JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Costing around $130 million Luhrmannís Australia was Australiaís most expensive film. It was met with harsh criticism particularly from the Australian press.

Referred to as the Red Curtain trilogy, Luhrmannís previous work (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge) was read as parodic and self-referential

In Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann transforms a small town ballroom dance contest into a visual spectacle.

In Moulin Rouge lavish costuming is eclipsed by the speed of the shots that transform the opening sequence at the Moulin Rouge into a kalidioscopic tapestry. In these two films Luhrmannís excessive style is applauded.

Moulin Rouge — a parody of the musical or of romantic love itself?

Presented as an aesthetic object in Australia, Indigeneity is exoticized. At the same time this shot alludes to the colors of the Aboriginal flag.

Surrounded by flowering shrubs this cattle station looks more like a resortóan easy target for criticism from a Realist position.

Rhett Butler and The Drover turn heads at the Ball.

Based on the memoirs (1902) of Jeannie Gunn, a Melbourne woman, who follows her husband to a Northern Territory cattle station We of the Never Never (1982) captures the contradictions experienced by the colonial woman. Though toughened by the harshness of their new worlds both Jeannie and Australia's Sarah hold on to their humanistic though colonial values.

Luhrmannís alluions to Australian cinema include this bit part for Bill Hunter. A career starting in 1966 he acted in Australian film classics, such as Backroads, Newsfront, Gallipoli, Strictly Ballroom, and Murielís Wedding.

In the Red Curtain trilogy, the curtain functions to signal the beginning and end of the story. In Australia there are constant dialog references to the multiple stories contained in the film.

Luhrmann reverses the male gaze adding a comic tone as Sarah peeks from the tent.

 

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia:
when excess isn’t parody

by Stephen Papson

This paper looks at the intersection of parody and mythology in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. My argument is that the ambivalence directed at Australia by critics is the consequence of two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there is Luhrmann’s use of parodic excess as his auteurial signature. The film abounds with clichés, allusions, and stylistic excess, which potentially lead to a referential parodic reading. On the other hand, the film also evidences the desire to rewrite the Australian national mythology, in which landscape, bushman, and Indigeneity come together to form a national multicultural identity. Here Luhrmann uses racism, in particular the policies associated with the Stolen Generations, as a narrative driver. First, I explore how the film’s oscillation between parody and a politicized, revisionist construction of Australian history places the viewer on uneven ground resulting in ambivalent critical readings. Second, I argue that despite Luhrmann’s vision of an alternative Australia, an Imaginary multicultural Oz, he produces a mythology that reinforces whiteness as the invisible agentic force shaping Australian national identity.

Australia: a self-referential parodic text

Linda Hutcheon argues that “parody is doubly-coded in political terms; it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies”(1889:101). Texts, which contain parodic elements, are always to some degree reflexive, and consequently challenge the socially constructed nature of dominant ways of seeing. By exaggerating the codes of the original, parody potentially disrupts the hegemonic reading position.

“Parody can be used as a self-reflexive technique that points to art as art, but also to art as inescapably bound to its aesthetic and even social past. Its ironic reprise also offers an internalized sign of a certain self-consciousness about our culture's means of ideological legitimation” (Hutcheon, 1989:101).

For Hutcheon parody both reveals textual codes, and illuminates the socio-cultural norms that legitimize and are legitimized by aesthetic forms. Parody’s disruptive tendency demands a socio-political reading. Parody, however, can also blend with the original and not be read as parodic. Exaggeration not only exposes and disrupts but also magnifies and reinforces the original. Consequently, parodic readings are often uneven and unstable and highly dependent on the reader’s expectations.

Parody’s central element is excess. It functions as a distancing tactic exposing the representational codes of a text, genre, and/or moment in history. The use of excess is a trademark of Baz Luhrmann’s directorial style. Criticism directed at Luhrmann’s previous cinematic work (his Red Curtain trilogy) applauds his creative use of excessiveness. For example, Kinder refers to Moulin Rouge as “an extravagant movie full of excess,” noting it reveals the structural tension in the musical genre (2002: 52). The rooftop scene in which Christian and Satine sample loves songs in a landscape constructed out of signifiers of romantic love (hearts, fireworks, the moon, a gazebo, etc.) not only unveils the codes of the musical genre but also the ideology of romantic love expressed in that genre. Moulin Rouge is often read as a critical analysis of the ideology of romantic love. However, despite Luhrmann’s use of cinematic excess and referentiality in previous work, Australia (with the exception of Langton) has not been read as a parodic text. Instead critics have seen it as a failed melodramatic spectacle — a Gone with the Wind gone bad.

Despite taking years to make, costing the most of any Australian film to produce, promoted with heavy international marketing and laden with stars, Luhrmann’s Australia could only muster one Academy Award nomination: Best Costuming. Moreover, film reviews were heavily negative, particularly by Australian reviewers.

