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I dream of avant-garde narrative …

by Bill Mousoulis

This piece was written in April 1996 for Cantrills Filmnotes but (for whatever reasons) it remained unpublished. Here it is now, for what it's worth.

No stills accompany this article, for my latest film is simply a dream. It is the curse of the film-maker to be straitjacketed by an art form which requires substantial capital input. Especially when the film-maker is at the "narrative" end of the cinematic spectrum. I am not rich. I do not have "connections". I am not one of the privileged ones ready to be slotted into the industry. And I don’t want to be, for my dreams are too particular. But of course my films are only dreams in my head: who in their right mind would want to make a "Bill Mousoulis" film?

I am stuck in the dead middle of the whole she-bang, at that centre point which does not exist. Experimental film-makers consider me homey, untrustworthy, too full of "mainstream aspiration"; narrative film-makers consider me too arty, too intellectual, too tolerant of the avant-garde; professional film-makers (and the funding bodies) consider me slap-dash, confrontational, a hopeless "amateur"; feral independent film-makers consider me too conservative, too ordered, not "subversive" enough. All these impressions, of course, are both correct and incorrect: they are just part and parcel of being a social and artistic being in a dynamic, pluralistic environment.

But don’t get me wrong: I have not slipped into some "black hole" at that centre of things, coming out of it only in a chameleon-like fashion (i.e. making first this kind of film, then that, then something else …) No – I have my allegiances, and this is why I write this piece, to speak them, to inscribe them (not being able to actually film things at this moment).

I am nominally a "narrative" film-maker, yet I am not a member of the writers’ or directors’ guilds. Rather, I am a member of the Melbourne Super-8 Film Group. I am interested in narrative features yet have not worked a single day in the "industry". Rather, I make my own films, like a painter or poet create their works: singularly, completely, freely. I do not go see mainstream (or even arthouse) features. Rather, I attend the Cinematheque and other "left-leaning" film societies. Personally, I do not know any feature film directors (I have only fleetingly met Aleksi Vellis, Ray Argall, Brian McKenzie, etc.). Rather, I know experimental film-makers like Dirk de Bruyn, Nick Ostrovskis, Steven Ball, the Cantrills, etc.

There are reasons why I am more "rather" than "conventional". There is a whole stream of narrative work in the history of cinema’s avant-garde tradition. By its very appellation, "avant-garde narrative" is "stuck in the middle", as I put it earlier, but by its spirit and attitude, I believe it is firmly aligned to all other avant-garde film and video practices. And, like all those other practices, avant-garde narrative has to primarily function independently of the mainstream structures in place, funding-wise.

The main funding body for film and video (and multimedia) in Australia is the Australian Film Commission (AFC). In a land of simplistic self-congratulatory nationalism, I would like to now trumpet my failure: I have had six funding applications (for feature script development) turned down by the AFC in the last three years. The assessors say I "can’t write". Funny how I still do …

To credit the AFC, however, they have funded a bevy of interesting feature films recently, which actually do fit into the avant-garde narrative tradition, albeit one small sub-set of it: the essay tradition of Marker, Duras, Wollen/Mulvey. Thus, films like What I Have Written, Breathing Under Water, The Refracting Glasses: eclectic narratives, stylised images, symbolic fractures, intellectual dialectics, etc.

But that is the only good news available on these Australian shores re: avant-garde narrative. The rest of ‘90s feature production is pure schlock – commercial drivel, with only one or two slightly unconventional exceptions (Bedevil, Body Melt, Vacant Possession), and one slightly interesting arthouse "auteur" (Paul Cox). You see, whilst we may have two or three Markers/Durases, there is no equivalent in Australia of the following: Akerman, Straub-Huillet, Jost, Cassavetes, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Godard, Rossellini, Bresson, Ruiz, Warhol/Morrissey, Dwoskin, Cocteau, Bunuel, Paradjanov, Rivette, Pasolini, Tarkovsky, Oshima, Rappaport.

Usually, it is the domain of the self-funded film to explore non-mainstream themes and styles. Yet even these films are lacking in Australia. There have been "no-budget" features made in Australia recently, but they are far from avant-garde. Indeed, they are almost designed for mainstream markets: Mad Bomber in Love, Bloodlust, Every Night Every Night, Cthulu. There are more features being made in Australia which are "straight" avant-garde (e.g. A X Canada, Ivor Paints) than which are narrative avant-garde.

My particular interest is in avant-garde narrative films which are realist in subject matter, theme, style, tone. The feature scripts I have written lately (and am writing now) revolve around questions of "realism" and "reality", what these two things are, and how they can be incorporated into the formal areas of a feature film (i.e. into the structure, narrative, characterisations, style). If I had to choose one film-maker who continually inspires me (acting as a launch-pad), it would have to be Roberto Rossellini.

I employed several "realist experiments" in my two Super-8 features, Open City (1993) and Ladykiller (1994). Despite having those particular formal and stylistic experiments in them, however, I now see those two films as still being hampered by certain conventions. But I am learning as I go on, and age brings a certain urgency with it, and a certain radicalisation. Will I ever get funded again? Even if I do not, I am sure I will grace the screens pretty soon with a narrative feature film that does not simply pander to the audience and/or show some old tricks.

For now, I simply dream

© Bill Mousoulis April 1996

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