The Cult of Director Esben Storm’s 27A and In Search of Anna (Part Two)

*contains spoilers and course language

In Search of Anna’s cast includes Moir in the lead role along with Judy Morris (1947-), who Moir had worked with on the short film Judy contained in the feature Three to Go (1971) which was directed by a friend of Moir’s named Brian Hannant (1940-). “She’s beautiful,” remarked the actor about co-star Morris. Then there is celebrated actor Chris Haywood (1948-) at his scene-stealing best as the criminal friend of Moir who wants desperately to be the Alpha dog of the neighbourhood.

In Search of Anna (1978) DVD cover. Courtesy of Smart Street Film Pty Ltd.

Bill Hunter also makes an appearance and by the look of their hairstyles, In Search of Anna was filmed some time after Hunter and Haywood appeared in the highly lauded Phil Noyce directed movie Newsfront (1978).

Again, it is another case of the French New Wave and European filmmaking taking precedence in terms of the structure of the narrative of In Search of Anna… and the film’s approach to cinema seems to have come out of a discussion Storm and Keenan had when they shopped 27A in Cannes with Moir.

“She’s beautiful,” said Moir of actress Judy Morris. Photo by Carol Jerrems.

“I remember sitting on the sea wall with Es and we talked about the potential to deconstruct cinema over language as a craft and reassemble it…,” said Keenan. “We thought the use of sound and images could be pulled to bits and reassembled into a new form of storytelling and audience engagement.” Such dreams and youthful enthusiasm!

Carol Jerrems’s photo of budding filmmakers Haydn Keenan and Esben Storm (right)

In Search of Anna is intriguing in that is has no linear narrative and in fact it is rather confusing at first and yet it keeps to you watching as you wonder where it is going to lead to. It follows Moir’s character as he is released from prison after a six year stretch for robbery. Then we follow Moir at the same time in scenes which are intercut, where he has a head wound and we know it may be some time later but we don’t know when or what events have preceded. The structure and screenplay are simply ingenious and it showed the potential of Storm as a filmmaker in the realm of the greats – if he only had bona fide success with In Search of Anna!

The trailer for In Search of Anna (1978). Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

The film contains one of Moir’s first great performances and he is raw and real as he uses a great digging bar to wreck the car of two hoons who are intent on humiliating him. Moir conducts the scene with a certain casualness and it’s funny when one of the hoons says pathetically afterwards: “I’ll sue you.”

Moir said of his performance in the film: “It came out of my head” and that Storm gave “enough direction when it mattered.”

So, Moir returns to the old neighbourhood to his Greek immigrant father and the guys he covered up for the robbery which put him away… and then we cut eventually to a road trip Moir makes with Judy Morris in an old car from the late 40s.

Morris and Moir and that broken down old Buick in In Search of Anna. Photo by Carol Jerrems.

“We had a broken-down old Buick that broke down every day,” said Moir and the credits refer to the car, possibly jokingly, or perhaps exceedingly seriously, when it reads: “Buick parts supplied by…”

As for the French connection again, and in terms of experimental cinema, there is a scene in a rainforest towards the end of the movie which is hinted by an almost subliminal small clip at the beginning of the film when after a night of drinking and driving in the Buick with Morris at the wheel they cross a bridge and then it cuts to Moir exiting his father’s house. Then he sees his later self in a rainforest where he pauses on a track and then he sees himself closing the door on his earlier self at his father’s home. It’s hints at progression and foresight and an inner door opening…  

Storm’s first short film was named Doors. They are symbolic in In Search of Anna. Here is Richard Moir on the threshold. Photo by Carol Jerrems.

It is almost a premonition of what is to come as later in the film, in a decisive moment, Moir is again on the rainforest track and this time we see that he is facing Morris and that unseen door seems to open and Moir sees Morris and her beauty as she really is… and then there’s almost the sound of a tiger’s roar as the film climaxes between past and present, cutting between them both. Moir searches for Morris in a rainforest ghost town as her voice echoes in his head… Meanwhile back in the past he will possibly kill his nemesis Haywood. In a kinetic and well edited piece of cinema, Moir punches a glass window in a derelict building and he is finally released of his pent-up sexual frustration and is, finally, truly released from prison when, cutting back to his past, he deals with Haywood. Does he kill Haywood? I won’t say.

