“Every two or three years I watch a film, but I’m always sorry afterwards that I’ve watched it. The images in films never seem real to me.”
Gerald Murnane – Words and Silk 

I’m standing in a long line waiting to be let into a sold-out session of Words and Silk: The Imaginary and Real Worlds of Gerald Murnane (Philip Tyndall, 1989). The documentary is being given a 30th anniversary screening as part of the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival after being unavailable for a long time, and Tyndall is standing by the door as people filter through. I don’t realise that it’s him until I hear him thanking people for coming. The only photo of him that I was able to find while researching the film was on a very barebones website titled Melbourne independent filmmakers, with web design that looked as if it hadn’t been updated since the ‘90s. The photo there showed a flowing red ponytail where now there’s only a buzz cut and a receding hairline. As I grin back at him, I notice his leather jacket which keeps partly intact the rebellious, rock star air that’s present in that picture.

“Thanks for taking the stills all those years ago,” I hear Tyndall say to the two older men walking in front of me. One of them cracks a joke about not being paid. 

I bring with me to the screening my only piece of Murnane merchandise – a Text Publishing tote bag that features a line drawing of his profile beside Helen Garner, Peter Temple and Kate Grenville.

“Look at my new bag,” I said to a friend when it first arrived. I pointed to Garner: “It’s got my Mum,” and to Murnane, “and my Dad.”

There’s undoubtedly something performative in my urge to wear the bag to the screening – a satisfaction of a boyish urge to lord my interests over people and to prove how deeply my appreciation of an artist runs.

I’d first come to Murnane’s work after being intrigued by some of the reviews of Border Districts (2017), his last published novel. I bought that book along with The Plains (1982) and read both in quick succession. I read The Plains first and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Its short length belied its impenetrability, its puzzle-like quality. For some reason its humour failed to register with me and I felt closed off from the book as a whole. But I didn’t let that stop me from reading Border Districts, and I’m glad I didn’t as it was an electrifying experience. I was struck by its lack of action or incident, by how much of the book was solely concerned with the workings of a mind and with the images that shaped and occupied it. The book had such a profound effect on me that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an attempt to let it continue to grow in my mind.

That reading set me off on a Murnane obsession which reached its peak in 2019 when I spent the entire year working on a non-fiction project about his novels at university. It was one of the most creatively stimulating periods I’d ever had. I read (slowly, incredibly slowly) Murnane’s first two novels and took notes (far, far too many) religiously as I did so, copying down any passages that I thought could be of some future use. I quickly entered into that state of creative excitement where I felt that every book that I read, regardless of its difference to Murnane’s work, was vital to my project and soon the scope of my notebooks began to expand to include quotes from just about anything I could get my hands on. The comically obsessive nature of my notetaking meant that my reading of Murnane’s actual works slowed down considerably – I managed to write a years’ worth of uni assignments on my reading of Murnane’s first two novels alone. I only started rereading The Plains once my second semester was over, its tone and content being much more exciting now that I knew (a bit) more about Murnane’s writing. All this is to say that Words and Silk was shown at the height of my Murnane obsession and couldn’t have been scheduled at a better time. 

Seeing a film by myself is an exercise in extreme inwardness that I find intensely enjoyable. Some of my most emotionally intense movie-going experiences have been when I was alone. The one that sticks in my memory was going by myself to a weekday screening of the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016), by the end of which my eyes were flooded with tears at the intensity of her death scene. Some of the emotional impact of that experience and the others like it came from my not having to worry about what another person was making of the film, and of not having to come up with something intelligible to say as the credits roll. 

As I make my way into the cinema, I’m already shifting into this inward state. When I hear someone remarking to their partner about how much they like my tote, I keep my eyes straight ahead and pretend that I haven’t heard anything, deciding that this is easier than making small talk with them. I’m reminded of how taken aback I was when a friend of mine when noticing the band shirt I was wearing told me that he could never bear to parade his interests around as blatantly as I did. Through this response from a stranger, which I’ve decided to completely ignore, I feel as if my position is somewhat vindicated. 

As I take my seat and get out my notepad, I look back towards the entrance where Tyndall continues to greet guests and points them towards vacant seats. I feel like I’m the youngest member of the audience by a significant margin – most of the attendees look like they’re in their 50s. This gives me a small and familiar sense of validation. I wonder if many of these other attendees saw the film when it originally opened at the State Film Centre, ACMI’s predecessor.

