“You Chick’s Are Bent!” – A Definitive Sequence in ‘Puberty Blues’

18 May

Sequence Analysis:

 Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981):  1:16:48 – 1:20:56 (Final Chapter of the Film)

Sequence being analysed can be seen in the above video ~ 4:06 – 8:16

Puberty Blues (Beresford, 1981), based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, tells a coming-of-age story of two teenage girls, Debbie (Nell Schofield) and Sue (Jad Capelja), as they attempt to improve their social status by integrating themselves with the Greenhills Surfie Gang and navigate their way through adolescence in 1970s Cronulla, Sydney. In Bruce Beresford’s words, “It was a sort of insight into the way of life of those kids” (Beresford, 2001). The film depicts life in the Australian surf culture of the early 1970s as being frequently less than fulfilling for girls (Speed, 2004a, p. 57). There is an emphasis on stereotypical gender roles and surf culture rituals with female characters continuously being subjected to sexist stereotyping, limiting their roles to ‘top chick’, ‘moll’ and ‘dickhead’. The kitsch appeal of the film’s mise-en-scene has become a significant attraction, given the currency of 1980s revivalism in popular culture (Speed, 2004b, p.168).

At the end of the film Debbie and Sue discover themselves through their experiences and will no longer do what is expected of them. They break from practices of conformity and defy traditional customs of surfing subculture by purchasing a surfboard and surfing in front of the Greenhills surfie gang. The final sequence which depicts the girls triumph at surfing, and the changing attitudes of the Greenhills gang, is the one I have chosen to analyse. Some commentators have labeled this sequence as “the defining moment in the film” (Capp, 2011). The following response will provide a shot-by-shot analysis of filmic techniques, describing how meaning is produced in this pivotal sequence.  

The sequence fades in to an establishing long shot of a bright sunny day on a beach-front street in Cronulla, Sydney. The camera follows the two protagonists Debbie and Sue, at eye-level as they exit a surf shop carrying their newly purchased surfboard and cross the road to Cronulla Beach. This shot sets up the girls’ ultimate act of rebellion, yet still, at this point in the sequence, reinforces the gender stereotypes and norms of the urban surf sub-culture that dominate the film. Debbie and Sue jointly carry the board (a surfer would carry the board by themselves) and are bombarded with several verbal slurs from passing surfers (“You’re kidding, chick’s surfing?”) as they look to enter into the male domain of surfing. The girls have had enough of conforming to gender stereotypes (“it stinks”).

Shot 2 continues the reinforcement of the surfing culture hegemony and stereotypes. A long shot continues to track Debbie and Sue as they now walk along Cronulla beach with their new surfboard. In the unfocused background you can see surfers and male swimmers giving the girls odd looks, while in the focused foreground a group of girl’s stereotypically sunbaking on the sand comment on the oddity of the situation (“Cop these Chicks”). As the camera pans, following the girls, other surfers enter the foreground and continue the hostile taunts.

In shot 9 Beresford introduces a series of shot-reverse-shot, beginning with the Greenhills surfie gang in a low angle long shot, before cutting to a low angle long shot of Debbie and Sue leaving their belongings on the beach and getting ready to surf. The following shots continuously cut between the Greenhills gang and Debbie and Sue as they exchange verbal banter (“Chick’s don’t surf” – “Just you wait!”).

At first the protagonists fail at their act of rebellion. Sue, in shot 20, attempts to paddle out, slipping off the board numerous times, laughing at she does. In the ensuing shots, medium close ups of the Greenhills gang members, male and female, shows how ridiculous they think girls surfing is, laughing at Sue’s hopelessness on the surfboard.

A medium close up shot of two male Greenhills gang members as they approach the water for a better look in shot 25 is the beginning of a change in attitude. Although through their verbal slurs of “You are bent!”, they are reinforcing their dominance in surfing culture, their separation from the group, which can be seen out of focus in the background, is a sign that something is changing. In the next shot however, the two have returned to the gang.

Probably the most important scenes in the sequence begin with shot 28 when the first non-diegetic sound is introduced in the form of Split Enz “Nobody takes me seriously”. This song has powerful lyrics and accompanies just under two minutes of Debbie’s progress in surfing. Throughout Debbie’s attempts, the camera uses powerful reverse shots to cut back to medium close up shots of individual Greenhills gang members, monitoring their reaction. When Debbie first tries to catch a wave, medium close up shots of gang members reveal their embarrassment through their expressions, dialogue and laughter (“How embarrassing”). However, their opinions soon change.  

Rose Capp (2011) sums up the Greenshills gang’s shift in attitudes quite well; “The boys’ hostile incredulity turns to grudging admiration while the girls shift rapidly from mortification…to bemusement and finally, a distinct distaff pride in Debbie’s success.” These changing attitudes are exemplified in their changing facial expressions.

After numerous attempts, Debbie finally manages to stand up on the surfboard and ride her first wave in shot 30. As the camera peds down from her face to her feet on the surfboard in a medium shot, the grin of Debbie’s face is priceless. The changing facial expressions of the gang members are also priceless. As Capp (2011) describes it the “female empowerment registered in the dawning comprehension on the faces of Debbie’s fellow surfie chicks is what makes this such a literally liberating moment.” The female gang members are at first mortified, then embarrassed, then curious and finally proud.

In shot 32, an eye-level long shot captures Debbie surfing the same wave as a male surfer, symbolizing her new found equality and independence from the constraints of the Greenhills surfie gang. The final shot in the sequence shows Debbie and Sue leaving the beach, with Debbie carrying the surfboard like other surfers do (in comparison to their joint carrying in shot 1), symbolising her defiance of conformity. As the sun sets behind the two protagonists, so does the traditions and contraints of male-dominated surfie subculture.

The sequence analysed above is key to the film Puberty Blues as it shows Debbie and Sue’s defiance of and independence from the male-dominated youth counter-culture of surfing. It also importantly shows a shift in the members of the Greenhills surfie gang’s attitudes to female’s right and ability to surf.

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By: Megan Walford, z3291268

Word Count: 991

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References:

Beresford, B., 2001 [interview], in Malone, P., (eds.), Myth and Meaning: Australian Film directors in their own words, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills (NSW).

Capp, R., 2011, “Chick’s Don’t Surf: Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981)”, in Senses of Cinema, issue 58 [online] <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2011/58/chicks-don’t-surf-puberty-blues-bruce-beresford-1981/> Accessed 29th April 2011

Speed, L., 2004a, “You and Me Against the World: Revisting Puberty Blues”, in Metro Magazine: Media and Education Magazine, no. 140, 2004: p.54-59.

Speed, L., 2004b, “Puberty Blues [Book Review]”, in Metro Magazine: Media and Education Magazine, no. 144, Feb 2004: 168-169.

 

Filmography:

Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981).

 (NOTE: Although not strictly important, screen caps of the movie will soon be incoporated into this blog post. At the time of posting my computer, unfortunately, was experiencing technical difficulties 😐 But we shall keep calm and carry on !)

Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981) Trailer

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