AuthorJane Freebury

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Review by © Jane Freebury

If a picture is worth a thousand words it can also prompt a good story, something shown recently by the success of a novel that invents the circumstances behind an exquisite painting by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It’s the Girl With a Pearl Earring who looks over her shoulder at us from across the centuries, like a close-up before cinema invented them, captured in an unguarded moment yet returning the onlooker’s gaze.

The recent Tracy Chevalier novel capitalized on the fact that little is known about Vermeer, though it’s recorded he had a large family like J.S.Bach, but he worked far more slowly than that prolific composer to support them. In the film eleven urchins crowd the Vermeer house, with yet more on the way. No wonder Colin Firth’s Vermeer looks frazzled when he’s not in his studio.

But his artist remains a somewhat shadowy figure throughout, a presence in silhouette in doorways or collapsed moodily into a chair, who is surrounded by women, his numerous daughters, his wife and mother-in-law, and the maids. As the new maid Griet, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) is a picture of rosy promise, hovering on the edge of womanhood.

Though she is bonneted, keeps her head bowed and is never included in any conversation, Griet does not escape the notice of Vermeer’s lusty patron, Van Ruijven, (a bewhiskered Tom Wilkinson) either, and he commissions the artist to paint her, so that he can at least take her home and possess her image for his gratification.

It’s a starched and cloistered world the Vermeer women inhabit but there’s a robust physicality to acknowledge too, in the way, for instance, we hover over a painting of a flushed young woman drinking wine (yes!) and another cleaning window panes. I feel that Vermeer reflected this in his paintings

Director Peter Webber hails from television, but he and his team have created an enthralling and beautiful film. It could be said that nothing much happens, but the movie’s recreation of life in 17th-century town of Delft is wonderfully alive. And there’s such a vivid sense of intimacy in the piercing of Griet’s earlobe, the exposed nape of her neck, that the Girl With a Pearl Earring is almost intoxicating.

In a capsule: Exquisite film based on a book based on a painting by Vermeer, with Scarlett Johansson as the object of desire.

4 stars

The Hours

Review by © Jane Freebury

This beautifully constructed film and its fragile characters will delight its audiences, even though it is profoundly sad. It glides effortlessly backwards and forwards across the decades that separate three women, a shuttle weaving thread across a loom, as it connects disparate lives lived decades apart. In contemporary Manhatten, in southern England 1921-41, and on a palm-lined Californian avenue in 1950s America.

Each of the women from these different moments in time, including their muse Virginia Woolf, is struggling with life in similar ways. And where connections seem tenuous, the fabric of the film suggests a single life. And that life belongs to Mrs Dalloway, created in the fiction of Virginia Woolf as a London hostess whose holds constant parties ‘to cover the silences’.

New Yorker Clarissa (Meryl Streep) has earned the nickname Dalloway, while Laura (Julianne Moore, a 50s housewife again) reads Mrs Dalloway while she contemplates ways of escape. While the stories of these two women are the main event, we keep returning to Woolf pacing the floor at her Sussex home, or becalmed in a sea of manuscript papers when the words start to flow.

Beautifully matched action of daily domestic rituals draws the lives of the women together. With the flower arrangements plopped into vases, with cakes baked, with a lingering glance in the mirror first thing in the morning, and coiling hair in a bun before the day begins. It’s intoxicating to watch the tapestry develop as actions of the characters are mirrored and matched across the decades.

Such a restless narrative needs nimble fingers to stitch it seamlessly and writer David Hare (screenwriter of Wetherby, and Plenty which also starred Streep) has created something special here. And the swelling piano notes of the Philip Glass score are a glorious background.

Yet for all this meticulous control of mise-en-scene and montage, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is still an actor’s director, drawing exquisite performances from his three lead women actors and their partners, Ed Harris’ tortured character included. Even minor characters resonate.

Sally Potter’s grand and gorgeous folly Orlando some years back turned Woolf’s ideas into mere spectacle. Even though they come to us via the writing of Michael Cunningham on which this film is based, in The Hours they are given life of their own.

3.5 stars

Dinner Rush

Review by Jane Freebury

Early in Dinner Rush a man is gunned down in the street. When this happens and when so many movie elements are slick, handsome and intelligently written there’s the danger it will move into a warehouse and Reservoir Dogs territory. But Dinner Rush takes place in a busy restaurant.

