Ten Types of Australian Film

Garry Gillard

Chapter 11: Art film

Considering something called the “art film” takes us back to some of the matters discussed in the introductory chapter, and the whole question of placing films in categories: genres or types. This is because one of the ways in which people have thought about “art films” is as not “genre films”. There are some films which are not “westerns” and not “science fiction” and so on (and they’re also not shorts or documentaries or animated etc.) and so they are “art films”—especially if they’re “foreign” (and even more especially if they’re subtitled). Note that in this context, for most Australian movie-viewers, “foreign” would not apply to films from Hollywood. In fact, although it’s a huge over-simplification, it might be useful for a moment to consider the equations Hollywood = genre; non-Hollywood = foreign = art. This places thoughtful Australian film viewers in a dilemma: if an Australian “genre” film is familiarly like a Hollywood film and therefore not “foreign”, is an Australian “non-genre” film therefore “foreign”—as well as “art”? There is a convenient short (and not entirely serious) answer to this question: “Yes: it’s Dutch”. I’ll explain in a moment.

In something like the same way that certain Hollywood film directors in the 1940s did not set out to make films noirs—because the category had not yet been invented, “arthouse” directors do not necessarily set out to make “art films”, even though a given film may latterly be seen as such. The analogy is not perfect (analogies rarely are), but it might be useful as a way of showing that this term—and even more so the notion of the “arthouse” film—is one which is usually applied after the film has been made, not before. Whereas people setting out to make “genre” films, like those in the Star Wars, Terminator, Matrix or Lord of the Rings series, say, are in no doubt about what kind of film they are engaged in. So, whether a film turns out to be an arthouse film or not is dependent on its reception by viewers, especially reviewers, but also (previously) by distributors and (latterly) by audiences generally. However, while it’s probably true to say that many “arthouse” directors think of what they do as making “art”, it doesn’t follow that they are thinking this means they have to follow any narrative or stylistic prescriptions. It might mean, though, that they think they are making their own film: it’s “an [insert name of director] film”. It follows from this that the obvious approach to such films is from an “auteurist” perspective, that is, one which assumes that the director is the major, if not the single creative force. Books with titles like The Films of Gillian Armstrong are then able to be written and seen to make sense.1 I’ll come back to this idea of “auteurism” after we’ve looked at some art films.

One way to think about a type of film we might call “art films” is to think of them as films which do not emanate from the Hollywood mainstream, as I suggested at the outset. Julian Petley, for example, defines art cinema negatively in this way, writing that “... the presence of art is defined at least partly as the absence of Hollywood”.2 And, as Steve Neale writes, “... art is thus the space in which an indigenous cinema [as opposed to the import from Hollywood] can develop and make its critical and economic mark”.3

Another way to think of the “art film” is to think of the appellation as being culturally determined; in other ways, it is an art film because enough people say it is. As Andrew Tudor writes,

Genre notions—except in the case of arbitrary definition—are not critics’ classifications made for special purposes; they are sets of cultural conventions. Genre is what we collectively believe it to be.4

Even more helpfully, he continues later:

For example, there is a class of films thought by a relatively highly educated middle-class group of filmgoers as “art movies”.5 Now for the present purposes genre is a conception existing in the culture of any particular group or society; it is not a way in which a critic classifies films for methodological purposes, but the much looser way in which an audience classifies its films. According to this meaning of the term, “art movies” is a genre. 6

The cinema in which viewers see a given film also contributes to the process by which they make up their minds that it is an art film: hence the term “arthouse”. I happen to live in Perth, so the relevant cinema for me now is the Luna Leederville, which is linked to the Palace distribution organisation. The Luna is an old cinema with what feels like the original seating, although the sound system is thankfully quite a bit newer. There is probably at least one of these older cinemas showing non-mainstream films not far from where you live. When some time ago I lived in Victoria, to give another example, it was to the Melbourne Valhalla we used to go once a week for our dose of cinematic art.

