The Notion of the Grotesque in Contemporary Australian Cinema

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

90 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 Theorising Australian Cinema
2.1 Australian Cinema before the 1990s
2.2 Contemporary Australian Cinema
2.3 Making a National Cinema

3 Theorising the Grotesque
3.1 Bakhtin and the Theory of Carnival
3.2 Gender and the Grotesque Body
3.2.1 The Female Body
3.2.2 The Male Body
3.3 Grotesque Laughter
3.4 The Grotesque and Film

4 The Grotesque in Australian Cinema
4.1 The Grotesque Female
4.2 The Grotesque Male
4.3 The Grotesque Humour
4.4 The Grotesque Film Style

5 Conclusion



1 Introduction

A national cinema is obliged to enact, express and represent the national lifeways and aspirations of people in Australia – through projecting these specificities it finds its identity and its market niche in the international cinema. (O’Regan, 1996, 176)

In spite of its generic, thematic and stylistic diversity, popular[1] contemporary Australian cinema of the last two decades, and especially in the 1990s, has found its market niche in developing a tendency to incorporate an element of the ‘grotesque.’ This manifests itself in terms of narrative and visual style to create a divergent and truly Australian cinematic experience. Over the years, this distinct film style, which surfaced in the second half of the 1980s,[2] has acquired many different labels: eccentric, quirky, non-conformist, dark, noisy, camp, kitsch, new gothic. However, when related to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of ‘carnival’ and the ‘grotesque,’ these ‘odd’ elements in films of the last twenty years reveal commonalities that can contribute to the discussion about an Australian national cinema and its ‘specificities.’

In his study on Rabelais and His World (1984), Bakhtin argues that the liberation “from conventions and established truths” (Bakhtin, 1984, 34) during the social event of carnival in medieval Europe resulted in an inversion of social structures and hegemonic codes, thereby expressing criticism of the existing social order. The grotesque is a manifestation of this subversive moment and functions to convey a “fundamental sense of exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness; (…), a reliance on excess as the measure of a new (but yet not accepted) standard” (Danow, 1995, 35).

This deviant notion of the grotesque has been applied to the realm of literature and film in its way of reversing and subverting dominant representations of social, political, and societal structures. In combination with feminist film theory, several film scholars have focussed on the grotesque in order to foreground the unconventional dimension of certain films in opposition to the dominant film culture of Hollywood. Recent contributions to this area of research have mainly concentrated on specific films and filmmakers, most prominently, on Jane Campion and her films as the ultimate example of an (Australian[3] ) woman filmmaker “reacting against the lack of visibility of women's experience in film” (Morton, 1995, 1) and dealing with alternative ways of representing femininity.

Within a broader, Australian context, however, it can be argued that critically acclaimed Australian films such as the Mad Max trilogy (George Miller, 1978-85), Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989), Muriel’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994), and The Adventures of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) are obvious examples in their use of the grotesque as a defining “aesthetic and thematic trend” (Rayner, 2000, 21). The grotesque, it will be argued, is a typical feature of Australian cinema that differentiates it from Hollywood and other national cinemas. It manifests in the depiction of off-centre characters that exist at the margins of society and struggle with an over-bearing authority, in the odd and unspectacular plots, the self-deprecating humour, the deviant and sometimes playful visuals, the mixing and intermingling of genres to the point where we cannot speak of genre as a concept anymore.

In his account of Contemporary Australian Cinema, Jonathan Rayner explains that the Australian film landscape has evolved from a mere imitation of established Hollywood models into a field of experimentation, utilisation and revision of those influences (Rayner, 2000, 21). Susan Dermody is more direct but also exclusive in her description of this evolution. She refers to Australian filmmakers as a “Company of Eccentrics,” defining them as “the nonconformists […] [that] carry recessive possibilities of genuine alternative choices to the repetitive safety of the middle-of-the-road” (Dermody&Jacka, 1988, 132). The label “eccentric,” however, is according to Dermody only applicable to a small group of independent productions that can sometimes get a reasonable amount of public attention. Thus, she implies that the main forces in Australian cinema are still the “dominant prevailing genes” of Hollywood.

