Radical Beginnings: The Birth of Media and Cinema Studies at La Trobe University – Panel Four

Panel Four: Plenary Session with Patricia Edgar, Rod Bishop, Dave Jones, Scott Murray, Ina Bertrand, Gordon Glenn, Robert Newton, chaired by Dr. Mary Debrett

Mary Debrett: It has been said that those who remember the 1970s weren’t there. I think this symposium has disproved that. But there’s another cliché I want to explore and that’s the idea of wisdom in hindsight. For us ‘radical’ refers to the fact that La Trobe University is where Media Studies and Cinema Studies were launched as disciplines and so I’ve asked our three panellists – Patricia Edgar, Rod Bishop and Dave Jones – to sum up their thoughts on why this place and that time was special.

Patricia Edgar: I never thought it was special. I thought it was extremely difficult and I’ve since learned that you never understand anything at all as you live and work through it because you deal with what you’ve got to deal with on one day, then you deal with what you’ve got to deal with tomorrow, and then next week and so on. You don’t really see the bigger picture until very much later.

There was a very dark side to La Trobe even while there was extraordinary opportunity to do all sorts of things. The characters who made that opportunity available were very complex characters, Ronald Goldman being one. He was what Bernie Neville, who’s not here now, said could be extraordinarily like a fascist, but he could be extraordinarily open and provide all sorts of opportunities. I’ve heard unflattering descriptions of Jerzy (Toeplitz), but I found him to have had a really good sense of humour, and I can remember occasions just sitting [in his office] and giggling as we talked about certain things. I remember I was quite offended by Yackety Yack (1974) when I first saw it, and I was quite angry because I thought Yackety Yack, among other things, was having a go at me, though I think Dave (Jones) was probably having a go at all sorts of things. When I came back to Yackety Yack many years later I thought it was very funny. So, at the time I did not see La Trobe and the Media Centre as special. I saw it as horrendously difficult, which is not to say that I didn’t have a really good time for much of it. It is true to say that I saw myself as some sort of protector of the place, or the person who was out there to defend the place. Ronald had given that opportunity and I didn’t want to see it destroyed by all sorts of other forces that were at work.

There was something that was quite destructive and I would even say sick in the structure of the School of Education at La Trobe. There was a style (of behaviour) that led to real persecution, including making fun of that persecution. I think it was endemic. It was just built in as the place evolved. I hope it has all gone and I hope that whatever is happening here now is going to allow things to really come together and be very productive, because 40 years later I remain convinced that Media Studies, and the study of film and television and media generally, is critically important. Having said that, when John (Benson) telephoned me and I began to reflect on La Trobe, which I hadn’t done for quite a while, there were a lot of very good memories, and the relationships with many people have certainly stayed with me. But I guess what La Trobe did for me was to prepare me for a world that was also pretty tough. Having sharpened my teeth here, the outside world was a piece of cake in many ways.

I’d like to comment on Rod’s earlier question about what’s going on in the (film) industry. I think one thing that happens within the Australian film industry is that we’re very good at putting structures in place. Amazingly good. Australian content regulations and (government) subsidies have been enterprising and innovative packages, but what happens as soon as those things are in place is that people learn how to work them. The people who learn how to work them best are probably the least talented in terms of the creative spirit we’re looking for. The people who really have something to say, something important and something that’s consuming them are not the ones who are working out the financial system. They’re not the ones who are conning the investment manager at the film bank. They’re not the ones who are lining up the next deal. There are quite a few of those types of people within the industry and I think they erode a lot of the innovation that has been built over the years by people like the Beginnings (1971) team. (Incidentally) Gordon, I brought that Arriflex. I asked you what camera you wanted and you told me, and so I thought that was the one the Media Centre should have because it was about how to best serve the people who have the creative energy. That (view) is what was behind my efforts originally, and I think that is still important but sometimes difficult to hang on to.

