Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

2460 words

Demanding the impossible

8 November 2017

An appreciation of journalist, critic and film industry activist Sylvia Lawson, who died this week


“Fierce but not dogmatic”: Sylvia Lawson. Jim Masselos

“Fierce but not dogmatic”: Sylvia Lawson. Jim Masselos

Seventy-three years ago a somewhat precious W.H. Auden claimed James Agee’s film criticism not for film culture (Auden admitted he didn’t care for films and rarely saw them) so much as for American letters. Agee’s film reviews in the Nation were, he contended, “the most remarkable event in American journalism” of the day and of “permanent literary value.” Like Agee, Sylvia Lawson was a great and influential film critic, and she too wrote for a publication called Nation — in her case, in Sydney in the 1960s. Just as Agee’s reviews were important in the invention of American film studies, Sylvia’s film writing and activism in film culture played an important role in inventing Australian film studies.

Like Agee, Sylvia also had a claim to an importance extending beyond film culture. Her writing was read not just because she was so knowledgeable about films and filming but because she was a great, even extraordinary, writer. As a reviewer and film essayist she made a contribution to literary journalism in the way that Agee, Pauline Kael and Graham Greene made a contribution through their film reviewing. But unlike Agee, whose reviewing covered barely a decade, Sylvia’s remarkable career in film writing stretched from the early 1960s to 2016. And the last chapter was with Inside Story.

Albert Moran, who later became a friend of Sylvia’s and worked closely with her, recalls shifting house before he knew her and needing to rationalise his library. He went through his collection of Nations and meticulously cut out all of Sylvia’s film writing, discarding the rest. Another colleague of Sylvia’s speaks of the symmetry of his film reading over fifty years: as an undergraduate in Melbourne he read Sylvia Lawson in Nation as a regular go-to film fix; in his retirement he was still reading Sylvia’s film reviews, this time for Inside Story.

She was not only one of our greatest film reviewers, she was also one of an elite group of women who shaped Australians’ experience of the cinema. First came the Cambridge-educated Beatrice Tildesley, who was appointed the Australian Women’s Weekly’s first film critic in 1933; then came Josephine O’Neill, the doyenne of Australian film reviewers from the 1940s to her early death in 1968; and then there was the towering figure of Sylvia herself. She wrote film reviews, on and off, through the 1960s for Nation, and in the early 1970s for the Australian; film essays for Filmnews in the 1970s and 1980s, and for Australian Society in the 1980s; and her last concentrated stint of film reviewing for Inside Story was from 2009 to 2016. Alongside this, she wrote occasional pieces of belle-lettrist film criticism for a variety of publications. There have been, of course, many other women reviewers with substantial claims to shaping public discussion of film over Sylvia’s period of active film writing (think of Sandra Hall, Margaret Pomeranz and Meaghan Morris, among others). But Sylvia was the trailblazer.

It’s not hard to see why. Film curator, Quentin Turnour, once described Sylvia to me as Australia’s first film critic. By that he meant she was the first film critic to be able to write about film with a sufficient length and depth to make it more than film reviewing and more like film criticism. In this, he reckoned she was Australia’s Pauline Kael. Writing as she did for a national publication, her writing had a national reach.

But it turns out that she was not the first Australian critic to have this reach and to be able to write at length and knowledgeably about film. In the 1930s, Smith’s Weekly afforded the poet and editor Kenneth Slessor a whole broadsheet page to cover films and filming. He too was a great writer, a sharp critic and very much a Sydney person, but they never properly met. Sylvia told the story of an introduction that nearly happened at the Sydney Journalists’ Club. Slessor was not interested and said as much, in a sexist way, in her hearing. She never forgave him. In a further irony, she thought she was going to meet the great poet (she was unaware of his film-reviewing history) and he, presumably, was unaware that he was in the presence of a critic of equal stature, another wordsmith with an arresting turn of phrase and an unerring capacity to evoke a film.

Unlike some film reviewers, Sylvia never turned her reviews into books of reviews or wrote film books. It took her friend Jane Mills to finally get a small film book out of Sylvia, appropriately enough about John Heyer’s documentary film The Back of Beyond. The book, in the Australian Film Institute’s Australian Screen Classics series, is about the 1950s but it’s also about why this film still matters. Sylvia’s reluctance to use her position as an outstanding critic and parlay it into a book on film or even a book of her collected film reviews came from her understanding of what was important in film reviewing: responding in real time to films and filming. Films were in and of their time and inseparable from that time. Films were social, political and artistic documents. To address them in just one respect would do a kind of violence to them. Take them out of that time and they become stripped of their immediate political, cultural and aesthetic valence. When I suggested, not long ago, a collection of film reviews covering her career in film writing, Sylvia was initially hostile. She told me she did not want her film reviews from the 1960s included because she had still been learning about film — and, indeed, she had never stopped learning (so that put a question mark on the recent ones too). And yet, as Sylvia’s friend Lesley Stern recently observed to me, those reviews from Nation were “amazingly perspicacious, current, fierce without being dogmatic.” To my shame, I thought Sylvia was being precious. She was not.

Her reservation about them stemmed from her fundamental commitment as a journalist. It took me a long time to understand just how central journalism and being a journalist was to Sylvia. (She told me often enough before I finally started to grasp what she meant.) For Sylvia was a proud journalist. Journalism was her vocation and identity as a writer. Journalism made her. It shaped her choice of outlets for her film writing. It shaped her cultural politics. Her film reviewing was a contribution to Australian journalism and therefore Australian public culture. She wrote film reviews as part of larger publications, larger publishing mastheads, and her reviews were in conversation with the other writing they published.

She always saw herself as a part of the larger work of these enterprises. She felt that any “lifting out” of her reviews would compromise what they had meant for those who read them as part of her friend Tina Kaufman’s Filmnews or her friend Peter Browne’s Australian Society and later Inside Story. Like all journalists, she had a presentist orientation — this despite her literary historical training and historical predilections — that made it hard, and even embarrassing, for her to see that earlier film writing republished. She was always on to the next story, the next issue to be addressed and the next film-maker to champion.

She did, of course, write substantial scholarly books. She also wrote books of cultural criticism. But even here she saw herself as a public intellectual — and an independent intellectual. The conjunction of circumstances requiring a film book to be written had never presented itself until The Back of Beyond in 2013. She also saw her work and its interventions as journalistic in the most fundamental and best sense. The remarkable The Archibald Paradox, her 1987 book about J.F. Archibald’s Bulletin, reclaimed that newspaper from literature positioning it at the centre of Australian public life as journalism. It not only stressed how the experience of reading the newspaper was akin to a cinematic experience, but it also brought to the scholarship on the Bulletin a consideration of its journalism.

I’d like to think her experience of working closely with Tom Fitzgerald and George Munster on Nation gave her that close sense of the editorial function and its important creative dimension. (Fitzgerald, by then a senior journalist in his own right, was a kind of mentor to Sylvia; when she started writing film reviews for Nation he gave Sylvia his run of editions of The Penguin Film Review from the late 1940s.) This experience gave Sylvia a sense of how journalism and informed public commentary could intervene in public life and the events of the day. That sense never left her, and it governed her subsequent involvements. This is likely why Sylvia Lawson was so predisposed to furthering the agenda of the Sydney-based paper Filmnews, set by Tina Kaufman over the 1970s and 1980s, and of Australian Society and Inside Story in the 1980 and early 90s and 2000s.

Sylvia’s 2002 book How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia was another of her interventions in public life. It was written out of her anger that Australian newspapers had published syndicated obituaries of de Beauvoir instead of seeking an estimation of just what she and her books meant to Australian women. This was about the importance — an importance she demonstrated again and again in her film reviews — of having an Australian translation, an Australian invention of the book, and an Australian view. And it was about demanding due recognition of Australian feminism in public life. Even when Sylvia was writing about feminism as an international movement and the importance of de Beauvoir in it — the major title essay was later translated into French — there was the trace of the film critic, ever concerned with the vital task of responding, appreciating, coming to terms with, working through and reformulating the works of the day. These are precisely the tasks of the film critic.

Then came her last major book in 2012, Demanding the Impossible, a work of cultural criticism stressing the importance of activism and engagement. Part manifesto and part primer for action, this was Sylvia promulgating the need to “keep on going.” In between was her novel, The Outside Story (2003), a response in another medium to the impossibility of telling what she saw as truth about Jørn Utzon and the Sydney Opera House. It seemed that Sylvia got the Opera House story right: we can see it in that lovely structure with the appalling cookie-cutter apartments right next to it, miming the compromises of what happened inside the Opera House. Sylvia saw the Opera House story as a quintessential Australian story — a great idea, a great location, ruined.

While Sylvia didn’t write a substantial film book, she commissioned a good few of them. Her series for Currency Press set up Australian film scholarship: there was John Tulloch’s (1981) Legends on the Screen — still our most authoritative record of Australian cinema in the silent period; Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka’s (1987, 1988) two-volume study of the Australian film revival from the late 1960s to the early 1980s; Ina Bertrand and Diane Collins’s Government and Film in Australia (1981); and Albert Moran’s and my (1985) An Australian Film Reader. These books established a market for Australian writing on Australian cinema. Other publishers and books followed. Sylvia’s commissioning and advocacy set up the first generation of Australian film scholarship. I often tell people that I have known two gifted, and I mean really gifted, editors in my life — and one of them was Sylvia Lawson. She could take an ordinary piece of prose and turn it around into something else.

And she was also a teacher. With David Malouf and John Flaus, she developed a film course at Sydney University in the early 1970s. She then went to Brisbane in 1976, where she worked with Colin Crisp (whose books on French cinema are landmarks of film historiography), Albert Moran and Mick Counihan to establish the society and media major in Griffith University’s innovative humanities degree program. It was there that I was taught by her. She later contributed in no small measure to my PhD on Australian film. She encouraged me to write for Filmnews; she suffered my imperfect readings of her writings; she mentored me with a light touch as she did so many others. Sometime later, when a PhD student of mine thanked me for going out of my way for her, I told the student she should thank Sylvia instead, because my doing this was the only way I could demonstrate my appreciation for Sylvia’s consideration. When I told Sylvia about this conversation, it was the only time in our long friendship that I saw tears well up in her eyes.

Sylvia was a campaigning journalist. In that role she demanded and secured the impossible: her untiring advocacy over the 1960s for an Australian cinema created the conditions for prime minister John Gorton and the Australian Council for the Arts to invest in an Australian cinema. A committee was formed and a report was commissioned. Barry Jones and Phillip Adams are often credited as the originators of Australian governmental interest in film, and that would seem to be so if you were to follow the line of policy reports. But each of those involved (Jones, Adams, Peter Coleman and Ian Jones) were reading and, yes, getting the rehearsal of their ideas from Sylvia. In Nation continuously over a decade, in two high-profile articles for Quadrant and in various public forums and festivals (yes, she was at one stage the director of the Sydney Film Festival), she advanced the case for an Australian cinema. This activity laid the groundwork, creating the conditions under which governmental support could be made to seem natural.

That is the sort of career that any campaigning journalist would like to have. Sylvia told me a number of times over the years that she had wanted to be a foreign correspondent. But that career in journalism was not open to her as a woman when she worked in newspapers in the mid 1950s. I would like to think she did the next best thing. She became a literary journalist and film reviewer. This gave her the licence to cover the lot: the international, the national, the public and the domestic. The last film I really talked about to Sylvia in depth was Robert Connolly’s 2009 film Balibo. She reckoned it an Australian masterpiece. But it was also about an inconvenient truth. It was about fellow journalists being killed and Australian governments being complicit in the cover-up. Sylvia got her foreign correspondent gig in the end — as a film critic.

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First scalp: crowds outside Icelands parliament on 4 April 2016 demanding prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s resignation over evidence in the Panama Papers that he concealed investments in an offshore company. Johann Hansen/Zululand/AAP Image

First scalp: crowds outside Icelands parliament on 4 April 2016 demanding prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s resignation over evidence in the Panama Papers that he concealed investments in an offshore company. Johann Hansen/Zululand/AAP Image