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Robert S. Watson
Dead Calm (1989) – Strictly Ballroom (1993) – Muriel's Wedding (1994) – The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994) – Babe (1995) – Romeo + Juliet (1996) – The Castle (1997) – The Craic (1999) – Two Hands (1999) – The Dish (2000) – The Wog Boy (2000) – Lantana (2001) – Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) – Ned Kelly (2003) – Saw (2004) – Wolf Creek (2005) – Kenny (2006) – Underground (2012)
Between 1989 and 2006, about four hundred Australian filmmaking teams developed movies about people's world dilemmas. They filmed and released their dramatic features to cinema audiences. This survey of some of the more popular releases was published as Chapter 3: "Dynamic Communities: Contemporary Australian Movies" in A. Sarwel and R. Sarwel editors (2009) Creative Nation: Australian Cinema and Cultural Studies Reader.
This paper was originally written for a world readership unacquainted with Australian culture. In 2016, the text is greatly revised and the 2012 movie Underground is added. Underground explores the massive cultural shift in Australia and around the world – a historical shift that the earlier movies in this paper almost entirely ignored.
Most movie filmmakers explore what concerns or interests them about world culture. The first movie considered here, Dead Calm (1989) concerns a couple whose relationship is already fragile when they further suffer their child's death and a brutal attack at sea. These concerns differ from another screen argument: Kenny (2006) explores a jovial plumber's personal life and his diplomatic work with thousands of people who attend the public toilets at concerts, races and outdoor exhibitions.
Like filmmakers, audiences vary widely in their cultural interests. Depending on their feelings, desires, beliefs and subculture, some audiences prefer, say, horror, while other, somewhat overlapping, audiences prefer drama or comedy. If an audience desires to watch and listen to a young couple overturn bigots who block their dancing style, and the audience believes (via publicity) that Strictly Ballroom puts this screen argument, then audiences are likely to attend the cinema and increase Strictly Ballroom's popularity. Allowing for vast variations in audience attitudes and variations in publicity, the following movies were among the most popular of circa 400 Australian movies produced between 1989 and 2006. The recently added outlier, Underground (2012) is included for critical rather than popular reasons. It is an important movie for scholars of world culture today, exploring as it does the rise of digital technology and its devices, and the devices' beneficial and murderous uses among world subcultures. While sexual courtship scenes in Muriel's Wedding and The Dish touch on military industrial geopolitics, world predation is a focus of Underground. Geopolitical culture is explored in the documentary Wilkinson and Le Clézio (1983) Allies and books such as Robert Dallek (2010) The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953 and Jeremy Scahill (2013) Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. The deep state of this social devolution is investigated in David Talbot (2015) The Devil's Chessboard and Russ Baker (2009) Family of Secrets, among other inquiries.
Like Muriel's Wedding and The Dish, Underground not only investigates public culture but also explores the private human condition of self, intimacy, friendships and families. Underground explores moral versus nazi parenting in childhood, and both public and private issues of affection and liberation. Underground's true-life story is enthralling and beautifully filmed but it has not been a popular choice for cinema attendance. People's lack of knowledge around this film raises questions about the desires and beliefs of people in communications and people in consumer culture – both at the time Underground was released and today. Be that as it may, the purpose of this paper is to consider the day-to-day "normal" subculture that Underground introduces in its first act, as part of the cultural norms that are explored in all eighteen movies over more than two decades.
Whether a filmmaker is concerned to research violence or friendship, personal problems or the public actions of crowds – movies tend to develop such arguments by first introducing people's "normal," day-to-day activities across their subcultures. The first act may last some minutes, or approach half an hour. The introductory first act establishes a baseline for elaborating the argument (about violence or friendship and so on). Having developed what is culturally "normal" for the subcultures and people's daily activities, the foreground characters are thrown into existential dilemmas and crises. The life crises in this paper include family disintegration in Muriel's Wedding (1994), the digital divide in The Dish (2000), immigrant challenges in The Wog Boy (2000) and the murder of naïve lovers by a war-damaged predator in Wolf Creek (2005). Existential dilemmas in culture – dilemmas tangled in freedom, strangers, anxiety, mortality and the absurdities of life – are discussed in Thomas E. Wartenberg (2011) Existentialism. Filmmakers explore these and other strong existential dilemmas in a movie's second act. The second act upsets the cultural norm of the first act. For example, an everyday scene at Sydney's Central Railway Station collapses into piracy on the high seas in Dead Calm (1989). In Romeo + Juliet (2000), a lovesick party gatecrasher sparks love and passion from the party mansion's heiress but his intrusion inflames gangland reprisals on both sides of a divided city. What begins as a "cultural norm" of wealthy youths partying, escalates into urban warfare in the second act. Filmmakers explore the "human condition on steroids" in movie second acts. A strong second act escalates to a climax and resolution of the cultural argument. What makes screen drama a cultural argument? Movies explore changes in relationships among a few different and complex people who emerge into the foreground from equally dynamic, ongoing background scenes and subcultures. All these layers run simultaneously in a strong movie argument about people's interactions.
The technical and philosophical literature on how to develop strong movie arguments includes: Joseph Campbell (1949) Hero with a Thousand Faces, as well as Christopher Vogler (1998) and Aristotle. Campbell studies dream interpretation, anthropology and the traditional myths of various subcultures before explicating the patterns he observed in tribal storytelling. Vogler's The Writer's Journey weaves Campbell's findings into the research and development methods already conducted by studio filmmakers. According to Edwards and Skerbelis (2005), most studio filmmakers before Campbell and Vogler based their research and development theory for making movies on Aristotle's Poetics (c.325 BC – in English translations such as T. S. Dorsch 1965). Poetics also discusses the "normal activities" that proceed unexpected or feared cultural change, dramatic conflict and resolution. Much like the theory, the filmmakers in "Cultural Normal" have dissected particular subcultures and existential dilemmas along the following lines:
(a) First, the "normal activity" of the subculture under inquiry is connected with the concerns and interests of the audience.
(b) The normal activity of the subculture is impacted with major, unexpected or denied changes. What happens? How do people change their thinking and action?
(c) Following these unexpected or feared changes, how do key participants in the unsettled subcultures resolve – through their actions – the escalating, complicating, layered, existential crises?
With – "normal activity, unexpected changes escalating to climax, and a resolution at the hands of the foreground actors" – we have the shape of a strongly argued movie.
It is not the purpose of this paper to explore second act challenges, or crisis resolution by people's own actions. Academics and filmgoers might engage the eighteen movies to interpret the complete arguments that filmmakers put. What concerns this paper are the kinds of "normal activities" in Australian and world subcultures that become the starting points for these films. Beginning with the 1989 film Dead Calm: an absent-at-sea husband and naval officer is called to the hospital bedside of his wife who grieves the sudden death of their baby son. Such a scenario could be argued in any subculture around the world where a mother loses a child and the father is absent, working for a distant corporation or state. The other normal days in these movies include: an innovative arts outsider is snubbed by the power clique in a "working class" arts organization; a poorly educated, unemployed and depressed teenager hides in her bedroom with her pop music fantasies; and a gay entertainer leads a comfortable, liberated life within the closeted confines of his underground subculture. By engaging with the first acts of the eighteen movies below, readers may come to know the diversity of Australia's "cultural normal" accepted by the cinema public in the recent past. The films are in historical order of release.
Dead Calm (1989)
Dead Calm stars a young Nicole Kidman and Sam Neil. Dead Calm showcases the directorial skills of Phillip Noyce who went on to make American films such as Patriot Games (1992). But in Dead Calm, we see the raw craft of the master-filmmaker most subtly woven. This taunt, minimalist, exquisite action thriller is set under the tropical sun in Australia's northern waters. In the first act, director Noyce contrasts this ocean scenario with the "normal activity" of an Australian city.
Dead Calm's cultural norm is argued in the urban public heart of Australia's government service, as Navy personnel on leave transit Sydney's Central Railway Station. Australian Navy members are filmed as well-organized – with a shared respect for quiet skill, authority and loyalty. This glimpse of order and relaxed professionalism is seen briefly, as Navy officer John Ingram coasts the morale he has engendered among his demobbed crew. But the glowing scene of camaraderie is stained by shadows surrounding the sailors' night train. The twilight world of doubt, haste, disorder, insanity, murder and mayhem is about to descend on this "normal" cultural scene.
Terry Hayes' wrote the Dead Calm screenplay from the 1963 novel by Charles Williams. Noyce, Hayes and Williams' film catapults us through a portal into a layered, watery hellhole. There is a dreamlike, drowning quality to the opening of Dead Calm. From the darkness of the opening credits, we hear sounds of the ocean depths, the drowning chorus and the stress of vessels in restless water. Clanging steel tolls the horrors to come and a frightening ghost ship surfaces into shadow and light.
