(Note: This column was originally published at the time of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.)
It seems that everywhere you turn lately you're going to hear something about Australia. Just try turning on the televison without being greeted by a cheery "G'day!" or being given a tour of beautiful downtown Sydney. Suddenly we've found ourselves immersed in all things Australian. Something to do with an athletic event being held there, I'm told.
By way of getting into the spirit (not to say jumping on the bandwagon), I'd like to suggest that the perfect way to make your Australian immersion complete is to sample a few examples of the best in Australian movies. Now, I know what you're thinking. You've already seen "Mad Max" (1979) and "Crocodile Dundee" (1986), so what else is there to know about Australian films? Believe it or not, these twin pillars of America's conciousness of Australia on the big screen do not, after all, constitute the whole of Australian cinema. Here are a few additional titles from down under to look for on home video.
"Walkabout" (1971). Nicolas Roeg had already distinguished himself as a cinematographer before moving to the director's chair. With this tale of the Australian outback, he established himself as a significant visual stylist on the world cinema scene. The story involves two white children, a brother and sister, who find themselves stranded in the outback with no knowledge of how to survive in that harsh environment. They happen across a young aborigine who is engaged in a "walkabout," a rite of passage survival ritual that entails spending time alone in the wilderness. Because he is willing to share his survival skills, the two youngsters are able to stay alive. Roeg's camera transforms the unforgiving outback into a dream landscape. Some viewers may find the visual symbolism a bit heavy handed, but there is no denying the raw power of the film's imagery.
"The Last Wave" (1977). In the mid-Seventies, Australian cinema experienced a kind of Renaissance. During the early part of the decade, the dominant product had been so-called "ocker" films. These were empty-headed, vulgar, provincial mass entertainments; think of "Smokey and the Bandit" with an Australian accent and you'll get the idea. Then, the emphasis shifted to a more enduring and universal approach to filmmaking. The film that signaled the change most clearly was "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975), directed by Peter Weir. It's a haunting, moody masterpiece, but I like Weir's later film, "The Last Wave," even better. It begins as a simple story of an Australian lawyer taking on the defense of an aborigine accused of murder, but it quickly develops into a fascinating meditation on the clash between aborigine tribal religion and the fragile assumptions that underlie life in the civilized world.
"My Brilliant Career" (1979). This was a career-making film, both for its director, Gillian Armstrong, and for its star, Judy Davis. It's a story we've seen before, that of a young woman of the Victorian era who refuses to accept the narrowly defined limits imposed on women by that culture. This one, however, is based on a remarkable novel written by an Australian woman named Miles Franklin. Instead of conforming to rigid Victorian notions about the proper role of women, the headstrong Franklin insisted on pursuing a career as a writer. Her autobiographical novel, "My Brilliant Career," was published in the mid-1890s, when Franklin was all of sixteen years old.
"Tim" (1979). For those who prefer just a good old sentimental love story there is this touching drama, originally produced for Australian television, then released theatrically. Mel Gibson, who was about to explode onto the world stage with "Mad Max," plays Tim, a mildly retarded gardener employed by Mary Horton (Piper Laurie), a middle-aged American woman. Gradually, Mary's feelings of maternal protectiveness toward Tim deepen into a more romantic attachment. The novel on which the film was based was written by Colleen McCullough, who would later write "The Thorn Birds."
Although they represent a good start, this handful of titles hardly constitutes the kind of Australian immersion that is the current order of the day. Next week we'll consider some additional Aussie cinema titles. To keep yourself in the spirit between now and then, just turn on your television anytime, day or night.