From the very start Dinner Rush looked like it was going to be interesting. A few deft strokes with slow-motion, long shots out-of-focus, and searching camera movements got things off to a good start, and then the questions presented themselves. Where is it all going? How are these people connected? Isn’t someone going to punch that appalling art buff/gallery owner in the nose? Please?

It’s an Italian trattoria that attracts customers from all walks of New York life. Not for the sauteed spicy sausage and sliced capsicum that restaurant owner Louis (Danny Aiello) enjoys but for the nouvelle cuisine that his chef son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini) whips up with his team below stairs. Cuisine preferences are not the only things father and son disagree about.

Udo’s flair with food is famous and his customers are quite prepared to book three months in advance, but when a food critic (Sandra Bernhard) arrives to sample the fare, everything that leaves his kitchen must be perfect, even more perfect than usual. Two thugs from Queens arrive, resplendent in their gold chains and awesome in their bulk, and curiously they meet with similar attentiveness, and an NYPD detective also gets this treatment. Other individuals seem to receive special attention from the camera, but you don’t know why until Dinner Rush comes together, impeccably, like Udo’s lobster tails on deep fried spaghetti.

This is only director Bob Giraldi’s second feature film, but he has 2,500 TV commercials to his credit. This and the fact that he is also a successful restauranteur certainly shows. The camera swoops and pans around all the frenetic dinner rush activity, hitching a ride on a platter here, scuttling up and downstairs with waiters there, all the while expressing its love of good food in luscious close up.

All the characters are expertly handled by his actors, though the dialogue does get lost occasionally in the naturalistic overlapping soundtrack. But this film is handled with panache and creative skill, and is thoroughly impressive.

In a capsule: Rush hour in a popular family-owned New York restaurant becomes a little too exciting when two thugs on the take show up.

4 stars

La Spagnola

Review by Jane Freebury

This spirited, compassionate and stylish movie begins in Australia in 1960 and is told from the point of view of Lucia, fourteen years old and the daughter of a Spanish woman (La Spagnola) married to an Italian man.

This migrant family living in pre-multicultural Australia own a sparse little home snuggled up against an oil refinery. It has a watertank, outdoor dunny, and aviary where pigeons roost, but it looks more like a halfway house that all three would like to fly away from if they could. Like living on the moon, snaps La Spagnola, and who would disagree.

Lucia’s Papa, hat clamped on his head and toiling through the dust, is the first to leave. La Spagnola (Italian for Spanish woman) his fiery wife tries everything to stop him, and even lies down in front of the family car, as friends and neighbours get drawn into the brawl too.

Lucia (a beautiful performance from 17-year-old Alice Ansara) watches the departure with anguish, perhaps even (is it possible?) a hint of wry amusement. It’s as though she has already put years enough between herself and her distress to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Anna-Maria Monticelli’s script and Steve Jacobs’ direction work together on this, drawing wisdom and warmth from Lucia’s story.

Lola (Spanish actress Lola Marceli) is crazy with fury that her husband has left her for ‘that Australian’, a blonde with a 1960 Woman’s Day look (to quote the filmmakers), but someone who can’t cook. She sets to rubbing him out by scrubbing the lino, cooking his pigeons – and trying hard to lose his newly conceived baby.

Where it comes to points scored in this Latin battle of the sexes, it’s truly comic. When Lola’s sister-in-law Lourdes arrives from Melbourne, the flamenco tempo of the editing (which is a bit too rapid in some important places, however) steps up and Lucia’s life is filled with fun and food.

But this is about two strong women, mother and daughter, and how they fight and in the end, achieve a sort of forgiving. In this year’s AFI awards it has received the second highest number of nominations, two of which are best female actor nominations for both Ansara and Marceli.

La Spagnola is delivered in 3 languages – Spanish, Italian and English – and will represent Australia in the Best Foreign Language film at the next Academy awards.

4 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Review by © Jane Freebury

Having set the publishing world ablaze with her four books about an English schoolboy who finds out he’s a wizard in need of a little tutoring to hone his craft, author J.K. Rowling has already shown that there is much more mileage yet to be made from fantasy. Many familiar elements – magic potions, wands, goblins, centaurs and spells – are there, but there’s nothing musty or dusty about the world of Harry Potter. It’s just alive with imaginative new ideas.

