Tag Archives: Australia

Aussie Culture, According to Film

25118545_sHello all, and welcome to 2015! The end of 2014 was full of non-internety things that made blogging impossible, but I’m back! (You may read that as Schwarzenegger-esque, The Shining-esque or simply as a cheery greeting. You be the judge.)

January is a month where many Australians consider their Australian-ness in some fashion. Australia Day is on 26 January, but that date is viewed as problematic as it also marks the date where Europeans landed in Sydney Cove and proceeded to disposses the existing inhabitants.

A lot of immigrants take up Australian citizenship on that date, too, swearing an oath and receiving a gum tree sapling (and some Vegemite I was wrong) as gifts to welcome them to their new home. The Australian of the Year is usually announced then too. Let’s not forget radio station JJJ announcing the JJJ Hottest 100 songs of the preceding year, which usually heralds a lesser but still vocal controversy about the diversity of acts (or lack thereof) represented in the voting.

Still, one way or another, many citizens of this wide, brown land spend at least a little time this month thinking about our history, our culture and what it means to be Australian.

Of course, it means many different things because ‘Australian’ is a broad label for a huge number of very different people who all happen to be citizens, by birth or by choice, of this giant island in the southern hemisphere. Nevertheless, certain ideas about ourselves as a nation tend to coalesce – though it has to be said that some of those ideas represent values that exist in many other cultures too.

Cultural labels that come to mind, though, are things like ‘laid back’ or ‘the fair go’; ‘mateship’ and ‘larrikinism’. Then we can have a whole other debate on what words like that even mean.

Taking another approach, though – I’ve had conversations from time to time about what films or TV shows I might give to someone who wanted to garner an idea of what it is to be Australian. (As an aside, the first feature film ever made was made in Australia – The Story of the Kelly Gang. Pretty Aussie, that.) My friend, Rod Sherwin, and I were discussing it once more over Christmas drinks and we decided to attempt to compile a list.

So, for what it’s worth, here is a suggested list of depictions of Australia which might give you a hint, whether you are from beyond these shores or if you are a born or naturalised citizen and still trying to work out what the hell it’s all about.

FILMS

The Castle immediately springs to mind. That feel-good film about the little guy versus bureaucracy; about people who love the lives they live, who celebrate suburbia and each other. A film about mateship and the fair go. It also features Eric Bana in a supporting role before he went off and got buff to play heroes and villains in Hollywood.

Picnic at Hanging Rock remains, after nearly 40 years, haunting and beautiful. It also echoes the European fear and distrust of the Australian outback which is evident from the earliest colonial paintings and epitomised by Frederick McCubbin’s painting Lost. It’s moody and disturbing, but much less terrifying than Wolf Creek, which does nothing to entice visitors to our shores.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – drag queens, road trips across the outback, a bus called Priscilla, and a cock in a frock on a rock. Australia’s not all football jocks, surfers and Crocodile Dundee. Australia is also queer, funny, vulnerable and finds love in unexpected places.

Gallipoli told the story of the failed battle that helped Australia forge an image of itself less than twenty years after Federation and when white Australia still largely regarded itself as essentially British. For some, the blood of Australian and New Zealand troops shed on that Turkish beach “washed away the convict stain”. However you see it, or the war in which it was one failed invasion attempt, it formed the basis of a modern mythology of what it is to be Australian.

Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer, is funny, moving, enlightening and beautifully shot. It’s also entirely in an indigenous language, Yolgnu Matha, with an English narration supplied by David Gulpilil.

Undead is the zombie film for lovers of horror, Australian-style. Made on the cheap, it’s also drily hilarous and contains one of my favourite movie lines ever. “In my day, children respected their parents. They didn’t eat ’em.” The mix of Australian humour with a trope more associated with American films is a treat.

Strictly Ballroom was Baz Luhrman’s first big film hit and bears his trademark hyper-realistic style. It also, against a backdrop of ballroom dancing, looks a little at migrant experience, the value of blazing your own trail and the cost of abandoning your dreams. The dancing is also fantastic.

