By Danni Zuvela for OtherFilm
The scene is a screen, but split into three. A line, radiating from centre frame, separates the left trident (tinted green) from the top trident (magenta) and the right (violet). Each segment bristles with movement – crowds, cars and cranes – the pulse of the city. The tinted hubbub tumbles, as the colours and images cycle, shifting from pane to pane. A slow-motion exploding plaster bust appears, an insistent transition that overtakes the whole frame. Only, the explosion occurs in reverse, so that the scattered fragments gather and combine themselves into the shape of a human head.
This kaleidoscopic film is Albie Thoms’ Man and His World (1966). It may only be 50 seconds long, but nevertheless, it embodies themes we associate with Albie – kaleidoscopic vision, an urge to reinvent forms, and an enthusiasm for the city and the life within it – themes that have influenced our collective work as OtherFilm. In 2012, we curated Albie’s Man and His World in a program of Australian experimental film work shown in Norway at the Grimstad Short Film Festival and at the Oslo Cinémathèque. But our “Albie story” goes back much further.
An Optical Unconscious
First, there were words. Before we’d seen the films – or even read the book about Ubu – there were Albie’s own writings, which, as post-graduate students excited by the art of cinema, we would eagerly devour. The stories of avant-garde cinema, we realised, were often told by insiders – energised, urgent accounts by makers and organisers who were also critics, archivists, historians and polemicists (Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal, Peter Kubelka, Peter Weibel, etc). Albie was one of these embedded scribes. His writing – in the pages of 1978’s Polemics for a New Cinema: Writings to Stimulate New Approaches to Film, the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op publication Filmnews, and before that, Ubunews – chronicled the life of an avant-garde “filmer” in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s. For those who would probe the energies of past avant-garde projects, his words describe a vibrant native tradition, triangulating Australian work with better-known canonical postwar practice of both the European avant-gardes and the New American Cinema.
Then, there was conversation. Talking to Albie allowed us an even deeper access; to understand and fashion our relationship with this shared past, to participate in its logic. In 2002, Danni interviewed Albie both to further “place” him in relation to these international movements, and to unpack how a group of young film radicals were able to reclaim the tag “Australian” from the dark waters of the Cringe (one of those early interviews was published in Senses of Cinema). We learned how Ubu devised and operated an effective alternative national institution for the production, distribution and exhibition of films, both pre-figuring the full-blown “revival” of the Australian film industry and equalling the more widely discussed parallel international avant-garde movements. In talking directly with Albie – reliably generous, encouraging and encyclopaedic – we could register and better understand the diachronic shifts between his era and ours. But these conversations also disclosed some quite wonderful threads of commonality between our different life-worlds, especially the territory we shared in our mutual love of the event of cinema (optical, acoustic, somatic, affective).
The hard part of all this, for us in the early 2000s, was dealing with the difficulties that beset concepts like “the nation” and “history” (and perhaps, especially, “Australia”: incipient or implied nationalism; the unconfronted, under-acknowledged Australian legacy of violent dispossession; the inherent fiction of the construct of the nation, etc). Our “days of wine and rage”, we realised, were different to Albie’s. The easy part was getting turned on to Albie’s films and Ubu’s experimental entertainment agenda.
The Movement of People Doing
If the idea of exploring a national history was perverse in an era which saw History itself as suspect, all while a monster called Globalisation was on the brink of obliterating national borders, the idea of forming a collective, which is another key inspiration we can trace back to Albie, made more sense. At the time when we first met Albie, and heard first-hand about Ubu’s exploits, a new wave of radicalism was breaking; activists, outsiders and the disaffected were everywhere (re)grouping, mobilising electronically to make trouble – and, especially, to organise. Collective organisation to share common ideas, skills and goals, and so achieve common dreams – for the children of postmodernism, this romantic nonsense suddenly made a whole lot of sense. We watched as other artists and filmmakers struggled out from under the yoke of the Howard-Bush neo-liberalist nightmare, out of despair and into possibility through a revival of 1960s-style communitarianism and collective action. Idealism beckoned alluringly. It wasn’t exactly retro charm or the appeal of vintage concepts recycled at the dawn of a new millennium; more like an atavistic appeal, even a certain ahistorical – or transhistorical – danger. We already knew about prior film avant-gardes for whom theory and practice came together as praxis. What we learned from the success of Ubu – the pragmatics of the event-based co-operative model – led us to try it ourselves.
