What the Future Sounded Like: modest little documentary on a pioneering electronic music company in Britain

Matthew Bate, “What the Future Sounded Like” (2006)

Here be a good little documentary about the synthesiser company Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd, formed by British composers Peter Zinovieff and Tristram Cary (died 2008) and engineer David Cockerell in 1969, to create, build and sell synthesisers that could produce a wide range of musical tones and sounds yet sell at prices affordable by the public or professional musicians at least anyway. The film uses a mix of interviews with all three founders of EMS and various others including Dave Brock the guitarist of the British space-rock institution Hawkwind, old archived film reels, photographs, newspaper cuttings and some animation to build up an affectionate tribute to three early pioneers of electronic music composition and instrument production.

The documentary begins with the backgrounds of Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff as composers and musicians working in electronic music in the 1950s; in those days, electronic music was regarded as very avant-garde and experimental in Britain and the genre in that country was hardly developed compared to its equivalent in France, Germany and the United States. Tristram Cary briefly refers to his career as a radar engineer during World War II as a launch-pad for developing his concepts of electronic music and talks about his early work in musique concrete (a French genre of music using field recordings and found sounds) and meeting like-minded composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen in his travels in Europe. Zinovieff, descended from Russian aristocrats who fled to London after the Russian Revolution in 1917, built his own home music studio with electronic music equipment and along the way met David Cockerell. Discovering Cary, the two then found EMS with Cary and started building their first commercial synthesiser, the EMS VCS3.

Due perhaps to its limited budget, the documentary only includes one famous musician as an interviewee and that’s Dave Brock; it is disappointing that other famous musicians who used the VCS3 don’t appear to give their opinions on the instrument. Video clips of Hawkwind and a very gaudy Roxy Music wih Brian Eno playing the VCS3 enliven the film. Other famous bands known to have bought and used the VCS3 include Pink Floyd, who used it on their album “Dark Side of the Moon”, and Kraftwerk.

Disappointingly the documentary doesn’t say why EMS failed to get much financial support from the British government – one suspects that Zinovieff, Cary and Cockerell should have got an accountant / office manager to look after the paperwork instead of trying to do everything themselves – and how the company became bankrupt even though its studios and equipment were much patronised by many famous rock and electronic music artists of the time. After EMS broke up, Cary returned to composing music and later emigrated to Australia where he worked at the University of Adelaide until 1986. The EMS equipment was sold or warehoused and much of it fell into ruin. Some equipment has now been restored.

The music featured in the documentary includes Cary and Zinovieff’s own compositions which are the best part of the entire film: Cary’s music doesn’t seem all that remarkable and Zinovieff’s pieces are distinguishable mainly as early digital-computer pointillist tone poems.

The film could have made a point about how isolated musicians dabbling in extreme experimental forms often can be, to the extent that each and every one has to reinvent the musical wheel for himself/herself as it were and only later discovers that other people were doing the same thing at the same time (and everybody wishing, If only I had known these people earlier!), and the level of public resistance and wariness towards a new art form in the 1950s and 60s. The film also could have stressed the difficulties EMS had in getting money, promoting and selling their product, and the reactions they might have encountered from UK government arts bodies in applying for grants. It’s possible that Cary, Zinovieff and Cockerell didn’t have much business acumen among themselves and needed help and direction in marketing and selling their product. There is nothing that might suggest the impact EMS had on experimental electronic music generally or on further technical developments in music production and recording and how the company might have affected the direction of pop and rock on one hand, and of experimental electronic music on the other.

Overall this is a good introduction to the history of electronic music and the way in which it infiltrated gradually into the public consciousness and mainstream music in the 1970s but not much more can be said about the film.

Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011: investigation of alternative, intersecting views of reality from historical archives

Ms&Mr, “Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011”, multi-channel video installation (2011)

Technically not a film but a multi-channel video art installation using old archived video recordings among other media on exhibition at the New South Wales Art Gallery (December 2011 – February 2012), this homage by the Australian art duo Ms&Mr (Richard and Stephanie nova Milne) to the American science fiction writer Phillip K Dick and his fifth wife Tessa uses old film footage of the couple as a launch-pad into investigating alternate narratives of history in which paranoia, spiritual faith and identity dominate. This work is an immersive experience: it has to be seen in a dark environment where the viewer is surrounded by four preferably very large screens onto which are projected four looped videotapes of the couple and Tessa’s jewellery. As the tapes run, an ambient looped soundtrack, also created by Ms&Mr, consisting of a rhythmic drone over which hovers a spaced-out noise ambience suggestive of giant hovering machines in a huge vacuum, cold and creepy, runs continuously and concurrently with sound recordings of Dick and Tessa making a speech or talking generally.

