Out of the celluloid closet

by Michael Morrissey / 09 February, 2008
Film professor Bruce Babington's book carefully chronicles New Zealand film history. He asks why our classics are not widely available to Kiwi audiences.

It is 1964. Bruce Babington and I - English literature students at Auckland University - have gone to see New Zealand film-maker John O'Shea's Runaway. Saturated by Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, we are less than generous. Now, Babington is 64 - though the years have treated him kindly. Scarcely a smoke of gray in his thick brown hair; just a few kilos more than when we used to meet in the Coburg flourishing the six poems we had each written the previous day. Still quick to flash a slice of watermelon grin.

Forty years on, Babington, now professor of film at Newcastle University in England and author of A History of the New Zealand Fiction Feature Film (as well as an impressive number of books on musicals, biblical epics and other film genres), views Runaway differently.

"O'Shea worked at a time when there was no support industry. Actors doubled as crew and crew as actors. One scene had to be dropped because Kiri Te Kanawa had facial eczema. Given these drawbacks, it still has an impressive European art-film style. And O'Shea to some degree successfully used Antonioni's L'Avventura as a template."

Unfortunately, today's film viewers cannot easily make their own assessment. "O'Shea's three features and Rudall Hayward's seven are not available on DVD and only viewable in film archives," observes Babington wryly. "It's as though an eccentric billionaire like Randolph Hearst had the films in his possession and you could view them only by visiting San Simeon.

"Imagine," he adds, warming to his theme, "if Colin McCahon's works were locked away in a private gallery and could only be viewed by appointment."

Babington has nothing but praise for the New Zealand Film Archive's desire to increase film viewing, but suggests that private or public finance is needed - "a far-sighted patron or the New Zealand Government to enable these early films to be brought back into the public arena. As things stand, the New Zealand public is largely ignorant of our film history."

Hayward has become a somewhat mythical figure, although films such as My Lady of the Cave (1922) and his masterpiece, The Te Kooti Trail (1927), have had amazingly little serious analysis - a lack that Babington's book addresses. Babington argues that Hayward's films may be ideologically out of fashion, but they are up to date in their exploration of the ambiguities of racial issues.

Hayward's short "community comedies" are amiably made fun of in Peter Jackson's wonderful 1995 spoof, Forgotten Silver, although the career of the mockumentary's imaginary director, Colin McKenzie - as Babington astutely notes - could form a parallel with Jackson's own. "While Hayward had solidly commercial aims," Babington says, "he was artistically ambitious, so I wanted to undermine the idea that he was some artless primitive film-maker."

For many, New Zealand film really only begins in 1977 with Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs - an inaccurate picture that Babington's book corrects. Babington regards Donaldson and Geoff Murphy as the dominant figures of what may be called the Golden Age of New Zealand film - from the late 70s to the mid-80s. Of the period's five key films, two (Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace) were made by Donaldson and three (Utu, The Quiet Earth and Goodbye Pork Pie) by Murphy.

All five have a remarkable and justified hold on the national cultural psyche. For all the gorgeous splendours of Jackson's mastery of digital cinema and the Holly-wood-blockbuster style, there can be few images as haunting as the intensely heterosexual Bruno Lawrence dressed in a woman's petticoat in The Quiet Earth - at this point the only man left alive on the planet left, as it were, to his own devices.

The organisation of Babington's book may surprise. The three larger-than-life directors - Jackson, Jane Campion and Vincent Ward - who, for many, are the most definitive of New Zealand film-making, are less foregrounded than might be expected, because Babington was resolved to see these important film-makers "within the context of New Zealand film-making rather than seeing New Zealand film merely as an adjunct to them".

Overall, although he writes at greatest length about the films he claims are most aesthetically and culturally significant, he has been centrally concerned not with the subjective ranking of films but with covering the whole terrain of New Zealand cinema.

Babington's generous vision means that as well as carefully analysing largely forgotten films of the past, along with the greater number of post-1977 films, he also brings neglected contemporary directors such as Garth Maxwell and John Reid into focus.

"Reid made four very distinguished films in the late 70s to mid-90s - Carry Me Back, Leave All Fair, The Last Tattoo and Middle Aged Spread - while Maxwell made one of New Zealand's most visually ambitious films, Jack Be Nimble, and an extraordinary musical, When Love Comes."

What has happened to these two talented directors? How come the gifted and zany Harry Sinclair hasn't made a film since 2000, Babington asks. "Even such a prominent film-maker as Gaylene Preston finds it hard to set up feature films."

Babington quotes Ward: "If you make more than two or three films, you get both knocked and institutionalised." He notes that if directors like Murphy, Donaldson and Campion had not gone overseas, "they may have wound up as neglected as some talented domestic practitioners".

So expatriation may often be a necessary step to keep getting work, Jackson being the exception. In fact, Jackson uses an expansive Hollywood and therefore expatriate style while remaining here. When I ask Babington why he had not repatriated to teach film in New Zealand, he says he has hardly been deluged with approaches. If someone made him a good offer, he would certainly consider it.

He thinks Once Were Warriors is a "terrific film", yet he has reservations. "It has great kinetic dynamism but softens Alan Duff's novel, while Whale Rider's 'good object' status scares off analysis. These recent all-Maori films seem like a reversion to the 'Maoriland' films of the 1920s and 30s set in pre-European New Zealand made by American and British directors. Today, the expulsion of Pakeha from the scene seems an evasion of reality."

Although Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider commanded important box-office success, Babington believes that Barry Barclay's Te Rua (1991) - the most complex Maori-made film, "the most stylistically adventurous" - has suffered undeserved neglect. Similarly, the merits of Ward's River Queen (2005) were obscured by accounts of strife on the set.

Babington is also sceptical about the Sam Neill concept of a cinema of unease and points to various films that soften more abrasive sources - for example, all the versions of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's novels. He rejects similarly simplistic overriding theories that New Zealand films are the product of eccentric individuality, or expressions of Pakeha guilt or anxiety over identity.

And what of New Zealand's cinematic future? Babington, though reluctant to take on a prophetic role, is willing to make a few predictions.

"Jackson's entrepreneurial achievements will lead to even more foreign films being shot in New Zealand. Low-cost digital films will increase, though their audience will be restricted to art festivals. International co-production will enable some bigger budgets. But endemic problems like low budgets, small home audiences and larger-scale overseas industries luring actors and directors away will continue. These difficulties won't disappear."

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