Australian Film Theory and Criticism, Volume 1, Critical Positions

Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams,
Australian Film Theory and Criticism, volume 1, Critical Positions
Bristol: Intellect Books, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-84150-581-7
US$30 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Intellect publishers)

In Australian Film Theory and Criticism, King, Verevis and Williams examine “the circumstances in which film studies arrived and for a time prospered in Australian tertiary education between 1975 and 1990” (91). It is concerned with how the Australian film theory and criticism of this period was: informed by its contemporaneous British, French and American currents, shaped by its location in specific pedagogical and institutional contexts in Australia and, in coinciding with the Australian feature film revival, responded to this revival of filmmaking as a central matter of concern. The authors argue that this combination of elements gave rise to a new style of film reviewing and criticism that acted as both a counterpoint and complement to the new academic discipline of film theory and criticism.

The book takes its cue from Stephen Greenblatt’s and Meaghan Morris’s reflections on cultural mobility and exchange. For Greenblatt mobility is an enabling condition for becoming “strikingly enmeshed in particular times and places and local cultures” (91). For Morris what matters is “not the origin of ideas – here, there, coming in, going out” but rather “the performance of the text on the spot, and how intellectuals work to define their ‘spot’ in the world, and its relations to other ‘spots’’ (21). Australian Film Theory and Criticism’s chapters variously situate the passage of ideas as they come into and out of Australia over the 1970s and 1980s. The authors are also concerned with the people as they moved around Australia. The vehicles for this mobility are then several: the small journal, the scholarly conference, the specialist books and journal circulation networks, and the mobility of people. This mobility is particularly foregrounded in Con Verevis’ chapter on ‘Film Theory Goes to Australia’ and Noel King’s chapter on ‘Cultural Mobility and Film Studies in Australia 1975-1990′. These chapters show this interplay of mobility and situatedness, as film theory and criticism became enmeshed in “a local” which varies from place to place, context to context.

In the book’s useful preface, Patrice Petro sees the book as one of a number of recent projects[1] exploring “the institutional and intellectual foundations of film studies as a discipline spanning not just the academy, but also government, the museum and the publishing industry’ (xi). King et al, she suggests, provide us with the Australian version of its emergence – the twists and turns – as film studies becomes consolidated into the academy. Like the folk they are examining the authors are ‘indigenizing’ a larger activity.

Australian Film Theory and Criticism consists of seven chapters which are organized around the structuring categories of institutions, personnel and criticism. The final chapter seeks to update the story from the 1970s and 1980s with which the book is mostly concerned by considering the contemporary shape of Australian film theory and criticism. The first and last chapters are written by all three authors. The other five chapters are written by each author and function as case-studies.

In this review I want to say something about the book as an intellectual history of film theory and criticism; to outline something of the interstitial space the authors suggest film theory and criticism occupied at this time as it rapidly expanded, drew in people from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds, and gradually became professionalized; to evaluate its account of contemporary Australian film theory and criticism; and finally to outline some criticisms.

Intellectual History
First and foremost Australian Film Theory and Criticism is a work of intellectual history. Its authors are concerned to establish what kind of research and field of possibilities Australian film theory constituted in its first fifteen years (1975-1990). It is therefore a book about the modes through which film theory was historically practised. The authors set film theory firmly within its social context of academic practices and universities. They show this theory to be at once produced by these wider academic settings and, in turn, shaped by the field’s theoretical practice. Consequently the book twins together the scholarly evaluation of the knowledge claims of film theory with an investigation into how the process of inquiry proceeds in particular places and times. This double vision not only animates the authors’ approach, it also animates the work and activities of those it surveys.

The historical situation the book considers is one which ties concerns about knowledge making in film theory to very prosaic challenges of discipline formation, institutional recognition and research practices. The authors show those involved to be mixing together discipline building, institutional change and pedagogical reform. This was a heady mix. It provided those involved with a rich array of tools and concepts with which to develop the discipline of film studies in Australia.

This was not an enduring synthesis – indeed the authors draw attention to this through their contrasting last chapter (which suggests a contemporary moment marked by quite different institutional and disciplinary configurations). However it offered for a time a distinctive way of thinking about the problem generated by film theorizing and film studies as it moved into the academy. The authors show that what was being connected here was epistemology (knowledge making about film as a domain of theorizing), pedagogy and research practice. These were being made interchangeable. They had not yet become separate boxes. Teaching informed research. Pedagogical practices – problem-based learning based around case-studies at the newer universities (particularly Griffith and Murdoch Universities, see p.63) – were pushed into service to inform the development of film theory as both a research program and a knowledge formation.

