First appeared in Australian Screen (with Albert Moran), Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1989. pp.118-145.
It would be difficult to find a more interesting period in Australian film history than the 1980s. There was the experiment of a government inspired tax shelter: the so-called tax incentives which provided levels of production funding and activity that had been hitherto unheard of in Australian film production. The average number of feature films made per year doubled from 15 in the 1970s to 27 in the 1980s when some 65 mini-series were also made. Additionally the budgets for all these rose sharply. The incentives exempted film production from the full pressures of the market. They permitted the industry to withstand the pressures for internationalisation by providing cheap finance and insisting on Australian creative control to secure the tax benefits.
The incentives also led to the virtual privatising of the industry as private enterprise replaced state authorities as the principle source of funds. Direct government involvement diminished from some 50% of the production budget before the incentives were introduced to some 10-15% by the end of 1982. Government corporations had once set the production agenda through their selection of what to invest in such that private enterprise involvement was contingent upon State involvement. Under the new conditions private enterprise set the agenda. This ensured that the logic of the film market place would encourage commercially oriented investment.
During the course of the 1980s features films, mini-series and documentaries came in, and went out, of investor favour as investors sought to minimise their risks. Thus we find a boom in mini-series production in the 1984/5 financial year when some 24 mini-series were made ($84.4 million for mini-series as opposed to $67.4 million for features); something of a boom in feature production the following year when some $105.6 million was spent on features as opposed to the $19.5 million on mini-series; and a boom in documentary production in 1986/7 with some 110 projects made ($37.9 million for documentaries doubling yearly outlays and representing nearly two thirds of what was spent on mini-series and a half of what was spent on features in that year). This fluctuating investment profile was related to both reductions in the value of the tax concessions (which went from 150% to 133% (1983) to 120% (1985)) and in 1987 to the lowering of the top personal income tax rate (1987) from 60 to 49 cents in the dollar.
There was a dramatic shift within the norms of Australian film production. In the 1970s two types of filmmaking had structured the experience of and debate about the cinema. Firstly there was the "quality" film (My Brilliant Career (1979, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) positioned between art-cinema protocols and classic Hollywood. It was destined for Australian general release and limited Art cinema/cultural TV release overseas. Secondly there was the "ocker" film (Don's Party1976, Adventures of Barrie McKenzie (1972) with their focus on the residual Australian. It was destined for local general release. In the 1980s these were displaced from their centrality to industry definition. Although their production did continue the tax concessions encouraged instead blockbusters, genre films, mini-series and documentaries. With this shift came a change in mindset on the part of producers towards meeting rather than inventing the audience. In the process the cinema going public became perceived as a differentiated cinema audience and rather less than as an Australian public yet to be moulded.
The result was paradoxical. At one level the concessions underwrote an exceptional range and diversity of film output. This encouraged a sense of there being Australian filmmaking projects rather than a (preferred) filmmaking project. But this sense of diversity was underwritten by a rhetorical shift from discussions in terms of "types of film" to discussions in terms of an industry. With "industry" holding sway there was intense pressure to privilege commercial arenas of filmmaking and so conform to conservative norms of the cinema, and to have Australian cinema increasingly defined that way.
It would be convenient but inaccurate to see the concessions as the sole cause of these changes to Australian film production, and consumption and the public agenda in the 1980s. As early as 1978 changes in local and international cinema markets were causing some industry rethinking of the "quality" and "ocker" films.
In the 1970s and 1980s the cinema trade was increasingly susceptible to a handful of films, with large advertising budgets, released simultaneously across a single market making larger and larger amounts of the overall box office. With these blockbuster films making up large proportions of revenues, Australian producers looked to produce them. 1980s films like The Man from Snowy River, Mad Max 2 (1982), Gallipoli (1981) and Crocodile Dundee (1986) were geared to gaining the maximum possible audience.
The prevalence of blockbusters, however, meant there was not the same demand for product that there had been. In the process the ground was progressively eroded from under the feet of the middle budgeted "quality" Australian film with a modest promotional budget. Thus viability was increasingly found in either the higher budgeted, extensively promoted, more internationally oriented "kidult" ends of production - like The Man from Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee, or in the lower budgeted, modestly promoted, Australian and international art-house film - like Paul Cox's Man of Flowers (1983) and My First Wife (1984). Given these circumstances it's not surprising that filmmakers looked to TV - particularly the mini-series - as a means of maintaining the 1970s industry norm of the "quality" Australian film.
Driving these changes in cinema was the advent of a rival entertainment institution - video. Both the video library and after 1985 direct sales to the public became serious competitors to cinema. Video's presence affected cinema exhibition and distribution practices. In the first half of the 1980s it led to sharp declines in cinema attendance as video ownership climbed to 50% of households by the end of 1985. In the process video virtually eliminated residual, theatrical release outside first release (often inner city) theatres thus killing off the drive-in. It also problematised the future of lower budget general release as opposed to blockbuster and specialist release features on theatrical schedules. If video lending libraries represented one threat, the 1985 development of "sell through" - the selling of videos direct to the consumer in large stores represented an escalation of the threat. Ironically in the latter half of the 1980s video was responsible for bringing people back to the cinema having habituated them to feature length movies. But they came back to a different cinema - one in which cinema screens were first release screens (increasingly constructed in shopping towns and malls) with video taking the place of the old second release markets.
The 1980s also saw the convergence of the film and TV production industries. This was encouraged by the concessions and consolidated by changes in cinema and TV. The concessions did not only make the mini-series and documentaries attractive investment propositions because of their pre-sale opportunities. They also made it possible for feature directors such as Phil Noyce (best known for the landmark revival film Newsfront, 1978) to work on TV mini-series; and for TV directors like George Miller and Peter Faiman to make feature films (The Man from Snowy River 1982 and Crocodile Dundee 1986 respectively).
This integration of the film and TV industries was further underwritten by changes in the Australian TV market which eventuated in commercial networks being open to screening and underwriting limited episode serials and one off product for national distribution. The late 1970s and 1980s saw the slow but inexorable move towards (higher-budgeted) national programming and away from (lower-budgeted) local programming in all but news and current affairs. Scheduling became more fragmented as stations sought to get the edge over their commercial rivals in ratings periods. This opened the way for "event programming" such as the mini-series and Packer cricket. Also the networks were now functioning as semi-autonomous bodies rather than groupings of stations - and as such were commanding both more money and more centralised decision making power. This was occurring in a context in which the mini-series had made its successful appearance with Roots (USA, 1977) and Against the Wind (Australian, 1978). As a consequence the networks were not only prepared to underwrite mini-series projects but, given their high production cost, were also looking for partners to share those costs with.
