Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Every few years a film comes along that perfectly captures an aspect of that elusive beast the Australian zeitgeist. My Year without Sex, written and directed by Sara Watt, is such a film. Watt, who won an AFI award for Look Both Ways, her first feature, has created a witty, honest, endearing portrait of Australian family life in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
*****Plot elements given below*****
The travails of an archetypal suburban family are the basis of the film. Ross and Natalie live with their two children, Louis and Portia, in a small, overpriced weatherboard in Melbourne’s inner west that they are bursting out of. Typical of anyone wanting to live in a built-up part of this city, they have a huge mortgage. Ross works in a community radio station as a sound engineer and Natalie has a part time job as a nurse's aid in an old people’s home.
Their best friends couldn’t be more different. Greg and Winona live in a minimally furnished McMansion with their blended family. Winona is much younger than Greg and is his third wife. The global economic crisis is yet to strike and the canny Greg is up to his ears in complex investments that even he doesn’t understand.
Ross and Natalie are neither clearly left or right wing; they complain about wanting to be in the middle of the middle rather than the lower part of it; like so much of ‘middle Australia’, they’re struggling to get by. Then Natalie suffers a life-threatening aneurysm and emerges from an emergency operation with a swollen face, mild brain damage and a list of things she must avoid to ensure she escapes a second aneurysm. One of these things is sex.
In a search for meaning, Natalie forms a friendship with Margaret, an unconventional female minister. Meanwhile, Natalie’s illness and its financial aftermath place her relationship with Ross under strain. Can this couple navigate the new, difficult territory they are encountering or will their marriage be a second casualty?
*****Plot elements end*****
From the outset Ross and Natalie appear to be battling not so much a system but an invisible, omniscient network of forces that militate against the unity of their family. In one beautifully photographed night-time scene, Ross gazes at the house over the road, which is a mass of garish Christmas lights. The back of his head is clearly delineated as the lights go out of focus, and they seem to symbolise his dilemma: no matter how hard you try in this society you will always be bested.
Sexualisation of daily life is ubiquitous, especially in the opening frames, and adds to the general sense of busyness and clutter. There is something deeply rotten in this society, with Ross and Natalie constantly being dragged down by the pressure to keep up with the Joneses and buy ever more goods.
The colour scheme is a slightly disconcerting but appropriate mixture of garish colours and moodily lit faces. This increases the sense of claustrophobia caused by the overabundance of ‘stuff’. It’s as if the stuff is stifling the characters, the lack of space in the family home a metaphor for a society trapped by consumerism and impossibly perfect body images.
Watt does a number of interesting things with this scenario, while avoiding some potential traps. First, she never gives up on her small family, refusing to present them as totally helpless, sinking in the quicksand of late capitalism. While they are helpless in an existential sense – floundering around in the way humans always have done because we can never know what the future holds – they don’t lose their humanity.
Their weapon – and that of the film – is humour. The many aspects of daily life presented here are all fodder for Watt’s sardonic, sly but gentle wit. Nothing is sacred, and there are some truly wonderful lines that deserve to become Australian sayings in the tradition of some of the dialogue in The Castle or Kath and Kim. The humour works because it is so authentic, so intrinsic to the situations the characters find themselves in.
Second – and this is where Watt especially excels – the visual aspects of family consumerism, the junk objects that the middle classes accumulate, are never simply utilitarian or irritating. Even – and especially – in their garishness they’re visually compelling as well as funny, never clearly distinguishable from the human urge to create, to turn life into art.
The bedrooms of the two children will look familiar to many, Portia’s riddled with junk in every shade of pink and Louis’s a shrine to the AFL (there is something delightfully whimsical in the sheer number of footy pictures he’s managed to cram onto his small wall). Here and elsewhere Watt displays the artistry that makes her animation so lively, pumping up the visual volume just enough so it’s barely nudging the surreal, not going as far as Baz Luhrmann might but in that general direction.
As well as the excessive competitiveness of modern life and the sexualisation of young girls, the film manages to tackle a huge number of themes, none of them heavy handedly: the helplessness of parents to avoid over-indulging their kids at Easter and Christmas; the question of whether genuine belief in God is possible; inhuman workplaces and job insecurity; private school versus public; huge mortgages; the sexual attractions that can so easily flare up in a work situation; the faux cheeriness of Christmas, itself so depression-inducing.
