Samson and Delilah

Marissa Gibson as Delilah and Rowan McNamara as Samson.Having just read this pussy footing review of this film, I am brought back to thinking about it, though not that much.  I saw it last week in Sydney while killing some time before heading off to my hotel for the night.  I was very keen to see it having seen it get five stars (that’s a lot of stars out of five) from I think both Margaret P and David S.  Now I loathe both of them, but stars are stars and often if they think a film is good I agree.

So off I went expecting something pretty damn triffic. I read another comment from someone which was that this film was a lot better than a lot of stuff made about aborigines with ‘liberal – ie left – sentiment’ or some such thing.

I can’t really say whether I think the film is worth seeing or not.  It was well filmed, and very ‘real’. It’s not a put up job, not phoney and presumably keenly felt.  But it was still a little beyond my white middle class ken.  Here’s some things I  remember about the film: 

It’s an agonisingly slow coming together of two people at least one of whom is a petrol sniffer from way back, the other (the girl) is very attractive in a slow, passive, resilient, long suffering kind of way.  The boy – a 14 year old (she’s 16) gets up every morning and sniffs a good draft of petrol fumes.

As a result he doesn’t speak.  He decides he rather likes Delilah and grabs his mattress and heads down towards her house (they live in a remote settlement) with a few cars up on blocks rotting away).  He also rather likes playing the guitar of a guy who is in a band and tries to get the guitar to play, but isn’t allowed to. When he does get the guitar he thrashes it and gets de-guitared by other members of the group, and things go back to normal. The next time he isn’t allowed to play the guitar, he goes and gets a large branch of a tree and poleaxes the guy who is playing guitar.  This fells him – he doesn’t seem to be dead, but there you go.  He picks up the guitar and plays for a while.

A little while later he’s lying in his bed and someone comes in and smashes his head with a branch – perhaps the same one. He heads down to Delilah who stitches him back together.  Delilah’s aunty dies. She’s been painting paintings and bringing in some money.  Delilah is blamed for neglecting her (which she hasn’t) and the women in the community come and bash her horribly. Samson and Delilah go off (to some town) to nurse their considerable wounds and live under a bridge with a drunk.  The drunk didn’t appeal to me – there was something a bit staged about him to me, but who am I to say that this wasn’t realistic?

Anyway life goes on (just) and eventually Samson’s enthusiasm for Delilah is reciprocated (sort of). Samson tries to kiss Delilah who rejects the entreaty (to kiss her on the lips) by stopping Samson and then kissing him back on the head. At the end of the film they are together and seem to like each other – though they don’t speak.

So there you go.  Delilah is a very sympathetic character. I liked her and I suppose felt for her but somehow things were so uniformly ghastly that it was difficult to really get into it. It was too like anthropology to me, but you might give it five stars. I’d be interested in what other people thought.

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Fred Argy
12 years ago

I went to see the film and found it very confronting. It had both sides of the fence. You see the aboriginal blame (sniffing, pilfering, delilah blamed for what she didn’t do to her grandmother etc.). But you also see the “stealing” of paintings, the rape and mistreatment of Delilah (by whites or blacks?) and the sheer neglect of their predicmament. It is also a touching love story. I like it. I would urge all Australians to see it.

crispin
12 years ago

How differently we see things. I found Samson and Delilah electrifying from start to finish. It struck me as the first substantial Australian film I’ve seen in years, gloriously distant from the usual Aussie TV-movie-pretenders. Dread and beauty all mixed up, and an undiluted sense of physical presence rarely achieved in film. Not a hint of formula (well, apart from the tramp, who was a weak point). A plot summary is surely beside the point: this isn’t Star Trek!

crispin
12 years ago

Nick,

If my description sounds rarefied, it reflects more on my inability to articulate my reactions well than on the film itself, which had a visceral effect on me. I certainly wasn’t cogitating on the film’s achievements throughout the screening (actually I walked out of the cinema rather mute and stunned).

Perhaps we have different expectations about film. Actually I have different expectations from myself — on different occasions. Sometimes I’m seeking the kind of engagement you’re talking about, sometimes I want the conventions of drama (I have a soft spot for political thrillers); sometimes I’m just curious to see what someone will do with the amazing medium of film, or to have a fresh look at something of the the world through someone else’s eyes.

