Samuel FullerBeyond Fuller (1972 Australia 23 mins)

Prod Co: Experimental Film and TV Fund of Australian Council of the Arts Prod, Dir: Barrett Hodsdon Co-Dir: Bruce Hodsdon Phot: Michael Edols Tech Assistance: Ron Williams, Peter Vile Sound: Vincent O’Donnell Assistant Camera: Peter Gailey Lighting: John Morton Grip: Peter Doig

Cast: Geoff Gardner

Context

Beyond Fuller was amongst a multiplicity of short films produced on 16mm from 1970-78 under the funding jurisdiction of the A.F.I. (several features were also produced). These films were generated from the Experimental Film Fund (EFF), which was part of a three-tier program of federal intervention introduced by the Gorton Coalition Government. It was the first move to kick start a domestic film industry, at the beginning of a surge in cultural nationalism, by providing a material base for local expressivity across the arts. The other prongs of this initial intervention were the establishment of a film school, Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS, 1973), and a film bank, the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC, 1970), to back feature films and TV programs.

The EFF was supposedly intended to disseminate its films through conventional cinema and TV channels, but the barriers to distribution and exhibition were substantial, and thus the Federal Government was faced with supporting alternative networks, hence the small enclaves that provided an audience for these films.

Thus the EFF was instrumental in opening up new opportunities and paths for would be filmmakers where none had previously existed. It allowed an expressive outlet across the spectrum of filmmaking from conventional narratives to self-conscious art-house works to uncompromising avant-garde exploration – formalist and otherwise.

Up to several hundred films were made with the support of the EFF over 8 years, an organization that was meant to run in tandem with large scale feature film funding. Beyond Fuller was one of the rare instances of an EFF film which had explicit cinephiliac preoccupations, and was linked to a growing international community of cinephiles derived from auteur criticism. But this did not prompt the original idea of the film. Indeed, the film was conceived as an essay on violence inserted into a contemplative psychodrama.

Project Trigger and Intent

In retrospect, Beyond Fuller stands out as a cinephiliac essay from the early phase of the Australian film revival at the beginning of the 1970s. Although arising out of an auteurist cinephile background, specifically myself and my brother Bruce who ran the Sydney University Film Group (SUFG) from the mid ’60s, the film garnered little currency or attention at the time. In a few short years this phase of cinephile passions surrendered to a new set of cultural and filmmaking agendas which were seized upon by the new Australian cinema. At this point, feature films were still few and far between and the cultural nationalist agenda was not far away.

Beyond Fuller was instigated by a desire to explore contrasting images of violence and death: those that had been developed by the Hollywood gangster film over several decades as well as the horrific images that came through TV newscasts from the Vietnam War and which became emblematic of it. In relation to the latter, several images stood out – the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk (vide Ingmar Bergman’s Persona [1966]), the police chief’s shooting of a Vietcong prisoner (vide Beyond Fuller), and the naked Vietnamese girl fleeing from a Napalm strike on her village. What started as a small-scale meditative film essay was inserted into a psychodrama through a character’s image fetishism. Via the restrictive psychodrama framework, the film was able to explore different levels of imagistic violence with its two archival segments as the film’s polarities.

Until the 1970s, the stylised and ritualised treatment of violence and death was central to the gangster film, frequently culminating in the death run of the gangster himself – here attenuated with great poetic intensity by Samuel Fuller in Underworld, U.S.A. (1961). Certainly, the film was a Fuller tour-de-force – a low budget gangster film revivalist work, working with conventional material – demonstrating the virtuosity and dynamism Fuller could inject into the genre with little fanfare.

The intent of Beyond Fuller was to juxtapose the romantic tradition of gangster self-annihilation with the casual, impassive imposition of killing ingrained in contemporary war reportage, in this case of the Vietnam War (i.e. violence as an everyday and arbitrary monstrosity).

The film’s approach to cinematic experience is crystallised in the cinephilia of solitude before the image which is further abstracted in the still showing Tolly Devlin (Cliff Robertson) towards the end of his death-throes from Underworld, U.S.A. The central character has surrounded himself with images of violence which promote an abstract sense of artificial aggression, converted into the head space of the imaginary realm of the character played by Geoff Gardner, in contrast to the indelible recorded reality truths of the Vietcong prisoner’s shooting.

