Tom O'Regan. 'Re-thinking the Australian Film Revival'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 110-20.
Emergence of "national cinemas" (a loose, easy and inaccurate label) eg. Soviet, 1930; Italian, 1940; French, 1950; Polish, 1960; German, 1920 and 1970 - usually through state-supported national film schools or studios, are hailed and consumed by critics, historians and audiences, conscribed within a brief social aberration (such as the Russian Revolution) by other scholars, then dismissed. Hollywood either imports its competitors or floods other nation's screens with the US narrative model. Academics also erase other practices by conscription. The economic, political and social histories of these interventions, their alternative and historically specific forms of production and circulation, are largely unwritten, haphazardly covered up by the romantic assumptions of the term "art" - a series of stylistic movements led by embattled geniuses. Too often, the assignment of authorship and chronology conceals the lack of, or need for, histories which might offer more sophisticated explanations of the socio-economic and symbolic nature of this pervasive cultural form.(1)
Discussion of Australian film in the many texts since the seventies has suffered from all of the lacunae of other studies of national cinemas. It too has been hailed and voraciously consumed. Its interrupted film history has also been explained through Hollywood's coopting of its personnel, its theatres and its market, as its screens were flooded with Hollywood product thereby stamping out any local production. Discourses of art and culture have also attended it - whether as the raison-d'etre for government funding or as a means of appreciating the work of a handful of cinema directors and their Australian films.(2) So too Australian cinema has had its fair share of chronological accounts which base themselves on charting a teleological process of Australian film.(3) But these accounts go only so far towards explaining Australian cinema's socio-economic and symbolic nature. Just as importantly there has been a tendency within film scholarship to posit supra-textual and political regularities to explain Australian film. This has produced facile explanations (recurring themes to be celebrated or criticised such as its "detumescent", "everyman" heroes and the notion of a resurgent cultural nationalism, or the typical economic effects upon local production of Yankee imperialism).(4) These explanations are too patchy.
This paper argues for an extension of the study of the Australian film revival to include those ".... extra-textual conditions of production, distribution and exhibition/reception (that) have largely been relegated to either a footnote or an afterthought (in the study of national cinemas)."(5) It does so from a particular standpoint: one that sees the Australian film complex not so much as a unitary phenomenon but as one made up of diverse, semi-autonomous, but nonetheless related institutions, strategies, sectors, and discourses.(6)
Such a standpoint enables the paper to take issue with the familiar terms in which the revival has been discussed. It argues in its stead for quite particular, rather than general, relations between the different elements of the film complex (be they for example, the state, filmmaking, TV, ideas of cultural nationalism or foreign involvement in the industry).
Finally, it will discuss the place of the films within those extra-textual conditions of production via a consideration of Thomas Elsaesser's essay "Film History and Visual Pleasure".(7) Elsaesser offers a serious and cogent critique of projects which focus upon those conditions to the exclusion of the film texts. Yet his analysis can usefully point to ways of bringing together those extra-textual determinants and the forms of discourse and modes of address of the films themselves. In this way the problem becomes one of showing the mediated relations that the films have with Australian film's institutional discourses and strategies.
Aspects of much writing on the Australian film revival need to be problematised. Particular attention needs to be paid to the ways in which diverse writers have (a) regarded a number of events and key reports, and (b) recognised Australian films.
There is a need to address the particular dimensions of the important, sometimes under-theorised, relation between cinema and TV in Australia. This relationship has either been entirely overlooked, or when it is present (as it is in historical studies of the fifties and sixties), it is left there unexplored.(8) But an understanding of the Australian film, and TV interface is crucial to the contemporary development of "Australian film".
In a recent paper I try to show how the revival's conditions of existence needs to be situated within the wider audio-visual milieux it formed a part of. In this milieux TV was the dominant element.(9) Thus the revival was seen to grow out of and form an integral part of a complex cultural politics cutting across a number of different media. To tell its story necessarily involved me in describing among other things, particular government involvements (in TV and film production, in cultural subsidy for the performing arts, and in TV policy making), the lobbying for a TV and film production industry, the complexion of the TV market and its media businesses, and the direction and nature of the institutions of cultural criticism.
Legend has it that a handful of feature film lobbyists led by Phillip Adams convinced a Prime Minister to underwrite a film revival. But the revival owed itself more, I argue, to the failure of Australian content lobbying within TV to effect a fundamental change in the organization, production practices and levels of locally produced TV in the face of entrenched opposition from a powerful TV industry.(10)
Film critics and film scholars would need to recast the kind of assumed autonomy and discreteness of Australian feature film that is posited in assumptions of a revival. The real relation of Australian feature film was as much to other media domains as it was to the feature film. Australia's interrupted tradition in the cinema was rather less important to the revival than was TV. There is a discontinuity between the feature filmmaking of the thirties and that of the present which there is not between film and TV. This suggests that more work needs to be done on the Australian film and TV interface; and to do this, critics would need to set aside their undertheorised versions of "quality film and TV" to recognise the importance, the specificity and indeed the interest of Australian TV. The Australian film revival was an outcome of this interface, not an independent development.
Secondly, there is a need to dislocate the prevailing way of explaining the trajectory of the film revival by reference to film criticism and the industry's own opposing dichotomies of cultural nationalism versus internationalism (or Culture versus entertainment). These oppositions have been part of the rhetorical armoury through which the different parts of the film complex have positioned themselves in relation to each other. Importantly, they have also informed the industry's own account of itself and its development - how it has historically thought of itself and its relations to other sectors. As such these dichotomies should not be taken at their face value and used to construct an account of the revival and its changes, rather they should be seen for what they are - ways of appropriating and arguing for positions of power in the industry. By being situated on the same continuum as other arguments and strategies of the film complex they can be shown to be investigable effects and symptoms rather than causal links in an explanatory chain tracing the trajectory of Australian film. This move would problematise the easy and facile way in which the relationship between Australian films and Australian society has been posed and the flattering and damning praise that has regularly emerged from it. Theories of cultural enlightenment or cultural philistinism cannot provide adequate explanations for the emergence of the film revival or its long time coming. Decisions which have historically worked against Australian film tended to be taken for reasons other than an intent to denigrate local production by adopting an internationalist position. There is thus a need for a non-essentialist, non-teleological account of the Australian film revival.
Thirdly, the role and the place of Australian film cannot be adequately explained in relation to the American influence in Australia. Sam Rohdie's contention that Australian cinema is largely an American invention on American terms gives too little a role to Australian institutions, politics, lobbying and to the possibility of an "Australian voice". In his account, cultural imperialism is the underlying structure which gives the lie to cultural nationalist claims. As he puts it:
It is quite absurd to speak of an Australian film industry in this situation of foreign ownership and control or of a "national" film production which has not only been given a straitened place as a result of such control but which primarily benefits foreign capital. The film culture is dominated by American films and the needs of American capital ... the state produced ideology of a national film culture and national film art simply mask an economic reality (general for the Australian economy) for which terms like "national" makes little sense.(11)
This position tends to neglect the specificity of statements around film culture or national film art because it has assumed their role in advance to be subterfuges for these real conditions. It repeats, with little investigation, the central tenets of its international capital/ cultural imperialism discourse: the sycophantic, US satellite status of Australia, the state's active courting of foreign investment and Australia's subservience to international capital. But this overlooks the fact that overseas investment has different, not universally given effects within the Australian economy. The American alliance has produced uneven developments depending on which sphere is being investigated, and Australia has been freer than most second and third world countries to secure foreign investment on its terms. At a more general but related level, what is being suggested is a richer, more subtle and more complex cultural history in which Australians play a much more active role than this kind of cultural imperialist approach can allow for. Indeed, the persistence and repetition of these dismissive arguments from imperialism could be seen as an effect of Australia's second world status rather than something holding upon it. They constitute a discursive variant of those elitist culturalist positions which conclude that because Australia is an import culture it has no culture - and should be addressed as such.(12)
To be sure, the fact that the bulk of films and TV programs screened in Australia are imported has an important bearing upon the nature of the spheres of exhibition, distribution and production in this country. For this reason notions of cultural imperialism need to be refined not replaced. Cultural imperialism need not be conceived as a conspiracy of first world nations. Indeed its Australian appearance is not to be principally found in the activities of the Hollywood communication conglomerates. Instead it is to be found firstly in the local practices, policies, regulations and importing practices of Australian based (and often Australian owned) communications businesses and organisations. Secondly, it is to be found in what happens in American film and TV industries inasmuch as it directly and indirectly affects the definitions of and spaces available for Australian production. It should be borne in mind that these (mostly) American industry decisions (about the kinds and direction of their production, exhibition and distribution strategies) are more often than not taken on the basis of their own rather than their international requirements. These decisions then affect the flow of film and TV production into Australia which is of especial significance to local production in a culture dominated by imported products.
