Romper Stomper

Russell Crowe as Hando

There isa touch of the fortuitous about the controversy that has surrounded Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper since it first started generating a critical response earlier this year. David Stratton has gone into print (in Cinema Papers) to deny what he was alleged to have said off-the-record in Cannes about the film; but Geoffrey Wright continues to bristle at the mere mention of the name of Australia’s best-known critic, and apparently never fails to bring up Stratton’s condemnation (which went on-the-record in his review for Variety, and on the 12 November edition of the Movie Show on SBS) in interviews. Others have expressed fear that the film’s depiction of neo-Nazi skinhead gangs on the rampage is likely to prompt copy-cat racist attacks on ethnic minorities. The film’s Australian distributors, Village Roadshow, are undoubtedly currently strung out somewhere between glee at their ability to meet the media’s perpetual appetite for controversy, and an urgent impulse to satisfy the public’s desire for reassurance that the film is not likely to prompt a sudden outbreak of skinhead violence.

In his Variety review, David Stratton said Romper Stomper was “A Clockwork Orange without the intellect”. The invocation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film of Anthony Burgess’ novel (first published in 1962) is significant, not because it is, as Stratton claims, intellectually superior to the Australian film, but because many of the criticisms currently being levelled at Romper Stomper were similarly made of A Clockwork Orange at the time of its release. According to Philip French, writing in the Spring 1990 edition of Sight and Sound, “Not long after the film’s release, newspaper stories began to appear about gangs imitating Alex and his droogs, though the actual evidence of this is hard to come by …” (p86). The film has not been shown publicly in Britain since the early 1970s, and Kubrick is said to have forbidden its release there on video as a result of the reaction its cinema release may, or may not, have prompted.

It may be objected that the Burgess/Kubrick scenario was a projection of where society may be headed, and that Wright’s film is a fictional depiction of a scenario which already has a real world counterpoint both in Melbourne (where the film is set), and more spectacularly abroad; and that because of the reality factor, the film has more of an ethical obligation to show the world-view of the skinheads as morally bankrupt, to adopt an overt position of condemnation from within the film itself. Before examining whether or not the film does this, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider if or why it should even attempt to take such a position, and what are the implications of such a demand for the issues of censorship, and self-censorship by filmmakers. The expressed fear that the film is likely to inspire copy-cat incidents of racist violence suggests a number of things: firstly, that there is a marked delineation within our society between those individuals who are able to witness scenes of violence and racial hatred and impose their own moral condemnation upon them, and those who will witness such scenes and – lacking the guidance of an obvious moral position (or ignoring it if one is present) – will be persuaded that presentation equals advocacy; secondly, that at some level not so deep within our subconscious selves there remains the trace of racism, and perhaps even the desire to participate in ritualistic acts of racially-motivated violence; and thirdly, that our society is extremely susceptible to persuasion by images and narrative, and can readily be convinced that a lifestyle or ideology is laudable on the basis of one film alone.

Geoffrey Wright is in no doubt that it is the first proposition that most informs the criticisms of his film currently circulating. “I don’t go along with an hierarchical view of society, I don’t believe that there are those who come out of a film like this and say, ‘I feel like going out and bashing someone’. People who see this film, and I’ve seen it with thousands of people, are virtually unanimous in being exhausted by it – they want to have a drink, or a cigarette, not go out and bash someone. And that’s because the film is deliberately structured to produce that effect. Critics who condemn the film don’t feel that ‘they’ are likely to commit acts of racist violence; it’s always someone else, some mythical person they’ve never met.” But Wright is equally adamant that audiences should not settle for the easy option of seeing the film as a story about a curious, if frightening, group of people who in no way connect with the mass of white Australia. “The skinheads are not aliens. They are a part of this culture, and they represent something about it, in an exaggerated or an exacerbated way, that is not very pleasant to acknowledge, but is nonetheless very real.” Perhaps, then, we ought to understand some of the animosity towards the film as the result of its making apparent the subliminal racism which neither legislation nor politically correct thinking has yet managed to eradicate entirely.

Davey (Daniel Pollock)

But what of that third proposition, that images have the power to influence people so directly? The belief that images of violence provoke acts of violence is the key to understanding why people have responded to the film with such speed and apparent fear. According to the Federal Office of Film and Literature Classification, a recent study indicated that “despite the lack of conclusive evidence, 65 % of Australians believe there is a connection between TV violence and violence in real life” (media release, 23 October 1992). That a similar link exists in the minds of many Australians apropos of cinema is clear. But if w e were to assume, for the sake of argument, that such a link is real and not just perceived, then surely we must ask what sort of images of violence provoke these acts? All images of violence, from the apparently innocuous scenes of Sylvester the cat attempting to eat/kill Tweety-Pie the bird, through the cartoonish super-violence of Terminator 2, to the fictional realism of The Killing Fields? Are all images of violence deemed to have the same weight, or do differences in response exist in relation to differences in type of portrayal? And if so, which is better: that portrayal which depicts violence as fun, harmless and recurring (Sylvester and Tweety- Pie); as cathartic, liberating and directed solely at the forces of evil (Terminator 2); or as senseless, destructive and indiscriminate (Killing Fields)? If one were forced to decide between these options, it would be the last which suggested itself as the one most likely to have a positive effect, in so far as a realistic, non-gratuitous presentation of violence and its consequences is likely to have a chilling or pacifying effect rather than an exciting one. Conversely, the violence portrayed in cartoons might then seem the most likely to provoke acts of violence, in so far as it is this type of portrayal which is most clearly linked with pleasure. If there is a link between depictions of violence and imitation, then the equation of violence with pleasure – the eroticisation of violence – must surely provide the key.

