Despite the major problems involved in its disavowal of Aboriginal history and its blatant national-political myth-making, Australia's bicentennial celebrations have proved to be a cloud with a silver lining. However flawed its political project, the ABA (Australian Bicentennial Authority) has succeeded in securing a significant degree of international exposure to Australian art, media and culture in Europe and particularly in the former colonial homeland of the UK. The exhibitions of Australian Art (by both white and Aboriginal artists) at London's Commonwealth Institute, Hayward Gallery and Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) during 1988 have, for instance, raised the profile of Australian art in the perceptions of, at least, British critics and art historians. Though apparently low on the priorities of the ABA, Australia's independent film and video culture has also managed to secure exposure for itself in an international context.
Although the revived Australian cinema has thrown up its own distinctive style of art film in movies such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career, developed a colourful sub-genre, the Outback Gothic (eg. Razorback or The Cars That Ate Paris), and hit pay-dirt with the Mad-Max and Crocodile Dundee series, Australia's independent production scene has, to date, remained little known outside its national boundaries.
The major showcases of Australian work at the Edinburgh Film Festival and London's ICA have, however, provided British audiences with a valuable opportunity to redress this imbalance. As might be expected of a collection of work by film and video makers as diverse as Tracey Moffat, Philip Brophy, Hayden Keenan and Corinne and Arthur Cantrill, there was no convenient national school on offer, but rather a variety of styles which avoided the ossified cliches of much European independent film and, to a lesser extent, video production. One significant figure to profit from this exposure was Melbourne based film and video maker and essayist Philip Brophy.
Despite producing a series of films, videos and video installations since the early Eighties (such as The Celluloid Self (1983) and Depictions (1986)), he has been better known internationally for his critical writing than his media work. One essay in particular, entitled "Horrality" received wide attention in anglophone Media Studies for its early theorization of a distinctive shift in the contemporary Horror (film) genre, one marked by its perceptions of terror and physicality. Originally published in Art and Text's 1983 spring issue, and subsequently republished in the Body Horror issue of the British journal Screen (vol.27,no.1), the article is now a key referent for any study of this area.
The screenings of his work at the ICA therefore constituted a valuable opportunity to compare his film and video production to the direction and the tenor of his critical writing. The European premiere of his latest 16mm film Salt, Saliva, Sperm & Sweat was especially interesting for its clear re-working of the themes from his "Horrality" study and for its adoption of a style of media essay, which has largely disappeared from European film production since the early days of French New Wave cinema — the construction of themes and propositions within structures borrowed from standard narrative cinema and subsequently re-structured by the director.
The following interview took place during the ICA's day seminar on Film Culture and National Identity — The Australian Influence in September.
Philip Hayward: Coming to Salt, Saliva, Sperm & Sweat with an awareness of your theoretical writing rather than your films and videos, I wondered how much the film developed out of your earlier critical work round Horror. In articles such as Horrality, you outlined the distinctive type of Body Horror which grew up in Seventies cinema, the fear of the aberrant body rebelling against the individual whose consciousness is constituted within it. Salt, Saliva, Sperm & Sweat clearly parallels this emphasis, but in the place of the horror of the aberrant body we have the normal body, but one seen as composed of and determined by types of fluid and types of fluidity — in a way a move from the fantastic-imaginary to the unexamined materiality of human existence. Was this a conscious progression on your part?
Philip Brophy: Well, Salt, Saliva, Sperm & Sweat is about what we might term the body horrible. It's a film composed of various texts and concepts around ideas of fluidity and wetness which involve the collapsing of conventional distinctions between the manifest and the latent, the phantom and the tactile. The use of fluidity in the film was intended as a nonarchitectural approach to the body — an understanding of the body as a system of flows and feelings rather than traditional materialstructural concepts. This interest in fluidity stems from my background in music and the fact that music, like the body, is most often conceptualised in terms of structure when in fact it is essentially about flow and movement. In this way the concerns and approach of the film don't spring from poetic invention or my peculiar imagination, as the ICA programme notes put it, but rather from a direct telling.
PH: The Sweat section of the film is horrific in the traditional (filmic) sense though, it's a reference to the Horror film genre rather than the body horrible, why is this?
PB: It follows on from the sex scenes in the Sperm section and is like a dead joke — bad timing ... It's like another movie breezing in and uses a classic New Wave cinema device of simply killing off a character to terminate the narrative. The Sweat emphasis extends to the audience, the image of the head blown open by the gun shot is held too long for deliberate effect, to produce a response in the audience.
PH: In the Sperm section you avoid obviously (porno)graphic representations of sexuality — isn't this a little demure given the other scenes of shitting, violence etc.?
PB: One thing I wanted to avoid was eroticism, I can't bear eroticism. I didn't want to use a lineage of fertility and pleasure. I' ve been criticised by this, but above all I wanted to emphasise ordinariness.
PH: There's much about Salt, Saliva, Sperm & Sweat which reminds me of the early work of the Canadian Horror film director David Cronenberg. Were you consciously playing off him as a referent?
PB: Well, it's something I can't avoid, it's an inevitable influence. The film itself is really a putting into context of ideas, rather than a narrative film as such. It came out of my desire to make a conventional horror film and by the fact that the Australian Film Commission (AFC) wouldn't fund me to make one, since they weren' t interested, they didn't think any horror film was worth funding. They didn't seem aware that genre production involves constant and necessary reading, re-writing and making. So the film is an essay about what's interesting in and about horror — it's a way of making a point. Interestingly, the AFC got it wrong in commercial terms just like they did when they continually refused funding for George Miller's original Mad Max project. Salt, Saliva, Sperm & Sweat became one of the AFC's first 'experimental' films to get a commercial screening in Australia, showing in a popular repertory cinema in Sydney.
PH: I feel there's also another similarity between your work and Cronenberg's early films (such as Crimes of the Future and Stereo), a sense of the film or video as exercise-in-ideas rather than text-in-itself. Do you agree with this parallel?
PB: In a sense I don't try and get a highly finished feel to my films and videos, they' re more like essays exploring particular themes in the context of their own medium. In this way I guess they're different from the kind of project the AFC is normally concerned with and different from what one might expect of the Art Film, the avant garde film or whatever.
PH: Do you intend to continue exploring the Horror/Body Horror idea in your future work?
PB: My current project is a video installation entitled Depictions II * which combines a series of excerpts of gore sequences from horror movies with a text on the soundtrack commenting on them, a text which is continually getting lost in the violent soundtrack of the extracts. Horror and perceptions of the body are continuing interests of mine.
(* Note: this project evolved into the video component of the Trash & Junk Culture installation later that year.)
Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat takes us on a relentless odyssey into the banalities of everyday life and its physical and social repetitions and obsessions. The film has prompted responses from the dismissive "boring, juvenile and utterly distasteful" to the laudatory "fascinating, unpredictable ... this film's got balls!" Guaranteed to divide audiences, Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat is a complex and uncompromising operation performed on the body of social conventions we all inhabit. Tom Ryan talked with writer/director Philip Brophy and producer Rod Bishop during the film's Melbourne season.
TOM RYAN: Could you tell me a bit about the storyboard for the film? I believe it was crucial to the production process.
ROD BISHOP: Philip wrote the first draft of the film in prose form. Philip, Maria Kozic (Art Director) and I then workshopped it twice more. Philip then developed this into the storyboard, which is really a work of art in itself. There are over 400 separate shots in the film, which is a lot for 47 minutes. I insisted on the storyboard because it would simplify all production processes- budgeting, scheduling, etc. Remarkably, not one frame was changed during production. It is an exact blueprint of the film.
PHILIP BROPHY: Drafting that storyboard was the hardest thing I' ve ever done. I've always nagged students on the importance of a storyboard, but it wasn't until I started inking out a complex one that I realized what a pain in the arse it is. It had to be very detailed for us to keep track of the four separate stories and the large number of shots. The other reason it was so difficult for me is because when I have an idea for a film or video I never begin by visualizing it. I conceptualize the soundtrack first, working with the ideas in abstract. I always hear a film first, and see it last.
T.R. To what extent can you identify your motivations for making this particular film?