While aware that this mainstream cinema also exists within the Australian film culture, I would nevertheless support Rayner’s more recent stance that the nonconformist, eccentric, subversive and often grotesque element in contemporary Australian filmmaking that, especially in the 1990s, has become a trend in the Australian film landscape. This is visible in such critically acclaimed films as Muriel’s Wedding or Strictly Ballroom, and many other popular Australian productions that, unfortunately, were not quite as successful at the box-office. By singling out the grotesque as a defining element of contemporary Australian film, a basis is created for identifying an Australian national cinema.

The term ‘national cinema’ in production terms generally embraces the total quantity of film productions that have been realised with a certain amount of Australian involvement. Besides popular feature films, this includes short films, experimental films, and co-productions with Hollywood or other countries. However, within the limits of this study it will be impossible to give a comprehensive account of the grotesque in the entire body of work that constitutes the contemporary Australian film pool. Therefore, it is concentrated solely on Australian feature film productions with an all-Australian cast and crew, which deal with Australian subject matter, and which were financed principally by Australian funding bodies and production companies. This emphasis on a ‘pure’ Australian cinema is a means of highlighting the idiosyncratic character of Australian film and the grotesque as an inherent stylistic device.

Furthermore, the proposed analysis will focus on popular Anglo-Celtic Australian cinema. During the research phase for this thesis it has become apparent that Aboriginal and ethnic filmmaking tend to focus primarily on the reworking and reviewing of the nation’s colonial and racist legacy. This is usually done in the form of historical melodrama and does not incorporate an element of the grotesque as an underlying theme of carnivalesque subversion.[4] Thus, it is implied that a unified and all-encompassing Australian national cinema does not yet exist, since its executive components have differing agendas. The dominant one wants to represent and build a unified Australian identity; the other aims at reconciliation and wants to educate Australians as well as the rest of the world about cultural difference, the relationship to a predominantly ‘white’ social order, and the nation’s colonial past. However, the creation of national and cultural identity is based on the exclusion of others. Australia’s history of racism as well as its imperial ties to a predominantly white European country will be discussed in terms of the way they function in order to legitimise and validate Australianness on screen.

The following analysis of the grotesque in contemporary Australian cinema is structured in three main parts. First, the contemporary Australian film industry will be positioned within a historical framework, which will lead on to a brief revision of differences and unifying trends in the more recent body of work of Australian cinema as well as its status in the global and local market. This first part will, furthermore, elaborate on the making of a national Australian cinema and its implications for a national identity in opposition to other national cinemas and the dominant film culture of Hollywood. It will also include an account of the colonial legacy of the Australian nation and its relation to the indigenous Australian people as well as their involvement, or non-involvement, in the creation of a national cinema.

The second part will give a basic outline of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival and the grotesque body as a site of resistance to traditional representations of femininity and masculinity. It will discuss the grotesque as an aesthetic category, how it is used in film and the way it interfaces with feminist film theory. The aim is to draw connections between the notion of the grotesque, with its inherent subversive and ambivalent qualities, and the dominant cinematic codes and gender conventions enforced by patriarchal society.

This theoretical approach will then be applied to the examination of a selection of Australian films that were made in the past decade. The analysis will consider four aspects: the grotesque female, the grotesque male, the grotesque humour, and the grotesque film style. Each of these sections will focus on two or more films in particular, also drawing on other films that feature similar grotesque elements, thus providing a substantial basis for the argument.

In conclusion, the hypothesis that the grotesque is an underlying theme of subversion in the Australian film landscape, which functions as a marker of difference to other national cinemas and, above all, Hollywood, will be reviewed. Furthermore, these observations and assumptions will be repositioned within the current debates of the strengths, weaknesses, and future prospects of Australian cinema.

