Bill Bennett (1953- ) debuted in 1985 with A Street to Die, a drama centering on Vietnam veterans afflicted by health problems caused by Agent Orange, and followed it swiftly with 1986's Backlash, a road movie thriller with dashes of message picture intent, about two police officers forced to rely on their aboriginal prisoner for survival after their car breaks down in the outback. These two films established Bennett as a talent to watch for some, even though his third feature, 1987's Jilted, went straight to video, he would recover to make a so-so comedy, Spider and Rose, in 1994, and then have a popular, acclaimed success with 1997's Kiss or Kill. In between came a lone American venture, the drowsy Sandra Bullock vehicle Two If By Sea (1995).
Mark Joffe (1956- ), like Bennett, essayed a moody thriller early in his career, Grievous Bodily Harm (1988), featuring two strong male protagonists (played by Colin Friels and John Waters) each desperately pursuing investigations that eventually converge. Although the film performed flatly, it did establish Joffe as an effective stylist.
1985's Tail of a Tiger was an uncharacteristic debut for Dutch-born director Rolf de Heer (1951- ), arguably the best, surely one of the most aesthetically challenging Australian directors to emerge in the '80s, in that it was a children's film, but it nonetheless possessed some of de Heer's lucid, poetic sensibility in portraying an adolescent boy's determination to realize his dream of restoring and flying a Tiger Moth airplane. He followed it eventually with Incident at Raven's Gate (1989), a dark, punk-infused science-fiction variation on Ambrose Bierce that first established de Heer's claim to being the new Australian cinema's most volatile shaman. A similarly flamboyant, if rather more easily categorised, talent was evident in 1987's Dangerous Game, in essence a slasher film about a small group of university gadabouts trapped in a shopping mall with a psycho-killer, directed by Stephen Hopkins. Filled with contrivances and indigestible elements, it was still an attention-courting debut, one that worked: Hopkins was soon in Hollywood, making the likes of Predator 2 (1990) and The Ghost and the Darkness (1997).
Egyptian-born, Sydney raised Alex Proyas (1963- ), like Hopkins destined to be a successful Hollywood factotum, directed a little-seen feature in 1989, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds. He made his mark, however, mostly with flamboyant commercials, and his next feature was the Hollywood gothic action film The Crow (1994). He returned to shoot his next film, the garbled but visually striking Dark City, in 1998, and made an undoubtedly Australian film, Garage Days, in 2002. Proyas' talent for constructing impressive visuals was superlative, but his storytelling and grip on narrative contiguity was often clumsy, and Garage Days, a portrait of a hard-luck inner-city rock band, subjected an idea with potential to a formulaic script.
Jane Campion (1955- ) became the most internationally heralded of the '80s talents, with her gift for prickly character portraits, potent invocation of physical atmosphere, and perceived, if in truth rather nebulous, feminist sensibility. Born and raised in New Zealand, Campion attended the Australian Film Television and Radio School, as it was known by that time. Having made several well-regarded short films throughout the decade, she produced her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Infused with black comedy, Sweetie portrayed two highly neurotic sisters in a dysfunctional family, in a work some felt announced the most distinctively modern and female-centric voice in Australian cinema. An Angel at My Table (1990), an adapting New Zealand writer Janet Frame's autobiography, was actually a television mini-series, but it proved so critically regarded that it was released theatrically overseas, and it remains the cornerstone of Campion's reputation.
Two very popular successes of the second half of the '80s came from first-time directors, neither of whom would subsequently equal their earliest works. Greek-born former actress Nadia Tass (1955- ) directed 1986's Malcolm, working from a screenplay by her husband David Parker (1947- ), who also served as cinematographer. Proportions maintained, Malcolm was a truly smart and funny melding of classic screen comedy tropes, wry Aussie humor, and comic caper flicks of the likes of The Pink Panther and The Italian Job, and it remains admirable over twenty years later.
Unfortunately, Tass's various follow-ups, including Rikky and Pete (1988), the gangsters-and-cars farce The Big Steal (1990), the American-made Pure Luck (1991), and Mr Reliable (1996), were generally labored comedies. The last was a thin fictionalized account of a late '60s house siege that became a minor media circus. Certainly these films never entirely recaptured the sharp mix of the humdrum and the gimmicky that made Malcolm a winner. Parker himself branched out into directing with a Mystery Science Theatre 3000-esque redub comedy entitled Hercules Returns (1993), and the flabby farce Diana and Me, about a young woman (Toni Collette) obsessed with Princess Diana, had the misfortune to have its premiere cancelled by the death of Diana, only gaining belated, scrappy release in 1998.
Yahoo Serious, born Greg Pead in 1953, had, like Tass and Parker, ambitions to channel traditions of screen comedy, both Aussie and international, and he expanded his slapstick-infused Young Einstein (1986) out of a short film. Serving as writer, director, and star, Serious made a film that proposed Einstein had been born in Tasmania, had invented nuclear fission by way of putting the bubbles in beer, and had been the first to play rock 'n' roll music. Underneath its raucous, highly uneven comedy, Young Einstein effectively captured an atmosphere wrung out of the '80s Aussie alt-culture with its cut-up approach to historical and cultural iconography, with its life-loving prodigy hero struggling to get out from under the thumb of villainous snobs evoking a pop version of a national parable. Young Einstein was a significant hit after it was revised with financing from Warner Bros and re-released two years later, prompting Warners to put a lot of money into his next film, Reckless Kelly (1993), an unfortunately terrible film. Serious' later attempts to revive his career, like 2000's Mr. Accident, did not add up to much.
Even if not all destined to make masterpieces or even to sustain careers, the many directors who managed the daunting task of completing one feature film in the '80s at least promised that there was energy and potential enough in the Australian cinematic scene. This however may have been hard to perceive when the industry was falling into difficult straits, as financing dried up after the cessation of 10BA and film after film failed to recoup its costs at the box office, in a rapidly narrowing age of cinematic distribution. It was also clear that certain templates for what an Australian film was or ought to be had fallen by the wayside: grandiose historical storytelling had no future, for all its irregular moments of popularity, and the already hazy memory of international hits like Crocodile Dundee proved something of a millstone. As Australian cinema lurched unsteadily into the 1990s, it was clear those days, giddy as they had been, would not be coming back in a hurry.
Continued: Part III (1990-present)
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