You’ll know what I mean when you see letters delivered by flocks of owls, the game of quidditch (polo astride flying broomsticks), the trip to the goblin bank, the quite frightening game of wizard chess, and even the nature of the arch villain when he finally reveals himself. This is narrative wizardry itself.

Everyone knows about Harry, orphaned since birth, who lived in a broom cupboard under the stairs in a house in Little Whinging, Surrey until Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) the groundsman of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry comes to take him away. Harry’s appalling rellies – aunt, uncle and cousin Dudley – had treated him like a servant (‘bred in captivity’) until rescued from his Dickensian circumstances and sent to Hogwarts to become a wizard.

Some distinguished faces of English film and theatre were on the staff at the Hogwarts School: Alan Rickman a shifty-looking professor, Maggie Smith ever prim and kindly as the deputy head, and the headmaster played by Richard Harris, with a vague air and much longer hair and beard than last time I saw him. Julie Walters appears briefly as a flustered mum and John Cleese doffs his severed head at us.

Daniel Radcliffe as Potter and the two other children who are his constant companions Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are each very engaging, though these friends do upstage Harry a bit. Harry never really gets to find out it’s okay to get a little mad at people if they annoy him. Probably his upbringing.

It’s my hunch that the virtual fan-vaulted dining hall at Hogwarts, the staircases that swing around at will and attach themselves to new landings, the living portraits, the game of wizard’s chess will not disappoint the legions of young readers in their transference to the screen.

Harry Potter is a richly enchanting experience. Some might find it rather long at 2½ hours running time, but this movie and its sequels and the three new books that J.K. Rowling is writing will fill the gap in entertainment for this age group for years to come.

4 stars

Mullet

Review by Jane Freebury

When Mullet returns home to the small coastal town he left behind three years before, family and friends are somewhat underwhelmed. All of a sudden Mullet (Ben Mendelson, with a tousled look, rather than mullet strands) turns up again, on the back of a pick-up truck with a cattle dog and some road kill, but folk have closed ranks over his absence.

Three years incommunicado, what can he expect? The Judy Davis character in High Tide and the prodigal brother in Return Home – two Australian films with similar themes – both got similar treatment when they suddenly showed up again. But here the issue seems to be that people like having him around, not the perturbation that goes with it. Mendelson i¬s Mullet – daggy, difficult and down on everything.

Seems he had this practice of beating a retreat to the bush, where he could enjoy his own company while fishing. So, a ‘what are you doing back?’ is about the best he could expect when he wandered in.

The welcome to the family consists of a handshake from Dad, and hug from Mum , and the feeling he’s never been away as he telegraphs messages back and forth between his non-speaking parents. (See, he would probably say, you don’t even need to go to Sydney to stop talking to people!) Welcome home from former girlfriend Tully (Susie Porter) shows less restraint.

The best scenes occur in the family kitchen, where Kris McQuade and Tony Barry do a wonderful duet as Mullet’s parents, and at the family BBQ, when all the cross currents surface and everyone is glowering in no time flat. All Mullet’s fault, of course.

Filmed in and around Kiama, Gerringong and the Illawarra region, there’s a poignancy to documenting aspects of life in little towns (Mullet’s hometown is fictitious) apparently without prospects. If you were to compare it with films like The Castle, this betrays real affection for the people represented, without condescension.

David Caesar (director of the excellent Idiot Box) has a reputation as a critic of being a hard man to please (Race Around the World) and his own works reveal a filmmaking sensibility that likes its images uncluttered and well-composed. Pretention is out. With Mullet, I don’t know how much further the industry has come since the Gillian Armstrong and Ray Argall films mentionned above. However, the experience is still worth having, and its social relevance probably even more urgent.

3.5 stars

The Iron Giant

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Iron Giant, based loosely on a story written by the late Ted Hughes, former poet laureate, and directed by Brad Bird who has worked on The Simpsons, is not just another routine children’s cartoon feature. There’s a developed story here, there are characters who are genuinely appealing , and there’s a barrel of laughs.

When an extra-terrestrial iron giant crash lands near Rockwell, USA, it’s lucky for him he’s in backwoods country because he can lay low, temporarily undetected at least. Were a local yokel to contact the authorities and report a chunk that looks like a bite had gone from his car, or that he’d just seen a giant man chomping on the railway track, who in Washington would believe him?

