime Mover and, say, Claire Denis’s 35 rhum, both of which were lumped together for those wanting their festival to “give me a kiss,” as indeed it would be to find the connective tissue between Missing Water and The Missing Person, Noah Buschel’s not-quite-neo-noir, which were both supposed to somehow “take me on a journey”.

Perhaps a more productive way to approach and think about a festival program would be to consider it less as a space through which to beat a single path, than as a dynamic web, with threads spooling out in multiple directions – and on multiple thematic, stylistic and figurative levels – to connect with any number of films in any number of unexpected ways.

These could be thematic – Valentino: The Last Emperor, for example, connects with The September Issue not only by virtue of their superficial focus on the world of fashion, but also by that of their dramatic focus on intimate interpersonal power relations, and Sebastian Silva’s wickedly funny La Naña (The Maid) has similar things to say about class and the division of labour as Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience – or they could be stylistic. So Yong Kim’s slight but affecting Treeless Mountain and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s much more intense and upsetting Üç maymun (Three Monkeys), for all their thematic and tonal disparities, nonetheless share an abiding interest in the poetic potential of the human face, and both are constructed largely out of close-ups that mine this potential to great effect. Jia Zhangke’s remarkable Er Shi si cheng ji (24 City), which sees the filmmaker apply his usual grace and rigour, as well as his characteristic concern with the effect of China’s rise on its people, applied to a semi-documentary subject, views the urban and industrial landscapes of Chengdu, in his country’s southwest, with the same cool but ever-so-melancholic eye as Sophie Barthes’ does the urban and industrial landscapes on the outskirts of Moscow in her Cold Souls. (That Barthes’ film, for its occasional charms, could well have been called Being Paul Giamatti or Colour Me Kaufman – or perhaps even Not Another Metaphysical Comedy-Drama – is rather beside the point.)

Then there are those strange, figural connections between films, those connections that present themselves, sometimes forcefully and sometimes otherwise, when an image or gesture flows from one film to another, even when the films in question have nothing else in common with one another. In both The Maid and Claire Denis’s 35 rhums, we find ourself presented with cats, one of which goes missing (or in any case intentionally gets lost) and the other of which dies. The former of these felines shares something in common, too, with the animals in Louise-Michel, by Belgian filmmakers Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine, which are similarly manhandled by a frumpy woman with more than a few screws loose. Which brings us to women, and to the female face, which found itself littered throughout the festival. In Agnès Varda’s incomparable Cléo de 5 à 7, during that haunting rendition of Michel Legrand’s “Sans toi”, the camera slowly works its way around the piano until it has captured Corinne Marchand, meeting the camera’s gaze in close-up, against a black curtain. Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin consists almost entirely of shots identical to this one – Marchand’s tears are even echoed by those of Juliette Binoche, all but unrecognisable here – though the effect is less of watching the “Sans toi” scene over and over than of watching Anna Karina watching Maria Falconetti for ninety minutes. (Marchand’s tears and Karina’s, of course, were shed the same year.) Women’s faces are also to be found en masse in Mai Zetterling’s radical and hilarious The Girls (“So, Fellini, Buñuel and Judith Butler walk into a bar,” the joke would go, were this film to be the source of one) and in isolation in Chantal Akerman’s incomparable Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Here, however, as in The Girlfriend Experience (another film that calls to mind Anna Karina and Vivre sa vie), the female visage, with its perfectly-applied make-up and its determinedly vacant expression, is less a proper face than a mask that hides behind it a great and terrifying emptiness.

