The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998)

Compiled by Fiona A. Villella

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, successful mainstream Australian films were principally set in the Australian bush landscape: Crocodile Dundee, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Evil Angels, My Brilliant Career, the Mad Max trilogy, The Man From Snowy River, Gallipoli, The Year My Voice Broke. Ever since, however, there has been a gradual trend in mainstream Australian film away from the outback to suburbia and the inner city.

A call was recently put out seeking reflections on this presence of suburbia within recent Australian film, and the types of characters and stories it has engendered. The following is a collection of passages – ranging from in-depth analyses on suburbia, the Australian ‘culture of difference’ to perceptive and illuminating discussions of single films. But all testify to a topic of ongoing interest and debate.

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Strange Planet

Muriel’s Wedding

Love’s Catastrophes

The Boys

Cultural comparisons

Zombie Brigade

Head On

Screening Suburbia

Culture of difference

Spatial experience

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Strange Planet

Strange Planet
(Emma-Kate Croghan, 1999)

by Felicity Collins

Romantic comedy is devotedly urban. Its milieu is the city. It loves the nightlife, the high-rise, the dance floor. Its fated couples rent designer apartments, wear high fashion, flick through lifestyle magazines, and bump into each other at nightspots. The city buzz is background noise for romantic comedy’s rapid-fire conversation on the dialectic of sex. The telephone matters in romantic comedy and so does the media. The modern media landscape is a definitive setting for the recent cycle of romantic comedies produced in Australia. Strange Planet (like Dating the Enemy) is at home in international mediaspace, feigning ignorance of the stand-off in Australian cinema between the bashful bush and the craven city. Its only concession to the 1970s landscape tradition is the anachronistic pub setting where the guys debrief (after a Swans footy match, betraying a nostalgia not so much for mateship and the bush as for Melbourne and its local football culture). The pub aside, the landscape that really matters in Strange Planet is the art directed world of the upwardly mobile consumer. From the gleaming glass and steel surfaces of the modern city office to the 24 hour fluorescent light of the local supermarket, from the Twilight Zone episode which lends the film its title to the re-run of Taxi Driver at the retro-cinema, Strange Planet addresses itself to an international audience who recognise each other as inhabitants of a consumer landscape (of talkback radio and sex columns, recreational drugs and psychotherapy, cable TV and romantic comedy) rather than a national audience negotiating the minefields of racial, ethnic, regional and other differences. In Strange Planet, romantic comedy’s urban landscape is noisy (the film’s thumping, high concept soundtrack yields to the wash of the waves and the sound of bird calls as the final credits roll). This conventional ending in a ‘green world’ suggests that urban noise blocks the course of true love, justifying the journey out of the city to a magical place (the beach, of course) where the moon is full, the night is young and the mood is right for love, ‘just like a Cary Grant movie’ as Alice Garner exclaims.

Felicity Collins teaches Cinema Studies at La Trobe University. She is the author of The Films of Gillian Armstrong and is currently researching Australian film and television comedy and screen autobiography.

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Muriel's Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding
(P.J. Hogan, 1994)

by Rebecca Coyle

The idea of Suburbia is an engaging one in relation to Australian film generally and to Muriel’s Wedding in particular. A definition of ‘suburban’ is both literally a residential area outside city boundaries and also a narrowness of views – a place in which residents attempt to make sense of big bad city life by setting limitations on how suburbanites should live.

If we take the literal location definition and relate it to Muriel’s Wedding, then actually the story of Muriel’s Wedding is one of expulsion from suburbia or small-town parochial-ness; it’s about a physical relocation as well as an attempt to psychologically move out of the suburbs. Also we see a range of different suburbs represented here – inner city life in the video shop and bar/nightclub scenes; tourist beachside town in the pokies, club, Chinese restaurant, cocktail bar, shopping mall, Rhonda’s home scenes, etc; and the leafy north shore in the wedding.

But very importantly we also see the island off the Queensland coast, where there is a relaxation of suburban norms, a loosening of values and ‘acceptable’ behaviour. Here Muriel’s and Rhonda’s taste for ‘daggy’ ABBA is not uncool and their tongue-in-cheek performance is more in tune with the location than that of their “girlfriends” whose performance is more akin to a straight Peter Allen-in-the-tropics (goes troppo?) style.

