Crocodile Dundee

First of all, I want to make two rather awkward requests of my readers: that we spend some time taking Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) seriously and a bit more time taking romantic comedy seriously as a political phenomenon, indeed as one of the favoured ways in which movies deal with international relationships. Movie formulas become formulas, after all, because they carry conceptual weight and this one carries more weight than is generally acknowledged. Admittedly, Croc – I’ll use that short form, both for brevity and the pun – is more a work of marketing than of art, but it is marketing raised to the level of art and uses marketing as one of its key terms. Sue Charlton first takes Mick Dundee to New York, you will remember, because he is a “property”, a story she can sell just as it has been sold to her by him and his mate-cum-agent, Walter Reilly. The seller of this story then falls in love with her own product who is himself a seller…well, you get the pattern. Business is taking place, as is reflexivity.

Sue is not, of course, the only one who falls in love with Dundee; so does most of New York, from hotel maids to cops to transvestites and sexually ambiguous art mavens, thereby anticipating a significant proportion of the American viewing audience of 1986. In the film, liking Mick is a test of character failed only (for understandable reasons) by Sue’s pompous, manipulative fiancé. As you will recall, Mick spends strikingly little of his time in the second, American half of that movie romancing the object of his affections and a great deal of it charming extras and bit players. The couple’s final reunion is only accomplished with the help of a New York subway crowd who serve as the bush telegraph that carries her message of love – finally delivered to him by a male construction worker – and who provide the bridge to connect the two. In a bashful, largely unconscious way that is clearly meant to be essentially “Australian”, Mick woos the city and the country for which it stands. Graeme Turner identifies part of the importance of the film when he notes that it produced “a little burst of desire that travelled in the opposite to the customary direction; that is, Australia became an object of desire for Americans” (1).

Given the extraordinary status of Crocodile Dundee as the first Australian film to be a major popular success in both countries, it is a matter of some cultural importance to ask – one more time – what New York sees in him and vice versa, not to mention what Sue sees in Walkabout Creek. What exactly is falling in love with what? And what has that to do with Ralph, the outback innocent falling for the Australian re-embodiment of an American country singer in Doin’ Time for Patsy Cline (Chris Kennedy, 1997)? Or with British Tara Fitzgerald being seduced by the Australian title characters of John Duigan’s Sirens (1994)? Or William Thacker/Hugh Grant falling for the American superstar Anna Scott/Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999)? In all of these representative cases, we are considering how different popular cultures get into bed with one another and what happens, politically and otherwise, when they do. How do the relations between Australia, England and America change when they are translated into the terms of sexual romance?

None of these stories is personal, of course; romantic comedy rarely is. Hugh Grant, who stars in two of those films, makes his living playing iconic Englishness, just as Paul Hogan used to make his playing iconic Australianness. The myriad representative New Yorkers in Croc respond to tokens – the accent, the idiom, the costume, the knife – that register a collective rather than a personal identity, as the nickname “Crocodile” designates a public relations myth, a tall tale, not the person wearing it. If you are Australian, of course, you register a tradition: the long and supposedly deceased one of the Aussie as bushman and/or larrikin (and perhaps also register the absence of any female representatives of national identity). If you are American, you register something that seems at first more foreign than it is. Both countries, after all, have a tradition of the frontiersman. Mick’s emblematically Australian knife is recognisable, at least to Americans like me, as a Bowie knife and its owner as someone Sue identifies, only half-mockingly, as “Davy Crockett”. The costume, as has often been noted, is a pastiche: generic cowboy gear but with Akubra hat substituting for Stetson and snakeskin for rawhide. His ostensibly egalitarian manners are as much a part of America’s traditional self-image as Australia’s. Much of what is being presented to American audiences as exotically Other is very much the Same. To paraphrase the film’s tagline: there’s a little of him in both of us.