Rod Bishop: I don’t know if I’m going to be able to sum up things as well as Patricia has. Obviously there is the experience I had as a student here from the beginning, 1967, through to 1971 when I finished. Having now worked on the other side of the fence and knowing what it’s like to be an academic manager, the experience of being a student is far more satisfying and growth producing, as it should be. The time I spent here, as I said earlier, completely changed my life. I think there is not enough is being said about the influence of some of the other departments. The Sociology Department that I was in, the Politics Department, the English Department, these departments were extremely dedicated to the students and very dedicated to the notion of the student-staff relationship.

But I had a real problem with the college system when I first arrived here. In 1967 there was only Glen College and the idea was that colleges would be built in a ring right around the central area, and that there would be no Union Building. When we wanted to eat at night we all had to go to Glen College and put on gowns. But 1967 was the summer of love and these two things did not go together. It was a very bad fit. It seemed to us (students) to be a good idea at very much the wrong time. The notion that students and staff would get together at these colleges and that there would be a collegiate (life) coming together really wasn’t going to happen in the middle of the Vietnam War and in the middle of everyone taking acid and all the rest of it. It simply was not going to happen, and that was a very acrimonious dispute at La Trobe. We haven’t mentioned that at all, but I remember the college issue was as acrimonious as the anti-Vietnam War protests. The ‘University of Administration’ felt that they needed to protect this grand plan and grand vision against the student rabble that were kicking up a fuss about it as well as everything else. It took a lot of work to convince the ‘authorities’ that the college system wasn’t going to work, and even if you did want to build all of these colleges, you also had to build a Union Building. It wasn’t just us (as the first generation of students at La Trobe), it was the generations to come that would have said, “Where’s the point where we all meet together? Where’s the point where the students congregate? Where’s the hub? Where’s the place where we create the life? Where’s the place that creates creativity?” As I said, it was acrimonious but in the end, much like what happened with the war protests, the university did concede and I thought it conceded very graciously. Of course the university made us work for it, we had to argue, and I can remember putting out whole editions of Rabelais devoted to nothing but the college issue. Those editions would make amazingly boring reading now but at the time it was a very heightened issue. And so on this business of hindsight, it’s amazing what you felt was important 40 years ago, and thinking back on it now you try to work out why it was important, how it changed you and why it was important that you had to take different side on an issue.

To reflect on my own question about the film industry, there is a filmmaker I had in mind when I asked that question. He was the best film student to go through the film school when I was there, an indigenous student called Ivan Sen. He made three shorts that are as good as anything ever been made at the film school, and he then made a feature called Beneath Clouds (2002). His career in Australia stumbled at that point and the reason his career stumbled was because Ivan didn’t want to make another Indigenous film. He wanted to make a science-fiction film. And not only that, he wanted to shoot it in Nevada. As I understand it, the film agencies were faced with this very talented young indigenous writer/director/camera-person whom they wanted to make another Indigenous film because that’s the content they thought he should make. But he wanted to make science-fiction movie set in Nevada and so they wouldn’t fund him. I’ve been around the industry since it re-started and I was completely dumbfounded by this. I thought it was just remarkable that a direction was given to an applicant about the kinds of social issues he needed to include in his film otherwise he wasn’t going to be funded. Ivan, to his great credit, bought himself a HD camera, got a couple of tickets to America, got an actor, got a 4-wheel drive, camped in the middle of the Nevada dessert illegally in an area called ‘Area 51’, which is where of lot of science-fiction stuff takes place, and started shooting the film. He would run from the border patrols as they approached, find somewhere else to camp out and shoot a bit more, and then the same thing would happen again, camp out somewhere else and shoot a bit more of film. He then brought it all back to Australia, edited it on his computer, and had produced a feature film for nothing really, except for the airfares and the camping costs in Nevada. Nothing was going to stop Ivan from making that film. In fact he doesn’t want to make films that cost (lots of) money and only wants to make films that he can have control over. I think that is one of the great lessons of what can be done with new technology. If Ivan had faced that kind of dilemma 40 years ago, it would’ve stopped his career completely because he wouldn’t have had anywhere to go to get the money he needed to make the films with the sort of equipment that the Centre had available. But now, as Scott (Murray) pointed out earlier, you can get an HD camera that looks like a dinky toy and you can go shoot stuff with it and no one actually knows you’ve got one. And the quality can exceed that of a 35 mm widescreen. People like Ivan can lead a whole new revolution in the use of new digital technology. And his film is terrific even though it’s not made for a large audience, or even made for the sort of audience that would’ve seen Beneath Clouds. It’s a pretty personal film, and it reminds me of American experimental films from the 1960s because he did everything on it. He wrote the sound, he shot it, wrote the script, and provided whatever capital was needed to make the film. So, people who find themselves cut out from the funding processes, for whatever reasons, now have an alternative. It does mean that they have to make a certain type of film, but at least they can get those films made and, as Martin Munz says in Beginnings, “That’s a good thing”.