Before the film screens, the festival’s artistic director Al Cossar gives it a brief introduction, describing it as a “work of abstraction and truth”. He invites Tyndall to say a few words, and when he does, the sheets of white paper that he reads from are shaking in his hands. He speaks faintly about how much of a challenge it was for him to find a form that could reflect Murnane’s style. He eventually landed on the device of the imagined Gold Cup Race that recurs throughout Murnane’s first novel Tamarisk Row (1974), and this is the structural glue which holds the film together. He quickly shuffles off to his seat and the film begins.

I only take down two notes throughout the screening because I’m completely engrossed by the film. I note that Murnane has a portrait of Emily Brontë stuck to the wall above his writing desk, and I also copy down his description of the structure of Tamarisk Row – that it has the “shape of a teardrop lying on its side”.

Words and Silk

One of the reasons that the film grips me so completely is its singularity – it’s a deeply strange and self-reflexive film that’s deeply unlike any other Australian documentary that I’ve seen. The comparison that jumped into my mind shortly after seeing it was with Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990), another film that twists the line between fact and fiction to enthralling ends, but it’s an imprecise comparison. I don’t think that Tyndall is attempting with Words and Silk anything as complex or inscrutable as what Kiarostami accomplishes – it’s a very different kind of film. Nevertheless, both films play metafictional games with perspective that kept me engrossed and taken aback. 

The film’s first half, titled The Imaginary and Real Worlds of Gerald Murnane, focuses on portraying the worlds of Murnane’s fiction onscreen, relying mainly on prose and scenes lifted from Tamarisk Row. A vigilant viewer will be able to recognise excerpts from other Murnane works scattered throughout – an excerpt from Adrian Sherd’s reimagined history of the world from A Lifetime on Clouds (1976) is placed within the blue hardback that’s open and read from at the film’s open, in the style of a Disney cartoon; and descriptions of a childhood train journey from the short story First Love (1988) are repurposed to move the film’s setting from Melbourne to the Bendigo of Murnane’s childhood – but the bulk are from Murnane’s debut.  

Early on Tyndall stages the Tamarisk Row chapter titled Clement builds a racecourse and in a key move enlists Murnane himself to play the part of his protagonist. It’s Gerald who uses “the sides of his hands to smooth the fine dirt and gravel” in the Bendigo (or is it Basset?) backyard and who “hammers the first of the tiny lengths of wood upright into the hard earth” forming the track. It’s Gerald’s hand that “gouges out… a whole round marble” that his character later obsesses over the origins of.

Tyndall later doubles this sequence when he has (Gerald as) Clement stage the Gold Cup Race on his living room floor. He methodically sets up the line of (marbles as) horses and,

…fixes his eyes on the wall at the far end of the room. Carefully, and without once lowering his eyes towards the marbles, he slides the timber back from the line then moves it forward again with enough force to send the sixteen rolling forward along the mat.

Tyndall’s decision to have Murnane inhabit his character for us is a key reason why the film is as thrilling and moving as it is. Murnane’s proximity to the protagonists of Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds in particular has always fascinated me, and this playful and knowing nudging at this fact completely engrossed me. It adds to the air of slight mystery that surrounds Murnane in my mind. 

The remainder of the first half is filled to the brim with all manner of images excised from Murnane’s fiction: we see footage filmed at Bendigo racecourse, we see copies of the Sporting Globe newspaper complete with pictures of the finishes of the previous week’s races and we see a picture of a woman from a National Geographic “packing thousands of coloured marbles into small bags” among others. There’s a palpable reverence for the talismanic, recurrent images that populate Murnane’s work, and a level of intimacy is added from Tyndall’s decision to mainly (or perhaps even solely) use objects and photographs from either his or Murnane’s own collections.

There are short montages scattered throughout the first half that act almost solely as encyclopaedic catalogues of these objects, the most thrilling of which re-enacts perhaps the most moving and entrancing scene in Tamarisk Row, where Clement’s gazes into the centres of marbles, imagining the “stained-glass-coloured skies or plains where winds or clouds or ranges of hills or curls of smoke are trapped forever” within them. In a beautiful bit of editing, Tyndall cuts from close-ups of marbles to other circular objects: the buttons from a racing jacket, a rocky outcrop, a horse’s eye, a communion bread. In the span of a minute or two, Tyndall illustrates the makeup of Clement’s (and perhaps Murnane’s) mental landscape – his passion for horse racing, the beauty and vastness of nature, the powerful influence of faith and the joy of interior worlds – in a way that only film can.

