Critical Pursuits: Shock and Awe on the Big Screen


The programme.

The programme.

The Spanish Film Festival hit town earlier this month, and, despite the best of intentions, I only managed to see two films in the enticing lineup.

The much anticipated, award-winning film, The Clan, was the first on my list. I went with three wonderful comrades, all of whom happen to speak Spanish. Masterly Mateo, who comes from Argentina, was in his teens when the criminal kidnapping family scandal depicted in The Clan occurred; funky young Zoe had just arrived back from a Uni study exchange experience in Buenos Aires. She had seen the tremendous box-office hit The Clan there, and was looking forward to experiencing  the film again with English subtitles, in order to pick up any subtleties she may have missed in the original. Mateo was curious to see how this notorious historical case, rather hazily recalled from his earlier life, had been translated onto the big screen.  The glorious Joanna bought our tickets and we headed off to Palace Barracks, looking forward to viewing the film and discussing it afterwards over a Spanish meal – a very Spanish affair all round.

The Clan - full of promise

The Clan – full of promise

We waited for 20 minutes after the supposed starting time of our session, but nothing came on the screen. Then there was an apology from a rather timid young girl,  and finally the film began. We all breathed a sigh of relief. A little over half way through, however, the film shuddered to an abrupt halt.

These days, of course, screenings are digitally operated, and there is no one sitting up in the projection room anymore, monitoring the progress of the film. Most of the audience was in a frozen state of indecision and mild shock, sitting in the dark. No one came to the rescue for quite a while. Trembling even more, Miss Timid Girl eventually re-materialised, this time with a fistful of free tickets for those who wanted to leave. After telling us the manager simply wasn’t available, she went to each person, quietly asking them if they wanted to stay or go. This wasn’t really helping the rather confused situation, as most of the audience couldn’t hear her,  or work out what was going on.  Some people decided to cut their losses and go; we agreed to wait it out.

After another seeming eternity, the film came on again, but in a different spot in this powerful film. Frustrated, we figured we had lost at least ten crucial minutes, a factor adding a different kind of tension to the already tense narrative. Then, at the ultimate climax, the film shuddered again to a halt.  What on earth were the chances we would ever see this much anticipated film through to the end?

Further chaotic, spluttering negotiations ensued, along with a wide-eyed surge of new people arriving with their glasses of wine, popcorn and choctops in readiness for the next film. Those of us who were left had to admit that, finally, we had been defeated by faulty technology and even more faulty management, and that our experience of The Clan was in tatters.

Naturally quite disgruntled, we queued up at the box office for a full refund along with our free tickets for another film one day – hopefully to be screened from timely start to smooth finish. We did manage to enjoy some tasty tapas at Peasant afterwards, chatting about the film event that wasn’t. Hopefully we will manage to see The Clan right through one day.

Other cinematic disasters at the Barracks

Funnily enough, the 20-minute ‘delayed start to nowhere’ experience had also happened to Comrade Pietro when he rocked up to the Barracks a few weeks earlier, hoping to see A Bigger Splash. The film never even started after the lengthy blank screen time in the dark, and, following a hasty apology and a meaningless explanation,  the audience members received a refund and a free ticket. To make matters worse, the same Comrade Pietro, ever optimistic, and accompanied this time by Comrade Geronimo, had gone along to a French film session, also at The Barracks, only to find the version of that film did not have subtitles. More refunds, more free tickets, more inconvenience. Not a very good track record, Palace Barracks!

A gritty heart-warming film

A gritty heart-warming film

Hope springs eternal – Ricardo Darin and a beautiful dog

Still warily licking my wounds, my next Spanish film festival hope was Truman starring one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darin. He is usually a signal of a quality cinema experience. I went with Comrades Carlotta and Jake to Palace Centro, fingers crossed that there would be no technical hitches there.  Furthermore,  Jake gently teases me that I often take him to the most gruelling, difficult films, so I was hoping that this one would strike the right chord.

Fortunately (for my track record, as well as for my pleasure), Truman was a heartfelt, definitely not gruelling or overly sentimental, film set in Madrid, at a crucial time in the central protagonist’s life. As he has chosen not to continue with further treatment for his rapidly worsening cancer, he needs an old friend and his female cousin to help him manage his affairs. This includes his fervent desire to make sure that his dog, Truman, will be cared for after his inevitable death.  We warmly recommend this film, and hope that it will gain a general release in the future. This time, mushroom pizza at Tinderbox was the go, along with very acceptable red Spanish wine. I thanked my lucky stars that this Madrid-based film was nothing like the appalling film Madrid 1987, endured with Comrade Juanita several years ago.  This latter film involved a creepy old dude and a bright young woman trapped naked in a small, grotty bathroom together for most of the film.  I have never recommended that one.

