Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reflections on David Stratton's Stories of Australian cinema

ABC is presently running a series featuring David Stratton looking at aspects of the history of Australian film. I am not giving links partly because of geoblocking, partly because the link will only survive for a little while anyway.

David is deservedly one of Australia's best known and most loved film commentators.  He is also writing on something I am interested in, attracted too. Despite all this, I ended up turning off the second episode, Outsiders, in the middle. I did come back to it and finally enjoyed it, but it was a battle.

I have been trying to work out why I felt this way. Certainly part of the reason was that I felt the selection of film and indeed the commentary reflected current angsts, popular causes. I also felt that the commentary reflected a current trope, that somehow Australians are not comfortable in their own country, that they are here as occupiers and are therefore disconnected in some way from the land. Finally, there were comments about small town Australia that really annoyed me.

I would be the first to accept that there is a growing disconnect between many urban Australians and the country outside their immediate neighbourhoods and circles of contact. Increasingly, our big metro centres are made up of large villages that have little contact elsewhere in the metro area, let alone with the country beyond the metros outside popular holiday resorts. They occupy land but are not connected with the land in any real sense.  This affects portrayal in film. You get film that is message rather than story focused. I think that this is one reason why Australian films so often fail at the box office.

I accept that this is a biased view, but I do think that it is not without some substance.To illustrate, take a second current trope in discussion, the need for film to adequately reflect Australian "diversity". I have put diversity into inverted commas, for it tends to be a very particular type of diversity that is required to be recognised. In the end, the success of a movie, and Australia has too few successful movies relative to the size of output, depends upon a story that people want to watch. If we want diversity, then we need good stories that reflect that diversity, or at least the form you want. To argue for diversity for the sake of diversity is to miss the point.

Australia does have "message" movies that have achieved at least some box office success. Rachel Perkin's Bran Nue Dai is a case in point. This is very much a message film, but it's also a rollicking and thoroughly enjoyable musical. Others seemed to me to have failed because they fall in the should see rather than want to see class.

I wondered if I was wrong in all this and started digging into past box office records to answer the question what had been successful or failed compared to my own preconceptions. This proved to be at least a short term error. The Screen Australia web site provides some information on more recent films, but the box office data is in current dollars, knocking out older films. I found some other material, but not enough for my purposes without hours of work. And, in any case, I had become sidetracked onto another issue that I will mention in a moment.

 I did find enough material, however, to suggest that the position was more complex than I had realised and indeed worthy of further work.

I said that I had become sidetracked onto another issue. David started talking about Muriel's Wedding in the context of outsiders and small town life. I have yet to see Muriel's Wedding. I was put off when it first came out in 1994 because of the way it was described as a parody of small town life, another trope and one that I had become very sick of. I reacted by sticking my finger up in the air on behalf of all my fellow townies and going in the opposite direction.

Now researching it, I found to my surprise that it was in fact a New England film. David Stratton would not think of it in that way, nor indeed would most other people including probably writer and director P J Hogan. However, as part of my work on life, history and culture in Northern New South Wales, the broader New England,  I have been recording all the films that I can find with New England connections, looking at them in their Northern context.

Both Muriel's Wedding and Hogan's 2012 film Mental are part autobiographical. While Hogan was born in Queensland, he grew up in Tweed Heads just south of the Queensland border where his father Tom was a Shire Councilor, a community activist, an ALP candidate at the 1978 NSW State elections and the subject of an ICAC (NSW Independent Commission against Corruption) into local government corruption on the North Coast associated with real estate development.

The family was somewhat dysfunctional and colourful, something that Hogan has mined for material for both films. He has also mined his school and town experiences as something of a misfit.

You can see why I got sidetracked! I ended spending hours trawling though the fragmentary on-line material, something that I will write up as a full post on the New England blog. Meantime, I note that there are now three modern movies linked in some way to the Tweed Valley, writer/director Belinda Chayko's 2010 production Lou staring  John Hurt, Lily Bell Tindley and Emily Barclay being the third.

Lou is a very different movie, a domestic movie, one that I feel was sadly neglected when it came out. Like Hogan, Chayko grew up in the Tweed Valley and the visuals reflect her love of the area.

Growing up in Northern NSW, I was very conscious of the differences across the North, as well as the linkages and similarities. Each place, each region, has its own style and stories, stories which have changed with time. There are enormous differences between Stockton, Armidale, Bellingen, Scone, Moree, Gwabegar and .Lismore. Films have to tell a story that will appeal to a broader audience.

In the end, I think that New England and Australia more broadly are lucky to have as many films as we do. They do make our life richer.


