The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert by Philip Brophy is part of a Currency Press series designed to introduce more audiences to Australian cinema. In the words of the series’ editor, Jane Mills, the Australian Screen Classics series is
the plankton in the moving image food chain that feeds the imagination of our filmmakers and their audiences. It’s what makes sense of the opinions, memories, responses, knowledge and exchange of ideas about film. (Preface)
This series matches popular Australian films with distinguished cultural figures to garner their passionate responses to the films on which they have chosen to write. As a stimulating writer, performer, filmmaker, composer and a contemporary of the film’s writer and director, Brophy seems an appropriate choice for this book. Brophy’s poetically framed, passionate response to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (“Priscilla”) (Stephan Elliot, 1994) stands as a challenge to the complacency of a conservative Australian film industry, an uncritical audience and an uncritical reader of his piece.
Priscilla is part of “the Glitter cycle” (1), a popular term that has been used to describe a cycle or subgenre of Australian films that – in direct contrast to the AFC genre’s construction of a high-culture, European-defined cinematic identity (2) – celebrates an Australian popular culture defined as much by the regional as the international. Emily Rustin notes that the Glitter cycle challenges the prevailing cinematic myth of an Australian identity defined by a self-surrender to the Australian environment, an identity defined by conditions of enclosure, restriction and entrapment. Instead, she argues, the protagonists of the Glitter cycle films are empowered to “change the circumstances of their lives” and free themselves from the social and familial conditions that restrict and entrap them (3). In this way, the Glitter cycle re-writes the place of the individual in Australian cinema. These films are structured by a brash style that celebrates a postmodern semiotic excess, cultural pastiche and parody through a blurring of genres, colour-saturated mise en scène and overblown characterisations. Brophy cites this as Priscilla’s greatest potential: the film’s “muddying of national identity through overloading its archetypes and icons with implosive characteristics” (p. 39). This is achieved through the use of a camp aesthetic (4), one that enacts what Marjorie Garber terms “category crisis”, “a failure of definitional distinction”, which contains a powerful potential “to disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of a stable identity” (5). The camp aesthetic in the Glitter cycle films is the primary means through which the Australian national identity constructed by the AFC genre – white, male, heterosexual, and rural – is denounced.
As Australia’s only queer road movie musical, Priscilla houses camp within the framework of drag culture, which – along with the queer postmodern tools of mimicry, irony, parody – is used to interrogate the tensions between the “realness” and “ideals” of an Australian identity forged through the renaissance in Australian cinema and popular culture. Priscilla balances drag’s liberation from hegemonic sex and gender roles with the self-loathing, homophobic and misogynist elements that form the dark side of drag culture. In Priscilla, the complexities, complications and contradictions of drag as performance – as well as a lived, individual and sub-cultural identity – extend beyond the central characters to the queering of this Australian cinematic identity, exposing the disunity between perceived, performed identity and biological identity. It seems apt, then, that the complexities of drag’s defining elements – identity, performance, music, misogyny, mimicry and masculinity – and drag as the figuration of layers of cultural contradiction provide the unifying thread for Brophy’s passionate response to Priscilla.
In his introduction, Brophy defines his response as a bitter pill, a piece that resists the constriction of an academic structure, close textual analysis and the obligation to take his reader on a journey. Instead, his response is couched in a rich poetic rhetorical writing style that is heavily laden with the use of irony and excess, images and metaphors, and a mass of constantly contradictory assertions. The result is a piece that Mills aptly defines as a “wild ride beyond the film’s frames” (back cover). In the introduction, Brophy declares that his reading of Priscilla is “irrefutably un-Australian” (p. 5), clarifying that “this book is a reading of a map… [rather than] an analysis of the film’s dramatic script and its visual narrative, and more an assessment of the signs circulating within the movie” (p. 4).
Brophy’s piece elegantly draws on concepts from academic work on Priscilla, Australian cinema, film musicals and popular music in the film’s construction of queer identities, indigenous culture, the badlands of the Australian outback, masculinities and misogyny. In accordance with the series’ aim to introduce more audiences to Australian cinema, Brophy readdresses these concepts by citing the influences on Priscilla of pop culture references such as Countdown, ABBA, Isadora Duncan, and TV commercials featuring iconic Australian men. He further considers the cultural status Priscilla has gained within a contemporary Australian identity as evidenced by a discussion of the comedy of Sandra Bernhard, the Sydney Mardi Gras and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. From this consideration, Brophy concludes, “the gay embrace of Priscilla is a cultural conundrum qualified by how gay iconography has been assimilated into mainstream currents of Australian imagery, and how gay content has strategically lubed broader media channels for PC reconciliation” (p. 54) (6).
