Barret Hodson: The fall of Australian film culture

Jeremy Eccles

The Sydney Festival offered Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in the Opera House this year – the 1976 Soviet restoration of the iconic film accompanied by the SSO playing a Shostakovich score based largely on his Eleventh Symphony – The Year 1905, inspired by Eisenstein’s film. What was dispiriting about this otherwise splendid festival event was the tittering that accompanied the first 15 minutes of the film; an otherwise intelligent and appreciative audience revealing its ignorance of the film and its genre.

For Barrett Hodsdon-who wasn’t there because the Opera House context was “so wrong” for any possibility of understanding what Eisenstein was saying about the Russian Revolution-this sad ignorance was a direct consequence of Australia’s failure to nurture film culture anywhere near as enthusiastically as it nurtured a film industry. “I’ve seen a melodrama by Max Ophuls heckled at the Sydney Film Festival by young film-makers who thought they were superior to that sort of stuff. It shocked the overseas presenter. No wonder a Sydney Festival audience was unprepared for Eisenstein’s great art, his invention of montage in Potemkin.”

As someone who grew up in Britain, I saw Eisenstein at school, the French New Wave at uni, and could always dip into the British Film Institute’s cinemateque or publications when I worked in London. According to Hodsdon, I’d have had most of the same opportunities in Australia. His study of film culture in the 60s reveals the same student earnestness about film-”Queensland Uni had a Douglas Sirk retrospective in 1970, 2 years before Edinburgh discovered him.” But no BFI emerged. Sydney and Melbourne Filmmaker Co-ops made, showed and distributed consciously avant garde films in the 70s; declining to Super-8 capers in the 80’s-categorized by Hodsdon as “The age of cultural abundance-signs without meaning.”

He doesn’t even bother to consider the 90s, ‘The Time of Tropfest’, “when an independent film-maker-which used to refer to an outsider like Albie Thoms, the Cantrells or Paul Winkler relentlessly doing his own thing for 30 years-came to mean a beginner aiming for Hollywood via a gag film at Tropfest!”

The feisty Hodsdon was, of course, involved in all this. “He made a cineaste-referential film, Beyond Fuller in the early 70s”, according to his CV, before moving into specialist film culture research at AFTRS, the Film, Radio and TV Board of the Australia Council, the National Library and the Australian Screen Studies Association. He has (so far) vainly sought to establish a cinemateque at the MCA in Sydney. And he has a doctorate from UNSW-his thesis entitled, Retheorising Classic Hollywood Narrative.

Despite all of which, he can say with some bitterness, “I’ve devoted my life fairly futilely to serious criticism. But without a serious film culture, I’m lumbered with entertainment.”

It all started to go wrong in the 70s. In a somewhat belated paean of enthusiasm for the full gamut of film culture on page 129 of his book, Barrett Hodsdon barely draws breath: “The emerging base of film culture was more complex and nuanced than the high flown nationalist rhetoric (so essential to trigger the new Australian cinema in the political arena) and its conventional film industry assumptions permitted. The breadth was wide indeed-from low budget features to abstract avant-garde filmmaking, from critical debates about film culture entities to abstract controversies over screen theory, from the strident activism of new film organizations to groping attempts to formulate cultural policy, from radical agitprop filmmaking to documentary social exploration, from specialized historical screening gestures of the NFTA to the new hipsterism of repertory cinema.”

That’s what might have been. If only nationalism had not got in the way of bonding with the wider world of cinema (though it surely needed more than a derivative pursuit of Cahiers du Cinema auteurism). If only the Australian Film Institute hadn’t supplanted the braver and more coherent national screening systems of the National Film Theatre of Australia with a glossy awards priority (which itself now looks stuffed). If only academics didn’t have to spend all their time holding on to their jobs, replacing film cultural studies with “the rampaging of cultural studies.” If only the magazines that might have supported “serious” film criticism hadn’t folded – unsupported by institutions like the Australian Film Commission which has had an overview at least of the spending of $3 billion of public money in 30 years on a production industry that “tells our stories” to about 7% of Aussie film viewers in a good year.

All sadly true. But I think I beg to differ from Hodsdon on the fundamental value of film culture. While he sees it as an end in itself, involving “the wider film community”, I see film culture as, amongst other things, a means to the desirable end of making better Aussie films which reach and engage the other 93% of local film-goers. Reach them, reach the world.

Which makes Baz Luhrmann a key man for me – but not for Hodsdon. Dismissed by Barrett as a tool of Fox and “not cine-literate in any sense I know”, I see Luhrmann’s work as more ‘cultured’ than anyone else working at the moment. The range of references is huge – visual, aural and literary; though the speed at which they’re offered obviously terrified the older Oscar voter! Of course, Luhrmann has no film education; coming to cinema from the stage.

Which raises questions about the cultural education at institutions like AFTRS and the VCA Film School. It makes one wonder whether film culture would have suffered less under the Australia Council’s FRTV Board – which lost out to the “market-place orientated” AFC because of the supposed technical complexity of film. And I suppose it makes me wonder whether Hodsdon is merely harping nostalgically back to a cottage industry film clubland that would be utterly irrelevant in the multiplexes.

In his densely stylish way, Barrett Hodsdon has started a good debate. Whether it’s the one he intended, I’m not sure. His strongest material lies in the area of criticism; and that’s a disaster in just about all artforms in Australia. Neither the artforms themselves nor the public will support magazines offering what Hodsdon calls “second level reflection”; so we’re left with the dumbing down of the Murdoch and the comfortable nirvana of the Howard. Back in the 1930s a European politician told his country that “we should not be concerned with values, but should confine arts reporting to description so that the public can make up its own mind”. That was Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister!

Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines, The Quest for Film Culture in Australia Since the 1960s, Bernt Porridge Group, 2002; $45 plus $8 postage from 35 Doris Street, North Sydney, 2060.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. web

© Jeremy Eccles; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002