Essays (book reviews)
Mapping the Imaginary: Ross Gibsonís Camera Natura
“I’m Deane Williams and I'd like to ask you a few questions about Ross Gibson”.
I know that sounds like the opening of a high-level and possibly sinister police interrogation, but it was in fact how Deane first introduced himself to me at some point in the early 1990s. This was, for me, actually, one of the rare moments in my film critic’s career when I got some real recognition from a fan … even if that fan was possibly keener to learn about somebody other than me!
So, it turned out that this Deane fellow was not a cop but a student scholar, doing research for an essay – a project that eventually expanded into his Masters dissertation at LaTrobe University. And that, in turn, became his first book, Mapping the Imaginary, which we are here to celebrate.
At this point of the tale, we must account for a notable time lag. It is now 1996. I spy Deane’s plaintive dedication, expressive of what Guy Debord once poetically called “the passage of several people through a certain amount of time” – and expressive also of a certain terse, masculine pathos, like the Sean Penn movies that Deane loves. “My special thanks goes to Anna Williams for putting up with Ross Gibson, Camera Natura and me for the last four years”. OK! Academic time keeps slipping, slipping into the future …
I would like to point out, however, that this kind of time lag constitutes a fine and noble – well, maybe not so noble – tradition in publishing on Australian film. I am thinking of collective, anthology books including Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism & Cinema for the Moment, The Filmmaker and the Prostitute: Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, or the infernal Futur ◊Fall or Illusion of Life tomes … all of them took long, grinding years to appear. Not to mention (it’s too sad) all those mooted, half or wholly completed volumes (like a Filmnews compendium, or Bill Routt’s edited collection on Aussie Trash Cinema) that have never, ever seen the light of day. I have a private, secret list of them all! And I don’t excuse myself from the inquisition; quite the contrary. Not wanting to go against local tradition – rules are rules, after all – I made sure I took three whole years to edit a special issue of Continuum magazine on film style that appeared, at last, in 1992.
Speaking of style: Deane, here’s a wise word of writerly advice. If you’re going to take that much time to write a book, at least make sure the publisher puts your name on the spine next time around (for it is missing here) – that’s very important for visibility and recognition on the book and library shelves of the world!
Here is another story about years, history and time lag – cultural time lag. In my own relation as a viewer and critic to the film which is the centerpiece of Deane’s research, Ross Gibson’s film Camera Natura (1985) – Cam Nat in shorthand for those who worked on it – I was once rude enough to pass onto the filmmaker himself (in the course of a Filmnews interview, I believe) the very Sydney-side remark (I no longer remember which young punk uttered it to me, or rather I remember all too well) that his film was “outdated” – so soon! – in relation to images of Australian identity. “In terms of the fast turnover of ideas that hit the egg-head equivalent of the youth market, [the film is] certainly 18 months out of date”. Well, pardon me!
I should know better than to pass on comments like that; so sue me. But Ross set me straight, on this occasion as on many others, with his sage-like reply: “Any diligent or detailed or relatively sophisticated analysis of cultural history takes a while and endures for a while”. Let’s hope so, at any rate, or we’ll all be out of work soon.
In Mapping the Imaginary, Deane shows how the arguments and suggestiveness of Camera Natura have indeed endured – for over a decade already. And he updates the analysis further still, taking in the more recent moves of Australian cinema into urban settings and multicultural comedies or dramas.
Camera Natura is, as everybody says, an essay-film – its basic subject, and material, is the historically accumulated images and mythologies of the Australian landscape (something that Ross began on with his own postgraduate thesis work). This is a genre (if we dare call it that), a mode, a terrain that both Deane and Ross have written about carefully and extensively. As a form, the essay-film is said to dwell on “the line between documentary and fiction” (the title used for a few late 1980s seminars and panels that first broached the topic in Australia) – although I would suggest, from my own perspective, that it is probably, even more so, a line between documentary and criticism. Criticism in all its actual, possible and virtual forms but, in the first place, written criticism as a creative, non-fictional, literary form. This shouldn’t surprise us: Ross is someone who has always been, and will remain (to use his own self-description) “word struck”, and that’s always delightfully evident in everything he produces, across all media. The written word still matters, still inheres within artistic creation – and so does critique.
