Monday, January 5, 2009

Baz Luhrmann's Oz

The NZ reviews have been so stringently, hatefully negative about Australia by Baz Luhrmann, I decided to go see it. I'm perverse like that.

I expected it to be atrocious, so I did have to build up courage and be in exactly in the right mood. It helped that I could look forward to some wide screen shots of the Kimberleys region of Australia, an area I have read about, so I comforted myself with the prospect at least of enjoying some grand cinematography even if the rest of it was dire.

If you loved movies like Gone with the Wind, Titanic and Pearl Harbour, then you'll be at an advantage should you go to see Australia. It's in that genre. Big, stupid, cliched, unlikely plot - sentimental romantic nonsense. If like me, you don't care for that sort of melodrama, you need to consider taking a vomit bucket.

But this post is not a criticism of the Luhrmann film. I actually got it, and I applaud it, within its own genre boundaries that is. (I hate that sort of movie, which qualifies me to recognise it as a standard member of the category.)

I walked out of Pearl Harbour and only sat through Titanic because I was looking forward to watching the ship sink. Australia didn't seem any worse than the usual romantic epic. All the well-thought out epithets such as "hokey" apply to the whole genre according to those of us who have always been on the outside looking in. I wouldn't single this one out.

So why the extra hostility towards this particular epic? Were reviewers expecting an art movie?

In my opinion, this film is a sign of Australia growing up, along the lines of the heartwarming "SORRY" Kevin Rudd said last year. At the heart of the film IS a criticism of the travesty of the "stolen generations". Sure it's schlock. We've had plenty of high-art criticisms already, but isn't this the first schmaltzy one?

Australia said sorry, and they're showing they are really sorry, by producing a big screen epic romantic drama with an indigenous Australian boy at the heart of the story. That's the point I got. Even though the plot of Australia is improbable to say the least, at least it does clearly suggest the horror of the atrocity done on the stolen children and their families.

The "stolen generations" story has been brought into the mainstream in a way that money can't buy in any other way - in the form of populist entertainment.

Yeah sure, the same message has been said so well on any number of elite soap boxes, and there are some stunning indie movies that are not only PC, they have artistic integrity. But who sees them? They pretty much preach to the converted.

OK there were cringe making moments in Australia, and some ballast that might well have been jettisoned (I always feel that way about the overlong movies).

But in my opinion Australia was not as bad as I'd been led to believe, and I felt just a little more proud of NZ's neighbour Australia, for bringing their incredibly long overdue "Sorry" into the mainstream.

Yeah, sure, this is tricky territory. And I'm just an outsider commenting, so I have probably missed a lot. I can see the pitfalls, such as that for most of this movie the boy is choosing his own assimilation to a white mummy and daddy rather than having it forced on him. But these issues are opened up for us too, and the characters are allowed to grow, and to let go.

Within the limitations of the genre, I saw the last moments of the film as a genuinely uplifting plea for self-determination.

Luhrmann's attempt to normalise the criticism of the stolen generations, has been called smug, preachy and patronising. And so it may seem. The right wing hate it for being left-wing propaganda, and the film is also being also being slammed from elsewhere on the political spectrum, for the hackneyed ethnic caricatures and lack of realistic historical representation. For not going far enough.

But I can see Luhrmann's point. Somebody had to do something like this for a mass audience, and who better than the guy who brought us both Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge?
The silliness of the plot is no more ridiculous than any Grand Opera. The politics are not impeccable but they're visionary in the context of Australia's shameful reluctance to let go of its racist past.

That the whole blockbuster is very cleverly hung on the "Oz" pun is just one of the subtexts that kept me watching this movie (I liked the tribute to the western genre too), and that sets it apart from the run of the mill mindless entertainments that are so appealing at this time of year.


maps said...


The Paradoxical Cat said...

Wow - misrepresentation much?

You seem to have read my blog post much as you seem to have watched the film, with your knee jerking so violently you may have missed a fact or two.

For instance the Tabby's blog said AUSTRALIA was idiotic puke-making crap, just like all the other members of that romantic epic genre.

And so it is. We agree on that.

