Making stupidity a virtue in Hollywood is dumb

21 September 2011

Hollywood has a lot to answer for in its demonisation of experts.

In a Hollywood film there’s a good chance that if somebody knows what they are talking about then they will turn out to be the villain.

Consider the family-friendly blockbuster Mr. Popper’s Penguins. The hero is a wealthy real estate agent who wants to keep the penguins his late father left him so he can bond with his children. The bad guy is an experienced and knowledgeable zookeeper who wants to remove the penguins to care for them properly. In Hollywood, experts like the zookeeper have secret agendas while average dads just want to rediscover family values. We are living in an era in which expressions such as “over-educated” are used to mock those who have conducted years of research in a specific area and words such as “intellectual” and “academic” are terms of abuse.

Hollywood has a history of representing experts as the baddies, especially during the Cold War. Occasionally, in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the professors wisely heeded the precautionary message from outer space. However, there were many more films in the vein of The Thing from Another World (1951), where the scientist is presented as a pointy head who prizes scientific inquiry over human life.

So why does so much popular culture demonise experts? Shouldn’t we be grateful that they have done the hard work in particular fields so that we don’t have to?

The innocent explanation is that experts are boring. Tales about an everyday person saving the world make compelling stories, feeding the myth that anybody can achieve greatness. Stories about studying really hard for long periods without any semblance of a social life are not nearly as sexy.

The fantasy of the heroic average person is further fuelled by reality television, in which people with no real talent are catapulted into the fame and fortune stratosphere for doing very little of actual merit.

Even in the original Harry Potter films the naturally gifted Harry was the hero while Hermione was a source of derision for being so studious. This reveals one of the notable exceptions to the rule. Being born talented is not seen as elitist as you can’t help it, unlike working extremely hard to understand, analyse or master something above the capabilities of other people. “Street smarts” or excelling at sport are also acceptable forms of expertise.

Being trained in the art of war is one form of disciplined study Hollywood has no qualms with. Take the treatment of experts in the ideologically poisonous Transformers franchise. All government personnel are portrayed as egg-headed, bureaucratic fools. Attempts to understand a situation in order to respond with diplomacy and level-headedness are mocked and depicted as catastrophic. The heroes in Michael Bay’s trilogy are good ol’ soldier boys, an everyday kid and a generic hot chick.

This widespread discrediting of non-militaristic expert opinion in mainstream cinema is worrying and suggests the prevalent distrust of people who know what they are talking about. No wonder some commentators who were used to such values accused Avatar (2009) of left-wing bias simply because it made villains out of its ill-informed corporate and private security firm characters for trying to commit genocide.

Only in a climate where rational debate is stifled by appeals to be less smart could a centralist film like Avatar be seen as subversive.

Forrest Gump (1994) has a lot to answer for in terms of popularising ideas of stupidity being a virtue. Gump’s simplistic and naive view of the world sets him up as a fictionalised pivotal figure in how American identity has been shaped. He is also obedient and happy to throw the occasional punch. Dumb, dutiful and violent – that’s the Everyman that Hollywood served up to great acclaim in the ’90s and he’s been plaguing us since.

Expert opinion is seen as untrustworthy, as if it is out of touch with how the person on the street perceives issues. And to be fair, experts do often differ in how they perceive issues in their field when compared with the majority. That’s because they have an insight that the rest of us lack since we don’t have the time, resources or capacity to develop it ourselves.

So when somebody dismisses the findings of 97 per cent of the world’s peer-reviewed climate scientists or claims sentencing by experienced judges is too lenient, challenge them as to why. There is a good chance that their refusal to trust the experts may be because they are far too impressionable when going to the movies.

Original published in Fairfax newspapers and online on 21 September 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011
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The federal budget and the Australian film industry

17 May 2011

My piece on how the new federal budget may affect the Australian film industry appeared in the arts opinion column Canvas in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers yesterday on Monday 16 May 2011.

The increase in funding and tax rebate reforms announced in the federal budget last week seem to be very much about encouraging an ongoing diversity of films produced within Australia while maintaining a healthy and long-term sustainable film industry.

However, the focus on digital and visual effects hints that maybe there is still a push for more genre films to be made.

The full article “We risk becoming a post-production facility for overseas films” is available online on The Age website.


