Australian Cinema in the 1990s


Additional resources

Screenings: (listed in date order)

One of my subsidiary aims in presenting this unit is to make use of, indeed to showcase the work of some of my students. My plan to have Helena Sharp give the lecture in Week 6 on the woman's film was upset when she had to go to New Zealand at that time - but you could at least read the paper that we published that is the essence of her Honours dissertation. I was more successful in Week 9, when David Thomas gave the lecture based on his research for his PhD, which he is finishing as we speak. And once again you could read the the paper that we published that is the essence of his Honours dissertation. David gave a presentation on the "Gothic" film in 2004 and 2005, but in 2006 we broadened the scope, with the title "Horror".

This week's presentation is partly based on the work of Stuart Moffat, and his Honours thesis, Into the Darkness: The Evolution of a Dark Film Style in Australian Cinema, Hons dissertation, Murdoch University, Perth, 2001, in which he examines

... the recent influx of "dark" films in Australian cinema that have emerged at the forefront of Australian feature length film production in the last decade (1990-2000).
For Moffat:
... the darkness is not represented through generic conventions, but is more concerned with stylistics and how the implicit dark mood and tone of these films is conveyed visually through formal attributes such as mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing techniques of the production process. (Moffat: vi)
However, this unit, as you know, is based precisely on the notion of generic conventions, so, although I'll borrow and cite some of Moffat's ideas, I'll also present hypotheses of my own.

I want to suggest that the films of the 1990s may have been unconsciously influenced by a sense of things coming to an end, with the end of both a century and of a millennium.

The year 1996 was the end of the first hundred years of cinema. As George Miller says in his introduction to White Fellas Dreaming:

... after a century of cinema there is something new in the air. If cinema is public dreaming, then it's a sign of our cultural maturity that we've begun to dream the more toxic dreams. (Dr George Miller, 1997)

Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie, Alex Scott; 89 min.
Romper Stomper "... is situated in a confrontational zone between neo-nazi skinheads and Vietnamese gangs". (Moffat: 18)

It is "... a contemporary 'nightmare vision' of Australia, where racism, gang violence and retribution are a way of life in the suburbs". (Moffat: 3)

The dark side of Australian mateship; racial prejudice; the breakdown of society; the end of the romance genre (clip shown in Week 2)

Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1994) Nicholas Hope, Claire Bonito, Ralph Cotterill, Carmel Johnson, Syd Brisbane, Nikki Price; 111 min.
The overstated oedipal complex in Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1994) is an example of a filmic exhibition detailing the life of a modern-day 'freak'. Due to the perverse subject matter of the narrative, the film received an R-rating from the censors. The film is told from the point-of-view of an uneducated man-child who one day escapes from the prison-like confines of his mother's house. Once in the outside world, Bubby is exposed to sex, drugs and violence, while trying to come to terms with a calamitous modern society. (Moffat: 18)

This is an art film which is also a drama concerned with various social problems (cruelty, incest, violence, drugs, disability), and also a family melodrama. I see it basically as a sort of philosophical essay on film, raising the question: how would a person deal with the world who had been kept inside and away from it until the age of 35? It's the Martian question: what would a little green man from Mars make of ... punk rock, for example? But it also shows various models of the human family. So the clips I'll show are from near the beginning of the film, showing an extremely dysfunctional basic family, and then the last minute, in which de Heer suggests, at odds with the rest of the story, that everything can and will be all right.

Darkness and the family; child abuse, mental instability; the breakdown of the family [clip mother 7:07 - until Pop knocks --- clip end 1:45:37 - to end of film]

Every Night ... Every Night (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 1994) wr. Ray Mooney, Alkinos Tsilimidos; David Field, Bill Hunter, Robert Morgan, Phil Motherwell, Jim Daley, Jim Shaw, SimonWoodward, Theodore Zakos; prison drama [not on DVD]
... another daring and confronting prison film [is] Every Night ... Every Night (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 1994). This depiction of prison-life comments on the inhumane treatment of prisoners, by delving into social problematisations that deal with basic human rights. (Moffat: 18)

Institutional darkness; surveillance, punishment, cruelty; the breakdown of the rule of law; the breakdown of the story of "education"

Metal Skin (Geoffrey Wright, 1995) wr. Geoffrey Wright, prod. Daniel Scharf, Southern Star; Aden Young (Joe), Tara Morice (Savina), Ben Mendelsohn (Dazey), Nadine Garner (Roslyn), Chantal Contouri (Savina's mother); drama, thriller; psycho Joe, urban misfit, craves the respect of his peers on the streets and the love of a nice girl who secretly practises black magic
In the mid 1990s films such as Metal Skin (Geoffrey Wright, 1995), Idiot Box (David Caesar, 1996) and Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998) provide the viewer with glimpses of youth suicide, suburban entrapment and homosexuality. Each of these films constructs issues of nihilism, drug use, excessive violence and fast cars to name but a few. However, the element of crime within these films becomes more an act of social class identification, a way of life for its protagonists, rather than depicting 'white-collar' or corporate crime. Crime in these films plays an important part in the construction of character, in that it details cultural background and allows an expression of moral dilemma to formulate within the narrative. From the notion of moral downfall comes a sense of 'impending doom', which is more often than not open-ended, allowing the viewer to decide the fate of the protagonist(s). (Moffat: 59)

