Big world

Sylvia Lawson reviews The Turning, Gravity, Blue Jasmine, Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing

17 October 2013



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Everything to do with their locations: Toby Wallace and Brenna Harding in Tony Ayres’s contribution to The Turning, “Cockleshell.”

TIM WINTON’s short stories, with their Chekhovian mini-dramas and overarching recreation of a particular geography – the southern coast of Western Australia – are almost shooting scripts in themselves; you look through the page at the film you feel this needs to be. The producer-director Robert Connolly acted on his responses, and the outcome is The Turning, an omnibus film event for seventeen stories and eighteen directors, including the animated prelude by Marieka Walsh, a brief and beautiful treatment of the lines (“Because I do not hope to turn again…”) from T.S. Eliot. Inevitably uneven, The Turning is still a much more fluent and unified work of cinema than we might have hoped. It also needs rescuing from the privileged mode of its release as a special event: few outlets, expensive tickets, no free list – us journos pay up, $25, $23 concession like everyone else. You get a glossy booklet, which describes the stories and gives messages from Connolly and Winton, but doesn’t include a full list of cast and credits.

Some of the best pieces, like “Big World,” directed by Warwick Thornton, draw voice-over narration from the story, and offer drama without synchronised dialogue; like that one, “Abbreviation” (Jub Clerc) and “Aquifer” (Robert Connolly) have everything to do with their locations – the long roads, the beaches, thick bush and still water. The separation of words from imagery works powerfully; it makes a space in which the working of memory and the atmospheres of place – essential strands in the book – become palpable. Other segments, using spoken and enacted drama, work more conventionally; these, particularly including the violent title story (directed by Claire McCarthy), are imaginable as good TV drama. Jonathan auf der Heide’s “Fog” does include dialogue, but using cinematic scale, it’s crucially about peril in the bush, and it’s properly terrifying.

Hearing of The Turning before seeing it, I couldn’t imagine how the anti-realism of the casting would work, with a lineup of different performers taking the main roles from one story to the next. In the outcome, it’s astonishingly right; the father is performed at different times by Hugo Weaving and Dean Daley-Jones, who could hardly be less alike. That’s one of several instances where a role is inhabited by black and white characters equally; in this mapping of a broken-up world, it works.

Gravity looks like a simple case, a two-hander set about 600 kilometres above the planet, with great views of the lights and seas of earth, an array of techno-wizardry inside the orbiting craft, and nothing at stake except the survival of the astronauts. Their shuttle has been damaged by debris from an exploded Russian satellite; 3D intensifies the resulting chaos, without overdoing it – you don’t feel bombarded by flying gadgets. Clashing sound breaks to sudden, total silence, while Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tumble and weave around in black vacancy, with Kowalski admonishing Stone to take care of her oxygen supply. Their presences tantalise, faces partly seen through their helmets; the story requires people, and these two will only be partly known. Ed Harris provides the voice of mission control until that voice, and the astronauts’ link to each other are lost. From there, Stone has it on her own; it’s her first time in space, and she has to remember which of the illuminated buttons to push. It doesn’t help that her monologue becomes sentimental, even banal. She just might reach the International Space Station, get into a recovery capsule and make it back to splashdown. The suspense is terrific.

The Mexican director, Alfonso Cuarón, has dealt before with desolation. He made the bleak and rigorous Children of Men, from P.D. James’s dystopian novel about a coming time in which, suddenly, women can’t have children any more; there seems to be no human future – another way of being lost in space. With Gravity, argument is incited by the confident figure of Kowalski in his role as a mentor, teasing a bit flirtatiously, telling old anecdotes; and then Russia caused the trouble in the first place. George Clooney has become the reliable face of American liberalism; on plot-level, it looks like so much propaganda. But with the shell of the capsule, plot is drowned. Hands grope in wet sand. We’re a long way from the techno-mystical ending of Kubrick’s 2001; this isn’t about infinity. If it’s about anything other than Cuarón’s delight in the aesthetics made possible by a very big budget for CGI and lightshow, it’s surely about the end of the space race, and the needs of the planet we’re on.

