Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tim Blair, Melissa Kent, the NFSA and Oz screen culture sending brains into warped plastic shapes

(Above: the restored version of Raymond Longford's The Sentimental Bloke. How much would you pay?)

Every so often, it's right to agree with the commentariat about something - after all who can argue about the virtues of the British Top Gear put up against SBS's wretched colonial clone - and so we come to the vexed question of Australian feature films, and associated screen culture.

Now putting aside Susan Greenfield's contention that screen culture is likely to warp the plasticity of your brain - watching the current crop of Australian films almost proves her thesis - I've often wondered why it is that Australians don't want to watch the outpourings of their own industry.

There's probably been only four golden periods - the first during the silent period, when foreign competition didn't mean a monopoly, the second in the thirties mainly due to Ken Hall's gift for reaching an audience, the third during the revival of the seventies, and the fourth during the early nineties when government funding hadn't yet turned into a morass of mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Per se, it hasn't got anything to do with to government funding, in the sense that both the seventies and nineties mini-booms were funded by government. But if you track back, it was a different kind of funding - more entrepreneurial and market-driven - whereas these days funding has reached a kind of middle aged, mindless obesity.

Take the National Film and Sound Archive for example, which should be a driving force in celebrating Australian film. Instead when films land in the archive, they are controlled with a rigorous and watchful eye, with people being made to pay for the pleasure of getting a glimpse of past glories. Instead of a celebration of the Australian screen culture, we get a dead bureaucratic hand patting down the landscape.

Besotted by a fetish for 35 mm stock and theatrical exhibition, unable to catch up with the digital age, woefully out of touch with the way things might be done in the days of the intertube, and in the grip of the education lobby, the NFSA has done more to hamper screen culture in this country than any other body.

Take for example, their latest restoration release of Raymond Longford's silent film The Sentimental Bloke. In the grip of cost recovery thinking driven by some mad Canberra bureaucrat, the NFSA have released a two disc dvd restored version with an RRP of $49.95 (though I've seen it quoted even higher).

Sainted grandmothers, have they no idea. They've got to be dreaming.

Sure it's got music, and a commentary track, and an image gallery, and a couple of interviews, and a 136 page monograph, and a 20 page facsimile of the original script, but who in their right minds expects to sell a silent Australian film for close on fifty bucks to anyone but a school or a tertiary institution? Where students can be ground down and form a hatred of Australian film by a forced study of a silent classic!

Now Longford's film is interesting, and if it'd been priced at twenty bucks, I might have been interested, since my old VHS copy is battered, and the print available on the Internet Archive is a VHS copy compressed to an even rougher quality. 

After all, I picked up Cleopatra in its two disc glory for ten bucks at a recent sale, and while it was probably over-charging, it was an irresistible chance to see Elizabeth Taylor screech, Richard Burton mistakenly think he was doing Hamlet, and Rex Harrison the only one to survive with his reputation intact by doing My Fair Lady to his Egyptian queen.

On the other hand, I recently picked up Monte Hellman's Roger Corman classic Cockfighter for zilch, courtesy of the intertubes.

The NFSA in recent years also managed to drop a couple of million smackeroos on a screen site which is remarkably useless, offering up less information than you can find on Imdb and holding three minute sample clips that could easily have been dropped on to YouTube. (You can see it here). It's almost like they thought the game was up, the jig was out, the news was in, that no one except students deserving to suffer in a media class would give a fig about Australian screen culture.

Instead of being intertubes smart, the NFSA had to go and do their own distinctive site, which in reality isn't pitched at the ordinary punter, but is of course pitched at the education market. And because it's governmental, it has all the marketing savvy and commercial skills and online presence of an Enron, an Edsel, a Leyland P 76 or a Microsoft Zune.

What could have been used to promote Australian films is just another dead duck quacking in the quagmire. Try telling that to Imdb as it cosies up to its Hollywood bread and butter.

Meantime, try getting hold of an old Ken Hall Dad and Dave show like On Our Selection, a genuine classic of the thirties - in the sense of erecting a myth of country -  and which should be on library shelves around the country. Good luck in your hunt.

That brings us to the current funding mechanisms, with the government bizarrely thinking that joining the development arm (the old AFC) with the finance arm (the old FFC) would somehow sort out the issues of Australian films in the marketplace by way of one new bloated body Screen Australia.

