Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the arts (3)

This should be my last post on Mr Haskell’s survey of the arts in Australia, and it focuses on Radio and the Movies. First though, in his section on literature, he talked about Australian readers and bookselling. He wrote that the average Australian “is a great reader; more books are bought per head of population in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else in the English-speaking world”. He admires Australian booksellers who can’t quickly acquire the latest success. So, “they buy with courage and are true bookmen in a sense that is becoming rare in this [i.e. England] country.”

I believe Australians are still among the top book-buying nations, per capita, but I couldn’t find any supporting stats, so I may be making this up! However, I did love his commendation of the booksellers of the time, and his sense of their being “true bookmen” (as against their peers in England). He certainly wasn’t one to look down on the colonials!

“an admirable institution”

He writes about the “admirable” ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). He recognises that wireless has become a necessity “in a country of wide open space” because it is, for many, “the only form of contact with the world”. He says the ABC “supplies much excellent music, and at the same time appeals to the man-in-the-street through its inspired cricket and racing reports”. You all know how much I like the ABC.

BUT radio is a vice too, he says, when it is left on all day “in every small hotel, seldom properly tuned and dripping forth music like a leaky tap”. He is mainly referring here to commercial broadcasting which he describes as “assaulting popular taste by their dreary programmes of gramophone records and blood-and-thunder serials … Unlike America, they cannot afford to sponsor worthwhile programmes”. Hmm, my old friends at National Film and Sound Archive might disagree given Australia’s large and by all accounts successful radio serial industry, though perhaps much of this occurred from the mid 1940s on – i.e. after Haskell did his research.

“isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

Haskell has a bit to say about Australians’ love of cinema, with “the consumption per head being greater than anywhere else”. Film theatres are “the largest and most luxurious buildings” in Australian cities, but

the films shown are the usual Hollywood productions. There is as yet no public for French or unusual films.

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Australian films are being made, he said, “in small quantities” but are “not yet good enough to compete in the open market.” He is surprised that given Australia’s “natural advantages”, it had “produced so little in a medium that would encourage both trade and travel”. He goes on to describe how much people knew about America through its films -“we have seen cowboys, Indians, army, navy, civil war and Abraham Lincoln”. He suggests that Australia had just as interesting stories to tell and places to explore:

What of the Melbourne Cup, life on the stations, the kangaroos, the koala bear, the aboriginal, the romance of the Barrier Reef and the tropical splendour of the interior, the giant crocodiles of Queensland? What f the early history, as colourful as anything in America? isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

He suggests that films could do more for Australia in a year than his book, and yet, he says it seems “easier and safer to import entertainment by the mile in tin cans and to export nothing”!

He makes some valid points but he doesn’t recognise that Australia produced, arguably, the world’s first feature film, back in 1906, The story of the Kelly Gang – yes, about Ned Kelly.  It was successful in Britain, and pioneered a whole genre of bushranging films that were successful in Australian through the silent era. Three more Kelly films were made before Haskell visited Australia – but films were pretty ephemeral, and he clearly didn’t know of them.

At the time he researched and wrote this book, 1938 to 1940, there was still an active film industry. Cinesound Productions produced many films under Ken G Hall from 1931 to 1940, and Charles Chauvel made several films from the 1930s to 1950s, but the war years were lean times, and it was in those early years that Haskell did his research. It’s probably also true that then, as unfortunately still now, Australians were more likely to flock to overseas (that is, American, primarily) productions than their own.

Anyhow, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little historical survey of an outsider’s view of Australia as much as I have – though I guess it’s all rather irrelevant, and even self-indulgent, if you’re not Australian! Apologies for that!

Sue Milliken, Selective memory: A life in film (Review)

Sue Milliken, Selective memory

(Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers)

Funny how things go sometimes. I may not have read Sue Milliken’s memoir, Selective memory, had the publisher, Hybrid Publishers, not noticed my rather particular interest in film via my recent review of Margaret Rose Stringer’s And then like my dreams. I’m glad they did because this book took me down memory lane …

Sue Milliken is a name well-known to me through my career as a librarian-archivist working with film and television. Her career as a film producer started in the same decade, 1970s, that my career started (albeit mine towards the end of the decade). Consequently, I enjoyed her memoir. She writes in her author’s note at the beginning that she had intermittently kept a diary, that

as the dramas around me escalated, I found myself given to recording the day’s events. They form the basis for this work.

