July 31, 2009

Melbourne underground

 The Melbourne Film Festival is building a post-punk revival programme around screenings of a restored Dogs in Space, the 1986 Richard Lowenstein film that drew on his memories of a flat in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond in the early days of punk rock. Roughly 1978. It's probably been 20 years since I saw the film at -- I'm guessing -- the Paramount in Wellington and the soundtrack is more memorable to me now than any of the action, or the strongest memory is the combination of sound and action in a late scene in which Sam (Michael Hutchence) and Anna (Saskia Post) take heroin as Lowenstein cues Iggy Pop's "Endless Sea". Was that song always about heroin? It seemed to be now. Of course, she overdoses. That was authentic: for New Zealanders, Australia was always the land of overdoses. Until that point, the film had been a kind of shapeless Young Ones-like comedy about student squatters, would-be punks, suburban runaways, leftover hippies, violent pubs and a drug-fuelled trip to an all-night convenience store that I'm having trouble distinguishing from a similar scene in the egregious Gen-X cash-in Reality Bites. After the closing overdose, we were invited to look back on it all as a conventional and fairly conservative coming-of-age drama: death scares the rest of them into growing up and moving on. And then there was the Michael Hutchence problem.

But this many years later -- 20 years after the film, 30 years after the events it was based on -- Dogs in Space is being mined for the truth it got to or the memories it can support. It's taken on the status of artifact. This nostalgic essay, by Ashley Crawford, describes a Melbourne world that is much more lurid and extreme than anything in Dogs in Space:
Thus it came to be that on dark winter evenings, when Melbourne sunk into Siberia-like hibernation, a small coterie of artists would be corralled into the stygian environs of St. Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom. The Ballroom was a broken down rock venue struggling for life. Audiences fluctuated. At times half-a-dozen punters constituted a crowd. Entrance was via a gamut of passed out drunks, semi-conscious junkies, syringes piercing skin, a slick swamp of vomit and a littering of Victoria Bitter cans. This was the St. Kilda of the damned, long before polished floorboards and café latte. This was still the St Kilda of Albert Tucker’s visions of Good and Evil, prostitutes loitering in the dim lights of tram stops, a world of the living dead. At the time Tucker still lived around the corner and could often be spied stalking the streets, glowering at all around him.
Dogs in Space's 1978 was earlier and less darkly anti-glamorous than this; earlier than the elevation of the Birthday Party's Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard into drug-trashed art stars. Prior to that St Kilda of the damned. In 1978, in cities like Melbourne and Auckland, news of punk hadn't been coming through for very long from the world outside -- and that world of London/New York was very far away then -- and there was nothing yet of post-punk. These antipodean cities were still boring, monocultural and often hostile places back then, as in this blog by Sam Sejavka:
Twenty five years ago, it was a smaller, greyer, far more conservative city. There were no street cafes. Restaurants rarely had bars and you could count on two hands the number of 24 hour establishments. You’d be hassled for wearing hats in pubs and chastised by war veterans for wearing second hand medals on the tram. You could get beaten up as a poofter for wearing anything even remotely peculiar. The only alternative scenes were the sluggish festering hippies in Carlton and Fitzroy, a gaggle of Maori drag-queens in Fitzroy St, and the tribes of skinheads and sharpies in Holmesglen and Bayswater. Musical offerings included pub rock, more pub rock and maybe a bit of flaccid folk rock ... In the Melbourne of 1980, if you caught sight of someone across the street with dyed purple hair, the odds were you’d know them. The scene was that small.
Sejavka was the singer in a band called The Ears and the Hutchence character was based on him:
After Wattletree Road, Mick and Tim (then later myself) moved to Berry St, Richmond, into the two storey terrace immortalised in Richard’s film. Inhabited by rusted-on hippies and sedate film students, it was a comfortable and neat environment, but not for long. Subjected to our presence, it descended by degree into the chaos that was fairly accurately depicted in the film. The house was now The Ears home base, where we could rehearse and where Mark Gason, our faithful lighting technician, could build his contraptions from neon tubes and Christmas lights.
It seems that Sejavka and Lowenstein fell out over Dogs in Space. Not because the film that immortalised him wasn't much good, but because that death of Anna was based on the very real overdose of Sejavka's girlfriend Christine. What upset Sejavka, on seeing a rough cut of the movie, is the implication that he introduced his girlfriend to heroin -- as the fictional Sam does for Anna:
Though the film is fiction, it conforms largely to the facts of real life, and on this sensitive point, it jarred badly with the truth. I was horrified to think that anyone might think I was responsible, even indirectly, for Christine’s death.
It took Sejavka and Lowenstein more than 20 years to bury the hatchet. In fact, they only did it last year. But history has added other kinds of weight to this film, more weight than it has ever seemed to warrant; now it's also a memorial to a dead rock star. We can't help but imagine Hutchence as another body carried out of that Richmond house by emergency services. If Sejavka -- inspiration for the movie, now doppelganger for a dead man -- is in the audience in Melbourne this weekend, I imagine he's going to find it a very weird experience.

The Melbourne Film Festival "post-punk underground" programme is here.