Monday, January 12, 2015

Tale as old as time

In 1992 I went to see Strictly Ballroom with an exchange student called Owen who lived on my hall. Owen had round, interrogative eyes, brown curls like wooden five-cent pieces cut close to his head and the kind of soft, mid-tenor New York accent that's almost a brogue. 

It was Baz Luhrmann's first feature. 

Afterwards Owen said, 'So what would you say was particularly Australian about that movie?'

In one way, I suppose, I was perfectly fitted to answer that question. My colonial life had been limned by the cultural products of other anglophones: TinyXtin's Sesame Street, The Famous Five,  dozens of the cheesy 50s musical films beloved by my mother, strange English-Hollywood mashups like Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden whose weird sensibility collisions I would only see many years later. Top Gun, Gremlins, Three Men and a Baby. 

But I didn't even know where to start. I had no idea how to convey the Australianness of Strictly Ballroom. There was nothing narratively distinctive about it. Ugly duckling, boy-meets-girl, Cinderella, follow-your-dreams. Nothing you wouldn't have seen in Disney. Dashing hero, corrupt big man of the town who'd have had a gold watch in his pocket in a western, the catty lady-competition, the henpecked husband. Even a Mystical Negro in the form of our heroine's Spanish father, the one who really knows how to dance, donchaknow, because immigrants have it in their hearts not their heads. They live in a little house by the train tracks. The literal wrong side. 

The accents, then? The sense of life in an Australian suburb? The colours, the makeup? The distinctively Australian interiors, corrugated iron roofs? The smell of hot weather on the pavement ...

Perhaps the shop. Her family lives out the back of their shop. Shops are only from the place the shop is. An Australian shop isn't like a bodega, or a village shop, or a shop from anywhere except there. A shop is where all the things are together. But it's not all the same things. It's the things the people there expect to find, tiny dry-good microcosms of shared understanding .

I held up my hands helplessly. Everything, I said. Everything about it. 

Australians tell the same stories as everyone else. Of course they do. 

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