The Sum of Oz


Call it the usual Hollywood poaching or the new global cinema, but locating a truly indigenous stock of strong Australian movies proves difficult amid the stacks of paperwork entailed by the state Film Finance Corp’s many multicountry coproductions and the steady fleet of native talent catching the next flight to LAX. Baz Luhrmann, Peter Weir, and Fred Schepisi seem to have permanently booked their work elsewhere, while Gillian Armstrong remains an ambivalent commuter. Cate Blanchett, Guy Pearce, and national monument Russell Crowe’s real accents are fond but distant memories. Mixed blessings abound: Hits like Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom retrospectively take on the laminated sheen of calling cards, and though an unusually healthy per capita proportion of formidable woman directors has outpoured from Down Under, both Armstrong and Jocelyn Moorhouse have watched helplessly as early Hollywood ventures were snatched from their control in postproduction, and Jane Campions only far-reaching commercial success, The Piano, benefited from American stars and French financing (and shes from New Zealand anyway).

The most worthwhile offerings in BAMs dismayingly titled monthlong series (no koalas are harmed onscreen or off, though a beloved cat meets a grisly end in the featurette Feeling Sexy) are familiar faces: crowd-pleasers like Muriel and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (both 1994); recent minor sensations like Andrew Dominiks Chopper (2000) and Rowan Woodss The Boys (1998) that plumb the bloody consequences of hothouse testosterone; period pieces like Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Armstrongs exquisitely photographed, exhaustingly literal-minded adaptation of Peter Careys novel (starring Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes in top form—all this useless beauty!); as well as an early-’90s trinity of the Crowe: Proof (1991), Romper Stomper (1992), and The Sum of Us (1994).

Among the New York premieres, spotlights on new Australian animators and aboriginal female directors mingle with the features, but household drama rules the day. The aforementioned Feeling Sexy (1998) packs far too many improbable twists into 50 minutes, but Davida Allen’s Crayola-colored film astutely charts the mood swings of a horny, type-A suburban homemaker who is intellectually and erotically infuriated by her role as missus to an overworked doctor and mother to two children (so perfectly behaved they could have sprung from a Cassavetes movie). Blanchett’s little-seen debut film, Parklands (1996), pops up, and so does Anthony LaPaglia twice elsewhere: in the opening-night psychological thriller Lantana (unavailable for review) and as the long-lost dad in Kate Woods’s sweet, modest coming-of-age dramedy Looking for Alibrandi, in which the intelligent, impetuous heroine can’t wait to break out of her smothering old-Italian family, and the romantic conflicts of class and culture often seem reminiscent of Michael Powell’s 1966 They’re a Weird Mob.

Campion is represented by the claustrophobic suburban nightmare Sweetie (1989), showcasing the weirdest mob by far. In its rapt attentions paid to bodily functions and inexplicably deviant behavior, Sweetie seems a brilliantly warped, funhouse-mirror image of Australia’s first homegrown genre: the lewd’n’crude “ocker” comedies of the ’70s. If there’s a legacy to be found in those profitable quickies, it’s a remarkable candor and fearlessness in the realm of the senses, peaking with Praise (1998), John Curran’s coarsely eloquent flophouse ode to compulsive fucking, stubborn ennui, and the scalding admixture of pity, resentment, and repulsion borne of a decaying relationship. The movie leaves a mark somewhere between an embarrassing hickey and a chemical burn.