Friday, January 25, 2013

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.
Perhaps keen to offer proof that he wasn't some sort of fantasist, Davis played Schooner to Tonga through his television set, shot it with a digital camera, and uploaded the first few minutes of his film-of-a-film 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.
It can be argued that the distorted version of Schooner to Tonga posted to Youtube actually reflects the distance between its subject matter and ourselves. The Auckland of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with its fleets of schooners and steamers threading and entangling the thousands of islands of the Pacific, is hard to remember today, when almost all of us cross the ocean by air, and when the handful of surviving Auckland-based shipping companies struggle to survive, even with the aid of squat and unlovely modern container ships.

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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Schooner to Tonga" screened Sunday July 5th, 8pm on channel 52:

This may have been a version with an English soundtrack. There is a * next to it in the programme. Unless this means Spanish programming.

9:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The credits for the movie are here:

The producer is credited on IMDB with a documentary series called "Four Winds to Adventure".

Schooner to Tonga is an episode of Four Winds to Adventure.

9:27 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks very much for that anon, from Paul and Gregory Davis as well as me, I'm sure!

11:07 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Just for the record, I believe that Gregory actually FOUND the reels of film in a back room in a Mexican village. He didn't play them through his tv set but had to project them in 16mm? before recording them in digital for youtube upload. It really was extraordinary to see the footage, warped as it was, just as we were making our own mediations of digital and analogue technologies during our shoots at the Doman for our Great South Road project. I'd love to see more.

11:08 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for that Paul...

9:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not by accident that the hominoid inhabitants of the 12th Planet look and dress like Greek Gods, the Gods of Mount Olympus, as they are one and the same. Mythological stories about thunderbolts being thrown and travel through the clouds were based on the technological feats of these visitors from the 12th Planet, who had mastered the modern day equivalent of lasers. To the primitive humans, who came barely to the waists of the strapping, handsome giants, they were gods. The Greek Gods are reported to be jealous and wrathful on the one hand, and kindly and mentoring on the other - a bit like people. Of course, they were no gods, any more than the humans of today, but their very human exploits are still reported with awe Humans were, at the time, evolving from the cave man stage, with only an occasional genius born in the purely human strains. During the evolution of any species, intelligence is gradually increased due to genetic selection, the smarter individuals passing on their genetics due to their ability to evade danger and manipulate circumstances around them. Ancient Egyptian gods, ancient Babylonian gods, the Vizigoths of Germany, ancient Mayan and Incan gods, are almost to a one particular individuals from the 12th Planet royalty, stationed on Earth to supervise mining operations. Stories about ancient rebels, notable for their stature and courage in battle, are also frequently based in part on the heritage from these visitors, as the rebel most often carried some genetics from the rape of a female slave who managed somehow to escape and bear her oversized infant alive. The legacy today is genetically disbursed throughout the mid-eastern countries, Germanic countries, and the south seas, and is identifiable in those humans who simultaneously possess a large stature, a fierce temper, and strong musculature. Rather than being considered gods, they are often considered criminals.

11:07 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Quite an imagination on you there anon, you might want to take your pills and go have a lie-down.

9:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember needing to read the map to find some different banquet halls. But they were worth finding.

8:33 am  

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