Since the feature film revival of the 1970s, Australian cinema has thrown up its fair share of eccentric, strange and curious movies that suggest that the country is made up of more than a satisfying sunset and a crooked smile…Pure Shit, The Night The Prowler, Bliss, Sweetie. Still, for its fans there's never really been anything quite like Richard Lowenstein's Dogs in Space, before or since.
Dogs in Space was a movie that seemed to drop into earth orbit from another universe entirely. Of course, the irony is, and it's one that Lowenstein and his colleagues clearly relish, is that the characters in Dogs were very real indeed and very true to their time and place. It is in essence, the story of a sub-culture, populated by pale skinned youths who take drugs and play obnoxious music badly and loudly and often. It's also the story of share house living – a long time before Birmingham's He Died With A Falafel in His Hand – where post-punks scorn hippies, and feminists trade insults while cruising to score a hit of love or dope. The mood is happily buoyant, one of barely contained chaos, until smack kills the party.
Heroin is the Grim Reaper in Dogs in Space. Death under its influence is blue lipped and ugly. The whole thing feels immediate and true, if a little too rich and “movie-big”, mostly because, Lowenstein says, everything in it actually happened, including its sad climax when the needle claims the movies one true innocent. That too was based on the accidental over-dose of a friend of Lowenstein's.
“The film is about what happened at the end of the 70s in Melbourne in a house I lived in, in Berry Street, Richmond,” Lowenstein told SBS. At the time, around 1978, Lowenstein was a film school student and even as he was living through it, he thought it would make a good movie. He moved into the house at Berry street when he was hanging out with characters in Melbourne's thriving 'Little Bands' post-punk scene, who played in ramshackle outfits on homemade equipment, under names like Thrush and the C**Ts and the Primitive Calculators. Lowenstein invited a mate, a dedicated punk, to move in, thinking his abrasive (and hilarious) capacity for intolerance would discourage the hippies of the house. “It didn't,” he remembers, “they stayed and it became very like what happens in the movie.”
Still, unlike other 'memoir' films Lowenstein didn't write himself as a character into the movie. “It's a psychological thing; I don't think it's possible to write yourself.”
Instead he found himself projecting his feelings about the time through characters like The Girl (Deanna Bond), a teenage runaway, who turns up at the house, searching for an escape, and gazing upon the bed hopping with a mix of hypnotic innocence and occasional distaste and Tim (Nique Needles), the not hip enough to be cool, hopelessly try-hard synth player of 'Dogs in Space', the 'house' band, led by the shambolic Sam (Michael Hutchence), based on Sam Sejavka and the band he fronted for in the late 70s, The Ears.
One of the original and best things about Dogs is that until its last half hour it bears no relation at all to conventional drama – there's no 'plot', no significant 'character arc'. In its place Lowenstein and his long time friend and collaborator Andrew de Groot reproduce the era and the 'moment' in a series of long set pieces. The film is simply 'about' what people did, how they dressed, how they talked, what got them going, and what turned them off. Shot in wide-screen anamorphic, this seedy, grubby 'scene' gets an epic treatment, where the camera creeps around rooms or crowded venues picking up action, a scrap of dialogue, only to move on after a while to the next sensation. Watched in a cinema, with thunderous sound and the tiny locations filling out an enormous screen, Dogs satisfied its director's ambition to put the audience inside the action. Even the music has authentic grunt, mostly because the vocal tracks were recorded live on set and it was supervised by perhaps the movie's most talented musician, Ollie Olsen of Whirlywirld. The effect is a bit like when you end up at a party full of strangers after an all night bender…dazzling, over-whelming, sometimes uncomfortable, but there's no way you want to leave, lest you might miss something good.
“[We made it] at the time of [the rise] of MTV and I strongly believed that the mass market didn't need conventional storylines if the piece was delivered with enough authentic insight,” Lowenstein says now. He feels that there had been precedents for the ensemble film without a plot dramatic style, like Nashville, but Dogs feels more careless, formless, crazy. It's only when heroin seems to take a deeper place in the lives of Sam and Anna (Saskia Post) that the film's very strong moral force begins to take hold.
Still, the relatively high budget of $2 million, the star wattage of Hutchence, then the singer of the hugely successful INXS, and the technical ambition of the production combined to create a hostile mood around the film. “The scale and the big screen style really upset people [in the films industry and the music business],” says Lowenstein. “Since we were making a movie about these horrible punks who played terrible music that no one had heard of, we were told we should be really doing it in a grungy way for no money on 16mm.”
Lowenstein recruited extras, many of them under age, to get an authentic feel and they brought with them an authentic curiosity about sex and drugs that only enhanced the movie's seedy reputation.
In a documentary about the making of the film included on Umbrella's excellent new double-disc edition of the film, producer Glenys Rowe tells Lowenstein in an interview that she felt the whole thing was a bit out of control: “I remember putting up signs on set saying, 'Please Do Not Take Drugs'.”
Indeed it was drugs that brought trouble. Made for teenagers, Dogs was hit with an R rating, the censors complaining that despite the tragic ending the film glamourised the lifestyle making illegal substances, including heroin, seem, “trendy” and “attractive”. Hutchence, Lowenstein, Rowe and the investors were appalled and the film, despite some excellent reviews (including many in the mainstream media), didn't impact audiences the way it might have. On a personal level, Lowenstein was hurt by accusations he had exploited true lives., By the time the film was released Sejavka had shaken off the punk image and had reinvented himself as a 80s new-waver in a highly digestible form in the band, Beergarden. He spent a lot of time in the music papers slagging off Lowenstein and Hutchence for producing a noxious caricature of his-self (he later admitted that he was indeed as affected, mumbling and unwashed as Hutchence depicted him).
“In the movie, the Sam character is responsible for the death of his girlfriend,” Lowenstein explains, “and that's fiction, and Sam Sejavka didn't understand that at the time, but I think he's now forgiven me.”
Ignored by the Australian Film Institute awards on its release (“we were considered too grungy”) Lowenstein says that by the end of the 80s the film became a video cult.
It's not hard to see why the cultural gatekeepers found the film obnoxious. “Hey dogface, show us your snatch,” is the film's opening line of dialogue, and a seeming dare for the audience to follow. Most movies want to be loved, but Dogs in Space gives the finger.