This particular film left me reeling, as after an intense engagement with something in the real world.

Thanks for the NZ film tips. I remember not liking “Once were warriors” much, but it’s usually worth taking a second look at things other people regard highly.

denningesque
12 years ago

Interesting exchange and thanks for the heads up NG. I generally agree with Stratton’s assessments of movies…. with one exception. He has a terrible blind spot for Australian movies. He sometimes brings himself to critisise local product but there really has to be something majorily wrong for him to do it. The way he described the Unfinished Sky and the product I saw convinced me that one of us was smoking something stronger than tobacco.
I will see Samson but will go with the usual trepidation I have about Australian movies these days. Why can’t Australian directors move away from grim themes or even when they tackle less confronting genres do it in a less grinding way? Last year’s The Black Baloon and The Square and earlier Jindabyne are just too typical of the way we make movies these days. Grim stories about deeply flawed people dealing with terrible dilemas. Worthy movies designed to drive away audiences. Here’s a thought let’s have worthy movies made together with with movies which the audience actually want to see. It doesn’t have to be Disney or even a reworking of the Castle or the Dish. Just no fewer angst ridden product like Romulus My Father. I didn’t think much of Australia ( bit cliched and ordinary script) but at least it tried to work with more universal themes.

A bit more effort in getting a story which most most people can relate to filled with characters which they can empathise with would be a good first step.

paulmartin
paulmartin
12 years ago

Nicholas, I’m not sure why you call that SMH review “pussy footing”. Sandra Hall writes about her impressions, you write yours and I have mine (in more detail on my blog).

We often think of film in terms like “Hollywood” and “art house”, etc. We tend to think of Australian films as a separate genre. I think Samson and Delilah belongs to “world cinema”. It’s got a universality about it, and its overseas response seems to confirm that. It also has a cultural specificity to it that makes it quite compelling. It brings another world even to Australians.

I found the film terrific for a number of reasons, in summary:
– the visuals are just fantastic
– the sound design and music are excellent
– the manipulation of perspective is extremely effective, eg, we see one person’s perspective and hear another. The most exemplary incidents are the night dancing scene, the car-grabbing scene and the later car incident.
– the ethnographic element
– the potential for, but skillful avoidance of didacticism
– the lack of blame/guilt – beneath the surface, the film is critical of both black and white societies
– the sparsity of dialogue added strength to the story without seeming contrived
– it’s a very touching story, told with compassion that appeals to my sense of humanism
– it’s confronting, but not deliberately shocking (in a contrived manner)

I got the sense that much of the film’s structure is based on Thornton’s instincts and for me they succeed. I didn’t have a problem with Gonzo, a very real type of character. While I have seen remote communities first hand, one only has to get off Flinders Street Station in Melbourne to see the black drunks outside St. Paul’s Cathedral that Gonzo exemplifies.

I agree with Crispin that “a plot summary is surely beside the point”.

“Samson and Delilah took me into a story of degredation with little real drama”
Nicholas, I didn’t get that at all. Degradation is there, but it’s just one layer of the story. There’s so much more happening. Maybe there’s a sense of guilt you felt that detracted from the experience? I don’t know, I’m just suggesting a possibility of why you may have that perception. I didn’t take any guilt and I didn’t sense that that was Thornton’s intention. I sense that he was just showing us things as they are. And there’s no easy solutions either.

I agree with Isabelle Adjani, the Cannes jury president that awarded the film the Camera d’Or (best first film), that this is one of the best love stories we’ve seen for a long time (or words to that effect).

crispin
12 years ago

denningesque: S & D is doing well at the box office, apparently. I don’t see any reason in general why Australian films need to appeal to ‘most people’. There’s only one way of doing that, which is to produce conventional crap, which isn’t worth doing at all (except for those driven purely by money, and surely we’ve all had more than enough of them by now).

