Every week, another film turns 30 years old. And if you visit movie websites or frequent “Film Twitter”, you’re bound to hear about it. Robocop turned 30? Here are 12 fun facts from The Wrap. Lethal Weapon turned 30? Here are 15 fun facts courtesy of Metro. Predator turned 30? Here’s an oral history from The Hollywood Reporter. Full Metal Jacket turned 30? Jo Blo’s got you covered with a Matthew Modine/Vincent D’Onofrio interview. Not a lot of local films get the 30 year commemoration (partly because they don’t lend themselves as easily to nostalgia-tugging click-bait), so I figured it was time to get into the 30th anniversary business and shine a light on some 1987 releases. I’ve already reviewed several 1987 titles on Down Under Flix, including Les Patterson Saves the World, The Time Guardian, and The Year My Voice Broke; other notable releases include Kangaroo, The Lighthorsemen, and Travelling North. Suffice to say, it was an eclectic year, and the three film discussed below are the very definition of a mixed bunch.
Director: Yoram Gross
Stars: Barbara Frawley, Robyn Moore, Keith Scott, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
I’ve only watched three animated films since 2014, two involving Lego and one involving Snoopy, so I’m a long way from the target audience of Dot Goes to Hollywood. But the Dot films and filmmaker Yoram Gross are worth talking about. Gross is a major figure in the history of Australian animation. His nine Dot films, his work on Blinky Bill, and countless other feature, television, and short animations helped carve a seat at the table for local animation, a seat that’s yet to be as fully embraced or exploited by another filmmaker or animation house.
Gross’s films typically feature animated characters interacting with live action backgrounds and occasionally live action actors. In Dot Goes to Hollywood, Gross’s most famous creation Dot – a barefoot young girl who debuted in 1977’s Dot and the Kangaroo – travels to Hollywood to become a star and raise money to support her ailing koala pal. There she encounters old school Hollywood luminaries, a year before another famous Hollywood-set animation/live action hybrid feature, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Gross’s film features appearances by Hollywood icons Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Shirley Temple, Johnny Weissmuller, Cecil B. DeMille, Fred Astaire, and especially Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, either in animated form, live action form (via footage appropriated from their films), or a combination of the two.
Dot Goes to Hollywood is very much Gross’s love letter to classic Hollywood rather than a topical portrait of Tinseltown circa 1987. This is probably for the best: while it renders the film archaic even by 1987’s standards, it also gives the movie a timelessness that wouldn’t have come from, say, Dot hanging out with the Brat Pack and Schwarzenegger. And while Gross’s animation has dated, there’s a charm to seeing Dot dancing with Laurel & Hardy and Fred Astaire that can’t be denied. On a side note, the film’s songs were composed by Gross’s son Guy Gross, later the composer on several Stephan Elliot productions, including the film that helped launch Down Under Flix, Welcome to Woop Woop.
Director: Richard Lowenstein
Stars: Michael Hutchence, Saskia Post, Deanna Bond, Chris Haywood
Of the three 1987 titles reviewed here, Dogs in Space arguably looms largest today. Similar to films like Quadrophenia, Withnail & I, and Dazed & Confused, the film enjoys cult status as a portrait of hedonistic buoyancy and a timestamp of both the period in which it’s set (for those who experienced its onscreen lifestyle firsthand) and the era in which it was made (for those first generation viewers the film imprinted on in 1987). It also serves as testament to the star wattage of late musician and actor Michael Hutchence, who previously worked with director Richard Lowenstein on INXS music videos and who’s immortalised both onscreen and on the film’s soundtrack.
Set in Melbourne in 1978, Dogs in Space revolves around shenanigans in a sharehouse of undetermined size and indeterminable tenancy. Inhabitants include musician Sam (Hutchence), girlfriend Anna (Saskia Post), the mysterious Girl (Deanna Bond), and other assorted musos and misfits. On the basis of Dogs in Space and 2001’s He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, director Lowenstein is Australia’s foremost curator of twentysomething sharehouse living experiences on film. But where the latter film is a touch arch, seemingly manufactured for oddball cult adoration, Dogs in Space is a shaggier, more anarchic creature, perhaps in part because it stems from its director’s own lived experiences and those of his contemporaries, rather than another creator’s (John Birmingham in the case of Felafel).
