Thomas Caldwell defends Australian cinema in Overland, issue 199 (Winter 2010)
Supporters of Australian cinema have had a mixed experience recently. Last year, we were able to enjoy some of the finest films that this country has produced but we also had to endure the ongoing attack upon the industry by commentators accusing Australian cinema of ‘doom and gloom’, not being escapist enough, not attracting large enough audiences and not making enough money at the box office. Such attacks are nothing new, but the disturbing recent trend was the increase in declarations that in order to ‘save’ Australian cinema it would be necessary to produce films with a more deliberate commercial appeal, to make more genre films and to cater to broader tastes. If such suggestions were embraced then Australian cinema would really be in trouble.
Part of the problem with the discussion about Australian cinema is that it has become increasingly hijacked by scrutiny of box office returns. The sustainability of local cinema is by no means an unimportant issue, but placing so much attention on film as commerce devalues cinema as an art form and therefore devalues the worth of a film. As Tom Ryan noted in the Age, Hollywood classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, It’s a Wonderful Life and Blade Runner were all box office flops when initially released. Appreciation over time, not the box office returns of the day, has given these films their reputation as cinematic masterpieces. It’s time to reclaim the debate about Australian cinema and appreciate Australian films as something more than simply a source of revenue. In fact, such a shift in attitude is essential for the industry to survive.
Prevalent in the debate is the idea that Australian filmmakers are deliberately making obscure films that they don’t want anybody to see. It’s a typically conservative reaction that sees the industry as a sort of exclusive, culturally indulgent love fest that occurs at the expense of the hard-working men and women of Australia. Such attacks have predominantly come from frustrated journalists who don’t actually like cinema, film reviewers wanting to distinguish themselves as the great spokesperson for the average Australian and bitter filmmakers who (sometimes reasonably) feel hard done by. It’s a mixture of self-promotion, ‘bad boy’ journalist posturing, contrived indignation and philistine pettiness. None of it is helpful.
An example of this type of criticism is Michael Coulter’s opinion piece ‘Screening the same old dreary story’ in the Sunday Age in August last year. His main argument is that Australian filmmakers don’t make films that connect with Australian audiences because the availability of public funding removes the imperative for doing so. This is a common argument, and commentators such as Coulter like to remind us, in true tabloid style, that such funding comes from the taxpayers.
Coulter acknowledges that many of the films that he found so repugnant in the early 1990s are actually ‘masterful’ and he also admits to having avoided seeing Australian films since he watched Rolf de Heer’s acclaimed Alexandra’s Project on his television in 2004 (he didn’t like it). The belief that Australian films are miserable is now such a widely entrenched view that somebody who no longer sees them is nevertheless given a platform to deride them. A similar view is expressed by Louis Nowra in his piece ‘Nowhere near Hollywood’ from the December 2009–January 2010 edition of The Monthly: ‘the general consensus [among Nowra’s friends] was that Australian films were boring, grim and unsatisfying.’ Is it any wonder that nobody goes to see Australian films when it is simply assumed that they are all depressing and bleak?
The Australian films released last year demonstrated that they do not deserve to be characterised as being miserable. The success of Samson and Delilah was often attributed to the film’s happy ending even though it was, for the most part, a harrowing depiction of extreme poverty, substance abuse and violence in an Indigenous community. Yet, through word of mouth and overwhelmingly positive reviews, Samson and Delilah was a breakthrough hit and attracted very large audiences who responded to its overall uplifting message.
However, Samson and Delilah was an anomaly when, in fact, its success should have been more widely shared. Beautiful Kate, Mary and Max, Two Fists One Heart, My Year Without Sex, Prime Mover and The Boys Are Back were all films that, like Samson and Delilah, arrived at a happy or at least life-affirming conclusion. When Bran Nue Dae opened in early 2010 the lazy response was to state how there was finally an Australian film that wasn’t depressing, a view that ignored the 2009 release of feel-good road movie Charlie and Boots and stoner comedy Stone Bros. All of these films were met with a range of critical responses, but none deserved to be dismissed as depressing and bleak.
As for films ending on a sombre note, there were a range released recently, including Cedar Boys, The Combination, Blessed, Disgrace and Balibo, not to mention inventive horror films Lake Mungo and Van Diemen’s Land. Again, these are films of varied quality, but to outright disregard them for containing challenging material is childish.
