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Against the Grain: More Meat Than Wheat

Against the Grain: More Meat Than Wheat (Tim Burns, 1980) prod. Tim Burns for Nightshift Films, wr. Tim Burns & Michael Callaghan, dp Louis Irving, ed. Peter Bailey, Chris Cordaux, Melissa Woods; Michael Callaghan, Sandy Edwards, Joy Burns, Letham Burns, Mary Burns, George Sutton; young idealist visits WA to visit family; low budget political drama; Eastman colour, 16 mm, 76 min.; not released in cinemas: distributed by AFI

An Anzac Day stunt intended as a political statement is viewed as an act of terrorism, forcing Ray Unit further underground, fleeing to his childhood home on the other side of Australia. An Orwellian tale of terrorism, fear, paranoia and politics.

Urban terrorist Ray Unit (Michael Callaghan) plants a smoke bomb at the Martin Place cenotaph in Sydney on Anzac Day. Travelling in disguise, Ray visits his mother, Elsie (Joy Burns), and family in suburban Perth. He discusses the predatory nature of photography with Paula (Sandy Edwards) at Cottesloe Beach before heading to rural Western Australia. Spending time among sheep farmers and wheat growers, Ray applies for political asylum in Hutt River Province, a self-declared autonomous state run by Prince Leonard (Leonard Casley). Ray’s every move is tracked by electronic surveillance. An unseen voice of authority guides the investigation while delivering instructions to his underlings on the best means of dealing with Ray and the beliefs he holds.

David Stratton devotes one paragraph to the film:

[This] low-budget political film ... suffers from its self-conscious attempts to be 'experimental', and its anti-nuclear message gets lost in the shuffle. Burns' intentions, as expressed in interviews given at the time of the film's release, were ambitious, but the film is too incoherent to make much of an impact and too muddled in its approach: it appears to support acts of urban terrorism. Stratton: 224.

Richard Kuipers, writing on the Australian Screen website, gives these notes:

Against the Grain: More Meat than Wheat is a provocative, semi-narrative experimental film in which the central character of Ray Unit acts as a conduit for opinions on hot button topics of the day, such as uranium exports and woodchipping, while he moves through the big picture landscape of issues including national security, personal freedom and state control of individuals and the media. Opening with voice-over narration quoting Jean Genêt’s essay ‘Violence and Brutality’ (1977) over images of Ray Unit and his collaborators constructing a bomb, filmmaker Tim Burns later includes excerpts from The Rebel (1951) by Albert Camus, ‘The Left and Terrorism’ (1978) by Andrew Mack and several other polemical pieces to show how such thoughts and theories might influence someone like Ray and inspire him to take action in Australia in 1980.

Well educated and from a middle-class Perth family, Ray is a mass of contradictions. His egotism and obsession with his own image are at odds with the classic picture of a committed revolutionary who strips individualism away to fight for the collective cause of overthrowing the ruling order. He is an intriguing character whose conversations with many of the people he meets are intended to make us stop and think about how news and information is selected (and deselected) and reported by the mass media. With the all-seeing government agency recording Ray’s movements (the title of the film is the code name given to Ray’s surveillance) and deliberating carefully on how to maximise its advantage when deciding to expose him, there is also an element of the political paranoia thriller at play here.

Multimedia artist Tim Burns – not to be confused with the Mad Max (1979) actor – is an intriguing, singular Australian filmmaker. Still active in many media, Burns’s experimental, politically-charged films of the ‘70s and ‘80s – notably this title and the prophetic Super 8 documentary Why Cars? CARnage! (1978) – stand at the forefront of radical Australian cinema. Burns’s tone and technique bear some resemblance to films made by the Dziga Vertov Group, a left-wing collective (Jean-Luc Godard was a founding member) that produced works such as British Sounds (1969), Wind from the East (1969) and Letter to Jane (1972). Ray’s discussion with Paula (well-known Perth photographer Sandy Edwards) about the nature of the photographic act and what can be interpreted from an image is reminiscent of Letter to Jane, a 52-minute deconstruction of a single photograph of Jane Fonda in Vietnam.

