Model behaviour

by Geoff Gardner

Barrett Hodsdon’s Straight Lines and Crossed Roads – the Quest for Film Culture in Australia? (Bernt Porridge Group, 2001) is an intriguing excavation (as he calls it) into an aspect of film in Australia. Where it might have been merely a history it turns into rather more, including a lament for the fact that an immature element of our cultural experience in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s finally only grew up into some sort of bonsai bush – a shrub to be admired, brought out for visitors but ultimately not very useful.

It laments in particular the lack of published critical writing, the lack of a formal structure for distributing, watching and appreciating films, the impact this lack has had on Australian production and the general ignorance of those who control both funding and the management of the few film cultural institutions that have lasted through the years (most notably the Australian Film, Television and Radio School [AFTRS] and the National Film and Sound Archive [NFSA] today known as ScreenSound Australia). It laments, in Barrett’s words, the lack of “the variety of discourses that frame and contextualise film production and reception”. (p. 145)

But is that what is lacking? Or is what is lacking only Barrett’s preferred model with a national cinémathèque at the top of this pyramid, generously funded with outreach programs to every capital city. Such a body would be a bulwark, a bastion and a beacon. It seems to bear remarkable similarities to the British Film Institute (BFI), particularly in its heyday when it published widely, its screenings were the stuff of legend and its archive activities even larger than today. But even the BFI has shrunk throughout the ’90s in the face of indifference, funding cuts and, in my view, most importantly the activity that now takes place outside its purview.

Film culture has like much else in society become atomised, and that process has occurred not just through indifference and sustained cuts to film culture funding. Barrett acknowledges this when he notes that there are now new technologies. These forms – the already available video, DVD, cable and the soon-to-be available satellite, broadband, and video on demand – transform the availability of films. There are at any one time some 10,000 titles available from locations like DVD Planet. Personal collections require money but so does building and retaining the infrastructure of a National Film Theatre of Australia (NFTA) that can show at most a few hundred films a year. Private money, public money – the choice in these post-Whitlam years when Treasuries rule has been made and foisted on us.

Barrett also notes that the birth of the study of film in tertiary institutions (and I would add its greater use in secondary and primary schooling) has created a far more film literate generation of scholars, enthusiasts and general viewers. More people watch more films, more often than ever before. They have access to more magazine writing about it than ever before. There are more books published on and about film than ever before.

This activity is not, cannot be, centrally directed and there have been changes in the film culture market place to compensate. In 1980, the Melbourne Film Festival screened two films a day in its main venue, none on Sundays and a few extras on Saturday at other scattered locations. A couple of thousand people sat and watched the main evening film. If they got bored then they voted with their feet, often noisily. Now the Festival, as does the Brisbane International Film Festival, screens up to five films at any one time, spreads its multiple screenings over the whole day. The exponential growth in the number of films available for viewing is extraordinary.

All that has happened for reasons that Barrett might find less than good. Governments fund festivals not the NFTA because festivals get front-page newspaper treatment and extensive other newspaper coverage. Governments still fund very little experimental filmmaking. Then again, as Barrett acknowledges, very few people want to see it. No matter how much effort is put into its promotion and circulation, experimental and avant-garde filmmaking would remain a coterie taste.

One element of the film culture distribution that Barrett overlooks is the role of Special Broadcasting Services (SBS) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Over time SBS has screened more masterpieces, old and new, a large number of them Australian premieres, than any other outlet. It has run through, randomly I admit, the oeuvre of directors that an NFTA could only dream about (most notably second and third tier European directors). My only lament is that these films are presented in accordance with the standard international leasing arrangements, where the rights acquired dictate three screenings of a single film over five years and that’s it. The number of films that will be the subject of renegotiated rights and thus continue to be available is close to nil. My dearest hope that SBS might assemble a permanent canon of the great films from Europe and Asia will never occur. The collision of film culture, scholarship and commerce produces a lot of bruises and bad tempers. Historians, scholars, buffs and enthusiasts will need to maintain their own extensive video or, eventually, disc collections for the fullest continuous appreciation.