She acknowledges that other participants “may have widely varying memories and opinions of the same events”. This is obvious, really, but probably a wise point to make when writing about an industry high in emotion and ego. Never hurts to cover yourself! And Milliken, while I suspect she has been quite circumspect in places, is rather honest in this book. She’s not afraid to let her feelings be known about certain people, such as the former wife of Barry Humphries, Diane Milstead. Diane and I, she writes, “quickly grew to loathe each other”. Admittedly, they were working on a disastrous film, Les Patterson Saves the World. How, she asks, “do you tell the funniest man in Australia that he’s not funny?” They tried, she says, and some changes were made, but “the train had left the station and we were along for the ride”. There are many such moments in the book. One that made me laugh relates to her decision to not let on to a large group of her peers that her current production, Total Recall, was going belly-up:

Anything was preferable to telling 200 industry schadenfreudeists at the conference, here are the sets but the movie has just been cancelled.

Australian director Bruce Beresford, who has made three films with Milliken, writes in the introduction that this is “a forthright and witty account”. He’s right about that.

Milliken tells her story pretty much chronologically, and focuses primarily on her work, with occasional references to her personal life. I must say that, being a typical voyeuristic reader, I’m usually interested in people’s lives, but the snippets included here sometimes felt like items from the cutting room floor. That is, they seemed to be just popped in, perhaps because that’s how they appeared in her diaries, or perhaps because they showed that she did have a life too! I enjoyed it all, but in terms of coherence, I’m not sure these little asides were necessary. What was necessary, though, was her insider’s insight into some of the most important decades in Australia’s film history.

Her main role in the industry has been as a producer; she has produced many major Australian feature films, including The Fringe-dwellersBlack Robe, Sirens, Paradise Road. However, Milliken has also worked as a film guarantor and a film censor, and held significant positions in the industry such as Chair of the Australian Film Commission, a board member of ScreenWest, and president of the Screen Producers’ Association of Australia. As you can imagine there’s a lot of politics behind these organisations, and she has many times been at the centre of them. She chronicles it all clearly but lightly, not bogging us down in excessive detail, but getting the salient points across.

But now, I’m going to go subjective, and pick out a few points in the book that have particular interest for me. The first relates to the film, The Fringe Dwellers (1987). Adapted from a novel by Nene Gare, it’s about an indigenous Australian family living on the fringe of an Australian country town. It was a moving and confronting movie, but of course it was made by white Australians from a book by a white Australian. Having recently discussed this contentious issue in a post, I was not surprised to read that there was criticism “from young Aboriginal activists who disapproved of white filmmakers telling a story about Aboriginal people, and of the story itself which was written by a white writer”. Milliken agrees that they had a point, though she also notes the positive aspects of the process – work for indigenous Australians, and increased understanding of indigenous issues for her, the cast and crew (and, hopefully, for the audiences). In 2008, Milliken was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for, among other things, support and encouragement of indigenous filmmakers. This is not to ignore the problem, but it indicates goodwill and intentions on Milliken’s part.

Another relates to Paradise Road (1997), the film of which she’s the most proud. I smiled when she discussed the casting. Its ensemble cast includes many significant actors such as Glenn Close and Frances McDormand. I happened at the time to know a good friend of the director, Bruce Beresford, and this friend and I were chuffed that Beresford (who, I believe, was also chuffed) had managed to get Jennifer Ehle for the cast. Ehle was, of course, the gorgeous Lizzie Bennet in the famous Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice (1995). It’s always bothered me that Ehle has never got the recognition she deserved for that role, all because of the fawning, which I totally understand mind you, over Firth. Anyhow, what amused me was that while my colleague and I were thrilled about Ehle, Milliken was fighting to get another, still largely unknown, actor for the film – Cate Blanchett! It was, I gather, her first feature film.

The third film I want to mention is one that hasn’t been made, The Women in Black, from the book by Madeleine St John (my review). As I’ve mentioned before, Bruce Beresford was very taken with the book and wanted to make the movie. It was Milliken he approached. She agreed that it would “make a charming film” and writes “we set about acquiring the rights”. At the completion of Paradise Road, it became the film she most wanted to do but financing “proved elusive”. It is apparently still proving to be so!

Milliken’s memory may be selective, and she may not have told every story worth telling, but this is a good read, not just for those interested in Australian film history but for anyone interested how films are made, particularly from a producer’s point of view. 

awwchallenge2014Sue Milliken
Selective memory: A life in film
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers
ISBN: 9781921665875

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)

Margaret Rose Stringer, And then like my dreams (Review)

Margaret Rose Stringer, And then like my dreams

Courtesy: Fremantle Press

I was, I have to admit, predisposed to like Margaret Rose Stringer’s memoir, And then like my dreams, before I opened the cover. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed, but not, as it turned out, for the reason I expected. Here’s why. Margaret Rose Stringer once worked as a continuity girl in the Australian film industry and she was married to stillsman (film stills photographer), Chic (Charles) Stringer. I spent many years of my career working with film stills, and I loved it. I was therefore looking forward to hearing an insider’s story. However, the book didn’t really spend a lot of time on industry talk, but Stringer is such an engaging writer that I didn’t care because, by the time I realised it, I was fully invested in her story about the love of her life.

