The history of Australian cinema is littered with small-scale, unobtrusive and even intimate portraits of working and middle class life that are largely forgotten in many accounts of what is troubling called Australian National Cinema. Some critics, such as Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka, Tom O’Regan and Jake Wilson, have intermittently sung the praises of this low-key, mostly Anglo-Saxon and often suburban cinema. One of the most touching, observant and uncondescending films of this type is Ray Argall’s once celebrated first feature Return Home, a joyous, unaffected but also melancholy portrait of masculinity, suburban life, everyday social change and the tireless pull of memory and family. Although pointedly contrasting the cramped verticality of modern day urban Melbourne with the flatness, horizontality, blinding light, communality and spaciousness of a temporally “stagnant” Adelaide, Return Home is a film more concerned with the rituals of daily life than the sibling rivalry that underlines many accounts of the distinctions between Sydney and Melbourne. Although unpretentious and unfussy in its style and aesthetic choices, the film’s affecting title sequence combines (I won’t say contrasts here) images of everyday leisure and daily life with the second movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
This opening immediately makes us reconsider what we are looking at – images of people on the suburban Adelaide beaches, playing cricket, being pulled over by the police, fluffy dice, and, most substantively, driving and working on hotted up cars – asking us to reassess conventional and expected ways of representing class, everydayness and popular culture. The yearning strains of Dvořák’s music – originally composed as a response to various appropriated tales and musical forms of Native and African American culture (such as Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha) – are intermingled with the sounds of cars racing, revving engines, children at the beach, laconic Australian accents and verbal expressions, and bat on ball. Argall originally intended to score this opening with a pop or rock song from the period it is meant to represent: somewhere in the 1970s. The opening shot, tilting down from the raised bonnet of a car to its less than gleaming engine, immediately sets up expectations that we might hear something like the machine-tooled pop music in Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (and the other ambient sounds in the film’s opening may also reinforce this). Argall’s choice of score – partly motivated by the upwardly mobile tastes of one of the film’s central characters – shouldn’t work… but it does.
This stately, almost Ozu-like opening montage is one of the few sections of the film that features relatively short takes and camera movement, and helps clearly establish the film’s milieu and its wistful view of suburban life. The images combined here range from those that emphasise the flatness of the Adelaide topography and the unhurriedness of daily life to those that highlight the city’s reputation as the drag racing capital of Australia. In some ways this documentary-styled opening is a paean to a vanishing way of life, a kind of memory book of geographies, social activities and places that are being swept aside by urban development, diversification and economic rationalism. Although these are all themes that are highlighted by the film – mainly tested through the bonds between estranged brothers reunited after one returns from the “big smoke” (Melbourne) – they rarely seem forced or rushed in the film’s gentle exposition.
It is only in the final moments of the credit sequence that we are introduced to the central characters who will drive the subsequent story, somewhat charmingly posed in front of the suburban service station that will be the main location of the film, and the site of much matter-of-fact hand-wringing about social change and financial hardship. The rendering of period is very simply managed in this opening, recognising the insignificant differences between the world of suburban Adelaide (mostly the seaside suburb of Glenelg) in the 1970s and the late 1980s. Even the attempts at making the close to middle-aged actors (Frankie J. Holden, Dennis Coard, Mickey Camilleri) look younger – through clothing, make-up, hair styling, etc. – are less than convincing, highlighting both the film’s low budget and the continuity between these moments in time. The photograph that is subsequently taken of the group then appears on the office wall of Noel (Coard) a decade or so later, further emphasises this movement and continuity in time. In some ways this brings us back to the film’s choice of music, and Dvořák’s lilting, haunting, yearning, almost timeless theme. Dvořák’s complex composition is both an entreaty to the “new world” and a looking back, a recognition that the “world” being evoked may have already passed into legend and memory. Although it may initially seem a surprising choice, Dvořák’s symphony – combining “overheard” themes from Native American, African American and various European folk cultures – provides an apposite sense of the new and the old, the forging of new frontiers and the return to home. In some ways, the combination of image, ambient sound and music in this opening sequence joins together several of the key strains of Australian cinema since the 1970s, most particularly the classical realm of the “AFC-period” film and the harder-edged domains of the “ocker” comedy (the extremes of which Return Home consciously plays-down) and the more contemporary suburban movie. Although such generalisations of form and style fail to do justice to the rich diversity of Australian cinema beyond the mainstream, this combination of the classical and the popular, the cultured and the profane, the here and now, also speaks to the deep cultural traditions and divisions of Adelaide itself.