2 Theorising Australian Cinema

Australian cinema is a vehicle for Australian culture in both a programmatic and a mundane sense. Australian culture is simultaneously a political, social and cultural programme of diverse agents and elites and it has a mundane identity formation and inescapable cultural level in its own right. Australian cinema inevitably shapes this culture in both senses and it is in turn shaped by it. It intersects with and articulates various social and national identities. (O’Regan, 1996, 18)

Picture this: a country larger than Europe, detached from the rest of the world and spread over three time zones, featuring climates that range from tropical rain forests to deserts to Mediterranean conditions; a meagre population of just twenty million, made up of various cultural and national backgrounds; and a film industry that aspires to embrace all this diversity, reflecting as well as creating a sense of unity, a national identity.

In relation to the global film market, Australian cinema is a medium-sized, English-speaking cinema (O’Regan, 1996, 77). Like every other national cinema, it attempts to “carve a space locally and internationally for [itself] in the face of the dominant international cinema, Hollywood” (O’Regan, 1996, 1). This effort is characterised by the attempt to emulate popular trends and formulae in order to appeal to a wide audience, thus creating an economic basis for a national film industry. At the same time Australian national cinema seeks to develop a distinct form of cinematic expression that displays Australia’s specificities. It participates in reflecting as well as ‘inventing’ an Australian national identity and its cultural differences from other nations. In his book Inventing Australia, Richard White remarks that “Australia has long supported a whole industry of image-makers to tell us what we are” (White, 1981, viii). Through those images, in this case the cinematic ones, national identity is, however, not only ‘invented’ or “imagined” (Anderson, 1991, title), it is also “continually being fractured, questioned and redefined (White, 1981, x). It actively shapes and it is being shaped.

Australian filmmaking since the early days of cinema has gone through several “vicious cycles of growth, euphoria, despair and collapse” (Shirley&Adams, 1983, 279). It continues to struggle with sustaining a national film industry, primarily competing with other English-speaking national cinemas. Some film critics and scholars have noted that lately

[t]he standard of Australian moviemaking has declined to such discouraging lows that each film that slivers out of the undergrowth is not only greeted by immense hopefulness but also burdened by the reverberating foibles of its flailed brethrens. (Buckmaster, 2005, 1)

This is a rather pessimistic view on the current situation of Australian cinema but it points to the difficulties that each new Australian production faces and attempts to overcome. Undoubtedly, this is a bold and challenging venture, since the aim is to cater for a wide audience in order to make profit whilst also presenting allegedly “authentic images of Australia and Australians” (Rayner, 2000, 7).

2.1 Australian Cinema before the 1990s

Australia is not, like Hollywood, home to a dominant film culture. It is perched, in commercial and creative terms, on the risky fringe surrounding mainstream global film production. This is a tenuous position but potentially a viable one, given […] that diversity, or difference, has an inherent economic value which can work as a natural armour against the dominant culture. (Reid, 1999, 11)

The overwhelming predominance of the ‘standardised’ Hollywood product all over the world is an issue that almost every national film industry encounters.[5] There was once a time when the American film industry had not yet embarked on its export-driven and profit-oriented conquest of the world’s cinema screens. This is when Australian cinema production was at its highest and, in terms of recognition and profit, at its most successful: the Early Years of Cinema. Unfortunately, many Australians, not to mention the rest of the world, are ignorant towards the achievements of Australian filmmakers during the new medium’s infancy: for example, The Story of the Ned Kelly Gang (Charles Tait, AUS, 1906) was the first feature-length narrative film ever made. It was an Australian production, featuring Australian subject matter, Australian technical expertise and innovation, Australian cast and crew, and Australian money.