All is equally nightmarish and unsettling: the clanging steel in the darkness surfaces as a passenger train, flickering like the luminous, unreachable memories of a dying man. Through the windows of this Sydney night train, we see sailors pass by in puddles of light. At Central Station, the sailors' commanding officer, John Ingram (Sam Neil), steps out onto the busy platform. John is invested with the Navy's uniform of government authority, yet he is helpless to prevent his descent into hell – a personal and social hell – in the potentially barbaric limbo of international waters.
At Sydney's Central Station, John is on shore leave. He looks around for his wife but she is not there to meet him. His train has ferried him to the gates of death. Police officers whisk John away to a hospital emergency ward. John's wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) lies thin and wet with sweat, on a hospital gurney. She is sodden flotsam as if dragged up from the sea. Rae's wild eyes see another horrific night journey: on a dark, rain-swept road – traveling to rendezvous with her sailor husband – young mother Rae is distracted by her eager baby. He climbs out of his safety child seat. She turns, and in turning, steers them into an oncoming car. Her tiny son smashes through the shattered windscreen and flies on and on, into the night, into the darkness of the cinema. This flight into darkness sweeps the audience into the second act of this thriller – trapped in the watery "shadowlands" of international waters.
Rae screams below the deck of her husband's yacht and wakes up. With the death of her son, Rae is racked by heartache, shock and mourning. John has forced Rae to come on their planned ocean holiday – now just the two of them alone – hoping against the odds that their isolation, becalmed on equatorial waters, will absorb Rae's grief and heal their shaky marriage. John holds his grieving young wife in his arms. But this affection is splintered by the frenzied barking of an unseen dog – so strange and foul an intrusion on the twilight ocean, heralding the arrival of a ghost ship and a sea demon who tears the fragile lovers' lives asunder. Sam and Rae's nightmare is only beginning.
Director Phillip Noyce brought all the elements together in this deadly storm of murder, lust, courage and the fragility of affection. The beauty of Dead Calm's dangerous storm was shot by Dean Semler and the sound was designed by Lee Smith. Like millions of people in 2016, Rae and Sam leave the frying pan of their normal subculture only to fall prey to cruelty under different flags.
Strictly Ballroom (1993)
In the years following Dead Calm's worldwide release, a group of Australian theatre actors workshopped, presented and re-workshopped a very different story of courage, rebellion and return to community stability. After many years of developing and performing theatre versions of a stage show about ballroom dancing, director Baz Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pierce brought Strictly Ballroom to the movie screen. It was a staggering hit in Australia. It was to become one of three stories brought to world cinema by director Baz Luhrmann in his "Red Curtain" series. The films are all stories of naive, stubborn, skilled, and kind-hearted people who break down cruel aspects of their communities. In his later two stories Luhrmann's heroines die building a better society for their peers, but in Strictly Ballroom's comedy romance, the rebels triumph in their lifetime.
In a dance school in a crowed big city, the evening's ballroom dance competition is disrupted when young rebel Scott insists on dancing his own experimental steps rather than follow normal ballroom dancing's procedures. The crusty old establishment, who judge the dances and plan the regional tournaments, are angry with Scott. He is ruining the judges' dreams of running the best dance studio in the Pacific. Not only does Scott refuse to dance to the tune of the judges – "he resorted to his own flashy, crowd pleasing dance steps."
Key to Scott's rebellion are the words "crowd pleasing" because Strictly Ballroom is a story of experimentation and commercial innovation. Scott turns his back on the aging, self-interested experts who have a strangling political control over dancing. Instead, Scott listens to his own body and expression – and in so doing, his new dance moves excite the jaded
Australian audience who surround the competition dance floor. In much the same way, Strictly Ballroom was argued as a movie outside the expectations of the mainstream in 2002 and it was welcomed by millions of viewers hungry for originality, courage, affection – and the triumph of daring and experimentation.
Scott is shoved to the margins of his community by his judges and show business family. But he only redoubles his efforts to find a new style of dance. In the margins, he meets another outsider, Fran, a shy awkward girl from Australia's immigrant Spanish community. Fran begs Scott to teach her to dance. Scott's snobbery, impatience and self-pity lead him to reject Fran but Fran is desperate and stubbornly seeks both affection and liberation. She forces Scott to see his cruelty and he begins to open his heart to her. Their relationship is forged in dance research.
The normal activity of subcultures in Strictly Ballroom is the suppression of innovation and by vested interests and the suppression of personal affection by anxious fanatics. When Scott opens himself to Fran, she leads him into her ethnic community and Scott finds a dance paradigm that he has never considered: the flamenco dance styles of Fran's father. The young couple battle their way back to centre stage at the dance studio with a fresh genre that satisfies the crowd and overturns the office politics of this arts scene.
Muriel's Wedding (1994)
Turning from the older generation at a dance establishment to a gang of surfer girls in a seaside town, the film Muriel's Wedding (1994) explores the vicious cruelty of young Australian women.
Muriel (Toni Collette) lives in the fictional Australian seaside community of Porpoise Spit. She is desperate to be accepted by her girlfriends but they are bent on scapegoating and destroying Muriel's life as a young woman. They criticize Muriel's middling intelligence,
her shocking taste in clothes, her love of unfashionable Abba music, her unemployment, laziness and lack of confidence. Finally she is expelled from the gang of bitchy girls when the girls withdraw Murie's invitation to join them and they fly away to a lavish tropical island vacation. Muriel's family also undermine her. Her father, a local politician, publicly humiliates her in front of his business clients. The father also scapegoats his wife. He shames his unemployed, uneducated, television consumer-oriented grown-up children who still live at home on social security payments.
With both father and friends openly despising Muriel, she retreats into a world of fantasy. She seeks refuge in the music of the Swedish pop group Abba – songs such as Abba's "Waterloo" and "Fernando." Furthermore, she fantasizes a daydream: she will wear an expensive
wedding gown and marry a famous, attractive and loving stranger at their high-cost, celebrity wedding.
This satire is written with much humour by director P. J. Hogan, who went on to direct the American My Best Friend's Wedding (1997). P. J. Hogan satirizes an Australian society which victimizes girls like Muriel. The movie lionizes people who resist victimization by strengthening themselves in an arts discourse – such as favourite music. Muriel retreats from friends and family, into her Abba-singing bridal fantasy.
P. J. Hogan uses Muriel's scapegoating to expose cruelties and ironies in Australian life. The film opens with Muriel wearing an unfashionable, hooker-ish dress and fur, which she has stolen so that she can attend a "girlfriend's" wedding reception. When she is arrested at the wedding for the theft of the garish clothes, she is not driven by the police to the police
station. Instead the constables drive Muriel to her father's home. In this simple shift in
scene we come to understand the wider community of Porpoise Spit, where Muriel's father is a corrupt local politician who has the police in his pocket. He pays off the police with a slab of beer and they release his theiving daughter without charge.
After further humiliation at her father's business luncheon, Muriel steals her family's savings with a blank cheque and runs away to join her cruel friends on their tropical island holiday. Here Muriel meets a true friend on the island: Ronda is a girl Muriel knew vaguely from school. Ronda gives Muriel the confidence to pursue her dreams. Moreover, her new friend forces Muriel to make space in her life to enjoy and love her body and her desires, rather than hide in the television consumer white wedding fantasy and envy she has taken from her upbringing.
Along with Underground, Muriel's Wedding is perhaps the most dramatically complex movie
in this discussion. Act One sets up the "normal subculture" of corruption, bullying and lack of self confidence which the filmmakers argue is common in Australia. A generation on, these foolish cruelties and the political will to reform these cruelties still struggles to gain political traction. The "cultural normal" of this movie is very layered in its use of Australian metaphors for both affection and liberation. Is also a lot of fun.
The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994)
In 1999, 2002 and 2005, a comedy, a drama and a horror film were set in the Outback – Australia's vast inland desert and semi-desert. But before these three desert outback films were made, three drag queens from Sydney – Bernadette, Mitzi and Felicia – primped, pouted and danced their way into the outback with one of the biggest blockbusters and cultural sensations of the Australian screen.
The movie's title role of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert refers to the pink bus which carries the three gay men across outback Australia. The "normal activity" that opens this argument is the underworld nightclubs of Sydney where gay men socialise and patronise the cabarets and discos of their transvestite entertainment queens. Bernadette, Mitzi and Felicia leave Reagan, Thatcher, Deng and Gorbachev's 1980s, and leave their relatively closeted and protected enclave to traverse a dangerous Outback route to the young daughter of one of the Sydney men.
