a particular serious-cinephile generation (of which I am a member), naturalism was – and probably still is –
Dirty Word Number One.
in cinema is the opposite of stylisation, flair, performance, gamesmanship,
artifice, colour. Naturalism is low-key, unostentatious filmmaking, where form
plays a quiet, modest second to content (or message). And where some kind of claim,
implicit or explicit, is made that what we are seeing on screen is somehow real – just a slice of life. The steep semantic
slide begins: naturalism, realism, reality, real world.
too surprisingly, this vaunted reality always turns out to be a sorry mess of
fictionalised clchés masquerading as semi-documentary, mere reality-effects. The basic artifice of
narrative (and of mise en scène and
montage and everything else that is manufactured) is denied. As is the
underlying politics of who, exactly, needs to either produce or consume such
reassuring mirror-pictures (but is it a mirror or is it a picture?) of the
so-called real world. Real World talk is naturalism’s greatest alibi.
nauralism in cinema is not simply the same thing every time it appears. Nor is
it always reprehensible. After all, it, too, is a style, in some sense like
every other – even if it does not want to be seen or exposed as such. It
doesn’t need to stay a static blob. Some directors (John
Cassavetes, Paul Schrader, Maurice
Pialat, James L. Brooks) knowingly take on certain naturalistic conventions in
order to bend and stretch them into something else – sometimes constituting, in
the process, the radical edge of mainstream cinema. Even Ken Loach works with
naturalism as something that can be moulded, prodded, inflected, transformed.
mainstream cinema, however, has long been the home of Bad Naturalism. And High Tide, in this regard, definitely
rates as Gillian Armstrong’s homecoming, after her first spell in America for Mrs Soffel (1984).
I first reviewed this film, I was in the militant habit of eschewing all plot
summary. “If you want the plot, go see the movie” – that was my nonchalant
catchcry for most of the 1980s, writing mostly short reviews for various cinema
or art magazines: critique runs parallel to a film, it doesn’t need to regurgitate
some banal story premise. And who cares about synopsis, anyhow? The obligations
of paid journalism later cured me of this particular hubris. So here I insert
for your information, and to put you a little more into the picture: High Tide concerns a woman who works as
a back-up singer for an Elvis impersonator. Finding herself stuck in the
caravan park of a small coastal town, she befriends an adolescent girl – not
yet realising it is the daughter she previously abandoned. Now read on!)
gets the rules of the naturalistic genre, in its perfect Aussie format,
completely right in High Tide: there
are enough Leagues Clubs, Hills Hoists, caravan parks and indoor toilets here
to warm the heart of any middle-class filmgoer who wishes to slum it in this
grittily stylised reality-picture. One could do a good – if withering – study
of naturalistic production design.
is so true to naturalistic form in High
Tide, in fact, that low-key is
virtually synonymous with dead.
I don’t mean to entirely knock the film. It has its own charms of social and
behavioural observation. Its performances are generally good. Indeed, it shows
a few signs of transforming its slice-of-life into a sly feminist revision of
Wim Wenders’ Paris,
Texas (1984) – except that, once again, mother (Judy Davis as Lilli)
ends up with daughter (a young Claudia Karvan as Ally), which, all things
considered, is a pretty conservative cop-out.
points I would make about High Tide.
One. Is it just my problem, or is Davis hopelessly miscast here? All the things
she is great at projecting – egocentrism, dark resentment, neurosis – seem
constantly to put her at a distance from every other character. I couldn’t
believe for a moment that she ever belonged in the world of a caravan park; I
kept waiting for the revelation that her character was an ex-junkie from the
inner city. Jan Adele as Bet, on the other hand, is absolutely right in this
world, and Colin Friels (Davis’ real-life partner) as Mick can fake it, no
sweat. But Davis never integrates her familiar screen persona into the movie.
This must be the ultimate evasive – or, to use the popular
critical-journalistic expression, recessive – Australian screen drama. Everyone runs away from everything, and the camera
(cinematography by Russell Boyd) joins them: away from conflict, tension,
collision, explosion. The film (scripted by Jane
collaborator Laura Jones) seems to rank this as pathos; I rate it as weak-willed style, weak-kneed narrative.
Armstrong has declared, “I push myself to explore some of the metaphors
visually”. She has added, colourfully, that this film began from a succint
Director’s Note stuck above her desk: “Blood ties. Water. Running away”. OK!
But High Tide is the perfect example
of a Film-Schooled non-style; that is, predominantly straight, TV-manner
filming, with a few showy tracking shots
or musical breaks poured on like ketchup.
– and dramatic – metaphors require a little more thought and work. Not to mention:
more dynamic modulation and progressive transformation. This is a reductive style
not restricted, in Australian cinema, to Gillian Armstrong (who has done much
better work elsewhere in her career); alas, it is a general tendency.
© Adrian Martin July 1987