This paper was recently given at the second conference convened by the Japan-Australia Modernism Study Group titled “Modernism Conscious-Unconscious: Taisho Modern and Silent Australia Film”.
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In the first instalment of his recent television series, Robert Hughes, an Australian disciple of modernism, excoriated the painting of Norman Lindsay and admired the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi-Gras. Hughes doesn’t like Lindsay’s painting at least partly because Lindsay didn’t like modernism. But Hughes does not see the confronting, overly-made up faces of the kitschy nudes in Lindsay’s paintings – the very faces that exscribe the carnality he professes to like in Mardi-Gras. Notoriously, even horribly, Robert Hughes does not see when Australia is facing him. At the beginning of this program he is appalled and exhilarated by the wreckage of the car in which he collided, head on, with another; near the end he lectures boys from his former school, countenances all turned inward, about the importance of de Chirico to his life. In the rest of the episode his commentary on Australia matches the unconscious self-revelation of these scenes: it is a collection of every exile’s time-worn clichés about the home country’s philistinism – pretending that philistinism is something peculiarly Australian, peculiarly of this home. Hughes only sees what he confronts, not what might (de)face him. In this, he is the exemplary modernist but, really, not much of an Australian.
The gulf between “Australian” and “modernism” is itself something of a cliché, a gap so often remarked that it has become full of noticing. Let us notice it again.
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Traditional world film history knows four examples of modernism from the 1920s. They are:
the French “impressionist”, or narrative, avant-garde,
Weimar German “expressionism”,
the Soviet “formalist” montage school,
and American slapstick comedy.
Of these, the first three are self-conscious “art” movements within the cinema, allied, even in the titular adjectives film historians apply to them, with recognised schools or trends of the visual or literary arts: impressionism, the avant-garde, expressionism, formalism. American slapstick comedy, the films of which preceded and influenced the films of the three European modernist movements, is something of an anomaly here – but an anomaly worth some explanation.
The great practitioners of slapstick comedy – Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the like – can be seen as maintaining and extending on screen the “pre-modern” conventions of fin de siècle music hall and vaudeville knockabout comedy. This popular stage tradition had been represented in some of the earliest films made, and it became recognised in the European cinema as a popular film genre during the years before the First World War. Many of these early European films drew extensively on dream imagery, adopting the practice of fantasy films made around the same time by filmmakers like Georges Méliès. And such imagery also played a leading part in the later American slapstick films. In this way, perhaps, the “modernism” I am attributing to slapstick comedy can be associated with the “paleo-modernism” or “early modernism” of the Symbolist poets and painters, whom Alain Masson credits as an important influence on early silent film imagery in general (2).
However, the received wisdom these days is that European intellectuals were much more struck by American slapstick than they had been by the pre-war European films in the same tradition. This was, I think, because of the pace of the American films; or, rather (since the pace of the early European films was actually quite as frenetic as the later American ones), because the pace of the American films could be aligned with the modernity of the New World – with urbanism, mechanism, dynamism, rhythm and speed. Slapstick, in their eyes, took on all the aspects of a formalised art, an art of the surface, in which what happened on the screen was dictated by the demands of the mechanical medium of cinema and a team of more or less anonymous professionals rather than by the elevated ideas of a lone artist or the debased tastes of a mass public. It is this “Walter Benjaminist” modernism that has left traces in certain Australian films of the ’20s.
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Even before the First World War one can discern attempts to create a specifically “cinematic” art in Europe. By this I mean that some of the people who were making films in Europe at the time were consciously trying to use the medium of the cinema in order to create works of art. Efforts to import art into the cinema had begun as early as 1908 (adapting recognised works of literature, employing recognised actors and directors and the like). However, films like The Student of Prague (Stellan Rye) and Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström) – both released in 1913 – deliberately made use of the resources of the cinema itself to create serious works of “heavy culture” within what audiences of the time would have recognised as established aesthetic genres, although not genres of film.
The German film, The Student of Prague, was a Symbolist fantasy in the manner of the writer E. T. A. Hoffmann who was so admired by Sigmund Freud. It relied on cinematic tricks like double exposure to create a fantastic fate-ridden diegetic universe. The Swedish Ingeborg Holm was a realist drama related to the work of early twentieth century Scandanavian dramatists like Henrik Ibsen. It relied on specifically filmic mise en scène (camera and actor positioning and spatial articulation, set decoration, pacing) to create an atmosphere of poverty and oppression designed to elicit a socially-responsible response from its audience.
