Thursday 11 December 2014

Farewells and rewrites

Hello Everyone

So it’s farewell to Margaret and David. A booming national audience of 726,000 people watched the final show, a number that might reach a million via downloads and repeats over the next week. It was international news.  Forgotten amidst all the tears and all the eulogies was the thing that cinephiles have most to thank David for, the twenty year run of SBS cinema classics brought to us with loving attention to subtitling, correct ratios and intros that actually set the scene and provided a real entree to the work and the director. There were probably a couple of thousand titles screened over that time, and the same number in the Movie of the Week slot, many of which would otherwise never have seen the light of our day. There are, or until recently there were, DVD stores around the English-speaking world that happily rent out bootleg copies of the many films that resurfaced via this program after years in oblivion and which have now sunk back into that same oblivion. Beyond the hard-core fans, the biggest losers of the program’s end will be the art house distributors for whom a four star or more rating was like being blessed by a holy office. Nobody else had that influence, a reason why critics’ previews would be delayed or re-scheduled if either David or Margaret had a problem in getting somewhere.

The grief at the duo’s departure has manifested itself in many ways. I was at a farewell event where Geoffrey Rush gave an oration which suggested a term or two in politics should not be out of the question. It began with a magnificently delivered quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI and just got better. Then there has been this rather sophisticated cinephiliac response here.

They will be missed and the ABC’s decision now to abandon a TV program devoted to the new cinema releases is disappointing. Coming a year or so after Julie’s Rigg’s Radio National film program was cut from its key early evening timeslot, (eventually a program half as long at an inconvenient time was re-introduced), it’s another sad sign of misguided ABC’s priorities which have nothing to do with budget pressure.

In the meantime however, next year David’s fans can get up close and personal by sailing with him from Barcelona to Istanbul and enjoying a film festival at sea

Film-maker and critic Peter Thompson responds to Phillip Adams' speech about the early days of the nascent Australian film industry of the 60s and 70s. Yes, a good speech, very good. But Phillips's nostalgia for the Jones/Adams supremacy obscures history somewhat. Back then, there was a head of steam amongst the young would-be filmmakers (who became, in time, the "Australian film renaissance") fuelled significantly by postwar affluence and the breaking down of Australia's isolation. The emergence of Burstall, Beresford, Weir et al and the directors spawned by TV -- Hannam, Power, Safran et al –virtually bypassed Phillip's Experimental FF and AFTRS, although I’m reminded by better heads than mine that Peter’s Homesdale received EFF funding. Schepisi, as Phillip correctly points out, cut his teeth (and made lots of money which he ploughed into his features) from TV commercials. Ray Lawrence was much later, of course. AFTRS can (and does) claim Noyce, Armstrong, Noonan, and others just as NIDA claims Davis, Hargreaves, Wendy Hughes, Gibson et al. But that's at least questionable -- wouldn't they have emerged anyway? That head of steam perhaps always exists to a greater or lesser extent in any community but in the late 50s and early 60s there was an irresistible tension within the (tiny) creative and intellectual Australian constituency, a frustration with the mediocrity and parochialism of the society around them, that led to people bursting out, either leaving the country altogether (James, Greer, R Hughes, Humphries but also Bell, Wherrett, Beresford etc etc) or staying at home to conduct a war of attrition against the status quo. Similar bursts of creativity can no doubt be identified in other societies... The international “new waves” of the 60s? The Renaissance itself? Edwardian England? Cubism and the Modernists? The Austrian Secession? I'm no cultural historian, wish I was, but no doubt this ground has been well tilled.

As an aside, arguably the two greatest Australian films of all time-- Walkabout and Wake in Fright -- were written and directed by foreigners (OK -- Wake in Fright was Ken Cook but the screenplay was Evan Jones). Perhaps one can draw parallels with Hollywood’s absorption of European talent, especially in the 30s?

The point is that nationalism of the Adams variety, while it was important, was never the whole story. And I don't think reviving it is sufficient. Or necessary.

