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Robinson, Brian Clark (1934–1991)

from Filmnews (Sydney)

Brian Robinson's death of a heart attack at fifty-seven has brought to an abrupt end one of the most notable contributions to the Australian film scene of the last few decades. He was best known as the initiator (together with John Bird, Jim Harris and a couple of others) of the Swinburne Film and Television Department in Hawthorn, where for more than twenty-five years students have been signing on to attempt this most appealing yet daunting of careers.

Brian was there at the beginning in 1965, persuading the college council, mostly chemists and engineers, that here lay the future. Eventually, part of the Graphic Art School became Film and Television with Brian at the helm. An Arri BL and a Nagra 3 were ordered, a secondhand Bolex for backup, some winders and splicers plus a batch of Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Message for the bookroom. This would be a unique opportunity to test McLuhan's dictum that "only the amateur is open-minded enough to discover anything new".

Students enroled always to the capacity of the course. Most of those who graduated and went on to make a career somewhere in the growing local industry look back on their Swinburne days with mixed feelings; nostalgia for the good times and, doubtless, regrets for what might have been.

Until his recent retirement, Brian Robinson, more than anyone else, shaped the destiny of the place. Heading a staff of about ten, with something like seventy students at any one time, he was not only the figurehead, the speechmaker, the committee man who went into battle when the budgets were about to be pruned, but always a very capable administrator. With minimal office staff he kept the place ticking over all those years.

Brian started out as a graphic artist, a boy from the bush with style. He was born in Mildura, and his father was a bank manager up north of the Murray, but obviously neither banking nor growing oranges suited his cosmopolitan temperament, so he headed for art school in the city. After some years in advertising, Brian joined the graphic art staff at Swinburne and then shifted sideways to establish the film and television course.

His various short films (notably A Fine Body of Water and Some Regrets) were both a learning process and revealing of a romantic sensibility at odds with the everyday suburban world. In his films he strove always to reveal old truths in new ways, to harness light and sound, to experiment and amaze. They were financed from his own pocket in those pre-grant days. Jack and Jill a postscript (1969) was more ambitious, an energetic, imaginative narrative, made over some years in collaboration with his lifelong friend and ally Phillip Adams. It was in 16mm black and white, one of several films made at that time which aspired to keep the spirit of the French New Wave alive in faraway Melbourne.

Asked one Saturday afternoon, as he toiled over the school's four plate Steenbeck, why he wasted his weekends making films, Brian explained with his endearing smile and a chuckle "it's my gardening!" Jack and Jill was acclaimed at various festivals, won prizes and even managed a distribution contract in Britain, but the returns were marginal.

From among the many who applied to enrol at Swinburne Brian always favoured those who had started making films already. They had taken the first steps. His was an existentialist point of view. To do is to be. Lovers love, robbers rob, filmmakers make Films. This was to be a film school where you learnt by doing. He travelled around the world in 1970 to learn how the more established film schools were conducting their courses. At UCLA he observed that most who applied were allowed to make a film on Super 8. The best (determined by democratic vote) got into the real course, the rest were steered towards academic studies. This pragmatic approach appealed to Brian, faced with limited budgets and endlessly painful derisions on the process of admissions.

In the early days at Swinburne Brian believed more in the intuitive gesture of the artist. That you can't teach creativity, the student either has talent or doesn't. The technology could be explained, the equipment provided, a group of likeminded individuals brought together and set in motion. But there would never be any guarantees that the eventual films would be wonderful. Quite often they were wonderful, reaching a wider audience at film festivals and on television, their makers going on to bigger and better things in the industry.

With the passing of the years Brian came to rely far less on intuition and more on reasoning and principles, the accumulated logic of other film schools. His scriptwriting classes evolved from bring just friendly chats into a more disciplined application of screen writing methodology. Character, plot structure, dialogue and so on. His greatest satisfaction came when past students managed to get a feature up, to know as he mingled with the glittering opening night crowd that it had all begun years ago at a struggling film school out in the suburbs.

Talking of distant memories, it is the disasters which for some inexplicable reason spring most readily to mind. The triumphs and the catastrophes. Like the time Brian was tackled in his office by an irate meat exporter. Students had been filming at his meatworks over the weekend and turned off the cool room for better sound quality. Now he has $50,000 worth of rump steaks on the turn and what was Brian going to do about it? Or the shoot at a brand new city cinema where the hot lights set off the sprinklers and no one could find out how to turn them off. Replacement of the waterlogged carpets was close to a million dollars.

Then there were the parties. So many many of them over the years. Brian loved a party, particularly in the early days when everyone was young and fundamentally foolish. Wild noisy affairs, often involving dressups, excessive drinking, romantic entanglements and falling in swimming pools. Yes, that's what I'll remember most of Brian —- having a good laugh at a party.

Meantime the courses he started roll on, moving to new premises next year, probably with a new name, but without the presence of Brian Robinson. There will [be] a fresh batch of students starting in February, crowding the passages in search of the timetable, or clutching a new paperback on Ridley Scott, or checking the Trading Post for secondhand lightmeters, wondering whether they shouldn't perhaps have done law like their parents wanted. Or banking?

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Citation details

'Robinson, Brian Clark (1934–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/robinson-brian-clark-29638/text37173, accessed 29 May 2020.

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