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Edition 36

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Essay

Red Dog

IT was a lazy Saturday morning. The winter sun was throwing a pallid wash through the lounge-room window. I needed to go to the market, but breakfast, first: the steam curling upwards from the porridge, dampening my face; the newspaper stiff in its tight roll. I scratched for the edge of the plastic, found it and peeled back the thin film, relished its sticky roar.

When the paper fell free I smoothed and bent its pages out of their rigid waves and extracted my favourite liftout. Flipped through the pages, blowing on spoonfuls of porridge. Stopped. A picture of a kelpie from –skimming, skimming – a 'family movie...opening this week', one that was called – yes, here it was, here was the proof to spite the incredulous surely not! mantra pulsing through me – called Red Dog.

TAKE 1: As a child I never committed to memory my father's exact words, but I did hold on to the red and blue images they called up. These were of desert sand and open sea, of fierce, humid heat that only cold beer could alleviate, of coral trout, red emperor and mackerel that leapt into his and his mates' tinnies and were thrown on a fire after they made landfall on whichever island was closest.

In my mother's stories, it was a place where occupants ran the air conditioning all the time to stop mould speckling and swelling over walls and clothes. Where the red dust meant that the failure to remove one's shoes before entering another's house was the height of rudeness. Where the hot-water systems were switched off to supply the houses with cool water, since the cold taps, attached to pipes that coursed through the scorching heat, delivered the water hot.

It was a time of dinner parties, of working hard and saving and, before then – which is to say, before her arrival – of calling single men's quarters 'home'. In my child's mind it was preparation time for the real life, the one that would begin when she fell pregnant and they returned to the fold of family back east, where, with what they'd saved, they could now afford to build a house in which to raise their children.

These hand-me-down images, as much a part of my childhood as the reality of 1990s country Victoria, were tethered to an actual time and place: mid-1970s to mid-1980s Dampier, a port town in Western Australia's Pilbara region that was developed in the 1960s to accommodate the workforce of the Hamersley Iron mining company.

At the centre of my images was my dad, who lived in the real-world equivalent of their setting for eleven years; Mum joined him for the final five. The real him didn't like being the centre of anything but he was the indisputable hero of my imaginings, always pitted against extremes, always occupying a world that was hotter and tougher and larger than the one I knew: there was the story of him hooking a hammerhead; there was his driving two-kilometre-long trains; there was that time his train couldn't move up a rise because of a plague of mice squelching beneath its wheels. He corrects me on this last incident when I mention it because it happened in the Mallee, but the Mallee wasn't where my child's mind situated him.

At the time of my concocting these images of his past, Dad was still bearded, still had a hard, round belly that was a much better pillow than Mum's soft one. Still performed incredible feats: tossed me, squealing, into the air; opened all the jars; heaved the trailer, single-handed, onto the towbar; caught pesky flies with a precise swipe of his hand. It was only natural that the version of him that was brought out by Dampier was, to my mind, the true one.

But the most striking images, the ones that became a kind of mental shorthand for that time and place in my parents' past, were those of a character that Dad invoked again and again, knowing, I guess, that he would appeal to a child. Dad called him Red Dog.

'His owner died,' he'd say, 'so he travelled around with whoever he could. He'd wait by the road, take the bus, or we'd see him at the pub and afterwards he'd jump into the Valiant and ride with us to the quarters.' I'd nod, unsurprised. All kids knew dogs were smart.

'Aloof, he was; thought he was human. Usually if you pat a dog it'll show some sort of affection, won't it? Well not Red Dog. You were his equal.

'Once a mate said to him, "Out you hop," tried to get him out for some reason, and the mongrel bit him, ha! He'd get out only and exactly when he felt like it. We'd call out, "Yeah, no worries, Red Dog," because he never showed any sign of appreciation, just leapt out and trotted off.'

That's what he would say – quickly; he always hurried out any story, as if to suggest that if the facts weren't enough then it wasn't a good story – and then he would shake his head, blink rapidly and rest his gaze on something in the distance.

AFTER FINDING OUT about Red Dog the film, I went to see it as soon as it appeared at my local cinema. Plaguing me for the duration was a sense of déjà vu overlayed with something close to astonishment; how was it that this canine, evoked so often in my childhood, was flickering in light and colour across the screen?

The furry protagonist's antics provoked laughter and tears from the audience and everyone applauded noisily as the credits rolled. Later I would watch the papers with curiosity as Red Dog went on to gross $20 million locally. The Daily Telegraph would deem it newsworthy enough to report that the 'charismatic kelpie' responsible for 'single-handedly reviv[ing] our flagging fortunes at the local box office' had been 'snubbed' for an Inside Film Award – and here I was thinking that those were reserved for actors of the human kind.

