Unlike any other, without a doubt.
For everyone that knew Albie, had worked with him, had shared a laugh or had watched his films and read his writings – this man was a gentle articulate giant of that wonderful patchwork quilt known as the Australian cultural landscape. His passing late last year has created an enormous void in Australian film culture.
The void is difficult to describe – its akin to having all the recordings of The Doors available without “Riders on the Storm” – that is, we are left with only cover-band renditions and a written score. While Albie was with us, his broad articulated understanding of creative experiment was always available to provide guidance, to gently clarify perplexing things he knew something about. Albie’s breadth of knowledge was as unique as the experiences that formed its scope – an organic milieu that flowed freely between art, theatre, music, prose, social-political activism, New Left idealism, individuated expression and the international history of achievement in film. His opinions were inimitable concepts (albeit complex ones) manifested from a deep affection towards spontaneous improvisation and a life long commitment for a praxis that brought experimentation and thought together. Albie moved (relatively) freely between avant-garde experiment, documentary, and quasi-narrative feature films over the course of his professional life. Yet it was the realm of the filmic avant-garde to which most of our conversations kept returning, it was the area (I believe) that he loved the most.
Albie was a mate, as he was to many others, and a mentor that guided me for almost 20 years. We first came together when I was running a 14-week program of films in 1993 at the Film and Television Institute (FTI) in Fremantle. Dusting Off the Other was a historical survey that summarised an aggregated chronology of the film avant-garde – the season subscriptions were sold-out before it began (1). Every week I would introduce the films and provide a form of critical perspective for the audience, occasionally visiting experts and artists would add their reflections on the work as well. With a scheduled mid-season break in the program approaching in September, I asked the viewers to make an audience selection of a filmmaker’s work (in order to slot in an extra session) – overwhelmingly they asked for the work of Albie Thoms.
I had encountered Albie’s work initially during my time as an art school student in Canada during the 1970s; I would see more of his work (and Ubu’s) when I was a member of the London Film-makers’ Co-op during the 1980s. Marinetti (1969) was a film that I kept returning to as it seemed to sit apart from many of the procedural aspects resident in most films from the avant-garde – it seemed particularly resistant to singular methods of reflection, it was mystifying and presented a fresh challenge every time I watched it. When the Dusting Off the Other audience requested an ad-lib program of Albie’s work I decided to screen Marinetti.
Many stories circulated around Albie’s whereabouts – it seemed to be a general consensus that he had either overdosed, been taken by a shark while filming a surf movie, or that had gone mad somewhere and was no longer alive. It wasn’t easy tracking him down, but eventually we spoke over the phone – calmly speaking from leafy Mosman, he was amused at the mythology surrounding his “state of being”. Together we came up with the idea to present a theatrical “representational illusion” to introduce Marinetti in Fremantle. Through a friend at a local FM station we recorded a 15-minute introduction to Marinetti – a few nights later the lights were lowered in the FTI and Albie’s voice filled the cinema space. The cinema was full on the night, similar to other weeks there were people sitting on the stairs in the centre aisle from the oversubscription. A few people left, certainly nothing like the Wintergarden premiere in 1969, and when the lights came up at the conclusion of the film someone at the front yelled out “Let’s take Albie to the pub”, to which everyone clapped. The event was, in effect, another one of Albie’s subtle variations on Brecht’s verfremdung-effekt, it pleased him immensely at the time.
A year (or so) later Albie and David Perry came out to screen their works at the FTI and to hold a series of workshops with my fine art studio students (and other independent video artists in Perth). Just before they returned to Sydney we spent a day in the bush east of the metro basin talking about things – David vanished into a gully with his camera to get some shots, Albie and I stayed on a rock outcrop at the top overlooking John Forrest’s Heritage Trail. It was there that Albie lectured me about the state of creative experiment in Australia – the factionalism, parochialism, self-interest and xenophobia that gutted a vibrant and organic community, one that showed such promise during the pre-Whitlam period. He suggested to me, in fairly strong terms, to take responsibility for putting something of lasting value back into the community I was now part of. That was the start of the Ubu Films’ book. It was the beginning of a three-year journey assembling Ubu Films: Sydney Underground Movies (1965-1970).
To quote the late Aggy Read, “what a trip”. Albie and David (to a lesser extent Aggy and John Clark) guided me patiently through the web of interconnecting threads of Ubu during the 1960s. Painstakingly, the material was gathered from archives and libraries, garages and vaguely remembered boxes of papers stored in the attic – mostly in Sydney, but also from one end of the country to the other (as well as overseas). Nebulous recollections and personal anecdotes formed into quantifiable details and substantiated facts as the months turned into years of persistent discovery. I spent as much time in Sydney over the 1994-97 period as I did in Perth – I came to respect Geoffrey Blainey’s “tyranny of distance” in terms of geography during this time, but in temporal terms it progressively collapsed as the full technicolor brilliance of the Ubu period came to light. This was a hyper-creative era that was filled with libertarian ideals, sexual freedom, countercultural activism, collective protest, and multi-form experimentation – a time when the unbridled delight at intuitive détournement would circulate through struggles with conservative authoritarianism, social inequity and all the political jostling within institutional structures of power that attempted to position a bureaucratic control over the arts in Australia. This was the rich tapestry of the Ubu period.