Phillip is brilliant and much of his speech is spot on  -- cogent, articulate. Etc. But I would have liked more emphasis on the cultural cringe, the phenomenon of Australians apologizing for themselves and looking over each other's shoulders to see what's happening Over There. Witness the debate about the ABC. It's significant that most of it is about efficiency and political bias. People on both sides feel overtly or covertly good about seeing the ABC cut down to size. Even sympathizers focus on the "waste" -- I find I do it myself. We all know the ABC could be more efficient in dollar terms and this is often the major preoccupation.

The justification for the ABC is spoken of in terms of the national interest, the need for voices independent of politics and business and foreign influence. And even the most vociferous detractors usually endorse the value of a "national broadcaster". But these considerations always seem SECONDARY to the debate about cost. 

One of the consequences of the growth of the consumer mentality is an obsession with personal wealth and self-interest. "What's it costing me?" What's in it for me?" So, for example, we see referendums in California for lowering taxes and rates etc, regardless of the damage such cuts do to public wellbeing and its necessary infrastructure.

Remember the debate about the Opera House? It was pretty much completely dominated by argy-bargy over the "outrageous" cost of the building. And Blue Poles, of course. It is perhaps "typically Australian" that we always have these debates about money and that the positive benefits of an opera house or a painting or whatever are given only muted or apologetic support.

I don't mean to imply that culture is just about opera houses and art galleries. But they are part of it and the debates are indicative of deeper attitudes.

Michael Wilding’s latest book, Wild Bleak Bohemia, documents the miserable circumstances in which Adam Lindsay Gordon, Marcus Clarke and Henry Kendall found themselves in the 1870s. Arguably, not much had changed a century later. The cringe still flourished despite heroic efforts to resist it.

And it’s getting worse. Increasingly, we passively accept the economic rationalist argument that big government and government spending are bad. So you mention in Film Alert a proposal for a kind of "pudding" of financial support for a revamped Australian film archive made up of dribs and drabs of federal and state monies and private (philanthropic?) investment. It's significant that we can even contemplate such a strategy without vomiting.

It ignores the biggest elephant in the room: over the last 30 years, there has been a relentless transfer of public wealth into private hands. One of the major themes of Piketty's book Capital is the inevitability of the widening wealth gap in an unregulated capitalist system. Curiously, we've bought into this. It's become respectable to be filthy rich. We actually admire their criminality. We live in a kleptocracy, not a democracy. One farcical aspect of it is our genuflection to "philanthropists".

I think we need a clear-eyed recognition from commentators such as Phillip that there are consequences for regarding national culture in all its aspects as some sort of luxury, an "optional extra", not a necessity. And the point is (and Phillip is very good on this) we DO HAVE a culture in Australia. It's just that it is almost entirely imported.

So there are consequences. I keep referring to the cultural cringe. We don't see the danger in this drift away from a creative culture of our own. We aren't really comfortable with a creative culture unless we can justify it in some practical way. It has to be financially respectable. John Howard did more damage than most by reducing the arts community to nothing more than another pressure group of self-interested wankers.

It's a curious form of myopia. Rather like saying we don't need lifeboats because we've never hit an iceberg. A community or nation or even, at a global level, thehuman population (although we seem a long way from any kind of international consensus) must be motivated by a sense of danger. It must build creativity and resilience as insurance against an uncertain, unpredictable future.

It is about values, as well, isn't it? Abbott is doing us a favour by demonstrating how bleak and banal is the world that conforms to his views and beliefs. The Czechs had a phrase for the corruption that thrived under Communism where the creative and thinking community, the stirrers, were bought off by the dictatorship. They called it the Velvet Prison. I saw it in Russia in 1968. Lots of intelligent people who lived comfortable lives behind closed doors with access to foreign literature and ideas. The price they paid was agreeing to keep their mouths shut. 

Similarly in the so-called West, including Australia, the relative comfort of the status quo tends to forestall serious debate and speculation. Politicians are reduced to arguing about how the cake is to be shared around rather than deeper issues. It's like people fighting over the high tackle rule in rugby or the forward tackle rule in soccer, forgetting that they are talking about a game, not the future of the planet. I don't want to labour these metaphors. The point is that there are a lot of unexamined assumptions in our thinking.

