Film/Screen Studies in Australia:
(October 2023): The following two
reflections on the situation of cinema-related studies in Australia
were composed exactly 30 years apart. The first is extracted from my
introduction to a special 1992 issue of the academic journal Continuum that I guest-edited, on the theme of ‘film style’ (I’ve skipped
the obligatory description of the issue’s contents); the second is
a ‘discussion starter’ piece I was invited to write for the
Screen Studies Association of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand (SSAAANZ) in 2022. The writing of neither essay, as it
happens, exactly coincided with the relatively short periods of my
life when I taught in the university sphere – but I’ve always
kept up with my reading, and I know many people who’ve worked in
that world for much of their lives. If I tried to editorially fill in
the subsequent destiny of each cited name, publication and
institution that took place in the gap between 1992 and 2022, I would
end up writing a book; do the Google searches yourself, if you wish.
(For those interested in quickly learning about that interim, I
recommend Con Verevis’ & Mark Ryan’s introduction to Studies
in Australasian Cinema, Vol. 12 No. 1,
2018.) So, I arrange these two texts, relatively intact and
unannotated, as poetic snapshots of the densely woven times, contexts
and situations that prompted them. I will flag one major change in my
own thinking that occurred between these position papers: whereas in
1992 I pursued a polemic that championed the primary need for close
analysis (which is, in the main, what I myself do), by 2022 I was
happy to admit that Screen Studies (as it came to be known) had
definitively become a diverse church with many agendas and no single,
ruling orientation – not even the study of film!
As Bordwell tells it, the growth of cinema studies as an activity and a discipline is a decidedly institutional tale. Beginning with freelance heavies like Sergei Eisenstein, Béla Balázs and André Bazin, it ends up, inexorably, in the University, weighed down there by all the professional rituals of the Academy. For Bordwell, one of the principal pay-offs of this history is that cinema study has become one big sausage machine, with all manner of films squashed down to fit the few select critical/theoretical schemata in force (or in fashion, which also wields a force) at any given time.
One way for me to properly formulate a critical response to Bordwell’s book would be to start from a simple but strong personal statement: cinema studies, as I’ve lived it, has never seemed very much like this grand institutional tale. How could it, when many of the people I know and respect in the so-called field have never had a full-time position teaching their favourite subject, and have frittered away their time writing for small magazines that paid them little, and certainly never got them an academic promotion?
Impressionable students who have never flicked through a copy of Cahiers du cinéma – who have only photocopied a militant late ‘60s piece by Jean-Louis Comolli and/or Jean Narboni from a dour Screen Reader – tend to assume that publication is (and was and always will be) a ‘theory journal’, not a jaunty, ever-changing magazine of news, jottings, gorgeous photos and impassioned ravings. Down at ground zero – at least in Australia’s film culture – there aren’t, in fact, too many theory journals abounding.
There are – as there always have been – fragile, usually short-lived, half-way houses, little magazines in the image of Cahiers, which was described by one of its editors (Serge Daney) in 1977 as “an uncomfortable and paradoxical place where it was possible to write about films”. (3) Film study, as I’ve lived it here, is Filmnews, Buff, The MacGuffin, and (in another medium) radio programs like 3RRR’s The Film Criticism Show ... largely ephemeral sites with little or no institutional standing, but which keep alive what has been called a collective dream of marginal criticism.
Of course, there are those who have lived a different story in neighbouring or overlapping zones of film culture – those who have held down jobs in universities, wrote scholarly books, and put their energies into publications like The Australian Journal of Screen Theory or Continuum. But I suspect that, even for these players, Bordwell’s tale in Making Meaning would be a somewhat alien one. For the history of cinema studies as an institutionalised discipline in this country of Australia is so distressingly short it seems like a (ghost) ship in the night, something that has already (almost) passed away.
For a local inhabitant, the only sensation stranger than reading Bordwell would come from looking back at the brave, bold list of Conference Resolutions from the 1982 Australian Screen Studies Association (ASSA) Conference published on the last page of the Australian Journal of Screen Theory (no. 15/16) the following year. Like Louis Jourdan lifting his eyes off the letter from his unknown woman in order to see the truth that she is now dead, one travels, in an uncomfortable instant, from all those wonderful resolutions concerning institutional networking, job security and print availability to the realisation that, as of the end of 1991, all branches of ASSA are now extinct, and that there is still only one officially named Cinema Studies department in the whole country. And Australian Journal of Screen Theory itself fell over one double-issue later in 1985.
