What do Aussies really know or care about Australian cinema, especially those pesky millennials, and their highborn successors in the iGeneration?
Heh, we jest, no ageism here, we’re just playing, millennials should have a good repertoire of Aussie films by now seeing as how old they’re getting.
Yet, if we asked one to name an Aussie film, they might likely offer Gallipoli (1981), or perhaps Wolf Creek (2005). There hasn’t been much to wow about of late, since Aussie cinema is in something of a dead-space, as indeed is our nation, culturally speaking.
However, Australian cinema has been around and made its mark. In fact, we possess the honour of having produced the world’s first full-feature narrative film in The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). We even gave the world the golden Hollywood hero Errol Flynn, and even more since, like Frank Thring, although many of those coming after them admittedly we’d have shot on general principle.
The Story of the Kelly Gang roused viewers in the dance halls and theatres and wherever early reels could be exhibited to a gawping mob awed by the new technology. At 60 mins long, this pioneering silent movie established a genre in the bushranger flick; Australia’s own western stripe.
In 1912, concerned authorities in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria introduced a ban on bushranger movies. They believed these flicks had an inciting effect upon impressionable audiences. Yet, by doing so, they nearly killed off local film production (the ban didn’t lift is our nation until the 1940s with the release of When the Kellys Rode in NSW).
Up until the 1970s, though, Australian films were by and large made by others. In the 1940s, the Poms made our flicks for us, which was a bloody liberty. Pictures such as Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), The Rats of Tobruk (1944), The Overlanders (1946) and Eureka Stockade (1949) were produced by Ealing Studios, a British company. They were, nevertheless, filmed in Australia with Australian, British and American audiences in mind. But, not being an Australian company, it is difficult to consider them true Australian movies.
After Eureka Stockade, which bombed here in Oz and elsewhere, Ealing Studios decided to pull the pin and quit making crap Aussie movies for thankless colonials. Well, sort of. They made The Shiralee (1957) based on an Aussie book and it was a smash with the Poms, but especially the Seppos and Canadians. Yet, the picture starred Peter Finch, who was essentially a Pom, and some Scottish harpy.
Again, it was like the Poms were our parents and wouldn’t give us the keys to the car. Bloody ingrates, considering how many of us died in their useless wars just so they could go all multicultural and force us the same way. Churchill would be turning in his grave. We digress.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Australian film was released from the yoke of the old dart. Film historians will have their own take on this, and the antecedents for the local industry’s rise in the 70s and 80s. We’ll just say that it was a time of discovery and a period when Australians stopped being self-conscious about ourselves. We examined our European selves in the context of this mysterious, prehistoric land, and came up with weird films like the haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and the green-revenge in The Long Weekend (1979). We dramatized novels that pondered our identity in relation to this new environment, and how our social systems translated, such as in My Brilliant Career (1979) and We of the Never Never (1982), which were both written by sheilas.
Outsiders even created uniquely Australian films, while being just as obsessed with such questions, like Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971). The latter was such a frightening mirror of Australian gambling and drinking culture that Aussies had a hard time dealing with it.
Yet, it wasn’t all Europeans in a strange ancient Aboriginal land kind-of synopsis or the Ocker pisshead culture of Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972): the desolation of the suburban wilderness was put under the lens too, along with the gritty underbelly of city life in films such as The F.J. Holden (1977) and Mouth to Mouth (1978).
This newfound desire for introspection and expression of all things Antipodean made for some great films, it made for some crap films, but even the bombs, looking back on them, have something to offer an Australia that’s been hijacked by internationalist capitalists. In other words, it’s a chance to see Australia as it was when it was still our country.
Here then are the first five pictures in our guide to Aussie films of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s which you should check out, or bloody-well move to Canada with Harry Hewitt. We begin with a round-up of ten worthwhile screenplays. Remember, this is not a ‘best of’, rather a retrospective.
THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB (1966)
They’re a Weird Mob (1966) was a hit in Australia but flopped everywhere else. This is odd since it had quite an international flavour and commercial appeal, but then again, wogs were only ever fashionable in their own films, such as those of Italian director Fellini. The curious thing about this picture is that the humour is supposed to reside in seeing this country through the eyes of Italian immigrant Nino Culotta (Walter Chiari), but in fact, it was more like us enjoying the predicament of the ‘new Australian’ out of his element. Consequentially, the mirror isn’t so much turned on us, but reflecting him. The trouble is, it’s only the start of the film that exploits this clash-of-cultures humour because after that it changes pace into a romcom. Nino becomes a man about town, his metamorphosis from immigrant-wog-labourer into lover boy never adequately explained. This makes for an ordinary viewing where again the real purpose for watching is to enjoy Sydney as it was before it became an open city. Also, it incorporates feelgood ‘musical’ elements which are deeply irritating to those of us who happen to despise musicals. If we had to rate the best scene, it’s when Nino visits the Marble Bar in Sydney’s George Street because he wants to “drink some beer”. Those were the days. The harbour footage is great too, and you can see the Opera House when it was still under construction.