If the mini-series is related to the fragmentation of the TV schedule and rating sweeps it is also related to the rapid rise in the standard of TV presentation expected by viewers and supplied by stations during the 1980s. These standards, and their concomitant cost to the stations, can be measured not only by the size of mini-series' budgets but also the high production values sought in other areas. For example, sports coverage by the early 1980s required multi-camera set-ups, action replays and special effects to be credible.
Of course the commercial networks would not have been prepared to open their schedules in this way if national and multi-national advertisers had not been prepared to pay a premium price to associate themselves with this "event" programming. The logic of this "out of the ordinary" TV - both in terms of its high cost and its scheduling (typically screened across a single week) - was that it would bring to the TV station screening it an intensity of viewing and bigger, "quality" audiences - made up of occasional viewers, ABC and SBS viewers, and rival networks' viewers. The mini-series fulfilled these expectations: MacNair Anderson reckoned that Australian mini-series rated 10 points higher than imported series with an average capital city rating of 31 points - some 8 points above the average. Indeed in Melbourne both All the Rivers Run (1983) and Bodyline (1984) rated 50 when screened.
An important change within TV in the 1980s which loosened up what was possible within it was the addition of a second non-commercial TV network in late 1980. Multicultural TV - SBS - was first introduced in Sydney and Melbourne and was gradually introduced to Canberra and the other major capital cities over the next 5 years. Although never attracting significant ratings it helped expand the definitions of TV. It not only screened foreign language film and TV series, covered minority sports and expanded the definition of the newsworthy, but it also screened independent (supposedly "non-commercial") Australian features and documentaries. These "non-commercial" films had had only marginal theatrical and non-theatrical release before SBS. Unlike the ABC (which had its own production house), SBS was open to purchasing new programs from independent producers. Thus we find SBS supporting the important mini-series on Aboriginal Australia Women of the Sun (1982) and Barron Films' Tudawali (1988). In the process SBS permitted broadcast TV to appear in the forefront of social, cultural and aesthetic transformations. One measure of this impact is that nearly half of the screen time of Cowra Breakout (1985) was in Japanese with English sub-titles. Yet the mini-series still managed to retain its commercial TV audience. Without SBS in place such a program would have been impossible to attempt. SBS thus provided film production models other than the prevailing American, British and Australian ones to filmmakers and TV producers alike.
Just as the cinema was affected by video so too was TV. By directly competing for the use of the domestic TV screen video undermined TV's advertising base. By principally marketing movies it threatened for the first time since TVs inception in the 1950s the important place of the `movie' on TV schedules. Most importantly for the film industry TV looked to drama made especially for TV - the mini-series and series (both unsuitable for video release because of length), to a lesser extent tele-movies, and to the related field of the documentary which had not been developed extensively within video library structures.
These transformations within the film industry dislocated the close relationship that had hitherto existed between on the one hand film critics and intellectuals and on the other hand the Australian film industry. With this came a sundering of the close connection between Australian film and its bourgeois audiences. The move, directly encouraged by the incentives, but given the seal of approval earlier by government policy, to secure filmmaking as a film industry led to a disenfranchisement of the critic/bourgeois intellectual. Previously critics had been a crucial component of Australian cinema inasmuch as they transmitted the cultural values and aesthetic judgements upon which a directly government funded film production sector was reliant. With the change of orientation away from film as cultural policy towards film as commercial industry the critic/ bourgeois intellectual was no longer necessary to industry survival. Industry privatisation and the accompanying moves in production transformed the critic/ bourgeois intellectual's role into one of simply being there. Popularity and success - on whatever terms were now more important components for a film industry.
If the task of Australian cinema in the 1970s had been to bind its bourgeois audience within Australian produced culture and cultural production, the task of that cinema in the 1980s was to rediscover popular and specialist audiences. These changes led to something of a crisis in, and a transformation to, the critical agenda applied to Australian film. Some of the assurity and taken for granted norms of the past were superceded as Australian blockbusters, for example, neither attracted nor were as amenable to the enthusiastic, culturalist readings and aesthetic claims as the quality film had been. As a consequence some of the importance of the general feature film to cultural definitions lapsed with arenas such as the mini-series and an explicitly conceived art-cinema taking up the slack. Taken together these new conditions help explain the profound sense of disenchantment at a time of such abundance.
It is against this industrial and critical backdrop that I now want to explore particular filmmaking projects. I will do this by singling out a handful of films and mini-series - Mad Max, My First Wife, Crocodile Dundee, and Vietnam (1987). These projects exemplify in one way or another important tendencies in Australian cinema in the 1980s. They are also untypical in that they are, in one way or another, exceptional.
Curiously, the Australian film which more than any other marked the beginning of the new tendency in 1980s cinema was the first Mad Max (1979). It was produced before the tax incentives, before talk of film as "industry", before meeting the audience, before working within Hollywood and international norms of what constituted cinema had come in. When Mad Max was produced the industry was caught in the straight jacket of two models of filmmaking which both seemed to be having trouble at the box office: that of the disreputable ocker film and the quality film. Other kinds of films were made in the 1970s, but somehow the critical agenda held those two in place.
Mad Max rudely shook up these priorities. To these two it added a third: the exploitation genre film. Mad Max was at odds with these prevailing industry norms at a number of levels. Firstly it was a generically based film. Secondly it was made entirely out of private funds in a context where the industry norm was up to 50% government involvement. Thirdly it achieved phenomenal international success in key film markets and it did so without the Cannes seal of approval. Quickly the film achieved cult status giving it a disreputable popularity. Fourthly it proposed a different route for Australianness to take. Australianness could be found - if at all - not so much on the literal but on the symbolic register. This was not a realism of a quotidian Australian but a hyperrealised Australia: a cinematised Australia.
