In Victoria, Australia, on Valentine’s Day, in 1900, three female boarding school students and their teacher disappeared. Or so Peter Weir’s 1975 anti-genre classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same title, shows us. It didn’t actually happen, but that doesn’t matter. It could have happened, and the literal truth of the tale is a red herring contrasted with the emotional truth of the tale. Plus, on the subject of “Western society making play with the world”, few films have spoken more emotional truth than Picnic at Hanging Rock. You might imagine the story on your own: a hard-hitting, grisly dissection of a mystery. A dissection that is very much not what Weir himself had in mind. But then, that’s why we are mere mortals, and Peter Weir is one of the great, underappreciated directors of the modern age. Continue reading
It isn’t difficult to find issue with Beyond Thunderdome, nor is it difficult to pinpoint the root cause of the problems: Hollywood money, and the desire to go big or go home. Both things that Miller used like a sledgehammer in Fury Road 30 years later to wonderful effectiveness, but which here see him step up and trip over the need to focus on a plot that doesn’t much go anywhere. The pure cinema appeal of the series is certainly lost (with Fury Road, Miller managed to go big without inducing a case of the talkies), but it doesn’t do well to overly criticize something for simply having a more elaborate story. Still, admittedly, the focus on “plot” for Beyond Thunderdome sacrifices the queasy, nihilistic immediacy of the original Max and the off-kilter humor and the implacable malaise hanging over The Road Warrior, a malaise brought on precisely by the fact that the film never much “went” anywhere plot wise and established, instead, a feeling of stagnancy.
Update 2018 with Roeg’s passing: Slightly less taken with Walkabout’s politics this time out. As a critique of settler colonialism, it’s both vaguer and less eloquently abstract than Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock, a truly poignant and critical take on a cloistered community corseted by their own haze of superiority and indifferent curiosity about other ways of life.
But I’m possibly more enamored this time of Walkabout’s metaphysical vision of sensory experience. Its vision of the conviction of colonial consciousness shuddering apart, of transfixed youths suddenly spellbound by the limits of their own minds, is problematic, but also intoxicating food for thought. And Roeg uses it to divine a film of internal ruptures and wanderings into the unknown, exploring the irregularity of human experience and the non-totality of any individual culture with frighteningly fractious editing and cinematography that veers from the acrid to the oneiric. Above all, he dares us to touch the jagged poetry of the world in disarray. It’s a flawed experience, and perhaps too nihilistic, but it boasts its own truly singular poetry, an elegiac and tragic meeting of minds that explores the fallout of cultural connection and clash.
Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering. Continue reading
When we last left him, former police office Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) lost his family and his best friend, and had fulfilled a most unfulfilling form of revenge on the now lawless highways of the Australian outback. He had lost and repaid the loss only to realize that there was nothing to be won back. When we last left him, there was nothing left for him but the empty road.
When we last left him, former no-name George Miller had given us one of the most menacing, sinister, full-throttle action pics ever released. Now a go-to guy, there wasn’t much keeping him from his distinctly more apocalyptic vision of dystopia and humanity left for dead, not to mention his vision of non-stop action filmmaking. With a greater budget and his original star Mel Gibson, then almost on the verge of becoming a major movie star and certainly a household name in the Australian film industry, in tow, his dreams would come true with the release of the 1981 The Road Warrior, one of the de facto “perfect” action pictures and still to this day among the true classics of the genre (a number that wallows and exists as a handful more than a genuine plethora). Continue reading
Thirty six years later, with the release of the grandly, boisterously cinematic carnival opera of Mad Max: Fury Road, it is difficult to peer back through the looking glass and glimpse the humble origins of the Mad Max fiction. It is difficult to remember that, for all its commercial and critical success, the 1979 release of Mad Max was nothing more than a budget of 400,000 dollars (a paltry sum then and now) and one of the great modern cinematic visualists doing everything they could together to disturb, provoke, and ultimately, to entertain and thrill. It is difficult to remember how intimately inhuman the original Mad Max is, how nonchalantly brutal and matter-of-factly nihilistic it is in its almost impressionist depiction of apocalypse and social malaise propped up by stunning, startling car chases of unquenchable viciousness. It is also difficult, in lieu of the great majesty of the second film in the series, Mad Max 2:the Road Warrior, to remember how effective the original grinding house classic of action entertainment is to this day. Continue reading
I apologize for the temporary absence of the weekly Midnight Screening from this blog for the better part of the month of November. I was too busy elsewhere and found myself too distracted with other reviews. I justified it to myself by reminding myself I had published three full length reviews instead of the usual one for the final week of October, but, seeing as I didn’t tell you all playing at home about this, that’s not an excuse. I’ll try to be better about staying consistent and giving a heads-up when things are to change. On the positive side, I can’t think of a better film to re-start the series with than this week’s entry. Consider it an apology. Enjoy.
There’s no point in sugar-coating it, for neither does The Babadook: Jennifer Kent’s debut as a writer-director is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It does a lot more mind you, giving audiences a surprisingly nuanced characterization of familial abuse and that particularly human will to self-destruct, but that’s merely the icing on the cake meant to send critics into over-drive with claims of textual nuance and subversive social commentary. One can write or talk forever about what makes The Babadook scary or what it says about the human condition, but the core, expressed with a terse worry, boils down to one thing: it is cavernously frightening, and frightening and horror are two bosom buddies that have been in some sort of spout in recent years. They’ve lost their way, and Jennifer Kent is here to reconnect them.
Or: a couple of short reviews I had penned and linked together in one of my patented “just made up on the spot” combinations, namely that they are both products of 2005, they are both depressingly cynical and nihilistic modern reflections of the long history of their respective genres, and they, respectively, fit into the genres I’ve covered in the past couple months: the western and film noir. Again, don’t think too much about why I posted these films together. Just enjoy the ride.
The significant resurgence of the Western genre since about 2005 (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) is one of the few truly surprisingly revelations from the cinematic world to be found this past decade. It’s all the more notable particularly because the Westerns themselves have taken so many different forms, from pure, effervescent myth-making, to black-hearted heaving gasps of grimy moral decay, to slowly gliding, almost Impressionist location tapestries where characters serve merely as extensions of the environment, to plain ol’ rootin-tootin shoot em’ up character studies.
One of the first, and among the absolute best, in this trend was John Hillcoat’s rusty nail mauling of the gaping, open wound flesh wound of Australian history, The Proposition. It wouldn’t emerge the best Western over the past ten years (my vote would probably go to the sensuous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but it’s within earshot of the title. Considering the film’s swaggering aimlessness and rough-around-the-edges decay, it may even graze that ear. Continue reading
Australia’s great lost film, Wake in Fright, is a movie of untold wonders that might have been better left untold. Released in 1971, the film is mesmerizing but was nearly lost to the muck from whence it came, fitting considering its bleak, cynical worldview of perpetual loss and emptiness. It’s easy to see why it failed to find DVD or VHS distribution until the 2010s, nearly forty years after its release – this is about as far from a “feel-good” mainstream film as you’ll find. It’s not an easy film to sit through, the kind that not only depicts horrors of all variety but dares us to keep watching and then scares us for our own complicity in the activities it depicts. Wake in Fright marries realism to the land of nightmares as it gives us a vision of modern maleness and male-run civilization as a bandage stretched thin over past wounds still left to fester elsewhere in the world, forgotten by others. It’s a necessary film, an important social statement, but most people would probably rather not have to hear it. Wake in Fright is the purest form of lonely oblivion, an eternally mangled wail into the darkness of blinding light. It is cinematic ungodliness. Continue reading