A French poet once said, “there is another life, but it is inside this one”. That could describe the way of being of Australian illustrator and cartoonist Michael Leunig perfectly. Now, finally we have a documentary about his life and work called, revealingly enough, The Leunig Fragments. We are never going to get the whole guy, he is too contradictory and fractured for that.
Documentarian Kasimir Burgess (who made the fictional feature Fell to great acclaim back in 2014) has taken nearly three years to get this in the can and, though he is patient with Leunig, you can feel touches of exasperation. It is not that the great cartoonist is not helpful, in fact there are endless face to face conversations in which he tries to explain his thoughts and processes. Most of the film is made up of this with several of his cartoons and animations thrown in. Like many artists, Leunig is quite fascinated by what art is and where inspiration comes from, but he is also deeply suspicious of exposing too much to the light in case it shrivels and dies.
Also, Leunig is pretty much a ‘national treasure’, and so it is not hard to find other people in the media to be sympathetic talking heads. ABC Radio broadcaster Phillip Adams points out that no one stays the course for decades unless they really have something to say and care about being heard. Adams neatly nails Leunig’s sly apparently-innocent approach as ‘weaponised whimsy’. Indeed, the best of Leunig can be uniquely memorable. Like the Canadian cartoonist Gary Larson, everyone has their favourite Leunig, and his drawings adorn middle class fridges throughout the land. On occasions, he can stand in for the conscience of a nation.
That said, he has made the occasional misstep in his long career and felt the pain of rejection. His sometimes ill-judged gags about LGBTI issues saw him recently fall on the wrong side of cancel culture. The film implicitly alludes to the fact that Leunig’s is a Boomer sensibility. Up and coming entertainers definitely don’t feel that they need to treat him with kid gloves or reverence.
The film also circles around the fact of his sometimes strained personal relations. Only one member of his semi-estranged family takes part in the film. Leunig worries away at this a bit, but then he worries about a lot of things. He also notices a lot of things that other people don’t notice they have noticed. He has a poet’s eye for detail, and he is primarily concerned with what he calls the ‘felt life’. He also prizes simplicity and being true to oneself (he is Christian in a quirky kind of way). But, for such a determinedly simple man he is decidedly complex.
Ultimately it is not a matter of forgiving or condemning the man or his art; that would be to fall into a very modern form of judgementalism. Though the film is slightly unsatisfactory in some ways, it nevertheless has a fascinating person at its centre. In the end artists care about their art and, yes, they contain multitudes.
There’s something universally appealing about an underdog story. Of seeing a group of unlikely characters achieve goals far beyond their humble beginnings, or limited opportunities. It doesn’t get much more underdoggy than Parkway Drive, a band formed in 2003 by a bunch of self described “surf rats” from Byron Bay. The band, comprising Ben Gordon, Luke Kilpatrick, Jeff Ling, Winston McCall and Jia O’Connor, play a sort of hybrid of metal and hardcore – unashamedly designed for maximum mosh pit mayhem – that has taken them from some of Australia’s less salubrious venues to headling the biggest metal concert in the world, Wacken Open Air.
Viva the Underdogs is a feature-length hybrid of documentary and concert movie, showing glimpses of the unlikely journey as well as some of the trials and tribulations faced by this self-managed band on their way to international success. It’s a pleasing mix of triumph, adversity and even comedy, with the continuing failure of a molotov cocktail onstage gag feeling almost Spinal Tap-esque in its absurdity. Another moment, where all the power in the venue goes out during a Hollywood gig is utterly devastating, although the band do their best to rally and make the most of interacting with their fans. Sure, sometimes the boys in the band are farting, swearing gronks, but they genuinely give a shit about their fans and audience enjoyment, and that’s hard not to like.
Viva the Underdogs is a love letter to fans of Parkway Drive, and those folks will make up the bulk of the audience for the one night only cinema release on January 22. However there’s an undeniable appeal to the whole venture, even in its unashamedly earnest moments, and there’s something quite delightful about hearing Aussie accents ring out during a massive international concert, saying “danke, danke, danke” before ripping into another shredding number. Probably not for the unconverted, but for fans of Parkway and Aussie metal in general, VivatheUnderdogs will be a noisy treat.
Like with most stories, the moment that gets The Biggest Little Farm rolling is a deceptively simple one: husband and wife John and Molly Chester want to give their dog a good home, one where it won’t keep running into problems with the neighbours and their landlord. Seeing this as an opportunity to fulfill one of their dreams, they decide to pack it all up and start a farm. A very big, very diverse, very insanely-riddled-with-complications farm.
Built on the foundation of John’s experience in nature photography, the film is bursting with vibrant wildlife, making everything from the hardened dirt they first have to work with, to the eventual flourishing, to the numerous, numerous shots of animals crapping look quite appealing. This is aided by the occasional animated interjections, furthering this film as a real-life example of the Old McDonald nursery rhyme.
And it is an example forged out of forehead sweat and primeval clockwork, as John and Molly’s quest to make the land tenable gives an insightful look at biodiversity in action. From live birth to accidental death, from irksome predators to unlikely allies, the way that the farm’s ecosystem is shown puts emphasis on all the little pieces it consists of. The main livestock, their animal protectors, the various crops within ‘the Fruit Basket’, the outside forces of coyotes and freak weather, even the snails crawling up the fruit trees; it’s all part of a larger whole, with each obstacle faced serving as another chance to put the puzzle pieces together.
