Australian Film > Writing > O'Regan, 1970s

Australian Film in the 1970s: the ocker and the quality film

Tom O'Regan

In the 1970s two types of filmmaking structured the experience of and debate about the cinema. Firstly there was the "ocker" film--Don's Party (Beresford 1976), The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Beresford 1972), Stork (Burstall 1971), Alvin Purple (Burstall 1973)--with its focus on the contemporary Australian and destined for local minority and eventually general release in Australian cinemas. Secondly there was the "quality" film--My Brilliant Career (Armstrong 1979), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir 1975) positioned between art-cinema protocols and classic Hollywood. It was destined for Australian general release and limited Art cinema/cultural TV release overseas. Ocker films were central to public definitions of Australian cinema in the first half of the decade; while quality films were central in the second half of the decade. These films, the filmmaking milieu that produced them and the all too public debates surrounding them provided a particular experience of the cinema. Both "types" of film can be found beyond the 1970s--the Ocker film is revisited in such 1994 hits as P.J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding and Stephan Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert while The Piano (Campion 1993) and Hotel Sorrento (Franklin 1994) are contemporary exemplars of the "quality" film.

The Ocker Film

The "ocker" films were a loose cycle of films with a contemporary, often urban setting, which (by and large) minimised psychological motivation and relied upon forms of social typage. They were also explicitly geared to a local audience. Examples of "ocker" films include the sex comedy Alvin Purple which had a "regular bloke" Alvin Purple attempting to live a normal life but being thwarted by the sexual desire he unwittingly generates in members of the opposite sex; and the ebullient Adventures of Barry McKenzie where much of the humour comes from McKenzie's colourful slang for people, beer and bodily functions which are misunderstood by the English. "Ocker" TV had arrived too. There was the TV sex-soap opera Number 96 (1972-78) turned into a successful feature film in 1974. It concerned the residents of an inner-city Sydney block of flats and their various marital and extra-marital, heterosexual and homosexual, wanted and unwanted liaisons.

"Ocker's" 1970s variant is the product of an interconnection of TV, theatre, literature and popular journalism. This coalescence included TV variety, comedy revue (The Mavis Bramston Show (1965-1968) and Aunty Jack (1971)--Peter Weir worked on both); the experimental theatre revue of The Legend of King O'Malley (1970), the avant-garde theatre of La Mama (where Stork was first presented as a play); the novelistic and filmic celebration of the popular book and film They're a Weird Mob (Powell 1966) with its celebration of the foibles of the "Australian way of life" - working class, hedonist, beer-swilling, and masculine; and the popular cycle of journalistic descriptions of Australia and the Australian in run-away non-fiction bestsellers of Pringle's Australian Accent (1958), and McGregor's Australian Profile (1966), and Conway's The Great Australian Stupor (1971) which confirmed as real the fictional perception of an Austr ... [material missing] ... this diverse theatrical practice was Peter Brooks' notion of 'rough theatre' which Brooks defined as:

close to the people ... putting over something in rough conditions is like a revolution, for anything that comes to hand can be turned into a weapon ... The arsenal is limitless: the aside, the placard, the topical reference, the local jokes ... the shorthand of exaggeration, the false noses, the stock types, the stuffed bellies ... Of course, it is most of all dirt that gives the roughness its edge: filth and spectacle takes on its socially liberating role, for by nature the popular theatre is anti-authoritarian, anti-traditional, anti-pomp, anti-pretence. This is the theatre of noise. (Brooks in Fitzpatrick, 1979: 84).

Brooks' prescriptions were enthusiastically put to work in the "ocker films". In Sam Rohdie's words (1982: 39) these films set about projecting

not a nostalgic rural Australian beauty, but the vulgarity, philistinism and energy of an urban contemporary Australia . These were not the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume, but vicious, zany comedies of the present.

All ocker films set about self-consciously highlighting "the Australian". For comedies, like the Barry McKenzie films (1971 and 1974), Stork and Alvin Purple this relied on "the send-up". As Tim Burstall put it:

One of the best ways of getting an Australian audience to accept itself, one of the things we're fondest of, is the send up. We're prepared to look at our life and laugh at it in a way that we're not prepared to look at our life and be serious about it. (Burstall quoted in The Age, 5/12/1972)

The pleasure the films afforded had to do with turning everything outside the male vernacular (through which the Australian was defined) into an object of spectacle, a mere exhibit to be ridiculed, misrecognised and consumed as if from the outside. If women were to find little place in this it had as much to do with the ocker's anti-glamour discourse (which amongst other things attacked the currency of woman as aestheticised object) as it had to do with any entrenched misogyny of Australian culture.

Burstall (1977: 53) saw himself and the other ocker creators (Beresford, Williamson and Barry Humphries) meeting 'the disruptive, anarchic entertainment values of the cinema going public'. To do this they either portrayed Australians as 'vulgar but lovable in our vulgarity' in the Barry McKenzie films and Alvin Purple, or they stressed 'sharp and uncharitable social observation [and] accurate delineation of contemporary social types' in Petersen (Beresford 1974) and Don's Party. They sought a 'western suburbs and radical audience' as befitted their origins in TV/vaudeville on the one hand and the Carlton counter-culture on the other.

These films invited in their audiences an awareness of society's archetypal values and figures. Audiences were to be cynical of establishment figures (be they academics, bosses or artists) and their values (education, work and art), cynical of opponents of the establishment (feminists and counter-culture figures) and cynical of socially valorised institutions (family, marriage, the church and police). Meaghan Morris (1980: 146) has noted about these films that 'there is a process of holding figures up to be surveyed and identified, which places them at a distance, and virtually calls upon the audience to play anthropologist to their own culture.' The Barry McKenzie films, Stork and Alvin Purple also created 'freaks' and 'monsters' rather than characters. Rohdie (1982: 40) describes these films as 'marked by an excess rather than a tasteful balance'. Their play with recognitions rather than intense audience identification made their images of Australian society acceptable or unacceptable depending on how you felt about them.

