1 March 1990

Filmnews: Blown Up - life after burnout

Michael Hutak doesn't mourn the Super 8 transition...

Filmnews has always been one of the sites where that archetypical eighties idiom - Australian Super 8 film discourse-has played out its moves. I will therefore be assuming that my readers will be familiar with some of the terrain we are covering here. This is a true story of before and after, of the past and the future. Of progress without guilt - a sign of the advent of a new, post-industrial, modernism.

Remember the summer of 87/88, when the Super 8 phenomenon finally turned uneventful? After a good five or six solid years of hype, films, parties, more hype, writing, more parties and finally burnout, Super 8 wound down into a parody of itself - a fitting end to a scene which had always lovingly embraced a fatal strategy: its implosion became inevitable, it had built itself on the notion of planned obsolescence. 

But its participants didn't die, or move to New Zealand, or open hot dog stands, or even give up working with Super 8. Indeed what took place became known as the afterlife.
In the afterlife Super 8 gave up its comet-like wanderings through the galaxy to become just one more heavenly body in the constellation of alternative media. It took its rightful place at mainstream cinema's right hand. And sharing the podium, left of centre, was the 16mm independent film community. 

But the story doesn't end there. Our champions of Super 8 had always secretly loved the alien from afar. 16mm was always where they were heading, but on their terms, and in their own good time. Because, you see, the issue was never gauge but attitude. And the commitment was never to the scene but to cinema. 

So it is that we see the first wave of these 8mm dreamweavers stepping up the (s)pace to 16mm. The coming program, Blown Up, brings together three 16mm films from filmmakers who cut their teeth in those heady days of the Super 8 phenomenon -Robert Herbert's Valley Of Desire, Bill Mousoulis' Between Us, and the Marine Biologists' (aka Andrew Frost, Nick Meyers, Sean O'Brien) The Big Lunch . Valley Of Desire displays Robert Herbert's predilection for historicism, mimicry and aestheticism while continuing his investigation of the effect of memory in both the filmmaker's and the viewer's construction of a cinematic present. 

The film is, ostensibly, a "fake" documentary seeking to verify the existence of a "fictional" feature film - "Valley Of Desire". The film-within-the-film exists in legend only: made in either Australia or America sometime in the late forties or perhaps in 1958. No one who claims to be involved in the film seems really sure of their memory of the events surrounding its production. And when they are sure they contradict the testimony of others, often with humorous consequences. Interspersed with this intrigue are sequences of "the filmmaker" (of which film it isn't clear) roaming around a glen of dense tropical bush, while a voiceover tells of his wandering, of his will to film driven by naked desire. The words verge on misty hyperbole viz: "He senses an atmosphere in the captured light-He loves the tangle of the contradiction." But their delivery is so delicately phrased by the voiceover actor as to undercut an ironic interpretation. The spectator is left hovering between belief and disbelief, irony and sincerity, and, finally, between oppositionality and pluralism. The Valley of  Desire lovingly embraces ambivalence, proffering indeterminacy as a driving force in our lives. But one thing is certain: Herbert's time in the wilderness was not in vain - he is a filmmaker of genuine intellect and subtlety. 

Bill Mousoulis, however, raises different issues. Except for one minor hiccup (the now infamous Body Talk which premiered to catcalls and derision at the 1986 Sydney Super 8 Film Festival) Mousoulis 's project has been to tell simple stories about simple folk. A realist driven by intuition (all his films appear under the rubric "Innersense Productions") and a love of cinephilia, his films seem, on the surface, conventional portrayals of working/lower middle class characters, often teenagers or young adults, undergoing emotional trauma. The trauma is usually centred on those little dramas that can mean so much amidst the banality and mundanity of life in Melbourne's suburbs. Bill's characters are on a quest for meaning, or at the very least, significance. There was always something eerie about his Super 8 work. I can still hear the camera whirr in the chilly, endless, stillness -signposting both auteur and his medium -in films like J. C. - The Jewellery Case (1984) or Faith (1987). For Mousoulis is perhaps the only filmmaker in the history of the cinema who trades off foregrounding his own self-effacement. His films speak to me as his films. "Listen up! This is Bill talking, nay whispering, via 'my' characters". 

For instance at one stage in Between Us the hero - a washing machine mechanic cum rock photographer - nonchalantly lets slip "I only photograph what's in front of me". Classic Mousoulis -uncomplicated, transparent, moral. Surprisingly, this realises enigmatic rather than bombastic films. Mousoulis fascinates despite himself. And with Between Us he takes his first step towards the big time. The film gets to first base inasmuch as one quickly suspends disbelief and accepts the story on its own tarns, following the narrative unquestioningly. Due largely to deft editing from Catherine Birmingham, the story moves swiftly, and, for anyone who grew up in an Australian suburb in the last fifteen years, it is a painfully familiar tale as the hero battles the comfortable inertia of suburban life against his desire to construct a personality. The film won me over with its steadfast grace and dignified tone. It is a quiet, sorry story about ordinary people trying to be satisfied with nothing. They're alive - end of story. But for Mousoulis himself I predict a grander outcome - grander tragedies, grander budgets, grander acclaim. Give him five hundred grand and you've got the spokesperson of a generation. 

Making up this troika of delinquent ascendants are the Marine Biologists whose The Big Lunch is, firstly of interest to gauge buffs as a truly trans-gauge film. It was shot entirely in Super 8, then blown up to 16mm where sound was post produced and the film colour graded and edited.

Upon seeing the film you may scoff: "Baloney - this is as 16mm as the simulated chora of post structuralist phallologocentric disestablishmentarianism." But believe it: those rich, dense colours are testimony to the film stock that gave these punters something to live for - humble Kodachromc 40. The Big Lunch is big. Three years in the making, it continues and, perhaps closes, the Marine Biologists' investigation of the boundaries of antipodean life in the eighties. It records, in fifty brief minutes, as many narrative codes, cinematic cliches, and cultural signposts as possible: screwball comedy, post pop info-tainment, predestination, synchronicity, sub-cultural documentation, new wave nihilism, second degree trans-avantgardism, and gambling. Pitching for laughs amid the chaos The Big Lunch finds most success when playing off the familiar within the peculiar. The deliberately flimsy storyline is merely the trigger for a series of hilariously overblown but brilliantly underplayed performances. 

The films also registers almost everyone who had anything to say or do in the Sydney Super 8 scene in the mid to late eighties. But rather than sliding off into self-indulgence, these cameos only drive home Super 8's glorious insignificance. These were stars without need for a studio system and in The Big Lunch they found a place to hide in the limelight. But the sad postscript to this landmark of local cinema is that the Marine Biologists may be victims of late eighties Super 8 burnout - after toiling together for over ten long years churning out countless Super 8 films, getting The Big Lunch to the screen took its toll and Messrs Frost, Meyers and O'Brien have no plans to work together again in the foreseeable future. A great pity and a loss for the industry as a whole. I suggest you don't blink or you might miss these films Blown Up before they vanish into the vaults of marginality forever. See them if only to test if their prophecies come true; if only to give yourself the luxury of telling the next generation: "Yes, I was there. I saw it happen."

Filmnews (Sydney, NSW : 1975 - 1995), Thursday 1 March 1990, page 11

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