Nigel Buesst began his filmmaking career in Melbourne in the mid-1960s, prior to the injection of government funding that brought about the 1970s film ‘revival.’ His works from this period include the documentary reconstruction The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor (1969) and the short features Bonjour Balwyn (1971) and Come Out Fighting (1972). Since then he has lectured in various film schools, and served from 1985 to 1990 as director of the St Kilda Film Festival. But he has also remained active as a filmmaker, with the feature Compo (1988), experimental shorts such as Global Village (1998) and a number of documentaries on jazz.
Buesst’s most recently completed project is Carlton + Godard = Cinema (2003) a two-and-a-half-hour video ‘document’ of the Melbourne 1960s filmmaking scene centred around the suburb of Carlton. The director’s first-person commentary guides us through generous excerpts from such films as Il Contratto (Giorgio Mangiamele, 1953), The Brothers (Giorgio Mangiamele, 1958), Ninety-Nine Percent (Giorgio Mangiamele, 1963), Clay (Giorgio Mangiamele, 1965), Pudding Thieves (Brian Davies, 1967), Brake Fluid (Brian Davies, 1969), The Girlfriends (Peter Elliot, 1967), Hey Al Baby (David Minter, 1969), Nothing Like Experience (Peter Carmody, 1970), Sympathy in Summer (Antony I. Ginnane, 1970), and Yackety Yak (Dave Jones, 1974) as well as his own early works.
Mangiamele’s unique oeuvre aside, most of the films excerpted here are cheaply-made, freewheeling narratives dealing with the loves, dreams and struggles of intellectual youth. Playful, often autobiographical improvisations rather than programmatic formal experiments, they’re local emanations of a ‘new wave’ sensibility which by the mid-’60s was the common property of young filmmakers in many countries (inspiring such comparable US productions as David Holtzman’s Diary [Jim McBride, 1968]).
Carlton + Godard = Cinema had its premiere screening at the St Kilda Film Festival in May 2003. This interview took place July 1, 2003 at the office of Buesst’s Carlton-based video editing business, the Sunrise Picture Company.
Jake Wilson: How did Carlton + Godard = Cinema come to be made, and what gave you the impetus to make it now?
Nigel Buesst: Well, having lived through that period and seen value in the films, I guess I wanted to pull them all together.
They exist because I’ve put them together in this quite lengthy, rambling DVD. I like the opportunity to experiment with DVD because it has fabulous potential for distribution, and you’ve got chapters, so that if you feel like taking in half an hour, you can just do that half hour. So I rounded up various films that I’d remembered from that period, and put them together in a sort of truncated form which is not entirely pure. It’s a sort of Readers’ Digest form of filmmaking where 50 minutes gets squeezed down into 20 minutes. But at least it allows people to explore the views and styles of these various filmmakers whom I had great respect for.
And then there was the question circling around the whole project, which was whatever happened to all these people? When the government funding came in, did they get the green light to go ahead and be front-runners in the emerging Australian film industry? The answer was no. Perhaps they were temperamentally unsuited to the burden of working within the new bureaucratic system which was quite onerous.
JW: I want to go back to that question later on. But firstly, looking back at these films, can you sum up what you feel makes them valuable today?
NB: Well, at the time, what was showing in Bourke St [mainstream city cinemas] was fairly simplistic. I mean, there were some highlights. Blackboard Jungle ( Richard Brooks 1955) was a bit of a watershed, because it rocked. Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). And there were Bergman films appearing occasionally. But somehow it seemed like a fairly barren cinema. Esoteric films, films of a bent perspective, like Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002) or those of Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch…that sort of idiosyncratic vision was non-existent. But some of the Carlton films had those qualities. Brake Fluid made no real sense, and yet in its senselessness there was its own logic, and this was rather enthralling. Like jazz, another of my passions, there was unity in discord. Emerging from their apparently aimless meanderings came an essential truthfulness, a revelation of how things are.
