ROMPER STOMPER (1992): A FILM BY GEOFFREY WRIGHT

January 26, 2013 Essays on Film  4 comments

Pulling on the boots and tightening up the laces

Shaving our heads and strapping on the braces

Now you are a skinhead looking for a fight

Skinhead, skinhead, running through the night

 

 

I was a teenager when writer/director Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (1992) was released in Australia. In a year that witnessed the worldwide success of the uplifting, feel-good drama Strictly Ballroom, Romper Stomper surfaced and stamped its way to notoriety like a rampaging, cinematic juggernaut.

Revisiting the film today, some two decades after its release, is an opportunity to reassess its contribution to world cinema at a juncture where migration, territoriality and fear are ubiquitous and contentious intellectual currents.

CONTESTED TERRITORY

Skinhead, skinhead, running through the night

Making lots of trouble, starting lots of fights

Skinhead, skinhead, getting really pissed

Skinhead, skinhead, tattooed on my wrist

Who belongs to a country? What secures the terms of their occupation? Under what authority can they be excluded? From its terrifying opening scene, Romper Stomper launches its audience into a landscape whose textures and contours are fraught by such questions.

It is evening and on a train station in Footscray three teenagers of Asian descent have disembarked from their carriage and are skateboarding across the platform. Cruising down the exit ramp, they emerge into the misty, foreboding, underground tunnel where they encounter a group of neo-Nazi skinheads led by the imposing Hando (Russell Crowe), his second-in-command Davey (Daniel Pollock) and their comrades Brett, Bubs, Cackles, Champ, Luke and Sonny Jim.

Cornering the teenagers, the skinheads block their path and yank them off their skateboards. ‘What are you doing here?’ Hando asks a startled teen who is launched into his path.’Let me tell you something,’ Hando advises with calculated menace, ‘I want you to listen to me, okay? This is not your country.’ Like a lit fuse, the utterance sparks a brutal onslaught of aggression. Turning on the teenagers, Hando and his posse pounce, shove, kick, punch and pummel them unconscious, leaving the sole, traumatised female member of the group screaming for help.

In a gesture at once vulgar, vitriolic and ruthless, the uncouth Sonny Jim (Leigh Russell) confronts our gaze, extends his middle finger and unleashes a repellent command: ‘Fuck off!’ Before the opening credits have even started rolling, the skinheads have enforced their agenda: marking their territory and staking their claim over the environs of Footscray, one of Victoria’s most culturally diverse suburbs.

GABE & THE GANG

Lurking in the laneway, waiting for the scum

Smash their yellow faces, kick their fucking bums

When they plead for mercy, we will show them none

Skinhead, skinhead, till the job is done

When they are not terrorising members of the Vietnamese community, Hando, Davey and their motley crew of misfits congregate at The Railway Hotel, their revered local haunt (and the setting of Romper Stomper’s key turning points).

To the chagrin of its frustrated owner, the skinheads claim The Railway Hotel, in the words of Hando, as ‘our place’: a gritty sanctuary for libation, merriment, social networking and sexual liaisons that they suspiciously monitor and jealously guard from anyone deemed a foreigner or outsider.

It is into this milieu that Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie) enters at a turbulent cross-roads in her life. An epilepsy sufferer and prescription drug abuser, Gabe finds herself alone after being forced to abandon her unstable boyfriend and reject the hospitality of her affluent – but sexually abusive – father, Martin (Alex Scott). Seeking solace and shelter in the sour and dingy confines of The Railway Hotel, Gabe draws the lustful, predatory attention of Hando, Davey and their entourage.  With an abrupt jump-cut, Wright transports Gabe squarely into Hando’s world and her breezy entry – facilitated by impassioned kissing and juvenile tomfoolery – sets into motion events that alters its entire group dynamic.

TERRITORY & SUPREMACY

Skinhead, skinhead, putting in the boot

Looking for a street fight, looking for a root

Skinhead, skinhead, running through the place

Skinhead, skinhead, stomping on your face

When Gabe takes up residence in the gang’s ramshackle abode – a disused tyre warehouse – she is fascinated by the agitprop aesthetic of Hando’s quarters: newspaper articles on Eugene Terre’Blanche, portraits of Adolf Hitler, Nazi propaganda depicting the Luftwaffe (German air force) and Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth), and military paraphernalia (including a Wehrmacht military helmet and a blood-red banner bearing the iconic Swastika and the words Deutschland Erwache – ‘Germany Awake’). ‘Why do you go in for all this stuff?’ Gabe enquires. Hando’s response, delivered with calm, self-assured conviction is indicative of what the cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis refers to as kinetophobia – the fear of movement and migration:

Because I don’t want to be a white coolie in my own country. ‘Cause it’s not our country anymore. Because rich people and powerful people brought in boat loads of human trash, cheap labour – gooks mainly – and there’s gonna be more. I want people to know that I’m proud of my white history and my white blood. One day, they might be all I have.

