|Contents of this Issue||Continuum Contents||Reading Room||CRCC||OzFilm||MU|
The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
vol. 5 no 2 (1990)
Film: Matters of StyleEdited by Adrian Martin
A frequently recurring motif in many of her films is music, which is shown to be a highly significant cultural vehicle for the fantasies behind everyday life. In Campion's earlier films such as Peel (1983) and Passionless Moments (1984) music, although present, plays an important though understated role in the narrative structure. However, in her later, more complex works, music occupies a far more significant and obvious place in the foreground of the story, thus becoming more intricately woven into the central themes.
Peel explores the dynamics of family relationships and the way patterns of power can be learnt and repeated. It also says a great deal about our need for daydreams and fantasies. The film opens with a juxtaposed, almost cacophonous mixture of sounds and visual images - the noise of the radio being switched from station to station, the flash of cars on the roadway, the white lines on the road and the thump of what we discover is an orange being thrown against the front windscreen of the car, like a ball. In contrast to this nerve-jangling montage, the graphics after the large and forceful title - PEEL - present us with a diagram connecting the words 'sister', 'brother' and 'son' in a triangle and we are informed, again through the written text, that the film explores 'an exercise in discipline' and that this is a 'real story' of 'a real family'. In other words, it would seem at first sight that we are being asked to regard this film as a scientific study, a documentary exploring anthropological patterns of kinship, perhaps. However, the contrast between the opening montage of subjective images with the more formal graphics already alerts us to the tension in the car and that all may not be as it seems.
The framing echoes the tension: the child's body in the earlier car shots is crammed into the frame so that it forms a triangular shape; the characters are usually positioned off-centre, emphasising the emotional distance between the family members. When more than one character appears in the frame at the same time the screen is divided by the use of a door or window frame or the placing of one character in the extreme foreground and the other in the background. Thus the film is not an 'exercise in discipline' but a study of the way the individual members of the family react to having their own needs and desires thwarted by the others. The battle over the peel is basically a battle to have one's own needs recognised by the others and a need to gain power and control in a situation where one feels powerless.
The film turns a neat circle as the father and son are reconciled when finally the son retrieves the orange peel. The two return united to the car only to find that the sister has now decided to drop some orange peel as her expression of defiance. The child has learnt his lesson well it seems and tells his aunt to "pick it up!" She, however, refuses to be bullied even though she knows that the further delay will mean that she will miss the whole of Countdown. The film ends with a number of extreme close-ups of the faces of all three family members and as each face is superimposed on the other we are led inevitably to consider the similar implacability of the three. The non-diegetic electronic music played at that point underscores the connection and the insight - that all three are making a play for power, the two adults probably more childishly than the child! The film leaves us with a distanced shot as we see the car and its inhabitants as a passing car would view them - the father rocking the rear bumper bar and the boy jumping on the roof of the car; the final sound is a similar thump of frustration to that heard at the very beginning.
Passionless Moments, although possibly one of Campion's most whimsical pieces, has all the hallmarks of her later films. It is concerned with the insignificant, unsolicited moments of daydreaming when one is caught almost unawares. The film consists of ten self-contained vignettes of the sudden thoughts of ten very different individuals. Classical Hollywood cinema concerns itself with the heightened moments of passion of individuals with whom we identify in some way because of their bravery, humour, innocence, heroic qualities and so on. In traditional feature films and documentaries we are usually introduced to the characters' backgrounds, motives and problems. However, in Passionless Moments the characters serve only to illustrate some quirky aspect of human nature and relationships.
The film is narrated by a detached BBC documentary-styled male voice-over - the voice of authority - which tells the viewers about each one minute segment of the film as though it were a highly significant study of life. The technique actually serves a similar function to the diagram and subheading in Peel. We laugh because we recognise the way we too can be totally self-absorbed in a sudden idea or thought which for that moment assumes great significance for us. There is, for example, the child Lindsay Albridge who, on his way home from an errand, imagines his parcel of beans to be really a bomb that will explode in twenty seconds if he doesn't get it home on time. Although each of the characters is referred to by name, all we learn of him is this one banal moment (out of undoubtedly many) in his life and which for him at that moment makes him stop his current activity, assuming great significance for that short span of time. Although we are shown ten very different individuals it is the similarity of the day-dreaming that we are asked to consider - as we were with the extreme close-ups of the faces at the end of Peel.
