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By Niki Aken
When I was in primary school, the school prefect told me that all the boys had ranked the attractiveness of the Year Six girls. My best friend and I had tied first. I wasn’t flattered, but it’s not because I took issue with being objectified (at that age). I simply didn’t believe what he was telling me. And why was that?
I may have been a studious, athletic House Captain, but in so many ways I felt inferior growing up Asian in Australia. The screen stories I devoured as a kid all featured white faces. Not Asian faces like mine. Television, film (and later, magazines) taught me that blonde and brunette girls with fair skin were beautiful. The romantic leads on TV didn’t fight over a raven-haired girl with olive skin. It was never the ethnic character who went on an inspiring journey; they were only ever cast in the support role– as the sidekick or the prop. Such was the power of having only ever seen guys fall for quintessentially Australian-looking girls, that I was 100 per cent sure the school prefect was using his hot-or-not survey to mess with me.
Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature.
Then along came a television program that included multicultural faces in lead roles: Heartbreak High. Is it corny that I credit a TV show for making me feel more visible and accepted? Maybe, but it’s also testament to the power of the television medium and the quality of Heartbreak High as a text.
Heartbreak High is a teenage drama set in a multiracial, eastern Sydney community that spanned six seasons from 1994 to 1999. Produced by Gannon Television, it was first broadcast on Network Ten in 45-minute chunks. Later the ABC picked it up and reformatted the show to 25-minutes. Set at fictional school Hartley High, the series was a spin-off of the 1993 feature film The Heartbreak Kid (which starred Claudia Karvan and then newcomer Alex Dimitriades), which was also set in an ethnically diverse inner city area. The word “gritty” has become an unwelcome adjective in Australian film and television discourse, but in the early 1990s it was a welcome change – especially in this genre. Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature. In fact, it resembled the Canadian teen drama Degrassi Junior High more than it did our own teen programs like Neighbours and Home and Away.
We’re introduced to the world through Nick Poulos (Alex Dimitriades) who is the central character in series one. His Italian-Greek cousin Con (Salvatore Coco) picks him up, and we meet their friends when they get to school. There’s Rose (Katherine Halliday), a Lebanese girl who runs the student newspaper, sporty Danielle (Emma Roche) and her boyfriend Steve (Corey Page), and Chaka (Isabella Gutierrez) and Jack (Tai Nguyen), who are Salvadoran and Vietnamese, respectively. Rivers (Scott Major) and Bolton (Jon Pollard) play two disruptive students, and new girl Jodie is played by Abi Tucker.
Heartbreak High covers a range of themes pertinent to teenagers including racism, sexism, homophobia, drug use and sexuality. In the third episode of season one, teacher Christina Milano (Sarah Lambert) decides to create an official school soccer team. This becomes a vehicle in which to explore issues of race and gender identity. Rivers thinks Aussie rules is superior to soccer and taunts Con and Nick in class, “We don’t want wog ball, this is an Aussie school.” It’s clear that Rivers is having a go at them based on their heritage.
When Danielle says she wants to try out for the new soccer team, she cops it too. Her boyfriend Steve tries to talk her out of it on the grounds of it being a rough game– he doesn’t want her getting hurt. But the blatant message from the rest of the boys is that she’d never make the cut anyway because she’s a girl. They tell her to play netball instead. “Girls play soccer!” she exclaims. Rather than Danni being let in as the token female, she proves her chops in the tryout and becomes the team goalie. This plot strand tackles issues of racism and sexism whilst highlighting values that are typically Australian. “I want a fair go,” Danielle insists before her tryout. While putting second-generation Australians front and centre, Heartbreak High simultaneously grounded itself with Aussie values. The students are unpretentious, hard-working and irreverent.
It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires.
Heartbreak High tackled some daring topics like teen pregnancy, drug use and homophobia, but the creators were always mindful of the age of their audience. Executive producer Ben Gannon, who sadly passed away in 2007, explained in an interview, “… we tried to show how those issues can affect your life, rather than making it seem somehow glamorous or something to emulate.” But there’s always the risk of becoming too didactic. “That’s a real turn off for a younger audience. We had to continually think about that.”
Social issues were explored through multiple story strands, and while the teachers got dedicated screentime, their stories were always borne out of the students’, not the other way around. Heartbreak High may have started out trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, but it grew into a solid teen drama.
The writers interwove teen romances with the issues at hand. In that same soccer team episode, Chaka challenges Rivers to a game of pool, and calls bullshit when he deliberately sinks the white ball instead of the black; she knows that he let her win on purpose. They have a rematch. It’s a close game, but Rivers wins. They shake hands. Chaka hasn’t proved that she’s better at Rivers at pool, but she’s happy that the game was fair this time. Meanwhile, Rivers is falling for the quietly confident Chaka.
Re-watching the show recently, it rankled me to watch a scene from series one, where Jodie desperately needs an amp to record her demo for an A & R exec. She relies on Nick to find her a replacement rather than do anything about it herself. However, in the same episode, Danielle fights for her place on the soccer team. So it’s not like the boys are constantly swooping in to save the day for the girls, it’s more that the characters who are “activated” varies from one episode to the next. The writers did a good job of spreading the hero stories across the cast. It might be Nick and Danielle in one episode and Con and Rose in another.
Stylistically, it’s shot fast and messily, conveying a sense of youthful exuberance– especially so in earlier seasons. Before any heroes are in shot, a boy chases another through a crowded hallway, knocking a stack of papers out of a girl’s arms. You feel like you’re being told that the world can be loud and shambolic, and that’s normal. Heartbreak High used a staggering amount of extras, and that sole element adds so much authenticity; it grounds the show heavily in realism.
The sets aren’t polished and ordered. I longed to be one of the gang at Ruby’s (and later, The Sharkpool), but it wasn’t because it looked like a privileged hangout. There are no grandstands on the oval, just a view of community housing. The students don’t wear expensive-looking sports gear– one kid wears cut-off denim shorts to soccer practice. Not ideal for exercise, but whether it was by accident or design, it sells the idea that he doesn’t have any dedicated sports wear, something many teenagers aren’t often given the opportunity to relate to.
