Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Samson & Delilah

I was so pleased in today's seminar (last class for two months! Hurray!), that when asked about which one Australian text they'd choose to make Year 12 students study, somebody nominated Samson & Delilah and other people agreed. (NOBODY voted for Voss. Which is a datum ripe for investigating, because it was a school book when I was a school child, and I went to a technical school, and nobody objected to it specifically any more than they objected to having to study books at all.) Anyway, Samson & Delilah is such a terrific film - entirely deserving of the recognition it's got at Cannes and of the packed audiences it's attracting here at home - and just when I'd begun to think the local film industry was really and truly permanently stuffed, along it comes, almost out of nowhere, because I understand that the director and writer Warwick Thornton has not made a feature film before this one.

It's such an incredibly difficult thing to do, to begin with, to make a piece of art about traumatic subject matter. It's a minefield actually. Over-aestheticising and disappearing up one's own art-cinema-hole is a problem; creating emotional pornography is a problem, especially when rape is depicted; getting into a black pit and wallowing there is a big problem, but so is the ethically suspect Schindler's List technique of inflicting upliftingness on a story that is actually anything but. Samson & Delilah negotiates all this so well that not only does it avoid traps but it positively and meaningfully steers the storytelling, with integrity and purposefulness. That's what 'directing' means, actually. The effect of this for the (white) spectator is that the film always feels underwritten or guaranteed - you don't doubt that the movie is doing what it's doing for good reasons - which is indispensably necessary when the film shows things that are very hard to witness and which are not so easy to understand.

What it reminded me of was Robert Bresson, especially Mouchette; only perhaps better, in that some aspects of Bresson's style which in his films don't really rise above the beautiful and poetic acquire ethical valence in S & D, and this in turn strips off some of the noli me tangere aura of high culture that art films can be damaged and limited by.

A stray comment I read years ago about some German filmmakers is exactly applicable to the style and method of Samson & Delilah: it's a film that knows exactly where to set up the camera in relation to the characters. Not so distant that we can't form a human relationship with them - but not so close either that we invade their privacy. The very careful limiting of talking in the movie is doing exactly this too. No talking between Delilah and Samson sharpens our need to interpret them both, Delilah especially, but it also makes us know that we can't just frictionlessly colonise their inner lives. That tension between wanting to have every private emotion revealed to us in the easy manner we're familiar with, and also willing these two people (again, Delilah in particular) to find a space where their physical and emotional sovereignty is respected, is very productive for the film and very pwerful for a white audience (I don't mean to suggest that the film is for whites or that a white reading of it is what matters, but I do wish lots of Australians would go and see this movie as enthusiastically as we went to see Australia.) The film repeats and reconfigures that doubled tension between wanting to see private meanings, and learning to hope for the survival of meanings screened or opaque to 'our' eyes, in all kinds of subtle, natural ways. I loved the tape Delilah listens to each night (and I wonder if that's an intentional echo of Never Let Me Go?), and the series of events related to the uses of painting is incredibly rich and thoughtful.

There was much in the movie that I found quite mysterious and much too that is horrible - the violence and the despair, the indifference of various white people to Delilah's injuries and obvious distress. It doesn't seem like a betrayal of these elements that the film allows both Samson and Delilah to survive, and I haven't yet managed to work out why that is. I'd like to see it again, and soon.


Cellobella said...

I haven't seen Samson and Delilah but will do so.

I wouldn't have voted for Voss either.

Voss was the book that taught me that I didn't have to finish a book I started.

I did finish it but afterward decided that if ever a book bored me as much as that one again... I wouldn't.


David Nichols said...

I was forced to study Voss at school and held for many years later (along with The Man Who Loved Children, another obligation from that same year) that it was one of my absolute favourites. If I read it again I might say so again.
I saw S&D yesterday. Brilliant.

Ampersand Duck said...

Excuse me if the following doesn't make sense, I'm writing as I think, because I don't have the time to take the time...

I remember hearing on one of the movie reviewing shows that the title had no reference to the Bible story, but the more I've been thinking about it, the more I realise that of course it does. I came away with the message that the future of Aboriginal affairs is in the hands of the women, something I've always felt strongly, and Delilah is one of the Bible's strongest, albeit badly represented. Samson does end up weakened, but not through Delilah's fault in this story's use of their names.

We had a huge debate afterwards about whether Samson was permanently unable to walk at the end, or whether he would rally under her ministerings. What do you think?

ThirdCat said...

you have made me very sad that this movie won't be coming to the UAE (well, I'm assuming it won't - could be reading the local film scene incorrectly, but I think not).

Fine said...

I think the Bresson comparison is very interesting Laura. It has the same sort of visual specificity, I think.

But, even though it's Warwick's first feature, it's important to recognise that he's made a string of short films, mainly funded by the Indigenous Branch of the AFC, now Screen Australia. Film agency bureaucrats get a lot of stick, but this is one program which has worked really well. Warwick also trained at AFTRS in Sydney and CAAMA at alice Springs, so he came into this with a wealth of experience.

It's also being distributed in a very clever way. Just opening on a small number of screens and then increasing the screens as demand increased. This means it's doing very well at the box office and has the best per scren average of any film currently screening. It's great that this has been such a success both critically and commercially.

Maxine said...

Death to Voss. No offence to ole Patty. I'm hankering to see Sam & Del.

lucy tartan said...

LOL Maxine. Since Patty himself has Voss decapitated at the end of the book I don't suppose he would be offended.

Fine, thank you for those points. I heard about a screening of Thornton's short films at Nova but only after it had already been and gone.

lucy tartan said...

Duck, I have been trying to connect the names to Delilah's cutting of her hair. Still in a muddle about that and I don't think it's going to work - too ingenious and out of keeping with the general clarity of the movie.

I didn't wonder about whether Samson would walk again. It's interesting you had a debate about it.

Jayne said...

Can't wait to see the movie, too!

TimT said...

In the Biblical story Delilah cuts off Samson's hair and he loses his strength; I think the implication in the plot of the movie is that Samson has lost the moral authority/strength that in a traditional Aboriginal culture would be automatically assumed of a man. (It's probably significant that there are no fathers in the film, only Delilah's gran.)

I assume that the characters cutting their hair when a loved one dies is also meant to be taken as a symbol of them losing strength/authority. (And another marker of their tribal culture.)

If the characters have a religion, it's probably some form of Christianity, since the only obviously religious act seen in the film is Delilah's gran going to the desert church, so the names 'Samson' and 'Delilah' are significant of that as well, I guess.

I didn't like the film much, but there are some interesting points for discussion, like biblical references.

David Nichols said...

Delilah also goes to a church in the city. I tried to grapple with the story of Samson on Wikipedia and it lost me about the stage of the 'ploughed with my heifer' stuff. This is probably not relevant but is it ever actually confirmed in the film that Delilah's name is Delilah? We know her name starts with 'D' but afterwards I couldn't recall anyone referring to her by name.
Something else that hit me about three days after: neither S nor D speak English, but they clearly understand it. ???

Elsewhere007 said...

Yeah, they've probably picked up enough on an ESL (or English as a 4th lang basis) to understand it, just by going in and out of town. Or thru schooling -- presume they would have had some in the community.

Btw Alice Springs is a town, not a city.

Samson was in a temple, not a church. I think the analogy might be somewhat strained, anyway.