For a particular serious-cinephile generation (of which I am a member), naturalism was – and probably still is – Dirty Word Number One.
Naturalism 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.
Not 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.
Yet 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.
Australian 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).
(When 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!)
Armstrong 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.
Armstrong is so true to naturalistic form in High Tide, in fact, that low-key is virtually synonymous with dead.
But 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.
Three 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.
Two. 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 Campion’s celebrated collaborator Laura Jones) seems to rank this as pathos; I rate it as weak-willed style, weak-kneed narrative.
Three. 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.
Visual – 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