Sunday, May 29, 2011

Chris Lilley is neither Jesus nor the anti-Christ

Chris Lilley polarizes opinion, but as an artist he has more in common with David Williamson than Austen Tayshus or the team at Working Dog.

In today's Sunday Age Bruce Guthrie is indignant about Chris Lilley's tastelessness and questions whether the the ABC has breached its charter by airing Angry Boys. Although he does still think Mr Lilley is "supremely talented".

If he was a letter writer he'd be "Outraged of Moonee Ponds" and we'd all just roll our eyes. But Mr Guthrie's a paid columnist and you've got to wonder about manufactured froth and bubble such as this.

Still, he knows there's something going on here. He can sense that what Lilley is doing is interesting, but he doesn't quite know what that is. So he has a bet each way, which is hardly guaranteed to get the passions flowing.

There's been a lot written about Lilley's new show, much of it glowing. But a good deal of it perplexed about the nature of his comedy.

One of the most intelligent critiques of Angry Boys comes from Waleed Aly
"Typically from Lilley, there's plenty of discomfort here. His bigoted characters are extreme but presented with an unnerving realism and an editorial silence that raises tricky questions."
Waleed hits the nail on the head with the reference to realism. Lilley's social commentary is sharply observed, and  the work is all the more powerful for it.

Lilley addresses this directly in a recent interview with FHM:
FHM: Is Australia becoming more humourless and uptight? 
CL: I don’t know… I’m not sure if I want to make a statement about that. You might be right.

FHM: I’m sure I’m right. It’s why you’re so successful, because your shows remind people of the way we used to be. We used to be unafraid.

CL: I see what you mean. But I also think there’s this really patriotic thing going on in Australia at the moment. That’s what I was trying to tap into with Daniel and his Aussie flag obsession, and the Southern Cross business. Younger people really identify with that now: you’re white, you’re Aussie and you’ve got to have your Southern Cross tattoo. When I was younger that didn’t exist. It was almost embarrassing – you didn’t want to be associated with that old school “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” thing. It was cringeworthy – but for some reason now it’s back.
One of the mistakes reviewers and commentators seem to be making about Lilley's work is that they insist on reading him through the prism of "comedy". As a writer or actor he's regularly described as a comic genius, but he then confounds these assumptions by not being drop dead funny all the time.

And that reaction is not about his comedy being more or less sophisticated, or the audience being more or less receptive.

As a playwright David Williamson has similarly confounded critics throughout his career. His comedies and dramas are always character driven, but the characters are often types or stereotypes. Lilley is dealing in the same kind of material, albeit in a different milieu.

The one thing on which all commentators concur is that Lilley is a big talent. As David Williamson might agree, it's a talent that deserves a better class of criticism from our cultural elites.

No comments: