The Memorial Event – Thoms’ Resurrection
On 17 December 2012, a large group of people came together in Paddington Town Hall to celebrate Albie Thoms’ life, and to launch his book, a memoir called My Generation, completed just before his death. Of the hundreds of people who attended, many were associates and friends from the ’60s and ’70s, from his days as a libertarian and avant-garde activist filmmaker. The event was hosted by his son and daughter, who were born and grew up in the post ’70s years, when Albie led a more conventional married life in Mosman, and as such they had no direct experience of what Albie will be remembered for in those vigorous decades of fringe film activities when the Australian film industry was undergoing a revival (from near scratch) on various fronts, with the crucial support structure of federal government funding. Also in attendance were some other members of his family who provided perspectives on Albie’s background and origins which were unknown and separate from his film profile and activity.
Albie’s close confrere Dave Perry, provided an opening tribute address, and then the microphone was passed around to audience volunteers who wanted to express their own impromptu personal tributes. These included Gillian Armstrong, Bryan Brown, Jeni Thornley, John Flaus, Richard Keys, Peter Mudie, Jane Oehr, Tom Zubrycki, Jan Chapman and others (up to 20 in all).
Many film notaries and figures from the ’60s and ’70s attended but did not speak. Since many attendees were more intent on reacquainting with each other, a perpetual din pervaded the hall, which increased during Jan Chapman’s speech to launch Albie’s book. This detracted from the focus on Albie. Nevertheless, the event demonstrated that the film life of Albie Thoms was more resonant than so much of the mainstream film industry’s veneer of self-importance and celebrity hype, as it exists today
My Generation – Documenting a Film Awakening
My Generation is an assiduous record of Thoms’ progression through the 1960s to the start of the ’70s – moving through his Sydney University initiation and acquaintances, his vigorous involvement with experimental theatre through the dynamic of Sydney University Drama Society (SUDS), his long association with the Push and its formative philosophy, through to his activities around Ubu Films (with all its challenges over alternative distribution and exhibition, and the battles with censorship restrictions), to his initial overseas trips to exhibit his film work and the feedback effect of the International Underground. Alongside this was Albie’s professional struggle to establish himself in conformity with the ABC’s institutional demands.
The incredible detail that Thoms catalogues over this period of a decade, certainly suggests that he kept substantial diaries and records of his life and career. Clearly, this book was intended to get his contributions and his value system on paper before he died. This account has the odd effect of an obsessive self-enclosure, while at the same time Thoms was opening himself up to range of socio-cultural and political influences which shaped his creative purpose (1).
He also highlights an almost schizophrenic relation between defining himself creatively through SUDS and Ubu and the workaday experience of his ABC employment. Additionally, he describes his extended network of friends and relationships through his chosen cultural enclaves that seem like a roll call of prominent underground figures (some later claimed celebrity status) within these milieus. Although the book ends in 1972 at the election of the Whitlam Government, there is a sense of an almost romantic and permanent belief in the value system derived from this period, which was carried through to the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op. In this way, My Generation inscribes the commitment and virtues of Thoms’ life activities (especially if one sets them against the fluidity, opportunism and chameleon-like aspects that inculcated the rise of the Australian film industry in the ’70s and ’80s onward), let alone the invisible institutionalisation and centring of funding power (often in the name of peer review).
To me, Thoms’ account is highlighted and contrasted with my own experience with Sydney University Film Group (SUFG) from the mid-’60s, when my brother and myself were responsible for an agenda setting exercise in programming the group’s bi-weekly screenings under the impetus of the emerging orthodoxy of auteur criticism, as well as the extraordinary impact of the creative outburst and modernist surge of European art cinema. Adjacent to Thoms’ involvement with SUDS, and thence Ubu, these screenings and their framing had little relevance to his filmic development, especially the implications of auteur criticism and its import for the re-evaluation of classic Hollywood. In line with his oppositional cultural stance, Thoms always expressed a trenchant and rigid anti-Hollywood position. Such a position conformed to the current critiques of Hollywood’s cultural and economic imperialism that were afoot, and which also fed into the nationalist push for an Australian film industry.
His intermittent remarks on films encountered through film festivals, film societies, and regular exhibition outlets, often seemed peremptory and reactive rather than penetrating or considered. A gap opened up here because of Thoms’ predetermined position on Hollywood, and what he could not countenance for his evolving cultural canon (2).
Of course today these sharp divisions are open to question, even though much Hollywood output is a caricature of its past glories. The different cultural activities, emanating from Sydney University in the 1960s, which existed side-by-side, were also significant indicators of the energy and innovation of extra-curricular campus groups, something lost in subsequent decades.
