The Devil's Playground

Jane Mills was previously Head of Screen Studies at the Australian, Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). She is currently the editor of a new series of books on Australian film titled Australian Screen Classics. The first books in the series – Adrian Martin on Mad Max and Christos Tsiolkas on The Devil’s Playground – are due to be published early 2002. In this interview, Jane talks freely about the series and what she hopes it will achieve. (Ed.)

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Fiona A. Villella: Can you provide some history/background to the Currency Press ‘Australian Film Classics’ series, for which you are the series editor. How did the series come about and how did you become involved in this project?

Jane Mills: The series title is actually “Australian Screen Classics”. This might suggest that we’re interested in including television, video, websites and CD Roms. To be honest, while I personally deplore the sort of anti-small screen and anti-video elitism that accompanies a lot of cinephilia, we chose the title because we liked the alliteration of “screen” more than “film”.

I’ve been reading the British Film Institute’s Film Classics and Modern Classics series avidly ever since they first came out. I love them – even if (or when) I actually disagree with some individual authors. I initially thought I’d oppose the whole concept since it suggests a canonic or auteurist bias, and I think the critical concepts of canon and auteur are stressed too much in present day screen culture and criticism. But many of the writers in these two BFI series ignore or circumvent classic auteurist and canonic analysis and they illuminate the films in ways that I really admire. Some of my favourite books in these series, ones which take a wider approach than just auteur, are Salman Rushdie’s The Wizard of Oz (1992), Camille Paglia’s The Birds (1998) and Adrian Martin’s superlative Once Upon A Time in America (1998).

I initially approached three publishers with the idea for such a series. The reception from two was lukewarm. No, actually, it was freezing. But The Currency Press was immediately enthusiastic: as it happens, they were already thinking about just such a project. I think they’re the natural home for such a series as they have such long experience in the field of cinema and other performing arts publishing. They also have a passion for both the text and the screen which matches my own. It feels like a good marriage of minds.

The titles will be co-published with ScreenSound. They too, were immediately very positive and are supporting the first books in the series. Another contributor will be the Australian Film, Television & Radio School, where, until recently, I was Head of Screen Studies for 6 years. When I left they made me ‘Associate Senior Research Fellow’ which means no actual money but research facilities precisely because of a commitment to the screen research, culture and education implicit in this series.

FAV: Can you discuss what the idea, the aims and objectives of the series are?

JM: In addition to Nick Parsons and Victoria Chance at The Currency Press, I’ve had many long talks about this series with a number of industry practitioners and with film critics and cultural analysts. One idea that constantly emerges is the need to reclaim Australian screen history. It exists in the sense that it happened, but relatively few people, outside a very small gang in film culture, know much about it, nor how rich and significant a part of Australian culture it is.

I was reading The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (edited by Elizabeth Webby) recently and, while I wasn’t expecting to find anything about Australian cinema in it, I was outraged to read the following sentence in the introduction: “Although there was unfortunately no room in this volume to include a chapter on Australian film, the two chapters on theatre do make a reference to film and provide something of an historical context for those interested in it”.

Good grief! There’s clearly a long way to go before Australian society, at all levels, accepts screen culture as an art form every bit as valuable as novels, poetry and plays. And we shouldn’t forget the documentary, either. Perhaps this series, in its small way, will help educate (and entertain) Professors of Literature as well as ordinary cinema-goers. I really believe that the more we know about films such as Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke (1919) (a film which I think stands as one of the all-time great silent features) and the McDonagh sisters’ films of the 1920s, the greater interest we’ll take in contemporary Australian movies. When I first came to Australia in 1995, I found myself in the courtyard of the Barracks in Sydney’s Hyde Park watching a couple of early silent bush movies. I seem to recall the event was sponsored by the Australian wool industry and there were sheep wandering about (is this a revelation of an embarrassing fantasy?) as Deb Verhoeven (now CEO of the AFI) gave a wonderful lecture about the role of sheep in the history of Australian cinema in the 1920s. I loved it – and started taking Australian film history more seriously. As it is, many people, even film students, are pretty much unaware that there was any Australian cinema before Mad Max (George Miller, 1979).

To sum up: I guess you could say that we’re hoping the series will (re)introduce Australians to their own screen history and broaden their knowledge of screen culture.

FAV: How will the series relate to the BFI Classics, and is this the model that the series is based on?

JM: I’m not sure they will relate in any direct way. The two BFI series certainly form a model – but I’ve also been looking at the Bloomsbury “A to Z” series, and Adrian Martin recently told me of a Belgian series of film monographs that I’m trying to get hold of. I read an article by Noel King some time ago that referred to yet another series, Cinetek, which he said was difficult to get hold of. He was right, I haven’t been able to put my hands on one yet. I believe the series will evolve: but some things are a given. I like the way the BFI authors never over-estimate their readers’ knowledge, for example. That’s certainly something I want the series to emulate.