A considerable amount of superficial evidence to the contrary, Mick is not being played off against America but against what is represented in the film by Manhattan, conventionally imaged as a place of sharp verticals which contrast with the democratic flatness of Walkabout Creek and its surrounds, and which separate media executives like Richard-the-fiancé in their high-rise offices from the streets where Mick walks and interacts. Again conventionally, the inhabitants are sharply divided between wealthy and working class, haves and have-nots. Social contacts are stratified, abrasive, impersonal. Through Richard and the rest of Sue’s media colleagues the city is identified with thrusting competitiveness, in contrast to the relaxed passivity of Walkabout (2). Mick startles, then charms, hotel staff by actually conversing with them as if they were people rather than functions. We have seen all this before, of course: the city is New York as imagined by small town Americans who have never been there. Mick’s way of dealing with it has been anticipated by Jimmy Stewart – though Longfellow Deeds did it to Washington – and a host of other virtuous innocents, including the Tarzan of Tarzan’s New York Adventure, another of Mick’s precursors (3). In this calculatedly familiar populist myth, what appears to be a clash of national cultures is, in fact a class conflict: real people vs. rich (or Rich) people and/or country vs. city. Australia defined as the Outback is only another version of the American Great Plains. Mick’s effect on the urban environment is, of course, to personalise and democratise it; by treating it as Walkabout Creek he turns it into Walkabout Creek. However, this is less a matter of Australianising it than of restoring what Americans regard as their traditional identity: the pastoral myth of small-town simplicity. Difference is being erased even as it is asserted. Not surprisingly, Mick’s most useful ally turns out to be a Black chauffeur whose hunting skills are a match for his own. Street fighters and croc-fighters shake hands in mutual recognition. At the same time, however, Australia is being firmly identified with the (virtuous) past and with the rural as opposed to America’s urban present. In the film’s iconography, there is not American hinterland except for its Australian substitute (4).

Crocodile Dundee

It is not easy to say whether New York is serving here as a surrogate for Sydney or Sydney for New York. The “real” Australia is conflated with Walkabout Creek as America is conflated with Manhattan; what is missing from each model is displaced onto the other. Urban Australians are represented by New Yorkers (5). The glass towers of the two cities are the same. The narrative problem of how to get Sue Charlton out of her glass box and down to the ground where the real people live is the same. Again boundaries are being erased, since Sue is a citizen less of the United States than of an international media culture in which countries are differentiated mostly by what you buy at the airport duty-free. The film’s narrative is, of course, a prolonged seduction in which Sue is at once an object of our sexual interest and a flattering substitute for our (American or Australian) selves. In terms of the film’s national mythologies, she is America the glamorous and seducible – like Anna Scott, the Julia Roberts character in Notting Hill – a version of American power as daunting but fundamentally unthreatening, indeed vulnerable. Constantly in need of rescue, from snakes or crocodiles or from her fiancé, she feels, not surprisingly, that she is playing Jane to Mick’s Tarzan. The love story, in other words, has the specific function of reversing the actual power relation between the two countries: endangered, feminine America needs rescuing by virile, streetwise Australia. At the same time, American and feminist sensibilities are soothed by making Sue a crack shot and the sexual aggressor.

Again, however, the film’s populist mythologising blurs the national and gender distinctions it seems to rely on. To be loved, Mick-as-Australia must first be seen, so that he/it can be recognised as familiar. That is a problem because the first characteristic of the media culture as shown here is abstraction: it sees the world in terms of forces, issues, concepts, not experiences and individuals. A “story” is something you read in a newspaper that tells you what to think about an “issue”, rather than something you make up or relate out of your personal experience, like Mick’s crocodile story, a fiction which can be realised when Sue is attacked by one. Characteristically, she asks Mick what “a person like you would think” about the arms race instead of asking what “you think”. She asks about his demographic, not about himself. Of course, she also thinks that an Aborigine who is wearing a Rolex would believe that her camera could steal his soul.