Like most radical political films, Against the Grain: More Meat than Wheat is not for everyone. Historical footage of the Second World War and very strong images from Santiago Álvarez’s riveting 1969 short film 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh (in which Álvarez physically sliced 16mm footage and refilmed it) are very confronting, and the general tone of the film could be interpreted by some viewers as an endorsement of violent protest action. Although there are arguably too many ideas crammed into the brief running time, Against the Grain: More Meat than Wheat is never less than compelling and challenging. One of its most interesting and prophetic elements is its vision of surveillance. What must have seemed like science-fiction movie-like monitoring of Ray in 1980 is now an everyday reality in most big cities in the developed world where thousands of cameras track human movement.

Charles Merewether's article, 'Transgression and the "mediation" of violence', from Filmnews, January 1981: 4.

Against the Grain is the most recent auto-biographic/biographic film to be made by Tim Burns. It is a film concerned with politics and communication, with the political representation of violence against and by the State. Underwritten by the political practice of the Red Brigade in Italy and the Red Army Fraction in West Germany, by the work of Fassbinder and Genet; the film follows out the political aspirations of a young artist, Ray Unit, who seeks individual violence against the brutality of the State. A bomb is planted at the Cenotaph minutes before the annual celebration , Anzac Day, as a protest against the war. What then characterises the locus of the film is as much the mobilization of institutional forces against this action. TERRORISM is splashed across the front pages, and a massive surveillance system pursues and reconstructs the course of Ray Unit's subsequent actions.

Ray returns home to the West, the train trip becomes a metaphor for a return to his birthplace, to his family and a community. Here the demands of violence are a part of everyday life in the killing of sheep and a maintaining one's livelihood as with the killing of sheep for food. It is a world which the film proposes has little place for the individualistic artist, for individual action nor for the State. Ray seeks political asylum in the Hutt River Province and here learns more about explosives. It is however a temporary refuge, a respite before he returns to Sydney to prepare another 'terrorist' attack on the State. But though the disjunction between cultures is well effected by these sequences, the pacing of the film seems to falter. It loses momentarily that critical edge and tension between the State and the individual and the pervasive presence of mediated violence. Throughout, the film plays off the instrumental role of media technology - most specifically the pervasive use of the camera as a weapon - an agent of surveillance. The image of violence is constructed through the television camera, the press, video, the still camera, the computer and through the discourse of the film itself. This political transmission seems even more accentuated within Australia in our state of media dependence for overseas news, for images of political struggle. The sense of mediation the process of representation is finely suggested as Ray holds a newspaper to his face in a photo-booth with headlines: The Dream of Terror' or sits in front of a news paper hoarding for the Daily Mirror : 'Come to life with the Mirror'.

And yet it is precisely the camera for the artist - the filmmaker that has become the means/the instrument of political intervention. In an incident with Paula Oid (Polaroid) who shoots off photos of Ray, they exchange abuse on the role of the camera. To photograph people is to violate them' (quoted from Susan Sontag's On Photography) is argued for as their exchange is intercut with shots of an American soldier shooting a Vietnamese at close range, and then photographing the incident. But the artistic/moral bind this formalist-ridden theory proposes can hardly be tolerated politically, when confronted by the relentless intervention of the State at this level.

Against the Grain nevertheless is fractured by a series of political discourses that shift across one another, constituting a specific political and cultural milieu. It is within the process of these shifts underpinned by a theory of instrumental violence accorded to the camera, that the representation of women is encountered as a site of political struggle. However it is again a discourse that is merely signalled. Nevertheless the film can be located and its meaning articulated, quite specifically within this context. Tim Burns in the latter part of the Seventies was closely involved with Nightshift, a political theatre group working out of New York and Melbourne. Throughout their work they revealed an intense fascination with the work and ideas of such authors as Fassbinder, Genet and Enzenberger, with terrorism, anarchism and violence, with notions of sexual repression and sado-masochism. For this group the site of release, of political practice was at this point ..

'Violence and Life are more or less synonymous. The Grain of wheat which germinates breaks the frozen soil, the beak of the chick that cracks the egg-shell, the fertilization of the female, and the birth of the young can all be accused of being violent. Yet no-one would put on trial the child, the woman, the chick, the bud, or the grain of wheat.' (Jean Genet In Defence of the Red Army Fraction.)

The film begins with this voice-over dialogue establishing the political demand, for the violence of the individual to be launched against the institutional brutality and repression, that daily confronts people within a capitalist society. The film is seized by a compulsive movement across this political culture, it is seized by a raw sense of the moment of a spontaneous political action/struggle. It is a response to the continuous presence and threat of war, of a new fascism, of brutality and oppression.