Actor Chris Haywood in In Search of Anna (1978) wants to be the Alpha male. Photo by Carol Jerrems.

Sorry if its description sounds a bit like Last Year at Marienbad (1961) to the average viewer, if you know that rather strange movie, but In Search of Anna is a better movie than that one and many other so called ‘art’ movies anyway. It is a genuine Australian original and I hate to use the word ‘art’ film but this really is a piece of cinema as opposed to what others would call movies… and yet In Search of Anna is not pretentious, which is why it’s so great. It could have done without Morris’s intense dancing at a party at one point, but who’s quibbling? I guess it could be seen as some native mating ritual.

Richard Moir and Judy Morris in In Search of Anna (1978). Photo by Carol Jerrems.

The film has a bit to say about male masculinity and the choices a man has to make over his family, mates or a woman as a part of his life. There is also that longing for a lover which goes on when there isn’t one available within the four walls of your home or prison, or if you are forever unwanted for your looks or personality or lack of money – there’s still that almost melancholy longing… And if you release yourself from that longing, one way or another, you will truly be free!

The title comes from Moir searching for his young lover from his past before he was imprisoned named Anna. She stopped writing a few years earlier but Moir is still in love with her and it is the road trip with Morris in search of this character which sees Moir go through the catharsis which is the movie.

Moir was in Wrong World

Storm throws in a joke, like in 27A with had a cranked-up look at Hunter’s car. The joke within In Search of Anna is early on in the movie with the sound of a car crash as a funeral director drives off leaving Moir with his card… but there are few real laughs in the movie as it is serious cinema about a life where prison leaves you with a feeling of institutionalisation and feeling trapped inside, your mother has committed suicide and people who you thought were your mates would rather see you dead. The only way forward is the open road… and the freshness found there in the open air.

It’s no wonder that Moir made director Ian Pringle’s soul-searching film about loss entitled Wrong World (1985) and Pringle’s previous film about the distance of the soul sometimes from humanity The Plains of Heaven (1982). It would seem that Moir was typecast by this movie when, according to Keenan, he should have done a comedy as he is “a hilarious guy”.

In Search of Anna has distilled Moir and it is a shame that Storm didn’t do another movie as good. The talent there was begging to be fulfilled.

Director of Photography Michael Edols (left) and Storm on the In Search of Anna set. Photo by Carol Jerrems.

There are almost profound moments in the movie, such as when Moir is sleeping off a bottle of alcohol at a bus stop while a mysterious figure writes ‘eternity’ on the footpath… then there’s the urban Christ-like figure of Moir against a fence freshly bashed by his ‘mates’ as seagulls fly by night. There’s the constant sound of birds throughout the movie, as well, which remind us of jailbird, women as birds… even the solitary bird in flight symbolises much more beyond the literature of Jonathan Livingston Seagull… when watched by an imprisoned soul. There seems to be a motif of a different species living apart from the world or of an alienated soul living apart from it… It’s probably no surprise that In Search of Anna is dedicated to the memory of actor Robert McDarra as it was his performance which was central to the success of 27A which led to this film and the soul of that actor seemed, similarly, lost.

Musician John Martyn wouldn’t world for less than an ounce of dope

Let me mention the soundtrack, as well, which is littered with AC/DC classics such as Dirty Deeds and It’s a Long Way to the Top, along with songs by The Angels and Scottish musician John Martyn (1948-2009 respiratory disease).

The story about getting Martyn to do the music had editor Michael Norton staying in a lift and going up and down for about an hour at the Sebel Townhouse Hotel where all the musos stayed when they were on tour in Sydney. Eventually John Martyn got in the lift.

The Angels sing Am I Ever Going to See Your Face Again

“It was a bottle of scotch, an ounce of dope and a thousand bucks and he played for a couple of hours,” according to Keenan. Martyn got an AFI nomination for his score! As for Storm and Moir, they got nominations for direction and acting but didn’t win. But Storm did win an award for Best Original Screenplay. My Brilliant Career (1979) scooped the pool and Mel Gibson won for Tim (1979). Oddly, the editing wasn’t even nominated.