I recently uploaded a photo of the cast ensemble of series one to Facebook. There was an immediate response, friends far and wide revelling in nostalgia. My friend subsequently added a photo of Rel Hunt, who played Ryan from series four onwards. “Seriously thought I was going to marry him,” was her caption. I handed the DVD case to one of my mates, just to gauge his reaction. “Anita…” he said longingly, his one-word response speaking volumes about why ordinary Aussie kids tuned in to Heartbreak High. It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires. After they were introduced in series four, Drazic (Callan Mulvey), Anita (Lara Cox) and Ryan were popular heartthrobs, but every character on the show was in a relationship at some point. They were all portrayed as desirable by virtue of their personalities (notwithstanding the fact that Drazic did for eyebrow rings what Don Draper has done for pomade and cuff links).
It’s true that by the time Heartbreak High moved from Channel 10 to the ABC a significant number of ethnic characters had left. Nick died in a tragic boxing match at the end of series one, Jack scored a scholarship to a selective school, Yola the school counsellor (Doris Younane) fell pregnant to an Australian policeman and also left. Given the premise of the show, the cast had to change lest it become too unrealistic. But it’s worth noting that the tone changed too; it somehow became a bit less raw.
You could argue that diminishing the speaking roles for ethnic characters sends a message to Australian teens as powerful as what the show purportedly set out to achieve. But despite the proportion of ethnic characters changing, Heartbreak High continued to connect with the topic of cultural diversity while it’s contemporaries simply didn’t. This is as relevant as ever today, where reality shows present a truer picture of multicultural Australia than our dramas do. A classroom full of kids who would’ve been deemed ugly ducklings in Summer Bay – kids like me – were validated and celebrated here. Heartbreak High was hugely successful and sold to eighty countries. By casting non-Anglos as normal teenagers in a contemporary setting, Heartbreak High proved that multiculturalism could work on mainstream television.
About Niki Aken: Nicola Aken is a screenwriter based in Sydney, Australia. She got her start in television researching for Underbelly: The Golden Mile, followed by Underbelly: Razor. In 2012, Nicola researched and wrote two episodes of Underbelly: Badness. Mediaweek praised her debut screenplay ‘Troubleshooting’ as “amongst the best the Underbelly franchise has delivered.” Her second script ‘Strike Force Tuno’ was the series finale. Nicola has also written and produced a short film called Poppy, which is a tribute to her university job of cinema projectionist (aka The Coolest Job Ever). It is currently on the festival circuit. Nicola is currently writing for the ABC and Screentime WW1 miniseries Anzac Girls with Felicity Packard. She tweets at @nikiaken and occasionally blogs at nicetruck.tumblr.com.
Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and James Madden explains how Lantana won him over. Briony Kidd loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman, and David Evan Giles explains how Bliss changed his view of Australia. British film critic and sportswriter Scott Jordan Harris defends Aussie soap opera Neighbours, Bradley Dixon heaps praise upon the comedian and writer/director Tony Martin, and Stephen Vagg revisits the classic comedy Dad and Dave Come to Town.
Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ‘Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.
It may come as no surprise that there are more than a few cineastes among the staff here at AFI | AACTA, and for those in our Melbourne office the culmination of this cinephilia comes during the Melbourne International Film Festival – a three-week feast of film from around the globe taking place tantalizingly close to our South Melbourne office.
Attempting to weave as many film sessions as possible in amongst our regular work is a challenge, to be sure, but it’s one that we embrace with open arms and bleary eyes. In this first of a two-part blog mini-series, three of AFI | AACTA’s staff recount their experiences at MIFF 2012.
I am an avid cinema-goer and Australian film enthusiast. I completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Cinema Studies and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2009 and have been working as the Membership Co-ordinator at AFI | AACTA for just over two years. I love voicing my own opinion and engaging in vigorous debates about life, cinema and politics.
What I love most about MIFF is its energy. You can see the dynamism spilling out onto the street as cinephiles and black-clad hipsters queue in groups out the front of Greater Union and The Forum. Unlike some of my committed colleagues, who have attended over 20 screenings, I have seen just nine films in total. Of these nine, two have been outstanding, five good-to-great, and two mediocre.
Not including MIFF’s opening night film The Sapphires, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the documentary Chasing Ice and the Chilean feature NO have been my two highlights of the festival. Chasing Ice is a stunningly beautiful but bone-chilling account of the retreating glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska. It charts the rapid degradation of these extraordinary ice fields through time-lapse photography and real time footage. Director Jeff Orlowski follows National Geographic photographer James Bolag and his team as they conquer unforgiving weather conditions to implement Bolag’s Extreme Ice Survey, which is the first of its kind and provides constant visual documentation of these changing landscapes over an extended period of time. Bolag claims that these exquisite photographs are physical proof of climate change in action. He uses his images to create a tangible pictorial presentation of how quickly global warming is transforming our natural world. It is utterly fascinating and horrifying. I left the cinema feeling bereft but also inspired. I must see these freezing expansive horizons before they disappear completely.
NO recreates the successful “NO” campaign against Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in 1988. Renee Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hip young advertising man, decides to join the NO campaign to the chagrin of his conservative boss. Saavedra and his socialist compatriots cleverly counteract Pinochet’s YES campaign with catchy jingles, bright colours, intelligent slogans, warmth and humour. After weeks of dodging death threats, surveillance and impending violence, the NO team wins the vote with 55 per cent, and Pinochet is removed from power. NO is filmed on two rebuilt U-matic cameras giving it a grainy, washed out effect. Initially I felt a little assaulted by the images’ lack of clarity, but as I got sucked into the film’s intriguing storyline, the more I appreciated its unrefined aesthetic. Interwoven into the film is actual footage from the period. This matching of aesthetic styles means that the integration of footage and film is practically seamless. NO is a rousing film that is filled with hope, ingenuity and passion.
As usual though, the festival has come and gone with a whirl. I have barely stopped for breath and already it is over. Now, I must eagerly await what next year has to offer.
One of the newest additions to the AFI | AACTA clan, I am a web developer, writer and film lover who has been AFI | AACTA’s web coordinator since early 2012. You can find more of my film writings at my seldom updated blog Cinema Quest or follow me on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.