The giant is a windfall for nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes as he’s been wanting a new pet, something different. He finds him in the forest, after he’d followed the giant’s trail, making its way to the power station in search of food—metal, that is.

A 50-foot high incredible hulk that seems peaceful and is willing to follow instructions? Hogarth is thrilled. What’s more it’s assembled like a Transformer, and he discovers later that it can repair itself, like a Terminator. Only trouble is, unlike a squirrel in a shoebox, he’s too humungus a pet to conceal. Then there’s that other problem – Kent Mansley.

While the authorities have been a bit slow on the uptake over reports from the backwoods and all – once they’ve figured something is up, they won’t let go. Hogarth can hide his whopping secret from his Mom, but when government internal security sleuth Kent Mansley, lantern-jawed and narrow between the ears, descends on Rockwell to investigate, things get tricky.

Hogarth is forced to share his secret with Dean, Rockwell’s ultra-cool, bike-riding beatnik (this is the 1950s) and he isn’t too fazed. But others are.

For adults in the audience, The Iron Giant pokes fun at 1950s America with its ‘Reds under the bed’ scare-mongering (ever checked out the sci-fi movies of the 1950s?) and its ‘Duck and Cover’ public information campaigns about what to do in an atomic blast (ever seen Atomic Cafe?). For kids, the movie is superior animated fun. The Iron Giant succeeds on both levels, at being two movies in one.

4 stars

Interview (abridged) With Jeremy Irons

Credits include Lolita; Damage; Reversal of Fortune; The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The voice is thoroughly English, authoritative accents delivered in a languid manner. A deep voice, all port and cigars, in tones that suggest the oak-panelled interior of a gentlemen’s club. Its owner, actor Jeremy Irons, was in Australia recently for the opening of two of his new films. Chinese Box (directed by Wayne Wang) has opened in Sydney […] and Lolita (directed by Adrian Lyne) has been passed for showing in Australia with an R rating by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, but the Howard Government is considering banning it.

Irons’ voice and persona signify an iconic Englishness that has informed films from The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Irons’ first starring role in 1981) to Louis Malle’s Damage, from television’s Brideshead Revisited to the recent The Man in the Iron Mask and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. On occasion, it has been his cultured English voice that has distinguished the evil-doer from the rest (a device not uncommon these days) in the Hollywood mainstream in movies like Die Hard: With a Vengeance (with Irons the mad bomber) and The Lion King (with Irons voicing the part of the soured and treacherous Scar).

How English is the man behind the voice? The response is swift: ‘I live in Ireland.’ Then, reconsidering: ‘I don’t think I’m typically English, really. I’m not sure who the typical Englishman is now, though I think he lives in Essex, aspires to driving a Porsche and earning lots of money…We still live with the Thatcher legacy in England (sigh)…’
‘I don’t know, I hope I’m broad-minded, a gentleman, that I believe in fairness and justice – all those things that I hope remain English characteristics. But I’ve always been a bit of a loner, never liked being a club-member.’ (Scotch that image of the gentlemen’s club!) ‘I think English people like being club members. They like to know which niche they fit into and I’ve always avoided all of that. My pleasures are somewhat solitary, you know. I’m not a golfer and I like horse-riding, sailing and skiing.’

Travelling is a pleasure too. He has been here a number of times, and likes to visit Sydney. He was here early in the 1980s to film an Australian version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with Liv Ullman, directed by Henri Safran.

Of solid middle-class background, Irons was born on the Isle of Wight in 1948, the son of a chartered accountant. ‘I had no desire to keep playing charming Englishmen. I’d die of boredom if I did that,’ he says. ‘I felt there was more interesting ground to cover.’ Instead, he has found ways of escape from the apparent sobriety of his background, and made a virtue of film roles of some thoroughly unpleasant people, such as the arrogant, self-serving (and sensitive) twin brother in Dead Ringers (directed by David Cronenberg, 1988). With Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990) Irons won an Academy Award for his performance as the morally corrupt millionaire who may or may not have tried to kill his wife, and in Damage he played a Tory politician who indulges in a rabid affair with his son’s fiancée. His paedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita has just joined the list.

Lolita, completed three years ago, is a second adaptation of the book by Vladimir Nabokov, published in the United States in 1958 while the author was professor of Russian literature at Cornell.

