Three billboards outside New England: I, Barnaby

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(Meme via @murraywho52.)

Dr Lee Duffield saw two films depicting the worst of redneck culture and somehow kept thinking of Barnaby Joyce.

THE POLITICAL CAPITULATION of former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce eased the pain of embarrassment across the country over a man who, in the words of one of his Parliamentary colleagues, was suffering a loss of his “character”.

As previously suggested by this correspondent (IA, 16 February 2018), many in the rank and file of his party – and their support base in the regions – doubted he had much of that to begin with.

Costs of too much clowning around 

The hillbilly, kick-over-the-traces style may have brought in votes from certain quarters — nothing like a bit of clowning.

But why did it always have to be on the extreme end? Joyce has taken the “direct benefit” idea of politics to the point of moving a government agency to his home electorate and messed with the crucial sustainability plan for the Murray Darling river system (a case of sharks running the swimming pool, as in a climate change denier running the environmental protection agency). While the leader of Federal National Party, he did not know his own citizenship and then, when the crisis came, shacking up with his pregnant girlfriend rent-free, thanks to an entrepreneurial mate — the good bloke who owns the pub.  

So, it may not have been a surprise to conservative country folk to hear about the romantic relationship with the media adviser, but they had had enough.

Certainly, somebody must have given him the message — apart from the Liberal Party and the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, publicly, and apart from members of the assembled news media who, having hushed up about the affair and the pregnancy during the man’s by-election campaign, really wanted this resignation, and gave the whole thing full treatment.  

It’s just that he loved the job and all that it brought really a lot and didn’t want to go, so it dragged on.

Talking about the movies instead

Coincidentally, Joyce's resignation as Deputy Prime Minister and as Leader of the National Party – set to be solemnised today (26 February) – interrupted preparation of some comments by this writer on two films currently getting major attention.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and I, Tonya have in common a saturation of the worst of redneck culture.

Millions greatly like Three Billboards, in which the central, sympathetic character, Mildred Hayes, a poor woman grieving for her cruelly murdered daughter, swears roundly, gets into public brawls with dreadful teenagers, fire-bombs the police station and perverts the course of justice — and, at the end, might be going off to commit a murder.

No other character shows much character or sense or is reasonably unblemished, bar one (please guess which). Police can beat somebody up in the main street; middle-aged blokes mate with young chicks; an unstable, rogue cop wanting to redeem himself actively considers shooting a bad guy (who is truly bad, a half-mad ex-soldier); the sweet lady in the gift shop is an inveterate stoner with a record for dealing; the police chief, another character carrying great pain, seems reasonable, but is a man who resorts to violent solutions.

Other viewers have contested or condoned this idea that things seem generally out of whack in that place. It’s black humour, they say, “just a story”, exaggerated, high (or low) entertainment like Pulp Fiction — where vicious, dangerous criminals are cool dudes. Also, it’s “small town America”.

Well, it does have an unreal comic-book character to it, but not that laughable if you register all the obnoxious subject matter. As for it being “small town America”, no it isn’t, surely, I beg. If that is what has happened to Pleasantville and if there is such a terrible place as this Ebbing, Missouri, or other places like it, don’t go there.

Just after the Florida high school shootings, it seems this representation of American civilisation in steep decline is well on target — alleviated only by the focused anger of all those protesting high school students.

Underclass wars

Mildred Hayes has a sister figure in the tragic mother and anti-hero, LaVona Harding, of I, Tonya.

Hurt, abused, ignorant, confoundedly unwise, unrelievedly hard-boiled, ruthlessly she pushes the child to achieve, but only in sport, with predictable bad outcomes.

This film is a fresh case of American arts and letters demonstrating disdain for under-class life in the United States. It leaves you to work out for yourself the reasons for it and to consider the bad relations between the low characters and the gentry — like the judge who throws the whole book at the woman in the case, presumably as the intended main benefactor of the wrong-doing.

Your heart can go out to Tonya. In this quasi-documentary, she is a victim who cops it on all sides and has her dreams shattered over her part – whatever it really is – in the violent crime against her chief competitor on the Olympic figure skating team.

A note about this most talented athlete Tonya Harding — according to celeb pages in the tabloid press, she states she is hard-done-by on two points in the film about her. These are about the swearing – f**k-this-f**k-that all the time – saying she was never as bad as that; and about where she confronted the competition judges and most rudely told them off, saying it did not happen.

In turn, Margot Robbie, the actress who plays her so well, is quoted saying that she does herself swear a bit and sort-of improvised with the lines, heating up the dialogue.

If this is so, it is another case where directors and screenwriters, when they are telling stories about real people, should be considerate about how they handle or abuse the material.

An underclass identity actually will have more to lose in regard to reputation than somebody richer, "classier", more fortunate and “socially” in a better place.

Back to Australia

This doesn’t have anything to do with a red-faced Australian politician getting himself off-side with his electorate because he’s gone too far with the reckless behaviour, does it?

It’s just that the good folks in the country areas who began to reject Barnaby Joyce just might not want their small towns going that way.

In 2018, when so much piety and repression is supposed to have been washed away under the bridge, they can suffer a clown, so long as the clown tries hard in their interest and brings in some votes. But if the clown begins stuffing up and creating an embarrassment — goodbye (#Barnabye).

Journalists who have been following the Barnaby story for the last few weeks, now coming down from the high, have actually started to write stories about the succession to the National Party leadership.

That would be a very boring premise to so many of their audience members.

Barnaby may have been an embarrassment but he was not a dull embarrassment — and he has left the party needing to take time to work out how it can present itself in future.

The party has, as they say, lost some political skin and it does not much matter what it decides.

It could put up a scarecrow as leader — that would get over the main idea and would do the job well enough for now.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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