When I say Ian Pringle’s films are poetic I don’t mean in terms of verse but rather their – of not imagination – but their sensitive emotions and their style of expression.
There are unknown rhythms to his movies, reflections on nature both human and animal, there is a contrast of man and environment…
Pringle’s first three features The Plains of Heaven (1982), Wrong World (1985) and The Prisoner of St. Petersburg (1989) are as close to masterpieces Pringle would get and even today, well over 30 years after their production, they remain striking examples of Australian cinema and in case of the third movie Australian-German film production.
They are almost a trilogy of man and his environment, often one of disappointment and alienation, something which reaches its pinnacle of almost double alienation with its tale of obsession – The Prisoner of St. Petersburg.
There is a sense of madness attached to all three movies, as well as isolation and loneliness, to the point of despair.
The Plains of Heaven is set in the Victorian High Country and is basically a two hander starring actors Richard Moir (1950-) and Reg Evans (1928-2009 killed in bushfire).
It is probably no coincidence that part of the scenery reflects the artist John Martin’s (1789-1854 complications of stroke) painting The Plains of Heaven, which is part of a triptych with its depiction of majestic mountain scenery, which was inspired from a quote in the Book of Revelation in the Bible… with Martin’s aim being to express the sublime, apocalyptic forces of nature and the helplessness of man to combat God’s will. For me The Prisoner of St. Petersburg questions that fate. Martin was a romantic and in a way Pringle is too, as he cares about the characters he has created in his films and they too are often guided by fate or by some unseen force.
The Plains of Heaven is said to be Martin’s most serene vision and so is Pringle’s movie despite moments of psychosis.
Man is the invader of this paradise, a satellite relay station, manned by two men channelling television, which is shown mainly as mindless game shows despite them being about facts – waves through to the heavens above.
Reg plays a man at home with nature. He reflects the eagle flying above as he walks the plains of heaven with his ferrets to capture and kill rabbits. The eagle is freedom, hope, strength, and the all-seeing eye as it stares down on us. The eagle is on the side of God in the Book of Revelation. Reg waves his earthbound arms in its majesty. That Reg is at odds with nature in his killing of rabbits, he isn’t really, as the rabbit is an introduced pest and thus also at odds with nature. In reality, Reg seeks to end the imbalance of nature on the plains of heaven as he roams the highlands wearing a beany. He wants the balance of nature restored. Moir is a far younger man who wears a Bell Helmet t-shirt and later a baseball cap. He is more at home with the man-made all seeing eye of the television – even though he is not officially supposed to – tuning into American satellite television stations. He has no interest in the balance of nature, or even nature itself. He is perhaps Godless.
The film opens with strange synth music and an obvious cheap video title as Reg comes home to nest. The place where Reg and Moir live is a few prefabricated buildings with a satellite dish and a watch-tower which sometimes appears on the CCTV. It is like some sort of man-made eagle’s nest… The outside world of riots that Moir is watching on transmission in the operation centre shack is another world and he would rather forget that by watching game shows which are just as mindless. Television is totally mindless as opposed to nature and the power or mind which is behind it – if there is one! Should I doubt?!
He does watch Reg with CCTV chase his ferret, which Moir may or may not have released – we don’t know. It’s as if the two men, while at close quarters are from totally different worlds. Moir is reliant on coffee, cigarettes and alcohol as Reg accuses him of messing with his ferret hutch. As with two contrasting worlds, there is tension, especially as they are both heterosexuals and thus there is no other release in the wilderness together. This is not Brokeback Mountain!
Early in the film there is a beautiful shot of the metal eagle’s nest and the dish, with the moon in the background as another day ends with Moir tuned into the news and Reg’s endless quest of ridding the plains of the scourge of rabbits.
For some reason Reg has night terrors and as the pair share close quarters, it disturbs Moir… meanwhile the music in The Plains of Heaven is as haunting as the chilly landscapes… Reg mumbles to himself and he leaves equipment half plugged in and then unattended, while he complains about Moir’s full ashtrays and dirty dishes… On one of the screens there is a CCTV of the eagle’s nest tower – so the television and the eagle are underlined as an all seeing eye – let alone God, as Moir hums to himself. Reg’s mumbling to himself is perhaps not as civilised as Moir’s humming mind. But which is the more natural?
One of Reg’s ferrets is dead and is it the eagles, or Moir’s fault. Reg buries it and almost falls into a foetal position as the sun goes down as if in lieu of his night terrors.
“They can’t survive in the wild,” says Reg, which is the true explanation. But did Moir let it out?
The next day and the eagle flies above.,. much to Reg’s enchantment, as he follows its path in the sky. Moir meanwhile works on the motorbike.
“I saw it… so high up… about 100 feet up… you should have seen this nest… an eagle’s nest,” says Reg.
