Friday, July 4, 2008

A blank canvas

Image via Ten Empty

Why am I so critical of Australian cinema? I'll crinkle my nose through challenging avant-garde films and happily imbibe the saccharine Hollywood fare, yet I experience some kind of involuntary reluctance when it comes to queuing up for the latest offering from my fellow countrymen. I find this odd, particularly as it's coming from a passionate film lover and wannabe screenwriter. Is it simple snobbery? After a bit of soul searching, this is what I've come up with...

1. I get embarrassed for people:
It's an odd trait I share with my brother, which will see us cringing, blushing or outright diving into our hands and cushions to escape the torture of an awkward situation. It's akin to "I feel your pain,"only on steroids. Unfortunately, said awkward situations may be quite innocent, like a family member giving a speech, or have absolutely nothing to do with me, like a little pig-tailed girl twirling a baton on Australia's Got Talent. The little girl may be having a swell time, but I'll be quaking with embarrassment on her behalf.
Perhaps this might contribute to my aversion to Australian films; even if they're critical, or (heaven forbid) commercial successes, I'll be awkwardly anticipating any potential gaffs and worrying about their international distribution and reception by overseas audiences. I feel this ultimately stems from a place of love and maybe even some misplaced patriotism...though I appreciate it sounds a little nutty. But I think we can all blame Mick Dundee.

2. I shirk my obligations:
Another unsavory admission to be sure - but it feels like the Australian film industry's marketing strategy = appeal to their sense of duty. The whiff of desperation doesn't help matters, and I don't think audiences respond well to the pressure of obligation.

That said however, this very subject cropped up at the recent Sydney Film Festival when I sat in on a forum with Nash & Joel Edgerton, led by the ubiquitous Margaret Pomeranz. Nash's view was along the lines that we shouldn't be prodded and pushed into seeing Australian films, rather we should be champing at the bit in anticipation. The films, according to Nash, should be of such a high and entertaining standard, that audiences shouldn't have to think "oh we really must go and show our support for that little Aussie flick". Margaret then admitted she was guilty of appealing to her viewers in this way. So I guess my point is valid, but hopefully more money, time and talent will be pumped into the local industry so the films can just speak for themselves.

One that does just that is Anthony Hayes' debut feature Ten Empty, and my, it speaks volumes. Perhaps it was the festival withdrawal symptoms, the post-work crankiness or the complimentary Heineken, but I sat through this film last night without getting my usual dose of awkward. Hayes introduced the film (along with the standard "thanks for supporting the local industry" spiel) and said he and co-writer Brendan Cowell were consciously trying to get away from the The Castle spin-offs in their treatment of working-class, suburban Australia. They also wanted to write about depression and the relationships between fathers and sons, all of which finds its place in this poignant and beautifully rendered film.

Having recently seen Cowell as the tortured prince in Bell Shakespeare's Hamlet, and having eaten up his writing and performance in Love My Way, I recognised the similarities in the protagonists and themes of all three productions (minus the working class in Hamlet's case).* More importantly, however, I realised I didn't shirk or cringe from any of these!

Therefore I must conclude that Brendan Cowell is the antidote for Crocodile Dundee!

*For more on the similarities see this SMH article.


Kate said...

Eeeeee, here you are!

I must agree on the Australian film cringe value. I blame the "whaddayawantwith jousting sticks" vibe from The Castle. Despite loving that film (and despite not sounding luike anyone in that film) it was like hearing one's own voice played back on tape. Creepy.

Hooray for your first post!

Kate said...

Of course I meant 'like'. Words? Who needs 'em!

Alice said...

You're spot on with the tape recorded voice - do we sound deeper and more gravelly than we'd like?!
The Castle is a great film and one we should be proud of, but I don't think the spin-offs or Mick Dundee caricatures do us many favours. We're such a small national cinema, but with a truck load of talent, so we need to stop pulling our punches and making "typical Aussie flicks", and start making great films.
There endeth the rant!

Monkey Mind said...

Over here in Oxford, I regularly receive invitations for screenings of The Castle, Muriel's Wedding or Strictly Ballroom. The Frenchies can't get enough of them! Often an Australian tells the international crowd at the beginning of the movie that it's a favourite. I can't handle that kind of pressure! I then feel responsible for every awkward silence after the jokes or for explaining all the Aussie references.

While I like all these movies - they're quirky, funny and heart-warming, I also get uncomfortable in conversations about them (fine while watching - that is, with a bunch of Aussie friends).

Perhaps it's a class thing - they're the classic working class piss-takes where you're being asked to laugh at people in a lower class (like Kath n Kim), or maybe I just don't want to be associated with these characters (except Muriel, of course!) or for Australia to be presented in such a way. I am not sure...

Actually, I felt the same way (super-responsible) recently when I took a movie over to a friend's house to watch it with him. I'd been recommended it by the DVD man: White Cat Black Cat, a 1999 Croatian film. It was in the same vein as these Aussie flicks - a loveable anti-hero, lots of grotesque CUs, 'boink' noises when the characters would slip over or step on things, cluttered set design, lots of laughing at ugly, fat people, particularly women. It was painful!

Alice said...

Monkey Mind I totally agree with your feelings of super responsibility. Particularly as you're overseas, I imagine you feel it all more acutely. You want people to appreciate and understand Australian films, but what if they cringe at the accents or just flat out don't get the humour? Gah!

That said, if you can stand it, you should try introducing Lucky Miles to your Aussie movie nights. It's very entertaining!

Syms Covington said...

I must disagree, as I agree with Lynden Barber who called Ten Empty a "depressing film about depression".

However this does seem to confirm my other theory that the only people that enjoyed this film are Brendan Scowl fans already. :)

Alice said...

Hello again Syms :)

Yes I had noted your nickname for Mr. Cowell - how very apropos!
I don't necessarily disagree that Ten Empty is "a depressing film about depression" - I think depression is a huge topic for any filmmaker to tackle and - Scowl fan or no - I think he and Hayes did a good job of it.

I suppose my main point was how refreshing it was to see a Australian film that was a challenging story, not just a quirky crew of Aussie characters (cue: kangaroo).

Syms Covington said...

Don't get me wrong, I do like Brendan, but it's like he thinks that Mr Angry Face means artist cred. I'm pretty sure you can smile and still be an artist...

Something tells me that you haven't been seeing a lot of Aussie films, or maybe just a lot of same.

I would encourage you to watch (they'll be released soon enough) Men's Group, Bitter & Twisted, Three Blind Mice, Son of a Lion, and All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane.

They are all indie films but of the standard that deserves big screen viewing (ie. shot digital with very decent post). And they pretty much beat all the government funded competition as best Australians films of the year.

Alice said...

Mr. Scowl is apparently an untrained actor, so perhaps he'll learn to smile eventually.

You're right, I've certainly been shirking my obligation to watch Australian films. I missed the screening of Three Blind Mice at the SFF, but made it to the afterparty! Thanks for the recommendations, I'll definitely check them out.

Syms Covington said...

Hmmm, who's been stalking whom?

I was at the Square Q&A at SFF and the Mice afterparty; IMO the best party of the whole fest, and one which mashed my brain.

That Square Q&A wasn't very big so maybe we know each other. Curiouser and curiouser.

Alice said...

Surely that's my line!

What a small world. Mice afterparty was a fun night. I was kicking with the SFF crew - there was a fair bit of brain mashing involved. I may or may not have gushed to Barry Otto that I loved him as Polonius.

You really have to stop stalking me though; no means no :)

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