American and Western gays pushed for democratic rights in their communities and this activism allowed gays to celebrate a certain levelof open public acceptance in the larger urban centres of Australia by the 1990s. Educated Australia realized that criminalizing homosexuals – much like criminalizing the moderate private consumption of drugs and alcohol – created a secret nightmare world of blackmail, extortion, lies, family breakdown, workplace favouritism and unreported, unprotected violence. Educated Australia decided to get rid of this politically-criminalized underworld – by accepting gays and talking openly about gay lives as a positive part of the democratic fabric of Australia and other polities. The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is such a celebration of democracy, difference and solidarity.
Starring Hugo Weaving of The Matrix (1999), Guy Pearce of Memento (2001), and the British actor Terence Stamp, the three drag queens squeal and cackle their way through rough mining towns, aboriginal camps, outback bars and fancy hotels; and we discover these queens are just as rough as guts, brawling, alcoholic, skilled, friendly, freedom-seeking and beset with family and relationship problems as everyone else who lives between Sydney on the coast and Alice Springs in the desert centre. But the queens do wear brighter costumes than
your average Aussie, and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert easily won 1994's American Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
More than awards, what all popular original films achieve is a "reaching out" to communities who ordinarily ignore their fellow citizens, or who are habitually cruel to people who are different from the subculture praised in powerful media. Whether it is phobic heterosexual cruelty towards homosexuals, or professional working pressure on families in Priscilla, or whether it is the cruelty of straight communities like Strictly Ballroom towards innovators, these movies prompt social and personal conversations towards more tolerant, rational and economically flourishing societies and towards resolution of of deception and cruelty in families.
In 1995, filmmakers Chris Noonan (Miss Potter 2006), and George Miller (Mad Max 1979), adapted Dick King-Smith's story Babe: The Gallant Pig (1989) into one of the most popular Australian films ever made. Yet Babe opens with an Orwellian scene of institutional horror
and retains some noir shadows throughout Babe's adventure.
Babe is an Oscar-winning live/animation classic enjoyed by children and adults the world over. It is a fable which, like many great myths, mixes human metaphor animal characters with more recognizably human characters. The hero of this tale is a baby pig of unfortunate birth. Babe is born in a factory barn. Babe's mother is immediately removed for butchering, along with all the other sows in the barn. A machine drops from the barn ceiling to feed the industrially-orphaned babies. A suspenseful gothic threat of the bacon butcher's knife hangs over this fairytale. But the suspense is enlivened by the courageous whimsy of many of Babe's companions – such as the crowing duck who wants to be a rooster, and by the caring stoicism of the sheep who comprise most of the barnyard's society.
After Babe is orphaned at the factory, the piglet becomes a gambling prize at the country fair. He is won by a local sheep farmer, Farmer Hogget, who brings him home to a barnyard of other animals. The animals ask the baby pig's name. The orphaned, kidnapped and enslaved piglet never received a name from his family, he says. His missing mother called all his brothers and sisters "Babe." And so our hero is called "Babe" by his new-found barnyard friends at Hogget's farm.
In the first act, we meet Babe's animal companions who include a down-to-earth mother figure; a crotchety, brutal, has-been patriarch; a nervous, anorexic, slick-talking outcast duck; a sly and privileged fat-cat; and the dignified old matriarch of a colonized people, who in death, becomes her downtrodden people's venerated martyr. A new alarm clock technological device costs the outcast duck his only chance of gainful employment. In an hilarious and suspenseful scene, Babe attempts to help the outcast duck destroy the clock and the farm is plunged into the deadly shadows of a concentration camp.
Act One is reminiscent of George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) and Neville Shute's A Town Like Alice (1950). A Town Like Alice is a classic Australian movie about colonial families and prisoners-of-war in South East Asia under the 1940s Japanese invasion and colonization – itself an expansion of Anglo-American and European invasions of China and South East Asia that mutated in the 1930s. But Babe's family animation humor bounces back from its Act One concentration camp with its panoptic shadows. Babe survives Farmer Hogget's feudal prison and escapes beyond the horizon in a revolution that reforms his lowly social cast as a meat animal. Babe brings non-violent resistance, cooperation and intercultural communication to farmyard audiences at large.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
In 1993, Strictly Ballroom's romantic rebels swept through Australia. Then in 1996, director Baz Luhrmann's next rebel couple swept the world. Riding the wave of Strictly Ballroom's success, Baz Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pearce were given carte blanch
on their next creative project by American Fox. They chose to remake William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (c.1594). This was a risky decision because another studio (with a better known team) were also developing a version of Romeo and Juliet for movie release, although their competitor's project later collapsed.
Confident in their own vision, Luhrmann and Pearce travelled to Miami Florida to write their screenplay. Miami's Latino/Caribbean culture attracted them, along with its open gang violence which is an unfortunate characteristic of so many world cities and American culture North and South, in particular. One thinks today of the Oklahoma petty street gang's murder of Australian student and athlete Christopher Lane and the murder's political cover-up perpetrated in America's Wikipedia. Luhrmann and Pearce were struck by the late medieval qualities of American street culture and its throwback to 1500s Shakespeare's open street violence and European feuding in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare's arguments about gangland and capital feuding are a problem to stage for any screenwriter who wishes to write a contemporary and realistic film adaptation. Pearce solved the archaic mention of "swords" in the old dialogue by inventing a brand of guns called "Sword" and having it engraved on extravagant, phallic weapons.
Director Luhrmann comes from a decorative theatre and opera tradition in Australia and his lavish opera-directed melodramas are loved for their exuberance, soundtracks, dancing and romance. These interests lead Luhrmann's eye to Bollywood where he absorbed ideas which he wove into his next opulent youth rebellion romance, Moulin Rouge (2001) that followed Romeo + Juliet. The glitz and razzle-dazzle is certainly his style yet Luhrmann is also a film director in touch with the gritty concerns of cinema's mainstream youth audience, the young at heart, and the mostly female audience who identify with his gutsy, often tragic, heroines. In the medieval gun subcultures of America and their colonial bridgeheads in Afghanistan, Iraq and Indochina, the imposed "cultural normal" is street insecurity, fear of walking unarmed in the community, media consumer stupification and incessant civilian genocide. Private weapons finance dynasties decorate their daughters in preparation for society weddings and ride in bullet-proof armored vehicles along gutted streets. Into this first act American normal, two star-crossed bravehearts meet and resist – all too briefly – the death cult that already inhabits their lives.
The Castle (1997)
The Castle is a 1997 comedy which remains a popular inquiry into liberation and affection within a poorly educated, unambitious Australian consumer family. The Castle's hero is Darryl (Michael Caton), a cheery "working class" retiree who is close to his family. In Australia, his family would be called "working class" but Darryl's generation achieved prosperity in 1950s and 1960s Australia that denied the casual use of that label. From the perspective of the world's poor, Darryl's lifestyle – which he won on the back of the labour movement in Australia – is wealthy. Albeit, Australian audiences for the most part call Darryl "working class" out of sentiment rather than considering his actions. Darryl spends the family's capital on their humble home which is their Castle.
In the title "Castle" is the cultural idea – backed by the English courts in 1765 – that a government and its powerful corporate interests have little right to disturb the peaceful private lives of families living at home – hence the saying, "The English person's home is their castle." In 1765, the English High Court Kings Bench found against Lord Halifax's politically motivated police raids on a law-abiding homeowner. The Court concluded rhetorically: "Has a Secretary of State a right to see all a man's private letters of correspondence, family concerns, trade and business? This would be monstrous indeed; and if it were lawful, no man could endure to live in this country" (Kings Bench 2013).
The Castle's similar legal case emerges in the second act of the movie argument. But before The Castle's court hearing, we have the normal activities of Darryl's subculture in Act One. Rather than invest his capital, Darryl consumes Australian "working class" pursuits such as buying a holiday home, shooting pool, drinking beer, fishing for leisure and breeding greyhounds. Darryl experiences deep joy and wonder in everything his wife and children do around the house. Everything his wife does – making sponge cakes, knitting novelty cardigans – is made wonderful by Darryl's wonder and his encouragement of the rest of his family to share the wonder. Everything his son does – finding a bargain at the flea markets, or visiting his brother in jail – is made wonderful by Darryl's wonder. It is a humble home untouched by high fashion, design, university education or money yet every moment Darryl shares with his wife and children is heartwarming and – due to the clever script – gently satirical.
