Number-8-wire memoirs, Nicholas Reid

Don’t Let It Get You
John O’Shea
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86473 356 9

First the photos. One hundred and sixty-four of them by my count. Not including the cover illustrations, but including every shot (and the complete script) of the three-minute movie O’Shea compiled to celebrate the centennial of New Zealand cinema. Please don’t pretend that you don’t dive for the illustrations when you get a book like this. I do. Isn’t that how we absorb information in this image-age? First stroke the pictures, then drag your eyes away to old brother prose.

Fascinating pictures. The frontispiece portrait of John O’Shea as a little boy looking every bit as knowing as most adults. The intriguing contrast of the recreated and the real: a still from Pictures, the movie about the 19th century Burton brothers, paired with a genuine antique Burton brothers photograph. On pp 51 and 139, touristy shots of Polynesian women from the early 1950s, when O’Shea and Roger Mirams made sponsored travelogues. So of-their-time. So dated. So evocative of an era when the image of the Pacific was still tailored to colonial fantasies. And – yes! – those evidences of New Zealand cinema at its most familial, its most friendly, its most earnest and yet its most number-eight-wire. The crew carrying the dolly-track for Runaway. The cast-and-crew of Ngati posed before a bus, laughing, Ross Girven dead centre in braces and a lovely smile. The continuity girl bashing away at her typewriter next to a mangrove swamp, using a fallen tree trunk for a desk. A visual feast all of it, lined up and waiting to be semiotically deconstructed. A history in itself, and sometimes ironically captioned.

And after the photos, the title. Don’t Let It Get You, the name of O’Shea’s 1966 musical (the one where Lou Pryme got a fly caught in his peroxided hair and Howard Morrison did a concert in Rotorua). You speculate that O’Shea might have chosen another of his movie-titles for his memoirs. Broken Barrier? But then, as his lengthy comments on Maori-Pakeha relations suggest, not all the barriers have been broken, and a title like that would be far too triumphalistic. Runaway? But that’s exactly what O’Shea didn’t do. Well, okay, the occasional overseas marketing foray, but the man stayed here to become (with apologies to the shade of Rudall Hayward) the godfather of, the grandfather of, the midwife of the new New Zealand cinema. For a while there in the 1950s and 1960s, he was New Zealand cinema.

So Don’t Let It Get You it is. Meaning, presumably, don’t let it get you when you have to scrape together the finance and then some of your major backers back out. Don’t let it get you when government labs forbid you to use their facilities, because they don’t like independent producers. Don’t let it get you when some projects refuse to come together, while those that do aren’t exactly huge money-spinners. And when American interests say they’d only be too happy to give you that extra million for your Samoan series – so long as you change the main character from a German to an American, to accommodate this rising young Hollywood hunk…

In the end, then, an apt choice of title, being a manifesto of optimism in the face of repeated knock-backs.

So at last, after the photos and the title, the prose. And here, to be frank, there are problems. Don’t Let It Get You is subtitled Memories – Documents, and is a mixture of the two. Like the photos, parts of the prose are an archival grab-bag. Sixteen pages are devoted to reproducing an account O’Shea wrote for UNESCO in 1966, on “Ethnographic Films Made on the Maori Ethnic Minority in New Zealand”. Later he gives us the preface he wrote to a report on Maori television. Historically interesting, of course, but perhaps O’Shea could have summarised their time-and-place-specific comments more succinctly from his current perspective. Mind you, some of the resurrected old documents are amusing oddities – a student review O’Shea wrote of the thriller This Gun For Hire, or a hoax he pulled (a fictitious account of a non-existent Albanian film industry) when he edited the Wellington film society bulletin. And there is something to be said for the untampered-with authenticity of old documents. Would O’Shea, in 1999, have quite the same unfeigned enthusiasm for Star Wars that he expressed in the 1976 diary entry he now chooses to publish?

Outside the selection of old documents, O’Shea’s style is strongly stream-of-consciousness. He expresses admiration for the honesty, the fidelity to his own experience, of that grumpy old fascist misanthrope Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He remarks, “like me Céline does wander about a lot – a regular grasshopper. Where was I? And does it matter?” Céline makes him think of Barry Crump, who had a comparable contempt for bullshit; and Barry Crump makes him think of his abortive attempt to film Crump’s novel Gulf; and that gets him on to how he first met Crump on Runaway; and so inevitably he begins to discuss how Runaway came about. Similar runs of mental association elsewhere have O’Shea hopping from the difficulties of recalling his childhood to dithyrambs on chance and fortuity and sensual suggestion in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. Or from military service in Trieste in 1945 to Bertolucci’s The Conformist to memories of struggling with the government’s monopoly at the National Film Unit.

There were, I confess, times when the associative technique became too chaotic for me; when I longed for some linear narrative to straighten it out and put it in chronological order. Like Citizen Kane, Don’t Let It Get You is a jigsaw puzzle which the reader has to piece together. Perhaps the outcome of a life spent chopping and editing images on strips of film. There is some method in the chaos, mind. It reflects the chaos of being a film producer, most evident in the account of bringing together Barry Barclay’s documentary The Neglected Miracle. But I found myself responding to this book for its individual insights and opinions rather than for any overall vision. Listening to a voice, something like a sympathetic older uncle, telling me things in fairly random order.

Some of it surprises. O’Shea I had always assumed to be a tough old realist, but he frequently explains his world-view in terms of Dadaism and Surrealism and Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali (and Céline and Ernst Jünger). His solidly left-wing (Irish, Catholic, Labour-voting) pedigree doesn’t prevent him from blowing raspberries at the stodgy Griersonian school of socially-uplifting men-and-machines documentaries that the NFU once ground out.

Some of it I could argue with. Is O’Shea still right to claim that New Zealanders are “too polite, not stroppy enough” to produce a movie like the Australian dissection of council politicking, Rats in the Ranks? Did he write that before Tony Sutorius’s Campaign, a stroppy dissection of Wellington politicking, was released? And aren’t some of his eventual railings against new technologies perilously close to being grumpy old man talk?

But when O’Shea is right, he is absolutely right.

Thus: “Television, that last weapon of cultural colonialism, had fallen like a shroud across the country. Once literate with high standards of living, New Zealanders were gradually reduced to the lowest common denominator of imported tabloid media.”

Thus: “I’ve always made it clear that I preferred fiction to what we may call factual films, and the fact that a film is a so-called documentary doesn’t fool me.”

Thus: “The Way We Were, a crass magazine of ye olden times that often revises the meaning of images of our past history … it stripped the National Film Unit images to provide an odious omelette in which Paul Holmes pops up from time to time and voices throughout. It’s the 1990s telling the 1940s to 1970s what it thinks of them.”

Bravo and amen to that.

Nicholas Reid is a film critic and writer who lives in Auckland.

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