AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
WIZARDS OF OZ
LOOK DOWN UNDER
by Harlan Kennedy
Peter Weir? Fred Schepisi? George Miller? Gillian Armstrong?
Forget them. The most influential figure in Australian cinema in the Eighties has been Al Batross. Giant, clumsy and bird-shaped, Batross has a fondness for wearing white feathers and squawking out, in reproachful litany, the names of the best-known Australian films of the Seventies. His specialty is draping himself around the neck of second-generation Aussie New Wavers and making them think, "Anything past Australian filmmakers could do, we can't do better."
But that second wave of down-under directors is at last beginning to try. And even succeed. In recent years, movies like Ann Turner's Celia and Jane Campion's Sweetie, shown this year in competition at Cannes and set for the current New York Film Festival, have radically rewritten the feminist gospel according to My Brilliant Career. And male directors like John Hillcoat and Richard Lowenstein have turned Australia's more macho movie traditions (truth at 24 Fosters per second) on their sun-bronzed heads. For them the era of George Miller's Mad Max is over; and Crocodile Dundee is a bland comedy blockbuster telling us more about world box-office tastes than about life in Australia today, yesterday or ever.
During the early to mid-Eighties, all the Antipodes seemed able to throw up on the shore of world cinema were pale imitations of the First Wave movies: films of golden-Lensed gentility about growing up in the Outback, or backing out of growing up, or growing back to nature by dropping out. Sylvie, Constance, Phar Lap, The Man From Snowy River, We of the Never Never: the clone factory seemed unstoppable. There were even directors with clone names, like George "Not the Mad Max one" Miller.
The only prominent filmmaker to defy typicality at this time was Paul Cox, and he hardly seemed Australian at all. In a sense he wasn't. The Dutch-extracted director's resolutely artistic films – Man of Flowers, Cactus, Vincent – were more like film-fest bouquets nurtured in an acutely personal hothouse than tough plants rooted in the Australian soil and redolent of its native dreams and anxieties.
By the early Eighties most of the original New Wavers had brain-drained to Hollywood. Here they either flourished (Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, George "the original" Miller) or flailed about bravely for survival (Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford). Meanwhile, Australia's historical-cultural affinity with America – a shared 'new world' experience – presented a choice: either to control the fiercer bacterial trends from U.S. cinema or to create authentically Australian film culture to keep artistic contagion at bay.
For the first time in over a decade, Australian cinema looks new, combative and exciting. A bunch of Aussie films have appeared that put discord before decorum, nuisance-making before nostalgia. These directors are mostly under 30. And all dare to introduce Australian cinema – hitherto home of the Golden Narrative – to shifting perspectives, structural experiment and highly discomforting stories and characters.
Richard Lowenstein laid the ground plan. A child of the Sixties, he relishes hounding the Establishment, wherever and in whatever guise it shows itself. His 1983 feature debut was Strikebound, which though it suffered from a holier-than-thou radicalism in its reenactment of a historical mining dispute, occupied ruggedly original ground somewhere between B-movie and Brecht.
Dogs in Space (1987) is even more novel. It comes on like a post-hippie musical with a cast too zonked out to sing or dance. Crusadingly structureless, the film chronicles the overlapping destinies of a houseful of Melbourne squatters in the Seventies. While Peace and Love yields to the Punk era, they hold out in their disheveled commune as if it were a counterculture Alamo.
While the music soundtrack explodes with formative hits, the characters' lives implode with formative misses. What they can't do or refuse to do – manage their love lives, get a job, respect the neighbors, honor their parents, be nice to the police – is as much an affirmation of who they are as what they can do. Meanwhile, the Skylab satellite rains down junk around them, as if the breaking up of outer space were parodying the disintegration of their own inner space.
On the surface Ann Turner's Celia seems better behaved. Indeed, it's eerily reminiscent at first of the "old" New Wave, as, with photo-album wistfulness, it jaunts through a remembered past (postwar Australia) in company with a little girl growing up. But this little girl is not a test-tube feminist (My Brilliant Career), or a victim of the education system (The Getting of Wisdom), or a pretty young thing steered toward the treadmill of job-getting (Caddie). She's a paranoid schizophrenic.
Growing up in late-Fifties Melbourne, she adores her Marxist granny, whose room she venerates and trespasses even after Gran's death. She's annoyed when forbidden to play with the neighbor kids, just because their mum and dad have Communist leanings. And she's mad as hell when pet rabbit Murgatroyd has to be surrendered – along with all other privately owned bunnies – to the government's "rabbit master" during the myxomatosis scare of 1957. "Rabbits are a serious menace to Australia's economy;' booms a movie-theater newsreel over shots of the furry disease-spreaders taking over the landmass.
