2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 53, summer 2011
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.
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.
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. 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 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.
As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly melodramatic in the classic sense of the term in that hyperbolic music cues affect for any particular scene. The characters take on more depth and their struggles become personal, as the drama of relationality unfolds. Who will protect Nullah from being put in the mission school? How will the conflict with Fletcher unfold? When will The Drover and Sarah fall in love? Although the death of Daisy is the first event to disrupt the film’s comedic tone, it is portrayal of the death of Flynn in melodramatic excess that signals the film’s stylistic turning point.
The film then draws on codes of the epic Western. The herd must be taken over a hostile land (deserts, river crossings, hostile natives, and rustlers — in this case Fletcher and his henchmen). The dramatic scene of the Western is the stampede. Here Luhrmann uses a similar shot/editing structure as Red River, relying heavily on the close-up to show the courage and determination of the cowboys/drovers trying to control the stampede. Overly done (the use of CGI blended with close-ups), the scene's referent is cinema not reality. The Real as referent is further undercut by use of the fantastic. Nullah magically stops the herd from cascading over the cliff by pointing a finger at it. Magical moments remind us that it is just a story and that good stories take us beyond the ordinary.
After successfully driving the herd to Darwin and loading the cattle on the ship before King Carney’s cattle get there, the film moves into an interlude allowing The Drover and Sarah to become intimately involved while also providing an idyllic life for Nullah. But literally storm clouds are on the horizon, and the film shifts to a romantic adventure with the Japanese bombing of Darwin and the daring rescue of the children from the island, which has been taken over by the Japanese.
The film blends these styles, genres and tones to produce a Manichean allegory. The battle between good and evil is played out between Fletcher and Lady Ashley. This battle takes place across the body of Nullah, Fletcher’s illegitimate son; the prize is the soul of Australia itself. Fletcher provides a caricature of consummate evil. Obsessed with power he kills Lord Ashley and King Carney, he sexually exploits Aboriginal women, and he is further demonized by his relationship with his son Nullah whom he beats, has put into a mission school, leaves on an island that will be bombed by the Japanese, and attempts to kill. This caricature of power knows no limits. In two scenes we see him tying a piece of thread around a fly’s neck, a moniker of his sadism. Although Lady Ashley is first constructed in comic tones, she is transformed into Sarah, a toughened Bush woman. As Nullah recognized from the beginning of the film, under Sarah’s strange appearance, there exists a strong caring woman. It is Sarah’s willingness to stand up to Fletcher that sets the battle in motion. Luhrmann gives us two Australias: racist, power-obsessed, driven by greed and self-interest or multicultural, caring, and self-sacrificial. The allegorical spectacle is further reinforced by the camera work. Heavy handed, overusing the close-up, the scenic tracking shot, and the low angle shot that creates a sense of characters larger than life, the cinematography itself adds another level of excessiveness.
The music is also eclectic. It includes Elton John, Cole Porter, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and the Ink Spots. Titles include “Waltzing Matilda,” “Journey to Faraway Downs Hoedown,” “Over the Rainbow,” “The Drover’s Theme,” “Time Passage” (From Jane Eyre), “Wild Colonial Boy,” and “Prelude” from Anna and the King of Siam. Luhrmann both samples from a range of musical genre and composes original songs for the film. Unlike Moulin Rouge which foregrounds sampling, here it is less disjointed and tends to remain invisible.
The film is a pastiche assembled from film allusions, different genre styles, and a wide range of musical forms. The collision of these forms ought to function reflexively, drawing attention to both the codes of cinema and to the codes of myth-making. But this rarely happens. The film tends to be read as a poorly constructed historical epic. Nevertheless, Luhrmann’s use of these devices clearly positions Australia as postmodern parody. So, why is reading it as a parody so problematic?
Mythology and spectacle
Considering Luhrmann’s previous work and stylized use of cinematic excess, reviewers and critics fail to suggest that Australia is Luhrmann’s exploration of the structure of the Hollywood epic. Unlike Moulin Rouge it is not read as a self-referential piece just as excessively melodramatic as that earlier work. One argument is that Luhrmann didn’t go far enough. Here he is praised for the film’s early comedic sequences that produce an obvious parodic stance, but that tone disappears fairly early in the film. Another argument is that melodrama by its very nature is excessive, so unless one moves into the comedic, melodrama might absorb excessiveness more than other genres would. I argue that it is Luhrmann’s desire to redefine the politics of Australian mythology that defeats self-referentiality. Despite Luhrmann’s use of parodic excess, the script has a recurring political message constructed in the dialogue, narrative, and character portrayal in which Australia’s racist history is critiqued and transcended. Australia is a political film. It uses every opportunity to point to racist practices of white Australia, particularly in relation to the Stolen Generations. Moreover, it attempts to insert a multicultural, non-sexist, non-racist myth of a nation coming-into-being. Clearly, Luhrmann wants to produce an alternative historical account about the emergence of the nation. This parallel account is not meant to be a social realist account. It is purely Imaginary, an Oz.