“The love of her life”. This could suggest something rather schmaltzy but while Stringer is totally one-eyed about CS, as she calls her late husband, this is not a schmaltzy book, not really, not despite frequent adulatory proclamations of love. Part love-story, part grief-memoir, the book works because of Stringer herself – her honesty and her writing style. I don’t make a practice of reading about grief. However, over the years I have read Isabel Allende’s Paula (1994), Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (2005), and Marion Halligan’s autobiographical novel, The fog garden (2001), and haven’t regretted any of them. Of course, Didion, Allende and Halligan were all established writers when they wrote about their grief, whereas Stringer was not.

But, she could have been, because this book has a fresh, lively style despite its subject matter. In fact, I did say it was only part grief-memoir: while we are told in the first chapter – one-page long and simply titled “All of it” – that she met Chic Stringer when she was 31 years old and that he died 31 years later, much of the book is about these 31 years, of which only the last couple encompassed his dying. Theirs was, it seems, the perfect love story. Stringer briefly describes her childhood, particularly her difficult relationship with her mother, then her undirected, rather wild and unsettled early adulthood in which she was dogged by anxiety, panic attacks and clinical depression. She discovered late in her much-loved father’s life that he too suffered but apparently, while he recognised that Stringer, the fourth of five daughters, was similarly afflicted, he did not have the wisdom or knowledge to effectively help her. Chic, though, did – through love, patience and tolerance. Stringer visualises their relationship as a “truth tree” with the trunk comprising the fundamental fact that:

Chic really, really wanted and needed to look after me; and I really, really wanted and needed him to do it.

My feminist self was a little taken aback by this, but it became clear that Stringer is not, as this might suggest, submissive so much as in need of love and nurturing, which Chic provides. In fact she says:

The point is that I didn’t simply go along with  everything Chic wanted, because I loved him. Nono! – I retained my behavioural traits, because they were mine and they comprised me, even if they were less than totally attractive and desirable as traits go. After all, it was me he loved – not some paragon ….

She could, she said, be stroppy and unreasonable, and he could be bossy, but they made it work. I did feel she was a little too self-deprecating, too willing to put herself down at times, but she’s so thoroughly genuine that these niggles subsided.

Most of the book is about their life together: their work, particularly in the film industry and then the video production business they established when long-sightedness forced Chic out of his career; their various homes, including the one Chic built on Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury River; and their European travels, with some lovely stories about their passion for Placido Domingo. She refers us to their site European Travels with a Spouse for further information on their trips because, as she was reminded by her advisers, she was not writing a travel diary! Chic’s dying and her subsequent grief occupies only a small proportion of the whole.

What makes this memoir especially engaging is the style. Firstly, there’s her friendly, open voice. And then there are the quirky features, one of which is the use of script form to convey key scenes. Most of the book is written in first person, as you would expect, but these script scenes are written in third person. They relieve the intensity of the book and are, in fact, a little whimsical even when the point she wants to convey is serious. It’s the reverse what of Francesca Rendle-Short did in her fictional memoir Bite your tongue which she wrote primarily in the third person, using another name for herself, but occasionally inserted some first person commentary. For her, writing in third person enabled a distancing from the emotional intensity of a story she found “hard to tell”, whereas Stringer often uses these third person scenes to make an emotional point. Or, sometimes, just to tell a funny story. Stringer also uses footnotes entertainingly; she openly discusses the advice she received about memoir writing; and she tells her story through mostly short chapters with inspired titles like “Crust (Daily)”,  “Joy”, and  the ironic “Silver Tongue” in which she discusses Chic’s dislike of her “coarse utterance”.

Stringer is, of course, particularly moving when describing her grief, from her initial denial, through the last months of caring for a terminally ill partner, to feelings of “utter confusion” and madness afterwards. Joan Didion also wrote in her memoir of the mad – aka magical – thinking that attends grief. Stringer, in her inimitable style, is more direct and writes of her “mad-soup” brain.

Late in the book, Stringer says that part of her reason for writing was “to travel all the roads and pathways and sidealleys leading to and from grief”. She has achieved that, and more, because what she has written is a sad yet humorous, and ultimately wise book about the most meaningful thing in our lives – love.

awwchallenge2014Margaret Rose Stringer
And then like my dreams: A memoir
Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781922089021

(Review copy supplied by Fremantle Press)

Satellite Boy (Movie review)

It’s disappointing to say the least that the new Australian film, Satellite Boy, is in very limited distribution. It was released 10 days ago, and in my city, with 6 cinema complexes, it is screening in only one. Why? It’s rather an indictment of Australian audiences that such a film is not receiving wider distribution.