The First Australian Avant-Garde – Carving Out a New Creative Space at the Margin
Thoms and Ubu films in Sydney, alongside Arthur and Corinne Cantrill in Melbourne, were the first filmmakers in Australia to carve out a space and (non) recognition for the avant-garde, concurrent with the re-emergence of its equivalent in key overseas locations – USA, the United Kingdom and Germany/Austria. The irony of this situation is that they actually preceded the rebirth of the Australian film industry and the infrastructure of an industrial – commercial sector, which occurred in the 1970s (with the advent of federal government support).
In both cases (i.e. Ubu and Cantrills), they were essentially avant-garde cells, although in the case of Thoms and Ubu, they quickly moved to essentially link their polemics and promotional tactics to a fledgling distribution organisation, which later expanded into Sydney Filmmakers Co-op.
On the other hand, the Cantrills launched Cantrills Filmnotes in March 1971, which continued over the next 30 years (with a variable history of funding support). This became a vehicle for coverage of local avant-garde film activities in a strict sense (3). Prior to this, Thoms and Aggy Read had used Ubunews to promote and document their underground filmmaking enclave.
Ubu’s output was quite small in quantity, but it nevertheless marked out a space at the end of the ’60s which challenged public preconceptions and existing censorship codes, while the vast majority of the public were settling into a comfortable era of television domesticity, and commercial film exhibition and distribution was confounded by uncertainty.
The Ubu Challenge invited considerable controversy via its confrontation of audience expectations and its conflict with censorship (alongside the Sydney Film Festival [SFF]), and thus received extensive coverage in the tabloid press. The culmination of Ubu’s activities was the completion of Thoms’ feature Marinetti in 1969, and the subsequent attempts at public exhibition. Marinetti was a no budget feature, in which Thom’s idealism and conviction obliged him to make an extreme “statement” in order to assert a space for formalist avant-garde radicalism in a non-narrative mode (4). In a national filmic vacuum, with only occasional local gestures towards narrative or documentary features, Thoms defiantly took a stand for avant-garde resistance when virtually no homegrown tradition existed. There was not even a narrow audience base to accept the radical gesture, as the hostile response to Marinetti’s premiere screening at Sydney’s Rose Bay Wintergarden cinema exemplified (5).
Thoms’ sense of gestural radicalism was fortified by his embrace of ’60s counterculture and the Libertarian push against censorship. It was the audacity to activate a previously unoccupied cultural space that was more important than the result itself. On another front, but also with minimal means, the Cantrills made their stand for avant-gardism with their feature Harry Hooton (1970). From seemingly nowhere, Marinetti went the whole hog of resistance with blank screen time, abstract hand-painted film, disassociated soundtracks, the use of montage converted to frenetic mixage, and lyrically distorted home movie footage. However one assesses Marinetti today, it was a case of Thoms stepping outside and beyond all known parameters of local filmmaking in order to posit an alternative route, without the props of commercial narrative filmmaking. Peter Beilby’s virulent attacks on Marinetti in Cinema Papers (mark 1) and others’ non-comprehension (like Don Anderson in Nation) only demonstrated that hardly anyone was on his wavelength. General audiences had retreated from conventional suburban cinemas and into the staid era of TV, while film festivals were trying to cultivate the burgeoning of self-conscious European art cinema; Thoms was somewhere else altogether travelling a lone path.
The Features: Marinetti, Sunshine City (1973), Palm Beach (1980) – A Filmography from Nowhere
Because of the distance between his features, and their limited accessibility and screenings, very little has been focussed on the extent of his achievement across three remarkably different films, and what they tell us about his filmmaking evolution, something he himself didn’t explain. The strategies of these three films are so far apart, that one is especially surprised that he arrived at Palm Beach in the light of his anti-Hollywood stance (although he never made the film with any explicit regard for Hollywood narrative), despite his facility in adopting narrative representation, character, and a fluid sequence shot method (6).
The controversy and disdain surrounding Marinetti, the displacement of Sunshine City in his career, and the local attacks on Palm Beach (sometimes from surprising quarters like Co-op feminists) have made it difficult to treat these films as three “monuments” to Albie’s sense of reflection on his own practice. Added to this, was Thoms’ inability to get another feature film project off the ground, including the lack of financial support for his long cherished project, The Big Smoke, after numerous funding rejections. This personal saga would provide some insight into the weaknesses and limitations of institutional funding after the freewheeling 1970s, and the tendency of funding bodies to play inadequate games of talent spotting, at the expense of past directors who did not fit the bill of current assessor fashion. There are stories to be prized open and told here.
