In the 1990s American distribution executives were often asked what they wanted from Australian filmmakers. The invariable reply — "the next Muriel’s Wedding, we just love your quirky comedies!" — was guaranteed to make everyone in the local film industry tear their hair out. For a while there, the ubiquity of the "q" word meant our films were being put into a neat box and not allowed to display any abberant characteristics — at least according to US film executives.
The next Muriel never arrived.
And so our filmmakers moved onto a new phase: "the battler comedy". Suddenly, every drover and his dog was working overtime to replicate the success of The Castle.
The next Castle never arrived.
And so, following the box office success of Ray Lawrence’s Lantana, we moved into another creative cycle. Filmmakers and their backers realised that Australian films need not always present a parade of cheerfully sentimentalised caricatures of the national character. Serious, intense dramas could be made by Australian filmmakers and, to judge from the success of Lawrence’s film, Australian audiences might even go and see them.
The problem was, the next Lantana didn’t arrive either.
Not for want of trying, though. After several years, the "Lantana effect" in local cinema has solidified into a recognisable sub-genre which typically concerns itself with dysfunctional families or communities. Ana Kokkinos’ Blessed (co-written by Lantana screenwriter Andrew Bovell) and Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate are two recent examples of the Lantana effect; Lawrence’s own Jindabyne being another sterling contribution to the sub-genre. For much of this decade, "dark" has been the new "quirky".
Not one of these films has achieved either box office success or international critical acclaim approaching the level reached by Lantana. Indeed the last five years have seen a generally disastrous drop in the fortunes of Australian films at the local box office and the rise of a new cliché. For whenever journalists write the obligatory article of the week on why Aussie films are failing at the box office, we hear again and again the dread diagnosis that "our films are too dark".
It’s true that by focusing on a relatively narrow sub-genre the industry has done itself few favours. Few would dispute there has been insufficient variety in the kinds of films we’ve been making. But what does it mean, this expression, "too dark"?
Not a lot, I would contend. Indeed, the popularity of the phrase reflects the superficiality of the debate surrounding Australian cinema. No-one using it seems to have looked seriously at the notion of "darkness" in popular storytelling. If they had, they quickly would have realised that without a dark theme, a story generally isn’t worth telling.
All storytelling is about problems, a world out of joint. No tribal storyteller ever sat around the campfire and said: "Once upon a time there was a man who had no problems lived happily ever after". Generally speaking, the darker the problem and the more troubled the protagonist, the more compelling the story. That goes for comedy too, which is drama seen from a different point of view.
Don’t believe me? Consider the following examples — all considered popular or critical classics:
Gone with the Wind: In the midst of civil war, a city is burned to the ground by invaders, and landholders lose their property. An entire way of life is destroyed. The spoilt, selfish heroine is raped. Post-war Reconstruction is a long, arduous struggle.
Star Wars: Oppressive forces led by a sinister mask-wearing man of pure evil work hard to snuff out all opposition. The hero is tragically under-confident of his ability to defeat the powers that be. In the sequel, the evil dictator reveals he is the hero’s father.
The Sound of Music: An Austrian family singing troupe is threatened by the Nazis and must escape the country.
Bambi: A vulnerable baby deer is traumatised when a hunter kills his mother.
The Lord of Rings trilogy: A peace-loving creature must journey into the land of darkness to destroy a ring whose awesomely evil power threatens to corrupt and destroy him. The lives of the hero and his friends are threatened at every stage of the journey.
Taxi Driver: A socially alienated Vietnam veteran decides to murder a politician and the pimp of a child prostitute.
Midnight Cowboy: A good-looking country boy travels to New York and sinks into moral iniquity based on attempted exploitation of his fellow humans. His best friend, a cripple and social outcast, dreams of one day escaping to Miami but dies on a bus just before it reaches the city.
You may point out that in several of the above examples, the protagonists emerge from their struggles triumphant, that many of these stories have happy — or at least hopeful — endings. And you would be absolutely right to do so.
But note the same is also true of Beautiful Kate — the prodigal son comes to terms with his guilt over an incestuous affair and finally reconciles with his father. Or of Jindabyne, in which local white and Indigenous people come together in a gesture of joint healing. Or again of Romulus, My Father in which the son of a mentally disturbed mother grows up to be successful philosopher, despite his traumatic childhood.
Of course these hopeful endings don’t qualify the above for "feel-good" film status. To be honest, though, I’m never quite sure what a feel-good film really is — films so-described usually make me feel bad, so desperately do they strive for uplift.
Nor do the plot arcs of these so-called dark films mean our dramas stand above criticism. Quite the opposite. Some of them can be annoyingly flawed. There isn’t the space here to discuss what their individual problems might be — that’s the subject for another article. But in the meantime we’re going to need more than facile generalisations if we’re going to have a chance of rebuilding the audience for Australian feature films.