Maybe someone has noted a certain tone of complaint in my last posts, an intimation that I find everything recent in cinema tiresome and dumbed down to fit only certain groups of cinemagoers; demographics that have low standards of quality in their viewing demands. This cantankerous outlook is not entirely appropriate to how I perceive myself. Every time I walk into a movie theatre or pop a new disc into my DVD-player, I have genuine hopes that my next hours will prove worthwhile. So it was today as well, as I was brought by my wife to see Baz Luhrmann’s latest “personal vision”, the epic Australia.
Let me start by noting that the film lasts for close to three hours. The length is not an unimportant ingredient when one sets out to make an epic, so Luhrmann certainly knows what he’s doing in this department. I must say that I was rather satisfied with the first third of the film. It is bigger-than-life film making, to be sure, but I felt that at least the proceedings held my interest and was put together in a way that was liable to make me forgive that I had seen it all before. Luhrmann starts with some magnificent shots of a “half breed”, an aboriginal child with a white father, who is told by his shamanic grandfather to make himself invisible by hiding under water as some white people pass by. We see the child under water and suddenly the surface opens up to the intrusion of a white man speared through the chest and dead. The child rises from the water and as his head breaks the surface, he is face to head with a black horse. These are beautiful images and as the child climbs the back of the horse and rides off, I feel that with luck the film might offer more than I’m used to from Luhrmann. (Mind, I actually liked both Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!, so I am not averse to his film making techniques).
Then follows a typical story of Nicole Kidman’s upper class English Woman coming to the still semi-savage continent down under and of course she initially dislikes everything about it; its people, customs and its nature. (Relax, she’ll learn to love it all!)The film is at this point a Western, where the frail English Woman , Sarah, grows to admire the rugged Drover, played by a buffed up Hugh Jackman. Drover, by the way, is also his profession. They go on a cattle drive and everything that always happens on cattle drives happens here as well. But I was entertained, so I didn’t look at my watch. Yet.
After about an hour, the initial cattle drive is over with, and things begin to look bleaker for the viewer as the two protagonists find themselves well and truly in love, and they look meaningfully at each other and stare and kiss and say a few words. Two hours remain of the film at this point. Drover: “When it rains, I’ll stay with you. When the dry season comes, I have to drove“. Quite. Or how about this?: Sarah: “Let’s go home”. Drover: “There’s no place like it”. This by itself wouldn’t be so bad if the various homilies were only said once, but evidently Luhrmann is so satisfied with his writing that he needs every clunking sentence to be repeated and repeated again. “I’ll sing you to me”, says the little aboriginal boy some thirty times during the film. Maybe I exaggerate, but not much. I can’t remember having ever seen a film so proudly uttering this many platitudes. At times I had to concentrate hard not to begin laughing. I guess this makes me an unfeeling person. I think I am not. I cry during Bambi like anyone else.
However, I can live with some bad dialogue if it at least brings the story forward. No such luck. Baz Luhrmann has recently been tasked by the Australian prime minister to film an advertising campaign to promote Australia as a tourist destination, and I gather he has already shot a thousand times over the material he needs by making this film. Well, I can also live with pretty pictures of Australian nature. Unfortunately he relies so much on CGI and colour manipulation that Australia looks more like something out of the more ethereal parts of Lord of the Rings than any real location. Also, why do war ships always look so fake in films like this? I guess the short answer is “because they are”. When our heroes are supposed to see water, we see green screen, when they are supposed to swim in the sea, we see stand- ins wading in a pool. I am well aware that Luhrmann’s style is supposed to be presenting a kind of hyper reality; that is, not real at all, but expressionistically so. And certainly, many of his withdrawal shots could be mistaken for deleted scenes from his prior Moulin Rouge!, but while that film’s artificiality was intentional and fitting its subject; a kind of opium induced point of view of bohemian life, Australia is a much worse fit.
Luhrmann has always taken existing stories, well known formulas, and given them his own over the top-spin. One could be clever and mention Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra and throw in words like kinetic, post modern; self referential/film referential, but I feel that “over the top” covers his style well. By always giving us recognizable stories (and none more so than Romeo + Juliet), he should know that he is working in the territory of clichés, but I fear that he actually feels that all his stories have something of value to impart on his audience. There is a weak sign of a thread in Australia that hints at “the power of storytelling”. We learn that if the aboriginal boy doesn’t go walkabout, he’ll lose his identity: “his story of himself”. Three times it is repeated that stories are the most important tool we have to make sense and meaning of our lives. This is all well and good, but for me this narrative thread mostly points to the fact that Luhrmann takes his stories seriously, and seriousness is the last thing they should be mistaken for. As far as I can see, Luhrmann’s only “message” in any of his films (he has written the scripts for all, and often the story as well) is that “love conquers all”, and in two of the films that it conquers even death. This is hardly a ground breaking insight. When it is coupled with repetitive clichés, it leaves us with a film maker who has actually nothing to say and just one way to say it. While he might be a visually recognizable director, he is hardly visionary, quite the opposite.
