Towards a Politics and Art of the Land: Gothic Cinema of the Australian New Wave and Its Reception by American Film Critics




Gothic, Politics, Art, Landscape, Film, New Wave, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Peter Weir, Ted Kotcheff

How to Cite

West, P. L. (2014). Towards a Politics and Art of the Land: Gothic Cinema of the Australian New Wave and Its Reception by American Film Critics. M/C Journal, 17(4).
Vol. 17 No. 4 (2014): gothic
Published 2014-07-24

Many films of the Australian New Wave (or Australian film renaissance) of the 1970s and 1980s can be defined as gothic, especially following Jonathan Rayner’s suggestion that “Instead of a genre, Australian Gothic represents a mode, a stance and an atmosphere, after the fashion of American Film Noir, with the appellation suggesting the inclusion of horrific and fantastic materials comparable to those of Gothic literature” (25). The American comparison is revealing. The 400 or so film productions of the Australian New Wave emerged, not in a vacuum, but in an increasingly connected and inter-mixed international space (Godden). Putatively discrete national cinemas weave in and out of each other on many levels. One such level concerns the reception critics give to films. This article will drill down to the level of the reception of two examples of Australian gothic film-making by two well-known American critics. Rayner’s comparison of Australian gothic with American film noir is useful; however, it begs the question of how American critics such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris influentially shaped the reception of Australian gothic in America and in other locations (such as Australia itself) where their reviews found an audience either at the time or afterwards. The significance of the present article rests on the fact that, as William McClain observes, following in Rick Altman’s footsteps, “critics form one of the key material institutions that support generic formations” (54). This article nurtures the suggestion that knowing how Australian gothic cinema was shaped, in its infancy, in the increasingly important American market (a market of both commerce and ideas) might usefully inform revisionist studies of Australian cinema as a national mode.

A more nuanced, globally informed representation of the origins and development of Australian gothic cinema emerges at this juncture, particularly given that American film reviewing in the 1970s and 1980s more closely resembled what might today be called film criticism or even film theory. The length of individual reviews back then, the more specialized vocabulary used, and above all the tendency for critics to assume more knowledge of film history than could safely be assumed in 2014—all this shows up the contrast with today. As Christos Tsiolkas notes, “in our age… film reviewing has been reduced to a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down” (56)! The 1970s and 1980s is largely pre-Internet, and critical voices such as Kael and Sarris dominated in print.

The American reviews of Australian gothic films demonstrate how a different consciousness suffuses Kael’s and Sarris’s engagements with “Antipodean” (broadly Australian and New Zealand) cinema. Rayner’s locally specific definition of Australian gothic is distorted in their interpretations of examples of the genre. It will be argued that this is symptomatic of a particular blindspot, related to the politics and art of place, in the American reception of Wake in Fright (initially called Outback in America), directed by the Canadian Ted Kotcheff (1971) and The Year of Living Dangerously, directed by Peter Weir (1982).

Space and argument considerations force this article to focus on the reviews of these films, engaging less in analysis of the films themselves. Suffice to say that they all fit broadly within Rayner’s definition of Australian gothic cinema. As Rayner states,

three thematic concerns which permeate all the films related to the Gothic sensibility provide links across the distinctions of era, environment and character. They are: a questioning of established authority; a disillusionment with the social reality that that authority maintains; and the protagonist’s search for a valid and tenable identity once the true nature of the human environment has been revealed. (25)

“The true nature of the human environment….” Here is the element upon which the American reviews of the Australian gothic founder. Explicitly in many films of this mode, and implicitly in nearly all of them, is the “human environment” of the Australian landscape, which operates less as a backdrop and more as a participating element, even a character, in the drama, saturating the mise-en-scène.

In “Out of Place: Reading (Post) Colonial Landscapes as Gothic Space in Jane Campion’s Films,” Eva Rueschmann quotes Ross Gibson’s thesis from South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia that

By featuring the land so emphatically… [Australian] films stake out something more significant than decorative pictorialism. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are all engaging with the dominant mythology of white Australia. They are all partaking of the landscape tradition which, for two hundred years, has been used by white Australians to promote a sense of the significance of European society in the “Antipodes”. (Rueschmann)

The “emphatic” nature of the land in films like Wake in Fright, Mad Max 2 and Picnic at Hanging Rock actively contributes to the “atmosphere” of Australian gothic cinema (Rayner 25). This atmosphere floats across Australian film and literature. Many of the films mentioned in this article are adaptations from books, and Rayner himself stresses the similarity between Australian gothic and gothic literature (25). Significantly, the atmosphere of Australian gothic also floats across the fuzzy boundary between the gothic and road movies or road literature. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is obviously a road movie as well as a gothic text; so is Wake in Fright in its way; even Picnic at Hanging Rock contains elements of the road movie in all that travelling to and from the rock.

