the sound of some other australia

robyn archer: music and baz luhrmann’s australia

ON A HOT, LATE SUMMER AFTERNOON IN MILDURA, ROBYN ARCHER JOINS THE LOCALS TO HEAR BEETHOVEN’S PIANO SONATA OPUS NO 110 PLAYED ON THE ARTS CENTRE’S NEW STEINWAY, FOLLOWED BY SHARING FINE REGIONAL FOOD AND WINE: “THIS IS THE AUSTRALIA I ENCOUNTER ON AUSTRALIA DAY JANUARY 2009. MANNING CLARK ASKED, ‘WOULD THE PRICE OF SURVIVAL AS A PEOPLE BE THE SHEDDING OF THAT ATTEMPT TO PRESERVE A EUROPEAN SOCIETY?’”

Nineteenth-century commentators had assumed the Australian climate would severely undercut cultural ambitions. But Archer finds herself enjoying the rich European heritage on offer, adapted to and drawing on an Australian landscape and culture: “This seems less a conscious attempt to preserve European society than just the way it is evolving in the more compassionate and world-welcoming Australia which has at last greeted the new century.”

She pinpoints the synthesis of the European (and, elsewhere, other cultures) and Australian when she writes, “Drinking honey wheat beer, watching the Australian Open in the brewery, I am the early savage Manning Clark wrote about. The difference is that I am at the same time, working on a Brechtian cabaret I have written called Tough Nut, which I will start to direct at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, in less than two weeks’ time.”

In the 10th Mannning Clark Lecture, Archer is concerned that we Australians have yet to grasp the significance of our cultural mix, of Reconciliation, of just what is entailed in our survival—economic, environmental and cultural. February 1, she’s on a flight to Perth watching Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

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This is simply perfect. I have been resisting seeing Baz Luhrmann’s epic. I saw trailers on Qantas flights for months. I didn’t like the look of it. Then [there were the] indifferent or bad reviews and friends who hated it and some pretty ugly Nicole-bashing by the Poms…Cinema super-stars may be wealthy enough to be able to endure those blows—both Baz and Nic are on to their next projects as the Academy Awards Ceremony showed—but somewhere it has to hurt, and I don’t hold with hitting below the belt. This was the right place and the right time to see this film. No investment—passive.

The retro intention of Australia is obvious from the opening titles—the motto in English and the kitsch coat of arms. You can’t really bash up a fillum for doing what it says it intended to. You can criticise the director’s intent, and you can perhaps debate the use of gigantic public funding (Tourism in this case) for a folly—but that’s something different.

Of all the things I want to say about this film, I want to go to the very end first; because the greatest surprise in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is the final moment, when the film wants to play on the heart strings and force our emotional response.

The beautiful Aboriginal boy is about to run slow-mo after ‘King’ George, his Aboriginal elder or spirit. Lady Ashley can’t bear to let him go, Hugh’s chest heaves in sympathy but knows it must be so… ok, ok it’s kitsch and clichéd—Baz stated this clearly at the start. But, lo, what do I hear? It can’t be true. But yes, thine ears do not deceive thee. It is so: the ultimate emotional crunch moment of this film boldly entitled Australia is scored with Elgar—the Enigma Variation we all know so well, Number 9, ‘Nimrod.’

I am gobsmacked by this more than anything else in the film, I suppose because I didn’t see it coming, no-one wrote about it, no-one warned me. I am infinitely more surprised by this than by the much discussed wobble board which is featured for all of 10 seconds. Elgar! Elgar who himself was so dismayed that his pomp and circumstance had been usurped through official channels to become the ultimate jingoistic jingle of the Empire—Land of Hope and Glory.

Here his Enigma was a million miles away from being enigmatic. In order to bring the film to an emotional ending, Baz needed the heart and soul of Empire. Despite more than a hundred years of splendid music from Australian composers, despite a legion of them working in Australia and throughout the world today, the makers of this film resorted to the heart and soul of Empire. If ever there were a reason to move towards an Australian Republic then this is it.

