Dingo (1991)

Image via ozmovies.com.au

Notable for being the most significant acting performance by Miles Davis, Rolf de Heer’s feel-good, boy-has-a-dream drama seems like a film from another era.

Dingo was not a commercial or critical success at the time, something that many an IMDb fanboy is just a little bit incensed about. Davis died just before the distribution of the film, which you might expect would have increased the popularity of the film, not the opposite. I didn’t watch it at the time, no doubt put off by a dislike of jazz and suspecting that there might be a lot of it. I also kept confusing this film with Kangaroo (1982), that also stars Colin Friels and has a native Australian animal for a name but there the similarities end.

Set in the fictional outback Australian town of Poona Flat (actually Meekatharra in Western Australia), three children spar and play in the dust until an unscheduled stop by a plane brings jazz trumpeter Billy Cross (Miles Davis) to the town. His impromptu concert on the tarmac and an invitation to ‘look him up if he’s ever in Paris’ inspires John to learn the trumpet and hatch a dream.

Fast-forward to the present day and an adult John (Colin Friels) is married to childhood playmate Jane (Helen Buday) even though it was clear when they were kids that she fancied their friend Peter (Joe Petruzzi). John’s nickname is Dingo as he is a ‘dogger’, or someone who traps and hunts dingoes in order to protect the sheep of pastoralists. He’s a good, Aussie bloke and talks to himself a lot when he’s out tracking and laying traps. He also plays the trumpet, listening to and responding to its echo off the Kimberley Ranges.

No one really believes he’ll go anywhere with his music and they humour him because he’s a good bloke. Trouble arises when Peter comes back home and his flash city ways awaken old desires with Jane and (that old patriarchal chestnut) jealousy from Dingo.

This is the key to the problem I had with this – I think we’re supposed to like Dingo but he’s like a stereotype from another time. Jane has no say in anything, not because he is controlling but because it doesn’t seem to occur to the writer or director that she might have the right to an opinion. Dingo is a bit of a dick, oblivious to his self-absorption and how it affects those around him.

It’s also a rural Australia that purports to be authentic and makes much of the beautiful Kimberley landscape but is embarrassingly white. As proof, here is a quote from a user review on IMDB – “The reviewers who have said it is unrealistic because of the lack of Aboriginal characters are wrong – I counted at least four in the background of the 1969 scene – look for the pink shirt and the guy in the blue tank-top behind the kids at the airport.” You see what I mean?

The best scenes are in the third act when Dingo meets up again with Billy Cross. Davis is not the best actor but you get the feeling he is really just playing himself and it is a rare insight into someone who makes playing music seem so effortless. Much is made of Dingo’s compositions echoing the howl of the dingo in the Australian outback and I can see how this is a premise that makes Cross’s interest in him believable but there is something shameful about a white bloke who kills dingoes being seen as representing the true essence of Australia.

The penultimate scene is a good one, with lots of music that made me appreciate Miles Davis just a bit. It makes up for the endlessly disappointing ending.

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

Image via miff.com.au

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