“You wake up one morning and say “World, I know you! From now on there are no more surprises!’.” — Jill McBain from Once Upon A Time In The West
“The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations.” — Major J.F Thomas from ‘Breaker’ Morant
“See that bird? That’s the spirit bird. He will always look after you.” — Maud from Rabbit-Proof Fence
Every weekend we pay to see the fruits of the filmmakers’ dreams at the multiplex. Every weekend translates into a cynical game of Russian roulette with our cash. Every weekend there is a chance to fall under their spells and believe all over again. Every weekend there is a chance to truly escape reality for a few hours. Their self-indulgence is a double-edged sword which can either transcend their final vision into unlimited ecstasy or send it crashing to the eternal damnation of the bargain DVD bin at the local Best Buy. Certain films still have a hypnotic power over me, but there are a few that punch me in the gut and send me into another dimension. Werner Herzog knows all too well about the joy and “burden of dreams.”
I am not talking about the surefire hits like Iron Man, Pineapple Express, In Bruges, The Bank Job, The Dark Knight, or even There Will Be Blood. It was a safe bet that halfway through these films, they had won me over in ways that appeared obvious to anyone with a good heart monitor. It is the other films I am talking about over the last year or so that it usually takes a little while. The filmmaker has to be self-indulgent to a certain degree or what the hell is the point in the first place? I am still trying to figure out if I would have let another filmmaker get away with a film like Inland Empire other than David Lynch. Yet, Lynch is an institution and I am willing to trust him to take me to places where few other filmmakers or artists in other mediums could ever go.
I just watched Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django which is as self-indulgent as can be. I watched it and all I can really say is that it is Miike. Lately, I have to be in the mood for Takashi Miike. I am not sure anything really happened in this film, but I am still trying to figure out Izo! Is it any accident that Quentin Tarantino has a part in the film? Tarantino’s Death Proof was another self-indulgent film, but it showcased what the he does so well — paying homage to every film that ever influenced him in the genre. He manages to make it fresh at the same time — a true feat. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York may take all of the above and below to the cleaners for the most self-indulgent film ever made. Kaufman’s film is a hard film to penetrate, but in its own way it is rewarding when all is said and done. Charlie Kaufman may have made the ultimate film on death and his fear of death, but that is only a theory. It is not so much that it is an astonishing directorial debut, but the fact that he is able to put so much on the line. It is not an easy film to watch and a double feature of this and Inland Empire is sure to require a night of heavy drinking.
In November of 2007, I went to see Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. The theater was not very full and as the film continued playing, the few members of the audience walked out. I stayed until the very end. His story of the end of world that takes places in our near future was roundly dismissed by everyone. While watching it, all I saw was a man who loved movies; he had just made an incredible spectacle. It was Kiss Me Deadly for Generation X. It was not just Kiss Me Deadly, but Kelly paid homage to The Manchurian Candidate, Pulp Fiction, Repo Man, Mulholland Drive, Brazil, and many other films. It is also one of the best films about living in Los Angeles; it deserves to be in the same league as Short Cuts and Magnolia. What better city to have the alpha and omega of apocalyptic cinema take place? This is the beauty of the film. It did not hit me all at once. I kept thinking about it on the Metro ride on the way home that day and for the remainder of that weekend. I am not sure whether it was Dwayne Johnson’s Boxer Santaros or Justin Timberlake’s song and dance number to The Killer’s “All The Things I Have Done” which kept the film on my mind, but it did not matter. Once I heard The Pixies’ “Wave Of Mutilation,” Kelly had sealed the deal. The song is on the film’s soundtrack and it is forever associated with the film for me. Stanley Kubrick had the same skill and Quentin Tarantino does it all the time — take a popular song or piece of music and hijack it. My apologies to the Pixies because it is Southland Tales that I think of whenever I hear the song. The song triggers a variety of images and thoughts about the film. Soundtracks have a way of creating a comfortable distance from the film. It is a distorted view of what we have seen; sometimes our own recollection of the film is better than the actual viewing.
