Further Reflections and Omissions

In line with my heading “Further Reflection and Omissions”, I want to briefly note and emphasise the problems of the repressed and exclusionary aspects of the AFT&C project. The key items described here are all part of the complex and changing film culture-scape in the 1970s and 1980s. The relevance of these items/activities/institutions cannot be dismissed or put aside from the formal inscription of film studies in academia. Film study might seem remote from them, but in a certain sense it was beholden to them. While the game of academic detachment was strenuously pursued, the installation of film studies tended to supress a responsibility to the wider context of the film community and industry, as part of creating its own protectorate. Even apart from explicit film culture activities, the commercial film industry was, through its structure and practice, normally at variance with the more rarefied reaches of intellectual endeavour.

My gesture towards referencing and presenting what I have termed the unsaid is intended to highlight the easy acceptance of the scope and substance of the AFT&C project on face value, as a cut and dried historical truth, when it is a retrospective intervention to help uncover the diversity, vigour and innovation in a historical-cultural space, and the strategic arrival of academic film studies. There is additionally, a need to revise the process of bringing film theory into play via the desire to sustain a strong and separate film studies agenda.

The following commentary will itemise and summarise the deficiencies of this project in terms of its recognition of a supportive film culture base for the rise of film studies, with a series of illustrated instances. These items are placed under the heading of Revisions and Omissions in order to highlight the enclosure of film studies in academia and the recruitment of approved personnel. Revisions relates to the need to correct the record on a number of passing references to activities which bolstered and were adjacent to the film studies movement. Also, the authors of AFT&C put aside numerous factors which limited their discussion of the professionalisation of film studies, even though these factors were pertinent and in some cases crucial in the task of building an education framework (as the following examples attest).

Pre-history of Film Studies

The authors of AFT&C all have established academic careers, with one author stretching back to the formal advent of film studies in the 1970s. They pay some lip service to the history of a film culturescape which preceded the entry of film studies into the university during the 1970s, but they do not address how the existence of previous film culture activities and organisations – film societies, film festivals, magazines and bulletins helped to create the subsoil and launching pad for a more systematic and vigorous treatment of film/cinema as a subject worthy of detailed interrogation.

This semi-amateur movement, frequented by enthusiasts and devotees, gave birth to film appreciation, which then fed into adult education. Thus, prior to the 1970s, there was already an aesthetic awareness of film that could service more serious conceptual approaches to cinema and its history, as the premier medium of the 20th century. Not only did this realm cultivate a refined form of film buffery cum cinephilia (stemming from commercial movies), but, on another taste level, it also invited an interest in international art house cinema via the film festival circuit.

Yet there is evidence to suggest that the drive to establish film studies from the late 1970s in Australian academia cut pre-existing cinephilia off at the pass, in order to embrace intellectual credentialism, as well as instigate the theory revolutions. The latter ushered in a preoccupation with radical reflexive filmmaking to match the post-1968 political environment. This is why there were various attempts to adopt the trends and polemics of the British magazine Screen, which was having a wide international influence at the same time. In order to make film studies a respectable academic item, the shift from movie experience to film texts as remote objects for dissection resulted in some alienation from the allure of the movie image. Once film studies were entrenched in the post-1980s milieu, there was a move to pull back the arid tendency of some strands of film theory and combine astute analysis and insight with the aura of cinephilia.

Film Theory and the Rise of Film Studies

The rise and consolidation of film studies in Australia during the 1970s and 80s, was commensurate with a series of revolutions in film and culture theory emanating from France, and thence the UK and US, following in the wake of the French intellectual vanguard.

The second volume of AFT&C offers a thicket of interviews with notable and lesser known film academics for the period under scrutiny. These are all individuals who had an impact on film studies in Australia, and they include a number of leading overseas film studies academics, comprising guest lecturers, conference visitors and permanent appointments. Because of their overseas roles in promoting new perspectives in film theory they often represented various instances of film theory proselytisers – Paul Willemen, Sam Rohdie, Colin MacCabe, Noel Purdon, Lesley Stern, Dana Polan, etc. There were also local film studies initiators who spent time overseas and returned to Australia with the “good word” – Stuart Cunningham, Graeme Turner, Ross Gibson, and Meaghan Morris.