Nothing could be more culturally revealing of our own sense of nationhood than this choice. Even if I give those responsible for the soundtrack the benefit of the doubt, this one is hard to reason. It is for me one of the queerest and kitschest films of recent years…and the caricatures are as much in the music as they are in the vision. The 10 seconds of wobble board are no different from the echoes of “Big Country”, the Marlborough Man, “The Magnificent Seven”: we get a mouth organ, some dubbed lyricism meant to be the kid’s dreaming leitmotif, a bopping dance band at Gov house, Waltzing Matilda and, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in multiple versions. This film is a queer creation. The bulging beefcake of Hugh Jackman’s chest, Nic’s androgynous form in contrast to those of the Aboriginal women, the beautiful and beautifully groomed young ‘creamy’ boy—and Judy. Actually, this film is as camp as a row of tents. The ‘China man’ (reference The Hawaiians) plays “Rainbow” on a ukelele (reference the more recent uke version which references the Tiny Tim version) and we hear this just creep in again at the end as we roll to end credits.

So, it is not the Tiny Tim recording which at least we can understand in Australian terms of The Yellow House and Martin Sharp and his encouragement of Tiny Tim’s memorable marathons years later. The version the film uses just happens to be the one which gave us one of the strangest moments of the 20:20 summit. No sooner had we arrived and sat down in the Great Hall in Parliament House, all of us primed and ready to think and give of our best ideas, than we were asked to sit and receive for a moment. The first feed was a video report on the Youth Summit which had preceded us. What was the soundtrack to that video? Louis Armstrong singing “What A Wonderful World” and that recent version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Where was any single person involved in that video, or signing off on it, who might have asked ‘why wouldn’t we use an Australian song here?’ The following day someone spontaneously sang Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly’s “From little things big things grow”—why not that?

There are literally hundreds of songs that could have been used—just as there are for the ending of the film Australia—but no. The choice was music which is not only stirring (we all know that—we can all just about say where we were, when and how we first heard the Enigma Variations) but goes much deeper. It is English—it sings England—and somewhere we all know that. Some have argued that most of the audience would not know, and that even the makers would not understand the significance. This is exactly the point; unconsciously sticking with old world security stops us from really being our own.

It is peculiar how often Australian composers and composition are ignored. Music, past and present, of every kind and at every level is one of our greatest artistic endeavours and accomplishments. Why is it so left out of the conversation?

The soundtrack of Australia is pastiche—saccharine strings, thumping timpani—just as the director ordered, and in line with his stated intent. Hugh’s sculpted chest is a dead ringer for that of Charlton Heston in one of my very favourite films, The Naked Jungle in which a mail-order bride (Eleanor Parker) fetches up in the Amazonian jungle to be a planter’s wife. In fact it is she who stares down his apparent coldness saying “an instrument is better when it is played.”

The opening sequences of Australia are pure Blue Lagoon. Indochine makes an appearance, as does Out of Africa (the adventurer who just has to be off and away regularly and leaves the little lady to struggle with nature at home), as well as Gone with the Wind and its copy Tap Roots, starring Susan Hayward and Van Hefflin in lieu of Vivien and Clark. All this is well done in terms of pastiche and, for a fan of the genre, which I am, enjoyable.

Now, if it had only been called Lust in the Bulldust or Top End Tales, Sunburnt Country or Wide Brown Land, even Darwin, fewer bright folk might have been less upset. Despite the odd ‘below the belt’ she also gives now and then, I’m usually happy when Germaine (Greer) dares to give something a walloping: she often says things that everyone else is too timid to dare. But I also understood Marcia’s (Langton) defence of the film: the attempt to include a Stolen Generation story in this matinee movie tribute may well be genuine, and if you accept the pure camp milieu, then Germaine’s objection to scrubbed clean Aboriginal people is beside the point—everything in this film is airbrushed.

