The Aussie battler personified: why everyone loves Kenny.
The Jacobson brothers film Kenny was one of the biggest Australian box office successes of 2006, which is unusual for a mock-documentary. This chapter will explore the reasons for the film's success, and in particular for the central character Kenny's popularity. Whereas the strength of the mock-documentary mode is often argued to be its ability to sharply critique dominant social and cultural values, and it tends to achieve this in an 'in-your-face' manner, Kenny is much more subtle in its critique. Indeed, on one level it can be read as a classic Hollywood-style class-based morality tale, in which Kenny ultimately 'keeps it real' and therefore gets rewarded with 'the girl'. In many ways, Kenny is the personification of the white Australian working class man, otherwise known as the Aussie battler, but much less flawed than what he would be if he was in a conventional documentary rather than a mock-documentary. He appeals directly to the Australian egalitarian myth and ultimately gets his revenge on those who do not respect this myth. Interestingly, Kenny's appeal has crossed over to the 'real world' and the actor (Shane Jacobson) now makes frequent 'in character' television appearances in current affair shows as Kenny, as well as being a presenter and participant in numerous television shows.
Through an in-depth reading of Kenny, this chapter will argue that the mock-documentary mode is perfectly suited to advance the Aussie battler myth, as the fundamental class/gender basis of Australian national identity, as it allows for the removal of the ambiguity and volatility of 'real' battlers paraded on Australian reality television screens on a daily basis, both in drama and current affairs. In short, Kenny provides a risk-free opportunity for its audience to wholeheartedly embrace this myth. Unlike many other mock-documentaries, it does not 'punish' its audience for buying into its inherent 'deception', but instead 'rewards' that audience for doing so. Thus, while Kenny steers the mock-documentary into unusually conservative waters on one level, the ambiguity inherent in the 'genre' itself ensures a raft of subversive readings that potentially undercut the myth it apparently celebrates.
CONTEXTUALISING THE MOCK-DOCUMENTARY IN WIDER
Although certainly not a new phenomenon, the mock-documentary has become increasingly popular in recent years, which can partly be attributed to its inherent playfulness and humour. According to Middleton, "the increasing use of humour in documentary film-making since the 1980s is part of a broader set of transformations in the documentary mode" (55). Central to this broader set of transformations is the rapid rise of reality television during the 1990s, and its obvious links to the traditional documentary mode. "In Australia (as is the case elsewhere) documentary has become a televisual form with shorter-length programmes, and short-series formats now dominating production" (Roscoe, Television 288). Furthermore, "primetime slots are now routinely filled with popular factual formats and various reality hybrids that have taken over from traditional long-running dramas and current affairs programming" (289). This in turn is part of wider changes in the television environment with a perceived movement away from public service ideals towards an increasingly commercial focus in the context of ratings wars, which has caused great anxiety amongst many critics. In short, it is frequently seen as a 'dumbing down' of the public sphere, by removing the role of experts in favour of an 'unmediated' foregrounding of ordinary people (McKee; Hartley), or a "triumph of emotional sensationalism over serious issues from politics to science" (Kronig 47). This in turn is seen as having much wider and important implications. "Commentators are concerned that the public sphere is becoming tilled with trivia; too downmarket and entertaining; not logical or rational enough; too fragmented; and that it's thus creating a population who are apathetic and disengaged from politics" (McKee 205). The opposite side of this argument is a celebration of the popular, the ordinary, the trivial and the everyday, as inclusive and democratising, or in Dovey's words: "to be for the popular is to be contemporary, value-free, democratic" (Confession 10). The argument here is that the trivial has always been part of the public sphere, but that it has consistently been devalued and silenced as unimportant, not serious and indeed feminine. Overall then, what we see here is a clear divide between modernist and postmodernist positions. This critical binary divide has become so deeply entrenched that it increasingly leads to a rather unproductive rehashing of by now very familiar arguments, which "compel us into superficial totalising judgements--for instance, that market-led media can only produce trash TV, or conversely that 'tabloid TV' is in fact empowering, democratic and anti-elitist" (Dovey, Confession 10). Instead, I would argue, with Dovey, that it is much more productive to view these two positions as operating on a continuum, in terms of temporality, of genre conventions, and of modes of address. This is particularly important in the context of an increasing hybridisation of documentary forms and styles. As Palmer suggests, "documentary is not dead, but it has had to adopt new strategies and use techniques it would not have considered in the past" (224). Kenny is a prime example of this in the context of the mock-documentary, in that it resists being easily captured in preconceived ideas about its format and mode of address. It is also typical of a more recent reappearance of documentaries in the cinema, albeit in a dialectical relationship with their television cousins. Kenny can thus be seen as exemplary of the "ways in which this reconfiguration has enlivened documentary and the debate around non-fiction" (Roscoe, Television 288; Huijser).
