The Null Device

Whither Australian cinema?

Film critic Lawrie Zion on the malaise afflicting recent Australian film; in particular, about recent films sticking to the theme of true-blue-dinky-di-Aussie-battlers vs. the evil forces of change:
What makes the recent Australian crop distinctive, however, is the way that even relatively sophisticated fare such as The Bank resorts to a one-dimensional character when it brings on its American villain. Accordingly, Anthony La Paglia, who gave us such a refreshingly understated performance in Lantana (2001), is reduced to a cardboard cut-out portrayal of slimy greed in The Bank. By contrast, the key American character in The Dish, played by Patrick Warburton, is given a chance to establish himself as a fully developed character, which not only provides the film with a less blinkered view of national "types", but also allows its "culture clash" moment to become something more interesting than a showdown between good and evil.
More troubling, still, with films such as Take Away is the way that Australians themselves are portrayed on the screen as naive and dim survivors of a laconic but cloistered culture that simply can't deal with change (though some might argue that this is a very accurate description of Australia in 2003).

Underdog motif or not, I can't recall having seen a recent Australian film where the characters weren't one-dimensional caricatures. More often than not, the actors (some of whom are footballers, comedians or both) ham up their performance, exaggerating the characters. Sometimes you even see them mugging at the camera after letting loose what they think is a devastatingly witty one-liner, as if giving the drongos in the audience the cue to laugh. It seems like so many Australian films are the bastard offspring of Hey Dad and the 10BA tax dodge.

Even in films which do not descend to this nadir, the film is usually slathered in Miracle Ingredient A, using its Australianness to sell an otherwise conventional story and one-dimensional characterisation to audiences looking for an alternative, however shoddy, to the McWorld monoculture from Hollywood. (Which is not unlike the plot of a recent Australian comedy, in fact, but I digress.) They don't see the films for quality, except in the "see, our sets/cinematography/special effects can be every bit as technically slick as American movies" sense, but for Australianness.

Which makes me wonder why Australia doesn't produce filmmakers like Canada (which gave us Vincenzo "Cypher" Natali and David Cronenberg) or Britain (too many to name). Surely it can't be a lack of talent. Perhaps the local market just doesn't encourage such innovation at anything above the Tropfest level?

There are 11 comments on "Whither Australian cinema?":

Posted by: Kate http://katecaterina.com Mon Sep 8 08:45:36 2003

What about Peter Weir? He does most of his filming in America now, admittedly, but he's still probably the best Australian filmmaker around.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Mon Sep 8 09:03:00 2003

He may be an Australian filmmaker by nationality, but he isn't involved in the Australian film industry. That fact says a lot about Australia's hospitability to quality filmmaking.

Posted by: Graham http://grudnuk.com/ Mon Sep 8 09:05:23 2003

Holy sweeping generalisation, Batman! Whither Rolf de Heer? Alex Proyas?

Also, Chopper was pretty good. And Geoffrey Wright was looking good for a while, though he dropped the ball a bit with Metalskin. Goths and bogans, together at last! Eek.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Mon Sep 8 09:15:12 2003

Garage Days was another cardboard cutout romp. Though I'll give you Chopper. (Though, IMHO, it's good but not brilliant.)

As for goths and bogans, I think the boundary has been pretty much erased. These days, everything from Norwegian black metal to '80s new-romantic to BDSM seems to have been assimilated into a greater "fucked-up-shit" community.

Posted by: Graham http://grudnuk.com/ Mon Sep 8 09:45:36 2003

Aye, though I think it's nothing new - witness the archetypical example "Young Einstein" from 1988. Tho' I quite liked it without shame, but as you know, I'm warped.

(Anyway, I was thinking "Dark City" wrt Proyas. Forgot about "Garage Days".)

At least Laurie Zion, for instance, isn't as keen to indulge in nudging up reviews for dodgy Australian flicks like Margaret Pomeranz.

Plus, I recall someone else describing the problem which seems to be that there isn't much quality control over the funding of scripts, which usually are rushed into production without being developed properly.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Mon Sep 8 09:48:03 2003

Dark City was OK, though having been made with Hollywood money and creative control (witness the dumbed-down-for-Peoria ending, for example), I'm not sure it qualifies as "Australian" for the purposes of this example.

Posted by: Graham http://grudnuk.com/ Mon Sep 8 12:53:07 2003

Prolly right. On a tangent, I just remembered that I forgot to catch Mallboy when it was shown on SBS last week. Damn. Was it any good?

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Mon Sep 8 13:30:22 2003

No idea.

Posted by: mark http://donotuselifts.net/ Mon Sep 8 13:31:26 2003

Hey, c'mon, we've got "Idiot Box" and "Air Supply" and "The Castle" and "The Dish" and... and... and... well, and "Chopper".

Except they're not that recent. And, other than (I'd guess) "Chopper", they're all comedies. Hrm.

Posted by: Ben http://leviathan.weblogs.com Mon Sep 8 16:43:55 2003

The last good 'Australian' movie made in Australia was Holidays On The River Yarra. Everything else has been shithouse.

Posted by: josh http:// Tue Sep 9 13:31:40 2003

the article above has got it right mostly. The Castle, Muriel's Wedding, Chopper are all enjoyable movies but mostly Australian flicks are stuck in the 'Hey Dad we're all morons' syndrome. Rage in Placid Lake does a far better job... it's odd and enjoyable with intelligent themes like working nine till five is fucked

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