The problem is that from the very beginning the film’s political engagement with racism is both parodic and social realist. The film starts with these titles.
“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on June 7th of December 1941, the imperial Japanese navy sailed south. Unleashing their fire on Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory of Australia.
“The Territory was a land of crocodiles, cattle barons and warrior chiefs where adventure and romance were a way of life.”
“It was also a place where Aboriginal children of mixed race were taken by force from their families and trained for service in white society.”
“These children became known as the Stolen Generations.”
Before the film starts we are given contradictory expectations. An historical epic? A romantic adventure? A social realist drama? In the first scene with The Drover, he responds to a racist comment by initiating a bar fight; it turns into a comedic scene reminiscent of the bar fight in Crocodile Dundee. To add to the comic element Lady Ashley’s trunks are torn apart and her underwear gets tossed in the air. By the end of the scene the issue of racism has disappeared. The film’s politics are absorbed by its hyperbolic style. This scene demonstrates the shifting affective tone throughout the film. The consequence of such unevenness is critical. How can Luhrmann treat racism so lightly? Why doesn’t he depict the real suffering produced by racist policies?
In another scene the film shows Nullah’s mother tragically killed. Attempting to protect Nullah from being taken away to a mission school, the mother drowns in a water tank. This scene is not undermined by comedy, and yet it is quickly forgotten. It is even more problematic because it is used as a narrative device to “clear the way” for Sarah Ashley to become Nullah’s surrogate mother. Racism is usually constructed as a binary category. And while it is clear that the film sets itself up to dislodge and critique racism, the treatment of racism often appears “light.” Unlike other films that more clearly position themselves, such as The Tracker and Rabbit Proof Fence, Australia’s excessive and inconsistent style violates the topic’s seriousness.
Australia engages with three historical tensions central to the mythology which underlies nation-building: unabashed greed of the individual versus the good of the nation, status inequality versus egalitarianism, and the exploitation of Aboriginal peoples versus a respect for Aboriginal rights and tradition. In Australia each of these tensions is transcended. First, as Anderson (1983) noted, the nation-state exists as an imagined community. Giving up one’s life for one’s country is honored, praised, and memorialized. The sacrificial event of Gallipoli in which four waves of soldiers charged into Turkish machine guns has been mythologized as the defining moment of Australian national identity. Here self-sacrifice is honored. In the film Australia the conflict between nation and individual is played out in the battle between King Carney and Lady Ashley. On the surface this could be read as a battle between two cattle barons. However there is a war going on and King Carney is constructed as a profiteer. Moreover, his henchman will use any means necessary to win this battle. The Drover and Sarah must bring the herd to Darwin to defeat Carney’s monopolistic intent.
Despite Fletcher’s attempt to stop the drive, The Drover’s motley multicultural crew consisting of two Aboriginal men (Magarri and his cousin), an Aboriginal woman (Bandy), Sarah, Nullah, the Chinese cook (Sing Song) and the alcoholic Flynn drive the cattle through the Never Never into Darwin. Through the magic of King George and the gritty determination of The Drover and his crew the cattle are delivered at the knick of time. But national mythology demands sacrifice. During the stampede created by Fletcher and his men Flynn dies. Through his death, he not only redeems himself for helping Fletcher doctor the books but also serves as the sacrifice for Luhrmann’s imagined multicultural national community. Later in the film Magarri sacrifices himself to save The Drover and the children. While he runs diverting attention from The Drover and the children, Japanese bullets mow him down.
The second tension is constructed around the desire for egalitarianism. The myth of equality is central to democratic nations. Here issues of race, class, and gender are foregrounded. Racism is the subtext of this film and ever-present in the form of derogatory language, segregated spaces, public policy and limits on relationality. The narrative of the film centers on the Stolen Generations. Nullah lives in fear of being taken away from his mother and then Faraway Downs. Fletcher is obviously a racist. He exploits Aboriginal woman sexually, frames King George for Lord Ashley’s murder, and even attempts to kill Nullah, his ‘half-caste’ son. His defeat is the culminating event signaling the new Australia. Moreover, racism and sexism is structural. Ivan the bar owner will not serve women or ‘Boongs.’ The Drover tells a story of the death of his Aboriginal wife because she was denied medical care. There are also ironic moments. The Wizard of Oz is shown in a segregated theater. While Nullah learns tennis, perhaps an allusion to Evonne Goolagong, three Indigenous children watch behind a fence. But in the myth of democracy ascribed status has no place. There are symbolic moments of transcendence. First, Sarah is accepted in the bar and served a drink for the heroic feat of driving the herd through the Never Never. Later, with The Drover’s insistence, Magarri is served a drink breaking the taboo of serving Indigenous people in a whites only bar. The Drover breaks the class barrier when he enters the Mission Island Ball and dances with Lady Ashley. And Lady Ashley herself sheds her aristocratic status to become Sarah a bush woman. The film celebrates the myth of egalitarianism so central to Australia’s self-image.
