Criticism Without Myth?

Richard Smith reviews the first three titles in the Australian Screen Classics series from Currency Press.

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A young disenfranchised man in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973) says, of a minor German singer, “Like all imitators she is better than the original. She doesn’t have her own myth.” The Australian Screen Classics series, published by Currency Press, is also an imitator. The British Film Institute publish two substantial similar series: studies of Screen Classics and Modern Screen Classics. These series are avowedly marked by the modernist myth of the great work. Like the BFI series, the Australian Screen Classics series imitates the critical myth of the great work. Each monograph in the series is about an individual film, which is subject to a close reading that inveigles its way into the film itself, first by adopting the same title as the film, second by proceeding from beginning to end, scene by scene, and third by the inclusion of stills from the film into the body of the critical text. And like the BFI series, each monograph is combined with others to constitute a (loose) canon. As critical gestures they try to move beyond mere taste, or at least try to extend the value and reach of personal taste. So while it doesn’t have its own myth, the Australian Screen Classics series is seeking access to established myths of cultural and aesthetic value.

Screen classic is a retrospective designation. It refers to past works, but in ways that show how those same works continue to affect audiences and films made after them. So the retrospection is not necessarily nostalgic. There is a sense that these works, reoriented through critical work, return the present to itself. Paradoxically, then, there is a restorative project at work, to bring these works, in danger of being forgotten, back to public consciousness and to arouse interest in them as objects of reflection, reminiscence, and ongoing inquiry.In this sense they also serve as a counter-point from which to examine contemporary cinematic product. This in itself raises some of the questions of succession: how should contemporary works relate to classics, what is the burden of inheritance, how does cinematic history evolve in a country such as Australia, and in a film culture and industry that hybridises the national, the commercial, and the cultural? The problem is that there is no room in studies like these for an engagement with contemporary work. The works stand out in isolation, as if preserved in ether.

In the Currency Press series, The designation screen classic is qualified as Australian Screen Classics. Thus the field of modern cinema and criticism is nationalised. Nations, like artistic canons, are also retrospective designations, slippery figures of myth and narrative. So an immediate question arises as to what happens to modernist forms of criticism when they come under the banner of national culture. A second, related question concerns the love of cinema: what happens to cinephilia when it is brought under the aegis of national cinema? What is it to love Australian films? What is the combination of qualities that make up this sentiment? And how do national myths and cinematic myths interact? So far, three monographs have appeared: Christos Tsiolkas reads Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground, Louis Nowra reads Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, and Adrian Martin reads George Miller’s Mad Max series, Mad Max , Mad Max Road Warrior, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

Cinephilia is a prerequisite for the writing and films identified as ‘Australian’ delineate the borders of the series. Thus the writing must combine the passionate and the national. The series editor, Jane Mills, writes that “[o]ur national cinema plays a vital role in our cultural heritage and in showing us what it is to be Australian”…”[a]ll we ask of our writers is that they feel passionate about the films they choose”. Passion being what it is, inconstant and discriminate, this requirement by no means ensures a uniform or distinct critical vision across the monographs. The national being what it is, partial and sacred, by all means requires uniformity and constituency of vision. To my mind the component of the monographs that brings these disparate forces together is an abiding interest in the films and critical modes that emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s. These essays express passions developed at this timethat endure to the present, and recount issues and agendas that emerged at this time. I am inclined to argue that the series is marked by generational passions and tensions that are akin in some ways (and not in others) to those avowed by Eustache and other members of a generation obviously taken with international perspectives and a certain kind of cosmopolitan love of cinema. (These are passions that could be described as post-European nationalist, where film emerged as a terrain of sentiment that challenged, at least in the privacy of one’s own viewing space, the sentiments of nation, a terrain where love overcame pride.)

