It’s as if I went to the local DVD store (such a visit is a worthwhile if somewhat antiquated pursuit) and requested a masculinity trilogy. This week I walked out of North Carlton’s Small Screen with Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat, starring James Cagney, and Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground. While watching White Heat I reflected on James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano – so many quirks in voice and action were lifted into that character from Cagney. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the wildly funny scene in which Meadow brings her precocious college boyfriend Noah to the Soprano household for a film screening. Noah ridiculously pitches this observation at Tony: ‘You a film buff? People say Hawks invented the genre with Scarface, but Cagney was modernity.’
When asked at the beginning of a movie night a few weeks ago whether I’d seen The Devil’s Playground, I said sure, the one about rumspringer, the Amish meth-and-sex-loophole? Turns out the title resonated with quite a few filmmakers – as well as Schepisi’s sweet coming-of-age-in-training-for-priesthood semi-autobiography, the title was used for a silent Australian film from the 1920s, a couple of mid-century American dramas and a recent British horror film. So this week when discussing my film watching habits I’ve had to use director’s names as qualifiers. What am I doing tonight? I’m watching Schepisi’s Devil’s Playground. On the weekend I reacquainted myself with Tim Burton’s Batman (and related viewing material). And so on.
There’s much to be said for a casual delivery. TDP never feels very formal about character development. Simon Burke’s 13 year old Tom Allen faces the angst producing situations one would expect a teenager to encounter in any setting, let alone a seminary – bullying, loneliness, body shame, chronic horniness. But somehow this is never an angsty or serious film – it is so charming precisely because it avoids this cliche entirely. Burke always emerges from scrapes against arbitrary discipline and jibes with an innocent smile on his face. I still don’t know if I can tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acting, but I imagine it’s usually better to underact than overact – there’s a perceivable ease to Burke’s performance that is just so inviting. There’s a wonderful casualness to the various scenarios that’s emphasised by the charming use of vernacular. After being strangely coerced to cup the balls of another student, Burke yells ‘you’re bloody pissweak!’ when it turns out the other fellow doesn’t actually want to be pulled.
The pathos is sparing even in the face of the most dire existential crisis. For instance, the brothers in their quarters discuss the value of tradition and discipline – one of the elders sips his whiskey and points to the ceiling, asking, ‘what if he’s not really there, eh?’ Each brother nurses his doubts while furtively peeking into the swimsuits of the opposite sex. Each wonders about the dubious social capital of the divine vocation (aka being God’s boyfriend) in modern Australia. There are, incidentally, many lovely location shots of Melbourne in the 1970s (looking like the 1950s) – Werribbee Mansion, the City Baths, and what looks to me like the Napier Hotel.
There’s a decided lack of resolution that is extremely satisfying and wholly consistent with an exploration of modern faith. We never find out the cause of Tom’s bed-wetting, nor do we see its cure. Appropriately too, we never really see the bed-wetting bother the protagonist, even in the face of teasing. The bed-wetting seems to purpose the occasion of daily sheet washing, which is one of the only ritual activities featured in the visual language of the TDP. It’s all very comforting indeed, empty ritual. There’s a sort of lovely Ken Loachy lack of judgement going on. If you find the sound of pool balls being hit around the table comforting, you’ll draw extra comfort from this movie.