Aftershock and the Desert Landscape in Heaven's Burning, The Last Days of Chez Nous, Holy Smoke, Serenades, Yolngu Boy, The Missing
The impetus for this chapter comes out of a particular viewing experience which we are calling 'aftershock'.1 For us, this experience is associated with the unbearable weight of history embedded in the Australian landscape film of the 1990s. The landscape cinema of the 1970s established Australian film as an international genre. The 'AFC genre', as it was christened by Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, was defined by the period film which became the flagship of an inward and backward-looking national identity through quality films like Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1975), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979).2 However, after a decade of official support through the Australian Film Commission, the period film was repudiated as the nation's standard-bearer during the commercially oriented 1980s, particularly after the first two Mad Max films (George Miller, 1979, 1981) reclaimed the landscape for a contemporary, outward-looking cinema. The cinematic landscape has re-emerged as a more complex figure of national identity in the 1990s, after the High Court ended the nation's sustaining myth of terra nullius.
Writing about the landscape tradition in Australian feature films of the 1970s, Ross Gibson argues that 'the majority of Australian films have been about landscape'.3 They participate fully in the 200-year-old landscape tradition whereby non-Aboriginal Australia, 'underendowed' with myths of belonging, tried 'to promote a sense of the significance of European society in the antipodes'.4 Gibson emphasises a myth of belonging structured around an unknowable, untamable landscape, viewed as 'an awesome opponent' rather than 'a nurturing mother', a 'primitive ... storehouse of some g inexhaustible and ineffable Australianness'.5 Taking the Mad Max trilogy as js a turning point in the landscape tradition, Gibson argues that from the end " of the 1970s, as official Australian culture became more open to contamination by international popular culture, there was 'a conscious intent to revise
< the old myths' of a 'flawed but marvellous' society taking on the character 2 of a 'flawed but marvellous' continent. Gibson concludes by suggesting that, u given the rapid pace of economic and cultural internationalisation evident
< by the late 1980s, these well-established 'national myths are also altering'.6
< With hindsight, more than a decade after Gibson's essay was written, it £ is possible to argue that national events have been as significant as interna-
< tional contamination in the rewriting of national myths, and in the renewed force of the landscape tradition evident in the cycle of Indigenous-settler films released in 1999-2002. This extraordinary cycle includes nine feature films: Australian Rules (Paul Goldman, 2002), Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2002), Black and White (Craig Lahiff, 2003), The Missing (Manuela Alberti, 1999), One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2000), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), Serenades (Mojgan Khadem, 2001), The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002), and Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001).
For us, the landscape films of the 1990s provoke shocks of recognition of a continent which has been anything but the sublime void of European projections. Rather, there is now a popular awareness that the continent has been written over by Indigenous languages, songlines, dreaming stories and Law for 40 000 years or more. Since the Mabo decision at least, the image of the outback landscape in cinema provokes recognition of historical amnesia (rather than an unknowable, sublime, interior void) as the founding structure of settler Australia's myths of belonging.
In this chapter we are interested in how a familiar icon of Australian cinema, the landscape (in particular the desert landscape, the outback), is suddenly made strange (unbearable even) by a historic event and how this raises questions to do with historical amnesia, shock and memory in a national cinema. Although the image ofthe Australian red centre as a vast and empty space is ubiquitous in television and advertising, we will confine our argument to particular moments from seven feature films which, in different ways, are symptomatic of the fresh impact of a familiar icon occasioned by the Mabo decision. The persistent return ofthe landscape is evident in a range of contemporary Australian genre films, whether the period film, the road movie, the identity quest, or outback melodrama. Some of these films have had critical recognition. Most of them have been routinely produced and consumed within the protocols of what O'Regan calls 'a mundane national cinema' which has no expectation of dominating the box office in its own market.7
In order to sneak up on this post-Mabo experience of aftershock, we f want to place these films in relation to three critical categories which have r been important in making sense of the ad hoc diversity of Australian films.8 £
The first is the landscape tradition, closely associated with the AFC-funded k period film which, although less popular than the urban ocker films, defined n
Australian national cinema from the mid-1970s into the 1980s. The 1998 a
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