My festival got off to a great start with Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, a film belonging to the “mumblecore” school of new American cinema and the first of 33 sessions I managed to catch. As a person with a big family, it was refreshing to see a film explore sibling relationships that actually felt real – in all their depth and contradictions – and test those relationships with an irreverent sense of humour but with a grounding in truth. Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass each play their character with a relaxed naturalism which at times makes the dialogue feel entirely improvised. Before MIFF I hadn’t even heard of Mark Duplass, but between Your Sister’s Sister and his turn in the indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed he’s shot directly into my “people to watch” list – which, curiously, seems to grow longer every year around MIFF time.
Other highlights included the devastating and lyrical Amour, the Swedish comedy Flicker (a quirky blend of Falling Down and Office Space featuring the only sex scene I can recall taking place under the very real threat of static shock), and the Romanian drama Beyond the Hills, which at first glance seems like a hard slog – 150 minutes of Romanian-language drama set in a convent, anyone? … Anyone? – but has one of the most comically disarming and entirely unexpected finales of any film I’ve seen in years.
On the home front, I was pleasantly surprised by The Sapphires – which is a crowd pleaser if ever there was one – and the Age Critics Award-winning Hail, an ambitious collaboration between Amiel Courtin-Wilson and ex-criminal Daniel P. Jones which threads Brakhage-esque abstraction into an intensely realist rumination on love and death.
But by far the best film I saw was the weird and wonderful Holy Motors from French veteran Leos Carax, his first feature in 13 years. A must-see for any student of cinematic form, Holy Motors is a sublime pronouncement of the vitality of cinema as we steamroll ever closer to a future where artistic creation is as much a product of technology as it is of the spirit. Probably not for the casual viewer, but film buffs and those with open minds will love its demented genius – in particular, an incongruous but delightful interval featuring a lavish piano accordion musical number.
I am the AFI’s Office and Project Coordinator, a role that sees me researching the AFI’s history, processing AACTA Awards entries, writing about upcoming TV and DVD highlights, and many other things.
There are some things that you look forward to every year. There are the usual suspects: Christmas, Easter, and so on. And then there’s the cinematic equivalent of all these joyous occasions wrapped into one, at least if you’re a Melbourne cinephile: MIFF’s program launch. Anticipation over what treasures the festival program will unearth leads into intense study of the program upon release in mid-July. Highlighter in hand, everything that looks interesting / curious / unmisseable is noted down, ordered, and in a complex process of torturous decision-making, finally whittled down to a Mini Pass-compatible list of ten films. After comparing film choices with colleagues (“No one else is going to watch five-and-a-half hours of Bollywood gangster cinema? Fair enough.”), it’s off into the festival’s two weeks.
Even before the launch of the MIFF program, I had already picked my first movie to watch: Takeshi Miike’s adaptation of video game Ace Attorney (yes, I hereby confess to having spent way too much of my youth on video games, so this was pretty exciting news). Since Miike has proven that he can pretty much direct any genre and infuse it with his trademark off-the-wall sensibilities, he seemed like the perfect choice to capture the game’s Anime aesthetic… and maybe even create the best video game adaptation to date! Small praise for a genre that’s given us several Uwe Boll movies and Wing Commander, but Ace Attorney actually does end up a very entertaining film that happily embraces its game and Anime roots and has tons of fun transplanting them the real life setting of a wacky court room/crime thriller movie. Ace Attorney doesn’t have enough madcap energy to turn all of its 130+mins into the wild rollercoaster ride you’d hope for – given the source material and Miike’s pedigree – but I’m happy to pronounce it the new king of the video game movie sub-genre.
Just as wild – only even longer – is Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 & 2, each one running at a whopping 160 minutes. Screening back-to-back at MIFF, it makes for a slightly butt-numbing Bollywood bonanza, but once I leave the cinema after a whole Sunday afternoon has passed, I’m actually glad I watched the whole thing in one go. Gangs of Wasseypur is a gangster film that paints its story on a huge canvas, charting a crime war between several warring factions in the coal mining city of Wasseypur over the course of more than 70 years. There are several dozen characters to keep track of, and the amount of double-crossing and backstabbing (well, shooting) everybody is involved with is head-spinning. Miraculously enough though, it all comes together as one coherent narrative that effortlessly juggles enough storylines for five regular-sized gangster movies, all shot with a keen sense of style that takes inspiration from spaghetti westerns, Peckinpah, and Tarantino-style theatrics. It’s dazzling, ambitious and exhausting.
A different kind of headiness awaits in The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), part of a retrospective of French surrealist Jean Epstein’s oeuvre and my personal “wow” moment at this year’s MIFF. Epstein’s brand of surrealism is a subtle undermining of reality to create an eerie, spectral demi-world that is the perfect visual equation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. It’s a silent film with only a handful of intertitles to tell the skeletal story of Roderick Usher and his dying wife (or is she?), so it’s up to the visuals to fill in the space between the lines. And Epstein proves a master, building a dream-like, otherworldly mood by making full use of the young medium’s range of possibilities. His combined use of slow-motion, superimpositions and deliberate use of improper focus is mesmerising and leaves an indelible mark – one of the many things to take away from MIFF 2012.
Look out for Part 2 of AFI | AACTA Staff go to MIFF, coming shortly.
The Melbourne International Film Festival has a long history of supporting Australian film, and in 2012 the festival again screens a wide variety of local fare in its Australian Showcase stream, from internationally-lauded blockbusters to low budget indies.
And in addition to offering local filmmakers a chance to have their film screened to supportive Australian audiences, MIFF supports the Australian film industry further through its MIFF Premiere Fund, which has financed a diverse range of feature films and documentaries since its inception in 2007.
Australian films will both open and close the festival in 2012, with Wayne Blair’s 1960s-era musical drama/comedy The Sapphires adding a touch of glitz, glamour and soul to the opening night gala last week. A joyous crowd-pleaser all but guaranteed success (after being picked up for international distribution by the Weinstein Company at Cannes), The Sapphires celebrates Aboriginal culture, family bonds and the irrepressible power of soul music with a delightfully sassy script and extravagant production and costume design.
