the nightingale: a revision for the frontier film

Author: Jasper Caverly 

CW:  Sexual assault, violence against Aboriginal people
*Spoilers*

A great majority of the Australian genre-film canon is indebted to movements conceived by filmmakers in the international realm of cinema, leading to filmic delays in topical popularity, mimicry, and global otherness. In the contemporary genre-market, then, societal displays of suppression may in fact be Australia’s greatest ally on the world stage, manifested through a strong sense of pertinence, revision and uniqueness – a vision ratified by the Australian horror film I wrote about last week: Jennifer Kent’s film, The Nightingale (2018).

Today, I would like to discuss The Nightingale’s status as a genre film, and the way it is loosely bound to the Western canon. Ultimately, the film functions less as a traditional Western and more as a reimagination of the American frontier film, placed within the context of a factually scrutinized, unapologetic retelling of British settlement in Australia. The impact of this subversion on audiences, which I will come back to later, underscores the importance of escaping – or at least twisting – traditional conventions when seeking to tell stories through cinema, and for spectators, looking beyond the surface level of a genre film.

My interpretation of The Nightingale generic underpinnings is strongly validated through representations of colonialism and implications of subversive imagery. As a Western, Kent’s film is motivated by the adherence to a set of generic tendencies proposed by Douglas Pye: plot, structural features, character, time and space, iconography and themes (2012, p. 241-242). The Nightingale follows a young heroine/hero partnership as they pursue a villain-led travelling party across the untamed landscape of the Australian bush – the heroine seeking to enact revenge upon her rapist through rudimentary justice. For those of us familiar with the genre, this purpose-bound struggle against a body of evil across an arduous journey recalls genre tropes of the 20th century Western. Replace the lead characters with cowboys, the villains with American Indians, the Tasmanian bush with a Nevada plain – and you have a frontier film.

While the film’s narrative conventions and iconography adhere to the Western mode, Kent tackles the ideological challenges built up by this genre by opting for a revisionist, self-critical approach to the western. (Gallagher, 2012, p. 299). As Bazin & Gray write, “…[the revisionist western] looks for some additional interest to justify its existence – an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political…quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.” (2005, p. 151). The generic qualities of The Nightingale, which aim to subvert or challenge colonial frontierism, are further illustrated through explicit instances of sexual assault and modal hybridity in presentations of ‘the uncanny’.

Within the film, there are three sequences where women – one colonial servant and one imprisoned Indigenous women – are forced into acts of sexual violence at the hands of imperial soldiers. These scenes were criticised by festival-goers and media personnel during the film’s initial release, but nonetheless, it is vital to consider these identities and their symbolic implications within the Western mode.

Let’s first consider the function of the soldier in the western film: they are frequently represented as heroes who seek to overcome ‘savagery’, protect those in need, and bring peace to the frontier. In The Nightingale, however, these ‘heroes’ are demythologised by their own acts of savagery – through idiocracy, insobriety, racism, passivity to militaristic rank and a general disregard for others’ quality of life. They personify historic colonial violence; the part of Australia’s national conscience consistently willing to be ignored (Harman, 2020 p. 12). If the soldiers become villains for the sake of being revisionist, then, do the ‘others’ become the heroes? While masculine characters and narratives have paved the Western’s history, women often exist in these worlds as a byproduct of plot and structural features – as disposable, often dead, and existing purely to serve a function.

Now consider Clare, a young Irish convict and mother, who traverses the rugged landscape of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ to enact revenge upon her oppressor. She is self-liberated, determined and acts upon her suffering. In a way, she protects others and brings peace through justified violence (to borrow from the rhetoric of the Western canon). With Clare at the centre of the narrative, Kent not only emphasises female agency but the ‘rape-revenge’ arc too, interrogating the valorisation of ‘wild colonial boys’ and masculine assertions of power (Johnson, 2020 p. 4).  The atrocities she endures are of contextual relevance to the cultural climate, pertinent to colonial and contemporary history, and as necessary as the conversations that have become a product of The Nightingale’s viewership.

This is the film’s greatest subversion of the western canon; a complete revision of the genre’s cinematic intent and its ‘afterwardness’ felt by viewers post-viewing. It is here the film justifies its existence within the genre and is granted the definition of ‘mannerist’. Kent’s deeply subversive motive in writing multiple acts of sexual violence into a script and showing them on-screen, reminds the audience that this subject matter exists beyond the fictional space, confronting us twofold and trapping us within an unavoidable truth.