This paranoid patriotism is spectacularly emblazoned on Hando’s skin in a plethora of striking tattoos, including the eclectic centrepiece etched on his chest: a crucifixion scene involving not Christ but a skinhead suspended on the Cross and framed by the cascading flags of England and Great Britain.

The body is often construed as a metaphor for the nation and the flags adorned on Hando’s skin are at once reflective of his ancestral lineage and his identification with the colonial powers that occupied Australia but whose sovereignty is now, in Hando’s eyes, severely jeopardised by the influx of migrants. Flexing his muscles before Gabe he cautions, ‘I don’t wanna go the same way as the fuckin’ Abo. See that map? That’s all the gook properties in Barkly Street. Few years ago, it was a white area’.

A Public House is a contested space: its ownership and management are subject to change, its purpose and function shifting and unstable, its clientele divided by conflicting interests and contrasting subject positions. When the owner of The Railway Hotel sells the property to an Asian businessman and his sons, the transaction is witnessed by Brett and Bubs and its subsequent reporting to Hando ignites an explosive and gruesome gang war. Arriving at the Railway Hotel bearing chains, clubs, batons and nunchaku (a weapon, ironically, synonymous with Okinawan martial arts), Hando and his crew confront the sons of the new proprietor and coerce them into the courtyard. What ensues is one of the film’s most sustain and graphic outbreak of gang violence.

Ron Hagen’s chilling, hand-held, chrome-blue cinematography propels the audience in the midst of the action: circled and surrounded by the skinheads, we assume their point of view and watch as their prostrate victims are struck down, their arms and legs pinned and trampled, chains yoked and tightened around their necks, chests repeatedly punched and kicked, fingers snapped off with ruthless glee, bodies mercilessly struck with pool cues. ‘This is our place gook boy, our place. What are you doing here?’ Hando taunts one of the victims, gripping him in a headlock and pinning him down while the portly Luke delivers a crunching punch to his stomach. ‘The only thing for you here is pain! You understand? Understand? I hope you do mate ‘cause I don’t speak monkey talk!’

The obscenity of this scene betrays an irresolvable paradox: in Romper Stomper violence is the zenith of extremism and, conversely, a seductive, euphoric and binding force. And it is the complicity of Gabe in this attack and the ensuing response of the Vietnamese community that powerfully accentuate the unifying potential of violence.

As Hando’s lover and Davey’s romantic interest, Gabe is initially critical of their treatment of the Vietnamese community. Arriving at The Railway Hotel and witnessing the callous and brutal attack, Gabe defiantly steps forward and confronts Hando. ‘They’re only kids,’ she protests. ‘Maybe you got him enough now, Hando?’ Instead of defusing the situation, the statement only exacerbates his rage. Turning the victim around so that he is directly facing Gabe, Hando retorts with a command: ‘Here, hit one of them!’

Wright casts Gabe directly in the spotlight and we observe how peer pressure and mob mentality can potentially implicate one in physical acts of aggression, including those who are averse and resistant. Confronted by the gaze of other gang members, including Davey who awaits her reaction to Hando’s challenge, Gabe hesitates at first but, when provoked by the victim, retaliates by kicking him. She becomes further embroiled when carloads of Vietnamese youth arrive at the Hotel and instigate a bloody and fatal riot. From this point forth, Gabe switches gears from a passenger to a participant. Seeing Davey struggle with a Vietnamese youth, she intervenes by covering the man’s eyes and pulling him to the ground, thus enabling Davey to overpower, incapacitate and finally immolate him with the blade of his dagger. Violence, here, brings Davey and Gabe closer; their loyalty is forged through the shedding of an Other’s blood.

Through Gabe we also observe the enthralling euphoria of physical aggression. Forced to flee The Railway Hotel, Gabe and the gang navigate their way home through the back alleys and lane ways of Footscray. When they encounter a number of their pursuers along the way, a frantic street brawl erupts. Hando, Davey, Cackles and Bubs resort to assaulting, chaining and savaging their victims. Caught up in this moment, the transfixed Gabe screams in ecstatic adulation at the atrocities being committed before her. Here is violence as catharsis: adrenaline-releasing, endorphin-rushing, emotionally rejuvenating.

For their part, the Vietnamese youth, led by their determined and scorned leader Tiger, likewise responds by calling on their friends and associates, solidifying their alliances and eventually outnumbering and overpowering Hando’s army. As the former victims of repeated attacks, violence for the Vietnamese becomes a vehicle for resistance, retaliation and the invasion and fiery destruction of the skinheads’ abode. ‘Communities,’ Wright explain, ‘are galvanized and motivated by pressures brought to bear against them. I think that we all have to remember this, that…[when] you bring pressure to bear against any community – it doesn’t have to be an ethnic community, it can be a gay community or any other kind of community, you know – of course there’s going to be a reaction and they’re prepared to use force or what have you to protect their own…make no apologies about that’.

