The ambition and scope of this project, as indicated by its all-encompassing title, was clearly designed to cover the explosion in critical and conceptual writing on film in Australia when it had not existed at a domestic level in previous eras. This was commensurately tied to the rise of film studies in academia. These developments fostered a secondary level of commentary and analysis at a time when the structure and landscape for the Australian film industry (and associated institutions) was rapidly changing, after the moves for direct government support of film production from the late 1960s.
Thus, under the rubric of Australian Film Theory & Criticism (AFT&C) the three volumes published over several years – Volume 1: Critical Positions (2013), Volume 2: Interviews (2014) and Volume 3: Documents (2018) – were particularly directed at the rise and consolidation of film studies and the knowledge base that accompanied it. Nonetheless, one should not be misled by the implied national ownership of the title, since it was intended as a descriptive term. Indeed, the revolution and influx of film theory was very much a case of import culture, rather than a home-grown process. Nor do the authors shy away from what might be considered an arbitrary approach in their selection of academics and written material as benchmarks in their mission to retrieve the evolution of film studies historically. In order to assign film studies a protected place in academia, the authors do not systematically grapple with the dynamic intersection of the film studies landscape.
In the opening chapter of Volume 1, the authors cursorily cover the emergent film culture activity of the 1970s, including reference to my own work in Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: The Quest for Film Culture in Australia (2001). Yet there is a tendency to skate across this landscape in order to create an impression of a comprehensive coverage, and then move on, instead of searching for deeper connections within the advent of film studies. As such, the authors do not explore the dilemmas in the process of academicisation and the insularity that resulted from it.
The authors deploy the tripartite categories of “Institutions”, “Personnel” and “Criticism” to define their work, as an appropriate rationale for the academic advance of film studies. To some degree this is understandable, but they display a tendency to paradoxically expand and then confine domestic film culture landscape in favour of academic cum intellectual privilege.
The desire and need for the new university film educators to carve out and elevate a space for the film studies curriculum was partly a challenge to the traditional condescension over the cinema medium inherent in academia. The global surge in film theory provided a streamlined means to bolster claims for a fresh discipline, with a variety of conceptual perspectives.
To be fair to the authors, the magnitude of the task of sifting and prioritising the material and the question of how to frame it – not only initially, but in an on-going manner – was probably insurmountable. Obviously, over the three volumes there is a wealth of material on offer, but how to present it, and how to home in on the authors’ objective remains a conundrum, particularly because of the number of interviews and the myriad of articles, essays and reviews to draw upon. The blurring of different levels of discourse makes it extremely difficult to disentangle and classify them.
My approach to a critical commentary on the AFT&C volumes is to question the priorities and ordering of the extensive material on offer. Obviously, in tackling such a subject, the authors must necessarily be selective, but they often fail to sufficiently explain and justify their selections, and to properly acknowledge their omissions.
In the 1970s and 1980s so much happened in the revitalised Australian film scene across the board that inevitably there were asymmetrical strands to cultural activities and expressions, even though film production revival itself was driven by a regularly invoked cultural nationalism. Certainly, the range of writing on film and the role of specialist film journals, were often at variance with current film industry orthodoxies and views.
The aim of the following commentary is to offer a summary breakdown and scrutiny of the emphases over the three volumes. This involves some questioning of the coverage, and forms of film writing in the first two volumes. Additionally, Noel King’s long introductory essay in Part II of Volume 1, serving to frame the interviews with film academics, is intended to act as a precursor to the full suite of interviews in Volume 2. Yet, how much do they yield vis-à-vis penetrating insights and perspectives, given the plurality of the interviews and the lack of focus? The interviews tend to close down on their own personal histories, with only a partial extrapolation for all the film studies issues and their implementation. At times, there is a blurring between overseas film study stories and local ones, owing to the preponderance of scholarly experiences in other countries.
For the final volume, titled Documents, I will raise some issues about the problematic method in selecting and presenting some 40-odd items from the 1970s and 1980s to represent the range of serious critical writing. What is representative, provocative or idiosyncratic is always up for debate, especially if presented as discrete contributions in isolation.
The Choice of Film Journals
In Volume I, titled Institutions, Constantine Verevis sets out to tackle the growth of film journals (and the associated breadth and density of writing) in Australia during 1970s. Ultimately, he settles upon a loose comparative approach between the Australian Journal of Screen Theory (AJST) and Cinema Papers. But he fails to pursue the assumed contrast in the aims and strategies of these journals. Reflecting the new vigour of the domestic film and cultural environment, both journals pursued this vigour on rather different fronts. Apart from illustrating contributions to these journals, Verevis does not dissect why these two projects were so far apart in their preoccupations, despite an occasional coincidence of their interests.
