Some years before ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ became a popular, almost inevitable title for evoking a certain time and place, Helen Garner’s 1977 novel Monkey Grip and the 1982 film adaptation of it might well have patented it as a subtitle. Few works in any media so resonantly echo what was going on in that era that we now associate so crucially with those three key ingredients. However, when producer Patricia Lovell was trying to set up the film financially, she had by no means an easy ride.
Getting it made – and shown
For a while, it looked as if the film might not get made – and, when it was finally made, there was no guarantee that it would attract exhibitors from the main cinema chains. Of the production, David Stratton has written, ‘Raising money was painfully difficult. At the beginning, in early 1979, the budget was [A]$553,000 but no distributor was interested in the project’;David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1990, p. 139. according to Lovell, however, this was not the actual beginning. For her, a key industry figure whose production background included such landmarks of the New Australian Cinema as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and Gallipoli (Weir, 1981), Monkey Grip represented a serious break from the kinds of popular and prestige jobs she was associated with. She initially experienced a deficit of A$130,000 when she tried to get the project started in early 1980. Then the government announced the 10BA tax deductions, on the understanding that ‘money was to be made from Australian movies’, and ‘the floodgates opened’,Patricia Lovell, No Picnic: An Autobiography, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1995, p. 259. leading to a huge rush of projects clamouring for financial backing.
During the early negotiations, the film’s budget had risen to the figure quoted by Stratton above; according to Lovell, she and first-time director Ken Cameron ‘decided not to put up [their] fees in an attempt to keep the budget in check’, and she had a messy time with an assistant who proved unreliable. In her autobiography, she recounts: ‘I feel remorse each time I remember that Ken was only paid [A]$45,000 to both write and direct’.ibid., pp. 260–1. Cameron himself was interviewed about the film in Cinema Papers before the film got off the ground: ‘It is going to be an inexpensive film – [A]$200,000 or so. It will be made in the way John Duigan has been making films: very low budget, small crew, no big stars.’Ken Cameron, quoted in Rod Bishop & Peter Beilby, ‘Ken Cameron’, Cinema Papers, issue 20, March–April 1979, p. 259. Budget was obviously a key issue in getting started; probably, it always is.
Eventually the budget escalated to just over A$1 million. What emerges from her own and other writings is that Lovell was a cautious and responsible producer, who knew that she was engaged in promoting what was seen as a risky project and was sensitive to the need to pay off crew members if the film had to be abandoned. Monkey Grip was destined to be at a remove from those films that had made Australian cinema a product to contend with, and the key names associated with the production – such as writer/director Cameron and stars Noni Hazlehurst and Colin Friels – carried no commercial or critical clout at this stage of their careers. As well, Lovell had health problems that involved a spell in hospital; as Stratton recalls: ‘Suffering from nervous exhaustion, Lovell was hospitalised and sedated for forty-eight hours.’Stratton, op. cit., p. 140.
Lovell gives a full account of the fraught proceedings leading up to the time when production finally got underway, with the help of a personal loan of A$50,000, Stratton’s moral support and the just barely achieved agreement of the Australian Film Commission (AFC), which disliked the idea behind the film. Lovell was a part-time commissioner and, to avoid conflict of interest, had to absent herself from the AFC boardroom discussion: ‘I sat outside twiddling my thumbs for at least half an hour, so realised that it was a near-run thing.’Lovell, op. cit., p. 265.
To jump ahead, while still considering ‘industrial’ matters, she ran into further obstacles when it came to securing distribution for the film. None of the three main distributors – Hoyts, Greater Union and Village Roadshow – were interested, believing the film had no commercial future. Lovell then had to take matters into her own hands, and fortunately won the support of Alan Finney, employed in Roadshow’s marketing department. Finney offered to distribute it through Village, and this was followed by the preparation of posters and a trailer; the film was invited to a place in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, where it played to full and appreciative houses. When it finally opened in Melbourne, Lovell recalls, the film did ‘excellent business in its first weekend [… and her] brief time as a distributor ended’.ibid., p. 268.
The point of trawling through the financial and exhibition difficulties Monkey Grip’s producer encountered is to stress that, during its time, it represented a serious challenge because of its subject matter. In their 1987 book The Screening of Australia, Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka summed up the situation thus:
The word around Roadshow was that it was a grubby script […] Our conjecture is that Roadshow did not know how to handle a film about people who deliberately set themselves outside family structures, and a woman with an unusual degree of sexual freedom and power.Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia – Volume 1: Anatomy of a Film Industry, Currency Press, Sydney, 1987, p. 128.
This study will consider how the sorts of issues raised here (and other related ones) are dealt with in the film. The fact that Monkey Grip was ultimately made is a tribute to Lovell’s tenacity and commitment to the project – to the extent of setting up her own production company, Pavilion Films, for the purpose.
From novel to screen
Many of the critically – and, indeed, commercially – successful works of the renascent Australian cinema of the later 1970s were films derived from novels. When the film version of Monkey Grip first appeared in 1982, it struck a very different note from the adaptations that were responsible for much of the prestige of the local revival. Though it was based on a novel that had won a National Book Council award, it wasn’t at all like those other careful, graceful film versions of prestigious Australian novels, like Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Getting of Wisdom (Bruce Beresford, 1977) or My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979). But, as I wrote in 1993 on the subject of Australian films adapted from modern fictions, even when ‘these have tended to be of the episodic, atmospheric variety’ (naming Monkey Grip as an example),
the attraction has been to novels whose strengths lie in the evocation of an ambience rather than in strong plotting in which character and event work purposively to maintain that narrative thrust which is apparently so important to a popular cinema.Brian McFarlane, ‘The Australian Literary Adaptation: An Overview’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1993, p. 93.
