I met Albie Thoms only once, in 2009, when the Australian Centre for the Moving Image revived his 1969 feature Marinetti – an avant-garde extravaganza described in Thoms’ 1978 essay collection Polemics For a New Cinema as “a trip, a voyage of discovery, an eighty-minute experience of the delirium of life” (1). I remember talking to him briefly about the film’s initial reception; his attitude was modest, implying that this kind of far-out experiment was never going to draw large crowds. Now it’s too late, I wish I’d asked him how he’d come to feel about the faith he often expressed in his writings of the 1960s and ’70s – that Hollywood-style filmmaking belonged to history, and that non-narrative cinema would soon be as widely appreciated as rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no doubt Thoms felt some frustration, back then, at his failure to reach a mass audience: in an article published in 1970, he enviously looked toward rock music as “a sophisticated electronic expression medium”, far beyond the technically primitive efforts of underground moviemakers working in what remained “a clandestine unpopular form” (2).
Thoms wasn’t wrong to think that the younger generation hungered for new visual experiences – his collective Ubu Films helped to pioneer spectacular light shows at rock concerts, and he predicted the rise of the music video well ahead of time. Still, his expectation that cinema would abandon its old ways came no closer to realisation than most 1960s dreams: for all the possibilities which have since been opened up by digital technology – and which Thoms eagerly anticipated in his writings – popular cinema from Hollywood and elsewhere continues to rely on the same narrative conventions it did 50 or a hundred years ago. Thoms himself retreated from avant-garde activity at the end of the 1970s, following the publication of Polemics and the release of his last feature film, the modernist detective story Palm Beach (1980). Partly an examination of what happened when the wave of counterculture euphoria finally broke, it’s his nearest approach to traditional genre fiction (barring his potboiling TV work) and, ironically, one of the peaks of his career.
Starting well before the government-led launch of the Australian film revival, Thoms was one of the leading figures in Australian film culture – an ideas man, a hype merchant, a mover and shaker in multiple fields, always instinctively anti-establishment though capable of playing by the rules if need be. (Famously, while he was making his name as an avant-garde firebrand he also worked for Channel Nine, writing and directing episodes of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo: one of his Skippy scripts pits an elderly birdwatcher against a couple of noisy water-skiers, a generational clash that ends in new mutual understanding.) Though his filmmaking is not to be dismissed, he equally deserves to be recognised as one of the leading advocates for experimental cinema in Australia from the late 1960s onward: much of this essential journalism is collected in Polemics, which remains an immensely lively, readable book.
Thoms’ writing suggests certain paradoxes. He was, on the one hand, an unabashed nationalist, extolling “the Australian virility, the nobullshit getonwithit energy that pushes Australians to success wherever they may be” (3). Yet he was also a roving magpie in search of fresh artistic possibilities, travelling widely in Europe and the US and sending back festival reports aimed at alerting Australians to the latest trends. As Philippe Mora aptly noted in a Sydney Morning Herald obituary (4), Polemics must be the only book that includes chapters on both Dad and Dave director Ken G. Hall and scatological Austrian performance artist Otto Muehl; there are also discussions of surrealism, formalism, abstraction, burlesque, “expanded cinema”, visual diaries, structuralism (in two senses), rock documentaries, surf movies, pornography, feminism, and even plain old fictional narrative.
Through it all, Thoms remained a loyal disciple of the surrealists and of Antonin Artaud; in Polemics he consistently treats cinema as an instrument for the transformation of consciousness, leading ultimately to sexual and social revolution. Thus the battle against censorship is closely aligned with other battles for freedom of the mind and body, and film experiences are frequently understood as drug trips by other means. Characteristically, his rave review of Far Be It From Me It [sic] (1970), by his Ubu comrade Aggy Read, maintains that Read’s use of an “alpha rhythm flicker […] physically affects the central nervous system, inducing hallucinations of colour and pattern that are not printed onto the film emulsion” (5). Thoms is all in favour of such Dionysian ecstasies, though he grows suspicious when similar techniques are turned to commercial purposes – objecting to Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), for example, on the grounds that it “hardly appeals to the intellect and does nothing to develop political consciousness” (6).
Despite such occasional admonishments, Thoms was never any kind of film purist. Rather than focusing solely on form, his writings make a case for the documentary value of various brands of “new cinema”, as an antidote to the worn-out conventions of fiction. This approach has the advantage of implying a continuity between the avant-garde and other filmmaking subcultures: George Greenough’s surf movie The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1969) is praised as “the first record from inside the waves” (7), and porn movies are seen as evidence of the range of the human sexual spectrum. A 1974 article takes issue with P. Adams Sitney’s theoretical notion of the “structural film”, insisting that even an experiment as rigorous as Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) contains an element of narrative, “finely related to the film’s structure but not obliterated by it” (8). As it happened, Thoms had already made his own version of a “structural film” in Bolero (1967), which Sitney compared unfavourably to Wavelength (9) – though in fact it’s less a formal exercise than a satire of Hollywood pretension, with its grandiose opening credits that occupy almost half the 14-minute running time.
