Due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the always-circumspect nature of the Australian film industry itself, there are very few Australian fiction films about cinema. This lays in contrast to the substantive literature, and even documentary practice (works such as Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! [Mark Hartley, 2008] and The Celluloid Heroes [Robert Francis, 1995] come to mind), that maps out Australia as an influential case study in national cinema. Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront (1978) is a dynamic if somewhat cautious exception to this rule, an ironic celebration of a national cinema for a country without a strong or consistent filmmaking tradition. Set in the late 1940s and 1950s, the film displays an impressive and often subtle array of references to a wide variety of filmmaking practices (characteristically conceived in terms of work – a key theme of Australian cinema up until the 1980s – rather than art), historical turning points (cultural, social and political), and particular historical identities and industry legends (all beneath the veneer of fiction). Although it has many bravura set-pieces, and is technically still a landmark of Australian cinema in its deft combination of historical newsreel and newly-shot footage, I want to single-out a quieter and less showy moment from the film, a moment that denies, quite appropriately, the epithet “key”.
In reality, my moment is actually split in two across the “breadth” of the film – one inconceivable, incomplete and considerably less rich or resonant without the other. But my choice also, and again appropriately, reflects my own interests and concerns while doing justice to Newsfront’s genuinely incorporative vision. It also reflects the possibilities suggested by this moment – and its context – rather than anything explicit about its presentation. The first moment appears towards the end of the initial 30 minutes of the film and is included within a sequence showing many of the film’s central characters helping to build an extension to Len Maguire’s (a newsreel director and the film’s protagonist, emblematically played by Bill Hunter) family home. It shows cameraman Chris Hewitt (Chris Haywood) setting up the filming of a brief home movie, complete with a roughly staged piece of old-fashioned slapstick. This is then followed by a more protracted and deflated worldly scene in the last section of the film (set in 1956) that finally shows Maguire’s family watching the home movie shot in 1949, an artefact that has gained extra poignancy as a result of Chris’ death in the 1955 Maitland Flood (but this poignancy or melancholy is equally related to the changing and conservative political times, as well as the loss of the film industry itself).
There are two things that I find quietly remarkable in this second scene or moment. First, in its calmness and matter-of-factness, its emphasis on the quotidian, it refers to the sense of nostalgia commonly attached to the aesthetic, materiality and temporality of the home movie. Second, this moment also situates the home movie as an unexplored and under-examined component of Australian cinema; a missed opportunity, particularly in the context of the lean period of feature film production that characterises the 25 years after World War II. On display in this “moment” is the possibility of a counter-history, or alternative history, that incorporates the full range of Australia’s moving image heritage. What is profound in Noyce’s film is that it chooses to place this, often domestic, practice alongside a range of others (the newsreel, early television, war-time reportage, the intermittently vibrant ’30s feature industry).
This moment is also very successful in miming or aping both the form and conventional reception context of the home movie, sitting in contrast to the more developed, highly charged but ultimately less believable and forced uses of the form in such films as Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers (1983) – where the regularly interspersed mock home movie material blurs categorisation in its Peeping Tom-like use of Werner Herzog as an oedipal father figure – and Ground Zero (Michael Pattinson, 1987; where it ultimately provides evidence of a conspiracy surrounding the Maralinga nuclear tests). In a fashion that is in keeping with its more general view of Australian film history and the moving image archive – and its continued value – Newsfront incorporates the uncommon and rarely documented form of the home movie as a terra incognita, a vast continent of largely uncharted cinema. The straightforward and appropriately underplayed nature of this performance is perfectly illustrated by the child’s request that brings the brief screening to an end: “Can we play Monopoly now?” It is one of a series of moments in the film that suggest a more complete and varied film history than has often been outlined, and which the discourses surrounding Australia’s national cinema, and the myth of the “void” or the “interval” of the ’50s and ’60s, encourage us to disregard. It is a quietly visionary moment that gently asks us – or perhaps it just talks to me – to look elsewhere.