In Wes Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes, a family of travellers pass through the Mojave Desert, of southeastern California, having taken a wrong turn, for they are en route to California. 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 a nowhere, and are confronted by, what the film’s publicity brief calls a group of “modern–day savages”. It is not unsurprising that 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”.
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 his successful feature The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), seems particularly obsessed with this “dead heart”, so much so that his film Welcome to Woop Woop (1998) is based on Douglas Kennedy’s book The Dead Heart. 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.
This paper will examine ‘white trash’ in terms of where it may be located in an Australian context. ‘White trash’ is, according to cultural critics Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, “the most visible and clearly marked form of whiteness” (White Trash: Race and Class in America, 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 anachronistic male ‘ocker’ stereotype that was originally used as a nickname for a typically rough or aggressively boorish Australian man. Arguably, an American equivalent for ‘ocker’ would be ‘redneck’. The ‘ocker’ stereotype has been represented often in Australian film, most notably in the eighties in the Crocodile Dundee films. Judging by its more-than-fair share of scathing criticisms, Welcome to Woop Woop would not be considered the archetypal nineties version of this ‘ocker’ tradition; perhaps Elliott had already scored that count with Priscilla—a trio of drag queens who beneath the sequined surface are really just ‘ocker’ males at heart? What, then, does it mean to be ‘white trash’ in an Australian context if white trash is located off the map and in the dead heart?
Before I briefly outline the basic premise of Welcome to Woop Woop, it is important to understand the origins of this phrase “woop woop”. The phrase “woop woop” has a long history in Australia and refers to the name of an imaginary place that is a byword for backwardness and remoteness. It has been suggested that the phrase was influenced by the use of reduplication characteristic of some Australian 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 meets Angie (Susie Porter) who takes the first opportunity to knock him out and pump him full of drugs. 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 (Rod Taylor) 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 this clip from the film will demonstrate, the ‘hills’ of Woop Woop, if they could be called ‘hills’, do indeed have eyes, because the “hills are alive”.
As it has been noted the repetition of the “woop” in Woop Woop could have possibly originated from the kind of reduplication of words specific to 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 by the neighbouring Aboriginal communities. It has been said that “woop woop” is not simply reduplicatory, but that it also satirises Australian Aboriginal names. If this is the case, we can assume that the remote location represented in Welcome to Woop Woop 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 replies dismissively that it is bizarre Aboriginal folklore. At one point the Big Red appears out of the darkness, like an apparition decorated in Aboriginal tribal patterns. Unsurprisingly, the target of the Big Red’s anger is Daddy-O. The original working title of Welcome to Woop Woop was The Big Red, perhaps to underscore the symbolic importance of the kangaroo. The blatant hatred that Woop Woop expresses towards kangaroos does not need to be emphasised as they recycle kangaroo meet into dog food, and 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 we could speculate that The Big Red wants to reclaim his piece of land, because as we have seen the Big Red is depicted as an Aboriginal cave drawing, gobbling any human flesh it encounters.
The remote backwardness of Woop Woop makes blatant visual reference to Mortville, the fictional town from John Waters’ 1977 film Desperate Living. The more “socially responsible” citizens of Baltimore would relegate its social outcasts, deviants and criminals to Mortville, a town of over-ripe kitschy excess that is governed, not by Daddy O, but Queen Carlotta. 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.
The affinities between Welcome to Woop Woop and Desperate Living do not end simply on a narrative level. Both films are saturated by a kitsch aesthetic that attempts to emphasise both filmmakers’ obsession with Camp. Of course, camp and kitsch are not the same thing, and I don’t have time to outline the long history of debate surrounding this discourse. However, it must be noted that by aligning kitsch with an aesthetic of poverty, both Elliott and Waters acknowledge the way in which kitsch has been recognised as an unsophisticated product of trashy or bad taste. For example, in Welcome to Woop Woop, Teddy is initially modelled as a product placement poster boy for Dolce et Gabbana, while in contrast, Angie and her extended family are dressed in an garish clash of retro styles.
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’”. 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. 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. It must be noted also that Welcome to Woop Woop was made long before the present “sing-a-long” version of The Sound of Music.
In her essay on Elvis Presley, 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 certainly not stupid. 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. Alternatively, the representation of trash in Woop Woop represents not nearly the terror of the outback or the trash that inhabits it, as much as it critiques the obsession with a singular – and colonial – notion of Australian national identity. Welcome to Woop Woop explodes the myth of the ocker male Australian by aligning ‘him’ with the kind of racism and fascism that, like the Big Red of Woop Woop, will have the last laugh.
Conference paper delivered at the Society for Cinema Studies, Washington DC, 26 May 2001.
Published by Society for Cinema Studies, 26 May in 2001.