Film curators Jennifer Coombes and Tenille Hands report on some recent additions to the NFSA collection.
The Film, Documents and Artefacts curatorial branch preserves documents and objects that tell the story of the actors, artists, directors, costume designers, events and organisations that make up the history of contemporary audiovisual culture. Many of these materials, such as theatre tickets or posters, were originally intended as impermanent, ephemeral documents. They now take us on a rich and captivating visual journey through decades of Australian film history.
When we accept materials into the national collection, we are also accepting the responsibility of care and protection and must be conscious of longevity. It is important to always keep in mind the storage, packaging and staff resourcing needed in order to provide the material with the adequate safety and care.
Antony Waddington, the producer of The Eye of the Storm (2011, Fred Schepisi), recently donated a range of material to the NFSA. We received props ranging from minutely detailed prescription pill bottles, hotel matchboxes and antique mirrors, to a large-scale, hand-crafted commode. All of these pieces contributed to the film’s ability to create authentic characters in a specific time and place.
So how do you make a selection whilst maintaining the original intent and integrity of the set designs, and work of the costume designer and art director?
There are a number of questions curators must consistently ask throughout the selection process. What allows for better interpretation and appreciation of the film and the processes that created it? We were offered almost ten costumes for Judy Davis’ character Dorothy, an immaculately dressed, emotionally distant divorcee. There is a small but revealing scene in the film where Dorothy is dressing in her Chanel twin-set. She sees that her jacket is so threadbare it has a large hole in the front, which she quickly disguises with an elaborate brooch. It is here that we begin to discover that the character is maintaining a facade. While she retains her European title of Princess, she has no money to her name and it alters the audience’s interpretation of her motivation for seeing her dying mother. The twin-set and brooch are the most relevant to the character, plot and the creative input of the designers in shaping the film.
The costumes for Elizabeth Hunter, played by Charlotte Rampling, were important to acquire as she is the main protagonist and narrative heart of the action. A number of reviews of the film commented on how Elizabeth, ‘bewigged, made up and arranged’ in a lilac wig and jewellery, manipulated her children and household staff. In selecting the silk brocaded dresses, the ladies’ wig, gold satin nightdress with lace trim collar and the green canvas and raffia shoes, we are preserving significant material evidence of her character, as well as the colour and texture of the theatrical and sumptuous world created by director Fred Schepisi.
We also had to consider which materials were more stable and whether any items required conservation work. Props like the matchstick boxes, make-up and alcohol-filled bottles were rejected in favour of items that were more relevant and less likely to negatively impact on other materials in storage.
What would be most useful to researchers and teachers, as an inspiration for new creative works or for exhibition? The setting for which we had the most comprehensive selection of material was Mrs Hunter’s bedroom. We chose props, documentation and costumes relevant to this set because of its importance within the film but also for its ability to be recreated through exhibition and research.
What kind of experience do these documents and artefacts create? Seeing them gives us an insight into the act of creation. These artefacts constructed of fabric, paper and glass tell stories, convey narratives and shape how we think about the subject. Part of appreciating Australian film is to understand the people who create it and how their lives and imagination are part of that story. The process of creating The Eye of the Storm complements the experience of watching it and allows the NFSA to tell a fuller, more nuanced history of Australian film.