The 44th Sydney Film Festival
6 - 20 June 1997

These reviews are copyright. You must not use any part of them without my permission.)

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The Dendy Awards for Australian short films - Friday 6 June 1997

I only managed to see the two fiction categories in the Dendy Awards this year, but I arrived to hear a deafening round of applause for the documentary film The Christmas Cake, directed by Katey and David Grusovin. The audience loved it, and it later received a Dendy award. Here are my impressions of the films I saw:

Fiction under 15m

This short film started poorly, with lots of complex analysis in postmodern terms about what women are and what they do - from a boy's viewpoint. But the film moved on to a more interesting, and, ultimately horrifying ending. It gradually painted a picture of a stalker - a psychopath. This film creeps up on you, and you slowly realise that it does have substance to go with its somewhat pretentious ideas.

Down Rusty Down
A very professional production - funny, and beautifully shot by Dion Beebe. A clever allegory using the world of dogs. Excellent concept & execution. This gets my vote for the category.

A poor effort technically and a hackneyed idea. A girl gets "laid" by a carpetlayer on a hot night, staying late at the office. Made by a friend of a friend of mine from Victorian Film School. Tanya Lacy as the girl, Natalie, was pretty ordinary. Highlight: John Brumpton's (the carpetlayer's) scar.

Fiction over 15m

Cabbie of the Year
I'd seen this film before on ABC TV. It is clumsy and hackneyed in many ways, and it has script and structural problems. But it has a good premise, and a good cast, and above all it is VERY FUNNY. So I'd say the producer (Scottie Connolly) and director (Mick Connolly) are ones to watch in the future.

This film stood out as fresh, young and visually inventive. There's also great, anchoring central performance by the main female character. The story is an old one but shown from a new viewpoint. The mainly young cast was excellent. The film, made in black-and-white looked great - it had a scratchy, edgy feel. Skud gets my vote for this category.

Square One
Another very professional effort, set in an intriguing world - the world of mods in the 90s. But the plot, although intriguing, was ultimately too complex for a 35 minute film, and it lost me. The standout performance was Teo Gebert, whom I've seen in several Ensemble Theatre productions - notably Blackrock. He has great magnetism, both on stage and on film. Another team to watch, though.

The Film Festival Proper

Fri 6 June - Opening night film

Doing Time for Patsy Cline
What a disappointment! A great cast - Miranda Otto and Richard Roxbugh (what a couple!) and newcomer Matt Day as the ingenue country boy with a need to make country & western music. But this was a confused jumble of a film - more an excuse for a series of jokes (admittedly very funny, most of them) than a film. The story was unnecessarily complicated by its structure, and although the characters were very good - partly due to the high calibre actors - the characters did not carry the day. I had wanted to like this film, but just couldn't. It irritated me in so many ways. For example, there was a big set piece, with scores of line dancers, which was (oddly) shot in the rain, with the dancers all sqeezed under a huge railway shelter. But the main characters talking a few metres away are in the sunshine washing a car! Whwn you see things like that, you have to worry about the filmmakers' attention to detail - unless... could this have been a very lame joke about carwashing? I don't think so. It just didn't make sense, like a lot of the film.

Some of the funniest scenes were with Matt Day's character's mum & dad in the country. I wanted to see more of them, and yet they were scarcely in the film. Instead, we spent far too much time in the excessively fake Nashville with unattractive characters playing cartoon caricatures of small time music biz people. Later we realize why this is so, but it doesn't help. It's not clever, it's just irritating.

Sat 7 June

The Indian film was very mysterious and beautiful, but it did not make me feel very spiritual, or put me in tune with the soul (Atman). Instead I got impatient with Jamal Lal (the crippled hero) always proclaiming his soul to be pure, and assuming he was close to Nirvana in his next life. Still, I cried when he finally said he was happy and you could see the peace in his eyes. But the film has not changed my reluctance to visit India, especially if you'd see more of those yogis stretching their penises on a rolling pin! I loved the dancer and the song, though. Those feminine features and quizzical looks in a male body were bewitching.

40,000 Years of Dreaming (see also separate entry on George Miller's Q & A).
At first I thought 2 things:
(1) this seems a very clichéd analysis, relying as it does on several very banal categories of Australian films - categories that have been well mined, many times before this, and
(2) what about women?

I still think it is a very limited universe George Miller sees, but he did explain in the Q&A which followed the film, that he had selected films which had had an effect on our culture. For example, he discussed the film 'Jedda' which, although not popular at the time, did end up on a postage stamp! This is an elegant conceit, but does it result in a rigorous enough analysis? Imagine what the film would have been like if someone like, say, Robert Hughes had brought his broader universe to the analysis. Or - as someone next to me asked after the Howard Hawks documentary - what if Hawks had done it?

I pointed out to her that the other films in this BFI series had all been very personal views - Martin Scorsese on American films, Sam Neill on New Zealand films, and 2 English filmmakers on British films to name a few that come to mind. All were personal and idiosyncratic, but some were better overviews than others. Scorsese, for example, led a fabulous romp through American film history - and very comprehensively. I think that George Miller's view is more like the British film analysis, in that it is so personal it can't really be considered a 'history' - it is more selective than that. Still, it was interesting, on the whole - but not particularly deep. One man's view, and probably not the most representative one. Why the strange obsession with Sons of Matthew, for example? Could the answer lie in the fact that he's a Queenslander?

George Miller's Q&A
This is a verion of the Q & A, which I recreated from my notes. It is not always verbatim, it is often condensed, but it shows the thrust of the discussion.

Q How do you account for all the early urban melodramas which don't fit into your thesis?

A I don't know how they fit in, but I thinks that someone could do a thesis on it.

Q My mum was in Raymond Longford's The Pioneers. Women in those days could do anything. You didn't show that.

A Yes it was a tremendous movie. I'm sorry we didn't put more in.

