Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tim Burstall & the Ocker Sex Comedy article

"Keep it up, mate!" TIM BURSTALL and the ocker sex comedy

[Originally published in Semper magazine #2 (March 2002), University of Queensland Trash student press]

Tim Burstall is one of those Aussie filmmakers who I suspect doesn’t get as many accolades as he deserves. For those who think Aussie sex comedies are NOT a valid artform, you will no doubt disagree, and we’ll see you all next article. But there is no doubt that he was one of the hardest working and consistent filmmakers who emerged at the start of the Aussie cinema “renaissance”. With his Hexagon Films throughout the Seventies and Eighties he carved his reputation with a series of beautifully crafted genre and mainstream films: in addition to his early “ocker” comedies Stork, Alvin Purple and Petersen, he made the Hitchcockian thriller End Play, the Mel Gibson war flick Attack Force Z, and translated D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo to the screen.

Hexagon was like a mini-Hollywood studio propped up by Burstall’s creative team of Graeme Blundell, producer/writer/actor Alan Finney, editor David Bilcock, cameraman Robin Copping, assistant director Ross Dimsey, and many other talents working in front of and behind the cameras. His breakthrough 1971 film Stork is the first of the “new” Australian features, a riotous satire on the cultural revolution of student politics and sexual liberation, modern art and everything but the bloody kitchen sink; his other early films, the two Alvin Purples (1973 & 1974) and Petersen (1974) cement his reputation as a pioneer of a new kind of Australian cinema, and a major chronicler of the Aussie male’s sexual condition - no matter how hairy and ugly it can get.

Born in England in 1929, Burstall arrived in Australia when he was 8. After cutting his teeth on an enormous range of short films and documentaries, he co-wrote and directed his first feature, a b&w drama called 2,000 Weeks, in 1969. This was a watershed year in Australian cinema, seen as the start of the Australian film renaissance: the Australia Council for the Arts announced a government-funded plan for a film and television school, a film and TV fund and overseas marketing board, and government funding for “experimental” projects. In 1970 the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC) to administer funds to film companies, with the aim of fostering Australian cultural identity on film. The AFDC was later restructured to form the Australian Film Commission (AFC) in 1975, and State funded government film agencies began to appear between 1972 and 1978 to further assist the financing of film productions. Burstall’s generation of filmmakers, most of whom had cut their teeth on gritty and cost-effective urban TV dramas, now had an outlet for their creative vision of modern Australia.

1971 saw another important event in the evolution of Australian cinema - the introduction of the R rating, as part of a wider film classification reform instituted by Democrats senator Don Chipp. The emphasis was now on classifying films from G (“General Exhibition”) to R and later X, rather than censoring films under the previous draconian pre-Menzies system. By restricting the audience to 18 years and older, the R certificate allowed a greater freedom of expression in the previously taboo territory of sex, violence and language.

The effect was like pulling your thumb from a bulging dike - Australia was suddenly awash with cheap and nasty imported skin flicks and horror shows. Like it or not, the “Permissive Society” of Europe and America had finally arrived. For local filmmakers, the days of Chips Rafferty and Smiley Gets His Gun were over, and now their characters could say “fuck me dead” (and let’s face it, who didn’t), strip buck naked and get down to the horizontal bellydance. This was the birth of the homegrown version of contemporary sex-related films. Sex, Australia Style. And Burstall was there from the start.

Stork, Alvin Purple and Petersen are among the first significant explorations into the 70s Aussie male psyche – from the touching charicature of Stork to the brutally frank and hypocritical Petersen. Only Bruce Beresford with his two Barry MacKenzie films (1972 & 1974) and the David Williamson-scripted Don’s Party (1975) matches Burstall’s early work in laying the Australian male bare. And like Beresford, Burstall loads his films to the brim with Aussie icons and idioms, making them virtual textbooks of 70s urban culture.

The fact these film are not as critically lauded as the more successful 70s exports Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Newsfront (1978) and Beresford’s own Breaker Morant (1978), says more about the critics than the films themselves. Burstall’s early work is brash, abrasive, and wallows in its own sense of “now” - which of course means they date more easily than the safer period pieces. They also have a savage satiric streak and don’t take themselves too seriously: a red rag to a bullish critic who considers “comedies” less important than high drama. Sure, Picnic At Hanging Rock has a beautiful dream-like quality, but is a fairly cold exercise in technique and has VERY little to say. Then there’s Burstall’s treatment of the rampant Aussie libido in all its naked glory. Straight into the “sex film” ghetto for Alvin Purple, with a bare-arsed Petersen to follow.