Darryl is particularly proud of the fact that his home is built under the flight path of a city airport. He gets pleasure from watching the planes roar over his home. He dreams of where they come from and where they go. His bleak, noisy, tatty street is home to other somewhat long-suffering and marginalized Australians who cannot afford to live in better homes – recent migrants, the elderly and divorced. Darryl sees only goodness and optimism in his street. Into this somewhat tongue-in-cheek fairytale comes bad news – the government and related corporations are buying up the street's houses as they plan to demolish the street and extend the airport. Darryl's family must abandon their tatty "castle." With this challenge from the authorities, Darryl discovers his gentle lion's heart and rises against the airport bureaucracy and the court system. He becomes the champion of the downtrodden, hardworking, uncomplaining, and snubbed "little Aussie battlers" everywhere. He enlists his neighbours, lawyers and eventually top advocates who together support his hard-won right to privacy, "working class" consumption, foolishness, wonder and love. Given Darryl's cultural norm is so often the place in screen arguments about pessimism, tragedy and criminality, it is delightful to watch the other side of the coin rising into the air.
The Craic (1999)
Often it takes the traveller, the stranger or the outsider to suggest new angles to a subculture's descriptions of itself. The Irish comedian Jimeoin (gee-mo-wen) McKeown quickly became a popular face on Australian television during a working visit "downunder" – and in 1999 Jimeoin and director Ted Emery made the low-budget road movie romp The Craic which was very successful in cinemas. "Craic" is an Irish word meaning "joke" or "escapade." The Craic opens in Northern Ireland where we find a cheeky, warm-hearted idiot called Fergus. He gets into trouble with a paramilitary criminal who want to kill him. Fergus must escape to the other side of the globe – to Australia.
He arrives as a tourist, along with his friend Wesley, and they over-stay their tourist visas. Up to this point, the cultural norm for white travelers in Australia is simply introduced into the movie argument. Now change for the worse – brought on by Fergus' fear of murder if he returns to Ireland – propels Fergus into a fugitive second act. Given that Fergus and Wesley are not refugees of non-Anglo-saxon appearance who have escaped the Cold Imperial War and its gangsters by boat, the Irish illegal immigrants avoid the more tyrannical cruelties of Australia's present-day racists. Young Wesley yearns for Ireland but Fergus does everything to stay in Australia and hide from the immigration police: he washes cars, he fishes in Botany Bay, and he goes on a dating quiz show with the hope of marrying an Australian girl. Despite being an idiot on the show, Fergus wins a four-star vacation to tropical Queensland with, appropriately enough, a blonde bimbo. The bimbo snubs Fergus and she dates her chaperone instead. Fergus finds himself sad and alone in Queensland, and his problems only get worse. The immigration police track him down – and the Irish paramilitary criminal arrives in town, too. This comic escapade becomes a silly fugitive movie, as we follow the shenanigans of Fergus and Wesley backpacking, youth hosteling and hitchhiking their way into the Australian outback.
This is a low-budget, lame brained, gentle romp across tropical Australia. Its funniest scenes are pure classic silent cinema. Emory and Jimeoin have an eye for the soft absurdities of everyday life as well as the pathos and small zany triumphs of the underdog that mark Chaplin and Tati's work. Jimeoin is more relaxed and casual in his approach than the aforementioned masters. The Craic feels like it was cobbled together on a shoestring, and that, in fact, is how it was made – low budget; but Jimeoin's cheeky, warm-hearted "idiot" won the affections of a big Australian audience and so it returned profits to the industry. Jimeoin's pleasant Irish accent is sometimes hard to follow, and the DVD movie is worth watching in subtitles. The cultural norm (of an Irish traveller in Australia) is, like all culture, historically situated. For most of Australia's 200-year Anglo (and now American) political history, the Irish, as another colony of Britain, were marginalized and viewed with suspicion and prejudice. One thinks of the world's first feature movie: The Story of the Kelly Gang. It was made in Melbourne in 1906 and it explores the oppression an Australian Irish migrant family, that lead to domestic banditry fueled by "radicalization" – to adopt the current governed media discourse. In the year Irish rebels staged a terror act in Europe and murdered an Australian tourist, it is unlikely Australian audiences would have packed the cinemas. Once a filmmaker leaves the relative safety of the cultural norm and explores emotions and cultural challenges to both affection and liberation in the second act, then any movie is at the mercy of geopolitics and its screen believers.
Two Hands (1999)
Two Hands' hero is a poor petty criminal, Jimmy. Young Jimmy is a basically decent, moral man struggling against a powerful and tyrannical organized crime gang. Director Gregor Jordan was to repeat this concern four years later with a period crime film about national legend, Ned Kelly (2003). Jordan's two petty criminals, Jimmy in Two Hands and Ned in Ned Kelly, are strong tactical fighters but they do not have the social connections to win as strategists. Both fail as "crime lords" and, in their demise, they both rise phoenix-like as popular heroes. Written by Jordan, Two Hands is a black comedy set in the seedy criminal underworld of 1990s Sydney. Its hero is Jimmy, a young boxer played by Heath Ledger. Jimmy bungles his first job working for the Mister Big of Sydney blue-collar crime (Bryan Brown). Jimmy finds himself on the run and he joins a rival gang to earn the money he owes to Mister Big.
What lifts this crime film out of the ordinary is its wonderful, unpretentious black humour, its pathos for the street kids of Sydney, and its beautiful romance which is set up (but weakly resolved) between Jimmy and his lover Alex, played by Rose Byrne. The history of chronic domestic political corruption tinges the weak historical memory of movie audiences enough so that Two Hand's scenario of a young boxer working days for a Sydney crime boss is too readily accepted and familiar as a cultural norm. That cultural norm is, like any strong movie argument, layered. In this case, besides Jimmy's liberation strand where he struggles to break free of organized crime, the other relationship strand – affection – is developed between himself and Alex. In the normal opening scenes of Two Hands, this relationship is one of the most powerful in cinema (as I discuss in Screen Thought 2015). And then, when the going gets really tough for the lovers, the screenplay does not develop their relationship. Jimmy is set adrift by the writing to fight his own battles. Despite this, Two Hands is a movie which entertains, and manages to say so much about the mean streets community it observes. One of the most hilarious scenes in Australian cinema is the shotgun scene. Jimmy's
second crime gang is run by a matriarch and patriarch who plan a bank robbery around the available hours for babysitting: the kings of crime are so laconically Australian, and, ironically, sensitive new-age males to boot. When the movie was screened to distributors in America, the audience of potential buyers did not get the Australian humour.
Crime and corruption is the cultural background to another popular Australian movie set in inner Sydney, Dirty Deeds (2005). It tells the story of a young conscript soldier returning from Vietnam who gets a job working for his uncle who runs a crime gang. Dirty Deeds is set in the age of rising American cultural influence in Australia. Along with the great benefits of this alliance, there has been horror and tragedy on a global scale, too, in Indochina and the Middle East. Closer to home, another dark cultural cloud has been the alliance of organized crime across the Pacific. Dirty Deeds is such a story. Two Hands does not look outwards but contents itself with crafting a domestic story. Its first act cultural norms in Kings Cross are superbly written, directed, performed and recorded.
The Dish (2000)
Following the popular success of the dry, whimsical "working class" Castle comedy, its makers went on to create a relaxed comedy about an educated group living on the margins of mainstream popular culture: radio astronomers. The Dish explores a small band of Australian radio astronomers who were crucial to the success of America's 1969 Apollo-11 moon landing.
The first landing of a peopled lander on the moon was tracked and televised via a radio telescope located in rural New South Wales, at the isolated town of Parkes. The televised pictures of Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon were captured at Parkes' ground station radio telescope dish and broadcast around the world. In The Dish, comedians Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch return to that 1969 world of ballistics, optimism and popular wonder. The comedians gently satirize the simple country folk of Australia in 1969 who suddenly find their rustic way of life swept up into ideas of space travel and wireless digital computing. The tensions between local pride and American technical dominance fuel this story, and there are also touching, personal stories of young love, old love, and foolish fixations that twinkle on the heavenly rim of this Dish.
With The Castle and The Dish, the filmmakers remind us that joining in sophisticated ventures like providing the digital communications for a moon landing, or providing the "impossible" optimism of a humble family up against the Cold War alliance states, are both slow, gentle, painstaking, even dull trajectories. But look closer and these "dull" people are behaving bravely, quietly and against all odds. Millions of Australians have laughed with The Castle family or smiled with the scientists in The Dish. A gentle laugh of recognition helps us link with subcultures we might otherwise forget or ignore.
