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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: Newcastle

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Seattle International Film Festival 2008: <em>Newcastle</em>

It’s at the point in the festival, with two more weeks still to go, that most of the movies seem a blur. Although I stopped going to screenings on a daily basis ages ago (centuries since the day?), I no longer have the patience I started out with at the end of April, when the advance reels first unfurled. I can’t take another boring and undistinguished movie from Europe, à la Claude Miller’s A Secret or Alina Marazzi’s deplorably indulgent We Want Roses, Too. I’ve begun to long for films, even one film, made with style and panache. To long for a new kind of storytelling, something to jolt my deadened senses into feeling fresh and alive once more.

On Saturday, May 31, at the Egyptian Theatre, I finally saw a movie that did precisely that.

Like most unexpectedly great cinematic awakenings, it arrived out of the blue, in this case the blue of New South Wales, Australia. It’s called Newcastle, written and directed by one Dan Castle, and features a cast of comparatively unknown young actors/surfers.

I walked into the movie blind, not knowing the story and having to piece together the angst-ridden relationships on screen. Newcastle, from that perspective, at first appears to take place in a boarding house where grudge-bearing surfer boys nearly come to blows over the most mundane issues. Eventually, I understood that they were half-brothers or stepbrothers of some configuration. This disorienting ambiguity works in the movie’s favor—it’s as if we’re watching rival gangs, color-coded by the director. There are four bleached blond “dudes,” (whom I could barely tell apart, early on) and then there’s the older (mid to late-twenties) Victor Hoff, a tattooed pugilist with a dark buzzcut. Victor (Reshad Strik) and his two friends Jake and Billy (Woody Naismith and Jaymes Triglone) match up to one another physically: their bodies are larger, their muscles are tighter, their personae more aggressive. When these three enter the surf, they resemble sharks in the water. During the post-screening Q&A, Castle spoke of creating a “dolphin-esque energy” among the younger, smaller blonds, and it’s part of his achievement that the dynamics between the brothers and their buddies mirror the territorial strife of the big fish.

The first non-aquatic moment that gave me something to go on shows the combative Victor alone in his room. Lying on his bed, he faces a mural—a curling white wave tinted orange by sunset. Offsetting this spectacular bedroom wall are rows of his silver and gold-plated surfing trophies, gleaming in the half-light, and on the wall above them, rows of yellowed newspaper clippings, documents of his former victories. Thus, without a single word, we have his illustrious past in a few concise images.

Newcastle comes into its own as a work of art during an extended sequence at Stockton Dunes, where the blonds, their dates, and Fergus, who has dark hair save for a splotch of purple dye on his bangs, have gathered for a weekend of frolicking naked in the waves, underneath an immense gray moon in the night sky. The sheer force of Castle’s visceral filmmaking, most importantly in how the water itself becomes a character, has held the movie together up to now, as if in compensation for how vapid and uninteresting these teenagers are. Most of the words out of their mouths are abrasive and guttural, so you can imagine how my ears perked up at this low-key exchange, between two boys who’ve wandered off from the main to look at constellations.

Fergus: You know who Picasso is?!
Andy: Yeah. I’m not an idiot.

Castle’s mise-en-scène is extremely good in the crosscutting from one cluster of youth to another. When a boy wows a girl with a song on a guitar, the odd man out, Scotty (the cherub-faced Israel Cannan), undercuts their flirtation by insisting, “But I wrote the lyrics!” The ensuing awkward pause is spot-on; Castle holds it just long enough for us to read the question in the girl’s mind—should she pursue the singer or the songwriter? Yet Scotty spends the night alone in the driver’s seat after the others pair off, and in a thrilling, terrifying moment of drunken mischief, he latches the couples’ tent to the back of his truck, then takes off across the dunes. Castle and his DP Richard Michalak keep the camera at low angles almost throughout, so that we have the sensation of being inside that flapping tent as it goes on its bruising, bumping flight over the sand. The screams, the disorienting motion, and the cuts back to Scotty’s manic glee up front are sensationally lit and edited to catch every perspective of this demented joy ride.

The next morning, another brilliant blue sky on the beach, it’s time to go surfing again, and photographed from the back, in slightly stylized slowed down rhythms, three blond boys in the center of the frame go sprinting godlike into the sun. Unapologetically alert to expressive possibilities, and with four or five cameras shooting at once, Newcastle captures oceanic textures and colors in infinite varieties of ripples, washes, churning tides of coke-bottle green, delicate sprays, rising, cascading waves of white foam and cerulean blue. There are no aerial shots—it’s all point-of-view. Besides Michalak on the shore, Castle had a quartet of cameramen in the water, the cameras strapped to their bodies, so that we’re always looking up, bobbing, gliding, propelling along—or being wiped out— in the stream. And Castle matches the mood of the shots with the surfer’s individual personalities, giving Andy, a gentler soul than the rest, a more languid underwater experience, while with Victor and his almost equally angry kid brother Jesse, there’s a fierce quality, hints of violence.

What’s more, Castle, his actors, their stunt doubles, his camera crew, and the editor Rodrigo Balart make it all seem… effortless. There’s never a sense that they’re out to “top” anything in the realm of surfing movies. With great preparation yet no discernible fuss, they accomplish something cinematically staggering, and they do so just like that. This entire surf episode (there are others) registers as extraordinary for any number of reasons, from a small rainbow fleetingly glimpsed in the lower left of the frame to the tender, instructive way that Andy (Kirk Jenkins) coaches Fergus (Xavier Samuel), who has never surfed before. (These two are also falling in love with each other, which Castle portrays with a refreshing “no big deal” matter-of-factness.) And just as it seems as though this water reverie can and will go on, there’s a decisive, abrupt cut to the land: a wide-angle close-up of tall reeds of grass curling to one side in the afternoon breeze, set to the sounds of insects buzzing. Far behind the reeds, the distant sun casts shadows on the earth—signifying that the better part of the day has ended.

Lest I create the impression that the film is merely a technical tour-de-force, consider this scene, played near but not quite at the end, wherein two brothers lie back on a pier looking up at the stars, reminiscing about someone they knew. One of them says, to the effect, “When he told me I couldn’t surf because I wore glasses, I believed him. When he told me I’d never learn how to play the guitar, I stopped listening to him.” “He was messing with you,” the other says. “He was lonely,” the first one replies. That “He was lonely” is sublime. In three simple words, we have one of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe—of the human heart—laid bare.

Newcastle opens in Japan later this week. Castle will distribute the film in America himself, on a platform release from September through next February. By all means, go and see. It’s the rarest of creatures: a testosterone movie without arrogance or hubris—or guilt.

N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.