‘We Might Leave it There’: An Interview with William D. Routt

Bill Routt interviewed by Deane Williams

[The opening question and most of the response to it were lost because of a technical hitch. However, we do know that the first question posed by Deane was “How did you get into film studies?” and that part of the answer by Bill was that he got into film studies through being involved with a film society as both an undergraduate and postgraduate at the University of Chicago. Most of what that film society showed were actual movies and…]

BR:…they were 16mm prints. You got them for the cost of postage basically, and you were allowed to use them in the cause of education – and we cheated mightily on that because we used them in the cause of making money as well as education. But they knew that we would do that; and we showed them more than once, all kinds of terrible things. But this allowed each succeeding generation to learn something about films because the Museum of Modern Art’s collection was broad enough and deliberately focused on questions of film history and aesthetics and politics and so on, so that one was able to pick up the film knowledge that the film history books at that time assumed you ought to have. And the film society also had a library (books and journals) quite separate from the main university library – so if you were involved in planning programs (our central concern was not simply to show films but to show programs around certain themes or to develop certain ideas through programming) you also would be going back and checking out the references in the library. You were actually teaching yourself film history and theory and aesthetics, then getting the examples that the books were talking about and checking them against what you thought and how you thought they worked. This became more and more of an interest to me; I began to do things – I did a close analysis of the cream separator sequence in Eisenstein’s The Old and the New (a.k.a. The General Line) and train sequence in Dovzhenko’s Arsenal just to see what happened when you start to break things down shot by shot. That was near the end. We also organised a film festival which we put on for three years which was focused on what we called independent cinema because we wanted to get a variety of work but we were actually most interested in seeing what avant-garde work was around; we were all very interested in that. The American avant-garde movement had been very lively and very productive through the ‘50s and ‘60s. All of this took place from…well, I entered university in 1957 but I became more and more involved in the film society which was called The Documentary Film Group for reasons that have to do with politics and being of the left. I was in and active with The Documentary Film Group – Docfilms – through most of the ‘60s.

At the same time I was getting less and less motivated to do anthropology. I liked anthropology. I liked the things it was doing but I also began to be more concerned with the legitimate cultural aspirations of the very people that anthropology fed off of. That is, when I would think, I want to go to Trinidad and do anthropology in Trinidad and perhaps become a Trinidadian and do anthropology, then I said to myself but that’s something that Trinidadians ought to be doing, that’s not something that white people from other cultures should be doing. There’s a specific history of the West Indies that has to do with its displacement of indigenous people and their replacement by Africans and by Indians and that’s something they have to come to terms with and they have to work with and I’m not going to go there and somehow try to substitute my second and third hand experience and my wish to be part of a multicultural society for something else that’s likely to take place. So that was troubling me. I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to work out. And I began to take courses with people in the Committee on Social Thought.

The Committee on Social Thought was a kind of copestone of the social sciences at Chicago. It was actually an interdisciplinary department combining humanities and social science and everybody recognised that. But what happened was that we had people who were political, social scientists involved side by side with people whose major interests were Greek tragedy and drama in general, people who didn’t fit very well in other places, and there was a more decent – a really good anthropologist who was associated with it [James Redfield]. There were a number of other people teaching in various areas and the ones that people would remember would be people like Saul Bellow and Hannah Arendt and so on. One of my mentors was a man named David Grene. I’d always thought The Committee on Social Thought was the place where the very best, smartest, most interesting people went and it was not going to be something that I could ever aspire to. And then David said to me one time after class (everybody in the class would tend to be invited to go drinking with him after we finished) ‘Have you ever thought of applying to the Committee?’ and I said ‘Well, no.’ and he said ‘Do you know Latin?’ And I said ‘Yes’ ‘And Greek?’ and this was very important for David, and I had to say I only had ‘a little Latin and less Greek’. And that amused him a lot because it’s a Shakespeare reference and he liked Shakespeare. And he said ‘I really think you’d enjoy the Committee’. This was from David; the other person who was pushing me was a man named Marshall Hodgson, who it turns out was an important figure in creating something that could be called ‘world history’ because he was not a western oriented historian. His major field was Islam and I’d taken a one-year subject with him in what was called Islamic Civilization and partly because Anthropology wanted you to take as many of these Civilization courses as you could. Those courses gave you the basic documents and the basic thinking problems in a range of non-western cultures. And Marshall and I got to be fairly close because he seemed to me to be just a great intellectual model. He influenced my teaching more than David Grene or anyone else, because in taking Islamic Civilization I had a kind of revelation in one class: Marshall was there and I was really, really excited by what he was saying; I was just completely fascinated by the way in which he was bringing things together. I looked around the class and I could see that I was one of two…three…possibly four of the twenty to thirty people in the class [who was digging what he was doing] and I thought to myself ‘But he’s still a good teacher and he’s still learning stuff and they’re so stupid!’ and so that’s always a good basis for a friendship with a teacher. And so Marshall wanted me to come into the Committee and so did David and I knew I wasn’t going to get in and so I thought ‘Well I’ll do that now that I’ve finished up and finally written my Masters thesis’ and I got in.

DW: And so this was to undertake a PhD or was this something looser than that?

BR: Yes, the Committee had two things. You had to take what’s called the Fundamentals exam in which essentially they gave you a paper, in the English sense of a paper, a set of questions, and you had to essentially write…make your selection of that and write three substantial essays in three days…and then they would mark that and that meant okay, if you do that and you did that successfully you could stay. The idea was you were going to write a PhD. If you did the Fundamentals and you didn’t do them terribly successfully you could be given a Masters and be asked to leave. There was no possibility for you to go further. I came in with a Masters in Anthropology and thus had to do my Fundamentals and I came in and I told them what I wanted to do was to study film aesthetics and they said ‘Oh sure, yeah, that’s a good idea’. Nobody on the faculty knew anything about film, but they were essentially saying ‘David vouches for you, Marshall vouches for you, you’ll find something to do here’. And I’m sure David thought I’d eventually do Drama and maybe secretly he wanted me to do Yeats but like a fool he taught Yeats the year I wasn’t there.

The year I wasn’t there came about because the Committee had an arrangement with the University of Paris for a swap fellowship and the Committee had just had a University of Paris student who’d been around for a year attending classes and doing papers and things like that and they were feeling that they wanted to get somebody interested in going back so that they would not be on the wrong side of this, and I said ‘I’d like to go to Paris’ and they said ‘You would?’ and I said ‘Yes, there’s a “cinémathèque” there and they show lots of really good movies and they show them all the time and I’d be able to see lots and lots of films and for all I know the University of Paris has courses in film’ and I said ‘If you got me a catalogue maybe I could find out.’ and they didn’t have a catalogue and that was good ‘cause it took me some time to discover when I was in Paris that they didn’t have any courses in film in 1966/67, at least not in the central University of Paris. So I got the Fellowship and went to Paris.

DW: Almost immediately?

BR: No, you get it one year and you’re awarded it and you have enough time to get your affairs in order…and I was already married which was a good thing because at one point, I think it was about two months after I gotten married to Diane, President Kennedy declared that people who were married, young married couples should be exempt from the draft but then that was before the war…[to Diane who is walking through the room] was it the next day?

Diane Routt: It was the day after we were married.

BR: The war in Vietnam had broken out by the time I got the Fellowship because this was ‘66/’67 and we were going there in the Autumn of ’66 and by that time the Gulf of Tonkin incident had taken place, Kennedy was dead, and they were starting to look for people to conscript and I didn’t want to go and fight in this completely stupid bloody, misconceived war and I was considering the possibility of going to Canada and so on, and as we began to prepare to go, I got a notice from my Draft Board that I should report, that’s the first step and then they look at you and they say ‘You’re fine, you should go ahead’ and – you know – I had had some problems with a pilonidal cyst and so on and we had this activist doctor who practised across the street from us and was well known in Hyde Park at that point, and he said that was enough to get me out…and so the day that I was supposed to report to my Draft Board was going to be about maybe a week or two before we were scheduled to leave and so I wrote them to say I couldn’t do this because I would be in France on a Fellowship [laughs] at the time and we had all the mail then diverted to Diane’s mother because Diane’s mother was the best person in the world for saying ‘Well of course they went to Paris. Wouldn’t you have gone to Paris?’ and things like that so we kind of fled.

We fled, but not really, because my great uncle had died the year before and he left $10,000 to each one of his grand nephews and nieces and I was one of those and that was a pretty good amount of money then. It was enough to do something that I wanted to repeat because of my own experience, and also just for Diane: it was enough to get a first-class passage over on the…I think it was the S.S. United States ocean liner, and live in first class hotels and take the Simplon-Orient-Express to Florence, and go from Florence to Siena and from Siena to Venice, living again the high life all the way through, go to the Venice Film Festival and take the Orient Express back to Paris, right? And after that it still provided a cushion. And Diane began to sew chic ‘60s fashions from the Vogue Pattern book and I went down to a very good men’s clothing store and told them I was going to the Venice Film Festival and going to live in Paris for a year and we had steamer trunks, we had the whole thing, and over we went. So although we were running, we were running like something out of a ‘30s high society drama, not running too fast. We got on the ship, we left Diane’s mother to block for us and off we went and we did all of those things.

At that point, I’d written a letter to Esquire and asked them if they wanted someone to go to the Venice Film Festival and they said ‘Okay, why not?’ and that was nice because I was able to wave press credentials around and get into certain screenings, and things and the Venice Film Festival was running a retrospective of American silent films that they thought were good, and that also was key for what I was doing because I wanted to specifically investigate American cinema because there was a sense that European cinema was probably not going to be so bounteously available [in the US] and also I was interested specifically in popular cinema. By this time I’d changed my topic from ‘Aesthetics of Cinema’ to ‘Aesthetics of Popular Cinema’. I didn’t want to write about film theories and montage and mise en scène and all of that kind of thing. I wanted to write about popular audiences or how making popular works affected that. How these works could perhaps propose their own aesthetic, an aesthetic that might be seen to be somewhat at odds or at least challenge what people thought of as the proper aims of art.

DW: Have you got any sense where that came from, why that topic came about?

