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Friday, 26 August 2016

Vale James Merralls - Peter Hourigan writes about a pioneer of Australian film criticism

The death of James Merralls earlier this week would seem to have been well covered in Legal Circles, with tributes from the High Court of Australia and the Attorney-General George Brandis.
But none that I have seen recall Jim’s early contribution to film culture.  I’m not the best person to write about this, but perhaps I can start the ball rolling.  By the time I came to Melbourne University and the Film Society as a naive young country boy, Merralls had already largely moved on into his legal career, which was certainly successful, and included a QC. I probably met him three or four times, in connection with Film journal and I was quite overawed, not least by the reputation of his legacy in MUFS.
It must have been during his law studies at Melbourne University in the 1950s, that he was also  involved in film culture (not that it had that name then) and most tangibly in the creation of FILM JOURNAL.  First published, and edited by Merralls this appeared in 1956, clearly one of the very, very first independent “serious” magazines on film.  
He is also credited (by researchers Tom O’Regan and Huw Walmsley-Evans on Screening the Past) as the first editor of ANNOTATIONS ON FILM.  ANNOTATIONS was the ‘in-house’ journal for Melbourne University Film Society, with notes on the films being screened by MUFS. Although no longer being published, it has somewhat morphed into the CTEQ section of Senses of Cinema, with its notes on films being screened by Melbourne Cinémathèque.   These were all parts of the world where a number of the friends of this blog, including Geoff Gardner its blog-master and myself first came across this new approach to “the pictures” and made our own first attempts at writing about films.
FILM JOURNAL was far less parochial, reaching ambitiously outside the campus. The first edition is labelled “British Film Issue”. Physically, it shows how the budding cineastes of the fifties explored their ideas in the days before instant blogging.  It is simply, two sheets of paper, foolscap size, printed back and front on (I guess) an office roneo-machine.  It’s then folded, so you have a magazine of eight pages.
Merralls is listed as the editor and he writes one article on “The Films of [George More] O’Ferrall” .  On one of the films The Heart of the Matter, with a presumably autobiographical hint, he bemoans its being denied a city release in Melbourne. “This is a pity because despite its shortcomings the film has qualities of sincerity and restraint which, anathema as they may be to the seventeen-year-old self-identificationalist, should appeal to audiences whose humanity has not as yet been blunted by too many Cinemascope magna opera.”
The films covered in this issue weren’t those that only a few years later his successors at MUFS were valuing, but the other main article (The Technical Man in the Business: A Study of David Lean by James Holden) shows reaching beyond the university grounds with “The writer acknowledges the generous co-operation of Mr. David Lean in supplying data for this essay.)   (At that time, Lean’s latest film was Summer Madness (Summertime) 1955)
The March-April 1957 is still roneoed, but has a properly printed cover with a block illustration.  And even more it is breaking out of any parochial world, with an interview with Jean Renoir (conducted by Gideon Bachmann) sourced from America.
When I first became aware of Film Journal and MUFS Merralls was already well underway with his legal career, and moving out of university film society circles.  He was now co-editor with Brian Davies (shortly to direct The Pudding Thieves). The magazine was now a glossy, commercially printed magazine. In a look at some current trends in the cinema available in Australia by early 1961, he finished his article with:
 “It would be absurd to come to some final judgment in praise or condemnation of Hiroshima Mon Amour. The qualities of its images and sound are manifold and manifest. It does suggest that in straying from the mainstream of French films in search of new subtleties of expression the ‘poetic’ cinema will not easily find firm ground. Les Quatre Cents Coups is propelled by its acceptance of tradition to a beachhead.  The new wave carrying Hiroshima may be found to be travelling towards marshlands.”
Sadly, I have to admit that the final edition of Film Journal appeared in December 1965 with myself as the death watch editor.  James Merralls was still involved, as a member of the publication’s Board. Student days mean that people’s involvement does often end when their studies end, but Merralls had kept his connection long after he’d already started developing his legal career.
But those roughly ten years of Film Journal, surely his baby, are significant in the development of film culture in Australia as we know it today, even if some of the films, directors and genres that were espoused as it developed were not those that he would have explored.
In his study of film culture in Australia, Barrett Hodsdon wrote (of early critical writing on film),