Part of the reason for the current critical anxiety about the state of the documentary and its accompanying sense of 'crisis' can be attributed to the fact that documentary was formed in a film tradition with its own distinctive history and theoretical framework (Dovey, Freakshow). In addition, while 'documentary style' programmes have always been part of the television landscape, they were traditionally firmly wedded to the public service model. In both cases, conventional documentaries were closely tied up with what Nichols has called the "discourses of sobriety--science, economics, politics and so on--that purport to effect action and entail consequences" (3). A shift to light entertainment is seen as a threat to this traditional 'documentary project', with a "steady increase in popular factual forms, a greater number of character-driven documentaries, and less in the way of essay-style documentary and explicitly political documentaries in prime-time slots" (Roscoe, Television 289). Overall, this hybridising tendency in the form of reality television has caused "a crisis in confidence about borders and boundaries, and a questioning of documentary's (and indeed the visual media's) historic claim to put audiences in touch with the real" (Roscoe & Paget 6). This 'crisis' is directly linked to the perceived objectives of the 'documentary project' in a public service model, that is, 'to effect action and entail consequences'. In other words, documentary is seen as playing an important role in 'educating and informing' the public, and thus as playing an important part in the shaping of the public sphere in the Habermasian sense. Dovey warns in this respect that it is "more important than ever that we are able to argue for a distinction between the value of that which is in the public interest and that which is merely of interest to the public" (Confession 12, my emphasis). Particularly the shift to personalisation, subjectification and character-driven documentaries (such as Kenny) is seen here as undermining and / or replacing documentaries that are in the public interest, an anxiety that is often exacerbated by a lack of understanding of their audience appeal (Hight). It is part of the shift to what Dovey (Freakshow; Confession 13) calls "first person media":
Statements about the world no longer seem to have any purchase unless they are grounded in individual subjective experience, unless they are embodied, relative, particular and 'everyday' rather than totalising, general or 'expert'. The confessional modes that lie at the heart of much of so-called reality TV can therefore be seen as taking place within a wider discursive development, in which what was private necessarily becomes public.
This foregrounding of subjective individual experience is not new to the documentary mode, and has always been part of particularly the traditional expository documentary as evidential content, in journalist-led film-making (Dovey, Confession). What has changed however is the relative importance awarded to that individual experience. Where in the traditional expository documentary, ordinary people talking about their experiences functioned as eyewitnesses in a larger political narrative constructed by the filmmaker, this individual experience has now gained a centrality to the point that it has become the narrative. Aslama & Pantti see this as part of wider changes towards "a confessional or therapeutic culture that celebrates individual feelings, intimate revelations and languages of therapy" (167). This in turn can be seen as a logical extension of wider economic and social changes, and the related impacts of feminism and identity or 'life politics' (Giddens & Pierson). In this context, "the rise of first-person media can be seen as a response to the need for a public space in which 'life world politics' [rather than politics proper] and 'emotional democracy' are fundamental" (Dovey, Confession 17). Perhaps paradoxically, we can identify a simultaneous 'wising up' by media audiences to the inherent constructedness of media texts, which is sometimes referred to as 'the media savvy audience', and seen as a logical outcome of living in a media saturated environment. Roscoe notes for example that "we [the audience] potentially recognise both the constructed nature of all representations of the real, and our continued belief in the authenticity of those representations" (Television 292). It is precisely this belief in the possibility of 'authenticity' that can be seen as central to the rise and continuing success of reality television, for it is here that the audience gets access to the 'real', however fleetingly, and it is here that opportunities for identification and rewards for emotional investment may occur. This may also explain the centrality of the monologue or individualised 'confessional' in most reality television formats, where individual 'participants' or subjects address the camera (and thus the audience) alone