Director: Emma-Kate Croghan
Starring: Frances O’Connor, Matt Day, Alice Garner, Radha Mitchell, Matthew Dyktynski
In 1992, Quentin Tarantino kicked off Reservoir Dogs with a monologue about Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’. In 1994, Kevin Smith punctuated Clerks with a conversation lamenting the fate of the Death Star construction workers in Return of the Jedi. At the risk of simplification, 1996’s Love and Other Catastrophes feels like a film both by and about the very kids that Tarantino and Smith sent scurrying to film school. Tarantino’s venerated status among 1990s movie disciples is even acknowledged in a surreal scene midway through the film (more on that later). A few weeks ago, I commented on Dogs in Space as a timestamp of both when it was set and when it was made; in the case of Love and Other Catastrophes, you can pinpoint not just the era, but practically the month, date, and day of the week it was shot.
Love and Other Catastrophes, colloquially known as Love Cats, is set mainly on a university campus and revolves around a quintet of students. Film students Mia (Frances O’Connor) and Alice (Alice Garner) need a new housemate. Mia wants out of her relationship with girlfriend Danni (Radha Mitchell) but really, really, desperately wants in on film scholar Adrian Martin’s course and must first negotiate with doughnut-scoffing Hitchcock aficionado Professor Leach (Kym Gyngell). Meanwhile, Alice is crushing on Ari (Matthew Dyktynski), a classics student and gigolo, while medical student Michael (Matt Day) is crushing on Alice and in need of a new pad.
In addition to its status as a post-Tarantino/Smith pop culture-savvy indie, Love Cats also rode a steady wave of films demystifying LGBT themes and lifestyles for mainstream audiences, such as The Sum of Us locally and Chasing Amy (Smith again) abroad, as well as helping usher in a wave of inexpensive Australian grotty chic dark comedies with likable young casts (e.g. Occasional Course Language, Sample People, Angst). Love Cats’ subplot involving Mia and Danni is topical in light of the gay marriage postal vote currently happening nationwide, and while these characters experience relationship trials and tribulations, director Emma-Kate Croghan and her co-scribes Yael Bergman, Helen Bandis, and Stavros Kazantzidis don’t treat them any differently to a straight onscreen relationship. This lack of fuss and avoidance of identity politics is both apolitical and a political gesture in itself.
I’d be curious to know how Love Cats plays to university students today, given how transactional higher education has become and that many local students now live at home longer. Made in a time when university was arguably more of a centripetal force in the lives of students, Love Cats will resonate with viewers of a certain vintage and background (this reviewer included). But said viewers may also feel a smidgen of cringin’, with the preoccupations and concerns of the film’s characters symptomatic of a particular age and rendered trivial by the passage of time. Mia in particular suffers in this regard, her wants and needs and treatment of her girlfriend becoming rather unsympathetic in retrospect. Regardless, Love Cats succeeds in capturing some of the flavour of uni life in the 1990s, even if budgetary constraints prevent the film from conveying the genuine swarm and bustle of a lively campus. Today’s diversity agenda also renders the film somewhat passé: while gay characters feature prominently and the film aces the Bechdel test, Love Cats presents perhaps the whitest campus in Australia. Even the Spike Lee enthusiast film students are white, as seen in one of the film’s more akward moments:
Love Cats exhibits tell-tale signs of a young filmmaker in both its blemishes and its simultaneous pretensions and self-deprecation, and it’s a pity we haven’t gotten to see Croghan grow as a filmmaker. Her sophomore feature, Strange Planet, was released in 1999, and she subsequently flirted with adapting Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, but Croghan hasn’t made another film since. Stavros Kazantzidis, credited with the story, co-wrote Strange Planet with Croghan as well as True Love and Chaos, and wrote and directed the somewhat middling Russian Doll and Horseplay in the early 2000s, but he’s likewise been missing in action. It’s a shame. Akin to looking back at a high school yearbook photo – with all the conflicting feelings of nostalgia and embarrassment that entails – Love Cats is both familiar and refreshing, a film we know well but don’t really make anymore in Australia: spunky, charismatically cast and acted, and both preposterous and deeply earnest in its trivial pursuits.
Director: Mike Retter
Stars: Ben Ryan, Stefanie Rossi, Jessica Burgess, Marc Clement, Robbie Greenwell, Simon Chandler, Ethan Scharkie, Tim Hawkins
While the characters in Love Cats are likely to have a Calamity Jane poster on a wall in their home, the protagonist of Youth on the March has a Tron: Legacy poster adorning his bedroom wall. This is one of many signs that the character has problems.
I jest, but…
Youth on the March is the latest from Mike Retter and the Port Film Co-Op, the firebrands previously responsible for Stanley’s Mouth. The film will be screening at the Adelaide Film Festival in October (click here for details) and I was fortunate to preview the film. Retter’s film centres on the frequently strained relationship between Gill (Ben Ryan), a guy in his late teens/early twenties, and his single mother Stef (Stefanie Rossi). Stef works around the clock, Gill neither works nor studies, and much of the screentime is devoted to Gill’s aimless and often dubious recreational activities.
Like Retter’s previous film, Youth on the March is a micro-budgeted D.I.Y feature shot in a vertical style, as opposed to the typical horizontal frame of the cinema screen. I watched the film on my iPhone and it was an ideal and logical fit for the vertical framing. Youth on the March represents a marked leap in craft from Stanley’s Mouth – compositions are more fluid, sound is better, and Retter and co are clearly more confident behind the camera – but the vertical approach is also used to different effect here. Where in Stanley’s Mouth the compositions were largely close-ups, used to convey tactility, obscure scenery, and in service of a largely naturalistic story, Youth on the March, while similarly defiant of convention, rejects Stanley’s Mouth’s naturalism. Shots are captured from unusual vantage points and odd angles, often to woozy effect, with each scene affording new opportunities for testing where to place the camera and how to move the camera. While such deliberate showmanship often works against narrative absorption, it’s hard not to be delighted by the drive to experiment. There’s also some striking use of colour on display.
Like Kriv Stenders’ Lucky Country, reviewed last month, Youth on the March is an ironic title. There’s no marching going on here, more an amble and a trudge. Retter’s youth, both singular and plural, are largely directionless, finding their kicks in bong smoking and mild property damage: think a Larry Clark film, but more amiable. At one point Gill and Stef watch A Clockwork Orange, identifiable by its iconic Moog synthesizer score, and it’s a fitting touchstone; both Gill and A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex are troubled youth, though Gill lacks the sense of identity (however wrong) afforded Alex by Beethoven and Droog-dom. There’s a conservative undercurrent to the film’s implicit linking of Gill’s shiftlessness and anesthetizing via drugs with the absence of a paternal figure, but this is somewhat offset by the film’s chintzy budget hedonism. Both a lament for a generation and an exercise in technique and form, Youth on the March is sly, effective D.I.Y. Australian filmmaking.
Next time: A pair of very different music-centred films, Passion (1999) and Garage Days (2002).