While this method of delivery lacks subtlety and may not be wholly necessary in achieving realism, Kent’s transparency is undeniably effective for the audience.  In The Nightingale, sexual violence creates a motivation for the heroine, who is cunning and capable and no longer an accessory to narrative and to man. For the audience, this is horrifying to watch, eliciting a confrontation that defies expectations of the Western mode. For some of us, Kent’s subversion may evoke strong emotion, forcing us to momentarily confront fears, trauma or remorse. For others, it may serve a more powerful function, by shifting or possibly rewriting thinking/behavioural patterns in a manner similar to CBT treatment (APA Div. 12, 2017).

As I stated in last week’s essay, The Nightingale is a film best understood within the context of Australia’s colonial history and the western’s evolution in contemporary cinema. This is not a coy film playing with the tensions of familiarity. Instead, Kent’s sinister, fearful, and distorted view of the world nominates terror as its reigning power, rather than beauty, with all expectations subverted and very few gratified. As writer and director, Kent silently assesses the audience’s familiarity with narrative expectations of the Western and subverts them through her use of challenging imagery and content in a context that while safely digestible, is by no means easy to stomach.

The Nightingale exists in a web of influence, and its determination as a Western is limited by this very distinction. It does, however, solidify the surprising ways that genre films can reveal their deeper implications – as long as we’re willing to look closer, past the surface level, and examine what their semiotic language is really telling us.

The Nightingale asks us not to shy away from considering where learned narrative expectations come from or whether they uphold antiquated rhetoric. Ultimately, the film reminds us that storytellers can be truthtellers too – and should strive to be. After all, if Australia’s colonial history is built on blood and violence, and its national conscience is guilty of this past, then shouldn’t our national cinema aim to challenge these anxieties by confronting them head on?

Jasper Caverly can be contacted via email, at caverlyjasper@gmail.com

Header photo by Matt Nettheim

References (APA):
American Psychological Association Division 12 (2017, July). What is cognitive behavioral therapy? Society of Clinical Psychology, retrieved from <https://www.div12.org/sites/default/files/WhatIsCognitiveBehaviorTherapy.pdf>

Bazin, A., & Gray, H. (2005). What is cinema? volume ii: Volume ii. University of California Press.

Gallagher, T. (2012). Shoot-Out at the genre corral: Problems in the “evolution” of the western. In B. K. Grant (Eds.), Film genre reader iv (pp. 239-254). University of Texas Press.

Harman, K. E. (2020) Uncanny parallels: Jennifer kent’s the nightingale, violence and the vandemonian past, Studies in Australiasian Cienma, (In Press).

Johnson, T. (2020). Hierarchies of horror: The violent refrains of jennifer kent’s the nightingale, Metro Magazine.

Kent, J. (Director). (2018). The nightingale [Film]. Causeway Films.

Pye, D. (2012). The western (genre and movies). In B. K. Grant (Eds.), Film genre reader iv (pp. 239-254). University of Texas Press.

instances of conflict and suggestions of solidarity in the nightingale

Author: Jasper Caverly

CW: Sexual assault, violence against Aboriginal people

This essay contains spoilers for The Nightingale (2018)

Subversive media has the ability to undermine dominant rhetoric, hold the arms of societal power to account, and ultimately spark the idea of social change . Cinema’s history, especially, tends to mirror a nation’s mentality; encapsulating the audience’s collective desires, or seeking to challenge them. Films and their inhabitants, then, often reflect a nation’s subconscious, acting as  an inadvertent expression of culture, values and ideology.

For the purpose of this essay, I am particularly concerned with the characterisation in Jennifer Kent’s Australian psychological thriller The Nightingale (2018) . If we delve deep into Kent’s film, we can begin to understand how cinema can simultaneously represent Australian national archetypes and reflect contemporary societal concerns, while challenging homogenous perspectives of identity.

The Nightingale is set in the colonial frontier of Tasmania, 1825, where British colonists and Indigenous peoples fought over custodianship during the genocidal Black War. Kent’s film uses  this context as a backdrop to query identity (and thus power) in the colonial past, consequently providing a commentary on our ‘post-colonial’ present.  Hierarchies of class, race, and gender are embodied in the film as persons of the soldiery, conviction, settlement and indigeneity (Harman, 2020 p. 2).

As such, I would like to select two distinctions of characterisation for further discussion within this essay: women (gender) and Aboriginal peoples (race). In keeping with the historical context of The Nightingale, both are shown to exist in opposition to British rule. Although The Nightingale is arguably led by a female protagonist, the world depicted in the film is certainly reigned by the hand of white men.  In its earliest years as a colony of the British Empire, Australia was dictated by the monarchy, militarist power and norms of patriarchy.