FAV: What films do you hope to cover? Who decides on these films? Have you already commissioned titles for the series?

JM: I drew up a list based on the conversations I had with filmmakers, films critics and film students. Sylvia Lawson, for example, has been an invaluable source of knowledge. And, of course, I’ve discussed it all with my editors and publishers at The Currency Press. Some titles seem obvious: the list would be incomplete, for instance, without films like Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955), For the Term of His Natural Life (Norman Dawn, 1927), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), The Back of Beyond (Michael Robertson, 1995) and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (Tracey Moffatt, 1990).

But I also have an appetite for some films that aren’t yet on my list: Charles Chauvel’s Moth of Moonbi (1926), for instance, even though only some of the footage survives. And I have a taste for films like Philip Brophy’s Body Melt (1993), which I know relatively few would regard as a ‘classic’. I’m hoping there will be some surprises. Marcia Langton, for example, has expressed interest in writing about a film and I think her choice will surprise everyone.

One or two other potential authors have suggested films that weren’t on the initial list. We’re determined to be flexible on this. One writer I’m particularly keen to sign up (he has an interest in metamorphosis which I think is crucial for any cinephile) told me he was interested in Proof (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1991), which wasn’t on the list originally. Not because I’ve passed judgment on whether or not it’s a ‘classic’, as such, but because there were so many other films in this period and I’m keen to get a spread from the silents up until the 1990s. (If the potential author reads this, could they please get back to me? I don’t want to seem to be tracking them down.)

I suspect the series will slowly build up a reputation for really good quality research and writing, plus a passion for the film and for cinema, before we can begin to think about some of the more obscure titles. What’s important to me is that the writer feels passionate about the movie they select. I’m not interested in the sort of essay that’s only written because it was commissioned.

FAV: What kind of writers do you hope to gather in the series?

JM: This was a tricky topic. Because relatively few Australians go to see Australian movies, and because screen culture is not easy to market, we decided early on to invite authors from fields other than film criticism. This way we hope to attract readers already interested in cinema as well as others who might not necessarily be film-lovers, but who will be attracted by the reputation of the author.

This was an incredibly difficult decision: not least because many of my friends in the world of film criticism are really good writers. But Australia doesn’t have a huge book-buying population. The books are going to have to sell here before we can even think of selling them widely overseas. While this may appear to be something of a downside, I believe the series will gain from us being able to cast our net wider.

I was also influenced by the number of excellent BFI Film Classics texts by authors who weren’t directly involved in film criticism. I’ve already mentioned Salman Rushdie’s Wizard of Oz; Scottish novelist, A.L. Kennedy’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1991) is another example. Having said that, the first two books will be by Adrian Martin (Mad Max) and Christos Tsiolkas (The Devil’s Playground) and neither are exactly cinematic virgins. They are writers I very much admire. And, when I did a brief survey among first year undergraduates, their names came out on top. Could there be any greater affirmation of the quality of their work?

FAV: What kind of contribution to Australian film culture are you hoping the series will make?

JM: When I go to the Chauvel, or other independent cinemas such as the Dendy and the Palace theatres at the Verona or Academy I continually bump into the same old suspects (regrettably, with an emphasis on ‘old’ – except for the wonderful Popcorn Taxi at the Valhalla and now also in Melbourne). When I go to any of the mainstream cinemas in George Street, I never meet anyone I know. I’m not surprised by this, but we’re hoping the series will play a part in uniting both these audiences.

I think of the series a bit like I think of the cinémathèque that Sydney so urgently needs. It won’t work if it attracts the same old cinephiles over and over again. Our concept of screen culture has got to include the mass market and the very popular as well as the cult and the independent.

FAV: Is the series intended for an Australian audience primarily, or will they be targeted to a broader, international readership?

JM: It would be great if the series sells overseas and there definitely is an appetite for Australian cinema in other countries. There’s a special interest in Australian cinema, for example, at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, which is where I taught before I came here. (It’s also where Richard Maltby and Ruth Vasey used to teach, by the way.) And not long ago I had a professor from a university somewhere in one of the southern states of the USA sit in on my classes at AFTRS because he was about to teach a unit in Australian cinema. The authors will all be invited to write for the series because they don’t underestimate readers’ intelligence nor overestimate their knowledge. I believe the quality of their writing and their perceptive insight, plus their passion, is what’s going to attract readers, home and away.

FAV: Are you having problems getting a healthy list of indisputable Australian ‘classics’?

JM: Taxonomy is always a problem. So too, the older one gets, is health. If there was no dispute about what constituted a ‘classic’, life would be very dull.

FAV: Can you discuss briefly your book, Cinema, Sin and Censorship, which is soon to appear from Pluto Press? Specifically, what the book is about, its methodologies and how you became involved in this area of inquiry?