Q Cinema died after WW1, and you mentioned American films coming in, and also lack of government funding. Are we in the same place now?

A No we aren't. Then there was no government funding and we were hanging onto Mother England's skirts and looking to the US to save us. It is not the same now, except if current funding cuts continue.

Q (director Bill Bennett) You showed a lot of violent films with violent endings. Could we make the same movies today?

A A lot of powerful movies were made like that in the 60s & 70s. They were powerful, but they don't sell.

Q Joseph Campbell's theory. How is this a basis for real life dramas?

A Campbell was a great scholar who distilled common themes and explained the purpose of mythology. You find it everywhere, in pop songs, etc, but it is more distilled in fantasy films. It is in all our lives, if you think about it. The reason we go to the cinema is that it is simply clearer there, a strong symbol amongst the noise.

Q Could you extend this film into 3 TV hours?

A I'd love to, but it just took so much out of me. I'd prefer not to narrate it. It is too traumatic. But I was privileged to be able to take part in this exercise. And there would easily be 3 hours of material. Aboriginal culture is intrinsically potent in its longevity.

Q I saw Wake in Fright at university as a student teacher, horrified, thinking we had to go and teach wherever the government sent us! But that film, and so many others from the 20th century onwards, reinforced the rural, male view. Why is the storytelling alien from our own lives?

A I don't think we have any choice. When you look across 100 years of cinema, we don't have a choice. Raymond Longford was obsessed. Peter Weir told the Gallipoli story because he was compelled by the story. It was not seem that way before. People tell stories that interest them, the strongest stories. I have no ideas what my films are going to say about this society. It takes 10 years before I can look back at them at that distance.

Q I saw The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith with blacks. Aboriginal people don't see their dreaming as fairy stories, what if you show this film to an aboriginal audience?

A Joseph Campbell said myths are other people's religions. There is no suggestion that these are fairy stories. I use mythology as an overarching word to encompass religion and that is a subset of mythologies. I'd like to show them this film, which was finished before Hanson, the fiasco of Wik, and it seemed to anticipate all that.

Q Where do you see Babe fitting into all this? An Australian film with an American accent.

A I am a cultural worker. I work in the world hyperculture. All my films work outside the current day-to-day - except Lorenzo's Oil. The TV is our 'parish pump'. Babe works in the hyperculture.

Q When are we going to see a thorough retrospective of Australian film on the big screen?

A (Paul Byrnes, Festival Director) If we had a national cinematheque. We did a retrospective a few years ago on under-appreciated Australian cinema. If the cinematheque happens it may happen. If not, we'll have to think about it.

Q There was nothing about trade unions, workers' struggles, Vietnam, no films like Angel Street, nothing on the green bans, no one makes films about Bougainville. Did you use anything from the non-mainstream media.

A It's a good question. What we basically did is use things that somehow impinged on the culture. Film somehow has to impinge on the culture. So I chose films which impinged on the culture. For example, even though Jedda wasn't a hit, years later it turned up on a stamp. The trade union films didn't. You can't control it. Storytelling is a force of nature. You can't conduct it by the intellect alone.

Q Why did you make the film & what will it be used for?

A I was asked, and it was an incredible responsibility. It was part of a series by the British Film Institute (BFI). It was finished before the recent crop of films that I'd have liked to include. Recently there have been films on madness and psychosis. There are decent films like Cosi, Angel Baby & Shine.

Little Angel
This film pushed all the female buttons: romance & loneliness, sexual awakening, insecurity with your looks and social position, sexual posturing, the female body & birth. It left me totally destroyed emotionally and quite satisfied visually, but I did not learn anything new. However, I did detect a metaphor for the 'coming out' of East Germany there!

Sunday 8th June

Howard Hawks American Artist
An interesting & informative doco, with some good inteviews especially Angie Dickenson. She showed great insight, telling us that Hawks always used the same woman over and over again, even to the extent of reusing the same lines! She also told a moving story of how she'd always wanted to work with Hawks again, but never had. Years after Rio Bravo she was in a stage play and Hawks came backstage. She got up the courage to tell Hawks how much she wanted to work with him again, and aall he said in reply was that he liked her hair better dark).

Yet apart from that, and some detailds of Hawks' early life, I don't think I learned much from this film. Except perhaps that Hawks was very magnetic, efficient and economical in everything he did. But the family side of Hawks was totally omitted and the film basically recycled the stories about the stereotypical huntin' fishin' & women man we have already heard about.

Still, the whole film was worth seeing just to hear Peter Bogdanovich tell us about the genesis of Scarface: Hawks had said to Ben Hecht that he wanted to do a gangster picture. Hecht was reluctant. He said he thought it had all been done before and he didn't want to be invloved until Hawks said "I want to bring the Borgias to Chicago." Hecht said: "Ill be there."

A Girl in Every Port
A charming and well balanced film with a handsome Victor McLaglan (he almost looks like Gary Cooper at times!). And Robert Armstrong, as his friend, is charming too. Louise Brooks is gorgeous in her high diving suit (she plays Madam Godiva - if only we could see her naked!). We do see her nipples. Max Lambert's new score, and his playing were wonderful and brought a lot to the film - he avoided what must be a mighty temptation to the cliché, and produced some fresh and delightful music.

Ian McPherson Lecture
by Ian David
The Nature of Secrets
These are my notes of the lecture. They are not a verbatim record. They are condensed, but they show the thrust of the lecture and the following discussion.

Writers tell stories. People are apprehensive of writers, but they frighten no one but dictators and (? - I missed it!). Their relationship with the audience is increasingly important. He sees himself as part of the entertainment industry. All drama is based in reality. I don't like the term 'docudrama'. The film Kissed was adapted by a Canadian writer, Barbara Gowdy. Nothing comes from nothing. This came froma newspaper article.

