Over the past 25 years Australian cult director Richard Lowenstein has established himself as one of this country’s most dynamic independent filmmakers. With four feature films to his credit, Lowenstein has straddled both period and art-film genres to give cinematic expression to the stories of everyday Australians and in doing so has consistently captured the cultural zeitgeist on film.
Born and raised in Melbourne, Lowenstein cites “being brought up without a television, and being fed a diet of Japanese and European cinema and literature in order to make up for it” (1) as a primary childhood influence on his filmmaking. In 1979, Lowenstein graduated from Swinburne Film and Television School.
Lowenstein’s graduate film, Evictions (1979), was a 30-minute short based on his mother’s Great Depression era tome, Weevils in the Flour, (2) which presented a powerful oral record of the experiences of ordinary Australians during the Great Depression. Through its deployment of documentary techniques and a rugged naturalism, Lowenstein created a vivid, cinematic snapshot of the social conditions that were present in Melbourne at a time when gross unemployment and State-aided evictions were rife. Evictions was awarded the Erwin Rado prize for Best Short Film at the 1980 Melbourne Film Festival, and marked the beginning of a longstanding collaborative relationship between Lowenstein and fellow Swinburne graduate, cinematographer Andrew de Groot, who also went on to shoot Strikebound, Dogs In Space (1986), Love Town (1990) and He Died With A Felafel In His Hand (2001) for Lowenstein.
Lowenstein’s first feature film, Strikebound, was released in 1984. Utilising beautiful long takes and grainy film stock, Strikebound artfully recreated an emotion-charged mining dispute that took place in East Gippsland during the Great Depression, and captured the sociopolitical climate that gave rise to the Australian Communist Party at that time. Like Evictions before it, Strikebound was based on anecdotal oral histories from the 1930s which were committed to writing (3) by Lowenstein’s mother, the social historian Wendy Lowenstein. While both of these films belong to the Australian period film genre that gained popularity during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Strikebound notably goes against the grain of this tradition through having its protagonists become active agents of history, (4) who effectively change the social conditions of the world in which they live through collective action.
Strikebound also features the first in a string of powerful female roles in Lowenstein’s films, in the form of the spirited character of Agnes Doig (Carol Burns). Followed by Anna (Saskia Post) in Dogs In Space, Angie (Fiona Ruttelle) in Say A Little Prayer, and Anya (Romaine Bohringer) in He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, Agnes Doig is just one of a host of strong, smart, self-assured female characters in Lowenstein’s films, and is emblematic of the strength of his female characterizations. Strikebound received nine Australian Film Institute (AFI) award nominations, (5) taking out the AFI award for Best Achievement in Production Design. Strikebound also won the Jury Prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1985, and received Official Selection for Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival.
During the 1980s, Lowenstein also launched a highly successful and prolific side career in music video production, directing some of the most iconic Australian music videos of that decade for bands including INXS, Hunters and Collectors, and Crowded House. On the back of his success within this field, Lowenstein went on to make a number of long form music videos and live music documentaries. These included the 50 minute featurette, White City (1985) for Pete Townshend of The Who, the live concert documentary Australian Made (1987), and the 1989 Australian tour documentary Love Town for U2.
The influence of Lowenstein’s experiences within a field which “reverses the (traditional) relationship between film images and film sound” through “the addition of an image track to an already available soundtrack” (6) would be observed in the prominent use of pre-recorded music in Lowenstein’s later films. The most notable examples of this are Dogs In Space, in which music operates as the central plot-structuring device of the film, and He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, which includes a number of songs that Lowenstein wrote his script around. (7)
Lowenstein’s second feature film, Dogs In Space, was set against the backdrop of Melbourne’s late ’70s punk rock scene, and placed its focus on the young, inner city world of the shared household: a melting pot of hippies, addicts, student political activists, and punk musicians. A fictionalised account of the director’s experiences in a shared household during that time, the film follows Lowenstein’s affectionately drawn characters through a chaotic series of non-narrative vignettes, whilst simultaneously tracking the romance between central characters Sammy (Michael Hutchence) and Anna.