Irons is keen to emphasise that Nabokov’s controversial classic about a middle-aged European man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old American girl, with its overlay of satire on American cultural values, is the proper starting point. Not Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly satirical film of 1962, based on a screenplay by Nabokov, which the author later disowned. ‘The original is of course the book, don’t forget that! Kubrick’s attempt was the first attempt, ours the second.’

Irons was active with director Adrian Lyne in defence of the project from the start, and threatened to leave England (he later said it was only a throwaway line) when it looked as if Lolita might not gain distribution there. In an interesting set of parallels, Stanley Kubrick before him felt compelled to leave his country of birth when censorship problems dogged his Lolita in the early 1960s. He transferred his centre of operations to Boreham Wood studios in England, where he remained till his death last Sunday, days after completing his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. After publication of his novel, Nabokov moved to Switzerland in 1959 and lived out the rest of his life there.

In the US, Lolita lost out on theatrical distribution and went to Showtime cable. It can be sensed that, throughout the saga, Irons has been asked one too many questions.
How does he feel about the role now? There’s a pause. ‘I’m rather proud of it. I think it’s a very complex role and it turned out to be a very interesting and fascinating movie. A very well-made movie.’ Technically, we’re on safe ground. ‘I’m pleased with it. I’m a little bored with people’s reactions.’ The voice has gone languid again. ‘All those people who haven’t seen it – their reactions. I quite like the reactions of people who have seen it.’

A moral tale? ‘It shows what happens if we do something wrong, as Oedipus does, as Titus Andronicus does, as Macbeth does, as all great stories do, or many great stories. If you step outside the bounds, you will be punished.’

What did he think about the representation of sex scenes in Lolita? ‘I think it’s pretty tactful, and not titillating and fairly strangely unnerving. There’s actually very little of it.’
Did he consider that he had taken a certain risk with this film, subject matter aside at this point, but in relation to its representations, given that Adrian Lyne had made films like 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, films that had brought the director to prominence because of the very nature of their sexual representations?
‘We talked a lot about that, how he wanted to cover that area of the film. I thought he was basically an honest man and that he’d probably do his best by me, which is what he did. I was a great admirer of Fatal Attraction which I thought was a film that dealt with an area of phobia rather well, and I was also an admirer of Jacob’s Ladder (about a Vietnam veteran and made in 1990).

‘It’s always a risk when you make a film because you’re out of control of it when it starts to cut, but I thought he’d take care of me, which he did.’

[…]

Has Irons any personal project that he would like to bring to life? ‘At the moment I don’t have a story I want to get up and run with. Doesn’t preclude it happening in the future.’
‘At the moment I’m involved in a vast rebuilding project in Ireland which I’ve been doing since last June and that’s what is using my energies at the moment. It’s an old Irish tower house in Cork, a castle, built in about 1410 and ruined in 1600. We’re rebuilding it, to make it a place of refuge again, which is what it was originally.’ It is planned as a youth refuge.

Any particular character Irons still covets now? ‘There are many, many areas I’d like to work in [still]. The problem is I’m known for certain sorts of roles.’ Male obsessives? ‘Male obsessives, and slightly quirky, dark guys, enigmatic guys.’ Pause. ‘I’d like to do something different, you know, kick in with a comedy.’

[…]

Has he ever been directed by a woman? Lengthy pause. ‘I’ve been directed on stage by a woman but not in film. Why?’
Women screenwriters and directors, this could be your chance.

Interview with Samantha Lang

Credits include The Well; The Monkey’s Mask

Photography was film director Samantha Lang’s first career choice. Was it a natural progression to film? From an early age she’d been interested in film but felt she needed life experience first. It wasn’t until after her first degree, a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication (UTS) that she began to think seriously about moving from the individualist craft of photography to collaborative filmmaking.

After a prize-winning short fiction film, Audacious (1995), and her comic short drama Out, Lang’s first feature film was invited to screen in Official Competition this year at Cannes, the only Australian film to do so. The Well, with its strenuous visual language has all the conviction of silent film, the sophisticated visual language of the films of the silent era in the late 1920s. A photographer’s control? Perhaps, but critics have applauded the lead performances of Pamela Rabe and Miranda Otto, clearly not dominated by the mise-en-scene. ‘The right balance is something you pray for’.

