Helen Garner’s review of Snowtown (‘Broken Communities’, May 2011) reflects a misgiving I’ve had about certain trends in Australian movies in recent years – namely, the tendency of young film-makers to try to outdo each other in portraying just how degraded working-class Australian life has become. From Jindabyne, 2:37 and Suburban Mayhem, to Wolf Creek, Animal Kingdom and the Underbelly series, Snowtown seems to be the latest benchmark of misery and corruption. A steady diet of these movies and one could conclude that gangsterism, prostitution, hard-drug addiction, child sex abuse and mass murder are normal everyday factors of Australian life.
In the light of this I find it interesting that in the same edition (Noted, May 2011) is a review by MJ Hyland of the TV series Cloudstreet. I haven’t seen the series so I won’t comment on it. What I do wish to comment on are Hyland’s remarks about Tim Winton’s novel that she uses to critique shortcomings in the adaptation. Hyland is clearly a big fan of this novel. She calls it a “compassionate masterpiece”, comments on its “deft magic”, and describes it as an “accretion of thousands of perfect details”. She even refers (embarrassingly) to its “devastating psychological depth”. I suspect she should, as a critic, be a little more skeptical of the “writer’s careful genius”.
Winton’s Cloudstreet is a palliative for the popular imagination against the horror trend in representations of working-class life. It is a joyous paean to working-class life. Its most impressive feature is that of an hypnotic ‘flow’ (in the hip-hop sense of the word) of colloquial-poetic prose that narrates a myriad of everyday domestic events. The unflagging consistency of this flow has the effect of spiritualising everything it touches. To talk of psychological depth is to miss the point of Cloudstreet altogether. There is no psychology in Cloudstreet. There is no depth in Cloudstreet. Furthermore that is its achievement. The very nature of Winton’s language empties all of that out. There are bodies and actions and thoughts moving through the text. There is laughter and weeping and all kinds of emotions. But the singsong prose opens them all out onto a singular plane of jolly spirits untroubled by psychology and interiority. Even as the world changes, history presses on, Edgar Cook commits his murders and Perth grows from a town into a city, the world of Cloudstreet, the Lambs and the Pickles, remains eternally simple, cheerful, truthful and resilient.
The power of Cloudstreet is the way it taps an artery of Australian mythology, that is, of the Eternal Working Class. This is where another of my misgivings arises. Such mythologising can be politically troublesome. The myth of the Eternal Working Class is at the core of our country’s democratic identity, but its political hue has changed over the century. As Australia’s social democratic tradition fractures after decades of increasing material prosperity and constant self-critique (in universities, the Labor Party, industry and the arts) this mythology, which hates breaks to its flow, re-emerged most recently as the ‘Howard Battler’ and the ‘One Nation’ movement. From there it flatters Australians with their exclusive goodness even as they sit in front of their HD TVs gorging themselves on gangsters, vampires and serial killers.
Queens Park, WA