Saturday, 15 January 2011

Lake Mungo (2008)

“I runne to death / and all my pleasures are like yesterday”, as John Donne wrote, is the epigram to both Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim and Jesus Franco’s Venus in Furs, and it could well serve just as well for Joel Anderson’s 2008 debut film Lake Mungo. Another entry in the now almost ubiquitous style of the mockumentary, of which I needed to see another variation like I needed to cleave off one of my own opposable digits, Lake Mungo nonetheless proves how much life even an over-used storytelling gimmick can still offer. The film purports to be an account of the inexplicable phenomena that overtook the lives of the Palmer family, residents of the inland Victorian town of Ararat, after teenaged daughter Alice (Talia Zucker) drowned during a weekend sojourn to a waterhole in 2005. Mother June (Rosie Traynor), father Russell (David Pledger), son Mathew (Martin Sharpe), and various acquaintances and townsfolk are “interviewed”, explaining the unfolding events, as, in their grief-stricken state after the accident, they seem to be visited by Alice’s spirit. Strange sounds infest the Palmer house, Russell swore to seeing her in her bedroom, and Mathew’s photographs and the videotapes of townsfolk seem to capture her lurking shade around both the house and the lake where she drowned.

With the aid of a psychic, Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell), they attempted to gain solid evidence of the haunting, and film mysterious visages and figures passing through the house in the dead of night. When much of this evidence proved to have been faked by Mathew, the haunting seemed discredited, but then other, stranger discoveries reshaped the situation. The fact that Alice was engaged in a ménage a trois with a neighbouring couple, the Tooheys (Tamara Donnellan and Scott Terrill), had brought them sneaking into the house at night to search for a pilfered videotape of one of their escapades, and Ray’s own hidden connection to Alice proved a severing ruction between him and the Palmers. But the most disturbing revelations prove to be contained on Alice’s long-lost mobile phone, found buried on the banks of the titular lake, being not where she drowned but a far more distant, foreboding locale Alice visited on a school excursion. What did Alice encounter in the darkness at Lake Mungo, and why did it terrify her enough to make her bury her treasured possessions and seek out Ray in seeming to anticipate her own tragic end?

Technically excellent, with great photography by John Brawley, Lake Mungo, in spite of the theoretically dry style that employs a constant procession of interviews and voiceovers, constructs a richly eerie, even poetic evocation of grief, secrecy, and human need for deeper underpinnings to existence conspiring to construct a web of doubt and obscurity. The fakery is studiously achieved, from recreations of faintly stilted regional television news reports, to the effectively naturalistic performances in straightforward interviews. Anderson cunningly stretches the imitation-documentary format just a little, offering time-lapse and seasonally varying shots of the family home and the localities of Ararat, glittering in the sun and rendered ghostly in the rain, the stars rising and falling as if communicating in some unknown code. Such touches seem at first to be imitating the contextualising filler of many documentaries, but finally seem to plug into the swirl of cosmic mystery and the heedless rhythms of nature with an authentically digital-era version of spiritual questing. It would have been a steeper and possibly even more substantial task for Anderson to realise the story in more familiar dramatic terms, but the use of found footage and photography is cleverly concerned not merely with clobbering the audience with the awesome contrivances of the film crew, a la Rec/Quarantine, Cloverfield etc, but exploring the vagueness of technological imagery itself in a fashion more reminiscent of Blow-Up. The way such imagery can be manipulated, the way it can accidentally map truths beyond what even its controllers can’t muster, the way that even the seeming fact of the frame’s contents can offers pools of strangeness into which any fancy might be projected.

Anderson clearly understands the power in those ambiguities, and has obviously at some point familiarised himself with the visual language and creepy beauties of much of the “evidence” from modern supernatural investigations, his visions reminiscent of photographs like those from the Amityville haunting, and video footage clearly evoking the likes of the Patterson Bigfoot film. Yet his understanding is also apparent in simpler gimmicks, like the way Alice’s displays of nascent flirtatious wiles in home movie footage alters meaning as the story proceeds, and casually captured moments gain suddenly charged, reverberating import. The character of psychic Ray, a childhood immigrant from Hungary, intriguingly connects the story with old world traditions of dealing with death (he amusingly styles himself as “Australia’s wog psychic of choice”) and highlights the failures of the style of modern suburban life to encompass such primeval problems. Anderson cunningly, if perhaps a little archly, refuses to answer or even explore some of the clues he lets slip, but the use of the anecdotal structure is genuinely clever and layered, tracing the story forward chronologically but also delving back in a closed circuit of experiences that invert presumptions of past and future. What is the strange trait that June refers to that is shared by the women of her family? What does it mean that Alice was seduced by the Tooheys, and they then seem to have vanished themselves? Why do some of the anecdotes offered up by the Palmers seem to match fragments of Alice glimpsed on videotape and discovered in her diaries? Is this an example of the spiritual mirroring that seems to postulate Alice and June particularly as locked in communication between past and present, spirit and corporeal worlds? Or is it evidence of the Palmers’ continuing conspiracy to extend their hoaxing?