BR: Yep. It goes back even further. When I was a kid I was very interested in all the kinds of things kids would be interested in and I was completely blown away by The Adventures of Robin Hood which was revived in its 10th year when I was about seven and it was like the big cinematic experience. But then again, musicals were a big cinematic experience and Gene Kelly was a big experience and two-hour cartoon shows were a big experience and these were things that were events in my life, not a background to my life. Like, I only saw one two-hour cartoon show but I can still remember some of the cartoons on that and…I saw things like The Pirate, the Minnelli/Kelly/Judy Garland film, when it came out and I was just entranced by it in ways that I fail to understand sometimes now when I look back. But I was entranced by it because I completely believed Gene Kelly with the Errol Flynn moustache and the sword. That was what I was taking from that. So there was that. I read a lot and one of the things that everybody in the family liked were mystery stories. I read a lot of mystery stories. My grandmother would give me books for my birthday and for Christmas that kind of made my stomach churn. They were books like Ivanhoe and The Talisman and Great Expectations and things like that. I didn’t actually read them because I knew that they were going to be the wrong kind of books for me. I knew that they would be too hard…or something. So all this time I was also actively creating an antagonism towards serious culture which also had a lot to do with the things I didn’t like about school. This continued for most of my [early] life. When I was a teenager I became passionately interested in jazz and continued that as a central focus. I also became much more interested in contemporary writing, American writing and in the theatre and so on; I began to ameliorate [sic] my worry about the classics, but I found that I didn’t want to deny the worth of those things that I had been experiencing all this time, the movies and particularly jazz but then also the way in which certain kinds of detective stories are very, very interesting and intellectually stimulating. Certain science fiction then became a big part of what I was reading. I felt ‘Gee, we should have a way of talking about these things instead of placing them in the ‘entertainment’ bag, because once we say they’re entertainment then for some reason it doesn’t matter anymore about whether they’re good entertainment or bad entertainment’. That’s why I wanted to focus in that area and that’s where I focused my book buying because my second reason for going to Paris was to buy every French book that could possibly interest me on the cinema, which I didn’t succeed in doing but I came fairly close.

DW: Was there any relationship between the rise of the American mass communications as a discipline at the same time…?

BR: Not a direct relationship but the people in Sociology, specifically, and in ‘Psychology and Culture’, that short lived branch of Anthropology, had strong interests in that area so that although I wasn’t directly doing things of that sort or I wasn’t directly taking too many courses of that sort, I shouldn’t say that [there was no direct relationship] for sure. My Masters thesis for example was called “Modernity and Mass Communication”, and it was essentially a theory of “modernisation” which had to do with the way in which mass communication did and did not have effects on traditional cultures. And that, I think I see now, had to do with people’s faulty reasoning about culture as an integral whole rather than anything else. That was basically what I ended up saying [or what I ought to have]. So the Department of Anthropology, even at that point, was aware that that was the direction my interests were going. But I got out of anthropology partly because those were the kinds of things that were simply not being talked about in that context at the time, but were being talked about specifically in relation to film where there was a debate about film and politics and the left, which was a very important debate to everyone in film because it had to do with a mixing up of aesthetic and political standards – essentially the declaration that a worthwhile work of art had to be a worthwhile work politically. Thus [there was] a valorisation of the Soviet Cinema and certain other selected works from various individuals and cultures: the postwar Italian cinema, for example.

And those ideas of course were being challenged in ways I didn’t realise until I got to Venice, where there was a Godard retrospective of early Godard films. Robert Benayoun, who was the editor of Positif, was there and we saw Le Petit Soldat, and after it a bunch of people came from that screening, Benayoun was standing around and saying ‘See, he’s a right-wing anarchist, can’t you see that?’ And I said to Benayoun that he didn’t seem to me to be a right-wing anarchist, but he did seem to me to be an anarchist, and Benayoun just said ‘No, no’, and then he went on to repeat a lot of slander about Godard, but the slander might have had something to do with Godard’s politics, which didn’t look like Benayoun’s politics. Benayoun had a committed left politics and so did Positif, and Positif judged its people not only upon their adherence to surrealism (which was something that was very important to them) but to surrealism’s adherence to the left and to the theories of the left, which was equally important. Whereas Cahiers was certainly centrist and in certain cases perhaps even more right than that, but that was something that I didn’t realise and didn’t think was important until Benayoun started to make those claims and I began to then be able to read or understand some of the things that were going on in Cahiers and Positif at the time because they actually had to do with certain articulations of politics.

For example, John Huston was somebody that Positif had a lot of time for, in spite of the fact that he was sloppy and was lucky when he made [good] movies, because John Huston was considered to be congenial to their politics where Howard Hawks or John Ford were not, particularly, although certain Ford films were considered to be.

DW: And presumably the writings that came out and the interest that came out of the nouvelle vague in some ways helped with the way you were thinking about popular culture…

BR: Yes, because they were so interested in upsetting things that were going on. Auteurism had already been mined by the French but I had essentially used the American Cinema issue of Film Culture [which featured Andrew Sarris’ “auteurist pantheon”] to privately stake out a new territory for myself, which was the territory of popular cinema. Sarris had mined auteurism and popular film as well, and added in his own taste, his own vast experience and viewing and so on.

The reason that Howard Hawks was such a touchstone to people at that time was precisely that Hawks was not someone that traditional film histories ever mentioned. They might, sometimes, mention Sergeant York, a Hawks film which is considered to be an anti-war film, because Huston had written the screenplay for Sergeant York, and Huston was considered by the left in the United States as an OK person, a person who was trying to put in those values. So by declaring that Howard Hawks was worth talking about they [auteurists] were also declaring that a certain kind of filmmaking was worth thinking about that was clearly setting itself in opposition to the earnestness of someone like Huston. Most of the time Howard Hawks is anything but earnest and it was that sort of quality I think that set people on edge. Most of the time Alfred Hitchcock was anything but earnest either, and Hawks and Hitchcock were the big touchstones for the anti-auteurist writing that was going on…’ How can these people be any good because they’re making entertainment’. So that was the sort of thing that affected my viewing and reading and so on in the time that I was in Paris. I came back from there feeling that I probably had seen more of the films from silent to early sound films in the areas that I’d been looking at (which weren’t just American film but also included others as well) than other Americans, and I kind of lived off that through coming to Australia when, for a time, I’d seen more [of those] movies than John Flaus, and this was an important claim to make in those early years.

So there we are – and that’s how I get back into my tertiary education and I decided then, having come back, that I wanted to write a dissertation about popular culture, not about films. So no movie course, no connection with anything like that, nothing of that sort, but more and more the interest in teaching the cinema in some form.

DW: And no film supervision ever and so it was more of a…was that part of the necessity of writing something broader because of the supervision or…?

BR: No, the Committee didn’t really supervise you. It would put somebody in charge. I think David was in charge but David said ‘Go away and write a dissertation, I don’t know anything about this’ and his idea, I’m sure, was if I don’t know anything about it we’ll find some other supervisors who do and we’ll be able to deal with this one way or the other, and that was fine. By that time, within the University, there was at least one person in English, John Cawelti, who was interested in film, and he had acted as a sort of mentor to those of us in the Documentary Film Group and there was also somebody in Art History, Harold Haydon, who was an Emeritus (I think) Professor I think even at that time but he also had acted as…someone who would be on the faculty would intervene for us if we needed to have somebody, which you would so often do in those situations.

DW: I guess was this about ’68 or something…?

BR: Yes, and there were things going out into the street and on our campus that affected me a lot too.

DW: So how did you go about writing this thesis?

BR: With great difficulty. It didn’t happen in Chicago. I did research for it, I began to work on it, I looked for an academic job. At a certain point where I was working [Encyclopedia Britannica in film strip production], I was thinking to myself I really don’t want to do this anymore, this is Mickey Mouse stuff and it’s never going to get any better than that. And I did want to teach so I started looking for a teaching job and I got a job at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Western Michigan University, a State-run university, was kind of okay. In many ways when I got to La Trobe, La Trobe reminded me of Western Michigan. A lot of the students there didn’t know why they were there. They wanted to be teachers or something or they had a vocational notion of education, which was also kind of common at La Trobe at least at that point when I first got there. But there was a General Studies in the Humanities program and I was able to do a certain amount of popular culture and things like that in that program. We did things like we arranged to get Stan Lee to come to Western Michigan and talk about comics, and I managed to get a friend of mine called Danny Lyon who takes very good photographs and he came as well. I was able to do a number of different things which extended some ideas about art a little bit further than was common. I gave a lecture about jazz and I did a regular movie series for the program. I also did a radio series using popular music as a kind of supplement to the regular course and so on.

And I was also researching in the library. For some reason I began to be interested in ritual as an explanation, as an alternative notion to literary notions of form, which were being applied to popular art. I became more and more convinced that the significant difference between popular art and what was called elite art had to do with popular art’s upfront involvement with time and elite art’s attempts to deny that, to become perdurant, to be to be monumental in that sense, and so that became what my thesis became more and more about. And I began to try to look in every area that I could think of to find out if I could work with other ideas that would be counter to what seemed to be current notions in elite art. And that went on for a while, and then Diane, who is far smarter than I am, got a Danforth Fellowship for Women, which allowed her to pursue medieval studies at Yale University.

The one person who taught film more or less exclusively at Yale had arranged to get himself hired away without telling the History of Art Department, which employed him. So they needed somebody to fill in for a year and so I was able to fill in for a year and do some extra teaching because Yale has a kind of lecture program associated with the colleges, and I was also able to work on my dissertation and I wrote four chapters – the initial four chapters [one of which was an introduction].

There were going to be five chapters in all – and that was where I had my big revelation about my dissertation, which was that it was all basically being driven subconsciously by Aristotle’s notion of four different kinds of causes; so I said ‘Okay, why don’t just make this conscious and we will structure the dissertation around the material, efficient, formal and final causes for popular art’, and that looked very good because I just had four chapters and I was just going to do the last one and I’d made notes for it and I had outlined it and so on. But Diane’s Fellowship came to an end and we were considering different possible options. I started applying for jobs to teach movies or to teach film or general humanities and then my daily research into the New York Times classifieds produced this job in Australia. La Trobe University wanted somebody in who was interested in popular culture and film.

DW: This was how the job description was written?

BR: Yes, and I thought ‘Wow, this is me.’ and I thought about the kids and I realised that my son was nine and I had been eight or nine when my family had left the United States to go to Ireland so going to Australia at that age was a good thing. Deirdre was a little bit younger and she was actually somewhat dismayed because she had figured out about Australia that we were going to live in the bush and she was going to ride a horse to school and her whole life would be different. We did do a lot of [research] about Australia and we got everything from the Australian Consulate in New York that we could; books and films, because I actually owned a 16mm film projector. We did a lot of things…and we saw Joan Long’s documentary or documentaries? – I can’t remember…about early Australian cinema, in our living room. [In fact, we looked at both The Pictures That Moved and The Passionate Industry].

DW: So when was this, Bill?

BR: This was 1976 and that was when we made the decision and then went through all the business of moving. Diane timed our trajectory or our movement. We were given some kind of settlement allowance, and we had saved up money and we borrowed money from my parents and so on, and we decided we would arrive on New Year’s Day on 1977 so we would never forget what day we got to Australia, which [turned out to be] true.