Thoms’ libertarian views can be traced back to his early involvement with the larrikin philosophers of the Sydney Push (according to Tony Moore’s recent history of Australian bohemianism, this affiliation also determined his fashion choices, “from his desert boots to his goatee” ). Most of the Ubu productions by Thoms and others were very much in the Push spirit, with a strong dose of innocent chauvinism exemplified by Aggy Read’s Boobs a Lot (1968). In a sense Ubu owed more to a boisterous Australian tradition dating back to Norman Lindsay than to Artaud or Alfred Jarry: suggestively, the movement flourished around the same time Michael Powell came to Sydney to shoot the interior scenes for his Lindsay adaptation Age of Consent (1969), though I’m unaware of any crossover between the two filmmaking camps. The hardboiled manner of Thoms’ journalism strikes a related note of ocker bravado: whether he’s discussing a Dutch erotic film festival or the potential of new video technologies, he often sounds like the kind of ratbag bloke who’ll talk your head off at the pub, insisting his most extravagant yarns are the plain unvarnished truth.
Many of Thoms’ wildest futuristic visions have indeed come to pass: his envisaged “materialist cyberno-technocracy that political revolutionaries don’t seem to comprehend” (11) is, for better or worse, the society we now inhabit. In the early 1970s, he was already taking for granted that video would replace film as the default audio-visual medium, making the basic tools of moviemaking ever more widely available; his most prophetic essay, 1974’s “Visions of Video Village”, foretells email, online shopping, Skype, YouTube and more. Other predictions were fancifully optimistic: “Watching Big Brother”, written in 1973, imagines an age of omnipresent surveillance cameras allowing citizens to keep tabs on the government rather than vice-versa (12). “Video Village” ends by expressing a yearning for transformation in the most literal sense: “I believe the end product of electro-magnetic exploration is alchemical, that eventually the wired city will not only transmit information but also matter” (13). The materialist mysticism at the heart of Thoms’ dream of cinema is another reminder of his philosophical background, recalling the urge to dominate the physical universe that becomes a leitmotif in Harry Hooton (Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, 1970) – a key Australian avant-garde film from the same era as Marinetti, made in tribute to a poet and thinker who crucially influenced the Push in its earlier years.
Nowadays, filmmakers working outside the mainstream have all the technological tools they could hope for, but often little idea what to do with them. 21st century Australian film culture could use more troublemakers like Thoms, with his downright style, free-ranging international outlook, and refusal to buy into an unquestioning belief in storytelling as cinema’s central purpose. If some of his polemics have dated, others could have been written yesterday – such as the marvellously-titled “Australian Cinema at the Zero Point”, a 1976 attack on film funding bodies and their insistence on “an articulate literary script in which all the characteristics of the proposed film can be judged in advance”. As the piece points out, it’s an approach which actively discourages innovation: “Since their only yardstick is what has succeeded in the past, no genuine, future-seeking cinema will ever be permitted” (14).
As a personal aside, a year or so after the Marinetti screening I found myself sitting on a panel with an Australian film academic and sometime script editor who told the audience of would-be filmmakers they should concentrate on reading screenplays instead of watching movies; an exception was made for Disney and Pixar cartoons, which merited study as models of universal narrative grammar. I can only imagine what Thoms would have said about that, or about The Australian’s back-handed review of his posthumously published memoir My Generation – which described the Sydney Filmmakers Co-Op (co-founded by Thoms) as “a nest of pothead amateurs” (15), but conceded they had to be doing something right given that former members have so far won three Academy Awards. Thoms himself never had his Oscar moment, but I don’t suppose he felt he was missing out.
1. Albie Thoms, Polemics For A New Cinema: Writings to Stimulate New Approaches to Film, Wild & Woolley, Sydney, 1978, p. 95.
2. Thoms, p. 242.
3. Thoms, p. 155.
4. Philippe Mora, “Champion of film as art pushed boundaries”, Sydney Morning Herald 5 December 2012: www.smh.com.au/national/obituaries/champion-of-film-as-art-pushed-boundaries-20121204-2at3o.html.
5. Thoms, p. 150.
6. Thoms, p. 105.
7. Thoms, p. 124.
8. Thoms, p. 262.
9. P. Adams Sitney, “Jury’s Statement”, Film Culture October 1968, excerpted in Peter Mudie, Ubu Films: Sydney Underground Movies 1965-1970, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1997, p. 87.
10. Tony Moore, Dancing With Empty Pockets, Murdoch Books, 2012. Unpaginated.
11. Thoms, p. 288.
12. Thoms, p. 296-7.
13. Thoms, p. 301-302.
14. Thoms, p. 340.
15. Toby Creswell, “Revelling in the Art of Rebellion”, The Australian 16 February 2013: www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/revelling-in-the-art-of-rebellion/story-fn9n8gph-1226578094927.