In 2015, a handful of decades-old films finally had their Australian premieres at film festivals around the country. In this piece we look at three of them, all from different festivals.
A Poem is a Naked Person (Initial Release in 1974, Australian Premiere at Melbourne International Film Festival 2015)
Jaymes Durante: For nearly 40 years, Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person languished in dust-ridden personal storage. Animosity between joint copyright holders Blank and country rocker Leon Russell, the subject of the film, meant that the expensive project was stalled by personal and creative deadlock. During production, Blank was drunk and belligerent, and Russell was quiet and withheld at best. After the film was completed, Russell was dissatisfied, taking issue with Blank’s eccentric methods, which were to film around the subject, taking digressive pathways and following his inquisitive eye for odd details rather than shooting the straight story. Instead of a Leon Russell rock-doc, the film turned out a trippy, colloquial vision of life in the bayou states, with Russell’s performances as its backbone. When Blank died in 2013, Janus Films released a box set of his best films under their Criterion Collection imprint. Harrod Blank, Les’s son, used this revived interest to reinvigorate the long-forgotten project, and finally persuaded Russell to allow its restoration and release.
When I reviewed the film earlier this year upon its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I called it “like Nashville on peyote”. That might have been an understatement. Less narrative-driven than most other films, A Poem is a Naked Person collects and shapes arcane imagery through its expansive, digression-prone experimental form to create an anti-postcard portrait of off-road America. There’s wild, sweaty concert footage flecked throughout, but you’ll also see a python devouring a chick, a man eating a pint glass, an enthusiastic crowd watching a building demolition as if it were a football match, and a hippie painting a sprawling mural in an empty pool. Blank’s style, a mutation of the popular Direct Cinema of his time, lands somewhere between the Maysles and Werner Herzog, only instead of making the landscape and its people feel absurd or alien, Blank ramparts them with pungent sense of pride in their odd quaintness — it’s Americana. There’s beauty in the grotesque madness of A Poem is a Naked Person, a film that feels less like a passable peculiarity and more like an essential rediscovered gem from the zenith of American documentary filmmaking.
The Howling III: The Marsupials (Initial Release in 1987, Australian Premiere at Adelaide Film Festival 2015)
Felix Hubble: I had the rare opportunity to catch a screening of the National Film and Sound Archive’s restored print of Ozsploitation “classic” The Howling III: The Marsupials earlier this year, a welcome surprise as B-cinema rarely sees any sort of theatrical fanfare after its initial run. The film, an almost in name only sequel to Joe Dante’s The Howling, is a magnificent example of a bygone era of Australian filmmaking, emblematic of a multitude of the minor idiosyncracies found in a large portion of older Aussie trash cinema, and a damn fun experience in its own right. The film haphazardly traverses a sprawling narrative following a scientist seeking to uncover the secrets behind a species of humanoid marsupials, as he, and a film worker (leading to some hilarious self-reflexivity) become romantically involved with some of the creatures. The bizarre tale manages to span 20-odd years (somehow) featuring little jabs at Australian film culture and The Howling series itself and is essential viewing, if only for its absurdity.
It’s great to see a body like the NFSA front the money for a restoration of a piece of historical Australian cinema like this, especially as its the sort of film that is so often overlooked when discussing the history of cinema – a poignant fact given that, according to the NFSA spokesperson at its Adelaide Film Festival screening, the event marked its Australian theatrical debut. While a large portion of genre cinema is often relegated to the trash pile shortly after release, and much of these films probably deserve such a fate, The Howling III perfectly captures a bizarre slant on ’80s Australiana, and it’s a triumph that an Australian government body has recognised this fact.
Joe Bullet (Initial Release in 1973, Australian Premiere at Sydney Film Festival 2015)
Dominic Barlow: The most surprising thing about Joe Bullet, a South African film that only emerged this year from the censorship of the Apartheid regime of 1973, is that it engenders the most controversy just by wanting to have a good time. The story of Joe, a smooth operator hired to protect an elite soccer team, is one that unfolds without a single white authority figure in sight, which is such a basic aim that carries a lot of weight in historical context. This makes it a heartening fact that the fellowship of these good-guy characters is a total foregone conclusion, even when the plot they’re in is scrappy to the point of endearment.
Even at 85 minutes, it’s a goofy affair full of pointless but enjoyable detours, from washing his gleaming red sports car to tangling with a karate-chopping assassin, all backed by a funky soundtrack that lodges it firmly in place as an exploitation cinema pleasure. It might not move like a bullet – hell, there’s not even a single bullet fired in the whole thing – but watching Joe get the job done with friends at his side is a good time, and an experience worth the restoration.