     “Most of these journals sprang into being to cater for prevailing local needs and concerns of film society members. However, the MUFS supported Film Journal (FJ), which survived from the mid ‘50s to the mid ‘60s did attain the status of an internationally regarded film magazine. ...some of its early issues were the first examples of published director studies in Australian film writing – John Huston, George Cukor, Robert Siodmak, Ernst Lubitsch – initiated and compiled by Charles Higham, Joel Greenberg and Garth Buckner.  HIgham was later to become a Hollywood based film journalist writing star biographies.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Is Surrealism a cure for film criticism? - Bruce Hodsdon retrieves a poetic, vintage contribution to the conversation

Bruce writes: I have recently been reminded of this statement below that I cobbled together about ten years ago as a pickup to accompany a nine program Sunday Film series with the theme of “Surrealism's Filmic Accomplices”. While hardly an attempt at a manifesto it was meant as some kind of provocation. I then attached my e-mail address. Needless to say I received no responses.

A realist film deploys conventions of representation to persuade the viewer that it is representing the real. There are many realisms.

A surrealist film retains the function of representation but profoundly alters the character of the something being represented. There are many paths to the sur-real.

A movie is not an assertion which is either true of false or even, in a sense, good or bad, but a show.

The show itself stands in no essential need for the 'understanding' provided by either criticism or aesthetics. Let's not regard the individual movie as a riddle which demands additional critical  concepts and the expertise of a chosen critic for comprehension.

A work is first experienced.

“I like” is just the beginning. “I dislike” can be a productive starting point.

The work can then be evaluated, not on the basis of literary or artistic technique, but on the richness of the flow between the conscious and the subconscious.

Don't look for logic, theme, structure and overall reason for the film's existence at the moment of exposure. Don't resist the unconventional or try to force the film into a preconceived frame where it doesn't fit. Rare is the movie without memorable moments, scenes, sequences-we each experience them differently as they are refracted through the mix of perception, temperament and experience that constitutes the viewer's individual sensibility.

Surrealist Man Ray once said that in the best film he had ever seen there were but ten minutes worth seeing, and in the worst film he had ever seen there were also ten minutes worth seeing.

We are not looking for in-depth analysis or rounded film criticism here. We are not looking for ratings and plot synopses subject to conventional (Aristotelian) logic that demands sense, easily nameable passions, cause and effect continuity, integration and an external moral.

A movie is a show available to us in no other way. The first violation of this autonomy occurs precisely in those films in which the show has been subsumed in order to make some moral comment on real life. In the show ambiguity rules!

What we are ultimately looking for is not the death of logic but a larger logic – what has be called the logic of the marvellous that releases the imagination rather than of reason that encloses it. Poetic not realist sensibilities rule here!

Editors Note: I asked Bruce for the list of films screened  which this 'manifesto' accompanied. Here they are.
Comedy: The Pawnshop (Chaplin) + It’s A Gift (W C Fields); Hellzapoppin’; The Plumber (Weir); 
Love: The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen); King Kong (1932); The Blue Angel; The Saga of Anatahan (Sternberg);
Terror: The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale); After Hours (Scorsese); Detour (Ulmer)

Bruce's email is

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

MATAUNGAN (3) - The mystery of the missing movie deepens. The search goes international... Rod Bishop takes up the story....

This series of posts started way, way back in July when Rod Bishop reported on the disinterment of the film footage he and others shot way back in 1972 for a never completed film tentatively titled Mataungan.  That post can be found by clicking here

Rod wrote a follow up and takes up the story.

