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Friday essay: Dogs in Space, 30 years on – a once maligned film comes of age

Michael Hutchence bought name recognition to Dogs in Space. The Making of Dogs in Space

Friday essay: Dogs in Space, 30 years on – a once maligned film comes of age

A fairly unattractive bunch of bored and boring party givers, mindlessly driving around midnight streets waiting for pieces of Skylab to fall on them and searching for meaning in the TV test pattern, hardly makes for a riveting film experience.

Barbra Luby’s critique of Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space for Filmnews in early 1987 was not an atypical response to the film when it was released 30 years ago.

With its large ensemble cast, its apparently non-linear structure and its celebration of what might be considered self-destructive and self-aggrandising behaviour, Dogs in Space seemed to many to be showcasing its A$2 million budget (high for the time) – and putative star, Michael Hutchence – in all the wrong ways.

Hutchence, an international celebrity as the lead singer of INXS (their single, What You Need, was top 5 in the USA during filming), was ostensibly the film’s main attraction – and his name enabled above average funding for an otherwise “underground” production.

But he was only one of a large ensemble cast. The result is a circus, a cabaret, a social document and a morality tale (of sorts) all in one.

It also, in part, comes close to documentary. Many of those before the cameras had, in fact, been active participants in the 1978 Melbourne “scene” the film explored. Indeed, some had lived in the house in which the film was made – where the director, Lowenstein, had briefly cohabited with singer and playwright Sam Sejavka.

The house at 18 Berry St in 1902. Dogs in Space Facebook page

Dogs in Space is a series of snapshots of lives in and around 18 Berry St, a large two-storey weatherboard house in Richmond. It focuses on the residents – Grant the hippy, Tim the synthesizer player, the rather mundane Anthony, the university student Luchio and the singer Sam (played by Hutchence) – all living in chaos.

Visitors and parties are frequent. There is a compulsion for experience and expression – be it through sex, drugs, excursions (including the occasional 90 minute trip to Ballarat to visit Victoria’s first 7-11) and the creation and consumption of music.

Apart from an opening caption declaring we are in “Melbourne, 1978”, the film’s events are barely contextualised. More action occurs in separate, disconnected scenes than can be properly understood in one go: this film encourages multiple viewings.

While many characters are non-sequiteurs, those whose lives almost follow a conventional narrative arc include Sam and his girlfriend Anna, who overdoses on heroin and dies. The ironic aftermath of this moment – which kills the household’s hedonism – is that Sam uses “his” tragedy to become a successful pop star.

The character of Sam was undeniably based largely on Sejavka, then a member of the band The Ears, (renamed Dogs in Space for the film). Sejavka was employed as an advisor on the film but he and Lowenstein fell out, apparently because Sejavka objected to the way in which the script depicted Sam as complicit in Anna’s death.

Sam Sejavka, lead singer of The Ears. rockpool73, CC BY-NC-ND

The inclusion of some “terrible” music, and the depiction of the bands’ performances as a backdrop for violence, drinking, drug taking, ribaldry and so on, lent the film an air of decadence. To many in the mid-1980s, this seemed to indicate that Lowenstein was misrepresenting a serious, artistic, politically charged era.

The critic Vikki Riley – who played in a band, Slub, with musician and actor John Murphy, who actually appeared in Dogs in Space – disliked Lowenstein’s approach. Writing in Cinema Papers in 1987, she argued Lowenstein had lost an opportunity to capture a “magic atmosphere” that had “given way to clichés and tokenisms”. He had, she wrote, refused “to acknowledge any effort at subversion that the punks in the film make”.

But as Dogs in Space celebrates its 30th anniversary, it feels like the world has caught up with the film. Many who dismissed it – including some of its cast – have revised their opinion of the production. They now see it as capturing an era more truthfully than they were able to appreciate in 1986. At the same time, a new audience has emerged who respond to the film on very different terms.

The 19th century Berry Street house – it has its own Facebook page – was recently given local heritage status. In part this was for its role in the internationally celebrated coming-of-age film. People born long after the film’s release, and inspired by the era and community it depicts, now make pilgrimages to 18 Berry Street.

A gritty vein of Melbourne cinema

Cornelius Delaney, known at the time as Nique Needles and a well-known actor in the mid-1980s, was part of the “scene” of the late 1970s. He was also part of the cast of Dogs in Space, playing the character of Tim.

Nique Needles in the film. Dogs in Space

Today, Delaney – now a visual artist with a doctorate, living in France – is philosophical about the film’s humour. Lowenstein seemed to many at the time to be playing up the low-rent pretensions of his characters, and highlighting the ridiculousness of their tribal affiliations. Barbara the student activist, who visits the house spouting memorized rhetoric, or for that matter Chris Hayward’s unnamed “chainsaw man,” join the self-sculpted misfits of the house as a gallery of “types”, often hilarious cyphers.