Not a single incident in Australia surprised me. The bad guy was very bad and grew worse, the good guys all grew even better. The aboriginals were as usual portrayed in a mystical light; they have an insight into the world that us white people can never have and they are closer to nature. This is not exactly an idiosyncratic take on the matter, to say the least. Furthermore, every feeling we might read from the situations or the characters is spelled out for us in case there are sociopaths in the movie theatre who might not be able to interpret what is clear as a very clear Australian day for anyone more or less sane. And in case we forget what we are supposed to feel, the music is quick to remind us with cloying romanticism in the kissing scenes and something akin to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten for strings and bell in the scenes we are supposed to feel some unfortunate incident is just around the corner. (One of Luhrmann’s first projects was to make his version of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the way). Of course, we also get to hear Waltzing Matilda; the film is, after all, called Australia. And we meet kangaroos. I’ll add in fairness that I think Luhrmann realized that as he had to show every single cliché about Australia, he filmed the Kangaroo scene in order for us to get a surprise, as if to say that he could at least in one scene make the film seem as if it had some life. The reader will see what I mean if he decides to brave a viewing.
As I am disappointed that yet another new film failed to live up to my hopes, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Luhrmann has a similar scepticism as myself to the value of many modern films. As Australia has been panned rather severely by many critics, Luhrmann has decided that the problem is with their perception, rather than with his own film, as witnessed by this exchange with The Hollywood Reporter:
“A lot of reviewers like ‘Australia.’ And we’re making people cry; I know because they write to us,” he said. “But there are those that don’t get it. A lot of the film scientists don’t get it. And it’s not just that that they don’t get it, but they hate it and they hate me, and they think I’m the black hole of cinema. They say, ‘He shouldn’t have made it, and he should die.’ “
Asked why he thought the reactions were so passionate, he replied: “I know what it’s about.” The movie’s detractors were used to movies that were neatly defined, he said. “This is not (simply) a romantic comedy for 40-year-old women or action movies for 17-year-old boys, and that’s not OK with some people. It’s not OK for people to come eat at the same table of cinema. But you look at movies like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and Old Hollywood classics, and they don’t fit in any box. “Corny Hollywood movies from the ’40s freak out (the film scientists),” he added.
I’ve included some space to his answers as they seem to indicate a number of things I find interesting. Well, firstly, that he clearly struggles with a slight case of paranoid delusions, but this is to expect working with Fox, so no one can hold that against him. His belief that people, and by “they” I assume he means critics, should want him dead for having made what they perceive to be a bad film, is just a bit over the top, though. In short, he considers himself an artist, and as such, I guess it is only natural that he feels the world to have singled him out for a special destiny, even though that destiny is rather on the bleak side.
Secondly, I find it interesting that he uses the phrase “film scientists” about what is commonly known as film critics or film reviewers. Maybe his term will catch on and a lot of incompetent reviewers for newspapers will be able to say “I am not a lowly reviewer, I am a scientist”. Oh, excuse me, he doesn’t mean that all the reviewers are scientists, merely those that have the unfortunate and accursed tendency to think. After all, a lot of reviewers like the film (because the film) is making people cry.
Thirdly, I can appreciate that Luhrmann wants to communicate with our hearts rather than with our conniving little minds, but unfortunately even I, who can find myself touched by the smallest things, was not able to break through the shell of sentimentality Luhrmann layered his film with. If the film is more laughable than touching, no amount of actorly emoting can make us care about what happens on the large canvas before us. I thought I heard some twelve year old girls cry a bit during the film, but my wife insists they were sniggering. Alas, I shall never know the true answer…
To my knowledge, critics are not particularly put off by “corny Hollywood movies from the ‘40s. Douglas Sirk is rather the critics’ darling these days, more so than in his lifetime, and films like A Letter to Three Wives, Dark Victory – and pretty much everything with Bette Davis – are usually appreciated more now than ever. Luhrmann mentions Gone With the Wind as an example of the kind of film he tried to make. Well, maybe he tried, but that is not sufficient to hold his own work in comparison with the classic epic. There is nothing in the set pieces of Australia that even comes close to the burning of Atlanta in the earlier film. There is no “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” among the bland sentences Luhrmann put in his actors’ mouths. In short, the only thing the films have in common is that they are on the long side. Even the central love story is vastly more complex in Gone With the Wind than in Australia, and the former actually seems to be surprisingly more mature – and modern – than Luhrmann’s bumbling cinematic creature.
Well, I am indeed sorry not to have more positive things to say about the film. I could add that it’s Nicole Kidman’s best performance in quite some while, but that is really not the apex of congratulatory remarks. Let me end, though, on a bright note and assure Mr. Luhrmann that I have no wish to see him dead and wish him the best of luck with his next project, which is an adaptation of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This masterpiece is a subtle little book where most of the plot points are well situated between the lines. Unfortunately, Luhrmann wants to make it because he sees it as illustrative of the current economic crisis, which is really not what the novel is about, current or otherwise. Well, it is partly about disgust for materialism and flamboyancy, so the link is not completely beyond the pale. I fear, though, that Luhrmann’s take will possibly work against this. As for subtlety, we’ll do well, I think, not to hold our collective breaths.