Crackerjack is another celebration of suburbia set around a bowls club, with that quirky humour that we so love.

Of course, there are heaps of other Australian films that showcase not only talent but different views of being Australian. Paperback Hero has Hugh Jackman as the sensitive outback guy who writes romance novels under the name of his best friend, laconic tomboy Ruby (Claudia Karvan) and touches on ideas of masculinity, if only briefly. There’s Mad Max and The Cars that Ate Paris and the recent, brilliant The Babadook for Australian takes on SF and horror. Comedies like Malcolm, Cosi and Muriel’s Wedding and musicals like The Sapphires and Bran Nue Day all have something to say about Australian people and culture.

TELEVISION

The Code, made in 2014, made Canberra – long disparaged as an ugly, soulless place – well, not beautiful. But intriguing, dangerous, and paranoid. Superbly written, directed and performed, this thriller draws together rural and urban communities and concerns, security, politics and provides a more modern view of Australia than we normally get on our small screen.

Janet King was also a brilliant and gripping legal drama/thriller, with a queer protagonist, terrific writing and motivations for crime that are complex and textured.

Kath and Kim is of course the quintessential Australian suburban comedy. It’s often been said that everyone knows a Kath or a Kim, but no-one will admit to being a Kath or a Kim.

Frontline, a comedy about a 60-Minutes-style news program, is perennially relevant. When it first came out, it altered the way some magazine format ‘news’ shows presented stories, because it so accurately and brilliantly skewered their tricks and habits. It’s probably time for a repeat, to keep the bastards on their toes.

We Can Be Heroes saw Chris Lilley play a wide variety of characters of different genders, ages and even ethnicities. It’s a bit of a minefield, that, but Lilley walked that line well and brought sharp observation and at times heart wrenching poignancy to his portrayals of a group of people all nominated for Australian of the Year.

Outland_S1 dvdOutland gave us a break from the relentlessly ‘realist’ direction style of so many Australian shows (at least until Janet King and The Code showed up), its visual style inspired by British shows like Spaced and The Book Group. It’s ostensibly about a queer SF fan club, but they’re mostly out and proud about their sexuality. It’s their nerdiness that’s mainly in the closet. Modern, funny and clever. And yes, it was co-written by John Richards, who is family, but as I often say – just because I’m biased, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Please Like Me was another comedy that was often more of a drama, written by and starring Josh Thomas. Another take on modern Australia and full of young, diverse characters and unexpected moments of heartbreak.

Mr Squiggle perhaps, like Vegemite, defies description. Maybe it’s something you just had to be born to. It’s a kid’s show where a little puppet man with a pencil for a nose comes to Earth in a talking rocket. He is given a series of random lines drawn on a white board that’s propped up on a talking blackboard, and he uses his nose to turn the lines into drawings (often the wrong way up). I don’t know what it says about being Australian, but for many generations it was an essential part of growing up (along with Dr Who, The Goodies and Monkey). Don’t knock it. That’s my childhood there, people!

Australian children’s television has also always been imaginative and clever, and much more likely to use fantasy or science fiction in its storytelling than films and shows made for adults. I used to watch The Girl from Tomorrow on Egyptian TV when I lived in Cairo in the 90s and Heartbreak High managed to get in characters from migrant backgrounds. The Silver Brumby was based on a series of books about wild horses (brumbies) that I ate up with a spoon when I was a child.

So there we go. A sort of ‘Australia 101 on Screen’ if you want to start to get an idea about what Australians are like, in all their diversity.

Naturally I’ll have missed stuff – so feel free to comment with your own recommendations!

[Image via 123RF.com]

Launceston, architecture and ghosts

BillTim and I have been in Launceston for a few days, guests of Launceston City Council, and have been sampling copious amounts of cider and excellent food. For science!

Well, no, probably not for science, but we’ve been dedicated, I promise you that. This evening, we went on the Launceston City Ghost Tour, guided by Bill – he of the cape and atmospheric voice.

