Albie Thoms at the Sydney Underground Film Festival

One of the last things Albie Thoms did before he died late last year was organise a launch party for the book he was rushing to finish and see published. It was to be a big event, at Paddington Town Hall, which had seen many of the concerts and light shows Albie and others had been involved in in the ’60s and ’70s; there were to be some ’60s bands and a recreated light show. The book, his memoir of the ’60s entitled My Generation, was originally intended to be the first in a series on consecutive decades, but now it’s the only one. He was looking forward to the event; “it’ll be like a wake”, he told me gleefully, “but I’ll be there”. When I told him that Robert Duvall had already made a movie with that premise (Get Low, Aaron Schneider, 2009), he muttered, “trust the movies to get there first!” (1)

Well, it did become a wake, as Albie died only weeks before, but it was also very much a celebration of his life and work. Hundreds of people, from all stages of his life, crowded into the vast expanse of the Paddo Town Hall, mixing and mingling enthusiastically, often encountering others they hadn’t seen for years. Against a continuing screening of his early films, and a selection of other work, a roving microphone went around the huge room, eliciting short, heartfelt tributes, longer personal stories, and even one quickly shouted-down complaint. There were remembrances from family, with his daughter Lara Thoms saying, “Dad had us in his 40s, which allowed him to move from avant-garde filmmaker to radical suburban parent without too many people noticing… He always promoted himself as an anarchist, which drew opposing opinions in leafy Mosman.” His cousin, Frank Arnold, told us something that not many people knew, that Albie had been a good athlete and especially a runner at school, and it was there that he was first called Albie, after the well-known runner Albie Thomas who had competed at the 1956 Olympics. The name obviously stuck, with none of the stories and obituaries that followed his death using any name other than Albie Thoms. Phil Jarratt, writer and one of the editors of iconic surf magazine Tracks, talked of Albie’s love of surfing (“for the spectacle, I think”), and of working with him on the book and the documentary, both entitled Surfmovies.

But of course the filmmakers did most of the talking. After David Perry’s tribute, which talked about the pair’s early meeting, starting Ubu, and their lifelong friendship, many others took the mike. Gillian Armstrong told how, new to Sydney,

I heard about the Filmmakers Co-op. I’d heard that on Sunday nights they would run your film, so I took my little film up these little stairs and I was incredibly nervous; I didn’t know anyone. After the film finished, two people turned around and said… something wonderful. The two were Albie Thoms and Jane Oehr… and Albie and I became very close friends.

Antoinette Starkiewicz, who as a student first met Albie at the Yellow House in 1970, where he encouraged her to keep going with her animation, went to the Australian Film Commission in 1976, when Albie was a Project Officer. Starkiewicz said she took

a storyboard for an animation named Pussy Pumps Up. “How much do you need?” he asked. “What do you have?” said I. “$10,000”, he answered. “I’ll take it!” (I was thrilled). Pussy Pumps Up, my first Australian film, won the inaugural AFI Award for Best Animated Film in 1980, paved the way for other Australian animators, and greatly raised the profile of animation in our country. Not only I, but all Australian animators thank Albie Thoms very much.

John Flaus, who’d come from Melbourne by train that afternoon (and would return early the next morning – “How could I not come?”), said that he firmly believed that if he was to be remembered for anything, it would be for being part of a great film, Palm Beach (1980). Bryan Brown talked about how Albie introduced him to low budget filmmaking at screenings at the Co-op Cinema; he then acted in quite a few, including, of course, Palm Beach (“his great film!” he agreed.). “I’ve moved into a different sort of filmmaking now, and the money is better – but the excitement isn’t”, he lamented.

The shortcomings of the Town Hall’s acoustics (bringing back memories of long ago decisions not to use that lovely space for anything that needed to be heard properly, despite its excellent location), meant that the lengthy and obviously heartfelt address by producer Jan Chapman, as she launched Albie’s book, was effectively lost on the by now rather boisterous throng. The musicians, of course, had no such problems, and Albie’s promised ’60s music and accompanying light show sprang into action to finish the evening, just as Albie would have wanted it.

People face death in different ways, but Albie, who died after a long bout with cancer, set what should be an example to us all. He finished My Generation, his memoir of the ’60s, and was closely involved in its publication, chasing up photos, supervising all the details; he was also involved in the production of the Ubu Films DVDS, and he organised all his remaining documentation to be lodged with the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), where most of his films and related materials had been deposited over the years. As Lara Thoms said, “Dad was still working on his book at his computer on the day that he died”.

