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Fresh Air

(Neil Mansfield, Australia, 1999)


 


Since at least the advent of the Nouvelle Vague, many filmmakers have had the same dream: to make a movie comprised solely of the small, unspectacular, fleeting details of everyday life.

Such a movie would be the opposite of a slick Hollywood product. It would be plotless, incidental. It would possess a fugitive, jazzy rawness of style. It would be a chronicle of sensations, perceptions, details, random encounters.

Experimental artists, using film, video or pixelvision cameras, have come closest to realising this dream in its purest state. Directors from Jonas Mekas to Sadie Benning have helped carve the unruly genre of the diary film, relentlessly recording themselves and whatever crossed their path. In Australia in the ’80s, the diary form flourished in arty Super 8 productions.

Other filmmakers have taken their ambition to bear witness to the everyday to a different level. Some of the best movies about mundane routines or serendipitous wanderings, from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) to Nanni Moretti’s Caro diario (1994), are rigorously staged, scripted, performed and stylised. They lose the rawness, but gain in poetic insight and emotional power.

The new Australian movie Fresh Air is caught uneasily between these two forms of the diary film. Clearly inspired by the Nouvelle Vague model, it hurls together a multitude of vignettes concerning inner-city life. Writer-director Neil Mansfield, making his feature debut, ensures that we never lose sight of the precise location – Marrickville, NSW – and its bohemian ambience.

The film traces a week in the lives of three young adults who share a house, Kit (Nadine Garner), Jack (Marin Mimica) and E (Bridie Carter). They party, protest and dabble in most of the arts (film, music, performance, painting, photography, design) – but the general tone of their days and nights is far from the punkish, reckless raging immortalised in Dogs in Space (1987).

Mansfield is more drawn to the kinds of passionless moments which Jane Campion once gathered into a short film of that title: quizzical moments of disconnection between people; snapshots of solitude and melancholy; families and friends just dagging about together, killing time.

The characters half face their individual crises – Jack might "sell out", Kit flirts with an old flame, E looks vaguely guilty about sponging off her rich Dad. But this is not a film of journeys or epiphanies; it is more about that indecisive, suspended moment of youth poised between past freedoms and future responsibilities.

One suspects there is an autobiographical impulse driving the project – a retrospective "portrait of the artist as a young man". Yet, in this government-funded movie in which the characters endlessly whine about their lack of government funding, the truth of the everyday simply never comes into focus. Neither raw nor cooked, the film jerks from one uninteresting tableau or banal witticism to the next.

Fresh Air suffers badly when compared to Praise (1999) – a tightly controlled film which manages to be both plotless and riveting. In place of a coherent style, appealing characters or a satisfying structure, Mansfield indulges in what he grandly calls zinema: a collage-like flurry of different film-stocks, voice-over rants, musical interludes, dream flashes and memory inserts. The procedure quickly becomes grating.

Apart from a few amusing or poignant scenes, Fresh Air fails to entice or intrigue the spectator in any way. As all true film-diarists know, it is hard to create a testament to mundanity which does not itself become fatally mundane.

© Adrian Martin July 1999


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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