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Imagined Landscapes: Geovisualizing Australian Spatial Narratives

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Imagined Landscapes teams geocritical analysis with digital visualization techniques to map and interrogate films, novels, and plays in which space and place figure prominently. Drawing upon A Cultural Atlas of Australia, a database-driven interactive digital map that can be used to identify patterns of representation in Australia’s cultural landscape, the book presents an integrated perspective on the translation of space across narrative forms and pioneers new ways of seeing and understanding landscape. It offers fresh insights on cultural topography and spatial history by examining the technical and conceptual challenges of georeferencing fictional and fictionalized places in narratives. Among the items discussed are Wake in Fright, a novel by Kenneth Cook, adapted iconically to the screen and recently onto the stage; the Australian North as a mythic space; spatial and temporal narrative shifts in retellings of the story of Alexander Pearce, a convict who gained notoriety for resorting to cannibalism after escaping from a remote Tasmanian penal colony; travel narratives and road movies set in Western Australia; and the challenges and spatial politics of mapping spaces for which there are no coordinates.

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Introduction: Geocriticism’s Disciplinary Boundaries

ePub

Yet there is no use in pretending that all we know about time and space, or rather history and geography, is more than anything else imaginative

SAID, Orientalism 55

This is a book about imagined landscapes and imaginative geographies, about the ways in which narrative fiction or spatial stories—films, novels, and plays—continually shape and reshape the contours of our geography and our history. In Imagined Landscapes, we work from the premise that narrative fiction intersects with experiences of and ideas about landscape, identity, and the development of a sense of place such that spatial storytelling makes a strong contribution to geographic and historical awareness. Cultural representations of landscapes, as Christopher Tilley observes, form “a signifying system through which the social is reproduced and transformed, explored and structured” (34). Representations of landscape, therefore, do far more than frame the environment as a background against which narrative action plays out; they generate symbolism and produce cultural meaning. Such narratives, we argue, form and inform perceptions of space and place as they represent and communicate spatial concepts and cultural and environmental issues. As Tilley claims, places “may be said to acquire a history, sedimented layers of meaning by virtue of the actions and events that take place in them” (27). One way this occurs is in the production of “spatial stories,” which Michel de Certeau defines as cultural narratives that “traverse and organize places: they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them” (115). The case studies presented in this book exemplify such spatial stories. While these narratives are grounded in the landscape and culture of Australia, the insights drawn from them have relevance to questions of nation and narration around the world. As we have argued elsewhere, “Representations of space and place are always ideological, always implicated in some form of nation-building or identity-formation, and considering ‘imagined,’ fictive, representational, or mythic geographies allows us to see the ways in which representations of space and place are intimately bound up in the nexus of power–knowledge” (Mitchell and Stadler “Imaginative” 29).

 

1 Remediating Space: Adaptation and Narrative Geography

ePub

The formal characteristics of films, novels, and plays privilege varied expressions of imaginative geography and these cultural narratives, we argue, not only mediate and represent space, place, and location but are themselves mediated representational spaces. Furthermore, films, novels, and plays also open themselves up to further remediation in the form of cross-media adaptation or, to push the point further, in the form of geovisualization and the spatial analysis it enables. Adaptation studies is an exciting, dynamic, and rapidly developing interdisciplinary field, and yet, like narrative theory, it has not fully or directly accounted for the question of space. Adaptation studies has been more concerned with questions of fidelity (or the validity of those questions), lines of influence, and transmediality and with the translation of space, place, and landscape between narrative forms being rarely addressed.

