Two Slabs of Tooheys and a Bag of Leaf and Tips
Why do Australians hate their film and literature? I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard film students say, ‘I never watch Australian films. I much prefer European cinema’. My first reaction is usually, ‘wanker ’but my second reaction is to pity them. Not pity them in a way that I’d like to take them home and bathe and feed them but the kind of pity I reserve for wankers.
The first Un-Australian film I saw was in Scotland back in 1985. I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock with my mother and I was surprised at how English all the characters were. If it weren’t for the landscape I could have been watching an English film about English girls getting lost on an eerie outcrop of rock somewhere in Dorset. However, I was taken by the choice of soundtrack the filmmakers had chosen; those haunting pipes that I can hear now as I write this sentence.
Up until the moment I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock, my perceptions of Australia were based on media stereotypes, Mad Max, Razorback and the Fosters adverts with Paul Hogan. Watching these girls flounce around the Australian countryside in their big white dresses made me reevaluate my antipodean misconceptions. I had no idea that Australians could make films that did not depend upon dystopic landscapes, latent anti-Semites and killer pigs.
In North Melbourne circa 1993, I embarked on an Australian film odyssey with my mate Jadobi Towers Larraway. In one sitting we watched Romper Stomper, Mad Max 2, Dogs in Space, Ghosts of the Civil Dead, The Lost Weekend and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. This was all consumed along with two slabs of Tooheys and an ounce of leaf and tips, which are far better than popcorn and choc tops and give one a much deeper appreciation of Barry McKenzie and that drunken wrestling scene in the London flat.
Out of those six my favourite was Romper Stomper. From the first frame of the Asian kids rolling down the platform on a skateboard into the hateful arms of Russ and his gang I was hooked. It was the rain and the station (Richmond not Footscray) and the way the skateboard is stopped by a size 12 Doc Marten and those pasty skinhead faces, with that 90s washed out cinematography that got my heart racing. Then Hando appears, fresh from a stint on Neighbours and a year or so away from Geoff Burton’s The Sum of Us with Jack Thompson. A haunting film with some memorable scenes, particularly, when Jack Thompson is sitting between Russ and his gay lover and makes the toast ‘up yer bum’. Twenty years later I was to share an office at Deakin with the lad who plays Jacqueline McKenzie’s rohypnol afflicted boyfriend at the beginning of Romper Stomper, where we learn she was sexually abused by her posh father in his Jaguar XJ.
Moving on a decade or so through Geoffrey Wright’s awful Metal Skin and the dark humour of Muriel’s Wedding we arrive at the best Australian film ever made, The Proposition. There is nothing I don’t like about this film; excellent script, cinematography, characters, acting, setting and soundtrack. This film is a self-contained marathon of pure viewing pleasure. Every cog in the machine of the script justifies itself. I have watched this film twenty times and I always watch it when I feel the beautiful drunken tragedy of self-loathing and euphoria. The scene where John Hurt discusses Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species is scriptwriting at its finest,
‘Perhaps you’ve read “On the Origin of the Species By Means of Natural Selection” by Charles Darwin. Oh, don’t be thrown by the title, he had some most fascinating things to say. Chilling things. Mr. Darwin spent time studying Aboriginals. He claims we are, at bottom, one in the same. He infers, Mr. Murphy, that we share a common ancestry with monkeys. Monkeys!!!Mr. Murphy, Russia, China, the Congo, oh, I have traveled among unknown people in lands beyond the seas. But nothing, *nothing* could have prepared me for this godforsaken hole’.
The tension Cave builds between Hurt and Pierce in five minutes is suffocating and I’ve used it many times in tutorials to explain how a writer uses dialogue to build tension between characters. Tarrantino achieves this in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds but the rest of the film just falls away into mediocrity and self reflexion. The Proposition holds this tension all the way through, right up until Arthur Burns’ immortal words to his brother Charlie, ‘so what are ye going to do now?’
I think about those words when I hear people talk about why they hate Australian film and I’ve never heard anybody qualify the statement with any clarity or erudition. It’s probably embedded in Phillips’ ‘cultural cringe’ or maybe a year in London working in a pub, before Oktoberfest and a trip to Thailand for Chang Beer and a drunken wristy. Just because it’s a European film doesn’t mean it’s going to be any smarter. Every culture makes crap films. May The Notebook be a cautionary tale to you all, or Love Actually or worse still Chocolat. May Johnny Depp rot in hell for his awful Irish accent in Chocolat and may he be tortured for eternity for that dance in Alice in Wonderland. There is no dancing in The Boys by Rowan Wood.
Now, The Boys is a cautionary tale but a well told cautionary tale and David Wenham plays the best bogan characters on the Australian screen. Way better than one eyed Spartans telling tales around a bonfire. The scene to watch for in this film is when Wenham and the goofy lass from Muriel’s Wedding argue in the outdoor laundry after poor Dave can’t get wood. She questions what happened to him in jail and he releases the hounds. In an instant we see into the very soul of Wenham’s character Brett Sprague. Brett is a grotesque character in that Rabelais sense of the word. Every living moment for Brett is liminal, like a bad trip with mullets and flannies transforming into VB demons and sodomizing you with misplaced love. The Boys is not a film, it’s a harrowing experience.
And there are more good Australian films like the original Mad Max, which I rate over the sequel. Who can forget the camp police chief, Fifi, who tells Max that people need heroes: ‘They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!’ and that chilling scene when Max’s wife and child are run over by the even camper biker villains on that lonely road near Anaki. Max Rockatansky was one of the greatest Australian anti-heroes, before he lost his way and starred in Ransom and Get the Gringo. And did I mention he hates the Jews?
Australian film has taken some wrong turns but it’s equally set an outstanding benchmark for soulful depictions of a nation struggling with its sense of identity. It’s through this struggle that we begin to understand how unfair the ‘cultural cringe’ has been to Australian film. Nations are defined by their reaction to adversity and Australian film has copped its fair share of adverse reactions. There’s a tone to these films that captures my imagination. This huge continent crippled by its distant proximity to the so-called home of culture, Europe. Australian filmmakers leave in droves when Hollywood beckons, only to make films that are a shadow of the stories they carved out of the Australian landscape.
Lawless is not a patch on The Proposition because Hillcoat and Cave tried to replicate their vision in a foreign land. Russ was a Gladiator but Hando’s brutish charm far exceeds the heroic nature of Maximus and David Wenham’s mastery in boganality fell flat when battling supernatural creatures in Van Helsing. So, when I hear film students and film pundits denigrate Australian film in bars around Melbourne I wonder which films they’re actually talking about. They need to get themselves a slab of Tooheys, a bag of leaf and tips and kick back for a day and sample the goods without jumping to conclusions. Sometimes the accessories are as important as the art itself.