So the film is one of a collection that has been circulating recently where location is not strongly geographically identified (as we saw in films set in ‘the outback’ used to represent Australia more generally). Rather, locations in generalised suburbia explore perceptions of class and status and Australian identity in relation to myths of the classless society and such. Muriel’s Wedding is about discomfort in small-town location, instability and location as temporary. Location then is not the defining identification here but rather a backdrop for suburban angst and aspiration. The film is an attempt to come to terms with white stories of the settlement of the land – into suburban ghettos from which we try to escape – which offers a very different set of stories and memories to those of the land and location in indigenous experiences.

Rebecca Coyle is a Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Media, Macquarie University, Sydney.

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Love and Other Catastrophes

Love’s Catastrophes

by Jake Wilson

Love And Other Catastrophes has a lot to answer for”, wrote Bill Mousoulis on this site recently, reviewing the latest grungy Australian comedy about self-absorbed young film-buffs living in share houses and looking for love. It’s certainly true that Love And Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996) has been one of the most influential Australian films of the ’90s, mainly for worse rather than better. But what was it about this movie that got so many people excited (including me) when it first came out? There was its line-up of charismatic and then largely unknown actors, especially Frances O’Connor. There was the way Croghan and her scriptwriting team managed to draw on so many recent filmmaking trends and get them to work in an Australian context: the neo-romantic-comedy craze sparked off by Sleepless In Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993), the taste for film-buff references revived by Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarentino, 1994), the raw, do-it-yourself daily-ness of Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1995), the charming amorality of Seinfeld, and even some faint echoes of the French New Wave. But above all, there was (to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum) “the tendency to superimpose the euphoria of the filmmaking process over the fictional action.” (1) Hence the reiterated publicity stories surrounding Love And Other Catastrophes: a bunch of twentysomething film-school graduates decide to make a feature-length film with a miniscule budget, a script thrown together in a few weeks, a tight production schedule, scenes shot on the run… Indeed, the improvised look of several key scenes – such as the affectionate closing-credits footage of cast-members horsing around – seemingly invites us to view the film as a virtual home movie, a direct extension of its creators’ offscreen lives. At the time, this felt silly and delightful; seen again today, it’s all too obvious that just about everything in the preceding ninety minutes is driven by a related, faintly irritating narcissism. The eclectic references to culture high and low, the worldly treatment of lesbianism, even the repeated jokes about coffee – all of this is desperately trying to convince you of the enviable wit, intelligence and sophistication of the filmmakers. I suppose this is why Love And Other Catastrophes has inspired so many awful imitations: to certain members of its audience, it holds out the promise that you too could be a trendy young bohemian independent filmmaker, drop references to Milan Kundera and Doris Day, smoke joints on inner-suburban rooftops while listening to the Velvet Underground, hang out in university cafés where you can order “a very strong flat white with no froth…” Less innocent than this dream is the idea that it’s not that hard, really, to make a successful film: all you need, apparently, is to round up a few friends, throw together a script, shoot on the run, and turn your lives into art. And the results? Catastrophic.

Endnotes

  1. “Tih Minh, Out 1: On The Non-Reception of Two French Serials” in Movies As Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997, p. 309.

Jake Wilson is a Melbourne writer, cinema student and filmmaker.

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The Boys

The Boys
(Rowan Woods, 1998)

by Fiona A. Villella

Never in Australian film has the space of the suburban home been filled with such intense and chilling menace as in The Boys. The terror and horror of this film is seemingly a consequence of suburban, working-class life. No one rings the doorbell of the Spragues family home, located in Sydney’s western suburbs, except the police, either to reprimand Brett (David Wenham) – who within less than 12 hours of release has broken his parole conditions – or to answer complaints of screaming. Apart from the TV (showing an American woman on a local cooking program), the man who delivers work for the Spragues Mum and the police, no one and nothing enters this family-suburban space. Or, more specifically, no one or nothing that would challenge, broaden or affect these suburban lives and identities. There is no vibrant street life, no universities, no element of difference with which they interact. The only destination within the suburban landscape that the boys are concerned with is the bottle shop. Unlike the young adults from Angst, whose lives are saturated with references to pop cultural TV shows and films, everyone in The Boys is a cultural philistine. This is the heaviest and bleakest view of Australianised suburbia ever represented on local screens. The only elements of ‘difference’ that the boys encounter – a group of Chinese youth or the Greek guy Nick who drops off work – they jeer at with racist, degrading remarks. Here is an existence right in the heart of suburbia – the quiet streets, the brown-brick 3-room house, the car in the driveway – ruled by a cultural and existential void, monotony, emptiness, blandness, unfulfillment and discontent. And, dangerously so.

