How ‘The Boys’ Captured 90s Australia’s Weird Masculine Zeitgeist

Published June 1st, 2017

In the late 90s, Australian cinema turned its gaze towards the darker side of our culture—its violence, crime, and brutality. Of course our obsession with Australiana, nostalgia, and “the larrikin” would always remain mainstream but there was something brewing. And this darkness resonated with audiences, a sort of Australian new wave that you can trace from Romper Stomper to Animal Kingdom.

The Boys is another seminal film in this canon. Directed by Rowan Woods, the 1998 classic presents a confronting depiction of violence, masculinity, and the Australian landscape. Ahead of a restored screening of The Boys at Dark Mofo later this month, VICE caught up with Rowan to talk about the film’s legacy, the new era of Australian cinema, and how relevant it is to Australian audiences.

VICE: Hey Rowan, how is The Boys just as relevant to audiences today as it was 19 years ago?
Rowan Woods: There’s this silence and shock when people watch The Boys. No matter what the generation. I think there’s this universal fascination surrounding the question of where violence comes from. Particularly from anyone who has experienced horrific violence or been close to someone who has experienced awful violence.

The major characteristic of The Boys is its subtle yet powerful comments on the normalisation of violence. What made you present it like that?
There were personal reasons. I knew women who had experienced horrible violence. It was said to me that when violence was brewing, and was perpetrated in a domestic space, the victims somehow felt they were part of real-life horror movie. Stephen Sewell’s adaptation of The Boys reflected that horrifying reality. As a filmmaker it seemed to me horrible violence could only be accurately reflected in cinematic terms through a strategic intersection between documentary screen language and certain visceral strategies within the genre cinema. Particularly the great horror movies. But inevitably my background of art film and nonlinear narrative filmmaking comes into play. Presenting what feels like a real life horror movie in a domestic space became an interesting intellectual exercise, as ghoulish as that sounds.

Since the release of The Boys, there’s been a surge of Australian film that’s explored the darker realities of Australia. What lead to this sudden change? 
In the middle to late 90s, very few properly financed Australian movies were looking seriously at the dark side of the Australian psyche in a way that challenged the audiences’ expectations of contemporary screen language. Australian cinema at that stage was preoccupied with a quirky version of the Australian identity and continued to looked backwards through rose-tinted glasses at the 1970s Australian New Wave. But it was the 1990s. It wasn’t as if trailblazers like Lars Von Trier and Dogma in Europe, Wong Kar Wai in Hong Kong and a swathe of American indies weren’t exploring new realms. But at that time, in Australian cinema, the time-lag was breathtaking. Some might argue that it still is.

Do you feel the film helped influence this new earning for more in Australian cinema? 
I think it’s more of an indication of how small the Australian film industry was and is. The Australian film industry is very tight knit and at the time, there were so many emerging filmmakers like myself looking towards world cinema.

Is this darker representation a more honest depiction of the Australian psyche, and even Australia itself?
I don’t think Australian cinema or the Australian psyche is uniquely dark in its preoccupations or it’s collective guilt. Every culture has a deep, dark psyche. As human beings we are all curious about the very bad things that we are capable of inflicting on others on a daily basis. But when we view ourselves through our cinema, I think we become slightly myopic in the way we characterise ourselves. The truth is our cinema is very variable both in its thematic preoccupations and artistic invention.

If not this inherent portrayal of who we are as Australians, why has this form of Australian cinema resonated with audiences? 
There is an obsession with real life crime and criminals in cinema and particularly TV. It may be a consequence of our financing psyche. It’s difficult to sell a story of fictional violence without it being attached to a headline in some way. It’s perhaps a sheepish approach to financing—the idea that if it is going to be violent then it must have a tabloid label for audiences to hold onto. Rather than violent stories emerging from purely fictional realms.

It permeates the main stream like a sickness. Possibly a result of the slow extinguishing of a proper film culture involving intelligent overview and analysis. Swamped by publicity driven hoopla from cultural institutions and reviewers and journalists that for whatever reason seem to tow the line. Or else simply whine and bemoan our collective artistic failings.


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