Essays (book reviews)

The Screening of Australia Volume 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema
by Susan Dermody & Elizabeth Jacka
(Sydney: Currency Press, 1988)


Introduction October 2021: For many years I have planned to write a book titled Australian Cinema at 4am: A Critique, which would recast my essays and reviews on this national corpus spanning a 40-year period. Every attempt to win some funding for this big project – and there have been many such attempts, I assure you – has failed, perhaps in part because the various institutions and subsidy schemes in Australia would rather support a celebration than a critique. Be that as it may, I continue to keep most of the material for this phantom book off the Film Critic website you are currently consulting, in the hope that the volume may one day materialise before my death. Re-reading the following, lengthy review from 1988 of an important, pioneering book on the same subject, I realised that what I wrote contained, between the lines, the first sketch of my own dream-book. I offer it as such here, beyond whatever other value it possesses as a document from the time.


This is the sort of book that doesn’t go short for reviews. By the time you get to this one in 1988 – if you’re a keen bibliophile in this area – you’ll have read, at the very least, the Filmviews (Ina Bertrand) and Filmnews (Ken Berryman) treatments, and probably also the Australian Book Review (Tom O’Regan) response, and god(ard) knows what else. So there are a few areas of review-type discussion I’ll spare you: the relation of Volume 2 (Anatomy of a National Cinema) to Volume 1 (Anatomy of a Film Industry, released 1987); the unhappy tale of their split publishing history; the effects of the book having been composed (in the main) in the mid 1980s, some three years before its release … since it’s too easy to get caught up on this aspect for too long a time.


I’d also like to spare myself a summary of contents, which has been amply supplied already by those aforementioned reviewers. Suffice it to say that this volume of the Screening of Australia project is basically devoted to the analysis of a select number of titles falling within the years of the 1970s Australian film “renaissance” – an analysis which illustrates and nuances the general claims made in Volume 1 about the kind of industry and culture we have, and the kinds of films they tend to produce. This, from the outset, makes it undoubtedly the most coherent text of its kind produced (so far) on the Australian cinema; it doesn’t trail off into an assortment of critical and/or purely whimsical annotations à la Brian McFarlane’s woeful Australian Cinema (1987).


The armature of the book is pretty solid. The films are dealt with in terms of a matrix of key cultural/political, materialist terms that have rarely been parlayed so precisely or elegantly: a critical attitude on how the films relate to various circulating myths of “Australianness”, with its ideologies of history, place, identity; and, conversely, a celebration of the traces of non-jingoistic regionalism and authentically Australian “voices” (a dangerous metaphor, but we’ll retain it for now). Heading up the book is a suggestive sketch of Australia’s (like Canada’s) position as a “second cinema” in the imperialist shadow of Hollywood, and the sorts of double binds and paralyses for cultural production this creates.


So far, so good. However, the actual argumentative construction of the book is not quite as together as its general drift. After the introduction, the authors dice up the corpus of recent Australian film via a laborious exercise in genre sifting. Beyond the first two categories of the “AFC genre” and the “social realist film” which serve the rest of the book extremely well, the overall classification system borders on total incoherence (prospective classroom users should attempt drawing a diagram of it). Without blinking, the book glides from stylistic modes like social realism, to an intentional category of “purely commercial”, to the recurrent sub-genres or topics of the Australian Gothic and the “Sexual Mores and Male Ensemble” film, to a particularly arbitrary and digressive grab-bag of “Icons, Actors, Roles, Sexual Difference”, and around finally to a personal-taste selection of notable “eccentric” works! This constitutes neither a usefully closed nor a generatively open model of generic mapping. Its only real function in the book is to announce areas and list films that will be taken up subsequently.


