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Interview with Catherine Lumby

Catharine Lumby is one of our leading feminist cultural commentators. She has worked as a news reporter, feature writer and opinion columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Bulletin. She is the author and editor of four books and co-author of The Porn Report (published by MUP in 2008). She is the Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of NSW.

In her affectionate and perceptive critique of Alvin Purple, the ninth title in the Australian Screen Classics series, she argues for the film’s iconic status and examines the forces that fuelled its success.

We spoke to Catharine about the furore Alvin Purple caused in 1970s Australia, how society has changed since and what contemporary filmmakers can learn from this seminal film.

Why did you choose to write about Alvin Purple?

Alvin Purple interests me firstly because it’s an iconic and commercially very successful film that was, and perhaps still is, critically reviled. I wanted to know what drove the radical separation between the public’s and the critics’ response.

I was also interested in the way the film dealt with sex and gender because it was made at a time when women’s liberation and the sexual revolution were just coming onto the radar of mainstream Australia. Alvin is set in an era when sexual and social mores were in an exhilarating flux and I think the film captures some of that.

What is your connection to the film? When did you first see it and what impact did it have on you?

I didn’t see it until the mid 1990s when I was writing my first book Bad Girls which looked at debates around representations of sex and gender in popular culture. I remembered wanting to see the film when it came out but being too young to sneak in. I was curious to see a film that showed women actively pursuing sex made at a time when women’s liberation and sexual liberation were just beginning to go mainstream in Australia.

When Alvin Purple was released in 1973, it was panned by the critics, yet it went on to become one of Australia’s financially most successful movies to date. How do you explain the film’s success story?

Tim Burstall intentionally made Alvin for a mainstream suburban audience. He wanted to show that Australian films could draw that audience and he guessed, rightly, that Australians would come to see a contemporary sex comedy. I think the film allowed the audience to flirt with the sexual revolution from a safe distance.

What does Alvin Purple tell us about Australia in the 1970s?

Australia in the 1970s was really just emerging, blinking in the light, from decades of conservative rule. It was a country which had lived with some of the most draconian censorship laws in the Western world and subjects like abortion, contraception and homosexuality had only recently begun to be openly discussed in the media. The Whitlam government had just been elected when Alvin was made and there was a real sense that Australians had voted for enormous social and cultural change. Alvin channels some of this energy—it’s youthful, it’s sexual, it’s proudly Australian. It’s certainly a flawed movie but it gives us a real sense of what mainstream Australians were ready for by 1973—as well as what they weren’t.

Alvin was made well before the term ‘sexist’ was routinely applied to sexualised images of women. It was a period in which Australian women were openly beginning to explore their sexuality and their traditional roles but it was on the cusp of a much broader awareness of the feminist agenda that really comes by the late 1970s and early 1980s. What sexual freedom for women might look like was still an open question—was it freedom from heterosexist ideals, freedom from monogamy, or freedom from men altogether?

How has society changed since—how would a film like Alvin Purple be received today?

Alvin Purple was part of a broader translation of a radical sexual liberalism into mainstream popular culture. It dealt with sex and nudity far more explicitly than any Australian film had before. Alvin arrived at a time when pornography was just coming out from under the mattress – indeed there were a number of explicitly pornographic films that were shown in the 1970s to mainstream audiences at local cinemas. That would be illegal now.

By the late 1970s, the anti-porn feminists had begun to agitate against pornography, claiming it was a form of hate speech against women. By the early 1980s they were in a loose alliance with moral conservatives who also campaigned against sexually explicit media. So by the mid-1980s non-violent porn videos were banned for sale or rental in every Australian state. That’s still the case today. Alvin was made at a time when battles against censorship were seen as a part of the broader leftist agenda. That’s not the case now—there’s a lot more division on the left over representations of gender and sexuality.

The levels of sex and nudity in Alvin still attract an R-rating. I think if a film like Alvin was produced today it would necessarily attract criticism from moral conservatives and from anti-porn feminists.

To a modern viewer, Alvin skates very lightly over gender roles and their effect on women and a lot of the humour is very much of its time—it's got a very Benny Hill flavour to it. So I think audiences would find it naïvely sexist and perhaps a bit juvenile in some respects. When we watch the film we need to see it as a product of its time, however, not judge it as if the film had just been made.

Your academic research has predominantly focused on gender, sexuality and representations of both in popular culture. How revolutionary was the idea of swapping roles and showing women in lust in 1970s Australia?