But the major concern of My Year without Sex is the randomness with which life doles out good and bad luck, in no particular order and with a total indifference to the recipients’ goodness or otherwise. Chance rules all and the film is permeated with images of lotteries, raffles and gambling, actual and metaphorical. Watt has said that she’s a glass half-full kind of person; she seems to conclude here that the only sane way to live is to ride the wave of good fortune while it lasts and appreciate what you have, because you’ll never control the mysterious workings of fate.
The film’s narrative drive is not as strong as that of Look Both Ways, which was a beautifully structured film. There are progression and plot development as Natalie negotiates the after effects of her aneurysm, but Watt is also concerned with the cyclical nature of life. The film is divided into segments based on the months of the year, each segment introduced by colourful graphics and humorous visuals. In this world, things are born and they die, there are loss and gain, and the only constant is change.
*****Plot elements given below******
There is one element in the film that lessens the sense of contemporary authenticity, and that’s the position of Margaret, the female minister who befriends Natalie. Watt seems to have sacrificed Australian religious realities in favour of plot simplicity here. A progressive-seeming female minister would be more likely to belong to the left-leaning Uniting Church than to be spouting the kind of fundamentalism that Margaret holds to, especially in what appears to be a mainstream church. But a less simplistic version of God wouldn’t have advanced the plot in the same way.
****Plot elements end*****
In some ways this film reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine in its subversive take on family life. In both films late capitalism is a disruptive force that the characters must struggle against as a family. The two films differ, though, in that the characters in Little Miss Sunshine don’t have as much irony at their disposal: although we sympathise with them, until the end we are often laughing at them rather than laughing with them.
Sacha Horler as Natalie is as strong and accomplished an actress as ever and her performance begs the question of why she doesn’t have a higher profile in this country. She could so easily have gone overboard in what is a very dramatic role but she never overdoes it, and the minimalist approach works beautifully here: we sympathise with Natalie but never to the point of schmaltz.
When he was young the huge-eyed Matt Day, who plays Ross, relied too much on his trademark ‘confused stare’ for comic purposes. In recent years he’s had a successful acting career in the UK, and in this film has been allowed to show his maturity as an actor and play a nuanced role. His slight frame and air of uncertainty never let us forget that here is an everyman who is constantly being exposed, confronted and tested, a man who must struggle with the emotional complexities of daily life.
Maude Davey, who plays Margaret, has been quietly building up a CV in warm, wise yet slightly sardonic screen characters; she’s true to form here and deserves to be more of a fixture on both the small and large screen. And Fred Whitlock as Greg sends up the ocker version of middle class greed and competitiveness for all he’s worth.
The children, Jonathan Seget as Louis and Portia Bradley as Ruby, are both excellent. Jonathan Seget is especially effective for his deadpan ordinariness; there is a familiar unadorned blandness about his laconic, single-minded obsession with football, his every emotion mediated through the fortunes of his beloved team.
And look for William McInnes, who makes a surprise cameo appearance that is both at odds with his usual screen image and a nod to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Ultimately this film is a kind of tribute to a traditional institution – the family – but one that never seeks to conventionalise or conservatise it. Watt reveals the haphazard beauty in the chaos of family life. If this film had a thesis, it would be that any attempt to impose order on family life, indeed on life itself, is doomed, because chaos is its defining element. While at times the film made me want to enter a Buddhist monastery, I can’t help but agree.
Verdict: constant low-key humour that avoids an overdose of the 'feel good' factor.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Australian novelist Sonya Hartnett has long suffered from a lack of due recognition because the majority of her novels are either aimed at the young, or span the gap between young adult and adult fiction. Critic Peter Craven has been one of her long-time champions, naming her ‘a novelist of genius’.
It’s wonderful that such a sterling writer is able to bring to such glittering life the complex, deeply felt experiences of young people. But just as youth is wasted on the young, it would be a sin if Hartnett’s audience was confined to the under-16s.
Hartnett’s work has won a swag of awards since she published her first novel at the astonishing age of 15. Now, fresh from winning the 2008 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, worth a cool $A880,000, Hartnett has published Butterfly, aimed once more at a hybrid market.