Botched recommendations: a dangerous game-changer practice

Speaking of people enduring films which I do, in good faith, recommend, I was reminded the other night how fiercely some people can react and take any recommendation personally. Last Friday, I was enjoying a visit to the cinema once again, this time with esteemed Comrades Bella and Savannah, to see the documentary First Monday in May.  We all enjoyed the film, a great one for undemanding Friday night consumption, and we loved seeing behind the scenes at the Met. However, we agreed that Bill Cunningham New York was the best film about the fashion industry we have seen in recent times. Just for the record, we met up with Comrades Jose and Pedro later, savouring a delicious meal at the ever-reliable Beccofino in Florence Street Teneriffe  – although I can’t help wishing that this restaurant, along with its equally superb brother Julius in South Brisbane, would allow bookings…

In a conversation on the actor John Turturro, Bella mentioned that she had once excitedly recommended the Coen brothers’ film, Barton Fink to some friends; subsequently, they failed to share her enthusiasm – indeed they totally hated it.  This triggered for me several repressed memories about extreme, game-changing reactions to my own innocent, well-meaning recommendations.  For instance, Comrades (and cat devotees) Suzette and Brian have never really forgiven me for Bad Boy Bubby.  On my urging,  they journeyed across town to see it at the old Boomerang theatre in Annerley, only to be totally mortified by the memorable ‘glad-wrapping of the cat’ scene.  Years later, Comrade Wolfgang also definitely did not like Steve Mcqueen’s film Hunger, with Michael Fassbender.  Wolfie recoiled in horror; by contrast, I thought Hunger was an amazing, groundbreaking film by an exciting new filmmaker. We agreed to differ. You can’t win them all.

Film studies – a veritable minefield

Thinking back over the many films I have taught in the past, I recall that I also triggered some memorably extreme reactions to several that I chose for indepth study. It is sometimes hard to predict which films will be particularly divisive and disturbing, although, saying that, I always tried to screen and present for critical analysis, challenging, thought-provoking films. I guess it is inevitable that some would elicit unpredictable, intense responses.

                                Three quick snapshots: some vivid teaching moments 

*A girl suddenly gets up and runs from the dark lecture room in the middle of a screening of the Australian film by Paul Cox, Man of Flowers.  I quickly follow her, concerned that she is ill.  Trembling, she finally tells me that she has become a ‘born again Christian’ three weeks ago. Apparently, part of her new belief system is to reject all lesbian and gay sex. Consequently, she has rushed out just after a mild lesbian scene in this beautiful, unconventional film. I try to calm her down,  attempting to persuade her that, if she doesn’t see the film through to the end,  she will miss out on being able to participate in the tutorial discussions. I also say that she is most welcome to put forward her views to the class, based on her reading of the text. All academically substantiated, well argued points of view are welcome in my class. She doesn’t take up my offer.

*Another girl is shaking and crying alone in the auditorium after a screening of the film, Shame, starring Debra Furness as a bikie barrister, fighting an insidious rape culture in a Western Australian country town. The students mostly love this film, finding it very provocative and interesting, with its feminist play on the American western genre. However in the film, a frail grandmother is kidnapped, but luckily rescued by Debra and others, from an imminent gang rape. Apparently, this poor student has a grandmother who had been gang raped a few years before. I comfort her as best I can, also advising professional counselling. While I always warn students that there could be graphic scenes in films that may disturb some viewers, coming face to face with such distress really shakes me up as well.

The Boys - one of the best Oz films ever.

One of the best Oz films ever.

*A film that also reverberates strongly with the students is the superlative Australian film The Boys. In my lecture before the screening, I highlight the grim context of this film,  relating the appalling,  true-life rape and murder of Anita Cobby. I mention that, although no actual rape and murder scenes are shown in the film, it is still a powerful, even visceral, rendition of the circumstances building up to the shocking incident, as well as the aftermath. Of course, the men who committed this atrocious crime have been sentenced to never be released from prison.

One girl is profoundly affected by her first encounter with this film, recognising her own abusive relationship with her current partner, in the menacing treatment of the Toni Collette character by the sinister David Wenham character. I help her after the screening. I hear later from some rather cranky male Journalism colleagues, that this promising final-year student was about to graduate and that she has dropped out, thanks to having seen The Boys. They suggest I strike that disturbing film from the teaching unit.

However, on the plus side, I find out that she leaves her boyfriend and has lots of counselling, graduating successfully the following year.

I always defend the inclusion of this film in the course, as I argue that, if it does resonate in such a profoundly personal way, there can be positive, even life-changing outcomes, if not immediately, perhaps later. I win that battle.

Ah, the power and wonder of film…