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The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Stills courtesy Latent Image/Specific Films
I WATCHED THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT ONLY RECENTLY, SURPRISED TO FIND THAT FOR ALL ITS POPULAR SUCCESS, IT’S A CURIOUSLY TENSE, BICKERING, OFTEN GRIM FABLE OF IRRESOLUTE AUSTRALIAN MANHOOD—WHETHER STRAIGHT, TRANSVESTITE OR TRANSSEXUAL. IT ALSO TREATS ITS WOMEN VERY BADLY. IN AN EARLY EDITION OF REALTIME (RT 4, P4), IN A THREE-WAY DIALOGUE, JACQUIE LO, MERLINDA BOBIS AND HELEN GILBERT TARGETED THE FILM’S APPALLING ACCOUNT OF A VERBALLY AGGRESSIVE FILIPINO WOMAN, ISOLATED IN THE OUTBACK, ENTERTAINING THE PUB LOCALS BY SHOOTING PING PONG BALLS OUT OF HER VAGINA AND UPSTAGING PRISCILLA’S TRANSVESTITE SHOWGIRL TRIO. PHILIP BROPHY ADDRESSES THIS MOMENT AND MANY MORE IN A WICKEDLY ENGAGING NON-LINEAR ANALYSIS OF THE FILM THAT PULSES WITH ODD JUXTAPOSITIONS AND UNEXPECTED ASSOCIATIONS CONNECTING UP DISPARATE ELEMENTS INTO A ‘MAP’ OF THE FILM AND THE CULTURE IT CONJURES AND FROM WHICH IT HAS GROWN.

Roland Barthes wrote somewhere that denotation is the last of the connotations—we come at meaning not directly but through a host of associations. Philip Brophy is a whizz at the art of the semiotic reading of a cultural object, attentive to every aspect of its surface (its “tonality; the weight and porosity of its audiovisual texture”), its edges and layers (its “semiotic verticality and iconic stratification”) and, above all, a network of associations branching out into the greater cultural tanglewood. His is a poetic and highly rhetorical approach, relying often on the power of suggestiveness and he’s a dab hand at sly allusion and irony. Not every assertion convinces, especially when Brophy’s at his most polemic in this brisk 82 page read; dismissiveness comes too easily and some will read it as a clever dick assault on a sacred cultural object, and Australian film with it.

Writing about Priscilla provides Brophy with the opportunity to challenge the “dumb semiotics” of Australian culture and film in particular where the “pre-labelled and self-proclaimed...enforce cultural associations, rather than nurture discovery or allow repulsion.” Familiar tropes and icons are clung to in the name of uniqueness. But they are not meaningful for Brophy: “to me, Priscilla, is as alien as the landscape that greeted the first convicts, prospectors and settlers.” His map of the film, he declares, will be “less an analysis of the film’s dramatic script and its visual narrative, and more an assessment of the signs circulating within the movie.” And he knows he’ll be seen as getting it wrong: “This reading...is irrefutably un-Australian”, but not, he emphasises, Aussie-bashing, though some readers might regard that as spin: “[My] reading celebrates the great nothingness of white Australia and all the heady delusions and spindly neuroses which atmospherically circulate around its engorged mass.”

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Stills courtesy Latent Image/Specific Films
In a culture in which so little film analysis is characterful, let alone brave enough to locate film in the big cultural picture, Brophy is very much a felt presence in his little book. He announces up front that “in the spirit of Genet’s self-degrading recoding of the obvious my reading ‘drags’ Priscilla’s appropriation of drag...” He imagines a Genet “time-warped and sent to a penal colony in Australia then jettisoned to a far future on the eve of Priscilla’s lauding at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival...he may have written a book like this one...” For Brophy, ever the outlaw, imprisoned in Australian culture but always breaking out, this is no occasion for cringing humility. The writing is rich in image and metaphor, often pushing into excess to make its mark, but replete with all kinds of drollery in the tradition of the queer outsider—from Oscar Wilde to Quentin Crisp and on to Sandra Bernhard. The smart arse quips—like Roland Barthes as jokester—situates the writer in the history of queer wit rather than with Genet, but the point is taken. As well as unravelling the tangle of visual and aural associations in the film, we need to step right back from the screen to see what’s really going on.

