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Serious History:
For Ross Gibson

 


In November 2020, my dear friend Kathryn Bird contacted me, and many others, with the news that her partner, Ross Gibson, was likely soon to die within the coming months. She had a wonderful idea: a plan to “do dying differently”, to celebrate Ross and bear witness to him while he was still around and able to enjoy the testimonies. I immediately wrote the text below and sent it to Ross and Kath – alongside all the other tributes coming in, in so many forms, from their global circle of friends. As things unfolded, Ross lived two years and three months beyond that moment – a precious time for them, and for everybody who knew this couple. Ross passed on 2 March 2023. I have lightly revised my essay of appreciation – but deliberately without shifting it into the past tense – and included notes for those who wish to explore Ross’ extraordinary and prodigious work.

 

I don’t remember the first time I met Ross Gibson (born 1956), but I do remember the first time we bonded. It was 1985, I believe, in the back seat of a cab, hurtling along the road on the way to a conference session in Perth. There was something hushed, furtive and secretive about this highly cinematic setting that brought about what was (to me, at least) a surprisingly immediate complicity. And I precisely remember one topic of our conversation that day 35 years ago. We were swapping impressions of people in the local cultural-intellectual scene that we both greatly admired. Ross expressed to me – and I wholeheartedly agreed with him – the distance he felt between himself and some other comrades: not at the level of basic political beliefs or philosophical orientation anything of that sort (indeed, we were all pretty much on the same page in that regard), but at the level of certain dispositions, behaviours, lifestyle orientations – casual, everyday attitudes to food, sex, clothes, sociality, that kind of thing. Being around them, he told me, made him aware of his difference from them. I had felt exactly this myself, and so I instantly felt close to Ross.

 

Actually, to be honest, being around Ross also makes me aware of my difference from him. Whenever I encounter Ross, I come away reflecting on what a nervy, neurotic type I am. Ross, on the other hand, exudes a different style: calm, assured, thoughtful, grounded. It’s something spiritual, no doubt, although that something is a topic I’ve never really discussed with him, since I’m not particularly spiritual myself (not in Ross’ way, anyhow). I am certain there’s also some shyness in him somewhere, too, as there is in my case. And I know that not every work experience has been good for him in terms of stress on his body, his brain and his health. But still – and we, all who know him, are seeing this right now – there’s a calm in Ross that allows him to look difficult situations right in the eye.

 

It strikes me that Ross is, as far I know or can sense, not somebody who has made a lot of enemies along the way. Whereas I am liable to go out, if I get the chance, spitting at all my enemies, everyone I ever hated or has done me wrong or betrayed me – just as Eric Michaels did in his death diary Unbecoming, and I was among those who got spat on there! But that’s not Ross’ style at all. He’s more becoming than unbecoming.

 

The first tribute I want to pay to Ross: what a magnificent speaker/lecturer he is. I’ve never heard him in a classroom; I have, however, received the testimony of many awestruck students, especially from the 1990s, who did. But I’ve heard him speak at conferences and related events many times, I’ve never missed a chance to be there for that. There’s a word that pops into my head whenever I think of Ross, and indeed usually when I read him: orator. Now I know that, literally, technically, anybody who manages, at any level, to speak in public is an orator. I guess I’m one, too. But this word, orator, has some kind of magic, incantatory tonality for me, dating back to when (so I’m told) I was among the last Catholic schoolboys in Victoria to be learning Latin as part of their ordinary, daily curriculum. One exercise we had to do was to study and try to translate into English this guy named Cicero. I was impressed, in my boyish way, by Cicero, and I enjoyed translating, in my amateur way, what I imagined was his oratorical, Frank Thring-style mellifluousness (footnote: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome  reference there – one of the many films about which Ross wrote wonderfully). This Cicero is some fantasy I conjured up at the age of 14, to be sure. But I am certain of one thing: whatever Cicero was, Ross is. He’s my Cicero.