Meanwhile, job security for a cinema specialist in the tertiary sector is more precarious than ever, and those in charge of departments have no qualms about slashing the last vestige of film hire budgets and opting instead for a few, cheap videos from the local store.
I run the risk here of sounding like an anachronism. Maybe there never was a field of inquiry that deserved to call itself, in a pristine and territorial manner, cinema studies. It is certainly the case that history has well and truly left this particular fantasy of selfhood-identity behind. For instance, one symptom of confusion: right from the inauguration of cinema courses in tertiary and secondary education, there was a troubled film studies/TV studies relation – while, in the same period, Cinema Papers nervously (and temporarily) added the words ‘incorporating television’ in small letters to its masthead.
This was, as it turned out, only the first sign of new, expanded subject-headings like media, communications or visual arts studies – taking in much more than just the rival audio-visual siblings of film and TV.
After the first, uncertain flurries about what might constitute a curriculum of media studies, we have more recently seen the rise of institutionally powerful subject areas, especially cultural studies and media policy studies – each a little murderously, zealously intent on wiping away certain dinosaurs like “text-based”, aesthetically inclined film or TV studies. It is clear today that certain canny formations of people and interests – such as those gathered around the rubric of “film and history” – have weathered such changing institutional storms much more successfully than poor old cinema studies.
Occurring simultaneously with these academic recruitments away from cinema studies into newer disciplines during the ‘80s has been another kind of brain drain, one that is possibly livelier, more interesting and certainly harder to map – the move into the art world, and the so-called culture magazines. The film culture scene has fragmented enormously, far beyond any conventionally specialist purview. One need only look at the spray of often sophisticated articles on cinema that have appeared in magazines including Virgin Press, Art & Text, Tension and On the Beach.
In the same period, due to the passionately poststructuralist pockets of teachers and students in many universities linking up nomadically across several disciplines, people have found their way into writing and speaking about cinema via literature, radical sociology or fine arts – as witnessed by the important work that has appeared in publications as diverse as The Sydney Review, Arena and Agenda.
It is scarcely uncommon for film teachers and writers of the Old School in Australia (i.e., those formed in the ‘60s and ‘70s) to be completely unaware of the important articles on their own areas of interest in publications like Flesh, Antithesis, Binocular and even literary bastions like Scripsi – let alone such arty film culture phenomena as the Super-8 movement, the Australian Video Festival or MIMA’s Experimenta event. (I have even encountered a few embittered old soldiers who are still cursing, in 1992, the malign rise of something they regard as ‘structuralism’!)
This dispersal has bred some strange paradoxes – among them the fact that major, influential contributors (like Edward Colless, Lesley Stern, or Ross Gibson) can labour in the field of cinema study for over a decade without appearing in one or other of the country’s major film magazines (Filmnews or Cinema Papers), their key articles committed to now-defunct (and hard to find) ‘80s publications or art exhibition catalogues.
On another level, as yesterday’s filmic scholarship and wisdom (about auteurs, genre, art cinema, etc.) enters various sectors of mainstream culture, we witness other changes that have enormous (and little canvassed) ramifications on the possibilities and conditions of film criticism, reviewing and scholarship. An emblematic figure began to emerge: the savvy university film student who wrote with enviably hip, intellectual fluency about cinema, but aspired only to be the next Martin Scorsese. Good luck to them and their dreams!
We have entered a strange and unfamiliar era in which wildly successful magazines such as Premiere (USA) reduce film criticism to circumscribed little departments by skilled journalist-cinephile columnists incuding J. Hoberman (“Independents”) and David Denby (“Video”), while giving 98% of space over to the glamour of deals, personalities and the spectacular smashes or inglorious turkeys defined by box-office receipts.