There’s an undeniable excitement in seeing these images – some of which are iterated so many times throughout Tamarisk Row that they become obsessive, almost sacred – reflected on screen with as much reverence as Murnane imbues them on the page. The respect that Murnane in that novel gives to Clement’s imagining a world beyond this one, of forming complex mental landscapes, is rousing, especially when those same scenes in the hands of another author may be played for laughs due to their repetitiveness or their naivety. There’s a sense that comes through the writing that Murnane understands these flights of imagination not just as valuable, but as the key makeup of his character’s life (using the qualifier mental life here feels unnecessary, as it’s the realm that Murnane’s most interested in exploring in Tamarisk Row). 

I’m also reminded of the images of coloured glass that repeat throughout Border Districts and how they feel intrinsically linked to those descriptions of marbles. A sense of the overall shape of Murnane’s fiction – which might not be too dissimilar from the way that he describes the shape of his first novel – begins to take on more definition with each new work that I’m exposed to. I feel as if I’m getting an ever-growing understanding of his fiction’s obsessions, of its recurring images, of the way that each work relates to the others and it’s intoxicating. This first half of Tyndall’s film adds to this understanding and is thrilling as a result. 

The film’s second half (titled The Real and Imaginary Worlds of Gerald Murnane) for the most part dispenses with the first half’s playful games with subjectivity in lieu of a direct and sometimes didactic presentation of Murnane’s philosophies on writing. The majority of this section consists of long takes of Murnane against a colourfully lit background, speaking directly into camera. The length of these takes were due to financial necessity – 16mm film was so expensive to shoot on that Tyndall couldn’t afford to redo scenes if Murnane made any mistakes. But any awkwardness in Murnane’s delivery is all but erased by the passion palpable in every second of these speeches. 

In this section he shines some light on the way that he wrote his first novel:

…it only came together after I’d drawn a grid of 200 squares and numbered the squares. Each number was meant to correspond to one of the themes of the book, or one of the clusters of images in the book. Each numbered square was meant to give rise to about a page of prose. But as I went on writing, each square gave rise to much more than one page.

That final detail put me in mind of a section in his novel that details Clement’s attempt to list and categorise each marble in his ever-growing collection – a task that gradually spirals into a Sisyphean undertaking, occupying more and more books and taking up more and more of his time. The similarities this had with Tyndall’s own task in making Words and Silk and capturing something of a writer and his work on film wasn’t lost on me, and in its cruder and more haphazard way, the growing unwieldiness of my own task felt at least slightly akin to theirs.

Words and Silk

Later, Murnane describes his idea of ‘true fiction’ which among other things, “sounds like a cave underground or underwater.” It’s a strange description, but one that chimes with my idea of how detached or emotionally distant Murnane’s writing can sometimes feel. His speech began to draw laughs from the crowd and I wonder now if they were mainly laughs of discomfort. In this moment his delivery gives us a glimpse of the frustration and sadness seeping through his words, makes us sense that we’re seeing his persona begin to break down. We feel that we’re glimpsing his frustration over the (lack of) reception his work has garnered up to that point and it’s a strange thing to witness. 

Other than scenes in which Murnane reads from his books in rural settings (which I mainly remember because of the stills that MIFF posted to accompany the film’s online listing), that speech is the last thing that I remember. Words and Silk is a very difficult to find film, which to my knowledge hasn’t been released on home video and was screened only very infrequently on television. I once managed to track down a DVD copy dubbed from a VHS at the Monash University Library sometime before the MIFF screening, but it skipped so much that it was unwatchable after the first 20 minutes or so. At the screening either Cossar or Tyndall mentioned that if anyone wanted access to a copy of the film that we could email Tyndall, but my emails went unanswered. As a result what I’ve written here is more fragmentary and less detailed than I was originally intending, but this feels fitting for a film which plays so delicately with the relationship between memory and fantasy. I’ve no doubt that its power and strangeness has grown in my mind as a result of its rarity, that something’s been added to its mystique.

About The Author

Jack Rowland is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. He was a participant in the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival's Critics Campus.

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