In the context of a healthy film production milieu the film might not have attracted so much notice. But in the context of dwindling production, poor box office returns, and dissent over the direction film policy should take in the late 1970s it had to matter. The fact that it was made without government funding, that it worked within a genre of filmmaking which had been explicitly marked off as a no go area, and was so successful all seemed too significant for industry lobbyists and policy makers to ignore. Consequently it provided an important reference point for the major revision of government film policy (the Peat Marwick & Mitchell Report) which provided the industry blueprint for the 1980s. This report argued for film industry values. It urged an export orientation which it thought would see Australian film producers as major suppliers in "global software" markets. Using Mad Max as a guide the report saw unlimited potential if the industry and its films were geared internationally and firmly endorsed entertainment rather than cultural values. In this way the film became an emblem of the disturbance of priorites, taken for granted norms that were a feature of the 1980s.
But Mad Max did not wholly support this "industry" argument as it was made on such a meagre budget ($380,000). In this it could be, and was, cited to support arguments for a "poor" cinema capable of making its money back on the local market; a cinema whose integrity would be protected by it not having to be sold, in pre-production, overseas to make a profit.
Mad Max left an indelible impression. When I first saw it I remember saying aloud to noone in particular in the theatre "this film is evil". Philip Adams agreed and called for its banning.(1) What I had seen was pure cinema in the sense of significant images that lingered well beyond the time and place of their screening. These seemed to me to be images that were - despite (or perhaps because of) the film's generic origins - capable of articulating collective neuroses and fears. The film's violence was implied rather than on-screen. A measure of its cinematic achievement was that audiences remember a violence in excess of what was literally there. From its opening: the parallel cutting between the mayhem of the chase and Max's excessively slow getting ready to drive (which recalls moments of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West 1968); the film announced itself as display, as having a relation to the cinema generally. This relationship was enhanced by its singular feel for mise-en-scene, and its delight in traversing the surfaces of space, bodies and equipment.
Mad Max was one of those films which, despite the fact that in terms of their story line they narratively resolve themselves, still invited their audience to keep returning and adding to it. From the beginning it was a film which could carry a sequel. Hence the pleasurable surprise and palpable disappointment of audiences for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). What was on screen was not how they had projected the story forward nor could anything on the screen succeed in closing the story off. The cycle's quality of excess made it capable of being considered both as an international film par excellence and as a reworking of Australian historiographical understandings.(2)
In Mad Max George Miller and Byron Kennedy created the single most powerful male lead in Australian cinema since Chips Rafferty - Mel Gibson. From the first time we see him - a fragment of his body - the film insists as only Charles Chauvel before him had with Robert Tudawali as Marbuk in ~Jedda (1955) that here was a screen presence that could stop a story. Max once he has duly buttoned up, put on his sun glasses and turned the ignition does indeed stop the chase, stop that part of the story. But the film had predicted this through its cross cutting and the deliberately different and slow responses of Max. The film had, by marking the absence of action on Max's part, created Max as a figure of powerful action.
If Mad Max conjured up an everyday murderousness this was probably due to its carnival of flesh and body. At its heart Mad Max was a story of mutilation, disempowerment and reempowerment. Its maiming was carefully choreographed: a hand missing here, a limp there, a leg in plaster, a body beneath a tent in too appalling a shape to be seen. Thus the film inscribed upon the male bodies on screen an almost hysterical anxiety - a fear of literal and symbolic carstration. Max's body bears the marks of his journey. But unlike Charlton Heston in Mann's El Cid (1961) there is, at the end, no woman to deny in favour of the greater good. This is because the death of Max's wife and child has made Max. Their death was what convinced him to take on the role of avenger and not the earlier "vegetable" fate of his mate.
Mad Max invites collusion, not distance from its audience. In this he is unlike a Bond or a Rambo. Max is vulnerable emotionally and physically. The social power of the film lies in this engendering of a sense of collusion. Its vehicular violence makes sense in relation to the testing of masculinity at traffic lights or on a country road. The sorts of scenes played out in Mad Max are the kind of waking nightmare that makes karate schools popular.
The staging of Mad Max's striking, disturbing, and surreal images are country roads. At a financial level this makes good sense as country roads are cheaper to stage action in. You don't have to control it as much and there's less mess to clean up. But it does not end there. Mad Max is Australian gothic. Its country road location can be understood in relation to everyday talk of roads and horror stretches. Thus economic necessity meshes with a social landscape in which its quite logical to depict the spectacular murderousness of the high speed head on collision on country roads outside capital city perimeters rather than the more routine violence of the city traffic accident. To put the contrast crudely Americans dream of freeway pile-ups and their exploitation films have "crazies" driving spectacularly through crowded city streets pursued by slightly crazy policemen, Australians dream of cars coming over hills in the middle or the wrong side of the road.
Mad Max's director, Dr George Miller, when asked by an interviewer whether his reworking of a quintessentially American genre was "Australian" or not replied that he thought it was. He based his reply not just on the fact that American films were the ones that he grew up with and knew best, but firstly because in Australia road accidents were "a socially acceptable form of violence" with Australia having the "highest incidence of road trauma in the world", and secondly because Australia has a "car" rather than an American style "gun" culture.(3) This view received some official endorsement. Barry Jones then a backbencher but later a Federal Science Minister said in parliament soon after the film's 1979 release that it had the characteristics of his Lalor electorate.
Without wishing to go that far, it could be said that the generically motivated Australian films of the revival might have rather more to say than they are generally credited with. Certainly Mad Max's climax is worthy of comment. Here Max kills the leader of the motorcycle gang who has been responsible for the death of his wife, child and friends. He does so not by his own hands, gun or car. Instead he forces him into a head on collision with a truck. The film goes from a giant close-up of the bikie's eyes to a long shot (subsequently shown to be Max's perspective) of a semi-trailer (prime mover) gradually and inexorably grinding the bikie and his bike into the bitumen. The truck appears out of nowhere. There is hardly a truck in the rest of the film. Further the generic convention leads us to infer that Max will extract ultimate retribution by his own hands. Is it too outlandish to suggest that this disruption of the film's carefully contrived diegetic world works for its Australian audiences because it captures all too well the motorists' routine nightmare of their own death? A death which comes from not paying enough attention to the road and is delivered by that most impersonal of agencies a semi-trailer.
