Curtis Levy and Christine Olsen have made a delightful and affectionate documentary called The Queen Goes West about the preparations for last year's royal visit to Longreach, where the Queen opened the Stockman's Hall of Fame. It's a truthful, touching and unmalicious work, although I could have wished for more on the actual opening ceremony and the Hall of Fame itself. But then, that wasn't the point. See it if you can. (Evan Williams, The Weekend Australian, 28-29 January, 1989, weekend 15).
The Queen Goes West is a fine addition to the large number of documentaries made during the Bicentennial year. It records the behind-the-scenes events of a gala occasion without condescension, but with an eye for the humour in the situation that makes it typically Australian. (David Stratton, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1989, page 14).
Dear Prince Charles,
When the Queen said she was coming to Longreach to open the Stockman's Hall of Fame, everybody got really excited and spent months and months getting ready for her - even though she could only come for 80 minutes.
Committees started meeting, the protocol officials from Brisbane flew in to tell everybody how to behave, (imagine telling outback people how to make a cup of tea?)...
... Anyway, this is the film, that we made about the town getting ready for your mum's visit. We hope you like it. (Curtis Levy and Christine Olsen, handbill for The Queen Goes West, January, 1989).
It was to have been the bicentennial film, chosen from over 60 proposals for joint funding by the Australian Bicentennial Authority (ABA) and the Australian Film Commission (AFC). A documentary on Australia's changing relationship with the monarchy, archivally-based. But immediately prior to the commencement of production the Authority's half of the money was withdrawn. Levy and Olsen dropped the idea for a while, and then sought a less comprehensive, totalised approach to the topic; they looked to see where the Queen would actually be in Australia during 1988. In short, economic strictures encouraged a turning away from the global towards the local, and not merely at the level of the geographical site. Although the AFC increased its assistance, the funds were simply not there to hire a full crew. So the site of production itself became localised, with Levy's move from writing/research/direction to camera operator. ('I made all the mistakes I had told other people not to make'.)
An overtly republican politics may have prompted the withdrawal of the ABA support. An organisation dogged by internal controversy as well as far-reaching critiques of its raison d'tre, the Authority's volte-face is hardly surprising. What fascinates is the way that this produced a more specific politics on the part of the film-makers, a politics organised within a small space to canvass large issues. Ironically, by focussing on the townspeople and others involved in the organisation of the event as an event, Levy and Olsen have problematised the need for a monarch, the need for a Hall of Fame, the need for master symbols of community. Forced onto their own resources, they lost their own dependency on Queen as icon. The absence from the film of an overt republican message could even draw a left critique. For whilst The Queen Goes West is sequenced around Elizabeth's touring rhythms, it is in fact more a record of local folk going about their leisure time as they have always done: members of the brass band practising out back of the butcher, with cleaver and beast alongside trombone; masons lined up in an orderly fashion around the walls of their lodge, ready to try out a secret signal (something in the handshake?) should Prince Phillip have a spare intimate moment; sun-frocked ladies taking the shade to discuss the Queen, the weather and 1970 (the date of her previous visit); the stockman who thought that Boy George was the queen invited to appear; an Aboriginal shearer looking up from his work and then his meal; pre-teens practising the dance amongst the concrete; and the local knight and lady with framed portraits of other royal tourists. All this is managed via a miasmic, disparate editing style that is ironic but never demeaning or superior.
Yet this is also a film about what happens when local orderings are overdetermined, when layer upon layer of bureaucracy appears to regulate and discipline. It tells of a time when Federal, State and Queenly guardians of protocol carve out a new grain of conduct for traditionally well-behaved residents of Longreach; when the army appears in order to ... find something to occupy its time (?); when a brass band is flown in to play anthems (unlike in 1970, the locals are only permitted to play until the royal party is in earshot); and a small girl is read a newspaper item by a protocol officer which is all about how she is being trained by the protocol officer to curtsey adequately - he uses this as a training device.
And indeed at this level, the text is perhaps best read as a public service training document. This is in many ways an exemplar of how to go about not commodifying an event, but bureaucratising it, bringing it within a set of anal norms, of obsessive ordering along centralised determinations. This reaches its micro-political apotheosis in the anxiety engendered amongst a bevy of middle-aged professional men over the morphology, mobility and meaning of Elizabeth's potential cup of tea, an anxiety which addresses her practice of only drinking water brought from Buckingham Palace and extends to concerns about hierarchy, the public and politeness. It is a professionalisation and specialisation in the field of managing events, its subject matter the protection of the visitor from dissonance, be it musical, liquid or 4-legged (there is much to say on the seating). This allows a merchant bank language to appear in the town ('can we get firm on this?').
The sense of a documentary 'out of our control' is produced not only by some cinŽma vŽritŽ mobile camera, asynchronous sound-image track relations and a series of disembodied yet actant-like narrators, but also by the sense of actually being in an institution. The effect is not unlike watching Frederick Wiseman's investigations of the hospital and the school. An ethnography of officials is achieved in the same way that the various other particular worlds are represented: via a subordination of subject-matter (the monarchy) to performance (the people of the town/the people of protocol). For the officials themselves appear utterly unconscious of the camera, able to debate cups of tea and 'get firm' on things without any shame, certain in the knowledge that the film cannot be as 'important' as the visit.
The opening itself is allowed only one segment, via film of television news videotape. This brings home some of the rites of protection/seduction which go with the monarchy and the media. For news gatherers and queens share a sense of privilege, an access to places where others may not tread. Both have a license to produce events simply by their presence. But being permitted to be close to/constitutive of the event is to miss the meanings being born and buried all around, in part - but only in part - as a consequence. It is those meanings of place that The Queen Goes West seeks to privilege.
Let us note that the 'Roxy Longreach' had been forced to close down until the miracle known as A Fish Called Wanda; perhaps the local theatre will have screened a local film by the time this is read.
Thanks to Curtis Levy and Christine Olsen for their assistance.
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