The intrusion of Australian immigrant culture into the always faintly unforgiving continental landscape is a subtext that vibrates, both with seriousness, and also wryness in paying some nods to the ür-text of Aussie spook-fests Picnic at Hanging Rock. One of the interview subjects, Alice’s former boyfriend, is interviewed in front of a rocky outcropping reminiscent of the Peter Weir’s titular stage, except it’s debased, covered in graffiti. Lake Mungo, however, is both the end and commencement of a journey here, nonetheless serves a similarly dread purpose as a place on the edge of civilisation where sojourning schoolgirls encounter the permeable edges of reality. Anderson certainly relishes trying to creep the audience out, and the story builds to a fittingly disquieting revelation of Alice’s recorded encounter with her own dead self, glimpsed lurching out of the dark with spectral threat. But Lake Mungo is similar in such respects to Conor McPherson’s quietly superb The Eclipse, in postulating the ghost story less as fright-fest than as a version of the emotional ephemera that congeals both before and after wrenching events, with ghostly shades appearing even before death, to warn of all transient things.

Fittingly, then, Mathew’s fakery is motivated not by mischief but a desire to synthesise a continuing place for Alice in the daily life of the family, a desire that proved to have contradictory and even retarding results, for he had stoked June’s belief Alice might still be alive to the point where he body was exhumed and tested just to make sure. Mathew theorises that Ray’s own secret-keeping might be an extension of his needing the family as much as they need him, and that argument could be linked to the texture of the film as a whole, characters possibly providing evidence of haunting purely to maintain a desperate link in the face of loss and alienation. Not all of Lake Mungo’s often cryptically parsed information adds up: I’m not sure if the sojourn detailing Alice’s romps with the Tooheys is really about more than a casual jolt of titillation, or if it’s key to a moralistic or criminal take on her fate. It does at least contribute to Anderson’s smart portrait of small-town life concealing hidden multiplicities of truth amongst the seemingly bland and familiar local teens and types. Lake Mungo is certainly evidence that Aussie genre cinema might at last be coming of age. The final shot of the film proper (notwithstanding a tacked-on revelation during the end credits that cheapens the experience a little) is a particularly beautiful distillation of the story’s emotional meaning: moving on from grief after the death of a loved one is hard, but what if the dead beloved is left behind, watching you leave?


Robert said...

I have to tell you, I'll read many of your posts from beginning to end even if I'm pretty sure I won't be making time to see the movie you've described. (This is nothing personal -- just a time issue.) Your references educate (Blow Up, The Eclipse) while your literary turns of phrase please ("the stars rising and falling as communicating in some unknown code"). So many online "reviewers" sound like they're learning how to write AS they're writing their pieces. And it's excruciating. You are clearly a strong writer who happens to be writing about film. Sometimes I read just because you provide good sentences!

Roderick Heath said...

Thanks for the kind and invigorating words, Robert, although I then had to go and notice the sentence you quoted had a word missing from it and thus proves to me that I need to spend more time proof-reading. In any event, whilst I of course understand entirely the problems of picking what movies one does and doesn't watch out of the great over-supply, I do hope you'll catch Lake Mungo.

Robert said...

My praise was entirely designed to make you see your error.

Also: Lake Mungo, just added to Netflix instant queue!

Robert said...

Just watched. Never such a communion between ghosts and skeletons as this! I don't usually go in for this kind of movie, but this was super well done. The one lone acting misstep, Dad's unconvincing telling of his "get out" experience, is made up for in spades by Mom's fully wait-maybe-this-is-actual-family-confession reading of the girl's diary.

Three of the movie's lines resonated especially: again, Mom, when she says up top, "You have to believe you're to blame, or else there's nothing else to hold onto"; Dad, when he confesses "I wanted it to be someone else's kid, a runaway, someone else murdered", a sentiment unpacked like a math problem with a heartbeat in "High and Low"; and the subtly ironic emotional mini-twist when Mom says the *revelation of the hoax* equalled the "end of hope". It's statements like these, spoken so flatly, so long-ago consumed, that ring true and give the movie its validity -- even as much as the trusty push-in to grainy, freeze-famed home movie shots.

Again, a balance in what bugged me and what surprised me... The "scare" moment in Alice's phone video was fairly superfluous (if technically right on) in a movie that grips us without such horror movie tropes. I thought of two things: the ending "scare" moment at the end of the already questionably enjoyable "Paranormal Activity" and the bizarre reliance on similar tactics in "Black Swan" -- in the latter case, made even worse by their employ as obvious psychology 101. But the balance to that: the intercutting of Ray's Alice tapes with his Mom tapes, connecting Alice's future-bound premonition with Mom's fluid present and past -- it's like a layer of haunting I'd never thought of before (forgive me if I'm unschooled in this genre) and which gave me the same shutter of happy revelation *briefly* that I felt for the entirety of "Timecrimes". (Hopefully you didn't hate that movie.)

Thanks for prodding me into seeing this. It's rich in a way I didn't expect, esp., as you say, coming from a subgenre already on this end of the gimmick bell curve.

Roderick Heath said...

Very cool, Robert. You've seen and drawn out some things I didn't notice, and all. Perhaps the "scare" bit was unnecessary in some ways, but I loved it - the image of the mystery figure slowly drawing closer and then suddenly swooping at the camera was as effectively creepy a bit any I've seen in recent cinema, certainly compared to one you cite, Black Swan, which flailed about desperately trying to unnerve and failing. And whilst I have seen examples of such mirroring hauntings in tales, no, I've not seen one done that elegantly.

Actually, I've never even heard of Timecrimes. One for me to search for now.