Stylistically, Dogs In Space employs vivid, semi-expressionistic imagery, tightly choreographed long tracking shots, overlapping conversations, and a driving soundtrack to create what Lowenstein describes as the film’s “immersive, subjective style.” (8) Of the films that he has made to date, Lowenstein cites Dogs In Space as the one that most perfectly correlates with what he was trying to create, and what appears on the screen. (9)
Shortly following its release, Dogs in Space achieved cult status, and received Official Selection for the Berlin, Edinburgh, London, and New York Film Festivals. It has since been described by Geoff Andrew of Time Out as an “uplifting and deliciously different movie,” (10) and was also singled out for praise by Harlan Kennedy of Film Comment magazine as one of a number of films from the late 1980s which brought “shifting perspectives, structural experiment, and highly discomforting stories and characters” into the fold of Australian cinema. (11)
Kennedy’s comment touches upon the vanguard positioning of Lowenstein’s films within a dissident, self-reflexive tradition of Australian filmmaking, which steers clear of the more mythic elements of our national cinema, to takes its audience into the living rooms of working class Australia. Tom O’Regan argues that it is through this self-reflexive tendency that Australian cinema distinguishes itself as:
…a cinema peculiarly able to air its society’s dirty linen, prepared to look seriously and unflinchingly at its own history, able to dramatize and give dignity to the ordinary, the handicapped and people on its margins, telling stories of people not normally centred in fiction… (12)
Indeed, Lowenstein’s films have generally been peopled by characters from the fringes of mainstream society, and consequently sociocultural difference has achieved pride of place in his films. Evictions, Strikebound, Dogs In Space and He Died With A Felafel In His Hand are all rife with the discourse of difference, and the subculturally hybrid Dogs In Space household exudes a particular dissatisfaction with the essentially conservative mores and values of Australian society.
On the kind of narrative threads that he has been drawn to, Lowenstein has recently elucidated that he finds “the small, forgotten stories much more interesting than the big mythological ones,” (13) for their ability to speak to the diversity of the Australian cultural experience. Further to this, Lowenstein’s third feature, Say A Little Prayer,would prove to be a very different film altogether.
Based on Robin Klein’s novel, I Came Back to Show You I Could Fly, Say A Little Prayer explores the intense friendship formed between the lonely, adventure seeking, 11 year old Seymour (Sudi de Winter) and dreamy, drug-addicted, op-shop princess Angie. A children’s film with a difference, Say A Little Prayer evokes both the magic realist and musical genres as it takes its audience on a vivid journey through the adventures shared by Angie and Seymour, as viewed through the idolising eyes of a child. Following its release, Say A Little Prayer attracted critical acclaim for “the fluid elegance of the camera movements, the top-notch design, and the director’s light touch with the boy’s fantasy life,” (14) and in 1993 claimed Best Director and Best Actress awards at the Giffoni Children’s Film Festival, as well as four AFI Award nominations. (15)
After close to a ten year hiatus between films, Lowenstein’s fourth feature was born of his desire to translate to the screen John Birmingham’s humorous rumination on share household life, the cult novel He Died With A Felafel In His Hand. While the structure and substance of Birmingham’s novel would not easily lend itself to film adaptation, Lowenstein managed to craft a screenplay out of it which incorporated the novel’s most prominent scenes, characters and locations. In Lowenstein’s hands, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand presents an intelligent portrait of the highs and lows of share household life, as it takes a shot at exploring the dynamics of desire and existence, and reflects upon the differing psychologies of Australia’s major cities. In everything from the games of cane toad golf played in the shared house in Brisbane, through to the policemen at the door with twitchy trigger fingers in Melbourne, and the over-inflated egos polishing the floorboards in Sydney, Felafel presents a highly stylised snapshot of the different cultural flavours of Australia’s major cities, which shapes the kind of interactions spawned by those locations in the film.
He Died With A Felafel In His Hand also revisits the theme of mid-twenties breakdown (16) which was first broached by Lowenstein in Dogs In Space, as both films set their focus on a group of alienated, over-educated, underemployed youths, struggling together to find meaning and direction in their lives. Whilst narratives relating to mid-twenties breakdown are most closely associated with the Generation X related film and literature that has been emanating out of North America over the last decade, (17) within an Australian context, the characters in these films appear emblematic of the effects that neo-liberalism has had on Australia’s youth over the past twenty years, and through them, it can be argued that Lowenstein has effectively captured the spirit of the time in which they were made.
Lowenstein has described He Died With A Felafel In His Hand as the “emotional sequel” (18) to Dogs In Space, and while the focus of these two films on the social phenomenon of share household life would naturally lend itself to comparison, there is a marked stylistic difference between them. In Felafel, the long tracking shots and broad non-narrative structure that were Dogs In Space‘s trademark have made way for tightly framed images, restrained camera movement, a high level of stylisation and a tautly structured plot; culminating in what Lowenstein describes as the film’s “objective, observational style”. (19) In terms of both its subject matter and its mode of delivery, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand conveys the sense that it is a maturation of Dogs In Space.