Lights, Camera, Action

3 May 2011

Sex in cinema should no longer be controversial. But after all those years, and all those clinches, it seems moral guardians are still getting hot under their starched collars.

Blue Valentine: Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

Blue Valentine

Last year, Blue Valentine almost received the notorious box-office-killing NC-17 rating (no one 17 and under permitted) in America because of a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character, Dean, dives between the legs of his new girlfriend, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and brings her to noisy joyous climax. It’s the most romantic, tender and erotic sex scene in the film, yet it was this scene that worried censors – not an earlier and far more explicit one, where Cindy is essentially just a motionless and slightly bored vessel for her animalistic jock ex-boyfriend.

In an era when sex is apparently everywhere and we’re all supposedly more relaxed and open about sex than ever before, why would an intimate and passionate scene raise eyebrows? The minor ratings controversy over Blue Valentine reveals how conservative mainstream America still is about what is considered ‘the norm’ in human sexuality and what is appropriate viewing for the general public. Surely there’s something fundamentally wrong when a commonplace sexual act, which happens to focus on female pleasure, is considered abnormal. Such squeamishness is not just prudish; it’s an attempt to maintain a very conservative status quo based on bland, straight, male tastes.

Mae West

Mae West

It wasn’t always like this. Early Hollywood cinema was comparatively risqué with its highly suggestive dialogue, naked bodies in silhouette and coy undressing scenes. Most shocking of all were popular female actors such as Mae West, who frequently played sexually hungry, assertive and witty characters. Whenever there are expressions of sexuality, however – particularly expressions of female sexuality – there are groups who wish to ban it from the public eye. In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code – after the original chief censor, Will H Hays – began enforcing its strict policies. For the next two decades Hollywood cinema was free of any physical expressions of love that were more lustful than a three-second kiss.

In the 1960s things changed, as there was growing demand for intelligent cinema that could explore challenging subject matter without the restraint of dogmatic censorship. By the 1970s, art-house films such as Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Don’t Look Now (1974), featuring American stars in explicit sex scenes, went mainstream and the Hays Code became officially outdated. Gone were the days of having to symbolically suggest sex with strategic fade-outs, bursts of fireworks, shots of the characters smoking or trains going into tunnels. Australian censors took a bit longer to catch up, but by the 1980s local audiences were also able to see such films uncut.

Going The Distance

Going The Distance

Mainstream cinema today is getting increasingly better at acknowledging that sex does not only exist between couples as the conclusion to their romantic storyline. Recent films like Going the Distance (2010), Love and Other Drugs(2010) and No Strings Attached (2011), as well as the upcoming Friends with Benefits (starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake) at least toy with the idea that fun and free sex often precedes a committed relationship. Interestingly, while these films play with the idea of ‘casual’ sex, they still conform to a traditional ‘happy ending’ that is conventionally monogamous and heterosexual.

Hollywood has a long history of portraying queer sexuality as something to be laughed at or feared. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex characters are frequently punished with either literal or spiritual death, and plots about previously straight characters indulging their same-sex desire are often used to indicate a descent into violence or madness. The 1990s New Queer Cinema movement challenged these representations, with directors such as Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin, 2004) and Rose Troche (Go Fish, 1994) creating characters who happily switch between same- and opposite-sex partners. Nevertheless, even a film as recent as Black Swan (2010) fell back on the cliché of an imagined lesbian encounter as precursor to Natalie Portman’s character spiralling into self-destructive insanity.

Secretary: James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Secretary

People who engage in various sexual fetishes and sadomasochistic behaviour have also long had to endure their desires being either mocked on screen or portrayed as a dark, dangerous and shameful subculture. A rare respite, Secretary (2002) provided a non-judgemental portrayal of a dominant/submissive relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader learning to embrace their desire to engage in sexual power-play games in order to find true love with each other. Funny, sweet and romantic, Secretary revealed how similarly people experience love even when it is expressed in ‘kinky’ ways.

The director of Rabbit Hole (2010), John Cameron Mitchell, achieved something similar in 2006 when he successfully self-distributed his unrated comedy-drama, Shortbus, containing characters who were gay, straight and everything in between. They had unsimulated (ie real) sex as couples, threesomes and more. Age, race, gender and sexual orientation provided no barriers to the fun. This warm, funny and honest look at a range of different relationships celebrated diversity and also suggested that, at heart, we all want to love, be loved and get our rocks off with like-minded people.

