Wednesday, May 14, 2008

National identity issues in Australian films

In the early years, Australian film makers made films strictly exploring and forging Australian culture and identity by notable colonial themes. The “10BA tax concessions” in the eighties led to the “dubious film making period” where Australian films began being made for an international audience. But, despite the current climate of globalization, there are Australian movies that speak about its culture and do appeal to the international market. (Australian Government, 2008). This essay will firstly include a synopsis and secondly will discuss the national identity issues in the films Gallipoli that showcased Australian identity and Mad Max that was influenced by globalization as was made primarily for an international audience (Australian Government, 2008). Secondly, Mad Max will be cross-examined with reference to globalizations’ effect on the Australian film industry. Current films that still showcase Australian culture will be revealed in the essay.

Film Synopsis

Gallipoli (1981)
Peter Weirs’ Gallipoli is a film about two young idealistic friends Frank (Mel Gibson) and Archy (Mark Lee) who join the Australian army during World War I. They fight the Battle of Gallipoli at Turkey. The first half reveals the characters’ personalities and beliefs while the second half chronicles the unplanned battle where both the Australian and New Zealand soldiers are outnumbered and outmatched by the enemy forces (Mathew Tobey cited in Green Cine, 2006).

Mad Max I & II (1979 & 1981)

George Millers’ Mad Max is about Max Rockatansky who is a cop tired of his job but continue to fight against crime. He does not want to continue his job and prefers staying with his family. When his family is attacked and killed by one of the evil gangs, Max sets up for revenge. This Australian film was dubbed for the American audience. The second sequel is about revenge against the ones who destroy the civilization by a nuclear war (Robert Firsching cited in Green Cine, 2006; Flundran cited in, 2007).

National Identity Issues

In the 1980s, Australian landscapes were used as themes of Australian national identity (Australian Film Commission, 2008). Mad Max II was only shot in an Australian location but was not strong enough on displaying Australian identity when compared to Gallipoli mainly because of the plot of the film. The original or the first of the Mad Max series was Australian in many ways; settings (“west of Melbourne’), characters, dialect and subject matter (“the Australian car culture”). But, the sequel was filmed around Broken Hill for an atmosphere of a “post-apocalyptic world” or “post-nuclear world”. This ultimately left the American audience ambiguous enough to assume the setting to be the “American wheat belt”. The Australian landscapes that were used as a landmark for Australian identity was lost in this film. In addition, the characters and the subject matter were shifted from “distinctly Australian archetypes”. This was done for the universality of the stories characters and the story itself. Hence, Max became a “universal myth hero” by losing the confined Australian identity (Peary 1981a, 215-21; 1988b, 211-216; Kael 1986, 384-389; Mick Broderick cited in Sharret 1993, 156).

Gallipoli continues to be considered the vehicle of Australian culture. Like all Australian films, it is responsible for the “resurgence in national feeling”. This film “transmitted, maintained, extended and repaired” the unsuccessful historical war of Gallipoli to a national symbol by rendering it in a fictional form. The two characters representing the idealistic youth who were ready to sacrifice themselves for their country with only one surviving iconize Australian patriotism. The film reconciled classes; upper middle class Archie and his aboriginal mate. It reconciled ethnicity; Irish Frank and Anglo Archie with British values both developing Australian values and Anti-British values. It reconciled residents from the country to the city; Archie and Frank respectively. The film also displayed the Australian myth; mate ship between Frank and Archie throughout their journey to the war field. The “militaristic and masculinist myths of young nationhood” is seen in the movie; gross British Australian behavior of hurting the innocent. There are also dialogues of the disinterest to be a part of the war in the film; being a colonial the hatred towards foreign cultures especially the ruling empire, British is portrayed in the film (O’Regan 1996, 18).

Crocodile Dundee was constantly compared to Mad Max II for the fading Australianess. It had a more universal character with Mike Dundee being both an “everyday man” and a “modern Tarzan”. But, unlike Mad Max II, Crocodile Dundee had its first half set with the American in Australia and its second half with the Australian in America. The Americans’ visit to Australia in the film increased the number of visitors to the Kakadu National Park (Dermody and Jacka 1988, 173-176). By doing so, the landscapes of Australia are revealed thereby revealing or portraying the Australian identity. But, ultimately, Mad Max II was an even more major hit than Crocodile Dundee in the U.S. under the release title of The Road Warrior due to its focus on the American market by compromising on its origins’ identity – Australia (Rowley, 1998).

