They’re a Weird Mob

This essay is forthcoming in a special volume on film and the city, published by Datutop: Journal of Architectural Theory and reprinted here with the kind permission of the editors.

This essay returns to a landmark British-Australian co-production in order to think about how cinema might be involved in the way we remember a city, in this case the antipodal, Alice-in-Wonderland city of Sydney. Much of this interest is prompted by the ongoing popularity and influence of They’re a Weird Mob (Michael Powell, 1966). As Jeanette Hoorn argues, Weird Mob

produced a satirical analysis of Australian culture that was widely recognized as accurate, laying the basis for the emergence of a particular style of popular culture and humour in Australia that extended far beyond the Australian New Wave cinema that it clearly influenced. (1)

Ten years earlier, Tom O’Regan cited Weird Mob as an exemplary instance of an Australian cinema of “ugliness and ordinariness”, an “unflattering” national cinema, but one that is “peculiarly able to air its society’s dirty linen” (2). Rolando Caputo and Adrian Danks share Hoorn’s interest in how Powell’s fish-out-of-water film deals with the conflict between monocultural assimilation and multicultural difference:

The “weird mob” of the film’s title refers not to the migrant but to the very strangeness of Australian culture as perceived via the gaze of a foreigner. (3)

While Weird Mob does indeed cast a stranger’s eye over some unflattering aspects of Australian culture, my concern here is with the way a stranger’s eye is cast over the city of Sydney.

In a departure from the critical tendency to equate Sydney with Australia, Caputo and Danks point out that Weird Mob’s Sydney setting is sometimes treated as local while at other times “specific aspects of local life are conflated with the national”. In particular, they cite Sylvia Lawson’s September 1966 review of the film in Nation, where she laments, “Sydney is there, and that’s all; a place rather tiredly glanced at and never really seen” even though it “does give a frustrating glimpse of […] how it might be to have your city given back to you on the screen” (4). Four decades later, Hoorn takes a more positive view. She points out that Powell’s “visual dimension […] took advantage of the natural beauty of the city”, transforming Sydney into “a smarter, more complex and stylish place than it is in the book” (5).

In this essay, I am interested in returning to Lawson’s question of “how it might be to have your city given back to you on the screen”. However, rather than delve into the 1960s archives, as others have so usefully done, my aim is to reverse Powell’s antipodal vision of Sydney by drawing on a number of texts written long before or long after the release of They’re a Weird Mob. This retrospective mode enables me to reprise – and perhaps retract – images and memories of the hedonistic modernity of Sydney, encountered but not “really seen” in Powell’s film. (6)

“the darling of Sydney and the wonder of the world …”

When Mark Twain arrived in Sydney in 1895 (a century or so after the First Fleet of British soldiers, settlers and convicts sailed into Sydney Cove in January 1788), he made note of the pride and enthusiasm that inspired at least one of its 400,000 citizens to “eloquent words” about the Harbour city:

15 September 1895 – We entered and cast anchor, and in the morning went oh-ing and ah-ing in admiration up through the crooks and turns of the spacious and beautiful harbour – a harbour which is the darling of Sydney and the wonder of the world. […] A returning citizen asked me what I thought of it, and I testified with a cordiality which I judged would be up to the market rate. I said it was beautiful – superbly beautiful. Then by a natural impulse I gave God the praise. […] He said:

“It is beautiful, of course it’s beautiful – the harbour; but that isn’t all of it, it’s only half of it; Sydney’s the other half, and it takes both of them to ring the supremacy-bell. God made the harbour and that’s all right; but Satan made Sydney.”

Of course I made an apology […] He was right about Sydney being half of it. It would be beautiful without Sydney, but not above half as beautiful as it is now, with Sydney added. (7)

click to buy “The Birth of Sydney” at Amazon.comAnother century later, in his introduction to The Birth of Sydney, Tim Flannery addresses the origin of Sydney as Sin City, opening his account of the First Settlement with a sanguine description of the colony’s first recorded orgy of 6 February 1788, just ten days after the convict ships dropped anchor. The new settlement was described by “the prudish Lieutenant Ralph Clark” (8) as “Sodom for there is more sin committed in it, than in any other part of the world” (9). A century after Twain relished his introduction to Satan’s city by one of its eloquent citizens, Flannery displayed a similar eloquence and enthusiasm in his description of the settlement’s first punitive parade of sexual miscreants as the “prototype for Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras” (10). The parade involved “hungover convicts, scurvy-plagued sailors and red-coated marines” and it featured a “disgraced carpenter” trailed by a “cabin boy, arraigned in petticoats and heartily jeered by the crowd” (11). In Flannery’s view, the founding of Sydney in such events “was a salty, saucy and insolent affair full of irony, colour and sex” (12). He concludes that “the unbuttoned nature of the town, which remains characteristic, was stamped indelibly on it from the first” (13).

