Today, a fresh crop of Australian talent is shaking up the local film industry with stunts, suspense and serial killers. But are these filmmakers revolutionaries? Maybe not to the extent they’d like to believe.
Spend time rubbing shoulders with new and upcoming filmmakers and young film critics and one will soon realize that ‘genre’ is the new catchcry in Australian cinema. They say it with zeal, as though spruiking a new pyramid scheme — stunts, witty dialogue and three-act structures.
Understandable, given what they’re preaching against: gloomy, self-indulgent art-house cinema that doesn’t perform at the box office.
The kind of pretentious drivel that some Australian funding bodies seem to churn out year after year. The kind that soft-review-writing critics praise and ram down audiences’ throats. Or at least that’s how the battle lines are being drawn nowadays.
By contrast, the mavericks headlining this genre revolution are doing so with a slew of violent, low-budget action and horror flicks that borrow heavily from formulaic Hollywood and exploitation cinema’s raw thrills. There are no introspective characters on journeys of self-discovery, and no landscape panoramas without the threat of a monster lurking in them somewhere, waiting. Predominantly male, often working outside the framework of the funding bodies, these filmmakers are turning the conventional notions of Australian cinema on its head.
Recently, Australian audiences have witnessed Steven Kastrissio’s bruising revenge story The Horseman and Marc Gracie’s outback thriller The Tumbler. Meanwhile, Sean Byrne’s gruesome teen flick The Loved Ones and Michael Henry’s murder-gone-wrong nail biter Blame were also released late last year, fresh from screenings at international festivals.
Never heard of ‘em? That’s because theatrical release is often a secondary revenue stream to DVD release for these flicks. The fan base at the end of the market has always skewed towards home viewing, and DVD sales often constitute the lion’s share of revenue.
Nonetheless, this emerging talent comes hot on the heels of people you will have heard of, such as the Spierig ‘Daybreakers’ Brothers, whose well financed vampire movie followed their low-budget zombie flick Undead. Or James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the team responsible for the infamously grisly Saw and landing a lucrative multiplex franchise. There’s also Greg Mclean, who garnered international attention with Wolf Creek, and Shane Abbess, who landed a studio deal after re-imagining angels at war in Gabriel.
What they share is a common philosophy that, supposedly, puts entertainment before art, and audience satisfaction above the filmmaker’s self-expression. It is an age-old conundrum that plagues the industry. To appreciate why this might be regarded as a radical concept, it’s useful to remember how the previous surge of homegrown genre filmmaking was received in the nineteen-seventies and eighties.
Plainly, the Australian film establishment loathed it. Why? Because the nation’s cinematic renaissance was at its peak, with period pieces and gritty, naturalistic dramas winning accolades and respect worldwide. In stark contrast was a disparate group of movies lumped together under the banner of ‘Ozploitation’.
Mavericks like Anthony Ginnane and Brian Trenchard-Smith were in the business of making unapologetically commercial film, like the satirical splatter punk Turkey Shoot (1982) and teen flick BMX Bandits (1983), to the outback horror Razorback (1984) and the psycho-horror Patrick (1978). Their output flew in the face of the orthodoxy of the time, which encouraged ‘serious’ filmmakers to create art, or at least construct national myths. Anything that didn’t resemble Gallipoli (1981) or The Year My Voice Broke (1987) was scorned. You may as well have been making porn.
In reality, this tribal approach to filmmaking was ridiculous. It wasn’t just because some of the ‘serious’ films were rubbish and some of the genre films made no money. What was problematic was the idea that genre filmmaking was somehow different from every other type of filmmaking.
Genre is, and has always been, in the very DNA of our most highly regarded filmmakers, from George Miller to Phillip Noyce. Miller’s Mad Max (1979) is a science fiction western; Noyce’s Salt (2010) is a spy thriller. The simplistic categorisation of Australian films as either genre or non-genre didn’t work then and doesn’t work now. The two most critically acclaimed Australian debut features of the recent cycle – Animal Kingdom and Samson & Delilah – have strong genre credentials (though they aren’t tagged as such). The former has the bones of a gangster movie, while the later is essentially a romance.
By embracing genre, filmmakers acknowledge that cinema is a more codified art form than, say, literature – there are explicit conventions when it comes to storytelling on celluloid. And, of course, to know these rules is to subvert them.
The danger of pegging the ‘genre’ tag to the current wave of action and horror filmmakers is that we create a stylistic ghetto once again. The focus of this cluster of directors is too narrow – not enough laughs, not enough romance. They might be successful for their niche audiences, but isn’t a sustainable economic model for the whole industry.
Not to suggest Australian filmmakers should copy the full gamut of Hollywood’s output. Impossible. We simply don’t have a local audience and talent pool large enough to compete. But genre is a very broad church and it pays to be aware of the various conventions.
If genre-loving filmmakers widened their scope, audiences and tastemakers might lose their snobbery. Variety is the spice of life – and the multiplex. We need films that make us laugh, and want to fall in love, as well as those that make our hearts race with a blood-splattered axe.
– Bowen Ellames, Chair, MRC Members Production Group