Thursday, August 7, 2008

John Hillcoat - Ghosts of the Civil Dead (1988)

I hadn't watched this film since I was a teenager, when I'd seen it mainly as a Nick Cave fanboy. I'm not sure I really 'got it' at the time, because it didn't leave a huge impact, whereas on reconsideration I was deeply impressed by this film - much more so than the more recent Hillcoat-Cave collaboration, The Proposition.

The story takes place in the close future, though this is by no means a sci-fi or even a futuristic film, in Central Industrial Prison, a maximum-security facility in the middle of the desert. The narrative conceit is a report detailing the events leading up to a total lockdown. There is not a strong narrative; rather, we follow the development of individual characters through periodical scenes of events in which they are involved. However, the film is neither boring nor slow-moving; and the violence, while at times extreme, is not presented in such a way as to make the viewer ethically complicit in voyeurism.

As the film opens, the prison seems a place of violence and oppression, but where camaraderie and humanity are nonetheless present. The focus is the degeneration of this state of affairs into one of complete dehumanisation, in which both prisoners and guards are caught up, as the management turns the screws for their own political purposes. The soundtrack was created by Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, as well as Cave himself, and though minimal, plays an important part in the creation of a suffocating atmosphere of meaninglessness, inhumanity and extreme violence. Unfortunately, the character Maynard, played by Cave himself, is the only one which doesn't 'ring true,' being a psychopath-without-a-cause of fairly typical filmic derivation; whereas the other characters, however minimal their roles, are all complex and ring psychologically true. Cave's character introduces an element of melodrama into an otherwise realist, though extremely dark, piece, whose disturbing quality hinges on the reality of the world it creates.

Indeed, the characters are shown neither as devils nor as rough-hewn angels, but as complex human beings whose actions are determined not only by their character but by the system(s) which exert control over their environment; an important point in a society like ours, which would prefer to judge every action as being the result of individual disposition rather than situational factors.

According to Wikipedia, the film is partially based on the true story of Jack Henry Abbott; it is also based on the testimony of David Hale, a whistleblower and former prison guard in Illinois - the soundtrack features a number of interviews with Hale, who witnessed events very similar to those in the film in terms of management provocation of violence. In addition, apparently, the cast involves only a few professional actors, the rest being made up of real ex-crims, prison guards, etc - if this is in fact the case, it certainly works.

Thematically, a Foucauldian reflection is made (consciously referenced in the 'Foucault authority') on the modern prison as a place of surveillance, where regulation takes place through the psychologically-driven efforts of those within the system, rather than being a system where violence is institutionally inflicted from the outside in an organised fashion. This is emphasised by filming techniques like surveillance camera footage and the framing of shots through surveillance windows. There is also a heavy political critique of the system of imprisonment in itself, and of the political use to which an imprisoning justice system is put by politicians and other demagogues.

For an Australian in particular, the film seems eerily prescient of the barbed-wire concentration prisons in the middle of the desert into which refugees in the Howard era were abandoned, and left to self-mutilate, inflict brutality upon one another, and otherwise succumb to brutalised insanity, a situation created entirely for political ends. I also appreciated the uncompromising 'Australian-ness' of the work, in the dialogue and the few external shots, particularly unusual both for a science fiction film, and for a film which could have been easily set in a geographical 'nowhere' so as to highlight the universal aspects of the narrative.

This is not an easy work, but it's one which is both a stunning film as a film, and one which continues to be vitally relevant in the current political landscape.

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