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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cinema Down Under, Part 2 (originally published 9/00)

Down under in Australia, they do things differently. When it's daytime here, it's nighttime there. When it's summer here, it's winter there. With the white-hot spotlight of Olympic coverage trained on Sydney this year, the many distinctive and idiosyncratic facets of Australian life and culture have been made the fodder for endless media examination.

Last week I jumped on the bandwagon in my own small way by recommending some representative Australian films. The striking thing about Aussie cinema, however, is not its contrast with American films, but rather its similarities. During the Seventies, for example, American films experienced an influx of fresh, new talents ushering in an invigorating renewal of cinematic inventiveness. At approximately the same time, the very same thing was happening in Australia. We began last week to look at some of the titles resulting from this Australian New Wave. Here are a few more to look for on home video.

"Newsfront" (1978). This was the feature film debut of Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce. Drawing on his earlier experience making documentaries, he tells here the story of two newsreel photographers. Frank and Len Maguire are brothers who have pursued the same line of work, but their personalities could scarcely be more different. The film shows us their differing reactions to the sociopolitical changes that swept across Australia during the early Fifties as they seek to document those events with their cameras.

"Breaker Morant" (1980). Director and screenwriter Bruce Beresford and screenwriters Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens based their story on an obscure incident of the Boer War at the turn of the 20th Century. The story centers around three soldiers who came to South Africa from Australia to fight alongside the British against the Boers. Following orders from their superiors, the men had executed a number of prisoners. When it turns out that one of the executed men was a German national fighting on the Boer side, it becomes necessary to court-martial the Australians in order to pacify the German government. This was the film that launched Beresford's career as an internationally recognized filmmaker.

"We of the Never Never" (1982). It was inevitable that someone would eventually make a film adaptation of Jeannie Gunn's book about her life in the Australian outback. The memoir has been a favorite among the Aussies since its publication in 1907, often being used as a text in schools. It tells the story of Gunn and her husband settling on a ranch in the outback, and the difficulties she faced as a Victorian woman in adapting to such a life. The adaptation of this book was clearly a job for an Australian filmmaker, but the interesting thing is that director Igor Auzins ended up creating a film that has the distinct feel of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. Many have found fault with the pacing of the narrative, but virtually everyone agrees that the film is worth seeing for the stunning cinematography alone.

"Sweetie" (1989). Director Jane Campion is actually a New Zealand native, but it was in Australia that she began her filmmaking career. This was her first feature film. It's about a dysfunctional Australian family that has been thrown more or less permanently out of kilter by one of the family's daughters, a smorgasbord of neuroses who goes by the name "Sweetie." After a period of time away from them, she bursts back into their lives in her usual fashion: shouting, crying, cajoling, grandstanding, intruding, and, most especially, disrupting. The brunt of this emotional hurricane is borne, as always, by Sweetie's sister. The parents cope, as they always have, by wrapping themselves in a stultifying cocoon of denial, refusing to see that Sweetie has some serious emotional problems. Campion elicits both comedy and drama from this situation, creating a film that is difficult and challenging, and definitely not for all tastes. For those who enjoy black comedy, however, it is not to be missed.

These are just a few of the worthwhile titles that have emerged from Australian cinema. Long after the last reporter has delivered the last "G'day!" from Sydney's Olympic Park, these remarkable films will still be waiting for you at the corner video store. I hope you'll continue to discover their riches as you perfect your form in the freestyle popcorn consumption event.

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