Retrospectively Mad Max can be seen as the inaugurator of a tendency within Australian cinema to engage with genre. Something of the stakes involved and the appropriateness of this turn to genre can be seen in the arguments and filmmaking practice of director Richard Franklin, one of the most underrated of revival directors. He argued in 1980 that Australia was close to America culturally and that our 1970s films failed to acknowledge this. Instead they had focussed on the differences between the two countries rather than the similarities. But for Australian audiences their relation to the cinema was defined through Hollywood and its genres and that "next to the pub there is a Colonel Sanders". Consequently it was "downright culturally inaccurate" to just focus on the residual Australian and to speak of there being a filmmaking that was specifically Australian. In this sense a horror film like Halloween (1978) was potentially more "Australian" culturally than Don's Party. Franklin implied that if one was to make cinema in Australia, to make a cinema that engaged its audience emotionally and psychically, then it was only through Hollywood genres that this could be accomplished.(4)
For Franklin recognising this entailed a strategy of internationalisation. In his Roadgames (1980) he had Stacey Keech and Jamie Lee Curtis on the Nullabor as an American truck driver and hitch-hiker respectively. This left the bit parts to Australians - an odd assortment of freak motorists and a psychopathic killer. For Franklin there was no particular importance to be attached to "remaining Australian". His prognosis for the industry - genre and industry internationalisation was only partly fulfilled in the 1980s. That "internationalism" was only partially attained owed itself to a combination of union pressure (principally through Actors Equity) and federal government unwillingness to compromise on an "Australian look". The tax incentives' Australianist provisions (to attract the concesssions - a film had to be certified as Australian) forstalled this from happening in the rest of the 1980s. What we had was genre without, to a large extent, the internationalisation. In this Australian cinema in the 1980s was an odd laboratory indeed.(5)
In the filmmaking strategy that evolved a different audience was constituted. It was more a cinema audience than an Australian one. Filmmaking sought its relation, its publicity profile, in relation to contemporary cycles of cinema. In so doing it defined itself rather less than its quality and ocker predecessors had in terms of the public discourses, the marks of Australianness, the registers of discussion of society and its shape. In the process a different kind of intertextuality was posed. Not one in a privileged relation to the discourses on Australians and Australian society; but one in relation to conformity and difference within genre cinema.
But the problem with this fully intertextual approach is that films are not just read in relation to other films, audiences draw films into and relate them to their experiences. Films exist in relation to public discourse, events, and social place. Thus films have social and not just film world intertexts. If anything, the Australian embracing of genre has often led away from any explicit recognition of this. In the process it has partially removed the social text in a way that Hollywood's output does not.
At its best, in the Mad Max cycle, the musical Starstruck (1982), Weir's thriller The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), the art cinema of Bliss (1985) the turn to genre produced fine re-workings of different genres. At its worst it implied an unwillingess to extend or even to experiment with the norms. Most importantly for my purposes is the impetus the turn to genre gave to the production of blockbusters (perhaps the most interesting if not the "best" output of 1980s Australian cinema) and to the reworking of art-cinema protocols.
If Mad Max represented the best of the turn to Classic Hollywood film made in Australia, then Cox's films represented the most complete of the Australian art-cinema turn. Paul Cox is an odd figure in Australian filmmaking. His films are avowedly European. His cinematography encapsulates this: his Australian urban locations look European. There is little sunlight here - cloudy days and nights seem the norm. If many of the famous 1970s revival films - like Breaker Morant (1980) - contrasted a British gentility and stuffiness with an Australian vulgarity and bon homie, Paul Cox's My First Wife contrasts the sensitive European immigrant with a philistine contemporary Australia.
In a sense multiculturalist understandings render this standpoint both explicable and acceptable giving the film a contemporary relevance that would have been unthinkable earlier. Here the emotional and psychic depth is all one way - towards the European. This is accomplished through a schematic opposition between the John Hargreaves character - European, cultured, faithful and the Wendy Hughes character Australian, unfaithful, shallow and hedonistic. Mirroring this main opposition is another between the respective parents. Whilst his parents are depicted as having a depth to their relationship her parents are a parody of incapacity; they are derided for their small mindedness amidst opulence.
Throughout the film, the unfaithful wife, played by Wendy Hughes is the resistant obstacle to the hero's attempts at reconciliation. She becomes responsible for his literal descent into hell: in despair he is driven to drink in a public bar. The pub, cavernous and semi-lit (a reddish tinge hovers over it), is an outpost of the residual Australian. Drunks who have given up the ghost talk to themselves and pop music is played loudly ("coarse" stuff given his and the film's committment to classical music). Our character is not only out of place but will only find antagonism rather than solace here. The "ocker" barmaid serving him is initially sympathetic but when he makes disparaging remarks about the music and orders her to turn it down her mood changes. It's clear that this society cannot succour him; he is too alien and it too hard. In this scene two separate cultures a middle class European and working class Australian co-existing uneasily are schematically described. Cox uses their collision to turn the existence of one into the measure of the other's desperation.
The principle interest in the film centres on the woman as enigma and her role as obstacle / helper to the journey of the man. My First Wife's chief interest is in the break up of a relationship seen from his perspective. The viewer is invited continually to identify with his sense of grief, remorse, betrayal. In consequence she remains both a cipher and an enigma for him and for us as viewers.
To realise this narrative structure My First Wife entails the strategies (the feelings, intensities, excesses, and neuroses) of art-cinema. There is a trading in of narrative development for a vivid tableaux. It relies on an interiorisation of conflict, upon states of mind, feelings, sentiments which find their expression in repeated scenes. One such scene is the flashback to the wedding scene which is the narrative image of the film. The image here is of Wendy Hughes, the first wife, in her wedding dress (it's also the image used on the video dustjacket). It promises literally what is not in the present time of the film. The image of the wife at her wedding is recalled as his memory. It is insistently returned to: a counterpoint to the present of a conjugal relationship in crisis.
My First Wife invites interpretation. It is, as Bill Routt and Rick Thompson would put it a text which despite its attractive surface, is not "for everyone" as it contains, and has wrapped itself around enigmas and secrets.(6) The enigma to be explored by viewer and filmmaker alike in My First Wife is the meaning for John Hargreaves (and we viewers) of his previously unquestioned relationship with his wife. This enigma distilled in the narrative image of the film - Wendy Hughes at her wedding happy in love with the John Hargreaves character - is the pretext and subtext of the film. It functions as its purpose and shaper, final and formal cause. The viewer, even after the film has finished, seems to be compelled to return to the film's significant images. Our pleasure in the film relates to our seeking the meaning of this enigma.
