Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dr. Plonk

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2007)
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.
While I live in hope for Australian films, I can't say that I'm a big fan of much of our output. Rolf de Heer is an Australian director whose work does interest me. I've only seen three of his films, and each was completely different:
  • 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
I was pleasantly surprised by Dr. Plonk. At first glance, the images promoting the film looked a little cringe-worthy. I was also a little sceptical at the idea of reproducing the silent-era style in a contemporary film.

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


Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I think I've only seen 2 of De Heer's films - Ten Canoes and Alexandra's Project - and I was bored and disgusted by them respectively. Still I'm intrigued by this Dr. Plonk thing. I adore silent films and I adore film with a <90min running time.

marty said...

Rolf de Heer has made enough films now but still he gets funding from the government for all of his films and thus denying an opportunity for up-and-coming young filmmakers to get their films funded. I am sick of seeing the same filmmakers getting their films funded by taxpayers when we should be supporting the next generation of filmmakers.

Paul Martin said...

Goran, I didn't see Alexandra's Project so can't comment. My partner saw it and didn't like it, which may have influenced me in not seeing it at the time. I did hear good things about Bad Boy Bubby, though, but it seems to have divided audiences.

I think I detect a hint of controversy there, Marty. ;)

I suppose one's response to your statements might depend on whether one likes de Heer's films or not. I do and I find them worthy. I know awards aren't everything, but Ten Canoes' win at Cannes carries some weight. It's not de Heer's films that are wasting funding, it's the middle-of-the-road stories (like Irresistible that we should be worried about.

My prediction is that nothing will change in the Australian film industry for a very long time, unless radical changes are made to the basis of funding. I can't see radical changes being made anytime soon. Even when edgy films are made, they don't get support. Either they aren't marketed sufficiently, or the mainstream reviewers warn people off them, or the Australian market is just so conservative that they don't value or understand them.

Jana said...

Do you mean The King that had Gael Garcia Bernal as the protagonist? If so, can you point me to your discussion of it? G and I saw it last year and did a lot of animated talk over it.

Second thought, I didn't know there was a film based on The man who read love stories. I've read the book, which I really liked. (I'm a bit special in that I've always read the book, but not seen the movie. Indeed, I saw Forrest Gump about 10 years after I read the book, and I still haven't seen Trainspotting. I felt very awkward going to see my first film without having done the book first, The Perfume.)

From what I've seen in Croatia, may I add, once local film industry loses its audience it gets very hard to win back the trust. There needs to be a string of good films, and, unfortunately, they seem to have to be of the populist kind (comedies, children's films and thrillers/action movies).

Paul Martin said...

Yes, Jana, that's the same film I'm talking about. I saw it before I started this blog, so I have no discussion to point you to. Both Zoe and I were physically affected for hours after seeing it.

As I recollect from Rolf de Heer's Q&A after the film's screening (it took 3 years just to get a very limited screening in Melbourne), the production company changed hands during or after filming, and the film was shelved. It took major effort to get it seen, but there was no backing by the owner of the film.

The problem with seeing a film after reading a book is that a film can't cover everything a book does. But the problem with seeing a film first is it taints your perception of the book.

I don't know what the solution is for the Australian film industry. It seems that there's an unspoken policy of just keep doing what we've been doing and hope for the best. Then we wonder why nothing changes. I think the industry needs the financial support of the government as a cultural priority, like it is in France and Korea.

marty said...

I have seen several films after reading the book and read the book after seeing films as well. I remember reading The Accidental Tourist before seeing the film and I loved it. I really invested in the characters more as I knew them intimately. I love that film. The same with The Age of Innocence. Read the book first and the film blew me away. However, it probably helped that the films were very accurate adaptations of the books.

Paul Martin said...

I rarely read novels, so it's not generally an issue for me. I thought One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a good adaptation, though the film and book take different perspectives (Jack Nicholson's character and the native American respectively). I think I read the book first, and the film didn't disappoint.

