Monday, January 11, 2010

The Proposition: conducting a family

After the recent Nick Cave stoush I was primed to find The Proposition, broadcast last night on ABC TV, confirming that this baddest of seeds had little to say about Australian colonial history. Considering my predisposition, I have to grudgingly admit that there were good elements in the film. The plotting is fairly complex, giving the film a narrative drive that keeps your interest to the end, although the biblical and Western signifiers paint the directions that the plot is heading toward in bold colours. Nested within its Western plot--crazed-outlaws who must be brought to justice non-conventionally by a sentimental sheriff--is a biblical tale of a family of brothers, one of which must make sacrifices and perform acts of redemption in order to stall the general violence unleashed by the violence of colonisation. The Proposition tells of the settlement of Australia as the establishment of the moral law that good men struggle to animate inside sovereign law.

Set somewhere near the desert-dominated 'centre' of mainland Australia in the post-Gold Rush period (1870s?), a frontier settlement--what one character frequently refers to as "this god-forsaken land"--is caught up in the violence of establishing 'civilised order'. The murder and rape of a pregnant settler, which occurs prior to the beginning of the narrative, stands as the story's most abominable crime, and this sexual-violence hovers around the edge of the film, coming forward in the violent denouement. The frontier setting provides the narrative with three themes of Australian colonial history: the violent taking of Aboriginal land, the problems of British transplantation, and Irish-Australian outlaws. These themes are tied together through the film's central dramatic question: will Charlie Burns rejoin his brother's gang, or deliver his Kurtz-like older brother Arthur to the law, or enact the moral law and take his life?

The film opposes two models of family: the Burns family, who live in caves, described by the frightened local Aboriginals as dogs, and who have failed to reproduce. Against this outlaw, dysfunctional family is the frontier town's police captain, Stanley, and his wife Martha. Their homestead is surrounded by a rose garden and this trope of out-of-place Englishness is reinforced by their formal dress and carved turkey on Christmas Day. Martha is the story's English Rose--her dead-friend Eliza Hopkins is the fate that awaits her if her police-husband fails in his quest to "civilise this place". Martha dreams of Eliza's death and of holding her baby. This is a vision of her own future, which will either occur or be thwarted. These then are the two central families of the film: one is pathologically, transgressively diseased--gone mad like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness--the other contains the best chances for civilisation in this frontier settlement: reproducing moral law and Britishness.

The question is whether the generic elements of the film--its Western structure, its biblical allusions and its intertextuality with Conrad's novel of colonial horror--enable something new to be presented about, or a productive vista to be opened onto, Australian colonial history. Another way to come at this question is to ask what roles women, Aboriginals and the land play in the movie. I think these are ultimately props to The Proposition's central drama of men sorting out how reproduction will occur and how families will be morally constituted on the frontier.

Despite the Sydney Nolan hues of the film's landscape shots and the moments of musical pathos, mainly supplied by Warren Ellis' violin, this is a film about men--white men--sorting out the codes of civilisation within which families can be protected and subjects produced. The 19th century frontier settlement enables the Western-biblical-Conradian elements to be used, but these features reinforce the white patriarchal ideology that underlies these genres. Colonisation unleashes a general violence which can drive those on the margins--the Irish in Australia--to a type of transgressive madness, but this is presented as a universal problem of European-Christian civilisation: a dilemma that can be contained and resolved only within families. Ultimately, the film is less a proposition than a restatement of a biblical lesson that uses the setting of the Australian colonial period to animate its white patriarchal beliefs.