Nor was Monkey Grip like the big box-office hit of the time, The Man from Snowy River (George T Miller, 1982), a deeply foolish sort of wallaby western released three months before Monkey Grip. These other films were all safely set in the past; they were concerned with coming of age in settings firmly removed from the messy present. Yet this messy present was absolutely where Monkey Grip belonged – in Garner’s own words, the story was concerned with ‘what it means to be alive in 1975’,Helen Garner, interview with the author, May 2018. though the film version would be reset to the early 1980s.
What the film has in common with the novel is its apparently casual, episodic structure. It begins and ends in summer, and it seems to mirror the casual, straggling lives of its characters. What gives the novel its coherence is the notion of addiction, whether in the matter of drugs or of relationship. For the central character, Nora (played in the film by Hazlehurst), loving Javo (Friels) – who drifts in and out of her life – is a matter of addiction. We keep coming across sentences like this: ‘When he was himself I loved him,’ says Nora as first-person narrator in the novel, and she calls herself a ‘willing prisoner’ to her love for him. Nora is a writer, and she is also ‘addicted to words’.
Not only is Garner’s novel removed in time and setting from the kinds of novels that provided the basis for the popular and/or critically acclaimed films of the period, but it is distinctly different in certain crucial literary matters, including the sources of its coherence, which are at a remove from the more usual deployment of cause-and-effect, of character interacting with event. Monkey Grip has been – for me, at least – a novel that grows on re-reading. This is a work in which character is more important than incident. What first appeared somewhat formless in its dealing with the lives of its character now seems to draw a potent coherence from its thematic and stylistic individuality – and perhaps most significantly from its narrative voice.
I’ve hinted above at the thematic importance of the motif of addiction and how this can shape lives, and will return to this in more detail shortly. As to its stylistic contribution to the novel’s coherence, there is a pervasive sense of the author’s having so utterly steeped herself in the time and the place, and the lives that inhabit these, that there is never a sense of her standing apart from the way her characters think and act and speak. There were frequent critical references to the autobiographical element in the fiction, and this may well account for the novel’s stylistic consistency, for its effortless control of idiom.
Monkey Grip is a first-person novel in which everything we know about the lives, and lifestyles, it deals in comes to us filtered through the perceptions and sensibility of Nora.
Arguably, the filming of first-person novels presents a further, or at least a different, challenge to filmmakers. If they want to keep the sense of our seeing everything through the eyes of this central character who is, in the novel, telling the story – and there’s no reason why they must – they will have to find different, cinematic strategies. In a novel like Monkey Grip, everything not in quotation marks will be in the voice of that first-person narrator. Cinema has no real equivalent for this. A film can make some use of voiceover, as Cameron’s adaptation does, and we hear Nora’s voice on the soundtrack saying some of the crucial lines from the novel. For instance, very early on, we hear her reflecting that ‘afterwards, it is possible to see the beginnings of things, the point at which you’d already plunged in while, at the time, you thought you were only testing the water’.
But there’s a limit to how much voiceover a film can use. Writing about the film much later, Andrew Urban, in a generally positive online review, made the point that the voiceover becomes ‘a device which lulls the filmmakers into allowing her to tell us things that they should really be showing us’.Andrew L Urban, ‘Monkey Grip: DVD’, Urban Cinefile, 26 July 2007, <https://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=13327&s=DVD>, accessed 21 August 2018. I will argue later that the film gets its coherence, not from voiceover telling us what Nora thinks, but from Hazlehurst’s wonderful performance, which holds all the episodes together in a way that reminds us of how Nora’s voice held them all together in the novel. Her mobility of facial expression, from pure joy to despair, and the way she uses her body, whether in repose or movement, puts before us a whole life. Nora is the centre of the film just as she is in the novel. Given that Garner is credited as co-writer of the screenplay with Cameron, this is perhaps not surprising.
In the interview with Cameron referred to above, he was asked, on the matter of adapting the novel, ‘What are the changes you have made?’ He replied:
The book is structured like a diary and told in the first person. Consequently, some of the characterizations are very sketchy, so I have had to do some expanding. But at the moment I am still finding the dramatic shape. Helen and I are working by correspondence (she lives in Paris).Cameron, quoted in Bishop & Beilby, op. cit., p. 259.
Regarding the co-credited authorship of the screenplay, Garner recalls, ‘Ken wrote it. He would send drafts to me for me to make comments, and I was very happy for him to do it.’Garner, interview with the author, op. cit.
Cath Darcy’s 1999 account of the film points out that
[t]he number of characters who appear is also reduced. Of the novel’s 35 or more characters, only 14 appear in the film. Some of these are composites of a number from the book. Numerous incidents from the novel are erased from the film.Cath Darcy, ‘“Just Another Love Story” – Monkey Grip on the Screen’, Antipodes, vol. 13, no. 2, December 1999, p. 96.