The third tension is expressed as a conflict between Nullah and Lady Ashley over Nullah’s desire to go walkabout with King George. While the film employs Australia’s racist history to build its mythology, the Oz of the film is a cultural Imaginary in which Australia emerges as a multicultural world, which respects the cultures of Aboriginal peoples. The adoptive relationship of a white woman to an Indigenous child is a reoccurring theme in Australian cinema. In Jedda (1957)Sarah McMann after losing her own child adopts Jedda; in We of the Never Never (1982) Jeanie Gunn takes in Bett Bett; and in Australia (2008) Sarah Ashley functions as a surrogate mother for Nullah. In all three cases the child is orphaned, legitimizing the relationship. In each of these films there is conflict between maternal care and paternal distance. On the one hand, the women of these films express care and concern for what appears to be an unprotected child. They also enunciate a missionary colonial relationship, a sense of obligation to “civilize the savage.”
On the other hand, the men are totally conditioned and hardened by both history and landscape. They express a realism, a consequence both of their own position of power and a sense of Nature that is both unpredictable and intractable. In Jedda Sarah McMann states,
“That’s the old cry, Doug, ‘They don’t tame; you can’t break them from their bark hovels. They like to sleep with their dogs and their fleas.’ I often wonder if you Territorians find it easier to think that way.”
In We of the Never Never Jeanie Gunn stops an Indigenous man from striking an Indigenous woman, she is told not to interfere in their way of life. Later she brings Bett Bett into her home to live. “I’m sick of people telling me there is nothing I can do” — a statement which speaks both to the constraints on her because of gender and her desire to act in a more caring manner towards Indigenous people. In Australia Sarah states, “Just because it is, doesn't mean it should be.” Later The Drover uses the same aphorism demanding that Ivan serve Magarri a drink in a whites only bar. The phrase signifies a transcendent in which Australia constantly renews itself by rediscovering the contradictions in its history while moving toward a more egalitarian society. In all three films the women take the active role based on a colonial maternalism.
Ironically, the men express a much more passive position. It is not a world of their making. The best they can do is accept and adapt. Moreover, their position does not disrupt patriarchal privilege. It is in this relationship between father/ mother/ adopted Indigenous child that contradictions of colonialism are embedded.
The critical moment emerges with the practice of walkabout. In Australia it expresses a romanticized relationship to the deeper meanings of Aboriginal tradition. Failure to participate in this ritual limits ones claims on traditional Indigeneity. When Nullah wants to go walkabout with his grandfather King George, Sarah Ashley refuses to let him go. The Drover responds,
“If he doesn't go through ceremony, he'll have no country. He'll have no story, no dreaming. And he'll be all alone.”
This echoes Doug McMann’s statement in Jedda, but now it is nostalgic statement, speaking to a multicultural Imaginary. Here, walkabout is associated with loss and recuperation. Nullah’s desire to go walkabout signifies a relationship to disappearing cultural formations and to the postcolonial desire for a multicultural society. In Luhrmann’s Australia walkabout signifies a desire that Indigenous culture and knowledge remains, that Indigenous culture is not overwhelmed by Western culture and the processes of modernity.
Australia does not disrupt the mythology of democratic nations. Rather it produces a fictional account celebrating it. This is Luhrmann’s alternative history. But does it limit engagement with the past? Does his Imaginary reinforce myth rather than interrogating it?
On the limits of excess
“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates. It is kind of an ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy the beautiful object without wondering where it comes from. Or even better: it only comes from eternity: since the beginning of time, it has been made for bourgeois man, the Spain of the Blue Guide has been made for the tourist, and ‘primitives’ have prepared their dances with a view to an exotic festivity” (Barthes, 1972: 151).
Roland Barthes reminds us myth drains itself of history. Even though excess is used as a parodic device to unveil the codes of mythology, it does not necessarily debunk the content of the myth itself. Myth rehabilitation is not so simple.
