Notes on the Death of Beauty, Art and Talent: A Correspondence with Ben Hackworth Matthew Clayfield August 2007 Feature Articles Issue 44 From: Matthew Clayfield To: Ben Hackworth Date: July 20, 2007 5:04 PM Subject: Corroboree E-mail #1 Dear Ben, First things first: Corroboree is, as far as recent Australian cinema goes, a bit of an anomaly. When you look at most of this country’s recent output, from Somersault (Cate Shortland, 2004) to Kenny (Clayton Jacobson, 2006) and back again, there are very few, if any, films whose approach can be considered unashamedly formalist. Yours, I would wager, can. Curiously, this makes it easier to situate in relation to recent world cinema than it does to that of its own country. In terms of world cinema, Corroboree shares much in common with a number of recent (and not so recent) pictures, and in some ways can be easily situated in terms of recent trends and preoccupations. Formally, I found that the film had much in common with Gus Van Sant’s recent output, though not in the overly derivative way that Murali K. Thullari’s 2:37 (2006) does. The Pan-Asian style of, among others, Hong Sangsoo, Hou Hsiao-hsien and, in particular, Tsai Ming-liang also seems broadly relevant. Thematically, there are some resonances with Ingmar Bergman, as others have pointed out, though more intriguingly, at least in my mind, are its similarities with Michael Haneke. In particular, there seems to be important similarities between Corroboree and Funny Games (1997), with their shared, somewhat meta-cinematic, comments on the role of the director. At the same time, there are admittedly moments when the film seems to be acknowledging its predecessors in this country, as well. The most of obvious of these is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), if only for the emphasis that both films put upon tone and mood over plot and character. I was also reminded by the central scene of the film, in which the characters sing Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), which also has at its formal and thematic heart a scene of communal singing around a piano: Frank Hawdon (Robert Grub) sings “New Jerusalem”, which is all about achieving a kind of state of grace, thereby summing up the key concerns of the film itself. The connection between these films is no doubt accidental, but sometimes the accidental connections are the most revealing or fruitful. I wonder what you think. Perhaps one of my favourite things about Corroboree is the way you shot the interiors, creating a labyrinth out of the house and never allowing us to get our bearings within it. The choreography of entries into and exits out of the frame at different planes within the image – the rhythmic nature of which is realised best in the opening scene of the film, in the bus depot – is particularly impressive. In this, I was reminded – and I know I’m clutching at straws here! – of films as varied and diverse as those of Jacques Tati and James Benning. Feel free to leap into any element of this e-mail in your reply. I’m interested in anything you have to say, especially about your Australian and international influences, your obvious formal concerns and the meta-cinematic themes I sense are at work in the film. Take care, Matt. From: Ben Hackworth To: Matthew Clayfield Date: Jul 21, 2007 3:59 PM Subject: RE: Corroboree E-mail #1 Dear Matthew, Astute observations! I wrote something, half asleep last night, which I think is coherent. I also sent your opening statement/first question to Peter Savieri, the co-writer, production designer and storyboard artist, and he’s inserted some opinions that add further dimension to what I had to say. I thought it might be interesting to have some of the co-writer-designer’s perspective, considering colour and tone play such a crucial role in the formalism that you were addressing in your first question. Ben Hackworth: The formal approach of the film is more apparent, I think, because of the stripped-back narrative. I think when the filmmaker chooses to involve the audience less with the emotional pathos (or manipulation) of story, then the filmmaker’s approach to the subject and all formal aspects of filmmaking become more transparent for an audience. Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu san, Ming-ling Tsai, 2003) is a perfect example and I think most of Tsai’s work embraces the long, wide frame and almost repetitious direction of choreography that creates an internal rhythm. The film becomes like a piece of orchestral music and the actors become the central motif, carrying the eye (and ear) through the frame. Interesting that you mentioned Tati, because I think Tsai takes a lot of inspiration from the French genius. I was conscious of both directors and how they were inspiring some of my choices for this particular project, although at no time did I imitate formal ideas with specificity. The only singular thing that kept in my head was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s subtle use of gesture in Three Times (Zui hao de shi guang, 2005) – the falling hand in the distant frame – and I had an instinct that the use of hands to direct the frame would be an important motif throughout the film. It was not something studied, but it was an idea I discussed with Peter. Peter Savieri: When we wrote the forest scene in which Conor O’Hanlan touches the Director’s face, Ben’s notion of gesture had already become a linking thread – something to unite through choreography the sort of modular chain of scenes that comprise the film. Hackworth: By the time we got to blocking and shooting the forest scene, it became clear that we were reaching some sort of culmination of this idea. Suddenly we saw the gestural idea had a number of visual echoes in the film. Broader influences on my work would have to include Pier Paolo Pasolini, Robert Altman, Federico Fellini, Shohei Imamura, Luis Buñuel. I’ve never been a massive Bergman fan. Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) and Through a Glass Darkly (Såsaom I en spegel, 1961) are exceptions. I find intense genius in his work but there is also something terribly conscious of his own genius that irks me some. I find Persona (1966) clinical and, although it is a beautiful psychological examination, it’s humourlessness leaves me cold. I prefer Altman’s exploration of similar themes in 3 Women (1977) and David Lynch’s in Mulholland Dr. (2001). I’ve never seen Funny Games, I’m almost ashamed to say. It’s been on my list for some time. However, I do think Haneke is a curiously obtuse humanist and brilliant director of performance. I admire much of his other work. Peter has seen Funny Games, but at no point did it come up for discussion. Savieri: It’s an interesting parallel, though. Haneke does include a very palpable sense of the director as antagonist to the drama, and the notion of the artist’s manipulation of history, biography and the muse is central to Corroboree. It’s a softer touch than Funny Games, and not as overtly concerned with socio-economic and educational hierarchies, but you could definitely find those themes in our film. The practice of fine art, and particularly the expensive arts of film and theatre, is largely the province of privilege, be it economic of information or cultural privilege. Though the Director is going through his own private anguish, he has still assumed a position of power over both his perplexed working-class muse and his chosen actresses. The Director remains absent but potent in what transpires, and inevitably there are some underlying power-struggles and rebellions among his cast. Hackworth: In response to the Australian film inspiration, yes I have seen both My Brilliant Career and Picnic at Hanging Rock. I find the unfashionable parlour-room setting of the former really inspiring. I love the crackling fire, the piano sing-along, the unrequited love and the hints at daytime melodrama. I suppose it’s a reference to my deep love of the camp æsthetic, although I don’t feel like Corroboree ever loses complete sobriety because of its love of nostalgia. I think it treads a fine line. The outdoor scene with Margaret Mills, and the bedroom scene with Susan Lyons, I was particularly happy during shooting about because they did feel incredibly Australian. Savieri: The costume and make-up choices in those scenes definitely err on the romantic side. Partly this was because of the roles these actresses were playing. The sister is like a distorted memory of a precocious Lolita type from the Director’s boyhood, which would have been in during the 1960s, and I suppose she’s also a bit like the earlier, addling characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The abrasive spurned woman character in the second garden scene is more like the Queen of Hearts, I suppose. She’s a memory of his son, Little Joe’s mother from the early ’80s. Hackworth: I almost felt like those scenes could be from a 1970s television movie and that excited me. I suppose it excited me because of how the theatrical was intersecting with the natural and on an almost quantum physics level. Here was this millennium rock ’n’ roll guy walking into a pastoral Aussie drama. Or like pragmatic Alice into heightened, crazy Wonderland. It’s subtle, but we wanted it to be that way. I wanted the audience to be thrown by all of this – until the hypnotism scene, where the penny starts to drop. These actors were playing the Director’s sacred monsters and past romantic projections, but they eventually reveal themselves as these big hippies, trying to deal with sadness in the way that the actors knew best, looking for a balm for their loss in the ceremony of theatre. I think it’s inevitable that a first feature draws comparisons and I’m glad that the references you picked were diverse. I think it’s very difficult to see something these days and not be able to pick obvious references in the work. Filmmakers have to be honest about how they appropriate ideas but I think it’s also important to be subtle about the way these appropriations of style fuse with one’s own ideas. When working with my team, I prefer to let things wash over early on in the process, so by the time pre-production comes, the creative choices are more organic and instinctual. The idea of carrying a scrapbook of specific photographs or films to copy is absurd to me. I also prefer drawing on more disparate sources than just contemporary photographers and filmmakers. Paintings are excellent tools because they require a second level of interpretation. It’s true that artists inevitably copy each other to learn how content and style work together (some of [Claude] Manet’s paintings were direct copies of [Francisco] Goya’s work). For me, I tend to prefer watching work that feels like it’s come from the individual’s idiosyncratic vision of the world. Savieri: There were some very lateral sources of inspiration. Japanese and Chinese illustration were a big influence on framing and blocking. In every frame, the intention is to find a new ‘picture’ to progress a sequence. In storyboarding, we would find a master frame for each scene, then expand on that with secondary and tertiary frames. You could think