 

It’s in the way he speaks. Ross takes his time. Every word is given its due weight. He gives the impression of thinking aloud in public, even if he’s figured it all out already – that’s a real oratorical skill. He leads his audience through all the stages of a thought process. He prompts you to spatialise his idea-diagram in the air between us, as he goes – like Tom Cruise moving around the digital info-screens in Minority Report, except a fair bit slower. Ross shows us how to think, how to build a thought. He patiently lays out the why, the how, the what-for. He’s always saying: “Now hold that in your head – and try to network it with this”. And on it goes, until it’s a great conceptual contraption that can fly, fly far. It’s always utterly thrilling and inspiring to hear Ross speak like this. Always an education, too. I’ll come back to that.

 

Along that path of public speech, Ross will sometimes take a quick diversion to dispense with something he finds abhorrent, worthless or dangerous. Now, I’d say that Ross is not, by nature, primarily a polemicist (that’s one reason he doesn’t have many enemies now). But, when he wants to, he makes his displeasure known. I have a vivid memory of Ross in Melbourne, for a Melbourne University event organised by Chris Healy. It was a sad day for him: if I remember this correctly, one of his parents had just died, and he was visibly shaken in the courtyard just before the start of his talk. But nobody in that crowd that day who didn’t know Ross personally would have realised anything was amiss: his talk was great, as usual. And I especially remember the diversion-moment that I’m signalling, when he expressed his disgust at people who make facile jokes about Queensland, as if Queensland is not part of Australia. That’s exactly what we have to understand, said Ross that day: that Queensland is a part of Australia. We’ll come back to this Australian factor in Ross, too.

 

So, Ross the orator. One day in 2007, my producer Alex Strang at the Australian DVD company Madman asked me: “Who else would be good at this DVD audio commentary gig, Adrian?” He meant: who else apart from me, since I had already provided about 30 commentaries for him, and he was getting tired of hearing only my voice! I instantly recommended Ross, and I’m very glad I did. Because his style of oratory is exactly the kind of “talking through” that DVDs need. (I’m more the staccato, speedy, mile-a-minute, take-no-breaths type.) I knew he would be perfect for the task, and I was right. He did 11 feature-length commentaries over the following few years for Madman: films by Bresson, Kurosawa, Sirk, Ozu, Fassbinder, Mizoguchi. (1) These commentaries are very precious, rare commodities today: when I moved to Spain lock, stock and barrel in 2015, I got rid of three-quarters of my consumer-things, but I held onto those discs with Ross’ oratory on them. Just recently, I found myself popping into the player his commentary on Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, because I needed Ross to explain to me what in heck a year of 13 moons is, particularly according to that filmmaker’s imagination. Ross did not disappoint!

 

I’ve probably helped ‘enable’ Ross’ career on only two occasions, but I’m proud of both: the DVD commentaries just mentioned, and his extraordinary text "The Searchers – Dismantled" that was published in Rouge. It is one of his greatest writings, which I always associate in my mind with his piece on the role of breath in films including Orson WellesThe Lady from Shanghai. (2) Both essays enact what I believe is an ideal of film analysis: to get so far inside the materiality of something that you come out the other side, and see it in a whole new cultural and historical context. They remind me of a not-necessarily-rapturous response Ross gave (one-to-one, not – thankfully – in a published review) about my Mad Max book (which already explicitly owed a lot to Ross!): he told me, honestly, that as he was reading it, it seemed I was just re-treading the known, familiar territory on these movies … until he hit a point where I made what he found to be an illuminating new connection with George Miller’s TV productions and their depictions of history. Whew! One could spend many sleepless nights trying to come up with new ways to impress Ross.

 

Not many years ago, I asked Ross’ advice about going with University of Western Australia Publishing for the new paperback version, which had been proposed to me, of my book Mysteries of Cinema. Then it was his turn, once again, to enable me: he told me, yes, they produce the books well and they get them out there fast, and that’s what matters to us these days, since we’re not 20 or 30 or even 50 years old anymore. Ross had done two marvellous, far-sighted essay-collection volumes, Changescapes and Memoryscopes, with Terri-ann White and the team there in 2015 and 2016 (and other books, too). So I went with UWAP, and I’m happy. Ross never gives bad advice.