Despite what I just said about art directors not following any narrative or stylistic prescriptions, it is, however, arguable that art films do have some (albeit vague) general characteristics which can be identified. For example, Petley feels able to discuss what he calls “art cinema’s formal characteristics”, relying heavily on David Bordwell.7 Drawing on these and other theorists and critics, I’ll draw up a list of these proposed “characteristics”, organised into three categories: stylistics, narrative, and subject matter. Although that sounds very organised, in fact this will be a messy business, as some of the indicators are actually contradictory with others, and some apply also to films of completely different kinds, but let’s give it a go, beginning with narratological criteria, which I think might be the least controversial.

Art cinema questions realistic motivation.8 “Realistic” is of course an extremely relative term, as David Bordwell makes quite clear in more than one of his books: the term is to be understood here in that context.

... Bordwell notes that the art film, like the classic narrative film, relies heavily on psychological causation. By comparison, however, its characters tend to lack clearcut motives and goals: “If the Hollywood protagonist speeds towards the target, the artfilm protagonist is presented as sliding passively from one situation to another. ... If the classical protagonist struggles, the drifting protagonist traces out an itinerary which surveys the film’s social world”.9

Art films also tolerate narrative uncertainty. “[Art] films have an open-ended approach to narrative causality and display a greater tolerance of narrative ‘gaps’ than do more classical forms. Here, as in real life, questions remain unanswered, ends are left loose and situations unresolved”.10 Art cinema is self-reflexive. In “... the presence of ‘overt narrational commentary’ ... ‘those moments in which the narrational act interrupts the transmission of fabula [story] information and highlights its own role’, art cinema narration tends towards the self-conscious and self-reflexive”.11 And, finally, art films avoid narrative closure. According to Thomas Elsaesser, art films tend not to have happy endings.12

Moving on now, secondly, to stylistic criteria: Steve Neale has suggested that art cinema is more interested in style than narrative. “Art films tend to be marked by a stress on visual style”.13 On the other hand, some kinds of “art film” use real settings and people. (This might seem superficially to be a contradiction of the first point, but is subtly different, in that the “real” people are embedded in a fictionalised situation, which imposes the demands of the new—artistic—context on their original motivations and actions.) It is, nevertheless, somewhat controversial, as it is not exclusive to this type of cinema. Julian Petley points out that “... the mise-en-scene in art cinema may emphasise verisimilitude of behaviour and of space: for instance the utilisation of real locations and non-professional actors in neo-realist films”.14 Art cinema will often use an idiosyncratic cinematographic style (in association with particular kinds of subject matter). For example: “Long takes may be used, and even’sequence shots’, in order (as in Jansco and late Rossellini), as Bazin puts it, ‘to do away with montage and to transfer to the screen the continuum of reality’”.15 “Dreams, memories and fantasies abound, and are transcribed by means of optical point-of-view shots, modulations of light, sound and colour, freeze-frames, slow motion and a host of other cinematic conventions for connoting the subjective”.16 Acting may also be specific to this type of film, as Bordwell suggests: “The art cinema developed a range of mise-en-scene cues for expressing character mood: static postures, covert glances, smiles that fade, aimless walks, emotion-filled landscapes, and associated objects”.17

Thirdly, and least certainly, we turn to subject matter, and begin to include some Australian examples. “In terms of subject matter ... the art film tends to deal with real contemporary problems such as ‘alienation’ or ‘lack of communication’”.18 Tom O’Regan writes in this context of “Australian cinema: a cinema created [partly] for the representation of modernist cultural themes (existentialism, the absurd, alienation, ‘boundary situations’)”.19 And Neale, again: “Art films tend to be marked ... by a suppression of action in the Hollywood sense, by a consequent stress on character rather than plot and by an interiorisation of dramatic conflict”.20 As an example, O’Regan writes of My First Wife, that: “It relies on an interiorizing of conflict, upon states of mind, feelings, sentiments which find their expression in repeated scenes”.21 Another example is Traps (Pauline Chan, 1994), the story of which, as Helen Grace observes, is

in part, the stuff of the classic situation of a European art film: “angst, the painful journey of individual self-discovery, art versus journalism, the truth versus distortion, the repression of white women within bourgeois marriage—all the themes of the usual individualist psychodrama”.22

Finally: “The art film often tends towards the biographical or autobiographical format”.23

This was meant to be simply a list of arguable criteria to use in a discussion of Australian art films—although I’ve already begun to comment on particular films. I’ll now continue to discuss other films in the light of these proposed criteria. It’s time I returned to my perhaps mysterious reference to “Dutch” films in my first paragraphs, to reveal that much of what I have to say in what follows will be about the films of two film-makers who came to Australia from the Netherlands, Paul Cox and Rolf de Heer.

