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DVD Review: Savage Sinema From Down Under – Box Set

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As the DVD market expands, enterprising boutique labels have to keep up with and even anticipate demand. In particular, the number of small cult-centered DVD companies continues to increase; thus, the variety and obscurity of available titles has exploded. It's a good time to be a fan of the offbeat – there are things being brought out on DVD these days that astonish in the mere fact that they're seeing the light of day.

Subversive Cinema's recent box set Savage Sinema From Down Under falls under this rubric. The set collects three feature films from low-budget Australian filmmaker Mark Savage plus assorted goodies. Savage is an unknown in the USA (I'd never heard of him prior to this set, and I like to consider myself relatively informed), and having combed through the set I think I understand why. Putting aside the question of how well regional B-cinema travels outside its home base (how well-known is Jim Van Bebber in Scotland?), the truth of it is that Savage's films aren't very good. Each of the three included films has its problems; taken as a whole, they paint a picture of Savage as a guy who's trying hard but, despite a certain trashy vitality, can't quite make his muse dance.

His debut film Marauders, released in 1986, exemplifies both the good and the bad in Savage's ethos. Marauders is a fairly vicious piece of goods, a sick 'n' seedy story about Emilio and Zed (Colin Savage and Zero Montana), two amoral punks who go nutters after a macho meathead named David (Paul Harrington) runs down Zed with his car. From the outset, it's clear that Savage has talent. His visual sense at this point is rudimentary but promising, with his use of low-angle photography especially impressive for a neophyte, and he does manage a number of clever, interesting shots, my favorite being the tossed-off joke involved in David's car rental.

Too, the shocking aspects of the film and the overarching nihilsm works for a while. The opening sequence depicting the depths of depravity plumbed by both Emilio and Zed on an everyday basis girded me to slug down a bracing shot of anti-everything insanity, and it works as long as Savage keeps the hyperbole alive. There comes a point, though (the extended rape scene), where the attempts at revulsion, at topping the previous bit of ugliness, become too calculated and transparent; since the film's horrors aren't anchored to anything like a worldview, Marauders quickly falls apart. It's shock for shock's sake, bereft of any reason to be other than a young filmmaker's desire to see how far over the top he can go. It sounds like fun in theory, but in practice all it amounts to is an increasingly tedious series of scenes where unpleasant people do unpleasant things while saying 'fuck' and 'cunt' as much as possible. Marauders is ultimately a piece of juvenilia that gets your attention, but does little else.

Cut to 2004, and Savage's Defenceless: A Blood Symphony demonstrates that while his talent flourished in the interim, his control over the meaner parts of his mind did not. As such, Defenceless, a rape-revenge film with a supernatural twist and zero dialogue, is a meandering and pretentious mess. It's centered around the tribulations of Elizabeth (Susanne Hausschmid), whose life goes to hell when she refuses to sell her land to some extremely determined developers. Ridiculously overdone carnage and self-consciously 'disquieting' rape scenes bump uncomfortably against Savage's strained lyricism (lots of shots of the sea and whatnot) and the narrative's tone, placid to the point of comatoseness. The lack of words and classical music soundtrack cranked to full blast give the film a patina of Art, but Savage's soul still resides in the grindhouse; the destructive dissonance of the clashing approaches means he's essentially made a film for no one. (The ineffective acting doesn't help either, as the hopeless mugging lays waste to whatever subtlety might be gained from pure image-based storytelling.) In a perfect world, this film would exist at a crossroads between the fragile poetry of Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks and the snarling castigation of I Spit on Your Grave (with a soupcon of Jean Rollin's Living Dead Girl for flavor), but we live in a world of flaws and a million little things that can go wrong. Nothing goes right for Defenceless, making it perfectly dreadful.

The best of the three films, then, is 2000's Sensitive New Age Killer, which is content to merely be a trashy, breezy black comedy about Paul (Paul Moder), a nice-guy hitman whose complicated private life begins to intrude upon his business just as fellow hitman (and childhood idol for Paul) Colin the Snake (Frank Bren) blows into town. The action scenes are heavily indebted to Hong Kong cinema (especially an early gunfight in a warehouse which screams of Hard-Boiled), but Savage's direction is adept enough to make them work for himself, even when the ludicrousness gets to be too much near the end. (This unreality, what with people firing guns two feet from each other and not landing shots, could be intentional self-mockery.)

The perversity that comes with the territory in Savage's films is more inviting here, possibly because it's in more measured doses and generally isn't taken seriously; the detours into the weird and sick provide Killer with some of its most delirious and entertaining moments (i.e. Paul's mother-fixated partner George (Kevin Hopkins) snorting part of his mom's ashes as part of a self-loathing ritual). While part of me wishes Savage would have gone for the throat by further indulging some of his more screwed-up impulses (Colin's last scene, in particular, is memorable for its black-hearted ballsiness), another part is just glad for the cheerful dementia that we are given. Killer isn't great, but it's just clever enough to be undemanding fun.

As much as I dislike much of what the Savage Sinema set is built around, I wish I felt differently, since the generous supplemental material shows Mark Savage to be a likeable, enthusiastic and passionate man who is proud of his work and is making exactly the kinds of films he wants to make. Each of the three films comes bundled with a commentary, a making-of featurette, trailers, stills, bios and a production diary penned by Savage. The featurettes tend to be hit-and-miss; the best of the lot is "Four Friends in Low-Budget Heaven" on the Marauders disc, since the commentary is a bit chaotic and eventually devolves into a series of comments about Colin Savage's amazing gravity-defying hair.

The other two commentaries, though, feature Mark Savage and one other participant from each film, and they're golden. Paradoxically, the finest track is on what I consider to be the worst film, Defenceless — Savage and Hausschmid contribute a discussion that is as thoughtful, intelligent and well-measured as the film should have been. Hearing Savage wrestle with his use of exploitative elements and the idea of 'going too far,' explain the long and emotionally draining nature of the shoot or cite his influences (everything from Living Dead Girl and I Spit on Your Grave to Rene Clement's Forbidden Games), indeed, makes me marvel at how this much planning and thought could have soured into nothing. (His comment on the metaphorical angle of the knife-in-the-vagina scene, though, makes me wonder if he's seen Fulci's The New York Ripper or Dallamano's What Have They Done to Solange?, which got to that first with less fuss.)

The shiniest gems of the set are the exhaustive production diaries. As Savage charts the progress of each production, with their hopes and failures and triumphs and compromises, there are sensations of determination and joy that become undeniable. In these diaries, Savage appears a resourceful, unflappable and talented guy. If I were making films, I would want to work like him. Hell, I'd probably end up making films like him, which puts my response to his actual work in a weird position. I respect and admire the man but don't care for his films even as I recognize that I'd probably turn out the same sort of thing. Where do we go from here? I'm genuinely flummoxed.

[Note: The Savage Sinema set includes a fourth disc with Savage's TV film Stained and a number of Super-8 shorts; unfortunately, I was not able to view this disc.]
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