[The] vision of [reality] of a society is conveyed by everything that its members do and think and feel - expressed and embodied in the kinds of words, the forms of language that they use, the images, the metaphors, the forms of worship, the institutions that they generate, which embody and convey their image of reality and of their place in it; by which they live. These visions differ with each successive social whole - each has its own gifts, values, modes of creation, incommensurable with one another: each must be understood in its own terms - understood, not necessarily evaluated. (Berlin, 1991:9)
'This is a film about a film about Australia' is the opening title for From the Tropics to the Snow (1964), directed by Richard Mason and Jack Lee. Through a brainstorming session between two screen writers, the film deals with the possibilities and problems of how to put "real" Australia on film - by extension, how to make an Australian film - for foreigners while not falling out of line with local audiences. Nature and culture, outback and suburbia, bush landscapes and city skylines, individuals and masses, big picture and intimate look: these are the common binaries which obviously emerge in relation to what "real" Australia is about.
What is of more significance to the present context however is the subtle and clever reference to cinematic homelands in the imagination of the two writers debating their ideas. The first one suggests a narrative structure that could be described as classical Hollywood: the story is centred on one American (nuclear) family visiting Australia and evolves from a (pre-determined) set of encounters in their travels. For example, the teenage son is expected to go to the beach, meet by total "coincidence" an attractive Australian girl and develop some kind of romance with her; same motif for the daughter, except that she goes to the mountains and gets the attention of the obviously handsome ski-instructor - all very clean, holding and kissing permitted but no sex. The second writer on the other hand, apparently more "artistically"-inclined, seems to be suggesting a narrative structure which reminds quite strongly of the practices of (European) Art cinema: experimental ("non-mainstream") film techniques, abstraction of signification and meaning, absence of expected or logical evolution of the story, decentralisation of focus from characters to surrounding environment and poeticised imagery.
Hence, as early as 1964, Richard Mason and Jack Lee had started the debate about the crucial issue within the Australian cinematic apparatus: what is an Australian film and how to make it. This debate gained momentum during the Australian Film Commission "era" - 1975-1982, according to Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka (1988a) - and has increasingly been amplified since then in various agendas. Otherwise, From the Tropics to the Snow could also be interpreted as a visual, filmic theorisation of the post-diasporic "dilemma" of Australian national cinema in terms of where its allegiances are found.
Australian films are bound to display certain forms of linkages in terms of preferred meanings, preferred structures/strategies of form and content. And these in turn reflect the dominant cultural inclinations which motivate the orientations of Australian cinema by virtue of how it makes sense of itself and how it infers meaning onto its agents and institutions. The Australian national cinema could be said to maintain some kind of localised homogeneous cinematic form and practice by the intermediary of films which appear to re-present and display "Australianness" uncompromisingly. To quote Graeme Turner (1986:19):
The cultural specificity, the Australian-ness, of Australian texts lives in the recurring principles of organisation and selection as applied to the universal narrative structures. Australian texts employ a particular language in that they draw on those myths, connotations and symbols which have currency in the Australian culture; and they also reveal what formal preferences - the encouragement of certain genres, conventions, and models of production - are exercised in that culture.
John Heyer's The Back of Beyond (1954), Ken Hannam's Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981), amongst others, indeed appear to possess an undeniable Australian identity because they are all strongly impregnated with a sense of "here" through various (national) myths of Australian culture to which local audiences can relate. According to Neil Rattigan (1991:298) for example, except for Gallipoli, Sunday Too Far Away is a strong contender for the most Australian film of the New Australian cinema because it is uncompromisingly Australian: location, situation, characters display little or no concession to the possibility of an (uncomprehending) international audience. And the same could be said of more recent productions such as Paul J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding (1994) or Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom (1992), except transposed to a suburbian setting.
Benedict Anderson (1983:132) writes that singing national anthems 'provides occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community'. The same principle could be applied to cinema: films indeed become the national anthems through which the community, in the shape of cinema audiences, imagines its nationhood. This could be said of Gallipoli or George Miller's The Man From Snowy River (1982) for example, which had the extraordinary ability of "bringing together" Australians, of creating some form of national unity which, according to Anthony Smith (1986:148)
requires both a sense of cohesion or "fraternity" and a compact, secure, recognized territory or "homeland"; all nationalisms, therefore, strive for such fraternity and homelands.
But while the language and chords of national anthems tend to be unique, cinematic language on the other hand is multiple: Australian myths can be imagined, celebrated or "sung" on film in a variety of ways. And a shared understanding of these different cinematic languages is what would appear to bring Australians together as a community, as a nation.
If films such as Chris Noonan's Babe (1995), Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989) and Dr. George Miller's Mad Max trilogy, amongst others, are attributed the "Australian" label, to what extent do they subscribe to it compared to the uncompromising and unambiguous "Australianness" of The Back of Beyond or Sunday Too Far Away for instance? A possible answer to this question could be found in the exploration of the different degrees of "Australianness" within the structure of Australian cinema, hence the different languages used for imagining or "singing" Australia. However, there is an everpresent danger that such an exploration might be interpreted in terms of a search on my part for cinematic purity as a consequence of identifying forms of homogeneous and radically "Australian" filmmaking. It should be understood that looking for purity would be rather futile in the light of, for example, Tom O'Regan's (1996) analysis and discussion of Australian national cinema as being an extremely diverse and "messy affair". I should therefore reiterate my earlier statement that hybridisation within national cinemas occurs in parallel - if not complementary - terms to attempts at maintaining some form of homogeneous cinematic form and practice.
As early as 1969, the Interim Report of the Film Committee to the Australian Council for the Arts was pointing towards two important aspects which have retained value in Australian cinema up to now: the principle of State funding and the early motivations for an ideal "Australianness" in relation to films made locally. And it is primarily the interaction of these two aspects which are responsible for the progression and current shape of the Australian national cinema. In other words, "Australianness" is effected by the coalescence of a set of specific moments in the history of Australian cinema's progression and, by extension, specific moments in the history of its viewing practices.