In terms of adapting a 245-page novel to a ninety-nine-minute film, this is understandable in the interests of clarity. As well, in the novel, everyone and every incident is seen from Nora’s perspective, whereas those retained for the film version necessarily take on an objective life of their own. We will know more, in one sense, about them – for instance, their appearance, how they speak and move – in the film; in another sense, though, we perhaps know less, especially in terms of Nora’s reactions to them. Everything we know about them in the novel is filtered through her narrating voice, and that is clearly the novelist’s intention. That knowledge is still important in the film, but it has to compete there with other kinds of perception – including the viewer’s. None of this alters the fact of Nora’s centrality to the film; it merely implies that this centrality is achieved in other ways. The ‘objectivity’ that inevitably attaches to the film’s characters also applies, of course, to its representation of places. The film is largely set in the visually achieved world of inner-suburban Melbourne, especially that of Carlton, with expeditions to the Fitzroy Baths or other sites to which Nora’s bike takes her. Again, like the remaining characters, this world is physically there, and, for those who care about how ‘faithful’ a film is to its antecedent novel, there is adequate regard for the novel’s rendering of setting.
Evocation of time and place
It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin, Camberwell, 2008 , p. 1.
This is the time, 1975, when the novel opens, and the place is ‘the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city’. Two pages later, at the Fitzroy Baths, Nora is ‘clown[ing] in the water at the deep end where the sign read ACQUA PROFONDA’.ibid., pp. 1, 3. Note that, while the spelling ‘acqua’ is used in the novel, the real-life pool (as depicted in the film) features the erroneous ‘aqua’ – the latter is the word’s Latin spelling, whereas the phrase was intended to be in Italian; see Heritage Council Victoria, ‘“Aqua Profonda” Sign, Fitzroy Pool’, Victorian Heritage Database Report, available at <http://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/4742/download-report>, accessed 24 August 2018. With the characters of Martin and Javo also present at the baths, a good deal about the novel’s time and place, and those peopling it, has been established. As David Browne reflects in his introduction to an interview with Cameron, ‘The film resets the action in 1981, and features the nucleus of The Divinyls as well as their single “Boys in Town”.’David Browne, ‘Monkey Grip’, The Virgin Press, June 1982, p. 22. The interview goes on to discuss the six-year gap between the novel’s setting and the film’s production, but the point I make here is that the film, without announcing its later time, also opens at the pool, with a shot of legs in the water, before cutting to the image of Nora cycling to the baths. The time gap of a year is made clear in the film’s final sequence – again set in the baths, with the ‘AQUA PROFONDA’ again on display – and drawing on The Divinyls strengthens the time of a later setting, the band having begun performing in 1980. There may well be only subtle distinctions between the physical and temporal settings of novel and film, but there are certainly enough for the savvy viewer/reader to pick up. And, in both cases, time and place, as setting for the addictions at the narrative’s heart, are rendered with what seems a casual sense of authenticity – but are doubtless the result of skilful planning.
Again because of the demands of film’s mise en scène, those aspects of time and place that the novel registers through Nora’s perceptions necessarily acquire a more autonomous presence in the film. Between those two summer visits to the Fitzroy Baths, with its warning of deep water, the film, much abetted by David Gribble’s luminous cinematography, creates a palpable sense of community, recalling how Nora has viewed this in the novel. The baths have a physical reality as well as metaphorical importance. The opening sequence of legs in the pool is followed by Nora’s reflection as she cycles about the ‘time when you’d plunged but thought you were only testing the water’. At film’s end, her voiceover recalls ‘how it had been the summer before’ (pre-Javo, that is), when she had become involved in ‘a complicated dance to which the steps hadn’t quite been learnt’. Nora is a writer, so these metaphors don’t strike an unconvincingly explicit note, but seem to belong to this speaker.
Perhaps the most evocatively realised aspect of the film’s world is that of the communal houses in Melbourne’s inner suburb of Carlton, in which so much of the action, involving a fraught network of relationships, takes place. Such households may still exist, but they seem to belong to a culture now associated with the 1970s and early 1980s. There is often a vivid depiction of messy domesticity in these sometimes-ramshackle houses, with piles of crockery and foodstuffs, with kids hurtling about and adults yapping, squabbling and snogging often regardless of what the kids might be making of it all. For instance, Nora’s daughter, Gracie (up-aged from five to eleven in the film; played by Alice Garner, Helen’s real-life daughter) overhears a quarrel between her mother and Javo; and another resident, Rita (Lisa Peers), becomes cross when the feckless addict Javo helps himself to food she has brought in. The film depicts all this with an unemphatic realism, and suggests that the possibility of fractious behaviour and reactions to it are no more a part of this lifestyle than the sense of companionability that goes along with it. It might have been a problematic environment for kids living in it, but there were positive aspects as well.
(One tiny detail from the novel that caught my eye in its transfer to the film is the drinking of claret in a reclaimed Vegemite jar! And to think that young people in the mid 2010s felt they were so trendy as they drank out of what appeared like jam jars with handles! ‘Trendy’ can quite often have its roots in earlier days.)
If the communal households provide the base for the characters of both novel and film, the latter also picks up on the novel’s indications of what else makes up the world of these people. As Cameron says in his interview with Browne, ‘There was still the enthusiasm for the re-birth of theatre in Melbourne’Ken Cameron, quoted in ibid. – and there are several scenes that are in sync with that kind of alternative theatre that derived from such sources as La Mama, home of new, often cutting-edge drama, poetry and music performance. Not only are the characters reduced in number but, as Darcy has noted, they are ‘not politically active. They are artists – musicians, actors, journalists for small magazines, photographers, writers, songwriters. They live in a bohemian milieu, unrelated to political activism.’Darcy, op. cit., p. 97. This milieu is established in sequences set in some sort of design studio; in a small gallery dedicated to eye-catching exhibits such as supermarket trolleys and shelves; in a recording studio in which the chief performer has a cigarette tucked into his guitar; and, of course, in pubs and cafes. Post–theatre visit, Nora and Javo watch dancers and singers respond to loud music at a party in a neighbouring pub; in a cafe to which they have gone, he leaves her to talk at length to another woman.
