Why 'taking yourself seriously' is such a crime

Date

Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

"In art, we like Baz Luhrmann to be ironically winking at us from the camera."

"In art, we like Baz Luhrmann to be ironically winking at us from the camera." Photo: Edwina Pickles

COMMENT

You can’t be serious! Don’t take yourself too seriously. She’s nice, but quite…well, serious.

Seriously?

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.

 

16 comments

  • Nice article. We lived overseas for around 8 years and when removed from your own culture you get a good perspective on the good and bad things about Australian culture and some of the things you mentioned ring true yet in many ways it is what makes Australian's who they are. Ideally of course you need to find the right balance but you hit the nail on the head when you said "There is nothing worse than the smug and the certain." Unfortunately in my experience the smug and certain are also often the ones who take themselves too seriously !

    Commenter
    Paul
    Date and time
    February 06, 2014, 12:04PM
    • Thank you, thank you, thank you !
      Since you are talking about Europeans, they also have statues and monuments to philosophers, writers, composers, playwrights, sculptors... here we have the Great Babana, the Giant Koala and the Big Prawn... says something doesn't.
      Australia is a really nice place to live and raise a family, although it is too isolated. Or maybe it is that isolation that makes it a good place. As a result it seems that any intellectual quest is perceived as treachery... place is so good that only the status quo will do. Except that a lot has changed in the past 30 years and we desperately need to debate at length about future directions.

      Commenter
      John
      Date and time
      February 06, 2014, 12:07PM
      • Redfern Now was amazing and definitely a serious TV show, especially the second series, dealt with some very serious and at times confronting themes - while not everything has to be so serious we could definitely do with a few more series of this nature.

        Commenter
        SMW
        Date and time
        February 06, 2014, 12:24PM
        • "....an excellent way of closing down criticism"
          is TOLERANCE the main subject in our education system.

          What is exactly the true meaning of that wonderful word we hear every day that only the elite understand and use it with charm and panache to suit their agenda.

          disinclined to interfere with other's ways or opinions....

          Politically, telling someone that they’re being too serious is an excellent way of closing down criticism.

          Commenter
          half
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          February 06, 2014, 12:40PM
          • Yes, and linked to the tall poppy syndrome.
            It makes ignorance endemic.

            Commenter
            Tall Poppy
            Location
            Australia
            Date and time
            February 06, 2014, 3:32PM
        • And here I was thinking we take everything far too seriously in these days of PC Fundamentalism, where the most innocent comment, opinion or joke has everyone at the table or online spitting equality, identity politics and glaring "How dare you say that about people who lived 2400 years ago?" when discussing the origins of ethics, religion, history and democracy in Ancient Greece.

          The Greeks, the founders of Western thought, also had a thing of Tragedy and Comedy as being equally important forms of expressing the human - something that carried through to Shakespeare and beyond.

          We cannot make things such as Breaking Bad (Wentworth and Underbelly perhaps?) - but we cannot even allow a comedian of the standing of Ben Elton to be on air more than 3 shows without the PC brigades banning it.

          Both Tragedy and Comedy are verbotten in a culture where any opinion can offend someone and therefore cannot be aired. Only light fluff and inoffensive piffle is allowed today.

          Ask the lawyers.

          Commenter
          Brendan
          Date and time
          February 06, 2014, 12:50PM
          • You expect seriousness from a nation that is so infantile it refers to breakfast as brekkie?

            Commenter
            lacebug
            Location
            annandale
            Date and time
            February 06, 2014, 1:09PM
            • I think the major obstacle to pursuing the serious in Australian culture is that this country's national psyche, whether real or perceived, is one of optimism. To reflect; or challenge is to be a whinger or a wowser. Maybe it is the brutality and harshness of the early colony's existence that made people only focus on the light-hearted; or the droves of immigrants fleeing a depressed Europe after World War Two that had no appetite for seriousness. That being said, the US and Canada have similar stories to ours but can deal with the serious.

              The other issue I think is how 'the serious' is addressed in this country. Often it is done in a patronising tone that puts people off from the start. If you look at countries such as France and Russia their artists and writers have a great affection for their people, and even when being critical of their people they reflect this affection. In Australia I don't think there is that affection. Artists and the cultural community see the Australian people in general terms as ignorant, bogans and slobs. The Australian people see our arts and cultural community as inner-urban, detached and elitist. Until you bridge this gap of stereo-type, I don't think that much will change.

              Commenter
              Alan G
              Location
              Riverina
              Date and time
              February 06, 2014, 1:22PM
              • Perhaps by not taking ourselves, or what we do, seriously (or pretending not to) we are defending ourselves against criticism of our abilities or our efforts. The aggressive flip side to a dislike of others "being serious" is the excuse that they are "just joking" when people are offended by their hurtful or insulting comments.

                Commenter
                Theodora
                Date and time
                February 06, 2014, 1:47PM
                • Seriously? Opinion masquerading as fact, much? The author, firstly, only deals with populist film and television in her critique. What about literature? Contemporary art? Poetry? Are we too serious about these art forms? And I strongly disagree with her on many points. "The Great Beauty" is not a great film, it is a tedious piece of drivel which owes a great deal to Fellini (what, she did't mention Fellini?). I also heartily disagree that we make bad television in this country. I suggest young Alicia check out the multi-award winning "East West 101" and maybe revisit "The Slap" and "Redfern Now" while she's at it. In fact, why not go all the way back to the groundbreaking "Number 96" ...

                  Commenter
                  Pamplemousse
                  Date and time
                  February 06, 2014, 3:08PM

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