The Australian national cinema, for which State funding is seminal in its general operation due to its medium-sizedness, relies in various ways on the elements of continuity and predictability inherent to cinematic "Australianness". Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka (1988a:20) suggest that
[o]ur film industry proclaims its central role in revealing an identity we don't know we have until we recognise it: we are forced by it to eternally enact a ritual of recognition, to know again what we need to "know".
The double-bind which emerges is that these elements, while securing a "faithful", reliable audience and revenue to a particular cinema, also become forms of control inherent to any Ideological State Apparatus within a nation-state. For a brief insight into what 'control' implies from the institutional point of view, it might be relevant to mention the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's set of criteria (based on those of the 10BA) in 'determining the level of Australian involvement':
the subject-matter of the film, the place where the film was made, the nationalities or residential status of the leading creative inputs, the copyright owners, the owners of the production company, and the sources of finance of the film. [emphasis added]
(Dermody & Jacka, 1988b:119)
Continuity and predictability account for and justify funding for 'an industry that relies to such an extent on the perceptions of politicians and bureaucrats - especially those of the Treasury' (Urban; The Bulletin, 1996:41). The State, via funding bodies, consequently acquires a potential of control and influence - though indirectly - over the formations and formulations of national identity and culture. Agendas of national identity-making are therefore satisfied when this double-bind results in "pressures" from governing bodies and various agents in the film milieu to show and speak "Australianness" filmically, as well as to the emergence of various genres and subgenres within Australian cinema. As O'Regan (1996:18) points out:
Governments underwrite, publics support, critics and filmmakers assume the capacity of a local filmmaking to allow Australians to "dream their own dreams, tell their stories to themselves and to the the world" and to "tell uncomfortable truths about their society".
Among the various categories - Social Realist, Australian Gothic, Eccentrics and so on - of films listed by Dermody & Jacka (1988a), one very significant component is the AFC genre 'which came to characterise worthy investment by the Australian Film Commission, films "we could be proud of" ' (1988a:31), such as Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) and George Miller's The Man From Snowy River (1982). To quote McKenzie Wark (1995:206):
The good thing about that period [1975-1982] was that producers had several sources of funding to tap, but the funding guidelines imposed a cultural limit on what an 'Australian' feature film might be.
The success - critical and, sometimes, commercial - of such films in the history of Australian cinema indicates the function of the AFC as a State funding body in defining and determining the ideal of an 'Australian content' to satisfy agendas of national identity-making. It also shows the determination of some critics to link these films with their funding agency in order to emphasise the role of Government: involvement in filmmaking practices as a form of governing.
The ideal of an 'Australian content', in its pertinence to the Australian Film Commission, would be concomitant to O'Regan's proposition that Australian cinema acts as a social bond: 'Australian films [...] provide cultural information [my emphasis] about the Australian people and their relation to other peoples' (1996:17). A clear illustration of this particular aspect is the tradition of the historical construction narrative within Australian cinema, more commonly known as the "period" film. It is a tradition which goes back to Charles Chauvel's Forty Thousand Horsemen (1942) for example, and re-emerged as a sub-category of the AFC genre with such films as Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant (1980), Simon Wincer's The Lighthorsemen (1987) and Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981). The latter film, for example, can be interpreted as a "celebration" of the historical emergence of an "homogeneous" Australian identity, of the Australian nationalist conscience.
Sam Rohdie (1982:194) identifies in Gallipoli such themes as the openness and isolation of Australia compared to the closedness and crowdedness of 'not-Australia'; the indiscipline yet bravery of the Australian and New Zealander compared to the disciplined yet stupid, cowardly, pretentious English; an Australian innocence and fairness compared to the dishonesty and venality of others; and, at the centre of the film, the Australian-specific cultural twitch of "mateship". This would also connect with Donald Horne's (1964:21) comment about Anzac Day for instance - that although there are themes of death and sacrifice, it appeals 'as an expression of the commonness of man [...], of the necessity for sticking together in adversity'.
It cannot be denied that some of the above traits of "Australianness", although identified by Rohdie in specificity to Gallipoli, are quite clearly recurrent in a wide range of Australian films other than the "period" ones. Here, one might think of Bruce Beresford's The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Ken Hannam's Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Peter Faiman's Crocodile Dundee (1986) or John Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke (1987) for example. For his part, O'Regan (1996:19) points out that, in a programmatic sense, the cinema
is one means of providing a common civic culture for a disparate population. Like other agencies of popular socialization, a national cinema is a vehicle for a common culture and a civic ideology, a set of common understandings and aspirations, sentiments and ideas, that binds the population together in their homeland.
It should also be acknowledged that the ideal of "Australianness" has been somewhat enlarged over the years to accommodate shifts in Government policy and transformations within the social fabric. Hence, '[i]n 1990s features, there is a trend towards re-examining of the meaning of the settler culture under the influence of multiculturalism as a new public myth of the people' (O'Regan, 1996:20). For example, Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom (1992) can potentially be seen as yet another nationalist "celebration" but this time of 'multicultural unity-in-diversity' Australia. A further extension to "Australianness", to the
larger movement to recognise and value cultural diversity is represented by the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles as in the Sum of Us (Geoff Burton & Kevin Dowling, 1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephen Elliott, 1994). In these films, the exemplary modern form is of a national subject and a tolerant society able to value difference. (O'Regan, 1996:21)
Hence, what is primarily of interest here is that all Australian films, within and outside the categories listed by Dermody & Jacka (1988a) for example, have in one way or another influenced filmmaking as well as viewing processes and practices in terms of re-presentations and expectations of "Australianness" on film.
