Albie Thoms (1948-2012)

Marinetti (1969)

The emergence of the Australian film underground in the 1960s is clearly associated with the central figure of Albie Thoms. The success of Ubu Films and the legacy of experimental filmmaking in Australia in the 1960s can be attributed to the significant presence of Thoms, who relentlessly proselytised for avant-garde filmmaking and personally engineered the development of a synergic support network for production, distribution and exhibition of films outside the industrial aegis. Thoms’ advocacy for greater recognition and support of avant-garde filmmaking was shot through with a form of cultural nationalism that regarded positively the idea of State sponsorship of art. The Australian national ‘other’ cinema was a site of both passion and practice for Thoms and his Ubu comrades.

Thoms’ nationalism bolstered his modernist praxis in arguments for the development of funding regimes for experiments in film in the pre-institutional, pre-revival period. Through the pages of Ubunews, in other essays and in talks with screenings programs, Thoms championed reform and generative support for the arts in Australia. The highly visible campaigning for experimental film by Thoms and Ubu was a causal factor in the political developments that led to the formation by the Australia Council for the Arts of the Experimental Film and Television Fund in 1970. However, considering this agitation, two paradoxes emerge. The first is that post-revival funding, when it did eventuate, was problematic and often out of reach for filmmakers like Thoms. The new institutional support for exploration of the film medium was bound up in subjection to commercial application – the common conceptualisation of experimental film as a laboratory for industry, rather than a legitimate, autonomous aesthetic endeavour. Thus the autotelic aspirations of many ‘filmers’ nurtured in the Ubu aesthetic hothouse were stymied, according to Thoms and others, by bureaucratic coercion for a viable commercial national cinema. Consequently, much of the creative potential flagged in the Ubu period never materialised into the kind of explosive experimental revolution betokened in the fertile climate of the 1960s. The second paradox in Ubu’s role in the development of bureaucratic structures is that Ubu operated as a literal ‘advance guard’ for an Australian film culture by managing a demonstrably effective, autonomous, alternative system of production, distribution and exhibition, at a time when the exiguous, subordinate state of industrial production precluded such a system.

Deeply imbricated in the key arenas of organisation-building, filmmaking, and public discourse, Thoms recognised the role of celebrity in a media-dominated age, acting as a lightning rod and figurehead for the juncture of radical aesthetics and politics. As the prime activist and spokesperson for Ubu Films, then for the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op; as a demiurge in Australian film culture; and as an architect of the underground, Thoms’ reflections on his role in the unique historical moment of experimental cinema in the 1960s are valuable to the inquiry into Australian cinema histories. -- Senses of Cinema