The Ubu Moment: An Interview with Albie Thoms Danni Zuvela July 2003 Australian Film Culture Issue 27 See the bottom of this page for a complete Albie Thoms filmography. The emergence of the Australian film underground in the 1960s is clearly associated with the central figure of Albie Thoms. The success of Ubu Films (1) and the legacy of experimental filmmaking in Australia in the 1960s can be attributed to the significant presence (2) of Thoms, who relentlessly proselytised for avant-garde filmmaking and personally engineered the development of a synergic support network for production, distribution and exhibition of films outside the industrial aegis. Thoms’ advocacy for greater recognition and support of avant-garde filmmaking was shot through with a form of cultural nationalism that regarded positively the idea of State sponsorship (3) of art. The Australian national ‘other’ cinema was a site of both passion and practice for Thoms and his Ubu comrades. Thoms’ nationalism (4) bolstered his modernist praxis in arguments for the development of funding regimes for experiments in film in the pre-institutional, pre-revival period. Through the pages of Ubunews, in other essays and in talks with screenings programs (5), Thoms championed reform and generative support for the arts in Australia. The highly visible campaigning for experimental film by Thoms and Ubu was a causal factor in the political developments that led to the formation by the Australia Council for the Arts of the Experimental Film and Television Fund (6) in 1970. However, considering this agitation, two paradoxes emerge. The first is that post-revival funding, when it did eventuate, was problematic and often out of reach for filmmakers like Thoms. The new institutional support for exploration of the film medium was bound up in subjection to commercial application – the common conceptualisation of experimental film as a laboratory for industry, rather than a legitimate, autonomous aesthetic endeavour. Thus the autotelic aspirations of many ‘filmers’ nurtured in the Ubu aesthetic hothouse were stymied, according to Thoms and others (7), by bureaucratic coercion for a viable commercial national cinema. Consequently, much of the creative potential flagged in the Ubu period never materialised into the kind of explosive experimental revolution betokened in the fertile climate of the 1960s. The second paradox in Ubu’s role in the development of bureaucratic structures is that Ubu operated as a literal ‘advance guard’ for an Australian film culture by managing a demonstrably effective, autonomous, alternative system of production, distribution and exhibition, at a time when the exiguous, subordinate state of industrial production precluded such a system. Deeply imbricated in the key arenas of organisation-building, filmmaking, and public discourse, Thoms recognised the role of celebrity in a media-dominated age (8), acting as a lightning rod and figurehead for the juncture of radical aesthetics and politics. As the prime activist and spokesperson for Ubu Films, then for the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op; as a demiurge in Australian film culture; and as an architect of the underground, Thoms’ reflections on his role in the unique historical moment of experimental cinema in the 1960s are valuable to the inquiry into Australian cinema histories. The following interview was conducted via email. – D. Z. Danni Zuvela: Historically, many avant-garde film people have come to film from other arts backgrounds, ‘lovers of cinema’ seeking communion with the international, transhistoric impulse toward ‘artists’ film. You started in experimental theatre – can you tell us a bit about that progression? Albie Thoms: In the experimental theatre I was interested in the use of non-literary elements to convey ideas – staging, lighting, sound, as well as the use of slide and film projection. For my production of “Revue of the Absurd” in 1963 I made the film It Droppeth as the Gentle Rain and for “Theatre of Cruelty” in 1965 I made Poem 25 and The Spurt of Blood. These were based on texts by Prevert, Schwitters and Artaud, all artists of the modernist avant-garde. In making these films, I was inspired by the early modernist film avant-garde, which like the early modernist theatre avant-garde, explored non-literary elements in its productions. DZ: What’s your relationship to story film? At the time, how did you personally relate to ‘narrative’? Did you see a place for narrative in experimental film, or was the project unequivocally one of getting away from ‘filmed drama’? AT: My first films were Surrealist dramas, inspired by the modernist avant-garde, and my first film for Ubu was a dramatic comedy parodying the James Bond films. I was then employed to make series for television, which