The humour, the way the moments are exaggerated, are underscored by the visual treatment. A fish-eye lens is used to distort distances as in "Ibrahim makes sense of it"; Ibrahim contemplates the strangeness of his perception - the fact that from one side of his body he can see the word 'Sex' and from the other side he can see the word 'Thing', the words being on the ends of a single-line aphorism on a painting behind him. As he ponders, the fan in the room rotates on its axis in the extreme foreground, occupying almost the whole space of the frame. The movement of the fan repeats the rotating movement that Ibrahim used at the beginning of the sequence as he practised his yoga. Now he is a still shadowy figure in the background of the frame. It is as though the animate Ibrahim has become immobile while the inanimate object, the fan, whirs with apparent life and force - a humorous visual connection for the viewer between 'sex' and 'thing'.
In several places in Passionless Moments Campion makes use of cut-away shots of fantasy as in the sudden vision of a room full of scattered denim jeans in "Clear Up Sleepy Jeans", in Julie Fry's vision of a board room where executives ponder the dimensions of paper to fit on the back of tissue boxes, Angela's recollection of Rufus (her uncle's pet pig) and Ed Tarbrey's memories of his school football team. In all these segments the fantasy sequence heightens the humour and our sense of the ridiculous. Animation, which will be used again to great effect in Campion's later film Two Friends, is employed here in "There Are No Woodpeckers in Australia". The non-diegetic electronic music that was used to emphasise the sense of wonder and insight in Peel in this film serves to highlight the gentle satire: Gavin Metcalf who is attempting 'to put his life in order' by listening to the sound of his own ear-drum sees the floating particles of lint and remembers that his mother said these were fairies.
Both A Girl's Own Story and Two Friends (1986) are concerned with the problems and growing sexual awareness of adolescent girls but their treatments are different. Like Passionless Moments, A Girl's Own Story is in black and white. The lack of colour suits the rather bleak outlook of the later film, its nostalgic setting (the 1960s Beatles era in Australia) and the rather surreal visual imagery of the film. The film is narrated retrospectively through Pam, an adolescent. They are her memories that we see for most of the film with all the attendant distortions and exaggerations that can affect one's view of events over time. But the film is not just the story of Pam's adolescence. It examines the whole experience of growing up female in the 1980s as well as twenty years ago; it is about the ambiguous and paradoxical messages about female sexuality that abound in our popular culture and, not least, in popular music, the way females are encouraged to see themselves as objects of romantic and sexual desire and yet at the same time taught to be fearful of sexual expression. Girls' and most women's magazines are based on the concept of romance while sex is still considered something furtive, hidden and potentially dangerous or risque in many girls' social and educational experiences. The title of the film itself is a play on this dichotomy - an allusion to the titles of girls' romantic magazines and comics and by ironic contrast to boys' magazines like "Boys Own Adventure Stories".
The opening frames prepare the viewer for the double messages ahead. We see two school girls silently gazing at the picture of an erect penis in what looks like a text book while another traces the outline with her finger. Underneath the picture the text warns that such a sight could be frightening to young girls. The girls seem to be caught in the middle of two worlds - the world of harmless teenage fantasies and crushes and the world of adulthood where without explanation sex has become something ugly, fearful, secretive and ultimately punitive.
The main source of sexual expression and experimentation for these girls is role-play. In the school grounds Pam and her two friends entertain their peers with Beatles songs - and for their friends at that moment the singers are the Beatles; the other girls scream with adulation and dance to the music. We are shown here, as in many of Campion's films, the vital role music plays in western culture as a vehicle for fantasy and daydream. For the teenage girls in this film it is a way they can safely fantasise about romance and sexual experience. It is when the real world of sexual relations conflicts with these daydreams that the problems occur.
