Buckeye and Pinto
(Phil Pinder, Australia, 1979)

Terror Lostralis
(David Shepherd, Australia, 1980)

  Terror Lostralis

Introduction 2023: I was commissioned to review these two short films as a pair in early 1981, because they were publicly presented and discussed that way at the time. (The same magazine asked me also to cover, for the same issue, two other Australian long-short theatrically released in that period, Gary’s Story [1980] and Now and Then [1979]; those reviews will appear on this website.) Both Buckeye and Pinto and Terror Lostralis arose from a particular “theatre restaurant” comedy scene that was popular in Melbourne in the 1980s, and with which – despite the upbeat, celebratory tone of this piece that I judged necessary to write for the occasion – I had a deeply ambivalent, at times overtly critical, relation. Most people involved in these productions (apart from Tracy Harvey) have since vanished into the woodwork, and the films themselves are not easy to access today; on YouTube there is a brief mock newsreel of a “galah premiere” for both movies held at the Valhalla cinema; and Terror Lostralis has been posted (presumably by its director) in 5 separated “episodes”. More background information is available in a National Film and Sound Archive (Australia) report by Heather Gill on a special retrospective screening of the two films in 2016.

Buckeye and Pinto
and Terror Lostralis seem to have emerged from nowhere – that is, from nowhere in the Australian film scene. Their rich texture of character, comedy and style emanates from a rigorous theatrical context (the theatre restaurant circuit) that, by the force of accumulated energy, has managed to shove its way onto the screen.

The two shorts come complete with a veritable mythology that feeds into them: the image and exploits of the performing ensemble The Whittle Family, including Mitchell Faircloth and Tracy Harvey. This is the first exciting aspect of these projects: they come across as being part of something bigger, issuing from a creative momentum infinitely more intriguing than anything the film industry can spark within its own narrow cultural confines.

The films have been mentioned in many outposts of press and media, usually glowingly. Nonetheless, the surprise at their appearance has been accompanied by a critical blockage: what do you say about them once you have declared that they are really quite funny? The extant commentaries pick up on the easiest, simplest response: let’s all slum with these masterpieces of kitsch humour, revel in their B grade glories, indulge in some guilty pleasure with this cheap and nasty stuff. The films (so this line goes) make a virtue out of their low-budget economic necessity, deliberately making themselves (as the sickeningly popular saying goes) so bad that they’re good.

But the concept behind these films is a good deal more intelligent and productive than that. When shown within a package-presentation context, they are preceded by select newsreels (one of them a contemporary mock-up) and an early cartoon by Eric Porter (the Australian animator who made Marco Polo Junior Versus the Red Dragon, 1972). In effect, this constitutes a small history of Australian screen badness – where sloppy technique is accompanied by an equally sticky set of social-ideological values.

It’s precisely that conjunction – the association of a particular technique with a certain, familiar kind of message – with which Buckeye and Pinto (shot in 1977, 29 minutes, finished 1979) and Terror Lostralis (shot 1978, 43 minutes, finished 1980) are concerned. They consciously place themselves inside this cultural heritage in order to criticise it (through humour) and dislodge it (through laughter).

In fact, for all of Australia’s supposedly historical films (in terms of their explicit subject matter), this is among the very few (beyond the confines of experimental/independent fiction and documentary) that possesses a genealogical insight into the cinematic medium itself.

Although generally considered to be the funnier of the two, Buckeye and Pinto is the less successful as a film. Its parody of Western generic mannerisms is furious, but occasionally rather pointless. Lurking somewhere is the rather simplistic notion that the local popularity of the American Western is indicative of the evils of cultural imperialism – thus collapsing the political argument down to an assertive, Us versus Them level.

However, when Buckeye and Pinto is not imposing an interpretation upon the Western, but working from within it, the gags (and intentions) are spot-on. The narrative code of two cowboy buddies disintegrates in the face of homosexual desire, once the heroine is dead; an indigenous man stands in for the savage American Indian.

There’s not a dead second in Buckeye and Pinto, or a wasted inch of screen space. Graphics, intertitles, songs (“Guns of pride / One by one they shot and then they died”) … the range of expressive materials is admirable, even when the aim is scattershot. While Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) might seem the predominant influence here – especially given the slightly delirious edge to the acting, and the critics’ eagerness to see it all as a camped-up Western – a comparison with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966), which it resembles in several respects, better locates its flavour and maybe even its ambitions.

Both Buckeye and Pinto and Terror Lostralis are constituted entirely from stereotypes on all levels, from characters to sound effects. This is again in line with the general aim of these works: to locate those elements of culture where a certain ideological content has congealed, thus where it is most evident and able to be attacked. Although both films have been accused (by activist Pat Longmore in issue 2 of Buff) of “making women, especially feminists, the butt of some of the attempts at humour”, it is instead the stereotypes constructing women (and men) in a particular way that are the true object of the comedy. And these stereotypes are collected and reproduced with deadly accuracy.

Terror Lostralis plays it much cooler than its predecessor Buckeye and Pinto; it is at once more coherent, more logical, more acceptable by conventional standards. That’s, in fact, its beauty: it mimics the dominant system (of, in this case, the nature documentary plus exotic-adventure-fantasy genre) too well, in the process laying bare its ideological mechanism. When the “militant feminist” Dianne (Wendy Allen) is possessed by the Ancient Tribe of Oodnagalabies, takes her off her glasses and lets down her hair, the voice of patriarchal narrative is heard loud and clear: “You really are beautiful …”

Like Buckeye and Pinto, Terror Lostralis is certainly not a didactic leftist sermon, and the film allows itself enough room not to be taken like that by those who don’t wish to do so. But, at whichever level they are read, the worth of these films arises from their total familiarity with generic models and cultural types – and their eagerness to play with these set forms.

Within the realm of Australian cinema, that is a rare and precious enough adventure.

© Adrian Martin February 1981

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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