As we stumble through our daily lives forced to partake in that, at times, insufferable activity known as ‘conversation’, we are all doomed to experience what the French call l’esprit d’escalier. In English, this is known as ‘stairway wit’ or ‘the stairway syndrome,’ referring to how the perfect riposte arrives in one’s mind too late – i.e. when we are leaving the building.
Alfred Hitchcock famously said drama was life with the dull bits removed. Film and television characters don’t seem to experience l’esprit d’escalier anywhere near as often as we do in our non-script-fed lives. Sometimes, as in ABC TV’s new telemovie Riot (Sunday, 8.30pm), we are privy to lines so beautifully spit polished they make us think: man, I wish I could say things like that, off the cuff, in real life.
One such moment occurs when the protagonist, gay rights campaigner and Sydney Mardi Gras creator Lance Gowland – played by Damon Herriman – puts a bigoted, brutish police officer in his place. This despicable cop says activists such as Gowland will keep bleeding and suffering at the hands of the fuzz. Gowland returns fire: “You’ll get shamed out of beating us,” he says, “long before we stop being able to take it”.
Like Ali’s Wedding, moments in Riot are refreshing, purely because they are oriented around voices rarely given priority in mainstream entertainment.
It speaks volumes about Herriman’s skills as an actor that he is able to make a line like this sound, if not au naturel, as close to that as it’s ever going to get, given how stagey and obviously finessed the dialogue is. There are other lines like it in Greg Waters’ screenplay, which explores the gay rights movement in Australia in the ‘70s as well as a sub-plot about a romantic relationship between Gowland and Dr Jim Walker (Xavier Samuel).
Walker, a more cautious and calmer presence than his feisty lover, runs a free medical clinic for the poor. Liking what he sees, Gowland hovers on the street one evening waiting for him. When the doctor asks what he wants, Gowland responds: “Peace in Palestine. An end to uranium mining. Justice for Aborigines. But you know, I’ll settle for dinner.”
Real life rarely allows such postering. Those words are too neat; too clever by half. But again they roll off Herriman’s tongue. He makes it work; he makes it stick.
Some credit must also go to Riot director Jeffrey Walker, who is talented at maintaining a consistent tone and bringing cast and crew together to sustain a certain kind of mood. His recent film Ali’s Wedding coasted off the goodwill derived from being a Muslim romantic comedy. There, he also crafted an atmosphere that was nothing if not measured; so sweetly and pleasantly candied that audiences didn’t notice when they were being hit with cheese (i.e. a soppy voice-over incorporating the words “you dared to dream”).
Like Ali’s Wedding, moments in Riot are refreshing, purely because they are oriented around voices rarely given narrative priority in mainstream entertainment. Protesting the unfair firing of a gay man from his position as a church secretary, protesters gather outside and chant “ho, ho, homosexual!” It’s a simple but rousing scene, laying the groundwork for subsequent protests where the stakes are higher and the drama more embellished.
In another memorable moment, gay rights campaigners debate internal politics. They argue about how to present themselves as a united movement, including what compromises need to be made and which issues should be temporarily shelved. Films about ideological movements often present unanimous, hive-like minds, failing to capture the complexities of real-life – certainly not the hullabaloo that tends to arise when strongly opinionated people congregate and debate each other. These scenes in Riot ring true.
Less impressive is the visual approach undertaken by Walker and his cinematographer Martin McGrath. Too often it throws away the tripod for pointless motion and movement. There are lots of quick pans and sudden zooms in and out, as if attempting to compensate for an energy not present in the script. These brief but numerous and conspicuous touches tend to have a gimmicky effect, taking the focus away from the performers and onto the camera.
Riot’s opening moments – with Gowland imploring comrades to jump on board the very first Mardi Gras float – lack spark, and too quickly jump back to a different point in time, before we’ve had a chance to grasp the significance of this occasion. This is eventually corrected when the moment is returned to much later. Walker finally encapsulates, in dramatically satisfying ways, the competing but complementary ideas underpinning the Mardi Gras’ foundation: that protesting can be a form of celebration, and celebration can be a means to protest.
Riot will screen on ABC TV and ABC iview from Sunday, February 25 at 8.30pm