The night was bitterly cold but Bill set a brisk pace as he walked us around the centre of Launceston, visiting wonderful old buildings, sometimes leading us into darkened cellars and ill-lit garages, and keeping up an entertaining stream of storytelling and terrible jokes.

Launceston is Australia’s third oldest city, founded in 1806. It was from here that Batman and Fawkner set off to found Melbourne and then spend the rest of their lives arguing over who did it first.

Some lovely architecture remains intact from the city’s foundation through to the late 19th century, so naturally it’s a town ripe with folklore and spooky stories.

It’s also one of those places that was lucky enough to fall into economic decline at just the right time to avoid having these wonderful buildings knocked down – so instead of hideous mid-20th century blocks of concrete and pebblestone facades, we still have elegant churches, warehouses, former grand homes and current hotels, many beautifully restored.

0108dd50b4323aa87ce2a3312201f1411d2d71fc7fFor many, seeing the city’s architecture by night will be reason enough to go on the walk, but of course, it’s a ghost tour – so while I enjoyed the visual drama, I was really there for the tales of macabre deaths and gruesome deeds.

There are plenty of  both of course, along with mysterious occurrences whose origins are unknown. But Bill grins wickedly and tells the tale anyway.

There are the traditional theatre ghosts, the star-crossed lovers, the cruel murders and the terrible accidents. There are tales of hotel and pub staff disturbed by odd noises and ghostly fingers on skin, and visions of spirits running down halls.

Perhaps it’s true that my most terrifying moment in Launceston was the landing of our Jetstar flight in strong winds that made it feel like the plane was being shaken about like a maraca – but to be fair, the ghost walk was certainly a whole lot more fun than that, too. Vastly entertaining, in fact.

And if you don’t believe in ghosts – you still have the pretty buildings to look at.

When you’re in Launceston, book your ghost tour with Bill or one of the other guides at Launceston City Ghost Tours

Disclosure: Tim and I were hosted by Launceston City Council.

It Means What It Is

I’ll always be grateful for Matthew Collings’ 1999 TV series This is Modern Art. It taught me a lot about modern art, for a start, but more importantly it taught me that enjoying a piece of art is very subjective: and so is loathing one, or having no reaction to it at all.

I mean, either I respond to a piece or I don’t; and if I respond, it may be positive or negative – but in the end, I just feel how I feel. Maybe I can articulate the reasons for my reaction, maybe I can’t, but how I feel is no indicator of whether a piece is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All I can say is how I respond to something, and then try to understand why I respond that way.

Once I let go of any idea of what kind of art I was supposed to think good or bad, I could just get on with either liking it or not as I saw fit.

And apparently, what I see fit to like (or not) in art revolves around humour and an appreciation of layers of meaning.

This appreciation of my own art appreciation came home to me as I visited MONA in Hobart on 21 February.

I first visited MONA in 2011. I love that gallery. I love the way it uses technology to make viewing art easy and more interesting. I love how texts on its O device help to break down those barriers of how art ‘should be’ received and instead opens visitors up the the excellent notion that all responses are valid.

This visit, my layers of appreciation revolved around:

  • thinking about artworks I was seeing for the first time.
  • enjoying rediscovering pieces I’d seen an loved in other exhibitions and didn’t know I’d find, like Zizi the Affectionate Couch and Korean video artist Junebum Park’s 3 Crossing.
  • rediscovering pieces that I enjoyed the first time around at MONA, like the two live goldfish swimming in a deep plate of water around a chopping knife, and the Pulse Room.
  • amusing myself with the way certain pieces and moments made me think of other things in pop culture.

That’s one of the fun things about seeing lots of art as well as seeing lots of pop culture that may mention art. Everything you see accumulates layers of meaning.

One evocative piece had two speakers in a darkened room, each emitting the voice of the artist singing two versions of a folk song.

The song is the story about two sisters in love with the same man. One sister pushes the other into the river so she can have the man to herself. The drowned sister dies, is washed ashore, and her bones and hair are made into a fiddle that will only play a lament.

