Inside Story

Timber to ashes, ashes to earth

Cinema | Sylvia Lawson on Canberra’s last Electric Shadow, George Brandis and the Australia Council, and Testament of Youth and X+Y

Sylvia Lawson 21 May 2015 1947 words

Culture, politics and cinephilia: Canberra’s Electric Shadows cinema, 1979–2006. Ronin Films

There’s a death in the family. The Electric Shadows bookshop in Canberra, one of the very few cinema-centred bookshops here (or indeed anywhere) has been forced to close. Its twenty-seven years of trading, as with many bookshops, amounted to much more than buying and selling; here was the centre of an intellectual milieu, with book launches, a gallery area called Electric Wall, and a huge range of DVDs for both rental and purchase. Now the sign hangs askew from its moorings on Mort Street, the glowing name over the footpath has gone dark, the shop is shadowed and empty.

The bookshop’s time overlapped with that of the cinema of the same beautiful name; that also ran for twenty-seven years (1979–2006). Its owner, Andrew Pike of Ronin Films, likes to remember how the opening night film in 1979 was Monty Python’s hilarious Pleasure at Her Majesty’s; having had the nerve to open a small cinema in Canberra, Pike and his friends didn’t think anybody much would show up, but they did, in packs and droves. Through the following decade Electric Shadows ran European, Australian and Asian films, with Q&A sessions, attention to Indigenous film-making and the work of local Canberra film-makers; there was a night everyone remembers from 2002, when Phillip Noyce came to attend a screening of his unforgettable Rabbit-Proof Fence, and the overflow audience compelled a second late-night screening, and more work for the director. The cinema was a centre not only for cinephiles, but also for fully engaged intellectual life, a place where culture, politics and cinephilia came dynamically together.

The closing night screening was of Pedro Almodovar’s Volver; not the Spanish master’s greatest, but still a fabulous symphony of love, lust, murder and motherhood, death and reincarnation, and the colour red. The choice of that film for the last night was flying a defiant flag, a choice calling that the life of cinema, with its outrageous extremities, would go on, even though there in Mort Street, and across the globe, the lights in thousands of small cinemas were going out.

It wasn’t meant to be a farewell. The multiplexes were catching up; the goodwill from Electric Shadows was sold to Canberra’s then new Dendy complex, seemingly to everyone’s satisfaction, and in the faith that the lively programming of European, Asian and Indigenous cinema would continue. But then the Dendy changed hands – twice, and the connections with crucial distributors were lost. Elsewhere, the Palace Electric cinema keeps an echo in its title, and also seeks to sustain a comparable range of offerings. The bookshop held on; it has closed not because business was falling off, but because the building is being demolished, to be replaced soon by a larger one in which Electric Shadows has been offered space at a much higher rental, something even a thriving and popular bookshop couldn’t afford. Removal to Canberra’s outskirts would mean the loss of urban lifeblood.

Two notices are pasted up behind the glass. One is Nigel Featherstone’s eloquent valediction from the Canberra Times. He argues that while everyone is buying books on Amazon and reading them on Kindle, the business of book-making and the desire to own the physical objects have been amazingly sustained; that bookshops endure, somewhat as cinema has and does, because people want to go out and meet each other, and discover what’s unexpected. Bookshops go on offering adventures; books on cinema are essential. This enduring and proliferating form demands developed responses; they will find their ways, their readers and writers.

The other cutting in Electric Shadows’s window offers seven highly appropriate lines from the Four Quartets: In my beginning is my end. In succession/ Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place/ Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass./ Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,/ Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth… Eliot gets it about right, though there’s no open field around here; there may be perhaps something more like a factory; it’s all about “new timber”: “redevelopment.”

Meanwhile at the movies, films that might once have been labelled “arthouse” (awful term) are pulling them in steadily. James Kent’s version of Testament of Youth is costume drama, yes, but in a peculiarly satisfying way. It was discussed in Inside Story in early April by Brian McFarlane, who linked the present film to the TV series and to the book itself, which keeps its power. Now, we look through the film back to the book, and to the history registered in Vera Brittain’s enduring story. In the hands of an admirable cast, it is given back to us for the present; here is all we could want of the pacifist case as a young woman, who had fully paid her dues, spoke it a hundred years ago. Alicia Vikander, graceful and large-eyed, is a new Audrey Hepburn, and perhaps a better actor.

