(Daniel Nettheim, Australia, 2000)


Is Australian grunge so – as they like to say in teen movies like Clueless (1995) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) – five minutes ago?

In the mid ’90s, the publishing industry tried briefly to convince us all that a new, local artistic movement had been born, due to the handy coincidence of novels by Christos Tsiolkas (Loaded), Justine Ettler (The River Ophelia) and Andrew McGahan (Praise). By the time two of these books had made it to the screen (in Loaded‘s case, as Head On, 1998), the Movement had already dispersed.

The authors who had been lumped with the tag moved on to other projects in other styles. The American B movie maestro Roger Corman, on a quick trip through Australia, announced his intention to make a feature version of the Melbourne drugs-and-garbage, black-and-white short Happy Little Vegemites – but it didn’t materialise.

In the meantime, grunge quickly filtered through to the realms of fashion, design and advertising in a diluted, readily consumable form. Remember the ephemeral controversy about ‘death chic’ photo-spreads in youth magazines, a down-market crib of Bill Henson’s tawdry-glamorous art-snaps of wasted, naked junkies?

And then the whole grimy carnival seemed to disappear altogether, at least in the eyes of the mass media, hungry for the next trend. Or maybe grunge just went underground for a spell – since I suspect that the subterranean impulse to get down and dirty never really goes away.

If we consider grunge as a cultural force or sensibility reaching beyond a few contemporaneous novels and the films made from them, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Australian cinema has a sterling record when it comes to documenting and refracting the many varieties of low-life. From Bert Deling’s Pure Shit (1977) to Daniel Nettheim’s Angst (2000), by way of Going Down (Haydn Keenan, 1983), Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1987), Head On (1998), Praise (John Curran, 1999), not to mention The Boys (1998) and Little Fish (2005) by Rowan Woods – with the belated screen adaptation of Like Davies’ Candy (2006) letting the side down badly – Australian cinema has put a rough-hewn face to the collective cries of the young, the homeless, the socially outcast, the rebels, burn-outs and punks.

The grunge condition covers a multitude of sins: sex and drugs and playing in bands; angry, alienated youth; high-spirited recklessness; twisted fantasies of escape; anarchist politics; nihilist philosophy. Some grunge fictions are about nothing more scandalous than bong water and dirty dishes in a never-touched, share-house sink – an ever-popular topic with young adults, as the continuing life of John Birmingham’s He Died With a Falafel in His Hand (first as a book, then a play, and finally a rather lifeless movie from Richard Lowenstein) makes abundantly clear.

Other grunge tales are much darker, scouring the David Lynch-like territory of sexual perversion, morbid death fantasies, and addiction – equally popular material with audiences, as the movie of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1996) and its legacy in UK film (including The Acid House [1998], Human Traffic [1999] and The Football Factory [2004]) have proved. Grunge beats a track that extends from the mildly grubby fun of yesteryear’s TV cult, The Young Ones, or Withnail & I, to a backwoods American movie as enduringly intractable and disquieting as Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1998), lodged somewhere undecidable between documentary freak-show and art-film poem.

Australian movies are often happy to embrace the grunge lifestyle as an accident, a trap or a necessity, sometimes just a phase in someone’s life, at other times a curse: films full of the pathos of dispossessed, socially marginalised souls, from Esben Storm’s 27 A (1973) about alcoholism, to Lilian’s Story (1995), about madness. Or else – as in much British cinema of bitter, kitchen-sink extraction – grunge seeps into the very fabric of mundane, quotidian life, and particularly into the mucky, body-fluid transactions of sexuality. This is an aspect of the Jane Campion legacy (evident from her early shorts) subsequently passed on to filmmakers including Monica Pellizzari (Fistful of Flies, 1996) and Shirley Barrett (Love Serenade, 1996) – that droll tendency to present a character’s sexual development as (in Ruth Watson’s words) “more grubby than gracious”.

Grunge movies raise the unavoidable problem of cultural exactness in Australian cinema. If you presume to make a film about youth subcultures, about the bubbling zeitgeist, or about radical, shocking, new forms of art and expression, you just have get the details right. The music that the characters listen to, the books they read, their culture-vulture patter, their speech idioms, the clothes they wear: all this has to be correct, or else a filmmaker’s no doubt sincere burning ambition to ‘bear witness’ goes straight down the gurgler.

Now, for some reason that is hard to pinpoint, Australian films are notoriously bad on cultural exactness. From the embarrassing old rocker in Back of Beyond (1995) mumbling “gotta go, gotta gig” at every opportunity, to the instant punk stardom of the hero of Bad Boy Bubby (1994), screaming at mesmerised, zombiefied, copy-cat pub crowds; from the hilariously simple-minded philosophy lectures offered by a floundering Jimmy Smits in Gross Misconduct (1993), to the sight of Sam Neill as a literature professor in My Mother Frank (2000) banging on about subtext, as if his sole preparation for academic life was to read a bad how-to-write-a-screenplay manual; from the irredeemably foppish ‘modern’ artist with the immortal name of Cliff Ingersoll in Duet for Four (1982), to the drippy fashion sense of the attitude-stoked rave crowd in Sample People (2000) … The record, I’m afraid, speaks for itself.

The cultural exactness of Angst is what makes it so refreshing. The grunge factor in this film is fairly gentle, in contrast to Two Hands (1999), which took a more spectacular, Tarantino-type approach to the criminal milieu of Kings Cross: these characters, who treat the Cross as a diverting but still everyday place in which to live, rather than as a Mecca of mud-yearning, are hooked on gruesome videos rather than any harder stuff. Their tastes are satisfyingly correct, for a change: they discourse wisely upon the trashiest masterpieces of Cronenberg and Raimi, have a Dario Argento poster on their lounge room wall, and the video shop in which Dean (Sam Lewis) works proudly displays Australia’s own Body Melt (Philip Brophy, 1994).

Angst does not fixate on the truth of every single detail – the Goth girl, May (Abi Tucker), is little more than someone who wears the right look and watches The Crow – but its breezy combo of low-life blues, self-realisation and romantic comedy puts it well beyond such strictures. (It was a debut of promise for Nettheim, who has since worked entirely in high-end TV.)

Angst, like Human Traffic, signals a contemporary moment in cinema when tales of reckless youth eschew the presence of hard drugs, overly painful sex, naked social exploitation, and numbing tragedy. Even the teen street urchin in Nettheim’s film who steals the share-house’s beloved VCR turns out to be not so menacing or predatory, after all – just a boy looking for a pal. We seem very far from the initial shock of Larry Clark‘s sensationalist exposé, Kids (1995).

© Adrian Martin May 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search