The book boasts a few more of its own eccentricities. Perhaps 95% of the text is, sensibly enough, devoted to mainstream feature films. Independent Australian cinema keeps butting in (rather predictably) as the argument’s Good Other, that place where cultural references and formal experiments are, on the whole, far more interesting (hear, hear). Fleshing out this abstract rhetoric (probably scarcely convincing to the average, philistine reader from the industry), however, is a detailed consideration of no more than John Ruane’s Queensland (1976). Dermody & Jacka should perhaps have applied the same all-or-nothing logic to the topic of the TV mini-series (covered more comprehensively in late 1980s issues of Filmviews) – why the arbitrary focus on A Town Like Alice (1981) out of all the possibilities (the milestone Kennedy Miller productions included)?


This not to suggest that what the authors say about these stray examples or unsystematised generic areas is uninteresting; only that their book has an umistakeably belles lettres air about it. This means that, while it is never less than a pleasure to read – always elegant, witty and evocative – it’s also a bit thin. It strolls through its agenda of concepts in a leisurely and sometimes repetitive fashion. (I read a few too many times the virtually identical explanation of the effect of misogynist jokes on female spectators, or the ocker attribute of “being on to yourself”). One longs, at moments, for the sort of breathless cross-cutting between texts, contexts and ideas that a national film history can well exploit to create a crowded, deep perspective, as in Raymond Durgnat’s A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (1970 [reprinted with corrections 2011]. The Screening of Australia is a quieter book, more modest in scope, but it wears its scholarship rather too lightly at times, and is rather shamelessly under-documented – in the charming (?) manner of those flamboyant quickies by French intellectuals who write in cafés unavoidably far, far away from their bookshelves.


Most of the book (chapters 3 to 8) is taken up by a chronological series of compressed film analyses. The majority of these are admirable and illuminating. They make up a kind of historical narrative of the milestones of the Australian feature revival: either the best, or the most significant, or the most symptomatic, or the most discussed releases of the time. It is only when you rudely bump up against the queerly potted filmography at the back that you suddenly realise some of the yawning gaps and omissions in this narrative. Some absences are merely puzzling, since they could easily have found a place in the book’s schema – I missed Fran (1985), Hard Knocks (1980), Pure Shit (1975 – it’s a great pity to see Bert Deling disappear from yet another Australian Cinema book). If Dermody & Jacka think these films have already been adequately covered, I’d like at least to know where.


But, beyond these probably arbitrary or incidental omissions, there are more ominous structuring absences. Dermody & Jacka may not have a particularly high tolerance for certain hyper-masculine film and filmmaker types, but any argument about Australian cinema’s ineptness with popular action genres that downplays Tim Burstall  and writes out altogether Brian Trenchard-Smith, Richard Franklin and Ian Barry’s The Chain Reaction (1980) is mounted very shakily indeed. And the authors’ reluctance to really dive in to the morass of 10BA quickies – surely not such an impossible research task – is also troubling. Too many films are the victim of too quick an assumption of zero-value here.


Indeed, there’s something about the whole critical mind-set underlying The Screening of Australia that seems rather ghost-like to me, offered to the reader in invisible ink only. Apart from a few elegant grabs in passing at this or that new or old intellectual framework, the book is silent as to which critical traditions – Australian or otherwise – it derives from (apart, that is, from feminism, which doesn’t always score the best point in every single analysis). It is also not completely apparent which cultural sensibility the authors are most comfortable with, which one they live in or “come from”. When they allude to genre movies, are they thinking of Howard Hawks or Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979)? Is their reference point in film melodrama Douglas Sirk or Mommie Dearest (1981 – criminally underrated, by the way)? Paul Cox is a successful arthouse director in comparison to whom, exactly – Andrei Tarkovsky or Mike Figgis? What is the popular culture that Dermody and Jacka long to see enter Australian cinema – Animal House (1978) or Doonesbury?


And what of the stirring underworld of less-than-feature length independent cinema that is regularly invoked (in the abstract) with some such roaring approval and seeming familiarity – is the aforementioned Queensland really the best metonym for the diverse experimentations of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s? Although the book deplores middle-of-the-road cinema and extolls the virtues of eccentricity, some readers may be left with the weary suspicion that its authors haven’t yet really managed to wander very far away from the mainstream’s slow lane.


