Fred Schepisi has been labeled as a “major force in the Australian film industry” (1). Two of the three features he has made in Australia prior to this year – The Devil’s Playground (1976) and Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark, 1988) – have won Australian Film Institute awards for Best Film and Best Director (2). His latest outing, The Eye of the Storm (2011), has already won The Age Critics Award for Best Australian Feature Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival (3), and is being warmly heralded as Schepisi’s return to our shores. Considering it has been over 20 years since he made a film this side of the Pacific, this homecoming attitude seems justified. What seems odd is that, for all the Australian laurels and praise, Schepisi, prior to his current film, has made only three features (out of 15) that were physically and narratively based in Australia. For his impact on the Australian cinematic landscape to be so concrete, yet made with so few films, one assumes he depicted this nation in a way that reverberated with viewers. With the release of Schepisi’s cinematic return to Australia looming, it seems the perfect time to ask where he is returning to. What is the Australia that Schepisi (and his collaborators such as cinematographer Ian Baker) represented in those three films that left such an impression? What sense of place and nation did these films create? By mapping out how the narratives of The Devil’s Playground, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and Evil Angels sit within the “landscape”, the celluloid Australia of Fred Schepisi becomes apparent.
Schepisi’s feature debut, The Devil’s Playground, has been described as “the most personal feature film made in Australia, a semi-autobiographical exploration of the emotions of an impressionable boy and of the system that tries to crush his spirit” (4). It tells the parallel tales of the boys and priests in a seminary school in 1953 and their respective journeys in coming to terms with their religion and their sexuality. Based, in part, on Schepisi’s own brief experiences in a seminary school, the film is soaked in a nostalgic glow but is blunt in its interrogation of Catholicism. Writing for the “Australian Screen Classics” imprint, Christos Tsiolkas remembers watching the film when he was the same age as the protagonists. He recollects images of actors, plot shifts and tonal structure but tellingly reveals that “Looking through this list of memories, it strikes me as odd that I have included nothing about faith and spirituality, nothing about God” (5). He certainly connected with the themes of the film about fitting in and societal expectations but saw them as universal truths rather than specifically Catholic concerns (Tsiolkas’ interaction with Catholicism as a kid was limited to trading insults over the school fences and then setting off “to beat up the Catholic boys across the road” (6)). His repeated viewings of the film reveal a universal quality in Schepisi’s work: the tensions seemingly specific to religion actually speak to a wider sense of trying to conform and “fit in”. What Tsiolkas was responding to, in his words, was the beauty – “the colours are all cold but starkly intense – blues and greens” (7). It is this beauty, this landscape, that transmitted at least part of the film’s intent to him.
The Devil’s Playground begins and ends in the Australian wilderness, enclosing the film’s narrative in the bush. The opening shot is of lush vegetation, the camera floating up the river and eventually rounding the bend to reveal young boys playing in the water, their white skin seeming part of the ethereal landscape. Schepisi regularly connects – visually and narratively – the natural world with the boys’ (and, at times, the men’s) sexual awaking and freedom. It is beneath grand old trees that Tom Allen (Simon Burke) lies in the dappled sunlight with Lynette (Danee Lindsay) and receives his first kiss. It is in the woods where the boys fumble in the darkness with each other. And it is naked water nymphs that torment Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) in his dream. These sensual images of the landscape are visually interrupted by situating the brothers in their black cassocks within it, looking alien and out of place. Even that first shot is made jarring by revealing Brother Victor (Nick Tate) by the water’s edge, draped in black.
As the film progresses and the religious oppression bears down, the colour seems to bleed from the bush: “the bright greens, reds and yellows of the early autumn have been replaced by the dark blues and cold whites of winter light” (8). This bleaching of the natural world builds to the fanatic student Turner (Michael David) desiring further self-mortification in the freezing lake and drowning as a result. In desiring a closeness, albeit a perverted one, to the ways of the seminary, Turner is consumed by the natural world. There is no space in this natural place, in this Australia, for such extreme religiosity.