There are dozens of Australian feature films playing at MIFF this year, from introspective dramas to psychotic horror-comedies to Bollywood musicals. Some of these titles are sure to appear in upcoming AACTA Awards seasons. Join us as we profile the Australian features on offer to thousands of eager cinephiles during the Melbourne International Film Festival.
The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 2 to 17 at various locations throughout the Melbourne city centre.
100 Bloody Acres
Reg and Lindsay are having trouble sourcing the “secret ingredient” for their organic fertiliser – human remains sourced from car crash victims. When a trio of young music festival-goers find themselves stranded at their front door, the two businessmen have a devious idea – but struggle to bring themselves to go through with it.
One for the schlock fans, 100 Bloody Acres is produced by Julie Ryan (RED DOG) and Kate Croser, with Damon Herriman, Anna McGahan, John Jarratt and Angus Sampson adding a touch of crackle to the cast of this grisly, comedic horror flick. They’re not psycho killers… they’re just small business owners.
The first feature-length film by New Zealand-born filmmaker Miro Bilbrough follows the eponymous Venice (Alice McConnell) as one man leaves her life and another re-enters it. The former – her boyfriend – announces that he needs some space and promptly leaves the house they share, while the latter – her estranged ex-hippie father Arthur (veteran comic actor Garry McDonald) – worms his way into staying on Alice’s couch while visiting from New Zealand.
Being Venice was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, described by Frank Hatherly of Screen Daily as “thoughtful” and possessing “something of a European sensibility” in presenting Venice’s struggle to make sense of the male relationships in her life.
The first announced of MIFF’s “surprise screenings” on the last day of the festival, Dead Europe is the latest in a string of adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas novels, directed by director Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man), adapted for the screen by veteran television writer Louise Fox, and starring acclaimed young actor Ewen Leslie in the lead.
Described by Gary Maddox in the Sydney Morning Herald as “a bruising blast of intense drama”, the film is a deep, densely wrought examination of Europe, “the continent of lost souls”, and the burden that children of “cursed” peoples must bear.
Errors of the Human Body
Described as a “psycho-scientific thriller” developed while director Eron Sheean was artist-in-resident at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, early reviews of Errors of the Human Body have noted the scientific authenticity with which the film’s plot is realised.
A German-Australian co-production directed by an Australian based in Europe, with a cast including Karoline Herfurth (Germany), Tomas Lemarquis (Iceland), Rik Mayall (United Kingdom) and Michael Eklund (Canada), it’s a horror film set on the cutting edge of science and technology, dealing with the ethics of biological and genetic science.
Melbourne local Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work straddles both art cinema and mainstream filmmaking, with over a dozen short fiction films to his credit as well as three highly-acclaimed documentary features.
Hail shapes the extraordinary life experience of artist and ex-convict Daniel P. Jones into an experimental, autobiographical dramatic tapestry. Jones’s own words – transcribed and edited from interviews with the director – form the basis for the film’s dialogue, which is spoken by “characters” being played by their real-life counterparts. The resulting film is not strictly a drama and not strictly a documentary, but an exploration of hope in the face of oppressive adversity.
Jack Irish – Bad Debts
MIFFsters will be treated to the first of two Jack Irish tele-features scheduled to air on ABC TV in late 2012, boasting a stellar cast including Guy Pearce, Aaron Pedersen, Colin Friels, Shane Jacobson, Marta Dusseldorp, Steve Bisley and Roy Billing.
Guy Pearce is Jack, an old-school former criminal lawyer turned part-time private detective and debt collector, whose line of work has won him some rather colourful friends and acquaintences over the years. When one former client turns up dead, Jack burrows deep into Melbourne’s seedy underside to get to the bottom of it all.
Based on the eponymous series of crime novels by Miles Franklin Award winner Peter Temple, Jack Irish: Bad Debts will be followed by Jack Irish: Black Tide.
David Pulbrook (a veteran, AFI Award-winning editor) makes his directorial debut in this tightly-wound drama, set in the immediate aftermath of a synogogue bombing perpetrated by the Muslim Sadiq Mohammed (Underbelly‘s Firass Dirani). Seeking shelter, he forces his way into a flat occupied by a Holocaust survivor Ulah (Julia Blake), and thus begins a hostage drama which forces both Sadiq and Ulah to confront their own pasts.
Closing out the festival is Mental, a so-called suburban dramedy which reunites director P.J. Hogan with Toni Collette for the first time since Muriel’s Wedding was released in 1994.
Anthony LaPaglia is a philandering small-town politician shocked to discover that his wife has been institutionalised and has left him to take care of five children – none of which he has any particular interest in getting to know. By serendipity, a “charismatic, crazy hothead” (Collette) finds herself thrust into the household as the girls’ nanny, and slowly but surely transforms their home into something resembling normality.
Save Your Legs!
A new addition to the MIFF calendar this year is the mid-festival gala event, turning the middle weekend of the festival into yet another party – if the opening and closing nights weren’t enough. A decidedly more relaxed affair than the glitzy opening night, the mid-festival gala will see the upbeat Bollywood-influenced musical comedy Save Your Legs! screened.
The Abbotsford Anglers, a D-grade local cricket team more interested in the shots on offer at the bar than those being made on the cricket field, make one last thrust for glory by going on an ill-conceived cricketing tour of India which ends in disastrous on-field results but more than a few laughs.
Starring Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell, Damon Gameau and many more (plus a cameo by cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee), Save Your Legs! is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
In late 1928 upwards of 100 innocent indigenous men, women and children were brutally murdered to avenge the death of a white dingo trapper named Fred Brooks, who was killed by Aborigines after “taking liberties” with the wife of a Warlpiri tribesman.
One of many films presented in partnership with Blackfella Films, Coniston is a combination documentary-dramatisation of the Contiston massacre as told by Warlpiri, Waramunga, Anmatyerr and Kaytetje people. Based on a shameful episode of Australian history – the last large-scale massacre of Aborigines by whites – is an important exercise in educating modern audiences.
Croker Island Exodus
Also blending the documentary and dramatic forms is Croker Island Exodus, based on the true story of a Methodist mission on Croker Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.
