Friday, 27 February 2015

Great Southern Land Films: Two Films by Sarah Watt

This particular Double Feature looks at two films from Australian director Sarah Watt: Look Both Ways (2005) and My Year Without Sex (2009). Watt had a great flair for animation, using it in both her films. I speak in past tense, for Watt died in 2011 after suffering with cancer for six years.

In Look Both Ways the central story follows Meryl (Justine Clarke) and Nick (William McInnes, Watt's husband) who meet at the scene of a train accident and discover they live near each other. Meryl is obsessed with death, constantly imagining terrible things happening to her, such as the train she is on crashing, drowning at the swimming pool, being held at gun point going outside at night. Nick has recently discovered he has testicular cancer that has spread to his lungs. The train accident that connects them was a young being hit and killed by a train.

In My Year Without Sex Natalie, mother of two, collapses with a ruptured brain tumour and is told not to do any strenuous work for a year, most galling being sex. The film follows Natalie, her husband Ross and their children for the next twelve months as they navigate issues like finances, pets, friends and life in the suburbs along with death, faith and love. Watt's animation is used My Year in a very small way; the film is segmented throughout by inter titles that are words or phrases associated with sex: 'Doggy Style' is used for the segment about the family dog, and the film's climax is called 'Climax.' These are accompanied by images (not pornographic) drawn by Watt.

Clearly, death is a major part of both stories. It hangs over the characters, weighing down their relationships with each other. For Natalie and Ross it removes a significant aspect of their marriage, creating tensions between them; Ross is only slightly tempted by a pretty work colleague, but it is only shown as a passing moment, and is clearly a result of the abstinence enforced at home. Meryl and Nick meet because of a death; Meryl feels that death is a violent force that is following her, while Nick has visions of the cancerous cells infiltrating his body. Nick's situation puts a dampener on any new relationships and thus swiftly tries to end his burgeoning one with Meryl.

The setting for both films is the suburbs, and amongst people living on the cusp of middle-class/ working-class. The characters' focus shifts from the major fears of mortality to the everyday stresses of finance and work, transforming the suburbs to a place of survival similar to the outback. It is not a stultifying place, but just as dangerous as the wild, with death around every corner.Lest this write-up makes these films sound depressing, they are not. There is a gentle vein of comedy running through them, particularly My Year. And, as with many of these films, living life wins out over living in fear of death. two films have an added poignancy and honesty knowing what happened to Watts a few years later. It is very sad looking at these two films, knowing that there won't be anymore; Watts' films, though few in number, are idiosyncratically hers. It is a great loss to the Australian film industry.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Great Southern Land Films: Double Feature: Lantana (2001) and Blessed (2009)
Films that have 'alternative structures' feel like the audience is made to work a little bit harder than in linear, single protagonist films. The writer/director throws us pieces from different parts of the story, leaving us to construct the whole picture by ourselves as we watch. Lantana and Blessed both use a branching structure, as different branches all eventually lead to the trunk. Blessed also has a looping structure, as we see the same day playout from different perspectives.

Lantana follows a group of people living in suburban Sydney as their various lives converge through the lead-up to the mysterious death of one of the women: an anonymous image of her body opens the film. Themes around grief, adultery and marriage are raised in the many storylines. Blessed follows several teenagers on the streets of Melbourne over one day, then swings back to view the same day from their mothers' perspective. All are from lower classes; two of the children are now homeless; two are girls who steal the wealthy school uniforms that one of their mothers make; another is a boy who breaks into an old woman's home; one teenage boy hasn't been home for weeks; and one is a middle-aged Aboriginal man who is reluctant to visit his mother on his birthday. Both films are based on plays: Lantana on Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell, and Blessed on the collaboratively written Who's Afraid of the Working Class?

It is interesting to compare the two, for they deal with two different sections of Australian society. The characters in Lantana are largely middle-class and wealthy (the notable exception being Vince Colosimo's family); Blessed is about families living on the cusp of poverty (one mother and son couple is wealthy but it is presented as being an empty existence).

