Visionaries, or The Cello of Katerina Valentine

FIRST, THE DIRECTOR made a pitch. The film finance people told him to get a scriptwriter. ‘I've got a vision,' he said, but they told him he needed a script as well as a vision or otherwise they wouldn't fund the film and they wanted to fund it because they liked the idea of the sea and the cello-playing heroine and the nexus between the rhythms of the ocean and of the music and the dairy; the milking-machines, the cows, the leisurely coastal ebb and flow of peoples' lives – everything had a rhythm, they said. What was needed was a script.

A woman on a white beach in a sun hat, holding a walking stick, intricately carved, and walking a dog. Sunset. The waves are pale grey, vitreous, like glass in the making. The sun has lost its heat, darkness is imminent. The world is holding its breath. She stares out to sea, very still, and then the dog barks joyously and leaps but the woman doesn't turn. A man approaches and the dog runs to meet him, leaping higher now. Still the woman has her face turned to the sea and it is only when the man is right beside her that she turns her face to look at him. The woman's name is Sylvia Meridew, and she is almost deaf. She is also dying. Dying just like the dairy industry that once animated the coastal town and gave life to the farmers and the shopkeepers in the district. The man who has come to walk her back to her house is her son, Max. Max Meridew.

The director speaks. ‘My idea for the film, you know, is that it's a kind of a tribute to Truffaut and Goddard, maybe, and Visconti and Cassavetes and Altman, and Woody Allen and – well, all the ones I learned about at film school that play around with genres, and with all those references, you know, to other films in the same genre not taking their ideas but commenting on them, sort of like making a tribute, you know, being playful, and – appropriating, yeah, that's the word ... self-aware, you know ... but at the same time fresh, and dynamic ... I've got a writer but I wish I could write the script myself. I mean, if Woody Allen can do it then ... and Bunuel, yeah, he's the guy ... the magic realist guy ... wow. The thing is, THE THING IS: I've got Larissa Pero as my star. That's my ace. My lever. My calling-card for Hollywood. If Max was not smitten with Larissa Pero, the outcome might be – I'm not saying definitely, but maybe – quite different and he wouldn't now be on the run, a marked man in a stolen truck with a homesick dog and a shredded finger. This is real Aussie imagery you know ... out in the bush, the man alone, the truck – a ute, maybe the dog ... a faithful true-blue kind of dog, a border collie, or a kelpie ... makes you think of Brian Brown, you know, or Tim Winton ... those kinds of guys.'

Max lights the fuse at midnight. The bomb is a rather old-fashioned one, the kind you see characters making in movies that are set in a time before plastic explosives, terrorists with suspicious hand luggage or bank robbers with degrees in mining engineering. His reasons for manufacturing the bomb are as old-fashioned as the thing itself. A bomb is a bomb but it is also something other than itself. It is a metaphor.

The landscape – or more correctly, the seascape – is a metaphor, the director tells the assembled cast and crew, for Katerina's state of mind: it represents her dream, her vision of the future – the waves, the rhythm, the light on the water.

‘I've always wanted to be metaphorical, you know ... those guys at film school used to talk about visual metaphors all the time ... Welles, and Ford, and Lean and stuff ... well, I can do it too. I know how. I know how to be metaphorical, man. I've seen Tarantino and those hip Japanese guys ... don't know their names but I know what they mean.'

Larissa comes out of her caravan. She smells the salt. Her blue eyes dazzled by the brightness of the sea and the light bouncing off it. She's trying to zip up the world's tightest pair of jeans. She can't help thinking they might do some kind of damage. They're designed for Javez to get as many close-ups as possible of her assets. She might call the assets in question her buttocks, which is a comical sort of word, but Javez would call it something plainer, something more real.

The first time Max sees Larissa is on the film set at the factory. The machines are all still in use, the workers being paid as extras to do their usual jobs. The butter comes out at the end of the process and is wrapped neatly in its silver foil wrapper with the velvet cow logo in blue on the top. Very satisfying little bricks of creamy butter. Families in Baranda Valley have been farming fat dairy cattle for at least a hundred and fifty years. The river cuts through the paddocks in a long silver streak flowing down out of the Great Dividing Range and emptying itself into the silver-blue Pacific.