The Formation of Australian Film Theory & Criticism
The authors link Australian film theory and criticism’s linking of epistemology, pedagogy and research practice to it being in its establishment phase and to it occurring in tertiary educational institutions which were themselves only just being established. Assembled as it was from the materials, peoples and institutional formations that were available, theory and film studies had an interstitial character, situated unevenly between and among disciplines. This was a fluid, improvised and improvising space. Film theory existed at this time at the margins of more professionalized disciplines and schools of thought. It was mostly in those universities and colleges of advanced education which were often themselves coming into being. As a discipline-in-waiting, film theory thrived on these forms of interdisciplinarity and its status as an interdisciplinary discourse. The urgent problems of curricula development and shaping pedagogical practice ensured that teaching practice and epistemology were linked.

This uneven academic formation allowed people like me who were in the first intakes of these new programs to receive an education that escaped the confines of professional socialization. So too, as King et al show, those who came into film studies as teachers at this time came at it through different routes (literature, drama, history, teaching, sociology). All benefited from the advantage of being in an interstitial academy whose form had not yet settled into the ‘business as usual’ of an established disciplinary field. PhDs were yet to be obtained. Those with a PhD in cinema studies – like William D. Routt at La Trobe – were rare. Routt was in constant demand as an examiner not only for the PhD theses of his peers but also for those like me who were graduates of this training.

King et al show that there were two other characteristics of their object of scrutiny which were important to consider. These were: first, the coincidence of film theory with the Australian feature film revival and significant governmental investment in, and public enthusiasm for, film as a high profile cultural policy and nation building initiative. This provided a natural focus upon Australian filmmaking, its theorization, its conditions of possibility and its political and cultural prospects.

Secondly, this was also the moment of film theory as a public cultural talking point and organizer of debate. This was a time when discussing and theorizing film was a way of working through urgent critical, cultural, social issues of gender and identity and politics. Working on film was a way of working upon oneself. This meant that all sorts of people and diverse energies were bulking up behind film theory. It seemed to be a great moment to work out how film was working and what it might have to say about our subjectivity, our gendered identity, our way of being in the world and acting politically. As Lesley Stern indicates, this was a time when independent feminist filmmakers could seriously be concerned about who was writing on and reviewing their work and whether or not they were authorized to do so (28). This was a moment when all sorts of people came to have an interest in film. A decade later, as King et al point out, it would be the turn of cultural studies to occupy this position.

The authors, adopting the nomenclature of the critical intellectual, cinephile and film historian, suggest that this period was, first and foremost, the era of the critical intellectual. The cinephile and the more film historically-orientated scholars were on the margins of its core practice. As doing film became more business as usual and less central to wider theoretical and cultural concerns, film studies acquired a more pragmatic, contingent and arguably less inflated set of purposes. Becoming just another discipline with its own business to attend to, these film historical and cinephile dimensions came to acquire greater centrality to the field’s definitions with a turn from theory to history, cultural studies and the aesthetic dispositions of the cinephile in later decades.

Today’s Film Theory & Criticism
The final chapter of the book is a reflection on our contemporary configurations of film theory and criticism. It uses the book’s earlier consideration of the establishment and ‘flourishing’ of film theory and criticism to put into perspective our contemporary uncertainties both within the discipline and in the university sector more generally about the status of film studies. The attention throughout Australian Film Theory and Criticism to institutional formation and its relation to teaching and research programs continues. But it is clear that some things have changed, particularly the kind of relations that pedagogy, epistemology and research practice entertain with each other.

The authors cast our contemporary moment in terms of larger corporatizing transformations of the university, the impact of the increasing Federal Government micromanagement of the university sector, the transformation of the sector towards more ‘competitive’ mindsets among staff in institutions (often compromising a sense of an esprit de corps), the increasing busy work associated with the ordinary carriage of course-work administration and audit, the proletarianization of labour for those part-time and contract workers at the bottom, and the rise of national research evaluation systems with their sometimes chilling effects. What is clear from this description of contemporary film theory and criticism is that its authors see contemporary circumstances as not allowing for the same kinds of affordances of community, solidarity, place-making and nationally-framed theory and criticism as was possible previously.

What is striking about this final chapter is the sense it provides that research and teaching are now quite separate. Research and teaching, epistemological and pedagogical concerns, seem divorced. We do not scramble to teach to think and write; we try rather to get out of teaching to clear a space for our thinking and research. Our institutions seem to get in the way rather than to facilitate the teaching-research nexus that seemed to be so foundational in the earlier period. The earlier period’s close alignment and interchangeability of teaching and theory, pedagogy and epistemology, poses the question of what we have gained and lost as we professionalized and regularized our disciplines both in terms of teaching and research.  As Joel Isaacs would have us remember, in his account of the making of the human sciences at Harvard University, epistemology is also a “practice, distinct from ideology or rhetoric”.[2] It need not be disembedded from the training regimes and research practices that define it.

