Sightlines Journal, Issue 1, 2015
Author: Andrew O’Keefe
A young father’s future and past collide when his imprisoned brother forces him to deliver on their vengeful pact.
Mother’s Day, a tale of a revenge, is a fifteen-minute short film that explores audience reactions when presented with recognisable narrative and aesthetic traits of genre cinema then both circumvents and exploits those expectations through the use of contemporary stylisation of performance and a recognisably Australian setting. The film’s narrative uses patricidal plot elements found in Greek tragedy coupled with blackandwhite photography and a chiaroscuro lighting style that hark to American film noirs in the vein of The Big Sleep (1946). Yet does the contradictory suburban Australian mis=en-scene and décor displace the film and offer audiences a reinterpretation on the film noir genre? Furthermore, the film juxtaposes the stylised monochromatic aesthetic and naturalistic ‘method’ performances against a stereotypical “Aussie” character (beer drinking, unshaven, uncouth, cricket-loving, no=hopers) to create something new.
Mother’s Day was selected for screening in the prestigious Flickerfest International Short Film Festival, Australia’s largest, in 2013.
Despite the title, Mother’s Day is very much centred in a man’s world, exploring the complexities of the father son relationship and the power of familial ties in contemporary Australian society.
The film follows the protagonist, Gary, a recently married young father, trying to come to terms with the recent death of his beloved mother, and struggling with his difficult past. Gary, played by actor Lee Mason is depicted physically and visually as a man in crisis, a lost and conflicted soul.
The film plays homage to film noir aesthetically with beautifully lit black-and-white stylized cinematography and also in the choice of Gary as the central character, a man alienated from society and his family. We learn that his father violently beat and verbally abused his mother in front of him, and from the age of 8 his mother raised him and his brother, Tim. The experience of witnessing this domestic violence and the absence of a father figure in his life provides the audience with signposting of the patricidal plot line. It is clear to the audience that Gary’s father is ‘the bad guy’ and there is no sympathy for his character. He has had a profound negative emotional impact on Gary. His father continually taunts Gary about his lack of manliness and this leads to Gary committing the ultimate act of ‘male’ violence murder.
The film highlights three traditional male stereotypes. Gary is the soft one, a mummy’s boy, his brother Tim, the tough fighter, doing time in prison, and his father an alcoholic and aggressive waster. These characteristics are exaggerated through the dialogue, and detailed costume and production design elements and create a realistic contemporary setting for a recognizable narrative form.
In common with many film noir classics, Mother’s day has a tragic conclusion. Honoring his mother and carrying out his brother’s revenge plan has led to his own self-destruction. The audience is left in no doubt about the outcome of this.
A distressed Gary is captured in close up smoking a cigarette, evoking film noir anti-heroes whilst his baby begins to cry –creating an eerie echo. The Greek mythology, the sins of the father conclude a fateful end. Gary has sacrificed his future and that of his young child’s.
The film is a useful way to think about the aesthetic decisions we make as filmmakers and how we can reimagine familiar genres, styles and techniques in new ways to engage and surprise the audience. The film sets out to explore audience reactions when presented with recognisable narrative and aesthetic traits of genre cinema and both circumvent and exploit those expectations through the use of contemporary stylisation of performance and a recognisably Australian setting. This is relatively successfully achieved. The sound design is very effectively employed and adds to the intensity and claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. The actors are well cast, particularly Gary but the father and brother feel a little onedimensional. The father needed to feel more menacing and women do not really feature in the film except as victims.
To begin by addressing a question posed in the research statement, ‘Does the contradictory suburban Australian mis-en-scene (sic) and décor displace the film and offer audiences a reinterpretation on the filmnoir genre?’ my response on viewing the film would be to say, ‘I did feel displaced, yes, but I am not sure how and why, and if this was the filmmaker’s real intention.’ In other words, viewing the film was quite an ‘odd’ experience of sorts because, as the filmmaker highlights, I had expectations of what I was about to see – which was probably mainly as a result of the black and white style, to be honest. But did this result in a reinterpretation of the film noir genre? Speaking as a non-expert in this genre, I have to say no, it did not.
If anything, the film reminded me more of a television drama, one that just happened to be made in black and white. The script, production design, use of camera and acting felt more like melodrama (i.e., a typical Australian television series) than a ‘film’, especially one with roots in the noir genre. But if the filmmaker claims that ‘the film juxtaposes the stylised monochromatic aesthetic and naturalistic ‘method’ performances against a stereotypical “Aussie” character (beer drinking, unshaven, uncouth, cricket-loving, no-hopers)’ maybe this is how I was supposed to feel. Whether or not this created something ‘new’ is another matter.I felt that the story was rather clichéd and underdeveloped, though again, is this something the filmmaker intended? As he says, the film ‘explores audience reactions when presented with recognisable narrative and aesthetic traits of genre cinema then both circumvents and exploits those expectations through the use of contemporary stylisation of performance and a recognisably Australian setting.’ This leads us to an interesting question: does my position as a researcher override my position as a film viewer? What I am trying to get at is, I do not think that the story ‘worked’ at all, but as a research proposition that seems to be about bending rules and challenging expectations, does this ‘failure’ amount to ‘success’? I would be keen to know if these research ideas were driving the production from the very start, or if they were indeed considered once the film had been completed. On what might seem like a side note, the part of the story/script that I really liked was when, having been stabbed by his son, the father still made sure he drank his beer. This was powerful and surprising. Outside of a research context, this absolutely ‘worked’ for me.
To address the specific questions posed by Sightlines:
Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance, and why?
As highlighted, I am really interested to know if these were in fact the research questions guiding the production, or if they came out of reflection once the film had been made. This may seem like an unfair thing to say, but in some ways the questions given in the statement seem – to me at least – to work well in contextualising a film that does not work (story, pacing, music, performance). If they were in fact the driving questions, I would like to know more about why they were. What led to this desire to challenge audience expectations? Within what current field of study and/or practice does this sit? The research statement does not make this clear.
Does the submission live up to its potential?
I am not really sure what the potential of the film is, so this is hard to answer. From the research statement, the only thing I can glean is that the film offers ‘something new’. But new from what, and with the intention of achieving what, is unclear to me. If I knew the deeper context then I might be able to see this more clearly. As it stands, I think my only answer can be ‘no’.
How does the submission expose practice as research?
Many of the elements of the film that I had difficulty with – plotting, acting, production design, music (a lack of) – are written about in the research statement, advocating that they are supposed to be ‘difficult’. In this way, then, we might say that the film exposes practice as research quite well. However, because the research statement never goes into any detail about what the research is really about, and where it really comes from, I am left with doubts about the research intentions. In this way, then, we might say that the film only exposes practice as research after the event, on completion of the film and in hindsight about what did and did not work for the filmmaker.
Author response to review