To what extent has “the unbuttoned nature of the town” been evident in Australian cinema? How has cinema, whose beginnings in Australia coincided with the year of Twain’s visit, taken up his tongue-in-cheek image of Sydney as a sublime collusion between god’s natural wonders and the devilish hand of Satan? Part of the answer lies in how cinema has routinely exploited the exteriority of Sin City, its Harbour and beaches but also it modern urban landscape, described by Twain as “masses of masonry […] and other architectural dignities and grandeurs” (14). And part of the answer lies in the extent to which filmmakers have been seduced by the idea that a collusion between god and the devil, nature and culture, has shaped the exteriority not only of the city but also of its enthusiastic, eloquent citizens.

Sydney hedonism and Australian type

By the 1960s, the decade that witnessed a resurgence of cultural nationalism to match that of the 1890s, the Australian feature film industry had been in abeyance for 25 years. Therefore it’s unsurprising that the making of They’re a Weird Mob attracted advance publicity in the form of a television documentary whose specific aim was to create a desire in the Australian television audience for an authentic film about the city of Sydney. (15) More surprising for critics was the film’s enormous popularity at the box office, given the anachronism of its cast of comic characters who owe more to 19th century ‘national types’ than to the emergence of multicultural, urban Australia as a result of post-war immigration. The Social Darwinist idea of a national type developed throughout the 19th century until a

substantial agreement [was reached] on a particular group of characteristics: independence, manliness, a fondness for sport, egalitarianism, a dislike of mental effort, self-confidence, a certain disrespect for authority. (16)

This ‘Australian type’ dominated the bush poems, stories and ballads of Sydney’s bohemian writers in the late 1800s, and returned to prominence in the popular and critically successful Australian films of the interwar period, from The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919) to Dad and Dave Come to Town (Ken G. Hall, 1938). Weird Mob is a male-ensemble film in this interwar tradition. The film’s episodic plot structure, fish-out-of water comedy and use of the idioms of mateship appear to have more in common with the backblocks farce of On Our Selection (Raymond Longford, 1920) than with Sydney’s 1960s urban culture. Yet the film transports its blokes seamlessly from the bush to the suburbs – “You’re a bloke, I’m a bloke, we’re all blokes here”, Nino Culotta (Walter Chiari) learns during his first beer in Sydney’s famous Marble Bar – as if 20th century modernity has made no real difference to the 19th century bush legend and its male archetypes. (17) To understand what has been obliterated in this seamless move, it might be useful to consider how Sydney’s longstanding hedonism accommodates the ‘national type’ that has proved so resilient in Australian cinema.

Sydney’s reputation for hedonism, and the extension of this hedonism to the nation as a whole, is often taken for granted in the writings of a range of professional commentators engaged with the problem of defining ‘the Australian character’ as it appears in the eyes of its own citizens, and in the eyes of strangers arriving on these shores for the first time. Melbourne-based historian Joy Damousi, in an article about the influence of psychoanalysis on the entrenched national habit of “unreflective exteriority”, begins with a standard account of ‘Australian types’ derived from 1890s radical cultural nationalism which prevailed at the time of Twain’s visit:

These Australian men [the male pioneer and the bushman] embodied the qualities of stoicism, independence, honesty and wholesomeness. In such stereotypes intimacy was presented as a strain. With the onset of World War I, these qualities were translated into the heroic, mythologised image of the Australian ‘digger’. Later the Anzac gave way to the male surfer as the national icon, which became synonymous with unreflective hedonism. (18)

Damousi takes issue with these unreflective national types, and with those historians who are still “presenting Australian culture as lived on the surface with little reflection on inner life” (19). As an antidote to the representation of Australian masculinity as exteriority, Damousi examines four recorded instances of how Freudian ideas of interiority were taken up in Australia in the 1920s and 1930s by a left-wing priest, a medical doctor, a feminist eugenicist and a male analysand. For Damousi, these historical figures indicate a reflective capacity in the national character that has had little recognition in popular culture. Although there have, of course, been instances of exploring masculine interiority in Australian art cinema, these films have never competed with popular versions of the laconic, wholesome male. Comedy has been especially important in producing a knowing, affectionate, ironic response to this perennial type, from the larrikin classic, The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919), to the ocker blockbuster, Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986). (20)

