Aussie film fracas..

No doubt everyone’s heard of the fracas over the premature end–or at least the postponement–of the latest Great White Hope for Aussie filmmaking, Eucalyptus. From what you read in the press, the reasons for the implosion are fairly complex, but centred around the script.
I haven’t seen the script so I can’t comment on its quality or lack thereof, but I have read the book it’s based on, and my first thought was–why? Why have they chosen this book, above all other Australian novels, to deck out as the flagship of some kind of hoped-for Aussie film revival? I know for a fact that at least one good project, based on Christopher Koch’s extraordinary novel, ‘Highways to a War’ (centred around Tasmanian press photographer Mike Langford, who goes to cover the Vietnam War and loses his neutrality) is languishing for lack of backing money, despite the fact that the project has been taken under the wing of the great director Bruce Beresford, whom Rusty Crowe nominated as one of his new choices to direct ‘Eucalyptus’. The poor young producer’s been dashing around the world trying to drum up support, to no avail. (Incidentally, Christopher Koch is the author who wrote ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’, the filmed version of which made several people’s careers. He is also, to my mind, the greatest Australian living novelist–his other novels, the brilliant ‘The Doubleman’–which has been optioned but never filmed–and ‘Out of Ireland’–ditto–have, in my opinion, everything a story should have, fantastic narrative, great characters, wonderful settings, and are both very well-written and very entertaining, lyrical and intelligent and exciting. He’s been very successful both here and overseas. )
Why Eucalyptus should be chosen for such a massive shot of backing money continues to bamboozle me. And I think looking at it may give part of the reasons why the Aussie film industry is floundering so.

For those who don’t know the book, Eucalyptus, by Murray Bail, is a kind of literary exercise–a literary fairy tale set in the Australian countryside–you get the impression of the Riverina or something similar, actually, not at all like the green rainforesty country around Bellingen, on the north coast of NSW, where they were going to set the film. It’s about a farmer who decides to give his young daughter in marriage to the first man who can name correctly every eucalyptus tree on the farm. But in good fairytale style, the girl is already in love with someone else…
Now, the whole thing has a certain charm, and it’s nicely written, not obscure though obsessively worked and polished. But it is also very contrived–at times I wondered if it was perhaps a kind of in-joke. A few years ago, I was at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and heard an extraordinary panel featuring the rather opinionated Australian writer David Forster, who writes huge, mystical novels about the bush, (and also who has written a rather nice non-fiction book, with his wife, called ‘Slow Food’). He claimed that most Australian writing about the bush was crap because people didn’t know enough about the actual taxonomy and ecology of it. He quoted a book by David Malouf in which the latter just talked vaguely about ‘gum trees.’ Why, quoth Mr Forster, he didn’t even know the taxonomy of the eucalypts he was using as a setting! He’s a trained biologist, and a noted stirrer; but this particular criticism–that we should judge a writer by how many names of eucalypts he knows and duly notes in his book–struck me–and a great many of the audience–as being very odd indeed. Now I wonder if Murray Bail was also in that audience!
Now, I’m the first to say that fairytales are amongst the most wonderful stories you can find. But Eucalyptus is the kind of slight, bloodless literary ‘fairytale’ that seems to leach away all the passion and beauty and cruelty and strange ambiguities of the form, into a puddle of well-bred style. I simply cannot fathom why something like that is taken up, while The Doubleman–a haunting, powerful tale of music, love, drugs, death and the Otherworld, all set around the folk-rock explosion of the sixties– languishes in ‘optioned but never made’. Or perhaps it’s because the name ‘eucalyptus’ immediately says–aha, Australia! Then the form–the literary fairytale–fits into the Robert Mc Kee school of story-making so popular in Hollywood. Perhaps they thought they could use the bare basics of it to construct something both distinctively ‘Aussie’ and yet with universal ‘patterns’. Something like the Ned Kelly story perhaps–but surely the underwhelming performance of the latest exercise to capture the soul of the man, Gregor Jordan’s ‘Ned Kelly’, based loosely on poor Robert Drewe’s novella, ‘Our Sunshine’, should have warned them that gesturing in the direction of ‘Aussieness’ is not enough. In ‘Ned Kelly’, the film-makers tried to have a bob every which way–the clarion call of the name to Aussie audiences; the fact it’s recognised overseas–but then the romanticisation of the story, and the total travesty of an ending, turning Ned’s last stand into something out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, turned Australian audiences off–and didn’t win any overseas.
I fancy something similar was about to happen to Eucalyptus. The signs weren’t good; turning the innocent, naive teenage farmer’s daughter into a 30-year old divorcee(come on–what woman in that position would meekly acquiesce to her father’s bizarre demand!); shifting the action to a green place like Bellingen because focus-group stuff showed, supposedly, that American audiences didn’t want to see bleak, dry Aussie bush–and the tussles over the script only seemed to accentuate that. The whole thing, in my opinion, has been misconceived from the start. They have begun from the wrong story–and doing violence even to that, will turn it into the kind of dog’s breakfast that will please no-one at all. And perhaps that’s what was dimly seeping into the producers and what caused the plug to be pulled–I fancy perhaps even definitely.
I may well have to eat my words. The film may well be made–too much money may well already have been invested–and it may be successful. But certainly on the last point, I won’t be holding my breath.

