Essays (book reviews)

Unworthy Companion

A review of The Oxford Companion to Australian Film

edited by Brian McFarlane, Geoff Mayer & Ina Bertrand
(Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1999


One 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”.


To 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 sprinkled throughout.


In 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.


Whether 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.


Take 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.


Or 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?


The 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!)


Or 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.


Here 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 three issues.


The 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.


I 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.


It 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.


Several, 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 altogether.


Films 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 breathtaking oversight.


Films 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 not score.


More 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.


Errors 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.


The 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.


I 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.


But the book, as a whole, is a shifty and untrustworthy Companion.


© Adrian Martin February 2000


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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