Wednesday, 22 February 2017

On Blu-ray - Adrian Martin welcomes the return of Philip Brophy's BODY MELT (Australia, 1993)

Body Melt Then and Now

Adrian Martin

Body Melt, December 2016 Blu-ray cover (details below)
It must be strange for filmmakers to experience all the hopes, expectations and agonies that accompany the making and release of any movie that, in its day, ‘does not perform’ at the box office, and then slips into an awful, twilight oblivion … only to then find that same movie, 20 or 30 years later (that is, if they are still lucky enough to be alive), recycled or even restored as some kind of ‘cult classic’.

I’m not sure if Philip Brophy’s Body Melt (1993) yet constitutes a cult classic, but it should. I vividly recall (as a friend of the director and many others involved in its production) all the thought and energy that went into its making, and the tremendous vibe at the Melbourne Film Festival premiere. I remember being on a Radio National panel discussion that same month, declaring Body Melt to be (as was subsequently quoted in publicity) “the best Australian film of the year!” – and being scoffed at by a few rather conventional industry-types on that panel (no names). And I can still see the expression on Philip’s face when he told me, some time down the track, that – various international sales and screenings aside – the film just seemed to vanish after that MIFF premiere, especially within Australia itself.

Maybe 1993 wasn’t the right time for Body Melt, which I happen to enjoy as much now as I did 24 years ago. But how can anybody ever know what the right time is, or will be? What the most propitious cultural conditions are? As Philip himself might say: you make what you make, what you are compelled to produce and what you can manage to produce, and you put it out there. The rest is history.

So let’s talk history: then and now. Australian film culture is different – a little bit different – in 2017, compared to the early ‘90s. Today there is some muscle behind the campaign to make genre films – especially horror films – in this country. After all, there are worldwide (albeit unexpected) successes to prove the case, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). And there’s a tremendous groundswell of activity and goodwill associated with an event such as Tasmania’s wonderful Stranger With My Face festival, encouraging women to take up the fantasy-horror-thriller genres with a righteous vengeance.

Body Melt
This pro-genre campaign, in fact, started a long way back: in the 1980s, at least, as I remember it. Philip Brophy was one of the first voices in the pack, long before the miserable Melbourne Underground Film Festival with its proto-fascist bleatings, and intriguing one-offs that drew some attention like Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones (2009). You only have to hear the enthusiastic support that Body Melt cast members including Vince Gil express for the project in the ‘making of’ bonus features from the time, included in Umbrella’s superb new Blu-ray release of the film: against Australia’s own dire ‘tradition of good-taste quality’, here was a movie connecting not only with the most vital trends elsewhere (the 1980s had been the great horror years of George Romero, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen …), but also that suppressed Aussie tradition represented by the Mad Max films and many other culturally disreputable items – the tradition that (at least back then) seemed always to be gingerly erased from the official histories of our national cinema, or treated at arms length (if acknowledged at all) by mainstream, middlebrow critics of the Neil Jillett/Keith Connolly/Evan Williams ilk. These actors on the Blu-ray say it well, and not just because they feel they are obliged to: Body Melt will be a rude but necessary shock, the start of a new era in Australian cinema, a confrontation with all kinds of taboos reigning over subject-matter and film style …

Body Melt
Some things change, and some things don’t; or, at least, some things take far longer to change. When I think back today about the fact – the miracle, almost – that Body Melt really happened in 1993 and made it at least to the MIFF screen (and, subsequently, to many VHS and DVD shelves around the globe), I imagine what it must have been like to ‘pitch’ this project, to justify and explain it, to funding bodies such as Film Victoria and the then-named Australian Film Commission. In fact, we don’t need to imagine it: the Umbrella Blu-ray contains many priceless preparatory documents of this sort, raking over the budget (which is, of course, a tiny fraction of what Scorsese gets to spend on a ‘small’ project like Silence), the screenplay structure, the casting … (This type of ‘extra’ is a godsend to any serious student of Australian cinema.)