Roads, then, are significant for Australian gothic cinema, for the road traverses the Australian (gothic) landscape and, in the opportunity it provides for moving through it at speed, tantalizes with the (unfulfillable) promise of an escape from its gothic horror. Australian roads are familiar, part of White European culture referencing the geometric precision of Roman roads. The Australian outback, by contrast, is unfamiliar, uncanny. Veined with roads, the outback invites the taming by “the landscape tradition” that it simultaneously rejects (Rueschmann). In the opening 360° pan of Wake in Fright the land frightens with its immensity and intensity, even as the camera displays the land’s “conquering” agent: not a road, but the road’s surrogate—a railway line. Thus, the land introduces the uncanny into Australian gothic cinema. In Freudian terms, the uncanny is that unsettling combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. R. Gray calls it “the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar” (Gray). The “frightening” land is the very condition of the “comforting” road; no roads without a space for roads, and places for them to go. In her introduction to The Penguin Book of the Road, Delia Falconer similarly sutures the land to the uncanny, linking both of these with the first peoples of the Australian land: "Of course there is another 'poetry of the earth' whispering from the edges of our roads that gives so many of our road stories an extra charge, and that is the history of Aboriginal presence in this land. Thousands of years of paths and tribal boundaries also account for the uncanny sense of being haunted that dogs our travellers on their journeys (xvii).

White Australia, as the local saying goes, has a black past, played out across the land. The film The Proposition instances this, with its gothic portrayal of the uncanny encroachments of the Australian “wilderness” into the domain of “civilization”. Furthermore, “our” overweening literal and metaphoric investment in the traditional quarter-acre block, not to mention in our roads, shows that “we” haven’t reconciled either with the land of Australia or with its original inhabitants: the Aboriginal peoples. Little wonder that Kael and Sarris couldn’t do so, as White Americans writing some forty years ago, and at such a huge geographic remove from Australia.

As will be seen, the failure of these American film critics to comprehend the Australian landscape comes out—as both a “critical reaction” and a “reactive compensation”—in two, interwoven strands of their interpretations of Australian New Wave gothic cinema. A repulsion from, and an attraction to, the unrecognized uncanny is evidenced. The first strand is constituted in the markedly anthropological aspect to the film reviews: anthropological elements of the text itself are either disproportionately magnified or longed for. Here, “anthropological” includes the sociological and the historical. Secondly, Kael and Sarris use the films they review from Australian gothic cinema as sites upon which to trial answers to the old and persistent question of how the very categories of art and politics relate. Initially sucked out of the reviews (strand one), politics and art thus rush back in (strand two).

In other words, the American failure to engage deeply with the land triggers an initial reading of films like Wake in Fright less as films per se and more as primary texts or one-to-one documentations of Australia. Australia presents for anthropological, even scientific atomization, rather than as a place in active, creative and complex relationship with its rendering in mise-en-scène. Simultaneously though, the absence of the land nags—eats away at the edges of critical thinking—and re-emerges (like a Freudian return of the repressed) in an attempt by the American critics to exploit their film subjects as an opportunity for working out how politics and art (here cinema) relate. The “un-seen” land creates a mis-reading amongst the American critics (strand one), only to force a compensatory, if somewhat blindsided, re-reading (strand two). For after all, in this critical “over-looking” of the land, and thus of the (ongoing) Aboriginal existence in and with the land, it is politics and art that is most at stake. How peoples (indigenous, settler or hybrid peoples) are connected to and through the land has perhaps always been Australia’s principal political and artistic question.