When the book was finished I went around to the Australian Film Commission (AFC)/Industry and Cultural Development (ICD) offices on William Street (who had provided development funding) with an advanced copy and my acquittal report. Kate Ingham, then the Director of the ICD, laughed at the irony of the book being “one of the best historical accounts of one of the most marginalised groups in Australian film culture”. Naturally, we all agreed – the irony was satisfying to roll around in, but Albie, David, Aggy, John and I felt that the “narrative” of Ubu Films had been faithfully resurrected and preserved for everyone. In a sense, we all moved back into the demands of the present and carried on with our lives.
But we didn’t, not really. I had less contact with David and John (than I would have liked) during these years, but Albie was in constant contact after the book was launched at the Kings Cross Hotel in 1997. Aggy came to Perth the next year, as a member of the Australian national croquet team for an international tournament, and we had a magnificent retrospective of his filmwork at the FTI. A few months later Albie phoned to tell me about Aggy’s sudden death from cancer – it was a horrible shock, and I met Albie in Brisbane to attend the funeral (2).
Albie came out to Perth a year later to direct a week long project of hand-processing and painting 16mm film at an inner-city studio/gallery that I established with postgraduate students from UWA (The Gulag) – the experiments ended up in a large exhibition filled with projectors and film loops with improvised live music from Retarded Eye. It was during this week that Albie started (what would be) his final 16mm film – appropriately titled Gulag – he finished painting the film a year later in Sydney (3).
Albie was a giant of Australian film culture: film in its most radical form, culture in its most speculative field (the avant-garde). He was at the epicentre of the rise of the underground in Sydney during the 1960s that extended from his various projects in live theatre (from his student days at the University of Sydney) into a wild enthusiasm for cinematic parody/sarcasm (Blunderball, 1966) and full-bore creative film experimentation (Marinetti, 1969). He spent considerable time organising festivals, screening programs and exhibitions and devoted inordinate energy towards advocating for the recognition and support of creative/independent film in Australia for most of his life. With his passing there will undoubtedly be an impetus to reflect upon his work with film and his role as an advocate for independent production in Australia. For Australia’s film avant-garde he was our champion, without doubt. I’m not sure if anyone would want to claim that he was the best filmmaker in Australia – there shouldn’t be an assessment of value with his work, it would be pointless. I do feel, however, that everyone should see his films, in their entirety, regardless of genre or form. For myself, I have always found that his various creative explorations are the most fascinating – their objectives are unmitigated – but a number of his works should be mandatory viewing.
The handmade film classic Bluto (1967) has one of the most intuitive and organic structures of all of his films. There are three passages where the developments from one idea run out, are followed by a period of searching, before another idea takes hold (and runs the course of its development). This is then repeated (in a different form) – there are three sets of development (of different length and different character) and two periods of vacillating between those developments (also of different lengths and character). There are no visible separations of ideas (such as an interval or an edit) as there are continuous marks that extend throughout. Unlike the films by many of the classic handmade film artists (Len Lye or Norman McLaren, for instance) there isn’t an overall “objective” (or narrative of sorts) – Albie’s Bluto is based purely on the rise, development, fall and recuperation of intuitive mark-making upon the material surface of film. Bluto illustrates the temporal passage of spontaneous thinking without a need to defer the ideas into representational forms or metaphors – it reveals more about the nature of his thinking than any of the other films.
Bolero (1967) has perhaps the best-regarded construction of all his avant-garde films, with good reason. Built upon a single tracking shot down an inner-city lane, the film is all about structure – temporal structure – the pacing, and interplay between the rising level of dramatic complexity within Ravel’s music and attenuated anticipation of a narrowing visual trajectory. The poignant simplicity of Albie’s film is delightfully full of his renowned critical humour – the persistent interruption of informative titles regress from the film’s title (and details of authorship) to inconsequential details about the film stock and processing lab. Albie’s Bolero has become an Australian classic; it is revered around the world in the film avant-garde.
A great deal has been discussed around Albie’s sound design in Palm Beach (1980) – an aspect of the film that he received an AFI award for afterwards. Certainly, it was innovative – the layering of audio from commercial radio and television applied a fascinating subtext of critique and parody to the narrative, as did the offset relations that came from a blending of concurrent dialogue (from one scene into another) – these make Palm Beach stand out from other films of the Australian commercial cinema. The long tracking shot at the conclusion, filmed from a helicopter, is one of the most remembered scenes from the entirety of Albie’s mainstream efforts.