The 1970s "ocker films" do not make up a coherent cycle. The 1970 semi-documentary film The Naked Bunyip (1970) incorporates the kind of fictionalising of the "real" that had been a feature of tendencies within the French "new wave" and American avant-garde. The fictional framework is that of a shy young man chosen by an ad agency to conduct a survey on sex in Australia who is 'soon adrift in a sea of sexual experience as he investigates homosexuality, transvestites, prostitution, strip clubs, pack-rape, permissive morality, pornography - everything in fact except "normal" heterosexuality' (Pike and Cooper 1980: 325). Celebrities, experts, pop-stars, actors and actresses, abortion law reformers, moral guardians, prostitutes, female impersonaters etc were all interviewed by the market researcher Graeme Blundell. While this mixing of fact in the guise of fiction was popularly targeted to maximise on the "documentary" interest in sex and sexuality (an interest that led to the more thoroughgoing porn of Lamond's Australia After Dark in 1975), it nonetheless mixed fiction with documentary in an experimental fashion.

This interest in sexual desire was continued in Libido (1973). Yet its four separate stories - "The Husband", "The Child", "The Priest" and "The Family Man" - are marked by "art cinema" protocols. This is particularly so for "The Child" and "The Priest". "The Child" is about a young boy in the first decade of the twentieth century who becomes infatuated with his governess and is traumatised upon discovery of her making love with the local playboy. "The Priest" concerns the unconsummatable infatuation of a nun and a priest for each other. The intensity of the infatuation drives the priest to breakdown. Both these stories in their lyrical exploration of the state of mind of their respective protagonists look forward to the art films of Paul Cox in the 1980s. The film also predicts in "The Family Man" story the gritty "anti-ocker" realism of Don's Party (1976) as its protagonist Ken (Jack Thompson) sexually assaults a woman he has met in a pub while his wife is in hospital having a baby.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie has as its erstwhile hero the monstrous Barry McKenzie who with his double breasted suit, airways bag (which even then was a sign of mental retardation), and his braggadocio is a camp parody of an outdated Australian masculinity (his clothes belong in the 1940s and early 1950s not the 1960s or 1970s). Episodically structured, improbably connected, the film has a farcical structure in which narrative is clearly at the service of set piece performances by Barry Crocker (Bazza), Barry Humphreys (Edna Everedge and other roles), Spike Milligan and Peter Cook. In many ways the film can be regarded as a "re-writing" of They're a Weird Mob. It encourages not so much the "identification" with its Australianness of They're a Weird Mob, but a suspending of illusionist belief entirely thereby producing its fantasy of the "hyper-Australian".

Stork is another comedy centring around a monstrous figure - the anarchistic Stork (Bruce Spence), a loud-mouthed and eccentric drop-out who is barely tolerated by the other characters in the fiction. Described by other characters as "a mental defective", Stork is the curious centre of the film. He is too much the exhibitionist object of our gaze along with that of the other characters to command the position of preferred narrative viewpoint. He continually makes a spectacle of himself: sometimes disarmingly, but often crudely, disrupting pretentious and not so pretentious social occasions from the General Motors work place from which he is sacked, to an art gallery soiree; from a university lecture to a wedding. The humour is generated in part through the incongruity of the 6 foot 7 inches of Spence, his odd behaviour and his colourful speech, and through the audience recognition of contemporary social type and occasion.

Similarly, Richard Franklin's The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975) is a strange, confused, and at times hysterical fantasy film about sexual voyeurism and consummation which defies straightforward description. The Max Gillies' character's obsessive search for Nell and the "womper" - the sexual act to end them all - moves uneasily between set-piece bawdiness and the film essay.

For its part Don's Party prides itself on a hard edged "realism" - accomplished through the film's limited duration - the length of a party and the apparent absence of goals on the part of the main characters apart from getting drunk, abusing each other, screwing and generally being objectionable. In this the film bears comparison with specialist Hollywood and European art-films in which the spectator is not meant to overly empathise nor identify with the major characters. The pleasurable "unpleasure" of the film then had to do with its exploration of "la condition humaine" Australian style.

Petersen (1974) presented a more straightforward narrative in which the male lead is signposted as a protagonist who in the course of the story has some of his initial goals changed (once realised or thwarted) and replaced with new ones. Petersen demands consideration as serious drama set around an electrician and former footballer at University. The "humorous" ocker set-pieces of an ocker electrician screwing a student tart as a "political" gesture on University front lawn is counterbalanced by the later acts of violence such as Petersen's (Jack Thompson's) rape of his erstwhile tutor and lover, Wendy Hughes, and his own subsequent bashing by police. The ending has a chastened Petersen, by now failed at university having lost the glimpse of something better or at least different. He seems content to become a stud for middle-class housewives to whom he can quote Shakespeare.

By far the most popular of the "ocker films" was the sex comedy, Alvin Purple. It was the most commercially successful of all Australian features released between 1971 and 1977. For many Alvin's popularity represented a collective cultural immaturity and prurience on the part of Australians. In it sexuality was foregrounded and registered as fantasy rather than the "real". As a soft-core porn film Alvin Purple was a film of that moment in the cinema of socially acceptable "porn" before the opening up of R circuits showing films devoid of Alvin's panache and humour.

Alvin was about a man pursued from adolescence by girls and women who mostly sought to offer themselves to him while at other times seeking to mindlessly ravish him. Alvin's mundane goals of leading a quiet, normal life and having a normal emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend are continually frustrated by both the circumstance of his attractiveness to the opposite sex and the assumed impossibility of his ability to simply say no. In this way Alvin is both a gentleman and a "normal" man with normal appetites. If Alvin were to resist these advances his "normality" and libido would be in question. The film positions Alvin as simultaneously ultra-normal and monstrous.