The films are really something to see, meshing old film footage of Dick dating as far back as 1977 when he attended a science fiction convention at Metz, France, and gave a speech about his belief that the fictional worlds he wrote of in his novels and short stories existed for real and that what we take to be real and true might actually be false, with film footage of Tessa taken by Ms&Mr in California in 2011. In one film, Tessa intrudes on the science fiction convention and sits down with Dick; in another, more remarkable film loop, the two circle each other and the camera circles them as well. Dick’s face appears to dissolve into fragmented mini-images of himself in a silhouette of his head; the camera continues to revolve around him and the images revolve and shift as well. The couple appear to float in a bright orange space like astronauts in a strange alien psychedelic universe. The voice soundtrack does not synchronise with Dick and Tessa’s moving lips or facial expressions and this lack of concurrency adds to the disorienting nature of the entire work.

The work cuts against time and memory; old archival film footage, shown in continuous repetition, loses its outdated feel and seems recent in spite of having not been tampered with at all apart from having to repeat; and seeing Dick and Tessa as a 50-something woman together looks the most natural thing in the world.

The experience of “Xerox Missive 1977 / 2011” itself is oppressive and sinister: the floating voices, the cold music and the huge screens around a dark room combine into a prison of colour, images and sound. Memories that should be warm and friendly take on a malevolent tone and even the film of still life (Tessa’s jewellery) looks otherworldly and creepy. The room, separate from the rest of the gallery by walls. might be a portal between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the viewer confronts the real possibility that what s/he thinks is real isn’t real at all and that the world as imagined by Dick in his novels and short stories is the real world.

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: beautiful layered Gothic steampunk film steers viewers into a heart of darkness

Anthony Lucas, “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” (2004)

A nominee for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 2006, this is a visually beautiful and richly layered Gothic steampunk adventure story that is equal parts Lovecraftian and Conradesque horror. Young navigator Morello (voiced by Joel Edgerton) in the industrial city of Gothia accepts a commission to help fly a dirigible to parts unknown. He does this partly to atone for a previous voyage in which, due to a mistake he made, a crewman fell to his death. Morello leaves his wife Emilia at home as she is needed at a hospital to nurse patients dying from a mysterious plague.

An eccentric scientist Claude Belgon joins the crew and the ship chugs away; it crashes into an abandoned vessel and the crew quickly transfer to that vehicle. In his regular radio correspondence with his wife, Morello hears her hacking coughs and realises she has contracted plague. Nevertheless the men continue their journey despite one man also sickening from plague and they soon come across several sky islands. By accident, they discover that the boiled blood of a strange creature on one island cures the sick crew-member so they collect cocoons and take them back on board the ship. While on the journey home, Morello realises that crew-members are mysteriously vanishing and stumbles across the awful truth about the hatched larvae from the cocoons and their link to the disappearances.

The story is very focussed, not too complicated, and the pace moderately fast. The animation is a mix of layered 2D pictures and cut-outs made to resemble 3D objects and the characters themselves appear as silhouette cut-outs reminiscent of an Indonesian wayang shadow-puppet play. The use of first-person narrative makes the film resemble a Joseph Conrad novel and Joel Edgerton’s measured and refined tones make his young navigator a sensitive character. Morello does tend to be passive and easily influenced by the sinister Dr Belgon and the blustery Captain Griswald, and this passivity brings a touch of J G Ballard to the proceedings. The mix of Australian and near-English accents brings a salty nineteenth-century flavour to much of the film. The story gradually transforms from the thrill of adventure in its first half to quietly macabre and devastating in its second half, topped by an open-ended conclusion in which Morello, in the manner of a Ballardian hero, submits to the advice of the malevolent Belgon in the near-hopeless belief that by so doing he will save his wife’s life if not his own.

Themes of sacrificing one’s own life for the greater good of society and the advancement of scientific knowledge, and of the moral dilemma that faces Morello when he discovers what the last larva from the cocoons needs to survive – yes, if he kills it, he’ll save his own life but not his wife’s life; if he allows it to live, then he must offer himself to it – give “… Jasper Morello” a deep, dark intensity befitting its Victorian Goth look of sepia, blue and grey tones. Belgon is a typical mad-scientist type who embodies Conrad’s Kurtzian hero: his thirst for knowledge and fame drives him to commit heinous acts of murder. Interestingly the film has as its climax a conflict between Belgon and Morello that forces Morello into choosing whether or not he should repeat a past mistake, and it is this choice that determines whether Morello becomes his own man, albeit with horrifying consequences.

Morello’s passive nature, the switch from Jules Verne adventure to macabre horror and the anti-climactic cliffhanger ending probably counted against the film in competition for the Best Animated Short Oscar but I find this is a very immersive short piece of great intensity, technical detail, bittersweet tragedy and many allusions to great horror and science fiction writing: depending on where viewers are coming from, they can probably find hints of Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, H G Wells and Bruce Sterling. The film is aimed at a general audience though it is very creepy and chilling for young children, and it’s well worth watching a few times to appreciate its distinctive animation.

