Australian Films of Merit #
Australia was one of the first countries to produce a movie, the 1906 6 minute feature of Ned Kelly. But then films became dormant for about fifty some years.
Bushrangers were a favorite topic for ballads, plays and films as they represented a cavalier challenge to hated authority figures.
Known as the Tait Brothers, this is believed to be the first feature film over an hour, in the world.
Other silent films versions were The Kelly Gang (1920), When the Kellys Were Out (1923).
In 1934, another film, When the Kellys Rode and in 1951, The Glenrowan Affair.
1970 saw Mick Jagger, against protest, play our national hero in Ned Kelly.
That was redeemed when we had Heath Ledger portray him in 2003.
The latest one, based on Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, is not based on the truth at all. But then most history is based more on myth than reality.
Carey drew on the Jerilderie Letter, a long rambling memoir-cum-manifesto that Ned Kelly wrote or dictated in 1878 or 1879. Alongside his statement made to the police after his arrest, this is the only other document in which we hear his own words. Ned clearly articulates his grievances of persistent Irish police harassment.
When he was around 14 Kelly was arrested after a disagreement over a horse. The Jerilderie letter proclaims his innocence of this and future crimes that marked his teenage years.
“Ned said they’ll never bring me to my knees”
This runs alongside the undercurrent of anti-British sentiment that was nourished in the colony. The language and imagery of the Irish man living under British colonialism finds expression in the letter.
“I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagem which will open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army and no doubt they will acknowledge their hounds were barking at the wrong stump and that Fitzpatrick will be the cause of greater slaughter to the Union Jack than Saint Patrick was to the snakes and toads in Ireland, The Queen of England was as guilty as Baumgarten and Kennedy, Williamson and Skillion of what they were convicted for”.
It sounds more like a manifesto of insurgency than of a common crimminal.
Australians like to make heroes of ordinary people, especially those who show a healthy disrespect for authority.
We can’t seem to have an intelligent conversation about Kelly’s place and identity … We seem to have this strange, awkward relationship with him, and not an honest one. The Kelly legend stalks the national psyche like no other, makes the point that perhaps white Australians don’t want to look past him, to the dispossession of Indigenous Australians and their ancient stewardship of the land. “It’s always been interesting to me why we get so hung up about our history being this man and how we work so hard to define it in this man, in a way that is favourable or not,” says Kurzel. “He was a 25-year-old guy. But what about the unbelievable history that came before settlement?”
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Professor, The University of Western Australia claims Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, does seem destined to endure, not just for its technical brilliance, but for the mythopoeic connection to Ned Kelly.
Sarah Krasnostein underlines the crucial mediating influence of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, which Carey had first seen in the 1960s. Seeing the paintings again, this time displayed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994, sent Carey back to Kelly.
Later bushranging films often presented a less sympathetic view of the Kellys, and other bushrangers, because of pressure from police and politicians – but The Story of the Kelly Gang is unabashedly pro-Kelly, reflecting popular sentiment of the day. the ideologically authored narratives of Canberra.
For more use the right hand menu bar for Bushrangers:
In the 1960’s, Phillip Adams wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. It is time to see our own landscapes, hear our own voices and dream our own dreams.”
‘Language is our identity. It’s who we are, it’s where we come from. It is us’.
Adams was concered that American cultural imperialism raised the danger of losing our unique culture due to the swamping effect of Los Angeles
• American idiom has the cuckoo effect of replacing our idiom for theirs: • dickhead has replaced the more affectionate drong
Why do we now observe Halloween and Black Friday - for commerical gain?
Initially John Gorton and later Gough Whitlam would help him to revive Australia’s Film Industry.
Cinematic Technique: #
Film uses subtext to communicate often subconsciously with the audience. Everything on the screen talks to us and language suddenly becomes secondary to visual and auditory spectacle. We need to be aware of how our emotions are being subtly manipulated,
In Blade Runner, ambience is manipulated through mood music and lighting; if most scenes are dark, gloomy with incessant rain a bleak depressive atmosphere prevails, if the music is lyrical bright lighted scenes, the mood can become cheerful and optimistic.
Camera angles and lighting to manipulate our empathy for characters. We feel close to Deckard, Rachel, Roy, Pris and Zhora, but distanced from Tyrell, Bryant and Leon.
The low and high camera angles depict heroes as dominant over villains.
Anybody with the most basic understanding of film editing will tell you there are many words to describe different kinds of techniques. Montage. Juxtaposition. Fade. Dissolve. Wipe. Jump cut. Shot reverse shot. Fast cutting. Slow cutting. Cross cutting.
Film, including all moving pictures, is a cool medium in that almost everything is done for us and so we lie back and absorb it without really exerting our inner mental eye. Reading and listening, according to the guru of media studies, are hot medium because they engage our imagination.
