July 2016

Arts & Letters

Mirrors to the landscape

By Luke Davies
Cultural conflicts in Ivan Sen’s ‘Goldstone’ and the ABC’s ‘Cleverman’

In the famous crop-duster scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant’s hapless character Roger Thornhill runs for pitiful cover on an isolated stretch of road as a biplane repeatedly sprays him with machine-gun fire. Early in the sequence, Hitchcock’s camera is tilted slightly higher than Thornhill. Mid sequence, it’s about level with the horizon. But once the plane starts diving, we’re largely in low, wide angles, very close to the ground, as Thornhill’s clumsy ballet of evasion and panic plays out. The scene is almost comical in its preposterousness, but a delicious tension comes from this framing: we experience Thornhill’s exposure and vulnerability at an angle of maximum peril.

In Goldstone (in national release), director Ivan Sen also revels in turning vast open spaces into arenas of menace, where it’s impossible to hide. Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen, reprising his character from Sen’s 2013 Mystery Road) is not welcome in the outback Queensland region where his investigations have brought him, and where malign forces are out to get him. In the broad desert daylight, Jay, like Thornhill, is an easy target. And when a light plane flies overhead, the point is drummed home.

Sen, who is also his own cinematographer (and editor, and composer, and writer), is visually at home in the wide outback spaces. There’s a powerful bluntness, a kind of parched minimalism, in his framing of sky, horizon and desert. His characters often feel ethereal, adrift against this background. From forlorn teenagers Lena and Vaughn wandering through outback New South Wales in Beneath Clouds (2002), Sen’s first feature, to Jay in Goldstone, it seems as if Sen’s characters are mirrors to the landscape.

In this sense, Goldstone is very much a standard Western. An outsider arrives in a backwater, his motives unclear to us. The locals close ranks against him: some may feel their consciences pricked; others threaten his very life. Jay, a federal officer, is on a missing persons case that feeds into a larger human trafficking investigation. But the tracks leading to a solution are obscured. He also trails behind him a shadowy and inglorious past: some moment of shame, an unspoken need for redemption. His taciturnity is not so much a weapon as a defensive wall.

Near the outpost of Goldstone, the Furnace Creek Mine is slated for major expansion. Billions of dollars are at stake, subject to the final sign-off from the local land council. Mine manager Johnny (David Wenham) is a bureaucrat with an amorality that’s both steely and slippery. In executing his duties, bribery works wonders. The mayor, Maureen (Jacki Weaver), is in cahoots with Johnny in more ways than one. But tribal elder Jimmy (David Gulpilil) may just be a dissenter. The young local sergeant, Josh (Alex Russell), hasn’t lived in Goldstone long enough to fully become a part of the corrupt ecosystem, though he’s clearly getting there. He, along with other locals, would like to see the back of Jay and his poker-faced imperturbability. The corruption in Goldstone is portrayed as a kind of heat-addled lassitude. Presumably, if you stay here long enough, you’ll get slow-baked into the moral dissoluteness.

Basically, then, we’re in a Jim Thompson novel, only it’s Queensland, not Texas. The best Thompson adaptation, Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon (Clean Slate, 1981), is a take on the American writer’s 1964 novel Pop. 1280. Tavernier’s film is set in French colonial Senegal in the 1930s and is more sun-soaked French noir than Thompsonesque pulp. Nevertheless, the sense of corruption, decay and racial segregation remains in place. The film is about a weirdly tilted moral universe, but it breathes a kind of authenticity, and Tavernier keeps his characters rooted in their peculiarities.

A problem in Goldstone is that we find ourselves with some very stock characters acting out very broad tropes. Sen is a director who knows his voice, a cinematographer with an exquisite eye, an editor with a deft hand and a composer who subtly enhances the visual narrative. But he is at his least nuanced as a screenwriter, and one wonders how, during the entire filmmaking process, there was no hand raised to argue against lines of dialogue that feel merely clichéd: “I do know one thing for sure. This land ain’t no place for a young girl.” “If you do wanna go looking around, just be careful where you step. There’s plenty of snakes about.”