A very minor gag which runs through The Dish is a schoolboy who dresses up as a soldier and spends his days marching, hoping to attract the affections of the town mayor's daughter. Ironically, the daughter detests the boy's mindless militarism and she refuses to see him. The
daughter's anger is wider than this; she is against the American moon project disrupting her peaceful town because she is against what she calls the "American fascists" who are killing millions of civilians in Vietnam and South East Asia. The Dish is set in 1969 when the Australian government was allied with this genocide. This dark history of Australia seeps into movies in many ways. The Australian invasion of Vietnam is found at a frightening turning point in the popular horror movie, Wolf Creek, which hit audiences five years after The Dish.
The sleepy town of Parkes is the cultural norm in this argument, albeit sleepy Parkes has already adjusted to the cultural impact of an Australian radio telescope and a few astronomers in its fields. That young "men" are championed by the state to enlist in what historian Henry Reynolds (2016) calls Unnecessary Wars is also the cultural norm in Australia – as is the more mature sex at that age demanding that propaganda believers, who seek a mature relationship with a girl, should grow up and take responsibility for their own actions outside the husbandry of the state. Another cultural norm for Australia is the fragile yet tenuous advance of high quality science in Australia, such as Parkes' telescope dish – although more screen believers in Australia fill their heads with astrology and myth, than understand their lives as physical and ecological flows and people's interaction.
What turns Parkes' normal culture upside down is their orbit into the television footprint that beams from the moon in 1969. That trajectory is intercepted by Cold Imperial War aerospace investors who flood the airwaves. Lunacy literally strikes the media tuned in Parkes who are susceptible to political hysteria. If the reader will forgive a rocket science pun, the media-susceptible go ballistic. The more calm in the community resist what historian Charles Mackay (1852) has argued is The Madness of Crowds.
The Wog Boy (2000)
Besides radio astronomers, another marginalized group became a movie hit in 2000 – Australia's "wogs." "Wog" was a traditional Anglo-Australian word for a bad cold or a stomach complaint. Until recently, Anglo-Australians also used this word as a term of racial abuse directed against the massive influx of refugees and immigrants from Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe after the World War II's 1945 and the ongoing Cold Imperial War. These refugees and economic migrants have, in the last 60 years, cosmopolitanized the very "British village" Anglo-Australian lifestyle, along with the massive shift to American culture via the commercial media and Canberra's military alliance. "Wogs" are now a vibrant, integrated part of popular Australian society. Cosmopolitan Australia meets for coffee on the sidewalk, mostly unaware that something as simple as this – meeting in public for coffee – was feared and scorned as "soliciting for prostitution" by ignorant Anglo-Australians in the 1950s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Greek Australian comedians Nick Gianopoulus, Chris Anistasiasis and their comedy team embraced the slur "wog" while it was still a term of abuse. They turned "wog" into a proud badge of Australia's hard-working ethnic communities, and they displayed this badge through very popular Melbourne theatre and television satires. Then Gianopoulus et al. extended their cultural critique to The Wog Boy movie.
The term "wog" has now entered Australian English as a term of pride, due to this satirical light romance movie. Its main character is a wog boy called Steve. Steve is unemployed but he spends his life helping his local multinational immigrant community. Steve also fixes his sports car, and hangs out at local ethnic cafes with his mates. At every opportunity, when young women cross his path, Steve disports himself in a display of non-British-Australian, laughable machismo flirting. Being a comedy, this macho display invariably ends in embarrassment for the boy. His imported sexual puffery goes down like a lead balloon with the many British-Australian women in Melbourne who are nauseated by his advances. Despite this subcultural habit, Steve for the most part is a cheery, helpful soul who does much voluntary work for a wide spectrum of recent migrants in Australia.
Steve is duped into driving a dishonest migrant to the social security office, and here the cultural norm of Steve's helpful volunteer work in Melbourne's migrant community falls apart. Unfortunately, the employment and social security minister's limousine crashes into Steve's sports car. We are introduced to Steve's nemesis, the hated employment minister. She vows to destroy him. Stepping from the same limousine is the minister's assistant, whose anger is tempered by something attractive in Steve – and she eventually falls in love with Steve in this satire. The crash in the car park sparks the film's amusing second act of "David versus Goliath." Rather than pull his head in, Steve becomes the battling underdog in the media spotlight, fights the ever-expanding panoptic government bureaucracy.
The screenplay was rejected by most investors in Australia, and so it was made on a low budget. Yet the satire broke decades of Australian box office records when it was released in 2000, vindicating its poorly supported developers. The Wog Boy argues that Australian bureaucratic institutions are out of touch with the man, woman, child or wog in the street – and it satirizes this snobbery and mismanagement. The fact that it was so hard to find investors for this blockbuster indicates that Australia's unprofitable social elitism ruins out-of-touch investors, too. The screen arts landscape, like many subcultures, is littered with wrong-headed beliefs and poor decisions. When The Wog Boy rightly invested its large profits into sequels, the new films did not develop stories as attractive as the team's iconoclastic first.
In a bleak vein, deceptive personal relationships dominate a group of professional couples in Lantana. The movie Lantana was adapted from Andrew Bovell's play, Talking in Tongues (1996). It is a mature drama about middle-aged, middle-class couples. All the couples are estranged from each other. The couples deceive each other in different ways.
Lantana boasts a stellar cast and crew, including Anthony La Paglia,Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey. But the web of affairs and unhappy marriages are slowly teased out in this slow-moving drama. The astonishing play is much more satisfying on the live stage because
the roles and relationships are better connected in the stage space. In an astonishing performance I witnessed in Hobart, often the deceived partner of an adulterer was on stage in the darkness, as his or her partner seduced a third party in the spotlight, only inches away. This made for riveting, surreal layers infusing what was already devastating theatre. Without
these live stage entanglements, the separate scenes of the film scattered the characters and defused the emotions for film audiences. Lantana's plot may confuse the reader too:
Leon cannot show sexual affection to his wife Sonia, but Leon has become attracted to Jane who he meets at evening dance classes. Leon is a police detective, so it easy for him to lie to his wife Sonia about his time commitments and sneak away to meet Jane for passionate and graphic sex. Meanwhile, Sonia, who is suffering from lack of affection, seeks psychological counselling from psychiatrist Valerie. But Valerie is herself very troubled: her daughter was senselessly murdered and the murder has destroyed her remaining loved ones' family communication. She cannot look at her husband John without being overcome with grief over the loss of their daughter. They cannot be intimate with each other. Valerie's grief has dragged her husband into desperate isolation. John feels further and further removed from Valerie and he is angry that they cannot grieve together. Like many professional people, Valerie retains her sanity by throwing herself into long hours at work. Another of her patients is Patrick, who
tells her that he is gay and having a gay affair with a married man. Valerie is troubled by Patrick's deceit: the fact that he would support another man lying to his wife. Valerie wonders if her husband John is deceiving her too. On the outskirts of town, another young couple, Nick and Paula, appear to have a close, honest, loving relationship. They live next door to Jane. When Jane's affair with Leon is broken off by Leon, Jane begins to seduce Nick. Jane waits for neighbour Paula to go to work and then she invites Nick over for coffee and conversation. Paula returns from work and is angry with husband Nick for dallying with Sonia and risking their relationship.
Lantana is a spiral of couples' relationship tensions: Jane and Leon, Valerie and John, Paula and Nick. Patrick has and his mystery affair. Jane also has her own estranged partner who makes a few brief appearances in the film. The complex web of spiraling tensions continues right through the film. Not one character can find and make a better life, for both their self and their partner. There are no optimistic insights into friendships and affection between couples. All is raw, depressed and bleak. Surprisingly, it was a bleak message that Australian film audiences wanted on screen in 2001.
My own view is the unpopular one. As one can see from the film plot, there is no strongly discernible "normal activity" in the opening of the film, from which the argument can shift to the shadowlands of the second act deceptions, desires and cruelty. Rather than a movie, the form is similar to episodic television without the introductory reminder scenes. In my view, the film project did not have a movie screenplay to draw audiences and revenue but it did have a stars and the excellent word of mouth of the theatre play. What the theatre play, Talking in Tongues, got right was its celebration of the ritual qualities of staging live, surreal and unsettling combinations of unhappy sexual partners in the darkness on the boards at the same time – a devastating theatre liturgy that could have been translated into the same impact and insights but with the very different ceremonial techniques of the movie form. What Lantana lacks is a developed cultural normal – an opening baseline as part of "the movie as ritual."
Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)
The first film described in this paper is Philip Noyce's ocean thriller, Dead Calm. Noyce's ability to elaborate a gripping tale from the simple monotony of the ocean was an excellent predictor of success when Noyce agreed to direct another minimalist action adventure set in the "sand ocean" of theAustralian desert. Like Dead Calm, Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) explores a vulnerable family's fight for existence – this time, in the colonial outback and not at sea.
Rabbit Proof Fence opens in the "cultural normal" of eighty years ago in outback Australia. Aboriginal girls Molly, Gracie and Daisy are learning how to hunt animals for food, under their mothers' watchful supervision. White British Australian police spy on the women foraging. Meanwhile, in the city far away, the government official in charge of "White" Australia's racist eugenics policy signs papers for the arrest and removal of Molly, Gracie and Daisy from their families.
Some days later, Molly, Gracie and Daisy are kidnapped from their mothers and driven for hours through the night to an isolated Christian "orphanage". The state and church propagandized the lie that the girls' parents were dead in the term "orphanage." Here they are imprisoned and subject to a punitive system of controls. The girls escape and walk for many months, over one thousand kilometers through the desert. They are chased by the police and a police aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) on horseback. But eventually the authorities retreat, taking only Gracie back to the orphanage. Crossing a punishing salt pan, Molly and Daisy almost die. Molly's totem bird, the eagle, flies overhead and gives her courage to live and it points a direction home. Molly and Daisy arrive back in their ancestral home. Their relatives cry and hide them in the desert.
Cut to the present day: we see two very old women, Molly and Daisy Craig, about whom this heroic childhood story is told. In voiceover, old Molly explains that she married and had two children in her ancestral home before she was recaptured and imprisoned at the "orphanage." But Molly escaped from the orphanage and walked home again. When her daughter turned three, the state kidnapped her daughter and never seen again. A title card explains that the Australian Government did not abolish its system of stealing children for "racial purposes" until 1970. In other words, Australia closed its eugenics program 25 years after Nazi Germany's eugenics camps were closed by the Allied United Nations in 1945.
Phillip Noyce directed the three young girl performers, Evelyn Sampi, Laura Monaghan, and Tianna Sansbury, in this courageous epic across the outback. Noyce captured a gorgeous, textured minimalism and evoked the small cast's hearts, bringing Rabbit Proof Fence to world attention. Screenwriter-producer Christine Olsen wrote Rabbit Proof Fence from Doris Pilkington Garimara's novel -Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence (2002). Peter Gabriel composed the score.
At first glance the early sequence of Aboriginal girls and their mothers collecting food in nature appears to be the cultural norm for this screen argument. Then the girls are kidnapped and the argument ramps up into its second act. Actually, the Aboriginal families are already being spied upon by the British Australian Government, even before the girls are captured. A surveillance and incarceration culture is already the norm across Australia at that time. One has to look to Djigirr, de Heer et al. (2006) Ten Canoes to explore an Aboriginal subculture and movie argument that is not under the political gaze of its British Australian invaders. The Ten Canoes is an Aboriginal drama that predates European settlement. In Ten Canoes, the normal activity of hunting game is changed by an unexpected conflict with another tribe. If one admits that the normal activity of Rabbit-proof Fence is for women to struggle for food on the barren margins of once was their vast natural resource, while monitored by eugenics police then the shift in thought and action is perhaps not the kidnappings that were feared but the unexpected defiance of the Government when the girls risked death to walk a thousand kilometers back to people who loved them.
Ned Kelly (2003)
It is in the area of understanding how female heroines work for movie audiences that the writers of many Australian movies come undone, or at least ruin their chances of maximizing their box office. When I worked in studios and read screenplays, I was often amazed that male writers would often times insult the intelligence or sensibility of half the world's cinema audience by writing pathetic, shallow female characters. Another problem occurred when a basically strong introduction of a female character petered out during the film. Unfortunately, the male action films Two Hands and Ned Kelly, both have scripts which beautifully write fresh heroine sidekicks into the cultural norm of their story openings. But then both scripts tend to ignore and forget their heroines and the affection and liberation relationship strands that they start to weave with male companions. Both movies are directed by Gregor Jordan and star Heath Ledger.
Two Hands helped Heath Ledger to American roles. Then in 2003 Ledger returned to Australia and starred as Ned Kelly. Both Ledger movies have a recognition factor above most (but not all) of the 400 movies that are not discussed here, but the leading female roles in both movies could have been further developed. Skilled script development expands the audience, revenue and stature of films. I want to speak briefly on developing movies, and these comments to not refer to the Ledger Ned Kelly whose development I do not know. After working in studio movie development in Australia for many years, I have this observation: what little highly skilled movie screenplay development there is in Australia usually falls foul of political maneuvering inside various studios, production teams, government departments, and among investors and people connected personally to biographical screenplays. The massive political (and financial) maneuvering that surrounds quality screenplay development – let alone the politics of weak screenplays – goes much of the way towards explaining the chronic dire struggle of Australian movies in cinemas and in ancillary media (what filmmakers used to call transmedia). I do not know the office politics around Ned Kelly (2003). Rather, I put my observation of Australia's shaky screenplay development here because of the political ruin of the first Ned Kelly movie (1906).
Ned Kelly has the iconographic status of a legend in the Australian arts, where some artists return to study the history while others use the little they believe of the story to build their own version of a legend. The world's first feature movie is arguably Tait, Tait et al. (1906) The Story Of The Kelly Gang. Its feature-length story runs for well over an hour when all other movie-like films of the time are shorts that run to a few minutes and very occasionally to about ten minutes. Since 1906, there have been other screen versions of Ned Kelly, stage versions, a tourist industry, and his story is explored by fine art painters such as Sidney Nolan.
Ned Kelly was a cowboy from a poor Irish immigrant family. His family suffer anti-Irish discrimination and victimization by the English mounted police in colonial Victoria. Much like Rabbit-proof Fence, Ned Kelly's cultural norm involves oppression in a bureaucratic police state. Both situations contain much more complicated power relationships than this rough characterization – and research and development of a strong movie brings out these layered complexities.
In common Ned Kelly stories, Ned defends his family against police harassment and becomes an outlaw. He hides with his gang in the mountains. He robs the rich to feed the poor, much like Robin Hood. He wears steel armour which becomes his trade mark. Gregor Jordan's 2003 version extends Ned Kelly as a theme in Australian fine art painting. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton pays homage to English and Australian 1800s impressionist painters in the framing, lighting and colour post of its every scene. For those with an interest in impressionism, the movie is a visual treat. But in the 2003 story, the relationship that is created beautifully between Ned Kelly and a wealthy daughter of the rural establishment (performed by Naomi Watts) peters out in the second half of the movie and its lack of development probably lost audience for this version of the legend.
The 2004 international Australian horror hit Saw does not set up a lackluster heroine sidekick and so it does not disappoint its horror audience in this regard. Saw's heroes are two young men who wake up to find themselves ensnared in a madman's torture chamber. Captives Adam and Lawrence are strangers to each other. They wake in an abandoned factory bathroom that they have never seen before. They are chained with heavy leg irons in opposite corners of the room. Through a series of hidden messages left by their kidnapper, the young men discover that they have been chained together until one stranger kills the other. Lawrence must kill Adam or the kidnapper will kill Lawrence's wife and child. Adam must defend himself and kill Lawrence. Only one man will escape from the bathroom.
But rather than fight each other, the men decide to help each other escape. Lawrence infers from their gruesome plight that their unseen kidnapper is "Jigsaw," a crazed killer who has forced other hapless victims in the city to kill strangers or kill themselves. The film cuts between the factory's torture bathroom and the outside police investigation led by a
detective (performed by Danny Glover). The detectives are too slow to close in on the horrific crime scene and the detectives fall victim to Jigsaw themselves. Jigsaw's ghoulish challenges operate a bit like theatre sports for psycho-killers. For example, when Adam wakes in the torture chamber, he must find a dictaphone recording in his back pocket; then the recording provides the next clue for Adam to follow. This theatre sports theme makes sense when one remembers that the Saw screenplay is the creation of performers James Wan and Leigh Wannall who co-wrote the movie, and James directed. A superb sense of claustrophobia and tragic inevitability traps the sacrificial lambs of this film, as it does in another Australian horror hit, Wolf Creek. It is in this setting up of the entrapment that the cultural norm of the horror genre film shows itself. Usually some minutes are used to explore the victims as sympathetic, attractive people who arrive in a place that is gradually revealed to be a premeditated, elaborate trap of a powerful torturer and murderer. The villain or villains are fanatics of some description, who have been strongly indoctrinated by their cruel and perverse experiences or upbringings in the past. Being indoctrinated fanatics by the time the argument opens in its cultural norm – the arriving victims are not in any position to reason with their torturers and murderers.
