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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.

 Her first film, Peel, was made at the Australian Film and Television School in 1982 and won the Best Short Award at Cannes a mere four years later. It's the nine-minute tale of a red-headed family (and a bag of oranges) whose weekend drive in the sun-blasted Australian countryside becomes a fractious riot. Seeing this film now, it's as if Campion sprang forth as a fully developed filmmaker from the first. Like most student films, Peel was made on 16mm, but unlike most, it's framed for widescreen; it demands to be blown up. Its use of colour is just as bold – as the synopsis suggests. Deep-seated family antagonisms are rendered compactly, deftly and outrageously, just as they are in so much later work. It's a very self-assured debut and one which apparently took a good deal of determination to see through. Where did this young filmmaker come from?

Jane was born in the early '50s and grew up in Wellington, the small capital city of New Zealand. It would be a mistake to assume that her own background resembles the cultural desert inhabited by many of her characters. Her parents, theatre director Richard Campion and actress Edith Hannah, numbered many of the liveliest minds and personalities of the day amongst their friends and colleagues.

She graduated bachelor of anthropology from Victoria University before leaving for Europe at the age of 21. She spent a year at the Chelsea School of Arts then completed the course at Sydney College of Arts in Australia where she has lived ever since. There she worked with super-8 and became “completely obsessed” with films. A year later she went to the Australian Film and Television School and a year after that, at the age of 26, she had developed the poise and the skills to give us Peel. She's a film school child, but her cultural heritage is broad and steeped in theatrical tradition as much as cinema.

Peel was followed, again at the AFTVS, by Girl's Own Story, a densely-packed, 28-minute black and white memoir of mid-'60s puberty blues. This film is as devastating and pungent a reminder of the excitement and ghastliness of early sexual experimentation as you could hope to see. If it weren't so mordantly funny or so breathtakingly frank in tackling material you never thought you'd see in a movie, Girl's Own Story might be unbearable.

Beatlemania rules. Black limousines cruise schoolgirls in the streets. The central girl's parents are embroiled in a messy sexual antagonism, the father a philanderer, the mother a highly-strung wreck. There's a virtuoso family dinner horrorshow scene. Another adolescent girl induces her younger brother to take off his clothes and “play cats”. Soon she is expecting their kitten.

The visual style – and the performance style – are what is popularly considered expressionist verging on grand guignol. Camera angles tilt the compositions. Individual characters face the lens, isolated in their appetite and dismay.

Girl's Own Story is co-written with Gerard Lee, a young Australian novelist who also contributed to Sweetie and who has a co-director as well as writer credit on Campion's next film, the 12-minute Passionless Moments. This uses a similarly exact, but less emphatic visual style to present several vignettes of everyday emptiness, meaningless moments in our lives when we mark the passage of time. Each moment is delineated in a deadpan narration too good to give away. The pictures distill the absurdist wryness of the script and seem distinctively Campion's.

The precise social location for each vignette is vividly enunciated. From a few telling interior details – the debris under a little girl's bed, the living-room of a young gay couple – a local audience might virtually pick the suburb that's hosting each particular passionless moment. Campion's detractors feel she foregrounds art direction, but the clutter in her movies is always vivid and always particular. She's descriptive; neither judgemental, nor condescending. She has a rare eye for heightened typicality and the bric-a-brac which surround so many of her characters can locate them as precisely as an accent locates a character in a film from England.

Of course she uses her props metaphorically too. It's not only oranges that get peeled in Peel. Girl's Own Story is full of spartan, comfortless-looking bar-heaters from which the young girls crave the warmth that their pin-ups of George, John, Ringo and Paul cannot supply. In Sweetie trees – all trees – are imputed with malign significance.

From her next film, After Hours, a half-hour drama for Australia's one non-commercial TV channel, the ABC, a metaphor is the only strong memory I retain. Like an over-ripe plum, it comes unstuck from the film. Directing her own script, she relates the investigation of an office sexual harassment charge and demonstrates how the dice are loaded against the victim. It's accurate, credible and in a looser style than usual. The recurring image is a frozen chicken in a plastic bag which bears, in large letters, the harassment victim's name.

Two Friends is a telefeature, produced by Jan Chapman for the ABC, from a script by the novelist Helen Garner. It retrieves and incorporates many themes from the earlier films and contains much that is new. It wants to be film, not television. There are few close-ups, much detail and, like Peel, it is framed for widescreen. Ironically no good prints or theatrical rights exist, and this film is best seen on tape.

Two Friends is the tale of two girls who have entered their teens inseparable, but are gradually prised apart by temperament, experiences and class. The tale is told backwards, like Pinter's Betrayal. It proceeds from a point where the two girls, one a bright, diligent schoolgirl and the other, a Sydney beach punkette, living with a man, couldn't seem less alike. We are drawn back in time to a high point in their friendship a year earlier when the seed of their separate development was barely discernible. We see several periods in between, each one of them a roundly informative, crisply delivered resumé, covering the many tributaries that flow into the everyday heartbreak that's taking place before our eyes.