Myth is complex, ambiguous and inextricably bound to the institutions and structures of the dominant. In Orientalism Edward Saïd argues that Western hegemony is based on a “flexible positional superiority” (1979: 7). As discourses shift from colonial to postcolonial, modern to postmodern, the enunciating agent is still the West. Despite Luhrmann’s use of excess to disrupt an old mythology and perhaps his desire to produce an alternative way of seeing, old hegemonic forms creep into the narrative, characterization and cinematic practices. We see this in the construction of The Drover and King George and also in the fantasy place called Faraway Downs.
White narrative: the construction of The Drover
“Postmodern parody is not ahistorical or de-historicizing but signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference”(1989: 93).
The excessive construction of The Drover potentially lays bare the myth of white masculinity. Even the use of the generic title The Drover refers to an historical stereotype upon which the myth of white masculinity toughened by Australian landscapes permeates Australian national identity. The film might have further disrupted this mythology if The Drover died in the desert, as Luhrmann originally intended.
The script suggests interpreting Drover as caricature by his very name. But a caricature of what? Pragmatic masculinity? Autonomous masculinity? White masculine privilege? The Drover is constructed like a classic Hollywood hero with a toughened exterior and a moral sentimental interior. Luhrmann also imprints him with an excessive political correctness. The narrative aligns the Drover with Aboriginal people. He married an Aboriginal woman who died because a hospital refused her treatment because of her race. Even though Magarri is his sidekick, they function as friends. And he speaks Magarri’s language. Moreover, he is our anthropologist explaining Aboriginal customs to Lady Ashley and to us the audience. He even points out how the Darwin aristocracy sees him as black. Do we read him as parodic? Is Luhrmann unveiling the codes of masculinity of both Hollywood and Australia, perhaps suggesting they are one and the same? Or does his position as the all-knowing male negate the caricature’s flatness?
Nullah provides an alternative voice. Like The Wizard of Oz the grandiose magical quality of both character and narrative is verbally constructed through the imagination of a child. Nullah introduces the film and provides a voice-over, which both innocently informs and naively reveals. His voice-over functions as a reminder that we are being told a story from the eyes of a child. But can Nullah speak for the subaltern? Or do we read this as a white-driven narrative in which the Aboriginal voice is reduced to the voice of an androgynous excessively neotenous child? Who drives the narrative, Nullah or The Drover?
“In the guise of the invisible human universal, whiteness secures hegemony through discourse by normalizing itself as the cultural space of the West” (2004: 78).
Whiteness works as the invisible hand of the film. The conflict between Fletcher, the Drover and Sarah drives the plot. The Drover speaks for and about Indigenous peoples. The Drover changes history. Aboriginal people help him. Bandy, the Aboriginal woman who serves as a drover, becomes invisible after her introductory scene. Ivan serves Magarri at his whites-only bar only because The Drover demands it. And while the idealism of Sarah Ashley sets the drama in motion and Nullah’s eyes and voice serve as an innocent witness, it is The Drover who carries out the action in Hollywood style, reproducing the mythology of the bushman as the founding force of Australia.
White narrative: the construction of King George
“In every academic discipline, the representations of Aboriginal people have occurred without any reference to the voices of Aboriginal people” (2000: 157).
Played by David Gulpilil, King George is referred to as a Gulapa , a magic man, a cipher who exists on the periphery watching over his grandson Nullah. Referring to Aboriginal leaders as “king” was a practice by British settlers reflecting a need to mimic the hierarchical structure of Britain, even though it made little sense to Indigenous peoples. Luhrmann, however, appears to use the title of King to create a binary with King Carney. Two forms of power inhabit the film: Magic versus Capital. Magic is associated with the moral and the aesthetic, the Law and the Dreaming; Capital with greed and destruction, in which fire serves as its destructive device (starting the stampede). In Luhrmann’s Australia King George is the knower; he stands outside of history in the timeless-placeless realm of magical realism. He walks the periphery, a symbol of Aboriginal traditions disappearing under the destructive weight of colonialism and modernity.
