Nowhere Near Hollywood
Red carpet at 81st Annual Academy Awards in Kodak Theatre, Los Angeles, 22 February 2009. Photo copyright: Flickr, Greg in Hollywood (Greg Hernandez)
There is a special sort of loneliness about sitting in a cinema on your own. Over the past year, I have frequently found myself watching an Australian movie as the sole member of an audience and, on three occasions, with only one other person in the cinema. Once the lights go down, it can be an uncomfortable, even spooky, feeling of detachment. Movie-going should be a communal activity of human smells, the eating of food, united laughter and tears. It heightens our pleasure to be able to share a common experience in a dark cave, entranced by what is happening on the giant screen filled with light. Unfortunately that didn’t happen to me very often, and the solitude probably made some dark films ever grimmer.
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I set out to watch most of the Australian films released this year because I wanted to grasp the condition of our industry. On a practical level, it was often hard to find these films; they seldom stayed in the cinema long enough. I became used to tracking them to small independent cinemas that, judging by the tiny crowds, seemed to be showing them as a national duty. Occasionally, I had to use connections to scrounge up a bootleg DVD.
Most of the 2009 films had brief runs and only one – the very low-budget Samson and Delilah – has so far made back its money. Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer has made the most money and is now inching towards the $12 million mark. Most of the rest have failed badly. The output in 2009 has been enormous (over 30 and counting), but the commercial success rate has been dismal.
Watching these films has been an unusual experience for me. Never before have I found myself so immersed in an art form that made me question just what it is to be Australian, prompting me to ask of these films – do they really reflect our culture? While watching practically every movie, I found myself wondering why we tell our stories the way we do. There were also moments when I pondered just how the damn film got made, and why. Sometimes the only thing that stopped me from walking out was a fascination akin to the morbid curiosity that makes people slow down to look at car accidents.
One of the most pleasurable aspects of my movie-going this year was seeing how certain faces have evolved over the past decade or so. I’ve always thought that if movies are about one thing, it is the human face. When we watch famous film stars, our attraction goes beyond their acting. Audrey Hepburn’s performances are inseparable from our attraction to her gamine beauty, just as Cary Grant’s or George Clooney’s handsome features beguile us. As silent movies proved, you don’t even need dialogue, just interesting and beautiful faces to propel a story.
Ben Mendelsohn’s is one face that has become so familiar to us that it’s as if he’s family. Early on, he was the gawky, chirpy kid in The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and now his mature face is possessed by a pervasive melancholy that suggests his maturity has been hard-earned. Rachel Griffiths, who appears with Mendelsohn in this year’s Beautiful Kate, is barely recognisable from the fresh-faced characters of her early roles. She now has a guarded face that seems to be unsuccessfully trying to hide an existential weariness. Hugo Weaving’s early career made much of his handsome mug but now, as in Last Ride, it is haggard and proudly middle-aged and somehow, because of that, less theatrical. Sacha Horler has had a rollercoaster ride in our films. She’s not conventionally beautiful but, as the aneurysm-suffering suburban wife in My Year Without Sex, her face tells us all we need to know about her character’s inner torment. To watch Frances O’Connor in Blessed is to observe an actress whose beauty once erected a barrier between us and her characters, but now conveys an emotional vulnerability that can only have come through experience. Just one look at Wayne Blair’s jowly, dignified face in the same film is to be reminded of a Graham Greene hero in the throes of a moral dilemma.
One of the pleasures of sitting with an audience is to hear other people’s reactions. When Bryan Brown appeared on screen in Beautiful Kate, there were audible gasps around me. His larrikin handsomeness had been transformed into a puffy, red, angry face like a diseased beetroot that had just been ripped from the earth. It was almost as if we were suddenly confronted with Dorian Gray’s hideous portrait. Anthony LaPaglia’s face, which never had a matinee idol’s potency, has become even baggier and worn as he has aged, but the pay-off is that it now radiates a moral authority that is crucial to the story in Balibo.
This year’s films also introduced us to a profoundly diverse range of new faces. In the wonderfully unsettling Samson and Delilah, the director Warwick Thornton spends much time focusing on the young faces of dysfunctional couple Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who are not only beautiful but possess an eerie aura of having seen and experienced things no one their age should have.
