July 31, 2009

Melbourne underground


 The Melbourne Film Festival is building a post-punk revival programme around screenings of a restored Dogs in Space, the 1986 Richard Lowenstein film that drew on his memories of a flat in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond in the early days of punk rock. Roughly 1978. It's probably been 20 years since I saw the film at -- I'm guessing -- the Paramount in Wellington and the soundtrack is more memorable to me now than any of the action, or the strongest memory is the combination of sound and action in a late scene in which Sam (Michael Hutchence) and Anna (Saskia Post) take heroin as Lowenstein cues Iggy Pop's "Endless Sea". Was that song always about heroin? It seemed to be now. Of course, she overdoses. That was authentic: for New Zealanders, Australia was always the land of overdoses. Until that point, the film had been a kind of shapeless Young Ones-like comedy about student squatters, would-be punks, suburban runaways, leftover hippies, violent pubs and a drug-fuelled trip to an all-night convenience store that I'm having trouble distinguishing from a similar scene in the egregious Gen-X cash-in Reality Bites. After the closing overdose, we were invited to look back on it all as a conventional and fairly conservative coming-of-age drama: death scares the rest of them into growing up and moving on. And then there was the Michael Hutchence problem.

But this many years later -- 20 years after the film, 30 years after the events it was based on -- Dogs in Space is being mined for the truth it got to or the memories it can support. It's taken on the status of artifact. This nostalgic essay, by Ashley Crawford, describes a Melbourne world that is much more lurid and extreme than anything in Dogs in Space:
Thus it came to be that on dark winter evenings, when Melbourne sunk into Siberia-like hibernation, a small coterie of artists would be corralled into the stygian environs of St. Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom. The Ballroom was a broken down rock venue struggling for life. Audiences fluctuated. At times half-a-dozen punters constituted a crowd. Entrance was via a gamut of passed out drunks, semi-conscious junkies, syringes piercing skin, a slick swamp of vomit and a littering of Victoria Bitter cans. This was the St. Kilda of the damned, long before polished floorboards and café latte. This was still the St Kilda of Albert Tucker’s visions of Good and Evil, prostitutes loitering in the dim lights of tram stops, a world of the living dead. At the time Tucker still lived around the corner and could often be spied stalking the streets, glowering at all around him.
Dogs in Space's 1978 was earlier and less darkly anti-glamorous than this; earlier than the elevation of the Birthday Party's Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard into drug-trashed art stars. Prior to that St Kilda of the damned. In 1978, in cities like Melbourne and Auckland, news of punk hadn't been coming through for very long from the world outside -- and that world of London/New York was very far away then -- and there was nothing yet of post-punk. These antipodean cities were still boring, monocultural and often hostile places back then, as in this blog by Sam Sejavka:
Twenty five years ago, it was a smaller, greyer, far more conservative city. There were no street cafes. Restaurants rarely had bars and you could count on two hands the number of 24 hour establishments. You’d be hassled for wearing hats in pubs and chastised by war veterans for wearing second hand medals on the tram. You could get beaten up as a poofter for wearing anything even remotely peculiar. The only alternative scenes were the sluggish festering hippies in Carlton and Fitzroy, a gaggle of Maori drag-queens in Fitzroy St, and the tribes of skinheads and sharpies in Holmesglen and Bayswater. Musical offerings included pub rock, more pub rock and maybe a bit of flaccid folk rock ... In the Melbourne of 1980, if you caught sight of someone across the street with dyed purple hair, the odds were you’d know them. The scene was that small.
Sejavka was the singer in a band called The Ears and the Hutchence character was based on him:
After Wattletree Road, Mick and Tim (then later myself) moved to Berry St, Richmond, into the two storey terrace immortalised in Richard’s film. Inhabited by rusted-on hippies and sedate film students, it was a comfortable and neat environment, but not for long. Subjected to our presence, it descended by degree into the chaos that was fairly accurately depicted in the film. The house was now The Ears home base, where we could rehearse and where Mark Gason, our faithful lighting technician, could build his contraptions from neon tubes and Christmas lights.
It seems that Sejavka and Lowenstein fell out over Dogs in Space. Not because the film that immortalised him wasn't much good, but because that death of Anna was based on the very real overdose of Sejavka's girlfriend Christine. What upset Sejavka, on seeing a rough cut of the movie, is the implication that he introduced his girlfriend to heroin -- as the fictional Sam does for Anna:
Though the film is fiction, it conforms largely to the facts of real life, and on this sensitive point, it jarred badly with the truth. I was horrified to think that anyone might think I was responsible, even indirectly, for Christine’s death.
It took Sejavka and Lowenstein more than 20 years to bury the hatchet. In fact, they only did it last year. But history has added other kinds of weight to this film, more weight than it has ever seemed to warrant; now it's also a memorial to a dead rock star. We can't help but imagine Hutchence as another body carried out of that Richmond house by emergency services. If Sejavka -- inspiration for the movie, now doppelganger for a dead man -- is in the audience in Melbourne this weekend, I imagine he's going to find it a very weird experience.

