Introduction to Australian Film Theory and Criticism Project Interviews

The interviews to be published on a regular basis across this and future issues of Screening the Past derive from an ARC-funded project, entitled Australian Film Theory and Criticism, undertaken by Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams of Monash University, and Noel King from Macquarie University. This research project takes as its object of study the development of film studies in Australia, especially in the period 1975–85, during which film studies becomes established in the academy (having of course had a prehistory outside academic domains).

The historical overview of Australian Film Theory and Criticism seeks to address the following questions: What is particular about Australian film theory and criticism? What is its relationship to its international counterpart? Which key positions are established during its period of academicisation? How do these positions come about and in which directions do they develop? In answering these questions this project offers an account of the objects of film studies, an understanding of its critical assumptions and methodologies, and an evaluation of the field (and related disciplines) from within the academy. Although film studies has enjoyed rapid growth in the Humanities, there have been stages to its development and these stages have not always had agreed-upon scope and objectives, definitions and critical methods. Australian Film Theory and Criticism seeks to understand these various and shifting positions. In doing so it not only maps an archaeology of film studies in Australia but also develops a position from which to move forward. It seeks not only to make a significant contribution to an understanding of the nature of film studies in Australia, but also to contribute to a fuller understanding of Australian film culture and its relation to other areas of Australian cultural production and related inter-national currents. As such, the project aims to reassert Australian film theory and criticism on the international stage, analysing its institutions, personnel, practice, methods and key critical developments and shifts in relation to international currents. This pioneering historiographic account of film studies not only presents an description of the key critical positions that have shaped film studies in Australia (and abroad) but leads to a focus on current developments in film studies and higher education policy more generally. That is, an understanding of various theoretical standpoints can be analysed in relation to curricular developments of the present and emerging programs for the next generation of scholars, students and policy makers.

In the present decade, Australian film studies is an interdisciplinary field. Film studies emerged in the academy — alongside state and federal government support for film production and other cultural activities — in the mid to late-1970s and early-1980s. The AFTRS (Australian Film, Television, and Radio School) was officially opened in 1975 (it had operated from 1973) and film studies rapidly grew in Australian upper-level secondary schools, colleges of advanced education (CAES), institutes of technology (WAIT, NSWIT, RMIT), newer universities (Murdoch, Griffith, Deakin) and within disciplines — such as English and comparative literature, art history and communication studies – already committed to explicatory criticism. In some locations — Melbourne’s La Trobe University, for instance — film studies established itself as a discrete aesthetic field and discipline of inquiry, but with the emergence of cultural studies through the 1980s it was most often part (or became part) of a larger interdisciplinary formation. During its formative years, a crucial component in the consolidation of Australian film theory and criticism was the local and international exchange of critical formations facilitated by academic film studies (and associated) conferences and related organisations, including the Australian Screen Studies Association conferences and its antecedents (1978–84), the biennial conference of the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand and its precursors (1981–present), and the Cultural Studies Association of Australia annual conferences (1991–present). The 1970s fervour for feature, short and documentary film production in Australia — as well as the emergence of film studies in the academy — led to a similar expansion in film culture more generally. This included not only an upsurge of interest in the (cinephile) institutions of review journalism—notably Colin Bennett’s long tenure at Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, and (later) Meaghan Morris at the Sydney Morning Herald and Financial Review — but also to an increase in film studies journals and periodicals, notably The Australian Journal of Screen TheoryCinema PapersFilmnews and Metro: Journal for the Australian Teachers of Media.

During its period of establishment within the academy (1975–85), Australian film studies was dominated by the position of the film theorist or critical intellectual. Through this time, international positions in film theory—in particular the politically progressive reflection on film language and practice developed especially in the pages of the UK journal Screen)—are given an Australian inflection in the writings of people such as David Boyd, Philip Brophy, Barbara Creed, Colin Crisp, Stuart Cunningham, Ross Gibson, Helen Grace, Laleen Jayamanne, Noel King, Adrian Martin, Meaghan Morris, Tom O’Regan, Noel Purdon, Sam Rohdie, Bill Routt, Lesley Stern, Graeme Turner and Dugald Williamson. A number of these writers became known for developing (and exporting) a particular brand of Australian cultural studies, but it was (arguably) film studies that gave cultural studies its particular character (and provided opportunities for these writers to initially break into overseas publishing houses). During the same period, and because of the seventies feature film revival and interest in Australian film histories, a second discourse — that of the film historian — is evident in the writings of people such as Ina Bertrand, Diane Collins, Colin Crisp, Sylvia Lawson, Albert Moran, Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Graeme Shirley and Brian Adams, and John Tulloch. While it may be possible to understand the mid-1980s as the moment of high theory internationally, it also appears that the shift in focus brought about by the ascension of cultural studies is simultaneously witness to an increased interest in film history. Around 1985 it is also possible to discern, theoretically, a shift nationally and internationally in film studies marked by post-structuralist currents, and in particular the influence of Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972). A 1980s “crisis” in film theory — the end of “grand theory” signalled in David Bordwell’s Making Meaning (1989)— occasions a rethinking of some central film theory terms and a return to empirical investigation and an attempt to negotiate the tension between theory and history via a (Deleuzian, non-totalising) concept of difference, one which can attend to the heterogeneity of historical material.