Suddenly, we are in a world where Pop movies are passionately – and emptily – defended against all Art cinema (with the avant-gardes scarcely even registered as having ever existed); while film history – Old Hollywood, for instance – becomes fetishised and commodified like never before, reorganised ruthlessly to fit the fluxes and flows of fickle, leisure-time, market ideology. (This process began in the ‘70s when film noir – as Jean-Pierre Gorin remarked to Raymond Durgnat – got “film culture hooked the way the Papuans got hooked on the cargo cults”.) (4)
Signs of the times. In 1978, Andrew Sarris eloquently and movingly defined his vocation thus: “I have all I can do to keep the memory of Preston Sturges alive among readers and students who seem to be forgetting more and more of the past with each passing year of media overload”. (5) In 1992 – after half-hearted Festival retros, a glib biographical documentary and book, and a few familiar citations in Premiere devoted to Sturges (none of these seemingly very aware of Brian Henderson’s monumental scholarly work on the director’s career) (6) – Steve Martin offers (incoherently) the plot of Sullivan’s Travels to Kevin Kline as the meaning of life and pop culture in Grand Canyon (1991); while Bob Ellis tells a Cinema Papers interviewer, “now it’s fairly obvious that I should do a series of films like Preston Sturges’ ... five or six or seven really beaut comedies”, modestly describing one of his future projects (The Girl from Kiev) as “a Sturges”. (7) God(ard) help us all!
In short, the serious discussion of film happens (when it does happen) these days across an incredibly dispersed network, and often in mangled, cryptic, necessarily compromised forms. This is not entirely a bad thing: as one who has worked across this network for many years already, I can vouch for the personal freedom and the range of tactical, rhetorical possibilities that such a situation allows.
Yet, despite all those writers or readers who manage to trace a merry, individual path through this radically decentred cultural space, there is an awful lot of work and thought that simply slips through such a loosely articulated network. As Sylvia Lawson so brilliantly demonstrated in her landmark article “Pieces of a Cultural Geography”, (8) there are few (and often no) visible connecting lines between the film-and-history (or cultural studies) conference and the art gallery seminar (or horror movie fanzine).
It’s worth asking – in a more modest than thundering mode – if there has been anything seriously lost to cinema studies as a result of all this recent history. As a prelude, I think it’s clear that, in Australia, we are very far from Bordwell’s vision of an academic hell where all of us say exactly the same thing about every identifiable film-object; here, the problem is more one of finding common ground for debate between any two scholars as they burn off down their own, obsessive roads.
Leaving aside the contentious question of whether critical practitioners in the field should be concerned with canons, masterpieces, great directors and the promotion of important or just plain interesting movies (my personal feeling is that it neither should nor could be entirely disengaged from such discourses), it is clear that one possibly aesthetic domain of cinema study – the close, material attention to cinema form – has certainly been somewhat absented over recent years.
Spokespersons for the Cultural Studies movement (including Larry Grossberg and McKenzie Wark) (9) have vociferously contested the need for what has variously been dubbed (or caricatured) as analysis, close reading or textual hermeneutics – whether in literary theme-and-style or semiotic-linguistic modes, they point us instead to more general dynamics or vectors of culture. Policy people seem to have even less regard for the protocols of material analysis; Trevor Barr, for instance, exhorted secondary media teachers in 1988 to minimise textual analysis (which is “really ‘60s and ‘70s based”) within a curriculum defined by “Technology and Society, Policy Studies and ... the Future’s Territory”. (10)
Even with those still committed to writing about cinema, there has been a trend – especially evident in American work since the mid ‘80s – to trade in close reading for a newer, more flamboyant style: a connect-the-dots, montage mode skitting between aspects of films, historical contexts, theoretical ideas and subjective experience. Even in some of the most dazzling and important work of this genre – such as by Patricia Mellencamp – there is an alarmingly total absence of anything resembling the detailed mise en scène readings of yesteryear. At its very worst, the current climate gives rise to workaday interpretations (and uses) of films – in articles, courses, on the radio – that can fairly be described as amateurish, insensitive and self-serving.