In the privacy of her bedroom Pam role-plays a romantic situation with Stella, one pretending to be a pop idol with the use of a face mask. As long as the masks are there, as long as the role-play stays romantic, there is no problem. But when the games cross the fine line between romantic fiction and sexuality the girls become afraid. Thus Pam fearfully rejects Stella's overt references to sex: "I want to kiss his naked body!" croons Stella, demanding George Harrison's photograph.
The long camera pan over the rows of Barbie dolls in Pam's bedroom serves several functions. Like the school uniform, the dolls remind us that, in spite of the role-playing at sophisticated adult behaviour, the girls are still very much children. Secondly, the dolls highlight yet again the paradoxical way female sexuality is portrayed in western society. These dolls are designed for young girls yet through their shape, appearance and accessories, have connotations of what is regarded as desirable adult female perfection and behaviour - attractive, sexy and passive. In this way, these rather grotesque caricatures are, of course, a further visual comment on the way female sexuality has been constructed and reproduced as a commodity in western society.
The narrative of the film unfolds through self-contained segments, the main plot being the experiences of Pam. The characterisation in the film takes on the quality of caricature especially in Pam's family. The emotional gulf between Pam's parents is stressed by the absurdist form of dialogue where the parents speak via their daughter, not directly to each other - a situation that we are told has been the norm for two years! The incestuous relationship between Gloria and her brother is portrayed more naturalistically and is perhaps more devastating for the viewer because of that. The casual and resigned way that Gloria agrees to have sex with her brother in exchange for affection and fun ("playing cats") is quite depressing. When she asks her brother what role she should play when they "have sex" she is told she should just "lie there", a remark that sadly conjures up the earlier image of the catatonic Barbie dolls in Pam's bedroom. Later, in the Home for unmarried girls she complains to her brother that "We didn't even kiss!" He replies with a sad lack of insight - or a belated conversion to conventional mores - that "It wouldn't be right."
Two main motifs of heaters and kittens are used throughout the film to symbolise the girls' desire for affection and warmth. It seems that in their 'cold' familial and educational environments the adolescents crave love and emotional warmth, but there is no role-model for good personal relationships in the film. Pam's parents are either communicating through a third party, physically fighting or expressing their affection through lust. Gloria seeks affection from her brother, kitten-like, and receives only sex. In the institutional settings of school, the Church and the religious Home for unmarried mothers, sexual desire is disapproved of and suppressed; love, it is implied, like the electric heaters, is only allowed to be 'on' at a certain time and place whether or not one is 'feeling the cold' beforehand.
Thus, for the teenage girls, sex becomes associated with violence and humiliation. In a childhood fantasy or possibly a memory segment, we see Pam being enticed into a stranger's car with the offer of a kitten. The use of rapid editing and overt, sexual symbolism of the slithering skipping-rope, the gloved hand on the child's knee, the superimposed adolescent face of Pam over the earlier child's face, all make this scene one of extreme menace. The scene is echoed again in the sexual embrace between Pam's parents and we see Pam totally overpowered with fear. As she crawls up the stairs away from the vision of raw sexuality, we see her hand movements repeated, through the editing, in her father's fondling of her mother's thighs.
The only escape for the girls is back into fantasy. The film ends with a dream-like sequence and, as at the beginning of the film, it is in music. The girls sing plaintively of their need and desire for 'melting away' for they 'feel the cold'. The repeated visual images of the heaters on the stark cold lino floor reinforce the theme; for these adolescents the affection and love they crave is realised only in their fantasies.
Two Friends was the first film Campion made for television. The screenplay was written by Helen Garner. Possibly because of these two factors the film employs far more 'social realism'. However, Campion's distinctive direction is apparent and many of the techniques, visual and aural patterns and symbolism noted in her earlier work are still present.