Darkness in the suburbs, part one: cars and craziness; the breakdown of technology, which can either kill at least trap you [clip start - "we gave you a start Joe" --- clip end 1:39:44 - Dazey: "I beat you" (x4) death of Psycho Joe]

Idiot Box (David Caesar, 1996) wr. David Caesar, prod. Nicki Roller, Glenys Rowe; Ben Mendelsohn (Kev), Jeremy Sims (Mick), John Polson (Jonah), Susie Porter (Betty); Kev and Mick rob a bank cos it seems like a good idea at the time; 82 min. (clip shown in Week 3)
Darkness in the suburbs, part two: boredom and crime

The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1997) prod. Robert Connolly, John Maynard; David Wenham (Brett Sprague), Toni Collette (Michelle), John Polson (Glenn), Lynette Curran (Sandra), Anthony Hayes (Stevie), Jeanette Cronin (Jackie), Anna Lise (Nola), Pete Smith (George)
The mid to late 1990s brought about a change in the realist structure of Australian films by relocating the issue of crime away from a cultural dependence and moving more toward notions of white masculinity expressed through violence. Recent films such as Blackrock (Steven Vidler, 1997) (Steven Vidler, 1997), The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1997) and Erskineville Kings (Alan White, 1999) (Alan White, 1999) demonstrate aspects of masculinised violence in extreme circumstances, usually through murder or rape. The overt masculinity represented in these films seeks to place the white Australian male in a position of empowerment and control. Often it is the threat of the female figure that undermines this patriarchal order, resulting in a type of male empowerment through psychological abuse and physical violence, as depicted in films like The Boys and the sub-plot of Praise (John Curran, 1998).

In terms of atmosphere, The Boys creates a claustrophobic world of despair and depravity. It is this sense of entrapment and despair that locks the viewer into the tight, small spaces of the house and car that the boys inhabit, never alleviating the tension that arises in the conflicting views of the characters. Rino Breebaart (2001: 2) discusses how a sense of fear is conveyed through the ordinary: "The film's most striking effect is to imbue these ordinary household objects or situations with expectant fear, as the rooms of the house become the bedfellows of claustrophobia and dread". The film's vérité style is achieved through the occasional use of hand-held camera techniques; low contrast filmstock and behind-the-scenes type of footage, enabling the film to express an almost documentary feel at times. Moffat: 63)

We're all gods in our own world; we're all gods; she's all right; yeh; look at her; and these are the worlds that we've made: fuckin Arakis, Nalderan, Moons of Infinity; she's lookin this way; Brett, mate, Brett [Brett stubs out cigarette on window] Brett: let's get her [film ends] Darkness in the suburbs, part three: misogyny and violence; breakdown of respect in gender relationships; brothers become a hunting pack, a horde; breakdown of dramatised documentation [clip end 1:15:07 - 1:19:25]

To Have and To Hold (John Hillcoat, 1997) aka The Small Man; Rachel Griffiths, Tcheky Karyo, David Field; broadcast on Channel 9, 19 December 2001 [not on DVD]
The expression of space in Australian films during the 1990s became more pessimistic due to the rapidity of social change. The films of this decade portrayed a darker tone and atmosphere through the representation of space and location. Films such as To Have and To Hold (John Hillcoat, 1997), The Well (Samantha Lang, 1997) and The Interview (Craig Monahan, 1998) construct ominous spaces from an almost Gothic treatment of subject matter. The protagonists in these films are represented as victims of circumstance as well as victims of the space around them. For instance in To Have and To Hold, the female protagonist finds herself a prisoner of her male lover's sinister past; she has to escape not only from his psychopathic tendencies, but also from the hostile jungles of Papua New Guinea. The unfamiliar jungle setting isolates the female character, making her vulnerable and exposed to the dangers of the surrounding landscape. The struggle for survival in To Have and To Hold is a central theme, although it is situated in a remote jungle, rather than in the outback. (Moffat 31-32)

Kate (Rachel Griffiths) is a romance writer whom Jack has got to replace his first wife, Rose, whom he has shot. He is obsessed with the memory of Rose, particularly her wearing a particular red dress and singing "I threw it all away". He tries to get Kate to become Rose. When she eventually escapes, he gets a native woman to become her instead.

