Naked and spectacular

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2022-03-10

Tired of watching films? A 1990 Bill Gosden speech

I was recently reading an interview with the new director of the Sydney Film Festival where he was asked the question anyone in a similar position can expect to be asked about 1000 times a year.

Don't you get tired of watching films?

Not at all, he replied. What could be more fun? I watch four or five films in a day and I find it exhilarating. Wow, I thought, you can spot the new ones.

Confronted by an interviewer asking the same question I might attempt a similarly ingenious response, but I know that here I can go into much more detail. And because so many people have expressed an interest over the years in this enthralling subject, I've decided to fill my allotted space tonight by telling you how I see movies – and whether or not I get tired of them.

The first thing to point out is that I became used to being paid rather than paying to watch movies at an impressionable age. As a first-year university student I received $20 a fortnight to preview the movies coming to Dunedin and to write the occasional precocious, brilliant review. There can be little doubt I considered myself an arbiter of taste. Of course one of the tragedies of youth is that so much of what strikes you as fresh, bold, original, daring, even precocious and brilliant is actually being recycled by cynical hacks for the thirty-sixth time.

What I saw in movies twenty years ago was probably a good deal more than you'd know from reading what I wrote back then. Movies were mere pretexts for trying poses. “Attitude” wasn't such a recognised phenomenon back then, but a movie column in the student newspaper was the perfect vehicle for lots of it. The cool and lofty heights from which I admired Joseph Losey's The Go-Between (1971) and deplored Mel Brooks's farty Blazing Saddles (1974) collapsed beneath me when I came to consider the films that really moved me, like Cabaret (1972) or the great movies made in the early '70s by Sam Peckinpah. Writing about these I could only rave like a besotted fool or rail against those who couldn't recognise self-evident genius.

2022-02-23

Mess of the Demiurge

 
When it all started in March 2020 I was on board with the NZ Government Covid response. I was part of the Team of 5 Million. I was being kind. There was a global pandemic and the solution was a well-informed leadership and a population working together to stop the spread. The first lockdown will always be remembered as a special time in Wellington. The CBD was completely empty, everything was closed, no one was at work, the weather was extraordinarily beautiful and we all walked the streets, parks and beaches, relaxed and unusually friendly, happily keeping our two metre distance. Apart from police harassing people for sitting on benches on Oriental Parade, not considered essential exercise, it all made sense: we have closed the borders, there is very little covid here and if we don't allow it to spread we can eliminate it before it sets in. And it worked. Covid was completely eliminated from Aotearoa for months and life returned to relative normality. We enjoyed our well-earned complacency as Covid swept through much of the rest of the world. It was understood early that in the event of mass acute Covid hospitalisations, the health system would be overwhelmed and not be able to cope. Despite this, and with all that Covid-free time to work with, no serious attempt was made to increase the capacity or efficiency of the health system.


From the very beginning there were two narratives. There was the clear narrative of the Government, reported every day by our charismatic Prime Minister, Jacinda even gave us updates from her own living room with her child running around in the background. Then there was this strange story that I read about only on Facebook from people who proclaimed that Covid was a hoax or that it was caused by 5G. “Let's be honest,” I posted. “You don't really know if that's true or not.” The other story seemed quite unreasonable and unrealistic and I didn't understand why people were asserting it.


The second nationwide lockdown felt banal and irritating. The CBD was no less busy, everyone was wearing masks, less social distancing, disgust and impatience with anyone coming near. It was an unusually unfriendly time. Auckland was in lockdown for three months. I don't claim to be a health expert, to have access to data or to be able to interpret it better than anyone else, but it is an extreme thing for a government to lockdown an entire population. It is not and will never be casual, something you just try to see if it works. I began to doubt whether it was all worthwhile.


At what point does the Covid response become worse than Covid was ever going to be? This to me is a fundamental question, but tends to receive a reactionary response. It does not suggest an answer, that no Covid response would have been better. It simply suggests the consideration, whether it has already happened or may happen in the future, that the response has done more damage than the virus was ever going to. The reactionary response is a result of the fact that there are only two possible stories: either you swallow whole the narrative of the Government and their Experts or you are a Conspiracy Theorist fueled by Fake News. Almost everyone seems content to place themselves in one of these two camps. I prefer to reserve judgement and remain sceptical. From my perspective, it is highly unlikely that either story is completely true.

