Bad Boy Bubby is a cult film staple. I would imagine many or most Network Awesome readers, being consumers with refined tastes, have seen it or at least heard about it (if you haven’t, I hope I am shaming you into watching it right now.) It is a film phenomena, a continuing cultural experience, much like Eraserhead or Reservoir Dogs or Pink Flamingos or El Topo: it’s been discussed and raved about over coffee in cafés; it’s on all the internet lists of “strangest” movies, “most disturbing” movies, or “great movies you may have missed,” and countless bloggers have waxed poetic attempting to express its ineffable qualities. What can I add?
I don’t know, but in trying to figure it out I found that, despite having already seen it, I knew less about Bad Boy Bubby than I thought. I’d missed some of the basics.
I knew the director was Rolf De Heer. He is now considered Australia’s preeminent “art film” director by many critics and has Cannes wins and mainstream credibility under his belt. I knew Bad Boy Bubby, one of his earlier films, was considered controversial and shocking upon its release and developed a cult following, in part, because of that reputation. The editor of Network Awesome even sent me this assignment with the note, “Want to do some notoriously…violent stuff?” This notoriety seems based upon the film’s first half hour with its scenes of incest, animal killing, bodily fluids, and psychological abuse. Personally, I always thought the bad reputation was entirely unfair. None of this stuff, except for the psychological abuse, is even seen on screen. It’s like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Psycho in that people think they’re seeing more than they do. It’s certainly disturbing, but not explicit. The emotional weight of that first half hour – a pressure that can make some folks need to leave the room - lies mostly in De Heer’s direction and editing. He has publicly stated that he wanted it to feel “interminable” for the audience and he succeeded, but it doesn’t really compare with the most “shocking” movies on the basis of content alone.
I did not know that much of the “controversy” surrounding Bad Boy Bubby was, in fact, originally whipped up by Australia’s very own “religious right” activists. I didn’t even know there had been a problem with conservative extremists manufacturing hysteria in Australia. Australians seem so relaxed. Apparently they were much the same as the U.S. in the late 80s and early 90s, and that’s not so chill.
Around 1993, the same time that Bad Boy Bubby was released, Australian political leaders were teaming up with their country’s very own wing of Focus On The Family to demonize the “liberal culture” and gleefully surf on the backs of homosexual corpses under a sun the color of whatever-the-color-of-money-is in Australia. Bad Boy Bubby was a primary target for these sons o’ bitches and its long reputation as “one of the most shocking movies” can be traced back to their purposeful, politicized hyperbole. The real problem these religious zealots had with the movie is likely the repeated chanting of, “fuck you, god,” by its main character. This actually happens much later in the film and is hilarious, not shocking. Well…that judgment is obviously subjective, but I laughed…
Up until today, I also didn’t know about many of the technical details that, now that I know ‘em, make Bad Boy Bubby a richer experience. De Rolf wrote the film over a period of about ten years and never considered that he would get funding for it all at once. He figured he would be shooting the film on weekends for an extended period of time and, with that schedule, found it unlikely he’d be able to rope in the same Director of Photography to shoot the entire movie. To get around this block, he conceived of the movie in 32 sections filmed, with total creative independence, by different DOPs. The end result is amazingly cohesive (I think I only picked up on it subliminally before having read about it in an interview) as well as thematically significant. Each “section” of the film depicts a different kind of environment that the socially retarded title character, Bubby, is seeing for the first time. The subtly different cinematography assists the audience, at some level, in seeing the world unfold - alien, confusing, surprising - through the perspective of Bubby’s unique kind of ignorance.
Finally, and this is amazing, I had no idea that the entire movie was filmed in “first person” binaural sound. Sure…anyone could tell you that the sound design in Bad Boy Bubby is stunning. Most movies have a kind of scheme for sound design from which they rarely deviate apart from rare expressive moments. Voices are up front in the mix, center stage. Sounds involving the action are right behind the voices and background noise is…exactly that. For Bad Boy Bubby, director Rold De Heer and sound designer James Currie devised an entirely subjective sound recording system. The primary microphones, the source of sound for the entire film, were hidden under the main character’s raggedy hair, right above his ears, so that the viewer experiences the sound in the movie just as the character would. If Bubby turns away briefly from another character while they are talking and toward the other tables in a crowded restaurant, it is the roar of the restaurant that we predominantly hear. This aural effect is oddly dislocating as well as grounding. The viewer may be put off by the oddity of the experiment while at the same time they are restricted to the direct experience of a character that, when all is said and done, has no clear identity of his own. Imagine being one of the personalities in a person with multiple personality disorder or, alternatively, one demon out of the many who are currently in possession of a mentally abused child. That’s a bit like watching Bad Boy Bubby. If you don’t have good stereo separation for your television’s sound system, I recommend using headphones.
I know, I know…I haven’t said anything about the plot or themes or anything of any significance about its meaning. I won’t. I’ve read some simplistic reviews online. I’ve read some scholarly essays that reduce its meaning to pat moral messages or critical response to the oppressive religious and cultural forces in Australia that I’ve already mentioned. That’s bull-pucky. Bad Boy Bubby is not one thing or the other. Like Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, a film that it is similar to in many ways apart from the actual content, Bad Boy Bubby depicts the full gamut of human experience from the horrible to the ecstatic…from the debased to the transcendent. It is one of those rare works of art that challenge one’s attitude toward the possibility of redemption but allows one to resolve that challenge on one’s own terms.
Bad Boy Bubby doesn’t deny that redemption exists in this world. In fact, there is a scene later the movie, a scene involving the three protagonists of a love triangle in intimate embrace, that for me is the closest thing to “god’s love” available to an existentialist atheist. I never fail to get the “ugly face” of shivery-almost-tears – a kind of overwhelming happiness that makes me spasm uncontrollably– whenever I watch it. That said, Bad Boy Bubby is not going to lie to you about the ugliness of life. It’s still there. It’s all there. More than anything, Bad Boy Bubby is about the sublimity of this full human experience and our capacity for understanding it within the confine of morals and ethics we cannot shake. It may disturb you, but it will also make you laugh. It is depressing, but I also hope it will leave you smiling. Enjoying it depends on how much you can take and who you think you are. That’s all I know.
Murray, Gabrielle. Bad Boy Bubby (Controversies). London: Palgrave Macmillan Group. ISBN 978-0230296763