Tuesday, May 31, 2011


This past week I've been finishing an adaption of a Tim Winton short story for The Turning, a portmanteau feature film project I'm involved in. The Turning, produced by Rob Connolly, has a number of different directors freely adapting the short stories that make up the novel-like collection published under the same name. One of the key images within the particular story that I'm directing is of a woman who has gassed herself in her car, leaving behind her husband and child. I spent some time trying to think of ways to imagine this scene that did not feel familiar or already overcooked by so many films that have come before. While I dribbled on my keyboard and procrastinated, I was sent a link to a collection of Michael Wolf's photographs called Tokyo Compression, which, although taken in the very public intimacy of the Tokyo subways, immediately refracted this key image of the film back to me in precisely the way I needed to see it. Thank you world and your strange sense of timing.

All images above by Michael Wolf. Visit his website for more extraordinary collections.

Full Speed

"Experience at full speed, self-consuming structures, crazy contradictions ... Never too long in the same place, like guerrillas, like UFOs, like the white eyes of life prisoners ...

Make new sensations appear—Subvert daily life.


Roberto Bolaño
Excerpts from the First Infrarealist Manifesto
Mexico 1976

Monday, May 30, 2011


“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything - gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness - rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.”

Antonin Artaud
This often excerpted text of Artaud's may be slightly undergraduate to throw around but I wanted to lay it on the line as a preface to writing about the feature film Hail directed by admired friend and fellow traveller Amiel Courtin-Wilson. I hope, in what follows, these words of Artaud's find a safe place to settle. It also allows me to lay bare that what I've written below is an awkward declaration of love for an extraordinary film that justifies a rambling response that is, like the film, equal parts emotion, intellect and gut response.

Hail is the first narrative feature film for Amiel Courtin-Wilson who has created a vast body of short works and long form documentaries that haunt the margins of fiction and documentary. His work has always drawn on the impulsive, the visceral and the poetic to create uniquely cinematic spaces that are not quite "narrative" and not quite "non-narrative". There is an undercurrent within his work that demands the audience open their eyes wide, whether it is through experimental works that explore elderly swingers parties, teenage drunkenness, the splintering effects of violence, or the faces of people being choked to the point of unconsciousness; or through longer documentaries that interrogate the world with an intimacy and immediacy that can be equally harsh and delicate. As a filmmaker and as a person, the director's intellect is probing, demanding and confronting. All that you could hope for in this day and age of vapid, dumbed-down 'story' dogma. So, Hail has been anticipated with curiosity and hope by those who know and admire the ways Amiel works and the direction in which he seems to be hurtling.

I saw the film, some months ago now, at a slightly nerve wracking opening night at the Adelaide Film Festival in which producer Michael Cody delivered the screening copy (with an incomplete but still sublime sound mix) half an hour late for the milling audience. A final mixed version will be screened in a week or so at the Sydney Film Festival before it's release.

Despite the modesty and intimacy of the narrative and production, Hail, throughout, feels epic and expansive. It tells the story of Danny, newly released from prison, who returns to life and living with the love of his life, Leanne. They are an aging tough nut couple who, in gesture and speech, reveal lives of hardship, but who relate with tenderness, humour and a deep attraction to one another that is youthful and intoxicating. As soon as you see Leanne leap into Danny's arms on his return home, you know that this love is potent and complex and distinctly unlike the dreary, implausible monotone of so many realist romances set in the criminal world. The film follows their lives in moments that are alternately distilled into single images of lyrical beauty or that ramble along in visually loose, meandering sequences of talk, laughter, pleasure and menace. However, it is when characters from their past start lingering on the edges of their world that we realise how fragile both their love and Danny's grip on reality is. To a certain extent tragedy feels inevitable and predictable - all that precedes sets us up for the fall - yet, the ways in which the film spirals into violence, anguish and, ultimately moments of transcendence, is startling, distinctive and immersive. A decaying soundtrack and image, moments of levity, images of incredibly intense violence, all map out the internal horror of a man who, without love, turns to vengeance with wildness and savagery.