JM: My book for Pluto Press is called The Money Shot: Cinema, Sin and Censorship. I’m putting the final finishing touches to it this week. It should be published in June – perhaps to coincide with the Sydney Film Festival.

The expression ‘The Money Shot’, widely used in porn movies to describe the ‘come’ or ‘cum’ shot, is my term for what Paul Willemen refers to as ‘the cinephiliac moment’, what Martin Heidegger calls ‘the moment of vision’, and Walter Benjamin ‘the shock of sensation’. For me, it’s that sublime moment at the movies when my toes curl and, in some sort of contradiction, I knowingly and willingly get stitched in to the narrative. I’ve written on what it is about cinema that makes me think of it in libidinal terms as an unruly lover, and why it makes me want to come again, and again.

I’ve drawn upon lectures, articles, broadcasts and speeches, and set my cinephilia in an unashamedly personal and self-reflexive framework. One section of the book is about censorship, which I resolutely oppose, and I refer to some of the battles I’ve been involved in as a founder member of Watch on Censorship, the Sydney-based anti-censorship organisation. There’s also a section on women and film which draws upon my personal feminist history and my love of language, particularly sociolinguistics (in 1980 I published a book for Virago Press called Womanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal Society).

I think The Money Shot is a fairly unconventional piece of film criticism – although in its structure and framework I was influenced by B. Ruby Rich’s recent book, Chick Flics. Lesley Stern’s books and articles also offered models that I particularly admire.

FAV: Finally, could you discuss your experience at AFTRS? What do you see as the aims and objectives of the Head of Screen Studies and in what direction is it currently headed?

JM: Over the six years there was certainly more laughter than tears – but there were an awful lot of tears at first. I remember one low point early on when the students more or less revolted because I used the “F” word. “F” for “fail”, as in “shoddy, inadequate work”, that is. It was actually quite difficult to fail a Screen Studies assignment, but even more difficult to convince students that it was difficult. I’ll always be grateful to the Director, John O’Hara, who initially invited me to AFTRS, and who did have a film criticism background, but things sure looked up when Rod Bishop arrived. He, and then Annabelle Sheehan as Head of Teaching, both had strong screen studies backgrounds in addition to film production experience. Rod was particularly impressive in his firm stand towards those students who didn’t think screen history or critical analysis should play any part in their film production education. I believe he asked them if they really wanted the rest of the world to laugh at them for refusing to learn about critical analysis. When we designed the new curriculum a few years ago, I’m happy my colleagues were persuaded that screen studies should be compulsory: teaching was a thankless task when the subject was voluntary. I’m also pleased to have introduced the study of Australian cinema into the syllabus of both the Graduate Diploma and the MA students; when I arrived Australian cinema simply wasn’t taught at all.

I sometimes enjoyed the frequently combative atmosphere when some colleague or other dismissed screen studies as an irrelevancy to filmmaking. But occasionally it got me down, as this had the effect of turning me from an educator into the wicked witch of the east to many of my students. Luckily I had some great colleagues over the years. My departmental lecturers make an impressive list: Maree Delofski, Mitzi Goldman, Annabelle Sheehan, Andrew Plain – all notable filmmakers as well as knowledgeable in film studies. The current Acting Head of the Screen Studies Department, Patrick Crogan, doesn’t come from a filmmaking background, and that’s been one of the best things about the last couple of years.

It was Annabelle, as Head of Teaching, who insisted that my lecturer should have a classic academic film studies background. I resisted at first, but I came to agree. AFTRS is the perfect place for theory and practice to both get together and clash, but students first need to learn that screen studies has its own discourse and its own integrity for the theory-practice praxis to have any real value. Patrick Crogan has been terrific in complementing my more film production (I was a documentary film maker in the UK before becoming an academic) and cultural studies inflected approach.

I’m happy to have left – we’re all on 6-year fixed term contracts at AFTRS – as there really was no possibility of conducting any serious research. I think I did all I could do without being able to do any research, and I now have some space to read, think, and experiment intellectually.

I believe that AFTRS, like the rest of the Australian film industry, should rethink its attitude to research and to screen culture as a whole. I don’t see how anyone can teach well if their teaching is not firmly based in a research ethos. And the same goes for filmmakers; as a former filmmaker and as a current critical analyst, I strongly believe the Australian film industry needs to spend more time and money on research and development. In a few months time I’ll probably be desperately searching the jobs columns. But for a short while I’m lucky to be able to concentrate on research and writing. I hope to be working with the AFI and other institutions which share my view of the need for a vibrant screen culture. The Currency Press series of Australian Screen Classics certainly presents one such institution.

About The Author

Fiona Villella is a freelance writer and former editor of Senses of Cinema.