Sunday, January 22, 2017

Two Friends

TWO FRIENDS – made for TV                  A-                     
Australia  (76 mi)  1986  d:  Jane Campion

She’s hardly a person anymore.
—Louise (Emma Coles), describing Kelly, her once inseparable best friend

Hard to believe this was made thirty years ago, yet this is an early, rarely-seen, first feature film by Jane Campion, screening at the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, originally made and broadcasted on Australian television in 1986, the same year CROCODILE DUNDEE rivalled TOP GUN for top grossing films of the year, Spike Lee made his first film SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, Mike Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion ever at the age of 20, Philippe Petit audaciously walked a tightrope hastily strung between the two twin towers of the World Trade Center in the early morning hours high above New York City, Cory Aquino was elected President of the Philippines, the first female President in Asia, toppling the 21-year authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos, where Time magazine named her “Woman of the Year,” but it was also the year the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff killing the crew of 7 astronauts, the worst disaster in the history of the American space program.  An understated portrait of adolescence with complex and subtly developed relationships, a trademark of Campion’s defining works, the film portrays the decaying relationship between two 15-year old girls, the straight-laced Louise (Emma Coles) and her more rebellious, punk friend Kelly (Kris Bidenko).  Focusing on small personal details contrasted against the authoritative influence of their parents, the story reflects the changing nature of their relationship, where the brilliance of the narrative is that it’s inventively told backwards, much like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (Irréversible)  (2002) and François Ozon’s 5 x 2 (2004), so as the film continues, they get younger, happier, and much closer together.  The film wasn’t released in the United States until 1996, making critic Amy Taubin’s #6 film of the year, Amy Taubin's Top Ten Lists 1987-2005, yet it certainly exemplifies Campion’s typical fragmented structure, including language, which is often unintelligible at first and hard to follow, where the use of subtitles can be of considerable assistance to American audiences, while also presenting heroines that don’t conform to existing societal norms, often rebelling against male paternalism, where the childhood friends are mismatched, like the siblings in SWEETIE (1989), yet the offbeat character of Kelly sets the precedent for the remarkable emotional range of mental disturbance expressed by Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) in Campion’s next film.    

Francois Ozon: Monsieur extreme | The Independent  Jonathan Romney on Ozon’s film 5 x 2 from The Independent, March 12, 2005

Ozon was inspired by the realisation that he knew few people whose relationships had lasted more than five years. “I wanted to ask why people find it difficult to maintain a relationship for 10, 15 or 20 years, like our parents did. Because the story was about something ending, I wrote the end first. Then I realised that was the starting point.”

Telling the story in reverse order allowed Ozon to scatter clues to the marriage’s failure for us to collect backwards — like following a trail of pebbles in a forest, as he puts it. We’ve seen the reverse structure applied to the thriller (Memento) and, in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, to the po-faced contention that “time destroys everything”; Ozon brings a simpler, though no less caustic touch to the technique. He acknowledges two models in particular: Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal and Jane Campion’s 1986 TV film Two Friends. Otherwise, his key references in diagnosing the conjugal malaise are Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Maurice Pialat’s Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together); Ozon says he could easily have borrowed either title. “What I love about the Bergman film is that he conducts a sort of autopsy — he goes where it hurts.”

5 x 2 may be classical in tone, but it remains experimental in method. It was shot in reverse chronological order, and neither Ozon nor the actors knew where they were heading. He started by filming the first three sections, then stopped for four months to edit what he had and write the rest.

