I’ve just finished reading Colin McCabe’s biography of Jean-Luc Godard, subtitled A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. It is a wildly inappropriate subtitle given that the best part of the book is McCabe sketching out the modernist influences that gave rise to 20th century artistic culture, and his exploration of the filmmaker’s Protestant heritage and its influence on his intellectual and filmmaking practice. But the later Godard remains elusive and the second half of the biography is marred by an increasingly sour tone that seems to arise from a cooling of communication between filmmaker and biographer. McCabe indicates this personal turn in his introduction but the fact remains that as a reader I missed any intellectual engagement with this remarkable filmmaker’s body of work. By the end of McCabe’s tome I had the feeling that rather than a comprehensive biography of Godard, we had instead a justification for the author’s own political choices and compromises. Though McCabe is attune to the promises of early modernism, and clear-sighted and articulate in describing modernism’s challenges to notions of the audience and tradition, by the time he is finished sniffingly condemning all forms of radical protest and attempts at counter-cultural expression, the thought crossed my mind that this book was an apologia from a Once was Marxist/Maoist/Feminist/Vegetarian. It’s clear by the final section of the book that McCabe has abandoned political engagement for a de-politicised Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and it is from this perspective he examines Godard’s post-’60s films and videos. There is certainly an interrogation of psychoanalysis in much of Godard’s post-Maoist cinema, but I believe there’s a lot more to his later work than that. McCabe isn’t interested and an opportunity to survey properly Godard’s latter period video and film experiments is lost. Historical perspective is eschewed for petty psychological interpretations (of the filmmaker rather than his work) and as a reader you are left with a sense that, for McCabe, cinema no longer matters. Been there, done that.
Which is fine for an academic in Pittsburgh who can entertain dinner guests with stories about his apparently misspent youth in the turbulent political and cultural explosions of the late ’60s and the early ’70s, but it is hard to have sympathy with his jaded belligerence when you are a film-lover trapped in the conservative landscape of early 21st century Australia. McCabe’s disillusionment with the cul-de-sacs of left-wing filmmaking may be historically appropriate. But there is undoubted passion, audacity and commitment in the politics, arguments and theories that gave rise to La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1967); and if Godard’s involvement with the Dziga-Vertov collective was ultimately a dead-end which resulted in his abandoning the radical premises of Marxist cinema, his subsequent work is unique in contemporary cinema in being a consistent intellectual exploration of the meaning and function of the image. Over 40 years, Godard has offered engaged, contradictory but always rigorous essays on the moving image: these are essays written in the language and technologies of the moving image itself. McCabe dismisses the work of the Dziga-Vertov group as largely “unwatchable”. Difficult, yes. Exasperating, yes. Failures, probably. But there isn’t one Godard work I have seen which doesn’t yield some challenges to myself as a spectator; which doesn’t include experimentation with sound and image that makes me fall in love with cinema all over again.
One Perfect Day (2004) is certainly watchable. The question is, Is it worth watching? This recent Australian film is set amongst the rave scene in Melbourne. There is no passion, no audacity and no commitment at all evidenced in this film. Directed by Paul Currie, the plot revolves around a classical music student, Tommy (played by Dan Spielman), who is obsessed with sound, and in making opera relevant to contemporary audiences. When his sister dies of a drug overdose, he returns to Melbourne and becomes fascinated by techno music and rave. (Tommy has been studying music in London, which begs the question of how committed he is to his explorations of sound when it takes a trip back to Australia for him to discover electronica). Through a series of complications, too banal and too silly to reiterate here, he falls out with his girlfriend, Alysse (Leeanna Walsman). Just when they are to get together again, Alysse is deliberately stabbed with a syringe by an evil drug-dealer and she too fatefully overdoses in the hero’s arms. Leeanna Walsman is terribly miscast in this film. We are meant to believe that she is sensual and alluring, enough so that she is an obsession for both the hero and villain of the movie. In publicity for the film, Paul Currie has alluded to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but there is nothing ethereal or mysterious about Walsman. She’s a solid woman who looks like she’d over-power the frail elfin Spielman, and she’s given some God-awful hippie clothes to wear that made me maliciously think of frumpy Aryan milk-maids. Dan Spielman gives a performance of such monotonous restraint, that Walsman is left floundering, over-acting, and never creating a believable character. There’s no way we can buy that Alysse is some kind of musical genius, that this stolid unimaginative woman would have the drive to be an artist. In the scenes where she and Spielman are together, the film completely falls apart because we can’t believe these two characters could ever get together. I think Walsman is woeful in this movie but what the Hell was director Paul Currie thinking in having her stagger around a warehouse rooftop in a supposed drug-induced stupor? It is amateurish, an adolescent version of drug-hell that leaves all the actors floundering in confusion. My response to Alysse’s death was acute embarrassment.