Delaney feels that – particularly given the subsequent success of many of the people depicted in the film – they deserved to be taken more seriously by Lowenstein. For instance, the musician Hugo Race has just released his memoir, Road Series (2016). The late musician Rowland S. Howard is celebrated and memorialized in another Lowenstein film, Autoluminiscent (2011). A bandmate of both men, Nick Cave, has carved out an impressive career worldwide. Ollie Olsen, the film’s musical director who also appears in it as a performer, has maintained a music career notable for innovation.

Still, Delaney concedes that it was,

kind of bizarre that we were all involved in it and it was Sam’s life and Richard’s life and Tim’s life and that we were all hanging around at a party in 1980 in February, and then six years later in March we’re getting paid to recreate the same party.

However, he also feels that there was an underlying validity to the world shown in the film:

That mob of people, it was like – ‘Yeah, of course that was going to happen to us … We’re the most fabulous people Australia has ever known.’ And it was kind of true.

A host of international “punk rock” films since Dogs in Space have aimed to shed light on the gritty side of anti-commercial, anti-everything music of the late 70s (24 Hour Party People, Control, What We Do Is Secret and The Runaways, for instance).

But Dogs in Space arguably connects more deeply with a gritty vein of Melbourne filmmaking than these cinematic explorations of punk or related milieu. Instead, Monkey Grip (1982) and Pure Shit (1975) are its parents, Death in Brunswick (1990) is its sibling and Lowenstein’s 2001 film He Died With a Felafel in His Hand its offspring.

There is compression and simplification in Dogs in Space, and perhaps unusually this is an element that makes it problematic to undertake a “straight” reading of it. The time frame across which the film takes place might superficially appear to be a few weeks or months in 1978 – the only date we are given – or go a few years, into the 80s.

The household itself is also difficult to pin down. The Ears, the band Dogs in Space is based on, endured across at least three share houses featuring its singer, Sam Sejavka. Two other members of that group have suggested that “Berry Street is actually a compression of several different places, but it’s the coolest one of the lot.”

The film is often erroneously typified (for instance, on Wikipedia) as portraying Melbourne’s brief and unusual “Little Band” scene (i.e. bands that were intended as ephemeral and, in so being, a slap in the face of “serious” rock music).

But this is only half the story: The Ears were not one of the “little bands” and, judging by their recorded legacy and testimony from those who saw them in their original incarnation, they were a very accomplished and talented rock group with no little ambition. Dogs in Space, on the other hand, are generally incompetent, and the two songs we see them perform do not inspire or delight.

In a Cinema Papers interview in 1987 Lowenstein revelled in relating the way in which he revealed to potential investors that his plan for the film’s music was that it be,

terrible, but we’re going to play on the fact that it’s absolutely terrible … It was a strange thing to do.

A new generation of viewers

When we presented on Dogs in Space at a Monash University seminar late last year, one audience member in his twenties claimed to have seen the film hundreds of times.

It was, he said, a core element of every weekend of his teens growing up in regional NSW.

He was intrigued to know that the film’s myths were (by some measure) “real”. The response of his group of friends to the action was, however, not as a depiction of historical events but to a social scene, an outlook and an approach which has replicated across decades and generations.

A similar story – in some respects – is told by a student in her mid-twenties whose housemate was so moved by the film, and Rowland S. Howard’s death in 2009, that he made a concerted effort to live his life like the Berry Street house.

This involved “music/going out, drugs, angering neighbours … the 7-11 story as well as his fixation on asking people to drive him around at night …”

“Then,” she adds, “he got over it and studied law”.

In its celebration of youthful bohemianism bordering on nihilism (if not narcissism), Dogs in Space is a groundbreaking film. It made no apologies for focusing on a circle of musicians, artists and wannabes who are interesting for their own sake, but also interested in themselves (and self-interested).

A scene from Dogs in Space.

It also – peculiarly for the era – made no attempt to feature inherently likeable or identifiable characters. This was a novel cinematic worldview that has since become de rigeur in cutting edge television: think Seinfeld or Mad Men, but more recently Girls.

When Huffington Post writer Lena Kay protested in 2014 of Girls that she found it “difficult to relate to – or to want to relate to – someone who rejects so thoroughly the self-improvement that I have always found necessary to get good things in life,” she was echoing one of Luby’s central objections to Dogs in Space three decades before.

The many central characters of Lowenstein’s film are ostensibly rejecting, while still feeling the comfortable embrace of, their middle-class backgrounds, just like Hannah, Marnie, Jessica, Shoshanna and their satellites in Girls.

In both instances, depiction of a social group is often read (particularly by critics who feel threatened by such depictions) as either uncritical or as elitist: created for a closed circuit of the class or generation depicted.

Dogs in Space has not only historical relevance, and value to posterity with qualities that veer towards both cinema verite and docufiction; it also has a timelessness and a contemporary feel that make it relevant to subsequent generations. In this context Delaney’s comment on his experience of the late 1970s is probably most pertinent:

I think hedonism consumed a lot of us, but the horrific events of now kind of retrospectively validate our position that society is f…ed, consumerism is f…ed, politics is f…ed, everything’s f…ed, and we were saying that 30 years ago and we were kids.

So we had a pretty good instinct for what was coming.

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