This is reflected strongly and often cruelly in The Nightingale. Protagonist Clare, an Irish convict and mother, is instantly shown to be at the mercy of soldiery and forced into acts of physical labour. Lieutenant Hawkins, who has the ability to grant her freedom, is unwilling to write her a letter of recommendation as he, being of high-ranking social power, would no longer be protected by law which allows him ownership of her. Hawkins is shown exploiting this power multiple times as he rapes her without consequence, then murders her husband and baby.

Impelled by these atrocities, Clare undergoes a visible transformation that likens her to a ‘Paddy’ – an archetype often represented in conflict to or as a fracture of British identity. McLoone terms the ‘Paddy’ as being “…[a] simian primitive – a violent and irrational character who came to represent the Irish as a whole.” (2001, p. 209). This transformation is important, as it places Clare in direct opposition to British military rule, not only by nationality and gender, but nature and motive. Although she is a colonist herself, Clare becomes the narrative instigator, whose purpose is abject to the other colonists. While she desires freedom from her life of conviction, the colonists seek to manifest the land unto the monarch’s will. There is a dichotomy of aspirations here, and on the part of the audience, a psychological attraction to the disadvantaged.

As spectators, we then compel Clare to exceed the contextual expectations of the world she inhabits and fulfil her need for retribution in the form of violent justice. The efficacy of Clare’s emblematic defiance is best described by Curthoys, who writes, “Through contested allegorical images of the convict woman, national history is made and remade in moral, economic, and cultural terms, implying the eternally recurrent question: Is Australian history a cause for shame or pride?” (2003, p. 81).

Another distinction of identity explored in The Nightingale is the relationship between Indigenous and colonising Australians. Before I unpack this relationship, however, it is essential to underscore the notion that Australian films operate within the context of documented genocide, beginning in the 18th century, whereby the custodians of the land have been (and are being) dispossessed by British settlers. Public interest, factual scrutiny and exploration of the Indigenous/settler relationship in media demonstrates that the ideation of ‘Australianness’ and what it means ‘to be Australian’ are salient, if not central, to a national sense of identity  (Walter, 2012 p. 15).

In Kent’s film, ‘Billy’ (whose name is actually Mangana), is a Letteremairrener man who has experienced white assimilation and slavery and is therefore able to speak english (Screen Australia, 2018). Billy is employed to help Clare pursue Hawkins across the unconquered bush of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, a task which would be impossible to navigate without navigation and a means of surviving off of the land – knowledge Billy has collected through his upbringing. What Billy represents is a recurring archetype of Indigenous characters in Australian cinema: ‘the tracker’.

The tracker entered Australian mythology (and cinema) as an Aboriginal with uncanny powers of observation, integral to nation-building, but one who is mostly a voiceless participant in dialogue between coloniser and pre/colonised spaces (Langton, 2006). However, Billy’s character in The Nightingale is portrayed with agency, rendering him exempt from pre-established stereotypes. He is written to be resourceful, intelligent and compassionate, even in the face of cultural extermination. Essentially, Billy embodies Indigenous oppression within the narrative and its historic context, by acting as a voice for voiceless participants – one that serves to celebrate Aboriginality, rather than exploiting it.

The creation of Billy’s character was closely supervised by Jim Everett, from the plangermairreenner (sic) clan of the Ben Lomond people, who acted as a cultural consultant and associate producer on the film. This level of cultural consultation was crucial for the production team to create a character who effectively embodied the dispossession, violence and enslavement endured by Indigenous Tasmanians. Arrow & Findlay write, “The film is also replete with images and evidence of Indigenous survival and resistance…Billy’s final line in the film – ‘I’m still here’ – is a defiant declaration of survival in the face of unbreakable sadness. Here Billy speaks from the past to the audience in the present.” (2020, p. 3).

Today, Australia is made up of a broad, cosmopolitan population; the result of 250 years of foreign settlement and globalisation. Despite the country’s apparent embrace of multiculturalism, the typified Australian identity remains the masculine, hard-working, fair-go bloke from the outback (or interchangeably, the frontier). Attitudes of nationalism determine that the ‘average’ Australian speaks english, respects political and judicial systems, and is garnered by a cognitive sense of ‘feeling’ that they belong here (Healey, 2016 p. 27). It is through these aspects that Australia’s colonial past remains victorious, supported by the book-keeping of national history and educational curriculums – a systemic hegemony granting ignorance to the lasting effects of colonialism and quelling settlement anxieties.