The following is a list of the first ten best Australian films in the Top 100 of the Centenary Poll carried out by Cinema Papers (no.108, Feb.1996:27-30):
(1) Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) - Peter Weir
(2) Mad Max (1979) - Dr. George Miller
(3) My Brilliant Career (1979) - Gillian Armstrong
(4) Strictly Ballroom (1992) - Baz Luhrmann
(5) Breaker Morant (1980) - Bruce Beresford
(6) Gallipoli (1981) - Peter Weir
(7) Sunday Too Far Away (1975) - Ken Hannam
(8) Jedda (1955) - Charles Chauvel
(9) The Year My Voice Broke (1987) - John Duigan
(10) Newsfront (1978) - Phillip Noyce
It is noticeable that many of the films listed, if not classified under the AFC genre, are at least State-funded in one way or another. But it is quite certain that all ten films contain some or even the totality of typical filmic markers of "Australianness" which support and promote the institutional discourses and rhetoric quite similar those of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal mentioned earlier. Hence, the latter, as "radical" as they might be deemed to be, cannot be bypassed nor ignored totally because, through films, they have become part of the history of Australian cinema, part of the cinema-goer's personal viewing experience and parameters of (national) identification, part of the myth of "Australianness".
[T]hough "myth" may seem an intellectually fatigued and outmoded critical term, a piece such as Grünberg's convinces that the time to retire the term has not yet come, that it is perfectly serviceable for certain tasks. (Macdonald; Metro, 1995:58)
Amanda Macdonald is here referring to Serge Grünberg's 'L'Australie: du désert à Hollywood' in Cahiers du Cinéma (no.483, Sept.1994). Grünberg's article is contentious, biased and myopic in relation to Australian cinema but the point is that it has been written and in one of the most important publications about cinema; as such, it is likely to be accepted at face-value outside Australia.
The article illustrates how the myth of "Australianness" is still very much "alive" in terms of what Australia is and Australians are stereotypically imagined and expected to be elsewhere. Because of Australian cinema's "unwillingness" to break away from its displays of "desert island-ness" and "isolation", to move away from its peripheral position, most audiences overseas might be inclined to think of Australia as being 'both a long way from the world [...] and nowhere in particular' (Gibson, 1992:xi). Australian cinema has the tendency to reinforce its stereotyped image(s) and consolidate its antipodal identity as defined from the centre - Europe and the U.S. in particular. As Macdonald (1995:63) suggests, "island continent", "vast land", "immense country", "Antipodes", "over there", "the other side of the Earth" constitute so many unselfconsciously rehearsed ways of saying "not France", "not Europe". Hence,
Australia is an island at the end of the world, necessarily insular and isolated. Its people identify themselves accordingly: constantly seeking to be the same as everyone else - denying the insularity and isolation - and at the same time different, in aggressive celebration of those same conditions. (Bertrand & Routt, 1989:24)
It should be acknowledged that the top ten Australian films, as listed earlier, have been extremely active in displaying and promulgating the antipodality of Australian cinema. Even more interesting is that these particular ten films have been acclaimed in their times and have become some of the most famous Australian films internationally. As such, they are likely to be the principal points of reference for non-Australian audiences to identify "Australianness", and evaluate, compare and judge more recent Australian productions. This limited scope of knowledge of Australian films elsewhere is probably why Grünberg (1994) continuously equates Australia to 'wide open spaces', 'desert land', 'emptinesses' or 'unending sameness'. Out of the five stills from Australian films chosen to illustrate the article in Cahiers du Cinéma, two (from Sweetie and Priscilla) show a desert landscape in the background. This is another indication of the (filmically) naturalised reaction of the French - very possibly of others too - to equate Australia with "desert" or "wide open spaces".
An Australian cinematic diaspora/post-diaspora could be seen as a challenge on my part to the kind of mythicising processes carried out about Australia, such as Grünberg's (1994). The connections with cinematic homelands that I suggest would indeed question approaches or arguments focusing purely upon the isolation of Australian cinema. The cinematic homeland while it could potentially be a physical location is more like an encapsulation of the emergence, standardisation and perpetuation of a particular style and format of filmmaking.
An examination of the Indian diaspora, for example, would suggest that its subjects, scattered in various parts of the world, might be inclined to consider India as their homeland of origin. It is the place where Indians evolved as a people and, within that process of evolution, developed the characteristics - linguistic, cultural, social or religious - which identify and define their "Indianness" to themselves as well as in relation to other different peoples. Hence, Ien Ang (1994:5) suggests that
diasporas are transnational, spatially and temporally sprawling, sociocultural formations of people, creating imagined communities whose blurred and fluctuating boundaries are sustained by real and/or symbolic ties to some original 'homeland' [...]. It is the myth of the (lost or idealized) homeland, the object of both collective memory and of desire and attachment, which is constitutive to diasporas [...].
In similar terms as the Indian diaspora, the specificities of an Australian cinematic diaspora/post-diaspora are grounded in the characteristics and attributes of particular "Australian" films made in, made about or connected to Australia in one way or another. Their positioning as "displaced subjects" is determined by the active interaction of various intra- and extra-textual elements which establishes some form of relationship with particular cinematic homelands. These will obviously vary according to the nature of the film under investigation. But in any case, genre, style and narrative structures as well as sources of finance and personnel at all levels of production are the decisive factors in the process of allocating a film to a cinematic homeland. Thus, the same principle which causes diasporic Indians to consider India as homeland is applied to films.
(a) Hollywood mainstream cinema
"Hollywood" is a cinematic homeland by virtue of its classical narrative structure which embodies diverse interacting and overlapping planes of economic rationalism and of pleasure. Such planes are generated by the combinatory forces of historical circumstances, technological advancement, generic evolution, the frictional dynamics of auteurism and studio formula, performance and the star-system, heterogeneity and diversity of audiences, and socio-politico-cultural agendas.
The classical [or mainstream] Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve clear-cut problems or to attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or nonachievement of the goals. The principal causal agency is thus the character, a discriminated individual endowed with a consistent batch of evident traits, qualities, and behaviors.
For example, Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989) reveals a narrative structure which is directly related to the main principles of the classical Hollywood ("psychosexual") thriller in terms of its inclusion of such elements as intrigue, suspense, action, clear-cut characters, expected situations and progressions.
Characterisation within the Hollywood apparatus often goes hand-in-hand with the compositional politics of the star system. By extension, characterisation entertains a special relationship with generic specifications on which the classical narrative tends to be constructed: westerns, thrillers, melodramas and musicals, amongst others, usually follow precise formats, contain specific physical icons or markers and expected actors in "type" roles. In Dead Calm, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane) is obviously a "type" role considering the extent to which it projects an image reminiscent of Dennis Hopper in many of his psychotic roles for instance.