By the beginning of World War One, the steady popularity of Australian film as entertainment “floundered” (Hutcheson, 1996, 1). Instead the medium was privileged as a means of providing war news and domestic propaganda. The decline in film production that preceded and benefited this change in direction was largely due to economical reasons. By 1913 the Union Theatres exhibition company and the Australasian Films distributions company had formed a monopoly and began making decisions in favour of American films (Shirley&Adams, 1983, 234). These were lower in cost if bought in bulk than Australian productions and also more appealing to the audience. Rayner notes that

[a]s standardised, quantity production became institutionalised in America, so small-scale, independent producers and cottage industries elsewhere found themselves outclassed and overrun by the ubiquitous Hollywood product. (Rayner, 2000, 4)

In spite of attempts by some members of Parliament to restrict this influence and revive the domestic industry, Australian cinema collapsed, except for the occasional government documentary and the films of a few struggling directors like Ken G. Hall, Charles Chauvel, and Raymond Longford (Hutcheson, 1996, 1). They continued to make films with Australian subject matter, usually dealing with Australia’s convict history or the heroic bushranger as he succeeds in conquering the unsympathetic but promising bush land. Unfortunately, these films were not received well by the Australian audience and failed to make profit at the box-office (Hutcheson, 1996, 1).

At this time there was no government support to sustain the regular production of Australian feature films, and the solitary competition with popular Hollywood films was a hopeless mission: What remained of the domestic film industry? The technical expertise, the studios and other such assets were utilised by foreign, mostly American or British, production companies because production costs were considerably lower than in their home countries (Rayner, 2000, 6). Furthermore, Australia as a location offered an exotic backdrop to their stories and gave the films an extraordinary appeal. This was, of course, a welcome side effect in a competitive industry like Hollywood, where every film has to look ‘new’ and be different to its predecessor (Maltby, 2003, 108), yet ultimately conform to certain generic norms to be able to attract a wide audience. As for Australia’s own filmmakers and talents: they went off to look for projects overseas, where their abilities were appreciated and nurtured (Rayner, 2000, 5).

Interestingly enough, the enthusiasm and passion for cinema in the population never ‘floundered.’ According to figures from the 1960s, Australians, “on a per capita basis, were the world’s leading cinema-goers” (Shirley&Adams, 1983, 221). Considering this on-going Australian fascination with film as a medium and cinema as a form of entertainment, it seems quite unbelievable that efforts to recreate a functioning Australian film industry, which would provide the audience with images of their own specific issues and environments, were not undertaken until the late 1960s. It was then that members of the struggling film community started to act upon their belief that

Australians need to be able to tell their stories, share their images, and portray, reflect upon, reinvent, and witness themselves and the society in which they live. (Inquiry, 1992, 8)

A means was needed with which to put pressure on the establishment and the relevant government agencies to support their cause. With the assistance from individuals, unions, guilds, film societies and festival organisations, who all had an interest in the advancement of a local film production, the Australian Film Council (AFC) was formed in 1968.

The AFC’s enthusiasm initiated several inquiries about the situation and future prospects of Australia’s television, live theatre and film industries, which resulted in the establishment of the Australian Film Development Corporation in 1970. Through financial support in the form of grants or tax incentives, this government agency and its successors would act as a bank to co-ordinate the financing of films (Shirley&Adams, 1983, 273). This initiative ultimately led to the ‘renaissance’ of Australian film. However, it also put an emphasis on commercial viability over artistry and creative talent.

[W]hether the notion of art or industry prevailed at a given moment of pro-industry rhetoric, the underlying notion that film served the identification and refinement of essential Australianness was the confident starting point for everybody. (Dermody&Jacka, 1987a, 35)

A new film industry, whichever shape it was to take on, and its international distribution and promotion, was seen to encourage the rekindling of Australian national pride and self-confidence.

The following decade saw the founding of a government film and theatre school, which was to “promote and encourage the further development of Australian culture” (Inquiry, 1992, 4). The newly discovered interest of the government in film and the arts, as a means of ‘inventing’ an Australian national identity that would ultimately serve their purposes, resulted in the financing of several enthusiastic but callow, yet pivotal, films that set the tone for the subsequent years. One of the first government funded projects was Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), an anarchic comedy about an ‘Aussie’ in England that in its excessiveness and absurdity parodied the stereotypical images of Australia and its ‘mother country’ Britain. In its several reincarnations, this kind of overt ‘ocker’ comedy went on to become a national and international hit, so that up until the late 1990s Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) and its sequel were still the two highest grossing Australian films (Reid, 1999, 10). Some critics have blamed these ‘ocker’ films for the vulgar and chauvinistic image it created of the Australian overseas.

