Feeling mad as hell, or just baffled and hurt? Like the world is a more tense, less sensical place to live? Like American culture is crazier and more invasive than ever before? Like politics is a reality television program run by a low-IQ sadist plutocrat? Like news is instantly disposable? You’re not alone, and a deep dive into RealTime’s archives reveals the feeling started decades ago, at least. This fascinating interview with globally renowned scholar and critic Adrian Martin, by Mikhali Georgeos (a pseudonym) on the occasion of the 1994 release of Martin’s book Phantasms, evidences a 1990s, pre-social-media perspective on the forced migration of American dreams and desires to Australian imaginations via film and television, and the feeling of a society beyond control and drenched in then emerging “aggro.”

In this third instalment of our new series, The Deep Archive, we highlight weird, smart, luminescent pieces about remarkable artists and others by wonderful writers found in currently undigitised 1990s editions of RealTime. Read Wesley Enoch on Indigenous performance in 1994 and the late Adam Cullen on the feature film Free Willy. LCH


RealTime #2, August 1994

Haunted by popular culture, Mikhali Georgeos encounters Adrian Martin’s Phantasms.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Adrian Martin’s absorbing collection of essays, Phantasms (McPhee Gribble, 1994), subtitled “The dreams and desire at the heart of popular culture,” is how completely we seem to have accommodated essentially American “dreams and desires.” Just how unquestioned is that acceptance, at least at the popular level, can be gauged by the reaction Martin got when he went on the ABC-TV program TVTV to talk about Phantasms: “The presenters there told me they loved my book ‘because it’s all American — we only want to talk about American programs.’ So you get this paradox. There they are working on the ABC and you can’t get the name of a British program out of their lips. They’re sort of my generation, that really did grow up on American TV and it’s all they want to discuss.”

So much for all the effort and legislation brought into the business of television broadcasting by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) and its successor body, the ABA. While the 50% local content guideline for free-to-air broadcasters has been achieved, it’s obvious that it’s the 34% of American programming which is having the most impact on the Australian psyche. “I think it’s pretty much always been that way here,” Martin feels. “Although I think that’s changing. I think Australian TV, particularly as spearheaded by SBS, is becoming a real mixture of things. More and more British shows have appeared on commercial networks, where once they would have been only seen on the ABC.”

However, like many of his generation, Martin has a problem with the concept of ‘quality television’ as espoused by both the ABC and British film and TV producers, seeming to prefer American popular culture. And that, essentially, is what is explored in Phantasms, an admittedly highly selective and subjective look at a number of interrelated themes he sees as “like urgent but repressed messages emanating from the unconscious of our culture.” Those “messages,” as defined by Martin, run from the flippant debate on political correctness to the recognition of mortality by the thirtysomething generation, the complexity of the dysfunctional family as portrayed in Roseanne to the rise of the “aggro” as a legitimate expression of social frustration.

“It’s not a book with a rigid sort of thesis. For me, it’s a more poetic book, a selection of different impressions that I had. I’m fully aware some of the essays contradict others, but for me that’s a very human thing. Contradiction and ambivalence are part of living in a culture. I tried to write the book in the sense of someone stumbling through a culture from day to day trying to make sense of what they’re seeing.”

One of the strongest impressions of what is being seen is the rise and accommodation by mainstream society of aggression. Commenting on the problems the censor had with the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Martin points out that one scene that passed unscathed involved the bludgeoning to death with a sparking television of “a fat, instantly unlikeable salesman. The truth may be that the scene got passed…because it is an uninhibited scene of boisterous aggro, which demonstrates that even a psychopathic serial killer can win our secret complicity for a moment by sticking it to one of those loudmouthed, overbearing assholes who tick us off daily.” It is the logical extension of Peter Finch’s cry of frustration in the film Network (1976): “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But it paradoxically also correlates with the sudden celebrity bestowed on mass murderer John Wayne Gacey, his prison art and media execution, the logical extension of which was the prime time screening of an execution “live” on the Phil Donahue program recently.

“I think the whole aggro thing is getting into the mainstream more and it’s a difficult thing to pronounce upon morally. In a way, I think it is a real expression, and if more and more people are expressing in the arts and television great aggression, it’s because the world is getting really difficult to live in. It’s the world that’s getting dysfunctional, not just the families that I discuss in the book. It’s not the unemployed punks of Brixton or disaffected blacks of Los Angeles who are feeling the need to express aggro. It’s an awful lot of the population that can relate to aggro. That film Falling Down (1993) is a prime example of mainstream aggro, where you can have Michael Douglas looking like some demented punk blowing up phone booths and smashing into people on the freeway. It’s got to make you wonder about where we’re going, but I don’t think the response to that should be to censor it. I think you do have to discuss it. Where the aggro stuff gets really scary is when it is totally undirected, when if you just happen to be in the way, too bad.”

The “messages” discovered in Phantasms certainly aren’t all as dark as those discussed in the chapter on aggro or the modern thriller or the films of Martin Scorsese. Much of the “trash” culture is light, humorous and instantly disposable. But even here there is a darker subtext which suggests that perhaps we’re allowing things to go further than we might imagine. On the one hand we can smile at the children in the film version of The Addams Family (1991), “playing at electrocution or decapitation…savoured as good, healthy, imaginative fun — one of pop culture’s wisest philosophical positions” — and wonder how far we could actually follow the prescription of French surrealist Georges Bataille and seek access to the realm of the sacred “via the path of sacrifice, with representations of mutilation, ritual murder.” Is that what people who flocked to see the grotesque cast of self-mutilators that travels the world as the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow were seeking? The general public has always preferred the circus to the cerebral, but now the two may finally merging, and, as Martin points out, who can say if it is wrong or right?

Adrian Martin, Phantasms, McPhee Gribble, 1994

Mikhali Georgeos is a pseudonym for a well-known Sydney popular music journalist.