 

 

 

Night of the Hell Hamsters / Eel Girl: two efficient comedy horror film shorts

Paul Campion, “Night of the Hell Hamsters” (2005), “Eel Girl” (2008)

Film shorts are a flexible medium for telling particular kinds of stories or expressing ideas in ways not possible in full-length feature films, usually due to budget limitations or the idea not being substantial enough to sustain over 40 minutes of viewing time. The two shorts under review are respectively the first and second directorial features for British / New Zealand director Paul Campion who came to film-directing somewhat late in his life after a career of illustrating book covers and doing texture painting on films.

“Night of the Hell Hamsters” is an affectionate parody of and tribute to B-grade supernatural horror films that are usually aimed at a teenage audience. Julie (Stephanie Ratcliff) is babysitting for her neighbours on a dark and stormy night when her boyfriend Karl (Paul O’Neill) drops by with a Ouija board game. While playing with it at Julie’s insistence, the two accidentally summon up a demon from hell which for strange reasons of its own decides to inhabit the bodies of two pet hamsters. The zombie hamsters torment Julie and Karl with a wickedly twisted sense of humour that subjects the youngsters to laughably crude sexual jokes and, for Julie, misogynist taunting. The girl is forced to adopt vampire-slayer heroics to fight the rodents.

“Eel Girl” combines comedy, science fiction and horror in half the time Julie and the hamsters sort out their differences. A military officer drops in on two scientists at a naval science laboratory with an order to take one of them away for briefing. The man protests, saying that protocol requires at least two people to be working together in the same laboratory at any one time, but the guard subtly threatens him and the two leave together. The second scientist (Euan Dempsey) immediately switches his focus to a pet vanity project, perhaps secretly approved by his superiors, which is studying a female hybrid eel-human (Julia Rose). Behind a safety barrier, the creature signals interest in the scientist and the man, excited and nervous, throws caution aside to open the security door to touch and maybe kiss the girl.

The first film is straightforward story-telling with jokes, clichés and some errors in continuity and logic which may be either deliberate or accidental. There’s no indication that the hamsters attack the sleeping children being babysat. The two actors playing Julie and Karl carry the entire film capably which is as well as the tension dissipates quickly after the hamsters turn demonic and the only thing of interest to viewers is to see how Julie atones for her innocent mistake in summoning the demon. On the whole, the film is well-made as it should be but, by itself, it says little about the director’s talent and ambition.

“Eel Girl” is a more serious proposition, more elegant and efficient in style, that builds up and sustains the suspense right up to the moment when the hybrid performs her own version of oral sex. Dialogue is completely non-existent after the officer leads away one scientist and the remaining characters communicate their feelings through their body language alone. Close-ups of the second scientist’s face and his behaviour (licking his lips, fiddling with his clothes, clenching his fists) and the quick editing involved reveal his anxiety and maintain the growing tension. There may be some very interesting ideas hinted at in this short: defence scientists using taxpayer money to engage in ethically dubious activities winked at by senior brass;  men’s attempts to control nature and women for selfish purposes; and humanity’s presumption in manipulating and splicing DNA material from different species to achieve a certain result, only to get something completely unexpected that threatens to become a disaster. The very limited setting – a darkened, cramped room and a dirty grey-green chamber dominated by a tub filled to the brim with thick black gunk provide the scene – helps to give the film a sinister atmosphere that enhances the tension.

Rose’s make-up which covers her whole body (she appears nude) makes her look cold and alien, and the actor herself moves in a slow, steady and studied way as though to suggest her monster is studying the scientist as he studies her. The film’s make-up budget obviously didn’t extend to cutting all of Rose’s hair off so that she could look more eel-like and maybe even a bit obscene with a shiny bald head but that’s a cosmetic detail that probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall plot build-up. The special effects used in the film’s climax don’t look completely realistic – viewers can easily see computer enhancement has been used – and I would have liked to see the monster’s second set of jaws in her throat working themselves forward as she opens her mouth. (I’m assuming the eel that inspired the film short was a moray eel.) The climax would have looked a lot more natural and gruesome.

For a five-minute film, “Eel Girl” is a punchy effort that packs in good acting, sustained tension, black comedy and a dark atmosphere. For once the lack of a back-story to the monster and how the naval laboratory acquired her invites viewer speculation about what the film could be saying in the way of a theme. There may be no theme at all and viewers can read whatever they wish into the film. It’s a huge improvement on “Night of the Hell Hamsters” and if Campion can build on this achievement – at this time of writing, he was working on a full-length movie and had a few other movie projects on the boil – he’ll go a long way indeed: upward that is, not downward as that foolish second scientist did.

