WHEN THE MOVIES MADE A KILLING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

Mass killing and mass en­ter­tain­ment were born at al­most the same time a cen­tury ago. There were pre­cur­sors to both in the 19th cen­tury, of course, and the tech­nol­ogy in each case has ad­vanced rapidly in the past 100 years: by the mid­dle of the past cen­tury we had bombs that could de­stroy whole cities and tele­vi­sion was be­com­ing the true opi­ate of the masses.

In the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, like the seda­tives so freely pre­scribed in the same pe­riod, TV was a drug that could mask the ef­fects of alien­ation and mis­ery with­out solv­ing any of the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems.

To­day, it is worse again: wire­less de­vices mean one doesn’t need to be at home to be star­ing at a screen, and the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia mean con­sumers can per­son­alise the con­tent they are con­sum­ing into a far more se­duc­tive and toxic mix­ture of nar­cis­sis­tic in­dul­gence. So­cial me­dia, dig­i­tal en­ter­tain­ment and com­puter games keep the mind in a state of con­stant su­per­fi­cial arousal and dis­trac­tion. In­stead of fos­ter­ing the strength, fo­cus and bal­ance that tend to pro­duce hap­pi­ness, me­dia dis­trac­tion makes the mind weak, en­er­vated and un­happy.

The men­tal pathol­ogy we have pro­duced is the in­vis­i­ble ana­log of the obe­sity that is destroying bod­ies wher­ever a mod­ern diet of mass-pro­duced pro­cessed food has been adopted. We won­der why we face an epi­demic of anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, at­ten­tion deficit syn­drome, ad­dic­tions and anti-so­cial be­hav­iour, as ob­tusely as we won­der why there is an epi­demic of obe­sity when we are sur­rounded by ag­gres­sively pro­moted junk food.

We med­i­calise th­ese in­evitable con­se­quences and pre­scribe drugs to treat the symptoms. The an­swer, in both cases, is sim­ple but rad­i­cal: to re­move the cause of the con­di­tion. The con­sumer mind­set as­sumes the an­swer to a prob­lem must be to pur­chase some new prod­uct or ser­vice, but the an­swer lies in less, not more. It doesn’t cost any­thing to lose weight and live a health­ier life, nor does it cost any­thing to be­come saner, wiser and hap­pier: the habitual par­a­digms of ac­qui­si­tion and con­sump­tion are in­ap­pli­ca­ble in th­ese cases.

The de­liv­ery of junk food for the mind has taken two mo­men­tous steps dur­ing the past 100 years. The first was to have mass en­ter­tain­ment streamed into the home; the sec­ond was to have it avail­able in por­ta­ble form, fur­ther re­strict­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of soli­tude and si­lence. A cen­tury ago, when it was still com­mon to play mu­si­cal in­stru­ments at home and peo­ple still talked around the din­ner ta­ble, one had to go out to see the new mov­ing pic­tures.

And our fore­bears went out in con­sid­er­able num­bers. Cine­mas were once ubiq­ui­tous, and even though many have been de­mol­ished since the rise of TV, we can still recog­nise, in al­most any older shop­ping cen­tre, build­ings that were once pic­ture the­atres but now mostly are used for some other pur­pose.

Dur­ing World War I when cinema was less than 20 years old — as we learn from the ex­hi­bi­tion War Pic­tures at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age in Mel­bourne — more than 65,000 peo­ple in Australia bought tick­ets on any night of the week. Given the size of our pop­u­la­tion at the time, that must mean the av­er­age per­son went to the movies at least four times a week, and in prac­tice — leav­ing out the very old and the very young — many peo­ple must have gone much more of­ten.

This sort of fre­quency meant that, apart from news­reels, ad­ver­tise­ments and fea­ture films, it was pos­si­ble to show se­ri­als, since au­di­ences could be counted on to re­turn for the next in­stal­ment. In fact the ex­hi­bi­tion be­gins with episodes from the ex­traor­di­nar­ily popular and grue­some French se­rial Fan­tomas, five se­ries of which were pro­duced be­tween 1913 and 1914.