As well as these effortlessly realised interiors that convey so much of the lives of the protagonists, the film is enveloped in the wider ambience of the metropolitan sprawl, notably when Nora is making her way by bike through the cluttered streets. There are odd shots that anchor the narrative to Melbourne, such as the facade of the Carlton Post Office or the imposing Royal Exhibition Building, a key structure of the suburb. Venturing outside this chief setting, however, there are also sequences in a hospital, on a beach and, most significantly, in Sydney; it’s as though the film is suggesting that a break from quotidian suburban realities might be necessary for the preservation of some kind of inner calm – not that ‘calm’ is ever likely to be the only relevant descriptor, whatever the setting.
Physical setting is only one aspect of the film’s re-creation of the book’s milieu. In the ambient culture of this milieu, music was clearly a powerful component, but even more important to both film and novel are the representations of the era’s drug scene and looser sexual mores, and the interconnection of these two. As the novel’s Nora says: ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you.’Garner, Monkey Grip, op. cit., p. 162. The communal households provide the site for both ‘habits’, with neither seeming to upset other occupants not engaged at the time with, say, helping themselves to food or cash seen as the rightful property of one of the others. These two habits are at the core of the film’s narrative and will be examined in more detail in subsequent discussion of the film as text; they may evoke an era of several decades past, but they crucially govern the behaviour of the film’s protagonists.
The novel, through Nora’s eyes (i.e. through Garner’s prose), and the film, through the input of multiple collaborators, both work to preserve sensuously what made the time and place so distinctive to those who lived it – and to those reading or viewing nearly four decades on.
The film and what holds it together
As a narrative, the film, like the antecedent novel, is essentially episodic. It is as though it aims to give a sense of a life – or lives – rather than a traditionally structured narrative of the kind to which classic Hollywood cinema has accustomed us. In Cameron’s film, it is less a matter of cause and effect being intricately linked, in the interest of leading to a gratifying closure, than of a series of episodes that reveal those lives that often messily impact on one another.
The complicated dance
So what does hold the Monkey Grip film together? Above all, it is the centrality of Nora, the divorced 33-year-old single mother. It is she who opens and closes the film with those lines quoted above about ‘plung[ing] in’ and ‘a complicated dance’. After meeting Javo at the pool, she muses in voiceover: ‘I was happy … Then everything began to change.’ She has been ‘happy’ with someone she loved, Martin (Tim Burns), whom we watch as he plays with the kids, including Gracie, and others of the household. In other words, there is a feeling of something settled at this point in her life, which is then disrupted by her meeting with and falling for actor/junkie Javo. It is this Nora – writer, mother, sexual partner – on and around whose needs and views the seemingly loosely structured narrative depends. In Hazlehurst’s widely acclaimed performance, the requirements of this role are indisputably met, their often-contrasting rewards and frustrations promoting a warmly sympathetic response from the viewer. I hold to what I wrote of Hazlehurst’s rendition at the time that she had
just the face for Nora – moody, intelligent, with accesses of warmth and humour – and she and Cameron have worked successfully to make Nora’s emotional progress the motivating factor for everything else in the film.Brian McFarlane, ‘Monkey Grip’, Cinema Papers, issue 39, August 1982, p. 366.
Though the film does not go in for explicit feminist activism, it doesn’t shy away from depicting Nora as taking the sexual initiative in what will become her addictive affair with Javo. As one reviewer wrote: ‘Nora’s independent status – she’s a single working mother – counts for little; her liberation is mainly demonstrated by the fact that she is always the initiator of sex, the active partner.’Jo Imeson, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 50, no. 594, July 1983, p. 163. She asks Javo to stay and climbs into bed with him, while he, casually stripping, notes the shadow of Clive (Michael Caton), painting in a neighbouring room, over the translucent window of their closed door. The first of the film’s sex scenes is done with frankness and passion, and there is also a sense of post-sexual pleasure in the company of each other, though this will not prove to be the precursor of a fulfilling relationship. This is the start of their ‘affair’, but that scarcely seems the word for their encounters, between which she will wonder what has become of him as he drifts off without explanation. When Martin comes home, he interrogates Clive, who ‘doesn’t know what’s going on’ – a reply that Martin will shortly echo when he insists he ‘want[s] to know what’s going on’. And then we hear Nora’s own (voiceover) reaction as she cycles: ‘I think I knew this one was going to be trouble’, before adding, ‘Still, a person shouldn’t be ashamed to wish for love.’ Somehow, this serious passion is touchingly at odds with her usual easygoing ‘see ya when I see ya’ approach to the come-and-go of her everyday life.