But in these instances these cosmopolitan desires are awkwardly attached to national desires. Any idea of a national cinema drawn from this series of monographs must present itself as an inconstant and partial figure. The idea of a partial and inconstant national culture is intriguing when we consider that the Howard Coalition Government generates popular nationalist sentiment by excising parts of the nation from itself. Perhaps the fragmentable nation is indicative of the new nationalisms of post-colonial nation states. Whereas the nation formerly used exteriority to delineate an interior, it is now the borders themselves that become the permeable terrain of the nation. Small, sparsely inhabited islands become the borders and interiors of a nation that necessarily describes itself as an exteriority , as a no-man’s land. If this is the case, then a cinephiliac nationalism would constitute a quite different take on cinephilia as a post-nationalist sentiment. I am extrapolating here, and it must be said that the writers themselves do not make much of the national framework.My point is that the concept of nation that ‘unifies’ the series is at present in touch, inevitably, with a political moment that seems to be redefining the nation as a cultural, political, geographic entity, even as the series seems to belong to the Hawke-Keating Creative Nation agenda. The Howard Coalition seems to have taken the differential concept of the nation developed in the 1980s and 90s and redefined its geo-political and cultural dynamics.

Having said this, the diverse qualities of the series make the monographs worthy of a read. The cinephiliac brief given to the authors leads to different strands of thought and different approaches to the films at hand. For the sake of brevity I have called them existentialist (Tsiolkas), structuralist (Martin), and auteurist (Nowra). Existentialism plays a part in all three essays and is, I think, a vital element of the kinds of passion betrayed in the essays. Each author professes, either explicitly or implicitly, that the film under the pen has played a significant role in provoking the author to pick up the pen in the first place, to become a writer, or has been a major factor in legitimising the decision to do so, or has been one of the qualities that gives the author’s pen its hue and texture.

The existentialism is most pronounced in Tsiolkas’s essay, where personal reminiscence mingles with analysis. At one point Tsiolkas essays about his own cinephiliac desires in terms that make him indistinguishable from the young Tom Allen, the central protagonist in The Devil’s Playground :

With adolescence and my hesitant lurchings towards adulthood, I began to immerse myself in film. Am I simply being nostalgic, or is it true that never again will there be a time so delightful, so precious, like the honeymoon period of first love? I was being deliciously seduced, royally fucked by film itself. And like a young kid discovering the joys of onanism I could not leave film alone. I was going to the pictures four or five time a week, spending all my pocket money on the movies, spending hours on the floor of the local suburban library reading anything I could on film. There is something about the film buff experience that is definitely connected to sexual inexperience and longing (29).

Cinema is a bodily pleasure, and cinephilia a writing of the body, a form of autobiography. Tsiolkas’s reminiscences draw our attention to the parallel course of his own sexual awakening and that of Tom Allen–who is also struggling with the diminution of his own innocence. Tom’s dilemmas are also Christos’ dilemmas, at least that’s how it is remembered. The cinema serves as seminary and polis, a place where desires are organised and ideas bandied about.

There is also a sense that the polis provided by the public cinema holds nostalgic meaning for Tsiolkas who confesses that film theory never did it for him, and that he is alienated by the cinematic tastes of today’s film students. At another point, after seeing a restored print of the film, he bemoans the lack of taste of some of those that also live in the cinematic polis:

After leaving the cinema, still stirred by and overwhelmed by a film that I’ve carried with me for twenty-five years, I went to have a beer, and listened to a conversation between two young men who had also seen the film. They were dissing it for its narrative incoherence. It has no plot, what the fuck happened? I felt anger then, that unique fury of a film buff, that moment when a matter of taste becomes a matter of principle. I wanted to yell at them, yell something along the lines: film isn’t just entertainment, you Lara Croft Stepford cocksuckers, there’s a space for ellipses, tangents and explorations. Without this space realist cinema would not exist and most genre cinema would fossilise into a series of vacant repetitive gestures. Is that what you want: cinema to be like a video game? (62)

I found this excursus about moronic contemporary viewers more than somewhat disingenuous, merely because Tsiolkas is not giving today’s viewers the kind of latitude he would have demanded for himself. He had to get his cinematic thrills in public houses whereas today’s students often have to get theirs, if they’re watching the same films, within the disciplinary framework and institutional confines of the University. Tsiolkas fails to notice that the generational power of middle-aged cineastes and cinephiles has been enshrined in institutions that often do to students’ tastes what the seminary does to Tom Allen’s sexuality. Tsiolkas’s tastes are the mainstream in universities. Having spent some time with new film students, it is clear to me that students today are decidedly turned off by the self-important bellicosity given to some of the ‘avant garde’ of the 1970s and 1980s. Their techniques are now, actually, clichés. Cinema and video have developed their languages immensely since the 1970s and 80s. These changes are not really reflected in film studies. In some places film studies seems to end around 1985, in some it just got started and then suffered under the stampede to cultural studies, and in others still film study is merely an adjunct to literary studies, and really begins and ends with “The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock”.

