Gregor Jordan (b. 1966, Sale, Victoria) is a versatile Australian director recognised for his capacity to work across multiple platforms (cinema, television, online, documentary, shorts and music video) and his commitment to pursuing a distinctively Australian style or sensibility of the comic gothic with a dark ironic twist. He is also one of Australia’s great but unheralded crime auteurs who regularly returns to working on variations on the genre. He exhibits an idiosyncratic style that highlights the incongruities between mundane suburbia and a lustrous, pop cultural story world that is dynamically interrupted by splashes of absurd violence and moments of genuine benevolence.
Jordan became the poster boy for the explosive success that a clever, gothic black comedy short can deliver in terms of providing future opportunities. In pondering his career the director exclaimed, “I guess when you look at the careers of a lot of successful filmmakers – and a lot of filmmakers I admire – when you look at their early careers, you pretty much see that more often than not they started out making short films” (1). Jordan established his career with Swinger (1995), a remarkably simple, super low budget ($500) single-shot short comedy with a dark ironic twist that won first prize at the 3rd Tropfest (before it became an enormous event) and then went on to win the Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. Many notable alumni of Tropfest have gone on to significant filmmaking careers (such as Nash Edgerton, Leon Ford, Clayton Jacobson, Alister Grierson, Rowan Woods, Rob Carlton, Sam Worthington, Robert Connolly and Elissa Down). According to Kate Matthews, “some credit Swinger with first drawing attention to the festival as a potential launching pad for aspiring filmmakers” (2). In Jordan’s three-minute short the phone rings incessantly in a cluttered but seemingly empty apartment of a man (John Sims) who is clearly deeply disillusioned with the world. Callers leave voice messages that give a sense of the tragically misunderstood final days of Sims. It becomes apparent that he has just committed suicide by hanging. But as the calls become increasingly positive, and with the offer of the rare chance to win a major contest on radio, the depressed dead man suddenly comes to life. The startling final moment leaves the audience to ponder the disturbing possibility that the suicide’s revival may be far from a joyous resurrection but rather a dark ironic joke on audience expectations as the prize awarding radio announcer is about to hang up the phone. Swinger exhibited Jordan’s trademark pop cultural gothic sensibility and foregrounded dark themes of youth suicide concealed in a normalised, media-saturated context.
Despite his subsequent feature film success Jordan has returned to the short film format. In 2012 he started the Open Road Film Festival with long-time collaborator, the actor Bryan Brown. The unique premise of this short film festival required entrants to create six minutes of material for a film that already had an ending (filmed by Jordan). Jordan shot the final moments of this film called “The Queen of Hearts” with his recognisable flair for narrative efficiency, sexy set-ups and quirky endings cloaked in a moody, perversely comic, twisted noir style. The presence of a leggy underwear-clad femme fatale and a hapless male protagonist in a black motorbike helmet chained to a bed and left to figure out how to survive a betrayal, appeared as natural extension of his earlier work. As Jordan said, “Anything that sort of experiments with the craft of filmmaking and tries to push it to new places I find really interesting” (3). The festival was unique in that Jordan and Brown were on-hand throughout the process as mentors to the short-listed finalists.
Two Hands (1999) was Jordan’s first feature – a much-loved gangster crime caper that is now justifiably considered an Australian classic. It is a quirky crime film mixing a coming-of-age story with romance and black comedy, set amidst sunny beachside vistas and laidback larrikin characters. The film’s vibrant settings conceal a dangerous underworld full of abuse, poverty and violence. Jay Daniel Thompson suggests that Two Hands can be productively read as an example of the “Australian gothic”, due to its themes of darkness and monstrosity lurking beneath apparent normality (4). Jordan described it as “GoodFellas in shorts and thongs”, highlighting the film’s vernacular take on the genre and its blending of crime, dark comedy and mundane family life in a fashion that was suggestive of the work of Quentin Tarantino. The film featured distinctly Australian criminal characters: laidback and good-natured, they are often depicted in suburban situations surrounded by children, making their penchant for violence both surprising and perverse. Crime boss Pando (Bryan Brown), permanently seen in shorts, thongs and Hawaiian shirts, is a loving father who patiently helps his young son with his origami creations while casually ordering a killing of his new employee Jimmy (Heath Ledger). The execution fails because one of the thugs put his ammo through the wash and it is waterlogged. A bank heist is meticulously planned in a suburban lounge room while toddlers crawl innocently around on the floor. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, the deadly serious bank robbery is thrown into disarray by a ridiculous, amateurish mishap. Black comedy emerges from the incongruity of events as suburban rituals conceal brutal violence under the sheen of a glossy mise en scène. Two Hands is framed by a dead narrator (Jimmy’s older brother) who speaks from the grave and provides Jordan’s cinematic mantra: “Something that’s good has a little bit of bad and something that’s bad has a little bit of good”. The film’s romantic ending is ironically contrasted against the unflinching violent revenge that leads to Pando’s demise. Jordan’s genius in this film lies in effortlessly blending mundane moments with unexpected violence in a tight, fresh and indigenous take on the crime genre.
Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2003) is arguably the strongest cinematic adaptation of the Kelly myth. Its lush brooding landscapes and stylish dramatisation blend sequences of intense brutal action with lyrical, uplifting moments such as the public reading of the Jerilderie Letter to hostages during the Euroa bank raid. Jordan frames the fate and actions of the Kelly Gang through the patriotic, Robin Hood-like filter of merry but poor Irish-Australian lads wronged by a vicious and cowardly police force, as well as an institutionally corrupt justice system that is skewed towards the wealthy operating on behalf of their British masters. The police are characterised as rapists and undisciplined thugs exploiting their power rather than upholding the law and moral decency. Narrated by Ned (Heath Ledger), the tale is told from the perspective of the downtrodden who stand up to the authorities as champions of community grievances. This naturalises the Kelly Gang’s violence as morally justified. Jordan continued his exploration of the incongruities of Australian myths and archetypes by depicting Ned as not only a hot-tempered larrikin criminal but also sensitive to the natural environment (and therefore authentically Australian). Already sanctified, Ned is a folky, family-orientated, sympathetic romantic hero intimately in touch with the land who is prone to self-righteous violence and excessive emotion. Rebekah Brammer notes that “the film re-mythologises the Kelly story for a new generation, providing the audience with romantic heroes, an easily digestible view of colonialism and an attractive landscape” (5). The final shootout stages a battle between the outnumbered Kelly Gang, innocent community members and the bumbling but brutal police force. Even at the end, clever, brave and resourceful Ned is the lone heroic survivor of the gang.
Jordan’s work in the US produced a mix of significant and challenging creative projects. It has featured often highly controversial material that has affected the distribution of the films and led to the widespread critical misunderstanding of his ironic style.
Both Buffalo Soldiers (2001) and Unthinkable (2010) created controversy for their satirical approach to explosive subject matter. Buffalo Soldiers was a military satire in the style of Catch-22 that followed the absurd, criminal, dangerous and perverse activities of a group of US soldiers in Germany in the lead up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It depicts a world of boredom and bastardy in the military with soldiers engaged in all manner of nefarious and black market activities, surrounded by a bumbling and self-focused chain of command. It premiered at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival just prior to the events of 9/11. Its biting satire of the US military led to it being held back from theatrical release for another two years. As Jordan claimed:
I’d never seen that world portrayed before in a film. I also liked the ideology behind the film – the idea that a lot of people like war and if you don’t give them a war, they’ll make one of their own. […] I’d never seen the idea that war is kind of cool, and there are a lot of people out there who really like it. (6)
Unthinkable was a provocative, thematically prescient, highly charged suspense thriller with a big name cast (Samuel L. Jackson and Carrie-Anne Moss) and a mid-range budget ($15 million), but it was ultimately released direct-to-video. The film was considered to be controversial due to its extreme violence and seemingly pragmatic portrayal of torture by black ops state authorities. A Caucasian American man, formerly with Delta Force but now a recent converted to Islam, threatens to detonate nuclear devices in three American cities if his demands for the withdrawal of US forces from Muslim countries are not met. The film polemicises about whether the ends could ever justify the means in a democracy, if the means involve state-sanctioned, “unthinkable” torture. Jordan’s trademark presentation of the incongruous combination of incredible violence and family values is clearly displayed through the character of “H” (Jackson). The black ops “interrogator” is introduced as a loving family man devoted to his children, but when he gets to work he displays a brutality and calculated intensity that exceeds all morally acceptable boundaries, including the torture of children in his pursuit of the truth.
Perhaps Jordan’s most divisive film was a result of his last-minute decision to step in and direct an adaptation of a collection of short stories by Brett Easton Ellis, The Informers (2008). The film was critically panned for Jordan’s ironic directorial style. Easton Ellis, the book’s author and film’s producer claimed that the film was not funny at all (7), although it is hard to disassociate the style from the content of an entire world populated by highly unlikeable characters. Set amidst the coked-up and hedonistic Los Angeles showbiz scene of the 1980s, the film explores a group of equally despicable characters as they stumble around mansions, TV studios and five-star hotel rooms in an endless cycle of cheating, drinking and indifference. While the combination of crime, youth, drugs, despair and desire was not necessarily foreign territory for Jordan, his treatment of this decadence and moral decay was earnest. Film critic Roger Ebert described the film “directed by Gregor Jordan as a soap opera from hell… If [Jordan] finds no depths in the characters, well, what depths are there?” (8) What some critics were looking for was an interpretative satire, something funny not a dark, over-determined and therefore ironic rendition of the existential pointlessness of these beautiful people’s miserable lives (full of dread despite the glossy sheen of showbiz excess). The little seen The Informers deserves to be rehabilitated in light of Jordan’s other work and viewed through the prism of the ironic pop gothic.
