In 1970, when The Naked Bunyip was released, I was too young to see it. However, the film cast a long enough shadow throughout the 70s for me to be vaguely cognisant of it having some kind of cultural significance, a significance that I only realised yesterday at the film’s screening at ACMI.
ACMI’s weekly Australian Perspectives, screenings of little Australian gems from the past, are on most Saturdays and unfortunately often don’t get the attendances they deserve. This tends to confirm the point that director John B. Murray was making when he set about to film The Naked Bunyip nearly 40 years ago. The event was co-hosted by the Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA, of which I am a member) and a Q&A session was held after the screening with Peter Kraus (AFCA chair), Jake Wilson (a film critic from The Age, and one of my favourite Australian media film critics) and John B. Murray himself.
What a surprise the film was. I like to know as little as required before seeing a film, and I didn’t know that it was largely a documentary. But what a documentary! I wonder if John B. Murray had visions of it encapsulating the zeitgeist for posterity in the way it has. I did speak with him shortly after the screening, but I didn’t get the opportunity to ask this specifically.
My perceptions of The Naked Bunyip before seeing it were that it was a low budget pioneering film that was big on tits and genitalia (requiring John Russell-Clarke’s famous images as a censorship device to cover up the bits the masters of morality deemed too offensive) and low on narrative. The film received a nod in Mark Hartley’s recent Not Quite Hollywood (which is still screening at the Nova), which raises awareness of the historical significance of The Naked Bunyip.
Murray’s work is not another so-called Ozploitation film, but rather a very considered, intelligent attempt to both analyse and stir the Australian psyche, to get Australians to look at themselves in the mirror and define and find their own identity. Because of the distribution and exhibition system in this country since the 1920s, Australia had become almost solely a consumer of foreign (ie, US and UK) cinema and The Naked Bunyip was Murray’s attempt to address this, to get Australians to look towards their own film-makers and support a local industry. Oh my god, doesn’t this still sound so familiar today?! Nearly forty years later, this subject is very much in the psyche of those who care about Australian cinema.
Murray uses a cinema verité style of interview, with interviewees directly addressing the camera. Reading Murray’s significant essay The Genesis of the Naked Bunyip on Senses of Cinema, it is clear that he was aiming for the same effect that Errol Morris later achieved with his invention of the Interrotron.
Other than a couple of skits, one the setup in a social research organisation, the other a fake interview between Graeme Blundell and Dame Edna Everidge (Barrry Humphries, complete with gladioli), the bulk of the film consists of interviews with various people, investigating attitudes to sex and sexuality.
The sheer number of people who appeared in the film is awesome; many are now household names: Barry Humphries, Beatrice Faust, Barry Jones, Jackie Weaver, Harry M. Miller, Graeme Blundell of course, Fred Schepisi (who was directing commercials and hadn’t yet made a feature film), Russell Morris (performing “The Real Thing”, perhaps as window dressing, but alluring nonetheless), Dr. Bertam Wainer, Senator John Button and Keith Dunstan, among others.
Blundell is used for comic release, a clever device to make the subject matter more palatable. He remains largely mute, though sometimes his thoughts are narrated. His parts are interspersed throughout the film. His character was further developed in Alvin Purple (which I was also too young to see). Murray’s use of comedy in his film was very innovative, preceding by many years a style of documentary film-making that has become very popular perhaps since Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine. Today we see many documentaries getting released that combine the idea of uncovering facts with other narrative and cinematic devices, such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (currently on release).
The film initially explores sexuality in popular culture and after the intermission (the film has one, but screened without break at ACMI) it heads into darker territory with abortion, homosexuality (then illegal) and prostitution. Some of these subjects were very much taboo at the time, much more so than now, and Murray had difficulty in finding homosexuals who would speak on camera. He mentioned during the Q&A that during post-production he eventually found a couple who would speak on camera about their homosexuality and it was a rush to get this material included in the film.
The question and answer sessions are what really adds value to these Australian Perspectives screenings. Each Q&A is unique; this one because John B. Murray is such a lucid and intelligent speaker that his answers were detailed to the extent that there was time for only three questions. Each of the panel members asked one and I asked the only audience question. This took about 45 minutes and we then had to vacate the cinema for the following screening.
Peter Krausz asked how the film came about. I can’t even begin to recount a fraction of the detailed answer, but basically Murray revealed:
- It was driven by Murray and executive producer Phillip Adams, who was then a partner in a public relations firm, where perhaps the idea of the social research organisation in the film came from.
