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Michael Leunig is literally an Australian National Living Treasure: it turns out, as revealed in The Leunig Fragments, an alternatively revealing and frustrating feature-length cinema-release documentary about the (generally) adored cartoonist, someone calls you up from the National Trust and asks if you’d like to be one. (There are currently 79; naturally, when you die, you drop off the list). In person – and this documentary features him a lot, sitting for the camera in his studio and occasionally his home, both in Melbourne – he is perhaps as you’d expect, which is to say philosophical, soft, and whimsical.
It is that dreaded but oh-so-precise word, whimsy, that will forever be associated with Leunig’s vast body of work; how much you can stomach the stuff will determine how much, perhaps, you’ll enjoy this edge-of-hagiography. I personally have always admired his work, but I found the man himself painful to listen to, literally: his voice drove me bananas, high and soft and never completing a thought with determination but letting every single sentence, phrase and utterance drift off into ellipsis…
Frankly, he sounds utterly mannered and affected, and the documentary is at its best when not pointing its camera at him. Hearing others talk about him is more revealing, but there’s more to his story than shown in these ninety-seven minutes worth of ‘fragments’. The most fascinating moment is a simple title card telling us that “only one member of [Leunig’s] family” was willing to appear in the film; that speaks volumes, but the film doesn’t read them beyond an introduction. Like the minute or so spent on Leunig’s pro-anti-vaccination stance or other controversies he’s found himself in, every time something comes along to trouble the nice narrative, the film takes a peek, then looks away, almost ashamed to denigrate its subject and, clearly, its hero.
Watch CJ’s review of this film on WATCH THIS.
***1/2 (out of five)
Pete Gleeson’s creepy fly-on-the-wall portrait of mining-country Australia (specifically, the area called Goldfields in Western Australia) is an eye-opener, even as it feels like it’s pulling its punches. It isn’t quite the documentary equivalent of Wake In Fright (or Hostel, for that matter) but it certainly has pungent things to say about isolation, masculinity, alcohol and Australia. If it bends over backwards not to decimate its subjects, it also can’t help it when they implicate themselves.
Comfortable, lucky, Sydney-based me had no idea that young female backpackers are constantly being given short-term deployments to isolated outback mining-town pubs, where the local workers await their arrival as “fresh meat” (a term literally uttered ravenously by one of this film’s charming denizens). Such is the case with Lina and Steph, who – having had their credit cards stolen and their savings drained in Indonesia – are sent to work on a three-month contract at the insanely named Denver City Hotel in Coolgardie, as isolated and barren a place as might exist on earth (but only 39kms from Kalgoorlie!) There, they are slobbered over by grotesqueries masquerading as men, and, were it not for the sense of camaraderie the viewer feels with Gleeson himself (they’re being filmed, therefore Gleeson is there, and we assume Gleeson is a nice enough guy) we may very reasonably fear greatly for their safety.
There are jaw-dropping moments galore, and not a lot of salvation. Lina and Steph’s journey is not so much towards greater understanding or cultural awareness as it is towards failure and escape. And who in the world could blame them? The Hotel at Coolgardie is hell with beer.
There is one moment where Lina seems in real danger, and the camera lurches forward, as though Gleeson has made the decision to intervene. One can only imagine the moments left unfilmed, in the undocumented version of this story, which repeats itself, in three-monthly cycles, out there in the red dust, where the men wait for young travellers like mangy dogs for carrion.