In one sense, of course, this failure to see is not a purely American problem. The fact that Sue is first shown in Sydney is a reminder – missed by most reviewers – that, if she were a member of that city’s urban intelligentsia, she would be only marginally less clueless in Walkabout Creek than she is. As Meaghan Morris notes, “the relation of most Australians to the outback is exactly like Sue’s” (6). And Mick would be only marginally more attuned to Sydney than he is to an American city. Both would be on alien ground. The “real Australia” of the Outback is as foreign to its urbanised centre as it is to outsiders. (This is about intra- as well as international reconciliation.) At the same time, however, this is very much an American problem. In all of the films I am discussing – and in reality, if we can rely on the depressing statistics about how little Americans recognise of the outside world (7) – a central problem for the marginal partner is getting the central one to see him/her. (Centres are, almost by definition, self-regarding. That’s how they got to be centres.) Sue’s role in the film is thus pervasively spectatorial: she wanders the outback taking notes and pictures, specifically pictures of Mick. She spies on the Aboriginal ceremony while Mick takes part in it. Above all, of course, she watches him. She walks in on his bath, you will recall, not he on hers. Hogan, far more than Koslowski, is the film’s object of spectation and desire, just as he’s the image on all the posters. Since these films reverse the gender/power relation between their central partners, they necessarily reverse the customary direction of the gaze: the movie star gazes at the bookseller, the glamorous reporter at the backwoodsman. In both cases, feminist doctrine to the contrary, the gazed at is more powerful than the gazer. Reversing another romantic convention, Sue will end up chasing Mick through the streets and proposing – in front or over the heads of a crowd – to him; Anna Scott winds up telling William Thacker, in one of the most embarrassing moments in recent film, that she is “just a girl. Standing in front of a boy. Asking him to love her” (8). Then, of course, she leaves him the million-dollar Chagall to remind us of their other power relation.

The appeal of this game, after all, is mutual reassurance. America remains the glamorous, the desired, the loved, and in a material sense the powerful: Anna Scott and Sue Charlton make their husbands wealthy. The non-dominant partner, however, is re-centred and empowered as well as re-signified. America has been made to love back as well as look back. (The modesty, the little-me-ism with which both Australia and Britain present themselves is largely false.) The marginal gazer becomes the object of the reciprocal gaze. More than that, Australia is positioned as not merely America’s partner but her better self. In the relevant words of the wedding ceremony, they are one flesh, not just two sides: an alliance diplomacy can only dream of.

The striking parallels between Notting Hill and Crocodile Dundee suggest that the appeal of this fantasy reaches well beyond Australia, just as the differences between Doin’ Time and Hogan’s film suggest that the appeal may have significantly faded in the 11 years between them. Oddly, for a film set entirely in London, Notting Hill constructs the same rural vs. urban polarity on which this genre seems to depend. Appearances to the contrary, the Notting Hill neighbourhood is introduced to us as “a small village in the middle of a city”, marked by intimate and ambition-free personal relations. Not just a village, it’s a medieval village. William’s support-group-cum-extended-family serve the same iconic function as Mick’s pub mates: both are enactments of the virtues of contented loserdom, but also of a culture of tradition as opposed to an American culture of progress. The inhabitants of both places seem to have gone walkabout 20 years ago and decided to remain there. By contrast, America is as exclusively urban here as it is in Croc; Anna’s only environments are Los Angeles and New York. American wealth and cultural reach is again embodied in the enticing, unthreatening figure of the beautiful woman – an effect reinforced by the reflexive casting of Roberts as a character based on Roberts – whose other defining qualities are seducibility and fragility. Most of the character’s development is, in fact, devoted to displaying her vulnerability to scandal, aging or public fickleness, and a key plot point is her victimisation by the British tabloids. She remains, of course, the figure on the front page of the papers read by the English characters: an icon of present-ness who is drawn, again like Sue, to a version of the tranquil past, whose marginal status is here registered by its being embedded in the contemporary city, where its hobbit-like inhabitants go in order to fail at their jobs.

Unlike Mick and his mates, William’s crowd are intensely, anxiously aware of America, if never quite up on it. Anna’s image is everywhere in the film: on buses, on hoardings, on the televisions they watch and the videos they rent. (You may have seen the cover of the printed script, which was also a poster for the film: a small William walking sheepishly in front of an enormous billboard of Anna’s face, a concise embodiment of the “special relationship” between the two countries.) She is the more than acceptable face of a cultural invasion, but she is also an emblem of the America that makes the English feel small and inadequate. It is hardly accidental that her appearance at Max and Bella’s dinner party culminates in a competition to establish which of them is the saddest under-achiever. It is a thematic and structural turning point of the film that Anna effectively wins that competition, despite the fact that her opponents include a woman in a wheelchair who has just found out that she can’t have children. Daunting American success and confidence redefine themselves as anxiety and need in a scene marked by repeated shots of Anna, the object of the world’s gaze, silently watching her watchers. The envied envies the enviers. Centre and periphery are transposed. Anna sees William’s support group and wants it for herself. “They” turn out to need “us”; in a fundamental sense, they turn out to be us. Anna, after all, regards herself as a failed actress, and thus at one with the failed stockbrokers, restaurateurs, and booksellers who comprise her soon to be adopted country.