More than thematic and stylistic webs, figurative ones, such as that we have spun above, might be said to have something of Deleuze’s “line of flight” about them, at least to the extent that one is happy to take this term at its most basic and simplistically defined. Adrian Martin’s report on last year’s Brisbane International Film Festival – a piece that begins as rumination on tears and crying in certain films at the festival before expanding outwards to become a piece about emotion and gesture in the performing arts more generally – might be said to have followed one such “line of flight” of its own: the figure of the crying actor becomes a new and unorthodox prism through which the viewer might see the festival program in a new light, while similarly providing the writer with a means of escaping the standard format of the festival report and to connect the festival to other concerns. The crying figure, in other words, blows the festival right open. Such a “line of flight” presented itself at this year’s Sydney Festival, too, though it was not the face of a woman as outlined above. (The Girls 24/7 program, which later travelled to Melbourne, was programmed, after all, and a “line of flight” is by definition a movement away from that which has been programmed.) No, the figure in question, at this festival, was the figure of the dead or dying animal.

3.  Abattoirs

Have ever so many animals died on screen as died during this year’s festival? From grasshoppers roasting over an open flame in to kangaroos mercilessly slaughtered in the night, the festival’s twelve days bore witness to a macabre cinematic menagerie of dead and dying fauna, a piling up of bestial bodies on the screen without precedent in my experience. Obviously, this is the kind of observation that emerges only when one has seen a lot of films – indeed, perhaps too many films – at the festival in question, and therefore starts to notice things that normal people probably haven’t. Of course, when more than one third of over forty-five features contain either a dead or dying animal, then perhaps it is only normal that one should begin to take notice of the trend. In my case, in any case, I kept a death toll. A festival for the vegetarians it wasn’t.

DisgraceThere were the dogs, beaten and put down, in Steve Jacob’s adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and the carcass of some unnamed beast hanging from a meathook in a room of the Louvre in Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage (Face). There was the roasted cow’s head in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a kind of bovine memento mori, and the duck that has its head chopped off onscreen in Catherine Breillat’s Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard), a festival highlight. Prime Mover brutally knocked off a sheep, hitting it first with a braking semi-trailer before allowing a wheeljack-wielding William McInnes to put it out of its misery, while Louise-Michel had both a dead pigeon, which the lead character wanted to eat, and then later a dead rabbit, which she did eat, raw. In Treeless Mountain, the two sisters captured, skewered, and roasted countless grasshoppers, selling the insects for ten cents a pop when not snacking on them themselves, and in a similar vein, in the Peruvian documentary El Olvido (Oblivion), the street vendor made his living by killing frogs, boiling them in water, and then putting their flesh into a blender to make a smoothie that he said would aid one’s memory. (In the interest of freshness, he killed the frogs on site. In the interest of verisimilitude, he also did so on screen.)

Then there were the horses killed in battle in John Woo’s Red Cliff and the one stabbed in the neck by Benicio Del Toro in Che: Part Two. There was Noé‘s overfed cat in Claire Denis’s 35 rhums, found on the floor of his apartment and, with very little fanfare, dumped in a garbage bag with a handful of pet toys, and there was the butterfly that Guy Pearce left to die under a glass in Rowan Woods’ American debut Winged Creatures. In the short film We Who Stayed Behind, the lead character, Adam, carried a dead robin around with him, before realising the futility of doing so and throwing it away. And of course there were all the dead kangaroos: the one hit by a car in Beautiful Kate and, more strikingly, those run down and shot at point-blank range in Wake in Fright. Peter Whittle even wrestled one, getting it in a headlock and slitting its throat. And all this from a festival with a puppy on the cover of its program guide.

Of course, filmmakers have had always had a bit of a fascination with dead and dying animals, a fascination that has been there since the very beginning of cinema. In 1903, Thomas Edison shot and released his famous Electrocuting an Elephant, a one-shot film in which an elephant named Topsy had 6,600 volts run through her at Coney Island’s Luna Park Zoo, and animals have been martyred on the altar of the filmmaker’s vision ever since. (Topsy, it should be noted, had killed three people in as many years and arguably had it coming to her.)

Perhaps cinema’s most famous animal corpses are those of the rabbits and pheasants in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu, blown away, as they are, by an unthinking hunting party of bourgeois twits on the eve of the Second World War. These butchered bunnies and birdies have become increasingly famous over time as an enduring symbol of man’s capacity for systematic brutality. That the film was first released, and then banned, only two or three months before the Nazis marched into Poland in 1939, imbues the death of these animals – for they, too, actually died onscreen – with even greater resonance.

