Published in Senses of Cinema, Key Moments in Australian Cinema, Issue 70 2014
In Rachel Perkins’ musical One Night the Moon the convention of the duet typical of the classical Hollywood musical is reconfigured. In the film, there is a particular moment whereby Perkins employs a harmony within a duet during the musical number “This Land is Mine”. The editing combined with the contrasting timbre the characters use in this sequence is successful in elucidating differences rather than unifying character perspectives surrounding the Australian landscape.
Preceding Perkins’ filmic adaptation of the musical Bran Nue Dae (2009), One Night the Moon is a musical drama centred on true events that occurred in 1932. The story surrounding the disappearance of a young white girl in the outback fuels a broader commentary on Indigenous and white settler perspectives of the Australian landscape. It is the refusal of a young girl’s father to allow an Indigenous tracker to help find his daughter that has devastating results on the white settler’s family. Perkins’ use of harmony in the musical sequence “This land is mine/This land is me” asserts that a denial of Indigenous knowledge and acceptance has nothing but devastating affects on Australian culture.
This key musical moment stems from the harmony sung by the Indigenous tracker Albert (Kelton Pell) and the white settler Jim (Paul Kelly). The duet within musicals typically serves as a convention conveying a couple’s shared attitudes and often-romantic emotions towards each other. Diana Sandars argues that this notion is reconfigured in this moment from One Night the Moon. This duet articulates contemporary postcolonial issues by refuting the typical use of the Hollywood duet. Sandars states that “whilst the concordance of opposites are reconciled in the classical Hollywood duet, they remain polarised in One Night the Moon, rendering the duet as a site of devastation rather than celebration” (1). Ultimately, Perkins reconfigures the duet between Albert and Jim to localise form, enabling her to comment on a uniquely Australian issue concerning attitudes towards the landscape.
Perkins constructs this moment through the use of parallel editing. The editing is important in constructing conflicting Indigenous and European settler perspectives of the Australian land. Within this sequence Perkins uses a number of close-ups of the character Albert. This succeeds in conveying his mindful, considered and intimate relationship with the land. The solid and steady movement of the camera depicting Albert striding slowly through the outback resembles the solid structure of the land surrounding him, illustrating his connectedness to it. He walks with self-confidence and is filmed in a manner that directly emphasises his existence within this environment.
In contrast, Jim’s character is constantly shown in motion. The camera itself is unsettled and reflects Jim’s relationship to the landscape. Whilst Albert is shot in single shot with the landscape, Jim is filmed alongside his white male search party. Jim and his men march swiftly over the land. This conveys the dominating relationship they have over it. The constant movement of the camera depicting Jim demonstrates his disconnection from the land, perceiving it as an object to be overcome (rather than as something he reads to help find his daughter).
The harmony that occurs between Jim and Albert at the end of the song does not possess the conventional interval typical of classical Hollywood musicals. Both Jim and Albert’s contrasting timbre and the conflicting tone of their voices as they harmonise the lyrics “They won’t take it away/They won’t take it away from me”, reinforce the significant differences in their relationships to the land. More specifically, it is Jim’s dominating perception of the land that is reflected through his use of a falsetto, one that overshadows Albert’s low tone. The tonal differences of the men’s voices are also emphasised as Jim sings higher notes with more intensity and aggravation than Albert. Albert’s tone of voice when singing is low, calm and reassured, corresponding to the lyrics he sings regarding his affinity with the land. Overall the driving rhythm of the guitar and didgeridoo within this song renders it the most memorable in the film, also helping make its message the most pertinent.
One Night the Moon successfully explores postcolonial discourses surrounding the relationship of Indigenous people and white settlers to the Australian landscape. As Perkins exemplifies through her editing style, early settlers perceived the land as a site of hostility. It was an environment that needed to be conquered and dominated in order to meet the idyllic and picturesque image of the European environment. Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land was, instead, one of kinship. It was largely harmonious and unified, existing as part of the natural environment. When the two men harmonise while singing the conflicting lines of dialogue, ‘They won’t take it away/They won’t take it away from me”, the film offers a rejection of the union between the Indigenous inhabitants and early white settlers, evoking a narrative discordance that foreshadows sinister outcomes for Jim’s character. Most notably, though, it conveys the differences in attitude the two figures hold. Jim’s inability to read the landscape in his search for his daughter catalyses the narrative’s disastrous outcomes, ones that correspond to Australia’s own devastating inability to integrate its past into its political and cultural present.
1. Diana Sandars, “From the Hollywood Musical to Music Video: The Grafting That Lies Beneath Contemporary Australian Musicals’, Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, vol. 7, October 2004: http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2004/10/08/from-the-hollywood-musical-to-music-video-the-grafting-that-lies-beneath-contemporary-australian-musicals-diana-sandars/.