After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Australian government evacuated all white women and children from the far north of the Northern Territory, including Croker Island. The (white) missionaries refused evacuation, not wanting to abandon the 95 aboriginal children in their care, and instead embarked on an epic 44-day, 5,000-kilometre journey to Sydney by boat, truck, canoe and even by foot.
First-time feature director Steven McGregor combines dramatic reconstructions with interviews of three of the children who made the journey, now in their 80s, who reflect on their childhood as part of the Stolen Generation and their remarkable journey to sanctuary.
The First Fagin
Is Fagin – the grotesque thief/landlord in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and one of literature’s most enduring characters – based on Ikey Solomon, a real-life 19th century English criminal and escape artist? That’s what The First Fagin, directed by the trans-continental team of Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor and narrated by the great Miriam Margolyes, sets out to discover.
Exploring the expulsion-happy criminal justice system of the 19th century as well as the life and reputation of Solomon, who was sentenced to be deported to Australia but for reasons unknown never made it to his down under prison, The First Fagin is one of many docu-drama features playing at MIFF this year. Tracing Solomon’s movements from England, through continental Europe, the United States and finally to Australia – where his wife had been deported – the film is a fantastical portrait of a man whose influence on culture is still being felt.
Beyond Our Ken, Luke Walker’s exploration into Kenja Communications – the “self-empowerment” group and alleged cult run by Ken Dyers and his wife Jan Hamilton – stirred up significant controversy when it screened at MIFF in 2007, and was nominated for an AFI Award in 2008.
His follow-up, Lasseter’s Bones, trades quasi-religious fanatics for an outback legend stretching back over 100 years, based around the existence (or non-existence) of Lasseter’s Reef, an enourmous gold deposit reportedly discovered and subsequently lost by Harold Lasseter in 1897.
With the help of Lasseter’s eccentric elderly son Bob, who continues to search for the fabled river of gold to vindicate his father, Walker attempts to get to the bottom of a legend which has taken on a life of its own – and taken one over, too.
Make Hummus Not War
A documentary about a different kind of war in the Middle East, Make Hummus Not War is about, well, hummus. Specifically, which culture can lay claim to ownership of the chickpea dish, which is steeped in thousands of years of contentious history and is one of the oldest prepared foods in human history.
Veteran filmmaker Trevor Graham, who won an AFI Award in 1997 for his documentary about the life of Eddie Mabo (Mabo: Life of an Island Man), traces the history of this unlikely dish and its symbolic importance to the Arab people of the Middle East. A lawsuit brought against Israel by Lebanon in 2008 about the heritage of hummus inspired Graham to delve a little deeper into what place hummus holds in Middle Eastern culture, and maybe, its role in Middle East reconciliation.
Paul Kelly: Stories of Me
Australia’s unofficial troubador laureate Paul Kelly has been capturing the Australian condition through his folk/rock/country music for decades, and has been called “one of the greatest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise” by Rolling Stone editor David Fricke.
Paul Kelly: Stories of Me charts Kelly’s life, loves and losses, painting an intimate picture of a private man living in the public eye. The film, directed by Ian Darling, offers an exclusive insight into the man behind the fame, his creative processes and his remarkable catalogue of music.
Stay tuned to the AFI | AACTA blog as we post further updates throughout the festival.
On July 18th a very special anniversary came and went – special, that is, to virtually no one but a small, insular group of super-fans (some might say nerds) with an interest in an influential but ageing gem of Australian TV.
It was the 20th anniversary of July 18th, 1992, the Saturday night on which The Late Show first aired live on the ABC, a cause for celebration, reflection and appreciation for a show still well-remembered by its fans long after it finished playing on television.
For me, the anniversary was an opportunity to reflect on not just the show, which I discovered relatively late in life, but one of its writer/performers in particular: the incomparable Tony Martin, who is entering his fourth decade entertaining and influencing Australians with his singular blend of high- and low-brow comedy in stand-up, television, radio, literature, feature film, and now even web video.
I could go on all day about his legendary radio show Get This or his two books, but for this remembrance I want to focus on two of his most high-profile credits: The Late Show, through which most Australians first became familiar with him, and his 2003 “low budget cop movie”, Bad Eggs.
On that date back in 1992 I was seven years old, and though my older brothers would religiously watch The Late Show it never occurred to me to join them and find out exactly what they were on about when they would discuss such strange concepts as “Bargearse” or “Pissweak World” (which they compared, with some accuracy, to the eastern suburbs institution and source of much of my childhood disappointment, Wobbies World – home of the world’s slowest monorail).
A lot of the humour would have gone way over my head, of course, but now as a 27-year-old who believes Tony Martin to be Australia’s greatest comedy writer, I can’t help but think that if only I’d stayed up on just one Saturday night in 1992, I could have enjoyed two decades of Martin’s work as he was creating it rather than attempting to go back and piece it together after the fact – a task made possible (but not easy) with the aid of YouTube and an active culture of fans recording his work.
“Influential” is certainly an understatement when used to describe The Late Show and the team responsible for it. The D-Generation were a new breed of young, irreverent and disrespectful Australian comedians and theatre performers who assembled, Thunderbirds-style, in the 1980s and with acts like the Doug Anthony All Stars ushered in the demise of the relatively safe, prosaic Australian comedy that was dominant through the 1970s and (with a few exceptions) had scarcely developed since the end of World War II.
The Late Show, by contrast, was anything but safe. Absurdism, topical satire, slapstick, political humour and fart jokes would sit side-by-side, the show blending sharply-edited, high-quality pre-recorded sketches with live, in-studio pieces which could, and often would, go entirely off the rails and cause at least one performer to corpse (a delightful term derived from the theatre meaning to break character, such as to laugh during a scene).
While his quick wit, experience with stand-up comedy and rapport with Mick Molloy saw him introduce each episode and act as a sort of M.C. between sketches, the pre-recorded skits are where Martin’s talents really shone.
Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing than Tony Martin to actively hide their own jokes in a scene.
Sketches gave Martin an avenue to showcase his ability to work in a range of styles and with a range of topics, equally brilliant whether expressed as short, single-idea sketches or elaborate, high-concept sequences stretching over 10 minutes. He would often throw oblique references to art or pop culture into his work which, while not significant enough to spoil a sketch if you didn’t understand the reference, would make it that much funnier if you did.