In multifarious ways all these people reflected the stimulus and tumult of a new era, initiating both the renovation and the prising open of existing film theory. As such, film theory offered new ammunition for the introduction of a novel discipline, and exciting new curriculum prospects. There was a panoply of theoretical moves, switches, and fashions which overwhelmed film studies curriculums in this period, and frequently prompted intellectual advantage cum opportunism for would-be aspirants seeking positions in film studies in order to impress staid and sceptical university employers. Structuralism, semiotics, narrative theory, psychoanalysis, formalist analysis, reception theory, Marxist cultural theory, deconstructionism, and phenomenology all had their moments, and often with overlapping currency. Such a wide menu invigorated film theory and helped give its previous insularity an interdisciplinary flavour and impetus.

Nonetheless, in the long run, there was a reaction to the extremes of theory composition and its overkill, inducing dogmatism and knowledge authoritarianism. The way new film theories were transmitted in Australia was often dispersed and threadbare, but nevertheless, at times, vigorously prosecuted in the pursuit of intellectual respectability. It also meant that the pressure for theoretical claims and acceptance prompted intellectual schisms.

The authors of AFT&C quote from an article I wrote for Cinema Papers no. 2 (see Volume 1, p 22) in 1974 as a type of advocacy for new advances in film theory, and as suggestions for future film studies curricula. At the time, this piece, A State of False Consciousness, was written in response to my recent visit to the UK and attendance at the Society for Education in Film and TV (SEFT) film theory seminars. The atmosphere at these seminars was highly charged, and given to theoretical debates and polemics, instigated by the relatively new editorship of Screen. The British film community was both stimulated and antagonised by the tenor of these debates. The thrust of my essay was a prelude to the influence of overseas film theory on the formative years of film studies in Australia. Here the process was a mixed bag with both positive and negative outcomes, especially the negative reactions of anti-intellectualism by members of the film industry at large, and some academics.

In my current reflections on the approach of the AFT&C volumes, I am suggesting that the introduction and assimilation of new film theories in Australia had a tendency to be both provocative and schizophrenic in their impact on the film culture base and the film industry at large. Consequently, academia could play a sort of game of theory elevation and superior distance from the film scene at large, thus imputing to the domain of film studies a degree of restrictive authority in contradistinction to the adjacent energetic film culture field working in its favour.

If one can be critical of how the trends in 1970s and 80s film theory were adopted and disseminated, we should not overlook the magnetic and powerful appeal of these theory instances in their own right, and the discursive challenge that followed, even if it was confined to a small group of academic adherents, and a degree of analytic introspection. The main problem was the separation of intellectual application and dissection from the filmic experience.

Screen Studies Conferences

The series of early Screen Studies conferences from 1978-1986 are touched upon and treated in various ways across the three volumes, including some reviews of the 1980 Perth Conference in the Documents volume. However, there is no separate systematic examination of the five conferences and what they represented. Because of the case study of the Australian Journal of Screen Theory (AJST) in Volume 1, there is some discussion of the linkage of these conferences to the journal by virtue of the publication of a number of papers, especially from the 1978, 1980 and 1982 events. To some extent these conferences furnished a ready-made pool of material to fill AJST when it was seeking appropriate contributions. But it is not true to say that the raison d’être for the AJST was driven by these conferences. Surprisingly, the authors do not refer to the 1986 Screen Studies Conference, which was held at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). This was the last the five conferences bearing this name, yet the initial three conferences each claimed to be the first Screen Studies Conference, as a means of promoting its unique status and profile.

In fact, the UTS Conference was initiated by me through the short-lived Australia Screen Studies Association (NSW). Notable US film academics Mary Ann Doane and Dana Polan were guest speakers, as well as NZ scholar Russell Campbell. There was a sense at the time that this conference might be the end of a preliminary phase of exuberance and energy in the local negotiation of a dynamic era in film theory.

