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Silence, please: Dr Plonk.

'I just think, "Ah! That's a great idea, I'd like to do that!"'--Rolf de Heer. (1) Is Rolf de Heer Australia's most risk-taking, most innovative filmmaker? This, in the light of his track record over the last decade or so, is at least an arguable proposition. He belongs to none of the 'safe' categories of Australian--or indeed any--films, but this Dutch-born filmmaker has done as much as anyone to stiffen the sinews of the concept of a 'national cinema' here.

Who else has offered so disturbing a scenario as Bad Boy Bubby (1993), in which a thirty-year-old man is, after years of captivity, at last unleashed on a non-comprehending world? Or that of the child mute with pain at parental discord in The Quiet Room (1996)? Or for the sheerly esoteric and exotic, what about The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001), with its Amazon-based romantic who is learning to forget man's barbarity through a late-arriving passion for reading? Not to speak of that emblematic reworking of the Western genre The Tracker (2002), in which the characters are referred to not by name but only by their functions, and the seriously unsettling pro-feminist tract Alexandra's Project (2003), or, perhaps most daring of all, the first Australian film entirely spoken in Aboriginal languages, Ten Canoes (2006). Surely no one else has been this consistently bold in their dealings with formal and stylistic--not to speak of ideological--matters in the recent history of Australian cinema.

A daring pastiche of silent film

What de Heer is now offering in Dr Plonk (2007) is an affectionate and razor-sharp pastiche of silent film comedy. It is not only, in terms of relevance to contemporary Australia, daring in its apparent ignoring of local contemporary matters, but it seems also to have embraced the limitations of a bygone era of filmmaking in its stylistics and techniques. Its obvious audience is film aficionados who will recognise the elements of its inspiration, but they won't be numerous enough to satisfy box-office criteria. How far will it appeal beyond this restricted clientele? Quite widely, I suspect: young children may well adore it and so may any adult with a sense of cinema history or an appreciation of a particular kind of physical comedy. Whether it has other guns in its arsenal we shall have to wait and see.


The eponymous Dr Plonk (Nigel Lunghi) is described in the silent-screen title which introduces him as 'a scientist, an inventor ... a brilliant eccentric' and we see him first in a small circular insert which opens out to take in the whole screen. The time is 1907 and his assistant, the unconvincingly bearded Paulus (Paul Blackwell), is a deaf mute, who is regularly biffed and kicked to help keep his mind on the job, and the black-ringleted Mrs Plonk (Magda Szubanski--surely Australia's answer to Dawn French?) makes her first appearance by slipping on Paulus' discarded banana skin. They communicate with the somewhat exaggerated gestures that compensate for the silence of silent cinema, though they all, in one reviewer's phrase, 'walk the line between emphasis and overacting' (2), and before we can count ten they are chasing each other round the doctor's lab. Plonk's 'researches', in the form of vast sheets of indecipherable equations, have led him to the conclusion that 'the world will end in 2008', and the film's narrative has been set in place. Henceforth, the film will move back and forth between the time of Plonk's experiments with his time machine and 101 years later when he tries to warn the world of looming apocalypse.

The 'story' is the stuff of silent film comedy; so is the way it is presented. For starters, it is obviously shot in black and white, and in Judd Overton's cinematography a very lustrous monochrome it is. Still, lovingly restored silent classics have led us to realize the standards the early masters achieved, so that we can admire without patronage. This is the first thing we notice; the second is Graham Tardif's brilliantly achieved score which recalls the innocent frenzies of early comedy and inserts fragments of ditties like 'I've Been Working on the Railroad'. It speeds up for the chases, lingers over what might be--but doesn't prove to be--a 'romantic' moment in a park. The musical accompaniment of silent films was very much in the hands (literally) of the particular cinema's pianist, and dexterity rather than subtlety was the watchword. De Heer and his musical collaborator have utterly understood this.

After the first look and sound we are vouchsafed of the cinematic past, the next flick of history is in the discreetly decorative borders surrounding the 'titles' which perform functions both descriptive and, in narrative terms, anticipatory. Again, de Heer has grasped the kind of work these signifiers must do. They may introduce a character, as noted above, or usher in a moment of narrative suspense ('To escape a tricky situation, Dr Plonk turns to the physics of moving objects'), or turn aphoristic to open out the narrative ('When methodology yields no result, change the methodology'), or--and this makes one wonder what de Heer is up to--offer a proleptic critique of our contemporary world ('What strange behaviour!' of a family sitting numbly in front of the TV, or 'They'll believe a politician more than a scientist').

I'm aware of seeming to take all this more solemnly than its makers probably intended, but my purpose at this point is to suggest how devotedly de Heer has applied himself to ingesting the ways film comedy worked in the early years of the last century. As to what is going on in the frame and how this is put before us, this will also cause ripples of recognition from the cognoscenti, as well as more innocent pleasure to others. By this I mean such matters as character stereotypes, including the eccentric inventor, the hapless assistant, the fat and formidable wife and the mischievous dog; the constant sparring between inventor and assistant or wife and assistant; the chases and pratfalls so crucial to the slapstick comedy of the silent screen; and the brilliant timing of moments of physical by-play (watch, for instance, the assistant as he catches a bottle of 'Air from Australia' or wherever, thrown over the inventor's shoulder, turns and sets it on the bench, and is back in place for the next catch). As well, though, the film student will recognise the filming procedures of the early screen, when the camera was characteristically placed in, as it were, the centre of the front stalls while it recorded the action staged before it. Dr Plonk seems to be set at a filmmaking period a little later, when the camera had begun to move a bit without destroying its essential centrality in relation to the action, in which the characters tear wildly around the studio sets in the 1907 segments, or city streets (Adelaide doing service in this respect) and industrial wastelands in the 2008 ones.