As I walked home that night, with the film's smash-hit status still in the future, it struck me that Red Dog's feel-good, crowd-pleasing nature had been strived for not just through its humour or its tugging at the heart-strings, or even through its strategic inclusion of almost every known archetypal plotline. The film had also aimed to win over its audience by incorporating some pointed appeals to notions of Australian identity.

One example in the film shows a husband-and-wife team of caravan-park caretakers, who at one stage tell Nancy, one of Red Dog's friends, that dogs aren't permitted in the park. When she protests that Red Dog is owned by the community, the husband sneers that the 'bunch'a dirty miners' is no community. Cut to the next day. A knock at the couple's caravan door interrupts lunch; they open the door to see row upon row of miners stand outside. And with that, the miners overcome the sticklers' petty adherence to rules and regulations.

To me that seemed a purposeful representation of a supposed feature of Australian life: the larrikin-wowser nexus, or the way the mainstream's social conservatism (represented by wowsers) fuels an undercurrent of rebellion, dutifully carried out by larrikins. The film, in keeping with many other depictions of Australianness, celebrates larrikinism, not wowserism, and it achieves its objective through solidarity. The film's larrikins – all harmless, all soft-hearted, all remarkably swear-word free – are heroes; its only wowsers, foes. It seems, then, that Red Dog knows exactly where its sympathies lie, knows with which Australian identity it wants to reassure its audience.

TAKE 2: It had been a few years since Dad had told me a Red Dog story by the time I became a teenager in 1999. With the lengthening and filling out of my body came other changes: a bristling at the slightest provocation, an inability to dispel the fury inside me, or grasp why it was there in the first place. All the while I found myself becoming sensitive to the discrepancies between the heroic, faultless Dad I had seen until now, and the person others seemed to see. I became aware of Mum's flared nostrils and sharp intake of breath on the odd occasion that he arrived home drunk, of how her body settled into a subdued, frowning unease.

Once my brother and I were visiting Nan when an uncle arrived, the one who seemed to find avoiding trouble particularly difficult, the one Nan fretted about most. He asked me if I knew what it was like to hit titanium, then told me of a few days before, when he had to control a man who was beating on his ex-wife, how it hurt to punch him because half his face had been reconstructed beneath the skin after he lost an eye and part of his cheekbone. How? Oh, one day he had decided to have a crack at letting off a home-made bomb in his backyard.

My uncle shook his head at Titanium Man's stupidity and went on to recount how the police had arrived but no charges were pressed, luckily, because they understood that he had needed to defend the man's ex-wife. He told me this, and then he went quiet.

'Fight or flight,' he nodded after a while, looking at me. 'Some of us choose to fight. And that can be a virtue, that. I've got it, your dad's got it.'

Nan delicately placed our cups of tea before us on the table. He picked his up, sipped at it. I looked at mine and turned over two facts in my mind. First, that fighting could be judged a virtue. Second, that my uncle had included Dad.

These and other suggestions began to bring into sharper focus the person Dad was beyond the confines of family. There were hints at a more undisciplined side, one of excess, one that embodied the particular breed of masculinity esteemed in that Red Dog time and place, a masculinity that was measured by how many beers you could down, how well you fought, how you bucked and chafed against authority.

I started to believe that the Red Dog stories had been aired so often because they were the appropriate ones, that they had acted as a kind of decoy for other happenings, and that now I was no longer a child I was starting to see through them. By bringing Red Dog to the forefront, I decided, Dad's purpose had been to relegate himself to the narrative shadows.

AS RED DOG'S takings steadily increased, I read article after article that declared the film a surprise hit. I searched for Australian films that had likewise depicted non-Indigenous outback males, and the more I found the more it became clear to me that Red Dog, in its portrayal of its own as larrikins, was following in something of a tradition.

Such films seemed to roughly fall into two camps. There were the threatening machos of Wake in Fright(1971), Fair Game (1986) or, more recently, Wolf Creek (2005), and then there were the humorous, loveable-rogue-type machos of Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Australia (2008). It came as no surprise that the latter kind drew greater crowds: viewers want to feel good about, if not themselves, exactly, then the larger-than-life characters that epitomise popular views of Australian identity. And it was clear which representation of machos the makers of Red Dog had chosen to adopt.

And yet, by making palatable the more disquieting, incongruous facets of this identity – the facets that films such as Wake in Fright emphasise and critique – Red Dog also, perhaps unwittingly, points towards them. While Dad's Red Dog stories drew attention away from other goings-on, Red Dog's masking of disturbing aspects reminds attentive viewers of them.

