A Very Brief, Personal Journey Through Australian Film
This essay is written as a contribution to the Oz Film Blogathon, a week long project corralled by Scott Henderson here. This is a personal essay chronicling my own journey into Australian film. It is subjective and written with total blinkers on.
A few years ago David Bordwell posited a theory he dubbed, 'The Law of the Adolescent Window'. It is a theory that, at least anecdotally, rings true for me and it defined a perception I carried about Australian film that I steadfastly held onto for many years. It was only recently (the past two years or so) that I have been able to overcome this pervasive, reactionary feeling I had towards Australian film.
Bordwell's theory is this:
"Between the ages of 13 and 18, a window opens for each of us. The cultural pastimes that attract us then, the ones we find ourselves drawn to and even obsessive about, will always have a powerful hold. We may broaden our tastes as we grow out of those years—we should, anyhow—but the sports, hobbies, books, TV, movies, and music that we loved then we will always love."
This theory is particularly powerful for me as around the age of 12 or 13 my serious interest and passion in film really took hold. I definitely remember the moment I began to read the credits of films and learned what the role of a director was. This was the birth of my cinephilia and of course the next few years were definitive in developing my own personal taste. For the record, my "adolescent window" was 1993 to 1998.
Australian film over this period was in an odd place, certainly a place that was of little interest to a young boy who was frantically consuming everything from Tarantino, Film Noir, French New Wave and much more. In fact, the arch, populist and parochial nature of local film at the time was distinctly off-putting. 1994 was the year of Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers and The Shawshank Redemption. 3 films that had a powerful influence on me as a developing obsessive. On the home front though, we saw Priscilla and Muriel's Wedding hit the headlines. Not much of interest to a 14 year old boy to be sure.
Over the next few years my interest in Australian film waned. I paid attention to our output but cannot say there was much to catch a growing cinephiles attention. Sporadic highlights were Angel Baby in 95, Kiss or Kill in 97 (probably one of the best Australian films of the 90s in my opinion) and The Interview in 98 (I was reading a lot of Kafka at the time).
Over this defining time several decent films came out of this country so I'm not being so reductionist as to say that this period was a total void in quality output (Shine, The Boys, Head On, The Castle, Love Serenade to name just a few films that I highly regard) (Bad Boy Bubby was released in 1993 but sadly I did not discover that film until several years later so I cannot really discuss my personal feelings about it. Needless to say it is also one of the best films to come out of this country in the 90s).
I think it would be fair to say though that there were certain currents that ran through most of our local output in this period. To my young cineaste eyes I saw two types of Australian films being produced. The feelgood "Aussie" comedy (Priscilla, Muriel's Wedding, The Castle, Dating The Enemy, Love and Other Catastrophes, Thank God He Met Lizzie, et al) which for a young teenager with a burgeoning interest in film held absolutely ZERO appeal, or the second category which was the very serious, self-important, frequently dour "Aussie" kitchen-sink drama (Head On, BlackRock, Shine, The Sum of Us, Hotel Sorrento, Under The Lighthouse Dancing, et al). While many of these films in the second category were of passable quality they frustrated my youthful self. I was consuming film at a ridiculous pace and having some pretty significant experiences (Dead Man in 95, Trainspotting in 96, Boogie Nights in 97). These were films that were shaping me as a film fan. They were directing me to films in the past while pointing to the future in terms of content and style. What was coming out of Australia simply was insignificant compared to the breadth of international cinema at the time.
Many have spoken in recent years of a cultural cringe when trying to explain why Australian's haven't headed to the cinema to see their local output. In a way this became true for me in the intervening years following my adolescent window but I don't think my disinterest in Australian film was simply because they were Australian. As a dedicated cinephile I still paid due interest to the output of my own country. It would've been remiss and stubbornly ignorant to totally ignore local films but the dichotomy of our output was deeply imprinted in my psyche. I had no personal interest in the two types of Australian films made and actually grew quite reactionary to any film that foregrounded 'Australian' characteristics (Two Hands is a perfect example of something that pissed me off at the time. It felt like a standard crime film with archly Australian characteristics stamped onto it. Goodfellas in thongs indeed. Needless to say, I didn't like it). I didn't want my country to make 'Australian' films. I wanted my country to simply make 'good' films.
The absolute irony in my personal relationship with Australian film is that the film that singularly turned me around and finally eliminated my reactionary nature was a film that was totally 'Australian', serious, self-important and dour. Samson & Delilah was a masterpiece. It had craft, technique and style to spare. In the few years prior a small resurgence had begun to poke through the cracks and I started to pay attention to our output with more diligence. Films such as Wolf Creek, The Magician and The Proposition all got my attention but they were still in a minority.
After Samson & Delilah I caught The Square. Bang, I was blown away again. Things were getting exciting and since then I have had the pleasure of enjoying Balibo, The Loved Ones, Red Hill, Animal Kingdom, Beneath Hill 60 and The Horseman. As well as watching our industry produce films that didn't fit into my imprinted from the 90s two-category system such as Tomorrow When The War Began, Mary & Max, Van Dieman's Land, Not Quite Hollywood, Cactus, Beautiful, Bran Nue Day, and several others.
Sadly general audiences haven't turned around as briskly as I have and returned to the theatres. Two of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in a theatre this year (Red Hill and The Loved Ones) were shunned by local audiences. Everyone has their own theory on why these films haven't found audiences locally but I feel like we cannot take these figures to heart. It will take some time for audiences here to understand that a shift has taken place. Surely these local numbers are disappointing but personally I feel Australian film is entering a golden period. We need to stick to our resolve and be confident that we are on the right track. It will take time to lure local audiences back to the cinema to watch local product. Personally it took several years for me to become re-interested in local product.
The tide is turning, it is turning slowly but surely. Tomorrow When The War Began showed us that teenagers will still come to local product (despite them not turning onto others this year). A few more years on this new path and I believe we will be a force to reckon with. A new generation of cinephiles are lucky enough to be growing up right now in a exciting period. A new renaissance of entertaining and stylish films that engage with popular audiences in ways that I haven't seen in many years. Those in their current 'adolescent window' will hopefully form some solidly positive views on Australian film.