In the light of today’s generations of would-be local filmmakers (with the ease of technical access and democracy), Thoms’ 16mm filmmaking and low-cost production model (witness the Cantrills also) is something that is lost forever amidst the jockeying to make features in today’s Australian industry between the $5 million plus low budget films, and the outrageous George Miller/Baz Luhrmann extravaganzas (in the hundreds of $ millions). Marinetti was made on no funding, Sunshine City on a $10,000 max Experimental Film Fund (EFF) grant, and Palm Beach on a minimal budget for the time of well under $100,000, with a large proportion of the budget spent on the helicopter overhead shot finale.
Whatever the limitations of Marinetti (and they are considerable), it was important to lay down a credo of extreme filmmaking, even if it was premature in 1969, or had little relevance to the mainstream filmmaking landscape as it was to emerge in the future. The Ubu filmmaking ethos was to become more and more removed from the institutional assessment process as it evolved in the following decades, as Thoms’ own career demonstrates.
If we take Thoms’ three features (made in a ten-year time span), we can witness a quantum leap between each filmmaking project, where the innovative strategies of each film have been lost in the passing of time, and in the overall assessment of the development path of Australian Cinema, especially if one is mindful of the minimal individualist filmmaking base Thoms worked from, and the maintenance of his personal integrity unveiled through these projects. The naïve but altruistic aspirations regarding Marinetti – as redefining visual perception and personal projection –surrendered to the dialectics of the interview/portrait juxtaposed against radical visual meditations cum interludes on the city he so loved (Sunshine City); and thence a decisive conceptual leap to a narrative economy and virtuosity with seemingly conventional fictive material (Palm Beach). The fact that Thoms embarked on three distinct and separate experiments in his pursuit of auteur cinema has hardly been recognised in the trajectory of the rebirth of Australian cinema. Today, with all the compliments over Rolf de Heer’s adventurous and individualistic integrity in pursuing a menu of discrete projects (an integrity well-deserved), the audacity of Thoms in these features under adverse conditions is all but forgotten.
A corollary to this, along with avant-garde pioneers like the Cantrills (Skin of Your Eye , In This Life’s Body ), and Michael Lee (Mystical Rose, 1976), is the long disappearance of the avant-garde, and its radicalism of form. The adventurous challenge to the later decades of Australian feature filmmaking is now considered passé or buried.
The Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative and Thoms’ Democratic Ethos
Thoms’ belief in and advocacy for a democratic grassroots organisation to distribute and exhibit radical and independent filmmakers was the impetus for the formation of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op, following the cellular prototype of Ubu Films. The Co-op per se existed from the early ’70s to 1985. Its own history was not without controversy and funding dilemmas during its lifetime (7). Indeed, it is quite unlikely that the Sydney Co-op, with its oppositional stridency and its grassroots vigour would be supported or survive under current funding regimes. In this sense, it was emblematic of the era in which it flourished. Not only was its modus operandi influenced by organisational counterparts of the international avant-garde in the US and UK, but it was more democratic in the way it embraced countercultural change and shifting membership.
Much of the ’70s was encumbered by the insecurities of the funding bodies (i.e. The Film and TV Board and the Australian Film Commission) over their dual support scheme for the distribution and exhibition of Australian films, divided between the Australian Film Institute (AFI with its responsibility for the EFF) and the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op (8). The Co-op placed itself on the organisational agenda by virtue of its social rationale, and its support for independent filmmakers like Thoms, Perry, Paul Winkler, Martha Ansara, Gillian Leahy, Thornley and so on (9). The Co-op was always more forthrightly pro-active, even aggressive in advocating its position, relative to another democratic organisation such as the National Film Theatre of Australia (NFTA), which had a more orthodox cultural justification. In both cases, these activities and organisations arose out of a tiny film culture base, and the new funding regimes had to countenance them, given the relative blank sheet of a substantive film culture infrastructure.
It is interesting to note that these organisations were driven by an altruism to provide cultural depth and density, outside the existing commercial mechanisms of distribution and exhibition, because they represented new diverse strands of cultural infrastructure. One can only lament the demise of some of the best elements of these movements. Certainly, the legacy of co-operative idealism has almost vanished, whatever its inbuilt impediments.
