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Backroads:
From Identity to Interval

by Stephen Muecke

Backroads


Stephen Muecke teaches Cultural Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility.
- Robert Musil

In 1977 Phil Noyce directed Backroads, a low budget short feature funded by the Creative Development Branch of the Australian Film Commission. This was the first feature for this Australian director who went on to Hollywood, and now has work like Newsfront (1978), Dead Calm (1989), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994) and The Saint (1997) in his directorial CV. Dubbed by Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka as one of “the most interesting films of the period,” (1) they also characterised Backroads as “an existentialist road movie, directionless, on outback roads, leading nowhere.” (2) While atopia is in itself an interesting figure, the structure of the movie is more determined than that. The following analysis will sketch some of the lines of influence which made the movie what it is, and then go on to relate it to concepts of Australian landscape.

Firstly, Backroads emerges out of Noyce's background in the documentary genre. He had shot a number of short films, one of which was on 'poofter-bashing' kids from Sydney's Western suburbs. In an interview with Michael Carlton conducted for the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in 1978, after Newsfront, Noyce gestured towards an aesthetic of vérité focussed on casting and performance. (3) He distinguished his work in this area (“more realistic performance”) from “the ABC style” (“a studied sort of thing” [with its] “stiff … and theatrical rendering of character”). (4) Casting is crucial in achieving this aesthetic because it relies on the actual life experience of the actors so that their “performance comes out of a sort of inner emotion … the people look as though they've done all that before … they mean what they are saying rather than a screen they've set up around their body to make them appear like that.”

So it was highly significant that Gary Foley was chosen to play the part of Gary in Backroads. Foley was at the plateau of his political activist career. In 1971 he had hoaxed The Australian newspaper into believing there was a highly militant Black Panther chapter in Australia, (5) but the members of this group were nevertheless part of a new generation of Aboriginal activists fighting for political ground, landrights and the promotion of Aboriginal knowledge and history. This group was associated with the 1972 'Tent Embassy' set up outside parliament House in Canberra which put Aboriginal affairs firmly on the agenda of the Labour government of Gough Whitlam. Foley was also one of those who worked on cultural fronts, taking part in street theatre, movies and the music scene, and eventually appearing as a guest singer with The Clash on their Australian tour in 1982.

Backroads, Foley explains, “was only ever screened once commercially in [Australia], at the Longford Cinema in Melbourne”. But it was

… a great success at the 1978 Berlin film festival, where it attracted high praise from German directors Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. As a result, the film was a big success at the Cannes film festival later that year, and consequently was invited to screen at the British Film Institute in London. Backroads ultimately screened for six months at the Scala Cinema in London. (6) Noyce explains the different levels at which this “volatile and articulate” Aboriginal activist contributed to the production. Drawing on a short story by John Emery, about an Aboriginal man called Noel, (7) Noyce interest lay in exploring the notion of 'unmotivated crime' (here existentialist philosophy, the ghost of Camus' Outsider, enters the picture) as much as Aboriginality. So Noyce's directions are that Foley should position himself as the rural Aboriginal male, but base the feeling for his performance in everything that had happened in his own life as an Aboriginal person.

Furthermore, Foley was involved in an ongoing critique of the film. Backroads, says Noyce “went through a genesis right through until it hit the screen”, and was even recut afterwards. Foley was allowed to modify the script as Noyce invited him into the screenwriting process. All the team was aware that the film was to be workshopped as it was being made and Noyce was prepared to admit “that he [Foley] knows more about Aboriginals than I ever will”.

Time and Tide
Noyce encouraged Foley to “take that basic concept [of himself as a young rural Aboriginal man] and develop it himself in conjunction with the other characters in the picture”. We will see in the transcript below how he does this with Bill Hunter (Jack) who is also appropriately cast since he “has bummed around the country with Aboriginals … has had quite a close but conflicting relationship with Australian Blacks”.

Noyce's documentary aesthetic “filming what happens … recording” is reinforced with the performances of cast members drawing on their own life experiences, their adlibbing of the script, and finally brought together in the editing, which is where Noyce seems to feel his authorial intervention is made: “you editorialise later in the editing or manipulation by juxtaposition, you're making your statements later”.

Michael Carlton, in the interview, was keen to label Noyce the “democratic film director” in recognition of this more communal effort in the production, and for Dermody and Jacka there is a “less didactic” style as such films “tend to be those that play with the genre”. (8) And while the overall effect is “a relaxed way by thinking through genre” the film also “accurately articulates its time and place”. (9) In retrospect, it most definitely belongs to '70s Australia, with emergent Aboriginal politics and cultural activism colliding with hippyism and so-called sexual liberation. At a technical level the film has the low production qualities of the nascent Australian film industry.