Paul Cox is, I believe, unquestionably the most prominent Australian artistic film-maker. We could begin with the last point (biographical or autobiographical format) first, as it does apply to this film-maker. According to his own statements, for example in the documentary film A Journey with Paul Cox (Gerrit Messiaen & Rob Visser, 1996), he has drawn on his life, both for some story lines and also, more ubiquitously, for some of his imagery.

In My First Wife, for example, he admits that he is recognisable as the husband going through the agony of separation. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the imagery with which Cox attempts to convey some of the emotions and states of mind of his central character, John (John Hargreaves). In sequences apparently motivated by John’s dreaming state, we might see a succession like this: light and dark flashing as camera pans quickly, water, a funeral, a train, sun, waves, John’s wife (Wendy Hughes) at their wedding, a funeral, a child with her dog, John’s father (Robin Ramsay), a woman’s breast, colours, lights, windows, a ferry, sun; John wakes. This is a sequence at the time when John is in hospital recovering from his suicide attempt. Some of the same images are quoted in Messiaen & Visser’s documentary to convey elements of Cox’s own life: the flash pans and waves are used not only to suggest Cox’s actual journey from Holland to Australia, but also as a global metaphor for his “journey” through life and art.

Similarly, in his book, Reflections: An Autobiographical Journey, Paul Cox tells of an event in his childhood, when, fascinated with the idea of women’s breasts, which he assumed they “put on”, he once put his hand in the bodice of a visiting aunt. “It somehow got stuck and had to be forcefully removed”.24 Cox makes use of this memory in Man of Flowers (1983) in which the young Charles Bremer (James Stratford) puts his hand on the ample bosom of an aunt (Eileen Joyce) making a visit to his parents’ house, to the consternation of the father—played by none other than prominent German director Werner Herzog. In the film, however, the hand does not go into the dress, and does not get stuck. (Herzog made Where the Green Ants Dream in Australia at about the same time, as it was released the year after Man of Flowers, in 1984. Paul Cox played an acting role in Herzog’s film, as a photographer, which he is also in real life.)

While thinking about this scene, we should also consider both the style and the way in which the film-maker (Cox is the writer as well as director) continues the narrative. Cox shot the sequence himself, on Super-8, hand-held, without sound, and perhaps with some sort of filtering or monochromatic processing to make the scene look “old-fashioned”, or like a dream or dimly recalled memory (which we know it is in part). As for the narrative: Charles is expelled from the house by his father. Then there is an exchange of points of view through the window as the father sees Charles preparing to fire an (elaborate and old-fashioned) slingshot at the window. The shot makes a hole in the glass just big enough for an eye—or a camera—to look through. So we then have the father’s eye looking out framed by the hole. Then the father is outside and the camera looks out through the hole to see father catch the son by the ear and drag him back towards the camera, which continues to frame the scene in the hole in the glass. Whatever else may be going on, it’s clear that this is self-conscious and self-reflexive; it is, in Bordwell’s words quoted above, one of “those moments in which the narrational act interrupts the transmission of [story] information and highlights its own role”. Our attention is clearly drawn to the fact that we are looking by emphasising what we are looking through.

