Sunday, 31 July 2011

Film 564/1001: Richard Linklater’s Slacker (or, where did those last 20 years go?)

I am not crazy or OCD enough to think I’ll ever get through all 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but a few years ago when I got the book, I did want to tally up how many I’d seen from the list which begins with 1902’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon, d: Georges Melies) and ends with Kill Bill, Volume 1 – at least in the 2004 edition.

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho (1960)

At the time of my first count, I’d seen around 550 – since then I’ve caught up with a few more and subsequent editions of the book have added 78 more titles from the 2000s and presumably slicing out films that no longer make the cut. I have seen 44 of the 78 newer films, or 56% of the 1079 total. This represents a self-guided film education, which has slowed down over recent years. Still, I sometimes get around to watching films from the 1001 list that I’ve always been meaning to see. The most recent – Slacker from 1991.

Director Richard Linklater is responsible for what I occasionally site as my favourite film, Before Sunset and its unashamedly romantic precursor, Before Sunrise. Those two films are rightly regarded as incredible achievements, even though the rest of his career is somewhat uneven.

The first Linklater film I ever saw was Dazed and Confused in a double feature with Reality Bites at the Valhalla Cinema (as the Westgarth was known through the mid-90s). It was a good double and I think it still is. Dazed captures the indie sensibility of the time, possibly even defined it, while Reality has a more Hollywood-esque sheen but certainly captured the attention of teens at the time. (Dazed is also a period piece, set in 1980, so the tones of both films vary wildly for that reason, too. Plus the two films’ attitudes toward drugs and indie culture couldn’t be more different.)

But before Linklater at least had a budget to make Dazed, he made a no budget film called Slacker – filmed in 1989 as Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape was making it possible for indepedant filmmakers to break through with their debut features. Like Soderbergh, Linklater’s films are more deeply influenced by European arthouse than the rash of indie breakthrough directors only a few years later who were happy to rehash all the Hollywood they had grown up on; directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez (who, like Linklater, splits his time between Hollywood and filmmaking in Texas).

Slacker captures that early 90s movement of young people who were distancing themselves from society, fearing it had nothing for them. Slackerdom was most clearly associated with the grunge movement of the time, but Linklater’s film even predates that – and feels like a once in a generational statement on how people in their late teens and early twenties ask philosophical and existential questions because they don’t know how they fit in the world.

The film’s narrative is an odd one, made up of vignettes – short stories across a day in Austin, Texas. And maybe it’s not merely a comment on a generation, but a critique of the city Linklater grew up in – which he’d continue to explore in films like SubUrbia or in the character of Jesse from the Before couplet. We begin with a guy getting off a bus (Linklater, himself) talking about destiny and choosing the right path and then as his story ends, we follow another man from his frame into another short story. And once his story plays out, we get dragged along in the current of another slice of life.

The structure feels a little forced sometimes and never really surprising, but the characters are all quickly defined and some interesting stories are told and observations made. Linklater would later delve further into existential quandries in his amazing, but slightly indulgent, Waking Life, which has even less coherence, playing out in a dreamscape.

But as an exercise in how to film a portrait of a city and its generation of teenagers and early adulthood, it’s a strong early film from the director. And it also has interesting things to say about other disaffected people who took history into their own hands, for both good and ill – with a recurring nod to several people in American history who attempted to assassinate Presidents. (Also, oddly amusing – the billboard in the back of one scene that declares: RON PAUL FOR PRESIDENT. He’s been trying that trick for a long time!)

Linklater’s career has tried to balance mainstream (his biggest success, School of Rock) with his smaller budget character work – and he continues to try interesting things when he’s allowed. For example, I can’t wait for his film Boyhood which is due for release in 2013 – which he’s been filming for over a decade, shooting the story of a young boy from 8 to 18.

For me, Slacker isn’t necessarily a film you must see before you die – I’d point to Before Sunrise and Sunset  for this director – but it’s definitely a film to remind us what the early 90s were like. For those of us who were there. Us slackers.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Traditional theatres, found spaces and Four Larks' Undine

Four Larks' Undine

After Melbourne Theatre Company’s thrilling adaptation of Hamlet last Monday night, in their relatively new, state-of-the-art traditional theatre with as much money as you’d expect on stage outside of an imported Broadway musical, it was lovely to see Four Larks’ new show, Undine, produced in a non-traditional space – someone’s garage. And be as engaged in this intimate venue as in the Sumner earlier in the week.

Nearly all the shows I see are in traditional theatres – from the giant State Theatre to the intimate La Mama on Faraday St, but a found space like a garage or even something as odd as the Collingwood Underground Carpark, gives the piece an added layer of experience. Attic Erratic’s Christina – A Story with Music was memorable for all its elements – acting, script, music, set and score, but the depth of the space (the Carpark) also resonates in my mind. As it if were a stage that went on forever.

