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Body Melt

(Philip Brophy, Australia, 1993)


 

Strange Things

Philip Brophy's Body Melt is a catastrophe narrative. One sunny day in suburbia, a hideously dying man crashes his car into Pebbles Court, Homesville. He's been brought to the point of meltdown by an experimental drug marketed as "Vimuville" vitamins, and he's arrived, too late, to warn the Court's inhabitants not to swallow the sample dropped in their mailboxes. So then the story scatters: a businessman (William McInnes), beset by increasing hallucinations, picks up a strange woman at the airport and takes her home; two rowdy wog teenagers (Nick Polites and Maurie Annese) get waylaid at a run-down farm of a seemingly inbred family (a subterranean motif in disreputable Australian movies including Razorback [1984] and Sky Pirates [1986]); a yuppie family journeys to a sinister health resort (similar to the one in Claude Chabrol's Dr M, aka Club Extinction [1990]); an expectant woman (Lisa McCune) at home begins to feel mighty queasy.

It's an important aspect of the headlong momentum of the film that the scattered lines of its narrative catastrophe become a bit blurred and elliptical. The teens, for instance, are left at the scary high-point of their tale – circling madly, with their predators moving in for the kill. The pregnant woman's husband (Brett Climo) is taken away by the police at a point in the film where you instinctively decide to forget all about him – until he explodes like a time bomb at the cop shop, providing a big finale. This pervasive sense of a terrifying and magical 'narrative space' that gets away from you, that is littered with bobby traps, forgotten possibilities and surprises is as crucial to Body Melt as it is to contemporary horror-fantasy cinema generally (John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness [1995] offers a distinguished example).

A certain, precise fantasia about space and topography, and the way that people perceive these realms, informs every stylistic level of Brophy's film. Early on, a shot sweeps us around the entirety of Pebbles Court, closing in on and then getting absorbed by the black interior of a letter box. Spaces and places, like the narrative with its off-shooting lines, constrict and then explode. Vimuville hastens these hallucinations, which the film humorously refers to as "mind-enhanced" and "intra-phenomenological". And Brophy's sound design recreates this fantasia and powerfully reinforces it on the aural plane, in soundscapes that blur the distinction between strictly musical accompaniment and a fictive swirl of burning, breathing, pulsing, stirring, melting, ringing action-sensations, soundscapes that swallow the ambient noises of a space (such as an airport) and transform them into psycho-acoustic chambers of deranged, subjective experience.

Like Krzysztof Kieslowski, Brophy displays an artistic will to never have just one story, path, focus or identification figure. His early short films and videos made with the collective Tsk Tsk Tsk characteristically lined up a parade of figures before the camera to utter pithy refractions of a concept or tag; they were an early '80s expression of Pop Art's predilection for the serial mode, or what artist Richard Dunn called a "strategy of parts". (1) Working his way into relatively continuous narrative forms Brophy still contrives to have, inside his stories, a group of characters whose paths brush past or collide with each other; as well as, over the stories, structures (cyclical, serial, entropic, catastrophic) that pattern a differential grid of days, seasons, viewpoints or archetypal myths. His Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1988) explored such a structure, with its 'four days in the life' trail that was also four stories and four ideas – and, across this segmentation, a gradually apocalyptic spectacle of crack-up on both an individual and collective scale.

Brophy is one of those practitioners of the film fantastique – like George Romero or Larry Cohen – fond of a certain form of allegory which is specific to popular art. This is not the stately, schematic, architectonic allegory of Peter Greenaway, but it has a similarly determining, almost didactic force. Narrative situations provide a kind of prism whereby a series of variations on a central premise are illustrated, demonstrated, explored, contradicted, synthesised. In the popular-allegorical mode, characters are conceived of as variable bundles of traits, tics and appearances that are exemplary in relation to film's chosen field of inquiry. In Brophy's work, pop-allegory meets the speculative ruminations of the essay-film.

Brophy's key subject has long been the body and our experience of it: life seized as a calculus of bodily effects, stimuli, drives, mechanisms. Horror cinema offers an expressionist statement of what is, for him, a kind of base, physical reality – bodies that devour and decay, consume and expel, peel and ravage. The film's dialogue reminds us (in its pop-allegorical mode) of such daily realities: a baby inside its mother is "the ultimate parasite"; everyone's hooked on some kind of drug. This is not so far from Greenaway's remark (apropos of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover [1989]) that he concerns himself with people "as being a body, an object, a bulk, a form, a shape, something that throws light, makes the floorboards creak, indicates volume". (2)

But although Brophy shares some of the strategically cold solipsism and brutal, bodily materialism of Greenaway, there is in fact a rather more lively and engaging model of character, characterisation and performance evident in Body Melt. This doubtless comes in part from Brophy's vigorous work with actors (such as Gerard Kennedy) who clearly have no qualms about throwing around their bulk, altering their voice tone or contorting their facial features for an appropriately visceral, generic effect.