One of my favourite examples of this is in “The Last Aussie Auteur”, a spoof of one or more stereotypically tawdry Australian film producers of the 1970s and 80s, personified by Warren Perso:
Hidden in the background of the sketch, barely catching seconds of visibility, hang posters for two of Perso’s films: Evil Angels 2: Lindy’s Revenge (tagline: “DINGOS BEWARE, SHE’S BACK – AND SHE’S MAD AS HELL!”), and Wuthering Heights Down Under.
These jokes aren’t central to the sketch in any way, but the fact that Martin surreptitiously placed these two posters into Perso’s office for those who happen to notice them (and understand the comment they make on the Australian film industry’s colourful history), says a lot about how much work he puts into a joke regardless of how many people would be expected to see or even understand it.
For most people those two jokes would fly entirely under the radar, but for someone that does catch them, that feeling of being “in on the joke” improves the scene immensely. Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing to actively hide their own jokes in a scene, forcing people to work hard to get maximum enjoyment out of their work.
Above all else The Late Show was unpredictable – a quality appreciable even when viewing it for the first time many years after it first aired, as I had to do.
It was made in an era before entrenched home video, never meant to be viewed 20 years later, and certainly not viewed for the first time 20 years later. But it’s a testament to the strength of the show’s writing and the chemistry of its performers that – save for a few references to relics of the 90s like Tanya Blanco – it’s as relatable, hilarious and daring today as it must have been at the time.
The fact that a sizeable portion of Australia’s comedic output over the last 20 years has come from this single group of a dozen or so comedy performers is a testament to both their enduring talent and the risk-averse attitudes that Australian content commissioners have had towards comedy in the years since The Late Show went off the air.
After the show ended, most of its performers and writers split into two major camps, with one (Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Jane Kennedy) forming Working Dog Productions and the other, Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, moving into commercial radio and eventually writing and/or directing films of their own.
Bad Eggs remains a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.
While I did spend all of my high school years incessantly quoting The Castle with my small cadre of outcast friends – an easy shorthand by which the school’s female population could discount us as potential suitors – it is Martin’s Bad Eggs to which I continually return and which, if pressed, I would name as my favourite Australian comedy.
Note that I say it’s “my favourite” and not “the best” – an important distinction because, while it is a surprisingly effective comedy-thriller given its budget, on a technical level it clearly doesn’t have the production values of, say, The Dish or Kenny, which are positively slick compared to the slightly rough-around-the-edges Bad Eggs.
Budgetary constraints are evident from the very first scene, where a long and presumably expensive tracking shot follows a car – its driver passed out from an apparent suicide attempt – rolling down a street and through a busy shopping centre. This impressive extended shot is undone almost immediately when the car crashes into a fountain and what is obviously a plastic mannequin flies through the windshield into a conveniently placed convertible.
The scene is ludicrously over-the-top, but then again, this is a film set in a world in which someone of Mick Molloy’s physique could make it as a “top cop”, so gritty David Simon-esque realism doesn’t seem to have been Martin’s goal.
But what it lacks in budget it certainly makes up for in its alchemical combination of hilarious visual humour; endlessly quotable dialogue; understated, laconic lead performances (especially from Bob Franklin); inventive set pieces (including one of the least-exciting security camera hacks in all of cinema); and a raft of irresistable cameos drawn from Martin’s long career in entertainment.
The result is a film which is justifiably panned for many legitimate reasons (with David Stratton giving it a particularly bad review on The Movie Show), but will remain a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.
And that’s what I love about Tony Martin more than anything else: his absolute commitment to “the funny”, deliberately less focused on any factor which doesn’t directly make the sketch or scene more effective comedically.
The shame is that, despite his past successes in a range of creative media, the only time we get to see much of Martin on television these days is when he turns up on a light entertainment panel show, over which he has no control.
He has dipped his toes into the world of online content in collaboration with Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, but I hope he finds his way to creating more film or television brilliance in the future, if only so that future generations aren’t forced to delve into decades of history or the bowels of the internet to discover the treasure trove that is his body of work.
The 20th anniversary of The Late Show has given me a chance to reflect on how much enjoyment Tony Martin has given me and many like me over his career, and it’s hard to think of anyone who has contributed more to Australian comedy over the past three decades than he has.
It’s a well-worn cliché to note that many of Australia’s favourite film and television performers are, in fact, not Australian, but do any of us really appreciate just how well we’ve done at the expense of our pacific neighbour?
For every Taika Waititi – who has stayed in New Zealand to make two of the sweetest and funniest films of the past 10 years (Eagle vs Shark and Boy) – there’s a handful of John Clarkes, Sam Neills or Jane Campions who crossed the Tasman and saw their adoptive country champion their successes and disavow their failures, as we Australians tend to do.
For me, even accounting for what others describe as “failures”, the New Zealander who has given Australia more successes than any other is Mr. Tony Martin.
Tony Martin can be found on Twitter at @mrtonymartin or on repeats of Spicks and Specks. Scarcely Relevant, an e-book collection of his columns for The Scriveners Fancy is available from Tony Martin Things for $6.00. I particularly recommend “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Laserdisc Player”, a reminiscence about an ancient device, and “Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy”, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Further Late Show clips that movie fans may enjoy:
About Bradley Dixon: Bradley J. Dixon is a web developer, writer and film lover who has been AFI | AACTA’s web coordinator since early 2012. You can find more of his film writings at his blog Cinema Quest or follow him on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.
Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and James Madden explains how Lantana won him over. Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman, and David Evan Giles explains how Bliss changed his view of Australia. Most recently, British film critic and sportswriter Scott Jordan Harris defends Aussie soap opera Neighbours.
Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ‘Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.
By Glenn Dunks
1. A person who has a great craving or enthusiasm for the work of Australian actress Nicole Kidman: “Glenn is such a Kidmaniac. He sees all of her work and thinks she should have won at least three Academy Awards by now.”
You won’t find the above in the Oxford English Dictionary any time soon, but trust me when I tell you that we’re out there. You may not want to acknowledge us, but we’re there just waiting for you to admit “Yeah, I actually did like Australia,” which is when we’ll make our move and give you a detailed rundown of why Nicole Kidman is “the greatest actor of her generation.”
