Sheer Folly: The Court in The Castle
The Castle (1997)
by Oscar Mardell
I was seven when I found out about Santa. My first thought was not that I should be upset, but that I mustn’t let my brother find out too. So for years afterwards, I helped our mum to perpetuate the absurd charade – getting up last thing at night to leave gifts by the (boarded) fireplace, then first thing in the morning to watch my brother discover them. I don’t know when he did find out: he was too good to mention it – knowing full well that the charade was for my benefit as much as for his. For which reason, it never stopped. My brother lives in Sydney now, but whenever I’m with him for Christmas, I’ll get up last thing at night to leave gifts out, then first thing in the morning to witness his (feigned) astonishment. The miracle of these occasions is not that Santa exists in any meaningful sense, but that his work is done, and that the appearance of his existence is maintained, by grown adults who know full well it’s bullshit.
Of course, the real highlight of a trip to Sydney is always Luna Park. It’s not a place that is easy to categorise. On the one hand, it goes without saying that everything is fake – blatant pastiches of Medieval, Renaissance, Moorish and even Deco architecture; doubly fake, because the very idea is a knock-off of New York’s Luna Park, built in Coney Island some thirty years prior. On the other hand, neither of these things makes Sydney’s Luna Park any less ‘authentic’: the site contains some of the world’s best examples of 1930’s funfair architecture, much of which is heritage-listed. The duality is most explicit at the central Funhouse: an orientalist fantasy – fever-dreams of onion domes, pagodas and horse-shoe arches; but a genuine fantasy, a legitimate fake – and one whose interior, moreover, contains much original work by the great Digger cartoonist Arthur Barton.
The naming of holiday games is a difficult matter. The Funhouse often goes by the title of ‘Funnyland’, but its actual name – the name which appears highest, and most prominently, on its façade – is Coney Island. The metaphor is as disorienting as the rides inside: In New York, Luna Park sits within Coney Island; in Sydney, Coney Island sits, in turn, within Luna Park. The point isn’t that Sydney’s Luna Park is an inside-out version of New York’s Coney Island: it’s that, in Sydney, interiority itself is like that of the mobius-bottle – an extension of exteriority, another point on the same plane. If New York’s Coney Island is ‘foetal Manhattan’, Sydney’s is stranger still: a place pregnant, somehow, with its own mother, and where the usual distinctions between outer ‘appearance’ and inner ‘reality’ simply don’t apply.
If this is what makes the park ‘fun’, it’s also what makes it sinister: in 1978, The Ghost Train went up in flames, killing one adult and six children; today, it’s impossible to visit Mystery Manor – a walk-through version of the Ghost Train experience – without feeling that the faux-Gothic furnishings are genuinely haunted. The surface here isn’t simply thin: it’s infinite, bottomless.
The dominant stereotype of Sydney’s inhabitants is that they are obsessed with appearances – and you don’t need to spend very long at, say, Bondi, to have this stereotype validated. It’s not that it’s wrong per se, simply that it misses the point: in Sydney, appearances don’t simply conceal reality, they are a reality; ‘depth’, here, is just another station along an endless continuum of surfaces.
II: Wish You Were Here
Australia, goes the joke, has the best opera house in the world: the exterior is in Sydney; the interior, meanwhile, is in Melbourne. The dig here is at the notoriously poor acoustics of the latter – the result of years of disagreement between Jørn Utzon, who designed an acoustically sound space for an audience of 2,000, and the New South Wales Government, which was hellbent on cramming in another 1,000 seats. But it also captures precisely what is miraculous about the Sydney Opera House: it doesn’t need an interior at all. The exterior shells, whose forms are derived from different sections of the surface of a single sphere, are already music – harmony, counterpoint and rhythm – louder and more operatic than anything ever staged inside. If the Opera House has become the definitive symbol of Sydney, depicted on a million postcards each year, it’s precisely because, like Luna Park, it too is a site of infinite surface, of bottomless exterior.
In few places is Sydney’s obsession with surfaces more obvious, or more disquieting, than at The Rocks. A slum for centuries, the neighbourhood now functions as the city’s ‘historic’ district, and is home, therefore, to a disproportionate number of its high-end retail and fine-dining establishments. The past hasn’t simply survived here, it’s been brutally excavated – brought to the surface by removing the other histories which have since accrued there: The Rocks looks old because it was gutted – because most of its long-time inhabitants were forcibly evicted during the Seventies and Eighties. ‘History’, here, is every bit as phoney as the faux-Gothic furnishings of Mystery Manor; and here, too, it’s impossible to visit without feeling that it’s genuinely haunted.
The public tenants displaced by this development were rehoused in the Sirius apartments – a Brutalist complex designed especially by Tao Golfers, consisting of seventy-nine concrete units stacked in a roughly pyramidal formation. The exterior of this building is in Sydney; the interior, meanwhile, is also in Sydney. Instead of concealing its essential structure behind misleading façades, the Sirius flaunts its concrete walls with honesty and pride; instead of keeping its inhabitants out of public view, it makes them as visible as possible. It is the inverse of Lunar Park and the Opera House: a site of total interiority. It never features on postcards.