The Hollywood film often operates through a double causal structure oriented by "Shakespearean" criteria of unity: time, space and action. In other words, causal storylines in the classical Hollywood film progress according to a smooth linear pattern. The whole operation could be said to find support in what Thomas Elsaesser (1975:206) describes as
the powerfully emotional realism of the commonplace, for the sake of which Hollywood directors, producers and script-writers fashioned iconographic stereotypes, infinitely recycling plots, psychologically one-dimensionsal characters, and a completely codified, carefully sifted image of the American (moral, social and geographic) landscape. By sheer force of repetition it imposed itself successfully as a symbolic system of notation within which very differentiated statements could be articulated, and it also constituted a dramatically acceptable, and for a long time ideologically accepted set of conventions by which to picture the dynamic interplay of reality and fantasy that Europeans find so characteristic of 'l'homme américain moyen sensuel'.
Standard formulaic narrative structures can obviously be expressed only through the adherence to filmic techniques established, conventionalised and perpetuated by the Hollywood industry. Hence, the three unities are preserved through an editing process which aims at keeping the viewer "in control" of the structure. Scenes follow a logical pattern in the sense of being unequivocal and expected results or continuations of preceding ones. Hence, Dead Calm evolves from the quiet life of the couple on their yatch, to their unexpected encounter with the "psycho", to the problems created by the "psycho", and finally to the elimination of the "psycho" and restoration of peace. If there are any "unexpected" breaks in the structure - like with the use of flashback for instance - the viewer is quickly reoriented by the means of cues such as dialogue, camera movement or shot/reverse shot patterns. Such is the case for example when Rae Ingram (Nicole Kidman) in Dead Calm has a nightmare about her car accident in which her child died. The next cut shows her waking up in sweat to indicate that the events were being seen from her point of view. In any case, the viewer's gaze and visual field of "operation" are often in symbiosis with those of the central protagonist(s), except of course when additional information about the plot, yet to be discovered by the main characters in the film, is provided.
It is important to note that the classical Hollywood film is endowed with a relatively fast rhythm; not specifically in the sense of the fast-paced action film but more in the sense that the story is kept in constant progress. There are no temporal breaks, no "breathing space" for the viewer to reflect on events; phases of reflection are in fact included within the narration and undergone by the main protagonist(s) on behalf of the spectator. O'Regan (1992:325) conveniently summarises the formal aspects of the classical Hollywood film:
The Hollywood text progresses horizontally in careful and coordinated sequence, always moving forward; and the stylistic system supports this movement. Additionally, Hollywood's reliance upon extrinsic norms - particularly generic templates - ensures that the fiction remains true to the 'probable' rather than to the 'actual'. This enables diverse audiences to comprehend the story without needing to resort to specific kinds of cultural and social information apart from generic templates.
(b) (European) Art cinema
As a form of cinematic homeland, (European) Art cinema could be reduced to being roughly a reversal of the previous summary by O'Regan (1992) concerning the classical Hollywood film. This kind of approach is adopted by Robert Sklar (1993:508) for example who writes that
the strongest remaining alternative to Hollywood style of narration fiction filmmaking [is] international art cinema. Supported largely through co-production by a combination of private capital, governments and television networks, by the 1980s this film practice had become almost a broad-based genre in itself. Though there were important exceptions [...] international art cinema took on a classic quality, drawing on history and literature for its sources, with a high level of visual polish and a little in the way of aesthetic innovation. It occupies a third position in the global structure of mainstream cinema, with Hollywood on one side and various national film industries, producing popular narratives for domestic audiences, on the other. [my emphasis]
It is worth mentioning Thomas Elsaesser's (Sight & Sound, 1994:24) observation that it is in fact 'the U.S. distribution practice of the art-house circuit which gave the term "art cinema" its currently accepted meaning'.
David Bordwell (1985:206) explains that the art film's reality is multi-faceted since it usually deals with "real" subject matter such as contemporary psychological problems of "alienation" and "lack of communication". For example, Sweetie (1989) is described by Jane Campion as a provocative and experimental film about the absence of love and the distress associated with this absence (Saada; Cahiers du Cinéma, 1989:32). The mise-en-scène may emphasise verisimilitude of space - location shooting or non-Hollywood lighting schemes - or time as illustrated by the use of the temps mort in a conversation. What seems to really matter is how the main protagonists question their behaviour and purpose. They are unpredictable and simply move almost randomly from one situation to another due to the open-endedness of the narrative structure, as witnessed in the paradoxical universe of Sweetie for instance. And this would connect with what Thomas Elsaesser (Sight & Sound, 1994:26) describes as
the cliché of the European director: improvisation on the set or on location, the most intense work taking place with the actors, the film taking shape as the director penetrates the inner truth of the various motifs that the story or situation first suggested to him[or her].
Because Art cinema narration relies on the interplay of subjectivity and objectivity, the characters tend to be inconsistent: they are not goal-oriented, in other words without any precise logical objective to attain in the course of the film. The action and the environment of the protagonists are usually beyond their direct control.
As Bordwell (1985:206) notes, '[t]he Art film tends to become episodic, akin to picaresque and processional forms, or it can pattern coincidence to suggest the workings of an impersonal and unknown causality'. Problems will often be quite clearly identified by the protagonists within the narrative structure but the solutions suggested are always either extremely ambiguous or else not provided at all. On that matter, Elsaesser (Sight & Sound, 1994:24) quotes Paul Schrader's comment that
American movies are based on the assumption that life presents you with problems, while European films are based on the conviction that that life confronts you with dilemmas - and while problems are something you solve, dilemmas cannot be solved, they're merely probed or investigated. [emphasis added]
Consequently, loose ends in the Art film are not as tied up as in the classical Hollywood narrative: questions are left unanswered, resolution is partial and uncategorical, the future remains as uncertain at the end as it was at the beginning.