Another strand of films that emerged during the 1970s dealt with Australia’s past and advocated a very different side of Australia. Instead of vulgarity and excess, the period film, as promoted by the upcoming Whitlam Labour government, was to

illustrate Australia as it should be seen […]. The belief was that by portraying historical dramas Australia could prove that it did indeed have a history and therefore a culture of its own. (Hutcheson, 1996, 2)

Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was one of the first period dramas, a literary adaptation that was set in a rural environment at the turn of the century. It incorporated a “strong element of nostalgia, an almost deliberate anti-‘ocker’ element” (Rayner, 2000, 66), which was carried by its soft-focus visual effects and the use of an art-house narrative style that would not resolve the mystery it invoked. The ensuing period film genre, an indigenised version of the Hollywood melodrama and costume film, gained some popularity by looking backward and retelling the past, whilst the ‘ocker’ film dealt with more contemporary, and partly urban, subject matter.

The experimental nature and disparity of these two main genres – one extrovert and action-centred, the other reflective and character-centred – filled a ‘fringe’ space in the international market and made Australian cinema visible. However, it also prevented the vast majority of Australians to truly identify with the settings and characters that were presented to them on screen (Rowley, 1998, 2) and, thus, failed to win a benevolent reception in the domestic market.

[T]he Australian film industry failed to acknowledge this fact and instead turned towards ways to make films more profitable in overseas markets since the Liberal party, the opposition to Whitlam’s Labour Party, no longer provided as much support to the film industry. (Hutcheson, 1996, 3)

The focus on the overseas market in the 1980s manifested itself in the commercial success of Crocodile Dundee, the Mad Max trilogy (George Miller, 1978-85), and other such films. They were a “mixture of morally satisfying violence, semi-mock heroics and romantic narrative” (Rayner, 2000, 19) and usually centred around a working-class, white Australian male stereotype who reinforces his masculinity with rather primitive outbursts of violence and mischief or indifference in the face of danger. This promotion of a simplistic image of white Australian male culture strongly appealed to international audiences and generated a considerable financial backlash as a result, allowing Australian cinema to become more proficient.

This popular display of stereotypical male images and their perceived misrepresentation of Australia’s identity provoked another counter reaction in the 1980s. The first generations of graduates from the Australian Film Television and Radio School had started making films, in which they were searching for their own, unrefined, interpretations of national identity. Many film critics have referred to them as the second wave of the Australian film ‘renaissance.’ Their narratives concentrated on unusual characters at the margins of an urban society, often “women rather than men, so that history was revised away from a chauvinistic celebration of Australia as a New Britannia, and towards a more independent, democratic vision of Australia” (Mules, 2001, 11). These young filmmakers were interested in examining the gradual or traumatic revelation of the protagonist’s true circumstances, which are usually hidden behind a shiny veil of ignorance and denial. Films like Bliss, Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989), and Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982) defied mainstream categorisation, incorporating unusual narrative and visual techniques, as well as instances of black humour and sarcasm. In their refusal to conform to conventional practices they were, nevertheless, a serious criticism of Western society promising more than it is able to provide.