I had always thought that 2007 would go down as one of those watershed years of directors and self-indulgent visions, but I was wrong. Granted, Grindhouse and Southland Tales represent filmmakers working without a net and neither one lit the box office on fire, they still matter to me. In 2008, Neil Marshall created a film very much like Southland Tales called Doomsday. And like Southland Tales, the film has enough visual winks to the films that Marshall was influenced by that some may wonder where the originality is in the actual film. Doomsday is a huge homage to all the films he grew up on such as the Mad Max films, Metalstorm, Escape From New York, Excalibur, Zulu, The Warriors, Lifeforce, and lots of Terry Gilliam films for good measure. As with like Southland Tales, I was not immediately blown away by the film, but it did grow on me. I was left scratching my head wondering what I was watching. This was not the follow up to The Descent which I had expected. The film grew on me though because it was not the textbook follow up to one of the most original horror films in recent years. What was not to like about Doomsday? Marshall grew up with the same films that I did and created a stunning homage to them. I have no problem with that. What Richard Kelly and Neil Marshall had done in their films was no different from what Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino had been doing for most of their careers — although De Palma always got his hand caught in the cookie jar whenever he took from Alfred Hitchcock. I have no problem with the visual winking that goes on in these films. I have no problem with it because the finished film is more than just a series of homages. Southland Tales and Doomsday created memorable worlds that I will not forget anytime soon.
None of these films could have prepared me for Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious epic Australia. It is an always beautiful and sometimes frustrating film. The first half hour is a series of visual winks to the truly great films that it wants to be so badly: Gone With The Wind, Giant, The African Queen, Red River, The Misfits, The Sundowners, and especially Once Upon A Time In The West. It wants to be other films too, but in the first half hour, it is impossible not to think of these films. Nothing that Luhrmann has done before can prepare you for his epic western adventure about his country. Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! are three very different films with their own merits. While I admire Baz Luhrmann, I have never been a huge fan of his. I like his previous films, but I am not going to fall on my sword for any of them. It looks like I have fallen on my sword for Southland Tales and Doomsday too many times as it is.
Even while watching a midnight screening of Australia, I felt like something was missing. There is all of this beauty unfolding before me, but it felt like something was absent. It was not Hugh Jackman‘s mythic performance as the Drover that bothered me. Granted Russell Crowe was supposed to play the part originally and the idea of him and Nicole Kidman playing opposite each other would have been very enthralling, I actually felt that Jackman was every bit of Robert Mitchum and John Wayne cool as Crowe would have been in the film. Watching it, the film does not really come to life until the big cattle drive where Jackman’s Drover reluctantly helps Nicole Kidman’s Sarah Ashley take her 2,000 cattle through the treacherously scenic Australian landscape thanks to Mandy Walker‘s beautiful cinematography; it is Red River for the 21st century. I kept seeing things from other films and at times this kept me distant from what going on in front of me. I kept thinking of Southland Tales more than anything else after leaving the theater. My mind was all over the map as was the film itself. The film is a sprawling epic beginning before World War II with Sarah Ashley inheriting a cattle ranch from her late husband who has been murdered. The husband’s murder sets the rest of the narrative in motion. When an evil cattle baron threatens to take her land away from her, she joins forces with the Drover to take the cattle through the hundreds of miles Australian’s harsh landscape. Even after the long cattle drive, there is the still the Japanese attack on the city of Darwin. Australia has a little bit of everything in it. It is the grand epic of grandeur which we do not see much of anymore as visualized by Baz Luhrmann.
The morning after is a different story. I did not dislike the film, but when I went to sleep I cannot say I was truly blown away by it. When I woke up, all I could think about was Nullah. Nullah is a mixed-raced Aborigine boy played with great charm by newcomer, Brandon Walters. Nullah is the film’s narrator and at first he reminded me of The Feral Kid from The Road Warrior and the children from the Max Mad: Beyond Thunderdome. His actions throughout the film mimic those of the Feral Kid. In fact, Luhrmann is heavily influenced by not only the Mad Max films, but also by the other great Australian films such as ‘Breaker’ Morant, The Last Wave, Walkabout, Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Man From Snowy River, My Brilliant Career, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and The Proposition.
