Kind of a Revolution, and Kind of Not:
Digital Low-Budget Cinema in Australia Today
19 October 2006: a cover headline in the television section of The Age invites us to learn “how low-cost equipment is rewriting the book for filmmakers”. Inside, the article by Benjamin Preiss outlines several case studies – innovative sound recording techniques devised for Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006), cheap special-effects for young, no-budget filmmakers just out of secondary school, the high-definition cameras used by wildlife cinematographer Peter Nearhos – all tied to the digital technology that, in the final line of the piece, is greeted by independent filmmaker Gef Senz as “kind of a revolution” (Preiss 2006: 8-9).
Low-budget, digital cinema has emerged as the new hope for the Australian film industry in recent years. Whether it is a matter of production (cheaper shooting techniques enabling a much greater amount of footage than was possible with celluloid), post-production (AVID editing and special-effects processes) or distribution (the DVD format), the so-called ‘digital revolution’ has touched films from semi-improvised dramas like Kriv Stenders’ Blacktown (2005) and Scott Ryan’s The Magician (2005) to Geoffrey Wright’s exuberant Macbeth (2006), Clayton Jacobson’s affable mockumentary Kenny (2006) and James Clayden’s avant-garde The Desealer (2006). Abroad, even in an extravagant Hollywood mainstream production like Miami Vice (2006), Michael Mann – with the help of Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe – explores a new ‘digital aesthetic’ of the image with gusto. And in the context of the most progressive global art cinema, Abbas Kiarostami has almost entirely reoriented himself from celluloid to digital, whether in his features or his art gallery projects, such as the ‘video letters’ that figure in the exhibition Erice-Kiarostami: Correspondences touring the world throughout 2006 and 2007. (For documentation of this ongoing work, see the articles by Alain Bergala and Miguel Marías in Rouge, no. 9 (August 2006) at www.rouge.com.au).
However, low-budget cinema, primed by the new digital technologies, is an area in which filmmakers need to tread carefully. Despite the admirable adoption of artistic slogans such as ‘creativity comes from constraint’, and the confident assertion that even normally effects-heavy genres (like science fiction or fantasy) can be handled in ingeniously cheap ways (as evidenced by American examples such as Primer ), there is already an abundance of clichés bearing down upon this field of production.
Many filmmakers are looking to an alarmingly narrow range of possible models when it comes to low-budget cinema. This is partly under the prevalent influence of American trade how-to magazines (and their dutiful local counterparts like Inside Film and Filmink) which assertively promote only two modes of low-budget filmmaking: either the Danish Dogme style, or the familiar ‘American indie’ (independent) style. In both cases, there is a sometimes overt element of marketing involved: not only because there are success stories (like the American InDigEnt company) or showbiz personalities (like Lars von Trier) involved, but, more acutely, because such movements depend directly on industrial developments in digital technology for their existence, and often become (wittingly or not) showcases for this or that latest ‘tool’ (of the kind described by the Age journalist).
The result, all around the world at present, is depressingly predictable: ‘heroic’ little films that are essentially ‘talkfests’. Actors wildly improvise for hours, while a hand-held camera zips around them like a dog let off its leash – and then the footage is unfussily jump-cut in the editing room (snippets taken from dozens of different and equally rambling takes), with little consideration for the work’s overall shape or form. And if there is one thing that Australian production (at all levels) still badly needs at present, it is a strong sense of cinematic form.
In a perceptive article on the Dogme movies and their international offshoots, British critics Richard Combs and Raymond Durgnat pointed out that films including Festen/ The Celebration (1998) “have not been slow in assembling their own stock ingredients. Family get-togethers or family legacies, skeletons in the closet and idiots under the bed … It’s an ancient naïveté that there is some form of pure or purified cinema that will give us special access to reality” (2000: 28-32). The American film Pieces of April (2003) is an especially awful example of this story-form.
Almost inevitably, psychodrama has become a prime form of contemporary low-budget cinema. Psychodrama is all about the masks of polite society – and the volatile traumas (like a family reunion) that allow those masks to be torn off. At its crudest level, psychodrama leaves its ad-libbing actors flailing, as they hurl at each other prompt lines like: “Who are you, really?”, “Why are you here, really?” and “What are you after, really?” It is not entirely surprising, after all, that the psychodrama of Festen has, recently, made its way to the stage; it lends itself easily to theatre.
