Paranoid Australia: alone in a Strangerland.
Australia is hard to see. When colonists arrived with guns, germs, flour, sugar, rum and money, they also brought European art techniques. They tried to apply the principles developed during the Renaissance to their oil paintings of Australia's landscapes. It didn't work--the one-point perspective that captures Essex's rolling hills and Paris' open gardens wasn't gelling. Because of the Earth's tilted axis and the country's latitudinal location, we get slightly more of the sun than Europe; the light is harsher here, which has the effect of flattening perspectival space. Beyond that geographic effect, something else didn't fit; Australia's land and air felt different and demanded their own artistic approach. But that didn't stop modernist painters from trying the old ways--a type of aesthetic colonialism.
The family home at the centre of Kim Farrant's debut feature, Strangerland (2015), is decorated with these sorts of old-school colonial paintings of the outback. These works replicate English approaches to painting the 'scenery' rather than trying to engage with the realities of Australia's many landscapes, and substitute British deciduous trees for Australian gums. It's a smart cinematic reference at the level of design and mise en scene that visualises the outdated colonial idea of Australia as the closest place to the end of the world. This conceptualises Australia as a sort of zombie: dead but still living.
The art-world convention of superimposing European ways of seeing onto Australia has shifted to accommodate a more rounded film-world convention of the Australian Gothic. It is a genre that scholar Ben Wilkie has described in this way:
In nearly all Australian films, and certainly all Australian film and literature in the gothic mode, the landscape is more than a stage upon which the story unfolds [...] The rural outback holds sinister possibilities of madness, depravity, and profound loss.
Mad Max: Fury Road [George Miller, 2015] taps into this gothic tradition of Australian storytelling that extends as far back as Marcus Clarke's colonial masterpiece, For The Term Of His Natural Life, and threads through Australian film classics such as Wake In Fright /Ted Kotcheff, 1971] and Picnic At Flanging Rock [Peter Weir, 1975], and more recent works like Wolf Creek [Greg McLean, 2005].
This tradition sets human characters against the omnipresent Australian landscape; their identity and very existence is frequently defined in relation to an often foreboding, unwelcoming land that violently opposes their presence. (1)
On its surface, Farrant has created a missing-girl mystery; underneath, Strangerland is about what is missing at the heart of the mythicised Australian nation, the longing for a homeland taken by stealth and dominion, and the complicated sense of belonging in a continent with the enduring reality of colonialism. Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes) have just moved with their children, Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton), to a remote desert town. The circumstances that led to their move are not yet clear, nor are the secrets binding them together--Tommy can't sleep and walks at night, his fifteen-year-old sister has a covert sexual life, and something else is pushing Catherine and Matthew apart. One morning, Catherine wakes late to an empty house. Lily and Tommy are nowhere, and a dust storm is descending. Local detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving) realises quickly that unravelling this family's inner secrets will be crucial to finding the children.
As emergency teams sweep the country around the town, we are presented with a series of aerial shots that evoke the overhead images in Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013) that show a police car searching for that film's missing girl. Those shots, in turn, are reminiscent of the wide-scale linearity of traditional Indigenous painting, and are deeply spiritual in a way that even a secularist like myself couldn't help but see. They suggest not a god's-eye view but rather a world in which smaller parts are connected to a much larger whole--an ecosystem in which a rock, a river, a star or a bird occupies the same essential place as a person. The recent Russian arthouse drama Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) invokes images of the land and ocean to similar effect: its opening and closing shots of steel-grey waves, juxtaposed with smaller shots of deserted boats, and even the whale carcass on the film's poster speak not of the greatness of the natural world but of its indifference to us.
The natural world of Strangerland, however, is far from unconcerned with those who populate it; in fact, it is actively hostile, and has been described by some critics as taking on the role of a fully fledged character. (2) The land acts of its own volition, and exerts a force on the plot as any protagonist would--it is an agent, properly alive and with its own set of motivations and desires. The helicopter shots in Strangerland move creepingly through the gorges of central Australia. These hills hold secrets, and seem entirely capable of swallowing a girl whole. They are as dream-strange as the outcrops of Hanging Rock, but far less Edenic.
Perhaps this is why the Rainbow Serpent, one of the most famous figures in Aboriginal mythology, recurs as a symbol throughout Strangerland, though not always subtly. First, we see a drawing of a snake in lost Lily's teenage diary. Then, it is abstracted as an overhead shot of a winding dirt road (a nice subversion of the film trope of the flat highway). And, finally, it is directly relayed in a Dreamtime tale of the 'old ways' by two of the film's secondary characters, who are Indigenous (Meyne Wyatt and Lisa Flanagan). (3) Increasingly desperate, Catherine pleads with an elder to tell her the serpent story; she feels it could be the final key to finding Lily. The elder refuses--it's no good; sometimes there's no reason for children's disappearances; it has happened before and will happen again. 'It's the land,' the elder says, not quite dismissively, but the inference is clear: non-Indigenous people should not be here. The land consumes Lily and Tommy; perhaps this is the land taking back a new Stolen Generation, a form of nature-driven retribution for unpunished crimes.