It’s an apt title. The novel has the delicacy and complex patterning of a butterfly’s wings. But given its sometimes grim subject matter, the title presages a kind of optimism.
We’re in a sleepy Melbourne suburb somewhere in the late 1970s. Abba, shag pile and Holden cars reign. Plum Coyle is 13 going on 14, emerging from the safety of childhood into the ‘anguished infancy of teenagerhood’, with its social horrors and crippling narcissism. She sometimes feels herself evil and inhuman, hates her face and body, adores her two much older brothers, Justin and Cydar, and tolerates her mild, eccentric parents.
Lowest on the pecking order in her group of friends and feeling misunderstood by her family, Plum is drawn into the world of her glamorous next door neighbour, Maureen. Perhaps Maureen will be able to help Plum in her attempts to gain some status in her friendship group, attempts which appear only to lead further into humiliation?
Hartnett’s many skills are in full play in this beautifully crafted novel. There are secrets in this quiet suburban world, secrets the characters keep from each other for fear of losing everything they value most. These secrets fuel the momentum of the narrative that Hartnett so carefully builds, keeping the surprises coming.
Indeed, there’s almost a thriller element to the novel: until the very end we don’t know exactly what will happen. At one point towards the close Hartnett plays with this mounting sense of dread, keeping us guessing as to whether she’ll choose a conventional melodramatic device or a more nuanced resolution.
Hartnett’s writing shows us the inner worlds of her main characters in close-up, as if we’re lurking somewhere behind their eyes. These worlds are full of both sensual immediacy and psychological nuance; there is much to see, hear, feel, touch and taste:
… the sky beyond is purple, as if it’s suffered a horizon’s-worth of blows. … there are midges bouncing on the air, and underground a cricket is tuning its saws and pins. She looks back to Maureen and asks, ‘Will you come to my party? Even for a little while?’
As is also evident in the above quote, Hartnett has a talent for casually placing apt, highly economical metaphors in the text that conjure up vivid images: ‘Her friends stare in post-nuclear silence’; ‘he has bumped through life like a brightly coloured ball’; ‘Maureen stands out against the lawn like an orchid, all lankiness and waxen beauty’.
Hartnett has set herself a challenge by placing this vividly imagined world in the seemingly far-off 1970s. Yet the material details are rendered as casually and faithfully as if the novel was set in 2009.
There is no sense of a period piece; we are parachuted back into the everydayness of the past, never merely gazing at it through some soft-focus lens. And this is what memory is like, too: when we recall the past, however bizarre the clothes or daggy the furnishings, such details stubbornly continue to make sense in the context.
Indeed, there’s a sense in which this foreign but, to older readers, familiar world is every bit as materialistic as our own. Objects in the novel have a huge and sometimes negative force, often standing in for everything that is emotionally absent or awry.
Plum hates her parents’ love for daggy antiques, yearning for a renovated house that will impress her friends. Meanwhile, Maureen is trapped within a suburban nightmare that is reflected in the furnishings: ‘her gaze moves over the sideboard, the drinks cabinet, the archway, returns to him’.
The exotic fish that Cydar rears in tanks and sells for profit are living creatures objectified, parts of himself that he cannot fully own and one reason why he sleeps and studies in a bungalow in the backyard, to some extent physically separate from his family. And Plum finds hope and an almost spiritual sustenance in the small precious objects she collects and keeps hidden in a case under her bed.
The predominance of objects is intimately bound up with the distance from which Plum surveys her loved family, particularly her parents. This doesn’t mean that they don’t love Plum, and when a crisis erupts in her life, the whole family mourns with her. However, they seem afflicted with a total inability to help. Hartnett is keen to demonstrate that family life, however benign, can never fully insulate us from the world – and that the internet age alone cannot be blamed for this inability. Perhaps she’s also suggesting that this distance is at least no worse than the suffocating parenting that is criticised so often today.
