In 1956 television arrived in Australia, so too did Hungarian refugee Ivan Gaal.
Fast-forward twenty years, Gaal was a photographer and filmmaker embarking on his fourth short film Applause Please, and whilst Australian television was barely adult, its tropes, and pitfalls, were already well worn.
The 1970s gave birth to an avant-garde creative community and a counter culture that was challenging norms across the nation, but alongside this, colour television’s arrival, created a surge of interest in the medium, and the introduction of the remote control had heralded the advent of the couch potato. It is amongst this backdrop, or perhaps because of it, that Gaal gathered some comrades and Applause Please was born.
Told in mime, the film is a satirical polemic on the dangers of television on the minds of the masses. From cartoons and cop shows; lifestyle programming for housewives and sports broadcasts for the boys, knitted together by earworm ad jingles, Gaal takes aim at the bough of commercial television, advertising and the commodity culture that results.
Supported through the Australian Government’s Experimental Film and Television Fund (EFTF), Applause Please is ironically not overtly experimental in its ideas or 16mm execution. Rather, it was Gaal’s experiment to bring the talents of the acclaimed Australian Performing Group from the stage to the screen.
In addition to being an active member of the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-operative – then housed within a former funeral parlour on Lygon Street in Carlton – Gaal was also a regular photographer for the Australian Performing Arts Group (APG), based at the adjacent Pram Factory theatre. APG was an amalgam of theatre, comedy and circus performers, writers, dancers and filmmakers bound together by new left politics. There, Gaal connected with actor, and APG founding chair, Max Gillies, dancer/choreographer Bob Thorneycroft and mime artist Joe Bolza. The four formed a partnership that would create Applause Please and spawn future film collaborations.
To realise the film, Gaal harnessed the strengths of his collaborators. Gillies’ comic credentials saw him take the role of a loner living on a diet of junk food and television. Tuning in, and turning on to start his day, the man is entranced by Bolza, a puppet-master TV host, and his dancer/sidekick Thorneycroft as they writhe and lip-synch to Frank Zappa’s own anti-television anthem “I’m The Slime” (1973) which describes TV as “vile and perverted” and declares the medium “a tool of the government, and industry too”.
Drawing on burlesque, Commedia dell’Arte and choreography, Bolza and Thorneycroft take the viewer through the day’s programming, taking on the role of newscasters, commentators, game show hosts and action stars. Gaal plays up the semiotics and the stereotypes inherent in each genre, from the hyper masculine Marlboro Man, to a nervy mum driven to make her whites whiter. As Gillies’ passive viewer drinks in the images, almost subliminally he also chows down on mass-market products – coke and TV dinners – before finally being drawn into the spectacle. It’s a message that is as relevant today as it was more than 40 years ago.
Gaal is one of many filmmakers to have flexed their creative muscles with support from the EFTF. More than 520 films were supported through the fund during its run from 1970-78. Administered by the Australian Film Institute and later the Australian Film Commission, the EFTF was part of a wave of revival in Australian cinema at the time and aimed to support new screen voices and new approaches. Indeed the program had no set eligibility criteria, accepting applications from “any-one school-aged to bald-aged”.
While Gaal was already actively making films prior to Applause Please, the project allowed him to work on a larger scale and set him up for formal study at Swinburne Film School. The fund is also recognised for kickstarting the careers of some of the country’s best-known talents, including Peter Weir, Jan Chapman, Richard Franklin and Scott Hicks. In the fund’s final year it provided $350 to a 16 year-old animation enthusiast Alex Proyas to make Ditto, a film that showcased Proyas’ sci-fi bent and told the story of a man who arrives on a planet following a nuclear war.
Applause Please went on to be a cult hit at the Melbourne and Sydney Film Co-ops and on the festival circuit, and Gaal would work with Gillies and Bolza again on his 1976 film Soft Soap; a short where he once again explored the familiar theme of media and advertising manipulation. While Soft Soap received theatrical distribution in Australia and the US and Gaal continued to make films and documentaries, he largely shirked a commercial path, while other alumni of the EFTF were forging careers aboard.
After graduating from Swinburne in 1978, Gaal dedicated 20 years to the Film Unit at the Victorian Department of Education where he made education documentaries and films including 1984’s Ibrahim, a story of a Lebanese refugee as he navigates Victoria’s education system. The film played festivals locally and internationally and is thought to have influenced policies related to the education of children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Reflecting on his career in 2009, Gaal commented: “With every film I’ve made, I tried to change public attitudes or ‘to make a difference’ in the minds of a non-converted audience. My idea is to bring everyone to the threshold of their understanding of the presented subject matter.”1
Like the documentaries amongst Gaal’s many credits, Applause Please displays a strong social conscious and seeks to impart an important message – asking us to question the images we see on TV. And while society in the decades since has largely failed to heed Gaal’s anti-consumerist, anti-mass media message, the film captures the energy of a time of burgeoning creative activism, and a time when change just might have been possible. It’s an experiment that set Gaal up for a long and storied career, and while his role in Australia’s film history may often be underappreciated, his contribution is certainly worthy of applause.
Applause Please (1975 Australia 20 mins)
Prod: Experimental Film and Television Fund, Ivan Gaal Dir: Ivan Gaal Phot: Ivan Gaal Ed: Ivan Gaal Mus: Frank Zappa, Franciscus Henri
Cast: Max Gillies, Bob Thorneycroft, Joe Bolza