These considerations raise an important point about the politics of importing. In cultural imperialist terms importing is seen principally as an obstacle that client nations need to overcome to launch their own indigenous local production. Yet importing has no general form. Much energy and effort goes into ensuring the diversity of imports - only some of which can be calculated in commercial terms. Indeed a lot of well-intentioned, politically progressive effort goes into pioneering imports. Take SBS where the dominant Anglo-American fare of the commercial stations and the ABC is supplemented by that from the rest of the world. Take the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals established for three decades - events which helped broaden the experience of cinema in this country and helped provide alternative models for feature production. Importing is central to definitions of culture in Australia and it is a mixed bag: a blessing and an obstacle. Through cultural imports Australia does underwrite North American and European film, TV and publishing industries, and it does reinforce the centrality of Anglo-American culture in Australia. A measure of this last point is that Beresford's, Schepisi's and Weir's moves to Hollywood in the 1980s was thought of as an ascendancy!
Fourthly, there are problems with the way in which government involvement in film production (an important component in the Australian film production industry of the 1970s and 1980s) is conceived. In Australia the state does not have a universally given relation to film making. Nor can there be a single explanation for this state support for cultural activity of which feature production formed a part. Conceiving the role of the state in its specific relation to Australian film raises problems for those analyses which either construct a general relationship of hegemony between culture and the state - or else construct a necessary set of effects flowing from state involvement.(13) The conception urged is one which seeks a series of interlocking, divergent and historically shifting constructions of film's importance to government and an equally uneven, transient trail of effects of government involvement upon that film making practice. The state in this context is a series of important influences amongst others.
The positive responses of Australian governments (state and federal) to film subsidy (and right across the different spheres of cultural production) over the past two decades have been provisional and contradictory. These responses were never offensive measures. They were based upon a sense that the existing media/culture was not doing enough - not that it was doing the wrong thing. This support, whether it be through subsidies to film production, the arts and book publishing, or Australian TV content regulations(14) was predicated upon a perceived need to supplement existing cultural output with some Australian material. Diverse Australianist arguments focussing on the formation of national and cultural identity were marshalled to underscore this support.
This was often explicitly linked with the importance of presenting, in order to make possible, a territorially specific sense of an imagined Australian community.(15) If anything, Australia was a little late compared to other second and third world countries in perceiving the need for government sponsored programs to unite its diverse, creole population and far flung communities with their own local identities and histories by inculcating a specifically Australianist inflection. This is in part because, up until the end of the second world war, official discourse registered Australia's British character. Immigrants could be seen to be mostly "British" and Australia's economic, political, social and strategic interests were more or less identical with the Empire. In the 1960s this "British" identity of Australia was at odds - with changing perceptions of Australia's external interests, with definitions of Australia and the Australian (given that these now needed to include southern European migrants), and with America's growing strategic, cultural and economic importance to Australia. Perhaps just as importantly this "Australianism" was also, paradoxically, a response to the dominance of American cultural production in the post-war period which threatened continuing transmission for a bourgeois elite of British definitions of culture and cultural activity, as well as brooking nationalist aspirations in cultural production. Clearly, these Australianist moves have a diverse and contradictory face and cannot be definitively sheeted down to any one thing. The Australian film revival should thus be seen as part of a wider trajectory of producing culture and forms of social, consensus politics in the post-war period.
Fifthly, the relationship between Australian film and distribution and exhibition in Australia should not be too narrowly circumscribed within the terms provided by the Tariff Board Report. This report saw exhibition and distribution in Australia as so many marketing mechanisms for foreign (American and British) - not Australian films. By being dominated by large chains associated with major film production houses and international distributors, the local industry was seen as fundamentally skewed away from local production. Following much of the producer agitation at the time, the Board advocated a more fluid, less centralised system of exhibition and distribution. It called for a "reduction in the concentration of control within the industry" through a "restructuring to provide a greater number of suitable alternate outlets."(16) By these measures Australian films would be able to compete on equal terms with overseas product.