THE VIOLENCE OF LANGUAGE

When the coppers see us, at first they pull their gun

But when they see us come towards then they start to run

When we wear our badges, it makes us real proud

Skinhead, skinhead, shout it out loud

In his attempt to portray the ‘fluctuating fortunes’ of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang, Wright spent more than eighteen months researching neo-Nazi groups in Melbourne. To do justice to his subject, one of Wright’s primary interests was ‘to recreate the detail of their world with as much authentic bits and pieces as possible. So here were highly motivated characters who looked a certain way and behaved a certain way, brought their own music into it and their own uniforms and their own code of honour if you could call it that’.

Designer Anna Borghesi and composer John Clifford White brilliantly translate this vision to this screen through their costumes and soundtrack, respectively. The skinheads’ urban attire is replete with the insignia and badges synonymous with the Third Reich. And, in one of the film’s most powerful sequences – a montage depicting the wild, alcohol-fuelled, sex-incensed, head-banging and body slamming shenanigans of a skinhead party – we are subjected to the gang’s brazen musical preferences: The Master Race’s Pulling on the Boots, an anthem that bombastically expounds their raison d’etre (and whose stanzas are cited throughout this essay).

What is also invoked on screen is the ideology of National Socialism. Wright infuses his screenplay with the phrasing of its discourse, showing how it serves as the source of Hando’s thinking and the dubious justification for his actions. ‘Mein Kampf. You know it?’ he asks Gabe during one of their most intimate moments. ‘This book was written by Adolf Hitler. It got turned into a joke by a lot of people who don’t want you to know Hitler’s view of the world. It’s simply about the ongoing struggle of the white race and the enemies it faces. If you don’t know who the enemy is, you can’t win the war’.

This paranoia with knowing the ‘enemy’ and winning the ‘war’ suggests another mode aggression: the violence of naming and positioning the Other through language. As Slavoj Žižek points out, before its physical or empirical variations, ‘First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms…This violence operates at multiple levels. Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a single feature. It dismembers the thing, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous’.

The moment that Hando utters racial epithets he is performing what Žižek describes as the reductive ‘“essencing” ability (making essences) of language’ whereby ‘our world is given a partial twist, it loses its balanced innocence, one partial colour gives the tone of the whole’. Seen thus, the verbal violence of language, Žižek surmises, ‘is not a secondary distortion, but the ultimate resort of every specifically human violence’. Before a single punch is thrown or a gang war is waged, the condition of their possibility is the epistemological volatility of language.

IDENTITY & CONTRADICTION

Skinhead, skinhead, running through the night

Making lots of trouble, starting lots of fights

Skinhead, skinhead, getting really pissed

Skinhead, skinhead, tattooed on my wrist

What constitutes identity and culture? Are they discrete, immutable entities? Reducible to innate or essential properties? Determined by biology or physiology?  In Romper Stomper the question of identity and culture are of visceral urgency for Hando.

‘Listen,’ he advises Gabe as he proceeds to read directly from Mein Kampf. ‘“All the noble cultures of the past declined because the purity and vigour of the originally creative race faded out. They were compromised by the seed of lesser races who were attracted to the works of superior men. The undeniable reason for their decline was, then, due to a kind of racial blood poisoning. Racial blood must, then, be preserved in its purity at all costs’”. Hearing these words, Gabe confronts our gaze and smiles dreamily – mesmerized by their seductive potency.

Culture, as conceived in this fragment from Mein Kampf, is the property of a unified, distinct and superior race whose originality and creativity is compromised by its mixture with, and resulting contamination by, supposedly inferior races. For the late Jacques Derrida, however, this alleged purity is not natural nor organic and irreducible to blood or race. Racial purity is, first and foremost, inscribed within a discourse, mediated by a vernacular, engendered by a language that naturalises and legitimates its truth-claims:

There’s no racism without a language. The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word. Even though it offers the excuse of blood, colour, birth – or, rather, because it uses this naturalist and sometimes creationist discourse – racism always betrays the perversion of man, the ‘talking animal’. It insinuates, declares, writes, inscribes, prescribes. A system of marks, it outlines space in order to assign forced residence or to close off borders. It does not discern, it discriminates.

If identity and culture are made by possible by language (regimes of power and systems of representation), they are simultaneously ruptured and fragmented by forces of difference, alterity and heterogeneity that operate in language. No identity or culture is identical unto itself: they are haunted by the difference of their own possibility and potentiality. To deny this difference, as Hando is wont to do in Romper Stomper, is to deny the Otherness of the Self, with irreversible and disastrous consequences. As Derrida cautions:

As soon as there is One, there is murder, wounding, traumatism. The One guards against the Other, it protects itself from the Other. But in the movement of this jealous violence it compromises, in itself, its self-otherness or self-difference.  The difference from within one’s self which makes it One.