My feeling that a certain textual-analytical facility has dropped out of cinema study and film criticism in recent times led to the adoption of film style and stylistics as the subject matter for a collection of essays, Film: Matters of Style. […]
These introductory musings have no programmatic intent. I am not declaring there is a territory that ‘we’ (the Australian community of film scholars? who are they?) need to reclaim, or one toward which we need to advance. For, just as the practice of film study has been powerfully and inexorably overtaken by changes in the cultural landscape, so too it stands to be overhauled in the very near future by enormous changes in nature of cinema itself, turned into a mere cog in a vast, integrated audiovisual culture. We need to take seriously the sober predictions of commentators like Peter Wollen who advise that film “is about to become an art form of the past”; (11) or, as Robert Nery has suggested, that its future as both art and technology lies in its merger with video and computer-based forms. (12)
This is certainly not the first occasion on which a “depressing irony of history” (Wollen) has caught up with the arts of cinema study and film criticism. The auteurists of the ‘50s discovered classic Hollywood cinema at the very moment when it was entering its swansong phase; those who held the torch thereafter through the ‘60s and beyond were in fact (whether or not they were aware of it) involved in what Serge Daney (after Freud) described as the “mourning work” of cinema fans, the feverish preservation of something which is passing away: “Something is dead, something of which traces, shadows remain ...”. (13)
Today, the ghost ship carrying a motley crew of film scholars and students can seem for all the world like a ship of fools – and I speak not only of the mad cinephiles with their vaunted ‘love of cinema’, but indeed anyone trying to keep that ship precariously afloat, anyone involved in the uncomfortable and paradoxical act of speaking or writing or teaching film anywhere in the public sphere.
Nonetheless, there is a ray of hope – fragile as it may justly be – in the sort of practice immortalised by Greil Marcus in his masterpiece Lipstick Traces: the act of committing ephemeral ideas, articles and artworks, not to a present which is fearsomely unreceptive, but to the storehouses of secret history, tucked away on public-access shelves to be re-animated – possibly – at a later date. (14) If that is at all a realistic prospect, then this issue of Continuum might be not so much a ship in the night as a message in a bottle.
This place is deserted, the loved one is dying, the idol is hollow (or has been overthrown and replaced by false idols); the tribe of movie fans has been scattered, devastated. The cinema is dead, as we have often been told, and in such a dramatic tone of voice. There must have been a history of the cinema ... (15)
1. Jacques Aumont, “Image, Face, Passage”, in Bellour, David and Assche (eds), Passages de l’image (Barcelona: Centre Cultural de la Fundacio Caixa de Pensions, 1991), p. 82. back
2. David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1989). back
3. Bill Krohn, Letters from Hollywood 1977-2017 (SUNY Press, 2020), p. 21. Part of the paradox Daney is describing is that some of the Cahiers writers were filmmakers and critics at the same time. back
4. Quoted in Raymond Durgnat, “From Caligari to Hitler”, Film Comment (July-August 1980), p. 62. Gorin was referring to European film culture, but it is clear in retrospect that a similar process was happening around the same time in most English-speaking film cultures. back
5. Andrew Sarris, “Film Criticism in the Seventies”, Film Comment (January-February 1978), p. 11. back
6. Brian Henderson (ed. and introduction), Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); and “Cartoon and Narrative in the Films of Frank Tashlin and Preston Sturges” in Andrew Horton (ed.), Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 153-173. back
7. Andrew L. Urban, “Bob Ellis’ The Nostradamus Kid”, Cinema Papers, no. 86 (January 1992), p. 15. back
8. Sylvia Lawson, “Pieces of a Cultural Geography”, The Age Monthly Review (February 1987), pp. 10-13. back
9. Larry Grossberg, “Postmodernity and Affect: All Dressed Up With No Place to Go”, Communication, Vol 10 (1988), pp. 271-293; McKenzie Wark, “Tiny Displacements”, Editions, no. 11 (June/July 1991), p. 23. back
10. Trevor Barr, “Reflections on Media Education: The Myths and Realities”, Metro, no. 82 (Autumn 1990), p. 13. back
11. Peter Wollen, “Thinking Theory”, Film Comment (August 1988), p. 51. back
12. Robert Nery, “Audio Video Disco”, Filmnews (April 1992), pp. 6, 11. back
13. Krohn, Letters from Hollywood, p. 21. back
14. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (London: Secker & Warburg, 1989). back
15. Aumont, “Image, Face, Passage”, p. 82. back
2. “I Write to You From a Far-Off Country …” (2022)
seems to me that the situation of the pandemic actually proves the
opposite of what some people try to demonstrate, namely this
omnipresence of a security power controlling minds and bodies. What
the pandemic has produced is not so much a society of control as a
