Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tedium unmedium

When I started uni, I had a bad habit, originally acquired at English classes in high school, of watching films and reading a deep and meaningful significance into every film that I saw. 'Oh look,' my film-watching mind would say. 'She's making salad. Clearly, her use of the knife is symbolic of an internalised savagery, and the greenness of the salad compares with the greenness of the walls, thus creating a strong internalised dynamic of powerful greenness, which in turn becomes associated with her act of barbarous barbarity! What a powerful and significant scene.' Though, in fact, the scene was probably, in actuality, an unremarkable scene about a person making salad, and nothing more.

What I really loved were huge, Peter Greenaway-style spectacles, where a whole bunch of ugly and obtuse images and ideas were farted onto the big screen, and I could just pick and choose some specific stupidities according to my whims. Give me a scene of a bloodied woman making a salad with a meat axe in a grim, war-laden landscape, while fighting off Morlocks, and I would be happy. (Yes, it's true, though I was a pretentious dolt, I think I subconsciously longed for the innocent simplicities of dark fantasy.) But actually, I could find meaning and significance in anything (see discussion, above, about salad). By the time I finished uni, I think I'd pretty much realised my own stupidity, and was able to laugh at myself - I remember jokingly challenging my mate Aaron, when we went to 'The Phantom Menace', to see who could find the most Jungian references - but things had gotten pretty bad there for a while.

I mention this now because a few weeks ago, I saw an unremarkable film that was a little too boring, a little too amateur, and too long by far to really amount to much. And everyone else is raving about it: I wonder if they haven't, unconsciously, got into the habit of making a lot of significance from nothing, like I had at uni.

The film is Samson and Delilah. My local home-delivered Melbourne Times magazine said it was a must-see film. David Stratton gave it five stars, saying something like it was the most important Australian film ever. His colleague Margaret Pomeranz said it was one of the most wonderful films this country has ever produced. At New Matilda they were more level-headed, saying it had 'a rare authenticity' and signalled 'a powerful new voice'. Though maybe that was just an excuse for going off on one of their political rants. The film went to Cannes, though considering the state of the Australian film industry on most years, that's hardly a ringing endorsement. I remember the Oz even gave it several feature articles on its release - if they didn't think it was a great film, they were certainly doing a good impression of faking it.

Wonderful? Important? The film is deadly dull, a story about two kids who live in a town settlement a couple of hundred k's outside of Alice Springs. One of the kids has a bad habit of sniffing petrol. They get bored and move to Alice Springs. Nothing good happens to them in Alice Springs. They come back. The end. And that, in a nutshell, is it. There's nothing more too it, certainly no substantial character development. The film isn't a love story, as some have described it - the only real sign of courtship between the two lead roles is the scene where the boy Samson shoves his mattress over Delilah's fence, and she shoves it back. By the end of the film Samson is too zonked out on petrol to show any real emotion.

The main achievement of the film is length. Somehow, it's managed to fit the simple - even obvious - storyline into one and three quarter hours. It does this, mostly, by having long camera shots of Samson sniffing out of an old petrol can, and, well, long shots of Samson sniffing out of an old petrol can. To see this sort of thing once is horrifying, to see it twice is confronting. Three times, it seems pointless. The film makes a basic mistake: it tries to bore people in order to get them to feel what the boredom of the characters is like. I'm not sure to what extent this was the intention of the director Warwick Thornton, who seems like a smart guy; but that is what happens. Why do so many films do this? You wouldn't kill an audience to make a point about murder, and you wouldn't cut off their legs to make a point about amputation. So why is it all right to deliberately and repeatedly bore an audience to make a point about boredom?

I am wondering now if the entire critical community has gone nuts. Or maybe I so stuffed up my critical faculties at university by finding meaning and significance where there weren't any that I am now missing what other people find obvious.

Apologies for the rant; I'm reading a Charles Williams book at the moment that I quite like, and I might do a more appreciative review of that later tonight.

UPDATE! - It won the Camera d'Or. It feels kind of good to disagree with the entire world. Thanks Steve.


Caz said...


I see.

I had heard the gushing and had wondered.

Remember Japanese Story?

Total excrement.

Boring excrement.

But oh how the luvvies gushed.

I haven't trusted them since.

No one can be trusted to review Australian films.


Oh, btw, salad is often a metaphor for being tossed about by life. Alternativley: a state of being limp or crisp or overcome with condiments.

