Some thoughts on performance and the Australian cinema. Verhoeven snuggles up to the sheep film as a clue to what Australian filmmakers have held dear. Nationalism and republicanism examined.
Q: How do you reconcile the fluid politics of contemporary identity with an equally modern propensity for leaner, meaner and generally neater organisation? What happens when you cross Existential Man with Economic Man?
A: You get the Ham and the Bacon in the roly poly guise of Babe, the gallant sheep-pig.
In these jittery millennial times, Australians are increasingly confronted by a series of over-cooked nationalisms that face resolutely forwards whilst simultaneously glancing over the shoulder to better (ac)count backwards (1). Royalists, Republicans, Racists and Reconciliationists alike share a widespread discomfort at our current national practice. Which begs a number of tantalising possibilities. Is nationalism something ordinarily practised on Australians by Australians? By others? How might we figure nationalism as a matter for practice? Do we practise nationalism in the sense of rehearsing it - repeating it - imitating it - grinding it into a state of naturalism such that it is performed without awkwardness? Do we always risk performing our nationalisms poorly - unconvincingly - didactically or disconcertingly? Who apprehends our entertainments and bestows on us their recognition? Or do we, in directing our performances toward another, effectively recognise them instead?
Chris Noonan's film Babe -The Gallant Sheep-Pig is the story of an unassuming pig who, through assiduous practice, overcomes the organic claims of species and attains a state of universal dis-en-genus-ness. It's the simple tale of a small pig who escapes certain culinary demise by making use of himself on his adoptive farm, taking up as a substitute sheep-dog. Babe has been an unquestionably 'good performer' for the Australian film industry with an Oscar, more than $250 million dollars in world wide box office and now a sequel. The film is set in a nowhere land - somewhere that looks like 1930s England and sounds like 1950s America (2 ) Producer George Miller has said that he would like to have added an extra end-title to the film; "shot entirely on location in storybook land." The popular recognition of this 'storybook' place in Australia as Australia says a great deal about the way Australians take a certain pride in the adaptability of our cultural and actual landscape. The film ends triumphantly as Babe charms a flock of intransigent sheep and puts on a winning show at the sheep-dog trials before his master's approving eyes.
So Babe - The Gallant Sheep-Pig is not, as the title suggests, a CSIRO funded tale of exotic cross-breeding. It is instead more concerned with the issues of value, identity and performance. Babe is a pig that learns to perform like a dog but with distinction and difference. In doing so he is able to legitimise his continued participation in a farmyard economy. He is a survivor in a world in which farm animals are governed more by the nature of capital and its distribution of value as the nature which gave them life.
Of course Babe's fluid identity is premised on a sleight of hand. Babe is not so much a 'sheep-pig' as a 'human-pig' - a nifty elision in which the word 'sheep' really masks the film's anthropomorphic intentions. For Stuart Cunningham Babe is essentially an identity fable for humans (not pigs). Babe he says, tells you, "something fundamental about what it means to be human - you come out of it feeling that it's wonderful and awful to be a human being. There's that deep ambivalence of feeling it's wonderful to be who you are but knowing you're the product of violence and hatred." Elias Canetti located much of this ambivalence in the historical operations of anthropomorphism itself;
The desire to turn men into animals was the principal motive for the development of slavery. It is as difficult to over-estimate its strength as that of the opposite desire: to turn animals into men. (3)
In Babe identity is an implicit narrative space forged in the hasty retreat from impending violence. The apparent fluidity that Babe effects in his quest for survival is really a type of textual capriciousness. Babe dangles precariously between interpretive possibilities - animal as man (pig as paragon) and man as animal (pig as pragmatist).
The New Yorker put it somewhat more bluntly - "If you're not willing to bend the rules you're cooked... the moral of Babe is: whatever works" - a sentiment adopted by the producers who used the movie's characters to sell MacDonalds "Happy Meals" with the unfortunate slogan - "a little pig goes a long way". A self-confessed pro-vegetarian film that puts the ham back into the burger? Posters exhorted parents to, "Buy one" and " your kids can pretend they're Babe." Moral mutability is easily swallowed, if not so easily digested.
The apparent merging of identity that occurs in Babe (sheep? pig? dog? human?) is neither a conversion narrative nor a convergence fable - it is really about the benefits of pragmatic identification - a sort of elusivity where ethics are concerned. In refusing to be specific, Babe forges a larger future for himself. This idea has reappeared in some of George Miller's comments on the film. For example, when questioned about the deliberate fudging of location recently, Miller loftily replied, "Basically I work in a world hyperculture. Babe is a work in the hyperculture." (4) Miller, like Babe, is strategically placed above matters of mere genus, favouring an all englobing abstraction that cares little for the petty claims of identity but maintains a modicum of respect for capital.