The film explores the dynamics of family relationships and particularly the struggle of young girls to establish their own identity. It traces the friendship and eventual growing apart of the two girls from puberty through the later stages of adolescence. Both Louise and Kelly come from separated families, both have a great deal of affection for their parents, both are very bright students with a particular talent for music.
The competitiveness, gossip and 'bitchiness' of girls' friendships that were examined in A Girl's Own Story, as in the locker room sequence, are again explored - though the later film is a more positive view of relationships. The friendship examined in this film is not just the one between the two adolescents but also those between Louise and her mother, Janet, Kelly and Janet, Janet and her friend and the relationships of the two girls with their biological fathers. The importance of this last relationship, which is one that is also examined in A Girl's Own Story and Sweetie, is shown as something particularly important to teenage girls. Louise asks her father if he thinks they could "be taken for girlfriend and boyfriend" and Kelly writes of "really, really, really" wanting to live with "Daddy". Her disastrous attempt to seek affection from her father's friend - even though the relationship was initiated by the man - can probably be seen in this light. As the narrative progresses, the parallels, similarities and contrasts between these different 'couples' emerge.
Unlike A Girl's Own Story there are positive role models of interpersonal family relationships in the film. While not idealised, Janet is portrayed as a sensitive, mature woman who is able to accept the challenging situations and conflicts that living with adolescents inevitably brings in its wake. Her love and tolerance make Kelly's self-destructive behaviour all the harder for us to accept and also prevents the film from becoming a simple moral statement of homeless, disadvantaged children being a fault or result of 'the system' or of lack of care and love. The male characters are not all negatively portrayed either; Jim, Janet's warm and good-humoured ex-husband, contrasts positively with Malcolm's overbearing rigidity and Kelly's father's weakness and self-interest. In this way we do see in Two Friends what family relationships are possible and desirable.
The delightful exuberance of adolescence and particularly the exclusivity of close friendships during that time with all their attendant funny moments are sensitively captured and portrayed in the film. Evocative scenes include the throwing of school bags down on the floor and the raiding of the fridge when the girls come in from school; the self-centred and often thoughtless behaviour towards others outside that immediate friendship, such as the changing of the seat on the train so that Louise and Kelly separate themselves from Janet; the importance of the correct vocabulary and length of uniform; and, more seriously, the vulnerability of the developing young adult within the demanding and exasperating adolescent.
As in all of Campion's films, the narrative does not unfold in conventional ways. The story of the friendship in Two Friends is told in reverse, beginning with a tragedy - the funeral of one of Louise and Kelly's school friends. The film shows us the sad reality of what Kelly has become and portrays for us, by implication, what she has lost - the hope, the fantasies and the daydreams of late childhood. We are told clearly through the dialogue that all the kids are at risk and we are invited to question our own sense of guilt and responsibility for these children. As in the earlier films, there is no simple didactic solution offered to the problems and questions raised. The perpetrators of the injustices seem to be as trapped in their social situations as the victims. Thus, the brother in Peel, Pam's father in A Girl's Own Story and Malcolm in Two Friends all seem to be deserving of our understanding even if we cannot condone their actions. The fault seems to lie in the socially acquired power relationships and structures that help to shape the way they - and by implication we - respond towards each other. Lack of insight and personal weaknesses further help to cement these roles.
The film is divided into five self-contained sections, each separation marked by music which although non-diegetic at that moment still refers to an important aspect in the narrative. The film begins with piano music and the segment ends with Louise playing her piano loudly to emotionally drown out the hurt of Kelly's letter which she has just received. The second segment is introduced by the sound of the French horn. During the course of the film we learn that this is Louise's favourite instrument and that the lessons and the necessary "extras" like the instrument case "cost heaps". However, despite the expense, Louise's parents agree the music is important. In contrast, Kelly's step-father rejects Kelly's needs and ambitions because they are alien to his personal ideology. The January section, one month earlier, is introduced by piano music and ends with madrigal choir music - an allusion to the school City Girls where Kelly could have had an opportunity to pursue her own creativity. The choice of the madrigal ("Philomena's Lost Love") is used ironically to underscore the theme of the film since the story behind the lyrics is one of lost love and metamorphosis. We see both of these events occur in the film; in the first segment Louise speaks painfully of the fact that, in her eyes, Kelly is "hardly a person anymore," and we see from the beginning to the end of the film how she has physically and emotionally altered.
