(Delivered at SSAAANZ conference, 1 December 2020)
As I prepared to write this tribute to my colleague, mentor, and friend, Tom O’Regan, I tumbled down a series of rabbit holes. I scoured my inbox for Tom’s old emails and notes, both long and short; the articles he urged me to read by James W. Carey, Luciano Floridi, and others; the news stories he passed on about AI creation, streaming platforms, and virtual influencers which he hoped would spark a conversation; and the colourful passages of 1930s Australian film criticism he found in Smith’s Weekly. In my folders I found also teaching slides from his Australian Cinema course; and, online, the wonderful interview he gave to Deane Williams for Screening the Past in 2015. Aware of the limits of my own perspective, I had wanted to get a fuller sense of the man, or at least a fuller sense of what he himself would call “the ways of knowing” Tom.
Some of you who may not have heard of Tom O’Regan, or you may know of his work, but never had the pleasure of being caught up in one of his long, rambling, open-ended intellectual conversations. You may only know Tom through his many listed achievements: his standing as a key figure in the development in the 1980s and 1990s of Australian screen and cultural studies; his centrality to different research centres and initiatives; or his co-founding of Continuum: The Journal of Media and Cultural Studies with Brian Shoesmith (who also sadly passed away this year). Or you may know Tom through one or two of his many publications and co-publications and co-edited collections on Australian film and TV; Australian locations within global screen production; Australian film criticism; cultural policy; and ratings and survey industries. Tom’s body of work is impressive, yes. Looking at it collected suggests the flow of his always developing interests, and a glimpse of how energised he was working with others like Albert Moran, Ben Goldsmith, Philip Mead, Sue Ward, and Huw Walmsley-Evans, among perhaps hundreds of other scholars who he saw as his “interlocutors”. I say hundreds, but it may be more, because many of his ideas emerged out of conversation. Tom believed that speaking with – or, as he put it, “thinking with” – others and trying out their ideas and perspectives for size, may often give him another piece of a larger picture he was always trying to bring into view. But even if it didn’t serve that function, he would want to talk with you anyway and try to understand your work, where it was coming from, and what it was you were trying to do.
Tom was persistently attentive to and engaged with other people’s research, whether it be on machine learning; Korean webtoons; vaudeville acts; museums and intangible heritage; Chinese social media; intellectual property law around seeds; or Hulk Hogan and World Wrestling Entertainment. It seemed that no matter what it was you were working on, some interest would spark in him, and even if your work did not connect directly to his, he would try to make you see your work’s relation to a larger network of practices, histories, people, institutions, objects, and ideas. For Tom, everything worth understanding had to be understood through multiple lenses, which, when placed over each other, gave us a picture that while never fully complete, could be enough for now.
I speak as someone who, over the fifteen years we worked together at UQ, came to find Tom’s conversation intellectually energising in the exact same way.
Before I even arrived at UQ in 2005 as a painfully green, freshly minted PhD, the name Tom O’Regan loomed large in my mind as a kind of legend. As an undergraduate student at UNSW, I had read some of his writing in an Australian Cinema course. We had been given Tom’s work on the 1970s Australian “ocker” films (films such as Tim Burstall’s Stork , Alvin Purple ), and I remember being tickled by his use of strangely coy terms like “bosom consciousness” to refer to the plenitude of topless women on screens in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and “hydraulics” in relation to screen sex. Even now I can hear how he would take a performative pleasure in using such terms in teaching or conversation, leaning in with a twinkle, and turning his voice gruff and mock-pompous with a tightened mouth and jutting jaw, as if temporarily channeling an Australian politician of a bygone era. This is not at all to say Tom was a dinosaur; although he was aware that some younger scholars and students sometimes mistook him for one.
That first day at UQ, he called me into his office. I had expected a perfunctory and polite thirty-minute welcome meeting from a time-pressed Head of School. Instead I received my first taste of his immense intellectual generosity, and his tendency to always first “think with” rather than look for the holes in others’ research. For perhaps two hours he discussed my PhD (in which I had attempted, a bit clunkily, to bring literature, film and German critical theory together to trace a cultural history of encounters with mechanised or mediated images of human figures). In this conversation I felt terrified and out of my depth, waiting for him to spot me as a fraud and throw me out. Later I realised that Tom was just interested, and was trying to locate my work within a larger constellation of ideas, so that he could in turn better help me to orientate myself. I left his office with a head whirling with thoughts, book titles, and a list of people whose work I must read, or who I must talk to, and the seed planted that maybe I should give archive research a go. I also learnt (with some nervousness) that we would be teaching Australian cinema together, and that Tom would treat me as an equal in this endeavour – as, indeed, I think he treated everyone.