The sexual fluctuations between Nora and Javo are at the centre of the film. Her early apprehension of ‘trouble’ is borne out by what follows, and it is in such ways that the film’s apparently loose structure is given its lifeline. Javo’s dope addiction incurs in him a selfishness he can’t control: ‘You only like me when I’m off the dope, and I only like me when I’m on it,’ he ventures, to which she, loving him to the extent she does, can only answer: ‘I wonder why we bother.’ He keeps away for days at a time – longer when he heads off to Singapore or Bangkok, where he is imprisoned. He tries to justify his reckless life with talk of his time in the air force, his mother, and his father who was ‘a shit’. The film doesn’t try to minimise the self-centredness that goes along with his being ‘stoned’, but, equally, it doesn’t succumb to making him wholly without touches of decency – and, therefore, reinforces the viewer’s understanding of and sympathy for Nora. Her last words to him may be, ‘It seems I only get to see you when you want something,’ and there’s evidence for this. When he replies: ‘Mate, our relationship’s permanent,’ we can’t wholly disbelieve him. In other words, Monkey Grip is a film that acknowledges kinds of love that cause pain but that that is not all there is to them. The writing, the direction and the acting of the leads persuade us of this complexity in the intertwined lives of Nora and Javo.
What else is going on?
Being a ‘sexual partner’ is not all there is to this Nora’s life. She is also a writer, though the film does not give us much sense of this aspect of her existence. Perhaps writers have always had less visual potential for filmmakers than, say, painters or musicians or actors, who get more of a showing at their work in Monkey Grip. At one point late in the film, after Javo has left Nora and Gracie after a Sydney trip, she feels it’s time to start again back in Melbourne: ‘It had been impossible and now it’s over,’ she says, and in voiceover announces: ‘I started writing again.’ It might have been interesting to know what kind of writing drives her: for instance, whether it derives from the everyday world she lives in or is some form of escape.
Her role as mother is rendered with warmth and conviction, and the dynamic between Nora and Gracie emerges as a key element of the film. The young Garner plays the eleven-year-old with utter naturalness, not remotely ‘cute’ but always aware of and undaunted by the kind of domestic life in which she lives. She just takes for granted as part of the landscape the men who wend their way through her mother’s life. Equally, though, there is no suggestion that Nora’s lifestyle leads her to neglect Gracie, or that the child is unhappy in this somewhat-shambolic environment. At one moment, she overhears Nora and Javo quarrelling but, thanks to Garner’s unaffected performance, she seems to take this in her stride without difficulty. She even tells Nora after one such occasion, ‘Just be nicer to him. He’s a junkie,’ suggesting a maturity won at a cost most children wouldn’t aspire to. And there is a moment of unsentimental sweetness when Nora and Gracie (post–Javo’s departure) are seated on the Manly ferry in easy companionship – and with Gracie knitting. The warmth and affection between Nora and Gracie make an affecting contrast with the authentic notes of banality and unhappiness that are apt to be Nora’s lot when Javo is at issue. One critic praised Garner’s ‘impressive performance in a film which takes the daring step of giving children mature roles without making them revoltingly precocious’.Meaghan Morris, ‘In and Out of the Film Festivals’, Australian Financial Review, 18 June 1982.
The central, fluctuating Nora–Javo relationship lends a sort of coherence to the film’s pattern of changing partners, locational shifts, friendships that come and go. Our main sympathies may lie with Nora in the throes of emotional and sexual needs that are not reliably met in her dealings with Javo, but one of the film’s strengths is the way it creates a sense of those other lives. Some of these are evinced in moments of genuine affection among friends; the possibility of happiness or moments when conscience seems to assert itself; the idea of gratification to be found round the edges of the art scene; animosities that can grow out of everyday irritations … all of these contribute to the film’s narrative texture.
The other characters and relationships are captured in brief glimpses. They are not developed in detail, and do not need to be, as their primary function is to provide evidence of the sort of community within which Nora’s life takes place. Nevertheless, the actors playing these roles very often invest their brief screen time with a vividness that ‘places’ them in the scene. For instance, Angela (played by singer Chrissy Amphlett), apart from her performing moments, has a brief but sharply effective clash with Nora, whom she accuses of ‘using people up and throwing them away’. A little later, she says ‘sorry’ for her harsh words about Nora and her rancour. Among the others, Peers as Rita, co-householder with Nora, and Caton as Clive, the painter whom we see fleetingly at work, make their presences felt, both as individuals and as members of the bohemian community.
Cameron, who won an Australian Writers’ Guild AWGIE Award for Adaptation for his work on Monkey Grip, exploited his dual role as screenwriter and director to achieve a notable result. Understanding the different needs of the film medium, which is deprived of the novelist’s more expansive space, he has reduced the novel’s network of relationships and arts-world pursuits to manageable proportions but without losing immediacy or complexity. Among his collaborators, cinematographer Gribble and music director Bruce Smeaton make especially important contributions to the film’s atmosphere, tone and emotional texture, distinguishing in light and sound between domestic and other settings. As Cameron has pointed out, the rock’n’roll is ‘always coming from sources – it’s never laid on to hype it up’,Cameron, quoted in Browne, p. 23. and, when the music is not diegetic, as when Nora is riding in an early scene, Smeaton’s score contrives to be lyrical but sometimes with a touch of threat. In turn, Gribble ensures the contrast between confining interiors and the rare street or beach scenes that forms part of the film’s meaning.