In Mad Max, the expressing of Australian identity via Australian masculinity was very original. The characters’ vulnerability of disempowerment and re-empowerment and the “vehicular nature” making sense to the masculine behavior at the traffic lights implies the reality unlike its sequels (O’Regan 1996, 96).

In Gallipoli the war and the men going for the war symbolize masculinity which is connected to Australian identity. For instance, Archie’s rural origins, his stockman skills, being athletic, his recruitment in the army collectively marks him as an archetype of Australian masculinity and “the emblem of Anzac” (Elder 2007, 68).

Australian identity in the current climate of Globalization

In the 1970s, Australian cinema focused primarily and only on “unitary nationalism” and thus the portrayal of culture in their respective films was pure. But, it is to be remembered that during that period Australia was a “mono-cultural society”. Due to the eventual decline in audience for Australian films and production companies bearing the losses, filmmakers and producers decided on supplying their audience with a “marketable entertainment identity” of Australia. Nevertheless, post the 1980s, Australia no longer was remained a mono-cultural society but a multi-cultural one (O’Regan 1996, 225).

In the 1980s, films like Gallipoli and Mad Max became susceptible to cinema trade; maximum possible audience but for an outside market. Both these films were made to target a broader audience irrespective of their origin. This was one of the ways that made a film a blockbuster. It was a new film making strategy that became prominent in the 1980s as a “direct income of the tax incentives”. Using “broader aspects and traditions of Australian culture”, merging both politics and information, using the docu-drama style of scripting and filming and making films about historical incidents by “fictionalizing the characters” were believed to appeal to a larger audience. This would help make the film a blockbuster. In Gallipoli, Australian culture is portrayed by being based on a true historical incident and being filmed in the Australian outback. Since the historical incident was familiar to a wide audience, the film was a blockbuster as it attracted many viewers (Moran and Regan 1989, 118).

However, Gallipoli did not attract a set of audience as big as Mad Max did. This was because of the simple narrative style and storyline of a good cop catching the bad guys and taking revenge of his dead family in Mad Max. It was an easy film to relate to and hence attracted comparatively more viewers. The audience was not expected to have prior knowledge of the storyline for better understanding unlike Gallipoli. Since, Gallipoli was based on a true incident in Australian history, having its knowledge prior to watching the film would enhance the response, the understanding and empathy towards the characters (Moran and Regan 1989, 121).

Both Mad Max II and III unlike its prequel were noted to have done nothing to display Australian identity thereby violating the norms of the Australian film industry that insists to do so (Smitz, Bain, Bao and Farfor 2005, 54). The only slightest similarity seen in the sequels was with regards to Australian masculinity. The “negation of emotion”; Max’s sentiments when his family is killed and “masculinity enmeshed with machinery”; Max driving an over-powered car stays in all the three releases (Rayner 2001, 37). The second and third releases were more a sci-fi, being surreal or formalistic than being realistic and thus contributing nothing to display the nations’ identity (Cornea 2007, 133).

The historical stories set at the outback made films popular among the local audience. But, by the early twenties Australians lost the eagerness to watch Australian films due to the emergence of the new wave from the ever growing U.S. and British production companies. The new wave introduced film makers who used contemporary settings rather than the outback that dominated the Australian film industry (Australian Government, 2008).

However, it can be noticed that the focus on American market is gradually declining and Australian films following the good old theory of sticking to scripts based on Australian lifestyles shot in Australia with Australian actors playing Australian characters has emerged. Turner (1994, 32-35) stated that present Australian films do not consider national identity to be an issue. He added that films like Strictly Ballroom, Queen of the desert, The Adventures of Priscilla, Romper Stomper and Muriel’s Wedding told stories in a “local context” believing that national identity issues would resolve by itself.

Turner continued that showing different Australians in different circumstances and in an Australian setting defined an Australian film. The earlier mentioned list of Australian films was ironically successful in foreign markets despite not primarily being made for them like Mad Max II. However, they were not as successful as those Australian films in the eighties that were made for the American market. Turner mentioned that Australian films have now backed off and stopped cloning American films; something that happened in the eighties. “The Hollywoodization of Australian films” lasted for a brief period only. Australian films presently are a hybrid of selected elements of the Hollywood genre and the AFC genre thereby being culturally richer and watchable by a wide audience; simple plots and not history filmed within the country of origin (Turner 1994, 32-35).

