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IVAN HUTCHINSON MEMORIAL LECTURE 1999 (2)

THE SCOURGE OF CYNICISM
Presented by the Melbourne Film Festival in association with the Melbourne Film Critics Forum, the annual Ivan Hutchinson Memorial Lecture was given this year ANDREW L. URBAN, editor of Urban Cinefile and a writer on film and filmmaking for almost 20 years. This is an edited extract of the lecture he presented on August 7, 1999.

PART TWO
Another question I’d like to pose today springs from this confusion: but first a little background on the matter of Government support for film production. While I think it is true that the political battle for the maintenance of government support has been largely won – in that there is bipartisan support for it overall – there is always a nagging doubt that it will be reduced or otherwise restricted by politicians and or bureaucrats.

I belive this danger exists in part because the political process is too focused on fiscal outcomes and political positioning. And in part because we are still confused about what is the intent behind this support.

It is easy to use national culture arguments and say that film production must be taxpayer supported because it is important for domestic and internationally paraded portraits of our culture, our nation. It is true that taxpayer support is needed because we don’t have a large enough population to support local filmmaking. But this is not enough of an argument. This is only half the argument.

It doesn’t address our attitude to what the funding is supposed to achieve. The main film bank of the government is the film finance corporation, which invests a hefty percentage of a film’s production budget – say 30 to 40 % - pretty well automatically if the film has a distribution deal with private sector parties, who provide the balance of the budget.

This is said to bring a certain market-tested, commercial discipline on the filmmakers. And the FFC pursues these projects and establishes its regulations and sees its political survival on the commercial success of its investments. In other words, it is as profit driven as the private sector – even if realistically it knows it can’t make a profit. But that is the benchmark by which many politicians and many bureaucrats assess the value of supporting the film industry.

So – what are the outcomes we are pursuing here? Why are we providing the funds for film production? Is it to prop up our home-made film culture – or is it to invest in profitable movies? Or indeed, can we do both – and if so, does the present system deliver that? I think we need to determine what is our collective attitude to this issue and decide why we should supports filmmaking. To allow films to fail? To sustain the industry despite its commercial failures. Or to build a commercially successful industry.

I ask again - what is our motivation? To achieve cultural satisfaction or commercial success ?

Australian films have not been money makers, with a low percentage of notable exceptions. But our national attitude has become confused on these issues, and while we dance around very proudly declaring our film and filmmakers to be of world standard – usually quoting a handful of each – we also despair that our films don’t make money. We don’t go to see them. And the industry lives in fear of bad reviews for Australian films, terrified that government support will shrink as a result.

But the problem begins with the confusion of our policy objectives: on the one hand, the government and its agencies provide valuable financial support in response to the cultural imperatives that the industry and its support lobby put forward.

On the other hand, treasury and Canberra in general, expect our films to be commercially successful. So does much of the community. Critical success just doesn’t wash.

As we all know, Government support is not unconditional. It is delivered with the stipulation that the supported film must be ‘Australian’ in its key elements. It is a politically correct restriction, but a restriction nevertheless. This underscores the cultural motivation for funding: we are nurturing our own filmmaking talent and telling stories with our own voices. Priority one.

This is a desirable enough objective for a national cinema. It is not a suitable objective to run filmmaking as a business.

But if it is maintained, then it has to be un-hooked from commercial benchmarks and expectations. If that is seen as being unrealistic, we need to spell out where the cultural imperative begins and the commercial expectation ends.

I think that the widespread cynicism in our society that I mentioned earlier and our overall attitudes to cinema are linked: while we deride commercial success for mainstream films, we undermine the importance of our own filmmaking activity. What measures successful government funding policy? At present, it’s a confused mish mash of idealism and nationalism, with a desperate dollop of dollar worship.

Coincidentally, the editorial in yesterday's The Australian (Friday, August 6, 1999) was headed Arts funding needs a new rationale, and discussed the discussion paper Securing the Future, written by four leading arts executives: Helen Nugent, Michael Chaney, David Gonski and Catherine Walker. The key proposition of this study, said the editorial, is that the financial insecurity of the big performing arts companies is leading to a decline in artistic excellence. Costs are rising, revenue declining and the quality of the product is suffering.

While this may not apply directly to the film industry, it does have relevance. The editorial goes on to say the following: "The arts have rarely been judged purely on commercial returns and there is no doubt commercial companies are constantly seeking new audiences, geographically and across generations, trying to make productions more accessible and trying to counter allegations of elitism."

This is directly relevant for filmmakers.

"yet when the climate for increased government funding is dark and support for the idea of a natiuonal cultural vision appears lacking, then the arts - and particularly the performing arts - feel threatened. Thus the significance of this report to the make up of the contemporary cultural landscape.

"There are no magic solutions proposed. This is in part because there is no clear articulation of the rationale for the level of government funding and, the discussion paper notes, funding outcomes appear somewhat ad hoc." (My emphasis)

Our policy makers and the bureaucrats who advise them may have been confused by the commercial nature of the one real movie industry in the western world – Hollywood’s.

As an English speaking nation, we are at a disadvantage on another level: our directors, cinematographers, actors and so on – are easily assimilated into the Hollywood machinery. If we want to maintain and deepen our own film culture, we need to provide adequate resources for these talents to remain here.

That, in my view, is at least one objective in having it both ways.

It’s all very well discovering new talent each year, but we are neglecting to nurture our talents beyond that.

Pardon me if I seem to have strayed from the opening subject of cynicism in film criticism, but I believe there is a relevant link between that and our confusion over our own filmmaking culture. I think it's time to recognise that there are many kinds of films, many types of stories, many forms of art and of entertainment that we can put on the screen. And that filmmaking is valid as an artform, valid as entertainment and valid as business. But let's be clear which of these we are talking about at any one time.

Amidst all the confusion, though, one thing stands clear. Whenever lovers of film get together and talk about their favourites, it is never about the budgets or the marketing strategies, the government subsidies or the profits a film has made. It’s always about the impact it has had on our hearts and our minds. It is always about how a film touches us. How, for example, a piece of humanity can be revealed by a single line of dialogue – like one of my favourite scenes from Casablanca: there is Claude Rains as Capt. Renault, with Rick threatening him with a pistol, to retrieve the valuable letters of transit. Rick reminds Renault that the pistol is pointing straight at Renault’s heart. Renault says dryly: "that is my least vulnerable spot"

If I think back on how many films I’ve seen that uphold the great values of humanity, I sometimes wonder why the world isn’t a better place. But then I recall history before the movies - so maybe it is a better place than it would have been without them.

Your comments welcome: andrew@urbancinefile.com.au

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Andrew L. Urban

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Your COMMENTS on Andrew's lecture are welcome; please indicate if they are not for publication, and include your full name and phone number in the email.

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"The trouble with too much cynicism (a modicum of it is always healthy) is that it soon becomes the accepted and expected language of life – and of review, a flattening of the faculties."

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"Lately, I've been boring people to death with the phrase : truth is context."

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"Why are we providing the funds for film production? Is it to prop up our home-made film culture – or is it to invest in profitable movies? Or indeed, can we do both – and if so, does the present system deliver that? I think we need to determine what is our collective attitude to this issue and decide why we should supports filmmaking. To allow films to fail? To sustain the industry despite its commercial failures. Or to build a commercially successful industry? And if both, we should explore how that is to be achieved: I don't think it is at present."

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See PART ONE

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