Thoms would always be the idealist outsider relative to the path the film industry would take, but he clung firmly to his belief system, espousing his countercultural and avant-garde values, even though his filmmaker path was denied (except for several later commissioned works), and the organisation he so fervently championed was relegated to the dustbin of local film culture history. Nonetheless, he stuck to archiving and recording his era, even if his belief in the existing positive consequences of the counterculture and its confrontation with the capitalist ethos now seem somewhat archaic and reductive.
Conclusion – Thoms Versus Australian Cinema Orthodoxy
Today, we can view Thoms’ history as a filmmaker, activist, cultural commentator and polemicist, as an exemplar of a strand of film culture that has diminished down over the decades in spite of his desire to protect and maintain the consistency of his position.
Given the limitations of his stand from a current viewpoint, the consistent integrity of his isolated position is praiseworthy, and the significance of his feature films has been overlooked, especially the sophisticated bridge building of his final feature (without compromise) relative to the main thrust of Australian features. The all-time list of Australian feature success (i.e. Crocodile Dundee, Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, Muriel’s Wedding, Australia, and so on) bear little relation to the artistic and filmmaking challenges that Thoms set himself. In fact, it is worth noting that the schism between Australia’s most celebrated top box office films and numerous neglected local features (including Thoms’ work) is wide indeed (10). This is not just a case of elitism but rather a reflection on an undiscerning public and reviewers who persist in seeing Australian cinema in terms of some breast-beating exercise. Today, we are faced with a feature film industry that presents a pseudo capitalist framework propped up by government funding constantly treading a fine line between perceived fashion and commercial chimeras, sometimes interlaced with naïve artistic pretension. Film funding here is always moving, but never knows where it is globally and domestically, as film bureaucrats jockey around in an institutional bubble, frequently fingering the next filmmaking prodigies in its own image (11). The younger generation of filmmakers spurred by aspiration and ambition to make it as future “celebrity auteurs” couldn’t care less who Albie Thoms was and what he represents, irrespective of his flawed idealism.
1. Thoms’ earlier book, Polemics for a New Cinema: Writings to Stimulate New Approaches to Film, Wild and Woolley, Sydney 1978, was a collection of his previous writings on film, with some additions relating to the early history of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op, reflecting his response to and advocacy of the avant-garde. However, these articles might be better categorised as commentaries, reactions and reportage rather than something akin to systematic criticism or rigorous analysis. His brief embrace of semiotics seems against the grain of his relationship to theory and cinema.
2. Thoms’ rigid anti-Hollywood stance (which I also encountered on numerous discussions with him) was almost a preordained typecast position to conform to his belief in the avant-garde and independent cinema. He certainly sold classic Hollywood narrative short, limiting his understanding of the nuances in its narrative films and their aesthetic reverberations via auteur inflection. He seemed impervious to my involvement (and others) with the intricacies of auteur criticism via Hollywood movies in our SUFG programming, which occurred at the same time as his push on Ubu Films. This is somewhat ironic given his commitment to a purist form of auteurism.
3. The husband and wife Cantrills team, based in Melbourne, were also significant trailblazers in marking out and defending a space for avant-garde filmmaking in Australia (running parallel to Thoms). Cantrills Filmnotes provided not just a devoted and important record and commentary on the local avant-garde over many years, but also a significant link to the dynamism of the international avant-garde. Like Thoms, their important filmmaking activity was completely self-propelled on the low budget fringe, with minimal support from the new government funding streams.
4. Viewing Marinetti today it is not so easy to reconcile the onscreen experience with Albie’s claims for it and his invocation of its source of inspiration via the Italian Futurists, Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud. There is no doubt that from Thoms’ point-of-view, Marinetti was a bringing together of his commitment to avant-gardist self-projection and self-exploration, through his chosen medium in a quite literal sense, and via his negotiation of filmic imagery as a rendition of consciousness. Ultimately, much of Marinetti is a surrender to the common approaches associated with finding an equivalent for subjective response, frozen in an avant-garde rhetoric (by using various distorting devices of image and sound as stand-ins for human consciousness).
5. The hostile responses of the large audience to the premiere screening of Marinetti, at the Rosebay Wintergarden in 1969, seemed to shock and disappoint Thoms. His reaction was a little naïve, given the extent of his experimental outreach and the scope of confrontation relative to the framework of audience expectations at the time (even art house oriented ones). As a sort of parallel, one can cite a history of negative audience responses to various screenings at the SFF over the years – Twice a Man (Gregory Markopoulos, 1964), Walkover (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1965), Bolero (Thoms, 1967), Nevinost bez zastite (Innocence Unprotected, Dusan Makavejev, 1968), Dynamo (Stephen Dwoskin, 1973), Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early Too Late,Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1982), Ta’m e guilass (Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami, 1997), and later structuralist works by Paul Winkler. All these films tested the limits of audience perceptual tolerance in various ways.
