In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Dominic Barlow looks at the documentary study of the late Australian musician, Rowland S. Howard in Autoluminescent.
Date Watched: 25th March, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 39
Looking at the DVD case of Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard, many will see Nick Cave’s talking head on the back cover and remember 20,000 Days on Earth, a more widely seen1 art-biopic released last year. The two films, made by entirely different creative teams, share a reverence for the creative process that ran through the Melbourne punk scene, and a way of turning documentary material into new forms of thematic exploration. To let that better-seen film overshadow Ghost Pictures’ film, however, would do it the same tragic disservice that affected the titular subject in life, before his untimely death in 2009. In scoping out the “otherness” he embodied to fans, co-directors Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein turn his darkness into a shiver-enducing hymn that honours the way he and his close friends penetrated it. The end result is not just the superior work, but a moving tribute to art as a therapeutic release, and surely one of the best Australian films of the last ten years.
Familiarity with any of the subjects – Howard, his music, his bands, the scenes he was ensconced in – is hardly necessary. If you’re reading this site, you will be sensitive to the concerns and attitudes touched upon by the interviews, as they collude heavily with those found through any and all immersion in the arts. It starts, as many of those disciplines do, in the throes of adolescence and petty heartbreaks, which both tossed Howard about and made him critical of the pettiness involved. After that comes whirlwind success and failure in London, having hopped on a plane with Cave and fellow Birthday Party band members to live bohemian in a cramped share-house and tear the underground scene apart with their screaming punk anthems. Creative differences see him part from the band soon after an explosion in Berlin, meandering between side projects in the US and UK before running up against the brick wall of ailing health and making a turbulent touchdown back home. In this timespan, we meet a soul who touches many but runs up against the encroaching limits of expression and collaboration. It batters him through a lifestyle that he cannot maintain, and that we hope he can break out of for the edifying effect it has on him, his friends and fans.
We know those friends and fans exist thanks to litany of talking-head interviews with them. Many appear both in front of Milburn and Lowenstein’s camera and in softly-presented photos and videos from the years in which they were storming Fitzroy, and they reminisce over the tune of the Howard-scripted songs that bind both. Curiously, they are soon joined by the man himself in archived interviews on TV and film reels, which are credited to individuals rather than broadcast companies in an ongoing testament to Howard’s heartfelt cult of personality. The way the directors blend the 4:3 images into the widescreen photography of modern-day grabs, you’d swear he was just another figure outside of Howard, commenting on his life as best as he could observe. Curiouser still is his appearance in a modern-day interview. He’s healthy and sentient there, by all appearances, but that version of Howard is rarely seen compared to the younger self immortalised in his own work. On the one hand, it emphasises how uncertain he was that he had ever properly come of age, and on the other it testifies the immortal impact his expression had on people.2
What also helps is how the interviewees speak with remarkable contentedness, and a total lack of embarrassment in regards to how they were as young adults. Not that there is much they might want to hide. Most affecting are the women in his life, who are usually tied up in his early pinings yet speak with great fondness for the way he respected them regardless. That admiration is felt among creative peers, too, as demonstrated by a lengthy spiel by Wim Wenders on his interaction with Howard’s demigod presence in Berlin, which led him to film a Crime and the City Solution concert in black-and-white for Wings of Desire. The most poignant of the lot are his close family members, who talk freely about tussling with his drug addiction in the second half of the film. This occurs well after we meet the man and get a sense of his idealised, on-stage self, which is a relaxing break from the traditions of biographical works that are so eager to lay out ancestry before giving us a reason to be invested. We are thrown into Howard’s being when it is taking shape, just as Cave describes meeting him, and the film is incredibly distinctive as a result.
Still, these interviews and archival materials alone would merely make for a solid ABC doco (a propos, the ABC is listed as an associate production body in the credits). It’s what Milburn and Lowenstein do in between the major segments that makes it transcendent. Acting as smooth bookends are a set of poetic interludes, with a hushed narration slinking through passages from Howard’s cryptic novel Etceteracide. Visuals are littered with chiaroscuro and intriguing visual signifiers. These images and words universalise what he held dearest and signal the different stages of their exploration through spellbinding imagery – a cat slinks through like Howard himself into the recording studio, long focus pulls occur on carnival lights and guitar strings, black-and-white films fixate on darkly made-up ingenues like the fixations of his knowingly frustrated youth. They aren’t tacky recreations of his mental state, but signifiers for the way he and others conceived of himself, which was in a perpetual and fascinating state of negotiation. The directors’ surreal atttempt to wrangle this works harmoniously with the interviews and concert footage in painting a new version of that timeline. It invites all viewers in through a creative language as non-esoteric as the work Howard strove to accomplish, and it is incredibly accomplished itself.
All the more pleasing to unfamiliar viewers is that there is something of a typically happy ending to the story, albeit bittersweet given Howard’s passing. The real satisfaction hidden within is wandering cautiously through the maze of Howard’s exploration of the world and himself, which invites neither pity nor pretension. Howard, as he comes alive in this production, is a persistently downtrodden figure in a way he brings about entirely by himself. As we discern from the nest of social encounters, memories and musical self-fragmentation, his only solution to every obstacle was to retreat into what he loved, and the love that it cultivated. Looking at his satisfied face in the final shot, you get the sense that he had done enough to stand outside of the darkness, however fleetingly. By placing us so emotionally behind the piercing light, Autoluminescent does this eternal outsider justice.