Australian Film Theory and Criticism takes an interest how the dominant film-critical positions of the period 1975–85 were adopted and developed in Australia, and also in how they were adapted, rapidly generating new positions that have been exported in and through the work of local film theorists and critics. To this end chief investigators Deane Williams and Noel King have undertaken interviews with selected film writers (in Australia, UK/Europe and US) to research their training and development in, and various contributions to, the discipline of film studies.

—Noel King, Constantine Verevis, Deane Williams

“The Double Access, Film Culture and the Ossification of Film Studies”:
Paul Willemen Interviewed
Walthamstow, UK, 30/08/07

Paul Willemen is the author of Pasolini (British Film Institute, 1977), Ophuls (BFI, 1978), The Films of Amos Gitai—A Montage (BFI, 1993) and co-editor, with Behroze Gandhy, of Indian Cinema (BFI, 1980), co-editor with Tom Milne of The Aurum Encyclopaedia of Horror (Aurum, 1986), co-editor with Jim Pines of Questions of Third Cinema (BFI/Indiana University Press, 1998), among others. He was closely involved in the 1975-1985 period of film studies in Australia, and as editor of Framework instituted a policy covering film studies from various countries, including Australia. More recently, he was Professor of Media Studies at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He has proposed that “comparative film studies” is a way forward for film studies (Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6:1, 2005, pp. 98-112).

DW: When did you first come out to Australia?

PW: I’d just started work at the British Film Institute in 1975. I was a member of the Screen editorial board, involved with independent filmmaking here, and all these debates that people were having at the time, trying to change the world — you know, ‘one more push to the wheels, brothers and sisters, and the world will be a better place!’— so we were writing with a lot of energy as if the arguments we were having really mattered. I was sent invitation to visit Griffith University in Brisbane because I had written a critique of Screen within the pages of Screen. I think that was their motivation. The people at Griffith at the time, Ian [Hunter] and Dugald [Williamson] particularly, were avid fans of two British economic Marxist theorists, who I hated with a passion, [Paul] Hirst and [Barry] Hindess, who were associated with something called theoretical practice, which I thought was beyond the pale.[1] But I didn’t know then that they were very committed to that strand of theoretical work. My acquaintance with what people were interested in in Australia at the time was virtually zilch. We had very few visitors from Australia who took time out to come [to the UK] and find out what was happening here; the only one that I came across was Barrett Hodsdon who had come through London, and took the trouble to try to talk to some of the Screen Education people in the context of a seminar at the National Film Theatre that we were conducting. He was the only one that I’d talked to before going to Australia. I went to Griffith; stayed there for three months, found out a bit more about what people were doing, and got my first impressions, basically. I stayed with Tom O’Regan quite a lot at the time, renting his bungalow. At the end of that trip I spent some time in Sydney and then Melbourne, or rather went to see Lesley Stern in Melbourne because I sort of vaguely knew about Lesley. She had been in Scotland, so I knew her from before.

DW: Were you teaching at Griffith?

PW: I was sort of teaching. I was doing seminars at Griffith. Very arrogantly I fear, because I was working as a cultural bureaucrat here in film museums and cinematheques and editing and curating stuff at the Edinburgh Film Festival together with Claire Johnston and just a general activist, but working in institutions, when I could get the job, in order to pay for the salt and potatoes. But not really teaching. I gave the odd lecture here and there on invitation but I didn’t have any confidence as somebody who could stand up in front of a class and hold forth, especially not as a foreigner. I had no confidence that my English language would come to me at the right time, so it required elaborate presentations and writing down sentences for every single lecture. When I did a lecture it took me about six hours to prepare, making it unreasonable to give two lectures in a day. So I replied saying “I don’t want to give a course, I don’t want to lecture, I’d be happy to do seminars”. I had no idea of the protocols or the rules of politeness when you get invited by a university, whether you should say “no I don’t want to teach” but, basically they said “okay, a bit odd but let’s get him anyway”, so I went over and did seminars.

DW: What were the seminars?

