The Western Australia Project
Introduction: I reprint this piece from 1988 as a provisional, modest gesture of remembrance for the awesome legacy of my Australian friend Tom O’Regan (1956-2020), someone who played an important role in my life as a writer and critic – since, four years later, I would myself assemble (under Tom’s watchful eye) a special issue of his journal Continuum. (The piece also makes mention of his revered collaborator Brian Shoesmith whom I knew only tangentially, another film/media scholar who left us in 2020.) A proper tribute will follow but, for now, I think Tom would have appreciated the resurrection of this (as they say) “dated” archival survey of the scope of his publishing activities up to that time, originally written for Filmnews – a piece he often alluded to in passing. Rest in peace, Tom. (8/12/2020)
Several issues of the UK academic journal Screen between 1986 and 1988 canvassed a debate (initiated by Barry King) and sparked a dispute on the merits (or otherwise) of the so-called Wisconsin Project in film studies – the seeming gang of scholars and postgraduates led by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although several of the key protagonists of this Project were keen to disavow the very notion that there was a band of slavishly like-minded theorist-thinkers chained forever to a single, monolithic research task, it is certainly hard to weigh a copy of The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Films Style and Mode of Production to 1960 in your hand and not picture such a quixotic quest.
Hang the cold facts. There is something extremely romantic – to me, at least – about the various mooted Groups, Movements and Projects littering the short history of cinema studies – be they university think-tanks (Wisconsin, Griffith, Vincennes), small magazines (Monogram, Movietone News, Stuffing), or even feverishly specialised film clubs (devoted to film noir or giallo or whatever).
Such outbursts of frenetic, micro-focused activity partake of nostalgia for a particularly poignant Myth: that of knowledge as a mosaic, a blueprint for collective effort. Whether or not it ever happened like this once upon a time, the Myth bestows a certain dignity upon even the humblest efforts included in the weave of a Project. It’s like a bunch of monks beavering away on a medieval manuscript, or something similar that I’ve only seen in movies. According to the lineaments of this dream, teacher and student alike work, side by side and arm in arm, to painstakingly fill in now one part, now another, of a pre-sketched fresco: people, periods, texts, contexts, dealt with each in turn, and then in tandem. The Big Picture rears up in our eyes, and we are blessed.
Histories and encyclopedias are especially prone to this veritable madness of intellect making itself legion. At the end of its rainbow is a Vision of total knowledge, if only for one small branch of worldly phenomena: a total, englobing, exhaustive system of connections and schemas. Howard Hawks could make a screwball comedy about it, and indeed he made two: Ball of Fire (1941) about linguists, and A Song is Born (1948) about musicologists. Can a band of erudite cinephiles be far away from such screen immortality?
Naturally, these mosaic-efforts usually crumble … for many reasons, including (rarely) a recognition of the folly involved from the outset. It is only the most pathetic souls who, decades on, are still to be found earnestly pottering among the weeds of a paradigm erected in a youthful, reckless moment, now gone to seed.
Nonetheless, while the contraption can still be flown, a Project can be a generative, exhilarating, bracing, beautiful affair. Just ask me, I can tell you all about it …
I say this as the prelude to a brief consideration of Continuum Publications – The W.A. (Western Australia) Project, as it were, or more precisely the Tom O’Regan/Brian Shoesmith Project. Materially, the Project to date comprises the first two issues of the journal Continuum, and the posthumous publication of Ian Douglas’ book Film and Meaning; but I also include, from slightly further afield, the collection History on/and/in Film (hereby shortened to History) edited by this pair for the History and Film Association of Australia, derived from proceedings of the 1985 Third History and Film Conference held in – where else but? – W.A.. These various publications cover a lot of diverse ground (conference papers, essays, methodologies from all over) but one can detect, unmistakeably, the trace of a special Project truly unlike any other hitherto undertaken in Australia.
What is the W.A. Project’s vision – and who is its principal visionary? I turn to Tom O’Regan and his impressive, programmatic essay “Rethinking the Revival” in the History book for possible answers. His subject is Australian cinema, tackled comprehensively in a way not dissimilar to the Wisconsin Project vis à vis an approach to the general problematic of national cinemas: namely, an attempt to integrate film-texts, the operative, discursive field of “what is said” about films, and all the multiform social, economic and ideological factors that function (discontinuously) as (semi-determining) contexts. Nothing is pre-set in stone here!
O’Regan makes his personal Knight’s Move away from the overly determinist, text-less theories that were once all the rage in his old stomping ground of Griffith Uni (that paradigm governs his 1984 pamphlet Writing on Australian Film History: Some Methodological Comments published by Local Consumption Publications in Sydney). Now bravely taking a cue from the recent work of Thomas Elsaesser [1943-2019], O’Regan shoots for the far-off goal of nothing less than a full account of an entire Aussie “social imaginary” – a complete regime of spectacle with many, interlinking parts. Volume 2 of Susan Dermody & Liz Jacka’s The Screening of Australia (1988) likewise gestures toward this Elsaesserian Mecca, but it seems to me that O’Regan – in league with whomever he can recruit and inspire – is better equipped for the journey. See, for instance, his solid work on the history of the film/TV interface in Australia, or “The Historical Relations Between Theatre and Film” (in Continuum, no. 1).