Alvin's sexual attractiveness is never in doubt. That this is a purely physical rather than an emotional and mental attraction is also never in doubt. Equally not in doubt is the "unlikeliness" of the attraction: Alvin is neither handsome nor assertive. He is unassuming and rather shy. The film's humour relies on the "implausibility" of his attractiveness. This discrepancy between the sexually charged looks directed at Alvin by the female characters and the wondrous even "sexless" look at Alvin on the part of the viewers ensures that the film's eroticism is both muted and non-threatening. This enables the erotic dimension to be deflected from the personage of Alvin to the usually attractive female bodies that "do it" for Alvin. Ultimately the film relies upon their display, their energy.

The only woman in the film who escapes this description is Alvin's girlfriend Tina who remains impervious to his sexuality and for being so ends up in a nunnery. Of all the desiring and initiating women in the film none is more threatening and ultimately more humiliated than the female psychiatrist Dr Sort. Apart from his school teacher's wife, Dr Sort is the only woman with whom Alvin has a regular sexual relationship. She is the only genuinely threatening female figure in the film and she is also an authority figure. She "undoes" Alvin by turning him away from sex. After he has been returned to his "rightful" place (to accommodate the desire of desirable women), she blackmails him into making himself continuously available to her voracious appetite. She not only exhausts him, but she symbolically castrates him with too much sex (significantly their sexual activity is not shown!). This not only leaves him with little energy to play the role of "positive sex therapist" but it also signals the end of Alvin 's sexual adventures. When she cannot get enough of him she publicly exposes Alvin as sex therapist and brings him before the court and exposes him to the wrath of jealous husbands and boyfriends.

Pike and Cooper (1980: 350) describe it as a "celebration of male wish-fulfilment fantasies" in its fantasy of sex without responsibility in a universe of overheated women. It advances an ultimately unthreatening sexual imaginary in which sex is simultaneously desired and coyly attempted to be avoided. Yet the director and producer also saw themselves as paying attention to the female audience - this is why they chose Graeme Blundell and had him play a kind of "normal" Jerry Lewis (see Finney, 1974: 123-125). For its female audience the film can be seen to have narrativised a sexually active image of women and sex without responsibility or pregnancy. Not once in the film is the reputation of the women Alvin has dealings with impugned - they just can't help themselves. Perhaps the film enables its female audience to project at the fantasy level a desire which would be socially unacceptable and difficult to sustain outside the film.

The "ocker" films were produced in a context of a general experience of a "sexed" cinema in which sexuality: its hydraulics, its surfaces, its positions, were opened up for exploration and narrative motivation. This "sexed" cinema was provided by new censorship classifications (the introduction of the R certificate), the related collapse of "the family picture" and the development of exhibition venues outside the chains as venues for "unexpected" film successes from "travel" documentaries to soft-core porn. If the cinema culture leading up to the introduction of the R certificate entailed a certain "bosom" consciousness it also entailed explicit violence and language. Indeed "bad" language and violence were also opened up as sites of activity often in conjunction with sexual explicitness in mainstream films such as Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) and The Boys in the Band (1970).

The depiction of sex and violence and the use of language had a different social value than today. The relaxation of Australian censorship provisions was associated with both cineaste and liberationist perspectives. Films which took advantage of the liberalisation were seen as progressive in their overcoming Victorian attitudes to sexuality and permitting a greater realism.

Subsidies to film production coincided with the relaxation of censorship and a related discourse of bringing sex, the body and language out into the open. Furthermore it seemed that the new classifications of R and M were ushering in a new era for the motion picture by opening up a new mass adult market. With everything just developing in the area, and a section of the market Hollywood had not yet made its own, local filmmakers with low budgets tapped this market rather than competed directly against Hollywood in its well established genres. The result was "ocker's" focus on (s)language, the body and the depiction and narrativisation of sexuality. Such a focus also had a double sale: on the one hand to a permissive counter-culture where representations of the body and sex were held to be liberatory and on the other hand as risque, vulgar, vaudevillian titillation as old as Australian popular culture itself.

Federal government film policy initially favoured "ocker" films. The policy document which inaugurated contemporary federal film support - the 1969 Arts Council Report - advocated the production of low budget, 'frankly commercial films' as part of its strategy for Australian film to gain initial success with the Australian public. Market acceptance of Australian films was predicated upon a strategy of Australianness and commercialism. The two federal bodies operating in the first half of the 1970s - the Australian Film Development Corporation (which put up the $250,000 budget for The Adventures of Barry McKenzie) and the Experimental Film Fund (which part bankrolled Stork) - supported a "low budget" production strategy geared to the local market. The predominantly university, arts, film society and theatrical backgrounds of the "ocker" filmmakers, led to a focus upon film productions which tried to be simultaneously popular and at the cutting edge of both broader cultural movements and a changing cinema experience. That an Arts Council should recommend the production of frankly commercial film projects is a measure of the new departure arms length support for film production represented to Federal Arts Policy.

Such Federal support for film production provided a rising generation of creative people with opportunities to take on creative roles and to have a degree of freedom over their projects which were not possible within TV or institutionally produced documentaries- whether for the ABC, the Commonwealth Film Unit or the commercial stations. This support enabled a set of aspirations specifically geared to the feature film to emerge in the decade - it became possible to imagine oneself as a feature director with one's TV variety, documentary and advertising work being training grounds for this feature involvement. A consensus amongst film personnel of the important place of the feature film was even noted (Dale, 1973). It was not, of course, only film personnel who looked to the feature film. Its definition as a creative zone, already established by film festivals and critics, entered intellectual and cultural horizons. H.C. Coombs, by then on the Arts Council, talked of feature film as 'an art form of particular relevance to young people who in the past might have sought expression in the conventional visual and literary forms'. (Coombs quoted in Film Weekly, 11/12/1972). Following film activity became a way of keeping abreast of cutting edge cultural developments.