1971’s Stork, while not technically a sex comedy, is one of the earliest Aussie films to feature topless nudity courtesy of Jacki Weaver and deals with the main character’s cartoonish sex drive. Stork is a blue collar yahoo with Marxist aspirations (or in the words of one of the characters, a “six foot deranged revolutionary”) played with manic enthusiasm by the gangly bespectacled Bruce Spence, much seen over the last 30 years but criminally underused in a slew of supporting roles. Stork quits his job at GMH to drop out and “join the bloody revolution”; being an Aussie male, he naturally is more concerned with footy and beer and his various paranoiac obsessions about his health and his virginity. Also a hopeless mooch, he crashes with his hapless mate Westy (Graeme Blundell) and ingratiates himself into his student pad much to the annoyance of flatmates Clyde and Tony, both of whom are dating emotionally uncommitted flower child Anna (Jacki Weaver) who Stork promptly labels “the Moll”. Her wildly spinning emotional compass soon swings around to his direction, and the gormlessly romantic Stork is smitten. During the film’s rapid fire 90 minutes, urged along by Burstall’s on-the-run 16mm camera, Stork manages to disrupt a university lecture, is almost eaten alive by a sexually voracious feminist, and charges into Anna’s wedding to Tony in a firetruck, drenching the guests while quoting Marx through a loudspeaker.

In Stork’s “one out, all out” satirical swipe, even modern art gets a heady serve. Stork imagines himself an art guru dabbling in “chunderscapes” by wolfing down a mountain of cheese and tallies; dream girl Anna declares his work “the most intoxicating new art form of the 20th Century.” David Williamson’s script, based on his play “The Coming Of Stork” is so loaded to the bloody gills with ockerisms that it almost outdoes Bazza MacKenzie in the cultural cringe stakes. In fact I’m sure it’s the first film that mentions that abominable term for going to the toilet – “to strangle a darkie” – while imagining himself as an Antarctic explorer next to Burstall’s usual editor and cinematographer (and future directors of Alvin Rides Again), David Bilcock and Robin Copping.

Alvin Purple uses the classic English sex comedy model of a hapless, clumsy idiot who becomes an inadvertent sex symbol, gigolo and porn star! For some bizarre reason his spindly frame and inoffensive demeanor he’s irresistible to women – all he really wants is to herald in the “Sexless Seventies”, and instead he finds a naked Jacki Weaver on his beanbag waiting for a “cup of sugar”. It’s a case of “you’ve never had it so good, mate” – an assortment of crackers, nymphos and “top sorts” can’t seem to get enough of Purple. His problem starts in high school, pursued by a flock of screaming teeny girls on bikes, when he’s taken in and “comforted” by his teacher’s wife. An absolute dill at everything he tries, he goes from one dead end job to another (in a classic nude bodypainting scene, Alvin smears purple paint on his – erm – paintbrush…as a waterbed salesman he ends up in bed with a customer and spears the bed with his spikes). He goes to a psychiatrist to cure him of his rampant libido, who recommends him to the mysterious Dr McBurney (George Whaley), a charlatan who rents out Alvin as a bogus sex therapist to bored housewives and slips them the old “Purple Method”. Naturally the whole sordid business is exposed, and Alvin winds up in court in front of a crusty porn-obsessed Judge (Noel Ferrier).

Love it (like I do) or hate it, Alvin Purple is a knowing satire on 70s sex and the Permissive Society – at one point Alvin stops outside a Melbourne cinema showing Bedroom Mazurka, a saucy sex comedy from Scandinavia which enjoyed its own series! Seventies sex symbol Abigail (Number 96 and countless Page Three cheesecake appearances) makes a brief appearance in the first scene on a tram; the super-suave Purple imagines a sophisticated dialogue with Abigail about the properties of her breasts, and instead blurts out “Gee you’ve got nice tits.” Slap, cue poor schmuck Alvin wanting to herald the “Sexless Seventies”. The film ends on a strangely but expected conservative streak: Alvin falls in love with the one girl who doesn’t throw herself at him, she becomes a nun rather than face Alvin’s reluctant libido, and he ends up a gardener in the convent’s gardens surrounded by women who have no interest in him!

Alvin Purple was Australia’s first real sex film, and despite (or because of) a phenomenal domestic box office and even a TV special on the making of the movie, it is usually written off by the cultural elite. In the Noughties the film is enjoying somewhat of a reappraisal, usually from the same cultural archaeologists who have just discovered the wonders of the Barry Mackenzie series. Despite its “sex film” tag it had and still has a legitimacy thanks to Burstall’s quirky direction, Brian Cadd’s hit film score, an assured supporting cast loaded with familiar TV and film faces, and the endearing acting by Blundell. Of course its timing - the “Permissive Society” and the R rating were in full swing - was perfect.