The film is built around what Horst Ruthrof calls a "boundary situation". That is a situation in which "a presented persona, a narrator, or the implied reader in a flash of insight becomes aware of meaningful as against meaningless existence."(7) David Bordwell sees this situation as a defining characteristic of much art-cinema.(8) Certainly My First Wife's impetus wholly derives from the main character's recognition that he faces a crisis of existential significance. More than any other revival filmmaking project Cox's fits in with European art-cinema protocols. Perhaps this is why his films easily fit within local and international art-film circuits. Unlike most revival films (which also share an episodic structure), Cox's films insist upon a degree of psychologising. My First Wife visualises the protagonist's state of mind. This messes up the dividing line between reality and fantasy, past and present, suggesting an uneasiness with the literal present. In this Cox bears comparison to some of Peter Weir's films - The Last Wave (1977) particularly - where states of mind are externalised into a heightening of reality, into a literal present gone awry.
In nearly all of Cox's films there are clear moments of excess which suggest the relation of the filmmaker to the apparatus. In My First Wife there are the sequences which are distorted, which refuse to show clearly, which de-representat~ionalise, and thus diminish the scope for us to see anything clearly. Because they go on just a shade too long, they carry more than the existential weight of the husband's state of mind. They draw attention to themselves as play with film stock, with the form of film. These points in the film are virtuoso display of a pleasure in the play with film materials. As such they work against their easy incorporation back into the diegesis of the film; posing another disrupting enigma - that of film play, film apparatus obsession. In this way the viewer is encouraged to read different meanings into the film - not only in the end there is only the family, but also in the end there is only film and its experience, its movement.
With its invitations to psychological depth, its dislocations, its willingness to fragment, its use of the "boundary situation" - Paul Cox's cinema is one of the few for whom readings of personal vision are appropriate, fit easily and are encouraged by the films themselves. The figure of John Hargreaves in My First Wife is irresistibly a stand in for the author. If like so many 1980s films the central journey is "His" journey, it's a journey which we are advised to speak of in personal terms. The film is not the riot of surface effects of a Bliss but a controlled surface through which we are invited to speculate about the persona of the filmmaker.
But it's not only the kernal of interpretation at the heart of his films that is refracted in their critical circulation. There is also the drive to make cinema meaningful, to reinvent it, to - much in the manner of Dr Faustus - to place oneself, one's whole being at its service. This is unfamiliar risk taking in Australian cinema. If it involves the cinematising of the personal it also carries the megolomaniac's dream of total control and total risk. In this Cox inevitably, foregrounds his work as that of an artist requiring notice and interpretation. This licences his films to come stuffed with chaotic excess, prejudices, intellectual and physical obsessions, unreasonableness - thereby encouraging the reader in his/her turn to engage with them. Cox's films are talked of in terms of their their obsessions, their compulsiveness - which can be depending on ones perspective on what constitutes good cinema be tasteless or tasteful. Despite auteurism being so important to the promotional discourse on Australian film - it has tended to lack importance in the critical consumption of Australian cinema as there are few directors in Australian cinema which so insistently invite the labor of the auteurist as Paul Cox.
The blockbuster is another filmmaking strategy that came to prominence in the 1980s as a direct outcome of the tax incentives. Before the incentives blockbuster production was severely handicapped by lack of funds and publicity infrastructure. Several general points about the blockbuster film as a filmmaking strategy are worth making to begin with. The blockbuster was a product of the tendency for box office revenues to concentrate in a handful of films in any one year. This Godfather (1974) and Star Wars (1977) type phenomenon led producers and distributors to try to create such film "events" and to manage them appropriately. This was done in a number of ways.
The managing of the blockbuster involved particular kinds of publicity and release. It entailed large publicity budgets - often approximating the film's cost; in the larger USA market, blockbuster publicity often exceeds production costs as it did with Crocodile Dundee. And it involved simultaneously releasing the film across the country and in many venues in each metropolitan market. Both the publicity and the release patterns worked to create the film as an event, as a phenomenon. Talk on the film is managed to such an extent that it became not just something to talk about but also a reference point for public discussion for a time. This was achieved through a multi-levelled and simultaneous campaign across the media (TV, magazine, radio, newspapers, and advertising) involving appearances, interviews, features articles, stories, and ads relating to the film and its creative talent. By positioning the film as phenomenon and event the blockbuster aimed to reach a much broader audience than just the regular cinema goer in the 15-25 age groups. The target was also the occasional and even non-cinema cinema goers in the rest of the population. When it worked this was responsible for the spectacle of the varied audiences at films like Gallipoli and then at both The Man from Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee. Young, middle-aged, old - a kaleidoscope of dress, class and urban experience: Balcatta next to Nedlands; Inala to Indooroopilly, Blacktown to Paddington. But there are qualifications. Since the blockbuster was special event cinema it was of necessity irregular cinema. Whilst blockbusters make up a large proportion of cinema revenues, the cinema trade could not just rely on them to survive. There was simply not the room for blockbuster after blockbuster in a year's cinema - only a handful of films could occupy the position.
To be able to bear the publicity and extensive release, films needed to be of the appropriate scale and production values. High budgets secured production values capable of sustaining such "event" publicity and release. The selection of appropriate textual forms and the signposting of the text as a social (not just a film) text connected the blockbuster with its diverse audiences. The textual vehicles were generic - with transgeneric forms being the rule. The blockbuster generally combined recognisably different dramatic forms: for example The Man from Snowy River was both recognisable as Western, bush romance, and family melodrama (of the TV soap variety). The American critic James Monaco finds this a characteristic of American blockbuster cinema in the 1970s - an acute generic, cinematic awareness - it resulted in films which incorporate stylistic elements and plot structures from previously discrete genres. From this generic base the blockbuster positioned itself in the film (and TV) world in a way that was commensurate with audience expectations about the conventional forms and aesthetic norms of audio-visual production.
If this were the only side to the blockbuster it would only be of limited interest. But the blockbuster carefully inscribed itself as an eminently social text - it related to the social world. The blockbuster sought to engage with the general public arena of talk - arguably the "social imaginary" of its period, its society. Thus The Man from Snowy River referenced environmentalist, animal liberation and feminist concerns alongside a touristic and hobby farm elaboration of a rural aesthetic; and Crocodile Dundee uranium mining, Aboriginal land rights, the tourist industry and so forth.