gave me plenty of experience in the Hollywood mode of film narrative, so I spent my spare time exploring alternative modes of filmmaking. The continuous tracking shot of Bolero was a reaction to my television work, where scenes were broken down into brief shots, with no scene lasting longer than a minute. The handmade films also were a reaction to this work, where the film always was handled by others and no trace of the filmmaker was allowed. As a result, the impulse was to promote non-narrative filmmaking, though my experience with theatre and television also led me towards exploring alternative approaches to narrative. In Marinetti I adopted the Futurist notion of minimalisation of plot and characterisation, while employing blank verse voice-over narration as part of a sound montage. I later developed this notion of narrative through sound montage in my post-Ubu films, Sunshine City and Palm Beach. DZ: It seems to me that a lot of key avant-garde concerns converged in the lightshows that were so successful for Ubu – not only were they major revenue raisers AND an important conversation with the alternative community, they were also a unique aesthetic opportunity, an avenue to continue exploration of certain theoretical concerns in the ‘expanded cinema’ context. The abstract/handmade films, especially, seem to represent a point where cinema, theatre/performance, painting, and music coalesced – what are your thoughts on this? AT: The Ubu lightshows grew out of the happenings staged as part of “Theatre Of Cruelty.” In one of those we projected a film over an actor being disrobed as he recited a poem. The interface between moving actor and moving film image was fascinating, and recurred when we projected films over rock bands. Then the bands began reacting to the films, resulting in improvisations between musicians and lighting operators, and soon we were making films expressly for such performances, scratching and handcolouring black leader and painting onto clear leader. Eventually they were projected on the audience as well as the musicians, creating a mass performance (in one case with 4000 people) in which cinema had expanded to fill the room. DZ: The enthusiasm of those audiences suggests a different picture of Australia than the conservative, monocultural one often painted – from your experiences, how would you describe the Australian counter-culture? AT: The failure of the traditional Left to effectively challenge conservative control led to the emergence of a counter-culture aimed at achieving this end. It manifested itself in experimental theatre, folk songs, the surfing sub-culture, Oz magazine, rock music and underground movies, all appealing to young people, who formed its audience. It gained momentum from opposition to censorship and the Vietnam War, and began asserting itself in feminism and Aboriginal and gay rights, eventually becoming a mass movement for a brief period at the beginning of the 1970s. DZ: Mudie says that it is the unique emphasis on handmade films and the underlying ideology of direct participation that distinguishes the Ubu group from contemporaneous film co-operatives around the world, which may have operated in more exclusionist contexts. What can you tell us about the impulses behind Ubu’s championing of handmade films? AT: Handmade films were attractive for a number of reasons. Most significantly, they were cheap at a time when filmmaking was very expensive, and they were avenues for abstract expressionism when filmmaking was dominated by figuration and linear narrative. Additionally, they involved the physical handling of the film material, working on the thing that was projected, a direct intervention in the filmmaking process. But it was their use in lightshows that expanded their possibilities: projected onto moving surfaces and accompanied by live music, they became vehicles for expression of the spirit of the time. DZ: Can you describe that spirit? AT: It was a determined demand for change on all fronts. This meant breaking down the rules of what was correct in society and asserting new values. Hand-made films broke all the rules of what was correct in filmmaking, and captured the angst, the agitation, and the openness that was at the essence of the counter-culture. DZ: How difficult was it to make films in the 1960s in Sydney? How available was stock and processing facilities? Other underground film communities experienced, at times, laboratories acting as censors – how were your relationships to the laboratories? AT: Because of the television industry in Sydney, which used a lot of film at that time, there was no shortage of equipment or laboratory facilities. But they were expensive, as was film stock, and so we adopted cheap filmmaking methods, such as using outdated stock, shooting mute