Aspiring filmmakers in Australia and elsewhere stand to learn a lot from John Cumming’s The Films of John Hughes, not least about how to deal with funding bodies. An innovator in documentary and adjoining fields since the 1970s, Hughes – not to be confused with the late American teen movie auteur – has always had a clear sense of his own mission: knocked back for an Australian Film Commission grant early in his career, he refused to take no for an answer, firing back with a list of the “errors of fact and logic” (p. 82) made by a panel of his peers. The project in question, Film-Work (1981), was ultimately given the go-ahead, the panel’s chair conceding that Hughes’ arguments “had a Jesuit quality to them in their rigour.”
As told by Cumming, the story gives a glimpse of the steely side of a filmmaker characterised elsewhere in the text as “engagingly diffident” (p. 139). It also suggests the complex relation with the status quo which Cumming identifies as typical of Hughes’ filmmaking approach. Rather than dismissing the panel’s reservations, Hughes made a successful bid to negotiate with them “as an equal power” (p. 82), demonstrating that “a peer evaluation process could be transformed into a dialogic one.” (p. 98) By Cumming’s account, a comparable dialogue lies at the heart of Film-Work itself – a study of the socially engaged documentaries made in the mid-1950s by Sydney’s Waterfront Workers Federation Film Unit, which provide one possible model for Hughes’ own practice.1
Yet another such dialogue can be found in this splendid book, a tribute from one unorthodox thinker and creator to another. Presently a lecturer in film and television at Deakin University in Melbourne, Cumming is also an important filmmaker in his own right; he and Hughes have known each other since the 1980s, and the book cites a series of discussions between them starting in the early 2000s, though Cumming, who has his own brand of engaging diffidence, does not venture into the details of what looks for all the world like a personal friendship. As the book’s subtitle indicates, he has bigger fish to fry: Hughes is offered up as a representative figure, whose trajectory offers a convenient vantage point from which to examine the broader history of independent screen production in Australia.
This is very much a materialist history: working through Hughes’ career one film at a time, Cumming details the circumstances under which each was financed, shot, edited and distributed, while giving equal attention to the underlying conditions – institutional, intellectual, technological and so forth—that shaped the possibilities available to filmmakers at any given historical moment. The tricky word “independent”, in this context, refers primarily to independence from commercial obligations: as Cumming notes, “Hughes’ first film was self-funded, but it is unlikely we would have his subsequent films without some form of government subsidy.” (p. 8)
In this light, Hughes’ most impressive attribute may be precisely his ability to adjust to changing conditions, maintaining his principles while choosing his battles. Cumming credits him with an “almost barometric relationship to the zeitgeist” (p. 231), noting that he prizes effective communication over “purity of aesthetic form, or an ideological commitment to a particular technique of documentary filmmaking.” (p. 216) Professionally speaking, he has often had to reinvent himself as a matter of sheer survival, moving between contexts ranging from the art world and the trade union movement to academia and mainstream TV. Yet across a body of work spanning almost half a century, certain preoccupations recur: the threat of unbridled government surveillance, the legacy of colonialism, and “the history and culture of independent filmmaking itself.” (p. 2)
Cumming’s view of Hughes is largely an admiring one, but not without ambivalence. There are moments when Hughes can come off as incurably dry and earnest, all too loyal, despite his surface flexibility, to the tradition of theoretical, didactic filmmaking exemplified by British Sounds (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Henri Roger, 1969) and the work of Alexander Kluge. Complicating matters is a sense that Cumming is tacitly treating his complex relation to Hughes as a means of thinking through dilemmas encountered in his own artistic practice; there is something dizzying about the mise en abyme of Cumming meditating on Hughes meditating on the “film-work” of an earlier generation, with the dream of a truly authentic political cinema – one which would somehow express the direct will of the people, rather than the limited vision of an individual – forever retreating from sight.