In the film, Gary and Jack meet more or less by accident when they steal a car (a '62 Pontiac Parisienne) and head off on the back roads through outback New South Wales towards Sydney. The story opens with the following text:

THE STORY SO FAR
Gary and Uncle Joe breezed into Colli yesterday looking for work around the wheat sheds. When Gary's old Morris packed up Joe pissed off to the Royal to spend his social cheque.
The cops lumbered Gary for the night on a vagrancy charge, so Joe hitched a ride back to the reserve with some buds.

MEANWHILE...
Jack was passing through town on his way to meet up with some mates in Newcastle. He spent too long in the back room of the Exchange last night and his truckie mate cleared off without him.

They never reach Sydney, (10) but pick up Uncle Joe, Gary's countryman (Zac Martin), a French hitchhiker, Jean-Claude (Terry Camilleri), and a disgruntled petrol station attendant, Anna (Julie McGregor), on the way.

At a central point in the film, there is a sequence of events and images on which I want to pause, not to release a condensed or hidden meaning, but rather to examine the apparent meaninglessness of the sequence and to show how the intervals between events release new possibilities. In speaking of the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, John Rajchman talks of “a montage of 'irrational continuities,' where the 'and' of cinematic construction falls free from the movements of the 'is' of given identities or predications.” (11) Here, in the intervals the characters gain and lose identities, transferring and transforming cultural understandings.

Gary is in the house at the Dodge City Reserve, Brewarrina, cuddling his son, saying goodbye. Jack is yelling at him and swearing; he's uncomfortable on the Reserve, he wants to get back on the road. And at the same time we cut to Essie Coffey sitting outside singing a famous Aboriginal Country and Western song. (12)

I spend the days in jail as they paid my bail
and they opened up the big iron door
I shook my head as I sadly said
'I never get drunk no more'.

I made a vow I give it up for now
and let the blood roll down my veins
then a friend of mine he had a flagon of wine
so I turned it on again.

People in town they just runnin' us down
and they gave us a big bad name
so we drink and we fight but it's quite alright
because the others is all the same.

Then the travelling companions are in the car again, the 'empty' landscape flashes past in side view, or is framed as the disappearing horizon ahead. Gary and Jack have an argument over Australian race relations, while in the back seat Uncle Joe is drinking from a flagon and Jean-Claude and Anna are smoking a joint and getting friendly: GARY: ... just sorta, let us live the way we want to, that's what it's all about that's the way I think.
JACK: You couldn't make it in fuckin' white society you fuckin' part [?] little cunt.
GARY: What about assimilation and all it means, man ... far as I can figure out we'll all get wiped out in the end, all us fellas, the Kooris, that's no good.
JACK: Well it'd be better than what you're doin' now look at those poor bastards on the reserve man they got no chance. Look at you, you bum around the fuckin' country. I don't work but at least I always got a bloody quid in my pocket. I pinch, borrow or steal it. Chris' what are you doin'?
GARY: That's what you gubbos can't understand eh? Ol' koori is different to you fellas, ol' koori is different, different ways.
JACK: Well, what do you want?
GARY: You s'posed to go to work six days a week, get yourself a house...
JACK: Oh fuck, I don't work either.
GARY: Yeah I mean, look at all those, maybe you're a bit more Koori (hits him on the thigh) than you like to think, mate ... Look at those gubbos out there man, they slave their guts out all their lives and what have they got to show for it? You know? What you going to do with all that money, you know you can't take it with you...
ANNA [in back seat, stoned]: Oh I don't know I wonder...
GARY: The old koori's got his way of life, everything that we've got.
ANNA: ... it's the kid I worry about ...
GARY: There's no such thing as what's mine in the Koori way of life, it's what's ours.
JACK: Pack a fuckin' commos.
ANNA: Mum's looking after him
GARY: Maybe, but still, [laughs]
JEAN-CLAUDE: But still you look [?] for yourself, huh?
ANNA: I don't reckon I'll ever know myself.
GARY: Nah mate, we're different.
JACK: You're livin' in a white society, man.
GARY: Are we? Huh! Are we livin' in the white society man? Are we really in the white society. Why we on the reserve, if we in the white society?
JACK: Well the fact that you're on the fuckin' reserve is pretty significant, isn't it?
GARY: We're separate from the white society already, aren't we?
JACK: Yeah, on white man's terms, gubbo's.
GARY: Look at the dagoes mate, they've been brung out 'ere...
JACK: Oh come on, don't give me that shit. When a dago comes out here within two fuckin' years they got their own house paid for, the fuckin' two fridges and the two cars...
GARY: They still got their own language they still got their own customs.
JACK: Yeah they're assimilated, they're assimilated, man!
GARY: They're not assimilated.
JACK: They fuckin' are! I've been down to fuckin' Carlton in Melbourne, I was down there.
GARY: Well you wind up in the big smoke like that in Melbourne, but not me. What I seen, what I seen is, Ities [= Italians] and all these people man, what I like about those fellas anyhow they've kept their language, they've kept their customs, and they look after their own just like ol' Kooris, mate.

