MIFF 68½ – Dingo (1990)

After a significant gap between festivals, I attended the Melbourne International Film Festival last year with the intention of making it an annual occurrence. The need to switch to digital streaming this year has thrown them off a little, as can be seen by the decision to identify this festival as MIFF 68½ rather than MIFF 69. If we find ourselves in the same situation next year, hopefully this year’s experience will give them the confidence to resume regular numbering and not to consider the 2020 festival as an aberration.

Most of this year’s selection of films are available to stream at any time during the festival. I’ve arbitrarily decided to kick off my personal home festival with the Australian film Dingo (1990).

Two young boys in 1969 outback Western Australia are arm-wrestling, watched by a girl who is waiting to kiss the winner. One of the boys (John) looks up, distracted by a sound nobody else can hear, and wanders away into the street looking upwards. Gradually, the strains of a trumpet become audible, and as the sound grows in volume everybody else in the town emerges into the streets, gazing at the sky. Suddenly the sound transmutes into the engine noise of aeroplane soaring overhead. Everybody jumps into their utes and race to meet the plane at the local airfield. The sound of the engines remains deafening as they cluster around, then as the camera pans along the side of the plane, the trumpet begins to re-emerge from the din. A shot from inside the plane as the doors open conveys the air of an alien space ship opening its doors for a first encounter with humanity. Billy Cross and his musicians are suddenly standing in the field, introduce themselves, and play some jazz. John is hypnotised – he’s discovered a new world which sounds like nothing he’s ever heard. When the song ends, everybody loses interest except for John, who in a brief exchange is invited to visit Billy in Paris someday. As the plane departs, John’s friend Peter drags us back to the mundane, asking whether he got Billy’s autograph, and we return to the present day, where John is on the job tracking a rogue dingo.

Sound is hugely important to this film, and the initial transition back to the modern day is assisted by foregrounding the ambient background noise of the Australian outback, the intermittent sound of insects and wind allowing space for the jazz of the past to echo forward into the present. As John “Dingo” Anderson returns to town and his family, these sounds retreat and are absent for most of the first half of the film, emphasising the nagging lack he feels in his current life. He’s happily married to Jane (the girl from the beginning of the film), has two daughters, plays in a small band at town events, and is largely content with his lot – but the desire to do more with his music and to visit his hero in Paris lingers. When Peter returns to town, having made his millions in business but lost his wife to another man, John becomes dissatisfied and Peter attempts to recapture childhood romance with Jane behind his back. John increasingly identifies with the dingo he’s trying to track, listening to it howl at night and playing his trumpet in response, forging a bond which is seen to be reciprocated in a later encounter. John eventually makes it to Paris, and after an initial alienation conveyed by the overwhelming sounds of the busy urban centre (a deliberate contrast to the outback and an evocation of the aeroplane sounds at the beginning), begins to draw threads of jazz out of the wailing of police sirens, with the music gaining in prominence until he finally connects with his hero.

Billy Cross is played by jazz legend Miles Davis shortly before the end of his life, which adds a poignancy to his role as a (mostly) retired performer in the latter half of the film. Colin Friels is a natural at playing an ordinary Australian with the air of a dreamer, and convincingly conveys his relationship with the trumpet as he mimes to a performance provided by Chuck Findley. Helen Buday warrants special mention in her role as Jane – she brings a great deal of warmth to her role as John’s wife, conveying a thoroughly grounded performance as a good-humoured woman with a no-nonsense attitude to inappropriate behaviour. I was astonished to discover that I know her as Savannah Fink, leader of the children in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). But this was nothing to my surprise that director Rolf de Heer and writer Marc Rosenberg had previously collaborated on low budget Australian science fiction film Incident at Raven’s Gate (1988) – I have vague memories that it was good and would love to revisit it.

Dingo, for me, works primarily as a sonic journey – it gripped me from the start with its mixture of jazz and environmental sound, lost my attention a bit when dialogue and everyday life took over, then regained momentum as the sound became more important around the middle, building to a musical climax with a gentle emotional payoff in the coda.

I’ll leave you with an example of what Miles Davis was really doing in 1969, at the beginning of his electric period (my favourite era):

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