Moon Virility (1967) and David Perry (1968) are two of the most visually pronounced works Albie made during the Ubu period, as is his extraordinary portrait of the place he loved the most, Sunshine City (1973), during the post-Ubu period. Yet his video compilation of film memories titled Polygenesis (1990) was his most complete synthesis of image and sound. The musical composition of Polygenesis superimposes the indigenous rhythms and sounds of the didgeridoo within a progressively accumulating percussive based soundtrack – it is Albie’s particularly distinctive use of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound ideas which he applied to the compositing of visual fragments from his filmmaking past. Polygenesis is one of the finest screen-based works he would make, full of all the melancholy and wealth that comes from a life of idealism and dreams.
The Situationist Raoul Vaneigem once stated that “[t]he eruption of lived pleasure is such that in losing myself I find myself […] [b]y contrast, thought directed towards lived experience with analytic intent is bound to remain detached from that experience” (4). This is (perhaps) the best introduction that can be given to Albie’s notorious classic Marinetti – he describes the production of the film throughout his memoirs (My Generation) and the film has (surprisingly) developed a fair amount of commentary recently. As I stated earlier, it is Albie’s tour de force and it remains one of the most challenging films of the avant-garde (and one which Albie spent a fair amount of time since 1969 defending). The film asks a great deal from the viewer, yet it is full of Albie’s opulent formulations that attempt to collapse emotional states with innovative representational renderings. Marinetti is also known for the elaborate soundtrack composed spontaneously and recorded live by the late great jazz legend John Sangster and the members of his band – some maintain that it was Sangster’s best composition (5). One of the most unsettling elements of the film (which caused outrage at it’s premiere in 1969) had been the long opening segment where Albie discusses F. T. Marinetti and the Futurists, as well as Surrealism and Impressionism and certain mythologies of art with David (and a number of others) in a small party setting – without picture. With Albie’s passing, what was once so unsettling for audiences to endure will now become a nostalgic and warm verbal embrace of Albie’s thinking on art. Marinetti (for me) epitomises all the aspirational polemics that Albie wanted the cinema to embody. It is worth revisiting again (as it always will be).
Over the period we spent together working on the Ubu book I became amazed at the fastidious attention Albie directed towards historical research – he was more dedicated to academic research than anyone I have ever encountered in academia (excluding Bernard Smith and David Bromfield). Intermittently, as it turned out, Albie would publish a book from one area of his interests or another. His relentless appetite for research began with underground street publication commentary during the ’60s, coalesced with the collection of essays in Polemics for a New Cinema (Wild and Wooley, 1978), solidified into the richly informative Surfmovies The History of the Surf Film in Australia (Shore Thing, 2000), before reaching full explication in his final book, My Generation (Media 21, 2012).
The importance of history, or rather the accessibility of accurate facts from the past, was an obsessive pursuit of Albie’s – the Ubu Films book would never have been assembled without the commitment he gave towards the task. The research he directed towards My Generation is simply breathtaking – in its own way, it will be as formative as Robert Hughes’ Fatal Shore, as provocative as Geoffrey Blainey’s Tyranny of Distance and as entertaining as Richard Neville’s Hippie, Hippie Shake – I recommend that everyone read My Generation.
A few weeks before his passing Albie contacted me with the hope of tracking down Aggy’s lost footage from the Yellow House. The ABC were assembling a documentary on Martin Sharp and had contacted him – he had searched everywhere, including the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), before contacting me. Despite the medication he was taking and his ill-health he was determined to find the footage – noted in an old catalogue from the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative as Seven Yellow Months (1971). Aggy had left a stack of canisters in my office at UWA (after his screening program at the FTI in 1998) – Albie was thrilled when I eventually found the footage (on a reel underneath Pier Farri’s Avant-Garde Prayer). Seven Yellow Months went off to the ABC, the footage of Martin will be used in the documentary, and it will eventually find its way into the safe hands of the NFSA. Albie had been hoping to resurrect the deteriorated footage and complete it for Aggy, but he ran out of time – perhaps it is something I can pick up on his behalf.
Just over a month later David Perry rang with the news that no one wanted to hear – a month after that I was sitting in Paddington Town Hall amongst Albie’s family and the rabble and royalty that Albie called his friends. I had a copy of his memoirs in my hand and dutifully recalled an anecdote of Albie when his son Tommy handed me the microphone. Then I sat and waited for that moment when all the alcohol on offer (and substances circulating around the room) would modify the respectful hundreds there into another “Ubuesque” collection of rogues. It didn’t take long, Albie (and Lara) made sure that there were truckloads of Peroni and endless cases of wine for everyone.