What I do may not be fiction, but it is drama. Stories must appeal to the emotions. Docos do this too. Doco makers do it tough. It is possible to be too good to win prizes. Docos are too difficult to write: the best ones are made and unfold out in the field. It is important to let the facts get in the way of a good story. That's what gives it the power. Most of the people I write about are still alive and I don't want to misrepresent them. And most people already know the endings. It is how you get there that counts. Irony - apart from structure - is the main creative input I have. Australians have a natural talent for irony. It is a way to make comment while sticking to the facts. Irony is everywhere. Convenience & savings are for Telstra with their phonecards. It is for Telstra, not us.

Policing is completely ironic. Most crimes aren't solved, but if a policeman's house is burgled he can solve it & get the goods back in 3 phonecalls. What really baffles police are crimes that are not committed by criminals. The police culture is built on the male clan principle. Loyalty to mates is paramount. My favourite film is the Polish film Funeral Ceremony. Everything that was said about the dead man through the whole film was a lie. Your perceptions had been completely seduced. The script had been polished so much that all they could see was a reflection of themselves. (The authorities had prevented the film from being made for 6 years).

My home was broken into after my phone was tapped and I know who did it. All my research & drafts & computer & backups were taken. 16 years' work gone.

I admire the relationship that the French have with their writers. Irving Thalberg said the most important people in Hollywood are the writers - we must never give them any power! One person cannot claim the credit for a film - not even the writer. Surely the 'a film by' credit smacks of insecurity. The Copyright Amendments Bill is being introduced soon. Only writers cannot assert moral rights. Directors and producers, but not writers, can claimmoral rights. Writers only have moral rights in the script, and that's not much.

Q (Bob Ellis, writer): How do you overcome the fear of the death of yourself or your children as a result of what you are doing?

A I don't think about it. Perhaps I should. The forces that are after you know where you are at any given time. And they can do anything to you. I was more worried I'd end up dead in a bed in Edgecliff with someone I shouldn't be with.

Q (Paul Byrnes, Festival Director) What precautions you take with your work?

A The ABC takes tremendous precautions. They lock everything away and have everything checked by lawyers, and they have meetings to keep lots of people up to speed. One time the ABC told me to take a holiday. I may not have been here today if I hadn't.

Q What can we do about the malaise in our industry that no one goes to these trials and people make personal films and don't do research?

A Part of the problem is the dividing line between fiction and documentary. People are afraid of the laws, but I haven't been sued for defamation once. I always say to people "you can take anything out you want", and people don't. Not even Neddy Smith. The tradition goes back to Dickens. Go out & observe and run the story thru your own sensiblities. A good story is a good story, if you are fair to your sources and true.

Q What about censorship?

A That is one of those things that bobs up again & again & never seems to go away. In the US, producers are brazen about exploitation flicks. Writers & filmmakers have a responsibilty to their audience. If they take it seriously, it shouldn't be an issue. If someone shoots someone [in real life], we need a quick and easy answer. OK, the gun was available, but there must have been a motive. Well it is dark and evil - so it must be caused by dark and evil videos.

Q (Chris Murphy, criminal lawyer) Don't you think that you are being paranoid? There are many factual inaccuracies in what you say. I admire you as a writer, but I think you may not have interviewed people properly or at least you didn't get evidence given on oath. I think your imagination & zeal may have got in the way of the truth.

A If I've made mistakes I'm sorry but I did my job well. It is well-documented, what I said about the CIA man in Cuba. [This related to a long story Ian David told about a man who later revealed he was a CIA agent who told him many strange and funny stories about incompetent actions by the CIA, especially in its attempts to assassinate Castro. ]

Q What about authorship?

A I can't see why sharing the credit and collaboration is a dirty word. I enjoy it. Why should there be only one author of a film? The director takes the writer's elements and changes them and that's OK.

Q I was sued by Russ Hinze, and we won. On copyright, is there a chance to get support through the Senate, or the UN? I think it is absurd that we [writers] don't have [film] authorship. Couldn't we lobby?

A If this goes through we are a laughingstock. Nowhere else does this happen.

Q The question and immediacy of legal problems. Is the format you work in prone to falling into the problem of people denying the conversation?

A I do as much reasearch as I can, and postpone making a decision until the last moment. I go back to my research if I find a gap, and go over it all again. I find my way back to where I began to go wrong. I use a database & crossreference and check all the time. I always have two reasonably relaible witnesses before I write a scene.

Q I am a visual artist. Moral rights for visual artists are just coming through. Could we have a faxing campaign to Canberra?

A Darryl Williams is the Attorney-General and the one to write to.

Q Is there a difference between corruption in Qld & NSW?

A In NSW it is more ruthless. But in Qld there was a lot of licensing, so you needed to get someone to smooth the way for you. Police filled this gap. Police got their 10 or 20 percent. But in NSW they actually got into the crime and ran the criminals - gave them permission to commit crimes. Certain criminals wore police uniforms. It is more than the 10 percent. It is organised crime. The Mafia could never get a stronghold in Sydney because the cops got there first.

Q What about reality-based problems in the home, eg sadistic incest, or children not getting enough nutrition? I try to write fiction about it but people cringe. What would you recommend?

A I wouldn't. That sort of drama doesn't work well. We don't have a Ken Loach tradition. The subject has to be right. The kind of issues you are talikng about are better in doco. How could you do the subject better than Jenny Brockie in the documentary she did in the courts?

Q How were writers maneuvered out of the debate on moral rights?

A We dropped our guard and thought it was a lay-down-misère. We didn't see the practical arguments coming. That writers would interfere with casting & production - this is a lie! Moral rights don't kick in until the film is complete. Writers support directors getting moral rights; we think it is strange that producers get them because writers want moral rights to protect them against producers. But we didn't object. And you can deal with all those problems in a contract beforehand.

Q What happened at the Flannery inquest?

