New Zealand Film 1912-1996
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards
Oxford University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 019 558336 1
Here are three separate and unrelated personal anecdotes about New Zealand film. Each has a neat and glib “moral” tacked on to it like an Aesop’s Fable. Also like Aesop’s Fables, the “moral” may have a highly questionable and problematical relationship with the preceeding story.
Anecdote No 1: In 1995 I was, like every other reader of the New Zealand Listener, intrigued by the promise of a television documentary about a hitherto unknown pioneer New Zealand film-maker, Colin McKenzie. I sat expectantly in front of the box to watch Peter Jackson’s and Costa Botes’ Forgotten Silver. Within five minutes — about the point where young Colin steals eggs to help make film stock — I realised it was a leg-pull. Within 10 minutes my teenage children, who are reasonably cine-literate, had joined me in rolling about the floor laughing at this whopper. Jackson and Botes had produced the perfect genre piss-take, in the tradition of Rob Reiner’s “mockumentary”, This Is Spinal Tap, or maybe the newsreel sequence from Citizen Kane. The solemn analysis of pioneering film effort, the earnest and pompous on-screen comments by archivist and critic, the de rigueur left-wing politics that had Colin McKenzie eventually killed in the Spanish civil war — it was all there to joy in and laugh at.
So far, so familiar. But the following day, in my capacity as film-reviewer for North and South magazine, I had to ring up a number of film-distributors to enquire about their forthcoming releases. I was still feeling buoyant about Jackson’s and Botes’ practical joke — which the New Zealand Herald had that morning exposed as a hoax, for anybody who still hadn’t cottoned on. So I used my pleasure in the film as a conversational opening gambit. This provoked an awful response. Two of the distributors (remember, people who make their livelihood by looking at and selling films) still didn’t realise that Forgotten Silver was not an authentic documentary and were rather crestfallen to be told so. A third was hopping mad at Jackson and Botes. How dare they perpetrate this deceptive outrage upon the trusting public! This distributor was going to contact Wingnut Films in Wellington and upbraid them for their cheek.
Of course, I could detect in this reaction the irritation of somebody who had been taken in. And, of course, I made it my business to contact Wingnut Films myself and offer my congratulations. Moral: Even in the film business, there are some people who don’t know squat about film.
Anecdote No 2: In the same year, 1995, Sam Neill and Judy Rymer’s Cinema of Unease was shown at our film festivals and later on television. It was made as part of the celebrations for what had somewhat arbitrarily been declared a “century of cinema” (the specific date of the first moving pictures is still in dispute). Neill offered a highly autobiographical account of his response to New Zealand film. Had I been offered the opportunity to give an hour’s screen-time to the topic I would naturally have come up with something radically different from Neill’s take. But I am not a Christ’s College old boy who went into the film business and became an international film-star. I am a humble Auckland hack of no discernible talents. Where Neill remembered, as a kid, watching gung-ho British war movies at boarding school, I remembered, as a kid, watching westerns at the local bug-house. Where he is a partaker-in, I am a looker-on. Still, this did not hamper my enjoyment in what did, after all, announce itself in its subtitle to be A Personal Journey.
By now there have been many attempts to respond to New Zealand film with more videotape or sound — a Kaleidoscope documentary in which I had some input a decade back, Geoff Stevens’ Cowboys of Culture, Jonathan Dennis’ Concert Programme series and so on — all of them skewed on theses of their presenters’ devising. Cinema of Unease was interesting as another perspective, provisional as all such perspectives must be.
But once again the point of the tale is in the reaction. Rarely have I witnessed such venom directed at a New Zealand-related film by our critical establishment. Cinema of Unease was denounced as egotistical, dated and simplistic in its thesis, the work of an outsider now only peripherally connected with New Zealand, etc, etc. I could (without any proof, I admit) interpret some of this as pique by those who wished they were invited to make the centennial film. I could also detect a degree of the “reverse cultural cringe”. Once upon a time, approval by the overseas expert was not only craved but actively solicited. Now we are really grown up, Dad, and the overseas expert (even if formerly one of our own) is greeted with noisy adolescent resentment. A populist celebration of New Zealand film (which was basically Neill’s approach) was not good enough for those who wanted to show the world that they had progressed to a deconstructed, contextualised, post-modern, post-colonial, feminist, aesthetic, bicultural, flapdoodle thingummy.
