Idiot Box

(David Caesar, Australia 1996)


In the innocent, carefree days of ’50s B grade filmmaking, one of the least inhibited genres was the JD movie: stories of juvenile delinquents raging around in cars, smoking dope, having a quick thrill, fighting the cops and usually going out in a glorious blaze of death.

In the following decade, with the advent of In Cold Blood (1967), JD movies underwent a massive sea change. Suddenly the thrills were presented from a cold, clinical, critical angle, often freighted with the filmmaker’s ponderous social agenda. The sex, drugs and rock’n’roll had to serve an edifying, concerned message.

Such "exploitation films for the culturati", as one critic called them, include Fun (1995), Penelope Spheeris’ The Boys Next Door (aka No Apparent Motive, 1985) and David Caesar’s home-grown Idiot Box. This last-named is a bold, ambitious but ultimately very dissatisfying movie.

Caesar is clearly still searching for his voice as a feature director: Idiot Box, with its high-energy borrowings from Tarantino and Oliver Stone, is a world away from the daggy, low-key whimsy of his debut, Greenkeeping (1993). Perhaps only one quality unites all the films, long or short, signed by this undeniably talented practitioner: a certain dispassionate, wry, inquiring camera-gaze trained upon his characters.

Idiot Box is a rather depressing essay on Aussie masculinity. You cannot really like Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) or Mick (Jeremy Sims), the inarticulate, restless anti-heroes of this piece. All that drives them is aggression and boredom. The territory might seem Geoffrey Wright-like (Romper Stomper [1992] and Metal Skin [1994]), but Caesar’s tone is far closer to an older anti-ocker classic, Wake in Fright (aka Outback, 1971).

It is hard to get involved with Idiot Box. Much of it plays like a rather schematic exercise in pop sociology, complete with the obligatory nod to multicultural Australia via the character of Mick’s girlfriend Lani (Robyn Loau), and many subliminal glimpses of that most horrible of villains – the ubiquitous television set in the corner spewing forth violence and porn. The filmmaker’s sermon on this point is hardly persuasive.

Although there are some fine, relaxed moments of humour (especially in relation to sex), there is a dimension of humanity missing in Idiot Box. The characters are ciphers, emblems, bundles of symptoms and social problems. And although Caesar attempts a kinetic, busy style in both the image and soundtrack, the film prudishly never lets us enjoy the highs that these everyday delinquents experience.

I wanted to like this film more than I did. When it finally pulls its diverse plot threads together, it comes alive for a few precious, poignant moments. But that urgent thrill of pure cinema arrives way too late. Idiot Box was certainly the most interesting and stylish Australian film to appear on the cusp of 1996/7 – but that’s not saying very much against competition like Hotel De Love (1996) or Mr Reliable (1997).

MORE Caesar: Carcrash, Mullet

© Adrian Martin February 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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