MIFF 2021 reviews by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Hi folks, here’s a few reviews of films screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.

Hopper/Welles (Documentary; dir: Orson Welles; 120 mins; unclassified 18+)

Dennis Hopper and Orson Welles are two of Hollywood’s most iconic, controversial and enigmatic figures.  Hopper, the notoriously wild, rule shattering rebel who was once deported from Australia and Welles the artistic polymath with the corpulence, smug, knowing countenance and imperious manner of a Bond villain.  The idea of a meeting between them is guaranteed to set cinephiles salivating.  Such a meeting is the subject of the documentary Hopper/ Welles which is screening at MIFF.

First hearing about this film, I thought it would be Hopper interviewing the revered auteur Welles but it’s the other way around.  This film documents a 1970 interview Welles conducted with Hopper as the latter had, with Easy Rider, become part of the vanguard of ‘maverick cinema’ that would drastically change American film culture in the 1970’s.

At the time, Hopper was in the middle of directing the film that would just about be his undoing, the disastrous The Last Movie while Welles was attempting a comeback with a film called The Other Side of the Wind (a film that was shelved for nearly 50 years) and in which Hopper also had a role.  It’s unclear how much of what we see here is Hopper and Welles themselves or characters they’re workshopping for that film.

Even if he’s partly playing the character of Wind’s cynical old director Jake Hannaford (a role that went to John Huston) Welles still comes off as objectionable.  He’s vain, acerbic and impatient but also more right-wing and annoyingly pushy than we might have suspected.  He also seems strangely detached from the culture of the time;  he appears not to know who Bob Dylan is.  That might be Jake more than Orson but it still seems as if, through Hopper, Welles is trying to understand and attack American counterculture and his questioning of Hopper becomes increasingly like that of Torquemada or Joseph McCarthy or just a drunken bore.  He probes and at times aggressively interrogates Hopper, ostensibly to find out what makes him tick as a person and a filmmaker but mostly just to assert himself like a bully.   We gain a few fleeting insights into the filmmaking process, the two directors’ attitudes to entertaining, informing and artistically testing audiences, European art house cinema, politics and even religion but it’s mostly a middle-aged grump unloading his belligerent views on an unsuspecting guest.

Hopper comes across as a nicer, more polite but more naïve hippy than we might have imagined and astonishingly patient of Welle’s self-righteous needling although this may be partly a performance. This was also shot just before The Last Movie went off the rails and Hopper’s subsequent bender while filming Mad Dog Morgan in Australia.  Had Hopper/ Welles been filmed a few years later we suspect Welles may have encountered a more belligerent adversary.

Hopper/ Welles is filmed in grainy black and white with low light and the camera mostly capturing Hopper’s profile as he drinks gin and tonics and eats dinner, so it’s not exactly thrilling to look at. Welles does not appear on camera, he seems to stalk around the room like Trump in a presidential debate.

In the end, this is still an intriguing look at America, cinema at the time and the character of two unusual filmmakers figures, even if Welle’s boorish behaviour eventually grates on our nerves.


Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (Documentary; dir: Celeste Bell, Paul Sng; 96 mins; unclassified 18+)

Despite its image as an insurgent force of left-wing radicalism, the punk movement of the 70’s was still very white and very male.  Someone who challenged that paradigm was Marianne Joan Elliott aka Poly Styrene, lead singer and song writer of short-lived but highly influential British band X-Ray Spex. As a woman of colour she cut a unique figure on the punk landscape at the time.

The documentary Poly Styrene: I am a cliché (the title comes from a Spex song) explores her life as a performer and cultural trailblazer.  Rather than a straight recollection of her life and music career, the film largely views her through the prism of her daughter Celeste Bell’s emotionally-charged memories.  Celeste also wrote and co-directed the film.

While X-Ray Spex music isn’t as well known as the Sex Pistols’ or the The Clash’s, their influence –  particularly Poly’s insightful, socially conscious lyrics and armour piercing voice – is unmistakeable;  just listen to bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney.  Poly Styrene was a poet as much as a singer and songwriter and through her poems and diary entries, the film reveals her changing view of her life and society and provides new insights into the meaning of her songs like ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours’ and its defiance of enslavement for all minorities.

As well as copious file footage from the 70’s and 80’s, the film features commentary from punk luminaries such as Vivienne Westwood, Don Letts, Youth from Killing Joke, (the ubiquitous) Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth as well as Neneh Cherry, TV host Jonathon Ross and various others.

The film explores Poly’s early life on a tough London housing estate where, as the daughter of a white mother and a Somalian father, she had to confront appalling racism.  A sensitive and fragile person, the feeling of being an outsider was both distressing and freeing as it compelled her to create the new identity of Poly Styrene. In so doing, she also challenged the notion of pop stardom, her stage name evoking the disposability of the music world.  Having adopted this persona, though, she found herself disappearing down a rabbit hole of fame, brutal music industry hypocrisy, drug use, mental illness and even eastern mysticism.  As Celeste laments, Poly longed to return to a simpler life as Marianne and for many years struggled to function as a mother.

Looking at the impact of a star’s life on their family is a novel approach in a rock doc although at times it feels like an unnecessary distraction from the main subject. Still, this is, for the most part, a sobering example of the price of fame and a moving story of a remarkable, boundary shattering figure in popular culture.


Sisters With Transistors (Documentary; dir: Lisa Rovner; 90 mins; unclassified 18+)

Sisters with Transistors, which reveals the overlooked women of electronic music, makes a fine companion piece to the Poly Styrene film.  This documentary contends that the DIY nature of electronic music often allowed women in the 1960’s and 70’s to circumvent the male-dominated music industry establishment and create a unique sound.  As the film says, these women could be the composer, the performer the sole arbiter of their creation.  The film also suggests that, by working with computers and technology at this time, they were repurposing the machinery of capitalism and patriarchy.

The film introduces us to people like the BBC’s erudite abstract music aficionado Delia Derbyshire who created the classic Dr Who theme, pioneering electronic sound designer Daphne Oram, Theremin artist Clara Rockmore, French electronic composer and synthesiser pioneer Eliane Radigue, Greenwich Village’s Bebe Barron who composed the music for the film Forbidden Planet, avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros and many other ground-breaking artists. Interestingly, while many were rejected by the music industry as sounding weird and not complying with female musician stereotypes, a few like Wendy Carlos were embraced by the advertising world which wanted unusual sounds to grab consumers’ ears.

As well as it’s social and political importance, the film is a fascinating and amusing journey through technology as we see footage from the 1960’s and 70’s of the nascent electronic instruments and synthesisers which are as big a room and have thousands of wires sticking out in all directions.

The swirling, mysterious, sometimes harsh sounds the women created were often met with confusion when released so, while the soundtrack here will no doubt thrill electronic music and possibly art rock devotees it might leave others scratching their heads.  Whether or not the music appeals, few could deny that film is a fascinating study of trailblazing women and artists.


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