Felafel also set its sights on an exploration of one of the primary fuels of share household intellectual life, popular culture. Indeed, it is thoroughly layered with intertextual references from the history of European and American film and literature, in everything from its characterisations (20) to dialogue exchanges and beyond. On this topic, Lowenstein has recently expounded that “everything in the film has been used before, even the dialogue. A lot of it is taken from films and books, but taken totally out of context. Almost every line.” (21) Lowenstein’s deconstructionist approach would ultimately culminate in the creation of his first cinephile film. Adrian Martin describes the genre thus:
Cinephile films do not presume to show real life; rather, they head straight for the mediations of this life experience, its privileged metaphors, that are contained in the popular cultural well of cinematic images and fictions. A naturalistic film, on the other hand, asserts that it is a unique object, a glimpse into ‘life itself’ unfolding. (22)
Through such a treatment, Lowenstein delivers to the screen a beautiful, brooding character study, imbued with a sense of muted melodrama, which stands up well against the fine tradition of American independent filmmaking. Upon its release, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand collected Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Emily Hamilton) and Best Screenplay awards at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, the Audience Award at the Rosemount London Australian Film Festival, and nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Film Critics Circle of Australia and AFI Awards. In addition to this, the film has already begun to take on cult status in France and Italy.
Italian producer, Domenico Procacci, who was a key figure in the realisation of He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, is set to collaborate with Lowenstein again on his next film, Phreakz, a political thriller that Lowenstein has been developing for some years. In a recent interview, (23) Procacci has described the distinctive, risk taking spirit of Lowenstein’s films, coupled with their unwillingness to be tainted by Hollywood formulas, as their ultimate drawcard for international audiences; a view which has been supported by the continuing success of Lowenstein’s films on the international film festival circuit. Domestically, the risk-taking spirit that Procacci describes has caused Lowenstein to be dubbed “one of the most highly politicised filmmakers we have” in this country, (24) as issues relating to class, social atomisation, and power and authority have proven to be amongst the chief thematic concerns in his work.
In his book, Representation, discourse and desire: Contemporary Australian culture and critical theory, Patrick Fuery argues that what lies behind Australian popular culture is a passionate desire to discover, represent and define a uniquely Australian cultural identity. (25) Throughout his filmmaking career, Richard Lowenstein has inventively fulfilled this brief, having consistently created dynamic, engaging films, characterized by their willingness to explore the boundaries of cinematic expression and ability to communicate the cultural zeitgeist, as they take their audiences into the living rooms of working class Australia.
Special thanks to Richard Lowenstein and Sally McLennan of Ghost Film Productions for kindly supplying me with copies of Evictions and Strikebound for this profile.
Evictions (1979) also screenwriter
Strikebound (1984) also screenwriter
White City (1985) also screenwriter
Dogs In Space (1986) also screenwriter
Australian Made (1987)
Love Town (1990)
Say a Little Prayer (1992) also screenwriter
He Died With a Felafel In His Hand (2001) also screenwriter
We’re Livin’ on Dog Food (2009) (documentary)
Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (2011) (documentary)
Ecco Homo (2015) (documentary)
Mystify: Michael Hutchence (TBC – filming) (documentary)
Film about Lowenstein:
Richard Lowenstein and Peter Thompson, Australian Film Makers Series – Peter Thompson interviews Richard Lowenstein on the production of his feature film “Strikebound”, (Videorecording: sd; col; 33 min.), Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Sydney, 1982
Geoff Andrew and Helen Hawkins, in John Pym (ed.), Time Out Film Guide, Eleventh Edition 2003, Penguin Books, London, pp. 321, 1054, 1158
Harlan Kennedy, “The New Wizards of Oz”, Film Comment, September-October 1989, pp. 73-77
Richard Lowenstein in Raffaele Caputo and Geoff Burton (eds.), Second Take: Australian Film-Makers Talk, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1999, pp. 273-304
Brian McFarlane and Geoff Mayer, New Australian Cinema, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992
Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Dogs In Space by Tim Groves
Sharing, Not Caring: He Died With A Felafel In His Hand by Jake Wilson
Compiled by author
The AFI Controversy Page
Tracks Richard Lowenstein’s passionate, open letter debate with the Australian Film Institute in 1996, regarding the fairness and integrity of their awards program.
Dogs In Space
A web site dedicated to Dogs in Space.
A thought provoking paper by David Lowe on the ways in which Australian period films emotionalise the past, with particular reference to Strikebound.
The Italian parent company of Fandango Australia, which includes Richard Lowenstein, Domenico Procacci and Rolf de Heer amongst its Directors, and was formed in March 2002.
Vanessa Long’s October 2002 interview with Richard Lowenstein.
Ghost Pictures home page
Richard Lowenstein’s production company, Ghost Pictures Pty Ltd.
He Died With A Felafel In His Hand
The official web site for He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, which includes Richard Lowenstein’s production diary for the film.