Written by Helen Garner, one of Australia’s greatest writers, showing enormous range in her work, utilizing what’s described as a savage honesty, where Australian literary critic Peter Craven writes that “Two Friends is arguably the most accomplished piece of screenwriting the country has seen and it is characterised by a total lack of condescension towards the teenage girls at its centre.”  With an oblique, puzzling, and often abstract narrative at the outset, with characters that only slowly come into view, where a young girl’s funeral from an overdose draws together disparate forces, where the presence of punks in weird hairdo’s are hanging out alongside conservative establishment figures, each carefully avoiding the other, all contributing to a working class world of detachment and emotional discord.  When we first meet the two girls, it’s in the past tense, as they are no longer friends and seem to be living entirely different lives, where Kelly’s name comes up in the form of friendly gossip, a girl that was once a fixture in their home, as suddenly the ears perk up for both Louise and her divorced mom Janet (Kris McQuade) who want to know all the details, which are decidedly slight, though rumors suggest she may be living a drug-addled life with friends in abandoned buildings.  The funeral comes to represent the death of a close-knit relationship between two teenage girls, as the dire outcome foreshadows what possibly lies in store for Kelly.  While Louise has a more supportive environment, she’s disciplined, conscientious, and self-aware, an obedient child that always makes sure she does her homework, while Kelly is a restless soul, rebellious and irresponsible, who impulsively can’t wait to stray into the world of sex, alcohol and drugs, often distancing herself from Louise in social circles, as she instead gravitates towards the boys.  Campion has experiences of teenage girls cropping up throughout her films, as they are the formative years that have such a strong influence on the person they eventually become.  Perhaps what draws these girls together initially is the shared experience of puberty, having a friend and ally to help you navigate your way through the social minefields.  Unlike Louise, who has a relatively calm and unadventurous middle class life, Kelly’s home is an incendiary picture of working class discontent, with her mother (Debra May) remarrying an unsympathetic jerk named Malcolm (Peter Hehir), likely a former radical who is now disillusioned, whose self-righteous, authoritative manner and domineering presence controls their lives, never bothering to listen, but making judgments all the time, forcing others to live by his rules.  As a result, Kelly spends plenty of sleepovers with Louise, where her less combative home is like a shelter from the storm. 

As raw and graphic as Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), Campion has a clever way of revealing the discord in the form of a letter Kelly sends to Louise on her birthday, where Kelly’s already left her home, living on the streets, where we hear Louise reading the contents, with her friend claiming “So far so good.  I’m not yet a junkie or a prostitute.”  But Louise grows distracted or loses interest and instead starts a mechanically repetitive piano lesson, where we hear Kelly’s voice continue reading the unfinished letter, yet can’t be heard over the clamor of the musical notes.  This uncomfortable dissonance shows just how far they’ve grown apart. While much of the material is unveiled in a near documentary manner, it’s filled with ordinary moments where kids are being kids, seen gleefully going shopping or sprinting through the shopping malls, where every moment feels like an inspiration, while parents are always an awkward presence in their lives, where everything slows down and becomes dull to the senses, like something to be endured between the more exhilarating and ecstatic moments when kids simply run free.  Each of the teenage girls seems to bring out something from the other, as they’re both obviously smart, where early on they both can’t wait to go to high school together, seen gabbing away in their drab school uniforms, where Kelly is every bit as smart as the more conventional Louise, but you’d never notice as she’s such a wild child.  But Kelly’s dreams are obliterated by Malcolm, her stepfather, whose abusive treatment includes his refusal to allow her to go to the school of their choice, which is a school for gifted students that must pass an entrance exam.  Claiming the school is reactionary and elitist (and it may be, but it also provides the most challenging student option), he infuriatedly expresses no wiggle room, where this turns out to be the single most drastic event that leads to their separation, as they end up at different schools.  Moving backwards in time, the two become more and more alike, sharing the same dreams, as it seems the girls are inseparable, where Kelly is like a member of the family, with Campion shifting from social realism to more colorful fantasy sequences with the girls play acting their hopes and fears, using a variety of techniques, including speeding up the frames, using different film stocks, garish colors, animation, coloring within the frame, stop-motion photography, all of which add a jubilant spirit of childlike innocence and giddy exhilaration, a beautiful expression of childhood’s fleeting moments, yet it’s also a wonderful eruption of abstract cinematic expressionism.  The tonal shift exerts its power on the viewers, causing a dizzying rush of euphoria, leaving the two in a freeze frame of unbridled joy, a celebratory moment when both have passed their entrance exams with the families gathered around drinking congratulatory champagne, capturing a remarkable moment where the future never looked brighter.        

Friday, January 20, 2017

3 Campion Shorts

AN EXERCISE IN DISCIPLINE – PEEL              B+                  
Australia  (9 mi)  1982

This was my first film.  I knew these people who all had red hair and were part of the family.  They were also alike in character, extreme and stubborn.  Their drive in the country begins an intrigue of awesome belligerence.
—Jane Campion

Recalling a 1984 interview by Mark Stiles, Jane Campion: Interviews - Page 5 - Google Books Result

The people at the AFTS loathed Peel when they saw a first cut of it.  They told me not to bother finishing it.  I was quite vain so I found that really upsetting, but it was good for me.  I cut out everything that was remotely extraneous and made the film a lot better.  The AFTS people thought I was arrogant and not particularly talented.  There were people there more talented than I was, but my talent wasn’t the kind they were ever going to understand, which was one of the luckiest things for me.

