Metro Magazine (issue 187): Exposing the Enigma
Exposing the Enigma: Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn’s Ecco Homo
Richard Lowenstein is renowned for having chronicled Melbourne’s post-punk scene, and in Ecco Homo, co-directed by Lynn-Maree Milburn, we see yet another eye-opening account of this significant period in Australian music history. But the documentary goes beyond this, telling the story of a musician famed for his chameleonic persona but fraught with demons from his past, writes Glenn Dunks.
It ought to be impossible to think of the Australian rock music scene and not bring up the films of Richard Lowenstein. The director, born and raised in Melbourne, has one of the more genre-diverse careers of any local filmmaker. His films have rarely assimilated with the popular trends of the day, and he has devoted his career to being a part of – and subsequently chronicling – some of the biggest and most influential names in Australian music.
Ecco Homo (2015), co-directed by Lowenstein and long-time collaborator Lynn-Maree Milburn, completes an unofficial trilogy of documentaries about Melbourne’s then-burgeoning post-punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the unique personalities who figured prominently throughout it. Following his films We’re Livin’ on Dog Food (2009) and Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (2011) – the latter also co-directed by Milburn – Ecco Homo is a documentary that has its roots in Lowenstein’s classic fiction feature Dogs in Space (1986). A film about a fictional rock band, the pub scene they gravitate towards and the Richmond house they share with a cesspool of drug addicts and social deviants, Dogs in Space is arguably Lowenstein’s most famous work despite it being a box-office flop. It stars Michael Hutchence, a casting coup that came about from Lowenstein having made many of the music videos for Hutchence’s band, INXS. Subsequently, Hutchence was also one of the central figures, alongside Jimmy Barnes, Chrissy Amphlett and Kate Ceberano, in Lowenstein’s era-defining yet largely unknown live-concert documentary Australian Made: The Movie (1987).
Even when Lowenstein’s films haven’t directly dealt with rock’n’roll, they vibrate with the anarchic spirit of the underground that the director so clearly has a lasting fondness for. His early work, such as his 1930s-set striking-coalminers drama Strikebound (1984) – a direct thematic cousin of his 1979 docudrama short, Evictions, about the struggles of the unemployed in 1930s Melbourne – is imbued with the folk legacy that could echo a Paul Kelly tune about the hard-done-by working man. Say a Little Prayer (1993), perhaps his most anomalous film and an adaptation of Robin Klein’s acclaimed novel Came Back to Show You I Could Fly, gives its stars an old-Hollywood-style musical number lip-synced to the Dionne Warwick classic while highlighting the suburban malaise present in many troubled youths.
Lowenstein then returned to Dogs in Space’s world of Australian sharehouse life with his last work of fiction filmmaking to date, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (2001). It lacks his earlier films’ pounding rock soundtrack and industry identities in large and small roles, but his adaptation of John Birmingham’s ode to the tragic tradition of sharehouse living has a clear lineage to Dogs in Space, documenting, in a heightened fashion, the life of inner-city twentysomethings that Lowenstein obviously has a reverence for. Connecting the two films even further, Falafel is dedicated to the memory of Hutchence.
This preservation of memory is surely what has been at the forefront of Lowenstein’s recent documentaries. It’s not uncommon for narrative filmmakers to shift to nonfiction; in fact, names like Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, Werner Herzog and Agnès Varda have moved effortlessly between the two film forms for years, to great success. And with We’re Livin’ on Dog Food – which screened at the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival and was later included as a bonus feature on the Dogs in Space DVD – Lowenstein has arguably made the equal of its fictional predecessor: the documentary is ceaselessly entertaining, edited at a feverish pace, and assembles so many musicians and groupies that it’s hard to keep up. Similarly, Autoluminescent offers another vital glimpse at a long-since-gone era, both examining a lifestyle’s ramifications on a generation, and focusing specifically on the titular individual whose contributions to music – he is likely best remembered as the writer of ‘Shivers’ by The Birthday Party, the band in which he played alongside Nick Cave – are now, thankfully, memorialised on film.
