Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday essay - Australian films and cultural change

In a comment on the new film Charlie & Boots Pixie of Kingscliff wrote:

I cant wait to see this film....I sure do miss these kind of films....great aussie movies with the best humour and aussie spirit.....much better than all the other crap that is around.

charlie_and_boots I have to agree with Pixie. Australian films have become a box office disaster. Australians just don't want to see films made in this country. More precisely, they don't want to see films made in this country if they are identifiably Australian. Say that a film is Australian, and Australian movie goers will stay away in droves.

The same thing does not happen in TV. Despite problems with production costs - you can buy an overseas production at a much lower price - there is sufficient demand to keep at least some local productions on screen.

Part of the problem lies in the number of Australian films made. There are just too many when the cash pool is small.

The number of movies might not be a problem if at least a few made it through to success. Most films fail in commercial terms. A viable film industry depends upon major successes offsetting the many failures. In Australia today we simply do not get the successes.

The real problem today is that there is a disconnect between Australian film makers and Australia.

If you are going to attract Australian audiences, you have two choices. You can produce a film that appeals to their Australianess. Alternatively, you can produce a film that appeals simply because it links to the broader human condition, tells a story. The best Australian films often combine both.

Modern Australia is a very disconnected society. I don't mean this as a criticism, simply an observation.

At the 2006 census 22% of those living in Australia were born elsewhere. There are major cultural and attitudinal differences within our major cities and across the country. No place in Australia can really be thought of as truly representative. This means that the cultural markers - the things that are identifiably Australian - are quite limited in some ways.

Part of our problem, I think, is that the main themes that resonated in the past have in some ways been discredited, with others yet to take their place. To some degree, we have lost our cultural language.

To illustrate this, consider two common elements in Australian movies of the past.

The first is the country or pioneer theme. The decline here is often attributed to urbanisation; Australia has simply become an urbanised country. In fact, Australia always has been an urban country. The new disconnect between city urban life and the country cannot be explained just by urbanisation, but is linked too to the conscious Charles Chauveldiscrediting of the previous theme.

The ideal of the pioneer encapsulated in the films of Charles Chauvel has been replaced by the pioneer as a land-grabber dispossessing the Aborigines, the  farmer or grazier building a new life is now a rapacious land-destroyer stealing water or, worse, an economic basket case. No image can survive four decades of constant negativity.       

The irony is that there are in fact some very good stories that do bridge the old and new and which could be told from both directions. Cubbie Station could be presented in either way.

The second common element from the past lies in the interaction between Australia and the world. As a new country with a small population, Australia and Australians felt insecure. They were also part, however, of a bigger entity, the Empire and Commonwealth. Australians constantly measured themselves, and were measured, in the context of relations with the mother country. This created a number of common themes that appeared in film and were instantly recognisable in Australia and elsewhere.

Australia is far bigger today, more secure, but also more inward looking. The scope for films with an international flavour but with an Australian centre is substantial. Made in 1982, the Year of Living Dangerously (photo) is set in Djakarta. Part adventure story, part political thriller, the story follows a young Australian reporter who tries to navigate the political turmoil of Indonesia during the rule of President Sukarno with the help of a diminutive photographer. still, Year of Living Dangerously 

This is quite a gripping film, one that achieved considerable success. Most recently we have had Balibo.

Balibo's initial box office was quite good, I do not have the latest figures, although like so many Australian movies it suffered from limited screens. It is also in one sense a documentary.

If we now turn from film to TV and advertising, we find a different pattern in that some of the most successful productions are in fact Australia. However, this is a world which consciously and directly targets Australian audiences, that plays to Australian themes.

Crime is big, as measured by the huge success of Underbelly. Set in Melbourne and Sydney with their complex crime scenes, the series swept the ratings before it. I find it interesting that the only truly urban stories in Australia that have achieved real commercial success over sixty years are soaps on one side, crime or police on the other. These shows are unashamedly Australian, there is no cultural agonising, and they sell in Australia and overseas.

Country is still there, although it is now sea/tree change dominated. Some are good. At a personal level, though, I cringed at East of Eden. This is Greenie Inner West Sydney translated to Byron Bay. It is a sort of a pot pouri of old and modern hippy playing out in a world of stereotypes.

It is when we turn to advertising that we can see most clearly the continuing core elements in popular Australian culture. We now enter a very different world from Australian film.

Polar bears are hardly Australian. Yet the the Bundy Rum drop bears have been a huge popular success. Why? They appeal to the Australian sense of humour, to the yobbo or ocker instinct that many Australians still have. Who could resist advertisements that combine sport, irony and yarn telling? I cannot, nor can my daughters.

Ad after ad after ad plays to the core elements in Australian popular culture. This is a slimmed down version of culture that would have been instantly recognisable to an Australian of sixty years ago. They would have responded in the same way.

However, there is a problem here. This is a non-nuanced world and sometimes  a dangerous one. In a world of constant change where the cultural under-pinnings of the past have been stripped away , we are left with just those things that appeal at an instinctual emotional level. The advertising industry has become the single most important vehicle transmitting images, cultural markers, from one generation to the next.

I am not sure that this is a good thing.       

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