But is the construction of King George as a magic man also parodic? I argued earlier that the shot of The Drover washing himself was held excessively long, producing a self-referential moment. A second form of gratuitous posing are the multiple shots of King George standing on one leg reminiscent of Gulpilil posing in Walkabout. But unlike the shot of The Drover, these shots are woven into the narrative and so slide by unproblematically for most viewers. In a similar vein, looking at the history of this kind of image, Russell argues that the editors of Walkabout magazine in the 1950s promoted highly romanticized representations of Indigenous people with little spatial or temporal variation. She notes:
“Some of the images which became signifiers of Aboriginal Australia, include the dusty hunter with wallaby over his shoulder, a man playing didgeridoo, boomerangs, dusty naked children with flies in the corners of their eyes, the enigmatic hunter perched on high ground looking wistfully outwards standing on one leg counter-balanced with his spear.” (1994: 4)
Likewise Lutz and Collins(1993) argue that National Geographic imagery has defined the way we look at Indigenous peoples ; its construction is a form of aestheticized exoticism produced for the Western gaze. Can we look at King George as a parody of the romantic excess of the Western gaze? Or is our reading of this particular image so constrained by National Geographic and similar texts, as well as Australian tourist advertising’s depiction of Indigenous people, or the use of an image of Gulpilil’s one-legged stance in the marketing of Roeg’s Walkabout that we forego a counter-hegemonic interpretation? And, does representing Indigenous peoples as an aesthetic object undermine or reinforce the positioning of Aboriginal peoples as occupying the periphery?
Muecke (2005) uses the concept “post-representation” to remind us that all representations are intertexual. Reading representation does not take place in a cultural vacuum; the circular reiteration of past representations narrows interpretive possibilities. Romantic excess is so ingrained in the representation of Indigenous peoples in film, literature, photographs, and tourist literature that excess now becomes read as “real.” Some viewers of Australia bring to the film counter-hegemonic interpretations, but this presumes critical knowledges. Nevertheless, the weight of Luhrmann’s representation of King George leans away from a reading that recognizes parody and self-referentiality.
Faraway Downs and terra nullius
After the successful cattle drive into Darwin, we see a brief interlude before the film restarts the narrative. A landscape montage, which ends with a zoom into Faraway Downs, introduces this transitional moment. I argue that it is in the construction of Faraway Downs within this interlude that we find the film’s most problematic moment. Why is Faraway Downs constructed as a utopia rather than a colonized land? In presenting that place, Luhrmann gives us not only images of the happy family but also of the happy plantation. The evening dinner which includes a British table setting with Indigenous workers, the Chinese cook, and the family of The Drover, Sarah, and Nullah looking on offers up a postcard image of universal humanism. Perhaps we are also expected to read these images as parodic. But considering the political drift of the film, this seems unlikely.
More important, although Luhrmann centers the Stolen Generations as metonym for racist Australia, his Imaginary disguises another history — not of stolen children but of stolen land. While apologizing for colonial ravages is a necessary ethical step towards reconciliation, the materiality of land rights has proven a more difficult issue to resolve. How did Lord Ashley obtain Faraway Downs? Whose land was it? Where are the Indigenous people? The film constructs an empty land, a wilderness, a human-free landscape. The panoramic montage that initiates this interlude functions as a cinematographic terra nullius.
The visual aesthetics here support Australia’s origin myth as a nation produced by whites Europeans. The moment of origin starts when whites act upon the land. The history of Indigenous people becomes reduced to a signifier: King George standing on one leg looking over the landscape. As Foord (2004) argues, Australia like the United States has a frontier myth which positions whiteness as an ego ideal. Calling invaders “settlers” creates a heroic national past. While the plot of the film is overtly driven by the Stolen Generations policy, here Greer is right. The film, especially in its omissions, disguises the violence of colonization and the deeper contradictions in the processes of colonization.
Luhrmann’s Australia parodies the cinematic structure of the epic melodrama, while it leaves mythic Australia intact. Its excessive Aussiewood style can be read as reflexively disrupting Hollywood coding practices. The film is a pastiche assembled out of other cinematic texts, both Australian and Hollywood. These intertextual allusions provide interpretative openings to the proposition that cinema is only a set of coding practices. And, within the realm of cinema, history at best is an ambiguous referent.
The referent, however, is not just cinema. Australia is based on an actual policy and related events associated with the Stolen Generations. Luhrmann weaves this historical event into the film, often using heavy-handed didactic tactics. And yet, because of the film’s shifting stylization, it never achieves a deep empathetic understanding of the suffering produced by such policies and practices. The film speaks to a deep national scar for which there is no easy morally coherent solution, but it does so in a haphazard way.
Reading the film politically hinges on one’s relations to these contradictions. By making the issues of the Stolen Generations and racism central to the film, Luhrmann opens the door to political criticism. What about the hovels outside of Darwin? Where are the workers for Faraway Downs? Is King George a poorly constructed, simplistic stereotype? Is this an example of Colonialism Light made digestible for international audiences? Moreover, Luhrmann’s parodic tactics fail to disrupt the hegemonic, natural, invisible, taken–for-granted world of white masculinity so central to Australian mythology. Although Luhrmann creates an Imaginary, an apocryphal history of reconciliation, he leaves the mythology of whiteness as an epistemological regime intact.
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