Over the past two decades, Rolf de Heer has arguably emerged as Australia’s leading active narrative filmmaker: excepting one or two figures working mostly outside this country, none of his contemporaries can match him for ambition, productivity and range. Yet few would deny there is frequently something “off” about his work, which too often relies on crude caricatures of sadistic authority figures and victimised misfits. Even D. Bruno Starrs, for the most part one of de Heer’s greatest champions, grants that his hero can fall into “heavy-handed didacticism” (p. 65) on “the level of an overwrought, over-bearing and over-annoying loudspeaker” (p. 40).
Over-annoying? As these quotes begin to suggest, those hoping to solve the Rolf de Heer movie mystery will get little help from Starrs’ often ineptly written monograph. Even if it wasn’t spelled out in the acknowledgements, it would not be hard to guess that Dutch Tilt, Aussie Auteur began its life as a PhD thesis; many passages seem shaped to win the approval of an examiner, rather than reward any other kind of close attention.
The book opens with the kind of discussion of auteurism and its discontents that seems obligatory nowadays in any study of an individual filmmaker – though the topic is particularly relevant to de Heer, who has always tended to play down claims to sole authorship (his 1997 Dance Me to My Song even identifies itself in its credits as “a film by” its co-writer and star Heather Rose). All Starrs has to offer on this front, however, is a rehash of old debates on the level of a third-year screen studies textbook, leading to the utterly banal conclusion that “auteur analysis is a fundamentally subjective methodology that relies on the analyst’s personal judgements” (p. 6).
With that settled, Starrs is free to launch into a conventionally descriptive and evaluative account of de Heer’s career, devoting a short chapter to each of his eleven features in chronological order. Clearly, not all of the films interest him equally, and the need to say something meaningful about each of them leads him down a number of blind alleys. After musing for half-a-dozen pages on Tom O’Regan’s description of Dingo (1990) as a “jazz film” (p. 19), he concludes that it no more qualifies as jazz than does “most other cinema created by filmmakers with imagination” (p. 24). A fair call, no doubt, but then why bring up the idea in the first place?
Starrs’ more cogent observations are focused on two, related areas. The first is de Heer’s approach to sound – specifically, the “binaural recording techniques” he has used since Bad Boy Bubby (1993) to enhance our identification with his outsider protagonists. This aspect of his technique has already been examined by several critics (1), and Starrs doesn’t have much new to add, apart from providing some fresh examples of subjective sound design – most appealingly, the moment in de Heer’s family-friendly potboiler Tail of a Tiger (1984) when we enter the aural headspace of a young boy (Grant Navin), who imagines tin lids whirring like aeroplanes as they spin through the air.
The second focus is a thematic one: Starrs claims that de Heer’s films are structured on an opposition between “macho, controlling masculinity” and “sensitive, nurturing non-masculinity” (p. 3). This is convincing up to a point: within his fictions de Heer certainly enjoys stripping away the delusions of white men who see themselves as powerful and righteous, most obviously the characters played by Gary Sweet in Alexandra’s Project (2003) and The Tracker (2002).
But this formulation too swiftly cuts the traumatic knots that can be found everywhere in de Heer’s work, which at its best is far less morally complacent than Starrs would have us believe. His innocent victims like Bubby (Nicholas Hope) or the Tracker (David Gulpilil) readily reinvent themselves as murderous avengers; his monstrous mothers can hardly be described as “macho”, but still less as “nurturing” or “sensitive”. It’s not that Starrs fails to take note of these complicating factors, which in a film like Alexandra’s Project are impossible to ignore. But in the final analysis he feels free to set aside anything that conflicts with his view of de Heer as a civic-minded, politically responsible artist.
When it comes to issues of form, he likewise seems unable to make the most of his own scattered insights. The chapter on Ten Canoes (2006) quotes de Heer’s tantalising description of the indigenous storytelling technique of “cascading repetition” (p. 82), but Starrs never gets around to applying this to an analysis of the film’s own intricate narrative. There’s an interesting paragraph on editing patterns in Dingo that defy “understandings of cause and effect” (p. 21), but no exploration of ways that this insight might apply more broadly to an oeuvre riven with jumps in time and leaps in logic. In contrast to the detailed treatment of sound, there is not much directly about visual style: Starrs characterises the silent comedy Dr Plonk (2007) as an environmentalist screed, without attempting to show how it adopts or adapts the conventions of early cinema. And despite the punning title (a “Dutch tilt” is slang for a canted camera angle), there’s no sense of how de Heer’s Dutch heritage specifically informs his work, beyond aligning him with a European tradition of art filmmaking, and suggesting that his sympathy for outsiders can be linked to his childhood experience as an immigrant.
Though Starrs does not fail to cite all the usual theoretical suspects – including Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault – there is a curious naivety to this book, which in an odd way brings author and auteur closer together. Summing up the end of Bad Boy Bubby, Starrs declares that the formerly deranged hero, Bubby, has “reached the zenith of familial bliss, that catholic goal of humans: a loving partnership complete with children playing in his suburban backyard.” (p. 35) I find it hard to tell how much irony is intended here, much as I remain unsure how far de Heer means at the end of his film to affirm the ideal of the nuclear family which, earlier, has been profaned through grotesque images of incest and murder.
In a climactic burst of wishful thinking, Starrs maintains that de Heer, far from being an outsider himself, in fact possesses “a typically contemporary Australian worldview” grounded in the non-macho values of an “egalitarian, multi-cultural, near-utopian society” (p. 87). Taken at face value, that would mean that his work, far from being subversive in any sense, is designed to reinforce an established social order. It’s a debatable point, but at least as persuasive as Starrs’ earlier, throwaway equation between de Heer’s style and the 1970s radicalism of the Dziga Vertov Group! Epsilon (de Heer, 1995) and Letter to Jane (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)…now, there’s a double bill I’d like to see.
Dutch Tilt, Aussie Auteur: The Films of Rolf de Heer, VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co. KG, Saarbrucken, 2009.
- See Cat Hope, “Hearing The Story: Sound Design in the Films of Rolf de Heer”, Senses of Cinema, 31, April-June 2004; Melissa Iocco and Anna Hickey-Moody, “‘Christ, Kid, You’re A Weirdo’: Aural Construction of Subjectivity in Bad Boy Bubby,” in Rebecca Coyle (ed.), Reel Tracks: Australian Feature Film Music and Cultural Identities, John Libbey Publishing, Sydney, pp. 122-136.