Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A great idea that didn't work in Australia

Antoine de Maximy is an intelligent 43-year-old French TV star. The title of his most popular show might be translated into English as How about inviting me along to your home? It's a travel video recorded in foreign lands by Antoine himself. He starts out by striking up conversations with random people he meets in the street. As soon as he encounters an interesting and friendly person, Antoine rapidly steers the conversation around to the above-mentioned question: "How about inviting me along to your home?" The general idea of Antoine's production is that the ideal way to obtain in-depth knowledge about people in a foreign (non-French) country is to interview them in their own homes, maybe around a dinner table.

An original aspect of Antoine's production process is that it's a strictly one-man show. He does all the video recording by himself, using three cameras that are either hand-held or fixed to his body. As depicted in the show's stick-figure logo, when he's doing his filming, Antoine looks a little like a tambourine man. One of the cameras is located at the end of a metal strut that juts out from his waist, making it possible to obtain shots of Antoine himself informing TV viewers about his on-going operations and intentions. Later on, back in France, all the recorded stuff is cut and edited in a video studio, to produce a feature-length TV program.

Normally, one would expect that, in a friendly land such as Australia, inhabited by warm open-hearted Aussies, Antoine's production technique should be a sure winner. Well, it wasn't. It was a shameful disaster. Retrospectively, an informed viewer (that's to say, an Australian such as myself, aware of what the French journalist had set out to achieve) can end up understanding what went wrong at each stage of Antoine's encounters. But it's a pity that all these mistakes and misunderstandings were congealed into an ugly mess, painting a most dismal picture of "average Australians" at home.

The opening scenes show Antoine in the office quarter of Sydney, probably at lunch hour, surrounded by people in business attire scurrying along the footpaths. It's not exactly the kind of environment where people would want to stop and chat with a guy whose body is wrapped in weird video gear, who speaks English with a strange accent. Sydney office workers seemed to take Antoine de Maximy for a crackpot. Maybe they're right. You have to be something of a crackpot to imagine that you can start talking with strangers and end up getting invited into their homes, to find out what makes them tick. In any case, Antoine never got anywhere near finding out what makes Sydney's business people tick. In an off remark to French viewers, he says: "I've always known that it's impossible to strike up conversations with chaps dressed in suits and neckties."

Next, Antoine heads to Bondi, where he meets up with three or four guys seated on the lawn in front of their beach house, drinking beer and trying to attract the attention of females walking along the footpath. Their mating call to Bondi birds is elementary: "Hey, come on, do you want a beer?" Needless to say, Antoine's camera never captured images of any girls who did in fact want a beer. Instead, Antoine succeeded in getting himself invited into the ringleader's flat and filming a sad monologue on the theme of sexual frustration, porn movies, booze, etc. It wasn't even an account of the seamy side of Bondi, if such a thing exists. It was simply the uninteresting confession of a poor guy who had got into the habit of trying to drown his big dick in beer. Hardly an image of typical Australia?

Antoine then decided to go bush. Coober Pedy, opals, Aborigines and all that kind of stuff, including more beer. Here, of course, Antoine didn't have to beg to be brought inside. I had the impression that owners of dugout homes found it perfectly normal that French TV would have dispatched a video-equipped Martian such as Antoine to explore the interior of their strange underground abodes. On the other hand, God only knows why Antoine should have found himself talking to two ordinary-looking teenage girls, in their parents' dugout, who started spontaneously to relate outrageous stories, which may or may not be totally factual: "Concerning Aborigines, we don't mind saying that we're totally racist. You see, we've both been attacked, several times, by drunken Aborigines. So, we try to avoid any contact with them." Nasty stuff for Antoine's cameras.

The only nice sequence in Antoine's presentation of Aussies was his encounter with a miner who organized a small outdoor get-together with his lady friend and mates in honor of the French journalist. Setting aside the fuzziness due to beer, viewers learned that opal mining is often a kind of fascination that gets transformed into an expensive addiction. On the rare occasions that a miner strikes it rich, he immediately invests his new wealth in bigger and better machines. Other individuals in this rough world were prepared to talk with Antoine, but they shied away abruptly from the idea of taking him back home for dinner, bed and breakfast.

Finally, I could see what was coming when Antoine started to talk with a genuine Aborigine. After listening to the conventional explanations about the plight of Australia's indigenous population, the journalist from another planet sprung his standard "Take me to your home" request. I had the impression that the starkly negative but natural reaction of the dumbfounded Aborigine was more spontaneously profound than anything else in Antoine's vain video attempts to get himself invited into Australian homes.

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