Especially in drama or film, body language through stance, position, deportment, facial expression, posture and thousands of subtle features convey meaning. Then there are the other cinematic factors, such as staging, casting, props, sound effects, lighting and costumes that influence how a play creates and we derive meaning. These are factors that must be valued and the director’s role is critical in determining how a play is presented and received by a live pulsating audience.
Trying to put you into the shoes of the main characters can be an immersive experience. In film “jacking in”, recording thrilling experiences through subjective camera angles, can replicate them in alluring immersive techniques so we can experience them vicariously. Film can convey the lived experience behind the facts and figures that even a filmed documentary can not.
The Camera can come in much closer to the characters. The silver screen is a more effective medium to depict the craft of performance and highlight the power of language.
Conversely, a good story teller can conjure imaginative pictures even more picturesque with the right words.
Performance communicates instantaneously – “a picture is worth a 1000 words” so language is secondary and often difficult to follow.
Good actors become their characters and even without dialogue, convey emotional nuance, empathy or menace. Just with their presence they project elation or deep despair. Language becomes secondary. Developing a rapport with the audience creates trust so they identify and become interested in trivial detail and apply it to their lives.
The renowned editor Jill Bilcock infused the director Baz Luhrmann’s first three films – Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge (aka the red curtain trilogy) – with a famously frenetic, flashy, in-your-face style. The term she and the glitzy auteur coined to describe their approach is unlikely to be added to textbooks any time soon: they call it “frame fucking”.
“When you talk about frame fucking, it’s actually about music. Everything is about rhythm,” Bilcock tells Guardian Australia.
“Baz and I have a very low attention span. We tend to think everybody can see everything in a few frames. It’s a tapestry: the sum of the whole equals the end result. It may feel like it could be a bit fast, but it’s actually adding up to a dramatic, emotional effect.”
They say that “pictures never lie”, but we know this is a half-truth. Through various filmic techniques, pictures and especially moving images can manipulate the viewer’s emotions and distort the actual truth of the scenes they depict.
Paul Cox, was a Dutch-Australian filmmaker who has been recognized as “Australia’s most prolific film auteur”. Wikipedia
Man of Flowers, Lonely Lovers, Innocence 2000, Woman’s Tale 1991, My First Wife 1984, The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh 1987, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky 2001, Force of Destiny
Bruce Beresford Sydney, 1940 -
The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). Don’s Party, 1976, The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and the thriller Money Movers (1978)
Breaker Morant (1980), about the court-martial of Australian soldiers during the Boer War. The movie helped establish the Australian film industry and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.
Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).
Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby and Elvis.
rabbit proof fence, The Quiet American,
Rolf de Heer
Bad Boy Bubby, The Tracker, Charlie’s Country, and Ten Canoes.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) Breaker Morant (1980), Tender Mercies (1983) and Crimes of the Heart (1986)
Formed in 1993 by actors Santo Cilauro, Rob Sitch, Jane Kennedy, Tom Gleisner, and producer Michael Hirsh.
Frontline, The Dish, The Castle, The Hollowmen, Utopia
Famous Australian Actors: #
Cate Blanchett, Bill Hunter, Toni Collette, Jack Thompson, Ben Mendelsohn, Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Hugo Weaving, …..
Ozploitation - exploiting the distinctive Australian culture for profit.
The recent ABC television series Frayed is another dowdy comedy sending up the Australian. Written, directed and played by Sarah Kendall, it reinforces the image created by other series such as #96, Struggle Street and Kath and Kim.
The lack of pretentions allow Australians to critically depict themselves as daggy, bogan or philistines.
The answer to the riddle,
“what’s the difference between Australians and Yoghurt?” is
Yoghurt has culture.
Our laconic self deprecation is based on the principle that you never laugh as hard as when you laugh at yourself. We have the capacity to be small minded, but also big-hearted, We are laid back with a breezy kindness. We can be racist, yet simultaneously accepting.
The introduction of the R-rating in 1971, opened the sluice gates to some rauncy movies and T.V series that celebrated the stupor of some Australians.
Paul Salmond claims a sensationalist tradition took root firmly in Australia during the 1970s, now known as Ozploitation cinema. Ozploitation captures a genre of low-budget comedy, horror and action films that blossomed in Australian cinema.
Ozploitatation has contextualised them within the reaches of commercial genre cinema and the so-called ‘ocker’ film.
Stork, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Alvin Purple
Violence, nudity and coarse ocker languagew were par for the course.
With the release of Mad Max in 1979, Ozploitation reached its cultural zenith and peak profitability.
Film sites: streaming sites to see what is currently available.
