A Song of Ceylon

Laleen Jayamanne’s Toward Cinema and Its Double: Cross-Cultural Mimesis (Indiana University Press, 2001) was launched by Meaghan Morris on 5 April at Gleebooks in Sydney. Therese Davis caught up with Laleen the following day and spoke with her about the context of the writing of the book: Australian film culture, cinema studies in Australia, and the future of academic writing on film.

Therese Davis: In the introduction to your book, you state quite emphatically: “this is a book of film criticism, nothing but film criticism”. This seems to be something of a challenge to contemporary practices of academic writing about film. Could you comment?

Laleen Jayamanne: Yes, there is an implicit polemic there, addressed really to the American academy, as my book is published in the United States. It’s something I’ve spoken of before in the book on The Good Woman of Bangkok. (1) In my section of that book I say that film studies has opened up a huge gap between film criticism and academic, theoretical writing on film. I think the gap is not a healthy situation. Not healthy especially for academic work, because it becomes much too hermetic and talks only to itself. This is a shame because film criticism existed before the institutionalisation of film studies. It’s a rich discourse. It’s got a history. It’s linked to various volatile public cultures. And I was painfully aware of this gap in the Anglo-American situation, whereas in France there is an academic culture and still a very powerful film culture. In Australia, for well over a decade, there has been some pretty exciting writing and I am a beneficiary of this. Adrian Martin is the exemplary figure here, developing the possibilities opened up by Meaghan Morris in the ’70s in her journalistic practice for the Herald and the Financial Review. Not every one can speak across media and different institutions as Martin and Morris can with intellectual rigour, accessibility and a sense of humour and relevance. I find the Australian academic film writing of people like Jodi Brooks, George Kouvaros, Adrian Martin, Meaghan Morris, Sam Rohdie, Bill Routt, Anne Rutherford and Lesley Stern, among others, enormously exciting. They don’t come out of an academic machine. Their writing is singular and as such can speak to film with greater flexibility.

TD: Are you also commenting on the kinds of changes that have occurred in the academy in terms of the way film is studied? For example, the way film is approached in cultural studies, particularly in Australia?

LJ: The first move was within film studies itself. If you look at the massive volume of work published, mostly in America and Britain, the writing is primarily theoretical. Film studies established itself, legitimated itself, as a theoretical discourse. Now this is special. English literature didn’t have to do that in the early twentieth century. None of the older disciplines had to legitimate themselves theoretically. Film studies comes very late to the academy. It’s a mid ’70s discourse. The object of film was thought not to be amenable to academic study. It’s not like a book. It’s a fleeting object. It seemed ephemeral. So people who wanted to study it had to legitimate it, and theory was used to do so. It was a strategic move. But then that move, which was enabling a particular moment, became, I think, disabling, because theory came to colonize the object.

So, firstly there are problems within the field and then, secondly, yes, it’s because cultural studies, particularly in Australia, has taken over cinema studies in an institutional sense. For example, UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) had one of the best, most vibrant film programs, starting in the mid ’70s. It has become non-existent. It’s much more cultural studies now, I gather. We no longer have a professional organization like the Australian Screen Studies Association. We don’t have a journal like the Australian Journal of Screen Theory, nor annual conferences. And we don’t have a community – its very fragmented. So we have to link up with cultural studies because that is the discipline with the numbers, the resources to hold annual national conferences. The last Cultural Studies Association conference, for example, was really good because it had sections on philosophy and on cinema. So I think there is now something of a rapprochement of a certain kind.

And then there is the polemic against cultural studies: that for them the film object doesn’t matter at all, that what they have to say is already known and that film is just an illustration, that they don’t really see the film. But this is such a vast generalisation because there are people working in cultural studies whose work I value enormously. For example, I learnt a lot from Bruce Robbins who spoke about The Silence of the Lambs in terms of mentorship … Clearly Meaghan Morris’s writing on film is immensely instructive because she sees the image as a challenge to thought. So I feel we can’t be precious in saying people in cultural studies have nothing to tell us.

TD: Your particular method of approaching or, “encountering” film, as you say in your book, is based on the concept of mimesis. As you explain in the book, you are not using this term in the Platonic sense of imitation but rather, following Adorno and Benjamin, you take it to be a transformative procedure. For me, the term “play” is most relevant. I particularly like the way in which your approach to film involves creating various positions. This process has nothing to do with a construction of you as the critic, but, as I understand it, the creation of fictional positions or invented figures, such as ‘the improviser’, ‘the academic detective or investigator’, ‘the interviewer’, ‘the little girl’. Would you like to discuss the development of mimetic playfulness as a critical strategy in your work?

