Bad Boy Bubby: Eureka edition Review

The opening part of this review is drawn from my review of the Australian DVD release. Go down to “The DVD” for a discussion of the UK disc and a comparison.

Bubby (Nicholas Hope) has lived in a bug-ridden slum all his life, with his mother (Claire Benito) and a cat. It is the only world he knows as he is forbidden from going “outside”. His mother shares his bed. Then one day, Bubby’s long-lost father (Ralph Cotterill), an alcoholic priest, returns to the home and mother’s bed. Inflamed with jealousy, Bubby escapes into the outside world…

Rolf de Heer was born in the Netherlands in 1951, emigrating to Australia with his family at the age of eight. He made his first feature, the children’s film Tale of a Tiger, in 1984. Bad Boy Bubby was his fourth film. He’s little known outside Australia, for a couple of reasons. First, is his considerable versatility: he seems honour-bound not to make the same film twice. His work ranges from black comedy (Bubby), science fiction (Encounter at Raven’s Gate and Epsilon), an Outback western (The Tracker), magic realism (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories), to varying kinds of domestic drama (The Quiet Room, Dance Me to My Song, Alexandra’s Project). Another reason is that, with the exception of Encounter at Raven’s Gate (aka Incident at Raven’s Gate), Bad Boy Bubby is the only one of his films to have been distributed in the UK. [Update: I wrote this in August 2005. De Heer’s AFI-Award-winningTen Canoes is due to open in UK cinemas on 1 June.]

Bad Boy Bubby premiered at the 1993 Venice Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Prize. It won four Australian Film Institute Awards, for its direction, original screenplay (De Heer), editing (Suresh Ayyar) and Nicholas Hope’s extraordinary lead performance. This was Hope’s first feature film: De Heer had seen him in a short, Confessor Caressor (which is included on the Australian DVD from Umbrella Entertainment but not here). Bubby is a film that takes considerable risks, many of which come off to exhilarating effect. On the other hand, it is a film that will certainly polarise audiences and will certainly offend many. If you don’t like this film, it’s likely you’ll despise it. Although my view of this film is a favourable one, there are scenes which make me uneasy. Proceed at your own risk.

De Heer wrote the script for Bad Boy Bubby nearly ten years before it was made. It was envisaged as a low-budget feature to be shot guerrilla-style at weekends, with whatever crews were available at the time. When he came to shoot Bubby, financial support from Fandango, an Italian company (Domenico Procacci coming on board as co-producer), doubled the budget. However, de Heer intended to keep as much of the intended filmmaking style intact. The film was shot in sequence, which aided Hope’s performance as much of his dialogue repeats what other characters have previously said to him. There are thirty-two cinematographers on this film (which must surely be a record for a non-episodic work). Ian Jones was the supervising DP and gets his name in the opening credits. He shot the opening scenes in Bubby’s home, and also the last part of the film from the scene where Bubby returns home onwards. Jones also operated the camera throughout. However, for the sections in between, a different DP was used for each location, including some well-known names like Geoffrey Simpson and Roger Lanser. None of the DPs were shown anyone else’s work and de Heer gave them considerable input to the filming of their scene. Surprisingly the film hangs together, as most of the DPs went for a naturalistic look. One scene might be filmed at a Dutch angle; the Scientist’s (Norman Kaye) monologue might be filmed in a single long crane shot, but none of them seems to belong to a different film. One precedent for this is Kieslowski’s Dekalog, whose ten films were shot by nine cinematographers: with the notable exception of Slawomir Idziak’s bile-and-vomit colour scheme (using filters) in the fifth film, it’s hard to tell the cinematographers’ work apart at first sight. Bad Boy Bubby was shot in Scope with anamorphic lenses. De Heer’s original intention was to mask the image to 1.66:1 for the opening scenes in Bubby’s house, only expanding to the full width when he escapes. However, that made the beginning of the film, which is tough enough already, unbearably claustrophobic, so de Heer removed the masking and the film has always been shown in Scope throughout.

The other major innovation was in sound recording. Binaural radio microphones were sewn into Hope’s wig, and much of the soundtrack was recorded live, resulting in some odd panning effects when Hope/Bubby moves his head.

