In my last column I identified a genre of Australian populist moviemaking. I called this genre The Australian Peoples’ Movie (APM). All of the movies which fall into this genre – The Castle, Takeaway, The Dish, Red Dog, and, most recently, Last Cab to Darwin – share attributes of The Great Australian Oneness; working classness (as a trait), easy friendliness (mateship), and uniformity of speech. This last characteristic I will now argue is actually a feature of many Australian movies which are not APMs. While I can’t claim to have made a scientific study to confirm this statement, I do try to keep abreast of the latest Australian movies and I think I can say that this observation of mine is broadly true. Australians, in Australian movies, speak the same way. It doesn’t matter how old characters are – teenagers or elderly – their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation – a strange and persistent uniformity of speech seems to be a distinguishing characteristic of the Australian movie soundscape.
It is a duty of a critic to not immediately rush to judgement, and I’m always keen to find positive reasons why something is so. The uniformity of Australian speech in APMs can always be read as a piece with their populist assertions. But if we are to look at another recent Australian movie which would seem to be as far away from an APM as one could possibly imagine, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, we find the same leaden monosyllabic dialogue there too. In this movie there is no question of an Australian ‘oneness’ beneath the surface. There is instead an erotic automatism that has more in common with Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle than Henry Lawson’s The Loaded Dog. And yet none of the intellectual richness of its erotic imagery is reflected in the dialogue. One of the characters, a young academic who eats his corn flakes with vodka, has shelves full of fascinating looking academic books, but I can’t remember a single word that passes between him and his hired girlfriend. She’s a uni student doing sex work on the side. I imagine she’d be reading Foucault and Derrida for her courses, wouldn’t it be in character for her to jolly him (and me) up with a bit of intellectual talk (say on Freud’s theory of neurotic symptoms as the ‘loosening springs’ of tiresome instincts as the living organism returns to inanimate matter)? But intellectual talk seems to be verboten in Australian movies (even in intellectual movies like Sleeping Beauty!) Australians just don’t talk like that (apparently) – they speak to the point, practically, in short sentences. If there is ever any inflection in their speech it’s a kind of questioning rising tone, as if each sentence/statement is a search for assent. Australians get to the point. They never talk around the point. They never yakkity yak bullshit like office flibbertigibbets. They never drone beautifully like experts or politicians of a certain generation. They never play with words. They never muse or philosophise. There is a shared rhythm, length and depthlessness to speech that in a movie like Sleeping Beauty often has no hold on the images at all.
I know I’m being unfair, using just one movie (though I could mention others with the same problem; John Curran’s Tracks springs to mind, and Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours); but like I said I’m making a general observation and I welcome anyone who can prove me wrong. So I stand by my observation. Recent Australian movies are often rapturously beautiful to look at, cinematography, editing, sound, all of the highest quality. But it’s as if the faculty of the cinematic ‘mind’ that language has access to has been switched off, as if language can’t be trusted with the images and is dimmed to the level of pointed Australian sounding grunts. In my YouTubing, I’ve turned up some old clips from Australian comedies of yesteryear – Fast Forward, Australia You’re Standing In It, The Big Gig, etc, and I’m struck by how the writers of these sketches captured, for comical purposes, the diversity of Australian speech. I think it wouldn’t do screenwriters any harm if, among other things, they checked these sketches out for themselves and learnt some different ways of writing their dialogue.
– 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.