King et al make clear, that contemporary film theory and criticism is certainly much more professionalized than it was (135) and it is incorporated into the modern academy in various ways. The Australian contributions to the field are now more substantial and multifaceted as evidenced by the impressive list of books and projects ‘of Australian film studies personnel contributing to internationally published and distributed film studies series’ on p.135. So there are significant gains from at least the professionalization of research. Indeed one of the gains might well be the institutionalization of research in named centres and research units such as the Monash Research Unit in Film Culture and Theory whose members include Deane Williams and Constantine Verevis.

One thing is certain, it is now harder to keep abreast of what is being written in the field in Australia. This is not only a consequence of so much more being produced but of so much more Australian-based scholarship being represented in a significantly enlarged array of national and international research publications and projects.  If the ‘small journal’ is still a feature of the academic scene these are now likely to be small journals with a major international reach and remit from their inception such as Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past and Rouge. These are not journals which occasionally feature an international guest editorship (as in the 1970s and 1980s); rather their routine, unexceptionable internationalism is foundational to their practice. Here the Australian space of film theory and criticism seems to be working in ways analogous to filmmaking where considerations of international reach and circulation intrude at the point of production design. Consequently it seems difficult to construct for contemporary Australian film theory and criticism a story of it now possessing a specifically Australian-inflected shape. The conditions that King et al find to have sustained this at an earlier time – on the one hand, more fixed and less fluid and interpenetrated geographical scales and publishing networks, and on the other hand, more open-ended and collegial formations – are not with us today.

As King et al point out it is now easier and cheaper to get around the country and overseas travel is a fraction of the cost it was once. But this has not worked to consolidate the sense of there being a relatively shared nationally-framed conversation within film theory and criticism – indeed the recent formation of a new professional association (the Screen Studies Association of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand) seems designed to both address this issue and “concerns about the current position of screen studies programs and film and television studies research and scholarship in Australian universities” (141). This seems another turn in the complex relations among the local, national and international scales mapped in this book!

Criticisms and Comments
Writing an intellectual history of film theory and criticism is a difficult enterprise, particularly when there has not been a history of accounting for the discipline. This makes King et al’s study the first turn in hopefully a more extended conversation about the historical trajectories of Australian film theory and criticism. Because it is a large study coming out of a research grant there is, perhaps, more riding on it than if it were a more modest clearing of the ground of the kind facilitated by Haidee Wasson and Michael Zyrd for the history of film studies in Canada.[3] Australian Film Theory and Criticism is the first volume in what will become a three volume study. Other volumes will include reprints of significant articles and interviews. A number of published interviews have already appeared in journals.

The book is bound to give rise to vigorous debate and rejoinders. We will find much criticism as to what the authors have missed or got wrong. But such criticism, including my own, needs, I think, to acknowledge the important service to the field this book provides. The authors have made visible the disciplinary beginnings of Australian film theory and criticism. They have embedded it in the teaching regimes and academic and scholarly networks within which it was developed. Any criticisms it will attract are tied up with what is good about this book.

First, while the chapter on ‘Writing the Australian Film Revival’ usefully centres Cinema Papers in significant detail as the “journal of record” (after all it was, for a time, the only film publication available in newsagents across the country) – it was not the only ‘journal of record’. It shared this with the Sydney-based broadsheet Filmnews. It’s a pity that Verevis’s close reading of Cinema Papers was not undertaken alongside a parallel reading of Filmnews. Certainly the two publications and their charismatic editors – Scott Murray and Tina Kaufman – defined the public culture space of cinema and its commentary over the 1970s and 1980s. Such a comparison would also have allowed something significant to be said about the different publishing and film cultures in Sydney and Melbourne in the period (and how they worked to include and develop a national readership). Both publications are sorely missed, representing as they did styles and occasions of public writing on both Australian and international cinema that are no longer with us.  It would have also been useful to have had Scott Murray and Tina Kaufman’s voices alongside the extensive group of people interviewed for this research.