Off the soapbox, now, and onto the film. Satellite Boy tells the story of Pete (Cameron Wallaby), who’s around 11 years old and who lives in an abandoned, derelict drive-in cinema on the edge of town with his grandfather, Old Jagamarra (David Gulpilil). His mother has left, but Pete is expecting her back to carry out their plan of turning the cinema into a restaurant. Meanwhile, Old Jagamarra and Pete learn that the land is to be taken over by a mining company, so Pete sets off, on bike, with his friend Kalmain (Joseph Pedley), to change the mining company’s mind. Shortly into what is supposed to be a 2-day ride, they end up on foot, walking through some pretty forbidding country. Pete confidently says to Kalmain:

If you walk country, country will look after you.

East Kimberley landscape

Between Wyndham and Kununurra

Of course, it’s not that simple. The Australian outback is a harsh place, and while indigenous Australians have traditionally lived in it, we know that Pete has not yet learnt enough to survive.  “I’m sick of your stories” he mutters at the beginning of the film as his grandfather tries to pass on knowledge. However, as indigenous director Catriona Mackenzie has said in interviews, Satellite Boy is not a realistic film.

This is an important point because, from a realism point of view, the film has holes. Firstly, for those who like accuracy in fiction, the story’s geography is out of whack. You don’t for example, travel to Kununurra from Wyndham via Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles) National Park. But then the destination is never named, so the geography only fails if you know the region. Not naming places helps McKenzie, who also wrote the script, give the film a mythic or fabular tone – and enables her to focus on country rather than place. The other “hole” is that the film does not confront, with any depth, the conflict between old and new, or the likely ramifications of Pete’s choice. Despite some hints of cultural conflict and dysfunction, particularly in Kalmain’s family, it’s not a gritty film, like, say, Samson and Delilah (my review).

Purnululu (The Bungle Bungles)

Walking in Purnululu (aka The Bungle Bungles)

And so, of course, Pete and Kalmain do make it through, albeit with some scary moments, particularly for Kalmain who doesn’t quite have Pete’s faith or knowledge (or the guiding spirit of a grandfather). Most of the film concerns their journey, which buys into both the picaresque tradition, and the “lost child” motif I’ve written about before. As the boys start to lose their way, moving deeper and deeper into forbidding landscape without food or water, the camera cuts between Pete trying to put into practice his grandfather’s lessons and Old Jagamarra, worrying, and willing them on.

At its heart, the film is a coming-of-age story, indigenous-style. It is about a young man learning about country and having to decide what it means for him. Catriona McKenzie said that

the notion of country from an Aboriginal perspective is that it supports your spirit. It sustains you on a spiritual level, as well as a physical one if you have that understanding. That’s what I was going for.

And is, I think, what she achieved.

I loved David Bridie’s music. It’s evocative and engaging, sometimes playfully toe-tapping as when the boys set off on their journey, other times moodily spiritual as when Old Jagamarra appeals to the sky spirits/ancestors to bring the boys home. That the sky and the Milky Way are important to indigenous Australians’ belief system is made clear in the film’s opening when Old Jagamara sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in language. This significance is reinforced when, a little later, the camera looks up from Pete’s bed to show us the ceiling decorated with star stickers – and again when, during their journey, the boys sleep in a satellite dish cradled between land and sky.

It’s a beautiful film, though also a slow one, which may be one reason why distribution is limited. Mr Gums felt the landscape photography was self-indulgent at times but, given the theme, I felt it was (mostly, anyhow) justified. The performances from the three main characters are excellent – Gulpilil is luminous, and newcomers Wallaby and Pedley are convincing.

The film was shown last year at Toronto International Film Festival. I wonder what that audience made of it. For me, it adds another perspective to the indigenous films that we are starting to see – not as tough as Samson and Delilah, not as joyful as Bran Nue Dae, but nonetheless thoughtful and relevant.

Satellite Boy
Dir: Catriona McKenzie
Prod: Satellite Films, 2012

Goddess (Movie review)

Will I, won’t I, will I, won’t I, has been running around my head over the last week since I saw the recent Australian movie Goddess. In the end I’ve decided, obviously, that I will – will, that is, write a post on it because I do like to raise a little awareness about Australia’s film industry.

Cradle Mountain

Beautiful Tasmania

Whether you like Goddess depends a bit, I think, on your expectations. If you expect a fun romcom you are likely to enjoy it. If, however, you expect a sociological analysis of celebrity culture in the 21st century, as I half-expected based on the line or two advance summary that I’d read, you may not like it. Fortunately for me, my expectations changed to the “right” ones in the opening scene. The film opens with an homage to the film version of The Sound of Music with our heroine standing, arms spread wide, on a high green hill surrounded by mountains in gorgeous Tasmania and ready, we think, to burst into song. She appears to think so too, except she suddenly spies her toddler twins, halfway down the hill, about to chomp into a cowpat  … all thoughts of singing immediately fly out of her head and the film’s tone is established!