My gripe with Tsiolkas’s passage is that it sounds so familiar, from so many lecturers and teachers precious about the new cinemas and who cannot understand why today’s students are not into it. “They have no sense of history, they just want entertainment, they have no attention span, they don’t really like cinema, they don’t know where things come from.” To me the issue is not that people have forgotten the cinema of the 1970s and 80s but that it has been spectacularly successful. Is not the current trend to make the audience part of the production itself a logical extension of making the means of production visible to the audience?

Nowra’s essay is also existential but not autobiographical in any sense. If anything, it is a biography of the film–the source of both its charm and its limitations. Where Tsiolkas, the author, adopts a literary mode, Nowra submerges himself in the work and proper name of another author. Nowra’s account of Walkabout is itself a walk-about the career and style of Nicolas Roeg. But this is about as far as it goes. Most of the essay is taken up with a re-telling of the film. The parasitic nature of auteur criticism is most evident in a piece like this where it no longer functions as a prelude to some other analysis but as the body of the text itself. An evident aspect of Nowra’s essay is that he is working with a semiology (or an iconology) that comes out of the 1970s and 80s. The walk is immersed in a social and cultural dialectic between British and (a projected) Indigenous subjectivity. British subjectivity is signified in the actions, passions and values of the girl, her adamant civility, cleanliness, sexual restraint, and Indigenous subjectivity is signified by the Black boy and the white boy. The white boy’s function is interesting in that there is a sense that he is young enough to move towards the Black boy whereas the white girl is unmovable.

The relation between British subjectivity and Indigenous subjectivity is not presented neutrally, not at least as Nowra sees it. British subjectivity is complicated by the fact that colonial concepts of land as space for national industry is criticised as naïve at best and straight-out violent at worst. Colonialism is presented via futile and ridiculous attempts to sprinkler square patches of lawn and through shots of the rusted, ruined remains of mines. The failure of these attempts at colonising the uncolonisable (nature rather than Australia) is evident in the closure of the mine and in the depopulation of the settlements that surround it. Furthermore, there is no sense that the white girl recognizes that these forlorn attempts at ‘civilisation’ have any relevance to her own recent experience. There is no sense that she has embarked on any sort of ‘journey’, and this is also why by the end, she is such a dislikable character. Contrary to Nowra, who wants to believe that the girl’s romanticised memories of events that did not take place and relations that did not evolve signify that something moved within her, I feel the ending is bleaker than this, and that her memories are a romantic projection on her current dissatisfaction, as if, like romanticism itself, the world of nature becomes a screen for fantasy, and that this actually demonstrates a great degree of sexual alienation. Thus, I read the ending as offering the possibility of a critique of Romanticism rather than lapsing into, or resting on, Romantic notions of experience. This reading is strengthened by Nowra’s own reading of the significance of Roeg’s vision of Australia for Australians. Nowra argues that Roeg’s British Romanticism is intriguing because it actually presents an image of Australia that was hitherto obscured to Australians, as if this view for the first time, in film at least, allows us to see the land as Nature, to see it therefore as dense and vibrant, not as empty and desolate. This is figured in the decisive shift in action after the white children meet the Black boy. Up to this point, the children have been on a rapid downward slope of attrition and death, which culminates in the ‘dried-up’ billabong, and swings around when the teenage Aboriginal boy inserts a straw into the sand and sucks out the water that has pooled beneath the surface. From this point on the land is figured in terms of abundance, and there is no sense that the children are lost or that the landscape is arid, hostile, desolate or even dangerous.