In the previous instalment,  a Film Alert  post retrieved Ken Berryman’s exemplary work in examining the archives of the Experimental Film and Television Fund and his pursuit of the original film elements of the long lost Mataungan. The last instalment concluded with Ken Berryman’s pursuit of the remaining Mataungan film materials and the revelation they were shipped to Dave Jones, former La Trobe academic, director of Yackety Yack (1973) and were in Dave’s office at Drexel University, Pennsylvania in 1985.  Ken’s report contained this quote from a response he received from Dave Jones:

"Most - possibly all - of the surviving Mataungan film footage is sitting in my office. A few years ago, when the project seemed to have been finally abandoned in Australia, I asked that the material be sent to me in the hopes I could manage to do something with it...”

Rod Bishop to Dave Jones and Heinz Schütte email 26 July 2016
 Today Ken Berryman sent [an] email about his research into Mataungan in the 1980s.
…towards the end, Ken refers to a letter he received from Dave in 1985 which states all the Mataungan footage is with Dave at Drexel University. Is this true, Dave?

Dave Jones to Rod Bishop and Heinz Schütte email 26 July 2016
It was true, but is no longer.  I was about to write you about this.  I spent much of yesterday looking through some dusty cans and boxes of film material stored in a room in the cinema program here at Drexel (before I received your email…), but the Mataungan material is no longer there.  I think I discarded it sometime in the mid- or late 1990s, along with some footage and films of my own that I thought were no longer of any use or interest…
…I’ve entered a period of my life when I sometimes don’t remember things that happened and sometimes remember things that didn’t happen.  I don’t remember Ken’s inquiry, and I don’t keep good files…
…I was wrong to make the decision to discard or abandon the material without consulting you. It was presumptuous of me, arrogant and inconsiderate…
 I must say, though, that from his description of it, the film that Rod was able to put together is in all probability better—more useful—than what I had suggested could be done with the 16mm footage.  Had a film been made along the lines of my suggestion to Ken, Rod’s version would probably never have been made.

Rod Bishop writes:
Never have been made? “Rod’s version” was made 44 years ago in 1972. Dave Jones, Heinz Schütte, Peter Beilby and many academics and students at The Media Centre, La Trobe University viewed this edited 40-minute version in 1972 and 1973. Yet, Dave Jones seems unaware of its existence and talks of making his own 40-minute version.

The lost material would have included the original 40-minute work print version of Mataungan, the one I telecined in the late 1970s. The version I made is the only surviving version of the film and the one that will be used in the coming Brisbane exhibitions. If Dave Jones had looked at the Mataungan material after it was sent to Drexel, he would have found the 40-minute version of the film.
What has been lost? Probably the original negatives, soundtracks, work prints, offcuts and deleted materials from the telecined double-head 40-minute film that now survives on digital files. The 40-minute film was, in our judgement at the time, the best material we had to hand. The lost offcuts and other deleted material were of historical and anthropological interest and in Heinz Schütte’s words “of singular value and absolutely irreplaceable”.
The same is true of the exposed footage taken from Rabaul by the missing cameraman in 1972 and never recovered. In the welter of recent recollections, we realize we haven’t even remembered how Chris spelt his last name. Was it Chris O’Neil? Chris O’Niall? Chris O’Nial?
And did O’Neil/O’Niall disappear from Rabaul to Wewak? To the Sepik? To Greece? His last known movements came from the late Grey Westerbrook, the ABC stringer in Rabaul at the time. In April of 1972, during the editing period, I received a letter from Grey reporting the way “the Mataungans romped home during the elections…and right now there’s an incredible paranoia in town about ‘what’s going to happen when they throw us out.’ “He adds: “Had a letter from Chris saying he’s on his way up here and to expect him about this time, but I haven’t heard from him since and have no idea what boat he’s coming on – but I guess he’ll turn up.” 
O’Neil/O’Niall has never been heard of again.

The surviving Mataungan footage will be used in two exhibitions at the Queensland Art Gallery – A Bit Na Ta: A Sense of Place, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea and No 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966 – 2016. The concurrent exhibitions run from 15 October 2016 to 29 January 2017.