Why I Adore… Bliss

By David Evan Giles

When I read the May edition of Why I Adore –  Briony Kidd’s article about Picnic At Hanging Rock (dir. Peter Weir, 1975), it reminded me that Picnic At Hanging Rock was one of the two films that fundamentally changed my mind about Australia. I’d happily wax lyrical about Picnic for another thousand words, but I am going to focus on the other film that grabbed my imagination and gave me a shake. Bliss (dir. Ray Lawrence, 1985) was the other film that rocked my world and rattled loose some ugly, ingrown preconceptions about this country. I want to tell you all about the extraordinary “Bliss effect”, but it will help if I set the scene a little first.

Growing up in London, before Picnic At Hanging Rock came along, all I knew of Oz was based on Rolf Harris on the BBC and the tricky presence of my Australian stepmother. (I don’t mean that Nerelle herself was tricky.  My mother’s early loathing of Nerelle was, on the other hand, pretty spectacularly tricky. Some divorced parents try to be civilized but my mother was made of altogether more incandescent stuff and so she ground her teeth at the sound of a wobble board  – and please didgeridon’t. You get the picture.)

While other boys were learning about soccer teams and the cool makes of car, I was glued to the Saturday afternoon movie, learning by heart the credits as they rolled past on everything from Randolph Scott Westerns to black and white stories of British wartime pluck. One of those films selected apparently at random by the lonely programmer deep in the bowels of BBC Television Centre was Smiley (dir. Anthony Kimmins, 1956), about a kid in the Outback having some very simple, innocent adventures. It is far from a classic, but there was something about Smiley that touched a nerve.  There was space and freedom and an echoing emptiness under vast, limitless skies. Nothing like the life I led in West London. That film made the first crack in my Pommy prejudice.

My ignorant prejudice against Australia as narrow or somehow in the shadow of the Mother Country or, perish the thought, a poor cousin of California, all of those illusions were swept away.

Then, a few years later came Picnic At Hanging Rock. While Briony Kidd’s essay explored the horror genre aspects of Picnic, my friends at University and I were overwhelmed by the sense of loss the film captured so powerfully. The film touched that sense in all of us – we were there at the very beginning of our adult lives, falling as helplessly in love as only the naive and unwounded can, and Miranda walked into our imaginations and vanished, leaving not a footprint behind for us to follow. We yearned and pined en masse. Being privately educated British boys, we felt for Dominic Guard in his feeble scrabbling amongst the rocks even as his incompetence embarrassed us. He did not belong there and neither did we – but then I secretly wanted to discover my inner John Jarratt, the man with hair on his chest and some survival skills who had a much better chance of finding those lost girls. More than anything, I wanted to escape the narrow skies and narrower conventions of the cloisters where I grew up.

And then came Bliss. While Picnic At Hanging Rock is artfully crafted, perhaps helped by the fact that it sits so comfortably in its Gothic horror genre, Bliss, adapted from the novel by Peter Carey, is an exploration of ideas. Despite its three AFI Awards and 10 more AFI nominations, and the close encounter with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, for me it stumbles as often as it succeeds. Its changes in tone and its uneasy shifts between the naturalistic and the surreal make it seem a little awkward. And yet, as I watched it again just last week, the ideas it explores are as affecting today as they were 27 years ago.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter that it is so strange, flipping between the madness of Buñuel and the mundane tedium of the suburbs. Perhaps it is not important that it never settles into a rhythm or a style, or that the cast’s performances swerve between gentle humanity and broad pantomime. Its most recognisable narrative through-line is an improbable love story between a disillusioned advertising executive, Harry Joy (Barry Otto), and a call girl, Honey Barbara (Helen Jones). It doesn’t seem to matter that this comfortable narrative is at odds with the film’s political ambition to expose Western materialism as a sham that causes deceit and suffering, misery and death (or near-death in Harry’s case). In spite of being jarring and genre-crossing, somehow Bliss just works.

There are reasons why this movie works and they cannot be just personal to me. After all, the film was showered with prizes so I am not alone in loving it. What first struck me was how bold it was, technically and artistically. When Harry ‘dies’, the crane shot as he floats above his own body went a very, very long way up – an image so strong that it caused me to hire the DOP on a project years later. When Harry’s wife, played with merciless self-mockery by Lynette Curran, is unfaithful to him while he is lying in bed recovering from open heart surgery, he smells sex on her – and live sardines fall out of her knickers onto the floor of the ward. Apart from the fact that a shot like that would probably not be possible today without losing the Humane Society’s stamp of approval, when I first saw it, I laughed out loud and was awe-struck by the boldness of the idea. My reaction was to think, “If these people have that kind of creativity and ‘bugger what you think of us’ attitude, I want to know more about this culture”. My ignorant prejudice against Australia as narrow or somehow in the shadow of the Mother Country or, perish the thought, a poor cousin of California, all of those illusions were swept away. The whole film was original and bold and, above all, unapologetic.