INXS Film Clips
A study of INXS’ music videos by Neala Johnson, which includes an exploration of the lengthy creative relationship between Richard Lowenstein and Michael Hutchence.
John Safran’s Music Jamboree
The official web site for the cult SBS television show, which was produced by Richard Lowenstein.
The Magic Felafel
An intriguing profile piece by Jim Schembri on Richard Lowenstein’s near decade long hiatus between the release of Say A Little Prayer and He Died With A Felafel In His Hand.
Naked—Stories of Men
The six part ABC television mini-series, of which Richard Lowenstein directed an episode.
Michael Gently’s 2002 interview with Richard Lowenstein.
The RML Movie Page
Richard Lowenstein’s website.
Swinburne Film and Television School
Richard Lowenstein reflects on his time at Swinburne, and reviews a book on the subject.
Say A Little Prayer
Say A Little Prayer‘s Press Kit.
Tip Top Music
Jasmine Berry’s interview with Richard Lowenstein, in which he discusses his films within the context of the Australian film industry.
- Richard Lowenstein and Vanessa Long, An Interview with Richard Lowenstein, http://members.fortunecity.com/vanessa77/rml.htm, 15 October 2002
- Wendy Lowenstein, Weevils in the Flour: An oral record of the 1930s depression in Australia, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1978
- Wendy Lowenstein, Dead Men Don’t Dig Coal, publication details unknown
- In his book The Australian National Cinema, Tom O’Regan argued that one of the traditional differences between Australian and American films is that “Australian films place the protagonist as victim not agent of history, whereas American film makes the protagonist drive the narrative and so become an agent of history”. See Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 198.
- In 1984 Strikebound received AFI Award nominations for Best Film, Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Achievement in Production Design, Best Achievement in Editing, Best Achievement in Sound, Best Achievement in Costume Design, Best Actor in a Lead Role, Best Actress in a Lead Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
- Sally Stockbridge, in Patrick Fuery (ed.), Representation, discourse and desire: Contemporary Australian culture and critical theory, Longman Chesire, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 246-247
- Richard Lowenstein and Michael Gently, http://www.pixelsurgeon.com/pages/interview/movies/richardlowenstein/interview.html, 2002
- Lowenstein and Long, 2002
- Geoff Andrew, in John Pym (ed.), Time Out Film Guide, Eleventh Edition 2003, Penguin Books, London, 2002, p. 321
- Harlan Kennedy, “The New Wizards of Oz”, Film Comment, September-October 1989
- O’Regan, 1996, p. 256
- Lowenstein and Long, 2002
- Andrew, 2003, p. 1158
- In 1993 Say A Little Prayer received AFI Award nominations for: Best Actress in a Lead Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Achievement in Production Design and Best Achievement in Costume Design.
- In Generation X: Tales for An Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland describes mid-twenties breakdown as “a period of mental collapse occurring in one’s twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments coupled with a realization of one’s essential aloneness in the world…” Discounting the ironic edge to the dictionary definitions of Gen X culture that Coupland writes into the margins of his seminal first novel, I would argue that the concept of mid-twenties breakdown is the central narrative thrust behind most Generation X related film and literature. See: Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for An Accelerated Culture, Abacus, London, 1996
- See Generation X: Tales for An Accelerated Culture specifically, and the works of Douglas Coupland and Douglas Rushkoff in general. Films in this genre include Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994), Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991) and SubUrbia (Richard Linklater, 1996).
- Lowenstein and Gently, 2002
- Lowenstein and Long, 2002
- Lowenstein has recently alluded to the fact that Anya’s character in He Died With A Felafel In His Hand is loosely modeled on, and intended as a homage to, the kind of characters played by Anna Karina, Louise Brooks and Maria Falconetti in the films of Godard, Pabst and Dreyer, respectively (See: Lowenstein and Long, 2002). Indeed, if you watch the film carefully, you can spot Danny gazing at photos of these actresses on the wall of his bedroom in each of the share-houses in the film, in what becomes one of its more notable visual tropes.
- Lowenstein and Gently, 2002
- Adrian Martin in P. Broderick (ed.), “Nurturing the Next Wave: What is Cinema?” in Scott Murray (ed.), Back of Beyond: Discovering Australian Film and Television, Australian Film Commission, Sydney, 1988, pp. 90-101
- Gabrielle Coslovich, “Italian Producer sets up local production”, The Age, March 5, 2002, http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/03/04/1014705030668.html
- Andrew L. Urban, “Taylor, Noah; He Died With A Felafel In His Hand”, Urban Cinefile, http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=5217&s=Interviews
- Patrick Fuery, Representation, discourse and desire: Contemporary Australian culture and critical theory, Longman Chesire, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 1-8