Shot in late 1972 and released at the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-op in mid-September 1974,1 Dave Jones’ Yackety Yack is one of the key films made in that transitional period between the relative “void” of homegrown Australian feature-film production in the 1950s and 1960s and the “renaissance” that gathered steam in the mid-1970s. It opened to minimal fanfare in that pivotal year, a 12-month period that saw unprecedented commercial success at the Australian box office through films like Alvin Rides Again (David Bilcock and Robin Copping), Stone (Sandy Harbutt), Petersen (Tim Burstall), Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (Bruce Beresford) and Number 96 (Peter Benardos), but also saw the arrival of such prescient, independent, socially engaged and less audience friendly works as 27A (Esben Storm), Between Wars (Michael Thornhill) and, more playfully, Yackety Yack.

Although a truly singular work in Australian cinema, Yackety Yack has its roots in the Carlton film and theatre scene of the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the more radical and politically engaged film groups and production units that emerged at the “new”, more equitable institutions of higher education in the suburbs of Melbourne in the 1960s. Made with a small amount of money from the Experimental Film and Television Fund, it was almost entirely shot in the underground TV studios of the Media Centre at La Trobe University and was produced by Acme Films, a collective formed by several students and graduates from the university including Rod Bishop, Gordon Glenn, Peter Beilby and Scott Murray. Using high-contrast film stock that required minimal lighting, it was shot between early evening and early morning over a short period (some accounts say up to five weeks, others suggest the filming lasted only a week). Highlighted by self-consciously staged long takes – and there is much in-film commentary about a botched but virtuoso eight-to-ten-minute walk-and-talk tracking shot through a tunnel – and jump-cut editing, it bares fascinating comparison with the films Nigel Buesst, Brian Davies and Bert Deling were also completing in Melbourne during the same fertile, if largely unheralded period. But the sensibility and provenance of Yackety Yack is something else.

Yackety Yack’s separation from these earlier and contemporary works is intellectual, geographic and temporal. In some ways, the film is a cul-de-sac. As a result, it is unsurprising that Buesst chose to close with it in his documentary account of low-budget Melbourne filmmaking in this era: Carlton + Godard = Cinema (2003). Its bitter and humorous sense of isolation, dislocation and the end of things emerges from a number of places. Unlike such earlier films as Pudding Thieves (Davies, 1967), Brake Fluid (Davies, 1970), Bonjour Balwyn (Buesst, 1971) and Dalmas (Deling, 1973), Yackety Yack was made in a relatively undeveloped, outer suburban part of the city and gives almost no sense of a world exterior to the film. It is, in fact, extraordinarily interior, marked by Beckettian dialogue, intertextual reference and absurdist violence, and moves freely between the registers of improvised theatre and modernist cinema.

This is also partly the result of the film’s origins. Although it features a key figure of the Carlton and Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS) scene in its central cast – Peter Carmody – and was largely crewed by a group of students and recent graduates from La Trobe including key figures like Bishop, Glenn, Beilby and Lloyd Carrick (also an important figure from MUFS), Yackety Yack was the creation of Dave Jones, an American academic and documentary filmmaker who graduated from Stanford University, wrote episodes for Warner Bros. television and worked for the National Film Board of Canada. It was initially conceived and written in North America and is remarkable – in an Australian context – for its general lack of local reference. It is probably only in hindsight that it feels like a quintessentially Melbourne film, an example of the intellectually curious “poor cinema” that took root in the more horizontal, greyer domain of the sprawling city. But this sense of the local can still be found in the accents of the characters, the occasional, now obtuse references to particular places (such as the “bug house” in Carlton mentioned offscreen in the final moments) and our possible knowledge of the actors and personalities we see onscreen – figures we may well have directly encountered in the tight-knit Melbourne film culture of the day. The film is also – in retrospect – an homage to or document of the remarkable environment created at La Trobe University for the making and thinking about cinema during this era and beyond; a history and legacy that has been almost entirely obliterated over the last 20 years.

Although it often feels highly improvised, Yackety Yack was largely scripted and rehearsed, and uses its self-reflexive form to incorporate the inevitable mistakes, limited performances (from its mostly inexperienced cast) and startling movement between the long take and disruptive montage. There is also a fascinating slippage between the actors and the roles they play, including Jones as the teasing, megalomaniacal auteur, Maurice. This becomes most troubling for audiences – now and in 1974 – in the use of Peggy Cole as the only female actor. She is asked to perform naked for large passages of the film – featuring in images that include animated fingerprints introduced in postproduction – and many of her lines of dialogue appear to be cut from the final work. Jones’ self-reflexive treatment of her as a character and actor both exploits her sexuality and self-consciously critiques the film’s presentation of her character and body. It is also a reference to the newly introduced “R” certificate – in late 1971 – that allowed the distribution and exhibition of such material in Australia. In retrospect, the producer-writer-director-actor-editor has been critical of his own treatment of Cole (Caroline) – who has only good things to say about the supportive and collaborative environment she experienced on set2 – but the film emphasises the misogyny and abusive power of Jones’ Maurice as well as the acts of violence he performs through the vicissitudes of editing and offscreen space. In playing the character of an autocratic filmmaker who controls not only the filming but post-production – there is a wonderful slapstick moment where several jump cuts renege on the promise of showing Zig (Peter Carmody) breaking a plate over Maurice’s head – Jones highlights the ugly megalomania of a certain kind of – male – filmmaking.