This fascination with shooting dead animals – no pun intended – is itself one of the central themes of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts (1985). Here, twin brothers, whose wives have both been killed in a car accident, become obsessed with making time-lapse films of various animals in various states of decay. The resultant footage of angelfish and swans and zebras decomposing, set to the music of Michael Nyman, takes on a strange, otherworldly beauty, as death sometimes does, especially on film. Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary Le sang des bêtes, which contrasts the bucolic outer suburbs of post-war Paris with the bloody operations of a nearby slaughterhouse, remains difficult but oddly compelling viewing even today.

But I’m collapsing a number of categories here. There is, after all, a difference between showing an animal being killed on screen and showing one that has already been killed. There is also a difference between representing death on screen and actually inflicting it, a difference between a slasher film and snuff. The ethical questions surrounding the treatment of animals on film – questions about what it means to actually kill an animal for a scene – are many and, perhaps surprisingly, not always clean-cut. The ox at the end of Apocalypse Now, hacked up with machetes to the sound of The Doors, was killed as part of a religious ritual, a ritual that would have taken place whether or not Francis Ford Coppola had been there to shoot it. The horse in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, on the other hand, was purchased from a slaughterhouse and returned there once its scene had was in the can, but not before it was shot, pushed down a staircase, and filmed bleeding to death. Both Coppola’s ox and Tarkovsky’s horse were going to die anyway. But it is arguable that only Coppola walked away without literal or figurative blood on his hands.

Not that all of the festival films mentioned above contained scenes of actual slaughter, of course. The duck in Bluebeard actually did have its head cut off and the kangaroos in Wake in Fright actually were slaughtered (as part of a routine cull, the credits inform us). And the frogs in Oblivion, too, actually were, well, thrown into a blender and consumed as a thickshake. But most of the animal deaths in these films were either implied or merely represented. No animals were hurt in the making of this film, the credits rush to inform us lest we take up our letter-writing pens. But why so many representations of dying animals to begin with?

If the current bumper crop of corpses can be taken to mean anything at all, it is arguably that the metaphorical value of the dead animal in cinema remains essentially unchanged. When a little girl watches the life seep out of a headless duck, or when a lovesick young man finds his overweight cat dead on the floor, these deaths clearly mean more than they may at first appear to, carrying their fair share of narrative and thematic weight. Like Renoir’s rabbits or Franju’s bêtes, or the donkey dying in a field of sheep at the end of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, these dead animals, too, remain evocative metaphors. As signs go, the carcass is ripe with meaning. But whether or not this is an excuse for actually killing an animal remains another matter entirely. One only hopes the pug on the program guide managed to get out alive.

4. Dispatch from the frontlines

Roman Polanski: Wanted and DesiredRoman Polanski ‘s arrest at the Zurich Film Festival – the festival as trap, to use a metaphor that sounds as though it belongs in a Brian DePalma movie, or else something starring George Clooney – was still some months away at the time of Sydney’s little get-together, and the screening of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired was not as much remarked upon as it doubtless would have been not long after. Indeed, the film was central to much of the coverage that followed Polanski’s arrest, some pointing at it as a source of unequivocal vindication for the filmmaker – the judge was out to get him, the girl in question has forgiven him, and wasn’t it, like, thirty years ago already? – and others lambasting it for supporting a man who, whatever his talents behind the camera, had drugged and raped a thirteen year-old girl. While this group – the one that accused the film, and indeed Polanski’s supporters more generally, of moral relativism, and was dismayed when a long line-up of respectable filmmakers came out to insist their paedophilic pal get off scot-free – while this group undoubtedly had a better leg to stand on, neither group seem to achieve very much by bringing up Marina Zenovich’s film. This is because the picture is less a conclusive unpacking of the case than a damning indictment of the roles played by both the mass media and the judicial system in the ensuing scandal, during which both groups unable to administer either an objective level of reporting, on the one hand, or a satisfactory level of justice, on the other, but instead seemed somehow programmed at any and all times to hit him with more or less than was required.