P.B. I'm interested in sex and violence in contemporary cinema, particularly in how they have evolved in the past 50 years. During the 1960s, the rationale for sex and violence in the cinema seemed connected to Marshall McLuhan's notions of an exploding globe and imploding cultures. To quote Apocalypse Now, people were bombarded with "the horror", and, although Coppola's film was made towards the end of the 1970s, the image of America bombarding Vietnam was an apt metaphor for the 1960s. During the 1970s, the boundaries of realism were extended, and directors like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah insisted on showing "realistic" violence. Sex and violence in the 1980s is more concerned with hyper-realism - graphic violence almost beyond our comprehension. Re Animator has a good example of this: a body opens up and the intestines spiral out and choke a character to death.
T.R. I can see what you' re saying in relation to violence, hut where does sex fit in here?
P.B. The graphic representation of sex in pornography from the 1970s now crops up in more "acceptable" forms. Young Talent Time, kids' toys, body-building, sports, Coke advertisements. It's not just sublimation. The derivatives of sexual pornography are around us all the time.
T.R. How far do you think general audiences are aware of the kinds of meanings representations of sex and violence have taken on in the 1980s?
P.B. It depends on the films you' ve seen. Something like The Toxic Avenger shows you how grotesque and deliberately bad a film can be. Halloween is a horror film that displays John Carpenter's skill at crafting suspense. The more you see of "these" films, the more receptive you are to their differences and subtleties. You appreciate them as individual films. But it's hard discussing the issues, because a lot of people haven't seen the relevant films. They want to go back to Straw Dogs, Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange.
R.B. Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat attracted me as a film about sex and violence that wasn't going to use the conventional techniques for seducing an audience ... no sumptuous photography, no lyrical music, no characters designed for audience identification. I hope it shows how sex and violence are used in contemporary cinema, and how "good taste" techniques are used to seduce audiences. "Art" films generally use these seductive forms to dress up their "serious concern" for issues of sex and violence. Any Nic Roeg film is an example of this. Or Betty Blue, where a highly questionable morality is carefully disguised by its "arty" surface.
T.R. One criticism that's been made of the film — and I think it's a reasonable - is that it's puritanical in its concentration on what are conventionally seen as the horrible aspects of the body at the expense of what are conventionally seen as its beautiful characteristics.
R.B. What has to be said here is that, more than anything else, Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat is a nihilistic film, and a lot of people have an adverse reaction to nihilism. This is so particularly in the cinema which, more than any art form, is heavily dependent on escapism. Adrian Martin has described it as an "essay film" and thought some audiences misread it as a film about the existential hiatus of an office worker. Others are tempted to read it just as a cerebral account of sex and violence. The truth is somewhere in between. The sex and violence is really the underbelly of the banality of everyday life.
PB. As I see it, Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat isn't concerned with the aesthetics of the body. lt's more biological than that. David Cronenberg who made The Fly, put it well when he said that cancer cells in the body are amoral. They are not maliciously trying to kill a human body. They are actually wanting to survive. Their domain just happens to be the human body. A film like Flashdance, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of a Cronenberg film. Flashdance is really cerebral pornography - flesh always in sweat, always moving, always physical. And the fuel it runs on is the drive to succeed. lt's even subtitled "What A Feeling!" What feeling? Toyota? lt's a very open ended film and the complete opposite of Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat, which is claustrophobic and enclosed. We tried to put the audience inside the body, and not to observe it from the exterior.
R.B. Adrian Martin said that as well. He thought it was like being trapped in someone's skull, with all the sounds beating on you from the outside. I think that's what makes it feel existential, and that's also why audiences think it runs much longer than 47 minutes. It has its own self-enclosed logic, with no obvious way out.
T.R. My response to the film certainly includes a sense of entrapment, of being locked inside. My feeling, on a single viewing, was that that feeling was induced by the film's formal design, most notably the four-part narrative construction which locks you into the same human rituals, albeit in marginally different ways.