Lantana is focused on the relationships between adults, particularly married couples: Leon and Sonja, Valerie and John, Nik and Paula, Jane and Pete. All their marriages are in crisis at the film's beginning, with Jane estranged from Pete and having a dalliance with Leon, and Valerie wondering if John is having an affair with one of her patients. The image of lantana, a weed that grows in thick bushes, represents the interconnected nature of the storyline. It also subverts the idea of a 'family tree.' All the families in this film have become messy and twisted; they are not longer sturdy branches but snappable twigs that are entwining themselves with other trees (apologies for getting too English-student-y).

The title for Blessed comes from a scene halfway through the film, when Frances O'Connor's character Rhonda meets with her social worker. They are discussing her children, Stacey and Orton, who, we have previously seen, have left home and are now roaming the streets. The social worker questions Rhonda commitment to her children, and Rhonda responds 'They are my blessing.' This encapsulates the idea explored in the film: that children are meant to be 'blessings' to their parents. Each family, in some way, has failed in recognising the importance of each other: the two girls dismiss their respective mothers, seeing them as failures; the Aboriginal man cannot forgive his adopted mother for keeping him from meeting his birth mother; one of the young boys won't contact his mother to tell her he is okay (partly because he is not); and Rhonda, while loving her children, cannot keep them safe from her abusive boyfriend.

These two films explore the underbelly of suburban Australia, Lantana in Sydney and Blessed on the streets of Melbourne. All the families in these environments are in crisis, and some are beyond repair.
Lantana is internationally well-known and is included on the 1001+ Movies to See Before You Die list, and of the two is more polished. However, Blessed boasts as good a cast, with Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto and Deborah Lee-Furness playing three of the mothers. Arguably, it also has a greater emotional punch to its ending. If you haven't seen either I would recommend doing so, though international readers may have difficulty locating a copy of Blessed.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Great Southern Land Films: Strictly Ballroom (1992)

It is Valentine's Day in the merry old land of Oz, and despite not having reason to celebrate, being both single and rather cynical, I am using it as an excuse to look at one of the best Australian films with a sweet romance at the centre: Strictly Ballroom by Baz Luhrmann. 

I have history with this film (in a good way). In Year 10 for one of our English assessment tasks (a subject I love with every fibre of my being) we had to write a film review. Rather than getting us to watch a film on our own, them do it from home, the whole year spent half a day watching the film, then 45 minutes writing the review. Why Strictly Ballroom? Well, if you are Australian you have to encounter a certain amount of Australian content in the curriculum at school. It was a girl's school, so maybe they thought we would enjoy the camp and dancing (I certainly did). In this particular exam, I topped the year, getting 20/20 and had the honour of having my review read out. However, I was sick the day that happened, and had to experience my teenage bashfulness post-fact.

I did look through my old school work, but alas, could not find the test; it must have been thrown out in a fit of school-work purging. But I do remember using the word 'bombastic' (one of my favourite words) and referred to the fast-paced performances of Pat Thomson as mother Shirley and the late, great Bill Hunter as Barry Fife. We were not asked for five-star ratings, but I do believe I said I enjoyed it, and I probably would have given it five stars: it is a classic, and a very Australian one at that.

A confession, though really it is something that I have no shame about: I love a good dance scene, though poorly filmed ones are painful (show me some feet; keep the camera steady!). In my defence, I have been dancing (non-professional) for twenty years, trying a variety of styles. I have not done ballroom, but still love the dancing in this film. Because of his theatrical background Luhrmann understands how to film and frame a dance sequence: plenty of long shots, editing that keeps the continuity of the movement going, and the sequences actually contribute to the story.

The story has several plots, all of which are leading to the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix: Scott wants to do his own steps, Fran needs to emerge butterfly-like from underneath her glasses, Scott's Dad need to undergo a similar transformation, and Barry wants to stop Scott from doing his own thing. History is revisited, prejudices are broken, love blossoms, and all done as everyone wears sequins, ruffles and fluoro colours.

The central relationship between Scott and Fran is fuelled by their mutual love of dance. Scott is incredibly talented, while Fran is a beginner in the class, though clearly knows more about dance than she lets on. The best example of this is the 'Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps' sequence; despite being observed by all and sundry, there is a wonderful intimacy to the scene. Scott, rather than focusing on the dancing, is really enjoying being so close to Fran, who is relaxing into the movement, and only loses it when she notices Scott's ex-dance partner. 