Of course, there are some fine psychodramatic films, like A Cold Summer (2003) by Paul Middleditch. But the craze for this kind of histrionics is frequently based on a monstrous misunderstanding of cinema history. Filmmakers such as John Cassavetes in America and Maurice Pialat in France are hailed as the fathers of the ‘let it happen in the moment’ school of improvisation – but they, in fact, wrote, planned, staged, worked and reworked their material down to the last detail. Even in the special instances where improvisation was employed (such as the poolside scene in Love Streams  or the father’s return home in À nos amours ), the editing procedure that followed was exacting and rigorous. In his debut feature Shadows (1959), Cassavetes began with improvisation but withdrew the first version of the film in order to rewrite, expand and shape its dramatic structure.
Even when low-budget films tend towards more traditional forms such as the thriller genre, clichés and ‘stock ingredients’ abound. Audiences can quickly become tired of seeing yet another ‘group of people stuck in a house’ scenario (or just one person stuck on a boat, as is the case in Richard Franklin’s Visitors ), or another lazy road movie, or another static ‘two-hander’ set in a single room which pits cop against criminal, stalker against victim, betrayer against betrayed. Especially wearisome, because derived from a thoroughly exhausted theatrical tradition, is the ‘table turning’ variation of the two-hander drama: we wait for the inevitable moments when the oppressed figure suddenly turns oppressor, with further turns and re-turns assuredly in store before the end.
More recently, other cliché-forms have emerged in low-budget cinema: the social panorama story in which the main character delivers pizzas or washes car windows (thus allowing us to glimpse a schematic cross-section of classes); the layer cake conceit (in which, for example, a movie about making a movie is juxtaposed with the movie being made); or the multiple strand concept (‘on one fatal day, five characters on separate trajectories will finally meet …’ ). These ingredients already seemed stale in Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal (2002) and Mike Figgis’ execrable Time Code (2000).
What tends to be overlooked in the too-hasty adoption of such facile formulae is that most of what we call art cinema, world wide, was and is made on low budgets. Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Pedro Almodóvar never felt constrained to shoot a film within a single set (except when such ‘theatricality’ was the very subject, as in Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant ), or throw aesthetics aside for the sake of an actorly gabfest. Nor did they feel the need to embrace a loose, jerky, ‘you are there’ mode of filming in order to convey the emotion or meaning of a scene.
And there are other models, beyond the rich world of art cinema: decades of B movies that show how much can be conveyed with slender material resources, like the horror films produced by Val Lewton in the ‘40s or the action melodramas of Samuel Fuller in the ‘50s and ‘60s; or the much-less mapped field of the telemovie, which has sheltered such little-known talents as America’s Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls Back ).
There are some unfortunately blinkered assumptions about such B cinema that circulate in even the most cinematically literate contexts. In her recent book Death 24x a Second, for example, Laura Mulvey – who is certainly a fond fan of the best B movies by Robert Aldrich, Joseph H. Lewis or Budd Boetticher – suggests that such films, for lack of time and money, eschew “the more complex chain of events, the shifts in atmosphere or setting, the development of character, in more sophisticated movies” (Mulvey 2006: 77). Mulvey is not being snobbish here, and she is absolutely right to insist upon, for instance, a different kind of characterisation that exists in B cinema, working with stereotype and ‘figure’ rather than the classically dramatic ‘three-dimensional’ psychology familiar from more conventional (and usually more expensive) forms. But should B movies really aim not to strive for, say, ‘shifts in atmosphere and setting’? Too many ‘confinement’ dramas suffer from a fundamentally uncinematic striving to maintain the continuity (temporal, spatial and mood continuity) of a single place or setting.
Australian cinema offers a recent test case that focuses a number of the low-budget strands and tendencies so far mentioned: Jeremy Sims’ Last Train to Freo (2006). Adapted from the 2002 play The Return by Reg Cribb, and set (apart from a few fleeting, exterior ‘inserts’) solely within a single train carriage containing a handful of passengers, the film drew from reviewers not indulgence but weariness, and a conclusion that such ‘stagey’ projects should never even be attempted on screen. But we must question this casual damnation: would we rather that Roman Polanski had never adapted Death and the Maiden (1994), that Roberto Rossellini had never filmed Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice as part of his two-part L’Amore (1948), or – to take a much more radical and modernist example – that Manoel de Oliveira had never embarked on his many, dazzling ‘shut-in’ dramas that make extensive use of on-stage performances? The aesthetic problem, or challenge, is greater than simply one of an inevitable ‘staginess’.
The question of theatrical adaptation is one that haunts Australian cinema – just as it haunts many cinemas of small countries. It frequently seems a natural idea to adapt for the screen a known theatrical property that is small, tight and dynamic, with an ensemble of actors perhaps already fully engaged in the material – especially as theatre tends to be rather more topical, more immediately responsive to social and community issues, than our film or even our television drama. (Certainly, this was Richard Franklin’s intuition in turning to adaptations of Hotel Sorrento  and Beautiful Lies .) Yet many such adaptations ultimately fail the ‘cinema test’. Why?