Like his role models Brophy is constantly quotable—“the reminder of the penis is the eternal lump in the throat of the drag body”; Isadora Duncan’s scarf “brand[s] her body as a machine for movement.” There are similes and metaphors that do the job (I’ve cited some of the best and wildest below), and some that don’t: “In a prolixed manner, I am reading Priscilla here as a layer of skin covering the cartilage of the Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric Scheme’s historical formation and logistical machination.” There are moments of wonderful excess like this on the joys of sinking the piss: “Harvested like a primary crop, processed like a pandemic yeast infection, distilled into a simulated urinary liquid, prone to foaming into frothy ejaculate, the sexual aura of beer can only be avoided when one is too drunk to fuck...Its gluttonous intake gears the body into a living pissoir...one might as well piss beer while drinking urine.” There are sentences containing barely submerged song titles and passages where the semiotician lingo fogs meaning. Mostly, the book is a wonderfully grumpy entertainment that makes you think more than twice about the film and the culture of which it is a part.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Stills courtesy Latent Image/Specific Films
Brophy doesn’t read Priscilla for us linearly; he identifies key signs and then joins the dots to cultural associations that might not have occurred to us, mapping signs into a comprehensible guide to the film’s dynamics. The map’s mostly legible and rich in sidetracks and diversions that mostly take you back to the main road. Occasionally you feel you’ve run into a dead end or fallen off the map, trying to hang onto the fit of, say, the pheromonal meaning of women’s scarves. Brophy otherwise puts the scarf to good use, getting Isadora Duncan and her strangulation into the act in his cumulative account of the film’s persistent silencing of women. Its relationship to larger sign posts points to the significance of breath and the trace of the voice. It all happens very fast, and a re-reading helps make better sense.

Above all Brophy is attentive to the sound of film (in his own films and performance, in his Cinesonic column for RealTime in the 1990s, his international conferences with the same title, and his British Film Institute book, 100 Modern Soundtracks). It’s not surprising that breath, voice, accent, popular song, opera and the didjeridu figure potently in his response to Priscilla, looping into a disturbing totality. He starts out with Shirl, a woman, alone amongst a bunch of tough but reticent blokes in an outback pub, who verbally attacks the transvestite trio:

Shirl’s open mouth is the black hole of the white void at the red centre of Australia. Her oral gape is the glassy eye of the film’s sociological hurricane: a raging whorl of misogynist energy that spins around this charade of a butch dyke...Shirl is like all nagging wives: a bitch to be shut up. And to be shut up by a British trans-sexual [Terence Stamp as Bernadette]—now that’s Australian comedy.

Brophy’s writing here, as elsewhere, is itself “a raging whorl”, sucking a host of associations into its vortex and swirling towards its destructive, knockout punch line. Then the storm starts up again slowly building to a series of coups de grâce, via discussion of the inflatable doll atop the bus, the opera soprano and the film’s breathing (the central characters “develop less through a series of trials and tribulations and more through an arrhythmic concatenation of inflated and deflated moments”). He writes, “all [the women] are defined by the means by which air fills their being. The doll is blown up, the drag queen is puffed out, and the female corpse is pumped within.” The film’s use of the opera aria allows Brophy to drive home the governing “necrotic” (his compounding of necrophilic and erotic) dimension of Priscilla while giving him room to comment on opera as drag. He sees opera “as a form of drag in the first place—a woman performing a man’s creation…Controlled by the Promethean impulse of the composer she bears his breath.” The result, Brophy thinks, is “the anodyne resonance of pure tone”, at a remove from real emotion and deadly: “For when Verdi’s aria is smelted from the hovering inflatable sex doll, death is in the air.”

It’s a short trip from opera to musical, since in Priscilla there are ‘live’ songs as well as mime. Again Brophy joins the dots between breath, voice, drag and death: “Ultimately, all Musicals are drag revues” because they use lip-synching, just as in drag mime “which creates the ghostly aura of a human presence.” Shortly, in the same terms, he addresses the drag queen’s narcissistic appropriation of the torch singer. The argument is dark and arresting but just when you suspect you’ve been lead into some semiotic back block, Brophy guides you back to the film’s central trio—and their voices.