 

 

 

Once Were Warriors: compelling film with complex characters but disappointing message

Lee Tamahori, “Once Were Warriors” (1994)

An intense film from New Zealand of a family in an impoverished and degraded social environment dominated by alcohol, a defeatist attitude and violence, this is certainly uncomfortable viewing but what the film says can be very compelling. A bare plot is embellished by careful character development in the unlikely shapes of Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison), an urban working-class Maori man, good-looking and muscular, hot-headed, sentimental, given to drink, gambling and fighting, and his wife Beth (Rena Owen) who is torn between her love for Jake and her knowledge that his behaviour is destroying them and their five children. Already at the start of the film the two eldest sons Nig (Julian Arahanga) and Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) are going their separate ways: Nig joins a gang and Boogie is made a ward of the state and removed from home. Beth relies on her 13-year-old daughter Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) to take Boogie to his counsellors and to help out at home while Jake, recently unemployed, spends his time at the pub drinking, gambling and singing with his mates. He brings them home most nights as well. Beth enjoys the company of the men and their wives and girlfriends and joins in the fun but realises too late the consequences of having Jake’s friends around at a time when Grace is growing into a beautiful teenager. Tragedy befalls the Hekes and Beth is forced to decide between keeping the family together and saving the children she has left.

Jakes and Beth’s fiery pas de deux is the backbone of the film and carries it to the bitter end; the actors playing them do a masterful job with their characters. At times they are restrained and act with their eyes and faces and when required Morrison and Owen may over-act to the point of caricature. Jake and Beth are not simply stereotypes of the alcoholic wife-basher and the battered wife who forgives him over and over: they love each other deeply and there is an obvious sexual attraction between them. They have an easy-going and carefree attitude to life and as long as they have each other the future can take care of itself (and therein lies part of the problem). Unfortunately traditional attitudes about gender roles, which may or may not come from Maori culture, intrude: Jake expects Beth to be passive and obedient at all times. Their dialogue, behaviour, their social environment and the baggage they bring from their upbringing make change difficult in spite of Beth’s repeated resolve to remove her children from the violence. It might be said too that the effort to keep the family together and the older boys out of trouble is sapping Beth’s strength and that of any woman in her situation, however strong and committed she might be. Female friends who hold similar attitudes as Beth and Jake do about male-female relations in marriage are no help. For much of the movie Beth is a passive person who does very little and only snaps into action-hero mode in the last half-hour of the film.

Kerr-Bell nearly steals the show from the two leads as Grace, the young and innocent girl who seems old and wise for her age. Intelligent and idealistic, she keeps a journal and writes imaginative stories ofr her two younger siblings. With her friend Toot who lives in an abandoned car under a highway underpass, she plans to escape her life of urban poverty and deprivation. It’s easy to imagine that in a very different culture and time she would be groomed to be a healer, a shaman, a custodian of tribal lore and knowledge and a leader. Grace’s development as a character of sensitivity on the verge of womanhood makes her traged all the more heart-breaking.

The film suggest that social differences between Jake and Beth’s birth families play a part in their dysfunctional relationship but there’s nothing about how or why Jake has become so estranged from and hostile to his Maori heritage while Beth is close to it and has a positive relationship with it. The “elephant in the room” – the pakeha (white) culture – is the framework that surrounds the Hekes and their world which has brought them grog, gambling and alienation from both Maori and pakeha culture itself. The film offers no way in which the Hekes might negotiate a less troubled and a happier path that combines the best of Maori and pakeha traditions. Might the situation have been that Beth’s social class in Maori culture was the warrior class which was allowed to keep its traditions by the British by selling out the Maori lower class (Jake’s level) in some way? In the meantime Nig and Boogie find their own way back into reconnecting with Maori culture and expressing their masculinity but whether both boys can find their own niches in both Maori and pakeha society is a question the film can’t answer. It looks as if Boogie’s way of rediscovering his Maori heritage is better than Nig’s way but is a watered-down Maori culture seeking accommodation and integration into pakeha culture but getting nothing in return the best way to go?

The film’s conclusion seems hasty compared to what went on before but it looks quite open-ended – we don’t know if the sirens are those of the police or of the ambulance – and there’s the possibility that Beth’s resolve might flag again. Nig’s experiences with his gang could have been a significant sub-plot commenting on family and cultural relationships and on how boys and men learn about masculinity in dffferent cultures and sub-cultures. How men form a masculine identity and use it or abuse it is a major theme in the film. The lesson viewers might take from “Once Were Warriors” is that the working-class fusion of Maori and pakeha cultures that form the Hekes’ world is a degraded one with values and attitudes that trap people like them in poverty, hopelessness and violence with no change or improvement possible. Only by rejecting this fusion and going back to traditional Maori culture is there any hope for change. What constitutes “traditional” Maori culture and whether all its customs and traditions are worth keeping and preserving is another thing altogether; before the pakehas came to New Zealand, Maori society could be and often was very violent.

Penelope: film’s beauty can’t compensate for static plot and characters

Ben Ferris, “Penelopa” aka “Penelope”  (2009)

Lovely to look at but beautiful, almost abstract scenes of nature and long circular panning shots that lovingly savour the object of their focus can’t compensate for a nothing story about a faithful wife moping for a long-lost husband who went off to the wars years ago. “Penelopa” imagines the interior life of Penelope, wife of Odysseus the king of Ithaca, who supported King Menelaus of Sparta in the Trojan wars. The wars last 10 years and for another 10 years Odysseus and his armies wander lost among the lands around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. During this time Penelope puts up with loneliness, worry, bringing up any children she and Odysseus may have had and fending off a horde of suitors – in ancient Greek legend, there were 108 of them – vying for her hand in marriage so they can get theirs on her wealth and properties.

