From the opening tracking shot of a late night music video channel with The Stranglers playing “Golden Brown” as a dead man blankly stares at the screen, it's evident that He Died with a Felafel in His Hand will not prove to be an ordinary comedy. Based loosely on John Birmingham's 1994 novel about the under 30's generation seeking its identity, the quirky independent Australian film appeared at a few film festivals since its 2001 release and is available on DVD through Film Movement.
The locales of Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney are vital to the film's development. Located in Queensland, Brisbane's tropical heat inspires all sorts of wackiness—from using large canetoads as golf balls, to setting fire to unwashed dishes in the sink, to hosting pagan rituals. More subdued is the rainy, cloudy climate of Melbourne, giving time for introspection and political thinking while the sunny ocean locale of Sydney gives inspiration to a hedonistic wannabe California movie star lifestyle. No matter the location, the oft-repeated theme "hell is other people" plays out.
Holding the narrative together is protagonist Danny (Noah Taylor), a sardonic near Buster Keaton clone with his deadpan expression and dry humor, who has lived in 49 separate shared housing situations during his 30 years including stints with tent dwelling bank clerks, albino moon tanners, psycho drama queens, and hardcore separatist lesbians. Throughout these years, Danny has been “ripped off, raided, threatened, burned out, shot at, and cheated.” He literally could be the poster boy for Dylan's definitive rock song, as he's on his own with no direction home. Danny needs money badly, as various households are in trouble for not paying rent money or for running credit card scams, but without any marketable job skills he turns to—writing.
One of Danny's housemates tells the urban legend about Penthouse magazine paying $25,000 for porn articles, so he decides to break out his antique Underwood typewriter and crank out a story. Understandably, he suffers extreme writer's block—inspiring housemate Sam (Emily Hamilton) to poke fun of his inept beginning: “Enter me, enter me, she gasped.” His next effort is inspired by one of the posters on his wall: “Black is the ultimate. . . Black eclipses everything . . .” This becomes a running gag when the phrase is his only creation and is perpetually left in the Underwood.
The nihilist mantra actually expresses Danny's inner existential angst as well. Usually the quiet observer, outside of the opening where he claims that he can wow women with a special power, Danny reveals a bit more of his inner thoughts during porch scenes when with a trusted friend one on one. The first example takes place with his alter ego, Flip (Brett Stewart), a junkie who sits under a full moon for a tanning session. They philosophize about the meaning of existence—whether humans are science experiments like ants in a Petri dish and whether anything not experienced actually exists. Danny has similar scenes with Sam and Anya, a manipulative bi-sexual vegetarian pagan with issues.
Although the pop philosophy may sound like Richard Linklater material, director Richard Lowenstein veers his scenarios with more control and spreads the wry humor around the angst driven characters. Lowenstein knowingly drops numerous references to film masters—Danny's wall is plastered with French New Wave pictures, and the film especially plays homage to Godard with visual references to Band of Outsiders and Vivre sa vie. Note an early scene where Danny and two housemates declare a set of rules about pursuing Anya for its stoic camera placement with short tracking shots.
The cinematography provides one highlight. Deep focus is used throughout, giving a bright, crisp feeling, and the attention to lighting is striking. One effective scene uses Danny's lighter as its sole light source, along with a dimmer light coming through the bottom of the door, and the filmmakers patiently waited all day to get the proper sunlight angle for another window shutter shot as Danny takes a bath. Credit cinematographer Andrew de Groot for creative framing, as he often eschews standard choices to frame the characters off center to take advantage of negative space behind them—a late conversation between Danny and Sam as they stand in doorways is just one example. He also sets up an incredible point of view shot for a motorcycle jump, spectacular enough to make the trailer (just don't expect any more action shots like it).
Using Flip's death as a narrative bookend and told mostly in flashbacks, the story holds up well enough and mirrors many Gen Xer lifestyles—at least the ones who still have issues with commitment and expressing who they really are. As Danny goes through a progression of physical chaos, to emotional chaos, to possible redemption, He Died with a Felafel in His Hand goes beyond many failed similar projects, succeeding largely due to the collaborative efforts of its ensemble cast, screenwriting, and camera work. Despite having mostly worked with television previously, Lowenstein demonstrates great promise for developing original feature material for the current generation.