The Good Looker is Claire Jager's imaginative and compelling documentary portrait of Australian artist Joy Hester (1920-60). Essentially a talking-head piece, it is enlivened by the fact that so many of Hester's intimate contemporaries (including Albert Tucker, Barbara Blackman and Mirka Mora) are still around and willing to talk candidly.
The film gives us close-up access to Hester's dynamic art, with its powerful imagery of jutting eyes, bodies in flight, and tensely inscrutable relations between the sexes. The flavour of the artist's social scene – the heroic era of the Angry Penguins and Heidi – is well conveyed.
The Good Looker also plunges us directly into the often murky waters of Hester's biography. Beside the eyewitness testimonies, Jager uses brief, fleeting re-enactments. These are meant to be lyrical, but end up looking quite timid and lifeless. Far more successful and vivid is the film's soundtrack mix of cascading, overlapping voices, as in Ellen Weissbrod's bold doco Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones (1990).
Hester's colourful, dramatic life – complete with unconventional behaviour, wild expressivity and a bohemian milieu – is the stuff of romantic myth. Her story conjures an Antipodean Dora Carrington or (to take a case from experimental film) Maya Deren. Accordingly, her art is presented as entirely a matter of feeling, vision, spiritual triumph. Its aesthetic qualities of raw immediacy and vibrant energy are emphasised.
As an essay in art history, some will find The Good Looker rather old-fashioned. In love with the image and memory of Hester, the film betrays a nostalgia for the good old, pre-theoretical days of art appreciation. This is a nostalgia that Jager may share with Hester's principal historian Janine Burke, who appears in the movie at regular intervals.
Although The Good Looker is not an especially analytical or critical work, it is nonetheless animated by an urgent political sense. There are good reasons today for using Hester to propagate our very own, female version of the myth of the romantic artist. Firstly, Hester has so far received far less recognition or tribute than her male contemporaries. And secondly, there is an unmistakeably poignant aura surrounding the fragile birth of modernist art in Australia.
To be thus reminded of the conditions that enable artistic culture to flourish in this country – conditions that were non-existent not so long ago, and are still precarious today for many artists – is surely no bad thing.
© Adrian Martin May 1996