How do the American reviews speak to this question? Sarris did not review Wake in Fright. Kael reviewed it, primarily, as a text at the intersection of fiction and documentary, ultimately privileging the latter. Throughout, her critical coordinates are American and, to a degree, literary. Noting the “stale whiff of Conrad” she also cites Outback’s “additional interest” in its similarity with “recent American movies [about] American racism and capitalist exploitation and the Vietnam war” (415). But her most pointed intervention comes in the assertion that there is “enough narrative to hold the social material together,” as if this were all narrative were good for: scaffolding for sociology (416). Art and culture are left out. Even as Kael mentions the “treatment of the Aborigines,” she misses the Aboriginal cultural moment of the opening shot of the land; this terrain, she writes, is “without a trace of culture” (416). Then, after critiquing what she sees as the unconvincing lesson of the schoolteacher’s moral demise, comes this: “But a more serious problem is that (despite the banal photography) the semi-documentary aspects of the film are so much more vivid and authentic and original than the factitious Conradian hero that we want to see more of that material—we want to learn more” (416-417). Further on, in this final paragraph, Kael notes that, while “there have been other Australian films, so it’s not all new” the director and scriptwriter “have seen the life in a more objective way, almost as if they were cultural anthropologists…. Maybe Kotcheff didn’t dare to expand this vision at the expense of the plot line, but he got onto something bigger than the plot” (417).

Kael’s “error”, as it were, is to over-look how the land itself stretches the space of the film, beyond plot, to occupy the same space as her so-called “something bigger”, which itself is filled out by the uncanniness of the land as the intersections of both indigenous and settler (road-based) cultures and their representations in art (417). The “banal photography” might be better read as the film’s inhabitation of these artistic/cultural intersections (416). Kael’s Wake in Fright piece illustrates the first strand of the American reviews of Australian gothic cinema. Missing the land’s uncanniness effectively distributes throughout the review an elision of culture and art, and a reactive engagement with the broadly anthropological elements of Kotcheff’s film.

Reviews of The Year of Living Dangerously by Kael and Sarris also illustrate the first strand of the American-Australian reviewing nexus, with the addition, also by each critic, of the second strand: the attempt to reconnect and revitalize the categories of politics and art. As with Wake in Fright, Kael introduces an anthropological gambit into Weir’s film, privileging its documentary elements over its qualities as fiction (strand one). “To a degree,” she writes, “Weir is the victim of his own skill at creating the illusion of authentic Third World misery, rioting, and chaos” (454). By comparison with “earlier, studio-set films” (like Casablanca [452]), where such “backgrounds (with their picturesque natives) were perfectly acceptable as backdrops…. Here… it’s a little obscene” (454). Kael continues: “Documentaries, TV coverage, print journalism, and modern history itself have changed audiences’ responses, and when fake dilemmas about ‘involvement’ are cooked up for the hero they’re an embarrassment” (454-455). Film is pushed to cater to anthropology besides art.

Mirroring Kael’s strand-one response, Sarris puts a lot of pressure on Weir’s film to “perform” anthropologically—as well as, even instead of, artistically. The “movie”, he complains “could have been enjoyed thoroughly as a rousingly old-fashioned Hollywood big-star entertainment were it not for the disturbing vistas of somnolent poverty on view in the Philippines, the location in which Indonesian poverty in 1965 was simulated” (59). Indeed, the intrusive reality of poverty elicits from Sarris something very similar to Kael’s charge of the “obscenity of the backdrop” (454):

We cannot go back to Manderley in our movie romances. That much is certain. We must go forward into the real world, but in the process, we should be careful not to dwarf our heroes and heroines with the cosmic futility of it all. They must be capable of acting on the stage of history, and by acting, make a difference in our moral perception of life on this planet. (59)

Sarris places an extreme, even outrageous, strand-one demand on Weir’s film to re-purpose its fiction (what Kael calls “romantic melodrama” [454]) to elicit the categories of history and anthropology—that last phrase, “life on this planet”, sounds like David Attenborough speaking! More so, anthropological atomization is matched swiftly to a strand-two demand, for this passage also anticipates the rapprochement of politics and art, whereby art rises to the level of politics, requiring movie “heroes and heroines” to make a “moral difference” on a historical if not on a “cosmic” level (59).

It is precisely in this, however, that Weir’s film falls down for Sarris. “The peculiar hollowness that the more perceptive reviewers have noted in The Year of Living Dangerously arises from the discrepancy between the thrilling charisma of the stars and the antiheroic irrelevance of the characters they play to the world around them” (59). Sarris’s spatialized phrase here (“peculiar hollowness”) recalls Kael’s observation that Wake in Fright contains “something bigger than the plot” (417). In each case, the description is doubling, dis-locating—uncanny. Echoing the title of Eva Rueschmann’s article, both films, like the Australian landscape itself, are “out of place” in their interpretation by these American critics. What, really, does Sarris’s “peculiar hollowness” originate in (59)? In what “discrepancy” (59)?

