Pop Kitsch

7–10 September 2007

Last September, from the 7th to the 10th, the Sydney Underground Film Festival was staged at the Factory Theatre, Enmore. As a site the Factory Theatre is ideally located, demographically speaking, because it draws upon many interested film buffs, students, artists, academics and filmmakers who live in the surrounding suburbs of Newtown, Marrickville, Enmore, Erskineville and other related inner-western suburbs of Sydney.

Thus, judging from the consistent large crowds of spectators that turn up for the four days of screening, the festival was certainly a “box-office” success. Clearly, the indefatigable and cinephilic organisers of the festival, namely Stefan Popoescu, Katherine Berger and their dedicated friends and supporters, including Samantha Findley, amongst many others, are to be congratulated for having the determination and vision to create a film festival that is anchored in our past avant-garde traditions of experimental filmmaking in terms of today’s interested film audiences.

Let me be clear about this: there is a swelling curious audience in our youth who are at home with the Internet and its “cut-and-paste” aesthetics of niche cultural creativity and cinephilia. (1) In this critical sense, the festival, with its various local and international thematically-curated film programs, live performances and side events, had hit a vital individual and communal nerve in our society for filmmaking that questions the more complacent banalities and “dead-grammar” cinematic vocabulary of our familiar multiplexes movies and conventional film programming for television.

Of course, you may retort, what do you expect from our ingrained aesthetic, cultural and generic conventions of mainstream narrative cinema. After all, we are speaking here of the cultural and ideological myths that characterise our cultural industries, including cinema, inherited from the last century. This is not to dismiss categorically contemporary Hollywood cinema, European art cinema, Anglo-American independent cinema, and other national cinemas, etc. Far from it as we all know.

But, what animated the festival’s much appreciated programming philosophy, was the belief that the experimental poetry and questioning ideology of official culture and its fixities germane to the avant-garde cinematic practices of the 1960s and ‘70s is sorely missing from our present day film culture.

This signifies the necessity of contributing to nurturing a provocative and independently-minded film culture of critique, resistance and intertextual play that speaks of our past experimental film history that is also evident in various pockets of Internet cinephilia and “in-house” alternative filmmaking today.

In other words, cinema that is not beholden to the more predictable artistic, generic and industrial orthodoxies of our post-MTV era. Cinema that signals subversive sub-cultural experimentation and, overall, an intuitive playful grasp of the personal computer and related new media technologies.

UBU Films promotion, 1967

Having sat through the four days of film viewing, I need to say at the outset, that the adjective “underground’ in the festival’s name needs to be critically unpacked because of its various aesthetic and historical connotations. It is such a loaded adjective: but for the festival’s organisers, as Stefan made it clear when he welcome us on the first night, it meant filmmaking that is independent, innovative in form and ideas, and is crucially made in the shadow of conventional narrative cinema. (2)

Hence, the festival’s vital showcasing of Sydney’s UBU group of filmmakers of the 1960s, such as Albie Thoms, David Perry, Paul Winkler, John Clark and from Melbourne, the often-overlooked Cantrills, Arthur and Corinne, who gave a fairly well-attended two-day presentation of their seminal films at the Sydney College of the Arts.

The Cantrills’ introductions to their films were humorous, insightful and had a rather poignant character to them. Poignant in the sense, that when Corinne introduced one of their wonderfully varied and path-breaking landscape, abstract and art documentary films, she confessed that these days she would rather be gardening and/or watching Peter Cundall’s ABC TV gardening show than making movies. (A show that I nowadays watch every Saturday evening. Is this one more ironic symptom of André Breton’s pregnant term “the cinema age”? )

Corinne posed one of the more prescient asides during the festival. Echoing Nietzsche’s untimely question – “Should life rule over knowledge and science, or should knowledge rule over life?” – Corinne’s critical remarks on how art is over-valued in our culture is something all of us who care for cinema will need to address (sooner or later) in the quieter moments of our lives. (3)

While I am it, it is a crying shame how the Cantrills are taken for granted in our information-saturated era. Surely in Melbourne of all places – how about it ACMI? – there should be a properly curated retrospective of their films? Not a tokenistic curatorial effort, but something that adequately takes in full measure the filmic and cultural importance of their singularly impressive oeuvre. A fair few of my students afterwards expressed their delight in seeing their wondrous films.