The inevitable sequel, Alvin Rides Again, appeared in 1974. Burstall, it seems, was more concerned with building on his reputation as a “legitimate” filmmaker (he directed the much superior Petersen the same year, and had marked his first dramatic narrative in the four-part, four director Libido in 1973) and slipped into the producer’s chair; this time Burstall’s usual editor and cameraman, David Bilcock and Robin Copping, were credited as directors. Alan Hopgood again wrote the script, with additional material by Burstall and Alan Finney (who plays Purple’s even more hapless mate Spike Dooley in the two films). Another surprise was the rating - dropped from an R to M rating, still showing full nudity but with no simulated sex scenes. Purple again goes from one dead-end job to another – window washer, taxi driver, office cleaner (almost an A-Z of British sex comedy situations!) – and thanks to the amorous advances of middle aged nymphos, gets fired from each one. He and Spike decide to head for a fishing holiday; the car breaks down at a servo run by Maurie Fields and his sex-starved bra-busting wife (the welcome return of Abigail, in an extended cameo). After single-handedly destroying the shop, Purple grabs Spike and they hitch a ride with an all-girl cricket team (their motto: “stuff the men”), and after a night of bedhopping till stumps, they end up in drag on the cricket pitch trying to win back their bets.

At a casino gambling away their ill-begotten gains they run into Purple’s dead ringer: a cornball Italian-American gangster called Balls McGee. Purple accidentally sets of a champagne cork that leads to Balls getting plugged. Alvin now has to pose with the rest of the criminal gang as Balls McGee to get a foot in the plan by local crime kingpin Fingers (a great overtheatrical role by stage giant Frank Thring) to rob the casino. Predictably it goes horribly wrong, and hitman The Hatchet (another eye-rolling, scene-chewing appearance by Noel Ferrier) is dispatched to finish off Alvin and co for good. The Film ends with a hilarious car chase through Melbourne’s tram country, Hatchet behind the wheel of a hearse, machine gun on the bonnet with barrels blazing!

Alvin Rides Again ups the ante on guest spots: US-born perennial tough guy Gus Mercurio plays one of Balls’ henchmen, and shaggy haired Brian Cadd makes a memorable appearance as the casino entertainer. Blundell as the real Balls is a hoot, leading a rousing tearful chorus of “Skippy The Bush Kangaroo”, but a few writers have noted that his appearance marks the downturn of the movie. It’s true – the first half hour is pure British Confessions-style sex farce, the gangster schtick is sitcom territory and even in 1974 when the sight of Blundell stuffing his cheeks with tissues a la Brando was still fresh, I’m sure it got old quick. Ever see the feature film version of George And Mildred? They had gangsters too, and they were about as funny.

Petersen (1974) marks Burstall’s second collaboration with writer David Williamson, this time with the nudity, sex and language much more close to the bone. The brave full nude scenes with Jacki Weaver and Wendy Hughes are truly erotic, and the sight of a fully bared and flared Jack Thompson left an indelible image on 70s Aussie cinema. Beyond the satire of Stork or the sex farce of the Alvin Purples, Petersen presents a much more complex character – ex-footy hero and electrician, now at uni struggling through his BA in English literature. Tony Petersen expects something more to life and consequently sports a massive chip on his shoulder, thanks to his suburban Melbourne working class background. His larrakin spirit coasts him through his separate lives – the mundane, represented by his wife Susie (Jacki Weaver) and their two girls, and the grandiose and self-important, his affair with English professor Dr Trish Kent (Wendy Hughes) who, unbeknownst to him, is propping up his grades. Still, he relishes his role as big man on campus, particularly when nymphet law student Moira (Belinda Giblin) volunteers him for a public “love-out” - the two end up screwing in front of a crowd on the uni lawn. Soon he feels uncomfortable in either existence: a weekend trip to his old friend’s place in the country ends badly when Petersen is accused of getting too big for his boots, before Petersen drunkenly seduces his mate’s wife in front of him and Susie. His dirty weekend away with Dr Trish starts off well with a naked romp on the beach, then followed by struggling through an awkward pseudo-intellectual conversation on the movie Elvira Madigan. He fails his exams, Trish announces she’s going to Oxford – it’s too much of a blow to Petersen’s fragile ego, so he brutally rapes her on her office floor.

Williamson’s script is an uncomfortably close examination of the hypocrisies of modern Australian society that rings true today – university intellectuals are pretentious and ineffectual, the “noble” working class are alcoholic louts. The police take Petersen out to a construction site and work him over; even his father, an Anglican minister played by Charles Tingwell, is unable to offer advice to his son with any conviction as he’s lost his faith. Petersen himself cuts an impressive figure with his direct no-bullshit approach, sheer brute force and impossible-to-hate larrikin humour – your quintessential Aussie bloke – but he’s always two beers away from falling apart completely, a man unable to reconcile his limitations and his expectations. His rampant ego leads him to cheat on his wife, then beat on his mistress. And even after he’s booted out of uni and left for dead by the cops, his roving eye doesn’t stop: the final scene shows Petersen quoting Shakespeare to a bored and willing housewife (Sandy Gore) while fixing her wiring (no, really), and from Thompson’s expression you can tell he’s finally accepted his lot in life. After all, he says, there’s doctors driving taxis.

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