The technicalities of the Art film tend to support the non-linearity, the disjunction of the narrative flow - unorthodox camera angles, peculiar lighting patterns, lack of uniformity or logical consistency in the editing, manipulation of sound and experimentation of styles. Hence, in relation to Jane Campion's Sweetie, Vincent Ostria (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1990:61) comments about its
hyperréalisme photographique [...] et ses cadrages minutieusement décadrés (à la manière de certaines photos californiennes), contraignant souvent le hors-champ à être un lieu signifiant [...].
photographic hyperrealism [...] and its meticulously mis-framed framing (in a similar way as certain Californian photographs), often compelling the off-screen space to become a site of signification [...].
And technicalities would also be part of the explanation about why the Art film is 'either avoided as a chore or sought as a challenge' (Elsaesser; Sight & Sound, 1994:24) by movie-goers. The Art film is usually slow-paced and fragmented, leaving many temporal lapses for the viewer to reflect independently of the main protagonists; and the ending itself does not clarify anything since it simply provides a variety of options of resolution and leaves the decisions to the viewer . Thus, to quote Bordwell's use of a literary metaphor: 'If the classical film resembles a short story by Poe, the art cinema is closer to Chekov' (1985:207).
The origins of Art cinema have traditionally been associated with certain European national cinemas, either connected to trends in the world of visual arts (like German Expressionism) or else conceived as an oppositional move within film theory against mainstream standards of filmmaking (like the emergence of the French nouvelle vague from the progressivist inclinations of French film criticism especially amongst the Cahiers du Cinéma collective). Over the years, Art cinema has "graduated" from the collectivism of movements to the individualism of auteurs. In latter terms, Art films are seen as the vision of individual artists as a way of acknowledging the disconnection of certain directors with particular movements since they seem to be operating more within a cinematic dimension of their own which defies national boundaries: Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Bernardo Bertolucci, Louis Malle, Ken Loach or Peter Greenway. About this particular aspect, Thomas Elsaesser (Sight & Sound, 1994:26) comments that
[a]uteur cinema today may not be dead, but what we mean by an auteur has shifted somewhat: for Europe and America, it is no longer about self-doubt or self-expression, metaphysical themes or a realist aesthetic.[...] Authority and authenticity lie nowadays in the way film-makers use the cinema's resources, which is to say in their command of the generic, the expressive, the excessive, the visual and the visceral. From David Lynch to Jane Campion, from Jonathan Demme to Stephen Frears, from Luc Besson to Dario Argento - all are auteurs and all are valued for their capacity to concentrate on a tour de force.
(c) Internationalised cinema
Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1986) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) are undoubtedly French, in a similar way that Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (1991) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) are unequivocally American films. They all clearly "belong" to one specific form of national cinema, hence to a particular country because they unambiguously tell the stories, quote the national myths and display the images and markers intrinsic to that country's cinematic attempts at formulating or imagining some form of homogeneous national identity. To quote Anthony Smith (1986:2): '[t]here can be no identity without memory (albeit selective), no collective purpose without myth, and identity and purpose or destiny are necessary elements of the very concept of a nation'. Such images and markers have usually been so powerfully iconised by their respective national cinemas that including and displaying them without ambiguity instantly nullifies any possibility of alternative identities for such films.
But how to locate and describe the identity of Werner Herzog's Where The Green Ants Dream (1984), Paul Cox's Island (1989), Bruce Beresford's Black Robe (1991), Wim Wenders's Until The End of the World (1992), Ridley Scott's 1492-Conquest of Paradise (1992), Jane Campion's The Piano (1993) or Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart (1993)? Do these films naturally acquire the nationality of their respective directors or producers? Or that of their respective stories, characters and settings? A common but inappropriate solution to what I denote as the "identity crisis" of these films has been to ascribe them to the vague category of "Festival Cinema" which does not explain much either.
The above mentioned films are in fact the complex hybridised end-products of a "nomadic" form of filmmaking, moving back and forth between as many national and cinematic boundaries as possible. For example, Thomas Elsaesser (1993:131) writes about German filmmaker Werner Herzog who, while avoiding Germany as subject of his films, has
travelled to the Sudan and West Africa, to Greece and the United States, to Ireland and the Canary Islands, to Latin America and Australia. There is thus, in Herzog's choice of locations, a curious and altogether typical mixture of uncivilised, primitive places, and some of the by now traditional holiday spots of affluent European. His landscapes are an ambiguous other(worldliness), most offensive to political internationalists[...].
Such a state of things can be said to materialise when the resources of production of certain films (actors, producers, directors or writers) can be identified as being profusely scattered around the world. These films consequently become so extremely pluralised and diverge into such multiplicity that they can hardly be contained within parameters of conventional (national) cinemas. They formulate a schizogenic category of cinema which is perpetually in a state of (re)formation.
Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), based in Latin America and starring his fetish actor Klaus Kinski, fits well into such a category. Described as a 'metaphysical Tarzan' by Pauline Kael and as 'a Parsifal among the Tuis' by Erich Fried, according to Elsaesser (1993:128-9), Herzog reinforces this reputation with his Australia-based Where The Green Ants Dream (1984). In the latter film, he indeed "charges" to the defence of Aborigines whom he considers to be oppressed by corporate giants and white capitalist society at large. He does not miss the opportunity either to address his favourite metaphysical themes relating to the meaning of life and to the position of humankind in the universe, especially in the interaction between Bruce Spence's character and the Aboriginal elders. But what is particularly interesting about Where The Green Ants Dream is the set of questions which it inevitably triggers about its cinematic identity. Could it be called "Australian" because of its setting? Would the Aboriginal people appropriate it somehow for their own cause because of the central theme's relevance to them? Would the Germans claim it as part of (New) German cinema because of Herzog's nationality?
What I categorise as "Internationalised cinema" describes and accounts for "homeless" films - such as those mentioned above - which contain elements of Hollywood mainstream, (European) Art cinema as well as elements of national cinemas without in fact specifically "belonging" to any of them. Another example is Island (1989) which, shot in Greece, was written and directed by Dutch-born Paul Cox who works mostly in Australia. The lead actors are Greek, Australian and Sri Lankan respectively; the production crew and minor cast are made up of Greeks and Australians. The film tells neither a Greek nor an Australian story although it quite obviously follows a European Art cinema structure and style. Some might call it a "woman's story" but in any case it does not subscribe to any nationality. Thus, within the Australian context, Paul Cox as well as (New Zealander) Vincent Ward both seem to display some of the characteristics of Herzog's schizogenic "internationalism" in cinema.
