For this issue, we considered launching a wide-ranging investigation into the current state of Australian film culture. Then we realised this would bore everyone to tears. The decline of public broadcasting, the mediocrity of recent feature films, the well-documented woes of the inadequately resourced and managed Australian Centre for the Moving Image – these are the latest verses of the same old song, and it’s likely that anyone who cares will know the words already.
The term “film culture” (or “screen culture” as some have it these days) is in any case a broad and vague one, usually taken as referring mainly to practices surrounding film viewing, but occasionally extended to cover production as well. Either way, “culture” thus conceived tends to be understood as something that takes place under the auspices of large institutions – ultimately, as the responsibility of government. Yet without minimising the importance of such priceless resources as the National Film and Video Lending Collection or of government funding for the arts generally, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that thanks to digital video cameras, DVDs and the Internet, the basics of “film culture” are more widely available than ever before. As things stand, almost any Australian with sufficient time and energy should be able to shoot low-budget videos, purchase a hard-to-find movie on DVD, start up a film society, or, for that matter, research critical essays and submit them to Senses of Cinema.
In the damning but not unreasonable critique of contemporary Australian filmmaking that leads off this issue, Christos Tsiolkas writes that “the blame game can begin with funding bodies and the market, or with critics and the media, but ultimately it has to fall on filmmakers themselves”. Of course, any first-year arts student can deconstruct the myth of the alienated genius working in isolation from society; that doesn’t alter the reality that worthwhile movies (and interpretations of them!) are created not by collective good intentions but by those rare souls who possess the vision, bravado and expertise to come up with strong ideas and see them through. Similarly, in one of the most cogent recent interventions into the local “film culture” debate, Peter Sainsbury has argued that the overall timidity of Australian cinema is abetted by a reluctance to take individual responsibility for decision-making – on the part not only of filmmakers themselves, but also of members of funding bodies who are unwilling to operate except by committee.
Arguably, a national distrust of the genuinely individual – as opposed to the eccentric and “quirky” – accounts for the glaring absence at the heart of Australian cinema: the auteur. Worthwhile films, I believe, are produced in this country on a fairly regular basis, but it’s undeniable that we have precious few auteurs, in the sense of directors who have developed a distinctive artistic approach over a series of works. No narrative filmmaker working regularly in this country has anything like the international profile or intrinsic significance of, say, Mike Leigh or Aki Kaurismäki (to name a couple of figures who aren’t a million miles from a classically “Australian” sensibility) though many have succeeded artistically once or twice before falling silent or moving to other fields. To pluck some names almost at random from the last two decades, I’d be thrilled to see new movies from Ray Argall, Shirley Barrett, Leo Berkeley, Philip Brophy, Vince Giarrusso, Lawrence Johnson, Brian McKenzie, Ian Pringle, Yahoo Serious or Rowan Woods. But I’m not holding my breath.
No doubt, this lack of staying power should be blamed less on the filmmakers themselves than on a funding system that typically fails to encourage or support their careers beyond the first act. What this suggests is that in Australia as elsewhere, auteurist ways of looking at and thinking about film are commonly resisted by academic analysts, industry practitioners and general audiences alike. In part, this resistance is fuelled by honourable political motives: while industrial filmmaking practices are inherently undemocratic, this somehow seems an easier pill to swallow when their goal is shared rather than individual. Yet at least in a secular, liberal society such as ours, there can be little value in any “creative” activity that fails to serve a personal vision – even if the daylight goals of economic success or social engineering are often easier to talk about than the mysteries of art.
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Please note that essays on films screening at the Melbourne Cinémathèque are now available in a separate section of the site. Special thanks to those readers who filled out the survey accompanying our last issue; further comments and suggestions are welcome at any time.
Co-Editor, Senses of Cinema