Is there any Australian film weirder than Bad Boy Bubby?
Posted on: 26/05/2015
Writer and film critic Luke Buckmaster wonders if Australian cinema can get any more weirder than Rolf de Heer's Bad Boy Bubby.
Writer/director Rolf de Heer’s intensely dark 1992 road movie Bad Boy Bubby - a freaky film to watch back then, just as it is freaky these days - is now 22 years old. The tale of the eponymous protagonist who has spent 35 years holed up in a windowless apartment with a disgusting mother who convinced him the outside world is in a state of apocalyptic ruin (a premise similar to Netflix’s recent, though somewhat cleaner comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) casts a long shadow over the Australian film industry.
Those yet to experience de Heer’s walk on the wild side get to ride the wave of a big, bad, striking piece of cinema for the first time. The story of Bubby (Nicholas Hope) emerging from a stinky hell hole to spearhead one of the blackest fish-out-of-water comedies the local industry has ever produced comes complete with incest sequences, death-by-Cling-Wrap, bitter ruminations on God and ironic commentary on the indie music scene, from which the antihero emerges as an unintentional star. It was an experiment clearly intended to disrupt the status quo and fly in the face of conventional filmmaking traditions.
A scene from Bad Boy Bubby
And “experiment” applies to more than its button-pressing themes and storyline, which de Heer made increasingly extreme as he redrafted the screenplay for a decade. On a technical level his direction is audacious to say the least: Bad Boy Bubby was shot in sequence using 32 different cinematographers (remarkable given the film’s grungy-looking consistency) and its audio recorded using microphones taped to the side of star Nicholas Hope’s head.
That Bad Boy Bubby is such a severe, distinctive, unapologetically strange cult sensation is a result of boldness and ingenuity on behalf of the filmmakers, though its lonely residence in Australian cinema as one of our few popular and truly off-the-wall cult classics begs certain questions.
Is the Australian film industry frightened of making truly daring films, or the audience of watching them? If Bad Bubby is a freak anomaly, is the rarity of local productions that push the envelope in comparable ways (and generate reasonable exposure in terms of box office success and longevity on ancillary markets) symptomatic of the system from which it emerged?
Much has been said over the years about the Australian film industry’s propensity to produce ‘downers’ focusing on the lives of the sick, impoverished and addicted. While Bad Boy Bubby is not exactly an uplifting experience, and just as fixated as a “serious” film in its warts-and-all exploration of the human condition, it comes from a place of creative daring very distinct from the morose dramas that earned Australian cinema its “not another downers” reputation.
Films of the Bubby ilk, in which it is acceptable within the context of the story to watch a mentally handicapped man-child murder his family by wrapping them in Cling Wrap, are rare beasts. But it’s the kind of work that stands out much more in Australia than in Europe, where filmmakers are more entrenched in the tradition of exploring the cinematic bizarre (from waves such as French surrealism to Italian giallo to countless films that belong to less canonised movements).
Or even, for that matter, in America, where some of the European rabble rousers inevitably turn. An enfant terrible such Lars von Trier gets embraced by the fringes of the film industry and attracts actors who are at a stage in their careers where they wish to take certain kinds of risks. In the USA the independent film circuit more strongly caters for hard-hitting directors (such as Larry Clark, Harmony Korine or Darren Aronofsky) and auteurs are celebrated as royalties of the out-there oeuvre (such as David Lynch and David Cronenberg).
In Australia, writer/director Ana Kokkinos has gone some way in pushing the envelope, challenging audiences with the sickly rush of productions such as woozy coming of age tale Head On (1998) and psycho-sexual rape drama The Book of Revelation (2006). But Kokkinos is hardly able to write her own cheque: the filmmaker has supplemented extreme visions with work on television soap operas such as The Secret Life of Us and The Time of Our Lives.
The Book of Revelation
The matter of where the money comes from is an important part of the conversation. Challenging films that set out to fly in the face of conventional sensibilities often aren’t the sort that appeal to funding bodies and decision makers. The Ozploitation movement of the 70s and 80s, known for risqué and titillating subject matter, partly provided a counter to that, though the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mentality of the films that defined it was generally geared towards the mantra of “sex sells” rather than sophisticated feats of artistic experimentation.
Films produced with the aid of government funding (like the vast majority of Australian feature films) exist in a different context to commercially oriented product. In a sense they are afforded more artistic freedom, given financial success is not imperative or even a top priority. In another they are more accountable and thus more homogenised: as the money has been sourced from the taxpayer dime, there is an expectation (and sometimes very specific criteria, depending on the funding body) that the work captures or explores certain parts of national identity, and thus certain kinds of film become streamlined.
One of the boldest and most interesting Australian films about drug abuse is 1975’s Pure Shit, which follows a group of Melbourne heroin addicts and contains scenes in which the cast actually consume real drugs in front of the camera. That film was entirely self-funded; for obvious reasons it’s hard to imagine government bodies wanting any stake in it – though the end product is an edgy and sophisticated piece of work.
Bad Boy Bubby was about a half-half split. Italian producer Domenico Procacci contributed around $400,000 of the film’s $800,000 budget (which included money from the South Australian Film Corporation) making it an Italian/Australian co-production.
That rare combination is hardly the only unusual thing about Bad Boy Bubby, though a reasonable if simplistic explanation of why it feels both quintessentially Australian and more than a little European. Perhaps making the film was a matter of capturing lightning in the proverbial bottle; the kind of once-off that never comes again. All these years later, our national cinema never got any stranger. Bubby, at 22 years of age, is the granddaddy of Australian cinematic weirdness – a benchmark, of sorts, to which edge future filmmakers can aspire.
Bad Boy Bubby screens as part of our Australian Perspectives program from 6 June - 25 July.comments powered by Disqus
Nicholas Hope as Bad Boy Bubby