Dave Jones: I’m probably the wrong person to be the last one to speak. I was only here three years and for much of what has been talked about, some of it preceded those three years and some of it came later. I don’t know all of the things that went on at La Trobe after I left, but I have been asked to say what I thought special about the place. When I came here I had really no interest in education; I wanted to work here and to see Australia. But what I had discovered was that the School of Education was very good to be in. Because of some of the people in it, who have been denounced by some and praised by others, I found it vibrant and exciting. I was very fond of Doug White for example, even though I’m not politically at all in agreement with him. I think that because Media Centre had to defend itself brought an edge to the whole place. That’s my view of it.

But, as far as film goes, if you consider the three films that were shown yesterday, there is one common denominator and that is ACME Films. Gordon and Peter and Rod and Scott, even though Scott didn’t work on Yackety Yack, they were all part of something very important and something I remember as incredibly exciting. I’m thinking right now of what I learned from them and also from John Flaus in a very short time. Scott introduced me to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and I got to see The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Talk about a claustrophobic film, but I’d say to myself, “Well, Scott says it’s good so I’ve got to stay awake”. I kept watching it and after that became a fan of Fassbinder. That was because of Scott. Rod talked a lot about South American directors, and Peter and Gordon had their favourites too. But my point is that they were enthusiastic about film, which was important. And what I learned mainly from John Flaus is that westerns are good. I loved westerns as a kid but by the time I was 13 years old I didn’t, and I was rooting for the Indians. Then when I was in college I was too sophisticated to see a western, or even consider seeing a western. But because of Flaus I saw The Searchers (1956) for the first time and I saw Ride Lonesome (1959) for the first time and I’d learned to appreciate westerns. I learned to appreciate American films generally from this group of people. I think this group was incredibly important to whatever was happening in film, at least during the period that I was here. I didn’t get that when I went to Stanford, and I never ran into that again.

But it’s interesting to listen to what Rod says, because if (the film industry) is going to re-emerge, it’s going to re-emerge in a very different form. If you’re passionate about making a film, you can make it because you don’t have to find the money first. What I don’t know is how do you get that kind of group dynamic happening? Which I think is very important when you’re talking about movies all the time and you feed off each other. Maybe it’ll become much more of a private literary-like medium where a lone filmmaker works at home and gets limited distribution, and where people watch the movies at home, like reading a book. I don’t know what will happen, but what I thought was important was the dynamic of this group of people.

Robert Newton: Just a couple of things. On the issue collegiality, an example of what happened is when we had our new building built. There were 12 rooms and they were furnished with 12 chairs each and they were going to be tutorial rooms. So, if you had a class to teach, most of your classes would be taught in one of those rooms. The students would come to your room and they would sit around, which is not possible now because your classes have 25 or 30 students in it, and these are the small ones I’m talking about, the tutorials.

The other thing I found is that this place was amazingly un-collegial. I found that people did not get together and talk. I found also that most of the academic staff, including in our Centre and in Education, as soon as they’d finished their classes they were in their cars and were off home. The idea of collegiality common in American universities, the idea that you had to have two or three hours in which you sat in your office and a student could come and knock on the door and see you, didn’t seem to apply here. Not that the students couldn’t see some people, like John Benson, who was always here and did this ‘dirt work’ that goes on in a school, which we are pretty familiar with, like selecting the students, as if that wasn’t important. All those kind of things were left to one or two people, and the rest were off by themselves somewhere else.

