Long has the Australian film industry suffered from an identity crisis. Actually, backtrack for a moment: unlike the United States or India, it’s debatable whether this country’s cinema output can be properly classified as an industry at all. For years, scarcely any significant film has been made without considerable government support, either in the form of direct investment from the Film Finance Corporation (to be folded into a new umbrella organization, Screen Australia, on July 1, 2008) or similar institutions, or heavy tax rebates for those projects with “significant Australian content.” The most recent controversy, over George “Happy Feet” Miller’s Justice League Mortal, was whether or not it qualified as being Aussie enough to benefit from the 40% producer offset. Justice League was rejected, presumably because it’s an American production, with an Australian at the helm. FFC president Brian Rosen, apparently enraged at the decision, shot from the hip, decrying a formula that turns away big-money behemoths “so we can make small films that appeal to about 100,000 people and nobody else, about lesbians, drugs, and whatever else.” Amongst the artistic elite, Rosen’s words became a cause scandale, but to the lay public and the popular press, he spoke sweet reason. The FFC invested $76 million of taxpayers’ money for film and television projects in the 2006-2007 financial year, and given that outlay, a film’s value, at least in editorial pages, is counted in profit recoupment, not the quality of artistic expression. Simultaneously, the Hollywood story model is desirable as a money-spinner, but regarded with open disdain for its mode of same-ish storytelling. The film crisis in Australia, then, bubbles out of the desire to make films that are profitable, but with a still decidedly Australian mien.
By that token, Matt Newtown’s Three Blind Mice might be the perfect curative, one of Rosen’s “small films” that will find wide purchase down here. In his unassuming, blokey digital video feature, Newtown takes a familiar narrative and gives it an Antipodean inflection: three sailors brawling, flirting, gambling, and boozing their way around downtown Sydney. Some unspoken misconduct hangs heavily over the evening, but the cure for what ails ya is one last dusk-till-dawn bacchanalian caper before shipping out for the Gulf at dawn’s first light. The film is something of a travelogue for Sydney, rambling from Darling Harbour down to the inner west suburbs, and Hugh Miller’s lovely DV photography is suited to capturing the hazy allure of Hyde Park under burnished streetlights, or the gone-to-seed interiors of the city’s ill-used monorail line. Completed scant hours before its SFF world premiere, Three Blind Mice bears the marks of an edit room scramble, a splintered feeling of raw timber not fully sanded. But there are benefits to dating the daughter of Australian screen royalty (Gracie Otto, sister to Miranda, and son of Barry): what can’t be smoothed over gets a touch of performative varnish from a cavalcade of local screen luminaries, called in as a favor for daddy’s little girl. It’s highly ironic that a film so clearly disdainful of power and suspicious of privilege is the beneficiary of the same. (That’s perhaps a bit unfair, although I can’t help but wonder how the film would play with lesser lights on screen. Every cameo is high-powered, making Three Blind Mice an untenable production model for your run-of-the mill first-time director.)
Stepping behind the camera for the first time after a sturdy film and television career, Newtown succumbs to relatively few debut stumbles. He lets his camera run a minute or two past its use-by date, and his dips into seriousness—the artistic fallout from the Iraq war is that too many directors are using it as instant gravitas—dovetail awkwardly with nicely observed chummy chill-out time, but that shouldn’t dim its many redeeming qualities. Short on thematic heft, then, but long on craft: Newtown is a deft and lively director, demonstrating an uncanny knack for eliciting crackling spontaneity from his actors, able to juggle several competing performances with level efficiency. His clever-dick persona—this is a population that loves a well-crafted put-down—is awfully fun to watch, and the relationship between Newtown and his shipmates, fleshed out by Ewan Leslie and Toby Schmitz, rings with breezy camaraderie. The film’s also deftly paced, and after a spate of irredeemably dreadful features (more on them in a later dispatch) I’m of a mind to praise a film that can simply hit the marks of even reasonably professional filmmaking.
It’s an awful bugbear, but despite Three Blind Mice’s rough-hewn character, there’s definite potential here, and quirky truth too, from a gang of irascible, foul-mouthed Italian-Australian poker players, to an elderly couple with a surreal solution to marital problems. In surveying these, Three Blind Mice is profane, messy, quick to cut down tall poppies or pretension, and coursing with a certain irreverent lust for life. It won’t play well outside of Australia, but it contains every one of this country’s most admirable traits.—JAMES CRAWFORD