LJ: Thankyou for that formulation. You draw out these dramatic personae that I am not always conscious of … Yes, it’s like you do have to invent yourself each time, for each film is different.. And if you go with those solid personae of the ‘knowing critic’, well, hell, that’s such a killjoy position. A lot of people with a strong critical super-ego go with that mask. I’m well aware of my own tendency to become the Knowing Critic. But I also want to undo that. And the way to do that is to invent some kind of figure that I’m not always aware of. Until you pulled out these figures just now I wasn’t aware that I have these clusters, these friends or costumes. You know the minute you put on a different set of clothes or shoes you behave differently, you walk differently. And this procedure, I think, gives you a bit of suppleness to respond to the film. We’re not supple enough with what we are given in film. And film endlessly gives us amazing moments. Even in the most woeful Sri-Lankan film, which you can hardly see because the film is so badly lit and badly acted, you know, just bad technology, there are moments that are just amazing. One has to be able to go beyond saying that this is a bad Sri-Lankan film. So these personae are not so much positions, but what Deleuze calls “conceptual personae”. For someone like myself, whose background is in theatre, this idea of conceptual personae is found in the idea of mimetic play – the wonderful Adorno/Benjamin idea, translated brilliantly for me by Michael Taussig.

TD: It’s this inventiveness that I would like to recommend to students. Not as a method, but as a kind of anti-method. Do you see it that way?

LJ: Yes, I would insist it’s like an anti-method because you can’t have a repeated method in these terms. The object is different; therefore you’re obliged to respond to it by inventing a way of encountering it. This relates to my idea of description. You can ask students to write a description of the same film sequence – an exercise I do – and no two will be alike. You think, how boring is this? I insist each one be exact, not fanciful. And yet, each student sees something differently, describes differently. In this exercise they become more conscious of their prose. So it’s an anti- method in that you give certain guidelines, but you’re not cloning. I’d hate to see students becoming my clones. That’s the tendency in theory fetishism – you master a certain vocabulary, then you apply it. There’s no risk in that. There’s no sense of the moment where you don’t know what this film’s doing and try and work it out … it’s like Chaplin with a teaspoon or a doorway. What does he do? A hundred things! Not all of us can be Chaplin, but at least we can learn something from him in terms of our relationship to cinema and to our writing.

TD: Another thing I like about your book is your awareness and consideration of the reader. The reader is often directly addressed. Could you discuss this aspect of writing?

LJ: If I have addressed the reader it is because some of these pieces began as talks. When you talk, it’s not like writing – you are facing the audience. And also because of my interest in the vernacular, an idea I got from Meaghan Morris. The performative moment of the I/You, that shifting relation, is very important to me. I’m interested in the speaking voice and its various registers. I love the formality of giving papers and how you can play with that situation. And when I’m writing I always hear my speaking voice. The memory of the talk is with me, so there’s always a conversational tone.

TD: It seems to me that this kind of performativeness or dialogical approach is also part of the way in which your book challenges many of the contemporary ways of thinking about culture and identity, in particular, the way in which your work challenges dominant modes of cross-cultural interpretation that assume a fixed identity.

LJ: In a sense there is a kind of biographical thread there, almost imperceptible but nevertheless important for me. And that biographical thread is about crossing cinematic cultures from childhood, but also geographical ones. So just to take the idea of the voice again – it’s like hearing my own voice and hearing its transformations through different languages. That is, the different Anglo cultures I’ve lived in – Sri Lanka, America, Australia, and some familiarity with Britain. One hears the changes to one’s voice speaking English, which was my second language, but became my first language while still living in Sri Lanka, (so it’s only partly related to migration.) When you hear these transformations that are so palpable, you don’t need to be told that identity is not fixed, and when working with Taussig’s take on mimesis as he locates it in the colonial moment, it is impossible to accept the solid identities imposed by identity politics.

TD: We’ve been talking about your project in terms of film criticism. When I was reading the book, I was also reminded of your film practice. Could you discuss how these two aspects of your work come together in the context of Australian film culture?

LJ: You know when you write a blurb you can’t say “I was a filmmaker”. Publishers won’t accept it. You can’t say, “I’ve made three films and two videos.” I don’t really think of myself as a filmmaker anymore, but convention dictates that you put these things in the present tense.

