“Christ, kid, yer a weirdo!”–Pop
DIRECTED BY: Rolf de Heer
FEATURING: Nicholas Hope, Carmel Johnson, Claire Benito, Ralph Cotterill
PLOT: With only a rudimentary vocabulary but a gift for mimicry, middle-aged Bubby has been raised by his mentally ill, abusive mother with no knowledge of the outside world inside what is essentially a fallout shelter. One day an interloper enters their underground hovel, shattering the only reality Bubby has ever known. Eventually he finds himself released into a modern Australian society he can hardly comprehend, but must learn to fit into somehow.
- Partially as an experiment and partially for practical reasons, de Heer chose to shoot the film with thirty-two different cinematographers, essentially one for every location.
- Bad Boy Bubby uses binaural sound: the film’s soundtrack was recorded and mixed from two microphones Nicholas Hope wore behind his ears, so that the audience would experience the sonic world exactly as it would be heard from Bubby’s perspective. On home video the effect is largely lost, with the end result being only that a few of the conversations in the film sound frustratingly muffled. The director suggests that the theatrical experience can be reproduced by listening to the movie while channeling the sound through a pair of stereo headphones.
- Originally, the underground scenes were to have the sides matted to create a narrow, claustrophobic aspect ratio, and the film was to expand into widescreen when Bubby surfaces into the outside world. Director De Heer thought the effect was too intense and made the film “unwatchable” and dropped the idea.
- Bad Boy Bubby won a FIPRESCI International Critics Prize, along with several less significant festival awards.
- We initially passed Bad Boy Bubby over for inclusion on the List, declaring it to be only “borderline weird.” You can read the original review here.
- A search for reviews of “Bad Boy Bubby” on the Los Angeles Times website yields no results, but offers the helpful suggestion, “Did you mean ‘bat boy’ bubbly?”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bubby the punk rock front man performance artist, on stage in a priest’s collar, holding a blowup doll with enormous breasts wearing a gas mask, backed by a band whose heads are swaddled in cling wrap.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In my original review of Bad Boy Bubby, I demurred adding the film to
Short clip from Bad Boy Bubby
the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies by noting that the movie “has a unique tone that’s hard to capture, but the first words I’d choose to characterize it are ‘relentlessly offbeat,’ rather than ‘weird’… for the most part de Heer chooses to tell his story using a straightforward, realistic narrative style that makes us believe bizarre Bubby is a real person in a real world.” The first words I’d use to describe it are still “relentlessly offbeat,” but on further reflection I’ve concluded that Bubby‘s offbeat moments come relentlessly enough that “weird” is a fine choice for the second word I’d use to describe it. I do not want to be in the business of denying the weirdness of movies that feature middle-aged feral children, cling-wrap murders and bizarre swings in tone, especially when they have rabid cult followings and excellent critical reputations.
COMMENTS: Bad Boy Bubby is a film that moves slowly from deep darkness into light. It is often shocking and depressing, particularly in that dingy first third, where Bubby’s unnatural relationship with his deranged mum in their claustrophobic basement is made into a suffocating reality in which we are forced to share. The saving grace is that the movie always treats Bubby with true affection. Most of Bubby’s misbehavior, such as his tendency to shake a woman’s breast instead of her hand when he first meets her, comes out of childlike innocence. But even when Bubby’s intentionally being a “bad boy,” we understand what he’s suffered—even though he doesn’t fully—and we remain firmly on his side. The script, which could have been ruthless to poor Bubby, rewards him (and the viewer) in the end, and the happy ending feels earned rather than tacked on.
Bubby begins, however, in a relentlessly poisonous atmosphere. Bubby and his Mum live—exist is a better word—in a one-bulb basement, and you can almost smell the mold, stale beans, and body odor. His only playmates are cockroaches and feral cats, neither of whom profit by knowing him. Bubby is washed and shaved, slapped, choked, insulted, lied to, and and used as a sex toy by Flo, his portly and obviously mentally ill mother. His vocabulary is limited, but despite his minimal opportunities for socialization, he hungers for new forms of expression; he listens intently to everything his mother says and parrots it back to her, a skill that the script will play with later. He’s taught that he will die if he goes outside without a gas mask and that the Jesus hanging on the wall spies on him and will tell Mum if he moves from his seat at the table while she’s out. Bubby is abused, but like the children of Dogtooth who are taught that cats are vicious killers and airplanes are toys, he has no way of knowing it; this the only existence he’s ever known. The abuse Mum rains on her bad boy is worse than mere beatings and the name calling: she denies Bubby the chance to be human.