and adding sound later, or not using cameras at all. The laboratory that printed my first film reported it to the police, but thereafter we found a friendly lab that not only looked after our work, but extended credit, so we could make the films, screen them, and then pay the bills from the proceeds. DZ: Particularly with the lightshows, Ubu engineered some remarkable cross-fertilisations between artists, filmmakers, performers and audiences. However, the late ’60s/early ’70s intermedia climate sometimes produced tensions in avant-garde film circles, between those concerned with medium specificity (the avant-garde as a legitimate branch of cinema) and those interested in film as ‘just one’ of the many tools available to the artist – were there any such tensions in the Australian scene? AT: There were tensions between those who saw lightshows as an extension of filmmaking, as an art-form in its own right, and as an element of rock music performances. I opted for the integration of art and lifestyle, joining the multi-media manifestation that was the Yellow House in Sydney. But this was too hard to sustain and I retreated to a more manageable program of alternative filmmaking as part of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op. DZ: Most filmic avant-gardes are constituted with some degree of oppositionality to Hollywood, or industrial, especially narrative, modes of screen practice. But there are inter-avant-garde relations, too. Brian Frye has suggested that the British avant-garde has a “bizarrely Oedipal” relationship to the American ‘parent’ avant-garde. Given Australia’s position of dual cultural colonisation, what do you make of the relationship between Australian avant-gardes in relation to the ‘dominant’ experimental cinemas of the US and Britain? AT: Initially we were inspired by the historical European avant-garde, but the emergence of an international film avant-garde gave us confidence to continue our work. When it was screened and accepted internationally, we were able to weather the opposition of those in Australia promoting Hollywood cinema and engage in a dialogue with those in other countries doing similar work – the international underground of the time. DZ: So there was more of a sense of fraternity with international avant-gardes in the face of the (suffocating) dominant industrial discourse here in Australia? AT: The selection of our films for international festivals confirmed their worth at a time when they were dismissed by local critics and those in the film industry. And when they gained distribution through foreign film co-ops, they became part of an international movement for social change. It helped overcome the sense of isolation and inferiority that then prevailed in Australia. DZ: Aggy Read visited the US and returned with the comment that there was more equipment at the UCLA film department than in the whole of Australia – what kind of observations did you make about the Australian underground in comparison to those in the US or Europe? AT: In the USA, underground filmmaking was part of a massive movement for social change, while in Europe it was less developed and tended to exist on the fringe of the art industry. In Australia, with its film industry so undeveloped and the need for social change so urgent, we were able to make considerable impact. And when I toured Europe with Marinetti, I was able to help groups there with advice, derived from my Australian experience, on how to make greater impact with their films. DZ: Ubu initiated a number of travelling screening programs to other cities, and you had the Cantrills making films in Canberra, and some work being done in Melbourne – how fair are the criticisms that the ’60s underground was Sydney-centric? AT: When we began distributing films in 1966 we were prepared to take any that was offered to us, calling our operation the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op, because that’s where it was located. Soon we were distributing films from most Australian states as well as foreign films, and organising exhibitions of them throughout Australia. In so far as a majority of the filmmakers came from Sydney and Sydney provided the biggest audiences, it was Sydney-centric, but not by intent, or from any notion of superiority. DZ: Writing about the formation of the LFMC, David Curtis says that model the British tried to emulate was that of Anthology Film Archives in NY – was that the case here as well, or were there other impulses in play? AT: The LFMC was inspired by the New York Filmmakers Co-operative, and benefited from being given a collection of films from that co-op. Ours grew more spontaneously, to fill a gap resulting from the undeveloped nature of our film industry and the urgency of the need for social change. We later developed