A short film about trigger-happy ticket inspectors in Australia becomes uncomfortably close to reality
The first thing you notice about the ticket inspectors on the Melbourne train system is the trench coats. The thick, blue, billowy trench coats. With the coat comes a pair of sunglasses and – in a couple of unforgivable cases I have personally witnessed – a fedora. Taken as a whole, the ticket inspector wardrobe gives the impression that they’re all on their way home from a Raymond Chandler-themed singles mixer for depressed nightclub bouncers.
But no matter the time of day or night, into the train carriages they stride, with notepads in hand, to check the bonafides of passengers and deal out hefty fines to undesirables: people who don’t have a ticket, drunkards, nuisances, and those unfortunate enough to get caught with their feet on the seats. When a public transport-related crime has been witnessed, the inspectors are tenacious. They probably think Rosa Parks got away with a slap on the wrist.
The second thing you notice about ticket inspectors is that they always travel in groups. Usually groups of three, which brings to mind the old joke about the KGB patrol units – there’s one who can read, one who can write, and one to keep an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals.
Moaning about public transportation in my home city of Melbourne, Australia, is an endlessly renewable resource – it comes up in every state election, is a repeat offender on talk radio, and fills the letters pages of several newspapers.
It’s very difficult...to invent something so bizarre that it might not actually come to pass while your piece is still on the presses”
But while politicians and passengers snipe at length about train delays and cancellations, the humble ticket inspector is the most enduring icon of a broken system.
Even now, when the trench coats have mostly been replaced by sweater vests, the image remains. When the Queen visited Melbourne and rode one of the city’s fabled trams last month, the cartoon in the top-selling city tabloid depicted HRH being intimidated by three trench coat-wearing metcops.
My first run in with the metcops was during my final year of high school, when I fell asleep on a train after an exam and woke up surrounded by three beefy train guardians who told me that I’d placed a foot on the seat while napping. That act of somnambulist rebellion cost me $130.
But my latest run in with them has taken place on a fairer battleground. Over the past couple of months, several Australian media outlets have written about Endzone: a short film I made for Youtube with a group of friends based on the exploits of Melbourne ticket inspectors.
It reached the front page of The Age online, led to a report in The Moonee Valley Leader stating that “the reputation of Zone 2 suburbs is on the line following a short film about a ‘lawless’ rail network,” and caused the mayor of Dandenong to issue a statement denouncing us as “ridiculous.”
The movie is a spoof crime thriller in the vein of The Departed and Donnie Brasco, incorporating drug trafficking, gunfights, and 40-year-old ticket inspectors going undercover in gangs of 14-year-old school kids.
The synopsis reads: “On Melbourne’s public transportation system, an endless war is being fought between the ticket inspectors who enforce the rules and the commuters who break them. From the inner-city suburbs of Zone One to the wild backwaters of Zone Two, fare evasion, unvalidated tickets and the placement of feet on seats are rampant. Trying to clean up the trains are two ticket inspectors with vastly different methods. Kalshenko is a hard-faced veteran who cracks down on rule-breakers with an iron fist. McCormack is a fresh-faced rookie who prefers dialogue to violence. Both of their characters will be tested when a new assignment plunges McCormack deep into Zone Two and places Kalshenko undercover in a gang of suspected fare evaders. Confronted with life on the other side of the tracks, both men are pushed to their breaking points. When your life turns into an express service, and you see the end of the line approaching, you enter...the End Zone.”
Though the honourable mayor of Dandenong labelled the movie as ridiculous, that was part of the aim. When a script has lines like “The trains stop at midnight, baby…the job doesn’t,” “On a map the train lines are straight. But up close they’re as crooked as hell,” and “They don’t get it…trains only take us further away from each other,” it’s hard not to have tongue planted in cheek.
But the movie served as a personal reminder to me that reality can race around the world before parody can get its boots on.
Long before we started shooting earlier this year, my friend and I had been kicking around ideas for the script. But one of the major problems was that our wildest ideas kept getting trumped by the papers.
In 2007, a headline in Melbourne broadsheet The Age read “Ticket Inspectors are ‘like Gestapo’”, and a story in the same paper last year found that they use “excessive force on commuters and have been given their jobs without proper screening.”
Then there was the release of CCTV footage that showed ticket inspectors hurling teenaged passengers out of moving trains, and swamping a “fare evader” to the ground in a stacks-on human pyramid reminiscent of the Neo vs Agent Smith clone fight in the second Matrix movie.
Then, in the lead-up to the latest Victorian state election, the soon-to-be premier announced a plan that would place armed guards outside train stations, a move that respected crime columnist John Silvester called “quite simply, nuts.”
It became a very real concern to the crew that a glorified armed ticket inspector would actually shoot someone before we could release our supposed parody.
American Journalist Calvin Trillin called this the “Harry Golden rule”: “In present-day America it’s very difficult, when commenting on events of the day, to invent something so bizarre that it might not actually come to pass while your piece is still on the presses.”
The law was named after Harry Golden, another journalist and satirist, who proposed a scheme called the “Golden Vertical Negro Plan” when the desegregation issue was heating up in the USA. His idea was that white people had great difficulty sitting down next to black people, but did not seem to mind standing near them. Therefore, to desegregate schools, all that needs to happen is the removal of seats. Unfortunately, his satire was near-indistinguishable from some of the actual desegregation plans, rendering it somewhat moot.
Tom Lehrer famously said that satire died when Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Personally I’ve always find it quite fitting that Kissinger won a prize that was originally designed to whitewash the legacy of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.
But if Kissinger killed satire, Harry Golden killed parody, Carrot Top brutally executed prop comedy, and Alanis Morisette slaughtered irony with the release of her misnamed single Ironic, then it doesn’t leave us much to laugh at. Except, of course, for the headlines of the day. Because no matter how ridiculous a joke is, it can easily fall into the shadow of a far more bizarre reality.