Stork Review

Meet Graham Wallace (Bruce Spence), nicknamed “Stork”. Kicked out of his job, he comes to stay at the home of his best mate Westy (Graeme Blundell). Also living there are Tony (Sean McEuan) and Clyde (Helmut Bakaitis), who are none too happy at the thought of a “six feet seven deranged revolutionary” under their roof. But beneath the bluster, Stork is a hopeless hypochondriac and a painfully shy virgin – until he’s seduced by Anna (Jacki Weaver), who’s already sleeping with Tony and Clyde…

The late Tim Burstall was undoubtedly an Australian cinema pioneer, though he was actually born in England, in Stockton-on-Tees in 1927. He emigrated with his parents to Australia ten years later. After a period as a journalist, he set up his own film company and made documentaries and children’s films. On a study grant to Los Angeles, he was a student assistant on Martin Ritt’s Hombre. He returned to Australia in 1967 and set about making his first feature. This was Two Thousand Weeks, which premiered in 1969, becoming the first all-Australian film to receive a cinema release since Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (Australia’s first colour feature, and a defining experience for a young George Miller) in 1955. Two Thousand Weeks was a black and white arthouse film starring Mark McManus (years before he played Taggart on TV) and Jeanie Drynan. The film was not a success with the public or the critics, though apparently undeservedly so. (I say “apparently” as the film is almost impossible to see.) Burstall took the lack of critical support personally, and for his next film went in a more determinedly populist direction. The result was Stork.

Burstall’s wife Betty had set up a theatre company, La Mama, in the Carlton district of Melbourne. One of the plays staged there was David Williamson’s first full-length play, The Coming of Stork. According to Williamson, the Stork character appeared halfway through the original draft and took the play over. Williamson is of similar height to his character, so it’s not hard to detect a touch of autobiography. (The scene at the tailor’s, when Stork is asked what the weather is like up there, will be recognisable to very tall people everywhere.) Bruce Spence played Stork on stage, and reprised the role on screen, making his cinema debut. Burstall made the film in collaboration with another film company (which made commercials mostly) run by David Bilcock and Robin Copping, who had both worked on Two Thousand Weeks. Copping was the director of photography on Stork, and they appear as a pair of polar explorers in one of Stork’s fantasy sequences. Due to a very low budget, the film was shot in 16mm. The finished film was distributed by the filmmakers themselves, by hiring a cinema. It was so successful – hearing Aussie slang coming from the speakers of a cinema must have been quite a novelty – that Roadshow, one of Australia’s largest distributors, bought the rights, blew the film up to 35mm and gave it a wide release. It won Australian Film Institute Awards for Burstall, Spence and Weaver. With the success of the film, Hexagon Productions was set up to make further Australian films. The company was so named because it had six directors: Burstall, Bilcock, Copping and three representatives from Roadshow.

Stork has a place in history as the first commercial success of the Australian film revival. It’s also the first of the “Ocker comedies”, followed a year later by The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. It still holds up well as a character comedy, which like Barry McKenzie is also a time capsule of its time and place. Stork name-drops Marcuse and Norman Mailer, and this is a time of demonstrations against Vietnam and apartheid. Williamson’s dialogue has always been his strong suit – even more the case in his later Don’s Party, filmed by Bruce Beresford in 1976 – and many scenes are very funny. The film does have pacing problems, being padded out by Stork’s dream/fantasy sequences (Stork as a rebel bikie, as an artist proudly presenting his latest masterpiece “Chunder Landscape”, Stork as a polar explorer) and no less than three songs played by the band at a party. The ending feels sketchy and rushed too.

But if nothing else, Stork is a showcase for the comic talents of Bruce Spence. It’s impossible to think of anyone else playing the role. Tall and thin, Stork is a complex character who isn’t entirely likeable at first, with all his macho bluster. He blows his chances at a job interview by revealing that he couldn’t control his own bowels until he was five and disrupts a snooty party by means of a gross-out joke involving a smoked oyster. But soon Williamson and the Spence betray the vulnerability behind the mask; the character grows on you. He worries that he has “cancer of the gum” and for all his big talk about sex hasn’t yet done it himself. Spence has gone on to a long career as an accomplished character actor, with occasional lead roles. He’s perhaps best known as the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2, where he’s carefully filmed to avoid his towering over Mel Gibson. This however is one of the rare occasions where he received top billing (John Duigan’s Dimboola and Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream are probably the only others), making him one of the tallest leading men in history. Graeme Blundell, soon to become a star himself in Alvin Purple, underplays nicely as best mate Westy, and there are solid contributions from Sean McEuan (who appears not have acted again after this), Helmut Bakaitis and particularly Jacki Weaver as the petite but non-pushover Anna. But ultimately it’s a showcase for Spence and Williamson, and both are on splendid form.]

Stork is released as part of an eight-film boxset: 70s Australian Cinema Classics: Hexagon Tribute Collection. The box set contains all but one of the films made by the company. (Only 1975’s The Love Epidemic, directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, is left out, with no reason given.) Stork is at the time of writing (January 2005) not available separately. The DVD is encoded for Region 4 only.

Stork is transferred in a ratio of 4:3, with no anamorphic enhancement. That is the intended aspect ratio, reflecting the film’s 16mm origins. It was most likely cropped when shown in 35mm. The picture has a lack of the slickness you can get with 35mm; colours are vivid and there is quite noticeable grain throughout and shadow detail is sometimes lacking. There are scratches and flecks visible now and again.

There are two soundtrack options on this DVD: the original mono track and a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1. As for the latter: why? Much of the sound still comes through the centre channel, with some of the music expanding into the left and right. The surrounds and subwoofer are barely used. To my mind it’s a pointless exercise remixing the soundtrack of a low-budget film from over thirty years ago. It was made in mono, so let’s leave it that way. There's no problem with audibility for the dialogue, music or effects. The subtitles are intended for the hard of hearing, and appear on the left or right of the screen depending on who is speaking. Regrettably, the subtitles are on the feature only, not the extras. There are fifteen chapter stops.

There’s no commentary, but that doesn’t matter. Its place is more than filled by a series of interviews (running 30:34 and presented in 4:3). Interviewees include Tim and Betty Burstall, David Williamson, Bruce Spence, associate producer/actor Alan Finney, Jacki Weaver and Robin Copping. Between them they tell the story of Stork, from its origins as a play to the production and beyond.

Also included on the DVD is a short film, Three Old Friends, based on another play that had been produced at La Mama. It was directed by Burstall (mostly in his own house) just before he made Stork, and intended for cinema release. Shot in 35mm black and white, it stars Spence, Blundell and Finney and runs 11:28. It’s a vaguely Pinteresque piece about three men after a visit to the pub. It’s presented in 4:3 open-matte but it’s clear that the intended ratio is wider, probably 1.75:1. Owners of widescreen televisions would do well to zoom the picture to 16:9. Accompanying the short is a brief (5:10) featurette on its making, including interviews with Alan Finney, Graeme Blundell and DP Robin Copping.

The remaining extras are the theatrical trailer (4:3, running 1:16), a biography and filmography for Tim Burstall, filmographies for Spence, Blundell, Finney, Weaver, Williamson and Copping, and a self-navigating stills gallery running 2:05.

With this film and future ones, Burstall set out to make good films aimed at the general public rather than critics. (The critics did like this one, on the whole.) Although it’s dated in some respects, Stork still holds up very well, and earns its place in Australian film history. It also goes to show how underappreciated an actor Bruce Spence is. At the moment, the only way you can get this DVD is to buy the whole box set, but it’s worth it.

7 out of 10
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