As well, the film's storytelling technique registers one of the crucial discoveries of early cinema: that of alternation as a means of recording concurrent actions in different locations. Prior to this narrative breakthrough, filmmakers would have to backtrack in time to show what had been happening elsewhere at the same time. De Heer commemorates this innovation early on in Dr Plonk with a sustained alternation between Plonk's driving out in his 'car' and the shyly inept Paulus' overtures to a woman on a park bench. To stress the formal strategy, the film has each strand of the sequence end in failure: Plonk's car runs out of fuel and he has to push it home, and the woman slaps Paulus' face in rebuke of his advances. The rest of the film's action depends heavily on just this sort of alternation as Plonk, Paulus and even the dog Tiberius are whisked into 2008, then restored (or not, in some cases) to 1907.

Silent film scholars will no doubt pick up many more points of contact with the period and genre of their study. I hope I've indicated in enough detail the loving care that has gone into recreating, to memorializing, a richly resourceful body of filmmaking. This wouldn't, however, be enough reason to value the film: that is, if it were no more than clever pastiche, why would de Heer have bothered? One needs first to ask how successful it is on the level of pastiche, of putting before both scholar and (in terms of silent cinema) first-timer the methods and madness of a long-ago mode of screen comedy. It is one thing to spot allusions to this or that element of the earlier era when the movies were young, it is another to evaluate it as entertainment in 2007.

An entrancing film: misgivings and delights

To get two misgivings out of the way quickly: even at eighty-three minutes, the film is probably too long; inventive as it is, its narrative method depends too heavily on the shifts between the two periods as Plonk seeks to press upon the politicians of 2008 his message about the imminent end of the world. Though the film clearly understands the twin pleasures of repetition and surprise, there is ultimately not enough of the latter and too much of the former. An hour might have been exactly right, though such a running time would undoubtedly have constituted a hard sell to exhibitors, given the expectations of cinema audiences today. My other worry is the ending, which I won't reveal here but which seems to me at odds with the playful tone of the film as a whole.

These, though, are small cavils about a film which offers so much delight. De Heer, as writer, director and producer, can take much of the credit for the often brilliantly inventive staging of the chases that punctuate the plot and which were so crucial to silent comedy. There is a lovely episode when Plonk loses his time machine (it's actually a wooden box, with a bell inside to ring when he wants to return to 1907) in a car yard and is chased by security guards who naturally (the pleasures of expectation here) collide in a heap on the ground. But all the chases are wittily filmed, including the one in which Plonk leads the cops a dance around the girders of an empty warehouse or hangar of some kind. The point to note is that these chases are staged and filmed as they might well have been in the silent period, without any sense of rib-poking condescension.

The other name that should be mentioned here is that of stunt coordinator Grant Page. Long since the doyen of Australian stunt men, Page has credits including Brian Trenchard-Smith's action films (The Man from Hong Kong, 1975; Deathcheaters, 1976) as well as orchestrating the stunts for two of the Mad Max films (George Miller, 1979, 1985) and many others. In Dr Plonk, we can assume that the apparent ease with which the chases and pratfalls are executed, without, one hopes, danger to life and limb, bespeak his expertise. And the cast enters into the spirit of the enterprise, the three leads gamely succumbing to all manner of dignity loss in the interests of maintaining a straight-faced demeanour when confronted with moments of high absurdity. I treasure the image of the longsuffering Paulus, forever being sent off with a cuff to walk the dog, finally getting the dog to walk him in a little cart.

Has de Heer anything more in mind than to recreate for contemporary filmgoers a sense of what film comedy was like a hundred years ago? The persistent bleakness of the landscapes in which Plonk's time machine fetches up in 2008 seem to indicate a pessimism about the state of civilisation's progress. In one of Plonk's future visits he comes upon a family sitting motionless and blank-visaged in front of the television in the cushioned ease of their sterile sitting-room in a sterile housing development, while the screen promises 'The End of the World'. (De Heer is on record as saying: 'Television! If I could do one thing to improve all of humanity it would be to get rid of television.' (3)) On other 'visits' there is a look of desuetude about the urban stretches, while the politicians whom he hopes to warn are as intransigent in the face of harsh 'truths' (like the end of the world!) as our own experience would lead us to credit. As the camera prowls the prime ministerial photographs on the wall of Parliament House, a portrait of George W. Bush is juxtaposed with that of John Howard. (In extenuation of this harsh view of our leaders, I should add that South Australian premier Mike Rann puts in an appearance as the Prime Minister--good for him!) The notion of Plonk's being mistaken for a terrorist perhaps spells out unduly de Heer's intention to leave us believing we've seen more than nostalgic pastiche.


If you've read this far, you'll be aware that it goes against my grain to put forward captious reservations about this often entrancing film. What really stays with me is the way in which the team--especially de Heer, Page, Tardif, Overton, editor Tania Nehme and the actors--obviously shared a vision of what film comedy once was. It may have been a matter of innocence but it was also a matter of deftly honed skills, and this film celebrates both. Dr Plonk deserves to be as well received as Ten Canoes, to which, by the way, it makes a sly nod.

P.S. I hear it rumoured that Rolf de Heer's next project is a nudist musical set in Antarctica. Watch this column for confirmation.


(1) Rolf de Heer, in D. Bruno Starrs 'The Sounds of Silence: An interview with Rolf de Heer', Metro, No. 152, p.18.

(2) Torn Redwood, 'Silence is a Virtue: Plonk and Passio', Metro, No. 152, p.16.

(3) De Heer, op. cit., p.21.
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Title Annotation:AUSTRALIAN & NEW ZEALAND Cinema
Author:McFarlane, Brian
Publication:Metro Magazine
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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