Sunday 7 July 2019

On early Australian cinephilia - John Baxter recalls his youth in a now lost Sydney (and his time at the Commonwealth Film Unit)

John Baxter
Editor's Note: Below is an extract from John Baxter's The Paris Men's Salon  a privately published collection of memoirs and other unpublished writings by the eminent Australian critic, commentator, scholar and film-maker. I was given a copy when I recently met John in his Paris apartment and asked his permission to publish this extract which deals with his early days as a cinephile and film-maker growing up in Sydney. Among those he recalls is Barrie Pattison, Sydney's resident supercinephile and frequent contributor to the Film Alert 101 blog. 

The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure. Francois Truffaut.
Australia never had a Cinémathèque or National Film Theatre, so we had to improvise. The result was a loose network of individuals and small groups devoted to the collection and appreciation of old films. Many, including myself, came to tentative rest at the Commonwealth Film Unit. 
John Flaus (present day)
Isolation encourages eccentricity, something most of we lonely obsessives exhibited on a grand scale. The anarchist critic John Flaus wore a heavy beard but went everywhere barefoot, even to official receptions. Accused by one bureaucrat of exhibiting “wilful personal enthusiasm for films of unedifying taste and questionable allegorical significance,” he cheerfully quoted this opinion whenever asked for a reference.
 Another fanatic built a tiny twenty-seat cinema in his garden, furnished with seats and fittings scavenged from demolished movie houses. This was less odd than his insistence on screening nothing but films starring one performer, British character actor George Arliss. The career of the horse-faced Arliss, which included portrayals of Benjamin Disraeli, Cardinal Richelieu, the Duke of Wellington, Alexander Hamilton and members of the Rothschild banking dynasty, ended in 1937, but his fan’s loyalty to “Mister Arliss,” as he always called him, was deep,  sincere and apparently eternal.
Ron West
Ron West, a piano and organ virtuoso, found his niche on the CFU projection staff. Always ready to improvise a musical accompaniment for a silent movie, he came into his own when American critic Gideon Bachmann appeared at the Sydney Film Festival with an illustrated lecture on Salo, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s much-banned version of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, set in the last days of Italian fascism. 
Bachmann brought with him a collection of explicit slides, together with sheet music for some of the popular songs of the period used by Pasolini as a score. Ron appeared on stage at Sydney’s most lush picture palace to play them, but was repeatedly distracted by the succession of terrible and erotic images on the screen overhead. Only with great effort could he drag his attention back to the keyboard.
To visit Ron’s disordered home in the rural edges of the city was to confront obsession at its purest. Organs rescued from cinemas and fairgrounds crowded almost every room. Ask for the toilet and you’d be led past a WC jammed with organ pipes to the back door, where Ron would wave at the open field and murmur, “Just go anywhere.”
Only slightly less single-minded was film editor Barrie Pattison. Once or twice a month, Barrie would appear dramatically at the door of my office. Born with the classical profile of a silent movie star, Barrie further emphasised it with a thin moustache, a fierce grin, a swept back pompadour of oiled black hair, and a gliding flat-footed walk, like someone crossing a recently waxed floor.
At rest, he struck an even more startling pose, not unlike a Futurist sculpture of the 1920s – face in profile, feet turned out, knees slightly bent, one hand grasping the forearm of the other behind his back.
“Screening this Sunday,” he’d announce without preamble.
“What are you showing, Barrie?”
We asked reflexively, knowing he’d always give the same answer - the stock phrase traditionally displayed on cinema marquees to announce the sneak preview of a new film. 
“Title Will Not Be Revealed Until Flashed On the Screen,” he snapped, true to type, before sledding away down the corridor.
A section of Barrie Pattison's film collection
Barrie was one of those adventurous Australians who had made their way overseas in search of a cinema career. He’d flourished as a film editor in London, where his theatricality caught the attention of the film scholar/director Kevin Brownlow. Kevin cast him as the fascist leader Oswald Mosley in his film It Happened Here  (click on the link to see Barrie's finest performance), which credibly created an imaginary Britain under Nazi occupation. 
Henri Langlois
Barrie even penetrated the tight society of Parisian cinephiles who congregated at Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque Francaise. As he knew more French than they did English, they relied on him to translate the more obscure American jargon – a challenge when the line was something like the greeting in Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors, “How’s the rain on the rhubarb?” 
Forced for personal reasons to return to Australia, Barrie took an editing job at the Film Unit. Thereafter, he lived as a wild man in chains, lavishing his erudition on articles for the amateur magazine I edited, Film Digest, and running a one-man Cinémathèque with which he hoped to recreate in the front room of his parental home some vestige of St Germain des Prés.
Such was our respect for Barrie’s sources and his knowledge that most of us, even without knowing the program, made the pilgrimage on Sunday afternoons to his house in the bushland north of Sydney.
The gate was jammed shut and the garden choked in weeds, but even had you been able to reach the dark varnished front door with its leaded glass insert, you would knock or ring in vain, since it hadn’t opened in years.  