The application of common markers intrinsic to more familiar cinematic categories - even if the intention were to claim or prove the diversity of a cinematic apparatus - can only deal but inconclusively with the resultants of globalised, internationalised filmmaking. A film which displays intra- and extra-textually a diverse international filmic palette cannot unproblematically be assigned the nationality of its production company nor that of its director nor that of its setting. It cannot in fact be attributed the nationality of any of the elements it contains since they all operate in contradictory terms to "deny" the film of a particular nationality or cinematic identity, hence its "homelessness". The extreme plurality of the internationalised film suggests that it could potentially be so many things while being nothing really specific. It should be noted en passant that Internationalised cinema is not too far away from what Susan Hayward (1993:233) calls "bricolage" which she describes as 'an assembling of different styles, genres or discourses'.
The validation of a certain form of filmmaking within the "openness" of Internationalised cinema is necessary because it prevents the ambiguity that could potentially arise from the incorporation of "homeless" internationally-oriented films into, as well as demarcating them from, the general structure of more specifically defined and structured (national) cinemas. In the same way that ethnic and cinematic diasporas/post-diasporas are formulated by the specificities of their "displaced subjects", Internationalised cinema is similarly fluid, shaped and specified by the combined characteristics of "homelessness" of its "subjects".
It is worth noting that the forms of hybridisation and the identification of cinematic homelands that a category of Australian cinematic diaspora/post-diaspora intends to focus upon have occasionally been addressed in the past under the rubric of "Mid-Pacific" cinema. The latter is meant to describe filmmaking practices considered to be "half-way" between Hollywood cinema and Australian cinema, such as those of Dr. George Miller, Bruce Beresford or Fred Schepisi for example (it is interesting to note that these three Australian directors have all had successful careers in Hollywood). "Mid-Pacific" cinema is in fact a derivative of the term "Mid-Atlantic" cinema which was coined in the 1950s and 1960s 'to describe the films made in Hollywood by British filmmakers or in Britain by Hollywood studios' (Sklar, 1993:501). "Mid-Atlantic" cinema was applied to such productions as David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963); and it was somewhat revived in the 1980s to accommodate the "translantic" filmmaking of Wim Wenders. The main problem with such geocinematic labels is that their vagueness (how wide is the Pacific or the Atlantic?) disables them from being as semantically prolific as cinematic post-diasporas can potentially turn out to be. Furthermore, "Mid-Atlantic" and "Mid-Pacific" centralise Hollywood so excessively that similar kinds of relationship between other (national) cinemas or cinematic homelands - as illustrated by Until The End of the World (1992) or Map of the Human Heart (1993) for example - are either relegated to a quasi-anonymous peripheral position or else totally ignored.
Rather than being applied to potential subjects - as in the case of William Safran's (1991) normative universalisation of diaspora - it would be more plausible to consider a diaspora/post-diaspora as acquiring its magnitude through the characteristics of subjects under scrutiny. It is mainly through the experience of dispersed subjects that the semantic parameters and the operative dynamics of any diaspora/post-diaspora can be established. And such experience inevitably influences the diasporic subject's way of life in the "adopted" country of residence, for example living Indian in Mauritius, living Chinese in Canada, living Serbian or Croatian in Australia. Thus, what is important to remember is that each diasporic experience is unique since it evolves from each people's very different sets of circumstances, motivations and predicaments. Films too are made under different circumstances, for different reasons and involve different personels; they are obviously influenced or affected by the national cinemas and cultures within which they are produced. Hence, the outcomes of an Australian cinematic diaspora/post-diaspora are likely to differ from those of a German or Canadian one for instance, although they might have some point of communion in the sharing of similar cinematic homelands.
It should be noted however that since ties with the original homeland have the ability to consolidate the imagination of the "real" home and encourage a desire of return, the diasporic subject might have the tendency to consider himself or herself - and be considered - as being only "in transit" within and always foreign to the "adopted" country of residence. The condition of diaspora, by virtue of relationship(s) with the homeland of origin, might also seem to accentuate the difference of the diasporic subject within the "adopted" country of residence. Hence, diasporas become for Khachig Tölölyan (1991:6)
emblems of transnationalism because they embody the question of borders, which is at the heart of any adequate definition of the Others in the nation-state. The latter always imagines and represents itself as a land, a territory, a place that functions as the site of homogeneity, equilibrium, integration [...].
To rephrase this comment from Tölölyan in cinematic terms, I would suggest that cinematic diasporas are emblems of transnationalism because they embody the question of borders, which is at the heart of any adequate definition of the cinematic Others within the national cinema. The latter always imagines and represents itself on film in terms of the myths of the land, a cinematic territory, a place that functions as the site of homogeneity, equilibrium, integration.
Just as Ien Ang (1994:11) was 'found wanting' in being categorised diasporically and for not speaking Chinese, films of the Australian cinematic diaspora might similarly be found wanting due to their inability of "speaking Australian" filmically and to their lack of "authentic roots" in Australian culture. This seems to find expression, for example, in Sylvia Lawson's (1965:153-4) comment that many early Australian films were not worth of our nostalgia because
they seem to have been mostly naive farce and naive melodrama, home-made versions of well-tried international formulae rather than anything distinctively ours. [my emphasis]
And a similar attitude might probably have been expected from her about Australian cinema in the 1980s, particularly in reaction to the filmmaking of Richard Franklin, Phillip Noyce or Dr. George Miller for instance. The Australian cinematic diaspora is hence made up of films which, although made in Australia by Australians, display in categorical terms the characteristics pertaining to a cinematic homeland. Basically, the central idea is that such films, by deliberately not including iconic or at least unambiguous markers of "Australianness", could potentially have been made anywhere else in the world - their dominant and most significant characteristic being the strong affinities they preserve with the cinematic homeland. And this is indeed not a recent phenomenon: 'the feature films made in Australia between 1945 and 1970 were above all American or, to a lesser extent, British films and used Australia as a kind of exotic backdrop' (McFarlane & Mayer, 1992:2) - which sounds very much like Meaghan Morris's (1988) first theory of unoriginality.