I was also aware that two other people had been hired. Now I have to say something about Yale and the Yale Library. Like the University of Chicago, Yale has one of the great academic libraries in the world, and I’d been teaching film courses (in fact I still maintain contact with at least three of my students from Yale, which surprises me a lot), and I’d been teaching film courses there and I’d been preparing for them and I’d been using the library and so on and so I thought I was familiar with all of the current trends. I was also extremely interested in French philosophy and people who’d come to talk at Yale like Jacques Derrida and people of that sort, and so I thought, you know, I was kinda hip. But as it happened, there was one important journal that Yale did not get in the library and I have no idea why. It could be that my predecessor hated it or somebody hated it. Anyhow, that journal was Screen. I had no idea or anything about Screen. I knew that it was an English cinema journal but it couldn’t have been very interesting of very good because it wasn’t in the Beincke [Yale Library}. ‘What a snob!’, huh? But let me remind you that Sam [Rohdie] went to Yale and he had been the editor of Screen during its most important period. The absence of the journal was very strange.

Anyhow I came to Australia reading French philosophy and very interested in Paul Ricoeur and very interested in certain sorts of, I guess what would now be called post-structural thinking and things of that sort, and thinking that this would give me some basis. The other person I’d read as much as I could was Edgar Morin [Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaireL’Esprit du temps ] and I thought this gives me some basis to build up my own particular approaches to cinema and so when I was told that one of the people who’d been hired was Sam Rohdie, who had taught at City College in New York, that meant nothing to me [except that I had applied for a job there myself and not got it]. The other person, Jeff Peck, also meant nothing to me and shouldn’t have, because he was a new film graduate. Neither he nor Sam would have heard of me, of course. And so I thought ‘This is nice, there’ll be three of us, that will be very good’. I had no idea what was actually at stake in Sam’s hiring and what that meant. It isn’t how it would change Australian film culture but how it played into what Australian film culture was already going on about, but it was not yet a significant cultural event for me.

It was a significant personal event to encounter Sam. It was one of the most interesting and exhilarating initial encounters that I can remember. But that was true about the whole business, about working in this [academic unit] where people seemed to be so interested in all the kinds of things that I was interested in – and that was the Media Centre at La Trobe. I was able to connect with almost everybody who was then currently working there because there were things that I had in common on the basis of my experience or what have you. So when I got here I was also incredibly pleased about that kind of eclectic atmosphere because that’s what defined what I was most interested in being a part of, or something, that was eclectic.

DW: So when you arrived Jeff Peck was there, Sam was there and Lesley was there.

BR: Yeah, Lesley was already there. She was the senior person in that sense, Lesley and Mick Counihan. I was not aware of which one of them might have come first but Mick was the person who picked us up at the airport, as he picked up Lesley, and helped us integrate ourselves into Australian society and pointed out that it was important for Liam [our son] to barrack for a football team and pointed out that it was important for us to go to a South Melbourne team game so that Liam would have someone to barrack for. Mick also pointed out that John Flaus barracked for Essendon and that it was important that I should meet him), and so Liam was able to say when asked ‘Who do you barrack for?’, ‘South’ and then he would get the appropriate expressions of sympathy.

Mick had presented me to John in, I’m sure, a relatively mischievous way because I’m sure Mick would do that kind of thing relatively mischievously, but I have such tremendous respect for John and for what he was in Australian film culture. It seems to me that he was an autodidact and a polymath about reading all kinds of stuff and where we began to click was when we started mentioning some of the people that we’d read in French, and it just was like ‘Yeah, we know these people, we know what we’re on about and nobody else here does’, that sort of thing and that was just a very good feeling, and then I’m sure that he forgave me my time at the Cinémathèque because he soon overtook any amount of movies that I had seen, he definitely has seen more.

DW: So I guess in a way you appear at a time when it could be said that screen theory had arrived at La Trobe and you had an understanding from a completely different background, and you’ve got John Flaus as well. So it sounds like a heavy time in a cinema studies department in that it’s not a bunch of people struggling to work out how to teach film studies or what they thought about films studies, it always had this kind of impetus, except coming from three or four different ways.

BR: And then what happens is, that’s the form in which it takes, is exactly what you were saying, is that people were trying to figure out what they thought about film studies and how to teach about film studies. That was the form in which all of that was being tried to be worked out and the problem of what eventually happened was it wasn’t worked out and wasn’t allowed to be worked out. The discussion was curtailed. Finally the line was taken explicitly by Sam; we had nothing in common, so rather than spending a lot of time talking about things that are just going to end up divisively, let’s just go on and divide it and we’ll go on and do what we want to do, which was not really a bad way to deal with it in the short run…and it worked out quite well for the program and for the students – maybe.

Unfortunately, the students weren’t as aware of that [agreement to disagree] as they might’ve been and it didn’t work out as well as it might for the program because you kind of do need to have a general map of the territory, even if you disagree about where exactly you’re going to put Paris and where exactly you’re going to put Hollywood and so on. And the general map was never explicitly enough drawn, it was always very vague and it was deceptively drawn in the sense that in the first year, particularly for most of the first year, the first year would be taught by different people doing different modules or different lectures and what happened is that some things got very clearly defined…got very, very clearly stated ‘This is the way things are’, ‘This is the way things are’, and then someone else would be saying things, usually people like me, in a rather more fuzzy way and sort of saying ‘Maybe this is true’ and ‘Maybe you should think about this or that kind of thing’ and that didn’t help, it didn’t help anybody. So that’s what happened in the program, and it would have been better had there been more of a concerted attempt to work out where the common threads were – and there were common threads. Some people were perhaps not intellectually equipped to find those common threads. Other people were just not very interested in establishing commonality because that was not the kind of politics they wanted to play. That was the politics of recuperation and appeasement and so on and it’s the same thing that I’d seen at Chicago during the times when students were occupying the administration building and so on. It was just…politically it was not the right time as far as they were concerned.

DW: But my sense of things was that it was quite strongly what we would now call research based in that people were following their own interests in what they taught.

BR: Yes, that was something that, in a sense, that was always going to happen with that group of people and with the people it came from because it would happen with Mick and it would happen with Lesley. I could tell even talking to them about what they were teaching at the time or the things that they would say, is that these things were going to come out in their classes. They were reading stuff and they were absorbing ideas and they were questioning what they were reading or not finding it easy to understand and these things were going to come out. They would come out in people wanting to see certain films and there’d be a spot in the first year where we’d play something and be able to put the Screen reading right up against that particular film. That kind of thing was extremely useful because it was being fed backwards and forwards with a particular film tradition. Where it was not so useful was that that film tradition itself seemed to become more ossified when it actually was itself attempting not to do so. It’s very clear if you look at what goes on in the Screen during those years you’re talking about, on the one hand, everything seems to get more rigid and the articles become quite predictable, but on the other, you can see that they’re seeming to make an effort not for that to happen and for some reason they can’t accomplish this.

Whereas during the same period in the overall arch of what was going on intellectually in France, that’s a period where things start getting shaken up, where even Cahiers gets shaken up and there’s a period of intense rigidity, which itself becomes very interesting because it leads to people having debates and then realising you can’t be that…they’re questioning things for example. I mean I, during this period, what had interested me, since I was reading Cahiers all this time, and finding for some reason that it wasn’t connecting with the screen culture, what interested me there was…what had influenced me most from that culture was Noël Burch, because if you were going to have film theory, Noël Burch seemed like he was really presenting you with film theory in a way that the others seemed to be presenting you with literary theory, and that was the problem. Burch’s ideas, some of them, initially anyhow, may have been too focused on the notion of the cinematic but he never seemed to be giving you literature whereas the tradition that seemed to develop through Screen was through Barthes and then Metz and so on, but what tended to happen was things had already been thought about, worked out and seen in other areas, mainly again and again, mainly literary theory or in my case, like reading Ricoeur and Freud and so on tended to come up in indirect ways, just the way Edgar Morin comes up in Christian Metz, without acknowledgment, but it’s there.

DW: At this time at La Trobe, was there an issue with film – well theory, not film theory, in relation to your teaching? I mean it seemed to be a fairly theoretical approach to film studies and given quite a formidable crew, I don’t mean scary but intellectually formidable…

BR: Oh, that situation was scary for me.

DW: …and this must have translated into the teaching at that time. But I guess I’m thinking about you coming across with that background, and an American background as well, to Australia and then encountering Australian film and…

BR: That’s the other part of what happened: in a sense I just set up a direct dichotomy between Sam Rohdie and John Flaus. But there was another and more important dichotomy for me that was being set up and Flaus, in a sense, is part of that: and that’s between Sam Rohdie and Ina Bertrand. And that was very important for me because when I was at Yale I found myself reading Ricoeur and reading structuralism and reading post-structuralism and things of that sort, but my contacts were with people who were involved with a collection of old films that had been donated to Yale a few years before, and these included people like William Everson. Everson was really opposed to auteurism and he was really opposed to anything “left”, but he’s such an admirable guy because he kept films and he kept an interest in old films alive and he wanted to write about them and he wanted people to know about them and he loved them and he did all kinds of foolish things that involved those films. I knew an Australian collector in New Haven named Hartney Arthur, [if you look him up on the Internet Movie Database you will see he was an actor, writer, and director in Australia] and he was another contact, a contact which significantly predicted going to Australia, and he had this sort of old, impressionistic kind of notion of what the cinema was about and an interest particularly in film history.

[This was] the very anathema of what must be seen to be a forward looking political theory, which says that we’re more interested in the movies of the future than we are with the movies of the past, or we’re only interested in the movies of the past in order to understand how we may make better movies in the future, that kind of thing. Now what happened was I was very much pulled towards Australian film, by two people and with two coincidences, through two screenings. Mick insisted that I look at Pure Shit and I thought it was wonderful. It was everything that I wanted a movie to be. Here was this kind of new wave exploitation movie, trashy and very, very good and I thought that was very, very exciting. And Ina wanted me to see The Sentimental Bloke and some Chauvel and I thought The Sentimental Bloke was the most wonderful film that I’d seen from [that period] about 1920. It drew you in, it was slow paced, it just seemed to be exactly right, and in its own sort of way, a little pre-classical and that was doing so many things, again, way, way in advance of what was being done then. And The Story of The Kelly Gang which was way, way in advance of what people were then and now expecting of a film of 1906. So here was this area of film which was being studied in a certain way, and in a way that was clearly – clearly the most important thing about it was to get as much fact, if you will, as one could – so it was empirical and so that was “bad”. But early Australian film was also something that was right for working out problems within the world stage and things that had to do with politics, with colonialism, with national identity and things of that sort which other people were talking about in other kinds of contexts – questions of identity.

