Australian Film Culture:
An Obscurely Desired Object

  Melbourne Cinematheque

A friend recently said to me: “Film culture in Australia is a losing game”. Not film making in general, or the film industry, or audience attendance at multiplexes, but film culture – which is a grander and nobler ideal. Film culture is how we think about the cinema as a global phenomenon, what sense we make of it, how we connect it to other social and cultural streams of activity. Film culture is about public talk, writing, publishing, programming and curating.


Is it a losing game? For two decades now, I have absorbed all the gloomy prognoses of the imminent death of local film culture. It seems to be always in crisis mode – cutbacks on the horizon for small organisations facing rationalisation, magazines disappearing from newsstands. If the Australian Film Institute eventually cuts loose its single most valuable and unique resource, the Research and Information library, and is identified even more fully with the glitzy AFI Awards, will it be any longer a cultural organisation worthy of the name?


One thing is for sure: film culture cannot be legislated or regulated into existence. No one can ever say in advance whether it is about to wither and die, or spontaneously grow like topsy. Film culture only exists if there is a desire for it to exist, on the part of enough people to form a critical mass of some sort.


The glory – and the agony – of film culture is that it is always destined to be marginal. Its effects are felt gradually, moving in a capillary action through the social body. The blockbuster mentality – the dream of queues around the block once a year for the Melbourne International Film Festival, getting their World Cinema fix – is an illusion, a trap.


From a certain angle, one could hardly say that the film scene in Melbourne is moribund at present. Indeed, there is a wild, seemingly unstoppable flood of mini-festivals and special events which cannot possibly be contained within the human limits of an individual moviegoer's days and nights: student animation and underground film events, documentary or experimental collections, regular film societies such as Splodge and Filmoteca, the Super 8 group, the Novadose series, the Festival of Jewish Cinema, conferences and seminars ... not to mention the brave, new world of digital, multi-media arts filling up more and more gallery spaces.


Yet it takes more than diversity and frequency of screenings to knit together a true film culture. What we are witnessing at present is an unprecedented proliferation of film-loving subcultures. With each new advance of a market or a technology (VHS, cable TV, laserdisc, DVD) new pockets of world cinema become available, and fans pounce on them.


But does film culture, as a whole, really benefit? Subcultures are essentially tribal, fiercely protective of their barriers. Streetwise connoisseurs of crazy Hong Kong movies or obscure exploitation gems do not generally attend film theory conferences; old-school avant garde purists cultivate disdain for most movies with a plot.


The cultural links between the different pieces of the film culture puzzle are missing, or scarce. Take the case of SBS TV – another extraordinary resource for film lovers, envied the world over. It is possible to see there, month after month, some of the most significant and remarkable films of recent years, like Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, Tsai Ming-liang's The River or Youssef Chahine's Destiny. Every broadcast of these movies should register as a major cultural event. But where are the enthusiastic pointers to these films (certainly not in our TV guides), and where is the necessary critical follow-through (certainly not in the new wave of populist magazines like Filmink, Filmnet, IF and Urban Cinefile)?


Critics have a duty to make a positive contribution to film culture – otherwise, they are basically just glorified PR agents for the major movie corporations, even (or especially) when they valorise our so-called arthouses. The supposed power of film critics is greatly exaggerated these days, but if they wield a very modest power within the scheme of things, it is a power of influence – more specifically, a power to stimulate desire, to incite curiosity. What critics can do, over time, is to project a sense of what (and where) exciting, inspiring cinema really is, for them – and hope that their spark helps light a fire somewhere.


It is often forgotten – by those both inside and outside the worlds of film – that the cinema is always bigger than what is available to us to see at any given time; bigger in its global breath, and its historical depth. Mainstream cinema is blinkered and amnesiac: it pretends that what's on screen, in the here and now, is all there is. Too many critics accept this pathetic reduction of cinema as their sole field of operations. Pioneer Louis Lumière once predicted that the cinema he helped create would be “an invention without a future”; currently, it is in danger of losing any sense of its rich past.


So critics should be strategic name-droppers (Hou Hsaio-hsien, anyone?), indefatigably eclectic in their announced tastes, prone to delirious interpretation – and they should make a point of not (as that horribly defensive Aussie expression goes) wearing their learning lightly. It is in the fun and adventure of telling stories or drawing connections that critics can do their little bit for the noble cause of film culture.


The artist-writer John Berger recently said something beautiful: “Art can't solve anything, but it can save something” – meaning that it can keep alive a memory, a dream or an ideal. The losing game of Australian film culture can never be easily solved, but its inspiration can always be saved. That rescue mission is happening right now: in the program schedules of our National Cinematheque, at the AFI's research library, over the film and video lending counter at Cinemedia, and in the web pages of Australia's best movie sites. Film culture can materialise anytime, anywhere; you just have to want it badly enough.


© Adrian Martin 27 October 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search