You can see why Javez Brown decided to shoot The Cello of Katerina Valentine here. More pristine than Byron, not so popular with tourists, not so commercialised. Stunning seascapes, lush green hills, sandy beaches virtually empty most of the year: it's perfect. Javez is not his real name. His real name is Keith. Javez wants to make magical realist films about the Australian experience. Keith is not a good name for a magic realist. It's not a magic name.


MAX HAS BEEN asked to show the film people around the dairy.

‘We want to shoot while you're all at work,' Javez tells the butter-makers. ‘I want that real kind of feeling, you know – nothing fake, just the way it actually happens.'

Max can't help noticing how the women have taken extra care with their makeup, how they have piled on lipstick and mascara they normally wouldn't bother with, how they've encouraged a curl or two to spring out from beneath the plastic caps they're wearing over their hair. The men are more concerned with watching Larissa Pero make her way along the concrete floor, stepping daintily over the puddles of leaky cream, a piece of poetry in her laminated jeans.

‘So you're Max Meridew,' Javez the magic realist says.

Max watches Larissa as she rehearses a scene with the leading man, a young actor whose eyes don't seem able to focus quite properly but he's handsome enough – which is, after all, what's required. Larissa is all pale silvery vulnerability. She has star quality. This is what Max would have thought if such a term were in his vocabulary, which it isn't – but he sees the way her face registers a dozen different transitions of mood and feeling and how the camera responds. It's a gift. Not just for an actor, but for life.

He went then.

He found his mother down on the sand as usual. The dog came racing across to greet him. Sylvia put out her hand and Max took hold of it.

‘Is it fun?' she asks.

Max sees that today his mother looks better than usual – not so tired and there's colour in her cheeks.

‘It's interesting,' he says.

He met Larissa one evening on the beach. He felt his heart ticking inside his chest.

‘That's my house,' he said when she inquired, ‘the blue one.'

‘It's lovely. A real beach house. It's a wonder Javez didn't snap it up for the film.'

Max didn't answer.

‘Who is the woman in the hat?'

Max pauses and stares out at the sea. The woman is standing motionless on the edge of the water.

‘That's my mother,' he says.

She waits.

‘One evening she'll leave the dog inside, lie her stick on the sand and walk into the sea.'


MAIN STREET. MIDDAY. The town thrives on the invasion. Residents are spruced up like the workers at the dairy, just in case. Teenage girls lolled about in the main street along the beachfront wearing as little as possible, dreaming of Hollywood Boulevard and Venice Beach.

‘I saw a couple of potentials today – a blonde girl and her friend the redhead ... found them in the shopping mall in the main street. I think they have real ... vividness, you know, real ... freshness and organic kind of talent ... nothing too forced, or trained. I think they make the best film actors – like de Sica and Rossellini, they used real people you know, not actors. These girls, well, they're just really fresh and they just happen to look real good on the camera. It helps, but it's not the main thing, you know, I want to stress that, it's the real-ness I'm after.'

‘I have a hearing problem,' Sylvia explains when Larissa joins her one afternoon at the water's edge. Max is throwing bits of driftwood for the dog.

‘Can you hear me now?'

Larissa raises her voice, emphasising each word. Sylvia smiles.

‘Yes, I can hear you.'

Larissa stretches out her arms as if she might embrace the sea.

‘I love it at this time of the day. The water is the colour of fish scales, almost no colour really, but it gleams, don't you think?'

Later his mother says, ‘I like her. I think she likes you.'

‘She's the kind of girl who likes most people.'

‘I think she's more discriminating.'

Max is afraid to think anything too much.


FUNNY HOW WE use the word 'bomb' in our language. I'd like to put a bomb under the government, people say. Or the film made a bomb at the box office, or the film bombed at the box office – two different meanings – or that dress must have cost a bomb. We should bomb the whole bloody lot of them was his mother's verdict on the local council when the news came out about the dairy.

It was Larissa who inadvertently let Max know about it.

‘Your mother said you organised a protest last year when it looked like the dairy might be sold.'

‘Oh ... it wasn't just me. I got it started, sort of. If the dairy closed the town would die. There's nothing else except logging.'

‘What, up in those forests?'