A I gave evidence. I was told by a number of people that Flannery met his end that way. My evidence was suppressed on the day. [Because it came from the suppressed documentary Blue Murder, which cannot be seen in NSW until the related criminal cases are resolved.] But the research was right.

Sun 8th June - Special Dance Evening

Suzanne Farrell - Elusive Muse
This was a strange doco in that the film and sound quality was often poor, and it did not always seem explicable by the age of the archival footage. But there were moments of simple honesty in the interviews with the guarded, precise and in many ways naive genius that Farrell is. And her mother was quite a highlight. But for me, the show was stolen by the delightful Jacques d'Amboise: he of the Bronx accent and the impish smile. Someone should make a doco about him instantly! He described the final ballet he apppeared in with the NYC Ballet, and how Balanchine had choreographed it to describe an older man chasing after a young spirit. D'Amboise was retiring with this ballet, and he described the moment when he lifted Suzanne Farrell off into the wings in the final scene, literally walking off into his into retirement. Miraculously they had footage of that scene, which they then showed. The effect was immensely moving: I cried, and there was an audible intake of breath from the awed audience. A great cinematic moment!

Mon 9th June

This film is one by a brainy Israeli with a wacky theory to explain life, or some other problem. It was loud, inexplicable and if I saw any more rubble I'd have to scream. The girl next to me said she thought it was beautiful but I'm afraid I just didn't get it. The only thing I liked were the inserts (director Eisenberg called them 'cinematic quotes') from Rosselini's Germany Year Zero. I'd much rather have seen that.

...only Angels have wings
This is the correct version of the title. Where is the quote from? A wonderful film, with its themes of Professionalism, and 'He just wasn't good enough'. You are sucked into a special universe in the first 5 minutes of the film, and before long you are completely attached to all the characters. You find you accept the absurd risks the characters take in their daily work, just as the characters themselves do. Why? How does Hawks draw you in so quickly and so far? Is it the luminous Jean Peters (' A Professional' says Georgeous Cary Grant when she plays the show stopping song for 'Joe'. Or is it the ensemble playing, with Thomas Mitchell and Richard Barthelmess so strong and so deep. Whatever, it is a masterpiece, as Adrian Wootten said when introducing it. Unfortunately, the inappropriate laughers were there in the audience again, laughing when the condors are blown up by nitroglycerine (and now that I write it, it does sound kinda funny). But even that could not spoil a wonderful film. 'That's entertainment', a woman said when we were leaving. Sure is!

Tuesday 10th June

Six O'Clock News
I had vaguely remembered the name of the director and his previous SFF outing 'Time Indefinite', but as soon as his soft-voiced, gently sardonic narration started I remembered him. And when his old teacher Charlene surfaced, I remembered the filmmaker Ross McElwee, and how he had dealt with the tragic fire and death of Charlene's husband last time, and how indomitable and articulate she was. Now to see her again was like meeting up with an old friend. This doco was funny and clever and rambling and inconclusive, but strangely at the same time serious, profound and well-structured. It made me think quite deeply about meaningless violence and the news and are things getting worse or are we just seeing more of it? He ventured into the clichéd area of "maybe it's just because we have a kid now, but isn't the world much more violent?", without getting me as mad as I usually get. No... I'm lying. When he raised the possiblity of not having kids because the world is too violent, I did get mad at his presumption. You know he would not make that choice, no matter what he says.

A gentle, lovely looking and sweetly romantic film that trod dangerous ground in suggesting an affair with a slow-witted man who maybe can't handle it. At one stage the slow man, Carey, asks: "Will you hurt me?" and his lover Anna replies: "Inevitably". What a heartbreaking exchange! The dialogue struck me as not at all naturalistic - spare and sparse and straight to the heart. The director revealed at the Q&A that she had cut 30 pages of dialogue (after she had shot them!) and that was why the dialogue was so sparse. This is even more amazing when you consider that the shoot took 19 days and the budget was $350,000 cash & $150,0000 in kind.

Lines from the Heart
A fascinating idea on paper turns boring and uninsightful in the execution, but ravishingly shot, and is was interesting to look at these three women as they are today. But insights? Very few, except when one of the women - think it was Gunner - confessed that she had not thought it possible to 'have it all' and you could see the undisguised jealousy and amazement in Bibi that one of them had managed it -without years of therapy. And yet, I think Bibi may have looked down on Gunner because she was overweight & older . That was just my impression, and I wanted to know more about these sorts of tensions, which all seemed to be bubbling below the surface. But there were very few of those insights in this disappointing film.

As brilliant as ever, but oh the inappropriate laughter! These people can't tell the difference between comedy & tragedy! I had to shoosh some women who were talking through the scene with Cesca at the window- the scene said by Walter Hill in the Hawks doco to be one of the most ravishing moments in cinema! Grrrr

Project Grizzly
Speaking of Grrr...This film was very funny in parts, and Troy is made to be in pictures - he's a very strange man who talks a million miles an hour and looks a bit like Kurt Russell. But the film did drag a bit. There were some priceless moments though. Thank God for Canada! It not only funds films like this, but it quite probably funded Project Grizzly itself!

Wed 11th June

East Side Story
A funny and well compiled doco, with a voiceover (by its German director) which is so deadpan you suspect it is camp. A well-structured film, but perhaps a little more humour (which its co-director, the funny Andrew Horn, could easily have supplied) wouldn't have gone astray. And it might have been nice to see some comparison with western musicals - only My Fair Lady rated a mention - and then only to mention its takings. I'm sure I saw communist versions of Jaques Tati (the singing postman), Busby Berkely on his crane, and Billy de Woolf, as well as Doris Day, Frankie Avalon and more. Great fun, and a side of film history we hav seen little of.

Capitaine Conan
A vast, sprawling, intriguing, challenging, and at times hard-to-follow film that dealt brilliantly in fictional form with some of the more difficult issues of war. I think you could gain a lot from seeing it again, but just on a first viewing you could wallow in the beauty of the cinematography. The film looks wonderful, and its star is wonderful too. He is Philippe Torreton, from the Comedie Française - which makes me very much regret missing the Frederick Wise documentary, La Comedie Française.

