Monday 19 December 2016

Defending Cinephilia 2016 (10) - Stephen Gaunson analyses the Oz industry's achievements

Australian Cinema, 2016

Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
With the cinema year in review, predictably media commentators tend to assess the success of the Australian industry through the yearly box office (as recorded in early December). This seems problematic considering that some big audience friendly films are yet to come: Red Dog: True Blue and Lion. At the time of writing, the yearly box office is around $19m for domestic movies. This is significantly down from the 2015 box office of $88m — but the comparison is not really fair. 2015 with the runaway hits of Fury Road and The Dressmaker was the best total in fifteen years. 2016 has not been great, but it has been far from the disaster that many commentators are declaring.

AGAIN — the AACTA Awards did little to excite. In the Best Film category Mel Gibson’s World War II blockbuster, Hacksaw Ridge, about the true story of US Army medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, seemed askew (or just rowdier) than the other (calmer) films nominated: the Vanuatu-set islander romance Tanna​, The Daughter (theatre director Simon Stone’s adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck), Girl Asleep, a trippy theatre-to-film adaptation from theatre director, Rosemary Myers, and Ivan Sen’s Goldstone (a sequel of sorts to Mystery Road).

At this year’s Awards, there were only two films in serious contention for Best Film. One was The Daughter, nominated for ten Awards. It made $1 million at the box office. The other was Hacksaw Ridge. At the time of writing the latter has grossed $101 million worldwide (and counting…). It was nominated for thirteen Awards. Guess which one walked away with nine wins in the major categories! Reminiscent of 2015, where Fury Road swept the various categories (winning ten awards in total), the AACTA Awards is becoming rather predictable and unsurprising. Remember that The Great Gatsby in 2014 won thirteen AACTA Awards. The only film in recent memory to win Best Film without a huge budget or awards campaign behind it was The Babadook — but that had to split its award with Russell Crowe’s turgid Gallipoli soap opera, The Water Diviner.  

Not that Hacksaw Ridge is a bad movie. It’s actually quite good. At least its second half is — after it stops riffing off Full Metal Jacket and starts channelling Saving Private Ryan. As a director, Gibson is very efficient and effective with the big set pieces, and some of those action sequences are really incredible (albeit the second half operates as one continuous action sequence). Andrew Garfield is also excellent in the lead.

Seeing that Hacksaw Ridge is one of those Australian films that is not interested in the representation of Australia — but is still deemed Australian (by Australians) due to government financing, key creative being Australian, local actors (putting on American accents) and Australia used as a shooting location — perhaps it’s time that other international films, which do represent Australia, be considered as Australian films. Films like The Light Between The Oceans, which deserved a lot more attention than it received upon its initial release. It stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. It was directed by Derek Cianfrance and shot predominately in Dunedin, New Zealand. Australian? The film also stars a bunch of recognisable Aussie stalwarts: Bryan Brown, Gary McDonald and Jack Thompson. It was also shot in Tasmania and is an adaptation of the Western Australian set historical novel by M. L. Stedman. The score by Alexandre Desplat is tremendous that never overdoes the sentimentality. Although the film has been dismissed as a dreary melodramatic weepy, it is more fairly a low-key old-fashioned melodrama that creates a compelling gothic fairy-tale miasma. It is a film that is too easy to dismiss, and deserves a deeper and more thoughtful appraisal.

Another non-Australian Australian film of discussion was Notes on Blindness by British filmmakers Pete Middleton and James Spinney, which is a documentary on John Hull, an Australian theology lecturer living in Britain who had gone blind at the age of forty-five. The film travels back and forth between Hull’s home in Britain, and trips to his parents in Seaford, Melbourne. Over a three-year period he had recorded a number of diary tapes documenting his own reflections and reactions to blindness. Although it would seem that a film about a man losing his sight would not be cinematic, the film is wonderfully visual and inclusive of an incredible soundscape that deserves to be watched on a big screen through a loud sound system. There are three different versions of the film specifically designed also for the hearing impaired and visually impaired. I’ve never seen a film that so well captures the sensation and loneliness of blindness. A true piece of cinema.  Moving, poignant, and absorbing.

Easybeats original sleeve
With a look to 2017, films exploring known (rocker) subjects are in the works. The ABC will produce a two-part miniseries — Friday On My Mind — on Sydney rock band The Easybeats. Richard Lowenstein’s long awaited documentary on Michael Hutchence has recently received funding. And Kriv Stenders will also be releasing his documentary about the Brisbane band The Go-Betweens. Considering that both directors have an intimate knowledge of their subjects (having respectively directed film clips for the bands) these films will be greatly anticipated.

Whereas adaptation was never considered a focus of government funding rounds in the past, it now is becoming a central concentration. Screen NSW this year announced Amplifier: Adaptation — a new bespoke script development program for feature films. Of the projects supported in its first round there seems to be an emphasis on the “Based on a True Story” film. 

There is The Trouble with Harry, based on the play by Lachlan Philpott, telling the extraordinary true story of the Harry Crawford ‘Man­Woman’ murder that shocked Sydney in the 1920s. Also forthcoming is Tenzing based on the Tenzing Norgay non-fiction book by British journalist and author, Ed Douglas. And The Seed, inspired by the real-life story of writer and actress Kate Mulvany. The film will be an adaptation of Mulvany’s popular play. Screen NSW have also funded a number of other adaptations including Anthony Capella’s novel The Wedding Officer to be scripted by Andrew Knight and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse.

With other adaptations soon to be released including Simon Baker’s directorial debut, Breath, based on the Tim Winton novel, and Rachel Perkins’s adaptation of the YA novel Jasper Jones it looks like the Best Adapted Screenplay category at the AACTA Awards will be a contested field over the next couple of years. Especially with the announcement of many remakes of classic films including Wake in Fright, Storm Boy, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Although we’re emphatically told that such films are re-adaptations of the books (than re-makes of the films) the comparisons to the seminal movies will be too tempting to resist. Probable disappointment awaits.
Stephen Gaunson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. He mostly writes and teaches about Australian cinema and film adaptations.

1 comment:

  1. Its an interesting question to ask whether those remakes of classics/literary classics would in fact be even contemplated without the original movies being so revered.


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