by Stephen Papson
This paper looks at the intersection of parody and mythology in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. My argument is that the ambivalence directed at Australia by critics is the consequence of two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there is Luhrmann’s use of parodic excess as his auteurial signature. The film abounds with clichés, allusions, and stylistic excess, which potentially lead to a referential parodic reading. On the other hand, the film also evidences the desire to rewrite the Australian national mythology, in which landscape, bushman, and Indigeneity come together to form a national multicultural identity. Here Luhrmann uses racism, in particular the policies associated with the Stolen Generations, as a narrative driver. First, I explore how the film’s oscillation between parody and a politicized, revisionist construction of Australian history places the viewer on uneven ground resulting in ambivalent critical readings. Second, I argue that despite Luhrmann’s vision of an alternative Australia, an Imaginary multicultural Oz, he produces a mythology that reinforces whiteness as the invisible agentic force shaping Australian national identity.
Australia: a self-referential parodic text
Linda Hutcheon argues that “parody is doubly-coded in political terms; it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies”(1889:101). Texts, which contain parodic elements, are always to some degree reflexive, and consequently challenge the socially constructed nature of dominant ways of seeing. By exaggerating the codes of the original, parody potentially disrupts the hegemonic reading position.
“Parody can be used as a self-reflexive technique that points to art as art, but also to art as inescapably bound to its aesthetic and even social past. Its ironic reprise also offers an internalized sign of a certain self-consciousness about our culture's means of ideological legitimation” (Hutcheon, 1989:101).
For Hutcheon parody both reveals textual codes, and illuminates the socio-cultural norms that legitimize and are legitimized by aesthetic forms. Parody’s disruptive tendency demands a socio-political reading. Parody, however, can also blend with the original and not be read as parodic. Exaggeration not only exposes and disrupts but also magnifies and reinforces the original. Consequently, parodic readings are often uneven and unstable and highly dependent on the reader’s expectations.
Parody’s central element is excess. It functions as a distancing tactic exposing the representational codes of a text, genre, and/or moment in history. The use of excess is a trademark of Baz Luhrmann’s directorial style. Criticism directed at Luhrmann’s previous cinematic work (his Red Curtain trilogy) applauds his creative use of excessiveness. For example, Kinder refers to Moulin Rouge as “an extravagant movie full of excess,” noting it reveals the structural tension in the musical genre (2002: 52). The rooftop scene in which Christian and Satine sample loves songs in a landscape constructed out of signifiers of romantic love (hearts, fireworks, the moon, a gazebo, etc.) not only unveils the codes of the musical genre but also the ideology of romantic love expressed in that genre. Moulin Rouge is often read as a critical analysis of the ideology of romantic love. However, despite Luhrmann’s use of cinematic excess and referentiality in previous work, Australia (with the exception of Langton) has not been read as a parodic text. Instead critics have seen it as a failed melodramatic spectacle — a Gone with the Wind gone bad.
Despite taking years to make, costing the most of any Australian film to produce, promoted with heavy international marketing and laden with stars, Luhrmann’s Australia could only muster one Academy Award nomination: Best Costuming. Moreover, film reviews were heavily negative, particularly by Australian reviewers.
“It’s as if Australia …was built with one under riding intention: to amalgamate as many national clichés and stereotypes as is humanly, cinematically, possible. They pour out of every scene; they drip from every frame. Luhrmann mines the sort of cultural cringe factor Paul Hogan exploited back in the 80’s in Crocodile Dundee, and this time around, outside the auspices of comedy, veering dangerously close to ‘historical’ epic, the ramifications are dire. I fear it will take years for us to live this film down. A message to international audiences, for which Australia was undoubtedly intended: just in case you didn’t realise, this film isn’t social realism. Luhrmann presents a time that never happened, in a place that never existed, with a people light years away from embodying, or even suggesting, what it means to be an Australian.” (Luke Buckmaster, In Film Australia, November 27, 2008)
Reviews like this one point to the film’s cinematic referentiality but do not read it as referential. They list the parodic elements and note the excess but are unwilling to make the final leap into a full parodic reading. The review above notes the film is not social realism but then criticizes it for its failure to depict the Real.
Germaine Greer not only penned a scathing critique of the film, but she also attacked Marcia Langton for her praise of the film:
“The scale of the disaster that is Baz Luhrmann's Australia is gradually becoming apparent. When the film was released in Australia in November it found the odd champion, none more conspicuous than Marcia Langton, professor of Australian Indigenous studies at Melbourne University, who frothed and foamed in The Age newspaper about this ‘fabulous, hyperbolic film.’ Luhrmann has ‘given Australians a new past,’ she gushed, ‘a myth of national origin that is disturbing, thrilling, heartbreaking, hilarious and touching.’ Myths are by definition untrue. Langton knows the truth about the northern cattle industry but evidently sees as her duty to ignore it, and welcome a fraudulent and misleading fantasy in its place, possibly because the fantasy is designed to promote the current government policy of reconciliation, of which she is a chief proponent” (The Guardian, December 16, 2008).
Greer demands that the film be an historical account that emphasizes exploitation. Through out her essay she uses numerous historical examples to point out the film’s failure to enlighten about exploitative colonial practices. Langton, in contrast, recognizes that the film is an “hyperbolic, postmodern” text and praises it:
“this adventure into the soul of the nation succeeds with powerful cinematic craft, passion and humour” (The Age, November 23, 2008).
She draws on her own childhood memories to anchor her praise, but more important, she accepts Luhrmann’s vision as “a fresh, bold approach” to the mythology of the Outback. Greer, however, attacks this view as being politically driven, serving the interests of the present political regime’s policies of reconciliation for which Langton is a proponent.
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