Gothic (David Thomas, 2005)


Readings

Screenings


This week we will wade through the muddy details of a distinct, yet indefinite category of Australian film - the Australian Gothic film - initially proposed by Dermody and Jacka in The Screening of Australia. [note 1] The clips in the lecture are from some of the 'originating' texts, while the main screening is probably the primary contemporary example of this slightly slippery genre. These films are gathered under the banner of 'New Australian Gothic', a phrase partly derived from David Punter and his work on New American Gothic Cinema. [note 2]

The notion of genre is a bit of a juggernaut of a critical tool, and although it is unavoidable (and indeed essential) when studying cinema, it can be suffocating for films that find themselves on the periphery of traditional categories. This week's selection of films will perhaps go some way towards demonstrating how the overlaps between categories, and the 'problems' of genre, can actually help us learn something about the films themselves, and the context out of which they are created.

So what is Australian Gothic, what are its characteristics and what does it look like? Well, there are no easy answers. This is a category that stretches across the spectrum of Australian Cinema, and is thought to be more of a style, and even a critical apparatus, than an identifiable genre. It is certainly not a phrase that is instantly recognisable. Above other things, it would seem that a persistent questionning of 'normality', a caricature of ordinary life, is somewhere near the centre of Australian Gothic Cinema. It is in the unsettling aspects of the everyday, the hyper-ordinary, that we begin to see the disturbing nature of much Australian Gothic Cinema forming. Rather than providing you with a formula and then seeing if the film fits, Australian Gothic demands that we watch the films, and then see what it is that we can say about them.

The clips that follow represent what is probably the canon of Australian Gothic Cinema, if there is such a thing. They are quite different, and are all, I think, important films.


Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

Walkabout is often cited as a stylistic precursor to, or even an early example of, Australian Gothic. It certainly contains many stylistic and narrative attributes that have come to be associated with Australian Gothic, while remaining at arms-length from the category.

The film follows two children who are stranded in a remote and inhospitable part of the country after their father commits suicide. It is a visually spectacular film that touches on issues of repressed sexuality, the tensions between European and Aboriginal people in Australia, and the danger and menace of the outback.

The scene shown is very early in the film, in which the children become stranded.


The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974)

The Cars That Ate Paris is the second film from which I'll take a clip, is the main screening for the week, and was Weir's first feature-length directorial effort. The film has garnered a good deal of theroretical attention, and while it now looks relatively unsophisticated, is an interesting take on some of the social ills of the small country town. It is generally agreed that Cars is the exemplar of Australian Gothic.

The film really plays with every Gothic tool available. Social disillusionment and psychological breakdown are spliced with surreal and grotesque horror in quite a striking fashion. The clip you will see is, for me, the most disturbing part of the film, as the townspeople strip a crashed car, and a hapless victim, of anything of value.


Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978)

Patrick is a very different film to Cars. It is a more coherent and stylish film, and is far more 'generic', introducing the problem of the slippage in terms like 'horror' and 'Gothic'. The film follows a nurse as she attempts to communicate with, and ultimately save, a man who is apparently in a vegetative coma, but who displays evidence of mental activity. The film is important to investigate as it participates in the traditional Gothic genre in a way few other examples of Australian Gothic do.


Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1979)

Colin Eggleston's unusual horror film is a very complicated object of study. Like Patrick, it is more polished than Cars, but uncertainty, paranoia and the malevolence of the landscape play a very big role in the narrative. It is a powerful and oddly disturbing example of the disorder that exists just 'beneath the surface' that is the trademark, if there is such a thing, of Australian Gothic.

The clip shown is one of the many 'encounters' the characters experience with their environment while on a camping holiday.


Dogwatch (Laurie McInnes, 1999)

Dogwatch is a challenging contemporary expression of Australian Gothic. It is visually dark, like McInnes's previous film, Broken Highway (1993), but is a much more coherent text. The film has an involving narrative that explores the consequences of isolation and desperation, a theme common to Australian Gothic cinema.


Visitors (Richard Franklin, 2003)

A bit like Patrick, Visitors is more of a generic horror film than some of the other Australian Gothic films. Both films are directed by Richard Franklin, but Visitors is a far more ambiguous text, as it keeps the viewer in a position of uncertainty on several different levels. We are never really certain what is real, what is a dream, what is a hallucination, and for that matter, whether it is even important. Visitors explores isolation and psychological pressure, which is why I have included it here, but is a confusing text as it leaves us struggling for information.

The clip to be shown is typical of the way this film confuses the depth of information to which the viewer has access.


There are many films that might be called Australian Gothic. These are some of the better-known examples.

Bliss (Ray Lawrence, 1985)
The Plumber (Peter Weir, 1978)
Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1994)
The Well (Samantha Lang, 1997)
Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, 1999)


Summary

Here are some suggestions as to the kinds of observations we can make about Australian Gothic Cinema.

* It is not so much a genre, as a mood, style or a vocabulary.

* Successive iterations are often very different to their predecessors.

* An entire film can be an instance of the style, and so can a single shot. New Australian Gothic cinema does not find its stylistic and narrative tendencies in the conventions of the explicitly supernatural or romantic past, but rather in the simplicity of daily routine. It articulates itself in the ordinariness and normality of the everyday.

* New Australian Gothic cinema is the realm of self-doubt and the irrational, and as we mentioned with regard to the uncanny. is frightening as a result of (rather than in spite of) its proximity to the ordinary.

* Psychological pressure on characters, and their breakdown, (and sometimes emancipation) drives many of the narratives.

* Traditional Gothic signifiers are almost totally absent (the castle, the 'monster' and others).

* The narratives reveal a malevolence, a dark and dangerous undercurrent to Australian (usually suburban or rural) life.

* The distinction between the real and surreal is blurred, or at least skewed.


Notes

1 Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka 1987, The Screening of Australia, Volume 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema, Currency Press, Sydney.

2 David Punter 2000, A Companion to the Gothic, Blackwell, Oxford.


New: 29 April, 2004 | Now: 21 December, 2010