Lousy Little Sixpence 1983 #
A look at how Aboriginal children were taken away from their families and given as servants to white employers as ruled by the Aborigines Protection Board in NSW in 1901.
Here I Am by Beck Cole
We Don’t Need a Map by Warwick Thornton
Blue Water Empire
First Australians They Have Come to Stay
Her Will To Survive
Freedom For Our Lifetime
There is No Other Law
Unhealthy Government Experiment.
A Fair Deal For A Dark Race
We Are No Longer Shadows
Gulpili 1953 – 2020
David Gulpilil is a legendary Yolngu actor, a First Nations person of Northern Australia, born around 1953. The local missionaries gave him his birthdate of July 1, 1953, just as they gave him his Christian name David, although he admits he liked that name from the start. His last name, Gulpilil, was a totem, the kingfisher. He’d never seen a white person until he was 8 when he visited the mission school, but he never really allowed them to teach him anything.
His many other films include: Charlie’s Country, Ten Canoes, Stormboy, Crocodile Dundee, Gulpili, The Tracker, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Last Wave, Australia, and many others.
Walkabout takes its title from a custom among the Australian aborigines: During the transition to young manhood, an adolescent aborigine went on a “walkabout” of six months in the outback, surviving (or not) depending on his skills at hunting, trapping and finding water in the wilderness.
The film opens in the brick and concrete canyons of Sydney, where families live stacked above one another in condominiums. We glimpse moments in the lives of such a family–a housewife listens to a silly radio show, two children splash in a pool, and on a balcony their father drinks a cocktail and looks down moodily at them. There is something subtly wrong with the family, but the film doesn’t articulate it, apart from a suggestive shot of a bug that does not belong indoors. In the next scene, we see the father and children driving into the trackless outback in a wheezy Volkswagen. They’re on a picnic, the children think, until their father starts shooting at them. The 14-year-old girl (Jenny Agutter) pulls her 6-year-old brother (Luc Roeg) behind a ridge, and when they look again their father has shot himself and the car is on fire.
Civilization, we gather, has failed him. Now the girl and boy face destruction at the hands of nature. They have the clothes they are wearing, a battery-operated radio, and whatever food and drink is in the picnic hamper. They wander the outback for a number of days (the film is always vague about time), and stumble upon an oasis with a pool of muddy water. Here they drink and splash and sleep, and in the morning the pool is dry. At about this time they realize that a solemn young aborigine (David Gulpilil) is regarding them. They need saving. He saves them. He possesses secrets of survival, which the film reveals in scenes of stark, unforced beauty. We see the youth spearing wild creatures, and finding water in the dry pool with the use of a hollow reed. He treats the child’s sunburn with a natural salve. Some of the outback scenes–including one where the youth spears a kangaroo–are intercut with quick flashes of a butcher shop. Man’s nature remains unchanged across many platforms.
There is an unmistakable sexual undercurrent: Both teenagers are in the first years of heightened sexual awareness. The girl still wears a school uniform that the camera regards with subtle suggestiveness. (An ambiguous earlier shot suggests that the father has an unwholesome awareness of his daughter’s body.) The restored footage includes a sequence showing the girl swimming naked in a pool, and scenes of the aborigine indicate he is displaying his manliness for her to appreciate. These developments are surrounded by scenes of implacable, indifferent–but beautiful–nature. Roeg was a cinematographer before he became a director (he co-directed the Mick Jagger film “Performance” in 1969 before this first solo outing). His camera here shows the creatures of the outback: lizards, scorpions, snakes, kangaroos, birds. They are not photographed sentimentally. They make a living by eating other things.
Aboriginal culture has a less linear sense of time than that of a clock-bound society, and the time line of the movie suggests that. Does everything happen exactly in the sequence it is shown? Does everything even happen at all? Are some moments imagined? Which of the characters imagines them? These questions lurk around the edges of the story, which is seemingly simple: The three young travelers survive in the outback because of the aborigine’s skills. And communication is a problem, although more for the girl than for her little brother, who seems to have a child’s ability to cut straight through the language to the message.
There’s one tantalizing scene where the travelers actually pass close to a settlement; the aborigine sees it, but does not lead the others to the top of a rise where they could see it, too. Is he hiding it from them? Or does he not understand why they would be seeking it? (The film gives us no information about the aborigine’s background–not even whether he has ever had any contact with modern civilization.) There’s a haunting scene where they explore an abandoned farmhouse; she cries while looking at some photographs, and he watches her carefully as she does so. And finally a scene where the aborigine paints himself in tribal designs and performs a dance that can be interpreted as courtship. The girl is not interested, and the gulf between the two civilizations is not bridged. What should we have been hoping for, given the conditions of the story? That the girl and her brother learn to embrace a lifestyle that is more organically rooted in nature? That the aborigine learn from them about a world of high-rises and radios? That the two teenagers make love as a sort of symbol of universality, before returning to their separate spheres?
