Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), for instance, confronted the long legacy of institutionalized racism in an historical setting, adapting a novel by Thomas Keneally about a young aboriginal laborer (Tommy Lewis), who, fatally frustrated by his inability to make a transition from his traditional indigenous life to that of white civilization, commits horrific crimes of bloodshed and is hunted down. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, the direction successfully captured the flavor of European society rendered paranoid and tentative in the bushland, and the crippling frustration of the oppressed indigenous inhabitants. Schepisi's film was the most expensive Australian production to date, and was eventually hailed as one of the country's greatest films, but it failed badly at the box office with its unpopular theme.
Schepisi (1939- ), a Victorian with a Roman-Catholic background, had explored that background in his two previous works, an episode of the three-part movie Libido in 1974, "The Priest," and then 1976's The Devil's Playground, a self-penned drama set in a boy's school in the 1950s. That film sought to define an already retreating era in urban Australian life in which middle-class and religious propriety, and the way this was haphazardly imposed on young people, had been suffocatingly prevalent, and this theme also presented a boy's-own counterpart to the female experience of The Getting of Wisdom. In spite of the commercial flop of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schepisi's qualities as a director had been noted, and he became the first of the Aussie New Wave's directors to decamp permanently to the US, debuting there with 1982's Barbarosa. If Jimmie Blacksmith took a less rosy look at the colonial landscape, Philippe Mora's Mad Dog Morgan (1976) revisited the humbug of the bushranger genre with newly potent force, cunningly employing imported star Dennis Hopper as the infamously nasty titular bandit, Hopper's image of rebellious energy meshing strongly with Mora's (1949- ) vision of Morgan as an avatar of social frustration.
Another, very different kind of storied prestige film of the late '70s was My Brilliant Career, based on an autobiographical novel by Miles Franklin, an early Australian feminist author, was brought to the screen by Gillian Armstrong (1950- ), the first woman to be credited with directing an Australian feature of note since Paulette McDonagh. Her use of Franklin's material for her own debut made an irresistible point: not much had changed for female artists in the intervening eighty years. Armstrong was one of the first students at the Australian Film and Television school, and her film also gave a significant boost to the careers of two actors who would have strong Hollywood careers, Judy Davis and Sam Neill. Armstrong joined Schepisi, Weir, Philip Noyce, and Beresford as the most famous and internationally reputed of the revival's directors.
Some filmmakers did avoid historical settings and antiquated literature in trying to make adult dramas. One of the first stabs at an immediate social protest drama was Danish-born director Esben Storm's 27A (1974), detailing the travails of a middle-aged alcoholic trapped in the mental health system of the era. Storm (1950- ) followed it with an ambling character study, In Search of Anna (1979), which sported some rare - for Australian cinema - non-linear narrative experimentation. It was however Bert Deling's Pure Shit (1975, a.k.a. Pure S...) that created the biggest stir, and announced the divisive, infuriating arrival of something like social realism in Aussie cinema, with its depiction of the two days in the lives of four heroin addicts condemned by many for its street-level perspective and even-handed cynicism about institutionalized cures. Government censors initially refused it classification, but it finally premiered, with its original fully spelt title amended, at the Perth Film Festival. A common aspect of the handful of contemporary melodramas that followed were narratives that studied a small number of young people wandering a lustrous but often hostile landscape in search of a vaguely defined freedom.
Neither Deling's nor Storm's careers gained much traction in later years, but several young directors announced their arrival with more contemporaneous-themed dramas. John Duigan (1949- ), a Melbourne-born director who had passed through an apprenticeship in the theatre, made his feature debut in 1975 with the surreal drama The Firm Man, but did not truly make a mark until 1978's Mouth to Mouth, a tough tale about four young social outcasts who live in an abandoned loft with an old derelict, who dies in a police assault. Duigan followed it with Dimboola in 1979, a poorly received adaptation of a once timely satiric play first performed ten years earlier. Duigan's early films nonetheless essayed a variety of Aussie neo-realism in tackling portraits of contemporary material, and he wasn't entirely alone in this. Philip Noyce's Backroads (1977) was an equally punchy, socially exacting approach to the same theme, portraying in this instance a pair of car thieves, a disaffected drifter (Bill Hunter) and a militant aboriginal (actual indigenous activist Gary Foley), tear about the countryside in a hot Pontiac, picking up some hitchhikers, and finally running afoul of the cops in a tragic finale that spoke of the influence of American films like Easy Rider and The Sugarland Express.
Noyce (1950- ) made his proper feature debut a year later with perhaps the most ambitiously conceived film of the '70s, Newsfront, a fictionalized account of the rivalry between two major newsreel companies throughout the 1940s and 1950s, which incorporates within its structure a study in the shifting values of Australian society in that period, with its iconic everyman hero Len Maguire (Hunter again) resisting the lure of the American siren. Although cleverly assembled by Noyce, Newsfront, which had a troubled script development, is diffuse in story, lacks sustained drama, and never quite manages to be as thoughtful as it wants to be, proving one of the most disappointing of the era's signal hits. Nonetheless, it proved Noyce a sophisticated and intelligent director in his clever manipulation of documentary footage. Newfront also gave an important early role to Chris Haywood (1949- ), a British-born character actor who, even if he wasn't in every Australian film of the next twenty years, sometimes seemed to be.
Some directors whose work was hard to classify would take longer to gain attention debuted in this period. Scott Hicks (1953- ), eventually to make a breakthrough with 1996's Shine, began his cinematic career with two short films about itinerant young men, The Wanderer and Down the Wind, both co-directed with his friend and fellow Flinders University graduate Kim McKenzie, before working as an assistant director and production aide on several high-profile films.
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