Among Australian scholars, Albert Moran’s path is one that has hewn close to O’Regan’s. In that same, inaugural issue of Continuum devoted to “Australian Film in the 1950s”, a discussion between Moran, O’Regan, Shoesmith and Ross Gibson on John Heyer’s The Back of Beyond (1954) marks the new (and, in my opinion, particularly clear and enabling) vision currently informing research into this national film history. Avoiding both the reflex, aesthetic write-off of the ‘50s as a barren period, and a purely sociological circumscription of contextual factors pertaining to the decade, the discussants ponder the singular strangeness and wonder of Heyer’s film – appreciating it as at once a “freak” and as a move within many mini-traditions and sub-genres. It’s good to find here a few survivors of film theory’s “scorched earth” 1970s days unashamed to publicly speculate now on the reasons for a particular film’s “richness”, and even its “poetry”!
Those critical practitioners who never gave up on poetry (even in the darkest night of the Screen regime), and who (like Ross Gibson) have worked away quietly and semi-privately on their important works, are now being accorded their rightful place at the forefront of Australian cultural studies – and Continuum (thanks to the insight and sensibility of O’Regan/Shoesmith) reflects this happy ascendance. It’s in this light that one reads, with ever-increasing awe, the successive segments of Stuart Cunningham’s magisterial work on the Chauvels (“Chauvel, the Last Decade” in Continuum, no. 1 and “The Chauvel School of Scenario Writing” in History): on their varied output across several media and their intriguingly difficult place in accounts of our cultural history. This is writing of an astounding synthetic complexity, for Cunningham is among the few anywhere on the screen studies globe who is as supple with questions of aesthetics as he is with the microscopic variables of cultural forces – and who can interrelate the two with a storyteller’s art. In the Utopia of Oz, every specialist publisher would be busting down Stuart’s door to handle his looming Chauvels book. We live in hope. [Note: the book did eventually appear as Featuring Australia: The Cinema of Charles Chauvel from Allen & Unwin at the start of 1991.]
It is this expanded, rich field of national film history research that I believe Continuum especially heralds. As currently constituted, it’s heterogenerous [sic] enough to include, and learn from, modest empirical studies, passionate polemics, and highly creative film analyses. That is to say, we can travel (not too “discontinuously”) from a helpful piece on “Drive-Ins and Modernity” (John Richardson, Continuum, no. 1) or Freda Freiberg illuminating “The Transition to Sound in Japan (History), via Sam Rohdie [1939-2015] kicking (as he likes to do) the corpse of realism (a scathing review of Graeme Turner’s National Fictions in Continuum, no. 1) or Leonie Naughton [1955-2007] pulling out her strong thesis material on Nazism in New German Cinema (History), to a particularly wild and wonderful discussion by Bill (William D.) Routt and Rick (Richard J.) Thompson of an Eddie Cantor song in Roman Scandals (1933), or Tony Barta’s elegant and sophisticated, humanist/political defence of [the first 1984 season of] Edgar Reitz’s Heimat – those last two named essays being, for me, the absolute highlights of the History book. National cinema history appears to be a terrain that accommodates diverse approaches in a way that auteurism, psychoanalysis or genre studies (to name only three old hobbled-horses) never have.
The second issue of Continuum largely comprises a select group of papers from the 1986 Australian Screen Studies of Australia (ASSA) conference in Sydney. Very select indeed, seeing I was not even invited to send in mine, just as happened with the History book and the ’85 conference! Although there’s no decent credit given to the people (with Barrett Hodsdon at the helm) who actually organised that ’86 event, there’s still a sense conveyed of the critical heterogeneity (I like this word) that has come into play since the centre afforded by the 1970s theory push evaporated.
You take the rough with the smooth. Lumpy indeed, to this reviewer, are most of TV studies papers (especially John Docker’s and John Fiske’s transparently beat-up brand of cultural populism). Sally Stockbridge, in her 6,000th paper on rock video, stuns with the revelation that “Dance is an aspect of performance both within and outside of the video clip”. Next thing she will be claiming (outrageously!) that dance actually predates MTV, which is sure to stir controversy among TV scholars in these hyperreal days we’re living through right now. On the plus side, however, there’s the full text (Screen cut it in half) of Stuart Cunningham and Ross Harley on the Godard/Miéville Hail Mary (1985); as well as the stirring speculations of Dana Polan (“Film Theory Re-assessed” – and it sure does need re-assessment).
As for Film and Meaning, it is a difficult book to review honestly, since it is so obviously a labour of great and fond love, a tribute from colleagues who knew and respected its late author, Ian Douglas. Paul Willemen and Stanley Cavell agree (!) on its worth, which is some kind of recommendation. The territory of the book is a few of those areas that 1970s film theory alighted on and then left for dead rather too quickly in its mad rush to psycho-socio-semio synthesis: areas like the variable applicability to film of linguistics-derived concepts such as connotation/denotation, diegesis, “inner speech”, and even meaning itself (in its various Saussurean vs. Peircean definitions, bien sûr). A text for those who wish to fine-tune the early propositions of Peter Wollen or Umberto Eco, and relate them to a commendably wide range of films and film-moments. Prospective readers should be warned, though: Film and Meaning contains approximately ten times more typos than your average copy of Filmnews (which is saying something), many incorrect names and titles, and a dauntingly large dose of asemantic (i.e., un- or badly-sub-edited sentences). Way Out West!
Film and Meaning is announced as “hopefully … the first of a number of specialist books on film and TV published from Perth”. The W.A. Project, as I have conjured it here, is indeed bursting with a boundlessly productive hope. Future Continuums promise to cover Asian Filmmaking, Performance, The Archaeology of TV, and Cultural Policy – all naturals within the new-and-improved Foucauldianism of the Project as I see it. Doubtless even an old Hollywood movie or two will slip into the back of the journal from time to time, ho ho.
All up, it is truly an exciting time in Australian Screen Studies – and by the looks of Continuum Publications, it seems the West is winning hands down in the ongoing gamble for a critical future.
© Adrian Martin October 1988