Given the double edged provisos of audience and social text it is not surprising that the blockbuster film's Australian producers generally had origins in that most populist of audio-visual forms, commercial TV. Indeed the form represents one of the sites of involvement of mainstream TV personnel in feature films - a defining mark of the 1980s. Take the two films which became in their times the biggest money earning films at the Australian box office: The Man from Snowy River (1982) and Crocodile Dundee (1986). Snowy River had as its director, George Miller (not the Mad Max George Miller), and as producers, Geoff Burrowes and Simon Wincer all coming out of Crawfords. It also mixed actors better known from Australian TV soaps with its "international actors", Jack Thompson and Kirk Douglas. Crocodile Dundee used the TV comic and ad personality Paul Hogan, was developed by Hogan in conjunction with "Strop" Cornell (a former straight man to Hogan in the Paul Hogan Show); and was directed by Peter Faiman better known for his work with Hogan, for live TV and music specials. Faiman's reputation in this area was such that he was the logical candidate for the four hour bi-centennial show Australia Live (1988).
Let us now turn specifically to Crocodile Dundee. In comparison to other blockbusters of the 1980s Dundee represented something of a departure. Dundee sought to position Australian and American audiences on the same filmic and social text continuum - to manage the film from the start, to manage both places, both sites. In contrast even a blockbuster such as Snowy River managed its Australian appeal via its national (the well known poem) and filmic (Kirk Douglas' presence, the western genre) intertext in a way that its international success was managed almost exclusively in relation to its film intertext.
Unlike My First Wife this is a film without secrets, without enigmas. It is all surface effect. It is not made to convey arcane information. It is made for display, for "entertainment". Nowhere is this difference better registered than in the narrative image on the movie poster and video cassette dustjacket. The video library patron is advised through a large cardboard cut out of Hogan that "now you can take him home". What is at stake, it seems, is definitely not an enigma to be unravelled but an exhibitionism to be gloried in and appropriated by the audience. The spectator constructed by this Hogan exhibitionism is not so much the voyeur-analyst of a Cox but a voyant. This term, fashioned by Routt and Thompson, indicates the extent to which the spectators position in the film is made purposefully mobile that is is changed by what s/he has seen.(9)
Dundee's play with the materials of cinema is of a different kind than My First Wife's. In Dundee the display is that of a showing off, not that of a "serious" investigation. For example the shot of the helicopter taking the American journalist over the "outback" hangs on just too long, the movement of the helicopter (it does a little sideways movement) too unmotivated for story telling requirements. Both leave the impression that "Hoges", "Strop" and Faiman are having a good time playing around with this helicopter - and of course with that other larger machine that of cinema itself and the control over space that it involves.
Given these sorts of differences between the two films, a different critical and analytical framework needs to be employed to analyse Dundee. There is a name for this ideology of the spectacle in Hogan. It is "populism". One of the best ways to engage with its populism is to engage with the Hogan persona. Hogan, like show business personalities and vaudevillians such as George Wallace and Mo of 40 years ago, had developed a well known persona before the film. He did this through TV variety (including his own "show"), talk-back shows and ads. Dundee was written for Hogan in part by Hogan in order to feature that persona.
What is that persona? In some ways, like many other comics, Hogan's persona works off him as the "everyman" - as a socially representative type. The most famous contemporary everyman of Hogan's in Australian cinema is Barry Humphries' Barry McKenzie. Some argue that Barry McKenzie paved the way for the more populist Hogan. But if McKenzie is the invention of an expatriate Australian looking to cultivate a middle class Australian and a Private Eye British audience, Hogan is preternaturally Australian with a genuinely popular appeal. If Humphries is prone to laugh at the working class culture and petit-bourgeois aspirations Hogan will laugh with them.
Take the reaction of part of Dundee's audience when Dundee and Sue (the female lead) finally kiss in the streets of New York after Dundee has discouraged muggers. In this scene Hogan's hand goes down to the cheeks of her arse. Two women behind me said "typical" with the kind of intonation that pointed to their recognition of the gesture as a specific working class masculine style. In the way they said "typical" was an obvious familiarity with the gesture and an awareness of its shortcomings. Yet it was this precise gesture that they were appreciating. It is through this kind of shock of recognition that the film is able to reduce, to abolish to the limited extent that it is possible in the cinema the psychical distance between screen and audience. Hogan is one of them. And he never for a moment loses them.
Is Hogan a classic hero? He is and he isn't. He was known well before his weak imitation of a Tarzan call in Dundee as a representative of a certain self-deprecating masculinity. So too if classic heroes require an almost Neitzchean and narcissistic drive to believe absolutely in themselves, to take themselves seriously, to keep within the generic conventions, to follow the rules - then Hogan, like all comics, cannot take himself or those rules, those strategies and conventions, quite seriously enough to qualify as a classic hero. Indeed Hogan's position has been built on him being a trickster who makes the rules of social behavior and filmic and televisual convention explicit and in so doing punctures both the illusion and any Neitzchean pretentions. As a figure who puts a spanner in the works, Hogan is seen to possess a canny vision of social location and the rules of a situation. Being a trickster not only implies intelligence but also sophistication - through the very recognition of convention.
Complementing Hogan as trickster is his other image as "fish out of water" - or as one reviewer put it "Colonial Candide". This is Hogan as ingenue. Indeed he initially became a household name on Australian TV through a TV commercial which featured the incongruity of having an obviously working class "ocker" dressed in a tux "spruiking" in Australian strine in front of a symphony orchestra. He recommended a new brand of cigarettes (Winfield, which quickly became, and still remains, one of the two most popular cigarette brand names in Australia). This points to the on-going significance within the Hogan persona of the "fish out of water". But he is not just any fish out of water as Crocodile Dundee makes clear. This is a fish with the larrikan confidence that no matter what the hot water - be it an escalator, an aeroplane, attacks from crocodiles or muggers in Dundee - Hoges remains Hoges and will eventually come to terms with it, will win out, and will not be changed. Despite what Mick Dundee is exposed to - the publicity, the new environment - he remains unaffected. Whilst recognising the rules of the social situations he enters after initial mistakes (viz the transvestite) Dundee acts according to his own social etiquette and moral code (that of the residual Australian). In this way he becomes the mirror - the stable point of reference - on which social situations from the outback to New York are drawn together and made identical.
