All Men Are Liars
1995 was not a great year for Australian feature films. There were some that had compelling elements but were seriously flawed overall, like Geoffrey Wright’s Metal Skin and John Ruane’s That Eye, the Sky. There were more than a few real stinkers, particularly in the would-be comedy realm, such as Alan Madden’s Mushrooms. And then, somewhere between those two poles, writer-director Gerard Lee’s feature debut, All Men Are Liars.
If we take its makers at their word, All Men Are Liars is an attempt at making a purely crowd-pleasing, vulgar, rambunctious entertainment. It has much in common with certain American teen movies that I frequently extol. Mick (David Price) is the awkward teen hero stuck in a backward Queensland town, with one of those handy dysfunctional families that we see in virtually every whimsical comedy. Mick’s mum, Irene (Carmen Tanti), has moved out, and his dad, Barry (John Jarratt), is a loud, Elvis-worshipping bore going through some sort of mid-life crisis. Into this Queensland town rides a rock band from the city; Mick gets hung up on its sweet lead singer, Angela (played with great naturalness by TV soap star Toni Pearen). In a plot twist common to several dozen American teen movies – brilliant or banal – Mick auditions to join the band but, as it is an all-girl group, he does so in drag.
From here, the film becomes a standard, quasi-Shakespearian comedy of masquerade, where two people become attracted to each other, but one of them is pretending and lying. (Its title comes from a great 1990 song by UK’s Nick Lowe.) The mid ‘90s were quite the time for masquerade plots in romantic comedies as seen, for instance, in While You Were Sleeping (1995), Speechless (1994) and Only You (1994). When the masquerade is cross-gender, there is the possibility of extra, illicit thrills – as the characters in drag have to ward off advances from unlikely sexual partners, and the ones who are taken in by the masquerade start to wonder about their own erotic preferences and orientation. Just One of the Guys (1985), in which a teenage girl dresses in drag to infiltrate the arcane world of teenage boys, and the supernatural sex-change comedy Willy Milly (1986), are two marvellous examples that dizzily and daringly play with the possibilities that cross-gender masquerade presents to teenagers.
Unlike those two examples, All Men Are Liars is neither dizzy nor daring. Lee’s film exhibits an extremely lackadaisical approach to plotting and developing comic possibilities; it constantly sets things up only to let them peter out. I have never before encountered a drag-masquerade film that makes so little of the young hero’s difficulties with handling the clothes, make-up and relevant accessories of the opposite sex. But it’s not only the jokes that suffer here; even the supposedly central emotional questions – how and when Mick is going to come clean to Angela, whether his parents are ever going to get back together – are tossed off so casually that you wonder whether Lee took them seriously at any point.
In a famous essay of 1980, Meaghan Morris once suggested of Australian cinema in general: “There is little or no glorification of full-blown romantic love, for example, and none of the heightened respect for the eternal drama of the couple that defines so much European and American cinema. Instead, there is a fascination with group behaviour, and with relationships seen in the context of social institutions”. (1) Since those wise words were written, local movies have tended to place their love stories within the larger context of families and communities (like in Strictly Ballroom, 1992), or within self-immolating subcultures (Romper Stomper, 1992). Or else they go the way of All Men Are Liars, where romance is dreamed of in a misty way, but finally derided like it’s some unreal import from a suspect foreign country.
Then again, maybe the casualness, the barely concealed sardonic smirk, is all part of the calculated larrikin spirit of the movie. Lee and his team may have said a little too much, a little too boastfully, about it before release, promoting it is anti-arthouse – anti pretension and sophistication. Furthermore, according to Lee, All Men Are Liars is not an auteur movie (you need to give that French word the appropriate Aussie pronunciation of drawl-and-snarl in this context), because the director has not set himself up as a creative godhead. But in some of the really awful shots and scenes, so indifferently put together, I do wish that Lee had taken the art and craft of direction a little more seriously. This kind of denigration of the director’s role reminded me of Bob Ellis’ voluble pronouncements accompanying his curious The Nostradamus Kid (1993). On many levels, All Men Are Liars is The Nostradamus Kid revisited.