Hillcoat previously directed Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead (1989) and most recently The Proposition (2005). Obsessive uxoriousness in tropical heat; the breakdown of the meaning of marriage as partnership; the end of romance [clip romance 1:03:22 - Jack shooting]

The Well (Samantha Lang, 1997) wr. Elizabeth Jolley (novel), Laura Jones; Pamela Rabe (Hester Harper), Miranda Otto (Katherine), Paul Chubb (Harry Bird), Frank Wilson (II) (Francis Harper), Steve Jacobs (Rod Borden), Genevieve Lemon (Jen Borden), Simon Lyndon (Jock); drama, thriller; Hester is obsessed with Katherine
The Well ... shifts the setting to a rural location, where it manages to imbue the narrative with a cold, stark atmosphere. The majority of The Well is shot so that the space that surrounds the characters evokes a deathly stillness and disquieting feel to it. Stylistically the effect of producing a drained colour scheme was achieved either by shooting the entirety of the film with blue filters over the camera lens, or by simply creating the effect in post-production. Visually the result creates a washed-out look in the appearance of the on-screen action. Although this type of effect draws the colour from the rest of the composition, it manages to instil a constant uneasiness in the film's space. (Moffat: 31)

Hester brings Katherine home to help her look after the place. Although the two women are very different, Hester becomes obsessed with Katherine. The other plot element is seen in this clip in which Katherine runs over a man on the road home while driving carelessly. Hester puts his body into the well, but there is some doubt as to whether he is dead or not.

[clip driving 48:32 - 53:28 look into well] Obsession, possession, breaking free from an unnatural liaison; mix of genres: the woman's film with horror

Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998) wr. Alex Proyas; Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland
In Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998), the visual style depicts a perpetual darkness that shrouds the entombed cityscape. Proyas's dark futuristic-vision combines a Gothic, supernatural atmosphere with science fiction overtones to relay its narrative concerns of identity, martyrdom and salvation. (Moffat: 46-47)

The Strangers tune the city.

fantasy of surveillance; loss of identity; breakdown of reality itself [clip intro 1:03 - Murdoch puts fish into water 4:05]

Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998) aka Loaded, novel by Christos Tsiolkas; prod. Jane Scott; Alex Dimitriades, Paul Capsis; 104 min.
... in Head On the denouement reveals Ari (Alex Dimitriades) alone in his self-indulgent world, walking along a stretch of the beach, left to ponder his isolation from family, friends and community. Head On constructs Ari as a drifter situated in a type of metaphorical limbo; he is rejected by both worlds as established through his Greek heritage and his Australian identity, so he never really resolves his cultural belonging to any one particular ethnicity. Ari's isolation raises many complex issues of social and cultural identity and is constructed in such a way by the filmmaker as to force the viewer to decide the open-ended plot. From the early to mid 1990s the influx of social realist films became evident in the Australian film industry, as if this genre film was attempting to locate a sense of Australian cultural identity out of a cluttered multicultural society. (Moffat: 59-60)

Darkness and the Greek family: sex, drugs and secrecy

In the Winter Dark (James Bogle, 1998) prod. Rosemary Blight, wr. Tim Winton (novel), James Bogle & James Rasmussen, dp Martin McGrath; Brenda Blethyn, Ray Barrett, Richard Roxburgh, Miranda Otto [not on DVD]
The dark characteristics that are specific within the film's plot structure are fear and isolation. Fear is obviously the major element that triggers suspense and keeps the audience engaged, while also providing the 'what will happen next' scenario to the film's cause and effect progression. It is not just fear, but more how fear is constructed that makes In the Winter Dark an intriguing film. The concept of fear is established through a particular cinematographic style and is manifested through character insecurities and past events. The use of dream sequences and flashbacks to the past is possibly crucial to understanding the filmic text. This is more often than not regarded as being a pretentious, self-indulgent way of initiating the narrative, but it often gives the viewer essential clues to discover how the narrative is structured, while also providing vital plot information. Hence the subtext of the film seems to disclose the answers to the narrative problems of ambiguity and incoherence, treated in a more surrealistic way to enable a specific interpretation of character motivation. It is made apparent that all the characters have something to fear, not just externally, but internally as well. The sense of isolation is what causes the characters to drift apart. They progress toward a state of madness and eventually become detached from themselves and on-screen 'reality'. The separation from the on-screen reality is the impetus for the narrative to convey a supernatural atmosphere of metaphysical ambiguity. (Moffat: 53-54)

Darkness in the darkness; natural or supernatural

The Interview (Craig Monahan, 1998) wr. Gordon Davie, Craig Monahan, dp Simon Duggan; Hugo Weaving, Tony Martin, Aaron Jeffrey, Paul Sonkkila; 100 min. (clip shown in Week 3)
... The Interview constructs its desolation in the form of a sterile interview room, used for the purpose of extracting a confession from a murder suspect. The confinement of the room offers its captive no reassurance as to whether he is guilty or innocent; in fact the narrative intentionally omits any sense of conviction, leaving the viewer to unravel the enigmatic fragments of evidence that are presented to the suspect. (Moffat: 32)

Crime, law enforcement, non-punishment

Praise (John Curran, 1999) wr. Andrew McGahan based on his novel, prod. Martha Coleman, dp Dion Beebe; Peter Fenton, Sacha Horler, Tex Perkins, Marta Dusseldorp, Joel Edgerton; AFI Nomination 1999; 98 min./100 min. (clip shown in Week 6)
Illness, indifference, alienation


Breebaart, Rino 2001, 'The interiors of fear' (accessed 14 June 2001)

Century of Cinema, The: White Fella Dreaming - A Century of Australian Cinema (Dr George Miller, 1997) [compilation] videotape

New: 18 January, 2006 | Now: 19 December, 2010