Wednesday 4 March 2015

Bruce Hodsdon's Best Ever Australian Films

Bruce Hodsdon is  a
Cinephile and retired film library curator.  He trained as an economist and some of his work analysing the box office for Australian films can be found at He has contributed to the online journal Senses of Cinema, most recently to the "John Flaus Dossier" .
I ask myself what am I doing when I nominate ten or twenty feature films as 'the best'. Is it just a case of “you show me yours and I'll show you mine”. Or is it more? I think it can be a personally arbitrated historical road map of the cinema or, as in this case, a national cinema which, if confined to a particular era, at least implicit might be something of a framework for an emerging  national cinema. In edging towards this, it may be consciously, or more or less unconsciously, provocative. Or it may be more a measure of the culture by taking into account commercial as well as artistic merit, acknowledging, for the feature film, the importance of 'bums on seats'. Do we apply our own Harry Cohn test (the notorious Columbia studio boss's trust in the sensitivity of his own backside as the ultimate measure of a film's merit)? If we do, we are unlikely to admit it, but are more likely to invoke the pleasure principle within at least a modicum of artistic and cultural merit.

In selecting my canon of Oz films I have not gone back beyond 1970, the seminal year separating  the film revival from the commercial imperatives of the first seventy five years and have allowed a director only one film each in the list. Initially, following the piecemeal film by film approach, I found that when I had reached close to twenty features, most of the films were on the dark side, the blackest being the extraordinary and strangely prescient Snowtown which, on re-viewing, brought to mind Peter Tammer's equally extraordinary Journey to the End of Night (see below) and its companion, the all but unseen Fear of the Dark. What I'm referring to here are roles being played out in these three films that go beyond any conventional notions of performance, both disturbing and, for me, even curiously liberating. The two comedies in the list conformed to the apparent default setting : the black comedy, Death in Brunswick, and the in turn comic, sad and ultimately mordant romcom, Love Serenade. Pure Shit, set in the Melbourne drug scene, has the pacing and some of the ambience of a screwball comedy that ends badly, which notably resulted in a Melbourne critic condemning it as 'evil'. And there is the droll portrait, by Robert McDarra in 27A, of an alcoholic in detention. Sweetie is an unclassifiable blend of engaging wit, disconcerting deployment of on-screen space, stylised performance and a choral music score, drawing us into a disturbing mix of emotions.

The earliest film on my list, Wake in Fright (1970), seems an appropriate genesis. Excepting  Newsfront and Return Home, the 17 feature films listed above reach into the darker recesses of experience from inner city drug culture (2) to various forms of alienation in suburbia (10) and small outback towns (5).

 Does that say more about my slightly perverse application of the pleasure principle than it provides a snapshot of rewards, regardless of commercial success or critical consensus, to be found in more than four decades of Oz cinema ? Significantly Newsfront is the only film on my list that notably succeeded  at the box office.

  Feature films in chronological order:

 Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff) 1970

27A (Esben Storm & Haydn Keenan) 1973

Pure Shit (Bert Deling) 1976

Newsfront ( Phillip Noyce) 1978

My First Wife (Paul Cox) 1981

Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein) 1986

Celia (Ann Turner) 1987

Shame ( Steve Jodrell) 1987

Sweetie (Jane Campion) 1989

Return Home (Ray Argall) 1990

Death in Brunswick (John Ruane) 1991

Last Days of Chez Nous (Gillian Armstrong) 1993

Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett) 1996

Noise (Matthew Saville) 2007

Blessed (Ana Kokkinos) 2009

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel) 2011

Mystery Road (Ivan Sen) 2013

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent) 2014

Charlie's Country (Rolf de Heer) 2014

Three unique films: Sunshine City (1973, Albie Thoms, 118 mins), Journey to the End of Night (1982, Peter Tammer, 80 mins) and In This Life's Body (1984, Corinne Cantrill, 147 mins). All three films are available for loan on 16mm from the NFSA's Film Lending Collection; only Journey to the End of Night is also available on dvd. For my description of these films (including the companion of  Journey, Fear of the Dark), which can all be characterised as 'non-fiction' but not as 'documentary' or 'fiction', see the brief online entries in the NFLC catalogue on the NFSA's website (search collections>lending collection>submit).

The selections below are based on my fading memory of these films in the National Lending Collection of the NFSA, during my time (1981-96) with the Collection when it was located in the the National Library. With two exceptions they were all shot on 16mm film. Almost all are still  available for loan, but with the exception of Bonjour Balwyn, Mallacoota Stampede, Feeling Sexy,

Come Out Fighting and Passionless Moments which are available on dvd, are only on 16mm and/or vhs. They represent some high points in low budget fictional filmmaking of the pre-digital era.

 Short features ( in no particular order):  The Love Letters from Teralba Road (1977, Stephen Wallace, 50 mins), Temperament Unsuited (1978, Ken Cameron, 56 mins), Bonjour Balwyn (1972 Nigel Buesst, 60 mins),  Greetings from Wollongong ( 1982, Mary Callaghan, 45 mins), Feathers (1987, John Ruane, 49 mins), Mallacoota Stampede ( 1980, Peter Tammer, 63 mins),
My Life Without Steve (1986, Gillian Leahy, 52 mins), Feeling Sexy (1999, Davida Allen, 50 mins), Brake Fluid ( (1970, Brian Davies, 51 mins), Come Out Fighting (1973, Nigel Buesst, 50 mins), A Handful of Dust (1974, Aylen Kuyululu, 42 mins).

Telemovies: The Plumber (1979, Peter Weir), Mail-Order Bride (1984, Stephen Wallace), 2 Friends (1986, Jane Campion). All three are on 16mm but only The Plumber is also available in the Lending Collection on dvd.

Short films: Between Us (1990, Bill Masoulis, 36 mins), Bonza (1988 David Swann, 30 mins), The Girl Who Met Simone De Beauvoir in Paris (1980, Richard Wherrett, 24 mins), Cherith (1987, Shirley Barrett, 19 mins), Plead Guilty, Get a Bond (1990, Peter Maguire, 31 mins), Passionless Moments (1984, Jane Campion & Gerard Lee, 13 mins), Letters from Poland (1978, Sophia Turkiewicz, 37 mins), Just Me and My Little Girlie (1976, Linda Blagg, 12 mins)

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