Shortbus

Shortbus

The critical and commercial success of independent films like Secretary and Shortbus demonstrate that there is an audience for films about sexuality in all its wonderful and exciting permutations. Hollywood needs to catch up because not only does focusing so heavily on straight male desire exclude more than half the audience, it’s boring. At present, we run the risk of porn scenarios and rom-com narratives having the monopoly influence on how sex is depicted.

Far from shielding ourselves from sex on the big screen, we should be demanding more of it. And demanding that it be more representative, diverse, confronting and, well, sexy!

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 378, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Sting in the Fairytale

7 February 2011
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The 1812 fairytale Schneewittchen (Little Snow White), by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, is a grisly story about a queen whose jealously of her step-daughter’s beauty compelles her to order a huntsman to take the girl into the forest, kill her, and remove her lungs and liver for the Queen to boil and then eat. In other versions of the story the Queen asks for Snow White’s intestines and in another she demands a bottle of the poor girl’s blood with one of her hacked-off toes used as a stopper. However, Snow White has the last laugh when the Queen is forced to dance herself to death after being made to wear iron slippers heated in red-hot coals.

If this is not the version of the Snow White story that you are familiar with then it is likely that you recall the version of the tale that was re-told by Walt Disney Studios in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first feature length animated film. As documented in the Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairytales exhibition, currently on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, the legendary animator Walt Disney was renowned for repackaging classic fairytales, fables, folk tales, myths and nursery rhymes to give them what he perceived to be a modern and family-friendly spin.

Tangled

Tangled

The 2010 release of Tangled, the 50th animated Walt Disney Studio feature and a retelling of Rapunzel, another Brothers Grimm fairytale, suggests that Disney’s vision is still going strong. On one of the walls in the Dreams Come True exhibition is a quote from Disney declaring that, “Literary versions of old fairytales are usually thin and briefly told. They must be expanded and embellished to meet the requirements of theatre playing time”. Indeed, the Rapunzel story is expanded upon so that the story about a beautiful girl with long hair who is held captive in a tower (reportedly based on a 15th century folk tale about a woman imprisoned by her father for refusing to marry), becomes an all-out adventure where Rapunzel has magical hair and is the lost princess of a nearby kingdom.

Walt Disney Studio films have been criticised for sanitising the classic fairytales and losing their original cautionary messages, but in Disney’s defence, the fairytales had already existed in many different variations and guises. The way Disney adapted, re-interpreted, embellished and censored the stories was not so different to what the Brothers Grimm did when they published their ‘definitive’ versions. Also, the Brothers Grimm introduced their own style of morality. For instance, they were so enamoured with the sanctity of motherhood that they frequently changed the violent and cruel mother character from the original stories into the wicked stepmother archetype that is so commonly accepted today.

Cinderella

Cinderella

Walt Disney was no saint with his alleged anti-Semitism, membership of the Communist witch-hunt organisation the House of Un-American Activities Committee and his ultra-conservative depictions of gender, race and class in his films casting a dark shadow. Yet still, there are many occasions where it is difficult not to argue that his versions of the fairytales are far more palatable than the originals. For example, is the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, which so graphically describes the stepsisters slicing off parts of their feet to make the glass slipper fit, really preferable? How about the older German version where Cinderella forgives the stepsisters only to then have doves peck out their eyes while at her wedding? Hardly a noble gesture.

Then there are the versions of fairytales penned by Hans Christian Andersen, who was a bit like the Lars von Trier of his time in that his heroes only achieved happiness by finding a spiritual high ground once they underwent a series of tortures and humiliations. Imagine if the 1989 Disney version of The Little Mermaid stuck to Andersen’s telling, where the price Ariel had to pay to have a human form was for her tongue to be cut out and for her to experience unbearable pain whenever she walked on her new legs?

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Considering the puritanical and Old Testament-morality origins of these stories, there is a strong case for Disney (who was hardly a model for progressive thinking himself) making the changes that he did. In fact, later films made after Disney’s death should be commended for discarding the lessons from the original texts. The Disney Beauty and the Beast (1991) is still a very problematic story about a supposedly independent girl who falls in love with her captor, but at least it is significantly removed from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 version of the story, which was written to instruct upon young women the virtues of obedience and self-denial when entering an arranged marriage to an older man.

