Why did influential film writer Pauline Kael, an outspoken critic of Australian film’s lack of identity, cruelly overlook one of the best examples of its cinema renaissance in the 1970s? Mark Fraser details the virtues of vulgar comedy Barry McKenzie Holds His Own…
While historical costume dramas dominated Australia’s cinematic landscape throughout the 1970s, a contemporary comedy made in 1974 managed to say more about the state of the country’s psyche than many of these sometimes ponderous retrospective works put together. Warning: this review is full of spoilers.
Sometime around 1982, the late American movie critic Pauline Kael hit the nail on the head when she said watching many of the “well crafted” period pieces made during the first decade of the Australian film renaissance was akin to reading an old-fashioned novel.
In an interview with Sue Matthews published in the trade magazine Cinema Papers, Kael suggested there was “no essential excitement” found in these works. Furthermore, she opined, they seemed afraid to deal with “real conflicts”.
“When Australians take a novel, and just carefully and faithfully follow it, they are giving you a pre-digested experience,” she noted.
“They make no discoveries.
“Most of the serious films have been rather laborious, careful restagings of the past, and done very honourably. Certainly people learn a lot of skills when making those films.
“But after that, you are interested to know: what are they going to do with these skills?
“Can they use those skills on contemporary material?”
Although Kael made something of an exception for the efforts of Australian film maker Fred Schepisi – whose movies The Devil’s Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), she said, were full of “personal obsession” – her generosity did not extend to Bruce Beresford, the Sydney-born director who, like Schepisi, eventually went on to conquer Hollywood in his own right after churning out Oscar winners like Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
In the case of Beresford’s The Getting of Wisdom (1978), which was set in a Melbourne all girls school circa 1900 and based on a coming of age novel by Henry Handel Richardson, The New Yorker’s influential critic suggested sitting through it was tantamount to experiencing “a craftsman’s view of something that is already finished”. In essence, Kael said, his film lacked “a sense of personality”.
“Bruce Beresford is, for me, one of the most academic of directors,” she noted. “There is a certain gloomy, clumsy fidelity in his work. The sheer lack of imagination is perhaps his greatest weapon.”
While Kael had a point about the pre-digestive nature of Australian 1970s period pieces in general, her comments regarding Beresford were a little askew for two reasons.
Firstly, by the time she made this observation, the film maker had shown his affinity for cinema was well beyond academic after directing Breaker Morant (1980). At the time, this was easily one of the best Aussie movies ever produced. Based on a play by Kenneth Ross, it boasted a taut script, an evenly-paced and tightly constructed sense of narrative as well as some fine performances from leads Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown.
Secondly, Kael seemed to ignore the fact that Beresford had made two contemporary comedies before The Getting of Wisdom which not only savagely lampooned Australia’s national identity, but contained none of the gloomy (read stuffy) and clumsy fidelity she found so objectionable in his 1978 costume drama.
They were The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) and its lesser seen, but somewhat bolder and more ambitious 1974 sequel Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.
The former was produced by well-known Australian left leaning media commentator Philip Adams and based on a Private Eye comic strip about an “Aussie in Pommieland” by comedian/writer Barry Humphries and illustrator Nicholas Garland. Meanwhile, the latter was a somewhat opportunistic – albeit subversively clever – cash-in on its predecessor.
Although the first movie was better received and is now regarded (especially by Adams) as one of the seminal works of the Australian 1970s cinema renaissance, it’s arguable that Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is more impressive given the breadth of its parochially self-deprecating comic vision and the fact it provided some quite astute commentary on modern Australia’s need to establish its own cultural identity as well as its seemingly antagonistic relationship with mother England.
Additionally, through its sheer audacity and knockabout sense of humour, this sequel – which was written by both Humphries and Beresford – got away with being blatantly racist. A dubious achievement perhaps, but it did allow Barry McKenzie (Barry Crocker), the proverbial innocent abroad, to utter some of the film’s funniest lines. Its racism also highlighted the fact that White Australia was, back in the first half of the 1970s, enjoying an age of innocence – a time free of any post-colonial guilt.
If anything, all of this was not the product of an imagination that was lacking. Rather, it was the result of some fairly switched on thinking. With that in mind, perhaps Kael’s description of Beresford as academic should have been construed in a more positive light. Certainly by the early 1980s the director had shown he deserved some benefit of the doubt.
Fun and games
Barry McKenzie Holds His Own wears its satiric heart on its sleeve from its opening moments as Senator Douglas Manton (Humphries in one of four roles) – Australia’s Minister for Culture – proudly boasts of the 1970s cultural renaissance Down Under, where developments similar to those seen in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome were “sweeping the world at this present period of time”.