The en­trance to the ex­hi­bi­tion is de­signed to evoke a pe­riod pic­ture theatre, in­side which view­ers sit to watch what is es­sen­tially a doc­u­men­tary com­posed of a se­quence of films from the four years of the war. The re­sult is a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lage evok­ing the mix­ture of news, en­ter­tain­ment and pro­pa­ganda a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence would have ex­pe­ri­enced.

We re­alise at once that the sur­viv­ing ma­te­rial is very frag­men­tary be­cause the orig­i­nal films were made on flammable cel­lu­lose ni­trate.

May 30-31, 2015 War Pic­tures: Aus­tralians at the Cinema 1914-18 Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age, Mel­bourne, un­til July 26. Of­ten, as in the case of the first war movie made in Australia, A Long Long Way to Tip­per­ary, re­leased months af­ter the out­break of hos­til­i­ties in Au­gust 1914, only tan­ta­lis­ing frag­ments sur­vive. The reels shown in cine­mas were known as “war pic­tures”, the ti­tle adopted for the ex­hi­bi­tion.

We see new re­cruits un­der­go­ing med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, then march­ing in uni­form to em­bark on troop­ships, in­clud­ing units of light horse and horse-drawn hos­pi­tal car­riages. There are ad­ver­tise­ments, too, in­clud­ing some clever work by Harry Julius in stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion us­ing white chalk on a black back­ground: Miss Australia, we are told, used to buy £500,000 of clothes im­ported from Ger­many or Aus­tria ev­ery year but hence­forth will buy prod­ucts man­u­fac­tured in Australia in­stead.

A lot more re­mains of an­other film that opened in July 1915, The Hero of the Dardanelles. In early scenes we dis­cover a young man toy­ing with a cricket bat un­til he sees a re­cruit­ment poster. Then we find him and other young men be­ing trained as in­fantry sol­diers: learn­ing to fire ri­fles, dig fox­holes, and so on. The film is as much pro­pa­ganda as fea­ture and semi-doc­u­men­tary, as we see from an­other scene in which he urges civil­ian friends at a pub to join up.

Af­ter this we meet him again on the troop­ship, writ­ing to his mother who is seen pray­ing at home, then in a few scene-set­ting and rather in­con­gru­ously pic­turesque shots in Egypt with the pyra­mids and Sphinx. The cli­max of the film is the land­ing at Gal­lipoli, which was re-cre­ated at Ta­ma­rama Beach in Syd­ney.

In­ter­na­tional films were shown too, in­clud­ing Gio­vanni Pas­trone and Gabriele d’An­nun- The Cast of Of­fi­cer 666

The Hero of the Dardanelles zio’s Cabiria (1914), the melo­dra­matic Ital­ian epic from which we watch the episode of the hero­ine be­ing res­cued from sac­ri­fice to the bestial Carthaginian god Moloch. From DW Grif­fith’s Birth of a Na­tion (1915), we are shown the episode of the as­sas­si­na­tion of pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln by John Wilkes Booth.

From 1916 comes a doc­u­men­tary on women’s con­tri­bu­tion to the war ef­fort: we see them work­ing in mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries, putting bul­lets into ban­doliers. The slo­gan “Keep the homes fires burning” is dis­played over footage of troop ships de­part­ing for Europe. Per­haps most in­ter­est­ing of all is a mail sorting cen­tre — again staffed by women — in which we re­alise what a vi­tal part of the war ef­fort it was to en­sure that men at the front could re­ceive news from home and in turn write to their fam­i­lies; sev­eral mov­ing let­ters from this time have been pub­lished in news­pa­pers re­cently.

From the same year comes The Battle of the Somme, a Bri­tish pro­duc­tion that was the first to

above;

(1915), left

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