The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith


In recent years there has been a resurgence in the Australian film industry. Alongside the establishment of a viable film industry is an impressive and evolving body of scholarship about the history of cinema and TV in Australia. We are thinking here of the work of Joan Long, Sylvia Lawson, Graham Shirley, Andrew Pike, Ross Cooper, John Tulloch, Albert Moran and Ina Bertrand. (See select bibliography). It would be fair to say that this recording of the history of Australian cinema has concentrated upon only a handful of themes: the history of production including its decline under intense competition from Hollywood; the associated issues of distribution and exhibition; questions of government intervention in the market place; and the myths and legends of Australia that the feature films themselves have actively constructed. Nobody can dispute the importance of these themes, but one of their consequences has been the virtual exclusion of all Australian regions other than Melbourne and Sydney from the story. Some would argue that this reflects the cultural reality of Australia as Sydney and Melbourne dominate Australian society and culture, especially film culture.

If we concentrate solely on the production of Australian feature films, this is clearly true. But because film is a cultural product widely circulated and widely consumed, especially in the first six decades of this century, we need to go beyond these conventional views. In other words culture is much more than the sum of its parts: even in a relatively small region. A mere scratching of the surface reveals a remarkably rich and powerful film culture at work; its parts consist of local production houses often specialising in advertisements and sponsored documentaries, spasmodic attempts at local feature production and newsreel production, film societies, film festivals, screen education, distribution outlets for international producers, and a host of specific regional exhibition conditions like the summer gardens phenomena. Macro accounts, focusing as they do upon feature film product and the international film market place, tend to overlook these kinds of things in their renditions of Australian cinema.

In other words we started to perceive a gap in the historical accounts of the cinema in Australia that needed to be filled. Out of this gap this book and the 'Moving Image Exhibition' were created. In exploring a regional screen culture (we must take into account TV in this story), we are not being parochial. On the contrary we believe that by putting a very small component of an international complex under the microscope more sense can be made of that complex.

Picture Palace cinemas brought Perth into an international cultural network through a system of first release films that may otherwise have passed it by. At the same time there existed in the suburbs small local cinemas that usually consisted of a winter covered theatre and a summer garden that showed older films, and in the country there was a range of town halls and corrugated shacks. Film penetrated all of the community bringing a taste of the outside, but the conditions of reception inflected the films' meanings in different communit}es: it was both entertainment and information and incredibly important in the lives of ordinary people.

But screen culture does not just involve the production, circulation, exhibition and consumption of the commercial cinema. The Festival of Perth and film societies have, from the 1950s, built audiences for the less commercial, foreign films and for film classics. They acted both as distributors and exhibitors of these films, eventually creating the possibility of commercial art cinema exhibitors. Screen culture also involved people's own attempts to make films in a number of formats: 8mm and 1 6mm. In amateur cinema clubs, members made short fiction films that reproduced commercial codes and conventions. Individuals used the camera to record impressions and memories, often unconsciously falling into dominant modes of representation. In a total account these two constitute a part of screen culture. Furthermore, films were written about in the local press, and like TV today, discussed amongst family, friends and colleagues: films played a significant role in everyday discourse. The latter is difficult to capture in a formal sense: we can only guess at the depth and range of everyday comment, deducing from incidental evidence much of the cinema's social power. We can also begin to construct some of this from the memories of people of the early period. What is important, however, is to recognise the-extent of cinema in all its forms in everyday discourse right across the social spectrum. Hence this study in regional screen culture.

There is also the question of television and its place in screen culture. TV appears to be so recent that it hardly seems necessary to record its history. But TV has been in WA for over twenty- five years, quickly displacing film and radio as the entertainment medium. There is hardly anybody in WA who does not have some experience or memory of TV, and those who have been excluded hitherto by geography will soon be drawn into this fold via modern communication technology. TV has become a fact of life - so much so that we must ask what it means.

In Philip Noyce's film Newsfront, there is a very telling scene that reproduces many of the conditions surrounding the introduction of TV into Australia. -A group of representative Australians are standing outside an electrical goods shop watching TV, silent and shimmering through the window. The men are dressed in three piece, pin-stripe suits and wore hats, the women are dressed in calf length cotton dresses and cardigans, the children non-descript. This representative group is joined by a youth dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt. His cigarette pack is tucked up in the sleeve of his T-shirt. As he approaches the group he is shown combing his D.A. hair style with one of those plastic octagonal hair brushes all trendy youths of the 1950s possesed. For Noyce the introduction of TV marks a very significant shift in Australian life and culture. If it marked a precise moment when America definitively displaced Britain as the source of Australia's cultural style, it also involved a new 'way of life'.

This new way of life was predicted upon car and house ownership, upon sprawling suburbs and hire purchase. TV was intimately involved in this suburban expansion because it brought 'the world's entertainment' into homes on their quarter-acre block. You no longer had to go out to the city on public transport to watch the movies or to attend a variety show, the TV provided it all - all day every day for 'free'. If TV allowed you more reason to stay at home, other suburban life styles became increasingly oriented around the home too.

In Perth and regional centres the public swimming pool became displaced by the back- yard pool, the public bar by the take home bottle shop, the park picnic by the backyard barbeque, the drive-in by video - all just as the cinema was replaced by TV. TV was part of a general process by which public and private space was progressively redefined.

The prevalence of home entertainment today has taken us full circle back to those pre-cinema days when entertainment was also located in the home. Indeed it took cinema's explosive presence to help create public entertainment spaces outside the home; just as it took the similar and equally explosive presence of TV to bring that entertainment back into the home. TV, like the cinema, involved much more than the images on the screen or the words that countless actors uttered. They both involved the channelling of bodies, desires, the organising of social space like living rooms and theatres, and a whole arena of pleasures and talk. In this small book we begin to chart some of the boundaries of these shifts in an exact location.

This work is far from definitive. Clearly it leaves many questions unanswered and whole arenas unexplored. In seeking to fill one gap we have uncovered more gaps to be filled. In part this arises from the form of this book. We have created a dossier because, in the first instance, time would not permit us to compose a full blown monograph but also because of the virtues of the dossier form. In it we can combine a variety of approaches to the question of screen culture, from the impressionistic to the scholarly, which we feel, reflect the way the screen is perceived in our society. Most people interact with the screen in an informal, lived fashion on a daily basis and think, talk and see images in an impressionistic manner. Film and TV are part of the fabric of their daily lives. Yet others see the screen as an object of scholarly investigation.

We think the dossier allows us to encompass the two approaches and thus provide a more diverse and rich account of the screen that reflects its diversity and richness. At another time we intend to produce the scholarly monograph but in the meantime we provide the following: a fragmented account of a regional screen culture that is surprising in its diversity and depth.

Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan