April 18, 2011

Bill Pearson goes to the pictures

Things I didn’t know: New Zealand writer Bill Pearson (1922-2002) was a first cousin of New Zealand International Film Festival director Bill Gosden; in fact, as Paul Millar’s excellent Pearson biography No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson (Auckland University Press, 2010) tells us, the younger Bill was named after the older one. “He would also become a close friend of his older namesake,” Millar writes. “They were both film buffs, and other shared interests quickly rendered any difference in age inconsequential.” Millar comes back to this point later: “In his final years, Bill’s closest relationship amongst the younger members of his family was with his cousin Nancy’s son, Bill Gosden, a lover of film whose passion had become his profession when he assumed the role of directing New Zealand’s International Film Festivals. Bill Pearson followed the festivals closely, taking Gosden’s advice on what to see, and attending screenings with Donald [Stenhouse] or on his own.”
And here is Bill Pearson as film buff, earlier in Millar’s narrative. The year is 1942 and Pearson is 20, teaching at Blackball School on the West Coast – and gathering impressions that would eventually become part of the novel Coal Flat (1963). In Coal Flat, the headmaster, Truman Heath, is a pompous traditionalist; the model for Heath seems to have been Blackball School’s headmaster, Morris Lyng. Millar writes that Pearson’s contempt for Lyng made it easy for him to skive off school “in order to see Orson Welles’ controversial new film Citizen Kane” when it screened at the Regent Theatre in Greymouth, a trip that required him to stay the night in Greymouth and miss the first half hour of school the next morning. Lyng would never have agreed to give Pearson the time off, but “he was to be away the following morning and the other teachers agreed to cover for me”, Pearson said.
Before seeing Citizen Kane, all Pearson knew was that it had upset William Randolph Hearst, and while most of the Regent's small midweek audience seemed “cheated of the sensations and comforts expected of the dream factory”, he took it as a profound experience that spoke directly to his ambitions as a writer:
For me the film was like John Dos Passos translated to the screen, like an experience of one of those brief expressive biographies that punctuate USA. It was a revelation of an alert and clear-sighted view of modern life that I would aim for in my fiction. Getting away from sentimentality and melodrama, from any kind of self-deception.

April 17, 2011

I sometimes walked up the hill to visit the house I had lived in as a child

"I've been thinking about all of that, too. It seems to me that one life is actually many lives, and that they add up to something surprisingly long. My life then was nothing like my life now. I was someone else."

STILLS: The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971); Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995); Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001); Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007); The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928).
The title and the quote are from the stories "Ketchikan" and "Sukkwan Island", in Legend of a Suicide by David Vann (Penguin Books, 2009).

April 16, 2011

Subliminal helicopters

Helicopters in movies: also the C roll of Kenneth Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969). Assembled from scraps of Haight-Ashbury-era occultism originally intended for Lucifer Rising, mixed in with footage of the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park (plus their grim accomplices: Pallenberg, Faithfull, Hells Angels) and set to an abrasive Moog soundtrack by Mick Jagger -- seemingly replaced by Italian post-rock band Larsen on current internet versions (Anger's own doing? He has been known to alter the soundtracks -- when he toured Magick Lantern Cycle in New Zealand in 1993, the Janacek soundtrack to Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome had been replaced by ELO's album Eldorado), Invocation seemed in hindsight to condense all the chaotic energy of the late 60s into 11 minutes, with its associations somehow anticipating both the Manson story and Altamont. The first time I saw it, about 20 years ago now at a Wellington Film Society screening, I was convinced I saw helicopters all through it; specifically, an image of a US helicopter discharging marines into a field in Vietnam, with the movement of the marines synched with the stuttering forward-motion of Jagger's Moog soundtrack. The next time I saw the film, the image of helicopters was barely there. This is why:
New techniques for undermining conscious control are introduced [in Invocation of My Demon Brother]. The most striking of these is Vietnam footage of a helicopter setting down a troop of marines. Here, Anger printed one continuous loop of film on a C roll played simultaneously to the other two rolls. He has suggested that this image, which we only consciously register twice, is visible throughout the film with the help of infra-red glasses. The footage is intended to heighten the viewer's anxiety. Anger believes that audiences will sense the flow of men through the film, even when they are unable to see them.
-- Anna Powell, from "A Torch for Lucifer" in Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger, edited by Jack Hunter. Creation Books, 2002.

April 13, 2011

Blades of glory

Watching La Dolce Vita again the other morning, and thinking about the fantastic helicopter scene over Rome that opens it, with one helicopter shifting a statue of Christ and the other a news helicopter tracking it -- which has been interpreted as either a parody of the Second Coming or Fellini telling us that everything that follows this prologue is taking place in a post-Christian world (the second interpretation, personally) -- I wondered: is this one of the great helicopter scenes? Surely it is.

Call this a social media experiment. The best helicopter moments in films, I said on Twitter. Apocalypse Now. La Dolce Vita. Blue Thunder. Black Hawk Down. Those are the inevitable choices; the last two films are even named for their helicopters, films where machinery matters as much as humans.

Twitter responses: Emily Perkins nominated Thelma and Louise. Steve Braunias nominated Unstoppable. (We now have two Ridley Scotts and one Tony Scott). Charlie Gates nominated the helicopter moment in The Godfather Part III as the only good bit in that film -- a fantastic helicopter attack scene I'd totally forgotten about (two Coppolas now). Cheryl Bernstein liked "Goodfellas, in the last days before the FBI move in". Matt Nippert said "You'd also have to include Jarhead -- but admittedly that's the scene where the marines are cheering on Apocalypse Now ..." Is there a fresh way of doing helicopters after Apocalypse Now/Vietnam? Even Avatar's helicopter-in-jungle scenes were Vietnam derivatives. The other way is apocalyptic: spectacular helicopter business in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, with helicopter as both escape device and killing machine.

April 9, 2011

Music for deconsecration

The footage is of Roy Montgomery performing in a sound art/experimental music event at St Luke's church, Kilmore Street, Christchurch, in March 2009. Roy performs rarely and this is one of those times when I've kicked myself for not going -- it is absolutely unrepeatable. The historic gothic revival church was so badly hit in the February 22 earthquake that it must be demolished. Tomorrow morning (Sunday April 10) it is to be deconsecrated by the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, ahead of its demolition.