Monday, December 1, 2008

A time for history

Two films I saw over the long Thanksgiving weekend - Australia and Milk - are linked by an interest in history, although the approach of each is distinct. In part this is because of the divergent styles of the two auteurs involved. Baz Luhrmann's Australia is a postmodern spectacle trafficking in the star personas of his charismatic leads (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman), while Gus Van Sant's Milk dramatizes the life of the gay activist Harvey Milk and bases that dramatization upon Milk's own words about his life. Both are suprisingly conventional genre entries (the historical melodrama and the biopic, respectively) from two unconventional filmmakers, but Milk, to my mind, succeeds much more than Luhrmann's film and for reasons directly pertaining to its approach to its subject matter.

Australia is the first of Luhrmann's films to be situated within a discrete moment in history. (One could argue that Strictly Ballroom is somehow a depiction of 1980s Australia, although I think it is less interested in that period in and of itself and more in using elements of that period for its own pastiche). Titles appearing before and after the narrative clearly indicate Luhrmann's intention to say something relatively objective (and only objective relative to his previous films) about the situation of Aboriginals in Australia before and during World War II. Treated as little more than slaves, aboriginal children, whose mixed race threw into confusion the nation's self-identity, were removed from their homes and placed in shelters so as to guarantee that they would not procreate with members of the white race. The film is narrated by the half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), and titles which frame the story suggest the extent to which the film is interested in establishing its drama as a historically valid representation of the Aboriginal experience. That the balance of the film is mostly concerned with the Kidman/Jackman romance, however, should come as no surprise. What links Australia more closely with Luhrmann's previous films, however, is its insistence that we can use pop culture as different ways of responding to our experiences: at repeated intervals in the film Nullah whistles the theme to The Wizard of Oz, and when he is later depicted watching the film in an open-air theater in the outback, it suggests that the young boy is using American popular culture as a means to articulate his desire for an existence free of oppression. More globally, what Luhrmann seems to be suggesting is that our tendency to communicate through our understanding of the popular forms we know best is in fact a means of storytelling that can convey our own cultural histories. There's not anything terribly revealing about this idea, as anyone who has taken a Cultural Studies course in the last ten years can tell you. What's so strange about Australia, though, is that this young boy's joy in poaching popular culture is not echoed by Luhrmann in the making of the film itself: usually quick to invigorating, emotionally invested pastiche, in Australia Luhrmann, rather than delighting in the play with style so evident in Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, is content to use the template of the historical melodrama rather straightforwardly and conventionally. The film feels as if Luhrmann simply watched Titantic and then wanted to remake it, albeit in a slightly different register. This is part of the reason I never felt Nullah's delight in storytelling as I was watching the film.

Milk is more successful. The film mixes documentary images of San Francisco in the 1970s with a fictional account of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay activist who rose to prominence as city supervisor near the end of the decade. While the film builds inexorably to the moment of Milk's assassination, Van Sant, to his credit, does not allow the film to end on this note. Instead, the film ends with the words of Milk himself, as spoken by Penn, allowing Van Sant's effort to end on a note of optimism (one which is made automatically more ambivalent given the film's release at a time when civil rights have been revoked from gays in California during the most recent election). Certain images - such as the film's opening montage of photographs of gays and lesbians holding their hands in front of their face in order not to be photographed - suggests that the histories of these individuals have not yet been told through images, but rather policed through them. This is one of the reasons why Van Sant's carefully crafted biopic feels so revelatory and liberating; it invests a traditional form (the political biopic, let's call it) with emotional and thematic significance it has not historically been given (enhanced further by the fact that Milk's own account of the events depicted serves as the film's structural lynchpin). Further, Van Sant delights in showing us how Milk's followers use images to advance their own agenda (as with My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant is as intereted in photography as he is in cinema). This is in contrast to the superficially playful Australia, which insists on the ability of different peoples to use culture to their advantage within a film stodgily replicating a tired, traditional form of mainstream culture.

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