Twelve months on from the release and worldwide reception of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and Australian cinema is still something of an enigma on the world scene.
We wait for the film that will establish a New Wave to make concrete what might be perceived as a national cinematic aesthetic.
We wait for the next Peter Weir or George Miller to provide the creative impetus.
More desperately, we wait for the next Picnic at Hanging Rock or Mad Max or Newsfront to provide the building blocks of a tradition that might be regarded nationally and internationally with esteem.
This is a perennial search to rediscover what has apparently been lost to Australia: a film industry that matters to more than just Australians. Midway through 2008, with Luhrmann’s Australia wrapping up post-production, we felt the tremor of a creative enterprise that might again forge a new Australian cinematic tradition and a post-classical Australian film history.
Luhrmann had got the green light to direct a $150 million film that was more Australian than American. This was to be an Australian genre film. It would be shot in Darwin on location and at Fox Studios in Sydney. It would star Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, who were still essentially Australian. Kidman and Jackman were stars as well as actors. Brian Brown was as Australian as John Wayne was American.
This promised to be the kind of movie that might articulate "Australia" nationally, culturally and aesthetically in spite of its indebtedness to the Hollywood establishment. No one seemed to mention that this might have been one reason why Luhrmann had (idealistically) decided to call his film Australia.
Australia opened in November 2008 to a lukewarm critical reception. Australian reviewers commended the effort of the production — and, seemingly, the sheer decency of Luhrmann in getting an Australian "blockbuster" on screens. But there was nothing of distinction in the film. The best sequence — the cattle drive — would always fall in the shadow of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift driving the herd in Red River. The romance between Kidman and Jackman would never match Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind.
Worse still, the film did poor business. If Australia promised anything through its much-publicised production and post-production, it promised a return on financial investment. A lukewarm critical reception was unfortunately augmented by a more troubling lack of resounding success at the Australian and American box office. And "blockbuster" productions require resounding box-office successes. People — Australians — stayed away from screenings. Those who saw the film thought little of it. Few critics considered the film exemplary of a past or future film tradition. I suspect that this time next year, Australia will have slipped further into the cinematic past, not revisited as a classic but forgotten as a failed attempt to establish something new.
In the wake of Luhrmann’s experiment, Australia continues to search for that elusive national cinematic identity. Its cinema continues to struggle to find cohesion as a national cinema that might rival the achievements of other distinctly national — and transnational — cinematic traditions. Can we isolate an Australian cinema as we might a Hong Kong cinema in the work of Wong Kar-wai, or an Iranian cinema in the work of Abbas Kiarostami? A year on from Australia and its failed attempt at an industry resuscitation, just what is the state of the Australian film industry?
Industry practitioners, especially filmmakers, lament the state of the current industry and its funding miseries. An Australian feature filmmaker once told me that there was simply no money in making independent films in an Australian context. People made movies out of a passion for the art form, she suggested. But passion only goes so far. That’s why, when you’re Greg McLean and you’ve made one of the best Australian films in a decade (Wolf Creek), and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax offers to buy the international distribution rights to your film for five times more than it cost you to make it — you accept the offer. Pity that the Miramax-funded follow-up (Rogue) has nothing of the distinction of Wolf Creek.
The case of Australia illustrates just how entangled a future Australian cinema is in financial imperatives. This is something surely any film industry must come to terms with. Cinema is an expensive art form and a genuine digital production practice within a broader film tradition is at least a decade away.
In January 2009, I was fortunate to teach a session at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). My teaching was to enable students — future Australian filmmakers — to better make films that connect with large audiences. In other words, to make films that potentially offer financial returns. Perhaps this is the New Wave we’ve been waiting for — or, to put it more accurately, the Next Wave, headed by a new generation of Australian filmmakers.
I saw Samson and Delilah at a media screening earlier this year and thought it one of the best Australian films of recent times. But teaching a couple of film subjects soon after the film’s release (and success at Cannes), one at Sydney University, the other at the Australian Catholic University, few of my students had heard of Samson and Delilah, let alone seen it. This is perhaps the essence of a meaningful cinematic tradition, whether configured nationally or otherwise: to make great cinema that people pay to see; that people then talk to each other about and integrate into a social and cultural identity. It’s a simple equation, synthesising artistic and commercial imperatives, but the solution continues to elude us.
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