Certain film-makers deserve better critics and better audiences. Baz Luhrmann is one of those directors. Wild and provocative ideas punch from his camera. He is a cinematic shark. He keeps moving.
And then there is Australia.
Luhrmann never needs to make another blockbuster. In Australia, he has compressed five films into one. It is a western, war movie, romance, earthy comedy and social drama. He has managed to nod, wink at and reference almost every Australian film ever made. From Jedda to The Man from Snowy River, from Kenny to The Castle, from Breaker Morant to Gallipoli, from My Brilliant Career to Picnic at Hanging Rock, Australia is a meta-movie, the Rosetta stone of national cinema.
Controversial, corny, brittle, edgy and risky, it absorbs a plurality of nationalisms. Gillian Whitlock and David Carter, in their early (1992) and outstanding collection of essays, catalogued these Images of Australia: “We might think of the vast number of different and often contradictory phrases which pop up from time to time in the media to describe Australia or parts of Australia; a multicultural nation, a British nation, an Aboriginal nation, an ‘American’ nation, an Asian-Pacific nation, a sporting nation, a nation of slobs, a Christian society, a secular society, an egalitarian society, a racist or sexist society, the land of the outback, the land of suburbia, a workingman’s paradise, a banana republic.”
All these phrases are wedged into the iconography of Australia. The dual forces of propulsion and fragmentation in the film mean that, like a snake shedding its skin, each description is celebrated and then discarded in turn. The history of Australian cinema – and the cinematic history of Australia – is recut and reconfigured.
The reason for this iconographic schizophrenia is that the consequences of colonialism are pervasively present in Australia, from the flag to the head of state, from media institutions to the language. That is why, to moderate this British institutional heritage, Hollywood genres and templates are poached and grafted on to the popular cultural imagining. Mad Max and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert used the road-movie genre and retraced it over the Australian landscape.
Luhrmann was able to tame the paradoxes of Australian cinema and the landscape by pouring images, sounds and ideas into another Hollywood genre: the historical romance. The key critical parallel to Australia is Gone with the Wind. Luhrmann references scenes, lighting techniques and backdrops. While the acting of Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman has been questioned, when seen in parallel with Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh, the models for their performance are obvious. The brittleness and pride of the heroine at the start of the narrative is bent and weathered by life. Jackman’s rough, honest, charming hero has appropriated Rhett Butler’s capacity to move between the civilised and dispossessed. While the heroines have a trajectory of growth in both films, the hero’s task is to provide the scaffolding for that journey. Luhrmann continues to nod at Gone with the Wind with the intricate – and disturbing – dissonance of superficial humour and stark racism. On Australia’s “Mission Island”, the ruthlessness, discrimination and horror are revealed.
Luhrmann has a history of playing with history. His 1996 rendering of Romeo and Juliet was set on Verona Beach in the 1990s. The soundtrack featured disco covers and a version of Prince’s When Doves Cry. These references are not ephemeral or “clever-clever” film-making, but rather significant building blocks of plot, character and effect. Now that Luhrmann has a continent to play with, rather than Verona or the Paris of Moulin Rouge, his wider cinematic project becomes clear. He demonstrates that it is possible to be playfully ironic and emotionally sincere, trashily pastiching the past while simultaneously constructing a monument to cinema.
Occasionally, Luhrmann explains the rationale for his film-making, justifying his combination of grief, humour and commentary about social issues: “You’re constantly awaking the audience so they participate… Just when you think, ‘this is so cheesy, I’m going to throw up,’ I’m going to kick you in the stomach. In that state, there’s an agreement that they know they are going to be emotionally manipulated, and they surrender to it. The audience does not come and pay $8 to watch someone else be really careful.”
This risk-taking film-making explains the uneven critical responses to Luhrmann’s work. Australia has been attacked because of the speed at which the director moves viewers from emotion to emotion, veering from the drunken farce of Jack Thompson’s accountant to the stark injustice of the stolen generation.
Through the controversies, Luhrmann provides a thinking space for scholars and complements the research of risk-taking academics. One of the best, grittiest and most challenging monographs exploring the nation’s past is Chris Healy’s From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory. In it, he argues that the goal for (post)colonial Australia is “learning to inhabit landscapes of memory which are, in part, landscapes littered with ruins; some archaic and others nightmarish, some quaint simulations and others desperate echoes”. This sentence captures the vision and project of Australia. Faraway Downs plays with the Wizard of Oz to layer new memories over the old, creating new ways of thinking about “home”.
Sadly, much UK attention on Australia has been refracted through Germaine Greer’s review in The Guardian, describing the film as “a fraudulent and misleading fantasy”. She also responded to Marcia Langton’s more positive interpretation in The Age newspaper. The major issue unmentioned by Greer is that all films are fraudulent. The medium lies, cajoles, distorts and bends. Australia is not a documentary, just as Gone with the Wind was not a documentary about slavery and the American Civil War. Strictly Ballroom was not a documentary about dancing, and Moulin Rouge was not a mirror on 1890s Paris.
Greer’s attack is not unusual. Luhrmann’s films face antagonistic responses because he constructs heightened sensibilities and opportunities through popular culture. He understands the lie of feature films. He wants the artificiality to be productive and transformative. What is disturbing is that almost all the journalistic reviews of Australia retell the plot. Movies are not solely or perhaps even primarily reducible to their narrative. Ironically, critics who so often welcome a plurality of interpretations of Shakespeare or Pinter grant popular culture a singular (exploitative) function in art, life and capitalism.
Critical simplicity in response to popular cultural complexity has dogged Luhrmann’s work because he uses sentiment as a style. His opponents read this decision as a sign of intellectual weakness and simplicity in form. But the director uses sentiment as a modality to harness the history of cinema. He is committed to conveying – with authenticity – the inauthenticity of popular culture.
Unfortunately, because of the status of media studies in British journalism and cultural life, there is no space to suggest that maybe (just maybe) there are particular topics, subjects, concepts and ideas that are better analysed and framed through media and cultural studies than through tropes of realism, art and the literary canon.
For me, one of the greatest guides through this popular cultural project of identity and difference is Homi Bhabha. A capacity to synthesise and innovate sizzles through his prose. An applicable (post)colonial discourse is created: “My reading of colonial discourse suggests that the point of intervention should shift from the identification of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse.”
Too many writers about film are locked in the earnest determination of positive and negative representations. That explains the chatter about Nicole Kidman’s accent or David Gulpilil’s clothing. When actors of colour are involved in the action, the ideological hand wringing becomes more intense. We need to move beyond conflicts over representation to initiate more important debates about history, consciousness, politics, law and injustice. Only then can we – to use Bhabha again – “bear witness to the trauma that accompanies the triumphal art of Empire”. Luhrmann’s film not only offers a witness to the injustices of the past but attacks the standards of art that sustain the engines of colonial inequality.