to reflect on events from an emotional, personalised perspective. As Aslama & Pantti argue, "reality TV shows capitalise on a variety of talk situations within one program, but it is the monologue that is used as a truth-sign of direct access to the authentic" (167, my emphasis). They go on to argue that "the power of monologue in the reality genre promotes the transformation of television from a mass medium to a first-person medium addressing masses of individuals" (167). This apparent power causes critical anxiety because its mode of address is seen as tearing at the threads that hold society together by fragmenting the audience, thereby creating a mass of individuals rather than for example a unified national community. However, there is a telling contradictory tension in Aslama & Pantti's later claim that "mediated conversation, dealing with the basic experiences of everyday life, constructs imagined communities and that today, commercial television has taken a key role in their creation" (172). Moving from the idea that 'the confessional' invites an individualised identification that works on an emotional level, to the idea that this in turn constructs an imagined community is a rather large conceptual leap, but one that is significant in the context of my discussion of Kenny. For this would only hold if the character that invites identification provides a variety of entry points into larger discourses about for example national identity or myths, so that the potential gap between individualised identification and a recognition that the character is 'one of us' is smoothed over. In this context, the character that speaks through the documentary medium does so in a personalised manner which is simultaneously public, or in other words, "public speech which is responsive to the pressures of identity politics and grounded in first-person experience" (Dovey, Confession 17). Rather than condemning this out of hand as trivial, it is much more productive to "recognise that these ways of speaking have an importance that goes beyond diversion, entertainment and spectacle" (Dovey, Confession 17). The mockumentary mode serves Kenny particularly well in this respect, as this inherently hybrid mode allows the film to represent an intensely personal narrative (albeit fictional), but one that simultaneously carries an importance beyond the level of personal experience.
ZOOMING IN ON THE MOCK-DOCUMENTARY
As noted above, the mock-documentary is not a new phenomenon, but there has been an upsurge in recent years in filmmakers appropriating this particular documentary mode. While referring to the mock-documentary as a particular mode of documentary, it is important to keep in mind that it is an inherently hybrid mode, which borrows heavily from conventional documentary modes to achieve its playfulness and often humorous and / or subversive objectives. In drawing attention to this inherent hybridity, Roscoe & Hight usefully approach the mock-documentary as a range of texts that span a continuum. They define the mock-documentary as "a fictional film or television text which mimics the visual and aural conventions of the documentary in order to challenge the very foundations and privileged status of the documentary form" (2). Importantly, their definition of mock-documentary "is specifically limited to fictional texts; those which make a partial or concerted effort to approximate documentary codes and conventions in order to represent a fictional subject" (2, original emphasis). Thus, by self-consciously foregrounding their fictionality, mock-documentaries actively steer clear of representing 'reality', but by appropriating documentary codes and conventions, they actually call the possibility of representing reality into question, wherein lies their subversive potential. Roscoe & Hight recognise varying degrees of subversion, and they identify three 'degrees of moc-docness': parody, critique and hoax, and deconstruction. Roscoe (So, you want) explains these 'grades' thus:
Parody--These texts usually adopt documentary aesthetics for the purpose of humour. They make it very clear that they are fictional and only offer a mild critique of the documentary genre. The main focus is humour which comes from the contrast between the rational (classic objective argument) and the irrational (spoof elements).
Critique and hoax--documentary aesthetics are utilised in a more ambivalent way, setting up a tension between an explicit critique of documentary, and an acceptance of the factual discourse. There is a sustained (if muted) critique of aspects of popular culture with varying degrees of reflexivity toward documentary.
Deconstruction--the focus here is a sustained attack on documentary and its underlying assumptions. This rather 'hostile' appropriation of documentary aesthetics is undertaken with the same intention as that of the reflexive documentary, and brings to fruition the latent reflexivity of the above two grades.