PW: The seminars…there were a couple of people, but mainly Tom O’Regan and an English/Scottish guy called Andrew Tolson who was also there on a visit who was lecturing on cultural studies at Birmingham. And basically it meant sitting in on lectures and then participating in the discussions. Some of the discussions were about things I’d written about so there were set texts for the students to read and to discuss and I did a lot of, not exactly supervision work but consultation discussions with people doing practice work because there was a practice element in the course at Griffith. So I remember a lot of time discussing their projects with people, their rough edits, how they could go about improving it and all that stuff. So not very formal, very informal but I tried to involve myself, particularly with the intellectual side of the practice and with the seminars.

DW: It must’ve been quite a vibrant time up at Griffith?

PW: Yeah, there was the chorus line of boys, the Griffith boys at the time, who formed my impression of it. It was my first time in Australia; my first extended time at an institution of higher education because I never had a degree myself. I dropped out in 1960 from a Belgian university, because I got bored stiff. In 1960 one could do things like that. And I never went back. So this was my first experience of working as a person in a university and the milieu that I hit there was very intense. They took arguments about cultural issues exceedingly seriously. But, from my point of view, far too philosophically rather than as activists. Part of the reason why they did it like that was that they were in Brisbane. This was still Jo Bjelke-Petersen’s time. They were in Brisbane; it was fairly isolated. Independent film practice in Brisbane was just getting off the ground. There were a few people trying to set up 16mm independent filmmaking. There were virtually no screening venues at the time. So access to films was very difficult, it had to be done via videos mostly. There were some Australian filmmakers whose work we could discuss. Ross Gibson, a friend of Lesley Stern’s had made a film, and there was extensive discussion about the docu-drama about the sacking of Prime Minister Whitlam by the Queen (The Dismissal, Australia, 1983) which we discussed in terms of historical representations. Silvia Lawson was there, it was one of her last years before she retired and she was very insistent on the practicalities, the practical politics of dealing with film and film culture. Ian and Dugald were far more interested in the philosophical dimensions and I was far less interested in the philosophy of it. If it didn’t have a connection to practice I wasn’t really that interested: but practice, not necessarily as filmmaking, but also curatorial practices like showing films and why and how you justify those things and all that stuff. By what right do you expect people to be interested in this, basically? I can’t say there was tension between me and Ian and Dugald, who were my main hosts, but I found myself spending most of my time with Tom O’Regan, who at that time was trying to work out what was special about Australian art cinema which was just hitting the international market with Breaker Morant (Australia, 1980) and things like that. He was preparing what eventually became his book.[2] So we had things to talk about and we spent a lot of time together.

DW: Was Dugald’s book done by then?[3]

PW: Dugald had done a little critique of my work in a speech by then, I think, or he was just about to do it. It was a friend of his who’d done it and then put together a booklet but I think the booklet came out either just before or just after I got there.

DW: Was that idea of the relationship between curatorial practice and filmmaking something that you’d encountered in Australia before?

PW: No, basically my starting point was that if you were interested in changing something about cinema, just talking about film studies in itself was not sufficient. It was essential but not sufficient. One would also have to bring into that organising retrospectives, saying these are the films that one has to look at, these are the things that are worth looking at, that are pleasurable to look at, but also the problems about how to understand what people make of films and in what circumstances. So I’ve always related to filmmaking here to a particular time. Claire Johnson was my reason for coming to Britain initially and she and I got into film around about the same time. She maybe a few years earlier, but she got heavily involved in feminist politics here and set up the first women’s collective, the London Women’s Film Group. She and I and a couple of other friends were very active, organising every year the big retrospective and the publication of the Edinburgh Film Festival, so partly for her feminist reasons, partly for my own kind of non-academic background, we always felt that the institutional dimension of culture is as important as attempts to try to understand what’s going on or how texts work. You can’t study one in abstraction of the other. So all our practice, me and Claire, was involved with making films and doing seminars and promoting notions of feminism through cinema as well as arguing with other feminists about how to look at cinema. She wrote major critiques about the notion of the positive role model and things like that. That’s not what it’s about; you wrote critiques of realism as a strategy for feminists, you know, the real women, who are they, where are they? You can’t see them on the screen. So that, and notions of cinephilia that I brought back from Europe with a heavy surrealist tinge at the time. Just generally being obstreperous. It was part of the culture, like saying “sod you, that’s not how it is!” and organising culture in a different way. So the organisational aspect, public aspect, activist dimension of film culture was always part and parcel of the way we thought about cinema and I think actually it was the correct intuition, but it was no more than an intuition at the time.

DW: After this you went to Sydney?

