Ads!

That's Exploitation 3

unpublished talk delivered @ the Cinema & Identity forum @ the I.C.A., London, 1988
Victoria Bitter beer (1985); Australia Tourism (1984)

In the second of Twisties' early eighties new wave ads, an old archeologist uncovers a Twisties pack which jettisons him to a high-style mega-funky Egyptian shindig. Just as he gets transported back to a dusty desolation after the assaulting wonders of the lost Twisties' civilization, so too are we thrust back into the dreadful drudgery of our cinema and television after being savaged and ravaged by a bunch of thirty-second sensory overloads. But just as that Twisties' pack is his key to a lost reality, so too is that advertisment itself a symbolic key to understanding the construction and promotion of Australian culture in our cinema. Digging a bit deeper into the ground already covered by the movement of culture/industry developments, some obscured origins come to the surface : if film culture and the film industry provide the archeologically layerings of Australian cinema, advertising is the great lost city - the distinctive yet unrecognized base for our contemporary placement.

In the early seventies, the machinations of advertising (as a commercial industry and as a cultural apparatus) laid down the foundations to this city. The head architect as far as I can ascertain was not Gough Whitlam but Phillip Addams. I mention Whitlam because of the predominance of recalling the great Labour-funded arts & culture programmes of the early to mid seventies, which many people point to when explaining the development of modern Australian cinema. I don't deny the relevance and importance of those early (yet so distant now) economic and political manoeuvres and events. I single out Addams because of his cultural brief which saw him simultaneously as an advertising executive and a spokesperson-cum-lobbyist for government incentives to aid in the establishment of an Australian (ie. localized) film industry. In Addams we have the original modern figure of that mutated Siamese twin of Culture and Industry, where both could both energize and exploit each other. Of course his and others' 'city of the future' for Australian cinema was like most architectural plans : it looked good on paper. The proof of its rickety planning is felt in today's shaky foundations, rooted in projected lobbyist schemes more than organic cultural groundswells. Perhaps if someone had pointed out back then that Addams was a serious collector of Egyptian mummies, his plans for a cinematic 'future of the city' would have been surveyed with more insight.

But Addams was not alone in his transcultural traversing from the art of money-making to the money of art-making. A slew of craftsmen started to execute the plans for our future city : Tim Burstall, Peter Weir, Fred Schepsi and Bruce Beresford, all of whom learnt their trade as much in advertising as in film schooling and short filmmaking. Such filmmakers form a certain historical core in the history of Australian cinema, usually touted as bringing contemporary and relevant content into film production. But on the other hand, I can recall another figure who adopted a similar strategy yet with more immediate and marked results : John Singleton. A typically cunning ad-man, he not only accentuated a self-identifiable 'Australianess' - he exploited it to the hilt. He literally marketed our self-image back to ourselves, giving us characters whose hysterically implosive caricatures of consumerism have so distinctly drawn the stereotypes which shows like THE COMEDY COMPANY and THE D-GENERATION simply have to retrace to become even half-successful. While Burstall (in particular, and along with David Williamson) opted for social satire to get us to recognize ourselves (as part of out cultural self-help programme) Singleton opted for straight-out shock therapy by mocking our supposedly repressed desire to see ourselves localized up on the screen.

Palmolive dishwashing liquid (1984); Toyota 4WD (1985)

While the literay skill of Burstall, Williamson et al has clearly spiralled into social examinations which, one might say, have now left us 'heading north' and stranded by a 'high tide', the Singleton legacy of crassness, bluntness and self mockery has - for good or bad - left us with our biggest success story to date : Paul Hogan. Not a definitive Australian cinematic figure by no means, but perhaps an essential one, especially if one traces his trajectory from ad icon (the Winfield man) to TV comedian (sending up TV ads) to film star (ridiculing the media image of Australia). Such a trajectory is in fact a series of self-mocking envelopes, each coming out from the the previous one, each mocking the previous phase's susceptibility to and delight in mocking and knocking. Paul Hogan, son of Singleton. Mocker, knocker, ocker. Together they created by exploiting, and exploited by creating, the ocker image : an image that already could see its own reflection in the desires and measures which caused such an image to made in the first place. And in an expected self-mocking and self-enveloping fashion, the Crocodile Dundee character is a send-up not simply of 'Australians' (whichever breed of animal they may be) but of Graham Kenedy, John Mellion, Alvin Purple, Bazza Mackenzie and Les Patterson. The bulk of Australian cinema is dull because it is preoccupied in reflecting Australian culture. The secret of CROCODILE DUNDEE's success could be that it refracts Australian culture.

