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australian film: a wider screen

jack sargeant: comment—audiences & australian films

A specialist on underground, cult and independent film and the author and editor of numerous books, including his Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression (Soft Skull Press), Jack Sargeant is the director of REVelation Perth International Film Festival.


Cassandra Kane, Family Demons

Cassandra Kane, Family Demons


AS EVER, FILMMAKERS, CRITICS, COMMENTATORS AND COLUMNISTS ARE VOICING OPINIONS ON THE LACK OF LOCAL AUDIENCES FOR AUSTRALIAN FILMS. THESE ARE FAMILIAR ARGUMENTS ABOUT THE NEED FOR FILM CULTURE, NATIONAL IDENTITY AND, INVARIABLY, TAXPAYERS’ MONEY SPENT ON ‘UNPOPULAR’ FILMS. THESE DEBATES DEPEND UPON SPECIFIC NOTIONS OF IDENTITY, CINEMA AND AUDIENCES THAT NEED TO BE EXAMINED.

Inside Film counts 37 Australian features in its summary of 2009’s box office figures (BrendanSwift, Box Office: 2009 Wrap, Monday 11/01/2010), while in his article “Nowhere Near Hollywood” published in The Monthly (Dec 2009-Jan 2010), Louis Nowra counts “over thirty.” Both articles include the same titles (Samson and Delilah, Lucky Country, Mao’s Last Dancer, My Year Without Sex, Beautiful Kate and so on). These are the films that have informed the debate on the current state of Australian film.

But these are not the only Australian features of 2009 and to focus on them alone is part of the failure of a discourse that simply omits that which it does not like.

There is an entire hidden cinema which exists, and even flourishes at the margins of Australian film culture. Premieres in 2009 included Dominic Deacon’s Bad Habits, David De Vries’ Carmilla Hyde, Nathan Christoffel’s Eraser Children, Richard Wolstencroft’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Jon Hewitt’s Darklovestory, Ursula Dabrowsky’s Family Demons, Stacey Edmonds and Doug Turner’s I Know How Many Runs You Scored Last Summer and Martyn Park’s 1 and 0 nly [sic], amongst others (the Wolstencroft and Hewitt films had screened previously but as works-in-progress). These and many other Australian feature films screened at the Fantastic Planet Film Festival, A Night of Horror Film Festival, the Melbourne and Sydney Underground Film Festivals and the Revelation Perth International Film Festival. In most cases they played to packed houses and receptive audiences. Few, if any, of these films will receive a domestic cinema release, but most will screen widely at international film festivals and hopefully all will get domestic DVD distribution.

These films, many of which are low-budget genre works, are absent from the debates about Australian cinema, yet they are also representative of current domestic cinema. What is different about them is that they are often independently produced and seem largely ignored by cultural gatekeepers. Not Quite Hollywood may have been a success, but it has allowed genre, cult and exploitation movies to be framed as simply belonging to the cinematic past, rather than being a living phenomenon.

The vagaries of government funding mechanisms are not the concern of this piece. True, filmmakers need to take risks and make bold films rather than aiming to appease bureaucrats or satisfy the pre-defined selection criteria of funding bodies. Film is an artform that accommodates the cinema classic and the low budget exploitation genre movie. Other than a framing dictated by critics and markets there is no more or less intrinsic value to any singular form of cinema. To draw a divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of cinema is to create a false distinction.

The ‘most popular’ films of the 2009 box office were event movies, mass market products such as Avatar, cross promoted not simply as films but as ‘entertainment phenomena.’ The top ten also included numerous sequels (Angels and Demons, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the ongoing franchise represented by Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), with a built-in audience who predominantly identify a trip to the cinema with consumption of pleasurable eye candy.

Australian cinema is not, and should not try to emulate mainstream Hollywood, the success of which is linked to the marketing of spectacle and the existence of the star system as much as to the creation of cinema. The success of Hollywood films can also be attributed to their market dominance; mainstream films play at multiplexes in every suburb, while most domestic films (and non-American foreign films and indie works) screen at just a handful of mostly city-based cinemas. Even if audiences are aware of locally produced films—and the marketing can be woeful—rarely is there a cinema screening the work near them.

The problem is that many self-appointed commentators view the success of a film as purely financial and there has been an ongoing emphasis on box office receipts. When journalists write that there are “too many costly box office flops using taxpayer handouts” (Fiona Hudson, Herald Sun, December 2009), they are working on the assumption that a film is simply designed to generate income, but cinema’s value is cultural and aesthetic.

Films exist within a multiplicity of simultaneous discourses: aesthetic, historical, cultural and social. What may once have been deemed a failure may subsequently be re-evaluated and become part of a wider, collective notion of a cinematic canon. Two Australian examples include the ‘unsuccessful’ Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) and the once banned Pure Shit (Bert Deling, 1975). Both films have been recently reissued, screened at festivals and subsequently found a home on DVD, finally recognised as important moments of Australian cinema more than 30 years after they were ‘forgotten.’

There have been some calls to make films that audiences want to see, to move to a market-dominated model, but there is no single homogenous audience and popular tastes cannot be second-guessed. Moreover, satisfying an audience implies simply making them ‘happy’, but the experience of film viewing need not be simplistic. The supposed “monotonous bleakness” (Nowra) of films may be seen as indicative of the desire to tell stories that exists beyond feel-good cliché.

The belief that a work should have mass audience appeal is also misguided. If films were made simply on the basis of box ticking exercises and consultations with would-be audiences in order to satisfy the largest number of people, nothing of any worth would be made, just unsatisfying grey slop. Across all forms of cinema, mass audiences have on occasion stayed away from ‘sure fire’ hits (for example Catwoman) and have gravitated to small films that initially appeared to be made only for a specialist audience. If you asked an audience in 1992 if they wanted to see a thriller with a non-linear narrative and no female characters, that emphasised oblique conversation over action and had a soundtrack made up of early 70s rock music, few people would have been interested. And yet Reservoir Dogs was a hit.

What is needed is a re-evaluation of cinema, an acknowledgment of genre and an appreciation of individual signature-driven works. It is also essential to understand that films may not find an immediate audience, especially if the screens are dominated by a handful of Hollywood big budget titles, but this does not devalue a less than popular film. Discussing audiences and economics is one way of examining cinema, but satisfying the mass market and counting profits is not the only reason for making film.

A specialist on underground, cult and independent film and the author and editor of numerous books, including his Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression (Soft Skull Press), Jack Sargeant is the director of REVelation Perth International Film Festival.

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg.

© Jack Sargeant; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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