“Another sacred fire has gone out…” That’s the opening line of the poem I recited at the wake for Shelton Lea in 2005. Now I want to say it again for Albie.
As a filmnik (not the same as “film buff”) during the 1960s I was seeing as many dramatic narrative and documentary films as were available for projection on 16mm projectors. These were in addition to the range of entertainment films on release in commercial cinemas. I was aware of Albie and his collaborators, especially David Perry, and saw much of the work of his contemporary explorers of the motion picture medium: most notably the Cantrills and Paul Winkler. I now regret that I did not attempt to make a systematic overview of the output of these and other dedicated pioneers.
During the ’60s there was an undeclared but occasionally belligerent separation of the two camps: characterised at their respective extremes by commercially compromised crap versus experimentally self-deluded indulgence. In my experience practitioners on both sides talked about the other more freely than they talked to them.
Albie was often the figurehead for the “experimentals” – he seemed to handle the controversy more easily than some of his comrades. He could say and do some attention-getting things, and all that created an “image”, a politique. However, while taking up one extreme of an argument, he did not eschew the other until he had sampled and examined it. I remember my surprise when he expressed admiration for a scene in The Godfather; I was ready to dismiss the whole movie as laboriously illustrated sub-literature, but he warmly invoked the rambling mise en scène of the old man and his infant grandson in the garden.
I should have remembered that scene favourably: one of the attitudes I shared with Albie was a mistrust amounting to hostility for the pervading authoritarianism of so much narrative mise en scène. We had seen it gradually supplant the “classical narrative” advocated by Bazin, as economically rational television saved a range of production costs by reliance on rapid alternation of tight framed singles and over-shoulder shots, and frequently dispensed with the “logic” of establishing shots and progressive frame content. Financial considerations drove a radical change in the dominant style and – some of us protested – sensibility. The practice of arbitrary (i.e., “non-logical”) framing and cutting persisted into broadcast TV’s third decade, by which time some well resourced feature films were being entrusted to directors whose formative years of absorbing motion picture grammar had been spent in front of television sets. Regrettably I never put Albie to the test on this issue by checking out the style of some of the episodes of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo he directed. Though I concede that some producers “stand over” young directors when it comes to storyboarded set-ups, I can’t imagine that Albie would let that happen to him more than once.
I like to think that, as theoretical warriors, Albie and I were on the same critical spectrum but at opposite ends of it. I sometimes wrote and often argued about issues for contemplation, whereas he put exploratory ideas into production – actual films!
We both took a long hard look at the taken-for-granted factors of perception, the presumed limits of intelligibility and tolerance. Whereas I was working backward into the history of mainstream entertainment – the beginnings of habits and attitudes we now take for granted – he was putting contemporary limits to the breaking test – straining for the beginnings of new, unfamiliar experiences. We were both exploring – sometimes making discoveries: e.g., in the use of sound: I can’t say I was the first to comment critically on such examples as the dying soldier’s cry for “Mother” in Four Sons (on the soundtrack – but isn’t it a silent film?), the withheld dialogue when the audience feel they want words spoken in some of Rowland Brown’s early work such as Blood Money, the sensuously vivid cinematic experiences of the pearls rolling across the floor in Morocco, or the suicide’s heavy pistol in Dishonored; in my own encounters with cinema these were insightful discoveries. They have become methods – if not “rules” – available to present day filmmakers, but they had been discoveries for other filmmakers in practice at the dawn of the dramatised sound film.
In Albie’s explorations he was testing new experiences, new matters which might, or might not, be taken-for-granted in the future. Albie’s Bolero does not borrow or “quote” from part of a musical work which has identity and integrity in its own artistic world. His Bolero plays the entire work uninterruptedly: its integrity, its lack of formal subservience to the image, becomes one of the aesthetic dimensions of the movie. You might point to plenty of three-minute films in which a song is heard in its entirety on the soundtrack, but consider the difference when the duration is five times as long – there’s more than duration at work here, it’s something to do with the quality of contemplation. Now consider what Albie did with overlapping soundtracks in Palm Beach…
Essentially I was tasking the taken-for-granted to find where conventions, “rules”, had first emerged and entrenched themselves, while Albie was leaving all that behind to extend accepted practice, to make discoveries which might become the taken-for-granted of the future. We followed different paths but remained aware of each other’s cultural activism, which, I like to believe, were matters of mutual respect. Occasionally those paths crossed: In 1969 Albie was cast as more-or-less himself in Mike Thornhill’s The American Poet’s Visit, the film which marked my baptism as an actor – I had never played a dramatic role, not even in school days. When Mike told me he wanted me to make an appearance as someone more-or-less like me – not merely appear but act – my first enquiry, after a few muttered demurrals, was “OK, where’s the script?” The response to that was “You don’t need a script, Flaus, just talk your usual bullshit, that’ll do”. I managed to act (as distinct from “behave”) on camera to the director’s satisfaction. I reckon this was a factor in Albie’s decision to cast me in Palm Beach a decade later. And it’s an example of Albie’s sardonic (dare I use that word any more without the risk it will be misunderstood?) sense of humour that the name he chose for my role was “Larry Kent”, a popular radio hero in the age before television.