Some of the imagery of My First Wife recurs in The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (Paul Cox, 2002), a film which is almost entirely imagery. The diaries are read in voiceover by Derek Jacobi; there is no dialogue at all and few dramatised scenes—though are several short ballets, and many still photographs of the eponymous dancer. The remainder of the film is impressionistic material intended to express his mental states and emotion. In the diaries he writes repeatedly that he is not a thinker, but a dancer, an artist, and that he loves ... almost everything and everyone, especially all things Russian (though he himself is Polish). So the film’s visuals strive to parallel the words of the diaries and convey, as far as the film-maker’s art can, what Nijinsky’s imagination might look like. What we see is also what Paul Cox’s imagination looks like: there are the familiar waves, the waterplants under running water, birds crossing the sky in slow motion, the sun (or moon) glimpsed through trees and clouds, trains moving across the vision, tracking shots from moving trains, gardens and flowers, particularly as in seen in a fast pan and circular motion of the camera, and some abstract light and dark images which need not be identified as anything in particular. Nijinsky displays a number of the characteristics of the art film as identified previously: it’s a biographical subject, there is a stress on visual style, the subjective is conveyed by various stylistic means, and the film deals with the subject’s retreat into “madness”, ie. into alienation and lack of communication.

It occurs to me at this point to add one more item to the list of characteristics: an art film may very well take art itself, or an artist, as its subject—because this is not the only one of Cox’s films to be biographical, and there is another one which is concerned with a significant artist: Vincent (Paul Cox, 1987), aka Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh. Here once again Cox makes use of van Gogh’s writing—as well, of course, of the visuals which are available in the form of his paintings and other graphic work. (A third Cox biographical film is Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, 1999, a more conventional drama, with David Wenham portraying the historical priest who devoted his life to the lepers of Molokai.) Significant characters in Cox’s fictional films are also artists: there are sculptors in Lust and Revenge (Paul Cox, 1996), and The Human Touch (forthcoming). Charles, the main character of Man of Flowers, admires sculpture, and is a musician. Norman Kaye, one of a number of actors who appear repeatedly in Cox films, is himself a fine musician, and so can be shown actually to play the organ in this film and the piano in Lonely Hearts (1982), in which his character is a piano-tuner. A skilled craftsman like this is pretty close to an artist, and very close to the kind of artist that a film director is—particularly if he is also a cinematographer, as Cox is on Nijinsky, Vincent, and Inside Looking Out (1977), and editor, as he is for the same three films, plus Exile (1994) (not to mention a dozen films as producer). And there is another craftsman with an artist’s eye for beauty in Golden Braid (1990), in which another Cox regular, Chris Haywood, plays a clockmaker who falls in love with a hank of hair left behind by a long-dead woman.

Paul Cox was born in The Netherlands in 1940 and came to Australia as a young man; Rolf de Heer was born there eleven years later and arrived in his new country aged 8. Cox has retained strong links with Europe and lives on two continents. Rolf de Heer has written and directed nine feature films, all but one of which were shot in Australia (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, 2001, starring Richard Dreyfuss, was shot in South America). His major filmography begins with a children’s movie, Tale of a Tiger (1984), but it was not long before he was entering unusual territory with Incident at Raven’s Gate (1988), one of the very small number of science fiction films in the Australian catalogue, another one of which is also written and directed by him: Epsilon (1997). Like Paul Cox, Rolf de Heer has made a film about an artist, Dingo (1991). One of the very few of his films that he did not write himself, it’s about a musician, a trumpeter called “Dingo”, played by Colin Friels. Another important character in the film, Billy Cross, is played by real-life trumpeter artist Miles Davis.

The film which really attracted attention to this auteur, however, was Bad Boy Bubby, which we met in Chapter 9 as an important example of Australian Gothic cinema. Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is also an artist of a kind. After he escapes from his “home” and the horrors of the first section of the film, he fronts the punk band which picks him up, becoming a sort of cult figure as a performer, having taken on the persona of Pop, dressed as a priest. In his travels, Bubby comes across a group of disabled people being cared for by a young woman called Angel (Carmel Johnson), who will later, implausibly, become the mother of his children. One of the people seen in Angel’s care is Heather, who is credited in that film as Heather Slattery. As Heather Rose, she is credited as the co-writer (with Frederick Stahl and the director) of the original screenplay of a later and another quite remarkable de Heer film, Dance Me to My Song (1998). This could be said to be a romance and even a comedy, in a generic sense (The Sydney Morning Herald’s critic saw it as “a combination of a love story and a psychological thriller”25). What makes it so remarkable, however, is that Heather Rose, who is not only the writer but also the star, has been so severely disabled by cerebral palsy that she cannot look after her basic needs, and cannot even speak, but only type with one finger on a machine which then generates speech. To make a fictional film with such a central character (Heather Rose plays her as “Julia”) is an astonishing feat. To have it shown in official selection at Cannes is even more impressive (the photos show the director carrying his tiny star and co-writer up the steps to the cinema). Casting John Brumpton as Julia’s lover is also very surprising, as he is typically cast as a tough guy, cop, crim or jailbird, notably in Life (Lawrence Johnston, 1995), a prison film, which he also wrote as a play and then a screenplay.

