George Miller’s genial look at his country’s filmmaking is an entertaining assemblage of clips linked by observations that are less trenchant than the language in which they’re couched. This 16th and final seg in the British Film Institute-commissioned series “Century of Cinema” by international directors is a mid-range item, falling short of the series’ high points (like Sam Neill’s perceptive Kiwi entry) but avoiding the preciousness (Nelson Pereira dos Santos) and ultra-specific (Stanley Kwan) nature of others. “40,000 Years of Dreaming” would make a handy intro to any small-screen Aussie retro.
Speaking directly to the camera in front of a blue screen filled with various psychedelic images, and smiling like a benign wizard, Miller recaps his own small-town fascination with movies before launching into the intriguing hypothesis that Roo cinema is an extension of aboriginal storytelling allied to modern, imported technology. In one of many wonderfully honed soundbites, Miller notes that “our movies are the song lines of whitefella’s Australia,” before launching into 11 titled segments that gather together clips from almost 70 movies.
The segs cover most aspects of the Australian experience, from the landscape and the pioneer spirit (“The Song of the Land,” “The Bush Man”) through the country’s unique social blend (“Convicts,” “Pommy Bashing,” “The Wogs,” “Black Fellas”) to traditional Aussie types (“The Digger,” “Mates & Larrikins,” “The Sheilas”) and more recent emergent themes (“Urban Subversion,” “Gays”).
The kaleidoscope that’s built up gives a good picture of Down Under’s identity, including the unique sense of ironic, self-deprecating humor, anti-authoritarianism and (until fairly recently) male-dominated culture and an almost innocent view of the world. Feminism (first apparent in “My Brilliant Career,” 1975), the Vietnam experience (reflected in “Gallipoli,” 1981), racial tensions and political correctness have all, opines Miller, made Aussie cinema grow up and join the outside world, resulting in a new brand of darker, quirkier pics like “Bad Boy Bubby,” “Sweetie” and “Romper Stomper.” Putting a determinedly positive spin on this, Miller ends by noting that “it’s a sign of our maturity that we’ve begun to dream the toxic dream.”
That’s as may be, but, fascinating though the mountain of clips is, Miller basically fails to develop his opening idea in any meaningful way, beyond linking his own movies (specifically the “Mad Max” series) to the aboriginal tradition of songs, visual imagery, myth and dreaming. The succession of segments could have been put together by any reasonably well-versed scholar of Aussie cinema.
Still, Miller’s beautifully modulated commentary makes a seductive accompaniment. “The pepper that gives bite to Australian humor is irony,” he observes of “‘Crocodile’ Dundee.” The convicts, killers and inhuman British jailers who formed the first wave of immigrants were “the gene pool that gave rise to the nation.” And, in summation, “These are the hymns that sing of Australia.”
Clips are well chosen and captioned throughout, though generally brief and rarely in their correct aspect ratio. Color at the London fest’s video projection was gaudy.