Why I Adore: Dogs in Space

By Thomas Caldwell

Saskia Post and Michael Hutchence in 'Dogs in Space', (1986).

Saskia Post and Michael Hutchence in 'Dogs in Space', (1986).

I first saw Dogs in Space (written and directed by Richard Lowenstein) when I was in my twenties, some time in the late 1990s, about a decade after the film was released in 1986. It was a revelation. I’d never seen a film that felt so distinctively Melbourne in a way that I could recognise. Also, up until that point, I’d never seen an Australian film that felt so influenced by New Wave European cinema in its almost anarchic abandonment of traditional narrative structure. I had seen plenty of ‘worthy’ Australian art-house films (which I also love and cherish) but not something this playful and rebellious. It was instant love. I remember on at least two occasions introducing friends to Dogs in Space, and their response was always one of anger: ‘Why the hell haven’t you shown this to me before?’ they demanded.

And yet, Dogs in Space  is about Melbourne in 1979, when I’d only been alive for a few years. I’m not at all qualified to comment on the authenticity of what takes place in the film. It feels slightly exaggerated, but the testimonies in the 2009 documentary We’re Livin’ on Dog Foodsuggest that it’s not.

What I did identify with was a spirit; the legacy of which I was experiencing at the time, living in share houses in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. Like the Dogs in Space characters, I was a middle-class kid from the suburbs who was somewhat ‘slumming’ it – too old to live at home and too young to commit to anything that felt like a real job. And that’s what the film captures – the desire of youths to deconstruct themselves from mainstream society and rebuild themselves into something ‘real’, regardless of their background. Dogs in Spacemakes a point of reminding the audience that punk in Australia was a cultural movement embraced predominantly by the middle-class, but that didn’t make it any less charged or meaningful.

The film begins by defining how it situates itself within Australian culture. After brief 1957 archival footage of early Soviet space launches, which includes sending Laika the dog into orbit, Dogs in Space opens with a menacing shot of a beat-up car idling in the night. One of its very rough-looking occupants sticks his head out of the window and, in the most nasally Australian twang, snarls to an unseen passer-by, ‘Hey! Dog-face! Show us your snatch!’ The scene looks like it belongs to any number of Ozploitation films of the era, combining a Mad Max aesthetic with distinctly bogan pub rock culture. It’s a very specific image of Australian identity and one that is introduced at the start of Dogs in Space so it can be quickly shot down in flames. There are other faces to Australian culture and until then, and mostly since, those faces are not given much attention. These alternate faces are of course the punks of late 1970s Melbourne who are introduced in the film, camping outside a David Bowie concert. The car-load of obnoxious bogans screeches up to torment them, but are quickly dispensed with and sent on their way. This film is not for them, or those who identify with them. Instead it’s for a subculture that briefly thrived in inner-city student share houses and venues around Australia, whose legacy introduced and developed some of Australia’s most celebrated music.

Share house slumming in 'Dogs in Space'.

Share house slumming in 'Dogs in Space'.

The film’s title sequence then concludes with a slow approach shot of the film’s main setting: a run down house in Richmond filled with various occupants who are either living there legitimately, squatting, or simply hanging out. Over the top of the soundtrack different pieces of media float by: the opening titles of Countdown, a station identification for iconic Melbourne radio station Triple R and Molly Meldrum talking about the Bowie gig. The various characters who filter through the house are an assortment of musicians, political activists and folks just wanting to have a good time. They have sex, listen to music, take drugs and throw parties. One of them is even trying to study for his engineering exams.
The almost complete absence of a narrative allows the film to simply indulge in scene after scene of chaotic activity. Some characters we get to know, some are just fleeting fragments. Orchestrated long shots convey the energy and excitement of gigs and parties. Strands of music performances and conversations flow in and out of the film to make it a series of impressionist fragments that, once combined, make some sort of brilliant sense.

Beautiful and doomed: Michael Hutchence and Saskia Post in 'Dogs in Space'.

Beautiful and doomed: Michael Hutchence and Saskia Post in 'Dogs in Space'.

