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The year of the cringe in Australian film

<i>Kath and Kimderella</i>.

Kath and Kimderella.

THIS would have to be the quote of the year in Australian film: “I just threw up on my poo.” That line will take its place in history alongside such revelations of the national character as “Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’”; “You’re terrible, Muriel”; “That’ll do, pig”; “There’s a smell in there that’ll outlast religion” and “Just what this country needs: a cock, in a frock, on a rock”.

It comes from a film called Save Your Legs, in which a member of an amateur cricket team (played by the appropriately named Stephen Curry) gets a dose of Delhi belly on a train while touring India. It’s currently being trailered at the multiplexes, and will open just before Australia Day.

Maybe there’s not enough writing talent to service both a film industry and a television industry. 

OK, if you’re going to be pernickety, I really should hold my nomination of that line till next year. Confining our selection to films that screened this year, we’re left with these candidates:

Pitch Perfect was not an Ozflick but Rebel Wilson plays an Aussie

Pitch Perfect was not an Ozflick but Rebel Wilson plays an Aussie

From A Few Best Men Luke: “I fall in love with women who then shit on me from a great height”. Daphne: “You shouldn’t put them on a pedestal”.

From Kath and Kimderella “I’m really happy with my norkmentation”.

From Bait “Sharks are only curious about one thing. It’s trying to decide if we’re food or not.”

<i>Housos vs Authority</i>.

Housos vs Authority. Photo: Marco Del Grande

From Housos Vs Authority “F--- off, ya uggboot.”

From Mental Shaz: “I love ya, ya c---“. Trevor: “Ya f---ing mad bitch”.

Looking at those quotes, you might discern a pattern. You might theorise that it’s a less than sophisticated period in the history of Australian screenwriting, and that the current generation of producers believe Australian moviegoers are cretins or bogans, or at least that they love to see cretins and bogans represented on screen. The lukewarm response of audiences this year may suggest the producers have assessed us wrongly.



Back in 1950, a Melbourne critic named Arthur Angel Phillips coined the term “cultural cringe” for the tendency of Australians to be embarrassed by their own artistic endeavours, and to feel that any work by Americans and Britishers is automatically superior to anything we can do. Then in the 1990s, Paul Keating suggested we were entitled to replace the cultural cringe with the cultural strut, because our actors, musicians, models, chefs, etc were the best in the world.

Since then, Australians have veered between the two extremes in their attitude to their own films. When we reflect on the local movies released this year, do we call 2012 a year of cringe or a year of strut? These were the top 12 Australian moneymakers:

  1. The Sapphires $14.2 million
  2. Kath and Kimderella $6.0m
  3. A Few Best Men $5.1m
  4. Mental $4.0m
  5. Any Questions for Ben $1.5m
  6. Wish You Were Here $1.5m
  7. Housos vs Authority, $1.4m
  8. Bait $1.0m
  9. Not Suitable for Children $0.5m
  10. Paul Kelly: Stories of Me $0.4m
  11. Iron Sky $0.3m
  12. Dead Europe $0.2m


You may feel differently, but I’d say that list contains seven cringeworthies and five strutworthies.

Here’s a possible explanation for this being such a cringeworthy year in film: Maybe most of the great screenwriters have moved to television. TV had a particularly good year in local drama, with Rake, Puberty Blues, A Moody Christmas, House Husbands, Redfern Now, Devil’s Dust, and Offspring all containing episodes that could have been expanded into stimulating movies. Maybe there’s not enough writing talent to service both a film industry and a television industry.

So here are this column’s Australian movie awards for 2012:

Disappointment of the year There were many strong candidates. If Kath and Kimderella had been edited down to half an hour, it would still have been among their dumbest episodes. Jane Turner and Gina Riley need to move on. A Few Best Men was supposed to be the renaissance of Stephan Elliott, who gave us Priscilla. But the shock value of Olivia Newton-John sniffing cocaine could not compensate for sloppy slapstick.

Most disappointing of all was Any Questions for Ben?, from the Working Dog team who gave us The Castle and The Dish. It made Melbourne and Rachael Taylor look magnificent, but the central character was annoying, the plot was predictable and the dialogue was lame.

