Tim Burstall Retrospective
ACMI, Oct 16-20 2004


When Australian writer-director and industry pioneer Tim Burstall died in April 2004 at the age of 76, there was an inadvertent, uncanny homage to him already playing in local cinemas. In the comedy Strange Bedfellows (2004) starring Paul Hogan, nostalgia for a gentler, friendlier Australia was expressed in the symbol of an old movie hall still doggedly running Burstall’s film of 1979, The Last of the Knucklemen.


I am not sure how many members of the general filmgoing public would look back on this particular movie as the beacon of Australian cinema in the ‘70s. But I certainly do: it is the film which best captures the unique, passionate mix of elements that Burstall brought to his métier.


On the one hand, it is a tough, sturdy film, stepped in the conventions of the action genre. Burstall was an entertainer, and he never shirked on his obligation to provide narrative drive, thrills, pleasing reversals and clinches. As someone who, in the ‘60s, had studied the craft of filmmaking overseas, Burstall always kept an eye on international trends and the global market.


On the other hand, Knucklemen is, in its own way, an art film with something serious to say about Australian society and culture – and especially about masculinity. Like David Williamson, with whom he worked on several occasions, Burstall embraced popular storytelling forms and genres as a vehicle for making provocative comments on the ills of local culture as he saw them.


Burstall’s uneasy place between high and low culture in this country is what gave his films their tension and richness. Sometimes his work erred more towards the conventional, as in Attack Force Z (1982), and at other times more towards the arthouse, as in his commercially disastrous feature debut Two Thousand Weeks (1969) or the most visible achievement of his later career, Kangaroo (1987). But the in-between works are his best.


Burstall embodied that peculiarly Australian contradiction: he was a sophisticated intellectual who aligned himself with the rousing vitality of ‘the people’ and mass culture. That is why he turned to the vulgar comedy of Stork (1971) and Alvin Purple (1973), and why he ramped up the spectacular, confronting aspects of Eliza Fraser (1976) and Petersen (1974). Burstall was proudly politically incorrect long before that term was coined.


As was evident in a wide-ranging overview lecture he gave at ACMI not long before his death, Burstall regarded himself as someone unacknowledged by critics. But this was not quite so. His combination of pop culture and artistic modernism struck a chord in an ‘80s generation of local cinephiles (including myself) who increasingly came to lament Burstall as a model never properly emulated by the Australian industry, a path not taken. His finest works far outshine most of what Australian cinema serves up today.


MORE Burstall: Duet for Four, The Naked Country


© Adrian Martin October 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search