I made those films with a group of amazing, knowledgeable, generous and imaginative people who came out of UTS (the Communications degree) – people like Andrew Plain, who is now a big time sound designer for Hollywood and Australian films, Adrian Parr who is a wonderful independent producer, Anne Rutherford, who writes some of the best criticism I know of, Gabriel Finanne, who has made some wonderful films, just to mention those four people who were the cinematographers AND producer of A Song of Ceylon. Making the film was just a way of extending our dissatisfaction with film theory at the time, to see what we could do with cinema. And at that time – the ’70s and ’80s – Australian film culture was very rich. There was a much more fluid movement between the academy and the various public venues and forums, which helped our thinking and our writing. And if there is some difference between Anglo-American academic film writing and Australian academic film writing, I think, it’s that emphasis on the vernacular in the latter. I think someone with an interest in cinema can pick up one of our books and read it, maybe not cover to cover, but read some of the things and enjoy it.

TD: Yes, and I really enjoyed thinking about that history of Sydney film culture when I was reading your book. But at the launch in Sydney where so many people from that period attended I also felt this sense of loss. I was thinking about the shifts and dislocations that have occurred: a loss of independent cinema, a relocation of that film culture to Melbourne …

LJ: I’m not sure that it’s re-located. You know when I said Sydney film culture, it was actually Australia wide, because of Filmnews. That was the amazing thing about Filmnews under Tina Kaufman’s editorship. A lot of Melbourne people wrote for it; everyone, I think, in those days read this journal, including the people in the industry. That’s totally amazing. But I think the period of independent cinema and that general culture seems to have finished everywhere. Now with Senses of Cinema in Melbourne there is a place where you can publish serious criticism of world cinema, which we could never do before. With Filmnews we did much more local stuff, with reviews of foreign films shown in Australia. Senses of Cinema takes the place of a proper academic journal, a bit like Cahiers du cinéma. So certainly that’s a period that’s finished. I’m not a good cultural historian, people should read Barrett Hodsdon’s new book to get a better sense of that period. (2) And it’s not that I’m nostalgic for that period. I’m immensely appreciative of what’s happening in Melbourne. The Cinémathèque, the fact that people can write long articles on Bresson. There’s such a range of things happening! And I’m really jealous.

TD: Yes, I guess it was envy I was feeling, being so far from the action. But also a concern about cuts to film programs in universities and so on. What are your thoughts on the future of academic film writing in this country?

LJ: You know when cinema studies started in the mid to late ’70s it was a very important event for Australia, for the academy. Because it was a pioneering field we took over the curriculum, which was developed in Britain and America. The centre of gravity was Britain. And that period, which is very easy to criticise now, was very important. We all grew up in that period. But 25 years or more after that period, starting from the late ’80s and through the ’90s, Australian cinema studies has come into its own. People have gradually had the confidence to take a distance from the received curriculum and develop our own curriculum. We have our critics, our own mode of writing, hence the vernacular mode of writing. I feel the decolonising of the discipline has been happening for a while, through the contribution of lots of different people. And it’s also linked to the strong relationship between the academy and the publicly funded film culture, which this country is so richly endowed with. America doesn’t have this. In America, academics are so highly professionalised – they have their own annual conferences, the whole works. I mean you write a PhD and it’s highly likely it will be published, even if it’s not such a crash-hot thesis. Whereas, here, some of our best theses will get a rejection note without the publisher even reading the proposal, and so on. But despite this disadvantage in Australia, it’s very exciting the way people here are thinking. Our community is fragmented, but across this fragmentation everyone is busy working on their projects, their books. And that’s kind of wonderful. But I think we should also be talking, exchanging more, in order to strengthen the achievements of the last three decades here. I really think that a vital way of thinking about cinema and film is happening in Australia, and not all of it within the academy. And thanks to a journal like Senses of Cinema we can tap into this.


  1. C. Berry, A. Nicholson & L. Jayamanne, The Filmmaker and the Prostitute: Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, Power Publications, Sydney, 1997
  2. Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads And Crossed Line; The Quest For Film Culture In Australia, A Bernt Porridge Group Book: Western Australia, 2001

About The Author

Therese Davis lectures in Film and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle. She is the author of The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition and Spectatorship (Intellect, 2004) and co-author with Felicity Collins of Australian Cinema After Mabo (CUP, 2004). She is currently working with Nancy Wright and Brooke Collins-Gearing on an ARC funded project on a cultural history of collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers and writers in Australia.

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