Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Quorn

Quorn is a small town about half an hour north of Port Augusta. One of the most notable things about Quorn is that it’s been used for decades as a film set for famous Australian period movies, from 'Sunday Too Far Away' (1975, set in 1955) to 'Gallipoli' (1981, set in 1915), to 'Robbery Under Arms' (1985, set in 1855) to 'The Water Diviner' (2014, set in 1919). Quorn has managed to do this because nothing ever happens in Quorn, ever, and thus it looked exactly the same in 1855, 1915, 1955 and today.


Of course the downside of nothing ever happening in Quorn is that it’s impossible to do anything in Quorn… presumably because that would ruin its cinematic reputation as a town in which nothing ever changes. As I walked the streets at 2.30pm on a Tuesday, the shops remained resolutely shut. In some cases this was because they’d closed down in the 1930s, but in other cases the reason was more elusive. The Aboriginal Art Gallery was locked and the front window was empty, unless South Australian Aboriginals have a previously unknown tradition of crafting carpet-covered room dividers and dusty display plinths. The second hand bookstore was locked too, but at least it had books on display in its window. True, they’d all bleached in the sun so that they looked like a collection of giant, slightly stained teeth, but at least they were books as advertised. The antique store had a folding OPEN sign out on the street, with a bunch of colourful helium balloons tied to it. Its main entrance was standing open. But when I tried the screen door… it was locked. I rattled it a bit, but no one appeared.


It occurred to me that maybe Quorn’s latest film was one of those end of the world movies. Perhaps something about a Rapture that only applies to small business owners? It seemed plausible, but if that were the case one would still expect to see evidence of a film crew or two. I didn’t so much as see a single Best Boy, let alone anyone with a camera or a directorial beret.





Still, there was always Quorn’s other claim to fame: the tourist railway. It’s an amateur railroad run by actual amateurs, who twice a week drive a century-old steam train and carriages up and down a narrow gauge track through the scenic Quornish hills, to the delight of tourists, people who sell pies and pasties to tourists, railway geeks and other middle class white people.








This was the odd thing that niggled me about the crowd for an hour before I finally worked out what it was. In modern Australia, you simply don’t see a crowd of four hundred people any more without at least a smattering of Chinese, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Arabs or other ethnic groups. The travelers on the Quorn railway were more white and middle-class than an episode of 'Midsomer Murders'. Or more damningly, more white and middle-class than the audience of an episode of 'Midsomer Murders'.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Port Augusta

On the third day of my odyssey, I arrived in Port Augusta.


What can I say about Port Augusta? They have a Big W. And the first instance of mobile reception since Norseman, not to mention the first instance of internet access since home.


I took Derek and Leslie to explore the town, walking along the riverside in the twilight.





We didn’t find anything.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Nullarbor

Day Two of my cross-country drive took me off the edge of the Darling Scarp and down into the Nullarbor Plain.











In the middle of the plain, where it meets the ocean at the western end of the Great Australian Bight, I stopped to celebrate our progress with the only martini within a 500 km radius, and quite possibly the first martini that this corner of the world has ever seen. You’re welcome, Australia.





As evening fell I stopped at Nullarbor Roadhouse to spend the night. My motel room was built at some time in the 1960s, but while the hotel at Norseman was a faded reminder of a more elegant and prosperous time, the hotel at Nullarbor was always utilitarian and unlovely. The walls of my room were unpainted cement brick, and so thin that I could hear every word of the couple next door (and the wails of their baby). There was a tiny TV, an original bathroom with amber faux-onyx benchtops and harvest gold tiles, and bed linen the colour of haemorrhages. A small sign on the wardrobe warned that the water should be boiled before drinking. The whole room gave the impression of being designed to be simple to clean out after a depressed trucker shoots himself in it.





