Alvin Purple

Catherine Lumby,
Alvin Purple.
Australian Screen Classics series
Currency Press/AFC/NFSA, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-86819-844-6
Au$16.95 (pb)

Henry Reynolds,
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
Australian Screen Classics series
Currency Press/AFC/NFSA, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-86819-824-8

(Review copies supplied by Currency Press)

I vividly remember being told many years ago, by people who should know, that it was a waste of time researching the Australian film industry because it would never produce anything worth writing and reading about. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. So, I am delighted that we now have two series devoted to the evaluation or re-evaluation of individual Australian films. Brian McFarlane edits a series of articles for Metro, and Jane Mills edits the Australian Screen Classics for Currency Press et al. Both series simply take for granted that the chosen titles are worth the time and effort spent on them, and so far the two series complement each other beautifully.

Apart from both being published in the Australian Screen Classics series, and both living up to the editor’s claim that they will be ‘thoughtful, elegantly-written books’, the two small volumes discussed here have little in common.

Catherine Lumby, with her track record in writing about gender and censorship, was an ideal choice to discuss Alvin Purple (Australia 1973). This is a provocative book about an under-appreciated and provocative film.

Within social history, Lumby considers Alvin as part of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. There were so many ambiguities at this time. Some militant feminists allying themselves with conservative women against porn, other feminists insisting that women’s sexual freedom included the right to sell sex if they chose, and to be able to do so without fear of violent reprisals. Lumby sees Alvin as epitomising another of these ambiguities – women demanding sex on their own terms, and turning the male into an object of desire, but at the same time having their bodies depicted in traditionally voyeuristic terms. What, she asks, can this film tell us about the culture of masculinity in Australia in the early 1970s?
She contrasts Alvin with other more typical ‘ocker’ characters – such as Stork or Bazza McKenzie, whose sex-life is nearly all in their imagination. Alvin, however, has a very rich and real sex life, but he does not talk big about his exploits (in fact they disturb and exhaust him), and he does not seek out women in order to use them sexually (if anything, they seek him out and use him). There is nothing of the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ school here or of the ‘perpetually sexually rampant ‘ocker’ male.’ Graeme Blundell’s restrained playing of Alvin constructs him as passive: ‘He doesn’t swear, drink to excess or hang out with his mates talking about sex.’ (p. 27) So one of Lumby’s main theses is that to label the film ‘ocker’ is to fundamentally misunderstand both that term and the film.

At the same time, the explicit depiction of female nudity directs the audience towards an expectation of an ocker sensibility, and this is how most critics responded to the film at the time. It is this ambiguity that Lumby values most in the film, seeing it as leaving open possibilities within sexual representation that have been explored in television, but in few Australian cinema films since Alvin.

Though most of her discussion concerns these issues of sexual representation, she also positions the film within the history of film-making – within Tim Burstall’s oeuvre, and within the broader story of the funding and production of Australian films.

Henry Reynolds is, at first sight, a surprising choice for the Australian Screen Classics series – someone who has never specifically studied or written about film before. However, who would be better-equipped to write about The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Australia 1978) than someone who has spent his whole career as an historian researching relations between black and white Australians?

So Reynolds starts from his detailed knowledge of the story of Jimmy Governor, and examines carefully how this story was altered in the move first to the fictional Jimmie Blacksmith in Thomas Keneally’s novel, then to Fred Schepisi’s telling of Keneally’s story on film. He locates the source of Governor’s violence in class rather than race – Governor desiring to make a mark in the world by becoming a bushranger, so the violence is atavistic rather than vengeful. Blacksmith, on the other hand, is presented as enduring racial slurs and discrimination, till violence is the only possible outlet for his hurt and frustration.

A further significant change is to omit almost entirely the huge public response to Governor’s killing spree – whole towns withdrawing into their homes in fear, and a vast police operation directed at capturing Jimmy and Joe Governor. Jimmy’s total lack of remorse, in fact his pride in his bush skills which enabled him to elude the police for so long, is also omitted. There are other modifications to supporting characters and events in line with these major differences.

The film was acclaimed at the time of its production as potentially the ‘great Australian film’ that everyone had been hoping for. Instead, its Box Office results did not return its production cost, and Schepisi was bitterly disappointed. However, this too Reynolds accounts for by the changes made to the historical story. Several times, Schepisi was quoted as saying that he wanted to construct a new hero for the times – but he chose for a protagonist a mass murderer and rapist, who had attacked women and children (including a baby), rather than directing his revenge at those who had actively discriminated against him. Audiences just didn’t see the degree and style of this violence as justified, and they also found the depiction of the massacre itself too difficult to take, despite Schepisi’s stylistic precautions aimed at mitigating the immediate effect. Reynolds suggests that a more acceptable protagonist might have been Jandamurra – the West Australian leader of a rising, who freed aboriginal prisoners from police shackles, and kept the police at bay for nearly a year. He is much more in line with traditional ideas of a ‘hero’.

But this was not possible as Schepisi was committed to a faithful rendering of his friend Keneally’s novel. So Reynolds’ argument is to compare real, historical events to both the novel and the film. He is well aware that novels and films should be judged on their own terms, but he justifies his approach by the claims both Schepisi and Keneally made to an authenticity that neither achieved.

Both these books are small but their argument is not slight: both authors take issue with claims and counter-claims made about the films, and are not averse to taking a strong position themselves. They are excellent examples of this kind of polemical writing, and I look forward to the next in this series.

Ina Bertrand,

Created on: Friday, 24 July 2009

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →