|MILESAGO: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975||Film|
Alternate title (USA): The Sex Therapist
Co.: Bilcock & Copping Film
Productions - Hexagon Productions Pty. Ltd.
Graeme Blundell (Alvin Purple)
Abigail (Girl in See-Through)
Lynette Curran (First Sugar Girl)
Christine Amor (Peggy)
Dina Mann (Shirley)
Dennis Miller (Mr. Horwood)
Jill Forster (Mrs. Horwood)
Frederick Parslow (Alvin's Father)
Valerie Blake (Alvin's Mother)
Alan Finney (Spike Dooley)
Gary Down (Roger Hattam)
Ellie Maclure (Tina)
Peter Aanensen (Ed Cameron)
Jenny Hagen (Agnes Jackson)
Kris McQuade (Samantha)
Shara Berriman (Kinky Lady)
Stan Monroe (Mrs. Warren)
Penne Hackforth-Jones (Dr. Liz Sort)
George Whaley (Dr. McBurney)
Jacki Weaver (Second Sugar Girl
Eileen Chapman (Patience)
Jan Friedl (Miss Guernsey)
Barbara Taylor (Mrs. Phipps)
Anne Pendlebury (Woman with Pin)
Danny Webb (Newsreader)
Noel Ferrier (Judge)
Jon Finlayson (Liz's Lawyer)
John Smythe (Alvin's Lawyer)
Brian Moll (Clerk of Court)
Lynne Flanagan (Foreman of Jury)
Peter Cummins (Cabdriver)
Debbie Nankervis (Girl in Blue Movie)
Elke Neidhart (Woman in Blue Movie)
Les James (Leader of Angry Husbands)
Tony Holtham (skydiving jumpmaster)
Bill Bennett (Tina's Boss)
Clare Balmford (First Nun)
Sally Conabere (Second Nun)
Carole Skinner (Mother Superior)
Mercia Deane-Johns (uncredited)
John D. Lamond (Courtroom Projectionist (uncredited)
It's certainly not a masterpiece, but there's no denying that Alvin Purple was a important chapter in Australian cinema. Director Tim Burstall had been regarded as one of the industry's brightest hopes in the 1960s, but his debut feature Two Thousands Weeks (1969) was savaged by critics and died at the box office, and its failure deeply affected him personally, as well as bringin about the demise of his production company Eltham Films and the end of his partnership with Patrick Ryan.
For his next film, Burstall drew on his connections with the Melbourne theatre collective The Australian Performing Group (APG). One of the APG's early 70s productions was David Williamson's comedy The Coming of Stork. Burstall and Williamson adapted the play for the screen, using most of the cast of the thatre production inlcuding lead actor Bruce Spence, and the film proved popular with audiences and was a modest box office success.
In 1972, Burstall became a partner in a new film production company, Hexagon. The brief for its first project was to make an "Australian Decameron", and Burstall chose Alan Hopgood's screenplay for Alvin Purple. The "plot" is a bawdy send-up that subverts conventional male sexual fantasies. The central character, Alvin, is a waterbed salesman. He is an innocent young man of ordinary appearance, in search of true love, but as we see in the opening montage of his youth, he finds himself constantly pursued by hordes of beautiful women who find him irresistibly attractive and who demand sex from him at all times.
Like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, released the previous year, Alvin was broad sexual satire, and is routinely classified as one of the key films of the so-called "ocker" genre of the early 70s. These films that were usually set in contemporary urban locales and which were made deliberately for the mainstream suburban cinema audience. Although such films were typically dismissed as crude and vulgar, the overt sexual content was often quite deliberate, and it's important to locate films like Alvin in the context of the censorship battles that were raging throughout the Sixties and early Seventies.
It's significant that Alvin -- one of the first locally-made movies to receive an "R" rating under Australia's new film classifaction system -- was a major commercial success. At the time Alvin was released, government censorship of all aspects of the media was still prevalent was only just beginning to be relaxed. This was specifically because of the precedents -- and the court cases fought -- around films like Alvin, publications like OZ, television shows like Number 96 and plays like The Old Tote's 1969 production of America Hurrah! (which was censored by order of the NSW Chief Secretary) and Alex Buzo's controversial Norm & Ahmed (directed by Graeme Blundell) which was targeted by the Victorian Vice Squad, who charged several cast members with obscenity.Conceptually, Alvin was very much a calculated move by Burstall. His 1969 feature film debut, Two Thousand Weeks, was a serious intellectual drama about a writer in crisis, but local critics hated it and the overwhelming negative reaction affected him deeply.