I think the film is neutral about such goals. Like its lizards that sit unblinking in the sun, it has no agenda for them. It sees the life of civilization as arid and unrewarding, but only easy idealism allows us to believe that the aborigine is any happier, or his life more rewarding (the film makes a rather unpleasant point of the flies constantly buzzing around him).
In “Walkabout,” the crucial detail is that the two teenagers can never find a way to communicate, not even by using sign language. Partly this is because the girl feels no need to do so: Throughout the film she remains implacably middle-class and conventional, and she regards the aborigine as more of a curiosity and convenience than a fellow spirit. Because not enough information is given, we cannot attribute her attitude to racism or cultural bias, but certainly it reveals a vast lack of curiosity. And the aborigine, for his part, lacks the imagination to press his case–his sexual desires–in any terms other than the rituals of his people. When that fails, he is finished, and in despair.
The movie is not the heartwarming story of how the girl and her brother are lost in the outback and survive because of the knowledge of the resourceful aborigine. It is about how all three are still lost at the end of the film–more lost than before, because now they are lost inside themselves instead of merely adrift in the world.
The film is deeply pessimistic. It suggests that we all develop specific skills and talents in response to our environment, but cannot easily function across a broader range. It is not that the girl cannot appreciate nature or that the boy cannot function outside his training. It is that all of us are the captives of environment and programming: That there is a wide range of experiment and experience that remains forever invisible to us, because it falls in a spectrum we simply cannot see.
Gulpili became an instant hit after this movie. His animated features were a godsend for the camera and as Phillip Noyce claimed after Rabbit Proof Fence, Gulpili became the most talented natural actor in Australia. Gary Sweet, who co-lead with Gulpili in Black Tracker described their meeting as a life-changing moment – I’ve never met anyone like him; charismatic, gifted, intuitive, connected to country….
Though financially successful, he lived in virtual poverty as most of his money was shared with his tribe. His personal life, married with four children, took a downturn in 2011 when he was imprisoned for 12 months after a boozy fight where he broke his wife (Miriam’s) arm. On release he failed to return to Darwin’s infamous long grass bush camps renown for drunken binges. Indigenous subjects so elusive and powerless, that despite all good intentions, in telling, their stories, were appropriated to white people’s own ends.
It is imperative that their stories be told from their perspective in their own voice as done by Richard Wagamese, in Canada, Sally Morgan, Stan Grant and Adam Goodes in Australia.
The Tracker #
Gothic - Horror #
Wolf Creek, Snowtown
According to Paul Salmond, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is Australia’s latest Ozploitation movie hit and has has divided critics.
Some see it as an unsparing critique of colonialism’s savage legacy. Others accuse Kent of wallowing in sexual violence for shock value. At the Sydney Film Festival there were walkouts during a particularly grueling rape scene.
For those prepared to take it, The Nightingale is a good film with a lot to say, often quite eloquently. But in a very real respect it evolved from a sensationalist tradition that took root firmly in Australia during the 1970s, now known as Ozploitation cinema.
Romper Stomper #
Tom Ryan writes: In 1992, Geoffrey Wright, released his film to tell a story about catastrophically dangerous damaged and unfulfilled lives in the ‘burbs, starring Russel Crowe made on a small budget of less than 2 million.
Set in run-down Melbourne where a gang of neo-Nazi skin heads led by Hando (Crowe) attack a group of Vietnamese kids having some after dark fun near Footscray railway station. Romper Stomper doesn’t give provide us with any easy guide as to what we are to make of the gang members and their barbaric ways. …The film tosses us into the deep end and invites us to sink or find a way to swim.
“This is not your country” Hando tells the kids as he goes about his brutal business.
In the next scene in the Railway Hotel, the skinheads abuse the owner barman because he served “gooks”.
Expressing his anger at the rich powerful people who’ve “brought in boatloads of human trash”, Hando says he doesn’t want to become “a white coolie in his own country” and “I don’t want to go the same way as the Abo”.
One violent rampage follows another, and we never get close to the characters, although Hando’s lieutenant, Daniel Pollock, does seem capable of change. The film creates a depressing world in which it that hardly seems possible and from which there is no emergency exit.
Wright gives us the underbelly of multiculturalism, thrusting our faces on the repulsive racism that is as much a part of Australia.
Social and domestic #
The Man From Snowy River (1982) #
The Man from Snowy River is a Australian Western drama film based on the Banjo Paterson poem “The Man from Snowy River” .