The ocker films' experience with exhibition was mixed. The first films produced from the 1969 initiatives found trouble getting exhibited and distributed. Up until Alvin Purple they were unacceptable to the larger cinema chains. The films gained their initial release in independent cinemas. Often the producer hired the theatre from its owners as Phillip Adams did in Sydney and Melbourne with The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. Stork, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, The Naked Bunyip (J.B. Murray 1970), Stockade (Pomeranz 1971) and Libido (J.B. Murray, Burstall, Schepisi and Baker) had to be successful in downmarket independent theatres, sometimes outside the inner city. The campaign and publicity were the onus of the producer. If the films were a success under these difficult conditions they might then be picked up for release by Roadshow/Village (the smallest of the three national chains) for national distribution.

How these films were marketed and why there was such a resistance to them from the major chains had to do with the kind of product they were. Within a context of mainstream exhibition resistance to the liberalisation of cinema exhibition and the treatment of sex as a theme, these Australian films were firmly in the other camp. Major exhibitors Hoyts and Greater Union were fighting a rearguard action against the increased audience segmentation implicit in the R classification. But their content was not the only thing working against them. They were also assessed as unviable and non-commercial. This assessment did not so much lie in a desire to maintain the predominant American fare against Australian interlopers. It also lay in the trade's own structural incompetence to deal with the risks attendant to unknown, unproven films in the Australian context. The ocker films had no proven stars, directors, producers or studio/distributors with a record of film production and audience appeal behind them. They were not as expensive and therefore devoid of the glamour associated with Hollywood "stars" and high budget spectacle. Most importantly, they had no prior record of success in a theatrical market (unlike their American counterparts). The exhibition distribution complex was not geared to handling Australian films in the way that it was geared towards their Hollywood counterparts. There was no infrastructure of promotion for launching films. The facilities for trailer making were limited. The advertising campaigns and the promotional approach were, by and large, generated overseas and so were already packaged for Australian release. Catering for Australian films would involve the expansion of promotional and distribution operations to include these capacities. Roadshow/Village, with its connections to independent production in Australian and overseas saw an opportunity for itself. It became extensively involved in the distribution and exhibition of Australian programs. More generally, the large chains' opposition to Australian films can also be understood in terms of their unwillingness to give in to pressure from film lobbyists and government.

Chain opposition to Australian film changed with the release of the R rated Alvin Purple in 1973. This film marked the first serious involvement of exhibition/distribution with Australian film. Village/Roadshow, the most sympathetic group to Australian film, formed a partnership with Tim Burstall (Stock's director) to make Alvin Purple. They intended to make this film in the same vein as Stork but with guaranteed exhibition and distribution through their outlets. Non-commercial considerations may have also been part of the motivation for Village/Roadshow's involvement (and the later involvements of Hoyts and Greater Union). With the threat of government structural intervention into the cinema market, the chains needed to prove that they were not inimical to Australian product.

Alvin's demonstrable success, built upon the active involvement of a major exhibition/distribution group changed many official and producer notions as to how success could be achieved on the local market. Here was an Australian film where its producer/director did not act as its distributor. It went out through an exhibition chain and not through independent exhibition. Its aim was not just to secure a release in the major markets, but also to be released Australia wide. It was an instance where distribution/ exhibition far from shunning local productions committed their funds and facilities to it. The chains could now be a precondition of, not an obstacle to, the local success of the Australian films. In doing so, the film effectively countered the argument that exhibition and distribution were inherently against local production. The film's success called for a different sense of the appropriate forms of Australian film distribution to achieve viability. Producer concern shifted from a problem of securing continuous exposure within a city arena, to that of securing Australian wide exposure in general and residual release - filmmaking aspiration was becoming mainstreamed.

In order to gain the widest possible release and the greatest profits in Australia, the horizon of the film producer had now extended beyond obtaining first release space in the inner city of the major markets of Sydney and Melbourne. Films needed to get play offs in drive-ins and suburban theatres as part of double bills over extended periods of time in order to generate their maximum earning potential. A distribution facility was necessary to achieve that which Roadshow provided. Australian filmmaking became geared to getting the release within Australia that Hollywood films obtain. Now an ordered and accessible route for Australian films on the domestic market was available. Distributor links with theatres now appeared an advantage. Australian films could be inserted as part of the circuit from which they had hitherto been excluded. With Alvin the preferred audience was now a general Australian one. The mainstream of Australian filmmaking, financing and production subsidies concentrated there.

The Ocker films paved the way for the more respected "quality" films that followed. Their somewhat controversial contents and their showcasing through independent cinemas initially and later through the chains, attracted considerable publicity and interest to the feature film as a new and successful government sponsored activity. They proved that Australian films could be popular with contemporary audiences; they developed a public profile for the feature film with the Australian public; they encouraged private investment in film in partnership with the government agencies; they built up competences in film production and publicity; and they ensured initially through confrontation and later by accommodation that the cinema trade would support Australian productions.

Ocker's Demise and the Emergence of the Quality Film

The only problem was Alvin itself. Despite its public appeal, the film attracted bad publicity as a crass and demeaning product. Tittensor's 1974 review of it was typical:

There is no question of Alvin Purple's making any kind of contribution to the cultural life of this country at any level because it is a film that seeks only to exploit, never to enrich. What it betrays is not a lack of commitment but rather a failure to grasp what is worth being committed to; and any modern film industry that aims to establish itself on this kind of foundation is selling itself, and its public, very short indeed. (Tittensor, 1974: 179)

By the mid-1970s the public criticism levelled at the "ocker" films had become intense. These films were an embarrassment. Critics and politicians alike demanded a less vulgar, more culturally elevated filmmaking in keeping with government support. An emerging feminist movement located in the ocker cycle the worst instances of Australian sexism, misogyny and masculinism.