The soundtrack, produced by Ollie Olsen, is one of my favourite film soundtracks from Australia or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It includes songs by Iggy Pop, Gang of Four and Brian Eno plus an assortment of songs from Melbourne’s ‘little band scene’. Many of the songs are played in the film by the original performers, including Marie Hoy (who delivers one of the greatest covers of Rowland S. Howard’s* ‘Shivers’), Primitive Calculators and Thrush and the Cunts. Then there are the songs sung by Michael Hutchence, lead singer of pop group INXS and the film’s star. Hutchence’s character in the film is based on Sam Sejavka from The Ears, so appropriately Hutchence performs a couple of Ears covers, including the titular ‘Dogs In Space’. However, the stand-out for me is ‘Rooms For The Memory’ as it’s a brilliant fusion of post-punk and pop, linking the period the film is set in to the period the film was made in, and making it a catchy and eventually devastating song to finish the film with.

And what about Hutchence, in what would sadly be one of his few acting roles?* As the hedonistic, wild, self indulgent, magnetic and handsome Sam, he’s a bizarre Aussie Jim Morrison: reptilian, lecherous, pretentious and extraordinary. He is instantly recognisable as a creative genius who, through self-indulgence, is screwing up his life and the lives of those around him. You start off thinking Sam’s a bit of a prat and then get seduced by his carefree confidence and charismatic recklessness. This is all turned on its head in one of my favourite scenes when his mother shows up to do his laundry and bring him a hot dinner. Not only is his persona demythologised, but you also see the true extent of his selfishness and lazy sense of entitlement. And yet he is so confident, so carefree and so likeable, making him a wonderfully chaotic antihero to structure a chaotic anti-film around.

Applying make-up before a gig: Saskia Post and Michael Hutchence.

Then there is Saskia Post as Anna, Sam’s beautiful and tragic girlfriend who knows he is leeching off her, but can’t help being drawn back to him. Post provides the heart of the film, looking after the more vulnerable drifters who come through the house and being patient and tolerant of Sam, way beyond the call of duty. She radiates every time she is on screen with her combination of punk attitude and classical Hollywood beauty. The rest of the supporting cast are too extensive to mention and I latch onto somebody new on every viewing. However, I have a particular soft spot for Tim (Nique Needles) who looks so sad while pretending he was going to quit the band that have just kicked him out. I also love Chris Haywood’s cameo as the uncle with the chainsaw, and poor old Luchio (Tony Helou) who is trying to study for his exams amid the parties, band rehearsals, noisy sex and general mayhem – I once had a Luchio year.

Luchio (Tony Helou), centre, valiantly trying to study amidst the chaos.

Luchio (Tony Helou), centre, valiantly trying to study amidst the chaos. Shown here with Tim (Nique Needles), right.

Dogs in Space is one of the very few Australian films that reflects an Australian identity that I can relate to, even though it depicts a period and scene that I never knew. It’s affectionate and critical of Australia’s middle class punks; celebrating the scene while also providing a mournful coda for how it would all come to an end. Energetic, youthful, frequently hilarious and ultimately so sad, Dogs in Space is an Australian counter-culture classic to which I continually return, and introduce to new like-minded friends – who are inevitably annoyed that I haven’t shown it to them sooner.

*Note: The excellent documentary Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard, directed by Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein, is releasing at selected Australian cinemas 27 October. Visit the film’s website and Facebook for more info.

Dogs in Space can be purchased on DVD online here.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

About Thomas Caldwell: Thomas is a freelance writer, broadcaster and public speaker who specialises in film criticism and educational writing on film. He writes the popular film criticism blog Cinema Autopsy and reviews films for the Breakfasters on independent Melbourne radio station Triple R (3RRR 102.7FM). He is also the co-host of the Triple R film criticism podcast Plato’s Cave.  Thomas is the author of the secondary school textbook Film Analysis Handbook and his film reviews, articles and interviews have appeared in The Age, The Big IssueOverland, Senses of Cinema, Metro and Screen Education. In 2010 he won the Ivan Hutchinson Award for Writing on Australian Film in the 2010 Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA) Writing Awards.