However, he does note that both journals arose out of subsidies from the Film and Television Board of the newly reconstituted Australian Council for the Arts. Cinema Papers was edited by the son of the first CEO of the board, Scott Murray, while AJST was initiated by academic John Tulloch, through his contact with the Board as a result of consultative meetings over the Core Collection film acquisitions program. These meetings were held by the Board to pressure the National Library to expand its existing 16mm collection. Further, Verevis claims a close connection between AJST and the Screen Studies conferences of the late 1970s and 1980s. This is only partially true, but the conferences provided opportunities to publish selected papers, while the general aim of the AJST was to provide an outlet for the new breed of film academics to enter and bolster local engagement with high-powered screen discourses. For the early issues of AJST, the content emanated from the University of NSW under the auspices of John Tulloch, Peter Gerdes and Philip Bell. After the 1986 Screen Studies conference at UTS (not mentioned by the book’s authors) the journal transfer was negotiated by Philip Bell with Tom O’Regan as editor of Continuum. Hardly any papers from the 1986 conference were published, and the merger was a surrender to a long term reorientation for the journal toward cultural studies.
There is no doubt that the more than ten-year existence of AJST underlined the desire to raise intellectual and analytical aspirations in the light of the buzz generated by film and media theory overseas. Just how much it lived up to these aspirations is open to debate, but nevertheless it matched the euphoria around the rise of film theory, and strengthened the claims for film studies as a legitimate discipline.
Verevis’ desire to concentrate exclusively on these two chosen film journals results in some notable omissions, namely Filmnews and Cantrills Filmnotes – beginning publication in 1976 and 1971 respectively. They are mentioned, and in the case of Filmnews some significant articles from it are reprinted in Volume 3. Yet, over the years, these journals were strident and uncompromising, as well as being culturally significant. Apart from referencing it from time to time, the AFT&C authors fail to give more considered attention to the importance and impact of Filmnews. This failure somewhat elevates the status of Cinema Papers, because no comparison between the two is undertaken. Both vehicles had different origins and orientations, even though, over time, they were relatively eclectic in their coverage. Since Filmnews emerged from the Sydney Film Makers Co-op newsletter, it was a conduit for activist independent cinema (despite being reliant on government funding) and extended its scope over the years before its demise in 1995. It was able to incorporate English film theorists, feminist polemics, local film industry controversies and later brief film reviews of commercial feature releases.
From the beginning, Cinema Papers (CP) saw itself as an advocate for mainstream domestic filmmaking and the industry infrastructure evolving around it, and consequently as a “journal of record”. It did not align itself with the intricacies of specialist film culture debates, which frequently crossed over into the domain of independent film polemics.
Also left out of AFT&C’s discussion is the unique story of Cantrills Filmnotes, which was dedicated to supporting and documenting avant-garde and fringe alternative filmmaking. It did not adopt any theoretical stance but rather a loose conception of personal filmmaking against traditional commercial cinema. Like the Co-op, it espoused the virtues of 16mm filmmaking, and later took up the values of the Super-8 movement.
One might also add to the list the arrival and persistence of Metro Magazine, which started as the vehicle of the Victorian Teachers of Media, and has continued to this day. It has become the approved outlet for media and film education, and is particularly noteworthy for its adjunct study guides for Australian feature films, a project which has an unfortunate tendency to promote frozen orthodoxies for the study of film texts.
In order to characterise the adoption of film studies in Australia, as well as suggest a seal of approval for the flow of imported culture and film studies personnel during the 1970s and 1980s, Noel King proposed the notion of cultural mobility in Volumes 1 and 2. The concept has been borrowed from Stephen Greenblatt, a cultural historian, concerned with the impact of colonialism under the phrase “the restless circulation of languages and tales” and the way these transmogrified in the New World.
In the vaguest terms, King has transferred this concept to the 1970s revolution in film theory and its importation alongside the visits and migration of film academics from the UK and US to Australia. This enables King to valorise the exchange of specialist film knowledge from elsewhere for the inception of a film studies curriculum in Australia. This is self-evident rather than revelatory. What is more important is the use of theory and theoretical fashions which were unloaded locally in the formation of a new subject, and the strategic play with them in order to attain respectability against prevailing and inherited attitudes of naiveté or scepticism. There was not only the need to seek a ring of protection for a new field of knowledge but also the possibility of intellectual aggrandisement to climb the rungs of the academic ladder.
