Australia Day ends with Gary Couzens’s thousandth review for this site. Michael Hutchence stars in Dogs in Space, Richard Lowenstein’s cult film about the 70s Melbourne punk era, in a two-disc DVD release from Umbrella.
Melbourne, 1978. Sam (Michael Hutchence) and his girlfriend Anna (Saskia Post) are amongst several young people, many of them members of local punk bands, living in a rented house. With Skylab about to fall to Earth, life is a continuous whirl of parties, old movies on television, sex and too many drugs…
In the late 70s, Richard Lowenstein was a film student in Melbourne, living in a shared house with other students, members of the local punk scene and other misfits. Dogs in Space is fiction, but it draws heavily on characters and incidents that Lowenstein knew from the time. He says that he always thought that life in that shared house could be film material, and nearly a decade later he had the chance to prove it.
Lowenstein’s first feature, Strikebound, made in 1984, was a documentary-style recreation of a 1937 mining strike, shot in 16mm and featuring a brief appearance from the real life married couple at the centre of the story, both then still alive. It had a respectable release on the arthouse circuit, including that of the UK. Dogs in Space could not be more different. With a larger – but still small – budget than its predecessor, it exudes huge confidence. It’s a film about being young, and that despite its particular setting is a universal theme: a time when life is full of possibilities and when you think you’re invincible. Sadly, that isn’t true and some characters find this out the hard way. The title, by the way, refers to the fictional band in the film with Sam on vocals and their signature song (really one by local punk band The Ears). It also refers to some NASA footage of the space race that punctuates the film, beginning with the pioneering canine astronaut Laika in Sputnik 2.
Lowenstein’s main stylistic influence is Robert Altman, though you can’t imagine him, thirty-four years Lowenstein’s senior, going anywhere near this subject matter. Lowenstein and his DP Andrew de Groot (also a resident of the house in the 70s, and cinematographer of all of Lowenstein’s features except Say a Little Prayer) shoot in Scope in a very Altmanesque manner, often keeping many characters in shot, and featuring more than a few lengthy Steadicam-propelled takes. (The Steadicam was operated by Ian Jones, later to become a DP in his own right, particularly for Rolf de Heer in Bad Boy Bubby and Ten Canoes.) There’s a particularly striking long take near the end, scored to Iggy Pop’s “Endless Sea”.
The soundtrack is also Altmanesque, multilevelled but what you need to hear always clear. In the band performances, the vocals were performed live to a backing track. Also in the film’s DNA, though as I hadn’t had a chance to see that film when I first saw Dogs in Space I wasn’t aware of this, was Bert Deling’s 16mm feature from 1976, Pure Shit. In the extras of that film’s DVD, Lowenstein says in an interview that for a time he lived in the house where that film was shot. Dogs in Space shares with Pure Shit the same anarchic humour and non-judgemental look at characters who are often addicted to drugs, though Lowenstein doesn’t go as far as Deling did by including unsimulated shooting-up scenes. Both films have been accused of glorifying drug use, as if making any film other than a complete downer on the subject is unacceptable. I don’t agree with that: depicting something is not the same as endorsing it, and both films are honest enough to show that people take drugs because they have a good time on them…at least at first. Lowenstein cites another film as an influence, Haydn Keenan’s Going Down from 1983, which I haven’t seen.
Michael Hutchence gets top billing, as well he might as lead vocalist of INXS and a major worldwide rock star at the time of the film’s making, but he’s really part of an ensemble, and his performance is more than a little laid back as his character is frequently out of it. It’s still by far his best screen role. The real heart of the film is Anna, superbly played by Saskia Post (one of the relatively few professionals in the cast) with a very Debbie Harry vibe to the look of her character, who was based on the real-life Sam’s real-life girlfriend. With her, the film ends on a sober note. Also doing good work are Nique Needles (and no, that’s not his real name – to his parents he’s Cornelius Delaney) and, in a cameo, Chris Haywood, Lowenstein’s leading man in Strikebound. Also in a small role is Aboriginal actor and activist Gary Foley (star of Backroads). If you look hard, you’ll catch a glimpse of Noah Taylor, who starred in Lowenstein’s later film He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, which also features a shared house.
Dogs in Space was completely overlooked at the Australian Film Institute Awards and it underperformed at the box office. The latter was blamed on the film’s R rating, restricting the audience to the over-eighteens. (It has been rerated MA 15+ for this DVD release. In the UK it has always had an 18 certificate and is likely to retain one if it were resubmitted to the BBFC.) It had a UK cinema release, like Strikebound, though its DVD is a notoriously bad VHS-quality 4:3 transfer that still changes hands for silly money online. It’s a great pity that Lowenstein has only made two more fiction features, Say a Little Prayer in 1993, which I haven’t seen, and He Died With a Felafel in His Hand in 2001, which I named on this site as one of the best Australian films of the first decade of this century. He has been more often employed as a director of documentaries and promo videos, with INXS and U2 being among his clients in the latter capacity.
Needless to say, if you have an aversion to student or student-age characters living on the dole and spending much of their time partying, fucking and/or taking drugs, then you will probably not last fifteen minutes of this film’s hour and three quarters. However, if you can get on the film’s wavelength, there’s much to admire and enjoy. It’s loud, raucous, sweary and I love it.
Dogs in Space is released as a two-disc DVD edition by Umbrella Entertainment, both discs encoded for all regions. Since this edition was released (2009) Umbrella have also put out a Blu-ray, but it is the DVD under review here.