And so all that was there. and there didn’t seem to be anybody involved in that part of the older films, the interpretation of them as though they might have been made by people just as intelligent as you and I. Even John Tulloch, when he discussed the older films, discussed them in a much looser way than when he went on to a later period where he started to make an industrial map or theory of what was going on. So that was how I was drawn. I’ve always been drawn to philosophy and theory spinning, kind of, in a kind of way that later Deleuze ratified, that is, a place where you might get something and put it up against something that you’re experiencing and you might ask yourself ‘Well, how does this framework work here? Does it help? Does it make me see things differently? Is it an interesting exercise? Is it enjoyable? Is it intellectually productive?’. That’s what…so that my interest on the theory side was not very “good” and my interest on the other side was probably “good” but I was not the right person for that kind of thing. That is, it was clear that I was doing the same colonialist thing that I hadn’t wanted to do in Trinidad, just come in and being interested in Australian cinema and talking as though I had some kind of right to say things about Australian cinema.

DW: Did you experience any of that in Australia? Like who was this guy to talk about our cinema?

BR: Yeah, a little bit but not directly. To everybody’s credit that was not…most people in the field seemed, unfortunately, flattered by the attention…and that seemed to me to be unfortunate. There were two reasons for this; students don’t, by and large, like Australian cinema and so a lot of it has to do with that sort of attitude, that is ‘We don’t have that kind of cinema worth talking about or if we do it’s only something that’s been produced in the last four or five years that I’ve happen to have seen and all the rest of it’s just crap’. But also it seemed like people would be surprised that anybody would be taking older Australian films seriously. ‘Oh it’s so nice that you’re…’, whereas it wasn’t nice, it was just something I was interested in, and it didn’t even occur to me probably until some time in the late ‘80s that this was a career thing. You know…there’s early Australian cinema, that’s part of my career.

DW: You arrived at the high point of the revival, I suppose, as well, the mid ‘70s..

BR: People were talking about it being the end of the revival – the really good films – and I know it wasn’t true – but it was as if the really good films had all been made the year before.

DW: It’s also a time where Australian film writing starts and if we think of 1988/’89/’90 as being a peak for Austral – there’s a lot of film writing being done, you ride that crest in a way. Which leads me to ask you about the conferences and connecting up with Albert Moran, Tom O’Regan and these guys. Did you immediately start doing the conference circuit?

BR: To some extent. The first thing I wrote or delivered and had published in Australia was for a Tertiary Screen Education Association conference on that featured Casey Robinson, and it was on ‘The Hollywood screenwriter’ and it shows my particular interest and engagement with certain kind of structural ideas and also with an unfortunate tendency to play with words and to wonder what it is to be a screen writer and so on.

DW: Is this the conference at the Melton College of the Arts?

BR: Yeah, Sam gave a very interesting paper [based] on Greimas which had to do with the structure of a Casey Robinson film and Barbara [Creed] gave a very interesting paper which Casey felt, quite rightly, was kind of an attack but she didn’t intend it as much of an attack as he took; but he would, he would take anything that seemed not to understand him and his situation as something that was hostile, that was in his nature and in the nature of the times, it became very clear. It was a very interesting conference because of the things that one learned about one’s colleagues, what they were doing and so on. And because it took place during that semi-honeymoon period, I think everybody got along much better there and were much happier there than sometimes happened later on.

DW: And presumably you would’ve met Albert Moran and Meaghan Morris?

BR: Not Meaghan, I think, until much later actually. One of the things that happened to me specifically, is I was more isolated that most people because I was entirely dependent on public transport and therefore could only do things within certain hours because I was very, very family oriented. When we’d been at Yale, I’d been on unemployment and only teaching one subject each semester and Diane had been, essentially, full-time employed as a graduate student so I had been taking more care of the kids than I had ever done before and it was something that I really enjoyed doing. And when we got here, there were all the expenses of moving and of finding a house and things like that and so Diane went to work, but someone had to be at home when the kids finished school. Luckily the Media Centre teaching was almost always in the evening because we were teaching teachers so Diane and I were able to change off and make the situation work. But when after hours events were happening it was more difficult for me to get to things and be there and it became chancy sometimes as to how I was to get home or how close or how far I was away from public transport from tram lines or train lines or what have you. So our Melbourne cultural and social life began contracted – partly voluntarily because I liked being with my family but also partly because teaching took up that time. Events would be on nights when I was teaching that I couldn’t go to. The amount of money that was available to go to conferences was relatively small, and I didn’t understand about going to conferences without giving papers. A lot of rather important things were put to one side because of one thing or another. What this meant was that it took time for me to make the contacts with people, and those contacts were always very intermittent – the ones away from Melbourne were always very intermittent and even the ones away from La Trobe were things that happened at some distance and not very often.

DW: So we’re talking about the time where the Australian Screen Studies Association kind of gets up and that… [jumps back to timing 1:10:00] …‘that sort of attitude, that is we don’t have any cinema worth talking about or if we do it, it’s only something produced in the last four or five years that I’ve seen….’

DW: Where were we?

BR: You were asking still about conferences and contacts and so on.

My tendency anyhow is to try and work on my own. I tend to withdraw when I’m doing work, although it surprises me when I look back at the things that I was working on during this period, how many of the things I did give to other colleagues to look at, particularly to Sam to look at, and got responses from, but that was not really what I would normally do. And also, I think it became fairly clear, (1) because of my association with the Media Centre and (2) because of the things that I was willing to do or not to do – and I’m not quite sure what they would be specifically – that I wasn’t a member in good standing of any Marxian left. In fact I’m pretty sure that I was asked about my politics and I said that I was an anarchist because that’s what I was, and probably still am. And I know that at various times I joked about that and said that ‘the problem with being an anarchist and working with you guys is that you’re going to shoot me first before you shoot the others’, and there would be this kind of nervous laughter from them like ‘does he really believe that’? And I think that that may have had a lot more to do with a kind of growing sense of isolation. No one asked me to contribute to things, to journals or things like that, except insofar as it was an outgrowth of something else I was already involved in, like a conference. So that things would get planned or done and I would kind of wonder, when they would come out, why I hadn’t been asked to write in this collection or that collection. And so I presumed that that’s because I wasn’t considered an acceptable part of that group.

DW: But it seems to me and you’re talking about the way that you work and your home life and I guess all these things lead to a particular approach, which right from the beginning, was seen as eccentric…

BR: Probably, or it ought to have been.

DW: There seemed to be a project in Australian film writing particularly with Australian film, which was about rediscovery or it’s about dealing with a particular thing at the moment; I’m thinking of the anthologies, and then there’s Bill’s pieces, which are seen to be a bit wild and eccentric and nobody knows what to do with, until more recently when things have been picked up.

BR: Maybe, but now there aren’t that many Australian cinema anthologies at all. I had a different idea about writing. I was actually quite concerned during this period, as I had been before, about how you adequately wrote about ideas and thinking and cultural objects and so on. And the reason I liked even Cahiers, and Positif even more and also French theory in these areas is because it seemed to me that that was all about writing. So at a certain point, say in [Maurice] Blanchot’s work, the writing and the thinking are completely one. You can’t have one without the other and that was the sort of thing that I was trying to do in a much sloppier way.

I was reading André Hodeir’s jazz criticism, in translation, which came out in three volumes, and in the third volume [The Worlds of Jazz] he wrote, I think in the introduction, that he was trying to find different ways of writing about jazz. One of the things he did was write a short story, and I read that [volume] while I was here in Australia. It had a lot to do with criticism things I began to do as well as some theory things that Phil Brophy ended up publishing in an occasional publication called Stuff. First I did cut-ups of film theory à la Burroughs or what have you. I essentially took bits of film theory, sentences, and put them together. I was trying to do a history of film theory. I did four parts and I think two got published but then Phil stopped putting out Stuff. I also wrote a very short piece of film and cultural criticism called “Doreen, Melbourne 1978” in the form of a very short story and submitted it [to Stuff] under a different name [Glenn Cizano], which is the name I’d been writing with for about 18 months for RAM and reviewing black music and disco – and that got published also in this occasional, fine, ratbag kind of handout publication. And then later there was something else which was originally called “Creature” [in Stuffing] and then was called “The Menace” [in SubStance], published in different forms in different places and so on. Even the “Hollywood Screenwriter” piece doesn’t come off like a paper: I mean it begins with a description of Los Angeles as being an example of montage concrète.

I felt it was very hard for me to write a proper academic paper, but every now and then I would do that or approach it and I’d be very happy about that. During this period, for example, I wrote the first version of the “Textual Criticism in the Study of Film” piece, which eventually came out in 1997, as part of what I learned on my first study leave [1983], [the purpose of] which was partly to try and investigate what film restorers and people like that thought about the sort of issues that had been raised in [literary] textual criticism/editing and what attention they gave to this.

The history of that piece is – and it’s a little exemplary – it was written and then submitted to the Quarterly Review of Film Studies in, maybe 1984, which was at that point edited by somebody who was really interested in issues of textual criticism…well, in film but [mainly] in literary textual criticism, and he rejected the piece and he told me what I should do is I should offer to chair a panel in the next Society for Cinema Studies Conference and lots of people would come and they would have some kind of interest in it and then people would be able to talk over this piece and they’d give me some feedback. He didn’t give me any feedback but you know, I think by his lights it was a kind rejection because he said he was interested in the subject matter…and it was a very academic piece. I thought it was really academic…you know…it was long, it was boring and…so it came back and I thought ‘Well, that’s the end of that one’ because this is the only other person I know who’s interested in this subject and no matter to whom I submit it now, it will end up on this same guy’s desk to referee and he’ll just say ‘Well I didn’t like that very much when I first read it and I still don’t like it very much’. And I also thought it’s kind of interesting that somebody in California would suggest that somebody from Australia should chair a panel for the Society for Cinema Studies Conference in the United States. I presume that he thought my university would of course gladly pay for my passage back and forth, I don’t know.

That’s the kind of thing that turned out to be the most detrimental: the inability to move around to conferences internationally. The study leaves that I had during the ‘80s, which were in ’83 and ’88, were situations where we had go in debt for me to go abroad and stay away for any length of time. This was not true in the next study leave, which was in the mid ‘90s, but that was only because my mother was living here and she essentially funded that. The inability of Australians to get abroad is one of the reasons that Australian scholarly work – at least in the area of early film – doesn’t get talked about as it should. You have to be able to be able to fund those trips yourself. If you’re not married or not living with a partner and your income is entirely your own to dispose of, you’re much more likely to be able to do that. But if you’re married (even with your wife in another academic job, as I was) and you have kids and they have to go to school and you’re enough of an education snob, as I am, to want to send your kids to the best academic schools that you could locate and thus you’re paying their tuition, you don’t have any money for foreign travel for yourself or your wife. So I didn’t have any money. It wasn’t just that I didn’t get to overseas conferences because of that; we didn’t take any vacations either.

DW: I’m thinking about you handing stuff over to Sam to read. So you had that kind of close intellectual relationship with Sam…

BR: It isn’t as though he read them all that closely. He would read them through and he would come up with one opinion and it was always something that stuck with me. I gave him what I’d originally written on applying Todorov’s theory of ‘the fantastic’ to gangster films [“Todorov Among the Gangsters”], which I wrote in my first or second year here.

