SUPER 8: THE LAST PICTURE SHOW

This entry was posted on August 17th, 2015
family_life

Family Life, the first roll of Super 8 film shot by Bill Mousoulis, in 1982.

by Bill Mousoulis*

Super 8 was the 16mm of my generation.  By 1982, 16mm independent film production was starting to become industrialized.  Its peak worldwide was in the early-to-mid 1970s, as the counter-cultural film movement had a thriving co-op scene, where thousands of 16mm short (and feature) films would be cheaply made and easily distributed, lapped up by people worldwide in universities, cinemas and many “free” spaces (events, parties, etc.).  It had started in the 1960s with the New American Cinema (and before that, with Maya Deren and others), and quickly spread through the whole world, including Australia, where the avant-garde scene was particularly strong.  As everyone knows, the period 1965-1975 was an intense and exciting period to be alive in, culturally, socially and politically, and the films of the time reflect this.

By the early 1980s, however, things were changing.  The economies of many countries were stabilizing and expanding, and the 16mm format shifted up in this context, become appropriated by industrial areas (TV companies, funded short films).  Out of the independent sphere and into the semi-professional and semi-commercial sphere, 16mm productions were now being funded at mainstream levels and the film production facilities (lending houses and film laboratories) exploded their prices.  From to 1980 to 1990 roughly, 16mm became a cheap alternative to 35mm, but, from the point of view of the indie filmmaker, 16mm was now out of the “no budget” price range.  So, before digital cinema established itself in the mid 1990s, with its cheap equipment, Super 8 stepped into this breach.  The mid ‘90s, of course, is cinema’s great “turning point” moment, a turning point of some 15 years perhaps, but a turning point nonetheless, when cinema switched from film to digital.  Now, in 2015, despite some alternative movements here and there, film is pretty much obsolete.

But picture a young filmmaker (me, at 19) in 1982.  A stirring within me makes me want to create films.  I knew of the existence of analogue video, but I was not attracted to its electronic patina.  I also knew of the existence of 35mm (looking at Godard’s films of the time, I couldn’t believe my eyes), but that was beyond my reach.  And, the clincher, 16mm – yes, that legendary film format of Anger and Cassavetes – was also beyond my reach, as it was clearly controlled by the new “authorities” of film schools and government funding agencies.  In 1982, you all of a sudden needed money to shoot on 16mm, unlike 10 years earlier.

But I then realized that Super 8 existed.  Not through any indie film scene I was part of, or through any school filmmaking or anything like that – I simply stumbled upon a book on Super 8 at my local library.  Quickly, I graduated from loner to auto-didact, buying a cheap camera and projector and editing equipment.  When I made my first Super 8 short films in October and November of 1982, I had not seen anyone else’s Super 8 films, I knew no other filmmakers, I was undergoing … my own personal little film revolution, realizing that that weapon/tool in my hands would be with me for years.

dreams never end

Dreams Never End, a 1983 Super 8 short film by Bill Mousoulis.

Of course, it didn’t take long for me to see some other Super 8 films, to meet some other Super 8 filmmakers.  In March 1983 I saw my first program of Super 8 films at an alternative arts festival, and ironically it was a “farewell” screening of a certain Australian Super 8 scene, started in the late 1970s by Philip Brophy and others.  Unlike the New York No Wave punk Super 8 cinema of Richard Kern and others in the late ‘70s, the Australian scene in the late ‘70s was intellectual, quirky and quasi-art-installation style, with works by Rolando Caputo, David Chesworth, Paul Fletcher, Adrian Martin and others rapturously referencing other artworks yet still having fun themselves.  It was a Melbourne scene actually, and it clearly ended in 1983, roughly the year the Sydney Super 8 scene broke loose and took over the Melbourne scene’s “post-modern” mantle, numerous ironic and intellectual works being produced by Mark Titmarsh, Michael Hutak, Catherine Lowing and others through the 1980s.

But whilst one scene died in Melbourne in 1983, another one was being born, and I was there to witness it.  Over the next two years, culminating in the formation of the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group in 1985, many of Melbourne’s major Super 8 filmmakers started their work:  Nick Ostrovskis, Chris Windmill, Marie Craven, Matthew Rees.  This Melbourne Super 8 scene veritably exploded by 1986, when the first Super 8 Festival was held.  Through the ‘80s, and into the ‘90s actually (but with diminishing returns), many Super 8 screenings were held constantly at arts and film events, including at the international film festivals in Australia, magazines were published, VHS compilations were made, etc.

Unlike the earlier Melbourne Super 8 scene, and the concurrent Sydney one, the Melbourne Super 8 scene of 1983-1995 was not an easily defined one.  It wasn’t “intellectual” or “post-modern” or like the home movie clubs that still flourished at the time.  It was polymorphous, open, free – no one film style dominated.  Narrative rubbed shoulders with experiment, and documentary was there too (especially poetic auto-portraits), as well as exploitation aesthetics and even post-modern pastiches.  In this sense, the Melbourne scene was actually like a capsule of all independent cinema that had preceded it, but its own cheap, raw, much free-er, version.  And now, looking at it, it was clearly Australia’s “last picture show” – the last time film as film flourished in Australia.  As the ‘80s went on, the scene grew stronger, other filmmakers like Steven Ball, pete Spence, Mark La Rosa, Richard Tuohy, Moira Joseph, pushing it further and further along.  Finally, in the late ‘90s, the films started dwindling down, though some filmmakers like Tony Woods just kept going and going.  Can you believe that the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group was still active in the 21st century?  Yes, it kept going till 2001, and then kept having screenings (under the name Moving Image Coalition) until 2004.  That’s a 20 year push, which is impressive for any independent arts group (looking at the history of such groups).

Bill Mousoulis in 1988 with a Super 8 camera.

Bill Mousoulis in 1988 with a Super 8 camera.

And, it shouldn’t be the case, but it is – this Super 8 cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s is the best cinema that Australia has produced, along with the classical avant-garde works in 16mm of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, Paul Winkler, Dirk de Bruyn, and the more narrative and essayistic work of Michael Lee, Peter Tammer, Albie Thoms, and Anna Kannava.  All this work beats the more mainstream feature films in Australia hands down.  There may have been the occasional outstanding film from Richard Lowenstein or Rowan Woods or Peter Weir or Stephen Wallace, but otherwise Australian mainstream features have been sub-standard when compared to other world cinemas.

Sadly, this Australian Super 8 work may, for the main part, remain an underground and legendary phenomenon, as most of the films have not been properly archived let alone restored.  Only perhaps 20% of the work is available to be viewed easily on DVD (or on the internet).  Australian film culture should try to save this work, before it’s too late.  The work is burned in my mind, but, it would also be good if it were available for people to view on their screens.

* Bill Mousoulis is an Australian independent filmmaker mainly based in Greece.  Since 1982 he has made over 100 films, including 9 features.  Between 1982 and 2003 he made 72 short films and 2 feature films on Super 8, and in 1985 he founded the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group.