The Melbourne Film Festival "post-punk underground" programme is here.

July 17, 2009

Heavenly readers


Another dream double bill: Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures and Stephen Daldry's The Reader. One is Kate Winslet's first film, which she starred in as a 17-year-old, crossing the world as an English import to act as English import Juliet Hulme; the other is the film that finally netted Winslet an Oscar. But that comparison -- first blush/big success -- isn't why you would put these two films together. It's this: one gives you the crime but not the consequences, ending on the moment of the murder itself, the shocking and devious teenage murder of the mother of Hulme's friend Pauline Parker; the other gives you the consequences, including a trial and a long prison sentence, but only glancingly describes the crime and never makes any attempt to depict it (if it did, we might lose the sympathy the film is trying so hard to generate for the perpetrator). Taken together you can imagine them as two parts of one story with Winslet ageing across them. Both have structurally important cycling scenes and even structurally important bath scenes, saying something about the (imaginary) continuity of character.

Tonally the films are opposites. Jackson and Fran Walsh discovered both Winslet and Melanie Lynskey and amplified their teenage newness and freshness. The girls were encouraged to be hyperactive, manic, delirious. The mood of Heavenly Creatures is almost operatic; their folie a deux and shared fantasy is literalised by Jackson who collaborates in it, gets inside it, bringing their imaginary world into this one. The Reader is a film of morose seriousness, with precisely one joke in it -- the lines about Jewish illiteracy (whereas Heavenly Creatures is a film about murder crammed with jokes). If teenage mania is the mood before the murder(s), then it fits that penitential gloom should be the mood after it. The Reader's Hanna is like Anne Perry, the renamed and re-exiled Juliet Hulme, living for all those years with her secret. So even before we see her in prison, we always see Hanna trapped -- the apartment, the railway carriage -- except for the one cycling scene. In Heavenly Creatures, cycling scenes were bursts of hyperactive freedom. Is the older Hanna/Anne/Juliet recalling all that?

In another way, the second film shows that Winslet has fallen. Jackson and Walsh make much of the class difference -- posh Juliet in her grand Ilam estate; working-class Pauline living in a boarding house on Gloucester Street; although both attend (crucially for Christchurch in those days) the same school. In The Reader, Hanna is the uncultured one and it is her easily manipulated companion, Michael, who comes from an innately cultured world. In the second film, class is less obvious, therefore maybe more insidious. In the European high-cultural context of The Reader, the shame of illiteracy is even presented as greater than the shame of having been a member of the SS. But the only scenes in which The Reader comes alive are the scenes in which the two leads have their morally stunted worldviews tested and overturned: Hanna in court in the 1960s, charged with the murder of 300 prisoners during the war; Michael three decades later, interrogated by a death camp survivor when he tries to pass on Hanna's money (would these scenes with the one Jewish character have been or more less effective were the woman not a wealthy New Yorker, therefore fulfilling stereotypes?). Otherwise, The Reader gives the outward appearance of being complex and sensitive to the issues involved, around individual and collective guilt, while fudging a central part of it: is there ever any suggestion that, in those years between 1945 and 1966 and possibly after, Hanna felt she had done the wrong thing? The narcissism of Hanna, like the narcissism of Juliet Hulme:

