Timed to coincide with the start of the Royal Academy’s major exhibition Australia (21 September – 8 December), the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank is staging Australia: Shifting Sands, a film season exploring ‘the most significant shift in Australian cinema in the last two decades: the emergence of Indigenous filmmaking’.
Over the last few years, it has been possible to detect a marginal yet significant shift in the Australian media’s attitude towards homegrown cinema. Every now and again, though, comes a piece (or a writer) that seemingly cannot help but revert to the tired old clichés about the industrial prospects of Australian cinema and its relationship with local audiences.
This past weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled ‘Beyond The Same Old Stories‘ in which David Dale traces the cinemagoing habits of Australians over the past year. An author, journalist and lecturer in communications at UTS, Dale has predominantly written about food and travel, although an official biography describes him as ‘Australia’s most respected and most entertaining commentator on popular culture’. Whilst I couldn’t vouch for the veracity of either claim, he has written about Australian popular culture for a variety of Fairfax outlets, with most pieces also appearing on his blog The Tribal Mind, where he comments on the wide spectrum of Australian society and culture.
For ‘Beyond the Same Old Stories’ – a pre-subbed version of which had been published a day earlier on The Tribal Mind as ‘How Australia Went to the Movies in 2011‘ – Dale analyses the relative fortunes of Australia’s cinema exhibition market over the last twelve months. As well as bemoaning the usual Hollywood repetition, he praises what he considers to be the most original ideas to have emanated from the world of cinema over that period, singling out Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids and The Guard, amongst others.
But Dale also makes an assertion that, despite the expectation of another year-on-year increase in revenue collected from the Australian box office, Australian audiences have ‘lost interest in our own creations’. Trotting out the statistics to back up his argument, Dale shows that 2010 saw five Australian features grossing over $4m locally (the greatest number of any year since the turn of the millennium), whereas this year has seen only Red Dog achieving that feat, sitting solitary atop a table of supposed failures and near misses like a Kelpie in the outback. Red Dog may well be the ‘Crocodile Dundee of the 21st century, reaching deep into the collective unconscious’, but according to Dale, ‘this year, the cultural cringe was back’.
Amongst the ‘near misses’ in 2011 was Sanctum, which returned over 10% of its budget at the domestic box office with a robust $3.8m, falling just below that magical $4m mark. Meanwhile, another film that fell just short of reaching $4m at the Australian box office is curiously absent from Dale’s snidely titled list of ‘The Best Australia Could Do’. Despite earlier being singled it for its originality and included on a list of ‘The Surprise Successes’, Oranges and Sunshine makes no appearance on Dale’s local production list; a strange omission at best. An official Australia-UK co-production, it tells a uniquely Australian story (albeit whilst also being a uniquely British story) and is largely set down under, which surely is enough to qualify it as ‘Australian’? And even if the omission is a question of financial provenance, it should be noted that one of the five $4m-plus titles of 2010 is the Warner Bros. backed Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which IMDB.com lists as being both a US and Australian production. Quibbles aside, the comparison of year-on-year box office takings for an entire nation is one thing, but making the same like-for-like comparisons for one nation’s small to medium-sized production industry is another thing entirely.
Dale’s attempts at insightful criticism don’t stop on Australian shores, however, with his suggestion that ‘there was one more bright spot in 2011 for which Australia can claim credit – the quirkiness of The Guard‘. Dale repeats writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s assertion that the bitter experience of bringing his his script for Ned Kelly to the screen (with director Gregor Jordan at the helm), led to a vow that he would, in future, direct all his own scripts. Needless to say, the notion that Australia might somehow ‘claim credit’ for The Guard is as preposterous as it is misguided.
Of course, this tendency towards hyperbole is not necessarily new to Dale, who earlier this year managed to spin the box office success of Red Dog into a trite piece underpinned by a vague rhetoric that ‘Australians are notorious for hating their own movies but loving their own actors.’ In fact, sweeping generalisations and cliché seem to be the name of the game, with Dale using the same article to suggest that the fifteen all-time highest grossing Australian films at the local box office – along with the ten highest grossers of the last ten years – indicate that:
Australians love locally-made flicks at two extremes of a spectrum:
1 The film should look as if it comes from anywhere else but here – what George Miller calls “an international movie” such as Happy Feet, Babe, Moulin Rouge, and Mao’s Last Dancer.
2 It should look as mythically ocker as Kevin Rudd would like to be, depicting bush battlers and brave women coated in red dust, plus noble Aborigines and funny-talking immigrants – a fantasyland for the most suburbanised nation on earth.
Of course, such ludicrously broad statements are only possible when you move into the realm of gross generalisation and remove any sense of context or shade. Amongst the titles on Dale’s all-time Top 15 list, neither Strictly Ballroom or Picnic at Hanging Rock fit comfortably into these two categories, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would consider The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Young Einstein to be ‘mythically ocker’ or ‘looking as if it comes from anywhere else but here’. As for the Top 10 from the last ten years, Tomorrow When the War Began, Bran Nue Dae and Rabbit Proof Fence are rooted in their Australianess but totally removed from Dale’s ‘mythically ocker’ category (despite this category’s curious caveat for ‘noble Aborigines and funny talking immigrants’).
It seems that David Dale is content to resort to a raft of lazy clichés traditionally so typical of the mass media response to the shifting fortunes of Australian film. And yet the crucial fault with his overall take on local cinema is not this reliance on blithe cliché and the tendency to over-simplify matters, but the fact that he does so whilst criticising Australian popular cinema (and by extension, Australian audiences) for doing precisely the same thing. Thus, whilst some sections of the Australian media have come a long way in their more balanced appreciation of every facet of Australia’s cinematic landscape, perhaps we are still some way off taking a more nuanced approach to how we consume, think about and discuss Australian cinema. Then again, perhaps nuance simply isn’t something that sells newspapers. Or movies, come to think of it.