In that sense, one very Hollywoodian film made in Australia - from Dr. George Miller's production "stable" - is Dead Calm (1989), directed by Phillip Noyce. Except for the train-station, the police officers and Sam Neill's Australian Navy uniform in the first five minutes, there are no clear markers of "Australianness" in the film (the ocean is too universal/vague and does not constitute a precise iconic geographical marker). Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman are legitimate stars of the Australian screen but their somewhat "unspecific" accents do not give them away as Australians. And the presence of Billy Zane could well be interpreted as a reinforcement or emphasis of the film's aspiration for and attachment to Hollywood. Dead Calm is very likely to have been Noyce's ticket to Hollywood since it got him
some attention by demonstrating his bravura command of widescreen framespace and showing off ominous suspense techniques he used to create an ambience dripping with dread. (Emerson; Film Comment, 1992:72)
It should be noted that Noyce's film also shares certain thematic, narrational and visual similarities with Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962). In any case, Dead Calm is not an Australian story - it is a "universal(ised)" tale of the probable. It seems to be one of these Australian films striving for a Hollywoodian universality - hence access to a wider international audience - by downplaying or ignoring local specificities. Like Babe, the story of Dead Calm could happen anywhere... or nowhere. And, as Jim Emerson (Film Comment, 1992:72) appropriately comments about Phillip Noyce,
it doesn't much matter if he's making a little Australian road movie (Backroads, 1977) or an elegiac chronicle about the demise of the Aussie newsreel industry (Newsfront, 1978) or a political mystery about a real estate scandal (Heatwave, 1981) [...] or a tongue-in-cheek martial arts movie about a blind modern-day samurai warrior (Blind Fury, 1989). Or even a $43-million Tom Clancy espionage thriller starring Harrison Ford: this summer's Patriot Games (1992) [as well as Clear and Present Danger in 1994]. Noyce says he just wants to "reach out and grab" an audience.
Chris Noonan's Babe (1995) is considered as being part of the Australian cinematic diaspora because it is obviously more Hollywoodian than anything else. The extensive input of Australian resources in Babe would satisfy the criteria of the ABT (now the Australian Broadcasting Authority) for example, amongst other State-sanctioned film institutions, in 'determining the level of Australian involvement' as mentioned earlier. Chris Noonan, Dr. George Miller, Magda Szubanski, Nigel Westlake, John Cox and Hugo Weaving are, of course, the big Australian names associated with the film. But one should not forget the involvement of key production crew members, the post-production personnel in Kennedy-Miller's Sydney studios, the animal trainers and all the local labour utilised for the shoot in NSW. According to Andrew Urban (The Bulletin, 1996:42)
[o]f that $34 million [Babe's production budget], an estimated $24 million was spent in Australia including some on computer designs [by John Cox in Queensland], immediately establishing the film as a decent export-earner even before it was seen by a single paying customer anywhere. The rest was spent on animatronics in London and computer graphics and additional voice recordings in Los Angeles.
But 'Australian involvement' is only one criterion for assessing "Australianness" and Babe, while satisfying it in certain ways, does not display other unambiguous (extra-)textual markers which would justify the national identity it has been attributed. Past experience is important to the process of viewing because it moulds textual expectations and since watching Babe does not occur in a cinematic vacuum, the cinema-goer is more than likely to apply the knowledge of previous Australian films in searching for and decoding "Australianness", if any, in the film.
Except for some money invested by the "local" Kennedy-Miller Entertainment, Babe's major source of finance is American Universal Pictures: it is after all the most expensive movie ever made in Australia. As Chris Noonan (Murray; Cinema Papers, 1995:53) confirms: 'We knew that the cost of the film [$34 million] was going to be quite high in Australian terms, and believed that the only way of getting it financed was with American money'. Hence, in relation to its financial situation and its production accountability, Babe is significantly different from the majority of State-funded Australian films. From the start, it was obviously not geared towards agendas of national identification - displaying "Australianness" for example - but towards agendas of a more universal (and probably commercial) nature. Any significant involvement of State-funding in the making of Babe is very likely to have resulted to the inclusion of more direct, clearer and unambiguous markers of "Australianness" in the film (the latter "requirement" would have simply been the State's justification in financing the film). Babe could potentially be American or anything else non-Australian. The somewhat American or "quasi-universal" feel of Babe is hardly subtle. 'Given the large budget, the studio [Universal Pictures] wanted the film to be accessible to American children', says Dr. George Miller (Murray; Cinema Papers, 1995:53). Babe seems to have satisfied Hollywood-oriented viewing expectations by not being too Australian, or rather by displaying an extremely ambiguous "Australianness", which in a certain way reconciles it with the agents of the Australian film milieu as well. Thus, Babe could potentially be described domestically as a "good commercial Australian" film and internationally as a "good American film set in Australia".
The setting of Babe is a good illustration of the ambiguity of its "Australianness", compared to any of those from Cinema Papers's list of the ten best Australian films for example. The five-month shoot took place in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales and, except maybe for the sheep and the shearing sequence, there is no clear indication of the farm's "Australianness". Such ambiguity was deliberately wanted by Dr. George Miller who explains that '[t]he biggest regret is that we didn't put at the end, "shot entirely on location in storybook land", because that was certainly our intention; [...] it very consciously has a storybook look. We wanted to shoot the film as if it came out of the pages of a storybook' (Murray; Cinema Papers, 1995:53). This view is confirmed by Positif critic Catherine Axelrad (1996:41):
Il ne faudrait pas néanmoins théoriser outre-mesure, ni chercher dans cette (gentille) satire d'une "culture australienne" - à base d'élevage ovin et de concours de chiens de berger - autre chose qu'une comédie joyeusement féerique. Tout concourt à accentuer cette atmosphère à commencer par le décor: la façade de la ferme rappelle celle des dessins d'enfants (fenêtres=yeux; porte=bouche), et sa silhouette trapue évoque la maison de la sorcière découverte par Hansel et Gretel.