 

Second tribute: to Ross who has done a hell of a lot of stuff! And in spheres that, personally, I’ll never get near. He’s walked down corridors of power I’ll never walk. I remember the sight of him wearing a construction hat, showing us what were then the empty facades of ACMI in Federation Square, and outlining his magnificent vision of everything that was going to go on inside there. That the place has never really lived up to the promise Ross conceived for it is definitely not his fault – bureaucracy took over when the vision got filed in a drawer. And that’s just one sector where Ross has soared to great heights. I have no real, overall grasp of the complexity of his career – perhaps only he and his partner Kathryn Bird know that. He has become, at times, a high-level consultant, he has been at the helm of vast research projects at universities. He’s even been made a Centenary Professor before reaching the age of 100, which has got to be a compliment! So many gestures of advice and help – decisive help – for so many people (me included) in all his largely invisible public service of support letters, assessments, supervisions, feedback notes …

 

And – this, to me, is one of the most amazing chapters – Ross has moonlighted as a kind of professional talker or interlocutor, one-to-one, in art galleries and elsewhere. What an idea! If you need to re-enchant the role of conversation in your life, go talk to Ross. Makes perfect sense to me. In a professional setting such as Monash University where I worked for a while, I remember it was probably our mutual pal Deane Williams who brought Ross in to talk with the entire film/media staff about how they wanted to teach, and where they wanted the curriculum to go. It was intellectual therapy of the highest order. There were index cards scattered on the ground, where we had anonymously written our innermost thoughts, and Ross would stroll among them, hands behind his back just as Raúl Ruiz used to walk everywhere, throwing observations or questions to the air. It was like a séance. And I remember – this was over ten years ago – Ross advising us then that, in the near future, we would become, we would need to become whether we liked it or not, what he called “mobile audiovisual production units”, working from home at our computers, collaging words and images and sounds … Need I point out how completely prophetic Ross was on this point, especially in Zoom time of the pandemic years?

 

Of course, in that little list of career achievements, I have not yet mentioned a fraction of the creative stuff Ross has done. In poetry, in filmmaking, in curated exhibitions, in all kinds of artistic collaborations with musicians and photographers and video artists and digital programmers and architects and god knows who else. Throughout all those high-level, ultra-professional engagements I’ve alluded to, some of which must have knocked him around a fair bit, Ross has also managed to somehow follow his muse. He is still collaborating with the ‘small press’ culture that I, too, identify with, such as Cordite Publishing, in order to preserve the specialness and fragility of his most personal works. (3) I love the way in which, when it comes right down to it, Ross can invest his entire creativity in a humble image transmitted online, or the shifting combinatory of a few words. Down to it, back to the essence.

 

Which leads us to the third tribute: Ross as a writer. So many milestones here. To some extent, Ross writes like he speaks. There’s that gradual, connective, accumulative, explicative style. There are the disapproving asides or footnotes. There are powerful lyrical, poetic effects. There are conclusions that make you nod your head vigorously and exclaim “Of course!”, even though you, left to your own meagre devices, would not have thought those thoughts in a million years without Ross taking you by the hand and guiding you there. Like in speaking, Ross in writing weighs his words carefully. For all the people in my life, there’s a line in a Leonard Cohen song that, I find, corresponds to them. For Ross, that choice of lyric is easy: “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you’ve heard, the broken or the holy hallelujah”. That’s Ross to a T.

 

I first got to know Ross’ writing in the various art/culture magazines of the early 1980s – I’ll return to those – and especially in the tabloid Filmnews. Like me, Ross had (has) a lot of time and respect for the Filmnews editor, living legend Tina Kaufman. I remember chatting to Ross in the Filmnews office inside the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney where I was living for a while then, 1986 or ’87, and he was telling me about the incredible music scene he had witnessed in the UK while he was staying there – a period he evoked again in his superb essay on digital “churn” (subtitled “Cinema Made Sometime Last Night”). (4) Music that was hard, angular, visceral and intellectual all at once – he evoked it, the whole ephemeral texture of it, so well. And it came with an entire cultural-political conjuncture: the collision of the cool art schools and 1970s semiotic film theory, kind of like those crime scenes the photographic traces of which Ross would later look at so closely and write so intensely about. (5) Ross has always been adept at picking up the positive vibes in complex scenes like that.