Ian Thorpe: The Swimmer
Ian Thorpe: The Swimmer (2012) marked a change of pace and form for Jordan. This was a very small, intimate documentary project that focused on family friend and former Olympic great Ian Thorpe’s attempt to make it back into the Australian Swimming Team for the London Olympics. It started as a personal project without a broadcaster attached. Jordan was directing and shooting a story focussing on the dreams and failures of Thorpe and his efforts to make the team. Although unforeseen, Thorpe’s ultimate failure to qualify was an integral part of the story’s non-sentimental, unvarnished significance. Similarities could be drawn between the figures of Ned Kelly and Ian Thorpe as national heroes whose mythologies were well-established prior to the respective films but whose poetic worldview, romantic aspirations and personal failures were essential parts of their iconic mystique.
In 2013, Jordan returned to the shady Sydney world of Two Hands, and crime caper territory, rekindling his working relationship with Bryan Brown in the eight-part television series Old School (Matchbox Pictures). Jordan is billed as one of the directors, writers and executive producers on the series. The story examines the relationship between a retired crim (Brown) and a retired cop (Sam Neill) as they band together to solve crimes and unravel scams while avoiding getting in trouble with the police and the underworld. The nostalgically intimate relationship between cops and robbers demonstrates Jordan’s ironic and gothic interpretation of the Australian crime genre and its intricate bond between criminals and the police.
Having started as a production trainee prior to working his way up to a high position in the television industry, before switching to film, Jordan has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for consistent work and career pragmatism. He has moved from the short gag film through big budget Hollywood features to one-man-band documentaries. Jordan has revealed a vernacular Australian interpretation of the “romantic” crime genre. His consistent style, reoccurring thematic concerns and commitment to exploring the gothic sensibility merit his inclusion in the Contemporary Australian Directors series.
- Sarah Darmody, “Gregor Jordan Interview”, Film: It’s a Contact Sport, New Holland Publishers, Sydney, 2002, p. 162.
- Kate Matthews, “Swinger (1995): Curator’s Notes”, Australian Screen Online: http://aso.gov.au/titles/shorts/swinger/notes/.
- Emily Blatchford, “Gregor Jordan and Bryan Brown Create New Film Festival”, IF Magazine 27 November 2012: http://if.com.au/2012/11/27/article/YVIHZEULUG.html.
- Jay Daniel Thompson, “The Australian Gothic: In Two Hands”, Screen Education no. 61, Autumn 2011, p. 143.
- Rebekah Brammer, “Ned Kelly vs The Proposition: Contrasting Images of Colonialism, Landscape and the Bushranger”, Metro no. 158, September 2008, p. 134.
- David Edwards, “We Don’t Need Another Hero: David Edwards talks to Gregor Jordan About Buffalo Soldiers”, Metro no. 137, 2003, p. 40-2.
- Kyle Buchanan, “Brett Easton Ellis on How The Informers Went Wrong”, Movieline 20 May 2010: http://movieline.com/2010/05/20/bret-easton-ellis-on-how-the-informers-went-wrong/.
- Roger Ebert, “The Informers”, Roger Ebert.com 22 April 2009: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-informers-2009.
Gregor Jordan Screenography:
2014 Old School (TV Mini-series) (in post-production)
2012 Ian Thorpe: The Swimmer (Documentary)
2010 Sunsets: Powderfinger Farewell Tour Live in Concert (Video)
2010 Unthinkable (Feature)
2008 The Informers (Feature)
2005 Numb3rs (TV Series) 1 episode, unaired pilot
2004 These Days: Powderfinger Live in Concert (Video)
2003 Ned Kelly (Feature)
2001 Buffalo Soldiers (Feature)
1999 Two Hands (Feature). Won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Direction and Best Screenplay.
1998 Raw FM (TV Series) 1 episode, “A Raw Deal”
1997 Big Sky (TV Series)
1996 Twisted (TV Series) 1 episode, “The Confident Man”
1995 Stitched (Short). Nominated for an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Screenplay.
1995 Swinger (Short). Won Tropfest; Jury Prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. Also screened at the Sundance Film Festival.
1995 “Party”, Christine Anu (Music Video)