Last Train to Freo is, content-wise, a more intriguing film than most local reviewers realised. Although it starts out as a table-turner, it soon makes its way into a curious dramaturgical mode that mixes Harold Pinter with John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985) – which had earlier been a reference point in Tony Wellington’s similarly confined piece Raw Nerve (1990). There is a curious, perhaps unwittingly deconstructive logic at work in the piece, exacerbated in the stage-to-screen transition: although the chief working-class, ex-con ‘hoon’ of the drama (played by Steve Le Marquand) keeps daring the meek middle-class folk who are his travelling companions to classify and judge “people like me”, the film ends up making him a veritable, Christ-like icon or emblem of, precisely, people like him!
Nonetheless, the film is, stylistically, a drag. What, beyond the simple fact of the setting, gives the impression of staginess? The effect is to be found in the mainly static usage of cinematic style (which is not to be confused with either a ‘static camera’ or a single set). Mulvey’s former collaborator, Peter Wollen, commented in relation to his intellectually ambitious Friendship’s Death (1987) – which he described as “the BFI’s [British Film Institute’s] B movie”, shot in two weeks on a set comprising two rooms – that, in a ‘confinement’ drama (Field 1987: 326):
[I]f you have that kind of constancy throughout the film, you have to have some principle of variation as well. One way of doing that is through changes in the ‘look’ of the character, the costume and make-up, etc. Another way is to vary the lighting, so that it goes through a series of changes, according to which room you are in, whether the window is open or whether there are shutters or blinds, according to the time of day, and then you get into paraffin lamps, to candles, to darkness. (1987: 325)
Shooting in HD digital video, Sims does his best to provide a certain amount of such variation in Last Train to Freo. He holds back close-ups until a suitably dramatic and intensified point late in the piece, for instance; and the best segment of the film involves a sudden ‘black out’ of electrical power that switches the mood, stills the train, and bathes the set in a hellish red light. But he fails where Wollen, too, trips up: in the need to create multiple spaces within a single space – the type of art of which Orson Welles was a master – and to key the smallest modulations of filmic language (a cut, a camera movement, a sound cue) to telling ‘shifts in atmosphere’ or mood. Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), scripted by Pinter, is a remarkable example of how to ‘open out’ a confined drama (in this case, a constantly ‘reorganised’ house) from within its surprisingly rich and variable confines.
Ultimately, in the case of Australia as with any comparatively small nation that struggles to make and distribute work in the shadow of Hollywood, the challenge is to maximise the cinematic thrill of a piece, no matter its budget or genre, its location or source. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), after all, employs every cliché of the new-fangled, dirt-cheap digital movie – ad-libbing actors, jump cuts, action constantly on the move – but transforms them in its rigorous match of style to content.
One only has to look at the opening scene of Masculin Féminin (1966), set in an ordinary Parisian bar, to gauge how Godard explored every aspect of filmic form – revealing the space little by little, placing off-screen sounds into the live recording of dialogue, establishing a pattern of intimate exchanges broken by incidents of public violence. A more elaborate example can be examined in a typically low-budget case from recent Taiwanese cinema – although few commentators feel compelled to bang on about its budgetary constraints or its ‘heroic’ status as an independent production – namely, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s extraordinary Three Times (2005).
This film tells three love stories set in different historical periods, 1911, 1966 and 2005 – although, cleverly, it places the 1966 story first. Each part features the same actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen. What links these stories, beyond the comparison of different ‘styles of love’ – innocent and asexual, thwarted and repressed, modern and alienated? The film rigorously explores what happens to the ‘universal’ love relationship (this ‘eternal’ quality cued by the subtly magical re-apparition of the same bodies of the performers across time) under certain material, social conditions: particularly, the conditions of how connected the lovers are (in terms of the degree or extent of physical contact; as well as by, for instance, forms of communication ranging from letter to SMS texting); and how mobile they are in their everyday lives (according to obligation or opportunity, and in strict relation to gender: in the first two stories the women don’t move while the men travel, whether ‘freely’ or under constraint; while in the third story the woman is more incessantly mobile and ‘fugitive’ than any other character, including her ‘stay-at-home’ lesbian lover).
