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Subtle strokes from the underground

Rolando Caputo

Rolando Caputo lectures in the Cinema Studies Department, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

Belinda O’Connor, Juliet Hone, Desire Belinda O’Connor, Juliet Hone, Desire
Like low flying aircraft that fail to register on the radar, there is a level of distinctive and impressive filmmaking activity in this country that goes largely unnoticed by the wider film culture. A case in point is the Subtle Strokes program recently screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Across 2 evenings, the program showcased 4 self-financed films by Melbourne independent filmmakers Bill Mousoulis and Mark La Rosa.

The first evening, thematically entitled The Maze of Relationships, featured La Rosa’s 16mm short Paper Chains (1992, co-director Mark Touhy) and Mousoulis’ 16mm/video feature Desire (1999). The second evening, The Intrigue of Murder, comprised La Rosa’s 16mm short feature Black Trade (1999) and Mousoulis’ most recent feature Lovesick (2002, Super 16/video). The filmmakers hired the theatre, generated their own promotional material and publicity, and introduced the screenings.

This, of course, is not an altogether unusual occurrence for independent directors working at the extreme margins of the industry. Aside from the respective merits of the films there was a wider and significant subtext to Mousoulis’ and La Rosa’s gambit of exhibiting their work, and it had to do with the relation between the industrial model of filmmaking, the possibilities open to a genuinely independent film practice and the local (and internationalist) film culture with which these filmmakers engage. These issues were alluded to in their introductions and subsequent comments. According to Mousoulis: “Currently, it is the best of times and the worst of times. We have an abundance of film festivals and cinemas, but safe programming; cheap technology to produce films, but a swarm of wannabe Hollywood filmmakers; people and organisations [entering] into the history of cinema, but problematic government funding. I obviously exist within, but very much to the side of, all this hype-ridden, commercial film culture. I see few filmmakers who are knowledgeable and passionate about the cinema. And I see many who began in the 70s or 80s now totally neglected. Australian cinema is dominated by its industrial side—there are only token attempts at producing an ‘art cinema.’ The championing of neophyte auteurs such as Ivan Sen or Cate Shortland is questionable. Only one or 2 Australian features each year are worth anything at all. And the best filmmakers are the true indies, such as Dirk de Bruyn, Chris Windmill, Ettore Siracusa, Nigel Buesst.”

La Rosa is more circumspect, his tone reflecting the many vicissitudes of a filmmaking practice forged on the margins, drawing inspiration from filmmaking styles more often than not under-appreciated or misunderstood by the broader film community in this country: “Despite recent self-promotional claims, I don’t see myself holding much of a position in local film culture, without even an audience or a profile. On the positive side, I do of course enjoy more freedom than most, thereby encouraging me to be more exploratory in my approaches to narrative. I aspire to make professionally resourced work like any other filmmaker, but without dramatic storylines and bold themes—which don’t appeal to my sensibility—I’m not sure how far I can go. I like minimalist films. Early on, when I was making films about wayward teenagers, I was excited by the work of Paul Morrissey and Monte Hellman. Since then I’ve come to appreciate filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson...I also like Jean-Pierre Melville, Carl Dreyer and Otto Preminger. I have collaborated with both Richard Tuohy and Bill Mousoulis and have no doubt absorbed something from each of them.”

Lest they be taken as arrogant up-starts, it may come as a surprise to those who know little of their history that both Mousoulis and La Rosa are into their third decade of activity having forged ‘careers’ with negligible support from funding bodies. Both emerged from the vibrant and eclectic Melbourne Super 8 scene of the 1980s. In defiance of the current climate, where filmmakers are groomed by film schools and virtually ‘sponsored’ by script development grants and production funds, both filmmakers continue in a hands-on, do-it-yourself vein. Like the celebrated French New Wave directors their education was the cinema—not Henri Langlois’ fabled Cinémathèque Française, but the more modest Melbourne Cinémathèque. As Mousoulis puts it: “For me, filmmaking and film watching are inextricably linked. I was a cinephile prior to being a cineaste, and I continue to be a cinephile even as I spend an inordinate amount of time making films. My cinematic loves, and therefore influences, are certain art auteurs. My holy trinity is (and may forever be) Godard, Bresson and Rossellini, with Rossellini clearly the one with lessons for me (and other filmmakers) yet to learn. These 3 are deep within me. For Desire and Lovesick I was influenced by recent Asian art cinema. For Desire it was Wong Kar-wai, especially Happy Together...For Lovesick it was the wide-vista Asian cinema that served as my inspiration: Hong Sang-soo, Jia Zhangke, and especially Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka. But people see Rivette, Antonioni, Akerman in Lovesick—which doesn’t surprise me. They’re all in there, undoubtedly.”

Mousoulis has always been obsessed with desire in all its permutations. His whole oeuvre, in one sense, has been an exploration of its ebbs and flows, how it takes possession of characters and where it takes them. It is not surprising that his most ambitious film to date is entitled Desire. He may also have called it Summer in the City, for like Eric Rohmer he has the ability to give desire its appropriate location and seasonal ambience. The film is a moody and melancholic tale of love lost and found, failed encounters and often misaligned desire. Nonetheless, it leaves one with the idea that the continued belief in the possibility and potential of love is what’s important. Lovesick, as the title implies, is a story of l’amour fou between 2 characters who are so entranced with one another that they are blind to the world and the moral consequences of their acts, including murder. Mousoulis’ camera passes no moral judgement on the characters and at the closing of the film remains ambivalent about their fate.

La Rosa’s Paper Chains is a minimalist chamber piece also about characters caught in misaligned desires, which shows that the emotional ties that bind people are about as resistant as shreds of paper in the breeze. In contrast, Black Trade is a worthy exercise in genre filmmaking about a criminal gang, with a surprising sting in the tail.

Australian cinema has been sorely lacking in inspiration and originality in recent years. Our cinematic landscape would be altogether more impoverished if indie filmmakers like Mousoulis and La Rosa were to disappear. Australia needs its underground mavericks just as much as it needs its box office hits.

Subtle Strokes: the Films of Mark La Rosa and Bill Mousoulis, ACMI, Melbourne, Aug 24 and 27

Rolando Caputo lectures in the Cinema Studies Department, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 21

© Rolando Caputo; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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