a relationship with the Canyon Cinema Co-op in San Francisco because its filmmakers seemed more in tune with what was happening in Australia. DZ: Ubu played a role in the development of an arts funding body, agitating, often in personal meetings, for greater support for the arts in general, and exploration of film in particular. Yet once the Australia Council for the Arts, and the Experimental Film and Television Fund were set up, somehow it didn’t seem to materialise into the kind of support for filmmakers that Ubu, at least, had envisaged. Is there a degree of irony in the fact that so much production was enabled by Ubu, yet once an institutional or bureaucratic structure emerged, many struggled to get funding? AT: The ‘market’ established by Ubu was destroyed by government intervention, which favoured very different films and ‘flooded’ the market with inferior work. Instead of co-operation, competitions were used to select films worthy of distribution and filmmakers worthy of further funding. The types of films encouraged by Ubu were marginalised as the Hollywood mode was promoted. DZ: So you would pinpoint an institutional or policy failure – at a time when government bodies in the US and Europe were providing support for production, screenings and exhibitions of experimental film, the Australian government dropped the ball? This seems like such a shame when you consider the remarkable audiences (the alternative ‘market’) that Ubu built up. AT: The determination to revive the film industry in Australia meant that the non-industrial, artisan, art-oriented approach advocated by Ubu had to be squashed. At first this resulted in the marginalisation of alternative filmmaking, with funding clearly demarking commercial entertainment for profit from film art, with the majority of funding going to the former. But when this was seen to be unprofitable, the rationale for support of film art was appropriated by the industry, and it grabbed all the funds. DZ: Ubu’s dissolution is seen as located either when you toured Marinetti overseas or when you moved back to Sydney, into the Yellow House in 1970 and the group fragmented. What happened to experimental filmmaking in Australia after that? AT: The Sydney Filmmakers Co-op was constituted as a separate legal entity in 1969 and took over the distribution and exhibition activities of Ubu. But it took a while to establish itself, and was denied government funding in this important period, when it took on responsibility for many of the new films and filmmakers resulting from government subsidy. As a consequence, experimental film was squeezed to the margins, despite the efforts of the Cantrills and others to maintain it as a significant filmmaking activity. As more and more money was made available for Hollywood-type filmmaking, experimental film was pushed to the background and almost disappeared. DZ: Looking over the body of Australian avant-garde or experimental works, do you think a national character can be identified? Is there anything uniquely or distinctly Australian about Australian experimental cinema? AT: The Australian experimental cinema of the ’60s and ’70s certainly was different from that of other countries. Much of this was due to our different circumstances, but whether it could be construed as reflecting a distinctly ‘national’ characteristic is uncertain. There certainly was an energy and a wide-ranging openness in our films that was not to be found elsewhere, reflecting the Australian counter-culture of the time, but it would be difficult to define this as a ‘national’ characteristic, especially in the light of subsequent developments. DZ: The Ubu period was, temporally and in terms of the prevailing discourse, a ‘classic’ underground epoch. Today many uses or models of ‘experimental’ as a label abound; the sense of a scientific/pseudo scientific spirit of inquiry; as a laboratory for industry, developing not just ideas or techniques but future talent; as an artistic mode of self-expression, inherently opposed to commodification; as a community of media makers united in their marginality to dominant modes of representation. What’s your take on the uses and circulation of ‘experimental’? AT: When the term ‘experimental’ was first applied to filmmaking early in the 20th century, the artform was developing and people experimented with its possibilities. These included many associated with the modernist avant-garde, who worked in a variety of media. So an ‘avant-garde’ filmmaking tradition began. Later people in this tradition worked outside the mainstream in what became known as the ‘underground,’ which for a while formed a genuine international community of ideas. But since then the notions of ‘experiment,’ ‘avant-garde’ and ‘underground’ have been distorted beyond recognition, and