The public reception of the "ocker" films led calls for a reformulation of film policy and filmmaking along less "crassly commercial" lines. What was needed was a self-consciously high standard filmmaking more in keeping with other state cultural policy initiatives. Film institutions, filmmakers and governments responded. Government bodies and film industry personnel progressively marginalised ocker as their preferred industry strategy. It was simultaneously too Hollywood (by being concerned with just commercial entertainment and not culture or quality) and too parochial (that is, too vulgarly Australian) to secure local and international acceptability. A new film production strategy and a different kind of filmmaking was needed. Film policy needed to talk less of the frankly commercial and more of culture and quality. The alternative to ocker was the "quality" film. It too sought general theatrical acceptance within Australia. But to guarantee its quality and its independence from the kind of commercial exploitation that the local market required, it sought overseas circulation (made all the more necessary given the advent of colour TV in 1975 and the consequent 30% decline in cinema attendances). Antithetical to Alvin, the quality film had its apotheosis in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. This film had the internationalist, yet culturally valorised address thought to be necessary for overseas and (unproblematic) local acceptance. Burstall himself attempted to counter these assumptions about his film making not being able to gain international circulation with A Faithful Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Eliza Frazer (1976). He employed a foreign star in Susannah York and the film's budget was a record for an Australian film at the time. It was a picaresque comedy of manners and not a "serious" view of Australia's past. This caused the film some problems given audiences and critical expectations b y then of a serious nostalgia film. Burstall was out of step, his audience led astray by the quality film agenda. As he put it:

The public wanted to see it as an epic. They didn't want to see their history portrayed on the screen as basically bullshit, even though they know it is really the case. (Burstall quoted in Bromby, 1979: 87).

While "ocker" productions did continue with titles like Don's Party, Eliza Frazer and The Odd Angry Shot (Jeffrey 1979), they increasingly lacked centre-stage to industry definition. Ocker left no room for the general claims of national identity and pride in Australian cultural expression able to be mounted on the backs of a "quality film" like Picnic at Hanging Rock which could be seen to be concerned with sensibility, well rounded characters, rather than vulgarity and caricature.

The Moment of Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock marked the "arrival" of Australian film and was crucial to a broadly based and diverse public investment in the feature film. It gave an acceptable public face to Australian cinema that politicians, cultural elites and audiences could unproblematically endorse. It had quality stamped on it. Its box-office figures were good. Unlike its ocker predecessors, it could be unproblematically lauded. As P.P. McGuinness's 1975 National Times (20/10/1975) review of the film put it: 'It will, thank goodness, demonstrate that Australian filmmakers are capable of much more than the coarse vulgar rubbish like Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple.'1 Picnic relieved anxieties about Australian, cultural capacities in general and filmmakers' capacities in particular. In doing so it vindicated a new cultural purpose for the "feature film" as that arena of audio-visual production which could set itself resolutely against Australian vulgarity, anti-intellectualism, and those for whom the "ocker" seemed to be not just a figure of fun but a point of active identification.

With it Australian film had come to maturity: 'the Australian film has truly entered into the field of open and equal international comparisons, needing no allowances for inexperience or for being home produced'. Picnic achieved the double gaze of local and international appreciation. Australian film could now be part of international culture. It represented an Australian passage to literacy, sensibility, intelligence. It was a leap forward to be savoured:

It is rarely that a comparison of style between the infant Australian film industry and a foreign film is possible; but it no detraction of Weir's film to say that it is in many ways reminiscent of the films of the Swedish director, Bo Widerberg though in Weir there is an added dimension of horror.

With Picnic and Caddie (Crombie 1976) and The Devil's Playground (Schepisi 1976) a year later the Australian audience was able to recognise 'real quality' in an Australian-made film, and this expectation of Australian excellence broke down the ingrained local resistance to the Australian (Moffitt, 1976: 36). Filmmakers and critics spoke of barriers to the public acceptance of the Australian product being removed. A sense of starting from scratch, of making a new beginning was talked of. As Jim Sharman put it: 'It's an exciting time, an emerging time, our culture has been overlaid with other cultures for so long, but we're now beginning to see it' (Moffitt, 1976: 32). The filmmaker/artist, expressing him/herself in a medium that was the image of modernity, had an important role to play in articulating an Australian culture freed traditional encumbrances in a cultural renaissance. Director Jim Sharman confidently asserted that 'we have left the Alvin era behind us as we dive into more intelligent movies' (Moffitt, 1976:36).

Film policy encouraged the production of this kind of film. The Interim Board Report of the Australian Film Commission (AFC) in 1975 (6) advocated quality filmmaking at the expense of 'sure-fire box-office formula films.' If the immediate past was characterized by low budget filmmaking, concerned principally with developing and establishing viability in the local market, quality filmmaking meant higher budgets and with this a market reorientation to international release - both to enable higher budget films and to tap additional sources of revenue. It shunted to one side the parochial forms of address that attention to the specifically local had produced in the ocker films. The guiding assumption here was that only the quality film would be capable of gaining access to overseas markets. This was not seen as pandering to overseas tastes because being represented at Cannes became a way of securing Australian cultural standards. Selling overseas was a by-product of the adoption of the quality film mandate. The Interim Board Report (6) justified its insistence that the quality film was in the industry's long-term interest by claiming that 'film carries a heavy social responsibility' . On making assessments of a film project, the future AFC was urged to 'consider in addition to a project's commercial potential, its thematic importance, Australian content, artistic value and the contribution the project will make to the development of an Australian film industry of high international standing'. This could mean foregoing 'sure-fire box-office' films. Government involvement cushioned filmmaking against the full commercial pressures of the market. An extension of this was that Australian locations needed to be preserved for local filmmaking as Australian 'locations should not be given away to make decorations for overseas films, but kept as a vital part of those films to be made by Australians' (36). Additionally underwriting the objective need for an 'indigenous cinema' (36) was the imperative to secure an Australian production presence in 'this powerful and persuasive medium' as 'the current flood of other nations' productions on our screen' constituted 'a very serious threat to our national identity' (6). In this way cultural nationalist sentiments were yoked to the service of a quality cinema. The Report firmly positioned Australian film apart from co-productions, the formula/genre film, and the excesses of the ocker films. It was to be respectful and respectable; authentic and aesthetic. Burstall later called this new phase 'town councillor art' (Bromby, 1979:87), Sam Rohdie said that an unselfconscious filmmaking was replaced by a selfconscious one' (Rohdie, 1982:40).