Like Autoluminescent, Ecco Homo has a gloriously fascinating central subject in the form of Peter ‘Troy’ Davies, a ‘loose cannon’ of sorts who somehow became one of the scene’s most-loved identities thanks to his charm and artistic boldness, as well as one of the most infuriating due to his rampant swings in temperament and being a ‘pain in the arse’. In one particularly funny and well-edited scene (Lowenstein and Milburn take on editing duties once more), he’s described as ‘crazy’, ‘funny’, ‘lethal’, ‘debauched and hedonistic’, ‘a provocateur’, ‘attracted to trouble’, ‘anarchic, irreverent, blasphemous’, ‘kind’, ‘the devil incarnate’, ‘a superstar’, ‘an overdressed leprechaun’ and ‘manipulative … occasionally’ by a gaggle of old friends and work partners in quick succession. After having seen this entertaining and illuminating 102-minute film, it’s hard not to agree with all of those assessments.
It’s curious that Lowenstein and Milburn chose to somewhat awkwardly begin their movie by detailing Davies’ life as ‘Vanessa’. Any film about an individual as ambiguous as Davies is bound to raise questions of truthfulness and identity – and, as the film goes on, Davies’ ability to shift between personas becomes one of its greatest assets. Nevertheless, these early scenes have the distinct feeling of being dropped dramatically into the middle of a whirlwind, leaving viewers with little ability to get their bearings. The ethics of his adoption of the Vanessa persona aren’t explored in enough detail, especially given that he himself suggests, in old interview footage, that he was never genuinely transgender despite passing a psychiatric exam for potential gender-reassignment surgery. Rather, he saw himself as someone both ‘playing dress-ups’ (he dabbled briefly in a career as a nightclub drag performer but gave it up once his costume was stolen by a rival) and honestly desiring to find an identity that shocked people as much as it intrigued and separated them from the real person he was hiding underneath. Vanessa, he claimed, was eventually little more than ‘for art’s sake’.
These early scenes are also curiously populated by a large number of 16mm re-creations of Vanessa’s life – something that is not granted for the other Davies personas, likely because more actual footage exists of that later period – featuring actors James Andrews as Troy and the mysterious ‘The Faun’, and Matthew Connell as teenage Peter as well as Vanessa. The dramatisations are accompanied by a series of Oscar Wilde quotes placed atop footage of deer, the reason for which is somewhat explained briefly late in the picture. It’s an odd stylistic choice that ultimately doesn’t pay off in any real dramatic way beyond being an admittedly rather lovely-looking visual cue to break up the (necessarily heavy) use of archival footage.
Given Lowenstein’s experience in chronicling the Australian music scene (documentary or otherwise), it is hardly surprising then that Ecco Homo becomes a substantially more involving and directorially precise film when it charts Davies’ career in music. At first cheekily humorous, thanks to clips from early music video cameos including Tim Finn’s ‘Fraction Too Much Friction’ and I’m Talking’s ‘Trust Me’, this chronology is expanded on by showing Davies’ contributions to Dogs in Space, in which he had a small part and crediting Davies with bringing Hutchence out of his shell on set: ‘Michael was quite shy and liked what Troy brought out of him,’ says Michele Bennett, producer of Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000), in the film. ‘If Troy was around, it just gave you licence to be bolder. I think that was something that Michael really valued.’ Indeed, some of the film’s best moments feature glimmers of behind-the-scenes footage involving Davies and Hutchence. Several of these will likely already be familiar to those who have seen Lowenstein’s earlier work, but they still have a dramatic potency that lends the film added gravitas that mere anecdotes cannot convey.
Having worked as a stylist for Lowenstein and Milburn on their music videos for INXS, Models and Crowded House, Davies would later become friends with U2 frontman Bono (who is interviewed in the documentary) after appearing in the band’s Lowenstein-directed video for ‘Desire’. His relationships with Hutchence and Bono would evolve into Davies’ own music career as Ecco Homo. The video for the band’s first single, 1988’s ‘Motorcycle Baby’, includes an appearance by Hutchence at the height of his fame, while 1990’s ‘New York, New York’ featured vocals by Bono and a guitar riff by U2 guitarist The Edge. Davies’ penchant for excess and a somewhat masochistic tendency to self-destruct meant a record company advance to produce an entire album was blown on two singles.
