In the process of re-appraising and deconstructing Steph Elliott’s Welcome to Woop Woop (1998), with reference to several vicious reviews and reactions to the film, Michael Winkler explodes a few mines under some wildly popular Australian films The Castle and Red Dog.
The Castle: “ … a modest film released sixteen months before Welcome to Woop Woop reached Australian screens. The movie is ostensibly about a family of Australian battlers that takes on the combined might of private enterprise and government, and wins. It is really about the stupidity of lower-middle class Australians and their great good fortune that the rich and powerful might, from time to time, give them an even break. Despite this, it was a huge hit.
“The movie pretends that its portrayal of the Kerrigan family is gently mocking and affectionate. Its real stance sits somewhere between sneering and sniggering. It is a portrait of a family with some finance but little social capital, constructed by filmmakers who have no idea who these people are, how they live, what they want and how they think. An aggregation of clichés and catchphrases is supposed to plug the hole where characterisation should have been.”
It suggests not just a failure of the mass audience’s critical faculties, but also the narrow way in which we want to see ourselves presented on screen...
He goes on to observe: “When The Castle is taken into the national bosom but Welcome to Woop Woop is demonised it suggests not just a failure of the mass audience’s critical faculties, but also the narrow way in which we want to see ourselves presented on screen.”
Red Dog: “Where (Krive Stenders’ earlier film) Boxing Day strove for authenticity, Red Dog was a gussied-up nonsense, hiding the truth about men, mining, Australia and the past. Stenders showed outback workers wearing spotless clothes and a 1970s outback pub where there is no cigarette smoke; that mendacious sanitising symbolised the film’s whole approach. Local audiences did not seem to notice or care that the American lead (Josh Lucas) is the only character that sees things through the lens of morality. Heck, outback blokes can’t be expected to think for themselves, and anyway, isn’t that doggy adorable! The lesson, it seems, is that you can never have too much rosy tint when painting Australia for Australian audiences.”
This last comment is perfectly relevant to Winkler’s argument that Welcome to Woop Woop was - and is - maligned for not having ANY rosy tint …
Indeed, he posits that “… this strange and deeply flawed movie matters … because of its unique position within the pantheon of Australian films. The syllogism goes like this: Historically and culturally, the outback film is the quintessential Australian film. Welcome to Woop Woop incorporates more elements of the outback film than any other movie. Therefore Welcome to Woop Woop is the quintessential Australian film.”
There were countless ‘better’ Australian films made in the twentieth century, says Winkler, “but none as essential as Elliott’s oddity. It is large enough to encompass small town culture and geographical boundlessness, old ockerdom and modern irony, most of the outback films genre’s durable tropes, and a sensibility identifiable as Australian from a four-beer drive away.”
Winkler heaps praise on the late Rod Taylor who played Daddy-O in Welcome to Woop Woop – with not just a broad Australian accent but a “wonderfully, broad 1950s” Australian accent. It was Taylor who contributed his character’s own catchphrase: Fahfangoolah!.
Woven through Winkler’s book are anecdotes from Elliott about the making of the film – and the unmaking of it at the hands of investors – as well as an interviews with the cast (or quotes from interviews in the case of Taylor) and department heads, along with an extensive deconstruction of the film.
One of my favourite anecdotes...
One of my favourite anecdotes is how Elliott fought to get the rights to what is one of the most controversial aspects of the film - the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein. The estate had never before agreed for the library to be used in a movie. With virtually no music budget, Elliott found collaborators inside R&H who were fans of his previous film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And they were gay, what’s more. But it was the rights to Climb Every Mountain that was still out of reach… this was holy R&H ground.
Not to be denied, Elliott flew to the US with his dance mix version and crashed an 11am board meeting attended by Mary Rodgers (widow), “and I screamed ‘I’m about to be removed by security. I shouldn’t be here, but can I just play you this? And she loved it. We got immediate approval.”
Little has been said about the film’s origins, Douglas Kennedy’s 1994 book, The Dead Heart, but Winkler fills that information gap with a terrific, no holds barred chapter about the adaptation (written by ex-Rolling Stone journalist Michael Thomas and Elliott) and the angst the changes caused Kennedy.
the film’s midnight debut at Cannes...
The chapter on the (six-weeks incomplete) film’s midnight debut at Cannes is a short and sharp four pages, but it says a lot about how the film was initially received; unloved and derided.
Although badly compromised by cuts imposed on him, the film remains Elliott’s homage to a fading Australian culture of the 40s, 50s and 60s, which includes beer guzzling and sexism. Not to mention some of the most colourful lines of dialogue ever filmed.
Ever helpful and thorough, Winkler includes an extraordinary and fascinating Appendix: Outback Tropefest, listing the ever-recurring motifs in outback films – which he consumed by the hundred as research for the book. He also lists every film mentioned, plus 123 notes that refer to notations in the book.
Fahfangoolah! is all I can say.