Another crossing of the paths was in 1971 when the recently formed Department of Fine Art at Sydney University consulted a select group of advisers on the possibility of recognising cinema among the fine arts. As I recall, we were a motley crew: Albie, Sylvia Lawson, Mike Thornhill, David Malouf and myself. There were differing opinions about what defined the art and how it might be academically accepted – not surprising, given our respective backgrounds and interests. If Albie felt any temptation to play the Pure Artist in that group and hold out for a syllabus of Art for Art’s Sake he resisted it. My memory is of how damned reasonable he was: don’t think I am being condescending to use that word, it’s intended as a compliment.
In 1979 I was living in Melbourne. It was great honour – as well as a great adventure – to be invited to come up to Sydney for a full-on weekend to act in a feature film Albie was making. I don’t know if he realised that Palm Beach, as he planned it, was going to be unique in the history of world cinema. I presume he did, but he never spoke about it in those terms to me. He asked me to be part of meeting a BIG challenge – that’s what we were facing: a feature length, conventionally plotted continuous narrative film, realistic – in the sense that the probability of events in the story matched probability in the “real” world, with every scene shot in sequence take and all the dialogue improvised by the actors.
When I met Andrew Sarris in 1995 I asked him what he thought of a film which might have that combination of properties; he pondered for a moment and replied, “There is no such movie”. Admittedly, the release version of Palm Beach doesn’t stick to that ideal – e.g., the robbery scene and the party scene, but the point was made with the pundit.
There’s a thundering irony here: Palm Beach won nomination at the 1980 AFI Awards for “Best Screenplay” – yet its final (therefore “official”?) form was a scene-by-scene synopsis. I never challenged Albie on his actions in submitting his work for film awards. In one of our infrequent discussions he concurred with my dismissal of those and other arts awards as “the palace of vanities”. We agreed that the accolade of “best” – an athlete’s laurel – was incongruous in the world of art (yes, even as far back as the popular Dionysian awards in the ancient world). Recognition for long service – now that was a different matter from “best”.
Since I did not challenge, I can only guess at his reasons for entering awards contests. Did he want to take the piss out of the trumpery of these events? Could be, and that might warrant my second use of that troublesome word “sardonic” (!). But here’s a more pragmatic possibility: in that dim past of 30 plus years ago, those who voted at the AFI Awards were required to sit through every film entered. This assured that most of the “heavies” in the local film industry got to see Albie’s history-making opus even though it commanded neither their interest nor respect.
Albie and I crossed paths again in the early 1980s, when we were both elected to the Board of the Australian Film Institute (AFI). From our different viewpoints we felt we were trying to raise standards of “professionalism” by appealing to values which were neither market-oriented nor undermined by hollow patriotism and industrial snobbery. Of course, we didn’t have a lot of success; it’s a bitter footnote to our effectiveness on that august body to recall that when it was decided to recommend the term “actor” would henceforth signify male or female non-discriminately in AFI correspondence, Albie moved that two of the annual Awards, namely “best actress” and “best supporting actress”, should be eliminated. There was momentary consternation (“can this be a serious voting matter?”), before the motion was defeated five votes to two.
Our last conversation was on the phone a few weeks before December 17. He asked me to come to Sydney for the launch of his new book, My Generation, at Paddo Town Hall. He said “You get a guernsey in it”. So I was all set to return to the happy hunting ground of my generation (born in Maroubra, but my spiritual home has ever been East Sydney), when the awful news came. The intended book launch became his wake. I remember I said something like this to the assembly of 400: “My best chance for immortality is that I was in a film made by Albie Thoms”. I stand by that.
I began with a quote from my elegy for Shelton Lea, and I’ll address its ending now to Albie:
Now your ashes with the earth are mingled. Go, rejoin the wheel of life,
That your spirit stark and kindly, in such shapes as dreams are wrought,
May rise and bring us blessing.