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. Most 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.

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.

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of reviews of current release Australian feature films Blame and Sleeping Beauty. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from various sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Blame

Blame Key Art AustraliaReleased nationally in Australia on 16 June by Pack Screen, Blame premiered at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival (where it was a MIFF Premiere Fund film) and screened to some acclaim at festivals including Toronto and Chicago. Filmed and set in the foothills of Perth, the story centres on a group of young vigilantes intent on wreaking vengeance for a sexual betrayal.

Directed by Michael Henry, and produced by Ryan Hodgson, Melissa Kelly and Michael Robinson, Blame stars a raft of fresh but familiar talent, including Sophie Lowe, Kestie Morassi, Damian de Montemas, Simon Stone, Mark Leonard Winter and Ashley Zukerman. Reviewing the film as part of the TIFF 2010 lineup, Twitch’s Todd Brown was particularly impressed by the actors, and by the opening sequences, but writes that the film is “[l]ong on cast and concept but slightly short on execution,” and that it “never quite manages to reach its full potential or really cash in on its premise”.  

Megan Lehmann, writing for The Hollywood Reporter (login required), calls Blame “a compact little thriller set in a remote corner of the Australian bushland,” and predicts that it will be a good calling card for its cast and crew. She singles out the stark piano-heavy score and DOP Torstein Dyrting’s lingering camera-work for special mention, with the only real criticism being a “generally tight script  [that] stumbles in the second act as the characters chase their tails for a while.”

Simon Miraudo, over at Quickflix sees in the film “brief flashes of brilliance that evoke Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie,” though ultimately, he argues, “it feels like a sincere tribute to Hitchcock and Christie, but not a modern-day companion piece.” Miraudo singles outs out performances by Damian de Montemas, Sophie Lowe and Kestie Morassi for special mention. Also seeing Hitchockian references in Blame, Peter Galvin (SBS Film) commends the way the audience’s sympathies are simultaneously engaged by both the victim and the perpetrators.

Leigh Paatsch, reviewing for the Herald Sun gives Blame three stars and writes that “[f]irst-time writer-director Michael Henry makes a little go a long way throughout, pushing an impressive young cast through a twisty, turny maze most viewers will be happy to get lost in.” Both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz from the ABC’s At The Movies are similarly impressed with the film, agreeing with a three and a half star rating, and praising it as an intelligent low budget film that “punches above it’s weight.” 

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty key art AustraliaSleeping Beauty, an ‘erotic fairytale’ about a young woman, Lucy (Emily Browning), who sells her body in a particularly passive way, is shaping up to be one of those films that is dividing critics and audiences. This divisive tendency was evident at the film’s premiere screening in Official Competition at Cannes 2011 (you can see a table summarising critical responses from French critics at Cannes here), and the vigorous debates here at home continue the tendency. In fact, as Glenn Dunks argues, writing for Onya Magazine, perhaps “the discussion it has elicited from critics and audiences (domestic and international alike) is reason enough for [the film’s] existence.”

One of the most interesting and lateral responses to Sleeping Beauty is this one by Matt Riviera on his blog A Life in Film, where he engages not only with the film but with its critical and audience responses. (Riviera has meticulously compiled a table of Sydney critics’ responses to 2011 Sydney Film Festival offerings, including Sleeping Beauty, and you can see that film’s divisive effect evident in the chart here.)  

Anticipating that many viewers will be alienated and unmoved by the somewhat clinical tone of the film, Riviera notes that “[w]e are not encouraged to relate as much as to reflect on our position as voyeurs. In other words, we can look but cannot touch.” He goes on to offer a fascinating and unexpected reading of  the film as a metaphor for Australia’s passive relationship to its own beauty and international exploitation.