Through Strangerland's careful collection of images and conventions--winding roads, Europeanised Australian oil paintings, statically aggressive land formations--its aesthetic and intent become clear. The film can be read simply as a thriller in the style of Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014), or else as a grander, more oblique political statement. Australia, and the microcosm of it portrayed on screen, is necessarily a 'strangerland'. In 2015, as in 1778, we are still settlers--most of us either descended from convicts or from more recent migrants. To the menacing gorges of Strangerland, non-Aboriginal individuals are illegal aliens, and the film's characters are, ultimately, all foreign to one another. Every intimate relationship is predicated on secrets: Matthew and Catherine are strangers to each other, and their children are strangers to them. Lily and Tommy remind us of the brimming inner worlds and double lives that young people possess, which their parents are blind to. In this sense, Strangerland is also a picture of the instability of families and of parenthood, set against the wider failure of the colonial project. The film seems to speak, for instance, to Germaine Greer's comments on the ABC's Q&A in 2012:
Today I was in a taxi being driven by a Sikh from the Punjab, and he started to tell me about his family and he said, 'You will be surprised to know I'm fifth generation of my family to live in this country. ' And he pointed out that amongst the very first settlers in Australia were people from the Indian subcontinent [...] Now, who thinks about the [F]irst [F]leet as having people from the Indian subcontinent? We have been deluding ourselves about our Anglo Celt descent as if it was the pattern for the country because in fact it's always had other people. But I think, really, that our terrible insecurity whenever we're faced with people from anywhere else who might have an interest in this continent, is to do with the slenderness of our own claim to it. We know our presence is illegal. If we don't sort that out, we can't sort anything else out. (4)
Certainly, there are many explanations as to why Australia is a frightened country. Greer's comments get to the heart of some of those reasons, and speak to the broader atmosphere of conscience-searching in which Strangerland intervenes.
As a genre, the Australian Gothic is a conduit for asking political questions. It's also a means by which to quietly stir Jungian elements of our subconscious, much like how David Lynch uses extreme close-ups of rustling leaves and falling water in the crime-mystery series Twin Peaks. We are made to think: What is going on here? Why is this so terrifying? It is both jarring and spooky to see familiar Australian sights--a neon 'IGA Friendly Grocer' sign, a 'Toohey's New' banner over a pub--amid such inhospitable vistas. The Wolf Creek sequel (Greg McLean, 2013) may be on the most recent branch of the Australian Gothic's family tree, and horror films like Bait 3D (Kimble Rendall, 2012) and Rogue (Greg McLean, 2007) may trade on Australia's reputation for creepy crawlies and a dangerous, beckoning outback. But while Strangerland does borrow a couple of tricks from these sorts of horror films to build an ambient anxiety--a sudden hand on the outside of the car window as the dust storm suffocates the town, swift cuts to black every now and then--frankly, I found the emotional truths more spine-shivering than the thriller conventions.
Perhaps that's because, beyond racial and colonial politics, Strangerland is also keenly aware of the dangers to women in everyday life--of the latent violence in the home. Lynch, the creator of that most famous missing girl, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), has said that 'the home is a place where things can go wrong'. (5) Twin Peaks offers us an archetypal vision of domestic terror far more frightening than any horror film I've seen. It's a sad irony that, despite how trained we audiences are by these kinds of texts (and everyday ones like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) to look inside the home for the culprit, domestic and sexual violence in our actual homes is scaling new statistical heights today. (6) Indeed, in Strangerland, we are led to suspect that Matthew is guilty of something sinister, even if it's just concealing vital information regarding his children's disappearance from both his wife and the police. In the end, his betrayal is not criminal but emotional: like Mad Men's Don Draper (Jon Hamm), he doesn't realise he already has all the love he could wish for, and doesn't even know what it is, until it vanishes before his eyes.