The 50 animated features from the Walt Disney Studios continue to resonate and their core message of following your dreams and being true to yourself lives on – without the fire and brimstone morality, fetishistic martyrdom and willing victim rhetoric of the original source material.

Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairytales is on at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image until Tuesday 26 April 2011.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 372, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Spectacle is not the problem; mediocrity is

21 December 2010

This paper was originally delivered as part of The age of the spectacle: developing critical thinking in a time of eye candy panel at the VATE Jubilee Conference on Tuesday 7 December 2010

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)

In 1895, French cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first film they ever made. It was a 46 second long, continuous shot that was taken from a single fixed position. The film was called Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon). The image of the workers filing out of a factory was not so much what was of interest in the film but it was the technology itself that enthralled audiences. They were seeing something they had never seen before – moving photographs. Other early filmmakers then went further to explore the potential that cinema had in order to create optical illusions and primitive special effects that were designed simply to mesmerise the audience. Cinema began as a form of spectacle.

While cinematic storytelling techniques were developed almost immediately, the idea that the visual component of cinema would be regarded as subservient to a story did not really occur until the 1910s when the classical Hollywood era of cinema began. This era, which lasted until the 1960s, defined the cause-effect narrative structure that we are now accustomed to, which includes making sure that the means in which cinema is constructed is kept hidden from the viewer.

A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

However, one thing that has remained true throughout the history of cinema is that it has always primarily been a visual art form and therefore what some may call eye-candy is in fact the essence of cinema.  And just like the audiences watching the people exit the factory in 1895, we are still fascinated with what technology can do and we want to be dazzled by something we haven’t seen before. Hence, the type of spectacle that cinema delivers has constantly changed to include sound, colour, panoramic screens to compete with the advent of television, special effects and today we have IMAX screens, new 3D technology, computer generated images and digital effects that continue to push the boundary of what can be achieved on screen.

So we aren’t living in an age of spectacle because spectacle has always been a part of cinema.

In terms of how we relate to popular culture now, I do not believe that spectacle is the problem. Instead, mediocrity is the problem and mediocrity intrudes upon all forms of cinema. A loud, noisy, big budget special-effects driven action extravaganza may draw more attention to itself when it succumbs to mediocrity but this doesn’t mean that all spectacle films are bad and it doesn’t mean that it is not a problem other films face. As an exercise, try to think of how many comedies, romances, dramas, thrillers or family films that you’ve seen over the past decade that were worth your time and money as opposed to how many were completely disposable. Genuinely good films are in the minority, however, that’s nothing particularly new or revelatory.

The first major crisis of mediocrity in film history (in terms of the dominant Hollywood cinema anyway) was during the 1950s and early 1960s after the old studio system was dismantled. The industry fell into the hands of business people who only saw film as a commodity and much of what was produced in that era were second rate attempts to capitalise on earlier successes. However, the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and 1970s turned this trend around when a bunch of film literate filmmakers who were heavily influenced by European cinema were given a shot to make something different, since nothing else seemed to be working. Coinciding with the growing counter culture revolution the New Hollywood era is still arguably the finest point in American film history and it also resulted in an audience of cinemagoers who were hungry for intelligent and artistic films that they could engage with.

Top Gun

Top Gun (1986)

Unfortunately it’s been downhill from the 1980s onwards as Hollywood has become increasingly about producing films that adhere to specific formulas in order to be most effectively sold. There was a slight peak in the 1990s of independent American filmmaking and Hollywood films taking an independent sensibility but most of that ended after 9/11 terrified everybody into bunkering down to make safe, crowd-pleasing, unambitious distractions that toe the line and not dare be subversive. We’re still in the wake of that era and it hasn’t helped cinema that so many good writers have moved into television.

So where does that leave contemporary cinema? With all the good stuff that’s happening on made-for-cable television is cinema now just a refuge for brain-numbing banality? Not quite. There are still extraordinary films being made and screened but they do run the risk of drowning in the tidal wave of mass-marketed junk. Furthermore, there are plenty of formulaic crowd-pleasing films that are actually extremely good and commendable for doing something original and interesting within the confines of their generic trappings. And some of these films are films that we’d all identify as spectacle films. The trick is to become visually literate and culturally savvy enough to identify the spectacle films with merit and the ones that offer a vacuous and empty experience.

