Our films give a distorted view of life in suburbia, writes
TENTACLES of settlement began spreading out from our fledgling cities in the 1800s as families sought a place to call home away from overcrowded urban living. People had left the farm for the city; now they left the city for the suburbs.
In Melbourne, C. J. Dennis celebrated an ordinary larrikin in his best- selling verse novel The Sentimental Bloke. Raymond Longford turned it into one of our earliest silent films in 1919 and it was an instant hit. In the poem’s final stanza, the Bloke sits in perfect contentment with wife Doreen and baby on the front porch of his suburban cottage, listening to the birds.
A detached house on a garden block was home for most people, rich, poor and otherwise, although it may not have been a way of life that lent cultural richness. In the first half of the 1900s, Australia was all about football, baked dinners and stultifying convention; at least that’s how it seemed to our cultural monitors. Patrick White despised it, as did Barry Humphries, but many writers, such as Christina Stead, evoked their suburban childhoods beautifully, often in memoirs written after they’d left the country.
Sumner Locke Elliott, who was born in 1917 in Sydney, wrote Careful He Might Hear You about his youth, spent between warring aunts in working- class Carlton and ritzy Vaucluse. He left for the US in 1948 after years of an ‘‘ anguished life as a covert homosexual’’.
Brisbane suburbia is immortalised in Johnno, David Malouf’s memoir of his adolescence and early adulthood in the ’ 40s and ’ 50s, as it is in Over the Top with Jim ( the biggest selling Australian childhood memoir), Hugh Lunn’s tales about growing up in a Queenslander in Annerley Junction during the same period. ( Strangely, neither has made it to film.)
Robert Drewe explored the suburbs of Perth and Sydney with his memoir The Shark Net and acerbic collection of short stories The Bodysurfers, which nailed the mores of Sydney’s eastern suburbs during the ’ 80s. ( Both also became excellent television drama.)
There is little of the subtlety of these authors in films set in the suburbs. On film, it seems, we would rather deal with our demons than wallow in rosy memories.
For many filmmakers, the suburbs mean cars, sport, crime, violence, westies, bogans and ethnic gangs. Some made brilliant films that were almost too convincing to stomach: The Boys and Romper Stomper. And the working class gets a bad rap, all dysfunctional families, unemployment and junkies. We did have an antidote, however, in the well- crafted, multi- layered Muriel’s Wedding , Strictly Ballroom and Lantana, and, of course, the hit comedy The Castle.
Back in 1966, John O’Grady’s amusing bestseller They’re a Weird Mob was turned into a record- breaking film. The story of an Italian sportswriter ( Walter Chiari) forced to work as a brickie’s labourer pointed out with affection the foibles of Australians and the challenge of being a ‘‘ New Australian’’.
The cast included Chips Rafferty and Ed Devereaux. Clare Dunne was there, too, but a film made at the height of Australian chauvinism can’t be faulted for its masculine bias.
Another striking and inflected representation of masculinity came in 1977 when Bryan Brown arrived on the scene in the short feature Love Letters from Teralba Road, about a man trying to reconcile with the wife he had bashed ( an equally strong Kris McQuade).
‘‘ My main aim as a director was to capture the feel of the western suburbs, which I knew well from living in Fairfield in my father’s pub for five years,’’ director Stephen Wallace said.
Don’s Party, a play by David Williamson, chronicled the rise and fall of an election- night party in a middle- class house. Now Bruce Beresford’s film of it wears a retro air, but in 1976 it was set in a typical home, with types familiar across the nation’s aspirational suburbs talking politics and getting drunk, the sexes segregated at different ends of the house.
Donald Crombie’s Caddie ( 1976), a story of a beautiful, tough woman battling her way through the Depression, has plenty of melodrama and soapy elements. But it’s based on a true story, Caddie: The Autobiography of a Sydney Barmaid by Catherine Elliot- Mackay.
It shows us what life was like for a woman forced out of the tennis- playing upper- crust suburbs and made to earn her living in rough pubs, where a few centimetres off the hem of her skirt earned enough in tips to feed her children.
In the ’ 80s, some definitive suburban stories were produced. Puberty Blues ( 1981) revealed the dirty secret of life as a surfie girl in the masculine, insular world of Sydney’s Cronulla beach. Even better, the two heroines leave it behind at the end of the film.
Wendy Hughes and Robyn Nevin played the duelling aunts in Careful He Might Hear You , Carl Schultz’s wildly successful adaptation of Elliott’s book, which swept the AFIs in 1983. Then came Bliss , adapted from Peter Carey’s story of midlife crisis and directed by Ray Lawrence, about a man ( Barry Otto) who dies and wakes up in a hellish world.
Set in middle- class suburbia and hippiedom — then the middle class’s favourite escape hatch — it succeeded perhaps because Carey and Lawrence worked in advertising and knew their target audience inside out.
On the other side of the country in Perth, Glenda Hambly’s Fran was the story of a young mother trapped in poverty and the paucity of spirit in a housing commission estate, and her desire to have a good time. Noni Hazlehurst, who later was a real- life suburban idol in Play School and Better Homes and Gardens, won an AFI award for her role.
Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof, with Hugo Weaving, Genevieve Picot and a baby- faced Russell Crowe, is a sharp- edged story about trust. Weaving plays a blind man who habitually takes photographs of his surroundings, then doublechecks that they match what he has been told. Proof, with its lonely parks and drive- ins, is one of our most penetrating stories of suburbia.
Set in Melbourne, Death in Brunswick had Sam Neill, Zoe Carides and John Clarke in blue singlet as working- class buffoons.
Then the Paris of the south took on a harder edge in Metal Skin ( 1994), all cars, murder and madness under rainy grey skies, and 1998’ s Head On, Ana Kokkinos’s unsettling film with Alex Dimitriades as a speed- fuelled gay Greek boy in search of his identity.
Good or bad, suburban stories will continue to be made.
Recently Last Train to Freo and Suburban Mayhem have continued the violent, confronting vein of drama, but Kenny gave a softer view. However, the blokiness is persistent: Bra Boys, Mall Boys, Wog Boys, even My Mother Frank.
Another chronicler of suburbia will come along to illustrate the complexities of life in the ’ burbs and capture the imagination of a nation. Meanwhile, the Kerrigan family and the Sentimental Bloke are enjoying the serenity.
Dark side: In Suburban Mayhem, Emily Barclay, pictured with co- star Michael Dorman, plays a suburban single mum who plots to kill her father