It is precisely this multidimensionality of identity – its emergence from and fragmentation by difference – that Wright accentuates in his characters. When Hando identifies and targets Asians and Indigenous Australians, he inadvertently betrays his ‘own’ speaking position as one among many, summoning the Others without whom his sense of Self would have no meaning or significance. When he voices a fear of succumbing to the plight of the ‘fucking abo’ Hando invokes the history of colonisation and displacement that frame his perception of history and projections of the future. In obsessively mapping the proliferation of Asian-owned properties in Footscray and lamenting its demise as a ‘white area’, Hando ironically invokes the shared and multiple histories that intersect in a given space: like the Vietnamese community, Hando is also the descendant of migrants, an offspring of the English diaspora, his ‘Self’ is already an ‘Other’.

Hando’s trusty confidant likewise discloses the multifarious and protean orientation of his identity. Near the end of film we are presented with another Davey, one almost incommensurable with the obedient and dutiful neo-Nazi skinhead. Abandoning the gang, Davey returns home and resumes the role of a meek, mild-mannered and genteel young man who lives with his grandmother and conceals his Nazi attire (and alter-ego). ‘You don’t look right without your jacket with all the badges,’ Gabe observes when she arrives at the doorstep of his cozy, aquatic-themed bungalow. ‘Well,’ Davey explains, ‘my grandma, you know, she doesn’t know about that. She doesn’t like the badges or anything. I don’t wanna upset her. It’s her place’. Identity, it seems, is not reducible to where you are from nor where you are at, but who you are with at a given time and where you are heading.

Despite his antipathy towards migrants, Davey’s own family history bears witness to a peripatetic mode of existence. ‘What’s this?’ Gabe asks while pondering the items in his abode. ‘That’s my matchbox collection,’ he replies. ‘My dad. He’s an industrial diver. He travels all around the world, see? Amsterdam. Venice. Perth. Naples. I think he’s in Sydney working on the Sydney Harbour tunnel. I haven’t got a box from there, huh?’

A neo-Nazi, it transpires, can conjure its own counterpoint:  the restless, borderless, cosmopolite who is not the property of a nation but a citizen of the world. The prodigious poet Arthur Rimbaud was onto something when he opined: ‘I is an Other’.

PROTEAN TIES 

Wir ziehen uns die Stiefel an und schnüren sie uns zu

Rasieren uns die Kuppe, und schlagen sie uns ein

Das ist ein Skinhead, und wartet auf den Kampf

Skinhead, Skinhead, ziehen durch die Stadt

The drama of Romper Stomper does not confine itself to the conflict between the skinheads and members of the Vietnamese community. Rather, it accentuates the complexity of its characters, the intricacies of their relationships and the shifting orientation of their friendship and loyalties.

‘I think it’s an emotional, psychological trick of the film,’ Wright explains ‘that you’re not sure which side you’re on because…you can meet the worst, the most morally bankrupt person but there may be a part of their life that you could sort of have some empathy with – I mean Adolf Hitler liked dogs for example, things like that – and to deny that is to deny the three dimensionality of the characters and to suddenly turn them into stark villains’.

A figure as domineering, controlling and deplorable as Hando can, nevertheless, display profound gestures of mateship. In the aftermath of their wild and sprawling party, the ravaged Davey is passed out and sprawled across the steps of a staircase. In a telling and compassionate moment, Hando removes the prostrate Davey from the steps, positions him on the warehouse floor, places a makeshift pillow under his head and covers him with his jacket.  ‘Stupid little bugger’, he remarks with paternal tenderness.

Alliances and loyalties, in Romper Stomper, are also forged through displays of generosity and the acquisition and retrieval of objects charged with symbolic and sentimental value.  When the gang receive a surprise visit from their Canberra-based associates – the bespectacled Magoo, his punk lover Jacqui and their Navy cadet Flea – they are presented with an antique pilfered from the basement of the War Museum: a standard issue Nazi dagger synonymous with the Hitler Youth. Davey expresses his fondness for the artefact but is unable to meet the price demanded by Magoo. ‘Here,’ Hando assures his friend, chipping in the required funds to make the purchase, ‘pay me back next dole cheque’.

Davey’s connection with Gabe is similarly sparked and cemented by his sensitivity to the object of her affection: a trendy jacket that she admires through a shopfront window. Davey not only cuts his hand removing the item for Gabe, but also risks his life, later on, by retrieving it  when their warehouse is invaded.

When asked, in an interview, on the appeal of writing about a skinhead gang, Wright remarked, ‘I couldn’t resist them from a dramatic point of view. They were characters who knew what they wanted as warped as that was. There was, you know, a legitimate whirlpool of desires’.  The escalating tension in Romper Stomper is, indeed, fleshed out by the competing drives and motivations within the gang. Hando’s initial infatuation with Gabe soon shifts to resentment in the wake of her rising stature in the group and rapport with its members. When she prepares a home made meal using pasta and vegetables, Hando throws his serving aside dismissing it as ‘bloody wog crap’. His commitment to Gabe is further compromised and diminished by his preoccupation with retaliation and vengeance. ‘I want guns’, he tells the remaining members of the group in the wake of their defeat and the demise of their fallen brethren. ‘Luke, Magoo, Champ. Brett. I want revenge’.

Davey’s acquiescence to Hando and his loyalty to the gang likewise wanes in light of his deepening feelings for Gabe.  In one of the film’s lighter moments, he conveys his fondness by assisting Gabe with tedious domestic chores and emphatically protects her honour when she succumbs to an epileptic seizure and is mocked by the insensitive Sonny.

Gabe’s own equivocal position is foregrounded when she finds herself becoming emotionally entangled with both Hando and Davey. Staging a heist at her lecherous father’s mansion, Gabe pulls Davey aside and gives him a tour of her old bedroom. ‘Give me a look’, she says, inspecting his bandaged hand. ‘Looks alright’, she approves, sealing the cut with a kiss. ‘See Hando doesn’t act like he likes me’, Gabe confides in him. ‘He likes you though, doesn’t he?’ Davey’s succinct reply, ‘he’s my best mate’ is met with a mischievous confession and almost conspiratorial interrogation from Gabe, ‘I want him to go away on a holiday with me. Just him and me…and you. You’d like that wouldn’t you? You like me, don’t you? Don’t you?’ The intimacy of the moment and the force of Gabe’s question are enough to implant seeds of doubt in Davey’s mind concerning his future with the gang.

No gang, party, organisation or collective is immune to internal rivalries and shifting power dynamics and, in Romper Stomper, shifts in perception and the forging of new alliances collectively jeopardise the coherence of the gang and the loyalties of its closest members.

In the aftermath of their botched heist, the humiliated Hando and his downtrodden ilk return to square one, rueing their losses, consumed by a seething, ominous silence that is rudely interrupted by Gabe’s nerve-shredding humming. Her insolence and nonchalant air of superiority pushes Hando over the edge. Subjecting her to vicious expletives, Hando breaks off their relationship and casts Gabe out of the gang. Her acidic reply deliciously evokes the juvenile immaturity  and comical incompetence of the skinheads: ‘Don’t go crazy at me just because you and your mates fucked up. You had it all on a plate but, no, you had to play silly buggers with a car. Why couldn’t you just take his stuff and go? You’re a loser.’

Delivered with icy contempt, the repugnant label ‘loser’ is the dart that strikes and stings Hando’s Achilles’ heel: as a figure of authority, he is an erroneous, delusional and unstable malcontent. ‘Don’t call me that!’ he screams in fury, slapping Gabe across the face. ‘No one ever calls me that!’

It is this vicious outburst that widens the distance between Hando and Davey and turns Gabe from an accomplice into an informant.

 

THE ENEMY, FASCISM & SOVEREIGNTY 

Skinhead, skinhead, running through the night

Making lots of trouble, starting lots of fights

Skinhead, skinhead, getting really pissed

Skinhead, skinhead, tattooed on my wrist

We often think of the enemy as a foreigner, an outsider, an intruder beyond the boundaries of our inner circle, someone other than our family and friends. The enemy is one who approaches from without to disturb, to attack, to overwhelm and, eventually, to overcome us.

For Hando, the enemy can be determined, in advance, via research and surveillance. Through his readings of Mein Kampf and mapping of migrant-owned properties, Hando’s war is to be waged against those who have emerged from without, who lie at the margins, beyond the pale, who are packaged, compartmentalised and reified through language: as ‘gooks’, ‘wogs’, ‘faggots’, ‘hippie degenerates’ and ‘human trash’.

Is this view not beset, however, by a profound blindness? For, in Romper Stomper, there is an ambiguity as to who constitutes the enemy and from where they emerge. And it is this indeterminacy that Hando cannot eschew in advance.

There are many films where the loyalty between two men is compromised by the introduction of another individual into their lives. This dramaturgical motif is an effective vehicle for generating conflict, maintaining tension and moving the plot along. Among the many individuals who enter and intervene in the lives of Hando and Davey in Romper Stomper, the most exemplary is Gabe.

In Gabe, Hando encounters a lover who turns traitor, responsible at once for the dispersal of the gang and his own, eventual downfall. Moments after she is evicted from the skinheads’ enclave, we see Gabe at a phone booth, placing a call that leads to the violent arrest and dissolution of the group. ‘Is that Footscray police?’ she confirms with treacherous determination. ‘Listen, um… I know where there’s some people that you might be looking for’.

But can the enemy not be closer to home, right there from the start, on standby, someone familiar, trustworthy, a member of one’s own circle or family? The enemy, as Jacques Derrida has shown, is not external to the friend, a stranger or a foreign agent who encroaches from without. The dynamics and politics of friendship are more nuanced and convoluted, whereby:

The enemy had indeed to be there already, so near. He had to be waiting, lurking close by, in the familiarity of my own family, in my own home at the heart of resemblance and affinity, within parental suitability…This enemy was a companion, a brother, he was like myself, the figure of my own projection but an exemplarity more real and more resistant than my own shadow. My truth in painting. The enemy did not rise up: he did not come after the friend to oppose or negate him. He was already there, this fellow creature, this double or this twin: I can identify and name him.