In what sense, then, can Dance Me to My Song be said to be an “art film”, when there is nothing stylistically remarkable about it? I would say it is in the sense that, in terms of subject matter, “art film tends to deal with real contemporary problems”. The one dealt with here is the attitude of some people to disabled people: that they are inherently inferior. Possibly the most significant scene in this regard is the otherwise trivial scene in which Eddie (Brumpton) and Julia go into a shop to buy an ice-cream. The shopkeeper is intolerably (because by now we have come to know Julia and to see things from her point of view) patronising—until Julia hears the price of the ice-cream and has her voice machine give her obscene but fully human reaction. I suggest that this is an inherently non-commercial subject that would only be dealt with by someone with the nonchalant courage of Rolf de Heer. The Quiet Room (see Chapter 6) is another example.

“Dutch” courage was also needed to make The Tracker, which I mentioned in the context of the western in Chapter 2, but which has several characteristics which put it into the category of art, and far from Hollywood. Firstly, the characters have no names, and almost no “back story”: they are simply “The Tracker” (David Gulpilil), “The Fanatic” (Gary Sweet), and so on. Secondly, the violence in the film—rape, shooting people, cutting off a tongue, spearing—is not shown filmically, but in the form of still shots of paintings by Peter Coad: literally, “art”. Thirdly, the music, in the forms of songs performed by Archie Roach, is an integral part of the way in which the story is told, as I mentioned in Chapter 7. It’s worth noting that this is the only one of de Heer’s films (so far) on which he takes a “composing” credit: the original music for his films is usually done by Graham Tardif. The Tracker was nominated for an ARIA Music Award in 2002 for Best Original Soundtrack Album, and won a Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for Best Music Score in that year. It also won six AFI awards, including Best Film.

Rolf de Heer’s most recent film (at the time of writing) is another quite remarkable film, and for completely different reasons from any of his other films. Alexandra’s Project (2003) was shot partly on film and partly on videotape, and the film cuts between the two for a reason that is integral with the story. Alexandra (Helen Buday) is leaving her husband Steve (Gary Sweet) and her medium for this message is a videotape which he finds when he comes home on the evening of his birthday, a tape with a Lewis Carroll label attached: “Play Me!”. He does, of course, and much of the rest of the film cuts between the tape which Steve watches on the TV monitor (almost the only furniture Alexandra has left behind) and his reactions, which the viewer sees on film. The “art” involved here is mostly about getting this interaction to make narratological sense. The audience is required to believe that the “tape” is pre-recorded, unlike the “film”—in which Steve has freedom to react as he wishes. Until it turns out that the “tape” is not what we have been led to believe. In this case, the art in the film is found in the activity of playing with the medium—or rather media—as such. Once again: “art cinema narration tends towards the self-conscious and self-reflexive”.

I mentioned Gillian Armstrong in the context of promising to return to the notion of “auteurism”, but rather than exemplify this idea in her well-known but very diverse works, I’d to draw attention to another woman who is much more obscure, in at least a couple of senses of the word. Laurie McInnes has made only two feature films, but they are remarkable. Broken Highway and Dogwatch have enough features in common for the viewer to feel in the presence of a single author. In terms of setting there is a naturalistic mise-en-scene: there’s no doubt Dogwatch was almost entirely filmed on a real ship, and Broken Highway begins in a similar location, before moving into a recognisable Queensland landscape. Both stories concern (too?) close relationships between characters with guilt-laden pasts, and there are struggles for power and vain attempts at expiation. Both have Bordwellian “drifting protagonists”, Aden Young as Angel in the first film and Steven Vidler as the Captain in the second, whose motivation is not “realistic” in Bordwell’s “classical” sense. All of the “characters tend to lack clearcut motives and goals”. In Dogwatch, “... as in real life, questions remain unanswered, ends are left loose and situations unresolved”. True, many of the characters are dead, but the narrative itself lacks closure: the protagonist, the nameless Captain, is still on the bridge, but no-one knows where the ship is going.