Where we clearly disagree concerns Luhrmann's political agenda - although you and I both appear to abhor Australia's racism, you think Luhrmann is glorifying genocide, whereas I think he is attempting to normalise a vilification of Australian racism.

What a criticism of Australia it is, that an attempt to tell that story to a mass market should even now have to be sugar-coated.

The sugar-coating pissed you off - and me, although either I've expressed that badly or you haven't read carefully - but the movie wasn't aimed at elitists.

Luhrmann has attempted to take a mainstream audience on a path where at the very last they empathise with the boy and WANT him to go with the old man rather than stay with the white couple.

No mean feat in a country where saying "sorry" was such a big deal less than a year ago.

So my 'praise' for the Luhrmann movie was restricted to applause for that one ground-breaking achievement. Anything positive I said was was heavily conditional on the triumph taking place "within the limitations of the genre".


maps said...

I don't think I misunderstand your attitude toward the film, PC.

You say that 'Australia was idiotic puke-making crap, just like all the other members of that romantic epic genre', but that its one saving grace is its condemnation of the treatment of Aboriginals.

By contrast, I have nothing in principle against the romantic epic - it's a genre of film, just like the horror movie or the martial arts movie or the sci fi flick. It's not a genre I particularly care for, but I don't think there's anything inherently bad about it. There are even some romantic epics I've quite enjoyed.

What I object to in Australia is Luhrmann's attempt to intersperse his romantic epic with fragments of a movie about the genocidal policies which the Australian government adopted towards the Aboriginals for so long. The subordination of the harrowing story of Aboriginal persecution to the cheesey romantic epic grates.

I think it is inherently wrong to try to combine a depiction of a subject as terrible as genocide with a feel-good romantic movie. The two just don't go together. One might as well set a sitcom with canned laughter in Auschwitz.

The fact that Luhrmann and his cronies in Australia's Tourism Ministry were able to get away with making such a film speaks volumes about the continued trivialisation of the Aboriginal experience of colonisation.

I fear you may be wrong when you argue that the depiction of Aboriginal suffering in Luhrmann's film will contribute to a greater understanding of the past.

By subordinating the Aboriginal suffering to other plot elements, like the struggle to save a white farm stolen from Aboriginals, and by denying Aboriginal people an articulate spokesman in his film, Luhrmann pushes Aboriginal experience away from the centre of the story of Australia's past. Instead of being the essential, defining feature of Australia's economic, political, and cultural history (read Henry Reynolds), the dispossession and genocide of the Aborigines is presented by Luhrmann as a mere blemish on the history of the 'Lucky Country'. An ugly blemish, admittedly, but a blemish, nevertheless, a regrettable exception to the pattern of the history of a romantic, swashbuckling nation at the bottom of the world.

Sometimes it is possible to trivialise an event by acknowledging it in an inappropriate way.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Hi Maps. Thanks for that.

I don't personally like the romantic epic genre, sure, but I acknowledge its popularity and I don't judge the majority who do clearly like it. I have my own genre favourites such as vampire stories and time paradox science fiction, so I'm not in a position to claim that my tastes are superior to anyone else's.

But I don't agree that we should keep politics and art and light entertainment and everyday life in separate boxes.

You say the movie is in bad taste - I wouldn't know; it seemed bad to me but as I've made quite clear, all those movies make me feel ill anyway, they're so fake.

What surpised me about AUSTRALIA was that amongst all the hokum there was a very strong central theme that was NOT fake (and I didn't read it as incidental either - for me it was the main theme of the movie), and that was, the telling of the horrific story of the lost generations, which until recently had not even been officially acknowledged as a travesty.

You clearly think the attempt was misguided and misfired. I still say good on him for trying. According to his interviews, he meant well.

In fact you could even say that Luhrmann was attempting to wrest the control of discourse about the stolen generations away from the elites and the ivory towers, and put it out there in cartoon/Bollywood form in the everyday world where it also belongs.

Certainly if Luhrmann had tried to set any kind of story in Australia and NOT "mention ze war", he would be getting just as much stick as he is now.

Like many a tall poppy, he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Richard Taylor said...

