Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
This beast isn’t going anywhere
My father, a scientist and animal-lover, had a sense of humour like dried lemon peel. Only two things, to my knowledge, ever made him laugh uncontrollably. These were Monty Python and the 1988 film Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. Shame he won’t see the sequel, Cane Toads: The Conquest, opening today.
The original Cane Toads, a cult classic, has long sat with Joh and Azaria in my faded Kodachrome album of what it means to be Australian. Something about the mix of steamy nights, unseen evil, short-sleeve politics and a biting nasal strine seemed to capture Australia’s everyday surrealism and, quite reasonably, fed my desire to be in it.
Cane Toads had many great moments, like the man from the aquarium society alleging that “a bit of a rough bunch” of marauding toads strangled his goldfish by attempting copulation. Or the Queensland toddler Monica Kraus singing German nursery rhymes to her immense, beer-bellied toad Dairy Queen (named for an outsize ice-cream container).
The film marked a shift, if not in the history of the cane toad, at least in the way Australia saw itself. For here was a mind that loved Australianness but could also, without slapstick or condescension, take the piss.
The director, Mark Lewis, is often compared with Attenborough, Mike Moore and Monty Python but, to my mind, the feel was pure Coen brothers, capturing in documentary form the Blood Simple noirishness of Queensland sugar culture.
But one scene, above all others, became its metonym. It was the toad-popping scene. An orange Kombi driven by a Cairns resident, Brent “I really go out of my way to run over cane toads” Vincent, veers from side to side of a country road whose surface, we see, is strewn by small brown lumps.
“Well I line them up with the driver’s side front wheel …” drawls Vincent, deadpan. “I know that I’ve made a good clean kill if the animal is facing the vehicle head-on. Then the air that’s inside the toad is trapped within the head and blown out towards the back end and the toad really goes off like a balloon.”
It was this scene that caused my father to fall off his chair, mainly I think because of the sheer naughtiness of it. He might be saddened to learn that the brown lumps were actually potatoes and the wet, popping sounds actually balloons. It is important to Lewis that, as the sticker goes, no animals are harmed in the making of his films.
Because even cane toads have their defenders and this ambiguity is part of the film’s appeal. Even in the 1980s Bufo marinus was Queensland’s public enemy No.1, so it was legitimate – even required – to kill them in any way possible, but the film also gave voice to those who love cane toads; feed them, cuddle them, dress them up and defend their honour.
Both films exploit this moral complexity. Do we hate the toads for their destructiveness, or because their destructiveness is really ours? Or should we, on the other hand, defend them as no less God’s creatures than, say, the cattle we so strenuously protect from Indonesian butchery?
For Lewis, the new film is a “plea for cohabitation”, and there is, hidden within it, the subtle suggestion of human analogy and the fight against xenophobia. World War II is a constant refrain in the Top Enders’ gritty, fight-them-in-the-trenches determination, and it is hard not to suspect a kind of yellow peril transference.
Cane toads are homophilic, gathering around human habitation, but the more they love us, the more we revile them. Says the territory MP David Tollner, “People should kill as many as they can by any means they can.” For the viewer, there’s a grim humour in this red-neckery wearing green, and in the unmistakable glee of otherwise likeable people in detailing their kill-methods – boiling, freezing, spearing, squishing, whacking, batting, crushing, asphyxiating, exploding, shooting with “toad load” or spraying with lime or Dettol. As though, yay! It’s finally OK to kill stuff.
Taxi driver Pete Smith’s pleasure – “you just feel the squelch, and you can hear the noise, even with the airconditioner on” – recalls the most famous, and most anthropomorphic toad of all: “And whack ’em and whack ’em and whack ’em, cried the Toad [of Toad Hall] in ecstasy.”
Lewis, son of a former NSW premier and the Askin lands minister, Tom Lewis, and the American scriptwriter Stephanie Lewis, says he is drawn to animals with this anthropogenic baggage. His Natural History of the Chicken is a sideways unpicking of “chickenness”, as we have constructed it, with the subtextual question of whether it’s the chooks that are chicken, or us.
Canetoads: The Conquest extends the same territory, much as the toads have extended theirs, from 102 released in a 1935 billabong to 1.5 billion across a million square kilometres, and knocking as we speak on the door to WA, Kimberley Toadbusters notwithstanding.
There are moments of great charm, like the trippy terrier addicted to licking live cane toads, and Kevin Ladynski’s travelling toad show of toad dioramas – wrestling, car smashes and a nightclub. The toad show, reflects Kev wistfully, “wasn’t really a success around Queensland”. Here, though, Aussie naïf is just the ticket, and the show will open today at Ray Hughes’s gallery.
Yet there’s no denying the eco-catastrophe. From the quasi-horror opening sequence, “South America 15 million years ago”, the film documents the toad’s extraordinary resilience and a grudging respect on the part of its human opponents. We can resculpt the earth and change the climate but we cannot destroy this amphibian.
Universally toxic, happy in the swamp or desert, able to hop a kilometre a night, cross the Gulf of Carpentaria like a puddle and produce 100,000 eggs per female per year (compare with about 100 for native frogs) it is spreading and evolving ever-faster, since its great westward push selects for athleticism and speed. If only we could say the same of humans.
But it’s complicated. They say you hate most in others what you revile in yourself. So calls for cane toad tolerance derive only partly from its being here at our behest. Bufo marinus’s main crime is being blindingly good at what it does – namely eat, mate, colonise.
Um, any other creature that reminds you of? Something ending in sapiens?
ILLUSTRATION: EDD ARAGON