I am reminded of Raymond Durgnat's description of the amazing Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983) as "an instance of that very contemporary disregard for in-depth psychology, emphasising rather the individual existence as interface between social pressures around him, social pressures within him and some primal energy from deep within himself". (3) The people in Body Melt are at once extreme, primal apparitions – exploding wombs, cataclysmic orgasms, stressed-out, derailed express-trains of mind, skin and hyper-stimulated desire – and also the height of acculturation, wearing, absorbing and reflecting every consumer fad that shapes everyday behaviour, from Heavy Metal music and skateboard riding to aerobics and New Age diets. As well, each person has their own distinctive nuttiness and, inevitably, they form extended, unpredictable, macro-rhizomes with neighbouring bodies.

The phenomenon of family – with all its impossible, in-built ties, binds, symmetries, asymmetries, attractions and repulsions – is for Brophy something like the ultimate mystery or puzzle, indivisibly social and human, natural and cultural. As in the work of Scorsese, David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Abel Ferrara, family resemblance gives a special and often cruel twist to the philosophical agony of living within a body, that "monstrous and obscene membrane" (René Crevel) (4) which provides the fragile basis for our fraught, human community. Body Melt worries on this paradox in a memorable fashion – especially in the immortal moment when Pud (Vince Gil) reflects on his own far-gone mutant clan: "Families sure are ... strange things".

© Adrian Martin July 2001

NOTES

1. Richard Dunn, "The Pursuit of Meaning: A Strategy of Parts", Art & Text 6 (Winter 1982), pp. 16-30. back

2. Brian McFarlane (interviewer), "British Directors 1: Peter Greenaway", Cinema Papers 78 (March 1990), p. 41. back

3. Raymond Durgnat, "The King of Comedy", Films (August 1983), p. 35. back

4. Quoted in Marie-Rose Carre, "René Crevel: Surrealism and the Individual", Yale French Studies 31 (May 1964), p. 83. back


Body Melt
Then and Now

It must be strange for filmmakers to experience all the hopes, expectations and agonies that accompany the making and release of any movie that, in its day, ‘does not perform’ at the box office, and then slips into an awful, twilight oblivion … only to then find that same movie, 20 or 30 years later (that is, if they are still lucky enough to be alive), recycled or even restored as some kind of ‘cult classic’.

 

I’m not sure if Philip Brophy’s Body Melt (1993) yet constitutes a cult classic, but it should. I vividly recall (as a friend of the director and many others involved in its production) all the thought and energy that went into its making, and the tremendous vibe at the Melbourne Film Festival premiere. I remember being on a Radio National panel discussion that same month, declaring Body Melt to be (as was subsequently quoted in publicity) “the best Australian film of the year!” – and being scoffed at by a few rather conventional industry-types on that panel (no names). And I can still see the expression on Philip’s face when he told me, some time down the track, that – various international sales and screenings aside – the film just seemed to vanish after that MIFF premiere, especially within Australia itself.

 

Maybe 1993 wasn’t the right time for Body Melt, which I happen to enjoy as much now as I did 24 years ago. But how can anybody ever know what the right time is, or will be? What the most propitious cultural conditions are? As Philip himself might say: you make what you make, what you are compelled to produce and what you can manage to produce, and you put it out there. The rest is history.

 

So let’s talk history: then and now. Australian film culture is different – a little bit different – in 2017, compared to the early ‘90s. Today there is some muscle behind the campaign to make genre films – especially horror films – in this country. After all, there are worldwide (albeit unexpected) successes to prove the case, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). And there’s a tremendous groundswell of activity and goodwill associated with an event such as Tasmania’s wonderful Stranger With My Face festival, encouraging women to take up the fantasy-horror-thriller genres with a righteous vengeance.

 

This pro-genre campaign, in fact, started a long way back: in the 1980s, at least, as I remember it. Philip Brophy was one of the first voices in the pack, long before the miserable Melbourne Underground Film Festival with its proto-fascist bleatings, and intriguing one-offs that drew some attention like Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones (2009). You only have to hear the enthusiastic support that Body Melt cast members including Vince Gil express for the project in the ‘making of’ bonus features from the time, included in Umbrella’s superb new Blu-ray release of the film: against Australia’s own dire ‘tradition of good-taste quality’, here was a movie connecting not only with the most vital trends elsewhere (the 1980s had been the great horror years of George Romero, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen …), but also that suppressed Aussie tradition represented by the Mad Max films and many other culturally disreputable items – the tradition that (at least back then) seemed always to be gingerly erased from the official histories of our national cinema, or treated at arms length (if acknowledged at all) by mainstream, middlebrow critics of the Neil Jillett/Keith Connolly/Evan Williams ilk. These actors on the Blu-ray say it well, and not just because they feel they are obliged to: Body Melt will be a rude but necessary shock, the start of a new era in Australian cinema, a confrontation with all kinds of taboos reigning over subject-matter and film style …

