by Roderick Heath
Part Two: 1969-1989
1. Engines of Change
Continued from Part One
Few explanations for the almost unprecedented resuscitation of Australian cinema between 1969 and 1975 are immediately satisfying. Perhaps the most important changes were the most difficult to quantify, but it is easy to see that 1968 was one of the most important years in contemporary Australian history. A popular referendum gave equal citizenship to indigenous Australians after decades of excision from the communal dialogue. Demonstrations over a visit by Lyndon Johnson, and against Australia's follow-the-leader involvement in Vietnam, illustrated the rise of a new, protest-based counterculture, and a popular objection to the idea of the United States take Britain's place in dictating Australian international policy soon expanded into a new thirst for self-definition. The same year also saw the foundation of the Australian Council for the Arts, a federal panel for sponsoring cultural projects, after a sustained demand for aid in combating the apathy generally dubbed the "cultural cringe" that disdained home-grown art and entertainment.
Such events indicated a new attitude to issues long caught in stagnancy during the highly conservative government of Sir Robert Menzies, which had lasted from 1949 to 1965. The wave of political and cultural agitation rolling worldwide in this era coincided neatly with this reinvigoration, and a powerful nexus arose that fused renewed intellectual and artistic energy, and embraced both old and new versions of the national character. In any event, the close government interest in cinema Raymond Longford had pushed for in the 1920s to so little effect now became institution.
National and state-sponsored bodies to develop, fund, and teach the craft of cinema were instituted first under the influence of Prime Minister John Gorton, heir to but not mimic of Menzies' hegemony, and then the decisively energetic Labor government of Gough Whitlam. Trickles of finance now dispersed to anyone who showed half an ounce of talent and dedication to making movies. Institutions associated with the revival included the Australian Film Development Corporation, formed in 1970, and its reformed successor the Australian Film Commission, and the Australian Film and Television School, opened in 1973.
What all this boiled down to was that aspiring filmmakers now had access to finance and facilities long withheld to them, and they also had a new, potentially attentive audience. The result: over a 130 features were produced in the 1970s, nearly as many as in the entire period prior to that vital decade. Of course, this was hardly necessarily indicative of quality, and a large amount of dross accompanied the popular and well-regarded films. What is undeniable is that what had been a barely relevant and almost deceased film culture had resurged in the likeness of a genuine industry, and Australian cinema abruptly blossomed anew.
2. New Wave to The Last Wave
The revitalization was clearly in action as early as 1969, even if the scene wasn't entirely populated by new faces and ideas: Lee Robinson, for instance, was able to direct his final feature, The Intruders, in that year, although he would later produce and write several more films of the coming avalanche. Ken G. Hall was expressing his cynicism over the revival as late as 1977, when he published his memoirs. The ripple effect of Michael Powell's They're a Weird Mob's success at first stimulated some familiar reflexes, as co-productions with American and British companies saw imported stars and directors working in Australia again. The expanded confidence and ambition of some figures working in television, coupled with the unimpressive quality of programming, now saw film as a worthy alternative cause.
Reg Goldsworthy (1920-1981), a former radio actor and then TV soap star, formed Goldsworthy Productions, to work in collaboration with an American company, Commonwealth United Corporation, to produce a handful of bland thrillers, including It Takes All Kinds (1969), starring American actors Robert Lansing and Vera Miles, Color Me Dead (1970), with Tom Tryon, and That Lady from Peking (1970), with Nancy Kwan. All three of these films were directed and co-written by US TV director Eddie Davis (1907- ).
Such pulp aside, two of the most important films of the early '70s were likewise directed by visiting filmmakers: Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, and Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright, retitled Outback for international release, were both made in 1971. These two films looked beyond the seaside cities to the mythic landscape of the sparsely populated interior, but in a dark and penetrating fashion that evoked, in a fashion very different to earlier films, the defined limits of western civilisation as discovered on the edge of the outback. Walkabout's diffuse, alien-feeling narrative, as purveyed through Roeg's finely textured filmmaking - it was his first film as solo director - depicted two teenagers (Jenny Agutter and Lucien John), stranded in the desert after their suicidal businessman father (effective and popular actor John Meillon) burns their car and shoots himself, who are then rescued by a wandering Aboriginal boy, played by David Gulpilil (1953- ), a former dancer credited here as "Gumpilil". The indigenous boy's innate understanding of nature and capacity to survive in the outback contrasts the endangered civility of his two charges, and the disconnection turns tragic when the girl rejects in fearful misunderstanding the boy's mating dance, causing his suicide.
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