The Board's blueprint for the feature film industry was a particular kind of negotiation of the issues raised by producer agitation rather than a definitive account of the practices of the film market.(17) Indeed the production industry's more or less unanimous support for a more decentralised film market quickly fragmented in the wake of chain involvement, and help, in organizing a film's run.(18) Australian film historians need to re-examine this report - in particular the way it situates Australian film within its local market. What particularly needs to be recognised is that its status as a "lost opportunity"(19) owes more to the subsequent change in the direction of Federal policy (away from structural change toward production subsidies) and rather less to its ability to adequately explain the nature of the film market and the place of local production within it. There is little overseas evidence to suggest that a restructuring of the Australian cinema market towards a more competitive less restrictive environment would greatly benefit Australian production.(20)
Sixthly, conceptions of the Australian audience need to take greater account of the ways in which films are extra-textually situated in discourse. The cultural discourses which accrued to Australian film in the 1970s - emphasising films of "worth and quality" - reconstructed film criticism and the Australian spectator's consumption of Australian film. Whilst it is arguable that Australian features may not possess intrinsic textual characteristics to differentiate them from mainstream narrative film, it is the case that these cultural discourses have bound Australian spectators to these films in ways that have produced particular experiences of them.(21)
As a general point here it should be remembered that the trajectory of critical discourses on the Australian film revival is affected by Australian film's displaced position within the film production arena. Because of its comparative lack of centrality to the local viewing experience and its relative unimportance internationally, film and cultural criticism tends to see Australian film in relation to - and measure it against - the more dominant (Hollywood) and/or more prestigious fare (European art-house and Hollywood). This is responsible for at least two phenomena worth commenting on in contemporary Australian film criticism. Firstly there is the persistently found non-original aspect of Australian film. It is seen to be firmly situated within definable and internationally shared protocols - as a consequence any originality is persistently mistaken for a repetition of some overseas antecedent. The second phenomenon is the persistent surprise that Australian work is held internationally to be up there "with the best of them": the trip to Cannes made alot of sense in terms of getting favourable critical and public reception in Australia. This has its corollary in the critical assumption that only sometimes would Australian film have standards worthy of international cultural membership and then only when it produced texts which could be praised not for any originality or innovation on their part, but for their similarity to other films (eg Picnic at Hanging Rock and Bo Widerberg) or for their stylish reworking of a pre-existing film genre (eg Mad Max and the exploitation movie).(22)
The film texts have taken a back seat in the scenario so far outlined. The problems they raise for analysis have been deferred in order to discuss the integrity of other institutional, economic, political and discursive determinants. The problem remains as to how an interest in the organisation of discourse on the revival can mesh with an interest in its film texts.
Attending to the revival's film texts raises a set of vexed questions which have dogged the analytical discussion of cinema in recent years. These questions revolve around the theoretical adequacy of constituting a corpus of Australian films given the tendency within film studies to either privilege the textuality of the film text at the expense of institutional determinants or to look away from the films themselves to the apparatus itself, the cinema institution, of which these films form an eminently "substitutable" part.
Both emphases - one focussing on textuality and the other on the cinema apparatus - raise the issue of how similar Australian cinema is to the (international) norms of film practice. And this can only problematise claims for the specificity of Australian film history. It raises the following problems: how Australian are Australian cinema's products? In what could this Australian inflection consist? Aren't the Australian films of the seventies a loose and motley collection of Australian based film practices which share the same modes of address, forms of textual organisation, same ability to bind an audience and organise the pleasure for the spectator as the cinema more generally? If that is so then the "Australian film" projects a fundamentally similar kind of experience of the cinema as do other films. Consequently there can be no particular importance attached to the fact that a film is Australian. Furthermore, even if one acknowledges that there can be different forms of organisation of the cinematic experience than the classic Hollywood narrative (with avant-garde and Weimar cinema being prime instances of this difference),(23) Australian cinema would simply not qualify as a candidate (with its Hollywood influence, its modes of address, its narrational strategies).
Such speculations orient the writing of Australian film history in particular kinds of ways. One would write a story of how that difference did not come about, explaining the peculiar historical conditions which conspired to make Australian film not to have an effective film history, not to have tried anything different ... accordingly the need for a specifically Australian film history would lapse. In its stead one would write of yet another example of how a "national cinema" was co-opted by Hollywood before it got off the ground. The old frustration at Australia would return - the traces of Hollywood's dominance would be illuminated; the possibilities of a more innovative and adventurous cultural production would be shown once again not to have been taken ... one would be left with a sense of bitterness at the fate of a handful - like Longford - that showed promise of doing something different ...
In the process doesn't one become another voice in that long chorus line for "authentic" and "innovative" cultural productions? Their absence becomes explained through the familiar tropes of the "frightened country" (unwilling to take on powerful vested interests and too timid to explore expressive cinematic possibilities), and of the "tall poppy syndrome" (unwilling to promote and recognise excellence thereby setting in place a middle ground which risks nothing). Or else one takes the opposite tack. Wanting to find those similarities one laments difference (and this surely was a feature of 1970s film criticism as David Stratton has shown(24)). So one can end up saying much the same (untenable) things about Australian cultural production as its greatest detractors do. The question of the specificity of Australian film has regularly produced this kind of impasse in film criticism.