The segments inside the cement fallout shelter are nihilistic and painful to view, and things only get worse when Bubby’s seedy, deadbeat dad shows up in his clerical collar. If events continued in this vein for another hour, the film would be unwatchable. Remarkably, though, de Heer lightens the tone dramatically in the second act, turning it from tragedy to comedy on a dime. The effect should be jarring, but we accept it, probably due to our immense sense of relief when we escape that concrete bunker. Comic possibilities that were buried with Bubby in the basement apartment emerge when he escapes into the relative light of modern Australian society. Bubby’s gift for mimicry raises endless prospects for satirizing the absurdity of modern times (a la Peter Sellers in Being There), but the movie largely skirts these opportunities and instead focuses on fleshing out Bubby’s character and experiences. In this middle portion of the film, after Bubby escapes from the underground and before he finds his place in the world, his wanderings become almost maddeningly random. He accumulates adventures by being picked up by one Good Samaritan—a Salvation Army band girl, a socialite, a struggling rock group, a rich guy who dresses him up and takes him out on the town—and simply handed off to another, usually without much explanation for the transfer. His adventures are picaresque and more than a little incredible, hedging towards the weird side of quirky. He gets laid on his first night in polite society, but it’s a one-night stand. A kindly woman in an eclair shop tries to help him, but after a policeman drags him from her convertible and punches him in the gut for being unintentionally obscene, a musician grabs him and throws him in the back of his van… and so it goes. This second act is in some ways the weakest part of the movie, but just as you’re starting to tire of the aimless episodes, bits of those seemingly random experiences start to recur in Bubby’s life, become integrated into an overall character arc, and cohere into a satisfying ending.
With Bubby, Nicholas Hope has the role of a lifetime, a part like no one else has ever played. It’s an unglamorous role, requiring nudity, cockroach eating, and submission to the gaze of a camera fixated on the greasy, scraggly hair circulating around his bald spot. The performance requires equal parts debasement, comedy, and dignity, and the (appropriately named) Hope realizes the character perfectly.
Bad Boy Bubby is essentially a character study, albeit of an often uncomfortably bizarre individual, but it also invites interpretation as a fable about the process of growing up and discovering purpose in life. Bubby undergoes a muddled religious journey through the course of the movie. The illegitimate offspring of a drunken, disgraceful priest, he begins life suffocated by false dogma about a Jesus who will beat him brainless if he misbehaves. Destitute, he’s exposed to a callous world where no one will truly help him (he’s even screwed by the Salvation Army). His wanderings symbolically lead him to the depths of religious despair when an organ player Bubby encounters leads him from a church to a factory and absurdly lectures the uncomprehending man-child on materialism, advising him that he must “think God out of existence.” A free-associating Bubby repeats the atheistic dogma at a funeral for a cat, but he also puts on a priest’s collar and performs miracles by translating the thoughts of a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Then, after being lectured on the evils of organized religion by a rock and roller who stands on a rug whose design keeps magically changing to reflect the various “mobs” who’ve “cling-wrapped” each other throughout history, in the end he finds peace in the arms of the not-so-subtly-named Angel.
Perhaps Bubby is finally able to find happiness because he’s finally been successful in thinking God out of existence; it’s not entirely clear where all the religious imagery is meant to lead us. What is clear is that Bubby ends up in a happy place. He overcomes his cruel upbringing and finds a place in an alien world: a soulmate, an artistic vocation, and some degree of self-understanding. Back in his hovel, Bubby’s overbearing, omnipresent Mum, who dubbed the long-suffering lad her “bad boy,” was as God to him. By the end, married and running around and playfully spraying his own offspring with a hose in a suburban garden, it’s clear that Bubby has, at the very least, thought Mum out of existence.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“No David Lynchian surrealscape or David Cronenberg psychosexual gross out can compare to the stellar, sinister magic director Rolf De Heer (maker of the critically acclaimed 1996 film The Quiet Room) makes in this amazing masterpiece. Certainly he borrows from his demented brothers in arms, but De Heer has a unique style and vision all his own…”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (DVD)
“It’s blatantly obvious that director Rolf De Heer was making the film as weird as he possibly could, but yet it all seems to fit together as a whole… a compelling, funny, occasionally moving and undeniably memorable experience.”–Troy Howarth, Eccentric Cinema (DVD)
Bad Boy Bubby @ Rolf De Heer’s Vertigo Productions – An incomplete site, but it contains basic information on the film, many positive reviews, and interesting behind-the-scenes production stills
IMDB LINK: Bad Boy Bubby (1993)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Rolf de Heer Interviews – This archived fan page contains a director’s statement and short interviews with de Heer and Nicholas Hope by film critic Andrew Urban
DVD INFO: Despite being a festival hit, Bad Boy Bubby received little theatrical distribution outside of Australia. The film somehow gathered a small cult following via VHS until Blue Underground’s impressive 2005 DVD release (buy) brought the movie to a much wider audience. Extras include interviews with writer/director de Heer (entitled “Christ Kid, You’re a Werido”) and star Hope (“Being Bubby”). There’s also stills, the theatrical trailer, and the short film “Confessor Caressor,” a mockumentary where Hope plays a serial killer; de Heer said that watching this performance convinced him that the actor was right for the part of Bubby.
2009 saw Blue Underground upgrade Bubby to Blu-ray (buy), with the same special features.
Bad Boy Bubby is also available to rent or buy through video-on-demand and, at the time of this writing, it was available via Netflix streaming service.
(This movie was originally nominated for review by “Una,” who called it a ” weird movie” and a “black++ comedy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)