So far, so sane. Celia sounds like any normal kid. But Turner keeps tweaking the perspective and punching dents in the movie's naturalism. Soon we wonder if Celia's grasp on reality is any more secure than our own. She has nightmare visions (in broad daylight) of a slimy, monster hand at the bedroom window. She likes to press a glass tumbler to her bedroom wall to hear Mum and Dad making love. With her pals, she impales voodoo images of least favorite grownups. When she plays in the woods, they take on a sinister, heavy-breathing life. And finally, in a moment of brisk, affectless panic, she murders someone.
Celia is the identikit Australian coming-of-age movie parodied and dismembered. Even its faux-innocent vein of social history – the myxomatosis alert – takes on meaning as a prankish fable of anti-Communist persecution. And the film's heroine is not so much a three as four-dimensional character. Not tied to any one space or time, this riveting little refusenik belongs to a radical continuum. She's an Alice in Oz, riding the surf of subversion. Celia, one feels, could pop up in any generation wreaking near-identical havoc.
This bid to uproot their country's cinema from the parochialism of nostalgia is the best and bravest thing the new filmmakers have done. Australian cinema got its national history off its chest under Weir, Schepisi, Armstrong and Co.. The only significant exception to the slew of films about the past was films about a garish, gaga post-apocalyptic future. If nothing else, the Mad Max series attacked the unspoken rationale for staying in Australia: at least we'll survive World War III. It was, more prosaically, the primal yell of the one guest at the meal who couldn't take any more good manners of "Pass the port:' Max was vivid, commercial, brutal and definitely not "one of us."
The new Australian filmmakers are now trying to retrieve that primal yell from profit-making purdah and put it into the artistic mainstream. The two boldest bids to do so thus far are John Hillcoat's Ghosts of the Civil Dead and Jane Campion's Sweetie.
These two films broaden the hint of a multi-perspective style in Dogs in Space and Celia into an all-encompassing strategy. This kaleidoscopism is boldly upfront in Ghosts of the Civil Dead. Where Dogs in Space offered multiple viewpoints through which we see the story – and where Celia shifts with teasing ambiguity between an objective, outside point-of-view and an inside, subjective one – Ghosts refracts its jail drama through a maximum-security prism.
"We are the future in containment;' chants the Disneyland-robotic voice as we're shown into the New Generation desert penitentiary. Here scenes are fractured and non-sequential, color can suddenly modulate into surveillance-screen black-and-white, sound and image seldom match, and none of the cast of characters comes forward to claim the role of hero or protagonist.
The ghostliness factored into the film by its title is evident in the movie's sense of a community where a trance-like predetermination governs all, even violent or "spontaneous" events. Just as the riot that leads to the climactic lockdown is provoked by the authorities, so are the powers-that-be tyrannized by machines and routines, surveillance and counter-surveillance.
In Hillcoat's Ghosts, no white knight, no Alcatraz Eastwood, stands up for truth, justice and the Australian way. Even worse, no figure singles himself out as a villain, a walking voodoo doll in whom we can stick our mental pins. Everything, from the characters to the camerawork to the chimera of moral certitude, is a moving target.
Jane Campion's Sweetie, the story of two deeply weird sisters, synthesizes the best features of all these new Australian movies. It blends the dissenting punk affectlessness of Dogs in Space with the caged frustrations and nightmare predeterminism of Ghosts of the Civil Dead. ("Some animals won't mate in captivity," boyfriend Lou comments ruefully on his relationship with Sweetie's sister, Kay.) And Campion's picture of the female psyche adrift in an Australia still stubbornly obsessed with machismo and male-order family values has the surreal inflections of Celia – and then some.
What My Brilliant Career was to the First Wave in new Australian cinema, Sweetie may be to the Second. Gillian Armstrong's film was made in the gilded dawn of the feminist movement. Judy Davis – tough, spunky, ruggedly attractive – was the New Woman, time-warped into the Aussie cinema's then all-purpose golden age (circa 1900). In Sweetie, the two sibling heroines, meek and phobic Kay (who's frightened of trees) and deranged and extroverted Dawn (alias Sweetie), are post-feminists, or what-price-women's-libbers. Feminism may have taught these two women the virtues of an independent mind, but when your mind is coming apart at the seams, who cares about independence? Feminism may have taught them to fight, but they've lost touch with whom or what they're supposed to be fighting. So they fight themselves and each other.
Shot with Diane Arbus close-ups and a crazed color palette, Sweetie is the First Wave turned on its head: it's Hanging at Picnic Rock or The Losing If We Ever Had It of Wisdom. Every time the movie looks set to give us an interlude from the comic mayhem of home life with Kay, Lou and live-in Sweetie, it bounces us into an anarchy even fiercer. When Kay, Lou and Kay's dad decide to have a holiday from the uncongenial Sweetie by going on a weekend drive into the Outback to see mum, who has put that great Australian utility that is the equal of gas, electricity and water – namely, space – between her and the family, the film's bred-in-the-bone bizarreness is fully revealed. They find Mum living and working in a sort of shantytown for jackaroos (Australian cowboys), where she's the resident cook and chanteuse. The jackaroos dance with each other by moonlight in the main street while Mum croons.