Back to the term “underground” and its various mixed signals. The festival’s invocation of the adjective vividly, for me, connoted the term as meant by Manny Farber, when he championed certain “action cinema” directors of the 1940s and 1950s that formed an “underground” category of sorts. It also suggested the term as it was used to describe American avant-garde cinema of the 1960s – a term that is often used interchangeably to describe also so-called independent “New American Cinema” (viz. John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, etc). And finally, it can also be deployed to characterise the underground “midnight movies” of the 1960s and 1970s.

However, aside from Albie Thoms’ first night observation, that seeing his UBU friends from the past, was reminiscent for him of an Anzac Day celebration: having the UBU crowd there with the Cantrills was a welcome thing for so many different reasons, not least as a necessary curatorial strategy in our familiar zeitgeist of cultural amnesia.

Also, the UBU group – named after the famous French pataphysician Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, an indispensible precursor to the Absurdist, Dada and Surrealist movements of the historic avant-garde – not only created films but it also staged “live” multimedia happenings (à la Alan Kaprow) and expanded cinema productions. All of these critical efforts of the UBU group have fed into our local histories of installation art, video and multimedia experimentation.

As for the overall film programming, I need to observe, that it was noticeably uneven in its selection of films. Also, there was a propensity to program films – both locally and internationally – that, let us say, significantly focus on psycho-sexual themes that would have enchanted the legendary “mytho-poetic” Parker Tyler back in the 1960s!

Nevertheless, the important point of the event was abundantly clear, arguably, to its appreciative spectators that such a festival deserves to be continued in the future. There is a dramatic programming thirst in our society for this type of a film festival. As I write this report, there is also serious consideration afoot to stage yet another film festival at the refurbished CarriageWorks complex at Redfern where the old Eveleigh railway shops were once located.

This mooted film festival is being promoted by the curator, filmmaker and critic Megan Spencer, who gave a talk at the Sydney College of the Arts on the history and transgressive poetics of “underground” film documentaries. Spencer questions the validity of using the term “underground” in the context of documentary films in this era of digital distribution.

The other person who spoke at the college was the prolific popular author of numerous books on underground film and culture, including the beat cinema of the 1950s, Jack Sargeant, who discussed hardcore pornography. Sargent’s far-ranging and quick-witted talk based on his interdisciplinary encyclopaedic knowledge of film, popular culture, and cultural criticism and theory, suggests someone who is a fertile cartographer engaged in mapping out new territories to explore.

Now let us look at some of the films that were screened over the four days at the Factory Theatre and that come readily to my mind. At best, given the brevity of my festival report, I can only scope certain films and discuss them here.

Paul Winkler’s aptly named Pop Kitsch (2006), premiered at the festival. The film’s deftly crafted satirical look at the prominence that cheap novelties play in our everyday culture is central to its vivid rotating textual surfaces and humorous, self-reflexive thematic concerns. In its overall 18 minutes of filmic virtuosity it evoked for me the rich legacy of the structuralist/’materialist genre of avant-garde cinema (Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice, Hollis Frampton, Kurt Kren, etc). Characteristically, Winkler’s dazzling special effects are all in-camera effects.

During the festival and the few days afterwards when the Cantrills showed a selection of their films at the Sydney College of the Arts, I got to talk to Paul about his early days as a filmmaker in the context of Sydney in the 1960s and the Sydney Push (the libertarian group of artists, academics, writers and filmmakers of the 1950s and ‘60s). He described that era as being tough years when to make an experimental or avant-garde film was to constantly go against the grain of our mainstream culture, the hegemony of Hollywood cinema and European art cinema and, lastly but not insignificantly, xenophobia. The UBU group and the Sydney Push, for him, were two islands where one’s dreams could be nurtured providing one had constant self-belief in their own imagination and drive.