PW: After Brisbane I went to Sydney specifically to meet Meaghan Morris because I’d been reading some of her stuff on Foucault and she was part of a collective in Sydney which had been doing cultural studies kind of thing with Foucault, with Lacan, with psychoanalysis, and Tom O’Regan said “you have to meet her”. So I rang up Meaghan when I got to Sydney and we got on very well and spent days just arguing with each other. She also showed me Laleen’s Jayamanne’s PhD thesis, which was on the Sri Lankan filmmaker Lester James Peries, but also had a long chapter on Claire Johnston’s work. It’s the best thing about Claire’s work that I’d ever read and it was extremely interesting to find out why somebody who had never met Claire, of Sri Lankan descent, in Sydney, under Meaghan’s supervision, could understand what Claire’s feminist film take was, much better than anyone in Britain ever had. I found that intriguing. And in a sense, those kinds of questions and my discussions with Tom, and my discussions with Meaghan about all kinds of other things plus my own attempts to make sense of the experience that I was having in Australia led me to questions of what’s going on here that’s so strange, and why are people thinking the way they are thinking here in Australia because it’s totally different from the way they think in either in the States or in Britain or in Europe.

DW: Because Meaghan Morris had spent time in Europe?

PW: Meaghan had been in Paris just prior to that but she’d been an avid student of Foucault and Deleuze. She’d attended lectures by Barthes and people like that. Meaghan had a European experience, which I didn’t have because hers was basically exposure to the Sorbonne; very formal in a way — she actually went to a proper university, which is something that I never completed. So to my mind Meaghan was far more disciplined, thorough, serious about the academic side of intellectual activity than I could ever bring myself to be. I had far more of a maverick, magpie approach. I just read what I was interested in rather than trying to be systematic about mastering a particular terrain.

One of the things that I found in Brisbane (which with hindsight is probably more Brisbane that the rest of Australia, but I still think is the case to a large extent, although I’m out of touch for the last twenty years now) is that cultural intellectuals in Australia — the ones that I met anyway — had a double access of reference. They knew what was being published in Europe, i.e. in the Anglo Europe, in Britain. They knew about Screen and that stuff. They also knew what was going on in the States; they had a double access in a sense. Both of these sides came from a distance but there was an enormous energy to keep up with what was published, the trends, the thinking that was going on in basically New York, LA, San Francisco on the one hand and London on the other. The references to Europe were a bit more hazy. Meaghan was special in that respect. Otherwise people in Australia only had access to translations, which were either published in Britain, or in the States. Meaghan was one of the few who went to the horse’s mouth.

So there were [Sylvia] Lotinger, the Semiotext(e) people, that kind of thing. Also Foucault’s The Order of Things had just been translated into English, but Meaghan had done all of that in French and more, other aspects of French philosophy that I never got into, including the women’s angle, whereas here in Britain one orients oneself, to some extent, to the States but with a certain degree of distance. This double access to the States and Europe, i.e. Britain basically, I found far more developed in Australia; far more people there were far better informed about both areas than they were here [in London]. Here it was very internalised in the way people talked to each other and Europe was referenced through the English translations under the aegis of New Left Books and people like that, Althusser, the usual stuff. So, I found amongst my film colleagues here that most of them did not read French, which was a severe disadvantage for many of them. A few people did but of the most active people in film culture, most of them simply didn’t read French. So they had to wait for translations, which would come sometimes very bad and very late, which I found very frustrating here.

In Australia, people by and large were more familiar with cultural constellations or cultural theoretical constellations in different parts of the world. But they were obviously more distantly connected to it, because they read it and occasionally because this very strange but exciting thing about Australian universities at the time is that, because of the geography, universities had a fund to invite foreigners to come through as a systematic policy which is not the case here, not the case in the States either really. So this openness and hunger, and not just hunger, the actual commitment that people had, to inform themselves, to get people like me and various other people coming through for shortish stints. The expectations that were on the visitors were that one wasn’t there simply on a junket or as a celebrity. One was there as a cultural producer and you had to come up with the goods because everyone knew that you had been paid for by some institution and you’d better work for your dollar. You couldn’t get away with recycling old stuff because people had read it and knew what was your old stuff. They expected some positive engagement with what they were interested in, which was actually perfectly reasonable, but many British and some Americans didn’t twig to that and thought well, the far-flung corners of the world, I can get away with presenting something that they probably don’t know about. Whereas in fact they were extremely well informed, the audiences that I met.

DW: So did you speak or teach in Sydney?

