Paul Fenech is something of a spectre lingering on the peripheries of the Australian pop culture landscape, a high-powered troller who flings fireballs of low-brow comedy usually involving niche groups — ethnic minorities, the disabled, the job-less, etcetera — in the direction of broad audiences.
His TV show Pizza began in 2000 and ran for five seasons, expanding in 2003 to a feature extension, Fat Pizza. The Maltese Australian actor/writer/director created Housos in 2011, which has also, via Housos Vs. Authority, been given a cinematic workout, and is now available on DVD.
Like Fat Pizza, the film struggles to sustain a longer format. Fenech’s sketchy point-and-spray style is more conducive to short bursts and channel surfing than a drawn-out three act structure.
But his latest obscenely un-PC production, which takes aim at poor, uneducated, disabled, dumb and drug-addicted tenants of a fictitious public housing homeland named Sunnyvale, reminds audiences that Fenech, now 40, is nowhere near as dumb as his characters, and his nous as a filmmaker exists somewhere quite different to the borderline poverty porn he depicts.
The diminutive rabble-rouser’s residence in the Australian media landscape is, if not unique, close to it. He shares some of the same drain water as Chris Lilley, sans Lilley’s theatrical flair. The Summer Heights High, Angry Boys brain trust is a chameleon who leaps in and out of gender and race representations, protected by parody. Lilley is safe from criticism no matter whether he black faces, dresses up as a Chinese lady, acts like a teenage girl, etcetera.
Fenech is much closer to the ‘real deal’ — an arsonist of crossing-the-line comedy who throws himself into touchy socioeconomic territory and emerges sneering and wolf whistling, appealing to middle and upper class crowds as a concoction of ‘one of them’ and ‘one of us’.
Housos Vs. Authority opens with an advertising executive talking up his new product — a perfume for plebs named “stank” — and a photo shoot that comes to an abrupt end when rough-as-guts Shazza (Elle Dawe) hurls a brick at a model’s face. Shortly after, Russell Gilbert sidles up to a row of pokies and begins narrating a wobbly storyline vaguely involving Shazza’s cross-country trip to reunite with her estranged durrie-scabbing mother.
We meet a motley crew of dole bludging misfits who scam Centrelink, attack the police, crash cars, smoke cones, guzzle booze, hang out by the side of the freeway, have meaningless sex, vandalise and graffiti property and holler abuse at each other with shrill ear-piercing voices, all apparently because they have nothing better to do.
One bonding scene between mother and daughter plays, at least to cultivated crowds, like an exchange between two severely mentally handicapped people. “Shazza, I’m fuckin’ proud of ya. Ya turned out real good.” And yeah — the joke, of course, is that she turned out dumb as a doornail and loud as a banshee’s wail.
The words “historical document” and “Paul Fenech” might not seem like comfortable bedfellows, but Housos Vs. Authority, while squeamish, skittish and slapdash, is also a no holds barred satire of a socioeconomic Australia largely shunted in mainstream art; a place hard to approach without either dripping disdain or emphatic empathy.
A point and laugh production like this, with a stench of truth wafting through it, had to come at least partly from the inside. There is no doubt Fenech has skulled the stubbbies, packed the cones and drank the bong water, fraternised with the scungy and skanky, hang out with Angry Anderson and Chopper Read (both appear in this movie) and any number of shady tatt-smeared movers and shakers…
Fenech’s depiction of lower class “trailer trash” society is nebulously close to celebrating the gross and unseemly — a dung hole where the un-wealthy and uneducated are fenced off in halfway houses of their own misfortune, their greatest points of contact with civilised society fulled by disdain for the established order, or simply lives that don’t so closely resemble their own. The only thing these people have, if they have anything, is mindless protest against forces beyond their reach or control.
It’s on a landscape like this we get the real Rebel Without a Cause, where James Dean, Marlon Brando and the motorbike brigade couldn’t possibly have trod. Where there is a cause, but the cause is empty — and that cause is rebellion, unadulterated and unreasonable. No leather jackets. No styled greased hair. Nothing that looks cool now or will look cool in 30 years.
The irony at the heart of Housos Vs. Authority may be that the sort of people caught in its crosshairs are the kind who probably appreciate it most, or at least accept it as the shits and giggles comedy Fenech partly intends it to be, without the critical functioning capable of understanding that the butt of the joke — at least the point at which it starts and ends — is on them.
A bottomless mix bowl of irreverent humour, coupled with a bizarrely cynical final act involving a sneering politician who attempts to use the Sunnyvale dunderheads for political advantage, makes it clear Fenech is both above and beneath the material. He hurl eggs at civilised society as he tsk-tsks its inability to clean up the mess. The result is searing satire: rare and savage in its scope and intent, train crash fascinating, exhausting in its banality, and tragic in its appraisal of marginalised people.
Housos Vs. Authority is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and via digital download.