August 2014

Arts & Letters

Troubled souls

By Luke Davies
David Gulpilil brings Rolf de Heer’s ‘Charlie’s Country’ alive, but Nick Cave can’t save Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s ‘20,000 Days on Earth’

“You’re going to report to me weekly,” says a parole officer (Bojana Novakovic) to Charlie (David Gulpilil). He’s about to be released from a stint in a Darwin prison in Rolf de Heer’s new film, Charlie’s Country (in national release). “You’re going to show up on time. And another condition is that you’ll be banned from buying alcohol.”

“I’m giving up drinking anyway,” beams Charlie.

“That’s good,” says the parole officer. “And you won’t be allowed to associate with known drinkers.”

“Everyone in this country are known drinkers!” laughs Charlie.

“That means ‘known to the police’,” says the parole officer.

“The police are known drinkers,” says Charlie. “Tell them not to associate with me!”

The humour in the scene – which comes late in the story – is fragile, tinged with the gentle sorrow that pervades the film. “My friend David Gulpilil is a troubled soul,” writes de Heer in a director’s statement. “[He] can’t handle alcohol. He can’t handle cigarettes, or sugary drinks, or most anything addictive. All these substances, foreign to his culture, both soothe him and enrage him … the question is knowing which of these two it is going to be at any one time.”

Gulpilil previously starred in de Heer’s The Tracker (2002). He was set to co-direct, and star in, the director’s Ten Canoes (2006), but was at the centre of a tribal dispute in his home community of Ramingining, in the Northern Territory, where shooting was to take place; according to de Heer, Gulpilil’s fear of returning to the community caused him to drop out of filming. (Though as it turned out, he voiced the film’s narration.) Over subsequent years de Heer heard stories, some good but mostly bad. In 2011, he learnt that Gulpilil was in jail for assaulting his wife, and travelled to the Northern Territory to visit him and try to help. Directly or otherwise, the result is Charlie’s Country.

This makes a trilogy of Aboriginal-themed feature films for de Heer, who rose to prominence with his darkly funny, demanding, claustrophobic Bad Boy Bubby (1993). The Tracker, in which Gary Sweet plays a bigoted 1920s South Australian police officer to Gulpilil’s tracker, has a denser centre of gravity than Charlie’s Country, and a more singular narrative. Ten Canoes, a fable looming from the waters of Aboriginal prehistory, is the poem of the three films. Charlie’s Country has a wider scope, more explicit narrative ambitions and three settings: the isolated town, the bush and Darwin, which in a sense make up its three-act structure.

It’s a gentle film, and slow to unfold; Gulpilil’s performance is riveting. For all that the tale is about cultural dislocation, Gulpilil the actor is a technical master in this most Western of art forms – you feel he’s both completely immersed in the role, and completely aware of the camera and the shot’s framing at each moment. (Gulpilil won a best actor award for the role at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.)

All three films are sometimes haunting, sometimes matter-of-fact, but always simple in their elements. In Charlie’s Country, Charlie goes hunting with his friend Black Pete (Peter Djigirr). They kill a wild buffalo and strap it to the front of the car. The police stop them. “You got a licence for ’em?” asks police officer Luke (Luke Ford), about their rifles.

“Licence?” says Charlie. “We’re not gonna drive ’em – just shoot ’em!”

Charlie and Black Pete are fined for not having hunting licences, and the police confiscate the buffalo and the rifles. Later, when Charlie fashions a spear and walks through town with it, the cop confiscates that too. (Charlie imitates the policeman to Black Pete: “This spear got no licence!”)

Frustrated, Charlie “borrows” a police admin car. “Where are we going?” asks Black Pete, who comes along for the ride.

“Live the old way,” says Charlie.

Soon enough the car stops dead, in the middle of nowhere. “This is not your mother country,” says Black Pete, looking around.

“No,” laughs Charlie. “This is where we run out of fuel!”

Eventually, he does go bush. “There’s lots of food in the bush,” he tells Black Pete. “It’s like a supermarket out there.”