Over at Cinema Autopsy, Thomas Caldwell gives a more conventional review. Awarding Sleeping Beauty four stars, Caldwell admires writer/director Julia Leigh’s “well tuned sense of visual storytelling” and notes that the film’s cinematography (Geoffrey Simpson) and production design (Annie Beauchamp) evoke the work of Kubrick, Lynch and Greenaway. Caldwell also praises the “meticulous and minimalist sound design by Sam Petty”, and the “highly measured and controlled performance” of Emily Browning in the lead role.  Anticipating other viewers’ criticism of the film, he writes that “[o]n face value Sleeping Beauty may appear to be simply an arty exercise in film style and as a result will no doubt perplex and frustrate some audiences, particularly those expecting something more erotic or blatantly emotionally charged. However, like Lucy it contains something dark, complex, mysterious and, indeed, beautiful deep down below the surface.”

David Stratton, reviewing for At The Movies, called Sleeping Beauty “a handsomely made and quite haunting first feature” and gave the film three and a half stars. Stratton argued, however, that “while it’s often very impressive it’s also very cold and detached.” Andrew L. Urban is another such viewer, frustrated at what he perceives as the film’s coldness. At Urban Cinefile he writes: “I salute the unique vision, but I feel cheated that I felt so little emotion in a film that has such vast emotional potential.” Writing in the same space, Louise Keller declares Sleeping Beauty “a mesmerizing film and a stunning debut for Leigh, although the ending disappoints and leaves us adrift.”

Jim Schembri, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald gives the film backhanded praise, arguing that “the one thing you can’t say about Sleeping Beauty that you can about many other Australian arthouse films, is that it is boring. If anything, there’s something mesmerising about Lucy’s journey and in Browning’s deliberately passive, low-key performance, even if the whole shebang leads to frustration.” Leigh Paatsch, in the Herald Sun is not so kind, describing it as “prentious” and an “arthouse snoozer”. Variety’s Peter Debruge is similiarly unimpressed, criticising the film’s “frustratingly elliptical feel and lack of character insight.”

Over at the Guardian however, Peter Bradshaw seems to gain far greater insight into the “emotional seriousness” of Lucy’s character, praising Emily Browning’s “fierce and powerful performance.” Bradshaw also calls the film a “technically elegant” and “assured debut”, nevertheless finding it to be “no more than the sum of its parts”.

Clearly, the debate will continue to rage. What did you think?

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Reviews Wrap: Mrs Carey’s Concert, Mad Bastards & Snowtown

Reviews Wrap: Griff the Invisible, The Reef, and A Heartbeat Away

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of what some reviewers said about recently released Australian feature films. Please note that these do not reflect the views of the AFI; we’re aiming to represent just a smattering of opinions and views from various sources. You’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Mrs Carey’s Concert

Mrs Carey's Concert key artBob Connolly and Sophie Raymond’s observational documentary about a high school music teacher may well be the surprise Australian hit of the year. The self-distributed film, which opened this year’s BigPond Adelaide Film Festival, is not only performing well at the limited release box office (more than $500,000 to date), it’s also being universally praised by critics and reviewers. David Stratton and Margararet Pomeranz from At the Movies describe it as “a rounded and very satisfying film that is both hugely entertaining and incredibly inspirational,” giving it four and a half stars and four stars respectively. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Sandra Hall also gives Mrs Carey’s Concert four and a half stars, praising Connolly’s “patience and unobtrusiveness” which result in a film that’s “well worth every exhilarating minute.” The Age’s Jake Wilson  gives high praise, writing that Mrs Carey’s Concert “transcends its “inspirational” format to rank as the best Australian film so far this year.” Filmink’s Cara Nash calls the film “absorbing and revealing” and “nothing short of compelling”, using the Filmink ratings system to value the film at $17 out of a possible $20. Writing for Onya magazine, Glenn Dunks has only one qualm, observing that “a sequence in which Mrs Carey loses a folder of sheet music feels artificial and unnecessary.”  In the end however, he finds the film to be “a wonderful experience to witness.” (Interested in finding out more about Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond? Click through to read our recent interview with them.)