In compiling and constructing our Cultural Atlas of Australia, we encountered many texts in which the geographical setting of the narrative was modified—to greater or lesser degrees—across adaptations. For instance, John Curran’s 1998 film adaptation of Andrew McGahan’s cult “grunge” novel, Praise (1992), is filmed in Sydney rather than in Brisbane—the city in which the novel is set and with which it is intimately connected. Although McGahan wrote the screenplay for Curran’s adaptation, and although the narrative setting of the film version remains, broadly speaking, the same (that is, urban Australia in the early 1990s), the choice of filming location means that the adaptation loses some of the novel’s locational and regional specificity—namely, its focus on the then low-rent, inner-city Brisbane suburbs of New Farm and Fortitude Valley.1 A more dramatic example is Scott Hicks’s The Boys Are Back (2009), a film adaptation of British journalist Simon Carr’s memoir about his experiences raising his sons in New Zealand following the death of his wife. Hicks’s adaptation is neither set nor filmed in New Zealand; instead, it transplants the entire narrative to Australia, from Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, and its environs—over 2000 miles (3219 km.) and another country away. Film adaptations may also, of course, provide a more heightened sense of location, simply by virtue of the fact they must be filmed somewhere, if they are being filmed on location, and this is particularly the case when the narrative setting of the adapted text is fictional, ambiguous, or only loosely sketched (as in the case of George T. Miller’s 1982 film adaptation of A. B. “Banjo” Paterson’s 1890 poem “The Man from Snowy River”). Stage adaptations are more likely, as we will see in the case study presented here, to reduce the geographical specificity of the original text while promoting a stronger sense of symbolic or mythic space. A case in point is Stephan Elliott’s 2006 stage adaptation of his highly successful film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), which will be further analyzed in chapter 5. The film follows a busload of drag queens as they travel from Sydney to Alice Springs, visiting Broken Hill, Coober Pedy, the Painted Desert at Oodnadatta, and Kings Canyon en route. In Elliott’s stage adaptation, the bus itself, rather than the locations it travels to, becomes by necessity the primary backdrop and the site for much of the production’s action.

 

2 Cultural Topography and Mythic Space: Australia’s North as Gothic Zone

ePub

Franco Moretti states in his Atlas of the European Novel that mapping a fictional space “is not the conclusion of geographical work; it’s the beginning. After which begins in fact the most challenging part of the whole enterprise: one looks at the map, and thinks” (7). This chapter addresses the significant interpretative challenges inherent in “reading” the maps of narratives set in given regions. The chapter looks at the ways in which geocritical theory and the analysis of maps that represent fictional space broker an analysis of mythic space in relation to national narratives. We also discuss the perils of overreliance on data contained within such digital mapping projects in order to explore what can sometimes be revealed by way of omission. In terms of specific regional examples, we examine patterns occurring in the Australian North, particularly in theater but also with reference to literature and film, examining how the landscape is staged and performed as a national myth. The rise of a uniquely categorized Gothic North in theater of the twenty-first century will operate here as a t(r)opical test case as we investigate how patterns of representation shift over time and across mediums and consider why the fictional space of the continent’s far north is densely populated with texts when the overwhelming majority of Australians live in the metropolitan centers of the south and southeast. The focus of this chapter is to study the significance of geographic location in post-1950 plays and related narratives set above the Tropic of Capricorn in order to look at recurring themes, settings, and concepts in these plays to see how this space functions and what it represents. We argue that the far north of Australia functions as a frontier with Asia across the national border and as a space of encounter with the Indigenous “internal other” within Australia. Moreover, we discover that the theater emerging from this region in the past ten years is theming this depiction of frontier schematics through a particular generic lens: that of the Gothic. Comparisons with narratives set in other parts of Australia and other regions of the world serve to substantiate these claims about the North as (increasingly Gothic) frontier space. We demonstrate how geographic information technologies, theories, and concepts help understand such spatial influence on cultural development.

