Direct Action on Things: Harry Hooton and Artist Film in Australia

| Giles Fielke
 + Arthur Cantrill and Andrew Pike in a projection booth at the Australian National University on the 20th of May, 1969  This photo was taken just after Arthur Cantrill took up an ANU Creative Arts Fellowship in filmmaking. Australian National University, Canberra. ANUA 226-729-3.

Direct Action on Things: Harry Hooton and Artist Film in Australia

Direct Action On Things: Harry Hooton And Artist Film In Australia | Giles Fielke

Let your soul stay cool and composed before a million universes.

A line from 1855, first published by Walt Whitman in the poem ‘Song of Myself’, appears again at the beginning of a film produced during a Creative Arts Fellowship at the Australian National University in 1969.1 Out of the nineteenth century transcendentalism of New England, the film’s subject emerges as “Anarcho-Technocracy”, specifically as it was theorised and transmitted by expatriate poet Harry Hooton (1908-1961). Hooton had died in middle age in Sydney, celebrated as the “poet of the 21st century” by his friends and devotees. In this way, the trans-mediation of his poetry and philosophy onto film seemed strangely appropriate for his ambitious idealism: Leave man alone, man is perfect. Concentrate instead on matter.

In post-War Australia, Hooton’s vehicle to this future was titled 21st Century: The Magazine of a Creative Civilisation. It was first reviewed in December 1955 in the following way:

While there is much that may be pure 19th Century about most of Australia's literary magazines (in, say, the ‘liberalism’ of ‘Meanjin’, the stuffiness of ‘Southerly’, the rough-neck-ism of the ‘Bulletin’, and the inverted Henry Lawson unionism of ‘Overland’), ‘21st Century’ in this, its first September issue, is at least 20th Century.(Fleming) 

But only two issues of 21st Century would appear (the second in 1957). Following Hooton’s death, yet unbeknownst to them at the time, two of Hooton’s 21st Century collaborators would separately go on to have a significant impact on filmmaking in Australia: Corinne Joseph and Margaret Elliott. Joseph was in charge of the distribution of the inaugural September 1955 issue, Elliott the designer (along with Brian Ford). In 1969 it was Corinne Cantrill (née Joseph) who would make Harry Hooton with Arthur Cantrill, while living in Canberra, after having returned from a four year stint in London. The Hooton film was intended to be a realisation of the poet’s materialist polemics: using direct film techniques, monochromatic light and hand processing, more than simply a biographical homage to the poet or a retelling of his life, it was an application of his thinking to the medium of film. 

In Harry Hooton, matter is the issue, the film-strip precedes the projection of light and the amplification of sound in the expanded field of the cinema as an audio-visual environment.2 Alongside the images, Arthur Cantrill composed a series of musique concrète using reel-to-reel tape processing—on a Revox A77—whereby they understood the recording of sound as an instrument in itself. Their Nagra and Ferrograph machines allowed for feedback to mix into the synthesised sound.3 Interspersed throughout the heavily abstracted and post-processed montage which organises the film, are audio clips of Hooton speaking as if from beyond the common grave in which he was interred; he had recorded 510 minutes of his poetry and philosophy to tape from his death bed, now available as digital audio through the National Library of Australia. The film, made 50 years ago, has since faded into historical obscurity. However, like the figure whose influence reached far beyond the poets and polemicists of Australia’s east coast (as Sasha Soldatow set out in the editorial introduction to Hooton’s Collected Poems in 1990), the Cantrills’ films have made a significant impact on a form of cinema variously known as ‘avant-garde’ or ‘experimental’ not only locally, but around the world, as recent retrospective screening programs of their work in Spain and Germany attest.

Artist-film and its relation to poetry is a principle concern of their early work, But the links existing between the practice and production of the two in Australia during the 20th century have not yet been established (see Laird). This may be because the Cantrills prefer ‘particular screenings’ of the hundreds of films they produced over five decades, and they have tightly controlled their distribution. Yet Harry Hooton remains important in that it represents a way into their fiercely independent work. It was screened in public as recently as June 2019 at the Arsenal in Berlin (see Stein). Furthermore, other than for the occasional presentations of the film, there is very little literature examining Hooton’s concerns for the 21st century, his poetry and philosophy of “Anarcho-technocracy”.