Stella Does Tricks
A gritty film masquerading as a gritty film! At first I thought this pessimistic film was descending into a cliché about young romance saving two lives - until I realised the ending was going to be much darker, which cheered me up immensely! Stella will repeat her dependency on no-good men and the only escape is (as in Yothu Yindi's moving version of ACDC's Jailbreak) in death. How sad to see three 'generations' of abusive men in this one girl's short life. So for me, perversely, the dark ending saved the film. And yet it did seem just to miss saying something - I'm not sure what - about this doomed generation. Whatever that something is, the short film Skud (see Dendy Awards above) got closer to it.

Wenesday 11 June cont
Special women's film night

Bastard out of Carolina

Anjelica Huston's first film is very much a first effort, but a very good first effort. She shows promise - if not as much promise as her father with his famous debut, then certainly the courage to choose a huge story and then the ability to compromise by cutting. Apparently she had to fight all the way on this one, and I believe she originally had a 4-hour plus film, but managed to cut it back to under 2 hours. There are problems with this cutting: the story is very detailed and so we get more events than we perhaps need, when the characters are really what drives the story. But she gets some great performances - especially fron the little girl Bone (Jenna Malone) and Glen (Ron Eldard), the 3rd father (child molestter and abuser). There are also some performances that are real dogs - Lyle Lovett and Grace Zabriskie are straight out of Li'l Abner. Still, the film was moving, and dealt with an extremely difficult subject very well, not stinting on the horror, and not dwelling on it either. And the moment when the brothers beat up Glen is one of the most horrifying I can think of in cinema, because you are complicit in it. Do you applaud this violence, or shrink from it? I shrank.

One last word. Jennifer Jason Leigh is not bad as the mother, even though she still insists on acting primarily with her jaws and teeth. Still, she evoked some real emotion from one woman in my audience, who called out "Kill her" when her character Anney came back to persuade her daughter to return home.

Thursday 12th June

Kiss or Kill
I think this Bill Bennett film is the best Australian feature film of the festival. It is a taut and stylish thriller that keeps you guessing right to the end. It is visually fascinating and it is technically inventive as well. It is also very funny in parts. The South Australian landscape looks both beautiful and menacing. The 2 stars, Frances O'Connor and Matt Day, do well with good material, but you can't help wondering how great the film might have been if there had been stars who were anywhere near as good as Chris Haywood and Andrew S Gilbert were in support. A well crafted and well-thought-out film that should do well on release. Q & A session notes follow.

Bill Bennett's Q & A

Again, this is a version of the Q & A, which I recreated from my notes. It is not always verbatim, and is often condensed, but it shows the thrust of the discussion.

Q Can you explain something about your cutting style?

A I used it for 2, no, 3 reasons:
(a) it is emotionally appropriate
(b) we were short of money - the film was shot in 36 days
(c) I wanted to have fun, to play with cinema.

Q Chris Haywood mentioned in his introduction that there was a lot of improvisation by the actors. Can you tell us more about it?

A There was always a clear framework, and the finished result is very close to that script. Clever actors know the characters really well, or respond to the location.

This is the only film I've done without doing any homework at all. Usually I've worked out all my shots in advance. But here Iwas determined to let the environment guide me, and be spontaneous. The cutting style is a result of very careful planning. You have to shoot in a very particular way to do that cutting style.

Q Was the 'bacon' scene written or improvised?

A The bacon scene is my favourite scene. It was my idea. I wrote this screenplay in 3 weeks. After I'd finished a draft, I realised it needed something eliptical, something which said something about what the film was all about. I was inspired by the shouting man in Paris Texas, because that's what Paris Texas is all about. I love that scene.

Q What's next?

A Jennifer [Bennett, his wife and co-producer] & I are working on something that needs more money. A big period piece. I don't like to talk about stuff until its definite.

Q Can you describe the specific shooting style for the cutting in "Kiss or Kill"?

A I looked at a lot of films to see how you do it. You shoot down a particular axis and then go again slightly off that axis. Or you can use a slightly diferent focal length, or choreograph the action slightly differently to achieve the same result.

Q What was the budget?

A The budget was $2.6million. The editing style didn't make it any more or less expensive. But the decision to throw out the whole soundtrack and start from scratch was a really expensive process. It was enormously physically and emotionally taxing, to post-synch the whole thing, bring the actors back, and do all the performances over again.

Q Has the film been classified?

A It is classified 'medium levels of course language'. Contractually, I had to deliver an MA film. I didn't want to make a particularly violent film - I struggled with that in the script. Of course the scene with the woman being burned is very shocking. It attracted a lot of interest from distributors, and that disturbed me.

Howard Hawks Retrospective - Bringing up Baby
Very funny as usual. Neil McDonald, who introduced most of the Hawks retrospective films, asked me afterwards how the print was, and I said not bad - I couldn't really remember what it was like, except that it was fuzzy in parts. Perhaps that's because you just plunge right into the ridiculous situations and have no time to think about the visuals. Strange, though, but this time round - and in the context of many of Hawks' other films - I wouldn't see it as one of Hawks' great movies. Why is that? Has it been overpraised? Am I jaded? No, in retrospect I agree with myself! It is fun, and well executed, but it just doesn't interest or involve me as much as a film like Only Angels Have Wings, which I think is my favourite of all the Hawks retrospective.

The Second Vitaphone Programme
This was a real delight. We were warned by Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archive that the programme started slowly - and it did - but I even enjoyed the overture, putting myself into the seat of one of the first audience members and imagining their delight. George Jessel did not seem too hot an act, but you have to remember that all of his footage was missing, and all we had was the sound and some stills and cartoons.