You were right all along, everything in visual mediums have hidden meaning.

Why did you abandon your descent into early insanity so quickly?

TimT said...

Yes, good question, I'm not sure. I think because I read books and watched films anyway, I saw them as a pleasure before I saw them as something to be analysed. So I found all that analysis rather tiring and difficult to keep up.

I also learnt about metaphor and symbol and all that rather late in the piece at school, so maybe I never properly got into the habit in the first place.

I wonder if all the people raving about S&D had just been suckered by the publicists - first-time director, from a disadvantaged ethnic community, appealing to middle-class city sympathies by delivering a 'harrowing' plot line about life in an economically marginalised community - I mean, it's the kind of film some folks love to love. It's easy to love an underdog, until he becomes top dog.

There has been at least one genuinely good Australian movie this year (at least a movie with strong Australian connections) - Mary and Max, by Adam Elliott. That hasn't got nearly as much gush as S&D, and I reckon it's because Adam Elliott is just too damned successful to appeal to the sympathies of the right people.

Steve said...

Wow. Great to see a rant against an Australian film, as it helps perpetuate my dislike and distrust of all such product since...well, since Australian film was made.

What you describe in terms of the pointlessness of the story is what I have often complained about in many European films. The mere fact that a love affair between not particularly likeable characters is "realistic" in a mundane sense seems enough to win critical praise, regardless of the fact that there may be no charm, tension, humour, character growth, lessons learnt, or even a barely satisfactory resolution of a dilemma. In other words, the key features which everyone except movie critics see as key features of an engaging story seem to be regarded as unnecessary.

Incidentally, there is very little dialogue, I think I have read. How is the story told: via grunts?

Steve said...

Sorry for poor editing of that post..

TimT said...

Well a character talks about Samson and Delilah 'walking off into the desert together' - she's teasing Delilah about the possibility of a marriage. And this Aboriginal group seem to cut their hair when a loved one/family member dies (that's where the reference to the Biblical story comes in), so it's used as a way of signifying a relationship between the lead roles. And obviously the bit where they go to Alice Springs is easy to do, because they just jump in a car and drive.

TimT said...

Margaret and David fell over one another in excitement at this film - check out their review:

DAVID: And he does it. He does it. He does it beautifully. And I think I should also say that it's a film that, while you're watching it, you feel that it's a tragedy, in a way.

It's a very sad story. But the way it concludes with such optimism, I think it really soars and I think every Australian should see this film.

MARGARET: I hope they do. Wouldn't that be great?

DAVID: It would be wonderful.

MARGARET: It deserves it David.

DAVID: It does.

MARGARET: It really does.

DAVID: And it's great...

MARGARET: I'm giving it five stars. I love this film.

DAVID: And it's great that it's been selected for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.

MARGARET: Well, isn't that good?

DAVID: Yeah.

MARGARET: Well, the world likes it as much as we do, too.

DAVID: I hope so. I'm giving it five stars, as well.


Blandwagon said...

I find that it helps to do the opposite of whatever David Stratton recommends. If he thinks a film is great, it's probably terrible. If he thinks it's stupid, it's probably rather good.

TimT said...

Ah, who can forget Stratton's verdict on the hilarious 'Team America' - 'I was disgusted by this film' - simply because it didn't accord precisely with his political beliefs?

Oh, David!

Caz said...

What the hell would we know.

S&D won best first film at Cannes.

Gushy, gushy.

It only took the chap 14 days to "write" the script.

Very impressive.

I say that in full knowledge that there is pretty much no dialogue.

In Cannes they were especially taken with this deep and moving teenager love story.


Suck it up folks.

We know nothing.

Nothing!As you were.

Caz said...

Steve - can't agree. About 30 years ago (my guess) far better films were being made here. World class and not at all cloying.

Impossible to fathom how a country can regress in the arts. It's mortifying.

(Sorry, tired & grumpy, too lazy to look up some example film titles ... Wake in Fright, Walk About, Breaker Morant ... ? Okay, not everyone's taste, but they were good, they were solid. Others besides those, but would need to use Google to tweak my memory.)

TimT said...

Oh well Caz - nice news for Warwick Thornton and the people that made the film anyway.

Caz said...

Yes, it's noice, really it is.

It does, however, encourage more of the same.

For that I heave a big sigh.

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