society of dispersion. I think there is a great paranoia bound up
with the very concept of biopolitics, which has been added to the
older paranoia of Marxist logic, which always points to a great
hidden power. All of this has led to this situation where most
thinking that wants to be in opposition shares this great obsession
with an irresistible power that takes hold of our minds and our
bodies. Insofar as representations are not idle ideas but ways of
organising our perceived world, to assume this power is to make it
That’s the language of paranoia, of hidden conspiracy, which Rancière refers to in the above quotation. Every bad thing that happens to the workers on the ground is the result of a malign plan hatched in the boardrooms above. Every awful turn in the course of things could have been predicted, down to the finest detail, by the gloomiest, most pessimistic theory of the social order. Of course, my friend’s prognosis was formulated long before the COVID pandemic hit the globe. And he just has to be wrong on that one, yes? We can assume (I hope) that the virus was not hatched within a university think-tank for the sake of a massive administrative shake-out of personnel, teaching programs and institutional goals. Although, as a cinephile who grew up glued to stuff like the conspiracy-fevered The Parallax View (1974), I do find myself wondering, in my darkest moments …
The landscape of higher education has changed, perhaps irrevocably, over recent years – not only because of COVID, but pandemic conditions have definitely accelerated (at warp speed) these changes. More than ever, it seems, teachers, researchers, and staff at all levels are ‘subject to the dictates’ of those running the institutions. Many people of my acquaintance (and, more or less, my age) have gladly retired from or grimly lost their jobs, and those who remain have needed to adapt to an entirely new regime of all-purpose, online teaching (most recently reintegrated, not without technical difficulties, into a return to face-to-face [or mask-to-mask] teaching). Younger scholars face an ever-more-vicious, dead-end cycle of casual labour. The impossible balancing-act of setting priorities – between teaching, research, publication, administration, grant application writing, and (last but definitely least, it seems) public ‘outreach’ to the wider community – is further knocked out of balance with each new institutional decree from above.
The effects on students – which have barely begun to be documented – may be even more severe: my social media feed is awash with accounts of dives in enrolment numbers; the ominous emotional withdrawal of students who refuse to either speak or let themselves be seen in Zoom classes; the plight of those who were digitally signed-up for study in one country and physically stranded in another; the rise in depressive illnesses, stress levels and general social alienation; and the overall draining away of a sense of purpose to almost any education beyond the strictly vocational. The unavoidable air of global apocalypse (especially in relation to environmental conditions), the endless talk of end-times and end-games, certainly does not aid any valiant, local attempts at job reform or amelioration of teaching conditions …
Inevitably, the Humanities have been struck hard by the streamlining shifts and restructurings instituted within education. Not to mention within the governmental culture at large, as the recent controversy involving the ‘discretionary’ axing of select Australian Research Council (ARC) proposals has shown (at least that particular debacle is now under official investigation). Then, within the broad umbrella of a Humanities which is now under siege, we come to that portion of it with which the SSAAANZ constituency is most immediately concerned: cinema/media/TV/screen/digital studies.
I open a necessary parenthesis to admit here: I no longer live in Australia (or New Zealand), and I no longer teach full-time in any university. I am not in the Belly of the Beast, as most of my readers within SSAAANZ are. My contacts with higher education, in various countries, are now intermittent, freelance, officially adjunct. Like Chris Marker said in Sunless (1983): “I write to you from a far-off country …”. But I do have an outsider’s sense, from the network of everyone I know and everything I read and hear every day, and from my own previous university experience, of the ongoing crisis in the field.
Field: let’s dwell, for a moment, on that strange word. Screen studies – I’ll stay with that accommodating term for what we do, which is quite diverse – has never really had a field (or ‘discipline’) to call its own (unlike, say, History or Mathematics). It emerged out of an ever-shifting configuration of faculties, departments, programs, subjects and courses. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen it associated with – and then often, down the track, abruptly dissociated from – a wide range of areas, including Performance, Fine Arts, Communications, Cultural Studies, Policy Studies, Literature, ‘Media Arts’ (whatever that was!), Media Archaeology, and most recently, various digital domains (such as data studies).