That the film arrives at least a decade too late is not in itself a major aesthetic crime. I think it says something, however, about the conservatism of Australian producers. In the early ’90s the film may have achieved some frisson from directly relating to a vibrant and adventurous subculture. In 2004 there is no possibility of that, so the very least we can expect is to be entertained and invigorated by the music. I was made uneasy from the beginning of the narrative when Tommy and Alysse kept talking over the telephone about a song they wished to write together. It is to be their magnum opus. He is to do the music, she the lyrics. Every bone in my body was telling me that it was unlikely the filmmakers were going to deliver on the promise of this expectation but the resulting song is so whiney and forgettable – Eurotrash bubblegum techno – that my embarrassment for the filmmakers mutated into anger. No-one involved in this movie has delivered the goods: the cinematography is flat and ugly; the editing is full of flashy technical effects whipped up in post-production to imitate the banal trickery of commercial music video, but the film itself is disjointed and messy; the soundtrack is unexciting and the original music work is lazy. Lamb’s Gorecki plays over the scene of Tommy’s sister’s funeral. I happen to like this song. But the choice is predictable and safe. As the final credits run, there is a remix of an Elton John song. It’s very bad Elton, but it is very appropriate for this movie.
One Perfect Day has received decent reviews in Australia. Why? It’s a stinker and it’s not doing anyone involved with One Perfect Day (except the distributors) any favours by praising such a badly crafted film. I probably wouldn’t care as much if I thought that there was some belief in what the filmmakers were attempting to do, some passion for their subject – and though I know this is seemingly a lot to ask of current Australian filmmakers – some love for cinema and its language, its potential and possibilities. I’ve heard Paul Currie being interviewed talking about his commitment to the ravers and the techno musicians which he claims his film celebrates. I don’t believe him. If that was the case he wouldn’t concoct a storyline that demonises drug use and seems to have been lifted from some hysterical Murdoch tabloid headline. The kid-glove handling of this film by Australian critics seems to be symptomatic of a special-pleading for Australian film which is doing none of us any favours. I was an audience of one at the multiplex in which I saw One Perfect Day. The kids are one step ahead of the critics. They know this film is a stinker.
Godard’s cinematic practice emerged from his years of watching film and from his film criticism. The young French critics who revolutionised cinema through the New Wave didn’t feel the need to patriotically excuse their national cinema when it came to their demands for better, greater movies. They held no punches. But they were also informed about a world beyond cinema that included books and politics, argument and ideas. That allowed for collaboration but also for antagonism and separation. That’s why they splintered, why Godard’s cinema became increasingly radical while Truffaut’s began to imitate the cinema he initially fought against. Their one shared belief was that film mattered. There isn’t one Australian feature film released over the last couple of years that matters. Are you missing out if you don’t get to see Gettin’ Square (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2003) or Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) or Ned Kelly (Gregor Jordan, 2003) or Dirty Deeds (David Caesar, 2002) or The Night We Called it a Day (Paul Goldman, 2003). If you were to examine Australian feature films over the last few years you would have no sense of the seismic conservative cultural realignment that has occurred in this culture. One Nation, Tampa, the war on terrorism, Reconciliation, Iraq, asylum seekers and detention, and what’s been the response of our feature filmmakers? Largely silence. The blame game can begin with funding bodies and the market, or with critics and the media, but ultimately it has to fall on filmmakers themselves. Or is The Hard Word (Scott Roberts, 2002) and One Perfect Day the best we can do?
