By John Duncan Talbird.
New Zealand’s short-lived new wave came quite a bit after most other national cinemas’ new waves. Kick-started by the New Zealand Film Commission with tax breaks for filmmakers, it fell apart just a few years later when those tax loopholes were closed up again. Geoff Murphy (Wild Man  and Goodbye Porkpie ) was one of those earlier influential directors. Another was Roger Donaldson. His first feature film, the political thriller Sleeping Dogs (1977), promised a fresh new talent and also introduced the world to actor Sam Neill in his first major role. But it was his follow-up, Smash Palace (1981), a film that premiered at Cannes, that really got him noticed by the world at large and led to his over-thirty-year Hollywood career which is ongoing. Smash Palace has recently been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy along with a 51-minute making-of documentary and a 34-pp booklet including stills and an essay by critic Ian Barr and a contemporaneous review by Pauline Kael.
Smash Palace is the story of Al Shaw played by cult New Zealand actor Bruno Lawrence who was reportedly Jack Nicholson’s favorite actor and who died tragically in his fifties from inoperable lung cancer. Al is a race car driver, mechanic, and owner of the eponymous Smash Palace, a junkyard he inherited from his father. He and his wife, Jacqui (Anna Jemison), have a young tomboy daughter named Georgie (talented child actor, Greer Robson). Georgie obviously reveres her father, even drives a miniature race car which her dad has made for her. Jacqui, though, hates living at a junkyard and wants Al to sell it. Although he has a buyer, Al resists selling it which leads to problems in their marriage, Jacqui eventually leaving. This leads to a dramatic showdown over custody of Georgie.
An early scene in the film tells you all you need to know about this family. The three of them sit on the floor to watch a car race on a junky little TV. Jacqui, who we’ve already sussed is the only disciplinarian, tells Georgie to feed the dog. Obviously eager to watch the race, she runs to do so. Georgie and Jacqui are clean from the bath. Al is filthy and is scolded by Jacqui for getting all of the sandwiches she’s prepared for them dirty. We watch the race. Within seconds there is a terrible wreck. We watch it twice, once in slow motion. We can see the tiny driver flailing in the open seat of his Formula One race car. It’s horrifying. We don’t see how someone could walk away from something like this. The camera cuts back to Al and Jacqui’s impassive faces. Or maybe not impassive. Al looks a little bored, Jacqui shell-shocked. She wants him to come to a party with her that night. He doesn’t want to go – he has to prepare for a race – but promises to drive her. She says she’ll drive herself. He says the car doesn’t have headlights. She quite logically wants to know, with all the cars outside, why there isn’t one that she can drive. They then fight over why he won’t call the potential buyer for the junkyard.
A text of its time, it’s interesting to watch this film in the 21st century. It’s got the method acting and episodic plot similar to many of the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, an unsympathetic hero, a bold look at issues of class, gender, and abuse. But it’s also enlightening to see it so many years later, especially in these post-#MeToo years. There is an ugly fight between Al and Jacqui right before the split-up. Georgie crawls out of her bedroom window with a flashlight to take comfort with the family dog in a beat-up car. There is a lot of screaming, insults, slaps, breaking glass. Al knocks down the door to the bedroom where Jacqui has gone to hide. There is a fascinating, yet disturbing, end to this scene particularly in light of the two essays that come with the disc. In 1981, Kael writes that Al and Jacqui have “rough sex.” In 2018, Ian Barr calls it what it is: rape. Of course, this moment leads to the final breakup of the marriage, complicated by the fact that Jacqui begins a relationship with town policeman Ray (Keith Aberdein) who happens to be Al’s best friend. Al, despite his brutish behavior is still, thanks to Bruno Lawrence’s stellar performance, a complex character, showing us how damaging toxic masculinity can be for the family unit (“My wife!” “My daughter!”). He’s not simply a monster. We come to understand how someone might come to be the way he is, why he might even kidnap his own child in a moment of desperation. We might even get a slight glimpse at why, armed, that guy would think he could hold off the police.
But the film isn’t “just” a family melodrama or a suspense film. In fact, it plays with genre, morphing through these elements into comedy (Al strips down on the porch of Jacqui’s new home, shoving his clothes through the mail slot one by one) and action (there are beautiful and thrilling point-of-view shots of Al in his race car whizzing around a track or on country roads). The film reminds me of the early work of Kathryn Bigelow – the western/road trip/vampire movie Near Dark (1987) or the undercover/bank heist/surfer film Point Break (1991). Even in what, on the surface, seemed to be low-brow Hollywood dreck, Bigelow managed to put her own stamp of authorship. There was a care and a uniqueness to the films that weren’t in most Hollywood hack work. I see a similar unique stamp in Smash Palace, despite what sounds, on the surface, like an outback Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) which the film was often compared to in reviews. But Bigelow went on from her journeyman work to make The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Donaldson used his early success in New Zealand to go to Hollywood and make films like Cocktail (1988) and Species (1995). Kathryn Bigelow, though, lucked into a fruitful collaboration with talented screenwriter Mark Boal. It’s interesting to wonder what kind of movies Donaldson would have made if he had found a like-minded partner. Interestingly, Donaldson wrote the screenplay for Smash Palace and, according to the documentary, it was a 300-page behemoth that he carried around with him for years before it was finally revised and filmed. It would be twenty-four years before he filmed another self-authored screenplay, The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), a personal project starring Anthony Hopkins and filmed in both the US and New Zealand. I suppose generic well-made thrillers like No Way Out (1987), one of Donaldson’s most successful Hollywood films, have their appeal, but Smash Palace opens up a window into a possible alternative path that he might have taken.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.