PW: In Sydney I went to the Co-op, I did a gig at the Co-op presenting a film, Night Cleaners Part 1 by the Berry Street Collective. I’d brought a 16mm copy with me. It was a film that Claire Johnston and I had written about in 1975 in the Brecht event at Edinburgh. And I wanted to talk about the film as a way of doing politics through editing, and what is possible to give an historical analysis of an event like a strike by night cleaners in London. And how to do that in film and it wasn’t a “fun” evening, a film about a strike by night cleaners; but people were prepared to engage, the co-op audience in Sydney were prepared to engage[4] . It was a good audience and it was a quite lively talk. Not reverent: when I say you’re supposed to come up with the intellectual goods to present challenging arguments, people didn’t expect to agree with you necessarily, and people could be a bit confrontational about their arguments but it was a confrontational aspect that was like, “now you answer me rather than your rubbish”. It was a confrontational opening gambit to a dialogue where you were expected to defend your corner. And in that friction between these two sets of preoccupations and concerns and prejudices and what have you, something would emerge that gave people food for thought; that was the most exciting aspect of this formation, of absorbing things from elsewhere because they were interesting, rather than that they allowed you to gain a powerful position in an institution locally, which is the way it is basically here, or in the States.

DW: At that time of the Co-op and also Filmnews, it was quite a politicised atmosphere.

PW: Yeah, I spent time with Tina Kaufman who was editing Filmnews at the time. Silvia Lawson did an interview with me at the end of my stint at Griffith, which was published in Filmnews; a long one, I rambled on about all kinds of stuff, because Sylvia was also interested in the independent stuff, politics etc. So my impression was one of pockets in the main Australian towns who had a voracious interest and intellectual capacity to absorb and transform arguments from different parts of the world, and used that as raw material to fashion their own take on things. Which was, if anything, rather remote from practice, but allowed for an engagement with understanding how culture works. To my mind it’s also a reason why Australian film studies constantly, or very quickly, veered off into cultural studies: because there was not so much cinema, because there was virtually no film culture in Australia. But there again, there were distribution problems, exhibition problems, because of the distances and the cost of importing films and all that stuff. There was little cinephile engagement, of a practical cinephilia, premised on access to films, cinematheques, etc. There was far more of an intellectual engagement with how the fuck does culture work? I found people absorbing stuff from different traditions far more actively and far more urgently, and therefore far more excitingly.

DW: It seems that you were there when Australian filmmaking, particularly independent filmmaking was kind of at its zenith, during that Co-op time, given that the inaccessibility to funding that people have now compared to then.

PW: The big debates, yes; the question that Tom O’Regan addressed in his book: why the hell did Australian cinema take the form of art cinema? What happened to exploitation cinema in Australia, which had been there? There was one guy in Brisbane whose name I’ve forgotten, but he tried to make an exploitation film in Brisbane and did make one, pretty bad but at least tried to keep going with that exploitation, independence kind of market oriented, but interesting. It was just before the wave of horror films that were coming out in Australia. But Australian cinema kept being marked by this art house form of address that intrigued Tom and I: we had long debates about the role of Australian state and federal funding, as well as how Australia could find a place in an international circuit under the dominance of Hollywood; the lack of interest in Britain, or rather the colonial aspect of Britain as far as the States was concerned because our exploitation cinema from the States competed with that. Australia, in order to find a place in the distribution circuits and the cinemas outside of Australia needed to have a special brand developed. And to some extent the consensus now would be that it’s the national funding that in effect produced a notion of authorship, a notion of art cinema, that was not marketed as art cinema, was marketed as, or was designed to be, Australia’s commercial cinema in an international market. It had a brand image and that was the one that was being developed. It’s also the reason whey I disliked the international dimension of Australian cinema. Things like Breaker Morant (Australia 1980) or The Man From Snowy River (Australia 1982) which to me just dripped of syrupy attempts to try and seduce the international audience to the Australian brand, to Brand Australia. There were other films which Meaghan was more interested in and drew my attention to, which were Melbourne- specific and Sydney-specific, films which didn’t travel, and were probably the basis of more interesting films.

DW: In your time at Framework when you quite consciously went after Australian film studies people to publish. So how did you go about getting those people, like Stuart Cunningham?

PW: Stuart Cunningham I’d met in Brisbane. It was before he went to Sydney. Lesley was part of that, Susan Dermody was, Felicity Collins was one of the organisers in Australia who did some of the logistics of keeping in touch with people, getting permissions from people and things like that. But the brief, what I wanted to do was to talk about, not about Australian cinema; every second film magazine was running special issues on Australian cinema, which was really boring. It was just basically saying how great Picnic at Hanging Rock(Australia 1975) was or something like that. Or the Nick Roeg film, Walkabout (Australia 1971); all the really boring films. So I wanted to do something about the specificity of Australian film culture. How the people tackle it, like the history of Filmnews, the writing about film, basically. How does film criticism practice? What are the dominant institutions? What are the histories? How the film writers think about cinema in Australia? Try and get a grip on that rather than saying what wonderful films they were producing for the overseas market.