Two of the best films this year are The Combination and Cedar Boys; both feature Middle-Eastern Australians and present faces of startling freshness. Les Chantery may not be classically handsome, but in Cedar Boys the camera can’t get enough of a face that seems poised between a desire for happiness and resignation to whatever fate dishes out to him. Buddy Dannoun and Waddah Sari, playing his two sidekicks, may not be great actors, but their faces speak authentically about what it is like to be a Lebanese male in Australia. Of course, movies love beautiful faces, and Rachael Taylor in Cedar Boys provides one. The moment Chantery spots her in a nightclub, looking like a blonde siren, we know he is as doomed as any film-noir protagonist and we can’t blame him; in fact, we would be more than willing to exchange places with him. Taylor’s acting may be hesitant but it doesn’t matter at this stage of her career; her beauty is enough to explain just why a man would destroy himself for her.
If anything began to trouble me about this year’s crop, it was whether any of these actors could open a film. Would Australians go to see a movie just to watch any of these performers? The answer is probably not. Sometimes, of course, they have been miscast. Matt Day in My Year Without Sex gives his familiar kicked-puppy-dog performance, which is fine for a character actor but can’t carry a film. Weaving’s performance in Last Ride is also one-note. Whereas Day seems to exit his scenes as confused as when he enters them, Weaving seems to begin each scene already knowing how it will end. The bearded Aden Young groans his way through Lucky Country like an Old Testament prophet who has inadvertently ended up in a cowboy movie. There are other examples of miscasting, but even when these actors are perfectly cast, as is Horler, they don’t have the pulling power of Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett. It’s not that these are necessarily better actors than those gracing our screens – it’s because they have achieved fame in Hollywood.
We treat actors differently here. As the many films that have been released this year prove, our cinematographers have superb eyes for figures in a landscape. It’s almost impossible to forget the brooding dark beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness in Van Diemen’s Land, the sight of a boy in red wandering across a vast salt lake in Last Ride, or the majestic Flinders Ranges in Beautiful Kate, silently dominating the humans. There is no doubt that these cinematographers are in our great tradition of landscape artists, but when it comes to shooting the human face they are on less sure ground. So many of the films light actors badly and some directors, like Ana Kokkinos, bathe faces in a cruel, bright, natural light that accentuates wrinkles and skin blemishes. Those of our actors who have found fame in America owe much of it to a distinctive way of grooming actors.
Hollywood makes the human face a dreaming site for the audience. Beauty is enhanced, with imperfections hidden by sympathetic lighting. In Hollywood, actors drive the story; in Australia, actors are the vehicles for the story. If Hollywood treats actors like Rolls-Royces, here they are used like clapped-out Holdens – which is a pity, because audiences here, as everywhere, want to adore those beautiful, fascinating creatures on the screen.
If I was disappointed by the way directors and producers treat our actors, I was even more so by the monotonous bleakness of most of the films. When I told friends I was writing this article, they were amazed that I would put myself through what they thought would be an ordeal. The general consensus was that Australian films were boring, grim and unsatisfying. After watching over 20 films, I had to agree.
Part of this can be explained by our film culture. There have always been complaints about Australian movies being too influenced by Hollywood. If only that were so. Hollywood epitomises illusion and dreams. Our films are much closer to the English model, in which character drives story, and social realism and naturalism are equated with authenticity. Our literary history is also based on naturalism, from Henry Lawson to Tim Winton. Our most popular TV shows are naturalist dramas about ordinary people, like SeaChange and Packed to the Rafters. We are suspicious of ornate language, wit and the visually extravagant. Our humour is daggy and safe. We extol the ordinary over the extraordinary. Many of the films this year have gloried in downbeat naturalism, as if somehow great truths were being revealed. Blessed is a prime example of this. Shot in Kokkinos’s typically ugly style, its stories are predictable even when verging on the hysterical. We know from the beginning that terrible things will happen and indeed they do. It wallows in its own sense of worthiness, but its theatrical speeches undercut any sense of authenticity. Like several of the other films, the pain it portrays doesn’t seem earned.
Now, bleakness in the cinema isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In Samson and Delilah, the leads inhabit a dysfunctional world that operates almost as another character; we know how hard-won their love is in this troubling environment. The same is true of the Middle-Eastern world of Sydney’s western suburbs in The Combination and Cedar Boys; in both films, we fully understand just how frustrating it can be for young Lebanese men trying to be part of Australian society. Every scene exudes authenticity and experience. In fact, Cedar Boys is not simply bleak; it is an austere tragedy similar to a Greek drama, in which the characters’ actions and their close sibling bonds will lead inexorably to their defeat and death.
