Essays (book reviews)
The Oxford Companion to Australian Film
expects consistency, rigour and logic from something
called The Oxford Companion to Australian
Film. One needs to be assured, as a movie-loving
reader, that just about every important movement, figure, genre, film,
institution, historical marker, cultural trend or manifestation has been duly,
concisely, but intensively and fairly covered. One expects, if not
exhaustiveness, then (in the editors’ words) “a sense of the sweep of
Australian cinema” that conveys what this cinema “is and has been”.
this end, nearly 600 pages are comprised of entries on people, films and
institutions; short essays on ‘themes’ (from “Aboriginality” to “Narrative
Paradigms”); and – as a bonus for the general reader – a number of interviews
a radio interview publicising this tome, co-editor Brian McFarlane was at pains to point out
the difference between a companion and an encyclopaedia.
A companion is not obliged to cover every facet of a topic, he explained.
Nonetheless, twice in the Preface, the editors refer to the book as
“comprehensive”. And this is where the trouble starts.
a companion or an encyclopaedia, one can become quite
deranged trying to figure out the editorial logic of this book, and the implications of what it puts in and leaves out.
the coverage of directors – particularly those connected to the sphere loosely
known as ‘independent’ film (including short, experimental, documentary and
radical-political film). There are entries for Tracey Moffatt,
Ross Gibson, Bert Deling, Solrun Hoass, Philip Brophy,
Jackie McKimmie, the Cantrills,
Nigel Buesst, Scott Murray, Ann Turner, John Hughes,
Ana Kokkinos, Tom Cowan, James Ricketson, Albie Thoms, Rachel Perkins and
Paul Winkler – but not for David Caesar, Margot Nash, Peter Duncan, Kathy
Mueller, Daryl Dellora, Monica Pellizzari,
Michael Rymer, James Clayden,
Pauline Chan, Brian McKenzie, Susan Dermody, Dirk de Bruyn, Rivka Hartman, Tim Burns,
Susan Lambert, Don McLennan, Sophie Turkiewicz,
Lawrence Johnston, Sue Brooks, David Perry, Helen Grace, Aleksi Vellis, Samantha Lang, Roger Scholes,
Clara Law and Rowan Woods. No imaginable criterion can account for the
distinction between these two groups.
take the selection of individual films highlighted: why The Surfer and not Dangerous
Game, why Minnamurra and not The Navigator, why Mull and not Holidays on the River Yarra, why Palm Beach and not Vacant Possession, why Jilted and not In This Life’s Body, why The Good Woman of Bangkok and not Words and Silk?
treatment of filmmaking genres is hopelessly lopsided. Comedy and melodrama are
highlighted, but what about horror, action, teen movies, SF, fantasy and
Australia’s sizeable underbelly of ‘trash’ cinema? (These endemic genre
problems in McFarlane’s own, sprawling critical oeuvre related to Australian cinema have long been noted – not
least by myself!)
consider the wayward system of theme entries. “Jewish Representation” is the
subject of an adroit survey; while Italian, Greek, Polish, Chinese and sundry
other cultures are all shoved under the rubric of “Ethnic Representation”. “Masculinity”
and “Mateship” cover the depiction of men – but where
are the corresponding entries on women, apart from (dear me) “Maternal Images”?
“Adaptations” gets two entries, and there’s even one on “Novelisations”
– but not, for example, anything on Australian cinema’s prevailing images of
art and artists, cars, youth culture, love, sex, money, ageing, work, leisure,
tourism, family, or politics and politicians.
is a crowning example of the book’s inherent problems. An entry on “Criticism
and Theory” by John Tulloch and Paul Washington chooses to discuss only two
essays, by Meaghan Morris and Sylvia Lawson. It is, in itself, an interesting
piece, but its inclusion as a ‘survey’ of an important aspect of film culture
is completely indefensible from an editorial viewpoint. McFarlane’s related
entry on “Magazines” goes to the other, whimsical extreme; it gives a guernsey to Freeze Frame, a Melbourne magazine that lasted four months, while
omitting reference to RealTime,
an arts tabloid from Sydney that has so far clocked up six years and thirty
slip is telling: McFarlane, like the Companion as a whole, betrays little familiarity with all those broad-based arts, culture
and theory publications of the past two decades (from Tension to The UTS Review via Art & Text, Antithesis, Binocular ...
not to mention the long and glorious history of Sydney’s Filmnews) that have carried so
much of the most important writing about Australian cinema – and are in fact
the very publications that published Morris, Lawson and fifty other key names
who have helped to define and develop local film culture. In The Oxford Companion to Australian Film,
by contrast, almost nothing seems to be vitally at stake. Far
too much falls between its yawning, indifferent cracks.
