Pure Shit Review
Pure Shit takes place during one night and the following day, as Lou (Gary Waddell), Gerry (Carol Porter), John (John Laurie) and Sandy (Anne Hetherington) ride around Melbourne in search of a hit...
It’s not every day that you see a film review with the headline “The Most Evil Film Ever Made”, but that was the verdict of Andrew McKay of the Melbourne Herald. Obviously feeling that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the distributors of Pure Shit used that quote in their advertising, and there it is proud as anything on the front cover of this DVD edition. Quite an achievement for a tiny-budget 16mm Melbourne-based indie feature which is raw, gritty, fast-moving and funny and horrifying by turns. The Australian censor refused to pass the film without a title change (to Pure S, still present on the film’s title card). Distribution was limited after an initial four-wall release, making this a film more heard about than actually seen until this DVD release. It never had a UK release of any kind (I don’t know of any festival screenings) and certainly no TV screening. I’d imagine it would have had problems being passed uncut by the BBFC until relatively recently.
In the wake of a film like Trainspotting, of which this film is a less glossy predecessor, Pure Shit likely seems much less shocking. Most of the principal characters are heroin addicts. The film is honest enough to acknowledge that people take drugs because they have a good time. It’s what happens later that is the problem – and Pure Shit hardly glamourises this. One character dies of an overdose early on. The film has a lot of energy and anarchic humour, much of it provided by Gary Waddell, but we are brought firmly back to earth by the shooting-up scenes. In one hard-to-watch example late on the film, Waddell injects himself repeatedly and bloodily in search of a vein – a scene which is not faked. (None of the shootings up were faked, with the actors who were heroin users genuinely injecting the drug – non-users injected themselves with water.) And even if you did miss this, Max Gillies appears late in the film as a doctor running an anti-drug programme, though to read his lines as author’s message is to take them only on aurface level.
Bert Deling made just three cinema features – the others were Dalmas in 1973 and Dead Easy in 1982. Pure Shit is representative of what critic David Stratton (and more of him later) called “poor cinema” – independently-made features, often shot in 16mm, and shown in cooperatives rather than achieving conventional cinema distribution. There was quite a poor-cinema scene in Melbourne, centred in the suburb of Carlton and in particular around two theatres, La Mama and The Pram Factory. Feature-length films were made here as early as 1967, and the better-known examples include Tim Burstall's Stork, based on a David Williamson play which had originated at La Mama, and John Duigan's debut feature The Firm Man.
Given its budget limitations, Pure Shit is very well photographed by Tom Cowan, also a director (his own 16mm-originated feature Journey Among Women has just had a DVD release). Martin Armiger provides an effective rock soundtrack, featuring local bands Spodeodee and The Toads. The editor was John Scott, who for a while was working on this film at night while he edited The Great Macarthy during the daytime.
Many of the cast were nonprofessionals, and some of the dialogue improvised. I’ve mentioned Gary Waddell, whose livewire performance gives the film much of its energy. Further down the cast is novelist-to-be Helen Garner as “Jo the Speed Freak” (and obsessive-compulsive). Garner gives a funny performance in a small role: she would later write a novel set in a druggy milieu, Monkey Grip, which was itself filmed in 1979 and which I reviewed here. On the other hand, Max Gillies’s contribution upsets the balance of the film in its later stages.
Pure Shit is released by Beyond in an edition comprising two discs and a CD. It is encoded for all regions.
Given that the film on this DVD still bears the censor-approved title of Pure S, you have to suspect that an “original” edition no longer exists. But then this is not the same version of the film that played in cinemas. Pieced together from various sources, including David Stratton's book The Last New Wave and the recollections of some of the interviewees on this DVD, it would appear that the film began with a music play-in over a black screen, which may have lasted as much as five minutes. This is not on this DVD. Also, the original version had no credits, which have been added to this version. That would explain the great discrepancy in running times quoted for this film: Stratton, for example, gives 85 minutes, while the DVD version runs 77:18, which would translate to around 80 minutes without PAL speed-up. [Update: The OFLC database gives a running time of 87 minutes for when they passed Pure S back in 1975.]
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, which seems correct given the film’s 16mm origins. Inevitably the transfer is a little soft, with shadow detail lacking in some exterior night scenes, but given the budget limitations and the source materials, this is what I would expect from a film of this type.
The soundtrack is mono, and again reflects the film’s tiny budget. It’s quite rough in places – clearly recorded “live” – and not always easily audible, though most of it is. The biggest shortcoming of this DVD set is the lack of any hard-of-hearing subtitles, which will be a real issue for some people given the nature of the soundtrack.
On to what the disc menu refers to as “Extra Shit”. There are two commentaries. The first features Bert Deling and producer Bob Weis, and is a detailed if sometimes contentious chat. (Deling doesn't name the person he accuses of blocking Pure Shit at that year's AFI Awards, though it's not hard to work out who he's referring to, someone who is still alive as of this writing.) The second features Gary Waddell and John Laurie (not, by the way, to be confused with the considerably older Scottish character actor) and is funny in places but with more than a few dead spots. Waddell audibly cringes at his own shooting-up scene, something he's unable to show his daughter.
Next up is a short trailer (0:59), which is not actually the theatrical trailer as claimed, but one for the DVD.
“Rollin' with Bert and Gaz” (11:10), features Deling and Waddell in a car driving around inner-city Melbourne in 2009, revisiting the locations of the film and reminiscing, illustrated here and there by appropriate clips from it. “Reunion” (28:46) is what it says it is: various of the cast and crew reuniting after thirty-five years and reminiscing around a dinner table: Gary Waddell, Phil Motherwell, Bert Deling, Bob Weis, John Laurie and Lloyd Carrick (sound recordist).
The remaining extras on Disc One and Disc Two are lengthy interviews, shot against a black background and with the interviewer's questions edited out. On the first disc are featured Bob Weis (17:21), Gary Waddell (18:49) and Bert Deling (32:00). The second disc features filmmakers Richard Lowenstein (15:31), John Hewitt (13:55), actor/film critic John Flaus (14:03), author/film critic David Stratton (8:27), film critic and writer Bob Ellis (13:41), actor Greig Pickhaver (13:22), plus the film's cinematographer Tom Cowan (27:25), editor John Scott (10:20) and music score composer Martin Armiger (23:36). There's a lot of interesting stuff here. I particularly liked Lowenstein's account of reading Helen Garner's novel Monkey Grip, which included a fictional account of a film shoot, and realising that he was living in the house where Pure Shit had been shot. Bob Ellis is the most ambivalent, appreciating the film's energy but criticising its use of real junkies as exploitation. Others think it's the best Australian film ever made, though I suspect that's as much an ideological judgement as an aesthetic one.
Disc Two also includes a self-navigating stills gallery (11:05), backed with Armiger's rock score. The package has a booklet which features an essay, “Pure Shit: An Australian Film in Exile” by Megan Spencer, “Pure Shit Music: the recording sessions” by Martin Armiger, plus film and DVD credits and a listing of the film's music, which makes up the eleven-track CD which completes this DVD package.
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