The Dish

The success of Rob Sitch’s The Dish (2000) capped off a year in Australian film during which the strongest performers were films that in many ways conformed to Hollywood conventions and genres. The Dish aside, the three most successful Australian films in 2000 were certainly Kate Woods’ Looking For Alibrandi, Andrew Dominik’s Chopper and Aleksi Vellis’ The Wog Boy. All did very respectable business, and appear to be in the process of replicating that box-office success in the video market. It’s interesting, then, that these films do in many ways adhere to a ‘Hollywood’ approach to cinema. Both Alibrandi and Chopper are essentially pre-sold properties stemming from already successful books, a dominant focus for production in the US system. The Wog Boy similarly rides on the success of the Wogs Out of Work stage shows, driven by Nick Giannopoulos and his product recognition juggernaut. These films – particularly The Wog Boy – aspire to a model of popular cinema and a conventional American-styled cinema but do not consciously appear to be designed for anyone else’s gaze but our own. They stem from Australian products which have already been road-tested on Australian audiences, and their success is predicated on their recognisable ‘Australianness’. The other major success of 2000 was The Dish, a film which also enjoyed admirable box-office success and appeared to connect with Australian audiences. It too conforms to Hollywood structure and genre, but what distinguishes The Dish from these other films is the way it also maintains a keen eye for those off-shore – it wants to please its home audience, certainly, but it is also supremely conscious of its ambitions on a more global scale. Essentially, and in contrast to films like Looking For Alibrandi and Chopper, The Dish is consciously designed and constructed to break into overseas markets, and to do so, it employs a range of tactics to appeal to this foreign gaze. It seems an opportune time – at the start of a new millennium and with several critical and commercial successes in the local film industry – to give some thought to this approach to cinema within a local context. Where exactly do we stand on films such as The Dish, which seem so keen to push a prescribed image of Australia, to reinforce perceptions of our culture and community for a foreign audience? Do we welcome the savvy approach to cinema adopted by Working Dog, and consider sculpting our cinema for overseas, or should we remain centred on stories for ourselves, from ourselves, as films like Looking For Alibrandi have demonstrated in 2000?

One of the more frequent criticisms of the Australian film industry is that we are not ‘Hollywood’ enough, that somehow our films are too small, intimate and resolutely ‘independent.’ We lack the blockbusters, the huge effects, the action, and thrills that standard American fare trots out on a weekly basis. We don’t make the sort of films that enjoy popular, widespread success, the kind that will play at multiplexes to packed houses. Of course, the simple fact is we are a small industry – simply by the size of our population and financial position we must inevitably fall short of American production values. We manage a break-out success every few years – a Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996), a Muriel’s Wedding (P.J.Hogan, 1994), a Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992) – but our greatest international success in terms of box-office and recognition, at least if you speak to an American off the street, is Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986). This was a case of the small Australian film replicating American domination of the box-office both at home and overseas by marrying elements it identified as quintessentially Australian with an eye for what would please overseas markets. Thus, the laconic, fiercely loyal numbskull takes on New York, stumbles from one social indiscretion to the next, and then defeats the bad guys with an unpretentious no bullshit approach to life that is both charming and disarming. Of course, we all know that Hogan’s Dundee is as representative of Australia as Adam Sandler is of America, but the film did serve to suggest and encourage a quite specific, codified image of Australia and Australianness. Ironically, it honed in on our country and our culture in order to extend its cinematic position beyond the boundaries of our shores. As a country rarely in the US spotlight, as Bill Bryson will attest, Australia’s position on the world stage was perhaps most keenly under scrutiny during the recent Sydney Olympics. Out of this event came a very real sense of our desire to be seen and recognised on a world stage, a country good enough, capable enough, savvy enough to mix it with the best of them. And it was therefore also interesting to witness the images of Australia we chose to show to the world, particularly in the closing ceremony. The manufactured images featured strongly yet again. Dundee was wheeled out once more, scraping his knife along his cheek, as well as garish tributes to Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla (Stephan Elliot, 1994) – as much a procession of globally recognisable images that reinforced the fabricated overseas perception of Australia, as it was about our own cinematic successes.

The Dish conforms to such ideals, and makes its overture to the overseas eye in a number of ways. In terms of narrative, the film is conventionally ‘Hollywood’ in structure, possessing identifiable signposts that fit comfortably into the American mould. It is the story of the little person making good, in the way that films like Soderburgh’s recent Erin Brockovich (2000) have done, a take on the traditional David and Goliath story. It uses a superfluous framing device with an aged Sam Neill returning to the dish itself and reminiscing, a decision that appears de rigueur at the moment, with films like Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) and The Green Mile (Frank Darabont, 1999) employing a similar tactic. The film’s basic premise swings on the interrelationship between Australia and the US during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the role the ‘dish’ in country New South Wales played in the transmission of the images we have all grown to recognise – Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon’s surface for the first time. In fact, the Australia-US relationship is an integral theme to the film. For example, Sitch firmly ensures the enormity and importance of NASA in the film is starkly contrasted with the small rural community of Parkes, very much the underling in this relationship. The film ultimately encourages a strong sense of the dominant, capable father figure, and the bumbling pipsqueak of a son, given the rare opportunity to make good and impress the formidable gaze of its leader (and hero). There is not necessarily anything wrong with this; it’s a simple consequence of the fact that the US is far superior in terms of industrial and economic might and we are, indeed, a pale infant when looked at in those terms.

