Historical Perspectives

Salvation Army Heritage Centre

Cinema of Silence

Saskia Penn, La Trobe University

It is difficult to imagine what it was like to experience an Australian silent film in the time and place of its making. Australia’s early filmmaking history was littered with pioneers and visionaries, artists and martyrs, who produced and distributed hundreds of silent films avidly consumed by a passionate and hungry audience. These early film experiences were important to people. As pioneer showman Bert Forsyth recounted in 1925, despite all the shortcomings, “the audience in those days…, not forgetting the flicker of the film, were carried away with enthusiasm at the wonderful exhibition they saw” (Long and Long 1982: 26). My research argues that Australian silent film narratives and ways of consuming those films had an identifiable Australian accent and served a function to Australian audiences, shifting through the decades. The development of genres, aesthetics, narratives, and characters are all significant in the history of Australian film, signifying the distinct national accent of its creation and spectatorship. I have drawn on evidence from promotional materials, reviews, visual material, and other evidentiary clues, embellishing the shifting ways Australians were involved with their movies.

Film culture in Australia has long been tethered to a sense of Australianness. Here I will focus on the ‘newness’ of the moving pictures at the dawning of a fresh age, as the figurative and physical foundations were laid for Australia’s film culture at the Turn of the Century. Australian audiences experienced the movies – they were dreamed, and lived, and they endured beyond the screen.

Saskia Penn graduated from La Trobe University with a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in 2015, majoring in History. Her Honours thesis, supervised by Australian Historian Clare Wright, focussed on cultural identity and audience experience in the silent era of Australian film, spanning from the late-19th Century through to the end of the 1920s. She received an H1 for her work, and was awarded the Peter Cook Prize in Australian History. Saskia was also awarded the coveted David Johanson Essay Prize during her time at La Trobe. Saskia has a passion for old films – the older the better!


Screening Bohemia: Melbourne from the margins

Tony Moore, Monash University

A self-proclaimed bohemian and Balzacian flaneur, Marcus Clarke’s vivid prose offered an almost filmic invocation of Melbourne in the 1860s and 70s. The journalist and writer was fascinated with photography and visual special effects, at one time contriving a hoax that the Melbourne cup could be broadcast into the offices of the Herald by virtue of great optic eye, leading to crowds storming the building to see this (mythical) precursor to television. This paper proposes that Clarke rehearsed many of the tropes that latter-day Melbourne bohemian filmmakers would employ with predictable regularity: character-based satire, a fixation with the gothic and supernatural, farce, pranks, musicals, burlesques, and sensational exposes into an underbelly of brothels, crime warrens and opium dens.

Drawing on the author’s research for the ‘Bohemian Melbourne’ exhibition and associated ‘Screening Bohemians’ film program at the State Library Victoria, and book Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemia’s Since 1860, this paper examines some of the recurring tropes and tendencies in Melbourne’s film bohemia. In particular it explores the flaneur-­style engagement with the city’s streets evident in a selection of films from the silent era through to today – including the rare 1912 film Life’s Romance about the life of poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, Barry Humphries’ little seen Comfort Station, Tim Burstall’s Stork (1971), Bert Delling’s Pure Shit (1975), Monkey Grip (1982), Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space (1986), Ana Kokkinos’ Head On (1998) and Darius Devas’ short film of Si’s poem This City Speaks to Me (2009).

Like Clarke, many of the filmmakers who’ve emerged from Melbourne’s counter-cultures use the stories of their own bohemian scenes or the ‘lower bohemian’ underclass, to reveal the city’s spaces through the eyes of the marginalised. The paradox is that while drawing on underground perspectives and emerging aesthetics – be it surrealism, punk or post­modernism – these boho filmmakers frequently produced films that were popular with wider audiences. That may be because, just like Henry Murger’s original fictionalised account of his own bohemian past, Scenes de la vie de boheme, many of these films are also nostalgic for lost youth, and appeal to a generation’s longing for an elusive authenticity and autonomy when the city’s spectacle and sensations were still fresh.

Tony Moore is an Associate Professor in the School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University, and Director of its Communications and Media Studies Graduate Program. He is the author of Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians since 1860 (2012), The Barry McKenzie Movies (2005) and Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868 (2010). Tony has a background as a documentary maker and current affairs producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and as a publisher {Cambridge UP, Pluto Press). He is a frequent commentator in the media, including appearing as a cultural historian on the BBC/ ABC series Brilliant Creatures (2014) and the television adaptation Death or Liberty (Roar Film/ABC 2015).


Melbourne’s cinema as an image of modern evil

Chris McAuliffe, Australian National University

Characterising himself as an ‘outraged Edwardian puritan’, Albert Tucker made numerous art works depicting immorality and decadence in Melbourne during World War 2. His shock at Melbourne’s licentiousness culminated in the scabrous series Images of modern evil (1943-47) and the iconic Victory girls (1943). While much attention has been given to Tucker’s representations of Melbourne’s mean streets, the central place of the cinema in these works has not been studied. In multiple works Tucker represented cinemas as the site of sex, violence and crime; bitterly captioning one image of nude figures lolling in the stalls, ‘Happy days’. Tucker surreptitiously photographed screened images in Melbourne cinemas, using them as both documentation of movie culture and as a source for his art. Significantly, his iconic painting of street sex, Victory girls, was based on a Hollywood movie poster. In this paper, I will show how Melbourne cinema – as site, text and social experience – -shaped Tucker’s work, producing the first sustained address to cinema by an Australian painter. I will argue that Tucker consciously positioned cinema between competing aesthetic positions: the surrealist’s celebration of the cinema as dream state and the left’s abhorrence of Hollywood commercialism.

Chris McAuliffe is the Professor of Art (Practice-led research) at the Australian National University’s School of Art. Chris was Director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne from 2000-2013. Chris has curated extensively and written widely on Australian art and culture. He is the author of Art and Suburbia (Craftsman House, 1996) Linda Marrinan: Let Her Try (Thames & Hudson, 2007) and Jon Cattapan: Possible Histories (Melbourne University Press, 2008).