The film had a cast including Kirk Douglas in a dual role as the brothers Harrison (a character who appeared frequently in Paterson’s poems) and Spur, Jack Thompson as Clancy, Tom Burlinson as Jim Craig, Sigrid Thornton as Harrison’s daughter Jessica, Terence Donovan as Jim’s father Henry Craig, and Chris Haywood as Curly.
Crocodile Dundee, (1986) #
Crocodile Dundee is a 1986 action comedy film set in the Australian Outback and in New York City. It stars Paul Hogan as the weathered Mick Dundee, and American actress Linda Kozlowski as reporter Sue Charlton. Inspired by the true-life exploits of Rod Ansell, the film was made on a budget of under $10 million as a deliberate attempt to make a commercial Australian film that would appeal to a mainstream American audience, but proved to be a worldwide phenomenon.
Famous saying: “That’s not a knife; this is a knife”
Strictly Ballroom (1991) #
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) #
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a road comedy film written and directed by Stephan Elliott. The plot follows two drag queens, played by Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, and a transgender woman, played by Terence Stamp, as they journey across the Australian Outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in a tour bus that they have named “Priscilla”, along the way encountering various groups and individuals.
The film was a surprise worldwide hit and its positive portrayal of LGBT individuals helped to introduce LGBT themes to a mainstream audience. It received predominantly positive reviews and won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the 67th Academy Awards. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and became a cult classic both in Australia and abroad. Wikipaedia
Muriel’s Wedding (1994) #
Misfit Muriel (Toni Colette) has always escaped her humdrum small-town life by listening to ABBA songs and dreaming about marriage. She is an outcast in her family and her peer group. Ready to take control of her life, she and her best friend, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) head for the big city where they end up having the exciting adventure of their lives. Everyone back home suddenly takes notice when Muriel becomes engaged to a handsome and popular sports hero,
Her father Bill Heslop (Bill Hunter) is Porpoise Spit’s corrupt Mayor, who explains irregular income as “consulting fees”. Heslop’s control of his house is based on negative putdowns to both his wife and all his lazy children. When Muriel is dicovered forging a cheque, her sister mimics the father’s “Muriel, you’re terrible.”
Lantana (2001) #
Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence with an allstar cast of Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Geoffrey Rush. Barbara Hershey, Rachel Blake, Leah Purcell, Vince Colsimo, Daniella Farinacci, Glen Robbins…..
LaPaglia makes his cop into a focus of pain: He cheats, takes no joy in cheating, is violent, takes no joy in violence, is shut inside himself. Roger Ebert.com
After Jane reports her suspicions about the neighbors, she ends up minding Paula’s kids, and there is a wonderfully observed moment when the little one gets sick and the slightly older one knows just what medication is necessary. Jane tidies up a messy house which riles Paula - “you had no right”. Perhaps a neat tidy house does not always represent a well ordered life.
The Last Days of Chez Nous 1993 #
Written by Helen Garner (Monkey Grip), The Last Days of Chez Nous, set in a ramshackle Sydney household, where an Australian family gets on with its life, but only just, is Gillian Armstrong’s (High Tide) acclaimed exploration of love, trust, betrayal and lust. Visually resplendent in a brand new high definition transfer with exclusive special features The Last Days of Chez Nous is a potent drama set around the life of a family facing change.
Beth (Lisa Harrow) is a modern matriarch doing her best to raise her teenage daughter Annie (Miranda Otto, Lord of the Rings trilogy) whilst enjoying the best of an easy-going marriage to Frenchman JP (Bruno Ganz, Downfall). When younger sister Vicki (Kerry Fox, Bright Star) returns from abroad and moves into the household she is instantly drawn to the ideal family structure and develops a longing for what is missing in her own life.
As Beth takes a trip with her dad (Bill Hunter, Muriel’s Wedding) she leaves JP and sister Vicki behind unaware of the smoldering love triangle that has developed between them and the turbulence that lies ahead.
Satire and social commentary #
Working Dog #
The Working Dog team has given us gems such as current affairs parody Frontline in the 1990s,
Later productions include Thank God You’re Here, Have You Been Paying Attention and The Cheap Seats.
The Dish (starring Sam Neill) was equally delightful and retold the story of the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales “in a funny and moving” way when it received and broadcast the first Moon landing of Apollo 11.
Now, Utopia is back.
“Utopia explores that moment when bureaucracy and grand dreams collide,” says the ABC, adding it’s a comedy for “anyone who has been forced to endure bureaucracy and lived to laugh at the ordeal”.
“It’s a tribute to those political leaders who have somehow managed to take long-term vision and use it for short-term gain.”
Sitch’s co-stars are all back, including Celia Pacquola, Dave Lawson, Dilruk Jayasinha, Kitty Flanagan, Anthony Lehmann, Emma-Louise Wilson, Nina Oyama, Jamie Robertson, Mike McLeish and Rebecca Massey.