While normally I am fascinated by process in film, the reception of Hail so far has strongly favoured discussion of Amiel's process and I think, in many ways, this emphasis can work counter to an appreciation of the singularity of the film, grounding it, as discussions of process always do, back into the working world of production and creation. While I watched it and later considered how strong my response was, I tried to make an effort to distance myself from what I know of Amiel and of the charismatic lead in the film, ex-con Daniel Jones, so that I could try and see it, really see it, as a film in and of itself. The reason for this is that I wanted to appraise as honestly as I could the ways in which Amiel and his collaborators have tried to construct a filmic language specific to the telling of this story; to try and understand this without a knowledge of all of the ideas and processes behind it; and to see the film only from the audience perspective within the dream-darkness of the cinema. However, this was difficult as I knew from his early work (can we ever see film in a vaccuum?) that it wasn't going to be realism, or lyricism, or something else familiar. It would be gut and intuition that would kick at that realism and lyricism and, in doing so seek to find a way to get closer to the real and the lyrical. And, in fact, that was precisely the case. This film, Hail, is one of the single most exciting films I have seen to emerge from Australia. It is muscular, ambitious, defiantly singular in its voice, and refuses to pay any dues to the incredibly conservative storytelling trends that are gnawing away at filmmaking in this country. Because of this, it will probably have a hellish time with distribution and, because of this, it will probably be a landmark film. But, most importantly, and the thing that is most exciting, Hail uses Amiel's unique approach to filmmaking to create an experience that is harsh, visceral and elemental but strives for a sense of emotional and visual elevation that is rare and easily dismissed in this filmmaking culture. And, it is this ambitious approach that calls to mind Artaud's demands to 'break through language in order to touch life'; to find a place where physicality, emotion and intellect coalesce and collide and reach for something deeper and more essential. The film is an assault on the senses. And like any assault on the senses it leaves your ears ringing and spine tingling. Whether I can successfully distance myself from the process and the filmmaker or not, this is incredibly fucking exciting.

Some years back, when I first saw the Dardennes Brothers' Rosetta - a film I love unreservedly - I wrote at length about the visceral qualities of the film and the ways in which the 'bodies' of the film, literally and figuratively, collided. I started the piece of writing in this way:
"the visceral quality of the film is the result of a specific approach to narrative and to performance that is concerned with an intimate exploration of the body, its physical articulations, and the limits of its endurance."
Hail, is, to put it mildly, as visceral a film as any I've ever seen and, like this earlier film, is fascinated by physical limits - the points at which we snap and break, at which we bleed (and die), and at which we allow ourselves to soften enough to love. The film takes in extremes of physical violence and the most tender of touches, people hurtle and lunge and recoil, and they are delicate and still. The darting eyes of Danny tear strips off the audience as they reveal the violence beneath the surface, we linger on fingernails in the water, hair in the wind, the coldness of breath, teeth bloodied and broken, burning hair, the most loving sexual interplay, drunken staggering. These things would stand alone as startling images, yet intertwined, they reveal all the complexity, violence, fragility and beauty of a life lived in extremes.

Hail is ambitious. For this, I love it. I love that it revels in precise and pure images, that it allows the elements to thrash around the edges of the narrative, that it strives for something reckless and messy as a way to distill something deeply emotional. I love that it is, at moments, on the verge of falling apart and that it hurtles between sequences with a lightness of touch that is difficult to trace or define (enormous kudos to the images of Germain McMicking and the editing of Peter Sciberras for all of this). I love that it was made here, in our little community, that it punches far above it's weight and that it feels like a a major distillation of talent and form for a handful of people who've fought for a long time to make films in their own way. And, finally, I love the fact that, as dark as the film is, as violent as it is, it seems at all times to be in love with its characters, in love with the possibilities of its form and that, it seems, the film had to use a new language, both familiar and strange, as the only way to express this love.

Finally, at the end of this rapturous, loved up reception on my part (after which I'll probably wake with a sore head, a sheepish grin and a walk of shame), a return to Artaud:

I am adding another language to the spoken language, and I am trying to restore to the language of speech its old magic, its essential spellbinding power, for its mysterious possibilities have been forgotten.

Artaud, letter to J.P., Sep. 28, 1932

If you are interested in the process and the approach behind this film, below is an interview with Amiel from the eve of his premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in which he discusses a number of elements of the film.

And, here are some stills from behind the scenes. Epic.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Margin

"It's the margin that holds the book together"

image: Jason Wurm
words: Jean-Luc Godard in conversation to Agnès Varda
("Que la marge c'est ca qui tient le livre")

Monday, May 16, 2011

Vanity and Void

"Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn't all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it's nothing. That if it's not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. But usually I have no opinion, I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read. That its basic unseemliness is no longer accepted."
Marguerite Duras, The Lover