The late Albert Namatjira is unquestionably Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist, with his works hanging in galleries all around the world, and even somewhere inside Buckingham Palace. But like so many high profile indigenous Australians, his story is touched by sadness and tragedy. While he was featured on a postage stamp, Namatjira was also mistreated by the government. His paintings are currently tied up in a copyright bind that has long prevented Namatjira’s relatives – many of whom continue to paint in his watercolour landscape style – from seeing any of the considerable revenue generated by his work posthumously. The Namatjira Project – which includes exhibitions, workshops, a stage play, and a public campaign – was set up in an effort to raise funds to buy back the copyright to Namatjira’s work, and it’s the focus of Sera Davies’ sprawling but cogent eponymous documentary.
With the creation of the Namatjira Project stage play as its narrative centre, the doco shoots off in many directions, but the emerging theme is what extraordinary good can be achieved when Australia’s black and white communities come together in the spirit of peace and harmony. The work of Albert Namatjira was introduced to the world largely through the artist’s discovery by fellow painter and Anglo-Australian, Rex Battarbee, and the pair would also eventually become close and long-lasting friends. In a similar vein, The Namatjira Project is the result of intercultural cross-pollination, with the stage play a powerful collaboration between writer/director, Scott Rankin, and his charismatic leading man, Trevor Jamieson. Wedged in amongst the stinging sadness and constantly ebbing waves of pain, these relationships dose Namatjira Project with a welcome sense of warmth and positivity.
Though splicing together multiple narrative strands, debut director, Sera Davies, crafts something clear and concise with Namatjira Project. She expertly tells Albert Namatjira’s story through interviews and historical footage while also delivering an entertaining “behind the curtain” showbiz doco, as the stage play’s creators sweat on it all coming together and then smile with shock and wonder as they’re later swept off to perform in London. The plight of Namatjira’s descendants, meanwhile, is treated with dignity and sensitivity. When stitched together, it makes for a fascinating and deeply human portrait of the complicated life, stunning work, and unfairly misplaced legacy of Australia’s most famous indigenous artist.
Maude (Adelaide Clemens) is an Australian medical student living in Germany. A year ago her twin sister Cleo disappeared from her home in Adelaide. While their family has moved on – even holding a funeral with an empty casket – Maude is haunted by dreams that Cleo is alive. Returning home, she follows a string of clues to a strange community out in a South Australian forest.
Rabbit is a great new Australian thriller: well-paced, smartly plotted, and brilliantly unsettling. It boasts several strong lead performances, some great surprises and plot turns, and a fairly innovative approach to music, editing and story structure. For writer/director Luke Shanahan it represents a confident and accomplished feature debut.
It seems a little predictable at first. Maude suffers a collapse in her German medical school and is sent home to Australia. She argues with her parents over whether or not Cleo is still alive, revealing a very broken family in the process. The only people who seem to believe her story are Ralph (Alex Russell), Cleo’s fiancée, and Henry (Jonny Pasvolsky), a troubled police detective who failed to locate Cleo a year earlier. All three follow Maude’s intuition, leading them out to a frighteningly unwelcome caravan park in the middle of the woods, and then-
And then the film simply flips. With a jarring scream of noise and a blank red screen the story takes a tyre-burning right turn into an entirely different kind of thriller. The paranoia shoots through the roof. There is a near-constant and steadily growing sense of dread. The mystery of Cleo’s disappearance is replaced by the mystery of what precisely has happened to her since. This discomforting new direction is accompanied by jarring visual and musical cuts and an ambivalent emotional tone. If the first half feels relatively American in style, then the second feels actively European. Much of the screenplay could easily have been shot in 1970s Britain, since it captures that period’s bleak, slightly disturbing tone so well. Anna Howard’s photography is exceptional. Michael Darren’s musical score, seemingly inspired in equal parts by John Carpenter and Italian ‘giallo’, is tremendously effective. Every jump cut in the music jolts the viewer. It is momentarily disorienting, because we have been trained by pretty much every other film we have seen that musical scores are not supposed to work that way. The cumulative effect is wonderful.