Of course in real life Penelope would’ve been busy enough managing her household and assets, acting as regent for an absent king and beating off the suitors with cunning, guile and a suite of bodyguards but “Penelopa” makes no reference to the life a noble woman might have led in the Age of Homer. Penelope (Natalie Finderle) spends her time lost in memories of the past and dreams about the future as represented by various rooms in her mansion. In one memory, Odysseus (Frano Maskovic) s is about to leave to journey to Troy. In one dream, Penelope finds the suitors have abused and killed all her ladies-in-waiting; in another dream, she strings her husband’s bow and kills off the suitors. The boundary between reality and Penelope’s inner world dissolved, our heroine resumes her patient wait for her husband.

The sense of isolation in the mansion’s gloomy rooms, the feeling of being trapped, memories of happier times, the desolation, longing and unfulfilled desires … all hang heavy throughout the film. A powerful sense of being marginal is conveyed by the costumes: the white draped robes of the women suggest funeral garb as opposed to the men’s colourful peasant costumes. A strict separation of the genders exists here though that might not have been the original intention: the women inhabit the world of home, the interior and seem not of this planet; the men are comfortable in their world of war, physical lusts and activity.

Long left-to-right panning shots that circle various characters, very little editing and a music soundtrack dominated by slow solo piano melodies create a languid pace and maintain a sense of introversion and contemplation. Passing of time is indicated by changes in nature: summer storms that occur early on are replaced by piles of autumn leaves over the forest floor. A dream-like quality is emphasised by characters fading in and out of scenes that might have come straight out of paintings.

In spite of its visual beauty, “Penelopa” leaves this viewer unimpressed: on the assumption that the climax is a dream, the plot cycles about with its characters remaining much the same at the end as at the beginning. Penelope will have her good days full of hope for Odysseus’s return and her bad days when she can barely get out of bed. Odysseus will continue to fade in and out of her dreams. The ladies-in-waiting continue to serve her loyally and the suitors to gorge on her hospitality. If the climax is interpreted as real then viewers may be relieved that Penelope has acted in a decisive way but then this passage becomes the only part of the film that departs from legend and the question may be asked why the rest of the film doesn’t. Penelope could be shown berating her absent spouse for abandoning her to life and holding conversations with the gods to demand why they’ve let Odysseus die and her live. In this way Penelope becomes a more active figure who can decide how she can spend her time without Odysseus: she can wait for him by moping or she can create an independent life for herself. Then we might have a great work of art that engages the mind in an enquiry on fate and the purpose of life, especially for women and children left behind by dead husbands and fathers. In ancient Greek society, such unfortunates suffered loss of status and faced an uncertain future if they didn’t belong to powerful families. Assumptions about the lives of men and women and their separate worlds, their different status and how they deal with their differences could have been challenged.

Additional questions about Penelope’s loyalty, her motivation for remaining faithful to Odysseus and whether viewers can learn something from her about faith, hope and inner resources when you are under siege from patriarchal social, economic and political institutions that allow intolerable situations such as the 108 lovestruck twats eating you out of house and home must remain unanswered.

Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.

Heavenly Creatures: a rich and dark dramatisation of a real-life matricide

Peter Jackson, “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

Having made his reputation as purveyor of gory splatter horror comedy flicks to amuse teenagers and kidults, New Zealand director Peter Jackson made his jump to the mainstream film world with the drama “Heavenly Creatures”. The film is based on a notorious and sensational New Zealand murder trial that took place in 1954, in which two young teenage girls were charged with the murder of the mother of one of the girls themselves, and were sentenced to 5-year jail terms in prison, after which they were to change their names and never see each other again. Rather than focus on the actual trial itself, in which various psychiatric experts were brought in to ascertain if the girls were lesbian or insane, “Heavenly Creatures” details the friendship of the girls, how it developed and the intense fantasy world they wove together as their way of coping with social restrictions and pressures in the provincial conservative society of 1950s Christchurch in southern New Zealand.

Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) is a surly outcast at her girls-only high school until new student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) arrives from the UK. Both girls discover they have much in common: they suffered from serious illnesses as children and spent time in hospital; they are highly intelligent and imaginative and share the same interests in music, watching movies, reading books and making up their own stories. As the friendship grows, Juliet invites Pauline to her home and Pauline is amazed to discover that Juliet’s family is wealthy and cultured in contrast to her own working class folks. Together the girls create a fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, populated with clay figures the girls make; the youngsters also dress up and act out the adventures of the Borovnian royals which they then chronicle in novels they eventually plan to publish in the US. Perhaps a film director will even make movies out of the books! Meanwhile Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) and Juliet’s father (Clive Merrison) start to worry over the girls’ intense friendship; Pauline’s mum drags her offspring to see a psychiatrist who can hardly bring himself to mention the dreaded “L” word. Eventually the parents meet and agree that the girls should be separated. Juliet’s mother (Diana Kent), having an affair with another man and sympathetic to Juliet and Pauline, suggests the girls can spend a fortnight together before Juliet is dispatched to a relative in South Africa indefinitely. During this time the girls plan to run away and plot to kill Pauline’s mother whom they believe is the instigator of their separation.

