Look Both Ways

dir: Sarah Watt
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Since this flick cleaned up the major awards at this year’s AFIs, in a strong year for Australian cinema, I thought I’d give it a look, despite the fact that it’s been out for a donkey’s age. I do so prefer to keep things fresh for you, my loyal and easily bemused readers.

What we have here is not a failure to communicate, but an Australian version of those terrible films coming out of Britain perpetrated by those Working Title people. You know the ones, often directed by Richard Curtis, with random swearing substituting for humour, and more treacle and saccharine than you’ll find at your local confectioners. If you’re not up with Richard Curtis’ ‘oeuvre’, then think Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the diabolical Love Actually.

You’re looking at a large cast of characters, connected tangentially to each other, affected by central plot devices and prone to musical montages. And weepy rainy moments where everyone, generally living in the same town or geographical location, is sad at the same moment, mirrored by the weather.

Watt doesn’t honestly use it as her template, and if she had you could say she’d stripped the formula of the false sentiment and the mawkishness it is prone to, and invested it with more humanity and meaning. The connective musical montages are still there, but everything else is far more concerned with telling a decent story, rather than making people feel all brain-dead and gooey inside. Also, it’s not a romantic comedy, so you might (rightly) be wondering why I brought the whole Love Actually thing up in the first place.

Look Both Ways is a meditation on the two most fundamental aspects of our existence as human beings: life and death. It takes some main characters, has a large supporting cast of directly connected people, and represents a few days in their lives. All are touched by life, death or the fear of death in some way. There aren’t any ‘big’ moments, wise speeches, or transcendent signposts which give characters life-changing epiphanies, though there are a stack of meaningful and meaning-filled moments.

It’s a beautiful film, perhaps a bit too wholesome and almost naive, but it has a genuine heart to it. The characters, not all of whom are really fleshed out (but they don’t all need to be for their stories to still work), are likeable and their performances range from amusing to quite touching.

Nick (William McInnes, who I bet had to sleep with the director to get this role) is a photographer for the local paper, who’s just been diagnosed with cancer. Understandably, he’s pretty shaken up by it. Mostly it hits him even harder since his father recently suffered a protracted illness and death from cancer as well. He sees death everywhere he goes now, whether literally, whilst on the job, or in his imagination.

Meryl (Justine Clarke) is an artistic type whose father has just died, and it doesn’t really seem to bug her that much. Yet all her paintings seem to have the persistent motif of raging seas, lost individuals in the water being swamped by tremendous waves and surrounded by sharks, and less coherent but more monstrous imagery. She, too, keeps seeing death everywhere, imagining it happening at every other second. Every moment sparks off a potential death, animated with paintings and drawings in a brief and often humorous way.

Andy (Anthony Hayes) is a burnt-out journo who sees suicide in the death of every man his own age, convinced that they all have been as hard done by life (and ex-wives) as himself. Angry at the world around him, angry at his inability to keep his family together, he rails against the absurdity of the world around him and tries to deny the worth of life itself.

The flick has stacks more characters. Stacks! Some of them barely get any dialogue, but Watt finds ways to make their stories have an impact. The pace of the flick, the animated bits notwithstanding, is quite leisurely, so a lot of the story is told visually, not just with dialogue. It’s completely unlike those forensic tv shows or films where people constantly have to be saying everything that they’re doing, thinking and about to do like the most high maintenance of highly-strung girlfriends. It makes a refreshing change.

All this fixation on death makes it sound like the film is particularly morbid. It isn’t. There’s a lot of humour in it, not derived from pratfalls, cases of mistaken identity or misinterpreted answering machine messages. It comes from the commonplace stuff people say and do, and their responses to the omnipresence of mortality. Of the Grim Reaper himself. The cold, bony hands of Death that keep clutching persistently at our backs until he finally get us. The bastard.

Some of my favourite moments are the least explainable, or the most simple. A son brings his dad a beer, a father takes his kids to the museum, a daughter rolls her eyes at her dad, a woman hits her dog. None of these make sense away from the film, but they link in perfectly to the overall narrative.

It’s a remarkably well-done movie, without being too showy or earnest. Of course the animated bits are showy, but they work well in the context of the flick. Watt’s background is in animation, and this is her filmic debut. If she can realise her ideas like this in future, and keep a tap on the flow of gooey sentimentality, her future films should be interesting to see.

It is a profound irony that the director was diagnosed with cancer during post- production of the film. Profound and mundanely human at the same time. A real sense of life lived and deeply felt permeates the movie, and represents the true beauty that art is capable of: taking the base elements of our existence, our horror in the face of pain and annihilation, and transforming it into something sublime.

I don’t know if it was the best Australian film of 2005 (it won best film, best director, best supporting actor and best original screenplay), but it was certainly a very good film in a year of very good local productions. Of course, hubris dictates that next year 50 Aussie movies will be green-lit by people wanting to cash in on an unusually good year, and we’ll have a heap of crap come out to make us all say ‘by Lucifer’s beard, why do Australian films suck so much?’ again. And then all will be right with the world.

8 musical montage sequences too many out of 10. We don’t need to be reminded of that bit in Magnolia every 20 minutes, Sarah.

“We can’t leave until we get a glimmer of understanding!” – Andy, Look Both Ways.