I stepped out into the cold night to take a walk. It may not be an advisable thing to do around most motels of this scabrous type, but Nullarbor has the benefit of being in the middle of nowhere, and thus outside commuting distance for most ne’er-do-wells. I walked some way down the highway, and once I stepped beyond the illumination of its floodlights and the sound of the idling rigs and the motel’s generator, I was enveloped in darkness and silence unknown in my normal life. There wasn’t a single vehicle on the road for over half an hour. The whole cold, silvery arm of the Milky Way was visible from horizon to horizon – the only visible thing in the darkness other than the lights of the motel a kilometre behind me. The silence was so complete that my mind hallucinated the faint chirp of insects, to add to the faint background hum of what I assumed is marginal tinnitus.


I normally love darkness and silence, but this was too much. Darkness and silence remove distractions and allow you to experience the small things, but in complete darkness and silence there are no small things, and you just experience emptiness.


It was in this nihilistic frame of mind that I walked back to the tiny speck of civilisation of the motel, and watched 'Alice in Wonderland' on illegal Bali DVD that they were inexplicably showing on my tiny TV.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Norseman

After leaving home at a dark and chilly hour, I drove all day through the farms and forests east of Perth, then through the marginal towns and wide open fields of the Wheatbelt, skirted the Goldfields towns of central Western Australia and finally made the first of my overnight stops in Norseman, 726 kilometres from home.


Norseman is one of the towns through which one must pass on a drive from the west to the east, as inevitable as menopause or another disappointing Adam Sandler movie. At one point, in the middle decades of the 20th century, when flying was a luxury and most cross-continental travelers drove their cars, it was a prosperous tourist town. But nowadays most cross-continental travelers fly, leaving the town to wither with only the slim pickings of truckers, grey nomads, and Swedish tourists who got lost after typing something into their GPS incorrectly.


My hotel was built in the 1950s, at the height of Norseman’s prosperity, and as such it’s a glamorous Art Deco construction of glass bricks, geometric light fittings and curving walls, with a sleek jarrah staircase and soaring ceilings.





Or rather it was a glamorous construction. Now the ceilings are bulging and badly patched, the cornices are coming away from the walls, and architectural features like the main entrance and the telephone kiosk, with their names etched into their frosted glass panels, have been nailed shut. There are attempts at glamour, but they mainly run to having holographic portraits of Audrey Hepburn hanging in the hallway.






My room was on the front corner of the hotel. As you can tell, there was a fifty-fifty chance that I’d wake up out in the street after the front of the building fell off.





As evening drew in I went for a walk. Derek and Leslie admired the slagheap in the town’s main mine, possibly the most massive man-made object within fifty kilometres in any direction. While it looks like clay it’s actually sand, which has been carved by the rain such that it looks like an ancient and ornately carved pyramid from some lost civilisation.





I had dinner at the local hotel, another grand building from a bygone era. While mine workers played pool and watched the football on the big screen, I had vegetarian pizza and cider next to a warm fire. Given that Norseman is 800kms from the city and 200kms from the ocean, it’s not surprising that the ingredients of my vegetarian pizza were clearly selected for their durability rather than their taste; the vegetable equivalents of Toyota Hiluxes.


Returning to the hotel, and discovering that the front had not fallen off yet, I went to bed. The bed was comfortable, but it was covered with a horribly creepy chenille bedspread, which was disturbingly soft and slick, like a seductive muppet. I lay there and listened to the hotel creak and groan as the front withdrew another couple of inches from the rest of the building, and with the gentle pitter patter of what I assumed was asbestos dust raining down from the holes in the ceiling I fell asleep.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Wagoneers

Members of the Wagon family are based on both the west and east coasts of Australia, separated by four thousand kilometres of the country’s interior. However, we are a sentimental clan, and as such we’ve decided to have a family reunion. Rather than make one half of the family fly the full length of the country to come to the other half, we decided to inconvenience 100% of all Wagons and meet in the middle. In outback South Australia, which contains no native Wagons, nor indeed much of anything else.