“Out there”, the film starts to shimmer and cohere. In the scenes where Charlie is completely alone we see most clearly Gulpilil’s transcendent power as an actor. In the fantastically silly Australia (2008), director Baz Luhrmann made Gulpilil’s character King George less an active participant in the film’s narrative than an arresting visual in its production design. De Heer, somewhat more interested in interiors than Luhrmann, will have none of that, and Charlie is richly written, richly drawn, richly human.

He’s certainly no noble savage. Charlie is out on his own in the bush when the rains come, and he gets sick as a dog. He’s found in the nick of time by Black Pete. A medivac plane flies him to a Darwin hospital from which he soon discharges himself. Then he goes on a destructive bender. It’s in the urban environments that Charlie is most lost. “They’re still trying to change my culture,” he rails – the age-old lament. “To your bastard culture.” But it’s not as if he’s entirely comfortable in the bush, either.

“Why did you come here?” he shouts in his own language at the bland exterior of the police station. “From far away. Stealing people’s stuff.” Elsewhere, he reports with no small amount of nostalgia: “I danced for the Queen of England. When they opened that building.” The two statements are at odds; de Heer prods away at the love–hate relationship between oppressor and oppressed. Luke Ford’s cop is a reflective surface onto which this relationship plays. “You can’t sit on the grass all day,” he tells Charlie, “and call it the old ways.”

There’s a gentle tonal echo of Werner Herzog’s luminous masterpiece Stroszek (1977), in which actor Bruno S’s Stroszek, having had enough of grim Berlin, sets off for the US. Both Bruno S and Gulpilil could be said to be “outsider” artists. Both struggled with substance abuse. In both, an inner fragility seems to come from the actor and embed itself in the character as a compelling cinematic presence. In both stories, the dreams of promised lands, of rebirths, turn on themselves, albeit to entirely different conclusions. Stroszek ends in melancholy nihilism; in Charlie’s Country, Charlie at least locates a horizon beyond the prison.

Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld check their phones

Visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have made their first feature film, 20,000 Days on Earth, a kind of pseudo-documentary combining “drama and reality” that charts a constructed, fictitious 24 hours – his 20,000th day alive, is the conceit – in the life of singer Nick Cave. The beautifully shot film follows Cave around his home town of Brighton, England, as he writes and plays music, muses on his life and art and creative process, talks to “his” therapist (actual psychoanalyst Darian Leader), visits his archives, and hangs out with friends (Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, Warren Ellis, Blixa Bargeld).

“There is a strand of the culture,” Pollard has said, of the impetus behind making the film, “that says almost anyone can do it, be made into a successful star. But I want us to celebrate those remarkable practitioners, the Cohens and the Dylans and the Caves, who have carved their own persona and path, who work magic with words and music.”

Cave has indeed carved such a path. For diehard fans, the film will be welcome. But it has problems, and they are not trivial. 20,000 Days is somewhat formless – or rather, it cherry-picks its way through its set-ups – and asks us from the outset to take it as given that Cave is a genius worthy of its attentions. But for the unconverted – if it’s a film that seeks a wider audience – it needs to show that worth, not just present it as a fact.

It never does. We know that many of the scenes are “constructed”, but nonetheless their intrinsic awkwardness and self-seriousness drain them of dynamism and lend the film a fine edge of pomposity. (One could easily imagine a parody documentary just like this, in the style of The Office.)

In one sequence, Cave goes through childhood photos that have arrived at the archives. For all the visual crispness and beautiful framing of the rest of the film, here the filmmakers choose not to show the photos properly – we see fragments or oblique angles, or they pan across the images. As a fan, I simply wanted to see these fascinating historical records plain-style, full-screen. This felt like a basic cinematic cluelessness in action.

“There’s nothing to fear / But a bad idea,” sings Cave at one point. Dangerous line, in a film that may be just that. If Cave controlled it, then 20,000 Days could be viewed as a vanity project gone wrong. Presuming that’s not the case, the directors, bold though their attempts at going off-piste may be, have done Cave (the artist and the performer) a disservice. The film is not without its deep fascinations, but it is a missed opportunity.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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