The horror genre (like all permitted genres) is tightly controlled by the political masters of a movie's audience. The proof of this assertion is in what are allowable conventions in horror stories and what screen arguments are banned. From a historian's perspective, the cultural norm's horror genre convention is: "a place that is gradually revealed to be a premeditated, elaborate trap of a powerful torturer and murderer. The villain or villains are fanatics of some description, who have been strongly indoctrinated". This technical model, a contemporary historian could say, describes politicians who instigate propaganda on their own people and invade another people's homes, businesses and essential public infrastructure on the pretext of "security". These same politicians control what genre films are made and exhibited to both their domesticated audience, and to their subjugated audience in the place they have invaded. For this reason, I suggest, one never sees ruling torturers or ruling murderers as villians in a politically correct horror film.
Wolf Creek (2005)
For horror as truth rather than entertainment, one might investigate contemporary history – that is, engage with recent investigative journalism and engage with histories of victims who overturn their oppression – rather than believe ubiquitous consumer and invasion media without question. Read Joel Bakan (2011) Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Ruthlessly Targets Children (or listen to the audiobook) for how children are indoctrinated today and engage with Kubric et al. () Full Metal Jacket for the cultural norm's ongoing fanaticism. Do field research: Travel (across the world or across town) to participate in other cultural norms and gain some unmediated real perspective on one's own life and the lives of others.
In the horror movie Wolf Creek (2005), two young British women backpacker tourists, Kris and Liz, travel to outback Australia. Kris and Liz meet easy-going Australian boy, Ben. Ben purchases a cheap car and the three set off into the desert, hoping to cross Australia from West to East. This horror film is subtly written by writer-director Greg McLean. The power in McLean's screenplay comes from its beautiful and sensitive first act's cultural norm. Young Kris, Liz and Ben are set up as ordinary western Generation Y teenagers. Besides their freshness, their health, their gentle humour, wisdom and un-sentimentality, there is nothing remarkable about these kids. McLean is a keen observer of the ordinary and he brings the young people's journey to life with budding undercurrents of sexuality, love, compassion, joy and friendships.
This rich, gentle portrait of "Generation Y" young people on the road together is decorated in the dazzling, earthy-metallic colours of Australia's coastal and desert landscapes. The opening shot of Wolf Creek on the West coast is a jewel-like emblem of earth, water and fire. As the trio drive further into the desert, these three elements become grey, dank and troubled. Moving further away from the cultural norm of the young travelers, Wolf Creek's music tracks introduce forbidding, scudding shadows across the landscape. The fear of isolation, let alone murder, waits, uncaring, at every direction of the compass. Writer-director Greg McLean paints a picture of aching beauty: young love and brave strangers in a wondrous paradise. The colours are rich. The music is spine tingling. We follow McLean towards his altar painting, and then he rolls the painting aside and we wake in a nightmare chamber of unspeakable horrors.
Wolf Creek is a generational conflict between young people (Kris, Liz and Ben), and a stranger who could be their grandfather – a madman who desires to repeat the cruel practices he "enjoyed" during Australia's invasion of Vietnam. Like any movie, Wolf Creek's screen argument is politically and historically situated. Two generations after Australian investors and politicians invaded Vietnam, it is still very difficult to research and develop a screen argument about "powerful torturers and murderers. The villains are fanatics of some description, who have been strongly indoctrinated". This realistic interpretation of power was quashed in the media and the domesticated culture during the invasion – read, for example, the 26 May 1966 front page of Hobart's The Mercury after Canberra sent the first conscripted (compulsorily detained) Australian youth to his death in Vietnam. The detained and killed boy's uncle leads the front page, proclaiming: "I don't want any attack on government policy to be made". Reading between the lines, Australians opposed investors and governments on this invasion but their views were not to be printed in the press. Two generations later, only brief and indirect glimpses of this political culture slip from the "grandfather" veteran at Wolf Creek, as the damaged foot soldier detains and murders the inquisitive younger generation.
A sewerage plumber is a person who is usually marginalized in most societies, not just in Australia's cultural norm. So it was with much delight that Australian audiences were treated to the 2006 movie Kenny about a sanitation engineer, or sewerage plumber. We follow a year in the life of Kenny who works for a portable toilet business. Kenny hires and installs portable toilets and bathrooms at music festivals, trade shows, racing and sporting events, and other big social events in Australia. The outdoor cultural venues which require Kenny's portable bathrooms provide many opportunities for Australian (and other) subcultures to unfold in this movie.
Kenny is a kaleidoscope of modern subcultures seen at their most primitive and vulnerable: when people have to go the toilet at outdoor events. Vulnerability at such massive outdoor social events brings out a range of attitudes and actions among people; and it takes the patience, wisdom and good nature of someone like Kenny to guide us through his delicate "pooh and culture" working year. His personal side is revealed to us as well, as he courts a girl at the American international portable toilet convention in Texas. The movie has pathos too, because Kenny's career makes him an embarrassment to his father and brother. How bittersweet the irony – that his work, which embarrasses his family, has made Kenny a celebrity and the darling of millions of Australian film lovers. Although the public toilet is a massively shared culture norm for the public, it is rare for this to be the baseline place from which a movie argument unfolds.
Underground explores the teenage years of Australia's most famous computer prodigy, Julian Assange. Julian's early passion for digital computing arose from his family's imposed lifestyle – moving from place to place – so that Julian had many short stays in town-upon- town, school-upon-school. Fortunately he was raised by a moral and intelligent mother who ensured that Julian learned at home, wherever home was. It was in this home life that Julian taught himself every skill he could learn on early personal computers and the early internet. Self-taught expertise was common in the 1980s and 1990s. The open technology of swap meets and simple 24-hour global internet bulletin boards meant that dozens of fellow users would happily ask and answer technology questions for struggling newbies, no matter where they were in the world. Everyone was learning together and donating their knowledge and time to others. The public internet had not yet been commercialize. For Julian, whose family was on the move all the time, his early personal computer and internet were the stable, trustworthy devices that linked the boy with friends and knowledge. One of the marvelous things about the movie Underground is that it films a pageant of now rare gizmos: all young Julian's early digital devices as they came onto the world market. The early 1990s is the golden age of the internet before it was partitioned and possessed by a few monopoly subcultures who track and debit millions of consumer-followers.
The lost age of the open sharing public internet was not the only strata of young Julian's cultural normal. In his private life, there was a reason that his mother moved her two little sons from town to town: his stepfather was hunting the family. The father of Julian's little brother was a white-supremacist nazi who (with shades of Rabbit-Proof Fence) desired to kidnap the little blonde boy to a Melbourne white-supremacist medical and lifestyle commune run by a celebrity female psychiatrist. A third strata of Julian's cultural normal was the peace activism of his mother – and this morality Julian learned from his mother. So Underground: The Julian Assange Story opens in an outer Melbourne suburb where the family is both hiding from Australian Nazis and protesting, in front of the American consulate, NASA's firing of deadly plutonium through the Earth's atmosphere. For young Julian: (1) drawing the attention of a mediated tax-paying public to its foolish and cruel geopolitics; (2) being hunted by Australian nazis; and (3) delighting in the homely comfort of world-best computer skills and internet friends – this is how Underground opens – and then life goes pear-shaped, as strong movie arguments do.
The transatlantic invention of short film technologies reached Australasia and South East Asia by 1897 (Reid 2015 A History of South East Asia). After some years of shorts, Australians made the world's first feature movie in 1906. In order to put a strong movie argument, filmmakers research a problematic subculture. In the 1906 movie, Tait, Tait et al. researched and developed their screen argument about the subculture of Victoria's colonial police, settlers and immigrants in The Story of the Kelly Gang.
Movie filmmakers develop their research findings as a climactic story that is performed and recorded as "people acting in time-place." Movie filmmakers try to connect their arguments about culture with particular audiences. The first movie was astonishingly successful with its story, and Kelly Gang became a massive blockbuster. Filmmakers make or fail to make this initial connection with their audience, firstly with the advanced publicity for a movie, and secondly with the way characters and places are introduced in the first act of a movie. In the first act, filmmakers develop their baseline research into culture by filming a small group of detailed characters who emerge from a recognizable place. The place does not have to be familiar – often an unfamiliar place draws an audience's attention. In the case of 1906, the first movie was taken round the globe to Britain where its scenes of colonial Victoria and Irish bushrangers were well received. The first act of a movie does not have to be highly familiar but it does need to strike a chord with audiences and orientate them into the story. Similarly some cultural aspects of the characters should appeal or fascinate.
