The Ausfather: Part III
It’s time to finish what we started. Pucker up!
I recently began subscribing to the Australian version of Netflix, and was immediately confronted with a stark reminder of why I have always been a proud pirate and will have to continue sailing the rough torrents of the internet for some time yet.
There’s nothing on this damn thing!
I scroll up and down, though every category: horror, drama, thriller, rom-com. There’s barely anything but box office tween-movie bullshit! Where are the obscure titles, the arthouse projects, the independent low-budget experiments? This is barren! Instead they’ve filled it up with big-budget mass-produced typical tripe.
As I pushed my supercilious shopping trolley though this digital corporate suburbia, trying to stomach the most over-marketed flavours of film you can imagine, it got me thinking about a particular symptom of poor cinema that Australia struggles with.
The only genre that Australia seems to be comfortable appropriating is the Western, for obvious reasons. We have miles and miles of red desert sandwiched against blue sky and nothing much in between. Except that…that isn’t true. Living in Australia means living in or around a city. It means waking up in the morning to the sound of train horns and traffic jams. We don’t mount a camel at 7 AM and head out towards the horizon. We down a bitter coffee and squeeze ourselves into smelly boxcars, wearing pristine suits and skirts and holding onto greasy metal rails.
Have you ever taken a moment to look at an Australian city? The closer you get to the city centre, the more brick and rust is replaced by steel and plastic. Yet the original grunge and architecture never fully dissolves. It’s always there, wedged in amongst the contemporary showcases. Take a stroll away from the main roads, and you have a maze of thin streets that look like the inside of a submarine. There are small delis and doughnut shops stacked against bins, pipes, and cross-beams. All you need is steam coming out of the manhole covers and you’ve got yourself a solid…
Film Noir, from the french for ‘Black Film’, encompasses a large array of crime dramas from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. This genre still resonates through modern cinema, but spikes every so often, resulting in what’s typically known as Neo-Noir.
There are many classic noir stories, usually centred around heists, investigations, or just plain gangster intrigue. My personal favourites have to do with suspense and escalating tension, rather than grimy detective work. Typically a main character will make a selfish decision based on something superficial, like sex or money. Thus begins an increasingly complex series of events which traps him or her in a prison of their own consequences. Confused? Want examples? Well, here’s your homework, should you choose to accept it:
The first place to start on any Film-Noir caper is Double Indemnity. This is the classic murder-gone-wrong movie, and one of Billy Wilder’s most famous works. The setup is a stroke of genius.
Fred MacMurray plays Walter, an insurance salesman who falls in love with his client’s wife, Mrs. Dietrichson…the classic femme fatale. The two devise a plan to murder her husband and cash in on his life insurance policy. It all seems straight forward, until Walter’s boss suspects foul play and sends Walter off to investigate his own murder.
The film is an utter joy to sit through, as the couple have to eventually worm their way out of meeting with witnesses, find ways to re-purpose the evidence, and scramble to distract from suspicious clues. All the while, they grow resentful of each other and begin to argue over their agonising situation. As you might imagine, there is no happy ending in sight.
It’s always baffled me that in this age of adaptations, remakes, and reboots, there have been so few attempts at directly modernising this story. Maybe one day it’ll pop up at the box office, but until then you should check out the original.
Of course, you can’t take a stroll though the golden age of cinema without bumping into the master himself, Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s lesser admired films, but I actually prefer it to Vertigo or Psycho. It’s a far more engaging premise that befits my own sensibilities like a killer’s glove:
The film opens, obviously, with two total strangers meeting on a train. After engaging in innocuous conversation, they find that both are struggling with comparable predicaments that would swiftly be resolved if a particular person in their life was to die. They begin to discuss the idea of ‘swapping murders’. This way there will be no connecting motive and both can retain an alibi on the night of the crime. There isn’t even any evidence of collusion between the two, since they are merely strangers on a train. Of course, the plan isn’t really fool proof, as it relies entirely upon the mere promise of both individuals fulfilling their respective halves of the deal.
From the minute this film opened with a visual motif of crisscrossing train tracks I was in! The expository dialogue that’s standard in a 1950’s film may grind at your modern cinematic expectations, but the story is just too good to be left unresolved. You’ll want to hang in there and see this plan deservedly unravel.
Now we make a jump into the 80s and 90s, where Noir made a hell of a comeback. One of the greatest examples of Neo Noir is the Coen Brother’s film debut Blood Simple. It’s minimalist in concept, and pays direct homage to the classics.
Julian, the owner of a Texas bar, suspects that his wife is having an affair. When confronted with photographic evidence, he pays a private detective to murder her and her lover. Of course, in a sweltering summer of moral flexibility and loyalty to money alone, nothing is ever that simple.
This is certainly not one of the funnier Coen Brothers films, and is more tonally akin to No Country for Old Men than it is to Fargo. Still, the Coens can’t help but introduce a healthy dose of visual humour and winking irony. I hope you’re someone who enjoy twists and turns, cause they’re a-comin’.
If I live to be 100 and spent all that time preaching to you on topic, I could never truly convey just how much I love Bound. It’s practically perfect in every way. You just have to see it and you’ll understand.