In my work on the ocker and quality films(25) I have tried to sidestep this morass by insisting upon the field of discourse on Australian film. This examination seems more and more, to produce evidence of a kind of specificity - of an "Australian voice". This voice can be seen to lie in the existence of Australian stage and film practices that make it a question for NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) and other training institutions as to whether the British stage tradition is a "foreign tradition"(26) or not. It can also be seen in the purchase that representations of "Australia" and "Australians" have in binding an "imagined community". Whilst it is not clear what this "Australian voice" might consist in, nor what kind of modifications to film studies are necessary to accommodate its possibility, this very possibility changes how Australian films can be looked at. It seems necessary to accord considerably greater importance to actual audiences and to how they use the texts: how they recognise them and go to them as Australian. In short, we need to consider the particular ways in which their readings transform the texts.
Thomas Elaesser's seminal article "Film History and Visual Pleasure" points to ways such an analysis could proceed. He also raises a number of important issues central to the writing of film history. The thrust behind his argument is that there would be no need for film history if the pleasure associated with narrative film remains the same from one film to another. But if it could be established that this visual pleasure was instead both historical and ideological, then there would be a need for specific and local analyses. As Elsaesser puts it: "If cinema is historical, so is pleasure. If cinema is ideological so is pleasure."(27)
At the same time, Elsaesser develops a compelling critique of institutional analyses of determinants holding upon film production:
But does not the excitement over the discovery of so many diverse and hitherto disregarded factors which exerted a shaping influence give rise also to an equivalent disappointment, namely that such a history necessarily accepts the film industry's own (admittedly unacknowledged) relation to its products - as inert commodities, as accumulations of dead labour moving through time and space in order to realize surplus value for an industry that distinguishes itself from other parts of a capitalist economy mainly by the complexity (pleasing to the investigating intelligence) of the social values that enter into the successful product? Could it be that the film industry is not primarily product oriented, but a service industry? (p.49)
It might be true that the history of the cinema finds its place within the histories of the entertainment industry, but that is "not enough because ... concepts such as entertainment, leisure and culture are as much in need for further analysis as are the notions of pleasure and desire."(p.51) The whole "entertainment industry" is itself built out of commodities being more than inert commodities, in being more than accumulations of dead labour that obey the particular, though nonetheless general rules of any other object circulating in a capitalist economy. These are based on "the possibility of pleasure". As Elsaesser puts it:
Pleasure, as it is bound up with signification, representation, meaning, perception and memory, is therefore perforce implicated in history as the shifting and fixing of the relationships between desire and representation.(p.51)
These ruminations suggest a reorientation of the theoretical object that is looked at. One might still look to analyses of the "service industry", one might still look to writing a series of histories of differently constituted objects, but the analysis could not avoid the question of how the film texts themselves enter into these objects.
This is a devastating critique of institutional analyses which neglect to examine the nature of the film object itself. My paper, on "Writing on Australian Film History" was particularly guilty on this score. It did not focus on the question of pleasure, rather it focussed on "talk on films". The films remained shadowy creatures barely being allowed a part in refracting this talk. They were not seen to be helping to organise the debates on film itself. Also overlooked was their role - in conjunction with the discourses on Australian film - in organising a complex experiential phenomena (a regime of pleasure).
But Elsaesser is also pointing to the way in which institutional analyses could usefully inform a more broadly conceived Australian film history. For an analysis of this history/pleasure would need to go beyond "... questions concerned with `the spectator in the text', or the coherence of the film text and its relation to other `texts'. It would need to do this because:
...a film today is as much constructed outside - in the discourses of financing and of spin-offs and residuals, in promotional campaigns and journalistic or critical reviews - as it is constructed within the length and duration of its celluloid strip and the space of its projection. (p.52)
Whilst Australian films share some of the same textual and narrational characteristics as the existing mainstream cinema, these films were nonetheless positioned in relation to specific Australian aesthetic, cultural, political and policy debates and so they became constructed for an historically differentiated audience over that period. The audience for ocker in 1972-74 was not the same one as that for Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975-80) nor the same as that for The Man from Snowy River (1982-?).
Elsaesser also cautions against assuming a "pertinent relation" between the film texts themselves and wider "social, economic and political developments." (p.54) Clearly, it would be dangerous to assume that the Australian films were the effects of those developments themselves; that the films expressed, and were in some sense exhausted by, the conditions of existence of "Australian films". The debates in film policy and film criticism and the trajectories of production and funding were a contributing factor to the organisation of a text's discourse not an explanation of it. To be sure traces of these debates can be found in the films, but the films negotiated rather than gave effect to these debates. In this way the task becomes one of showing how the films mediated not just these debates but also particular regimes of film narration and plot construction. Also the institutional trajectories of an industry should not be taken to be homologous with the films themselves. Elsaesser particularly warns against "some kind of conjunctural model that would indicate how different events articulate themselves in different forms at different levels but are nonetheless similarly structured and coextensive in space and time."(p.55) Such a model would assume a general relation of correspondence between film discourse and films which has to be established, rather than assumed in advance. The films themselves would have to be examined with a view to establishing the particular relations between film discourse and films rather than assuming a duplicative set of relations between them.
