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Coming to terms with India and Oz

'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Australia' urge us to discard our notions about the countries they depict.

December 17, 2008|Reed Johnson

Want to start a new country? Or put a fresh spin on an existing one? Well, after you've drafted a constitution and written the national anthem, there's something else you may want to do: make a movie.

In the century or so since film was invented, movie making and nation building often have been parallel projects. Many countries have used film to boost morale, mobilize the masses or simply take stock of where the nation stands at a given point in time, such as the tart social comedies of Britain's Ealing Studios, which helped war-wearied Brits keep stiff upper lips, and the grotesque Wagnerian pageantry of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda. And for an aspiring global power, what better way to announce your First World ambitions (other than building nuclear reactors) than to film a national epic?

Nation building and the shaping of national identities are prominent themes in two current, seemingly dissimilar films, Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" and Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire." Neither could be considered the product of a national film industry, in a traditional sense. (And it must be said that Boyle's tricky balancing of love story, social satire and subtle magic-realism flourishes in "Slumdog Millionaire" reap bigger, better dividends than Luhrmann's wildly bravura approach to "Australia.") Yet both movies afford valuable new perspectives on how filmmaking and other forms of popular culture condition the way that nations see themselves and are seen by others.

(Warning: spoilers galore ahead.)

An epic pastiche

As its title brazenly announces, "Australia" is the more conventional national saga, at least at first glance. Sweeping in historical scope, lushly filmed and headlined by two A-list Australian-raised stars, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, "Australia" meets all the checklist requirements for an epic love story played out against the backdrop of a nation in transformative upheaval (see "Gone With the Wind," "Dr. Zhivago," Zang Yimou's "Red Sorghum," etc.).

National epics -- movies, novels, plays, genre paintings -- often have been used by countries to scrutinize their obsessions and exorcise their demons or, alternately, to declare their jingoistic aims. "Australia," which tracks from the late 1930s to the early 1940s, climaxes with the Japanese bombings of Darwin that helped bring Australia deeper into America's midcentury sphere of influence. The movie also confronts the touchy issue of the treatment of Australia's aboriginal population, personified by the character of the young "mixed-race" boy Nullah (Brandon Walters).

As with D.W. Griffith's cockeyed-racist "Birth of a Nation," the infinitely more enlightened "Australia" sticks its thumb into a sore spot in the national psyche. If you doubt the smoldering relevance of the aboriginal issue, consider that the Australian prime minister only last winter made a formal apology for the suffering inflicted by previous governments on indigenous people.

But it would be misleading to see "Australia" as a national epic in the classic mode. Rather, it's a pastiche, filtered through Luhrmann's personal fixation with movies themselves, especially classic Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and '40s. The cartoonish maps shown in the movie's early frames, the ludicrous "kangaroo shoot" sequence and Kidman's deliberately stylized over-emoting as the imperious English noblewoman Lady Sarah Ashley (in the film's first stages) clue us in that we're not supposed to take "Australia" too seriously as a history lesson, even a revisionist history lesson. The so-called Aussie Boom of the late 1970s and early '80s already supplied that with movies like "Gallipoli," "Breaker Morant" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock," which weighed the mixed blessings of the country's British colonial heritage.

But if "Australia" takes history with a grain of salt, it takes movies, and the iconography of movie stars, very seriously indeed. Jackman's chiseled face and physique are made to look as much like a national monument as Ayers Rock, while his tanned, squinting face evokes Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. For about half of its very long running time, "Australia" is a horse opera, self-consciously patterned after classic Hollywood westerns such as Howard Hawks' cattle-drive epic "Red River."

And could there be any image more expressive of Luhrmann's apparent belief that Hollywood magic has shaped his homeland as much as any battle or social policy than Kidman singing "Over the Rainbow" to an aboriginal child?

The ingeniousness of "Australia" comes from Luhrmann's understanding that today it's virtually impossible to make a national epic that doesn't acknowledge the crucial role that movies themselves play in shaping national self-image. Unfortunately, the movie's patina of jocular, highly self-conscious artifice clashes with its earnest depictions of aboriginal "walkabout" rituals, Darwin's heroic defenders and the like. Ultimately, "Australia" steps from cleverness into kitsch.

Brecht via Dickens

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