Advertising has archeologically determined Australian film culture in more ways still. In the eighties, Australian cinema is far from dumb about its awkward status and chronic failures - especially living under the ungainly shadows cast by the overseas successes of the Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee films. If only different measures were taken - measures not based on the industrial models of the seventies. Strangely, Australian cinema appeared to take its cue from the now-forgotten and largely neglected ADVANCE AUSTRALIA campaign. Remember that one? That was the one where a whole range of Australian-made products sported the ADVANCE AUSTRALIA logo : the visual essence of the Australian flag sans Union Jack pulped into a big fat ugly 'A'. To the casual observer, this was no more than the modernization of the old Coles/Embassy MADE IN AUSTRALIA circular symbol of the Southern Cross and flying boomerang. But whereas that symbol was a trade and industrial banner for the promotion of localized industries, the ADVANCE AUSTRALIA campaign was primarily aimed at selling 'Australianess' to Australians - which as I indicated previously is perhaps a typically Australian way of promoting self-identity through advertising. It came as no suprise then to discover that the ADVANCE AUSTRALIA campaign was actually designed and operated by a consortium of advertising executives : you had to pay to use the stupid logo on your product. And still people paid for it - that is, local industries paid for the right to sell Australianess to Australians. How dizzy can you get?

But hold on - it gets worse. The ADVANCE AUSTRALIA campaign took its title from what was then our unofficial national anthem, and condensed its patrotic propoganda into a corporate logo. The trick of course in all nationalistic propoganda is to actually address the country by name, as if all inhabitants concerned are somehow unified in a particular situation for a particular cause, following the dictum that to control a crowd you first establish a crowd. The cruel linguistic logic of catch phrases like "Advance, Australia!" is that if you tell Australia to advance, there must be such a thing as 'Australia' in the first place. In the style of a phantom pun, Australia is located linguistically in order to trick us into accepting that there is something we could call Australia. Instant national identity for a nation being continually told that it must desire a national identity in order for it to gain one. And this is where our culture/industry fusions, mergers and mutations are metaphorically founded : in the socio-economic rhetoric and trickery of building up an industry in order for a culture to grow from it. Make the films and then you'll have your film culture. Films like GALLIPOLI and THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER are the cinematic equivalents to those dumb products which sported the ADVANCE AUSTRALIA logo. All of them empty products labelled with content ; displayed in a vaccuum ; consumed with no effect. Many a wit sarcastically rhetorted "Advance Australia where?" They should have simply said "Are you talking to me!?"

Red Rooster take-away chicken (1986); Maggi cooking flavourings (1982)

Finally, advertising pinpoints just how fraudulent most culture/industry mergers are. Consider the great pressure by unions to restrict the production of advertisments as much as possible to Australian crews (which of course is replicated in the constitution of film crews and casts). The mandate is that we employ local people. The stupidity of such a blunt short-term measure was hilariously illustrated by an Australian computer ad a few years back which featured Mr.T. An Australian crew was flown over to Hollywood to shoot the ad, thereby giving us what legally we could call an Australian ad. Why not go the whole hog and insist that an aborigine portray Mr.T? Just like we 'prove' to ourselves how we can make slick internationalist film product on the technical level, we also 'prove' that we're concerned in giving jobs to Australians. Of course the budget for that Mr.T ad would have risen considerably under such legal conditions - which means that the ad agency also would get a higher cut. (The punchline of the ad had Mr.T turned into a turkey.)

Up to this point, I've basically outlined Australian film culture and the Australian film industry as hopelessly, aimlessly and desperately snared by each others' desires and delusions. I come to such a conclusion through impatience, frustration and selfishness - every bone in my body feels totally alien to just about every Australian film I've ever seen. As the general attendance and acceptance of Australian films suggest, I am not alone in feeling this, but the avenues for establishing and presenting a critical voice for such feelings lead down corridors away from the channels of production which accomodate snobs and manufacture turkeys.

My tack is not to bemoan this situation and hope that things will get better, but to make us painfully aware of what I perceive as cinematic failures, to try and uncover why in hell we make such awful movies. Too much time, money and effort has been wasted in always looking ahead toward some utopian plane where the government coughs up money free from the taint of vested commercial interests, and where people in this country will willfully patronize the consequent homegrown product born of such political flights of cultural fancy. Australian cinema should stop looking forward with craned necks and firm chests, as if its frozen in the scenario of some garish socialist revolutionary poster. Look back and behind. Look at all the crap we've made and at all the sensible hordes who stayed away from it. Look at all those unfinished bridges which led and still lead to nowhere. Our cinema is a dead weight and that's how it should be treated. It should hang around our necks until some more interesting, engaging, unsettling and suprising films are made. Australian cinema is anal, retrograde, deluded and boring. Lest we forget.


Text © Philip Brophy 1988. Images © respective copyright holders