Is this existence – rooted in that despicable brand of Australian ‘blokeyness’ where women are treated like chattels and respect, compassion and affection for others (even one’s mother) is ridiculed – conducive to acts of maliciousness, violence and horror? Apparently so. In this harrowing film, Rowan Woods has attributed violent behaviour primarily to a particularly suburban way of life rooted in a parochial, rough-n-tough Australianness. Although no one visited Brett while he was in prison, as soon as he is released no one in the family can stop his insidious and infectious influence and dominance over the entire family. He causes the break-up of his brother Glen (John Polson) and girlfriend Jackie (Jeanette Cronin), he coaxes the frightened Nola (Anna Lise) who forever lurks in the background like a ghost, he is violent towards his girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette) and he attacks his mother’s boyfriend. No one knows what Brett is capable of and so they constantly appease him. But the scariest thing of all in this film is the way he slowly and carefully weaves and asserts his control over the family through his particular brand of charisma, self-assurance, strength and intellectual superiority that the others, most certainly the weaker and vulnerable brothers, do not possess.

Brett’s intellectualism is directly linked to a working-class, underdog attitude – that no matter what, you will always get ‘screwed and done over’ by ‘them’. He refuses to be a dumb fool locked in the ‘system’ while those pulling the strings so easily get away with it. He is the ultimate anti-social, anti-hero rebel who plays by his own rules, sets his own law. In this way, his wild and highly egocentric masculinity is not far off from that of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: this neurotic, narcissistic vision that propels these characters into believing that they are somehow ‘special’, ‘divinely empowered’, ‘above the norm’. There are many references and implications throughout The Boys made to Brett that he is God-like. It is ironic that not only is Brett the only ‘visionary’ character but he is also the only one who absorbs the culture of books and films: his room is covered with sci-fi posters and he reads science-fiction. Ultimately, all his vision and creativity is thwarted for destructive and evil ends.

It is to his credit that Woods has realised this film with such an accomplished mise en scène and overwhelmingly strong sense of detail. Due to the incredible performances, these characters appear so real it is frightening. Both their content and form, that is, both what they say and the how they say it, how they interact and respond to others, is rendered in unflinching detail. And every detail is horribly suburban: the men’s animal-like gait; references to sex in crude, base ways; Michelle’s constant lighting of ‘fags’ and swigging of beer, her ’80s kitsch dress sense and bleached hair, the whining tone to her voice; the mother’s unconditional love for ‘her boys’; the repeated use of ‘fuck’; the ‘dole bludger’ lifestyle; and the boys’ whining, violent, non-intellectual approach to everything bad that happens. Throughout its complex narrative time structure, in which the doomed future is embedded in the present, and the overall elliptical pace achieved through fades and blurring, the film slowly descends into dark, shocking and terrifying territory: primal instincts, primal behaviour.

Rowan Woods is one of the few contemporary Australian filmmakers to have created a cinematic film – ruled by an aesthetic – where form is inseparable from, and integral to, story. Straight away from the film’s first shots – floating, seemingly from a car’s point of view, 2-tone coloured, in slow-motion, unspecified, mysterious and amplified by an unnerving, haunting score – this sense of an aesthetic is immediately felt. Then, the credit sequence; the blurring in and out of everyday domestic objects – a TV, a hanging lamp, a sink, a drain – their texture and a certain strange and ominous quality immediately heightened and felt. His achievement of an aesthetic means that although we may despise these characters we are too affected and too engaged by every step of the film to be casting judgements of superiority.

