Chris Palazzolo learns about The People in Last Cab to Darwin, directed by Jeremy Sims, 2016
Public discourse about Australian ‘Identity’ has become so fevered in the last two decades it’s often been referred to as the ‘Culture Wars.’ In these ‘Wars’ bullets and bombs (of rhetoric) are hurled from all kinds of directions, but it’s a brave critic who dares to venture a dispassionate remark or two about the Australian Egalitarian myth. Whether this myth emerged out of convict solidarity, the levelling hardships of settling the land, the nation defining categories of Bulletin school intellectuals (or a combination of all three and many others besides) it remains in the 21st century a very formidable fortress. Our critic will likely find themselves in the middle of No Man’s Land, surrounded by minefields, barbed wire and machine gun posts manned by zealous guardians of The People’s Choice.
Nonetheless I’m going to be that critic (reckless fool that I am!). First of all I wish to name a genre of Australian movies, and then identify some of its characteristics using Jeremy Sims’ Last Cab to Darwin as an example. The genre is The Australian People’s Movie. If this sounds like some kind of political movement, then that is intentional. Very few Australian People’s Movies (with the notable exception of The Castle) command mass audiences. In a sense they are People’s Movies in search of a People. The People in them is a kind of messianic projection because of the way they assert Australians to be; that is to say as They Are at their most authentic. However, because the films are small scale, and don’t make big bucks, they assert The People in the same way fringe populist movements do – The People when they truly know themselves. It’s a kind of doubled assertion of What Is, and, at the same time, What Will Be because What Is, Is Not Yet.
I’ve got myself tangled up here in a definition that probably could be expressed a lot more simply. But sometimes I think it’s important to say something not obvious about something that seems so obvious. I could say that Last Cab to Darwin is a melodrama, a road movie, and full of stereotypes. But is that an interesting or productive way of looking at these kinds of movies anymore? As a way of fumbling towards a different way of understanding them, I’ll finish with some features of Last Cab to Darwin that I think are characteristic of all Australian People’s Movies (APMs).
1. The People are all working class. By working class I don’t mean a socio-economic category, but a series of attributes of ‘working classness’ – materially Spartan and cheerfully individualistic. The true working class, that is to say the working class before a bunch of unionists and Marxist academics sought to raise its consciousness to systemic injustice, underlies all that is The Australian People. Even the lady doctor in Darwin is working class (and the lawyer in The Castle); they are working class ‘if you scratch the surface’ (the function of the melodrama is to do the ‘scratching’).
2. Everyone speaks the same way. Most speak with broad Australian accents. Indigenous people, ‘Wogs’ and English backpackers have distinct accents and vocabulary, but the structure and rhythm of their speech is the same; short sentences, declamatory assertions, coarse ribbings, knowing insights. No one gushes or yakidy yaks, no one hesitates and thinks about their words. No one speaks intellectually. The People’s speech is uniform and no one misunderstands unless a character seeks to be misunderstood (melodrama).
3. Everyone says ‘fuck’ at some point, including the respectable lady doctor in Darwin. I challenge anyone to point out how many times they actually hear ‘fuck’ being said in everyday discourse. In APMs the word ‘fuck’ is messianic. A word generally reserved for private expression between intimates – family, close friends – The People are a big family and all public spaces their loungeroom.
4. Indigenous people mix and move freely among the whites, and unless excluded by some petty law from Australia’s racist past (permits for hotel rooms, not allowed to drink in pubs) encounter no racism. Nonetheless Indigenous heritage such as skin and mob signifies alcoholism and failure. Land rights are exclusively framed by white fella property laws – Michael Caton’s Indigenous lover inherits his house and with that acquisition she pulls her extended family into the mainstream of The People.
5. My reaction to the film is also a characteristic of APMs. While it’s a risky thing to generalise, it seems that my feelings towards this and other Australian films of its type are shared by many Australians; they’re a bit embarrassing, too try-hard and feel-good, flattering us with images of our goodness we all suspect is not really true. We watch them out of a grudging sense of patriotic obligation. But the final scene of the movie is so fine I had to reassess my feelings about what I’d just watched; surely such a scene would not be possible if sufficient work hadn’t been done to build up to it. I turned it over and over in my mind, I reversed the genders and the races of the two characters, to see if it would still have the same pathos. I had to ask that if naïve utopianism can produce an image of such tenderness and love, isn’t that great popular art?
– Chris Palazzolo
Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.
Last Cab to Darwin has a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Last-Cab-834067273285467/