Llew and I watched an Australian film on DVD the other night that really underscores one of this country’s major artistic insecurity complexes. It’s called Three Dollars, and stars one of my favourite Aussie actors, David Wenham, who appears alongside a high-calibre supporting cast. The reviews on the cover were promising: glowing praise from some of Australia’s most recognisable and reputable critics. We’d been circling the movie for years – drawn by its cast and its critical reception, but repelled by past disappointments along the same line. Finally, we rented it, and it sat at home for a week while we continued prodding it with a metaphorical stick. The ambivalence was unmistakable, and, in the end, well placed.
So what’s the problem?
In my piddling opinion, it’s a bit of a growing issue across film and literature, this bogus idea that an Australian contribution to either art form has to be grim and deadly serious and deep and worthy in order for it to have any artistic merit – or that grindingly depressing things are somehow intrinsically valuable artworks in ways that determinedly optimistic things are not. Oh yes, yes, it’s total genius, isn’t it, this courageous exploration of bleak, unrelenting misery. Oh, isn’t it powerful, this unflinching evocation of the depths of suburban sadness and horror. Bravo!
Well, I think that’s just garbage – and worse, it’s got the distinct whiff of apology about it too, as if we feel we have to constantly reach into some fetid slush pile to make up for the average Australian having it pretty good. It’s so… so… contrived. And it’s so disingenuous. In the case of Three Dollars, not even my admiration of David Wenham could get me to swallow the idea that this man – a just-sacked government employee with a university degree, a wife, a daughter, a mortgage, friends and two living parents – would respond to his sacking by instantly agreeing to start riffling through public garbage bins on a busy Melbourne street with his good buddy the homeless guy, who finds him a coat to wear – on loan from another kindly homeless gentleman – and shows him how to procure free food (present rotting food at sales counter and claim to have just purchased it from the same establishment) before whizzing him round the homeless shelter trying to tempt him to bunk down for the night. Now, I’ve researched real homelessness for a freelance story, and I query everything about this picture of a very real ordeal, including its recklessly sanitised depiction of the type of characters one meets on the streets. The hospitable hobo – see now, isn’t he just darling? I find it so insulting – it plays at social commentary, it wants to lecture us in our lounge-rooms, but what it really does is completely minimise and make a pastiche of the terrible circumstance of having absolutely nowhere to go.
And I find this sort of thing happens in Australian films All. The. Time. Maybe less so in Australian novels, but it’s there too, and it makes me wonder if the culprit isn’t partially the grants culture, in which one must prove the cultural value in order to be considered for funding. Levity isn’t often taken seriously in this context, I don’t think. Unless of course you can throw in a fun-loving cast of Indigenous merry-makers, which is what looks to have happened with musical curiosity Bran Nue Dae, in which case you’re sure of a cheque in the mail. But only Aborigines are allowed to have a good time, mind – everyone else has to be mired in the single worst day of their pathetic lives. Got it?
All of this belongs to a similar bag of fibs that artists right around the world can’t quite seem to shake. The idea that sunny places are creative wastelands is a popular one (Sydney as a cultural vacuum is a common charge, and this suspicion about our artistic character seems to revolve primarily around the city’s climate), and suggests that one must be wet, cold and miserable in order to commune with the muse.
Hot on the heels of this damning weather report is the tortured artist cliché – one of the worst offenders, in my view. I don’t believe that creativity is the terrible burden some would have us believe, a weight so crushing one must race towards some form of rampant substance abuse in order to manage the torment of existing in the shadow of one’s great, glorious gift. Please. Give me a fucking break. I’ve tried writing while drunk, and given the hilariously ropey results, I strongly suspect it’s the rare talent indeed who can pull off the dazzling trick of performing while heavily under the influence. There’s a very good reason why people crash cars when they’re in a similar condition.
I think artists who claim their drug of choice as part of their creative palette are mostly just ordinary addicts like the rest of us, and it’s more simply a matter of choosing the best prop to hide behind, and polishing a neat justification for all their bad behaviour.
And yes, all these long months of sobriety are making me cranky. Clearly.