By schooner to the past
I recently watched Laurence Olivier's version of Richard III for the first time. The film won much acclaim when it was released in 1955, and broke viewing records when it aired on British television. Critics praised the naturalism of Richard III, which was shot in new-fangled technicolour and featured an elaborately orchestrated open-air battle scene.
The other night, though, I was impressed by the bizarre artificiality of Olivier's film. The technology which caused such excitement in the early '60s gave certain colours a new intensity. Yves Klein should have been fascinated by the blues in Richard III, which are pure and bright, and seemingly impervious to shadow.
The first four acts of Olivier's Richard III were filmed in the warehouse studios of JG Ballard's beloved outer London suburb of Shepperton. As we watch actors in extravagantly bad wigs stomp through polystyrene banquet halls, shouting their lines, we can almost sense the DC 10s flying low over the rooves of Shepperton, as they prepare to land at nearby Heathrow airport, and the traffic on the motorway which forms the western border of the suburb.
When it reaches Act Five, where Shakespeare recounts Richard III's defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the film suddenly exchanges the cramped spaces of Shepperton for a dun-green plain sparsely planted with what look like like cacti. Olivier made the climax of his movie in Spain. Although the open spaces of Act Five are a liberation, the landscape and flora of Iberia are strange stand-ins for the hedges and copses of the English Midlands.
Richard III might trouble the Film Foundation, an organisation which is campaigning, with the help of stars like Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese, for the preservation of the original reels of old movies. Even if a film exists in pristine condition, without a flicker or a scratch or a flash, its atmosphere may change completely in a few decades, as fashions and audience expectations change. What was thrillingly realistic fifty years ago now seems fascinatingly baroque.
At about the time that I was watching Richard III, Paul Janman was chatting with an American movie buff named Gregory Davis, who had found and purchased a few reels of old film during a visit to a small village somewhere in Mexico. After getting home, running the reels, and learning that he had acquired a documentary film called Schooner to Tonga made in 1961 by the obscure Spanish director Elnoro Von Verdo, Davis contacted Paul, whose own documentary about Tonga premiered at last year's Auckland International Film Festival. Neither Paul nor his new friend was able to find the merest mention of Schooner to Tonga in encyclopedias of film history.
to Youtube. The result is a series of flickering, blurred images of Auckland's harbour, wharves, and parks, accompanied by a murmurously incomprehensible voiceover and a series of squeaks and hisses that might once have represented the songs of birds and the passing of cars.
We see, between flashes and tremors, the crew and passengers of a handsome sailing ship moving to and fro on Auckland's waterfront, preparing for a journey. Some of the crewmen have beards and smiles on their faces, and might be Bohemian drinking partners of Denis Glover or Maurice Duggan; others are clean-shaven, and have the stern yet diffident look of the orthodox postwar New Zealand male. The women, who wear formal dresses and sometimes gloves, are eased on board the boat by hand, like pieces of expensive cargo.
The film's shots of Cornwall Park and the Auckland Domain have a conventional air, and yet the peculiar state of the clip uploaded to Youtube give them a strangeness that is occasionally disturbing. Squatting on the summit of the Domain, the Auckland War Memorial Museum throbs like a enormous toad; Cornwall Park's green meadows seem to seethe.
Even fifty years ago, when Schooner to Tonga was made, the proscriptions of colonial powers, who wanted to limit the mobility of island peoples for political reasons, and the obsession of New Zealand's political and business elites with the northern hemisphere had limited Auckland's maritime connections with the tropical Pacific. Only a relatively few families, who were linked by blood or money or political sympathies with the tropics, maintained the old exchanges.
If it were given to us in a pedantically pristine state, the opening of Schooner to Tonga might be an unremarkable little piece of travelogue, whose conventionality and undiminished naturalism obscured the distance between the Auckland it depicted and the Auckland of today. In the damaged, almost derelict form in which it appears on Youtube, though, the beginning of the film communicates something of the strangeness and distance of a lost past. Gregory Davis should give us the rest of his version of the film.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]