Contemporary Australian cinema has lost any sense of spontaneity or carnivalesque excess in the prison house of worthiness and realism. Aside from genre films, there are now few moments of bedlam, scatological celebration or savage unbridled satire.One of the greatest moments of Australian cinematic mayhem is the fire at the BBC studios in the penultimate scene of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and the artless approach of the Australian expatriates in extinguishing the raging flames. It is a stunning sequence of parallel action editing that surpasses the famous baptism scene at the end of The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) in narrative logic, intensity and conceptual sophistication. The scene in The Godfather introduces us to Michael’s duplicity and the double life he will lead as head of the family; in Barry McKenzie, the parallel action edit structure cleverly combines the disparate strands of the protagonist’s picaresque adventure with an ideological analysis of British society, while simultaneously overwhelming the senses with a flood of urine and a fountain of chunder. In a film criticised for its flagging rhythm and gross obscenity, this scene is exemplary of efficient, conceptual filmmaking in a wonderfully haptic mise en scène.

Resplendent in his undersized suit, Akubra hat and Qantas bag slung over his shoulder, Barry McKenzie (Barry Crocker) is being interviewed for Britain’s leading current affairs program on the subject of Australian expatriates and the Arts.The priggish presenter asserts, “most of us Europeans think of Australia as a tough, uncompromising land, stricken by drought and floods and inhabited by kangaroos and tough, insensitive, foul-mouthed beer-swilling bores.” This is met by a guttural chorus from Barry’s mates watching the interview. After some inane questions about Australian expats revitalising the flagging European culture, she asks Barry what he thinks of English girls. “Pommy sheilas?” Barry becomes philosophical, “Oh they’re apples I suppose, but I am that full at the moment that if a potato peeler walked passed flashing her lovely pair of funbags it would be a sad case of brewer’s droop.” The dour interviewer is befuddled, “I’m afraid that I don’t quite see your point.” McKenzie tries to be helpful: “My point? Well cop this!” he yells as he jumps up on his chair and drops his pants to demonstrate. A shadow of a flaccid penis is revealed briefly in the studio lights. The show’s producer (played by comedian Peter Cook), flushed with excitement, squeals to his colleagues in the control room, “this is a television breakthrough; a rare moment of spontaneity!” Suddenly a fire breaks out in the studio. But the Australians don’t panic. In a raucous demonstration of mateship and a can-do attitude, Barry’s mates form a chain gang passing the “amber fluid” to one another. Releasing fountains of Fosters, they drink and then urinate on the flames in a scene of somatic pandemonium. They sing, “One-eyed trouser snake. God help us if we ever lost our one-eyed trouser snake” as they douse the flames from above, dispensing with all vestiges of authority in a spectacle of jolly anarchy.

The film’s style borrows from the popular, vulgar, knockabout, physical theatre forms emerging in Australia in the late 1960s. The staging focuses on dynamic performances (often crowd scenes) around a stationary camera and focused lighting leaving the subject surrounded by shadow. There is a clever intermingling of TV control room footage with a documentary aesthetic unified by sound bridges. This remarkably complex farce is augmented by a soundtrack that is full of such gems as “get down from up there you Aussie idiot!”.

For such a great director with multiple subsequent international successes, you would expect Bruce Beresford to have better cinematic judgement. His claim that his first feature film was a “colossal mistake” (1) is a gross error. While it may have put the brakes on his career for a few years, it did deliver a genuinely popular success that should have silenced the dribble of socially worthy criticisms. It became a catalyst for the revival of Australian cinema in the 1970s and mythologised the Ocker comedy as a powerful source of native cinematic spontaneity and conceptual sophistication.

Endnotes

  1. Don Groves, “Beresford reflects on his ‘colossal mistake’”, SBS Film , 23 March 2010, accessed 8 January 2011.