The Melbourne Smiling Sickness



'Smile for the camera' Shot Stuart Koop (ed.) Melbourne (1993)

Photography shall change her face,
Distort it with uncouth grimace-
Make her bloodthirsty, fierce, and base.

Lewis Carroll `I sing a place’

Allow me to introduce Patrick Horton, a photojournalist bent on turning his trade into an art. One day he decides to capture the life of his city by walking a camera along the length of its main axis. He is on the final stretch of his journey up High Street, Preston (a northern suburb of Melbourne), when the camera alights upon a contrasting scene: the history of collective might (the battleground) set against a background of individual action (the casino). Returning from his journey by tram, he now finds a group of people gathered at that location. Though narratively off-duty, he manages to get his camera out in time to capture the moment. In the course of  re-packing his camera, he learns that the figure around which the crowd had gathered was recently dead. During his absence from the scene, a car had knocked down a pedestrian who had attempted to cross the road.

Who did it?

In our hands today, this photograph affords the kind of inquisitorial desire celebrated in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. The question of guilt here is not a strictly literal affair: the narratively saturated circumstances open the list of suspects beyond one tragically distracted driver. This death coincides with an attempt by a photographer to aestheticise his work by going in search of the life of the city as manifest in a single day. Somehow, his day was made.

So let’s examine the result of his labour.

A group of bystanders is arranged in a confusion of postures: hands in pockets, head bowed in concentration, microphone to mouth, feet protruding from blanket. Some coherence is granted this disheveled chorus by the surrounding architecture. The theatre directs the drama. The Unique Hairdresser’s awning bears its own truck wound from a too hasty exit out of the adjoining lane. If you look in the upper left corner you will find a memorial wreath from the adjoining RSL building. And along the lane, at the back, is an advertisement for Crown Casino.

Come closer.

As the major foundry of modern identity, Hollywood specialises in audacious gestures of self-interest -- one-liners for number one. Catch phrases are forged in Hollywood and then disseminated around the world through movies, T-shirts, street tough talk and interior monologues. Though the USA has a monopoly on this rhetorical arms trade, capitalist mantras are sometimes customised for local use. In his dirtier days, Clint Eastwood produced `Make my day’, an upgraded carpe deim designed specially for harried urbanites. The local change in pronoun -- make your day -- suits the move away from the egocentric passions of the 1970s to the user-friendly ethos of a client-oriented order -- the you generation. In these olden times, the aggressor stood on a thin-thread of formality, urging the victim to cross the line so that the full force of the law might be felt in a neat coincidence with feral vengeance. But now, in strict accordance with Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, the victim has triumphed over its oppressor. After all, it was the victim who really had power. It was the victim who could decide whether or not to step over the line: the aggressor was simply a trip-wire controlled by the actions of another. Making someone else’s day has now become a booming service industry of video-games, mortgage-packages and `scratch-it-and-wins’.

At least one person’s day was made. Unfortunately, there are no more of that model in stock. Not a popular line. Get a life death.

And what about the face in the poster?

Clearly, someone decided that an image of a woman’s ecstasy would be an effective lure to bring more customers to the casino. This picture of elation is more than individual emotion. It is also a key gesture in the passion play of modern capitalism. One long-suffering individual, clinging to hope despite setbacks, suddenly finds a dream come true. So a tennis star, after a series of grueling match points against a better-seeded opponent, just manages to get his ball inside the line and so clinches victory. Now he is a picture of sacred ecstasy: two fists upturn to the sky and his mouth forms a `yesss’. Quick, administer aftershave, pay-tv, luxury vehicles -- anything to satisfy the outbreak of unbridled desire.

That’s not quite what we have here. In the gallery of individual triumph, the Crown princess seems descended more directly from the publicity shot for Muriel’s Wedding. (This image needs no reproduction: it is the ecstatic face of Mariel Heslop as she revels in her transformation from outcast ugly duckling to superstar bride.) Now anyone can be a nobody. The world is your oyster: grit your teeth.

So is this icon of capitalist greed the perpetrator of the crime? Or could she be its hidden victim? The key lies in her grimace. We normally think of a grimace as a sign of individual victory, but is this necessarily so? To answer this question, we must venture outside photography and consider the law of the jungle, where face is a charged medium of threats and backdowns. The jungle grimace is a grim reminder of the primate flight/fight responses that lurk beneath the socially-contracted politeness of human collectivities. Termed by ethologists, `the silent bared-teeth face’, the grimace is characterised by a lateral extension of the mouth (risorius), a dropped jaw (platysma), framed by a deepening of the naso-labial fold and supported by a rigid tonus of neck muscles. It’s like a smile tortured on the rack.

So what does it do?

In baboons, the grimace occurs in two critical situations. One is male ejaculation, where its speculated purpose is to ward off curious bystanders at a critical moment in the transmission of genes. The other is an approach by a dominant primate, where it diffuses potential conflict by confirming the social hierarchy. Though the human species is noted for its promotion of the smile from a sign of abject submission to the attainment of pleasure, the smile’s primordial agonism remains an atavistic possibility.

We find additional supporting evidence for the more submissive role played by the smile in the infamous history of photography. Weegee’s notorious 1940 Coney Island photograph, Life saving attempt, features a life/death struggle to resuscitate a body washed up on the beach. Among those attending the expiring swimmer is a young woman whose smile is perfectly posed for the camera. She gives the camera its due: the reflex salute demanded by a society of spectacle. But as the extended hand under fascism evolved into the clenched fist under communism, so the benign smile of a Fordist economy is transformed into the grimace of economic rationalism. As the verbal bait for cameras changed from `cheese’ to `sex’, so the reach of commodification extended more deeply into the realms of individual pleasure.

Say `sex’.

Indeed, the Crown princess is not the aggressor, but a victim bearing her teeth to display her compliance towards the new privatised system. She makes our day. The ideological conflicts characteristic of the cold war, where workers fought bosses and women contested men, have now been replaced by a level playing field. Girls can be bad because breaking rules is now part of the game. Living with the rest of us in a material world, they submit to monetary desire just life everyone else.

What we might call the `Melbourne smiling sickness’ is a symbolic strain of the `laughing sicknesses’ that have wreaked havoc in lands beyond the Western pale such as China, Siberia, and New Guinea. In Melbourne, the sudden collapse of Anglican restraint has left homeless souls vulnerable to the enticements of Pied Pipers leading them to various wheels of fortune. The city is gripped by an epidemic of hope. The suffragette lies dead on the pavement. Witnesses report a photographer lurking suspiciously at the scene of the crime.

Bets gentlemen, please.