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By Joshua Smith

Film Review: Dust Off the Wings (1997)
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: November 25, 1997

Leading Players: Lee Rogers (Lee), Ward Stevens (Ward), Phil Ceberano (Phil), Felix Williamson (Alex), "Rash" Ryder (Rash), Leigh Russell (Luke), Simon Lyndon (Gazza), Jenna (Kate Ceberano). Main Crew: prod, Lee Rogers; dir, Lee Rogers; writ, Lee Rogers, Ward Stevens; dop, Jeff Malouf; ed, Peter Whitmore; mus, Phil Ceberano, Justin Stanley; line prod, Emma Brunton.

Reputedly produced on a budget of less than $50,000, Dust Off the Wings may fall short of cinema standards in its technicalities, but it presents an insightful, if not brutally honest, portrait of the urban Australian lifestyle. Rogers and Stevens (who collaborate as writers, producers and stars of the film) paint a dark, cynically humorous view of the institution of marriage.

While the film's plot revolves around Lee's (Lee Rogers) forced development in the final days prior to his marriage, his wife is seen rarely, and only from behind, until in the actual ceremony. The ceremony, too, is presented cynically, with both Lee and his wife in a constant state of laughter while their friends are concealed behind dark sunglasses as if mourning the loss of Lee's infidelity. The twisted, distorted music that accompanies the scene presents the ceremony as some sort of modern circus. Such a dystopic view of marriage has prevailed of late in a number of Australian feature films, such as Muriel's Wedding (1994) and Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997).

Clearly, the focus is placed more directly on the events leading up to the wedding. This focus helps to explain the rough and raw style of the film's acting, cinematography and sound. While discrepancies in sound quality and volume that abound in the earlier parts of the film initially appear to detract from its construction, the film's spontaneity and pace actually add to its visual form. Shot in the style of a home video or a low-budget music video, Dust Off the Wings presents the audience with a sense of being there amidst the vulgarity and spontaneity of a buck's night. The acting, similarly, is supported by the film's raucous visual energy, since naturalistic (and sometimes banal) performances meld completely into the film's mise-en-scene.

In fact, the film's high level of naturalism and the littering of clichés and mundane passages throughout the script encourages the viewer to observe the action as if immersed in an unscripted docu-drama. The end credits claim that "All characters in this film are fictitious!" Concluding the statement with a deliberate exclamation mark, Rogers and Stevens have obviously drawn from their own lived experiences, thus creating a work that resembles an autobiographical documentary. Not only is Rogers' character a determined film director, but he and most of the main characters, share his name with the actor that molds him. Intertextual elements, such as posters of both Kate Ceberano and radio disc-jockey "Rash" Ryder, who both act in the film, detract from the film's constructed reality, firmly grounding it in the docu-drama genre. Like many documentaries, most of the social commentary presented in Dust Off the Wings is revealed through its editing, mostly in the ironic connections between the hen's night activities and the buck's night, instead of through its diegesis.

On the surface, Rogers' film would appear to represent no more than the juxtaposition of gender cultures within Australian urban life. The majority of the dialogue presented by the characters, and the film's main plot twist, revolve around the infidelity of males and the biological, uncontrollable nature of such behaviour. The film's title, opening credit sequence, magazine cover stories and comments made by one of the female characters alludes to the biological tendency for moths to attract others by dispersing the pheromone-clad dust from their wings. Such behaviour is mirrored in the male characters when they discuss the number of women they have slept with as being "Dunno, couple a hundred." They are, in effect, performing their biological functions by dispersing their "dust."

A deeper analysis of the text reveals Lee is culturally and socially isolated from his friends, and his wife-to-be equally so. Things such as Lee's admission he is having a facial and the fact he doesn't smoke while all of his friends do separates him from his mates. Just as Jenna (Kate Ceberano) stands as the link between Lee and his elusive fiancee, Ward (scriptwriter Ward Stevens) links Lee to his wild group of friends. For this reason, some of the greatest insights that the audience can draw regarding Lee's character comes via these two characters, and not Lee himself. The manner in which the moderately-civilised hen's night is intercut with the wild activities occurring at the buck's night reflects a similar isolation between the opposing genders. Perhaps the most intricate, and insightful, indications of the isolation theme, though, is linked to the film's most prevalent motif, that being water.

The water motif flows continuously throughout the film, effectively uniting the dislocated events. This motif is used to visually portray the relationship between Lee and those around him. One shot in particular shows two starfish physically isolated from each other, being swept out to sea together. In this depiction, the two starfish represent Lee and his fiancée, while the swift, insistent tide is symbolic of their friends. While Lee and his wife-to-be still harbour doubts and are isolated from each other, the constant persistence of nature (as referred to through the biological motif) and Lee's friends, united in their goal of making the wedding work, pull the two together in the confusing ebb of life. Similar representations of Lee's friends and society as a whole as the water that pushes Lee around aimlessly in their random flow, is illustrated by the anchor symbolism during his wedding. Lee, finding it too hard to carry the burden of individuality (as cherished by his painter friend), ultimately fails to keep his head above water, and is persuaded to marry.

Following his marriage, though, a return to the water motif has Lee and Ward surfing naked. This imagery further compounds upon the sexual symbolism of crashing waves and the rhythmic motion of the tides by indicating that Lee will ultimately fall back into his former lifestyle, free from the restrictions of marriage.

Dust Off the Wings, while harbouring a sketchy narrative and rough cinematography that is intercut in a confusing style that melds surfing-to-music with documentary-style interactions, is not visually or aurally pleasing. It is the repulsive nature of its content and the apparent flawed style of the film that enables it to convey its messages all the more effectively. While Australian audiences obsess over poorly-produced documentary-style programs such as Australia's Funniest Home Video Show and Weddings, Rogers has created a similar, though much darker, docu-drama that draws its strength from its clear connection to the "unseen Australia." Dust Off the Wings is very much driven by the high-level of social realism that it presents, and both Rogers and Stevens displaying their first-hand knowledge of the modern Australian ocker archetype cleverly. If, indeed, the jerky, confusing style of the film's narrative and visual construction are intended, then Rogers has succeeded in conveying the chaotic psyche of a man whose life will be twisted irreversibly in a matter of days. The film brims with energy, even in its duller moments, and stands as a testament to the national institution of the buck's night, more so than marriage.

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