Dr. Plonk was selected as the opening night film of the AFI screenings, in which members get to view all the year's films eligible for voting for the annual AFI awards. It screened simultaneously in two cinemas at the Como cinema, and was introduced by the director himself (I spoke to him briefly at the catered event following). The AFI also provided showbags from the sponsors, including various L'Oreal cosmetics and the DVD of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rolf de Heer explained that there were at least three reasons he made this film:
- He found the stock in a fridge going to waste, and decided to use it. When I asked him about it later, he said it was about ten years past its expiry date. It was colour film that I presume was converted to black and white in post-production.
- He wanted to make a film that was a tribute to the films he loved in his childhood, such as The Keystone Kops.
- After the difficulties of some of his earlier films, he wanted to make something that would be fun to make and fun for the actors to be involved in. As an aside, he mentioned that it was much more difficult than expected.
- The Old Man Who Read Loves Stories (2001). I saw this in 2004 at the Nova cinema, with a Q&A session with the director. De Heer described some of the many problems he had making this film with an international cast in the jungles of French Guiana. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Timothy Spall and Hugo Weaving, it was ambitious and both an unusual and an interestingly different film.
- Ten Canoes (2006). This is a really unique Australian film that tells an indigenous story in a way that these people voiced so publicly. It won the Un certain regard (Special Jury prize) at Cannes 2006 as well as 6 AFI awards (for best film, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and sound). It was also my no.3 favourite film for 2006 (after Em 4 Jay and The King).
- Dr. Plonk
De Heer told me after the film's screening that when he presented the film to a group of school children in Adelaide, the general consensus was positive, even though most of them didn't understand the concept of silent film. One student asked why no-one was talking! As an aside, I find the director a modest and unassuming gentleman.
I think this is excellent family entertainment. Often the word 'family' is used in conjunction with children's films, but I mean it in the context of 'all-ages'. Baby-boomers and older will relate to the obvious homage to The Keystone Kops (which I also enjoyed as a child) and the early films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
De Heer has done a remarkable job of producing a contemporary film that is not only a faithful reproduction of the style and mood of these historic films (including classic slapstick, stunts and acrobatics), but also manages to fuse contemporary issues. Set in 1907, Dr. Plonk creates a time machine that travels 100 years into the future in order to gather proof that the world will indeed end in 2008. De Heer displays excellent judgement in subtly presenting political points in a way that doesn't detract from the mood of the film or offend people's sensibilities.
The casting was spot on. The three main characters were Dr. Plonk (Nigel Lunghi), his lowly assistant Paulus (played as comic relief by Paul Blackwell) and Mrs. Plonk (Magda Szubanski). South Australian premier Mike Rann appears in a cameo role as the present day Prime Minister Short, and Wayne Anthoney plays Prime Minister Stalk in 1907. The film also takes a humorous look at who our next prime minister will be.
Some of the classic devices of silent films used by de Heer include: humiliation of a superior towards his subordinate (including lots of bum-kicking), a performing animal, altered film speed, a slight flickering look to the film as the light intensity varies (emulating the imperfections of the technique of the day) and absurdly simple props (like a wooden box with a lever as the time machine).
There's a point around half way into the film where if gets a little flat, and I suspect some contemporary audiences - particularly those with little experience of silent film - may get a little impatient. Having recently seen some Keaton shorts at Melbourne Cinémathèque, as well as Keaton's The General at the Astor a year or so ago, I thought this was still consistent with the films of that era. The music was enjoyable and appropriate, yet a little whacky - it was performed by the Stiletto Sisters.
All in all, I found the film a real treat, well conceived and executed. I intend taking my six year old son to see it and I'm sure he'll be laughing his head off at the good old-fashioned gags that leave most modern comedies for dead. This film is 83 minutes of refreshingly good old-fashioned entertainment. Dr. Plonk opens in cinemas on 30 August.
Link: Philippa Hawker interviews Rolf de Heer