2021-12-03

Early cinema of Jane Campion (1990) by Bill Gosden

Bill Gosden was, for almost 40 years, director of the New Zealand International Film Festival.  Upon the one-year anniversary of his death The Gosden Years was released by Victoria University Press.  It is a beautifully produced collection of his writing about cinema and the art of the film festival.  His huge contribution to Aotearoa cinema culture as an exhibitor and curator is widely appreciated.  This book acknowledges his contribution to writing about film and the innovative poster art that he often collaborated with designers and artists to create.  Below is an article not included in the book that he wrote in 1990.

Early cinema of Jane Campion (1990)

A tragic tale of suffocation by family, shot through with bizarre, black comedy, Sweetie is a daring, original and, I think, marvellous movie. It parodies neurotic behaviour while exhibiting an intense commitment to the neurotic point of view. It's a potent blend. Comedy heightens tragedy, tragedy heightens comedy until you can't tell one from the other.

In competition at Cannes, Sweetie's emptied-out performances and full-on visual style earned the contempt of French experts who recognised contrivance but lacked any understanding of the verbally inarticulate world Campion was contriving to express. Closer to home there have been plenty, equally uncomprehending, who found Sweetie equally infuriating. “The work of an enthusiastic amateur,” sniffed one New Zealand critic.

Sweetie, it seems, is a film you love or hate. There have been as many accolades as insults; the film has even won prizes in France. Because her work has such a distinctively Australian/New Zealand inflection (or twang, if you prefer), it's a relief to us hometown cheerleaders that Sweetie has accumulated admirers throughout the English-speaking world.

For if Jane Campion is an amateur then she is so only in the sense that not one of her films contains a hint of professional assignment. In ten years she has expressed a rich, strikingly individual view of the world in a remarkably varied, utterly coherent body of work.

Sex with Straight Guys

 Originally published in RFD #186, "Summer of Sleaze II", the international Radical Faerie magazine.

 

Recently I was sitting in a cafe overhearing a conversation between two straight guys. “I wanna get fucked tonight. I haven't been fucked in ages.” “Fuck yeah, dude, I really need to get fucked too.” They were talking about getting drunk, but it's not what it sounded like to me. What is it about straight guys? Is it simply wanting what I can't have? An addiction to disappointment and rejection? That particular nonchalance? Sometimes it feels extra special when someone chooses to engage with me because they are truly interested in me, rather than cos we like the same stuff sexually. Sometimes I think “straight guy” is a mental illness. The ones I love are gentle, loving, with intelligence and integrity. Why, then, are they so uptight? In my desire to fully explore the depths of connection with a special guy, I don't care if he's straight, but usually he does. For this reason we have found a strange, wonderful and dodgy array of ways in which to manifest our mutual desire to connect when our visions of connection are so different.

 

Darby first captured my erotic attention one stoned night in our student flat. He cornered me in the kitchen, picked up a knife and offered to cut me open and eat my intestines. Semi-erect and scared of death, I was frozen and silent, stupefied. Another night, when I was drunk and vomiting, hanging over his toilet, he thoughtfully and lovingly got me naked and into the shower to bring me back to life. Afterwards we stood together and he leaned in to kiss me. I leaned in and he leaned back, he leaned forward again and leaned back when I came close, a deliberate cruel tease. I joyously allowed myself to be manipulated while simultaneously developing a genuine friendship with this fascinating and narcissistic guy. Trying to start an orgy, he called me into the bathroom where he was hard and inside his girlfriend, inviting me to play with his balls. We became best friends and went out to a gay club together, just the two of us. “I'm definitely bi,” he shouted in my ear over the noise. “Some of these guys are hot!” Back at his place I don't know how he was feeling but I was horny as fuck, resulting in a very intense wrestling match in our underwear, throwing each other around the room, slamming against the walls. We never expressed physical intimacy together in private, though I did suck his cock briefly in another awkward group sex situation and I still remember the look of pleasure and disgust on his face. Eventually I got so in my head about the relationship that we couldn't even be friends anymore.

 

2021-03-09

Cousins [2021] by Briar Grace-Smith and Ainsley Gardiner

 Entwines the very different lives of three Maori girls, cousins, through tumultuous decades, after one of them is taken from her family and raised in an orphanage.


A very moving and cinematic adaptation of Patricia Grace's novel, very effectively condensed into movie length while maintaining the scope and complexity of the multiple threads. The lives of these three women, though particular and intimate, effectively represents a larger story of a culture interrupted by colonialism but regaining its strength and groundedness. The interaction between the personal and the cultural, memory and the moment, are woven together with various events, spanning decades, creating a complex portrait revealing how the past, the present and the future interact with each other, how members of a family interact through space and time, in life and in death.  Though the performances were sometimes uneven, the editing and Terence Malick-like cinematography very skillfully conveyed a specific yet expansive spiritual and cultural journey through the entire lives of three compelling and tangible characters.

