Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day 7: An Outrageous Australian Satire and a Jarmusch Tone Poem

Film restoration is an essential task facing the art today, as anyone who's listened to Martin Scorsese talk in the last 20 years knows. Celluloid decays as it ages, and as a result a vast number of films - including nearly all early silent films - are in danger of being lost forever. This is especially true in nations without developed film industries, where the lack of interest or ability to protect film means that scores of films will never be salvaged again. Luckily, there are organizations dedicated to preservation: the Criterion Collection, for example, and the Library of Congress are both essential bodies in the United States. Australia has the National Film and Sound Archive, but pitiful government funding is a huge hurdle to its continued success.

Last night, the NFSA presented its latest restoration project: Bliss (grade: B), an essential Australian satire from 1985 directed by advertising director Ray Lawrence. The film is based on a novel by Peter Carey and tells the story of adman Harry Joy (Barry Otto), who dies for four minutes and wakes up to a skewed world. His wife Bettina (Lynne Curran) is having an affair with his business partner Joel (Jeff Truman), his daughter Lucy (Gia Carides) is buying coke from his son David (Miles Buchanan) in exchange for sexual favors, and he is having increasingly vivid hallucinations while falling in love with prostitute Honey Barbara (Helen Jones).

There's an irreverent streak that runs through most of the film, which makes it surprising when it becomes heartfelt and conventional.

More after the jump.

Tonally, the film is all over the place. The film opens with its most outrageous material, including a quick scene of sister-brother fellatio while he wears a swastika, and it's in these moments that it makes sense that the film inspired mass walkouts when it premiered at Cannes in 1985. For the most part, however, this material makes sense in the context of the film's satire of the "greed is good" '80s and the moral depravity of the advertising industry. Harry's mission after his brief dalliance with death is to "be good," and the humor comes from the dissonance between what he wants and what he and everyone else does. The film is at its strongest when it's being absurd and taking down its targets, anchored by Otto's incredible hysteric performance.

Yet the film makes an odd transition a little over halfway through, focusing more on the burgeoning love story between Harry and Honey Barbara and his efforts to woo her. The film looses some of its manic energy at this point, with much of Harry's family and professional struggles disappearing completely. It feels dropped in from a much more conventional film, especially as it picks up an unexpected moral message to close things. Despite the uneven tone and narrative, the film is nevertheless entertaining, a fine blend of the schlock B-movies and prestige pictures that dominated the Australian film industry in the 1980s.

Where Bliss is very much driven by madcap propulsion, Jim Jarmusch's new narrative feature Paterson (grade: A) is the opposite. The film takes place over a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, as he works on his notebook of poems between shifts. That's really all there is to the film's narrative, as Paterson interacts with his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), barkeeper Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and lovelorn Everett (William Jackson Harper).

But Jarmusch is not interested in narrative, something that should be clear to anyone who has seen one of his films. Instead, the film functions like one of the tone poems that Paterson scribbles in his notebook. This is a film that finds the poetry in everyday life: a conversation about "Hurricane" Carter, a loving but delicate relationship with a girlfriend, a lunch by a waterfall. The power of this film lies in what happens; it's just that, instead of major events, what happens are quiet moments that are no less, and arguably more, meaningful.

For all that the film does very well, it does have a few rough patches. The Paterson-Paterson, NJ pun is a bit much, especially since Jarmusch is much more interested in the man than the place. But that's a small quibble, especially compared to the fantastic performances from Driver and Farahani. Both actors are perfectly in tune with Jarmusch's sensibility, and their relationship feels naturally endowed with history and unspoken thoughts. Driver, especially, is a compelling actor for this role, and he pulls it off with just the right mixture of quiet observation and internal reflection. The film follows his lead to terrific results.

Tomorrow: a timely film about racial strife in Australia.

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