Peel, also known as An Exercise in Discipline — Peel, is a 1982 Australian short film directed by Jane Campion, described as an “Abrasive yet meditative study of the usual family road-trip misery.”  Working for the first time with her longtime friend and cinematographer, Sally Bongers, a fellow student at the Australian Film and Television School, a father along with his son and sister are taking a road trip in the country, each with bright red hair, during which an orange peel has significance, where teaching a lesson has unforeseen consequences.  As the youngest child grows bored, dropping pieces of an orange peel out the window, his father tells him to stop, but he intentionally disobeys, causing his father to stop the car, claiming they’re not going anywhere until he goes back and picks up all the pieces he dropped onto the side of the road.  While his sister complains endlessly about how she can’t believe what a waste of time this is, extending an already long drive, claiming she has important things to do, growing more and more vehement, until the father pops out of the car as much to escape her as to find out what’s going on with his son.  When they return, the sister has herself peeled an orange and left the peel on the ground next to the car.  When both tell her to pick it up, with the kid apparently learning his lesson, she refuses, where once again stubbornness alters the power dynamic, leaving them all in a state of limbo, not going anywhere, where the final image is one of mayhem, with the sister assuming the role of the pouting, incalcitrant child, while the out-of-control kid is seen jumping up and down on top of the car. 

The film went on to win the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival making Campion the first ever woman (and New Zealander) to win the award.

PASSIONLESS MOMENTS                        B-                   
Australia  (13 mi)  1983

Jane Campion: Interviews - Page 30 - Google Books Result  Michel Ciment interview from Positif magazine, May 17, 1989

It was the result of a collaboration with one of my friends, Gerard Lee.  It was his idea at the beginning and we wrote and directed the film together.  Once we had the frame of the film — a series of playlets —, we tried to imagine the maximum number of stories that would be told with a certain ironic distance.  We finally wrote ten of them.  Gerard and I wanted to show sweet, ordinary people that you rarely see on the screen and who have more charm than better known actors. The film was shot in five days, two episodes per day.  I was responsible for the photography and I realized the benefit of film school where in two hours I learned how to light and to exploit the possibilities of the camera. 

A voice says, “There are 1,000,000 moments in your neighborhood; each has a fragile presence which fades almost as it forms.”  Campion’s graduate diploma student film, co-written and co-directed by Gerald Lee, who had a brief romance with the director during film school, becoming a treatise on boredom, or drifting time, reflected by small innocuous moments that have little if any meaning, including reveries and daydreams that seem to go nowhere, yet comprise so much of our random time on earth, where as the saying goes, we forgot more than we ever knew.  Narrated in a dry, emotionless voice, somewhat in the Greenaway tradition, recalling Buñuel’s travelogue-style narration in LAND WITHOUT BREAD (1932), only without the depictions of misery and degradation, shot in Black and White, the film captures ten moments, each titled, offering slight satiric information on each sequence, all happening on the same day, reflecting a kind of wry humor, yet none rise to the level of even being remotely interesting, however, that seems to be the point.  We aren’t always our most captivating and wittiest versions of ourselves, as oftentimes we do the most ordinary things, where this film perfectly captures the things that people do when nobody else is in the room, especially out of sight from everyone else, where we are perhaps at our dullest expression when no one else is watching, as what this film amounts to is mental nose picking.  

A GIRL’S OWN STORY                                          A                    
Australia  (27 mi)  1984

In this film I put together ideas about girlhood.  I wanted to tell a few stories from those years, where family is strange, adulthood lonely, innocence perverse.
—Jane Campion

A gorgeously stark and eerie Black and White film that looks at the complicated lives of a group of girls, the intensity of their feelings, and their growing interest in sex and its consequences.  Originally screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, Campion is back with Sally Bonger as her cinematographer, taking an acute interest in subjectivity, accented by extreme angles and framing, where it’s actually shot on 16mm much like a German Expressionist film, providing a refreshing look back at the 60’s and the Beatlemania craze, beautifully capturing the group mentality and quirky mannerisms of teen girls, a depiction of the passions and innocence of three young teenage girls, flooded with hormones and sexual images, yet it also shows how easily young girls are violated. 

