Lavish and Sleazy: Throbbin’ 84

by Jake Wilson

Throbbin' 84 (dir. Timothy Spanos, 2017, 95 mins, Australia)

“The Eighth Film By Timothy Spanos,” announce the opening credits of Throbbin’ 84, perhaps in homage to a similar directorial credit employed by Quentin Tarantino—a fellow connoisseur of pop esoterica, albeit one operating on roughly ten thousand times the budget. Backed by a synth-pop theme tune and featuring primitive computer graphics à la Tron (1982) these credits cue us to expect a pastiche of high 1980s style, accurate enough but only half the story. As we move into the film proper, the other half emerges, an entire landscape of daggy Australiana coming into view: Chiko rolls, Safeway shopping bags, a copy of TV Week with Bert Newton on the cover.

Pastiche, then, but not of any one style or mode. A comic filmmaker above all, Spanos makes a habit of juxtaposing elements that both do and don’t fit together, in this case the flamboyant cynicism of post-punk music and fashion and the homely aesthetic of a meat-and-potatoes Australian cop show from the same era; the irony if you can call it that, is that this mix-and-match op-shop approach is itself in tune with much of what we think of as the “1980s”. Indeed, the truth demonstrated throughout Spanos’ work is that 1980s Australia is not merely his subject but his home turf: however much fun he has with the period’s fads and fashions, his jokes are rooted far more in affection than derision, and they do not imply a necessary preference for how things are managed today.

A further irony is that Spanos—whose work is both broadly entertaining and closely bound up with various traditions of popular entertainment—should be known, if at all, as an “underground” filmmaker. As a commentary on the last few decades of Australian culture, his work in fact suggests how deeply the so-called mainstream and underground have been locally enmeshed all along—whether in the kind of disreputable genre cinema recently known as Ozploitation, or in the mile-wide streak of queerness that all but defines the history of Australian television from Graham Kennedy to Prisoner (1979-86).

Prisoner, in fact, is a Spanos touchstone to the point where he has spent much of his career collaborating with former stars of the show, whom he treats not as surrealist found objects but as veteran talents meriting the same reverence Tarantino gives to Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997). In this connection, it bears noting that at least some of these Prisoner stars themselves began as products of various “underground” or countercultural scenes: notably, this was true of Spanos muse Jude Kuring, most widely known as Prisoner’s Noeline Bourke but a fixture of the experimental Australian Performing Group well before her move into TV.

Set seven years on from its predecessor Sizzler ’77 (2015), Throbbin’ 84 follows the same police procedural format—and repeats many of the same plot beats, as Spanos has cheerfully admitted when interviewed. (“The Bond movies are like that too... It’s not a sequel, just another adventure.”) Back on the beat are cops Davidson (Alan King) and Reynolds (Terry Yeboah), bickering but loyal mates who are outwardly contrasted in stock genre fashion: Davidson is the jaded white bloke seething at the ratbags who surround him, Reynolds his younger, hipper black partner.

Both have made a bid to keep up with the times, now sporting loosely period-appropriate perms as they stomp the mean streets of Fitzroy. Among the key developments in society since their last adventure has been the rise of home video: this provides the motor of the plot, which sees them investigating the nefarious doings of one Billy Bitchmouth (Tim Burns, Spanos’ permanent alter ego) who runs a combination porn film studio and protection racket with aid from an entourage of barely-legal youths.

A figure of legend, Bitchmouth is likened to both a modern-day Fagin and a “diabolical Warhol”—though as Reynolds muses, the name doesn’t suggests a criminal at all, more “a singer from a New Romantic punk band”. This last description proves approximately on the money: Bitchmouth in the flesh is a bleached-blond, leering pervert who dresses like a British rock star—shades of Billy Idol, Johnny Rotten or perhaps Sting—and affects a corresponding mockney accent. If not quite a real punk, he’s nonetheless fuelled by punk energy, channeling the film’s own enthusiasm for the grotesque and politically incorrect (Spanos is not squeamish about ethnic slurs, nor has he ever been what you could call “sex-positive”). Like the other sacred monsters in Spanos’ work, he’s at once unnerving and ridiculous, the hysteria of the performance pitched halfway between adult pansexual menace and the camp theatrics of a children’s television villain.

An enigma on all fronts, Bitchmouth holds himself aloof even as his perverse desires seem to overflow all bounds: he crows over the deviancy of his male acolytes like a fond father, while his approach to heterosexual wooing is hands-on but eccentric (“You must learn to conquer my lips”). His other surprising traits include an intellectual streak or the delusion of one, leading him to brag of his MENSA membership and identify himself with Bob Hawke’s ideological shift to the centre. As a filmmaker he’s no mere hack but an ambitious auteur boasting his latest “lavish and sleazy” production will draw from Hieronymous Bosch and German Expressionism. Yet he’s also a businessman with a faith in free enterprise, and when forced to patch together a new feature by nightfall he’s not slow to cut corners. Undeniable at any rate is his commitment to the obscene, displayed in its full glory in a climax best left undescribed (except to say that it involves eggs, a Spanos obsession). “Wherever I crack a fat,” he promises, “that’s my home.”