Dingbats

David Perry’s Dingbats (2007) is an engaging and improvised collage film – continuing Perry’s innovative role as an avant-garde filmmaker and a pioneering video artist in this country – that illustrates his multifaceted formal, technical and stylistic imagination and improvised “essayistic” wit. Like most of his past seminal films, it demonstrates his playful, free-wheeling experimental cinematic poetry that is in dialogue with cinematic modernism, painting, photography and video. Dingbats is a fine persuasive testament to the filmmaker’s supple capacity to utilise Photoshop, Premiere and other computer-related software to make a work that is not technocratically driven.

Albie Thoms’ Man and His World (1966) is an atmospheric and witty rendition of the contemporary world that is actually a one-second image which has been expanded to fifty seconds of captivating, rapidly changing split-screen images. It is a bold and stimulating exercise in colour and split-screen image manipulation. In a critical sense, it echoes the popular use of split-screen cinematography in mainstream narrative cinema of the 1960s and the 1970s.

Moon Virility, which was made in the following year, is a two-minute hand-made film that explores, in a collage structure which is brilliantly coloured and playful in its overall textuality, the visual and sonic implications of drawing on clear film stock that has an existing accompanying (found) soundtrack. Poem 25 (1965), a free-flowing handmade animated rendition of a Kurt Schwitters’s poem, is a markedly intriguing collaborative effort between the film’s director, Thoms, and its animator, David Perry.

The talented local filmmaker and film theorist, Mahmoud Yekta, whose agit-prop political film Slogun (2007), won a prize at the festival, once again demonstrates, for me, his searching experimental and poetic theoretical imagination as an image-maker. He is a self-reflexive poet who constantly interrogates the aesthetic and political possibilities of the cinematic medium. Yekta’s three-minute film is an exemplary lesson in audio-visual formal brevity and speculative political poetry. Yekta is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Australia today.

Soda Jerk’s incisive and humorous Picnic At Wolf Creek (2006) is a narrative remix of the recent same-named Australian horror movie, and it refreshingly samples numerous iconic Australian film and music sources. Soda Jerk’s multilayered satirical dig at our contemporary cherished icons of popular film and music unearths what really happened on that fateful day at Hanging Rock in 1900 when a group of picnicking school girls vanished.

David Lynch’s early short five-minute film, the graphically-named and -photographed The Amputee (1974) is a classic compressed catalogue of the filmmaker’s distinctive “Norman Rockwell” brand of popular American surrealism. Its underlying Bataillean current is central to the filmmaker’s dark labyrinthine imagination.

The other Lynch film, the more recent Out Yonder – Neighbour Boy (2001), was an Australian premiere screening. David Lynch himself is the film’s central figure, dressed in a homeless bum apparel – including a beanie – sitting down in a deckchair and delivering a meandering country “yokel” stream-of-conscious monologue to a rather fixed camera. Here we have the familiar Lynchian existential outlook on life, with its surreal Pinteresque inflections, that speaks of the director’s distinctive black comedic thematic preoccupations.

One of the more problematic films of the festival was the much heralded black-and-white Beckettian-inspired Irish film, The Tin Can Man (2006), directed by Ivan Kavanagh. It is a work – despite its dramaturgical and stylistic grotesqueries – that endeavours to examine the absurdist dimensions of sadomasochism but it simply was uncomfortably too long in its duration.

In the political thematic category “manufacturing dissent”, Gary Null’s horrorifying polemic Gulf War Syndrome: Killing Our Own (2007), catalogued the rhetorical lies and manipulations of the present Bush administration apropos of the war in Iraq and its emerging Gulf War Syndrome. It is political film, pamphleteering an incisive and persuasive order, one made in the spirit of the best American tradition of investigative journalism since the 1920s.

One of the other high points of the festival was the Stimmung-drenched chiaroscuro meditation on the environment, Highwater Triology (2006), directed by Bill Morrison. It is a cine-poem of archival images from 1920s newsreels of raging storms, icebergs and floods that resonate for today’s viewer the ongoing climate change disasters of our planet.

Peggy Ahwesh’s evocative, optically printed The Colour of Love (1994) is a nine-minute shimmering fantasia of found ‘70s adult film footage that posits the key notion that our brain is our largest pleasurable sex organ. The film’s chemical “rot” textuality acts like an engulfing censoring agency on the ‘70s found vintage adult iconography.