It’s as if civilisation is reflecting on nature perfectly through Reg as he describes how the eagle killed its prey with perfect timing. The eagle kills rabbits, like Reg, and together they are both an answer to the balance of nature.
“You’ll freeze to death if you get caught,” says Moir to Reg about staying out late and then adds: “Ham and pineapple or supreme,” about the choice of pizza. Again there is that contrast of civilisation and nature in the wilderness.
Another day… Reg sits in the watch-tower looking out at the plains…
“All we’re meant to do is relay the transmission…,” says Reg, annoyed at Moir’s tinkering with the dish and equipment, something which leads to an overload, blowing the fuses… and the two argue over fixing the thing, with Reg in the tower/nest finally responding to “Please.” Such is the relationship between the men.
Plains of Heaven maybe painfully slow to some viewers. In that respect, it is an art film and not a mainstream movie. But it does reflect how time passes in a lonely and isolated environment from day to night to morning and day again – on and on. And both actors are excellent.
Moir reads a paperback in bed, falls asleep in front of the monitors, while Reg’s night terrors continue along with his fascination with the eagles… Reg is a disturbed man, we don’t know why, but he is almost unconsciously trying to rebalance his own nature… but it is impossible… as Moir says upon waking: “I could eat a horse” and swigs from a Jim Beam bottle. Meanwhile Reg’s bed is perfectly made and the blanket patterned with squares…
Reg invites Moir rabbit catching and there are more great shots of grand vistas of the plains and distant mountains as the pair trek off into the wilderness.
“Bloody rabbits… the eagles know they don’t belong here, that’s for sure… they ruin everything, causing the drought and erosion.”
Moir argues that rabbits are part of the balance and that man is a part of it too… to make progress and change things. He argues if the rabbits are there because of man, then they are part of the balance as well…
But isn’t that just the age old argument of perhaps ignorance coming to a head in this climate of man made global warming? Is it an excuse for not trying to restore the balance of nature as it was meant to be? Putting your head in the sand?
Further imbalance among man is shown when Moir takes Reg’s beany and won’t give it back… as if it is all a game to Moir as Reg gets frustrated. Reg is consumed by nature whereas Moir is taken by civilisation, or the lack of it, on the teevee news, with financial ruin, burning of cattle… Moir is modern man’s ambivalence opon the planet… he is more at home inside… there you can hide from the balance of nature as it is not serious.
This is some sort of netherworld for them both to exist together. It is not quite the wrong world of Pringle’s second film, or the totally nuts alien world of his third… it is one of man versus nature… and Moir has encroached on Reg’s territory and insulted it.
Reg wakes from one of his night terrors and smashes the screens in the control room before running off into the night as if in some sort of psychotic revenge… a frustrated Moir calls after him… The boss arrives next day to help fix the mess… as the eagle flies above.
We cut to the night lights of urban Melbourne, the reverse of any empty landscape with stars in the sky – they are perhaps “beneath us” like nature and Moir finds himself more disconnected there in the city.
What was going on up there?,” the boss demands about the rewiring… there is still no word on Reg… not that the boss cares and Moir, who is out of cigarettes, must fill out a report.
Predicting Wrong World, Moir takes shelter from the rain in a bus shelter and in the ultimate of bleakness and empty disassociation, stares at a teevee with an image of himself in a shop window. This drives him to the library to look at eagles in a book, but he is still consumed by the city, taking the train as if to nowhere… Moir then turns up at the television studio he works for and watches horrors on a screen through a window. He is cut off from the world twice, distanced from civilisation despite being in the centre of it… so he catches the train back “home” to the eagle’s nest to find Reg. He gets a lift there and nicks the motorbike from the replacement staff to search the wilderness… He finds the man, almost led by an eagle, but Reg is barely alive and suffering from exposure. Perhaps the eagle wants him as carrion and Reg is taken to hospital as Moir grabs a bottle of Jim Beam, heading for the hills.
“Don’t think about it too much, Jim. It makes no sense,” says an inebriated Moir to an almost empty bottle about his view of the world. When Moir returns to the hospital, it is to a bed containing Reg’s corpse… later as Moir stands Christlike against the rocky landscape watching the metal eagle’s nest/watch tower, he still doesn’t understand it all and climbs the tower with a rifle shooting indiscriminately at the eagles. He is a man totally out of balance with nature and yet a man seemingly avenging his friend… against nature. Were they really friends or just two civilised acquaintances? Was Reg’s a cry for help? Did Moir unintentionally ignore the man and his plight, insulting him when Reg reached out with the rabbit hunt? Absorbed by television. It is a prediction of man’s modern day malaise of ever-present screens which is happening today. Moir’s madness of the lone man disconnected, the lone wolf, the drop out, the man who doesn’t want to help change the system and rebalance nature. Moir seems to fall to sleep at the end, the bullets spent, escaping the nightmare by sleep, while Reg had escaped the nightmare by waking… It is also interesting that painter Martin’s triptych The Last Judgement relates to the Apocalypse in the Bible as we watch over the misty vista which is the title… a part of our planet slowly being encroached upon by man who does not care if he destroys the natural balance of nature and eventually the world.