The final division is introduced by piano music again and concludes with the madrigal, the final shot being Kelly at about fourteen and possibly the happiest that we see her. Thus, the whole film is linked musically like a symphony where the themes are introduced and re-presented in different timbres and sequences. The musical score forces the viewer to make connections across narratives and time.
Music as a concept in the film also symbolises a cultured world to which eventually Kelly is denied access. Although initially she is not permitted to have music lessons because of their expense, Kelly's misfortunes occur partly because of her step-father's intransigence; his rigid socialist ideologies, although understandable, lead him to reject Kelly's desire to go to a school that has a totally different value structure from his own. A similar though lighter conflict of values was seen in Peel. Furthermore, Kelly's biological parents seem to be far too insecure and preoccupied with their own emotional problems to fully appreciate or help their elder daughter. Thirdly, Kelly's own personality and need to constantly test the people she loves lead to her downfall. We can see how it is relatively easy to love and accommodate a child who is harmlessly rebellious like Louise, but how much more difficult it is to accept a child like Kelly. This theme is to be picked up again in Campion's next film, Sweetie. Throughout both films the question is raised of who exactly is responsible for young people like Kelly and Sweetie.
Sweetie echoes and develops many of the earlier themes and preoccupations discussed above. It's a film that explores the social veneer that most of us employ to mask our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy in dealing with other people. It's also a film that deliberately sets out to challenge and question "the consensus of reality that most of us work with." 2 The result is both funny and tragic. The characters portray in varying degrees the bizarre, the illogical and the neurotic patterns of behaviour that people use to cope with their experience of the world. Sometimes deeply held superstitions and fears lurk just below the surface of everyday appearances of normality and govern our behaviour. Campion's earlier films were studies of the discrepancies and ironic gaps between our daydreams and fantasies and our experiences of reality. In Sweetie these two worlds meet and clash.
Just as the themes of the film are a move away from traditional reinforcing and reassuring portrayals of people's coping strategies, so the narration is a move away from what we have come to expect in feature films. The character of Sweetie, who in many ways is a more emotionally disturbed and idiosyncratic Kelly, does not appear until about a third of the way into the film. Instead, we meet her family who have all affected and been affected by her in some way.
Kay, Sweetie's older sister, has spent most of her life trying to escape from the burden of living with Sweetie - or Dawn as she insists on calling her. We see Kay's rituals, neuroses and obsessions continued from childhood - she still has a fear of walking on cracks in the pavement; she still collects china horses and ballerinas; she has a pathological fear of trees and roots - a fear so acute that when her fiance, Lou, plants a tree at their new house, she removes it secretly and hides it from him. On a rational level she tells Lou that the roots can reach out and crack the foundations of their house. On a subconscious level the tree perhaps symbolises her familial roots that can grow silently and disturb the outwardly firm foundations of normalcy, thus crumbling the facade that she has built around herself. Superstition and mysticism control Kay's life - a consulted mystic predicts and thereby instigates Kay's meeting with Lou, her boyfriend. The relationship is affirmed and sealed through the toss of a coin.
Campion lulls us into a false acceptance of the family's idiosyncratic behaviour and then 'hits' us with Sweetie; she doesn't attempt any coping strategies to conceal her emotions - Sweetie just is! She uses temper tantrums, overt manipulation and grotesque anti-social behaviour to get what she wants. With her constant demands for attention she becomes her mother's and Kay's rival for her father's affection; we see an intimate though humorous scene where Sweetie baths Gordon and we hear him proclaim later to her "You know you're dad's best girl." The long take of Kay's facial expression confirms her jealousy.