The American poster for ‘Bliss’ takes a different tone.

Bliss had another effect. Having grown up in England during the height of the industrial chaos of constant strikes and power blackouts, I had developed a leaning towards conservatism. (I know, I know, I could lose my AACTA membership for saying such a thing – but there is a happy ending!) There is a scene in which a disillusioned corporate executive drunkenly reveals to Harry that his company has a ‘cancer map’ – a map showing where all the cancers are concentrated and which industries are in those areas as the probable causes of those cancers. He unfolds a map of NSW marked with cancer clusters and explains that the whole Western world is built on things that cause cancer. That single scene changed how I saw the world. It doesn’t matter that it may be an exaggeration – what matters is that it made sense and matched what I was reading in the newspapers. When lead in petrol was shown to be causing brain damage in children, the oil companies did not go into overdrive to remove the lead – they went into overdrive to delay having to do anything about it. Bliss’s cancer map was telling the truth. I started going green from that moment on.

Ray Lawrence showed such a flash of genius in casting Barry [Otto] for the role and gave him all the support he needed to let him be the heart of the film.

Because this frequently manic film has a split personality, it moves from the frenetic to the serene. After being stuck in a hotel room for days, claustrophobic, chaotic and airless, and then a mental hospital, Harry ends up in a rainforest. Again, this lad from Notting Hill was blown away by the very possibility that you could do such a thing. In England, we had The Good Life on the BBC, where two nice people turn their suburban garden into a self-sufficient mini-farm. It was a warm and funny sitcom – but it was clearly never going to be practical and it didn’t stop them breathing the polluted city air. In Australia, according to Bliss, you could get into your car and drive to a real rainforest.  Just like that. That was very definitely not part of the British experience and it fed the desire to come and be a part of the film culture in Oz.

But more than anything else, what held the film together, and made it make sense, was the humanity of Harry, played by Barry Otto. There is such a fluid quality about Barry’s movements, in how he wears his clothes, and a lyricism in his speech, that all seems to communicate a freedom in his thinking. Ray Lawrence showed such a flash of genius in casting Barry for the role and gave him all the support he needed to let him be the heart of the film. Before Bliss, I had seen Australian actors being bold and strong and stolid. Harry was the first character I had ever come across who was confused and questioning and obviously needing to be brave to ask those questions – the sort of questioning that is more typical of European cinema that deals in shades and colours instead of black and white, yes and no.

Honey Barbara (Helen Jones) and Harry Joy (Barry Otto).

So why do I adore Bliss? I have a list of ‘top ten’ films that stretches to nine pages of A4, but in that list there are relatively few movies that, on their own, have presented an idea so potently that they have prised away a prejudice and opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the world. Kandahar (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001) did it. The Circle (dir. Jafar Panahi, 2000) did it. Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1995) and American History X (dir Tony Kaye, 1998) did it. And Bliss did it in spades.

‘Waiting for the Turning of the Earth’

On a very personal note, I have to close by telling you a small story – and it’s all about hope and tenacity making your dreams become realities. I saw Picnic At Hanging Rock when I was about 20. I saw Bliss when I was about 26. I immigrated to Australia when I was 28. Over the years, I wrote and produced a couple of features and then went into a long mixture of script development hell and personal development purgatory. When I was 49, I was given a grant by Screen NSW to emerge as a Writer-Director and I finally got to direct Anne Louise Lambert  – Miranda from Picnic At Hanging Rock – and Barry Otto together in a short film called Waiting For The Turning Of The Earth, for which I was honoured and deeply touched to receive an AACTA nomination. This was a dream come true for me and a validation of the choices I had made that had led me to that moment. And another reason why I adore Bliss.

About David Evans Giles: David moved from Notting Hill in London to Australia in 1988. After writing and producing a TV series broadcast on Channel 9 (Your Home, one of the first home renovation shows), he teamed up with another writer to create what became Paradise Road, raising a major proportion of the finance for what was then the largest budget in Australian film history. Paradise Road starred Oscar nominees Glenn Close and Pauline Collins and Oscar winner Frances McDormand, and helped to launch Cate Blanchett’s feature career. David co-wrote and produced another feature film, Under The Lighthouse Dancing, starring AFI Award-winning actors, Naomi Watts, Jack Thompson and Jacqueline Mackenzie. The 23 minute short film Waiting For The Turning of the Earth is intended to launch his professional career directing drama. The film was made possible by a grant from Screen New South Wales under the Emerging Filmmakers Fund scheme and since receiving the nomination for an AACTA Award has been selected for film festivals around Australia and the USA. He is currently working on two feature films, The Human Condition, about how cancer is experienced in different parts of the world, and The Falling, a thriller.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

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, Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman.

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.