Powell: They’re a Weird Mob (1966)
The fallout from Peeping Tom propelled Michael Powell into some strange projects during the last two decades of his career, but none was quite so incongruous as his direction of They’re a Weird Mob, an adaptation of Nino Culotta’s 1957 memoir of the same name. On the face of it, Culotta’s book was an authentic story of an Italian finding his feet as an Australian immigrant in the 1950s, but it was actually written by John O’Grady, to satisfy a bet that he could successfully impersonate the voice of a recently arrived “I-Ti.” As a result, the film, like the book, is less about the Italian experience, than mythologizing mid-century Australian life as it might be expected to appear to the eyes of an outsider, in all its glory and hilarity. The result is an Australian picaresque, released at the tail end of the White Australia policy, that seems positively surreal over half a century later, when the Mediterranean immigrants represented by Nino have become part of the bedrock of everyday Australian life. On the cusp of that great influx of Italian and Greek immigrants in particular, the accents of They’re a Weird Mob feel remarkably British, part of an imperial lexicon that has all but vanished today.
For the first part the film, accents and pronunciation make up most of the gags, to the point where this frequently plays as a proto-Zucker comedy, in which Nino, played by Walter Chiari, continually misunderstands words by taking them too literally, or reproducing them with too much phonetic veracity. In the first ten minutes alones, we hear about schooners, sheilas, the Cup and the Test, as the dialogue mainly opts for one Italian-Aussie mistranslation after another. This might work well on the printed page, but it quickly tires on the big screen, as Powell seems to intuit, since he quickly moves away from this patter comedy to a more surreal and expansive vision. We get the first hints of this in Nino’s first impressions of Sydney after stepping off the boat from Naples. This is a city that is both urbane and parochial at the same time, situating Nino in one of the pervasive tropes of the 60s – the ingénue arriving in the swinging metropolis – while harkening back to Italian neorealism at times, albeit in a more antipodean vein, most notably in the handheld, fluid, documentary style that Powell uses to stamp his location shooting inside the Marble Bar in the CBD and the Royal Hotel in Randwick.
This self-deprecating self-mythologising quickly constellates around Australian masculinity, starting with the opening song, which declares that “it’s a man’s country, sweetheart.” We quickly hear that it’s a “nation of sport” (Nino is working as a sports editor), that “everyone’s a bloke – I’m a bloke, you’re a bloke, we’re all blokes” and that the worst Aussie insult imaginable is not to shout a mate a beer. While Nino meets a wide cross-section of Australian men, they all share the same casual, laconic, “she’ll be right” vibe, and they’re all laced with a defiantly blunt ugliness, culminating with Chips Rafferty in a late career role as Harry Kelly, the father of Nino’s love interest Kay Kelly, played by Claire Dunne. For years, Rafferty’s height was a symbol of Australian prowess, but Powell transforms it into a source of comic grotesquerie by mainly shooting him sitting down, legs cramped up at odd angles, while focusing at length on his bad teeth, unusually shaped mouth, and tendency to spit his words.
Insofar as the film has a story, it involves Nino aspiring to this Aussie male ethos, which he aims to conquer on two frontiers, both of which leave him shirtless for most of the film. The first frontier is suburbia, specifically Punchbowl, where he gets a job building tract homes after quitting his post as a sports writer. There, he meets a motley crew of builders who are working on a house positioned high on a bluff that gives them (and us) a panoramic view of the suburban sprawl as it inches slowly forwards towards the Blue Mountains. This is still partly a rural frontier, country enough for Nino’s site manager to gaze longingly at tractors and ploughs as they drive past, helmed by farmers or by wealthier suburban entrepreneurs.
The parochial masculinity of the opening scenes quickly takes on a more heroic and sublime quality here, starting with stylised shots of the foreman breaking earth on the plot that are intercut with low-angle images of a stately Hills Hoist swaying in the background. This is where Nino first encounters the true phallic prowess of Aussie manhood, and it momentatily floors him, forcing him to abase himself by cowering in the foreman’s wake, and shovelling away the residues of his ground-breaking, until he’s more dog than man. The suburban frontier becomes a study in Australian virility, and incitement to Nino, who may be big, built and bronzed, but is still utterly effeminised in comparison to the average Aussie digger. Accordingly, Nino only discovers his true masculinity and muscularity, and begins to bulge and ripple, when he decides to take over the ground-breaking himself. This is the moment when he first starts to become Australian, and Powell marks it with epic slow motion, as Nino reaches a poetic trance, or a fugue state, while swivelling his axe around a root. The twisting and turning throws his musculature into vivid relief, until we seem to be witnessing the superhuman feats of classical heroes, or the founding of the great western empires, as the movements grow more stylised and ecstatic, traces of Aaron Copland’s pastoral everymen flit into the score, and Nino falls down on his back, sated upon Australian suburban sublime.
