Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1983

Australian film history and historiography

Stuart Cunningham

An exemplary problem is posed by the persistence, indeed centrality, despite its problematic status, of the category "national cinema" in the study of film. As it has traditionally been treated in general histories of world cinema, national cinemas and introductions to film, it is a category into which a melange of auteurist and stylistic imprecisions may be conveniently lumped. The category itself, innocent of theoretical and historical construction, has often merely been equated with the geographical site in which so many stellar moments of auteurist and stylistic excellence happen to have occurred. Further difficulties arise for the category of "national cinema" when the evolving international structure of film distribution and, to a lesser extent, production and exhibition, is taken into consideration. Further, any analysis informed by political concerns would perforce take account of the classic tradition of Marxist internationalism which mounts a major critique of nationality as an historical and theoretical donnee.

The traditional texts, auteurs and periods cited as national cinema par excellence—those associated with, for example, post-revolutionary Soviet cinema French impressionism and the nouvelle vague, Italian neo-realism, the British documentary and Free Cinema, German expressionism and the current "New German Cinema" can virtually uniformly be seen as to a greater or lesser extent marginal to mainstream film production, distribution and reception within their respective countries and time periods. This is simply to say that the more attention is placed on the aesthetic breaks and achievements of such apogees, the less emphasis can correspondingly be placed on a systematic political economy of film in these various nations, and, by implication, a political economy of film as such. One consequence of this is evident if the place of Hollywood in the topography of the cinema is considered. American commercial film production is not typically considered as "national cinema". This is because an implicit legitimation of America's international economic preeminence is imported into the notion of national cinema: Hollywood's aesthetic communicability is self evidently transnational (though this should be theorised in relation to economic dominance) whereas "national" cinemas are triumphant reflections of localised characteristics and conditions (though this triumphalism displaces consideration of the political/economic conditions whereby such achievements are marginalised within their own nations).

For all this, however, the concept "national cinema" remains a useful category as long as it is exhumed from the hazardously parlous state I have outlined. This has been, and can be, done on a number of fronts. The category can be stiffened with programmatic political intent, for instance in third world cinema practices where nationality has been posed in revisionist Marxist terms, particularly those of Gramsci and Fanon, as the third world's proletarianisation by trans-national capitalism. It can be used to problematise, rather than homogenise, American cinema by focussing on Hollywood's hegemonic position in relation to "independent" practices within the nation state and, further, by stressing the synthetic nature of Hollywood's aesthetic regimes—classic Hollywood cinema's bowerbird-like


appropriation of stylistic innovations (and of course personnel) of various national cinemas. As a general principle, though, its exhumation is achievable by placing methodological priority on the production of "nationality", on the widely differing and often contradictory constructions of nationality, or equally the construction of its absence, in film practices. 2

This is one context in which Australian film history and historiography can profitably be placed. Of course, it is not the only one and it is not simply a question of luxuriating in the historical hindsight provided by the more theoretically informed and systemic work done recently in order to excoriate that which came before. Film history has its own history which it would be a proper historical irony to forget.

The initial mode of Australian film history could be characterised as excavatory, celebratory and polemical. Eric Reade's books The Australian Screen, Australian Silent Films, The Talkies Era and History and Heartburn and John Baxter's The Australian Cinema, along with the compilation films on early film history, Forgotten Cinema, The Pictures That Moved and The Passionate Industry, 3 saw themselves as relaying a story too long untold, and to some important extent untold because of the lack of extant film texts, especially from the silent period. 4 Thus, Baxter can declare "the inflexible rules of chemistry have robbed us of our film history" 5 although it would be more accurate, and more strategic, history to account for this loss in terms of the indifference, until quite recently, shown toward the preservation of early film material. These histories took a polemical stance, in varying degrees, toward the relevance of such excavation compilation and story-telling for their present, specifically the situation of the film industry in the late sixties and early seventies. The celebratory tone of these histories is bound into the polemical with the at times explicit but typically implicit sense that Australia once had a thriving indigenous industry and therefore, having such a capability, can do it again.