Thus despite its humour, its self-deprecating masculinity, its trickster-like drawing of attention to convention, the Mick Dundee persona can still project a potent and consistent self incapable of being bent, warped, transformed by any occasion, by any success. By being a "personality" rather than a socially important figure his naive innocence mixed with natural confidence, buttresses the image of Hogan as "everyman". Taken together we can speculate on the fantasy of self-coherence and capacity with which Crocodile Dundee can provide its audiences. Given that for most people different occasions demand the performance of multiple selves where what you are is never quite sufficient, at the fantasy level Dundee is able to provide an ego-ideal of a mobile and coherent self. In the process it is also able to provide a fantasy of a coherent nation.
This brings me to the relationship between the films and its Australian audiences. Dundee provides Australian audiences with the opportunity for them to see in Mick's qualities, Mick's perfomance, the enactment of something of a national quality (be it Australian egalitarianism, sense of humour, or convivial good blokeness). The Australian audience is thus offered an identification of themselves (through the Hogan surrogate). What is on offer is the image of self-deprecating capacity, both personally and nationally framed by "our sense of humour". Here is the ideal Australian, and Dundee suggests a "he" rather than a "she" who might have the wool pulled over his eyes but not for long. Indeed the need in 1986/7 for such satisfactions was framed by Keating's envisaging of another Australia - the Australia of the "banana republic". The Hogan of Crocodile Dundee is a far cry from this image. In a way Hogan's behaviour "over there" becomes, in Meaghan Morris' words, a metaphor for takeover(10) by Australians of America (rather than being taken over); of self-sufficiency rather than subservience, of forthrightness rather than evasiveness. Being a comedy, the film is able to sustain these reversals without the need for it literally to be the case.
The final filmmaking strategy of significance to Australian film in the 1980s was the mini-series. Despite its large production budgets mini-series production was cushioned from the full commercial pressure of the international TV market place by the combination of the tax incentives and Australian TV pre-sale. The incentives permitted mini-series investors to take some of the risk out of their film involvement by providing them with an assured return of a fixed proportion of their budgets through pre-sale to Australian TV networks. A production only had to recoup a portion of its budget to make a profit for its investors under the scheme. Both the incentives and TV pre-sale enabled the mini-series to resist pressures to internationalise itself from inception and so it was able to "remain" independent and Australian. This meant that engaging with an Australian TV audience as an Australian audience was foregrounded. Typically, but not exclusively - Return to Eden (1983) is one exception - this involved a national historical address to that audience. With the diminishing value of the concessions in the context of lower personal income tax in 1987 some of its attraction to investors lapsed. But while it lasted from 1980-1987 the mini-series format provided an unprecedented laboratory for Australian experiment in the form with such series as The Dismissal (1983), Cowra Breakout (1985), The Last Bastion (1984), ANZACS (1985), and most importantly Vietnam (1987).
The model for Australian mini-series production was set quite early on with the 1978 hybrid series - part TV series, part mini-series - Against the Wind. That successful series served as a reference point for a decade of mini-series production. As Stuart Cunningham points out the mini-series phenomenon of the 1980s often shared Against the Wind's "epic historical thematics and narrative coverage, its widely-discussed "revisionist" account of the historical record... its promotion and reception as much in terms of its serious commitment to historical veracity as its dramatic felicities, and its huge critical and ratings success".(11) This documentationist concern for the historical record, for its significant personages, and key events can be seen in Vietnam's impersonation of Menzies, Gorton, Holt and Hasluck and its focus on the Vietnam conflict.
How are we to make sense of this concern to fictionalise "the facts"? Particular conditions of the 1980s and broader traditions of Australian cultural production might be responsible. Bi-centennialist nationalism, multi-culturalism and the sense of crisis about Australia's future in which neither Europe nor America would hold the key encouraged re-statements, interrogations, and a re-writing of Australian nationalism, history and identity in print and electronic media in the 1980s. A mini-series like Vietnam is part of this broader movement. It can thus be seen to be about the filmic inscription at the level of a social imaginary, of Australia's difficult place in the post-oil crisis world. Its revisionist outlook is commensurate with the profound change in Australia's external outlook in a new international order in which the USA influence was considerably diminished and the need to "deal" with Asia was pronounced. Finally it stages a "multiculturalist" situation through the relationship of the Australian daughter with the Eastern European Serge; the son with a Viet-Cong woman and the friend, Laurie's marriage to the Vietnamese woman Le.
Broader aspects and traditions of Australian culture and cultural production are also responsible for Vietnam's "hybrid" of documentary and fiction. Both politics and the informational culture of "Australiana" play an important part in defining Australia and the Australian. Thus the interest in the historical political context in Vietnam can be made sense of in terms of the important place that politics generally plays in producing a public imagination of place and context (this is buttressed by elections - be they state or federal at least every eighteen months). And also in terms of Australian culture's informational cum documentary fascination about itself. The quasi-informational "Australiana" is crucial to commercially viable definitions of Australian culture making up a large part of TV, magazine and book sales in Australia. Indeed a particular strand of "Australiana" is a precurser to the form of docu-drama in Vietnam. This is the fictionalising of "real" historical characters and incidents whether in the quasi-fictional biographies of Ion Idriess, in the auto-biographical reminiscence of Albert Facey, in the family history of a Judith Wright, in the film essay cinema of Charles Chauvel, or in the revival films such as Breaker Morant and Gallipoli.
Vietnam is also able to acquire an epic dimension through this provision of historical and verisimilitudinal contexts. Such contexts can either be assumed as audience common knowledge in Hollywood output or are not needed as pro-filmic generic conventions provide a context, iconography, language and set of motivations for epic and tragedy to make it irrelevant whether a film or series got it "right". But Australian mini-series productions like Vietnam cannot assume that kind of common knowledge nor readily appropriate those conventions. It needs to state the terms and the outlines of that history, that occasion, in order to obtain the same sense of epic sweep, the same projections of figures onto the stage of history that Hollywood output is routinely able to assume without such elaboration.
