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Originally the plan was to write about Don’s Party before the federal election on the weekend. That didn’t pan out. Perhaps subconsciously I knew that writing about it after the numbers were in would be more piquant, and whatever instinct that was in play turned out to be right. After all, the film is about what happens at an election night party when a widely expected Labor victory turns into a brutal rout in favour of the LNP, and that is certainly what happened on Saturday night. And so here we are in 2019, looking back at the events of 1969 through the lens of a film released in 1976. Are there parallels? Of course. Do they mean anything? Well, who can say?
Directed by Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Ladies in Black) and adapted by David Williamson from his own 1971 stage play, Don’s Party is a simple set up: on election night, schoolteacher Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his wife, Kath (Jeanie Drynan) have a few friends around to their suburban Melbourne home (it was actually filmed in Sydney’s North Shore) to celebrate what is assumed to be an Labor lock. As history and the film shows, this was not the case; John Gorton’s Libs thrashed Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party, retaining what was then a 20-year grasp on power. This turn of events, unsurprisingly, does not go down well with the film’s motley collection of Labor pseudo-intellectuals, and as the booze flows freely they soon fall to vicious infighting – and gosh, as of the time of writing, that barely even counts as a metaphor.
What’s striking about Don’s Party is the merciless yet affectionate attitude it holds towards its cast of characters, all of whom are horribly compromised and fundamentally broken people who nonetheless see themselves as part of a kind of intellectual, cultural, and moral elite. Ockerish Don and exhausted, sniping Kath aside, there’s recently divorced, lecherous Mack (Graham Kennedy), married, lecherous Mal (Ray Barrett), and single, lecherous Cooley (Harold Hopkins, and are we seeing a pattern here?).
The women in their lives all indulge their menfolk with varying degrees of exasperation and disdain; Cooley’s 19 year old girlfriend, Susan (Clare Binney), is still largely bright-eyed and excited by the louche posturing of her lover, but Mal’s wife Jenny (Pat Bishop) is bitterly disappointed with her life, as is Kath, while snobbish artist Kerry (Candy Raymond) clearly sees herself as above the pretentious of these suburban would-be sophisticates.
The misogyny on display is an eye-opener from our current perspective, but Williamson and Beresford frame the casual sexism and seemingly endless sexual propositions as pathetic rather than threatening. Amateur pornographer Mack is a sad piece of work, while Mal, a would-be intellectual, is crashingly unaware of his own limitations – only virile, blunt Cooley, younger than the rest of the crowd, comes across as a sexual threat, and he’s a rather alluring one in light of the spent masculinity of his elders.
Indeed, Cooley, who Don and Mal view as a protégé, is more of an affront than the two Liberal supporters who are thrown into the mix, safari-suited Simon (Graeme Blundell) and his wife, Jodie (Veronica Lang). These two, for all that they are intruding from the other side of the factional line, are fairly harmless. Cooley, on the other hand, is young, strong, aggressive, and clearly bucking against the patronising paternalism of his would-be mentors – he’s the future, and he’s angry and disillusioned with the status quo.
Everyone is, really, even if – hell, especially if – they are core that quo. Don’s Party stares hard into the abyss of Australian progressive politics and doesn’t blink, teasing out all the inconsistencies, contradictions, infidelities, and hollow principles. In 2019, all these lecherous losers and bitter harpies would be #canceled, but Beresford and Williamson are a lot more forgiving. They are, after all, looking at themselves, or at least a close representation of the people they were surrounded with and the milieu in which they lived and worked (you could pull Don’s Party out of suburbia and drop it into the Australian arts scene of the period with very few non-cosmetic changes).
That’s perhaps why it works – if this was a conservative satire of Labor mores, it could be dismissed as one-eyed and needlessly savage. However, the creators are standing in the panopticon with us, and so its much harder to dismiss their observations as lacking in context – there’s an honesty at work here that is both disarming and damning. Don’s Party is difficult viewing at times, but its an absolutely essential piece of Australian cinema.
Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: John Hargreaves, Jeanie Drynan, Graham Kennedy
Writer: David Williamson
Released in 1989, filmmaker Ann Turner’s debut feature Celia is another entry into the “fantastical coming of age” subgenre, which includes the baroque, playful fantasy of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), the bloody sexuality of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), and any number of YA adaptations, successful, or not, that have (briefly) littered our screens over the past almost 20 years (taking the first Harry Potter film’s 2001 release as out ground zero, because why not?).
Celia bears more in common with Labyrinth and …Wolves due to Turner’s canny decision to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, externalising the title character’s confused and deeply symbolic imaginings as quasi-physical threats she must deal with. It’s all a bit Freudian, but Celia thrives because of its specificities. It’s set not only in suburban Melbourne, but in the 1950s, and Turner foregrounds two cultural elements from the period – the anti-Communist Red Scare and the rabbit plague – as not just narrative tools, but as psychological inroads into our protagonist. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
It’s the early 1950s, and nine-year-old schoolgirl Celia (Rebecca Smart) loves two things above all others: her grandmother and her pet rabbit, Murgatroyd. The former is taken from her when she discovers the old lady dead in bed one morning. The latter is under threat as the government institutes a ban on pet rabbits as part of an effort to stamp out the feral rabbit population, which is booming.
These two obvious traumas are paired with murkier troubles: the persecution of a neighbouring family who are suspected of being Communists, and the marital problems plaguing her parents (Mary-Anne Fahey and Nicholas Eadie). Fixating on The Hobyahs, a frightening story read to her class at school, in which an elderly couple are menaced by goblin-like monsters, Celia begins to imagine that the creatures are invading her life: behind every threat to normalcy and stability is a Hobyah in a human mask. And as fairy tales have told us since time immemorial, monsters must be bested with cunning and violence.
There are a few cultural touchstones that orbit around Celia, but none it maps directly onto. Its depiction of pre-helicopter-parenting childhood is absolutely on point, and echoes some of Stephen King’s better works on the subject (there’s even an Apocalyptic Rock Fight, ala IT). At one point Celia begins to incorporate imagery from a movie she’s seen at a Saturday matinee into her own personal cosmology, a riff that predates similar narrative flourishes in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) by several years. Weird little paganistic rituals that Celia and her friends enact, plus the red lipstick “warpaint” she dons for the film’s climax, allude to folk horror.
And yet the film remains singular – defiantly its own thing. Over the course of its life Celia has frequently been labeled a horror film – a hangover from its US home video release, when the distributor struggled to find a label for it that might attract audiences. And yes, there are horrific elements – the Hobyahs are realised as grotesque rubber-suit monsters, all spindly, clawed fingers and twisted, oily-black faces, and their intrusions into our protagonist’s mindscape are powerfully unsettling.
But its real horrors are social, political, and personal. What disturbs here is not the thought of painful death or toothsome creatures, but the way powerful cultural forces twist and buffet us in general, and young Celia in particular, and how we go to great lengths to construct meanings and systems of knowledge and belief to make some kind of sense of such processes. Within each adult is the child they once were, after all, and within that child still dwell the monsters that terrorized them. Celia manages to connect up all three, and few films have done so as effectively.
In this way, Turner’s film is more effective that any dozen more conventional genre works. It gets under the skin like a tick, like an infection, like myxomatosis, and lingers there, dully throbbing, driving us to pick at it and ponder, idly but worryingly, who our personal Hobyahs might be, and what rituals might best serve to fend them off.
Director: Ann Turner
Cast: Rebecca Smart, Mary-Anne Fahey, Nicholas Eadie
Writer: Ann Turner