Yet, though I liked these two movies, they are part of a host of films so dispiriting that they make Leonard Cohen seem positively cheery. A partial list includes Last Ride, with its subplot of paedophilia underscoring the main story of a violent criminal on the run from the police with his young son; he eventually blows his brains out. In Lucky Country, a traumatised boy is the only survivor after bloody carnage claims his father, sister and several thugs. Balibo is based on the true story of five Australian journalists who were slaughtered by Indonesian soldiers. In Beautiful Kate, a family is destroyed by incest. In both The Combination and Cedar Boys, brothers find themselves caught up in drugs, violence and meaningless murders. In the period film Van Diemen’s Land, seven men are killed and eaten by a cannibal.
In Samson and Delilah, a couple of teenagers find affection hard to come by in a world of poverty, drugs and alcohol abuse. Blessed goes into melodramatic overdrive, featuring addiction, poverty, murder, feckless men, runaway kids, pornography, hints of paedophilia and marriage breakdown in a Melbourne that looks even uglier than the real thing. All these films suffer from a surfeit of glumness.
Some of our favourite movies have been comedies – Crocodile Dundee (1986), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Priscilla (1994), Kenny (2006) – but there were few laughs to lighten the gloom this year. Of the three comedies I saw, the most trying was Sue Brooks’s Subdivision, about builders and property developers on the Queensland coast. A quintessential good bloke, Digger, finds himself fighting his entrepreneurial son, Jack. The father-and-son battles are puzzling rather than comic. Everyone shouts, as if loudness is funny, and the old-fashioned blokeyness of the material remains just that: old-fashioned. This sort of nostalgic comedy based on a father–son conflict is also the basis of Charlie and Boots, with Paul Hogan and Shane Jacobson playing the father and son. Once you get over the impossibility of the two men looking even vaguely related, there is something fascinating about watching two Aussie comedians trying to make a series of bland vignettes funny. But only occasionally does the pairing of the abrasive, curmudgeonly father and his endlessly cheerful son raise a laugh. Hogan’s strength has always been in playing the ocker smart-arse, a more likeable version of the larrikin. It was a thin persona that allowed him little room to give depth to any of his characters, and it shows in his performance as Charlie. It’s a limited characterisation, made even more so by his immobile face. At times I thought he was a ventriloquist; his lips don’t move but we can hear him talking. He looks like a piece of badly carved driftwood. It is left to the delightful Shane Jacobson to provide an energy and sense of playfulness. I couldn’t help but feel that what I was watching was the end of the enduring Hogan phenomenon, as he unwittingly passed the rubber chicken of comedy to a much younger and more talented actor.
It has taken a while for Australia to make a stoner movie such as Pineapple Express (2008) or Knocked Up (2007), both starring the Canadian actor Seth Rogen. Richard Frankland wrote and directed Stone Bros. about two cousins, straitlaced Eddie (Luke Carroll) and his dope-smoking cousin Charlie (Leon Burchill) on a road trip through Western Australia. Unlike Charlie and Boots, Stone Bros. seamlessly incorporates the characters they meet along the way into the main journey. Valentino del Toro as a mad, self-described Italian rock star and David Page as drag queen Regina are wonderful, as is Burchill, whose stoner performance is perfectly pitched. Stoner movies are basically shaggy-dog stories and Frankland is right at home with the form. His Indigenous cast plays it lightly and with the required coarseness, but Frankland cannot keep from preaching; the amiable comedy lurches into serious moral issues, suddenly undercutting the levity. Stone Bros. is not a great comedy, but its humanity and high spirits are, for most of its length, infectious, and a profound relief from the general moroseness of the other releases.
As if the lack of comedy wasn’t enough, there is also an inexplicable lack of love and sex; in the cinema, this was indeed My Year Without Sex. Except for Cedar Boys and The Combination, the films I watched seemed weirdly asexual. In both of these films, a Lebanese-Australian leading man falls for a blonde Anglo girl. The love between them tests the strengths and limitations of their respective cultures. There is an interesting parallel here with the theme, in American literature and film, of African American men desiring the unattainable blonde, yet loathing themselves for wanting her. For the man, the blonde is a forbidden morsel of a social world denied to him. Once he has obtained her, his problems have just begun: the sexual trophy alienates him not only from his own culture but from the prevailing one as well.
