With Time to Kill

(James Clayden, Australia, 1987)


With Time To Kill is surely one of the most unusual features ever to achieve a theatrical and video release in Australia.

Beginning life as a very low-budget super-8 project funded by the Australian Film Commission's "No Frills Fund", it ended up as a short feature post-produced on video. (A complete account of the film's making can be found in the AFTRS publication Taking Care of Business, 1989.)

Inaccurately described by David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation as an "effort ... fresh from film school", the film is in fact the work of the well-known painter and avant-garde dramatist James Clayden, whose important experimental films include The Ghost Paintings (1986-2003) and the feature-length Corpse (1982).

Although clearly drawing from the visionary, poetic art-cinema tradition of Murnau, Herzog and Tarkovsky, Clayden seems equally interested in the hard-edged, kinetic, downbeat mainstream experimentation of Scorsese, Cassavetes and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).

Accordingly, in line with the strange, self-reflexive thrillers created by Godard (Detective, 1985) or Fassbinder (The American Soldier, 1970), With Time to Kill is a mutant genre film, deliberately making strange conventional elements and mixing them (with equally deliberate incongruity) with avant-garde elements.

As in many a Nouvelle Vague movie, brutish gangsters quote Dostoevsky, and violence is both treated playfully (as an obvious screen illusion) and fetishised as a dark, spellbinding, almost abstract spectacle.

Clayden takes the modernist celebration of the near-impenetrability of classic thriller plots (like The Big Sleep, 1946) to a dizzy extreme – indeed, many of the plot links joining improvised scenes appear to have been devised arbitrarily, at the post-production stage of voice-over narration.

The story, and the precise narrative status of many individual incidents, remain resolutely murky, but the overall theme is clear: the creeping corruption and evil that spreads from the criminal underworld to envelop first the trigger-happy psycho-cop Max (Clayden), and eventually even his initially decent, sane partner, the narrator Nick (Ian Scott). Madness and perversity overtake all the characters, who utter sombre existentialist maxims like "all is pain and fear" before being wasted.

The film can be appreciated as a vivid document of a certain inner-city Melbourne cultural underground – indeed, it is far more faithful, in its way, to the spirit and letter of that underground than Dogs In Space (1987), which misguidedly tries to re-stage and dramatise the life of the scene, or even Ghosts ... Of the Civil Dead (1989). Clayden utilises contributions from a large network of innovative theatre actors (Val Kirwan, Phil Motherwell), independent filmmakers (Nigel Buesst) and post-punk musicians (Chris Knowles), and mixes these with the work of more above-ground figures like comedian Barry Dickens, singer-songwriter Steve Cummings, actor Tim Robertson and cinematographer Laurie McInnes (director of the short Palisade, 1987).

Indeed, the wilful incoherence of the film largely derives from the fact that it gleefully accommodates an unwieldy intertext of fragments from other works, particularly John Howard's and Rhonda Wilson's performance of Daniel Keene's play The Hour Before My Brother Dies (filmed by Clayden for ABC television), and Marie Hoy's rough, confrontational video Informo (documented in Cantrills Filmnotes, no. 51/52, 1986). The nominal storyline is conjured as much from these fragments as from the loose generic premise.

With Time to Kill is not an easy or even particularly pleasurable film to watch, but it is a subversive oddity now lurking in many a video/DVD shop, and for that reason, at least, it demands a special footnote in Australian film history.

MORE Clayden: HAMLET X, In Absentia

© Adrian Martin 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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