"In art, we like Baz Luhrmann to be ironically winking at us from the camera." Photo: Edwina Pickles
You can’t be serious! Don’t take yourself too seriously. She’s nice, but quite…well, serious.
Seriously. There are few moods, few personality types, few modes of speech that Australians hate more than seriousness. We pride ourselves on never taking ourselves or anything to do with politics or culture too seriously. In art, we like Baz Luhrmann to be ironically winking at us from the camera, we conclude heart-felt discussions of philosophy with the conversational full stop of ‘look at us being wankers!’ and we forestall interesting questions of politics with facile apologies like ‘well, this is getting a bit depressing, isn’t it. ’
And while this may earn us a well-deserved international reputation as being friendly and open – we laugh easily and often – is it possible that this cultural tick is causing us to miss something? Are we - our art, our conversations, our society and our souls - diminished because of it?
I was reminded of this cultural habit last week whilst indulging in the feast of good cinema that is currently out there. I saw two films that made my soul soar: The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) and The Past (Le Passé). The former follows an Italian socialite through the giddy decadence of the Roman elite. It swoops dream-like into vignettes about a 103 year-old nun, an exploited child splatter-painter, an aging stripper and former royals (among many more) as director Paolo Sorrentino meditates with high seriousness on the nature of time, death and meaning. The Past explores the private hell inhabited by a migrant Parisian family as memories, resentments and betrayals simmer and burn over time. Nothing is resolved in The Past, nor is any existential question solved in The Great Beauty. Their brilliance lies in the fact that they ask questions, they delve with grand, serious ambition into the darkest recesses of humanity.
As I sat through these two films I found myself imagining directors Paolo Sorrentinoand Asghar Fahardi pitching their films to an Australian funding body.
Funding Body: ‘So, can you give us a rundown of the narrative structure?’
Sorrentino: ‘Well, it begins with the chaotic swill of an elite Roman party then goes to a Japanese tourist who faints and drops his camera because Rome is so breathtaking at dawn and then goes to a soon-to-be Pope who can’t stop talking about recipes and then to a conversation about failure and wasted lives and the inexorable pull of death and then….
Funding Body: ‘Right, um, are there any struggling families in it? Any house parties in Newtown or Brunswick? There must be a murder right? A mid-air Mac-truck explosion perhaps?
Fahardi: ‘Mine has a struggling family! It’s about morally ambiguous characters in a suffocating domestic atmosphere who all despise each other. Kind of like existential despair in real time.’
Put simply, it’s unlikely that these two great works of art would have received funding in Australia. In fact, I doubt that Sorrentini and Fahardi could have even conjured these visions in Australia. Somebody at some point in their lives would have told them to not take themselves too seriously. And so they might have gone on to work on the script of Packed to the Rafters instead.
Yes, there are Australian films that have broken free of the cultural straight-jacket of banal levity: Bad Boy Bubby, Romper Stomper, Animal Kingdom and Muriel’s Wedding are some notable exceptions. But they remain exceptions; lilies in a quagmire of forgettable cinema seen last year in films like Drift (the quest for two surfers to set up a surf store) 100 Bloody Acres (another yawning Australian gothic splatterfest) and The Great Gatsby (a boorish take on a work of delicate majesty). Television is obviously much worse. Australia has simply produced no equivalent to Breaking Bad, The West Wing, In the Thick of It, Girls, The L-Word, Orange is the New Black etc etc.
We lose so much in quarantining ourselves from the serious, and not just in art. Politically, telling someone that they’re being too serious is an excellent way of closing down criticism. It’s another variant of the execrable ‘calm down love’ usually said to those who express serious concerns about serious issues like sexual violence, racism or poverty. It’s a privileged directive from the powerful to the powerless, intended to maintain the status quo.
But it’s not just politics that suffers from our fear of the serious. It also does damage to our souls. I remember meeting a German friend in Berlin who gushed about his excellent weekend. ‘What did you do’, I asked, imagining hipster bars and sex parties. ‘Well, I wrote two very good stanzas of poetry’ he replied. In Russia people go so far as to murder over disagreements as to the superiority of poetry or prose. Of course, this may be going too far in the other direction but Australians seem to revel in conceptual vacuity and in so doing we suffer from a collective numbness of soul.
Australians give themselves a short adolescence where we can see the world as an extraordinary place, pregnant with meaning and potentially affected by our actions. And after this we grow up. We cringe at our former earnestness, we laugh at our heavy moralism and we proclaim our adult indifference to everything but rising interest rates.
My praise of the serious is not a praise of moral absolutes or puritanism. There is nothing worse than the smug and the certain. It’s simply that great art, literature, social movements and inspiring conversations begin not with smirking indifference but with profound, subversive seriousness.