Nothing so inspirationally dotty has been seen since Blazing Saddles, and Sweetie does it all with a straight face. And keeps it straight for the finale. Returning home, Kay and company find that Sweetie, furious at their desertion, has decided to turn into a dog. She barks at them in the kitchen. Then she takes off her clothes, paints her body black, climbs a tree and bays blue murder across the neighborhood.
Reportedly loathed and loved in equal measure at Cannes (and cold-shouldered by a jury under the sober presidency of Wim Wenders), Sweetie may be the crowning achievement of the new Australian modernism. It rejects the moral omniscience of My Brilliant Career: we are not being guided toward any discernible evolutionary message about humanity. And it hurls out the window the radiant aesthetic proprieties of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Campion's style is one of witty disruption: sudden overhead shots, bulging close-ups, characters bunched asymmetrically on one side of the screen.
Above all, it parodies and subverts the classical time-sense of the Weir-Armstrong-Schepisi movies. With Campion – whose earlier short films, like Peel (1982) and A Girl's Own Story (1984), were five-finger exercises for the surreal sonata of Sweetie – a movie has not so much a beginning, middle and end as a life-and-death struggle with the whole concept of time. Inserted into Sweetie's early scenes are black-and-white time-lapse shots of plants pushing through the earth. As well as dramatizing Kay's phobia about trees, these suggest the awful uncontrollability of the processes of growing – whether animal, vegetable or human. "Coming of age," which in the First New Wave movies was a synonym for moral victory and self-fulfillment, is in Sweetie a concept either unrealizable or full of nightmare terrors.
Directors Lowenstein, Turner, Hillcoat and Campion are a collective reaction against the cloying humanism of Seventies Australian cinema. Weir, Armstrong, Schepisi and Beresford mediated their dissidence through an (often facile) optimism about the end results of human courage and struggle. These qualities would always win through, the films suggested – if not with an immediate, personal victory, then by their example for future generations. Indeed, most of the best-known First Wave films were based on books, memoirs or true-life stories that had already established such heartening immortality.
The new Australian movies are less dependent on the crutch of adaptation and far more venturesome and gymnastic in marrying dissident themes to dissident styles. As one critic points out in Don't Shoot Darling!, a recent book of essays about new women directors in Australia: "The films of the Seventies constitute 'difference' because of their challenge to prevailing ideologies and their form of political address. The Eighties films have been more concerned with challenging the audience relationship to film and traditional genres and language."
Even in the larger, untidy undertow of commercial Aussie cinema today – those films with no special eye on festival prizes or art-house status – there's been a change in the zeitgeist since the Seventies. The period pieces, folksy comedies and coming-of-age movies that loomed large in that decade, have largely vanished. In the late Eighties, the average production slate for a year is dominated by thrillers: crime thrillers, political thrillers, sci-fi or fantasy thrillers.
The plots for many of these movies sound like inspired postmodernist brainstorms (even if their execution is more platitudinous). In Haydn Keenan's Pandemonium (1988), a young woman trying to leave her husband is subjected to a baroquely spiraling ordeal by psychological terror and kitchen weaponry. And in Ian Pringle's Prisoner of St. Petersburg (1989), an Australian boy roams a German town in the belief that he's a Dostoyevski character trapped in 19th century Russia.
Even in modern nonfiction films, there is an impatience with the literal-minded languors of yesteryear and a hunger for corner-cutting wit and ferocity. Many of these movies defy facile file-indexing under "D for Documentary." Mark Lewis' egregious Cane Toads (1988) intersperses its educative factual account of the ugly amphibians that invaded Northeast Australia with spoof dramatizations (like one mock-Psycho scene of a toad menacing a shower). Like Celia, Cane Toads satirizes the puffed-up anti-Commie twaddle that passed for documentaries shown to school kids and so stars Australia's joke on itself: why invade someplace where the only thing to do is go mad. And Bill Bennett's electrifying docudrama Malpractice (1989), about a botched delivery in a hospital maternity ward, so powerfully blurs the line between fact and fiction that we hardly know who's an actor and who isn't, or where the script stops and the improvisation begins. Instead, the viewer, trained by an increasingly lithe Australian cinema, leaps happily across ellipses and shadowlines: invited to seek and chase the truth rather than to let it wash soothingly over him at 24 gorgeous frames per second.
By ceasing to make films about coming of age, Australian cinema has come of age. By shunning the invitation to look back, it is at last looking forward. Farewell, Eurydice. Welcome, Orpheus. And cheers, mate.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SEP-OCT 1989 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.