But central to the comedy and drama of The Dish is the terror of Australia looking foolish and inept in the eyes of the world, a fear which motivates the locals in their attempt to welcome the visiting US dignitaries, as well as those at the dish itself who work desperately to fool NASA and obscure their own bungled efforts in the fulfilment of their role. And what is most striking in this context is the film’s desire to depict us as the very fools we fear to be in an almost sycophantic display of homage and deference. The people of Parkes are all goonish, inept nitwits, dithering around, making social faux pas and ignorant comments, and insistently pandering to the notion of Australia as lacking in culture and intelligence, exemplifying a gormless parochialism that leaves them permanently out of the global loop. The intention is for one of endearment, a condescending honour in this weakness. And this was, of course, the charm of Dundee that worked so well for American audiences. His lack of social awareness and astonishing naiveté, though, is compensated by an ability to think quickly and resolve problems with a direct and bullshit-free approach. So, too, do the workers at the dish itself exemplify this ignorant but resourceful attitude. Whilst for the majority of the film they seem to bumble around their workplace like Laurel and Hardy, when they manage to actually lose the Apollo 11 through ineptitude, they engage a range of goofy schemes to cover their fault and resolve the problem through clear thinking. This image of the Australian character as a bumbling fool until the chips are down, when they instantly exhibit clarity of purpose and nous is a curious one, but its replication by Working Dog does appear to conform to the image already encouraged by previous Australian international successes. With the flood of grotesque comedies beginning to wane in this country, The Dish‘s desire to maintain the exploitation of weakness seems somewhat anachronistic. This anachronism, though, hinges on a basic fact – that such a view of ourselves still passes muster here in Australia to some extent, and panders directly to the skewed but pre-established perceptions of the other major audience, the American public.

The films of Zhang Yimou have come under similar criticism in his homeland, that he exoticizes feudal China as a means to ‘sell’ China to foreign markets. The Chinese in fact have a derogatory term to express contempt for such actions, zuo gei wanguoren kan – where something is done “for the eyes of the foreigner.” (1) Are we, or should we too, be contemptuous of The Dish‘s blatant attempts to fabricate an Australian image to court a more international market? If the past is any guide, it seems that in aiming to do so, significant compromises are necessary; we must, in some ways, invent our own identity, manufacture an image that is marketable. Certainly there is a strong sense in The Dish that the image of Australia is a constructed one, a representation that is not representative. Operating as basically a comedy, it is understandable that characters are stretched and distorted, but the image of Parkes seems like a dizzy fairyland where not even the Vietnam War has penetrated, and as such it’s difficult to place this film in any sort of reality. Instead, Sitch’s vision of Australia becomes commodified and pre-packaged, bound by potential markets and universal comedic strategies. The one voice of dissent, the mayor’s daughter Marie, is painted as such an absurd reactionary that the one voice of potential authenticity, or possible anti-American sentiment, is reduced to a running joke. As if to emphasise the ludicrous nature of her criticisms, she instantly renounces her aberrant beliefs and succumbs to mooning adoration at a kind word from the visiting American. So whilst the Americans tend to come across as careful, non-judgmental and mature, the people of Parkes become superficial, ignorant or absurd. This demarcation caters to both the Australian audiences who tend to feel comfortable laughing at ‘themselves’, and the potential US audiences, who are represented far more favourably, and are clearly more worldly wise than the Australians that populate the film. This suggests either a clever marketing ploy by the Working Dog team, neatly covering their potential markets, or a cynical attempt to exploit the attitudes of both countries, depending upon your perspective.

Working Dog’s previous feature The Castle (1997) famously ran into some difficulty in its translation to American audiences. Culturally specific terminology and in-joke Australian references stymied the film’s universality, and necessitated changes to the dialogue to assist in this cross-over process (2). The Dish, of course, carefully eradicates all such culturally specific problems, with terminology and location painstakingly explained throughout the film, therefore avoiding such conflicts and obstacles once it does appear on American screens. Of course once such ‘Australianisms’ are patiently explained through a range of narrative devices, there is a clear loss of the very Australianness it aims to package and sell. The Dish succeeds in creating an Australia, but perhaps in this process, loses the essence of the product in the first place. In comparison, Looking For Alibrandi seems to smack of significant authenticity – it tells its story of Italian Australians and appears rooted firmly on our shores, despite the fact that the tale could (and should) play effectively to overseas markets. The Dish, however, aims to have a finger in both pies by serving up a quaint grotesque comedy as well as catering to the foreign gaze. Considering the continued criticisms of Australian cinema as being too parochial, and not ‘wide’ enough in its scope, are we, then, happy to compromise to encourage a breadth to our industry? It seems that The Dish does actively address one of the major criticisms of our cinema; it aims for a broader audience, is inclusive in its humour, and in its narrative. It has clearly succeeded in gaining an Australian audience (despite it not being entered into competition at the 2000 AFI Awards) and will no doubt translate fairly effectively into American markets, assisted by its success at the Toronto Film Festival (where it was entered). Perhaps it is time to confront some of these more difficult questions in relation to our film industry. Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves what direction our national cinema needs to take, and are in fact Working Dog and The Dish simply showing us the way?

Endnotes

  1. Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, New York: Columbia UP, 1995, p.155
  2. Tearlach Hutcheson, “Storming The Castle“, Cinema Papers 134 August/September 2000, pp.11-14

About The Author

Mark Freeman is an academic in the Department of Film and Animation at Swinburne University. His most recent publication was in Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon edited by Linnie Baker and Xavier Aldana Reyes. He is also an editor at Senses of Cinema and has interests in national cinemas, horror and reality television.