Infinite Stories: Sydney Film Festival 2012


Each May, the Sydney Film Festival program comes out and I trawl through it, circling films in pencil, making notes on them, trying to work out which ones I do, don’t and wouldn’t mind seeing, working out the eleven days of the festival around whatever else it is I’m doing then. For the past few years, uni got in the way of fully enjoying it properly (at all, in fact) so last year was my first year, and I thoroughly enjoyed the seven films I saw (especially Joe Wright’s Hanna, along with the symphonic expanse of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood). This year, even though there might’ve been a smaller selection of films that I was interested in, it was – on the whole – another enjoyable experience.
My first film this year was the repeat screening of the Opening Night film, Peter Templeman’s very-Sydney Not Suitable For Children – the film, so the joke goes, whose title doubles as its classification. I’m going to say straight off that it is one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far, and definitely one of the best Australian films of recent years (along with Leon Ford’s Griff The Invisible, also starring Ryan Kwanten).
The film revolves around Jonah (Kwanten), a twenty-something whose house becomes the site for epic parties on a weekly basis, and who discovers he has testicular cancer, that the resulting procedure will render him permanently infertile. As his remaining four weeks of fertility start rapidly disappearing, we watch Jonah’s attempts to father a child grow progressively ambitious and desperate. Part of the film’s charm comes from its depiction of Sydney: it’s not the touristy gimmicky Sydney, the Sydney everyone knows, but rather the real Sydney, the lived-in-ness of Sydney and the crazy inner-city funk of Newtown and Sydney’s inner-west, and the heady intoxication of it all. Peopled with characters (and next to no adults) who aren’t playing to stereotypes as much as reflections of people in these situations, it is refreshingly well-written, smart, sexy, and real, and uses its humour to come to terms with the seriousness of Jonah’s predicament in a very recognizably Australian way. Perhaps the standout character, besides Jonah, is Stevie (Sarah Snook), Jonah’s housemate, and almost-partner-in-crime in trying to help him realise his dream of fathering a child. The film’s sex scenes are warm and real, full of the awkwardness and the unsure-intimacy that befits their context; they are unforced, almost beautiful. Definitely a front-runner for film of the year.
The second film was the new Wes Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom. Set on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965, and shot with a very yellow-green-brown colour palette, it tells the story of Sam Shakusky, a twelve-year-old khaki scout who falls in love with Suzy Bishop, and they run away together into the wilderness. As various authorities try to hunt them down, a violent storm brews off-shore – and the peaceful island community is turned upside down in every which way. Full of Anderson’s trademark whimsy and quirkiness, Moonrise Kingdom is about the intoxicating rush of your first love and or crush, and is ably carried by the two young leads. From the opening bars of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell’ (what many would know as ‘The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra’), Anderson uses the structure of Britten’s music as well as the idea of a fugue as a metaphor for the Sam and Suzy’s respective families, as well as the scouting fraternity: by breaking the familial group into fragments, Anderson is able to put them back together again at the end, (hopefully) stronger, more family-like, and maybe not as neurotic. Broken up by bold splashes of red, orange, pink and a deep royal blue, Anderson’s film is a delight, as saturated and unpredictable as your first love, and just as disarmingly sweet and charming.
As for my final film from this year’s festival, Walter Salles’ On The Road, I just don’t know. It was always going to be a tough gig, adapting Jack Kerouac’s ferociously hypnotic hymn to the Beat Generation for the screen, simply because of its language and verve: it is, in a word, frenetic – all the tooing and froing across America east to west north to south, barely slowing down to eat or drink or sleep or fuck; filled with the music of words and the rhythms of people and the thrum of the road, jazz clubs and bars and gin-joints and nightclubs and brothels. The characters are larger than life – Kerouac himself, Neal Cassady, William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg – and lend the book an almost mythic feel. To be fair, Salles’ film was beautifully shot – full of wide expanses of two-lane blacktop cutting through fields and crops and rivers, over bridges, deserts, mountains – and partly manages to capture Kerouac’s streamofconsciousness voice. However, the script did not fully explore the tensions between Dean and Sal, between Dean and his various girlfriends and wives, his insatiable lust for life and the ‘it’ he talks about; in fact, I just don’t think it did justice to Kerouac’s orgasmically transcendent words and syncopated speech-rhythms. Sometimes, when using Kerouac’s words, the script hummed with a vividness that wasn’t maintained, which soon disappeared, and the cast carried the film well enough in light of this. The comparisons with Salles’ earlier The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) are always going to be made, and they are both unavoidable and crippling to this film; whereas The Motorcycle Diaries was a film about a man before he became a legend, On The Road is the story of a man becoming a legend. At times it felt too languid, at others too break-neck and mesmerising (especially the New Year’s Eve party in 1948), and it didn’t seem to hit the balance between them. The film is as much an adaptation of Kerouac’s On The Road as it is of Kerouac’s autobiographical journeys that ended up being the book. Film-Sal-as-Kerouac is shown at numerous points scribbling notes on a pad of paper, writing ‘his book,’ and the characters often reference this, wishing him luck with it. While Book-Sal is also a writer, his writing is not so explicitly integral to the plot, nor is it alluded to so bluntly and or constantly. Film-Sal seemed too much of an outsider on his own journeys, almost along for the ride just because Dean asked him. While the locations and cinematography are excellent, encapsulating the largeness and intoxicating freedom of the road, the film itself lacks the wildness of Kerouac’s words and prose. Richard Corliss in Time magazine wrote that “though there’s plenty of cool jazz in the background, the movie lacks the novel’s exuberant syncopation – it misses the beat as well as the Beat.” Salles may have been the director for the project, but I think the source material left him on the shoulder of the road too often; the book has something film can never adequately capture, and that’s its words and its rhythms, its seductive hypnotic drug-fuelled trippingly orgiastic words and the captivating and relentless perpetual motion the characters exist in. I wanted the darkness and intimacy and sweatiness of the jazz clubs and middleofnowhere bars, the dazzling stretches of road and sun, the dust and endless banter as they drove across America, the constant (mis)use of everything and anything, the madcap zing of life, but instead we got a road trip that got lost on the way, only occasionally getting back on its predicted route. Maybe Kerouac’s laughing, his book unfilmable, a Beat-generation hymn in pictures so vivid that only words can adequately conjure them.

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