Tag Archives: final essay

“It’s a Jungle out there” – Analysis of the Representations of Crime and Criminal Milieu in Underbelly (2008)

1 Jun

ARTS2062: RESEARCH ESSAY: 30%

Q: ANALYSE THE REPRESENTATION OF CRIME AND THE CRIMINAL MILIEU IN ANY EPISODE OF UNDERBELLY (2008-2010)

 

Episode Chosen: Season 1, Episode 1 –

The Black Prince (director: Tony Tilse); aired February 13th, 2008.

________ 

The Australian television industry, since it started making locally produced dramas in the 1960s (Kennedy and Kennedy, 1989, p. 2), has paved the way for television in Australia to be a visual medium that produces icons and pictures of people and groups from reality. These representations are essentially designed to present ideas about people and groups, reinforcing what the audience already knew and thought or changing the audience’s perception completely (Burton, 2000, p. 23, p. 171). The following essay will analyse the representations of crime and the criminal milieu present in one episode of Australia’s hit true crime drama, Underbelly (Screentime, Nine Network, 2008), that depicts a dramatized version of Melbourne’s gangland war from 1995 to 2004. The chosen episode, entitled The Black Prince (Tony Tilse, 2008), is episode one of the first Underbelly television mini-series. It is a perfect example to analyse as it is an introductory episode that sets up much of the narrative and setting surrounding crime and criminal milieu. This response will also provide a background to and exploration of the notion of “representation” in Australian television and will provide a context on Underbelly as a television mini-series, before presenting and analyzing the representation(s) of crime and the criminal environment in the selected episode.

Australia, as a nation built by convicts and criminals, has, for a long time, generated and fostered public interest in and fascination with the criminal world (Murray, 2007, p.187). According to Robyn Lincoln and Shirleene Robinson (2010), in “contemporary Australia, the fascination with criminal activity shows no signs of abating. Television programs, such as Underbelly, which focus on notorious criminal figures, attain top ratings” (p. ix). Thus, it is important to analyse how Australian television programs represent crime and the criminal environment. But first, a background to and exploration of the notion of “representation” in Australian television programming is required. The following paragraphs will also note how conventions of the true crime drama genre, under which Underbelly falls, often inform representations of crime and the criminal milieu in Australian television programming. It is through these conventions that audiences create expectations of and meanings in true crime drama programs.

The term “representation”, in the context of Australian television programming, refers broadly to the depiction of social groups and institutions. Underbelly, depicts (family-man) criminals as the social group and the local law enforcement (the police) as the institution. Television programs essentially represent ideas about the nature of a certain topic associated with a certain social group (i.e. the nature of crime associated with criminals), displaying how an audience is meant to understand them (Burton, 2000, p. 170-71). These representations often mix with the audience’s preconceived perceptions and judgements of a topic associated with a certain social group. Ultimately, television programs, layered with meanings, re-present and communicate to the audience a constructed view of crime, criminals and the criminal setting (McMahon and Quin, 1990, p. 123). Graeme Burton (2000) suggests that “the way that television is used that causes the audience to construct meanings [is] the essence of representation” (p. 24). It is thus about using television, as a visual medium, to create signs and icons from which the audience can make meaning.

Representation is also about appearance and description and often has to do with stereotypes (but is not defined by them). This leads to the exploration of the conventions of the true crime drama genre, which often inform representations of crime and the criminal setting. The true crime drama genre, as a sub-genre of “crime”, centers around the sinister actions of criminals who “operate outside the law, stealing and violently murdering their way through life” (Dirks, FilmSite).True crime drama’s clearly, from the genre label, express a dramatized version of criminal events that have occurred in reality. They often highlight and tell stories of the lives and the criminal exploits of well-known, real-life crime figures and/or gangs. The following paragraphs will detail the conventional characters, narratives and settings common to the crime genre and the true crime drama sub-genre.