In this (pleasant) satire of an "Australian culture" - founded on sheep-farming and sheep-dog competitions - it is not necessary to theorise extensively about nor to look for anything else than a happily magical comedy. Everything emphasises this atmosphere, with the setting for a start: the front of the house reminds of those from children's drawings (windows=eyes; door=mouth), and its squat figure evokes the witch's house discovered by Hansel and Gretel.
Like the setting, the accents of the characters in Babe are also ambiguous because they are simply indeterminate and difficult to identify accurately. Although they might theoretically have been British, because of Dick King-Smith, or Australian, because of the setting, Universal Pictures made sure that the accents were not too thick nor too specific again for the sake of American children, the biggest expected audience of the film. As Dr. George Miller explains: '[H]ad we not had the accents as neutral or as clear as they are now, we certainly would not have ended up with 1800 cinemas in the middle of the American summer' (Murray; Cinema Papers, 1995:53).
In relation to the "informative" function of Australian cinema referred to earlier and as provided by "period" films for example, Babe hardly seems to say anything about Australia and its people. Sandra Hall (The Bulletin, 1995/96:148) does suggest that
it's the kind of story that Australians know well - about coming of age [probably like Bruce Beresford's Puberty Blues (1981)] - although in this case, the dark secret to be cracked is not sex and how to do it but death and how to respond to it.
But this also begs the question whether this particular form of "Australianness" of the story is actually visible enough or even sufficient in itself to legitimise Babe's Australian identity, considering its presentation in terms of a deliberate departure from an assumed "traditional" Australian form. In any case, is it not the kind of story, either about sex or death, which not only Australians but everybody else knows well too? The "coming of age" tale, although highly characteristic of Australian films, is hardly the sole "property" of Australian cinema and has been explored elsewhere, like in Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (1986) or John Hughes's The Breakfast Club (1985) for example.
Thus, any attempt at reading and detecting "Australia" in Babe is problematic and difficult due to a deliberate universalisation of its themes and messages. On the contrary, as Monica Zetlin (Cinema Papers, 1995:44) points out:
[i]t celebrates a sweet, idealistic world where the values of humour and friendship are recognized without ignoring the nasty surprises life [...] has in store. [my emphasis]
Babe is a very ambiguous "Australian" text: either it belongs to "storybook land", a world of its own making or it could be described as cinematically diasporic, or else - in accordance with Meaghan Morris (1988) - "positively unoriginal".
The category of Australian cinematic diaspora could be extended to incorporate films made in Australia by non-Australians which are not concerned about textual confirmation - through accents, local stories or iconic geographical markers - of their Australian setting, although they do make use of Australian labour in one way or another. Such is the case for Martin Campbell's Escape From Absolom (1994), based on Richard Herley's The Penal Colony. In a similar way as in Don Siegel's Escape From Alcatraz (1979), the lead character of Escape From Absolom, John Robbins (Ray Liotta), is only concerned about escaping from a prison. There are glimpses of the sun-drenched desert at the start of the film but no iconic detail to specify "Australianness"; this is the same for the jungle island wherein most of the action occurs - both locations could indeed have been anywhere. Hence, it is never possible to detect that the film was shot in Australia: at the Warner Roadshow Movie World Studios on the Gold Coast, at Videopack Studios in Artamon and in various places in Queensland and New South Wales. This is confirmed by the credits which acknowledge the help of the Canungra Army Base in Queensland, the Land Warfare Centre - Department of Defence in Queensland and the Queensland National Parks and Wild Life Service. Films such as Luis Llosa's Sniper (1992), Stuart Gordon's Fortress (1993) and Steven deSouza's Streetfighter (1995) have also been shot on the Gold Coast in Queensland - because 'Australian locations have the capacity to double as American, European, Asian locations and geographically unspecific locations' (O'Regan, 1996:84) and because the various forms of labour required in the production process are cheaper in Australia than in the USA.
The possibility of return for the cinematic diaspora, as explained before, is literally effected when directors go ("back") to the homeland to make films of the homeland. The return could be seen as a celebration of the images and myths of the cinematic homeland with which the filmmaker grew up and/or developed his or her craft. Hence, in relation to the Australian cinematic diaspora, Simon Wincer who told the very "Australian" stories of Phar Lap in 1983 and The Lighthorsemen in 1987, went to Hollywood to make the "excessively" American (and flop) Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man in 1991 - taking with him David Eggby, the director of photography for the first Mad Max. While acknowledging that he loves making films in Australia, Simon Wincer (Prisk, Encore, 1991:8) explains that there is a lot to be learnt from working in the U.S:
We've got an enormous amount to learn about script and character development and structure, in pacing, in editing, in telling our stories in a more concise way ... over the years different ways of telling stories evolve and it's up to us to try and keep pace with those techniques.
And to maintain the slightly "bizarre" trend of his filmmaking career, he turned up with the blockbuster family movie Free Willy in 1993 and with the comedy-Western Lightning Jack in 1994. A similar path as Simon Wincer's has been followed by Gillian Armstrong with Mrs. Soffel (1984) and Little Women (1995); Phillip Noyce with Patriot Games (1992) and Sliver (1993); Peter Weir with Witness (1985) and Fearless (1994); Fred Schepisi with The Russia House (1990) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993); Bruce Beresford with Tender Mercies (1982) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989); and Richard Franklin with Psycho II (1983).
Salman Rushdie (1992:23) suggests in relation to Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) that
"Over the Rainbow" is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world's migrants, all those who go in search of the place where 'the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true'. It is a [...] hymn - the hymn - to Elsewhere.
Such metaphor has a lot of significance to the idea of an Australian cinematic diaspora. Australian filmmakers indeed seem to be inflicted with the "Over the Rainbow" syndrome, leaving "home" and going elsewhere, not necessarily for reasons of commercial gain but more likely in search of the place(s) wherein dreams come true - usually Hollywood or Europe.
New: 16 December, 1996 | Now: 29 April, 2015