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Patrick White's The Night the Prowler

The Night the Prowler
The Night the Prowler
Deb Verhoeven is Associate Professor, Screen Studies and Director, AFI Research Collection in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. Her most recent book is Jane Campion (Routledge, 2009).

"Somebody once said that we used to make films about people and now we make them about real estate." Jim Sharman

Jim Sharman's film, Patrick White's The Night the Prowler, is something of an 'orphan' work in the genealogy of Australian cinema, a film without an obvious place that also happens to be a film about someone who doesn't quite fit in.

At its simplest narrative level Prowler is an exploration of what happens when you mistake people for real estate. Felicity Bannister (Kerry Walker), the repressed daughter of Doris (Ruth Cracknell) and Humphrey (John Frawley), takes the first available opportunity to break free from the shackles of her domestic and developmental arrest. Felicity begins an internal quest of self-discovery that takes her further and further from 'home'. But the film goes even further. At its most profound, Prowler is an explanation of the idea of 'perpetual becoming'; it is also a work of criticism, exposing all the difficulties this meditation might suggest for a dominant Australian cinema wholeheartedly enamoured with character-driven social-realist drama. And so, the film concludes with two unanswered conceptual 'cliffhangers' by way of a dual 'expulsion of self': firstly, in an exculpatory scene in which Felicity comes to understand her own fundamental inconsequence, and then when film takes her lead, inviting us to 'dwell' on a series of images of everyday activities that involve no obvious narrative pursuit.

  The Night the Prowler
The Night the Prowler is curiously absent from many paradigmatic accounts of Australian film history. It's neither a lush period film nor is it a maverick 'ozploitation' film though it bears elements of both trends of 1970s Australian cinema. The story is set in an earlier time - the late 1960s with further flashbacks to the 1940s - but the film also features schlock horror sequences that inspired some distributors to trial midnight screenings at downmarket venues. Prowler's rare combination of enthusiastic exploitation and cinema aestheticism exposes an underlying connection between cult and art cinema - distinct forms of film production that were often related through exhibition and distribution arrangements. Many film critics of the day however, preferred to keep their high and low cinema aspirations distinctly separate and wrote of their discomfort at the film's unusual amalgam of registers. For many commentators this is, and remains, a film about suburban life that is irrevocably tarnished by an unappealing subdivision.

The film's legacies are similarly confounding. It is easy to see how the swashbuckling nocturnal Felicity gestures toward the later leather-clad heroine of Shame (Steve Jodrell, 1988). And Prowler's spiky digs at Sydney's inner suburban milieu clearly anticipate the long spate of family satires and grotesqueries that followed: Muriel's Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1994), The Castle (Sitch, 1997), Welcome to Woop Woop (Elliott, 1997), Sweetie (Campion, 1989). This last film would seem to be especially pertinent with its hints of incest, and Sweetie's abject assault on her family. More specifically, Ruth Cracknell's satirical depiction of Felicity's manipulative and cloying mother, Doris, anticipates her later triumph as Maggie Beare in Mother and Son. Prowler however, deliberately mismatches the foolery and stumbling incompetence of her parents against the seriousness with which Felicity pursues and almost runs down her future. To position the film simply as a precursor to the quirky successes that followed it, would be to ignore the film's central existential questioning that lifts it out of the contemporaneity of satire and into something altogether more philosophically ambitious.

Many local films have attended to the existential doubts of their central characters, which are also seen to represent broader cultural enquiries about Australian nationhood. But few filmmakers have taken their philosophical quests so resolutely through to the final frames, most preferring the sanctuary of the narrative to keep their audiences grounded. There is no such solace in The Night the Prowler in which the concluding, watchful images of non-descript urban scapes bring to mind the uninhabited closing moments of On the Beach (Kramer, 1959) or L'Eclisse (Antonioni, 1962), impassive scenes in which the emptiness of the cityscape proposes both an abandonment of narrative and an unstitching of the selvage of the authorial self.

The Night the Prowler
One film which comes close to The Night the Prowler's combination of uncompromising stylistic and theoretical intention is Jane Campion's Holy Smoke (1999) - a film which perhaps not coincidentally suffered similar howls of critical dismay on release. Crucial to Campion's philosophical ambitions in Holy Smoke is a parallel move out of the suburbs to the abstractions afforded by the desert landscape. In this way Holy Smoke makes a familiar journey. Films such as Walkabout (Roeg, 1971), Where the Green Ants Dream (Herzog, 1984), The Sundowners (Zinneman, 1960), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975), Wake in Fright (Kotcheff, 1971), The Goddess of 1967 (Law, 2000), Beneath Clouds (Sen, 2002) and Ten Canoes (de Heer, 2006) (to name only a representative few) use an outback location to present existential quests. The Australian suburbs it seems are not meant to be the place for deep thinking.

Parallel to this implicit critique of the suburbs as a place of unthinking or compulsive activity are films that propose an equation between empty values and empty suburban streets such as Floating Life (Law, 1996) or as glimpsed more recently in the teen horror film, Acolytes (Hewitt, 2009). Prowler on the other hand is like none of these. Prowler reserves its reverence for unobstrusive ordinariness, inviting its audience to find something deeper in the smallness of routine occurrences, and to embrace the potential and possibilities that can be found in the mundane business of everyday suburban life.

This is an extract from an essay that will be published in Metro 163 out in December 2009. For more information visit
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