The film itself becomes then a political fantasy, the narrative of one middle-class male artist who seeks a resolution of what in reality might not have been carried out. Throughout the State system of political surveillance and the process of mediation is insistently foregrounded. The audience relation to the subject, to Ray, the narrative is pulled back to a point of tension between information, surveillance and identification. We are informed for instance that Ray is to be induced into more terrorist activity creating a climate wherein greater social control can be imposed. The computer becomes in fact the unspoken co-star of the film, the counterpoint to Paula Oid as a woman and photographer. It is the deus ex machina' of a technological age. Hence the way in which the film traverses across a number of political issues without ever pushing the problems they constitute very far, is as much a process of surveillance/monitoring as the construction of a political milieu in which these issues have a recurring presence.

The final passages of the film rush into a holocaustic sequence of nuclear melt-down, the system lurches out of control. Figures panic helplessly in the face of a technological disaster. The sequence is out of the film Red Alert, and serves as a clear reference to Harrisburg. And again as with much of the film, the images from television, film, photographs are used not only in respect to their subject, but to their representation. Simultaneously Ray sets about constructing another bomb to be exploded through a video cassette. The relations of violence are set: the individual against the brutality of the State as articulated within a political discourse of the instrumental images of technology.

As an Australian independent film any such consideration of these issues is rare, and subject to misunderstanding. Against the Grain constitutes an understanding of what political theory /practice has meant to a specific milieu in Australia.

It lies outside the organized left and yet firmly within a cultural avant-garde that is intensely political and active. It is a response seized by images of violence in everyday life, and by a desire to articulate its fantasies. In many ways the work of Tim Burns and of Nightshift can be located within an independent political tradition, most especially with the Surrealists and an Anarcho-Surrealist movement. But equally its capacity to transgress across a range of political issues and break with conventional modes of film-making/of cultural politics is as much a response to Australian conditions over the past few years. This fracturing can be mapped in the following way.

The relationship between the cultural politics - the practice of the political avant- garde and the political left has always been an uneasy one. It is as much a history of failure as one of success, wherein their desire to break the oppressive bonds of capitalism maintain an awkward coincidence. In a period when the traditional political structures of the left are under severe scrutiny, this relationship and the issues it represents are a crucial site of consideration. What in fact the Anti-War (Vietnam) movement of the late Sixties and the Feminist movement achieved in general was a necessary challenge to the oppressive orthodoxy of traditional left party structures and what constituted political action, to a moral code and discourse, which replicated (in disguise) the power relations of class and patriarchy. The challenge constituted breaking the spectre of truth/of realism held over those discourses and its 'deviants'.

In recent years terrorism and autonomous political action has presented itself as a compelling alternative to the more traditional forms of political work. And certainly the pervasive revisionism underlying the communist parties' - seeking parliamentary roads of social democracy — has encouraged this response as much as the intense escalation of a right-wing offensive. The sense of increasing marginalisation could it seemed, be directly countered, and the concept of the monolithic state attacked. Action could be an act of release, a spontaneity which responded more directly to the anger and oppressive frustration experienced on an individual level.

Following the uncritical optimism of the Whitlam years, the Coup and the reactionary backlash throughout the latter part of the Seventies caught everyone unarmed. The daily press (increasingly incorporated within the hands of monopoly empires) reeked of a reactionary ideology. The offensive was everywhere. But Australia was not alone in this political course of events. In Europe and England the moves were comparable. Just as with the successive achievements of peoples liberation movements in the Third World provoked the Western press to revert to a cold-war rhetoric of a monstrous and alien communist threat to world peace, so the urban guerilla forces were viewed with horror and fear.

TERRORism struck the front page over and over again, photography came into its own once again, the television news for a moment had it all over the movies. It didn't matter to the press, quite apart from the reactionary governments in the West, whether it was the struggle of the Palestinian or Irish peoples, the practice of the Red Army Fraction in West Germany or the Red Brigade in Italy. A crisis was imminent, the moral fibre of western civilization at stake, and we should only put our trust against chaos and anarchy in the hands of the ruling class and their elect. In Australia the Hilton bombing in Sydney exploded across the country, triggering off a massive knee-jerk response by the government. The logic was unmistakably clear. The fear of violence couched in representations of World War Two was a recipe of success. ASIO was given even greater power to monitor and intervene on the daily lives of people, and the police force re-equipped and reorganised with .new anti-terrorist squads. In Italy the Government took direct action, seizing upon any political practice to suppress and make an outright attack on a growing mass revolutionary movement. In West Germany the case was not dissimilar and Berufsverbot was one of a number of government-organized acts of suppression.

