Return to Oz: A History of Australian Cinema (1990-present)

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by Roderick Heath 

Continued from Part Two (1969-1989)

Lantana

Part Three: 1990-Present

1. Independent's Day: The Reign of Quirk

Australian cinema in the past twenty years has often looked like a manifestation of a culture constantly trying to second-guess itself. Faced with a narrowed era of multiplexes and blockbusters, moviemaking in Oz has failed, in spite of the occasional spotlights falling upon it, to gain even the kind of effective niche that British or French films had managed to carve in the modern cineaste panorama, and the fact domestic audience could rarely be counted upon to give necessary support stirred the question as to whether that support ought to be given automatically or first earned.

On top of this, the always problematic issue of how and what films to sell to the public has become all the more confusing, leading to fractious partisan battles of rhetoric. In the early 2000s, Ray Lawrence's Lantana was seen as a nuanced, grown-up alternative to a small avalanche of modest TV-derived comedies and in-your-face provocation; by the decade's end, further attempts to make grown-up, sober-minded dramas were being blamed in media critiques for dampening the industry's ever-ailing chances in being "depressing."

In the 1990s and the new century, actors and technicians often trained by government-fostered schools gained much respect and increasing employment overseas, and many have repeated the old pattern of talents establishing themselves at home and then heading overseas, perhaps returning if their gambits failed, to confront an ever more competitive field of up-and-comers: in short, the infrastructure to produce people who could make movies set up in '70s had produced strong results, but had finally failed to build a vital local film culture. Meanwhile Hollywood companies set up studios to produce movies more cheaply, with Warner Bros. building a complex near Brisbane and then Fox in the heart of Sydney, giving local technicians and actors easy employment in large-budget productions. Often, this had siphoning effect of local effort and expertise, although it could, more subtly, have done much to promote some of that talent: certainly a strange hybrid like Baz Luhrmann's large-budget, big-hype Australia (2008) could not have been imagined without this cross-pollinating effect.

Little FishAesthetically speaking, too, modern Australian cinema had atomized, as producers searched for sure things, for next big things, for artful movies that have popular appeal, for themes that connected to the zeitgeist, often to arrive belated and bedeviled, without anything like the assurance of the '70s. Attempts to make movies about things that encompassed average suburban existence, petty crime, drug use, gay life, family life, survival, wandering, working and having fun, in a usually, resolutely, contemporary context, became the new norm, but also presented fresh clichés and fads.

Take, for instance, 2005's Little Fish and Candy, two decent movies, were both about the impact of drug addiction and demimonde squalor, only ten years too late for the grunge chic craze in independent cinema. The stars of those films, Cate Blanchett in the first case, Heath Ledger in the second, had both been to Hollywood to further their careers and used their clout to help get them made. Meanwhile, the cycles of Australian film's booms and busts have, rather than stabilizing, only sped up.

In the early 1990s, that new philosophy in film production and distribution, independent film, became a variety of secular religion with temples at Sundance and Tribeca and Toronto—especially in Australia, where almost all filmmaking was, to a certain extent, independent. And, indeed, Aussie talent began to contribute to that growing ethos. In any event, some brightening of the pall that descended on the industry was detectable at the turn of the '90s, with a handful of mild box-office surprises popping up like Nadia Tass's The Big Steal (1990), John Ruane's Death in Brunswick (1991), and critical darlings including Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof (1991), and Leo Berkeley's Holidays on the River Yarra (1991)—the latter two of which screened at Cannes. This disparate selection of movies could nonetheless be defined by their distinctly shrunken horizons, all set in inner urban areas and focusing on hard-luck protagonists in the contemporary environment, drab and ordinary.

ProofOf those films, the artiest by far was Proof, a film with a unique if odd idea revolving around a blind man (Hugo Weaving), obsessed with photography in his attempts to substantiate his existence, and his two companions: a cool housekeeper and potential lover (Genevieve Picot), and a young man he befriends (Russell Crowe). The film was acclaimed at Cannes, and director and writer Moorhouse became a figure to watch in parlaying a small budget into a significant success, and also was the key early movie of two of the most successful Australian actors of recent years, Weaving (1960- ), with his slippery sensuality, and Crowe (1964- ), the gruffly charismatic future Oscar-winner.

Crowe had made his feature debut in Stephen Wallace's Blood Oath (a.k.a. Prisoners of the Sun), released the same year, an attempt to explore the anger of Australians towards the Japanese for poor treatment and homicides inflicted on their captured servicemen in WWII, a touchy subject for both countries and awkwardly handled here. Death in Brunswick was a black comedy about a loser chef (Sam Neill) whose involvement with an accidental killing and a younger waitress revives his sense of purpose, and it perhaps most clearly defined a new variety of "quirky" comedy, riddled with flailing fish out water, naïve fools of fortune, dippy fantasists and willful individualists, which would provide some even bigger successes in the near future.

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