It is difficult to determine precisely how much pleasure is to be derived from the violence in Romper Stomper. The ending of the film is certainly cathartic, and to that extent might be seen as providing pleasure; but it is really pleasure that derives from a sense of release from the displeasure that has preceded it. For Romper Stomper is amongst the bleakest portrayals of Australian society yet to have graced our screens, its world populated by dysfunctional characters from the working and middle classes, whose only counterpoint seems to be the solidarity-in-battle of the Vietnamese gang. Undoubtedly, violence provides much of the narrative fuel for the film, but if an apology or explanation were needed for that it could be found in the fact that the film strives for a realistic depiction of its milieu, and violence is a fundamental part of the ideology and behaviour of neo-Nazi skinhead gangs.

Hando (Russell Crowe) represents that ideology at its most well-defined. His voice, quoting passages from Mein Kampf to girlfriend Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie) is a clarion call for white racial supremacy, and resistance to miscegenation. His room is decorated with press clippings of neo-Nazi activities, and his most treasured artefact is an antique WWII German bayonet, allegedly stolen from the War Museum in Canberra by a fellow skinhead. The action that drives much of the film begins when he leads an attack on a group of Vietnamese who plan to buy the pub in which the gang drinks. The attack is in fact the second of the film, the first (in a railway pedestrian underpass) having occurred within minutes of the opening credits. These two attacks actually stand in stark symbolic opposition to each other, although narratively they occur quite close together: the skinheads seem, in the first instance, to be in command, to be pro-active; in the second, it is clear that their action is in fact a rearguard stance against an inevitable tide of change. The distance traversed from that first brief and shocking scene of violence to the second, longer and more theatrical sequence, is from the possibility of the skinheads appearing heroic to the realisation that they are weak, foolish and misguided.

But Romper Stomper does not present the skinheads only from an ideological perspective (Russell Crowe’s AFI Award-winning performance is probably the least complex of the three leads), and it would be a much less powerful film if it did. Much of the film’s strength draws from the emotional veracity of the two other lead characters, Davey (Daniel Pollock) and Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie). Together, they afford us an insight into what it is about the skinhead gang that appeals to kids who are certainly screwed up, but not as irredeemably psychopathic as Hando. That appeal can be reduced to a single word: family.

Hando is undeniably the father, as well as the leader, of this gang of eight or nine skins. The scenes of the gang together in the warehouse squat that they call home are suggestive of some backwoods father attempting to bring his children up with a strong hand, who is drawn inevitably towards the violent pattern of behaviour displayed by his own father in rearing him. Hando’s devotion to Nazism might thus be understood as an attempt to rationalise, abstract and universalise patterns assimilated as a child. This character background is, however, purely speculative, as Hando’s father does not figure in the plot at all. In a sense, this confers upon Hando a degree of everyman status, as we are not able to psychologise or rationalise him away; Hando just is, and his unexplained presence is a pointer to our culture’s general tolerance of a barely sublimated racism. Gabe and Davey, by contrast, are supplied with sketchy but powerful emotional and family backgrounds. Davey’s father is absent, an industrial diver who travels the world, sending his son souvenir matchboxes from the cities he visits, as markers of his distance. Davey lives in a twee mock-Bavarian cabin in the backyard of his grandmother’s house, and ironically hides his Nazi inclinations from her, for fear that she would be horrified and fail to understand. Hando, of course, does understand Davey’s isolation, his loneliness, his disaffection. More than that, he offers a way of understanding both the cause of that disaffection (the incursion of foreigners into “white” land and culture) and a solution (get rid of the foreigners). In a very clear sense, Hando is the father Davey has been lacking.

Gabe is a refugee from her own family; her mother is dead, and her father seeks to install Gabe in the dead mother’s position. Gabe begins the film as Hando’s girlfriend, and ends as Davey’s. In between (and in one of the film’s few vaguely comic moments) she briefly tries to assume the role of mother (in a displacement of her own father’s desire), alongside Hando’s father figure, to this ragtag group of rebels. After the remnants of the gang has escaped the onslaught of a vengeance-seeking group of Vietnamese youths by evicting some hapless hippies from a warehouse/squat, Gabe cooks a large meal of dubious desirability. Like some weird parody of Oliver Twist, the camera peers between scoffing skins and along the table to Hando, sitting with arms folded in defiance of the meal being offered to him. Sneeringly, he demands, “What’s this shit?” When Gabe replies that it is “pasta with vegetable sauce; it’s all we had”, Hando hurls his plate across the room with the words, “Wog crap”.

The scene is important in many ways. Most obviously, it reinforces the fact that Hando is the most ideologically committed of the gang (refusing to eat racially-impure food, in spite of his obvious hunger), perhaps the only one who is a skinhead[1]Obviously not all skinheads are neo Nazis. for what might be termed “philosophical” reasons. It also indicates his belief that there is room for only one Führer in the gang, and that Gabe’s mothering represents a challenge to his leadership that must be met head-on. In this respect, the scene also functions as a short-hand critique of what Wright presumably takes to be something of a norm in traditional working-class patriarchal family structures. Finally, Hando’s action is to be understood as being directed at Davey (and secondarily at the rest of the gang) almost as much as at Gabe, and signals the growing realisation that Davey is on the verge of becoming an errant son. More subtly still, it signals his realisation that his dalliance with Gabe may result in the loss of the true love of his life, Davey.

However, any suggestion of a homosexual bond between the two lead male characters is, as in so many other Australian films, strictly sub-textual. Geoffrey Wright may or may not be aware of such an attraction as a motivating force, but Hando and Davey are not, or at least are not able to articulate the fact (certain moments of eye contact between the two may, however, count as a sort of communication of such an awareness). So strongly bound by rituals of masculinity are they, that to express such an attraction – particularly obvious in the final scene of the film, in which Hando tries to talk Davey into dumping Gabe and staying with him – would be to fly in the face of those rituals and risk excommunication from the only legitimate source of male-on-male contact open to them. Gabe, in a sense, is the medium through which Hando and Davey experience each other sexually.

Wright sees the ending of the film, in which Davey chooses the option of romantic involvement with Gabe over the extended playground antics which Hando offers, as an affirmation of the old-fashioned notion that “love conquers all”. “Davey and Gabe demonstrate some capacity for intimate commitment”, says Wright, “and that is the beginning of the end for all big, sweeping political programmes. The only way to find any happiness is to be an individual, and that’s the end for those big dangerous movements. And in that sense I think love does conquer all.” But the ending is even more old-fashioned than that: Davey’s decision to choose Gabe leads to him slaying Hando. In the light of Hando’s symbolic status as father, of Gabe’s momentary position as mother, and of Davey’s transition from child (skinhead) to man (romantic partner, significantly stripped of the badges that had previously adorned his jacket, and hence free from his past), the scene conveys a strong sense of the Oedipal slaying of the father in order to assume his position. The dramatic weight of the film suggests, however, more of an allegiance to the trajectory of Greek tragedy than the insights of psychoanalysis. “I think it is a kind of humble, proletarian tragedy”, says Wright. “The characters don’t start from any great height, but they still have these flaws which bring them further down. There is an acceptable middle-class mythology in this country; we accept bourgeois mythology but have difficulty accepting mythologies about any other class, and that includes the ruling class. In a sense, Romper Stomper is kind of a spit in the face of expectations of what an Australian film should be. We have a tradition of doing rural stories, or if we venture into the cities they tend to be very soft, and that’s not what seems to be going on in the cities at the moment – it’s very hard, it’s gritty. I guess that with this film and with Lover Boy [Wright’s short 1 988 film] I was attempting to explore a working-class mythology.”

That Wright’s vision of life in Melbourne’s working-class west as expounded in Lover Boy and Romper Stomper (his forthcoming film, Speed, is set there as well) is a bleak one is beyond doubt. That it is likely to provoke racial violence seems unlikely; after all, with the unemployed, bored, and aimless youth of Australia hardly even able to afford the price of a cinema ticket, the causes of gang violence and racial hatred might better be sought, and found, elsewhere. Somewhat ironically, given the film’s final advocacy of romantic commitment as a means of escape from the grand hatred of neo-Nazism, Romper Stomper appears to lay much of the blame for the existence of skinhead gangs at the door of the dysfunctional family unit; fix that up, the film seems to say, and they will go away. But Wright’s film is no more likely to contribute to the (re)constitution of the family unit as the core of society than it is to spark sudden membership increases in skinhead gangs. Disturbed as he may be (and granting that it may be a strategic disturbance) by the vehemence of those who insist on reading Romper Stomper as the best Nazi recruitment film since Leni Riefenstahl’s footage of the Nuremberg rally, Wright remains adamant that they are wrong: “to understand what the film is on about, just be in touch with your feelings at the end of it. There is only confusion when people try to impose academic criteria onto the film; film is essentially an emotional battleground, not an intellectual one. Personally, I hope that every skinhead in the world sees it.”

1 Obviously not all skinheads are neo Nazis.