In Australia the organized left meanwhile seemed to stagger and reel sideways. The Vietnam days were long over and the gains incorporated in the Labor government programme had receded and been swiftly dismantled. The disaffection with left political parties rapidly grew. The politics of individual and independent small collective/group action seemed more attractive, more viable. The appeal of terrorism against the monolithic State seemed the only way out. And while the crisis of Terrorism bombarded the daily press, it was rather the crisis of capitalism which excreted itself unwillingly. Unemployment rose massively throughout the Western Industrialised countries, the redistribution of wealth became increasingly locked into corporate industries and multinationals, employment increasingly diminished with the advance of technology in the hands of management, and the nuclear industry rushed ahead behind a rhetoric of national welfare and security.

The most significant comment to be made about the film so far has come from the State itself through the Australian censors. They sought initially to cut the three minutes of the sheep killing scene from the film for its apparent violence. It finally received an R rating and the scene retained. The scene is however one of the least violent in the film. It is shown within the context of the everyday necessities of living on a farm, and followed with the meat's preparation as Ray and his mother look on. But the scene also reveals clearly the cultural differences between Ray and his family. He is unable to kill the sheep even through given instructions. The demands of the task are for physical skill. Ray learns more easily how to prepare explosives, the violence is of a different order.

This sequence returns us to the Genet commentary given in the opening scene of the film: 'Violence and life are more or less synonymous'. One can only wonder if the censors in fact, used this scene as a surrogate for containing/restricting the distribution of the film. There is little comparison in the violence and brutality of this scene as against, for instance, that of the Vietnam sequence. Equally in the course of Ray learning more about explosives, we witness the necessary preparation to be undertaken. The construction of the film becomes the site for the passage of political fantasy.

And yet for the communist parties in the midst of their moral condemnation of terrorism and acts of political violence the question was not asked of their own inadequacies to be engaged in the experience and responses of the politically disaffected or unemployed. Spontaneous politics and political violence was gratuitous, it violated the interests of the working class and party. The party was the vanguard and the revolution for the moment would be a peaceful one of transition. The fact that much of this autonomous action came from within the working class was either overlooked or suppressed on the grounds of playing into the hands of the State. The moribund moralism was founded on an inability to accept demands for radical change that lay outside the party. In all their position, was little different from that of the Right.

It is not that Against the Grain arrives at any solution or alternative, but rather it constitutes a declaration that recognizes both the validity and the inherent contradictions of its own practice. In this, the film reverberates with the frustration and rage of New Wave and Punk music with the bombardment of image, music, text. In many respects the film shows its lineage to be that of the Vietnam/anti-war days, but now has cut away from an impinging idealism to a theory in which the practice of political violence takes on a compelling immediacy. For many it will be too easily dismissed as indulgent, left adventurism, as 'suffering' from incoherence, and yet the problems it signals do require serious consideration. What will be the effect of a 'spontaneist' politics in Australian politico-cultural life.  Charles Merewether, Filmnews, January 1981: 4.

Glen Lewis mentions Merewether's article in passing, in the next issue of Filmnews.

Charles Merewether's lugubrious article on Tim Burns' film in the same issue as Schiller's interview was a pretty depressing example of the new obscurantism of the new left. Both Mad Max and Against the Grain are wonderful displays of Australian male ego trips. But because Mad Max was about the fantasies of the average Australian man, that film spoke more openly of what Australian violence is about: crime, cars, and a sexual sadism related to a deep fear of homosexuality, rather than a cerebral artistic statement about games of political terrorism. Against the Grain is interesting in its own right due to the author's links with the art school/gallery tradition, and for Christopher Cordeaux's great editing, but Merewether - who edited Schiller's original article for Filmnews — ignores those elements of content and context in favour of 'deep structures'. I'd sooner settle for Deep Throat. At least that tried to be funny.

Synopsis, courtesy of OzMovies.