As philosopher Donald Davidson observes, a person cannot get to know another person's strange language (a foreign language that expresses arguments about culture, say,) unless the first person makes the effort to tolerate and befriend the other's strange language. It is only with this attitude of tolerance that future knowledge in any field, including culture, expands. Without language tolerance, there is a stagnant, stupefying "research" subculture and worse. Similarly, filmmakers usually use the opening minutes of their screen argument to connect recognizable, familiar and attention-holding elements of their emerging film characters and the cultural backgrounds of scenes to the individual beliefs, desires and subcultures of the hoped-for audience.
The first act of Wolf Creek, for example, is a masterly exploration of three young people's friendship on a road through breathtaking nature – deserted beaches, flocks of exotic birds, mountain sunrises and flaming sunsets. The young people enjoy this non-city tourist subculture among other backpackers and their lifestyle appeals to sizable audiences too. In the cultural normal of the first act, the filmmakers make it easy for audiences to tolerate and remain interested in the film's emerging strange, even horrific, argument. The leading characters Liz, Kristy and Ben are easy to follow too. Ben is powerfully built and tattooed, yet he is always gentle, humorous and chivalrous around Liz and Kristy. Women, who comprise half the market for these eighteen films, would tend to be repulsed by the leering car dealer who shares his sexual fantasy (about Liz and Kristy) with customer Ben. A female audience is more likely to tolerate and follow young Ben, who is repulsed by the dealer too.
The early scenes in a movie invite audiences to attend to foreground characters and background places that the audience can relate to or be drawn to – attractive enough to follow the leading characters into the maker's story. The movie first act constructs a baseline place and people for the escalating screen argument. From this baseline or cultural normal, the scenario changes, shifting to a trajectory of existential dilemmas, challenges and learning curves that beset the foreground characters. Wolf Creek records this second act turn or reversal in the lives of the characters via its audio and its motion-pictures. Most world audiences read left to right, and we have effortlessly followed the travelers' car mostly left to right through the happy road journey. Then fifteen minutes into the argument, the car sweeps down in a V shape – down right and up left though the landscape that has suddenly been warped by an ultra wide angle lens. The car traverses a tick shape – the tick device is the Maoist Chinese state's symbol for killing by execution. The journey almost reverses back on itself in the landscape, as does the soundtrack which is a drone track that sounds similar if the music is played forward or in reverse.
A movie's first act is assumed to be the cultural normal for the people in the movie – arriving at a station rendezvous in Dead Calm, moving to a new home in Underground, attending a social gathering in Romeo + Juliet or touring the outback in Wolf Creek. More than its normality for the argued characters, the first act of the movie is also a recognizable place for audiences, to the extent that it attracts them and orientates them into the characters' habits, beliefs and actions among other characters in the screen argument. It is recognizable because the audience has come from or dreamed about a similar subculture to the cultural study underway in the movie. For English-speaking audiences who find English speaking "normal," the performers on screen "speak their language," even if the performers wear the motion-picture animation masks of a duck and pig talking together in Babe. The screen "cultural normal" becomes understandable enough for an audience so that when the lifestyle of the foreground characters (be they barnyard masks or animated people) is impacted by unexpected or strong changes, the audience too is thrown, as an unsettled yet loyal mental companion, into the public and private existential challenges now facing the characters.
What is recognizably culturally normal for Australian audiences who followed the first act of these eighteen cinema films? Male-female sexual relationships and same sex platonic relationships are explored in the opening subcultures of Dead Calm, Strictly Ballroom, Wolf Creek, Muriel's Wedding, Romeo+Juliet and Underground. Friendship between three gay men is the normal work-a-day mates culture, along with the family relationship the father desires to reform with his distant daughter in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. A culture of domestic loneliness and dogged heroism pervades the opening of Muriel's Wedding, Babe and Underground. Bravery in the face of state racism opens Rabbit Proof Fence, The Wog Boy and Ned Kelly; while the same dilemmas of state racism and personal courage reach crisis point in Underground.
The characters' home, leisure boat and holiday home in The Castle and the characters' expensive cars, city apartment and business address in Two Hands would probably indicate the characters are "petty bourgeoisie" for a cultural studies theorist; yet most Australian audiences would insist that the "normal culture" in these two films is "working class." This suggests cultural beliefs and vocabulary lag behind people's actions and lifestyles, sometimes lagging for generations. If the audience's identification of The Castle and Two Hands is accepted for the sake of argument, then a further division of these "working class" groups becomes pressing because The Castle family are mostly law-abiding whereas the Two Hands group are organized criminals. However the Castle family and its circle of friends are labelled, it is obvious the group struggles for the two great relationship strands in any strong movie argument: liberty and affection. The Castle patriarch liberates his home from techno-bureaucratic predation and forges a personal friendship in an elite subculture he thought was eternally above him.
More common than building the screen arguments around social class is the unquestioned position that caucasian Australians fill the cinemas in seventeen of the films. The exception to this racial fallacy is Rabbit-Proof Fence. Unlike some of Australia's fine arts – which have very long histories of cultural exchange with Australia's northern neighbours in China, Japan, Indonesia and so on – the writers and investors who most influence the arguments put in most Australian films tend to be a comparatively xenophobic and parochial lot – if the "average" filmmaker's weak cultural competence in our region is the proof and indicator. Even filmmakers who take an interest in Asia are hampered by easily-led populist and demagogic audiences in Australia's communications political economy. The cultural normal for most "Aussie" audiences is inward-looking caucasian, even though realistically, Australia thankfully has wonderfully large Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and many other Asian communities who build Australia's sciences, industries and arts, with a cultural devotion to education, and superb cuisines. Movies usually explore the struggle of a subculture for justice (liberty) and recognition (affection) in its wider community. Yet seventeen of these films are caucasian struggles – and it would be important to ask and answer why. At least Muriel's Wedding weaves amusing Chinese and Japanese subplots into its background cultural norm. Also, subcultures from Africa, South America, most of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East are silent in these films.
Another skew in the cultural normal is the comparative disinterest in another "half" of the population – children and the elderly. Children do feature in Rabbit Proof Fence, and there is one family genre film, Babe. This ageist skew is a common political fallacy – the assumption that people's age matches their maturity, competence and responsibilities in any life situation or movie scene. Movies explore people's "maturity, competence and responsibility" as it grows and declines for each person's lifespan during the time it intersects with others in a film argument. Age is a highly unreliable indicator of "maturity, competence and responsibility." For example, the boys Perry in Muriel's Wedding and Julian in Underground appear to be of a similar age. Perry is immature, lazing in front of the consumer screen, following a corporation's game all day and demanding his clinically depressed mother bring him tea. Julian is mature, protecting his mother and brother from his nazi stepfather, and learning about the world through his screen. With the exception of solo touch football, Perry's life competencies are one step away from a nursing home, whereas Julian is one of the most competent computer programmers in the world, and his social competence has rewarded him with a girlfriend. As for taking responsibility for his self and his world, Perry kicks an empty carton around his father's overgrown backyard, pretending he is a hero. Julian is highly responsible and really is a hero. Julian halts the launch of the ultra-poison, plutonium, into the Earth's atmosphere and he collects decisive material evidence of a planned state massacre of hundreds of women and children, while being hunted by a superpower's assassins, lawyers and kidnappers. Perry and Julian are of similar age in the same culture, yet their age says little about one's immaturity, incompetence and irresponsibility and the other's desired upside. All people interact with each other in the world and in scenes at different levels of maturity, competence and responsibility. People's intersecting responsibility curves are a factor in every existential dilemma the world faces.
Whatever the screen argument, the dilemma, however complex, usually begins with scenes and actions that an audience recognizes. Audiences recognize enough in the film to understand and share the emotion, language and interaction of characters – enough to follow them into the challenges ahead. The dilemmas that follow may be young friendships swamped by fanatic gun culture in Romeo+Juliet, Wolf Creek and Underground – or a marginalized sanitation philosopher's liberation in Kenny. In setting up a cultural screen argument, the devil of normal is in the detail.
Citation: Robert S. Watson (2016) Cultural Normal (Australia: Town Idea .com)
This is a 2016 rewrite and upgrade of my Chapter 3 in India's two-volume Creative Nation: Australian Cinema and Cultural Studies Reader, edited by A. and R. Sarwal.
The original 2009 chapter is called "Dynamic Communities: contemporary Australian movies" (New Delhi: SSS Publications, ISBN 81-902282-0-X).
Copyright (c) Robert S. Watson 2009, 2016. TOWN IDEA