Indicative of rapid shifts in intellectual fashion, by the late 1980s, the momentum was gathering for cultural studies at the expense of high film theory. Cultural studies heralded a flexible catch-all and inter-disciplinary vehicle which could embrace media and popular culture. Ironically, much earlier in the 1970s, film studies had blazed an inter-disciplinary trail to break through its past limitations.

The first Cultural Studies Conference in Australia was held at the University of Western Sydney in 1990, with a semi-proselytising air to mark a striking and wide-ranging discipline for the future. Unfortunately, the study of film (which supposedly had its glory days behind it) was simply reduced to a minor segment on the last afternoon of the conference. Nonetheless, academic positions for screen studies continued to expand into the 1990s under such rubrics as post-structuralism and gender analysis, and also the belated recruitment of film scholars by English departments, which were in slow decline.

It is worth noting, that parallel to the Screen Studies conferences of the 1980s, was the persistence of the Film and History Conferences, which have continued to the present, absorbing some of the earlier Screen Studies components. They were able to draw on associated disciplines such as the boom in cultural history, and especially a growing interest and research in the Australian film industry.

One of the ironies that has recently emerged over the survival of the Film & History conferences is the move to change its label to Screen Studies, 35 years after its formation. This might be interpreted in several ways, but it certainly reflects the pressure to redefine and re-prosecute film studies in the digital era, when society is awash with screens and instant imaging devices.

Film Study and the National Library – The Core Collection Project

In line with the emergence of film studies in the 1970s was the development of the Core Collection film acquisition program for the National Library of Australia. It was initiated by me in the mid-1970s, as a researcher for the Film and Television Board of the Australian Council for the Arts. Apart from myself, a consultative committee was formed comprising Jerzy Toeplitz, Albie Thoms and John Flaus. The purpose of this project was to systematically build up a 16mm film collection as a relatively referential and comprehensive one to cover cinema history. In the 1950s and 60s, under the auspices of its General Film Collection, the National Library had adopted only a loose ad hoc approach to gathering film items pertinent to an overview of cinema history. In the past the major borrowers from the National Library’s film collection were film societies and a general assortment of educational users.

There was no direct initiative or push from the emerging group of film studies academics for the Core Collection proposal. But after the Film and Television Board outlined the proposal, it convened several meetings of interested parties, including film and media academics (John Tulloch, Philip Bell, Colin Crisp, Mick Counihan), to gain support for the proposal. The proposal suggested four categories: Narrative (with sub-categories), Avant-garde, Documentary and Animation. The Narrative category was designed to embrace classic Hollywood cinema, contemporary European art cinema and reflexive modernism in its hey-day, as well as emerging Third World cinemas. At that point in time there were very few avant-garde classics in Australia, and the Core Collection proposal was an opportunity to acquire the works of such luminaries as Warhol, Brakhage, Anger, Snow and Deren et al. The documentary representation in the past had mainly revolved around the British Grierson tradition and the Free Cinema movement. This part of the collection was updated with the revolutions in documentary method via direct cinema and cinéma-vérité movements, as in the work of Drew-Leacock, the Maysles brothers, Jean Rouch and Frederick Wiseman et al.

The National Library initially employed part-time acquisition officers from 1975: Andrew Pike and Jenny Sabine and in 1981, full time, Bruce Hodsdon (ex-director of the National Film Theatre of Australia) until 1996. In 1996, the Film Study Collection was relinquished to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne to distribute. Ultimately, it was placed with the National Film and Sound Archive in the 21st century. By degrees, the original 16mm collection was displaced by video cassette and DVD acquisitions, and the project was scaled down.

National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

The result of the Core Collection’s acquisitions policy over twenty years was a massive, in-depth pool of titles – both shorts and features as well as an accumulating group of past and contemporary Australian features. This distribution source was a necessary and essential base for the formation and advancement of film studies courses in academia, incorporating some 7000 titles in all, most of which would not have been available to users otherwise. Even the famed BFI distribution service could not match the quality and depth of this collection, which was freely available to registered users.

