Paul Cox, the Satyricon, John Waters and Bastard

By April 4, 2009Blog

A few reflections that made into my “intellectual journal” at film school this week, after a lecture by Paul Cox. The lecture was hugely inspiring – he was passing on the baton of avant-garde and anti-commercial film-making (and art-making) to a new generation – or rather passing on a molotov cocktail… served in a martini glass. He seemed to possess an odd mix of revolutionary and bourgeois taste, one minute talking about getting arrested for incitement to riot, and another complaining about loud modern music being played in the supermarket. But the main thrust of Paul Cox’s message was to reject commercialism in art at every turn, to live a simpler life in order to keep the money out of it as much as possible. To question everything, attack capitalism, revolutionise plastic consumer culture, and never compromise. A message to hold close to the heart.

I have ordered a translation of Petronius’s Satyricon from the Parkville campus library. What a bunch of freaks! Can’t wait to read it. This sounds like a John Waters movie, 2000 years ago in Rome! Have also borrowed Fellini’s film version.

From an online translation of the first chapter of the Satyricon (translation: Alfred R. Allinson, 1930):

“This is the reason, in my opinion, why young men grow up such blockheads in the schools, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life, nothing but stuff about pirates lurking on the seashore with fetters in their hands, tyrants issuing edicts to compel sons to cut off their own fathers’ heads, oracles in times of pestilence commanding three virgins or more to be sacrificed to stay the plague,– honey-sweet, well-rounded sentences, words and facts alike as it were, besprinkled with poppy and sesame.

Under such a training it is no more possible to acquire good taste than it is not to stink, if you live in a kitchen. Give me leave to tell you that you rhetoricians are chiefly to blame for the ruin of Oratory, for with your silly, idle phrases, meant only to tickle the ears of an audience, you have enervated and deboshed the very substance of true eloquence.”

Other than debates about what one should be taught at art school (if anything at all), this passage reminds me of two things I have read and seen in the last week.

Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters

Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters

Number one – “Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters” – the chapter where he discusses his stint as a community college teacher in a prison for the criminally insane. O, pope of trash! John Waters teaching the inmates a syllabus including his own films, as part of a curriculum designed to rehabilitate psychopathic criminals seems perversely, wonderfully, appropriate! In fact, Waters’ psychiatrist tells him that he is glad he became a filmmaker, because if he hadn’t, perhaps he would have wound up in a similar institution. This is another case of making a film about what you would much rather do, or see. And sometimes it’s probably better that way… I’m sure John Waters would much rather that Chris Isaak actually turned into a crazed sex addict when hit on the head by David Hasselhoff ‘s turd, which dropped from the sky after Hasselhoff defecated on him accidentally whilst flying above his Baltimore suburb in a plane (as happens in his film “A Dirty Shame”). The authorities, if not the general public, are no doubt much happier such an event occurring only on celluloid. But what could society at large learn from this film about rejecting nice conservative traditions of religion-inspired sexual-repression in favour of embracing the loose, dirty and uninhibited (and gay) aspects of sex. And then I wonder how many fewer sex criminals would be in gaol if they hadn’t repressed desire to the point of true perversion? How many times, at film school, when faced with institutional conservatism, do I ask “What would John Waters do?” Wouldn’t it be nice if his films were included in our curriculum, rather than having to be sent to a gaol for psychopaths to be taught them. 

Bastardy: Documentary by Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Bastardy: Documentary by Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Number two – the documentary film “Bastardy”, directed by Amiel Courtin-Wilson, which is surely one of the best films I’ve seen in ages, and I have been at film school watching classics for the last 7 weeks! I watched this gem at a festival for indigenous film outside under the stars at Treasury Gardens.

Halfway through I was wincing with the fact that I was the only film student from the VCA in attendance (as far as I could tell, perhaps there were some) and one of a number of residents from the Fitzroy / Collingwood area (amongst the 1000 or so strong audience) which did not total the number who should be watching this film – given its huge social, historical and political relevance to my neighbourhood.
From Hilary Harper’s review on ABC Melbourne:

“Like the best documentaries, Bastardy gives up its secrets slowly. After wordlessly following a tiny, elderly Aboriginal man around his dossing places, the camera shows confronting scenes of his heroin habit (“this is what a fella lives for”, he matter-of-factly admits) and tells stories of burglaries and gaol time. The scene where he revisits his favourite robbery target is hilarious: “Can we get all of us in the shot?” he asks, gathering around the house’s name-plate. But via 70s stage and film footage we learn that this man is the celebrated actor Jack Charles, star of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, who performed with many of Australia’s most revered directors in between time in the nick.”

There is nothing “pretty” about this film – no familiar “heroes” as we are taught to hold our faith in (the war heroes, action movie heroes Paul Cox freely disdains) in our popular or mainstream culture. But there is so much beauty in this film. And the subject of the film, Jack Charles, with all his faults, is a true hero, who you are left admiring greatly – despite the fact that he’s homeless, a junkie, a robber, and a faggot. This man, who pushed away the one person who showed him real love (his boyfriend in the 60s and 70s) and spent half his life in gaol, on countless repeated charges of burglary, is revealed to be a true and fearless hero of indigenous theatre. His raw talent is obvious from the excerpts shown from his films, and from the fact that he was still called upon for roles despite his destitution. And by the end of the film, he has overcome 30 years of heroin addiction – a feat few would have thought possible.

Anyway, this week at film school, and these extra-curricular influences, have inspired me to make beautiful and fearless films, make films from the heart.


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