In 1986, on the occasion of the fiftieth issue of their journal, Cantrills Filmnotes, Arthur and Corinne Cantrill returned to Hooton, placing stills from their feature-length work on the front and back cover of the issue. The decision was self-referential: in the same year as they’d made Harry Hooton, they’d published a ‘Cinema Manifesto’ in the first issue of what would become a 30 year publishing project, by quoting Hooton there too: ‘LOVE MATTER TO DEATH, LET IT FEEL YOUR BREATH’ (Arthur Cantrill, ‘Cinema Manifesto’, 3). In 1970, the Hooton film had premiered at the Canberra Film Society, screening in the Copland Lecture Theatre at ANU on the 2nd of September. This was five years after their first ‘overview screening’ by the Brisbane Cinema Group, run by Stathe Black, which occurred before they had headed to London to work in film and television.4 The Cantrills’ first films appeared in 1963, cautiously navigating the conventional documentary and pedagogical forms (one early film, Mud, was shot in New Zealand at Rotorua’s thermal springs).5 In 1969 they had returned to Australia, resolved as to what they needed to do, the first issue of the Filmnotes appeared in March 1971, not long after the Hooton film’s premiere. In it they declared: ‘We want to make films which defy analysis, which present a surface so clean, so hard, that it defies the dissector’s blade’ (Arthur Cantrill, ‘Cinema Manifesto’, 3). Fifteen year later, inside Issue 50 of the Filmmnotes, the Editors’ Comment reprinted the first lines of Hooton’s ‘Poetry’:

There are no rules for poetry

Necessity makes, and breaks all rules. (Hooton, ‘Poetry’, Poet of the 21st Century, 101).

Their aim for film was the reconciliation of form and content, and the enduring influence of Hooton’s unique mixing of poetry with philosophy presented itself as a significant and local model for how to do this. Furthermore, they’d both seemed to coalesce around and figure out how to articulate the energies emanating from the unique conditions that had produced the amorphous scene known as the Push in post-War Sydney.

During the Second World War, Hooton had come to believe artists were the truly anarchic figures who could thus be the ‘technicians’ required for the benevolent administration of things in the industrialised dictatorship to come. At the same time, a teenager Corinne Joseph had taken the chance provided by the wartime economy to study botany as an unmatriculated student at Sydney University. Australian cinema during the war years was dominated by the films of Charles and Elsa Chauvel, and the adventure documentaries of Frank Hurley. Yet, as Danni Zuvela has shown, there are also a number of early films made in Australia that ‘illuminate the conditions leading into the development of organised systems of experimental production, distribution and exhibition’ of film here, leading to the moment in the 1960s when experimentalism would take flight.(2)

Arriving in Sydney in 1948, the Czech artist Dusan Marek began to produce short films in the early 1950s, which were directly influenced by European Surrealism, in turn an aesthetic response to the totalitarianism from which Marek had fled.(7) Corinne had travelled in Europe after the war—at one point working with the International Youth Brigade on the Dobuj-Banja Railway in Yugoslavia—before returning to Sydney and eventually working in childrens creative leisure centres (Pinguim). Meanwhile, Arthur Cantrill had met Hooton through his work in the same programs in Sydney in the late 1950s. By that stage Corinne had already been associated with Hooton through his publishing projects, and when, in 1959, she and Arthur were both moved to Brisbane to work with disadvantaged children during school holiday programs, they moved in together and turned to collaborating on filmmaking, which followed from the theatrical activities they had devised for children (Arthur had for some time worked in puppetry).

The other figures listed alongside Hooton in the first issue of the Cantrill’s Filmnotes (later it became simply Cantrills Filmnotes) are more recognisable as the artist-film luminaries that one would expect as reference points for such a journal. Fellow expatriate from the South Pacific, Len Lye, is there. The Cantrills had encountered Lye in Europe in the 1960s, and the link foreshadows their concern for the growing idea ‘pan-pacific’ artists in the global imaginary. Other canonical touch-points include Marcel Duchamp, whose Anémic Cinéma (1926) appeared on the cover of the first issue of Filmnotes, beside images from the even earlier artist-film Perfido Incanto (1917), directed by Anton Giulio Bragaglia. Bragaglia was associated with the Italian Futurists, and the manifesto of 1916, La Cinematografia Futurista, was translated at ANU and included by the Cantrills as the final text of the first issue of their journal.6 It therefore remains a quirk of this moment that the man they celebrate as one of their ‘mentors’ has since that time all but succumbed to the vicissitudes of a minor history. Hooton, as well as contemporary poets like Jas H. Duke, Garrie Hutchinson, and Charles Buckmaster would come to provide the Cantrills with direct links to the performance of poetry in post-war Australia, even as they continued to explore new media, particularly on film and video. Most significant for this development, it seems, were the events held at The Maze, a countercultural venue for artists, for selling crafts, books, and even food in Flinders Street, Melbourne.

‘Cinemapoetry’ appears in Issues 1 and 2 of the Filmnotes, initially described as: ‘films by Arthur & Corinne Cantrill with live accompaniment of poems, improvisations, oracular oratory and low grunts by Garrie Hutchinson’.(6) Taking place on the 18th of April 1971, almost exactly a decade after Hooton’s death, the performances were a part of the 18-week season titled ‘Living Cinema’, which the Cantrills were running on the quieter Sunday night-time slot on the The Maze’s otherwise lively calendar of music and performance events.7 In the second issue of the Filmnotes, a 21-year-old Hutchinson, who would go on to become a celebrated poet, editor and oral historian of ANZAC soldiers writings during war-time, can be seen mid-performance in a photograph taken by Fred Harden. The second issue dedicates further space to remembering Hooton and after introducing his work (‘for Hooton, it was vital that men made war on matter, rather than on one another’) the text shifts seamlessly into a detailed, technical description of the Cantrills’ film, Harry Hooton:

The film is applied Hootonics, based on Hooton’s dictum “Art is the communication of emotion to matter” and it explores many techniques, from the highly technological computer image sequence, programmed at the CSIRO Division of Computing Research in Canberra, to the technically simple hand-printed images mentioned above. (Cantrill’s Filmnotes, 2, April 1971, n.p.) 