Al Jolson performing in blackface certainly got my feet tapping and my head bob-bob-bobbin' along. My friend, the film writer Keith Howes, asked me afterwards how I felt about Al Jolson's numbers, and I had to admit that I enjoyed them innocently, again by putting myself into the position of the audience of the time. But I did find Al's little monologue (explaining his idea that 'Mammy songs' had dignity) somewhat puzzling, especially coming from a Cantor's son. Could he really sing in blackface and think he was being dignified, or respectful? All the more disturbing that I enjoyed it...

Elsie Janis was intriguing. She seemed to be loved by the 'troops' and it showed how a woman who was not stunning-looking could sell songs in those days relying only on talent, charm and personality.

The Better 'Ole
Though slow to start (and we had been warned) this was an absolute delight! It was hilarious, and I led the giggling at the pantomime horse. A pantomime horse climbing over a fence sideways is indeed a sight to behold. And the two real horses looked so startled that I couldn't believe they had no idea at all what was going on. This has been, for me, the fun night of the Festival, so far!

Friday 13 June

Solidarity Song
A good doco, with 2 standout performances by Robyn Archer. Hanns Eisler was an interesting and complex man. I had only vaguely heard of him before this. Now I know some of his songs, and the fact that he composed the National Anthem for the GDR. Wonder what has happened to it? This film was a very good treatment of a man and his music, with excellent use of performance to illustrate the songs in context.

Mabo - The Life of an Island Man
A superb, moving and important documentary. I'd go so far as to say it is a film that people should see for the future of this country. The filmmaker got so close to the family that he got footage that no one else could probably have gotten, and so told the untold story that we needed to hear. This was the best documentary of the festival - no contest. I was at the daytime showing, and there was no standing ovation - although there was one in the evening. But my audience was undoubtedly moved and inspired - I could feel it. I'm only sorry I couldn't stay for the Q&A.

Movie Makers' Special Night - Fri 13 June

The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage
A film made from fascinating footage shot of the on-location shooting in Mexico ofThe Wild Bunch. It shows the legendary director, Sam Peckinpah, in action. It also shows how Peckinpah shot the film, by showing the same scenes as Peckinpah shot, but from a different angle. The voice-over, though, was not very effective for me, because large slabs of it have been taken word-for-word from the book If they move... kill 'em, which I've recently read - or, more precisely, devoured. This film had very little new to say to me. Also, it mainly focused on the mechanics of the shoot, and did not try to say much about the man himself, which I found strange. Good for Peckinpah novices, I suppose. But for the aficionado...(sigh)...

The Arruza Years
A much more fascinating and revealing documentary, about Bud Boetticher and his efforts to make a film about Carlos Arruza, the Mexican bullfighter. Despite this, the festival audience didn't applaud the film. Given what a good film it was, I can only assume it was because they didn't approve of the bullfighting. Strangely, I found myself starting to understand what it is that the Spanish and Mexican audiences see in bullfighting. The film revealed the tremendous bravery and grace involved, and I can imagine someone getting carried away in all the romance... but Bud himself went way over the top. The film itself did not, and Bud Boetticher was quite a character, living his own legend and relishing it. Makes me want to see The Bullfighter and the Lady, The Magnificent Matador and the other Boetticher films, as soon as possible.

The Hamster Factor
This was a good documentary made with the crew tagging along behind the scenes, during the making of Twelve Monkeys. The film's name comes from Terry Gilliam's weird perfectionism, which makes him agonise over things like catching in one corner of the foreground of a shot a hamster running inside a wheel, while making Bruce Willis perform a difficult scene over and over again in the background. Gilliam opens up well and the film stars are interesting, with some very revealing (and fun) scenes of Bruce Willis trying to direct - and that not going down too well with Gilliam. It only confirms my long-held view that Gilliam, while brilliant, cannot be trusted alone - he needs a supervising editor!

Saturday 14 June

Irma Vep
This ended up as my favourite feature film of the festival. A fictional director decides to remake a classic (real) serial from the early silent era (Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires). He selects for his leading lady a (real) Hong Kong action star, Maggie Cheung. Stylish, breathless, energetic, fast paced and funny, this film also satisfies intellectually - the journalist who loves Jackie Chan & John Woo is hilarious on 'What is Killing French Cinema', and the final film is pictorially brilliant. The character of the director is a standout, a brilliantly acted hangdog manic depressive. And the wardrobe director and her dinner party guests are wonderfully bitchy, which is - so I'm told - uncannily accurate. Stylish and fun - a perfect combination.

My Darling Clementine
It was lovely to see this film again on the big screen, and the 'lost', footage was interesting, but puzzling, since the explanations as to why cuts and changes were needed did not seem to gel with what was actually done. My friend, film writer Keith Howes, has a much more interesting theory for the changes, involving the role of Doc Holliday and his too-close-and-friendly relationship with Wyatt Earp in the first cut. Could the studio have been concerned that the pair were coming across as gay? Where did Doc Holliday go on his long trips "South of the Border"? What does he do there? What do we make of the scene in the theatre when Earp tells Holliday how he cut himself shaving and Holliday examines the scar? This provided us with much food for thought, but these issues probably won't be obvious to the average film-goer, who may well be puzzled about the cuts for a different reason. They may well think: "Why all the fuss over a few minutes of ordinary scenes?" The significance of the cuts is nowhere near as evident as in the other restoration shown at the festival, The Big Sleep. Still, this was another session thoughtfully and professionally presented by Robert Gitt of UCLA Film and TV archive. His work is to be treasured.

A postscript: I recently saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance again on video. It is nowhere near as good a film as My Darling Clementine. It is simpler, more sentimental, and less epic than Clementine, and far less interesting visually. Clementine is also much fresher (of course, being made much earlier), and far less glib.