At one stage in the film, the barbarity of alcohol-fuelled men trying to force Red Dog to eat a live chicken is halted by the newly arrived, and thus still 'civilised', John. This incident functions as an important plot device in that it causes John to accept his role as Red Dog's chosen master. But in the instant before John intervenes, the hive mind's potential for cruelty is laid bare; the film's humorous, harmless larrikins are, for a moment, anything but amusing or innocent.

In another development Nancy takes up a position as a secretary and, when she is later promoted to the title of Executive Assistant and receives more pay, she confesses to Red Dog that she is actually performing the same tasks as before. This admission elicited laughs at my local cinema – perhaps due to the achievement's superficiality, or the absurdity of corporate bureaucracy – but it also says something about the reality of the film's setting and the machos it celebrates.

A true story: after she moved to the West to be with Dad, my mum was one of seven timekeepers at Hamersley Iron, working under a male supervisor. When he moved on, interviews were undertaken in Perth to find a replacement; in the meantime Mum was asked to fill in. After six months Mum put her foot down: either she be made Payroll Supervisor and be paid accordingly, or she would return to performing timekeeper tasks alone. And so they begrudgingly made her Supervisor, the first time a female had been made so. This was close to two decades after Hamersley Iron shares became available on the Australian Stock Exchange.

There are other aspects of the film's people and places that are so glossed-over as to draw attention to themselves. The absence of racism among men of so many nationalities is conspicuous. The scenery porn, which involves lush, awe-inspiring shots of heavy-duty machinery at work, evokes feelings of disquiet when you notice that the scale of the landscape transformation is never revealed. And the one Indigenous face among the workers, coupled with those scenery-porn shots, recalls questions of land custodianship and exploitation, as well as the rights to and ethics of both.

It seems, then, that beneath Red Dog's humorous, feel-good representation of outback machos, there lie uneasy admissions about the darker aspects of this identity. Through presenting this identity as one pocked with absences, those absences, while not made centre stage, certainly hover in the wings.

TAKE 3: My family visited Dampier for the first time when I was sixteen. We'd been to Perth, but never to the storied place of my parents' past. I was still sullen for the most part. Still had Dad straightjacketed into one flawed 'true' identity.

We saw the bronze Red Dog statue Dad had told us about. It was smaller than I had imagined, and more moving for being so.

One day we drove out to a gorge. I envisaged some boring sightseeing spot but when we arrived I saw that we weren't going to admire it from afar, but walk right through it. We hopped across rocks, splashed through the water. The walls soared high above us, their reds stark against the blue sky. The water grew deep and after a while we had to take a higher route. Soon vertigo gripped me so I made my way down slowly and leapt into the water, yelling out, with as much bravado as I could muster, that I preferred to swim. Dad, Mum and my brother were picking their way across ledges above.

Dad called out that we were to head upwards from here on, but I yelled back, irritated, that I would swim as far I could and then climb. Their voices drifted down, disjointed and echoing in the quiet.

I swam to below where they had found a track and started climbing up the gorge wall. I could hear Mum and my brother's voices somewhere above, but the rocks blocked my view. The climbing grew more difficult, until the only way up was the one I was taking. I avoided glancing down at the growing space between the water and me.

After a while I reached the final overhang. There was nothing to grip and the angle was too difficult, yet there was no other route. Everyone was waiting for me but I couldn't scale the final leg. My throat constricted as I envisaged descending, swimming all the way back and then picking my way across the gorge face. I was furious at first, but soon tears pricked at the corners of my eyes and my anger gave way to a paralysed helplessness.

It was then that Dad appeared above me on the ledge – seemingly, due to my limited view, from nowhere. He drew closer, squatted and reached down a hand. Fear and doubt must have shown on my face or in my hesitation because he said, 'It's alright, come on,' and made a quick upward jab of his chin, a gesture between assurance and impatience. We gripped each other's elbows and he grunted as he heaved me, all sixty kilos of me; space fell away below and there was nothing for me to grip to take some of my weight, yet still I was being raised up, all the while hardly believing he was managing it. As the moment stretched out, I was startled to remember – among flashed images, some my own, some handed down, of sharks, trains, trailers and jars – who, exactly, this man could be; who he was being, right this minute, for me.

EVENTUALLY I ASKED Dad if he'd seen that a film had been made about Red Dog. 'Yeah, load'a bullshit,' he said. Anything too symbolic, too memorialised or sentimental – Father's Day, for example – elicits this response. But when I mentioned it a few weeks later, after some of his family and friends had seen it, after they had asked him about the veracity of certain details and had told him how they had laughed and cried, he said he might go see it one of these days. I imagined him in the cinema, alone among all the people, watching the images play across the screen. Imagined him with arms crossed over his belly, sitting there in the dark.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review