An Essay on Australian New Wave Cinema

The period 1970 to the mid 1980s is often called the “Renaissance of Australian Cinema”. Discuss the ways this period can be considered to be a Renaissance through the construction of identity and nationalism? A list of suggested films includes: “Walkabout”, “Wake in Fright”, “The Cars that Ate Paris”, “Sunday Too Far Away”, “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith”, “News Front”, “Mad Max I – III”, “Puberty Blues”, “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli”.

The Australian film renaissance, also known as the New Wave of Australian cinema, was a period in which some 400 films were produced over roughly 15 years1. It was driven primarily by two government policies, which occurred sequentially. The first, was in the 1970s, when the Gorton & Whitlam governments established financing bodies, which would directly contribute to projects. The second phase occurred in the 1980s with the introduction changes to taxation law that encouraged private sector funding of film2.

While it might be justified to call this boom in production a “renaissance” in purely numerical terms, I am sceptical of the idea that this resurgence of film had any significant effect on the Australian populace’s perceptions of their identity, or on nationalistic sentiment. Since “construction” implies an active contribution on the part of films, the reason for this scepticism is simple – with very few exceptions, films made during this time went largely ignored by audiences. The few films that did connect with the public, typically presented images of Australians that had already been long established as cultural tropes, and as such, they constructed nothing new, merely restating that which already existed.

It is important at the outset to specify that I am only considering the influence a film can have, for which there is evidence. A film can only play a part in the construction of identity and nationalism if it is watched. Television broadcasts can be discounted, since there is no valid measurement of how many people might watch a broadcast movie. The ratings system for television measures only the relative performance between networks of a statistically insignificant sample group, who self-report their viewing habits. The period discussed is also prior to the ubiquity of home video, so its effects can also be discounted. As such, box-office receipts are the only credible evidence of a film’s potential effect on the public.

Cinema within the New Wave broadly falls into two categories – the publically funded first phase, and privately funded second phase. While there is some overlap, broadly speaking, the first phase was divided between what have been described as “quality”, and “ocker” cinema3. The second involves a shift towards “blockbuster” productions. Public film funding carried with it some specific requirements, namely, that funding was dependant upon the presence of Australian cultural content4. In addition, the nature of films produced within these two groups tends to be quite different. Film from the first phase has an overwhelming tendency to be a critique of Australian culture, such as the omnipresence of alcohol and the nature of Australian masculinity in Wake In Fright and Sunday Too Far Away, or the historical mistreatment of Aborigines and the questions of which culture one faces in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Second phase films such as Mad Max, The Man From Snowy River or even Crocodile Dundee have been markedly uncritical (and in the case of the latter, positively cheerleading) of Australian culture.

When looking at inflation adjusted domestic box-office receipts, if becomes apparent that first phase critical films of the 1970s simply don’t resonate with the public. In the following examples, all films are listed with their grosses adjusted for inflation to 2009 equivalents. Budgets are contemporary, but are included for comparison between films within a year of each other. 1975’s Sunday Too Far Away, grossed $7.9 million5 on a budget of $300,0006. In contrast, the previous year’s motorcycle exploitation film Stone, made $10.6 million7 on a $192,0008 budget. By the same metrics, 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith made $4.3 million9, recovering only 83%10 of its budget, while Newsfront grossed $6.7 million11 on a budget a little over a third of its gross12. Compare this to the $20.9 million13 1979’s Mad Max (a “blockbuster” style film which makes no attempt to act as “Australian-ness” propaganda), earned with a budget of a third to half the size of Blacksmith’s (depending on the source).

1981 saw Puberty Blues gross $12.6 million, vs Mad Max 2 at $35 million, both of which were beaten by Gallipoli which grossed $38 million14Gallipoli, like 1980’s Breaker Morant ($16.8 million15)  and 1982’s The Man From Snowy River ($50.1 million16) continued the trend of commercially successful, popularly subscribed war and historical adventure films which show no interest in critiquing contemporary Australian society, or in “constructing” identity, merely retreading the very tropes in which all Australians were, and to a degree still are, indoctrinated from childhood.

Of course, all Australian film of this era must eventually face the elephant in the room, the unstoppable, inevitable cultural iceberg that was Crocodile Dundee. At $104 million by 2009 standards, it remains the highest grossing Australian film. Yet, it constructs nothing new, continuing the old tropes of the laconic Australian, with bush wit overcoming city smarts – “that’s not a knife, THAT’S a knife”. It’s worth noting, in terms of the impact of Australian film on modern western culture in general, that in what is arguably the greatest barometer of influence, The Simpsons, both Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee are featured and referenced.