If you can't eat 'em - join 'em
According to its publicists, Babe is a, "comic fable about not fitting in and the "lengths to which an ordinary pig will go to find acceptance". In fact it is about a pig who does not actually learn to "fit in" as they put it, but who garners value and identity through his ability to police the threat of conformity through a form of inter-species reciprocity. The triumphant sheep-dog trials represent a test of definition and its accompanying labour. Apologists for the film celebrate the consensus achieved between Babe and the sheep in finding a mutually satisfactory resolution at the sheep trials. But the underlying rationale is that Babe is there to keep the sheep 'in line'. Babe becomes an agent - a subject and not the object of farmyard economics.
The publicists continue, "The naive pig struggles to find a suitable purpose daring to become, of all things, a sheep-pig." Babe must prove he is not 'in excess' - he must find a performative function that is less and more than mere 'ham'. With its themes of maternal loss and the ever-present threat of consumerism, Babe is as much a crisis of the edible as the Oedipal.
"Through his courage, determination, and love, Babe shows an entire valley that only in the absence of prejudice can one be truly free to soar." The linking of animated animals to the theme of flight is a familiar one. Eisenstein links animation and mobility in his sketchy ode to Walt Disney. "Disney's beasts, fish and birds have the habit of stretching and shrinking. Of mocking their own form... This triumph over all fetters, over everything that binds, resounds throughout..."(5) In avoiding the abattoir Babe must not just change definition, he must be seen to be changing definition. The film asks the audience to extend tolerance toward a certain mobility of definition but that definition remains based on what Babe is seen to do. In this sense Babe comes close to encapsulating Judith Butler's hypothesis, that performativity scripts identity. But the real absence of specificity must be controlled - it is the sheep who are corralled. As Canetti suggested, the real labour that animals perform for humans is the labour of definition.
Babe's crisis of liminality and productivity is resolved through the consensual production of ordered movement and negotiated performances. Similar issues are treated somewhat differently in other Australian films such as Strictly Ballroom for example, or for that matter an earlier film like Bitter Springs.
Man they doing 'em
Bitter Springs is one of the great Australian ovine epics, shot in and about Quorn in 1949. Produced by the British Ealing Studios, Bitter Springs follows the story of the aptly named 'King' family (and several hundred of their sheep). The Kings, lead by the racist Wally (Chips Rafferty) have set out to find more land for their son. Along the way they pick up an assortment of British characters who provide the comedic and politically correct romantic interests.
The film's real interest lies with the fictional Aboriginal community, the Karragarni, who have been dispossessed by the land grabbing King family. Wally King, is reluctantly supported in his venture by the local constabulary, Trooper Ransome. Ransome has a parallel character in Blackjack, the King's Aboriginal boundary rider, who also finds his loyalties divided between duty to his employer and justice for 'his people'. As dual figures both men are bilingual and involved in performative border crossings, occupying the grey area between the film's black and white alternatives. Both Blackjack and Trooper Ransome are precursors to a figure like Babe - they are characters whose purpose is to deal in the negotiation and limitation of mobility. In this area however the conclusions drawn by Bitter Springs differ vastly from Babe. The tragic and abrupt final scene in which an Aboriginal elder transmogrifies from sheep stealer to shearer is one the film itself sits uneasily with.
Substantial media and parliamentary interest was held for the Aboriginal actors engaged to perform in Bitter Springs. The fact that more people turned out for the arrival of the Aboriginal actors in Quorn than for the film's international stars was a repeated news item. The then Prime Minister, Pig-Iron Bob Menzies, made public assessments of both the sheep and the Aborigines who appeared in the film. The Adelaide Advertiser reported;
PM ENJOYED "BITTER SPRINGS"
Mr Menzies told a press conference in Adelaide on Saturday that he thoroughly enjoyed the film "Bitter Springs"
The photography was superb and the moving of stock was not overdone as in "The Overlanders"
Mr Menzies recalled that he had seen some of the natives who worked in the film while on a political tour. He thought their work was excellent.
He believed the film would be popular overseas.
Its lively story had given plenty of opportunities to Tommy Trinder who was well supported by Australian artists.
"We are inclined to condemn our own products" the Prime Minister added.