Those are actually words that I have found myself uttering a lot these days. As Kidman charges through 2012 like a bull in a china shop, her presence in the culture known as pop has reached fever pitch. Last month’s 65th annual Cannes Film Festival saw two Kidman performances – one of which sent Twitter into a yellow frenzy, if you know what I mean – and with several high profile titles within the next couple of years, she is very much “BACK!” on the public radar after years of being punished and shunned by people who have no idea how the movie industry works. (She had Botox you say? It’s as if she’s trying to remain young so she can keep working and not retire before the age of 40!)
Kidman loves burrowing into a character that counteracts social expectations of what a woman should be, and she does so with external strength, dignity and poise.
“But really?” I hear you say. “The best actor of her generation?” Why yes, she most certainly is. And not just because she has the resumé to back up such a statement. No, but because she represents everything that any actor, male or female, should endeavour to be. You just try convincing yourself that your favourite actor could ever go from winning an Academy Award for playing Virginia Woolf in a British period weepie one day, to filming a brutal three-hour Lars von Trier drama set on a barren stage in Denmark, where the actors have to pick fruit from invisible trees. Just try. Still, if you need me to go into further detail then I shall, but only because you asked so politely. No need to get all pissy about it!
Sorry, that article just makes me laugh.
Where does one exactly begin when discussing Nicole? There’s kitsch value to be found in watching the plump-faced, frizzy-haired young Nicole star in Brian Trenchard-Smith’s somewhat-camp classic, BMX Bandits (home of the best sound effects editing in an Australian film ever, fact!). But I’m sure she’d scrunch her face up in horror if anybody ever suggested it.. The Nicole we all know really started on the small screen – an arena she has returned to this year with Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012) to positive reviews – where she received praise and accolades for work on Vietman (1987) and Ken Cameron’s Bangkok Hilton (1989), movies she still discusses in international interviews to this day. Of course, those works and others like them are hard to come by on DVD, which means that sadly few people have seen them.
If her early TV work, coupled with a tenacious starring role at just 18 years of age in Philip Noyce’s at-sea thriller, Dead Calm (1989), had suggested great talent as a dramatic actress, then her role in the film industry satire Emerald City (1988) and as an almost-mean girl in Flirting (1991) announced she also had a deft hand at comedy. Emerald City, for which Kidman was nominated for an AFI Award as Best Supporting Actress, features dialogue about the state of the industry and the plight of actors that perfectly mirrors Kidman’s own outlook. Just watch this video from the 50 second mark and try not to see the parallels.
As boarding school queen bee Nicola in Flirting, Kidman eschews the character’s potential to be little more than a hurdle for the lead characters (Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton) to overcome in their quest for love. Her icy – that descriptor began early in her career, it’s fair to say – performance is filled with delightfully comical vocal deliveries and mannerisms. Her superior, almost regal, posture featured here would go on to become a mainstay of her more cold-hearted characters (see Marisa Coulter in The Golden Compass (2007) and Margot in Margot at the Wedding (2007)).
Her work in Flirting is even more impressive than that of Emerald City. With a deep-felt monologue towards the film’s end instantly adding layers of pathos to Kidman’s performance, Flirting becomes a great early example of what Kidman would go on to perfect. She is stunning at playing women (or, in this case, a girl) who grapple with the balance of the internal and the external, not succumbing to the role that society expects.
Consider her role as Becca in Rabbit Hole (2010), another perfect example of this very issue. Kidman loves burrowing into a character that counteracts social expectations of what a woman should be, and she does so with external strength, dignity and poise. Even if she secretly wants to shed this skin and show to the world that she is as vulnerable as the next person, her characters choose to expose their feelings in private. In Flirting it is only Thandie Newton’s Thandiwe Adjewa who knows the true secret behind her character. In Rabbit Hole it’s a devastating breakdown on the side of the road as she witnesses the teenage boy (a superb Miles Teller) who was responsible for her four-year-old’s death heading off to his senior prom, something she will never see her own child do.
As her characters struggle to act publicly in ways that people expect her to – girly and frilly, highly strung, emotional, on the verge of a crying meltdown – so too does Kidman. So frequently described as “cold” and “icy” by detractors because she all but refuses to adhere to Hollywood standards of what an A-lister should be like. She has admitted to taking on roles dictated by her stardom that she found little artistic merit to, but no other actor of Kidman’s stature has such an impressive ratio of daring, auteur-driven films to multiplex fare. When she should have been making a sequel to her Sandra Bullock witchy romcom Practical Magic (1998), she was working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Her reluctance to discuss her family life, her willingness to dive headfirst into the creative abyss with directors she respects despite the high risk of failure (Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) for instance), a public image of shy awkwardness, and a healthy dose of localised Tall Poppy Syndrome make her an ‘unlovable’ person and, as sad as it may be, likeability is something which lot of mainstream audiences think makes for a great actor.
In quick succession Kidman demonstrated her gift for dark humour, literary romance, sexual devilishness, coquettish delight and femme fatale sizzle.
Kidman didn’t always possess the chilly and calculated persona perceived by so many today. With the release of Dead Calm in 1989 came international exposure and the promise of a Hollywood career. Her marriage to Days of Thunder (1990) and Far and Away (1992) co-star, Tom Cruise, resulted in her career being put on the backburner. She worked – semi-arthouse Billy Bathgate (1991), domestic thriller Malice (1993), superhero flick Batman Forever (1995), the sort of roles people expect from an emerging young star – but the uneasily pigeonholed actress was finding her American work was not rising to the standard set by her Australian work.
It was in 1995 that saw Kidman’s career took its greatest leap forward. By being cast in Gus van Sant’s cruelly satirical To Die For as power-hungry Suzanne Stone Maretto, Kidman finally unleashed the creative energy that had been sidelined by marriage and family. It’s a fiercely devoted performance by Kidman, and one that 18 years has failed to diminish. Openly sexual, villainous and morally unhinged, the role seemed to have clicked something within Kidman. Her desire to emerge out of the shadow of her movie-star husband and away from her role as glorified Hollywood arm-candy, to work with directors for whom the auteur theory was seemingly devised became more and more obvious. She won her first Golden Globe Award for her portrayal in To Die For and her first real taste of artistic integrity on a grand scale.