of it almost as a Japanese screen that tells a story. There is only one particular moment when you might see Gus Van Sant as an influence, but, more accurately, it was a fragment of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) that was on our minds. In Corroboree, there is a shot in the forest scene near the end when the Director walks through a bed of ivy followed after several seconds by Conor. In the intervening moment you get a chance to feel the emptiness and poignancy of the natural environment. Hackworth: Oddly, maybe, childhood influences such as The Muppets and all things Henson provide a continual source of humour and a creative foundation for both Peter and I. Savieri: They contain such an underrated atmosphere of surrealism and a vitality of character that is so admirable from a writing and performance perspective. And I think, for both of us, they must have been among our first experiences of layered realities in narrative. The Muppet films are really so strange and post-modern. Hackworth: In response to your mention of formalism, I also love story-based filmmaking, but because of the over emphasis of the ‘story’ dogma in Australia I wanted to be contrary and approach my first film from another angle. It wasn’t a conscious anarchistic statement; rather, all these stories, emotions and fears I had to express combined with my need to express them in a forum that was primarily artistic, and an overtly realist narrative wouldn’t allow for this. Also, I didn’t want my first feature to be an artistic rendering of an overwrought coming-of-age or such. I needed to define myself in a longer form before committing to the world of compromise assured by the funding route: development, intention, pre-sale, star and marketing. I had to know that I could assert my confidence in a longer form. I was very keen to make a film that was more about the internal wanderings of characters, stories and images than some of the more physically motivated dramas that Australia has been producing. So, I guess that’s my anarchistic side showing its true colours. Or perhaps I wanted to know that, no matter what I venture to make now, I can always return to my ‘formal’ roots. Perhaps this return will be at a time when the government and private infrastructure for independent art filmmaking is more kind. Talk soon, Ben. From: Matthew Clayfield To: Ben Hackworth Date: Jul 24, 2007 1:15 PM Subject: More Corroboree Questions … Dear Ben, I’ve been meaning to send you another question, which I will do right now: You write at the end of your last response that “perhaps I wanted to know that, no matter what I venture to make now, I can always return to my ‘formal’ roots. Perhaps this return will be at a time when the government and private infrastructure for independent art filmmaking is more kind.” Basically I wanted to ask how difficult it was to get this film made in the current political and artistic climate, what sort of crap you had to go through, how hard it is (or isn’t) to get a film made in this country (especially a first feature), and what advice you would have for any people trying to get a leg up in the film industry, etc., etc. Matt. From: Ben Hackworth To: Matthew Clayfield Date: Jul 24, 2007 3:27 PM Subject: RE: More Corroboree Questions… Dear Matt, A person does have to have a certain degree of madness to want to undertake the kind of financial and emotional burden of making an independent feature, especially a picture as idiosyncratic as this one. I think what’s important is to be honest and clear with yourself – What am I trying to achieve with this? – and to be honest about the expectations for the film’s reception/success. A few years ago, I had this idea that making a feature was a bureaucratic waiting game and that the reality of making anything technically accomplished (and therefore creatively polished) in this country required the kind of money and assistance that only the pre-sale FFC [Film Finance Corporation] route could ensure. To be truthful, I think there is a sad element of truth to that belief; there were elements of technical compromise on this project. There were some lighting set-ups that were extremely limited by equipment and crew inexperience. For example, we could only afford two tracking shots in the entire film. And I had to understand the limitations of the budget, and therefore the implications of the time and restraint for setting up shots and the way a scene would be handled. In fact, the limitations of budget dictate the approach to style in general for filmmaking. For this reason, a good relationship between producer, director and cinematographer is absolutely vital – to understand what kind of time frame is necessary to achieve the style/content and whether the director’s ambitions can be realised. I was lucky to have these excellent collaborations. My producer, Matteo [Bruno], was excellent at making a dollar go a long way, as was my cinematographer Katie Milwright. On a personal level, Matteo and I were unable to make an income for over six months because of the full-time commitment to the project. What this means is that I had to be loaned money from both partner and parents so I could survive during this time. I think there a number of problems with the current structure for funding/politics in our country. These problems are symptoms of a culture that appreciates motion pictures/cinema for the following reasons alone: (1) entertainment value relating to financial imperative; and (2) cultural value pertaining to a definition of recognisable Australian culture. Our education system – for example, the Victorian College of the Arts – does not teach us to appreciate cinema as poetry. Cinema is just a facilitator of ‘storytelling’ and that is rammed down every first-year student’s throat. It’s the reason only American cinema is shown to first-year students. The story dogma of Robert McKee has pervaded every pore of marketing and sales logic for a film’s producer and distributor. Notions of whether or not it actually makes for interesting cinema fall second to whether the story is dynamic, the cast is perceived as sellable (although, funnily enough, only a couple of Australian stars can guarantee that the film have moderate success). I think the problem comes to the priorities that are taught to Australians, for what is rewarded both critically and commercially. While naff mainstream Australian fare continues to be rewarded by high-profile cinema critics in newspapers and television, it is impossible for an Australian public or filmgoer to understand the importance of seeking out/demanding work that is rigorous or challenging in our cinemas. Perhaps the critics have become greedy for the wining-and-dining game of the three or four Australian mainstream/niche distributors. Perhaps the industry is too tightly knit and the boozy functions ensure that a kind of nepotism towards kind acts is always rewarded. I am not sure. For the Australian film industry to thrive (and I’m talking in terms of cinematic success, not necessarily cash-flow), we need to create a divide in the imperatives for funding. I think a portion of the funding should be put towards work that is cinematically challenging without the question of what the film’s marketplace is. Markets and concepts of the marketplace have destroyed a great deal of Hollywood and they certainly have done the same to our small boutique industry. Left-of-centre Australian works of extreme beauty and strangeness such as Patrick White’s The Night The Prowler (Jim Sharman, 1979), Star Struck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982), Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi, 1976) could not be made in this climate where exposition and story information (through dialogue and overly specific script action) destroy the mysterious element that good cinema needs to build upon. These films don’t work on story alone. The poetic elements of these films are what make them truly unique. As Roman Polanski said, what’s interesting in cinema is not what goes on inside the frame, but what happens around the corner unseen. I encourage Australian filmmakers with intelligence and ideas that move outside the norm set by Robert McKee to step forth, and bravely embrace the challenge of making work that is not dictated by fear. I hope to continue doing the same. But making this kind of cinema, at the technical level that I have this time, will be difficult and, therefore, harder for it to be seen by a world audience. Which is why I hope to do both kinds of films and hopefully find a name as a filmmaker so I can make cinema as poetry as well as cinema for the purpose of telling a story. The reason that interesting art cinema is coming out of South East Asia, Argentina, Turkey, etc., is twofold. First, their culture teaches the importance of an intelligent cinema audience and a respect for cinema by the academic culture. Second, their economy allows for European/First World producers to invest in work from Third World countries (through programmes such as Fonds Sud Cinéma and the Hubert Bals Fund, and independent producers) for a minimal amount and have an extremely high production value because of the currency exchange. The cinema is good, the audience want to see it, and a demand is made in the marketplace, festivals and so forth. Internationally, thanks to the bureaucratic meddlings of the past twenty years, there is a fear about tedious expositional Australian films. Will it continue? I don’t know. But we should definitely look closer at the surge of interesting first/second-time directors in Europe at present that are making interesting work. How is that possible with the powerful euro? Individual governments and private investors from European countries have a respect for cinéastes, auteurs and the voice of the individual director. It’s something this country needs to encourage and nurture if we are ever to have an interesting film culture that works at a world-class level, where technical compromise and limited time and capacity for budget mean that innovative directors have very little chances to practice their art. Ben. From: Matthew Clayfield To: Ben Hackworth Date: Jul 25, 2007 1:06 PM Subject: Festival Questions Dear Ben, Two last questions! You mention the “surge of interesting first/second-time directors in Europe at present making interesting work”, which reminds me that Richard Moore has programmed a section in this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, “Euro Debuts”, which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to first-time European filmmakers. I wonder what you think of this year’s programme, of the other Australian films on offer, and what it means to be included in the MIFF line-up. As a former Accelerator participant, in particular, I don’t want any sentimentality in your answer, either! [Accelerator is a MIFF initiative to help fast-track selected filmmakers.] What are your immediate plans? Aside from getting Corroboree out there, and seen, do you know what direction you are headed in from here? You mention that you plan to make film-as-poetry and film-as-story (not that they’re mutually exclusive, of course), and