As the two girls, Lynskey and Winslet are excellent: initially Winslet looks too old (she was 18 or 19 years old at the time) to play a girl in her mid-teens but she quickly sweeps away any misgivings about her suitability as Hulme. Her acting seems florid for modern audiences unused to the way upper class English teenagers might have behaved in the 1950’s but in moments requiring real emotion, Winslet is realistic enough. As Rieper, Lynskey nails the girl’s complex nature as she goes from resentment at her lower class background to exhilaration in Juliet’s company to a kind of puzzled alienation at losing her virginity. The emotion in Lynskey’s face, depending on changes in her character’s circumstances as she interacts with Peirse and other actors, is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie; the girl’s not a beauty but her face, often framed in close-up, is a real study of changes in feeling and mood. There is an electrifying chemistry to Lynskey and Winslet’s interactions that apparently continued beyond the film itself; in a weird case of life imitating art, the two continued to call each other Pauline and Juliet after filming ended! The acting support is top-notch as well, bringing out a strong impression of the social gulf that exists between the Riepers and Hulmes and which leads Pauline to despise her background, particularly her mother who’s the disciplinarian in the family in contrast to Juliet’s easy-going and rebellious mother.

The film’s approach is strictly narrative and realist: told from Pauline’s point of view, using the girl’s actual diary extracts as the source for Lynskey’s voice-over monologues, “Heavenly Creatures” presents the events leading up to the murder without taking either the girls’ side or their parents’ side. The social and economic context in which the girls meet and create their imaginary world, itself both a witty and cheeky commentary on the culture they’ve grown up with and a place to express their rebellious tendencies and frustration at social expectations of them, emerges as the elephant in the room that informs the girls’ fantasies and breeds the resentment Pauline feels for her family and mother. The fantasy world of clay figures, mediaeval castles, Italian operatic arias and English gardens, sometimes laid over the real New Zealand landscape of green fern forests in which the original Maori culture has perhaps been extinguished, is presented as appearing more real than real life itself and often intrudes with bloodthirsty relish in Pauline and Juliet’s day-dreams. Jackson’s attention to replicating details of New Zealand life in the 1950s looks accurate and captures the flavour of both the warm if claustrophobic working class life of Pauline’s family and the languid, free-wheeling life of Juliet’s family. Fantasy sequences featuring adult-sized clay figures and recreations of scenes with US actor Orson Welles from Carol Reed’s famous 1950s film “The Third Man” are often droll, wickedly funny and slightly sinister at the same time.

The cinematography which takes in panoramic and bird’s-eye views of the wide plains of Canterbury province in southern New Zealand is often very beautiful; the plains and the lush green forests could be symbolic of the girls’ desire for freedom and self-expression. By contrast, old newsreel scenes of mid-20th century Christchurch before the movie’s opening credits show a city that could have existed anywhere in Australia or New Zealand of the same period, apart perhaps from a shot of the Anglican church that was damaged in February 2011 by an earthquake.

It’s a pity that the film doesn’t go beyond the murder and show the voyeuristic and prurient aspects of the trial which would have demonstrated the sexually repressed and hypocritical side of 1950s Christchurch society in dismissing the girls as “evil” while salivating over the trial’s details through the newspapers of the time. Hints that the girls may have lesbian tendencies are explored tastefully: Pauline finds her first sexual experience with a man an alienating non-event and the scene in which the girls embrace and kiss in their underwear in bed could be construed as acting out parts for their novel – after all, someone has to play the prince! – as well as suggesting a sexual aspect to the friendship. Juliet plays a dominating role and Pauline is her adoring acolyte in the relationship. The film doesn’t dwell much on the family dynamics that encourage the girls to retreat deeper into their shared fantasy: there is no hint of the conflict in the Hulmes’ marriage (though there must have been as the mother has a lover and the parents are as alike as the proverbial chalk and cheese) or in the Riepers’ relationship even though hte movie clearly shows Honora as a dominant character and her husband as a bit child-like.

Although “Heavenly Creatures” on the surface is a straightforward fictional retelling of a real-life drama with no apparent agenda, its themes of sensitive, intelligent individuals who try in their own way to cope with the restrictions their society places on them and the frustrations these cause, of how the fantasy worlds people create reflect their culture and help them cope (or not cope) with their reality as it changes, and the psychology of teenage girls together give the film a richness that informs the acting and fleshes out the drama with dark Gothic imagery. There is a gentle suspense that with the moderately fast pace builds quietly and inexorably to the horrific climax.