The text also suggests Hooton was ‘years ahead of his time,’ and makes the now somewhat quaint claim that he was ‘an Australian Buckminster Fuller,’ before referring to the significance of his ultimate work, It Is Great to Be Alive. The collection in which Hooton’s ‘Poetry’ first appeared was published by Margaret Elliott in 1961. Hooton saw the proofs of it on his deathbed.

Elliott is the other figure listed in 21st Century (credited with Design & Layout) who would also loom large for Australian cinema from the 1970s onwards. Hooton and Elliott had lived together at Potts Point throughout the 1950s, after first meeting 1952. When Elliott later married (property developer and restauranteur Leon Fink), she changed her name to Margaret Fink. Under this name she began to produce adaptations for the screen, such as David Williamson’s The Removalists (1975) directed by Tom Jeffrey, and Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1979) directed by Gillian Armstrong.8 By this time, perhaps buoyed by the avant-garde experimentalists who had become a feature of Australia’s expanding arts community, Australian cinema was entering a new phase. Films like Stork (1971), directed by Tim Burstall and with a debut performance by Jackie Weaver, linked Carlton’s La Mama theatre to local, yet ambitious filmmaking productions. Significantly, Hooton and Fink (as Margaret Elliott), had also first come into contact through the Push in Sydney. As a much mythologised bar-scene for philosophers, political and social theorists, Hooton is cast as opposed to other figures of the day, such as the Professor of Philosophy, John Anderson, an enthusiast of James Joyce and Scottish founder of the Libertarian Society, who taught at Sydney University from 1927-1958 (and whose arguments Hooton would call ‘Andersonian Shit’).

Other figures associated with the progressive socialist politics of the Push, like John Flaus, would begin to appear in the independent films emerging from the Sydney arts scene—in films like The American Poet’s Visit (dir. Michael Thornhill, 1969)—and on stage at La Mama in Melbourne. Flaus eventually came to Melbourne and created Film Buffs Forecast, a weekly review of cinema for 3RRR FM radio, which he co-hosted with Paul Harris in Melbourne beginning in 1980. The Cantrills had also emerged between these two “universes”, Sydney and Melbourne, among many more (Brisbane, London, Canberra). Between politics in the Australian pubs and the representation of life in Australia on the stage, their focus was directed towards the materialism of their chosen art, and at the intersection of thought and action that had to remain a possibility for film as a medium of mass communication.


On the 27th of July 1983, a special radio interview programmed by critic Adrian Martin and artistic director Sue McAuley was broadcast on 3RRR FM, and later transcribed by Kris Hemensley for his ‘small press’ journal H/EAR. Discussing the shared commitment to activity which characterised both the Cantrills Filmnotes and the burgeoning literary scene in Melbourne during the 1970s, Hemensley and Corinne Cantrill reveal their motivations behind the work they have been concurrently undertaking in publishing and performance (H/EAR, 5, 501-16). Given the international scope of both figures’ work, there is something which remains distinctly local about the competing forms of modernism that they develop here.

Hemensley in particular raises the notion of what he calls ‘inter-medial art activity’ and the recording and documentation of ‘what’s happened to them over the years—so there’s an archival aspect’ (ibid. 403). He goes on to describe the written texts of filmmaker James Clayden’s feature-length film Corpse (1982) as ‘a kind of automatic, spontaneous writing’ which he had thought to include in H/EAR’s fourth issue, and reflects on how someone 'connected with the local avantgarde' had produced 'a major new Australian film', and in H/EAR they’d thought to celebrate that (Ibid. 403-4). The question of what this impulse was, had been tentatively formulated in 1966 by Fluxus artist and publisher of the Something Else Press, Dick Higgins. For Higgins, intermedia was the way in which the arts could coalesce around an idea or mood that was, by the end of a decade marked by a massive technological and cultural shift, intoxicating. Higgins went so far as to call it an ‘uncharted land’.9 ‘Expanded Arts’ was another term that came to be used to describe the promiscuity of practices helping to produce new horizons for the arts of the 1960s and 70s. But it is this term—intermedia—which pops up again in Hemensley’s discussion with Corinne in 1983. Significantly, Hemensley’s suggestion of a ‘New Australian Poetry’, in 1970 had sought to internationalise the potential of what he saw as the ‘little mags’, even as he left for England (Meanjin, 29, 120). His parting shot: ‘In Australia there is a battle with anti-Anti-Intellectualism before one even arrives at the stage of anti-intellectualism ie the Academy’.(Ibid) The answer, he believed, was in the ‘open communications’ that contemporary technologies were making increasingly possible.(Ibid 121) As Hemensley departed, the Cantrills had just returned from Europe and their thinking about film had very much shifted from the work they had been pursuing when they left. Shared sentiments were apparent, however, with Arthur publishing ‘Towards a New Australian Cinema’ in Westerly, the quarterly published from the University of Western Australia, in 1972. It begins by describing their dismay at the ‘retarded film sensibility’ of Australia in contrast to London, and ends by referring to American architect and system theorist, Buckminster Fuller’s notion of a ‘negentropic system’ as a synonym for lively activity. Again, open communication is determined to be what was needed most for the ‘new’ arts. Coupled with Arthur’s plain-language formulation at the centre of the text, their intentions are clear: ‘Many of us want a radical new society’.(27)