Mad Bastards

Mad Bastards key artFilmed and set within Indigenous communities  in the amazingly picturesque Kimberley region of WA, Mad Bastards impressed at Sundance where it premiered earlier this year. Directed by Brendan Fletcher, and featuring the musical talents of the Pigram Brothers (who also acted as producers on the film), Mad Bastards is a musical journey following three generations of Aboriginal men who find their way out of the cycle of violence. Thomas Caldwell, writing for The Big Issue magazine (review reproduced on the Cinema Autopsy blog) gave the film four stars and announced that “Mad Bastards is simply Australia’s most impressive film since Animal Kingdom.” Helen Garner, writing in the May 2011 edition of The Monthly writes that “Mad Bastards is a work of serious maturity and grace. It reminded me of something that Plato said about art – that it should be ‘like a wind from excellent places, bringing health.”

Writing for the SBS Film website, Michelle Orange found the musical interludes intrusive, arguing that director Brendan Fletcher’s “over-reliance on score sets up an avoidant rhythm that begins to feel like a lack of narrative confidence.” Ultimately though, Orange finds much to like about the film, and writes that in it’s final climactic scene, “the privileging of tableau over dialogue feels just right.” Quickflix critic Simon Miraudo gives Mad Bastards four out of five stars, and despite admitting to hating films which conclude with footage of real subjects, Miraudo acknowledges that it works here, and that “Mad Bastards is an involving tribute to – and exciting evolution of – Australian storytelling.”

Writing for the Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Jim Schembri awards Mad Bastards four and a half stars out of five, writing that it “bravely explores a host of hot-button issues with a deft blending of humour, sensitivity and often brutal frankness.” Andrew L. Urban over at Urban Cinefile writes that the film “understated in its redemptive message, much like Samson and Delilah was, and while it has a few clunky storytelling moments, it’s an engaging and touching film.”

Snowtown

Snowtown key artCertainly the most controversial Australian release of the year so far, Justin Kurzel’s feature directorial debut Snowtown is based on the brutal serial killings known as the ‘bodies in the barrels’ cases, which occurred in Adelaide in the 1990s. Winner of the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival’s Audience Award (where it had its Australian premiere) and selected for Critics’ Week at Cannes (where it received a special mention by the Jury President), Snowtown is currently dividing audiences and critics – though everyone seems to agree that Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography and Jed Kurzel’s musical score are beyond reproach. 

One of the most rapturous responses to the film surely came from Clem Bastow at The Vine, who awarded Snowtown five out of  five stars and wrote that despite its grimness, the film is “an incredible piece of cinema and a devastating, poetic work of storytelling.” Crikey blogger Luke Buckmaster over at Cinetology was similarly blown away, praising the “airtight sense of verisimilitude maintained by unwavering directorial focus,” and calling it the “most frightening Australian film ever made, and a great piece of art.”  

Both Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile commended the strong performances of the actors in the film and agreed that the film succeeded in creating an undeniably tense atmosphere, yet Keller’s admission that she ” left the cinema feeling repulsed and downtrodden at the sombre world depicted, from which not even a little piece of blue sky can be seen,” is one echoed my many viewers, including Helen Garner, who admitted in The Monthly that the film left her despairing and nauseated.  The Adelaide based Anders Wotzke of Cut Print Review commends director Justin Kurzel’s naturalistic direction, but argues that the grisly film “struggles to build an emotional rapport with its audience.” Both Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton from the ABC’s At the Movies  praised the impressive acting performances on screen, but found the setup confusing and worried at the film’s lack of “moral centre”. The debate continues, and audiences seem keen to check it out for themselves, with the film’s strong performance on the limited box office charts. (Interested in learning more about the actors in Snowtown? Click through to read our interviews with Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway and Louise Harris.)

Check out these films on the big screen now, while they’re in the cinemas, and feel free to drop back and leave your comments and opinions.

Next week, our Reviews Wrap will take in the crowdfunded film The Tunnel, available freely on torrent; Beck Cole’s Here I Am, and Mark Lewis’s 3D creature feature documentary Cane Toads: The Conquest.