I had 22 years in this place and what I am most pleased about is that (Media Studies) still exists and got better. It’s like what Patricia was saying about being able to look back on things, it took time to sort out what you were supposed to be doing. How are you going to teach film and television? What’s it going to be? What’s going to be important to teach? It took a long time for those ideas to settle down and filter through and form something. As I said before I was really disappointed when amalgamations were forced, that the people involved did not see the opportunities of bringing something together and working out how to create new courses and take on new ideas. The department now exists with Philosophy, which I think is actually relevant to the rest of the stuff that’s taught in Media. But before it was a fight all along, it was a fight to get money, it was a fight to get staff, it was a fight to be able to survive, and it took a long time.

Gordon Glenn: I think that when you start to talk about the Australian film industry as a whole it is very hard to find answers. I just want to say that whatever happened here happened for many reasons. It was an incredibly positive thing, and even though it might contradict some of the ideas we have today, the reason it all happened was that for once equipment and facilities were here, and the people were here. Nowadays, although the equipment and facilities are available to everybody, do more things happen? I don’t know. It happened here because for a short time certain conditions just existed and it was a supportive environment with equipment, ideas and people. And as Dave was saying, there was an enthusiasm for cinema, new things were happening in cinema and people were excited about the idea of going out and making films in particular ways, and it was fresh. Maybe it’s difficult to make things fresh over and over again because the medium changes and the situation changes. I think we’re talking about something that was quite special here for a short time and we shouldn’t forget that in the light of the broader context and discussion.

Rod Bishop: The issue about everybody having the equipment available, along with the point raised by Dave about not having run into this situation subsequently, is that we all know there were major political and social issues that allowed students to congregate together during that period, which provided a lot of impetus. Maybe what is lacking is that group thing, the social interaction. Sure, there might be a Yackety Yack on somebody’s computer, but they might be the only person involved in making it and the only person who is looking at it, and they actually don’t upload it or share it or have friends come over and watch it. I wonder about, even though that’s sort of a clichŽ about kids sitting at home on their computers and not having any kind of social interaction, but I tend to wonder about how true might be because part of the life we had as young learning filmmakers at La Trobe was that we saw each other everyday. We certainly didn’t go home as soon as our classes were finished. That’s what the academics apparently did but we students didn’t do that. We were here from early in the morning until late, down at the pub until 11 o’clock at night, and our personal immediate interaction with everybody is where all the ideas came from. Whereas sharing ideas on computers, whether by email or by Twitter or Facebook or whatever, is limited in comparison with that face-to-face, hour-after-hour, day-after-day confrontation that you had with other like-minded individuals, which led you on to produce ideas and produce projects. So, while the equipment is still available, maybe the other parts of it aren’t, and I wonder whether that is the problem.

Dave Jones: Maybe I’m saying this too often, but I’ll try and say it in a different way, I agree with Gordon that there was something very special here. Robert (Newton) is a good friend of mine, but I didn’t have the experience he had. I am not just saying Yackety Yack was special but that working here was. It was not a 9 to 5 thing at all. When the (Melbourne Film Festival) was on, for example, we’d drive all the way to St Kilda, I think that’s where it was, and it would take an hour and a half to get there. I didn’t have glasses then, I didn’t realise I was blind and I can remember that I was always seeing headlights coming at me. I’d swerve to the left even though they the cars were 500 yards ahead of me. But the real fun was having all of these guys wanting to go and see films. And Scott, who seemed to know every director, he would tell us, “You’ve got to see Petra von Kant,” or “Go see this or that film.” He would pick the films that you’re supposed to see. That was not 9 to 5. There was a vibrancy that I remember very fondly.