Thus, the new breed of film academics was offered a veritable resource as a gift horse to conduct their courses without having to agitate for it in the first place. The AFT&C volumes make only peripheral reference to the importance of this collection via their coverage of articles in Cinema Papers. In an early issue Cinema Papers (CP no. 7) there is a general outline of the proposal by myself and Ted Vellacott. This is the only formal public acknowledgement of the National Library’s receipt of it and its initiation. Over the years the National Library published detailed catalogues with informational notes on each film held for distribution. Furthermore, there were regular acquisitions catalogues which furnished articles as access guidelines to specific areas of the Film Study collection.

National Film Theatre of Australia (NFTA)

Like the National Library’s Film Study Collection, the NFTA provided a backdrop, in the 1970s, for the development and refinement of a film culture landscape which was boosted by the prior history of the film society movement and film festivals activity. The existence of the NFTA afforded a screenings structure and a programming regularity across the nation that encouraged the evolution of a meaningful referential framework for cinema history, alongside access to changes in filmmaking on the current international scene. This activity served as another springboard from which academic film studies could connect.

The NFTA was a national democratic organisation with state committees and a Sydney head office. Generally modelled on UK’s National Film Theatre and overseas cinémathèques, it was established to adopt a systematic historical approach to presenting film seasons via director, genre, aesthetic and social criteria, as well as curating imported national film seasons of a contemporary ilk. With strictly limited resources, from 1967 to 1980, the NFTA conducted screenings in all capital cities, supported by program notes. Throughout its duration the NFTA possessed no permanent venues of its own. Its screening mission differed markedly from the cinemas operated by the AFI and the filmmakers’ co-operatives. These last two organisations were committed to exhibiting low budget independent domestic filmmaking. In fact, all these organisations were reliant on government subsidies through the Film and Television Board. Thus, the NFTA was significant in helping to cultivate an informed cinephile who might well be motivated to pursue a more rigorous film studies agenda.

Although the NFTA was dissolved in1980, via an unhappy merger with the exhibition arm of the Australian Film Institute, latter-day manifestations of its heritage have sprung up, reflecting a continuing cultural need. Today, the Melbourne Cinémathèque has emerged, over a number of decades, as a very successful and serious model which has demonstrated some of the interactive benefits with institutionalised film studies. Another surviving model is the Brisbane Cinémathèque in its partnership with the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) since 2008. Unfortunately, in national terms the cinémathèque story has been uneven, with the ambitious Sydney MCA project of the 1990s abandoned in 1998.

The AT&C volumes make virtually no reference to the nurturing cultural role of the NFTA and its ultimate relevance for film criticism and education.

Australian Film Institute (AFI)

The history of the Australian Film Institute and its cultural role and scholarly participation also parallels the rise of film studies in the 1970s and 80s. However, it is only intermittently referred to in the AFT&C volumes (usually at a secondary level). This is another example of the past potential intersection of the expanding film culture-scape with the institutionalisation of film studies.

The earlier history of the AFI was partially built around developing a specialised quality awards system for Australian film, as well as gestures toward and even preoccupation with serious writing and research on Australian cinema. In the 1980s, it acquired the George Lugg Library and set up a research access library facility. The AFI took tentative steps to create collaborative publication programs on Australian cinema history, and also appointed an education officer for a period. Such gestures were secondary to the AFI’s early efforts to support subsidised forms of distribution and exhibition and disseminate local film productions to the public.

Yet all these strands and directions have disappeared in recent decades, as the AFI has re-branded itself the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). Today, AACTA primarily concentrates on promoting its version of a sub-Academy Awards program and ceremony.

As the broader structural base of the Australian film industry proliferated toward the end of 20th century, the potential connections between the old residue of the AFI and the now established film studies regimes continued to diminish. Consequently, AACTA is more comfortable embedded with a conventionally corporate film industry infrastructure and its entanglement in the digital age media revolution.

Awards, competitions, secondments, and traineeships and funding pitches have become the staple for the film and TV industry to promote itself locally and internationally, and AACTA as its upfront agency. These, frequently, seem remote from the impetus for serious film industry scrutiny, critique, analysis, scholarship and even debate over industry funding and politics. The earlier eras of open industry experimentation and support have long since surrendered to notions of success, brazen profiles, and commercial survival.