suspect there are no satisfactory answers to these crucial questions locked
away within the brains of the editors. One must conclude that the process of editorial
selection came down to, in many cases, a confluence of factors: availability
(of films and writers), expediency, familiarity, and a bit of old-fashioned,
Melbourne-centric, Cinema Papers-oriented ganglandism.
is easy for a critic of my ilk to propose a thoroughly paranoid interpretation
of the ideology or mindset driving this Oxford
Companion. Ultimately, however, I fear that its sins may be entirely
casual, unthinking ones – reflecting, more than anything, essentially
mainstream, middlebrow cultural orientations and interests. Does this matter,
in a reference volume intended (as the Preface declares) “to appeal to a wide
readership”? Of course it matters, if one is seriously interested in presenting
the depth and breadth of Australian film to a general audience, and flagging
its future possibilities.
crucial kinds of Australian filmmaking suffer severe under-exposure here – a
situation which could surely have been easily (and commendably) rectified, once
and for all. Experimental cinema (like documentary and indigenous filmmaking)
receives a token entry, and its relevant presence elsewhere (in the early
career of Paul Cox, or as a branch of animation) is downplayed or overlooked
by women – as the above list of excluded directors will indicate – are marginalised almost out of existence. There is an entry for
the organisation Women in Film and Television, but no
general reflection on the industrial issue of women working in film and
television! The impact of feminist activism and theory upon the independent and
mainstream scenes alike is scarcely canvassed. Brian McFarlane’s entry on “Melodrama,
The Later Years” manages not to mention the work of Jane Campion – a
that are less than feature length get very short shrift from this book. The
definition of ‘film’ that rules the project – without it ever being stated as
such – is ‘feature narrative film’. Personally, I do not believe that this bias
in favour of features can be justified, except via
the logic of the commercial movie industry: across American university
campuses, for example, Moffatt’s brief, compact Night Cries may well be the most known
and most intensively analysed Australian film of all
time. Short films receive more government attention in Australia, as well as
more public and critical support, than in possibly any other country. So many
outstanding shorts – including The Illustrated Auschwitz, My Life
Without Steve, Tears and Serious Undertakings – have come to mark
some of the most vital and innovative work in our national cinema. But shorts are again recognised in only a token fashion by this book; even the noted early works of well-known
feature directors (like P.J. Hogan or Alex Proyas) do
banally, there are many strange gaps in this book’s collective wisdom, a
disquieting air of simply not being ‘in the know’ or up to date. Nothing Albie Thoms has made beyond 1980
is listed. Geoffrey Wright’s off-and-on American career post Metal Skin is not detailed. The sensational
fact that director Ian Pringle once made the news for stealing a Picasso is
ignored. The ‘director’s cuts’ of Stone, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Until the End of the World are not noted,
nor is the American telemovie remake of Shame.
abound, and certain filmographic gaffes may, I
suspect, provide evidence of the perils of Internet-based research. Orson Welles did not ‘long wish to film’ the novel by Charles Williams on which Dead Calm is based; he bought the rights
and made (but alas, did not complete) the movie. Too many names are mangled: Alwyn Kurts becomes a Conradian Kurtz; Emma-Kate Croghan morphs into Groghan, thrice over; Richard Frankland (Harry’s War) is
rudely transformed, across the colour bar, into
Richard Franklin (Psycho 2).
McFarlane writes about the movies directed by David Stevens and Geoff Mayer
notes that The Sum of Us is adapted
by David Stevens from his play, but these co-editors do not appear to be aware
that they are talking about the same person. A host of
non-Australian movies – including Wild
Orchid 2 (!) – are listed as Australian.
book’s fine-grain production, particularly in the cross-referencing department,
can get very sloppy: asterisks refer us to entries that sometimes do not exist,
while other entries that do exist go unasterisked elsewhere. It is bibliographically thin. And the ultimate indignity: no general
index helps the desperate reader find those names and films that have
mysteriously not cracked an entry of their own.
do not mean to imply that all the entries in this book are at fault, or are not
worth consulting. Far from it: the essays on general topics, detached from the
wonky system that contains them, are often excellent. The material devoted to
the silent and early sound periods (which I assume are under the principal
editorial guidance of Ina Bertrand) fulfil the
baseline requirements of what such a project should do and be.
the book, as a whole, is a shifty and untrustworthy Companion.
© Adrian Martin February 2000