But it’s in terms of stylistics that designer McInnes is most distinctive. Broken Highway is a film literally so dark that at times it’s not possible to see what is happening; and much of Dogwatch is shot below decks, in the dark bowels of the ship. But this is of a piece with McInnes’s thematic concerns: she is interested in the dark places of the human heart, and her films should look like that. As in any art form, one of the most important criteria for the success of a given work is its integration: the degree to which the different parts or aspects work together in the service of its expression. McInnes may not (yet) be a successful cinema artist financially, but I believe that she has made a significant contribution to film art in Australia.

One would be hard put to make a case for the distinctive Australianness of any of the films discussed in this chapter. In fact, it seems characteristic of art films generally not to come from anywhere in particular, but to belong in some kind of ideal space above that of any particular set of diurnal concerns. If I had to name some place of origin for the films I’ve mentioned, I would say “Europe”—partly because of the exclusivity of my selecting almost entirerly films by auteurs who literally came from there, but partly also because the subjects and styles dealt with this in chapter are much more likely to be found in a European tradition than that of Hollywood.

In the same way that I was able to nominate multiculturalism at the end of the last chapter as an Australian characteristic of Looking for Alibrandi, I could mention the theme of migration as being equally (and relatedly) relevant to the work of Paul Cox. The difference between the two is that whereas with multiculturalism you bring your culture with you and live in it in the new country, with migration there may well be less a sense of belongingness than a nostalgia for what one has left behind: in this case, all that is European.

I conclude by returning to the question I posed at the outset: if an Australian “genre” film is familiarly like a Hollywood film and therefore not “foreign”, is an Australian “art” (“non-genre”) film therefore “foreign”? Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of Australian “art” films is, paradoxically, their non-Australianness.


1 Felicity Collins 1999, The Films of Gillian Armstrong, The Moving Image, 6, November.

2 Julian Petley, “Art cinema”, in Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink 1999, The Cinema Book, second edition, BFI, London: 106-111: 107.

3 Steve Neale 1981, “Art cinema as institution”, Screen, 22, 1: 11-40; 14; as quoted by Petley 1999: 107.

4 Andrew Tudor 1974, Theories of Film, Secker & Warburg, London: 139.

5 Tudor’s examples are The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1956), L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) and La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1959).

6 Tudor 1974: 145.

7 Petley 1999: 108. David Bordwell 1985, Narration in the Fiction Film, Routledge, London.

8 Bordwell, 1985, Narration in the Fiction Film, Routledge, London: 206.

9 Petley 1999: 109, quoting Bordwell, 1985: 207.

10 Petley 1999: 108-109.

11 Petley: 110, quoting Bordwell 1985: 209.

12 Thomas Elsaesser 1994, “Putting on a show: the European art movie”, Sight and Sound, 4, April: 22-27: 24; as cited in Tom O’Regan 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London: 62.

13 Neale 1981: 13.

14 Petley 1999: 108.

15 Petley 1999: 108; quoting André Bazin 1967, What is Cinema? vol. 1, tr. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles: 37; italics original to Bazin.

16 Petley 1999: 109-110.

17 Bordwell, 1985: 208.

18 Petley 1999: 108, following Bordwell, 1985, np.

19 O’Regan 1996: 62.

20 Neale 1981: 13-14.

21 O’Regan 1996: 63.

22 Tom O’Regan 1996: 309; quoting Helen Grace 1995, “Everywhere toilet: defilement: the views in wide shot”, Communal Plural, 4 (Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, University of Western Sydney, Nepean): 131-43; 137.

23 Petley 1999: 109.

24 Paul Cox 1998, Reflections: An Autobiographical Journey, Currency Press, Sydney.

25 Video slick.

Garry Gillard | New: 13 February, 2009 | Now: 27 April, 2022