From the flamboyant outfits and fishnet gloves she wears for public events, to the lace collars worn to deliver opinion as a justice of the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a sense of occasion. This distinguished gender equality crusader may have a reputation for being reserved but she sure seems to appreciate the importance of a bit of theatre, which comes as a surprise, and a pleasant one at that.
Justice Ginsburg, RBG for short, holds the seat on the bench that she was once nominated for by Bill Clinton. She is still going strong. Now in her mid-80s, she works out to maintain fitness for the career she is clearly committed to continuing. Scenes of her at the gym with her personal trainer open this engaging documentary film.
In a career that spans more than 60 years, Ginsburg won a group of landmark cases that helped build legal infrastructure for gender equality in the US. As the film documents her legal work, the wins in court and the odd loss, it provides a fascinating perspective on how crucial Ginsburg has been to the advance of equal rights and opportunities, and how progressive activism and social change occurs in the law.
RBG gives new meaning to the idea of dissent
As directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the life and times of Ginsburg is zippy and entertaining and reveals how in recent years the judge has emerged as an American folk hero, the ‘notorious RBG’ widely celebrated in popular culture. There are t-shirts and plenty of other RBG paraphernalia in the US now that trumpet the achievements of this inspiring role model for young women.
There seems to be a sense of anticipation hovering too. Is there more to come from this supreme court justice who has openly declared her dismay with Trump and the new era in American politics?
Thus far she has become famous for the significant advances her work saw, particularly for women of course, ensuring that they receive treatment equal to men under the law. In some famous cases, she chose male plaintiffs where gender inequality was demonstrably harmful to both men and women.
While her sisters were brandishing banners in the street, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her case in the courts with persuasive and compelling clarity.
Personal style aside, there are other telling revelations about this diminutive legislator that give us pause for thought. Not least her close friendship with her colleague at the Supreme Court judge, the late Antonin Scalia, who was a notorious figure to many on the left.
Collaboration and respect for others whom she disagreed with were signature elements of Ginsburg’s style. She says she always lived by her mother’s advice and never got angry but worked hard to persuade and convince colleagues to support her case through legal argument. Her work ethic has been prodigious.
When Ginsburg entered the legal profession back in the 1950s, an American (or Australian or British) woman could lose their job when they became pregnant, and could not take out a loan without their husband’s approval. Gender equality had ever such a long way to go.
Her long and harmonious marriage to Marty, a fellow student who became a tax lawyer in New York, is another surprise. He stood back early on to allow his wife’s career to flourish, while he cooked (he was a great cook, apparently), cared for their two children—and cracked the jokes while leaving it to his wife to change the course of history.
RBG is an appealing doco though not a really probing one. The filmmakers have assembled much rich material, but they leave us wondering about the background to this brilliant, strong and private woman. What has motivated her? What inspired her to pursue her legal career in the way she did?
Even before we get to the t-shirts, the cartoons and comedy sketch, it feels more like RBG than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, more a zippy scamper across her life and work that a road map into deeper territory. Yet it is a stirring introduction to a superdiva who gives new meaning to the idea of dissent.
She warns her husband there are crumbs in his beard, reminds him to take his medication, and is diplomatic towards intrusive journalists. Joe Castleman, played with ease by Jonathan Pryce, is a famous writer and as such he is allowed to be distracted from minor chores, besides his wife is a woman who has made a career out of smoothing his way.
Castleman is on the point of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He will travel to Stockholm with wife Joan (Glenn Close) and son David (Max Irons) who is also a writer and has just had his first book published.
The film is specific about the year in which it is set. It is a quarter of a century ago. A long or a short time in feminism, depending on your perspective. There weren’t many young fathers to be seen pushing strollers through the streets back then.
The Wife is based on a recent novel but it is such a throwback to the 1950s that the filmmakers at least had the sense to put a woman like Glenn Close in the role. She makes this odd material work.
There is no doubt about the strength that Close brings to her characters on screen. Especially since the jilted lover in FatalAttraction in 1987, she has brought extra flintiness to her roles like the leader of a prison camp choir in ParadiseRoad, as Hamlet’s mother 1990 and as the evil Cruella in 101Dalmatians.
Working against type, Close finds herself here in the role of a wifely wife who has spent a lifetime nurturing her husband’s career, ostensibly doing the editing. In flashbacks to her younger self, as student and new wife to the ambitious young professor of creative writing, Joan is played by Close’s own daughter, Annie Stark.
Like Starke, young Max Irons, son of Jeremy, must have a take of his own on being the son of a famous actor.
From early in her marriage, Joan has learned to look the other way during Joe’s affairs. In Stockholm the aging lothario is at it yet again, with an attractive young minder.
The thing is, the film tries to convince us, that Joan is both doormat and indispensable to Joe’s career. The circumstances beggar belief. A nosy journalist, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), suspects the truth and wants to write Castleman’s biography, but he keeps getting the brush off, from both Joe and Joan.
The pact between this husband and wife is implausible, impossible to believe, and certainly doesn’t reflect the choices contemporary women are likely to make. It is inconceivable that a self-respecting woman would do what Joan has done, and yet Close gives it all she’s got, in a battened down, nuanced way, and it is this that makes TheWife worth watching.
