Friday, July 16, 2010

A Liking For Film

The film festival opens in Wellington today. This day five years ago on the opening day Anne and I went to see ‘U-Carmen’ at the Embassy, a retelling of the Carmen story set in a Capetown shantytown. An intriguing mixture, Bizet’s lovely music combined with the libretto translated into the Xhosa language. My diary notes it was ‘energetic, moving, and a superb blending of two cultures,’ and that ‘Pauline Malefane as Carmen was powerful.’ A neighbour described her as ‘a plump heroine’. She went on to say ‘the cigarette girls who formed the chorus were also all chubby.’

Film lures the viewer into stereotypes. Leading ladies are usually svelte. Opera can have the opposite effects. Many a soprano dying on stage of malnutrition could be described as well-formed. Part of the attraction of the festival is to see different cultures, not just in ways of life but also traditions of film-making. That year we also saw two French films, a documentary set in the Cameroons and an English one, fewer than our normal pig-out.

The first foreign film I ever remember seeing was 'Wages of Fear'. It's earthier atmosphere and different acting style combined with a cosmopolitan feeling to make it riveting viewing. There was an agony there that was absent from the American and British movies that had been my staple diet during my university years. For a period there in the ‘50s I saw just about every movie in town. There was a group of us at the hostel with a routine - Friday 5 o' clock session, rushed pie cart meal, 8 o' clock session, the same formula repeated on the Saturday evening. I fell in ‘like’ with the moving image.

They were the movies of the period - great on the Second World War, John Mills on the bridge of a destroyer saluting the flag as his ship went down; the Carry On capers, Sid James and cronies with their sexual innuendo; other English comedies with Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison and Terry Thomas; and musicals of which 'Carmen Jones' ("beat out that rhythm on a drum") endures most.

I saw a thousand Apaches bite the dust and Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper hang up their guns time after time only to sling them round their hips again ("a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"). I identified more with them their heroic independence than with Marlon Brando or James Dean. The film from the period I recollect most vividly is 'Shane'. I swallowed the American dream holus-bolus, while not responding to more complex portrayal of its consequences ('On the Waterfront', 'The Wild One' or 'The Blackboard Jungle').

My adult’s generation's movies symbolically ended with Charlie Chaplin disappearing into the horizon twirling his cane - poignant and sentimental melodrama. Mine ended with the gunman spurring his horse over the ridge to his next lonely battle. It was not an era for the camera of ambiguity though the movies that impacted mostly ended with defeat - 'The Caine Mutiny' and 'Viva Zapata'.

Among the female actors there I recall Kay Kendall who died tragically young, sultry Ava Gardner, red-haired Rita Hayworth, always Marilyn Monroe, and a young waif called Audrey Hepburn in her first film 'Roman Holiday'. I fell in love with her.

Bill Haley’s 'Rock Around the Clock' saw the beginning of a new craze. When rock and roll burst upon the scene, enjoying the exploration of classical music I was not greatly impressed but took part in the gyrations that seemed to be called for as part of the scene. The screen set the scene for much of our life - courtship, ideas of courage, values, family life etc. Violence was portrayed but it was under a veil of complacency. (And dare I say, decency). For of course there was censorship on what was allowed to be shown. One of the shocks of 1960s 'Psycho' was the showing of a toilet and furthermore it was flushed.

Now the DVDs I get from Fatso include some of those golden oldies. Audrey Hepburn stands the test of time. And I can view films produced from all around the world. It’s not the same as the big screen. But second best is still good. This afternoon I'll be looking at the wild life of South America. Documentary or Drama; this media has enhanced my existence.

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