These 1980s films have had a major influence on the perception of contemporary Australian cinema as “full of energy” (Rattigan, 1991, 281), exuberant, thematically ambitious, and arguably grotesque. In regard to the international film market, Tom O’Regan claims that

[t]he prospect of a quirky, eccentric cinema to one side of the international norm [exists] as a means of establishing international attractiveness. In Sweetie and Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert a space is created for what has become an international expectation of Australian ‘quirkiness,’ ‘eccentricity’ and ‘individuality.’ (O’Regan, 1996, 54)

Whether or not the substitution of the primitive Australian male chauvinists on screen with the quirky, eccentric oddball is an improvement of the Australian image is questionable. It is certain, however, that these paradoxical yet fundamentally grotesque images within their own right are distinctly (albeit Anglo-Celtic) Australian. Therefore, they set the Australian film industry apart from other national cinemas and Hollywood. Despite this possibly viable position ‘on the risky fringe surrounding mainstream global film production,’ it is questionable, however, if the Australian national film industry has been successful in reaching its goal: to provide Australians with reaffirming images of themselves while simultaneously ‘illustrating Australia as it should be seen,’ not only by its international audiences but most importantly by Australians themselves.

2.2 Contemporary Australian Cinema

The need to differentiate the local product sees Australian ugliness staked out as Australia’s territory in the cinema – an antidote to the pretty, well-dressed and well-coiffured people on offer in some genres of the cinema. It fits the cultural logic of a medium-sized producer to take the culturally weak position in which Australia is in the supporting cast on the world stage, and turn it into a strength. (O’Regan, 1996, 250)

With overseas successes such as Crocodile Dundee, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max, Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla and others, the Australian film industry has been able to build up an “international reputation and presence which is impressive for an industry of its size” (Inquiry, 1992, 4) and the recency of its rebirth. This has generated the emergence of certain expectations in the global market of a different kind of film experience tainted by Australianness: eccentric and weird, quirky, ‘ulgy’ even, yet still comprehensible. Australian cinema as a national cinema among many, it seems, has ‘staked out its territory.’ However, “by the end of the 1980s, it had become common wisdom that a ‘Made in Australia’ tag was a handicap at the [domestic] box-office and the video store” (Reid, 1993, 5). For a while now, Australian audiences have had difficulties identifying with the representations of their country and “lifeways” (O’Regan, 1996, 176) on screen, in spite of a number of unusual and successful films abroad and at home. Despite numerous attempts at developing new industry tactics and uninhibited creative techniques to reignite the fervour of the 1970s films, this Australian alienation from and disregard for its domestic film culture is still an active agent to its national film industry’s malady.[6]

Since its renaissance in the 1970s and its maturing phase in the 1980s and 1990s, Australian cinema’s performance has, nevertheless, caused fierce debates within as well as outside the country. It has been celebrated and criticised for its diversity or incongruity, which does not seem to allow for generalisations about Australians and their cinema. Some critics call it ‘messiness’ (O’Regan, 1996, 2), a result of Australia’s colonial and film history; some claim this ‘in-betweenness’ is innovative and enriches the understanding of Australian culture (Rowley, 1998, 3); and yet others believe it exposes the incapacity or reluctance of Australian films to utilise established cinematic conventions that have proven to be successful and, moreover, profitable (McFarlane&Mayer, 1992, 238).

Notwithstanding the motives or consequences of this diversity, Australian popular films appear to have one thing in common: They “seem to be saying something about Australia in a unique way, employing a certain style and attitude not seen in mainstream Hollywood films or films from other countries” (Mules, 2001, 1). As will be elaborated on in the analysis, they are adventurous in style and narrative, disturbing in their representations of Australianness and disappointing to the audience, who is deliberately alienated and kept at a distance. Australian cinema is perceived as “dark” (Reid, 1999, 9), “noisy” (Goldsmith, 2001, 117), “eccentric” (Dermody&Jacka, 1988, 132), “deviant” (Rustin, 2001, 133), “fresh and unpredictable” (Turner, 1994/95, 33). These diverse labels, as will be shown throughout this study, can all be related to Bakhtin’s understanding of the grotesque. This functions as a marker of Australian cinema’s difference and ultimately its “deficiency” (Inquiry, 1992, 3). This perceived deficiency is indicated by a steady decline of exposure and profit at the box-office in spite of the rise of government funded film production output in the 1990s (Reid, 1999, 10). This was an optimistic and hopeful investment that was a result of the few successful eccentric films earlier in the decade.

