Mouth to Mouth
The Drab Aesthetics of Mainstream Australian Cinema (notes from a 1982 lecture)
Australian cinema is a cinema with no memory, no references, no past.
Its only relation to the past classic cinema (of any kind) is one of either half-hearted rejection or cute, kitschy parody.
Australian cinema is a cinema with no culture – neither Pop nor High Culture, merely the desert of Australia itself: its blank, bland, public profile.
It is a cinema caught between functionalism and realism – the two styles that wish not to be perceived as styles.
It is a cinema crippled by a fear of expressivity.
John Duigan’s Mouth to Mouth embodies all of these Sins of Australian Cinema.
1. Functionalism – à la television – is the quickest stylistic line between two narrative points: the simplest, most basic kind of economy, balance, order – linear, deadeningly clear direction (in the blandest, most literal sense) that points our way through the film. Functionalism is high on redundancy. What are its stylistic aspects? The standard way of filming a dialogue – or an action scene – and the standard way of arranging a narrative: in sequence, in alternation. Predictable, standard rhythms and articulations. There must be nothing too obvious, shocking or fragmentary, unless it can be immediately cleared up and recuperated: the cinema of No Risk.
2. Realism is functionalism weighted with a certain value, a certain justification, a certain message. It is the style that does not ever want to be perceived in itself, as itself. Realism’s definition, tone and strategy change across history. It poses a reality that is out there (not conjured or transformed in and by the film itself), which has to be captured, documented, witnessed – an earnest political crusade.
Filmmaking that is more like social work than having a good time.
As a consequence, the public, social acts or processes of making a film, showing it, talking about it – even simply watching it – become strangely abstract, as if completely dependent or parasitic upon the reality it addresses, and able to be evaluated beside it: realism rises or falls on the perfection and precision of its reflection of the so-called real world. An impossible, stupid quest.
The Nation sits through the film and pontificates upon “Are we in this film? Did we see our condition accurately reflected? Is that a fitting image of ourselves?” – this stupid cultural-reassurance theory, pious liberalism leading to nationalism leading to a “cultural image”. A reassuring politics of identity, in every sense: identification, mirroring, comfortable platitudes.
More on the stylistic aspects of realism:
– The materials and forms of the filmmaking process strive to disappear in the face of the supposedly real scene that is being reconstructed.
– The camera follows the action, is motivated (cued) by it.
– The camera apprehends the context of a scene. Basic social context or placement, not a truly critical or historical context. The old “here and now” principle beloved of Aussie film & TV.
– Semi-improvisational, “naturalistic” acting. More here-and-now.
– On the soundtrack: conventional markers or indices of reality: bar murmur, cars, doors, footsteps, trash cans, trains, laughter. Same old music cues in the same old spots of the narrative.
There are fleeting effects of style, but they stick out like sore thumbs, not integrated, merely disruptive, flashy: a cut, a shot held for an unusually long time, a sudden spatial dynamic, a song on the soundtrack …
Traps of realism that Mouth to Mouth (as an all-too-typical example) falls into:
1. The dilemma of the Old and the New. Realism pretends to have no truck with old fictions, clichés, stereotypes, forms – it is new in that it is now, of the moment, life itself … or so it believes, and behaves. Yet Mouth to Mouth is endlessly implicated in the production and regurgitation of stereotypes: the narrative structure of the characterisations (pairs, same and different); moral clichés of decadence, the fall, descent into the underworld, the passage to hell: drugs and prostitution, like in Christiane F. (1981). While being overly embarrassed about referencing the past, realism is only ever the production of a new brand of cornball.
2. The tendency towards fatalism, or the That’s-The-Way-It-Is Syndrome. Why was Mouth to Mouth made? What is the reality it documents, describes, explains? The social, political condition of unemployment is reflected in the lives of a few individuals. Their personal problems would be the symptoms, the signs of a larger, more generalised problem ... an effect the cause of which is elsewhere, in the social system itself.
Mouth to Mouth, like Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), might be about individual degrees of resisting or of giving in, of surviving or of compromising. In the “cause” pleaded for by the film, however, unemployment becomes something like a static, eternal condition – that’s the way it is! – and individuals are held responsible for their own actions: it’s up to you to make an effort, to lift yourself out of the gutter, to make the best of a bad deal.
That is how the characters are divided up: in the schema of every man for himself, three swim and one sinks, because “the more you love, the harder you fall”. Whatever that means!
No thesis, no idea. The romance of fatalism equals easy tragedy: a particular (very real, very complex, very diverse) nomadic lifestyle – the great dispossessed of Australia, the proliferation of subcultures, micro-cultures, societal margins – is reduced to the regime of the melancholic. Mouth to Mouth is not about creating a new lifestyle, but slowly losing grip of an old one, which is implicitly endorsed on a moral and social level – it’s a story of sliding down, giving up, skidding across, losing touch, shutting off, becoming homeless, rootless, hopeless and helpless. Hence the scenes at the parents’ homes: the family unit that is gone, lost ...
Mouth to Mouth chronicles the passage of four young people (played by Kim Krejus, Sonia Peat, Ian Gilmour and Serge Frazzetto) through a series of significant and symptomatic wayside stops of the nomad lifestyle: pubs, garages, motels, alleyways, slums, milk bars, foyers, waiting rooms, shops, apartments ... but it’s a sad journey of parts in search of a whole, pieces in search of a picture, stations in search of a network or system. Being a nomad, however, doesn’t have to be like that, and (as Rimabud told us, and many others have reminded us since) “real life is elsewhere” ... which brings me to the third trap.
3. Filmic realism misses the reality of the film experience – i.e., the reasons why people go to the movies in the first place, how they act and react, how filmgoing is a social event and also a private accumulation of intensities and memories for each of us. A realist film like Mouth to Mouth says, in effect: the real world is important, it has history, substance, depth, complexity, but film hasn’t: film is only the transparent medium of expression which allows you to speak of reality.
This attitude is absolutely characteristic of Australian cinema, and is what, I believe, kills it in a single stroke.
In the Australian industry, any concern with film language or form, with film criticism or history, whether old Hollywood or the modernist avant-garde, is branded irredeemably silly and unnecessary. The polite word for a film which is aware of the history and experience of previous film is reflexive, the less polite term is wank – and boy, do you hear that word a lot in Australia!
Australian mainstream cinema, in its absence, its failure, its deadly dreariness, endlessly reposes for us the question: what is the place of film within a social reality, where and how does it fit into things? The Americans, for instance, know that if you go to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), you go there to dream, to stimulate a fantasy; but they also know that process has little or nothing to do with escapism or being passive, just losing yourself for two hours: on the contrary, it’s a very real, very intense experience in itself. And it’s from there that filmmaking and film criticism should begin.
But when you go to an Australian film – out of that awful sense of patriotic duty – that’s when (paradoxically) you switch off from the real, and you search, suspended, for an alienated, mythological image of your National Self. What a way to go!
© Adrian Martin 12 October 1982