But, overall, the lack of love stories and even sexual intimacy in 2009 is unnerving. Last year, the documentary Not Quite Hollywood explored 1970s ‘Ozploitation’ films. The nudity and sex of those cheap movies could be gratuitous and even misogynist, but it was mostly good fun with a strong hedonistic sense of sexual pleasure. This year’s films have left me wondering what has happened in the meantime.
Of course, once love and sex are excised from movies, so are women. With just a couple of exceptions, these films were all about men. And if I was bewildered by our apparent indifference to sex and love, the collective portrait of Australian men was just as alarming. So many of the male characters were defeated, lethargic and impotent. The men in Lucky Country and Last Ride seem exhausted from the outset, as does the husband in My Year Without Sex. Bryan Brown in Beautiful Kate is a weak, old man railing against the dying of the light and Hogan as Charlie looks as if he is merely going through the motions of living. In Van Diemen’s Land, everyone but the cannibal seems so bereft of life that at times it resembles a zombie movie. Only in The Combination does a male – George Basha – have enough inner strength to turn his life around. Where Hollywood has heroes, our films feature disaffected men with no dreams or purpose.
There were some courageous men, such as Anthony LaPaglia’s character in Balibo, but the ineffectual, puritanical Aussie bloke dominated, reinforcing the grimness of the stories. One has to ask whether this is a fair reflection of the contemporary Australian male, and what it means. Where has the boisterous male energy of our 1970s movies gone? It’s not just that we don’t have any heroes; we don’t even have anti-heroes. In the revised edition of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Storytellers and Screenwriters (2007), a very successful manual for screenwriting based on Joseph Campbell’s theories about the hero’s journey, American author Christopher Vogler writes of coming to Australia to teach story structure. He quickly learned that we have an antipathy to heroes – the tall-poppy syndrome. What stunned him was that Australians regarded such film theories, in particular the Hollywood preference for happy endings and strong story structures, as an instrument of cultural imperialism.
And herein lies the key to why so many of our films don’t work. Nearly all of the films I saw this year felt like short stories. They lacked a ‘second act’. Most Hollywood movies are based on a three-act structure. The first act sets out the characters and main story, the middle act is an intertwining of plot and subplots, and the third act resolves them. The skill in writing a second act is to have plots and sub-plots affecting each other and driving the story forward. But our screenwriters refuse to do this, as though, like creating a hero, it would somehow be selling out to Hollywood values.
Beautiful Kate starts to fall apart in the second act; the director, Rachel Ward (a better director than writer), depends more and more on flashbacks to tell her story until the film’s energy is drained away. Last Ride similarly relies too heavily on flashbacks to reveal secrets, but it also has another telling failure: the end of the first act concludes with the father and son hitting the road. Because there is no plot driving their story, their relationship becomes little more than the same few episodes repeated endlessly: the father gets angry with the son and in the next scene makes up to him; in the next scene he is angry with him again … and so it goes. There is no urgency, just the same sequence repeated. Van Diemen’s Land collapses into a similar episodic muddle as one by one, in a monotony of killing, the seven men are murdered. We sit back unengaged, silently counting off the deaths, knowing full well nothing else is going to happen. Lucky Country becomes an exercise in curiosity as to how people are going to die, rather than why. Charlie and Boots is a series of episodes in a plotless road trip. Mary and Max splutters along with long, tedious letters being read aloud and large slices of narration, until finally petering out in a depressing fable.
This dismissive approach to the second act is a sullen rejection of what movie audiences have been brought up to like: the sheer pleasure of watching a master storyteller twist elements of plot and subplot into a surprising third act. It seems our puritanical streak runs deeper than our attitudes to sex – even our storytelling is austere and joyless. And this is not helped by the editing. It is nigh on impossible to tell at times whether a director or editor is to blame for how a film has been cut, but a soporific pace, especially in the middle sections, is a problem in many of these films. In all but a couple of cases, prosaic editing merely underlines the flimsy, episodic structure.