P.B. I can see that our structure works that way, and pictorially the film is very schematic too. But in the making it was the sound that was crucial for us. I wanted the sound to intensify the images and give them more resonance. The sound-track helps enrich the film and provides it with part of its formal complexity. And perhaps more than the images, or the narrative, the sound-track provides the flow by keeping up an onslaught of sounds. And, apart from a few instruments, the music is entirely made up of body noises - rhythms, beats made up from grunts, hand slaps, skin being rubbed, and so on.
T.R. These sounds were then fed through a synthesizer?
P.B. Basically, yes. The idea was to reinforce, on a subliminal level, the continuing presence of A Body. Right through the entire sound-track of the film is the sound of somebody breathing. Even over the computer text. It's something usually left out of cinema (except pornography), unless the point is to make the audience aware of a character being unbearably close to camera. More than anything else, this continuous breathing through Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat gives the audience that they are inside somebody's skull. And that feeling of being trapped, of being confronted by the issues in the film, is what I was after. It's the very opposite of escapism in conventional films. l wasn't interested in escapism. Life's not like that. The more you try to escape, the more you tend to become locked in.
T.R. Are there any filmmakers whom you'd care to identify as having influenced you in making this film?
P.B. Yes. At least four. The first is Russ Meyer, who made films like Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. All of his films since 1972 are complex commentaries on pornography, seduction, erotica, repulsion, entertainment, and titillation. He is a director who has stepped into the pornography area and deliberately confused the issues. He is the only film-maker I know of who is seriously dealing with the question, "What is pornography? Then there's Sean Cunningham and Friday the 13th — because, of all the slasher films, his is the most severely pornographic I've seen. Thirdly, Jean-Marie Straub and his perverse use of language, particularly in Othon, where the actors, in Brechtian fashion, stand around the ruins of the Roman Forum reciting lines from Racine's play like automatons. And, fourthly, Pasolini's Salo, which takes on four basic themes — shit, sex, violence and food, the four basic cornerstones of Italian family life.
T.R. I see. What have the audience responses to the film been like? Was Sydney any different to Melbourne?
P.B. lt's difficult to say because we weren't in Sydney for the season at the Mandolin Cinema. And, because that cinema and its audience aren't at the epicentre of the independent film movement in Sydney, we can't be sure of audience reaction.
T.R. But there were some problems with the independent scene in Sydney, weren't there?
R.B. I guess you' re talking about Laurie Mclnnes *.
P.B. In a way, those sorts of reactions are predictable. I was more interested in placing the film in a fully commercial cinema, and thereby ignoring a lot of that scene. We had tried to do that with No Dance without success. This time it worked.
R.B. In Melbourne, we got a lot of coverage. In press and radio interviews with Philip, he was able to talk about the ideas in the film. The media down here were much more interested in the issues of sex, violence, horror and censorship than they were in Sydney. I was especially disappointed with Filmnews. They gave us two reviews in articles on the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals, but nothing else. I thought this was a shame as the issues raised by Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat seemed perfect copy for Filmnews. Sure the film's confrontational and divides its audience on all those issues. And it doesn't fit into the mould of the "heart-warming-socio-political-conscious-independent film". But it works, and it challenges. I don't see what's gained by ignoring it.
P.B. I'm kind of in two minds about the Melbourne/Sydney differences. In July, I was in Sydney for a "Trash and Junk Culture" night and it was well attended and the audience was very responsive. But I don't think it was an "arty" audience, or even people who would have gone to the Mandolin to see Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat. Perhaps Melbourne audiences are more tolerant, but I tend to think it's because they represent more of a cross-over audience - the film buffs, art scene and rock heads seem mixed in Melbourne, but in Sydney those divisions seem more territorial.
R.B. Whatever the differences are, they are significant - the gross box office receipts were more than three times higher in Melbourne.
T.R. What advantage did you see in using negative reviews of the film in the marketing campaign?
P.B. Including negative reviews at least gives you an idea of what the film is like. Mostly it's good reviews that get quoted by exhibitors and distributors to let you know you've made a wise, safe choice if you go to see their films. And, since our film is confrontational, why not reflect that in the advertising copy?
*A judge of the 1988 Greater Union Awards, who asked for her dissenting view to be recorded when Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat was selected as a finalist.
Text © Philip Hayward & Tom Ryan. Images © Philip Brophy.