Outback gothic, where the vision is not so splendid

Published 09 March 2010

roo_signTHE long ribbon of road takes our hero into the isolated heart of rural Australia. Then the vehicle breaks down and the horror begins. The landscape and its creatures become threatening, the people weird and spooky.

That is take one on the city view of country life as told by our urban filmmakers.

In take two, the country is a place of escape for city slickers, with ravishing scenery and locals who lead lives from a more blissful past. Among them may be marvellous horsemen and canny bushmen with endearing quirks, such as a repertoire of cute knife tricks.

An Armidale academic, John Scott, and researcher, Dean Biron, identify these narrow visions pointing to the city-country divide in a paper about to be published in an international journal.

But on the road to framing their theory, they detected a pattern: the Australian rural gothic horror film often hinges on a car or bike breakdown.

”The failure of vehicles openly facilitates terror,” they say in their article for Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. ”Happy-go-lucky urban folk ‘go bush,’ lose contact with the outside world, and discover, to their horror, that they are inept at civilising nature.”

Dr Scott, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of New England, struck on the strange, split images we have of rural life when he considered the 2005 low-budget horror movie Wolf Creek – in which, way outback, three young backpackers’ watches stop and their car breaks down.

”You seem to get these two takes on rural Australia … One is what I call idyllisation, where everything is wonderful and it’s all hunky-dory. It’s your Crocodile Dundee, your rural bloke who everyone wants to live up to. He’s a simple, straightforward kind of guy,” Dr Scott says.

”If you go back to the ‘new wave’ of Australian cinema [from the early 1970s] there’s this theme of rural horror … about rural places being backwaters, places of decay, where people disappear.

”If you go into European-style gothic, it’s a haunted house [that inspires fear] but we don’t have the house. We have the bush. The monster in Picnic at Hanging Rock is the rock. You hear the music. It’s scary. It’s going to engulf you, this rock. The landscape consumes people – quite literally, in The Cars that Ate Paris.”

In the 1988 movie Shame, a woman’s motorcycle breaks down in a town where the men rape the women. In Walkabout, children are marooned in the wilderness and their car burnt out but the rural danger is held in check ”by the presence of a benign and helpful Aboriginal”, the authors write. Wolf Creek tapped into fears about the Belanglo backpacker murders and the Northern Territory ordeal of the British backpacker Joanne Lees.

What do the film stereotypes say about city people’s perceptions? ”You wouldn’t say that they’re stupid. They’re just playing on the little bits and pieces of information that they have,” Dr Scott said. Where once city folk had country cousins, most Australians live in metropolises and have no connection with ”the bush”, other than to visit on holiday.

The professor of Australian history at the University of Sydney, Richard Waterhouse, said movies such as Australia reflected a lingering nostalgia for a lost simple rural life.

The tendency to romanticise the country stretched back to the 19th-century vision of ”a land of yeoman farmers”. The land was to deliver prosperity and the tale of the hardy bushman was a ”foundation story” for Australia.

”But there always existed this other notion about Australia and the bush, that it was an unforgiving place and a harsh place; a place where you could make your fortune, but could also lose your fortune,” he said.

Film portrayals of rural life had ”lost a lot of relevance” and movies now mostly focused on urban themes, he said. In 1994, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert blew the legend ”sky high” by portraying the inland as ”mean and nasty”.

Filmmakers shun portraying real rural life because that would be ”boring”. ”What is the point of valorising Anglo-Celtic men who are shearers? Those characters are not very real any more,” he said. ”If you portray it in real terms, small-town life isn’t very exciting. Being a shearer is just hard work and being a drover is alienating – most were misfits and drunkards.”

This story was re-printed courtesy of Debra Jopson, Sydney Morning Herald.