Screening at Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric in New Acton, and Event Cinema, Manuka
A sensitive young soldier, an artist in civilian life, is wounded at the front during the final hours of war. It is a cruel irony that hostilities are officially over, and that the incident during which he sustains his devastating wound is engineered by a commanding officer who doesn’t want the fighting to stop.
The soldier, Edouard Pericourt (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), was one of many thousands of demobbed soldiers who returned home to find they were good for nothing. Yet with acerbic wit style and humour, See You Up There reflects on the cost on a generation of young lives lost or destroyed by the war that was supposed to end all wars, World War I.
The book that the film is based on is only recent. Au Revoir La-Haut won its author, Pierre Lemaitre, the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2015. With participation by Lemaitre, it has been adapted for the screen, by the marvellously talented Albert Dupontel, who also directs. As Albert Maillard, the narrator, he is in the key role of former bookkeeper who cares for Edouard after they return to civilian life.
On the battlefield, Edouard had saved Maillard’s life by hauling him out of a bomb crater. In the same instant the young man is hit by mortar and his own life ruined when his lower jaw is blown away. This eventually leads him to fake his own death.
When the two men return to Paris, joining hordes of returned soldiers, wounded, disabled and deranged, French society does not seem to know what to do with them. Plus ca change? After months of disillusionment trying to make an honest living, Maillard agrees to become Edouard’s business partner on a daring swindle. As dull foil to the Edouard’s mercurial brilliance, he is also staunch friend, and a father figure.
Edouard’s real father, Marcel (Niels Arestrup), is a beastly capitalist who had no time for his son’s artistic leanings. In the novel, Edouard was also gay, something the film has chosen to elide.
It just isn’t possible for Edouard to wear the grotesque mandible he has been issued with, so he creates beautiful masks, from the flamboyant to the minimalist, to express himself. He retreats from the world, behind elaborate creations that hide his disfigurement, and his despair.
The young Argentine actor, Biscayart, is wonderful as a man who can only communicate with the expression in his eyes and gestures. It is as though he is the sole silent actor working in a sound medium.
Although Edouard cannot bear to face his family again, his lovely sister is determined to find out about the circumstances of his ‘death’. This leads to revelations about her marriage to Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), of all people. Pradelle is the very lieutenant who, in a fit of spite when he heard the unwelcome order to lay down arms, organised a ruse that sent his men, including Edouard and Albert, over the top.
While dad is the subject of his son’s satiric drawings, a ‘gros con’, it is Pradelle, decked out in a bit, black vaudevillian moustache, who looks precisely like what he is. The out-and-out villain, the only character who is irredeemable and egregiously evil
See You Up There is bookended by scenes in Morocco, postwar. Here and elsewhere, the action is captured with terrific cinematography.
The early war scenes, beginning during an eerie lull when everyone is exhausted and fed up with fighting, we are told, even the German troops. A messenger dog runs across the deserted battleground, a sequence that is as contemplative and suspenseful an introduction to war as you could imagine.
This elegant film with its eloquent anti-war message is very accomplished in many ways. Ravishing to look at, by turns bleak and cynical but entertaining, it will find resonances for many in the mood of our own difficult age.
There’s a familiar face in the background in Back to Burgundy (Ce Qui Nous Lie). An actor often seen in French films, but his name may not be front of mind. It will be from now on, because Jean-Marc Roulot is a winemaker and this delicious new film from Cedric Klapisch was filmed on his estate.
Roulot is cast here as the estate manager. He is not a central character but he has supplied the vineyard location and intimate, vigneron knowledge to help make this blend of family relationships and vigneron documentary such an organic and authentic pleasure.
The director and co-writer Klapisch has shown great flair for stories about young adults, characters trying to work out how to live their lives. Romain Duris has featured in his best-known films – The Spanish Apartment, RussianDolls and Chinese Puzzle – as a young man with one too many options. It’s the youthful dilemma that Klapisch gives such a generous and empathetic treatment.
The gentle hills of Burgundy are a long way from Paris and all that the city offers, but peaceful rural settings can have problems of their own. Here it’s the transferral of vigneron tradition on a family estate to three adult siblings.
Their father has just passed away. On a practical level, when is it best to harvest, this Thursday or next week? Where is the best spot to start? Stems on or stems off in the vat? And, who is in charge here anyway?
The eldest sibling, Jean (Pio Marmai), has just turned up unannounced after a long absence. He has a small vineyard back in his new home in Australia and a partner there and young son, he but cannot adequately explain away his silence over the last ten years. His sister, Juliette (Ana Girardot) and his brother, Jeremie (Francois Civil), the youngest, aren’t ready to forgive him straightaway.
Now back in France, Jean has a new set of issues to resolve long-distance, but he wields his phone this time, in endless conversations with Alicia (Maria Valverde) in Australia. It’s an opportunity to have a bit of fun at Jean’s expense.
Some of the family tension is deeply felt but a far cry from a recent French film set in a family vineyard, You Will Be My Son, directed by Gilles Legrand. It is also driven by a father-son feud and events there unfold in very chilling circumstances indeed. Jeremie’s father-in-law, Anselme (Jean-Marie Winling), is another exacting, autocrat of the vineyard. What is it with the older generation of vignerons?
