10 July 2007

Film and culture

Peter Craven is one of the most incisive critics around, and always worth reading to light your way through debates that can often be complex and fraught. This post does not use the words Kultur or Kulcha because I don't know what they mean in the context of art policy commentary, where they are used almost compulsorily.

With this, though, I think he's mistaken. He hasn't thought through what he's saying, a rare lapse.

It is no more necessary to turn a book into a film than it is to turn a tree into a table. Craven cites some fine examples of where good Australian books became good Australian films - but it does not follow that all Great Australian Books (where are they who define such? Never miond who guards the guardians, who selects the selectors?).

He does not, however, allow for the possibility that some good Australian books might be turned into poor films. This upsets those who loved the book in question, dismays audiences who stay away from an unappealling film, and cheeses off taxpayers forced to pay for some frolic whose defence only discredits Australian film and arts per se.

Some good Australian books might be adequately captured on TV. Craven himself makes an excellent point about BBC literary dramatisations. In the US, quality dramatic writing is not found in Hollywood or Broadway, but on TV. Any of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or The West Wing has better plotting, dialogue and other qualities of drama than The Corrections or Wit. The ABC-TV version of Come in Spinner was very good, as good as that book deserved. The same goes for Bryce Courtenay books - it does not do to be too snobby about the people who read these books and watch the mini-series as an audience, especially when they are paying the bills for publicly-funded art and when their lives often constitute the Australian life about which artists fancy themselves as capturing.

The Australia Council should work with commercial channels in complying with local content regulations. The state education departments that mandate texts for students should also have a role in choosing which texts should be brought to the (small or large) screen. All of these considerations are more important than a make-work scheme for Beresford and his pals, or a symbiotic relationship with government as occurs with defence industries.

The film version of The Man from Snowy River only actually addressed the story of the poem in the last 20-30 minutes: the Colt from Old Regret was safely secured to the point of bering ignored until then. Treating the text as incidental to the film was only permissible, I suspect, because the poem was not highly regarded from an artistic point of view and that a mass audience was prepared to indulge the padding around it in the film.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Craven's piece was the assumption that all the great Australian stories have already been written and sit away on dusty bookshelves, waiting to have new life breathed into them by actors and scriptwriters and cinematographers. Does it really take a million dollars to tell an authentic story well? If you accept resources as finite (and post-Whitlam, we must), consider worthy but dying arts that could be funded at a fraction of that cost: how many poets could you fund for $1m? Then there's the whole private/public thing which needs to be thought out better. Earlier I said that disparaging a film for being privately funded was silly, not so much beside the point as irrelevant to any cogent point about art in this country.

I thought Craven's point about Australian literature being not much older than film was important, and the never-occured-to-me-before aspect of White as contemporary of Hitchcock, Ford and Visconti (but also Bellow, Garcia Marquez and Boell) was also valuable.

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