While the inclusion of Wanted and Desired may have been so timely as to in fact be anticipatory or prophetic, that of Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s The Queen and I was timely, period. Broomfieldian without the deliberate obnoxiousness, the film deals with the filmmaker’s unlikely friendship with Farah Pahlavi, the widow of the last Shah of Iran, and screened at the festival at roughly the same time that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his fellows were stealing that country’s presidential election. The Green Uprising that followed, facilitated as it was by social networking phenomena such as Twitter, Flickr and the blogosphere, and captured as it was on consumer-level technologies – Neda Agha-Soltan’s death, captured on a camera phone, remains both the most tragic and enraging – found its images echoed at the festival in Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ. Documenting another case of violent repression of non-violent protest by a military government – the squashing of the Saffron Uprising in Burma in 2007 – the film and its forms were probably better suited to television (as rather too many documentaries are nowadays) but was awe-inspiring stuff nonetheless, an intense and compelling dispatch from the literal frontlines, pieced together from smuggled-out footage and designed to shock viewers back into coherence.

From actual frontlines to ideological ones. A kind of cinematic companion piece to such recent best-sellers as Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – only a little funnier and, if we are to be honest, a little lazier – Bill Maher’s Religulous, directed by Larry Charles, is actually a surprisingly good contribution to the genres it belongs to. The first of these is the militant atheist genre of the aforementioned books, which it lets down only by going after a couple of easy, redneck targets (though it makes up for its occasional forays down the road easiest travelled with its particularly well-realised final sequence). The second is the one-man-on-a-serious-but-satirical-journey genre of such self-reflexive and self-righteous fare as Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me and the vast majority of Michael Moore’s recent output. If Religulous is a better film than these – and it is, slightly – this is because Maher’s tendency is towards irony instead of sanctimony, and because of his willingness to offend everyone on all sides of an argument equally. (Michael Moore, bless him, is congenitally unable to do so.) Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s No Impact Man belongs to the one-man-on-a-journey genre, too – it tells the story of American non-fiction writer and blogger Colin Beavan, who decides to live for a year while attempting to make as little impact on the environment as possible – but falls at rather the wrong end of the irony-sanctimony spectrum. (Beavan, the one-man-on-a-journey in question, doesn’t help matters much, quickly distinguishing himself as less likable than other leads in the genre. Thankfully, his wife Michelle Conlin becomes the documentary’s real focus, and her movement towards the pleasures a zero-footprint existence, unlike his obsessive and self-immolating attempts, is indeed very compelling.)

Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop is a kind of frontline dispatch as well, though one that feels a few years too late, as though it somehow got lost somewhere in transit and has only just now been recovered. Why such a film – acerbic and absurd, damning and demented – was not made four or five years ago, immediately following the invasion of Iraq, is anyone’s guess. (And it is clearly a film about Iraq, as opposed to Afghanistan, even though the name of the country-to-be-invaded is never mentioned explicitly.) Of course, one might argue that the film’s real subject is less topical than it is eternal – the banal and bureaucratic manner in which publics are lied to and wars started – but the argument doesn’t seem to hold up well when one tries to square it with the film itself. (James Gandolfini’s solemn and hilarious warning against war – “Once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, you never want to go again unless you absolutely fucking have to. It’s like France” – finds its inspiration in Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous dismissal of so-called “Old Europe”, as indeed many of the film’s best moments can be seen to be riffing off real-life events from earlier this decade.)