Emily Watson and Dominic West are excellent as Vera’s parents, good people clinging to the past while wartime drags them forward. We get a passage full of the mud and blood of the battlefield; then in a horrific shift of mentalities, Vera is summoned back from nursing in a field hospital, crowded with the dead and dying, to a supposed family crisis. She finds her mother in distress because the cook has left, and because wartime rationing is a bit hard to cope with. There are no hysterics; the mother–daughter collision is dealt with matter-of-factly, but that chapter signals towards Western feminism, the refusal of the middle-class woman to be the angel in the house.

The real crisis in the personal story, however, comes when Vera’s fiancé, Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), comes back from the front emotionally frozen; she can’t reach him. That trauma has everything to do with her arrival at a pacifist position. The film works, in its beautifully costumed, old-fashioned way, but for Max Richter’s music, of which there is far too much. With the real grief made palpable – Roland’s locked responses, the dying German soldier, then Vera’s loss of both brother and lover, the great scale of that war – we don’t need wistful violins telling us how to feel. Vera Brittain stands in history; she is not to be sentimentalised. She is still, and always, there to be read.

Now disappearing from the circuits, X+Y is a brilliant little dance of a film, its choreography centred on Sally Hawkins’s role as Julie, the mother of autistic Nathan (Asa Butterfield), who is, the doctors say, “somewhere on the spectrum.” That indefinite position compels him to refuse her love and anxiety, but leaves him able to grope toward human contact while he reaches toward excellence in mathematics; nothing, he says, is nicer than maths. We see blackboards crowded with theorems and equations, and see Nathan’s obsession with prime numbers as he surveys the food on his plate. As he is moved by his teachers towards the International Mathematics Olympiad, he gives Julie a pretty hard time. She is brightly intrepid, a picture of devotion and resilience; but martyred motherhood threatens. There is relief when she begins a relationship with the boy’s tutor, Martin (Rafe Spall), damaged and ill as Martin is; more relief when Nathan finds affinity and affection with his mathematical equal Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). Some of the transitions, present into past and back, and the film’s ending are somewhat glib, too easy; but at least the obstacles are faced.

This film has evidently grown out of the director Morgan Matthews’s documentary Brilliant Young Minds; both are worth retrieving. Alex Lawther reappears among the ensemble of gifted teenagers; he played the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Thinking of these films, of The Theory of Everything and Particle Fever, there’s a question that presses insistently: is it imaginable that we could have an Australian film, drama or documentary, actually centred on intellectual work?

Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour. The reasons given by the attorney-general and arts minister, George Brandis, for appropriating to his own ministry a chunk of the funding allocated to the Australia Council, amount to egregious doublespeak. He is openly transgressing the longstanding and honourable policy of arm’s-length funding, in which governments of both stripes have recognised, in true liberal tradition, the need that artists, arts and theatre companies should be free to bite the hands that feed them. Brandis’s statement that “arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council” implies a centralised system of judgement and selection by a single unified structure, whereas the council’s work has always been, deliberately, dispersed across a wide and varying range of assessors.

At present there are ten panels, assembled to deliver peer assessment in their fields. Those include the traditional areas of literature, music, theatre, visual arts and dance, besides panels for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts; the arts and disability sector; community arts development; cross-disciplinary and experimental work, with provision for the formation of new panels as the needs emerge. There are no sinecures among the assessors; they change with each round of allocations.

Not satisfied with those arrangements, Brandis proposes something he’s called a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, which

will allow for a truly national approach to arts funding and will deliver on a number of Government priorities including national access to high quality arts and cultural experiences. The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will make funding available to a wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners, while at the same time respecting the preferences and tastes of Australia’s audiences.

Various other programs, the Major Festivals Initiative for example, will also be transferred to the ministry from the Council, “ensuring that government support is available for a broader range of arts and cultural activities.”

Funding for film and TV-making is organised outside the council’s reach, but not outside Mr Brandis’s; Screen Australia reports annually to the government. The Australia Council’s affairs have to do with film, in the sense that the broad ensemble of crafts and skills that make up a production team draw on the experience gained from work made possible through the council’s panels.

But doublespeak always looks plausible. Anyone who didn’t know otherwise might scan the minister’s recent media statements and conclude that the Australia Council’s provision for the arts has hitherto been undesirably narrow in focus, with too little address to local audiences; but that view pays no respect to the actual work of the panels.

While his program for “excellence” is brewing – the guidelines are still to be announced – the minister is said to be paying close attention to the appointment of a new CEO for the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. AFTRS is a statutory body, and the appointment will be decided by its council; but its links to the federal government, like Screen Australia’s, go through the ministry for the arts. Be afraid, be very afraid… •