High Noon in Brendan Lee’s Proving Ground

Enthusiasts of the original Mad Max film regularly visit locations on the fringes of Melbourne’s western suburbs and beyond where many of its car chase scenes were filmed. Brendan Lee is one such an enthusiast. He is also an artist and filmmaker with a bit of cheek and plenty of old fashioned front. Lee has a deep affection for cars with grunt, including his own rebuilt VK Commodore.

Brendan Lee’s Proving Ground continues a tradition that predates the Mad Max film by several decades. The history of the Melbourne’s west association with fast cars and the occasional menace that accompanies them (both real and imagined) has been a dominant force in shaping its geographic and social landscapes. For instance, the car parks of its suburban malls are as vital to its social function as any of the shops found within its labyrinthine bowels.

Throughout the postwar era both dedicated car racing enthusiasts and ‘rebel without a cause’ teenagers seeking the adrenalin rush of speed, of the mechanical variety, would spend their weekends hanging around the many speedways dotted across the west, including the then far flung mystery suburbs of Brooklyn and Laverton.

This attraction to cars, and the resultant ‘racing in the streets’ and vast backroads of the western plains continued into the golden age of street car culture in Australia – the 1980s – which are remembered as a time when the track car and its street variant became close to inseparable in design and performance. During the 1980s western suburban streets would occasionally be taken over by hotted Holden Commodores and Ford Falcon 500s facing off against each other as gunslingers in a petrol head’s version of a John Ford western; and with as much tension as that which surrounded the Bathurst 1000 car race that annually decided if it would be a Holden or Ford that would claim the title of King of the Mountain.

Proving Ground, as with many of Lee’s previous works is a celebration of both his obsessions and his dedication to his craft. His art is a work-in-progress. It was once stated that the great American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote just the one poem – and did so many thousands of times as he revisited landscapes both tactile and metaphysical in search of meaning and the reiteration of an idea. While I suspect that Brendan Lee would prefer to be labelled many things other than a poet he does adopt a similarly creative approach to his work that many poets, including Whitman, take to their own.

Lee’s creative interests are based on an unassailable attraction. He fixates on particular interests before creating work that convey the loyalty and affection he holds for his subject matter; which may be an object, a sound, the chorus of a raucous rock song, and most particularly, the social and cultural landscapes that too many of us either disparage, marginalise or exploitatively reconstruct as a marketplace fetish. Lee has no such interest. While his approach may appear at times playful and suitably loutish an astute commentary on contemporary society is ever present. As a result his work feels honest.

Lee is unashamedly influenced by the work of those that preceded him, such as the films of actor and director, John Cassavetes, the recent feature film Chopper (2000 - directed by Andrew Domink), and Kenneth Cook’s disturbing 1961 novel Wake in fright. But his own work is never derivative. One of Lee’s gifts as a filmmaker is that he is able to frame aspects of cultural phenomena that appear seemingly familiar us – if for most of us from the safe and comfortable distance of the flat screen theatres or in our suburban homes - and challenges both our prejudices and enjoyment. He interrogates aspects of both sub and popular culture through his filmmaking while neither disparaging nor romanticising the landscapes that we are invited to enter with him.

It is obvious that Lee loves his cars and the formative landscapes of his youth. These places remain vital to a new generation of suburban youth and young men. While the screech of tyres and the wall of smoke left by burning oil and melting rubber in the (repeated) opening of Proving Ground might result in disapproval, or even a sense of discomfort for some (for instance, ponder these two words – carbon emission) I was fascinated that the Proving Ground burnouts appear simultaneously meaningless (or even futile) while at the same time being overburdened with meaning and necessary expression.

The segmented narrative that takes place in the saloon bar of Proving Ground appears deceptively comical while visiting terrain similar to that which hovered in the outback shadows of Cook’s Wake in fright before exploding into levels of masculine violence that pervade Australian landscapes. The drinkers in this bar are more disturbing because they appear to be all too real. They scream out at each other, with mild obscenities or to offer a newcomer yet another beer while being themselves drowned beneath the thumping repetition of Cold Chisel’s ‘Yakuza Girl’.

Although we can never be sure what might happen in places such as Lee’s Saloon Bar, or in the front bar of any number of the many thousands of pubs across Australia, we do know that anything could happen, and feel more disturbed (or excited perhaps?) as a result of our uncertainty.

And this ever-present menace of Australia – you just never know – is the triumph of Proving Ground. You just never know.

Tony Birch, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.