Direct Action on Things: Harry Hooton and Artist Film in Australia

By | 1 October 2020

Yet the Cantrills Filmnotes remains a prime example of how the ‘networked language’ culture of Australian artists’ turn to self-mythologisation was a direct result of modernism. As filmmaker and writer Dirk de Bruyn writes, in 2010:

Cantrills Filmnotes covered activity from the artist’s perspective, on an artisanal cinema, on video, experimental film, digital art, sound design, installation, innovative documentary and ethnographic film – work with a non-industry, independent emphasis. It included writings and interviews from England, Netherlands, Austria, United States, France, Indonesia, Philippines, Canada, and New Zealand. This overseas content mapped the international opportunities that opened up through screenings, conferences, and other events that were outlets and exposure for their impressive catalogue of films. Where magazines over the same period like Cinema Papers, Filmnews, and Filmviews serviced independent cinema in relation to the emerging national mainstream cinema, Cantrills Filmnotes spoke in the most independent register. It was a family business run from their home in preference to the academy. (20-7)

Importantly, over its 30 years the journal carried no advertising – but for its own endeavours – and it therefore remained stoically outside of the art industry economy. Halfway through its life, the Filmnotes abruptly switched to colour (Issue 49/50, April 1986) and, to celebrate, the Cantrills had immediately returned to Hooton. For filmmakers like de Bruyn, emerging within the Cantrills milieu at the time was both a blessing and a curse, as it provided a platform for initial exposure, but maintained a certain provincialised marginalisation within the broader context for the arts in Australia and internationally:

For those looking into this field of arts production from the outside the terms ‘the Cantrills’s and ‘Australian experimental film’ had become essentially interchangeable. (Ibid)

Yet, while de Bruyn criticises the Cantrill’s accumulation of ‘cultural capital’ throughout their career – indeed they themselves note, in 1973, the Filmnotes’ loss of a grant received through the Film & Television Board for the reason that ‘the Notes were a promotion for the Cantrills rather than the Co-operatives & independent filmmakers’. This approaching solipsism has of course always been a problem for the avant-gardes. Yet, as Arthur notes more recently, and as seems to be the explicit desire of many ‘alternative’ artists:

We fall between the art establishment – who has difficulty in recognizing us as artists because even though they’re familiar with video art, they’re somehow suspicious of film art, or at least they don’t make any effort to exhibit it – and the film establishment, who has never taken us very seriously either. (Quoted in Stein)

A review of the Hooton film’s premiere, by Sylvia Lawson in Nation, suggested the work adhered to a principal whereby it had no discernible beginning, middle, and end to the film, and that by extension any shot could appear at any time in the film. To judge the work, she labelled it ‘anti-cinema’, expecting that this would satisfactorily dispatch the film and any expectations as to its quality as a work of artist-film made in Australia. The Cantrills themselves preferred ‘cinemapoetry’ as the nomination of their work … ‘alternative cinema’ also appeared as another strategy for positioning their approach (Ubu filmmaker Aggy Read had organised the ‘Alternative Film Festival’ in 1971, it is covered in CF Issue 5). In his ‘Little History’ of the Filmnotes, Hemensley also saw in the early issues a willingness to position the work as a part of the ‘expanded arts’ emerging in the US, writing: ‘with Brakhage the poetry/cinema connection is epitomised. Brakhage is the one filmmaker known to poets of the ‘new anglo-american poetry’ situation’. Hemensley goes on to show how Stan Brakhage, the ‘mythopoeic’ filmmaker who’d established his own materialist approach to film in Colorado the late 1950s, was working in dialogue with beat poets like Michael McClure and poetry journals like Caterpiller (H/EAR 5 409). The sense of Australian art in relation to its international context was also beginning to shift from provincialism to a self-reflexive proximity, as filmmaker James Claydon notes:

It’s good in Australia in a sense, that there’s such a feedback from everything that it becomes confused, and it’s a disadvantage and an advantage being so shut off from everyone else: it’s creating a thing in itself, as America has created its own thing, so Australia is. (Cited in Cantrills Filmnotes 6 n.p.).

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