"Dogs in Space," the second feature from the 26-year-old Australian filmmaker-video artist Richard Lowenstein, has a frowzy, crash-pad mentality. It has a grungy energy, kind of like that of its characters.
This is a movie you can like a lot if you accept that it's not going to approach things in a conventional manner. The film's principals are a group of young strays, who make up a punk band called Dogs in Space, and the assorted mongrely others who hang out with them. Set in a big, disheveled house in Melbourne in 1978, the movie is structured like a long, druggy party that keeps shifting its center from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom. And that's its style, too -- episodic, with intermittent patches of liveliness and torpor.
There's no story to speak of and, up until the very end, almost nothing happens. The events -- or the non-events -- just sort of evolve, one out of another, in a shaggy, random fashion. It's shapeless, but that's the point. So are the lives of members of this group. And that's part of the film's peculiarly original spirit. But it's also why it gets on your nerves, why you feel, 20 minutes into it, that if it doesn't give you something tangible soon, you'll go crazy.
It's this reaction that helps you identify with Anna (Saskia Post), the platinum-haired girlfriend of Sam, the band's lead singer. Post's Anna is a kind of punk Holly Golightly -- she has the same one-of-a-kind stylishness and waifish fragility. She seems older and more worn out than the other kids who prowl aimlessly around the house, more ready for a change. Still, her smile has a lot of little girlishness left in it, especially when she's watching Sam perform at a local club.
On the other hand, Sam is less far along on the evolutionary ladder -- somewhere between invertebrate and comatose. Speech is sort of a stretch for Sam; heck, for him consciousness is a stretch. Michael Hutchence, the lead singer for the rock group INXS, plays Sam, and he gives him an all-pervasive obliviousness. Anna loves Sam -- enough to experiment with him by taking heroin -- but we can look into her eyes and know she wants him to get himself together.
Sam shows his feelings, too, such as they are. Whenever he sees Anna, he tackles her and wrestles her to the floor, where they giggle and kiss. (In one scene, to get her attention, he slings romantic forkfuls of dog food at her.) And Anna adores Sam's warm-puppy playfulness. But she can't accept the obvious: that Sam's never going anywhere.
Sam and Anna are the main characters, but it's the scruffy misfits who drift in and out -- like Tim (Nique Needles), the sexually frustrated synthesizer player, and Luchio (Tony Helou), who's trying in the middle of all the chaos to prepare for his engineering finals -- who keep the movie from breaking down. As Sam, Hutchence acts like someone who once saw the Doors' Jim Morrison perform and has never gotten over it. But Saskia Post is really something special. There's not a moment when she's on screen that we don't know exactly what she's thinking. And she gives everything Anna does, even scrambling on the floor, a touch of pained elegance.
If the movie can be said to be about anything, its subject is that unformed period of youth when stagnation can be written off as growth time, time to collect experiences and flake out. But Lowenstein also is attempting to make some generational observations, to show how the '60s and '70s petered out into stoned disaffection. The end of the film, which is orchestrated to Iggy Pop's "Endless Sea," is a somber requiem to all that -- to youth, to innocence, to just floating.
Dogs in Space, at the Circle West End, is unrated but contains some scenes of sexuality, offensive language and drug use.