With the creative cobwebs well and truly blown away thanks to that guffaw-inducing dark comedy, Kidman immediately embarked upon a sort of global whistlestop tour of famous auteurs that continues to this very day. Porcelain-fine in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996) as, yet again, a woman confined by society’s expectations; eyes so piercing as Tom Cruise’s brittly domestic wife on the periphery of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999); an all-singing all-dancing dying courtesan in Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece Moulin Rouge! (2001); the tormented, yet simplistically hopeful, mobster daughter of Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2004); a widow confronted with reincarnation in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2005); the unflinchingly dry and toxic Margot in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding (2007). The list goes on: Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter, 2005), John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit Hole), Lee Daniels (The Paperboy, 2012)… even some of her disasters were taken upon good faith in directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Invasion, 2007), Nora Ephron (Bewitched, 2005), and The Stepford Wives (Frank Oz, 2004). She was even set to work with famed Chinese director, Wong Kar-wai on a remake of The Lady from Shanghai, just one of many long-gestating projects of Kidman’s that never got off the ground.
Kidman will no doubt continue to suffer a career that compares eerily well with those of the golden era like, for instance, Katherine Hepburn, who was once denounced as “box office poison”. Her continued perseverance with the weird and the wonderful of cinema will surely continue to confuse as many as it awes…
These roles, complex and layered each, are all starkly different and brilliant. In quick succession Kidman demonstrated her gift for dark humour, literary romance, sexual devilishness, coquettish delight and femme fatale sizzle. Still, by 2000 she’d still not quite become a name among the greats. Cue 2001 and what can surely be described as one of the greatest ever coming out parties of all time. Descending the ceiling of Baz Luhrmann’s glitter-bombed, hyperactive, modernised rethink of the classic Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris, didn’t just bring with it a worldwide star, but a performance that deserves to rank as one of the most definitively cinematic ever given. As Satine, the lovestruck courtesan emerging in jewels to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, Kidman helped usher in a new dawn for movie musicals and in a double-whammy alongside Alejando Amenábar’s haunted house tale The Others proved that 2001 – not to mention the press revolving around her divorce and those infamous “I can wear heels now!” comments – was The Year of Nicole. She’d successfully blended the art with the mainstream and it was glorious. An Academy Award soon followed for The Hours, although it’s telling that she finally won for a performance that was very good, yes, but hardly the sort of artistic stretch that had come before and after.
Kidman’s penchant for taking roles that sit outside the preconceived box of what an “American Sweetheart” should take, proved the public love affair with this goofy, lanky, somewhat exotic beauty was short-lived. Misjudged romcoms and a bombastic epic, Cold Mountain (2004), brought about a swift end to Kidman’s reign as Hollywood’s highest paid and most sympathetic star. Still, arguably her two greatest achievements followed in arguably her two most difficult films.
As muse to Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, she took to the cinematic stage of Dogville (2004) less than 24 hours after accepting her Oscar. Von Trier calls upon Kidman to be the victim of horrible crimes and, by film’s end, make a devastating moral decision, which is hardly the stuff of megastars. Playing Grace, she of whispery voice and persona as fragile as vintage lace, Kidman is truly astonishing. It is quite literally a performance the likes of which we have never seen before. It’s just not the thing for actors of Kidman’s stature to do, not now, not ever. Contrary to what Heidi Klum has to say, fashion isn’t the only arena where “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out” is true. For decades actors, especially women, have been forced to navigate the whims of public discourse and the idea that one failure can send you back to the dole queue.
If Kidman were doing this sort of bravely unflinching work in films with no artistic merit and made by filmmakers with no vision then I’m sure I wouldn’t be talking about her the way I am now, but the fact of the matter is that when many other so-called great actors are out there taking work with little element of risk (ahem, Meryl Streep), Kidman has been stepping out of the comfort zone for nearly two decades now and she reached the apex (for me, anyway) one year later with the haunting, honey-lit identity horror of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2005). Sumptuously made – Alexandre Desplat’s score is perhaps the greatest in several decades – this Kubrickian adult fairy tale about a widow and the boy who claims to be her reincarnated husband is not only Kidman’s finest work to date, but a truly awe-inspiring achievement. To try and find a single scene with as much intensity and heart-breaking, gut-wrenching power as the single-shot opera sequence is to embark on a foolhardy mission. That single close-up of Nicole’s Anna, as she quietly contemplates the very real possibilities that have been laid before her, is like witnessing a cinematic miracle.
While it seemed everybody was turning their back on Kidman, we Kidmaniacs remained steadfastly devoted. A powerhouse performance in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, a deliciously evil turn in Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass and a dreamily nostalgic turn as a glamourous Italian movie star in Rob Marshall’s Nine kept the flame burning. The new decade has brought about a newfound appreciation that has seen many come back around to my side. Oscar-nominated for Rabbit Hole, and working with such diverse and exciting directors as Lee Daniels (The Paperboy), Chan-wook Park (Stoker) and Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, her first local production since Luhrmann’s Australia (2008)).
Kidman will no doubt continue to suffer a career that compares eerily well with those of the golden era like, for instance, Katherine Hepburn, who was once denounced as “box office poison”. Her continued perseverance with the weird and the wonderful of cinema will surely continue to confuse as many as it awes and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Part of the reason why I adore her so much is that she is so unafraid to go where others wouldn’t. If everybody suddenly became a Kidmaniac like me in the blink of an eye then it would mean she had become conventional and who wants that?
About Glenn Dunks: Growing up in Geelong, to the west of Melbourne, his love of cinema began young and remembers Dick Tracy in 1990 as his first time in a movie theatre. He began writing first at his blog, Stale Popcorn, and eventually for websites Trespass Magazine and as the film editor for Onya Magazine, a web zine dedicated exclusively to Australian content. His writing has appeared in The Big Issue, Encore, The Melbourne International Film Festival, and he has been heard on JOY 94.9FM. Apart from Kidmania, Glenn has a passion for Australian, queer and New York cinema.
Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and most recently Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ’Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.