 

Ross did occasional reviews for Filmnews during the 1980s, and I cherish them all. Perhaps ‘film critic’ is not the first label that some of his friends would attach to him, but I certainly do. From his review of John CassavetesLove Streams in the mid ‘80s – I personally didn’t think Ross had liked that one enough, but that’s me – to maybe his last one at the start of the ‘90s, on the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, where Ross indelibly boiled the whole film down to its core image of the pale hero literally stepping into shoes that are too big for him … I remember them all. The reviews appeared in a double-page spread which Tina titled “Doing the Rounds”. More crime-scene, police-procedural language there! Both Ross and I recall this reviewing format in Filmnews as an opportunity for tightly condensed, high-voltage, sometimes grandstanding performance. Most of us reviewers there eschewed mere, grubby, banal plot summary – a skill I had to reluctantly learn later for newspaper work – in order to plunge straight into the sensation of the film and what we made of it. The best of these reviews were also, shall we say, conjunctural interventions, aimed, implicitly or explicitly, both for something and against something else that were in the air locally – some trend or fad or idea.

 

Personally, I can truthfully say that several of Ross’ film reviews have provided me with inspiration that has lasted forever: the pithily ambivalent line concluding his short piece on Paul Cox’s My First Wife – “The other salient feature of the film – perhaps a recommendation, perhaps not – is its art” – was something I spun about twelve thousand subsequent words from. And his review of Blue Velvet – a film whose press screening I, in my pre-Lynchian phase, almost walked out of in 1986 – is something I’ve quoted as a spur to thought literally dozens of times in texts and talks (such as at a 2019 Antwerp Summer School presentation on River’s Edge): “This is a deliberately irresponsible film … provocatively amoral. Values exist as sentimental residues, as vestiges of a society in moral twilight, or as clay pigeons to be blasted by the films’ cynical armouries”. (6) Wow!

 

Ross and I have a confluence of taste on certain films that surprises and delights even me. We both love Paul Morrissey’s Mixed Blood, for instance. I remember once he told me, probably in 1988, that he dreamed of writing a piece on Walter Hill’s action film Extreme Prejudice and – if my memory is correct – James Toback’s The Pick-Up Artist, both films that I, too, have written about with the correct enthusiasm. I deduce from these selections that Ross has a taste for films that dramatise, in a necessarily messy, perhaps even confused way, networks and relations of power. Such films blow up political relations into spectacles of violence and/or romance.

 

This leads me a moment where, for a brief but precious time, we worked together: I was designated script editor on his film project On This Road – unmade, but it re-emerged, duly transformed, as the great book Seven Versions of an Australian Badland in 2002 – and we attended together a workshop with the Czech-born screen-advisor guru, Frank Daniel, who, in fact, had taught David Lynch his famous “80 index card” (arranged in 8 rows) technique – is this where Ross got the idea to scatter index cards on the ground? Frank was a rather phlegmatic fellow who – I will never forget this – ultimately advised Ross, at the point of blowing his top: “Your script needs more explicit sex!”

 

An aside. I made a Word file out of that Blue Velvet review mentioned above, all 580 high-powered words of it, and sent it to a pretty famous (and still young-ish) film critic in New York. He replied, “I should get a bit more acquainted with Australian film criticism”. Yes, they should. They all should. I am now on my hobby-horse: I’ve often pondered what I think are the Lost Generations of contemporary Australian writing, which are the generations of Ross and me, and the 1970s one just before us. Writers who work between genres and between media, between essays and fiction, between the academy and journalism, between creation and curation, between cultural studies and cultural policy. We are a smart and slippery lot, we lost generations. Too smart and slippery to be found, it seems. And that is especially so in the wider, global world of letters and thought and art and critique. Being Australian does us no favours on this level, I’m afraid. Of course, there are exceptions, moments of breakthrough and recognition on the world stage – for instance, Ross’ magisterial 1992 book South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia published in the USA by Indiana University Press. I have never had a book published by any university press in the USA! Neither has Bill Routt, Sylvia Lawson, Philip Brophy, Freda Freiberg, Ted Colless, and a dozen other lost souls I could mention. In Ross’ case, although I passionately believe he should already be far better known and oft-cited everywhere, I have the feeling this particular dream or ideal may not matter so much to him as it does to me. He appears to have found peace in the world he has made for himself. He so often celebrates the spirit of place, dwelling in a place. Australia is clearly one of those places for Ross – not in any banal, jingoistic sense, but profoundly. I envy this particular depth of his experience.

