Amid the fierceness of the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer that dropped a couple of weeks ago, film obsessives would have spotted a sweet Australian cinema reference: a silver, psychotic, spiky echidna car, speeding along impaling soft bodies in the desert. That freaky, beautiful instance of cinematic design appeared originally in The Cars That Ate Paris, an early, oft-forgotten classic of Australian cinema that marked Peter Weir’s debut. Nice reference, George Miller.
The wide misconception of Australian film is that it’s mostly dark, documentary-style, greyscale tales. That’s sad, considering the depth and breadth of sheer crazy brilliance that Australian cinema has to offer. It’s a strange historical accident that as Mad Max went on to gain global fame and three sequels (so far), a raft of equally amazing films were left behind. Here are some of Australia’s best weird films, and the stories behind them.
The Cars That Ate Paris, Peter Weir (1974)
Some critics call this a horror film, others a comedy. I can never decide. It’s certainly horrific, but not in a slashy, gory way, and it’s certainly funny, but not in a laugh-out-loud-gags way.
Set in the 1970s, the film follows Arthur, a pretty passive, softly-spoken sorta bloke, who crashes his car in rural Australia and finds himself seriously injured, scared of driving and stranded indefinitely in a town called Paris. The guys in the town salvage car wreckage to create Frankenstein-style monster vehicles, while the doctors salvage survivors, lobotomise them and perform sick, sad medical experiments on them. It all deteriorates into wholesale civil war, with warring hoons and a conspiracy that goes all the way to the town Mayor.
If there seems to be little in terms of cause and effect in this plot description, it’s because the film plays it straight, letting Paris’ hideousness unspool with quiet confidence. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen: a disturbing satire, a bleakly funny anti-comedy. And it’s strangely truthful: rural Australia is in many ways a dark-as horror show that revolves around shit beer and mad cars, and barely repressed, banal brutality.
Peter Weir went on to smash it in Hollywood and make The Truman Show (1998). Though they’re ostensibly disparate in style and tone, the two films make sense together. Weir is a filmmaker who seems to understand the intrinsic weirdness of the way humans do things on planet Earth. He especially understands the oddness lurking underneath Australia’s super-comfortable, middle-class exterior: what the hell is going on in this country? What is being covered up?
Weir eventually made Picnic at Hanging Rock. Meanwhile, Mad Max director George Miller went on to make Happy Feet. Enough said.
Watch it: Via the postal DVD service from Quickflix.com.au.
Wake in Fright, Ted, Kotcheff (1971)
A teacher working in a hellish, nowhere town in a remote community has his shit together: he’s educated, well-spoken and professional. Only when he stops overnight at an outback pub called the Yabba and befriends the locals does his life spin out of control. A careless game of two-up casts him into a gambling black hole, he loses his last few bucks and his mind, becoming stranded in the town and at the mercy of its matey inhabitants. The real Australia breaks him; the outback spirals him out of control. He’s in a waking nightmare.
It took a foreigner to make one of the most wryly-observed films in and about Australia. Who else could make sense of the chronic alcoholism, the wild mateship, the hardcore heterosexuality, the gambling, the blokiness, the repressed fear, the implicit top-qual misogyny, and the intense seediness? Who else could understand that the most socially unacceptable thing you can do in Australia, as a man, is not drink booze? Who else could understand that the only worst thing you can do in Australia, as a man, is to realise you’ve had sex with another man?
Women only appear a couple of times throughout the film, and always with a sense of weird, threatening sexuality. Meanwhile the most evil, messed-up men are the most hospitable: they’d help you change your tyre, shout you a beer, only to take you to rock bottom, into the most violent corners of the most remote places of the most hostile country. There’s nothing really comforting or heartening about this film at all, except the comfort of recognition of all the things you feared about this weird-arse country but could never articulate. Also, old mate Martin Scorcese is fan.
Watch it: Purchase the digital download and DVD directly from Drafthouse Films online.
Pure Shit, Bert Deling (1975)
Upon its release, the Melbourne Herald critic dubbed Pure Shit “the most evil film I’ve ever seen”. Police raided theatres and shut it down. It’s filmmakers called it “comedy in a black vein”. I call it an early Australian slacker film about nasal-voiced, drug-addled plebs who are disturbingly similar to many of my housemates over the years.
The plot can be summed up in one beautiful line: a bunch of tragic junkies run around 1970s Melbourne over one weekend, trying to find more heroin (‘pure shit’). The end. The whole thing is so amazingly chaotic and grim, it makes you realise there’s something incredible about a country that can combine boganism and bohemia into one mega-bleak sub-culture: the junkie underclass.
Like Wake in Fright, it’s taken thirty-odd years for this super low-budget, no-bullshit cult tale to be recognised as an all-time classic. Forget your cinephile snobbery: this is down and dirty filmmaking. This is Australia as a nightmare, and it’s a funny, bleak attack on the conservative values that remain dominant and even more extreme today.
Pure Shit is not an optimistic film. It pushes liberalism and non-judgmentalism to absurd limits by giving its characters only one form of escape from the the invincible white-bread suburbs: extreme addiction It’s a little bit like the final scene of Dancing in the Dark by Lars Von Trier: you realise that the worst really is going to eventuate, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Also, a young Helen Garner makes a bowl-cut, bell-bottomed cameo. Perfect.