The quirky office-place scenarios (which exist in the real world) have been a common thread through the previous series, which first launched in 2014 with eight episodes.
Time and money spent on new office logos, redesigning websites, bringing in motivational experts to boost staff morale, the endless office distractions and decisions about office plants, new furniture and who is the best barista in the office to make coffee. Sound familiar?
“You guys are like an Australian version of the Simpsons with your predictions,” wrote one fan on Working Dog’s Instagram.
The 40-second teaser trailer sets us up for a solid two months of winter viewing.
“There’s got to be something that is shovel-ready,” says boardroom bureaucrat played by radio host, comedian and actor Lehmann.
He plays Jim and his projects never get off the ground.
“It’s a regional …” he says, waving a thousand-page bound document about some project somewhere.
“It doesn’t matter what we say, as long as we keep saying it,” says another.
One fan was quick to respond to the news Utopia was back.
“You had me at regional.”
The Castle (1997) #
Their iconic film The Castle remains part of our cultural landscape, with many people still happily watching it and exclaiming,
“this is going straight to the pool room” and
“tell him he’s dreaming”.
Where serenity, the vibe, justice and Mabo and all that meant something and the Kerrigan family still exist, somewhere, in real life.
The Castle can be seen as a social study on the lives and aspirations of the inhabitants of suburban Australia. The central character, Darryl Kerrigan, ties into the stereotypical depiction of an “Aussie battler”, a man who will protect and serve his family through bold and sometimes ruthless assertion.
The Aussie battler will at times face challenges or adversity, often in the face of oppressive government or economic hardship. Kerrigan, and to a lesser extent his wife and children, are committed to their pursuit of the Australian Dream, a concept considered somewhat outdated
The Castle, like many other Australian television shows and films, portrays the average Australian as “un-cultured” or ignorant of culture beyond what is filtered down through the masses (on mainstream television or in tabloid journalism), and to a lesser extent the restrictions failing to explore a city beyond one’s suburbs impose on families as far as exposure to arts or entertainment. A recurring gag in the film has Darryl ask his wife, Sal, what she has cooked, to which she frequently replies with something as simple as rissoles (a minced meat dish), sponge cake, or ice cream. This references the stereotype that Australian cuisine tends to be unsophisticated, something that is less prevalent now than it was in the early to mid 1990s.
Journalist Osman Faruqi in an extract from a book of essays commemorating MIFF’s 70th anniversary writes:
Over time, I came to understand why people like him would relate to a story of a multiracial, multi-gender, multi-generational alliance of working-class Australians taking on elites, even if on the surface the central Kerrigan family had little in common with us.
But what’s fascinated me the most about The Castle over the years is how universally praised it is by Australians across class, social and political lines.
Unusual for any kind of Australian comedy, let alone a mainstream blockbuster, the 1997 film has a blunt critique of the economic ideology that swept the West, including Australia, in the 1980s and 1990s. What drives The Castle’s narrative is the battle of the Kerrigans and their neighbours against a government corporation called Airlink, who are seeking to expand the airport in order to boost their profits. It’s revealed that Airlink is backed by a shadowy group of investors.
It’s David versus Goliath, it’s the everyman versus the big corporations, it’s one family versus a rigged legal system. The stakes are set.
But The Castle takes things a step further.
When Darryl expresses confusion at the apparent collusion between what appears to be a government organisation in Airlink, and the private investors the Barlow Group, his suburban lawyer, Dennis Denuto, explains:
“The Barlow Group is Airlink. It’s government authority, but the money’s coming from the Barlow Group . . . It’s a way of privatising without privatising . . . They wrote the rules. They own the game.”
Now, at this point, the tension in the film has already been established. We already know who the heroes and the villains are. But now, we get a new bad guy. It’s not just the government. It’s not just the Barlow Group. It’s pure capitalism. It’s neoliberalism. It’s a doctrine about the state’s steady withdrawal from society, with its functions replaced by the private market.
It’s an incredible shift. It doesn’t change the narrative arc of the film, but it does elevate the stakes. Now the Kerrigans are fighting ideology itself – the most powerful ideology in human history. However, The Castle’s portrayal of race issues is . . . messy, to say the least. The only non-European character in the film is Darryl’s neighbour Farouk, a Lebanese-Australian with an apparent background in explosives. It’s not exactly a subtle or complex portrayal.
Intriguingly, The Castle was written and produced in the aftermath of the Mabo High Court case, and the film doesn’t hide the fact that it sees Darryl’s attempt to rebuff the government as a direct parallel to the fightback against terra nullius. At one point Darryl even says, pointedly, “This country has got to stop stealing other people’s land!”