The Nightingale is ultimately concerned with the unification of minority groups and allyship in the face of adversity – solidarity in a disharmonious social climate . It seeks to hold ruling powers accountable for their past and present by disrupting the possibility of an inequitable future. It opposes notions of supremacy by representing two of the many identities that have been historically discriminated against, disadvantaged and disenfranchised by hierarchical malice; a malevolence decided on the basis of gender, race and class.

The way Kent’s film engages with characterisation should be seen allegorically; as retaining social pertinence in contemporary dialogue, and challenging the ‘victory’ of settlement by subverting the imperial/empirical narrative. Even then, Clare’s victory feels as though it’s worth more than Billy’s. In fact, neither character is genuinely victorious by film’s end, indicating that The Nightingale is closer to a social study of Australia’s sustained, problematic attitudes, rather than a historic one.

Jasper Caverly can be contacted via email: caverlyjasper@gmail.com

Header image courtesy of X-Press Magazine

REFERENCES

Arrow, M & Findlay, J. (2020). A critical introduction to the nightingale: Gender, race and troubled histories on screen,Studies in Australasian Cinema.

Curthoys, A. (1999). Expulsion, exodus and exile in white australian historical mythology, Journal of Australian Studies, 23(61), 1-19.

Harman, K. E. (2020) Uncanny parallels: Jennifer kent’s the nightingale, violence and the vandemonian past, Studies in Australiasian Cienma, (In Press).

Healey, J. (2016). Multiculturalism and australian identity. The Spinney Press.

Kent, J. (Director). (2018). The nightingale [Film]. Causeway Films.

Langton, M. (2006). Out from the shadows: Marcia langton considers the significance and traces the development of the aboriginal tracker figure in australian film, Meajin, (65)1.

McLoone, M. (2001). Political violence and the myth of atavism. In J. D. Slocum (Eds.), Terrorism, media, liberation (pp. 209-231). Rutgers University Press.

Screen Australia, (2018, September 12). The nightingale wins two awards at venice film festival, Screen Australia. <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/screen-news/2018/09-12-the-nightingale-wins-two-awards-at-venice>

Walter, M. (2012). Keeping our distance: Non-indegenous/aboriginal relations in australian society. In J. Pietsch & H. Aarons (Eds.), Australia: Identity, fear and governance in the 21st century. ANU Press.

 

top 10 modern anthems for female empowerment

Author: Molly Davidson

I’m sure many of you, like me, are not immune to belting out feminist classics like Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. Fists clenched; eyes clamped shut as we hit all the high notes with (what we believe to be) precision. When these songs were originally released, they sought to empower a generation of women who were fighting an epic fight for equality: the 1970s women’s rights movement.

Lyrics like “I am woman, hear me roar,” became everyday phrases associated with female ambition. In her day, however, Reddy was told that these lyrics seemed too angry and that they would hinder her success. The men who told Reddy this wanted to let her know that sure, they were okay with the song and its message, but only if it was toned down.

Be powerful, but not too powerful.

The thing is, I Am Woman today is tame on the spectrum of female anger. Nowadays female anthems sound fairly different. Women are still angry, but their anger is a lot less subtle. The message that modern feminist recording artists are trying to send is less “we are strong, and we’ll prove it to you” and more “we are strong, and we don’t care if you disagree.” Now, it’s all about self-love and proving your worth to yourself.

However, while their message diverges slightly from what they used to, the conversation surrounding female empowerment anthems is still controversial. In the 70s, Helen Reddy was “too angry,” and today Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP is “too sexual.”

A month on from its release, the song is still making headlines for its raunchy subject matter. Over its short lifetime it has been labelled “bad history” filled with “hoary sexual cliches.” Twitter users have accused it of setting “the entire female gender back by 100 years,” and called its creators “children [who were] raised without God and without a strong father figure.”

But whilst not everybody has celebrated  WAP with words of adoration, the song has generated a vital dialogue surrounding a woman’s right to sexual freedom, creating change that only a true anthem could. Many of us have probably read comments condemning the song and asked ourselves why. Men have never had an issue sexualising women before, so why is it an issue now? This conversation has highlighted that men are excited by female sexuality – as long as they have control of it. They want us to be sexy, but not too sexy.

Be powerful, but not too powerful.

Anthems for women these days are anthems that make us feel good. That voice our insecurities and let us know we’re accepted. That prove we’re aren’t the only ones who are angry, and ultimately, provide hope that maybe change will soon come.