When describing this era as a “renaissance” one also has to confront the reality that many of the “quality” films of this era actually quite flawed as movies. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is entirely lacking in sympathetic characters – Jimmie is no audience-identifiable hero, beating his own people once given a uniform. Mort, deliberately annoys the farmers that have given Jimmy work, literally taking food out of the mouths of Jimmie’s family with his presence. Almost every other character is a one-dimensional racist stereotype, violent drunken stupid Irish, miserly Scots. The only decent people seem to be the executioner who refuses to take pleasure in his duty, and the kidnapped schoolteacher who stands up as the conscience Jimmie has discarded. Add into that glossing over critical story events such as Jimmie’s engagement, which we only find out about months later when the impending arrival of his wife-to-be is mentioned in passing. These problems culminate with the massacre sequence. The moment that is supposed to be the dramatic pinnacle of the film, the fulcrum around which the entre story turns, and yet by the standards of even the cheapest Hammer Horror film, it is a mediocre and obviously faked effort, which looks out of place compared to the quality of cinematography in the rest of the film.

Taking aim at the other end of the spectrum, Gallipoli features some of the most sanitised “war” footage committed to film. Wounded soldiers barely moan – Snowy seems to die from no visible injuries at all. Everyone shot trying to get out of the trenches during the final charge seems to die instantly. Compare that to the scenes of wounded soldiers on the ground screaming in agony during the Air Cavalry attack in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now from two years earlier, and it seems rather quaint. Add to that the cheap cringe-inducing 1980s synthesiser soundtrack, which lacks the richness and orchestral majesty of Vangelis’ work in Chariots of Fire, released five months earlier.

Since 1972, there have been just 6 years in which Australian films have been the top grossing movies in Australia. Those films in order were: Alvin Purple (1973), Gallipoli (1981), The Man From Snowy River (1982), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Crocodile Dundee 2 (1988) & Strictly Ballroom (1992)17. The entire era of 1970s social critique is conspicuously absent. This reveals a fundamental disconnect between the Australian public, and those who were producing first phase social critique films. Clearly, the Australian film industry is capable of producing films that connect with, and understand the culture in which they’re made. However, 1970s filmmakers, with funding subsidised by government, seem to have focussed on creating the career-credible “art” they wanted to make, rather than the escapist entertainment the public wanted to see18. Put bluntly, the Australian public was not interested in going to the cinema to be criticised. One therefore has to question if the filmmakers responsible, and the films they made are actually representative of Australian culture. From the performance of their films, it’s clear they weren’t influencing the mainstream of Australian culture with the movies themselves. In order to claim a constructing role in Australian identity, there needs to be evidence of a causative relationship between the identities presented in the films, and the development of that sense of identity within Australian culture. A correlation, or merely documenting an identity is not enough if that documentation is unread or unwatched.

Bibliography

– http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/film-in-australia (accessed 18 October 2012)
– Dermody, S. & Jacka, E. The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a National Cinema, Sydney, 1988
– Film Victoria. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office. Available from http://www.film.vic.gov.au/audiences/resources (accessed 18 October 2012)
– O’Regan, T. The Enchantment with the cinema: Australian film in the 1980s
– http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/film/1980s.html (accessed 18 October 2012)
– Screen Australia. http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/research/statistics/wctopeachyear.asp (assessed 18 October 2012)

 

  1. “The 1970s saw a huge renaissance of the Australian film industry. Australia produced nearly 400 films between 1970 and 1985 – more than had been made in the history of the Australian film industry.” – http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/film-in-australia (accessed 18 October 2012) []
  2. “The eighties have mainly been the era of a much expanded indirect subsidy to the industry through various stages of change to amendment 10B(A) to the Taxation Act, permitting (decreasingly) generous ‘write-offs’ of tax liability to tax-payers investing in feature films.” – Dermody & Jacka, 12 []
  3. “In the 1970s two types of filmmaking had structured the experience of and debate about the cinema. Firstly there was the “quality” film (My Brilliant Career (1979, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) positioned between art-cinema protocols and classic Hollywood. It was destined for Australian general release and limited Art cinema/cultural TV release overseas. Secondly there was the “ocker” film (Don’s Party1976, Adventures of Barrie McKenzie (1972) with their focus on the residual Australian. It was destined for local general release.” – http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/film/1980s.html (accessed 18 October 2012) []
  4. “throughout the seventies the feature industry was largely a creation of government policy, especially the Australian Film Commission (AFC). The task of the AFC and of its predecessor, the AFDC, was to foster the development of an Australian cinema that was cultural enough and Australian enough to justify its direct subsidy” – Dermody & Jacka, 12 []
  5. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 21 []
  6. Wikipedia citing: Pike and Cooper, Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production 287 []
  7. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 21 []
  8. Wikipedia citing: Pike and Cooper, Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production 278 []
  9. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 10 []
  10. Wikipedia citing: Stratton, The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival 134-137 []
  11. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 17 []
  12. Wikipedia citing: Stratton, The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival 207-211 []
  13. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 16 []
  14. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 13 []
  15. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 9 []
  16. Australian Films at the Australian Box Office – Film Victoria, 16 []
  17. http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/research/statistics/wctopeachyear.asp (accessed 18 Octover 2012 []
  18. “the tax concessions encouraged instead blockbusters, genre films, mini-series and documentaries. With this shift came a change in mindset on the part of producers towards meeting rather than inventing the audience. In the process the cinema going public became perceived as a differentiated cinema audience and rather less than as an Australian public yet to be moulded.” – http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/film/1980s.html (accessed 18 October 2012) []