Over the New Year holiday 1967/8 the Cantrills had attended the EXPRMTL 4 Film Festival at the Casino in Knokke, Belgium, which was directed by the revered cinema curator Jacques Ledoux. It was this experience perhaps more than any other that had galvanised their filmmaking, Corinne describing it as a ‘turning point’ in their careers (in “Astronauta Pinguim interview”, 2014). Returning to Canberra the first person they had thought of, rather than just pursuing the newly ‘open communication’ apparently flourishing amongst their contemporaries, was Hooton. While encounters with now canonical figures like Michael Snow, Yoko Ono, and a young Harun Farocki, had shown them the possibilities for art and politics were open, the conditions they found upon their return to Australia were, of course, notably different. Xavier Garcia Bardon has described Ledoux’s singular vision for the festival in the following way:

For Ledoux, avant-garde film couldn’t be placed separately from parallel, formal projects in the other arts: it could only be understood in relation to music, literature, the visual arts, and only at the heart of a network linking all these disciplines.(Bardon)

The last line of text in the first issue of Filmnotes made demands to its attentive readers: ‘Support the Alternative Cinema!’ In this way, the alternative cinema can now be understood to be the ‘network’ linking the formerly academicised disciplines like music, literature, and painting. In a way that precedes their later turn to the environment, intermedia formalises the ecology of the arts as performed and recorded within the habitual spaces of the artists own lives.

What seemed to require a renewal of the Australian arts, detectable in Hemensley’s polemic in Meanjin, were the institutional controls over the dispensation of this cultural life. Unlike Hooton, who detested the liberties afforded by the Joycean language games that were championed by Anderson and his acolytes—perhaps because of the inaccessibility of the old-country idioms—the provincialism of modern Australia’s attempts to aspire to the heights of European aesthetics, despite the obvious geographical and cultural disconnect, had led to a form of anti-modernism which had lingered from its significant “events”. The Ern Malley affair, for example, still only now coming to shift from ‘apocrypha to canon’.(Mead 17) While Hooton’s chap-book Things You See When You Haven't Got a Gun (1943) was positively reviewed by Max Harris in the same issue of Angry Penguins that the Malley poems appeared, it was clear that any alternative idea of Australian literature was butting up against its wholesale importation by the educated elites.

The Malley ploy by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, which also draws in the notorious and future Governor General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, was inspired by A.D. Hope, with whom Hooton, along with Garry Lyle, had issued a set of poems in the preceding year (see Roff). No.1 (July, 1943) includes Hooton’s ‘Geometry for Beginners,’ which reveals something of the tack Hooton had set for himself, eventually setting course for a far different location than many of his contemporaries.

Now for some ambiguity:

Nietzsche. Will to power - over what?

Over machines? By all means.

Over men? As means to an end?

What rot! Means are the ends.

Why return at all to men?

Machines are the end!

And the means to mightier men!

(Hooton, A.D. Hope, Garry Lyle, Harry Hooton , n.p.)

With Garry Lyle and John Cremin, Hooton had organised to edit an anthology of Australian poetry in 1941, coincidentally in the same year as his first collection of poetry was published under the somewhat inscrutable title, These Poets.10 Titled Dawnfire: Selections from some modern Australian Poets, it was this text—alongside his own efforts—that marks Hooton’s first successful foray into publishing poetry in Australia.

Hope would eventually deride Hooton’s shift into a form of philosophical and didactic poetry as cultural criticism, when Power Over Things was published by the Inferno Press in San Francisco, 1955. Writing in Meanjin Hope called Hooton’s work ‘Anarchism with a Science Fiction face-lift’, commenting that even as he looked to universal themes, there was something hopelessly provincial motivating his work.(575) Yet Hope’s attempts to cut Hooton down to size no longer appear so cutting today. A series of Reith lectures on ‘Art and Anarchy’ by Edgar Wind in 1960 have since been republished three times. And recent work in Italian philosophy appears to recall something of Hooton’s “Anarcho-technocracy”, for example when Giorgio Agamben writes on the possibility of thinking beyond the enframing of life under an increasingly authoritarian form of technocratic capitalism:

a clear comprehension of the profound anarchy of the societies in which we live is the only correct way to pose the problem of power and, at the same time, that of true anarchy.(77)

To this imperative could be added the recent interest of poets working on the “alternative” histories of the 20th century, who have found in Hooton a curious figure to re-engage with. Poet Astrid Lorange, for example, has written cautiously of discovering Hooton for Jacket2, and A.J. Carruthers included Hooton in his ‘Lives of the Experimental Poets’ series published in the same journal.