She turned away from the sea to look at the mountains.

‘They stopped logging a couple of years ago. But some people want it opened up again ... people have to earn a living.'

The sea was like streaky blue milk. The moon coming up, a thin slice of silver foil.

‘It seems like a better way to earn a living, producing butter, than chopping down trees, doesn't it?'

The thoughtful earnest look on her face is irresistible but he tries to look cool. Like Javez.

‘Going to the dairy every day watching the women in their caps, and the men with the milk vats and the machines – it's so new for me. That's why I'm upset about them closing it down.'

Max decides to make a bomb. A bomb is power, after all. He's had experience with explosives. He worked on a mining site after Josie died. He tried to forget her by doing the usual things – taking off into the desert, getting jobs in odd places where nobody knew him, drinking hard, sleeping out under the stars. After a few months he decided the coast was his place. Better supervising bricks of butter than ripping apart mountains and gouging out their insides with machines.

At least the cows gave their milk willingly. Well, here they did. Hideously inflated super cows hadn't reached the Baranda Valley yet.

It made a moral difference to Max.

Max was a moral man.

The thing is: he doesn't want to actually blow anybody up. He's too soft-hearted for that.

The bomb has to be pure. It can't be contaminated by causing actual pain.

Its metaphorical impact must be absolute.


JAVEZ IS GOING over the day's rushes. ‘It's great, isn't it, this kind of stuff, the way you can put these things in words and then wham! You find a guy – or sometimes a girl, too – who can turn these words into their visual equivalent, yeah, that's what ... find the images to match the vocab, man. Like that guy did with the film that won the Booker prize ... or maybe it was the book that won the prize but the film won prizes too – I mean, lots of them, with the desert and the plane and the woman in the white scarf. Wow, that thing had so many metaphors I just lost count.'

Max lit the fuse and began running. That was when he saw Larissa, coming in the side gate and heading for the bomb.

‘Don't go in there!'

He wondered how much time he had left to defuse it.

Larissa stopped and stared at him. His eyes were wild. She hadn't seen this before. She liked it. His dark hair was tousled, little bleached hairs on his chest exposed above his shirt buttons.

‘I'm looking for the stone out of my ring.'

Max stared at the tiny silver casing on her finger.

He looked at his watch. A minute. He felt around beneath the steps.

Half a minute.

There it was: the tiny red stone. Perhaps there was still time to race in and – but no. He closed his hand over the stone and then the bomb exploded, knocking him across the yard, tearing apart the skin and bone on his index finger of his right hand as it did so. Larissa screamed once and then she was silent. She watched the flames leap into the air, glass shattering, machinery twisting and shivering.

Max held out the stone to her in his ribboned finger.

‘Oh Max,' she said.

‘I'd better go,' he said. There were sirens.

‘Javez will be so upset that he didn't get it on film.'

Max grinned.

He kissed her then. She kissed him back. The crowd was about to overtake them.

Will I hear from you?'

‘Somehow,' he said and was gone, wrapping his finger in the cuff of his shirt.

So here we are where we started, with mad Max, an exploded finger, an old truck and a worried dog.

‘You know, so we're back to where we started and we've got this real circularity thing going, you know, this kind of interconnectedness-of-all-things sort of Buddhist feel ... this mandala-like endless wheel-of-life events kind of thing where you realise the end is in the beginning and the beginning is reflected in the end and the middle is where you put the narrative and the character development and the bombs and the action and stuff.'


'WHY DID YOU leave town?' The loca constable pushed around some papers on his desk.

‘Think I planted the bomb?'

The constable smiled, a little uncertainly.

‘Well, you could have ... but then, so could anybody.'

He looked down at Max's hand.

‘Better get that looked at,' he said. ‘Did that cutting wood, did ya?'


The constable held Max's gaze for a few moments and then went back to his papers.

Larissa was sitting on the veranda of the blue house with Max's mother. The dog jumped out of the back of the truck and headed for the water. Larissa stood up. A small explosion inside Max. A small bomb.

‘It's the shock,' Larissa said. ‘It's just a reaction after watching that bomb go off.'

‘Yeah, that's what it is,' he said.

It was the first lie he'd told for a long time.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review