The film begins by showing a derelict house surrounded by modern buildings.

While various subversive texts are read aloud on the soundtrack, the images show a clock being linked to explosives, a smoke bomb being built, and dropped at the Cenotaph in Martin Place Sydney, where it explodes in a "wanton act of desecration", angering the people at the scene, particularly the young veterans returned from Indo-China.

The police quickly work out that art materials were used in constructing the bomb and start looking amongst subversive artists for the perpetrator of the outrage.

The perpetrator, one Ray Unit (Michael Callaghan) catches the Indian Pacific train and crosses the Nullabor to his home state of Western Australia, donning a moustache as a disguise, while listening to news reports on the Red Brigade in Italy, and a man explaining the virtues of leisurely train travel …

When he arrives at the station, Ray rings his mum (Joy Burns), who offers to collect him, while Ray solicitously asks about his aunty ... as you'd expect of an artistic lad brought up in the suburb of Swanbourne ...

Meanwhile, an all-seeing computer has zoned in on the perpetrator and is gathering more data about him to add to its already extensive data base ...

Ray confesses to mum that he had something to do with the Cenotaph atrocity - the family aren't going to be too happy about that, says his mum - but she bones up by reading Bommi Baumann's Wie alles anfing (How it all began).

Ray's mum shows him how to make bread to her special recipe involving a revolutionary yeast - it rises in an hour. She likes lots of salt with her revolutionary yeast, which produces a revolutionary bread that anybody and everybody can make ...

Ray meets a photographer Paula Oid (Sandy Edwards) and berates her for stealing his image. Cars kill more than guns, she says, and guns kill more than cameras, in fact cameras don't kill at all … but Ray, like the film, is inclined to Sontagian thinking, and maintains that to photograph someone is a form of soft murder, of symbolic possession ...

Furious at having been shown a picture of a beaver pose in a men's magazine, Paula Oid decides to get revenge by objectifying men ..

Next, a woman tells an anecdote about a couple of caring activists, who didn't want to kill anyone, but who wanted to make a dynamite protest - and got four years for their efforts - while at a party around a swimming pool, a man says that violence or the threat of violence is the only way to bring about change …

The Ray family heads off to the bush and Ray discusses acreage and wheat and cropping and sheep and the property with the extended family, while Paula Oid keeps taking snaps. The farmer shows Ray how to kill and prepare a sheep - but Ray bungles the execution and it turns messy. Still the sub-title for the film is more meat than wheat, so the lamb is chopped up for eating ...

After a frolic on a sand dune, the authorities decide to help turn Ray from his romantic art student image of himself as a radical given to symbolic violence, into a decent threatening terrorist ... so the computers keep busy with their work.

Ray decides to seek political asylum from Prince Leonard at the Hutt River province, where he learns how to insert a detonator in dynamite and blow things up.

After a consideration of exporting uranium and nuclear power, and a burst of Randy Newman singing about dropping the big one now, and movies dramatising nuclear things going wrong, proceedings wrap up with more brooding about action and killing, and the Lucas Heights nuclear facility in Sydney, and nuclear terrorism, and a final explosion ...

Taking a more generalist and political position, Cinema Papers summarised the plot for the film this way in its August-September 1980 edition:

Against the Grain is concerned with politics, film and communications in the service of the capitalist State. It seeks to expose attempts by the State and corporate apparatus to provoke activists of the left into acts of individual terrorism.

The film explores the imagination of the militant bourgeois artist (terrorist) and the political needs of contemporary capitalism. The background is the worldwide development of nuclear power. The main character, Ray Unit, flees Sydney for his home town of Perth. He has exploded a smoke bomb at the Cenotaph War Memorial, only moments before the Anzac Day march is due to begin.

Ray Unit's political position is that of trained individualist artist who seeks to advance the practical implications of his work. His movement towards mass or collective political activity is never fully realized. Throughout the film a computer observes his actions ...

References and Links

Lewis, Glen 1981, 'A reply to Herb Schiller', Filmnews, February: 11.

Merewether, Charles 1981, 'Transgression and the "mediation" of violence', Filmnews, January: 4.

Stratton, David 1990, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1990: 224.

Australian Screen page: has three clips from the film.

OzMovies page for the film.

Wikipedia page.

The film is available from youtube.

Garry Gillard | New: 21 October, 2013 | Now: 19 July, 2022