George Miller

Strewth! Old Dogs and New Tricks at Glasgow Film Festival

Still from Red Dog (Stenders, 2011)

The wonderful folks over at Glasgow Film Festival have truly delivered on their promise of late last year, programming a veritable cornucopia of Australian cinema for their 2015 installment, which runs 18 February – 1 March.

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Shocks & Frocks: Aussie Film at Scala Beyond

Scala Beyond

Following on from the success of last year’s Scala Forever season, which saw London film clubs and screening nights band together to toast the spirit of the legendary Scala Cinema (and the subsequent Ken Russell Forever tribute), the next six weeks see the project expand into Scala Beyond, with screenings held across the country to celebrate all forms of cinema exhibition in the UK.

Of course, no proper celebration of weird and wonderful cinema from around the globe would be complete without a few Antipodean delights, and Scala Beyond is absolutely no exception. Here’s a brief rundown of the Oz treats in store…

DEADLY DOUBLE-BILLS

Production still from BAD BOY BUBBY

Bad Boy Bubby (1993)

Central to the Oz film experience during Scala Beyond are a tasty pair of double-bills at London’s Roxy Bar and Screen in the final week of August.

On Wednesday 29th – eager to prove that ‘Oz cinema is so much more than hi-octane stuntmen and girls in white petticoats’ – Videotape Swap Shop present a truly twisted helping of noisy Oz-weird with Rolf de Heer’s utterly fantastic tale of a shut-in gone wild, Bad Boy Bubby (1993) [trailer], slotting seamlessly alongside Terry Bourke’s shockfest Night of Fear (1972) [trailer], which provides an extremely original take on the ‘rural car crash victim meets unhinged local’ scenario. The two films are linked by their unique approaches to sound design, and both deserve a big screen viewing. No strangers to Australian genre cinema, the VTSS team have anticipated their ‘Noisy Oz’ double with a series of ‘Oz Month’ blog posts throughout August. Bargain basement £4 earlybird tickets were still available at time of writing, otherwise entry is a measly £6 on the night.

The following evening, Thursday August 30, VTSS’s fellow cult film aficionados Filmbar70 present an ‘Eerie Down-Under Double’ at the Roxy that pits Ted Kotcheff’s ‘rediscovered’ classic Wake in Fright (1971) against Tony Williams’ off-kilter Next of Kin (1982). Retitled Outback for its North American release, the unmissable, brutally brilliant Wake in Fright follows an English schoolteacher as he departs his outback home headed for the beaches of Sydney. But a brief stopover in the rough and tumble mining town of Bundunyabba sees his summer holidays descend into a Dantean nightmare of greed, violence and good old fashioned ‘mateship’ [trailer]. In sharp contrast, Next of Kin is a gothic slow-boiler that dips into a stylish bag of tricks to crank up the tension as a young woman returns home after the death of her mother, whose diary sparks a series of spooky occurrences [trailer]. Tickets are £5 and are available in advance from the Roxy website or on the door.

FURTHER AFIELD

But the Oz action is not limited to London: Sunday August 26 sees the traveling delights of Picnic Cinema pitch up at Acorn Bank Gardens in Cumbria for an open-air presentation of Baz Luhrmann’s shamelessly gaudy Australian-shot, Parisian mash-up musical Moulin Rouge!. Tickets are £11/£6 (+bf) from SeeTickets and the gates open at 6pm with live music – BYO picnics and fin de siècle fancy dress highly encouraged!

Production still from Mad Max II: The Road Warrior

Mad Max II (1981)

The north-west of England is also home to one of the highlights of the wider Scala Beyond program; a series of screenings staged by the excellent Abandon Normal Devices festival in a full-scale drive-in made from wrecked cars. Originally built in San Jose, California, Empire Drive-In is the work of Brooklyn artists Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark, and features sonic artworks by day whilst playing nocturnal host to a selection of shorts, docs and features relating to cars, urbanity and post-industrial landscapes. And in a landscape of smashed cars, it’s only fitting that their screening on Friday August 31 plays host to George Miller’s post-apocalyptic sequel spectacular Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981), in which Mel Gibson’s Max helps a small enclave of civilized survivors fight off the hording bandits led by a proto-Bane named Humungous [trailer]. Empire Drive-In can be found in the QPark on Hulme Street, Manchester, tickets are £7 and the screening will be preceded by short films and feature guest ‘interventions’ by Manchester drag/art/party collective Tranarchy.