"I think we can praise this one."
All this interest in the participation of indigenous people in Bitter Springs, and I've only touched the tip of the iceberg here, seemed to revolve around the assumption that Aborigines couldn't 'act' (as a form of labour). A position argued by director, Ralph Smart;
They turned out to be wonderful actors...Unlike civilised people, they are quite unselfconscious, so when asked to play a role they did it as they would naturally, without any trouble at all. The difficulties arose only when some of them began to believe they could act - the results were terrible then. (6)
The assumptions underpinning this statement suggests at the very least that the filmmakers seemed happier with the idea that indigenous actors remain the objects rather than the agents of performance. The Aboriginal actors themselves, on the other hand, clearly understood the value of their performances in material terms (amongst others). Lorna Grantham recalls;
My old man (promised husband) was in that picture on hill way to Quorn ... - he was in that picture too. My mother's uncle there too and they was drinking water like that - kapi. He was standing with a woomera. You see him in the film. ... But another lot been go there before but they all get money. My old man speak up for the money. 'We come a long way to make a picture. You make picture, you been taking pictures, you'll have to give money out for everybody.' Kangaroo was sitting down - scratching 'em (scratching himself under the arms). Man they doing 'em (imitating). Oh! That's man's business. Woman not supposed to watch and the kangaroo's sitting down there scratching. Man doing it, kangaroo doing it. But they watching it in the picture now. Long time ago they not allowed to see it. (7)
Grantham identifies many key issues raised by the film and its reception - questions concerning the relative 'use-value' of the Aboriginal actors and their exclusion from the activity of setting limits and boundaries. A substantial amount of subsequent discussion of Bitter Springs, especially in the South Australian parliament revolved around the idea that Aborigines did not appear to possess an adequate ability to perform a use for society. A 'problem' which its assimilation policies were expected to resolve.
Thinking Like a Sheep
Babe's 'storybook' world is one in which any element of a social structure earns its place on the basis of its ability to 'be useful', to be productive. It is in the 'appearing to be performing' i.e. the labouring and the labour of performance as well as its inverse - the performance of labour - that matters. The negotiation of limits through the performative is the condition for (agri)cultural harmony.
Ultimately, Babe's 'struggle' for identity and recognition as a winning performer is echoed in many contemporary debates. His 'performative dilemma' - agent or object? hock or ham? - recalls that of Pauline Hanson. To appropriate otherness for himself (white Australians as those awaiting recognition). Or to eliminate it (white Australians as fundamentally immanent - absorbed in self-recognition). Or both.
But what is for Babe a triumph, is for Bitter Springs a tragedy. When Ralph Smart derided Aboriginal actors for thinking they could perform, he implied that it is through fluid acts of repetition that the notion of value is expunged and disinfected. Producer George Miller recognises this when he laughs at the accommodating attributes of the sheep he worked with; "The animatronics sheep were so successful that we couldn't tell in the cutting room floor which were real sheep and which weren't. Indeed the sheep themselves couldn't tell. The sheep would often respond to the mechanical sheep exactly as if they were real sheep." (8) In the repetitious, fluid conformity of the sheep flock the notion of the natural or original is rendered unnecessary. On this note, Miller might take heed from Fred Zinneman, a Hollywood film director with some experience of sheep from his days working on The Sundowners:
...I learned that not only must a director have empathy with his actors: when directing sheep he must have empathy with them as well; he must learn to think like a sheep. (9)
1. In a brilliant essay on Australian identity, Bill Routt suggests it is not so much our own shoulder that we strain to look over but another's. For Routt, national identity is an implicit space created through the point of view of others. See William D Routt, "Are you a fish? Are you a snake?: An Obvious Lecture and Some Notes on The Last Wave. " Continuum Vol 8, no. 2, 1994.
2. A practice not uncommon in the early Australian cinema and more recently apparent as the industry becomes increasingly attractive to off-shore film producers.
3. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power Seabury, New York, 1978. p384
4. George Miller, Sydney Film Festival Forum for 40,000 Years of Dreaming, June 1997.
5. Sergei Eisenstein in (ed) Jay Leyda, Eisenstein on Disney Methuen, London, 1986. p4
6. Ealing Studios publicity brochure for Bitter Springs
7. Lorna Grantham in (ed) Adele Pring Women of the Centre Pascoe Publishing, Apollo Bay, 1990. p74
8. George Miller quoted in Cinema Papers p53
9. Fred Zinneman, An Autobiography, Bloomsbury, London, 1992. p183.