Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989)


Image via miff.com.au


Director Alex Proyas calls this an apocalyptic Western and it’s a good description. Forgotten for 30 years, a restoration (thanks to Umbrella Entertainment and Roar Digital) has prompted its rescreening and a re-release on DVD.

The story is a simple one. A dark stranger, Smith (Norman Boyd as The Norm), staggers through the red dust to the isolated shack of siblings Felix (Michael Lake) and Betty (Melissa Davis). Smith is heading north and Felix convinces him he will never scale the massive mountain cliffs without a flying machine; together they begin to build a succession of gliders. Betty is not so sure and does what she can to convince Smith to leave.

The restoration has brought up the supersaturated Velvia-like colour of the film. The blue sky studded with cumulus, the red dirt and Betty’s succession of outfits that anyone in the 80s would have died for, are rendered in gloriously rich colour. The art direction is superb, with a style merging Australiana with religious iconography and Western movie tropes. Smith looks like Michael Hutchence in Dogs in Space (1986) and Felix would have been at home in Delicatessen (1991).

The plot doesn’t make much logical sense and isn’t really that important. I could imagine my paragliding friends deriding the flying machines and ‘perfect flying weather’ but it’s easy to forgive when the the characters and the story seem to not take themselves too seriously.

For me, it has been the soundtrack of this film that has stayed with me for 30 years; maybe the CD of it that my university lecturer loaned me and I never returned had something to do with that. It’s like Dead Can Dance meets Ry Cooder and helps create the eerie and plaintive feel of isolation that is pivotal to the story.

Alex Proyas spoke after the film and he talked about this being a film that would never be made now, in a world of Disney and Marvel and franchises. He was inspired by Jodorowsky, Buñuel and  Leone and you can clearly see this in the story, location and visual aesthetic. The budget was minimal, explaining the rough and ready feel of it – “We wanted four men of the apocalypse but could only afford three and they were all crew” – and he doesn’t know why but it was big in Japan, perhaps due to Betty’s fashion sense. Proyas has no idea where the title came from, he just wanted something that was a little absurd and would be difficult to say. Q&A host Lee Zachariah had been calling it ‘goblins of the sky’ all day.

The highlight for me was when I gushed to the couple next to me, after the Q&A, about how much I love the soundtrack. Of course, as can happen with MIFF, I was speaking unknowingly to composer Peter Miller and happily, he told me that the soundtrack is getting a re-release. Make sure you buy a copy, and a DVD while you’re at it.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989)

  1. Pingback: Day 10: My favourite Australian film | fillums

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