“It’s a man’s country, sweetheart”: interwar modernism and the Bridge

The abiding issue of life lived on the surface in a man’s country brings me to the question of how Weird Mob registers Sydney’s founding ethos of “unreflective hedonism”. To what extent do Powell’s sweeping images of the city – its Harbour, its inner city, its suburbs and its most famous beach – together with his use of Australian types, from the digger to the Bondi lifesaver, celebrate a hedonistic resistance to interiority? One way into this question is to begin with the aerial shots of the Harbour and its “architectural dignities” in Powell’s landmark film. The Harbour’s twin architectural icons, the Sydney Harbour Bridge (opened in 1932) and the Sydney Opera House (opened in 1973), now function as the cinematic (or exterior) face of modern, suburban Australia. This naturalised link between the Bridge, the Opera House and the nation is evident as recently as January 2005 in a tongue-in-cheek television advertising campaign (starring laconic Melbourne comedian Dave Hughes) for the Holden car, itself almost as iconic as the Hills Hoist and the lawnmower as artefacts of Australian suburban life. (21)

Although Weird Mob is set during the suburban-housing boom years of the 1960s, its characters are recognisable from films of the 1930s. While mostly concerned with the visionary pioneer, the stoic bushman or the spirited bush girl in a struggle against nature (mainly drought and bush fires), these films sometimes featured a trip to the city (usually Sydney), or a character returning from overseas, thus providing the opportunity for scenic shots of both the natural splendour of Sydney Harbour and the modern, technological marvel of the new Bridge. These shots in films such as The Squatter’s Daughter (Ken G. Hall, 1933) provided a brief glimpse of a modern, urban Australia, only to be eclipsed by the predominant nation-building image of bush pioneers. (22)

The spectacular aerial shots of the Harbour and its famous Bridge in Weird Mob invite us to reconsider the film not only as a reminder of interwar nation-building films, but also as a partly-erased memory of interwar modernism in Sydney. The nation-building mode of Australian modernity has often been reduced in cinema to an opposition between the authenticity of the bush (and its hard-working primary producers) and the duplicity of the city (and its drinkers, gamblers and con-men), even in Longford’s outstanding urban larrikin film, The Sentimental Bloke. But the Harbour and its Bridge provided filmmakers with the option of representing Sydney, rather than the bush, as an emerging site of nation-building in the interwar decades. The civil and structural engineering feat of building the Sydney Harbour Bridge marked a shift from the pastoral to the modern economy in the 1920s, prefiguring post-war nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electricity scheme.

A bridge linking the north and south shores of Sydney Harbour was first seriously mooted in a call for tenders issued in 1900. But the 24 designs submitted were rejected and it took Australia’s most prominent civil engineer, J. J. C. Bradfield, 15 years to guide the project through an international competition which resulted in the selection of a design for an arch-bridge with granite pylons at each end. The most spectacular visual aspect of the bridge, as its construction proceeded from 1929-32, was that it was built from both ends with cables to support the expanding halves of the arch. This produced a legacy of modern images of Sydney featuring the two ends of the arch reaching out to meet each other. One of the most recognised images is Grace Cossington Smith’s modernist painting, The Bridge in Curve (c. 1930). Powell’s shots of the Bridge in Weird Mob (including the very last image of the arch of the Bridge and its water reflection turned upside down) have the capacity to prompt a memory of Cossington’s dynamic painting of the two ends of the incomplete arch. Early in Weird Mob, when Nino is escorted to a cab at Circular Quay by two laconic police officers, the shot is carefully composed so that the curve of the Bridge, in the background, provides a graphic counterpoint to Nino and his official escorts, framed by the rectangular planes of the Quay’s buildings in the foreground. The angle of the shot recalls Cossington Smith’s graphic image of the two ends of the bridge’s unfinished arch hovering in the background above and behind the rectangular planes of an inner-city house.

click to buy “Stravinsky’s Lunch” at Amazon.comAn account of Cossington Smith’s place in interwar modernism by Drusilla Modjeska in Stravinsky’s Lunch, a biography of the first generation of Australian modernists (who were predominantly women), stands as a useful corrective to the prevailing (if self-deprecatory) view in Weird Mob of Sydney itself, as “a man’s country, sweetheart”, even if, as the theme song says, being a man in Sydney in the 1960s comes down to building a backyard barbecue. Modjeska’s account of interwar modernism’s interest in exteriority suggests that life lived on the surface does not always equate with unreflective hedonism. Cossington Smith’s modernist paintings are a case in point. Her ambition was to paint what she saw on the surface, and her paintings record those surfaces available to her as a lifelong resident of Sydney’s northern suburb, Turramurra. Her work, and that of her peers, throws doubt on the equation of the modern self with interiority, a position adopted by commentators like Damousi in order to critique Australian hedonism. In Modjeska’s view, Cossington Smith belongs to the interwar generation of women artists, whose “fabrics and print and pottery […,] the modern art that was decorating Australia”, prepared suburban consumers in the interwar years for the arrival of European modernism. (23) However, memory of the women who produced this “vernacular modernism” for two decades was swiftly erased in 1939 when European modernism finally arrived in the form of a blockbuster exhibition in Sydney and Melbourne. Modjeska argues that the interwar modernist women who had prepared Australians for this exhibition were “leapfrogged over” by a younger generation of men who were too young, “on the whole, [to] understand the debt to the mother” (24). In a sense, Weird Mob performs a similar obliterating leapfrog over interwar modernism and women by reviving 1890s Australian masculine types to represent 1960s Sydney, opting for a suburban revival of the bush legend over the complications of post-colonial modernity. (25)

