Thursday, 12 January 2012

CULT CLASSIC: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

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The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Australia, 1994)
Directed by Stephan Elliott
Starring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp, Bill Hunter

The history of cinema is like that of a two-headed beast running simultaneously in opposite directions. One head aims for the gutter and embraces the trashy origins of cinema, pointing to the commercial novelty of the nickelodeon and the use of early photography for pornographic purposes. The other head, in a mixture of maturity and self-denial, strives for the stars, seeing cinema as an art form which can stimulate the senses, improve the mind and fundamentally enrich one as a human being.Nowhere is this quarrel between art and trash more prominent than in Australian cinema, a quarrel highlighted by the commercial success of Aussie efforts beginning in the 1970s and exploding in the 1990s. Films made Down Under in this period encapsulate every aspect of cinema history, from rough-and-ready exploitation (Mad Max) to fabulist fantasy (Moulin Rouge!), and from the mega-blockbuster (Crocodile Dundee) to the cult classic.The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Priscilla from hereon in) is one of the brasher instalments of the 1990s wave, which began with the likes of Muriel's Wedding and Baz Lurrman's debut, Strictly Ballroom. These films retained the rough-edged charm of Crocodile Dundee and its sequels while setting the record straight about the depiction and characterisation of Australians. While not without its problems, it remains an important and highly entertaining film, as an entry in the Aussie film canon and a classic in its own right.For those uninitiated with either gay culture or the drag scene, it would be tempting to reduce Priscilla down to the novelty value of seeing three great actors prancing around in women's clothing. While neither Guy Pearce nor Hugo Weaving were big stars at this point, it does raise an eyebrow to find the future Edward VIII or Agent Smith camping it up so readily in that much mascara. And that's not to mention Terence Stamp, whose reputation as a straight-laced hard man overshadows his high camp General Zod in Superman I and II.There are a great many films which would be amply sustained by the charm or novelty of three thesps playing against type, and getting away with saying outrageous things. But to Priscilla's credit, it never plays this novelty for any more than it is worth, and it quickly wears off as we become genuinely intrigued by and interested in the characters. After a while we stop seeing the garish make-up, flamboyant colours and the elaborate, Oscar-winning costumes, and only notice the people underneath.Priscilla has long been recognised for its role in the promotion of gay rights and the LGBT agenda. It brings ideas about gay behaviour, culture and identity to a mainstream audience without ramming the themes of respect and tolerance down their throats. Its message is simple but significant: that being gay, transsexual or a drag queen is not only acceptable, it's perfectly normal, or at least should be seen that way.The significance lies in the film's departure from the conventional depiction of homosexuals, either as shallow wet blankets with hinged wrists or repressed public schoolboys. It's a cliché to characterise Aussies as easy-going, but in this case such an attitude works to the subject's advantage; all three of the drag queens come across as normal people who just happen to wear woman's clothing to make their way. In American hands, the characters would have been showier and less believable, and the themes would have been clumsily conveyed. If you want proof, look no further than Priscilla's State-side rip-off, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.Although Priscilla's character execution contains very little that is American, the film does owe a great debt to the tradition of American road movies. The most obvious reference point is Easy Rider, due to the film's low-budget, independent spirit and relationship to the desolate landscape in which the characters spend most of their time. The film also includes a number of references to musicals, including a bitchy put-down of Xanadu, featuring fellow Aussie Olivia Newton-John.Priscilla is in possession of a corking script, with most of the best lines going to Stamp. Speaking in his natural British accent (which is never explained), he brings flair and erudition to an otherwise broad and brash environment. In one scene he is confronted by a burly woman in an out-of-town bar, who refuses to serve his friends in full costume. He turns to her and says, quite calmly: "Now listen here you mullet. Why don't you just light your tampon, and blow your box apart? Because it's the only bang you're ever gonna get, sweetheart!"While lines like this are immensely memorable, there are also more uncomfortable moments when the darker humour comes out. The best example comes halfway in when Adam (Guy Pearce) recounts a childhood memory involving his paedophile uncle. We see said uncle in the bath, asking Adam to put his hand under the water and "pull very gently" on what he finds. We expect the worst, but our expectations are confounded by Adam pulling out the plug; his uncle writhes in agony as his "ping-pongs" get caught in the drain, and we can to the adult Adam and Tick joining us in laughing our heads off.As Roger Ebert observed, Priscilla is not really about drag queens at all. It is about middle-aged men who are all tired of being stuck in the same place, feeling that they have been treated a certain way long enough. Tick and Bernadette (don't call her Ralph) bicker with Adam so much because they see themselves in him - they fear for him growing old and bitter, losing all the joie de vivre which, while often irritating, inspires and sustains the group in bad moments.In the manner of old romances, all three characters find solace or contentment in men. Tick and Adam bond with Tick's son, with the former accepting his identity as both a drag queen and a father. He is no longer governed by fear or regret, and is able to be a father knowing that his son won't be damaged by who he is. Bernadette finds in Bob a man on whom she can genuinely depend. They care deeply for each other, not out of physical lust or fleeting fancy, but from a shared appreciation of being a gentleman.There are a couple of problems with Priscilla. Conforming as it does to road movie conventions, there are long sections which feel slow and threaten to become repetitive. Once the characters are stranded in the outback things get bogged down, and there are one too many scenes of dance rehearsals or performances which highlight rather than distract from this fact.More obvious, and problematic, is the racist depiction of Filipinos. Bob's wife is a former Filipino hooker who speaks in broken English, swears rampantly, and seems addicted to both alcohol and sex. One of the most memorable scenes (for all the wrong reasons) sees her turning up a bar to perform her party piece - shooting table tennis balls out of her love tunnel. She's not in the film for very long, but the five minutes devoted to her character threaten to sour the whole experience.The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert remains both a sterling piece of entertainment and an important chapter in the history of Aussie cinema. Stephan Elliott directs competently and intelligently, the above flaws notwithstanding, and the performances are generally excellent. Whatever the merits of the musical it spawned, there can be no substitute for the original, whether as a camp classic, an off-the-wall road movie, or a rough-edged, warm-hearted drama.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: Brash, bold and bloody good fun

2 comments:

This looks like a wacky film combining Moulin Rogue with Rocky Horror! Great review, I just might see this someday.

Thanks for commenting Tom :)

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