On reflection I’d say that Melbourne in the sixties was seen as a fairly boring city and that we wanted to make films that might change that perception In fact I remember going to America in 1972, with a couple of films under my arm which I was not reluctant to show around at various film colleges. They had originality and bite. One film was George and Needles (1971) by Greg Dee who now runs Channel 31 [community television station], about a couple of alcoholic bums in Hawthorn. It was a bit of a ground-breaker, venturing into the dark, slovenly lives of a couple of outsiders. The middle class always enjoy perving on dysfunctional people – I think if Ken Park (Larry Clark & Edward Lachman, 2003) gets shown at the film festival, there will be a good full house, because we get some satisfaction from witnessing the inferiority of others. So anyway, the savagery and the honesty of George and Needles still stands up well. And many of the equivalent films being made in American colleges at the time were far less adventurous.
JW: That film you just referred to, that’s not in Carlton + Godard?
NB: No, it’s not. That was a Swinburne [film school] film, actually. But generally I suppose the idea of Melbourne as a significant centre of creativity was central to my thinking then and now. Compared with all the other cities of the world, we hold up well.
JW: Was it a challenge to track down all the Carlton films?
NB: They’re around, but mostly in VHS form. In most cases I certainly wasn’t going to go back to the celluloid and get them copied into digital format, because it would cost thousands. I just worked with VHS, and paid the consequences of slightly lower picture quality. I see it as not really a commercial enterprise – it’s more like someone at the university writing an essay on a subject that interests them.
JW: I want to go back now to the beginnings of all this. You spent some time in London, and then you came back to Australia in the early ’60s?
NB: Yes. I did Commerce at Melbourne University, but didn’t think I really had a future in that world, and went to England and worked in various studios as an assistant editor, for a year or so. Then I came back to Melbourne to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at Ripponlea, news department, and then I shifted around here, there and everywhere, making a living, trying to make a film, and ended up making The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor, which went very well in a season at the Carlton Moviehouse. And on the strength of that, got a job at Swinburne in the film department, where I stayed for 13 years. Some people could say it was the golden handcuffs, but I’ve no doubt that every aspiring filmmaker deep down hopes for the security of a regular job, whether it be as a bureaucrat or an academic. Because a) it removes the need to create anything, b) you get a pay packet every fortnight, and c) there’s quite often a trip to some conference at Christmas time.
JW: I’m not so sure…
NB: Let me ask you, have you ever known someone who works at a college who actually makes films? I mean, that’s a question that’s always puzzled me. Melbourne University’s been a great centre of film culture, learning and scholarship, and I would presume that of the thousands of students that have passed through, many of them have dreamt of making films. But have any of them ever made films? Answer, so few as to be virtually none.
JW: Well, there are people such as yourself who have shuttled between teaching and filmmaking…
NB: Yes, but there comes a time where you have to go out and be a player. It’s a very painful subject, but it’s reality. I mean, I look at people like Geoffrey Wright who was at Swinburne. He made a delicious film called Arrivaderci Roma (1979) set in the City Baths, which was one of my all-time favourite short films. Dark but witty at the same time. And then he made two or three others with government funding, which was a good application of their resources. Then he made Romper Stomper (1992) which had some commercial clout. Then he went to Hollywood and I hope he’s getting rich but he’s not making any particular inroads on the festival circuit. I think the age-old question of art and commerce is forever with us.
JW: In general there are very few people in Australia who have managed to function economically as full-time filmmakers, without either going to Hollywood or working in other positions.
NB: Yes, and I think the reason to a large extent is that we have a fabulous television service in Australia, free to air, which allows you to satisfy your need for dramatic fare at no expense whatsoever. As a consumer I’m more than happy, but as a producer it’s hard going.
JW: It interests me that there seems to have been some overlap between people working in 1960s television, as you did, and the independent Melbourne film scene.
NB: There were slight overlaps. Down at the ABC I remember John Richardson made a film, in the style of Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956), rather good actually. And out at Crawfords [production company] many technicians moonlighted. One was Peter Friedrich, who was a busy and talented editor, and Doug Hobbs did a lot of camerawork, he shot some of Brake Fluid and Hey Al Baby. Tom Cowan was at the ABC and shot a few Carlton films.