Edgar Allan Poe, the early nineteenth century American horror and crime writer, pointed out that there are three archetypal ‘crime genre’ figures; The Criminal, The Detective and The Victim; and the connection between these three are integral to stories of crime mystery. This model became known as “Poe’s Triangle” as the three characters stood in a triangular relationship with each other (Moran and Vieth, 2006, p. 73). The often stereotyped characters of the criminal, the detective and the victim must be present, in any shape or form, as they are essential archetypal characters of the crime genre. The relationship between these characters often helps inform representations of individual characters from a specific social group. To clarify, for example, in television crime programs, representations of the criminal are partially determined by the criminal’s relationship with the detective(s) (or the police in general) and the victim(s). In other words, how the criminal is represented is partially influenced and determined by the perspectives of the detective(s) and/or the victim(s). 

Conventions of the crime genre have also created expectations among audiences about the narrative and type(s) of crime(s) being committed and represented. These expectations have seemingly changed overtime as the genre’s conventions (and real-life criminal events) have developed.  In earlier Australian crime films and television programs there was a focus on types of crimes, such a shoplifting, that were deemed petty and manageable. There was a notion that crime could be controlled (Burton, 2000, p. 204). But as Australian film and television programming developed, conventions of crime became truer to experience. Crime was no longer controllable, but was violent, exciting and destructive (Burton, 2000, p. 204). Crimes against the person, especially in the forms of wounding or killing, became an integral element of the crime genre, informing the types of crime being represented on screen (Moran and Vieth, 2006, p. 78). Many and most criminal activity depicted in contemporary Australian crime drama films and television programs involve some sort of violence. It is now expected.

The setting, or criminal milieu, present in crime films and television programs also adheres to conventions of the crime genre. Certain types of settings become synonymous with the criminal milieu. Albert Moran and Errol Vieth (2006) sum up well the common setting in Australian true crime drama television programs;

the mean streets of the criminal world [that is often] populated by thugs and standover criminals, drugs pushers and addicts, prostitutes and pimps, bent police, unsavoury club owners, ex-convicts and others […] only really springs to life at night, in such locations as King’s Cross, Bondi and St Kilda where casinos…pubs, clubs and brothels become synonymous with the criminal world” (p. 81).

The criminal world, in true crime dramas, is often interchanged with the world of suburban family life. Suburban locations, languages and values are also represented to portray the reality of the world in which real-life criminal figures live. Many are family men during daylight, but criminals at night, so to speak. They live two lives, which they try to keep separate but inevitably cross over eventually.

Now that the notion of “representation” has been explored and the conventions and expectations of the true crime drama subgenre have been established, this essay will proceed to note the context of the Underbelly mini-series. Underbelly, a 13-part Australian docudrama television mini-series based on the book Leadbelly: Inside Australia’s Underworld, by The Age journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule, compellingly dramatises one of the “bloodiest crime battles in Australian history” (Australian Television Website). The series, which can be also categorized under the true crime drama genre, retells the real events of the 1995 to 2004 gangland war in Melbourne between, among others, the rising career criminal Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley); who sought to be the king of Melbourne’s underworld; and the Carlton Crew; made up of the Moran crime family, Alphonse Gangitano (Vince Colosimo), Mick Gatto (Simon Westaway), Graham “The Munster” Kinniburgh (Gerard Kennedy) and Mario Rocco Condello (Martin Sacks) (ibid). Underbelly has received much praise for its realistic portrayal of crime and the criminal milieu present in Melbourne’s gangland war, winning seven Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards in 2008 for its first season (Matthews, ASO). David Knox (2008) has called the series “our own Sopranos”.

The rest of the response will present and analyse the representations of crime and the criminal milieu in the first ever Underbelly (2008) episode, entitled The Black Prince (Tony Tilse, 2008, S1E01). It aired on February 13th, 2008, winning the television ratings war by attracting an average of 1.32 million viewers across Australia (Ziffer, 2008). The Black Prince, as the first episode in the series, is, of course, introductory. Its main objective is to introduce the key players and set the tone for the mayhem that will follow in Melbourne’s gangland war. The episode centers on the actions of Carlton Crew member, gangster Alphonse Gangitano, the self-professed “Black Prince of Lygon Street”, who kills low-threat criminal, Greg Workman (Lliam Amor) at a 1995 St Kilda party. Gangitano killed Workman, not for the money Workman owed him, but for the principle of owing him money, suggesting “it was a matter of honour”, showing how little respect he has for human life. Gangitano is arrested for the murder of Greg Workman but is let off after encouraging (threatening and bribing) two witnesses not to testify.  This murder triggers a chain reaction that begins Melbourne’s gangland war that stretched into the twenty-first century, and would see almost thirty people murdered.