The bad rap for Any Questions for Ben? may have poisoned the well for a much smarter romcom that came out soon afterwards -- Not Suitable For Children (starring Ryan Kwanten of True Blood). Or possibly audiences were put off when they heard the premise – a man with testicular cancer has a month to find a woman who will bear his child. It sounds like a parody of a typical Australian art movie, but it deserves a catchup on DVD.

Ozflick of the year You thought I was going to say The Sapphires, which was amusing and inspiring even in its corniest moments. But it’s big enough to look after itself. I’m giving the prize to Bait, a “schlock-horror” genre piece about young people trying to avoid a four-metre shark trapped with them in a supermarket after a tsunami.

It made just $1 million in Australia, but it made $45 million in China, changing it from cringeworthy to strutworthy and opening up a market which Bait’s producers will rush to fill with a sequel. Clearly the Chinese have a finer appreciation of irony than Australians.

OzStar of the year You thought I was going to say Deborah Mailman, who dominated The Sapphires, but we already knew her talent from Offspring. Instead I’ll reward Rebel Wilson, who did her best to save A Few Best Men before going on to display Aussie charisma in Pitch Perfect. Hopefully she’ll return to us in 2013 and find some strutworthy material to work with.

As a point of comparison, these were the top Australian moneymakers of all time:

  1. Crocodile Dundee (1986) $47.7 million
  2. Australia (2008) $37.5m
  3. Babe (1995) $36.8m
  4. Happy Feet (2006) $31.8m
  5. Moulin Rouge (2001) $27.7m
  6. Crocodile Dundee II (1988) $24.9m
  7. Strictly Ballroom (1992) $21.8m
  8. Red Dog (2011) $21.3m
  9. The Dish (2000) $18.0m
  10. The Man From Snowy River (1982) $17.2m
  11. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) $16.5m
  12. Muriel’s Wedding (1994) $15.8m.

You have just read the Who We Are column, by David Dale. It appears in printed form every Sunday in The Sun-Herald, and also as a blog on this website, where it welcomes your comments. David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia -- A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.

4 comments so far

  • I enjoyed The Sapphires - loved the music but the dialogue was deplorable and very lame - the writer should be ashamed - thank goodness the actors tried hard to rescue this movie!

    Central Coast
    Date and time
    December 30, 2012, 1:06PM
    • For me, the star of the Sapphires was the DOP, Warwick Thornton, who managed to make us believe for most of the time that we were in a war zone. It would have been terrible without him working his magic.

      Date and time
      December 30, 2012, 10:48PM
  • I agree and have watched in despair for many years as the Australian film industry has stumbled from disaster to disaster - usually a race to the bottom with a film based on a main character with some form of psychological problem....yawn. We have to start treating it like any other industry. Why do the people who continue to make dud movies continue to be bankrolled? The Oz film industry has a lot to prove and, unfortunately, if it wants to survive it needs to start making movies that Australians want to watch - I know, a radical concept. The box office is more important at this stage than the industry's misguided desire to produce 'quirky' films.

    Date and time
    December 31, 2012, 8:36AM
    • One of the difficulties for Writers and Producers is that they are always short of money and they need to get films into production in order to get paid. This means that half-baked scripts are in production several drafts before they should be. There also appears to be no system at all for shaping a writing career - I have written some big films and have even been nominated for an AACTA - the newly rebadged Aussie Oscars. Since that nomination, I have not had a single call from a Producer or an Agent to have so much as a cup of coffee. Not one. Does that strike anyone as strange? Surely one of the functions of these awards is to reveal new talent, isn't it? On top of this lack of follow up in the profession, the government funding for short films with which people can learn their craft is shaped around giving people their first go. Second and third films, which could keep up momentum and stretch the writer/director teams, are much harder to fund. In all honesty, we don't have a film 'industry' - we have a largely unconnected group of people who barely know one another and without the invigorating interactions of experienced people sharing what they have learnt, we stumble around like amateurs. So, we get lots of dark films (cheap to make, may win festivals) and self-consciously quirky films (fairly cheap to make, fingers fiercely crossed that they may be successful). The films that put this country on the international film map were neither dark nor quirky and they were head and shoulders above the current crop - so we CAN make great films here.

      Date and time
      January 02, 2013, 3:10PM

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