At the same time, Powell invests the raw materials of suburbia with an almost mystical potency – especially the transformation of blue stone into concrete, which propels the score into a surreal, sci-fi percussiveness, as the cement mixer becomes a vortex, twisting and distorting the images themselves. This surreal music is partly taken from Nino’s glimpse of the Chinese neighbours, and their restaurant truck, as we start to see some of Powell’s profound gifts for strangeness – or for estrangement, for the uncanny and unhomely, which is mapped onto the Australian dream of a suburban home here. In fact, the entire building site has a Powell and Pressburger-zaniness to it; it’s as vivid a picaresque scheme as those of A Matter of Life and Death or A Canterbury Tale, presided over by the exotic gaze of the Chinese neighbour, and obeying an internal logic that demands both sublimity and absurdity. No surprise, then, that Pressburger wrote the screenplay, under the pseudonym Richard Imrie, in the last gasp of his decades-long collaborations with Powell during the Archer years.
This suburban heroism propels Nino out towards the second frontier of the film – Bondi – as Powell complements the Australian myth of the tract home with the Australian myth of the beach. The Coplandesque pastoral rings out again as the camera crests over surfers, swelling in time to some of the most beautiful shots of the film, culminating with Nino finding himself far out at sea, as waves alternately reveal and obscure the shore. Yet this just intensifies the horizon of Aussie manhood, as a blonde life saver comes out to retrieve him from an impending rip and, when he won’t comply, wrestles him into submission and drags him back to shore, where a horde of other lifesavers lift him above their heads, dump him on the sand, and look down from their lofty heights, via Powell’s most dramatic low-angle shot thus far.
The sheer phallic potency of these lifesavers crystallises the dual frontiers of suburbia and beach into an Aussie macho sublime, not unlike Max Dupain’s sunkissed photographs of Bondi beachgoers. As a synthesis in the ongoing dialectic between suburbs and beach, these bronzed icons also usher in a third kind of space over the third act: the shoreline and harbour. This new spatial focus starts with Nino visiting a house on a Bondi headland, the Copland-like swell returning as his gaze shifts down to locals rock fishing, as Powell cuts to sailors looking back up at the house. From there, the action starts to revolve around an upscale Italian restaurant set right on the foreshore, while the camera also becomes more mobile to disperse the rigid horizons of suburbia and beach into the snaking perambulations of the harbour, following Nino as he travels by car, then by foot, to a mate’s place on the North Shore, where he plans to crash for a couple of days as he attempts to find a home of his own.
This shift to the foreshore also coincides with the first storm of the film, leaving Nino gazing out at the harbour, rain pouring down the windows, with nothing to do. All of a sudden, it feels like we’re in a Brett Whiteley painting, as Nino ruminates on a brilliant orange bed, and the landscape outside dissolves into an expressionst blur. It may be the first scene when he’s confined indoors, but this only intensifies the restless energy of this third act, as he takes off his shirt, and walks round and round endlessly, in one of the best comic set pieces of the film, before realising that he needs to propose to Kay, his love interest. Australians are such an outdoor people, it seems, that there’s literally nothing to do inside but decide to get married. Certainly, there are indoor men in the film, but they’re a bit off, a bit queer – like the pair of receptionists in the Kings Cross Hotel where Nino first stays – while outdoor women are suspiciously masculine, like the androgynous news vendor he meets early on in Martin Place.