There is a small but, in the context of this article, telling error in Sarris’s review of Weir’s film. Kael, correctly, notes that “the Indonesian settings had to be faked (in the Philippines and Australia)” (inserted emphasis) (452). Sarris mentions only the Philippines. From little things big things grow. Similar to how Kael overlooks the uncanny in Wake in Fright’s mise-en-scène, Sarris “sees” a “peculiar hollowness” where the land would otherwise be. Otherwise, that is, in the perspective of a cinema (Kotcheff’s, Weir’s) that comprehends “the true nature of the [Australian, gothic] human environment” (Rayner 25). Of course, it is not primarily a matter of how much footage Weir shot in Australia. It is the nature of the cinematography that matters most. For his part, Sarris damns it as “pretentiously picturesque” (59). Kael, meanwhile, gets closer perhaps to the ethics of the uncanny cinematography of The Year of Living Dangerously in her description of “intimations, fragments, hints and portents… on a very wide screen” (451). Even so, it will be remembered, she does call the “backgrounds… obscene” (454). Kael and Sarris see less than they “see”.

Again like Sarris, Kael goes looking in Weir’s film for a strand-two rapprochement of politics and art, as evidenced by the line “The movie displays left-wing attitudes, but it shows no particular interest in politics” (453). It does though, only Kael is blind to it because she is blind to the land and, equally, to the political circumstances of the people of the land. Kael likely never realized the “discrepancy” in her critique of The Year of Living Dangerously’s Billy Kwan as “the same sort of in-on-the-mysteries-of-the-cosmos character that the aborigine actor Gulpilil played in Weir’s 1977 The Last Wave” (455). All this, she concludes, “might be boiled down to the mysticism of L.A.: ‘Go with the flow’” (455)! Grouping characters and places together like this, under the banner of L.A. mysticism, brutally erases the variations across different, uncanny, gothic, post-colonial landscapes. It is precisely here that politics and art do meet, in Weir’s film (and Kotcheff’s): in the artistic representation of the land as an index of the political relations of indigenous, settler and hybrid communities. (And not down the rabbit hole of the “specifics” of politics that Kael claims to want [453]).

The American critics considered in this article are not in “bad faith” or a-political. Sarris produced a perceptive, left-leaning study entitled Politics and Cinema, and many of Kael’s reviews, along with essays like “Saddle Sore: El Dorado, The War Wagon, The Way West,” contain sophisticated, liberalist analyses of the political circumstances of Native Americans. The crucial point is that, as “critics form[ing] one of the key material institutions that support generic formations,” Sarris and Kael impacted majorly on the development of Australian gothic cinema, in the American context—impacted especially, one could say, on the (mis-)understanding of the land-based, uncanny politics of this mode in its Australian setting (McClain 54). Kael’s and Sarris’s reviews of My Brilliant Career, along with Judith Maslin’s review, contain traits similar to those considered in depth in the reviews studied above. Future research might usefully study this significant impact more closely, weaving in an awareness of the developing dynamics of global film productions and co-productions since the 1970s, and thereby focusing on Australian gothic as international cinema. Was, for example, the political impact of later films like The Proposition influenced, even marginally, by the (mis-)readings of Sarris and Kael?

In conclusion here, it suffices to note that, even as the American reviewers reduced Australian cinema art to “blank” documentary or “neutral” anthropology, nevertheless they evidenced, in their strand-two responses, the power of the land (as presented in the cinematography and mise-en-scène) to call out—across an increasingly globalized domain of cinematic reception—for the fundamental importance of the connection between politics and art. Forging this connection, in which all lands and the peoples of all lands are implicated, should be, perhaps, the primary and ongoing concern of national and global cinemas of the uncanny, gothic mode, or perhaps even any mode. 


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 Gray, R. “Freud, ‘The Uncanny.’” 15 Nov. 2013. 18 Aug. 2014 ‹›. 

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My Brilliant Career. Dir. Gillian Armstrong. Peace Arch, 1979. 

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Sarris, Andrew. “Films in Focus: Journalistic Ethics in Java.” Review of The Year of Living Dangerously. Village Voice 28 (1 Feb. 1983): 59. 

Sarris, Andrew. “Liberation, Australian Style.” Review of My Brilliant Career. Village Voice (15 Oct. 1979): np. 

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The Last Wave. Dir. Peter Weir. Ayer Productions, 1977. 

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Author Biography

Patrick Leslie West, Deakin University

Senior Lecturer in Professional & Creative Writing in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne Campus.