Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Making (and breaking) movies

In his contribution to the recent special issue of the Griffith Review dedicated to New Zealand writers, Steve Braunias discusses for a paragraph or two the film that Paul Janman and I want to make about the Great South Road. Braunias is himself a veteran explorer of the road, and his essay for the Griffith describes some of his adventures amongst the car yards and barren parks of South Auckland.

Positive references to the film Paul and I have provisionally titled Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road have turned up elsewhere in print and on the web in the couple of years since we announced the project. These citations are generous and embarrassing, because we have taken only a few halting steps down the road of our film.

There are some excuses we can offer for our tardiness. In 2013 Paul was busy promoting Tongan Ark, his first feature film, with interviews, festival appearances, and the occasional visit to an outpost of the Free Church of Tonga, while I was living two and a half thousand kilometres north of the Great South Road, on an island where the speed limit is forty kilometres an hour, and where roads are sometimes indistinguishable from pigs’ tracks.  

Twenty Steps down the Great South Road has nevertheless begun to seem, to some of my more cynical friends, like a sly joke. Hamish Dewe, whose cynicism has a sophistication and passion that are almost overwhelming, asked me whether I’d come up with the idea for the film after reading Jorge Luis Borges’ short story 'The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim', which purports to be a review of a massive novel about a heretical young Muslim’s occult journey across India. The novel, of course, didn’t exist. Whenever Borges had an idea for a long book, he pretended that the book had already been written and reviewed it in a handful of pages.

Paul Janman and I want to try to prove Hamish Dewe wrong. Now that I’m back in Atalanga and Paul has escaped from his Ark, we’ve been making a determined effort to script and shoot our film.

We’re being assisted by Ian Powell, an artist and technician famous for his collection of absurdly outdated cinematographic technology. Some self-consciously reactionary film makers have rejected digital technology, and rediscovered the video cameras of the 1980s; for Ian, though, only cameras from the magical decade and a half after World War Two – only suitcase-sized, Bible-black objects that leave a purple dent on the shoulder of anyone who shoots a short scene with them – are worthy of the task of recording the twenty-first century.  
Ian’s dearest possession is a Swiss-made camera that was hauled, because of its reassuring bulk and reputation for toughness, into the Arctic by a team of BBC journalists in the 1960s, and used to record the passive-aggressive ‘Cod War’ that saw Icelandic gunboats and British frigates confronting each other in the northernmost stretches of the North Sea, as London wrangled with Rejkavik over the boundaries of fishing grounds. Having survived its tour of duty in the deep north, the camera is, Ian believes, ready to turn its cold eye on the wilds of South Auckland and the lower Waikato.

Ian Powell’s cumbersome, outdated camera produces film that can only be shown, initially at least, by cumbersome, outdated machines. Recently he unloaded a carload of his relics – an old, knock-kneed projector, as well as reel after reel of glistening, rustling film - at Paul’s house, while the great director attached a white bedsheet to a dining room wall.

As I switched off the lights and sat beneath the flickering blue beam that Ian was busy aiming, I tried to remember the name of the Papakura Community Constable whose visits to our primary school had been festive occasions back in the 1980s. The old cop would lead us slowly to the school’s small, stuffy library, wheeze as he stretched to pull the curtains in the high windows, and play us short films about traffic safety and marijuana that had been made with an artlessness reminiscent of the great Italian neorealist directors.

As one of the busier sections of Highway One bumped about on the grey felt screen he had unfolded, our visitor would describe, in a low, deadpan voice, some of the more spectacular traffic accidents he had attended. We would gulp and giggle as he explained the various ways to separate a severed limb from a sliver of steel.

Knowing that the house would be full of kids, Ian had brought around a reel filled with the 1980 version of Popeye, in which a florid Robin Williams thrashes around for hours in a tropical lagoon, waiting for a plot or some decent special effects to turn up. The kids loved it, and I realised how much I had missed, in the decades since that community constable’s visits, the soft roar and skittish images of an old-fashioned cinema.
The evident fragility of Ian’s desperately whirring projector – the fact that it might, at any moment, collapse, like an exhausted marathon runner – made the images on the bedsheet seem all the more beautiful. The machine’s sound became part of the film, as real and fragile as the waves that slapped the back of the semi-submerged Williams and the coconut trees that shook their heads wryly at his antics.

But Popeye was intended as a mere prelude to the New Zealand premiere of Schooner to Tonga, a documentary film made in Spanish by an obscure director sometime in the 1960s and discovered in a small town in the Mexican desert a couple of years ago. After buying the reel that held the film for a few dollars during a drive through Mexico, an American collector had contacted Paul, whom he knew as the maker of Tongan Ark, and offered to send him the artefact.
Before posting his find off to Auckland, Paul’s benefactor played the film’s first few minutes onto a wall, recorded them with a video camera, and posted the resulting footage on youtube. I blogged about this eerie fragment, which shows a group of young men and women touring an Auckland that is alternately psychedelically bright and penumbral, last year. The rest of Tongan Schooner is reputed to show a journey around the Friendly Islands, a place seldom professionally photographed, let alone filmed, in the 1960s.

As Ian carefully fitted the reel that held Schooner to Tonga to his projector, Paul hummed excitedly. As soon as the reel began to turn, though, Paul’s bedsheet turned an almost fluorescent shade of white, and the room was filled with the sort of terrible shriek my cat makes when it gets its tail caught in the fridge. Ian was soon dismantling and packing up his projector, and explaining to Paul, in a suitably compassionate voice, that Schooner to Tonga had been so damaged by Mexican dust and sunlight that it would have to be meticulously restored by expensive professionals.

I hope that Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road premieres before Schooner to Tonga. We're filming on Saturday: wish us luck.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

re the 1980 version of popeye: In the original theatrical and video release, the scene in which everyone is abandoning ship after Pappy rams Bluto's boat runs a bit longer. It ends with Popeye diving into the water shouting out, Oh shit!" This has been removed from the DVD release.

10:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good luck

2:24 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...


11:37 pm  

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