The film commits a similar act of obliteration through its representation of Sydney’s boisterous pub culture. As Hoorn points out, O’Grady’s novel was a libertarian text of its day. (26) However, Powell’s film glosses over the famously intellectual mode of hedonism associated with the Sydney Push and its “partygoing way of life”. Members of the Push rejected authoritarian society, patriotism, religion, censorship and careerism in favour of sexual freedom and “critical drinking” (27). Although the Sydney Push was an unstable constellation of bohemians, intellectuals and drinkers, it was loosely associated with the Libertarian Society formed in 1950 in a breakaway from the Freethought Society, itself founded in 1930 by John Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1927-58. Although Anderson, according to Coombs, condemned the Libertarians for their “undisciplined hedonism” and for “wasting their intellectual abilities, giving up on their careers, and spending too much time in the pub” (28), it was from the social swirl of the Push that many writers (Clive James and Frank Moorhouse), critics (Sylvia Lawson and Robert Hughes), feminist activists (Germaine Greer and Eva Cox) and filmmakers (Michael Thornhill and Margaret Fink) would emerge as part of a definitive shift in Australian cultural and political life in the 1960s.

Both aspects of Sydney’s modern modes of exteriority – a consumer taste for modernist “fabrics and prints and pottery” instigated by women artists in the interwar years; and a post-war libertarian pub culture happy to discuss Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich but opposed to “[i]ntimacy, parenthood, ambition” (29)– are lost to view in Weird Mob. By reprising the forgotten modernists of the 1920s and 1930s and the libertarians of the 1950s and 1960s, what I want to suggest is that the box-office success of Powell’s male-ensemble comedy in 1966 might be understood not only as a symptom of deep-seated cultural resistance to interiority, but also as a popular respite from grappling with Sydney’s emerging forms of modernity and hedonism. In this regard, it is not the Harbour Bridge which matters in the film’s final aerial shot, but the distant view of Jørn Utzon’s unfinished architectural masterwork, the Sydney Opera House, the ‘eighth wonder’ or ‘Taj Mahal’ emerging from the “masses of [colonial] masonry” stretching from Circular Quay to Bennelong Point. (30)

“masses of masonry”: the Opera House and Sydney real estate

The cosmopolitan character of post-war Sydney is embodied in Weird Mob by Nino Culotta, the urbane Italian journalist who arrives in Kings Cross to take up a post as sports editor for his cousin’s newspaper, La Seconda Madre. Nino’s image of Australia as a second mother, on the Italian Catholic model, rather than “a man’s country, sweetheart”, on the British colonial model, proves as ephemeral as his cousin’s newspaper. In the first half of the film, Nino is initiated into the ethos of blue-collar mateship by a chorus of working men who, in due course, recognise him as “orright” for an “I-tye”, “dago” or “New Australian”. In the second half of the film, Nino is initiated into the ethics of courtship on Bondi Beach, and, in the providential spirit of comedy, is duly rewarded with a stylishly modern wife, Kay Kelly (Clare Dunne), the uppity daughter of a self-made property developer (Chips Rafferty). As William Routt points out (31), this father-daughter couple has a long and distinctive history in Australian films, going back to the independent bush woman of interwar cinema whose marriage at the end of the film ensures the future of Australia as a British dominion, resolving the love-hate relation with the mother country. But with Britain’s entry into the Common Market in the 1960s, Nino’s marriage to Kay suggests a more cosmopolitan future, forged through cross-cultural alliances facilitated, in this case, by the Italian-ness of the Catholic pope. Importantly, the future of Kay and Nino in cosmopolitan Sydney is based on a shift in the national economy from pastoral industries to property development. The prospective marriage promises new opportunities based on Kay’s local real estate know-how and Nino’s European outlook, but Nino only becomes a true Sydneysider when he makes a shrewd purchase of a block of land with enviable Harbour views.