Of the 26 interviews conducted with film studies academics in Vol 2, over 50% were carried out by Noel King, and some were previously published in the local specialist film magazine Metro. They are simply grouped by Australian capital cities, plus another 7 from the UK and USA. They are not linked to any overall survey of film studies curricula at academic institutions across the board. The range of interviews and the variegated careers and personal histories of film academics do not lend themselves to any easy gleaning or systematic extraction of patterns in the adoption and implementation of film studies, although slivers of individual stories suggest some specific problems and insights in the advent of this new discipline. A number of interviews were drawn from leading overseas scholars who made short term stays or conference visits to Australia – Paul Willemen, Colin MacCabe, Ed Buscombe, Jim Kitses, Manuel Alvarado, and Dana Polan all fall into this category. Certainly the thirst for new knowledge sources in film theory was a driving force for overseas guests as quasi-celebrities at early screen studies conferences. Of course these individuals were outsiders to local university politics and problems.
What occurred with the introduction of Australian film studies was an every-which-way state of flux in a rapidly changing university environment moving through the 1970s and 80s. Spaces opened up for would-be film studies academics as both opportunity or innovation, when there was no clear or confirmed path to forge new curriculums. Many of the interview testimonies show the interactive dimension of Australian and overseas film academics in the pursuit of rapid credentialism and as a means of positional entry. This mobility was evident on all fronts but hardly a surprising factor.
Although film study was the new discipline on the tertiary education block, and hence offering a challenge to some traditional university views, it was also caught up in rapid changes and reforms to higher education in general.
In the 1960s, the tertiary education system witnessed a rapid expansion of its structures, which were further up-scaled with the 1972-1975 Whitlam government. Over this period Teachers Colleges were upgraded to Colleges of Advanced Education. Additionally, the new universities came on stream, and ultimately CAEs and Institutes of Technology were assigned full tertiary status. Because film studies had no established place in education historically, the new spaces appeared with the general expansion of academia, and created an incentive to engage fresh disciplines, especially in the light of the evolution of mass media in the 20th Century. It was no accident that film studies entered the tertiary curriculum on multiple fronts – drama, fine arts, sociology, education, communications and media studies, and more belatedly in English departments. In some cases, film studies was absorbed and modified according to the prevailing departmental constituents. In other cases, a space was cleared for the implementation of inter-disciplinary studies which had been central to the contemporary revolutions in film theory.
(Re-)Writing Australian Film History and Cultural Analysis
In Part 3 of Volume 1, Criticism, Deane Williams conducts an excursion into some key 1980s essays that embarked upon revising and reconstructing past and contemporary Australian film history, when current orthodoxies were already freezing it. For Chapter 5, Williams presents a cursory summary of the surge in researching and writing Australian film history in the 1970s and 80s when very little existed previously.
Given the relative blank sheet on the history of Australian cinema prior to 1970, the first efforts to research and document Australian feature film history – vide Ross Cooper and Andrew Pike, Graham Shirley, Ina Bertrand et al. – were crucial in establishing a baseline of information for further work. Williams references this documentation but implicitly downgrades it in favour of later more sophisticated cultural analysis, as acts of metacriticism in order to disentangle some underlying factors of Australian Cinema past and present (Ross Gibson, Meaghan Morris and William Routt, in the emblematic pieces in Vol 3 ).
The 1980s also delivered scholarly benchmark texts that became overviews and referential models for Australian film history courses: John Tulloch’s Legends of the Screen and its adjunct volume, Susan Dermody’s and Elizabeth Jacka’s The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of an Industry and, later, Tom O’Regan’s Australian National Cinema. These books quickly became conveyances for authoritative knowledge and hence indispensable reading. As a consequence, they had the effect of partially closing off the knowledge storehouse for further inquiry into the shifting sands of local film production and film culture organisations. To some extent, this resulted in mounting courses on the Australian film revival which set the orthodoxies in place.
Nevertheless, the authors of AFT&C baulk at and even omit coverage of the developing and multifarious discursive field of the Australian film scene in order to place their versions of Australian film studies on a pedestal, even though there is evidence of a need to take account of dispersed and decentred narratives and discourses inhabiting a wide ranging Australian film scene.
As a precursor to his choice of Australian cinema essays as exemplars of theoretically informed cultural positions, Williams undertakes a loose survey of how Australian academics grappled with and inserted themselves into a bank of theoretical perspectives, especially via the influence of the journal Screen and de rigueur French theorists, as a means of penetrating and problematising those views of Australian film history that accepted a certain centrality and a superficial linear progression of feature films.
Briefly, he references Screen’s turn to Marxist- materialist criticism and the resultant emphasis on determinist analysis of cultural products by some Australian academics like Tom O’Regan, who has adopted this approach in his continuing dissection of the film industry. However, there are always different levels of film analysis from thumbnail judgements and opinionated reviews to aesthetic and textual commentaries, through to ideological and economic dissections, and thence to empirical forays into audience composition and taste. All these can play a part in cultivating a comprehensive historical framing of film, so that it is not always a case of privileging the most sophisticated conceptual analyses.