Sunday 15 June

Howard Hawks Retrospective
- Red River
What a classic this is! And a damned good flick too. Mutiny on the Bounty on the hoof. A wonderful ensemble cast backs up strong performances from John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, the latter at close to his best, I think. And then, as a bonus, the cute scene between Clift and John Ireland (so recently featured in The Celluloid Closet). Had Hawks been watching Sergei Eisenstein films before he shot the famous "Take 'em to Missouri, Matt" scene? The montage of faces there sure looks like Eisenstein. We learned from Neil McDonald, who introduced the film, that there was an Australian connection to Red River: Hawks had recently seen The Overlanders, and was impressed by the cattle driving scenes. He used (I think I've got this right) the cinematographer from The Overlanders, Osmond Borradaile, as his second unit director for the fabulous cattle scenes in Red River.

Maverick on a Mobile
This film was deceptive. We follow the politician Graeme Campbell around during the concluding days of the last Federal election. He talks to people, and to us, and we listen. His campaign gets completely derailed by a phrase in a supporter's letter, and we watch how the media proceed to ignore everything else and pressure him about his views on that phrase, deeply offensive to some Aboriginal people as it is. Before we know it, we have got very close to a politican and his campaign, we have some real appreciation of what's involved, and we get a few insights as well. This is a man I was perepared to hate, and instead I found myelf seduced by his considerable charm, and impressed by the way he conducts himself. He appeared for the Q & A, which mainly consisted of people who opposed his views on immigration giving self-serving (and often unintelligible) speeches. So it wasn't worth taking notes, but it was worth watching a professional in action. A very good political doco. Graham Chase, the filmmaker, was there in person too to receive his share of audience abuse for not taking sides, it seems.

Special night -The Big Sleep We Never Saw
Howard Hawks Retrospective

This was a real treat. We get to see a version of The Big Sleep that we've not seen before, and then we get to wallow in the differences between the two versions - one from 1945 and one from 1946. The 1945 version we'd not seen before was certainly easier to follow plot-wise than the 1946 version. But that's hardly the point of the film, is it? Even in the "more sensible" version, I still left the theatre going "yeah, but if X killed Y, who killed Z?". Again, we were lucky to have Robert Gitt introducing the screening, and explaining the changes, and reading some of the correspondence involved. Letters from Darryl F Zanuck were most elegant and entertaining. It's not a great film, but it sure is fun to watch! That's what true stars can do for a film.

Monday 16 June

Red Hollywood
What a disappointment this film was! I was really looking forward to it, because I've done some study of the House UnAmerican Committe and McCarthyism and "premature anti-Fascism" in films, and I wanted to learn more. But this film is on video, and or some reason it was almost impossible to see. Had they used appalling quality videos of the films they were discussing, and then dubbed them? Was it a technical problem with the tape supplied to the Festival? Who knows? Whatever the reason, watching this doco gave me eye-strain and a terrible headache.

What added to my pain was the extraordinary voiceover commentary. Someone had clearly got hold of an old Communist Party phrasebook and cobbled together a script consisting mainly of 1950 Commie jargon! It was ludicrous! Apart from the cant, there wasn't much said about the 'red' films and their writers and directors that I didn't already know. The analysis was very shallow, and some of the clips chosen were shown in the wrong contexts, and hence were quite misleading about the films in full. There was a much more interesting doco to be made on this topic, and this film isn't it.

It's Now or Never
A strange little film, part naturalistic and part very artificial. The Danish director, John Bang Carlson, calls his method "self-directed documentarism". He has an idea, and then uses non-actors from the area in which he's filming, to play the characters (themselves, usually) in the fictional film he is making. But the film is very much based in reality. My favourite character was "Rowd" the horrible little rat-catching dog who had to listen patiently to all the rubbish talked by his master, Jimmy. There are some beautiful and moving moments, the film looks lovely, and it certainly has a haunting quality appropriate to its subject-matter of loneliness. But at times it drags, and the music, though well chosen, was used repetitiously to the point of nausea. I think the director needs some firm editorial guidance.

Howard Hawks Retrospective - His Girl Friday
It was good to see this film again, with an audience. To be part of a large audience laughing heartily is one of life's joys.

The film moves so fast, and the dialogue is so rapid-fire, that no matter how often you see this film you pick up some line you'd never heard before, or some bits of business you'd missed. Rosalind Russell is one of the wonders of the world, and Cary Grant is anything but charming, but you love him anyway. This time round I enjoyed Ralph Bellamy's bewildered suitor more than I remembered. His gentle, generous performance nicely counterpoints the more manic style of the two brillliant stars.

Tueday 17 June

Some Nudity Required
Another film that creeps up on you. It starts out as one thing and ends up as another. At first we think we are hearing a story about a musical prodigy whose promising career was derailed by the porn industry: in other words our director, Odette Springer could have been a contender. But after a while we find that there is a darker story to be told, and that darker story is compelling, and well told. There's pain and degradation here, but there is humour and optimism too. In the end, the film is moving and illuminating.

You Always Hurt...
David Flatman, the director, is a very wise man. He was present at the festival, and his comments and the answers to audience questions revealed the depth of his experience as a filmmaker. The film immediately connects us with its subjects, so that we care very deeply about them, and audience questions centered around "What's happening to them now", just as they did at last year's festival, when we saw Hoop Dreams. You just don't want the documentary to end, because these people's lives are important, and we want to know that these men have progressed in their attempts to conquer their anger. Flatman told us that one of the couples, Mark and Nurcan, are now making their own film about their progress. Somehow, I don't think they'll have the experience to tell their own story anywhere near as well as Flatman has told it. A superb documentary.

Howard Hawks Retrospective - The Thing from Another World
Christian Nyby is the credited director, but experts tell us that Hawks was the de facto director because of his close involvement. In many ways it is a slight film - it really was only a B film, very low budget. But it transcends that label, partly because of the magnificent way it exploits the unities of time and place, and partly because of the masterful way that the suspense is built and maintained.

