This paper will discuss the way the figure of the ocker is continually represented in Welcome to Woop Woop and Wolf Creek as a white trash trope located in the Australian outback. What does it mean to be white trash in an Australian context if white trash is located off the map and in the "dead heart"?
Welcome to Woop Woop references Wes Craven's classic 1977 horror film The Hills Have Eyes. In The Hills Have Eyes, a family of travellers pass through the Mojave Desert of south-eastern California, having taken a wrong turn on their cross-country journey. They stop at a seedy gas station for directions, food and water. One of the travellers asks the gas station attendant, “Have you got a place to throw some trash?” to which he replies, “Use the whole damn desert for all I care”. Of course this a warning of things to come, as this family soon find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, and are confronted by, what the film’s publicity notes calls a group of “modern–day savages”. Unsurprisingly, this group of inbred savages do not simply inhabit the desert, but rather, they litter it—they are the trash that marks the “whole damn desert”.
The trash represented in The Hills Have Eyes is white trash. But if white trash is located within a desert wasteland in The Hills Have Eyes, where else might it be found? For US cult movie director John Waters (who shot to infamy with his 1972 trash epic Pink Flamingos) white trash is located within the very specific environment of Baltimore, MD. Waters constructs Baltimore as “Trashtown, USA, the Sleaziest City on Earth, the Hairdo Capital of the World”. Baltimore becomes “Trashtown” through Waters’ continued reiteration of trash archetypes. I refer to these two very popular examples of cinematic white trash because their aesthetic features resonate with the way Australian films like Welcome to Woop Woop and Wolf Creek locate white trash in the Australian outback, way off the map, located somewhere near UnAustralia. While Welcome to Woop Woop utilises white trash themes familiar to Waters’ films, its alignment of the Australian outback with white trash counters US representations of white trash because it depicts a geographic marker against which the geographic aspects of US white trash can be measured.
Australian cinema holds a long history of representing national identity through its colonised landscape. The landscape that features heavily, of course, is not always the urban centres in which the majority of Australia’s population dwells, but the outback, the desert, or as it is often called the “dead heart”. Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott, best known for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), seems particularly obsessed with this “dead heart”, so much so that he based Welcome to Woop Woop (1998) on Douglas Kennedy’s book The Dead Heart (1994). In both Welcome to Woop Woop and Priscilla, the Australian desert is represented as a place both of affection and terror; a place to be conquered as much as its indigenous ties should be respected and revered. The most striking thing about Elliott’s films is that they represent the desert as a place where human trash inhabits the desert, much like in Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
“White trash”, according to cultural critics Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, is “the most visible and clearly marked form of whiteness” (1997). To be both white and marked by poverty is to be defiled, dirtied and decentred in and by normative white culture. White trash is decentred because it usually refers to those minorities that linger on the restless margins of culture. In an Australian context, white trash is often situated in the outback or the desert, a place that has been overused as a specific landscape of national identity. It is a troubling affair to uncritically identify the outback as the trash capital of Australia because it becomes too-easily conflated with the male ‘ocker’ stereotype that was originally used as a nickname for a typically rough or aggressively boorish Australian man (Ayto, 1998: 38). Arguably, an American equivalent for ‘ocker’ would be ‘redneck’. The ‘ocker’ stereotype, steeped in a vulgar and colloquial (colonial?) humour, has is familiar in Australian cinema, with notable examples including The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Alvin Purple (1973) and Stork (1971).
Obviously the most recognisable larrikin ocker is Paul Hogan, whose Crocodile Dundee films were a hit especially with US audiences, aiding the international perception that the ocker tradition is part and parcel of Australian life. Steve Irwin was certainly revered in life (and death) for his effortless ability to perform the charming and risk-taking ocker larrikin, at home in the wild. When writing Wolf Creek (2005) Greg McLean says that he based the serial killer character Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) on lovable characters like Mick Dundee and Steve Irwin alongside loathsome real life serial killers like Ivan Millat and Bradley John Murdoch. References to Crocodile Dundee abound in Wolf Creek, with the famous "that's not a knife, this is a knife" line recurring throughout.
A sense of place is very important to the way white trash has been figured within Welcome to Woop Woop and Wolf Creek. The importance of the real or imagined locations where these films are set – Woop Woop and Wolf Creek – is evident in that both films are named after their locations. The phrase “woop woop” has a long history in Australia referring to the name of “an imaginary place that is a byword for backwardness and remoteness” (Green, 1998). It has been suggested that the phrase was influenced by the use of reduplication of words specific to Aboriginal languages. In Welcome to Woop Woop Stephan Elliott takes the origins of this phrase quite literally. The film concerns the exploits of an American con-man Teddy (Johnathon Scaech) who travels to the Australian outback to escape the mess he left behind in New York City. Along the way he is seduced, drugged and kidnapped by Angie (Susie Porter). When Teddy regains consciousness, he finds himself married to Angie and living in Woop Woop, an off-the-map shantytown built on an old asbestos mining site. Woop Woop is ruled by Angie’s fascist father, Daddy-O who represents a grotesque extension on the stereotype of the ocker, in the sense that he is not simply a hard-drinking bully, but in that he also tap dances and screens Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Teddy soon after realises that he is trapped in Woop Woop because to leave is to risk death at the hands of Daddy-O. As Daddy-O is played by Rod Taylor, I can't help but wonder if Wolf Creek's Mick Taylor was also inspired by Rod Taylor's portrayal of the outback ocker.