denningesque
12 years ago

Crispin, I hear S & D is doing quite well and I wish it well and want to see it. But unfortunately it is the exception. Last year Black Balloon won a swag of AFI awards and made a big loss. It is an all too familiar story and quite depressing. As for your conclusion that films most people want to see is conventional crap is just plain wrong. People will see good product and did regularly see Australian Product in the not too distant past; Breaker Morant, Gallipoli, the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max, Walkabout, Sunday Too Far Away to mention a few all of which were far from forumulaic pap. Good indie product does well in the US, eg Napoleon Dyanamite.
I am all for telling our stories but there is nothing wrong with wanting to fill the seats. There are some good reasons to do so, like having a thriving home grown industry where we don’t rely so heavily on US productions coming here to keep the film facilities in use. People don’t mind being challenged. But they are put off being dared to sit through poorly structured stories filled with characters with whom they can’t empathise. The French make confronting movies and more mainstream fare. I thought “I have loved you so long” was a brilliant film with plenty of challenges. And it did well.
BTW thee is nothing dirty or wrong with an industry, any industry, being driven by money. It tends to keep the industry going. Picasso was plenty about the money.

crispin
12 years ago

denningesque: actually we’re on the same page here. I was probably being over-literal about your ‘most’. There’s clearly a market for good films, I just don’t think we need to chase the very biggest market, which is indeed for pap. S&D deserves to be the exception because it is genuinely exceptional.

paulmartin
paulmartin
12 years ago

I question whether the problem with Australian films is their preoccupation with grim themes. I think the problem is their mediocrity.

James Farrell
12 years ago

What’s your beef with David Stratton, as a matter of interest? That’s the second time I’ve heard you say you hate him. He’s a knowledgable, articulate and unpretentious fellow — the last two qualities in particular are rare in the electrononic media. I find his assessments generally reliable, though I agree with the commenter who said he’s too soft on Australian films. I could understand someone objecting to his sheer ubiquity — perhaps the pair of them seem a bit stale after thirty years — but that’s not their fault.

crispin
12 years ago

I find the labelling of Paul Martin’s reflections on sound and cinemaphotography as ‘effete’ extremely odd in the context of film. To be fair, you did admit that this might be unfair! But still … I kind of wonder why films are necessary then at all. Why not just read the script if all that stuff is just atmospherics for the story (anyone with the vaguest imagination can add these for themselves)?

Films aren’t just narrative content. And in some more goes unsaid than is stated. Certainly in this case, devices like the perspective manipulation mentioned by Paul let you know at least as much about what’s going on ‘inside’ the characters as would a wordier script, because they put you there, and ‘being there’ has a lot to do with how life feels. Not everything that goes on inside is words or rumination. Sometimes these are not even the most important things going on.

Sometimes a movie just knocks my socks off. It’s very rarely the story as such that does this, but rather the world conjured out of moving images, sound, and someone’s ability to put those together to make something unique to the medium.

paulmartin
paulmartin
12 years ago

Good point, Crispin, and I didn’t really understand Nicholas’ use of ‘effete’. Certainly sound, music, editing, cinematography, script and more are all part of cinematic story-telling.

paulmartin
paulmartin
12 years ago

I think I understand Nicholas’ distaste for David Stratton’s reviews. A friend once described the show’s tastes as very bourgeois, a description that makes a lot of sense to me. David is certainly more knowledgeable than Margaret, they both go soft on Australian films (and I was indirectly referring to them specifically in the opening comments in my review of the film) and they seem to have a fairly limited range in terms of films they relate to. They review a lot of films that they clearly feel uncomfortable with (teen horror, for example) and would probably be better keeping clear of. There’s more I could bring up but, like Nicholas, it’s easier watching any particular review.

denningesque
12 years ago

What a sprightly exchange. A good thing our economy, body politic hangs on the outcome. As a film lover its an exchange not had nearly often enough. I am generally with NG in the run of discussion though I canna agree with him on Unfinished Sky. A good first draft of a script but I thought the character development was two dimensional and almost cliched. But each to their own.
I think David Stratton is a teriffic reviewer (and whose endorsements I usually concur) both on the Movie Show but also writing in the OZ and previously in Variety. But he has well entrenched views which I think cloud his judgment in a few discrete areas. For example he hates Dogma style movies with their affection for the use of hand held cameras. Often that is well based critisism but not always. The hand held camera jerky cinematography in Quantum of Solance and the Bourne Supremecy was effective.
Interesting comment re Casablanca and spot on. It is as good an example of a well crafted story with a superb script and class actors to give it form and substance. And story is, and should be, the fundamental centre of a movie. There are always notable exceptions, having seen a few during my slavish devotion to film festivals. Rhapsodising over cinematography as an end in itself is the celluloid equivalent of those who extract and laud sentences of authors whose work tends to, borrowing from the Bard, sound and fury signifying nothing.