With Lord of the Rings, I enjoyed the first one the most, as it brought to life much of what I had imagined from reading the book (more than once), especially the Black Riders. But I found the next two installments quite disappointing. Naturally many of the details had to be sacrificed, but they ended up being mostly CGI, losing much of the small details.

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul,

I've not been reading your blog for long - and I can tell we have different tastes in film. (Not that there's anything wrong with that).

I've seen a few of de Heer's films (Canoes, Old Man, Bubby, Alexandra's, The Tracker, Dance Me) and they've all been terrific. He's a real talent, and Australia's only auteur - he writes, directs, produces, (and Marty, that talent is why he keeps getting funding).

I saw Dr Plonk at the Adelaide Film Festival this year where it was the closing film - and its world premiere. My summary is this "It's slapstick comedy, it's repetitive, it's boring, it's rubbish."

Honestly, if any of your readers enjoy slapstick, they'll probably enjoy this. Anyone else - you've been warned.

Paul - can I suggest you start a separate post on the state of the Australian film industry? I'm sure that will generate plenty of discussion - some of it might even be useful !



Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, Ian. I think we're in agreement about de Heer generally, though I disagree that he's Austrlia's only auteur. I'd also include Alkinos Tsilimidos, though others are free to disagree of course. There may be others, but none that come to mind.

I think to appreciate Dr. Plonk, it may need to be compared to the silent era films it is emulating. I can your perspective of it (and others I spoke to after the screening felt similarly), but I don't share it.

I'll keep your suggestion in mind, but I have lots to write and little time at present. It is a subject that comes up regularly in various forums, and always provokes discussion.

Kamikaze Camel said...

You really should see The Tracker at least. I'm a big de Heer fan though.

1. Ten Canoes
2. The Tracker
3. Alexandra's Project
4. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
5. Bad Boy Bubby (not my thing, but it's worthy)

And I really want to see his sci-fi film from something like 1993. I'm seeing Dr Plonk on Saturday at the AFI festival of film. Can't wait.

Cathleen Rountree said...

Paul, I have to say, i really admire how consistent you are with your site!! A little jealous, actually. :) I'm working on a film-based novel, which is consuming much of my time. I'm pleased to know about Alkinos Tsilimidos, a director i've never even heard of. Unfortunately, his films are unavailable on Netflix –– so the search is on!

Paul Martin said...

Cathleen, I subscribe to your site via Bloglines, and I do look forward to your posts. It's all a matter of time, really. The time I can put in varies. During MIFF, I took two and a half weeks off work, and saw as many films as I still had time to write each day. Now I'm back at work, I have less time for it.

In my opinion, Tsilimidos is Australia's finest and most unrecognised director. Were his films produced in Europe and with subtitles, I'm sure they would be embraced around the world on a par with names like Michael Haneke, Catherine Breillat or Christophe Honoré. Australians seem to eschew a similar style when produced locally, for reasons I can't comprehend.

His films thus far are Everynight... Everynight (1994) which is being re-released on DVD in September/October, Silent Partner (2001), available now (and it also includes a short documentary, Straw Man), Tom White (2004), available now and Em 4 Jay (2006), available next month.

You may be interested to know that by chance, I happened to use my digital voice recorder for the first time today (I bought the Sony ICD-MX20). I interviewed Alkinos Tsilimidos for four hours; it was mostly conversational with a loose structure. We didn't cover all the ground we want to and will continue at a later date. My intention is to produce an article for Senses of Cinema that I will also post here.

BTW, I'm having trouble with the Dragon software; do you use it (v9)?

Kamikaze Camel said...

I saw Dr Plonk yesterday and thought it was fantastic. Extremely funny and had more life in it than most films being released on 200 or 300 cinemas.

Anonymous said...

I love silent film. I also understand the genre and its limitations, but I don't think you get extra points because you made one with a hand cranked camera in the 21st century. Though there are a few chuckles, Dr Plonk is not particularly funny or clever. It needs a good editing. Cut 40 minutes or so and you might have something.

Cheers m./