Flashbacks in Back to Burgundy unpack the issues, more or less, but scenes set in the past have been thrown into the mix, without being coded past tense and it doesn’t make for awkward transitions between timeframes. I was also left wondering why the hand of the dying father – all we see of him in palliative care – is not the hand of an obviously older man. These visual points are not critical, but the casual airiness of the piece and its spirited ensemble performances are, in my view, let down by some lack of attention to detail.
In other ways, the film’s aesthetic contributes a great deal with beautiful exterior scenes, high-angle and from unexpected perspectives. The way the end of harvest party is captured is a triumph. Klapisch knows how to party.
Alexis Kavyrchine’s camera captures the tangled web of familial relationships, from tightly experienced interiors to the panoramas of vineyards spilling over rolling hills. With her documentary eye, she also captures aspects of the winemaking process in such a way that it is easily integrated into the narrative.
As Jean stays on over the course of a year, the camera goes wide to reveal the four seasons. As everyone gets on with the things that need doing, the seasonal rhythms seem somehow to help the healing process.
It’s easy to miss, but there is a little jibe: wine isn’t given enough time in Australia, Jean should know. Something for vignerons to argue over after the closing credits.
Screening at Dendy, Canberra Centre, and Palace Electric, NewActon Nishi
A couple of chumps, their evil plan and a long ‘to do’ list with little imagination for backup are all the ingredients necessary for a crime to go wrong.
It’s the substance of this new film from the Jacobson brothers, Shane and Clayton, who won our hearts twelve years ago with Kenny, ‘the toilet guy’. Brothers’ Nest makes a 180-degree turn away from those surprisingly entertaining portaloo jokes to bleak black comedy. This is a genre that is building momentum as we speak.
It’s the simple plan that is the most seductive and once carried out the perpetrators just cannot shake themselves free.
We love to laugh from on high at the mess that mere mortals make—from the uncommonly lucky chump in Fargo on TV, to Norway’s gang of crooks in Headhunters. Once they’re sucked in, like the backwoods folk in Sam Raimi’s thriller, A Simple Plan, they just can’t wriggle free.
But with a difference here. Brothers’ Nest has more ‘family stuff’, with its two middle aged siblings who seem more motivated more by grievance than by cold-hearted greed. It takes things into other territory.
The film opens on the two large men cycling through peaceful countryside at dawn. That’s a bit strange. Terry (Shane) and his brother Jeff (Clayton, who also directs) are more on the big and bearish side than lean and light, and each man carries a heavy dark backpack.
When they reach their destination, the homestead where they grew up, the place is empty, as expected. Their mother (Lynette Curran) is in hospital having treatment for terminal cancer, and their stepfather (Kim Gyngell) is out and not due back till later. There is time enough to set up for his return.
The intended victim, their stepfather, Rodger, may have spent too much time on his old radio collection than with them when they were young, but he is the beneficiary of their mother’s will. She doesn’t have much time left, and nor do the brothers, to work their way through the lengthy checklist.
The men kit up in orange suits and bumbags, with balaclavas at the ready. On hands and knees, Jeff does a spot of hoovering. It’s not clear why, but is likely a sign of his obsessive, task-oriented character.
Jeff also has his work cut out wrangling Terry, because ‘Tezza’ is a hopeless liar and hasn’t the least idea about how to avoid leaving clues. Why can’t he use the toilet or smoke his cigarette to relieve a bit of stress?
Just when it seems this murder cannot be managed, it is, almost by accident. Then worse still happens.
As Terry and Jeff duke it out among the old car wrecks and the mildly curious cattle, there is a touch of absurdity, and not a little realism, to this tale of family dysfunction.
A touch more brio and it would have been a pitiless, pitch black comedy. A touch more psychology and it would have been gothic horror. It hangs in the balance between horror and humour, and it works, in its inimitable own way.
It also looks great. Cinematography by Peter Falk, and the soundtrack with original compositions by Richard Pleasance make a great contribution to the strong atmosphere and general polish throughout.
Black comedy genre has become jet black since the Coen brothers, but Scandinavian countries have perfected it, and New Zealand does well at it too.
Out there in Australia’s back of beyond there can’t be any shortage of good warped stories left to tell.
Ever since Clooney and Pitt stepped up for a rat pack romp in Vegas it’s been clear that all you need to do at an Ocean’s movie is sit back and relax and let it wash over you. There’s nothing deep and meaningful, it’s just a fun bubble.
The panache that director Steven Soderbergh brings to the Ocean’s franchise seems to me to hark back to the good old days when Hollywood was full of fizz and sparkle, and that was enough to draw the crowds in. This is a filmmaker who makes smart and thoughtful movies, like Traffic and Che parts 1 and 2 for goodness sake, but he also likes to have his time out. The Ocean’s series is drunk on its dizzying sleight-of-hand and reflects our fantasies back to us.
No way can we say that we don’t know what to expect from Ocean’s Eight, except that the significant difference, no secret, is the team joining forces for one big, bad heist is 100 percent female. Footnote: exploits are no longer in Soderbergh’s hands either.
Not a token male in sight? Well, there was, but Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) is in a world of trouble now that Debbie Ocean, Danny’s kid sister played with steely resolve by Sandra Bullock, is out of the prison cell he consigned her to by dobbing her in to save his skin.