2021-03-07

Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981] by Steven Spielberg

 American arrogance as entertainment product

Why is Indiana Jones the hero of this movie? He murders hundreds of people in order to steal valuable artefacts from poor countries. He's not even charming. He's just American. His intelligence is entirely unconvincing. His only apparent ability is determination, and of course miraculous amounts of luck. He is the hero cos John Williams's score makes a catchy noise when he takes action. Ford's performance is only grimace, brawn and hat.

2020-09-02

Tenet [2020] by Christopher Nolan

Loud and impenetrable

A man on an international mission to save the world from the deadliest weapon of all, the future.

Two moods: excessive incomprehensible exposition and LOUD incomprehensible action sequences. At no point do you know what is going on, nor are you given any reason to care. It is at all times tedious, meaningless and irritating. None of the characters are remotely interesting, much of the dialogue is inaudible and the ridiculous convolutions add up to nothing. And this cost over $200 million to make.

2018-11-22

Death in Venice [1971] by Luchino Visconti


Death in Venice is a sumptuously beautiful Technicolor immersion into pesilential Venice. Dirk Bogarde gives a lot in his performance as the isolated composer Gustav von Aschenbach.  He is holidaying alone in Venice to recover from the overwhelming stresses of his life, particularly of being massively uptight and self-denying, while simultaneously giving of himself through the committed and considered perfection of his music. 

Flashbacks of passionate conversations with a friend spell out explicitly how we are to interpret the present scenes in Venice. There is no separation between the man and his music; he expects perfection of himself, moral purity, and no corruption through a mere pleasure of the senses. He dreams of a spiritual beauty that is pure and perfect. And he discovers this in the beautiful form of a teenage boy he sees in his Venice hotel, holidaying with his family, the magnificently beautiful Björn Andérsen. He observes this boy from afar but does not dare to approach him. Tadzio notices his attention and is as captivated by his gaze as Gustav is captivated to gaze upon him. But, as we are so clearly told in the flashback philosophical conversations, his engagement with life is as a detached observer.

Bogarde's performance is excruciating in its precision and commitment to communicating, through almost no dialogue and often merely sitting alone, the painful self-loathing expressed as pomposity and cowardice. Gustav is horrified in the beginning to encounter a painted and flamboyant queen who addresses him on equal terms, as if to a fellow queen. He does not want to humiliate himself with such shameless abandon.

Tadzio plays with his attention and the power it gives him, but Gustav cannot act, cannot place himself on the line, cannot risk to feel so much, cannot allow himself the potential pleasure promised by engagement with this beautiful young man fluttering about in front of him like a butterfly. I suppose this self-loathing and self-denial speaks to a very specific queer experience that would have been all too common at the time, and only somewhat less so today. The expression of queer desire and admiration of beauty is more permissible in Western societies today, but the admiration of the beauty of adolescent boys, is less permissible perhaps.

Gustav's struggle is as much present in the languorous gaze of the camera, its subtle movements and carefully editing, as it is in Bogarde's performance.

While I find it unpleasant to identify with Bogarde's character in very personal and humiliating ways the film remains a work of beauty and sympathy, with the squalid and dangerous beauty of Venice and the as-yet-uncorrupted beauty of Tadzio, perhaps equally dangerous.

2018-11-14

Never Say Die [1988] by Geoff Murphy

Flashbacks with Geoff Murphy - A Retrospective Trip

The Geoff Murphy retrospective at Ngā Taonga Sight & Vision (the film archive) in Wellington has begun and runs until 30 November.

It begins with Never Say Die (1988). A young couple are mysteriously pursued by people with increasingly elaborate attempts to kill them; they narrowly escape death repeatedly. A sexy, fun and totally incoherent thriller full of car chases and shoot-outs; with a plot that barely manages to justify the set pieces and certainly doesn't do anything else. A Lethal Weapon-style '80s Hitchcock leaning precariously towards a Buster Keaton routine. Ultimately trash, but light and effortless, with sexy and engaging star performances from Temuera Morrison and Lisa Eilbacher. If the film has any meaning perhaps it can be contained in the opening narration in which Tem's character complains about the narrow-minded Kiwi mentality, as long as you know that this film, so obviously a plea for attention from Hollywood, was Murphy's last film in New Zealand before his long journey in America as a director for hire.