Incidentally, Hando’s demise in Romper Stomper proceeds not at the hands of a rival gang seeking vengeance but his second-in-command, Davey. It is Davey who is compelled to confront and defeat an incensed Hando in order to rescue Gabe from his murderous clutches.

There is, of course, yet another scenario, one that is perhaps the most inconspicuous: the enemy is not outside of oneself, but lurks and festers within. Is it not Hando himself and his pathetic attempts to dominate, control and master the Others around him – Gabe, Davey, the skinheads, members of the Vietnamese community – that nurtures the seeds of his own destruction?  Before their gruesome showdown on the shores of a desolate beach, Hando tries, in vain, to convince Davey on abandoning the third wheel in their friendship. ‘She’s desperate. She’ll drag you down, Davey!’ Hando warns. ‘She doesn’t love you, if that’s what you think. Is that what you think? She’s fucking desperate that’s all. Davey, she’s gonna drag us both down’.

Is this not the type of toxic friendship where the Self bullies and coerces the friend, plans and schemes to secure his loyalty, strives and struggles for absolute sovereignty over the terms of their solidarity? Davey’s terse, snappy responses to Hando – ‘She’s my problem isn’t she?’, ‘Take your hands off me. I’m sick of listening to you, alright?’ and ‘I’m with her. And she’s with me’ – defy Hando’s asinine reasoning and the suffocating bind of his friendship. If there is a morality at work in Romper Stomper it is, according to Wright, the delusional and self-destructive pursuit of sovereignty in all its forms:

The moral dynamics of the film…are basically that this…leads to total destruction. It’s an old story. It took place in World War 2, it takes place in the course of the film. If you’re at war with the whole world, the world caves in on you and you can’t win and neither should you…simply because fascism is a simplistic solution – it doesn’t work, that’s why The Third Reich disintegrated in 1945. It was…politically, morally and militarily bankrupt. It didn’t have any answers on any level, it was a lame-brained way to solve the problems of central Europe and it remains a lame-brained way to solve any problems. It doesn’t work and the fact that fascist governments may rise but invariably fall, I think that well everybody should remember that. They simply don’t work, there’s no longevity in them.

Nowhere is this more powerfully evoked than in Romper Stomper’s grisly climax. After overhearing Hando’s conversation with Davey on the beach, Gabe torches their getaway car before proudly informing Hando of her role in the arrest and capture of his gang. Exploding in a fit of uncontrollable rage, Hando proceeds to strangle his former lover on the beach but is eventually overcome by Davey. In a brilliant but tragic of twist of irony, Davey slays his former ‘best mate’ with the same Nazi dagger that Hando helped him purchase. Sooner or later, fascism – like censorship – annihilates its own acolytes.

What makes this scene spectacular is its unfolding before the inquisitive gaze of Japanese tourists who arrive at the beach for a round of sightseeing. When their coach pulls up beside Hando’s blazing, stolen station wagon, some of the tourists disembark and proceed to film and photograph the burning icon of modern transport and symbol of masculinity. As the driver of their coach extinguishes the flames, a number of the sightseers approach the edge of the cliff and inspect the scene below: a blood-drenched Hando collapsed on the shore, Gabe lying and shivering in Davey’s arms, the latter nervously looking up at the curious tourists. ‘Are they alright?’ one of them asks her friend. ‘I’m not sure’, her companion replies. How, indeed, does one proceed after barely surviving the stranglehold of ignorance and hatred? To whom or where does one turn after their former centre of gravity has been annihilated?

For some critics, this scene does little more than reinforce the same stereotypes that Romper Stomper seeks to contest, namely, the camera-wielding, trigger-happy, curios-seeking Asian tourist. For Wright, however, the showdown on the beach is a reference to the juvenile and simplistic notion of inherent, racial superiority, ‘Here I have a group of…upwardly, socially mobile Japanese who have the wealth and the wherewithal to visit a foreign country – the skinheads don’t have this capacity. The Japanese are highly successful economically and they’re touring Australia, they’re touring the…coastal areas and they have ironically witnessed the end of this miserable skinhead gang’.

In an increasingly connected world, the scene is also indicative of the possibility that race no longer sets and determines the dynamics and flows of human movement and interaction. ‘It’s economic power’, Wright contends, ‘which decides who we are and what we are in relationship to each other’. If this is so, then the skinheads’ tendency to observe migrants from their elevated and assumed vantage point is dramatically reversed. ‘There’s no way’, Wright conjectures, ‘they can…be honest about any attempt to look down the Japanese. The Japanese are better than them economically and that is the salient point’.

It is fitting that Slavoj Žižek identifies economic and political systems as the invisible and ‘systemic’ violence that precede and make possible the physical (or ‘subjective’) violence perpetrated by agents. In the light of a capitalist economy driven by forces such as economic rationalism, the dictates of the market, private property, mass consumption and exponential profit, the skinheads’ lack of employment, money, disregard for authority and perpetual displacement (their inability to secure a place that they can consider ‘home’) cannot be divorced from the frustration and violence they inflict on individuals who can access these entitlements.