SBS as well is leading the way in production investment in the most interesting films being made today. Which brings me to the ABC or, more specifically, its television service. This travesty of a cultural icon presents nothing that might be remotely related to film culture. Its feature film collections are a disgrace, its acquisition of new films lamentable and its investment in Australian feature film production is close to nil. I despair of it…. as much as or more as Barrett despairs of the lack of a national cinémathèque.

* * *

On the Yellow Brick Road To…?

by Bruce Hodsdon

Straight Lines and Crossed Roads – the Quest for Film Culture in Australia? locates film culture, in the Land of Oz, on something of an abandoned byway on the yellow brick road to greater audience share and the pursuit of the offshore dollar. Along the way, Barrett implies, are numerous straw men and torsos of rusting tin, not to mention an illusory wizard or two.

Film culture defies easy definition. It exists wherever films are shown, talked and written about, which is just about everywhere. To me, film culture is a process measured by the discourses surrounding the films and the business, the craft and the industry that produces them. These discourses shape values, practices, activities and institutions that, in sum, constitute film culture.

Decade by decade the cultural climate for cinema has changed quite radically. By the end of the ’60s, the ’50s seemed like a foreign land. In 2002, the ’80s feels like another era. Leaving aside the debatable question of quality, we do not have less film/screen culture than we had in the supposed ‘golden age’ of the ’60s; we have more, much of it home grown. True, there is not the special pleasure of discovery at the cutting edge – the French New Wave, the Italians, new American cinema, the East Europeans and so on – that marked the ’60s. The memories of that decade merely highlight a truism – that the films are the keys to a vibrant film culture. However, if we dwell too long on the unrecoverable ambience of such times we may fail to notice what we have gained. Both sides of the ledger need to be recognised. Too much focus on thesis and antithesis may obscure the potential for synthesis.

If access to the films is at the core of film culture, an aficionado in 2002 is, on balance, considerably better off than she was in the ’60s and early ’70s, a time often touted as the golden age. Despite claims to the contrary there are more non-mainstream films in commercial cinema release than ever before to which should be added availability on SBS, pay television, VHS and DVD. It is not just improved sound and image, both actually and potentially, provided by the latter but the significant addition, in many DVD releases, of special features of varying quality and value such as audio commentaries/essays. SBS provides access to a range of documentaries, national cinemas and classic films probably unmatched on network television anywhere overseas

On the question of mediums for discourse, there are numerous conferences from industry-based to academic, film festival forums to on-going series such as Popcorn Taxi. There is a wide spectrum of journals and equivalents ranging from Independent Filmmaker, Encore, Empire, Filmink, the screen section of Real Time, Metro and the expanded cinema coverage in the daily press (few overseas newspapers exceed the quality of reviewing in the Melbourne Age?), Urban Cinefile, The Movie Show and (if you apply yourself to finding it amidst coverage of the arts) Radio National. We have lost Cinema Papers (largely unlamented) and Filmnews but I don’t believe we have ever had serious Australian film publications to match the e-journals Screening the Past and Senses of Cinema.

The problem area for Oz film culture remains specialised exhibition. The National Film Theatre’s years (1968-82) were a roller coaster marked by a critical lack of suitable venues in most cities and a failure to ever really counter the perception of the funding bodies, especially the Australian Film Commission (AFC), that the NFT was much more than an extension of the film society movement. The NFT at its peak made headway in taking cinémathèque-style programming out of the ghetto to a general audience. This was politically necessary for funding but for the NFT it was not enough. The need to maintain a national screenings operation stretched resources very thinly, and its fate was sealed when after a Commission-managed merger, the Australian Film Institute (AFI), despite an injection of more funds, failed to achieve viable growth. At the heart of this failure, in my opinion, was the AFI’s failure to recognise and appraise the limits on growth imposed by the endemic problem with venues.

Ironically in the ’90s, the National Cinémathèque emerged from the film society movement, with low-level support from the AFI, to assume the mantle of the NFT. Less ambitious in scale, with a low-level of funding, the Cinémathèque is a tribute to the small band of enthusiasts responsible for the programme. But the National Cinémathèque remains locked in a semi-repertory low profile niche or sandwiched between first release and repertory exhibition (Sydney’s Chauvel).