[Here is some truly irrelevant background that for some reason I felt compelled to add.] I was doing a subject that Mick Counihan had done and then Mick was let go, which was really upsetting to me because Mick was very important to me, He was kind of a compass for me to set myself on. But then I ended up inheriting his office and his course on film genres, and in that course I developed the ideas that were a part of that paper. Now I had also used one of Sam’s papers in the subject, breaking a kind of taboo that somebody had told me, which is you never ever use any of your colleagues’ work – as well as not using your own published work – in your own subjects because that’s like you’re not teaching the subject, you begin teaching yourself and/or you open the possibility of a breach or a conflict with a colleague. And unfortunately the students understood that all too well, because what happened was I gave them this paper that Sam had written which was a critique of the application of Lévi-Strauss’s notions of myth to film and so on, and of course was germane to genre studies, I thought was a really good way to get them to look at this theory of myth within a cinema studies context. But they just couldn’t stand the idea of the paper or the argument and so on – and it all came down to this: some of them felt an antagonism towards Sam, and I realised ‘What a stupid thing for me to do: of course this is what’s going to happen. Whoever’s antagonistic or whoever’s feeling bad about a colleague is then going to take it out if you give them the opportunity to read that colleague’s work’. So I stopped.

Anyway, what happened eventually was that I gave Sam this paper to read and what he said after he read an early draft of it was, ‘This is criticism, it’s not theory, and you should really be up front about that’. And I thought about that and I agreed that it was criticism because I didn’t want to get into a debate with him; but I also thought I’d been pretty up front about that, because the piece begins with a discussion of the opening shots of a film. So it seemed to me that it was probably film criticism and it also seemed to be a certain kind of criticism, which I realised that I was unfortunately drawn to, which involves taking one thing, Todorov’s ideas of the fantastic, and seeing if it helps us with another notion, the idea of a genre of gangster movies. I didn’t actually think it was film theory before Sam said what he said, but it was nice to have him make that distinction because that began to focus me and to make me realise that criticism was actually sort of what I was interested in, even though it wasn’t criticism perhaps in the usual sense because there was so much abstract theory mixed up in what I wrote.

DW: That was published in Art & Text?

BR: Yes, in 1989.

DW: It seems indicative of that time where bits of writing, supposedly about film, appear in odd places – you mentioned Stuff but Art & Text and all these other things…

BR: I’m not sure how I got hooked up with Art & Text but I do know that the first thing that I published with them was actually an article about disco [“Disco Hoodoo” 1981] and it was a reply to an article that Phil Brophy had published about disco in which he had not mentioned anything about black music, and I felt that black music was important in disco and so I wrote this article which was also something of an homage or tribute to a kind of friend and mentor at Yale, a guy named Robert Farris Thompson and it was very short but I think Paul Taylor [the editor] liked that. They thought that piece was nice and Taylor probably then said ‘Do you have something else?’ The Todorov piece appears there at around the time that I’m writing about cinema and architecture and Art & Text realised that. I was asked to do a piece on that topic for an anthology that Alan Cholodenko was putting together. At around the same time Paul asked if I had something on the topic and I said I was kind of written out at that point and maybe he would like the gangster genre piece: ‘What about this instead because I’ve got this, and it’s pretty much done and it’s been pretty much done for more than 10 years and I’m sure you’ll like it?’.

The cinema and architecture anthology never actually got published and I became notorious, from Adrian Martin’s point of view anyway, for believing that this anthology was ever going to be published, for such a long, long, long, long time. And so my initial work on cinema and architecture gets dispersed over a very, very long period of time even though it was all written within a couple of years.

DW: But do you think there’s a sense, Bill, with your writing that people understood this to be…you just kind of write on whatever you write rather than understanding what you do with that body of work…?

BR: Yes, because I don’t think I’ve been very conscious of it myself until relatively recently, of what I’m doing and how it all connects. I think that I’m aware of pursuing certain things like wanting to write criticism differently, wanting to engage with notions of time, wanting to interrogate ideas of authorship, that kind of thing. But at the same time I’ve always thought that I was equally involved with showing that these were really good ideas, at the same time that some of them might work and some of them might not work in certain areas. So, what surprised me was when we came to the “Film of Memory” piece…which was something that I’d been very proud of when I wrote it for a conference in 1981 and got kind of the reception that I was pretty sure it was going to get, which was dead silence…it seemed to me that would probably be the end of that…and then, what surprised me, afterwards Adrian and Phil Brophy came up and said ‘That was really good!’, and Mick Counihan came up and said ‘I’m not sure that you really have a good solid understanding of what you mean by memory and history’ and I’m sure he was right too (that’s the way Mick responds favourably to a piece – or, at least, I hope it is). But the main thing that got discussed at that conference was a paper that I presented that Sam had written – a paper about the connections between fascism and neo-realism [“A Note on Pierre Sorlin’s Histoire de cinéma: Rossellini témoin de la résistance italienne”]. People were predictably upset by that and I really enjoyed defending that paper.

DW: So you presented that paper for Sam?

BR: Yes.

DW: This is the Film and History Conference, the first Film and History Conference?

BR: Yes, and then to make the “Film of Memory” piece really work as a kind of emblem of all my work during this period, it was omitted first from the Conference Proceedings because I said ‘I don’t want it to be published yet’. At that point it was being looked at by Critical Inquiry and I thought maybe I shouldn’t publish in two places. [As if.] But then it was also omitted from the list of papers that had been given that were not being published in the Conference Proceedings. So it’s an interesting blank. If you read the proceedings from 1981, I didn’t give a paper, not there. But as I said, this paper seemed to me to be important, when I looked at it again a couple of years ago, to my own development, because almost everything that’s in that paper is stuff that I actually continued to follow up – and that surprised me a lot because it was not written with the idea of setting out a program, but you could read it as though ‘Oh, this guy is setting out a program of what he’s going to do. This is what he thinks – he’s setting out a program of thinking about history’ and of course, eventually I find myself teaching film history over and over and over for those kinds of reasons. ‘He talks about the theatre of memory and he gives us the beginning of structuralist analysis of the myth that goes around it…my goodness, all these things and he starts to talk about little details of this and that, little details of shots and things instead of telling us anything about the whole movie.…interesting?’

DW: But I was just thinking that at that conference that’s also when…

BR: That was when Adrian and Philip made their big archaeology announcement…

DW: …culture [‘The Archaeology of Culture’]…

BR: …and I really liked that. That was a lot of fun.

DW: I was just thinking that you get drawn to Phil and Adrian, to a bunch of people who probably didn’t do what was expected of them at the same time.

BR: Yes, and they were very anxious to be bad boys and they were very conscious of doing that and that was exactly what was needed, because it set their potential allies against them, in the sense that if they’d been good boys of the left, then that would’ve been fine, but to be bad boys of the Foucauldian kind of post-modernist thing, deconstructionism or whatever you want to call it, and to do it in the name of getting closer to the [essence of the] film – which everyone knows is not how post-modernism or deconstruction really work.

DW: But did you see yourself linking up with – I was thinking about your kind of writing and your eccentric nature – did you see yourself linking up with a bunch of different people at that stage?

BR: Yes, but in 1981 with that conference, the linkages with Adrian, in particular, but Philip as well, were the strongest things that I felt. I thought ‘Okay, this is the kind of intellectual place where I’m going to feel most comfortable within the current Australian film writing scene’. But really mostly what I felt was, “They like me!”

But the other place that I was comfortable was in the study of early Australian cinema because I was learning how little everybody knew about it and I could then actually get to be an “expert” in it. One of the first bits of serious research that I did in Australia, which I think is mentioned briefly in the introduction to The Story of the Kelly Gang book, was go to the National Library following up stuff on [Charles] Chauvel which is what I was focusing myself on at that time. But Ina asked me to look at the two posters for The Story of the Kelly Gang that they had and see what I thought about them, whether they would have been the same film because one was supposed to for the original 1906 film and the other for a 1910 reissue of the original. And I looked at the posters and they weren’t the same film. They were totally different films and unfortunately this was post Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper’s book, Australian Film 1900-1977, which asserts that the 1910 film was a reissue. It’s an error that has never been corrected, and it’s an error that still interests Ina and me and which we would like to work with and correct by reinstituting some discussion of the 1910 film, which really is a totally different film with the same title, but different actors and a somewhat different story. Footage has since been found which confirms what I’m saying. The 1910 film is actually much better covered historically because so many of the memories of The Story of the Kelly Gang that have been collected and the memoirs of various people involved are actually of the 1910 film. And so my almost accidental observation, confirming what Ina already thought, raises some really interesting issues for film history.

But that was one of the first things that I did here, and I thought, ‘Look, this is ground breaking stuff!’ and I even thought to myself, ‘There’s a paper in here’ but then I thought, ‘but it isn’t possible for me to write this paper, I’m going to have to go back or go on to learn so much, whereas if I tell Ina, she’ll write the paper’, but of course she didn’t write the paper either, because she had a tremendous lot of stuff she was doing herself. Still, what we both knew from way back then about the remake is one of the subtexts of our book about the original The Story of the Kelly Gang [‘The Picture That Will Live Forever’: The Story of the Kelly Gang 2007] and hardly even a subtext in the documents section of the book that Ina put together.

Meanwhile I was following up Chauvel because Chauvel interested me because he seemed to me to be one of a group of filmmakers I would call naïve. I felt this made for a kind of a difficult situation, because it seemed that I was dealing in areas where people could take offense, because here I am taking this director whose work is so well thought of and I’m kind of placing him in a category that many people would find difficult. The reason I thought this is that I had written an article about American naïve directors that had been published in American Film [“Old, Wild Men of the Movies” 1976] and this bothered Edgar G. Ulmer’s wife, Shirley, quite a lot and she wrote a very unhappy letter to the editor saying ‘How dare he call my husband naïve. He was so accomplished and so technical and so thoughtful’ and so forth so on. The letter was forwarded to me, but I wasn’t supposed to reply to it particularly, so I replied to the editor and said, ‘Tell her I’m not being insulting about naïve. I’m talking about Henri Rousseau. I’m talking about one of the greatest painters in the world. I’m talking about Charles Ives in music.

These are the people I would consider the equivalent, these people who are obviously very, very proficient, it’s just that their vision is different from the mainstream’, and I hoped that made her happy because it is kind of what I was talking about. It’s just Ulmer can’t help it and neither can De Mille, nor can Charles Chauvel. Chauvel can’t help preaching a lot, or having naked boys in his movies or having gender, not to mention genre, problems. I have no idea what his actual interests in that area might be, but there are a lot of gender problems in Chauvel’s movies and they come up over and over again and so you imagine he’s preoccupied with this.

DW: Is this when you started working on the naïve piece, the piece on Chauvel?

