Diverging Australian cinematic futures (1991)

© Jane Freebury

Published in Australian Society magazine September 1991

The Sydney season of the 1991 Australian Film Festival opened with the striking juxtaposition of Jocelyn Moorehouse’s Proof and Rolf de Heer’s Dingo. Both nominated for best feature in the Australian Film Institute awards, they represent the wildly different directions filmmaking in this country is taking towards an uncertain future.

Proof is already well known. It opened the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes recently and has been sold extensively in Europe. An art-house success seems assured and it could well crossover to the mainstream. Dingo is the commercial vehicle made to a formula with a certain precedent — local yokel tries his luck overseas, which on this occasion is Paris, and is graciously received. As it is an international coproduction, its makers are undoubtedly expecting to find an audience in France as well.

Proof, it has been pointed out, is a European-style piece, with an inclination towards interior settings and the inner life. At its centre is the anomaly of a blind photographer (played by Hugo Weaving) whose spirit has atrophied in distrust of others. He needs to have a picture record of the world he moves in to lay claim to the perceptions which sight cannot support. What he doesn’t know is that there is someone who is taking pictures of him and covering the walls of her home with them so as to capture a presence she loves but cannot have…

Unlike the films of Paul Cox, which also have appear for the European art-house circuit, Proof has an artiness which isn’t so insistent, a certain lightness of tone and a sense of drollery which disguises the process and allows the basic contrivance to look uncontrived. The skill which Jocelyn Moorhouse invests in Proof is quite outstanding.

And on the other hand there is Dingo. Amiable enough, with Colin Friels and Helen Buday in the central roles, this film seems badly misjudged, despite the involvement of people whose work I have previously admired. De Heer and Marc Rosenberg collaborated on Incident at Raven’s Gate, a sadly underrated film.

Dingo is the story of John ‘Dingo’ Anderson, a dingo trapper who has yet to outfox a wily three-legged dog he is baiting. Husband (to Buday’s Jane) and father of daughters, he scratches away at a living in the dust of Poona Flat. Aspirations and ambitions are no burden, with the exception of one overreaching desire which he has had since he was twelve — to play trumpet with jazz musician Billy Cross, played by the enigmatic Miles Davis himself. This passion dates back to the occasion when Billy, on tour with his band, dropped out of the sky onto Poona Flat because their plane had to make a forced landing. With the entire population of the township standing agog at the runway, what else was there to do but a musical number for this improvised audience — and it was this moment which was to take root in John’s consciousness and grow into an obsession.

You might have thought that young John would want to become a pilot, considering the way the camera caresses the TNT jet along its gleaming length. Dingo is marked by rather florid camerawork: lots of crane shots, swoops, pans and 360-degree movements which seem rather ill-conceived and indulgent. The lazy curve of a languid camera movement is meant to give shape to the soundtrack and support the musical mood, but the over-developed style looks flowery. Were it not for the long sequences of jazz trumpet by Davis, or for the compositions which he wrote with Michel Legrand, the film would be as ricketty as that three-legged dingo that couldn’t be caught.

Dingo is too long, too improbable (more improbable than a blind photographer), too dependent on dusty mythology about the Australian character — and too costly. Why is there still the expectation that the big-budget production feature (co-production, vehicle for overseas actor, or whatever) will prevail, when the local low-budget production area is consistently more interesting?

Dingo was five times more expensive to make than Proof, which was made for a little over a million dollars. The government agency investment money that went into Dingo (the Film Finance Corporation’s contribution was over $3 million) could have got a cluster of films off the ground more engaging for home audiences. And the French will prefer Proof, anyway.

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