Other interesting connections between Woop Woop and Wolf Creek is that Mick Taylor also drugs his victims and performs his savagery at an old abandoned mine, or as Mick describes it, "places people have forgotten about". This site resembles a junkyard or ghost town, were bodies of old cars are strewn about, an initial warning of other kinds of corpses lurking behind closed corrugated iron doors. Mick finds his prey at the popular tourist destination Wolf Creek, an enormous meteor crater. Mick is a wolf in sheep's clothing, helping stranded tourists whose cars mysteriously stop working while gone exploring the meteor. Wolf Creek is appropriately named because it functions as a wolves' lair for a serial killer who lures his prey to his camp at the old forgotten mining site.
As I noted earlier, the phrase Woop Woop possibly references reduplicatory language patterns in Aboriginal languages. Welcome to Woop Woop represents Aboriginal culture in a very ambiguous way, because during the film it is noted that the land used to build Woop Woop was abandoned not just by miners but by the neighbouring Aboriginal communities. It has been said that “woop woop” is not simply reduplicatory, but that it also satirises Australian Aboriginal names (Beale, 1937: 1350). If this is the case, we can assume that the remote location represented was christened Woop Woop by its racist white settlers. Evidence of this claim is identified in the way its white trash inhabitants are shamelessly racist with an overt disregard for Aboriginal culture. For example, the myth of the Big Red—a monstrous Godzilla-type of kangaroo—forms an ominous back drop to the film. When Teddy asks Angie to explain the myth she dismisses it as Aboriginal folklore. When the Big Red finally makes an appearance, it emerges out of the darkness like an apparition decorated in Aboriginal tribal patterns. Unsurprisingly, the target of the Big Red’s anger is the monstrous ocker Daddy-O. The original working title of Welcome to Woop Woop was The Big Red, perhaps to underscore the role of the kangaroo, however pejoratively cast. The blatant hatred Woop Woop residents express towards the kangaroo is demonstrated by the way they recycle kangaroo meat into dog food. As Daddy-O smirks, “a good kangaroo is a dead kangaroo”. It appears that the Big Red stands for Aboriginal culture, in an elaborate revenge narrative that claims victory over ignorant and bigoted white power. Perhaps The Big Red is out to reclaim his contaminated/colonised land.
Until the very last scene of Wolf Creek, the outback seems entirely divested of kangaroos, which is very unusual for a film set in the Australian outback. Perhaps reason for this is that Mick Taylor explains to the three young travellers he ensnares, that he used to be a kangaroo hunter. He says: "I was doing people a service really, by shooting them. There's kangaroos all over the place… like tourists." In Woop Woop, the Big Red kangaroo is the mythic human hunter. In Wolf Creek, Mick Taylor is the former kangaroo hunter whose prey now takes human form.
Wolf Creek is predominately a road movie until the three travellers, Ben, Katie and Kristy, reach their final destination. While on the road, the figure of outback trash is a recurring one. Petrol station attendants and barflies in remote pubs, these characters serve to reinforce the urbanity and worldly sophistication of its three youthful travellers. Like trash itself these fleeting figures are throwaway characters, drawn from a familiar stereotype about the backwater simpleton. They foreshadow the inherent danger and lawlessness of the outback and those who might inhabit it. Just before encountering one of these characters, Ben (Nathan Phillips) remarks, "So far no sign of intelligent life". When the three travellers arrive at the Wolf Creek meteor crater, its otherworldliness emphasises the idea that the inhabitants of an alien landscape are socially and culturally alien. While driving to the crater Ben tells an eerie tale about a UFO sighting in the area. After seeing the crater, and upon returning to the car, their watches have stopped and the car is dead. A magnetic field seems to envelop the site, reminiscent of how Hanging Rock's alien spookiness stops watches in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). If indeed the possible magnetic aura of Wolf Creek is an intertextual reference to Picnic at Hanging Rock, it is certainly unsubtle because John Jarratt features in both films.