BR: What I’d done first with Chauvel was to do that background research at the National Library for something that I wish I could recover now, I wish I could have it, own it, in a form I could see. The Australian Film, Television and Radio School did a series of “Video Crits” about Australian film, and I did a two-part thing on Chauvel because what I wrote was – of course – too long for them to do just in one part. And there were problems actually making the damn thing. To mark the day of shooting, I wore this red shirt with a shoulder patch that Rick [Thompson] had actually sent me, with a big red one on it [cf. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller 1980)], and the person who was directing the video didn’t realise that that was going to flare up, so it all had to be remade. Everything had to be redone and reshot under the direction of somebody who actually was a professional [Cynthia Connop]. The original guy had done a lot of other weird things too – the early tape would be the one to try and get because it is so strange, but I suspect it was burned immediately. What interests me still about it is that I wrote all of it and I’d like to see what I said and how I presented it and so on and I’d like to have it to be able to go over; but that’s the one thing I did during this period that I have no documentation for at all, except its existence even though it’s clear that it did exist, unlike the “Film of Memory” piece. I think I even kept the script I had written for awhile, but I must’ve thrown it away at some point because I don’t think that AFTRS kept it, or maybe I left it there at some point. Anyhow, a couple of times people have promised to find those two Video Crits and get me copies of them that I can use and I have even seen copies on large format video cassettes which I have no way of viewing now, but it never happens. Anyhow, that was the first thing about Chauvel I did, and it was also about auteurism and it was like saying, ‘Look, in early Australian cinema we can apply the auteur theory. Look at this guy, he’s so damned consistent. He’s doing the same thing every time’. So it was very simple-minded that way, it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be aimed at secondary schools but I had a great deal of fun with it because Chauvel is – deliberately or not – he’s kind of fun.

Then I started to write something about trying to deal with the naïve aspect of Chauvel and that’s an instance where Sam used something of mine in his classes, an early draft, maybe to redress the mistake I had made in using his work in one of my classes. Not that it made the students mad – or it may have made them mad, I mean he may have had a wonderful time saying, ‘No, he’s not stupid. He’s maybe a little wishy-washy but he’s not stupid’ [mutual laughs] or he might have said ‘Yeah, well maybe he is stupid’. What he did say, what was reported to me, is that he said it was well written – and I realised…well, you know….well…that’s the last time Sam’s going to read anything of mine [mutual laughs]. I mean I already knew that line from other people – a kind of kiss of death, you know, ‘No thinking here, but it is very pretty’. ‘Maybe we could find some ideas in this if you weren’t being so artsy-fartsy.’ Now I think that maybe that wasn’t what was intended.

DW: So there’s also the follow-up piece to that, the follow-up piece to that about the…what’s the second…

BR: There are two parts in a sense because I return to Chauvel’s naïveté in the piece about The Sentimental Bloke, which is much, much later. The thing is that this is also the beginning of my attempt to deal with the social, political, Freudian, Marxian context of film studies at the time and their position in Australia, which continued also in “The Fairest Child of the Motherland” (1987-89). And it was really interesting talking to Tom [O’Regan] and Stuart [Cunningham] about it…about the piece because they were the ones who essentially commissioned it for The Australian Film Reader. They asked me if I would do something on Chauvel.

DW: Tom and Albert [Moran]?

BR: Stuart was actually also part of my experience of the book because he was working on Chauvel at that time, and he was part of the editing process of that piece. Talking with them about it at a conference in Brisbane…I can’t even remember if it was the same piece or not…

DW: Did it come out in ‘88?

BR: No, it came out in ’85 and I was working on it on and off from ’82 through ’84, so it wouldn’t have been…and maybe it was a follow up conference at another place… [Actually all of what follows is about “The Fairest Child of the Motherland”]. But anyhow they said something about how it was a nice application of Freudianism – and I said I don’t actually accept or believe in Freud’s theories as explanations for how and why people do what they do and that I thought I was doing something else. They were right, using [Octave] Mannoni meant that you were using a Freudian-based set of ideas, but my feeling was I was trying to use what was usable there and not to buy into the Freudian part and the ending of it with the stuff about Oedipus and so on was about locating alternate founding myths even for ‘psychoanalytic’ theory. That was essentially saying there’s a lot more to these myths than Freud talked about.

DW: That makes it more characteristic of your work, Bill, when you talk about taking a theoretical idea and applying it to something, it’s not to shut it down, it’s not to contain it but it’s to provide the other things like for example…like Freud would’ve shut it off, that would’ve been the end of it. Whereas taking Mannoni gives it a whole new life.

BR: What was troubling about most of the stuff that you read at that time, as I’ve mentioned before, is that you kind of knew what it was going to say pretty much from the title of the piece or from within a few of the paragraphs and so I was very interested in writing stuff where you didn’t know what I was going to say about it and therefore where it was going to end up. [This is the theory/criticism thing again: once you know that you are applying a theory to a movie it ought to be pretty clear where you are going to end up; but if you are comparing some other text not directly within the theoretical canon to a movie, you are trying to change the way people see it. Or so I say.]

DW: Which seems to be a kind of writing, which became more prevalent in that mid ‘80s period. I guess I’m thinking of Meaghan Morris’s writing or of Adrian’s writing…Ross Gibson’s writing…there is a kind of I guess we might call it an essay approach. So did that provide linkages? Did you understand yourself being part of a bunch of writers, at that stage…like-minded writers?

BR: Well again, not outside of the Melbourne context because I wasn’t conscious of that and in fact even when Meaghan…Sam brought Meaghan at one point to some sort of Cinema Studies event and it was before the publication of the [Chauvel] naïve cinema piece and just after the publication of a review of Keith Windschuttle’s book, The Media.

That review might have been something I was kind of fated to do one way or the other. You would expect somebody else to go in and deliver a well-grounded and legit hatchet job, and instead I, all unsuspecting, provided this kind of pseud [sic] anarchist dismissal of the book which didn’t actually go to the substance of what was wrong with it and essentially attacked what I thought of as a kind of Trotskyite attitude toward the media. I don’t really think I was being set up, but I guess circumstances certainly set me up. The review was something that Brian Shoesmith asked me to do and Brian liked me and we got along very well. He probably thought that I knew more about the context of the book, and Windschuttle [notorious even then], and what he was doing, and the kind of storms brewing around it but I knew nothing about that stuff because nobody talked to me and I talked to nobody about things like that because by that time I was way outside of all of those kinds of circles. So I ended up doing what was wanted [– dissing the book -] but from a different point of view.

Meaghan Morris and I spoke briefly about that review because she found it kind of interesting and kind of funny, which was what I intended, and she asked about how come the people at La Trobe weren’t more involved with Australian Cinema, which was partly because stuff I and other members of the Cinema Studies staff had done hadn’t actually appeared yet and things like that; we were actually more involved with it, but I think she meant more like what Sam and Lesley were doing. And I said one of the reasons that I was not more publicly out there was in the [then forthcoming] piece on Chauvel. You see, it’s about the badness of Australian cinema and why I think that’s a good thing, a significant defining characteristic of Australian cinema properly so called.

DW: The other person we’re talking about at this time is Rick Thompson; there’s an interest in popular culture where you’ve got the rubber sandals piece. [Not me, I don’t got no rubber sandals piece.] Did you know Rick before you came to Australia?

BR: Oh yes! Rick was at the University of Chicago as an undergraduate. He was the head of the Documentary Film Group after I was the head of the Documentary Film Group. He was a crucial figure in the establishment of what might be called the post-classical film culture, auteurism and that sort of thing and popular culture as a viable force that university audiences responded to. I took some tentative steps in that direction. I was very interested in it personally during the time that I was head of Docfilms, but basically I wasn’t game to take the risks associated with doing something about it with the film group. He put on the Bogart festival that then became the model for other people’s Bogart festivals; he was the one who discovered that there were a lot of people in the world who know a lot of lines from Bogart and Bacall movies and were willing to chant them out loud during screenings [- or at least they were at that point]. He moved from his time at the university to working for a film distributor, Brandon, and then from there to the American Film Institute, and the reason I could describe Los Angeles in the way that I did in the “Hollywood Screenwriter” piece is that we’d stayed with them on our way to Australia and he’d driven me around L.A. and things like that. He was a very good friend, a very, very close friend. In fact he’s my son’s godfather in that informal way when you say, ‘Would you be his godfather?’.

DW: But he didn’t have any intention of coming to Australia at that stage?

BR: No, no. What happened was that there came a time when they got money to basically get somebody else in Cinema Studies at the time when it was moving out of the Media Centre into Humanities and under the aegis of Art History, it was becoming a Division in Humanities, and I was not part of the new Division. I was part of the Media Centre – I was the film and popular culture person still in the Media Centre, whereas Jeff and Lesley and at that point John Langer [?], and Sam were all going to move over to Humanities, so Humanities was going to fund another position and they wanted somebody to fill it. This was in 1979. By this time the difficulties and divisions between Cinema Studies and other places had become very big within the School of Education.

Sam had begun it all by doing something that Trisha Edgar, then Head of the Media Centre, really, really enjoyed, and I enjoyed because I was part of it too. We were having some sort of general getting to know you meeting with aspects of the School of Education that were interested in the teaching of history and things like that, and Sam began to interrogate them about what they thought history was, and they didn’t treat this like an invitation to think about it and to come back at him. They had no answer prepared – which is always true when Sam starts interrogating you: you’ve got no answer prepared. Even if you’ve got an answer prepared, you’ve got no answer prepared. Or you know that the answer you had prepared is not going to work. It was fun because I was able to come in and he was the big dog and I was the little dog and it was kind of neat, and Trisha had a ball because Trisha hated the Professor in that Centre, and he was pretty much in Sam’s sites for most of the exchange, so this is the high point of Trisha Edgar and Sam Rohdie’s relationship. She just thought he was wonderful; she was chortling and laughing afterwards and so on…but little did she know that this was the way that Sam responded to all intellectual life and she was going to get it, and Ina, who was not at all prepared for that, was going to get it too. Sam was very good at being quite unaware of the damage that he might be doing to somebody because of his tenacity and ferocity in debate, and because he wouldn’t consider it a significant kind of damage.

That mode of intellectual interrogation caused a lot of difficulty within Cinema Studies in general as well as when it was applied outside that context. And the kinds of things that were supposedly being said and taught in some classes, I think, were also considered to be dangerously reminiscent of the Bad Old Days – which weren’t that far behind anybody at that point – of student activism and things like that.