DW: Part of that was you re-published stuff that had appeared before?

PW: In Filmnews and some small magazines there were some original pieces but it was basically a presentation of the notion of film culture. What I was interested in from audiences here (in London) was to say that simply watching the movies in festivals didn’t really allow you to say anything. That was tourist consumption. That in order to get the full impact of what people were trying to do when they made films, which I think is a difficult thing to do actually and requires the mobilization of so many resources: institutional, financial, governmental, friends, relations, all that stuff — a whole swathe of culture is rather activated and mobilised in any film project, including the attempts to make sense of it. So if you want to make sense of a movie coming from Australia, you have to put it into a particular landscape. So I was beginning to try, I was signalling, that this was the politics of Framework, saying you need to understand these landscapes. I did a special issue on Brazilian film as well. I tried to do something on Vietnamese film.

DW: Did that experience in Australia lead you to think about these different film cultures or was it already part of your thinking?

PW: There’s a history to that one which people here will not acknowledge. It’s even forgotten by the people who did it initially. Part of my polemics with colleagues here was about the history of the way we attend to cultural understanding. I think it’s very important to understand that history, in order to understand for instance, why Screen went from A to B to C, and the different divergences and cutbacks and drifts away and waves of interest. What is it that produces waves of interest in certain types of things, which then subside, and then another wave takes over? This is not strictly intellectual interest. There are other forces at play that program these waves of interest. And these waves then produce certain types of writings, paying attention to certain types of things. So I was interested in those questions. That question came from, was first put on the agenda, politically and historically by the New Left Review in Britain in the early 60s, and many of the people who were in Screen came from the New Left Review: Peter Wollen, Ben Brewster, Jon Halliday, those people, even Sam Rohdie had published in New Left Review before. So those people came out of that formation. One of the things about the New Left Review, here in the very early days when they were just fresh out of Oxford basically, was that they were totally fed up with English leftism, labourism, and they made it a conscious project to introduce what they called continental political theory in Britain. The way they did that was to do something about the specificity of national political constellations. So they did articles on the specifics: why certain things were happening in Algeria, and gave it longer term perspectives of the dynamics, political, social, historical dynamics in Algeria that produced the things like the independence struggle there. They did the same for Cuba [and] various other countries. They had this notion of the specificity of the historical constellation. Perry Anderson did the specificity of the British constellation, “Components of the English Culture” I think it was called; very polemical pieces. But they looked at why was this development in England stunted and arrested, and they went to look for the bourgeois revolution that failed, the industrial revolution that failed, the particular compromise between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie in Britain and blah blah blah, all that stuff, the components of the English formation. That approach I found extremely intellectually interesting, challenging and potentially useful for translating into a cultural field. So that notion of the specificity of constellation came from there, from the history that produced Screen in the first place but that Screen then forgot, under the impact of trying to make itself relevant to being taught at universities, which was never my concern but was the concern of colleagues on the board. So when I came to Australia that was already my angle. I had in the context of Framework been developing that in relation to India with a friend, Ashish Rajadhyaska, and some Indian filmmakers I knew. It’s that take on the notion of a national film culture that also produced the ‘Questions of the National’, which I presented in Canberra.[5]

DW: When you talk about that double access between Britain and the States and then Australia, there doesn’t seem to be at that time much of a connection say with Indian or South American cinema, like in Australia there wasn’t much between those kinds of cinemas.

PW: There was an interest in Asian cinema already in Australia at the time. I know that Brian Shoesmith and David Hanan were already beginning to be interested in Indonesian and Indian Cinema at that period, because I took note of their work precisely because of my own interest in India at the time. There was some concern with Japanese films which Lesley Stern was part of. So in between my Brisbane thing and the final gigs in Canberra, I went back a number of times. I was invited by the Sydney Film Festival, by David Stratton at one point, to give some talks in the context of the festival. And then there was the Australian Screen Studies Conference, which was in Brisbane, where I presented notions of third cinema in an institutional context. I went back a number of times in between.

DW: How did the David Stratton connection come about?

PW: I knew David from festivals here. So he simply gave his blessing to it. I met David particularly in London but also in Pisa at some Italian festivals, so we were on talking terms. Meaghan and a few of her colleagues had the programming side in the Dendy in Sydney, which was a kind of a side bar of special programs, independent films etc. in which we did not go into the main cinema. And they organised a series of talks and invited filmmakers and things like that at the Dendy. And Meaghan proposed me as a guest to come and talk, and David said yes because he knew me.

DW: What was it that you spoke on?

