Tuesday, February 7, 2012

See The Real Australia

Most people only know about Australia through movies such as "Crocodile Dundee," "Quigly Down Under," or, for some reason, "Australia."  Do you really think you can understand an entire nation/continent from a few crappy fictional Hollywood movies?

Well, if you do, you're right.  It is an excellent way to learn about Australia, but those aren't the right movies to do the job properly.

If you really want to understand Australia and, like me, you are extremely lazy and like to sit on your fat sofa for hours at a time, then movies are the way to go.  And, you have come to the right place, because I have assembled a veritable compendium of the most important Australian movies that accurately portray life in Australia.

What about reading a book, you ask?  I tried that once.  I got about a quarter of the way through The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding before falling into a coma.  Sooo . . . boring . . . !  But on the other hand, an excellent cure for insomnia, which I used to have but don't anymore.  So definitely get this book, by all means.

All "hip" educators understand that everything is easier to learn when it's in the form of a story.  That's just how human brains are wired.  Furthermore, I feel that anything that isn't making me laugh is just wasting my valuable time on this planet.   Therefore I propose the following movies as your best window into the real Australia:

Kenny  Follow the epic tale of a blue-collar hero who through dedication and hard work rises to international prominence in his decidedly humble profession.  He also overcomes personal setbacks in his relationship to his son and finally meets the woman of his dreams.  Specifically, a live woman who will speak to him a second time.  Australians all have the ambition to 1) become the best in the world at something and then 2) act as though they don't care.  The irony of this movie is on many levels, so see if you can absorb the overarching "meta-irony" of this multi-award-winning film.  Best line:  "There's a smell in here that will outlast Religion."

The Castle  Set in a typical suburban family home, a typical middle-class suburban family fights the defining battle of their lives.  This is an absolute must-see and includes a brilliant and award-winning acting performance by legendary Aussie actor Michael Caton who plays the leading role of Darryl Kerrigan.  Though fictional, I would rank Kerrigan as one of the pre-eminent Australian philosophers, who gives us such wisdom as "(high voltage transmission towers) are a Monument to Man's ability to generate electricity."  There's a great deal of authentic detail in this movie relating to suburban life, middle-class culture, home handyman skills, and the legal system.  So watch carefully!

Another tidbit that should interest you:  this film grossed over AU$10,000,000 while costing only AU$19,000 to produce.  That's a rate of return of 50,000%.

The Dish  The plot of this movie, based on actual events, centers around Australia's involvement in the Apollo program in 1968.  In America, a movie like this (think Apollo 13) would be a patriotic, serious and heart-warming movie involving patriotic, serious and heart-warming actors such as Tom Hanks.  But in Australia, that schmaltzy, maudlin stuff just doesn't fly.  Instead, The Dish is a satirical laugh riot.  For me the defining moment comes when the Vice President of the United States visits the country town of Forbes, the closest outpost of civilization (such as it is) to the remote radio telescope which is preparing to receive the first ever live images from the surface of the moon.  To honor the most important person by far (such as he is) to ever set foot in Forbes, the house band of the town's pub plays what they sincerely believe to be the National Anthem of the United States.  I'll say no more.  SEE IT!

Rabbit-Proof Fence   I only laughed a little at this uncompromisingly serious film, but I recommend it nonetheless.  The main theme is Australia's condescending treatment of its aboriginal peoples, not dissimilar to the way the North American Indians were (and are) treated in the United States and Canada.  The between-the-lines theme is Government Incompetence, evidenced by attempts to make a fence several thousand miles long to keep destructive rabbits (introduced to Australia by Europeans) out of Western Australia.  And their incompetence at managing aboriginal peoples' lives for them.  It failed, of course. It turns out, rabbits can actually dig!  And small girls can run away from boarding school, ingeniously and courageously making the thousand-mile journey home on foot, using only the you-know-what as a guide.  Now THAT's irony only Government can provide.

The Craic  Have you noticed that the titles of all good Australian films are just two words long beginning with "The?"  Me neither. This film offers you the chance to see Australia from an outsider's perspective as one Fergus Montague from Belfast (played by Jimeoin McKeown) seeks refuge in Australia, the last place he expects to encounter his old enemies and make new ones.  Of course, both happen.  It wouldn't be much of a film otherwise, now would it.  Though not critically acclaimed, this film passes the only test that matters.  It made me laugh.  Watch for the scene in the world's only topless bar where patrons actually try to persuade the barmaid to put a shirt on, or something, for god's sake.

Malcolm  Any trip to Australia should include Melbourne, in my opinion the one really civilized city down here.  This movie, set in this scenic city, follows the adventures of Malcolm, an autistic, socially-incompetent genius who finally meets the sort of caring and non-judgmental people who appreciate his special talents.  Petty criminals.

As you may have guessed, Australians are not particularly "nice" (meaning delicate) about their humor.  Anything is a suitable target, including tragic disabilities such as autism.  Americans take such things (and themselves) extremely seriously and are likely to be offended at Australian humor.  Example:  A well-known Australian comedian says on TV: "knock-knock jokes, not really funny, are they.  Be honest.  But telling knock-knock jokes to homeless people - now THAT'S funny!"

My advice: get over it.  Learn to laugh at everything, then nothing will be a tragedy to you.  Far from being mean-spirited, it is actually the kinder and more enlightened way to deal with life's setbacks and unpleasant realities.

Douglas Adams praises Australians as having the most finely tuned sense of irony in the world, and any movie that does not expose you to the Australian sense of humor is doing you a disservice.  Their subtlety of satire is often such that the target does not even know that he is a target.  You must pay close attention to get most of the jokes.

These movies also expose you to the rich lexicon of the Australian language, which again, you might miss if you're not paying attention.

Is Australia really like these movies?  Do Australians really talk and act like this?  They say no,  but I say yes.  Yes, they do, in the same way that an editorial cartoon sketch often tells us infinitely more about a politician than their official press-release photograph does.  After living this last decade or so in Australia, I have to say that these movies accurately portray these people and this place in a way that nothing else comes close to doing.


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