I also struggled a little with the third episode in David's series. I may come back to that. In the meantime, I re-watched and then listed all the films mentioned because I found them an interesting combination.
In addition to these films, there were references to the multiple renditions of Ned Kelly!

Postscript 2 24 June 2017

In a comment, kvd pointed to two movies that he wondered why had not been included, Somersault (2004) and Jindabyne (2006). He also suggested that Kidman's role in Dead Calm (1989) was one of the most disturbing he had seen on film.

I did see Jindabyne, but had never heard of Somersault. I decided not to see Dead Calm. It put me off. That leads me to my another point.

There was a period when I tried to watch every new Australian film. Then as there were more, I found myself treating Australian films the same way as other films and largely stopped going, only going to those films I really wanted to see based on how I felt. And they didn't grab me.

Now I find that i need to revisit films that I missed. Mind you, I still don't want to watch Dead Calm! 

kvd's comment reminded me of another early Canberra linked film that I did see and quite enjoyed although I thought that it wasn't very good, the 1971 production Demonstrator.    ..


Noric Dilanchian said...

I meandered landing here for some Belshaw sidetracks. I stopped taking notice of David Stratton on reading his autobiography "I Peed in Fellini".

I agreed with my mother-in-law, she read it first, she is an actress, writer and has a PhD in literature. She found it to be "primitive". I found it shockingly unphilisophical, which I take to mean the same thing as primative.

Goes to show how dangerous it can be to write a stinker, it can wioe you off the map. I have learned a great deal from Stratton, but can't find myself taking him seriously any more. I had no desire to watch the latest TV work of his. Can anyone please disabuse me of this thinking?

Jim Belshaw said...

I will try my hand, Noric!

Both the films selected and those interviewed reflect DS's perceptions. These do reflect currently popular Australian urban progressive tropes. On the other hand, the program also features some interesting Australian films and also has some very good clips. It's not an especially intellectual series, it's not meant to be, nor (as Neil Whitfield pointed out in a comment on twitter)is it an exercise in Australian history except to the degree that the tropes selected move into a particular version of Australia history.

What it is is a personal reflection/memoir by a knowledgeable person who came to Oz as a ten pound pom on the film of his adopted country. One and two are worth watching. Three is just up on iview.

Jim Belshaw said...

Wasn't sure about three, Noric. Lot of films I didn't know again seen through a particular lens. Need to watch again just to list the films.

Anonymous said...

I would have found space for Somersault, Jindabyne and Candy in there somewhere - and while not particularly 'Australian' in content, I think Kidman's role in Dead Calm was one of the most disturbing I've seen on film.

Maybe I've got his intent wrong :)


Jim Belshaw said...

I have added your films to the main post, kvd, noting the Canberra Monaro linkage! I fear that I am going to have to do some back film watching!

Anonymous said...

Well, there's certainly at least one film and 2 plays about Stockton, both based on the rape and murder of Leigh Leigh on Stockton Beach. Blackrock, and Property of the Clan were both written by Maitland boy, Nick Enright, and Nick also wrote the screenplay for Blackrock. Personal connection with the Enrights. Nick's great uncle's name was Jim Wilkinson. He was one of those sons from large catholic families who stayed home, unmarried, to help care for his aged mother. The Wilkinsons owned a butcher shop in New Lambton. Uncle Jim, as I always knew him, didn't go into the trade. I think he was a tally clerk on the wharf. Anyway, he was a stalwart of Newcastle Surf Club, and a great friend of my dad's. In the 50s, we would make an annual pilgrimage to Uncle Jim's (he inherited the family house in New Lambton)for a roast dinner. He was a great music fan; played the piano, and had an amazing collection of sheet music, which I rediscovered in the 60s when I decided I was interested in folk music and reconnected with him. The Enrights were a Maitland family of solicitors, and one of Jim's nieces married one of the Enrights. I went to Newcastle U with Chris, one of Nick's brothers. I again accidentally met up with Chris at St John's College at Sydney, when the boys and I had gone for a bit of a wander. Who should come down the stairs, but C Enright! Chris had gone into the law, became a legal academic and wrote textbooks. He now lives back in Maitland, and last I heard, was a book publisher. The Enright name still exists, but alas, there are no Enrights working there. Nick died tragically early from cancer - I think melanoma - last I heard from Chris was a thank you for my condolences, but that's a while ago now.
Small world, JDB'

Jim Belshaw said...

Morning, JC. I wasn't aware or at least didn't remember that Blackrock had been made into a film, so I have to add that to the New England film list. Hard not to be aware of the two plays with two daughters doing drama at school. It seems to be favourite fodder for drama classes. Intresting reflections. A web check suggests that Chris is still publishing.