Ten Types of Australian Film

Garry Gillard

previous: art film

Chapter 12: Conclusion

One of the things I’ve done in this book is to take a walk through some of the many Australian films that interest me, but I hope I have also established some ways in which those features set themselves apart from the products of Hollywood. In this brief final chapter I’ll go over some of the ground traversed to see if there are general conclusions that can meaningfully be drawn.

Australian cinema is similar to Hollywood’s in some respects and for a number of reasons. Hollywood has created and maintains a world-wide distribution for a recognisable product. The cinema is a commercial enterprise, and a risky one at that. The product is very expensive to manufacture, and there is no guaranteed market: the only way in which one can even attempt to approach an assured return on investment is to make something similar to a previous product which did well in the market-place. That similarity is largely what we call “genre”. Hollywood genres are recognisable and are part of the marketing strategy for almost every film. And distributors sell just as aggressively into the Australian market as they do into the American one. So for an Australian film to be even visible it must attempt something like that strategy.

Something similar applies when the boot is on the other foot: the American domestic market is enormous, and if an Australian film gets its attention, sales in the US can sometimes be very profitable—most notably in the case of Crocodile Dundee. Australian cinema can utilise American marketing functions—especially the Academy Awards—and sometimes be very successful when a glittering prize is garnered—as with Shine, for example.

But Australian cinema has also to be different from Hollywood’s again for a number of reasons. There is actually a market in Australia for Australian films. Audiences like to see films made by people like themselves and which show off local talent of all kinds. So Australian cinema has to look and sound recognisably Australian. This is not necessarily a big ask: for a start, Australian language is distinctive. The use of the vernacular gives a particular flavour to Australian productions—to the point where in some cases Australian films have been subtitled or even dubbed for overseas consumption. Also, Australian locations usually look quite different from American locations, particularly when the camera is pointed at the bush or the outback. The landscape is an important feature of many Australian films: think, for example, of Walkabout, Kiss or Kill, The Goddess of 67, (Clara Law, 2000), Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Adventures of Priscilla—the list could be a very long one. Even an essentially urban story like The Last Days of Chez Nous takes two of its characters out into the bush for a significant part of the film.

Australian culture is not yet like American culture in every respect. Due to their differing histories, the two countries have produced different types of individual, and some are unique to Australia. The larrikin, for example, is a distinctively Australian character who is central to the Alvin Purple, Barry McKenzie and Crocodile Dundee films, for example. Mick Dundee also participates in another Australian type: the bushman, who is mocked in the Dad and Dave tradition of On Our Selection, etc., but admired in films like The Man from Snowy River and The Irishman. The bushranger is another special Australian character, as we saw in Chapter 2, on the western.

In relation to the western, we’ve found that there is a greater sense of community in this type of film than in Hollywood, where the western tends to be more a study of the hero in isolation. I venture, with some trepidation, to suggest that American society is even more individualistic than ours, and that this is shown forth more clearly in the western film than in any other genre. The US was settled a hundred years before Australia, by people who wanted to go to a New World and to make a difference; a War of Independence was fought and won. Many early Australians, by contrast, were sent extremely unwillingly to their new country; Britain continued to be seen as the Old—or Mother—Country; and Australians fought with the British in various wars.1 Entering the third millennium with an ageing monarchist Prime Minister, Australia has still yet to become a republic and still has the British monarch as head of state. Also, the native peoples of America were much more bellicose than the peaceful, highly sociable, and indeed helpful Indigenous people of Australia. These differences have tended to produce an ideology—as reflected in the American western—of individuality and radical independence, one which is much less noticeable in its distant Australian cousin. Not only are the bushranger heroes of Australian westerns, as typified by the most recent version of Ned Kelly—community-minded, they are also reluctant heroes, forced to take a stand only when they and their family members are treated unfairly and with disrespect.

Turning to the Australian crime film, the Australian career criminal shown there may also be a larrikin—in a tradition that goes back at least as far as Ginger Mick and The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919)—and a family man to boot. Although crime is his 9-to-5 job, he doesn’t take life too seriously, and is always ready for a smoke and a drink and a laugh. And although his professional ethics might differ from the majority of citizens, when it comes to “family values” he is of one mind with the conservative PM to whom I referred. Australian films which are primarily “crime films” (as opposed to those which happen to show the committing of crimes or the reasons for which they come to be committed—narratives which are predominantly dramas, or films noirs, or biopics) therefore tend to show banal or bourgeois existence with an admixture of humour and only the odd angry shot.