Television Serials #
For nudity they could always watch Channel 10’s Number 96 or its even racier cousin The Box.
Home and Away is the longest running series on Australian television. It follows the lives and loves of the residents in Summer Bay, a fictional seaside town in New South Wales, and is also found audiences around the world.
Blue Heelers, an Australian police drama series produced by Southern Star Group and ran for twelve years on the Seven Network, from 1994 to 2006.
Secret Life of Us followed the relationships of a group of twentysomething Melbourne friends, played by Deborah Mailman, Claudia Karvan and Samuel Johnson. Kelly, Alex and Evan were the housemates that seemed eerily familiar – starting careers, trying to write books, losing jobs, sleeping with the wrong people.
SeaChange was a quirky Australian television program that ran from 1998 to 2000 on the ABC. It was created by Andrew Knight and Deborah Cox and starred Sigrid Thornton, David Wenham, William McInnes, John Howard, Tom Long, Kevin Harrington, and Kerry Armstrong. The director was Michael Carson.
Laura Gibson (Sigrid Thornton), a high-flying city lawyer, is prompted to undergo a ‘seachange’ with her children Miranda and Rupert after her husband is arrested for fraud and is found to have had an affair with her sister. Laura becomes the magistrate for the small coastal town of Pearl Bay. The town is isolated from the rest of the world since the local bridge was destroyed in one of the natural disasters common to Pearl Bay. Although they initially miss the city, the family comes to love the town and its many colourful characters, and they also enjoy having more quality time with each other.
It was extremely successful because it contrasted the high flying life of the corporate world with the more grounded reality of back to the nature of a small town. It represented natural change and renewal. (From Wikipedia)
Picnic at Hanging Rock #
Peter Weir’s iconic Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) told a different kind of environmental story.
Supposedly based on real events (since debunked) surrounding the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls at the eponymous monolith on Valentine’s Day In 1900, Picnic once more shows Europeans imposing themselves unnaturally on an ancient landscape, which this time strikes back.
Why, when we think “bushranger”, do we think “Kelly”? Why was this one hot-tempered son of an Irish pig-thief anointed by Australia as the singular representative of a whole class of fascinating outlaw whose adventures spanned a century? What, in short, did Ned have that other wild colonial boys didn’t?
Why isn’t our bushranging figurehead Ben Hall, the wronged avenging angel striking out at injustice, who sought to punish only those who deserved it? Why isn’t it Captain Thunderbolt, who rode up hill and down dale with his lady in a gun-toting outback romance? Or Captain Moonlite, who chased excitement his entire life but whose only thoughts at the end were for the man he loved?
But in Australia’s Ned-centric view of the bushranging world, not everyone receives the recognition they deserve. What about the little-known story of Harry Power, Ned’s mentor? Power claimed his life of crime began when he was falsely accused of stealing a horse by a pair of German troopers. He turned to highway robbery late in life, after escaping from Pentridge Prison. As the story goes a teenage Ned took care of the horses while Power was pulling his robberies.
What about Martin Cash, who was transported from Ireland after shooting at a man who hit on his girlfriend? Cash claimed that he shot the man in the buttocks and ended up in Sydney, but became a bushranger after being transferred to Van Diemen’s Land. Sentenced to death, Cash was spared at the last minute thanks to public sympathy that had been aroused by his loveable demeanour, and instead of hanging he was sent to Norfolk Island – some people at the time thought this preferable. One of the few bushrangers to die elderly and in bed, he had time before the end to dictate his autobiography, which shot to the top of the bestseller lists.
Then there’s Jessie Hickman, the ring-mistress of Martini’s Buckjumping Show, who killed her husband in self-defence and founded a gang of cattle thieves in the Wollemi Forest in the 1920s – long after bushrangers were supposed to have disappeared. In her youth she was a two-time Australian Rough-riding Champion: a perfect grounding for a bushranger. Jessie was said to have escaped from a locked toilet on a moving train, and stolen cattle from a police holding yard – from what is known about her she seems to have been as much a magician as a bushranger.
Yes, there are countless bushrangers with stories worth telling, filled with derring-do and ripping adventures just like Ned Kelly’s. But their stories are rarely told, and Ned Kelly’s frequently is, because when you start looking at bushrangers, there is simply no escaping Ned. His legacy is like that giant outside the Glenrowan Post Office: impossible to miss.
That’s frustrating as hell, because the history of bushranging is a rich and compelling one that deserves better than to be reduced to the story of a single tin-wearing highwayman, no matter how good at letter writing he was. If all you know of bushrangers is Ned Kelly, you might think that bushranging was simply a matter of heavily armoured Irish Republicans making brave stands at pubs.