Goddess is both romcom and musical comedy. It was adapted from a stage play titled Sinksongs which was written and performed by Joanna Weinberg. The plot concerns a young couple – Elspeth and James – who have moved to Tasmania with their twin toddler sons so that James can follow his dream of protecting and researching whales. The couple have a deal. James will follow his dream until the boys start school, and then he will take over prime childcare while Elspeth has a go at her career which is singing. The trouble is that Elspeth finds life in rural Tasmania with demanding (albeit cute) toddlers and a mostly absent husband a harder “deal” than she’d expected. She receives no support from the local mums (played by comedian Corinne Grant, Pia Miranda, and two others) who do not welcome her into their group. To assuage Elspeth’s loneliness, James buys her a webcam suggesting they can stay in contact that way. Unfortunately, probably due to poor reception out there in the southern Pacific (!), Elspeth can’t raise James but, she suddenly realises, she can put the webcam to another use. She can sing her life to a cybercrowd – and so begin her “sinksongs” performed, yep, from the kitchen sink. The inevitable happens of course. She becomes famous around the world. We see people everywhere tuning in to watch her sing, including, eventually, the local mums. I won’t detail the plot further as you can probably guess its course … one requiring her, in the end, to work out her fame-family priorities.

What makes this movie delightful is not the predictable plot (it is, after all, what it is) but the performances and the music, which ranges from pop to jazz to blues to country to tango. It’s all there as Elspeth is one talented young singing mum. Elspeth is played by someone unknown to me, the English actress Laura Michelle Kelly. She is, not surprisingly, more active in theatre than film. It’s a cliched thing to say, I know, but she lit up the screen with her expressive face, her warmth and her singing-dancing ability. She managed to hit just the right note between vamp and mum, between confidence and uncertainty. James is played sympathetically by Irish pop idol Ronan Keating. Australian comedian Magda Szubanski was entertaining as the “Corporate bitch” Cassandra, while relative newcomer Hugo Johnstone-Burt, from the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television series, convinced as her nervously keen but ultimately sensitive right-hand man.

The plot was a little forced in places and there was the odd slapstick moment that made me cringe. There were also picture-perfect shots of Sydney  – the Bridge and the Opera House – that worked, I suppose, for immigrant Elspeth’s visit to the big smoke but that also seemed rather carefully placed to attract foreign audiences. These, though, were minor aberrations in a movie that saw us leaving the cinema smiling.

I seem to have been writing about romance more than usual lately, which is a bit weird as it’s not really my zone of interest, but I’m not sorry. A little break from the usual never does you any harm does it? If you’d like a change from your usual fare and Goddess comes to a theatre near you, give it a go. It may not be the best movie you see this year, but its joie de vivre is infectious.

Dir. Mark Lamprell
Prod. The Film Company and Wildheart Films, 2013

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie film adaptations (2)

A couple of Monday Musings ago I shared some of my favourite Australian films adapted from novels. Today, it’s the turn of Aussie plays. I’m no expert in adapting works but it seems to me that it would be easier to adapt a play to film than it would be a novel. I wonder if that’s true in reality? Does anyone know?

Anyhow, here are some of my favourite Australian films that had their genesis in theatre:

  • Don’s Party (1976) is one of many plays written by satirist David Williamson that have been adapted to film, and I have enjoyed most of those I’ve seen. I’ve chosen Don’s Party because it was one of the first. The play was written in 1971 and is set during a post-election party held by Don for his Australian Labor Party friends. They expect their party to win but things don’t quite go to plan, and tensions develop. The film was directed by prolific Australian director, Bruce Beresford. It beautifully but rather excruciatingly captures the new educated, socially mobile middle class, their (our!) pretensions and the gap between reality and their dreams.
  • Breaker Morant (1980) is one of my favourite Australian films from our film renaissance of the 1970s to early 80s, partly because I am a bit of a fan of courtroom dramas and this is a good one! The film was adapted from a play (first produced in 1978) by a playwright I don’t know, Kenneth G. Ross, and was directed by Bruce Beresford. (Told you he was prolific!). The subject is the court-martial of Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and two other officers for murders during the Boer War. The film plays to an historical tension between the colonial Aussies and the colonist Brits, as well as to Australians’ reputation for larrikinism or anti-authoritarianism, and it makes a strong anti-war case. It starred Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson – and, writing about it now, makes me want to see it again.
  • Lantana (2001) was adapted from the play, Speaking in tongues, by Andrew Bovell. It’s a tense drama centred around a murder, but it’s less a crime story than an exploration of relationships and trust/betrayal. The film was directed by Ray Lawrence. It has a moody atmosphere and an insistent soundtrack (composed by Paul Kelly) that makes it hard to forget.
  • Blessed (2009) was adapted from the play, Who’s afraid of the working class?, written by Andrew Bovell (again), Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas (author of The Slap) and Irene Vela. The playwrights, with the exception of Vela, also wrote the film script. As I wrote in my review on this blog, it’s a gritty exploration of mothers and their often neglected children.