Matthew's greatest source of parental anxiety--in fact, the biggest secret within the Parker family--is Lily's burgeoning sexuality. In the continuum of Australian cinema, she is another Miranda (Anne Lambert), the soft, backlit Botticelli girl at the centre of Picnic at Hanging Rock, uncommonly lovely for the mere fact of her youth and presumed innocence. Strangerland seems to ask why the sexuality of young women is so threatening, in much the same way that Stieg Larsson's 'Millennium' novel series does. (7) But, although the word misogyny has become commonplace in the Australian vernacular in the last few years, Strangerland might be less about men who hate women and more about those who fear women, likely for their sexuality and their beauty. At play in the film is a related kind of gender-based phobia, evident in how the townsmen--and Matthew--look at Catherine and Lily. Despite, and because of, her youth, Lily clearly consents to a range of encounters that also disempower her, yet she is unavailable to grown men and her sexual affair with her teacher is a source of unspeakable dishonour for her family. As a symbol, Lily's character shows that young women's evolving sexuality is taboo in a way that makes older men crazy. Lily's age and sexual forwardness disturbs those around her because it takes place in an ethical area as opaque as the film's red dust storm. She finds herself in situations in which equal power relations are impossible. The issue of consent is difficult enough to navigate, even for adults, but is especially so among young people. Lily is as vulnerable as she is alive when it comes to her existence as a sexually active being.
Strangerland also highlights the ways in which women are constantly judged for their appearance and their availability to men. Both Lily and her mother value themselves for their desirability, and seek sex in the most alienated places when what they really need is a different type of reassurance. Here, another parallel can be drawn to Mad Men, in which secrets, not sex, are the binding source of intimacy. (8) In an odd art-meets-life moment after watching Strangerland, I found myself catcalled by a man in a passing car, who looked at me in the same manner--coldly, smirkingly --that Catherine and Lily are many times in the film. It was not about attractiveness; it was about power, or at least about this man trying to exert an unaccountable power over me. It made me realise the extent to which a female director and female screenwriter (Fiona Seres) have created a film so aware of the incessant invasion of women's headspaces by sexist judgements of their bodies--so aware of the armour required to just be a person in public who is female. One of Strangerland's great achievements is how it emphasises the importance of gender diversity on and off screen--of the need for industry professionals who are capable of depicting and dissecting these everyday experiences in film.
In all of these ways, Strangerland proves itself as a psychological drama and thriller that is deeply yet obliquely political, engaging at the level of ideas and nerve-shaking at the level of slow-burn entertainment. The fear in the film originates both from a land that continues to be occupied and from the home. Two spaces--one foreign, one familiar --and both inescapable. Perhaps we should all be scared in paranoid Australia.
Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist, a PhD candidate at UNSW, and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia's Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, Currency House, 2013).
(1) Ben Wilkie, 'Mad Max as Australian Gothic: Don't Leave the Road if You Want to Survive', The Guardian, 21 May 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/21/mad-max-as-australian- gothic-why-we-love-the-road-and-find-freedom-in-the-car>, accessed 10 August 2015.
(2) See, for instance, ibid.; and 'Strangerland- Movie Review', The Blurb Magazine, 11 June 2015, <http://theblurb.com.au/reviews/strangerland- movie-review/>, accessed 10 August 2015,
(3) One of the film's main shortcomings is that all of its Indigenous characters, despite their centrality to the thematic and narrative momentum, are relegated to supporting roles. The arena of diversity in casting is one that Australian cinema must do better, we seem to be stuck at the point where a character must be written as Indigenous to be cast as Indigenous. It must be said, though, that most of the white A-listers offer astonishingly sensitive performances, particularly Kidman as a 'regular Australian woman' and Weaving as a grieving father whose mistakes have cost him everything, Including his estranged--another type of missing--daughters.
(4) Germaine Greer, quoted in 'Politics and Pom in a Post-feminist World', Q&4, ABC, 19 March 2012, transcript, <http://www.abc, net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3451584.htm>, accessed 11 August 2015.
(5) David Lynch, quoted in Thomas Caldwell, 'David Lynch', Senses of Cinema, issue 20, May 2002, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great- directors/lynch/>, accessed 11 August 2015.
(6) See Janet Phillips & Penny Vandenbroek, Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence in Australia: An Overview of the Issues, Parliamentary Library research paper, 14 October 2014, <http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parllhfo/download/library/prspub/3447585/upload_bina ry/3447585.pdf>, accessed 11 August 2015.
(7) It's worth noting that the original Swedish title of the first book in the 'Millennium' series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo --which was adapted for the screen by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009 and remade in the US by David Fincher in 2011 translates to 'Men Who Hate Women'.
(8) See Margaret Lyons, 'Peggy and Pete, Together Again on Mad Men', Vulture, 27 April 2015, <http://www.vulture.com/2015/04/peggy-pete- couch-mad-men.html>, accessed 11 August 2015.
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|Title Annotation:||AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND CINEMA|
|Author:||Harris, Lauren Carroll|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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