Woods has given us a film in which deep in the heart of Anglo-suburbia lurks the potential for violence and true horror. Significantly, he doesn’t fill the story-plot with acts of violence (like the bleak and simplistic Nil by Mouth [Gary Oldman, 1997]) but rather documents in small detail the growing tension that spreads throughout the family home. After all, we are never shown the ultimate primal act of violence committed by the boys at the end of the film, rather the conditions and events leading up to it. The entire film is driven by a suggestive, haunting economy: the idea that it is tracing something untraceable. Ultimately, it is about the subtle transfiguration of everyday details and the collapse of reason and communication.

There is a definite rhythmic quality to The Boys, a lingering though intensely hypnotic quality, achieved through Woods’ masterful use of silences, pauses, the score, elliptical narrative time and a haunting use of space (e.g. the space between the living room and the kitchen eventually becomes a deep, ominous and ultimately irreversible chasm). There is no single ’cause’ for the ultimate violent act in The Boys; rather it lies in the absolute nihilism, cynicism and egoism of working-class ‘white trash’ suburbia. Woods has ingeniously crafted a film that is a study of cultural habits, details and mindsets within which lies the potential for violent, primal, anti-social behaviour – a series of habits, details and mindsets all so utterly suburban.

Fiona A. Villella is editor of Senses of Cinema.

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The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Cultural comparisons

by Constantine Santas

Muriel’s Wedding is something like a TV “sit-comedy” in America-a dysfunctional family (“All in the Family”?) with an overbearing father, a timid mother, nondescript (I don’t want to describe them) siblings, and an overweight, lacking in self esteem, not-too-bright daughter (Muriel), who can’t connect with her contemporary more hip women who are already married (and “cock-sucking” each other’s husbands), or better looking, or better adjusted to each other. Muriel can’t connect, remains isolated from both family and female friends, and decides to abscond with family money and go to Sydney, where she gets a new job and new name (now Mariel-does that sound better?). She does, however, learn that just running away won’t solve her problems. She has a new friend Rhonda, who can accept her, but Rhonda battles cancer and is in a wheelchair. Marriage to a snooty athlete, who marries her for reasons unknown, also does not work. Her mother, not accepted at her wedding, commits suicide, and when Muriel returns, her family is in disarray. A bit like Moonstruck, but not as pointedly romantic. The only thing I learned off this movie is that Australian families behave much like American families at this urban level; they can be just as pathetic and (aside from the accent-and the music!) one could take this as a typical family somewhere in Florida; the vicinity of water being crucial in establishing this similarity. In Notting Hill, you had pretty much an English family that displayed some of the same characteristics-but that was a happier movie; actually, more American than English. In some ways, the Australians are really more similar to Americans than the British-always except for the music, of course. Americans fight more, and fall apart more quickly; they also make up faster, Hollywood demands that. And Hollywood makes only what sells-period. And, by the way, the shopping carts in the supermarket where Muriel’s mother shops look exactly American. I thought I was at Publix.

As for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), I have less to say than I thought. The movie is slightly more weird than similar American movies, Midnight Cowboy, for instance, which has weird (and unforgettable) characters, recognizable lunatics in the midst of an unrecognized lunatic world. Another movie that came to mind (actually a couple) is Easy Rider, one of the counterculture classics so rarely well made in any country. Like Easy Rider, Priscilla also depicts a split culture, unable to heal the gaps that separate its various groups of denizens. In Easy Rider, hippies (of the hippie era-not yet in eclipse by the way, just different forms of it) take off for a country trek, flaunting beards and the American flag, as a rag. Though harmless and mild-mannered, what they supposedly represent evokes fathomless hatred, and the two (three at one point) are mercilessly beaten, and then shot to death. In Priscilla, a relatively similar trek develops; two harmless drag queens and a transsexual go cross-country (ah! The landscape in both cases: Monument Valley-mocked of course, and the Magnificent Australian “Outback”-wherever that was) for a frivolous reason. But the Outback Australian roughneck is not more charitable, or enlightened, than his American counterpart-the redneck. Some kind people, some strange people, some dangerous people-and homophobia reigns: “Aids Motherfuckers, Go Home!” That’s what’s on their bus. Given the vastness-and the beauty-of their countries, Australians and Americans are-the same! (By the way, the other American movie that came to mind was Thelma&Louise-but that’s way off base.)