As Scott Murray puts it, “[t]he refusal of The Devil’s Playground to soften its perspective or aestheticise its material set the agenda for Schepisi’s subsequent work in Australia” (9). Though there is a certain aestheticism to his filming of the bush in The Devil’s Playground, the message conveyed through it is certainly not soft. The oppression of Catholicism, or oppression in general, does not fit in this landscape – in fact the natural world is the escape route from it (as seen in the final shots of the bush reflected across Tom’s face as he flees the seminary). What intrigues is that Schepisi’s Australian landscape, highlighting and lashing out against conformity in this film, is used to reflect the ostracising of the outsider, the non-conformist, in his next.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel of the same name, is a semi-factual account of Jimmy Governor (renamed Jimmie Blacksmith by the novel), the part-Aboriginal outlaw who was hanged, for murder, in 1901. The film, though premièring to much fanfare at Cannes in 1978 (10), received a mixed critical reception, primarily in response to the film’s violence and aggressive message. Henry Reynolds pinpoints the backlash being spawned by the fact that “Schepisi had condemned Australia as a nation deserving everything the axe and gun of a Jimmie Blacksmith could deal out” (11). Unsurprisingly, given the active role it played in The Devil’s Playground, Schepisi’s Australian landscape reflects and accentuates this condemnation.
The story follows Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) as he tries to integrate himself into white Australian society, but the inherent culture of racism (the first line of the film is “blasted blacks”) keeps him out. A man caught between two worlds, not a “true black” like his brother and never white enough for the Anglo-Saxons, Jimmie is permanently displaced between the two communities that inhabit the land. Constantly struggling to fit in, Jimmie eventually breaks, going on the rampage that leads to his hanging. Schepisi goes beyond the basic elements of characterisation and narrative to dislocate Jimmie from either society; it is the land he walks through that will not assimilate him, one way or the other.
In writing on the movie, Henry Reynolds draws on the ABC’s Big Country episode from 10 April 1978 devoted to the film. In it the cinematographer Ian Baker (who has shot all but one – Last Orders (2001) – of Schepisi’s features and is central to the director’s vision) explains when shooting the landscape they tried to “make every shot a Tom Roberts or somebody” (12). Reynolds draws attention to the meaning behind mimicking the Heidelberg School aesthetic in the film. It visually makes it a colonial landscape, one where the Aboriginal figure does not sit comfortably. Even when Jimmie is not in frame, the Australia on screen belongs to the white settler. Jimmie attempts to tame the land like a settler, most notably by building fences. These gestures are regularly thrown back in his face by “real” settlers: they throw him off the property when he finishes his job and they refuse to pay him for his work. Once he is on the run and “escapes” to nature, it does not liberate him like it does Tom Allen in The Devil’s Playground. Blacksmith is regularly framed in long shot, a man lost in a wide expanse – he is just as isolated in the landscape as he is in the “civilised” world. As Jonathan Rayner sees it “the wide expanses of territory are not ennobling or liberating because, in direct contravention of Aboriginal custom, Jimmie seeks to own land individually like a white settler. In the natural landscape he is literally homeless.” (13)
This wide expanse of nature that visually engulfs Jimmie (rather than literally engulfs Turner in The Devil’s Playground) is not the only alienating presence in this Australia. The wildlife also contributes actively to the texture that Schepisi creates. Rayner suggests that the fauna provide “an unnerving choric presence. Discomforting close-ups of reptiles and insects testify to the land’s menace and alien-ness, and to its function as a stage for violent, predatory activity by animals and men.” (14) Again, the land is echoing the action and intent of the narrative while also playing an active part. The close-ups also serve to further block Jimmie (or any human figure) from occupying the frame. The isolating landscape that this social outcast navigates is either so large that he gets lost or so focused that he doesn’t fit. When the frame sits more comfortably around Jimmie there is commonly a fence, a house or some imposed settler structure breaking up the shot. This is an Australia that has no place for someone who does not fit neatly into categories of black or white.
The Australia in Evil Angels further builds on the isolation and menace of the Australian bush while using it to highlight the ostracising nature of the Australian public. Evil Angels is based on the true story of Lindy Chamberlain, whose baby daughter was killed by a dingo at Uluru (Ayers Rock) in August 1980. Though a Hollywood star (Meryl Streep) plays the lead, the rest of the film is packed with a who’s who of Australian character actors. One reviewer has described Schepisi’s casting of his ensembles as “his ability to fill all the corners” (15). It has been questioned whether Streep was “absolutely necessary” for the film and, considering this was the director’s first film in 10 years at home, “if it is a return of the native, is it Australian?” (16) Regardless of its leading lady’s and its director’s international status (as well as that of New Zealander Sam Neill), the film tackles Australian concerns in a way that is a clear evolution from Schepisi’s previous engagements.
The film opens with a sweeping aerial shot over the Australian bush. The camera soaks up the iconic landscape but then, as it floats over a hill, it reveals Mt Isa, Queensland, an urban sprawl planted across the countryside. By 1980 it seems the settler sites disrupting the bush in Jimmie Blacksmith have grown into full-sized cities. Variations of this shot take place throughout the film to highlight the remote yet intrusive nature of these places. The most blatant intrusion of society into the land is around Uluru itself. Though the early sequences with all the “silly tourists” are played, in part, for laughs, the out-of-place nature of white people in this environment is clear. The menace of the landscape is also prominent throughout these sections, both directly through shots of dingoes lurking in scrub and watching children at play and, more poetically, through the framing of twisted trees and dark skies – natural yet menacing much like the Australia of The Devil’s Playground.
