At least one aspect of the generally lowly-regarded oeuvre of producer Frank Howson deserves discussion: the aspiration of several of his projects (Boulevard of Broken Dreams , Heaven Tonight , What the Moon Saw ) to dramatise the conditions of Australian culture.
The principal subject of Howson's films – often overriding the nominally central but usually rather pale character relationships – ends up being the drama of cultural values and tastes – high versus low art, fake vs authentic creative expression, art vs criticism, national vs international culture, and so on. These cultural fault-lines are traced in various interrelations of the worlds of theatre, pop music, film, radio, newspapers and television.
Backstage – although it was reportedly taken out of Howson's hands by the Burrowes Film Group and subsequently disowned by him – is a poor film by any standards, but a fascinating case study in its portrayal of cultural attitudes.
Indeed, as an Australian film starring an American import (pop singer Laura Branigan) which bases its very plot on the criticism heaped on Kate, an American singer cynically brought out to appear in a stage play, it is (as Elizabeth Jacka remarks in the book The Imaginary Industry) "extraordinar[ily] self-referential", the ultimate dissociated or split text impossibly trying to both commercially exploit, and reasonably distance itself from, the conditions of the 10BA period of tax concession film-funding in Australia. (It should be noted for the record that Jacka's description of the film's plot is inaccurate in several major details.)
Inadvertently, the film is deeply revealing of a number of entrenched cultural attitudes. Ostensibly, its stance is anti-imperialist, with its theatre critic-hero Robert (Michael Aitkens) speaking out against both American import stars and the dominance of British traditions in Australian theatre.
The film's real animus, however, is reserved for vulgar, shallow, garish popular culture. Robert endlessly denounces the "superficiality" and "insulting triviality" of Kate's play (and commercial television), instead calling for great, serious, "meaningful" work to appear. Unsurprisingly and stereotypically, he eventually swaps criticism – or "necrophilia", as Kate calls it – for playwriting.
Robert's (and the film's) high-cultural values are in fact wholly British in inspiration (and therefore just as imperial as those it denounces) – as evidenced in the very casting of Aitkens; the climactic stage performance of Chekhov; and the affectionate celebration throughout of the witty, professional, no-nonsense acting style of British-style comic actors like Noel Ferrier as opposed to the emotional excesses of the American Method (and the intellectual "wanking" of the avant-garde, embodied in Kim Gyngell as a fey, hippie director).
Yet, as a confused, schizophrenic film, Backstage cannot be ultimately read as properly upholding even these supposedly High cultural values. As commercial entertainment, its modus operandi is the amelioration of all conflicts, and the creation of strained, mid-way compromises between different cultural values. Thus, the love story between Robert and Kate, besides turning her into a real actress and him into a real writer, also produces new rock songs with meaningful lyrics! And the ultimate Chekhov performance is indeed a bizarre hybrid of art and showbiz, subdued theatrical acting and spectacularly vulgar display (with the crowd going wild exactly as it did in the opening rock concert scene).
Not since the days of Rooney and Garland in the Andy Hardy films has there been such a flagrant example of popular culture's defensive, unrequited drive to be taken as more than just pop – and of the fascinating, extravagant failure of such a dream.
© Adrian Martin 1991