It is learnt that when an Australian film is made in Australia, there is no compromise made in factors such as the local location, dialect, storyline, and symbolism collectively termed as the AFC genre. The AFC genre is considered a benign genre as it cocooned the Australian cinema and restricted it to be entirely Australian leading to “cultural blanketing” (Laseur, 2001). But, all the mentioned factors need to be taken care of when the film is targeted for the outside audience. In the 1980s, this had a dramatic change for the domestic audience having to compromise on their films’ content as the film was made for the global audience. Mad Max II was made for an international audience. As mentioned earlier, it was dubbed to a different accent and no locations although shot in Australia had it mentioned in the film thereby the audience assuming it to be in the U.S. (Quin, McMahon and Quin 1995, 11).

Post the 1990s, films portraying the love for the local culture and the hatred towards foreign culture like in Gallipoli took a modernized view of reconciliation. In Strictly Ballroom, “multicultural unity in diversity” is noticed. Instead of the clashes during the merging of old European values with emerging values of Australia, the old society merged with the youthful culture thereby becoming modern and multicultural by the increase in the number of immigrants in Australia (O’Regan 1996, 18).

In the 2000s, Australian film commission was further supported by their units Film Australia and the Indigenous unit to release Dreaming in motion. This is considered as a pinnacle in the nations’ identity as it speaks of the indigenous people in Australia; the original people of Australia and not the ones who moved in. It speaks also about the cross-cultural issues and is filmed both as a road movie exploring the Australian landscapes and has some urban comedy appealing both to Australian audience because of the dialects and the foreign market (Collins and Davis 2004, 173).

In conclusion, it can be learnt that the effect of globalization did affect Australian films for a brief period. But, then filmmakers soon did inculcate both factors that characterized Australian films by using local dialects, locations and issues and factors that could appeal to an international audience. This restored the national identity and also increased the market of Australian films.

Reference list

Australian Film Commission. 2008. Australian Film Commission 2008: Australian Screen: Gallipoli. (accessed April 12, 2008).
Australian Government. 2008. Australian Government 2008: Culture and Recreation Portal. (accessed April 10, 2008).
Broderick, M. 1993. Heroic Apocalypse: Mad Max, Mythology and the Millennium. In Crisis Cinema: The Apocalyptic Idea in Postmodern Narrative Film, ed C. Sharret. Washington: Maisonneuve Press.
Collins, F. and T. Davis. 2004. Australian Cinema After Mabo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cornea, C. 2007. Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Dermody, S. and E., Jacka. 1988. The Imaginary Industry: Australian Film in the Late '80s. North Ryde: AFTRS Publications.
Elder, C. 2007. Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity. : Allen & Unwin.
Firsching, R. quoted in The All Movie Guide. 2006. Green Cine: Mad Max. (accessed April 6, 2008).
Flundran. quoted in The Internet Movie Database ( 2007. Internet Movie Database: Film and Television website: Mad Max II. (accessed April 9, 2007).
Kael, P. 1986. Taking it All In. London: Arena.
Laseur, C. 2001. The field of genre and Australian filmic texts: Transforming cultural narratives: Cutting up the genre field. (accessed April 15, 2008).
Moran, A. and T. O’Regan. 1989. The enhancement with the cinema: Australian films in the 1980s. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin books.
O’Regan, T. 1996. Australian National Cinema. London: Routledge.
Peary, D. 1981. Cult Movies. New York: Delta.
Peary, D. 1988. Cult Movies 3. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Quin, R., B. McMahon and R. Quin.1995. Teaching Viewing and Visual Texts. Melbourne: Curriculum Corporation.
Rayner, J. 2001. Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Rowley, S. 1998. Australian cinema and National identity. (accessed April 15, 2008).
Smitz, P., C. Bain, S. Bao and S. Farfor. 2005. Australia. London: Lonely Planet Publications.
Tobey, M. quoted in The All Movie Guide. 2006. Green Cine: Gallipoli. (accessed April 6, 2008).
Turner, G. 1994. Whatever Happened to National Identity?. Film and Nation in the 1990s: Metro, Film, Television, Radio and Multimedia Journal. 100: 32 – 35.

Copyright © Ajey Padival 2008 (Brisbane, Australia; +61-434360675;

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