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Richard O
Richard O
2022 years ago

Sophie,

You are rapidly becoming my favourite Armadillo – could not agree with you more regarding the possible reasons that the Australian film industry is in the doldrums. It’s not for want of money nor decent stories. It’s more about what this current crop of film makers want to present to the public, and the public doesn’t want to buy it.

bluebottle
bluebottle
2022 years ago

I couldn’t agree more. The string of awful “aussie” films that keep being made have left the viewers cold. Chistopher Koch’s books tell universal stories. Doubleman was one I read many years ago but is still one of the best stories from a very underated author, which could be set anywhere. Eucalyptus, sounds like yet another dodgy tale of bush wackyness, Crocadile Dundee 4, anyone?

Mork
Mork
2022 years ago

Wow – I had no idea that there was a project to film “Highways to a War”. I have often wondered why there hasn’t. It’s one of my favorite recent novels (Out of Ireland was pretty good, too) and it seems eminently filmable.

Do film projects ever try to raise funds from the public any more?

And speaking of Ned Kelly, I reckon Heath Ledger would make a pretty fair Mike Langford.

James Russell
2022 years ago

Yikes. I didn’t know the actual story of “Eucalyptus” before now. Now I’m wondering as well what the hell they were thinking.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

“Out of Ireland” is a gem.

Rafe
2022 years ago

There is also the Les Darcy story.
BTW Les was an extra in some films made during the early glory days of Australian film, not in the role of himself, but just a robust lad saving a drowning damsel. The locals recognised the creek where the shot was filmed and they fell about because they knew the water was barely waist deep.

Meg
Meg
2022 years ago

As someone who actually quite enjoyed “Eucalyptus” (for what I saw it as, a story about story-telling), I also am bewildered as to why? All I could see was that it would be turned into a derivative period piece with little soul and much ‘love story’ that was ‘based on the best-selling novel’. Certainly I wouldn’t be seeing it.

As an ex-pat Tasmanian, Christopher Koch’s ‘Out of Ireland’ brought me to tears and I personally would love to see this story made more of.

Jellis
2022 years ago

Could not agree more, Christopher Koch’s books are by far some of favourite reads.

Highways to a War would be box office gold. Something which the Aussie film industry seems adverse to, success. I would hate to think that Koch’s great books are not being made because they want to fund movies like rabbit proof fence and Eucalyptus.

Great post!

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

I Couldn’t agree more. It’s the best thing that could have happened.

http://rexinthecity.blogspot.com/2005/02/on-ya-rusty.html

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Glad to see so many Koch fans here–he is indeed underrated, very mysteriously so in my opinion. I know he’s written the script to Highways to a War, and that Bruce Beresford loves it, as well. If only, as you say, such a project could be floated publically!
And Heath L. as Langford–well, perhaps. He certainly didn’t do badly at all as Ned–all the actors were let down by a dog’s breakfast of a ‘concept’. Was glad to see Kris McQuade in it–a seriously underrated and underused actress, I think.
Hugh Jackman could do a good Langford too..Or even Rusty himself..Not sure whether they had anyone in mind for the role, yet. The project looks doldrummed at the moment..

Bruce
2022 years ago

Yes, good post! Maybe the problem here is that the genesis of too many projects is a ‘concept’, defined by a few dazzling images, and a star. Here, I’d guess, the concept is the farm with all its varied landscapes – highly cinematic, enclosed but open, unified but varied. At the centre, an intense triangle. To play the slightly mysterious suitor we get (a)a hunk (Russell Crowe, earlier career) with (b) lots of arcane knowledge (Crowe, Beautiful Mind) and (c) masterful presence (Crowe,Gladiator, Master and Commander).

For film-makers, who cares abou the words of the original? But what made Eucalyptus work was the quality of the prose, moment by moment, Bail’s weird but fascinating way of writing, as if working out familiar things for the first time, as if resisting his own story. Sophie M. is right about the studied, pale quality of the yarns. It’s an intensely literary book. Ditch the struggle of the wors, and there’s no fable, just a quirky situation.

Performance people are suckers for the high concept + star formula. Take the Opera Australia version of Voss. You put together Richard Meale and David Malouf and Patrick White and there’s your trifecta. No-one stops to ask whether that novel is a halfway plausible operatic candidate.