Allied to this is the question of the specific relations between Australian film and society more generally. If one was to assume that no such relation existed, even at a most limited, partial level, one would be assuming a film to have no social significance as an object of study or as one worthy of government patronage to begin with. The question then is not one of avoiding the relations between films and other modes of social representation but of indicating the kinds of questions and issues that are of direct pertinence to an investigation of it. At the level of visual pleasure, it is to pose the relation between these films and other "specular" modes of (subject) inscription.
Because the cinema is historical, then so too will relations within it be historically formed - they will be subject to transformation. Elsaesser suggests some of these issues in his discussion of the centrality that cinema once occupied within the store of audio-visual, specular sets of relations but which it no longer does. As he remarks:
... all the cinematic institutions with which we are now familiar may be called transitional phenomena, insofar as their social functions can be taken over and modified by other forms of visual and auditory pleasure. (p.75)
Cinema, he goes on to argue, has been displaced by TV, advertising, video and video games...
... our society's ideological tasks of visual representation, of narrative and of iconography, of socialisation and forms of address, of subject-positioning and consensus politics, have shifted from cinema to TV to advertising. (p. 52)
Adopting Elsaesser's remarks to Australian film it is possible to suggest that a greater discontinuity exists between the Australian cinema of the thirties and that of the seventies renaissance than the familiar account of an interrupted production history would suggest. This discontinuity insists upon itself despite the clear similarities from the standpoint of the place of Australian film production in an import culture; of the same problems of sustaining and defining a place and existence for Australian film output. Elsaesser's standpoint reopens the film archive, as one seeks not a continuity in the history of Australian film but a series of discontinuities, conjunctions and extra-textual considerations impinging upon the "historical spectator". Accordingly, one's emphasis would need to shift from questions of an endlessly repeated history of cultural imperialism (in which one automatically positions oneself alongside the underdog) to a synchronic, historically specific examination of that cinema's relation to the wider issue of the specular and auditory organisation of public life. This would mean that the archive was reopened and that Australia has a richer "film history" than one would have even believed possible.
Something of the dimensions of this task can be gauged by Elsaesser's comments upon what a history of German cinema would look like:
In the case of Germany, the history of its cinema would have to be extended not only by considering the specular organisation of everyday public life as politics took to the streets and a dictatorship celebrated itself visually through endless pageants and parades, but also by assessing the role that, for instance, radio played in Hitler's war effort and the home front. (p.75)
As for the Australian cinema revival the cinema occupied the backseat to TV and advertising within this period. One would need to recall that the inability to secure a degree of non-commercial considerations in the organisation of Australian TV production directly led to the political, cultural, aesthetic and libidinal investment in the Australian feature film. Australian TV had built itself around maximising audiences from the start. It had adopted its own low budget narrative and dramatic models which were tied in with the economic pressures of an industry created by the number of TV stations in metropolitan markets, the lack of networking in the accepted American sense and the initial absence of Australian content provisions. Because TV had developed that way, it simply was not easy for production and cultural lobbyists to intervene in such an established and delicately balanced structure. Consequently, their desire for TV to incorporate different kinds of quality programming in an independent production industry structure was thwarted and found its way into support for a (feature) film industry.(28)
In consequence a filmmaking developed which incorporated within its very existence a cautioning against compromising for commercial gain. Government involvement cushioned it against, and to an extent exempted it from, the full commercial pressures of the market. With this move away from TV to the cinema, came a related shift within feature production policy away from the "frankly commercial" ocker films to "quality" productions. In these shifts the ideological mission of the independent production industry remained constant: to inscribe its historical spectator, a bourgeois audience, within Australian produced culture and cultural production. Problems emerged, however, with the minority cultural form the cinema had become, and the related difficulty of securing both local and international sales with a higher quality, higher budget product. This entailed making a product which could at once articulate local cultural and aesthetic positions and be able to circulate on international markets. The difficulty for the industry became one of reconciling what an Australian cultural, aesthetic public imagined those overseas standards to be and what they in fact were. The necessity of overseas export to viability, (inscribed into the Australian film revival right from its refutation of the ocker film, Alvin Purple) carried within it the seeds of its increasing susceptability to commercial pressures - the very thing it was in fact set up not to do.
