to be taken from the 1970 Australian film The Set, recently released for
home audiences by Bounty
Films, is that “important” is not the same as “good”. Widely recognized
as Australia’s first queer-themed film, The Set certainly qualifies for
the first descriptor, but you’d have to be pretty charitable to file it under
the second. Still, for those with an interest in the history of Australian
cinema, queer cinema, or both, it’s certainly worth a once over.
Based on an
unpublished novel penned by Ozploitation legend Roger Ward (Mad Max, Turkey
Shoot), The Set follows the exploits of young Paul Lawrence (Sean
Myers, credited as Sean McEuan), who blossoms artistically and sexually in the
decadent art scene of late ‘60s Sydney. Plucked from the menswear department by
tastemaker Marie (Brenda Senders), who lands him a job designing a set for
artist Mark Bronoski (Dennis Doonan) theatre director John L Fredericks
(Michael Charnley) (the film’s title applies to both this and the extended clan
of effete cultural aristos that comprise the cast of characters).
expects a little bedroom quid pro quo, but Paul has eyes on blokey bloke Tony
Brown (Rod Mullinar), scion of a moneyed family who isn’t averse to a little
down low guy-on-guy action but is squarely against anything even resembling a
committed relationship. Further relationship complications and general
debauchery ensue, and our hero, essentially a queer Australian Candide, slowly
but surely spirals out of control.
Look, A for
effort. The script, credited to Diane Brittain and Roger Ward, with ahem
“special material” by Kenneth Johnson, certainly throws a lot of what would
then have been considered shocking material at the screen, and some of it
sticks. If representation is a numbers game (it isn’t, but the dumb and the
click-hungry like to pretend it is), there seem to be more queer characters in
this thing than straight, and the presentation of gay sexuality is fairly
unapologetic. There’s some interesting nuance in the dynamic between Paul, who
is actively trying to figure out which way he swings, and Tony, who considers
himself straight against all evidence and activity to the contrary. Other
characters hew close to the old “screaming queen” stereotype but hell, we can’t
expect perfect wokeness from a 50 year old film.
The Set’s problems stem from its budgetary
and technical limitations. It’s shot in black and white, which is dated even by
the time of its release, and director Brittain frequently resorts to simply
locking off his camera for two shots or simple reverse angle set ups, which
seems to be out of economic necessity rather than artistic choice. Performances
are frequently amateurish and histrionic, which contributes to the overall camp
charm but, in combination with the pretty basic filmmaking chops on display,
really relegates The Set’s appeal to viewers who are already primed to
appreciate it; it’s hard to imagine anyone not already in the bag for this sort
of thing being converted.
that, as an artifact The Set is invaluable, and Bounty have done
Australian cinema quite a service by ensuring its posterity. You may not
actually like it, per se, but you must appreciate its existence.
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