The film’s key points of reference and inspiration are found in the works of writers like Samuel Beckett but also in the films and books of Jean-Luc Godard and Norman Mailer. In the opening scene, Maurice unpacks a box of books looking for ideas. He advises Zig, Steve (John Flaus) and Caroline to read only the first and last pages, emphasising the magpie-like nature of the film we are watching. But this is also, of course, a paraphrase of Godard who sometimes claimed to only read the back cover of a book for inspiration (the reality was, inevitably, quite different). It is characteristic of Jones’ film that the two books Maurice claims are of no use in this process are the ones about or written by Mailer and Godard, the two figures who most inform the work we are watching. In granting us the sense of being on the inside of a kind of filmmaking “cell”, Yackety Yack’s approach is plainly influenced by Godard’s La chinoise (1967). But Mailer’s documentary-styled portrait of a narcissistic and manipulative filmmaker (played by Mailer himself) in Maidstone (1970) is an equal touchstone.3

Yackety Yack is also significant for including the first feature-film performance by the legendary scholar, critic, radio personality, actor and voiceover performer, John Flaus. Flaus’ acting is appropriately uneven – in the film he isn’t an actor and struggles, in particular, in the scenes restaging the suicides of Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov, Mishima and Socrates – and plays upon the wafer-thin boundary between character and actor. Flaus had previously appeared in Michael Thornhill’s playful short, The American Poet’s Visit (1969), one of the great surviving documents of the Sydney Push. In that film, he is mostly a background actor and largely plays “himself”, constantly talking about movies and the merits of one director or actor over another. Yackety Yack is a truly transitional film for Flaus as a performer. Part of the film’s self-reflexivity emerges from its setting in the bowels of La Trobe University, where Flaus, Jones, Cole and the crew were also engaged as academics and students. Although there is a distinction between character and actor – on the one excursion the characters take outside into the windswept grounds of the university, Jones admits that Steve is really Flaus, an influential figure who probably knows more about American cinema than anyone else in Australia4 – we still hear Flaus and Carmody, Steve and Zig, talking in the background about the merits of directors like Vincente Minnelli and Curtis Bernhardt. For anyone who has heard Flaus in person or on radio these seem less scripted exchanges than the kind of jag he would go on about a particular, sometimes undervalued filmmaker. When I used to teach Yackety Yack in a course on Australian film culture, I would ask Flaus to give the lecture straight after the screening and get students to imagine that Steve had just walked out of the film decades later. His ability to talk around the film was also a brilliant illustration of Yackety Yack’s most compulsive, discursive and maddening qualities. In Yackety Yack, we see Flaus moving from his designated role as cinephile extraordinaire to the more rounded and detailed mode of performance fully evident only two or three years later in John Ruane’s remarkably grounded Queensland (1976).

Despite some clear parallels with Deling’s more cosmic Dalmas released the previous year, Yackety Yack is a unique work in the history of Australian cinema. It provides one of the few examples of meta-cinema and also leads the way in bringing together modes of political, independent, experimental, documentary and academic filmmaking. It partly pre-empts the movement of some kinds of filmmaking and filmmakers into the university, but always seems on the margins and peripheries of any school of cinema. Brash, introspective, intellectual, funny, critically misogynistic and misanthropic, it is also a controlled but truly entropic film that leaves us uncertain of how to take its various parts. If it has a signature beyond the ever-present Jones, it is in the refrain “entropy” spoken by several characters, explained by Maurice and reprinted multiple times through the aggressive act of montage. Yackety Yack provides a system – it is clearly organised and has a recognisable beginning, middle and end – but also falls apart. But it is a truly singular work in another key aspect. Jones completed his three-year stint in Australia and returned to North America. Although he finished most of the editing on Yackety Yack, he was not present for its release in late 1974, or to see its critical reputation grow as an outlier to the “revival”. Jones returned to his work in documentary and never made another fiction feature. Yackety Yack asks more questions than it answers – not least of which is why all those chickens flood the set in the film’s final stages – but it is also a document of radical possibility.

Yackety Yack (1974 Australia 86 mins)

Prod Co: Acme Films Prod, Dir, Scr, Ed: Dave Jones Phot: Gordon Glenn Assistant Dir: Rod Bishop Sound: Peter Beilby, Lloyd Carrick

Cast: Dave Jones, Peggy Cole, John Flaus, Peter Carmody, John Cleary, Jerzy Toeplitz


  1. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, rev. ed. (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 279.
  2. See “Radical Beginnings: The Birth of Media and Cinema Studies at La Trobe University – Panel Three”, Screening the Past, no. 45 (December 2020): https://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-45-radical-beginnings-dossier/radical-beginnings-the-birth-of-media-and-cinema-studies-at-la-trobe-university-panel-three/.
  3. Though Jones claims that he’d only read the book “about” the film, Maidstone: A Mystery (1971), at the time of making Yackety Yack. See “The Return of Maurice: An Interview With Alter Ego Dave Jones”, Screening the Past, no. 45 (December 2020): https://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-45-radical-beginnings-dossier/the-return-of-maurice-an-interview-with-alter-ego-dave-jones/.
  4. This sequence also features Jerzy Toeplitz, the founding professor at the Lodz Film School and soon to be inaugural Director of the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney, as “himself”.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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