The secondary characters are all played with great extravagance and, as my sixteen-year-old self noted, bombast by the cast. The two young children are very cute, acting as a Greek chorus to the activities of the adults. The humour is very Australian: laughing at kitsch whilst also enjoying it (much like our love of ABBA). The costumes add to the humour, they are both wonderful and tacky, the highlight naturally being Fran's pasadoble dress.

If you need an injection of fabulousness into your life, watching this in a triple billing with Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Great Southern Land Films: Based On: My Brilliant Career (1979)

In the 1970s Australia elected a progressive Prime Minister in the form of the late Gough Whitlam. His sweeping reforms of many aspects of Australian life included greater funding to the arts. The result was a boost of film activity which led to Australia experiencing its own New Wave along with many other countries. Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) is an example of one of these films. It engages with contemporary (at the time) ideas about feminism, despite being based on a novel published in 1901.

The novel itself, though proffering some comment on women's place in the world, focuses just as much on the problem of living in a beautiful but fairly cultural-less part of the world. Sybylla Melvyn longs for a 'brilliant' career, be it music, stage or writing, and western New South Wales is rather scant on that. Her family has come down from being respected farmers to barely surviving off the land. She is invited to stay with her wealthier grandmother at Caddagat, where she meets Harold Beecham, a young farmer owner who appears to be interested in our uncouth heroine.

The film heightens the romance of Harold and Sybylla's relationship. In the book, Sybylla is certain that she will never marry, and only promises to marry Harold when she thinks she may be of use to him; hardly a romantic reason. In the film, the temptation appears to be greater. There is more physical contact between the two. The sound also adds to the romantic vibe; when Sybylla and Harold are having a pillow-fight (a scene not in the book), we hear sweet song as they run through picturesque gardens. There is also a scene of romantic kissing at sunrise by a river.

One could argue that the love story in the novel is not very romantic. Very little 'romantic' language is passed between Sybylla and Harold. It is more a battle of wills, and Sybylla trying to live according to what she knows about herself. She also hates being touched, and Harold only comes close to kissing her once towards the novel's end.

As with any film set in a historical past, the costumes come to the fore; we are highly aware that these characters are living in a different period. This creates a distance that is less overt in the novel. We are thoroughly ensconced in Sybylla's first person narrative that the reader sometimes forgets what era with are in, only noticing when she talks about carriages or the ball. In the film, in any film that is set in a historical past, you are always aware about the time period.

The costumes also add to the romance of the story. Almost every period drama has some element of romance, if not being the actual subject of the story. Lace, bouffant hair-dos, corsets, structured suits and men on horses play into the romantic imagination. Of course, this film does occasionally undercut some of the romantic moments. Sybylla deliberately undermines a cliched romantic moment on a boat; just as they are gazing into each others eyes she capsizes the boat, ruining the moment, and their clothes. The squalor of Sybylla's actual home and at M'Swat also undermines this romantic image of the past, reminding us of what life was like for most people.

The greatest change from the novel is the ending of Sybylla's life working as a teacher/governess. In the film Mr and Mrs M'Swat believe that Sybylla is setting her cap at their eldest son; her open, chummy-ness being misconstude again. In Franklin's novel however, Sybylla becomes increasingly ill living with the family. She is physically, emotionally and spiritually starved. The M'Swats are kindly concerned for her welfare and send her home, dismissing the debt Sybylla's father owes them. Why change it, you may ask?

The film wears its feminism on its sleeve, and engages with the narrow avenues of life available to women more overtly. Enhancing the romance makes complicates Sybylla's desire to be independent, offering her a very tempting path for the more traditional life. In the novel, Franklin presents Sybylla as someone who would not cope with the drudgery of living in an uncultured backwater. In marrying Harold, she would still be stuck on this part of the world, though better off then many others.

This is an interesting story that explores the unease of a culturally hungry woman living in the harshly beautiful Australian outback, putting it in the second of my Australian film categories (for a refresh, go here).