A Gradual Terror

At the Nickelodeon

THROUGHOUT the opening of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith director Fred Schepisi continually dissects static tableaus. The camera suddenly cuts from the scene at hand to a minute corner of the picture: In the lapse of conversation suddenly one is looking at a swarm of termites on a windowsill. A domestic portrait gives way to an extreme closeup of a rusty knife cutting through bread--the sound suddenly amplified and grating. Idyllic farm panoramas are interrupted with scenes of chicken roosters being slaughtered, huge shears go through sheep's wool, the camera slowly absents itself from a sermon and creeps in on a bloody axe, a strange glance, nervous fingers drumming violently...

None of which seems strange in this brutal but magnificent film set in turn-of-the-century Australia, a film at once dispassionate and horrifying, which manages to capture the essence of racial, and more importantly random violence more successfully than any in recent memory.

The film follows Jimmie Blacksmith, a half-caste Aborigine, as he tries to make a success of himself in the white world of which he is nominally a member. This was a time of uneasy alliances in Australia, a time of head-on collisions between races and cultures, between Britishers and colonists, Blacks and settlers. The Boer war was beginning in Europe and Australians were caught between fighting for the Crown and supporting a Confederacy at home. Sometimes these alliances held, but more often than not they didn't. When they did it seemed more an accident of fate, and when they didn't it was never understood why.

Caught in the middle of these conflicts, Jimmie Blacksmith is routinely abused and cheated by the white farmers he worked for, at the same time he is contemptuous of the half-drunken mysticism of the Aborigines, now to be forever kept on the outskirts of a completely foreign civilization. Blacksmith seems at first to be the deferential pragmatist, the smiling farmhand, somehow above the almost ludicrous racism of his employers. When he's cheated he laughs his strange Aborigine laugh and goes on--he seems to sense the irony. One sees his opportunism as he silently smiles through an uncomfortable dinner with the missionary couple who raised him. The minister tells him that he should work hard, maybe harder even than anyone else, and that someday he might be able to buy some land, maybe even marry a white farm girl. "Then," says the minister, "Your children will be only one-quarter Black, you're grandchildren one-eighth Black. And, "the minister continues with a beatific smile, "why after that they'll hardly be Black at all." Blacksmith smiles. He eats his dinner and defers pleasantly to the minister. That night he goes out and gets drunk in one of the Aborigine shack towns. Somehow one senses he knows the absurdity of the game.

For that reason the audience approves of Jimmie Blacksmith's opportunism--a way of getting up and beyond the social constraints of white Australia. Tommy Lewis presents a fascinating character, and yet there's something wrong in his eyes. It's nearly impossible to pin down his expression. He is pleasant to his "boss", and yet maybe there's something else there. English is not his language, and hence there is an impenetrable distance, a profound gap in comprehension. It is all pleasantly surreal, this place Australia, so vast and so unnaturally quiet. The Aborigine customs fit it well, the strange crouches, the choreography of the wilderness, the animal sounds and the ever present chanting, the mystical Aborigine incantations which seem appropriate in this eerie wilderness. And yet, when the Aborigines speak English, when one sees the whites fence in farms in the midsts of this huge country, ever attempting to be gentry--something jars. Aborigines walk about wearing western clothes. The juxtapositions are strange, and yet, one senses that at the center of it is just ignorance, just stupidity, certainly nothing serious.


Thus Schepisi lulls the audience into the colonists' state of mind. They are sympathetic to Jimmie Blacksmith's plight, and yet they want him to defeat this system on its own terms. He finally finds decent employment and marries, he shuts himself off from his Aborigme heritage, and yet' there's that impenetrable look in his eyes...

And it only takes a second. Suddenly there is violence. It stems from what seems a minor rift over the purchase of groceries, but suddenly there is an axe about. It isn't any overt oppressive act, but it sends Jimmie Blacksmith into a rage. He declares war. Suddenly one realizes that under the surface incredibly strong currents were running silently. Jimmie Blacksmith takes an axe to seven women and children. In one of the most terrifying scenes of murder on film, axes slowly travel through the air. One is caught completely by surprise at the horror of it, the incongruous meeting of steel and flesh, the parting of bones. The camera is distressingly far away from the scene, forcing one to see it at an all-too-clear viewpoint, forcing one to see it all with horrifying objectivity. When the axe first sinks into the matron's shoulder, it suddenly comes together, the evil of the situation.

And it only takes a second, says Jimmie Blacksmith's unwilling accomplices to the slaughter. You would think, he says, that you would have to think a lot before killing someone. But, he adds, it only takes a second.

And that, indeed, is what makes it all the more terrifying. One is compelled to watch this sympathetic character turn into a killer; and yet one suddenly realizes the extent of the evil. The director does not, as in so many American movies, simply scare the audience. Unlike Straw Dogs, or a Deer Hunter, the film does not manipulate the audience by quick cuts to gruesome scenes, so that one fears every sudden change of scene. That, in effect, is manipulated terror: one fears what gore might come next. In Jimmie Blacksmith, however, Schepisi imbues his simple close-ups with increasing echoes of horror. Slowly these scenes draw the audience into an ever-widening circle of violence. Sometimes the scenes are frightening. Sometimes not. It is the randomness one fears. One cannot hear a baby scream, or watch someone mixing soup for dinner, without feeling tinges of menace. One begins to feel the randomness, the undercurrents which one tries so hard to ignore.

As Jimmie Blacksmith's rampage continues, the film transcends the individual acts. On perfectly sunny days, human beings explode, literally explode, gaping holes where vital organs once were. And yet the Terror becomes metaphor. Nothing is what it seems. It only takes a second. In the end Blacksmith is as destroyed by the violence he makes. "Does anybody deserve this?" Jimmie is asked. In one incredible sequence, Jimmie Blacksmith stands on an ancient sacred Aborigine spot, an amazing visual juxtaposition, part Old World and part Urban Present. He has no blood ties. No gods. The only justification in his mind is vague. "I wanted them to see," says this murderer of women and children. Slowly the camera moves away, farther and farther, until he is swallowed up in the vast scale of Australia. One suddenly sees the Olympian view of the situaion. Like so many next-door neighbors interviewed on the television news, one is compelled to say: "We couldn't have known. We never thought..." and yet, it is so close and obvious. The wilderness, again, the heart of darkness.