Perched on the edge of his ministerial office desk before a large, Warholesque wall print depicting a frothing can of Fosters Lager (a bloody horrible brew, by the way), Manton declares “the fillum (sic) you are about to see makes me proud to be an Australian”, following which comes a motion picture that – with its celebration of excessive beer consumption, boorish loutishness, crude sexism and vomiting (the infamous technicoloured yawn) – would make even the most hardened of Ockers cringe with some embarrassment.
Unlike The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which is like a strange and exaggerated comedy of manners, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is outwardly ridiculous, using a far-fetched storyline to make unashamedly vulgar and crass jokes about everything which isn’t Australian while, at the same time, consciously dragging its own sense of self-righteous morality through the mud.
Indeed, had this sequel been made today, it probably would have been vilified as xenophobic.
The action begins in earnest when, while travelling from Australia to France on FrogAir (on which the passengers are offered live frogs with their drinks as the boozy-looking French pilot and an air hostess have mid-flight sex in the cockpit), Barry’s auntie Edna Everage (Humphries again) is mistaken for Queen Elizabeth II by two Transylvanian dimwits (Louis Negan and Paul Humpoletz). After arriving in Paris, the idiotic duo kidnap her for their vampire boss, the stuttering Erich, Count Plasma (Donald Pleasance), who plans to use the “Royal” as a major Romanian tourist attraction.
With the help of the Australian Embassy in London, Barry and his Foster-drinking Ocker mates form a rag tag rescue team and fly to Transylvania, where they descend on Count Plasma’s castle as if gatecrashing a Saturday night party.
Using this rather fanciful narrative as a backdrop, Humphries and Beresford go about insulting just about everyone one in sight – including themselves – as they continually cross the boundaries of respectability while joyfully reinforcing a healthy number of negative cultural stereotypes. In essence, the pair attempt to insult just about everybody.
The racist jibes begin from the outset when Barry asks a FrogAir hostess for a can of Fosters, saying he’s so thirsty he could “drink out of a Japanese wrestler’s jockstrap”.
“Barry, don’t make such crude remarks about our dear little stunted, slant eyed yellow friends,” Edna cheerily retorts.
Later, as he is escaping from an English prison via a sewer, McKenzie remarks to himself that “it’s as dark as an Abo’s arsehole” (at this moment the film’s sporadic English subtitles push this point home by saying ‘Aborigine’) and “it smells like a lubra’s loincloth”. Admittedly Crocker’s delivery is laconically amusing, but there’s no way he could have gotten away with saying something like this in Australia circa 2015 without some kind of backlash.
Then, during the raid on Plasma’s castle, the rescue team comes across a “Chinese” cook (Meiji Suzuki), who proceeds to pummel the Aussies with his exaggerated kung fu skills after the group’s leader, Sir Alec Ferguson (Ed Devereaux), orders the Australian cultural attaché to Europe, Arthur “Four-eyes” Fenton (Michael Newman), to “tell that slant eyed bastard to piss off”.
This is followed by what is possibly the film’s most amusing non-racial slur, when Barry decides to tackle the cook head on: “Oh you rotten, mongrel, commo, poofter bastard,” he declares before spraying the man with shaken tins of Fosters.
Unsurprisingly, the movie’s targets aren’t just restricted to the French, Chinese, Japanese and Indigenous Australians.
As with its predecessor, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own is very, very anti-British, at one point claiming England to be the “arsehole of the world” (where dog faeces is scattered throughout the streets of central London) and, at another, accusing the English of being “the lowest form of humanity”.
They are also, according to McKenzie, a lazy lot.
“Work! The Brits couldn’t spell it,” he tells “Four-eyes” before embarking on an illegal boat trip back to the mother country to launch Edna’s rescue mission.
“Bloody pommies wouldn’t work in an iron lung.”
Religion also gets a bit of a serve, although (and no doubt the irony here was intentional) it ends up being the power of the Holy Spirit which ultimately helps Team Australia overcome the diabolical Count Plasma.
While some of the script’s harshest treatment is reserved for Barry’s twin brother, the Reverend Kevin McKenzie (again played by Crocker) – whose impervious, pious Anglican stoicism earns him the nickname of Prickface – it eventually vindicates him after he manages to save the day by cleverly constructing a crucifix out of empty Fosters beer cans during the Australians’ showdown with the Transylvanian vampire.
However, Kev the Rev’s belated moment of glory comes at a cost – aside from being mistakenly beaten up by the Transylvanian goons at a conference on Christ and the Orgasm in Paris (where he is scheduled to speak), he later catches his sexually frustrated wife Cherylene (Beatrice Aston) trying to seduce Barry in their hotel room while he is presumed missing in action. Obviously this uptight man of the cloth, author of “The Coming of Age on Kangaroo Island”, is not practicing what he preaches.