The atmosphere of horror and terror that Wolf Creek elicits, largely derives from the director's deliberate attempt to impart documentary verisimilitude through its style. Although steeped in the conventions of the horror genre (some American film critics lament that Wolf Creek is derivative of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) the film announces from the outset that it is based on real events, on true crime material, which perhaps makes the film all the more terrifying. Wolf Creek is like a scary story that might be told around a campfire, while Welcome to Woop Woop is simply camp.
The remote backwardness of the Woop Woop shantytown is steeped in a camp aesthetic cobbled together from references to well-known facets of camp visual culture. For instance, the production design of Woop Woop blatantly quotes Mortville, the fictional town from John Waters’ 1977 film Desperate Living. In Waters film, class conscious citizens of Baltimore relegate social outcasts, deviants and criminals to Mortville, a town of over-ripe kitschy excess that is governed, not by Daddy-O, but Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). Welcome to Woop Woop also quotes from Desperate Living in that it pits the privileged against the poor in an attempt to parody the terror of the outback/wasteland for the unsuspecting subject. Welcome to Woop Woop and Desperate Living are also saturated by a camp/trash aesthetic because the production and costume designs revel in kitschy artefacts. By aligning kitsch with poverty, both films acknowledge how kitsch has been recognised as an unsophisticated product of trashy bad taste. For example, in Welcome to Woop Woop, Teddy is initially modelled as a product-placement poster-boy for Dolce & Gabbana; in contrast, Angie and her family are dressed in a garish clash of recycled retro rags.
In Uses of Camp, Andrew Ross argues that “camp belongs to the history of the ‘self-presentation’ of arriviste groups. Because of their marginality and lack of inherited cultural capital, these groups parody their subordinate or uncertain social status in ‘a self-mocking abdication of any pretensions to power’” (1989). Certainly, if this definition of camp is applicable to Welcome to Woop Woop it is only to the extent that Elliott positions the film within a framework of camp that is visually supported by a trash aesthetic. The social misfits of Welcome to Woop Woop do not appear to have any critical investment in their trash aesthetic, and are by no means an arriviste group. In other words Elliott has made a camp spectacle of these characters, but they do not see themselves as camp. This is complicated further by their interactive screenings of The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). One can never underestimate the impact that such musicals have had on a camp aesthetic, but the obsession with these films in Woop Woop is due to the fact that no other forms of entertainment exist, and merely emphasises Daddy O’s fascist authority. The ‘hills’ of Woop Woop, if they could be called ‘hills’, do indeed have eyes, because during these musical numbers, it becomes apparent that “the hills are alive”. It must be noted also that Welcome to Woop Woop was made long before the more recent interactive “sing-a-long” version of The Sound of Music.
Cultural critic, Gael Sweeney, argues that a White Trash aesthetic can never comprehend itself in the critical language of Camp. Sweeney writes, “Camp is elitist, of the upper middle class and urban, while White Trash is rooted in the rural and working class. White Trash is sincere, where Camp is a deliberate parody” (1997). Elliott’s camp aesthetic is evident everywhere in Welcome to Woop Woop, especially when the township attempts to upstage the aforementioned Hollywood musicals. Camp has strong ties with performance because it attempts to subvert the implied meanings of what is performed by self-consciously emphasising the constructedness of performance. Or as Allan J. Thomas argues, Camp draws “attention to the fact that it is a performance, and thus a kind of lie” (1996). The camp aesthetic of Welcome to Woop Woop is dependent on both camp performance and the performance of camp. However, the fact that these characters are more than anything positioned as white trash ultimately suggests that their performance of camp is perhaps too sincere to be camp. However, if Ross is correct, then perhaps the characters of Welcome to Woop Woop perform camp because of their “marginality” and “lack of inherited cultural capital”.
Trash may be sincere. Trash may not possess the quick wit of camp. But trash is not stupid – regardless of whether "signs of intelligent life" are ever immediately visible. The representation of trash in Welcome to Woop Woop represents not nearly the terror of the outback or the trash inhabited there, as much as it critiques the obsession with the 'ocker' or other familiar clichés of Australian national identity. In contrast, the terror of the outback trash in Wolf Creek is its unaccountability, that it remains a law unto itself by continuing to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting tourist. Welcome to Woop Woop asserts the idea that trash can only ever be located in the outback because by situating it in the dead heart, it might eventually decompose and thus become extinct. Like the 'dead heart' of Woop Woop or the death lair of Wolf Creek, the Mortville setting in Desperate Living is named after death, and this predominance of death is what makes living such a desperate endeavour. Death then comes too quickly in cinematic landscapes littered with human trash, detritus and waste.
Conference paper for UNAustralia, Cultural Studies Association of Australasia Annual Conference, University of Canberra, 8 December 2006.
This paper is an update and expansion of 'Trashing Woop Woop', delivered at the Society of Cinema Studies Annual Conference, Washington DC, 26 May 2001.
Published by Cultural Studies Association of Australasia in 2006.