INTIMATE COMMITMENT

Skinhead, skinhead, putting in the boot

Looking for a street fight, looking for a root

Skinhead, skinhead, running through the place

Skinhead, skinhead stomping on your face!

Sometimes, it is in the clutches of  anger, hatred and brutality that one can glimpse the opening of a new horizon, pursue an alternative path and instigate a new connection.

In Romper Stomper, a neo-Nazi gang is akin to a surrogate family, one ruthlessly headed by a fallible leader who espouses the grandiose narrative of a flawed regime. As a poor, suburban simulacrum of Hitler, Hando plays the roles of both father and Fuhrer to his followers, punishing and dismissing anyone who dares to defy his authority and upstage his presence. ‘I want you to go. I’m sick of looking at you. Go! We’re finished. You’re out!’ he screams at Gabe after striking her in the face. ‘Alright. Alright’, she complies. Tearful, bruised but stubbornly defiant, Gabe delivers a parting and prophetic reply, ‘You…you’ll all end up…You live like shit. You can’t even look after yourselves. You’re just hopeless’.

Removing her jacket and hurling it to the floor, a gesture evocative of her emotional severance from Hando, Gabe proceeds to leave but is promptly pursued by Davey. ‘Where the fuck are you going?’ a startled Hando demands. ‘I’m going home’, Davey counters without looking back. In the patronising and spiteful tones of a scorned parent, the embittered Hando scowls, ‘Well good riddance to you, too, boy! Maybe you’ll get that fuck you’ve been after for so long’.

Stunned by the ferocity of his own words Hando leaps out of his seat and calls after Davey in a rare concession of error. But to no avail: Davey’s loyalty has switched focus and his detachment from the gang is complete. Even the faithful and baby-faced Bubs is unable to persuade him or reclaim his allegiance with persistent questioning and emasculating goading. ‘Why’re you leaving us for?’ The pre-pubescent skinhead protests, ‘you’re leaving us for her? You suck! You’re weak. You’re piss weak and gutless. I thought you were strong. You’re weak! You’re weak. You’re nothing!’

Undeterred, Davey persists and pursues Gabe as she walks out the door. ‘If you ever need me or want me, I’ll be at this address’, Davey explains, handing her a scrap of paper with his details. Love, it seems, is a force that can shift the trajectory of one’s life and purpose towards another possibility. When they reunite in his cosy backyard bungalow and consummate their passions, Gabe conveys a sentiment that she had earlier voiced to Hando during their lovemaking. ‘Love you,’ she tells Davey. ‘Don’t leave me’. Rather than being met with silence, however, Gabe’s sentiment is now affirmed and reciprocated by Davey’s almost immediate reply, ‘I love you, too’.

In Gabe and Davey, we encounter an unconventional romance that offers a glimpse into the redemptive and life-affirming potential of intimacy and, conversely, signals the incredulity of extremist politics and gangs. ‘Davey and Gabe,’ Wright explains, ‘demonstrate some capacity for intimate commitment. And I think that intimate commitment is the beginning of the end for big, sweeping political plans to change the face of humanity or your environment. That’s the end of gangs, it’s the end of big, dangerous political movements, it’s the beginning of the end, it’s the death knell for all the things that we hate, you know, monolithic blocs and vicious groups and race hatred and all that sort of stuff’.

The decision to turn one’s life around often requires courage, faith, self-reflexivity and a sensitivity to others – in a word the substitution of love and empathy for hatred and ignorance. ‘In a very real sense,’ Wright conjectures, ‘I think love does conquer all, but by love I mean a capacity for intimate commitment to another person or a capacity for introspection, for reflection, to the known self be true’.

But the will to change also carries incalculable risk and unforeseen repercussions. In Romper Stomper, a definitive break with one’s past tests the very limits of possibility and agency. As Gabe and Davey discover at the film’s tragic conclusion, there are no clean getaways from Hando’s universe. Severing the ties that bind can tests the limits of survival and can be marked by the ordeal of loss and death.

FEAR & FAITH

2012 marked the twentieth anniversary of Romper Stomper. Released nationally on November 12 1992, the film was the subject of intense scrutiny from various factions of the media. I can still recall the hype and criticism that this low-budget, Melbourne-based production garnered for its graphic depictions of gang violence, sexual intercourse and racist nomenclature. Some commentators, shocked by its confrontational subject matter, even voiced their fears and reservations about the film’s release in Australia and abroad.

Fear, of course, is inextricable from the content, historical backdrop and reception of Romper Stomper. ‘What the fuck are you afraid of?’ Hando asks his exhausted, fear-stricken brethren when they are on the verge of being invaded and attacked on home turf. ‘This is our place. No more running. We stop them here’.