I wonder, given the trials of making films in this country, whether or not you plan to do so here? Given your particular bent, I wonder whether or not you might not wind up in Europe, permanently. Take care, Matt. From: Ben Hackworth To: Matthew Clayfield Date: Jul 25, 2007 6:42 PM Subject: RE: Festival Questions Dear Matt, Opening Night! Can only answer questions briefly … I think the MIFF line reflects trends in European festivals such as Rotterdam, Berlin and Cannes. Without getting sentimental, I am really optimistic about the direction/unification of the four major Australian festivals. With the new appointment of Clare Stewart [as Festival Director] in Sydney, there seems to be a good communication and rapport between all festival directors which can only strengthen the way Australians think and talk about cinema. I am hopeful that critics like yourself can also have an impact on the way we think and talk about film in this country. Will have to finish answering question tomorrow. Cab is at the door … Ben. From: Matthew Clayfield To: Ben Hackworth Date: Jul 29, 2007 2:27 PM Subject: RE: RE: Festival Questions Ben, Look forward to your answers and to seeing you if and when you return at for the final day or two of the Festival. I hope Corroboree went down well with the punters the other night. [It screened on 27 July 2007.] Take care, Matt. From: Ben Hackworth To: Matthew Clayfield Date: Jul 25, 2007 4:36 PM Subject: RE: RE: RE: Festival Questions Dear Matthew, [Festival Director] Richard Moore’s new Festival is fabulous, despite the questionable narcissism of programming an Opening Night film [Michael Moore’s Sicko, 2007] whose director who shares his surname (that’s a joke, I must reassure the dryer children out there). I can’t yet say whether it’s as fabulous as the Festival that [former Festival Directors] Tait Brady, Sandra Sdraulig and James Hewison (and, of course, the unsung hero, Mr Nick Feik) have been building to over the past decade or more, but things are looking promising. The buzz is wonderful again, less the ‘mourning buzz’ of last year, with the end of James’ formidable, lengthy residence at the Festival, and more of a child-like fever, culminating in the love-in created by Thirty Seven South [Films] on the back of the genius of Accelerator. While this could be perceived as a gushing praise of the powers that be, I’m actually the first to tell somebody that their priorities are in the wrong place. And I will say it openly, candidly, and hope it promotes a healthy critical discussion. I am the person who stormed out of a Robert McKee seminar at Accelerator calling him a middling academic with sound-bytes. I’m the one who on many drunk and sober occasions have ‘manufactured dissent’ and initiated passionate discussion with people who too often don’t ant anything for cinema but a prolonged pay cheque and comfortable bonus. Capitalism is so seductive. And in many ways it’s wonderful. But the government we’ve had in Australia for so long has promoted the worst of socialism (slow-burn bureaucracy) and an emerging decline of the real virtues of democracy (idealism, egalitarianism and individualism) – particularly in the arts and – the worst culprit of all – cinema ‘industries’. However, whilst avoiding sentimentality and wanting to embrace critical faculty, the Melbourne Film Festival, over the past few years, has made me ‘feel’ and ‘think’ differently about the state of things and not just by virtue of the selection (I know nothing of the quality of this year’s films thus far; I will see a lot of them in Brisbane). The generation of electric energy from the gifted gang of filmmakers (selected or otherwise) for this year’s Festival is incomprehensible. I hope that the Festival (and all the Australian festivals for that matter) keeps its decisive passion and maintains its critical faculty so that at some point they feel open to reject some of my works. I’m relieved that I haven’t suffered with Corroboree because it’s my first big film, however. I think clarity in curation is vital. If only the mainstream cinema critics could have the same level-headed appreciation of cinema as the festival directors, particularly in respect to their ability to acknowledge and talk about the flaws of a particular type of Australian cinema. My own immediate plans are multiplying and expanding. I am excited to see where this film takes me both literally and emotionally – in terms of the process of understanding how to work within and outside the deeply flawed system. Suffice to say, I choose to embrace the mechanisms and provoke change, fighting and flying, meditating and dreaming, hatching and baking the films that will culminate in a body of a work – reflecting my love for humanity and cinema. As for Europe, there’s no need to relocate permanently any time soon. I want to work with my language (Australian) and want to hear its voices resonate on screen. But it’s funny that you ask. I have been given the luxury of another French residency, the Moulin d’Ande in Normandy, for three months, where I will endeavour to complete the shooting draft for my next film. I implore all worthy filmmakers and cinéastes (there are so many) to take a stand, create a revolution (albeit through the peaceful lens of art and criticism) and to reject the winding moan that has perpetuated the death of beauty, art and talent on the Australian screen. But I must confess, Matt, my brain is jelly from too much talking, wining and jumping from [Festival] forum to forum in a series of jump-cuts for the past four days! We’ll have to leave it there. Ben.