At one level, that means the film now doubles down on its misogyny and gender binaries. We hear that “a woman is just a woman, but a sirloin is a steak…rare” and we’re reminded that “it’s a man’s country, sweetheart/where a woman can never win.” At the same time, though, women are continually associated with modernity, futurity and technology – we see them operating switchboards, running companies and sitting in the most modern spaces in the film. Harry, Rafferty’s character, may be the head of a construction company, but it’s his daughter Kay, Nino’s lover, who runs it – and this brings us to the great paradox of the film; namely, that the only women worth pursuing are men in spirit. Women are so inconsequential in They’re a Weird Mob that Nino’s love interest has to be a surrogate man, so it makes sense that he sets his eye on Kay, who is “hard as nails…only interested in building and sports.” The film thus comes full circle, as the Aussie macho sublime becomes a source of homoerotic jouissance, and the film openly acknowledges what it has always been: blokes looking approvingly at other blokes. The fact that O’Grady was white, and writing about his own people through the persona of Nino, only reiterates the autoeroticism of the film, its fixation with blokes getting off on their own blokiness, and encouraging other blokes to do the same.
This homosocial relaxation brings the harbour into even more prominent relief, while squaring the circle with the opening aerial shots of the film, which emphasised it as a work in progress, whether through the images of the recently completed Cahill Expressway or the under-construction Opera House. By contrast, the next major scene takes place on Goat Island, completely surrounded and enconced within the harbour, as a barbecue and Italian music performance brings about Nino’s final moment of assimilation. In its own picaresquely diminished way, this is the film’s version of Ellis Island, the transition to a new life, much as Nino reimagines America’s city on a hill in a more minor mode in the next scene, when he buys a plot of land in Kirribilli and declares: “This is the place where I shall build – here, on a hill, overlooking the sea.” An Australian religion of property ownership and family values has been carved out of the dual frontiers of beach and suburbia, resilient enough now for the film to provide its one and only hint of an indigenous past, the rock pictures by “older Australians” that dot Nino’s property. No sooner do we glimpse these, however, than they’re absorbed back into Nino’s vision of himself as a future Christ, and his family as his disciples, by way of a fishing trip in which he instructs his wife: “Kay – give him [their son] your rod. Let him fish.”
Having subsumed this indigenous presence into his own Australian religion, and asserted his own indigeneity in the process, Nino is now able to return to the film’s most primal vision of the Aussie macho sublime: the surf lifesavers. Having envisaged their family’s future, Nino and Kay return to Bondi, where another man is being brought back from the rip, much as Nino was earlier in the film. For a brief beat, it looks like this man has drowned, but at the moment he comes to life, Nino kisses Kay for the first time, and completes his Christ-like journey with a self-resurrection in the guise of the Aussie masculinity that once seemed to be entirely the province of these larger-than-lifesavers, who abruptly retreat into the mythic past now, like a chorus that the film no longer requires to complete its story of assimilation in the present.
For all the early translation comedy, and for all its erasure of the indigenous past, They’re a Weird Mob is thus keen to present Australians as essentially peaceable when it comes to race. The most overt racist we encounter is a blundering drunk on the Manly ferry, who is roundly rejected by a cross-sections of Australians, from newly arrived immigrants, who only speak Italian, to the most established of the North Shore bourgeoisie. It feels pointed that this encounter takes place on a ferry too, as if to remind us that everyone here, apart from indigenous Australians, arrived by boat at some point, just as it’s appropriate that Nino ends up saving this drunken ranter when he catapults overboard as they pull into Circular Quay.
This peaceability ends with Nino asking Harry for Kay’s hand in marriage, which is also Rafferty’s main scene in the film. Harry may be three feet taller than Nino, but he’s sitting down for most of their scene, and is quickly won over by Nino’s insistence: “I’m marrying her.” “Not if I can stop you.” “You can’t.” All it really takes is for Nino to point out that the Pope is Italian, as Harry starts to wonder if there could ever be an Australian Pope – and whether it might even be his own grandson. That very question indicates that, in the space of a few minutes, he’s come to see Nino as Australian, or to see Italian-Australian and Australian as the same thing – a pretty radical gesture from the gatekeeper of Aussie masculinity over the previous three decades of cinema. All of a sudden, Nino and Harry are both blokes, mates, bonding over a drink, much as the final wedding gives way to one instruction: “Bring out the bloody beer!” The film ends as a beer ad, but the best kind of beer ad, and probably the inspiration for many of the iconic beer ads that have defined Australian male culture over the decades since. A final montage sequence shows the crates being passed from house to house, connective tissue between suburbia and beach, as the camera retreats to an aerial shot of the harbour, the perfect close to one of the weirdest Australian mythologies ever put to film.
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