This articles was published in the Canberra Times on 16 September 2016.
© Jane Freebury
A film about a shy, retiring type whose love of all things mechanical inadvertently draws him into holding up banks was one of the surprise hits of the 1980s. Yes, Malcolm, who is played with impish intelligence by Colin Friels, is happier in his own world of gadgetry than he is in company.
The Australian film industry experienced some surprises in 1986, and Malcolm with Colin Friels was one of them. That same year there was also this other yarn about a brash, self-assured crocodile hunter, Crocodile Dundee, and it has broken all sorts of box office records, then and since, but audiences here and overseas found a space for Malcolm. Another kind of folk hero, one that robs banks.
Malcolm is remembered with great affection by many, including director Nadia Tass and cinematographer and screenwriter David Parker, who were also producers. It was a surprise hit. It was said at the time that it came out of nowhere and was one of the best surprises of the year. During September, this heist caper and buoyant offbeat comedy screened at the National Film and Sound Archive, a celebration of its 30 years in release.
In late August, I interviewed the filmmakers, husband and wife Tass and Parker, from their base in Melbourne. How was it for you that year, entering your first feature film into the market when Crocodile Dundee was wolfing up the box office?
Yes, there were moments when they felt like it was a question of David to Goliath, but they point to the 21 international awards Malcolm won. It collected many, including the Australian Film Institute award for best film. The AFI best film award in 1986 was in fact one of a total of 8 AFI awards, including an award each for director Tass and screenwriter Parker.
It was also an official entrant in the London Film Festival, where it won the Golden Sprocket, before it was released here, and was an official entrant at the film festivals in Venice, Houston, Toronto, Moscow and Pia, in Japan. ‘We had our world premiere in New York, even before Australia had taken any notice of us,’ recalls Parker.
Where did the ideas come from? From ‘David’s warped mind’, Tass suggests playfully. Parker was responsible for the ingenious gadgets that Malcolm built to improve his quality of life: the letterbox that clatters on a miniature train tracks to deliver at the front window, the birdcage that flies its occupant to replenish its supply of seed, and the miniature milk truck that delivers bottles, saving Malcolm the chore of visiting his local shop a few doors away. Malcolm’s inner city home is his playground, inside and out, and one of the joys of the film is its celebration of invention.
Tass and Parker appear to have come at the project from different directions. It is in all likelihood one of the key contributing factors to the film’s texture, and its critical and commercial success.
The observant viewer will notice among the final credits a dedication to John Tassopoulos, who died three years before the film’s release. The character of Malcolm, socially awkward and introverted, but a mechanical genius, was loosely based on Tass’s brother who had Asperger’s syndrome and died in his 20s from an epileptic seizure after being hit by a car.
Was her brother also fixated on trams, like Malcolm? ‘Yes, very much. Trains, trams, vehicles and all things moving,’ recalls Tass, who can’t be alone in her own affection for Melbourne trams, ‘especially green and yellow ones’. ‘He was a combination of vulnerability and incredible innocence with a fierce intellect behind it all.’
Since Malcolm, we’ve seen other local films about characters on the autism spectrum, like The Black Balloon, Bad Boy Bubby and Mary and Max, and I suggest to Tass and Parker that they were in a way ahead of their time.
‘We didn’t go into this wanting emotion from the audience. We saw it as a piece of entertainment. Up to the time when Malcolm came out, Asperger’s syndrome or autism was presented from a very sentimentalised perspective. … We didn’t do that, so we broke that mould.’ Where someone can have special needs but at the same time very positive attributes. The filmmakers focussed on what Malcolm could do rather than on what he could not.
With skin in the game over three decades, Tass and Parker, are an indefatigable duo of passionate filmmakers—and thoughtful and energetic mentors for aspiring filmmakers. They are great models for production rigour, for example, stressing the importance of ensuring that scripts are mature and ready to shoot, and that production involves consistent rigorous attention to detail.
After Malcolm, Tass and Parker followed up with more attractive, buoyant, and idiosyncratic films like The Big Steal, Amy, Rikky and Pete, and Mr Reliable, that constitute a distinctive body of comedic work. Australian comedy can often seem to be synonymous with a kind of larrikinism and crude humour that can work just fine, but it is not the only way to get a laugh.
‘Quirky’ is a word that comes to mind for their work, and in a very good way. Their work may well have prompted the original association that was made between quirkiness and Australian film, though they can hardly be held responsible for the hackneyed use that resulted. It was freshly minted when Tass and Parker started out.
The film begins at dawn aboard Malcolm’s custom-built one-man tram, a joyride that results in our hero losing his job at Melbourne’s tram maintenance depot. The knock-on effect is that he has to take in a boarder to make ends meet. Enter Frank (marvellous John Hargreaves, who was to die of Aids at 50, sadly), hilarious in skinny jeans and bottom lip ready for rollies. He is fresh out of prison, and back in business.
His live-in girlfriend drops in and stays on, adding a bit of brainpower to Frank’s crooked plan, but it is Malcolm’s contribution that gives it the edge when he joins the team. His contribution, inter alia, is a car that splits in two, confounding the police who give chase with a getaway in two directions that can slip into alleyways too narrow for police vehicles.
The very yellow car is on display now at the NFSA in Canberra.