Historical dictionary of Australian and New Zealand cinema

Albert Moran and Errol Vieth,
Historical dictionary of Australian and New Zealand cinema.
Scarecrow Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 810 85459 7
Au$80 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Scarecrow Press)

Addressing the topic of Australian cinema is a task fraught with difficulty. Judging from the currently available histories of Australian cinema, it is de rigueur for any project of the sort to contemplate at its outset the very definition of basic terms like “national cinema”, “nation” and “Australia”. At this juncture, we are too aware of the globalized flow of cinema production capital, too knowledgeable of Benedict Anderson and too familiar with postcolonialism to avoid being overly presumptive regarding the coherence of those expressions. One could say of Australians and New Zealanders that as European colonies on a continent distant from their motherland, adjacent to Asia and experiencing a recent wave of migration from Asia, Eastern and Central Europe, they experience an identity crisis that is more acute than most.

Many of these anxieties were vividly and variedly articulated in what is commonly known as New Australian Cinema, that which roughly refers to productions after 1970 which marked the start of a resurgence made possible by increased state funding of the film industry. Directors like Peter Weir and Nicolas Roeg, for example, made films that explored the national unconscious and uncovered the contradictions within it. Likewise, the New Zealand Film Commission founded in 1978 made possible the production of works that immediately sought to interrogate what it meant to be a New Zealander. In sum, whether one makes, critiques or historicizes these films, it is impossible to do that without dealing with the multiple and unstable meanings of the “national”.

For the authors behind the Historical dictionary of Australian and New Zealand cinema however, these issues are not quite as significant apart from a quick discussion in an entry on “Globalization” (145-7). However it is clear that Albert Moran and Errol Vieth know both their audience and purpose with this publication. Their objectives are plainly stated in the preface. “This book will assist researchers, students, teachers, and other readers to explore and understand the nature and achievements of the Australian and New Zealand film industries especially if they have minimal prior knowledge”. (xi) It would be incorrect to say that they fail on that promise. This is a cogently written reference work with more than adequate cross-referencing. The “Chronology” section provides a useful survey of the countries’ more than century-long film history. The “Dictionary” section itself paints a convenient yet fairly vivid picture of the institutional, cultural and aesthetic landscape belonging to them. And readers will quickly attain familiarity with major creative figures, films and genres, in addition to inevitably developing an interest in Australian and New Zealand cinema.

The question then becomes if the Dictionary’s mission statement states its clarity of purpose, or if it is designed to forestall criticism about the historical terrain it might have neglected. Is it redundant to address the larger rhetorical issue of why this particular book is oriented in the manner that it is? Certainly, more academically or theoretically rigorous books on Australian cinema are readily available, a fact substantially less true for New Zealand cinema at present. I do believe that based on its own merits, the Historical dictionary of Australian and New Zealand cinema deserves a place on the bookshelves of academic libraries and cineastes alike. It should be noted that its “Bibliography” section is superbly comprehensive for those who would like to navigate more scholarly literature. Nevertheless if one conducts a comparative analysis of the field, the book’s specific blind spots become more prominent. I will comment there on the most glaring of those.

The aforementioned “achievements” with which Moran and Vieth concern themselves are purposefully specific. The book’s cover is adorned by a medium close-up of actor Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee, the title character of Australia’s worldwide box-office hit of 1986. That cosmetic choice actually points to the content’s historical directive. The authors define “achievement” in terms of commercial success and critical acclaim. They evidently measure a film’s value in hard currency and the cultural gravitas supported by that economy. There is thus an overall feeling that this book also serves a secondary purpose, to boost Australian and New Zealand cinema’s stature on those fronts. Descriptions often contain evaluative and impressionistic comments unconcerned with objectivity. And the historical entries are skewed in favour of films and personnel who have found institutional recognition at home and abroad. One definitely gets a sense of how many films have been produced in the region through the Dictionary’s willingness to provide filmographies at every opportunity.

In that context, the absence of Tracey Moffatt is more than a little puzzling. One might suspect that an experimental artist whose work does not circulate in commercial film markets might not appear within the sights of a volume more attendant to names like Weir, Campion, Jackson, Crowe, Kidman and so on. Judging from the book’s overall thrust, that is the most plausible explanation. Nor does Moffatt’s work receive a mention in the relatively lengthy entry on “ethnic representation”. But Moffatt is a highly recognized figure in art and film culture both in Australia and the world. So while Jane Campion’s The piano (Australia, New Zealand, France 1993) is recognized for its Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, interested readers of the book might also want to know that Moffatt’s film Bedevil (Australia 1993) was also screened as an Official Selection at Cannes that year, and that her short film Night cries (Australia 1989) was in competition for the 1990 Palme d’Or in its category.

The exclusion poses serious questions about what else failed to make it into the authors’ view. These are queries related to how the book perceives the future of Australian and New Zealand cinema. Is box office success outside its borders the foremost achievement that matters? Granted, the Dictionary does attend to that which lends national and cultural specificity to these films when it takes care to discuss its stylistic use of social realism for example. It also delves into a central concern of all these films: the two countries’ colonial pasts and the relationship of modern society to their indigenous populations: the Aboriginal and Maori people respectively.

But the concomitant willingness to claim partial ownership of Hollywood blockbuster franchises like The Matrixand Lord of the Rings remains problematic. Although it concedes that regarding The Matrix as an Australian film is “arguable” (188), the book fits these films into a historical narrative that valorizes Australian and New Zealand expertise and ingenuity. From that point of view, “for the New Zealand film industry, Lord of the Ringsclearly marks not only its coming-of-age, but its superiority in some respects to more established filmmaking sites, such as Hollywood”. (316) The trilogy is also described as a triumph of Peter Jackson’s artistic vision.

Claims such as these sit uneasily with those elsewhere about Hollywood’s hegemony and the global flow of its capital. It requires all of a dash of cynicism to see Hollywood not as a benevolent big brother who has helped Australian and New Zealand cinema along in its development, increasing the two countries global visibility in the process, but rather as a relentlessly rational business enterprise bent on market penetration and domination. Similarly, the book’s take on globalization as an overall progressive set of circumstances, as the means by which local communities can for instance maintain their cultural identity with satellite television channels, paints a rather rosy picture of the current state of affairs. (146-7) This book calls the description of Hollywood as a powerful monolith subsuming local film industries “simplistic” (145), yet one wonders if examples to the contrary are exceptions that prove the rule.

There are understandable reasons for the Dictionary’s Oceano-centric view of world cinema. But adopting an optimist’s position on matters of film economics can open itself up to charges of naiveté. Current trends towards outsourcing Hollywood production to Canada, Eastern Europe, and indeed Australia and New Zealand are a testament to a certain level of sophistication in those countries’ film production facilities, but the master narrative remains that of an omnipotent American culture industry which has decentralized its production base to foreign locations with lower wage structures, favourable exchange rates and government funded subsidies. Ultimately, it is important not to lose sight of those economic realities.

Gerald Sim
University of Iowa, USA.

About the Author

Gerald Sim

About the Author

Gerald Sim

Gerald Sim is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Florida Atlantic University, where he specializes in American cinema, national cinema and critical theory. He has a recent essay about postcolonial cinema and spatiality in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and a forthcoming historiographical account of digital cinematography in Projections.View all posts by Gerald Sim →