(Image: AAP/Vince Caligiuri)

Before she married Norm Everage, our Dame Edna was a Thornbury lass — Miss Edna Beazley. There’s something about Thornbury that makes it the essence of what Melbourne is at any particular time; from proud working-class suburb, to ’80s flyblown Forlornbury at the edge of inner-city living, to the Welcome to Thornbury hipster Hades it has become.

Part of that mix is the Thornbury Picture House, a mini-cinema running a full program in a place which, until two years ago, was an old theatre that had most recently been a curio shop. It’s a fantastic initiative but, heh, it’s not appearing here for that. It’s getting a mention because it cancelled a season of Ride Like A Girl, the Michelle Payne biopic — which I haven’t seen, but which I’m sure is not at all like an ’80s tax-loss miniseries (“Calves of Brass, the Herb Elliott story” [US title: “Herbie Goes To Helsinki”]).

According to cinema owner Gus Berger, recent ABC reports on the maltreatment — i.e. mass killing — of racehorses made it impossible for him to screen the film. Fifty tickets were refunded. This small cinema took a hit.

Well there’s a lot going on there. The anti-racing movement is now big, and revelations that the industry lies about retired horses (they are meant to be put out to pasture, they tend to end up as paste) won’t help. It’s a tangled matter, since the objection does not appear to be directed at the inhumane killing but at the fact that they are killed at all. Having ennobled them as racehorses with colours, names etc, it undermines the myth we make of them if they are unceremoniously stripped of that and shot through the head over a vat.

No one can really give you a straight answer as to why there’s actual laws saying horses should get a pastoral retirement, but that doesn’t change the fact that there seems something right about it.

But to go from that to being anti-racing, to being anti a movie about racing, is a couple of leaps so large that the rider falls out on the way.

Ride Like A Girl is the story of a woman triumphing in a tough gig and historically sexist culture* and doing something magnificent. That story is removed because the milieu in which it is set has bad things happen in it. That is a hilarious position for a cinema programmer to take. Wait ’til he finds out that the Goodfellas are not, in fact good.

Given the inherent hypocrisy, indeed speciesism, of valuing a few thousand horses over the untold millions of cows sent down the sluice every year, should not any film showing someone enjoying a steak be off the calendar? Which brings us back…

The thing is, I don’t doubt that Gus Berger genuinely feels he can do nothing other than remove the film from his listings. But the response appears both a product of the core-process of knowledge-class culture — to live through the ethical prohibition rather the existential act — but also a cultural one.

After all, next week the Thornbury Picture House is showing Joker, in which, to quote someone succinctly putting it, “every woman is either sexually assaulted or killed without a mention; every time a man gets hurt it’s a catastrophe”**. Does Joker endorse this? Come on, you kind of know it does. It plays a peekaboo game with violent incel culture. Joker is Lucifer, reigning in hell, which looks a lot more fun than normie-world.

The suspicion has to be that such a film — with its very present message that sadism and satiation are intertwined — passes muster because it is encoded for a certain culture, while the mainstream pleasures of racing are tainted with a practice that doesn’t actually occur anywhere within the film.

It shows how far a certain type of “infinite ethical” has overridden the inherited new-left political imperative — that people and their liberation matter more than animals — and sidelined the idea that a movie about a woman exercising her will through the control of natural forces (the horse, in this scenario, is played by Mr Id) might be something you’d want girls to see.

Such puritan cultures — such as what current inner-city living exhibits — always get themselves into a tightening circle sooner or later. When you can’t bring yourself to screen a re-up of National Velvet, we’re probably there. Such cultural regimes can’t last, because they eventually make purposive action impossible, and create widespread problems of selfhood. You can see that spreading in the inner-city currently and increasingly, I suspect, in young adulthood and adolescence.

Ah, what would Dame Edna make of it? Something rather less funny than she did 20 years ago I suspect. She, like all of us, is just taking a breath on the way to the knacker’s yard.

* To be fair, there have been women jockeys for a few decades now, and they rose in the industry before they did in a lot of others. Why this unusual openness? They’re jockeys. Height for weight they’re lighter than a man, in a weighting system based on men.

** Overheard conversation between two young women talking about movie choices with their boyfriends. Both seemed to agree that seeing Joker, like a household chore, was just something that would have to be done eventually if there was to be any peace in the house.

Peter Fray

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