Being an idiot, this particular Wagon is driving across with other local family members, then flying home. The flight will take three hours. The drive will take three days. To deal with this state of affairs, I will be relying on a) a bottle of gin and b) my traveling companions, Derek and Leslie.





It'll be a lengthy journey through the Outback, but hopefully we won't run out of essentials like petrol or cocktail olives.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Aging

As AndressFest has continued from year to year and our selection of unseen movies has dwindled, I've motivated my fellow AndressFesters to keep sourcing material by issuing a singular threat: if we can't get the movies we want, we'll be forced to watch Ursula's double episode of 'The Love Boat'.


This year, I had to act on that threat.


'The Love Boat' wasn't so exciting and new by 1983. It was in its 7th season, and roundly deserved its reputation as a repository for washed-up actors coasting on their name recognition. Along for the ride with Ursula in this particular episode were Lee Majors (The 6 Million Dollar Man), Erin Moran (Happy Days), John Forsythe (Dynasty), Linda Evans (also Dynasty) and Michael Constantine (any movie or TV show requiring a slow-moving, doughy bald man between 1949 and 2003).


As was traditional on 'The Love Boat', the narrative blended several individual storylines. Linda Evans falls in love with Lee Majors, then flounces away when she discovers he works in a field she doesn't like, but returns when he pats her silly female hand and tells her it's all okay. Meanwhile Susan Anton falls in love with Bernie Koppel, then flounces away when she discovers he works in a field she doesn't like, but returns when he pats her silly female hand and tells her it's all okay. At the same time, Patricia Klous and Erin Moran both fall in love with Lee Horsley, then flounce away when they discover the existence of each other, but return when he chooses one over the other, pats both of their silly female hands and tells them it's all okay.


I don't think these episodes were written by Andrea Dworkin, somehow.


Fortunately, Ursula wasn't required to put up with any of this flaky crap. Her story is one of love at first sight between a dying woman ticking items off her bucket list and gentleman criminal on the run. She's trying to elude the Grim Reaper, and he's trying to dodge the detective who's tracked him down. In between they relish their time together before they're dragged off to jail, or the grave, or both.


The other traditional part of a standard episode of 'The Love Boat' was a lot of fawning blather about this week's cruise destination. For Ursula's episode, it was China, which was a strange choice for a frothy TV soap in 1983, given that China was still a closed hardcore Communist dictatorship at the time, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the return of Hong Kong and the boom of the last quarter century. And with all that's happened since then, it's a little disconcerting to hear characters gush about the wonders of Tienanmen Square (which can apparently hold a million people, although presumably fewer if they've been flattened and spread out by tanks).


It's also amusing to hear characters burbling to each other about how "beautiful" everything is, despite the fact that it's TV and we can actually SEE the drab grimy buildings and listless grey trees behind them. When the most refined thing in a scene is Linda Evans' purple rayon blouse, something's not right.





Linda Evans' purple rayon blouse is emblematic of the only interesting thing in 'The Love Boat': the costumes. The words the actors are saying and the things they are doing aren't words spoken or things done by real human beings. They're not aspects of storytelling; they're lines in a formula that's been churning out scripts for seven seasons. But the costumes have space for creativity. They still don't make sense - Ursula manages to wear three full changes of outfit on a single day trip, despite not taking any luggage with her - but they're rich with the fashion semiotics of the late 70s and early 80s. Pastels, pantsuits, artificial fibres, shoulder pads and a horrible predilection for beige.

















The very worst thing about this episode of 'The Love Boat' is the way that it treated our Ursula. She was a vivacious 47 year old, with a 3 year old child and a 31 year old lover. And yet here she is, forced into the role of a feisty senior citizen who could drop dead at any moment. With her white-blonde hair and awful beige leisurewear, she looks like she just stepped out of a commercial for denture adhesive or a "lifestyle village".





It's telling that her love interest was played by John Forsythe, at 65 an actual feisty senior citizen, who was nearly two decades her senior.