Constantine Santas is a Professor of Literature and Film at Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida, and the author of Responding to Film (Burnham, Inc., forthcoming).

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Zombie Brigade (written, produced and directed by Carmelo Musca and Barrie Pattison, 1988, starring John Moore and Kyhm Lam)

by Dimitri Tsahuridis

My most recent discovery from Australian Filmography turns out to be the only 35mm feature film produced entirely in Western Australia. The closing of the processing laboratory makes unlikely the change in the position of primacy soon. Zombie Brigade is the result of a then youthful creative team, whose names are visible and recognized in the industry today.

Thematically, the film deals with hard-core social issues, from racial prejudice to financial exploitation. It is the only Australian film in my memory where one leading role is played by an Aboriginal and the other by an Asian actor. More importantly, they are not proposed as ethnic stereotypes but rather as dramatic personae. Here is where the good news ends, for the film is a very gentle (!) horror movie. The Vietnam veterans’ cemetery has to be dislocated to make way for a new development. This is the central dramatic premise and you can deduce what happens. There are local council meetings -with ham and cheese in the dialogue – there are crooks with fake accents. Most importantly though, there is a textual lightness which is oh so charming and which we can not find very often in locally produced films. Ah, it also gained cinematic release in Germany and Brazil and you can find pirated DVD copies of it in the Asian markets!! Is this not a sign of something special?

Dimitri Tsahuridis was born in Greece 1964 and educated (mostly) there, predominantly in musical theory. In the Antipodes since the mid ’80s, after writing some music for theatrical works he would never acknowledge in public, has spent the last decade loitering in the word playgrounds.

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Head On

Head On: A (too) personal view

by Constantine Verevis

Earlier this year I delivered a lecture which sought to consider how a national understanding of race and ethnicity, and a national policy of multiculturalism, circulated in Australian films, especially those of the 1990s. One of the films referred to was Ana Kokkinos’ Head On, the 1998 feature adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’ novel Loaded.

One of things I wanted to argue in that lecture was that Australian national identity was not something essentialist and given, singular and unchanging (in a word, ‘true’), but rather that it was a kind of cultural process, something constructivist and manufactured, multiple and contingent. Despite this intention, I began the lecture by saying that Head On was a ‘mis-representation’ of Greek-Australian culture. I hastened to add that even though this implied that there was some other correct (‘true’) representation, and I didn’t think there was, it seemed that Head On was making a claim to (re)present some kind of authentic (‘true’) experience and, in that experience, being-Greek and being-Australian appeared to be mutually exclusive positions. Not only did the film fail, for me, to contribute to a more complex experience (a Greek-Australian one or maybe a multicultural one) but its failure to situate itself within a specific community or location (something I thought Loaded had done) meant that it took on (generally) what it might mean to be ‘Greek-Australian’ and that this – in Head On – seemed to be a singular, not a multiple thing.

This, of course, seems to be a difficulty we encounter whenever there are limited representations of a particular (yet never singular or homogeneous) cultural group. In the case of Head On, an unspecified Greek community had come to stand in for (to represent) Greek-Australian experience in general, but this experience did not speak to me, a Perth-born, Kastellorizian Greek (and product of the immediate post-WWII migration period). A tiny island just a couple of kilometres off the Lycia coast of Asia Minor, Kastellorizo was variously occupied and controlled (in the twentieth century alone) by the Turkish, French, Italians, and English before finally being ‘returned’ to Greece in 1948. In the early years of the last century, Kastellorizo was a prosperous merchant island with a substantial fleet and a population of 9,000-12,000, but its fortunes declined rapidly, beginning with its occupation by Italy in 1921 and culminating in the WWII bombings that substantially destroyed the island, its ruins occupied now by fewer than 200 people.

