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Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Current Cinema - PAWNO - Paul Ireland & Damian Hill's low budget comedy drama about life in Footscray

(Spoiler Alert. Plot points given away )
John Brumpton as Les in Pawno
“F---ing c-----s” says Les (John Brumpton) as he gets out of his aging Mercedes in one of the down at heel sections of Footscray’s CBD, having driven there from somewhere some distance away.  His wrath is directed at his car radio which brings news of a Government decision to cut small business taxes. Go figure that. Go figure Les anyway. He runs a business where people graffiti  Shylock  on his security screen though such a reference may well be beyond most sons of  the ‘Scray’ and thus not have much impact on the reading populace.  Yet Les reads The Australian a broadsheet quality publication issued from the Murdoch empire.. The paper takes the ‘news’ out of newspaper, being mostly concerned with a parallel universe based somewhere round the idea of the poor knowing what’s good for them by supporting the political parties endorsed by Rupert Murdoch. Those parties want the poor to pay higher taxes, to be charged   more for their public health care and more for their tertiary education. Murdoch and his acolytes favour increasing indirect taxes which adversely affect the poor, reducing taxes on the rich and on companies. Many companies, like News Corp, do not pay much tax anyway. The Australian as well believes the national government should devote ever increasing amounts and ever-repressive measures to defending us against non-existent threats to our national security. Go figure why a  Mercedes driving Footscray shopkeeper reads that and presumably votes accordingly. But the fact is that at one point Les is not merely reading the Australian, he holds it up so there’s no mistaking what the film-makers want to tell us.

Les is however, a little smarter than he might initially seem and by the end of Pawno (directed and produced by Paul Ireland, produced, starring and written by Damian Hill) there has been a moment when Les has gone over and done something unexpected which changes our perspective somewhat. In fact, this is the trope that works its way through the entire ensemble of the film, a dozen or more characters, sometimes connecting in some network narrative but each of them comes up with a surprise (minor ones include the tattooed hood with the expensive watch who turns out to be a family man just before he’s whisked off by a mob of gangsters who want to collect a debt.) So the trick is keeping the audience guessing as to where all these characters are heading and whether there might indeed be happy endings for at least some.

If you are talking about Footscray this is always going to be problematic. It’s at the end of a lot of lines and you have to be smart to stay ahead of things. I can claim the place as the land of my foremothers if not my forefathers.  Getting out of the place was however a maternal aim even if it only brought her to Brunswick which didn’t even have an AFL team, rivalries being shared .

My own time there, many decades ago, was spent over a summer delivering beer for a Yarraville grog merchant who used to supply the Footscray Club. I used to take in 12 cases or so a week and put them in individual lockers for some of the members to have on hand. This arrangement had been made because the club had been refused a licence to sell beer. The refusal arose because the club had been caught too often selling beer when it didn’t have a licence to do so. I hope you got that.

Still, my parents lived there for awhile and it did produce such sporting and entertainment notables as Ted Whitten and the incomparable Antony I Ginnane (pronounced Ginnayne, not Jinnarnay as the late and dear old Albert Johnson used to call him, no doubt to the Gucc’s amusement). Terry Counihan and Don Watson taught at the local polytechnic and Rod Carter, the tilt-headed Swans footballer studied there for awhile. Julia Gillard represented it for her parliamentary life but I wouldn’t bet on her having made many visits since. Famous people from Footscray are otherwise a bit thin on the ground

Anyway a few minutes after the start of Pawno we have got Les, the proprietor of a pawn shop, fairly well pegged.  His shop assistant Danny, a mooning boy/man with another secret life harbours an unrequited desire for the cute girl in the nearby bookshop (Maeve Dermody). The bookshop itself seems to have two shop assistants (the other of whom  secretly rips pages out of the books) but no manager. Go figure that one too.  There is a Vietnamese cafe/takeaway, and I  don’t dare ruin that connection, and two street layabouts, one, Pauly, an Aboriginal (Mark Coles-Smith), beautifully muscled  and claiming to be in training. His mate Carlo (Malcolm Kennard) is smart and devious, witness his preference for better quality food and how he gets his lunch from the Vietnamese cafe.

Malcolm Kennard & Mark Coles-Smith in Pawno
In a Facebook post someone compared this pair with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Add this to the Shylock reference and there’s much Shakespeare in play. Actually for those with long memories the pair remind you a lot more of the original Mutton and Bayonet from the Pram Factory version of Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola.  (By the time the film version was done by John Duigan in 1979, Chad Morgan was cast as Mutton, replacing Jack Charles, a character about whom the play suggested just had 'a touch of the tar brush'.


There are lots of playfully smart things about Pawno. It has a big heart for a start and in a way the mooning over being someone else, somewhere else, that characterises Danny, the bloke at the centre of it all, is an emblem of the movie itself. It seems to have the most modest ambitions but hidden away is a desire to be something more. To get there maybe what the team  needed was a real/ surreal edge, harder stuff, something to really pull you up short, though not the sort of pseudo-shock tacked onto the end of the recent Looking For Grace (Sue Brooks, Australia, 2015). Maybe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have had some dialogue in blank verse a la Steven Berkoff or even the iambic pentameter. That would have been the real shock to the system that the film promises but doesn’t quite pull off. 

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