PW: There was a new film being presented there at the time, which was one of the first wave of black films made in Britain called Burning an Illusion (1981). The director Menelik Shabazz was there, and I presented his film. I remember talking about that film. Lindsay Anderson was the main guest of the festival and I remember doing a very critical piece about his take on cinema and his films. I did a talk on realism and I can’t remember, there was another film that I was talking about but I can’t remember it now. So I think I did two or three gigs in that context.

It was a new audience for me. People like Adrian [Martin], who was interesting, but the Griffith moment in a way had passed already by then, although they were hosting the conference. I came across quite a number of people who were actually teaching film, sometimes in secondary, sometimes in informal evening class type situations. Also people simply read Screen or read film magazines and things like that and were only tangentially involved in film education. And people who were basically working in higher education and were in the process of setting up, or just had set up film studies programs. We came from different angles, very much. There was a lot of hope and aspiration in the possibility of institutionalising films, that is, in finding an institutional space for it and making a living teaching it. So there was a lot of energy to try and install the legitimacy of the discipline. By that time I was thoroughly pissed off with the legitimacy of the discipline, so I was very critical of its institutionalisation precisely; of what happened to film studies once it got transformed into a curriculum.

When new students come along and listen to you talk about things that were very experimental in an activist context, to put it crudely, but who came to listen to you and diligently took notes as if you were talking about 16th century beetroot cultivation in Upper Sardesia I mean, it didn’t touch them in any way and I found that very dispiriting. I wanted understanding of film culture as a way of understanding the world we live in, through film because it’s nice and it gets my juices going, cinema, other people do it through other cultural media. But I insist on asking the same questions and talking to these other people. It’s not simply of grooving on your chosen medium. It’s a matter of which root of access do you have to understanding how culture functions: that’s the main question, political question. So I thought I could talk to a wide variety people with a critical angle on the perils of institutionalisation. Most of the people at the screen studies conference were in my mind starry-eyed about institutionalisation. Maybe it’s just as well that I didn’t experience the follow-up because the ossification, the sclerosis that sets in once things get institutionalised, which I come across here at universities all the time. It’s the dominant tone in film studies, that’s why film studies is dead as far as I’m concerned. I no longer read the stuff; it’s just boring.

DW: Because?

PW: It’s totally disciplinised, and film is one of those things that doesn’t fit in a discipline. You have to go into economics and politics and various other aspects of culture and lots of it…urbanisation, long-term historical trends, the history of the industrialisation of a particular country, of market formation, flows of money, how equipment is purchased or not and how people modify it and use it. All that stuff is actually part of the text you see on screen. You can’t use it as a cultural series like literature or painting or sculpture, or chemistry for that matter.

DW: But at the same time you’re still interested in Chinese cinema?

PW: Yeah, increasingly I think, it is by exploring the contours of what you don’t understand that you begin to get a better grip on what you think you understand. I was invited [by] a friend in Korea to teach for a few months in Seoul. I deliberately chose a post-graduate class, to teach them about Korean Cinema which I knew nothing about. So I saw lots of videos and just asked “This is what I think is going on, what do you think?”. With the students, it didn’t work very well. They were far too polite and nodding, writing down things they found interesting. But with colleagues, i.e. other people teaching there, I had, to my mind, very productive discussions where my own ignorances became apparent and they had to fill me in: ‘Well there are these things that you’re not taking into account because you’re not from here.’ So I’d make it a deliberate point to explore the contours of the limits, to explore the limits of one’s mode of a culturally produced, historically produced understanding. Because that’s where you get imprisoned in your own frame, and in order to understand how culture works you have to see something outside of that frame, because that frame gets formed in its own right by these forces, so how do you know what currents you’re caught up in if you can’t think beyond your frame? So you have to, as a deliberate matter of policy, expose your ignorance, risk your ignorance, but at the same time the positive aspect of this is that by risking your ignorance, you’re also simultaneously making yourself relevant to the other person, because you’re producing a dimension of understanding that they find relevant to understand their culture. And there again, it’s that kind of circuit of mutual incomprehension but with a benevolent attitude towards understanding, that you begin to see the dimensions of Indian cinema, of Korean Cinema, of Australian Cinema. Yeah, this is much more interesting than I thought it was.

DW: What you’re talking about sounds like one model that goes into Australian film studies in that I was just thinking about Meaghan Morris, who’s an Australian who studied in Paris, who’s now living in Hong Kong and has just edited a book on Hong Kong cinema which Adrian Martin and you contribute to.

PW: Adrian’s connection through Rouge but also through Trafic with Kent Jones and Jonathan Rosenbaum and various [others], published a book about their postcards, their dialogues…yeah, he’s into that. I don’t agree necessarily with Adrian, nor indeed with Meaghan’s way of doing it…but it is extremely productive for me to find out why I disagree with them. It helps me fix my own limitations and sometimes confirm the validity of my limitations, sometimes makes me revise my views.