The film was shot in Super 35 (and is one of the few films I’ve seen to specify that in the end credits) but was always intended to be shown in Scope. (4:3 transfers reveal more picture area top and bottom that isn’t meant to be shown and, as per Lowenstein, often reveal lights amd camera booms.) Super 35 as a production method was only a few years old at the time this film was made, and as it involved an optical-printer stage to blow up the relevant part of the frame to 2.35:1 for cinema prints, it soon had a reputation as a grainy format. Nowadays, that would be alleviated by the use of a digital intermediate. Dogs in Space is certainly grainy, but that’s appropriate for this sort of grungy subject matter. De Groot’s photography is often vividly colourful and this digitally-restored edition is faithful to that. Blacks are solid and shadow detail is as it should be. This edition features an opening dedication to those who have died since the film was made, with Michael Hutchence at the top of the list, and it ends with credits for this restoration carried out in 2009 and a music playout over a black screen. As far as I can tell, there are no changes in the film’s content, though in the second commentary Lowenstein admits he darkened part of the last sequence with Sam, now we assume a famous rock star, performing “Rooms for the Memory”, so that it’s less obvious that the budget did not allow for an audience.
The credits state that the film was recorded in digital stereo, but digital cinema sound was half a decade away in 1986, so it played cinemas in plain old matrixed analogue Dolby Stereo. That track is on this DVD as a Dolby Surround (2.0) mix and there is also a remix into 5.1 for the restoration. This is undoubtedly a loud film (so turn it up) but dialogue and music and effects are well mixed and you can hear every line that you’re meant to. Surrounds are used mainly for music and the subwoofer helps out with the low end. Unfortunately there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles, as per Umbrella’s and too many other labels’ policy for their English-language releases.
There are no less than three commentaries on this DVD. Richard Lowenstein features on two of them, partnered on the first with music composer Ollie Olsen, on the second with cinematographer Andrew de Groot. The third features actors Tim McLaughlan and Charles Meo, who along with Lowenstein, Olsen and de Groot, lived in the house the film was based on. There is a lot of information in these tracks, inevitably more of a technical nature in the two Lowenstein-contributed tracks, including how he had to persuade the film’s backers that such a film, set mostly inside the confined spaces of one house, should be shot in Scope. You hear a lot of detail about the shortcuts and dodges of a low-budget production. The NASA footage was free and the two films showing on the house’s television set (My Man Godfrey and His Girl Friday) were public domain in Australia so also free to use. Lowenstein and his housemates had to leave the house when it was sold for A$50,000 – the exact sum it cost to hire the house to shoot the film inside it. The McLaughlan/Meo track is mostly made up of reminiscences of the house and the era, with Lowenstein occasionally answering questions off-mike.
Disc one ends with the theatrical trailer (1:39) and the very similar director’s cut trailer (1:39). Umbrella Propaganda comprises trailers for Death in Brunswick, Malcolm, The Big Steal, Puberty Blues.
Disc Two begins with We’re Livin’ on Dog Food (94:16), a feature-length documentary directed by Lowenstein in 2009. The title comes from an Iggy Pop, apparently a fan of Melbourne and someone who gave the rights to use his songs in the film for a very reasonable rate. The documentary is a look back at the Melbourne punk scene and the making of Dogs in Space, featuring interviews with surviving participants, in the music scene, the film and both. It’s a clear labour of love and it shows, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in this not-especially-widely-chronicled era.
“Making of Dogs in Space” (19:34) is what it says, and overlaps a little with the documentary preceding it. On-set footage from the time is intercut with present-day interviews. For those of a certain bent, there’s instant nostalgia in watching editor Jill Bilcock handling, cutting and splicing actual celluloid.
Popcorn Taxi is an occasional series, held in Australian cities, where a film is followed by a Q & A with the filmmakers. This one (28:24) follows a showing of the restored version, judging by how much older the interviewees are. Lowenstein, Olsen, de Groot and Bilcock answer questions from the audience. Bilcock, then a film student, was also a resident of the house and reveals that Lowenstein often borrowed her eyeliner.
“Behind the Scenes” (9:55) is mute 8mm and 16mm footage shot on set, and very grainy it is too. Three video-shot items are grouped under “Rehearsal Vision”: “Troy Playing Sam” (2:23) “Michael Hutchence Playing Sam” (6:19) and “Tex Perkins (1:10). The middle of these in particular has a very hissy soundtrack, something it shares with the next extra, Deanna Bond’s screen test (2:51).
Next up are several screen galleries, which you can either advance using the Next button on your remote or letting them Play: a main gallery of colour production stills and black and white publicity stills (1:10) Steve Pyke gallery of stills (0:40), a wardrobe gallery (1:11) and a storyboard gallery (0:23) and press clippings (0:45). The latter includes articles from the Australian press referring to controversies over the film, such as the fact that some of the cast were not old enough to see it. Also on the disc as a 102-page PDF is the film’s script.
Also on the disc is an interview with the real Sam (Sejavka, who appears briefly in the film), made at the time of the shooting. This runs 2:11 and also appears in We’re Livin’ on Dog Food.
Two short films are next. “Punkline” (4:42) was directed by Sue Davis and Tony Stevens, and is mostly footage of the crowd during a gig at the Crystal Ballroom, St Kilda. (Some of this also appears in We’re Livin’ in Dog Food.) “Pedestrian” (4:47) is a black-and-white film directed by Tim McLaughlan and written by Lowenstein, made at film school in 1977. Both are presented in 4:3.
The disc ends with three videos. “Rooms for the Memory” (5:08), performed by Hutchence at the end of the film is here in full, mostly in black and white. “Leap for Lunch” (3:47) and “Triple Treat” (2:42), both feature The Ears, and are much more lo-fi.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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