Real and Reel: The Education of a Film Obsessive

Brian McFarlane,
Real and Reel: The Education of a Film Obsessive.
Glen Waverley: Sid Harta Publishers, 2010
ISBN: 1-921642-58-0
AU$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Sid Harta Publishers)

There’s a lot of information packed into Brian McFarlane’s “‘rather specialised memoir’”. It contains multiple references to films, to film celebrities and it documents the evolution of the author’s staggering output of published (and unpublished) writing. The plot revolves around how one man’s passion for film and writing eventually becomes his day job. A difficult journey, but not without its rewards.

This is “not remotely an autobiography”, but the evocation of time, place and cultural contexts across a couple of continents is striking. It covers a juicy slice of time, much of it in a different world, beginning in country Victoria with a vivid description of the flat, dry landscape and its people. 1940s Australia is portrayed as the world of the nuclear family, dad’s concrete paths, comic strips, swap cards, English magazines, watchful parents and strictly rationed outings to the screenings at the local picture theatre. The author’s obsession with film develops early. Using the exalted praise that becomes one of the running jokes in this gently funny book, ten year-old Brian writes reviews of National Velvet (USA 1944) and other films he has not seen. Even at this age, the young critic discerns that the baddies that he sees in films are more interesting and get better lines than “all those drab good people played by a lot of folksy character actors”. His fascination with the medium is compounded by lifelong infatuation when he sees Merle Oberon in A Song to Remember (USA 1945) – another of the intertwining themes in the book.

Most of the films on offer in the 40s and 50s are American, but in an era where Australians see Britain as “‘home’”, the young Brian starts to identify with British films and their “sense of shabbiness about life… something Australia shared”. Later, when he can go to the movies as often as he can afford, his appetite for films— – other than “big, stupid films” – continues to be a reference point for life events. Over a lifetime his craving for celluloid screenings and theatre performances clocks up statistics that would not be out of place in The Guinness Book of Records – the details are documented compulsively in exercise books.

Much of this obsessive documentation took place when film was regarded as mere entertainment, before it became a “wildly popular discipline of study”. However, as a tertiary academic in the 1980s, when films started to appear in English courses, the author finally finds himself in a position where his writings are published widely in books and journals, and where he is able to set up courses in film study. This is not without its setbacks. McFarlane writes frankly about being “amalgamated twice” when the Australian Government “embarked on a series of traumatic amalgamations of tertiary institutions” and about the impact of this savage cost-cutting. He conveys a sense of disappointment that the books he published at this time (Words and Images and Australian Cinema 1970-1985) were appreciated more overseas than in Australia. In the same period, McFarlane went to England to write a PhD to gain film qualifications. This provided more opportunities and invitations to write and be published in the areas that became his specialisations – film adaptations of literary works and the history of British cinema.

There are lots of carefully crafted, appealing images in the book. Some of these are scenes that emphasise how much has changed in the last seventy years. The author’s skill in using language economically is highlighted in the chapter that recounts his meetings and interviews with many British film celebrities. A few well chosen (often amusing) words makes some of these people leap off the page, whether it is Dirk Bogarde inviting the author to sit on his sofa or Sylvia Syms’ hilarious advice on being photographed. There are also many insights into the process of writing: tackling a project as large as The Encyclopedia of British Film; preparing for interviews; the satisfaction of dashing off DVD liner notes and reviews within a strict word limit; and getting to the point of conveying “the wholeness of the experience” in a review.

It is difficult to predict how wide the appeal of this book will be. It is well presented with a selection of colour images in a centre section; press clippings and photographs are incorporated into the chapters. The humour is ironic and self-deprecating – it lightens some passages where the detail is quite dense and it is perceptive in others. While references to Mallee roots and “wowsers” may be unfamiliar to non-Australian or younger readers, their meanings are easy enough to guess in context. There are layers that will appeal to different readers. The book will probably appeal most to readers who have a love of social history, scholars of Australian and British film history or people who have read and appreciated the author’s work.

Brian McFarlane’s obsession with film and writing about film has resulted in the creation of an impressive body of published work, as well as parallel careers as a distinguished writer and academic.

Lynn Smailes,
Melbourne, Australia.

Created on: Sunday, 7 November 2010

About the Author

Lynn Smailes

About the Author

Lynn Smailes

Lynn Smailes is a freelance writer, editor and desk-top publisher who lives in Melbourne, Australia.View all posts by Lynn Smailes →