I am cautious about using them outside their historical context. DZ: In your writings, you refer to yourself and others in the independent film tradition as a ‘filmer’- rather than a ‘filmmaker,’ for example. I notice that other seminal avant-garde figures, such as Mekas, seems to prefer this phrase too; can you explain the significance of the term to film avant-gardes? AT: I like the term ‘filmmaker,’ as opposed to the ‘producers,’ ‘directors’ etc of the film industry. At a time when the government began asserting Hollywood notions to cover all filmmaking practice, the term ‘filmer’ seemed useful, paralleling as it does the term ‘painter,’ and suggesting a similar role. DZ: Given that experimental cinema seems to be languishing in production now, what do you make of arguments that ‘avant-garde’ is a chronologically delimited genre? What’s your opinion of Camper’s argument that the ‘avant-garde’ moment has passed, and the term now signifies little more than an aesthetic? AT: This seems to be correct. The term ‘avant-garde’ initially was associated with the socialist movement, and came to be applied to artists opposing prevailing capitalist ideologies. Today’s experimental cinema, which is most often computer-generated, has lost this impulse. DZ: You’ve had plenty of first-hand experiences with the censors – many of the films produced or distributed by Ubu, such as Aggy Read’s Boobs A Lot (1968) your own Rita and Dundi, and David Perry’s A Sketch on Abigayl’s Belly (1968), were banned for long periods. What do you make of the censorship controversy over Ken Park (Larry Clark & Edward Lachman, 2002) at the Sydney Film Festival? AT: I am opposed to all censorship. Australian film festivals have supported the government film censorship apparatus, while enjoying privileged exemption. Instead of complaining about being unable to show this film, complain instead about a system that can deny films to the wider Australian audience. Albie Thoms Filmography …it Droppeth as the Gentle Rain (1962) The Spurt of Blood (1965) Poem 25 (1965) Blunderball (1966) Man and His World (1966) Rita and Dundi (1966) The Film (1967) Showdown (1967) Bluto (1967) In Key (1967) Moon Virility (1967) The Second Bardo (1967) Tribute to America (1967) Bolero (1967) A Tripartite Adventure in Redfern (1969) David Perry (1968) Hair (1969) Marinetti (1969) Sunshine City (1973) Palm Beach (1979) Surfmovies (1981) Polygenesis (1990) Gulag (1999) Thoms has also directed numerous documentaries for Australian television, including New Australian Cinema, J.O.K. The Wild One, From Neck-To-Knee to Nude, The Bradman Era, Rock Around the World, The King of Belle Isle, Polygenesis, Bohemians in the Bush and Akai Ghost Poems, and (most recently) The King of Belle-Ile; and has written and/or directed episodes of Nice ‘n’ Juicy, Australian Playhouse, Contrabandits, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, The Australian Image, The Big Smoke, Revolt in Paradise and Snowy. Endnotes See Peter Mudie, Ubu Films: Sydney Underground Movies, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1997, for an illustrated account of the period. In contrast to other national film avant-garde groups, such as the London Filmmakers Co-op, which was constituted “without a central person or figurehead.” See Stephen Dwoskin, “Film Is…The International Free Cinema,” in The British Avant-Garde Film, 19261995: An Anthology of Writings, ed. Michael O’Pray, University of Luton Press, Luton, 1996. Like Mekas, Thoms operated as a nodal point for a national avant-garde. However, compared to the godfather of the New American Cinema, who famously polemicised against the imposition of funding (“Let our art be free of all sponsorship”) Thoms’ polemics were distinctly pragmatic from the outset. Barrett Hodsdon sees Thoms’ nationalism as discrepant in the context of the avant-garde’s international, ‘pure film’ project. See Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: The Quest for Film Culture in Australia from the 1960s, Bernt Porridge Group, Shenton Park, 2001, pp 106-8. Albie Thoms, “Ten Years of The Sydney Filmmakers Co-op” and “The Australian Cinema:1971” in Polemics for a New Cinema, Wild and Woolley Press, Sydney, 1978. “…we need a constant flow of short experimental films which, as well as allowing young film-makers to spread their wings, will broaden the vocabulary of the medium and pinpoint those individuals with a high level of creative potential” – report from the Film and Television Committee of the Australia Council for the Arts, May 1969. Quoted in Ina Bertrand and Diane Collins, Government and Film in Australia, Currency Press & AFI, Sydney, 1981. See Thoms, 1978; Mudie, 1995; and Hodsdon, 2001. Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of it, Dial Press, New York, 1968, p. 217.