Sub­ur­ban chaos

Our films give a dis­torted view of life in sub­ur­bia, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Ros­alie Hig­son

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

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