They read and wrote about tragedy, play-acted, and enacted a real killing? -- Yes.
They wrote poems that suggested they thought a lot about themselves? -- Yes.
Their ideas that they were geniuses had some foundation in fact? -- They had a little foundation.
-- from the court reporting of the Star-Sun newspaper, Christchurch, August 27, 1954.

July 8, 2009

The Bonnie and Clyde that wasn't

I'm enjoying Mark Harris's Scenes from a Revolution, a lively journalistic account of "the birth of the new Hollywood", tracked through the preproduction, making of and reception of 1967's Best Picture nominees: Bonnie and Clyde; The Graduate; In the Heat of the Night; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; and Doctor Dolittle. Some have been taking it as a prequel to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but you could see it as the underpinning of parts of J Hoberman's The Dream Life, a book which used commercial American cinema -- and Bonnie and Clyde was a key exhibit -- to show how the '50s became the '60s. Which was about more than turning over pages of a calendar.

Long before Arthur Penn was attached to Bonnie and Clyde, Truffaut was interested. Then Godard. Here is the scene in New York in September 1964 as Harris describes it. Bob Benton and David Newman are the Esquire staffers who wrote the script. Norton Wright was a producer.
"Everybody remembers that meeting differently," says Benton. But it began to go wrong almost from the start, when Godard, with little preamble, announced that he wanted to begin preproduction on Bonnie and Clyde in December -- just three months away -- and that he intended to shoot the movie in New Jersey in January, on a four-week shooting schedule. He also said he wanted to give the script to Columbia right away, information that took everyone by surprise.
Nobody in the living room had very much to say as Godard talked, but after a few minutes, Norton Wright's reservations boiled over into panic. "I said to him, you know, that's really not the way to do it. This is a period piece, it's an expensive piece, we should shoot it on location in the places where Bob and David had done the research [east Texas]. The spring would be good, or maybe the fall -- but it's snowy and cold and wet in New Jersey."
Whatever Wright's exact words were -- he had apparently referred to meteorological reports -- they caused the temperature in the room to plunge dramatically. According to Benton, Godard stood up, said, "I'm taking cinema and you're talking meteorology", and walked out of the apartment ... Nobody disputes the astonishing swiftness with which the meeting and Godard's involvement in Bonnie and Clyde were terminated.
This is David Newman's version, relayed to the LA Times in 1997. The peripheral details might change but no one could forget Godard's superb closing line:
Everyone in Hollywood turned the script down. Truffaut was too busy to do the film himself, but he'd given the script to Godard, who came to New York, where we had a catastrophic meeting. He had this reputation as a wild man, so when he said, "Let's start next week, I'm ready," our producers panicked. They said, "It's the wrong time of year to shoot in Texas". Norton Wright actually called and got a long-range weather report, saying it would be stormy and cold for the next three months. And Godard just walked out. His last words were: "I'm talking cinema and you're talking meteorology."
And another account, based on the memories of Newman and Benton, in Chris Darke's book on Alphaville:
He said, that day, two things which are forever writ upon our memories: "If it happens in life, it can happen in a movie." This to the producer's objection that the key elements might not be perfectly pulled together in three weeks' time. And, "We can make this film anywhere; we can make it in Tokyo". This in response to the producer's objection that weather conditions were not right for shooting in Texas at this time of year. A call to the weather bureau in Dallas was made. Strong possibilities of precipitation were predicted. "You see?" said the producer. "I am speaking cinema and you are speaking meteorology," said Godard.