Friday, 9 January 2009
Baz Luhrmann directs films.
Some of them are quite good. Yet despite their entertainment value, you wouldn’t necessarily use them as a primary source of sociological research for your thesis paper on, say, Hierarchical discourse in professional dancing academies 1987 – 1993.
Apparently Professor Greer does. She criticises Baz’s latest effort, Australia, because it fails to correctly portray life in the Northern Territory in 1939. She notes inaccuracies and anachronisms such as the hero’s use of an ‘Oral B’ toothbrush. Making a fuss over anachronisms in a film that makes a pointed joke about recognising a 2004 cover of Somewhere over the Rainbow shows she doesn’t really get Luhrmann’s films – but leave that for the moment. Let’s focus on her main attack on the film, its portrayal of indigenous people.
Greer took her crusade against the film further when she attacked Nicole Kidman for playing a didgeridoo on German TV. Now it might seem strange to use a work of fiction like Australia (a sort of Moulin Rouge meets Gone With the Wind) and a screen actress playing up on a German chat show to make a point about indigenous affairs. It is not as though there is a shortage of things to talk about in the real world.
For example, we are only eighteen months from a child abuse panic where indigenous men were being accused of fiddling with their kids en masse, and some of the things said about them were pretty savage. One commentator wasn’t at all surprised by the accusations because “the suffering of Aboriginal women and children at the hands of their deranged menfolk has been going on all Howard’s life”.
It could be said that this quote by Greer (for it is she) has been ripped out of context as it came from an article opposing the intervention. The trouble is that by focusing on the supposed pathology of what was going on inside the communities, she lays the ground for it. It is a trap she got caught up in an interview on Lateline back in August promoting her essay On Rage, which took her claims about the degeneracy of indigenous men even further by claiming that they were not only destroying themselves but their communities with it. But after hyping up the extreme violence from indigenous men to those close to them, she ended up having to concede the intervention was necessary after all:
LEIGH SALES: …what other option did the women have? They couldn’t go to the men for help because those men were the perpetrators of the violence. What else could they have done other than ask for government and ask for outside assistance?
PROFESSOR GERMAINE GREER: Well it’s also true that there are other men in the community who are managing and there are male elders in the community who are managing. Well, I do see that it was a recourse in emergency here.
Conceding a need for a ‘recourse’ was the same trap that others who opposed the intervention, but also conceded that there was a child abuse epidemic, found themselves in. This included those who wanted to maintain the land rights system that the intervention over-rode. By conceding such a thing could happen under that system, they undermined its validity. Greer’s difference is to try and wriggle out of it by claiming that the problem was that land rights wasn’t being enforced rigorously enough, but portraying indigenous male behaviour as even more barbaric while she did so.
The tangles Greer’s gets caught up in because of her focus on indigenous behavioural problems suggests that maybe the reason Greer makes a fuss over Baz Luhrmann’s film is to use it to make a point that doesn’t really stand up on its own. In effect she seems to be demanding that a zany film director and a screen actress do what she can’t – make a coherent political point.
Using history or culture as a proxy for a weak political argument is a defining feature of the history/culture ‘wars’. It was why, as the left and right declined during the Keating and Howard years, history and culture wars sprung up like weeds across the landscape and ‘warriors’ like Gerard Henderson could earn a living making a fuss about the most obscure subjects.
Of course then there is the most enduring cultural war in Australian politics, the row over indigenous culture. The right dismissed it to impose their own values that they could never bring into practice and the left celebrated cultural difference to make a virtue of the failure of the project of equality.
But things change. The terms of the debate about indigenous culture have been altered. It is this subtle change that Greer missed in her criticism of Australia. For at the root at what she doesn’t like about the film is not its fidelity to historical fact. She only raises it to underpin her real complaint of the film, its celebration of the apology. The film is designed to “promote the current government policy of reconciliation” which she says is “the process by which Australians of all shades forgive and forget the outrages of the past and become one happy nation”.
But she is out of date. Forgetting the past would more accurately describe the 1970s and 1980s when forcible removal of children was stopped but little reference was ever made of it. It had dropped out of the political lexicon because it upset the land rights compromise at that time agreed by both parties. It was only when that compromise started to unravel that the stolen generations became an issue, nearly a quarter of a century after it had been stopped.
At the heart of the land rights compromise was an informal ‘two state’ solution in which neither could properly recognise the other. As the political class lost its mission in the 1990s Keating tried to bring reconciliation of both into a new political project but failed. Howard rode the vacuum on the lack of a solution and in the end broke the compromise for good with the intervention. By their agreement with its premise, the land rights lobby were fatally compromised but Howard had nothing to put in its place. It was left to the Mandarin to wind it up and lay the blame for the whole policy failure where it always belonged, at the feet of the political class.
Greer comes from that political tradition that for the last few decades have been sticking their fingers into every cultural discussion to play out an argument they have already lost. With that political tradition at an end, maybe now we can watch a film during the summer holidays without being caught up in an ideological struggle. Pass the popcorn.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 9 January 2009.Filed under The Australian state