At the turn of the millenium, artist and curator Ruark Lewis had linked Hooton with other poets writing of Sydney’s Kings Cross for the early online journal CrossLines. Lewis makes Hooton the link between poets Anna Couani and Kenneth Slessor. The latter’s poem Five Bells (1939) is a ‘portrait’ of a friend drowned in Sydney Harbour, below the Cross that remains as a ‘nodal point of transits’. The strong sense of the visual symbolism that motivates these poems, though more distant in Hooton’s work, draws us back to the encounter between film and literature which had proceeded the cinemapoetry event in Melbourne in 1971, and furthermore suggests the ‘inter-medial’ relationships cherished by Hemensley and the Cantrills when reflecting upon the period of ‘glorified correspondence’ that informed the early stages of their respective publishing projects.


Philip Mead begins his study of Australian poetry, Networked Language, with a chapter dedicated to the significance of Slessor’s work as a film critic for understanding the modernist poetry he wrote during the interwar years. Mead relies on a term proposed by critic and BBC Radio producer Philip French in the 1990s to make this link. ‘Cinematism,’ according to French, captures the poetic content of cinematic time.(35) Yet the links between the actual cinema and the writers of Australia’s modernist verse, Mead writes in 2008, coalesce around the broader context in which he recounts the complex entanglement of the technologies of moving images operating alongside modernist giants such as Joyce and T.S. Eliot. Imagism in the era of the First World War responded to the mechanical utility of life with the “return of the real” becoming a strange index of the new type of technical humanism that came after it. Subsequently, the idea of cinematic time, or a film age, has continued to be propagated by post-structural theorists such as Mary Ann Doane and Bernard Stiegler, which follows on from the earlier work of European critical theorists relying on Marxist analyses of history, such as where undertaken by Hungarian sociologist and art historian, Arnold Hauser.

In The Social History of Art, Hauser writes that in the ‘intermingling of temporal and spatial forms of the film’, the ‘strands of the texture which form the stuff of modern art converge’ to form a ‘new conception of time’. Given the novelty of this conditioning for history, Hauser claims that ‘differentiating and defining the media’ in which culture is encoded becomes impossible.(226) Unsurprisingly, because of this confusion the cinema became the most representative genre of contemporary art.(227) At the same time it seems Hooton had understood this in a related, yet different way: the treatment of the arts as distinct was no longer possible—this is a persistent theme of his writing—and, because the arts include all workers, it precipitates an anarchist-dictatorship over things, where the ‘engineers must rule’ (21st Century, n.p.). Furthermore, Hooton’s philosophy drew upon a stark distinction between ‘man’—by which I take him to mean ‘people’—and things, which furthermore places him at odds with the dominant trajectory of trans-humanism and a sci-fiction and theory community, represented by writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Donna Haraway, since the 1970s.11 So while the Cantrills focused their attention on ‘light energy’, their interest in the material upon which they worked was informed by their actions upon it, rather than within it.

From the letters Hooton wrote to Corinne Cantrill, now in the State Library of Victoria, their initial contact was based around the shared interest in publishing 21st Century. Cantrill is described as the ‘saleswoman’, while her partner at the time, Jacob Judah, contributed his ‘Episodes In A Life’ to the same issue in which Hooton calls for this ‘dictatorship’. Sculptor Robert Klippel also contributes an essay to the issue titled ‘Direction In Design’, suggestive of the idiosyncratic response to technical domination pursued by Hooton and his confrères. ‘The most important thing for us is still, as always, self theoretical clarification,’ Hooton writes to Corinne, concerning the second issue of the journal, on August 1, 1957. ‘I know we mustn’t assume our superiority as an elite for all time, but we must recognise there is universal value in our work, and keep it pure – no matter what the opposition thinks it thinks.’ What the young Corinne Joseph thought of Hooton’s ideas—she recounts growing up as a Jewish girl both during wartime and white Australia in her autobiographical film In This Life’s Body (1984)—we can only imagine was both terrifying and galvanising.12 Clearly Hooton was concerned with the material world of things, which he saw a separate from the human, but his diction resonates with language that can only be read as tending towards fascism, irregardless of its parodic re-deployment towards ‘things’, rather than its more sinister applications towards the Other.

