NZ Film An Illustrated History – a review

th02PJ58TK                   patu

NZ TECHO  Spring 2011

 

A book shop. I fold my body in from the winter blast; in pride of place is New Zealand FILM – it’s bold and brassy, I go straight to the index. Oh – um err, oh well… I must be amongst the ‘W’s. With an eclectic mix of contributors, the vibrant cover – images are from films by directors of note – says ‘come on in’. The first three images are easy to pick, the last took a bit of research.

Good thing I had the book of New Zealand Film – An Illustrated History to refer to! It’s a New Zealand history book and I’m looking for the ‘national cinema’ bits. You know the sort of thing? Our films. About us. Bruno Lawrence and the black-and-white still on the back cover suggests a time before time – already I feel there is a sense of ‘from here to there’ and I haven’t left  the shop.

It’s a brave soul who speaks the history of anything, as history is an interpretation and a shifting concept. I continue to marvel at the way that the unorthodox becomes orthodox… just give it time. That’s what history has – a lot of time on its hands.

Roger Horrocks’ intro is great stuff – the struggle to make films started more than a 100 years ago, did you know that? Every film student should read this on day one of their course, and then again when they graduate.

The 29th November 1895 is a good place to start this film journey: The very first moving pictures exhibited on Auckland’s Queen Street. Then the wars, travelling cameras shooting local stuff, the beginning of government involvement with the first film censor (1916), the call for a British film quota as the Americans started their domination (1929), regular New Zealand news reels from an Australia Company in 1930’s and the beginnings of the NFU (National Film Unit) in Miramar (1936).

It’s a great read about beginnings, failings and evolving trends. By the middle of the book I’m starting to recognise people and by chapter five we get into Pacific Films and very familiar territory – Morrow Productions and independent films as TV begins. Peach Wymss Astor Productions and TV commercials bring a bit of discipline to the business as a way to establish a cash flow. This is a rich tapestry.

Chapter six anchors the film business in the land, becoming a viable industry with a future. It’s a familiar room – the next two chapters should also be compulsory reading for any film student… It’s got great cross-reference and speaks openly about the tax break years when feature films made money for their investors even when they weren’t released… I’m enjoying the detail. In a country where the right wing are now using the term ‘Maorification’ – what of Maori film history? Suffice to say Maori get a mention, they stare out from the bush in Hollywood expectation of a ‘native’ in an exotic land. In the 50s Maori are assimilated into Pakeha culture as the films of the day suggest the old ways have past and Maori are becoming more Pakeha… After all it’s a history book and the conquering side make it Their History eh, e hoa?

By the time you hit chapter ten Jackson is making box office successes in that matinee style… Kind of like we remember from when we were kids. But New Zealand history? The bookend is the story of Boy and its success in local cinema. Boy’s inability to travel far from the shore is worn like a badge of courage rather than seen as a failure… And between the lines of a marvellous well-researched and written book sits a question: Should we be seeking the blockbuster or looking at our own backyard, making ‘national cinema’? A nerdy kid farted and burped his way into our cinema consciousness… then he took over Hollywood. Who could have known? The Jackson Effect is a perfect chapter for a perfect time, sitting alone. It had to be mentioned, and the large-budget picture is leading the way in computer-generated movies. It’s not about us, really… But it did happen in a country where recently the Actors ask to be included in the wealth, and instead a starstruck Government ignored its own workers to strike a deal that will cost the taxpayer $35m. We wont be writing about that just yet, though…

It takes a bit of time to take the sting off the truth, and besides some of us still have careers to look after? It’s least revealing of the last  30 years, but then again that’s still raw and immediate. You get that with history. The movie business will shift once again (as it seems to do every five years).

Editor Diane Pivac does a great job of setting out the way we do things in this country: a pattern of independence, then government involvement, then crash, and restructure… the pattern repeats up to this day (yet no mention of the recent NZFC ‘review’…) .There’s the assumption that the arrival of Hollywood is a necessity in a country’s movie making development. The wealth of it all secured against a low wage society… Is this what we actually wanted? Ours is an industry where bureaucrats secure careers in arts management with salaries and overseas travel perks, and yet talent still comes from the trenches, where filmmakers camp in their sleeping bags on the floor while ‘arts managers’ lounge in US$400-a-night hotel rooms at Cannes and AFM…
This is the sort of book you might read in one sitting. It’s a great history and nicely handled – even a retired NZFC bureaucrat gets a wee turn – it’s about us folk, how the film business works in a small country and where we fit in the greater world of cinema.

We reclaim recent talent, Jane Campion, Geoff Murphy, Taika Waititi and Len Lye gracing the cover, and this book does it with enormous pride. In a sense it places them back home on the paepae… A profound history and a sense of the journey, beginnings and endings, the pioneers, the delusional and the successes. This book will sit well in the tertiary sector.

For those soldiers lost in action you are actually here, if not by name you’re there between the pages and lines. You’re in the white bits that haven’t been written yet. You’re behind the pictures, holding the reflector or panning the lamp… That’s you – you made it all happen. Personally I think Don’t Let It Get You was the moment that kicked it all off again but then again Sleeping Dogs is what we all remember. I guess my version of film history has little more unease? The index? Not in the ‘A’s either… oh well, life’s like that, eh?

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