MIFF review: Going Down (1983)

15 Aug

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Going Down is one of those movies that’s so good you keep turning around to catch the look on your friends’ faces during the funny moments. You want to see if they’re laughing as hard as you are.

going-down-3Making a come back at MIFF as part of the post-punk program, Going Down premiered in Melbourne in 1983 at an adult cinema that had recently closed down and become a purveyor of more regular films. But of course the old trench-coated regulars still rocked up and were surprised to find that Going Down was not the kind of movie they were looking for. Or maybe…

The story revolves around four twenty-something women having a debaucherous last night out in old Sydney town before the straight one of the bunch, Karli (Tracey Mann), flies to the Big Apple with her daddy’s $3000, in an attempt to get her shit together. The anarchy that ensues harks back to a time when drugs were cheap, rock’n’roll was raw and the young generation still wore its bohemian element with pride.

This film is a testament to all those who never sold out. It couldn’t be more at odds with the MIFF program guide’s description of it as ‘A kind of post-punk proto-Sex in the City.’ While it is about female friendship, the women couldn’t care less about corporate careers, designer fashion, and finding Mr Right. One wears a tshirt that says ‘If I can’t be free I can be cheap.’

Going Down captures the expansive and full-throttle nature of 80s subcultures on the urban fringes using raw handheld footage and gritty location shoots. Fast cars ride with the shared house debris, the Kings Cross nightlife, Drag Queens, boys with dumb bogan wrap-around-sunglasses and bleached mullets, over-the-counter cough medicine, ugly lead singers with real talent, shooting up at parties, women in hot plastic pants, dalliances with prostitution and drunken sex with strangers. The depiction of Aussie vernacular never rang so true against the sunny outlines of Centrepoint Tower and Bondi Beach. Arguments about money, morals, and loyalty swing fast and wild across the story arc, as friends clash and loyalties are divided.

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Carrie Bradshaw doesn't shop at Woolworths

While the film may be ideologically oppositional, its structure builds on the Hollywood system rather than rejecting it. Its characters are not completely without purpose; they are simply living in the moment. Some of them are drug-fucked, sure, but their flaws are recognisable and the bad lines aren’t of the scripted variety; they’re the ones going up their noses. I recognised something of myself in all four women as well as the coke-lid spectacled Greg (David Argue) on his crazy electro-out of control roller skates. There’s plenty of un-pc shouts of ‘cunts’ and ‘poofters’ but the female characters  behave like real people, not little girls with soft focus hair looking for a boy’s shoulder to cry on.

Although Going Down was independent with a cumulative budget of $300 000, this film wasn’t all punk in process. It is technically excellent, it was shot twice over a number of years, and its brand of realism was not designed to shock. Two of the principal actors were also co-script writers – Ellen (Moira MacLaine-Cross) and Jackie (Julie Barry). “This was their story, this was what was happening at the time,” states director Haydn Keenan.

Things were less controlled back then. The film makers managed to get the Sydney Harbour Bridge closed for free for 40 minutes. They secured permission to stage a food fight outside Sydney Airport. The crew even did all their own stunts. Keenan says that in a way he misses the “lack of professionalism” and DIY spirit of that era. “Now if you want do something you have to pay $1000 to hire an empty office in an empty building.”

Although the first version apparently ‘went down well’ with test audiences aged 18-29 in demographically diverse Sydney postcodes, ultimately its success was limited by distributors’ fear of family unfriendly depictions and values.

I will be playing a tribute to Pel Mel, the band who features prominently on the soundtrack, next time I DJ. The song? ‘No word from China.’

Anna Sutton

–> A negative take on the film by someone else who saw it at MIFF this year: {here}

–> Senses of Cinema critique {here}

–> Director Haydn Keenan has the film for sale on his site {here}

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