When "Australian film" is discussed and recalled, the pivotal text of the revival is always Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). It was this text which was seen as recalling Australian cultural production to being a worthy object. Perhaps in this, one can discern a deeper current to the celebrated Australian film of the revival, and that is the articulation of bourgeois Australian audiences to their own country. The reluctance to have Picnic criticised reflected upon the social function of, and indeed the libidinal investment in, that film and what it permitted in the way Australia could now be imagined. Australian film needed to capture this minority audience within the cinema's Australian clientele because of its crucial role in the transmission of cultural values and aesthetic judgements upon which its survival had been built.
The historical TV mini-series and the multi-cultural TV network O/28 were important developments in the late 1970s early 1980s which incorporated aspects of Australian film's work and so rendered it increasingly redundant. Perhaps the demise of feature film is in fact signalled by the inclusion of these cultural functions within TV - particularly commercial TV - aided to a significant extent by the government "subsidy" of the tax concessions. The social and cultural role that Australian film once occupied appears to have disappeared and been replaced by TV. This demise of feature film can also be signalled by the growing incapacity of the minority audience institution of the cinema to sustain commercially (even with subsidy) productions which could serve the role of binding Australian audiences to films. Furthermore, this demise reflected the triumph of film industry over filmmaking, as the industry sought to disengage the wider demands of its inevitably fractured intellectual public from itself and secure its necessity as an industry.
There is, so one reads, more of a concern for the business of filmmaking and a sense of it as a career with paths already mapped out and institutions firmly established. Now there is a disregard for film critics noted by Meaghan Morris which would have been unthinkable at an earlier stage when it was important to mobilise cultural and aesthetic discourses.(30) Indeed one could speak of the solidification and petrification of professional ideologies as the AFC moves into a phase of selective professionally oriented film investment.(31) In this scenario, Australian film reappears not as a filmmaking aimed at a minority segment of a minority cultural form (the cinema) but as one which is crucially geared to securing for the cinema the maximum possible audience (differentiated along social, class and ethnic lines). Examples of this are the "blockbuster" films, Snowy River (1982), Mad Max 2 (1981), Gallipoli (1981), Coolangatta Gold (1984) and more recently, Crocodile Dundee (1986). Their task is not to bind a bourgeois audience to consumption within the cinematic institution but to reposition the Australian audience around the increasingly fetishised specular relations filmmaking is currently entering into. These relations owe a great deal not to cinema itself but to the effect upon cinema of the textual strategies, special effects and fetishising of the spectacle so prevalent in advertising, TV and the video clip.
As part of any investigation of this new phenomenon film histories would need to, as Elsaesser suggests, pay due regard to the fact that "bingo halls and video games" have to some extent subsumed "the traditional spaces and audiences of the cinema." (p.52) Clearly producers are still attempting "to find fictional and narrative forms in which the predominant audience of the day could recognise itself ideologically (ie. in its class or sex specific imaginary)." (p. 69) But their means of achieving it may be shifting with these new technologies and cultural forms. If so Australian films such as the Mad Max cycle and Crocodile Dundee are part of this new phase which arguably supercedes the Australian film revival as it has come to be known.
Film history is in the process of redefining and repositioning itself with regard to adjacent social and political fields. Clearly film history can no longer be content with the integrity of the feature film as constituting the outer and inner limits of its theoretical object, Australian film. The move, rather, is towards specifying the "... relations of power, control and pleasure which reach beyond film history, and even the histories of its technological and economic practices."(32) By doing so film history would become not merely part of media studies, but media studies would need to reposition itself with reference to the political, historical and social sciences to explain phenomena which cut across those fields - whether it be the historicity of visual/auditory pleasure or the more limited conception of public circulation that I have advanced in the past.
1. Patricia Mellancamp, "Introduction", in Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices, eds. Patricia Mellancamp and Philip Rosen (Los Angeles: American Film Institute/University Publications of America, 1984), p. xii.
2. See, for instance, David Stratton, The Last New Wave (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980).
3. See, for instance, Brian Adams & Graham Shirley, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, (Sydney: Angus & Robertson/Currency Press, 1983) and Eric Reede History and Heartburn (Sydney: Harper & Row, 1979).