It’s also all kinds of adorable, to the point where post-film conversations will likely consist mainly of which animal is cutest. While making Pyrenees guardian dogs and a marching army of ducks look appealing isn’t exactly that hard, the centrepiece of Emma the pig shows the film’s empathy at full force. John has a mantra of observing nature to see what happens, and with Emma, he seems to have stumbled onto a genuine character arc. It’s rather surreal to think that Emma’s personality is better fleshed out here than far too many characters are in mainstream big-screen fiction.
Getting the audience onside and caring for the animals involved also adds to the film’s bigger picture, which boils down to two people wielding an almost-blinding level of idealism and putting in the work to make it manifest. With everything that gets thrown at them, even making John question his own ideals in the process, their want for a simpler and eco-friendly existence is what pushes them forward. In John’s own words, “intent alone is not a protector”, and he certainly backs that up so that his own loftiness doesn’t just amount to empty words.
What we get out of all this is a synecdoche of the world’s ecosystem, portrayed through the cyclical design of a singular farm, and imbued with enough sheer optimism that it proves quite infectious. Given current concerns regarding our own treatment of the environment, this offers some real compost for thought.
The old idea of an artist having a ‘muse’, traditionally implies a male artist being inspired by a beautiful woman. The assumed gender politics of this might be even more ingrained if the artist is subject to all the temptations of a rock and roll lifestyle.
Nick Broomfield’s (Kurt and Courtney, Whitney: Can I Ne Me) gentle and celebratory documentary about Leonard Cohen and his sometime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen is subtitled words of love.
Broomfield has a personal connection of his own. As a young man in the hippyish 1960s, he travelled through Greece. In particular, he spent time on the idyllic island of Hydra where he met, and briefly fell for, Marianne. She was a sun-bleached blonde Norwegian whose round, welcoming face and easy manner attracted many men. The most famous of these was the young Canadian Jewish poet, Leonard Cohen.
It seemed that more or less everyone on the island was either taking drugs or sleeping with each other, or probably both. At least that is the way that those alive today remember it – and there are plenty of relations and old friends happy to be talking heads and provide telling little anecdotes.
Marianne and Leonard were a golden couple in that scene, and it is obvious from the early footage that they were having a lovely time. If that was all there was to it, then the film wouldn’t have much edge or narrative arc.
As many would already know, the initially shy poet was persuaded that he could sing and he went on to become, well, Leonard Cohen.
For several decades he was the rock poet of choice for so many, and ranks with Dylan, Paul Simon and Neil Young as one of the great greatest singer songwriters of the second half of the twentieth century.
The film doesn’t contain any sustained concert footage and it resists the temptation to play ‘So Long Marianne’ as an endless backdrop. Instead, the focus is very much on their love story. They both died fairly recently (their deaths being separated by only three months) and, though they split decades ago, many here testify that she was his greatest love.
There are darker or unresolved areas of course. Marianne’s son Axel (by another relationship) was a rock casualty by default in a way. Also, as already implied, the outcomes of the era of so-called ‘free love’ was structurally unequal.
Leonard resisted bourgeois conventions of marriage and family. Artists have done this for centuries, but the freewheeling promiscuity and no-strings lifestyle he was able to escape to were still built on the not-coincidental inequalities that served the rock gods so much more than the women in their lives.
Dylan River’s documentary chronicling the Finke Desert Race, an off road, multi terrain two-day race for bikes, cars, buggies and quads through desert country from Alice Springs to the small Aputula (Finke) community, is as awe-inspiring and endearing a tale of heartbreak and the bone-shattering quest for racing glory to come down the pike in quite a while.
The treacherous route on the bone-dry Finke river bed, that stretches hundreds of kilometres out of Alice Springs, is a two day event that comprises of two race sections, one day spent racing one direction, pitching tents, drinking (a lot), staying the night and then doing the race back to Alice the next day.
Four-wheeled vehicles race first, followed by the motor bikes. Hundreds compete for the sake of adventure and for the ability to tell the story that they completed the insane race, though there are professional bike riders in it for the win.
We’re introduced to the KTM team rider David Walsh, an Alice Springs local. Yamaha sponsored bike racer Daymon Stokie is something of the underdog in the event, though he’s also a local. There are a number of other riders who we follow in the gruelling race, one in particular is Isaac Elliott, who attempted the race some years earlier only to hit a tree and break his spine, leaving him a paraplegic.
Isaac’s intention is to finally finish the race, so he enlists a mechanic friend in Alice Springs who welds a frame onto the bike to cradle Isaac’s legs, so he can straddle and ride a bike and hopefully even finish. While he does this, he’ll be shadowed by two friends on motor bikes, who’ll ensure he’s helped whenever he needs it.
It’s the sheer lunacy of the venture and Isaac’s bloody-minded grit, to strap himself to a bike and potentially face further bodily damage in an effort to get closure, that haunts him daily, that is not just deeply aspirational but also extremely moving.
Bearing many similarities to the documentary TT3D: Closer to the Edge , which featured similarly obsessed, crazy-brave riders who compete in the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race, an equally treacherous race where the riders and their families understand that injury and loss of life is part of a competitive rider’s lot. Where the Isle of Man racers compete to be dubbed King of the Mountain, the Finke riders compete for the moniker King of the Desert.
The cinematography in Finke: There & Back is stunning, with aerial photography taking full advantage of the desert locations and the outback’s wide-open vistas. This is a documentary that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available.
Narrated by renowned revhead Eric Bana, Finke: There & Back documents that most quintessential Australian trait: the ability to shrug-off the most crushing, soul-destroying and difficult tasks with a joke, a laugh and an ice cold beer.