Celebrated cult classic cinema is not something we often associate with contemporary Australia.
However, from the early 1970s to mid-1980s, Australia was home to an innovative and colourful film industry. This was- in large part- due to the newly elected Whitlam government who established a number of funding bodies to revive the national film industry after 23 years of conservative rule that had largely ignored Australia’s arts sector.
The film revival, now frequently referred to as the Australian New Wave, saw the production of both acclaimed period pieces and creative genre films, helmed by talented young directors such as Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, and Phillip Noyce. Several films from the Australian New Wave have rightly become genuine classics of world cinema, including Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and George Miller’s Mad Max. However, there remains a large output of forgotten and overlooked films that never quite achieved cult classic status, but are worthy of renewed attention and reappraisal. At the very least, they may challenge your internalised fear of the Australian cultural cringe.
The Odd Angry Shot: Tom Jeffrey (1979)
Australian Vietnam War films are a rare breed, and Australian war comedies especially so. For these reasons, The Odd Angry Shot differentiates itself from the so-called “ocker comedies” that were frequently associated with 70s Australian cinema. Indeed, it could best be described as the Australian M.A.S.H. The focus of the film is almost exclusively on the day-to-day humdrum of the soldiers’ lives, and action scenes are few and far between; hence the title of the film. So much so, the film could almost be set anywhere, it just happens to be the Vietnam War.
For these reasons, you might expect the politics of The Odd Angry Shot to have aged poorly, given the justified unpopularity of the war. However, it is not completely apolitical and does include some perceptive and even heartfelt commentary on the unequal class politics of warfare. The film is well directed and extremely well acted; with legends of the Australian screen Graham Kennedy and Bryan Brown in starring roles. The soundtrack is a little cheesy at times, but many of the jokes still land. A worthy contribution to the war comedy genre.
Long Weekend: Colin Eggleston (1978)
Long Weekend is Australian eco-horror at its finest, centred around a suburban couple whose marriage is clearly on the brink. The couple decide to go camping for the weekend at a secluded beach, but things quickly go south (in more ways than one). Like most eco-horror, Long Weekend is commenting on nature’s retribution for decades of damage and exploitation, themes which have only become more prescient since its release.
In Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg used Adam and Eve imagery to present the Australian natural environment as a prelapsarian paradise with morally redemptive powers. Long Weekend also makes use of Adam and Eve imagery, although this time the focus is on sin, both for desecrating the environment and as commentary on the “original sin” of white settlement in Australia. Vincent Monton’s cinematography works perfectly to create a simmering sense of unease that our leading couple are always being watched, although it is not clear by who (or by what). This is complimented perfectly by the impeccable score, sound design, and pacing. It would not be unreasonable to describe Long Weekend as a film that people who don’t ordinarily like Australian cinema would enjoy.
The Cars That Ate Paris: Peter Weir (1974)
Before Mad Max, there was the B-grade brilliance of The Cars That Ate Paris. This debut film by Peter Weir is certainly flawed, and there a few “first filmish” lapses. What it lacks in polish and budget, it more than makes up for in originality. The Cars That Ate Paris follows an unemployed drifter who after a car accident, finds himself stranded in the (fictional) rural town of Paris, Australia. Initially unbeknownst to the drifter, the rural town orchestrate car accidents, rob their victims, and carry out sinister medical experiments on the survivors. The Cars That Ate Paris brings to mind Mad Max, The Wicker Man, J.G Ballard, Australian gothic, and the “spaghetti western” to produce one of the more unhinged but memorable and enjoyable films of the Australian New Wave.
It must be mentioned, Weir is not being “weird” simply for the sake of it, but uses this eccentric premise to satirise many of Australia’s outdated nation-building myths. Stanley Kubrick himself has cited it as one of his favourite films, but whether that is a selling point or a scathing indictment is for you to decide.
Newsfront: Phillip Noyce (1978)
This is David Stratton’s favourite Australian film, and deservedly so. Set between 1948-1956, Newsfront follows an intrepid group of cinematographers and reporters in its celebration of the newsreel footage of yesteryear. Like many films of the Australian film revival, Newsfront revisits Australia’s post-war history, critiquing the conservatism of the Menzies era with its clearly pro-Labor perspective. The film also contains an astute metacommentary on the Australian media industry itself, both the difficulties in its financing and production, and the looming threat of being completely overtaken by American media products.
Newsfront surely features one of the most memorable ensemble casts in Australian film history, including Bill Hunter, Wendy Hughes, and Bryan Brown. However, accolades have to go to Phillip Noyce, whose wonderful direction and attention to detail create a compelling and humanistic piece of social and cultural history. This is essential viewing for anybody looking to delve into the highlights of Australian cinema.
Originally a made for television film, Peter Weir has stated that he largely wrote The Plumber upon finding himself in a period with little work. Despite the obvious production and financial constraints- or perhaps because of them- The Plumber’s tightly written script provides us with the best black comedy of the Australian film renaissance. The premise of the film is simple enough, a plumber arrives at a young woman’s house (an anthropology graduate student married to a professor) and insists her pipes need fixing, only to become increasingly more overbearing and unhinged as the film develops. This provides the basis for the darkly comedic moments of the film, but also its shrewd social commentary.
Weir cultivates a reading of the encounter between the plumber and the student on multiple levels. There is a gendered struggle between an imposing man and a timid woman, but there is also a class struggle between the working class and the white liberal intellectual. It explores the interplay of these dynamics without being reductionist or patronising. Aided by pitch perfect performances from Judy Morris and Ivar Kants, The Plumber is another testament to the versatility of Peter Weir, one of the most talented directors Australia has ever produced.