Trees are an important recurring motif in the film. They seem to symbolise emotional and physical freedom. Sweetie escapes from the pressures of conventional expectation and conformity by staying in her tree house (far away from the roots!), but it is this that eventually kills her when her tree-house collapses. In the cemetery near Sweetie's grave the trees are unnaturally clipped and controlled, the symbolic antithesis of joy and life.
Music is again a central motif in the film, as in all of Campion's films closely linked to personal dreams and fantasies. When Mother finds her freedom on the outback station, she can be heard singing. Significantly, Kay says that she has never heard her mother sing before, while Lou cannot tolerate the music. The station-hands dance together in an absurdist surreal tableau, a wonderful mocking of the conventional Australian outback/mateship myth. They form the romantic backdrop to Flo and Gordon's uniting again in a loving dance. The film, like A Girl's Own Story, ends with music and fantasy. Gordon alone in the garden after Sweetie's death has a nostalgic vision of her as a child. Dressed in conventional little girl attire of party dress and pigtails, a vision of Shirley Temple sweetness, she sings plaintively of love. The song "Love Me With All of Your Heart" serves as an ironic reminder of what Sweetie could not obtain - a total acceptance of who and what she was.
Campion unfolds the moving and frequently tragic story of An Angel At My Table (1990) through significant, often self-contained fragments. Like snatches of memory, we learn of Janet Frame's childhood and her painful growth into young womanhood. The film focuses on the often lonely child growing up in a boisterous, warm family. Deprived of many material possessions, the family is a rich source of imagination, songs and stories. In Frame's autobiography her mother is a central dominating influence but significantly it is the relationship between father and daughter that Campion stresses in the film as in her earlier works. Father looms large in the memories with his often harsh and violent discipline yet caring softer side.
The spare dialogue and powerfully evocative visual images endow this film with its unsettling powerful quality through scenes of awe and wonder - like the opening sequence of the young child Janet alone on a long, straight, white road, fearful of the wind in the telegraph wires and what may lie ahead; through scenes of humour, as when the huddled children sharing a huge bed have to turn in unison; through moments of pathos and humiliation, as in the scenes depicting the mental institution where the painfully sensitive, introverted Janet has been wrongly diagnosed and committed as a schizophrenic.
In this film the music motif appears in the family songs of Janet's childhood. There is also the poignant moment when the teenage Janet listens with delight and a tinge of envy to the solo rendition of "To Music", a romantic ballad sung by a class mate Shirley Grave. The latter had already been singled out in class by the teacher as being "always lost in the poetic world of imagination". To the tongue-tied, painfully self-conscious Janet such an attribute is shown, by the long take and the narrative voice, to be particularly romantic and satisfying.
Campion's nontraditional, distancing narrative devices - the non-chronological telling of events, the use of black screens and written text to separate sections, the framing and unusual camera angles to emphasise emotional tension and distance, the off-camera space, the animation and pixillation, cut-away fantasy segments, quirky and sometimes absurdist humour and the recurring motifs such as music - all encourage the audience to reassess their role as readers of film. This is especially true when the acting in the film is as realistic and low-key as it is in Two Friends or An Angel At My Table. One is led to consider the social issues raised in the films and at the same time think about the role of film itself and other media in western culture. Campion's techniques heighten our awareness of the way we, as viewers, allow cinema to fuel our daydreams and fantasies.
1. Freda Freiberg, "The Bizarre in the Banal: Notes on the films of Jane Campion" in A. Blonski, B. Creed and F. Freiberg, Don't Shoot Darling!: Women's Independent Film Making in Australia (Melbourne: Greenhouse, 1987), pp.328-33.
2. Campion interview by Philippa Hawker, Cinema Papers n.73 (1989), p.30.
|Contents of this Issue||Continuum Contents||Reading Room||CRCC||OzFilm||MU|