Part of the problem is that film is increasingly being taught in the context of it being an English or Literature text rather than being aligned with things like Art History and Fine Arts, like it is in many universities although that is changing too. So when you approach a visual art form as a purely narrative text you do run the risk of missing what it actually is that defines the film and that’s the elements of film style that in their most basic form can be summarised as the four areas of sound, cinematography, editing and mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène, which is what we actually see in the film, can be further broken down into setting, costumes, lighting and acting-style. These elements of film style can exist without the film containing any substance and that’s when we get mediocre films, but these elements usually are vital in telling the story and sometimes they are the story.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (2006)

So, telling the difference between films that are style without substance and films where the style is the substance is crucial. For example, Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette) creates mood pieces with little narrative drive but the essence of her films comes with the way she constructs each scene and presents the world to us. The recent film The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) was criticised by some for being an average film because once we strip away the beautifully constructed visuals you are left with a generic hit man film. But the point is you are not meant to strip away the visual elements to then reduce a film to just one aspect of its identity and in the case of The American the use of cinematic space, the setting and the references to 1960s and 1970s European cinema were designed to create a complex mood piece that functioned as a metaphor for the way America situates itself in the world.

Finally, to look at two films from 2009 that are easily identifiable as spectacle films, we can see the difference between something that appeals to audiences craving unchallenging mediocrity and something that is trying to show us something different. The example of mediocrity is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, by director Michael Bay. This is a film that aims to do little more than distract us with explosions and cleavage. Being a spectacle film without a tangible story is not a crime itself, as that is how cinema began and continues to thrive in many art house and experimental movements. The problem with Transformers is that the spectacle is rubbish – it creates the pretence of excitement by distracting the audience with a constant bombardment of sound and motion, and most significantly, through the incredibly rapid editing (a trademark of Bay’s) that prevents the audience from ever latching on to anything that is happening. Transformers is an action film where it is impossible to follow the action. However, you are made to feel that you should be excited because the music swells and the editing quickens to inform you so.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Not that rapid editing is the enemy but using it to distract from the otherwise emptiness of a film results in mediocrity. It also doesn’t help that the Transformers films continue a prevalent conservative trend in Hollywood of ridiculing intellectuals and government workers at the expense of the military who are seen as the real thinkers and noble characters of the film. Transformers is also extremely guilty of continuing the tradition of pornographically portraying its female characters as items of desire that always require rescuing.

Finally, we come to a film that is markedly different from Transformers and yet it is all too easily dismissed as junk cinema simply because it is spectacle. That film is James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that not only set the benchmark for 3D technology (in the sense that it is the only 3D film to date to feel fleshed out and not just a gimmick) but it created an all immersive world that allowed Cameron to give a modern spin to a group of archetypal characters and to recycle familiar narrative traits in order to tell a modern story based on contemporary concerns and attitudes.

One of the most extraordinary things about Avatar is its incredible technological accomplishment in using 3D and digital technology to create such a vibrant world. The textures, depth of field and seamless blend of digital imagery with human actors was truly remarkable. And yet, this was somehow viewed as a bad thing as if such a visually accomplished film was somehow an inferior product. One commenter on my blog declared it to be a terrible film but then stated, ‘Yes, the special effects were wondrous and magical’.

This taps into the automatic bias that many people still have against the visual element of cinema. Furthermore, it taps into the belief that some aspects of cinema are praise worthy while others are not. For example, many critics seem happy to praise other isolated aspects of a film – like the acting, or writing, or maybe cinematography – but creating special effects is still frequently seen as somehow a lesser art form. A film is the sum of all its parts and learning to appreciate all these aspects is crucial for effective analysis.