The lean, clean images in The Well are really arresting too. Author Elizabeth Jolley on whose book The Well is based, has a liking for the use of objects with metaphorical applications. To take things one step further, there is the visually evocative screenplay from Laura Jones and then Lang’s own aesthetic strategy which is ‘always to communicate with an image rather than words. Show, don’t tell’.

Lang’s work looks really well thought out in advance, before the shoot. ‘I’m very controlling in a way. Because I come from a background in photography, I know that an image has the opportunity to communicate so much and you shouldn’t waste that opportunity.’

‘I’ve always been very open in telling the actors how I was going to shoot the scenes. On the day, I’d think how can I get that [improvisation]. In preparing a film I’m very controlled and organised, so when I’m actually shooting I can use what happens in the moment, then the process feels more organic.’

‘Laura Jones writes dialogue very economically, precise and to the point. Pamela and Miranda found a way to be those characters, to speak in the way those characters speak….In editing I cut some of the words out – I don’t know if I should say that – but if I’ve got it in a look, then I’ll cut the words out.’

What other choices was Lang entertaining at the time she decided on the location in the Monaro region of ‘rocky outcrops and treeless plains’ near Cooma, southern NSW? There weren’t any others. Monaro was somewhere she’d visited as a child. She did a location reconnoitre on the basis of the feelings it had evoked. It was just right. The region’s shapes lent themselves to a semiotics of colour, or rather absence of it, to connote aridity and isolation.

Has there been any contact with Elizabeth Jolley? Not until after The Well was finished. When Lang got back from Cannes, Jolley had written with her response to the film. Last week in Perth they met and had dinner together after Samantha gave the Elizabeth Jolley lecture at Curtin University. ‘Jolley was wonderful.’
So, a woman novelist, a female producer (Sandra Levy), screenwriter, female leads, a female cinematographer (Mandy Walker), some of the key creative personnel – what is the sum of these female parts? ‘Yes, it is about a female world, but this (the composition) wasn’t intentional.’

So many recent Australian films focus on women. Why is women’s cultural production so fertile at the moment? ‘I’m not sure how to explain. There seems to be a confidence among women in terms of telling their own stories. And it’s of interest to men.’

The complicity of two women alone, a man is despatched – some comparison could be made with Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade. ‘It’s not a comparison that is drawn that often, but yes they are both about the disturbing side of the female psyche.’ It’s no accident that a marauding male is thrown dead down the well, a location for both horror and desire.

The Well is rather like a fable. Is it a cautionary tale? ‘I was interested in the way that here were two people who connect desperately for love but when they get it, it corrupts them. I liked that idea – We want something, and then we get it and then we’re corrupted by it – and I wanted to play with that and what basically motivates Hester to commit murder and what it is to have this relationship with this girl to the exclusion of all others.’ And later, ‘I love that passion, her intensity.’

Lang went to university in France for a year after high school. On another later occasion she was in Europe, on an arts scholarship. It was during this period that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She moved on from Germany to film school in Prague and was there during the turbulent collapse of the Czech government. She graduated from the Bachelor of Arts course in Directing at the Australian Film, and Television and Radio School in 1995.

Is she taken with German cinema? She likes Fassbinder (though there’s no mention of Fritz Lang) a lot but admits she tends to being Francophile, though she does understand ‘why Hester liked German music and culture.’

Favourite directors? ‘I very much like Spanish director Luis Bunuel for his absurd and perverse depiction of the middle class and his non-romantic portrayal of poverty. He’s probably the major one I always come back to. I also like French filmmaker Robert Bresson who had interesting ideas about cinema.’ An influence on the other side of the world is the work of Japanese director Mizoguchi, compelling and ‘exasperating’.

But why have only classic directors been nominated without mention of ‘the cinema du look’ of Luc Besson and others of the current generation of French filmmakers? ‘I guess it’s that when you’re learning it’s good to get a classical foundation. Then you can go anywhere. If your influences are based on your contemporaries, you don’t get a sense of perspective of where they’re coming from.’

Where would she like to go now? ‘I hope to continue making films, what I truly love doing, hoping to entertain people every two years or so’. Lang is currently making The Monkey’s Mask, based on a book of crime fiction told in verse by Australian writer Dorothy Porter. ‘A kind of contemporary film noir, similar to The Well as it also has strong female characters – and there’s love, lust and betrayal.’ Audience return looks guaranteed.

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.

© 2018 Jane Freebury

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