In Volume 1, chapter 6, Williams takes three examples of what he regards as paradigmatic cases of cultural criticism for significant historical moments in the Australian film industry
- Camera Natura – Landscape in Australian Feature Films by Ross Gibson
- Tooth & Claw: Tales of Survival & Crocodile Dundee by Meaghan Morris
- On the Expression of Colonialism in Early Australian Films: Charles Chauvel & Naive Cinema by William Routt
Borrowing from Tom O’Regan’s attempt to clarify modes of emerging film writing and pertinent writers – “Critical Intellectual”, “Cinephile” and “Historian” – Williams tends to accept the easy simplicity of these categories, and thence privilege his prime examples from the former.
Indeed the influence claimed for these essays was ultimately dependent on and confined to the academic realm of criticism. These essays are taken to represent a highpoint of domestic film cum cultural criticism as resonant instances of deconstruction. While demonstrating a significant shift in conceptually informed criticism at a time of theoretical absorption, they should not be held aloft and insulated in a privileged domain apart from a range of variegated writing and commentary, even if they helped forge a self-reflective and reflexive critical practice. In this respect, Williams does not sufficiently characterise and pinpoint how these essays exemplify decisive and strategic critical breaks. Nonetheless, these essays can be seen as symptomatic moves to untangle Australian cultural representation, as distinct from a literal search for cultural authenticity. Rather the writers suggest textual tensions between cultural appropriation and resistance. Bracketing appropriation and explicating resistance keeps cultural essentialism at bay.
Documents and Process of Selection
In Volume 3 the selection of contributions to film commentary, criticism and scholarship over the thirteen-year period from 1972 to 1985 is presented in straightforward chronological order. There is no attempt to group these contributions under especially pertinent subject areas and then date them in accord with their historical moments. Consequently, the editors isolate these contributions by dating them with no attention to the significance of period currency. If the chosen articles had been grouped and classified as symptomatic of particular focal points at historical conjunctures, the writers’ positions could have been framed by some explanatory grounding. Also, a more precise framing would encourage the reader to register important omissions in the selection and presentation of writing. Deliberate or inadvertent omissions may be just as crucially symptomatic as inclusions. But the process of inclusion and its decision-making is not discussed.
Rather than placing these contributions in historical limbo it is incumbent upon the editors to take into account the continually changing dimensions to film policy and production, as well as the industrial, cultural or intellectual terrain that surrounded particular essays as the issues arose.
An illustration of the importance of grouping pertinent articles around a subject or theme would be the impact of the English theoretical journal Screen in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the way some newly ascendant local film academics embraced it – e.g. Noel King, Tom O’Regan, Dugald Williamson and others. It would be useful to trace the impact of Screen and its promotion and progression of various theoretical perspectives (initially influenced by Marxist cultural studies), as well as the way they were picked up and proselytised by the new breed of film academics keen to enhance the status of film studies. In the long run, this influence diminished. The multiple visits of Paul Willemen were one significant agency in this theoretical implantation, although his personal position moderated over time. To frame the impact of Screen would require some sort of guiding introduction, but this is lacking. The perfunctory introductory comments to the various chapters of Volume 1 are not sufficient to nail down (and are too remote from) the flurry and diversity of the pieces reprinted in Volume 3, no matter how appropriate and provocative the editors consider their selections.
Actually, any follow through of debate and re-examination for the local impact of Screen did not occur. Yet from the late 1970s, there was frequent genuflection to Screen’s theory, and even an important relocation of it in Australian academia by some of its major early contributors like Sam Rohdie and Stephen Crofts. Of course, Screen itself underwent various convulsions over time: from auteur revisionism, to Marxist determinism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminism, post-structuralism and so on. Although AFT&C references the role of Screen at certain points, especially in some of the interviews with key figures such as Rohdie and Willemen, the authors never really attempt to foreground the influence of Screen theory on the fledgling Australian screen studies curriculum.
Additionally, I could cite a number of themes and burning issues that the AFT&C authors might have developed, by extending and grouping a collection of articles and essays that probed and questioned the links between national identity and various Australian filmmaking fronts (including and moving beyond the Morris and Gibson contributions already discussed). The national identity issues that these authors revise for mainstream Australian feature films could be connected to the debates over radical independent filmmaking, and the way the latter foreshadowed the future role of minority politics though the ruptures brought to the myths of national identity and cohesion.
On the direct film theory front, the AFT&C authors might have considered where the rapid shifts and abrupt changes in theory positions occurred for would-be local film academics. The pace of the film theory revolution(s) placed an onus on tertiary teachers to revise or leapfrog film studies curricula almost overnight. One of the sources of these theory influences can be found embedded in the early film studies conferences and in the selection of their guest speakers.
Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams (eds.), Australian Film Theory & Criticism, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013-2018)