While this provides a useful critical framework to engage with mock-documentaries, Roscoe & Hight do repeatedly caution that they exist along a continuum, and as such their characteristics are not fixed or static. This is particularly significant in the context of Kenny, which, while obviously a mock-documentary, fails to fit neatly into any of these grades, in that it does not offer a direct critique or a parody of documentary aesthetics, but rather appropriates such aesthetics to make the fictional narrative appear more 'real'. In doing so, the film is in many ways constructed as a conventional documentary, but it also borrows from fictional codes and conventions in some instances, for example in its employment of slow motion techniques (where Kenny and his team of uniformed plumbers walk through a tunnel "Reservoir Dogs-style') and a 'character building' montage with extra-diegetic music.
The key to the three grades above is the audience, and the positions constructed for viewers by mock-documentary texts (Roscoe, So, you want). In an interview with Michael Cathcart, Roscoe stresses that it is "really important to say that mock-documentaries, for the most part, are always advertised as fictional films. The filmmaker's intention is not to make fun of the audience but to let them in on the joke. The whole point of mock-documentary is that the audience is a knowing audience; we take part in the jokes and go along for the ride". Again, Kenny is rather more ambivalent about the way it addresses its audience. While its audience is clearly expected to 'go along for the ride', the film for the most part works hard to draw the audience into its narrative by attempting to erase its constructedness, rather than providing a critical distance through self-reflexivity. As a comparison, while a mock-documentary like Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel & Benot Poelvoorde) critiques the distancing effect of the conventional documentary, and thereby invites self-reflexivity and discomfort in its audience by 'allowing' that audience to identify with a serial killer, Kenny uses a similar strategy of personalisation to achieve audience identification, but in this case a critique of documentary codes and conventions is not its objective. Rather, these codes and conventions are appropriated as an invitation to 'buy into' the national battler myth. The impulse in the Man Bites Dog case is to engage with debates about documentary's claims and inherent assumptions. Corner notes in this respect that,
At one time, it was thought that the most important thing to say about documentary was that it was a loose generic bundle of sham and trickery, grounded in technically devious schemes of expository or observational authoritarianism and with a track record of political and social misinformation stretching back to the 1920s. (...) Deep suspicion is still a prominent motive in much commentary; of course, since no amount of irony, reflexivity, self-deconstruction or, indeed, sheer audience familiarity with the looks and sounds of documentary work, can get away from the essential 'dishonesties', perceptual but also often cognitive, from which much of the documentary effect is produced (682, my emphases).
So while films like Man Bites Dog use the (deconstruction) mock-documentary mode to confront these kinds of debates head on, Kenny is more closely aligned with another question that Corner identifies: "how documentary can develop its popular reach within accessible and quite possibly realist formats rather than how its avant-garde promise might be harnessed for the purpose of radicalising shock" (682).
Kenny is probably most closely linked to the parody mode of mock-documentary with its main focus on humour. However, the way in which it positions its viewers departs in significant ways from many other examples of this mode. In his discussion of this parody mode, Middleton uses examples of what he calls 'offbeat character studies', and he pays particular attention to the ways in which such films "alternately position viewers to laugh at and laugh with their subjects, to occupy a position that can be at once derisory and empathetic" (55, original emphases). For him, the central concern in films like Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show is "whether these films display a condescending attitude towards their subjects" (56). All three of these films are structured according to the conventions of the cinema verite form of documentary, a form that on the whole fits Kenny as well. Again however, Kenny distinguishes itself from these films in important ways. The audience in Kenny's case is only positioned to laugh with Kenny, rather than laugh at him. In fact, it would seriously undermine the film's objectives if it did otherwise. The main technique used to create the ambivalent viewer positions in the above examples is a form of editing that Middleton calls 'cutting on significance': "each cut emphasises the comicality of the line of dialogue that just preceded it, and the audience's laughter creates a bridge to the next shot" (62). Cutting on significance is then used to invite the audience to laugh at the characters and to draw attention to their 'misguidedness' or 'patheticness'. In the process, the audience is made to feel superior. While Kenny can be seen as an 'offbeat character study', it is no coincidence that the film does not use this 'cutting on significance' technique. Instead, the editing in Kenny provides rhetorical continuity and creates viewer empathy, rather than provoking laughter, which according to Middleton is characteristic of more conventional documentaries "where the film-makers are concerned to provide a sense of dignity for their subjects" (58). Moreover, in Kenny's case, the audience is specifically positioned to identify with Kenny as 'one of us', and indeed as a 'model one of us'. So the point here is in fact to resist critical distance, and instead to work towards inviting the audience to engage and identify with Kenny on an emotional level. "If once we found out about things from documentary film and television, we now--and increasingly--experience emotionally things we already know. The public taste for engaging emotionally with the already-known (information, knowledge, situations) is predicated upon an ongoing but reconfigured desire: the desire for the authentic" (Roscoe & Paget 8, my emphasis). Kenny is carefully constructed to provoke audience identification on a visceral level (Perrott) with the flawless Aussie battler, a figure that is highly familiar to an Australian audience.
