At the end of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), Marlene Dietrich’s Tana wearily intones an epitaph for Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan, a bloated, corrupt cop now floating on the surface of the river: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?” On August 10, Senses of Cinema lost one of its most long-standing, erudite, unpretentious, honest and entertaining writers, a man who leaves a large hole in both the screen culture of his adopted home state, Tasmania, and so many pockets and unexplored histories of television and film in Australia and beyond over a 50-year-period. Jonathan Dawson (1941-2013) was also an unendingly enthusiastic, if sharp, commentator on so many aspects of screen culture, even when he really wasn’t all that keen on the film or director in question.
Jono first wrote for Senses of Cinema in the middle of 2001, contributing a balanced though understandably exasperated review of Baz Luhrmann’s then much-debated Moulin Rouge: “the post credit assertion that this film is about… Truth, Liberty, Freedom and above all Love comes to seem a rather careless act of hubris”. Following this wonderfully probing, faultlessly accessible, and thankfully deflating review, Jono went on to write another 24 further articles across all parts of the journal from the Great Directors entry on Dziga Vertov, reviews of films like Mike Rubbo’s Solzhenitsyn’s Children… Are Making a Lot of Noise in Paris (1979), interviews with Australian filmmakers Robert Connolly and Sarah Watt, various book reviews, and CTEQ Annotations on a remarkable array of films ranging from short Australian works like Daniel Nettheim’s The Beat Manifesto (1995), Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin’s Letter to Jane (1972), John Heyer’s The Back of Beyond (1954) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1967) to his final article on Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) published in the last issue. Happily, it was also one of the best pieces Jono ever composed for our journal. He also wrote a wonderful, touching and heartfelt tribute marking the death of Sarah Watt in 2011. Jono had something interesting, refreshing and clear-eyed to say about all of them, and the range of films, subjects and filmmakers he wrote on for the journal illustrates his wide-reaching and unflagging passion for so many aspects of the cinema.
Jono had a particular appetite for French movies and was, of course, a tireless, if sometimes highly critical, campaigner for Australian cinema. At various points in his fantastically varied and storied career he wrote position papers on the need of support for a moribund Australian film industry, wrote and directed numerous episodes of such seminal TV shows as Homicide and Division 4 for Crawford Productions, was central in establishing film courses and departments in places such as Canberra and Brisbane (Griffith University), wrote plays and performed poems at Melbourne University and La Mama in the 1960s, directed feature films in the early 1980s (most memorably Ginger Meggs in 1982), made documentaries for the ABC and SBS (The Myth Makers, Images of Australia, The Legend of Fred Paterson, and numerous others), wrote and edited such books as Screenwriting: A Manual and Queensland Images in Film and Television, helmed commercials for a vast array of companies and government bodies, contributed film reviews to ABC radio (and more occasionally TV) across various states (for almost 40 years), wrote for numerous publications including Overland, The Canberra Times, Metro, The Concise Encyclopedia of Documentary Film, The Hobart Mercury, and so much more. Although he supposedly retired to Tasmania in the early 2000s, it is very difficult to see a substantial decrease in his level of engagement or activity, though it did give him more time to write for such outlets as Senses of Cinema and communicate his passion for film history, as well as contemporary cinema, in a series of lectures or talks (I’m sure he’d prefer the latter term) held over a ten-year-period at the State Cinema in Hobart. Jono was remarkable for his unflagging vitality and the significance of his contribution across so many fields over such a long period of time.
But in the flood of tributes that have marked Jono’s passing, special emphasis has been given to his talent and lasting impact as a teacher and educator. I didn’t have any direct experience of Jono as a teacher – though by all accounts he was truly inspiring in that regard – but did get a sense of his capacity to “talk film” (and so much else) when my family and I would visit him and his wife, Felicity, on our intermittent trips to Hobart. Whether it was in the foyer of the State Cinema, at a café in Salamanca Place, or in the cosy cottage they’d made their home, Jono would always want to talk about just about everything, with a special place for what you’d just seen or were working on. I remember one such night – during which I infectiously drank far too much of a scotch Jono and Felicity had discovered – where Jono warmly regaled us with stories of the past (some people’s ears may still be burning) and managed to muster an enthusiasm for a range of contemporary releases, including J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011), that I could only aspire to. So, “What does it matter what you say about people?” – quite a lot as it turns out.
Looking back on the articles Jono wrote for Senses of Cinema, I now regret those moments when an article or contribution by Jono didn’t quite happen due to the popularity of a particular title that was on offer or because it just didn’t fit into the theme or approach of a particular issue – it was never because Jono didn’t come through as his articles were always to the required length and on time (in fact they were chasteningly early in most cases). One of the last memories I have of Jono was of him sending through a series of articles he had written on Tasmanian screen culture – and the numerous failures of the State government in this regard over a ten-year-period – for a dossier we were putting together on “Tasmania and the Cinema”. Unfortunately there really wasn’t any way to include this material without Jono also providing a commentary that contextualised each of the pieces and the various issues and debates they addressed. I knew that he had been ill, but didn’t realise how sick he was until he told me that he was writing the referee’s report I’d also asked him to do for one of the other articles to be included in the issue in his hospital bed (and that is indeed dedication). His report was unfailingly honest about and questioning of what he saw as the problem of much academic writing (though he was a practitioner who truly embraced academic life and saw little distinction between his work as a filmmaker, writer, commentator, teacher or critic). But after writing an erudite, unceasingly fair, helpful and critical report he generously relented and said “but I guess it’s OK”, not wanting to stand in the way of someone else’s work even if he really didn’t have much affinity with it. This response says so much about Jono’s generosity of spirit, care for others, and, in the end, overriding enthusiasm. In the wonderful email exchanges I have had with Felicity since Jono’s death, she has mentioned several times how “much he loved writing for Senses of Cinema”. That love is plainly evident across the array of articles he wrote for us and we feel privileged that he chose our journal as the vehicle for its expression.