 

Fourth tribute: Ross’ sensibility is open to many things, but he has never fundamentally changed with the fickle tide of cultural or intellectual fashions. The enduring coherence of his vision of things is astounding. No sudden conversions or fanatical realignments in his history. I remember purchasing The Diminishing Paradise, his first book, in a shop in 1984; I was already familiar with Ross as an essayist and film critic, as I’ve mentioned, but the existence of this book in the world (Ross was still in his 20s) surprised me at the time. It’s the basis of, and of a piece with, so much that he subsequently created: the film Camera Natura (1986), the essays on Australian landscape, the ruminations on a modern ecology that includes the images and sounds of culture as a part of nature. It leads right through to Wild in 1993, which is, for me, his best movie. I remember being spurred to read some Eric Rolls because of it, someone whose work I would probably never encountered otherwise – and this is something else to celebrate about Ross, that he has read (and digested) more than, and differently to, any of us in his circle. I remember once telling him about Alessandro Marota, an Italian postgrad I was advising, who was analysing museum exhibition design according to the obscure, new-fangled, semiotic science of “pathematics”. “Ah yes, pathematics … ”, Ross coolly replied. He knew all about it already!  And I recall the moment he recommended that I consult After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981) by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, another book I’d never heard of until he mentioned it. What was Ross trying to tell me then, I wonder?

 

This brings me to another early context. I’ve told our bonding story of ’85. But before then, for a few years, we probably regarded each other a bit warily, mainly at a distance. In fact, a bunch of my friendships with people from the ‘80s started this way (it was the same with Laleen Jayamanne and Tom O’Regan, for instance). I remember a mutual acquaintance from the era telling me that Ross had said (this was during the Baudrillardian Futur·Fall moment of 1984) that being in an audience at one of my talks was like having barbed wire strung all around the room, and everyone was nervously poised for the moment when it would be pulled in tight on them … not very Ciceronian of me, I suppose! It was a paranoia-inducing bit of intra-scene gossip, typical of the time. What was underlying or pre-dating Ross’ unpleasant, barbed wire sensation? My entry point into the “Sydney scene” (so arcane and mysterious to us in Melbourne!) was essentially through the post-art-school magazine On the Beach, which was kind-of a funky Sydney counterpart to Paul Taylor-era Art & Text. But, as I recall it (and I may have misconstrued this at the time), it seemed to me that, a few issues in, there was a growing rift cleaving the editorial line of the magazine: on one side (where I was lined up), the postmodern, “anything goes”, appropriation, Popist, soft-nihilist, Baudrillardian side; and on the other, a more politically-minded group, hip to ‘80s cultural movements but eager to retain and redefine the political wisdom learnt in the fires of 1970s theories. Ross, it seemed to me, was at the head of that second “faction”, and a fiery editorial by him, heading up a special double-issue of On the Beach, laid it on the line. (7) And, once again, all of Ross is already there in that one-page statement: the invocation of radical montage, the matters of social conscience, the impatience with pompous, reactionary triviality, and the personal, heartfelt voice. The Ross I came to know 35 years ago is, in all essential details, that same person today, with his deep fellow-feeling for communities, for indigenous cultures, for experimental artists, for passionate amateurs and risk-taking conceptualists …

 