Getting Our Ink On
From reading and hearing about Albie’s Ubu period, we took the model of cooperative organisation; the staging of multimedia events in which the cinema space expands, fusing screen world and physical environ; and also the practical grassroots activities of film workshops. In particular, the publication of Ubu Films’ Handmade Film Manifesto in 1967 (“Let no-one say they cannot afford to make a film”), followed by the issue featuring the “Handmade Film Kit” – complete with film strips, markers and inks, emery boards and more – inspired us to create a similar context. In a handmade film workshop, the cinematic space expands from the physical to the social, and even discursive, as the projected image is brought back to its material base and tactile, human-readable existence. The body of the audience merges with the body of the film; everyone gets a little inky and a little sticky and what you create is unpredictable, abstract and goes through the projector way faster than you ever thought it would. We staged our first handmade film workshop at our first festival in 2004, also screening some of Ubu’s beautiful surviving “synthetic films”, including Albie’s gorgeous Bluto (1967), and have been intermittently staging them ever since (1).
Albie’s earliest film and stage work was aimed at upsetting the specific viewing position of classical cinema, which he saw as an emblem of the conservative status quo. His early stagings of the Theatre of Cruelty as part of Sydney University Dramatic Society, and his love of Antonin Artaud, thrilled us, not least for giving a kind of permission to indulge in what was in our era a quite severely passé Euro-modernism. Also, the brio of his staging such ambitious works in the university setting to audiences of students, artists, writers and filmmakers: why not? Having just witnessed the eviscerating spectacle of Howard’s revenge on the student movement, and with Albie’s encouragement, for our first OtherFilm Festival (OFF) in 2004 we occupied the theatre at the Queensland College of Art and positioned the artists and musicians in the audience seating, and the audience in beanbags on the stage. Though we’ve moved on from campus shenanigans to programming for international art museums and festivals, in our live events we continue to honour his favourite Albie-quoted Artaud-ism – that “theatre is a delirium and should be communicative” (2).
We realised that with freedom came constraints, and then compromises; and of course we realised that after the heady heyday of Ubu, the 1970s “institutional” period led to a kind of mellowed compromise between our favourite film radical and the world at large.
We continued to enjoy his later work – the chance to discover new depths to the Australian bohemian tradition through his surf film work and Bohemians in the Bush (1986), with an especial fondness for the narrative radicalism of Palm Beach (1980), with its storytelling optics offset by the deeply Brechtian ostranenie (re)organisation of sound. Up to the end, Albie was a font of information, and remained an impassioned advocate for Australian experimental film. Throughout his last October, he exchanged lively emails with Danni, full of new reflections on “underground” cinema in the “Swinging Sixties”, and happily returned to discussions of artistic ancestors and influences. Danni last visited Albie on the 18 October 2012, after reading his memoirs and with yet more questions about Australian avant-garde history. Though as willing to revive the past as ever, Albie seemed more interested in talking about what was happening today, enthusing over the news that there was to be a fourth OtherFilm Festival showcasing international expanded cinema performance, and localised mayhem. “Knock ’em out!” was his advice to us.
Our much-treasured, drop-out-riddled Ubu Films VHS tapes are now remediated, as is customary, as shiny DVD releases. The articles, photographs and posters we once pored over in books, or sweated over hot, recalcitrant microfiche machines for are now a mere click away. The patient, idealistic, encouraging man to whom we owe so much is no longer with us. But the man, and his world, remains very much a part of us, of our world. We are still discovering new depths to the inspiration Albie provided, and like to think that in some small way our collective – now nine years young – is an ongoing part of his legacy.
Albie Thoms passed away at his home in Sydney on 28 November 2012 – on the eve of the opening night of our festival. In honour of his remarkable life, and to thank him for everything, we dedicated our festival to him.
- See a recording of the ANU workshop films at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMAYcDQH5-U; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4vQHejb-HU.
- We paraphrased this line in our 2012 OFF catalogue essay: “Technology and Phenomena”: http://otherfilm.org/off2012/.