The Weekend Watch: 40,000 Years of Dreaming

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The Weekend Watch: 40,000 Years of Dreaming

Welcome to The Weekend Watch, a weekly column focusing on a movie—new, old or somewhere in between, but out either in theaters or on a streaming service near you—worth catching on a cozy Friday night or a lazy Sunday morning. Comments welcome!

As George Miller’s latest guzzolene-and-piss-drenched epic, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, roars into theaters, you might be drawn towards some of the filmmaker’s other heated road trips across the post-apocalypse. You might also be drawn towards a few of his other disparate projects, simply because of the cognitive dissonance of him also making two Happy Feet movies. But if you want to get to the heart of what Furiosa is expressing—more than its surface and more, even, than its mythic themes—you could turn to 40,000 Years of Dreaming (also subtitled White Fellas Dreaming: A Century of Australian Cinema), a documentation of Australian film history written, directed and hosted by Miller.

A brief but illuminating hour that takes you not just inside the mind of Miller the filmmaker, but Miller the Australian, 40,000 Years of Dreaming is a reckoning with all the sociological forces battling it out inside of Miller and his countrymen. It’s both a rundown of Aussie Film 101 that offers clips from plenty of must-see titles, and an artistic self-reflection of why so much pop culture from the land down under has turned out the way it has. It’s a thoughtful little movie, and one worth seeing for anyone interested in Australian cultural products. 40,000 Years of Dreaming is out of print, and was made as part of the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema series back in the late ‘90s. You might think it’d be hard to find, considering that it’s also not streaming on any service, but a quick search will turn the video up in full.

While the most compellingly laid out parts of Miller’s cinematic essay concern the various tropes unique to Aussie cinema, he opens with personal anecdotes that lead him to a description of movies that rivals Roger Ebert’s famed “empathy machine” term: public dreaming. Somewhere between Jung’s collective unconscious and Aboriginal spirituality, Miller’s idea of public dreaming is a compelling one, interwoven with Joseph Campbell’s monomythic hero and (perhaps overly simplistically) optimistic about our shared human nature. It’s heartening, and speaks to Miller’s worldview as well as his artistic ethos. Even if our places in the real world feel completely different, in the dark of the theater, we can all share the same unreality.

As Miller makes his point, we get to see a side of the silent movies not taught in American film schools and the rise of movie stars like Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette and more, as they make impactful hometown indies that jettison them overseas. Through his calm, soothing narration and straightforward direction, outside of an opening ten minutes (and some uncanny use of soundtracking to make newsreels into nightmares), Miller makes a film collage that’s not just “public dreaming,” but a dream evocative of an entire country’s life.

But it’s that which sets Australians apart that makes 40,000 Years of Dreaming such an illuminating watch. Over the course of the doc, with plenty of hilarious title cards, we learn of the white Aussie identity spun from several factors, including the romantic-comic figure of the Bushman, somewhere between British slapstick buffoon, American gunslinger and Beverly Hillbilly. The frontier-taming Bushman sprung from a history of colonization and a lineage of convicted criminals—even the most honest among them was still stealing land from the Aboriginal peoples. That literal DNA (and an antagonistic attitude towards the Brits and their hoity-toity, out-of-touch ways that your standard U.S. patriot would applaud) meant that there is a bit of national pride in behaving badly, or at least boorishly. We meet the cinematic larrikin, a rowdy youth, who became enlisted as a noble grunt—a digger—during wartime. We’re reminded of the outlaw Ned Kelly, the Aussie most often depicted on screen. In a country where booze, land, song and inhospitality were plentiful (and women were scarce), there’s a pervasive soft spot for good-hearted macho morons.

And Miller doesn’t evade the dark side of that idea. Proving that the progressivism you’d see in his later films like Mad Max: Fury Road was alive and well in 1997, Miller’s film history lesson also tracks his country’s vile relationship with women, gay people, immigrants and Indigenous people. And hey, it’s pretty much the same as every country’s relationship with these groups—but at least Miller has the decency to put the hard truths in front of us, spelled out on crystal-clear celluloid.

One of the more moving passages involves 1955’s Jedda, the first Australian movie shot in color, the first to star two Aboriginal actors (Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth) and the first Miller ever saw. Charles Chauvel’s influential anti-assimilationist film aimed itself at a culture that wanted to erase, to consume, to paper over a people who’d been dreaming for millennia before them. Miller sighs, noting that only recently have things begun to change, and that Australia’s Aboriginal population is still their most oppressed. But in facing his country’s filmography unflinchingly, Miller focuses on the iterative steps forward that are continuously documented in the subtext (and, often, text) of fiction.

“Out there in the calamitous give-and-take of life, we will look for patterns, shared meaning, signal amongst the noise,” Miller concludes. “It will be left to the storytellers to somehow suck them out of the zeitgeist and distill them into narrative.” The feedback loop Miller describes is found in his own movies, like Furiosa, and in movies at large. In Miller’s telling, this cycle is one of hope, because when we keep dreaming together, we see how similar we really are.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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