Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimodos, 2004) opens with the view from a car speeding along a raised roadway at night. Below, viewed through the roadside safety rail which has been transformed by speed into horizontal prison bars or perhaps mini-Venetian blinds, the city glows with stories. A piano begins a mournful tune. A young man leans against a lamppost, waiting for someone to cruise by and pick him up. A young woman shoots up in a dimly lit flat and falls back into comfortable oblivion. An old man sits on a windowsill, looking out at the street below, and begins to cry. Three boys share a bag of glue; the last topples sideways to lie with his cheek to the ground, lost in reverie. A middle-aged man with haunted eyes lies in bed staring into the abyss. He is awake before his alarm clock reminds him that time is not his own. This is Tom White, and this is the story of his journey from a superficially stable suburban family life to homelessness in the big city.
We drop into Tom’s life just as the final wave that will tip him out of suburbia and into vagrancy begins to break. His crisis has been cooking for weeks – perhaps years – before he first appears on screen. The fracturing of his world is visually represented in a shot early on in the film in which we see Tom from inside a birdhouse. The transparent walls of the birdhouse are angled to create a triple image of Tom as he checks the feed and water, and begins to talk to himself, vocalising an internal dialogue of uncertainty.
Perhaps it all started to fall apart years before when Tom failed to qualify as an architect. He now works as a draughtsman in a large city firm drawing up plans for a project to remediate the local tip as a housing development called Clearwater Springs, or “Bull’s Piss Lake” as Tom later rechristens it. He is called in for a meeting with his boss who reminds Tom that he was taken off the Clearwater Springs project some weeks before, and advises him to take a break. Once again, Tom is confronted with the fact that he will never attain the architect’s power to plan, control and make decisions, and his fragile grip on reality loosens further. Tom travels to the development site and attacks the young architect in charge of the project, bashing him repeatedly with the rejected plans. He wanders down to the river, and takes a symbolic journey by ferry across the water away from the rational demands and responsibilities of his family and professional life to the solipsistic life of a vagrant, a life lived moment-to-moment. He journeys only a few kilometres across the city, but he may as well have travelled halfway across the world because the people he meets are so unlike his usual acquaintances. These are some of the millions of people whose lives usually run in parallel with those of Tom and people like him, their paths rarely crossing for anything other than a fleeting moment.
We then follow Tom as he walks into the lives of the four people introduced in the opening sequence of the film. In each case, he witnesses events that change lives: the young gay man Matt, who describes himself as an old hand at despair, falls in love; the young woman Christy is mauled by her dealer’s dog; the old man Malcolm is hospitalised, perhaps permanently; and the young boy Jet is taken in to care when the police finally catch up with his career criminal father. These are people whose lives Tom would never have entered had his own not slipped from the plan. As Matt says to him, “This is a foreign country to you, isn’t it, round here?”
It is remarkable that despite the prominence of the theme and meaning of “home” in Australian cinema, very few feature films made here in the last 35 years have focused on the plight of homeless people. The subject has been a favourite of documentary makers, with notable recent examples including Brian McKenzie’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1984), David Goldie’s Nobody’s Children (1989) and its sequel Somebody Now (1996), and the stunning ABC online documentary Homeless produced by Trevor Graham, Rose Hesp and Rob Wellington. A number of films have been set among the floating populations of communal households – Bert Deling’s Pure S… (1975), Ken Cameron’s Monkey Grip (1982), Haydn Keenan’s Going Down (1983), and Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space (1987) – while others have tackled the politics of property development and its impact on socially disadvantaged populations – among them Don Crombie’s The Killing of Angel Street (1981), Phil Noyce’s Heatwave (1982) and Tony Mahood’s River Street (1996). But even at the high point of “social realist” filmmaking in Australia in the ’70s and ’80s, homelessness featured prominently in only a few films including Mouth to Mouth (John Duigan, 1978) and Listen to the Lion (Henri Safran, 1977).
