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Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#35: Peel: An Exercise in Discipline
(Australia, 1982; dir. Jane Campion; cin. Sally Bongers; with Tim Pye, Katie Pye, Ben Martin)
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For a moment there in the mid-1990s, before scads of critics decided she had unduly glaciated Henry James' Portrait of a Lady and oversaturated it with her own "feminist" proclivities, and before Holy Smoke! and In the Cut showcased her entirely admirable impulse to build compelling art out of gaudy-colored flapdoodle and barely credible genre exercises, Jane Campion was treated as a major world artist, enough so that a university press could expect to recoup their costs on an entire anthology of her press interviews up through Portrait. Whenever anyone ascends, however temporarily, to that plane of the celebrity genius, it's a kick to look back at their earliest encounters with journalists, many of them second- and third-stringers whose senior colleagues are busy chasing last year's celebrity genius, and most of them lacking any optimism or critical investment in the nascent sensation in front of them. What's the very first query, then, in this chronologically organized compendium of reciprocally awkward press conferences? What did a cub reporter most want to know from this short-film Palme d'Or winner, who would stand triumphant seven years later as the first (and still the only) woman to win the grander Palme d'Or for feature films? Wait for it. Here you go: "What was it like to work with red-headed actors?"

The inarticulate genius of the question is that it's just the kind of thing that some bonkers character in a Campion movie would ask of a woman in her position. Her portmanteau of films, disappointingly small more than a quarter-century after Peel, is a shrine to everything left-of-center, whether that sensibility is being courted by a self-conscious maverick or whether, as a trenchantly satirizing angle of attack, it's applied to some stalwart who has no idea how outmoded and absurd he is. Peel, most shinily accessible on the Criterion DVD of Campion's first full-length feature Sweetie, establishes just these expectations for her future work, but like all the best short films, it's hugely undervalued if we only regard it as prefatory to the longer ones. As a prickly anecdote about the combustible particle-field around every family, and about the bizarre poetry of the everyday (without pasteurizing that idea into bland and creamy sentimentalizing), Peel feels utterly autonomous and perfectly judged. Three of those red-headed actors—and let me know if you've thought of a single feasible way to answer that upstart's inquiry—star as a father/brother, an aunt/sister, and a son/nephew, as Campion explicitly bills them in a static, triangulated flow chart at the start of the picture. This chart extends a quickly fulfilled promise of scrutinizing each of these people in relation to both of the others, rather than indulging the usual habit of elevating adults above children or the other way around. Tim, the father/brother, is driving back late from showing his sister Katie some property he's thinking about buying, and she's steaming in the back seat about the delay. Ben, who's probably six or seven years old, is indistinguishably provoking or distracting himself from the charged mood of hostility in the car, by busily bouncing an orange against the windshield and the dashboard, and dropping pieces of peel out of his window as he prepares to eat. Dad admonishes him to stop. Sis is too annoyed either to care or to deal with the juvenile misdemeanors of her nephew. After one too many explicit infractions, Tim slams on the brakes and refuses to budge till Ben retraces the last few kilometers and gathers up all those pieces of rind. While Ben is gone, and he's gone unnervingly long, the dynamic of livid comedy between the two adults shifts from bad to better to worse, so that by the time Ben is finally hunted down and gathered back to the car, he seems transfixed by a sense of transformation, maybe outright alienness, in his father and his aunt. He regards them, and they stare back at him (and at us), with a combination of vacancy, wonder, and churlish impassivity. Tempers are simmering. Cars whiz past. Evening falls. No one's budging, except the hyperactive kid jumping like popped corn on the roof of the sedan.

The overt "exercise in discipline" is the punitive errand of retrieving the peel, but Ben makes something unexpectedly poignant out of it: he attempts to rebuild the orange out of what he's torn away from it, and his inchoate sense of the task's futility is as much a part of the closing tones as the obstreperous clash of the putative grown-ups. Poignancy isn't quite what Campion's after here, but she mirrors Ben in swatting back at "discipline" (a mere eight minutes, a mere three actors, a budget probably close to six or seven cents) by sizzling all the circuits of familial love and rivalry, and by flaunting all of her knacks for piquantly estranging compositions, sounds, and color schemes. I don't think I'd ever really thought about color as its own expressive device in any film before I saw Peel, give or take the neon slashes of the light-sabers in The Empire Strikes Back and the underscored premiums on beauty and palette in costume dramas. Peel is as much about the color orange as it is about a fight about a fruit. It's also about hiding behind your driving, whining about being late when probably nothing's waiting for you, and sticking your finger somewhere—inside an orange, or inside a broiling argument, or somewhere even more abstract—just because you're wickedly curious to know what it will feel like. Any time you've got eight minutes, you can take a look at Peel and see what Campion's brilliant if patchy career would subsequently feel like... but you can also reconnect without an ounce of starchy academicism with the excitement of cinema, the insolence of color, the impossibility of car trips, the fashion fiascos of the early 1980s, and the sure sense of encountering a young filmmaker who sees, hears, and feels in a genuinely new way.

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