To be sure, Cumming is well aware of the pitfalls here, as he illustrates in his wry account of Hughes’ documentary-cum-political-thriller Traps (1986), which he reads as an inadvertent warning about what can happen when keeping the faith becomes an end in itself:
A dour and brittle veneer of camaraderie, commitment and critical debate cements a relationship that appears tedious and humorless, cloistered in self-righteousness and doctrine. […] Having witnessed something of the milieu the film depicts, I can’t help but read Traps against the grain of the filmmaker’s intent – viewing the realist elements of character and dialogue as social documentation. As the film portrays it, the milieu of politically charged community art and media work appears to be a closed one in which ideological steadfastness is an important virtue. (p. 114)
Whatever you make of this particular critique, a willingness to read “against the grain” is crucial to the book’s achievement: dialogue, after all, would be meaningless if those involved did not maintain distinctly separate points of view. Where Hughes in the 1970s understood himself as a socially committed artist holding the line against apolitical formalism as well as the commercial mainstream, Cumming situates himself within a 1980s “post-punk” generation resistant to all forms of purism, drawn to “the contemporary avant-garde of music, music video, multimedia performance and video art” (pp. 115-116). Thus he is able to take Hughes to task on occasion for an “ideological steadfastness” that leaves limited room to grapple with historical complexity – as in the early Menace (1976), a partisan documentary on Australia’s version of the Red Scare which largely elides the realities of Stalinism.
That said, politically the two Johns are mostly on the same page. Cumming, like Hughes, makes no secret of his leftist views, presuming that frank partisanship is preferable to a spurious pose of objectivity. One of the book’s strengths is the challenge it poses to the terms of most current debates over Australian film policy, refusing to concede that the shift “away from public infrastructure and grant-based funding towards a model of investment based on commercial enterprise” (p. 117) was either inevitable or irreversible. Against the aspirational ethos represented nowadays by the “competitively conformist and markedly masculine culture of Tropfest” (p. 11), Cumming champions “the ideals of inclusivity, diversity, support for experimentation and what are nowadays referred to as ‘emerging’ practitioners” (p. 115) – in short, filmmaking as a public good, with members of the public seen as potential creators as well as consumers.
In assessing Hughes’ body of work Cumming is equally willing to lay his cards on the table, spelling out which films and strategies succeed for him and which strike him as under-realised or misguided. Yet his tone is anything but dogmatic: after pointing out the seemingly fatal weaknesses of Traps, he goes on to argue that these very attributes give the film an enduring interest, amounting to a veiled commentary on the 1980s independent film sector and offering “insight into the capacity of that sector to alienate many among a new generation of media artists who were my peers.” (p. 114) More than most critics, Cumming is committed to transparency – spelling out the assumptions behind his judgements and identifying the moments where he himself enters the historical picture. He is also conscientious about citing writers on Hughes whose opinions differ from his own, opening up a space for readers to arrive at their own views (this same philosophy may account for the book’s almost overwhelming scholarly apparatus, with every source apparently cited in full at least twice).
In Cumming’s eyes, the formal value of Hughes’ cinema can be found especially in his “work with screen design”, layering separate elements of text and image in a way which can be either taken in at a glance or “browsed in depth” (p. 231). Neatly, Cumming links this aesthetic to the window displays which Hughes as a child observed his father creating in the windows of the family cake shop—and, at the other end of the biographical continuum, to Hughes’ involvement with interactive works such as the Moving History website which he wrote and designed in 2007 for Film Australia and the ABC.2 Not coincidentally, The Films of John Hughes itself gains enormously from the contribution of its designer Pascale van Breugel: colour illustrations are frequent throughout, sometimes literal scans of film strips, or small images placed side by side in homage to Hughes’ penchant for screens within the screen.