Ross and Kath! What a great couple. I tried to figure out how long they’ve been together, and Kath confirmed it in one of her Facebook posts, I was right: three decades. That is some achievement; I have yet to reach it myself with a partner, but I hope to. I’ve known Kath since the later ‘80s, through the art, film and publishing scenes in Melbourne: La Trobe, Experimenta, Agenda magazine. She comes from a ‘film family’; her much-loved father John (who passed away in 2013) was a famous animator and teacher at Swinburne. It was wonderful to spot the first signs of Ross & Kath’s future closeness while Ross was teaching in Melbourne in the early ‘90s. There are vast stretches of Ross & Kath’s shared experience since then I know little-to-nothing about, except for the images – their relation to Japan, for instance. (8) I do know they’ve both faced health challenges, and wisely re-shaped their lives accordingly. I well remember all the work Kath did with her collaborators on “The Booth”, a popular installation that sat for ages in the entrance hall of ACMI. And I have delighted at the glimpses of her collage art, down the years, on social media. Such fantastic synchrony, on so many levels, between Kath and Ross, a match truly made in heaven. It was Kath who contacted me a little while ago about their generous (and generative) plan to celebrate the final period of Ross’ life, to “do death differently” to the way it’s usually done in white Australia (with repression, evasion and clenched tears – either that, or an equally repressive and odious “celebrity roast”).

 

I spoke to Ross once when he was, physically this time, in a bad way – severe back pain, as I recall. It was the media preview for an incredible ACMI exhibition, 2003’s Remembrance, that he had worked on. (9) Ross, as always, was on hand to guide our understanding, even though he was in agony and could barely either stand up or sit down successfully. There was a Chris Marker work in the exhibition, the seemingly infinite CD-ROM titled Immemory (1997). Off to one side of the madding (and maddening) press crowd, we got to talking (again) about Marker, whom Ross had written about so brilliantly in the ‘80s (I later recommended him as writer for a big Pompidou Centre catalogue concerning Marker, which never came out – those goddamn French!). I reminded Ross of Marker’s age at the moment of the Remembrance exhibition: already in his 80s (he died in 2012 at 91). “That’s serious history”, replied Ross. (I quoted that phrase and credited it to Ross in a catalogue essay for Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art that – I can testify – Marker actually read, because he personally did the layout for it! You can fleetingly spot the book on a table in his apartment in Agnès Varda’s 2011 video portrait of Marker.)

 

Serious history: not just a quantity or extent of time, but a quality of bearing witness, of absorbing and reflecting the changing times of the 20th century (and beyond), of making sense of them and showing hopeful paths forward. I’ve shared a little bit of serious history, in my own way, with Ross – often at a distance, through occasional encounters, some correspondence, and mutual following of each others’ work. It is an absolute honour to know and love him.

 

 

NOTES (March 2023)

1. The complete list of these commentaries, and most of Ross’ works in various media (it goes up until 2021), can be found on his website: http://www.rossgibson.com.au/WORKS.html. An online archive is also in preparation. Ross’ most recent major publications yet to be noted on the website are Flooded Canyon (Upswell, 2022) and, in collaboration with Kathryn Bird, 14 Breaths (A Published Event, limited edition artwork, 2022). back

 

2. “Acting and Breathing”, in Lesley Stern & George Kouvaros (eds), Falling For You: Essays on Cinema and Performance (Sydney: Power Institute, 1999). back

 

3. See http://cordite.org.au/author/rossgibson/. back

 

4. “Churn: Cinema Made Sometime Last Night”, in F. Collins, J. Landman & S. Bye (eds), A Companion to Australian Cinema (Wily Blackwell, 2019). back

 

5. Ross pursued this interest across many years, works, and media forms. See, for example, his two contributions to the “Crime Scenes” special issue of Law Text Culture, Vol. 13 No. 1 (2009), downloadable at https://ro.uow.edu.au/ltc/vol13/iss1/. back

 

6. All of Ross’ Filmnews contributions are findable on the Trove website of the National Library of Australia; I expect they will eventually be reprinted, more legibly, as part of the archiving project devoted to his work (see Note 1). Trove itself is currently under threat of governmental erasure; see a recent, alarming report. back

 

7. “Death’s Contexts”, On the Beach, double issue 3 & 4 (1984). back

 

8. Kath & Ross wrote a superb collaborative text about Kyoto, “Of Time and the City”, in 2018; it was published by our mutual friend Kevin Murray (a polymath similar to Ross) in Garland magazine: https://garlandmag.com/article/of-time-and-the-city. back

 

9. Between the initial writing of this tribute and his passing, Ross created several further major audiovisual works, such as the head_phone_film_poems series exhibited at ACMI June-November 2021. It is now permanently archived online here. back

 


© Adrian Martin 20 November 2020 / lightly revised & annotated 2 March 2023


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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