AT ONE point in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett’s half-crazed Jasmine drops her handbag; her bits and pieces spill out, and she must interrupt herself, in a life already wildly out of control, to gather them up. This repeats a moment in one of Allen’s finest efforts, Husbands and Wives, and there it was Judy Davis scrabbling frantically around. This director of profoundly serious comedy is concerned, always, with the impossibility of keeping personal worlds under control within the greater chaos. Jasmine is one of the most exasperating characters he has created in recent times, but his and Blanchett’s skills work so that with all her self-delusion, she calls on pity and tolerance rather than dislike. Her line of descent from Blanche Dubois has been widely noticed, but Tennessee Williams’s ruling world was the family; here the framework has more to do with money, property, and the off-screen framework of corruption. This is a post-GFC fable, and a very good one. Every so often film reviewers will talk of Allen’s “return to form”; but however light his divertissements (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris?) I can’t see that he’s ever been away from it.

In a sense, the conceptual range of Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell is narrower; the story is bounded by the notion of family, and its strength is in the way “family” is actively called into question. This work is billed as documentary, and (yet once more) the question presses: where do film-fact and film-fiction begin and end? Seated at a huge recording console, Polley is interviewing her half-siblings, her long-supposed father Michael, and her actual biological father Harry Gulkin, among others. In the present of the film they play themselves most engagingly, with actors performing them in earlier stages of their lives; Rebecca Jenkins plays Sarah’s long-dead mother Diane, a beautiful and restless creature. The witnesses consider who it was that Diane really loved; each of the contenders emerges vividly, so we can take that question as futile. Documentary? The images of Diane mimic those of blurred and wavering home-movie footage, but it becomes clear that home movies are not what we’re looking at; the device is rather a way of signalling toward what’s really impossible, getting answers from the dead.

ONE of my fellow-reviewers considers Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing a masterpiece – he gave it five stars out of five; another colleague, for whose judgement I have much respect, said that wild horses wouldn’t drag her back to see it again. I have rather more sympathy for the latter; but this unwieldy piece of work, also documentary of a kind, should be considered in its contexts of production and reception. Taking up the history of Indonesia in the mid 1960s, and the massacre of at least a million communists, ethnic Chinese and others, Oppenheimer moved into a territory where anyone might fear to tread; he invited the surviving perpetrators to turn their memories into drama and engage in re-enactment, using any popular film genre they liked – musicals, Westerns, thrillers. Bringing this history back into daylight was clearly risky for the Indonesian crew; numerous roles in editing, production management, cinematography, sound and wardrobe departments are billed as Anonymous. We may gather that this chapter of recent history, a murderous rampage less than fifty years back, isn’t being taught in Indonesian schools.

Oppenheimer wanted, he has said, “to shed light on the darkest chapters of both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience, and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not a story about Indonesia. This is a story about us all.” One difficulty for that large, naive ambition is that the elaborate stylistic mélange produced by the group, with all their visible pleasure in unashamed replaying of their deeds, becomes conceptually incoherent. Almost every segment is too long by half, and it’s a long trudge to the partial unfolding in which the central character, Anwar Congo, begins to feel the stirrings of conscience.

What we haven’t received along the way is the crucial history itself; this story is one of which both Indonesians and Australians of present generations know virtually nothing. We’re watching here and now. We see a new prime minister, ours, addressing Indonesian powers with unqualified grovel. Any criticism of today’s tyrannies is dismissed as grandstanding. Some real documentary, made with attention to the archives and to the present in West Papua, would be a really good idea, and it would involve quite a bit of work for Anonymous. •

Sylvia Lawson’s Demanding the Impossible: Essays on Resistance is published by Melbourne University Publishing.

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One Comment

  1. Joseph Allan added this comment on 18 October 2013 | Permalink

    Re Sylvia Lawson’s review of Gravity.
    “But with the shell of the capsule, plot is drowned. Hands grope in wet sand”.
    When Ryan Stone realises that the wet sand she is groping is on an Australian Beach the ending is set for the sequel in which Stone resists Prime Minister Abbot’s attempts to send her back to where she came from.

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