If you need a pick-me-up or you’re fed up with the way things are and want to feel that your anger is valid, here are my Top 10 Anthems for Female Empowerment. Clench those fists, clamp those eyes shut, and channel your inner rock goddess as you hit play:

  1. WAP – Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion

The discussion this song has generated earns it the top spot on this list. One of the best parts about WAP is that is has enabled people to realise the double standards placed on women in music. In truth, Cardi and Megan have made a song that nobody would have batted an eye to had they been men. Case in point: in 2018, Kanye West and Lil Pump dropped I Love It. A song that repeatedly calls women “hoes” among other NSFW lyrics, yet it was received by the public with minimal outcry. Cardi and Megan, on the other hand, made a song that many women were afraid to make out of fear for how it would be received. Now, that song is now dominating the charts and paving the way for future feminist anthems.

  1. Boys Will Be Boys – Dua Lipa

As far as Dua Lipa goes, this is some of her best work. This is one of those songs that makes you angry, but that’s exactly why you love it. In Boys Will Be Boys, Dua takes aim at the archaic notion that boys behaving poorly is just “boys being boys.” Repeatedly, she states “the kids ain’t alright,” urging people to change the way that they are raising their children. All in all, this song is poignant and well written. It’s a ballad that I can’t listen to without feeling fully invested. No matter what mood I’m in, I always find myself singing along.

  1. Fall in Line – Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato

Given that it’s sung by two powerhouses who have dominated the industry for years, I’m surprised that this song hasn’t received much attention. Fall in Line ultimately rejects the idea that women exist to be sexualised for male entertainment. Addressing “little girls,” it says, “you do not owe them your body and your soul.” As two women have gained recognition in an industry that so overtly sexualises women, it’s not too far-fetched to think that this might be why the song hasn’t garnered much success. In the song, Christina and Demi even address how Fall in Line may generate anger for calling out the industry, with the lyrics like “I’m gonna pay for this. They’re gonna burn me at the stake.”

  1. Homecoming Queen – Thelma Plum

This song provides insight into how young Aboriginal girls feel growing up in Australia, where mainstream media is so whitewashed. Thelma sings about how she rarely sees people who look like her in the magazines, but she doesn’t need to in order to feel powerful or beautiful. She will be her own homecoming queen.

(Sidenote: make sure to keep supporting our homegrown talent – the Australian music industry has taken a hit this year!)

  1. Soulmate – Lizzo

Lizzo’s entire body of work consists of anthems focused on empowering women, so choosing just one was difficult. While most of her songs are about being confident and loving yourself, Soulmate shows a different side to Lizzo. Essentially, the song is about how self-love can still be difficult, even for those who seem to be the most sure of themselves. Soulmate is raw and emotional and honestly, it’s right up there with some of her better known music.

  1. L.U.T – Bea Miller

Some say being a slut is a bad thing, but this song tells a different story. In S.L.U.T, Bea Miller takes back the label. The first line, in fact, is “I love myself.” If that doesn’t tell you what kind of song this is and why it’s on this list, I don’t know what will.

  1. A Scary Time (For Boys) – Lynzy Lab

Another song that will make you super angry, but in a good way. It’s a scathing response to men who feel under attack by the Me Too movement, riddled with sarcasm that will make you giggle but then shout “EXACTLY, THIS GIRL GETS IT!”

  1. Lady Powers – Vera Blue

Another prime example of the homegrown talent we are lucky to have here in Australia: Vera Blue. The title of this song speaks for itself, and more than justifies its spot on my list. Lines like “not gonna beg for your respect, I won’t be defined by your eyes,” demonstrate exactly how this song encourages self-love and finding your worth.

  1. Hey Girl – Lady Gaga and Florence Welch

If ever you’re having a down day, pour a glass of wine and turn on this song (better yet, listen to the entire Joanne album – it’s genius.) In Hey Girl, two of today’s greatest singer-songwriters came together to bring us a song about women supporting women. “If you lose your way, know that I got you” are the supportive words every girl needs to hear from her girlfriends. This song makes me think of the support system that I am lucky enough to have every time I listen to it, and it always makes me feel better.

  1. Salute – Little Mix

Really, there are a lot of songs by Little Mix that are deserving of a spot on this list. Shout Out To My Ex turned the archetype of a breakup song on its head (Perrie Edwards really said “why do I have to write a sad ballad about being heartbroken?”) These women managed to become a global sensation in a society that historically would rather support male groups (for every Spice Girls, there was an NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Boys II Men, Take That, and so many more). Salute deserves its spot on this list because put simply, it screams girl power. Its message is like that of Beyonce’s Run the World (Girls) – x10.

Give it a listen if you need a hype up. Give all these songs a listen if you need a hype up!

Header image by Dakota Corbin via Unsplash.

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