Titanic I thought was a great movie -we saw Pearl Harbour (or similar) in 1970 or so and we were all cheering as the US ships were hit and blown to pieces - it was quite exhilerating to see the invaders of Vietnam copping it - but I suppose you saw a newer version...the US military seem to have been so stupid letting all that military hardware sit there - just asking to be hit!! (On purpose?)

But Titanic was quite moving I thought and for me a great movie.

Richard Taylor said...

This seems to me a good review (very well written I feel) and I take your point - it is a good one - a truly Politically Correct movie (such as Maps wants) wouldn't make it to the main screen and this will influence the right wing middle or right wing racist Aussies - and some of these people are very hard nosed -so it sounds as though this way to break ground - but I will see it myself and then comment again.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Thanks Richard.

Baz Luhrmann is quoted in interviews as saying that his intention in making the movie was to expose the "scar on his country" known as "The Stolen Generation".

He says: "I had the ability and power to take a moral issue like that and put it on a big stage. I could have made a small film about it, but instead, I wanted to incorporate it in a big entertainment so it wouldn't be swept under the carpet."

But in another interview he seems to feel he has bitten off more than he can chew:

"I realised that - this dark chapter in the story of our country, this scar - that I was in a place where I could take something very serious and difficult – a difficult pill – and put it inside a great big entertainment. And this was the genesis of the idea. This was what sort of made it more than a movie, because my children were going to grow up in Australia and this stolen generation thing had never really been dealt with. It had in smaller films but not told in a way in which it could never be swept under the carpet. So, I felt I could do that and, foolishly perhaps, combined those two things."

Part of the problem with the film seems to have been that the funders wouldn't let him make the movie he really wanted to make, with special reference to the ending, and there were budget problems, so the movie loses the focus that would have made the political statement more coherent.

I'll be interested to hear your reaction!

Richard Taylor said...

Thank you Paradoxical - these 'disputes' are issues of taste or viewpoint - sometimes ideology or world view or whatever - I have a book here about how the aborigines fought back which I mean to read - also Pilger's book is good. I also just read 'Tracks' by Robyn Davidson (she's not sentimental she gets on well with the aboriginal people - except when she is (seen to be) being photographed by a friend who doesn't realise she doesn't want to be -as he also photographs the indigenous people and they realty hated that.. ) which is great - great insight into Australia - I sell books on - and I was listing it - so I read it.

I don't watch many films these days but I will try to get to this one.

A filmmaker ideally is not too restrained by budget or "ideology" of those who fund but that is always a problem - people disagree on what is appropriate etc

I knew (still know really) a fellow (Australian) who married a part aboriginal woman - he got very involved in racial issues and the fight for justice etc - the trouble with him was - he was an ardent Marxist - he was rather humorless and a bit too fanatical about it all...

Certainly there was a big attempt to exterminate the aborigines (and effectively they were pretty "beaten up" by stealing the land off them etc) and
as in NZ there are many historical forces still at work so to speak...

Maps is a friend of mine BTW - so I can make the odd crit. of him! he is very switched on so we'll see who wins the Australia war! (Just joking...

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Cheers Richard.

Maps makes excellent points; he's right that there's a whole level unacknowledged in the film: ie that the land the white settlers are fighting over, was itself stolen.

That is the kind of "pitfall" I was alluding to, when first one struggles to be PC.

Is Luhrmann ignorant of the earlier history, of Terra Nullius, and the active genocide that made the stolen generation look benevolent to its perpretrators? Or has he just chosen his theme and is sticking to it?

How far do you have to go?

I noticed, for instance, that some of the films Maps admires would not pass muster under a feminist analysis :-)

As I said in my original post, I was uncomfortable with the fact that for much of the film, the kid is portrayed as wanting to choose the white surrogate parent. That would have been more insidious if there hadn't been some character development, but there was some growth.

I don't really have too much problem with the hardline position Maps has taken on the film, and it wouldn't surprise me if you agree with him.

What bothered me was that Maps trivialised my careful analysis, and misrepresented the Tabby as simply having bad taste and praising the movie. Grrr.