It is some peculiar measure of cultural difference that the inhabitants of Walkabout Creek are entirely free of such anxieties, since they hardly think of America at all and regard Sue as just that girl with Mick. Indeed, the fiction of an Australia blithely indifferent to America is the single most unrealistic aspect of the film. Clearly the tyranny of distance can sometimes be construed as the illusion of liberation. The vast spaces of the outback give the Walkabout Creekers a sense of self-sufficiency unavailable to the village folk of Notting Hill. In response to both mentalities, however, America turns out to be a poor little rich girl who needs nothing more than the real virility of Australia or the real domesticity of England. It is a safe rule with this genre that in any relation between Britain and America or Australia and America, glamour will accrue to the American side, authenticity to the other side. Where the relation is between Britain and Australia – as it is, say, in My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) or in Sirens, where Hugh Grant’s English vicar loses his wife, in spirit at least, to Norman Lindsay and Elle MacPherson – glamour and authenticity will accrue to the Australian side, and bloody aught to the English side. At least as long as Australians are making the movie. If contemporaneity accrues to America – Sue the reporter and Anna the celebrity are both avatars of the Goddess of Breaking News – pastness will accrue to the other. America gets to be the city, the rest of us get to be the country. William lives in a village – albeit a gentrified, fashionable one – Anna (and all the other Americans in the film) live in the global village.

Of course, since this genre is about mutual empowerment, Anna wants the “real” village and the “real friends” (what Curtis’s script says she sees at Max and Bella’s party) in it. Glamour and authenticity converge, as in the last shots of the film, which show us first William and Anna at one of her premieres, then William and Anna in Notting Hill park, she now pregnant and English. There’s empowerment for you! The fundamental trope of international romance makes powerlessness powerful and marginality central because both qualities – and their associated virtues – compel the affection of the ostensibly powerful. If America is the movie and the rest of us the audience, the star of that movie can be made to fall for that audience. (The Purple Rose of Cairo [Woody Allen, 1985] is thus one of the great postcolonial movies or, at least, one of the great postcolonial metaphors.) The face you look at on the poster can and will be compelled to look back at you. And when it bends to you it will remain powerful: that double ending tells you that Anna goes on making pictures; Sue and Mick settle in her city on her money (at least until the need for a sequel arises).

Doin' Time for Patsy Cline

It is worthwhile, however, to see what happens to these patterns in the best of Croc‘s recent remakes, the shockingly neglected Doin’ Time for Patsy Cline (Chris Kennedy, 1997), a remarkable example of subverting the genre from inside. The comforts of the movies we have been discussing derive from the fact that they are fables of reconciliation, patently unreal texts that invoke the possibility of a convergence in what – again, for comfort’s sake – we call the real world. American culture, the elephant in the bed, as Pierre Trudeau once described it, can be transformed into a bridegroom or (better) a bride, living in some sort of mutually beneficial relation with the smaller cultures and film industries in its linguistic ambit. That is precisely the possibility that is cut off in Kennedy’s film where Australia dreams of America without ever reaching it and without evoking the shadow of a response. Unlike Mick Dundee, Ralph, the film’s would-be country music star, knows that America, specifically Nashville, is the centre of the known universe and western New South Wales, where he is, the furtherest and raggedest margin: home figured as exile. This version of America monopolises reality as well as glamour. It is, once again, the show, Australia the besotted audience, but no embodiment of that show descends from the screen to embrace her admirers.