ALL-NIGHTERS

Given that this is a festival celebrating the spirit of the old Scala Cinema – infamous for its ’round the clock screening schedules – it wouldn’t be complete without a few all-nighters. Australian films feature in two London quadruple-bills, with Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981) getting a second Scala Beyond showing at FilmBar70‘s World Wide Action All-Nighter at the Roxy Bar & Screen on Saturday September 1. The night kicks off with the Arnie mercenary classic Commando (1985) and also features Indonesian Cameron rip-off Lady Terminator (1989), cross-cultural Hong Kong fightfest Mafia vs Ninja (1985) and FilmBar70’s specially selected Top 10 Action Scenes of All Time. Tickets are £15 from the Roxy website or on the door and include free coffee and breakfast. [EDIT 31/08: This all-nighter has been postponed due to licensing issues.]

Also at the Roxy, Midnight Movies bring Scala Beyond to a fitting conclusion on Saturday September 29 with a celebration of proms, parties and the darker side of teen angst. The Fright at the Proms All-Nighter will feature Shaun Byrne’s Aussie psychotic jilted-lover gorefest, The Loved Ones (2009) [trailer] alongside Canadian cult classics Prom Night! (1980) and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II! (1987), as well as Brian de Palma’s classic blood-soaked Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976). Tickets are £15 (+bf) from Eventbrite and the night kicks off at 10pm in true prom style, with photos, ‘guest chaperones’ and live DJs, with free breakfast baps for every ‘survivor’.

Scala Beyond runs from August 18 to September 29, 2012. Full programme details are available on the website.

Australian Season in Norwich

Australian Season at Cinema City, Norwich

London may get the lion’s share of Australian film screenings in the UK, but cinemagoers in Norwich are getting a taste of Down Under this summer, with Cinema City hosting a mini celebration of recent Australian flicks to coincide with the UK release of Daniel Nettheim’s excellent The Hunter (2011). Cinema City’s Australian season kicked off on Friday with a late night screening of that most influential of cult classics, Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), and continues throughout the rest of the month with some of the best Australian films of recent years:

Monday July 16, 8:30pm: The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)

Having previously worked together on Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1988), filmmaker John Hillcoat and rock legend (and occasional scriptwriter) Nick Cave reunited almost a decade later for this grim Australian western, in which the civilizing Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) attempts to eradicate a gang of outlaws by pitting two of the notorious Burns brothers (Guy Pearce and Danny Huston) against each other.

Monday July 23, 8:45pm: Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

One of the best films of 2011 – from anywhere in the world – relates the gripping tale of Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), a young man sucked into the inner circle of one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers, John Bunting (played to electrifying effect by Daniel Henshall). It’s a tough, tense watch, but also a truly exceptional piece of cinema.

Monday July 30, 8:45pm: Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)

Emerging like a bolt from the blue in 2009, Warwick Thornton’s intensely moving ‘survival love story’ premiered at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Camera d’Or for debut feature. Following the difficult lives of its eponymous duo as they struggle with life on (and off) an Aboriginal settlement outside Alice Springs, the film stood as a quiet, contemplative and resolutely a-political response to centuries of indigenous mistreatment that culminated in the notorious policy of ‘intervention’.

So there we have it, three fantastic examples of recent Australian cinema, each ripe for revisiting or a first watch. Full details and tickets for the Australian season are available on the Cinema City website. The Hunter continues to screen daily until July 19.

Beyond the Same Old Clichés

Over the last few years, it has been possible to detect a marginal yet significant shift in the Australian media’s attitude towards homegrown cinema. Every now and again, though, comes a piece (or a writer) that seemingly cannot help but revert to the tired old clichés about the industrial prospects of Australian cinema and its relationship with local audiences.

This past weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled ‘Beyond The Same Old Stories‘ in which David Dale traces the cinemagoing habits of Australians over the past year. An author, journalist and lecturer in communications at UTS, Dale has predominantly written about food and travel, although an official biography describes him as ‘Australia’s most respected and most entertaining commentator on popular culture’. Whilst I couldn’t vouch for the veracity of either claim, he has written about Australian popular culture for a variety of Fairfax outlets, with most pieces also appearing on his blog The Tribal Mind, where he comments on the wide spectrum of Australian society and culture.

For ‘Beyond the Same Old Stories’ – a pre-subbed version of which had been published a day earlier on The Tribal Mind as ‘How Australia Went to the Movies in 2011‘ – Dale analyses the relative fortunes of Australia’s cinema exhibition market over the last twelve months. As well as bemoaning the usual Hollywood repetition, he praises what he considers to be the most original ideas to have emanated from the world of cinema over that period, singling out Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids and The Guard, amongst others.