This kneejerk rejection of anything that smells of Hollywood is also evident in our attitude to genre films. When we’ve done genre well, as in such horror movies as Wolf Creek (2005) and Saw (2004), audiences flock. The Australian film community frequently trots out that old canard that we have to tell our own stories and is condescending about genre, as if somehow it is beneath our dignity. But sometimes genre reveals more about national identity than serious drama. American sci-fi movies of the 1950s divulge more about American neuroses during the Cold War than any dramas of the era. Genre films also travel well internationally, and therefore often have better financial returns than more serious work.
In other words, if genre is done well, audiences will watch. But the only film to get back its investment this year was Samson and Delilah, and that was seen by just over 1% of the population. It has so far earned a little over $3 million, while most of the movies I have mentioned have taken between $0.5 million and $1.5 million. Here we get to the crux of the present crisis in our film industry: Australians don’t like seeing their own movies. Now, you’d think that this would cause those in the film industry to take stock of the situation. Melanie Coombs, who produced Mary and Max, blames her own community, saying “Australians are the best at putting shit on themselves.” Even the veteran film reviewer Margaret Pomeranz has turned on local audiences. At a recent conference about the present state of Australian cinema she remarked, “I think Australian audiences are bloody lazy. These are very good films, really good films, and if Australian audiences don’t want to go and see them, stuff them.”
The trouble is, many of our film-makers seem to share this attitude. What they don’t seem to realise is that times have changed. In the 1960s and 1970s audiences wanted to watch serious movies seriously. But audiences and their expectations have altered, and the era of art films is over; like indie movies, they are finding it increasingly tricky to find screens and pick up word-of-mouth enthusiasm. Distributors now try to screen as many prints as they can, favouring short but profitable runs before the films are rushed out on DVD. A film-maker like the Hungarian Béla Tarr would have featured in art-house cinemas a couple of decades ago, but now the only way I can watch his movies is to get them on DVD.
I can empathise with the frustrations our film-makers must feel in trying to convince Australians to see their films. We have about 2000 screens around the country, but Beautiful Kate opened on just 29, while the superior Balibo opened on only 23. It’s easy to blame distributors, but they do know what their audiences want. Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer opened on 267 screens and the distributors’ faith in it has been more than justified. The movie has probably made more money than all the other releases this year combined, and understandably so. It was based on a very popular memoir. It’s an epic story that ends with one man’s victory over sometimes awful circumstances; it seems not like a short story but like a novel in its narrative depth and characters. The story is told in a conventional manner but with brilliant dance set-pieces. The producer and distributors obviously realised that Australian movies are on the nose: it is almost impossible to find the word Australian attached to it. There is also a sense that everyone involved knew exactly which audience they were going to appeal to, including, most significantly, women, who don’t seem to have been considered at all by other Australian producers or directors.
Compare this with Mary and Max. It’s a clay-animation movie that will have to return $24 million to break even and has so far earned about $1.5 million. There is no mistaking that its director, Adam Elliot, is extremely talented, but what audience was this film designed to appeal to? Stop–start animation is closely associated with such genial family comedies as Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace & Gromit, yet Mary and Max’s story is saturated with loneliness, despair, mental anguish and decay. It’s not the sort of thing that appeals to families, kids or, judging by the audience numbers, adults. There doesn’t seem to have been much thought given to a distribution plan. Other Australian films have such small budgets that there is little money to spend on advertising and proper distribution; it’s easy to understand why they fail so comprehensively.
I enjoyed Mao’s Last Dancer and was relieved to be led through an exhilarating story in the safe hands of someone who knew what he was doing. We need this sort of middle-brow movie because it attracts audiences and, if done well, will bring Australians back into the cinema. Our film-makers can’t afford to be arrogant anymore; they have to attempt to engage with their audiences, which can be, like most audiences across the world, conservative in their tastes and firm in their desire to be entertained rather than lectured to. Besides Thornton’s superb Samson and Delilah, none of the films I liked has a hope in hell of making money. The Combination has a tabloid energy reminiscent of Samuel Fuller; Cedar Boys achieves, despite its tinny sound and washed-out colours, a frightening, gimlet-eyed examination of a man whose family and cultual allegiances doom him; and Jonathan auf der Heide, the director of Van Diemen’s Land, is a talent to watch and nurture. But few Australians are interested in the world of Lebanese Australians or convict cannibals.
It is going to be a long and arduous process to convince Australians that we should want to see our own films, but it will be easier if we remember that cinema’s tenacious grip on our imaginations came about because of its extraordinary capacity to entertain and astonish us.