Perhaps as a result, Esben Storm, in the end, didn’t get the break he needed to continue to make films such as In Search of Anna and Keenan said that was a part of the tragedy of the director who died at the age of sixty in 2011 after making only a handful of features. He ended his days making the highly successful children’s television show Round the Twist in the 1990s.

Esben Storm also acted often in tv series Round the Twist as Mr. Snapper

“I truly believe Es had the skill and capacity and the intellectual insight and the right training to be a major artist and I don’t mean ones that make a lot of international films… I mean, and it sounds silly… but I mean Bergman,” said Keenan. “Up there with those iconic people.”

Certainly, In Search of Anna, supports this theory. But its demographic along with its release was slim and Storm would make no more masterpieces on such a scale.

Poster art for Haydn Keenan’s Going Down (1983). Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

Haydn Keenan would make a couple of more cult like items as a director himself and they are Going Down (1983) and Pandemonium (1987).

“You’re too good looking to get pissed this early in the day,” says a drunk, dressed very much like Robert McDarra was at the end of 27A, at the beginning of Going Down, to a girl who has strayed into a front bar.

Going Down is about a girl who leaves her family home on her way to catch a plane to New York the following day. Carrying $3000 of spending money in her handbag, which she loses somewhere along the way, she and her three girlfriends go on an all-night trek across Sydney in celebration of her upcoming departure.

Haydn Keenan at the Going Down production office. Photo by Haydn Keenan.

Starring Tracy Mann (no info) and Esben Storm as a semi-bad guy named Michael – he’s actually a very good actor as well as director – there’s also appearances by David Argue (1959-) as a bespectacled office worker and Richard Moir as a night manager at a hotel. But it is the young cast of women that shines in this movie. It was also co-written by a couple of the female stars Julie Barry (no info) and Moira MacLaine (no info) aka Moira MacLaine-Cross.

Esben Storm gives a good performance as Michael in Going Down. Photo by Tony. Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

According to Keenan, ninety percent of the movie had to be reshot after audience testing of the 18 to 30 age-bracket, which the film was aimed at, showed that they didn’t like the performance of one of the girls. Rather than reshoot, the actress told Keenan to “get f*#ked” and she was replaced by the actress Vera Plevnik (1955-82 car crash) who was killed shortly after filming wrapped on Going Down in a car accident at Batemans Bay far south of Sydney.

The girls in Going Down with Vera Plevnik in the red t-shirt. Photo by Tony. Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

Going Down is about one of those wild nights when and where everything seems to happen… with music by Australian Crawl’s James Reyne and Dynamic Hepnotics, Going Down is a minor cult item which has its characters buying cough medicine in bulk from the local chemist near the beginning for the big night out.

Keenan’s first directorial feature has survived the reshoots and remains almost as fresh today as a perennial adolescent’s movie with people vomiting all over the place, including kisses on lips fresh with diced carrots. There are fights between “f*%king molls” and Argue stealing many a scene as a goggle-eyed nerd type named Greg on roller skates. Then there’s the gay character who tries to enter a potential straight lover from behind even though that character is already screwing one of the girls! Yes, AIDS hasn’t reared its ugly head just yet!!

Going Down (1983) trailer. Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

There are not too many reviews of this film on IMDb but I had an old VHS which I ran recently and I’ve watched it a few times since. And, again, this one had a hard time finding a distributor but when it finally found a cinema, there were lines around the block and full houses for weeks.

Going Down had a life of its own and had to be shown

Keenan is proud of the movie and said it came out at a time when the target audience had little else to choose from in terms of local product: “Otherwise there were things like We of the Never Never… these tired old dramas and here was something aimed at the group no-one wanted to associate with… the closest they’d get would be the anodyne Puberty Blues!”

Going Down was shot on a budget of around $250,000 to $300,000 which is still tiny considering the professional results. And it was made without government funding and only enough money for one week’s filming, according to one source. Anyway, it got made!