If Mick Dundee was an ironised version of Chips Rafferty in films like The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946), Ralph is the diminished version of that ironisation. When Ralph sets out for America, lacking even the bus ticket to get him to the airport, he gets as far as a local jail; the rest of the journey and his tear-stained rise to Nashville stardom take place in his dreams (9). The Patsy of those dreams is not the original Cline but an Australian named after her, just another reflection of what Meaghan Morris would call a culture of negative unoriginality, not unlike what we see in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) or Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1993): borrowed Americanism, a nation in costume playing other people’s music. Australian country music, even Slim Dusty, goes unmentioned and unheard. The bikers in the next cell play sentimental ballads – they’re imitation Hell’s Angels who want to be imitation Statler Brothers. When Ralph looks out the cell window he sees a station platform full of Australians in cowboy gear practicing line dancing. Still in jail, in the film’s final shot, Ralph morphs into Johnny Cash, doing a spot lit entrance to a gig in the prison yard with the bikers as a backup band: a star in his own prison – surely one of the most iconic images in recent Australian film. What is missing from this collective love affair is any sign of reciprocation, not surprisingly since the only “America” visible in the film is made up exclusively of the already mediated imagery of pop songs and movies, the shadows on the walls of Ralph’s cave. As in so much of the world, America is present mostly as the absent author of its cultural texts. Of course, Ralph’s culture heroine is Patsy Cline, dead long before his birth, and his dream life a rehash of her posthumous bio-pic, Sweet Dreams (Karel Reisz, 1985). What is most remarkable about the film is its cheerful refusal to provide the fundamental comforts of the genre: that spectatorship will be rewarded in heaven, that the watchers will be seen and loved by the objects of their devotion.

Let us conclude by considering some of the implications – not to mention, the temptations – of translating political relations into sexual ones. Like all translations, this one involves an element of treason. On the most fundamental level, of course, international relations are naturalised in the process of being eroticised. If Australia and America, Britain and America, are figured as attractive male and female they are, in some sense, “meant for each other”, allied by the illusion of a biological imperative that takes the form of a familiar narrative arc. No one doubts that Mick and Sue, William and Anna will converge because the formula necessitates it. When Chris Kennedy refuses to complete the formula, as we have seen, a significant number of reviewers imagine that it has been completed because they want it to be. The popularity of the genre has a great deal to do with this kind of domestication of conflicts; it provides an arena in which difference can be enacted safely; lovers quarrel in the certainty of reconciliation. The genre allows the two sides to act out ambivalence in a context of ultimate safety. “They will together”, as Rosalind says on a related occasion, “clubs cannot part them”. Love stories are nothing if not disarming, but no such instinctive force drives nations together.

Having made that somewhat obvious point, it is worth adding that, of course, there is a sense in which this eroticisation of relations is not deceptive. Psychologically, Britain or Australia and America are linked by desires based on mutual perceptions of what “they” have and “we” lack: American glamour, say, as versus British history or Australian beer. Americans like Australia or Canada – to the small extent that they think of either – because they imagine that they see a mirror or a sibling, but also because they think they see an other who loves back and who consumes American popular culture as avidly as Americans do. On the level of popular feeling, we must assume, the sense of friendship involved is only tangentially related to shared economic or military interest. That’s one reason why the genre depends so much on manufacturing insignificant differences that can be erased by fundamental likeness: making sure, that is, that one partner says “tomayto” and the other “tomahto”. Hence, for that matter, Colin Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage telling Australians recently what good “mates” they are and that America is Australia’s “big mate” (10). Crocodile Dundee made a lot of money playing to that idea of mutual attraction, the desire for a mate in the sense either of friend or lover. In media practice, of course, that desire is represented in eroticised terms. Which Australians do you suppose Americans are most likely to be able to identify: Gibson and Kidman or Keating and Howard?

At the same time, the fundamental basis of the relationship has been changed: in this genre nations are united by desire, not by common interest; by love, not by economics. Superstructure is foregrounded, structure largely erased. Of course, economic difference between the lovers is fundamental; these are subaltern love stories, whose most basic function is to negotiate imbalances of power to the satisfaction of both parties, making the dominant feel loved and the subordinate feel essential. At the same time, as we have seen, the identification of the subordinate culture with the rural and the past reinforces the domination which is otherwise being finessed. When Americans make international love stories – I’m thinking of, say, Serendipity (Peter Chelsom, 2001) or French Kiss (Lawrence Kasdan, 1995) or the recent version of Possession (Neil LaBute, 2002) in which Roland has been changed from British “smudge” to American leading man – imbalances of power and wealth tend to be erased. In the British and Australian equivalents, they are foregrounded. The nature of the relation is fundamentally changed, however: lovers may be economically differentiated, but they are not normally in competition. As usual in romantic comedy, wealth and status exist to be bestowed. Nations, unlike lovers, are customarily in competition and often prosper at each other’s expense. Ask your nearest Australian wheat farmer.