All this is but one aspect of the film’s wider picture, threaded through with countless overdetermined reminders of the period setting: the humour here is partly in how meaning has been flattened out, with AIDS and the nuclear threat placed on a roughly equal footing with allusions destined to be lost on anyone not around at the time (the film’s title, for instance, is lifted from a bestselling compilation album not released outside Australia, visible in the background in a couple of shots). There are anachronisms, conscious or otherwise, but these are exceptions to the rule of pedantic precision: you better believe that Spanos knows what was playing in Australian cinemas at the month the film is set, and what horse ran third in the Melbourne Cup the previous year. The hyper-specificity is a gag in itself—and yet the attention to detail can only be seen as an expression of love, meaning that parody of nostalgia shades imperceptibly into the real thing.

Similarly, Spanos’ handling of his cast rests on the faith that sincerely felt emotion is compatible with even the broadest burlesque. The dominant acting style could be described as “TV sketch comedy” with some uncertainty persisting about how far various cast members are in on the joke: this applies in particular to Yeboah, who functions as straight man to the more obviously hammy King but brings an unpredictable exuberance to many of his line readings. As in the films of John Waters—an unavoidable reference point for Spanos in general—part of the comic effect is that of variably skilled but obliging actors committing word for word to an outrageous script. Yet the overall sense isn’t that certain performers are being held up to ridicule, but that the rules about what constitutes “good” acting have been temporarily suspended, allowing Spanos to host a party to which everyone brings whatever degree of sincerity or irony they can.

Suspended too are many of our certainties about what should be taken seriously and what shouldn’t: thus characters can be broadly drawn but not necessarily one-dimensional, with even Bitchmouth briefly displaying a softer side. The cast member who seizes these opportunities most fully is Mercia Deane-Johns, who in the real 1980s played an anti-uranium protester in John Duigan’s neglected Winter of Our Dreams (1982): appearing here as a butch, blue-singleted ex-con and informant nicknamed Bulldozer, she makes herself fully at home in the role, delivering Spanos’ camp dialogue with a mix of insolence and weariness that in context registers as credible and even understated, not to mention moving. Like every character in the film Bulldozer is something of a grotesque—but this doesn’t stop her winning our sympathy, to the point where she gradually supplants the cynical Davidson as a voice of reason.

The curious thing is that Spanos really does capture something about Australia in the 1980s, at least as it exists in the memory of a certain generation (including this writer, who entered primary school in 1984). What Throbbin’ 84 charts in its own way is the messy, uneven nature of cultural evolution over the period, with new technologies, economic changes, and the influence of rapidly evolving overseas pop culture all fuelling anxieties about what might be considered “normal”. Once again, Spanos’ way of reflecting on the Australia of the 1980s isn’t so far removed from the Australia of the 1980s reflecting on itself: comparable hectic incongruities can be found, for instance, in certain genre movies which borrow from the pre-apocalyptic mode of the first Mad Max (1979), such as Brian Trenchard-Smith’s dystopian yet oddly cosy and comic Dead-End Drive-In (1986).

Back in the day, a word used to describe much of this—the loss of certainties, the clash of competing values—was “postmodern”. Spanos’ films could be described that way too, but only by default: they belong to an era when concepts like the postmodern lie in the past, to the point of being subjects of nostalgia in themselves. Similarly, if Spanos qualifies as an underground filmmaker, it can hardly be because his work is particularly scandalous or edgy. For one thing, his transgressions are tame stuff by current standards (the porn produced by Bitchmouth is described rather than shown). For another, a clear distinction between centre and edge is precisely what, in Spanos’ work, no longer seems available: that is, his films seem bent on undermining any notion of “normal” that the underground could be defined against.

A variation on this theme is worked out in Spanos’ diptych Boronia Boys (2009) and Boronia Backpackers (2011): the first of these introduces us to a couple of obnoxious yet sympathetic outer suburban Melbourne boofheads, while the second, shot partially on location in Europe, sends them off to explore the wider world. The second of these especially is built on culture clashes that are open to different interpretations depending on who we’re prepared to laugh at and why, and whether we think of Spanos himself as progressive or reactionary, humanist or misanthropic, a maverick or a throwback. On the whole, I’d prefer to call him simply a maker of comedies—and one of a handful of Australian filmmakers who might tell us something about how we got to where we are today. 

Throbbin' 84 screened on Monday, July 22, in Melbourne, at Long Play, as part of the Unknown Pleasures series. Check the Facebook Event Page.

Jake Wilson is a film reviewer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and the author of Mad Dog Morgan (Currency Press, 2015).

Published July 18, 2019. © Jake Wilson, July 2019.