It's a sad story, rendered all the more acute by Garner and Campion's analysis of why this friendhip couldn't survive the grown-up world. The time scheme lends distance, but not coolness, and there's a wider social perspective on display – as befits the larger canvas of a TV feature. The film is abundant with the increasingly recognisable Campion style: symbols and juxtapositions and colour codings that merge inconspicuously into the material. There are bizarre visual perspectives that highlight the eloquent, detailed décors. As in so much of Campion's work there's a hint of incest: at the very least the fathers that are unworthy recipients of their daughters' adoration.

A wide range of characters is clearly delineated in script, performance and direction, and their complex inter-relationships devolve in an immensely satisfying fashion. Like Passionless Moments and Girl's Own Story, this is a film you can watch over and over again for details you missed the other times. Campion's capacity to recapture the pains and confusions of adolescence is nicely complemented by and contrasted with Garner's generous, wry humour.

Campion does not see herself as aligned to any feminist ideology, but women's experience is always central. Here Garner's script provides a perspective that is unusual in Campion's work; she takes us outside the consciousness of the central characters. When the mother of one of the girls gets together with her friend and they discuss the tribulations of the youngsters, there's a lovely light-headed sense that these difficulties are not, after all, forever.

Three years later Sweetie escorts us back into the darkness. Even those of us familiar with the earlier films could see that this was a radical first feature. As we set out with the tremulous, uptight central character, Kay, the film might almost seem as doleful as she does – except that we're seeing the world through her eyes and it's an alarmingly action-packed place. Every startlingly framed shot overflows with life, colour and threat. Kay especially dreads trees. She dreams in terror of the subterranean advance of their roots, but even the patterns of the linoleum seem to swamp her.

As we meet the rest of her family, starting with her chronically uninhibited younger sister, Sweetie, all the emotions, the conflicts and the unadulterated sibling hatred that switched off Kay in the first place flood back into the picture. The film gets fuller and deeper and richer as it goes. By the time it's over you may want to see it again.

To resort to crude national stereotypes, Australians have been known to regard New Zealanders as pretentious, introverted, non-entities while New Zealanders often regard Australians as coarse, visceral braggarts. Some, including Variety's David Stratton, have called Sweetie the best Australian feature of the '80s. Many Australians, however, have been saying that Sweetie is “most definitely a New Zealand film”, and despite a lovely dreamlike interlude in the Australian outback, it's hard to disagree. The world the film expresses is dark, precious, incestuous and inarticulate. These are not Australian characteristics, although the humour with which they're regarded might be. What's beyond debate is that only in Australia could it ever have been possible for Campion to develop the strong personal style, the powerful visual articulacy to make this exceptional and unshakeable account of stunted growth.

In 1989 Jane Campion returned to New Zealand to film the autobiography of the writer Janet Frame. In the short time since To the Is-land, the first volume first appeared in 1983, this autobiography has achieved the status of a national classic. Not everyone has read it, of course, but everyone knows the story of the painfully shy, ungainly young woman who was considered insane, locked away for eight years and given shock treatment, but who remained a great poet and writer.

Janet Frame has called the adaptation “delightful” and it's not difficult to imagine her enjoyment of this telling of her story. An Angel at My Table is a much more conventional work than either Sweetie or the books on which it is based. For a start, it has a heroine. The portrait of a sweet-natured, imaginative, painfully embarrassed girl and young woman is a sympathetic and admiring one. There are passages of fierce identification with Frame's pain – her last sight of her sister Myrtle, her subjection to shock treatment, for example – that have a simpler, more direct emotional impact than anything Campion has done before.

Like all of her work and much of Frame's, Angel is characterised by arresting perceptions of the absurd and the beautiful in the ordinary. Beautifully shot, it also displays a keen, eerily accurate eye for the New Zealand past. Laura Jones, who wrote Gillian Armstrong's High Tide, has provided an adaptation with the modesty and good sense not to delve into the meanings behind those intriguing book titles: To the Is-land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City, for in many ways these are books about the unfilmable, about the very process of turning life into literature.

Originally made as a three-part serial for New Zealand television, Angel was released as a feature after it was acclaimed by audiences at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. Its failure to win the Grand Prix at Venice caused howls of protest. Easily her most directly appealing film, and none the less worth seeing for that, its popularity around the world should help Campion assemble the finance for her next project. It's another New Zealand tale, relating the experiences of a friend of Charlotte Brontë who settled in New Zealand in the 1850s. Campion described this project, The Piano Lesson, to Time Out as “more mature than any of my stuff so far; it's about the erotic processes of an adult relationship”.

It seems to me that Campion has always proceeded at her own measured pace. And she has always attracted or chosen the best of collaborators. Her next step seems a daunting one, but we can be sure that she's ready to make it – and by 1992 when the film is due I am sure many of us will be more than ready to see it and be amazed.

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