Notting Hill

International romance is star-driven as well as formula-driven and that suggests a subtext more important than trade. What happens in Notting Hill, as we all understand, is not that an American star meets an English bookseller, but that an American star meets an English star. In the working out of that relationship, he is incorporated into her stardom as she into his domesticity. Mick, who is originally a minor subject of the news media, marries the heiress of the news corporation (reversing the romance of Rupert Murdoch and Wendy Deng). As Meaghan Morris has noted, Croc is, among other things, “a take-over fantasy of breaking in to the circuit of media power, to invade the place of control” (11). That is why who invades American space and who can be appropriated from it are so central to these films. Here and elsewhere in the genre, what is acted out is the relation of smaller national film industries to Hollywood, a fable also embodied – as every Australian news editor knows – in the late, lamented romance of Tom and Nicole. In what other realm is making yourself seen so central a term? Where else are looks and charm quite such reliable currency? Paul Hogan, Australian star, writes a script in which his alter ego conquers the American media as a means for Hogan to do likewise. Anna Scott will recognise William not so much as himself but as Hugh Grant, radiance calling to radiance. And the audience of the subaltern industry can enjoy the fable of local star engrossing and merging with international. We have throughout this paper, of course, throughout this genre, in fact, been dealing with a kind of shadow play in which flattering national image falls in love with flattering national image, even as the genre asserts the fundamental likeness of those images. Same loves same, justified by arbitrary, inflected difference. In the process, spectation and consumption are rewritten as power and control, but shared power and control. Audiences are offered images of themselves as stars, desired by what they desire. We are looking, I would suggest, at an erotics of globalisation in which national difference – and thus desirability – is asserted only so it can be denied: a courtship of floating signifiers, a myth of equalising the unequal.

A version of this paper was presented at the AULLA 33 Conference at Victoria University, Wellington, 9-14 February 2003. My thanks to Geoff Miles and the rest of the conference organising committee.

Endnotes

  1. Graeme Turner, Making It National: Nationalism and Australian Popular Culture, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1994, p. 108.
  2. See Meaghan Morris, “Tooth and Claw: Tales of Survival and Crocodile Dundee” (Art and Text 25, 1988, p. 50) on Mick’s passivity and reactiveness: “there is no paranoid driving force to make Dundee’s actions cohere. . . . His major mode of movement is a vaguely purposeless ambling (walkabout)”.
  3. The appropriation of American film genres and motifs by Australian cinema is canvessed by Brian McFarlane and Geoff Mayer, New Australian Cinema: Sources and Parallels in American and British Film, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.
  4. Cf. Stephen Crofts’ remark that “Crocodile Dundee successfully creates the impression that there is something approaching a smogless, egalitarian American heaven on earth, though it’s called Australia” (cited in Turner, p. 116).
  5. McFarlane and Mayer note that “one of the most urbanised nations in the world, Australia, is still prepared to endorse such nationalist construction as bush-nurtured integrity” (p. 199).
  6. Morris, p. 47.
  7. Matthew Engel (Guardian, December 17, 2002), notes surveys indicating that only one-sixth of Americans know the name of the Prime Minister of Canada and only 20 percent can identify its capital.
  8. Richard Curtis, Notting Hill, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1999, p. 143.
  9. This basic plot point clearly escaped some reviewers; see, for example, Joshua Smith’s review for Oz Cinema (link to www.ozcinema.com/reviews/d/doingtime.html), accessed July 2002.
  10. Weekend Australian, December 14-15 2002, p. 1.
  11. Morris, p. 47.

About The Author

Arthur Lindley teaches literature and film studies at the National University of Singapore, where he founded the film program. He is on the Editorial Board of Screening the Past.