Monday, November 24, 2003

David Williamson issues unwise ultimatum – “a US free trade agreement may silence Australian voices

Bring it on, says vast majority of Australian population – reasoning that if it forever shuts up the creator of "Dog's Head Bay", absolutely any price is worth paying.

Two things are not surprising about Williamson’s Op Ed harangue against the US FTA. One is that he omits his extensive TV credits-roll and filmography from his bio-blurb, which has him as a playwright only. The second is that he extensively quotes one of his fictional characters (again, from a play, Emerald City) in his case for the defence of Oz Kulcha.

Williamson’s shyness about his three decades in the screen industries may, I suspect, have something to do with the alarming number of turkeys among them. Of the minority which are not outright cringeworthy, most were made a long time ago and are set in an even longer time ago. The 60s seem to be the decade in which his creative imagination peaked – and then abruptly stopped everafter – the 60s being when The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Don's Party (1976) are set. While Gallipoli (1981) is of course irrefutably set in historical 1915, there is a fair sense of Williamson’s 60s swagger (or pulse – take your pick) within it. And then there is The Club (1980), his first (and last successful) attempt at trawling the contemporary zeitgeist. That The Club worked so well, in spite of its Dealing With An Issue (the curse of Williamson’s output just about ever since), can be attributed, ironically enough, to its cultural universality – or suitability as Officially-Sanctioned light entertainment for the middle-classes of a hybrid Stalinist-capitalist economy* (again, take your pick).

As to the arguments actually mounted by Williamson – confusingly mostly, but not only, through his screenwriter character “Colin” – this little nugget sums it up (I’m not sure if it matters, but these actual words come from Williamson (the "Dog's Head Bay" one), and not “Colin”:

[If the FTA goes through] our deep nature will eventually change. Personally I'd regret losing such things as the sardonic scepticism that fuels so much of our humour, but in another generation or two it could conceivably have totally disappeared.

No!! Whatever Williamson may mean by “sardonic scepticism” (presumably it was the “fuel” he drank while writing "Dog's Head Bay") I can reassure him that even if every single Oz screenwriter was to forever put away their pens tomorrow, Williamson’s oeuvre would still be around for much more than another generation or two.

Crap cultural output has the same half-life as plutonium waste. Whatever the mysterious essence may be that fuels “our” humour, I say “leave it in the ground”.

Otherwise, to be briefly constructive about Oz screen culture, I think that Guy Rundle is on the right track here. What Guy is far too polite (or self-preserving) to say out loud, but is nonetheless clearly present, is that some generational change in the funded culture industries is screamingly overdue.

Finally, I should point out "Dog's Head Bay" mediocrity is ubiquitous; indeed, so widespread as to be often near-invisible. When the crappy Japanese Story won (as I had feared) umpteen AFI awards the other night, the screenwriter, in her acceptance speech, noted how good it was to have the story of a “gutsy” Aussie woman on the big screen. If this is a criterion for getting film-funding (and I suspect that unofficially it is), then Williamson’s curse, a.k.a. Dealing With An Issue, would seem to have fatally polluted the entire arts-funding ecosystem.

BTW, I don’t agree with the Right’s assumption that national-protectionist funded art always equals mediocre art. One only need look at the screen culture of Canada (a country even more susceptible to US cultural dominance than Australia), to see top-class product emerging. Here, I’m thinking particularly of the filmography of John Greyson and also of (the albeit still-developing) Atom Egoyan. In contrast, Australia doesn’t have a single auteur – just a cast and crew of National Jokes, of which David Williamson has been the number one draft pick every year since the early 80s.

P.S. As for the measly “extra 50 cents a week”, David – I think you’ll find that that would be the ABC’s budget. Or at least it was, back in the good old “Eight cents a day” days, when, as it happens, they were throwing away money on the likes of "Dog's Head Bay". Since you obviously must think that the ABC paid peanuts and got monkeys on that occasion, perhaps you could sling Aunty a refund cheque for the measly scale rates you were presumably paid at.

* Catherine Armitage "Power struggle in Beijing" The Australian 10 October 2003 (no URL), telling of an 18 month season of The Club in China, by the Beijing People’s Experimental Theatre, of which Williamson was unaware, and for which he received no royalties.

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