There are many other Australian films adapted from plays, including several by Williamson, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (from Ray Lawler’s classic play of the same name), and The Sum of Us (from a play by David Stevens, who also wrote the filmscript for Breaker Morant!).

When films are adapted from books, we often know because the books tend to be republished (often with a movie image on its cover). The movies provide a great opportunity for books to get another airing. With plays, though, its a different situation. We don’t, as a rule, read plays and we often don’t know, I suspect, whether a film has been based on a play or not (even if it has the same title).

How often are you aware of the theatrical origin of films you like, and do you have any favourite films that are based on plays?

(BTW, My next post on the topic of adaptations will be on television adaptations.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some favourite Aussie film adaptations (1)

In support of Australia’s National Year of Reading the National Film and Sound Archive is, later this year, holding an exhibition on film adaptations. And that made me think about my favourite film adaptations, which in turn made me think it might be a good Monday Musings topic. So, here I am. This post will focus on films adapted from novels and short stories. I will write other posts in future on adaptations from plays and adaptations for TV.

The Australian film industry, like most, has drawn from novels, plays and stories since its early days. Some of Australia’s best known silent films are adaptations, including The sentimental bloke (1919) (CJ Dennis), On our selection (1920) (Steele Rudd), and For the term of his natural life (1927) (Marcus Clarke). For this post, however, I’ll be focusing on my favourites from the last few decades.

Are you one of those people who refuses to see a film until you’ve read the book? I’m not really, though if it’s a book I’m keen to read I do prefer to read it first. I take a pretty free and easy (wishy-washy, did I hear you say?) approach to film adaptations. That is, I don’t expect them to replicate the work they are based on and am very happy for artistic licence to be taken. Film and Literature are different media and it’s impossible, in my view, for one to replicate the other. This might sound a bit ingenuous, but I’m just not too fussed about getting my knickers in a knot over the issue. I care more about whether I enjoyed the film (and, of course, whether I enjoyed the book).

I have to admit that some (though my no means all) of my favourite Aussie film adaptations are of books or stories I haven’t read or that I read after seeing the film. However, they are still adaptations and they are films I like, so I’m going to list them here (with the work they are based on). Like all lists it’s going to be hard to limit it, but limit it I must, so here goes, in film date order …

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is credited with kickstarting the renaissance of Australian film in the 1970s. It was based on a novel of the same name, by Joan Lindsay. It was quite controversial at the time – not the film itself – but the question of whether it was based on fact or not. It wasn’t! It’s a great story, beautifully filmed by Peter Weir – and has become pretty much an iconic Aussie film.
  • My Brilliant Career (1979) was based on Miles Franklin‘s novel of the same name. It was made during a period when the Australian film industry was dominated by nostalgia (or period drama). When you’re on a good thing, stick to it, and all that … but this film had something special. It spoke to the second wave of feminism in its story of Sybylla who gives up a man to stay true to her dream of being a writer, and it launched the career of pioneering woman film director, Gillian Armstrong.
  • Three dollars (2005) was based on a novel of the same name by Elliot Perlman whose latest novel, The street sweeper, I’ll be reading and reviewing  later this year. I love this film (and book, which is one of those I did read first) because it’s about a man who sticks by his principles, who won’t let corporate greed or urban apathy get in the way of his humanity despite significant cost to himself. And it starred David Wenham (aka the luscious Diver Dan from a favourite television series).
  • Jindabyne (2006) is a bit of a ring-in here because it was based not on an Australian work but on a short story by the American writer, Raymond Carver. The story is titled “So much water so close to home” and has been transplanted to Australia and overlaid with an indigenous theme, but the essential story about men who, on a fishing trip discover a dead (murdered) girl and, rather than hike out to report the death immediately, continue their trip, remains the same. It’s a taut, tight, visually beautiful film about moral responsibility.
  • The eye of the storm (2011) is based on Patrick White’s novel of the same name. White is often described as “unadaptable” – and later this year I plan to write on the saga behind an attempt to make a film of Voss. We are still waiting – though it was adapted for opera, with David Malouf the librettist. Meanwhile, I reckon The eye of the storm effectively shows that White can indeed be adapted to film. The film had an amazingly long run (in my city anyhow) for not-the-best-known book by an author generally regarded as “hard”.