Although Australia is described as a place with “the biggest and best beaches, drive-in bottle shops, scenery, motels, marsupials, beer, table wines, high rise developments and sheilas”, it also – in Humphries’ and Beresford’s eyes at least – has “culture up to its arsehole”. Or, to phrase more mildly, the country enjoys too much culture.
From an historical point of view, this was thanks to the Australian renaissance which Manton waxed so lyrically about at the start of the movie, when generous financial subsidies were given to the country’s film industry by the federal and state governments – a development that eventually resulted in the plethora of dreary period pieces and costume dramas Kael found so stiflingly dull.
In its own cynical way Barry McKenzie Holds His Own ends up firing a few broadsides at this policy, suggesting the handing out of these enormous arts grants is/was perhaps being a bit too generous.
“An arty crafty bloke like you would be laughing back in Australia right now,” Barry tells his mate Col “the Frog” Lucas (Dick Bentley) in Paris early in the film.
“The government is shoveling out piles of bloody mullah to any bastard who reckons he can paint pictures, write poems or make fillums.
“Look at old Paddy (Australian writer-critic Clive James, who spends the entire movie opening spraying cans of Fosters and sucking down the remainder of their contents). He’s a film critic from Sydney – copped $20,000 just to come over here to go to the flicks.”
In hindsight, not only was this kind of bite-the-hand-that-feeds criticism foolhardily brave, but it also reeked of ingratitude given Humphries and Beresford would never have made the first Barry McKenzie installment without this form of financial assistance (the sequel was bankrolled by television studio Reg Grundy Productions, not a film council).
The pair even attack their own contribution to Australia’s culture industry when they have Count Plasma angrily browbeat the rescue team with a warning that the country had “countless dissidents and carpetless lap dogs who are already producing comic strips and films depicting Australia as a nation of crude insensitive beer swilling bores, coarse yokels and (unintelligible) hicks”.
All things considered, nothing could have been closer to the truth.
Towards the end of the Kael-Matthews interview, the critic was asked why the US tended to export more films than it imported. In other words: why did Americans prefer to watch domestically-made movies over foreign ones?
“Maybe it is related to the fact that the greatness of American films is their crude vitality, and that Americans trained on that have a harder time adjusting to films from abroad which have a much slower rhythm and a different temperament,” the critic replied.
Given this, it’s difficult to understand how Kael’s judgment of Beresford back in 1982 turned out to be so wrong.
After all, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own should really have been right up her alley.
Aside from displaying crude vitality in spades (the film has not one, but two vomiting sequences; plus it introduces international audiences to a unique Australian vernacular in which the bathroom is known as the “throttling pit” and “rinsing the prince” means using the urinal), it moves at a brisk pace, maintains a reasonably pleasant jocularity and is structured a la the classic American film narrative model.
It also has a few musical numbers (including a great song called “Ratbags”, in which McKenzie decries Pakistani waiters and “poofter liberators” while filling in for Kev the Rev at the Christ and the Orgasm seminar), a pseudo horror subplot, a commando-like rescue mission as well as a climactic battle sequence that ends with explosions.
Yet for Kael, “the nearest to an American film I have ever seen from Australia was the little soft-core porno film Alvin Purple which is like a lot of cheap American exploration films”.
Obviously The New Yorker critic had somehow overlooked one of the most intriguing works of the Australian 1970s cinema renaissance.
Words by Mark Fraser
1. All direct quotes from the critic in the body of this article come from “Pauline Kael and the Australian Cinema”, which appeared in Cinema Papers circa October 1982 or 1983 (pages 421-425). The magazine was published by MTV Publishing Ltd in Melbourne.
2. In her review of Schepisi’s Iceman, Kael said the film started “with perhaps the greatest shot I have ever seen”, which gives one an indication of her regard for the director. Then, at the end of this April 1984 article, she added: “It (the movie) is full of passion and craft, along with parts that might be the work of a stumblebum. It’s thrilling.” High praise indeed!
3. While portrayed in the film as a rebellious anti-hero who eventually falls foul of Empire politics, the real Harry “Breaker” Morant – according to Craig Wilcox in Zombie Myths of Australian Military History (University of New South Wales Ltd, 2010, edited by Craig Stockings) – was, in a sense, an entirely fictional character (page 30); he was a crook and conman who lied about his family’s military background.
3. David Stratton, The Last New Wave, Angus and Robertson, 1980 (page 43).