Carlton + Godard = Cinema

(Nigel Buesst, Australia, 2003)


Nigel Buesst, a living legend of Melbourne’s film scene, was the founder of the St Kilda Film Festival, an event which showcases short and independent films. So it was poetic justice that this festival premiered Buesst’s two and a half hour documentary, Carlton + Godard = Cinema.

This lively and touching testament represents – like James Clayden‘s bold avant-garde work – some of the best work being done in Australian cinema in the new millennium.

Clayden actually appears at the start of Buesst’s film – as a director sitting in Genevieve’s café in Carlton, waiting in vain for a producer and his finance to materialise. Buesst takes us back to a time when filmmaking, on the cheap, seemed easier: Carlton in the 1960s, triangulated between La Mama theatre, Melbourne University Film Society and Johnny’s Green Room.

Perhaps the spirit of that era is best caught in the visage of Brian Davies, doing his level best to look like a Jean-Luc Godard from the suburbs. Buesst provides excerpts from Davies’ groundbreaking films Brake Fluid (1969) and Pudding Thieves (1967). Yet Davies – like several of the filmmakers covered in this documentary – does not rate an entry in the recently published Oxford Companion to Australian Film.

So Buesst’s film is a work of excavation. It is full of remarkable sights – luminaries like Jack Hibberd, John Duigan and Alan Finney in their youthful, dancing days. Rare films of the period including Dave Minter’s Hey Al Baby (1969) and Peter Elliot’s The Girlfriends (1967) impress one as fine comedies of manners, alternately hilarious and melancholic.

Buesst has clearly taken his inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s documentaries on American and Italian cinema. Like Scorsese, he essentially compiles long, lovingly chosen clips from films, and talks us through them on the soundtrack – like in a DVD running commentary. (This is the slightly lumpy form also of Thom Anderson’s essay-videos.)

Also like Scorsese, Buesst finds himself condensing the original films, perhaps in order to take out their dead moments. This procedure proves to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I was grateful for such a generous glimpse of these elusive Melbourne treats, rather than the usual, frustrating, twenty-second grabs. On the other hand, I would have at times preferred a more conventionally curated program of these works in their entirety.

Using the Scorsese method also leads to some curious exclusions. For Buesst, it is only celluloid, the primary evidence, that matters. We learn precious little about the personal or social lives of the filmmakers mentioned (beyond the fact that they lived, studied or acted in Carlton), how they financed their films, or indeed whether they are now alive or dead.

Only a moving section on the pioneering Giorgio Mangiamele (whose experimental feature Clay went to Cannes in 1965) provides this wealth of detail.

Although Buesst’s trademark droll humour is evident in every line of the voice-over narration of Carlton + Godard = Cinema, he doesn’t delve terribly far into the fascinating sociology of the period. He captures well these Melbourne filmmakers’ adoption of the superficial look of the French Nouvelle Vague – the cars, the bars, the sunglasses – but glides over the faintly misogynist, chauvinist swagger projected in these movies. And we don’t hear a word about the beginnings of women’s cinema in this same period.

This documentary rests upon an odd, somewhat forced premise – that the Melbourne filmmakers of the ’60s were inspired by Godard, and that when they gave up their heroic mission, Godard’s films also disappeared from local film culture until last year, when Éloge de l’amour (2001) played at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

This overlooks the theatrical release of three Godard films in the ’80s, not to mention the successive generations of Godard wannabes at the Melbourne Cinémathèque or in university film courses.

But no matter, the basic point still holds: that a spirit of independence once reigned in the tiny but intense world of Melbourne filmmaking, before the era of film schools, government subsidies and arthouse multiplexes. Carlton + Godard = Cinema is a must-see.

MORE Buesst: Fun Radio / The Destruction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral

MORE Australian documentary: Facing the Music, One Way Street, Wildness, Mamadrama, Mademoiselle and the Doctor, Original Schtick

© Adrian Martin May 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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