Comment on the film by Baz Lurhman
in Real Time No. 89, Sydney, 2009
The naming, announcing or titling of one’s own country is a desperate measure, either born of caustic critique or bound by patriotic trauma. The former creates the palimpsest of negation which darkens any country’s flag and anthem; the latter is dedicated to cleaning, brightening and generally whitening the same. Only the dead would miss that Baz Lurhman’s Australia (2008) evidences the latter. Yet unexpectedly, I find the film to be addressed to the dead: to speak to the ghosts of this thing called ‘Australia’ who haunt the psyche, the mediascape and the political forum which form the auditorium for voicing the naming of ‘Australia’.
While leftist-leaning critique of the film has centred on its inaccuracies in indigenous historicism (which completely misses the hyper-iconic self-mythologizing purpose of Australian cinema in general), Australia offers an ulterior reading in its depiction of racial hierarchy. Ultimately, death haunts the film – particularly in its mega-melodramatic final act where the dream family of Australia’s future is thought to become extinct. There’s probably a white paper (sic) floating around Canberra’s mindscape that dreams of genetically joining anal uptight colonialism (Nicole Kidman in 100 costume changes) with iconic post-convict machismo (Hugh Jackman at the gym again) with a para-animatronic Aboriginal kewpie doll representation of indigenous culture (Brandon Walters and his flashing teeth) . When they all hug at the end, it was like watching white zombies engaged in an unknowing ritual. I felt an overwhelming sense of how utterly dead Australia is and will likely be for a few millennia still. Australia is thus more a speculative sci-fi about a dying gene-pool attempting to forge a nation according to an inane self-politicising blueprint (not to mention a telling historicist aversion to Asia). The opening and closing statements about the Stolen Generations are less solemn reflections on forced Australian nationhood and more semiotic memes that invert that socio-genetic programme within the film’s Hollywoodesque melting-pot of universalising (or market-maximising) story-telling. Like all maximal cultural artefacts, Australia says nothing that it thinks it’s declaring, but volumes of what it cannot hear itself saying.
Australia is neither an embarrassment of glazed nationalistic vulgarity, nor a flailing vision of grand auteur onanism. Sure, it’s bursting with flashy neo-camp affectations inescapable from Australian prerogatives to entertain (c.1970s’ camp theatre revues). Sure, it’s driven by a pseudo-PoMo flaunting of artifice (c.1980s’ art photography revelling in faux-cinematic tableaux). Sure, its full of dumb journalistic paraphrasing of white guilt and patronizing enshrinement of indigenous mysticism (c.1990s’ pre-millennial reassessment of post-colonial politics). But what else should we expect from this film? Indeed – what else does a nation who cried over the bloated pomp of the Sydney 2000 Olympics deserve? And what else should an industry who reads a self-centred magazine subtitled “For Australian Content Creators” require from a $130m movie chowing down on a hefty tax rebate and a financial adrenaline shot by the ATEC?
Australia is inevitably an easy target – but using a narrow-gauge shotgun is an ineffective critical strategy when aimed at the nationalist mirage within which Australian cinema’s self-image has shimmered for over quarter of a century. A wide-spray Uzi handled by a blind drunk is a better tactic. Don’t shoot the film or the filmmakers: shoot the whole context within which they are positioned.
To deride Australia yet engage in polite and earnest dinner conversation over films like Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) and 10 Canoes (2006) invokes a simplistic binary reaction typical of the Australian intelligentsia’s support of worthy ideals in ignorance of any semiotic evaluation of the works bearing those ideals. To me, it’s straightforward to view Rabbit Proof Fence, The Tracker and 10 Canoes as humanist universalising artsy wannabe-informed examples of post-Mabo cinema at its most obsequious. Australia takes those themes and tizzes them up like a Tivoli burlesque revival. Of course, the film’s core impulse to ‘pizzazz’ an audience is an artistic gesture retrieved from the mouldy stage attire of Reg Livermore and his 70s ilk. Indeed, Australia is like Betty Blokk Buster Follies meets Kevin Rudd’s televised ‘apology’. But if that’s what Australians want: give it to them.
Any film that starts with a voice-over telling you that you are about to be told a great and wonderful story is bound to induce nausea to anyone bar script doctors. And despite Australia’s relentless bludgeoning of the senses with its mock-crème production design, mum-look-at-me digital compositing, Venusian fantasy goddess costume design, and Australian Tourism’s unending dome of panagliding cinematography, Australia’s foregrounded reflexivity amounts to false genuineness through having a half-breed cute-feral androgyne regurgitate Speilbergian monologues of childhood wonder. Having stated that, I nonetheless find that Australia does effectively compress and express its melodramatic heart, and successfully tugs at the appropriate emotional strings. Ciphers (and ciders) that they are, Kidman, Jackman, Brian Brown, David Gulpillil, Jack Thompson and Ben Mendelsohn can and are allowed to project précised altruistic ticks of empathetic consonance within the film’s swirling artifice. But – as with Speilbergian templates developed in the first wave of Hollywood revisionism in the mid-70s – the effectiveness of such manipulations merely testifies to how any amassed audience is but a throng of humanised puppets responding to strings tugging their collective heart.
To align oneself with the Australian film industry as a ‘content provider’, a mortgage-paying ‘technician’, or a pithy ‘movie reviewer’ and remain uncritical of the cultural implications of the medium’s multiple crafts is unacceptable. If Australia has a ‘film industry’ – then let it be a ruthless industry. Make pornography with girls who look like your first-year-uni daughter. Tell stories about footballers on drugs; bogans killing their kids; dungeon-and-dragons nerds massacring tourists. Cast wildly and inappropriately and tabloid the hell out of the production’s sensationalist drive. Write scathing comedies about law students who become topical panellists on national TV and wear chambray shirts; bourgeois ABC journalists who become bourgeois politicians; arthouse distributors claiming to know about cinema. Forget the international market because they care as much about you as you do about Finnish historical drama. Find any niche no matter how unsavoury and exploitatively hammer it to death. Do all this and damn everything that Rudd and his Creative Australia (gag!) think-tank proposed, and Australia will have a real industry – one that would dare its practitioners to stand up for the contentiousness of their work rather than allow them to hide behind the giant phantasmal puff-ball of proud ignorance that spawns gaudy carnivales of patriotism like Australia.
Each year, there’s a polite round-up in the mediascape about ‘Australia’s performance at the box office’ during that year. A successful film receives a disingenuous slap on the back. It sounds like a fly-swatter hitting soggy Weetbix. The ‘worthy’ films that didn’t make a dent in the box office excite a plethora of reasons for their criminal neglect. No-one mentions the possibility that the film’s were simply not interesting as concepts in the first place. The upcoming year’s roster will be optimistic, and articles like the one you’re reading will be posed as ‘part of the problem not the solution’. Yet those upcoming films will smack of the same insular ‘Aussifying’ themes which smell like MTC/STC ‘finger-on-the-pulse’ productions or social studies curricula foisted on Year 11/12 inmates.
This may seem completely off-topic. Wrong. The context which creates then evaluates the likes of Australia is the problem. If all the other forms of alternative non-nationalistic exploitation were allowed in the industry, then Australia would simply be another option for entertaining an audience. And at such a chosen task, the film completely succeeds. What’s missing is all those other films.
(Written on Australia Day.)