One speaker is the song of the sister who pushed; the other is the song of the sister who drowned.

It’s a wonderful piece of sound sculpture, with two simple speakers standing in for those tragic sisters. It also is the latest layer in my relationship with that story, which I’ve heard in different folk songs and in different forms. One of my favourite versions is Loreena McKennitt’s The Bonny Swans, which adds another sister and incorporates at least two versions of the story in a single song.

Not all of my pop culture associations were so elegant. At various times I was reminded of Rimmer admiring Legion’s light switch [at 1:50], or John Cleese and Eleanor Bron admiring the TARDIS in Doctor Who’s City of Death, or Ben Miller’s crusty old historian saying ‘It is, of course, absolutely priceless’ just before he manages to destroy whatever fabulous historical artefact he’s looking at in the Miller and Armstrong sketch show.

So it may be that no-one else but Tim knew what I was giggling about at some of those exhibits, but it’s liberating to know that it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thought about either the art or my giggling.

I love the layers of perception I experience, without regard for ‘high’ or ‘low’ art. Art is just art. Creativity is just creativity. And whether I like it and the ways in which I do (or not), matter only to me. It’s enough to have an opportunity to see other people’s imaginations splashed out for the world to see, and to feel however I feel about it, and try to work out why I react the way I do.

That way, I don’t just learn about art. I learn about myself.

Invasion at Warrnambool!

INvasion BorgMuseums and pop culture – especially SFnal pop culture – never used to occupy the same space. They still don’t, on the whole, but in Warrnambool, a country town in western Victoria, that juxtaposition is on offer until 28 January.

The Warrnambool Art Gallery’s Invasion exhibition is housing the touring British exhibition of SF costumes, props, promotional figures and replicas for the duration.It’s an eclectic mix of material from TV shows and films, including Red Dwarf, various Star Trek series, the Alien and Predator films, Dr Who, Metropolis, theDune series, Lost in Space, The Chronicles of Riddick and The Black Hole.

It’s always fascinating to see the make-believe up close, to see what it looks like before celluloid, clever lighting and post-production turn cloth and rubber into facsimiles of a more real-looking world. There’s artistry not only in the original design, then, but in imagining how these things will transform through another medium (film and the screen) to look different again. That’s two layers of creative vision right there.

Museum staff said that some locals found it all a bit odd – what’s a costume from a TV show doing in an art gallery? But staff also said that the exhibition attracted all manner of visitors: not just the expected SF geeks, but people interested in design, fashion, craftwork and models.

Is it because this form of art and design is commercial that it gets so little respect from the average punter? Is it because this form of art and design is used to entertain instead of being ‘serious art’?

Invasion red dwarfTo me, these costumes and models being made for entertainment doesn’t make the skill and imagination behind them less admirable. The gorgeous and enduring art deco design of the robot from Metropolis is an amazing piece of work, no matter its origins. The reflective, padded suit from Red Dwarf’s holoship is both ridiculously shiny and completly evocative of that too-shiny, too-perfect concept of a ship. The Dalek pepperpot is simple and almost mundane but also evocative of fascist uniforms (and uniformity) and has been an enduring symbol of evil for TV viewers since the 60s. That’s not just script – that’s excellent design work.

One particularly cool thing about the Warrnambool exhibition is that visitors can get up close to the displays and see the fine detail on how these things were made: the warp and weft of the material; the paintwork on the models; the shortness of some of the molded outfits that indicate Patrick Stewart and Matt leBlanc are both much more petite than I would have thought!

Invasion Dalek sealWarrnambool has other pleasures on offer, by the way, including a lovely bay beach, an old cinema and some very nice cafes, so if you have some time and an inclination to indulge either your geek interests or passion for craft, art and design, it’s a lovely time of year to visit the coast.

Full disclosure: I travelled to Warrnambool courtesy of V-Line and visited the gallery as a guest of the Warrnambool Art Gallery.