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 Ten Empty Ten Empty

Local films often define their niches in terms of the mainstream, and if Hollywood has cornered the market in feel-good movies, Australians can try to differentiate themselves by promising a wrist-slashing good time. It works for Michael Haneke and the Europeans after all. Few seem in a hurry to make comedies in fear of being residually labelled with the Q word (quirky).

Ten Empty’s basic plot device of a prosperous, though unfulfilled brother returning to the sleepy badlands of Adelaide to reunite with his family recalls Ray Argall’s Return Home (1990). Once there, the protagonist is on the terrain of The Castle (1997), although the Kerrigans have now gone decidedly toxic. Like a suburban Wake in Fright (1971), the narrative represents a season in hell, where male dysfunction finds expression through alcohol and aggressive mateyness.

Elliot (played by Daniel Frederiksen), having had the good sense to move to Sydney, comes back for the christening of his step-brother. He finds the kind of family situation you associate with Appalachia rather than the Festival City of the South. Mum has suicided after discovering that Dad is rooting her younger sister Diane; Dad is alcoholic and unemployed, though now married to Diane; younger brother Brett is huddled in his room in the grip of paralysing depression (is it perhaps significant that co-writer Brendan Cowell is currently touring with the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet?).

The film begins impressively enough. A plane approaches the camera low and to the right of the frame. There is an eye for composition here, and an ear too, as the languidly morose music suggests. The moment the characters open their mouths, however, the jig is up. The mark of script development lies heavy on every utterance. Every hesitation is planned for effect; every awkward and evasive piece of dialogue signifies Awkwardness and Evasion. The cumulative effect is one of unremitting heavy-handedness. What can you make of a scene that begins with the line: “Don’t lay your Catholic guilt on me, Diane”?

This starts to become a more interesting film if we see it as foregrounding some fundamental issues for contemporary Australian cinema. It has frequently been remarked that the Australian cinema has an affinity for stories of madness. Angel Baby (1995), Sweetie (1989), Cosi (1996), Bad Boy Bubby (1993), and Romulus My Father (2007) come immediately to mind. Mental illness gives actors something twitchy to get their teeth into—Geoffrey Rush’s breakthrough performance in Shine (1996) provides a career-defining example.

Ten Empty opens up the possibility that we might see mental pathology as a metaphor for the Australian cinema at the current moment rather than merely a preferred subject matter. It is a rather banal interpretive move to read stories as allegories of their own production, but let’s press on and see where this ends up.

Like young Brett in Ten Empty, Aussie movies were once the golden boy, full of youthful promise and familial pride, but these days with Australian share of domestic box office for 2008 hovering around 0.9%, they don’t get out of their bedroom much any more. The hope of the family is that those who left and prospered (Baz, Hugh, Nicole and Russell) will come back to pull us out of the poo.

The strong case for putting madness at the heart of Australian cinema is in the way that schizophrenia involves an inability to make connections between the component parts of the self, and between the self and the social world. This lack of imaginative connection is one of the most interesting aspects of Ten Empty.

Everyone is hunkered down into their performances in a way that distances them from each other and, more importantly, from the audience. This is an Actors’ film—literally—directed and written by actors, after the fashion of Richard Roxburgh’s success last year with his family drama, Romulus My Father. I get the sense that its makers are more at home in the theatre as the place they have learned their craft. It is an oft-repeated observation that few Australian filmmakers watch many movies. Certainly we have rarely embraced the examples of Godard, Truffaut, Fassbinder or even Tarantino in having a tradition of cinephiles becoming filmmakers in this country. Mark Hartley’s recent Not Quite Hollywood has to import an American, Tarantino, as the most articulate defender of Australian film history.

The writing similarly exists in a vacuum where there seems to be little conception of what an audience can bring to a film. Watch a Hollywood movie like Iron Man or a skilful Australian one like Lucky Miles (2007), and the film has a sense of where to put a joke, of when to push the audience out and when to pull them back in, of what it does and doesn’t need to say. Look at the last scene of The Unfinished Sky (2008), where the crucial revelation that the heroine has been interned in a detention camp is a small triumph of understatement, confident that the audience will supply the affect.

Like a schizophrenic who has no sense of how her words will be received, Australian films too often need to prove their professional expertise by doing everything themselves, putting everything on the page in script development, with the result that they become badly overdrawn. Where The Castle managed to get away with its satire of the outer suburban lower middle class, the impression you get from Ten Empty is that the filmmakers look down on the suburban types they can only signify through theatrical caricature. Why else would you put a line like “It’s such a nice marinade on the aubergine” in a character’s mouth?

It is also significant that most Australian films about madness situate it in the dysfunctional family. You can quickly list a line of movies which emerge out of the claustrophobia of the family: Soft Fruit (1999), Swimming Upstream (2003), The Boys (1998), Home Song Stories (2007). As Screen Australia represents a very recent marriage in the family of our film institutions, it might be worth asking whether the dysfunctional family might be another symbol of the Australian film industry.

What immediately occasions this observation is that the South Australian Film Corporation put money into Ten Empty on the basis that it was shot in Adelaide and employed many members of the local production industry. Now, not too long ago we Croweaters were horribly offended by that nasty, brutish Victorian Premier’s description of Adelaide as a backwater, but that is positively sympathetic compared to the view of the city we get here. This is aptly summed up by the protagonist when he screams: “You stay here, you rot.”

I reckon I’ve eaten my weight in hors d’oeuvres at government-sponsored sessions where we ponder how to keep our best and brightest from abandoning the state and moving to the Sodom and Gomorrahs of Sydney and Melbourne. Yet in this film Adelaide is the place you leave, the place where time has stood still, the dark and depressed place of infantile regression.

I can only applaud the filmmakers’ desire to bite the hand that feeds them, but you have to wonder what state government agencies make of the result—or if they care. The importance of Australian films in policy terms has too often ended with their production. If they are lucky, they strut and fret their hour upon the art cinema screens (Ten Empty was released on nine prints, which was better than five other Australian films so far this year) and then are gone/tales of sound and fury...

Ultimately the pathological disconnections here are with the distribution sector and the audience—and the audience knows it too. Feature films in Australia are too often made for the sake of being made, rather than being made to be distributed and watched. Australian films have been short term answers to the political problems engendered by the persistent demand for a production industry. The problem becoming increasingly clear is that these motives too rarely extend to consumption and to any sense of connection with an audience. It was encouraging that Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett, in his speech at the 37 South market event at Melbourne’s International Film Festival, stressed that with the introduction of the producer offset scheme, direct government funding would henceforth be directed more to marketing and distribution subsidy.

So maybe I’ve come around to a sympathetic response to Ten Empty. It’s an important film as a gauntlet flung into the face of our cinema. We have to start to conceive of films as things designed in the spirit of connection: connection with an audience, connections with revenue streams, connections with some sense of film history and contemporary screen culture. If we stay here, we rot.

Ten Empty, director, writer Anthony Hayes, writer Brendan Cowell, producer Naomi Wenck, cinematographer Tristan Milani, editor Luke Doolan, Sydney Film Festival, 9 June, currently screening.

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 20

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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