This week I had a new post published on the Sydney Film Festival blog. It’s about appreciating Australian cinema from an American perspective, and how I’m psyched about the Aussie entries in the festival. I didn’t have to embellish it; I really do love the films of my adopted country. If it’s a pessimistic industry cliché that most Australians don’t support their own films, at least I always will.

A lot of that has to with marrying a local of course. My wife has diligently seen to my education in Aussie film. But she didn’t have to push very hard. Ever since I first visited and wanted to live here, I’ve been hungry for any material, any books or films, that might inspire me and give me clues about the place. I think we tend to underestimate the way we can learn even from fiction. Joseph Campbell wrote that a great way to get an education is to pick one author you love and respect and read everything he or she wrote. One of my chosen “authors” has been Australian cinema.

Of course I don’t yet have anything like a comprehensive knowledge of Australian films. (In case I foolishly thought I did, Roderick Heath would be around to smack me down.) But I’ve seen quite a few, enough to realize I’m a fan. And, working on my little piece, the more I thought about it, the more I remembered I’ve loved a number of Aussie films ever since I was a kid. I guess I’ve always been drawn to them.

One of my earliest cinematic memories is watching Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) when it was first out on cable TV, which was still a wondrous new thing in our household. Today I marvel at the influence of cable in bringing foreign and independent films to us regular folks in the States who would otherwise have had no access to them. And I have to hand it to my dad for his often adventurous choices in home viewing, opening me up to all kinds of films at a young age.

I was fascinated by this, my first Australian film, a neo-gothic tale about the mysterious disappearance of some schoolgirls in the wilderness of Victoria in 1900. I was pretty young, and didn’t understand much of what was going on, but Weir’s uncanny, sun-baked, ghostly atmosphere pulled me right in. I now know the film is meant to be opaque; but even then I think I liked not knowing — I was already realizing there’s something kind of cool about that.

The vast wilderness in the center of the country as symbolic force of destiny — strange, unknowable, often destructive — is a key device in Australian fiction, and it achieves quintessence here. If you haven’t seen it, be careful about watching it late at night; this movie is unbelievably creepy considering very little actually happens. The great use of sound to communicate mystery and unnamed primal terror was hair-raising to me as a kid, and still is.

Picnic is justly considered an Australian classic. You can see why in this clip. But it also shows two things that hamper any viewing or consideration of it. One is Zamfir’s flute playing, which only sounds eerie and evocative the first ten times you hear the same melody played before it becomes grating. Far worse is the screechy performance of the voice actress in the overdubbed dialogue of one of the young characters. Considering how important sound is to the film, those awkward overdubs are a real killer.

This film was huge in kicking off the Aussie New Wave, a golden age in which a lot of films were made here with a lot of worldwide success, including Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Maybe you saw some of them on cable as a kid, like I did.

But like many Americans of my generation, the first Australian film I was truly passionate about was The Road Warrior (1981). George Miller’s wildly creative vision still epitomizes post-apocalyptic fiction of course. And it holds up as a film because, much like the original Star Wars, it was crafted with a 70s independent spirit. Not to mention its fabulous postmodern, postpunk design sensibility. In his essay “Return to Oz,” Roderick Heath makes the same comparison to Star Wars, saying that Miller was “channelling a legendary atmosphere,” and called it possibly the most influential Australian film ever made.

Looking at it now, it’s a wonderfully Aussie film in spirit too. Of course there are the amazing outback settings; but it also distills the Aussie character — the grit and wit — while largely avoiding clichés.

I started watching clips of The Road Warrior online and was a little suprised at how compelling it was even on the little window with bad quality. Go on, see if it doesn’t make you want to watch more.

I ended up watching the whole thing in sections. It’s not a revelation — I’ve never stopped loving all three Mad Max films. But I hadn’t seen this for a while. One thing I noticed this time is the brilliant visual storytelling. It flows like no other film of its kind. For an action film it has unusual emotional weight, a weary frustration and despair on the part of all the characters, even the bad guys. The wordless scene between the Feral Kid and Max, whose wife and young son were murdered by gang members, is transcendent. And there’s a queasy logic, a melancholy sense of detail, about the way the film projects the world after things fall apart. It seems all too plausible we’d be fighting each other for gasoline with crossbows looted from department stores, and hanging on to a few dusty, pathetic artifacts.

I’m pretty much over worrying about the end of the world. But tell me this kind of thing doesn’t occur to you with petroleum spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and apparently no way to stop it.

By the way, I decided on the Feral Kid as this blog’s namesake and muse a long time ago. I didn’t expect to be posting video with him featured in it so soon. But it goes to show you how influential this film was in my life and still is.

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