In the midst of this the “personal” part of the title was rudely overlooked. Okay, so personal views are not sacrosanct and if we didn’t publicly air our disagreements there would be no real debate. Even so, a sense of proportion would have been a great asset in this case, as would some acknowledgement that Neill was as concerned to acquaint the British viewing public with the rudiments of New Zealand film as he was to present a thesis to New Zealanders. Isn’t awareness of genre and intention supposed to be essential to criticism?
Moral: There is an academic establishment in New Zealand film criticism and it is very jealous of any outsider who dares to stray into its fiefdom.
Anecdote No 3: Twelve years ago, while researching a book on New Zealand film, I accepted the generous hospitality of Lindsay Shelton and the New Zealand Film Commission and sat in their Wellington offices for three or four days watching films that had somehow passed me by on their cinematic release or that had hardly been released anyway, films like Wild Horses, Should I Be Good? and The Lie of the Land. Believe me, you do not want to know about these films. To watch them was to be reminded, most forcefully, of how difficult it is to make a good film. To watch them was also to sharpen one’s appreciation of other New Zealand films which one had hitherto regarded as mediocre. Romantics may dream that, among unreleased or barely-released films, there lurks some cinematic masterpiece or forgotten silver awaiting only the right critical reassessment or the right publicity to bring it to general attention. Moral: There ain’t.
All this biased and egotistical anecdotage has been by way of leading in to discussing a reference book, Helen Martin’s and Sam Edwards’ New Zealand Film, 1912-1996, the most comprehensive and detailed account of feature films to date.
How do we read reference books and how do we review them? They are not linear and sequential narratives and are not designed to be read cover-to-cover. My experience of popular journalism tells me that too often reviewers merely take “soundings” by dipping into reference books. I started the Martin/Edwards book at the beginning and read it through to the end, but I am aware that this is not really how it should be used.
The book begins with commodified folklore. The first entry is a bastardised Maori legend which Frenchman Gaston Melies filmed here in 1912 (it predated by two years George Tarr’s Hinemoa, which is often cited as the first feature film). The last entry is the television series Hercules : The Legendary Journeys, being bastardised Greek legends. In between is every feature film which was shot in New Zealand or had significant New Zealand input or had some strong association with New Zealand. There are a surprising 164 features in all and this does not include the appendix of another 22 foreign films with New Zealand associations. Judging by the signatures “SE” or “HM” that appear at the end of each entry, Edwards covered everything up to 1975 and only one or two films thereafter. As the great majority of features have been made in the last two decades, this means that Martin wrote over two-thirds of the text — for 118 films, to be precise.
A handful of highly significant films (Sleeping Dogs, Ngati, The Piano) are awarded a two-page spread of text-and-illustration. For most, however, the format is one (large, triple-columned) page for each film. This can lead to the occasional peculiarity. It takes a whole page (complete with a large photo of a handbill) to inform us that the only evidence we have for the existence of a 1923 film called The Romance of Sleepy Hollow is a censor’s certificate and a handbill. For the (suppressed, unobtainable) 1982 co-production, Prisoners, Martin tells us she has had to base her account on publicity material only.
For every film, the entry consists of the most complete credits listing possible, a synopsis, some critical commentary and background to the production and an illustration. The illustrations are among the book’s most attractive features. Whether intentionally or not (I know how difficult it can be to obtain appropriate stills), Martin and Edwards have often opted for the less obvious, less expected image. For example the entry on Mike Newell’s Bad Blood is illustrated with a shot of gun-toting Carol Burns (as Dorothy Graham) rather than some familiar and much-used picture of Jack Thompson (as Stan Graham). The entry for John Reid’s The Last Tattoo has a shot of gun-toting Katie Wolfe, who was some way down the cast list after the film’s star, Kerry Fox.
Reading methodically through the text, I dimly sensed the frustrations that must have accompanied the authors’ diligent researches. For fully 13 of the 23 silent features, Edwards has to remark that “no known footage remains”. For many of the rest and for some early sound features there is a note to the effect that the film survives only in fragments. To write his section of the book, Edwards must have spent more time hunting up printed documents than viewing films.
Like any book on modern film, this one is slightly out of date even at time of publication. The terminal date is 1996, so it does not cover the 1997 releases — Tony Hiles’ Jack Brown, Genius , Harry Sinclair’s Topless Women Talk About Their Lives and Scott Reynolds’ The Ugly . At the end of their introductory note, however, the authors confidently declare “information on any inadvertent omissions will be included in future editions of this book”. I’m sure they will be.