The ‘monuments’ to the failure of public policy on exhibition over three decades are more or less invisible. They are marked by absence paradoxically highlighted by the very presence of the National Cinémathèque whose continued existence has been made more tenuous by the apparent enforced abandonment by the AFI of its attempts to be all things to all people while satisfying very few. The major absence, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, continues to be that of any flagship sites for cinémathèque exhibition – cinema’s equivalent of the art gallery.

Given its depleted state, but with the possibility of spaces opening up imminently in Melbourne and later in Brisbane, the question needs to be asked: what is the role for cinémathèque exhibition in the digital age? While we know that the desire for the group viewing experience in the cinema is as strong as ever, it is not clear that younger audiences are as interested in viewing cinema’s past on the cinema screen as might be, for example, in accessing ‘originals’ on gallery walls. Melbourne’s Federation Square seems to offer the possibility for the location of cinémathèque exhibition in a new high profile context of contemporary media arts. However the politics and logistics of the infrastructure may have swamped the conceptualisation of how that infrastructure might be deployed. Is this a case of form overwhelming content?

Any serious commitment to a cinémathèque will be faced with escalating capital costs as film projectors (16mm & dual 35mm) will be required alongside HD digital projection equipment. The cost of accessing 35mm archival prints, already high, is likely to continue to increase with only gradual if any relief provided by the possible substitution of digital copies. This is not to suggest that the need for the more traditional elements of film culture represented by the paradigm of a 50-year-old cinémathèque model have necessarily been superseded. However, in the face of decades of disappointment and apparent incomprehension, one can only be sceptical about government’s willingness to provide the level of expenditure, both capital and recurrent, required to realise and underwrite this model.

Before public resources are sunk into instating fully-fledged ‘traditional’ cinémathèque exhibition, as is now being contemplated in Brisbane, we need to ask whether such exhibition, that has never properly arrived in Australia, is in decline, perhaps terminally? I would like to think not but the benchmarks are there for the testing – in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen. If accounts of ageing audiences are true then some lateral thinking may be called for, especially when we are starting more or less at point zero. In order to determine what should be it may be time to focus more on what is and less on what might have been.

The yellow brick road is not so much in need of repair as reconstruction and redirection, a new road to replace the abandoned byway.

* * *

Fuck To Corporate Hypnotism

by Jim Knox

If we look to the most exciting developments in Australian film culture, they proceed from the dedication of cinema’s orphans. Orphans, because they’re illegitimate heirs to a horribly obscured cultural heritage; working without the sanction of state funding, or academic credentials. What guides them is a genuine love for the cinema as an unparalleled instrument of astonishment and wonder. And these agents of our enchantment – I’m thinking expressly of Andrew Leavold from Trash Video, Jaimie Leonarder’s Mumeson Archives, and Irving Gribbish of Splodge – have evolved self-sustaining (albeit, sometimes marginally so) methods of furthering their activities.

How many film scholars or career-bureaucrats enjoy the native resource of these 3 people: Leonarder dumpster-diving in search of abandoned film, Leavold swimming a metaphorical sewer for the crème de la crap of forgotten genre cinema, Gribbish in righteous pursuit of a popular forum for revisionist critique? Forgive the heroic metaphor – the punishment elicits its corresponding rewards, and they (and we alike) are happiest in scoping the unanticipated celluloid delights they recover.

Illuminating the deepest shadows of our historical dustbin, this salvage promises the cure to our collective amnesia. And having sighted some unfamiliar pinnacles of cinema-past, we can begin to establish our criteria for the evaluation of now-and-future film…

We require only 2 things of our cinema – that it should entertain us, and artfully so. But film which promotes model patterns of behaviour (and the ‘inevitability’ of a particular society, or the global networks of commodity exchange necessary to its maintenance) should be seen for what it is – propaganda; and the artfulness of its construction (remembering Leni Riefenstahl) shouldn’t distract our contempt for its political agenda.