In other ways, however, In the Loop is very much of its time, a dispatch not from the frontlines of a war or from the corridors of power, but rather from the cinema, indicative of a stylistic tendency that is slowly but surely taking over filmed comedy. The visual tropes of mockumentary, if not its emphasis on interviews and direct-to-camera asides (In the Loop, for example, contains no such devices), are becoming increasingly popular television comedy and will likely only become more so as such comedy exerts its influence. (In the Loop, it is unsurprising to learn, is based on the BBC comedy The Thick of It.) Pseudo-verité camerawork is to be found everywhere. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, while hardly the first to advance such a style, has undoubtedly been the most successful and influential example of it. Aside from The Chaser’s War on Everything and Thank God You’re Here, which were both sketch-based comedy programs, the most popular Australian comedy series of this decade – Kath & Kim, We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High – have almost all employed the style to a significant extent, as have a number of other, perhaps less successful, titles. The format lends itself to low budgets, digital video, and tight production schedules, and therefore meets three of the more important conditions for television comedy production outside the United States. It might also be said to imbue comedy with a certain of-the-minute energy. What it does not lend itself to – or at least, not so much – is complexity of composition or mise-en-scène, tending more on the whole towards a televisual or even theatrical sensibility than towards a cinematic one. Which on the big screen – the home of Monsieur Hulot, we should never forget – has a tendency to fast become suffocating and dull. Indeed, I saw In the Loop again recently, on an international flight, watching it on the tiny screen that was mounted to the back of the headrest in front of me, and the experience was in fact much more enjoyable than it was from Row J of Sydney’s State Theatre. “Yes,” I thought, chuckling at the antics before me, “this really is about the right size for this movie.” Even as the tropes of television documentary slowly but surely infect those its cinematic cousin – the slow push-in on the archival photograph must surely be the most insidious nowadays – we must also be on guard again those of the television mockumentary, which threaten to do the same to our comedy. Our cinema should not be television.

5. Bell curves, goodwill, free hugs, and home

Speaking as an audience member with save little experience in film festival programming, it seems to me that the process tends to operate according to the logic of the bell curve. Late-night exploitation films and B-movie retrospectives at one end, experimental short programs and esoteric structuralist fare at the other, and a great well of solid, middle-brow audience-pleasers filling out the middle. Either side of the curve will have masterpieces plotted along its slopes – Wake in Fright and Face, for example, eyeing each other across the divide – and even, occasionally, a couple down there in the well itself. But if the Sydney Film Festival’s bell tolled a little oddly – with the sound of a fish slapping against metal, say – it is doubtless because it was mostly well, with holes riddled throughout either slope.

As mentioned in the opening passages of this essay, the passage of time that has passed since the film festival’s conclusion has helped me to discard my rose-tinted contacts, and as my critical faculties have kicked back into gear this has become the most unavoidable and trenchant of my criticisms. What strikes me most in retrospect about the festival is the complete absence of the experimental, and the near-complete absence of the short, in the face of the program’s focus on the narrative feature. More than any other Australian film festival I have attended, Sydney’s continues to be the least daring in this regard, playing so thoroughly to middle-of-the-road interests that it can only be to the detriment of any slightly-out-of-the-ordinary cultural mission its programmers might set for themselves. Which is, one supposes, rather the problem: they appear not to have set one for themselves at all, and what’s more appear uninterested in doing so. And this is not the only festival against which such a charge can be levelled. Indeed, Australia’s screen institutions more generally might all come in for a similar assessment. In a recent Artlink review of ACMI’s Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami exhibition, Correspondences, Adrian Martin accused the institution of “running for cover under populist marketing campaigns that stress instant family fun and entertainment at all costs” and dared it to “have the courage to take a more firmly ‘pedagogical’ approach to what it deems its more challenging or difficult exhibitions”. He extended the challenge to Experimenta and the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I would like to extend it here to the Sydney Film Festival, too. For a film culture we can be proud of, with a long, round tone and reverberations that can be felt elsewhere, we must first insist on an uncracked bell. Or, at least, an uncracked bell curve.