The girls have their sights on $150 million worth of necklace—diamonds and white gold—not a panther-like single stunner, but a Cartier necklace fit for a maharajah. Diamonds were once a girl’s best friend – just ask Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell – and they still are, but the context is different. While each blonde and brunette bombshell in Howard Hawks’ effervescent Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was after a husband, the motivation here is getting back at Claude, the jerk. It’s a slick touch too that the necklace actually once belonged to a man, an Indian prince.
Debbie has had more than five long years in prison to stew and to refine a plan for a major heist. The plan is to lift a whopping diamond necklace from the neck of celebrity actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at the Met Gala, of all places.
It evolves as a minutely detailed, baroque plot indeed, as Debbie and her bestie, Lou (Cate Blanchett, looking sharp in pant suits), and the rest of the team bring their individual skills to bear on its execution.
Rihanna’s rasta hacker and Awkwafina’s street grifter make their mark but among all the great talent. However, it’s Anne Hathaway who is able to make the most of her role as the celebrity-hungry model, on whose neck the jewellery is to hang and from which it is to be taken.
Piece by piece, the plan falls into place. Debbie’s gang operate like clockwork until the heist attracts another participant in a surprise turn of events. The follow-on might well be the best part of the movie.
A bit more fizz and bounce wouldn’t have gone astray, overall. A dramatic near-miss or a slip-up or two would have helped, but director and co-writer Gary Ross and team let these opportunities pass by. On with the show!
In more ostentatious and less liberated times, Monroe’s Lorelei believed a big diamond ring, a girl’s best friend. Insurance against misfortune.
In Ocean’s Eight, the sheer scale of the loot could pose a problem but the gang shows how diamonds today can still, with a little know how and a lot of teamwork, be any girl’s best friend.
Screening at Dendy (Canberra Centre), Palace Electric (NewActon, Nishi) and Hoyts, Belconnen
You’re never too old to start again. If life starts unravelling, it’s what the baby boomers want to hear: there’s a new dawn.
As played by Agnes Jaoui, Aurore is as voluptuous and as statuesque as the Roman goddess of dawn, after all, though I think the original French title, I Got Life!, has the edge. Her husband has recently deserted her for a new arrangement, so she has to make a go of it again, at work and in love.
Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in France at the age of 50 or so, Aurore puts a brave, possibly even heroic, face on it and manages her life well with a positive attitude. I’ve found statistics that show France doesn’t do too badly on gender equality in comparison to its European neighbours, so perhaps things won’t be too hard for her, after all.
Aurore’s biggest problem seems to be her hot flushes. A ruefully funny one for women, and Aurore is beset with them, at home and out and even while asleep. It has to be said that the bravest thing about this gentle comedy directed by Blandine Lenoir, is its subtext: menopause.
Like every mother, Aurore is concerned for her daughters, Marina (Sarah Suco) and Lucie (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). The elder one has just become pregnant, and though she is around 30, she is a bit of a worry, while the boyfriend of her younger daughter doesn’t exactly fill mum with confidence. But there you go. Quoi faire?
Aurore’s best friend Mano (Pascale Arbillot), who works in real estate, has some dirty tricks up her sleeve for men she reckons deserve the treatment. When the two friends are at a café together, Mano spies an older man with a young woman who she reckons must be his lover. Mano leaps up and accosts them, throws her ring at him and stalks off. She didn’t even know him.
Nina Simone’s song lends the film a bit of backbone, but also hints at what it might have been
Aurore, however, doesn’t go in for payback and seems on peaceful and decent terms with just about everyone, former husband included.
She is comfortable enough with herself to go to a school reunion, even at this delicate time. There she encounters the man she was with before she married, and the film’s incipient spirit of independence, fierce or otherwise, veers towards mature-age romance.
The voice of Nina Simone singing the song that gave Aurore its French title, I Got Life!, lends the film a bit of backbone, but it also hints at what it might have been. Aurore has little to do with the sentiments expressed in Simone’s songs such as ‘Feeling Good’ or ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’.
Does Aurore really make a new start? You can be the judge of that, but don’t expect too much from this easy-going and mildly funny comedy.
Text of a talk introducing Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby when it screened in the Banned + Beautiful season at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, in 2017
The first time I saw Bad Boy Bubby was in Indonesia in 1993. It was on laser disk, pirated copy of course. I’m afraid that was the only way there to keep up with new Australian film while overseas.
To say that it was a shock to the system would be an understatement. Also, away from Australia I had missed out on a lot of the fun. Missed out on David Stratton’s astonishing 5 stars—something, as he said, to offend just about everyone—and the controversy it generated.
I had really liked de Heer’s Incident at Raven’s Gate, a science fiction genre film set in the outback that was released in 1988, though was subsequently a bit disappointed by a languid Dingo, featuring jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, a few years later.
Bad Boy Bubby was de Heer’s fourth film, and he threw everything at it.
His first film had been in 1984, a sweet children’s film, Tail of a Tiger, about a boy dazzled by an old Tiger Moth airplane.
Each of these films had achieved respectable critical notices, if they had not done so well at the box office, nor marked the filmmaker out with the critics.
