Topful woman talks about a film

My favourite film of 1997 was “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives”. Written by ex-Front Lawn man Harry Sinclair and starring Danielle Cormack, Joel Tobeck, Willa O’neill, Ian Hughes and Shimpal Lelisi, it told the bittersweet story of a group of inner-city dwelling Auckland cool kids and their crazy mixed up lives. It was released in my first year living in Auckland, and I think I secretly wished I had a similarly cool life, rather than feeling really awkward at suburban IRC parties. 14 years later, “Topless Women” has only just been released on DVD, including both the film and the original TV series consisting of 41 episodes of around 3 to 4 minutes each, as well as a good commentary track from the cast and director who have all gone on to proper fancy showbiz work. I watched the DVD (several times) and have come up with my fave things about the world of “Topless Women”.

The really expensive pizza

Um, that'll be $42.95
Um, that’ll be $42.95

In episode eight, Liz is working as a pizza delivery girl. She delivers a pizza – “Hawaiian with anchovy” – to old friend Gary. The pizza (and there seems to be only one) costs $42.95. This sounds astronomically expensive, but pizzas used to be priced like that. Today you could get a ham and pineapple pizza delivered for under $10, but back in the ’90s, they were strangely expensive. So we should be grateful for the pizza wars of the late ’90s, when people realised that pizza was really just shit on a shingle and therefore the pizza companies had no business charging such outrageous prices.

Party good times

Liz prepares for a productive day at the office (seriously)
Liz prepares for a productive day at the office (seriously)

I peripherally knew people like the characters in Topless Women. Cool kids who’d live in slightly grotty inner-city flats with no hot water (back before there were proper places to live in Auckland central), and life was all about pills and not eating and sex and being creative and abortions necesitated by broken hearts. There’s always a feeling that it can’t last, no matter how amazing it all seems at the time. Sooner or later someone wakes up feeling awful and things slowly get straightened up. Either that or someone ends up dead.

The most beautiful thing

The most beautiful thing
The most beautiful thing

Four years before “American Beauty” introduced the world to the poetry of a lone plastic bag floating on the breeze, “Topless Women” got there first. But instead of the wondrous instrumental soundtrack of “American Beauty”, “Topless Women” has Shayne Carter’s sexy sneer on the Straitjacket Fits’s brooding tune “If I Were You”. And it’s all tied up with the state of Ant’s mental health, Prue’s cheerfulness, and strange goings-on involving Ant’s mum and her girlfriend.

So much drama

Yes, yes, yes, yes!
Yes, yes, yes, yes!

There’s overlap between the later TV episodes and about half the film. In one scene, Geoff tells Liz he’d make a great dad for her unborn child. In the TV version, while this is going on, a television in the room plays a cheesy soap that Geoff in acting in. Miranda Harcourt is his co-star, doing a perfectly overwrought performance with lots of tears, flailing, a lolipop and so much drama. This is all missing from the film version and the scene plays a lot straighter. I like the TV version better, really laying on the tension.

The ghosts of buildings past

Auckland, looking like a proper grown-up city
Auckland, looking like a proper grown-up city

Liz lives in a house on top of the Fergusson Buildings and Civic House on Queen Street. It was demolished a few years later as those two buildings were gutted to be rebuilt as the new Queen Street cinema complex. Whenever I’m in the IMAX theatre, I like to wonder if I’m in the space formerly occupied by that house, especially the outdoor area where Liz and Neil kinda, sorta finally revealed their feelings for each other (or did they, etc). And that’s more exciting than any IMAX film.

The soundtrack

Subtitled Niuean appreciation of the Flying Nun back catalogue
Subtitled Niuean appreciation of the Flying Nun back catalogue

“Topless Women” had a killer soundtrack, using the best bits of the Flying Nun catalogue past and present. The commentary track gives credit to editor Cushla Dillon for suggesting Flying Nun tracks. In the TV series, each episode featured one song, carefully chosen to reflect the tone of the episode. The film used a smaller selection, each perfectly working with the story. It was the first time a New Zealand film had such an unashamedly New Zealand soundtrack, and now it’s pretty much standard that New Zealand films have New Zealand songs on the soundtrack.