Mentioning those ‘confining interiors’ suggests another important collaborator: production designer Clark Munro, whose contribution enables us to distinguish among the degrees of comfort and style afforded by those communal households, and to give us a whiff of the edge of the arts scene as practised in gallery, music studio and La Mama–like theatre. All of these conjure not merely a sense of time and place, but also tighten our grasp of the lives lived in and around it. When British critic Neil Sinyard wrote, ‘Australian alternative society is vividly evoked in Monkey Grip’, and went on to say that ‘the film’s actual subject is the offbeat community of Melbourne musicians and artists who, claustrophobically bound together, are each searching for a vision of personal freedom outside of the “traps” of marriage and materialism’,Neil Sinyard, Films and Filming, no. 349, October 1983, p. 35. he seems to be echoing this dual aspect of the film’s achievement.
Following the financial challenges it faced in setting up the production and the difficulties of securing distribution, Monkey Grip finally got off to an imposing start. As Lovell reflects: ‘When Monkey Grip opened in Melbourne it did such excellent business in its first weekend that I had a call immediately from Robyn Campbell-Jones of Roadshow to say “You were right, I was wrong”.’Lovell, op. cit., p. 268. And, as she was later quoted as saying about a return of A$36,175 for the film’s first five days in Sydney, this was ‘bloody good money for a little picture’.See The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 1982. Unfortunately, it did not repeat this success overseas – commercially, at least. In Lovell’s account:
Monkey Grip was distributed disastrously in both the United Kingdom and in the United States […] as they felt it would be a “difficult film” to market. Monkey Grip died in London as it opened just before Christmas, even though my contract stipulated a September opening. There was no hope for it against the holiday blockbusters.Lovell, op. cit., p. 269.
So timing, perhaps as well as its unfestive content, played against its overseas success. However, writing of the film’s fortunes abroad, it is worth noting that it did attract some positive critical attention. Sinyard applauded Cameron’s feature debut, singling out ‘his unobtrusive camera style, and the spontaneity and raw authenticity of many of the scenes’, and found Hazlehurst’s performance ‘stunning’.Sinyard, op. cit., p. 35. Even the lukewarm review in Monthly Film Bulletin, regarding the film as a whole as ‘a sad disappointment’, had praise for ‘some fine fresh visuals and Noni Hazlehurst’s natural performance’.Imeson, op. cit., p. 163. Indeed, reviews everywhere had virtually nothing but praise for her performance. The Paris newspaper Le Monde was reported as describing the film as ‘of exceptional quality’, finding Hazlehurst ‘an instinctive actress, without affectation or sophistication [… who] plays the role of Nora soberly and very honestly’.Roland Pullen, ‘Monkey Has a Grip on Cannes’, The Herald, 19 May 1982. Unsurprisingly, then, she won the Australian Film Institute’s award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role and, while on the subject of these awards, we might note that Monkey Grip received nominations for Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Alice Garner), Best Achievement in Editing (David Huggett) and Best Achievement in Cinematography (Gribble).
US publication Variety Daily, in its front-page article entitled ‘Gripping New Australian Film Set for Raves at Cannes’, eulogised Hazlehurst as ‘magnificent, a radiant actress who is utterly convincing in the many different moods of the character she is called on to play’.‘Strat’ (David Stratton), Variety Daily, 5 May 1982. Noted film critic and scholar Andrew Sarris, while finding the film ‘hardly a feminist’s delight’, discerned in Hazlehurst ‘an Australian reincarnation of Jeanne Moreau, and is never less than a knockout even at her world-weariest’.Andrew Sarris, ‘Media Politics and Other Potpourri’, The Village Voice, 8 November 1983. The Los Angeles Times, praising Gribble’s and Smeaton’s contributions as well as those of the lead actors, concluded by describing Monkey Grip as ‘a film of substance as well as passion’.Kevin Thomas, ‘Coming to Grips with the Monkey’, Los Angeles Times, 7 March 1984. And the influential US periodical of popular culture Rolling Stone waxed lyrical about how the film ‘speaks directly (and eloquently) about recognizably “real” people […] with intensity and passion which is untainted by melodrama’ – to me, an accurate perception of the film’s tone – and the review ends by praising Hazlehurst’s ‘impressive contribution to a really first-rate Australian film’.Peter Kemp, ‘Monkey Grip – an Eloquent Film About Real Addictions’, Rolling Stone, 17 June 1982. Distribution problems may have foiled the film’s chances of international box-office success, but, as these samples of critical response suggest, such difficulties did not preclude its being appreciated for its intrinsic merits.
Back home, there was some clear division of opinion. While there was considerable positive response, there were several notably sour dissections, some of them from critics then well known in the local scene. And mention of ‘the local scene’ echoes what some of these objected to: trendy, bohemian Carlton/Fitzroy living, as depicted in the film, was presumably remote from the experience of the writers, and deeply unattractive for them to contemplate. Neil Jillett, then The Age’s film critic, opined that ‘Nora’s infatuation with Javo is ludicrously beyond belief’, accused the adaptation of ‘ostentatiously pushing the story into the 1980s’ and considered ‘the contrived coarseness of the monosyllabic dialogue […] at odds with the pretentiously literary style of Nora’s interior monologue’.Neil Jillett, ‘Infatuation Beyond Belief’, The Age, 21 June 1982. To be fair, I think there is some truth in that last point: the Nora of the voiceover doesn’t quite seem to belong to the everyday Nora we see – and Jillett does have kind words for Hazlehurst’s and Garner’s performances.