These are just five of many that I’ve seen and enjoyed over the years – I might also have mentioned Bliss, CandyLooking for Alibrandi and Romulus my father, for example – but for all those I’ve seen, I wonder about the ones that haven’t been made. Over the years, we hear books are optioned – like Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, Thea Astley‘s Drylands, Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music – and we wait, and wait, and wait to see them, but they never appear. Given that adaptations can often guarantee an audience (though perhaps less so of literary fiction), it’s surprising to me that so many of our wonderful novels have not yet been adapted. I can only wait and hope…

Meanwhile, do you enjoy film adaptations, and what are your favourites?

Wish You Were Here (Movie Review)

Regular readers here know how I love a novella. It occurred to me that feature films that are shorter than 90 mins could be seen as the cinematic equivalent of novellas. At 89 minutes, the recent Australian movie, Wish You Were Here, reminds me a little of a novella. The story is focused, with no digressions into side stories. In other words, the minor characters are there only to serve the purpose of the main story, and not to have lives or stories of their own. And, like a good novella, it doesn’t slow down in the middle but engages you at the beginning and keeps you involved – and guessing – right to the closing credits.

The basic plot concerns a young woman, Steph, and her new boyfriend, Jeremy, deciding to holiday in Cambodia where he has business (hmmm…) dealings. Steph asks her sister Alice, who is pregnant with her third baby, to come along with husband Dave. Initially resistant, Dave is convinced by Alice to have this final fling before their family expands again.  At the end of the week, Jeremy goes missing and the other three return to Sydney, but there are clearly secrets. Some characters, we suspect, know more than they are letting on. Gradually, through current action and flashbacks, the story comes out, with devastating consequences along the way for those involved.

The film has been billed by some as a “psychological thriller” but I wouldn’t call it that. It didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat, but there is mystery, tension and drama.  The production company, Aquarius Films, describes it as a “psychological drama/mystery”. That’s more like it.

As you’d expect, given its plot-line, the film does play to some familiar stereotypes, that of middle-class white Australians enjoying cheap holidays in SE Asia, complete with alcohol and party drugs, and a hint of that darker story of drug smuggling hovering in the background. These are not, however, the story’s target, so the stereotypes work as background or introduction rather than as the main fare. The main target or theme relates to the decisions you make, the things they set in motion, and how you handle things once started. From these spring those bigger universals of love, commitment and forgiveness. In the film, the first critical decision is that of going to Cambodia, and it is followed by some stupid and terrible decisions and actions taken while there. These set in motion behaviours and further decisions that threaten to pull apart what was nicely and economically established at the beginning to be a stable and happy marriage. But, I won’t be more explicit than this to avoid spoilers.

Instead I’ll talk a little about the production. Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Felicity Price), the two main characters, are convincing and sympathetic (even when you want to give them a shake!) – and their two very young children played by Isabelle Austin-Boyd and Otto Page are stunningly natural. I was intrigued to notice that Felicity Price also co-wrote the script with debut director and husband, Kieran Darcy-Smith.

Stylistically speaking, the film uses techniques that seem popular now: fast cutting, a handheld camera look, and shifting focus. The fast cutting approach worked well to convey the colour and action of a SE Asian holiday. It also helped build up the tension as the implications of what happened started to tell on and derail the characters and their relationships. You do have to concentrate, however, to make sure you don’t miss a step in the narrative sequence or a clue to what is going on. I’m not quite so enamoured, though, of the shifting focus – just as I wasn’t in The Hunter. I was rarely convinced that it made a difference to the impact of the scenes in which it’s used – but maybe that’s just me.

Wish You Were Here was premiered at Sundance this year which is, in itself, a recommendation. And while it didn’t, for me, have quite the punch of Animal Kingdom (which came out of the same Blue Tongue Films stable), its considered exploration of the ramifications of making morally poor (and poor moral!) decisions make it a challenging and engrossing movie. Good novella, this film!

Monday musings on Australian literature: the AWGIES (for film)

Last week I finally saw the (excellent) film adaptation of Patrick White‘s The eye of the storm (which I may – or may not – separately blog about). I was intrigued to notice that the scriptwriter was one-time actor, Judy Morris, and this reminded me of the AWGIE awards.

The AWGIES are annual awards organised by the Australian Writers’ Guild. They recognise excellence in screen, television, stage and radio writing. I want to post about them because so often the scriptwriter is forgotten when films are spoken of – we talk most of the directors and the stars, and sometimes of the producers and cinematographers, but far less frequently of the scriptwriter. And yet filmmaking is truly a team activity and the script is a critical component. Scriptwriters are recognised, I know, in other awards – the Oscars, BAFTA, AFI etc – but the AWGIES are devoted to them.

The AWGIES have multiple categories, grouped under Film, Television, Stage, to name some – and they now have one for Interactive Media too. For Feature Film there are two main categories, though they aren’t always both awarded: Original and Adaptation. The awards have been going since 1967 – too long for me to list all the winners – so, yes, as usual, I will pick out some that particularly interest me!