During that first semester teaching Australian Cinema alongside Tom, I grew aware that, in my callow undergrad amusement at his language about the ocker films, I had missed the nuance of his historical argument. These were not just male-centred films with a lot of tits, beer and rudeness; films of intrinsically low value compared to Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975). I had reflexively dismissed films like Stork, Alvin Purple and Bruce Beresford’s Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) as boorish exemplifications of the worst anti-intellectual, macho, Aussie yob culture. Through Tom though, I came to see how they had emerged from late 1960s cultural nationalist debates; a local market-driven industry policy; irreverent TV variety shows and an avant-garde “rough” theatre as deliberately vulgar expressions of anti-establishment and anti-imperialist sentiment. This was not to say these films were “good” in any sense of the word. Unlike the cultish Australian horror and action films of the 1970s with which they were later curated under the “Ozploitation” banner, the ocker films did not travel well across space or time. But, through Tom, I came to see them as a window into an earlier moment when national identity seemed to matter much more than it does now, and also as objects I had only known through 1990s era discourse about problematic Australian culture circulating through newspaper columns, cultural studies courses, and what Tom called more broadly “formations of value.”
Tom’s conversations with Albert Moran in the 1980s had driven his abiding interest in the public careers of ideas and how they move. This led him to understand Australian film and TV not just as things in the world that had to be critiqued, but as objects of discourse and debate, which in turn shaped cultural policy and film and TV institutions. As Tom acknowledged in his interview with Deane Williams, Adrian Martin (a man for whom he had tremendous respect and affection) had critiqued his earliest writing in this vein. According to Tom, Adrian had said of his 1984 essay “Writing on Australian Film History” that its focus on “institutions, and policies, and discourses” was “fine,” but “where were the films” (Williams, 2015)? Tom, as always, attempted to take this criticism on board. His 1996 magnum opus, Australian National Cinema integrated many descriptions and analyses of films into its chapters. He tried to give a sense of each film’s structure, texture and meaning. Really though, it seemed to me that he was always more interested in the cultural work such films did, and how they became different things when they circulated through different discursive strands.
It should be said that many of the students in the Australian Cinema course seemed to share some of Adrian’s earlier frustrations. For, although we screened films before the lecture and Tom would introduce them, his lectures themselves were film clip free zones, and rarely included screen shots. Instead Tom sought to weave a narrative from box office and government funding graphs, which he rubbed up against quotes from newspaper articles, film reviews and policy documents, with film posters as a gesture toward the object.
For several years, Tom would introduce the course each semester with a slide featuring Russell Drysdale’s 1941 painting “Going to the Pictures”. He would ask the students to really look at this painting and tell him what sense they got from it of the cultural place of cinema in 1940s regional Australia. The point he wanted them to get was that Drysdale’s elongated wiry figures in this red, drought-stricken landscape were dressing up and preparing to get in the car to go somewhere else. Tom wanted the students to think outside of their everyday, taken-for-granted experience of film and TV, and to recognise a perspective of another time and place in which the cinema was an event. In order to understand the films, we need to first understand them through these other multiple perspectives, he insisted. The perspectives he used for the second half of the course were those of Therese Davis and Felicity Collins’ 2005 book Australian Cinema After Mabo. He hoped that students would recognise this, too, as giving them “another way of knowing”. Those students (usually Americans on exchange) anticipating a survey of great Australian directors from Weir to Luhrmann, or those who expected a series of “screen representations of X” lectures were perplexed. They complained that they needed first a sense of the films before they could get the point of “all the stuff around them!”.
Some students, though, were delighted. They found, like me, that Tom had energised and expanded the horizons of their awareness of a larger, ever-changing picture, its structure, logics and dynamics. They would start to see how films (in the conditions of their production, their aesthetic and cultural aspirations, circulation, and the contingencies of their reception) were themselves moving and fluid parts of a cinematic, industrial, political and cultural system. Tom’s approach to assessment also sought to expand their awareness. He never set essay questions, but instead research projects that forced students to, at the very least, search for and trace the “careers” of film or TV creatives Ð the individual humans in these systems Ð or discourses around particular films across space and through time. As more and more online resources became available, Tom urged his students to use Auslit and Ozscreen and Trove, to “find their own way through the material”.