The past gestures of the AFI to film education and scholarship are neglected by the AFT&C authors. Nevertheless, we should ponder some of the AFI’s lost potential in the light of the British experience.

Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS)

Without going into an in depth history of AFTRS, it is important to note that it has always been a protected entity in relation to developments in film studies and theory. To an extent, it was aloof from the sagas around what constituted film studies in its efforts to mark out a space in tertiary film education and training. This was in spite of the fact that the growth of AFTRS paralleled the rise of film studies elsewhere.

AFTRS was a federal government-backed outcome of a commissioned report in the late 1960s, headed by Barry Jones and Phillip Adams. Indeed, this report put forward some other planks for the establishment of a new Australian cinema.

After an interim phase, AFTRS commenced full-time in 1973, with a now famous intake of students. From then on, it fostered its own special training status. The first director of AFTRS was the veteran Polish film historian and bureaucrat Jerzy Toeplitz, who maintained tight control over the film studies curriculum until his retirement in the 1980s. (The exception to this was the brief tenure of John Flaus in the mid-1970s, who played a maverick role in this respect).

For the most part, AFTRS has literally adhered to its charter to train aspiring filmmakers for a place in the industry and hence develop their technical skills, at the expense of more scholarly applications to the study of cinema. It was not until 1984-85, partly due to some agitation from the ASSA (NSW), that AFTRS appointed Kari Hanet as its first fulltime film studies lecturer. Even then, the role of film studies played a minor adjunct function to the main training game.

In more recent decades, AFTRS has offered an array of assorted open-access film programs, apart from the full time studentship, but these are still very much geared to film industry credentialism rather than any real engagement with film theory and aesthetic debates that have been conducted behind the hallowed walls of universities.

The authors of AFT&C pay little attention to AFTRS and the existence of an historical gap between a practical education for working in the film industry and the conceptual introspection of academic film studies. This also relates to the issue of historical neglect in encouraging a dialectical relation between film theory and practice, i.e. film praxis. Such a neglect might also apply to other tertiary institutions that are mainly preoccupied with hands-on filmmaker training.


What I have tried to broach in this extended commentary is that simply nominating and unfolding a significant but elusive subject such as film studies and its contingent historical introduction is insufficient at a time of multilayered cultural fluidity, in the rapidly changing Australian film scene of the 1970s and beyond.

The consolidation of film studies and the theoretical debates that ensued inexorably created a world answerable to itself, with the stress on internalised and often closed discourses. It was not only a question of self-interrogation but also a question of the need for the wider transmission of a new discipline drawing heavily from elsewhere. The Australian film studies scene had to borrow, accommodate, assert, implement, reject or even deny these new strands of filmic knowledge.

There is no doubting the AFT&C authors’ awareness of the dynamics of the film culture landscape this time, but they are still confronted with the difficulty of how to reconcile their own conceptual mission with the manifestations and support of a lively film culture. The criss-cross of cultural discourse posed a constant challenge for the rigours of intellectual confinement.

In the introduction to Volume 2, the authors acknowledge the need for feedback and that the flood of their published interviews may require some re-contextualisation and revision. This sounds a bit like a deferral of issues that could have been tackled head-on. The challenge was how to give a mass of interview material real purpose, no matter how illuminating personal stories could be.

Certainly the materials are extensive enough for further breakdown and clarification, but they should not be set in concrete as orthodoxy or immutable benchmarks. I do not intend this review to be a demolition job but rather a request for more forethought in laying out the project’s parameters, given the substantial backing it received. Nevertheless, it is a worthy effort to lay out some of this rich discursive history when there is current anxiety over the survival of film/screen studies amidst the deluge effect of the internet, smartphones and their associated seduction of media and communication platforms. Indeed, there is still an epistemological heritage to be gleaned from the resilient age of cinema and all that it spawned.

Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams (eds.), Australian Film Theory & Criticism, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013-2018)

About The Author

Barrett Hodsdon has a long history with local film culture, through research, teaching and writing, starting with University film societies in the 1960s. He has published a book on Australian film culture, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines (2001), and a book on the history of auteur criticism, The Elusive Auteur: The Question of Film Authorship Throughout the Age of Cinema (2017).

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