Currency Press

In the 2011 awards, Currency Press won the Dorothy Crawford Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Profession. Established in 1971, Currency Press is a specialist performing arts publisher and, apparently, Australia’s oldest still active independent publisher. They are the first place you look (in Australia) if you want a published screenplay, but they also publish more widely in the performing arts arena. And they are, of course, a member of SPUNC, about which I wrote some months ago. Go small publishers!

Christos Tsiolkas

Like many writers, Tsiolkas (of The slap fame) doesn’t only write novels, though they are his main claim to fame. He has, in fact, won two AWGIES. The first was in 1999, for being co-writer of a stage play, Who’s afraid of the middle class? His second was in 2009, again as a co-writer, for the multi-story feature film, Blessed. It’s not hard to see Tsiolkas’ hand in this film which confronts us with the challenges of mothering from multiple angles. It’s gritty, but sympathetic rather than judgemental.

Luke Davies

Davies is another contemporary Australian novelist who tends to confront the seamier side of life. He’s also an award-winning poet and a screenwriter, and he won an AWGIE in 2006 for his feature film adaptation of his own (somewhat autobiographical) novel, Candy. Candy was one of Heath Ledger‘s last films and explores the world of a couple caught up in heroin addiction. I have seen the film, but have yet to read any of Davies’ work, something I must do.

David Williamson

It would be impossible to write about the AWGIEs without mentioning the prolific David Williamson. Primarily a playwright, he has also adapted many of his plays for film, and has won multiple AWGIEs for both his plays and his screen adaptations. His film AWGIEs include adaptations of his own plays, The removalists (1972), Travelling north (1988) and Emerald City (1989). He also won an AWGIE for an original screenplay, for the (now classic Australian) film Gallipoli (1981) on which he collaborated with the director Peter Weir. Williamson’s work tends to be satirical, and he has targeted most things that make up contemporary Australia, including football, party politics, the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry, university ethics and the police force.

Helen Garner

And now, just because I can, I’m going to include Helen Garner, who not only writes novels, short stories, literary non-fiction, and essays/articles, but also screenplays. She hasn’t won an AWGIE but she’s sure to have been considered because the films based on her scripts have all been well-reviewed (and won or been nominated for other awards). She adapted her own novel, Monkey Grip, for film, and she has written two original screenplays, Two Friends and The Last Days of Chez Nous (for which she was nominated for an AFI award). Two Friends is particularly interesting. It’s a teleplay directed by Jane Campion, and was shown in the Un certain regard section at Cannes in 1986. I like its narrative structure, which starts in the present, when the two friends had drifted apart, and moves backwards to the beginning of their friendship. If you know Campion and Garner, you have an idea of what a perceptive little treasure this feature film is.

At the bottom (currently anyhow) of the Australian Writers’ Guild website is a quote from Tom Stoppard. I like it and think you might too:

Words are sacred… If you get the right ones in the right order you can nudge the world a little. (Tom Stoppard)

How often do you think of the scriptwriters of the movies you like – or don’t like?

Vale Sarah Watt

Non-Australians may not be aware of Sarah Watt, unless they are interested in Australian film. Sarah Watt is an animator-writer-photographer-film director who made a small number of well-reviewed films, one of which, My year without sex, I reviewed on this blog.

Sarah (aged 53) died on Friday from secondary bone cancer (diagnosed in 2009), having been originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. Just before her first diagnosis, she made the award-winning film Look both ways (2005) which gorgeously incorporated animation into live action to tell a story about a man (played by her husband William McInnes) coping with a cancer diagnosis. It’s a clever, whimsical, sad (but prescient) film about ordinary lives in an ordinary suburb. Ten years earlier, she had made the film which brought her to public attention: a short animated film called Small treasures (1995) about the loss of a baby during birth, something Sarah and William experienced. It won a short film award at the Venice Film Festival in 1995 – and gave us a sense of what she was about.

In an interview some years ago Sarah wrote of her work, that

I probably make films that are autobiographical more because I think they make better stories because they’re real and therefore more likely to, sort of, touch other people and pull other people into the story and into the drama  … When I go and see films or look at paintings or whatever, I want to be moved and touched and, and usually it’s coming from something personal in the, in the artist, so, that’s why I probably raid my own life a bit to, to make films.

If you haven’t seen a Sarah Watt film, do yourself a favour and go hire one. I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed.

In a recent interview about their jointly written (amazingly titled) book Worse things happen at sea (2011), William paid tribute to Sarah and all those who struggle with cancer. They are, he said, the bravest people I know. I think he’s right.

Vale Sarah … we’ll miss your humour, humanity and beautiful work.