JW: Jonathan Dawson, who also worked for the ABC, mentioned to me that he was shooting cinema verité documentaries around the same time.
NB: I remember in the early ’70s two people visited Melbourne. One was Peter Bogdanovich, whose The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) was so impressive. It’d probably be one of my top ten films, because it seemed to resonate with the Australian experience. The other was Jean Rouch, one of the initiators of cinema verité , who gave a lecture in the Old Arts building at Melbourne University. And I remember he finished up with a definitive line, ‘I don’t see why you young people can’t get an Arriflex and an old truck and go out and make films!’ There was also a technological turning point involved because the Éclair NPR, which was a French camera he used, allowed filming without the rattle of the camera coming into the microphones. The invention of quiet cameras in the early ’60s had a major influence on how films were made.
JW: I get the impression that in the mid-’60s in Melbourne, before the start of government funding for filmmaking, there were a number of filmmakers and would-be filmmakers who were in fairly close contact with each other. On the other hand someone like Giorgio Mangiamele was very much out on his own. Back then, how aware were you of his work?
NB: I was vaguely aware at the time, but the significance of his body of work has grown with the passage of years. But in a way, making Carlton + Godard = Cinema is nourishing the myth of collaboration and friendship between filmmakers, which I think is somewhat far fetched. We were mostly then, as now, egos bouncing around in opposition. I savor the idea that we were all sitting around talking cinema, exchanging ideas, helping each other. But it was only partially so. For example the fact, say, that Lloyd Carrick had a Nagra and a microphone meant that Lloyd worked on every single film. Someone else might have a camera, someone else might have some lights, and to round them up and put them into service was possible here where, say, it wouldn’t have been possible in Geelong or Hobart. These days the competition for limited funds is much fiercer. If you were sitting in the Australian Film Commission offices waiting to go in for an interview, you’d be polite and friendly to fellow filmmakers, but at the same time aware that if they get the green light you probably won’t.
On the question of Giorgio and why he didn’t get more support from fellow filmmakers, first and foremost he favoured a romantic neo-realist style that seemed a bit old fashioned to the young Turks of Lygon Street who had embraced the New Wave. Secondly he was very strong willed as to how things should be and you wouldn’t make much headway in changing his mind. Film discussions with Giorgio could become heated.
Sometimes when you’re watching films it’s as though you’re watching a tightrope walker. They will take three paces across, and then they’ll fall off. And in the case of Giorgio, there were things he did where I felt he’d fallen off. He’d have lovers at a table having a coffee, and their hands would meet and touch, indicating that they had strong feelings for each other. And then their hands would grip and then their eyes would meet, and you’d think, “You’re overdoing it!” He’d do things like that, and once a person’s done it, once they’ve fallen off the tightrope, it’s very hard to get back on again. The audience demand that every frame ring true, even if the film is a total fantasy.
JW: Was there any financial support at the time from within Melbourne University?
NB: There was a fund called the UniFed Film Foundation which would give you a few hundred dollars. This came I think from the Student Union. There were about half a dozen films at least supported by that, including The Girlfriends, which I was involved in as sound recordist. And The Girlfriends had some delightfully sophisticated yet corny scenes. In fact, to resurrect The Girlfriends was one of the reasons I made Carlton + Godard.
JW: Of the dozens of international directors around at the time why was Godard so influential?
NB: This is what intrigued me both then and now. How come so much of the critical writing in university film magazines concentrated on other filmmakers, in particular the auteurs of Hollywood that had been discovered by Cahiers du cinéma, yet when it came to actually making films it was Godard that set the style? My film only barely touches on the wealth of possibilities inherent in any study of Godard. So many books and articles have been written, and they spin around a multitude of questions and answers, of irritations and joys. The thing about Godard is when you’re viewing his films you feel a mixture of annoyance, satisfaction, joy, incomprehension. His politics are jaw-droppingly simplistic for the most part, particularly from about the 15th film onwards, and yet you look back at them with great affection. It’s as if you were somehow sharing this journey with him and his mind.
