Tuesday 1 March 2022

Vale Colin Bennett - A valued film critic at the Age in Melbourne, friend to many and a serious contributor to the development of an Australian film industry

It sometimes takes the test of time for us to appreciate the lives and contributions made by a very few people who genuinely made a difference. 

I first encountered Colin Bennett's name when my mother decided to add The Age's Saturday edition to our weekly newspaper deliveries. That added it to The Sun, the biggst selling newspaper in Australia, the Sporting Globe, and The Herald, the biggest selling and most respected afternoon newspaper in Australia. The latter was a broadsheet no less. They both employed high quality journalists - most memorably E W Tipping, Keith Dunstan, Frederick Howard and Alf Brown. Times have changed.

As someone who spent a lot of time in his mid-teen years going to the Padua, the Western, the Liberty, The Empire, the Plaza and the Alhambra - all within walking distance or a short tram or bus ride, a revelation then occurred when each Saturday there would be a long essay in the The Age Literary Supplement devoted to such matters as film censorship, an Australian film industry, the Melbourne Film Festival or the offerings at cinemas I'd never been to - The Australia, The Savoy, the Curzon, the Brighton Dendy. 

Still I just read about these things apart from bravely venturing all the way into the city by tram and dodging school sport to see, on Bill Hannan's additional recommendation Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu.

It wasn't until I got to university that I started to see all those films and do all those things Colin Bennett got us excited about. Then he0 turned up at a MUFS night season to see something or other and I was more than a bit in awe. Things got trickier then because the university film societies of the day were all trying to seek out the films that Cahiers du Cinema wanted us to see - Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, Raoul Walsh, Jerry Lewis.

Colin was much more sympathetic to the left-wing humanism of Sight & Sound with its focus on Brit and other realists, Bergman, Bunuel, the daring Poles like Wajda and other dissenting voices from Eastern Europe, the famous Russians like Eisenstein.

But from those times in the 60s through to 1980, the moment when Neil Jillett manouevred Colin right out of The Age and the standards instantly dropped, you never stopped reading him and never stopped being impressed by the fervour with which he espoused the causes of Australian film-making (notwithstanding the bagging he gave Tim Burstall's Two Thousand Weeks), the ending of the Menzian nanny state where idiot Liberal Ministers used to make fools of themselves banning books and films at the direction of the Chief Censor the fabulously nicknamed One-Armed Dick Prowse. (One Ministerial dope even got up in the Parliament and lamented how he had make a decision to ban the Kama Sutra and "it had placed him in a very difficult position").

Colin covered it all, provoked arguments, advanced causes, remained supremely affable, sucked on that pipe of his and was never deterred. I hope when he left the Age and left film criticism he did it with a sense of pride and achievement because he had earned that over two and half decades.

Back in 2016 I published a piece on this blog called Remembering Colin Bennett. Peter Hourigan added his thoughts.. When I read it again the memories flooded back. You can read it if you click here. That caused a minor flood. Contributions were received from Adrian Martin & Rod BishopScott MurrayMichael Campi & Bruce Hodsdonand Richard Brennan & Brian Kavanagh. Colin responded here. Click and go through to the memories

Peter Hourigan, Colin Bennett, NFSA Melbourne office, 2017

Then back in 2017 Peter Hourigan and I were able to sit down and record some of Colin's memories. Later that year I described it 
as the moment when hopefully I made my peace with the legendary Colin Bennett. An interview with Colin by Peter Hourigan and I for the NFSA’s oral history program provided the opportunity to say sorry for the very shabby way his departure from The Age was ignored by the Melbourne Film Festival all those years back in 1981. The interview and the discovery (and publication) of Colin’s memoir (on this blog) were highlights not to be forgotten.

If you are curious about the memoirs then click on this link

People have been sending things to me and posting things on Facebook. Here are the first couple. I'll post more as they are received,

From film-maker Phillipe Mora: That is sad news indeed. Colin was an early friend of my family. When Melbourne was a cultural desert in the Fifties my parents and Colin were the kind of intellegentsia that congregated and created modern Australia. His distinguished family and deep cultural knowledge made him the important critic in the creation of the Australian film industry. Hanging out at the Balzac and Mirka cafe he met all the nascent players in the arts. Personally he was very encouraging to me as a baby film maker.  He was the un-Les Patterson and he was sorely needed. His contribution is uncalculable.

Adrian Danks Posted this on Facebook: Very sad to hear of the death of the extraordinary Melbourne film critic, Colin Bennett, after a very full life. He left reviewing in the early 1980s, but his tenure at THE AGE in the 1950s, 60s & 70s is one of the great runs of any Australian film critic & set the stage for wonderful periods there inhabited by Adrian Martin & Jake Wilson (though I still have a grudge with Bennett for leaving too early & leaving us stranded with the appalling Neil Jillett for 15 formative years). I hardly read any of Colin's reviews when they were first published - by the time I was an adult he was gone by a few years - but have rediscovered his writing over the years. He was the central figure (along with Sylvia Lawson) in the recent essay I published on Bergman's reception in Australia. His writing always demonstrated a deep knowledge of overseas opinions & trends but was never beholden to them - he would have been such a lifeline during an era when the patterns of film distribution & exhibition in Australia were idiosyncratic at best (& where important films were often censored). I've also just finished a final draft of a book on international production in Australia (with Verevis) in which he appears more than any other writer of the time under discussion (1946-75). He was always a supporter of the local industry, but also - essentially - an astute critical voice. In some respects he was a symbol of the strength of film culture in Melbourne; always sensitive & alive to the film he was reviewing & always questioning of received wisdom. Having read many of his reviews & longer pieces in recent times - he was kinder to the epochal elements of Kramer's ON THE BEACH than I would have been, but his long review said so much about the time & space of its release in Melbourne - a collection of his work would make a fascinating read. I never met him, but wish I had - a critic's critic who was a trusted & sophisticated voice for a mainstream paper (that's always been a rare thing).  

Further comments welcome. Send them to filmalert101@gmail.com and they will be published.

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