denningesque
12 years ago

My bad. Am standing in corner with white pointy hat on. Good discussion.

denningesque
12 years ago

Only if you think way too much about it. The allusion to the traditional dunces cap worn by children in days gone by, not the more sinister reference…. to the penatiti of Spain during lent. I KNOW you couldn’t possibly be considering the more sinister (again) allusion to use of headgear in the Southern and Midwestern states of the US from time to time and during the evening hours. I have deliberately chosen not to access the hyperlink. I would rather assume you see the best in people and would not be guided by an overactive imagination.

paulmartin
paulmartin
12 years ago

Nicholas, I consider myself a cinephile, a lover of cinema and you describe yourself as passionate about some films. That puts us in the same category, more or less. The point I’m making is that cinema has its own language, which we all appreciate to one degree or another, consciously or intuitively. The other elements I mentioned are part of the story-telling. Take the dance scene: the sound and music are absolutely imperative to conveying a narrative, but without words. These elements are also crucial for setting a mood, creating expectations, etc.

Denningesque, I don’t share your estimation of DS’s reviews, but I agree with his disdain for most hand-held camera, which is often over-used. I call it designer-shake, others call it wobble-cam. It usually takes me out of the film and I often have to look away from the screen. Mind you, much of Samson and Delilah uses hand-held camera (and Thornton did the photography himself, BTW), but uses it very well.

Nicholas, I also loved Beneath Clouds, an excellent companion piece to Samson and Delilah.

TimT
TimT
12 years ago

I saw the film, and thought it absolutely fricking dreadful.

I have to disagree with a few of the points that I saw made elsehwere on this thread:

‘Not didactic’ – it is. When Samson and Delilah wind up in Alice Springs, they find themselves confronted with a range of obvious ‘problems’: Delilah gets snubbed by a shop assistant and an art dealer and a bunch of folks in a cafe (class discrimination, check). She gets raped and assaulted (high levels of crime!) They live under a bridge (problems with housing!) And all of this in the space of a couple of days? We’re supposed to conclude, from that (symbolic! significant!) shot towards the end of the film of the petrol being poured on the ground that Samson is leaving his petrol sniffing behind (learning!) but, really, why should we take that for granted.

‘Authentic’ – Come on. Bunch of characters living in the desert decide to go for a trip to the town? And then go back to the bush and get married? That’s the very definition of generic. And unbelievable, too, because there’s no real emotional connection between the two main characters at all – they end up living together not because this is ‘what really happens’, but because it’s a neat way to tie up plot points.

Warwick Thornton may or may not be a great director, but this certainly isn’t a great film.

Maybe it’s the film that Thornton had to make before he made a great film.

paulmartin
paulmartin
12 years ago

Tim, I don’t dispute that the film has a message (as does virtually every film), but depicting something is different to preaching a message. You may not have liked the film, but Cannes Film Festival obviously thought it had merit – as you know, it won the Camera d’Or.

TimT
TimT
12 years ago

We may have to agree to disagree, but the middle part of the film, in Alice Springs, where the kids have all these difficulties thrown at them in the space of a couple of days seemed to me far too obviously contrived. (As indeed was the ending.)

Obviously, I’ll have to agree to disagree with the Cannes Film Festival as well!

Nabakov
Nabakov
12 years ago

“And all of this in the space of a couple of days?”

Agreed. I too am appalled by how many so called works of art attempt to pack days, week, months, years, bloody eons into 150 minutes or 300 -600 pages.

I blame Ari and his bloody Poetics m’self. Imagine how much more yielding of their truths say 2001, The Once and Future King or In Search Of Lost Time would have been if they were delivered in real narrative one to one time.