“It’s as if Australia …was built with one under riding intention: to amalgamate as many national clichés and stereotypes as is humanly, cinematically, possible. They pour out of every scene; they drip from every frame. Luhrmann mines the sort of cultural cringe factor Paul Hogan exploited back in the 80’s in Crocodile Dundee, and this time around, outside the auspices of comedy, veering dangerously close to ‘historical’ epic, the ramifications are dire. I fear it will take years for us to live this film down. A message to international audiences, for which Australia was undoubtedly intended: just in case you didn’t realise, this film isn’t social realism. Luhrmann presents a time that never happened, in a place that never existed, with a people light years away from embodying, or even suggesting, what it means to be an Australian.” (Luke Buckmaster, In Film Australia, November 27, 2008)

Reviews like this one point to the film’s cinematic referentiality but do not read it as referential. They list the parodic elements and note the excess but are unwilling to make the final leap into a full parodic reading. The review above notes the film is not social realism but then criticizes it for its failure to depict the Real.

Germaine Greer not only penned a scathing critique of the film, but she also attacked Marcia Langton for her praise of the film:

“The scale of the disaster that is Baz Luhrmann's Australia is gradually becoming apparent. When the film was released in Australia in November it found the odd champion, none more conspicuous than Marcia Langton, professor of Australian Indigenous studies at Melbourne University, who frothed and foamed in The Age newspaper about this ‘fabulous, hyperbolic film.’ Luhrmann has ‘given Australians a new past,’ she gushed, ‘a myth of national origin that is disturbing, thrilling, heartbreaking, hilarious and touching.’ Myths are by definition untrue. Langton knows the truth about the northern cattle industry but evidently sees as her duty to ignore it, and welcome a fraudulent and misleading fantasy in its place, possibly because the fantasy is designed to promote the current government policy of reconciliation, of which she is a chief proponent” (The Guardian, December 16, 2008).

Greer demands that the film be an historical account that emphasizes exploitation. Through out her essay she uses numerous historical examples to point out the film’s failure to enlighten about exploitative colonial practices. Langton, in contrast, recognizes that the film is an “hyperbolic, postmodern” text and praises it: 

“this adventure into the soul of the nation succeeds with powerful cinematic craft, passion and humour” (The Age, November 23, 2008).

She draws on her own childhood memories to anchor her praise, but more important, she accepts Luhrmann’s vision as “a fresh, bold approach” to the mythology of the Outback. Greer, however, attacks this view as being politically driven, serving the interests of the present political regime’s policies of reconciliation for which Langton is a proponent.

Such ambivalent readings of Australia raise old questions. Should we expect fiction to be politically correct? How should it model historical accounts? How should we approach parodic fabrications in a text? Should we apply social realist criticism to a text that is stylistically hyperbolic? Does the ambitious title itself demand a social realist historic account? Does Luhrmann adequately deal with the events and consequences of colonialism? Bringing parody to mythology, the film widens the fissure between cinematic text and its referent, producing uneven binary readings.

Parodic elements

Luhrmann’s Australia is composed of intertextual illusions, gratuitous mythic posing, a hodgepodge of genre styles, self-referential casting, and eclectic musical scores. Blending these cinematic elements produces a text in which the cinematic terrain beneath the viewer constantly shifts as Luhrmann stretches the realistic illusion associated with a Hollywood, in this case an Aussiewood, epic. The use of these elements produces parodic excess. But the target of Luhrmann’s excess is not clear. Is it history as Hollywood spectacle? Is it other cinematic renditions of Australian history? Is it the mythology of the bushman? Is it mythology itself? Whatever the film’s target, I think we must accept and start with Langton’s position that Australia is a hyperbolic postmodern text.

Reviewers often refer to Gone with the Wind (as does Luhrmann himself), Titanic, Red River, and Pearl Harbor (The bombing of Darwin is actually from Tora! Tora! Tora!) as the film’s closest cinematic relatives. While these epics are perhaps narratively similar, it is the many allusions to Australian cinema that makes Australia self-referential.

For example, similar to his sampling of music in Moulin Rouge, here Luhrmann samples cinematic moments. Highlighting the constructed nature of Australian history and mythology, Luhrmann re-assembles Australia’s history out of fragments from past cinematic texts.

These include:

  • The positioning of The Drover and Sarah to Nullah — Jedda
  • Removing Nullah from his relations — Rabbit Proof Fence
  • The killing of Magarri — Gallipoli
  • The idyllic family swimming in the waterhole — Walkabout
  • King George in silhouette — Walkabout
  • The crossing of the Never Never — We of the Never Never
  • The similarity of Jeanie Gunn to Sarah Ashley — We of the Never Never
  • The bar fight as first contact between The Drover and Sarah — Crocodile Dundee
  • The dog riding with The Drover—Mad Max

Likewise, Nullah’s mother is named Daisy, one of the children in Rabbit Proof Fence and the dog is named Jedda. Certainly a film buff could find many more allusions.

In Rabbit Proof Fence, three girls run from the constable who has orders to send them to a mission school. In Australia Nullah runs from Fletcher. In both films the children are chased by mother and grandmother trying to protect them.
Swimming in a billabong is a reoccurring image in Australian popular culture. In Roegís Walkabout as well as in Australia the scene serves as a peaceful interlude. We find it again in a Luhrmann directed ad for Tourist Australia This romanticized image of nature serves as a fantastic alternative to the expectations, constraints and anxieties of the Social.