The result in the last year has been an unmitigated disaster, as noted by Tim Blair in his blog under the header Increase Regulation, picking up on an article by The Age's Melissa Kent, with the standard optimistic title Back in the frame.

As Kent notes, if you take Baz Luhrmann's Australia out of the mix, the actual box office for Australian films in the last year was pathetic. We got bizarre international co pros like Children of the Silk Road, wretched mixed up shows with no idea of demographics or target audiences like Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger, and catastrophic disasters like the seven million bucks splurged on The Tender Hook. 

The funding bureaucrats even dropped money into Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying Acts, which should have had enough cast and market clout to stand on its own feet in terms of financing. With the impeccable sense of product selection you expect from bureaucrats, it managed $713,000 in the local market, and a resounding clunk elsewhere.

The main pitch from Kent's article is that things will get better in the by and by, and that in due course there'll be pie in the sky for all of us from the upcoming offerings.

But the reality is that so long as the current development and financing system through one bloated body persists, the odds of a recovery lengthen by the day. Not that you can expect bureaucrats to talk themselves out of a job - the time servers know that if they went out into the cold, it's a long time between films and few that are financed ever make money. Much of the time they're content to fund docs for the ABC and SBS, throw a bit of money at Nine for Underbelly, and toss money at features which will disappear without a trace, and therefore without a fuss. That's the way you do it, money for nothing, and the chicks for free.

There's a simple reason of course, for the quandary facing the local industry, and it didn't involve a conspiracy theory, or even bureaucrats. Ever since the nineteen thirties the British and American industries have conspired to kill off local production, and to make Australia a captive market. Starved of local images (unless you count things like On the Beach, Smiley Gets a Gun, and They're A Weird Mob), audiences bucked the trend and flocked to the government-funded seventies revival.

But recently it's been harder and harder to compete with tentpole pictures from America that cost squillions while most local budgets peak around the five million mark. The natural home for that kind of fare is DVD, but then you're guaranteed, even in the best of all worlds, bugger all vis a vis revenue and the original negative cost of the film.

You can do an occasional break out movie, like Wolf Creek, but the chances of a break out coming from Mosfilm aka Screen Australia are a bit like the chance of the NFSA selling 20k copies of its monstrous Sentimental Bloke extravaganza. 

Nobody knows nothing in the game, as the director of Wolf Creek discovered when he did the croc movie Rogue, but bureaucrats don't have anything at risk, or anything to gain, from a hit, and it shows. Do a flop in Hollywood and it's back to waitressing until the next chance comes along; fund a flop in Australia, and it's just another round of board papers.

What to do? Well sadly it will involve the federal government admitting they made a mistake, and returning to a model where film financing is linked as closely as possible to distribution - and commercial viability (as opposed to cultural meaning) is high on the selection criteria. A silly tax scheme which sees government funding money sit in place of the supposed private sector investment doesn't cut it, especially at a time when the recession has stripped banks and private investors of the kind of indie play money that was assumed would be there (try hitting up the Royal Bank of Scotland for bridging finance these days and see how you go).

And as for development? Scrap government funding, and let people who really want to write films sit around and devise scripts for audiences rather than to please bureaucrats in a position to favor their pets at the expense of audiences.

It'll never happen in the short term of course, but as a hard rain starts to fall on the industry, and even Hollywood begins to shift distribution and delivery models to the internet, the local industry will have to begin to play catch up. Are the current flock of bureaucrats up to the changes coming? Probably not, but then it's only Australian films, and nobody cares much, not the archives or the public, so I guess it's really only a hill of beans. You never know what's missing if it's not there in front of you, as opposed to the Australian films section down the back next to the soft porn collection in the video store.

Well what do you know? Here's me and Tim Blair agreeing on a result we both think is the result of 'extreme socialism'. Help, the right wing commentariat mind parasites have got into my brain, and now I'm turning into a helpless automaton. But thank the lord not so helpless as an Australian feature film trying to make its way into the marketplace these days ...

And did I mention fifty bucks for a silent movie? Lordy, suddenly Blu-ray looks cheap.

(Below: back in the days when commercialism wasn't a dirty word).

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