Hartnett’s masterly portrayal of the darker side of adolescence is both frank and humorous. She sympathetically depicts the hapless role of parents from an adolescent’s viewpoint. Mums and Fa are never fully fledged characters and they’re not supposed to be. Plum’s often appalling behaviour towards her mother in particular, as well as Mums’s tolerance of it, is amusing, touching and irritating at the same time:
She slams downstairs to take her frustrations out on her mother … Blissfully, a scandal: ‘I told you chicken vol-au-vents! No one in the world likes tuna!’
Clearly, Mums can’t win, and we feel for her. Both parents hover around the edges of this novel, their inability to change their lives for the better a point of sadness and a kind of warning. They seem to maintain an uneasy emotional balance, neither totally fulfilled nor devastatingly unhappy.
Hartnett’s view of adolescence is often bleak, no more so than in the excruciating descriptions of Plum’s desperate attempts to impress her friends. Hartnett forces into our gaze the psychological sophistication of the scapegoating that adolescents engage in, their ability to back each other into semantic corners with a couple of well-chosen words.
This is a forensic cruelty that relies totally on the insecurity of its recipients. Hartnett is almost fatalistic, perhaps too much so, in her seeming insistence that this kind of behaviour is inevitable and possibly unchangeable in the young.
You’ll have to read this intricately imagined novel to find out whether Plum’s attempts to negotiate the long and difficult process of individuation are ultimately successful. But the process of finding out is rich in writerly rewards.
Verdict: a novel to savour
Friday, May 1, 2009
Film has the unique ability to re-create periods of history – and the stories of individuals caught up in them – that the mainstream too often forgets.
A tumultuous decade in German and indeed world history is vividly replayed in The Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel. The film is based on the book of the same name by journalist Stefan Aust, who also cowrote the script. Its cowriter and producer is Bernd Eichinger, who produced the controversial film The Downfall.
The bloody, ruthless stalemate between the IRA and the Unionists in Northern Ireland is still strong in the collective memory. But the decade after 1967 in West Germany, when radical leftists carried out bomb attacks and bank robberies, planted car bombs and assassinated public officials has all but faded outside of that country, perhaps paling into insignificance against the darker shadow of Nazism and the Holocaust, not to mention the rise of East Germany.
The Baader Meinhof Complex covers the events leading up to and stemming from the trials of three of the ring leaders of the instigators of this violence, the Red Army Faction. This militant left-wing group of ‘urban guerillas’ believed armed resistance was the only way to stop what it perceived as a repressive German state supporting aggressive US imperialism.
The film has caused controversy in Germany but was the country’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards.
The period of 1967-68 was one of instability and revolt worldwide. The Six Day War had further dispossessed Palestinians; all over Europe and in parts of South America students were protesting against government repression; in the US, opposition to the Vietnam War was intensifying as the war escalated. Young people everywhere were terrified of the prospect of nuclear war.
In West Germany, many Nazi sympathisers still held jobs in the universities and the government, leading to conservatism and repression. A radical student movement erupted throughout Germany, demanding government change and university reforms. Students were incensed by the role of the US in the Vietnam War and their country’s hosting of US bases. It was from the mass actions of this movement that the seeds of the RAF sprang.
Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck of Mostly Martha and The Lives of Others) is a left-wing columnist living a sixties lifestyle in Hamburg with her husband and two children. As the Shah of Iran and his wife prepare to make a state visit to West Germany, she writes an open letter to the Shah’s wife, protesting about mass poverty in Iran.
Soon afterwards, at a student protest against the visit of the Shah in Berlin, police and pro-Shah forces respond with brutal violence, sparking a series of events that will rock Germany for a decade.
In the wake of the student unrest that follows the protest, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and her bad-boy lover Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu of Run Lola Run and Munich) decide that direct action is the only effective way to end US involvement in the Vietnam War.
Their extreme actions put them on a collision course with the police, and Meinhof meets Ensslin when she interviews her in jail. Meinhof finds herself becoming convinced that her left-wing journalism maintains the status quo and she flees her husband to join the group in Berlin.
Her decision to join forces with Ensslin and Baader will change the course of West German, and indeed world, history.
The film records the downward moral trajectory of the RAF once it commits to violence, starting with burning buildings and, as a second and third generation more ruthlessly murderous than the first take up the struggle, progressing to a reckless lack of concern for the lives of civilians.
