Camping Up The Top End


After ingesting all the reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia, there’s one word I’m having trouble flushing out of my system. And no, I’m not talking about "corny", "cliched" or "interminable", though they all turn up not infrequently.

I’m talking about "camp".

The word crops up in the few positive reviews, viz. The Washington Post‘s praise of Luhrmann’s "affectionate, even campy pastiche", as well as the numerous negative ones including the Sydney Morning Herald‘s choice of insult, "deliriously camp and shamelessly overdone". Considering this is the latest film from the director of Moulin Rouge, should anyone be surprised? Well yes, considering the director’s stated intention of making an epic inspired by the decidedly non-campy films of David Lean including Lawrence of Arabia.

It’s remarkable how this word and, more to the point, the sensibility it describes, has so thoroughly penetrated mainstream pop culture. When we think camp, we usually think gay, although we don’t necessarily say so out loud. These days you don’t have to be gay to appreciate camp — although it may help. Camp is of course an ironic celebration of bright surfaces and bad taste, flagrant artifice and kitsch, a sensibility that mocks as hopelessly dull and witless all manifestations of "good" taste, authenticity and sincerity.

Blues, folk music and jazz are its enemies, while Broadway show tunes and Kylie-style bright-as-a-button pop are its pals. Hit movie The Dark Knight, with its gloomy pretensions to meaningfulness, tries hard to attain the condition of anti-camp (albeit not always successfully), while the 1960s Batman TV series, with its "Bam! Pow!" speech balloons, accepts its true nature enthusiastically. Camp is closely allied to kitsch but is not identical, being rather "kitsch" within quotation marks.

Camp became the official language of Australian cinema for a period during the early 1990s when Luhrmann’s debut feature, Strictly Ballroom, hit the box office heights, quickly followed by Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with their Abba fixations. Importantly we were required to love the Swedes not despite their naff dress sense and daggy lyrics, but because of them.

Skivvy-wearing Melbourne is anti-camp, being more bothered with the maintenance of intellectual cred than where to find a pair of sequined hot pants, while brashly shallow Sydney is the opposite. The Gold Coast is also tasteless and superficial, but since it assumes this makes it authentically Aussie, it doesn’t count – for where you have camp pretending to be "real", you have identity confusion. It’s this that has brought Luhrmann so badly unstuck – but more on that in a minute.

What a long way we have come in just over 40 years. When Susan Sontag wrote her landmark 1964 essay, Notes on "Camp", the sensibility was so far underground that she was able to describe it as "esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques" without anyone falling off their chairs with laughter.

Today, with our culture soaked in irony, and gays proudly out of the closet, the sensibility is understood by just about everyone and the idea of it being a private language is quaintly archaic. In the 1950s B movies were pure camp but by the time we got to the 1990s, Hollywood’s mega-budget filmmakers were routinely embracing the sensibility: see Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (a camp masterpiece, for what it’s worth).

Given this, it might hit some as strange that Luhrmann’s Australia has been greeted with such derision by most American movie critics (see the carnage at Metacritic, for example) and has bombed at the US box office. The reason, however, is simple: where earlier in his career Luhrmann recognised his campy instincts and fully embraced them, with Straya he’s made the peculiar decision to have a bet both ways and so ends up in a conceptual heap. He sets up his story as a comic pantomime, then tries to sell us an utterly sincere condemnation of the politics that led to the Stolen Generations. The film tries to be both camp and anti-camp and instead of transcending the contradiction, falls victim to it.

Luhrmann clearly believes that by leveraging archetypal genre elements into his narrative (what we might les politely call clichés), including an entire cast of stock characters, he makes the audience feel comfortable, better primes them for an emotional journey. We might call this a postmodern strategy — appealing to the audience’s sense of irony. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is how important it is to do something of commanding interest with those clichés – something akin to what Sergio Leone did when he cast iconic Hollywood good guy Henry Fonda as a chilling psychopath in his 1968 western masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West.

It’s never good enough to simply deploy archetypes and hope for the best. The clichés must dance the tango together or fight a duel — do something damn interesting, in other words. Italian author and cultural analyst Umberto Eco understood this when he wrote his masterful essay, "Casablanca, or, the Clichés are Having a Ball", published in his collection Faith in Fakes (aka Travels in Hyper-reality).

"Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed in a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire of the tried and true," Eco wrote. "When the choice of the tried and true is limited, the result is a trite or mass-produced film, or simply kitsch. But when the tried and true repertoire is used wholesale, the result is an architecture like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. There is a sense of dizziness, a stroke of brilliance."

Casablanca was not planned this way. Literally written and rewritten as it was being filmed, it "probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works … we can accept it when characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is approaching, when whores weep at the sound of La Marseillaise.

"When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths," Eco concluded. "Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion."

Sadly, Luhrmann’s clichés resemble members of a sub-culture who have been partying too hard for too long and need to hang up their sequined hot pants and go home.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.