Nostalgia for Sale: Stephan Elliot’s “Swinging Safari” – Film Review by Aaron Darc
Go to: Aaron Darc – Film review artist's page.
There's a club on Sydney's famous Oxford Street called Palms that, for the past few years, has been the most difficult of the area to get into; its queues waiting hours to make it past judgey bouncers in the hope of experiencing its pleasures. And yet, nothing about the place is “cool”. While other clubs with big lines offer hot DJs and beautiful people, Palms, a full-blown retro club, offers something much more powerful: Memories.
There comes a certain point in anyone's life where, regardless of the logistics of time, we begin to value a change in direction; as if happiness is no longer somewhere squarely in front of us, but something we have left behind. That's a harsh, heavy thing to say, perhaps. But go line up at Palms for an hour and, if you get inside, bathe in the euphoria of its clientele, and their drunken, child-like smiles, while they stomp their feet in unison to Greased Lightning, or do the Macarena, or strike a pose to Vogue. You might even find me there. And, yes, I will be happy.
It is the role of culture and its various commodities to facilitate this regression. Kaching! Kaching! And, in a “What have we come to?” world where nuclear threats are made via twitter, the Nostalgia Industry™ has a promising future offering us pseudo-experiences of more innocent times. This is no doubt why Screen Australia threw buckets of money at a film-maker whose only hit is itself now a retro relic of a time long ago when Australia produced comedies that were genuinely funny. Stephan Elliot's Priscilla Queen of the Desert stands today as an Aussie classic. It is truly a great film.
Swinging Safari, Elliot's 2018 return to Australian cinemas, is therefore the antithesis of Priscilla. It's a love-letter to the 1970's, and a nostalgia product so self-aware, it literally isn't anything else. Still, if you're looking for a two-hour peek on times gone by, boy, are you in for a treat!
Some things you're not in line for, however, include a plot. Spoiler alert! What there is in the way of a cohesive narrative goes a little something like this… Somewhere in the mid 70's, three neighbouring families in a typical Aussie cul de sac share their lives, summers and laughs – mostly on their local beach where a giant whale beaches itself and dies. With the whale slowly rotting on the sand, their suburban paradise comes to a strange end when the wives convince their respective husbands to play the infamous 70's swingers' game, Key Swap - which, for reasons not entirely clear, leaves the families at war with one another. They remain this way, through a frantic montage to another 70's tune we'll all remember, until they are inevitably brought together by the joint realisation that the things they spend their time trying to get their children not to do (namely, have sex and injure themselves), should actually be encouraged. So, they give their children alcohol, cigarettes and the pill, and even personally arrange the loss of virginity for two of their youngest teenagers. Then, faced with how to remove the rotting whale carcass from the beach, the local mayor has it blown up with dynamite. The end. And that might not seem to make much sense. And I say to you, no, it really doesn't.
Unless it's not supposed to? When the whale is first discovered on the beach, it leads the film's central child character, fourteen-year-old Jeff Hall, a budding film-maker, to declare in voice-over narration: “I always wanted to be a film-maker. My problem was I needed a plot. Australia and I were bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean, needing direction. But now I finally had one.”
This poses two questions. Firstly, “Does Stephan Elliot understand the difference between the concept of a plot and the ‘IS THIS SYMBOLISM LOUD ENOUGH FOR YOU?‘ metaphor?” But secondly, “Is this guy just taking the piss out of what a mess this film is?” You can't help but wonder how anyone could be so obvious, without it actually having some deeper, smarter meaning – but then, this is a film whose token rich household are (literally) the Jones family, so being obvious isn't something it seems worried about.
Any other possible attempt at depth is through the object of Jeff's affection, young Melly. Poor little Melly is terribly depressed. This is illustrated through her vacant, sullen stares, her refusal to join in the others' shenanigans, the way she doesn't want to eat her sandwich and, just in case you thought the whale metaphor has any sort of expiry to its use (spoiler alert: it doesn't), when she suggests that maybe the whale is “like me… lost”. In case you didn't get that, she spray paints “LOST” across the whale carcass. IS THIS SYMBOLISM LOUD ENOUGH FOR YOU?
The problem with Melly is that we never really understand her problem. The film never bothers to explore why she became so depressed, and even once she begins to change, provides no real context as to how this change is brought about. For a while, it hints that her connection to the whale metaphor will result in her suicide – which would possibly make it a much better film – but this, like most elements of Swinging Safari, goes nowhere, and leads only to remind us why Muriel's Wedding, which dared to tread there, is such a well-crafted Australian comedy that remains to this day the genre's pinnacle.
And so, with those potential avenues of substance exhausted, what does the film ultimately have?
Nostalgia. So much nostalgia. Come the credits, I realised the pointlessness of all the questions that had consumed my viewing experience - the pointlessness of my thinking. Nostalgia is about feeling, and therefore requires no more depth or analysis than a visit to Oxford Street's Palms does. Swinging Safari bothers to weave a semblance of a singular narrative, only to allow a series of “Hey, remember this?!” moments that hang on the meaningless plot like jackets on a coat rack. We get brands and products that are no longer with us (“Hey, remember Funken Wagnels?!”), we get cultural celebrations that are no longer with us (“Hey, remember cracker night?!”), music (“Hey, remember that Spirit in the Sky song?!”), and even racism (“Hey, remember when everyone openly hated Indigenous Australians?!”).
And here lies the issue with nostalgia. When we create two-hour narratives that, however meaningless, house what are essentially cultural projections of a film-maker, we can end up with something meaningful (even if unconsciously) on a socio-political level. This is because nostalgia is subjective. Stephan Elliot has crafted a Libertarian romanticisation of the 1970's – these are his memories, and he remembers them for his reasons. When you get to the end, the point isn't whatever happened in that half-baked plot – it's what the collection of memories represents symbolically. And because subtlety isn't one of Elliot's strong points, he rams it home through the voice-over narration wrap. “People ask ‘how did you get through the 70's?‘,” says the older Jeff, looking back; “And I tell them, ‘we did‘.” Just in case you missed that, “WE DID” is literally written across the screen.
That's (unsurprisingly) poorly written and a limp bada-boom for the closing moment. But what he's trying to say is that despite all the apparently bad behaviour, and the naivety, and the lack of policing – despite not wearing sunblock, and smoking so much, and letting kids do a bunch of stuff that was clearly dangerous for their health - everyone was okay. So, the premise of contemporary life – for the Libertarian, one defined by rules – is wrong. Hence, the nostalgia. Swinging Safari is a swipe at the modern PC Nanny State.
It might not appeal to my own politics, but Swinging Safari does have an audience. It's not a very big audience, and certainly not very young. Smart nostalgia products create dual experiences, where the nostalgia is meaningful to those old enough to indulge it, but also just an appealing retro aesthetic to those who are younger than it (think “Stranger Things”). This way, everyone can find a way in, and lots of money can be made. Swinging Safari, however, is way too specific, and really won't appeal to anyone who at least “wasn't there”. But if you were a) part of a young family in the 1970's and b) think the world was better off then, before we had all these goddamm rules and political correctness, I reckon you could easily get your money's worth.
But give me Palms, any day.