The Goddess of 1967
Australia, like many small countries, has a problem developing and maintaining an art cinema. There is nothing in our film culture that even approaches the work of Abbas Kiarostami in Iran or Claire Denis in France. Few filmmakers here have the opportunity to work consistently on their visions – one commercial failure is enough to derail an entire career.
Clara Law’s entry into Australian cinema offers an exception to this sad history. With a distinguished career in Hong Kong behind her (most notably for Autumn Moon, 1992), Law and her collaborator Eddie L.C. Fong embrace the challenges of art cinema in an international and multicultural world. Accordingly, Law’s The Goddess of 1967 arrived home to Australia after an already healthy life on the global film festival circuit.
It is a much bolder work than Law’s previous Australian production, Floating Life (1996). Where that film, in the manner of Jane Campion, suffused a domestic melodrama with subtle touches of surrealism and expressionism, The Goddess of 1967 explodes with a style closer to Stanley Kubrick or Krzysztof Kieślowski. In fact, it is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and groundbreaking Australian movies of recent years.
The characters in this new story are bizarre types rather than fully fleshed-out psychological figures; people and commodities merge into a flatline of impersonality. Japanese businessman JM (Rikiya Kurokawa) arrives in outback Australia to pick up his purchased DS (a 1967 Citroën) and encounters the blind BG (Rose Byrne). Their forward journey in space becomes a backward journey in time, back over the memory-traces of troubled origins, formative experiences and sacred sites.
It is about the burden of the past, but not really the personal act of remembering. Law is the one who dictates the rhythm and intensity of the frequent flashbacks, not (as in conventional narratives) the characters, as they negotiate a comfortable catharsis. In Law’s vision, no single mind contains or comprehends the chaos of existence. This postmodern world is in pieces, unreconcilable.
The Goddess of 1967 is a cascade of vivid sensations, devoted to the postmodern sense of all-pervasive oddness. Every character encountered by JM and BG is some kind of alien: outback blokes have never seemed so strange or savage; even humble pubs, caravans and hotel rooms are transformed by the striking cinematography of Dion Beebe (Vacant Possession, 1995) into dark, scary labyrinths. The digital, ultra-modern cityscape of Tokyo and the flat plains of Australia are constantly juxtaposed – a gap echoed in the miscommunications between JM and BG.
It is a film about solitude and moral uncertainty, or (in the words of the director) “a state of mystery, paradox, ambiguity”. Law is at her best when she unleashes a wild scene of Byrne dancing to a jukebox – an unforgettable rendering of ecstasy and solipsism. For the most part, the characters cruise in a hallucinatory world in which old-fashioned truth is hard to come by, and monstrous forms of behaviour loom as a temptation (just as in the cinema of Lynne Ramsay). Even the views of nature beyond the car’s windows are turned into hyperreal, movie-fed apparitions. The Australian landscape is a washy, abstract, stop-start rear projection, recalling the way Jean-Luc Godard splashed coloured lights onto a windscreen to express a similarly alienated sensation of travel in Pierrot le fou (1965). Even at the most fundamental level of mise en scène – the placing of bodies into a physical environment – Law weaves discontent and disconnection.
The Goddess of 1967 could have been made to fit the fanciful title of Timothy Corrigan’s discussion of the road movie genre as it stands today: “The Road Movie in Outer Space”. Many of Law’s films – as the title Floating Life makes clear – are about the curious, suspended state of being that comes from inhabiting a uniformly fragmented, multicultural, post-everything world. Everything is in pieces and nothing adds up: people hop from country to country in a flash, connect with perfect strangers in cyberspace, and dimly grasp the consequences as once intimate friends, lovers and family members pass out of sight, out of mind. Everyone is a foreigner to everyone else here; there is no shared language of any sort. Even the occasional ecstatic moments – of dancing, laughter or sex – carry a solitary, melancholic charge.
Cinephiles will recall the equally jagged itineraries of the Porsche-driving male duo in Philippe Garrel’s Night Wind (1999), the displaced, train-travelling narrator in Claire Denis’ Beau travail (1999), or the hero of Esben Storm’s Australian classic In Search of Anna (1979). As in many a road movie, the drive to settle the unfinished business of family life – in particular, the wounded, psychic legacy left by unloving, abusive or repressive parents – looms large.
The Goddess of 1967 occasionally threatens to turn into a conventional mystery-thriller or chase-action film, but deliberately misplaces these threads and defuses such expectations. All references to movie genre are hollowed out to mere husks and left to dry in the scorching outback sun. Typical of a Cinema of Exile tradition (as Ronnie Scheib immortally described it), the vacuum left by the absence of a (forgive me) driving plot or crystal-clear psychological motivation is filled to the brim with moods, atmospheres, sensations – and on this level, the film is superbly crafted and spectacularly successful.
Australia has never been so noir as here – not even in Bill Bennett’s Kiss or Kill (1997), which has a more direct link to the classic film noir and contemporary neo-noir extensions. Beebe pulls out all f-stops in remarkable, painterly frames that place patches of lurid, deliberately mismatched colour between slabs of pitch black. Editor Kate Williams (The Myth of Fingerprints, 1997) masters the multiple dislocations between times and places, always finding unusual rhythms with which to surprise and disorient us. Roger Savage’s sound design is an aesthetic event in itself, with walls of noise and layers of music (by Jen Anderson) evoking the monumentality of those Kubrick/Kieslowski films evoked above.
When human beings are so completely disconnected from the world, a sense of paranoiac menace invariably takes over. In this light, Law’s view of the Australian wilderness recalls the sombre classic Wake in Fright (1971). As French critic Serge Grünberg said of the Stavros Kazantzidis (aka Efthymiou) short Road to Alice (1992): “One can find all the ingredients of the ‘Australian neurosis’: a fascination with violence that never takes place; vast, empty spaces; and the ultimate ‘moral’ of the story – that all roads lead nowhere”.
The elaborate tale of three generations of BG’s family is occasionally hard-to-follow. It is an ugly, uncomfortable story of abuse arising from the breakdown of all the old moral verities. This is the fundamental ambiguity of the film: what liberates the self in our postmodern world is also what kills it.
If there is a problem with The Goddess of 1967 – a problem that is endemic to Law’s work in general – it is in the contradiction between the radical aspects of its construction and a more conventional, conservative impulse. Despite all the rampant alienation and uncertainty, Law and Fong feel obliged to take these perverse central characters on a journey of self-discovery.
Consequently, it is the film’s ending which may cause even its most admiring viewers to question the filmmakers’ decisions. The Goddess of 1967 ultimately tries for a kindly, peaceable gesture in the direction of reconciliation – although the effort is rather uneasy and uncertain, indication of a certain mismatch of diverging artistic impulses. For Law and Fong, the postmodern world poses a particular ethical and moral dilemma: the further out from the centre that everybody flies, and the less connected to history and family that anyone feels, the more likely we are to drift into previously forbidden and destructive territory – as is the case with BG’s rather haunted outback clan.
How can there possibly be a Hero’s Journey in such a world? JM and BG could sing Tina Turner’s lines from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): we don’t need another hero, we just need to find the way home.
© Adrian Martin January/April 2001