New Zealand Film 1912-1996 is an excellent reference book, the most comprehensive we have on the subject, and likely to be the standard text for some time to come. Without qualification or irony, I am happy to have it sitting on my shelf alongside the few other book-length studies of New Zealand cinema that exist.
But I have some nit-picking and niggles. Inevitably, some of the synopses are so dense with plot-matter as to be confusing and to require very careful reading. When as a reviewer I have had to synopsise films within a very limited word-count I have usually chosen to outline just one main strand of the plot. Martin and Edwards clearly aim to give as complete an account as possible of each film within a few hundred words of plot-summary. Characters’ names rush at us dizzyingly.
The authors’ definition of what constitutes a feature-film is interesting. Basically they see features as films 40 minutes or more in length. This allows them to include the 47-minute Lincoln County Incident and the 49-minute Nutcase. So why have they not included Jack Winter’s Dream , David Sims’ 59-minute adaptation of James K Baxter’s play which was well-received in the 1979 film festivals? As their definition of a feature also includes telefeatures and feature-length documentaries, I wonder if the net could have been spread even wider. Should the Winners and Losers series of tele-dramas have been mentioned?
Post-modernists tend to be tetchy about contextualisation. Hence, like the Dennis-Bieringa volume Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Film 1912-1996 sports a long chronology. This one begins with the invention of printing. But even long and apparently inclusive chronologies can be selective and partial. Why does this one mention the 1950s newsreel, Pacific Magazine, but not the 1940s newsreel, Weekly Review? Why does it not note the 1940 centennial movie, 100 Crowded Years, which had some acted sequences amidst its strident colonial propaganda? Why does it contain Speaking Candidly by Gordon Mirams, the “first critical and descriptive commentary on New Zealand filmgoing characteristics”, but not contain other, more recent, published studies?
Within individual entries, too, there are some odd silences. Stevens’ Adventures in Maoriland, his amusing account of the American Alexander Markey’s making of Hei Tiki in the 1930s, does make it into the small print of the filmography at the back — but it is not mentioned in the entry on Hei Tiki itself, where it could have made a useful reference. In the entry on Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth would it have been out of line to note that an earlier American film, The World, the Flesh and the Devil in 1959 also had the premise of one woman and two men being the last people on Earth? And, as it has already been a matter of public record and has been discussed on television, would it have hurt to have included in the entry on Jane Campion’s The Piano some mention of the speculation about whether the film had been influenced by Jane Mander’s Story of a New Zealand River? The book does aspire to be comprehensive about sources, after all.
Martin notes that the International Film Festival declined to screen Who’s Counting?, Terre Nash’s excellent documentary about Marilyn Waring’s economic theories. She does not note that Meet the Feebles , Jackson’s gross-out puppet movie, was also declined by the fest. As, in relation to some other movies, the censoriousness of Patricia Bartlett et al is noted, then we should be reminded of the censoriousness of other cultural brokers.
All of these quibbles and niggles do not affect the genuine value of the book. Some are probably among the omissions that will be rectified in future editions. They do not in any way lessen the book’s worth in dispelling widespread ignorance. (Anecdote 1) Where I find myself distanced from the text, however, is in the matter of opinion and taste — those messy, unquantifiable, hard-to-rationalise things that in fact make up the bulk of most critical evaluations. When I agree with HM and SE, I applaud loudly. When I disagree, I wonder how the authors got it so wrong.
Yes, in Richard Turner’s Squeeze “the heart-to-heart conversations sound like textbook lessons on ‘being gay in a straight society’”. Martin is right to say of David Blyth’s Death Warmed Up that its characters “basically just lurch about, utter banal dialogue and fight whichever zombie happens by”. I endorse her commonsense in recognising Wayne Tourell’s Bonjour Timothy for the innocent horseplay that it was intended to be (which is more than some ungenerous local reviewers did). And I approve her use of the words “superb” and “triumph” in relation to Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.
Conversely, I do not find Barry Barclay’s Te Rua “remarkable” for its “emotional power”. I think it a film that creaks, with every character invented to illustrate a thesis. I do not think Stewart Main and Peter Wells’ Desperate Remedies “evokes a richly wrought psychological landscape of societal entrapment”. I would call it overwrought, over-loaded with incident and distancing with its caricatures.