Antony I Ginnane, the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) president, was one of the most vocal critics of the Australian film industry last year. During his presentation at the opening of the SPAA conference in Sydney, Ginnane declared that the ‘Industry and government need to accept [filmmaking] is a business, not a culture fest.’ Like Coulter, he believes that Australian filmmakers don’t cater to what local audiences want and this is largely due to ‘the subsidy drug’. On Radio National’s Australia Talks on 24 November 2009 he expressed his disgust at fellow producers who make films that only earn a million dollars, stating ‘they should be lined up and shot.’
This attitude of Coulter, Ginnane and many others was triggered by the unfortunate reality that less than 4 per cent of money at the Australian box office in 2008 was spent on Australian films. This is, of course, an issue of genuine concern, but the vocal opinions of people like Coulter and Ginnane are making the situation worse by reinforcing the myth that Australian films are dull and bleak.
Nowra is one of the many commentators who would like to see more Australian films with a Hollywood sensibility and his reasoning is partially personal and partially pragmatic: ‘In the 1960s and 1970s audiences wanted to watch serious movies seriously. But audiences and their expectations have altered, and the era of art films is over; like indie movies, they are finding it increasingly tricky to find screens and pick up word-of-mouth enthusiasm.’ While it is somewhat overly dramatic to declare the era of the art film as being completely over, Nowra has identified the current shift that contemporary audiences have made away from certain types of films.
This shift is not unique to Australia. Globally, films that do not fit the Hollywood mould are suffering from low audiences. In a recent editorial in UK film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James discusses how independent or ‘specialist’ cinema is now strongly marginalised and resisted in mainstream contemporary culture, when fifteen years ago this was not the case. In the same edition, Nick Roddick notes that even during the Depression when Hollywood strongly focused on producing escapist films, social realist films that had something of significance to say were still supported. This is not the situation now.
Ever since the rise of ‘critic-proof’, ‘high-concept’ cinema in the 1980s, there has been an increasingly global demand for unchallenging event films that are difficult for non-Hollywood studios to compete with in terms of scale and resources. During the development of the American independent film in the 1990s, smaller specialised films once again coexisted with big Hollywood productions and both had audiences to cater to. Not by accident, the ‘new’ interest in ‘alternative’ films in English-speaking countries meant there was once more an interest in Australia for home-grown films, and the 1990s saw diverse success stories such as Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
However, instead of independent and non-American films surviving as a competitive alternative to Hollywood, they were absorbed into the system. In his 2004 book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, Peter Biskind examines how studios such as Miramax capitalised on the interest in foreign and independent film by buying, often re-editing and then strategically marketing inoffensive European films such as Chocolat in a way that gave them an art-house credibility while simultaneously targeting mainstream audiences. The dilution of genuinely alternative and specialised cinema was made complete when Miramax then started making its own mainstream-masquerading-as-art-house films such as Shakespeare in Love.
‘Art-house’ and ‘American indie’ have since virtually become Hollywood genres, while genuine independent and specialised cinema, including the majority of Australia’s output, has been pushed right to the fringe. It therefore seems that the only way Australian filmmakers can compete with the current cultural demand is to mimic a blockbuster, as Baz Luhrmann did with Australia, or to mimic a mainstream-masquerading-as-art-house film, as with Mao’s Last Dancer. Indeed, both Australia and Mao’s Last Dancer were the best performers at the Australian box office in 2009, despite being overall critically considered very middle-of-the-road.
So is this the solution? Should Australian filmmakers stop fighting against the tide and simply give in to the current demand for bland and mediocre cinema? Theoretically, in the short term such an approach could yield results. In the long run it would be devastating, as the survival of the Australian film industry depends on the continual production of excellent films in order to regain its sustained credibility. The problem at the moment is not the quality and content of the films but the public perception.
There are many Australians who are capable of appreciating high-quality cinema but who are kept away from locally produced films by the tidal wave of negativity. As for the audiences who do crave mediocrity, deliberately making bland, saccharine and trashy films for them would be like feeding an obese child junk food instead of encouraging them to develop a more selective diet. Besides, it is not as if Australia is lacking in widely available, imported rubbish.