A further piece of this argument is the notion of a boom-bust-boom cycle spanning the eighty years of the century, which is conveniently encapsulated in some of Andrew Pike's work:

The past, in terms of Australian feature film production, is a distant one. After a short burst of activity between 1910 and 1912, the production of feature films declined sharply and continued at a level of rarely more than 10 features a year until World War II. Efforts to revive production after the disruptions caused by the war failed, and during the 1950s and 1960s only a few locally made features were completed. This period of inactivity ended abruptly, however, in 1970; new people had come to dominate production, beliefs in the nature of a viable industry had altered, and the films being made bore little resemblance to earlier work. 6

It is not that the facts cited in support of this cyclical topography are wrong; the argument itself, however, is simplistic and distorting. By focussing exclusively on feature production, it displaces from consideration the complex interrelation ships amongst feature, documentary, newsreel production and adjacent practices such as theatre, vaudeville and television. Attention to these would suggest


that, for instance, the so-called period of stagnation or dearth in the decades after the second world war was far from being so if one was to consider the "compensatory" development of documentary in this period and documentary's subsequent fruitful feeding into feature production. 7 Further, it leads to an overly narrow conception of the past, or the pasts, of contemporary Australian filmmaking. Only an unnecessarily homogeneous temporality of the nation state would seek to evaluate the present situation primarily in terms of the presences and absences of one of its various possible contexts.

The celebratory mode also takes on a life of its own, apart from its imbrication with the polemical, in that this type of historiography attempts to establish Australia's credentials within the parameters of traditional national cinema histories. Australian film history was found to include neglected masterpieces (The Sentimental Bloke), great directors (Raymond Longford), action directors (Charles Chauvel), a popular production house (Cinesound in the thirties), a front runner in the international "firsts" stakes (The Kelly Gang, 1906, for first feature film), a peculiarly indigenous genre popular with audiences (the bushranger films), a history of both overseas (usually American) conspiracies in distribution and exhibition which squeezed out local production to secure a bridgehead for Hollywood dominance and of the related government inactions or inabilities to prevent this taking place. 8

This latter point concerning conspiracies, based as it is, albeit implicitly, on a broadly-conceived (American) media "imperialism", is a useful point at which to shift consideration to the second mode of Australian film history. 9 Here, John Tulloch's two books Legends on the Screen and Australian Cinema are central. Both books have as their declared interest the shifting of the ground on which early Australian film history had initially been understood; namely, as a series of courageous and often brilliant but ultimately ill-fated attempts to establish an indigenous industry in the face of increasingly effective American global dominance—the David and Goliath story minus the biblical consolation. This piece of well-chewed mythology, notwithstanding its undoubted moments of truth, has as its principal effect the masking of the systemic means by which the early Australian film industry was organised to facilitate, indeed embrace, such dominance. This is perhaps the most valuable, and most politically necessary, aspect of Tulloch's massive (compared to previous work) undertakings. Taken together, necessarily, covering roughly the same chronology (1919 to the early thirties) and drawing on the same documentary evidence as they do, Legends and Australian Cinema constitute the first substantial systemic account of the cinema—as organised industry for the production of revenue and cultural meaning, as opposed to the hitherto preferred story of the outstanding directorial career and the occasional government inquiry—in Australia.

The differences between the two books, however, are also instructive. Legends is based around studies of a series of careers of directors, actors, producers and magazines organised according to their greater or lesser allegiances to the Hollywood "model". Despite the necessary discriminations, the stories are sufficiently similar, and thus their individualised telling sufficiently repetitive, to suggest the need for a higher altitude reconnaissance.


This is what Tulloch sets himself in the first part of Australian Cinema. The "media imperialism" thesis has insufficient explanatory value. The dependant cinema industry needs, itself, to be considered as a working social system, composed of a dynamic interaction of goals, groups and traditions within it. This will enable us to look for conflict among its dominant groups, cracks within its dominant meanings, which the media imperialism thesis has hidden. 10 So Tulloch lays out six stages in the production process—pre-production, production, distribution, performance, reception, control—and marshals a thorough listing of film schools, companies, unions, agencies, lobby groups, and so on, whose organised interrelationships were the field within which any directorial or acting career was perforce played out. Thus he is able to interpret the role of state mobilisation within the industry in a much wider and more complex fashion than Bertrand and Collins' recently published Government and Film in Australia, guided as he is by Gramsci's (and Connell and Irving's) notion that state hegemony works principally by securing assent than by overt and repressive "interventions".

The Australian film industry of the twenties, as Tulloch sees it, was organised to "assent" to its dependence, in relation to British colonial control at points as much as American domination, by three main factors. An industrial network of relationships operated at almost every level to render indigenous production risky and sporadic; when such production did take place, it was equally risky to distribute and exhibit; when the producer did find an audience its critical reception in such magazines as Everyones was guaranteed to be rarely supportive. Second, the trade's identity-construction, its "discourse of professionalism", was explicitly modelled on the luminous American example, and aggressively precluded the consideration of alternatives. Finally, the diffuse and malleable, and originally potentially subversive, bush legend, the variable mobilisation of which Tulloch places at the semantic core of early Australian cinema, was typically recuperated within "bourgeois cultural containment". It is a singular strength of Tulloch's work that this analysis of dependency traverses the usual methodological demarcations between context or constraint and textual meaning. Tulloch's work gives due prominence to the Promethean individual and to foreign power, but places them in a system of political, economic, cultural and legislative processes which itself is not merely the sum of its attractively mythological parts.