Watch it: There’s a full-on 3-disc DVD rerelease through Beyond Home Entertainment that is sometimes available. Otherwise tee-up an eBay alert. It’s worth it.
Patrick, Richard Franklin (1978)
Before Patrick was a victim of the film industry’s mania for remakes in 2013 (it got the full makeover with a leading Neighbours actress and everything), it was a sick, schlocky piece of kitsch. It takes guts to ripoff Hitchcock’s Psycho, but the original Patrick film did it without shame.
The premise is straight-up glorious: Patrick is a young, handsome, comatose vegetable who uses telekinesis to wreck havoc and control the new hot nurse he has a thing for at his hospital. As his backstory unravels, the whole thing gets increasingly, wonderfully sick and strange.
It’s tough not to be completely on board with a horror film in which a bunch of zombie-like elderly coma patients quietly intone, “Patrick wants a hand-job! Patrick wants a hand-job!” Yep, Patrick goes there. There’s weird nudity, freaky sex and shitloads of fake blood. There’s incest. And there’s an evil doctor who cruelly submits Patrick to electroshock. Just to top it off, it’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite Australian films. In the original script for Kill Bill Volume 1, The Bride’s eyes were wide open while she lay comatose just like Patrick, until Uma Thurman — who of course had no knowledge of Patrick and couldn’t understand the reference — said it was too weird and made no sense.
A shame. We need more horror and action films with a winking sense of humour about themselves. Patrick lays the template for that kind of lo-fi, unabashed trashy fun genre film.
Watch it: On secondhand DVD via Amazon.
Bliss, Raw Lawrence (1985)
Harry Joy wakes from his first death, a luxe-life-induced heart attack, with the realisation that his life is, in fact, hell. In an existential wake up, the advertising executive quits his job, leaves his wife, and moves into the Hilton with a shiny-eyed, dope-dealing prostitute from the country named Honey Barbara.
Ray Lawrence went on to direct Lantana and Jindabyne, but he presented his debut, Bliss, to astounded audience walkouts at Cannes. Though some critics couldn’t find their way through the film’s subtle maze of satire, political commentary, far-out fiction and deathly dark humour, others got it for what it is: an quiet masterpiece on the hollowness of the Australian dream and, more simply, how to keep living and be good.
Bliss manages to leap beyond its immediate critique of the advertising industry, environmental alienation and the insanity of life under capitalism, bringing Peter Carey’s mega-lush novel to surreal and moving life with Barry Otto in his second-ever film role. The question Bliss presents is this: is it possible to be awake and sensitive to the insanity of world, and be happy? Is it possible to know your values and actually live by them?
That Ray Lawrence, one of our best film directors, has spent most of his life making Libra tampon advertisements is pretty tragic and says a lot about what Australia values. No joke. Bliss has that huge sense of despair and responsibility and empathy, and a shockingly original visual sensibility that reminds you that this is indeed what films can do: they can culturally innovate, they can affect your political outlook and hit your emotional core hard, and rather than being counterposed, they those things are complementary artistic goals. They’re one and the same.
In some ways, the film’s more cartoon-like, exaggerated scenes, which vary in tone and style, seem experimental and dated. But possibly the most astounding aspect of the film is its absence of cynicism and pessimism, which soil so much of twenty-first century life and culture. And almost thirty years on, the closing scene is still stand-still beautiful: a pure realisation of the film’s title.
Watch it: Purchase the Directors’ Cut DVD from Umbrella Entertainment. Seriously, just buy it, think of all the other crap you’ll spend $10 on this week.
Bonus round: Two classic Australian shorts you need to see
Cherith, Shirley Barret (1988)
A deadset classic about a bewildered, terrified person trying to pretend everything is fine with varying levels of failure, while really dying inside, and trapped in a super-religious, super-suburban family in the 1980s. Laconic and satisfyingly whack.
Bangers, Andrew Upton (1999)
Another one about a quietly terrified person trying and failing to pretend everything is fine, this time by now-renowned theatre director Andrew Upton, whose dynamic, tightly-wound theatrical sensibility makes itself clear with a sharp, crystal-clear character study. Features Cate Blanchett as a house-bound woman slowly unravelling in the kind of claustrophobic red-brick Sydney flat you’ve seen a million times or worse, rented in desperation in your early twenties.
Watch them: It’s tough. If you live in Canberra, go hang out at the National Film and Sound Archive and watch them there. If you don’t, lobby your VOD service to stock more quality local films.
Bonus bonus round: Other notable options
Dogs in Space is a Pure Shit-style shambles about sex and punk rock and partying, starring Michael Hutchence. Bad Boy Bubby is a blackly funny, dramatically-heightened oddball drama about a young man raised in squalor and sexual slavery. His mum imprisons him until early adulthood and tells him the outside world’s air is deathly contaminated. Then he escapes and joins a rock band. Watch only if you’re feeling emotionally fortified. And if you haven’t seen Phillip Noyce’s super-tight thriller, Dead Calm, then what are you doing with your life?