No-one in short is critical. We’re paying a high price in all the arts for the idea that only the actual performers and the money people have legitimate points-of-view.

Bruce

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

“Glad to see so many Koch fans here–he is indeed underrated, very mysteriously so in my opinion.”

Are you being a little disingenuous here Sophie?

He is a non-lefty. He spoke out against the thought police and how they stifled creativity during his post Miles Franklin interview a book or two ago and it was like he had let go a giant fart.

You knew this of course and were just too polite to mention it, here.

kyan gadac
kyan gadac
2022 years ago

He may be a ‘non-lefty’ (a what?) but he can tell a good yarn. Although one has to ask – does a published book have to be the only source of a good film script? Books are chosen as ‘safe’ options – proven track records, etc. But nearly all of my personal top ten had no prior book to speak of. Speaking of books, whilst I’d certainly vote for the Doubleman as one of the most underrated books of recent times and well worth the filmic endorsement waddabout Xavier Hernert’s sprawling masterpieces, or David Ireland, imagine ‘City of Women’ in the hands of Peter Jackson!

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

And when is Richard Lowenstein finally gonna get Carey’s “War Crimes” up?

Where’s the 21st century answer to “Pure Shit”. “Wake In Fright” or “Sunday Too Far Away” set on a Timor Strait oil rig?

Where’s “Head On” set in the post Bali bombing Indonesian of pirated software and Aussie run sex operations.

What about the cop and transexual love affair that ended with a body down an opal mineshaft and an “open”

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Nabokov, I certainly agree with you about all the good stories there are in Australia which film-makers could seize on if they had any nous. The Melbourne gangland murders would have to be perfect, surely–as long as they do something as brilliant as Blue Murder(to my mind one of the most extraordinary things ever to come out of the screen industry in Oz, whether film or TV)and don’t try to impose some dumb ‘concept’ thingy on it.
And yes of course I know about Christopher K@s views and they do go some way to explaining why he’s ignored by some political members of the literary establishment, but it doesn’t explain it all. My feeling is the real thing is all too many of our literary critics–like the ineffably pompous Peter Craven–are so insecure that they equate ‘literary value’ with being portentous, and/or obscurantist, with sluggish narrative and dozy characters. In fact silly Mr Craven is constantly worrying over whether if he’s enjoyed something it must be ‘trash’ and not ‘highbrow’ (He actually uses those terms.) It’s all really rather pathetic. Because CK both writes well, AND his stories actually engage you–because it’s not a slog reading his stuff, and he doesn’t go in for histrionics–therefore, he musn’t be ‘literary’ enough. It’s completely daft.
Also, though his novels are very Australian– in terms of most setting and characters–they are never narrowly so. He is a much more ‘international’ writer than the vast majority of Aussie writers, and effortlessly so. Long before it became fashionable, he was interested in Asia, for instance. (His essay collection, ‘Crossing the Gap’ is eminently worth reading, incidentally) He doesn’t fit the rather dismal moulds that have been made for our literature..

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

I am aware that most who responded to my bait were asking rhetorical questions only, but.

Nabakov, I was not referring to those here at Troppo as the Thought Police and I am not trying to get any book of mine discussed in the public arena.

Mainstream discourse on the creative arts in this country is dominated by a group of individuals who would not wish to have any sort of public dialogue with Christopher Koch and the feeling would be mutual. So he (probably quite happily) stays outside this public discourse.

I could write a book or a screenplay or a play but I sure as hell would not wish to discuss it with David Marr (himself a writer with talent). I would not be appearing with Margot on Critical Mass and would not be expecting or wanting Sam Neill and Phillip Noyce ( the pair of them capable practioners of their craft) to come a knocking. Thomas Kenneally will not be inviting me to join him in any diets. I would not expect any sort of obligation free encouragement or brotherhood from these people.

David Marr made an address last year, a call to arms, asking Australia’s writers to speak up against the spreading evil in Australian society. Thomas K responded, of course. This is exactly what creative artists should NOT be doing.

Amanda
2022 years ago

“This is exactly what creative artists should NOT be doing.”

Why not?

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Because it’s been done to death and now it’s BORING and it’s not art.

For an idealist, a visionary, or a dreamer with a desire to make real change, to make a real difference, the decision to become an artist as a means of achieving your goals is so profoundly bad that one must doubt their sincerity in the first place. So I do.

And please don’t start listing works, by Picasso and Tolstoy and so on. Those works may be very powerful and they may, yes even works likes these, we can only say ‘may’, politicise us. What makes them great works is the conversation they have with all of us. They are not great because they lead us to demand a withdrawal from Iraq and the release of asylum seekers. This then leaves us with the piles and piles and piles of utter shit that do nothing for us at all.

