Mythology, Aussie Style

In his article “Junkies, thieves, idiots and depressives” David Dale explores what makes Australian culture and mythology distinctive, and what make foreign imports unpalatable.

Apparently the film-makers of Australia have taken to heart the theme song of Mad Max 3: “We don’t need another hero; We don’t need to know the way home.” They seem to agree with the Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler that Australia is a “hero-phobic society”. And with the actor-director Steve Vidler that we suck at triumphalist movies because we have the wrong founding myth.

Last week this column celebrated the 20th birthday of Crocodile Dundee by asking why Australia doesn’t make hit movies of that kind any more. We got impassioned responses from 87 readers.

Part of the answer may lie in the theories of Christopher Vogler. He became hugely influential from the mid-80s after he wrote a memo to his bosses at the Disney studio claiming that all successful stories — even the silliest comedies — involve a classic plot structure he calls “The Hero’s Journey”. He says human beings are genetically programmed to respond to certain characters (archetypes) and to this progression of events: a person is summoned on a quest, meets a mentor and new friends along the road, overcomes obstacles, enters the inmost cave and confronts the ultimate evil, goes through a form of death and resurrection, and returns home with “the elixir” — an idea that saves his tribe, or love, or self-knowledge. The most obvious example of this structure is the original Star Wars.

But in the second edition of his book, The Writer’s Journey, Vogler wonders if his outline might be a tool of American imperialism: “My Australian teachers helped me see that such elements might make good stories for the world market but may not reflect the views of all cultures … The Australians distrust appeals to heroic virtue because such concepts have been used to lure generations of young Australian males into fighting Britain’s battles.

“Australians have their heroes, of course, but they tend to be unassuming and self-effacing, and will remain reluctant for much longer than heroes in other cultures. In Australian culture it’s unseemly to seek out leadership or the limelight, and anyone who does is a ‘tall poppy’, quickly cut down. The most admirable hero is one who denies his heroic role as long as possible and who, like Mad Max, avoids accepting responsibility for anyone but himself.”

Like all broad brush stroke generalizations I am sure this can be picked apart – the Australian psyche is becoming a lot more complex in the face of  multicultualism – but as a broad brush stroke look at Australian culture and mythology I believe there is a strong grain of truth here, and consequently, some important things for Christians to take on board if they would contextualize Christianity for post-modern Australians.

Post-modernity, if anything, seems reinforce our mistrust of heroic mythologies (read: metanarratives), particularly those which transparently serve foreign interests. Witness Aussie cynicism to Axis of Evil language, even amongst those Aussies who are strong supporters of John Howard and the War in Iraq. Any suggestion that John Howard should adopt such language is generally greeted by laughter  or worse. And the suggestion that Aussies should make an Australian version of the movie “Airforce One” usually has people rolling in the aisles. “Honest” John says'”G G Get off my plane!” LOL

So consider more closely this statement:

“Sometimes we try to appropriate the American myth for our stories. And a strange thing happens. Mostly Australian audiences will not believe it.”

The article focusses on myths of a cinematic variety but what about metanarratives of the more religious variety? What about the stories we live in as Christians and the stories those in the Emerging Church conversation tell about themselves and the society we live in? How believable are the global conversations to ordinary Australians? Many aren’t believable even to me.

3 thoughts on “Mythology, Aussie Style

  1. It’s an interesting interpretation offered by David Dale. We should recall that this hero archetype material derives from Jung and Joseph Campbell, and that Miller the producer of Mad Max and Babe is also an Aussie and a Jungian. He gave the Sydney Lecture about 9 yrs ago precisely on the Jungian archetypes and the worldwide success of Mad Max and Babe.
    Mark Levon Byrne did his PhD on the Jungian Hero archetype at Sydney Uni, and David Tacey also favours Jungian thought in his interpretation of the new spiritualities in Australia.
    I suspect that the US film-culture is very predictable. Hero beats bad guy, gets the flawless looking woman as reward etc. It is also the case that US culture has a lot of self-confidence hard-wired into the psyche of many people from the schoolyard onwards.
    We are laconic and at times unsure of who we are, hence we look to a foreign battlefield to define ourselves in ANZAC myth-making, or imagine myths from the bush yet hardly any of us live in the bush. I find the Aussie bush-myths unbelievable and I cannot relate to them at all. I cannot stand the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda, the myth-making about Ned Kelly, nor the sports hero ethos. I likewise do not respond to the ANZAC myth-making even though I grew up at primary school reading serious histories of World War One and Two.
    I suspect that current reimagined stories about Jesus and Paul the apostle are likewise susceptible to becoming mirror portraits of what some people wish things could be like, and hence do not connect either inside or outside Church.


  2. Really interesting thoughts. Part of the problem with hollywood at the moment is that it turns hero films into action films and action films are unbelievable. You will find action-film fatigue in a lot of places around the world, especially in media-savvy cultures.
    I suspect Australians do still respond to heroism, but only self-effacing or self-sacrifical heroism. They don’t want hagiographies.
    Also, I suspect the point phil raised about the urban/rural divide has a role here, as does the urban/suburban divide. Thinking about the US, the action/hero genre is completely unbelievable to my urban friends in London, New York or Boston, despite such films turning a good profit in the host countries of those cities.


  3. The interesting thing for me is how true a lot of the self-effacing hero thing rings true in British cultures too. I’m wondering about common roots to that …


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