Picnic's critical and commercial success enabled government support to continue after the change of Federal Government in 1975. The Fraser Government saw no reason substantially to alter what seemed to be a successful film policy, so political support for the film industry continued when so many other Whitlam projects were dismantled. The Fraser Government even used its support for Australian film as evidence of its continuing concern for culture. The quality film was quickly normalised. Speakers at a 1976 industry seminar spoke about how it showed commercial acumen to make 'self-consciously' Australian films with 'authenticity of speech' (McGuinness, 1976: 55). Industry consensus was that the ocker films were unsaleable overseas and that those who supposed that a 'kangaroo western' was what the overseas market required were being naive. Hal McElroy, one of Picnic's producers, basking in the glow of the film's success told the same industry seminar that

What England and America can't do is a Caddie, A Devil's Playground or a Picnic at Hanging Rock. All of these films have unique and appealing story-lines that any nationality will understand. I'm not suggesting we make mid-Atlantic formula films, but initially we can't just make Aussie ocker films. The middle course is the right one - making films that are intrinsically Australian but thematically have international subjects. (McElroy, 1976:44)

This then was the dominant formula: ockerism was too parochial, the kangaroo western and mid-Atlantic formula films were too international. Only the quality film had the right local and international inflection. International prospects looked good. Australian films were well received at Cannes and some international sales had been accomplished. The Australian film's share of the domestic box office was at an all time high. The industry looked set to take off.

Quality films had to accomplish a difficult balancing act. To reach a local audience, they had to be similar to the general release Hollywood films Australian audiences were used to seeing. But in order to sell overseas they had to be able to be launched within art cinemas and cultural TV markets (which is how non-Hollywood product circulates outside its country of origin). Films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, Breaker Morant (Beresford 1980), The Devil's Playground, Caddie and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Schepisi 1978) did just that. This dual orientation gave a p articular inflection to Australian production which is discernible in Max Harris' (1980) effusive accolade:

We have surprised the world. We simple, sun-bronzed vulgar yobs are producing films characterized by a delicate portraiture of human sensibilities. We have taken over and developed the idiom of Losey without falling into the trap of being arty-crafty after the fashion of French filmmaking.

Sam Rohdie (1982:39) suggests that the favourable overseas reception accorded to these films was a direct consequence of achieving the balance between art and entertainment:

The films get doubly sold: within an art market (world bourgeois film festivals, Berlin, Cannes, New York), and as conventional mass entertainment. One has the alibi of art while enjoying more common pleasure (in touch with the 'others') with the secret enjoyment of a self-congratulatory, more sophisticated taste. Consequently, we see the discriminating New Yorker queuing to watch Gallipoli [Weir 1981] and Picnic at Hanging Rock screened in the art-house cinema-d'essai circuit in Italy - a film seriously considered by 'serious' critics not a film for the bin of film 'spazzatura.'

International circulation was sought after the completion of the film. The trip to Cannes, which became a regular feature of the Australian film landscape from the mid-1970s, not only gained much needed overseas exposure (and so sales), but also certified the quality of the film for local audiences who were still the principal source of revenue.

These films were amenable to enthusiastic culturalist readings. As audiences, marketers, politicians and filmmakers understood these films as addressing themselves as Australians. They were urged to see these films as our films. Particular textual and narrative strategies assisted these readings. Stuart Cunningham has mapped out some of them:

Prototypically, we are invited to follow the growth through childhood/adolescence/struggling young maturity of a central character against the background of personalism, made all the stronger by the placement of character or groups of characters in a privileged position - and the corresponding invitation for audience identification with this position (1979:44).

A personal history set against the background of historical events social and natural changes can be noted in a variety of films. The Irishman (Crombie 1978) deals with social upheavals accompanying mechanization in the bush; Newsfront (Noyce 1978) the cold war; The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith the historical treatment of Aborigines; Caddie the story of a barmaid in 1920s and 1930s Australia.

