Going Down

(Haydn Keenan, Australia, 1983)


One of the richest mini-traditions in Australian cinema is comprised of messy, unsentimental, streetwise films about subcultural inner-city lifestyles involving some mix of drugs, crime, unemployment, anarchist politics, underground music and sexual perversity.

This illustrious tradition includes Pure Shit (1976), Going Down, Dogs In Space (1987) and Nirvana Street Murder (1990), to mention only features. Similar to related works from other countries (such as Jacques Doillon’s Les Doigts dans le tête [1974] and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy [1989]), these films tend to deal with a network of fragmentary, volatile, often treacherous group relationships (rather than concentrating on one or two main characters). They explore, in a largely non-judgmental, even deliberately amoral manner, lives that are lived a very long way from the values of honour, decency, loyalty and sexual fidelity that are considered normal by straight society.

Since these films are about marginal cultural styles and people often on the edge, they also tend to revel in a certain wild, ramshackle social mobility – not upwards or downwards but endlessly sideways, through the many haunts, dives and lairs of the urban underground. They document and dramatise a ceaseless, headlong skid that can at times only be halted by death.

Going Down is one of the outstanding films of the subcultural tradition. It is certainly one of the most authentic. It provides a virtual ethnography of subcultural Sydney in the early ’80s, with junkies, artists, aboriginal activists, students, drag queens, social workers and insatiable partygoers endlessly colliding and reconfiguring as they spend a long night searching for a good time. This classic narrative device of a long day’s journey into night (with its morning-after coda – see also Ian Pringle’s The Prisoner of St Petersburg [1990]) is crucial in giving the film its overall structural drive and energy, inviting the viewer to experience the same whirligig of emotions, moods and situations that the characters do. Even the erratic poverty row image and sound editing internal to many scenes adds to the film’s vivid achievement.

Going Down is unique in focusing on a group of women (subcultural portraits are usually male-centred) who struggle to endure and perhaps break free of their harsh, urban environment. They live out a great deal together and separately during their liminal night – a heightened, condensed period of time in which choices must be made and truths faced. Their experiences are emblematic not only of the ways in which women are exploited and degraded (by men and by the system), but also of the ways they can survive, resist and take revenge. But no one, man or woman, is morally or ethically pure in the film’s world; friends help each other out, but they also abandon or rip each other off if necessary.

The film’s style is a wonderful cross-mix of gritty naturalism and elevated expressive devices – something which (in combination with the ugly subject matter) has earned it predictably dismissive notices from aesthetically normative and/or politically conservative critics. Keenan fashions sequences that are sometimes lyrically poetic (as in the shots of the city at dawn), at other times angular and racy (as in the opening tracking shot through a dishevelled bohemian share-house, anticipating a similar introduction to Dogs In Space). Aided particularly by the performance(s) of David Argue at his most flamboyantly excessive, the film finally frees itself altogether from the shackles of realism and plunges into merry burlesque – a liberatingly utopian ending for an essentially downbeat, unsentimental, punk story.

Going Down has been little screened or critically discussed locally since its release. Keenan later took the path of supreme tastelessness with his little-seen Pandemonium (1988), a tacky debunking of Australian mythologies done in the camp style of John Waters. While it shares the same spirit of audacity in both content and style, Going Down is much closer to the realities and textures of an impossible everyday life. It is this hard realism which gives the humour, fantasy and sheer manic drive of the film its real kick.

Not only is Going Down unarguably a key work in the history of independent feature filmmaking in Australia for the way it combines and mutually enriches both naturalistic and expressionistic approaches to narrative cinema; it is also, in its own terms, one of the finest and most memorable films made in Australia.

© Adrian Martin December 1993/November 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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