The obvious solution would be to make films that have both a commercial appeal but also depth and credibility. That is something far easier said than done, and the disappointing performance of a widely acclaimed film such as Balibo is evidence of its difficulty, especially within Australia. Balibo’s star power, historical interest and combination of the political thriller and buddy film genres should have made it a hit. It contained a similar level of energy, characterisation, action, tight writing and dynamic direction to Bruce Beresford’s much loved and admired 1980 film ‘Breaker’ Morant. Yet despite the awards and glowing reviews, Australian audiences largely overlooked Balibo. Perhaps they stayed away due to the ‘heavy’ subject matter or because of the ‘depressing’ inevitable conclusion. Such rationalisations do not, however, account for the success of Hollywood films such as Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda or even Titanic. Balibo was the victim of an overall negative attitude towards – or, at best, disinterest in – Australian films that aspire to be something other than easy crowd-pleasers.
The obsession with film as commerce is doing more harm than good. Despite what Ginnane suggests, funding for Australian films is already very commercially driven, with new projects needing to meet a guaranteed level of assured foreign sales and distribution before funding is awarded. The current regulations created significant setbacks for Fred Schepisi to receive the money he required to begin production on The Eye of the Storm. Not only is Schepisi a successful filmmaker both in Australia and Hollywood, but his film is also an adaptation of a Patrick White novel starring Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. If such a project struggles to appear suitably commercial within the current regulations, what would it be like if those regulations become even more weighed towards commercial demands?
Another ‘solution’ that is often put forward is for Australia to make more genre films. Ginnane certainly argues for more genre films over what he describes as ‘literally hundreds of social realist Australian films [that] fail’. This is a rather incredible statement considering that one of 2009’s biggest success stories was the social realist Samson and Delilah, which Ginnane himself applauds, without realising the irony.
Ginnane seems confused not only about what social realism is but also about the definition of genre, although his understanding does coincide with the common misperception that genre means science fiction, horror and exploitation. A genre film is, in fact, any film containing specific narrative and stylistic ‘rules’ that filmmakers adhere to in order to meet specific audience expectations.
If we use the correct definition of genre then we can see that most Australian films are genre films, although some conform more strongly to genre conventions than others. Making a film that does not follow a set genre is extremely difficult. In fact, part of the problem with Australian cinema until recently has been the lack of diversity, due to funding bodies giving money to films that conform to the genre of a recent box office hit. This in turn means that too many overly cautious and unambitious projects were getting the green light over more adventurous and interesting ones.
This tentative approach to what films should be funded, made and distributed accounts for the dominance during the 1990s of quirky romantic comedies after the popularity of Love and Other Catastrophes, all the crime films that came after Chopper and Two Hands, the large volume of Australian television personalities and stand-up comedians who had money thrown at them to try and recreate the working-class comedy magic of The Castle and, more recently, the glut of serious and ‘meaningful’ dramas aimed at older audiences post-Somersault and Lantana. The results were bland and did little to help the cause of getting Australians to see films from their own country.
However, when commentators get upset about the lack of Australian genre films, they are really saying that they’d like more of the sort of stuff that falls under the exploitation banner. The renewed interest has a lot to do with Mark Hartley’s excellent 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Hartley brilliantly drew attention to the unappreciated and forgotten Australian sex comedies, action and horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet somehow this appreciation has been taken by some to mean that such films should be made again. Nowra, for instance, writes: ‘The nudity and sex of those cheap movies could be gratuitous and even misogynist, but it was mostly good fun with a strong hedonistic sense of sexual pleasure.’
Pushing aside Nowra’s dismissal of misogyny, he seems to ignore the fact that, while the clips compiled in Hartley’s film are widely entertaining and fun indulgences, the bulk of the films were not all that good. Many are, indeed, completely disposable – hardly models for contemporary commercial filmmaking.
Australia doesn’t need to make more genre films; rather, it needs to make bolder and more daring films that mess with generic expectations or defy them altogether. This comes with artistic freedom and the courage and support to do something original rather than try to appease the business-minded folk who believe that mimicking the last success will equate with new success.
Government support is also required. In a country as small as Australia, it is simply a necessity if expressions of local culture on the big screen are to continue. Attempting to not make films that are distinctive from imported Hollywood content would make the point of a national cinema redundant.
Last year, you could have been forgiven for not noticing that Australia produced so many outstanding films because too many of them undeservedly went unnoticed. For the industry to survive, Australian filmmakers need to continue to make diverse and interesting films in order to win back the public. This will not happen while critics naively call for more commercial filmmaking and while Australian film is inaccurately dismissed as all ‘doom and gloom’.