I’ve already alluded to the debates (polite and otherwise) from which the film sprang, debates over the images of our national identity in Australia. Ross grasps these images not as pure lies or false consciousness (as a certain Marxist tradition in cultural commentary regularly does) but, rather, what he describes as an ethos. Deane gives this term his own spin by calling it a social imaginary. Whatever you call it, it’s a dynamic idea: you work with the images you’ve got, even when they’re corny, or crazy, or melodramatic, or ponderous, or when they are negative “images of futility” – you re-volatise them, somehow. Consider the space that Ross’ film creates and opens up between the opening burn-out, end-of-the-road image-quotation (from Sunday Too Far Away, 1975), and a striking, responding image near the end, a man dancing in the windstorm with a mannequin (from the original 1932 version of On Our Selection). Genuine “montage at a distance”, as Artavazd Pelechian (or Jean-Luc Godard) would say! Something really moves and transforms in that interval.
In particular, I draw your attention to Ross’ very original and fertile notion about the inter-relation of nature and culture – something that Deane illuminates so well – as formulated in his great 1992 book South of the West: “I’m prepared to claim as part of my nature not only sunshine, clouds, landforms, and all things ‘green’, but also the cinema, television, pop music, books, motor cars, magazines, and all available mass-mediated images and sounds. All this nature is part of my culture.”
Camera Natura, as I’ve said, has been claimed as an essay-film, but I personally tend to see it more as a moment in the history of the often experimental found footage or compilation film, the type of cinema pioneered long ago by Nicole Védrès in the very influential Paris 1900 (1947), and continued decades later in Australia by Philippe Mora (Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? ). It’s a work of quotations, fragments, bricolage (French citizens tend to titter when we non-Frenchies use that word as a heavy theory talisman) – or as Deane puts it, of metaphors taken up, re-worked, re-energised. According to Ross, the first script of the film was more or less in the form of an “illustrated lecture with slides” – then, in the actual making, especially during the editing and sound montage, it became a process of shaping rhythms, intensities and energies. As all good films should! And all good essays (whatever their medium), for that matter.
It has also struck me as a perfect film for TV broadcast and consumption – and the best proof of its effectiveness in this regard is the fact that it already appears to have inspired a light re-creation of itself, soon after its birth, by celebrity biographer John Baxter in an episode of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation series, Filmstruck: Australia at the Movies (1986). The sincerest form of flattery!
Deane does us all the service of patiently going through Camera Natura’s sources: commenting, glossing, sometimes giving us a different or contradictory reading to the one that Ross provides or suggests (as is the case with Sons of Matthew  or Picnic at Hanging Rock ). He also centrally points to “the way in which the film uses metaphors based [...] on the combination of voices and images from different texts”, which “constitutes a poetic critical practice”. A poetic politics, we might call that; and a poetic process of making strange, a process that Katherine Gleeson’s book cover design captures well.
Maybe there is a problem of excessive openness in the found-fragment film genre – indeed, there’s one intriguing piece of critical literature on the film that Deane (amazingly) did not manage to quote, which reflects on exactly this point. It’s an exchange of letters between Tim Rowse and Ross in that now lost and lamented Filmnews. Tim suggests there that “the danger […] in the film essay is that the logics which, for the filmmaker, cohere the chosen images are never announced, and so are never stated in a form which the viewer can think about and disagree with”. He asked instead for a “rhetoric of tentativeness”, of suggestion that isn’t too oblique, understated or “taciturn”.
Ross responded to Tim’s critique in this way: “For all its flaws, Camera Natura is worth discussing for what it is. What is it? Something designed to be provocative and inconclusive ... and filmic. It’s trying to be that kind of essay”. Which is my kind of essay, too, as a reader, writer and spectator.
Deane records another small, historic moment in his book, at the origin of Camera Natura, and it’s my favourite sentence in it: “John Cruthers suggested to Gibson that 1984 was a good time to assess Australian film”. So is 1996 and, in truth, any year whatsoever. I thank the Australian Teachers of Media (with Peter Tapp at the helm of publications), the Australian Film Institute and Deakin University for collaborating to bring this book out; I especially thank Deane Williams for such illuminating and generative writing about such a significant and fascinating film.
© Adrian Martin 23 July 1996