The uneasy and never fully resolved split between ‘pure’ critical theory studies and practical, hands-on training (whether in an open-ended, experimental, art school mode, or more vocationally/industrially oriented) has, in the long run, hobbled Screen Studies far more than, say, Music or Theatre Studies. The equivalent salve to Creative Writing – which has bolstered and temporarily saved many a Literature department over a period of at least six decades – has not yet fully emerged in Screen Studies, despite the growing interest in (I speak from vast experience here!) the video essay format.
Of course, I am well aware that other Humanities fields which might seem, to outsiders, more established and secure (such as Literature or Philosophy) have undergone some of the same ceaseless, seismic shifts in their institutional placement and enforced co-habitation with other ‘disciplines’ – and today face some of the same fears of imminent devastation. Could it possibly have turned out differently – and, if so, how could we have known which was the best bet to take? Making do with, and finding the best opportunities within, whatever situation you find yourself in: this has long been the norm for most Humanities educators and researchers in what Rancière calls a “society of dispersion”. But, by the same token, the clarion call of necessary interdisciplinarity and cross-silo collaboration has, alas, never really saved us, for very long, from the circling sharks and yawning abysses. We gain what ground we can, while we can, in an eternally ad hoc fashion.
Making do: there have been upsides to the Zoom Revolution foisted on us. Sure, we lament the absence of in-person conferences, flesh-and-blood archive visits, and communal arts events (all very slowly returning, now, to some ‘new normal’ state of functioning). But every week I find myself astonished at the international range of lectures, panels and conferences in which I can spectate and/or participate – something that was simply impossible before the pandemic. A similarly positive upheaval has occurred at the level of access to the screen (and screen-related) materials we study: numerous streaming sites, online festivals, libraries and other independent/maverick cultural initiatives have cracked open global archives in a truly unprecedented (although, of course, never complete or exhaustive) way. And much of this (both lectures and screen-texts) is available for free – although, when organisers of academic conferences now tell me they run events on a “zero Zoom budget”, I do wonder where all the old funds are being redistributed within the university system …
Continuing on the downside, the paths of academic publishing – even brave online journals including Screening the Past, Peephole, Movie (UK) or The Cine-Files (USA) – have slowed down their productivity considerably, and sometimes dropped dead altogether, during the pandemic, in an acute reflection of the stress, occupational realignment and overwork factors that overwhelm many in academia at present. Just as worryingly, corporation-level academic publishing has embraced the digital age with frightening zealotry: intellectual/specialised books or journal issues are no longer physical objects that most people buy or even just browse (only libraries can afford the monstrously high prices, which itself leads to massive ‘rationalisations’ of what is purchased for use), and every publication, whether single- or multi-authored, is now disaggregated into individual, fragmented pieces for (usually expensive) online sale. In a paradox characteristic of our time, the independent researcher (like me, and there are now plenty more like me after the tidal wave of retrenchments and retirement packages) can find the academic world simultaneously both more open and more closed than ever!
Being an unreconstructed Humanist at heart, I keep coming back, in my mind, to a human experience: the number of educators I know, people who have (for the most part) devoted the majority of their adult lives (however ambivalently) to the university system, telling me lately that they have arrived at a genuine point of existential crisis: why go on toiling inside the system, what’s the point of it when so much of that system is collapsing, or giving up whatever residual values it once had? What good is it doing anybody, teacher, researcher or student? Old pedagogic illusions are going up in flames, while new, positive, inspiring or galvanising agendas across the board of the dispersed Screen Studies field are slow to appear. Many educators today are fired by a renewed need for activism; but where will this activism best be located and performed? Inside or outside the academies, or somewhere imaginable in-between?
once heard a cultural scholar (Andrew Ross) make an important
distinction, between crisis and emergency. Crisis
evokes panic, fright, blockage, breakdown; whereas emergency suggests
that something may yet emerge from the rubble. So, on with the
discussion of our Screen Studies Emergency.
© Adrian Martin 1992 / March 2022