European love the idea of a sexy mature woman. Americans, by contrast, freak out if any woman over the age of 25 gives the impression that she has an active sex life. It's no wonder they had no idea what to do with a middle-aged Ursula Andress.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dreamy

Our first movie for AndressFest'15 was 'Nightmare in the Sun'. It's an actual movie and not, as you might think, just a generic term for any Ursula Andress movie watched during daylight hours.


'Nightmare in the Sun' was the 1965 directorial debut of John Derek, who cast his then-wife Ursula Andress as one of his leads, clearly without understanding that The Curse of Ursula consigns all of her movies to cinematic doom.


Or perhaps he understood, but just didn't care. Here's how we're introduced to Ursula:





Which is all the evidence you need of why AndressFest is in its 10th year.


Ursula plays Marsha Wilson, a beautiful European girl who married a rich old American man in order to see the world, but got stuck in a boring, po-dunk town rather than experiencing the New York high life he promised her.


She's desperate to escape this dusty backwater, and spontaneously offers to drive a handsome hitchhiker (John Derek) to his destination in Los Angeles. But first they make a stop at her place to pack, take a dip in the pool, and bear witness to Ursula's collection of creepy dolls, including a terrifying miniature Richard Simmons.








But when she find out he's married, the whole plan falls apart. The hitchhiker leaves, just in time to be seen by Ursula's drunken husband, who responds to the erroneous impression that she banged the stranger by blasting her with a rifle.


Ursula he shoots once. The Miniature Richard Simmons he shoots three times. He may be drunk and crazy but he's not stupid.





Enter the local sheriff (Aldo Ray), who ironically actually was banging Ursula earlier that day. He realises that if the old man confesses to Ursula's murder, his own adultery will probably come to light and his career will be over. So he decides that they'll blame the mysterious hitchhiker. As a result, said hitchhiker becomes a hunted man, forced to dodge slack-jawed deputies, road blocks and vigilantes on top of the usual threats to movie hitchhikers, such as demonically possessed trailer trucks and Thelma and Louise.


Included in the cast of vengeance-crazed hillbillies is a local scrapyard owner (Keenan Wynn), a couple of senile animal hoarders (George Tobias and Lurene Tuttle), and two out-of-town bikers who join the hunt in the venal hope that there will be a reward. They demonstrate that even in 1965, Hollywood was still under the daft 1950s illusion that rebellious biker youths could be convincingly played by 34 year olds with thinning hair and a penchant for cardigans.





Many commentators believe there was a homosexual subtext between these two. I say that no gay man would ever leave the house dressed like that.


Eventually the hitchhiker is captured by, of all things, a creepy scoutmaster. But when he's handed over to the police, he's immediately freed: the old man, wracked with guilt, has confessed to Ursula's murder. Oh, and the sheriff's, apparently. It's as if the cameraman suddenly discovered that they only had a few feet of film left and they had to wrap up the story in eleven seconds.


'Nightmare in the Sun' wasn't a terrible film, at least not by AndressFest standards, but when the best thing about your movie is a famously beautiful but famously terrible actress... well, you could probably stand to tighten things up a bit.





It helped that Marsha was the role Ursula was born to play. Her scenes, which required her to roll nudely around a bed, climb out of a swimming pool in a clingy wet white dress, and flirt with every man she encountered under the age of fifty, were just things that Ursula would probably have been doing anyway, only this time there were cameras filming it. As such she is one of the two best things about 'Nightmare in the Sun'.


The other best thing was her car:





Marsha's car was actually Ursula's own car, a gorgeous 1958 BMW 507 Series II convertible. Only 253 were ever built, and these days a fully restored version typically sells for one to three million dollars. Ursula's own example sold for more than a million dollars in 2011.


It made sense. The ravishingly sexy Ursula Andress needed a ravishingly sexy car: she could hardly be expected to get about in a Ford Anglia. They were both stunning, rare, exotic creatures out of place in the scrubby California hinterlands. And within a year at least one of them had divorced her husband and high-tailed it back to Europe.