Reeling in the years, Bruce Babington

A Life on Film: I’m Taking this Bloody Car to Invercargill!
Geoff Murphy
HarperCollins, $40.00,
ISBN 9781775540793

Okay, there was this guy Murphy back in the 1970s. Somehow, in near impossible conditions, he made three of the foundational feature films of the contemporary New Zealand cinema: Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth. (Two others were made by Roger Donaldson, along with a sixth, though Murphy has no time for it – Tony Williams’s Solo, as influential in different, slower-releasing ways.)

Murphy’s films – an anarchic local attendance-shattering comedy which has passed into legend (witness the cover of this book, designed around the yellow mini and the film’s most famous phrase); an updating of Rudall Hayward’s remarkable Land Wars epyllia for the more ideologically unstable 1980s; and a dystopic science fiction fable which unexpectedly back-to-the-futured the country’s psychic history – are achievements that make irrelevant his fallings away in the later New Zealand films Never Say Die and Spooked, the desolate post-auteurist Hollywood years, and the ironies of ending his career as second unit director on The Lord of the Rings. This last, for all the skills Jackson realised he would bring to “the mother of all second-unit jobs”, was work in an alien genre and a green screen/CG mode he dislikes. As he writes: “hardly a shot in the film was a straightforward honest-to-goodness shot … I also find the whole computer look of these films rather unpleasant”. Actually, the career did not quite end there, for there has also been the time-warp BLERTA documentary with its retrospect on the anarchic beginnings which it was Murphy’s career route to discipline without forgetting. And, recently, the rescue of Utu from the damaging restructuring that the exhausted director was pressured into for overseas release, ending happily in the director’s cut DVD Utu Redux, ungenerously served, it must be said, by the somewhat condescending notes accompanying it by Costa Botes and Paul Stanley Ward.

Gunning along in demotic freewheeling style, the story moves from a Wellington Catholic childhood with its early formation of anti-establishment attitudes, to primary school teaching, through bohemian times around Victoria University playing jazz, painting, and meeting future collaborators, the BLERTA and commune days, overcoming the severe impediments to film-making that existed 50 years ago, the excitement of the major films, and then the anti-climactic Hollywood experience (short on good films, but long on good anecdotes). Constant leitmotifs are a complicated personal life (the partnership with film-maker Merata Mita sounds a personal and professional marriage from hell) and constant financial pressures (“The motivation for this film [Never Say Die] was my tax bill. This is not a motivation that is ever going to move the human spirit”), only finally relieved by Hollywood earnings.

A Life on Film is not addressed to film analysts, but to a wider life-story-seeking audience. Film-makers come in two basic types: makers (who just get on with it) and maker-commentators (the latter much increased in the age of film schools and institutionalised film criticism). Eisenstein, Bresson, Pasolini, and locally O’Shea, Ward and Barclay inhabit the second camp. In the first are most of the greats of classical cinema, and Murphy, and his peer Donaldson. It is not surprising, then, that Murphy has little to say about his films on the theoretical and interpretative levels. This is not a criticism; it’s just the way things are. For instance, while admitting that the character Shirl in Pork Pie, who attracted criticism at a time of burgeoning local feminism, was not well-written, he doesn’t say how and why or relate her to his other female characters. And the extraordinary white racist character that Murphy plays in Mita’s Mauri is never mentioned. These and a hundred other issues are for Murphy presumably the analyst’s business, and one cannot quarrel with that. However, there’s one major exception to this, the passages, mostly reprints of earlier statements, where he writes about the great local success of Goodbye Pork Pie with a cogency any critic might envy, stressing its roots in the desired provisional dissipation of local problematics and forebodings, and in its assertion of selfhood: “Its heroes spoke and behaved in a manner which suggested New Zealand was the only country on earth.” Brilliantly insightful as this is, it is exceptional.

What then does the director have to say to those for whom the films are the primary objects of interest? Well, if you lay aside questions of interpretation, quite a lot. His account is chockful of insider stories which bear on the productions contextually: the obstructive policies of the National Film Unit, early TV, and their effects on independent film-makers; details of the business of launching films under the tax break loopholes of the 1970s and early 1980s; the lamentable failure of the Film Commission to trust film-makers with records of achievement; the problematics of working with (and earlier living communally with) the erratic but charismatic Bruno Lawrence; an experienced film-maker’s thoughts on scripting and the roles of director, assistant director, producer, line producer etc; and the often dismally farcical consequences of moving from auteurist writer-director to “creative” producers’ plaything in second-string Hollywood productions.

Most compelling to this reader are insights into the making of the three central films that reveal the intuitive hands-on practicality of Murphy’s fitful genius, and the mixture of control and serendipity in his film-making. Since, for some, these will be the most important parts of the book, a few instances are in order. In Pork Pie, the protagonists’ potently metaphorical alter ego masks of Groucho Marx and the Red Baron arose out of the necessity of covering the switching of actors and stuntmen in certain scenes. The happy rejection of John O’Shea’s advice that one of the protagonists should be Māori and the plot driven by “racial tension”, a tension expelled to the peripheries of the comedy, but revived full throttle in Utu and in the later parts of The Quiet Earth. The influence of cultural politics on crew choices for Utu. Also, in Utu, the crazy seeming – but effective in extreme longshot – kitting out of 500 schoolgirls and riding club members as a 1000-strong army in the biggest profilmic crowd scene in New Zealand cinema, with the greater numbers in the Rings being computer generated, thus scoring to the director’s mind one for traditional film-making over Jackson’s vast budgets.

Murphy’s account of the making of The Quiet Earth is especially interesting for its examples of his ability to transform chance happenings into greater significance – eg the survival of the original Sam Pillsbury project only because the producers had already spent the tax loophole money, and the director’s bold decisions to lop off the script’s beginning and end and to limit the whole narrative to three characters, the first half-hour famously to one (Bruno Lawrence’s great “man alone” solo), decisions in part prompted by an inexorably short schedule. The detailed description of how the memorable pre-CG beach scene overhung by a Saturn-like planet that Zac Hobson finds himself inhabiting at the end of the film was achieved is utterly fascinating. There is a winning honesty in Murphy’s account of the beleaguered, exhausted director, so immersed in the troubled making of the film that he did not know whether it worked or not, until seeing the rerelease playback of the whole film, he knew that it was “pretty damned good”. As indeed it is. Though predictably short on certain kinds of questions and answers, this autobiography by one of our essential film-makers is both highly readable and informative.

Bruce Babington is the author of A History of the New Zealand Fiction Feature Film (2007).

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction and Review
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