Although Nino’s Harbour purchase is linked to the city’s aboriginal pre-history through a rock carving of a fish, we don’t find out whether Nino’s block of land, like Powell’s closing aerial shot of the Harbour, takes in a view of the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. If the film has forgotten women modernists and the intellectual Push in favour of regressive masculine types, it seems equally oblivious to the Opera House as an emblem of Sydney’s post-war ambivalence towards new forms of international modernism.

click to buy “The Outside Story” at Amazon.comThe legacy of this ambivalence has been chronicled most recently in Sylvia Lawson’s The Outside Story (2003), a ficto-critical novel seeking to understand the culture that forced Utzon’s resignation from the Opera House project in 1966. Utzon’s resignation followed a deadlock between the money-handlers in the state government and various interested parties over the viability or otherwise of his designs for the interiors of the building’s opera theatre and concert hall. This moment of crisis in Sydney’s architectural modernism, evoked so painstakingly in Lawson’s investigative novel, becomes visible (in hindsight) as the blind spot in Powell’s final aerial shot of the Harbour. As the camera slowly pans across the peninsulas and bays of the Harbour towards the Bridge, it includes, in the far distance, Bennelong Point graced by the scaffolded exterior of the Opera House, the famous roof shells concealing an empty interior. What happened to prevent the completion of Utzon’s interiors has remained a contentious architectural and cultural issue since Utzon left the project in March 1966, not long after the election of the conservative Askin government in May 1965. Yet Powell’s film, shot at the time of the escalating conflict between Utzon’s design office and local architects, engineers, bureaucrats and politicians, betrays no sign of a city in crisis over its bid to enter the annals of an architectural modernism that would bring the interior into a dynamic relation with the exterior.

In the opening of her novel, Lawson characterises the Opera House crisis of 1966 in terms of “the absence of full comprehension” between “a radically optimistic modernism in project organization” and “political pessimism”. (32) Utzon’s belated, virtual return to the project in 2000 (to oversee, from his home in Majorca, the re-design of the Opera House interiors) is one indication of the ongoing impact of “the absence of full comprehension” (33). The allegorical significance of the city’s failure, during the Utzon crisis, to make the transition from solving problems of exteriority (the design of the roof shells) to addressing problems of interiority (the design of the theatres) can be deciphered in the film’s final sweeping shot of the city. This shot glories in the city’s masses of masonry and its darling Harbour, but it passes over the Opera House and comes to rest on the anachronistic bridge, turning it upside down in a visual joke that entirely misses the moment. It is this, perhaps, that prompted Lawson (a tireless Utzon supporter) to write in 1966, “Sydney is there, and that’s all; a place rather tiredly glanced at and never really seen.”

The contrast in the film between the overlooked Opera House (with its European architect of the plywood-ceramic tiles-and-concrete school) and the ubiquitous suburban bungalow (with its Sydney property developer of the brick-veneer-and-terracotta-tiles school) might account for the rejection of Weird Mob by critics trenchantly opposed to the cheerful exteriority of a hedonistic culture lived on the surface. As Lawson puts the problem in 2003, “it was right back then […,] late ’60s, architecture and housing got divorced” (34). The point is expanded later in Lawson’s book: “What was being beaten down, stamped in a Hades deep under Bennelong Point, was a generous hope, a redemptive imagination and another way of building” (35).

While Powell and his collaborators missed the unfolding modernist story of the Opera House, what they do explore is the optimistic modernity of Sydney’s suburbs – the vernacular modernity of everyday life defined by the block of land, the modest family bungalow and the tensions between enclosed feminine interiors and open masculine exteriors, tensions which the film resolves in favour of a hedonistic beach, beer and barbeque culture. Weird Mob explores these tensions in some detail in three scenes shot on a suburban building site, three scenes shot on Bondi Beach, and three scenes set in what suburban Australians in the 1960s called “the lounge room”.

Each of these scenes is played for comedy: the building site enables a non-verbal, physical form of comedy approaching slapstick; the beach scenes hinge on romantic comedy’s battle of the sexes; and the lounge-room scenes rely on a cramped comedy of manners, punctuated by verbal point-scoring. On the suburban building site surrounded by waving gum trees, Nino exchanges his suit and tie for ‘working togs’ and uses his body to learn mateship not only through ‘hard yakker’ but through mimesis. By imitating his workmates, Nino learns not only how to wield a mattock and handle a cement-mixer, but also how to “take it easy” in order not to “conk out” on his mates before smoko time. The physical bond of work is strengthened through the physical release of a water fight and a beer at the end of the day, while the hedonistic weekend culture of Bondi Beach leads inevitably to romance – but only after Nino has been “disciplined into Australian manhood […] through a process of bastardization” (36).