In The National Times, broadcaster and writer John Hindle confessed early in his review: ‘I failed to be interested in the subject matter. I didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them.’ He also took issue with the way the film ‘focuses on Nora. Javo might have a drug problem, but it is presented in the light of its effect on Nora’ – well, it is surely up to the filmmaker to decide where he wants the emphasis to fall. Hindle ends by allowing that the film ‘may tell the truth (or a truth) about a particular relationship, but I would have been happier with a lie about a more interesting love story’.John Hindle, ‘Less than Meets the Eye’, The National Times, 20 June 1982.
Hindle’s and Jillett’s reviews embody a peculiar attitude to the critical function, but they are models of thoughtful moderation compared with the smart-alec tirade launched by John-Michael Howson in The Australian Women’s Weekly. The widely experienced writer and broadcaster found that the film, like its antecedent novel, dealt with people and a lifestyle not to his liking:
a whole group of underwhelming people living in the inner Melbourne district of Carlton […] By the look of the folks who parade around in this film it seems that not only is the water in Carlton laced with fluoride but with ugly pills as well.John-Michael Howson, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 31 July 1982, p. 150.
Elsewhere, Howson’s review is peppered with ill-judged facetious jabs such as describing Friels’ Javo as having ‘all the attractiveness of a Neanderthal man’ and Nora’s seeming ‘about as liberated as a harem girl’, and he assesses the film as a whole as ‘woefully boring and about as entertaining as appendicitis’.ibid. Critics are entitled to their opinions, but it is also part of their job to at least account for these with a little more attention to detail than Howson exhibits. In a similar vein, Terry Jennings, in Adelaide’s The Advertiser, complained that the film’s ‘splinters of life never cohere dramatically and the search for emotional honesty is essentially humorless’, and that how much you relate to the film ‘will depend on your sympathy with the characters’ lifestyles and their tangled, confused emotions’.Terry Jennings, ‘Lost in Trendy Carlton’, The Advertiser, 6 November 1982. Not much, in Jennings’ case.
Against these negative, not always very cogently argued, opinions there was a healthy round of applause from some well-regarded Australian critics, as well as from the international ones quoted above. In a long, carefully considered piece in the Melbourne Herald, Keith Connolly declared the film ‘a splendid feature debut for Ken Cameron’; he discusses its alertness to ‘emotions and viewpoints’ and the lifestyle generally, and praises the ‘uniformly excellent performances’, of which Hazlehurst’s is ‘outstanding’.Keith Connolly, ‘A Firm Grip on a Loose Lifestyle’, The Herald, 17 June 1982. On the subject of adaptation, Connolly found the film ‘an accomplished, thoughtful and generally deft screen version of a deceptively “simple” novel, the sort that is hardest to adapt’,ibid. while the Australian Financial Review’s Meaghan Morris, admiring the film as ‘a warm, intelligent and thoroughly engrossing tale of contemporary city life’, claimed: ‘For this achievement, a great deal of credit must go to the fine screen adaptation of Helen Garner’s novel by Ken Cameron, and Garner herself.’ At the time of her review, Morris noted that the film had ‘just been released discreetly in Melbourne and in Melbourne only’, recalling Lovell’s difficulties in securing distribution.Morris, op. cit.
One of the most glowing reviews was Susie Eisenhuth’s in The Sun-Herald. The book had been a personal favourite of hers, and she felt that its adaptation to film might be ‘a bit of a worry’; however, she was delighted to find that ‘Ken Cameron’s finely-turned film has simply taken the heart and soul of Miss Garner’s memorable story and made it unforgettable.’ Eisenhuth was full of praise for the cast, lauding Hazlehurst’s turn as ‘one of the great performances’, and for the way Cameron ‘brings his inner-city milieu very much alive’.Susie Eisenhuth, ‘Monkey Grip Holds Key to Emotion’, The Sun-Herald, 8 October 1982.
An interesting note was struck by Dougal Macdonald in The Canberra Times about the issue of censorship. There is nudity in the sex scenes and a good deal of swearing in the dialogue, but the censors gave the film an ‘M’ rating. Macdonald applauds this: ‘It is one of the censors’ better decisions, allowing the film to be available to adolescents’, claiming that neither matter ‘renders the film unsuitable for people preparing to be adults; what else the film offers has some value for them’.Dougal Macdonald, ‘Characters on Counter-cultural Fringe Depicted with Success’, The Canberra Times, 19 January 1983. The critical attitude expressed here is unusual but thoughtful, conferring another perspective on this controversial film.
The film’s reception warrants more than just a list of quotes and could constitute a study in itself. Monkey Grip was out of step with the titles that had made the Australian film revival a critical – and popular – phenomenon. It was not a period piece; its source novel was not an obvious candidate for adaptation; its director had not previously made a feature film; and its stars were not recognisable to cinema-goers. About the cast, the name ‘Noni Hazlehurst’ was known as one of the presenters on the ABC’s children’s program Play School, and nothing in her appearance in this would have prepared viewers for her role as Nora. However, almost without exception, even from grudging critics, she is singled out as an unequivocal success, and this calibre would continue in many future roles.
This article has been refereed.
Rod Bishop & Peter Beilby, ‘Ken Cameron’, Cinema Papers, issue 20, March–April 1979, pp. 254–9.
David Browne, ‘Monkey Grip’, The Virgin Press, June 1982.
Cath Darcy, ‘“Just Another Love Story” – Monkey Grip on the Screen’, Antipodes, vol. 13, no. 2, December 1999, pp. 95–9.
Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia – Volume 1: Anatomy of a Film Industry, Currency Press, Sydney, 1987.
Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin, Camberwell, 2008 . Sandra Hall, Critical Business: The New Australian Cinema in Review, Rigby, Adelaide & Sydney, 1985.
Patricia Lovell, No Picnic: An Autobiography, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1995.
Brian McFarlane, ‘The Australian Literary Adaptation: An Overview’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1993, pp. 90–101.
Brian McFarlane, Words and Images: Australian Novels into Film, Heinemann & Cinema Papers, Richmond, 1983.
Andrew Sarris, ‘Media Politics and Other Potpourri’, The Village Voice, 8 November 1983.
David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1990.
Nora Noni Hazlehurst Javo Colin Friels Gracie Alice Garner Willie Harold Hopkins Lillian Candy Raymond Clive Michael Caton Martin Tim Burns Angela Chrissy Amphlett Rita Lisa Peers
Year of release 1982 Length 99 minutes Director Ken Cameron Producer Patricia Lovell Screenplay Ken Cameron & Helen Garner (from Garner’s novel) Cinematography David Gribble Sound Recordist Mark Lewis Music Bruce Smeaton Costume Design Kathy James Editing David Huggett Production Design Clark Munro
|1||David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1990, p. 139.|
|2||Patricia Lovell, No Picnic: An Autobiography, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1995, p. 259.|
|3||ibid., pp. 260–1.|
|4||Ken Cameron, quoted in Rod Bishop & Peter Beilby, ‘Ken Cameron’, Cinema Papers, issue 20, March–April 1979, p. 259.|
|5||Stratton, op. cit., p. 140.|
|6||Lovell, op. cit., p. 265.|
|7||ibid., p. 268.|
|8||Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia – Volume 1: Anatomy of a Film Industry, Currency Press, Sydney, 1987, p. 128.|
|9||Brian McFarlane, ‘The Australian Literary Adaptation: An Overview’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1993, p. 93.|
|10||Helen Garner, interview with the author, May 2018.|
|11||Andrew L Urban, ‘Monkey Grip: DVD’, Urban Cinefile, 26 July 2007, <https://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=13327&s=DVD>, accessed 21 August 2018.|
|12||Cameron, quoted in Bishop & Beilby, op. cit., p. 259.|
|13||Garner, interview with the author, op. cit.|
|14||Cath Darcy, ‘“Just Another Love Story” – Monkey Grip on the Screen’, Antipodes, vol. 13, no. 2, December 1999, p. 96.|
|15||Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin, Camberwell, 2008 , p. 1.|
|16||ibid., pp. 1, 3. Note that, while the spelling ‘acqua’ is used in the novel, the real-life pool (as depicted in the film) features the erroneous ‘aqua’ – the latter is the word’s Latin spelling, whereas the phrase was intended to be in Italian; see Heritage Council Victoria, ‘“Aqua Profonda” Sign, Fitzroy Pool’, Victorian Heritage Database Report, available at <http://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/4742/download-report>, accessed 24 August 2018.|
|17||David Browne, ‘Monkey Grip’, The Virgin Press, June 1982, p. 22.|
|18||Ken Cameron, quoted in ibid.|
|19||Darcy, op. cit., p. 97.|
|20||Garner, Monkey Grip, op. cit., p. 162.|
|21||Brian McFarlane, ‘Monkey Grip’, Cinema Papers, issue 39, August 1982, p. 366.|
|22||Jo Imeson, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 50, no. 594, July 1983, p. 163.|
|23||Meaghan Morris, ‘In and Out of the Film Festivals’, Australian Financial Review, 18 June 1982.|
|24||Cameron, quoted in Browne, p. 23.|
|25||Neil Sinyard, Films and Filming, no. 349, October 1983, p. 35.|
|26||Lovell, op. cit., p. 268.|
|27||See The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 1982.|
|28||Lovell, op. cit., p. 269.|
|29||Sinyard, op. cit., p. 35.|
|30||Imeson, op. cit., p. 163.|
|31||Roland Pullen, ‘Monkey Has a Grip on Cannes’, The Herald, 19 May 1982.|
|32||‘Strat’ (David Stratton), Variety Daily, 5 May 1982.|
|33||Andrew Sarris, ‘Media Politics and Other Potpourri’, The Village Voice, 8 November 1983.|
|34||Kevin Thomas, ‘Coming to Grips with the Monkey’, Los Angeles Times, 7 March 1984.|
|35||Peter Kemp, ‘Monkey Grip – an Eloquent Film About Real Addictions’, Rolling Stone, 17 June 1982.|
|36||Neil Jillett, ‘Infatuation Beyond Belief’, The Age, 21 June 1982.|
|37||John Hindle, ‘Less than Meets the Eye’, The National Times, 20 June 1982.|
|38||John-Michael Howson, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 31 July 1982, p. 150.|
|40||Terry Jennings, ‘Lost in Trendy Carlton’, The Advertiser, 6 November 1982.|
|41||Keith Connolly, ‘A Firm Grip on a Loose Lifestyle’, The Herald, 17 June 1982.|
|43||Morris, op. cit.|
|44||Susie Eisenhuth, ‘Monkey Grip Holds Key to Emotion’, The Sun-Herald, 8 October 1982.|
|45||Dougal Macdonald, ‘Characters on Counter-cultural Fringe Depicted with Success’, The Canberra Times, 19 January 1983.|