For a long time, the Sirius was threatened with demolition, although a compromise was recently reached: demolition won’t go ahead, but the public tenants will be forcibly evicted. The Sirius will stand, but it too will be gutted – transformed, thereby, into a ghostly imitation of itself.
III: “Tell Him He’s Dreaming”
Australia’s most radical examination of forcible eviction is Rob Sitch’s 1997 comedy The Castle. Perhaps ‘comedy’ is a misleading description: The Castle is funny, but only in the way that Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful – released the same year – is funny: it appropriates the features of comedy in order to examine an unspeakable tragedy.
Life is Beautiful takes place in Auschwitz, where Guido Orefice – an Italian-Jewish father – attempts to protect his son from the dire reality of their situation by cloaking it in an elaborate fiction: the camp is the arena of a game, and the prisoners are competitors; whoever performs best will get to see a tank. The miracle of the film is that the charade is maintained to the end. Even as Orefice is being led to the firing walls, he walks like something from a John Cleese routine; shortly afterwards, the camp is liberated by the allies, who legitimise his fiction by turning up in tanks.
The Castle takes place in a Melbourne suburb where Darryl Kerrigan – an all-Australian dad – attempts to protect his family from the dire reality of their situation by cloaking it another elaborate fiction: the Kerrigan home (on a toxic landfill and next to an airport runway), is a ‘castle’, ugliness is paradise, tedium is ‘serenity’, and oppressive powerlines are ‘a reminder of man’s ability to generate electricity’. The miracle of this film is that the charade is maintained to the end: when the airport announces its intention to extend its runaway through Kerrigan’s home, his case is taken to the High Court of Australia, which legitimises his fiction by ruling in his favour.
Of course, suburban Melbourne is not Auschwitz and forcible eviction is not genocide, but this is precisely what Kerrigan fails to understand. “Now I know,” he says in one of the more heated scenes, “how the Aborigines feel.” It’s laughable because it’s absurd: forced eviction is incomparable to colonial occupation and Kerrigan cannot possibly know “how the Aborigines feel.” The main difference between the fictions of Orefice and Kerrigan is that they protect their audiences from actual and perceived tragedy, respectively.
The other difference consists in those audiences. In Life is Beautiful, while Orefice knows that Auschwitz isn’t a game, his son doesn’t – at least, not until the very end. In The Castle things aren’t so simple: on the face of it, Kerrigan seems to believe that his home really is a ‘castle’, and the other members of his family appear to agree; but there are multiple moments in the film when either party appears to have become privy to the reality, and to be perpetuating the charade for the benefit of the other. The miracle of The Castle, then, is not that the fiction turns out to be true – not that a suburban house by an airport runway really is a ‘castle’ in any meaningful sense – but that the appearance is maintained between grown adults who know – or at least suspect – that it isn’t.
IV: Das Schloss
Australia also has the best Courthouse in the world. It’s the High Court building to which Darryl Kerrigan takes his case.
The exterior of this building is in Canberra – the Brutalist masterpiece, opened in June 1980, designed by Chris Kringas, Feiko Bouman, Hans Marelli and Colin Madigan. Like the Sirius apartments, it doesn’t conceal its essential structure behind misleading façades, but flaunts its concrete walls with honesty and pride. It’s also where the state of New South Wales looks most like a new South Wales – like a modernist reconfiguring of the impregnable fortresses of Caerphilly, Caldicott and Chepstow. And it’s this building, I contend, that is the film’s eponymous ‘Castle’ – its true castle, the criterion by which all of its other castles are measured, and the only structure with the power to legitimise Kerrigan’s fiction that his home is castle-like.
The interior of this building, like that of Sydney Opera House, is in Melbourne. When Kerrigan puts his case before the High Court, he is actually sitting in the Supreme Court of Victoria – designed by Alfred Louis Smith and Arthur Ebden Johnson and built between 1874 and 1884. It is a place of suffocating kitsch: pompous carving and baroque stucco work, with the too-obvious intention of conveying the power of the Crown at the far reach of its empire. Sitch’s implication is clear: like the Sydney Opera House, the Australian High Court doesn’t need an interior at all, only an internal façade, because the power which that court embodies – far from being impregnable – is akin to that of Santa Claus: it doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense; its work is done, and the appearance of its existence is maintained, by grown adults who know full well it’s bullshit.
The High Court of Australia in The Castle
About the Author:
Oscar Mardell lives in Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches English, French and Classical Studies. His poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, 3:AM Magazine, PopMatters, DIAGRAM and Terse. He is the author of Rex Tremendae from Greying Ghost and Housing Haunted Housing from Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers.