Keanu puts us in the picture
by Brendan Shanahan
THERE is a scene in The Matrix in which Laurence Fishburne presents Keanu Reeves with two pills. "One pill," he says "will put you to sleep and none of this ever happened. The other . . . well, who knows where it might lead," and his hand sweeps away to a vista that looks suspiciously like the World Square building site on George St by night. At which point my friend Claire leans over and announces loudly in the middle of the cinema: "What? The bloody Pitt Street Mall?" I couldn't take the movie seriously after that. "Oh, look, it's Martin Place/the MLC Building/the one with the big silver bits!"
Yet, suddenly, I realised that it made me feel deeply uncomfortable to see the familiar landmarks of my home turned into the stuff of movie fiction; and I don't think it was because it ruined the illusion that Keanu wasn't really in some sort of post-modern model of the urban landscape as pseudo-philosophical metaphor for the emptiness of modern life. It was because I'm not use to seeing urban Australia used as the backdrop for story-telling.
Americans are not perturbed by this state of affairs. When I went to LA, it amazed me that the entire place was literally a set – "Oh, look, it's the real Melrose Place!" – and that the locals didn't find it unnerving to see their lives mythologised on the screen. This is because Americans are so used to seeing their stories transformed into myth that they see no disparity between the fiction and the reality. And what is true of film is also true of music.
What great Australian bands have successfully managed to mythologise a specifically Australian experience? I mean, it's OK for Springsteen to immortalise the battlers of New Jersey, for Lou Reed to name actual streets in New York, but if I wrote a song about the Queen Victoria Building I'm not sure anyone would be able to keep a straight face.
The Brits do it in their own way, too. Yet rather than idealise their sense of place they have a tendency to openly celebrate the sheer crappiness of their existence. English songs might be all about sniffing glue on a council estate, but it's a real council estate. Yet if I were to replace "Panic on the streets of London" with "Panic on the streets of Wollongong", you might be forgiven for emitting a polite snigger.
There have been attempts. Cold Chisel made the best shot at a Springsteen-goes-to-Dubbo aesthetic of working-class Australia, and Tim Rogers managed to sing about the Glebe Point Bridge without sounding corny, yet for the most part Australian bands shy away from specific Australian references in favour of a more abstract evocation of place. For example, The Triffids.
The one exception might perhaps be Melbourne; a city which has spawned a countless number of parochial "singer-songwriters" who, as one famous parody of the awful Things Of Stone And Wood once went, have been known to "run out of Melbourne cliches".
Australian rock has mostly ignored the possibility of elevating the plight of urban Australia to the status of legend. Why is it? Because we don't take ourselves seriously? The cultural cringe? Is it simply because most Australian cities are actually pretty boring?
I'm not quite sure I know the answer, but I'm not expecting too many songs about Wollongong to flood the market any time soon.