American cinema has never been so regrettably dull – or so contemptibly at the service of narrow ideological assumptions. And yet: we’re the hostages, still, of Hollywood’s corporate hypnotism. What passes for alternative – my friends at SBS TV call them “French tit and Spanish bum movies” – is the exact foreign-language analogue of those dollar-a-week erotic thrillers crowding the dustiest shelves of your local video store…

An easy corrective to this mono-culture garbage – give the ACCC a brief to investigate collusive and predatory business practices among Australian commercial cinema exhibitors (who are also the distributors, and often the producers!). This oligarchy dates to before the Menzies era, but in the last two decades we’ve seen the collapse of independent cinema exhibition and distribution in this country, and a solution can’t be deferred any longer.

Locally, Federation Square is to be both our compensation for the genteel brutalisms of the Kennett era, and that era’s set-in-stone memorial. It’ll probably be an unambiguously ‘good thing’. But if I’m militant about commercial cinema practices in this country, neither have I much confidence in Australia’s public sector aesthetic. Mark Amerika might have been lauded by Time magazine (the same rag of mercantile expedience that several times honoured Adolf Hitler as its “Man of the Year”!), but his ACMI-sponsored presentation earlier this year was fatuous drivel. His familiar postmodern rhetoric simply couldn’t excuse just how crap his work actually was.

Amerika’s disengaged irony, and absence of technical invention, were also distinguishing features of the dArt02 program I walked out on recently. The aesthetics, and their theoretical premises, barely scraped their way to sophomore standard. If this is a true reflection of experimental cinema practice, it’s an argument for dismantling public subsidy…

The thing is: dArt02 only reflects the myopic agenda of our cultural civil service – all it does is confirm the prejudices of the ignorant spectator. Anyone who’s made the trip to Newcastle for Electrofringe, or assiduously attended occasional fringe screenings, knows what a wealth of creative film and video practices this country is home to. There’s plenty that mandates a wider audience – so it’s to be hoped that Fed Square will promote that work without regard for our elite clique of moribund bureaucrats.

Here’s some of the things those bureaucrats haven’t picked up on yet: the 70mil’ director’s cut of Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) (Scorsese and Coppola split the tab on its restoration a couple years back – they seem to think it’s important); the work of Patrice Bokanowski (Keith Griffiths – producer to the Quays and Svankmajer – has celebrated this stuff as the most important cinema of the last decade; when will Australian audiences get to see it?) – I mean, we all get heated about state censorship, but the pressing issue in Australia is an institutionalised failure of imagination; the fact that so much exciting and important work suffers an embargo from both commercial exhibitors and the public sector…

Our film culture will proceed (or not) from that point. We can’t hope to have a meaningful dialogue about cinema until we’re able to arrive at informed opinions. Hagiography of Jean-Luc Godard (when will it end?) won’t compensate our inability to see the choicest cinema the non-USA world has to offer (sorry, SBS programmers – those French tit and Spanish bum movies don’t count).

Federation Square might be our salvation. But the reality is: most (nearly all) of us already cop an ample film culture from our local multiplex and video store. Cinema and television (and increasingly, the web) are the sites we should be contesting; not retreating to the bunker of a taxpayer-funded ivory edifice.

So: my hopes reside with those inspired orphans. They’re a somewhat mottled crew, but despite (or because of…) the absence those sanctions I mentioned, they’re the boldest champions of progressive film culture this country has.

About The Author

Bruce Hodsdon has written on Jerzy Skolimowski and surrealist documentary for Senses of Cinema, the Carlton Ripple for Screening the Past and contributed to The Little Black Book: Movies.

Jim Knox has just quit his bread-job and promises to live by his wits (expect his standard of living to plummet accordingly). He freelances for ABC Radio National and writes liner notes for the Omni Recording Corporation CD label. He is Co-Curator of the Focus on Jim Henson (ACMI, September 2008) and, since 2003, manager of the Outlands Ecoplex cinema for the Meredith Music Festival and Golden Plains Festival. His most recent commission from the BFI is an essay on Jack Ellitt for a DVD-box of work by the GPO Film Unit. He is currently finishing his MA in media arts at RMIT University and the new animation is proceeding slowly…

These days Geoff Gardner blogs away on matters of film interest. He was once the Director of the Melbourne Film Festival and once also a film distributor. His thoughts can be found at http://filmalert101.blogspot.com.au