- It cost $40,000 to make, had a crew of three and was filmed in three states over ten weeks. There was seven weeks of pre-production and a long post-production.
- It was very difficult to meet homosexuals, and harder to get any to speak on camera.
- The censors were very accommodating but demanded 36 cuts totalling five minutes. To the chagrin of the censors, the cuts were replaced with the bunyip cartoons or beeping, which gave some indication of what was being censored.
- Prowse was the chief censor and Don Chipp was the minister responsible.
- If anything, the censors had been too lenient, and allowed material that would not be passed today.
- No-one had much faith in the film and so Murray marketed and distributed it himself. The local exhibitors showed no interest whatsoever, due to the US and UK strangehold on the industry. The only venue Murray could find was the Palais in St. Kilda, with 3500 seats. By closing the upper circle, this was reduced to 2300 seats. Murray basically hired that facility, foregoing any rights to income from sales of food and drinks (the major source of income for theatres) for $1750 per week. He arranged for flyers, brochures and, with Natalie Miller (currently part-owner of the Nova) doing publicity, arranged party bookings. Confounding all the sceptics, some 2,000 people arrived on opening night, forming a queue that went all the way down the street round the corner and down to the Esplanade. Murray described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he counted only 12 walkouts during the film.
- The film was initially booked for 2 weeks, but it was extended to 7 weeks. But he still couldn’t get any local cinemas to screen it, but found a live theatre in the city that he fitted out and booked for 6 weeks, where it sold out 2-3 times each week.
- Murray then went on tour with the film to each of the capital cities, screening it wherever he went. He calculates he saw the film 600 times before taking the film to regional areas. He ended up touring with the film for two and a half years. He says he succeeded in breaking down prejudices against Australian films. Indeed, Tim Burstall was so encouraged by Murray’s success (they had worked together on the earlier 2000 Weeks, a complete flop which had Burstall fall into depression) that he went on to great success a couple of years later with Stork, Alvin Purple and other landmark Australian films. After the success of The Naked Bunyip, Stork screened for only two weeks at the Palais before Village agreed to distribute it.
- The idea of the bunyip images came about when Murray actually researched the relevant censorship act to determine what was and wasn’t allowed.
Jake Wilson also asked where the idea of using Graeme Blundell came from. Murray said he cast him but didn’t want him to speak, as this would distract from the flow of the film. Murray wanted him to be a Buster Keaton-like character. He has the right physical attributes, isn’t quite with it, but always tries his best. Murray also mentioned that Humphries’ appearance was his first on film, and that his part was scripted by Phillip Adams.
When I asked a question from the audience, I mentioned that Murray’s example of distribution was quite inspirational and that this is still topical and relevant today. I asked what comments he could make about how young film-makers could get their films distributed and what issues he sees in the current system (alluding to funding practices). Murray mentioned that this is something he has been discussing in different roles for years. I don’t know if he adequately answered my question or if, indeed, this was possible in the time constraints. In passing, though, he mentioned that film-makers these days are much more specialised and don’t have the range of skills that earlier film-makers needed to possess: understanding film as art, film as a product to be marketed and distributed.
Murray says it’s a lot harder now, since John Howard opened up Australia to foreign commercials. Production equipment is very expensive but with the input of foreign commercials, the local industry has been seriously weakened, and the money isn’t there.
Peter Krausz asked about Murray’s opinion of Not Quite Hollywood’s inclusion of The Naked Bunyip. Murray replied that he was initially sceptical as he didn’t see his film as fitting into the category of Ozploitation. Hartley convinced him that the film would be treated with respect, and Murray says Hartley honoured his commitments. When asked why he wasn't interviewed for the film, Murray replied that it's probably due to his initial scepticism.
The Naked Bunyip was both an extremely bold (in subject) and extremely ambitious (in breadth) project, and one we can be thankful that Murray was passionate enough about to embark upon. He has left ours and future generations a legacy, a document of a point in time that might otherwise be forgotten. It is entertaining, insightful, revealing and infused with a sense of importance of its time. If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, take it. Otherwise, it is available on DVD from Umbrella Entertainment and includes the deleted visual and audio scenes and a 20 minute featurette.
Links: John B. Murray’s website / Genesis of The Naked Bunyip / Refused Classification