Opening with close-ups of girl’s faces, to the music box sounds of the love theme from DR. ZHIVAGO (1965), recalling a similar look in Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), the film begins with a medical book diagram of an erect penis, with the curiosity of girls using their fingers exploring the outline of the male anatomy, with the following unscription inderneath:  THIS SIGHT MAY SHOCK YOUNG GIRLS.  With shrieking girls caught up in the hysteria of Beatlemania, three girls in identical school uniforms face the camera, using tennis rackets as guitars, innocently singing the Beatles song “I Should Have Known Better,” A Girl's Own Story (1983) clip 1 on ASO ... - Australian Screen (3:08), showing girls wearing Bobby socks dancing the twist before the nuns at Catholic school run them off.  With the central character Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg) narrating her inner thoughts throughout, we enter her bedroom, lined with Barbie dolls, which is a shrine to the Beatles, where she and her school friend Stella (Geraldine Haywood) kiss photos of their heroes pasted to the walls before practicing on each other, with one wearing a Beatles mask, supposedly preparing for kissing boys.  Dinner is a surreal experience in her home, as her mother suffers from depression, where Pam curiously tends to side with her father and blame her mother for her illness, even though her father (Paul Chubb) refuses to talk to her, but relays messages to his wife through his daughter, some overly personalized, which tends to erupt in an explosion of frayed nerves, while her father acts like nothing happened.   

Elsewhere, another brother and sister are home alone and up to their old antics, Gloria (Marina Knight) and Graeme (John Godden), first seen behaving like dogs, then turning to seductive cats, where it’s easy to see these two are used to venturing into inappropriate territory, playing sex games with each other when their parents are away.  But as her brother, all he can offer is sex without love, where she just lies still, like one of the dolls seen in the bedroom, as they don’t even kiss.  In one of the strangest dream sequences, accompanied by a vividly provocative soundtrack, a young girl is walking down the street in boots and a raincoat, followed by a car that pulls up next to her, where the girl is transformed into Pam and back to a child again.  The man in the car sounds like the voice of her father, holding a young kitten in his hands, drawing her attention, luring her into his car as they drive away.  With the same music continuing into the next scene, Stella has turned on Pam, as they’re no longer friends, leaving her isolated and alone, but this time it’s Pam acting like nothing has happened, where in a locker room scene, surrounded by taunting girls, she’s surprised to learn Gloria is no longer in school, but is pregnant, sent away to a Catholic home for wayward girls.  In a room with a crucifix looming on the wall, these girls commiserate with each other, while Graeme comes to visit, though this time it’s his turn to pretend like nothing has happened, yet Gloria is clearly showing signs of her pregnancy.  Continuing on a theme of inappropriate male behavior, Pam’s Dad takes her out to dinner on her birthday, but brings along a girlfriend of his own, using the lame excuse that it’s a French restaurant and she can translate what’s on the menu.  Later on, when his girlfriend calls his home, his wife freaks out, violently attacking her husband, who strangely starts kissing her instead, where the two retreat upstairs where they have sex in plain sight.  Pam’s eyes follow their every move, exposed to something she probably shouldn’t see, where their sudden intimacy catches her off-guard. 

At the end, over an image of a spinning ice-skater in white superimposed over a girl’s listless face, the three girls break out into song, “Feel the Cold,” expressing the feeling “I feel the cold/I feel the cold is here to stay/I feel the cold/I want to melt away.” (clip three, 3:11)  Throughout the film there are images of space heaters, metaphors for the girls’ emotional isolation and a lack of human warmth, suggesting the world is a cold and unwelcoming place, with predatory men hanging around, lurking in the shadows, where the love and affection they crave is realized only in fantasies.  The collective characterizations of these young girls reveal fresh insights, offering shades of the female experience rarely seen before, expressing a frank depiction of teenage sexual curiosity, but also the nightmarish places you could end up if you’re not careful, where it’s interesting that the Catholic church is not spared, exposed as the root of chauvinism in the Western world.  It’s a non-traditional narrative, where the expressionist quality of the film is jarring to the senses, where the boldness of the film delights with cinematic flair, especially the play-acting of the girls, but on another level delves unsparingly into incest, voyeurism, infidelity, domestic violence, idolatry, and childish same sex experimentation.  This is one of Campion’s most autobiographical offerings, as her mother suffered from depression, cleverly emphasizing isolation and awkwardness associated with that age, especially Pam’s inability to empathize with her mother’s illness, yet tends to accept her father’s philandering ways, revealing the anxieties associated with adolescent sex and family relationships.  The music composed by fellow film student Alex Proyas is impressive, as it gloriously captures the dark mood of the film, filled with sudden departures into surreal and dreamlike moments, winning the 1984 Rouben Mamoulian Award at the Sydney Fim Festival.  Nicole Kidman admitted during an interview that at 14 she was cast as the lead in the film and turned it down because of her reluctance to kiss a girl and wear a shower cap.