Second, reference is made a number of times to John Frow and Meaghan Morris’ comment about the importance to the intellectual life of film (and cultural) studies in Australia of the “socially-mixed but intensely familial urban subculture and the small journal networks which sustained it” (22). Given that, there could have been a greater identification of, and discussion of, this range of journals and publications. Some of this range is not present, like  Philip Brophy’s Stuffing, short run newsletter journals like Maguffin and the ubiquitous ‘Working Papers’ series which were such an important feature of the academic work of this period. These were often published by film and media departments like those of the University of Technology Sydney (then called New South Wales Institute of Technology) and La Trobe University. It would be also useful to ask some searching questions about why so many folks set up journals in this period. How were they being used to claim a position and to argue against and for positions in film theory and criticism? To what extent were they about self-display and policing scholarly and cultural boundaries? How permeable were these ‘familial urban subcultures’ – where did they draw the line in terms of keeping people out and inviting them in? Finally, how did they work as publishing activities? How were they distributed and who distributed them?  Who read them and how responsive were these publications to this readership? Manic Exposeur was, for instance, a very important distributor ensuring the broader Australian circulation of a number of these journals, including Continuum, in this period. We may be in danger of over-romanticising these small journals: Graeme Turner once criticized Continuum when I was one of its editors for being unprofessional. He was right. It was amateur. It hardly came out on time. Its refereeing practice was sometimes haphazard. I suspect that what was good about Continuum during its first decade was also what was bad about it as a publication of an interstitial moment in the field’s Australian development.

Australian Film Theory and Criticism’s mapping of the diverse institutional trajectories and nuances of what geographers call Australia’s longstanding multi-polarity among its major cities is very good. But I would have liked to have seen a more developed argument about La Trobe’s cinema studies program. As the only dedicated cinema studies program at this time it was more important than is acknowledged in these pages. Perhaps this program’s relative lack of definition is tied into the ways its diverse parts – Rohdie, Stern, Routt, Thompson and Creed – were each such distinctive voices and connected so closely with international film theory and criticism formations. I would also have liked more on the University of New South Wales, NSWIT (now University of Technology Sydney) and Murdoch University, each of which had their highly particular formations and individuals. Perhaps it is difficult to do this because these were institutions that held together a range of projects, sympathies and orientations and are not as readily identified with a particular project as was Griffith University whose formation is spelt out with some specificity in the book. There is something of Bill Routt, Sylvia Lawson, Philip Brophy, Barbara Creed, John Flaus, Susan Dermody and John Tulloch’s distinctive contribution in the book but not enough. The same could be said of the other figures that are missed.

Finally, I would have liked the book more explicitly to engage with its status as a work of intellectual history. There is now a body of work theorizing intellectual history which could have been usefully drawn upon here to better theorize its connections among film theory as knowledge, pedagogical practice and research enterprise. This is the connection with Ian Hunter’s later work on the persona of the philosopher[4] and with the work of other intellectual historians (such as Joel Isaacs) who similarly deal with its interface of epistemology, pedagogy and research practice in our contemporary formations of knowledge.

Finally it seems to me that this book is a quintessentially Melbourne project. It is about film culture and film culture—the exploration, anticipation, attention to and celebration of film—has always been an important aspect of the response to the cinema in Melbourne. Two of its authors, Verevis and Williams, are from the Monash Research Unit in Film Culture and Theory (the third Noel King is an independent scholar based out of Sydney). Melbourne is also the hosting city for two of the important online journals currently in film studies—Senses of Cinema and Screening the Past. It is the location for the Centre for the Moving Image. It was the place from which Cinema Papers was established in the 1970s, where the Australian Film Institute (a notable absence in this account!) was based and it was the city from which a good many of the small journals and publications representing the screen studies of this period were published.  And, yes, it was also the home of the first dedicated film studies program in the country at La Trobe University.


[1] See Patrice Petro, ‘Preface’ in Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams,  Australian Film Theory and Criticism, vol 1, Critical Positions (Bristol: Intellect Books 2013), pp. xi-xii. Petro is thinking of studies such as Dana Polan’s Scenes of Instruction: the Beginnings of the US Study of Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Terry Bolas, Screen Education: From Film Appreciation to Media Studies (Bristol: Intellect, 2009); and Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson eds., Inventing Film Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
[2]  Joel Isaacs, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), p.228.
[3] See Haidee Wasson and Michael Zyrd co-organisers, Roundtable on the History of Film Studies in Canada” Participants: Peter Morris, Kay Armatage, John Locke, Andre Gaudrault, Maurice Yacowar. Canadian Journal of Film Studies 20 (1) Spring 2011, pp. 117-137.
[4] See Ian Hunter, Stephen Gaukroger and Conal Condren eds., The Philosopher in Early Modern Europe: the Nature of a Contested Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

About the Author

Tom O′Regan

About the Author

Tom O′Regan

Tom O’Regan (1956-2020) was Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the School of English, Media Studies and Arts History at the University of Queensland. His books include Local Hollywood: Global Film Production and the Gold Coast (with Ben Goldsmith and Susan Ward), The Film Studio (with Ben Goldsmith), Australian National Cinema, and Australian Television Culture.View all posts by Tom O′Regan →