The film is a love song to old Hollywood, but more importantly it is a loving homage to the great films about Australia and more importantly to the country itself. Speaking of homage, the film is heavily influenced by The Wizard Of Oz in the second half. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Kidman’s Sarah gives Nullah a very fractured retelling of The Wizard Of Oz and even sings “Over The Rainbow” to him in her own way. It is the sweetest scene that has a wonderful Cinema Paradiso payoff later in the film. The morning after I could not get the chords of “Over The Rainbow” out of my head. It is the first time in a long time that Ms. Kidman looks like she is relaxed and comfortable with a character. It is quite possibly her best role since her triple feature run of Moulin Rouge!, The Others, and The Hours. She was the only one who looked like she was having a good time in The Golden Compass. I could not get Nullah out of my head. The images from this scene and the song itself have taken permanent residence in my mind even while running on the treadmill at my gym. Mr. Luhrmann has managed to make the iconic song a very integral part to his film. It is such a Kubrickian trick and yet it makes perfect sense. The use of the music from The Wizard Of Oz also reminds me of the way Stephen Elliott used the music from The Sound Of Music for Welcome To Woop Woop — one of the great undiscovered Australian films of the late 1990’s featuring Rachel Griffiths. Is Australia my favorite Baz Luhrmann film? I don’t know, but the film grows on me day by day; I have not been able to stop thinking about it. The Wizard Of Oz becomes a template for Luhrmann’s film just as Kiss Me Deadly became a template for much of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales.
Nullah is the heart and soul of the film. He is the central character with whom each other character in the film revolves around. I am not saying that the romance that develops between The Drover and Sarah Ashley is devoid of chemistry, but one wonders what the film would have been like had it been made twenty years ago and Sam Neill and Judy Davis had the leads. It is one of those great what-ifs and why not because they were wonderful in My Beautiful Career. Nullah represents the very serious side the film’s story — Australia’s dark and painful history about the cruel treatment of the Aborigine people. He represents the “stolen generations.” These were the mixed-race Aborigine children who became victims of state-sponsored kidnappings when they were taken from their families in the outback and trained as domestic servants for the white people. This was the basis for Phillip Noyce’s excellent film, Rabbit-Proof Fence. Speaking of Phillip Noyce, someone should really allow him to direct a James Bond film. Nullah is the child that the Drover and Sarah never had. Speaking of the two leads, I know what you are thinking — is not Hugh Jackman channeling Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind, Jordan “Bick” Benedict from Giant, and Paddy Carmody from The Sundowners and is not Nicole Kidman channeling Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, Leslie Benedict from Giant , and Ida Carmody from The Sundowners? You are right on all counts, but there is an even better dynamic going on here. The film has a deliberate spaghetti western feel to it in the first half. It owes its very existence to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West for good portions of the first half. Imagine if Charles Bronson’s Harmonica and Claudia Cardinale’s Jill McBain became an item and settled down. I know, the domestication of Harmonica is very hard to fathom, but Jackman plays Drover in such a mythic way, it is hard not to see some of Harmonica in him. Outside of the X-Men films, The Fountain and The Prestige, he is very comfortable in the role. In a reversal of fortune, Jackman seems to be playing more for the camera than Nicole Kidman. While she is no Claudia Cardinale, her character did grow on me. Mr. Luhrmann manages to make her look like Jedediah Jr. from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in the first couple of shots of her arriving at her mythical ranch known as Faraway Downs. Nicole Kidman has a reputation for being box office poison. I think some of the choices have not worked out well for her.