The Fringe Dwellers: gentle comedy with limited message about a family struggling with racial prejudice and discrimination

Bruce Beresford, “The Fringe Dwellers” (1986)

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Nene Gare, this gentle and minimally made movie is a compassionate look at the plight of an Australian Aboriginal family struggling with poverty, racial prejudice and culture shock and the effect these have on a young teenage girl in the family. When we first meet them, the Comeaways are living in a shack in a shanty-town on the edge of a town in rural Australia: they don’t have electricity or hot water on tap of course but what they lack in material things, they make up for in close family support and ties. One of the teenage girls, Trilby (Kristina Nehm), dreams of the family moving to a better house and neighbourhood where blacks and whites live in harmony and trust, and of completing her education and being able to get a job and work on equal terms with white people in the city. When Dad (Bob Maza) gets a steady job, Mum (Justine Saunders) moves the family to a Housing Commission home, and Trilby and her younger brother (Dennis Walker) get to go to school regularly, it really looks as if the Comeaways will pave the way for other families in the shanty-town to shift out of poverty into a brighter future. Uh-oh, things don’t turn out the way Trilby had hoped: the extended family arrives at the Comeaways’ new home and various relatives park themselves permanently on the furniture or the verandah and glue themselves to the TV set and in Mum’s make-up kit; the food and electricity bills shoot up without a corresponding increase in the family’s income; and Trilby’s parents have problems paying the rates on time. Unable to cope with the noise and the family’s financial problems on top of schoolwork, Trilby turns to a young bronco-rider (Ernie Dingo) for comfort and companionship but ends up falling pregnant to him. Eventually Dad deserts the family and everyone is forced to move back to the shanty-town shack.

Much of what happens to the Comeaways is played as gentle comedy which portrays starkly some of the problems and issues the family has to deal with. The members are able to bat and swat outright racial bullying in the streets and at school but racial discrimination doesn’t end there: when Mum and Dad have problems making ends meet, the town offers no help or guidance to them. Social isolation would appear to be a problem for Mum but apart from the appearance of a friendly neighbour who invites her to her place for afternoon tea the film skirts over this issue. The parents struggle with low self-esteem and trying to fit in with their white neighbours’ ways in spite of their poverty; at the same time, they’re obliged by their cultural background to share their house and possessions with their relatives who take advantage of them. The neighbours’ reactions to the Comeaways’ presence are difficult to fathom.

The acting is well done if minimal, in keeping with the film’s pared-down style. Characters tend to be resigned to their fate and restrained emotionally with only Trilby actively rebelling against the status and place predetermined by society for her and her people. The Comeaways accept their lowly lot in life but are always hopeful that one day things might improve. However, such improvement will come at a cost: in a scene near the end, when Mum tries to console Trilby after the birth of her child, she refers to the destruction of their native culture and knowledge – the possibility of reconciling material advancement with preserving First Nation cultures, values and knowledge isn’t entertained. This is probably the saddest moment in the film, not least because it indirectly leads to Trilby having to choose between staying with her people and accepting what they accept, and following her ambitions and ideals by going to the city. The climax when Trilby makes her decision and literally cuts her ties to her family and culture in the hospital’s toilet room is shocking and heartbreaking, though curiously the film continues with Trilby going home with her family and no-one saying anything; there are not even any subtitles to suggest that she might have stayed a bit longer in hospital for some psychiatric treatment.

Nehm is outstanding as Trilby who wants better for herself and for her family but comes under terrific pressure from both her own culture and the expectations of Western society; her performance in the women’s toilets scene is quiet and powerful, the character raising her arms as if in question or supplication and her appearance becomes almost Christ-like and sacrificial. (She sacrifices more than just a baby.) Saunders and Maza as Trilby’s parents provide comedy and drama in turns, and each is credible in both: Maza’s character is torn between the demands of his breadwinning role and his natural inclination to take things easy and have a good time, and Saunders’s Mum does the best she can keeping the family together with the limited knowledge and resources she has with a sunny though fatalistic outlook on life. Among their people, actions speak much louder than words: Maza’s scenes outside the Housing Commission office where he’s just about to pay his rent and where he gambles instead the money away, and the strain and guilt of his behaviour as these show on his face, are something to behold in this respect. A subplot beckons when a white teacher discovers Trilby’s young brother has artistic talent and gives him a sketchbook but doesn’t come to more than that.

The cinematography is beautiful and colourful, as might be expected in a movie where remote countryside is everywhere: the ambience of the town with its small shops and pubs is evident. Something of the small-minded outlook of the white townsfolk and the racial prejudice that exists is always present.

The ending calls for a sequel which would follow Trilby’s adventures in the city and how she copes with city life, particularly the psychological aspect of it, but to my knowledge this has never been made nor is it likely to be made. Viewers can be certain though that whatever happens to Trilby when she leaves the town, she will always remain a “fringe dweller”, never really at home in any society, including the one she was born into.