Pandemonium (1987) is just a crazy movie. Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

Keenan wouldn’t make another feature film until the vastly politically incorrect movie Pandemonium, which is not to be confused with the American movie of the same name which was made earlier in around 1982.

This movie has something to just about insult or assault the sensibilities of anyone. In turns wacky, zany and surreal, the film has been called by some feeble critics as an attempt to emulate Rocky Horror, but I didn’t make the connection until the ending where the Bondi Surf Pavilion appears to be beamed into outer space. So, there you go!

Playmate Amanda Dole in Pandemonium. Photo by Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

In the meantime, we have a movie studio named Babylon where much of the action is set and a Dingo Girl played by a well-endowed Aussie Playboy Playmate named Amanda Dole and that character alone may be enough to turn off sensitive viewers who remember Lindy Chamberlain’s baby getting snatched by a dingo over forty years ago. On the other hand, the Playmate will turn on other viewers! It’s like there’s a push and pull going on in the script… But that’s not all, as there are Nazi lesbians, an Adolf Hitler clone and Esben Storm again, this time overseeing the studio as a crazy character who is married to an almost crazier woman in a wheelchair with a thick Southern accent.

This one was shot on a budget of $700,000 but looks like it cost much more thanks to the recycling of sets from other current Australian productions. Its is reviled by some critics who said it tried too hard to offend. But the film made its money back due to international sales with the Japanese paying a cool million… They loved it according to Keenan and the Germans as well.

“So, this is what a marijuana party looks like,” says David Argue with a Terry-Thomas stroke Dennis Price Ealing Studios accent, when he stumbles across a burning swastika and a bunch of Nazis. Apparently, the accents for the movie were chosen by the director and cast closing their eyes and sticking a pin in a map of the world! So, you know it’s pure madness.

Nazi lesbians and an Adolf Hitler clone are among the wonders of Pandemonium. Photo by Carolyn Johns. Courtesy of Smart Street Pty Ltd.

The Adolf clone must impregnate the Dingo Girl to continue the Aryan race and there’s an Aboriginal who may be the Holy Ghost himself.

“We were trying for Corman style exploitation, you know, half John Waters and half Roger Corman. It got a little bit desiccated at some stage as we worked the script a little too much,” said Keenan, who is the first to admit to the film’s shortcomings.

“The kid’s love it… It’s a skid mark across the landscape of Australian cinema,” continued Keenan, about Pandemonium, who said he was blackballed as a result as: “Whoever made that movie has got to be insane!”

But the filmmaker has been true to himself, in terms of his own aesthetic, as he once more avoided the creation of a typical mainstream movie. Going Down and Pandemonium tread a different path than Storm’s movies but they still create their own unique vision of cinema.

Pandemonium (1987) trailer. Courtesy of Smart Street Films Pty Ltd.

The company that Esben Storm and Haydn Keenan got together in their teens still exists as Smart Street Films which sells the discussed movies on the internet including on Ebay.

The two ‘art’ films they made together, 27A and In Search of Anna, with Richard Moir as an actor, are classics in their own way in terms of ‘cinema’. Storm found a kind of nirvana with In Search of Anna while Keenan would follow his heart in terms of directing. Moir would go on to get an AFI award nomination for An Indecent Obsession (1985) and star in Aussie thriller Heatwave (1982) with Judy Davis among other things, including a great villain in drag-race classic Running on Empty (1982).

Moir, Storm and Keenan on an ancient Roman road outside Cannes. The dream was theirs! Photo by Haydn Keenan.

In the beginning, they were just three kids experimenting with movies and drugs… Their films may not be glorious mainstream box office winners but they are artistic expressions of something special in terms of cinema nonetheless. The filmmakers’ possible hubris of telling the old guard and their slightly older peers that they could go “get stuffed” didn’t show an arrogance, but, instead, it was a confidence and belief, not to mention a celebration, that the art of cinema as they knew it and were creating, had been validated and expressed and was alive – and, furthermore, it was in Australia! And that, all for one and one for all, was the beginning…

For people interested in these movies:

For an interview with Haydn Keenan about his career PRESS HERE

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