But Sydney’s festival marked my return to the cinema after a two-year period of estrangement, and to the extent that I allowed myself to be submerged in it so completely again was on the whole a refreshing experience. To say that I got drunk on it would perhaps be accurate. Certainly, my contributions to Last Night With Riviera’s Sydney Critics Poll – a run of perfect and near-perfect scores for some very far-from-perfect films, as well as extreme generosity towards films that in no way deserved it – certainly, these are testament to my level of intoxication.

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Hair GirlTo watch Manoel de Oliveira’s Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (Eccentricities of a Blonde-Hair Girl), an experience like walking through a gallery of fine art and reading a good novella all at once, or to be present among a small coterie of die-hards to hear Tsai Ming-liang speak after a screening of Face. To sit there compelled and distraught at King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), this year’s obligatory silent-film-with-live-accompaniment, or to be among the full house of patrons who showed up to witness the rebirth of Wake in Fright in its remastered incarnation. (That Australians originally spurned the film, offended and ashamed at its depiction of their obvious shortcomings, rendered the standing ovation that followed the screening all the more remarkable, and Kotcheff, who was present, must have been proud.) To walk out of Stuart Cooper’s Overlord (1975) – the only problem with which, Kubrick correctly noted, was that it was two hours too short – only to walk back into the same theatre almost immediately for the seminal experience of seeing Jeanne Dielman for the first time on the big screen. To laugh and start and marvel at Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, a horror film for structural linguists, or to revel in the sheer bloody-mindedness of my fellow film school graduate Tommy Wirkola, whose Nazi-zombie-horror-comedy, Dead Snow, was the last film I saw at the festival and which, despite its somewhat derivative nature, gave its packed-out audience a rollicking good time nonetheless. To sit low in my seat and marvel up at Cléo as she sang ‘Sans toi’ straight at me from the silver screen, upon which I had never seen her before.

I have never entirely understood Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-cited metaphor for the cinema, “the goodwill for a meeting,” which is in fact so oft-cited that this is the second time I have cited it in this essay. I have never really been able to square the idea with my own experience of cinephilia, which for me has always been a somewhat solitary affair. To the extent that cinema was a meeting at all, it was a silent one between strangers in the dark, a situation that, after a while, I came not only to tolerate but to appreciate. The cinema—both the physical space of the theatre and the art form itself, its history, its forms, in their abstract and ultimately unknowable totality—was a place to come together with others and yet be alone, a face in the crowd, as Gary Giddens might put it. The cinema was the fellow on the corner, nameless and nondescript, holding the cardboard sign that promised free hugs. Even if he would sometimes renege on that promise, at least he was there with the sign. But then maybe that’s the kind of meeting that Godard was talking about.

Certainly, it was the kind of meeting I experienced during Agnès Varda’s Les Plages d’ Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), which ends with the octogenarian filmmaker asserting that “cinema is my home”. In a film overflowing with remarkable images – one particularly beautiful scene towards the beginning has the filmmaker and her assistants arranging a complex network of antique mirrors on a beach, with these tools of self-portrait, as she herself calls them, bouncing multiple reflections of her visage back to the camera in anticipation of what the film itself is about to go on and do – in a film overflowing with images as rich and compelling as these, perhaps the most striking is to be found at its conclusion. In it, Varda sits alone in a house that has been made entirely with discarded film stock. “Cinema is my home,” she says. “I think I’ve always lived in it.” Such a claim might have sounded platitudinous if it had come from any other filmmaker. It would undoubtedly sound platitudinous if I were to say it here. But it spoke to something to me, that line, and I would like to think that it spoke to something in the people I was sharing that moment with as well. Like the insatiables in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, we were the ones sitting closest to the screen. We wanted to receive the images first. When they were still new, still fresh. These images belonged to us. And we, in turn, belonged to them.

Sydney Film Festival
3-14 June, 2009
Festival website:

[Part 3 of this essay, ‘Abattoirs’, originally appeared in a slightly edited form on The Punch as ‘ Animal death toll soars at groovy film festival’.]