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Fun Radio (1963) and
The Destruction of St. Patrick’s College (1971):

Two Films by Nigel Buesst (Australia)


 
Fun Radio


I write these notes on two early shorts marking independent film history in Australia because their maker, Nigel Buesst, has recently turned 80. A prodigious figure, Buesst has not only created an impressive ledger of films, but also helped innumerable other projects and artists in official and unofficial ways. He has also been a cultural figure, never afraid to speak up for the feisty cause of free-thinking and rule-breaking via cinema.

 

I well remember the blast of excitement I felt when, in Arthur Cantrill’s 1970s classes at Melbourne State College on avant-garde cinema, I first saw Nigel’s Fun Radio (1963), made in his 20s. Not that Buesst’s cinema has ever been avant-garde, particularly – his preferred mode tends to move between relatively conventional documentary (sometimes with a TV touch, as in The Twentieth [1966]) and a species of lyrical montage/collage that is very characteristic of independent filmmakers the world over.

 

But Nigel’s work, whatever its mode, has always carried the clear trace of his personal passions and obsessions – whether that be for musical styles, political issues, or the fitfully documented history of the Australian film scene itself (as in his lively Carlton + Godard = Cinema [2003]). And in Australia, especially, such personal work has always dovetailed, in a precious cultural sense, with the more out-there efforts of experimentalists. It’s a life-raft situation, and all the outcasts have to band together to survive, however fragilely.

 

Fun Radio more-or-less conjures (in black-and-white) a narrative line – pop acts arrive at the airport, a commercial radio station organises a “surf carnival” to which young listeners flock, a concert with multiple acts unfolds at night – but it also exhibits a free-associative liberty in its rapid, mosaic-style editing. Buesst wants to show what the new world of pop-consumerism is like, and feels like. So, high in its festival of affects is the almost non-stop blaring (and sometimes multi-layering) of a radio DJ’s live patter, with its lame puns (including anti-TV propaganda!), punched-in laugh track, and endless advertising jingles and pitches.

 

Buesst gives us here the sights and sounds of a new, Australian suburbia, with its streets, beach roads, and media spectacles. A disquieting poignancy attaches itself to the images of teenage girls desperately trying to keep pace, on foot, with a radio-sponsored vehicle on some congested roundabout, soon to run out of gas … upon which event, the driver will hand over the key to the winning contestant. Not too far removed from the grotesque dreamers-inside-windblown-money-capsules of later TV quiz show extravaganzas, but here with a homely, daggy, early ‘60s touch.

 

If independent filmmakers have always been drawn to the bustling cinéma-vérité carnival of planes, crowds, cars and concerts, they have also been fixated on the somewhat morbid underside of all this capitalistic progress: abandoned shops, pre-trading market stalls, urban centres ruined or just on the cusp of their devastation. We can frequently sense an ambivalence of attitude on the part of the filmmakers who record these sights and sounds: consumerism, like destruction, can be decried or lamented but, at the same time, it makes for good cinema.

 

Buesst’s The Destruction of St. Patrick’s College is a document of devastation from 1971 – held up by the film as a symbol of the wholesale obliteration of the Australian past, and of its people’s lack of a sense of national history. The trippy, booming soundtrack (psychedelic cousin to the pop music that fills Fun Radio, but far from the jazz milieux that Buesst has frequently covered) is comprised of slowed-down rock – a little in the manner that Carmelo Bene cranked down Bizet recordings for the mix of his contemporaneous Don Giovanni in Italy.

 

In the non-musical intervals of the soundtrack, Prof. C. Hartley Grattan (1902-1980, misspelt “Gratten” in the opening credits), of University of Texas, offers an odd semantic congestion just via his speaking voice (there are no images of him in the film). The author of that unjustly forgotten 1966 essay “Railroads as an Analogy to the Space Effort”, and noted as “one of the leading American authorities on 20th century Australian history”, Grattan gives us a lumpy mish-mash of politics, history and philosophy. He conjures the need for Australian nationalism as a “metaphysics” of “being” and “possibility” – and as a way of Australia avoiding becoming just another province of America or … Japan! (Flashback to the days when this was a felt social fear.) And all this delivered in a deep, drawling, US accent. Where did Buesst find this guy?

 

In a nice, sardonic touch, The Destruction of St. Patrick’s College is dedicated to “Whelan the Wrecker who made it all possible”. It’s hard not to reach, at this point, for Walter Benjamin’s solemn phrases on the perpetually “destructive character” of supposedly forward-looking Western societies. But, for any Aussie viewer who was actually around in the 1960s and ‘70s (such as myself), the evocation of Whelan the Wrecker (its still functioning website reads: “With a history of service extending more than 100 years, Whelan the Wrecker leads in the provision of quality domestic and light commercial demolition and complete excavation works”) carries, in this viewing context, almost as much of a nostalgic aura as the Volkswagens, radio jingles, Coke bottles or pop bands that swamp Fun Radio. Those were the days, my friend, I thought they would never end …

© Adrian Martin March 2018


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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