Bad Boy Bubby was a huge calculated risk. Either de Heer was going to make his name with this one, or give the game away.
At same time, risk became integral to his praxis. For a film to work had to be ‘out there’. From Bad Boy Bubby on, he built risk into each film he made.
He has since said that as a filmmaker you are doomed to fail unless you go absolutely ‘all out’. It was his will to be ‘extreme’.
To quote the filmmaker: ‘If I was just going to do with ordinary thing then that’s the most risky thing you can do, because just by simple statistical analysis you can work out that only one film in seven even breaks even. And so the chances are that unless you take profound risk, you are going to fail.’
Rolf is very talented, but this is also the view of an artist who is a pragmatist.
When Rolf made Bad Boy Bubby, he had reached his early 40s, and was already ten years in the industry. There is, I think a hint of ‘do or die’ about this film.
The Bubby idea had been brewing for a long time – a ‘no budget’ film, with a two-year shoot.
Originally, it was going to be about child abuse, but de Heer decided to make the protagonist an adult and ditched altogether the idea of using a child actor.
Bad Boy Bubby took around 10 years to gestate, and de Heer returned to it from time to time to add some new outrageous idea—like that of the wheelchair bandit of Adelaide. De Heer, who grew up in Sydney and studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, moved to South Australia in 1989.
Rolf had in mind to persuade his friend Ritchie Singer to take the lead role, but Singer politely declined when he read the script, so the filmmaker turned to Nicholas Hope, an English-born theatre actor, resident of Adelaide, who had appeared in one other film. Confessor Caressor, a faux documentary about a psychopath who conducts tours of the lair where he disembowels his victims.
Half of the $800,000 plus budget was put up by Fandango, a production house based in Rome that would become of pivotal importance providing finance for de Heer’s films for years to come. The other half was put up by the Film Finance Corporation. It meant the budget was covered, and the shoot completed within a couple of months.
De Heer has noted that he declined a $3 million budget to make the film. He refused it on the grounds that it would not make the film three of four times better and that a low-budget aesthetic worked best with the subject.
It was also his determination to allow himself the freedom that low budget can afford, that he had not enjoyed during his work on French-Australian coproduction Dingo, despite its $5.6 million budget and big international crew.
After Dingo, de Heer was determined to go small, small as could be.
It is a point of honour for Rolf to work within budget.
The majority of his films have been made for under $2.5 million (well under the low budget ceiling), and most came in well under $2 million.
The Quiet Room, released in 1997, was made for under $600,000. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001), shot in the jungles of South America, was a striking exception with its budget of $14 million.
In its original conception, Bad Boy Bubby would be made on weekends over a couple of years, shot by anyone free to do it. Hence, the credits for more than 30 cinematographers.
Bad Boy Bubby was to be made on a shoestring, with whoever was available to crew at the time. Cinematographers eventually did include famous names today—Geoff Simpson and Steve Arnold who both contributed scenes.
The logic for Bad Boy Bubby was that the protagonist character was a blank page. For de Heer, it meant a stylistic freedom because everything was new. Everything Bubby encountered was something he witnessed for the first time.
Ian Jones, de Heer’s usual cinematographer since Bad Boy Bubby, shot the opening and closing scenes, so you could argue there was a bit of continuity. Though de Heer recalls that all camera operators were encouraged to do whatever they saw fit.
And, the film does hang together. This has a lot to do with Hope’s performance. He is in almost every single frame. Bad Boy Bubby became a big hit in Norway, second only to Forrest Gump, and Hope an actor in demand there.
From the first scenes of mise-en-abyme of neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation, Hope’s performance and that of Claire Benito, as his mother, still stand as very brave, 24 years later.
And the cockroach scene … It’s real. According to Hope, de Heer showed him how to swallow a cockroach by coating it in chocolate sauce. The filmmaker never refuted this.
It was in Italy that Rolf first had impact internationally. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts at the Venice Film Festival.
It is intriguing that more of de Heer’s films have screened in Italy than in any other country, including the Netherlands.
Britain liked it too.
The Economist described BBB as the real triumph of the Venice festival. The esteemed critic at The Guardian, Derek Malcolm, described it as ‘the biggest surprise…astonishingly audacious and original’, while France– Le Soir reported that many considered it a ’revelation’.
Around this point, as a result of the critical acclaim, de Heer allowed himself and his team to believe that they actually ‘had something’.
Although he took out best director and best original screenplay—and the late Suresh Ayyar won best editor and Nicholas Hope won best actor—Bad Boy Bubby missed out on best film to Muriel’s Wedding at the Australian Film Institute awards back home.
Nonetheless, the film was the game changer for de Heer. It began the career-long pattern of refusing to accept the limits imposed by a low budget. Going ‘all out’ every time.
Consider the bold and innovative concepts he has pursued to develop his films:
An in-country shoot for Ten Canoes. Actors not learning their lines, the main actor going walkabout, crocodiles in the swamp.
Using child actors too shy to act in The Quiet Room.
Using new motion control technology in Epsilon.
Interpellating paintings of atrocities against indigenous people—moments of still contemplation—into the live action of in The Tracker. Using buried history of the frontier wars.
Bringing Dr Plonk, a black and white silent comedy, into being.