JW: You make the point in your narration that while the Carlton filmmakers were affected by Godard in their practice, as cinephiles and critics they were more focused on Hollywood filmmakers.
NB: That would be a subject that someone could write a really good thesis about, looking back over the fifties and sixties and right through – comparing what films were being talked about, emulated, ignored, endowed with value. I remember in the late ’50s I saw and was bored by The Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson), and I couldn’t understand why it got so much praise. I could only think that a high proportion of the students at the university had experienced a Catholic education. It could be that I had been far more influenced by the British films of the time. I have teenage memories of Jack Hawkins on the bridge of a destroyer, of prisoners escaping from Stalag Luft, of breaking the sound barrier and general boys’ own adventure stuff. Whereas the products of the Catholic schools seemed to be tormented by the extent to which they were thrashed by Father Maguire, or something like that.
Critical debate seemed to circle around the auteur theory – Siodmak, Preminger, John Ford, and all these other so-called auteurs that the French were writing about, because they saw in their works an individual quality that kept coming through. Even to this day I have arguments about the auteur theory, about whether you’re a team or an individual. Obviously technically there has to be a team, but I don’t set great store by that. If you’ve got a competent sound recordist and a cameraman, they record these things that have been set before them, and decisions are made for them. I certainly respect the creative contribution of the editor, who can shunt things around.
And of course this whole discussion centres around narrative. There must have been hundreds of films made in those days, known as experimental films, where just the image and the sounds were toyed with. One of my first films was Fun Radio (1968), which although not really experimental, had a busy soundtrack with about six tracks going at once, all centred around 3UZ, rock bands, surf, sun, the whole sort of culture that was presumed by radio stations to be the current discourse of youth. Both then and now I find these assumptions very strange – that surfing and rock gigs are central to the youth experience.
JW: I wanted to ask you about Brian Davies, who seems to have been a central figure of the time, but who disappeared from filmmaking after the early ’70s.
NB: Yes, he made Pudding Thieves and Brake Fluid and he seemed to be headed for great things. At the Sydney Film Festival in 1970 Brake Fluid and Peter Weir’s first film Homesdale were up for the big prize, and a jury headed by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski decided that Davies’ film was very much more the work of a real filmmaker and he got the award. But then Davies quit filmmaking and returned to marketing in Adelaide, and in 1987 he died. Asking many of his confidantes why this most promising of directors chose to walk away just when the Australian film industry was about to take off has revealed no new insights. There is an implication that if one has to choose between dreams and reality you should choose the latter. It is considered immature to go on dreaming beyond a certain point, when the dreamers’ dependents are forced to share the price.
JW: Do you think he found it impossible to get funding for his films after the start of the Australian Film Commission era?
NB: No, it was more that he viewed his filmmaking as a wonderful youthful adventure but expensive in every possible way and that he was relieved to put that behind him and resume a more regular life.
JW: That seems to be a theme running through the films themselves – the conflict between a bohemian lifestyle and the need to fit into society and make a living. For example, in Bonjour Balwyn, where the hero winds up in the outer suburbs repossessing televisions.
JW: You point out in your narration that both the characters and the filmmakers themselves were more suburban than they realised. They fantasised about being these cool dudes in a Godard film, but they didn’t really get there.
NB: Perhaps you’re referring to the scene in Pudding Thieves where they are supposed to be creating porn yet we see nothing. Sex was studiously avoided in these films, probably because we felt it was too hard to handle. Too personal, too much pain involved. Mind you, Godard never went close either, always skirted around the perimeter. Yet the big issues of love, money, status, power are at the heart of the human experience.
At the time, of course, our understanding of script writing and narrative structure was very rudimentary. We were seduced by another myth of the time, that Godard turned up on the first day of filming with only a few script outlines in an exercise book. A fully worked through script was not really necessary. This allowed us to be filmmakers without having to endure the tyranny of the typewriter and the blank page. We could improvise on the set.
JW: And politics, also…there doesn’t seem to be a great deal that’s directly political in these films, although there must have been a lot of political issues people were very much aware of.