In Issue 5 of Cantrills Filmnotes a section dedicated to ‘our grandfathers’ (‘as Garrie Hutchinson called them’) begins with a quote by László Maholy-Nagy: ‘Inability to use a camera will in the future undoubtedly be regarded as analogous in point of illiteracy as inability in the use of the pen…’ (n.p.) Hooton’s modernism, in spite of its apparent simplicity, was of a type perhaps closer to the German writer and anarchic soldier, Ernst Jünger, a paradoxically anti-humanist theorist of ‘the worker’ as envisioned following his experience of the trenches in the First World War (see: Jünger). The ‘Melbourne Vortex’ of interest in Ezra Pound, while the poet was interred at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, suggests another line of enquiry (Philrose, 179). After Slessor’s endorsement of the Chauvels’ attempt at telling the colonial history of Australia, with Heritage (Expeditionary Films, 1935), what happens to what Mead terms ut cinema poesis in the newly self-conscious country (no-longer Britain), and once filmmakers begin to own the means of production for this new medium, is truly anarchic. That Slessor’s Five Bells is read as cinematic poetry by Mead, however, says more about the difficulty of writing poetry in the age of cinema than it does about filmmaking.

Hooton was born in Doncaster, Yorkshire, and arrived in Sydney on the 28th of October 1924. His first writings were published in 1936, the year after the first full-colour film was released in Australia, Becky Sharp (RKO Radio 1935) directed by Rouben Mamoulian.(Mead 64) In a 1943 essay titled ‘Problems are Flowers and Fade’, Hooton defines art as a vanguard pursuit linked by poetry to enquiry, as ‘searching for what is new,’ and philosophy as ‘searching for what is true’.(25) The simplicity of Hooton’s bare constructions are often disarming: ‘Humanity is no longer worthy of our enquiry or representation’.(Ibid) It is a refreshing take, to revisit a poet who believed in being, rather than becoming. Contemporary poetry today still speaks of learning to speak, of language emerging. Ariana Reines writes of the quest for a 21st century epic verse: ‘we have not yet learned how to use language’ (interview with Eric Newman and Katie Wolf). Potentiality has been a key strategy for contemporary thought. Reines uses the poem as a vehicle to point to an ambiguous and partial temporality, ‘of watching one / Another break down’.(Book of Sand, 7) In 1958 Hooton had claimed: ‘Language is not eternal. It will be replaced. We are not going to talk forever’. (Hooton, Full Cry 5 n.p.)

In an interview from 2014 Corinne describes the Filmnotes as, among other things, ‘focusing on work from the Pan-Pacific region’. In the 1970s their encounter with the arts-collective Bush Video, and multi-media artist Joseph el Khourey, as well as their turn to pre-colonial and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures through the anthropology of Baldwin Spencer, meant a turn away from the doctrinaire avant-gardism of their earlier work. Spencer’s films from 1900/1901 provided an archival model for making work that was no longer about novelty. El Khourey had suggested these films to them, and their enconter with idiosyncratic cultural historians like Harry Smith during their time in the US (between 1973-75) had alerted them to the broader context in which their work was situated. Andrew Pike, whom Arthur Cantrill had first worked with at ANU in 1969, described the work of Japanese artist Terayama Shuji as an example of the ‘intermedial creative practice’ in the context of a ‘Pacific community of poetry’ made explicit for the Cantrills in the mid-1970s (Pike cited in ‘Little History,’ 413-4). Things began to shift away from Hooton’s hard-lined vision of the future, to less concrete visions of cultural practice.

Yet the Cantrills Filmnotes remains a prime example of how the ‘networked language’ culture of Australian artists’ turn to self-mythologisation was a direct result of modernism. As filmmaker and writer Dirk de Bruyn writes, in 2010:

Cantrills Filmnotes covered activity from the artist’s perspective, on an artisanal cinema, on video, experimental film, digital art, sound design, installation, innovative documentary and ethnographic film – work with a non-industry, independent emphasis. It included writings and interviews from England, Netherlands, Austria, United States, France, Indonesia, Philippines, Canada, and New Zealand. This overseas content mapped the international opportunities that opened up through screenings, conferences, and other events that were outlets and exposure for their impressive catalogue of films. Where magazines over the same period like Cinema Papers, Filmnews, and Filmviews serviced independent cinema in relation to the emerging national mainstream cinema, Cantrills Filmnotes spoke in the most independent register. It was a family business run from their home in preference to the academy.(20-7)

Importantly, over its 30 years the journal carried no advertising—but for its own endeavours—and it therefore remained stoically outside of the art industry economy. Halfway through its life, the Filmnotes abruptly switched to colour (Issue 49/50, April 1986) and, to celebrate, the Cantrills had immediately returned to Hooton. For filmmakers like de Bruyn, emerging within the Cantrills milieu at the time was both a blessing and a curse, as it provided a platform for initial exposure, but maintained a certain provincialised marginalisation within the broader context for the arts in Australia and internationally:

For those looking into this field of arts production from the outside the terms ‘the Cantrills’ and ‘Australian experimental film’ had become essentially interchangeable. (Ibid)

Yet, while de Bruyn criticises the Cantrill’s accumulation of 'cultural capital' throughout their career—indeed they themselves note, in 1973, the Filmnotes' loss of a grant received through the Film & Television Board for the reason that ‘the Notes were a promotion for the Cantrills rather than the Co-operatives & independent filmmakers’. This approaching solipsism has of course always been a problem for the avant-gardes. Yet, as Arthur notes more recently, and as seems to be the explicit desire of many ‘alternative’ artists:

We fall between the art establishment—who has difficulty in recognizing us as artists because even though they’re familiar with video art, they’re somehow suspicious of film art, or at least they don’t make any effort to exhibit it—and the film establishment, who has never taken us very seriously either.(Quoted in Stein)

A review of the Hooton film’s premiere, by Sylvia Lawson in Nation, suggested the work adhered to a principal whereby it had no discernible beginning, middle, and end to the film, and that by extension any shot could appear at anytime in the film. To judge the work, she labelled it ‘anti-cinema’, expecting that this would satisfactorily dispatch the film and any expectations as to its quality as a work of artist-film made in Australia. The Cantrills themselves preferred ‘cinemapoetry’ as the nomination of their work… ‘alternative cinema’ also appeared as another strategy for positioning their approach (Ubu filmmaker Aggy Read had organised the ‘Alternative Film Festival’ in 1971, it is covered in CF Issue 5). In his ‘Little History’ of the Filmnotes, Hemensley also saw in the early issues a willingness to position the work as a part of the ‘expanded arts’ emerging in the US, writing: ‘with Brakhage the poetry/cinema connection is epitomised. Brakhage is the one filmmaker known to poets of the “new anglo-american poetry” situation’. Hemensley goes on to show how Stan Brakhage, the ‘mythopoeic’ filmmaker who’d established his own materialist approach to film in Colorado the late 1950s, was working in dialogue with beat poets like Michael McClure and poetry journals like Caterpiller (H/EAR 5 409). The sense of Australian art in relation to its international context was also beginning to shift from provincialism to a self-reflexive proximity, as filmmaker James Claydon notes:

It’s good in Australia in a sense, that there’s such a feedback from everything that it becomes confused, and it’s a disadvantage and an advantage being so shut off from everyone else: it’s creating a thing in itself, as America has created its own thing, so Australia is. (Cited in Cantrills Filmnotes 6 n.p.).

The Meaning of Life Is Life

Hooton was of his time while the majority of progressive artists and thinkers in Australia lagged far behind.(Soldatow, 23)

In the December 1973 issue of the Filmnotes a letter from another poet appears. Born in Ballarat but recently returned from Europe, Jas H. Duke had been writing and making films in the UK—with people like Jeff Keen in Brighton—in the preceeding years, and now found himself back in Australia. His arrival at the beginning of the Whitlam era further suggests that ‘commercial viability’ remained a bugbear for the project of anarcho-technocracy and the independent arts even as the new Australian cinema set off on its course.

On the 6th of January, 1974, the Cantrills screened their films Bouddi, At Eltham, Island Fuse, Harry Hooton, and extracts from their recently completed second feature-length film, Skin of Your Eye, at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York. Arthur had accepted a position at the University of Oklahoma’s Art School as an Assistant Professor teaching experimental film, beginning the previous September. Issue 20 (December 1974) of the Filmnotes describes in greater detail the film At Eltham: Metaphor on death. In a candid synopsis of the work Corinne reveals how the landscape film, which also features photographer Sue Ford, and artist-filmmaker Paul Winkler, is about leaving Australia, after five years of intense activity promoting the idea of cinemapoetry:

At Eltham was made in the knowledge that we had no alternative but to leave Australia, otherwise we would be destroyed as filmmakers. At the time I referred to the film as “On Closing One’s Eyes On the Native Land” – the play of the fade mechanism having this connotation. The film was also made as an icon of the Australian landscape to contemplate while in exile.(Corinne Cantrill, Cantrills Filmnotes 20 36)

It was also dedicated to the poetry of Charles Buckmaster, a talented ingenue who had committed suicide in 1972. The homage includes images of the pasted up statement seen on the white-washed wall of a house: “THE WOODS ARE WHERE IT’s AT”. Buckmaster’s words precede the film, shot in Parkville on a wall in fellow poet Ken Taylor’s backyard.

Eventually, the Cantrills and their collaborators could find the ways and means to continue to write and publish Cantrills Filmnotes until the year 2000. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth’s 85th Birthday Honours included awards for both Arthur and Corinne, and the citation for both reads:

For service to the visual arts as a documentary and experimental film maker, and to education in the creative arts field, particularly surrealism and avant-garde cinema.13

Corinne Cantrill is two years younger than Queen Elizabeth II, and maintains a commitment to the anarchism that sustained her work, which may be better understood as providing instead a disservice to the academic arts. But it is Hooton, the poet of anarcho-technocrary, who was slightly older—yet remained younger—than both of them, who perhaps should have the last say here: ‘Words are material, perhaps the most important of material things. But they are not everything.’


This essay was first published at Cordite Poetry Review in 2020.

1. The research for this essay was made possible by the Centre of Visual Art (COVA) small grants scheme. The author would like to thank Arthur, Corinne and Ivor Cantrill, Michelle Carey, Angelika Ramlow and the Arsenal in Berlin, and Cordite Scholarly Editor, Brendan Casey.