Patricia Edgar: Something just occurred to me that is not strictly relevant to what we’ve been talking about today. It came a little bit later at La Trobe, but one really important thing to me, and again I think it was Goldman who did this, was the fact that we could admit mature-aged students to BEd. These were students who did not have a DipEd or an initial degree, and so we got people who’d worked in journalism and broadcasting. There were several of those people who really stood out and I did quite a lot of work with them. This happened later, probably over the years 1975, 1976 and 1977, but it was a really important innovation within the Media Centre, and with the courses too. I remember really enjoying those classes and enjoying those students.

Ina Bertrand: I did feel a collegiality, though I could tell you horror stories as well. But in hindsight I’d much rather dwell on the good things than the bad ones, and amongst the good things is that we were located on one level and along one corridor. There was constant interaction between us, moving between offices and dropping in on someone, having an argument with them or borrowing a book or getting a recommendation or talking about the students or talking about your classes, talking about whatever was happening at the time, and the students were a part of that. Part of the reason that worked is because we were dealing largely with BEd students who were already in the workforce, and some of them had never been in schools but had an extraordinary range of backgrounds, and they brought all this to their classes. The teaching was immensely rewarding. I loved it. I think it was the teaching that kept me going for so long because the rest of it I could have done without.

Patricia Edgar: You said you left unhappy too.

Ina Bertrand: That was much later; that was 1999.

Robert Newton: One other small thing I didn’t mentioned before is that with John’s (Benson) course for Media Studies we actually were able to use the studio positively for simulating news broadcasts. We could put these kids through all of the roles that they would be involved in producing, say, a news broadcast as if they were working at a television station. The really good thing about it was that all the students got to see all these different aspects and experience personally the tensions and the performance side of what they were doing, as well as the technical side of it, even if they weren’t ever going to become technicians or anything like that. The students were able to understand the process a hell of a lot better. I was a bit involved at the beginning, but that was really something John and Ian (Armet) put together.

John Benson: To follow-up on one of the things Ina said, and it’s in relation to Beginnings, is that what struck me when watching the film last night was how articulate and how politically informed the students were. I think that also fits in with what Rod was saying, that there was a contest of ideas going on amongst the students and film became a way of expressing those ideas. What strikes me now is that a lot of people, undergraduates particularly, a huge number of them, have some reasonable ideas but very few of them have actually thought through ideas about society and the conditions we live under in a sophisticated way. I’m not putting them down, many of them are fantastic, but there is relative immaturity compared to the kinds of things I heard said last night in Beginnings. Rod, I know you might disagree with that …

Rod Bishop: No, I don’t. Last night I mentioned that amongst the student body there were spies and counterspies. There was one spy in particular and we all knew he was a spy, but people ran into him and talked to him everyday, (even though) he was reporting back to security organisations about various people on the campus. Somehow it was the knowledge that we all knew he was a spy that led everyone to have conversations with him. It wasn’t just that this guy was a spy and was going to runaway with (our secrets). He had very interesting ideas and he really wanted to debate and talk about those ideas, so even though he didn’t say, “I am a spy and I am reporting on you”, because we all kind of knew that anyway, we still all engaged in dialogue with him. As for today, some of the students I had at AFTRS were extremely articulate, I mean it’s tough competition to get into the AFTRS and so you end up with people who are particularly skilled at talking, because as with most places you’ve got to talk your way in. It’s just that I’ve never heard them having those conversations with each other. Their skill at being articulate, their thoughts and their internal dialogue, all of that doesn’t seem to me to be a lot different from what it was back then, it’s just seems that it doesn’t go out in the open, it doesn’t happen in the traditional spaces like coffee shops. Maybe it happens in their houses or apartments, places like that, which I am not privy to.

John Benson: We’ve hardly had a demonstration here for years. We’ve done some research on this and it seems the student body is more concerned with coming in and consuming their lectures and then going away to work because they’ve got to pay mobile phone bills, they’ve got to pay accommodation, they’ve got to be involved in social networking. All those things cost money and so their life as students is extremely different to what it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago. We were in the process of changing, but I think the nature of the university is still holding on to a 17th century model. What we had expected, or thought we could expect, was a student body with a political consciousness as developed as the one you were part of. But students have changed completely.

