Let's talk about 'second films'.
What is that makes certain filmmakers absolutely petrified of making and releasing to the world their second feature film? We see it all the time these days: a young director makes a first film that is wildly acclaimed for its boldness, its originality, its freshness and innovation. Then, inexorably, the vultures gather and the ruthless speculation begins: will the next one be as good? Will it be better? Will it be just a tired reputation of an instant formula, or an extraordinary breakthrough into the highest realms of cinema art? It's a boom and bust mentality: second films seem to be received either as stinking turkeys or blinding masterpieces, with no shades of achievement in between.
Think back over some of the cases of recent years. Steven Soderbergh made sex, lies and videotape (1989), a critical and commercial success which seemingly came out of nowhere. Have you ever seen his second film, Kafka (1991) with Jeremy Irons? Certainly not if you've been stuck in Australia, where it has never even been released on video. Or take Spike Lee. After She's Gotta Have It (1986), Lee embarked on a sprawling ambitious political campus musical called School Daze (1988). That one you can get on video, but many people don't even know it exists. It took Spike to hit it big with his third feature, Do the Right Thing (1989), before film distributors and exhibitors took him entirely seriously again. The case of Jane Campion is an unusual one. After her debut feature Sweetie (1989), Campion didn't plunge straight into her second big-screen adventure. She took a detour into the TV mini series form with An Angel at My Table (1990), a work that showed another aspect of her sensibility altogether, and which ended up, almost accidentally, being widely seen all over the world. By the time The Piano (1993) was ready to appear, no one knew how to typecast Campion or what exactly to expect from her, and this really worked to her advantage.
The career paths of people like Soderbergh, Lee and Campion are intimately connected to a big, powerful institution of world cinema: the Cannes Film Festival. We should widen this focus out a bit, and consider a network of key festivals: not just Cannes, but also Venice, London, Berlin, New York. For filmmakers who in any way belong to what we loosely call "art cinema", making a splash in this international film festival market gets more crucial with every passing year. And it's a cut-throat market: trying to be successful there is just as hard, just as vicious, as it is for commercial filmmakers who want their films to last more than a week at a suburban multiplex. The Film Festival world is increasingly geared to the making and breaking of reputations, directors rapturously discovered one year and tossed out like dirty dish rags the next. And I think this attitude has filtered through and infected a large section of the movie-going audience. The cinema-literate filmgoers, those people who know something about directors and international cinema trends, are ever ready to acclaim or denounce, or acclaim and then denounce. The world of film just wasn't like this fifty, even twenty years ago. Did people once upon a time pounce on the tender young talents of Hitchcock or Dreyer, raising them to heaven with their first film and destroying them with their second? Absolutely not: many of those we today consider the great masters of cinema had the opportunity to make many, many films before they reached the ones we call their masterpieces.
I say all this as a prelude to a review of Australian writer-director Geoffrey Wright's Metal Skin (1995), his second feature after Romper Stomper (1992). I didn't like Metal Skin much at all, but I don't really want to be part of the circus that trashes the movie like its some tragic disappointment. Already I can tell that Metal Skin, like The Piano or Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992) before it, will dramatically divide the punters: some people will be falling over themselves to award it five stars, while others will stubbornly refuse it even a single star. This kind of carnival of ecstasy or outrage is just plain stupid, and finally doesn't help anyone to reach a sane, balanced perspective on these local movies. But let's be fair to Metal Skin. It's in some respects a bold and ambitious film. It has a high energy level, an impressive grasp of cinema language and cinema style. It's a melodrama and unafraid of the form, which is rare in the Australian context. It has odd and captivating elements, like a character who's into satanism and casts spells to capture the one she loves. The actors in the film give all they've got to the expression of their melodramatic characters.
Having granted the film all of that, I'll try to say why I think it's a less successful achievement than Wright's first feature Romper Stomper – less coherent, less sustained, less developed. Metal Skin is a melodramatic tangle involving four, young working-class characters. Three of these people want someone who doesn't want them. For Savina, the one into satanism, played by Tara Morice, the object of desire is Dazey (Ben Mendelsohn). He's desperately trying to win back the affection of his girlfriend Roslyn (Nadine Garner), whom he disfigured with burns in a car smash. But Savina, meanwhile, is hopelessly desired by Joe (Aden Young), a none-too-bright proletarian savage who's made up to look a little like Jerry Lewis as Professor Julius Kelp in The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963). A lot of the psychodrama of the film is staged as a kind of theatre of cruelty: humiliation, frustration and blind masculine aggro figure prominently, as well as a high dosage of straight-out dementia belonging mainly to the parent figures of the piece. With its cruel caricaturing of adults, and its wallowing in the formless angst of young people, Metal Skin at times seems like some particularly angry teen movie – although angry at exactly what, it's hard to say.
If you've seen the trailer for this film in theatres or on TV, you could be forgiven for thinking it's about stock car racing, or set in a garage. There a few big scenes involving cars, and cars are an important symbol in the film of frustrated, destructive energy, but the whole automobile angle remains strangely disconnected from the film, as do the multi-cultural touches. As if responding to the charge of racism made in some quarters about the depiction of Australian-Vietnamese in Romper Stomper, here Wright makes one of this characters a Greek-Australian and another a Romanian-Australian. But this really comes across as just a bit of meaningless multi-cultural colour in the film, a kind of gratuitous dramatic special effect.
A lot of the drama in Metal Skin seems gratuitous, over wrought, contrived. The grand emotions of the characters never reach a convincing level of authenticity or reality. They seem more like movie emotions. Since his short Lover Boy (1989), Wright has always aimed for big, wrenching, paroxysmic moments of screen drama. Yet these big moments always look like they're being quoted from other movies. The torture of an abusive parent in Romper Stomper was obviously inspired by Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). Here, wild sex and transgression in a church hails from Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), while all the drama up at the church tower recalls Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). The Cain and Abel stuff between the male characters seems like so much homage to the Scorsese of Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull (1980). Even the incredibly romantic image of working class squalor which Wright has made his speciality looks increasingly like a movie cliché. Now, I've got nothing in principle against movies using ideas gained from other movies. But when that's all you've got, then sometimes you ain't got much.
Above all, Metal Skin strikes me as an hysterical movie – not hysterical in the sense of funny, but out of control, hitting out wildly in all directions, exaggerating everything to the same level of hyper-intensity. The last film I thought this about was Peter Jackson's hit Heavenly Creatures (1994), but that film looks like a model of careful craft and control in comparison with Metal Skin. Here we are deep in Oliver Stone territory, like the most wildly extravagant passages of Talk Radio (1988), JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Geoffrey Wright indulges in the same bombastic nihilism as Stone does at his worst: conjuring a kind of flaming apocalyptic vision of death, madness and despair, which can say only that the world is hell, that life is a prison, that love and happiness are impossibilities – and probably also that, in the immortal words of Andrew Denton, "society is to blame".
Still, it takes some flair to create this kind of hysteria on screen and put it across with the appropriate wallop, and Wright undoubtedly has this flair. Let's hope he gets to make his third film before too long – and that he enlists the services of a screenwriter other than himself, in order to get out of the narrow world view he's already boxed himself into.
© Adrian Martin May 1995