"One of the consequences was that I realised who the people were that I had to get into bed with, the ones who would give me support. It wasn't the ABC, The Age, it wasn't, if you like, the intelligentsia -- it was all the people in the western suburbs who watched the commercial stations and would go just for a nice night's entertainment."
In a letter written in 1977 to Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (authors of Oxford Australian Film 1900-1977) Burstall noted that Two Thousand Weeks had reversed his earlier preconceptions -- in the Sixties aspiring Australian filmmakers generally felt that the critics were their allies and the distributors were "the enemy" -- yet his experiences with Two Thousand Weeks had shown that it was the critics who had turned against the film, while the diistributors were in fact genuinely interested in promoting Australian film and enthusiastic about the possibilities for the growth of a viable local industry.
Another very significant influence on the film's direction was Burstall's close association with the creative community in Melbourne that centred on the Australian Performing Group. The APG's main venue, the La Mama theatre in Carlton, had been founded in 1967 by Tim's then wife Betty. The APG and its associates included actors like Bruce Spence and Graeme Blundell, writers Jack Hibberd, Alex Buzo and David Williamson, and film-makers including Burstall and Bert Deling. The APG were pioneering a new mode of expression for Australian theatre through the plays of Williamson and others, and their work had a major impact on Burstall.
Burstall's move into "Ocker" film was in part the result of his association with the APG, but it can also be seen as a development of his film-making in the early 60s. After his first short fiction film in 1960, Burstall went on to make a series of documentaries that examined the work of leading contemporary visual artists including Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, John Brack, Albert Tucker and Clifton Pugh. Burstall has commented in interviews that he believed artists like Boyd and Nolan were pioneers of the emerging Australian cultural scene. He notes that, at the time of those earlier films, people like Boyd were virtually the only creative artists who were attempting to explore and define distinctively Australian forms of expression. Moreover, they were deliberately not looking to Europe or America for a lead, and they were addressing their work to Australians first, rather than to international critics.
There were several film precedents for Alvin. One important precursor that is rarely mentioned is John B. Murray's The Naked Bunyip (1970). It's probably no coincidence that Blundell played the lead in both films, although his job in Bunyip (where he played a market researcher) was to provide fictionalised narrative links between the various "actuality" segments. Both films were centrally concerned with sex and sexuality, although Alvin was a satire, whereas Bunyip was actually a documentary disguised as a feature. Murray's film is far more radical and "permissive" in both its subject matter and in its views. Burstall's film is provocative on the surface, with nudity and sex scenes aplenty, but the underlying message is remarkably conservative, implying that, even in unlimited quantities, sex without love is meaningless and ultimately unsatisfying.
In 1998 RMIT student Dhev Naidu interviewed John B. Murray about his work. Murray -- who had been involved in the making of Two Thousand Weeks -- revealed that the concept and marketing of The Naked Bunyip had been directly influenced by the critical bashing of the Burstall film, and that he and Philip Adams (who produced Barry McKenzie) had observed the film's failure and learned from it:
"The Naked Bunyip grew out of my
experience in 2000 WEEKS
with Tim Burstall and Patrick Ryan, which was
canned -- it was set upon by ferocious critics, unjustly in my view, it
was sort of embarrassment we had as Australians. Philip Adams and I
were working on commercials and one minor documentary. He was
interested in 2000 WEEKS
and how it fared at the box office and we decided
to raise finance for another film ..."
- John B. Murray
Barry McKenzie of course provided the primary role model in terms of style -- the bawdy send-up -- as Burstall indicated in an interview with The Age in 1972:
of the best ways
an Australian audience to accept itself, one of the things we're
fondest of, is the send up. We're prepared to look at our life and
laugh at it in a way that we're not prepared to look at our life and be
serious about it."
- Tim Burstall, quoted in The Age, 5/12/1972
Alvin was greeted with howls of derision by many critics on its release. The reaction was typified by National Times critic P.P. McGuiness, who dismissed both it and Barry McKenzie as "vulgar rubbish". Fortunately for Burstall, audiences couldn't have cared less -- they flocked to the cinemas in unprecedented numbers, and responded with gales of laughter. Alvin became an even bigger hit than Barry McKenzie -- in fact it became the highest-earning Australian film ever released up to that time, and it remains the most profitable Australian film made between 1971 and 1977.
