• Saskia Post and Michael Hutchence in 'Dogs In Space'. (SBS)Source: SBS
Richard Lowenstein’s account of the chaotic Melbourne “little bands” scene of the late ‘70s transcends its period trappings to present a lo-fi epic that ‘s still relevant today.
19 Nov 2018 - 4:08 PM  UPDATED 21 Dec 2018 - 11:15 AM

Dogs in Space resonates. And it will continue to do so.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Richard Lowenstein’s sublime paean to his wasted youth, and that’s very appropriate. Lowenstein’s film is about a disparate group of desperadoes living in a squalid share house in Melbourne, circa 1978. I was living in with a disparate group of desperadoes living in a squalid share house in Perth, circa 1994. Dogs in Space starred martyred Australian rock star Michael Hutchence. I am, rest assured, not Michael Hutchence. Dogs in Space has a staggering amount of drug use.

…and there we will draw a curtain over the forced parallels.

Well, not that forced – not really. Even if  you can’t see an analogue of yourself in Dogs in Space’s sprawling ensemble of punks, proto-goths, wannabe musos, student activists, drifters, dodgers, and no hopers, if you’ve ever dossed in the kind of shared accommodations where the ratio of rooms to people makes absolutely no sense and the payment of both bills and rent is less important than scoring concert tickets or… other things… you can surely relate to what Tiriel Mora, in another great Australian movie, called “the vibe”.

In telling its story of wasted youth in reduced circumstances, Dogs in Space was presaged by the cult British comedy The Young Ones in 1982, and itself followed by Australian writer John Birmingham’s 1994 book, He Died with a Felafel in his Hand (itself filmed by Lowenstein in 2001), but in terms of describing, with rather seductive but nonetheless merciless clarity, that brief interstitial period between high school and figuring out exactly what the hell you want to do with your life (or not), it’s head and shoulders above either.

A big reason for that is its specificity. Lowenstein sets his tale firmly in the “little bands” scene of late ‘70s Melbourne, a time of experimental DIY punk musicianship wherein dozens upon dozens of groups formed, played, and exploded – often after only one gig. Although rooted in music – and boasting a devastatingly good soundtrack that fields the likes of Iggy Pop, The Boys Next Door, Bran Eno, and Melbourne scene veterans such as Primitive Calculators and Thrush and the C***ts – Dogs in Space rejects the formal constraints of the rock ‘n’ roll movie. The titular band, led by Hutchence’s Sammy No Brain, might be the nominal focus of the film, but we’re never under any illusions that they’re destined for greatness. Indeed, what we get isn’t so much  “rise and fall” story as more of a “binge and stagnate”. Not much really happens over the course of Dogs in Spaces’ brisk 103 minutes – there’s a gig, a jam, a party or two, hook ups, break ups, the odd pilgrimage to Ballarat (home to the only 24 hour convenience store at the time) – but not much in the way of plot.

This is deliberate. Speaking to SBS back in 2009, Lowenstein explained, “[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.”

Insight into what? Nihilistic hedonism might be the glib answer, and certainly Sam and the gang, which includes Saskia Post as his long-suffering girlfriend, Anna and Nique Needles as high-strung keyboardist, Tim, live life like there’s no tomorrow – a philosophy that feeds into the film’s scattershot, collage-like narrative style. After all, time has no meaning when you’re immortal, and every young, burgeoning rock god knows that they’re going to live forever, and these nights of wild partying will stretch on for eternity.

Of course, that’s just not true, and the film drives that grim truth in the final act in which poor Anna, introduced to heroin by Sam, succumbs to a fatal overdose. Just like that, the party is over. The ramshackle household at the heart of the film disintegrates, the members scattering to the four winds. Lowenstein doesn’t dwell on the essential lesson here, never puts words into the mouths of his characters to needlessly articulate the ineffable truth: faced with the inevitability of mortality, it’s not just time to grow the hell up, it’s impossible not to.

That is, perhaps, why Dogs in Space attracts more fans every generation, even as the distance between its ‘70s setting and the current date keeps growing. The juxtaposition between the decadence of the film’s opening movements and the fatalism of its final scenes is deliciously heady. Now, watching it again decades after the first time, the blind sybaritic frenzy of the film’s first two thirds are rendered bittersweet by the tragedy of the last – an obvious read, perhaps, but not one I was up for when my life mapped onto the characters’ much more closely. While anyone who has ever been or currently is young, poor, desperate, hungry, and hedonistic will find a path into the film, for older fans what’s remarkable is how the film changes as we age, our own accumulated experiences colouring what we see on the screen. Sammy is cool, but he’s also selfish and destructive. Tim is a jerk, but he’s also one of the only characters with a strong read on what’s going on. Put-upon uni student Luchio (Tony Helou) may be a boring prat, but he’s the only character with an eye on what’s waiting for them on the other side of this share house bacchanal. What was once seductively cool is rendered juvenile with the passage of time – and yet still oh so alluring.

There’s a world out there where we got a D2: Dogspotting long-lead sequel that tracked the later-life fortunes of this menagerie, but we don’t really need it; you can make a pretty strong educated guess as the where most of the gang are going to end up. And so Dogs in Space remains singular, and a singular experience: a snapshot of not only a time and a place, but a stage of life through whose gates all must pass.

Watch 'Dogs In Space' at SBS on Demand


"We're living on dog food. So What?"
Richard Lowenstein reflects on the making of his cult classic Dogs in Space, which has finally become available on DVD.