The Wachowski Brothers (now known only as ‘The Wachowskis’ after one of them underwent a sex-change operation) spent years struggling to secure a deal for their most precious film aspiration, The Matrix. In a fit of frustration, they took some time off to make a tiny noir thriller named Bound. It proved to the studio that they were dependable filmmakers and earned them the confidence to make what became one of the 90’s most groundbreaking action movies. The irony is that Bound is actually better than The Matrix. It really is!
Now, I’ve recommended this film in full detail here, so if you’re interested in my fleshed out reasons for adoring it, then by all means dive in. To those who can’t be bothered, I shall retread.
Bound regurgitates the classic formula from Double Indemnity, but with one significant change: sexual orientation. Violet, a seductive femme fatale, lives in an apartment building with her money laundering Mafia boyfriend, Caesar. When Corky, a hardboiled lesbian ex-con, is released from prison and begins maintenance work in the apartment next to her, the two can’t resist each others sexual charms and end up planning to elope with all of Caesar’s stolen cash. If their intricate plan of lies and misdirection plays out perfectly, there will be no need for bloodshed…but that’s a big ‘if’.
Bound is stylish as hell and wonderfully indulgent. I’m always surprised whenever one of my LGBT friends says they’ve never even heard of it. It should be mounted on the wall as a high point in progressive genre reinvention.
Whether you’ve heard of Bound or not, I can almost guarantee that you’ve never heard of (and certainly never seen) The Ice Harvest…but you should! It’s directed by the late great Harold Ramis, one fourth of the Ghostbusters crew who also directed Groundhog Day and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In contrast to the other films on this list, The Ice Harvest successfully wrings comedy from all its crime thriller cliches. We have the femme fatale, the double and triple crossing, the money heist, the clashing double act, the crime lord, the body dumping dilemma, and of course the cynical protagonist with a wisecracking attitude and a history of broken hearts. It’s all so familiar, and yet it’s somehow been magically stirred into a fresh chilled cocktail.
John Cusack is Charlie Arglist, a lawyer for the mob. Together with a local scumbag business man, played by Billy Bob Thornton, they decide to steal two million dollars from one of Charlie’s clients. Everything goes well, until a winter storm turns the roads into ice and prevents them from skipping town. For the next several hours they both have to hide in plain sight and avoid suspicion, not an easy thing to do in a small town during Christmas.
The Ice Harvest was never really given a fair shake by critics. They considered it largely unfunny and averagely entertaining. I could not possibly disagree more! It’s one of Ramis’ best films! Is it better than Groundhog Day? Probably not, but you could make a good case for it. Both feature self deprecating main characters that find themselves unable to escape their surroundings, literally. What I like about this one is that, unlike most noir tales, it manages to find an underlying sweetness in its main character. He may be ethically ambivalent at times, but fundamentally cares about not letting innocent people get hurt.
You’re absolutely right, what does this have to do with my third recommendation of an Australian film? Did I just give up the search and decide to list American Noir films instead? No, not exactly.
See, I always thought to myself that urban Australia was ripe for noir. It’s the next genre we can absorb and re-envision for ourselves. I’m not talking about sleazy gangster crime, we have plenty of those. I’m talking about solid writing, style and story structure.
Fair point, and maybe one day I will, but as I’m about to show you…someone else already has.
The Square is exactly the kind of Australian film I’ve been searching for. It’s a noir thriller that fits in perfectly with the rest of the genre. It concerns two lovers, Ray and Carla, each cheating on their respective partners with one another. Carla ropes Ray into a scheme whereby she will steal her boyfriends drug money and stage a fire to cover it up. Ray has the connections and sets up the job, while orchestrating alibis for the both of them. Unfortunately, Carla’s mother-in-law ends up dying in the fire, making them both accessories to murder, and that’s only the beginning.
The Square is written by Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner, and directed by Nash Edgerton. It shows, once and for all, that Australian filmmaking talent can stand toe-to-toe with its American equivalent. As a bonus, the artists involved clearly understand that they’re not just ripping off an American genre (which in turn was adapted from the French), but that genre is a lens through which they can focus in on themes that matter in Australian culture. The Square seems to want to discuss class differences more than anything, and the difficulty of transitioning up and down the economic ladder. The two lover, Ray and Carla, are separated economically and geographically. Ray lives on one side of the river, the posh side of town, and Carla lives on the other side, in the poorer neighbourhood. Their plan depicts an attempted upsetting of the apple cart, a decision that has grave consequences for both of them. With that in mind, consider what the ending of the film is trying to say about Australian socio-economics…and who suffers the ultimate wrath.
That’s it. The trilogy is complete! See, I can compliment Aussie films! I’m not always a Debbie downer. Now, Aussie movie makers, go forth and make good art! Stop thinking about the country you want to sell and focus on the stories you want to tell. Most importantly, draw from you own life experiences. Your life and your interests make up your palette, pick the most interesting colours and paint them on the silver screen. Don’t just copy others and don’t let some studio of government affiliate pressure you into gumming up your ideas with marsupials and orange landscapes. What kind of film would you want to watch? If you can answer that question honestly, then you’re always pointed in the right direction. Whatever art you end up with will be beautiful and interesting in its own way, I promise. Just don’t be boring and predictable, ok?