Luhrmann also casts the film with well-known Australian actors — David Gulpilil, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Ngoombujarra, and even Bill Hunter in a bit part. Russell Crowe turned down the part of The Drover. This overuse of allusion disrupts a realist illusion. Moreover, there are also several narrative statements referring to the film as one story of a history composed of multiple stories. Nullah‘s voice-over not only introduces the film as a story, but it also connotes that this version is a whitefellas story:

“This land my people got many names for...but whitefellas call it...Australia. But this story not begin that day. This story begin a little while ago in a land far, far away. That land called England.”

The film’s emphasis on allusions and stories serves its parodic intent and highlights the constructed nature of historical fiction. Nullah gives voice to a British historical account but limits it to one version: a “whitefellas’” story. The Drover also emphasizes Luhrmann’s notion of history as an ensemble of stories threaded together, a fabrication. He explains his philosophy to Lady Ashley:

“Most people like to own things. You know, land, luggage, other people. Makes them feel secure. But all that can be taken away. And in the end, the only thing you really own is, uh-is your story. Just tryin' to live a good one.”

In his discussion of postmodern fiction Brian McHale notes constraints on historical fiction by the official historical record. However, the postmodernist strategy of apocryphal or alternative history produces an anomaly, a fantastic historical form:

“Apocryphal history contradicts the official version in one of two ways: either it supplements the historical record, claiming to restore what has been lost or suppressed; or it displaces official history altogether. In the first of these cases, apocryphal history operates in the ‘dark areas’ of history, apparently in conformity to the norms of ‘classic’ historical fiction but in fact parodying them. In the second case, apocryphal history spectacularly violates the ‘dark areas’ constraint. In both cases, the effect is to juxtapose the officially-accepted version of what happened and the way things were, with another, often radically dissimilar version of the world. The tension between these two versions induces a form of ontological flicker between the two worlds: one moment, the official version seems to be eclipsed by the apocryphal version; the next moment, it is the apocryphal version that seems mirage-like, the official version appearing solid, irrefutable.” (McHale, 1987: 90)

Luhrmann’s films have always operated in a twilight realm or what McHale refers to as “the ontological flicker.” Parodic moments often blend with historical events, placing the viewer on uneven ground. When excessiveness gets too thick, the realism of the narrative is compromised—Flynn’s death, the bar fight, Lady Ashley’s trip to Faraway Downs, Nullah’s stopping the stampeding herd, King George’s appearances. Australia’s ambiguity generates two strands of criticism: that it formulates a history lacking any referent or that it fails politically for not revealing the extent of exploitation of Indigenous peoples. The latter is particularly relevant because the film’s alternative history is a multicultural Oz. Luhrmann’s Australia is a could-have-been history.

In Jedda Marbuck and Jedda struggle at the edge of cliff. When Marbuck is killed, Jedda falls to her death, suggesting no place in Australian society will let Jedda feel at home. In Australia, Nullah magically stops the stampede at the edge of a cliff. As he is about to fall over the edge, Sarah grabs him. This reversal is emblematic of the filmís intention: to give Australia an alternative account, an Imaginary past and perhaps a different present.

In her pioneering work on voyeurism in cinema, Laura Mulvey (1975) argues that classic Hollywood cinema is organized around the male gaze; in particulalr, the male fantasy of the female is projected on to the screen in the form of the gratuitous close-up. She argues the use of this shot produced for aesthetic/erotic consumption for the male audience creates a temporal hesitation and works against the narrative flow. As if commenting on the debate around Mulvey’s argument, Luhrmann both reverses the gaze and also disrupts the gaze through excess. In the campfire scene The Drover washes himself. The shot is held excessively long, both freezing the narrative and possibly leading the viewer to recognize his/her relation to the pose — identification, heteroerotic, homoerotic, or homophobic. It positions the viewer as a self-reflexive voyeur. The length of the shot produces a self-referential moment disrupting the flow of the narrative. It is so overdone, particularly by using the male body, it calls for a parodic reading.

Australia unevenly mixes genre, style, and cinematic tones. Until the death of Daisy the film is comedic. The brunt of jokes is Lady Ashley. In one early scene The Drover drives her back to Faraway Downs. Outlandishly dressed, complete with goggles, she is constructed as a caricature of a snooty English aristocratic who is out of her element. On the journey Lady Ashley excitedly comments on seeing a kangaroo for the first time. “I've never seen a kangaroo. Beautiful, jumping.” When a shot rings out killing the kangaroo, her naïveté is instantly shattered. We next see Magarri’s nephew sitting on the top of the truck waving a rifle and celebrating the kill. The kangaroo hung on the roof of truck drips blood down the windshield. The next shot cuts to a frozen horrific stare on Lady Ashley’s face. The excessiveness of this scene is classic Luhrmann, a reminder of the opening scene of Strictly Ballroom. Lady Ashley’s response, supported by a disjunctive camerawork and a Country and Western musical background, produces slapstick humor.

This early comic scene is one scene that critics seem to love. It’s probably one of the rare comic scenes in cinema in which not only an animal gets shot but also bleeds down the windshield of the truck.

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