And so there was a lot of difficulty about Cinema Studies within the School of Education for quite wrong-headed reasons. But it was also the case that the Cinema Studies staff worked quite hard to move out of the Media Centre; they did not want to be there. I could see why: because they wanted to have some kind of academic integrity, a program of their own and to grant degrees in their field. They were an anomaly in the Media Centre, which was only a postgraduate teaching training Centre. If they had continued to develop the degree programs that they wanted to develop, it would’ve been even more anomalous, so the university was anxious to deal with them in some way, but the Media Centre people, generally speaking, felt that what they were contributing to the Centre, the film studies program, was a very valuable thing and should be kept. They were aware that the kinds of intellectual debates that were being canvassed that centred around semiology, Marxism, structuralism, Freudianism, that these things were an important part of current intellectual culture and we [confounding myself with Cinema Studies, which I really ought not do] were the only staff at La Trobe doing anything like that. On the other hand, from the Humanities point of view, we scared the English Department [which might otherwise have been considered our ‘natural’ home] and we scared a lot of other people because we were doing that, and we also scared them because we would say things like, ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are worth considering’. Not things that people in English wanted to hear or think about. It was a very F. R. Leavis English Department at that time.

So for all of those reasons, this break was proving very difficult; and there was some feeling, I believe, within the university as a whole, that they needed to have another Cinema Studies staff member if they were to expand their undergraduate program, and that probably that staff member was going to be somebody who would end up being Head of that Division [presumably to avoid having anyone considered ‘dangerous’ or ‘radical’ or just generally a ratbag as Head].

DW: Oh okay, so that was kind of established before you came into that role? [What role?]

BR: I was aware that this was going on, but again I had people in the Media Centre talking to me about it and I’m not sure that they were necessarily the same people that spoke directly to the people in Cinema Studies. They may have thought that I was going too, I can’t remember when it was decided that I would not, but I always felt that if information was offered to me in confidence, it was going to be in confidence.

So, people applied for this job. I told Rick about it and said this would be a good opportunity for him. Things at the American Film Institute had blown up. At the Film Institute, Rick was under fire, as were the programs with which he was associated, because as is periodic in institutions of that sort, there was some feeling that film history wasn’t really something that they should be terribly much involved with even though their oral history program, which was actually one of the glories of the American Film Institute, was something which Rick had been very instrumental in helping and setting up. He himself was very interested in the whole question of interviewing people – what you did and how you did it. He started to publish a series of interviews in which he was trying to explore some of those questions. And so here was somebody who’d been at the American Film Institute in a prestigious research position, who was a student at UCLA, a very highly thought of student, who had a dissertation underway and so was expected to have his PhD soon, ‘ABD’, all but dissertation, from UCLA, the leading [US] film school, and he had a number of interesting publications including a very respectable political publication on Young Mr. Lincoln, a kind of analysis, supplement, compliment and critique of the famous Cahiers piece and so there were a lot of things that recommended him in the field of candidates. One other thing that recommended him in that field of candidates (as far as at least one person on the board thought) was that he was a friend of mine and they thought that’s a good thing, because we’re getting more nice guys [patsies?] instead of more troublemakers or what have you.

And so that is was why he came. He was first flown in for an interview and stopped for awhile at the airport because he was thought to be the terrorist, Richard Thompson, and so on – and then interviewed and then flown back to L.A. to wait for the results of the selection process, and they thought, ‘Yes, and this was good’ and so on. He told me after the interview how this department has Sam Rohdie in it. ‘They’re talking to me about whether I would in the future consider myself to be Chairman, they’re thinking about that. They’re not just wanting to hire me, they’re wanting to put me into a boss position…when they already have Sam Rohdie, and I said ‘Yes, that’s what they’re trying to do’; and I tried to explain that Sam had not made himself popular among people and so this is a kind of a way of not giving him what he clearly merited. And this meant that the whole decision about whether to come here or not was one that was very fraught for Rick because Rick had a tremendous amount of respect for Sam’s work.

DW: So he’d obviously known Sam’s work before…

BR: Yes, in fact he told me what to read and what issues of Screen to get, in our correspondence, and so when I was trying to get up to speed [after Yale], he was my major source of information – if Sam was going to deal with Greimas, Rick told me which Greimas pieces and things like that – where they’d been published and so on. Rick was always very assiduous about keeping up with what was going on and he’d been a postgraduate student at UCLA where they actually did have Screen in the library – very important – and in an atmosphere where radical left politics was an essential part of what you were doing and what you were thinking about. So when Rick came out and was in this position of being the Chairman of all this here, he was incredibly nervous and incredibly scared because he felt it was wrong and he tried to explain this to the staff. He said ‘This is silly. I shouldn’t be the Chairman here. Sam should be the Chairman or somebody else should be the Chairman. I’m coming from abroad and being put on top of you and I think it’s a bad thing. We’re going to end up in bad shape’. But at the same time he tried to make a joke of it, partly I think at my instigation, but certainly we talked about it because we liked the idea that he would try to lighten the atmosphere. He and his then wife, Leslie, designed and then printed up T-shirts for each member of the staff – printed by Philip Brophy, no less – with the title of the current Godard film, Sauve qui peut – ‘every person for himself’ and he handed them out at the first staff meeting. He was wearing one, I mean it wasn’t that he was handing them out for other people to wear, ‘You better watch out’, he was wearing one – and what he was saying was that ‘We’re all embarking on a perilous journey here and it’s going to be difficult for us all’ but he told me nobody laughed when he did that. He always gets worried when nobody laughs at his jokes but he tried as hard as he could to convince people of the truth, which was that he did not feel comfortable in having been appointed above them, and that he wanted to work with them and he wanted people to work through him and that he wanted to end up getting them all the things that they would want to get out of their situation; and for a considerable amount of time he was able to make some good things happen. People came to La Trobe. Brian Henderson came to La Trobe. Raymond Bellour came to La Trobe. Janet Bergstrom came to La Trobe. They all did that because Rick knew them and they knew Rick; and eventually Christian Metz came to La Trobe, indirectly, for the same kinds of reasons. So there’s a kind of big important set of things that are happening for this new Division.

At the same time it was determined that Rick was not a “good” person. He didn’t belong, whereas I was okay, I guess, because I was a nice guy and wishy-washy or whatever. Rick would just shut up. He would not only not engage in certain things, but he didn’t have any answers, and he was very conscious of not having any debating skill at all and just freezing in those circumstances. I feel that way too, but I ended up adopting a different way of dealing with such situations – losing the debate, I guess you would call it. ‘You know, I think you are right: I had better look at that all over again.’ I had learned to do that in academia over all those years, but Rick hadn’t; he’d just go silent.

DW: And of course you had Sam and Lesley, two scary people, to deal with as well.

BR: Right [that is, if you find Lesley scary; she seems okay to me; I think that only vulnerable people find her scary]. The other thing was that I’m sure he got hostility from both of them, but it isn’t in Sam’s nature to continue a kind of nasty hostile relationship for ever, and so Rick would think that it was okay between him and Sam when it wasn’t. In a sense it was never going to be, because Sam did merit the chairmanship and he did know that he ought to have been given it, and he didn’t realise, [or maybe realised all too well] that what had happened was that he’d been outdone at internal university politics by people who were put off by his style. He may have in time decided that it wasn’t Rick’s fault, but certainly all of those things were true and he was being punished by the School of Humanities or the university or whoever it was that dictated that this new ABD person would be the Chairman. [Sam had even got his PhD from La Trobe, for goodness sake!]

DW: But it sounds from other interviews as well that the department, in terms of leadership and promotion, was so much at the mercy of the School or the Dean or whoever – and Lesley talks about her promotion and Sam talks about promotion, and seems like it was being pulled all over the place by the….??

BR: Things were not happening the way they ought to have happened on the one hand. On the other hand there were expectations particularly about promotions from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer. [I wasn’t promoted until 1994, thirteen years after I got my PhD, and Rick’s promotion came some years after that.] The fact that Rick didn’t publish anything didn’t mean that he didn’t read a lot. The fact that he made jokes didn’t mean that he didn’t take things seriously. All of those sorts of things. And those are the sorts of things that I was only secondarily aware of up to 1985, because 1985 was the year that I formally joined Cinema Studies.

DW: I was going to ask what time you moved from the Media Centre to Cinema Studies. How did that come about?

BR: Two reasons. One, Sam was then Chairman of Cinema Studies and he finally got what he should have got before, and Rick was very thankful for getting rid of it. That was one reason and the other reason was that that year, the Media Studies faculty imploded.

Media Studies was a place that tended to want to work with an idea of consensus and Ina had been Chairman for the preceding years and she always insisted that essentially whatever we were going to say, we all said, not just a certain portion by a show of hands and that we talked about things incessantly until we actually got to a point where we all felt we could say this or we could follow this particular policy or what have you. This is extremely good and it meant that it was a very harmonious faculty in the sense that whatever else might have been going on, in the actual meetings that we had, people were conscious of needing to cooperate or else nothing would happen. There was an attempt to work out something new that might happen with the production studio facilities, which were a continual bone of contention and difficulty because we weren’t allowed to move anything close to professional standard and we weren’t going to get rid of it because that’s what a lot of people came to La Trobe was for – production stuff – so it was backwards and forwards and what we were going to do with that, were we going to do more of our own productions and that sort of thing. In addition there were other things going on that completely upset me – I can’t even remember the kinds of things that they were. But anyhow, we hired some new staff, and we had the first meeting of the year with these new people and something like a new, and seemingly quite bright outlook for the future. However in that very first meeting certain issues were raised that I felt ought not to be raised or that were being unfairly spun by one member of staff in order to get at another and I got up and said ‘I’m sorry, unless this can be dealt with in another way, I’m not coming back. So you can have your meetings without me. I’ll do the duties that I’m committed to do on committees outside and now I’m going away’, and I went away, which just devastated the new staff members because I had told them what a wonderful place this was to work. I had said ‘It’s a wonderful staff. It’s a wonderful place to work. You may not agree with everybody but we manage to work things through and get along’, and so forth and so on – and there it was, entirely the opposite of what I had said.

That was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, opted right out, and I was interested to find out if I could do it, if I could stay away and go on being a spoiler. It was really a good position to be in – but Sam heard of what had happened, and Sam was the Chairman of Cinema Studies, and I think that he may have taken a real delight in being able to offer me a job that Rick had not offered or had not been in Rick’s power to do. I think it’s the sort of thing that would’ve pleased him immensely. It would have done me if I had been in his position.

DW: And also taking someone from the Media Centre?

BR: To some extent, yes, but the thing is that Sam knew that I was going to be able to teach the things that he thought needed to be taught, and he was essentially in a position where he was able to make such a switch. It probably was taking a position from the Centre and probably shifting it over, and he probably thought that meant that there wasn’t extra budget money that needed to be found in the same way that it would otherwise be, so it probably all worked out very well I don’t know. He knew that I would get along in situations where other people may not. This was after Lesley had gone. So it might’ve been Lesley’s position or something like that, I’m not sure. I really can’t remember that at all. [But then, I wouldn’t, would I?]

DW: And Barb didn’t come till later, is that right? When did Barb…Barb must’ve come after ’85?