Generally, a particular relation between personal history and these more general historical events/mores is posed. Rohdie has put it: 'History functions [in these films] to validate the personal fiction, to 'lend it' its truth, whereas the fiction ... 'dramatises History, makes it (by the conventions of the novelistic narrative) relevant, meaningful, real' (1982:38). The films 'are neither real nor fictional, but a game of disbelief between the two'. The narrational level dramatises the past, enabling the audience to identify itself in it. This rememoration is possessed as 'our past.' The films' history - the youthful passage to maturity in the nostalgia films - is linked to the emergence of Australian culture and nationalism. So we find Robert Helpmann playing an exiled Englishman, publicly embracing Australia as his home towards the end of The Mango Tree (Dobson 1977). Even without an explicit cultural nationalism, films could be read in these terms. An emerging culture, Australia nationalism, the film renaissance, like these films' central character all have the connotations of birth and development through to maturation. The films were often marked by a concern with representative characters who are marked by their ordinariness and who are confined to their immediate social environment which they negotiate, are affected by, but themselves rarely affect. The films were read in two related ways. On the one hand they were marked by their concern for alienation and moral sensibility (Harris, 1980), on the other hand, they furthered the national stereotypes of the battler, the little man or woman who struggles through over-riding social and historical situations and events but maintains his/her integrity in the process (Ryan, 1980:125-6). Their capacity to attract both readings was a function of their ability to bridge a minority and a majority public. Caddie is a good case in point. It was the story of a Sydney barmaid, but it was also about women's oppression made in International Women's Year. Relatively unknown actors enhanced the representative claims of these films, affirming thereby the authenticity of the story. The films did not become star vehicles. The actors were in proportion to their surroundings, as Max Harris (1979) put it they were 'real, not overblown' . Actors such as Helen Morse, Angela Punch McGregor, Jack Thompson and John Meillon were 'in the business of being ordinary'. But this was no disadvantage as 'they are there to demonstrate that sensibility can be more astoundingly present in the ordinary than the extraordinary'. To achieve its representative effects, scrupulous attention was paid to the mise-en-scene. Authenticity was established through the meticulous reconstruction of 'bric-a-brac, costume, accent, architecture and gesture' (Cunningham, 1979:41). Attention to mise-en-scene was not just an appropriate backdrop for the acting, but carried its own narrative weight. The fictional level anthropomorphised the landscape, whilst the landscape validated the historicity and Australianness of the characters. In Picnic the mise-en-scene even resolves the narrative. The rock that the girls have disappeared into is called in to furnish the film's inexplicable resolution. Picnic was an extreme, but many quality films used locations and most particularly landscapes to assist characterisation and for their expressive values: lush and ordered/dry in The Getting of Wisdom (Beresford 1977); good years/drought in My Brilliant Career; bush fire/floods in Newsfront. With the use of locations from around the country these films were also reproducing a dominant cultural paradigm about the centrality of Australians' relations to their landscape where the national identity is collapsed into the Australian landscape, and the task for (white) Australians to become at one with it (see Gibson 1983). Hence it was possible for John Carroll (1982:223) to criticise Picnic for being 'visually dull' compared to 'the uncanny and mysterious, wild beauty of the rock itself.' The film's failure was generalise to be a measure of Australians' failure to 'submit to a nature with implacable and punitive powers' (224).

The prevalence of a culturalist understanding in which Australian cinema was a progressive cultural and aesthetic force to be inspected and pondered for its remaking Australia made film criticism unusually central to Australian filmmaking in the 1970s. Film reviewing in the quality weeklies and dailies policed the standards. Films could 'help' the cause of Australian filmmaking, they could 'set it back' years. The critic responsibly arbitrated the use of the public purse in filmmaking. Films were praised as 'our money well spent.' Critics like P.P. McGuinness and Colin Bennett of The Age routinely arraigned Australian films before their imaginary tribunal where they located lapses, failures and successes. The cinema was a separate cultural/aesthetic institution whose valued independent existence needed policing. It needed to keep Hollywood, TV and Australian popular culture at arm's length.

Films which did not achieve the delicate balance between the art film and general release entertainment were accused of commercialism. Ken Hannam's Dawn (1979) was lambasted for being:

like a Women's Weekly feature translate d directly to the screen without any intervening human intelligence or sensitivity. And it is clearly made for the mass magazine market. There is every chance it will be immensely successful with that market, like the Weekly but to anyone outside Australian it will be equally laughable. (McGuinness, 1979)

Summerfield (1977) was 'a TV quickie which strayed onto a film set' (McGuinness, 1977). Colin Bennett scorned Petersen as a Hollywood film (see Stratton, 1980:33). Some Australian films had no foreseeable right to exist. The Irishman was

a complete waste of time and money ... It will probably do well at the box-office ... But this will be at the expense of their [the film makers] complete surrender to the slick commercial values of the New Australian nostalgia film boom. (McGuinness, 1978a)

Films not only needed to depict their society but they also needed to analyse and comment upon it. Newsfront was exemplary here: 'For once, an Australian has managed to show us clearly what is good in ourselves, and anyone with eyes to see can realize that these are qualities which are not a product of propaganda, or hatred of the rest of the world, or official cant' (McGuinness, 1978b). Newsfront's positive qualities emerge through its negations. It is not propaganda, not jingoism, not a repetition of Australianism. The film speaks its truths directly; the audience only has to see it to verify them. The film goes beyond popularised notions of the period it depicts to give Australianism a good name by redefining it: 'It does more to establish the Australian ethos on film than any number of braving caricatures and plodding pastorals' (Connolly, 1978:57). Newsfront did all the things required of the new Australian cinema in the 1970s. It was a film which commented upon an Australian reality as it depicted it; which analysed Australian culture and its influences as it itself contributed to it. Phil Noyce, its director, characterized it as 'The first Australian film which has attempted to define the mores and sensibilities of an Australian generation. The critics have recognized it as a product of a truly Australian cinema' (Bromby, 1979: 86).The task of the Australian feature film as evidenced by Newsfront, Career, Breaker Morant and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was to develop an emergent Australian culture. Australians had lacked images and information about their own culture and history. That cultural lack was being filled by films that tell us where we come from:' 'Films like The Irishman, with a sense of historical seriousness towards the visual store they're prising open, may help locate Australians in their own country' (Dermody, 1978:35). This cultural role could even carry its own time-table as Noyce proclaimed 'We'll make contemporary films as soon as we have sorted out the past' (Bromby, 1979:87).

The Demise of the Quality Film

Like the ocker film before it, the 'quality' film strategy and its principal type the "period" or "nostalgia" film came in its turn under consistent and multifaceted criticism. Most immediately the commercial wisdom of quality filmmaking was under pressure. The high profile 'quality films' The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Last Wave (1977) had not lived up to the inflated expectations held out for them (they took modest rather than blockbuster takings in Australia). Additionally Weir and Schepisi were attacked from two sides.

The failure of their work proved the need for industry to gain ascendancy over culture, for commercial values to be asserted over cultural values - and this was a film policy position endorsed in the 1979 review of the AFC conducted by Peat Marwick and Mitchell. The 1979 release of the low budget 'genre film' Mad Max (Dr George Miller) compromised the received wisdom of 'quality filmmaking' as the route to Australian international and national success. Simon Wincer was preparing his remake of the Rasputin story in Harlequin (1980) and Richard Franklin his 'mid-Pacific' film Roadgames (1981) with Stacey Keech and Jamie Lee Curtis. A turn to genre and the kangaroo western was on its way leading to the sensational success of The Man from Snowy River (Miller 1982). Some critics endorsed these views: too many films had defeated detumescent heroes. There was a yearning for Hollywood modes of characterisation where characters win against the odds and achieve their goals. Australian film needed to be a more optimistic, active and purposeful, rather than static, passive, purposeless and anecdotal. Through it the 'land of spiritual status quo' could be displaced by a more active and enriched Australia (Clancy, 1982:170).

