A Cut Is Not An Accident:
Memories of Peter Watkins in '80s Melbourne


The decade between the mid 1980s and mid ‘90s marked a particular period in Peter Watkins’ career: an intense involvement in media education, especially in Australia and New Zealand, pursuing research and generating material that fed into the epic The Journey. In Melbourne, the centre for this work until 1988 was the small but vibrant film and media section of the Visual Arts department at Monash University. I spoke to four of Watkins’ students from this period, as well as Monash lecturer and Asian cinema specialist David Hanan, who was instrumental in bringing Watkins to Melbourne and setting up his busy base of operations.


To these students in the mid ‘80s, Watkins was already a legendary figure: the maker of Culloden and Punishment Park (which had received intensive exposure via Australia’s ‘film co-operative’ movement of the ‘70s), not to mention (as one proudly recalled) “an Oscar winner”. The fact that he had made himself an exile from the UK and fled to New Zealand only increased his allure. Angela Borg, who today works in the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria’s government-run public service, vividly recalls the collaborative projects that Watkins launched with his various groups of students around Melbourne: “At Monash, students worked on a number of projects that looked at various aspects of film and media.  For example, some students worked closely with Peter on a project where they literally counted the number of edits in mainstream Hollywood movies, foreign films, Australian films, documentaries, etc. Then Peter, in his near-calligraphic hand-writing, painstakingly plotted the results on individual line graphs which recorded the duration of the film on one axis and the number of edits on the other (you have to realise that these were the days before computers!). I recall whole walls covered with these line graphs of classic films of different genres in surreal juxtapositions: From Here to Eternity, The Wizard of Oz, Nanook of the North, Rashomon” – and even Watkins’ own The War Game! – “with their varying peaks and troughs.”


Television – especially TV news – was another intensive object of study. (In 1987, Watkins and Hanan collaborated on working up a course called ‘Film, Television and Mass Communication’, the first of its kind at the University.) The premises of Watkins’ critique of the medium came from the Bad News series of books by the Glasgow University Media Group which were so popular and influential within the media studies scene of the time. Borg: “Another group analysed a whole week of television news by measuring story and ads placements and their time allocations. The group then made specific comparisons between how particular stories (for instance, compensation to Aborigines in Maralinga) were respectively handled by the networks. Again, bar charts were used to illustrate quite starkly the sensationalist, populist and parochial nature of commercial news content.   It categorically proved how the marginal in society were being marginalised.” This investigation was taken into the TV networks themselves; Borg recalls: “Another group visited the various public and commercial television stations and turned the tables on TV news editors by asking them about their decision-making process: why they prioritised news stories in the way did; how they defined ‘objectivity and impartiality’; how much time was allocated to various stories; including international, national and local.” Jenepher Duncan, now Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of the Western Australia after two decades of distinguished work at Monash Gallery, comments: “The TV news group established that the so-called non-commercial ABC [Australian Broadcasting Commission] news with its assumed role of being more true to fact, was, by the evidence of its footage editing, nearly as fractured as the commercial stations in its news presentation.  No surprise about that now, but then something of a modest revelation.”


This research into the mass media – what Borg describes as the demonstration of how “ideology masqueraded as objectivity” – resulted in a travelling exhibition that was displayed at Monash and also at Wrest Point Casino in Tasmania, to coincide with an Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) Conference. Watkins hoped, at the time, to produce a substantial book based on this work, but the only significant outcome of this sort was a study guide published in New Zealand (which has more recently been recycled on Watkins’ website and in material provided with his DVD releases).


Many participants in the ‘cut counting’ process – and recall that video playback technology (used in tandem with a mechanical ‘clicker’ that each student had to procure) was still in its clunky infancy at the time – express, now as then, a certain perplexity as to its ultimate goal. Borg: “I remember standing next to him and looking at the graph of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, which resembled a cardiograph, and asking: ‘What does it all mean?’ He said he wasn't exactly sure but ‘felt he was onto something.’ I guess his underlying view was that the more accelerated the editing, the more mindless the film. I recall one of his favourite statements at the time: ‘A cut is not an accident.’ It was as though he was measuring the film's heartbeat, and that somehow this was the key to how the audience was being manipulated.”


The critique of Sophie Cunningham, today a well-known novelist and publisher, is more pointed: “It seemed to me that Peter had become obsessed on the subject of editing. I don't mean by obsessed that he was wrong – I think he was right.  But he seemed to have retreated to some kind of essentialist position that all editing cuts were manipulation. That any attempt to shape the content of something was a form of selling out, or bad. This suggested that there was some perfect place in media that is pure and results in no manipulation – and that is where I would argue with him. I don't think such a place exists. The very choice of what you film is, in this kind of definition, a desire to 'manipulate' or 'control' and get the audience to respond in ways you want to material you want them to respond to. But he was a zealot on the issue.”


At the practical level of filmmaking, one study group used the results of the textual analysis as a springboard to devise a project in which editing was avoided – as much as possible – altogether. Cunningham directed one such exercise devoted to a ‘real time’ discussion between representatives of different political tendencies within the nuclear disarmament movement (a movement with which Watkins had a great deal of contact during the years of making The Journey). “The idea was to film a discussion between people from these groups and present it to the audience unedited so you had all the subtlety (or not) of their arguments left in. People had a table of food between them, a detail that seems very naff to me now, but was intended to create the sense of friendly, convivial conversation. The resulting film made some interesting points, and was interesting for me to work on, but, as an audience member stood up and announced, it was 'so boring he fell asleep'. He was right.” It would be interesting to revisit Watkins’ use of long takes and extended duration (in The Journey and elsewhere) in the light of the technique’s enthusiastic (and critically better received) use in Asian and European art cinema since the ‘90s.


