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.

Incident at Raven’s Gate

Review by © Jane Freebury

Published in Australian Society magazine, May 1989

Incident at Raven’s Gate, a new science fiction thriller by Marc Rosenberg and Rolf de Heer, was about to enter the market by the side door as a video. Until recently, that is, when a short limited theatrical release was negotiated. It will now be released more or less simultaneously on both the big and small (video) screens—but it deserves better than this. It’s a strenuously good sci-fi movie, far more satisfying than Barry Peak’s As Time Goes By, a rather loosely worked piece straggling around the robust central performance of Max Gillies, and it should have been given a proper theatrical release —with a respectable pause between going into the cinema and going on to video.

It’s been a time for strange moves. Nadine Garner won her Best Actress award from the Australian Film Institute six months ago, but Mullaway, the film she won it for, is only now being released. At the time of writing it was only planned for screening in Melbourne. Last year Mullaway also won the special AFI Members’ Prize, which had previously gone to The Year My Voice Broke.

When the very rococo Boulevard of Broken Dreams went quickly under—unfortunately taking John Waters’ award-winning role with it—we didn’t mourn its loss; but Mullaway deserves far better than a two-note fanfare and a sideshow screening (apologies to the Melbourne exhibitor).
What is going on? It’s not as though the industry is so sanguine it can afford to be blase about getting the odd prize here and there.

Then there’s Scott Murray’s outstanding Devil in the Flesh. Completed in 1985, highly praised at Cannes the following year, Murray’s film somehow lost its way between France and home. It was finally released only recently in an Australian cinema. Devil in the Flesh, with its measured elegance and sensitive attention to the details which communicate so much, is far away from the fast-cutting and self-conscious modishness of many current films, and is entirely a treat to watch.

Marc Rosenberg and Rolf de Heer didn’t need to wait three years for a theatrical release, but it did take them seven years to make Incident at Raven’s Gate. It couldn’t have taken too long to shoot—it can boast a modest budget—but apparently, like numerous sci-fi concepts, it had been around the traps for quite a number of years before it finally managed to bring itself into being. Other ideas may have been too expensive to film.

In an earlier life it was known at The Bronte Invaders, a title that doesn’t work for the film nearly as well as Incident at Raven’s Gate. The new title conveys just the right sense of an isolated case rather than the wider conspiracy, the sense of incidental jottings from a policeman’s notebook, their wider significance unrealised, perhaps deliberately concealed.
In the 1950s, the new science fiction genre was popular along with anti-communism. Today the agents of fear and paranoia probably seem to be within society rather than without.

Incident at Raven’s Gate is something unspeakable that happens to an elderly couple at their small homestead in South Australia. Eddie (played by Steven Vidler) has only just arrived in the area and seems to be the first to become aware of it, or the first to be able to act or do anything about it. He is on parole and staying with his brother Richard (Ritchie Singer) and his wife Rachel (Celine Griffin), but runs into trouble after he beds the local barmaid and refuses to join the local football team. While working in his brother’s wheatfields he sees the signs of an alien presence—the scorched circle of earth, huge numbers of dead birds, the incandescence of the early night sky.

The world seems to be going crazy. Electrical equipment and engines unaccountably stop and start and water tanks dry up. The local policeman can’t take no for an answer and kills the barmaid, and the pet dog goes rabid and has to be put down. Richard hides his knowledge of Eddie’s affair with Rachel but the brothers seem to be cracking under the strain of it…or something else entirely?
The wide open emptiness of the farmlands is the perfect metonym for the eerie isolation that appears to have descended on the people around Raven’s Gate.

The interventions of astrophysicist Hemmings ensure that news of Raven’s Gate is stifled so that into the future Rachel and Eddie will only doubt their own memories. We did ‘our best’, says the perfidious doctor as big trucks roll away from the reconstructed homestead in a chilling coda. This is superior sci-fi.