They’re a Weird Mob

If the exteriority of male working life is easily transferred from the bush to the suburban building site and the beach, how then does the interiority and intimacy of domestic life shape up in Weird Mob? If exteriority is equated with mateship in the film, then interiority is equated with marriage. A wet Sunday afternoon sees Nino pacing from room to room in Joe and Edie’s house until his restlessness resolves itself in an announcement: “I’m going to get married.” Although Nino’s subsequent pursuit of Kay resolves itself in a kiss on crowded Bondi Beach, the confining nature of privatised intimacy (or marriage) is marked by two parallel scenes involving Nino’s formal introduction to Kay’s parents and Kay’s formal introduction to Nino’s friends. While the women appear at home in the lounge room, the men are uncomfortably “dressed up” in suits and ties, their discomfort extending to their stilted conversation and awkward handling of tea and meringues. Both scenes resolve the tension between manhood and manners by casting manners aside in favour of a drink. The film itself ends by escaping from the lounge room into the suburban backyard with both men and women opting for “a bloody beer” rather than “more tea”.

Although the final reprise of the theme song assures the viewer that it’s still “a man’s country, sweetheart” there is something about this shift from the domestic interior to the open backyard that leaves gender and other unassimilable differences unresolved. This sense of unfinished business points us back to the Opera House and Utzon’s desire for transparency and exchange between interior and exterior spaces. This desire would have allowed the Harbour into the building but the Opera House story had a different ending. The new team of architects chose to close the Harbour out and create a suburban interior of “purple carpet” and “anxious ornament”. (37) But how do notions of Sydney hedonism, of exteriority, of life lived on the surface help us understand the ‘practical men’ who carpeted the Opera House interior, just as they might carpet their lounge rooms? And does Utzon’s belated invitation to return to the project in 2000 indicate a readiness in the culture to risk an encounter with interiority, with the sea monster buried in “Hades deep under Bennelong Point”? (38)

“sacramental hedonism”: Sydney 2000 Olympics and the Bridge Walk

If an American writer had the first word on Satan’s part in creating Sydney, then perhaps it’s fitting that an Australian writer, of Scottish and Lebanese origins who has spent part of his writing life in a villa in Tuscany, should have right of reply, 90 years after Twain, on further developments in the city’s paganism:

Sydney is socially very stimulating … a place that has a strong style … that thing people refer to as Australian hedonism and which they see Sydney as the centre of […] this might be a place where things like social gatherings, eating, drinking, the sea, sex, physical love, might develop an almost sacramental status. […] Maybe we are developing a genuine paganism here which could be a sustaining thing. […] [Sydney] offered me a vision of another kind of life from the platonic one that seems to me to exist in places like Europe. This is an anti-platonic place. And if it’s a pagan place it may also free us from destructive notions, like body and spirit being separate. (39)

It could be argued that the desire for the Opera House to function like an open-air yet partly submerged cathedral was thwarted by a crudely hedonistic culture of the beach party and backyard barbeque. But a true devotee of this anti-platonic place might well reply that Utzon’s longed-for return to unbury the sea monster might count as evidence of a “redemptive imagination” emerging in Sydney’s hedonistic modernity. (40) Something of this redemptive hedonism is evident in the spectacular Harbour Bridge Walk for Reconciliation between Indigenous and settler Australians involving 250,000 citizens in May 2000, following a Reconciliation conference at the Opera House. The “redemptive imagination” can also be seen at work in the sensational tableaux of a reconciled nation of indigenous, white settler and immigrant peoples, broadcast to the world in the September 2000 Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics.

But rather than end on a too-easy note of redemption, I want to return to Powell’s closing shot of Sydney Harbour Bridge filmed ‘upside down’. This antipodean shot of a land down under, viewed after the Bridge Walk of 2000, can be seen as a last hurrah for the 19th century idea of Australia as “an underworld place”, viewed from England as “a place at the antipodes – not just of the globe but of consciousness” (41). At the end of the 20th century, as David Malouf argues, “the reverse has become the case. Australia … is the place of perpetual light – of perpetual lightness … where people make good, and which itself has made good” (42). This aspirational idea of making good is registered in Weird Mob in a silent moment when Nino takes a break from “cutting the bloody mulga” and for the first time takes in the view of Sydney Harbour. This view is no longer antipodal: what Nino takes in is not only the ‘darling of Sydney’ but the block of land overlooking the Harbour which will become his first venture into the Sydney property market where we know he will make good. Whether this “place of perpetual light”, seen through Nino’s eyes, also contains what Malouf calls a “sacramental hedonism” is perhaps the key to understanding the ethos of Sydney promoted by the Bridge Walk of May 2000, the Olympic Games of September 2000 and the virtual party films, including Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) and The Matrix trilogy (43) coming out of Sydney’s Fox Studios in 2001-3.