Judging from the critic’s contributions to the debate and the hesitant reception at the theatres, contemporary Australian cinema has become a critically acclaimed venture. Yet its ‘in-betweenness’ – which has marked a certain space within the global film industry that negotiates the gaps between mainstream and anti-establishment, local and global, sarcastic humour and solemn drama, film as art and film as commercial entertainment – is utterly and painfully unprofitable. Popular Australian cinema, thus, is not particularly popular.

Nevertheless, the attempt at bridging those gaps has put Australian cinema and its talents on the map of international film practice with acclaimed film directors such as Baz Luhrman, Jane Campion, and George Miller, and actors such as Mel Gibson, Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Heath Ledger and Russel Crowe. Their work in Australia was a stepping-stone to fame and recognition in the multi-national film culture of Hollywood. Considering the marginal position of Australian national cinema and its dependency on government funding and the international film community (O’Regan, 1996, 45), the extensive number of those successful film professionals has uncovered and distinguished the potential of the Australian film culture and its talents.

Despite this international recognition and curiosity with Australian talent in filmmaking, there remains the question as to why and how Australian films generate their marginal position in relation to other national cinemas and Hollywood. This is at once a viability as well as a liability (O’Regan, 1996, 232), a chance and an impediment. A number of film scholars have elaborated on this question from diverse angles, including Tom O’Regan, Susan Dermody, Jonathan Rayner and Mary Ann Reid, whose works on Australian cinema provide a substantial amount of support for this thesis. Considering their observations, it will be argued that the common deviant element in popular contemporary Australian film is the incorporation of an underlying grotesque theme. This grotesque theme provides Australian film with a certain eccentric character that differentiates its national cinema from other national cinemas and the “grand-scale, high-budget, glamorous and escapist” (Crofts, 2001, 161) film culture of Hollywood. However, what internationally is perceived as a kind of novelty has had an alienating effect on domestic audiences, who seem to have suffered from an overdose of the ‘weird’ effects of the grotesque undertone. It has become a “cultural cringe” factor (O’Regan, 1996, 217). In this observation lies the paradoxical challenge that contemporary Australian national cinema faces. It is torn between its aspiration to reflect, create and promote Australian culture, please audiences, make profit, and find a niche in the global market.

2.3 Making a National Cinema

The whole project [of an Australian national cinema] then surely included the notion of cinema capable of challenging existing film conventions, existing audience viewing patterns and to offer films which illuminated, criticised and analysed Australian culture and history, and those of other societies as well – particularly the ones which had traditionally provided the greater parts of Australia’s cultural material. (Dermody&Jacka, 1987a, 158)

In the discussion of Australian national cinema, the term ‘identity’ plays a central role, referred to by Sarah Street as “a distinct, familiar sense of belonging which is shared by people from different social and regional backgrounds” (Street, 1997, 2). This has manifold implications since identity grows out of “assumptions about nature, race, class, democracy, sex and empire, and [is] ‘invented’ to serve the interests of particular groups” (White, 1981, cover). What assumptions underlie the notions of an Australian identity?

Australia is a hybrid, multicultural society that is based on democratic values and modern Western ideas about science, race, class, and gender. Australia’s colonial and convict history has manifested in a deep scepticism of authority (Thomas, 1996, 100), but also in a belief in ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go’ (Fiske, 1987, 1). These are essentially Anglo-centric and male defined constructs, and through their ‘imagining’ exclude ‘other’ groups that differ in race, sex or class. Furthermore, due to Australia’s colonial legacy, its imperial, cultural, and political ties to Britain as well as the US, its brief history as a nation state, and its geographical detachment from the rest of the Western world, Australia has developed a sense of cultural inferiority; a marker of what is allegedly an unstable national identity (O’Regan, 1996, 257). Despite this assumed instability and the lack of “a ‘real’ Australia waiting to be uncovered” (White, 1981, viii), critics time and again stress certain aspects that are perceived as making Australia unique, and therefore create and reflect a certain ‘sense of belonging.’ Filmmaker Gillian Armstrong, for example, asks rhetorically:

What’s important about a national culture? It’s our identity as Australians. It’s what makes us unique: our language, our idioms, our character, our stories, our humour, our outlook on life. These things are not fixed but are challenged and reaffirmed by our cultural expression. They are reflected by the stories we tell and the images we see. (Armstrong, 2004, 1)

Thus, Australian identity is challenged, reflected, as well as reaffirmed by forms of cultural expression; and cinema, as an ‘industry of image-makers,’ is nowadays one of the main popular form of this expression.

