Director: Rolf De Heer
Stars: Colin Friels, Miles Davis, Helen Buday, Joe Petruzzi
This month is AUSgust, a month devoted to Australian film appreciation masterminded by The Curb’s Andrew Peirce. You can read about AUGgust here and follow along on social media using the hashtag #AUSgust. The work of Rolf De Heer is the theme for Day 2, so here’s a review of De Heer’s 1991 film Dingo. You can also read my take on De Heer’s 2001 film The Old Man Who Read Love Stories here.
In a 2003 book advocating against dodgy grammar, Lynne Truss shows how an innocuous description of a panda (“Panda: eats shoots and leaves”) can be warped into something more sinister with the introduction of an extra comma: “Panda: eats, shoots and leaves”. Grammar quandaries aside, that phrase “eats, shoots and leaves” always struck me as an apt description of Australian filmmakers who shoot some features locally before leaving for international pastures and bigger opportunities, a trend that started with the Australian New Wave crop (Beresford, Armstrong, Weir, Miller, Schepisi, Noyce) and continues to this day, with exports of the past decade including John Hillcoat, David Michod, Justin Kurzel, Patrick Hughes, and newly minted blockbuster helmer Cate Shortland. Of directors who have stayed put and enjoyed long and prolific careers locally, Paul Cox and Rolf De Heer are exemplars, though the latter has flirted with international co-productions on two occasions, the first being 1991’s Dingo.
While the title Dingo suggests a Lassie/Rin Tin Tin-style film about a intrepid canine adventurer (and had Mario Andreacchio directed, it probably would be), De Heer’s film instead focuses on John ‘Dingo’ Anderson (Colin Friels), a husband, father, dingo trapper and jazz enthusiast. After a childhood encounter with jazz legend Billy Cross (Miles Davis), John becomes a lifelong jazz aficionado and trumpeter, creating his own music and secretly saving for a pilgrimage to Paris to reunite with his idol. Following a series of events which estrange John from his wife Jane (Helen Buday) and make him an object of ridicule in his Western Australian outback town, John takes the plunge and travels to France to seek out Cross.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that “No man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it”. De Heer is a filmmaker who consistently manages to have his cake and eat it too: his films are frequently novel in their technique & form and/or subject matter, but are also honest and authentic in their treatment of flawed outsiders and human foibles. These virtues are apparent in Dingo: where in other hands this tale would be fairly rote, De Heer and screenwriter Marc Rosenberg bring empathy and a magical realist quality to the narrative. The film is grounded in the recognisable and the everyday, but with a smidgen of the fantastical: Cross literally descends into the young John’s life from the sky when his plane lands unexpectedly outside town, and bequeaths John the gift of jazz before ascending back; jazz provides escapism from the mundane for the adult John; and there’s a Wizard of Oz subtext where John leaves his everyday environs (ironically, Oz), journeying to France to see his nominal wizard (Cross) before returning home content and affirmed. Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams, released two years earlier, springs to mind as a film of similar stock, though Robinson’s film is much more overt in its magical elements.
On its surface Dingo is probably De Heer’s most mainstream film (though by no means his most entertaining or crowd-pleasing), which is a funny thing to say about a magical realist film about an outback jazz player starring Colin Friels. Friels will be a familiar face to Down Under Flix readers (see Hoodwink, The Coolangatta Gold, High Tide, Mr Reliable) and is always a welcome one. His likeable everyman demeanour is a sound match for John, and it’s a shame he and De Heer haven’t worked together again. Buday, who would reunite with De Heer on the terrific thriller Alexandra’s Project, does similarly likeable work as Jane. The role of Cross was originally earmarked for another music legend, Sammy Davis Jnr, but illness prevented him from starring (Davis Jnr would pass away in 1990; eventual star Miles Davis died in 1991, the year of Dingo’s release). It’s difficult to imagine the Rat Packer and perennial Mr Showbiz disappearing into the role of Cross; Davis Jr was great, but he was a familiar onscreen presence, not to mention a regular with Australian TV audiences through appearances on The Don Lane Show. Miles Davis is an ideal fit; he wasn’t really an actor per se, and some of these limitations show, but his personality never overrides the characterisation. He’s recognisable enough a face to evoke a sense of history and familiarity, but unknown enough (at least outside jazz fandom) to generate some mystery and mystique. Onscreen, Davis has a nice line in quiet gravitas, and with his pronounced dark glasses, helmet of hair, and gravelly voice the late musician makes a strong impression. Admittedly there’s a touch of the “magical negro” archetype that would become prevalent in American film over the subsequent two decades, but Dingo evades the more insipid characteristics of that stock character. Davis also contributed heavily to the soundtrack alongside Michael Legrand, renowned for his scores for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, among others.* I’m not equipped to critique jazz – I confess I subscribe to the Talladega Nights school of jazz appreciation – but I dug the score.
With production spanning two continents and use of an overseas star, Dingo carried a heavier price tag than the director’s usual fare ($5.6 million, albeit still peanuts compared to most) and was the first of only two De Heer films to be internationally co-produced, the other being the excellent The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. The headache of working on a larger canvas with more stakeholders, combined with the ultimately (and undeservedly) middling reception on Dingo’s release, were – as noted by Jane Freebury in her insightful book-length study of De Heer, Dancing to His Song – definitive in shaping De Heer’s subsequent career trajectory. His next film would be the independent and idiosyncratic Bad Boy Bubby, which scored him an AFI award for Best Director and set the tone for the rest of his independent, idiosyncratic filmography.
*As a James Bond fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Legrand’s delightful score for Never Say Never Again, and as a Never Say Never Again fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Klaus Maria Brandauer’s delightful, top 5 Bond villain turn in said film.