Perhaps I should have mentioned I had studied Australian history at university; I might have gained more respect.

There are wider issues here - I think it's all a good analogy for the mutual distrust of the hard left for the pragmatic left. I would define the hard left as those who, if they cannot achieve utopia, would rather have a right wing government in power than support an imperfect Labour-led government.

- Pamela

maps said...

Good to have this discussion, PC. I may have been 'bending the stick' a little, just to get it going! It certainly is a subject worth discussing.

Richard Taylor said...

Maps and I disagree on a lot - I am primarily a poet these days (actually mostly I am a chess player -it is my passion at the moment - I have been playing for years) - my days of radical actions etc are over - I was at one stage thinking of even joining the Communist Party (I am too egotistical and individualist though!) in about 1970 and I also realised that there would be an inevitable shift toward revisionism - this was in fact what Mao was attempting to fight against when he encouraged the Cultural Revolution.

But to get fixated on Marx or Mao or Obama or whoever as "saviours" is not a good idea.

His group of Marxists are oriented to Marx and Trotsky (who seems a rather pathetic figure to me BTW) and attack Mao as having "failed" (but none of them have undergone anything remotely like a revolution) but with very few significant revolutions occurring really it was almost inevitable that communism or even socialism would not be achieved - in Mao's (and Lenin's) writings one can actually see very good reasons why...

But these changes are not made by one man (or woman) or even one group it needs all the people of the world or at least a country...

By being amongst such groups and concentratng on such politics constantly people tend to become too fanatical and dark about things - although Maps has good sense of humour... some of the Trotskyites / Marxists are pretty dour and strange.

I simply have no great hope for humans on this earth but it doesn't worry me!
I don't have any fixed ideas or religion - I keep an open mind. It is the way we are - and each of us simply has to dig in and survive!

Ideologies are problematic.

I have no idea if any real progress toward any kind of "better world" can be made by humans - my feeling is that we are all inherently murderers and so on - but I will still speak out about injustice - if only to feel better!

I think Maps was bit disrespectful (or blase - he should have done a finer examination of your review - after all you are nominally on the same side) of your review which was very good - the point is not to worry when people disagree - they do all the time!

If you studied history Maps should invite you onto his Blog - it would be interesting to hear something about Australia from you - my history is pretty patchy...

I think also you are right to point to the positive features of the film.

I have trouble sitting through movies as I get claustrophobic and agoraphobic I will have to wait for the video.

But I have never been much of a film buff.

Maps at least said "Meow"! - BTW I love cats.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Thanks for the discussion guys.

I wouldn't fall over myself to see the film if I were you Richard ;-)

Mention of Russia versus China reminds me of the street I grew up in on the North Shore. One family further up the street flew the Russian flag - but their neighbours were Chinese communists and they flew the Chinese flag!

There were lots of communists among our family friends, and my parents belonged to the Russia Friendship Society (or whatever it was called). But they were always staunch Labour card-carriers when it came to NZ.

Richard Taylor said...

Paradoxical - I saw the movie just now!
And I enjoyed in immensely!

I don't know what Maps was going on about - its a great movie! Powerfully done with great cinematics and scenes and great acting also.

I think it brilliantly covers the subject as in an enlightening way - Luhrmann has done a great job in countering racism (in a great film). Aboriginals are seen there to an international audience in a wonderfully positive way.

They looked good too - everywhere else (almost) I have seen them they seem to look ugly (not only do they look good - but they are sen to act nobly and heroically - e.g. the (uncle?) of the boy who sacrifices his life at th end - in fact Robin Hyde (or one of her characters) says that in her great book "Nor the Years Condemn" (part of it is set in Australia)

I can see what he was attempting to do - and succeeded excellently.

It is one of the best films I have seen for years.

I think some people are scared of "magic" and emotion. Ad I think that happens when one - instead of reacting with one's heart and feelings - reacts too analytically.

I have long ago left Marxist ideology in the dust - it leads to Stalinism and just makes everything too dark and dour - and then people cant see what is beautiful in front of their eyes - as "Australia" is - everyone should see it. It is very positive.