While watching Hard Knocks I recalled a haunting line that echoes through one of Bob Dylan’s early ballads: you know there’s something happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?
When it comes to the grim realities increasingly faced by urban youth in Australia, these lines should be rephrased to assert but you don’t want to know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?
Hard Knocks, directed by Don McLennan, attempts to deal with some harsh realities. The film cuts between the two very different worlds of Sam/Samantha. Sam is a young skinhead, moving in the fringe culture of punk – angry, defiant, seemingly fearless as she drifts into petty crime and eventually into Winlaton. She prowls the narrow claustrophobic streets of inner urban Melbourne, the residues of the old working class suburbs. There is a pathetic aspect in Sam’s crimes: they are petty despite grandiose boasts, the victims are the old and the weak. Yet there is also a certain power and strength in her raw defiance and energy and in her confrontations with the authorities that control her world.
Sam’s time at the Winlaton detention centre is a transitional experience. She emerges as Samantha, seeking a way out of the dead-end world she has been living in. She has softened, become more sensitive and self aware. But this endeavour and newly found resourcefulness receives a severe buffeting as Samantha attempts to break into modelling and the fashion world, and to establish a new circle of friends. The modelling world is presented as a meat market controlled by men who hint at sexual favours in return for work.
She faces the vengeance of former friends who despise her attempts to reject them. She is hounded by the police, chillingly portrayed by Bill Hunter, and Max Cullen. To them she remains Sam, the no-hoper, the recidivist who will always be a crim. There are vicious sexual undertones in their treatment of her. They hate her defiance. They hold the ace cards as men in positions of power who can, as they freely admit, charge her at any time. Their brutality is safely camouflaged under the pretext of the law.
The film has an overall ring of truth, particularly due to the striking performance of Tracy Mann in the lead role. She manages to combine the anger and naivete, the survival instinct and underlying confusion of Sam/Samantha. A continuous soundtrack of Australian rock music is a device that increases the film’s direct appeal. The lyrics occasionally drift to the foreground to emerge as songs that reflect the feelings and experiences of contemporary urban youth.
But there are major shortcomings. The Winlaton experience is very obscure. There are no convincing clues, except for the sensitivity of one social worker, as to why Samantha should emerge as so transformed. Why was she able to break away from her peers and strike out on her own?
The deeper problem with films of this nature – Mouth to Mouth is another example – is that all too often they only hint at the wider issues. The defiant skinhead, brutal cops, narrow backstreets, the cutting edge of punk, the flick of the knife, the sidestreet mugging, all create striking images and build up a bleak montage. But there are broader questions that must eventually be asked. Who are these kids? What are their backgrounds in terms of class and upbringing? Who is restricting their options?
To some extent it is misleading to focus on brutal confrontations between cops and kids, because in a sense they are locked in the same world, two sides of the same coin, coming from similar backgrounds. Who are the real criminals in a society in which youth unemployment is on the rise, whilst so much wealth is accumulating in fewer and fewer hands?
Some of these problems are perhaps inherent in film as a medium. In a future article in Metro, we will look more closely at the issue of how to use such a film in the classroom: as a learning device as a means of developing self-awareness and some understanding of the deeper causes.
Hard Knocks touches on issues that can be transformed by a skilled and informed teacher. It deservedly won both the Jury Prize and Best Actress Award in the 1980 A.F.I. presentations.
Directed by Don McClennan
Producers: Hilton Bonner, Don McClennan.
Screenplay: Don McClennan, Hilton Bonner.
Director of Photography and editor: Zbigniew Friedrich
Sound: Lloyd Carick.
Distributor: Greg Lynch Film Distributors, Film Centre, Hoddle Street, Melbourne. Telephone: 03-419-5533.