The not-so-mighty Civic

If you're going to have a panic attack, you might as well do it in style
If you’re going to have a panic attack, you might as well do it in style

The pre-restoration Civic features as the location of Ant’s film debut. Little glimpses of its less glamorous past are revealed. Tiled columns at the entrance, burnt orange carpet in the foyer, faux rustic wooden benches, beige interior paint job, curly wooden decorative frames – all the bits and pieces that were gleefully discarded when the Civic was fancied up in the late ’90s. But the old Civic had a slightly creepy feel to it that made it the perfect place for the fragile Ant to freak out over his film debut.

Gift with purchase

Chris Cornell's distorted face makes a cameo
Chris Cornell’s distorted face makes a cameo

Neil wears a black T-shirt printed with the cover art of Soundgarden’s 1994 album “Superunknown”. These T-shirts were given away free with the CD when purchased from Sounds record stores, so they were everywhere. In fact, they were particularly common in Hamilton, probably due to its rich bogan subculture. I kind of miss this about buying music. Online, you might get a bonus track, but never a physical object. No t-shirts, posters, lighters, six-packs or MC Hammer limited edition baseball caps.

Tropical vacation location

Prue and Mike tie the knot
Prue and Mike tie the knot

When the TV series started, there was pretty much no budget, with cast and crew donating their time and filming on the weekend around proper jobs. Then along the way some NZ On Air and NZ Film Commission funding appeared and suddenly horizons began to broaden. Settings expanded from small flats and K Road to multiple locations, day and night, as well as the piece de resistance – the wedding in Niue. It’s not just an excuse for a trip to a tropical location – it perfectly suits that part of the story, removing the characters from their predictable loose-moralled urban setting and transplanting them to a deeply religious Pacific island. “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives” is available now on DVD. You should buy it. You can also watch the trailer at NZ On Screen, or just celebrate this choice film with the worst birthday cake ever:

Liz works at a computer so that's what she gets on her cake
Liz works at a computer so that’s what she gets on her cake

10 thoughts on “Topful woman talks about a film”

  1. Brilliant. I saw the film in an art house cinema in Nottingham in 1998, with the kiwi bloke Iʻd just met, for whom I would eventually move to NZ. I put up with this homesick end-of-OE-er whispering throughout “ooh, thatʻs where …” and “thatʻs just round the corner from …” and chuckling at popular culture references that I just didnʻt get.
    I look forward to watching the TV series and feeling faux-nostalgia for late 90ʻs Auckland.

  2. aah yes, DKDs, Happy Days, the preworked Civic. End of high school a friend and I wandered through an open door round the back near DKDs and after stumbling through pitch dark hallways eventually found ourselves back-stage at the Civic in the midst of some kind of high-brow, definitely grown-up soirée. We wandered up round to the wings got spotted by an usher/wait staff person who requested we make our way back to the auditorium to enjoy the live jazz, free champagne and fancy finger food. We certainly obliged. The secret passageways in the old Civic WERE (and maybe still are) creepy. Nice work 😉

    1. The old Civic had toilets that were accessible from within the auditorium. Before a film started, I made my way down the dimly-lit, narrow stairs, but about halfway down I had freaked myself out too much and ran back to my seat.

  3. Yes, brilliant. I saw it first as an inflight movie on my first trip to NZ. Not long ago, I opened a book about NZ paintings I had not read for years and found inside a handbill for the film, which I must have picked up somewhere in NZ.

    When I looked yesterday, NZ on Screen had episodes one and two on the wesbsite. Let there be more.

  4. “It was the first time a New Zealand film had such an unashamedly New Zealand soundtrack, and now it’s pretty much standard that New Zealand films have New Zealand songs on the soundtrack.”

    Although Duncan and Robert Sarkies’ “Scarfies” did the same trick not long after, in fact, the use of FN music felt even more appropriate in that film, given that it was set in Dunedin in the early 90s.

    Great review, Robyn, I’m quite a bit younger than you, but I remember the fuss about “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives” at the time, it seemed something very different in NZ drama, not just in its bite-sized length, but in what it was trying to capture. One of the first moves away from cultural cringe? Both the film and television series were flawed and indulgent, but they felt like something was on the move. And being too young to even think of experiencing the sort of lifestyle those characters got involved in, it all felt oddly exotic.

    Also, the very title became something of a touchstone itself- the Naked Samoans memorably parodied it for their first stage show “Naked Samoans Talk About Their Knives”.

    1. Cheers, Matthew! The Scarfies soundtrack is a good once, especially because it’s not all familiar hits. There’s some nice crossover too – Willa O’neill was in Scarfies, and Shimpal Lelisi is one of the Naked Samoans.

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