A deeper problem may be that the specifics of what’s at stake for baddies like Maureen and Johnny are never completely clear. Sidney Lumet, in his films about institutionalised corruption, such as Prince of the City or Serpico, made sure the viewer was given access to all the mechanics of the conspiracy, no matter how labyrinthine they were. That’s why those films seem so dense, urgent and compelling. We are invested because we’re prevented from feeling gaps in the world. In Goldstone, some of this detail-layering seems generic and non-specific. What is in the documents, fed into a shredder by one character, that is specifically pertinent to the plot – since the actual corruption and bribery, insofar as it’s shown to us in action, is underhand and off the books? Why does another character, presumably in line for some of those looming billions, flee with a mere briefcase full of cash, in what’s meant to feel like a climax but doesn’t quite? The scenes feel more like gestural thriller motifs than earned moments.

On the other hand, Sen confidently weaves his big themes into the personal story at the heart of the drama without them seeming “thematic”. These include the irony of Jay being what Sen has called “an indigenous upholder of white law, a law originally established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of indigenous lands”; the intersection of land rights with the mineral–industrial complex; the relationship between the federal government and private enterprise; the ever-present trauma of the Stolen Generations. These are givens for Sen, and they operate more as a kind of broken atmosphere that infuses all proceedings than as signposted polemics. That allows the twin stories – of Josh trying to shake free from an apathetic conscience before it’s too late, of Jay trying to connect to an inner life and to solve a mystery before he winds up one himself – to play out more simply, their intimacy unimpeded.

Cleverman (first season screening on ABC), a bold, rollicking dystopian fable that blends political and social satire with a Dreamtime-infused supernatural mythos, landed last month to broad acclaim. The series (created by Ryan Griffen, and directed by Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell) is notable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s a mainstream, high-budget, high-concept drama boasting an 80% indigenous cast. As old paradigms shift, albeit ever so slowly, that in itself is a startling – and welcome – fact.

In the dense, complex world that Griffen has created, an ancient race called the Hairypeople (unrelated to humans by DNA) has recently “arrived” in the world – well, in Sydney, at least. They live for hundreds of years and are far stronger than us. Outsiders to conventional society, the “Hairies” have congregated in, and now are confined to, The Zone, an area where the city’s poor and disenfranchised also live. The government, in the form of the ominously named Containment Authority, has both stoked and responded to popular fears by walling off The Zone from the rest of the city. The Hairies are known as “shavers”, “rugs” and, in media parlance, “subhumans”, as in the headline, ‘SUBHUMAN MINOR KILLED’. Fresh from Game of Thrones, Iain Glen plays a TV network owner who, possibly in collusion with the Containment Authority, appears to be delving into clandestine scientific research on the Hairies.

Jimmy (  Jack Charles), an Aboriginal “Cleverman” (a kind of clan elder with supernatural powers), is passing his nulla-nulla to the next generation. Jimmy’s nephew, Waruu (Rob Collins), an ambitious yet flawed political activist who fights on behalf of those in The Zone, is banking on becoming the next Cleverman. Jimmy’s choice, however, is Waruu’s half-brother, Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard), with whom Waruu has long had an antagonistic relationship. Koen manages a bar but also runs a lucrative side business smuggling Hairies out of The Zone for cash, and then collecting reward money from the Containment Authority for revealing their whereabouts. Koen has largely turned his back on his Aboriginal heritage. His transformation from Prince Hal to King Cleverman – can he wear the mantle of responsibility, and what would that look like? – shapes up to be the show’s central storyline.

Cleverman’s starting premise, about the collective anxiety surrounding the arrival of radical strangers in our midst, is not dissimilar to that of the HBO series True Blood (the vampires are here) or that of Neill Blomkamp’s marvellous District 9 (the aliens are here). But the show feels intrinsically Australian. The parallels with Australia’s ongoing asylum-seeker controversy, and with our toxically racist past and present, are overt. As in Goldstone, some characters feel too broadly drawn – a writing issue again. There are villains here you wish were more nuanced, but they come across as such stock arch-baddies (Marcus Graham as the head of the Containment Authority, Josh McConville as the unhinged chief warden of a secret prison) you’d swear you can see them twirling their moustaches. Nonetheless, Cleverman’s security-state dystopia, presented as a fleshed-out world, largely works on its own terms. And it never feels like a machine gun spraying metaphors.

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). 

Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell in Goldstone.

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