The Dispassionate Industry

by Adrian Danks

Over the last year or so I’ve spent a lot time thinking about the small corpus of movies that deal with Australian film history. This lack of volume, focus and even interest is part-and-parcel of an often-amnesiac cinema that is inadequately attentive to local, national and global film histories, as well as the lessons they have to offer. It also highlights an unsurprising lack of traction for fiction narratives and documentaries that dramatise the often less than dramatic patterns of production, distribution, exhibition, financing and reception (let alone the vast untapped history of what might be called “screen culture”) that have long defined and preoccupied the thinking about cinema in Australia. Even the titles of two of the key works on Australian film history before and after the “revival” (itself a convenient narrative that fails to account for the diversity of what we should call Australian cinema) – David Stratton’s The Last New Wave (1980) and the documentary series The Celluloid Heroes (Donald Crombie and Robert Francis, 1995) – suggest a degree of desperation, drawing inexact reference, in the first instance, to the groundbreaking global film movements of the 1950s and 1960s and in the second to the commonly desperate narrative of brave souls (mostly heroically male, of course, and seldom occupying any other role than director) scratching out some kind of heroic career or oeuvre within a sparse terrain.


But when looking at these films more closely – from The Passionate Industry (Joan Long, 1973), The Picture Show Man (John Power, 1977) and Newsfront (Phillip Noyce, 1978) to Hunt Angels (Alec Morgan, 2006), Carlton + Godard = Cinema (Nigel Buesst, 2003) and The Archive Project (John Hughes, 2006) – other patterns started to emerge. Many of the films made since the turn of the century suggest a gratifying shift to a more dispersive, grittier, playful and less nationally or nationalistically focused vision of Australian cinema and its history, as well as the role that a broader screen culture has to play within this. This is a view that is supported by much of the scholarly work to emerge across the same period, although it isn’t reflected in more popular histories like David Stratton: A Cinematic Life (Sally Aitken, 2017) and Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008). This emphasis draws a parallel with my own peripatetic relationship to Australian cinema over the years, a set of experiences gleaned across festival screenings, late-night TV showings and a slew of other often less than salubrious screening opportunities. This perspective is supported by the sobering reality of the global indifference that meets most Australian cinema – we’re linked to the networks of international screen culture and completely on our own.


Joan Long
Brian Davies
Tracey Moffatt
Joris Ivens


But this sense of dispersal also suggests the possibilities for a more decentralised and diverse Australian cinema, one less beholden to the whims and commercial imperatives of funding bodies, national broadcasters and exhibitors. I’m all for publically funded or supported screen production and culture, but this needs to favour diversity, aesthetics, quality, access and history rather than focus on unlikely possibility of commercial success. The true richness of Australian cinema incorporates a diverse range of works across documentary, short form television, experimental cinema and then fiction feature filmmaking. As the documentaries by Hughes, Buesst and others suggest, we need an idea of “national” cinema that brings to mind a complex roll call of names (Joan Long, Rupert Kathner, Brian Davies, Ivan Gaal, Michael Powell, Tracey Moffatt, Joris Ivens, Catherine Duncan and the rest, including the multitude of often-forgotten figures from broader screen culture) and organisations that complicate and unsettle neat notions of origin. Do we even need the designation “Australian” any longer? These “dispersive” films about Australian cinema history recognise both the value of looking through a local lens and the total inadequacy of doing so exclusively.

Adrian Danks is Associate Dean of Media at RMIT University and co-curator of the Melbourne Cinematheque. His most recent book is American-Australian Cinema (Palgrave; co-edited by Steve Gaunson and Peter Kunze).

Published March 27, 2018. © Adrian Danks, March 2018