But Dale also makes an assertion that, despite the expectation of another year-on-year increase in revenue collected from the Australian box office, Australian audiences have ‘lost interest in our own creations’. Trotting out the statistics to back up his argument, Dale shows that 2010 saw five Australian features grossing over $4m locally (the greatest number of any year since the turn of the millennium), whereas this year has seen only Red Dog achieving that feat, sitting solitary atop a table of supposed failures and near misses like a Kelpie in the outback. Red Dog may well be the ‘Crocodile Dundee of the 21st century, reaching deep into the collective unconscious’, but according to Dale, ‘this year, the cultural cringe was back’.

Amongst the ‘near misses’ in 2011 was Sanctum, which returned over 10% of its budget at the domestic box office with a robust $3.8m, falling just below that magical $4m mark. Meanwhile, another film that fell just short of reaching $4m at the Australian box office is curiously absent from Dale’s snidely titled list of ‘The Best Australia Could Do’. Despite earlier being singled it for its originality and included on a list of ‘The Surprise Successes’, Oranges and Sunshine makes no appearance on Dale’s local production list; a strange omission at best. An official Australia-UK co-production, it tells a uniquely Australian story (albeit whilst also being a uniquely British story) and is largely set down under, which surely is enough to qualify it as ‘Australian’? And even if the omission is a question of financial provenance, it should be noted that one of the five $4m-plus titles of 2010 is the Warner Bros. backed Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which IMDB.com lists as being both a US and Australian production. Quibbles aside, the comparison of year-on-year box office takings for an entire nation is one thing, but making the same like-for-like comparisons for one nation’s small to medium-sized production industry is another thing entirely.

Dale’s attempts at insightful criticism don’t stop on Australian shores, however, with his suggestion that ‘there was one more bright spot in 2011 for which Australia can claim credit – the quirkiness of The Guard‘. Dale repeats writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s assertion that the bitter experience of bringing his his script for Ned Kelly to the screen (with director Gregor Jordan at the helm), led to a vow that he would, in future, direct all his own scripts. Needless to say, the notion that Australia might somehow ‘claim credit’ for The Guard is as preposterous as it is misguided.

Of course, this tendency towards hyperbole is not necessarily new to Dale, who earlier this year managed to spin the box office success of Red Dog into a trite piece underpinned by a vague rhetoric that ‘Australians are notorious for hating their own movies but loving their own actors.’ In fact, sweeping generalisations and cliché seem to be the name of the game, with Dale using the same article to suggest that the fifteen all-time highest grossing Australian films at the local box office – along with the ten highest grossers of the last ten years – indicate that:

Australians love locally-made flicks at two extremes of a spectrum:

1 The film should look as if it comes from anywhere else but here – what George Miller calls “an international movie” such as Happy Feet, Babe, Moulin Rouge, and Mao’s Last Dancer.

OR

2 It should look as mythically ocker as Kevin Rudd would like to be, depicting bush battlers and brave women coated in red dust, plus noble Aborigines and funny-talking immigrants – a fantasyland for the most suburbanised nation on earth.

Of course, such ludicrously broad statements are only possible when you move into the realm of gross generalisation and remove any sense of context or shade. Amongst the titles on Dale’s all-time Top 15 list, neither Strictly Ballroom or Picnic at Hanging Rock fit comfortably into these two categories, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would consider The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Young Einstein to be ‘mythically ocker’ or ‘looking as if it comes from anywhere else but here’. As for the Top 10 from the last ten years, Tomorrow When the War Began, Bran Nue Dae and Rabbit Proof Fence are rooted in their Australianess but totally removed from Dale’s ‘mythically ocker’ category (despite this category’s curious caveat for ‘noble Aborigines and funny talking immigrants’).

It seems that David Dale is content to resort to a raft of lazy clichés traditionally so typical of the mass media response to the shifting fortunes of Australian film. And yet the crucial fault with his overall take on local cinema is not this reliance on blithe cliché and the tendency to over-simplify matters, but the fact that he does so whilst criticising Australian popular cinema (and by extension, Australian audiences) for doing precisely the same thing. Thus, whilst some sections of the Australian media have come a long way in their more balanced appreciation of every facet of Australia’s cinematic landscape, perhaps we are still some way off taking a more nuanced approach to how we consume, think about and discuss Australian cinema. Then again, perhaps nuance simply isn’t something that sells newspapers. Or movies, come to think of it.