The point is that there is no such thing as a values-neutral critical text and all this simply underlines how “personal” critical commentary really is, once we have got past the long labours of factual documentation (anecdote 2). Incidentally, Martin describes Cinema of Unease as “fatally flawed, both in the pomposity and purple prose of Sam Neill’s delivery and in the content”.
So why, after industriously forging through this book over the evenings of one week, did I end up feeling thoroughly depressed? It was a reaction to all the films which the book efficiently caused to re-run in my head.
I applaud and celebrate the ingenuity of our film-makers, who have usually worked with limited budgets in the face of uncertain rewards and sniffy reviewers. But, like any film industry, ours has produced far more misses than hits (anecdote 3). Writing in the October 1995 New Zealand Books, in a measured and temperate response to Cinema of Unease, Hugh Roberts asked “just how many swallows do make a summer?” This was at a time when the national industry appeared to have reached an artistic peak, with The Piano (1993), Once Were Warriors (1994), Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Gaylene Preston’s War Stories (1995). There has been nothing of comparable artistic merit in the two years since then.
The answer to Roberts’ question is glaringly obvious. Summer is a season. It is part of a cycle. It comes and goes, and no counting of swallows will change this. Moments of real artistic achievement by our film industry come and go too.
In itself this inevitable fact does not depress me. Rather, I am soured by the memory of all those films that had excellent, isolated sequences in the midst of lumpy un-thought-through screenplays. The after-death experience in Mauri, the nightmare sequence in Pictures, the final transformation in The Quiet Earth, the haunted house in The Returning — there are so many times when the technical skills of our editors and cinematographers seem far more developed than the organising narrative skills of our scriptwriters, when we admire the visuals and the ambience, but cringe as soon as the characters open their mouths.
And I am soured by the type of frantically unfunny romp that is too often turned in when our film-makers tackle comedy — User Friendly, Send a Gorilla, Chicken, Jack Brown, Genius. Incident and noise substitute for the careful establishing of character and the gaining of audience sympathy that are real necessitites in comedy. There is a desperation, a piling-on of one-damned-thing-after-another in these films, making Martin’s comment on Chicken (“frantic where it should be deadpan”) in fact applicable to all of them. How much they make one appreciate anew Ian Mune’s assured control of the genre in Came a Hot Friday, or even the gentler, smaller-scale wit of Gaylene Preston’s Ruby and Rata , which I confess to undervaluing on its first release (see “sniffy reviewers” above).
And I readily admit that I am not part of the 20-something target audience who appreciate splatter films — Death Warmed Up, Braindead, Jack Be Nimble, The Ugly — much as they appear to be the coming thing.
But more than anything I am troubled by the comparative rarity of films about articulate, self-aware people. It may well be that we are now beyond those “boys only” films which featured what Costa Botes once eloquently called “alienated macho dickheads” (Smash Palace , Bad Blood). We have a bona fide tradition of ruminative art-house movies, usually under-powered in the dialogue department (Strata, Vigil, Illustrious Energy, The Footstep Man). And, under the influence of feminism, our films have celebrated women-writers where they have not celebrated men-writers (Robin Hyde in Iris, Sylvia Ashton-Warner in Sylvia, Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, Katherine Mansfield in Leave All Fair). Even allowing for these exceptions, however, I simply do not expect to find complex, self-aware, articulate characters of more than the most rudimentary motivation when I sit down to view a New Zealand film. Comic stereotypes, yes; uncomplicated (if sometimes whacko) blokes and shielas, yes; “camp” caricatures, yes (“camp” being the flip-side of social realism, and just as one-dimensional). But as for characters who can define their dilemmas and think their way through them — forget it.
I could be asking here for what no national cinema provides. In writing on New Zealand film without once mentioning “appropriation” and without agonising over degrees of confidence in national identity, I am probably self-condemned as hopelessly middlebrow, enamoured of coherent narrative and conservative to boot. So be it. Like Neill, I have been providing a personal view. Like Harry Cohn (and you), my response to a film begins with the extent to which it makes my fanny feel uncomfortable, which crude response I then proceed to rationalise by closer analysis, acknowledgement of genre and all that.
I thank Martin, Edwards and their excellent reference book for once again making my fanny twitch.
Born in 1951, Nicholas Reid fought on the Franco side in the Spanish Civil War. He is widely reputed to be the Carlist sniper who shot pioneer film-maker Colin McKenzie.