The Hughes who emerges from this book is a principled radical but also, if sometimes covertly, an aesthete: the 1980s saw him succumbing almost despite himself to the “postmodern” allure of the fragmentary and superficial, structuring All That Is Solid (1988) as a parody of the conventions of commercial TV. Not all of this playfulness has dated well, and Cumming’s critical responses are decidedly mixed – especially when it comes to Hughes’ characteristic blend of artfully posed interviews with deliberately sketchy Brechtian fictions, with performers in both cases standing in for varying political or theoretical perspectives. The complaint is not that Hughes ought to submit to the conventions of naturalistic drama, but that his over-controlled theatrical approach fails to realise the potential for a truly cinematic brand of estrangement effect, in which the “documentary” presence of the performer would be allowed to shine through the assigned pose or role. Cumming instances the films of Bresson, Godard and Straub-Huillet as canonical examples of this method, but the same point is made in a passage that cites two filmmakers closer to being Hughes’ peers:
In [Todd] Haynes’ Poison (1991) […] the theatrical performances of actors self-consciously performing texts in highly stylised sets and parodic to-camera interviews seem to me to be excruciatingly portentous and contrived. Yet, in 1974 when [Laura] Mulvey sat and read from her thesis for the camera in Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons [Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1974], the earnestness and self-consciousness is not that of an actor, but that of the young intellectual’s own nervousness before the task she has given herself: the performance of her own ideas – rather than the performance of herself. (p. 135)
As I understand this passage, Cumming puts less value on Haynes’ professionalism than on Mulvey’s amateurism – or put another way, he is less concerned with the meanings which filmmakers impose on their work than with the potential for a textual richness to be uncovered by the astute critic or viewer. Like most ambitious criticism, The Films of John Hughes is a brief on behalf of its subject but also a settling of accounts: much as Hughes refused to be dictated to by the AFC, he in turn is positioned by Cumming as an authority figure whose claims to mastery demand resistance.
Taking the hint, it is tempting to look at this book the way Cumming looks at Mulvey, focusing first and foremost not on what it tells us but on what it shows. Go back to the colour illustrations which appear throughout the book: scan them quickly, not bothering with the captions, and what do you see? A parade of fashions, shifting with the decades: outfits, haircuts, types of film stock, fonts. Two generations of leftists, in separate pictures on facing pages: balding old blokes in suit jackets, hippies marching in flares. A quintessential 1980s snap of Hughes and his cinematographer Jane Castle during the making of All That Is Solid: his hair in a scruffy mullet, hers unfussily cropped, both in dark crew-neck sweaters with collared shirts. Flick forward a few chapters and look at the still of Gillian Jones in What I Have Written (1996), a chic woman in a black dress with a plunging neckline, gazing out at the viewer from the foot of a darkened staircase, the image of a sophistication that belongs as much to advertising as to arthouse cinema. Arranged like items in a shop window, these readily consumable images appear to speak for themselves, conveying more than anyone can have intended; they form part of a history taking shape before our eyes, which is not altogether contained in Hughes’ films but which Cumming has by design or otherwise constructed out of them.
The heterogeneity of this image-history supports the idea that Hughes’ career can be seen as representing Australian screen production in microcosm, while acting as a counterpoint to the story told in the text, which to some extent – not surprisingly in the Australian context – is one of defeat. The book is haunted by a sense of catastrophe, starting with an introductory account of the 1970 collapse of the half-finished West Gate Bridge: Australia’s worst ever industrial accident, documented by the young Hughes during his stint as a news cameraman for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Soon after came Hughes’ own first short film Nowhere Game (1971), made in collaboration with his ABC colleague Martyn Goddard: a sympathetic but bleak documentary on drug users, in which the young interview subjects, given the chance to speak for themselves, tend to characterise addiction as a sane response to a hopeless environment. Later works deal with the demise of the progressive Whitlam government – and, as the 1970s turn into the 1980s, with the struggle of would-be radicals to keep their bearings in a society where market forces increasingly hold sway.
