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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Lasseter's Bones

Lasseter's Bones premiered as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

Australian history has never seemed appealing to me – dirty, masculine, embarrassing in its barbarism to the Aboriginal people, and let’s face it, decidedly lacking in glamour. But the opening title of the documentary Lasseter’s Bones reminds us that a wit no less than Mark Twain found it fascinating: “Australian history [...] does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies.” It’s a brilliant opener, pulling the viewer immediately into the extraordinary story of Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter, a man who claimed to have sited a 7-mile gold reef in central Australia, and reportedly died in the desert in 1931 after one of several failed expeditions to try to find it again. Conflicting stories suggest Lasseter was a con-artist, an obsessed fool or a tragic genius.

Documentary filmmaker Luke Walker (Beyond Our Ken, 2007) spent three years sifting through the stories and the facts in an attempt to establish what really happened, and why the story of Lasseter has gripped the imaginations of so many. What he uncovers is gold indeed, though perhaps not the kind Lasseter craved. The real nugget is Lasseter’s 85-year-old son, the sprightly Bob Lasseter, a bearded and amiable Aussie eccentric who has spent 50 years trying to vindicate his father’s assertions and rescue the family name. He invites the filmmaker to accompany him on the latest expedition to try to locate the famed El Dorado of Australian gold mining (somewhere near the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory).

This trip, undertaken with modern four-wheel-drives, aeroplanes and good camping equipment, is so harsh and difficult that it really hits home how convinced Lasseter must have been to do it in the 1930s . We see the immensity of the landscape, the cruelty of the salt-bush (heavy duty car tyres are ripped to shreds every few kilometres and repaired at night by campfire) and the indifferent landmarks that all start to look the same after a while, especially when you’re looking for a rocky outcrop that resembles “a lady wearing a bonnet”.

Walker, a British-born former actor and VCA graduate is a personable presence throughout the film. Fit, tanned and enthusiastic, he’s nonetheless cowed by the landscape. “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed,” he tells Bob as they rest on a sandy mound after days of fruitless searching. “It is a bit immense,” admits Bob laconically, in a moment that sums up the entire project and his undaunted approach.

Lasseter’s Bones is a triumph of painstaking research, but it’s made to look easy. Interviews, maps, clippings and extensive detective work are utilised to make sense of the complex story. The Australian types and characters, most of them elderly now, are delightful as they reminisce. The long dead Lasseter lives on as a larger than life character, a Zelig or a Christ who is reportedly seen after his death on a boat to New York, and who claimed to have drawn the original design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The real revelation, however is the nature of obsession – the way that an idea can take root in a person and begin to choke out all other relationships, all other loves, all sanity. Even the filmmaker starts to look like he’s in its thrall for a while, as he considers: “Just one last trip to the outback…”

[This piece was originally published as a Program Note for Lasseter's Bones as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival]

Rochelle Siemienowicz

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