In 1985, with an evening group based at the Council of Adult Education (CAE) – a vibrant organisation which has served the community for over half a century – Watkins worked towards an exhibition at Fitzroy Town Hall devoted to a deconstruction of the wartime mythology of the Anzacs. Borg: “He wanted to examine the mythologies surrounding the Anzac legend and sought the views of the Turkish community about the way they were (mis)represented in the film.  This was pretty iconoclastic stuff at the time because [Peter Weir’s film] Gallipoli was at the height of its popularity and was very much a sacred cow.” Duncan was a member of this group; she recalls: “The historical film precedents Watkins screened for us were fascinating for how the same early fictional footage was used again and again by implication as the real, first-hand account.  We were introduced to the shifts in attitude to war from Chauvel’s 40,000 Horsemen to The Rats of Tobruk.”


Duncan also vividly remembers the day of the exhibition – which again consisted of a display of tabulated graphs. “The final public demonstration/presentation day was in a sense the last call to arms, a hot Saturday in a stifling old town hall.  There had been much fuss about the number of screens required to display our maps of editorial decadence but all was resolved by the pragmatic ‘den mother’ of the Watkins project, Joanne Lee Dow of the CAE, who drew on all her resources to corral hundreds of the things. We spent from the early morning setting up with Watkins prowling around exhorting the workers and surveying his/our handiwork. Then the doors were opened to the public, not exactly a waiting throng but enough to make us vaguely feel, beyond our exhaustion, it had all been worthwhile.”


Inevitably, all who were involved with Watkins in Melbourne recall – with some mixed feelings – his political values and beliefs. Borg: “He was very scathing of Hollywood, the mass media and the so called objectivity of the BBC; what he often referred to as their ‘conspiracy of silence’”– attitudes that, even at the time, struck some observers as somewhat outmoded and certainly unhip (particularly as the ‘cultural studies’ movement began to take shape in Australia, with its emphasis on pleasurable and ironic consumption of media objects), although they are the attitudes which Watkins has unapologetically and determinedly held to for his whole life. According to Ilana Snyder, a renowned literacy specialist in the Faculty of Education at Monash, who was part of the CAE group: “His politics were always present – but integral to the course, not imposed or shrill.”


Reflections on Watkins’ personality and manner as an educator naturally arise in the course of these memories. Snyder regards him as a “master teacher – I certainly admired his intellect, his commitment, his politics and his pedagogy.” She especially recalls his extensive use of silence as a “powerful teaching technique”: “He created situations where the participants seemed to be doing all the work: asking the questions, deciding how to organise and do the research, agreeing how to present it. The feeling at the end for most of us was deep satisfaction and great respect for the person who hadn't said much but had engineered it all, from the first meeting until the final achievement and celebration at Fitzroy Town Hall.” She concludes: “I learned a lot about film and history and representation.”


Duncan: “Watkins was impressive because he so completely believed in the ‘truth’ of what he was doing and in the rightness of spreading his knowledge and convictions. The fact that he had apparently turned his back on mainstream commercial filmmaking, when he could have easily done this, empowered him or at least suggested an unusual integrity of purpose.” And she adds that, in contrast to the more doctrinaire side of the media analysis they collectively pursued, “Watkins showed his Edvard Munch film one evening and I thought it a stand-alone masterpiece, the best evocation of creative impulse and a cultural milieu at work, and still do.”


To Borg, “Peter was an extremely earnest, sometimes humourless individual who displayed an almost missionary zeal and was equally charismatic. Being driven, he expected and demanded a lot from those around him and was very successful in enlisting people to his cause.” Cunningham recalls the somewhat “intimidating” effect of a particular teaching technique used by Watkins: “While I was making my film, he sent a cassette to my house onto which he'd taped a short lecture expressing his concerns that, while I had not edited anything out, I'd chosen to cut between cameras so there would be different angles and perspectives on people. This was a form of manipulation, he felt.” Cunningham’s ultimate assessment: “I think of him now as some kind of fundamentalist preacher, shouting down from his pulpit. His ideas were very interesting, and sometimes accurate, but he'd lost the capacity to listen, or be flexible. To continue the preacher analogy, notions such as audience pleasure were meaningless to him, nay, evil! Akin to sexual immorality. There was, to be totally blunt, something about him that was driven to the point of madness.”


Although Watkins visited Melbourne in the ‘90s with his The Freethinker (Watkins’ final project, to date, tied to a pedagogical process), these Australian students of the ‘80s, now exploring other life and career paths, may have felt (as Duncan did): “That first magic seemed to have gone and all you could do was marvel at how it had once been – exhilarating, flawed, infuriating, unforgettable …” In all, weighing up these reminiscences and perspectives, a good summation of Melbourne’s experience of Peter Watkins in the ‘80s is offered by Borg: “For some of us young, idealistic, undergraduate students, the notion of working with an Academy Award winning film-maker living in self-imposed exile made us feel like we were part of a burgeoning guerrilla movement at Monash campus!” And she adds an intriguing postscript: “One surprising fact that I discovered about Watkins was that he was seriously interested in astrology.  Looking back, this might partially explain his fascination with plotting charts!”



My warm thanks to Angela Borg, Sophie Cunningham, Jenepher Duncan, David Hanan and Ilana Snyder for kindly offering their recollections of Peter Watkins.


© Adrian Martin March 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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