Underbelly’s representations of the real-life crime figures and the crimes they commit are based on fact. Since Melbourne’s gangland war was well-publicised, many audience members would already have knowledge on these crime figures and their criminal exploits.  The first criminal figures the audience is introduced to in The Black Prince are Alphonse Gangitano and Jason Moran (Les Hill) as they exit a taxi and enter a St Kilda Party. Moran and Gangitano especially are well dressed, and project a shady appearance by wearing dark sunglasses (at night), heavy coats, smoking cigarettes and having guns strapped to their backs. Gangitano is really the focus of this episode and is represented as egotistical, slightly self-destructive and violent. He is driven by power and pride, and perhaps embodies the expectation that criminals think they’re the best or better than others. He clearly has a high amount of self-importance in this episode asking Senior Constable Steve Owen (Roger Corser) early in the episode, “Do you know who you’re talking to?”, before walking over the bonnet of a police car later in the episode. This instance also shows how criminals have little respect for the law and those who enforce it.

Gangitano also fulfills the audience expectation that crime is and those who commit it are violent. He violently beats Greg Workman before emptying a whole magazine into him. His indifference in killing Workman shows how little respect he has for human life.His violent nature is shown again later in the episode when he and Jason Moran trash a sports bar owned by a man who owes Gangitano twenty thousand dollars. The pair destroys parts of the premises and attack patrons indifferently. The representation of crime as a violent caper is exemplified when the sequence cuts between shots of Gangitano and Moran excessively assaulting seemingly innocent patrons of the sports bar and shots of these same patrons in the back of ambulances with blood running down their faces.

Other well-known criminals and their associates in the episode are also represented in traditional crime genre fashion. The Cartlon Crew, who hold meetings in a grandstand at the Cartlon Football Club oval, is also portrayed wearing suits, dark sunglasses, and smoking cigarettes. Although, in this episode, majority of them are not seen in any criminal dealings, their shady appearance and behaviour seems to suggest otherwise.

These criminals, however, are also represented as family men, who have wives and children in suburbia. Returning home, after killing Greg Workman, Gangitano checks on his sleeping children before laying down to sleep next to his wife. There is a similar situation with Jason Moran who is shown the day after the murder in the context of his family home; with his wife and children, and his brother Mark Moran (Callan Mulvey). This is characteristic of the true crime drama genre. The way Gangitano and Jason Moran in this episode are represented; as dangerous, but also as family men; in a sense normalizes their crime (Matthews, ASO), and shows a variety of the traditional criminal milieu, that usually centers on the seedy city streets. Underbelly is a cross between suburbia and the streets of the criminal world. The suburban scenes in The Black Prince only occur during daylight hours, while locations traditionally associated with criminal behaviour, such as the St Kilda Party, are shown at night. It is as Moran and Vieth (2006) suggested; “the criminal world…only really springs to life at night” (p.81).

Later on in the episode, as previously mentioned, the audience is taken to a location synonymous with the criminal world, a sports bar, where Gangitano and Jason Moran indifferently attack patrons and destroy part of the premises. This scene reinforces the traditional crime setting and the violent nature of criminals expected in crime genres.

The illustrations of Gangitano and the rest of the Carlton Crew in The Black Prince suggest to the audience that criminal undertakings are usually performed in pairs and with the support of a criminal gang or crew. In this criminal environment, members of the crew protect and cover other members. It is much harder to crack a gang of violent criminals, than an individual criminal.