To understand the anti-platonic modernity of Weird Mob, retrospectively, in terms of a desire for “perpetual lightness” or “sacramental hedonism”, I need to return once more to the imaginary scene of the city’s origins – not to Flannery’s prototypical Mardi Gras scene of 1788 but to Inga Clendinnen’s scene of British soldiers and indigenous Australians dancing together on 29 January 1788, a week or so before the colony’s first recorded orgy. (44) As Clendinnen points out, “We don’t readily think of dancing as a phase of the imperial process”, but what followed (before the “souring” of relations and the spilling of blood) was more dancing, as well as hair-combing and singing. (45) Arguably, rather than Flannery’s “unbuttoned” orgy of 6 February 1788, it is Clendinnen’s enlightened scene of strangers dancing together on the shores of Sydney Harbour on 29 January 1788 that was reprised in 2000 in three major events: the Bridge Walk for Reconciliation, the Sydney Olympics and the virtual return of Utzon to release the sea-snakes into the Opera House. (46) In cinema, it is the digital cities of Moulin Rouge and The Matrix trilogy (produced in Sydney as studio rather than location films) that best evoke Sydney’s Mardi Gras lifestyle (an orgy of dancing, singing and hair-combing) as an exportable form of hedonistic modernity. This form of hedonism does not rely on shots of Bondi Beach, the Harbour or the suburbs. Rather, Sydney-on-film at the beginning of the 21st century might be signified not by architectural icons but by an ethos that embraces both the nation’s founding orgy and its formative moments of enlightened dancing, interwar modernism and post-war libertarianism, participating in what Malouf calls a “developing” form of sacramental or anti-platonic hedonism.

Lawson may never see on film the Sydney she set out to retrieve from the archives and from conflicting, fading, unreliable memories in her ficto-critical novel, The Outside Story, a novel which started life as a film project in 1988, the bicentenary of British settlement. But the affection that Australian audiences continue to feel for They’re a Weird Mob on screen indicates that Powell’s vision of Sydney is more than a tired glance – no matter how much of the city he failed to really see. Rather, novels like Lawson’s, histories like Clendinnen’s and anthologies like Flannery’s create the conditions for us to take a fresh, keen-eyed and searching look at Powell’s film and the imaginary city it calls to mind.

This article has been refereed.

Also consulted

Candida Baker (Ed.), Yacker: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work (Sydney and London: Picador, 1986).

Joy Damousi, “A History of Dreams: Modernity, Masculinity and Inner Life, 1920s and 1930s”, in Damousi and Reynolds, pp. 26-35.

Tim Flannery, “The Sandstone City”, in Flannery, pp. 1-42.

Miriam Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”, Modernism/Modernity, 6 (2), 1999, pp. 59-77.

David Malouf, “David Malouf”, interview in Baker, pp. 235-63.

Don Watson, “Rabbit Syndrome: Australia and America”, Quarterly Essay 4, 2001.