By now, Brophy has detected that for all the film’s inflation (its uplifting horizons and aerial views) there is a prevalent depressive and necrotic deflation. On the matter of voice, he observes of the trio that “they flip between displays of tartiness and blokiness, the former with physiological ineptitude and the latter with theatrical inexactitude.” He connects the limited binary being of these men with John Mellion’s VB beer television advertisements, tourist industry images of Australia (and of much Australian film) and a persistent national ailment: “contrary to its gay portraiture, Priscilla captures the sexual confusion that foams around the churning waters of gender divisions which so desperately chart Australia’s ongoing frontier roughness and the brute ways in which male and female are cleaved from the other.” Never mind the clunky metaphor mix, Brophy’s point is clear—while the film might throw up a mass of complex associations, it’s still represents a “dumb semiotics”, un-nuanced, un-gay and deeply prejudiced.

Priscilla, like many an Australian film for Brophy, has ignored alternative voices, appropriated and transformed them into standardised Australian signs, sucking the breath out of difference. But gay culture itself is also problematic: “Post-70s, gay culture’s officiated alignment with notions of ‘pride’ and ‘community’ effectively closed off the perversity of a pre-gay epoch. In the process it partially normalised the aberrant power born—no matter how problematically—from exploring identity potentiality beyond the barriers set by heterosexual identity.” This culture is now progressively de-queering a unique heritage: “Far from being oppressed, hamstrung or constricted, sexual identity in early to mid-20th century gay subculture was utilised as a proto-totemic signifier ripe for subversion, inversion and conversion.”

Up to now Brophy has written little if anything about Australian film composition and sound design. Now with apt perversity, he’s taken on a film he dislikes in itself and for what it represents about Australian film and culture and does it bizarrely great service, if nonetheless condemning it for the crude binarism of its dumb semiotics. He has discovered that “[t]he film is a labyrinthine text, honeycombed with signifying pathways fragmented by multiple modes of performance and characterisation...” He is taken with Priscilla’s music: “I find that the innate novelty, studio trickery, sonic complexion and lurid narratives of nearly all the 70s songs dragged in and throughout Priscilla create a lasting aural depth within the film’s audiovisual assemblage…as if the cinematic veneer of its construction cannot contain the energy of the songs and their original performance.” In the end Brophy wonders, “maybe the phenomenon of Priscilla has little to do with cinema.” Its appeal resides everywhere else in the cultural map of which it’s part but not in the film itself.

For Brophy, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert turns out to be a treasure trove of songs and other cultural signage—the good, the bad and mostly the ugly. The bottled turd of Agnetha (of ABBA fame) epitomises gay and straight male misogyny, the treatment of the Filipino, Cynthia, is “one big gang bang”, the attitude to Aboriginal people is assimilationist and the musical finale with the trio dressed as Australian native fauna is a performance which “remains nothing but inhuman, as they shift representation of Woman to a series of animalistic, reptilian and monsterised figures.”

But the film has worth, it seems, if only as a mirror image of our culture—one which has to be read with the Brophy map in hand: “Priscilla’s straight eye on a queer world grants us the most potent symbolic condensation of this uniquely Australian self-distorted portraiture...this dark jewel of popular culture is a mystical stone which especially grants male Australia the power to see itself for what it really is.”

Brophy’s book is a challenging read, in the best sense, and good fun, witty and instructively gross by turns. My major reservation is that the only other Australian feature film mentioned (also disparagingly) is Muriel’s Wedding and there’s a passing reference to several outsider films: Wake in Fright, The Coca Cola Kid and Where The Green Ants Dream. Brophy’s blanket reading of all Australian feature film as locked into the nationalist syndrome is wearyingly absolutist for a writer who otherwise reads film and the world complexly, but don’t let this deter you from a scintillatingly good read.

Jane Mills, the series editor of Australian Film Classics, made one of her best choices in assigning The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert to Philip Brophy. As with most of the series to date she has wisely avoided predictable choices, reaching beyond the industry itself, the academy and reviewers. I’m looking forward to the latest instalment, Henry Reynolds on Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.


Philip Brophy, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Australian Screen Classics, series editor Jane Mills, Currency Press, Australian Film Commission, Sydney, 2008

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 26

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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