In the past few years, Tom had engaged Nic Carah, Dan Angus, myself and others in conversation, in the wake of our newly merged school with Communications. Through these conversations Tom became convinced that what he needed to understand now, most of all, were media platforms (in the sense of streaming platforms, image sharing platforms and social media platforms), AI, algorithmic audiences and machine learning. These things were the key, he declared, in a voice that rose in pitch when he was particularly energised by something intellectually and emotionally. When this happened, we knew that he felt he was on the brink of putting the pieces together for a new, larger, more complex picture.
In this case, Tom felt he was on the verge of understanding the dynamics of a fundamental shift occurring in our interlocking cultural and media systems, and the feedback loops through which ideas circulate, are transfigured, or constrained. He secured funding for a new cross-disciplinary Platform Media research initiative which would fund seminars, symposia, roundtables, and a seemingly endless parade of visiting speakers. He had begun knocking on my door and launching into excited conversations about “platform aesthetics” and how he and I should be organising a symposium on the topic. I remember interrupting him mid-stream to ask him cautiously what he meant by the term “platform aesthetics”. His instant response was that “the whole point of a symposium would be to find out!” This continual openness to exploration was characteristic. Tom would have an inkling “there’s something there, I feel it” or, after providing his detailed observations about arguments in Luciano Floridi’s latest book, he’d end the email with “I’m not sure what to make of this yet”.
As Tom’s research interests and questions morphed, these interests and questions would feed back into his teaching. In August 2020, I had to take over the Australian Film and TV course that Tom had renovated just the year before. I could see in his lecture notes and slides how his view of Australian film and TV had been expanding outwards even further. Tom had started using the course to do a media archaeology of the media platforms of our present, in the process refreshing a historical view of the functions of the theatrical stage, the cinematographic travelling show, print media, radio, sound cinema, and television. Fragments of notes appear beneath his slides, such as “The Theatrical Stage as Structuring Unit and Platform encompassing and holding together …”, “radio and sound cinema as structuring units and platforms”. Since the 1980s, Tom had been writing about connections from Australian stage to screen. The media platform gave him a new structuring logic through which the theatrical stage of the early 20th Century could be seen as an “organiser” of entertainments, including early cinema programs, with relations to a print culture (the publisher of theatre guides, promotion, reviews). He was trying to show how this was not a million miles from streaming services like Netflix as a curator of entertainment, operating within a larger ecosystem of cross platform promotion, discussion and criticism.
In late 2019, Tom sent some of us an email indicating how some of his ideas around platform media and aesthetics were coming together. He said in part:
It seems to me that around this mix of AI, algorithms, the use of “data”, “deep fakes” and the like we have a complex configuration of issues that go to the heart of classic issues in film theory about how film/screen meaning is made, “reality” and the “actual”, its aesthetic, social and cultural meanings and the ways in which media platforms from Netflix through to Instagram are reframing and rephrasing things. I loved that discussion we had about the aesthetics of the platform …
As always, Tom was trying to hold together many of the research interests of his colleagues across Film and Television Studies, Media Studies, Software, and Communications Studies, and Philosophy, placing these lenses over each other, to allow a deeper and wider view into the whole damn system. But it is really important to note that it was not just the view that mattered in itself: it was how we got there that seemed to give him the most pleasure.
In an email he sent me last year, Tom expressed no small delight in the warm collegiality that was emerging around the media platform, in conversations in the level 7 kitchen, corridors, offices, the university cafes, or the occasional Sunday pub hangout. He said:
Our research conversations are now an extension of friendship conversations, and part of them. This is not something forced where we sit down, if you will, and then try to imagine things we can do together in addition to what we are already doing; it is not something like a Tupperware party where we are bending and using our friendships to do this other thing research; and it is not something so top down that we are to shoehorn what it is we are doing to a corporate agenda decided above. Rather it is another way of being with people we like and of allowing the connections to grow and develop organically. (Tom O’Regan via email 15 April 2019).
I love how he put this. And he was right.
While I cannot give a full account of Tom, I can state something fundamental about him: at UQ and beyond, Tom was an intellectually generous, human, and energising force. He became for many of us the centre of a galaxy of initiatives, ideas and people around which we all swirled. The centre is gone, and we will forever miss his friendship, warmth, humour, generosity, and intellectual vitality. But, the momentum he set in motion, and the networks and friendships between us that Tom sparked, these do and will endure.
Vale Tom O’Regan.