The value of this form of theoretically-stimulated intervention into Australian film history for analysis of the contemporary situation will be seen with the publication of Dermody and Jacka's "The Australian State/A National Cinema". 12 The Cinema Papers publications The New Australian Cinema and The Documentary Film in Australia 13 are valuable in that they provide lines of investigation that will be built on fruitfully in the future. Planned books in the Australian Screen series, on documentary and independent film, will further consolidate Tulloch's pioneering work. The process of reconstructing Australian film history is underway.



1 . eg., Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino, "Towards a Third Cinema," Movies and Methods (ed. Bill Nichols) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).

2. eg., Edward Buscombe, "Film History and the Idea of a National Cinema," Australian Journal of Screen Theory Nos. 9/10 (1981), Film Reader 4, "Metahistory of Film", Film: Historical-Theoretical Speculations (Film Studies Annual 1977).

3. Australian Silent Films: A Pictorial History of Silent Films from 1896 to 1929 (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1970). The Talkies Era: A Pictorial History of Australian Sound Film Making 1930-1960 (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1972); History and Heartburn: The Saga of Australian Film 1896-1978 (Sydney: Harper and Row, 1979); The Australian Cinema (Sydney: Pacific Books/Angus and Robertson 1970); Forgotten Cinema (Prod. and Dir. Tony Buckley. Script Bill Peach. 1967); The Pictures that Moved (Prod. Commonwealth Film Unit. Dir. Alan Anderson. Script Joan Long 1968; The Passionate Industry (Prod. Commonwealth Film Unit. Dir. and Script Joan Long 1972); Joan Long and Martin Long, The Pictures that Moved: A Picture History of the Australian Cinema 1896-1929 (Melbourne: Hutchinson, 1982) includes scripts of the latter two films.

4. It is estimated that, "of about 250 silent feature films made in Australia between 1906 and 1930, little more than 50 survive in whole or in part today." Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike, Australia's Lost Films: The loss and rescue of Australia's silent cinema (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1982), p.9.

5. Baxter, "Preface," The Australian Cinema.

6. Pike, "The Past: boom and bust," in The New Australian Cinema (ed. Scott Murray) (Melbourne: Nelson, 1980), p.11 and see also Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980).

7. eg., Albert Moran, "The Discourse of Australian Documentary Cinema 1940-1960," Arena (forthcoming) and The Projection of Australia (Sydney: Currency Press/Australian Film Institute, forthcoming 1984. Australian Screen.), Tom O'Regan, "Australian Film Making: Its Public Circulation," The First Australian History and Film Conference Papers 1982 (ed. Anne Hutton) (Sydney: Australian Film and Television School, 1982) and "The Politics of Representation: The Case of Australian Film," M.A. thesis in progress, Griffith University.

8. This formulation is based on O'Regan, "Australian Film Making," p.228.

9. eg., John Tulloch, Legends on the Screen: The Narrative Film in Australia 1919-1929 (Sydney: Currency Press/AFI, 1981). (Australian Screen); Tulloch, Australian Cinema: History, Narrative and Meaning (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1982); Sylvia Lawson, "Towards Decolonialisation: Some Problems and Issues for Film History in Australia", Film Reader 4 (1979) and in Nellie Melba, Ginger Meggs and Friends: Essays in Australian Cultural History (eds. Susan Dermody, John Docker, Druscilla Modjeska) (Malmsbury: Kibble Books, 1982); Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia (Sydney: Currency Press/AFI, forthcoming 1983). (Australian Screen.); Dermody, "Second Cinema: First Principles." paper, 1982 Society for Cinema Studies Conference, Los Angeles; Dermody, "Rugged Individuals or Neo-Colonial Boys? The early sound period in Australian film, 1931/2," New South Wales Institute of Technology . Media Papers No. 12 and Film Reader 6 (forthcoming); Sam Rohdie, "The Australian State/A National Cinema," Australian Film Reader (eds. Albert Moran and Tom O'Regan) (Sydney: Currency Press/AFI, forthcoming.) (Australian Screen).

10. Australian Cinema, p. 41.

11. (Sydney: Currency Press/AFI, 1981. (Australian Screen).

12. see footnote 9.

13. The Documentary Film in Australia (eds. Ross Lansell and Peter Beilby) (Melbourne: Cinema Papers/Film Victoria, 1982).

Stuart Cunningham teaches in the School of Humanities at Griffith University.

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