Instead, those in the know walked round the back, pushed through a tall fence, its splintered planks grey with age, and followed a well-trodden track across a yard knee-deep in unmown grass. Through a laundry where, for as long as I went there, a tap dripped dolefully into concrete tubs full of scummy grey water, one transited a disordered kitchen into the living room. Swaybacked couches and imploding armchairs were ranged in front of a never-ignited fireplace. Behind them stood a 16mm projector, aimed at a spot over the mantelpiece. Whenever I see again a film first viewed on Barrie’s wall, I mentally insert the picture hook that, like a private trademark, decorated all his screenings.
With the start of television, whole libraries of Hollywood films arrived in Australia to feed the voracious new medium. They were the cheapest kind of programming, and networks used them indiscriminately, seldom caring what they ran, but simply taking the next can off the shelf and shoving it into the telecine. The stations didn’t much care what became of the print after that, a fact exploited by a network of collectors and connoisseurs.
Barrie could zero in on that obscure early comedy by Billy Wilder, the experimental drama written by a covert Communist, the sole film by some literate director who came from Broadway and quickly returned there. In Paris, he’d absorbed the most important lesson about an art; that it can’t be taught. One teaches oneself, by immersion; swimming in the stuff: devouring it, until you no longer know where the medium ends and you as an individual begin. When Bernardo Bertolucci, himself a cinephile in Paris during the 1960s, had his young American film student in The Dreamers explain why true film lovers sat in the very first row of the Cinematheque, I recognised some of Barrie’s obsession.     
“Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. When they were still new, still fresh. Before they cleared the hurdles of the rows behind us. Before they'd been relayed back from row to row, spectator to spectator; until worn out, second-hand, the size of a postage stamp, it returned to the projectionist's cabin. Maybe, too, the screen was really a screen. It screened us from the world.”  
These screenings began my mental separation from the Film Unit, and from Australia. I’d already distanced myself physically from my former life by abandoning my neat modern harbour-side flat for a clutch of rooms in a 19thcentury mansion nearer the studios. With the Music Officer, James “Diamond Jim” McCarthy. and some friends, we divvied up its high-ceilinged parlours and bedrooms into massive apartments, where we lived like Edwardian bachelor officers in some outpost of empire, dallying with our lovers, and gathering on the verandah to toast the sunset in champagne. 
At the time, this life-style seemed daringly bohemian. It took a while to discover I had an awful lot to learn.
Stanley Hawes
 During spring 1968, I was mesmerized by events taking place in Paris.  The sacking of Henri Langlois as head of the Cinematheque Francaise had ignited nation-wide riots, fanned by the directors of the Nouvelle Vague, whom he’d been instrumental in launching, When Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard prevented the opening screening of the Cannes Film Festival by clinging to the curtain, Australia no longer appeared to be on the other side of the world from where things were happening, but on another planet. Which made my summons to the office of my boss, Stanley Hawes, all the more surprising.
“I believe this man Langlois has been dismissed from the French film museum,” he said.
Stanley interested in the Cinematheque??? 
“So I hear,” I said.
“You know we’ve been trying for years to get a copy of the 1896 Melbourne Cup…..”
Marius Sestier
The first film known to have been shot in Australia is a newsreel of the 1896 Melbourne Cup horse race. Filmed by an itinerant French cameraman, Marius Sestier, one of several who travelled the world under contract to the Lumière brothers, it had been sent back to France, and there remained, conserved by Langlois.
Repeated requests from the CFU for a copy went unanswered. This was nothing new. Langlois was notorious for never responding to letters, and his assistant Mary Meerson did so only when the mood took her. Otherwise, they ran the Cinematheque like a private club. Langlois showed movies to whoever wanted to see them, even if it meant screening the world’s only surviving print. Just as eccentrically, he would halt a screening if he felt the audience had shown itself  “unworthy” by not liking the film as much as he did.  
Langlois’s status as the loosest of loose cannons mandated his dismissal. Inflammable nitrate prints he’d squirreled away in houses around Paris had a tendency to combust, destroying not only an irreplaceable portion of the national patrimoine but the building housing it. It counted for little with the bureaucrats that his methods producedthe greatest outpouring of cinematic creativity in half a century. This simply Wasn’t How Things Were Done. 
Stanley agreed.
“Now that a new man is in the job,” he told me, “we should ask him for a copy of the Melbourne Cup film.”
Andre Malraux
Culture Minister Andre Malraux’s choice as Langlois’s replacement was the little-known but malleable Pierre Barbin, former director of the Annecy Film Animation Festival.  A month later, a copy of Stanley’s letter to Barbin landed on my desk.
The letter didn’t quite say “Thank God that barbarian Langlois is gone,” but the tone was decidedly salt-and-vinegar.
 I laid it beside the clipping a friend in Paris had sent from Le Monde. On 22ndApril, Malraux bowed to national pressure and reinstated Langlois, who was already back at his desk when Stanley’s letter arrived. No doubt it gave him a moment of amusement before he dropped it into the bin.   

Editor's Further Note: I found it impossible to find a photo of Barrie Pattison hence I decided to put in a link to his performance in Andrew Mollo & Kevin Brownlow's It Happened Here to enable readers to appreciate his 'classical profile of a silent movie star'. Barrie's picture does not even appear on his recently published tome "The Man Who Ate Films: The Life and Work of Michael Curtiz" co-authored with John Howard Reid.

John Baxter is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry  details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." 

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