Just as every football fan knows how their team should be coached, every Melbourne film buff has ideas about what should be screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. My wish list includes a large-scale retrospective on silent French pioneer Louis Feuillade, one on the late-1960s Underground movement in Brazilian cinema, and one on Jerry Lewis as director and star.
It's easy and fun to dream such dreams, harder to bring them to life, more than ever in a digital age when good quality film prints – still the format of choice – are increasingly hard to come by. The real question is how ACMI ranks alongside similar institutions such as the Australian Cinematheque at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art, which regularly tackles major filmmakers (Hitchcock, Warhol) and artistic movements (surrealism, the French New Wave) in a comprehensive, even scholarly way.
The comparison might seem unfair, given that the Australian Cinematheque is comfortably housed within Queensland's flagship art gallery, whereas ACMI has to stand on its own two feet. Still, an institution that bills itself as “world class” ought to be judged by the highest standards – and it has to be said that ACMI has rarely if ever mounted programs as ambitious and adventurous as those of its Brisbane cousin.
Too often the ACMI curators play it safe, over-emphasising quirky yet familiar brands of modern American cinema from Sofia Coppola to Tim Burton. There's also a tendency to organise programs around broad, nebulous themes. What do The Wizard of Oz, The Grapes of Wrath and The Shining have in common? It turns out they're all part of an upcoming season exploring “representations of 'home' and community,” subjects touched upon in perhaps half the movies ever made.
This is not to deny that without ACMI local film culture would be infinitely poorer. Last year's comprehensive Bernardo Bertolucci retrospective, for example, was an event worth celebrating. Another recent highlight was the focus on the Bollywood star Raj Kapoor – which introduced me to a masterpiece I had never heard of, the allegorical slapstick nightmare Stay Awake (1956). Ongoing programs such as Kids Flicks and Australian Perspective revive interesting films on a regular basis. Then there are the invaluable Wednesday night double bills presented by the Melbourne Cinematheque, which range freely and knowledgably over the whole history of cinema.