Brophy’s analysis of the music used in the film provides the basis for some of the strongest sections of the book, particularly “Staging Reality” and “Doing Landscape”. In “Staging Reality”, Brophy adds his voice to an existing chorus of academics and Australian filmmakers in railing against the homogenous construction of a white, middle-class Australian identity, borne from a conservative political agenda which has persisted since the inception of the AFC in the 1970s and has been reinforced by intersecting Australian Medias. In this section, Brophy usefully analyses the influence of international disco and pop music and music videos on Priscilla. In “Doing Landscape”, Brophy considers the use of the landscape and Indigenous culture in the production of an Australian identity in film and other media forms, arguing that, “at its worst, the didgeridoo is applied like black-face make-up: it is the ghostly absence of an Indigenous presence, rendered as a disembodied meme upon the imagescape of a European framing of the land.” (p. 44)
At the end of his introduction to section two, “Synching Lips”, Brophy enticingly states, “there appears to be multiple ways to read this film’s lips” (p. 17), an acknowledgment of the hidden complexities of the film. The labyrinthine contradictory complexity that Brophy identifies in Priscilla equally applies to Brophy’s piece – both to its credit and its detriment. The non-linear, free-flow of ideas hurls a plethora of associations at the reader that cohere in each segment of Brophy’s work. Many points are vehemently asserted in one section then later contradicted in a subsequent section. While the contradictions draw attention to the intricacies of Priscilla and the numerous reading positions that are available from which to interpret the film’s images and characters, in Brophy’s work these contradictions detract from the innovative and inspiring potential of his overall response. The contradictions are primarily the product of arguments expressed as sweeping generalisations about the misogyny and misrepresentation of queer culture that Brophy perceives in Priscilla.
It is in his contentions about the misogyny of the film that Brophy’s provocative generalisations are most disappointing. This is particularly evident when he argues that, “Priscilla allows men to be women and in the process devalues Woman” (p. 55), as “Priscilla visually unites macho blokes and tizzy queens in order to denigrate women” (p. 75). Brophy rejects Priscilla’s queer postmodern definition of “Woman” by refusing to acknowledge the post-op transsexual Bernadette’s (Terence Stamp) right to the status of Woman – something that is far more denigrating than his reduction of her character to “tizzy”. Brophy’s narrowing of the category of Woman also overlooks the socially subversive potential resulting from the non-traditional construction of women in this film and in the Glitter cycle as a whole. This is evident in his inability to discern the socially subversive nature of Muriel’s Wedding and its categorical transvestism. Muriel’s Wedding disrupts dominant heterosexual ideologies and gender prescriptions by queering Hollywood’s romantic comedy conventions and defying traditional gender constructions. Instead, Brophy declares, “Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) are deformed twins afflicted by the ABBA alien simulation virus. Both films are nihilistic, vicious, misogynist, delusional – all the key ingredients required […] for a feel-good Aussie movie.” (p. 73)
Brophy’s inability to see the liberation from hegemonic codes of femininity – a defining element of the Glitter cycle – is further confirmed when he argues that,
while all other women are silenced in Priscilla – including the queens themselves who, it must be remembered silence their own voices in their temporary purchase of female voices – Cynthia [Julia Cortez] is the only woman whose voice marks her presence and power. (p. 66)
The drag queens are personally and culturally mute without the power of the transgressive female voice in song, a voice that is matched by the women the drag queens encounter throughout their journey in the outback. Shirl (June Marie Bennett) is the gatekeeper, the empowered voice for her homophobic community, a voice that is clearly lacking in the men who can only express their intolerance by graffitiing the drag queens’ bus. Shirl marks her presence and her respected status in her community by standing amongst the men at the bar and by matching Bernadette in a drinking competition. Although Cynthia is an excessive reminder of the lack of appropriate representation of Asian women in Australian cinema, her character is still more transgressive than the drag queens in its subversion of hegemonic expectations of race and gender. Cynthia expresses her self-respect by humiliating, then leaving, a husband who treats her as a unwanted souvenir from an overseas holiday. More significantly than Cynthia or Shirl, it is Marion (Sarah Chadwick) whose voice marks her presence and power.