Rod Bishop: I’m going to call on Scott (Murray) to talk about something in a moment, but I think it’s a bit wrong to think that just because Beginnings happens to be such a political movie that that is what everyone talked about. Certainly for the hard-core students it was 24-hour politics. But with us politics would only have cost us part of the day’s conversation. We were also fighting over whether John Wayne’s character in The Searchers was half Indian or not, and that could take several hours of discussion. Conversation wasn’t just limited to politics in our group.

But in terms of the way people communicate today, Scott last night at dinner was talking about younger people he knows and the way they communicate across a variety of platforms. They communicate through Facebook, through Flicker, they communicate through email, through a whole range of platforms, they are multi-taskers and do it at any incredible speed. Scott, could you talk about that a bit, particularly in terms of the content being generated in those electronic forums?

Scott Murray: Well, I was in Istanbul because my stepfather had a concert tour there, and our interpreter-guide was 19 years old. We’ve remained friends since and we communicate a lot. She is also a photographer and she manages an on-line site. It’s normal for her to have a conversation going on Facebook, both through chats and the messages, on Skype and on MySpace, all at the same time. It is extraordinary multi-tasking, and I think these various forms have come into being because there are different ways of talking to people. There was (once) letter writing and the fax machine, and then these became super-ceded by email, which was pretty radical for our generation. But there are things that are a lot faster and you use each of them differently. I can message you and type at such an extraordinary speed, so much so that if I’m listing three points the first point has already gone through to the other person and they start replying before you’ve sent the second point. It is incredibly quick. You’re going so fast that you don’t have time to reflect, and that leads into all sorts of journeys and bypasses and byways, because you’re not controlling the discourse in the same way. It can flippant, it can be emotional, it can be all sorts of things. And I’ve found that in a two-hour session you’ve got 25 pages of small printed dialogue, you just watch ebbs and flows and it is fascinating because, as a writer, it’s something you would never conceive moving so fast.

There are a lot of people in different age groups in different cultures and areas around the world that are talking in completely different ways to each other. You could have five close friends and you could be talking in a different way to each of those five friends (because) there are new and different forms of communicating with each. I find it fascinating. I used to think Facebook was trivial and MySpace was silly because there it was all performance. But in that performance there are actually new kinds of discussion. There is still the concern that it all happens in front of a computer in your own room, but it doesn’t because most of it is now being done on iPhones as people move around cities. It’s not actually computer bound anymore. This is something that I never thought would be of interest to me, but I find fascinating now. Is that what you wanted me to say?

Rod Bishop: When you say that somebody might be having simultaneous conversations with four other people, presuming there are five in the group, and all those conversations are quite different from each other, how would you compare that to the conversations you and I and Gordon and Andrew and anybody else might have had while sitting around a table in a coffee shop in the Agora?

Scott Murray: It’s completely different because when you’re sitting around a table in the Agora you are also responding to people’s faces and gestures. You’re reading how what you’ve said is taken and understood in that way. You don’t have any of that (with these digital platforms). You don’t know how they’re reacting until it’s already reacted. I mean, if I’m speaking to you face-to-face and I feel that we’re going into an area that may make you emotional or passionate, or the discussion might be controversial and might you on a defensive footing, I can see it building up on your face and I can make a decision of, “I’ll pursue this” or “I won’t pursue this”. When you’re doing it via these new forms you don’t know that and you find that little volcanoes have erupted that you then have to work through. It’s fascinating, it’s exhilarating, and it’s unbelievably exhausting.

Rod Bishop: Sounds similar to the misinterpretations of emails because you can’t detect tone in email.

Scott Murray: It’s like the next step. I have reached the point with emails where I don’t send them off as soon as I write them. I’ll send an email straight to draft, go away, come back and look at it again. You don’t have that choice with Messaging, unless you use the code ‘brb’, which is ‘be right back’. It’s like sensing that things are moving in certain directions and you pull back because you just feel like you’re being sucked into a vortex of a conversation you can’t control. But that’s why it’s exhilarating and also exhausting.