Now in the space of just a year, two films have been released which explore the lives of homeless people, albeit in contrasting ways. It is certainly too early to claim that Tsilimodos’ Tom White and Khoa Do’s The Finished People (2004) represent a return to politically engaged, socially relevant filmmaking, but they do provide welcome relief from Australian cinema’s recent fixation with post-quirky crime comedies, most of which rate only one or two fingers on a scale topped by Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, 1999). Yet while Tom White and The Finished People share a milieu, they are starkly different films. Most of the action in The Finished People takes place during the day as the film is shot on digital video using available light – a night scene in a car park makes use of the venue’s own floodlights. The film employs a documentary style with voiceovers by the characters in response to unheard questions, extensive handheld camerawork and intertitles in a newsprint font. The characters are played by non-professional actors drawing on their own experiences of living on the streets of Cabramatta, the suburb where the film was originally developed as a community project. By contrast, Tom White is mostly shot at night, on film, with a cast of professional actors including Colin Friels who is mesmerising in the title role. The film focuses on a middle class everyman who drops out of his superficially stable life, leaves his family and his job, and becomes a vagrant, wandering in search of self-understanding. The Finished People is a much more “realistic” take on the causes and effects of homelessness than Tom White. Tom White is not really “about” homelessness; the street is simply the setting for Tom’s identity crisis. The film is rather both an expression and an interrogation of the erosion of long-established (male) expectations of male behaviour which valued stoic endurance, rationalism and emotional coldness and viewed the recourse to professional counselling and the public expression of emotion as signs of weakness. These expectations have been challenged by the rise of what Frank Furedi terms “therapy culture” and the attendant psychologising of everyday life, both of which are underpinned by emotional determinism, prioritise self-fulfilment, encourage public expressions of feeling, and legitimate the endless and often professionally managed quest for self-knowledge.
In therapy culture, the individual self is “the central focus of social, moral and cultural preoccupation” (1). In the films of Tsilimodos, this is married with an overriding interest in the condition of masculinity. Like Silent Partner (2001) and Everynight…Everynight (1994), Tom White focuses on a male protagonist and explores issues of male identity, sexuality, loneliness, alienation and isolation. Tsilimodos is interested in the confusion of men, their delusions and difficulties in dealing with the new uncertainties. While Tom White is the first of Tsilimodos’ films to contain substantial female roles, they are clearly secondary to the main male characters and their relationships with Tom are not as important as his relationships with other men.
The question “Who am I?” dogs Tom throughout the film. It pre-empts his abandonment of his previous life after he is reminded of his failure to achieve the omniscience and omnipotence of the architect. He embarks on a journey of self-discovery and reinvention. He crosses a body of water, a cleansing rite and symbol of a transition from one life to another, from one city to another. This journey is repeated in reverse late in the film as Tom returns to face his wife. In the course of his encounters Tom White loses his surname, and is renamed “Mr Moneybags”, “Picasso” and “Mr Yesterday”. He tells Christine that he is “a man of misfortune … the man who stepped out and never stepped back in”. Stunned by Tom’s inability to express any emotion in response to her declaration of love for him, Christine tells Tom to “Go home to the fucking wife and kids”. “Who will I come back as?” he asks pathetically. “Take a look, what do you see?” “You,” she replies. “This is not me,” he says, and their relationship is over.
Malcolm (Bill Hunter), aging alcoholic and street philosopher, intervenes in Tom’s life by preventing him killing a man. He tells Tom that once you kill a man “he’s yours, it’s permanent … like a tattoo on the inside”. Although life on the streets offers the possibility of reinvention (in response to Tom’s question “who are you?” Malcolm replies “I’m the man that was over there a moment ago”) the killing of another man will always be with Tom. Malcolm both represents a possible future self for Tom, and gestures back to the role Friels played in the 1986 Australian film of the same name. This doubling reinforces and deepens the question “who am I?”