Assigning the lead role in Dance Me to My Song to a non-actor, a woman with cerebral palsy confined to a wheelchair
Collaborating inside prison while Charlie’s Country was in development.
The challenges that de Heer has taken on as a filmmaker since Bad Boy Bubby would sink the less determined, less skilful, less creative director.
It was with this film that de Heer began the praxis that makes his work distinctive.
It is as though he has forced himself each time to weave a new and different challenge into every new film. De Heer, the filmmaker, has never been one to make life easy for himself: the pattern that began with Bad Boy Bubby is what has defined him throughout his career.
His editor, the late Suresh Ayyar, called it an additional challenge, something ‘extra-textual’, in addition to the creative challenge of the film in development.
The innovative, creative solutions that de Heer has eventually found in his work, the way they work seamlessly within the film text, have become defining features, integral to the films themselves.
And he is living proof for the view that constraint works in the interests of creativity. Tell that to Hollywood.
Despite the controversy it generated, it is my understanding that Bad Boy Bubby was never censored in Australia.
One of the surprises of my research, however, was that the film was cut in Britain. Not for scenes of incest or matricide and patricide, but for the scenes that appeared to show animal cruelty.
Most at issue was the scene of the tabby cat tied to a chair with string, and clearly distressed. Excision of the scene even removed crucial dialogue confirming that there was an ‘outside’ where life could exist.
Animal welfare activists in Italy were also outraged and even campaigned for a ban on Australian products at the time of the film’s release.
When the DVD version of Bad Boy Bubby was released in Britain around ten years ago it was advertised as ‘completely uncut’. In other words, the bit with the cat was back in. Nothing more: a clever bit of marketing.
Over the course of time, Bad Boy Bubby and Rolf de Heer’s other early films revealed traits that have become familiar throughout all his work:
Lean, unambiguous, direct visual language
Highly subjective soundtrack (established in Bad Boy Bubby with binaural microphones hidden in Bubby’s wig)
Narrative resolution that establishes a new order
Outsider or marginalised individuals in an intense personal or interpersonal struggle
Often a child or child-like protagonist, with a life lesson to learn
Quest for mastery over language (including female protagonists in Dance Me to My Song, and Alexandra’s Project) that leads to giving voice to the voiceless.
Deep concern for the planet, the environment.
These have marked his work from the beginning.
Curiously, there has been nothing about the migrant experience. Not as yet, anyway.
So Bad Boy Bubby is strong stuff, even today. It is de Heer’s riposte to the sweet Australian coming-of-age film.
I mean, there had been a lot of Australian films in the 1970s-1980s about coming of age that Rolf would have been very familiar with: think My Brilliant Career, The Year My Voice Broke, Puberty Blues…and we’re still making them.
And yet Bad Boy Bubby is not solely aimed at the Australian coming-of-age drama.
Those scenes in which Bubby learns how to become a successful Aussie male, are some of the funniest in the film.
As one of the most effective satires of Australian society ever made, Bad Boy Bubby makes a very rude finger at us all.
The Circle’s winter conversations for 2017 wound up with another filmmaker in the guest chair. Kim Beamish, director and producer at Non’D’Script Films, now Canberra- based, who has received international recognition for his documentary work.
His film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, was joint winner of the prestigious Margaret Mead award for documentary film in 2015. It also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll at Visions du Réel, and the El-Ray Award for narrative documentary excellence at the Barcelona Film Festival.
Kim, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and has a degree in digital arts from the Australian National University, took us on a quick tour of his varied professional background. It includes work in media production for universities and government departments, at Bearcage Productions, long-term volunteering with community television—and a stint in the kitchen at a famous Sydney restaurant.
He came to Canberra after his wife landed a job in the public service. A typical Canberra story, quipped Helen.
In the media area, Kim has been involved in productions featuring a number of identities including artist John Olsen, actor Lexi Sekuless, and the late Betty Churcher. He is currently teaching again at University of Canberra.
At the start of our discussion, Kim explained his aesthetic preferences. The type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. His preference is for the observational approach that allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input from the filmmakers, either on set or in post-production.
Verité or actuality is the approach he uses in his forthcoming film, Oyster, a doco set in a family of oyster farmers based on the far south coast of NSW. It observes their way of life and work and how they are dealing with the impact of climate change on the environment at Merimbula Lake. The human dimension of the impact of great change.
For now, Kim is best known for The Tentmakers of Cairo, the documentary he made about the small community of male artisans, known as tentmakers, who stitch traditional cloths that have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times. There is no voice of god voiceover nor music introduced to guide viewer responses. The music that can be heard is already playing on set or nearby. The emphasis on ambient sound in the covered market in Old Cairo where the tentmakers work is highly immersive.
Kim explained the serendipity involved in The Tentmakers. It was made in Egypt during the early stages of the ‘Arab spring’, beginning in 2011 when he accompanied his wife and young family on a 3-year posting. Kim knew he wanted to record some aspect of the tumultuous events taking place in Egypt, but just wasn’t quite sure what or how to go about it. At that point, no one knew what direction events would take either.
Initially he had wanted to work with Egyptian filmmakers, but found they weren’t interested in documentary.