If anything, the danger swiftly becomes social, as the girl’s indifference and sexual and racial fear begins to eat away at the Aboriginal boy. It is her presence in the life of the young Black boy that takes centre stage, and to this extent she quickly assumes the position vacated by her father. This is also apparent when we think that the white girl and not the white boy is shown at the end, (I, for one would be interested in what became of the white boy). And she is shown in the same apartment performing the same tasks as her mother but she is in an emotional state resembling that of her father–suicidal. I think Nowra’s reading falls too neatly into a framework established when he saw the film and is not developed in the light of the period since its release.

So, to this end, it is a reading that recalls the debates of the seventies but does not move them on and does not take account of how they have shifted, or how the film may sit within the cultural landscape now. Let’s put Walkabout in a comparative framework for a moment. How might its figuration of the fence have been transformed by Rabbit Proof Fence ? And how might its figuration of the walkabout be affected by Yolngu Boy and Beneath Clouds ? And how might its notions of traditional life and manhood have been affected by both these films? Lastly, how might the danger of white presence be transformed by the plethora of films by Indigenous filmmakers that discourse on survival but also actively reconceptualise the land with audio-visual technology? The problem here may be the cinephiliac brief, to just write about something you love, and the evident result of a nostalgic critical gesture. But it is precisely this nostalgia that Christian Metz drew attention to when he determined that film theorists must love but must also not love the cinema, that they must insert a scientific distance between cinematic desire and writing about cinema.

Adrian Martin takes a more analytic approach to his chosen film(s), the Mad Max trilogy. Martin scientifically dissects the film and places it at the forefront of the history of the new Australian cinema–a purportedly subversive gesture given that the film was funded and made outside the standing national bodies of development and funding. Martin’s opening gesture is bold, even grandiose, when he suggests that something very important begins (and perhaps ends) with Mad Max .

No other Australian films have influenced world cinema and popular culture as widely and lastingly as George Miller’s Mad Max movies … From a horde of trashy Italian exploitation films to the hip homage by the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona ; from a low budget, leftist allegory like Diesel to a grandiose Hollywood epic like Waterworld … the trace of max is everywhere (1).

From this passage we would be led to believe that Mad Max came out of nowhere; that it did not, in the first instance and in the subsequent installments, borrow from everything at its disposal. The notion that somehow Mad Max plays a vital and structural role in contemporary B culture leads me to wonder whether Mad Max criticism has not sought to be as influential in setting agendas within national cinematic culture as the film itself may indeed have been.

This in turn leads me to wonder whether there is not a continuing structuralist legacy in criticism about Australian cinema and culture. This is by way of saying that Martin’s reading, I think, suffers from its structuralist account of action. The structuralist urge to stop the frame, to segment scenes and then to reconstitute them anew as a critical unity is deeply problematic when encountering action films. This is evinced in the section where Goose’s post-coital ride is divided into 18 separate shots, each numbered and spatially described. Critics could learn the lesson of the Bordwell-Thomson approach to film analysis, that students get bored for a very good reason­–the film disappears when the frame is stopped. Having said this, it is not a problem easily solved. Even Gilles Deleuze’s attempt to retain a sense of cinematic movement in his analysis stumbles when he tackles the action-image by reducing it to a set of montage laws, and generic formulas borrowed from Noel Burch. The advantage of treating cinema as duration is precisely that it does not seek to enumerate the elements’ movement but rather to adumbrate movement through writing style, even if the movement is still arrived at through a sketch of the bodily turmoils experienced by the spectator, or analyst. This is I think why Martin’s analysis is much better when he resorts to language such as “fury” and “shuddering”, and when he describes Goose’s bike as “a musical instrument”.

These are admittedly only the first three installments of the series and I am ready to recant from these critical points at a later date. Thus far, though, one would have to say that while the films chosen are certainly worth the effort, the critical mode is not very diverse and gives the series the sniff of an archival account of film culture.

Richard Smith is Lecturer in Film Studies in the Department of Art History and Theory, University of Sydney.

Adrian Martin’s The Mad Max Movies , Louis Nowra’s Walkabout and Christos Tsiolkas’ The Devil’s Playground were all published by Currency Press in Sydney 2002

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