Four Larks’ Undine shares some visual elements with Christina, a crumbling room invaded by water while a man tells the story of a woman who has captured his imagination and is stuck in his subconcious. But while Christina’s story explored a modern day character in a story that could have happened, Undine dives into the myths of water sprites, sirens, spirits and the titular, Undine – a kind of water nymph.

Seeing a show whose production design is visually exciting, with a three-member band and two singers to create the score, all while squeezed in with patrons into (an admittedly large) garage, reminded me again how live theatre can transform a space and, if it’s working, transport the audience even if they are a little chilly or slightly uncomfortable in their seats.

While the story of a man’s obsession with a water nymph is simple (and somewhat simplistic, the nymph barely having a character of her own), the design elements and the acting from the three leads – all playing different elements of the main character, capturing his fragmented mind as well as varying aspects of his creativity – build Undine into a moving and memorable experience.

For my own work, I’m mostly drawn to traditional spaces – places with lighting rigs and bathrooms in place. But finding venues can be a tricky business, even when Melbourne has intimate venues scattered north and south of the river – and east and west of the CBD. The trick is to finding the right place for the piece you have. Getting a commitment from a space (or, The Space in Prahran) came down to the wire for us when registering for Melbourne Fringe. Finding a space for Three Women will be the deciding factor on whether we get the show up in November or early 2012.

But it’s exciting to know that theatre can spring up and hide in the most unexpected places. The play’s the thing, but you still need somewhere to put the play on.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Unpack my heart with words: MTC's Hamlet

Photo by Jeff Busby

 Every time I see Hamlet, I want to write a lot about how this production compares to all the other stage and film versions I have seen. Structure changes, cuts, line readings, performances - every time I see something new, unpacking new subtext from the heart of Shakespeare's play. But I'd like to keep this brief.

Ewen Leslie researched the role by watching as many film versions of the character as he could, which is the antithesis of how actors typically work. As far as I can tell, most would rather not be accused of being too influenced by notable performances past. But with his all in approach, Leslie seems to have steeled himself against the possibility of echoing an old performance by finding a fresh angle on Hamlet - a Prince of Denmark who is tormented, troubled and ready to have fun while riding on the edge of insanity. From playing with a gun while he questions, "To be or not to be" to dismissing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with air-quotes around "friends" to devastating moments with mother Gertrude and love Ophelia - where I actually felt real emotion for and from the character, since his soliloquies can often keep me at a remove.

Simon Phillips' production is modern-day set, with laptops and listening devices, dropped inside a mansion of glass and sharp corners, where the images of the characters are reflected in multiple planes, making ghosts of them all from time to time. Rotating on a revolve, the forward motion that is already part of the text becomes more like a freight train, sending the characters faster and faster toward their dramatic and tragic ends. Shaun Gurton's set is multi-layered and ever changing, even though we can peer through it much of the time, watching as characters listen in or stand and watch in awe.

Composer Ian McDonald creates an almost thriller-like mood as the set turns and the actors pace from scene to scene, but it's a restrained score, thankfully. Too much thriller might have overblown the drama that is already there in the play.

Special mention of the incredible Robert Menzies, whose performance as the Ghost was one of the most mesmerising I have seen; his appearance as the Player King probably makes him the best actor to ever play that part, perhaps

And an actor to watch: Eryn Jean Norvill, whose Ophelia practically stole the show each time she was on stage, particularly the moment where Ophelia must shine - her flowers here replaced with the flotsam and jetsam of her relationship with Hamlet.

A notable highlight of my theatre-going year.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Selling myself

Writers write.

Writers who write for performance obviously can't and don't work in isolation. It's a collaborative medium and I love that part of the process. Watching a script of mine go from page, through a director's head and into an actors' body, is like watching an incredible metamorphosis.

Sometimes I write things that suggest they should be short stories or novels (though there's rarely a voice suggesting I finish those novels, dammit), and there's a lot of creative satisfaction in writing prose that is entirely mine. From my fingers to the page. From the page to the readers' eyes. Still incredible.

I still hide behind "writers write", though. Even though, as an independant theatre maker, I am used to finding actors to do readings, finding directors to give me feedback, and pitching to producers/production managers (read: usually friends) to get work off the ground. But there are still times when I feel like actors, directors and producers sell our product better than I ever could.

And, perhaps, in a finished product, the paying public would prefer to hear from the men or women on stage - convincing them to come along to the show. But long before a show is in previews, it's in pre-production and development. And I still find it difficult to talk my stuff up.

Happily, I am surrounded by lots of supportive people - collaborators at nearly every stage of my process. Even now, as we work on getting Three Women ready for November, and I develop the script with the actors, I am still deluding myself into thinking that my actors can sell the show better than I can. (And, you know what? That may not just be delusion; the actors I know are more vociferous than the writers I know. See: gross generalisation.)

The selling I do best? Networking at readings, workshops, after shows, on social media - and now this blog. The mere mention of me doing radio interviews for On Time in the lead-up to Fringe made me reel back and put the one man in the one-man show front and centre, even though that show is both Richard and mine from the beginning.