2. A related “Exhibition of Expanded Cinema” at The Age Gallery, sponsored by the National Gallery of Victoria, was held between the 8th and 27th of February, 1971. As an outcome of the Creative Arts Fellowship at ANU, this series of installations and cinema events should also be seen in relation to the Cantrills’ Harry Hooton. See “Expanded Cinema,” Cantrill’s Filmnotes, 1 (March 1971): 4-5. In part it appears the Filmnotes were issued as ‘expanded’ notes for the exhibition of their work, which included a number of artist and student collaborators, as well as early video works. See Stephen Jones, “Video in the 1970s: The Decade Before the Digital,” Video Void: Australian Video Art. Edited by Matthew Perkins. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014, 36-40.

3. See the liner-notes to Arthur Cantrill, Hootonics, LP (sham074), Shame File Music, 2014. This is a collection of the music the Cantrills used as the soundtrack to Harry Hooton.

4. It is possible that this screening largely consisted in the short educational documentary films for children they had been making for the ABC, including a ten-episode shadow puppet production of Homer’s The Odyssey. See “Interview with Arthur and Corinne Cantrill,” Astronauta Pinguim, 28 February 2014, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Accessed 4 April 2020 from

5. For the Cantrills filmography see, accessed 10 April 2020.

6. ‘La Cinematografia Futurista’ was first published in Milan on 11 September 1916. It begins: ‘As the book is such a primitive form of thought communication it is doomed to disappear with the cathedrals, museums, palaces and the pacifist ideal.’ It was signed by F.T. Marinetti, B. Corra, E. Settimelli, A. Ginna, G. Balla, R. Chiti. Given subsequent events, not limited to the First and Second World Wars, it now seems particularly in poor judgement to reproduce the provocations of Italian Futurism as the touchpoint for the historical avant-garde in 1960s and 70s Australia (especially following the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War). Nevertheless in Sydney at the same time, Ubu filmmaker Albie Thoms’ first feature-length experimental film was titled Marinetti (1969). The two films—Thom’s and the Cantrills’—therefore force the respective subjects of their work into an uneasy equivalence. See Peter Mudie, “Albie Thoms (dissimilis aliqua alia),” Senses of Cinema, 66 (March 2013). Accessed 10 April 2020,

7. An advertisement for the series on the final page of the Filmnotes lists the event as beginning at 8.30pm on Sunday nights at The Maze, 376 Flinders St, near Queen Street. ‘Informal workshop atmosphere, experimental projections, film events, film involvement with poets and musicians. Food, coffee, drinks available. ADMISSION one dollar.’ Cantrill’s Filmnotes, 1 (March, 1971): 12.

8. Hooton had met and began a correspondence with Miles Franklin in 1942. Any link between Hooton, Fink, and the successful film adaption of My Brilliant Career has not been able to be established, however. See Poet of the 21st Century, 1990, 15 n56.

9. Dick Higgins, “Intermedia,” Something Else Newlsetter, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 1966): n.p. Reprinted in Dick Higgins Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press. Edited by Steve Clay and Ken Friedman. Catskill, NY: Siglio Press, 2018, 25-8. The “Intermedia Chart”, published by Higgins in 1995 does includes cinema as a part of the Venn-diagram and within the Fluxus bubble. However film does not appear, even though a number of ‘bubbles’ contain only question marks. See Higgins, Intermedia, 2018, 2.

10. Given the number of studies dedicated to the Ern Malley hoax, it is surprising how little Hooton appears in the histories of Australian poetry, giving his proximity to the affair. His appears once as ‘the anarchist poet’ in Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993), 49. This is all the more odd given the epigraph to Heyward’s book, provided by Harold Stewart, claims ‘All Australians are anarchists at heart’. And despite the attention paid to Stewart’s mentor and Hooton collaborator A.D. Hope, Hooton does not appear at all in Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

11. In a letter to writer Marie Pitt, written in October 1942, Hooton describes a conversation he had with Miles Franklin where he described himself as a feminist, despite her general dismissal of his intellectual project. Hooton cited in Soldatow, Poet of the 21st Century, 1990, 13. This appears in stark contrast to the position of the Futurists, who openly decried feminism in their Manifesto of 1909. See Lucia Re, “Futurism and Feminism.” Annali d’Italianistica, 7, Woman’s Voices in Literature (1989): 253-272.

12. Jon Stratton writes of the ‘ambivalence’ of Jewish identity in Australia during the white Australia policy, which is further confounded by the legitimation crisis of Australia as a settler-colonial nation-state. See Jon Stratton, “The Colour of Jews: Jews, Race and the White Australia Policy,” Journal of Australian Studies, 20 (1996): 51-65. DOI:

13. Corinne Cantrill, Australian Honours Search Facility, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australian Government. Accessed April 5, 2020 from See de Bruyn, “Out of the frying pan,” 2014, 27.


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