Abigail Child’s Mirror World (2006) is quite a disturbing, funny and subversive deconstructive narrative examination of sex and class centred around the idea of a maid becoming a queen and vice-versa. Child’s inventive use of optical printing is put to imaginative use in questioning our customary perceptions of the world.

Finally, I wish to say a few words about three Australian works which should be signalled out for their relative aesthetic and technical merits.

Dirk De Bruyn’s eleven-minute RemmbrME (2007) is a visually engaging film that documents in a painterly fashion the numerous gaps and intersections between analogue and digital moving image manipulation. RemmbrME is a work that critically focuses on the re-shaping of the lost material that is germane to a basic cameraless direct-on-film practice and resonates important ideas concerning the increasing fusion between analogue and digital image-making in our everyday culture.

Postscript

John Gillies’ exquisitely constructed black-and-white video, Postscript (2005) is a three-minute cinematic meditation on Australian landscape that functions also – as its title suggests – as a postscript to Gillies’s notable 2004 piece Divide. Gillies’ work centres in its conceptual and formal architecture on the elaborate intersection that has existed between the cinema and video during the last forty-odd years.

Geoff Weary’s 2006 digital film, Captive, is an eleven-minute subtle atmospheric exploration of the filmmaker’s continuing exploration of cultural identity, private and public history and memory. At the centre of this work’s multilayered ghostly reworking of an old newsreel film is the historical and iconic importance of the Berlin Wall in the context of recent European history.

What needs to be pointed out with this festival is how it was produced on sheer dedication and voluntarism. Underlying its imaginative curatorial and polemical vision, the festival has unequivocally tapped into a potential cultural seam in our community that deserves to be excavated into the future. Our relative state and federal funding agencies need to take notice of how there are numerous niche film sub-cultures that the more conventional film festivals are not adequately addressing in their selections of films.

What I am saying is not really new; for numerous years now, film and media critics and scholars, curators, filmmakers, and generally speaking, cinephiles of all generations, have realised the increasing importance of the fragmentation of our audio-visual culture that is taking place nowadays needs to be nurtured by all of us who care for the evolving adventure of the cinema. What this requires, more than ever, is the realisation that we need to engage ourselves in the continuing conversation between the past, the present and the future.

The great Mexican critic and poet Octavio Paz, was speaking of poetry, but I sincerely believe his words also apply to most of our art forms, including cinema, when he said: “… poetry is the other voice. Its voice is other, because it is the voice of passions and visions. It is otherworldly and this-worldly, of days long gone and of this very day, an antiquity without dates.” (4)

Sydney Underground Film Festival website: http://www.suff.com.au

Endnotes

  1. On this important subject refer to the following two essential books: Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum (eds), Movie Mutations, BFI, London, 2003; and Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (eds), Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2005.
  2. On the complex arguments concerning the differences between how mainstream cinema is time-based and puts a higher value on communication than expression as you find in avant-garde cinema, see the valuable interview between Andrew Sarris and Tom Gunning in David James’s excellent anthology of essays on Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, To Free the Cinema, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 62–82.
  3. Corinne’s observations on how art is generally over-valued in our culture were also echoed by Clive James when he recently gave a talk at the Sydney Opera House dealing with his new book Cultural Amnesia (2007) amongst other topics. For Nietzsche’s quote see his great essay on how one’s use of the past needs to be used to open up the present, “On the Utility and Liability of History for Life”. For a fine, nuanced examination of Nietzsche’s untimely meditations on art, history and life apropos the future of the humanities see William Paulson, Literary Culture in A World Transformed, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2001. Paulson’s books, on the whole, which focus on the intricate connections between literature and the media arts, have had a significant impact on my views of this important matter.
  4. For Paz’s resonant words on how we would benefit from placing the ancients next to the moderns in a given art form, is something that has also been emphasised by the French philosopher Michel Serres, and the Greek modernist filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos. Paz’s words are quoted in Paulson, ibid., p. 147. The original Paz source is Octavio Paz, The Other Voice, trns: Helen Lane, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1991, pp. 150–151.