It was incredibly revolutionary to show women enjoying sex—particularly casual sex that wasn’t dressed up as ‘romantic’. Bettina Arndt was doing research into women’s sexual pleasure around the time and she recalls that woman after woman that she spoke to had almost no knowledge about female sexual pleasure. This was an era in which adult women were eagerly consuming guides to masturbation and learning about the clitoris. The main source of information about their bodies had come from an overwhelmingly male and conservative medical establishment, many of whom denied single women contraception or basic information.

One of the interesting things about Alvin is that it represents a wide range of women with a range of body types actively desiring sex for its own sake. I think we are still struggling to find a vocabulary to talk about women wanting sex outside of ‘committed relationships’. We’ve had this whole raunch culture debate recently that suggests the only reason young women are having casual sex with guys at university or going out exhibiting their bodies in a sexual fashion is because they are being duped by the media or they want to please men. I’m astounded by how little attention is paid to what pleasure the young women might (though not always) be getting out of having casual sex or attracting sexual attention. No-one would question what young men get out of casual sexual encounters.

You argue Alvin Purple is more than an exercise in sexploitation. What are some of the serious issues the film touches upon?

Alvin is an iconic Australian film which got written off very early in most critical writing – which had the fortunate result of giving me lots to say about it that hadn’t been said.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the movie for me is that, while Alvin is often seen as an ‘ocker’ film, it really isn’t. The central male character is anything but an ocker. He doesn’t boast about his sexual exploits—he’s confused about what women want. For me it’s a film that vibrates with male anxiety about female sexuality and in that sense it’s a film that begins to open up the question of what happens to conventional masculinity when women start pushing social and sexual boundaries.

There’s no question that women are very much the foils of men in Alvin Purple. The story is told from a male perspective and male characters drive the plot but I think it’s a mistake to dismiss the film as a simple document of 1970s sexism, as many critics have done. I think if we look harder it actually has a lot to tell us about the social and political contradictions that early 1970s feminism was facing and it also tells us a lot about the gender and class anxieties that animated that era.

I also think the film is one of the few movies we have that seeks to understand the period from the perspective of a suburban, uneducated and apolitical male. Alvin is a kind of everyman— the hypothetical bloke on the hypothetical Melbourne tram – who is trying to make sense of the emerging sexual and women’s liberation movements. Tim Burstall really set out to speak to that kind of audience and in doing so he consciously sent up the pretensions of social elites and social institutions who claimed the right to speak on the average Australian’s behalf.

Ultimately, I think Alvin throws a very different light on the ambitions of the ocker films – on their portrayal of class and culture and their explicit attempts to speak to a mainstream audience. It’s important to remember that many of the people involved in making the film – Tim Burstall, Graeme Blundell and Alan Finney, for starters—were people who had been deeply involved in politics and in experimental theatre and film and who really did think it was time to reach out to a broader audience without alienating them.

From the perspective of gender studies, are so-called ‘ocker’ comedies like Alvin Purple or the Barry McKenzie movies more honest depictions of our past than some of the critically acclaimed films of the time?

I’m not sure what an ‘honest’ depiction of any era looks like. What I can say is that the ocker comedies were far less ashamed of Australian working-class culture and far less anxious to prove themselves as worthy of comparison to other national cinemas than many of the films that came later in the decade and that are now part of the canon.

Professor Graeme Turner makes a very astute observation when he says that the lyrical historical genre which included films like Picnic At Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career were self-consciously designed to demonstrate that Australia had a history and therefore was a culture. And yet many of them, he observes, were equally beautiful, untroubling and politically conservative.

Alvin Purple channels political ambiguity. It is not about politics. It is not making an overt political statement. But it reveals some very interesting things about the political, cultural and social context in which it was made.

What is the legacy of Alvin Purple? How has the film influenced contemporary Australian movies (and audiences)?

I don’t think the movie has influenced contemporary movies and audiences. Unfortunately I think it’s been forgotten—until everyone reads my book that is! (Sorry—author fantasy intruding on reality).

I think the film does have something to tell Australian filmmakers, however. What fascinates me about Alvin is that it actually got around that age-old dilemma of how to attract an Australian audience to an Australian film. We still seem to be stuck in this bind where a small group of ABC-watching middle-class people dutifully go to Australian films that are made in an arthouse style and other Australian films try to attract the mainstream audience who go to see big Hollywood movies but frequently fail. There are very few films today made on a local budget that attract a big local audience. Alvin did that because it tapped into issues that Australians were grappling with, it did it with humour and it did it in a recognisably Australian manner—it wasn’t a film that constantly looked over its shoulder worrying about what Fellini or Spielberg would make of it. I think there’s still a lesson in that.

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