JACK: Yeah.
GARY: I mean what's a gubbo? ...
JACK: Yeah they might have kept their fuckin' language but they've taken all the bloody Australian money too mate, whatta you bastards doin'? Fuck all! Sitting on your arse drinkin' fuckin' flagons all day.
ANNA: Sometimes I think it would have been better to stay where I was ... I had everything I ever possessed ... I didn't know it...
JACK: I'm not havin' ago at yer, mate, I just wanta understand it that's all.
GARY: You're learnin', that's the main thing.

A semi-trailer looms behind them, blowing its horn as the music changes from '70s 'cool' rock to comic triumphant battle-charge. A hitchhiker in the truck is waving and excited, taking photos of Jean-Claude and Anna having sex in the back seat of the Parisienne. The vehicles rush ahead side by side, and the sequence concludes with a shot of a dead kangaroo by the side of the road.

I had already decided that this scene was pivotal to the film, and this was confirmed in the Carlton interview where Noyce describes the two characters reaction to the script:

… they'd say: “your dialogue's rubbish, we're gonna change it” … the two of them reach some understanding of each other—the white of the black, the black of the white—and they'd say “yeah, well look, we've been talking about this” [they'd been living together for three weeks] … “an' we reckon we know how to do it an' we reckon that we've had enough discussions out here just to play this scene right through”. And it's a great, it's a scene where the camera was strapped to the side of the car and there's a two shot looking over Bill towards Gary and they're arguing with each other about the black situation and Bill is coming out with stereotyped white responses to dirty blacks and their attitudes and Gary's trying to answer him. And that scene was filmed almost like a documentary, the camera has 400 feet, 11 minutes, of film in it, Bill Hunter's driving the car, I'm sitting in the back, the sound recordist's in the boot [Carlton: and away you went] and away we went. But you're still the director because afterwards you decide what material to use … you're still sculpting all that material later on, dropping it into some statement. But you are making use of the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion of your actors. These characters thus engage with problems of race by living through them as they are suspended both in the goodwill of community and mateship, and in an artistic project conceived and transformed as it is being made, vehicled through a popular genre. This is a 'working' solution, a poesis, to an ethical problem (what do you do about racism?), the solution emerging because the problem is not so much conceived in terms of identity, but in the intervals between shots, codes, voices, the viewing subject and the Australian landscape. Relating this ethic to landscape as a metonym for national identity, an important contextualising effect for the meaning of the film, means going beyond perceiving it in the old imperial sense as something to be possessed and built on, and towards understanding it as the cultural transformation of country. Moving images, including those framed by car windows, give us the possibility of seeing landscape as variable rather than fixed, as in landscape paintings. In the intervals between sites stories can emerge.

This film sequence, like Foucault's heterotopic sites, is composed of heterogeneous elements. The appreciation and analysis of this heterogeneity means that where race-based conflict and contradiction habitually intensify (over sites, landscapes), ways of thinking other than possession and identity may have to be found. The ethical solution I have described is not achieved didactically, but its 'relaxed' effect is achieved more in a ritual condensation of various codes—music, the road genre, sexuality, racism. This is a poetic effect with an ethical direction.

It may be a bit far-fetched to say that the Backroads' cinematic sequence is resonant with a certain kind of poetry, but I would say its aesthetic is the landscape function of offering this non-didactic space, which sutures the subject into it. Jack's racist ravings (which are remarkably consonant with contemporary racist discourses; the unreconstructed 'innocent' dialogue of the '70s meets reconstructed or staged racisms twenty years later) are dominated by the men's emerging feelings of mateship, while the comic sex in the back seat makes the whole sequence a community-formation exercise. Essie Coffey's song teaches us that the ethical is not in steadfastness (“I made a vow I'd give it up for now”) but in the truth of the image (“and let the blood flow down my veins”) which is one of how jail relates to grog, and how we relate to them (“the others are just the same”), but “we”, the Aborigines in the song, are the ones who get jailed.