If Against the Wind represents the beginning of a phase of mini-series production in Australia Vietnam arguably represents its pinnacle. The series handles significant national events like the Vietnam war and conscription and social life like the 1960s "youth" and "sexual" revolution in such a way that refuses any simple explanation. It achieves this through skilfully handling the different perspectives of the Goddard family - father, mother, son and daughter. Their outlook on, and ideas about war, conscription, and the sexual revolution enter into their relationship with each other and their friends. This enables the family to become an index of larger social, cultural and political movements. Thus the son, Phil, is conscripted, goes off to Vietnam comes to believe in the war and then finds himself alienated from the Australia he left behind; the daughter, Megan, drops out of school joins moratorium marches, experiments with sex and life-styles and acts as protector for her sometime boyfriend Serge - a draft dodger; the father, Douglas - a senior public servant adviser to successive Prime Ministers is initially for the war then against it - eventually putting his career on the line to make a stand on it; the mother, Evelyn, initially housebound and subjugated by her husband, other family members, and the role of housewife in Canberra leaves her husband, house and Canberra for Sydney, learns Italian, joins her daughter in moratorium marches and generally finds her feet.
Unlike the characters in the "nostalgia" film these characters are not so much buffeted by history but are powerfully involved in making and articulating it. By the end of the series when the family gets together in the one place again we have, as Cunningham points out, "learnt to think of them historically."(12) By then the family members have come to "assume the status of markers of sectoral divisions within an historically delineated population itself undergoing irreversible sea change".(13)
But this only partially explains the attractions of Vietnam. The series solicits from many viewers a sense of awe at how powerful and hurtful the drama is for them. Such a reaction may well have to do with its encouragement of a re-memoration of a past that a large part of the series' audience lived through and were formed by. This re-memoration is further encouraged by the archival footage beginning each episode, by the impersonation of leading political figures and by the actual appearance of public figures (Bill Peach, Paul Murphy, Jim McClelland) from that period. But re-memoration would not be enough on its own.
Docu-drama most often downplays psychological motivation and flattens character and events out into discontinuous episodes, but Vietnam is able to keep its "realist" and "docu-drama" effects whilst not downplaying psychological motivation nor flattening out events and characters. Attention to the historical record, to verisimilitude is thus not at the expense of a developed narrative logic. Fiction film production most often privileges "truth to the probable" (ie narrative causation) over "truth to the historical effect" (verisimilitude) turning the latter into the servant of the former (as the dictum of it must "look" realistic replaces a concern for being "realistic"). But in Vietnam there is a blurring of the two such that narrative causation becomes enlisted in the service of being "true to the record".
Perhaps this is why these historical mini-series are so offensive to historians - they are not just setting characters against a backdrop of however imperfectly realised history (so the history is just a minor irritation) they are also suggesting that these characters can be thought of as the history itself. The power of the historical record is thus achieved through the series' insistent focus upon the family. In this way social history becomes effectively melodramatised, becoming in the process the kind of passionately engaged history telling that has few Australian precedents (one such precedent is the work of the historian Manning Clark).
A corollary of this is that the family is "historicised". Undoubtedly this helps explain the epic sweep of the series: its powerfully evocative collocation of the personal and the collective social/ political heightens the tension and anxiety of the audience felt towards characters and their actions. Thus, like so much tragedy and melodrama, Vietnam's pleasure has much to do with the "unpleasureable" anxiety the audience feels for the characters and their irreversable trajectory.
By ending with the family's tentative reconciliation the series ends on an upbeat note generating a sense of hope for the transformed family and their ability to care for each other. It also thematises a reconstituted "national" family. This hope has a particular poignancy as it is narrativised with the election of the Whitlam Labor Government. If this ending seems uncomfortably optimistic for some (and so threatening the family with future fractious division), it is the case that nothing was quite the same again.
By the end of the 1980s it was all starting to come unstuck. In 1987/88 levels of production significantly declined pointing to a new financial crisis within the industry. Production funds were drying up for mini-series and feature film production. So too the general cultural policy framework within which film industry support operated was in crisis about its objectives, priorities and funding. In this context the film industry could not rely upon the same unquestioning institutional and policy support for it as it once had. Overshadowing both was a political climate in which de-regulation, privatisation and reduced government outlays led public discussion of industry policy.
By 1987 cinema and TV mini-series producers were looking to international involvement through co-productions to obtain the level of pre-sales required for break even: just as they had in the early 1960s in TV with Whiplash (1961) and in the cinema with They're a Weird Mob (1966). After the long film industry boom of the 1980s feature film, like TV, was facing crisis. "Internationalism" was set to make its return. Even the mini-series which had provided through the 1980s a way of remaining Australian, was by the end of the 1980s also feeling the pressure to internationalise. The tax concessions which had begun the decade as a way of protecting the Australian face of the industry by providing a subsidy through the tax act now looked set to encourage the industry's internationalisation. And, once again, a government report was urging the establishment of a "film bank - or film finance corporation".(14)
1. Philip Adams, "The Dangerous Pornography of Death", The Bulletin, 1/5/1979.
2. Ross Gibson, "Yondering", Art & Text, n. 19 (1985), pp.25-33
3. P. Page & T. Kaufman, "Mad Max - Interview with George Miller", Filmnews, v.9, n. 7 (1979), p.9.
4. Richard Franklin, "Letters: Uri Windt", Cinema Papers, v. 7, Issue 30 (1980), p.411.
5. With the diminishing value of the concessions and the loss of their capacity to cushion investor risk by 1987, the international strategy Franklin proposed returned by the end of the 1980s.
6. William Routt & Richard Thompson, "`Keep Young and Beautiful' - Surplus and Subversion in Roman Scandals" in T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film (Perth: History and Film Association, 1987), p. 32.
7. Horst Ruthrof, The Readers Construction of Narrative/cite> (London: RKP, 1980), p. 102.
8. David Bordwell, Narration and the Fiction Film (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 208.
9. Routt & Thompson, p.34.
10. Meaghan Morris, "Tooth and Claw", Art & Text, n. 25 (1987), p.47.
11. Stuart Cunningham,"Textual Innovation in the Australian Historical Mini-series", p. 1. (forthcoming in J. Tulloch & G. Turner eds. Australian TV Reader)
12. Cunningham, p.10.
13. Cunningham, p.10.
14. Film Assistance: Future Options (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1987), p. 39-40.
Copyright Tom O'Regan. All rights reserved. Redistribution for profit prohibited. Copies must include this notice.
New: 26 October, 1995 | Now: 28 April, 2015