Child's Play



'Child´s play' The Age 12 November 1994, p.13

The big bad wolf, has moved to Melbourne. Albert Park Lake, once the haunt of solitary dreamers, awaits an invasion of speed freaks and corporate swank. Melbourne´s myth of innocence is in serious trouble.

On the road ahead is the world of opportunity, while behind is provincial sentimentalism. Grow up or get out? World´s best practice or import protection? Asia or Europe? Sydney or Hobart? Free market or the milk of human kindness? Germaine Greer or Ding Dong? In a networked world, it seems natural to choose the global path - who can refuse the call of progress?

But there is someone blocking our way. In pre-modern Europe, this figure is called the village idiot—the one who can´t quite keep up with the world, but remains a familiar focus for contact between villagers. In the 20th century, an equivalent figure is Peter Pan, the lost boy of London´s Kensington Gardens who has provided for millions an innocent light in a dark world. Melbourne, too, has its own generation of Peter Pans.

Graham Kennedy, Bert Newton, Johnny Young, Daryl Somers, Mollie Meldrum—their cheeky grins have been the focus of Melbourne´s popular identity. Under the spotlight today is John Farnham, the popular choice of this year´s Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. What better figurehead of Melbourne´s purity of heart than the singer who, despite his international success, still performs Sadie for his home audience? .

Beyond the popular stage, the recent history of Melbourne film, literature and visual arts is populated by Peter Pans of various genders, social classes and, virtues. It seems wise at this point in Melbourne´s journey to listen to the voice of innocence before we no longer understand its language.

Let´s start with Paul Cox. Cox has Publicly decided to leave Melbourne for greener pastures—far from the madding crowds that will soon take over his beloved Albert Park. He will leave behind a decade of films that boldly entered the suburban wastelands and subdivided an enclave of cultured minds.

Among its first residents was Norman Kaye. In 1983, he emerged as Charles Bremmer, the prim and improper Man of Flowers. Charles seemed retarded from adulthood by a web of beatific childhood memories (rendered by Cox in flickering Super-8 film). The adventure of Cox´s film was to place his sensitive soul in the midst of crassness. On his own, Charles would drown in his own bathos. What could you say to a man who posts a letter every day to his dead mother? Rather out of touch. Yet Cox rescues his hero from satire by inviting a series of vultures to feed off his naiveté.

In their 1986 film Malcolm, Nadia Tass and David Parker gave us a working-class version of Cox´s bayside aesthete. Despite belonging to different sides of the Yarra, Malcolm and Charles Bremmer share two important features: a maternal legacy and moral immunity. Both can afford to live out their daydreams because a mother made sure they were provided for after her death. And neither suffers at all from guilt associated with his crimes: Charles turns his murder of the painter into a work of art, and Malcolm makes child´s play of his bank robbery

We can forgive Charles´ crime because his victim was so vile—what´s Malcolm´s excuse? He is helped certainly by Colin Friel´s puppy-like performance and David Parker´s ingenious gadgets including the getaway car that splits in two. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the choice of victim that dissolves my potential blame: the Swiss Anglo Bank. When it´s a local boy against the world, all is fair.

It was in such very banks, of course, that Melbourne´s fate was sealed. Malcolm´s flight from the world came skidding to an end just as the world started winding in its debts. In Malcolm´s follow up, Ricky and Pete, the backyard trickster finds a place for himself managing a fleet of delivery vans for the Herald-Sun. Lately, the more conventional Ben Mendelsohn emerges in The Big Steal and Spotswood playing an awkward dreamer who finally gets his girl. It happens: Malcolm gets a life.

In the 1990s, the world is nobody´s oyster and life is tough. Innocence is portrayed more ambivalently in Brian McKenzie´s charming film, Stan and George´s New Life, with Paul Chubb and Julie Forsyth (of Anthill´s ever popular Kid´s Stuff). But in 1991, it was Death in Brunswick that may have struck the fatal blow to Melbourne´s Peter Pan.

Based on Boyd Oxdale´s first novel, John Ruane´s Death in Brunswick undermined the myth of innocence in Melbourne cinema. Sam Neil played the dissolute Carl with a curdled mixture of boyish desire and middle-aged hopelessness. Unlike previous men of flowers and trams, Carl has to wait for his mother to die. Until he gets her the money, he must slave away as a cook in a corrupt nightclub.

While his mother holds on to life, Carl clings to his youth. He masks his wrinkles with her liquid make-up and tongue kisses a young Greek girl in a cinema chock-a-block with screaming kids. Carl. shouldn´t be in a kid´s matinee. And after accidentally murdering a kitchen assistant, he certainly shouldn´t be disposing of his victim´s body in someone else´s coffin. Carl just shouldn´t be.