The 'Thing' itself (played by James Arness - brother of Peter Graves, by the way) is not very scary to those of us used to Alien and Predator and Robocop and Jurassic Park. But we are scared before we see it, so to see it is, in a way, a relief.

The journalist's final speech caused some mirth in the audience. Why do people expect a little B film from 1951 to accord with the cynical views of the late 1990s?

The conflict between the scientists and the military is particularly interesting: the scientists want to communicate with the alien and the military want to kill it. The military are right of course. When will people realise this: when aliens invade earth they will be evil. This is something that Tim Burton knows: Mars Attacks, it doesn't visit!

Wednesday 18 June

Fatal Reaction: Singapore
What an interesting documentary! At the start, we are told that 40 percent of university-educated Singaporean women will not find a match and will stay single. We are prepared for something light hearted, perhaps, or at least light handed in its treatment. What we get are some interesting insights into the educated, youngish middle-class middle-management of Singapore. We see any number of bright, attractive, articulate and assertive women (and almost exclusively Chinese women) coming up against the traditional attitudes and mores of the Chinese men who ahould be their matches. And from time to time we see Lee Kwan Yew commenting in the background, fatherly, concerned, and faced with the unexpected consequences of his grand social plan to educate women, backpedalling madly. Another outstanding doco, and another doco that is not what it seems.

The director, Marijke Jongbloed, was there at the screening, and took many good questions, to which she gave thoughtful and intelligent replies. Having seen her in real life, I'm all the sorrier that I did not get to see the companion-piece doco Fatal Reaction: New York, which is one of 4 Fatal Reaction: docos set in diferent cities.

Licensed to Kill

This is a thoughtful and intelligent documentary on a very emotional subject. It would be easy to sensationalise, to demonise, to preach, and yet the director, Arthur Dong, does none of these things. Instead, he thoughfully questions these men who have done horrendous things to gay men, and treats each of them as individuals, with different backgrounds and complex motivations. There are no easy solutions, and no glib slogans. There is only a picure of anger, hate and evil, ignorance, confusion and vulnerability, remorse, pity and understanding - and all of this on both sides of the coin. A film much more interested in understanding than blame, and so a film that gets us a little closer to the truth.

Special Night of Irish Cinema - The Van
Though it has some lovely performances, especially from Donal O'Kelly as the beautifully-named 'Bimbo,' this film slid from promise into cliché. Have we seen so much from Roddy Doyle and Stephen Frears that we now know what is coming before it arrives? I hope not. Maybe this film is just an aberration. Still, there was a lot of fun along the way, but not too much in the way of revelatory moments. We do expect more of Irish films, don't we?

I didn't see the second half of the Irish night of films (I'm told it was much better than The Van), because I had to rush off to the Pitt Centre to see...

Howard Hawks Retrospective - Big Sky
This film seems to me the weakest of the films in the Hawks retrospective, and yet for me it is among the most fascinating, because it is one of the few I hadn't seen. The film looks beautiful, shot mostly on location and against a big country and a bigger sky. The action sequences are quite thrilling. The story is fresh - we haven't seen much of this part of frontier America, as far as I know. Kirk Douglas is very good, and Dewey Martin -while he looks great - can't hope to match Kirk, and this weakens their partnership, which is a pity. There is not enough conflict between the two men, too - not enough romance or rivalry. This also weakens the film. But the supporting cast is excellent - they are a real multicultural motley crew.

A few other random thoughts:

- The initial meeting of Douglas and Martin reminded me of the meeting of Pip and the belligerent Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations.

- The line "Things are going good: too good" turns up - a familiar line from other Hawks films like only Angels Have Wings.

- Kirk and Dewey as Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell?

- The gag about Kirk's knuckle going out-of-joint has been repeated from A Girl in Every Port, as has the idea of pouring whisky on a wound as punishment.

- Keith Howes has pointed out that this is the first film in which an Indian girl loves a white man, and doesn't die!

Thursday 19 June

Fatal Reaction: New York
I had a near fatal reaction when I saw the length of the line to get into this film. Disappointingly, I didn't get in to see it.

Howard Hawks Retrospective - Rio Bravo
What a treat this was! I hadn't ever seen it before in full, though excerpts turn up in lots of films about film. How I managed to miss it year after year I'll never know, but it was worth the wait, especially to see the beautiful new print - ravishing!

This is a funny Western, full of action, character and interest. But it is also a portrait of unorthodox domesticity. Think of John Wayne as the Father and Walter Brennan as the Mother ("Why don't you ever have any consideration for my feelings?" etc etc), and Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson as the two teenage kids - the whole set-up is a kind of screwy Ossie & Harriet! Dean Martin gives a beautifully measured performance as the alcoholic deputy who must redeem himself, and John Wayne is at the height of his powers, and not afraid to play it for laughs, without ever losing one iota of dignity. Angie Dickenson is luminous and intelligent, and Ricky Nelson brings a funny kind of blankness to his role as the young-gun-prodigy, which somehow suits his teen age. He's not quite up to the others, but few would be. Totally satisfying, and even surprising. A lovely and just ending to my Festival films.

Friday 20 June
I went to China today, so I couldn't see the last day of films. It was very irritating to miss the very last film in the Howard Hawks Retrospective - I Was a Male War Bride. But at least I had seen it before, and fairly recently too. Though it is fun, it's not one of my favourites.

It was a wonderful experience to immerse yourself in Howard Hawks' universe, on-and-off for a fortnight. Even so, I've not had enough Hawks: I'm booked in for a Sydney University/David Stratton film study day on Howard Hawks in November. David told me he's showing in full 3 Hawks films not shown in the Film Festival Retrospective. One must be To Have and Have Not, because David and I discussed at the Festival what an omission that film was from the Retrospective.

Phew! That's one review for every feature and doco I saw...The next Sydney Film Festival starts on 5 June 1998 . Start training now!

© Michèle M Asprey 1997

45th Sydney Film Festival

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