Amanda
2022 years ago

Then don’t consume the art — as with Rabbit Proof Fence. But there is no “should” or “shouldn’t” about it. “Creative artists” (though Marr’s a journo isn’t he? On second thoughts …. ) aren’t a breed apart from bakers or electricians or corporate lawyers and “creative art” isn’t seperate from the rest of life. If crapping on about politics is how they choose to spend their brief sojourn on earth, no skin off my nose. I may be in a minority since the topic seems to excite such passions in others.

Koch’s Miles Franklin speech was a call to arms to stop the “spreading evil” of postmodernism, wasn’t it? What’s the difference?

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Absolutely fair comment, Amanda. My own comments were in the context of the mess the Australia film industry is in and I was seeking to explain why the box office was so poor and the the resulting strong impression that Australians were not making films many Australians or anyone wanted to see.

CK’s comments were made in a press interview not through his work and I am sufficiently biased myself to find them interesting as he was expressing a rare view. But, yes, it’s a fine line and your point is taken.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

The years where Australian films gained at least 10 per cent of the local box office (and the films responsible) were:

1977

Caddie, The Last Wave, Eliza Frazer, The Mango Tree

1981

Gallipoli, Mad Max 2, Puberty Blues

1982

The Man from Snowy River, The Year of Living Dangerously

1986

Crocodile Dundee

1988

Crocodile Dundee II, The Man from Snowy River II

1994

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Muriel’s Wedding.

The success synopsis emerges as something like: Gun-toting, croc-hunting, unshaven, larrikin drag queen, in bridal attire, pursues international surfing adventures on horseback to an ABBA-inspired soundtrack. It can’t be all that hard to script…surely.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

“The success synopsis emerges as something like: Gun-toting, croc-hunting, unshaven, larrikin drag queen, in bridal attire, pursues international surfing adventures on horseback to an ABBA-inspired soundtrack. It can’t be all that hard to script…surely.”

Sounds like a description of any one of the Troppo writing team.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Nah. I hate Abba.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

I heard of Eucalyptus and (I think) I heard it read on the ABC. I barely listened the story sounded so – well exactly the way Sophie has described it. Overworked, passionless, literary for the sake of it and I figure ultimately twee. But I just guessed this was the case and lost interest in spending the time to confirm my prejudices. Glad to see someone who went to the trouble of doing all the reading confirms my first guesses as to what kind of book it is.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

There was a time when Australia was making some great films – not your box-office blockbusters, but more downbeat, skid-row kind of stuff. Nabakov mentioned Pure Shit – now that was really something of a film. Four (was it?) junkies in search of a fix in the mean streets of St Kilda doesn’t sound like much, but it had a kind of witches’ sabbath feel to it, with a strange, apocalyptic sort of backdrop. Got a bit too heavy-handed towards the end, though. I recall Ian Mackay of the Melbourne Herald describing it as the ‘most evil film ever made’, which must set a record in unintended come-hithers.

(I agreed when John Flaus of Film Buffs’ Forecast endlessly touted it as one of the best Oz film ever. Later I got suspicious when I realised that he plays the wise old toilet cleaner in it.)

Going Down with an an early Tracy Mann was another example. Bit messy (full of drugs and vomit), but a great, totally unsentimental look at Sydney post-student counter-culture in the 1980s.

Don’t know where all that vitality has gone, but it certainly doesn’t come out in things like Lantana, or Eucalyptus-to-be-or-not, by the sound of it.

I’d advocate bringing back the grunge, but that doesn’t seem a 21st century thing to say, somehow. Even St Kilda is gentrified now.

Naomi
Naomi
2022 years ago

I’m sorry James, why is it boring for artists to have political views? Art is about expressing how you feel, and if it’s politics that moves you, politics it is.

But I agree that Eucalyptus is unfilmable, not quite for the same reasons as Sophie. I’m a fan of the book and of the lacy imagery the book describes – the heroine’s freckled skin, the dappled bark of gums, the lines etched into a landscape everyone is becoming part of. (by the way Bail just got attacked for lifting one of his descriptions of a book on taxonomy of gum trees … so maybe he was listening to the Malouf debate).

It’s an image-ridden and spiritual book but not a filmic one, based as it is on a traditional fable, with few dramatic punches. It would be so boring as a film, and putting Nic in it would be just dumb. Although a 30 year old divorcee in that era would have even fewer choices than a teenager as she would be considered very low on the marriage market, so it might work. Nah, she looks too rarefied and city!

As for CK, yes, he writes great books. But why do we have to film a great book? I rather think it’s better to consider film, and its demands as a genre, in isolation from books. Find the visual and the dramatic in life, and the films will be more plausible, and possibly more popular.

The NT drug runner plot sounds terrific by the way!