Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rock on Film Part 13 : Dogs in Space

Sam and Anna do it tough
Recently revisited this one on blu-ray. Seen it three times now. First at the cinema, cringed. Second, while sharing house with one of its participants, cooler. Last, soberest and strangest viewing of all. Here's what happened.

Back in 1986 I was hanging around with people who, like myself, were too young to have known the scene depicted in the film. All we had to go on was how embarrassed Michael Hutchence's performance made us feel. He lopes around the house dressed in a doona grunting like a farm animal, watching the tv from centimeters away as though he's metabolising the most incredible acid, and is otherwise as lively as a uncurled rollmop. It is a rock star who wants to show how actory he can be (see also David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Nick Cave) There are bits in his performance that do work: whenever he's declaiming into a mic: surprise surprise. The rest of the film, for us then, was looking around that selfconscious elephant and trying to see what else was going on. Didn't work. Whinged about it over goon and rollies afterwards.

Cut to 1990. Sharing a house with one of the people in the film but also one of the people responsible for the scene in the first place. It was on VHS and we were all in the lounge room, drinking and enjoying the proto-dvd commentary said participant was giving (not an entirely complimentary one, either). When I called this occasion cool, above, I didn't mean it was a desirable experience, I meant it was more aloof. The situation prevented both open derision and incautious praise. So, cool, not cool.

The most recent viewing came at the end of a long and tiring but productive day at work during which I'd picked up the blu-ray going cheap as I thought it might be worth a revisit and it included a documentary about the film and the times it depicted which I'd missed at the last MIFF (more of which in a minute).  I watched the docco first and then the feature. Tech reaction first: looks and sounds splendid on blu-ray.

As a narrative film, this thing has no act structure beyond a vague one but that feels intentional. The sagging chaos that the way of life depicted herein is served by this, going from claustrophobic kitchen-at-party scene to listless hungover evenings in front of Countdown to very authentic feeling gigs at pub venues.

The central romance between Sam and Anna is deflated from the word go as we never see them meet and spark. They're just together at the beginning and that's that. If the amusing role reversal bit of Anna fighting off the yobbos while our hero ogles the middle distance is meant as their intro it should be funnier than it is, at least. But nah, nothing. By the time the central tragedy takes place I cared no more for the fate of the character than any other in the film. Not one of these characters is given any life beyond their appearence in their frames. Instead we get a big bag of quirks.

I'd cry BULLSHIT here and now were it not for the realisation that I was actually watching something creepily authentic. It had nothing to do with the narrative of the film beyond lending a kind of monsterisation of the central character. He is a grunting, lumbering, gawp-eyed, self-worshipping monstrosity who is yet capable of controlling the outward signs of his seething mucoid tempests of anxiety that he might not be as loved as he deserves to be, in order to appear personally powerful. Inshort: a cool person.

Whatever its intentions, a chronicle of a time of great creativity, a lament for the lost of the era, Dogs in Space is a celebration of an experience that everyone between school and the assumption of becoming a responsible voter has gone through: the share house. There isn't a soul who has lived in a shared house who hasn't got a country swag bulging with tales o' kerazey flatmates or about that time when .... and .... got on the roof and .... with a bottle full of detergent ... and ...WITH A MALLET? Dogs in Space is a Fiction film so this is all writ large. All manner of industrial strength whackiness takes place in the Richmond residence and by cracky if it don't beat all. Except that it ... don't.

Sure, you can have people having scripted sounding political arguments in party hallways, and university lesbians on the prowl in the name of the reclaimed night, some old bloke delivering a lecture about the beauty of his chainsaw, or, indeed, Michael Hutchence acting like a medicated schizophrenic but it will only ever add up to a loss of conceptual control on the part of the filmmakers. Someone somewhere got drunk enough with some others and made a list of everything they could remember about the bad old days o' the share house and not only kept the crumpled list but suited it up in a word processor (this is an 80s film) and did all the maths to see it through the logicistics and budgeting so that every single exaggeration appeared on screen as though it were a natural phenomenon.

The end result looks so carefully contrived it almost asks it audience for permission to proceed. The problem is not that it goes too far but charges gormlessly into it in the hope that the bravado alone will win cheers to stifle the loudest of glaring gaffs. It simply doesn't go far or deeply enough into a more controllable sample of the thing it seeks to describe. As one who has served over two decades before the communal fridge I can say that I recognise much of what I see on the screen in Dogs in Space but never so twee and overfed. As such, it serves best as a record of the era of its production rather than one of the time it purports to celebrate, the big fat coked out 80s, not the lean, dogfood-nourished 1978.

Real Sam and Play Sam. Can you tell the difference?
Compare and contrast the feature-length docco We're Living on Dogfood in which the assembled veterans of those who fought the big one back in the late 70s recall the times. There might be embellishments and outright lies but I care not. Oral history is almost better when it includes disputes. What you get from this piece is something far more informative and certainly more entertaining than Dogs in Space. A mix of preserved video and super 8 vitamised in with a series of talking head interviews (including those with Sam Sejavka and the late Michael Hutchence) and about one and a half hours later you've been for a compelling and fun ride through the living memory of others that makes you wish you'd been there. Poignantly, as the credits roll and some extra snippets of interviews fade in and out the final one is of the late Rowland S. Howard who briefly gazes at his interviewer in silence before fading to black.

PS: Don Letts take note: you might well have been part of the scene you're documenting but you don't have to get your stars to fawn over your participation. Richard Lowenstein was confident that his viewers knew who made this one.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Mailing list

Yo, kinderoons. A word in my ear at the last screening illuminated the worth of a more formal mailing list than I have been using. If you would like to be on the SHADOWS mailing list to get updates and information about the screenings etc let me know at my hotmail address. It's there at the top of the page but it would be absurd to omit it from this post.

As the girls from Dessert sang in Suicide Circle: Mailme.