THE POSITION OF THE BATTLER IN THE AUSTRALIAN IMAGINARY
The figure of the Aussie battler has a long history and in many ways continues to be a central trope in the white Australian national imaginary (Elder). While its genesis stretches back to a pioneering history, it acquired iconic status in the wake of Gallipoli and its aftermath, in the guise of 'the Anzac digger'. Rainbird (24) describes this stereotype as follows:
The Digger is tough, but has a wry sense of humour that allows him to laugh in the face of adversity. As such he is regarded as a 'larrakin' (a joker), and is independent and disrespectful of authority. At the same time he is dedicated to his colleagues through 'mateship' and in this supports an egalitarian view. Being used to the outdoors, the Digger is inherently practical and will stick to the task in hand without wavering or 'shirking'. The Digger is unashamedly male.
It is this stereotype that resurfaces in different guises throughout Australian history and political discourse, but importantly also in popular culture. Initially, it served the purpose of negotiating the ambivalence associated with forging a separate national identity within an overarching imperial umbrella, or what Scates calls "the tensions between imperial loyalties and nationalist sentiments" (xxii). Thus from its genesis, the digger has been central to a white national identity in Australia, which was constructed both within and against empire. What makes the digger symbolically so enduring as an ideal national type, is his flexibility and adaptability, and there is a dual explanation for his apparently persistent relevance. Firstly, the stereotype itself is somewhat of an empty signifier in that it is general enough to be moulded into different, slightly varying shapes, but at the same time recognisably specific to serve its purpose. This in turn means that it is potentially open for cultural appropriation in a wide variety of different contexts. Secondly, and as a consequence of this, it has been consistently appropriated in popular culture, something which continues today, albeit in the slightly altered guise of 'the battler'. From music to popular literature, and from sports to cinema, this national type keeps rearing its head in everyday, banal contexts, thereby continuously reinforcing a particular national identity. In Australia, Crocodile Dundee (Paul Hogan) tightly fits the stereotype, as did Steve Irwin. The public outpouring of grief after the latter's sudden death in 2006, gives a good indication of the affective nature of these stereotypes and their symbolic collective value. 'We' mourned not just for Steve Irwin as a person, but for the 'croc hunter' as a mediating symbol who stood for everything "we' value in 'our' nation. Other examples in Australia include everyone on The Footy Show, most blokes in beer ads, and of course 'Warnie' (cricketer Shane Warne). In music, Jimmy Barnes (despite his Scottish heritage) and more recently Shannon Noll (Australian Idol finalist) conform neatly to type. Interestingly, and as an indication of how flexible the battler type is, there are also recent examples of popular female battlers (e.g. 'Reggie', winner of Big Brother Australia 2004), despite its strictly guarded male origins (Elder). These examples show ways in which this national type, and by extension national identity, is 'rehearsed' on a day to day 'banal' basis (Billig).