Bachelard relates his phenomenology of space (useful for my identity-landscape-nationality metonymic chain) to poetic emergence, which for him means images without causality or history:

to say that the poetic image is independent of causality is to make a rather serious statement ... the poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me. The communicability of an unusual image is a fact of great ontological significance. (13) He elaborates on this communicability: The image offered us by reading the poem now becomes really our own. It takes root in us. It has been given us by another, but we begin to have the impression that we could have created it, that we should have created it. It becomes a new being in our language, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression, and a becoming of our being. Here expression creates being. (14) The consciousness of a society, what has become our memory (and it is not that far removed from the present), is vehicled by popular forms like films, made up of linked codes and forces, which are articulated with a logic, not of causality, but with a more poetic logic of interval, movement, and a multiplicity of layers folding over each other in a heterotopic and variable space.

So it will not be a critique of racism produced as a statement that will work, a reduction to the law of the word, to the predictable syntax of a grammar of compulsion. The 'effective critique' (for want of a better phrase) is the one produced as something desirable: a form of life which is not just the film, text or structure as expression, but the ontological creation of the viewer already formed or coming to being through other such articulations. Having been in one place (say, Dodge City Reserve in Brewarrina), one emerges via an interval in another (a car moving on a road). This is not just a vector of freedom (and certainly not a symbol or metaphor of it). Rather, it releases an ethical life-force through utterances (“JACK: I'm not havin' ago at yer, mate, I just wanta understand it that's all”) or acts (sex in the back seat). The assertion of this life is gained through contrast with the dead kangaroo as an icon of Australianness, destroyed by the same on-going mad rush which is Australian modernism, and it prefigures the death of Gary as he is literally hunted down by the gleeful police at the end of this unfinished journey.


Stephen Muecke, October 2001
Thanks to Gary Foley for permission to use the images from his website.
To obtain more information about Backroads or to purchase it on video, please visit Smart St Films.

Endnotes:

  1. Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka, The Screening of Australia, Sydney: Currency Press, 1987 Vol 1. p. 188

  2. The Screening of Australia, Vol 2. p. 115

  3. Phil Noyce interviewed by Michael Carlton, North Ryde: Australian Film, Television and Radio School, 1978.

  4. P.P. McGuinness' 1977 review in the National Times seems to indicate Noyce's success: “Noyce manages to avoid sentimentality and cliché, to produce performances from his actors of an extraordinary degree of naturalness and to say almost everything that needs to be said by implication.” And he goes on to endorse an anarchist line on the film which will remind Australian readers of his current journalism how political sympathies can change: “It is not surprising that the articulate activists among the Aborigines, especially those who have come to the cities, should tend to a hostile attitude to whites and that there should be a temptation to total and violent rejection of the so often duplicitous governments which pretend to be concerned for their welfare.”

  5. See Gary Foley's Koori History Website: http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/backroads/bkindex.html. But note that the Black Panther Party is seriously documented in Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus, eds. The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History, (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999, pp. 252-256).

  6. See Foley Website

  7. John Emery, “The First Day of Spring,” in Summer Ends Now, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1980), pp. 66-73

  8. The Screening of Australia, Vol 2. p. 42

  9. The Screening of Australia, Vol 2. p. 115

  10. Another ending of the film was proposed but never made. Instead of being killed and arrested by the police, the mates and the Parisienne would make it all the way to the Harbour Bridge, only to be stuck in a traffic jam. At this point the mates would leave the car and continue on foot...

  11. John Rajchman, Constructions, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1998, pp. 3-4

  12. Dougie Young, “They Say it's a Crime,” on The Songs of Dougie Young (CD), Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the National Library, n.d.

  13. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) p. xiii

  14. Bachelard, p. xix


Phil Noyce filmography

Compiled by Ingo Petzke and Ian Stocks

1969 Better To Reign In Hell
1970 Intersection
1971 Camera Class
1971 Sun
1971 Memories
1972 Who are these people and what are these films?
1973 Caravan Park
1973 Castor and Pollux
1972 Good Afternoon
1973 That's Showbiz
1974 Renegades
1975 God knows why but it works
1975 Finks Make Movies
1977 Backroads
1977 Brad
1977 Disco
1979 Bali Island of the Gods
1979 Attack Force Z (resigned)
1978 Newsfront
1980 Three Vietnamese Stories
1980 Fact and Fiction
1982 Heatwave
1983 The Dismissal
1983 The Survival
1985 The Hitchhiker
1985 The Cowra Breakout
1987 Echoes of Paradise/Shadows of a Peacock
1989 Dead Calm
1989 Blind Fury
1992 Nightmare Cafe
1992 Patriot Games
1993 Sliver
1994 Clear and Present Danger
1997 The Saint
1998 The Repair Shop
1999 The Bone Collector
2001 Rabbit Proof Fence
2001 The Quiet American


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