Schepisi’s running theme of conformity and fitting in also courses through the film. The film skews from the more traditional neutral viewpoint of an Australian docudrama and instead proudly wears its stance on its sleeve. In Scott Murray’s words, “Schepisi scathingly attack(s) the Australian public’s rush to judgment. Because the Chamberlains did not conform to the Australian norm… they were remorselessly criticized.” (17) Throughout the film, the audience is partial to snippets of conversation from everyday Australian households. Most of these are defamatory toward the Chamberlain family, believing the media hype that they murdered their baby. One of the most common points of discussion is the religion of the family who are Seventh Day Adventists. Both within the narrative of the film and during the actual events, a lot was made of their unusual religion – this is the unconventionality to which Murray alludes. By not being “normal” within the confines of the society (much like Tom, much like Jimmie) the Chamberlains are ostracised.
The press is also seen to play a huge role in alienating the Chamberlains from society – the film constantly cutting to them searching for the best angle on the story, ambushing the family for candid clips or laying bets on the outcome of the trial. Schepisi again is openly pushing his own agenda, as well as the Chamberlains, in these sequences. David Stratton explains how, when Schepisi was head of Cinesound’s Melbourne branch, he commonly refused to let his camera people join the throng surrounding major events – like the Beatles, or a crash at a Melbourne airport – feeling it would just add to “dangerous mass hysteria” (18). In the story of the Chamberlains, he found a story that blatantly demonstrated his strongly held concerns. Though the landscape does not mirror this particular thematic strand like it does in so many of Schepisi’s narrative and conceptual elements, it does help set Lindy free from gaol. As happened in real life, a man climbing Uluru – an act that early on the film is disclaimed as disrespectful – falls to his death. The site where he lands reveals a key piece of evidence that eventually proved the Chamberlains’ innocence.
Though the menace of the Australian bush exists on a sliding scale in these three films, it is always present and always echoing the concerns of the people who traverse it. Both passively in the way it is shot and the aesthetic choices made in shooting it, and actively through taking, isolating or freeing characters, the landscape is an active force in the Australia of Fred Schepisi. In all three films it is paired with a strong societal commentary connected to Schepisi’s worldview or personal experiences. His films are on a constant quest to understand how one fits in this country, be it religiously, racially or socially and what the consequences are of rebelling, refusing or just falling in-between. These are concerns that can resonate beyond their immediate subject matter. One can become displaced between cultures regardless of skin colour or it need not be religious belief that makes the public and press turn on you. As seen from Tsiolkas’ experience, Schepisi’s aesthetic can even make the conformist nature of the Catholic Church reverberate beyond the seminary. Schepisi’s Australia is a beautiful one, but it is one that bears the scars of many social wounds. His films highlight, debate and confront these societal injuries and engages with them through the landscape and the lens. His Australian cinematic output may be slight (at least in terms of feature films), but it carries cultural weight. His celluloid vision of Australia is unflinching, opinionated and sometimes brutal – much like the land from which it has sprung.
- David Stratton, The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1980, p. 139.
- A full list of which can be found at http://aacta.org/past-winners.shtml.
- Details of the film’s award and reception at the festival can be found in Philippa Hawker’s “Schepisi’s Artful Eye gets Wink from Judges”, The Age 6 August 2011: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/schepisis-artful-eye-gets-wink-from-judges-20110805-1ifj8.html.
- Stratton, p. 131.
- Christos Tsiolkas, The Devil’s Playground, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, 2002, p. 3.
- Tsiolkas, p. 11.
- Tsiolkas, p. 4.
- Tsiolkas, p. 71.
- Jonathan Rayner, Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, Machester and New York, 2000, p. 79.
- It was the first entirely Australian film to do so.
- Henry Reynolds, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Currency Press, Sydney, 2008, p. 55.
- Reynolds, p. 66.
- Rayner, p. 81.
- Rayner, p. 82.
- Sarah Maddox, “An Underdog of Australian Cinema – Fred Schepisi”, Metro no. 135, 2003, p. 60.
- Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (eds.), The Australian Screen, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1989, p. xiii.
- Scott Murray, Australian Cinema, Allen and Unwin in association with the Australian Film Commission, 1994, p. 139.
- Stratton, p. 127.