From the opposite side Chant and The Last Wave were seen to be too mainstream, too commercial too 'gutless' compared to the 'poor cinema' that a new generation of directors coming out of the low budget features and short films were making in association with the Creative Development Branch of the Australian Film Commission. Features like Duigan's Mouth to Mouth (1978), Wallace's Love Letters from Teralba Road (1977), Noyce's Backroads (1977), and Stir (Wallace 1980) were pointed to as providing the way forward by virtue of their topicality and their willingness to investigate contemporary Australian life ignored in the 'high budget' mainstream of Australian feature production (Ricketson, 1979:5; Pike, 1979: 206-207).

The 'quality film' - particularly in its mainstream variant as the "period" film - was increasingly becoming regarded as failing its cultural mission. Critic after critic, filmmaker after filmmaker maintained that what Australian culture needed was contemporary representations, not nostalgia films. Australians needed to be resituated within their own culture and history with new and more relevant symbols than that of the Australian legend, mateship, the Aussie battler. Critics enjoined the Australian industry to make films 'that deal with now with what it means or feels like to be alive in Australia' (Bennett, 1979). Filmmakers needed to deal with 'the structure and fabric of Australian society and stimulate us by exploring contemporary individuals, institutions, issues'. Films needed to be tougher-minded so that they could respond 'to the threat of the Australian landscape rather than lyricising it, or the potential excitement of its cities, instead of ignoring it' (McFarlane, 1980: 61).

Today we know the 'quality filmmaking' of this period through this accepted wisdom. We know that the period films did little to reflect 'contemporary realities of an urban, middle class, postcolonial multicultural society' (Turner 1989: 115). We know that, for the most part, these were 'beautiful, untroubling films', that 'they were politically conservative', and that they 'said virtually nothing about contemporary Australia' (Turner 1989: 104). Courtesy of Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka's film criticism we now describe these films as forming an identifiable and anachronistic genre of filmmaking called the 'AFC genre' (1988: 28-37).

This is unfortunate because it closes us off from the films. We have to forget the horror dimension to Picnic at Hanging Rock (Stephen King once described this as one of his favourite horror films) and downplay its lesbian thematics. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is, after all, also about how mainstream Australian society created a serial killer who successfully evaded the police for a time. Mora's Mad Dog Morgan (1976) makes the colonial administration criminal and psychotic in its demonising of Morgan and subsequent barbaric handling of his remains. It also explicitly connects what happens to Morgan to the criminal and random violence by the white gold diggers against the Chinese on the gold fields. It is also the first and prescient use of Dennis Hopper in the "schizo" roles he later made his own. With typical Australian "difference" Hopper's Mad Dog is the hero not the villain. Cowan's Journey among Women (1977) rewrites the colonial story through the then emerging feminist metaphor of the colonisation of women and it is a film which reached the mainstream drive-in audience as an 'exploitation film'. Newsfront maintains a consistent visual style despite its mobilising of a host of textual resources, newsreels, black and white and colour, fragmented narrative and a blending of fiction and documentary.

The supposed incapacity of the 'nostalgia film' to speak to contemporary reality has to forget the critiques of cultural, intellectual conformity, parochialism and a society inimical to new ideas that are central to Thornhill's Between Wars (1974); the lack of 'contemporary relevance' in The Irishman has to downplay the explicit and foregrounded social intertext of advances in technology deskilling and rendering redundant previous trades which connects this 'nostalgia' film to the new wave of industrial displacement happening in the 1970s. When critics wonder where the appetite for the marvellous and the uncanny can be found in Australian cinema they have to ignore Weir's remarkable The Last Wave which updates Nicholas Roeg's earlier Walkabout (Roeg 1971) and anticipates Herzog's Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) and Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World (1992.

The explicit concentration on the 'period film' and its relation to Australian cultures ignores its foregrounded teen-pic characteristics. Gillian Armstrong did not need to move very far to go from My Brilliant Career to her teen musical StarStruck (1982) because Career is also with its headstrong Sybylla a teen-pic. And what are we to make of Schepisi's The Devil's Playground a film regarded at the time of its release as a disturbing and unsettling film which is surely a precursor to Ann Turner's later use of children on the edge of fantasy, reality and death in Celia (1989)?

The public cultural and aesthetic norms which developed to accommodate and criticise the quality film provided an incitement to speak about and a means of making sense of Australian films, but it also limited what could be spoken about and how a diverse output could be recognized. It came eventually to mask a filmmaking milieu's intrinsic diversity of output and style. The emphasis upon the filmic expression of an Australian reality ruled out of court pro-filmic considerations such as genre and technique which marked the considerable variety of experimentation present in the mainstream cinema of the 1970s. This was, after all, a filmmaking milieu which produced in 1974 Peter Weir's gothic tale of a town living off cars and human remains in The Cars that Ate Paris and the exploitation action film Stone (Harbutt) about a band of satanist bikies being murdered by a professional assassin (with Rebecca Gilling as a bikie's moll), and then in 1975 produced Ken Hannam's story of a group of shearers in Sunday too Far Away and Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.


1. McGuinness' review was typical of the critical reception accorded Picnic. See also: Scott Murray's review (1975:264-265) and David Stratton's (1980:72-73) excerpting of the film's critical reception. I am quoting from The National Times version of P.P. McGuinness's review because only a truncated review is reprinted in Albert Moran and my edited collection An Australian Film Reader (1985).


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