In another sense of the idea of Australian culture: we saw in Chapter 3 that the kinds of social problems depicted have specific Australian aspects. The position and problems of Australia’s Indigenous people is the most obvious, although it is an issue to which feature film-makers have only relatively recently turned. Although Bitter Springs dealt with one aspect of non/Indigenous relations as early as 1950 (as mentioned in Chapter 2)—the question of land rights—it is more recent films like Black and White (Craig Lahiff, 2002), Yolngu Boy, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Australian Rules (Paul Goldman, 2002) which have helped to make audiences more aware of the issues with which they deal.

In the same way that the criminal is not reduced to the crime, we found in our look at the social problem film that the people depicted, rather than being stereotypically circumscribed by their particular social problem, also have complex backgrounds and multi-dimensional problems. Melodrama in Australian cinema still tends superficially to exhibit a shallow, hysterical overreaction to the discovery that family life is not the be-all and end-all of moral existence; but its actual depiction is, again, humorous and compassionate.

The woman’s film in Australia shows a desire to expose the real conditions of women’s lives—including setting aside the taboo on speaking about their sexual victimisation—and also the joys of women’s bonding. The oppressed position of women in Australian culture generally and over time has been discussed in chapters 4, 5 and 6. However, women’s subjection is found in societies everywhere. If there is anything unusual in the presentation of women’s lives in Australian cinema, perhaps it is in the sense of doing something about the situation, or in the depiction of the pleasure women find in their daily existence and in their relationships with each other—as well as with men. Think, for example, of the three films written or co-written by prominent writer Helen Garner: Monkey Grip (Ken Cameron, 1982), Two Friends (Jane Campion, 1985), and The Last Days of Chez Nous. Or the oeuvre of Jane Campion, or that of Gillian Armstrong (one of the films of each of whom was scripted by Helen Garner).

Within the broader culture there are the spheres of the arts and entertainment, and there are inter-relationships between them which tend to create Australian specificities. I’m thinking, for example, of people who work in both television and film, which in several cases has actually given rise to projects in the latter which only came into existence because of the former. It is arguably because of the popularity of shows like Acropolis Now, Wogs out of Work, Fast Forward, and perhaps Frontline that investors and producers were prepared to support the making of films like The Wog Boy (Aleksi Vellis, 2000), The Nugget, The Castle, Crackerjack, and Bad Eggs—not to mention films featuring Graham Kennedy and Paul Hogan, from an earlier generation of TV stars. The connection between stage and screen is less causative, but there are some instances of performers who were well-known from various kinds of stage work and who had various degrees of influence on films in which they played leading roles. Barry Humphries’ various creatures spring to mind, including Barry McKenzie, Les Patterson and of course Edna Everage, but there are more surprising inclusions in this category, like star ballet dancer Robert Helpmann’s leading role in the thriller, Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978).

In an even narrower use of the term (culture): Australian film-makers emerge from a film culture which is less commercial than American film culture, in that young Australian film-makers are supported by public institutions like universities, TAFE, AFTRS and the AFC, so that they tend to think of film as art at least as much as commerce. This is especially obvious in the case of directors discussed in Chapter 11.

To turn finally to the remaining film types. What makes the musical film different in Australia is more a matter of form than content: we can only rarely afford the luxury of making “real musicals”, but we do often feel the desire to express ourselves in song and dance. Australian comedies, as we have seen, are famously “quirky”, but are also capable, as satire, of being critical of aspects of Australian socio-economic life. More seriously, there is a thirty-year tradition of Gothic sensibility and imagery in Australian cinema—not all of it completely serious—but it does point to an engagement with an obscure land and the darkness that emanates from it.

The teenpic is perhaps best seen intertextually in relation to all the other types of films we’ve looked at in this study. That is, a given exemplar may include social problems, crime, and family dramas, but it will probably also include humour, a reasonable representation of a female point of view, and possibly music as well. We found that being concerned with teenagers and their concerns does not prevent a film from also dealing with the larger issues of the day. A few Australian teenpics are exploitative; but many others convey a recognisably Australian ideology. Finally, the art film in Australia is a kind of limit case which defines by exclusion all the other types of film looked at in this book. It was what all the others are not. And it is also, in some senses, “not-Australian”.

Apart from this last, special, case, I think we have been able to see that Australian feature films, although owing something to Hollywood models, are different in various ways and to different degrees. Constraints on the industry, mostly financial, mean that Australian films tend to be on a smaller scale, so that they look more closely, generally speaking, not only at individuals, families, and small groups, but also at interiors, particularly the domestic space. The historical development of Australian society means that people tend to operate in an awareness of the smallish communities within which they live. And this is seen in Australian films.


1 The war film could have been the subject of another chapter, which would have dealt, inter alia, with the sceptical portrayal of Australian participation in the Boer War in Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980), in the First World War in Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981), and in Vietnam in The Odd Angry Shot (Tom Jeffrey, 1979).

New: 13 February, 2009 | Now: 25 November, 2012 | garrygillard [at]