Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Australian Christmas Musings - 2007

Good morning all. It's Christmas morning and I am waiting for the family to wake up! So I am sitting here musing about Christmas past and present.

First a happy Christmas to all, and especially to those away from family. Christmas is a family time, so that it can be hard if you are on your own.

Released in 1947 and starring Chips Rafferty among others, Bush Christmas has become an Australian children's classic. I see also that it has apparently just been re-released in New York.

A modern reaction (in fact 22 December 2007) to the film from a kid in Kentucky on IMDb user comments:

Don't be scared away by the title, "Bush Christmas" (1947) has nothing to do with George W. or his father. They are referring to the Australian "Bush" and this is a children's film that no doubt was a heavy influence on Nicholas Roeg"s "Walkabout" (1971); as well as its source novel by James Vance Marshall. In both a small band of children find themselves in the bush country and out of their element, getting survival tips from a native boy. "A Far Off Place" (1993) and "Alaska" (1996)also appropriated many elements of the story. "Bush Christmas" is the least gritty of the four films but the most believable and the least manipulative.

It should remind the viewer in some ways of the modern Australian television show "Saddle Club" as the kids are around horses all the time; even riding them to and from school. And the plot involves Grinch-inspired horse thieves who almost ruin Christmas for the family when they steal their prize mare, leaving her young colt behind. So the five children head into the bush to track down the horse thieves, while their parents and the police attempt to rescue them. There is even a Ghost Town (also found in "Walkabout") although you have to suspend disbelief as the (until then) very perceptive children inexplicably take far too long to recognize that the horse thieves are its only residents.

Worth noting is that Helen Grieve plays the only girl in this group of adventurous children but there is no condescension to her, she rides better than the boys and takes on a kind of "Wendy" from "Peter Pan" role in the group. Christmas in the southern hemisphere is a summer event but the holiday is still celebrated with winter wonderland decorations, presents, and a tree.

Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.

The film was remade in 1983 under the same title with a cast including John Howard and Peter Sumner, as well as a young Nicole Kidman in her first starring role. I remember the original, but do not think that I saw the remake.

All this got me musing as to why Australians have given up watching Australian movies, yet love watching Australian made TV shows.

According to David Dale on Tribal Mind, a very good blog for those interested in Australian popular culture, in the past 50 weeks Australians have spent more than last year's total of $867 million on cinema tickets. But most of those takings flowed across the Pacific to Los Angeles, with smaller chunks to Britain, France, Sweden and Germany. Less than three per cent of ticket spending was on Australian films, even though (In David's view) the standard of local releases was high. He went on:

It's not as if we expect much. Australian films have performed so poorly in recent years that we've fallen into the habit of using the term "hit" for anything that makes more than $3 million. By this criterion, Australia produced four hits last year: Kenny, with $7.6 million, Ten Canoes ($3.3m), Kokoda ($3.1m) and Boy Town ($3.1m). This year we need to lower the threshold to $2.5 million to be able to claim even one hit: Romulus My Father, which made $2.5 million.

We can't even rationalise the miserable results by saying that Australia now focuses its energies on making art films shown to connoisseurs in a few discerning cinemas. In 2007, that audience preferred the work of Swedes, Gauls and Germans.

Some of the commentators on the post suggested that the dreaded Political Correctness was the cause, something that made David very uncomfortable indeed. I actually think that there is something to this, but I also think that the Australian movie audience is now much more fragmented.

If we take this family as an example, there is a very wide spread of tastes. My wife and I enjoyed Clubland, but could not get the kids to go. My wife raved about Lantana. I went, but did not enjoy it.

There are some Australian made films we have all enjoyed - Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ball Room, Moulin Rouge, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Babe, Looking for Alibrandi, The Castle, the Man who Sued God and The Dish come to mind. But we have not been to see an Australian movie at the movies as such in twelve months.

If we look at the pattern, the films have either broader appeal (Babe, Moulin Rouge) or have some very Australian often quirky element. I also find that in many cases it is later TV or video exposure that determines attraction.

To what degree are we typical? Here in another post David Dale had a fascinating list of the most popular films in Australia measured by box office takings adjusted for inflation. The top ten movies were:

  1. The Sound of Music (1965)
  2. Crocodile Dundee (1986)
  3. Star Wars (1977/97)
  4. Gone With The Wind (1939)
  5. E.T (1982)
  6. Titanic (1997)
  7. The Sting (1973)
  8. Grease (1978)
  9. Shrek 2 (2004)
  10. Jaws (1975)

Certainly the family has seen every film in this top group. If we now look at the top Australian films on the list we find 11 of the top 60 are Australian:

  • 2 Crocodile Dundee (1986)
  • 18 Babe (1995)
  • 19 The Man From Snowy River (1982)
  • 23 Crocodile Dundee II (1988)
  • 27 Finding Nemo (2003)
  • 49 Gallipoli (1981)
  • 53 Alvin Purple (1973)
  • 54 Mad Max II (1981)
  • 59 Moulin Rouge (2001)
  • 60 Strictly Ballroom (1992)
  • 64 Happy Feet (2006)

I am not sure what conclusion that I draw from all this except to say that TV (and advertising) has to be "popular" in a way that film does not. I also think that there is a particular problem with distribution

Australian made TV goes straight into the mass market. Films, by contrast, have to struggle to get any exposure. This reduces immediate box-office, but also later video/DVD sales as well as TV replay.


Family up, presents exchanged, breakfast cooked. In a little while we are going to Dee's sister's place for a family lunch. All this means that I have to get ready, so will sign off here.

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