This self-conscious aesthetic exploitation of the medium was aligned with European attempts to extend the audience for the cinema to the bourgeoisie. “Art” was here, as in other areas of culture at the time, a class-related marketing strategy. Broadly speaking, this strategy succeeded – not least to the degree that it affected film criticism and, as a result, film history (when the latter came to be written). The conscious creation of art and the dissemination of social critique were the hallmarks of the European modernist film movements I have mentioned, all of which were targeted at bourgeois intellectual taste. This assessment applies even to the formalist films made in the Soviet Union, which were encouraged for a time by the Soviet state largely because there was a profitable and prestigious market for them as “art films” – that is, among the bourgeois intelligentsia – outside the USSR.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Hollywood lacked the means – and, of course, the will – to create a credible art film movement in the ’20s. This does not mean that Hollywood failed to make credibly artistic, even influential, films, but only that there was no way of convincing the international intellectual community that such films could credibly be grouped together into a conscious art movement. In the first place, very few people in Europe, or the United States for that matter, would have accepted the idea that there could be such a thing as American art in the ’20s. Even fewer accepted the idea that there was such a thing as film art (in Europe, it is clear that “film art” was encouraged almost entirely by the film industry and by avant-garde culture, not by recognised arbiters of taste). And, finally, a great deal of the appeal of the Hollywood slapstick comedy genre to aesthetically-minded European critics was precisely its unconscious artistry. It was crucial to the surrealists, for example, that such filmmakers as Buster Keaton were naives inspired by impulses over which they had little conscious control.
Behind all of this lies Hollywood’s decided lack of interest in art. Hollywood had successfully attracted the bourgeois audience by marketing movies as nothing but entertainment. It was the considered opinion of both critics and industry heads that a Hollywood “art film movement” stood to lose audiences rather than to attract them. So American slapstick flourished during the ’20s as a popular genre, but not as a label for modernist film art.
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I have spent all of this time in order to give you something of an idea of the international climate of cinematic modernism in the ’20s. Modernism in the cinema, as elsewhere, tends to be identifiable in terms of various, and often quite different, formal traits. At the same time, cinematic modernism invokes questions of art, of social critique, of national identity, of marketing and consumer culture, of the work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility, as well as the recurring question of the power of the United States (in this case symbolised by “Hollywood”). Not all these questions are raised directly in all the “modernist” film movements I have cited, much less in any one film. Moreover, conscious modernism in any given film may be the result of literary (including dramatic and political) influences and/or it may come from one or more of the visual arts (especially painting, architecture, costuming and set design). Thus even the formal traits one might want to say are evidence of modernism are diverse, and open to dispute.
Perhaps I can best move to the specific topic of this paper by making some brief and broad comparisons between Australian films of the ’20s and films made in England during the same period. Although neither of these nations produced a recognised art film movement in these years, several English films of the period are instantly recognisable as “modernist”, even if film historians do not usually use that term to describe them.
Certainly the best known English filmmaker and one of the cinema’s pre-eminent modernists is Alfred Hitchcock. During the ’20s, Hitchcock had developed a reputation for being “arty” by his third feature, released in 1927. This film, The Lodger, showed the obvious influence of Weimar German cinema. All of the eight films released under his name from The Lodger to Blackmail (1929) that I have seen seem recognisably “modernist” to me. In addition, the influence of modernism is apparent in other English films:
in the overt visual stylisation of such crime films as The Rat (Graham Cutts, 1925) as well as in the Hitchcock films;
in a certain self-referentiality in Shooting Stars (Anthony Asquith, 1928 – a film about filmmaking) and The Little People (George Person, 1926 – which is about representation’s relation to reality);
in the deliberate technological fetishism of such films as Underground (Asquith, 1928) and High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929), the latter of which is a science fiction film;
in the deployment of bravura “cinematic” sequences in Hindle Wakes (Maurice Elvey, 1927) and Would You Believe It? (Walter Forde, 1929), among many others;
in foregrounded ethical equivocation or a questioning of received values in many otherwise conventional farces and dramas, such as Duke’s Son (Franklin Dyall, 1920), which is about a member of the aristocracy who makes his living by gambling because no other work is open to him;
and in the “documentary realism” of Drifters (John Grierson, 1929).
In other words, even in a European country that was not self-consciously attempting to produce films for the “art cinema” market of the ’20s, there was still a substantial body of films that display what we would identify today as the effects of modernist sensibility.
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This was not the case in Australia, and I think that it was not the case at least partly because of an Australian perception of this country’s “difference” from Great Britain. From its inception in the early years of the twentieth century to the release of Cecil Holmes’s compilation feature, Three In One in 1957 – that is, for at least half a century – the Australian cinema did not produce a single film that shows convincing evidence of aspiring to the status of any kind of “high art”. Australian films were resolutely populist in this period.
