Australian directors' films flow at an ebb, but many are on video

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"With a good film, the nationality is secondary," said the writer-director at the time of the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. "The film is its own country."

The writer-director was an Australian, Peter Weir, whose film that year was "The Year of Living Dangerously," set in the Indonesia of 1965 and co-starring the American-born, Australian-raised Mel Gibson and the very American Sigourney Weaver, with an erratic English accent.

Plenty of nationalities there. Mr. Weir has since directed films in America, including "Witness" (1985), filmed partly in Philadelphia; "Dead Poets Society" (1989), in Delaware; and "Green Card" (1990), in New York; and "The Mosquito Coast" (1986), filmed in Central America and the United States.

He may have become cosmopolitan, but he's one of the leading products of a purely Australian effort that started bearing cinematic fruit in 1975.

That year, Mr. Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" was released. It's a film that shines into the memory of your soul, the way the best movies resonantly do. Here was the work of a director new to us, from a country we didn't even know had a film industry. Soon after, other Australian movies emerged to astonish the film world.

How did it happen?

Surprisingly enough, through some influential critics and would-be film producers' lobbying the Australian government about the fact that their country had no film business and therefore no identity in the powerful medium.

That was back in the Aussie Dark Ages of 1970, when Prime Minister John Gorton pushed for a bill to establish an Australian Film Development Corp. "to encourage the production and distribution of Australian films of high quality."

Such a bill worked very well in a country where nearly everyone went to the movies. But the theaters and movies playing in them were mostly American-owned and made. One could anticipate that good things would happen soon when expatriate Bruce Beresford, who had left some 10 years before to work in England, returned.

One could argue that the government's pushing for a high-quality national cinema worked only too well. The films that made Australia internationally respected also made its directors and stars equally famous, and in demand, in the world's biggest film market, America.

As the prolific Mr. Beresford noted, "America is somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the world market for films." You have to make a reputation in the United States, argued Mr. Beresford, to continue making films. Maybe backed by huge American budgets.

The wonderful rush of Australian films would seem to be over, at least as it was experienced in this country during the late 1970s and the '80s. But the miracle of the medium is that it is living history, now on video.

Here are the top Australian directors and their best films. The filmmakers are listed alphabetically, which allows the sole woman to go first.

GILLIAN ARMSTRONG

"My Brilliant Career" (1979) may have been threatening because it was directed by a woman and was based on the autobiographical story of a strong-minded woman (played by the strong-minded Judy Davis) in turn-of-the-century Australia. The highly regarded film introduced Americans to Sam Neill and Wendy Hughes. Movie mavens will recall Ms. Davis' awesome presence in the recent "Impromptu."

Other notable Armstrong films:

*"Starstruck" (1982): A little charmer about a 17-year-old woman who wants to make it as a singer.

LTC *"Mrs. Soffel" (1984): It's the turn-of-the-century again, but in America this time as Diane Keaton helps two prisoners escape, including the charismatic Mel Gibson. Clubbed by many American critics. Underrated.

*"High Tide" (1987): This fine film argues that you can go home again. Davis plays a singer who encounters her teen-age daughter, whom she had abandoned years before.

BRUCE BERESFORD

Mr. Beresford, whose "Black Robe" is now in theaters and winning great critical acclaim, is remarkable for his durability, his versatility, his skill as an actors' director and his brilliant way of transforming plays into magnificent films.

His "Breaker Morant" (1979) is not only one of the best adaptations of a play but also one of the Australian film masterpieces. It introduced us to a trio of marvelous actors: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown. Three Australian soldiers are put on trial in a criminally trumped-up court-martial. Based on fact. Unforgettable.

Other notable films by Mr. Beresford:

*"The Getting of Wisdom" (1980): The coming of age of a young girl at school in the 1800s. Based on the highly regarded Australian novel by Henry Handel Richardson.

*"Tender Mercies" (1983) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989): They would have to be considered American movies, and they won Academy Awards for Robert Duvall and Jessica Tandy, respectively.

*"Don's Party" (1976): Remarkable as another of Mr. Beresford's sizzling adaptations of a play, this one is about a group of folks who gather at Don's to watch election returns -- and get bombed. Possibly the definitive movie about getting smashed. And wonderfully wicked. A lost film that should be found forthwith.

PAUL COX

Judging by his offbeat films, Mr. Cox is perhaps not the sort of chap you'd invite to a party. Except Don's, of course. He favors working with Wendy Hughes.

Mr. Cox's "Man of Flowers" (1984) is about a fellow who might give the Jimmy Stewart character in "Rear Window" the creeps. He pays an attractive young woman to strip for him. Why? He's still psychically attached to his mother. Wendy's not in this one.

Other notable Cox films:

*"My First Wife" (1985): A painful, partly autobiographical picture about the breakup of a marriage. By now you're getting the idea that Mr. Cox is not for all tastes. Ms. Hughes is in this one.

*"Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh" (1987): Effective documentary has the always-effective John Hurt narrating.

GEORGE MILLER

Mr. Miller proves that not all the writer-directors of the new Australian cinema are just "high quality." Mr. Miller wants to put you on a roller-coaster and take you for the ride of your life. He sure does in his fabulous Mad Max trilogy:

*"Mad Max" (1979): The most commercially successful Australian film of its time does not wear well but it's fascinating to watch the young Mel Gibson and guess whether you would have figured on his mega-stardom.

*"The Road Warrior" (1981): Classic vehicle chases, dynamite flick.

*"Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985): The best of the three and great science fiction.

Other notable films by Mr. Miller:

*"Twilight Zone -- The Movie" (1983): There are four stories, each from a different director, and Mr. Miller's is the best. John Lithgow is an airplane passenger who spies a gremlin on the wing who's not wearing his seat belt.

*"The Witches of Eastwick" (1987): Yes, mates, really an American picture and I'm sure John Updike, who wrote the novel, hates it. You won't. Jack Nicholson, more devilish than ever, woos Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon.

PETER WEIR

Mr. Weir's three best films, with enough visual magic for an entire career, suggest not just another terrific Australian filmmaker but potentially a world-class writer/director. Only a curmudgeon would wince over the harmless "Green Card" (1990), written and directed by Mr. Weir. But consider that the haunting "Picnic at Hanging Rock" opened up the world to Australian film and a unique sensibility. Then consider these two:

*"The Last Wave" (1977): Richard Chamberlain defends aborigines accused of murder. But the film, even more evocative and mesmerizing than "Picnic," turns into a fable about a possible apocalypse. Its use of picture making to tell the story and its disarming examination of the nature of existence make one think of a young Ingmar Bergman.

*"Gallipoli" (1981): One of the best war films ever. It's about young World War I Aussies and, like "Breaker Morant," it will break your heart. It was clear in this movie that Mel Gibson would take Bruce Beresford's advice and go where the big budgets are: America. And it seemed that Mr. Weir was capable of anything, judging by this masterwork.

"Gallipoli" is both an Australian national film and its own country. "Green Card," alas, is just another picture located in the Big Apple and it's not even its own city, let alone country.

Maybe you can't go home again. But at least try, Peter.

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