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Small screen desire

Wendy Haslem

Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in the Cinema Studies Progam at La Trobe University. Her PhD thesis “A Charade of Innocence and Vice : the American Gothic romance film of the 1940s” reflects her interest in the history of Hollywood, comparative narrative and the Gothic.

The recent re-release of Emma-Kate Croghan’s short film Desire didn’t raise an eyebrow compared to the hype generated in the promotion of her 1996 film Love and Other Catastrophes. Prior to the release of the latter, oversized posters were pasted across available city surfaces, ringing scaffolding on building sites and lurking in the half-light beneath bridges. The gigantic font announced the release as an event not to be missed. But it was not only our eyes that were targeted in the promotion of Croghan’s first feature. The film is mythologised as every independent filmmaker’s dream come true. Financed initially by credit card, it was rescued by a last minute investment. In contrast, Desire is a low budget film that slips into the viewer’s home unheralded. It travels via the magic of communication cables, making itself available on the computer screen with the click of the mouse. The exhibition of Desire on the internet potentially allows it to be viewed by a global audience.

Desire is one of the films screened on the Atom Films website. Parent company, Atomshockwave, is an independent entertainment provider with an archive in excess of 2000 films, animations and games. It lists Ford, Intel, Warner Brothers Online, HBO and Showtime as sponsors and syndication customers. A look at its homepage gives an idea of the eclectic collection of films on offer. Categories include animation, comedy, drama, documentary, extreme, thriller and world films. In the animation section you can click on flash or stop motion categories and watch short films like the intriguingly titled Osama Sissyfight. Desire can be found beneath the Australian film banner in the World Films category.

Conventionally, film viewing is characterised by a voyeuristic distance between the viewer and the big screen, offering a cathartic connection through identification and immersion in the fantasy. But how does this experience compare when watching films on computer screens? With films like Desire available online, viewing becomes more immediate and controllable. Whilst the dimensions of the screen are obviously smaller, the distance between the spectator and the screen is also diminished. Watching Desire on the small screen offers an uncanny sense of disjuncture. Disguising itself as early cinema, its exhibition on the computer screen produces a collision between the ultra-modern and the primitive. Originally shot as a silent film, Desire could be viewed on plasma.

Desire is cinematic, highly stylised and filmically literate. The flickering images are contrived to replicate the effect of silent cinema. Desire is without dialogue, primitive in its elliptical narration and Croghan uses rounded iris framing reminiscent of silent film. In the place of dialogue a soundtrack underscores the suspense. Croghan also infuses her films with an elegance and suspense characteristic of film noir. Her romantic, card-like title sequences remind us of the aesthetic decadence of the American studio system when even the fonts were art. The central unifying force is desire signified by the gaze. Furtive glances bind the anonymous characters, but are rarely returned. Whether it is in the carriage of a train, or in a laboratory, the atmosphere is charged with longing. Croghan highlights this with the inclusion of a scientist who analyses minuscule particles through the lens of a microscope, but who lacks perspective in his immediate environment.

Even though Desire appears to be a homage to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in the insistence of unrequited love and the link between children and danger Croghan’s film is clearly influenced by Fritz Lang, most particularly M (1931). This is acknowledged with the inclusion of a spiral-patterned ball, a motif that associates childhood play with danger in the adult world of both films. This clash of eras, styles, influences and technologies is utopia for a postmodern theorist.

Efforts have been made in recent years to elevate short film beyond its association with student experimentation. Tracey Moffatt enjoyed success as a short filmmaker before being financed to make a 90 minute feature film. She overcame this expectation by splitting beDevil (1993) into 3 discrete parts, effectively producing a trio of short films that combined to exceed the duration of a feature. Jane Campion attempted to change exhibition protocol in linking the first release of Sweetie (1989) with Alison McLean’s dark noir short film Kitchen Sink (1989), introducing her compatriot New Zealander to an Australian audience. But it is on the small screen that Australian shorts are finding an alternative home. The success of Desire at Atom Films is an encouraging sign extending the range of exhibition possibilities for short films to the computer screen.

Desire, writer/director Emma-Kate Croghan, performers Michael Lake, Nell Feeney

Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in the Cinema Studies Progam at La Trobe University. Her PhD thesis “A Charade of Innocence and Vice : the American Gothic romance film of the 1940s” reflects her interest in the history of Hollywood, comparative narrative and the Gothic.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 19

© Wendy Haslem; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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