Walkabout (1971) is a not just a mystical survival story but it’s also a great perv. It stars a young Jenny Agutter who slinks about half the time in a school uniform and even strips off for the coolabah scenes. In that sense, it’s quite distracting, and it’s supposed to be, as her sexuality is a motivational primer for both her father’s suicide and apparently that of the young Aborigine boy (David Gulpilil), who comes to the rescue of her and her tiny brother when they are left stranded somewhere in the South Australian desert while he is on walkabout. But there is an undercurrent of miscegenation with the Abo boy, although that’s never clear, because of the parties’ profound inability to communicate. However, given the director’s intentions, it’s not a pre-Woke promotion of interracial ficky-fick happening but a cultural collocation. American film critic Roger Ebert summed up the film best when he wrote, “Is “Walkabout” only about what it seems to be about? Is it a parable about noble savages and the crushed spirits of city dwellers? That’s what the film’s surface seems to suggest, but I think it’s also about something deeper and more elusive: The mystery of communication. It ends with lives that are destroyed, in one way or another, because two people could not invent a way to make their needs and dreams clear.” Again, there are great scenes of Sydney in 1970, and those who know the area will recognise the landmarks.
WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)
Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) has lost none of its horrifying naturalism over time. It starred three big names, with Donald Pleasance, Jack Thompson, and Gary Bond. That last actor, the movie’s lead, died of AIDS after living a life of debauched faggotry. Regardless, Bond plays John Grant, a middle-class school teacher in the godforsaken outback town of Tiboonda, which has more flies than residents and seemingly boasts only a schoolhouse and a pub. As the movie begins, it’s the start of the Christmas holidays, and Grant is more eager than any of his kids to getaway. He plans to visit Sydney and meet up with his glamorous girlfriend. He rents a toilet of a room in the squalid pub with its grub of a landlord (played by John Meillon), which only heightens his sense of alienation. Beginning his long journey by rail, he must stay overnight at the nearby mining town of Bundanyabba (known as The Yabba) so as to fly to Sydney the next day. That night, he stops for a beer at the Imperial Hotel, which despite being closed ‘by order’, is thronging with rough-and-ready punters in singlets. There he meets the Yabba’s gregarious police chief (Chips Rafferty). Without intending to, the simple-but-cheerful giant of a copper leads young Grant astray by showing him around the Yabba’s drinking establishments. Exposed to his first game of two-up, on which he originally wins big, his decision to try his luck and get out of teaching on the luck of the spinner goes very wrong. Thus, penniless, Grant embarks on a terrifying odyssey as he is carried along by a punishing cast of wastrels whose excesses and immorality take him to the brink of suicide.
Stone (1974) is unique not just as an Australian film — a crime thriller with a simple plot — but a serious bikie picture. It was a forerunner to and inspiration for Mad Max (1979), and many of the same actors appeared in both films. It has none of the trashiness of the Hells Angels exploitation flicks of late 1960s Hollywood, but takes a thoughtful gaze at the outlaw one-percenters of mid-1970s Australia. Indeed, it was so keen to approach its topic with bravura and originality that one of the film’s leading stars and its creator, Sandy Harbutt, insisted the gang (The Grave Diggers MC) break with strict bikie code and ride Japanese bikes instead of Harley Davidsons because “they were simply the best bikes available”. In fact, in his biography, Hells Angels maximum leader Sonny Barger confessed that he regretted not ditching Harleys for the much more dynamic Japanese bikes, but by then it was ingrained in the culture. As it happens, in a scene of a fight between The Grave Diggers and The Black Hawks, the Sydney Hells Angels were brought in to play the other gang, so you get a real feel of non-fakery. Those from the lower north shore will immediately identify the streets and landmarks in the drag sequence between Stone (the name of the hip bike-riding undercover cop) and his provisional comrades. Likewise, the film’s opening, which sets up the inciting incident is instantly recognisable as the Domain and the Art Gallery of NSW just behind parliament house. But the real jaw-dropping segment of this classic Aussie film is the iconic funeral run from the north coast to Sydney, a scene so awesome that it led to bikers replicating the sequence with a 25th-anniversary run.
THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS (1974)
A difficult film to classify, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) is best described as a horror-comedy. Peter Weir would, a year later, release his celebrated masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), but this was something he had to get out of his system; a less easily classifiable flick than those he would become synonymous with. Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother are driving through the fictional NSW town of Paris when they have a terrible car accident. While his brother is killed, Arthur awakes in a hospital bed in the town. From there, it becomes patently clear that this is not the kind of town you want to find yourself waking up in. For, this is a strange place, a kind of parasitic community deep in a valley, which exists by plundering the wreckage and belongings of car accident victims they help to create by setting up traps on the roads. Part of their gruesome process is to allow the town’s doctor to inflict lobotomies on survivors. However, the town is divided between the mayor (John Meillon) and his old fogeys, and the young folk who hoon about in the mutant vehicles they cobble together from the car wrecks. Arthur is a meek character who is spared the usual fate and adopted by the mayor; however, he quickly figures out that he must leave. When the mayor makes him parking inspector, he comes into conflict with the young hoons who, following a reprimand where one of their cars is burned, decide to get even. Look out for the hedgehog VW with its deadly metal spikes; it’s one of the unsung classic cars of film history. This film, while bothersome for some, certainly impressed Stanley Kubrick: he included it in his list of 93 favourite films.