Later, in hospital with Malcolm, Tom is asked the question by a counsellor. He tells her his name is Jack Spratt – he is not yet ready or willing to take the professional help on offer or to own his real name. Later still in a police station after the raid on Jet’s house, Tom responds to the interrogating officer asking the question by questioning the value of identity and identification. “I’m the only identification I have”, he says, “I know I’m me, but how do you know I’m me?” He is confronted with a photograph of his former self, literally facing the question “who am I?” as the bearded, bedraggled man he has become is forced to contemplate his former self and how far he has travelled. For what seems an age Tom tries to remember if that is him, and to decide if he wants to be that Tom White again. So much has happened since he was the man who was over there a moment ago.
The film offers many possible answers to the question “who is Tom?” but none provide an ultimately satisfactory resolution. We are denied a position of absolute consciousness or total understanding of Tom. We must abandon any desire for omniscience in this story-world, and for the neat tying up of all narrative threads. With this kind of film there will always be loose ends. Some have taken this to be emblematic of the fundamental failure of Australian films to tell coherent, complete stories, but because the basic question is not “what does Tom do”, but rather “who is Tom?” it will remain narratively unsatisfying. Tom’s story does not begin at the point we join him in the film, and it does not end at the point that we leave. There is no exorcising grand event, no conventional cinematic culmination or climax like a wedding or a death that acts to set our minds at rest about the story. The lack of resolution means that we cannot assume that characters live “happily ever after” – rather Tom White will be carried with us, as if we had killed him.
The film’s strength lies in its exploration of this question of identity, but it is weak in the treatment of the impact of Tom’s actions on his wife and children. Our periodic return to them is unsatisfactory; it felt to me that they should either have featured more prominently or not at all. If they had not featured at all once Tom leaves his suburban life, and we had not occasionally been taken out of Tom’s quest and encouraged to think about how his wife and children are dealing with what he has done, then it would have been possible to read the film as an exercise in solipsism. That is, the film would have focused exclusively on Tom and his mental states with this focus signposted in Tom’s first appearance on-screen, awake and staring into the abyss, immediately after the vignettes of Matt, Christine, Malcolm and Jet. Perhaps Tom dreamt these characters, with the drama of his subsequent quest for self-awareness conducted entirely within his head. In the end, Tom travels back to see his wife and hands her a rambling letter “explaining” his feelings and actions. But he is never reunited with his children on-screen; their only presence in the final stages of the film is a virtual one in the paintings on the walls of the Spartan bed-sit Tom moves in to.
So the film is about Tom’s journey toward self-awareness, but he remains unaware of the effect of what he has done on those around him, and his family do not appear to occupy a significant place in his new sense of self. Furedi describes the emergence of a new consensus in the ’80s “that regarded family life as the source of individual emotional distress” (2). This is apparent in relation to several characters in Finished People, but in Tom White it is much less clear that family life has caused his distress and prompted his descent into homelessness. This is in part an illustration of why Tom White is perhaps strangely at odds with the “turn to emotionalism” at the heart of therapy culture. Tom does not seek help – rather he actively avoids it; his emotional outbursts are limited; he does not name his “problem”, and is actually discouraged from doing so: When he tells Matt “I think I’m having some kind of…” Matt cuts him short, saying “You don’t have to call it anything”. Where therapy culture sanctions the opening of space for men to talk openly about their feelings, here as elsewhere in Tom White the space is often rapidly closed down. Tom does not “get in touch with his feelings”, and by the end of film he has not become dramatically more emotionally articulate or expressive than he was earlier in the film although, clearly, he has changed. In the final image of the film Tom, with clipped beard, a clean shirt and a new stability in his life, looks back at the camera or perhaps through it or past it, contemplating his new self and facing the future with a newfound confidence. He still may not be able to talk about his feelings, or understand the effect his actions have on those around him, but at least now he seems to be comfortable with who he is.