Don’s Party

December 17, 2007 at 2:56 am (Uncategorized)

Adapted by David Williamson from his stage play of the same name, Don’s Party is a classic Australian film from the ’70s. I think the film was made in 1976, and it centres on the federal election night of 1969, when (despite a wave of expectancy and optimism) Whitlam’s Labor party lost and the Liberals were returned, continuing their long, unbroken run to the great disappointment of the small ‘l’ liberal left. In other words, it had eerie parallels with our most recent election, except when it boiled down to the result (which, short-lived though it infamously proved to be, arrived for Whitlam in 1972).

Watching Don’s Party the other night on DVD, I shivered thinking about the alternative outcome all these years later. Watching the growing despondency amongst Don’s mainly Labor-voting revelers on-screen, I could feel the creeping anxiety tensing my own body – had Rudd really won? Was the Howard era truly over? Had I imagined the whole thing? Imagine if Howard’s government had been returned, I thought. How would I feel? Sick, is the short answer. And as the result of the ’69 election became clear in the film, I actually shared a measure of their despair as though it had happened to me the other weekend.

We too were at a party on election night. It was Tara’s birthday party, not Don’s election party, but in some ways not very much had changed. There was certainly the same ebullient atmosphere as results started trickling in early on. And there was the same focus on the polls. People genuinely seemed to be engaged with the issues and the outcome this time round. The main talk of the evening was political – something that isn’t usually the case with some of the party goers that night. Some of us love a good political debate, but others, like a couple of the characters in Don’s Party, really prefer to avoid such talk. A difference of political opinion, in particular, seems to present to some people a real crisis of conversation, instead of an opportunity to celebrate and practice free-speech and democratic freedom.

I don’t need you to agree with me, I’m just interested in what you think and why. But such talk makes some people profoundly uncomfortable. And others are simply bored by politics and would rather talk about something, anything else even if it’s of no consequence whatsoever. That is their prerogative, of course, but generally I found the atmosphere this past election night electrifying.

There were the subtle tensions, too, the stuff going on at a subterranean level. Williamson’s play and screenplay capture a particular social milieu with uncanny and often hilarious accuracy – as a child, I was taken to lots of Sydney parties that looked a lot like Don’s. A lot. I remember them very well, perhaps because unlike the rest of the guests I was sober. I was bug-eyed the whole time – everyone seemed very fascinating and exotic, the wine flowed, everyone smoked, ate, talked, laughed and fought at top volume and at full speed, and there was often lots of flesh on display. And I don’t doubt that certain other things went on behind the scenes that I did not see and that in any case I was too young to understand.

Things got pretty raucous at some of these parties. At one in a terrace house on Glenmore Rd in Paddington when I was very small, I nearly drowned in the pool because all the adults were otherwise engaged. The hostess ended up jumping in and saving me, thank goodness. She’s dead now, but I remember her, and her parties, every time I walk past that stretch of terraces and try to remember exactly which one was hers.

Back at Tara’s party, now I’m all grown up and a registered voter, I have to say things were much tamer on the sexual front. There were people there enjoying their sexual freedom, that’s true, but in Don’s Party there’s a blatant disregard for the concept of marital fidelity that I don’t really see in my own crowd today. It’s not that I don’t know of anyone ever being unfaithful, it’s that no one is ever quite so brazen as they are in this film. It’s very, um, loose, and I guess I’m a bit straight about these things because all these decades later I was still a bit shocked by the ease with which people allowed themselves to put their marriage to one side in the pursuit of instant sexual gratification. Were they really like that? Was there really a moment in Australian history where people were like that? I think the answer’s probably yes, but I’ve never seen it in action, and I actually tend to think that for the most part we are quite a sexually reserved and conservative nation. Yes, I know people who are separated, divorced, unfaithful, having babies out of wedlock, gay, adventurous and even – gasp! – happily married, but people are pretty private about all of these things. It’s not a free love parade, that’s for sure. And if anyone gets caught having sex in the toilet, they’re still embarrassed about it; no one flaunts it the way they do during Don’s Party. So even as I thought to myself that politically, wow, not much has changed, we seem to be right there today on the cusp of that same change, I also couldn’t help but think that sexual politics today are another matter entirely. I was much more comfortable at Tara’s party than I would have been at Don’s.

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