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Australian, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

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.

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Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Amiel Courtin-Wilson pretty much sets up the tone of 2008’s Bastardy within its opening moments. “If I were to hide any of this,” says indigenous actor ‘Uncle’ Jack Charles as he lays out his drug paraphilia. “I don’t think this would be a true depiction of my lifestyle.” It’s a powerful image and not the last time we see Charles this open and frank.

Courtin-Wilson shoots Charles from a distance as he wanders around the streets of Melbourne leaving the larger than life character to seem tiny and insignificant in the world around him. In the best possible way, Bastardy shows the mass of contradictions that make up the then-homeless actor. As he waxes lyrical about his addiction, his lost love and his criminal record, Charles can leave his audience humble by his cheerfulness. He is happy to share his tales and is good for a philosophical thought or two. And yet, with the demons that run rife in Charles’ life, this kind of optimism doesn’t continue all the way through Bastardy.

We can’t escape the tragedies that have befallen him, nor ignore the things he does over the seven years it took to make the film. A particular tense moment sees Courtin-Wilson forced to confront Charles about the theft of some property behind the scenes. Realising the game is up, Charles reluctantly admits to his deeds. All the while we’re reminded, through photos and archive footage, that this is a man of talent. When he’s invited to do a day’s filming for an unnamed production, you can literally see the light in Charles shine brighter; acting is his home, it’s his sanctuary. It’s a wonderful, but maddeningly sad moment.

Nearly ten years on from its release, Bastardy is still a powerful, bittersweet but optimistic watch about one of the biggest trailblazers in the acting world and indigenous rights.