Funded partially by French interests, necessitating an obligatory subplot set in Paris, Rolf de Heer’s forgotten drama from 1991, Dingo, remains an earnest metaphor and impassioned exhortation for preserving the wildest dreams of ordinary men. When a herculean aircraft appears, almost close enough to touch, over the Western Australian dustbowl town of Poona Flat in 1969, the locals race after it like a gang of sweaty kids in pursuit of a tinkling ice cream van on a 40 degree day. The assembled crowd are soon treated to an impromptu performance by a group of jazz musicians, led by the famous Billy Cross (Miles Davis). One boy in particular, John Anderson (Daniel Scott) is transfixed by the sound of this exotic music wafting over the deserted plains. Summoning all his courage he approaches Cross who, noticing the stars in the eyes of his newest pupil, tells John to look him up some day should he ever venture to Cross’s home base in Paris.
Stepping forward in time we meet the adult version of Anderson (Colin Friels). Still tethered to the surrounds of Poona Flats he’s now a respected trapper, in the process earning himself the nickname ‘Dingo’. He has a wife, Jane (Helen Buday), and two young kids but has never been able to relinquish the secret yearning that first took hold on that surreal day in 1969. He plays the trumpet well, his mournful tunes reverberating against the nearby mountains when he has the chance to sneak away from his duties as husband and father. Through intermittent scenes in a talent agency in Paris we learn the degree of John’s persistence where the owner and his wife marvel at the regularity of the letters pouring in from the oddly named Australian. For years it seems Dingo has been sending them his songs in the hope of discovery and coming face-to-face once more with their most famous client, the man who ignited his pipe dreams of fame.
In casting the always watchable Friels, de Heer was taking few risks, trusting in the actor’s abilities to project an everyman’s veneer whilst allowing access to a credible mix of unlikely partners in jazz and the outback. It’s this unusual union of subject matter that gives the film its original slant, an imperfect but intriguing balance of incongruous elements. John’s passion for his hobby has survived many trials – the latest one being a prank by mate Archie (Steven Shaw) whose faked telegram sets an exultant John off on a mad spending spree, convinced he’s finally hit the big time with the first sale of one of his songs.
Ultimately Dingo is about a man beholden to his dream, to follow it through to its natural conclusion, a course of action which, regardless of the outcome, constitutes success. For though real life and its stifling constructs – a place from which Dingo could continue to live securely in perpetual motion, never venturing beyond its borders – monopolise his attentions, the allure of something greater continues to exert an influence on his subliminal yearnings. Persisting even against the tide of scorn from his mates and the veiled condescension of his loving wife, Dingo continues to imagine an odyssey that culminates in a miraculous encounter with his hero upon a Parisian stage.
In a sense the acquisition of Davis feels a bit like stunt casting. His name alone ensures notice, but his outlandish, almost bizarre appearance with its faintly female characteristics makes for a larger-than-life aspect that doesn’t quite gel with Friels’ expert characterisation. Reputation as a performer aside, Davis simply looks disinterested (in what was, sadly, the last year of his life) and out of his depth with his few dialogue exchanges coming across as decidedly wooden.
De Heer’s third film may not be a major achievement – his follow-up, 1993’s Bad Boy Bubby would be the one that provided him with far greater success and notoriety – but it’s a noteworthy one nevertheless. In its finest moments Dingo compellingly reflects the deep-seated pining burrowing into our brains, demanding a reaction – but from which, more often than not, passivity segues into terminally crippled dreams that, for most of us, only ever play out in our heads.