A hell of a lot happens: this economical film takes us from graphic scenes of a burning department store and a bank hold-up, to the 1977 hijacking of a Lufthansa passenger plane to force the release of RAF prisoners. The film is important for the patience and attention to detail with which it builds the story of this extraordinary time. It’s a graphically violent film, but the violence is there to underline the effects of the RAF’s tactics. It also reveals the roots of current terrorist actions.
These events are still an emotional and political minefield for German victims and the society as a whole, and the filmmakers have tried to be objective. The film plays out in semi-documentary style with a large amount of historical detail, with the violence ramping up to the point where catastrophe is piled on catastrophe.
In such a setting the attempt to offer psychological explanations for the motivations of the protagonists doesn’t always work. Bleibtreu’s character is the most successful; he plays Andreas as the childish, impulsive egocentric he seems to have been, prone to tantrums and as much masculinist rebel without a cause as he is committed revolutionary. Ensslin might appear a tad two-dimensional, but the film suggests that her rock-solid certainties come at least partly from the influence of her pastor father, who was as committed to human rights as he was to God.
Ulrike Meinhof is a more complex character and the film strains to make us understand how, with a solid career and a more settled life, she so quickly makes the switch from objective journalist to oddly disengaged participant. Although Gedeck skilfully portrays a woman who seems to have been opaque anyway, there wasn’t quite enough material for me to fully understand her motivations.
In some ways the film reminded me of Good Morning, Night, about the communist Red Brigades in Italy and their 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, president of the conservative Christian Democratic Party. But the aims of each film couldn’t be more different. Good Morning, Night doesn’t attempt to achieve historical objectivity; it’s much more interested in imagining the inner lives of the terrorists.
But my comparison may be superficial for other reasons. Both films conjure up another era that is seductive to us in both its similarities to and differences from our own. The Baader Meinhof Complex is impressive for its evocation of 1960s and 70s insouciance and rebel chic. The film deftly contrasts images, fashions, pop culture and superficially bohemian lifestyles of this time with the deadly conflicts being played out.
The presence of veteran actor Bruno Ganz as the police chief who seeks to understand the motivations of the terrorists conventionalises the film somewhat, bringing it towards a more sophisticated version of the good-versus-evil crime film genre. But he’s also there to humanise officialdom, and here it becomes rather odd and ironic that this kindly faced man played Hitler in The Downfall: we are still human beings, the film seems to be saying, no matter the evil we do.
Indeed the film maps out the genuine and sometimes extraordinary softening of officialdom and politics that occurred in the 1970s in many parts of the Western world. This was a time when governments negotiated with terrorists and some of the community even supported them: amazingly, at one point, one in four young people supported the RAF. And when left-winger Willy Brandt became chancellor of West Germany he acceded to some of the demands of the disaffected students.
This is also pertinent to the treatment of the RAF members once they were caught, both in prison and at their trial. We witness extremes of physical privation and comfort – they firstly suffer brutal force feeding and solitary confinement in cells where fluorescent lights are on all the time but, in the wake of their demands and community outrage, are allowed to mingle and visit each other’s large, comfortable cells as they prepare for their trial. Like other films that deal with the 1970s, I’m struck by how brief the swing to genuine permissiveness was, and how far the pendulum’s swung back.
Although you don’t need a full understanding of the era to appreciate the film, the sheer scale of events leaves many questions unanswered. I wanted to know more about the assassination victims: were some of them Nazi sympathisers? Were they the organs of a repressive state, or trying to uphold the institutions of a fragile democracy? Why did the advent of 1970s radical feminism, with its calls to separatism and non-violent direct action, appear to have had no impact on the RAF women?
But I think I’m being picky. The larger sweep of the film is about the unleashing of evil. Evil begets evil, no matter what your intentions. When you choose violent means, the cycle continues – this applies to the state, of course, as well as individuals. And indeed, the ultimate result of the RAF violence was to make West Germany a more repressive state in the name of national security.
The dramatic first scene, where well meaning protesters are cruelly bashed by police and Shah sympathisers, conjures up Russell Crowe in Gladiator as he prepares to lead Roman cavalry down a hill to defeat the waiting barbarians. ‘Unleash hell!’ he roars to his men.
And they do.
Verdict: an essential film for anyone interested in the recent history of the West