NB: Even today, with institutions like the ABC that tackle a lot of difficult questions, there’s questions you know they’re studiously avoiding, because they’re too painful to discuss. One of the most obvious, which I find very interesting, is the difference between people, how some people grow immensely wealthy and others stay extremely poor, and that that is predetermined from about the age of six. But nobody can bring themselves to say so, because it’s painful to acknowledge that. When they throw a football to you and you’re six you either catch it or you don’t, and when you’re 16, the gap between the kids in the class that can and those that can’t is identical. Does this make me a determinist? I guess you could ask does this hold true for filmmakers? If someone makes a really bad film first off, given a second chance or a third chance are they likely to do better? There have been plenty of exceptions. I didn’t think much of Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) as a narrative but there have subsequently been numerous excellent Peter Weir films.
JW: It may be true that talent is innate, but it’s not necessarily the people with talent who go on to fame and fortune.
NB: That’s always an enigma. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you can choke.
JW: There are certain people who were involved in the scene around Melbourne Uni and La Mama theatre who did go on to above-ground careers, such as John Duigan and Tim Burstall…
NB: I asked Tim if he would appear in this film, and he declined. He said “No, I was at the time an Eltham filmmaker.” And he didn’t come to Carlton until about 1972. Also, there had been occasions where he was miffed by some university auteurs with tickets on themselves, and he certainly had no time for the auteur theory. So although he was happy to come along to my Carlton film at the St Kilda Film Festival and be supportive, he probably thought that group of people were overrated and that his own contribution was considerably more substantial. He had worked over many years to try and make Australian filmmaking commercial, and felt that these slightly self-indulgent Carlton filmmakers really had no chance of their films returning costs, let alone sustaining an industry.
John Duigan did certainly persevere, more as a director than as an actor. He has made numerous excellent films and now operates out of London I believe. This has been our loss.
JW: Could you elaborate a bit on the Carlton/Eltham rivalry?
NB: Not rivalry. There were various people in an artistic community out at Eltham, but Tim was the only filmmaker. In a way The Prize (1959) his first short, shot around Eltham in the late fifties was the very beginning of the revival of the Australian film industry. So there wasn’t so much a rivalry as shared values and concerns in the face of a disinterested society.
JW: I wanted to ask about Yackety Yak, which also seems to stand at some distance from the Carlton scene.
NB: Yackety Yak was the brainchild of Dave Jones at the La Trobe media studies course, and was a wonderful film – irreverent, satirical. He was a self-confessed Godard wanna-be, but by the time he’d made this film he realised how hard it was just to make any film. He conceded that to satirise Godard was effort enough but it didn’t even put him in Godard’s ballpark. This modesty is ill-placed to my way of thinking. Yackety Yak is strangely exhilarating in parts and stands up well as a creative contribution after all these years.
JW: Finally, as someone who spent many years teaching film, how far do you think the films we’ve been talking about compare with films made by students and young people more recently? I’m thinking especially of something like Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996).
NB: I must go and get out the tape of Love and Other Catastrophes for another look because I recognised in it a lot of the qualities that we’d sought to achieve decades previously. It certainly has a better dramatic structure than the earlier Carlton films.
I often wonder, what does influence people’s visions of the films they want to make? As a lecturer and supposedly an influence on another generation of filmmakers, I failed to see any influence at all. You can show them things you’re passionate about, but it’s as if I said to you “I like spaghetti,” and you could just as validly say “I don’t like it.”
I remember going with my fellow staff member Peter Tammer, to El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1971), a sort of Wild West, Sergio Leone Mexican border drama, but with heavy religious symbolism that went right over my head. And as the projection went on, Peter was right on the edge of his chair, just brimming with recognition. There’d be some gunman strung up on a tree in a Christ-like posture, and he’d be shaking with emotional involvement. And he knew I was falling asleep, so while he was loving what was on the screen he was hating the guy who’d come with him. Because he’d been to St Kilda Catholic Boys’ College and been thrashed by Father O’Brian, and he knew his Bible. But me, I just wanted to know, who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad guy, and who’s Eli Wallach playing?
See Nigel Buesst’s page in the Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Database for his full filmography.