 

3 Spatial History: Mapping Narrative Perceptions of Place over Time

ePub

Representations of the past can be characterized as “a kind of mapping where the past is a landscape and history is the way we fashion it” (Bodenhamer, “Beyond” 6–7). In that spirit, this chapter interprets the representations of Australia’s past by mapping films, novels, and plays featuring Alexander Pearce—a convict who gained notoriety for resorting to cannibalism after absconding from a remote penal settlement in Tasmania. We examine how dramatized accounts of history, including Pearce’s own confession documents, quite literally map the landscape of the past, even as they also fashion or cultivate perceptions of the physical landscape. In our inquiry as to how the spatial humanities and digital cartographic approaches might advance understandings of cultural and spatial history, we argue that geovisualization, as a mode of narrative analysis, can reveal the complex imbrications of a place, its community, and myths of national and regional identity. We demonstrate that qualitative information found in photographs, film footage, and journey narratives can offer insight into evolving perspectives on a locale over time.

 

4 Mobility and Travel Narratives: Geovisualizing the Cultural Politics of Belonging to the Land

ePub

In 2011 an endearing story about a dog the same color as the dusty red Outback broke box office records to become one of the top ten highest grossing Australian films of all time. The name of the film and its eponymous protagonist, “Red Dog,” derive from the reddish brown coat that is characteristic of the Red Cloud Kelpie, a breed of Australian sheep and cattle dog that is widely believed to be part dingo.1 The tale of Red Dog wandering the country in search of his master eclipsed even well-loved travel narratives such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994). The perennial popularity of travel narratives and their capacity to dramatize the geopolitical relationship between the land and its people make the genre significant for investigating the nexus between travel, colonialism, and cultural perceptions of place and belonging (see Gilbert and Johnston; Bishop, “Driving”). For Indigenous Australians, the landscape itself is believed to have been created through a kind of travel narrative in that the land takes its form from ancestral beings that traversed the continent during the Dreamtime and marked it with the story of their passage. Contemporary Aborigines use cultural rituals including walkabout, song, dance, and storytelling to honor these ancestral beings who still reside in landmarks such as water holes and rock formations: “The narrated songlines of Australian Indigenous peoples offer an example of the cultural representation of complex and culturally specific forms of spatial cognition and connection between people and place” (Mills). Settler-colonial explorers first traversed the interior of the Australian continent in 1800–1860, charting their journeys in journals and maps. These travelogues were soon supplemented by literary fiction and plays that dramatized exploration and convict transportation, and, by the turn of the century, the “sightseeing” films of early cinema afforded “a way for the less wealthy classes to see what otherwise was only accessible to them in still film through painting or photography” (M. Lefebvre, Introduction xi). Among the earliest travel films of Australia are the tourism narratives and Indigenous mythologies created by Gaston Méliès, brother and business partner of the better-known director George Méliès. For instance, in Gaston Méliès’s Captured by Aborigines (1913), an Aboriginal elder rescues an English explorer in Queensland from cannibals. By 2014, the top fifty Australian feature films ranked by total gross Australian box office included sixteen travel narratives (“Australian Content”). Excluding fourteen films on the top fifty list that take place overseas, travel narratives represent 44% of the most popular features, including Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005), Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008), and Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009). Not only have travel narratives come to occupy a prominent place in Australia’s cultural industries, their evolution from the early travelogues and sightseeing films suggests they instantiate a form of storytelling ideally suited to reflecting changing understandings of space and place and especially how exploration, development, and the experience of the “other”—Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and landscapes—shape sociopolitical perceptions and practices.

 

5 Terra Incognita: Mapping the Uncertain and the Unknown

ePub

The concept of terra incognita—unknown land—occupies a significant place in the Australian spatial imaginary. The notion that an antipodean landmass—a “great south land”—lay undiscovered (by the West, at least) in the unmapped emptiness below the known world fired the imaginations of philosophers, geographers, and explorers for some two thousand years before Europeans first made landfall on Australian coasts. According to Paul Arthur:

The concept of the antipodes was born out of an ancient geographical theory of balance. A giant southern continent (one far larger than the Australian landmass) featured in the classical imagination as early as the fifth century BC. Greek thinkers, including Pythagoras, Aristotle, and later Pomponius Mela and Ptolemy, supported the belief that the earth was spherical and that a great south land must exist to balance those of the northern hemisphere. These were theories that formed a basis for Renaissance geographical thought. (“Antipodean” 1864)

 

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