In The Muck of It: The Films of Ann Turner — Profile by Alexandra Heller Nicholas
I’m sitting in a small private booth at the Australian Mediatheque at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, waiting while an old 16mm film is being set up on a vintage Steenbeck for viewing. It feels like the end of a pilgrimage, the last of Australian author, screenwriter and director Ann Turner’s films I left have to see: this is her 1981 student short, Flesh on Glass, made during her time at the Swinburne Film School (soon to become the Victorian College of the Arts). Continue reading…
A Filmmaker To Be Reckoned With
The sacred nature of my quest is not diminished when the movie begins. As the film feeds through the spools with a satisfying whir, the screen reveals rosary beads fed with equal velocity and determination through the hands of a praying nun. Flesh on Glass is a love triangle of sorts between Kate (Penelope Stewart), her brother Paul (Ian Scott) and his wife Aggie (Lisa Dombroski), the latter who’d earlier appeared uncredited as a less-than-illustrious “beach moll” in George Miller’s first Mad Max film in 1979. While accepting of his sister’s lesbianism, the discovery of Kate and Aggie in flagrante delicto – rolling around the muck of the barn at their isolated beach-side holiday retreat – clearly surprises Paul, and their discovery puts into motion a series of events that find tensions between the two women increasing. Torn between the convent, heterosexual domesticity and a romantic ideal that both women struggle to comprehend, Flesh on Glass was the profound, punchy announcement of a filmmaker to be reckoned with.
Long Overdue Recognition
The promise of Flesh on Glass came to fruition in Turner’s feature debut and most famous film, 1989’s Celia. Receiving only limited home entertainment release from company’s like the UK’s Second Run and Umbrella Entertainment in Australia, the recent announcement that a restoration of the film by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive would feature at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival as part of the Pioneering Women program that I helped curate feels long overdue. Earlier signs of its ability to find a new life with contemporary audiences were indicated by its inclusion in Hobart’s Stranger With My Face Film Festival in in 2014, and its championing by critics and academics such as Britain’s Kim Newman and Australia’s Craig Martin. Starring then-child star Rebecca Smart in a career-defining powerhouse performance in the title role, Celia – like Flesh on Glass – allows space for Turner to explore in her own unique manner the intersections of gendered ritual, the pressure and presence of social expectation and the spirit of transgression.
Set in the late 1950s in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Celia is a meticulous reconstruction of Australian suburbia at the time, incorporating a number of political controversies of the period (rabbit infestations and rising anti-communist sentiment) into its world, seen from the perspective of a confused and dangerously traumatised young girl. In Celia, Turner shrewdly incorporates the codes and conventions of horror into a story that refuses to be quarantined to a strict ‘genre film’ label, yet this seemed to be precisely what lead to its undoing as some critics struggled to find a language for a movie that refused to be easily categorized. Because of this, although it certainly received some very strong critical praise from more switched-on critics at the time, Celia has generally fallen through the cracks of the popular film memory in Australia for far too long. This restoration – as well as its clear (verging on explicit) influence on Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook – should see it reinstated as one of the most intriguing, original and important Australian films of the 1990s.
In the years following Celia, Turner worked prolifically as both a director and screenwriter. She wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of the Blanche D’Apluget novel Turtle Beach, directed in 1992 by Stephen Wallace and starring Greta Scacchi and Joan Chen. Also directing an episode of the popular Australian crime series Police Rescue in 1991, Turner then helmed Hammers Over the Anvil in 1993, a film that brought together Charlotte Rampling with the young Russell Crowe, fresh off the back of his extraordinary break-out performance in the iconic Australian skinhead film Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992). Based on the writings of Alan Marshall (who wrote the classic I Can Jump Puddles (1955) which became a beloved television movie in Australian in 1981), Hammer Over the Anvil is an addition to the seemingly endless national cinema fascination with horsemen, typified by The Man from Snowy River (George T. Miller, 1982) and another Crowe film from 1993, John Tatoulis’s The Silver Brumby.
While Turner does a perfectly serviceable job with the film, watching it in retrospect it feels like she is being tested: can she make a ‘real’ Australian film, beatified horseman figure and all? It pulls together coherently, but the moments where it really dazzles make it only too apparent that for much of the film Turner – for whatever reason – is being forced to toe the line somewhat. Of these stand-outs, one explicitly recalls Flesh on Glass’s most memorable moment: spied upon by Hammer Over the Anvil’s teen protagonist, Rampling and Crowe engage in enthusiastic sexual intercourse in the barn, again revelling in the natural (although albeit with not as much abject glee) just as Flesh on Glass’s lovers did twelve years earlier.
Same Sex Attraction
The return to same-sex romance is marked by Turner’s 1994 black comedy Dallas Doll, featuring Rose Byrne in her feature film debut and reuniting Turner with the late actor Victoria Longley with whom she collaborated with so successfully previously on Celia (Longley won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category at the 1989 Australian Film Institute Awards for that earlier performance).
Like much of Turner’s work from this period, Dallas Doll is difficult to source today, and at the time at least it was marked as much by the controversy surrounding its lead actor – American provocateur Sandra Bernhard – as it was for Turner’s quirky, bittersweet script and eye for colour and light. Bernhard stars as Dallas Adair, a pro-golfer whose unexpected arrival in the lives of the bourgeois Australian Sommers household results in chaos as she acts as a source of sexual awakening for the bulk of the family as she sleeps her way through both mother (Longley), father and teenage son. While media coverage of the film upon its release was more interested in Bernhard and the alleged tensions that saw her walk off (and then return) to the set, its admirers included Jonathan Rosenbaum and Barbara Creed. Some reviews from the period of its original release transcended the tabloid elements of its production and drew parallels between David Lynch and Turner’s odd – almost at times surreal – critique of suburbia, imbued within its best moments (such as its opening plane scene) a beautiful yet undeniably strange retro aesthetic.
According to the film’s press kit, Turner took four years to write and develop Dallas Doll, and in the ensuing brouhaha surrounding its star’s signature flits of mood it must have taken extraordinary strength of character to persevere. In 1995, she returned to the beach – a location so central to Flesh on Glass – in her short “Bathing Boxes”, inspired by a painting by Australian landscape painter Jeffrey Smart for the BBC’s Picture House series alongside filmmakers including Claire Denis and Atom Egoyan. In 2006, Turner wrote and directed Irresistible, a psychological thriller starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill and Emily Blunt (the latter fresh from her breakthrough appearance in The Devil Wears Prada).
Irresistible and Unexpectedly Fresh
While on paper Irresistible seems little more than a rehash of the erotic-hued thrillers so popular in the 1980s and 1990s, in Turner’s hands something unexpectedly fresh is crafted: in collaboration with so skilled a cast, with Sarandon in particular the subjectivity of the is-she-mad-or-isn’t-she suspicious wife caricature becomes a space to play out issues of female identity in visually striking and often playful ways (the film’s first moments provide a quirky, unexpected a cappella performance of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”). Echoing Flesh on Glass, Celia and – in its own way – Dallas Doll, while perhaps adhering more loyally to a single generic framework, Irresistible shares with these earlier works a continuing fascination with female identity, subjectivity, agency and sexuality.
Psychological thrillers and mysteries have provided Turner with further space to experiment and expand her considerable talents in both her 2015 bestselling debut novel The Lost Swimmer (which she is in the process of adapting to the screen) and its follow-up, 2016’s Out of the Ice. On the strength of Celia’s restoration and its introduction to what in many cases will be an entirely new audience, in 2017 all the pieces are in place for Turner’s long overdue return to our screens.
The research for this article was undertaken as part of an Australian Film Institute Research Collection Fellowship