Increasingly the only Australian films I can be bothered seeing are documentaries. There, at least, some semblance of engaged cinema and image making seems possible. But occasionally there is a gem of a feature film like Paul Middleditch’s A Cold Summer (2003). Not that the film is necessarily “political” or “relevant”. Its emotional terrain is limited, an investigation of three young bourgeois characters who are, in their different ways, all damaged and alienated from the inner-urban Sydney culture they move through. From the opening credits to the sad final shot promising a tentative emotional rapprochement, A Cold Summer indicates that everyone involved does care about what they are doing. The two major strengths of the film are the fine ensemble work of the three leads – Teo Gebert, Olivia Pigeot and Susan Prior – and the director’s fine eye for mise en scène, the importance of the frame. Middleditch is a trained visual artist and the film’s best qualities are painterly, in the sense of his capture of colour, tone and light. A Cold Summer is at times indulgent: there are scenes, obviously improvised, that go on too long. But Middleditch has affection for both his actors and characters and the film offers a melancholy, muted examination of contemporary alienation. It’s also sexually honest and mature, no small thing for an Australian film. While watching it I couldn’t help comparing it to John Duigan’s early film, Winter of our Dreams (1981): it has a similar pace, and like that earlier film, A Cold Summer captures something of the disillusion and confusion of our contemporary moment. Seemingly the outside world does not intrude in the claustrophobic emotional games played out by the three characters in A Cold Summer. But their petulant, self-destructive actions can’t be dismissed because they resonate with the present ethical and spiritual confusions of a significant part of the art-house audience. A Cold Summer is a strong enough film experience that it will withstand being viewed on video, television or DVD, but if you get a chance to see it at the movies, do so. It’s a real film.
I couldn’t help thinking while watching Peter Weir’s pompous Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), that only an Australian director could have made such a respectful and traditional film from what is ultimately a piece of junk fiction. It seems unlikely that any current British director could have made such a retrograde colonialist epic without some ironic or satiric distance; without some lampooning of the upstairs-downstairs stereotypes of the ship crew, or without some malicious satirising of the jingoistic imperialism of Russell Crowe’s Commander. Weir’s interpretation is faithful except for the telling change of making the enemy French rather than the Americans of the original. I know Master and Commander is a Hollywood film, made with big studio money, but the slavish praise for it in the Australian media is not misguided. Maybe it is the perfect Australian film for our contemporary moment. And it made me want to do damage.
In Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Colin McCabe’s conclusion is, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it as such, pessimistic and defeatist. He indicts Godard on the failures of the radical politics of the late 20th century, though surely the filmmaker’s post-collectivist work must be read partly as a response and rethinking of those radical aesthetics and positions. McCabe’s reflections arise, in part, from the shock of the 2001 bombing of the New York City World Trade Centre. The mistakes of the post-1968 cultural revolutionaries are many, undoubtedly, but it is a long bow to draw if he is seeking to make connections between contemporary nihilistic terror and the radical aesthetic conclusions of the post-1968 European intelligentsia. It is an argument that does have suggestive possibilities but it needs to be better enunciated to be effective. In the end, Godard’s British Sounds (1969) or Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98) or In Praise of Love (2001) are not bombs: they’re films, they’re videos. That’s not blood, it’s the colour red. Personally I wouldn’t mind a few bombs hurled at Australian cinema and moving image. Metaphorical bombs, polemical bombs. As a national cinema, it’s bloated, lazy and empty. It’s a disgrace.