As is often the case for a displaced culture (Kastellorizo) – one that is isolated from the larger cultural formation of the parent culture (Greece) – the displaced culture attempts to limit (or manage) its encounter with the adopted culture (Australia) by imposing an artificial fixity on the dynamism that otherwise characterises (and continues to characterise) the parent culture. Accordingly, for the many Kastellorizians who left the ruined island to make homes in Australia (especially Sydney and Perth), ‘Kastellorizo’ becomes a hypostatised formation: a pre-WWI ideal that fixates upon the so-called Golden age of the early twentieth century (and in this way contributes to a kind of unity). In this sense, this singular image of ‘Kastellorizo’ becomes something that clashes with the totalising representation of Greek culture as I see it in Head On:

‘Greece’ –  Kastellorizo’

working class/uneducated – middle class/educated

agrarian/rural – mercantile/urban

parochial – cosmopolitan

masculine/patriarchal – feminine/matriarchal

What then can I offer as an alternative to this (problematic) understanding of Head On (and of Kastellorizo) and of Greek-Australian cultural formations more generally? My recommendation is George Alexander’s little book, Mortal Divide (1997). Only here do I find a work that sketches the complexity (and multiple nature) of Greek-Australian identity. Alexander draws an elaborate, near-anagrammatic, connection between Greece and Australia: Cairo-Cottesloe-Kastellorizo-Karrakatta. In Mortal Divide these are the key points that marked the life of the narrator’s father: ‘Kastellorizo, little Greek island off the coast of Turkey; Cairo, where he married Mum; Cottesloe [the Perth suburb], where he lived; Karrakatta, where he is buried’ (p.11).

Here we find the generality of a Greek-Australian experience within the particularity of (a series of) locations, and it is between these points that we encounter the nature of our (multiple) identities.

Con Verevis teaches in the area of Visual Culture in the School of Literary, Visual and Performance Studies at Monash University, Melbourne.

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The Castle

Screening Suburbia

by McKenzie Wark

The following are edited extracts from McKenzie Wark’s Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace: The Light on the Hill in a Postmodern World (Pluto Press)

Castles in the Stream

In the Australian spatial imagination, suburbia runs in bands around an urban core. Like the rings of Saturn, they are finely graded orbits of particles, surrounding an urban ball of hot air. Out beyond that lies empty space. The larger and richer and denser particles cluster close in the inner rings, and by finely graded degrees they become less rich and more sparse on the way out to nothingness.

The movie that epitomised the suburbia of the outer rings in the ’90s was The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1995). Dale Kerrigan (Stephen Curry) narrates a family fable about an encounter with the unknown world of big business and big government. Throughout the movie, conspicuous signs proliferate of the outer suburban culture to which the Kerrigans belong.

But while the visual repertoire of the film encourages the audience to read the Kerrigans as very culturally specific, as located in an outer band of the suburban rings of Saturn, the story cuts through this ring to reveal it works in a very different way. If the visual world of the film makes the Kerrigans into almost everyone’s idea of outer suburban taste, the narrative world makes of them a heroic expression of a noble that crosses the distinctions between the bands of suburban culture.

The Castle proposes that no less a force than the Constitution guarantees the right of suburbia to resist change from without. If there is to be change, it must be “on just terms”. It cannot simply dispossess people who have done no harm other than in remaining somewhat insulated, within their suburban castle, from the forces at work in a wider world. Regardless of the degree of irony with which we might be invited to read the Kerrigan’s taste, there is little doubt that the emotional pull of The Castle is toward extending our sympathy to the Kerrigans. If there is to be change, it should respect the rights even of outer suburbia. Airlink can build their freight handling facility on the site of the old quarry, which might cost more financially but will cost less in human terms. Change has to be negotiated rather than imposed.

The Castle expresses the predicament of suburbia, about to be Airlinked into the world by globalisation; it expresses a sympathy that can cut across the stratification of suburbia when confronted with change, and it expresses the terms on which change is acceptable – “on just terms.”

Suburban Cinema

Australian cinema throughout the ’90s also proposed more troubled and troubling images of suburbia than The Castle. P. J. Hogan’s movie Muriel’s Wedding (1994) is about leaving a provincial, suburban world and coming to the city. Muriel (Toni Collette) wants to get out of Porpoise Spit, where her father Bill ‘The Battler’ Heslop (played by Bill Hunter) reigns as the local political boss. Muriel hasn’t had a job in two years. She finds both her peers and her family oppressive. “I know I’m not normal but I’m trying to change.”

Muriel has her own style, but there is no place for it in Porpoise Spit. She takes off for Sydney, where she achieves her ambition of becoming someone. “Now my life is as good as an ABBA song!” The film embodies some key urbane values: friendship extended to strangers; the right of self-invention; the cultivation of life as style; a subtle and contingent process of inventing new versions of the fair go out of the virtual lexicon of culture.