This is an edited extract from Mad Dogs and Thunderbolts by Ben Pobjie (Affirm Press)
The True History of the Kelly Gang #
Peter Carey –
The first thing to say about Carey’s novel is that it is not true. When it was released in 2000, many missed the title’s hint: history is history; “true history” is subjective. Carey concocted a sweetheart for Ned, and a daughter. He took the skeleton of real events in Victoria’s Kelly Country in the late 1800s and draped a dress of fiction over it. In the book, Ned’s father, Red, owns a dress hemmed with roses. When Ned finds it, his stomach knots, “a mighty anger” comes upon him. But later he realises his father was a member of a group of Irish social bandits called the Sons of Sieve, who donned frocks to wrong-foot the English and to make them think they were mad – the dress as war mask, essentially. While this really was done in Ireland, the Sons of Sieve are another of Carey’s concoctions. There is no evidence that the Kelly Gang took to wearing frocks as a nod to Irish warrior ways. But here’s the twist: there are historical reports of the Kelly Gang as cross-dressers.
You don’t have to look far for the signposts. One of Sidney Nolan’s celebrated Ned Kelly series is Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl (1947). In the painting, Hart, rocking a floral dress and dainty boots, sits side-saddle, eyeing the viewer unflinchingly, a hand on his steed, another cupping the reins. Nolan had read, and was inspired by, J.J. Kenneally’s influential 1929 book The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, which mentions that Hart “frequently rode about in feminine attire”. What to make of this? Where’s an expert in Australian 19th-century cross-dressing when you need one? After a bit of digging around the history departments of several universities, I find my expert. Her name is Lucy Chesser and her book, Parting with My Sex: Cross-Dressing, Inversion and Sexuality in Australian Cultural Life, is the definitive history of cross-dressing in colonial-era Australia. She’d searched for the original sources for Kenneally’s statement and couldn’t find any. But, she tells me over the phone, the 1881 Royal Commission into the Victorian Police did record one reported sighting of Ned Kelly in a dress. And one of the policemen, trying to excuse himself for firing on female hostages at Glenrowan, gave evidence that he’d thought the bushrangers might be dressed as women during the siege.
Since Chesser’s 2008 book, further evidence has been unearthed, as Australia’s colonial-era newspapers are progressively digitised on Trove, the National Library of Australia’s online database. Writers Leo Kennedy – the great-grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, whom Kelly murdered at the Stringybark Creek ambush – and Mic Looby dug up a fascinating little nugget in their Kelly book, Black Snake, published last year. On January 4, 1879, Melbourne newspaper The Argus ran a piece from the Victorian town of Mansfield, while the gang was still at large after the Stringybark murders the previous October. “Two awkward-looking women have been in Mansfield the past two days,” the paper’s correspondent wrote. “A gentleman said he could almost swear that the features of one of the women were those of Steve Hart, one of the murderers. Later in the day the supposed Steve Hart was seated in a side-saddle on horseback, leading another horse …” Chesser puts it like this: there is evidence the Kelly Gang wore dresses, “but not a lot”, and if they did, it wasn’t unusual for their time. Back then, she says, the main dramatic entertainment was theatre. It was performed everywhere – tents, halls, homes – by amateur family troupes or travelling theatre groups. “Men and women played parts of the opposite sex, so they would dress in each other’s clothes,” she says.
“There was a blurry edge between what’s on stage and what is not. And you can imagine how easily somebody dressed up for a family performance could then decide to go on a little parade around town to see if anyone recognised them. It was more common that you might expect.”
And, of course, there may have been that element of criminal disguise with the Kellys. “I just think Carey made too much out of it, and it’s kind of titillating for an audience [that is] quick to see people in the past as a bit boring,” she says. “There was a lot more rule-breaking in those days than we give them credit for.” For Kurzel, Carey’s cross-dressing theme was “a huge part of what made me fall in love with the book”. And it gave the director an opportunity to push and prod at what it is to be an Australian man.
Ned Kelly has been played previously by the likes of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. Vogel, a British producer, was visiting Peter Carey’s agent in London. Irish film director Neil Jordan had only recently relinquished the rights to True History and now they were available. “Everybody said, ‘That’s just a terrible idea. Nobody is going to give you money to make another Ned Kelly film,’ ” Vogel tells me a little while later, outside Mintaro.
The people who said that to Vogel do have a point: how many Ned Kelly films does the world need? There are nearly a dozen now, including the world’s first feature film in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang; a 1970 effort with Mick Jagger as Ned that its director, Tony Richardson, described as “stillborn”; and a crowd-funded short film, Stringybark, released earlier this year. And when Vogel was considering the rights to True History, only eight years had elapsed since Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly, starring Ledger, which had been released to tepid reviews. Geordie Williamson