The best Australian film made during this half-century (and surely one of the best films made anywhere before 1920) was Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke (1919). Nowadays perhaps we may see it as a pure work of Australian Art-with-a-capital-A, but its clear intention was to appeal to a broad local audience in the manner of the C. J. Dennis verses which had inspired it – that is, as a popular work to be well-liked by many Australians. Indeed, what marks this film as Australian is its working class vulgarity: its dialect, its rumpled costumes, its coarsely-featured cast, its represented gambling, drunken-ness, stupidity, humour and sentimentality. Perhaps its most memorable scene contrasts the naive simplicity of its protagonist with the poetic pretense of a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: the hero is so artless himself that he responds as though the play were real.
It seems to me that what lies behind The Sentimental Bloke‘s populism both deliberately and unconsciously is its sense of its cultural difference from England, Australia’s “mother country”. The Bloke is far more interested in declaring its Australian-ness than in anything else, and it deliberately eschews employing anything that might suggest “Art” to the viewer to achieve that aim. I think this is because “Art” is understood to be the provenance of bourgeois, culturally-domineering England (and is represented in the film as Shakespearean drama). Modernist touches in The Sentimental Bloke – and there are a few, including a “cinematic” scene in which the lyrics of a song are superimposed as the song is being sung – are there to facilitate the film’s appeal, not to lay claim to the label of “Art”. In declaring itself for populism, however, the Australian cinema after the First World War denied itself what the European cinema of the ’20s was to exploit so well: the posture of the avant garde. It allied itself with the “art-less” position of populist Hollywood and devoted itself to the reproduction of “pre-modern” cultural forms, like moral melodrama and knockabout burlesque comedy. The most “Australian” genres of this period are also the most “old fashioned”: historical films about outlaws and convicts, and rural comedies, known locally as “backblocks farces”.
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Nonetheless, there are intimations, flashes, of modernism in the Australian films of the decade. From those that survive I would nominate four which display facets that might be considered at least arguably modernist.
A moral melodrama like Environment (Gerald M. Hayle), released in Australia in 1927, can serve to remind us perhaps of how “modern” the more popular Victorian melodramas can seem today, with their foregrounded sets of polar oppositions, their allegorical imagery often focussed around what can and cannot be seen, and their strangely equivocal morality. In this film, a young woman poses for a nude painting which is rediscovered at the climax of the film, apparently blighting her chances for marriage and happiness. In the end, however, we learn that behind the painting her father’s will has been concealed – so that the image of her nudity has more or less literally veiled her paternal inheritance, her “real” substance.
Modernity is directly represented in Environment in the character of the degenerate artist, who at one point invites the innocent young woman to dance by asking, “Shall we jazz?”. This is a most wonderfully unmodern modernist request; and I have used it as the title for this paper because the phrase articulates the uneasy status of modernism in these Australian films to perfection. The tracings of Victorian melodrama I have described now appear a great deal more modern than his naive lechery, not to mention his “terribly up-to-date” choice of words.
The Kid Stakes (Tal Ordell), made in the same year, is unusual within its context because of the way in which it is explicitly derived from and indebted to another visual mass medium: in the case, a comic strip called “Fatty Finn”. The comic featured a cast of children and was popular throughout Australia. The film, which was not an animated cartoon, is one of the few examples of Australian slapstick comedy and one of the few films that explicitly exploited the modern urban settings and working class milieu which had been featured nearly ten years before in The Sentimental Bloke. Not only can one detect a certain (perhaps inadvertent) modernism in the cross-media connections of this film, it also begins with a “self-referential” sequence in which the real comic strip cartoonist interacts with the live child actor who plays his cartoon creation, Fatty Finn (who also happens to be the film director’s real life son).
The Kid Stakes deliberately identifies itself as Australian in much the same way that The Sentimental Bloke did, and as part of a strategy to appeal to a broad popular audience. Many other Australian films of the decade were equally interested in proclaiming themselves Australian for the same reasons, and often such films were based on well-known books or plays. Among these, I think that Kenneth Brompton’s Robbery Under Arms (1920) is particularly notable for our purposes. Robbery Under Arms is based upon a “classic” Australian novel about bushranger outlaws – that is, its source material could not be (apparently) more “old fashioned”. Its modernism lies in the way in which a certain photographic realism is constantly intruding into one’s expectations of the film, re-crafting the experience into a kind of travelogue in which narration takes second place to “realistic” visual imagery. It is as if the camera were constantly being distracted, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur in the arcade, by this or that bit of visible Australiana. The expected “psychological” depth of story-telling is replaced by a surface of moving appearances in Robbery Under Arms. In this way the modernity of the film medium goes a long way towards overpowering “pre-modern” aspects of its literary source. And, in the light of this version, the later films based on this novel have all been resolutely “pre-modern” in their concentration on creating a seamless “classical” narrative fabric.