Avatar

Avatar (2009)

But, what of the story at the heart of Avatar, which even I’ll admit is little more than Pocahontas in Space. The story is a simple one but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it’s therefore a stupid one. It certainly isn’t any more simplistic that the much-loved original Star Wars films. At it’s worst Avatar is a white-man-leads-the-natives-and-saves-the-day film, however, at its best it is an archetypal hero’s quest story were the villains are a militarised corporation who feel that destroying an indigenous culture and their environment is an acceptable action to take in order to pursue profits. The fact that some critics labelled it as therefore a left wing film just goes to show how deeply entrenched conservative values are in Hollywood. It’s a worry when being anti-genocide is regarded as being subversive.

So in conclusion, don’t worry about spectacle, worry about mediocrity. Cinema and popular culture are not the enemy but the influx of films and other cultural products that are designed to stupefy us are the enemy and they come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be so quick to dismiss spectacle films as eye-candy as you may miss some of the most interesting, thoughtful, and well-crafted films that are out there.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Critical thoughts

12 December 2010
How to be a clever film critic

Matt Groening's 1985 cartoon "How to be a clever film critic"

Is there an art to film criticism, and does it serve any real purpose? Reading the comments on reviews online you’ll find no shortage of  “movies are just 4 teh entertainment and u should’nt think about them LOL” type comments. Perhaps it’s an attitude that has grown in response to being exposed to unambitious and uninformed reviewing. The “everyone’s a critic” mentality is lovely and non-elitist but it suggests that anybody who can string a sentence together can write reviews by summarising the film’s plot and stating a like/dislike opinion. If you’re writing for an older audience then you should complain about the soundtrack being too loud. If you’re writing for a younger audience, then be pithy, smug and snarky. Easy.

I’d rather hear from somebody who has watched and read about a range of films from various nationalities, cinematic movements and time periods, than somebody who thinks The Dark Knight is the greatest film ever. Neither do I want  to read celebrity gossip, casting news, box office figures or marketing campaign analysis – leave that for the entertainment reporters and accountants.

I want criticism that appreciates cinema aesthetically; recognising it as a form of mass entertainment with enormous cultural impact. Good critics offer insights into a film’s visual, technical and storytelling accomplishments or failings. They probe a film’s underlying ideology by examining representations of class, gender, race, sexuality, politics and religion. Good critics share their knowledge, make their passion contagious and provide context and informed interpretation. This is the purpose of film criticism. There absolutely is an art to doing it.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 368, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Still some of the finest films

9 December 2010
Red Hill

Red Hill

One of the great things about the Australian Film Institute Awards is that during the build up to the awards night people actually start talking about Australian cinema and the industry gets a bit of media attention. The bad thing is that this has increasingly resulted in a stack of inaccurate and unfair criticism being thrown at Australian cinema for it being too miserable and not mainstream enough. Whether in the comments found under articles about the industry or in the actual articles themselves, too many people love to characterise Australian cinema as arty doom and gloom stories set in the inner city. This is apparently the reason Australians don’t go to see Australian films.

This time last year I started writing a piece that was eventually titled “Some of the finest films”, published in issue 1999 of Overland Literary Journal and then posted online here by Overland and here by myself. The thrust of my argument was that the industry is significantly suffering do to the perception that Australia only makes worthy dramas. This prevalent perception is simply not true but that doesn’t stop uninformed commentators dismissing everything this country produces as doom and gloom.

Bran Nue Dae

Bran Nue Dae

There is a place in any healthy national cinema for challenging social-realists films, especially those that give a voice to the marginalised, and Australia makes its share of such films but they don’t typify the current industry. This year alone has seen the release of a diverse collection of films including Bran Nue Dae (musical), Daybreakers (horror/action), Beneath Hill 60 (war), I Love You Too (romantic comedy), Animal Kingdom (crime drama), The Horseman (revenge thriller), The Loved Ones (horror/comedy), Tomorrow, When The War Began (teen action) and Red Hill (action/western).

Not everybody is going to like every film that Australia produces and it’s unrealistic to expect every film to be a hit. Our industry caters to a broad range of audiences, but the intense negativity and lack of support means that frequently those films don’t always reach those intended audiences. This has been recently demonstrated with the poor levels of interest in The Loved Ones and Red Hill, which according to many commentators are supposedly exactly the types of genre films that Australia should be making more of.

The knee-jerk reaction that Australia only produces depressing films is unfounded and unfairly puts people off seeing films that deserve to be seen.

Written for the Oz Film Blogathon hosted by Dark Habits

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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