4. See Jack Clancy, "The Renaissance of the Seventies", in Intruders in the Bush ed. John Carroll (Melbourne: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 168-179 (ref: detumescent heroes and Australian culture); Max Harris, "Sense and Sensibility in the Film World" Weekend Australian, 21-22/4/1979 (ref: "everyman" heroes); Gary Sturgess, "The Emerging New Nationalism", The Bulletin, 2/2/1982, pp. 62, 66 (ref: resurgent cultural nationalism); Transnational Co-operative, "The Second Coming - and going - of the Australian film industry", Filmnews, v. 10, no. 3 (1980), pp. 5, 16 (ref: yankee imperialism).
5. Mellencamp, p. xiii.
6. For a more detailed theoretical statement see Tom O'Regan, "Writing on Australian Film History", Occasional Papers, no. 5, Local Consumption Publications, "Sydney, 1984; for examples of this analysis in action see my "Ocker and the Tariff Board: The Politics of Import Culture", Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, v. 3, no. 1 (1985), pp. 72-88; "Reconciling Independent and Mainstream Film", Proceedings of Interrogating Film Culture Seminar, (AFC, Sydney, 1984), pp. 42-66; "Australian Film Making: Its Public Circulation", Framework, nos. 22/23 (1983), pp. 31-36, and "Ride the High Country", Filmnews, v. 12, no. 9, pp. 8-9.
7. Elsaesser, "Film History and Visual Pleasure", in Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices, pp. 47-84.
8. Both Ina Bertrand & Diane Collins in Government and Film in Australia (Sydney: AFI/Currency Press, 1981) and Shirley & Adams highlight TV without being able to theorise its relationship with feature film production.
9. Tom O'Regan "Aspects of the Australian Film and TV Interface", Australian Journal of Screen Theory, Issues 17/18 (1986), pp. 5-33.
10. Ibid, p. 19.
11. Sam Rohdie, "The Australian State: National Cinema", Framework, nos. 22/23 1983) pp. 28-29.
12. For some telling examples and criticism of this form of elitist cultural cringe see Geoffrey Dutton, Snow on the Saltbush (Ringwood: Viking Press, 1984) pp. 279-294.
13. Rohdie, p. 29.
14. This was aimed to secure levels of Australian produced TV - not to regulate how much of the service was devoted to foreign product-ions.
15. This discussion draws upon Benedict Anderson's comparative study of nationalisms. See Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).
16. Tariff Board The Tariff Board Report: Motion Picture Films and TV Programs (Canberra: AGPS, 1973), p. 19.
17. See O'Regan, "Ocker and the Tariff Board", pp. 77-80.
18. For producers with general audience aspirations after Alvin Purple (1973), the commercial viability of Australian films was linked to the Australia-wide distribution facility the cinema chains provided. See O'Regan, "Ocker and the Tariff Board", p. 81.
19. Shirley and Adams, p. 252.
20. See my "Reflections on the Economic Regulation of Cinema Markets," (forthcoming).
21. For an attempt to cover the connections between discourses on film, film consumption and the films themselves see my "A Fine Cultural Romance: The Seventies Feature Film," Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, v. 4, no. 1 (1986), pp. 55-75.
22. For reference to Picnic see P.P. McGuinness, Review, National Times (20-25/10/1975); for reference to Mad Max see David Maher "We Need George Miller", Filmnews, v. 9, no. 6 (1979), p. 16.
23. For a discussion of these claims for Weimar cinema and avant-garde films see Elsaesser, pp. 53-54.
24. Stratton, passim.
25. O'Regan, "Ocker and the Tariff Board"; "A Fine Cultural Romance".
26. My source on this is actor/film producer John Filmer-Mason, personal interview Perth, October, 1984.
27. Elsaesser, p. 51. Further references to this work will appear in the text unless otherwise indicated.
28. See O'Regan "Aspects of the Australian Film and TV Interface", pp. 5-33.
29. Two instances spring to mind here. Firstly, an older student dropped out of an Australian film course that I was involved in (in 1984) because among other things criticism of this film was seen to be negative and destructive. And secondly, Cinema Papers relegated Ian Hunter's damning critique of that film to the status of letter to the editor. See Ian Hunter, "Corsetway to Heaven", Cinema Papers, v. 3, no. 8 (1976) p. 371.
30. Meaghan Morris, "Critical Figure", unpublished paper, Sydney, 1984. As she puts it: "I think that the prevailing pressure on critics is no longer to play propagandist or nurse to the industry. It is instead to be there ... " (pp. 8-9)
31. For an analysis of this shift see Susan Dermody, "The Australian Film Industry and the Holy Roman Empire", Filmnews, v. 13, no. 6 (1983), p. 12. The major losers out of this industry consolidation have been video-access/public TV groupings.
32. Elsaesser, p. 78.
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