Albie Thoms and Sue Howe, 1965 (Photo: Aggy Read)

I first met Albie in the early ’60s in what was an exciting social mix of people involved in all sorts of creative activity, from art to publishing, from acting to music, and the very early stirrings of filmmaking. Several friends were involved with showing American surf movies in halls and surf clubs up and down the coast, and soon started talking about making their own films; other friends were working at the ABC and the Commonwealth Film Unit (later to become Film Australia), and were also venturing into filmmaking. Albie started through his theatre work at Sydney University, and soon, with David Perry, Aggy Read and John Clark, he was not only making films, but getting Ubu Films established and with it the beginnings of Sydney’s small but active underground film movement. At the time we all lived in large shared houses; in one in Paddington Albie would screen experimental films in the very large front room – I still remember, vividly, him screening the works of George and Mike Kuchar. (Albie did have, however, a strange fondness for the films of Norman Wisdom which I found hard to understand.)

Very much influenced by what was known of the largely amateur European and US avant-garde and surrealist cinema, and using techniques that included hand-drawn animation and images and shapes produced by directly scratching the film itself, Ubu’s production over those early years was prolific, wide-ranging, and highly inventive. Film shoots seemed to be organised with a sense of immediacy, with friends called in for various roles both in front of and behind the camera, and footage was shot in the local streets and on nearby locations.

Often a challenge to the audience, some of the Ubu films were even banned and then unbanned in those exciting times when customs and the police played a major role in censorship. But a number of the films also screened at overseas festivals; as Albie said, they were taken much more seriously outside of Australia in those early years. As he told me last year, those involved in Ubu always thought they could make a successful cottage industry out of their sort of filmmaking, completely separated from the hierarchical Hollywood model.

Ubu Films became a Sydney-based independent filmmaking co-operative dedicated to making, exhibiting and distributing experimental films, and also published a regular newsletter, Ubu News.  Many young filmmakers were attracted to Ubu, going on to become members of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op which was formed in 1969; they included Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce and Bruce Beresford. When once it was only possible to see such films in people’s living rooms or at an occasional group screening in a hired cinema, through Ubu, and then through the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op, both distribution and exhibition of the growing number of short films that were being made, especially after the establishment of the Experimental Film and Television Fund in 1970, became more widespread. By the early ’70s there were a number of co-ops established Australia-wide, making over 600 films available around the country. Ubu then became the leading distributor of underground movies from overseas filmmakers, and was also involved in lightshows, happenings and alternative theatre. In 1969 Albie took his new film Marinetti overseas; he spent the next year screening the film in Europe, while also working for Oz, IT and Friends magazines in London, for the First International Underground Film Festival, the Wet Dream Film Festival and the Nederlandse Filmmakers Koop in Amsterdam.

I became editor of Filmnews, a monthly newspaper on film and related issues published by the Co-op, in 1977, and was there for 17 years. I’ve just been going back through issues from the ’70s and ’80s for a project I’m working on, and it’s been exciting to rediscover just how prolific and involved a contributor to Filmnews Albie was. As a filmmaker, a board member of the Co-op, and as a keen observer of the local scene, he wrote frequently and seriously on a range of different issues to do with the rapidly developing local production environment, on policy, on practice, and on the role and activities of different organisations and support schemes. In doing so, he would occasionally incur an enthusiastic or an angry response, to which he would reply thoughtfully, enjoying the debate.

Albie Thoms, Melbourne, 1967 (Photo: Aggy Read)

Albie made three feature films, Marinetti, inspired by the Italian futurists and which made great demands on its local audience but was far better received overseas, the experimental Sunshine City (1973), with which he toured Europe, and Palm Beach, with Bryan Brown and John Flaus, which Paul Harris of Film Buffs Forecast recently declared to be an iconic film of its time, stating “Palm Beach, with its multiple layers of overlapping dialogue bleeding from one scene into another, extended takes and loose, freewheeling , intertwined narrative structure, is a largely unrecognised  landmark of contemporary Australian cinema”.

In an interview in Filmnews on the making of the film (which had just been blown up to 35mm and was about to be shown to exhibitors), Albie explained that he’d wanted to extend the ideas and techniques of his first two features; Palm Beach, he said, was “never written as a conventional screenplay, but rather as a scenario with a very tight plot, and lots of spaces for development in the production”. Despite constant pressure to write it as a conventional screenplay, he resisted, thinking that what “you need when starting a film is a skeleton, a strong centre that the film is built around” (2). In Australian Film 1978-1992, Geoff Gardner wrote:

Palm Beach is a film of casual but cunning construction […] a terrible reminder that there are people of great ability who have never been able to pursue their craft in the Australian film industry, while dozens of mediocrities have had the chance to squander countless dollars and a multitude of opportunities. (3)

As Albie told me not long before he died, it had taken him five years to raise the money to make Palm Beach, and while it was well-received in some quarters, he felt that the industry despised it, and from then on he was never able to raise the money to make another feature. As he said, “you really only succeed when there’s a critic brave enough to stand up and support you”.