Carl misses out on both maternal legacy and moral immunity. His attempt at poisoning his mother fails and he ends up trapped into marriage with his Wendy (remember that final scene of Carl in a neck brace sitting like a stunned mullet at his own Greek wedding?) Though his murder of Moustapha remains undetected, Ruane confronts Carl with the consequences of his actions. The imploring look of the victim´s son pleads for a response that no Peter Pan could ever give. In Death in Brunswick, Malcolm turns Dorian Gray.

Today, Neverland Studios is closed for business. In its place we have a film like Romper Stomper, where the suburban recluse is a crazed skinhead dreaming of the Third Reich. The demise of Peter Pan in Melbourne´s cinema may be a result of film´s dependence on the ebb and flow of corporate tax breaks. In more self-sufficient arts, like literature and painting, it´s easier to keep the rest of the world at bay.

Take for example Helen Garner, Melbourne´s literary muse. Her most recent novel, Cosmo Cosmolino, revolves around the fragile lives of three lost souls. As landlord of an old hippie household, Janet plays Wendy to two boarders who stick fist to their beliefs in an alternative to the material world: one to the Bible and the other to a pantheon of New Age mysticisms. Interestingly, Garner assigns the role of Peter Pan to the woman, not the man.

Maxine, the feral carpenter, is oblivious to adult values such as private property and personal honour. She will take boiled lollies from any stranger and falls victim to a shonky pyramid scheme called "Golden Aeroplane". Rather than confront Maxine with the errors of her ways, Garner lets her ascend like an angel to the heavens.

The Cosmolino of the title is Maxine´s inner child—a little world she dreamily tends to in her shed every day. This is not a utopian gesture, but a world sensitively crafted from flotsam. In the same way, Garner herself fabricates the novel like papier-mâché from shreds of consciousness: "the tram chattering across the intersection a block away" and "the meditative scraping of a cricket" - a world writ small.

Is there a Melbourne writer today who would embrace the world stage like Mark Henshaw or Frank Moorhouse? Perhaps Andrea Goldsmith, or perhaps not. Her latest novel, Facing the Music, moves between London and Melbourne. Compared with Garner, Goldsmith´s Melbourne comes in broader strokes, like "the absurd towers of the city baths" and "the succulent decay of late autumn parks".

But there is at work in her plot a doubt that Melbourne can be a world unto itself. The central character, Anna, is daughter to a once-lauded composer who depends on her for inspiration. If she stays in Melbourne, she´ll remain trapped forever as child muse to her father´s career. It´s only away from the city that she can "truly live" - and it´s on the London stage that the daughter transcends her father´s control.

Goldsmith describes Facing the Music as "my Melbourne love affair book". It´s an old flame rather than a hot romance. Her Melbourne is a lair of childhood and family life: "It makes memories, cradles memories and gives them back." She claims it´s only after being overseas that you can see the more subtle dimensions of the city. ‘Melbourne is a city of mysteries rather than adventures.´

A recent walk down one of those mysteries, Flinders Lane, revealed two of many local painters whose work pits childhood against the world. At Robert Lindsay Gallery, the title painting(s) in Stephen Bush´s exhibition, The Lure of Paris, showed three men dressed in elephant costumes scaling a seaside cliff. Bush undermines the romantic idiom of painting by clothing his heroes in such patently ridiculous costumes. You can imagine the voice from within the elephant costume: "I am not a grown-up."

A little farther down, at Anna Schwartz Gallery, an even more strident infantilism was present this year in an exhibition of Jenny Watson prints. There is no more worldly artist than Jenny Watson, whose work shows regularly in the leading galleries of New York and Europe. Despite this, the inner child remains the focus of her work.

Other local artists like Maria Kosic, Peter Tyndall, Kathy Temin and Linda Marinon also evoke childhood as the source of their imaginative worlds. The list goes on. There´s no doubt a child lies at the heart of Melbourne´s cultural identity. The question is whether abandoning this figure is a necessary stage in our growing sophistication as a city.

With the balance now swinging in favour of cosmopolitanism, time is ripe for a new counterweight. Now that the Grand Prix is on the horizon, what better time to find a new idiot to save us from the barbarism of the global media circus? Let´s not forget that Melbourne´s most notorious egocentric, Edna Everage, made one of her first appearances in a skit on the 1956 Olympic Games.

One figure who seems fit for this task today is Ronald Ryan, the man whose adulthood was severely curtailed when last the Victorian Government chose to take a human life. His resurrection in this year´s play by Barry Dickens at the Playbox promises a renewed struggle with the world at large. He may prove the mystery keel that gives Melbourne direction on the high seas of global competition.

In his 1914 novel, J. M. Barrie introduced Peter Pan with the line, ‘All children grow up, except one". Maybe Melbourne will prove a similar exception.