Thus the planes of representational violence in Beyond Fuller were illustrative of different levels of graphic depiction that were partially interiorised by the central character. The cinephile dimension of Beyond Fuller seems more significant in retrospect, given that obsessional film fetishism at the time only existed in some cultural enclaves, especially around film societies (like several university groups – see my essay in Straight Roads and Crossed Lines (1)). However the no budget filmmaking model of the 1960s, illustrated by MUFS (Melbourne University Film Society), was more enamoured with the nouvelle vague cum cinéma vérité model of performance, improvisation and spontaneity rather than rigorous, relentless formalism. It is this latter attribute that drove the pre-planned approach to Beyond Fuller (a la Hitchcock, Bergman, and Bresson). Given my inexperience as a filmmaker, the professional skills of Michael Edols were invaluable in striving for technical perfection on a shot-for-shot basis, even though he was not empathetic to the subject of the film.

The reflexive aspect of Beyond Fuller was diminished by the failure to obtain a reverse shot of the screen for the ending of Underworld, U.S.A., as the lighting levels were inadequate; but in hindsight it could have been a process shot.

Also, it is relevant to note that Beyond Fuller was made around the same time as George Miller’s Violence in the Cinema Part 1 (1972) (which helped launch his career), which garnered some sensational publicity for its out-there treatment of violent spectacle. The difference between Miller’s film and Beyond Fuller is one of chalk and cheese. The former has the air of a flippant, satiric gag structure, whereas Beyond Fuller was conceived as a serious interrogation of representational violence and its aesthetic dimensions.

At the time the film was made, I had contact with Fuller who was happy about the use of the extract but had no control over the rights. But there was no problem with Columbia Pictures in terms of print availability and rights penalties for a film the company obviously saw as commercially marginal.

Fuller as a Changing Reference Point

It is interesting to chart the trajectory of Fuller as a cult director over the decades. It was much more adventurous to advocate the formal virtues of Fuller in the ’60s than it is today, when Cahiers du Cinéma’s proselytisation of his work was seen as risqué to journals like Positif and Sight and Sound. Whereas directors like Anthony Mann, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor have receded into auteur critical history (let alone Frank Borzage and John Stahl), Fuller and Douglas Sirk have become enshrined and emblematic as refined contributors to pulp and kitsch culture. The enduring nature of the latter’s reputations was not foreseen at the time, and there were film buffs and critics who considered the sensibilities of these filmmakers as problematic, even ideologically suspect, by misreading their movies.

While Fuller’s career was subject to a dramatic down-turn from the late ’60s onwards, he became a cult personality in his own right by virtue of the aura bestowed upon him by such admired art-house directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders, and later Aki Kaurismäki and Quentin Tarantino. Moreover, Fuller’s extrovert and charismatic personality never deserted him in his frequent guest appearances. He became a totemic version of the romanticised maverick.

The aesthetic reference point to Fuller’s work in Beyond Fuller, as a great reservoir of linear dramatic energy in the American cinema, albeit a contradictory one (cf. Raoul Walsh and King Vidor), was not fully accepted then as it is today. Yet, the narrative dramatic energy expended by Fuller in his movies is of such a special, poetic kind that it brings into question the extravagant spectacle of pyro-technical energy displayed by today’s banner-line Hollywood filmmakers – from Steven Spielberg to James Cameron, from David Fincher to Michael Bay.

Endnotes

  1. Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: The Quest for Film Culture in Australia from the 1960s, Bernt Porridge, Sydney, 2001.
  2. For additional commentary on Beyond Fuller see Bruce Hodsdon, Cantrills Filmnotes no. 14-15, August 1973, pp. 11-18; Adrian Martin, “Indefinite Objects”, Australian Screen, ed. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, Penguin, 1989, p. 187.

About The Author

Barrett Hodsdon has a long history with local film culture, through research, teaching and writing, starting with University film societies in the 1960s. He published a book on Australian film culture, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines, and is currently completing a book on the history of auteur criticism.