Another film of the period in which plot becomes subordinated to a “realistic” – and in one sequence a “subjective” – cinematic articulation is The Spirit of Gallipoli (Keith Gategood, William Green, 1928). The film is unique in its focus on postwar suburban life. It was made by “amateurs” with no industry experience, and there is a home movie quality to it that gives a peculiarly “modernist” stylistic expression to the modesty of its aims and the meandering casualness of its exposition. In some ways, The Spirit of Gallipoli achieves the elusive goal of fusing populism and modernism in its concentration on the laconic, direct, evocation of the everyday experience of ordinary people. (By comparison, the well-known Weimar modernist “documentary” about everyday life, Menschen am Sonntag [Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, 1929] appears absurdly, pretentiously, overwrought). I would say that this film has some claim to being the best Australian film of the ’20s, even though it is far too little known, in spite of the fact that Ross Cooper, one of the pioneers of contemporary Australian film history has long been its champion.
The cinematographer on Robbery Under Arms, and thus the person most directly responsible for the visual qualities of that film, was a man named Lacey Percival. Percival was also the cinematographer on what is the most obviously “modernistic” Australian film of the ’20s: Painted Daughters (F. Stuart-Whyte, 1925). It is possible then, that someday he may be claimed as the sole Australian cinematic modernist. However, Painted Daughters was directed by a Scot who had film experience in Hollywood – and so perhaps this film might have been made modern because of insidious foreign influence. At any rate, the result of their collaboration is a film with almost no narrative interest (it is about reuniting the members of a chorus line; a task that is accomplished with almost no trouble whatsoever). But instead of a “documentary” or photo-realist treatment, Painted Daughters features a few highly formalised “cinematic” sequences:
An ironic title image shows Father Time in an elaborate trick shot as some kind of cosmetics artist;
The opening sequence rhythmically intercuts narrative intertitles and women dancing, as it moves from the past to the present;
Later in the film there is one of the most surprising and effective early examples of Australian-produced “avant garde” cinema, intended to illustrate the effects of hallucinations induced by alcohol: it shows a drunk assailed by phantom birds.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the film, at least in the incomplete form in which it has survived, does not display the same adroit sense of modernist style as these three sequences.
Of course I have not listed here all the Australian films of the ’20s with ties to modernism in the varied ways in which we understand that term today. Also I have not discussed the ways in which non-white peoples are treated in the films, particularly those identified as Chinese and as aboriginal people, and thus I have not opened the idea of post-coloniality out much beyond the fraught dimension of Australia’s “British Empire” identity. (Many films of the period deal in diverse ways with ethnic differences, including A Girl of the Bush [Franklyn Barrett, 1921], The Jungle Woman [Frank Hurley, 1926, The Menace [Cyril J. Sharpe, 1928], The Birth of White Australia [Phil K. Walsh, 1928], and The Devil’s Playground [Victor Brindley, 1928].)
However, I think the examples I have cited may be taken as typical of how stylistic modernism sporadically manifested itself in Australian films of the ’20s, and may even be used as the basis for a preliminary categorisation of the ways in which modernism makes itself apparent in these films.
In overt narrative formalism, symbolism and moral equivocation derived from Victorian melodrama.
In cross-media references and other gestures pointing outside the film world to a world understood as modern (for example, to the effects of newspapers, aeroplanes, radio, even urban stress in The Shattered Illusion [A. G. Harbrow, 1928]).
In the use of visual “documentary realism” in conflict with filmed narrative.
In certain deliberately “cinematic” sequences (including instances of “self-referentiality”).
The fate of modernism in Australian films of this period is intimately tied up with white Australia’s conflicted relationship with England and its attempts to make a cultural identity out of its populist working-class and outcast understanding of its origins. Modernism, because of its clear aesthetic and intellectual aspirations, could find little overt place in the popular entertainment which characterised the Australian film industry of the period. It would have to wait until the late 1950s before making a deliberate and substantial impact.
- I should like to take this opportunity to thank Eichi Tosaki, Freda Freiberg and Fiona Villella for the various ways in which they have given me the chance to write on this topic, and to the members of the Japan-Australia Modernism Study Group for their interest during the paper’s initial presentation on August 16th, as well as their productive questions and comments afterwards.
- See Alain Masson, L’Image et la parole: l’avènement du cinéma parlant (Paris, La Différence, 1989), pp. 13-46 and passim.