Film Review: The Eulogy (dir. Janine Hosking)
The experience of watch The Eulogy is a rather peculiar one. After all, Janine Hosking’s documentary is about prodigious musician Geoffrey Tozer who died alone and without more than a few dollars to his name, rejected by the music establishment of Australia. It’s a peculiar experience because here I am watching a film that asks how such a talented artist could have so easily been cast aside and forgotten by his homeland, and yet I have seen this exact same thing play out time and time again within the local film industry. Maybe not to the degrees of which Tozer suffered - but the parallels to the way he was treated and the way many of our finest filmmakers have been treated simply because they do not make crowd-pleasing box office hits for the masses is striking.
The film begins with Tozer’s biggest fan, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, recreating the famous eulogy he gave at Tozer’s funeral in 2009. Having died an alcoholic and without the ability to make a living, Keating’s words were those of a friend and a fan sending a vicious sting to the world, admonishing those who had let this circumstance come to be. “It is a massive cultural loss” he said, before labelling Tozer's treatment by the Australian music scene as “malevolent” and contemptible, and that “we all let him down.” Most significantly, Tozer had not played with the Melbourne or Sydney symphony orchestras since 1995 despite inarguably being this country's finest concert pianist.
The title, of course, has its double meaning. Yes, Keating’s eulogy is an important coda on Tozer’s life and career and is likely most people’s initial entry way into his story. But the film is also its own eulogy for Tozer. A lively – if somewhat blandly filmed – eulogy that is in search of answers full of memories, anecdotes, stories and emotional break-downs. Keating’s only part in the documentary are his words, having spoken of how he wished his eulogy to say everything he needed to on the subject. Hosking could probably have used more of him because he remains a man of uncommon wit and a savage way with words; he is Australian politics’ answer to Bea Arthur, if you will.
"Neither he, nor the filmmakers or the audience can really tell where the film is going because Tozer’s later life was so unknown..."
Hosking is lucky then to have found Richard Gill, a conductor and teacher, who we see introduce Tozer to a room full of music students before venturing out to uncover the many unknowns of the pianist’s life. He visits Tozer’s archive in the backyard of a friend, he travels to the building he wasted years and money trying to convert from a music to a music conservatory, and more. Gill has a screen presence that is jovial as much as it is inquisitive and curious and the film benefits from his inclusion. Neither he, nor the filmmakers or the audience can really tell where the film is going because Tozer’s later life was so unknown – a detour into a romance, Tozer's first, is particularly worth noting – and it is an energy that propels the movie onwards. That he, too, recently passed away adds a further layer onto the film.
A large collection of archival video is well utilised, but I had wished the film had more style to it. It at times has the look and feel of a weekend arts special from the ABC. Sure, there is nothing wrong with that, and I did find myself appreciating the lovely animations sprinkled throughout, the recreation of Keating’s eulogy is a missed opportunity. Flatly filmed in an empty church, his words are important to Tozer’s story, but something cinematic is missing from these sequences.
As a film that shines a spotlight on a curious moment of Australian cultural history, it is certainly an interesting story and one that Hosking was wise to let unfold in as unfussy of a way as possible.
But for me, it was these parallels to other Australian cultural structures that I kept coming back to. Australia has, of course, long had its “tall poppy syndrome”, but that’s not quite the situation with Tozer. In fact, it’s almost the opposite, where an artist was expected to be something that the country can embrace when that didn't quite become the case. Tozer certainly wasn't the type to welcome his place in the spotlight, at least not from what is evidenced by footage included here of him being interviewed.
But this attitude towards art in Australia is one that I see regularly. We desperately crave Australians to be popular and successful and rewarded around the globe, but seem to against developing them outside of a preconceived concept of what we want them to be (financially successful, typically). Tozer was difficult, had goals and passions that did not align with the world of classical music, and struggled to be somebody whose genius could be so directly funnelled into an easily digestible fit. Sounds familiar.
We see it time and time again when filmmakers visions can no longer be supported by a local film industry desperately craving financial success often to the detriment of quality. Where filmmakers like Jennifer Kent can remain niche because her films are violent and confronting and yet are acclaimed around the world (her next project is, somewhat predictably, American-financed). Where talent is not incubated, yet expected to succeed or else. Where they cannot afford to support its artists in any real meaningful way yet expect them to carry the industry on their backs.
As I watched The Eulogy, I thought of the Australian artists like Tozer who were not easily defined and pigeon-holed and who suffered. Unlike Tozer, I hope they find some way to not self-destruct.