There’s a clear debt to American cinema of the 60s and 70s in the film’s savvy execution of Robert Altman-esque overlapping dialogue, as well as in its tragic denouement, a resounding announcement that the party’s over ala Easy Rider and Shampoo. I also like that the film and filmmaker resist the temptation – one so many directors fall prey to – to retrospectively canonize their generation as more politically enlightened than subsequent ones. Though set in a counter-culture milieu, Lowenstein evades such contrivances: any didactic expressions of student politics or anti-Fraser sentiments are quickly ribbed and relegated incidental to the party atmosphere. Despite my best efforts I had a hard time warming to Lowenstein’s film, though I recognise its value as a cultural artifact and cult object, and appreciated its craft and its smarts.
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Stars: Judy Davis, Claudia Karvan, Jan Adele, Colin Friels, Frankie J. Holden
High Tide is the third Gillian Armstrong film covered on Down Under Flix – following Starstruck and The Last Days of Chez Nous – and the third and best of this triptych of 1987 releases. Recently re-screened at the Melbourne Film Festival as part of a program on Australian women filmmakers, the film marked Armstrong’s return to local features following an American digression with 1984’s Mrs Soffel. 1982’s Starstruck, her last Australian film prior to this Hollywood excursion, ended with ingenue Jackie Mullens’ (Jo Kennedy) singing her way to stardom in Sydney’s iconic Opera House. High Tide opens with its protagonist Lillie (Judy Davis, reunited with her My Brilliant Career director) playing third banana backup singer to an Elvis impersonator (Frankie J. Holden) doing chintzy gigs at unglamorous regional clubs. It’s a telling study in contrasts. Subsequently ditched by her peers and stranded in the beachside town of Eden NSW after her car breaks down, Lillie befriends the adolescent Ally (Claudia Karvan). However, it soon turns out she shares history with Ally’s grandmother Bet (Jan Adele) and with Ally herself. To appropriate a line from Casablanca, of all the caravan parks in all the towns in New South Wales, she had to walk into hers.
Like The Last Days of Chez Nous, High Tide is a family drama examining three generations of women. However, in the project’s earliest stages the protagonist of High Tide was male; the creators decided to switch the lead character’s gender during development. The gender switch makes High Tide a more nuanced, atypical viewing experience: absent deadbeat dads come good are a dime a dozen, but depictions of women in these roles are scarce, and Armstrong and co resist the urge to shave off Lillie’s rough edges. Davis as an actress excels with rough edges, bringing texture and empathy to outwardly unsympathetic characters, and she was awarded the Australian Film Institute’s Best Actress gong for her performance here (the film was also nominated for Best Picture and Director, but lost to The Year My Voice Broke). Strong performances are also delivered by Adele, likewise an award winner for her work as Ally’s resilient grandmother; the youthful Karvan, completely naturalistic and un-self-conscious on camera; and Colin Friels, Davis’ real-life husband (and co-star in that year’s Kangaroo), as a beachside fling, though their romantic subplot is unfortunately abandoned.
Water and the surf are recurring motifs in Australian women-centred dramas, serving as a means of cleansing in addiction dramas Monkey Grip and Little Fish, a tribal meeting ground and backdrop for rites of passage in Puberty Blues, and much more. In High Tide, the surf represents for Allie an umbilical link to her late father (a former surf champion) while for Lillie it symbolizes both a dangerous force engulfing her self-imposed isolationist existence but also ultimately a source of purification. Veteran cinematographer Russell Boyd gives the film a cool, chilly look, as befitting its coastal winter setting, but the actors invest the film with warmth, heart, and the promise of spring and new seasons.
Next time: Emma-Kate Croghan’s Love and Other Catastrophes (1996)