It is fascinating to approach Three Times from the angle of what it might have seemed to be, at the outset, as a project on paper. Would it have seemed so cinematic on the page? What would there have been to read, by way of characters and storylines? Here, in fact, we find a way to measure the prevailing aesthetic poverty of Australian cinema. In our context, far too much emphasis is placed on what can be ‘narrated’ within a script – leading to an obviousness about character psychology and narrative clarity that owes more to moribund conventions in theatre or literature than to the ‘crest line’ of world cinema represented by the likes of Hou, Jia Zhang-ke or Tsai Ming-liang (who – in another, fatal turn of the cultural screw – have been systematically eliminated from the release slates of Australian arthouse distributors and exhibitors over the past twenty years, and thus from the palette of ordinary arthouse filmgoers, among whom number most of our significant filmmakers).
Hou’s process comes from, and enjoys the fruits of, another cultural and artistic context entirely. In terms of scriptwriting, he has worked very closely, for over two decades, with his regular collaborator T’ien-wen Chu (she is also a well-known and revered fiction writer). Let us consider the first story in Three Times, “The Time of Love”. How was it ‘composed’, prefigured as cinema on the page? Firstly, there is a rigorous withdrawal of any obvious signs of psychological or emotional states from the events as they are conceived, depicted and presented: it is up to the actors, and to Hou in guiding them, to subtly suggest the presence of deep emotion in the subtlest, unremarked-upon smiles, movements and gestures (such as the ubiquitous smoking of cigarettes, which has rarely been so expressive in cinema as here). As usual in Hou, the expression of emotion is itself placed under a massive ‘constraint’ that is both an aesthetic parti pris and a reflection of historical, cultural and national conditions.
Secondly, the action in “The Time of Love” is constructed in terms of repetitions - or, to use a more supple term, music-style refrains. Repeated scenes that are elaborated at length (such as those around the pool table) allow us to sense, each time they reappear, the slight or dramatic changes in ‘temperature’ or mood. The more obviously refrain-like moments, which are shorter and generally dialogue-less – such as the varied shots of characters entering or leaving the harbour by boat, or the road signs economically announcing travel through cities – allow Hou to speed up his tale in a stunningly elliptical, almost anti-realistic way, thus creating a counter-rhythm to the famous long-take minimalist ‘description’ (of everyday life, gestures, etc) with which he is usually (and sometimes erroneously) associated and to which he is unfussily assimilated by critics.
What is the cinematic ‘pay-off’ of these narrative and stylistic structures? All of Hou’s work is based on an exquisite, sometimes buried or mysterious, element of suspense – as rigorously as any Hitchcock or Lang movie. The fact that “The Time of Love” is premised on the non-contact of its characters – separated by time and space, by shyness and tact – prepares us for the simple moment of a happy ending: the future lovers at last entwine fingers as they wait for a bus, and hold hands. On the page, it might have registered as nothing, or nothing much; on screen, within the unfolding of Hou’s cinematic strategies, it is a true and momentous event. Likewise, the fact that Hou sticks to a similar way of presenting his repetitions and refrains – always filming the pool games from the same ‘zone’ defined (although never simply statically, as is sometimes incorrectly assumed by his commentators) by a spot at one end of the room (and the pool rooms, in different regions, all have roughly the same ‘architecture’) – makes his breaks with this pattern remarkably lyrical and dramatic, as when Shu Qi discovers a letter in the box out the front of the pool hall.
The example of Three Times, and more generally the work of Hou-hsiao hsien or many of his contemporaries, shows that one can create exciting cinema from the simplest ingredients, arranged rigorously. Perhaps, like Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch or Raúl Ruiz, Hou will someday find a reason to take advantage of digital technologies – but only if the device carries an expressive, systematic purpose. It is to these wider contexts of world cinema and its history – not just the fashionable indie or arthouse hits let in by our miserly and hopelessly out-of-touch distribution system – that Australian filmmakers should look for their low-budget inspiration. The cinematic ‘revolution’, if one exists, is the gentle, ongoing revolution to be found in that diverse, global history, not the faddish revolution defined by ephemeral fashionability and new-fangled technology.
Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard’s collaborator during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, recently described Godard’s creative process as “working out what film he could make with this much money, this many friends, and a few interiors” (2005). The Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez put it even better: “Give me two photos, music, and a moviola, and I’ll give you a movie” (2004).
Alvarez, S (2004) DVD Extra, He Who Hits First Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alavrez, Extreme Low Frequency Release, USA
Combs, R. and Durgnat, R. (2000) “Rules of the Game” in Film Comment (September-October) pp. 28-32
Field, S. (1987) “Two Weeks on Another Planet: Interview with Peter Wollen”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 646 (November)
Gorin, J.P (2005) DVD Extra, Masculin Féminin, Criterion Release, USA
Mulvey, L. (2006) Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London: Reaktion
Preiss, B. (2006) “It’s a wrap”, The Age Green Guide, 19 October, pp. 8-9