And as offensive as many have found it, there are just as many people in Kazakhstan offended by Sacha Baron Cohen, and I expect a number of Vietnam Vets by Tropic Thunder. If Robert Downey Jr can be not only praised, but also nominated, for blacking up, then why shouldn’t Ursula Yovich for Baz? Well, I’m being flippant, and to tell you truth even I was a bit taken aback by that use of what was once known as Max Factor Egyptian Number Nine. But, if the retro thing is consistent, there are precedents from Joan Collins to Debra Paget, Ava Gardner to Sir Larry and even, in the very flesh, Frank Thring—the very last word in colonial camp.?But we know why it offended: because this film was not promoted or anticipated as kitsch campery and airbrushed fantasy. The title, Australia, and the endless promos on Qantas and elsewhere else had us believe this would be something we, as Australians, could be proud of—an emblematic clarion call to the landscape we adore. Instead, we suddenly started seeing the trailers and felt a bit like that poor sod on Lesbos: “I’ve got nothing against gay women,” he says, “and they’re very good for our tourism, but I can’t call myself a Lesbian, yet that’s what I am—give me back the title of my identity.”

What the film Australia does is demonstrate just how strong, how subterranean, our ties to our colonisers remain. They are terrifyingly deep, as this cinematic moment proves. Deciding at the last moment that what would define the film’s soundtrack would be Rolf Harris’s wobble board was, in the end, just another kitsch effect. The Enigma is England.

[Archer later recalls that in a scene in Ang Lee’s Lust Caution, Elgar’s Enigma, is heard to very different effect from an onscreen record player used in the wings of a student staged play]

The difference is that in Lust Caution there is no mistaking the intent. Firstly we never hear more than a few scratchy seconds—just enough to recognize it—then it skips and jumps, comes back in a few bars to the next bit of the scene. Secondly, the easy access of the students to this vinyl underscores the British presence in Hong Kong—it is a British Colony. Thirdly the students are working within one colonised part of China to ensure that the rest, having fought and won its battle with Britain, does not go under to Japan. But most importantly, we in the cinema see that this piece of music is deliberately used to stir the play’s audience, who remain as ignorant of the ironies of using Elgar, as is the Australian audience ignorant today of the ironic (even tragic) manipulation inherent in its use at the end of the film Australia.

The difference is that Ang Lee’s intent as a filmmaker is to reveal the musical manipulation and irony to us, while Baz keeps his audience in the culturally colonised dark in order to manipulate emotion which, even more ironically, is supposed to be reinforcing the anti-colonial spirit of the film’s ending the Aboriginal boy reluctantly freed by the English woman to follow his dream(ing). Well, that triumphant and moving moment of partition clearly hasn’t quite happened yet, and the film’s inability to escape the deep and long clutches of colonisation hasn’t helped.

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Archer says that whatever we do next, about a range of issues, including becoming a republic, “we should not doubt that it will be a matter of survival. Perhaps not whether we survive or not, but the way in which we survive, with how much strength and dignity, and to what degree an authentic sense of national identity is nurtured, as opposed to that which is myopic, naive and kitsch.”

As for art as a substitute for faith, “Alas, I can’t claim Baz’s Australia as a source of spiritual uplift or enlightenment. Once I got over the initial shock of so much camp (no critic, no commentator had warned me—and that is one of their jobs), I quite enjoyed it as a popular entertainment, an exercise in referencing earlier forms. But given the musical betrayal in its final moment, it’s hard to forgive, especially given the title. This is the price of a false path to survival—the one that does not want to, or cannot, change. While the compassion in this film for the Stolen Generation may be real, and indicates an authentic change which is thankfully at last in the wind, the music in the end is deeply tied to an unreconstructed dependency on our colonisers.”

This article is excerpted from the 10th Manning Clark Lecture, The Price of Survival, presented at the National Library of Australia, March 3, 2009 with the permission of the writer; www.manningclark.org.au/html/Paper-Archer_Robyn-The_Price_of_Survival.html

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 23

© Robyn Archer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2010