In the making of a national cinema that replicates and generates an assumed national identity and differentiates it from other English-speaking nations, Australian films have a tendency to emphasise their ‘unique’ characteristics. The particular Australian dialect, character and self-deprecating humour are frequently displayed in Australian films, although in their excessiveness these characteristics not only mark difference and “national pride” (Inquiry, 1992, 9) but also mock exactly that difference and pride.

This focus on Australia’s distinct characteristics is, of course, not entirely a creative decision because most popular film projects have to undergo an ordeal of selection processes before they are granted government or public funding, having to negotiate “the treacherous straits of film financing” (Reid, 1999, 15). Thus, this display of Australianness should be understood as a conscious effort by politicians as well as filmmakers in creating a certain “anti-cultural imperialist” (Dermody&Jacka, 1987a, 158) image of Australia. In this vein, Australian national cinema seeks to endorse Australia’s cultural emancipation from those cultures that have ‘traditionally provided the greater parts of Australia’s cultural material.’ Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka are here referring to British cinema and Hollywood, the two main English-speaking cinemas that have “dominated the Australian market place” (Hutcheson, 1996, 1). These emancipation efforts often result in the refusal to adopt certain Hollywood standards (McFarlane&Mayer, 1992, 239). Instead, Australian films undermine these standards by turning them ‘down under,’ by carnivalising the established ‘culturally imperialist’ norms. Tom O’Regan, for example, claims that “[i]t is a disarming feature of Australian film-making and culture generally that it should be so prepared to emphasize and dramatize the worst parts of the culture; and to present these as representative of it” (O’Regan, 1996, 248). O’Regan argues that in order to be different and also as a result of that difference, Australian films display an image of ugliness and ordinariness that is yet enforced by the exposure and denigration of the nation’s ‘monstrosities:’ its “parochial, sexist, racist and ethnocentric outlooks” (O’Regan, 1996, 249).


[1] In this thesis, the term ‘popular film’ will be understood in terms of the film’s potential to be a critical and commercial success (Reid, 1993, 7).

[2] Bliss (Ray Lawrence, 1985), a film about the ugliness of life underneath the blissful veil of denial, is said to have been the film with which it all started.

[3] Although she is a New Zealander by birth, her work is Australia-based and executed.

[4] Tracey Moffatt’s films are an exception here. However, they are more at home in the experimental feminist film culture. Tracey Moffatt also refuses to be labelled as Aboriginal filmmaker. She claims that her aims and political inclinations are universal in their approach. Thus, she has to be considered independently from an Australian national cinema.

[5] The Indian film industry, also called Bollywood, is one of the few exceptions.

[6] This statement is based on personal observations and numerous discussions with Australians about their cinema.

Excerpt out of 90 pages


The Notion of the Grotesque in Contemporary Australian Cinema
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
827 KB
The grotesque, it will be argued, is a typical feature of Australian cinema that differentiates it from Hollywood and other national cinemas. It manifests in the depiction of off-centre characters that exist at the margins of society and struggle with an over-bearing authority, in the odd and unspectacular plots, the self-deprecating humour, the deviant and sometimes playful visuals, the mixing and intermingling of genres to the point where we cannot speak of genre as a concept anymore.
Notion, Grotesque, Contemporary, Australian, Cinema
Quote paper
Magister Artium Inga von Kurnatowski (Author), 2005, The Notion of the Grotesque in Contemporary Australian Cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Notion of the Grotesque in Contemporary Australian Cinema

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free