I remembered when the same occurred at the Kings Cross Hotel in 1997 at the Ubu Films book launch – Ellis D. Fogg (Roger Foley) blew the circuits with the collection of light devices he had crammed in for the celebration; Aggy was determined to get some pot down the stairs to Tina and had jammed up Mick Liber with his amplifier attempting to get up the same staircase; Albie had to run an extension cord through the window (from the floor above) to power up one of Paul Winkler’s 16mm projectors to cast a light on Richard Neville (so he could at least be seen in the dark), and everything almost fell apart into an intoxicated mess. But it didn’t – everything held together, everyone laughed (and drank and smoked) and remarked how wonderful it was to attend yet another bodgy Ubu event.
When Jan Chapman took to the podium to deliver her speech to launch Albie’s My Generation last December you could barely hear a word over the noise and chaos coming from the back of the hall, all the ruckus wafting over from the drinks tables. It had been building all night but it began to sweep over the hall like a wave of chaos. As much as I wanted to hear what Jan had to say, I was also pleased that Albie’s mates could conjure up yet another Ubu moment – it was reassuring. Yet this time, Albie’s unique boisterous laugh was missing.
Albie introduced me to the rich complexity of his fraternity during our time assembling the Ubu Films book during the 1990s – artists, filmmakers, musicians, actors, writers, commentators and activists – Philippe Mora’s wonderful obituary names a few of them and My Generation details the landscape they inhabited (6). Albie’s death late last year brings yet another reminder of how fragile the passing of time can be when it threatens to deteriorate such a vital living resource into a discourse of “what was”. It is presumed that they will always be amongst us (which can never be the case), even though their legacies will. Yet it’s not the same as having them amongst us, watching over the changing nature of understanding a cultural history that shapes contemporary experience and thought. Some have already passed a while ago (Brett Whiteley and John Sangster), others more recently (Paddy McGuinness, Bernard Smith, Robert Whitaker, Robert Hughes and Ubu’s most treasured rogue, Aggy Read). I sat at Paddington Town Hall during the celebration of Albie’s life late last year thinking of this community – in various realms, to varying degrees, they are irreplaceable. Through Albie I came to understand their importance – Richard Neville, Martin Sharp, Germaine Greer, Jenny Kee, Phillip Adams, Barry Jones, Keith Looby, Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, the Cantrills, Philippe Mora, Jim Sharman and two of Albie’s closest mates, Garry Shead and David Perry – a hodge-podge of personalities, the heart of our creative/intellectual counterculture, now Australia’s nobility. There are others (of course) – the list appears endless. But it isn’t, and it’s reducing – Albie’s passing last November is an inestimable loss, one without recovery despite the legacy he leaves behind upon the cultural landscape he shaped for us.
His legacy is analogous to a river that meanders through that landscape, always moving – at times with a turbulent current hidden underneath a mirror surface reflecting back the fascinating features that make this country unique. Albie’s legacy, like so many other rivers that define the topography and breadth of Australian cultural literacy, intersects others from that unique post-World War II period of creative intelligentsia of which he was very much a part. Like others of his generation, the rive gauche would be protected by the strength of indigenous gums that grow naturally along its bank – the other side occasionally dissipating into the muddy bogs of the right that trap unsuspecting livestock attempting to drink from the stream. More than any other array of waterways that have crossed the tapestry of cultural thought and activity in Australia, Albie’s generation brought fertile ground to the once arid wastelands created by the cultural cringe of our colonial past. Apparently they also had a lot of fun deconstructing it.
- In fact it was oversubscribed by about 25%, with around 170 season subscriptions sold for a cinema seating capacity of 130 – about 120 showed up for the screening of Albie’s Marinetti.
- The chapel was divided down the middle, with most of his family and the croquet fraternity on one side with Albie, myself, a scattering of individuals from the underground and (even more) members of the hot-air balloon community on the other. Albie delivered the eulogy for that side of the chapel – it was one of the most articulate and heart wrenching speeches that I ever heard Albie deliver in public.
- Albie asked me to do a soundtrack for the film – I haven’t finished it yet despite persistent prompts from him over the past decade.
- Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Rebel Press, London, 2001 p. 195
- Sangster’s fellow musicians for the soundtrack were Richard Lockwood on flute, sax and violin (from Tully); Michael Barnes on guitar (from the Nutwood Rug Band); George Thompson on the upright bass; Alan Turnbull on drums (from the Don Burrows Quartet); and Dave McRae on keyboards (from Matching Mole and Nucleus). The recording was mixed by Harry Medax and was released on CD through Roundtable in 2009.
- Philippe Mora, “Champion of Film as Art Pushed Boundaries”, Sydney Morning Herald 5 December 2012.