National Cinema: What Does Your Country Say About You?
If it was explosions, sex and knife-fights that I was after, I wasn’t going to get it (in the film, at least – I may or may not have received any combination of the above from my housemate). The only explosion was the harrowing destruction of a yellow school bus packed full of kids (awesome is not really the right word, is it?), the only sex was between father and daughter so it was a bit icky, and there weren’t any knife fights at all. Not even one.
What the hell is this sentimental banana-oil bullshit? What the hell happened?
I’ll tell you what happened, National Cinema happened. The Sweet Hereafter is an excellent exponent of film being characterised by a potent and accurate sense of location. The tragic tale takes place deep in the Canadian mountains, where the people are simple, the snow is plentiful, and the ties that bind a family are necessarily stronger than usual. It deals with the aftermath of the aforementioned bus accident, in which most of the town’s children were killed, and the impending court case against the bus manufacturers brought on by Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm in a less hobbity role, it must be said). Throughout the film director Atom Egoyan (who must receive some sort of trophy for his amazing name. I mean seriously, Atom?!) consistently evokes the battle between environment and human. This is done with a visual polarity embodied by close ups of people’s emotive faces counteracting extreme long shots of mountains and shit. It’s powerful, and an innovative way of conveying the people’s struggle with their surroundings, the surroundings that heavily contributed to the deaths of their loved ones.
As a result you really feel like you’re lost in the snowy wilderness with these characters (of course, the incessant accents help), leading to an immersion in the story that would not otherwise be so potent. Had this film been made anywhere else, the tone would not quite be the same – Hereafter is very much Canada.
I find it an interesting phenomenon that location always has an inherent effect on the mood of a film. A topic our post-screening discussion eventually meandered around is the effect Australia has on the films we make here – once we were all about exploiting the horribly stereotyped ‘laid back Aussie attitude’ with movies like Crocodile Dundee, but these days we seem to be more concerned with this theme of Australia as some kind of criminal autonomy. Perhaps spurred on by the success of shows like Underbelly, stuff like Animal Kingdom and Red Hill seem to be cashing in on our unique criminal culture. Whatever way we lean we always tend to somehow evoke brutality and bleakness – could it be that this attitude is still derived from Australia as a primal and harsh desert land? I mean, we have cities now! Can’t we make a movie that doesn’t see suburbia as an uncomprimising landscape, ie as a regurgitation of that fucking Nullarbor Plain that has fuelled our films’ content for so long? I live in Australia, but I don’t have an unusually bleak outlook on life, I don’t kill people, and my Dad doesn’t rape me.
Where’s my fucking film?
I know there are people out there like me. I know it. There must be others who, despite living in this country, have more facial functions than the Grumbly Stare.
I just wish I saw an Australian movie once in a while that actually captured what it was like to live here, for the majority of us. Obviously I’m not debating the craft or accuracy of these types of films, but seriously let’s stop making No Country for Old Men try-hards, cos we can’t do it like the Coens can anyway, and get some kind of Judd Apatow thing going on. It’d brighten up tourism.
While the Coens name still rings true in the air, it’s fitting to mention them as, in my humble opinion, probably the best exponents of location-driven cinema. This is I think one of their finest talents: You can watch any Coen brothers movie and just from the characters and story get such a powerful vision of its context in time and place (and it’s not just because of the wonderfully clear text telling you what year it is in the bottom right corner either). Think of it – where else could Fargo be set, even if it was called something else? Those accents, and the humble nature of the folk who live there, is completely and utterly Minnesota. The Big Lebowski is the magnum opus of the LA slacker, and nowhere else could The Dude reside. A Serious Man has late 60s middle-class Jewish neighbourhood written all over it, and the feeble attempts of Frances McDormand and co. to both literally and figuratively keep up appearances in Burn After Reading is indicative of Washington DC’s looming authoritarian edge. And I don’t just mean these dudes location scout with finesse; the Coens allow each of their stories to be shaped in one way or another by the place it occurs in, while still injecting their own idiosyncracies into the product. Setting informs character and narrative, not the other way around.
You could even go so far as to draw a link between big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, laden as they are with impressive special effects but deprived as they are of narrative content, and the impatient thirst for gratification of Hollywood itself as a place. The dog-eat-dog world of corporate stardom and transience, it seems, breeds movies of similar ilk.
It’s an inescapable principle, but one that should be used to emancipate film creation rather than hinder it. Just think of it, imagine if Martin Scorsese went and lived in Africa for 2 years and then made a movie there?