But he never stopped working. He was one of the directors of the very innovative ABC program GTK (Get To Know), a ten-minute pop magazine run before the 7pm news on ABC television from Monday to Thursday each week between 1969 and 1974 (superseded by Countdown), featuring music, reviews, interviews and the latest in pop culture, often presented in quite experimental formats. He also directed episodes of Contrabandits and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo! He had a relatively short but very productive period as a project officer at the newly formed Australian Film Commission, administering the Experimental Film and Television Fund, and then went on to make television documentaries on surf movies, the history of bathing suits, Johnny O’Keefe, and the Bradman Era; he made corporate videos, and several films on art history connected to major exhibitions, of which he was particularly proud. He wrote Polemics for a New Cinema in 1978, and Surfmovies: The History of the Surf Film in Australia, an absolutely beautiful and lavishly illustrated book on the history of the surf movie genre (one of his passions), in 2000. He was involved with light shows in their heyday, and in the ’70s became a member of the famous Yellow House artists’ community in Potts Point, working with Martin Sharp, Brett Whiteley and others to create an installation that filled two large town houses. He brought some important experimental filmmakers to Australia and toured his own and other people’s films both locally and overseas, wrote for a number of different publications, including Tracks and OZ, and always loved going to the movies.

Not long before he died, I talked to him about the exciting release of the 3-disc DVD of Ubu Films, UBU – Sydney Underground Movies 1965-1970, produced earlier last year by Contemporary Arts Media, who did the remastering of the films for the DVD production, with Albie approving both the DVDs and the packaging (which he really liked). As he told me,

The DVD came about at the request of Kriszta Doczy, who advised she wanted to distribute films from the Australian avant-garde. She is the driving force behind it all. Apparently, Peter Tammer suggested she contact me, and I put her in contact with David Perry, Garry Shead and Paul Winkler, as well.

(DVDs of their work are either already released or soon to come.)

While the original materials for Ubu’s films were lost around 1970, during the changeover from Ubu to the Co-op of the distribution library, there are, however, copies of most of Ubu’s films in the NFSA, which has preserved them. The master for Bolero (1967) came from the Belgian Archive, and Albie had had Marinetti remastered some years ago. Apart from Marinetti, no work, other than cleaning, has been done to the Ubu films. The NFSA has had the original material for Palm Beach from the time it was completed and a new 35mm print was made under the Kodak/Atlab scheme. A DVD will soon be released.

Albie Thoms, The Gulag, 1999 (Photo: Peter Mudie)

In 2009 the NFSA received most of the material that became the Albie Thoms collection; it sorted, organised, catalogued and packaged more than 8000 individual works such as scripts, photographs, posters, videos, films, correspondence and papers, including those relating to Albie’s involvement with the Sydney Filmmakers’ Co-op. But he was still preparing his final NFSA deposit in his last weeks: another collection of boxes containing scripts, films, and videos of his and other people’s works. There were, he told me, “video masters of the films that people were still interested in, but also scripts and letters I had been holding on to. It also includes home movies shot by my grandfather about 1927!”

Albie may not have found that one critic brave enough to support him when Palm Beach was released, but his films have gained far more recognition and critical interest in recent years. This should only increase with the DVD release of the films and with My Generation whetting appetites for the ’60s. But, as many speakers at the Paddo Town Hall and his articles in Filmnews reminded me, he should also be remembered for his perceptive work in the development of a burgeoning local production scene, and his enthusiastic encouragement of so many filmmakers.

Endnotes

  1. Quotes throughout this article are mainly taken from the Paddington Town Hall event, from conversations with Albie in his last months, from several follow-up emails, and from a conversation with Paul Harris after Albie’s death.
  2. Thoms in Noel Purdon, “Talking to Albie Thoms, Director of Palm Beach”, Filmnews May 1979, p. 6.
  3. Geoff Gardner, “Palm Beach”, Australian Film 1978-1992, ed. Scott Murray, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, p. 65.

About The Author

Tina Kaufman was the editor of the Sydney Filmmakers Coop monthly newspaper, Filmnews for seventeen years. The newspaper covered all aspects of screen culture, policy and practice, which Tina continues to write about for various screen publications including Metro magazine and the online publication Screen Hub. A board member of the Sydney Film Festival for 25 years and a founding member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia, she is now an honorary life member of both organisations. She is also the author of Wake in Fright (Currency Press)