In a recent study of Australian national identity, Elder quotes the guidelines for 'national values, aspirations and collective values' according to the National Capital Authority: "first and foremost egalitarianism, social responsibility, freedom, civility, humour, democratic principles, civic awareness, peace, order, respect of the rule of law, mateship, diversity and tolerance, irreverence and fairness" (4). If this were to be used as a tick list by which to assess Kenny, he would come out with a shining tick for every one of these "values'. In tact, as an 'offbeat character study', the film Kenny constructs its central character as an ideal national type. In that sense it is much closer to explicitly narrative fiction films that traverse similar terrain, such as Peter Faiman's Crocodile Dundee, or Rob Sitch's The Castle and The Dish. All these films are characterised by "trademark self-deprecating humour combined with an affection for the battler", and are populated with characters who "even if they rise to the occasion, seem to have the exact measure of their place in the world" (Collins & Davis 32). As such, these films provide a "homely, less challenging national story" (121), which is the story that Kenny taps into. "Kenny is through and through an affable blend of wry, laconic humour and warm character study, most reminiscent of both the straight faced ocker everyman-ism of The Castle, and the wide-eyed Aussie abroad set up of Crocodile Dundee" (Cossar). What sets Kenny apart however, is that its use of the documentary mode creates a 'realism' effect/ affect that allows it to tap into this national story on a much more powerful emotional level, which arguably goes beyond mere affection for the battler.
KENNY AS THE OVERDETERMINED BATTLER: BETWEEN MOCKERY AND CONFIRMATION
Kenny lifts the lid on one of Australia's roughest diamonds Kenny, as he juggles family tensions, fatherhood, and sewage with charm, humour and unflinching dignity (Kenny production notes).
As mentioned, Kenny appropriates the mock-documentary mode to invite personalised viewer identification with its main character and everything he stands for. The film uses all possible avenues to achieve this. For most of the screen time, the hand held camera and fast editing techniques employed serve to enforce a sense of "liveness, immediacy, intimacy, and actuality" (Berenstein 25), usually attributed to television as a medium. This is further enhanced by the fact that all the scenes of Kenny and his work mates 'on the job' are shot at actual events, such as music festivals, a speedway event, and that iconic Australian event that annually 'stops the nation', the Melbourne Cup. Similarly, in Nashville, Tennessee, Kenny attends the actual toilet expo. While there are other significant characters in the film (such as Kenny's son Jesse, his father and his brother, and his work mates), the camera never stops focusing on Kenny himself; he is literally in every single scene. Throughout the film, we follow him as he goes about his business, while further identification is achieved by Kenny's voice-over commentary and frequent 'interview' segments to camera. What emerges from the start is a thoroughly decent working class bloke, with a good sense of humour, who fights life's daily battles like a gentleman. While he gets regularly abused by his father, his wife, and a wide variety of 'clients', he never wavers from treating people respectfully and with compassion. Amidst these daily adventures, there are frequent references to egalitarian values ('No hierarchy here, mate. We're all shit kickers here'). When Kenny is offered an office job in Sydney, and his father tells him that 'people don't look up to you, until you sit down', he ultimately decides to stick to what he does best and to stay put, mainly because of his son Jesse. This is conveyed in another documentary convention, the end titles ('Kenny never took the Sydney job'). Kenny ultimately gets to heap dirt on those who treat him like dirt (symbolised by a yuppie in a suit and a convertible), and he gets 'rewarded with the girl' in true Hollywood style.
Overall, the film works so hard to construct Kenny as the ultimate battler, that his characterisation is over-determined in many ways. For example, the scenes in the plane to Nashville, where he lapses into a Crocodile Dundee-style naivety, as well as the way his relationship with Jackie is developed (epitomised by a Hollywood-style 'eye contact' scene) inadvertently draw attention to the constructedness of the film, and thus run the danger of creating a temporary distancing effect, characteristic of many other mock-documentaries. The earlier mentioned use of certain fictional film codes and conventions may have a similar effect. But these are relatively isolated instances in what is otherwise a clear run towards suspension of disbelief. It would be easy to condemn the film for 'abusing' the mock-documentary mode and its subversive potential, to reinforce a thoroughly conservative vision of Australian identity. However, it is more productive to engage with the ways in which the film moves the already hybrid mock-documentary into new directions, and particularly with the ways in which it engages its audience. For regardless of the values it espouses, the ways in which Kenny appropriates the mock-documentary mode creates a new potential framework to engage us both emotionally and intellectually.
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