We were keen to hear how he had managed to film in Cairo during such a turbulent time. After he was introduced to the tentmaker community by quilt expert Jenny Bowker, Kim immediately developed a strong rapport with the subjects of his film. It was Jenny, a Cairo resident and wife of a former ambassador to Egypt, who was his first key contact.
Kim’s status was then confirmed with a walk through the market neighbourhood in the company of a prominent member of the tentmaker community. A demonstration that the young stranger at the side of the ‘elder’ was a welcome guest to be protected.
Kim had to find his way around Cairo with Arabic that was minimal at best – ‘shway’ – and no guarantee of entrée. Moreover, brandishing a cinematographic camera without journalistic or other accreditation, Kim could have landed himself in trouble. Every journalist he knew had had their camera smashed, he said.
Despite the risks, the production proceeded to post. The Tentmakers of Cairo premiered at the Canberra International Film Festival in 2015, and it has been screened in Egypt.
One of the virtues of observational doco style, we all agreed, is that it is open to a variety of readings.
Finally, Kim talked briefly about his first documentary feature, Just Punishment, ‘a film about life and death’, the case of the Australian Van Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005 for drug trafficking. The production, involving three years back and forth between Singapore and Australia, was an experience that still troubles Kim, who has remained close to the man’s mother.
He did not have the same level of creative control over this first film either, and it is observational only in part. His new film Oyster, is thoroughly in the observational mode, however.
It was particularly interesting to hear how Kim worked as an independent filmmaker, how he obtained funding in the development stages of production and received ongoing support. We were impressed by Kim’s openness and by his dedication to the integrity of his craft.
Oyster, which Kim is making with veteran filmmaker Pat Fiske, will premiere at the CIFF this year.
What are we to make of Roman Polanski? The gifted auteur behind some of the great films of modern times like Knife in the Water, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. A man who has known tragedy intimately and as a result has needed all the fantasy he could muster, he says, ‘simply to survive’. Yet he is also someone who exploited a minor. If it’s not okay to use the artist’s life to interpret their work but the converse is okay, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore the events of Polanski’s life while looking at his artistic achievements.
An opportunity to take another look at this perplexing filmmaker is on its way. During the last week in November, Palace Electric Cinema will be showcasing a retrospective selection of Polanski’s work curated by film scholar and former critic for the Age newspaper, Adrian Martin, and his co-collaborator Cristina Alvarez Lopez.
The ten Polanski films due to screen are drawn from five decades, though the majority come from the 1960s-1970s, when his work was at its best. Also attached to the program is Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008), one of two documentaries made by Marina Zenovich on the statutory rape case that ultimately led to Polanski’s flight from the US to Europe in 1978.
Polanski has not returned since, not even to collect the best director Oscar for the holocaust drama The Pianist in 2003, an adaptation of an autobiographical book of the same name by a Polish Jewish musician and composer. It is well known that for this feature, Polanski drew on his experiences in the Warsaw ghetto, as a Jewish youth on the run from the authorities, and witness to Nazi atrocities.
The retrospective opens with Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, a great choice. His feature film debut from 1962, it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. A tautly drawn suspense thriller, it involves three people caught in a web of deception and betrayal. Masterfully directed in handsome black and white, it is one of the best first films ever. Four years later, Polanski won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival with Cul-de-Sac, an original absurdist dark comedy with Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac (sister of Catherine Deneuve) about gangsters on the run, also screening.
The director had a penchant for appearing in his own films, often, but not always in minor roles for which he sometimes became notorious, like the thug who slits Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown (also screening). He appears as the main character in The Tenant, in which he plays an alienated clerk who struggles to hold himself together after he moves into an apartment in which the previous tenant tried to commit suicide.
Polanski shares the lead in his genre spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), as assistant to a bumbling vampire expert. A damsel in distress that they set off to rescue is played by Sharon Tate, Polanski’s soon-to-be-wife. This penchant has resulted in a long list of acting credits, nearly as many as the films he has directed.
It was intriguing to see in Polanski’s most recent piece on sexual power games and role reversals, Venus in Fur (2013), his wife of nearly 30 years, Emmanuelle Seigneur. She plays opposite Mathieu Amalric, the slight, elfin-faced French actor who looks so much like Polanski when he was young. It has not been included in the retrospective.
Chinatown will need scant introduction, but it’s a rare opportunity to see it again on the big screen. This classic of 1970s new American cinema pushed the envelope in its day, from the chiaroscuro of its film noir origins and into the bright light of day. The youthful Faye Dunaway may have never been better and who can forget J. J. Gittes’ (Nicholson) response when asked if his slit nose hurt? ‘Only when I breathe’.
Catherine Deneuve made an unforgettable appearance early in her career in Polanski’s Repulsion, as a timid, unstable young woman in extremis when left alone in a London flat for a few days. It is a masterpiece of psycho-sexual horror. No less disturbing is the nightmare of demonic possession, Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow appears as a young woman carrying her first child. Just who is the father? Both films helped to consolidate Polanski’s reputation for stylistic assurance and mastery of atmosphere. An aspect of the Polanski vision that Martin describes as ‘a world of sensation in which we can no longer clearly distinguish external stimuli from internal imagination’. And, as he also observes, few filmmakers ‘cherish the grotesque’ quite like Polanski, with films that ‘court fantastic extremes of sexuality and violence, sometimes celebrating such giddy excess, at other times standing back as a social moralist and judging it.’ Here is a filmmaker with something to say. And he says it so well.
