Tom O’Regan (1996, p.113) defines the Australian national cinema as a “mundane cinema”. Unlike the prestigious French and Italian cinemas valued for their artfulness, or the African, Japanese and Taiwanese ‘Other’ cinemas appreciated for their cultural and aesthetic differences, Australian cinema is seen to lack distinction and great value (O’Regan 1996, p.113).
The Australian film industry has been criticised domestically for the production of serious interpretive feature films that are banal, aesthetically unexciting and lacking cinematic merit (O’Regan 1996, p.141). Fetishised outback panoramas, exaggerated accents, Aborigines and larrikin character types reproduce national stereotypes in an effort to pander to the overseas market while securing goals of national cultural expression (O’Regan 2000). However, overseas audiences struggle to understand Australian accents, cultural quirks and ocker humour (Ryan 2012, p.153) while the perpetuation of tiresome clichés fails to entertain or resonate with Australian audiences (Turner 1994, p.32).
Critics and audiences in Australia may, however, have too narrow an idea of what constitutes Australian cinema. Australian cinema is often discussed as if it is one kind of film, predominately in the form of a popular movie from the past that journalists have promoted as representative of Australian cinema (O’Regan 1996, p.186). This is well-illustrated by Crocodile Dundee (1986) which maintains a broadly based public profile for the local cinema (O’Regan 1996, p.141).
The idea that Australian films are abysmal, cringe-worthy, outdated artefacts is, thus, a generalisation that belies the diversity of quality local films produced each year, yet which are inaccessible to wide audiences by virtue of poor distribution systems. Australian audiences are rarely given the opportunity to watch local films as their choices are predetermined by distributors and exhibitors favouring high-end blockbusters (Carroll Harris 2013, p.5). This limited access to the rich diversity of Australia’s film culture entrenches the belief in a homogenous and uniform national cinema. This, in turn, devalues the local cinema and serves as a pretext for audiences choosing to further engage with Australian films.
Australian cinema is also criticised for failing to contend with the preferable commercial dynamics and progressive cultural and aesthetic values attached to Hollywood. Australians hold Hollywood filmmaking in higher esteem than the local product, citing inferior production values and lack of star appeal as reasons for Australian cinema’s ‘daggy’ and downmarket status (O’Regan 1996, p.113). These perceptions have led to the emergence of a dominant media discourse about the unpopularity of Australian films and the resultant failure of the domestic screen industry (Burns & Eltham 2010, p.103).
For Australian actress Sigrid Thornton, however, part of what constitutes this
‘crisis’ is Australia’s small production base (Craven 2006, p.37). While Hollywood’s large creative output creates the perception of a large amount of success, the relative paucity of local film output results in a low success ratio (Craven 2006, p.37). This places tremendous pressure on individual works and is compounded by critics’ reliance on crude box office measures of profitability.
Claims made about an Australian cinema that is hopelessly out of touch with a popular audience and inferior to the monolith of
Hollywood are unhelpful and outworn assumptions. There is a pressing need to understand the actual tastes and desires of audiences and the role of distribution and exhibition in shaping the economic prospects and cultural significance of Australian films. Furthermore, discussion of Australian cinema should extend beyond the analysis of box office figures. These are issues that must be addressed in order for Australian cinema to evolve and forge a unique cultural space in the film world.
Watch the trailer of the legendary Australian movie Crocodile Dundee:
Burns, A & Eltham, B 2010, ‘Boom and Bust in Australian Screen Policy: 10BA, the Film Finance Corporation, and Hollywood’s ‘Race to the Bottom”, Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture and Policy, vol.136, p.103-118.
Carroll Harris, L 2013, Not at a cinema near you: Australia’s film distribution problem, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, NSW.
Craven, P 2006, ‘Cut! Has the Australian film industry lost its way?’, The Monthly, no.12, p.30-37.
O’Regan, T 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, New York.
O’Regan, T 2000, Australian Films in the 1970s: The Ocker and the Quality Film, Murdoch University, viewed 5 December 2015, <http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/readingroom/film/1970s.html>.
Ryan, MD 2012, ‘A silver bullet for Australian cinema? Genre movies and the audience debate’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol.6, no.2, p.141-157.
Turner, G 1994, ‘Whatever happened to National Identity? Film and the nation in the 1990s’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no.100, p.32-35.