Philip Brophy (2014)
I had worked closely with Philip on projects such as the DIY publication Stuffing: Film: Genre (1987), and analytically pored over many of the same, inspiring film-texts (everything from Dario Argento’s Suspiria to the avant-garde fictions of Alain Robbe-Grillet) in classrooms and elsewhere, so I think I know what Body Melt is centrally about: it’s a film about “the body”, the human body in all its states, but particularly within the new world of the ‘90s – an age of designer drugs, burgeoning health-and-lifestyle TV formats, and queasily free-floating sexualities – and especially all that as refracted in pre-fab Australian outer-suburbia.

But let’s just stick, for the sake of our historical comparison, with the body. In the early 1990s, the statement “this film is about the human body” would not have made much sense to almost any bureaucrat in a government-funded film office. It still may not make much sense to them now. Funded projects usually glide along rollers that are greased with familiar, humanist, Manchester by the Sea-style formulations like: this is a film about adolescent coming-of-age; or the separation and reconciliation of a longstanding couple; or a family reunion at Christmas. Even today, movies like The Babadook, genre-trappings and all, are given this kind of reassuring, psychologistic gloss: it’s a film about a woman overcoming grief, facing her fears …

Philip Brophy’s sensibility – and I think this is true from the first manifesto I read of his from around 1977 – starts from a completely different baseline premise: on the one hand, there’s the rich materiality of a medium like music or film, its images and sounds, and all the sensations they can prompt in us; and, on the other hand, there’s the murky pool of real-life culture in which these objects swim – as well as the ideas we can grab to formulate how this culture works, where it’s come from and where it’s going. So, there’s a concrete side and an abstract side to Body Melt – but nothing in that realistic-plot-and-character middle-ground which mainly defines Australian film (and indeed, most ordinary films everywhere).

There are two separate audio commentary tracks on this edition of Body Melt. The first is a three-hander featuring Philip, Rod Bishop (co-writer/co-producer) and Daniel Scharf (co-producer); it offers a valuable recollection of the production process. The second commentary is Philip alone discussing matters of the soundtrack: its composition (for the music score), its construction (and technical reconstruction in 2016, no easy task given all the intervening changes in technology), and its mix. This track is packed with analytical insight into many kinds of filmmaking issues. Along the way, Philip makes clear his approach to characterisation as a matter of “ciphers and stereotypes”; he explains why he refuses to write conventional music ‘cues’, or to underline the scripted feelings in a scene (putting him at odds with all current, ersatz, industry wisdom about how music is supposed to “emotionally involve” you in character interactions and situations that are pretty darn obvious, anyhow); and he illuminates the process of his arriving, at last, at his preferred, initially envisaged mix, scraping away the typical ‘softening’ and conventionalising techniques in order to arrive at a “visceral, physical” experience of the senses for the spectator’s ears.

One label that Body Melt could not quite shake in 1993 – and probably, in truth, did not entirely wish to shake – is “trash”. As Philip explains in one of the making-of bonuses, if someone is not into horror cinema, and never watches it, then that cinema is liable to be always the same thing to them; and, most likely, they will assume it to be always, one-dimensionally disgusting, vulgar and trashy. Horror aficionados, on the other hand, know that the genre runs a wide gamut from sophistication to (non-pejoratively) trash. Body Melt absorbs many aspects from across this horror spectrum. It is at once a fine-grained, intellectual essay-film, and a gleefully childlike, sensational exploitation of every anti-social and anti-human thing a movie can imaginably show.

And I can’t think of too many other Australian films which could fit that description, then or now.

Editor's Note:
Umbrella have released a 4K Blu-ray restoration of Philip Brophy’s notorious Body Melt, a film described by Quentin Tarantino as “the best Australian film of the 1990s”.

The Blu-ray extras include two “making of” documentaries and interviews with Gerard Kennedy, Vince Gil, Ian Smith and Andrew Daddo. There are two full length commentary tracks - one with Brophy, Rod Bishop and Daniel Scharf discussing the production and the other with Brophy doing a forensic description of his soundtrack construction. There’s also a complete storyboard, a stills and props gallery and more. The Blu-ray is limited to 2000 copies and is available at JB HiFi for $24.98.

Check back for re-publication of Philip’s essay My Dreadful Failure as an Australian Filmmaker. It will be posted shortly.

Body Melt , earlier DVD cover

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