The opening sequence is a model of precision: due to de Heer’s direction and Ayyar’s editing, no shot is on screen a moment too long. The middle section is at times wildly funny and often flamboyant, though to my mind the final half hour, in which Bubby becomes a cult performance artist/singer, tends to lose momentum. Anyone with strong religious convictions is likely to find two scenes in particular (the Scientist’s monologue on how we have to deny and defy God and take responsibility for our own actions; the later scene where Bubby meets Angel’s (Carmel Johnson) parents) highly offensive. Once a Catholic, always one…even though I’m more than twenty years lapsed, I do admit I find these sequences uncomfortable viewing. (Hope, himself of Catholic background, found these scenes the most difficult in the entire film.) Other people have had problems with the film’s use of cats (mostly feral ones, official pests in Melbourne) and the use of real disabled people. One of the latter is the late Heather Rose, uncredited here, who had cerebral palsy. She went on to play a leading role in and co-write de Heer’s 1998 film Dance Me to My Song. Some may also dislike the film’s treatment of women (and Angel is rather too well-endowed to go around bra-less). For such a black comedy, and such a defiantly un-PC one, the ending is not without sentimentality. However, it’s ultimately positive: there’s something childlike and innocent about Bubby, and the ending implies that the scars of what amounts to severe child abuse can be healed. In fact, de Heer returned to this theme in a completely different manner in his next film, The Quiet Room, which examined a marital breakdown from the point of view of a genuine child (played by Rebecca Smart).

Bad Boy Bubby is certainly not your usual film. It’s hard to forget – but if it is to your taste, you’ll like much of it a lot.

Eureka’s DVD, encoded for all regions, is the uncut version of Bad Boy Bubby, commercially available for the first time in the UK. For British film and video release with an 18 certificate, the BBFC cut one shot, nine minutes in: Bubby is sitting in a chair, tugging at a string which is around his cat’s neck. The cat seems to be resisting, which is presumably why the BBFC considered that it was distressed, making the shot fall foul of the Animals Act. This cut unfortunately removed the following dialogue:
BUBBY: Where cat from?
MOTHER: Outside.
This blurred a plot point, as this was the first indication that there is an “outside”. However, on resubmission the BBFC have reconsidered and the cut has been waived.

I previously reviewed Bad Boy Bubby in August 2005 when Umbrella Entertainment released a two-disc edition. Apart from the addition of their logo on the front, Eureka’s single-disc DVD seems to have exactly the same transfer as the Umbrella edition – even the chapter stops are identical. Anamorphically enhanced in a ratio of 2.40:1, it’s rather dark in places – especially in the opening section of the film – but it’s generally sharp and free of artefacting.

There are three soundtrack options. The main one is Dolby Digital 5.1. Given the unusual method of sound recording, this is a very immersive track, with a lot of use of the surround channels, especially in the exterior scenes. The track has quite some dynamic range, from moments of quietness to considerable loudness (the bagpipes in the prison scene, the punk band). The subwoofer is called into action now and again, especially in the concert sequences. There’s a Dolby Surround option, and also a binaural track, intended for listening on headphones. I sampled this latter track, and it is certainly effective. As with the Australian release, there are no subtitles, which is regrettable.

The major difference between Umbrella’s two-disc release and Eureka’s single-discer is the number of extras. Carried over are an audio commentary, an interview with Rolf De Heer and the theatrical trailer. Lost in transit are “Confessor Caressor”, the half-hour short film wherein De Heer discovered Nicholas Hope, a Q&A with Hope and a stills gallery.

The audio commentary is given by Rolf de Heer and Nicholas Hope. It’s an excellent commentary, informative and with several interesting anecdotes. “Christ Kid You’re a Weirdo” (23:57) is an interview with de Heer. Although much of this will be familiar from the commentary, there is some new information here. The theatrical trailer runs 1:51. This is in anamorphic 1.66:1 and looks like it’s been mastered from a video source. It’s very dark and heavily artefacted.

On my earlier review, I said: “Love it or hate it, you can’t say there’s very much like it.” I’d certainly say that again here. Since the film’s original UK release, its profile has tended to be on the low side, with something of a cult following. It’s to be hoped that this DVD release will raise its profile and that of its prolific but underrated director.

8 out of 10
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