It's rather ironic that Blundell was chosen for the lead role, although of course he could project precisely the ingenuous image that Burstall and Hopgood wanted. He became famous almost overnight when the film was released, and it remains his best-known part, even though his theatre credentials are impeccable and as an actor, director and producer he played a central role in the development of both Australian theatre and film in the '60s and beyond.
The success of the film generated a less successful sequel, Alvin Rides Again in 1974. The ABC subsequently bought the TV rights to both films -- a move unsuccessfully contested in court by Burstall -- as well as securing the services of both scrptwriter Hopgood and star Blundell. The team behind Aunty Jack, producer Maurice Murphy and director Ted Robinson, created a much talked-about spin-off TV series that premiered on ABC-TV on 20 April 1976. The series wascontroversially taken off air after only three episodes by aptly-named ABC chairman Sir Henry Bland, because of its sexual content and frontal nudity. A major controversy erupted, with accusations of censorship and threats of industrial action from ABC staff, at which point the series was returned to the screen. The Alvin controversy rapidly faded away, and left to stand or fall on its merits, the series did likewise.
In 2000 Alvin Purple was revived for a special screening by the Popcorn Taxi film group, in association with ScreenSound; the film is now available on DVD as part of a boxed set of Hexagon films that includes Burstall's minor hit Stork.
- Pike & Cooper
study of an Australian macho
- David Stratton
was about a man pursued
adolescence by girls and women who mostly sought to offer themselves to
him while at other times seeking to mindlessly ravish him. Alvin's
mundane goals of leading a quiet, normal life and having a normal
emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend are continually
frustrated by both the circumstance of his attractiveness to the
opposite sex and the assumed impossibility of his ability to simply say
no. In this way Alvin is both a gentleman and a "normal" man with
normal appetites. If Alvin were to resist these advances his
"normality" and libido would be in question. The film positions Alvin
as simultaneously ultra-normal and monstrous.
Alvin's sexual attractiveness is never in doubt. That this is a purely physical rather than an emotional and mental attraction is also never in doubt. Equally not in doubt is the "unlikeliness" of the attraction: Alvin is neither handsome nor assertive. He is unassuming and rather shy. The film's humour relies on the "implausibility" of his attractiveness. This discrepancy between the sexually charged looks directed at Alvin by the female characters and the wondrous even "sexless" look at Alvin on the part of the viewers ensures that the film's eroticism is both muted and non-threatening. This enables the erotic dimension to be deflected from the personage of Alvin to the usually attractive female bodies that "do it" for Alvin. Ultimately the film relies upon their display, their energy.
The only woman in the film who escapes this description is Alvin's girlfriend Tina who remains impervious to his sexuality and for being so ends up in a nunnery. Of all the desiring and initiating women in the film none is more threatening and ultimately more humiliated than the female psychiatrist Dr Sort. Apart from his school teacher's wife, Dr Sort is the only woman with whom Alvin has a regular sexual relationship. She is the only genuinely threatening female figure in the film and she is also an authority figure. She "undoes" Alvin by turning him away from sex. After he has been returned to his "rightful" place (to accommodate the desire of desirable women), she blackmails him into making himself continuously available to her voracious appetite. She not only exhausts him, but she symbolically castrates him with too much sex (significantly their sexual activity is not shown!). This not only leaves him with little energy to play the role of "positive sex therapist" but it also signals the end of Alvin 's sexual adventures. When she cannot get enough of him she publicly exposes Alvin as sex therapist and brings him before the court and exposes him to the wrath of jealous husbands and boyfriends.
Pike and Cooper (1980: 350) describe it as a "celebration of male wish-fulfilment fantasies" in its fantasy of sex without responsibility in a universe of overheated women. It advances an ultimately unthreatening sexual imaginary in which sex is simultaneously desired and coyly attempted to be avoided. Yet the director and producer also saw themselves as paying attention to the female audience -- this is why they chose Graeme Blundell and had him play a kind of "normal" Jerry Lewis (see Finney, 1974: 123-125). For its female audience the film can be seen to have narrativised a sexually active image of women and sex without responsibility or pregnancy. Not once in the film is the reputation of the women Alvin has dealings with impugned -- they just can't help themselves. Perhaps the film enables its female audience to project at the fantasy level a desire which would be socially unacceptable and difficult to sustain outside the film."
- Tom O'Regan - Australian film in the 1970s: the ocker and the quality film
"The direction of Burstall" - Philippa Hawker, The Age, June 1 2001
Taxi Presents Alvin Purple
- includes several contemporary press clippings on the film
Cinefile feature: Alvin Purple
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