The first thing to say about Martha Ansara’s book is that it is a gorgeous object, perhaps the best argument against e-books that I have seen this year. With its large coffee-table format, glossy white type on black design and painstakingly printed images, it is everything that a book produced by cinematographers should be. It compels us to regard photographic images as tangible and potentially beautiful things, and not to take them lightly by simply viewing them as ‘content’ or looking past them to their referents. In handling this book, I felt some of the care (and even reverence) necessary in the fast-disappearing skill of handling film.
The Shadowcatchers has been written by Ansara on behalf of the Australian Cinematographers’ Society. It opens with a very fine picture of a young Martha wielding her Spectra. This is an account written by someone who has combined the roles of filmmaker and academic as few have been able to in this country. It is the work of a historian who is also deeply engaged in the craft she studies. She actually talks to filmmakers, which is a refreshing development in Australian film studies, where academics have been much more likely to read French theory than dirty their hands on a film set.
Australian film production has always been marked by its fractures and discontinuities but this study asserts a historical continuity that links Arthur Higgins with Dion Beebe. I often wonder if one of the burdens under which Australian film production labours is the lack of any profound sense of being part of a historical lineage. Werner Herzog can remake Nosferatu (1979) as a way of proclaiming a close national connection dating to the silent period, Carpenter and DePalma can reference their classical Hollywood fathers by invoking Hawks and Hitchcock, but Australian filmmakers go parentless into the world. The absence of any nationalist connection to cinema history means that the gap between cinephiles and cineastes in Australia has been all but absolute. Mark Hartley even has to import Quentin Tarantino when he needs a cinephile to speak up for Australia’s recent cinematic past.
Ansara begins by announcing larger historical ambitions than simply writing a record of a craft guild. Her introduction registers an intention to launch a revisionist history of Australian cinema on the basis that ‘our film history too often regurgitates the evasions and exaggerations of documents deliberately manufactured for marketing purposes, and because many of the most interesting aspects of our history are not documented at all’ (p. 4). The first myth she sets out to revise is the notion that early Australia filmmakers were serious rivals to Hollywood. This was an idea espoused by Joan Long and others in order to provide the political impetus for the subsidisation of a feature film industry at the end of the 1960s. If it could happen once, it could happen again: thus the notion of a renaissance. However Australian filmmaking has always been poor, has always had to find ways of improvising makeshift solutions, and has always had to seek out places on the margins in order to sustain itself. Even in the period of government subsidy, these structural problems have endured. As Ansara notes, the real problems are at the level of distribution yet government policy has tried to solve them exclusively at the level of production (p. 184).
Given that the photographs are the main attractions here, Ansara’s method is that of the mosaic. There are short self-contained blocks of text that give an overview of a historical moment, then she moves on to a segment on a particular cinematographer, and some break-out boxes with quotes from oral histories, all supported by an array of photographs from the National Film and Sound Archives and the personal collections of ASC members.
Here and there, I have a few qualms related to the detail of some of the overviews. The section on the 1927 Royal Commission (p. 45) is by no means revisionist. Instead we are given a fairly standard account that is inaccurate about the way block-booking worked and demonises those all-purpose villains of Australian cultural nationalism, the Americans. This is the result of writing history from the perspective of production—which is the least significant sector of the film industry. Then, as now, distribution is at the heart of any understanding of cinema as an industry. The claim, on p.51, that ‘by the end of the 1920s Australasian Films…was still Australia’s biggest distributor’ is simply wrong. Australasian wound up its distribution activities in 1928 and when it re-entered the distribution sector it did so largely through handling British films (1).
Where Ansara’s claims to revisionism are amply justified in her efforts to reposition Australian film production as more than simply feature films, given that newsreels were the main form of permanent employment up until the 1960s and television commercials for a time after that. At the present moment, television thrives where feature films struggle, and as Ansara points out, the current mix of television genres is not so different from the days of Cinesound and Movietone (p. 185). Secondly, she stresses the work of an array of craftsmen whose names are not well known in their own country, extending the range of our knowledge by pointing to individuals and companies who are rarely mentioned. An Adelaide reader like me will be pleased to see features on Pat Walter and Anifex, as an acknowledgement that North Ryde is not the ‘edge of the known world’ (as AFTRS’ history once put it) (2). Ansara also breaks fresh ground in seeing Australian films as the result of material processes of manufacture. There is significant information to be gleaned on camera types, lenses, viewing systems, orthochromatic film stock, camera mounts as well as newfangled digital imaging systems. Any materialist history of Australian cinema should take note of issues such as when Bell and Howell cameras were first used here, just as it should be interested in the ways in which laboratories have incorporated digital services.
The mythology of the Aussie battler is written all over the reminiscences of the old blokes. The picture that emerges of the Australian production industry up into the 1950s is one that is exclusively male, blokey, and heavily anti-intellectual. This is in keeping with the divisions within government filmmaking that have been described by Albert Moran (3). Howard Rubie tells of being ostracised after invoking the ideas of John Grierson (p. 77) and Hugh McInnes disparages intellectuals as ‘pinks’ in distinction to his own emphasis on technicians, equating anti-intellectualism with the working class (p. 79). There is a commentary here on the exclusivity that has dogged Australian film production, where those who have struggled so hard to carve out a niche for themselves look disdainfully on others. There is also an insight into the conservatism of Australian filmmaking, where the mastery of the ‘correct’ ways of doing things is the source of a pride in professionalism. Given the marginal status of much of the employment in film production, that sense of professionalism becomes magnified as something to which filmmakers cling tenaciously.