 

Some things change, and some things don’t; or, at least, some things take far longer to change. When I think back today about the fact – the miracle, almost – that Body Melt really happened in 1993 and made it at least to the MIFF screen (and, subsequently, to many VHS and DVD shelves around the globe), I imagine what it must have been like to ‘pitch’ this project, to justify and explain it, to funding bodies such as Film Victoria and the then-named Australian Film Commission. In fact, we don’t need to imagine it: the Umbrella Blu-ray contains many priceless preparatory documents of this sort, raking over the budget (which is, of course, a tiny fraction of what Scorsese gets to spend on a ‘small’ project like Silence), the screenplay structure, the casting … (This type of ‘extra’ is a godsend to any serious student of Australian cinema.)

 

I had worked closely with Philip on projects such as the DIY publication Stuffing: Film: Genre (1987), and analytically pored over many of the same, inspiring film-texts (everything from Dario Argento’s Suspiria to the avant-garde fictions of Alain Robbe-Grillet) in classrooms and elsewhere, so I think I know what Body Melt is centrally about: it’s a film about “the body”, the human body in all its states, but particularly within the new world of the ‘90s – an age of designer drugs, burgeoning health-and-lifestyle TV formats, and queasily free-floating sexualities – and especially all that as refracted in pre-fab Australian outer-suburbia.

 

But let’s just stick, for the sake of our historical comparison, with the body. In the early 1990s, the statement “this film is about the human body” would not have made much sense to almost any bureaucrat in a government-funded film office. It still may not make much sense to them now. Funded projects usually glide along rollers that are greased with familiar, humanist, Manchester by the Sea-style formulations like: this is a film about adolescent coming-of-age; or the separation and reconciliation of a longstanding couple; or a family reunion at Christmas. Even today, movies like The Babadook, genre-trappings and all, are given this kind of reassuring, psychologistic gloss: it’s a film about a woman overcoming grief, facing her fears …

 

Philip Brophy’s sensibility – and I think this is true from the first manifesto I read of his from around 1977 – starts from a completely different baseline premise: on the one hand, there’s the rich materiality of a medium like music or film, its images and sounds, and all the sensations they can prompt in us; and, on the other hand, there’s the murky pool of real-life culture in which these objects swim – as well as the ideas we can grab to formulate how this culture works, where it’s come from and where it’s going. So, there’s a concrete side and an abstract side to Body Melt – but nothing in that realistic-plot-and-character middle-ground which mainly defines Australian film (and indeed, most ordinary films everywhere).

 

There are two separate audio commentary tracks on this edition of Body Melt. The first is a three-hander featuring Philip, Rod Bishop (co-writer/co-producer) and Daniel Scharf (co-producer); it offers a valuable recollection of the production process. The second commentary is Philip alone discussing matters of the soundtrack: its composition (for the music score), its construction (and technical reconstruction in 2016, no easy task given all the intervening changes in technology), and its mix. This track is packed with analytical insight into many kinds of filmmaking issues. Along the way, Philip makes clear his approach to characterisation as a matter of “ciphers and stereotypes”; he explains why he refuses to write conventional music ‘cues’, or to underline the scripted feelings in a scene (putting him at odds with all current, ersatz, industry wisdom about how music is supposed to “emotionally involve” you in character interactions and situations that are pretty darn obvious, anyhow); and he illuminates the process of his arriving, at last, at his preferred, initially envisaged mix, scraping away the typical ‘softening’ and conventionalising techniques in order to arrive at a “visceral, physical” experience of the senses for the spectator’s ears.

 

One label that Body Melt could not quite shake in 1993 – and probably, in truth, did not entirely wish to shake – is “trash”. As Philip explains in one of the making-of bonuses, if someone is not into horror cinema, and never watches it, then that cinema is liable to be always the same thing to them; and, most likely, they will assume it to be always, one-dimensionally, disgusting, vulgar and trashy. Horror aficionados, on the other hand, know that the genre runs a wide gamut from sophistication to (non-pejoratively) trash. Body Melt absorbs many aspects from across this horror spectrum. It is at once a fine-grained, intellectual essay-film, and a gleefully childlike, sensational exploitation of every anti-social and anti-human thing a movie can imaginably show.

 

And I can’t think of too many other Australian films which could fit that description, then or now.

 

© Adrian Martin, February 2017

MORE Brophy: Evaporated Music, Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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