The representations of crime and the criminal milieu illustrated in the Underbelly episode, The Black Prince, are influenced by the point of views of other characters integral to crime drama. Using the model of Poe’s Triangle, viewpoints of The Detective and The Victim, often inform how and in what way crime and the criminal milieu is communicated to an audience. According to Kate Matthews, writer for the Australian Screen Online (ASO), Underbelly is seen as from the point of view of police characters, such as Detective Jacqui James (Caroline Craig) who narrates the story retrospectively. As a Constable, James and fellow officer Senior Constable Owen, witness the violence Alphonse Gangitano can produce. This can also be said of the victims’ perspective. The sisters who witness Gangitano kill Greg Workman and the sports bar patrons who are physically abused, allows the audience to witness and make judgements on the violent nature of crime in twentieth/twenty-first century Australia. This again, impacts on the way the key criminals are represented in The Black Prince and throughout the series.

To conclude, the above analysis has shown that representations of crime and the criminal milieu in the first episode of Underbelly, The Black Prince, inform and produce meaning within audiences. These representations, whether entirely intentionally or not, fulfill the conventions of the crime genre and true crime drama subgenre. Although the Underbelly mini-series has been praised for its sense of realism, one must question whether these representations are true or are stereotyped for dramatic appeal, to fulfill audience expectations? Nonetheless, the Australian public’s interest in and fascination with true crime, according to Tom Noble (2010), “is far from over”. True crime dramas, such as Underbelly, will continue to fuel the public’s perception and understanding of crime and the criminal milieu.

Word Count: 2, 498

By: Megan Walford, z3291268

ARTS2062

References:

Australian Television Information Archive [Website], “Underbelly”, no date, anonymous, <http://www.australiantelevision.net/underbelly/index.html&gt;, Accessed 25th May 2011

Burton, G 2000, Talking Television: An introduction to the study of television, Arnold Publishers, Great Britain and Oxford University Press Inc., New York.

Dirks, T no date, “Crime and Gangster Films”, FilmSite [website], <http://www.filmsite.org/crimefilms.html>  Accessed 27th May 2011

Kennedy, B and Kennedy, B 1989, Film and Television in Australia, Longman Cheshire Pty, Limited, Melbourne.

Knox, D 2008, “First Review: Underbelly”, TV Tonight [Website], January 17th 2008, <http://www.tvtonight.com.au/2008/01/first-review-underbelly.html&gt;, Accessed 28th May 2011

Matthews, K no date, “Underbelly: Curator’s Notes”, Australian Screen Online (ASO), <http://aso.gov.au/titles/tv/underbelly-series-1/notes/&gt; , Accessed 26th May 2011

McMahon, B and Quin, R 1990, Australian Images, Science Press, Marrickville (NSW).

Moran, A and Vieth, E 2006, Film in Australia: An introduction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Murray, G 2007, “Chopper”, in Geoff Mayer and Keith Beattie (eds.), The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand, Wallflower Press, London, p. 185-194

Noble, T 2010, “Why We Love True Crime”, The Weekly Review [Online], 27th May 2010, <http://www.theweeklyreview.com.au/well-read-article-display/Why-We-Love-True-Crime/2899&gt; , Accessed 27th May 2011

Ziffer, D 2008, “Underbelly wins ratings war”, The Age [Online], 14th February 2008, <http://www.theage.com.au/news/tv–radio/controversial-underbelly-tops-ratings/2008/02/14/1202760445201.html&gt; Accessed 27th May 2011

___

The Internet Movie Database <http://www.imdb.com&gt; was used for cast member names; “Underbelly”, <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1119176/&gt; , Accessed 30th May 2011.

___

Television-ography:

Underbelly (Screentime, Nine Network, 2008-);

Season 1, Episode 1; The Black Prince (Tony Tilse, 2008)

 ____

 

INFORMATION:

 

Produced by Screentime

Executive Producers: Des Monaghan, Jo Horsburgh
Producers: Greg Haddrick, Brenda Pam
Title theme and original music by: Burkhard Dallwitz

Airing: 2007… (Nine)

Underbelly, the true story of one of the bloodiest crime battles in Australian history, follows the rise and fall of notorious career criminal Carl Williams who sought to be king of Melbourne’s underworld. The series, based on the factual book Leadbelly by John Silvester and Andrew Rule, is the compelling dramatisation of Melbourne’s infamous gangland killings that started in 1998 with the murder of Alphonse Gangitano.

<http://www.australiantelevision.net/underbelly/index.html&gt;