Whether Australian cinema was working class, it was, and is, a poor cinema in relation to its major competitor, Hollywood. Ansara is very good on telling the story of the tactics adopted by the poor. Take her pages on Arthur Higgins for example. She cites Arthur Hansen’s comments that the Higgins brothers did not go in for ‘spicy looking lighting.’ Compare this to Lea Jacobs’ analysis of Lasky lighting in Hollywood at the same period or Patrick Keating’s history of the techniques and analytical discourses of American cinematographers during the silent period (4). As Hansen points out, Australian cinematographers simply did not have the equipment to care more about controlled lighting. What they had instead was the ability to improvise rough chemical solutions to overcome the lack of light meters or sophisticated laboratories. The book is most absorbing when it goes into detail on the techniques by which negatives were controlled (timing the amount of processing rather than the amount of exposure) and optical effects such as fades and dissolves improvised in the camera. It is through details such as these that Ansara succeeds in reconstituting Australian filmmaking as a material process rather than the imagined fantasy of what might exist, which Deb Verhoeven once picked out as one of the major themes in Australian cinema historiography (5).
The book details not only the practices involved in Australian filmmaking but also what following Janet Staiger, we might recast in terms of a distinctive mode of production (6). Ansara writes of the cameraman-director mode giving way in the late 1950s to the ascendancy of younger, educated producers and directors (p. 92). Technical skill and the ability of heroic individuals to improvise are the values important in a mode of production that is artisanal with few workers and resources. Film—or at least cinema—changes at the end of the 1950s. It is no longer the dominant leisure medium. It moves towards the margins of audio-visual entertainment where it is now consumed within the rubric of art. The director now comes forward as a necessity of production. Film has to be more than technically accomplished, and the filmmaker has to think beyond simply exposing good quality images. It has to become a business whose major activity is securing finance and hence it has become, as Howard Rubie says, more integrated and systematic in the ways that projects were planned out so that they could be approved in advance by those providing the money (p. 112). Rubie attributes this shift to the central place occupied by television commercials in the 1960s, though it is clearly an imperative that is relevant to the later culture of subsidisation by government authorities.
In the post-renaissance period, then, the cinematographer changes from the improvising battler to the skilled team coordinator and (as much as the old blokes might hate it) the artist. The cameraman now becomes the DOP and the cinematographer. Ansara adapts the auteurist convention of parenthesising the cinematographer’s name after titles, asserting an authorial claim. This is a useful strategic move if it makes us pay greater attention to the distinctive elements of visual style associated with the work of individuals. Some of the names she features will be familiar: Russell Boyd, Dean Semler, Andrew Lesnie, but the book certainly expanded my sense of a pantheon of contemporary Australian cinematographers adding names such as Peter James and Pieter de Vries.
This is a picture book whose primary purpose is celebration rather than detailed analysis though sometimes we are left wanting more analytical detail. Surely no one can disagree with the proposition that Dion Beebe has a ‘strong visual style, working with writer-directors on unusual and artistically committed stories’ (p. 246). However, by itself the claim does not mean a whole lot and as an enthusiast for Beebe’s work, I am intrigued to see how the proposition might be expanded. The yield in other areas is considerably higher. While Dermody and Jacka famously wrote of the ‘AFC genre’ of Australian films produced in the 1970s, Ansara’s description of Peter James’ working methods (p. 166) provides an array of detailed techniques that generated the distinctive look of these films (7). These include the use of specific filters, gauzes, and gelled lighting. Similarly John Seale’s description of his working methods to include ‘Multiple cameras always, zooms, cross-shooting, high-speed Kodak stock’ (p. 206) provides a handy checklist of techniques that go a long way towards accounting for the visual style of so much contemporary Hollywood cinema.
Since my copy of The Shadowcatchers arrived, I keep on finding it on other people’s bookshelves and desks as well, where it is pointed it out to me as their proudest new possession. It is not hard to see why. This is a book that takes seriously the work of Australian filmmakers as individuals with agency and with skill. No doubt it will provide ACS members with a profound sense of accomplishment. Hopefully it will also give Australian film academics an enhanced sense of the possibilities that can stem from opening up a wider and more productive dialogue with filmmakers.
Martha Ansara, The Shadowcatchers: A History of Cinematography in Australia (North Sydney: Austcine, 2012), 288pp.
- Mike Walsh, ‘The Empire of the Censors: Film Censorship in the Dominions’, Journal of Popular British Cinema, 3 (2000), p.54.
- Meredith Quinn and Andrew L. Urban eds., Edge of the Known World (Sydney: Australian Film Television and Radio School, 1998).
- Albert Moran, Projecting Australia: Government Films Since 1945 (Paddington: Currency Press, 1991).
- Lea Jacobs, ‘DeMille, Belasco and the Development of Lasky Lighting,’ Film History 5, no. 4 (Dec 1992): 405-418; Patrick Keating, Hollywood Lighting: From the Silent Era to Film Noir (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
- Deb Verhoeven, ‘The Film I Would Like to Make: In Search of a Cinema (1927-1970) in James Sabine, ed., A Century of Australian Cinema (Port Melbourne: Australian Film Institute/William Heinemann, 1995) 130-153.
- Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
- Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia Volume 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema (Sydney: Currency Press, 1988).