Self-destruction is certainly the overarching theme of Ecco Homo, with Lowenstein having spoken of how ‘Troy didn’t like the uncertainty of possible success, but he knew how to self-destruct and destroy things’. Through his many personas and identities, this trait remained a distinctly powerful one. Lowenstein and Milburn’s film does a great job of revealing not only the depth of this attitude, but also the increasingly labyrinthine lair of lies that Davies had created to mask it. He could barely tell the same lie twice, and his habit of exaggeration and fabrication was paralleled by his habit of creating and ditching personas – Vanessa is spoken of in the film as having vanished with a simple haircut – whenever the people around him became complacent and comfortable.
The film appears to attribute much of that to Davies’ childhood, which was plagued by parental violence and incestuous abuse. Some of the film’s hardest sequences to watch show the musician and his brother Simon, in videos filmed a decade apart, detailing their having been molested by their eldest brother, Andrew, and the effect it had on them into their adult years. Interview footage with Andrew, filmed before his death in 2014, are included in Ecco Homo, his denials carrying a disturbing calmness. What becomes increasingly clear is that, while Davies may have lied about many things, it was to buffer the remarkable honesty with which he spoke of the horrors he had experienced in his life. He was so honest, in fact, that people didn’t believe him; they assumed his stories were made-up.
The truth is also shown through startling footage from Genius Is Lying (Ann Harding, 1982), spliced throughout Ecco Homo. This twenty-one-minute student film, rudimentary in form yet nonetheless ahead of its time for documenting the St Kilda gay beat scene and the escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic, shows Davies discussing his abuse on camera with alarming nonchalance. It reveals how brutally honest he could be in spite of whatever flamboyant persona he may have been experimenting with, and deepens our understanding of the fascinating grip that this man had on the people around him. Genius’ sequences provide extraordinary bridges to many of Ecco Homo’s best passages discussing Davies’ diagnosis with HIV. Told he would last only ‘two to three years’, he managed to survive until 2007 and has been cited as one of the longest-surviving AIDS patients in the world. His quality of life was so high that many friends and colleagues recall, on camera, that they believed he had fabricated his illness, using it as another lie to gain attention. Davies’ reputation was hardly helped by his showing up at nightclubs in hospital garb, claiming to have escaped his room with his IV still attached.
It is anecdotes and stories such as these that make Ecco Homo more than just a standard chronological account of Davies’ life – it is a re-creation of his ungraspable essence. His life is elevated to that of an emotional mystery, and the film asks viewers to build their own perception of him as the story darts from persona to persona, story to story. For, as much as the film is about an alluring, magnetic and destructively anarchic personality, it is ultimately about how one man had such a long-lasting impact on a generation – and how most of that generation don’t even know it. That one could make the same argument about Lowenstein himself, particularly in relation to his recent collaborations with Milburn, is part of what makes Ecco Homo such a captivating experience, and one that ought to bring attention to a pair of vital Australian personalities.
Richard Lowenstein, quoted in Dov Kornits, ‘Behold the Man’, FilmInk, 23 July 2015, <http://filmink.com.au/features/behold-the-man/>, accessed 30 October 2015. Richard Lowenstein, quoted in Andrew Drever, ‘Ecco Homo Profiles Ill-fated Musician, Artist “Troy” Davies, Features Bono, Michael Hutchence’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2015, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/ecco-homo-profiles-illfated-musician-artist-troy-davies-features-bono-michael-hutchence-20150804-gip0lk.html>, accessed 30 October 2015. Jeff Muir, ‘Ecco Homo Film Launches Crowd-funding Drive in Advance of #MIFF15’, Crowdfunding PR, 7 August 2015, <http://www.crowdfundingpr.org/ecco-homo-film-launches-crowd-funding-drive-advance-miff15/>, accessed 30 October 2015.