Ten Types of Australian Film
Chapter 1: Introduction
I’m not primarily interested in working with genre – it’s handy to know what genre you’re in, but I don’t think it’s necessary to completely embrace it. (Ray Lawrence, director of Lantana)1
Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. (Jacques Derrida)2
This is a book about Australian feature films. It uses the idea of film “types” as a way of organising the discussion: films are considered together which have a “family resemblance” of some kind.3
My purpose in using the notion of genre or type of film is, firstly, to give me a framework on which to hang my discussion, or, to be plain, an excuse to allow me do something I love doing: talking about Australian films. I also want to see if this approach will throw any light on what, if anything, makes Australian films unique. As the idea of film genres mainly comes from the American film industry, and as by far the majority of films we see in Australia are Hollywood products, it seems like a good idea to consider Australian films in the light of this idea. Thirdly, we may see some sense of an Australian identity or character emerging from the discussion.
Genre is a somewhat problematical notion. As Robert Stam writes:
While some genres are based on story content (the war film), others are borrowed from literature (comedy, melodrama) or from other media (the musical). Some are performer-based (the Astaire-Rogers films) or budget-based (blockbusters), while others are based on artistic status (the art film), racial identity (Black cinema), locate [sic] (the Western) or sexual orientation (Queer cinema). Some, like documentary and satire, might better be seen as “transgenres.” Subject matter is the weakest criterion for generic grouping because it fails to take into account how the subject is treated.4
However, I think genre can be useful if we think of it as a tool or a strategy, or, as Stam more elaborately puts it, an “exploratory cognitive instrument”.5
I think it will be useful to think about the following questions. What type of film is a given film (any Australian feature film)? Does it fit into a particular Hollywood genre, or perhaps more than one? Or does it have some characteristics which exceed or challenge the usual industry criteria? My reasons for thinking this will be a useful exercise are, first, that it will throw light on aspects of the film which might otherwise be ignored; and secondly, that it will show in what ways it’s an Australian film, as distinct from a Hollywood product. I’m going to suggest that any Australian feature film clearly participates in at least one long-standing genre, but that, because it’s Australian, it may be significantly different from its Hollywood counterparts.
I propose to consider ten types of Australian film. Ten? Are there not more—or fewer—than ten types? The answer is yes. There are as many types of film as a consensus of writers take the trouble to provide descriptions for. Choosing the number ten will not confine us to thinking only about them. And we’ll find that they mix and overlap.
Types? Isn’t the word “genre” usually used to talk about kinds of literature and films? Yes, it is, and that’s the point of not using it at the outset. I want us to be able to think freely about the types of film we consider and not feel confined to the genres that other people have already written about. This is not so much a book about genre as about Australian films.
Australian? Most of what has been written on film genres has been written with the American film industry known as “Hollywood” in mind. Perhaps film types in Australia are not quite the same as the established “genres” in Hollywood. So let’s not take the word for granted in this context. Let’s use the more friendly word “types”.
Film? Organising human art into types goes back at least as far as Aristotle in the fifth century BC. So do we really need to reinvent this particular wheel? Well, yes. It’s quite striking that as soon as people started writing about genre in film (as recently as the 1950s) that they had to invent new names, like “the western”. And in fact, people are inventing new genres almost every day—often by mixing and matching: combining existing groups and sub-groups.
The argument of this book is that Australian films conform to some extent to the genre requirements that are part of the strategy of marketing films, particularly those coming out of Hollywood. However, in order to exist at all, the Australian film industry typically gives a twist to the generic basis of given films, resulting in “types” of Australian film which are significantly, if slightly, different from American films of the “same” kind. The investigation undertaken in the book will therefore expose something of the nature of Australian cinema by comparison with films from international film culture.
Each chapter will take a proposed genre to see if it is appropriate or useful or enlightening to claim it as a type of Australian film. In some cases, one key example will be discussed at some length, in others, something more like a survey is undertaken. The screenplay (or playscript) for at least one key film in each chapter is available in print, in addition to the films being available on video, so that readers can study whichever is more convenient, or, ideally, both. My choice of films cannot pretend to be comprehensive about the whole of Australian cinema, and so my intention is to make some suggestions, propositions and hypotheses in order to start discussion and provoke further thought along these lines.
1 Hunter Cordaiy, “Lantana: a story of men and women”, interview with Ray Lawrence, Metro, 129-130, 2001: 46-51; 58.
2 Jacques Derrida 1992, “The law of genre”, Glyph, 7, 1979: 176-323; repr. Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge, Routledge, New York: 221-252; 230.
3 I take the idea of “family resemblance” from Ludwig Wittgenstein 1953, Philosophical Investigations, Macmillan, New York: 32.
4 Robert Stam 2000, Film Theory: An Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford & Massachusetts: 14.
5 Stam 2000: 129.
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