Last month, on late-night TV, something amazing happened. SBS dusted off one of the great Australian movies of all time and showed it on free-to-air, albeit at midnight. I refer, of course, to the film that gave birth to the modern Australian film industry, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.
Barry McKenzie was the tale of a beer- swilling Aussie bloke drinking his way through the supposed ‘high culture’ of Europe. Barry spoke Strine, chased sheilas, stuck it up the uppity Poms and generally embodied the Aussie ocker stereotype.
Bazza, as the film became known, was a cultural phenomenon in its day. Yet for some strange reason it remains largely unknown among Australians who were born after its time, and any screening on TV was hitherto unheard of.
The historical importance of Barry McKenzie cannot be overstated. It was the first Australian film to earn $1 million. As Bazza was gulping from a can of Foster’s in almost every scene, it was responsible for popularising the brand as the quintessential Australian beer in the eyes of the world. It was the first film directed by Bruce Beresford, its writer was Barry Humphries, and the producer of this low-brow, politically incorrect romp was Philip Adams. Yes, that Philip Adams.
Bazza was the most popular film at the Australian box office in 1972. In 1973 this title was claimed by a second Aussie comedy, Alvin Purple, another genre-defining classic, starring Graeme Blundell. Alvin was a bawdy farce about an average bloke whom women found irresistible. The whole film is akin to a two-hour Benny Hill chase, though with the women chasing the man. In 1974, the box office gold medallist was the Bazza sequel, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.
It’s my contention that the period from around 1970 to the early 1980s was a Golden Age in Australian popular culture that has never been equalled by anything that came afterwards. During this age, Australian culture was at its most bold, creative and unique.
The Golden Age produced a string of uniquely irreverent Australian films: Wake in Fright, Don’s Party, The FJ Holden, The Odd Angry Shot, Stone and Mad Max, to name but a few. During the Golden Age, the local film industry was so vibrant that two prime ministers even had cameo roles as themselves: John Gorton in Don’s Party and Gough Whitlam in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.
But the Golden Age quickly led to a decline and fall. From the late 1970s onwards the Australian film industry became increasingly pretentious and narcissistic. After the carefree fun of the Seventies, most Aussie movies of the Eighties and Nineties had to be serious, earnest affairs which made profound statements about the ‘Australian identity’. Aside from some notable exceptions, they had minimal appeal to the mainstream public and were viewed only by an ever-decreasing circle of black-skivvy-wearing ‘arts community’ types. When the ‘arts community’ failed to produce anything that would be commercially viable in its own right, they all banded together at ‘Artists for Labor’ rallies and begged Paul Keating to throw more money at them, thus continuing the downward spiral into mediocrity and irrelevance.
The idea that three films made by Australians about Australia could top the local box office for three years in a row, as Bazza and Alvin did, is simply unthinkable now. If this were to happen, it would surely be an enduring source of national pride that would be passed down the generations. But for some reason, this sort of pride never flowed from the achievements of the Golden Age. Those of my own generation born in the late Seventies or after could spend our entire lives being impervious to the very existence of Barry McKenzie (as I was myself for 27 barren, wasted years).
So why did this happen? My theory is that the ‘arts community’ and those who are slaves to its fashions decided that Bazza, Alvin and their ilk were just a bit too populist and suburban for them, and didn’t like what they said about the ‘Australian identity’. There was therefore an attempt to airbrush them out of our collective consciousness.
In his autobiography, Barry Humphries advances a similar theory. In his view, insecure Australian artists and critics began to fear that ‘audiences in that intimidating place called “Overseas” might judge us all by Barry’. Humphries goes on to say that during the 1970s, ‘people had fallen in love with the word “image” and Australia’s international image became a matter of national concern’. The self-appointed guardians of the ‘image’ therefore took it upon themselves to fashion it into something more to their liking.
This change in tastes is reflected in the transformed attitudes of Philip Adams himself. Adams went from the easygoing bloke who brought us Bazza to the oh-so-serious black-shirted cultural commissar who has spent the past 20 years grizzling that mainstream Australians are uncultured oafs who are unworthy of people like him (a view he shares with his political hero Paul Keating).
While the Golden Age produced dozens of worthy films, ask anyone now what the most notable recent Australian film is and the answer will probably (and depressingly) be Australia. The film known as Australia embodies all of the negative attributes of post-Golden Age films: overstated artistic pretensions, left-wing political posturing and obsessive attempts to make a deep and meaningful statement about the Australian condition. In this respect, director Baz Luhrmann must be the personification of all that is wrong with post-Golden Age Aussie culture.
Critics of Australia complained that its two main characters are hollow parodies of English and Australian stereotypes. While this criticism is correct, it misses the broader point that the biggest parody in Australia was the very film itself. The whole thing is so overcooked that it is an inadvertent send-up of all the shortcomings and inflated self-importance of the Australian film industry. This is the same industry which, ironically, Luhrmann had hoped to revitalise through Australia’s commercial success, just as Bazza had done in the Seventies. But as we all discovered, Australia is no Barry McKenzie.
As with all cultural declines throughout history, periods of decay often lead to renewed interest in the greatness of the former era. In 2008 the Australian film scene was invigorated by the release of Not Quite Hollywood, a documentary that paid tribute to the Aussie films of the Golden Age. It even coined a name for the genre: Ozploitation.
Not Quite Hollywood was created by young enthusiasts who had rediscovered the lost classics for themselves. One of the many highlights of the film is the comment by American director Quentin Tarantino, who explains his long-standing fascination with Ozploitation, and how so many of his own films were inspired by it.
Not Quite Hollywood did a great national service, as it introduced a whole new generation of Australians to their rightful heritage. Conversely, it also served to highlight the sad state in which the local film scene now finds itself.
In the credits of Tarantino’s recent film Death Proof he pays tribute to ‘The Australian Film Industry’. Clearly, what he was really referring to was the vibrant, lively industry of the Golden Age, and surely not the contemporary industry that remains firmly stuck in its Dark Age.
Ben Davies is an aspiring cultural attaché from Melbourne.