  1. Jeanette Hoorn, “Comedy and Eros: Powell’s Australian Films They’re a Weird Mob and Age of Consent”, Screen, 46 (1), 2005, pp. 73-84.
  2. Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 256.
  3. Rolando Caputo and Adrian Danks, “They’re a Weird Mob”, in Geoff Mayer (Ed.), 24 Frames: Australian and New Zealand Cinema (London: Wallflower Press, forthcoming).
  4. Sylvia Lawson, quoted in Caputo and Danks.
  5. The book of the same title was written by popular Australian humorist John O’Grady, but published under the pseudonym of Nino Culotta, the name of the main character. The screenplay was written by Powell’s longtime collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, under the pseudonym of Richard Imrie. Hoorn (along with Caputo and Danks) also recognises the film’s greater historical awareness, in as much as “Pressburger and Powell insert some pointed references to indigenous culture that, compared to the novel, present a more radical political position” (Hoorn, p. 75).
  6. See Felicity Collins and Therese Davis, Australian Cinema After Mabo (2005) available at http://www.ebookmall.com/ebook/175051-ebook.htm, p. 3, for a description of cinematic ‘backtracking’ as a critical mode of retrospection.
  7. Mark Twain, “There are Liars Everywhere”, in Tim Flannery (Ed.), The Birth of Sydney (New York, Grove Press, 1999), p. 320.
  8. Flannery, p. 2.
  9. Lieutenant Ralph Clark, quoted in Flannery, p. 2.
  10. Flannery, p. 3.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Twain, p. 321.
  15. See 2005 DVD release by Roadshow Entertainment for the television documentary and its profile of Sydney.
  16. Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981), pp. 76-7.
  17. On the bush tradition and Sydney’s radical cultural nationalists, see Russell Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958) and White.
  18. Joy Damousi and Robert Reynolds (Eds), History on the Couch: Essays in History and Psychoanalysis (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003), pp. 27-8.
  19. Damousi, p. 28.
  20. It is worth noting at least one cinematic exception to the longstanding cultural pattern of masculine resistance to interiority. Between Wars (Michael Thornhill, 1974) is a singular film about an Australian doctor returning to Sydney from Europe in the 1920s, armed with enthusiasm for modern ideas about the human mind. However, following another familiar pattern in Australian cinema, the film quickly develops into a pessimistic narrative of defeat and failure, beginning with the city’s resistance to modern ideas of a divided self and ending with the doctor’s isolation in a stifling country town.
  21. On the longstanding love-hate relation between intellectuals and the Australian suburbs, see Alan Gilbert, “The Roots of Australian Anti-Suburbanism”, in S. L. Goldberg and F. B. Smith (Eds), Australian Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 33-49.
  22. For a comprehensive and authoritative reference to the feature films of the interwar period, see Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, second edition, 1998).
  23. Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (Sydney: Picador/Pan Macmillan Australia, 1999), p. 198.
  24. Modjeska, p. 201.
  25. Hoorn makes a convincing case for the film’s à la mode depiction of Kay and her friend Dixie as thoroughly immersed in the ‘swinging sixties’ (Hoorn, p. 75), exemplifying Powell’s progressive interpretation of O’Grady’s misogynistic novel. However, it is Nino’s assimilation into the anachronistic rituals of working class mateship that drives the film.
  26. Hoorn, p. 83.
  27. Anne Coombs, Sex and Anarchy: The Life and Death of the Sydney Push (Ringwood: Viking/Penguin Books, 1996), p. 16.
  28. Coombs, p. 15.
  29. Coombs, p. 201.
  30. Alan John’s opera, The Eighth Wonder (1995), about the architect Jørn Utzon’s struggle with the politicians and a young woman’s struggle to become a singer, was recorded by ABC-Television at the Sydney Opera House on 20 October 1995. John Yeomans’s 1968 book, The Other Taj Mahal: What Happened to the Sydney Opera House (Camberwell: Longman Australia, 1973), is one of the many accounts that deal with Utzon’s resignation.
  31. William D. Routt, “The Fairest Child in the Motherland: Colonialism and Family in Australian Films of the 1920s”, in Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (Eds), The Australian Screen (Ringwood: Penguin, 1989).
  32. Sylvia Lawson, The Outside Story (South Yarra: Hardie Grant Books, 2003), p. 7.
  33. Utzon is represented on the project in Sydney by son Jan, an architect working with his father. Jørn’s daughter Lin, a visual artist, oversaw the weaving of a tapestry for the Utzon room, whose new interior was opened on 16 September, 2004. The naming of the room was considered a step towards reconciliation with the architect, officially acknowledging ‘Utzon’s’ extraordinary building.
  34. Lawson, p. 148.
  35. Lawson, p. 228.
  36. Hoorn, p. 78.
  37. Lawson, p. 228.
  38. The controversial decision in the 1990s to enclose the East Circular Quay walkway to the Opera House with a high-rise development known colloquially as The Toaster indicates that Utzon’s opponents still carry the day when it comes to the battle between architecture and property development in Sydney.
  39. David Malouf, “Made in England: Australia’s British Inheritance”, Quarterly Essay, no. 12, 2003, pp. 238-9.
  40. At the beginning of The Outside Story, one of Lawson’s characters remembers the sea monster or sea-snakes that Utzon wanted “to break the surface” in order “to let people feel the form”. Lawson, pp. 9-10.
  41. Malouf, p. 62.
  42. Malouf, p. 63.
  43. The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), The Matrix Reloaded (Wachowskis, 2003), The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowskis, 2003).
  44. Inga Clendinnen, Dancing With Strangers (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2003), p. 8.
  45. Clendinnen, pp. 8-9.
  46. In a further footnote to the Utzon story, on 13 March 2006 the Queen of England returned to Australia to open the new western colonnade of the Sydney Opera House; the occasion was used to redress the omission of Utzon’s name from the original speech the Queen had made to open the Opera House in October 1973. Although Utzon has never seen the completed Opera House, he was represented again by son Jan, with whom he designed the colonnade and the nine openings into the western side, finally bringing the interior and exterior into some form of connection. The media and the NSW Premier referred to this belated recognition of Utzon as “reconciliation”. This term links the Utzon story to the unfinished business of Australian history, symbolised by the Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk of 2000.

About The Author

Felicity Collins is Adjunct Associate Professor, Creative Arts and English, La Trobe University.

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