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Sam Sejavka and Michael Hutchence on the set of Dogs in Space (1986) Sam Sejavka and Michael Hutchence on the set of Dogs in Space (1986)
image courtesy of Ghost Pictures Pty Ltd
THE PROSPECT OF A DOCUMENTARY FILM ABOUT THE PUNK AND POST-PUNK ERA IN MELBOURNE WAS ALWAYS ASSURED A BUMPER OPENING NIGHT. WHEN THE FILM IS MADE BY THE DIRECTOR OF DOGS IN SPACE (1986), A CULT FEATURE FILM ABOUT THE SAME PERIOD, YOU CAN EXPECT THE JOINT TO REALLY ROCK.

And it did. There was something uncannily familiar about the queue that wound its way up two flights of stairs all the way from the cold Federation Square palazzo outside. All it needed was sleeping bags, deck chairs and a few fires burning in 44 gallon drums and it would be not so far removed from the establishing shots of the film the ACMI crowd were about to see.

We’re Livin’ on Dog Food begins with behind the scenes footage of the opening sequence of Dogs in Space, which recreates another legendary queue from 1978, when fans camped out for two weeks at the MCG for David Bowie tickets. These images immediately convey a sense of reflection, of one film in dialogue with another, teasing out different perspectives on events depicted in Dogs in Space with the benefit of 25 years hindsight.

We’re Livin’ on Dog Food is an extension or consequence of Richard Lowenstein’s longstanding desire to re-release a restored Dogs in Space on DVD. “I discovered a number of boxes of 16mm film and audio tapes of ‘behind the scenes’ interviews with Michael Hutchence and some of the other cast and crew so the overall package of a DVD and ‘Extras’ was looking pretty good.” Those “extras”, like so many punks ingloriously littering the MCG footpath, would eventually find their place in the first comprehensive documentary of what has been referred to as the “blank generation.” Music journalist Clinton Walker’s commitment to documenting the indie, punk and ‘Little Bands’ scene in his Inner City Sound (1982) and accompanying CDs has been for too long the only systematic account of the incredible diversity and creative energy of the period, the time of The Slugfuckers, Equal Local, The Boys Next Door, Essendon Airport and The Young Charlatans, among many others. On the heels of two compilation CDs of Australian post-punk music released by Chapter Music in 2001 and 2007, as well as a series of post-punk videos at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year, We’re Livin’ on Dog Food adds another dimension to a music scene in which being despised was the ultimate accolade.

For a long time this period has remained underground, but for all the wrong reasons. Invisible and absent from the official social and cultural histories of Marvellous Melbourne, it shares affinities with another crew elbowing its way back into popular consciousness, the sharpies of the 1970s. Dogs in Space begins with the decline of one subculture and the ascendency of another, as a bunch of agro sharps and boneheads are given a hiding by strung out and doped up punks waiting in that long queue (a changing of the guard also announced at the end of Michelle Moo’s 2004 novel, Glory This). In a weird coincidence, the significance of this moment accounts for the very fact that We’re Livin’ on Dog Food has appeared at a time when independent Adelaide-based filmmaker Paul Nassari is making a documentary about the Melbourne sharpie scene. And not before time, too. In a remark made to me a number of years ago by a former Thomastown sharp, one Mark Brandon Read, the sharpies are a “neglected part of Australian history.”

At the time documented in the film, however, the very concept of punk was hostile to memorialisation and longevity, to making history. As Lowenstein has suggested, “no-one in the ‘scene’ ever went on to occupy any serious position in the media or the ‘establishment’.” The Punk scene was about smack, fast music, having a good time and, well, as Iggy famously put it, “livin’ on dog food, so what!” A common theme in the film is that for the punk sensibility food was a non-essential item. As The Ears’ Tim McLaughlan suggests, if push came to shove Gravox eaten off newspaper is more than sufficient sustenance for a big night out. As a legacy of the Whitlam Government the dole was good back then and living the punk dream amounted to, in the words of Primitive Calculators’ Denise Hilton, a Government sponsored arts grant.
JAB featuring Bohdan X as lead singer during a live performance JAB featuring Bohdan X as lead singer during a live performance
image courtesy of Ghost Pictures Pty Ltd
The faded glory of the old George Hotel in Fitzroy Street St Kilda, with its raffish street cred of the drug and sex trade, was an ideal, downbeat venue for the centre of the punk vortex. For the bands that played at the Seaview and later Crystal Ballrooms at the George, as well as the crowds that went to hear them, having a good time was about here and now. But consistent with the film-about-a-film-about-a-period vibe, We’re Livin’ on Dog Food is a vital, necessary and timely account of a largely unrecognised subculture that, as Lowenstein asserts, “seems to have become officially summarised and condensed into the life and times of Nick Cave as if nothing else and no-one else actually existed.” The use of footage from Tony Stevens’ and Sue Davis’ 1980 film Punkline, depicting crowds of nameless suburban youths at the Seaview Ballroom, reveals how Melbourne’s punk scene borrowed influences from the UK and US then kicked them into shape with the distinctively Australian vernacular of hard pub rock and all that went with it.

The narrative concerns of the film are carried by lively, astute and at times hysterical reflections by various band members, personalities and decisive figures of the punk demi-monde (Alannah Hill, Bruce Milne, Dolores San Miguel, Rowland S Howard, Stuart Grant, Sam Sejavka, Ollie Olsen, Clinton Walker, Philip Brophy). Combining personal reminiscence and “therapeutic purging” with plain factual details on what went down and where, these talking heads counterpoint the gritty, often rare footage of the streets, venues and squats so vividly brought to life in Dogs in Space.

Lowenstein reflects that the “punk scene was an embarrassment to the Australian music industry back then. In a similar way, Dogs in Space was a total embarrassment to the Australian film industry because it preferred and knew how to handle innocuous candy-coated fare, like The Man from Snowy River.” Not one to shy away from avidly embracing such ignominy, Tsk-tsk-tsk founder and resident bill-poster artist of the Melbourne punk scene, Philip Brophy has the last word as the credits roll. As a film about “a bunch of nobodies in a Richmond squat”, Dogs in Space, he asserts, is a “punk moment” in the history of Australian cinema. We’re Livin’ on Dog Food joyfully and democratically asserts that as far as the Melbourne punk and post-punk scene was concerned, everybody was a nobody who could do stuff until it hurt.


We’re Livin’ on Dog Food, director, editor Richard Lowenstein, director of photography Andrew De Groot, sound Rob McKenzie, producers Richard Lowenstein, Andrew De Groot, Lynn-Maree Milburn, 94 minutes, Ghost Pictures, 2009. Distributor Umbrella Entertainment. Premiere: Melbourne International Film Festival, Aug 2

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 21

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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