Weirdness is one of the most distinctive features of Aussie cinema. From Jim Sharman’s kooky debut feature Shirley Thompson Versus The Aliens (1972) to the sublime spookiness of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), from Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989) to 1990s crowdpleasers like Muriel’s Wedding (1994), our films have often marched to a defiantly offbeat drum.
But recently, our cinema has lost its unabashed eccentricity. In its place is a dreary aesthetic, as film-maker Paul Fenech describes it – perhaps the result of too many directors trying to make statement movies.
When they aren’t being bleak, Australian films often exhibit what director Bruce LaBruce calls “bad straight camp”: the sort of forced exuberance seen in Tropfest shorts or many of our feature-length comedies.
Partly as a result, Australian cinema has experienced one of its worst box office performances in over three decades. Recently, there’s been lots of debate about how to overcome this dire situation – even a plea from Margaret Pomeranz to introduce a form of cinematic protectionism, whereby our critics refrain from “recklessly” pointing out the major flaws in our movies. Others say the problem isn’t as bad as it seems.
Meanwhile, however, Aussie screen storytelling is healthier than ever on online platforms like YouTube and Facebook, where it’s gaining huge domestic and international audiences. And while the video quality might be low, and the stars didn’t go to NIDA, these works are often more creatively daring and engaging than conventional cinema.
The volume of digital media being produced is diverse and difficult to categorise (and – fair warning – some of it is definitely not safe for work).
There’s How To Basic, which is what an instructional video channel might look like if it was co-produced by Marcel Duchamp and David Cronenberg.
There’s Fadia Abboud’s web series I Luv U But, a bedroom farce about an Arab-Australian lesbian and a gay man living in a sham marriage.
Even weirder are transmedia projects which involve “content creators” – as they are somewhat unglamorously known – producing material on multiple platforms simultaneously. For example, the storyworld of the indomitable Cherylyn Barnes, who purports to be Jimmy Barnes’s cousin, has been painstakingly constructed across hundreds of YouTube videos, Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram photos.
And then there are the “microcelebrities” who also deploy content across multiple platforms, but whose creative product is themselves. The most notable of these is Gold Coast teenager Kurt Coleman (main image), whose Instagram and Facebook streams depict him posing for innumerable selfies, taunting his many haters, and holding forth on the perils of spray tan and the importance of self-love.
His wryly camp – or, perhaps, entirely serious – posts on life in the social media age attract more fans than many of our multi-million dollar, taxpayer-supported films.
Of course, this new type of storytelling differs in fundamental ways from cinema or TV. For a start, much of it closely resembles – or is indistinguishable from – the quotidian, autobiographical content that many of us produce every day on social media as part of constructing our online identities.
Another difference is that often this digital content doesn’t employ a conventional storytelling structure with a beginning, middle and end. New media theorist Lev Manovich has noted this tendency, suggesting that in the internet age, linear narratives are becoming less dominant. Rather, we choose from a diverse selection of videos on a YouTube channel arranged in no particular order, or else get our content delivered in a time-ordered stream on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Is this new kind of storytelling a good thing or a bad thing? Some worry that it represents a major dumbing down of our culture – not least because these new forms of expression are driven by a desire to get ahead in the fast-paced “attention economy” of the web, where our worth is determined by how many likes and shares we get.
Yet while it’s right to question how much the algorithms of tech companies like Google and Facebook are affecting our cultural output, this doesn’t seem like a good reason for dismissing that culture out of hand. Especially since social media is the main tool that young people have for commenting on the conditions of the social media ecosystems they live in.
Regardless, these works are continuing to build large audiences – and that hasn’t escaped the notice of the industry’s big institutional players. YouTube comedy troupe The Janoskians has signed to Sony, while ABC and SBS are embracing web comedy through schemes like Fresh Blood and Comedy Runway.
Screen Australia is starting to invest in multiplatform works, including the second season of I Luv U But, and has backed a scheme to support YouTube content creators in collaboration with Google.
It remains to be seen if Australian critics are prepared to accept digital content as a legitimate part of our nation’s screen culture, but I think there’s good reason to. Often it is noticeably more diverse – culturally, sexually and stylistically – than our cinema.
This could be where the uncanny tradition in Australian culture is finding a new home.