Marion is introduced as a disembodied voice on a telephone that makes Tick (Hugo Weaving) immediately head to the Northern Territory, deceiving his friends in order to comply with Marion’s request. Marion is Australian cinema’s only positive portrayal of queer motherhood, a woman who moves freely between queer and straight spaces, is a successful businesswoman and single mother, an understanding and supportive figure to her ex-husband, and a woman who knows when to ask for help and how to get it. Marion gives all three drag queens a new level of self-respect and more meaningful purpose and identity. By employing them at her club, Marion furnishes Bernadette and Bob (Bill Hunter) with the opportunity to redefine themselves and their relationship away from the restrictions of their home cultures. Equally, her son Benji (Mark Holmes) is as much Marion’s gift to Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce) as he is to Tick: an acknowledgment of Adam’s ability to be a good role model that situates Adam as an integral member of a family based on love, acceptance, integrity and respect, qualities he has been denied in his biological family. Marion is the woman Tick worships, whose opinion he values above all others. In short, Marion is the Australian queer female incarnation of both Glenda the Good Witch (showing the travellers that what they were looking for was within them all along) and the Wizard (the ordinary person pulling the strings behind the curtain) in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939).
Finally, Brophy’s more provocative generalisations include the following:
Streams of gay culture glorify urine, and beer is an important fuel in providing the means to extend a hard-earned session of water sports. […] For straight culture, it is the trough into which one urinates and the mouth one fills with beer. For gay culture, it is the mouth into which one urinates and the trough one fills with beer. Only once does beer touch the lips, tongues or throats of Priscilla’s queens. (p. 25)
In reference to Felicia’s proudest possession, a vial containing faeces from ABBA’s Agnetha, Brophy declares, “Woman-are-shit, pop-is-shit, gays-like-shit the scene is a toxic distillation of the self-loathing which fires Priscilla.” (p. 70) In contrast to Brophy’s reading, when Felicia declares Agnetha’s faeces to be her proudest possession, she is stating it with the sincerity of a devout fan, which is reasonable considering that the worship of abject items is an acknowledged expression of extreme fandom. Instead, this scene suggests the complexity of the representation of women in Priscilla and in drag culture, representations that range from misogynist to worshipful. In Priscilla, each of the drag queens has a woman in their lives that they respect and will go to great lengths to honour. Women are not shit and gays don’t like shit or golden showers any more than heterosexuals, and why is beer-drinking a measure of Australian queer authenticity? In these moments of gross generalisation, Brophy’s work slips from the provocative to the inane and the offensive, slippages that are disappointing from a writer of Brophy’s calibre.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a celebration of Brophy’s gift for musicality that is expressed here through the structure and rhythm of his work. The tone and condensed segmented structure of his piece provides the reader with an experience akin to reading a scintillating personal blog that has been regularly updated over a year. Brophy’s open-ended and passionate style invites a very active engagement from the reader, a format that begs for an online release that grants readers the ability to enter into discussion forums with the author and other readers. This would not only assist the aims of this series, but it would also help to fully realise the extent of Brophy’s contribution to an appreciation of Australian cinema.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, by Philip Brophy, Australian Screen Classics, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, 2008.
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- Emily Rustin, “Romance and Sensation in the ‘Glitter Cycle’”, in Ian Craven (ed.) Australian Cinema in the 1990s, Frank Cass Publishers, New York, 2001, pp. 131-148. The three films in this cycle are Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), Muriel’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994) and Priscilla.
- Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka argue that the Australian Film Commission’s (AFC) development of a national policy for filmmaking and its investment in almost every Australian feature film made between 1975 and 1980 resulted in the creation of a clearly identifiable genre of Australian cinema, which they term “the AFC genre”. Dermody and Jacka argue that this genre is characterised by a desire to make “quality” films defined by character, rather than action-driven narratives, and an appeal to an art-cinema market through their “literariness” and evocative period and landscape locale. They describe these films as
remarkably bland, even wholesome (just as the genre is) […] And in spite of the common period settings for AFC-genre films, the characters are very often ahistorical, with particular nuances of class, gender, race and place submerged under the tendency to restate the timeless, universal and “heartwarming” human stories that underlie their particular Australian inflection.
- Rustin, p. 133.
- I am using Jack Babuscio’s definition of camp, which he defines as a strategy of queering heterocentrist film culture by reading against the grain and satirising the filmic moments and stars defined by excess. He maintains that camp operates as a powerful critique of heterosexual privilege and presumption. See Babuscio’s essay, “Camp and the Gay Sensibility”, reproduced in Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin (eds) Queer Cinema: the Film Reader, Routledge, London and New York, 2004, pp. 121-136.
- Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1992, pp. 16 and 303.
- This point was made previously by Kelly Farrell in her essay, “(Foot)Ball Gowns: Masculinities, Sexualities and the Politics of Performance”, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 63, 1999, pp. 157-164. Farrell’s essay is concerned with “the ease with which heterosexuality can co-opt queer (with Priscilla as an example) and contain it within the broader concerns of the maintenance of national identity” (p. 157).