The force and pertinence of Hando’s question resonates within the historical setting of the film. Romper Stomper emerged at a time where questions were being raised about the colonisation and occupation of Australia, the rights of its Indigenous inhabitants and the plight of refugees and migrants. 1992 was a year that witnessed the High Court’s landmark Mabo decision that recognised the native title of the Meriam Indigenous peoples of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. It was also a time that marked record waves of migration in Australia and abroad. ‘What is the story of the world at the moment’, Wright enquires, ‘if not one of mass migrations of people moving throughout the world? I mean, it’s what the last two decades of the twentieth-century is really all about and that’s what the conflicts are about’.

Collectively, these events and their media saturation stoked the fears and anxieties of displacement and homelessness among a certain demographic of Australians (most notably farming communities who feared losing their land in the wake of the momentous Mabo ruling).

‘What the fuck are you afraid of?’ The fear of the Other that is projected onto the Vietnamese community in Romper Stomper incorporates, at the time of writing, a much broader spectrum: asylum seekers, migrants, refugees, Muslims, members of the gay and lesbian community among a plethora of other subject positions. If, as Albert Camus famously remarked,  ‘our 20th century is the century of fear’, then can the same not be said about the current zeitgeist? Events such as the Cronulla Riots of 2005 and ongoing debates surrounding multiculturalism, mandatory detention and gay marriage attest to the intensification of fear and paranoia. ‘These are things Australia has wrestled with for thirty years and will continue to wrestle with in our lifetime’, Wright reflects.

The cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis pushes the point even further when he suggests, in his study Cosmopolitanism and Culture, that the current geopolitical climate is marked by ambient fear, ‘a kind of dread that has become so widespread that its sources appear to be both locatable and ubiquitous. It is a force that is experienced viscerally, framing our suspicious glances at our neighbours, and extending into the gleeful approval of the state’s use of violence’. This type of fear, Papastergiadis elaborates, ‘is interpreted as if it were a mechanism for sharpening loyalties and galvanizing collective bonds’. It appears that while decades and centuries come and go, some things change while others remains the same.

‘What the fuck are you afraid of?’ For the prominent Australian film critic David Stratton, it was a fear that director ‘[Geoffrey] Wright seems content simply to depict the violence and senselessness of racism and leave it at that’. In the wake of racially motivated conflicts involving young Vietnamese people in Melbourne, at the time of Romper Stomper’s release, Stratton infamously refused to allocate the film a rating in his review on The Movie Show. His decision was founded on the terrifying thought that ‘the film could stir up more violence’. These days, this line of thinking has become commonplace whenever a film is considered to push the envelope in terms of its graphic content. It is construed, by some critics and pundits, that the screening and distribution of the film will inevitably inspire and provoke violence in the “real world”.

The possibility of films inciting copycat behaviour among certain viewers cannot be entirely discounted and, indeed, remains open to fervent debate. Is it not, however, a gross generalisation and misguided assumption to reduce a film, such as Romper Stomper, to a dangerous call to arms for racist gangs and impressionable bigots? Does this rationale not downplay the film’s complexity and impose a rigid interpretation of its content and potential reception? What does it also say about the mental stability of a viewer who justifies their violent behaviour on the basis of what they have seen in the cinema?

I am reminded, here, of writer/director Tom Six’s take on the issue of cinematic violence and its potential repercussions:

I think as a filmmaker, film is of course art and entertainment, but as a filmmaker you’d never be restricted by what might happen. You’re creating a fantasy. It’s all fake and make-believe, of course. And if some crazy person out there copies something from a film, that person is already insane. So it could have been anything that triggered him. I think artists should never worry about that, and just make the thing they want to make.

Incidentally, Romper Stomper was made in a spirit of defiance against the entrenched definitions and expectations of Australian cinema, including its primarily agrarian and nostalgic ethos. Describing the emergence of the project, Wright elaborates:

I was very attracted to the idea of making a film that spat in the face of expectations about what Australian film should do and that was irresistible, too. I mean we have a tradition in this country of doing rural stories or, if we venture into the urban areas, they’re fairly soft stories, you know, sentimental and I thought well this isn’t really like what’s going on in Melbourne or the other big centres of Australia. What’s going on in some of these cities is very hard, it’s hardcore, it’s very gritty, it’s very tough. As a subject of moral debate it’s, you know, it polarises people.

Through its provocative treatment of divisive subject matter, Romper Stomper not only interrogates embedded expectations but also reinforces the demands of interpretation, including a receptiveness to the plethora of voices, desires and currents at work in a film, their irreducibility to a single referent and their potential to be read otherwise. ‘It’s a moral law of the universe,’ Wright opines, ‘when the human race realises that it has to adapt rather than rip up the environment or people around it…when it learns that lesson then we’ll all be better off, and I think that’s undoubtedly the lesson that is covered in the film if you have faith in your feelings in the matter’.

Interpretation, indeed, proceeds by faith – but a faith that, I would contend, is contingent on a plethora of sources that mediate and condition perception. Perhaps Romper Stomper‘s legacy to cinema lies in its attempts to convey the inseparability of fear and faith when it comes to contemplating the world around us and the infinite challenge of remaining open to difference.

– Dr. Varga Hosseini

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