I guess Pringle’s films are some sort of triptych too. In his second film, Wrong World, we see the influence of German filmmaker Wim Wenders to a degree in terms of that director’s road movies. The New German Cinema influence would grow with the third film.
Wrong World is inhabited by characters who do not belong anywhere in particular and, in fact, they are, for just about the entire movie – in the Wrong World – a kind of state of homelessness. Or exile.
Richard Moir appears again, proving he is one of Australia’s best actors. Sadly, his career has been curtailed by the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease. He plays a drug addicted doctor alongside a fellow rehab patient played by Jo Kennedy (1962-) in her first role since appearing in Gillian Armstrong’s (1950-) musical Starstuck (1982), which cleaned up at the box office locally. It also remains a very good movie.
Kennedy won the Best Actress gong at the Berlin Film Festival for Wrong World despite the film being ignored at the Australian Film Institute Awards that year. The film didn’t even get a theatrical release… which is a shame because it is a progression of Pringle’s characters in their disconnected kind of way – this is taken to the point of madness in The Prisoner of St. Petersburg.
At the beginning, Moir starts off in New York narrating his trip through the streets.
“It’s all the same… none of it matters a shit,” he says about the place.
He had been in Bolivia where “disaster happened” where he was to be a self-sacrificing doctor and the next Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), who was a secularist humanitarian and philosopher.
“I’d come to heal the sick. I found I was the one with the disease,” when he found corruption and indifference there to confound his dreams.
We follow his car as he looks for the “real” America… we are treated to wide open spaces, gas stations and talk of television.
“If reincarnation is true, I want to come back as an American,” he says, his money running out and lonely… he chooses to return to Australia. It has been eight years… “You should never go back to where you came from… all you find is ghosts.”
An old uni buddy, now a success, who once shared his idealism, but who he really no longer knows, funds his “drying out” in rehab. It would appear Moir became addicted to the hospital’s morphine in Bolivia.
An old man in rehab mentions Russia and Ivan the Terrible… perhaps another premonition, this time of The Prisoner of St. Petersburg. It’s a stretch.
The beauty of Moir’s performance is he is almost just an empty shell of squandered youth and dreams unfulfilled. There is no real emotion as if there is almost nothing left and yet he continues on… “I just have to keep going…” and we see him in the past in a bleak and chilly landscape shooting up – Moir must have had lessons – and when he is high the camera cranks up as we follow his trip… “When the sun came up, I was still driving,” he tells his psychiatrist, who won’t give him sleeping pills, as if in a battle of wills.
It sounds like a horrible place and Jo Kennedy doesn’t like it there either. She prefers the hard stuff but is there also “drying out”. While everyone sleeps, Moir wanders the rehab centre and finds Kennedy getting abused by an orderly. They leave the place, she with a bloodied nose.
“What a hole… all they do is keep you drugged up to the eyeballs,” she says about drying out. She returns home to find her apartment a wreck with Moir in tow.
“I’m stuck with a guy wearing a garbage bag,” she says to him as they shelter from the rain in a bus shelter.
The film keeps flashing back to Bolivia and the United States, none of them a real home and one scene has Moir talking almost to himself in a bar full of Americans…
Kennedy scores a place to sleep from a druggie friend.
“Wish I had a cigarette,” after a coughing fit, blaming pneumonia.
The film shows how the individual without friends, community or family – and then no job – is a step away from homelessness and prey to the outside world of drug pushers and criminals. It is the nature of the city as opposed to the nature of The Plains of Heaven. The stars are beneath us.
Moir dreams of Bolivia… “It was the optimism… that mystery that I was excluded from…” and he thinks of the children who died under his care, the terrorist bombings, the general strikes, the military and the corruption… which led to his drug addiction and further alienation from the world.
“If Satan has a playground this must be it…” He wakes and the dream ends. Kennedy has made off with all the money from his wallet and Moir is on the street again, calling his uni friend Robert so he can dole out money and prescriptions… morphine for one.
“You’ll sort things out,” he tells Moir. But we know from Moir’s state of mind, he is far from well and far from resuming a life of normalcy. He is living the new norm albeit in a wrong world when compared to the average Joe in the city.
He and Robert speak about his successful practise in the office after hours. And just like the painting of the moon on the wall, he may as well be speaking about living on the moon for all it means to Moir.
“I couldn’t handle it,” says Moir about Bolivia.
We eventually get to The Prisoner of St Petersburg in PART TWO.