But to extend (another) metaphor, we argue about arranging the deck chairs, ignoring the reality that the ship has already struck the iceberg. The modern world faces catastrophic change, as we all know. Climate change. The seeming impossibility of global consensus on issues such as refugees, human rights, financial regulation etc. 40% of jobs in the US are predicted to disappear, replaced by robots, in the near future. Agriculture is in a state of terminal crisis brought on by the crimes of agribusiness. And so on.

The point of all this is that these challenges can only be met by a thinking, creative, resilient community -- and maybe not even by that. That's the point of cultural activity. It can and should be viewed as an extension of education. And we are well and truly fucking up our education system. That's for sure. A sane society pours money, when it has it, into education which by extension means culture. And, inevitably, some or much of that money might appear to be wasted or mismanaged. The poorer the intellectual awareness underpinning policy, the worse the waste will be.

Let’s try to extend the debate, huh?

Piracy on the tip of everyone’s lips. Illegal downloading is on everyone’s horizon these days. There seem to be few people who, if they don’t actually pirate material themselves, don’t know who to go to when necessary. Needless to say the Federal Government gets a regular hammering from rights holders and those charged with protecting copyright. My favourites are the advertisements run by the “Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation”. It has rustled up a dozen Oz actors to say thanks to all who have bought or rented a legitimate DVD. I’m not at all convinced that those Australian actors’ livings are at all threatened by piracy but the case gets made.

In recent days there has been the astonishing story of the hackers who cracked Sony’s security and freed up a great deal of information about things like stars’ salaries as well as uploading some five of Sony’s newest films onto various pirate sites. Users have apparently now made several million downloads. The full story is reported in Variety here and here and in the New York Times.

Rising to the challenge, Attorney-General George Brandis has now issued a media release promising action. George says inter alia: The Attorney-General and the Minister for Communications have written to industry leaders requiring them to immediately develop an industry code with a view to registration by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) under Part 6 of the Telecommunications Act 1997. The code will include a process to notify consumers when a copyright breach has occurred and provide information on how they can gain access to legitimate content. The Minister and the Attorney-General expect strong collaboration between rights holders, internet service providers (ISPs) and consumers on this issue. ….Failing agreement within 120 days, the Government will impose binding arrangements either by an industry code prescribed by the Attorney-General under the Copyright Act 1968 or an industry standard prescribed by the ACMA, at the direction of the Minister for Communications under the Telecommunications Act. The Government will also amend the Copyright Act, to enable rights holders to apply for a court order requiring ISPs to block access to a website, operated outside of Australia, which provides access to infringing content. In a world of rapid changes in technology and human behaviour, there is no single measure that can eliminate online copyright infringement. In light of this the Government will review the measures, 18 months after they are implemented, to assess their effectiveness.

In the meantime, a Film Alert reader has reported this note from a chatroom which puts a slightly different perspective on why people do these things. “I will continue to download content - it is part of my efforts to combat terrorism. How does pirating combat terrorism? Hollywood pays huge amounts of money to the "stars" and directors/producers of movies - money that is gained by selling the movie or TV program for exhorbitant amounts to consumers. The actors and other recipients of this money, because they have so much and are bored because they don't have anything productive that they have to do, spend it on drugs (witness all the drug arrests of people in the entertainment industry). Drug sales finance terrorist organisations (the US government has been telling us this for years). So by downloading and not paying the money, drug users in the industry don't get paid as much, they can't afford to buy drugs, the terrorists can't finance themselves, and the world is a safer place. I consider it every right thinking person’s mission to do all they can to fight terrorism and so everyone should download movies. It is our duty to keep the world safe”.

Tsai Ming-Liang in Canberra. A program of talks and screenings devoted to Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang will take place in Canberra in early January. (Not sure that’s a great time but who is to say why these things are done when they are done.) Tsai himself will be attending and author and Chinese film specialist Linda Jaivin will be on hand to conduct the discussions. Details are here.

Finally something to cheer you up for Christmas. One of my very favourite funnymen Phil Silvers.

All best


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