Adelaide Clemens provides a strong and hugely sympathetic lead, expressing a combination of vulnerability and dogged resolve. The cast’s other highlight is Veerle Bætens as Nerida, a camper in the caravan park who shows a particular interest in Maude’s investigations.
The film’s conclusion runs the risk of being rather divisive. This is not a film that ties up its story in a neat and obvious fashion. Shanahan appears to embrace ambiguity, and how one responds to his rather abrupt ending will depend entirely upon how willing they are to accept the unanswered questions that the film leaves behind. Then again, if you reach the end of Rabbit without satisfactory answers, it is possible you were asking the wrong questions.
Film buffs worth their weight in back issues of FilmInk know at least some key stories of improvisation in film, for example, how Tim Roth nearly lost an eye when Gary Oldman smashed a lightbulb in his face in the process of improvising a scene in rehearsal for Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1984). Roth stayed in character all the way to the hospital. Or Bruce Willis’s utter disdain for Cop Out (2010) leading him to deliver lines that had little relation to the script, requiring Tracy Morgan to devise unique and interesting verbiage to somehow introduce Bruno’s utterances to the general vicinity of the plot. That’s not to mention the likes of This is Spinal Tap….
LoveStuck is a totally improvised film according to producer/director Murray Fahey who states, during the audition process (snippets of which open the film), “We don’t really know what it’s going to be and how it’s all going to fit together.” If you’ve ever undertaken impro courses or watched Theatresports in Australia, chances are, you’ve encountered Fahey and a number of the LoveStuck cast, many long-term stalwarts of the scene. Indeed, Fahey is behind the improvised film festival that has run for a number of years.
LoveStuck’s (improvised) plot requires indecisive Josh (Rik Brown) to make a clear decision to detach himself from his ex, Kate (Rama Nicolas), before new girlfriend Cath (Cathy Hagarty) moves in, despite the interference of mutual too-close-for-anyone’s-comfort long-time ‘just a friend’ Trish (Patti Styles). So ultimately, Josh is faced with a difficult choice, made all the more so by requiring enough character, motivation and opportunity to justify it without it being disappointingly predictable or disappointingly unlikely. This, in fact, is what marks a good script when one exists: its ability to develop character, prolong drama, deliver comedy and progress the plot in the least self-conscious manner. In order to avoid extended periods of Woody Allenesque ‘scratch and mumble’ dialogue, when improvised, there usually has to be about a billion hours of footage in which to distil the precise golden kernel of… well, of the film itself, with drama, comedy, character and plot development intact. Thus, LoveStuck sets the bar impossibly high, and can’t help but fall a little flat.
That it can’t quite pull it off is evident especially in the inclusion of documentary elements – usually reserved to ‘special feature’ status on the DVD – promoted from b-roll to feature to help explicate plot where dialogue and action (we assume) cannot. While this neither-fish-nor-flesh approach makes for an interesting beast, it kind of defeats the premise. And can ruin an otherwise perfectly good ‘reveal’ for a less-savvy audience (We’re looking at you, Gabby ‘you’re terrible, Muriel’ Millgate). And if you’re going to thwart the premise, why not do so more spectacularly by, for example, scripting some of the interludes to make them stand out as ‘set pieces’. It seems like cheating, but some of the best live albums – if we may borrow the ‘live album’ as a paradigm – were doctored in the studio; whole sections re-recorded, elements beefed up or edited out. Thus, for example, the ‘Hip Hop Hamlet’ – a live impro performance Josh gets caught up in – is not as astounding committed to posterity as it would be encountered live. Perhaps part of the reason is because apart from the film crew, the audience amounts to a solitary couple in an empty park. Live performance, impro especially, frequently requires an audience to play off, as well as to.
That all said, the resolution of the love story is genuinely touching because of its improvised nature – nobody ‘knew’ the final denouement until it took place. And since the technical execution is flawless – the ‘look’ and the ‘feel’ all work – it’s a fair guess that LoveStuck has set a benchmark for where and how improvised cinema goes next.