BR: I guess…the thing is though that Rick hired Barb. Rick wanted Barb.

DW: Because she was a postgraduate student of Lesley’s?

BR: Could be, I’m not sure but that would be the logical person that she’d be a postgraduate student of. But I was her [PhD] dissertation Supervisor. I can’t even remember what the dates were now but she was already at La Trobe. So it could be that Barb came after Sam’s period [as Chairman]. It’s funny because I can’t remember about staff meetings and things of that sort until the personnel shifts to people like Ron Burnett and Lorraine Mortimer and people like that.

DW: Which would’ve been ‘90s…

BR: And it’s again a very exciting time and a very stimulating time partly because of these people and the…the Ross Gibson Rule – that is, anyone can teach cinema studies – being something that you could actually do. You could take someone like Lorraine Mortimer from a different kind of background because she was extremely smart, extremely interested in movies, extremely capable and she could do interesting stuff and that kind of thing.

DW: Just trying to think what else we haven’t covered.

BR: Let’s see, I could look at all this new publication stuff. [Consults his tricheur]. Basically I think we’ve gone through most of it. One of the reasons that I left Media Studies – a kind of indirect reason – was that I’d spent a lot of time after my study leave, not just writing the piece on textual criticism but also writing a piece based upon things that I’d learned about notions of television and children in television. The whole of that was a kind of subset of interest in education at that time and I wrote a piece called “The Child’s Understanding of Television Fiction as a Function of Development” [a truly academic exercise]. It was basically a piece in which I took structuralist ideas of narrative and asked whether there’s a possibility of seeing if they could inform one’s notion of child development and comprehension of what’s going on on TV. And I worked very hard on it and I circulated it around the Media Centre to people who were supposed to be interested in things of that sort – not just Media Centre but the whole School of Education to relevant people. They seemed to like it and so on and I sent it to an American Child Development journal and it was rejected. Even though the beginning paragraph of the piece said ‘I am not from this field, I’m not in the field of child development and this is an attempt to merge some ideas of child development with something else and this is like a paper for discussion if you will’, what came back were classic academic rejection notices which consisted very largely of lists of people’s names with dates after them (which meant that I was being directed to articles that might be published in any journal anywhere on the standard ideas of child development related to this topic) and didn’t say anything substantive; it said that I’d clearly never read these things and I thought I’d admitted that I hadn’t read these things and I clearly was keeping away from that level of engagement, I was simply saying well here is some current work on child development and on children and television I have read and it combines in interesting ways with structuralist theories of narrative. That made me think, well at least I can get things published on film in Australia.

[But I forgot, also early on in my time at La Trobe, 1979-80, I had written the rest of my PhD dissertation].

The next chapter of the dissertation turned out to be longer than all the others which had already been written. It actually turned out to be, after some structural changes, chapters 4 to 13 and it contained quite a lot of new material I hadn’t thought I would be able to use, but that was the version that eventually got through the Committee in Social Thought in it’s own fraught way.

DW: So you were working on this in Australia as well?

BR: What happened was that I had my original plan for a fourth chapter outlined and I had the basic readings for it set and I packaged them up along with a couple of reference materials and sent them from Diane’s parent’s home in Cleveland to arrive in Australia so that they would be here when we arrived, and I sent them in all kinds of special delivery or what have you, paid them a lot of money, insured them and so on. They never got here. So that accounts for my first year where I probably wouldn’t have done any work on my dissertation anyway; but like we were waiting for them for a while because there were other things that took a long time like our furniture and things were not shipped because the company jacked up the price for the shipping by 50% after we left.

DW: So it just didn’t get sent? [He probably means the package with the dissertation chapter, but I am clearly more concerned with the furniture, wouldn’t you be?]

BR: It sat on the wharf and some of the things got soaked. Some of the cases had gotten soaked and so on. We had to pay the whole amount before they would release these things to be sent and we tried to get legal help and we tried to get neighbours and acquaintances to do something but eventually we paid them the amount because that’s really what they wanted.

DW: So you had to write that part of the PhD again presumably.

BR: But not just again because what I did was essentially…I had some of the ideas that were there but I couldn’t actually remember where I was going for the last chapter about the purposes of popular art. I do remember that when I originally outlined the thesis, I had a really neat coherent and cogent argument and it would’ve involved time and the whole question of the materials of popular art always decaying; and the forms of popular art and so on which was about ideas of genre and iconic figures and so on – and about temporal form, and the efficient cause was dealing with and questioning the auteur theory by suggesting other ways of thinking about what “made” popular artworks.

And then what happened was that in 1978 my then supervisor, Harold Rosenberg, died. This hit me on two levels. Rosenberg was a very lovable guy and I admired the way he thought. But his death also provided me with another dissertation problem, because the question was now whether I could make the time to take the argument in a new direction. As it happens, Hannah Arendt had died in 1975, and that was important for me because Hannah’s work had provided me with a way into popular art that I was originally not going to use because I felt I hadn’t been able to think about it as carefully as I needed to – but also because I was concerned that the attitude of the Committee might well be that I was capitalising in some way that one shouldn’t on the work of a former faculty member. But then the time that Rosenberg’s death had bought me meant that I had time to work on various of her ideas: the public sphere, her definition of action and so on, which was exactly what I wanted to do because that was where I really wanted to get to from the beginning. I wanted to be talking about the final cause in terms of what she speaks of as action and so on. I began to be assured by Paul Wheatley, then the Chairman of the Commitee and someone I had never met, that in spite of the clear and present danger of my particular dissertation they would be able to find someone to supervise it. Wheatley said ‘Okay, look, if you’re going to continue with this dissertation, we’ll put together a dissertation committee because you entered into writing the dissertation in good faith’, and the committee was Wheatley, who was a geographer and world historian, an interpreter of urban geography, John Cawelti, who I think was still at Chicago then, and Gerald Mast, who was teaching film in the English Department there.

I spent a year actually writing a first draft incorporating the previous work, and during that time the ‘fourth chapter’ grew and grew and grew. At first I had this big card file in which I put quotes and references, and then I organized them. Somebody told me to do this. I think it was Diane. It was a great way of doing a dissertation and what it meant was that I was writing from quote to quote to quote to quote and trying to keep the thread of the argument in mind and within the larger structure which had determined my original sorting. Now when the initial hand writing was done, well, first off I had to type and send away the various chapters, then people would respond and John Cawelti always had one or two questions about this or that and he’d say things like ‘I think you’ll have to work out…I’m not quite sure that you’re able to deal with the concept of “popular” here’ and so on, and so I tried to work that through. And then Gerald Mast had a lot of things about writing and his particular idea of clarity of expression and quite a few really stupid questions, along with some worthwhile syntactical changes. This was the period in which my office whiteboard was decorated with the scrawl ‘Gerald Mast is an asshole’. But the thing was, he never asked me to do anything substantive, he just asked me to do a lot of stuff that he thought was substantive but I didn’t, and he was really pleased to discover that I knew about people he knew about…about Morin and others because he was very much opposed to semiology and Marxism and structuralism, which of course I was not particularly, and he was pleased that the structuralism I talked about in the dissertation was Lévi-Strauss structuralism and stuff like that, and so we worked our way through those things, not without some differences, and anyhow, I got the degree and was awarded it in absentia in 1981.

DW: Did they send that out to examiners or did they examine it themselves?

BR: No, no, the American system is that if you get it past your supervisors, particularly if you’re working with a number of supervisors, then it’s like getting it past the examiners. Why would you do more than that? Now there’s a certain amount of paranoia within the British or Australian system, so the idea is that you may be able to eliminate the favouritism that clearly could skew the American system by sending the finished dissertation out to the broader scholarly community, but everybody can get around that too if they want to. You can send it to other examiners that you know will approve it or that you know will not. Still most of the time our Australian system works well – even if it gets well worked too.

My dissertation was part of the writing I had done that Tom O’Regan was very interested in and so Tom read it. So that in terms of where I was situating myself this time I was moving into the point where Continuum and Tom and Stuart to some extent, to some lesser extent but still some extent, were part, and then Adrian and Philip were the other part of where I felt I was and Meaghan also became part of that insofar as she was very encouraging about the dissertation, which she read.

A lot of my intellectual project in the period that follows about 1985 turns out to be rewriting bits of the dissertation and representing it at different fora, and the project was not completed because I stopped getting requests that I could turn into rewritten dissertation chapters after a while. And besides it was no longer interesting to anyone. The popular art moment was over.

DW: But nevertheless the interest of that topic is still everywhere in your work.

BR: The ideas are often there but not always as directly displayed in the dissertation itself because there are ideas in the latter part about theatricality and the relationship of drama to the general forms of popular art as a kind of antithesis to the notion of the frozen form of literature, the frozen written composition and so on, and so performance becomes the central part of that.

But it didn’t happen and it’s definitely not going to because now the ideas that were there definitely would have to be rewritten into the context of a discussion which hasn’t really interested me for a long time. Now the discussion of popular doesn’t seem to be very intriguing or productive, if only because everyone pretty much unthinkingly supports the idea these days. This stance has its own problems because it too gets mired down in positions that people are taking rather than in attempting to make enquiries about what is actually going on in this work or that, or if anything’s going on. Nobody really wants to know if popular art has significant differences between it and elite art because what they really want to say now is that there are no significant differences between popular art and elite art and Hitchcock is making the same kind of movies as Bresson. [And if you believe that, I have a Brooklyn Bridge you might be interested in buying.]

DW: Yes, exactly. I read at the Centre for the Book at Monash, it’s got a webpage and it’s got a list of the topics and it says ‘High art, popular art and everything in between’ – so what don’t you do?
We might leave it there, Bill.

[I have heavily rewritten this interview – mostly because I got a lot of facts wrong when I was speaking off the top of my head, and a lot of the time I didn’t make much sense. But I also forgot about some key people for me during this period, some of them editors, a few of whom I never saw in person: Albert Moran (to whom I owe a great deal because of his support), Tom Ryan, Jim Harvey, Bev Purnell, Anthony O’Grady, Peter Tapp, Llewellyn Johns, Bruce Hodgdon, Neil McDonald, Joan Cohen, Nick Roddick, Phillipa Hawker, Kathy Bail, McKenzie Wark, James and Gaila Leahy, Bernard Pomerance, Michael Denneny, Enno Patalas, Kristin Thompson, Jack Schafer, Frank Kogan, Michel Pierssens, David Bradley. Shame on he who tries to find some reason in the sequence. For someone who spends as much time squawking about not getting published it is particularly rude to have forgotten those who actively helped do just that.]

Created on: Saturday, 4 September 2010

About the Author

Deane Williams

About the Author

Deane Williams

Deane Williams is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. His books include Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors (2008), Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane, 2009) and the three-volume Australian Film Theory and Criticism (co-edited with Noel King and Constantine Verevis, 2013–2017).View all posts by Deane Williams →