Finally, Cumming’s account of Hughes’ ups and downs over the last two decades – following the release of What I Have Written, his sole full-blown fiction feature – suggests that the space left open by Australian film culture for the offbeat and innovative has itself narrowed considerably. Commenting in 2003 on the state of documentary in Australia, Hughes is quoted as suggesting that filmmakers “have become more and more isolated because they see themselves as competitors, rather than part of a culture that wants to negotiate with the mainstream decision-making institutions” (p. 182). Reflecting on The Archive Project, Hughes’ 2006 documentary on Melbourne’s Realist Film Unit, Cumming rhetorically asks if films doomed to marginality by the market are even worth making – before proposing, in a somewhat cloyingly humble flourish, that “the work is about holding open small spaces of difference, small gaps through which alternative perspectives might be glimpsed.” (p. 202)
It is a melancholic conclusion, but fortunately not the only one the book arrives at. True, Hughes faces more of an uphill battle than ever gaining funding for new ventures (including his current “cross-platform project” on the Sydney and Melbourne Film Co-Ops3). Still, his ability to stay afloat on more or less his own terms constitutes a triumph in itself, exemplifying what Cumming calls “the tenacity that is essential to the independent filmmaker.” (p. 233) It is clear, too, that Hughes’ commitment to collective struggle has been more than rhetorical, given that he has championed other people’s work as persistently as his own – in his historical documentaries, as a lobbyist on behalf of the independent sector, and as a commissioning editor at SBS Television, where he played a key role in the development of the Indigenous history series First Australians (Rachel Perkins et al, 2008), an acknowledged landmark in Australian TV.
Again, younger filmmakers can learn a lot from all this – and Cumming makes a point of looking forward as well as backward, avowing that his book is “as much for contemporary practitioners and cinema enthusiasts as it is for scholars and students of film history.” (p. 16) His insistence that a figure like Hughes be seen as central rather than marginal to Australian cinema is in part a deliberate provocation, reopening some vital, neglected questions not just about how film history is written, but about what might constitute a genuinely political cinema in the future. Australia still produces its share of socially-committed documentaries, such as Eva Orner’s hard-hitting Chasing Asylum (2016), but except perhaps in the realm of gallery video art, there are few visible local heirs to Hughes’ frankly intellectual, self-questioning approach. Just as noteworthy in this connection is Cumming’s insistence that the independent filmmaker’s job includes “engaging in discussion and organisation around the wider sphere of culture and industry” (pp. 4-6) – that is, helping to sustain the wider context necessary for any film to register with its audience as a meaningful event.
This is not to say that either Hughes or Cumming can be taken as direct models for Australian political filmmaking today: rather, the book serves as a toolbox in which readers, rummaging about, may discover unexpected connections of their own. One example confirms Cumming’s hunch that Hughes has rarely been more than a degree of separation away from the key moments in Australian cinema: in Hughes’ One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin (1992), the role of Benjamin himself – a Marxist critic of often mystical, apocalyptic bent – is played in re-enactments by none other than the actor/dramaturge Nico (or Nick) Lathouris, who more recently joined forces with a very different apocalyptic visionary as the co-writer of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Pondering this, I can’t help picturing two images side by side: Fury Road’s one-armed heroine Furiosa (Charlize Theron) crouched over the wheel of her War Rig as she barrels across the desert, and the Angel of History famously invoked by Benjamin, eyes fixed on “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”4. Would it be possible to hallucinate a connection between them? Maybe after reading this book – an inspiring demonstration of how fragments can be rescued from the rubble and pieced together to convey a fresh point of view.
John Cumming, The Films of John Hughes: A History of Independent Screen Production in Australia, The Moving Image no. 12 (St. Kilda: Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM), 2014).
- See John Cumming, “Film-Work”, Senses of Cinema no. 58, March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/cteq/film-work. Accessed 8 June 2016. ↩
- See http://www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/film-australia-collection/program-sales/search-programs/program/?sn=9059. Accessed 8 June 2016. ↩
- See John Hughes, “A Work in Progress: the Rise and Fall of Australian Filmmakers Co-operatives, 1966-86”, Senses of Cinema no. 77, December 2015, http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/australian-film-history/australian-filmmakers-co-operatives. Accessed 8 June 2016. ↩
- Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 2007), p. 253. ↩