The season concludes with The Ghost Writer from 2010, a political thriller in Hitchcockian vein about a wordsmith (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to ghost the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). He learns, at his isolated seaside writer’s retreat, that the previous incumbent drowned in mysterious circumstances.
The chill of fear is never far away, and again and again, Polanski’s films convincingly assert that there is no safe refuge from the demons of our unconscious. Few filmmakers have routinely incorporated, so intensely and credibly, the nightmare world of dreams into the everyday. A very challenging filmmaker, indeed.
ROMAN: 10 x Polanski screen at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, Canberra between 24 and 30 November.
Movie goers who hanker for films difficult to find anywhere else and for experiences they would not otherwise have, can look forward to Canberra’s flagship film festival’s 11-day program beginning at the end of October.
From its current home at the National Film and Sound Archive, the Canberra International Film Festival will continue the tradition that has brought loyal patrons back to it year after year since 1996. Curated with the Canberra filmgoer in mind, the program will cover new ground and introduce new voices and will complement the panel discussions, workshops and special events set to take place.
From 27 October until 11 November, filmgoers can choose from a program curated just for them. No travelling fest package here. Festival director Alice Taylor emphasizes the festival’s connection with Canberra and its commitment to diversity, with films not necessarily mainstream nor commercial, nor from Europe or the United States: ‘Some of our key programming strands are films made by women, Indigenous Australians, films from the Asia Pacific, archival content and stories from Canberra.’
The NFSA is a natural home for any film festival. What’s more, it offers the ambient charm of art-deco heritage features, state-of-the art amenity and spaces that lend themselves to cinemaphile discussions within its inviting garden courtyard.
It could be just the space to spill into after experiencing the Hungarian black comedy Kills on Wheels, about a pair of young men from a Budapest rehab center who join forces with a wheelchair-bound hitman. It has been said that, despite its hard-hitting title, it is actually coming-of-age with nuance.
Also among the 29 films curated from 15 countries, is Zoology, a drama in the magic-realist style about a young woman working in zoo administration who grows a tail. It turns her life around. Written and director by young filmmaker Ivan Tverdovskiy, it has been described by Sight and Sound magazine as a ‘startling parable about the perils of being different in contemporary Russia’. The screening will be an Australian premiere.
Established and aspiring movie buffs who see The Frankenstein Complex, can expect an absorbing study of the development of this movie monster niche. Ma’Rosa from the Philippines is another highlight. It won Jaclyn Jose best actress at Cannes this year. Bad Girl, a new film screening with Simon’s daughter, Samara, sharing the lead, will create buzz, as will new local production, Blue World Order.
The distinguished Australian cinematographer Geoff Burton, whose list of credits in Australian TV and film, includes The Sum of Us, The Year My Voice Broke, and Bedevil, will be a guest of the festival. He will do a Q&A after the screening of Storm Boy, discussing his role behind the camera in that Australian classic from 1978, recently digitally restored.
Burton will also lead a discussion on the techniques involved in shooting analog film. For this he will be joined by cinematographer Robb Shaw-Velzen, who specializes in digital filmmaking. Shaw-Velzen worked on the post-apocalyptic feature Blue World Order that makes good use of Canberra locations including Black Mountain tower and Lake George, and incorporates certain local personalities, like Chief Minister Andrew Barr who appears as an extra with eyes aglow and brain in thrall to others. After the exclusive preview screening of Blue World Order there will be a Q&A with director Che Baker and cast and crew.
Another highlight will be the screening of Children of the Revolution, a twentieth birthday gala screening. Those who have seen the film be aware that the late Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, spent his last night in the arms of a committed young communist (Judy David). The result was their love child (Richard Roxburgh). A Q&A will follow with director Peter Duncan and actor Richard Roxburgh, both now work together on the TV series Rake. Children of the Revolution won the CIFF audience award at the inaugural festival in 1996.
Festival director Taylor points to a focus on women, in front of and behind the camera, at this year’s CIFF. Eight of the feature films are directed by women, including doco about Ngunnawal elder, Aunty Agnes Shea, Pat Fiske’s Footprints on Our Land. Heart of a Dog comes from New York avant-garde artist and composer/musician Laurie Anderson. Elisa Paloschi’s documentary, Driving with Selvi, is about a child bride who escapes her marriage to become a taxi driver. Play Your Gender, from Stephanie Clattenburg, explores why a meagre five percent of music producers are female while so many of the most bankable pop stars are female. It asks what it takes for a woman to make it in music.
The closing night film is Cinema Travellers, filmed over five years in India, about the showmen riding cinema lorries who take the wonder of cinema to far-flung villages around the subcontinent. It premiered in the official selection this year at Cannes.
As a national capital Canberra is home to audiences who are ‘uniquely worldly’, observes fest director Taylor, who ‘like to be challenged and engage with topical ideas’. Moreover, the city large expat community expect windows on the world at its doorstep, and the city now has a burgeoning profile as a screen production hub. CIFF is bound to be different.
Published in the Canberra Times online (in print 22 October)