Unfortunately the film’s narrow focus on the Comeaways’ struggle personalises their problems to the level of neighbours and other people they have direct contact with, and says nothing about how racial discrimination and prejudice are institutional in their society. Discrimination is reduced to a matron at a hospital or a teacher or school student being nasty to the Comeaways but that’s all. But how did Trilby work out in the first place that being a strict nuclear family living in a house would be a way of breaking down the physical and psychological race barriers? Either someone taught this to her or she’s picked it up herself and rationalised the idea as the “ideal” way of living for her people if they are to advance socially. Seems like the one person most brainwashed and prejudiced against the worth of Aboriginal culture and its values is Trilby herself. In this respect, the film can be unintentionally patronising towards the people whose interests it aims to defend: it suggests that Australian Aboriginal and other First Nations people can overcome discrimination if they adopt the ways and the thinking of Western society but never offers the idea that Western society itself could learn something from these people’s cultures.

Balibo: film that forces viewers to think and ask questions about tragic fate of six news reporters

Robert Connolly, “Balibo” (2009)

Imaginatively constructed as three stories that initially fit into one another like Russian matryoshka dolls, of which two more or less spread out and run parallel for much of the film, “Balibo” recounts the fate of five Australian TV reporters who disappeared in Balibo in East Timor in October 1975, and of their compatriot journalist Roger East who investigated the men’s deaths and was himself killed by Indonesian soldiers a few weeks after the original murders. Often billed as a political thriller, the film also dramatises several accounts and stories by East Timorese people, represented by the fictional character of Juliana da Costa, and pays tribute to them and the heroic struggle of their people for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia. The film acts on another level as a road movie in which Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, becomes a close friend of young revolutionary Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaacs), the founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor aka Fretelin, who invited East to come to East Timor to see and report on the events there.

LaPaglia carries much of “Balibo” as the veteran journalist who could have had a cushy public relations job back in Australia but chose instead to go rough in abandoned villages and tropical countryside to find the five reporters after Ramos-Horta shows him their photographs and tells him they are missing. LaPaglia’s performance is understated and matter-of-fact in the manner of stony-faced, hard-nosed Australian news reporting of the 1970’s; later in the film, when he has been to Balibo, seen some horrific sights and returned to Dili, the full impact of what happened to the reporters hits him and he breaks down silently in tears. LaPaglia plays his part quietly and well, giving a good impression of a seasoned reporter who refuses to take no for an answer, pushes himself to walk through thick forest and grassland under army fire and banters with Ramos-Horta on their trek.

As Ramos-Horta, Isaacs doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking good, being a fired-up revolutionary and bickering with East as they walk to Balibo. He disappears from the film after they reach the town and his character doesn’t appear again until the very end. The actors who play the five TV reporters in the film’s recreation of their journey to Balibo to document the Indonesian invasion are portrayed as chummy (though their employers are rival TV stations – in those days, Australian free-to-air TV channels were more co-operative and less competitive), drinking and laughing together, doing the best job they can filming and reporting on what they see under difficult and stressful conditions, and collecting stories from the local people. Their death scene is painful and shocking in its casual and brutal nature; the men’s fear and near-hysteria as the killers pursue them are very real but not overly dramatic, particularly in a scene in which one man, hiding behind a door, panics and considers his options wordlessly before bravely opening the door to face his killers.

All other significant roles in “Balibo” are played by East Timorese amateurs. The role of Juliana is well played by a young girl who as the eight-year-old Juliana makes friends with East and later sees him being killed, and by an older woman in her 30’s who tells of her life under Indonesian occupation to an Australian man at the time of East Timor’s independence in 1999. Viewers will warm to the young girl who is very charming in the small amount of screen-time she gets.

Filmed on a small budget, the movie relies partly on handheld camera work which means a lot of it looks jumpy to viewers. The story of the five Australian reporters appears in bleached-out, over-bright colours: the film-makers use lenses typical of what was used in Australian news reporting in 1975 to film that part of the plot. Unfortunately, many historical details are glossed over and the despicable role of the Australian and American governments in tacitly approving the invasion – it’s known that US president Gerald Ford and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger passed through Indonesia a few days before the invasion took place, and that then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam believed East Timor should be “integrated” into Indonesia – is reduced to Ramos-Horta’s scatological comment on a photo of Whitlam and Indonesian president Suharto in a newspaper. What happens to Ramos-Horta after he and East arrive in Balibo isn’t made clear though viewers who don’t know much about East Timor’s current politics will be relieved to find he survived the Indonesian occupation in exile and became president of East Timor in 2007. As president, Ramos-Horta has so far been lukewarm on the idea of prosecuting members of the Indonesian military for war crimes against East Timor that left over 180,000 of his people dead.

Apart from its limitations, “Balibo” is an excellent movie that is worth watching. It doesn’t provide much historical background to the tragic events but as drama it’s intended to get audiences thinking about the fate of the Balibo Five and East, and to demand answers from the Australian, American and Indonesian governments about why the six men were killed and their deaths covered up for so long.