A very different kind of ’90s movie about a very different kind of friendship is David Ceasar’s Idiot Box (1996). Mick (Jeremy Sims) and Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) are two fringe suburban likely lads, unemployed and bored. Mick has urbane tendencies. He makes up poems that everyone tells him aren’t poems, because they don’t rhyme. Everyone’s a critic. “I reckon if you say something is a poem, then it is”, says Mick, spontaneously inventing conceptual art for himself.

Kev has other ideas. Watching a news story about a bank robber on TV, he hatches a plan to rob a bank. They are armed with Mick’s concept, distilled from years of TV cop shows, about the five ways robbers get caught. This story runs in parallel to that of the successful bank robber who, unknown to Kev and Mick, lives nearby. His problem is that his junkie wife puts so much of the take up her arm that he has to keep robbing banks to keep her going.

Idiot Box is a black parody of the differences within suburban culture, with its parallel stories of successful and unsuccessful outer suburban life. The successful, skilled, professional bank robber cooks a roast dinner for his junkie wife. Meanwhile, unskilled, unemployed characters plot an amateurish attempt at breaking in to the same industry, but fail through their lack of skill. Kev’s mum says of him what Muriel’s dad says of her – “useless.” Muriel succeeds in inventing, at least for herself, a use. Kev fails. Both have much the same resources to go on: whatever the media tosses up on their front lawns and chucks into the living room.

These two movies are examples of the sort of things the media proposes to a public – in this case, propositions about the ways out of suburbia. Interestingly, both are also about ways of using the media itself as a resource from which to draw proposals. As the neighbourhood drug dealer says about his own ‘idiot box’, “you can sit home and see everything in the world and see how it works. Whole worlds in a box in your room.” If bank robbing was not such a good proposal for Kev to take up, Mick at least learned how to go down on his girlfriend thanks to videos. What keeps Muriel going while her father tells her she is useless is her ABBA tape, which proposes to her another kind of fair go, and which enables her to seek out a life “as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”

Both Idiot Box and Muriel’s Wedding play with a third nature of suburban images that previous movies and TV shows and magazine articles proposed and which have become part of a public world. They rely on suburbia as their enabling fable. Suburbia is a complex of images and stories as much as, perhaps more than, any actual place. ‘Suburbia’ made the experience of a suburb tangible and arguable; and by feeling and arguing through such fables, people made them real. In participating in the process, a people became a public. As John Hartley says, suburbia is “an image saturated place which is both intensely personal (inside people’s homes and heads) and extensively abstract”, it is “a place where people make themselves” (1).

But unlike Hartley I am not so sure that Australians can continue to live within the enabling fable of suburbia. It has not been a flexible enough space for self invention. Uncertainties and insecurities generated by the economic rationalisation of the ’80s and ’90s produced new images and stories that made the old suburban dream seem unstable and unsustainable. A movie like The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998) points to a quite different kind of proposition about suburbia, as something threatened and threatening. Even more than Idiot Box, this is a counter-fable of suburbia with no way out.

As University of Western Sydney academic Diane Powell argues, in the ’80s and ’90s ‘the west’ and ‘the westie’, the place and the people of Sydney’s western suburbs, became images of suburbia gone wrong. They were “the areas constructed as problems and their people as victims(2). While not unprecedented, such a concern seems to me to point to a struggle to redefine an enabling fable for Australian culture through new propositions about what the fair go might be – and might not be.

McKenzie Wark is senior lecturer in media studies at Macquarie University. His most recent book is Celebrities, Culture and Cyberpsace (Pluto Press) which includes a chapter on Australian cinema.

Endnotes

  1. John Hartley, Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular Culture, Edward Arnold, London, 1996, p.157
  2. Diane Powell, Out West: Perceptions of Sydney’s Western Suburbs, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993, p.xviii

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* * *

Strictly Ballroom

Culture of difference

by Damien Cassar

Australia is an indefinable entity. Constant immigration from all parts of the world since the founding of the nation has generated a ‘culture of difference’. This exists alongside the traditional ‘culture of the bush’; and, due to most of the population being concentrated within urban centres, can really only be located within suburbia.

Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992) is a film that can act as a metaphor for the Australian ‘culture of difference’, and, in the end, for how it meshes. The Ballroom Dancing ‘establishment’ is controlled by the demagogue Barry Fife (Bill Hunter). His regimented rules on what is acceptable and what is not resemble something as strict as the White Australia Policy. Fife wants nothing like, as Les Kendall (Peter Whitford) describes, “flashy crowd-pleasing steps”. What is desired is tradition, order, a system “where the man goes the lady must go”, according to Liz Holt (Gia Carides); a system where uniformity is king, and change is anathema. Scott (Paul Mercurio) is the only person who doesn’t care about winning the Pan Pacific Grand Prix. He wants to change the system, and dance his own steps. Yet so did his father, Doug Hastings (Barry Otto), who was silenced by the system. Doug shrieks to his son “It was the dancing that mattered!.We lived our lives in fear!” Yes, the film is about challenging the status quo. But it is also about how difference cannot be suppressed, how it mingles in today’s society, in today’s suburbia, through Scott and his interaction with Fran’s (Tara Morice) family, through the interaction between change (Scott) and tradition (the ‘establishment’). In the end, as Deborah Jones rightly asserts, “there is an embracing of all the people who are us”. Difference finally becomes a part of the entire Australian culture, whose members dance away at the end of the film, together. To John Paul Young.

Yet there is another key issue that has been ignored. Inevitably, the reason why Australian culture is an indefinable entity is not only due to it being a ‘culture of difference’, but also because it does not really contain its own brand, or style, of popular culture. Australia’s popular culture is for the most part imitative. The dominant American (and to a lesser extent, British) culture is “structurally integrated” into the cultural industries of almost every nation. Australia is more susceptible to this phenomenon because its culture is so volatile.

Baz Luhrmann acknowledges the influence of US popular culture by making Strictly Ballroom within a ‘popular’ manner. South-west Sydney is turned into a sound-stage, a Hollywood musical. Paul Mercurio and the cast basically dance throughout the whole film. When Scott is walking through the back-streets with Fran you are almost waiting for him to turn into Gene Kelly and swing on a lamp-post. The romantic theme is Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”. They dance to Doris Day’s “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps”. The film explores real social conditions through a popular means, through a fantastical exaggeration of the suburban experience.

And why not? Australians consume US popular culture: television, music, fashion, lifestyle. Why then, even if this influence is cultural imperialism, should it be discarded as separate from the Australian culture? The experience of US popular culture in the Australian suburban environment, in the ‘culture of difference’, is still very much Australian. It unifies, separates, and contributes to the Australian culture. Yet what emerges from films like Strictly Ballroom is something uniquely Australian in style and discourse, something that exists to one side of the international norm.

Damien Cassar is a Media/Law student at Macquarie University, Sydney.

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Spatial experience

by Susan Boden

It is tempting to see the recent tendency of urban depictions in Australian feature film as somehow representative of the sophisticated dialogues that supposedly grip a young, citified demographic. It is a world where self-actualisation is a ‘problem’ to be worked at by individuals who are only temporarily removed from their own (ultimately abundant) resources to survive. In cities, which are reduced to no-place sitcom sets, characters tend to be safely quirky, facing challenges which, like rearing children, will be largely resolved by them growing up.

I sense in our brief to write about these images, a relief that we’ve left that tired old bush mythology behind. But I want to counter the suggestion that this is because we have ‘outgrown’ externalised imagery to enter an elevated interior realm. Here I agree, with the Australian director John Ruane who suggests that the proliferation of what he terms ‘love in a shared household’ films has as much to do with the smaller production costs that follow from using a few cast members, very limited locations and minimal special effects.

As a landscape architect I am always surprised how generally unengaged our contemporary cinema is with spatial experience – not as a project for illusory formations of singular national character (the bush legend) but as a commentary on the fine grain of how we live (our habitus) and how we might look at issues with significant landscape content such as sustainability, reconciliation, technology and the city.

Are we really looking at re-formed identities or a response to the conditions of a globalised market, a kind of shifting restless gaze that will move on once these images of inner-city melodramas are exhausted?

Susan Boden lectures in the Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Canberra.

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