Keeping the New in Front: Director’s Craft in NEWSFRONT
21 August 2011
In his first feature film, Newsfront (1978), Phillip Noyce demonstrates the stylized camera skills of a seasoned professional. The film tells the saga of Australian newsreel reporter Len Maguire (Bill Hunter) during a critical period of historical change, 1949-1956. Len, an old-fashioned, “normal” (as his brother puts it) man, is a seasoned reporter whose life and career become outdated during vast social, political, and technological advancement. Unable to evolve with this rapidly changing time, Len, rather tragically, becomes obsolete in his own life.
Noyce’s clever treatment of Len’s story brought Newsfront to world cinema’s attention at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. Throughout the film, Noyce includes actual Australian news clips from the late 40s through mid-50s, brining the senses of reality and relevancy into the fictional film. Moreover, Noyce’s cinematography, not only through his inclusion of news clips, is seamless. In fact, Noyce’s camerawork, specifically his transitions from scene to scene and camera movements, are a large part of what make Newsfront remarkable.
Noyce’s transitions between shots are complex because they are, often, enriched by a subtle detail(s). For example, there is a scene that captures people lined up on the sidewalks in front Hart’s (and electrical store) picture window watching the televisions on display. This scene is toward the end of the film and, by this time, the audience is well aware of how this advent of television in Australia will hurt Len. The camera, moving slowly, almost hypnotically—likely, to mirror the hypnotic effect the televisions have on their viewers—, captures the crowd and finally cuts to one of the televisions covering a bushfire. From that shot of the television, Noyce then cuts to Len, who is actually at the bushfire capturing the natural disaster for his newsreel report. This transition is striking because there is a message embedded the cut which supports a central point of the film: television is spreading like bushfire. This message is significant to Len for a few reasons. First, television’s spread, like a bushfire, is unstoppable. Also, much like the bushfire, television’s spread is dangerous, even potentially fatal to Len’s career. This particular transition, like others in Newsfront, is intelligent and identifies Noyce as a nuanced filmmaker.
In a scene that comes almost directly after the bushfire, Noyce, again, demonstrates his intellectual savvy in the way he moves his camera when capturing Len’s resistance to television (and change altogether). Because Len’s newsreel footage of the bushfire could not compete with the television footage, Len’s reels are interjected with stock footage of a bushfire to make them more captivating to viewers. This decision to interject footage, which Len was not a part of, enrages the old-fashioned reporter and he storms into his boss’ office to confront him about it. As the two men stand at either side of a desk arguing about the footage, the camera circles the action, which both exaggerates the argument and brings a primitive quality to it. The camera circles the men the way animals circle each other before an attack. This camera movement is complicated because it is not really Len’s boss he is fighting. Len and his boss are not doing the circling, they are stationary; the camera is what is doing the circling. While the camera’s movement heightens the tension in the men’s heated discussion, the camera also suggests something is circling Len, some greater force that holds the upper hand. That force, in contrast to the primal circling motion, is evolution.
Subtleties such as the scene transitions and camera movement strengthen Newsfront greatly. Noyce, even in this, his first feature film, understands the importance of supporting the storyline with the storytelling, and, in his particular medium of cinema, Noyce clearly pays special attention to small, understated ways to strengthen Newsfront with the devices, like camera movement and cuts, unique to cinema.