To be fair, Dermody & Jacka probably have indeed walked on the wild sides of cinema, and often – it’s just that you wouldn’t know it from this book. This is because of a problem endemic to studies of Australian cinema; a veritable form of critical dyslexia. Virtually every writer who tackles our national cinema inevitably fixates on it, desperately shutting out the possibility of sustained comparisons with other national cinemas – First, Second or Third World, it doesn’t matter. But this fixation is the exact opposite to the living experience of any working critic or regular moviegoer, who consumes Mad Max 2 (1981) in a heightened haze contemporaneous with Escape from New York (1981), The Year My Voice Broke (1987) with Can’t Buy Me Love (1987), Cactus (198) with Hail Mary (1985).


No book on Australian cinema to date has pursued the thousand-plus-one potential comparisons, connections and trans-evaluations that occur in the receptive space of an ordinary cinephile’s dazed head. And for an obvious reason: the suspicion that, from the word go, Australian cinema would suffer in that comparative exercise. Who, in their right mind, could even pretend hauling Stir (1980), whatever its qualities, up to the pantheon that contains Raging Bull  (1980), or Winter of Our Dreams (1981) up to the one holding Wings of Desire (1987)? To wield such a system upon Australian cinema results usually in either unsustainable, idiot-grin optimism (“Our cinema is as good as any cinema anywhere!”, when it isn’t), or an equal overkill on apocalyptic gloom (eg., Dermody & Jacka’s pervasive “dead end” imagery, as in the great New German Cinema title: The Middle of the Road is a Very Dead End). In fact, such world-weariness underwrites the whole of this volume of The Screening of Australia – with Dermody & Jacka indicating (in a genial JLG reference) that they “await the end of (Australian) cinema with optimism”.


Several reviewers have already commented on the curious discrepancy between this sad conclusion and the interest or value the authors seem to find along the way in so many individual films. Does this mean that the value is a delusion, an effect purely of obsessional, analytic fixation? I don’t believe so. The knot to be loosened here is one in which analysis of a young and battling national cinema seems always bound to notions of quality cinema (McFarlane: "I want the films to be good” … yawn) – in short, to a (rather classical) system of evaluation. Despite the prevalent joke that interesting is the great wishy-washy, pseudo-intellectual word wielded to avoid any necessary or pressing value judgement, I’ll venture that what we might need at this time is a study of how Australian films can be not good but … well … interesting. For what makes a film truly interesting may have little or nothing to do with its quality but, rather, the connections it can volatise, the issues it may throw into relief. This is the Durgnatian sense that no film is a finished object (from which we must demand depth and exhaustive completeness), but a skeletal structure on which to hang our random (or not so random) thoughts, hunches and dreams. Raw material, if you like – if treated with the correct amounts of professional respect and critical disrespect. We usually seem to get neither part of that to-and-fro movement right in the Australian “humanities”.


Dermody & Jacka, read from a certain angle, are indeed already engaged in this task of finding and making Australian cinema interesting (despite the apocalyptic disclaimers). It’s this engagement that makes their book lively and fascinating. Other critics and writers, too, sidestep the gauntlet of evaluation in order to spin revealing yarns that are just as much about the situation of a national culture as of a national cinema – Tom O’Regan, Sylvia Lawson, Stuart Cunningham, Albert Moran, Bill Routt, Meaghan Morris and Ross Gibson, to name only a few. The Screening of Australia is a fine and necessary book, but it’s even finer when read in the context of articles and publications that it both nourishes and is nourished by: Morris on Crocodile Dundee (in Art & Text, reprinted in her book The Pirate’s Fiancée), Gibson on landscape and nature (in Scott Murray’s excellent catalogue for UCLA, Back of Beyond), Cunningham on the Chauvels, the late Eric Michaels on Aboriginal TV and video (the book For a Cultural Future).


Collectively, this work is ushering in a phase of scholarship (and critique) so alive and creative that, for some of us, it makes the topic of Australian cinema interesting for perhaps the very first time. Which is not a bad achievement.

© Adrian Martin November 1988

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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