There is a strange worldview offered by Lee here; Australian life and manners are presented in the typical larrikin fashion. Everyone in this country town is a bit stupid, awkward or hung up on odd obsessions; they lapse into moronic silences after each nervous attempt at dialogue, and they scurry around furtively, spying in windows, tearing off like rabbits down the main street in their souped-up cars. It seems the only care or love in All Men Are Liars has gone toward the presentation of this whack carnival of degenerate ockers. Furthermore, it would appear that there are basically no women in this all-Australian town. There’s Mick’s mother, refined, cultivated, nervous, flighty, hysterical, not an ocker at all – her love of the piano allows the film to contrive the supposed pleasure of seeing one such instrument smashed into pieces en plein air. That whole piano-related stretch of the film is indeed (as you might imagine) a laborious in-joke at the expense of Jane Campion and the art cinema represented by The Piano (1993); Lee was once Campion’s script collaborator. (2)
There is a clear disregard for maternal femininity in All Men Are Liars. Next to Mick’s mother, there is Angela, who is indeed angelic – she’s an ethereal, lovely, young thing, purely a figure of adolescent male fantasy. And, off to the side, there are the other women in Angela’s band. One member particularly stands out as a lascivious, muscly bull-dyke; while the film tries to portray her with some rough, comic affection, the joke never works – All Men Are Liars has even less queer spirit than Stephan Elliott’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994).
So, All Men Are Liars presents the full misogynist Aussie scenario – in a laid-back, everyday tenor. The blokes are impossible, but lovable. The women are difficult, but sweet. And if they’re not sweet, they’re ballbreakers. The time-honoured clash of the hero and a forbidding father-figure over the body of a sweet, young, female thing is even more explicitly rendered here than in The Nostradamus Kid. All Men Are Liars has some bizarre scenes where Barry has vague dates with Angela, and strange sequences with attempted gags that lead the audience to believe (even if only for a moment) that this improbable couple are doing it in Barry’s car or in his special room. All Men Are Liars is not aggressive but nonetheless a nightmare on the sex-and-gender plane. Like The Nostradamus Kid, it is rather shambling, laconic, even self-mocking – in that boozy, rather maudlin way known well from the movies, art and writing of hundreds of Aussie blokes throughout the decades.
And what’s more … Every filmgoer may have one little thing, an area or aspect of the real world, that they cannot stand to see poorly or wrongly depicted in movies. For some, it is the planes they use in war movies; for others, it is the cars that characters drive, whether their make, date or whatever really fits the period shown. I don’t care about those things, and I don’t even notice them, because I know nothing about planes and cars. There is an irrational demand for ultra-realism that attaches itself to these detailed fixations, and a secret wish to become an awful, film-spotting cop. But I have one of those fixations myself, and it forms my final, sidebar complaint about All Men Are Liars.
My fixation has to do with the depiction of music – musical styles, as well as the making of music. It is very rare to find films – such as Light of Day (1987) and Georgia (1995) – that actually get the details of any musical culture right, especially popular music cultures (perhaps classical music cops a better deal, all things considered). Unlike those two fine examples just cited, Australian films tend to get their musical details spectacularly wrong almost all of the time. Bands, performers, concerts, hit songs: all are conjured in a haze of vague cliché, as if dreamed by someone (or some committee) who lack the slightest acquaintance with any specific musical style. An instance of this can be seen in Michael Robertson’s Back of Beyond – the worst of the 1995 crop – that presents the audience with a fictional fading rock star, bumming through the outback and stating at every turn: “Gotta go – gotta gig”.
All Men Are Liars offers a situation that is not much better: why would (what is meant to be) a punk-grunge-all-girl-part-dyke band travel all the way to a country pub? And upon hitting the stage, why would they play soft-pop versions of blues-rock standards like “Walking the Dog”? This group – named Total Fire Band – resembles no musical phenomenon that I have ever seen or heard in this blessed world of ours. And it is here that I rest my critical case on All Men Are Liars.
2. Whatever was going on between Campion and Lee in the md ‘90s, they managed to work together again on the outstanding TV series Top of the Lake (2013 & 2016). Lee has not subsequently directed another feature film. back