6. At the time of Palm Beach’s initial screenings, there were some hostile reactions to and misunderstandings of what the film was trying to achieve in terms of experimental narrative. I was one of the few who tried to defend and explicate its experimental aims in Filmnews (reprinted in An Australian Film Reader, ed. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, Currency Press, Sydney, 1985). The familiarity (even the cliché) of characters and their fictive situations misled some people as to what the film offered in terms of formal audacity, as well as its underlying sociological viewpoint. It not only afforded a series of narrative threads that were locked into their own autonomy and insularity, but also they seemed to go nowhere, even though they were loosely tied-in to a surfing subculture. My argument was that the narrative form itself suggested an ever-expanding social plurality (of non-connecting) that underlay Sydney life, even though the film was nominally about an area specific subculture. Added to this were Thoms’ continuous experiments with disassociated and overlapping sound, despite the considerable technical limitations of working with 16mm.
7. The tension between, the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op and the AFI existed throughout 1970s and was, at times, concertinaed into the old Sydney/Melbourne rivalry, apart from the dualistic funding for alternative exhibition and distribution. My commissioned reports on this situation (1974 and 1976) were paradoxical in themselves, since I was researching a cultural enclave in the formative stage of a general industry production structure, at a time when very little research or data gathering on the latter was occurring. Yet the need for research reflected a funding insecurity and concern through which the new cultural nationalism was combined with an anti-Americanism over the traditional mainstream oligopolistic control of distribution and exhibition. Moreover, the funding agencies showed a preference for officially-sanctioned film organisations in contradistinction to upstarts.
8. The issues of the Co-Op/AFI dichotomy that dogged the 1970s and dragged on into the ’80s, have now slipped into an historical time warp along with some other the key issues that were contentious at the time. By the mid-’80s, the Sydney Co-op was gone, and the AFI devoted the succeeding decades to reinventing itself as a conventional mainstream film industry organisation, where its awards system, backed by industry personnel, have become its only preoccupation, and its PR public profile to boot.
9. Because Ubu Films was the base from which the fully-fledged Sydney Film-Makers Co-Op developed, its spectrum of individual avant-gardists was its initial energy field. In time, this orientation would surrender to the flood of films pushing minority social issues (not necessarily incompatible with formalist avant-gardes), which more and more became the raison d’être and social currency of the Co-op, as exemplified by the feminist films. Thus, the avant-gardist pre-occupation with subjective vision and medium specific self-reflexivity became less a focus, something close to Thoms’ heart; after 1980 he moved on.
10. The all-time list of Australian-made box office champions has merged into the canonical list of best Australian films with the public bureaucrats, reviewers and industry personnel alike. However, such an attitude has always over-simplified how the Australian filmmaking revival should be assessed, especially if we take account of the Australian output across the board, instead of via a small elite of directors or high profile feature films. Thus, there are a range of Australian features over the decades that should command critical and aesthetic respect, although they were not subject to much publicity or hype, or in some instances proper recognition or evaluation, such as Pure Shit (Bert Deling, 1975), Stir (Stephen Wallace, 1980), Return Home (Ray Argall, 1990), In This Life’s Body, Backlash (Bill Bennett, 1986), Hightide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987), Stan and George’s New Life (Brian McKenzie, 1992), Kiss or Kill (Bill Bennett, 1997), The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998), Noise (Matthew Saville, 2006),. Thoms’ Sunshine City and Palm Beach fall into this category.
11. More than four decades after the Australian film revival the centralisation of the film industry through its funding agencies, the ongoing duality of art and commerce still looms large over film finance decision making. Yet the situation still remains chimerical. The schism between the expensive blockbuster and low budget credit card movie is greater than ever; the former is the domain of a few international prima donnas, while the latter is replete with aspiring and ambitious young filmmakers seeking to make a name for themselves. Both ends of the scale are seduced by the possibilities brought forth by the digital revolution, but there are various dimensions of this revolution that do not necessarily encourage narrative innovation or ingenuity. Indeed, the desire to find a niche on the commercial viability scale has relegated the earlier desire for formal experimentation to a faded memory, and the avant-garde cum video impulse now only inhabits the rarefied reaches of the art scene. In the film community, there are a few avant-garde flicker cells that echo the past, but local academic film studies mostly ignores the topic.