DW: But it’s always a kind of learning process isn’t it? It’s like people are in it because they want to learn, not because they want to impart knowledge…

PW: No, but it’s sometimes overlooked. This kind of encounter can be productive only if it’s on a bed, on a feeding ground of a common desire to understand something. If that common desire isn’t there, it’s too limited it’s too institutionally framed, it just vanishes and what you have is just a clash of prejudices and of ignorances and they just get reconfirmed. So there are high risks. It’s a fairly risky strategy. But when it works, when you find the right dialogue partners, it’s extraordinarily invigorating and energizing and you really get somewhere further. You get to understand something that you didn’t understand before. On the one hand is the institutional ossification of film studies. The downside also, which is far more in Australia, and which is beginning to hit here now, is the Asian Cinemas where specialisms, disciplinary specialisms in Chinese, Japanese, etc. have been part of the curriculum in the institutional landscape of Australia from a cultural point of view far more than they have here, for obvious political, geographical reasons. Here, let’s say film in the context of the School of Oriental and African Studies [at University of London], they’re just thinking, they’ve been trying to introduce film but not very successfully. So those specialists in Indonesia, Japan, China, Korea etc, for them film is still new territory. In Australia this is already more or less disciplinised, that film and culture is part and parcel of that academic disciplinary specialisms, including the emphasis on knowing the language and things like that, a la Chris Berry. So there’s great advantages to that in Australia, as well as increased dangers of institutional specialisms, regional specialisms, that kind of thing. But I think as far as film studies is concerned it means you have a broader take on a wider variety of film culture than one does looking at it from here or from the States or from anywhere in Europe. So that geographical distance that Australia is from anywhere else, produces certain modalities of attention in certain ways of being interested in what comes from elsewhere. Which is less governed by immediate traffic of political relations between let’s say the States and Britain; people passing through London or something like that. Less over-determined by economic collaborations or collaborations in terms of the city of London, the New York Stock Exchange, those sort of things. So you’re at a greater distance, a distance in both senses, geographical and physical, but also intellectual distance, in that it’s always necessary because of the peculiarities of Australian history, geography, politics etc, you know the cities hanging on the coast and all that kind of stuff, there is always in Australia, even as a foreigner, you can’t get away from or are constantly asking yourself how does this translate into the peculiarity of the circumstances here? And that’s just an unavoidable question, whereas here that question is avoided and avoidable because one can go on holiday to France and then come back and still think it’s a bloody foreign country. You don’t have to ask yourself how the borders of an island like this…. or the borders of countries in Europe, what effect to they have when you cross a border, because one thinks in different categories, and different historical rhythms, basically, different linguistic rhythms as well. So the Australian take, I’m not saying it’s necessarily, from my point of view at the present from what’s required for a cultural understanding to develop better, Australia is in a better basic position potentially than many other countries. Its proximity to its own history, the nature of the questions it has to ask itself…people have to ask themselves when you live in that place. The roots that come through and how you relate to the roots of that culture travels, that ideas travel, that publishing travels etc. You can’t simply take those for granted. There is always a difficulty that has to be explained or that has to be overcome. With the Howard government, obviously a lot of these advantages have been eroded because they were fed; they were sort of watered, irrigated by various forms of subsidies, by the universities’ policies of inviting people. But as lecturers themselves becomes more casualised, get overloaded, as university systems in Australia are being pushed down the drain as quickly as possible, a lot of these advantages don’t have the feeding ground and [are] beginning to starve and to me that’s a major tragedy for the people. If I were there…and my daughter is there and I have to confront the possibility of moving there when I retire. I’m not sure at the moment. If the government changes, if the cultural subsidy landscape, the cultural support system changes, I think the nature of intellectuality of cultural understanding in Australia will again shift and probably become, not necessarily a leading place but more a facilitator, a catalyst, and it will make sense again to talk about somebody as an Australian film theorist or an Australian film critic because the location of the Australianness gives you a sense of the multiplicity of feeds and of transformations that has gone into something….


[1] Hirst, Paul Q. and Barry Hindess. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
[2] O’Regan, Tom. Australian National Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
[3] Williamson, Dugald. Authorship and Criticism. Sydney: Local Consumption Publications. 1989.
[4] The Nightcleaners I (1975). The Berwick Street Collective. See Claire Johnston “The Nightcleaners (part one) Rethinking Political Cinema” Spare Rib, No. 40, Oct. 1975.
[5] Paper presented at the “Film and Representations of Culture” Conference sponsored by the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra 1989. Published in Fields of Vision. op. cit.

Created on: Tuesday, 4 November 2008

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 →