Bewitched, The Stepford Wives, and The Invasion were not very good films. Birth is the one high mark, but that might be because of Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score. Dogville is something I do not want to sit through again — Lars Von Trier is another self-indulgent filmmaker. Although with Australia, I am beginning to see David Thomson’s infatuation with her in a new and positive light. She has made some awful choices since The Hours, but she is delightfully imperfect for the part of Lady Sarah Ashley. She has looked so perfect in her other roles, it is a real pleasure to see her get dirty. Her transformation into a frontierswoman is just what the doctor ordered. The terrain has been rough since the Oscar win and it shows, but she seems more comfortable under Luhrmann’s direction than anyone else in recent years. Faraway Downs is more like the McBain Ranch from Once Upon A Time In The West than Tara from Gone With The Wind. To me, the romantic relationship is more a homage to Once Upon A Time In The West and even The Misfits than to Gone With The Wind. Yet there is no denying Gone With The Wind’s impact with the aftermath of the Japanese air raid on Darwin; it is a stirring visual reference to the famous Burning of Atlanta sequence from Gone With The Wind. The film has a strong Leone feel throughout. It is more Western than anything else. Baz Luhrmann would not be the first Aussie director influenced by the great Westerns. George Miller was definitely influenced by the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, George Stevens, and Sergio Leone for the Mad Max films. John Hillcoat’s The Proposition has a strong Sergio Leone influence going on throughout it.
The supporting performances in the film are very good. Veteran actors, Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, both from ‘Breaker’ Morant, show up to give the film its Aussie creed. Jack Thompson is simply delightful as Kipling Flynn, a business partner of Sarah’s late husband. Brown is King Carney, the chief Cattle Baron in the region. He is one of the film’s villains. David Wenham is particularly nasty as Neil Fletcher, but none of them rise to the occasion quite like David Gulpilil’s King George. He is Nullah’s Grandfather who is always watching over him. We see him standing on the mountains watching down over Nullah. He wants Nullah to do his walkabout– his rite of passage in Aboriginal culture. Gulpilil is no stranger to the role. He has been in Walkabout, The Last Wave, Rabbit- Proof Fence, The Right Stuff, The Proposition, and many other films. He is perfect as King George. Of all the relationships in the film, the relationship between Nullah and King George is the true heart and soul of the film. King George represents Australia’s brutal treatment and oppression of the Aborigines while Nullah represents the future and hope for a better tomorrow. King George and Nullah represent the magic realism of the film. Each one weaves a wizard’s spell. In the cattle drive sequence, Nullah maneuvers just like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia while King George helps them cross a desert.
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is an overly ambitious and daring film. It has too much of everything, yet it does work. It is as self-indulgent as the other films I have written about in this essay. It should not work as well as it does. It is not even a perfect film, but it has hypnotic staying power. The epic scope is daunting as we get a western, a murder mystery, the outbreak of World War II, and a romance rolled into one film. At its heart, it is a film very much in love with the very art and craft of motion pictures. It is not only Baz Luhrmann’s love song to his native land, but a love song to the movies as well. In Darwin, Nullah watches his very first movie. The film is The Wizard Of Oz. It is an intoxicating scene. He has never seen anything like it in his life. It is very much like something out of Cinema Paradiso. Luhrmann captures the wonderment and ecstasy that is displayed in Nullah’s facial expressions. It is a magical moment; it is the film’s money shot. It is an excellent complement to the scene earlier where Sarah Ashley explains the film to him and sings “Over The Rainbow.” We never forget the first time we fell in love with movies. We never forget the power of that moment. If it is at all possible, we still hope for moments like Nullah’s where we can fall in love with the films all over again and make believers out of us once again in cinema’s awe inspiring power. Australia is the fruit of Baz Luhrmann’s dreams. His dreams will stay with me for as long as I go to the movies. With Australia, he has achieved a Maverick’s vision and stature. There is a little bit of Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, Fred Zimmerman, Victor Fleming, Peter Weir, George Stevens and George Miller in him. Even though he admires and pays homage to each of these mavericks, he manages to have developed his own style. He truly comes into his own with this film. Australia has won me over in ways that I never thought possible. I will gladly fall on my sword for Australia.