I need to get over myself and put my writing forward. Because it's really good and worth seeing - just ask my collaborators!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse.

This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life, but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end.

It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for narrative" level, were so beautifully shot and integrated into the visual poem that Malick composed, I was in awe of his bold vision.

There hasn't been a film I've wanted to walk out for a long time, though I have seen a couple of plays which drove that feeling right to the surface. Without naming names, one was a 90 minute play in a space that if I'd left, I would have interrupted the play; the other was a two-act show where I almost left at interval because I had seen the show before and was deeply unthrilled by this current production. I still wish there was some way I could have escaped the first, but I'm glad I stayed for the second because the second act was much stronger.

I put down books and switch off DVDs, possibly because I'm more easily distracted at home. But I cannot walk out of a film or a play, because I feel like any criticism of a half-watched piece makes the criticism entirely invalid. And I learn a lot by sticking through an entire production to see what pitfalls I can avoid in my own theatre making.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Three Women, how it began...

While pre-production for On Time barrels along, I'm also working on a show with the working title of Three Women. This will certainly not be the finished title, but it works right now because it's about three women.

I've written a lot of short plays - mostly inspired by the opportunities offered by the Short & Sweet Festivals, and the fact I've been produced a couple of times there. And, like short films, ten-minute plays can really get to the heart of a character or situation and tell strong, short stories.

Having written On Time for Richard - the first time I've written a one-person show, I wanted to write a couple of one-woman pieces. This led to me writing two short plays, "Poems a Dead Boy Wrote" and "Like a House on Fire". The first was read at Melbourne Theatre Collective and the second at the Cold Reading Series - and both got really strong reactions. Admittedly, "Poems" got a more sombre reaction - because it's a heavy dramatic piece. "Fire" got lots of laughs and huge applause at the end.

After the reading of "Fire", I had three female actors approach me wanting to perform the play; one actor in particular wanted to film it for her show reel and later ended up using it as an audition piece for another Fringe Festival show.

Of course, if I was going to do "Fire", they couldn't all perform it, so I offered "Poems" to Christine and "Fire" to Renee and then we went away to discuss how we'd turn those two small pieces into a night of theatre. The answer? Write a third piece for another actor - and then workshop a play where all three characters meet.

I like the challenge of finding three vastly different characters in a room together just to see how they will react to each other. These were all written as separate pieces - the third is recently finished and titled, "Lady M" - with no thought to the second half of the Three Women show.

Now, with three pieces and three actors to perform them, we are actively looking for a space to perform the show and I'm starting to mull over how these women might meet and what happens next.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Melbourne Fringe Show - Ten Weeks To Go...

I'll be writing more about the content of On Time closer to Fringe, but just wanted to say a few words about where we are in the pre-production process after our most recent meeting.

Last night was our first in-depth discussion about marketing and promotion, which always seems daunting to me, since it's not something I tend to think about as a writer. Producers, sure - that's their job. Actors, definitely - they usually have to do all the talking. But I think we've got some good ideas and our connections in the media are pretty strong, too.

We went over a list of answers we need to get from our venue and talked about when we'll need to print up posters, send out press releases and the like. I also got to hear some of the music from the show, which got me really excited since music is something I have an opinion on but basically no talent for. Finding collaborators that can bring different elements to make the show better are awesome.

And tonight we got sent a proof of our Fringe Guide ad, which looks great and feels like real evidence that we are actually doing Fringe!

We've got a lot to do before the show, but we've got clearly defined goals between now and then - and things will ramp up quickly the closer we get.

Lights up.

A writer sits in front of his laptop, trying to find the right words to introduce himself and decides simplicity is best.

Hi, I'm Keith. I'm a playwright, living in Melbourne, Australia. The last three years has seen my plays - both short and full-length - read, workshopped and produced in various venues across Melbourne (and once in Malaysia, in 2008).

I'm currently in pre-production on two shows; one that's headed for the Melbourne Fringe Festival in September and October 2011, and one that's aiming for production in November. It's a busy time for me - and it's a busy time for the Melbourne creative community.

I want to write a little bit about the process of putting both of these shows on. I wish I'd started blogging about them when they were first conceived, but as with most things creative, it's not always easy to pinpoint their conception.

Over the coming weeks and months, I'm going to look back on how both these projects began - both in entirely different ways. And I'm going to talk about where pre-production is up to and when you can come along to see the shows when they are set to premiere. And where my work will be headed in 2012.

I'll also be giving overviews of my other work - plays that are yet to see production, as well as a look back to productions/readings of my work in the past.

And because Melbourne seems to be in such a rich creative place right now, I'll occasionally blog about theatre shows I've seen - from the Melbourne Theatre Company main stages, to the smallest independent theatre companies, showcasing their work in intimate venues and found spaces.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope I've got the time to both create theatre and talk about the process.

Lights down.