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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.

During this same period I was also being paid for watching films in another way. I tore tickets for Amalgamated Theatres. The manager of the Dunedin Octagon, Owen Kenny, was a kind and humorous man, but he had enormous respect for uniform, law and order. The police were his constant guests. The call of their RTS was a familiar sound in the back stalls and during the era of the rock concert movie many a patron emulating the dope smoking in Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971) quickly learnt the difference between the good times on the screen and good times at the Octagon Theatre.

Regrettably, there was rarely any major police work for the staff, but there was fire department work galore. I have never met anybody who worked in a more fire-conscious theatre than we did at the Octagon. Every fire regulation was observed to the hilt. On Saturday mornings we practised putting out burning tyres. We sat multi-choice fire-fighting exams in our own time and we were inspected by the fire department constantly, always passing with flying colours. It was a great day for Mr Kenny when The Towering Inferno (1974) came to town and he was able to combine his interest in fire management with his excellent instincts as a showman. The two fire safety slides – no smoking and note the exits – which every cinema must play were relocated and shown after the houselights went down in an ominous silence immediately preceding the film. The audience could virtually feel the flames licking the backs of their necks, and the film hadn't even begun.

Now, the point of all this is that fire regulations stipulated that staff members sit with the audience at all times and this, of course, entailed watching films. This could entail watching the same film four times a day and it was from this experience that I learnt that watching a film can sometimes resemble watching a clock and that a film unspools as inflexibly and as inexorably as time itself. And whenever watching a film is bad it is to this perception I return, this ghastly sense of watching life blinking away at 24-frames-a-second.

For distraction we would watch the audience. Maybe you have no idea of how sordid and unworthy of your attention a film like Towering Inferno is until you've watched it trigger exactly the same response from four full houses a day over a holiday weekend. Some films illustrate the lowest common demoninator principle perfectly. But as all live performers know, different audiences can react very differently to the same material and there was some pleasure in seeing this happen. There still is.

Some films contained sequences one could watch forever; the dances in certain musicals, the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959). But only two films ever survived such constant repetition without becoming harrowing. One was Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940), in which every frame is so detailed that one never exhausts the invention. The other was Walt Disney's Swiss Family Robinson (1960) which had dazzled me as a child and turned out to be so riddled with continuity errors that one almost forgot that it was ridiculous on other levels as well.

These days if I see a film more than once it is usually because I choose to: and it's a relief to note that every year there are quite a few in that category. But every year there are many more that are a trial to sit through once.

Most of these can be seen at the London Film Festival where the rows are long and close together and you have to bribe the box-office staff with drinks if you want to sit on the aisles. Seeing films at any major festival one is surrounded by other professional movie watchers. You can tell you're amongst professionals because you can hear the snoring. Not everyone is physically capable of finding four or five movies a day exhilarating and I have to admit that at the London Film Festival I've dozed off during some fairly excellent films. Peter Scarlet, director of the San Francisco Film Festival, one of the world's best, is respected by his peers for his ability to nod off in the most uncomfortable of screening rooms and to rest his weary head on the shoulders of complete strangers.

Even for Peter, this is not always possible. For amongst the realms of the professional film-watchers, there are those who seem to approach movies the way some people approach assault courses. Most of them are critics, readily identifiable by the glow of their pen-lights. Tim Pulleine, from the Guardian, is particularly notorious.

You know you've really pissed off the box-office staff when you're seated next to this guy. He writhes about in his seat, he groans, he sighs, he clutches his forehead, he covers his eyes and he talks to himself. Listen carefully and you might hear tomorrow's review.

Talking through the movies is common in these circles, but it can be hard to complain when the stars in the audience sometimes outshine the stars on the screen. Sitting next to Jeremy Irons, in front of Peter O'Toole and virtually underneath Adelaide Hall has definititely coloured my view of the movies I was watching. Adelaide Hall was with an elderly friend at the archive screening of The Thief of Bagdad.

The presence of the perpetrators can exercise a major influence on how you see their films – as many a publicist is well aware. I remember seeing Jane Birkin in a very tedious film, aptly called Dust (1985). After the film she was on stage for twenty minutes being gorgeous and charming to all the men who stood up to tell her how gorgeous and charming she was. Everyone left under the impression that they'd had a great time.

There's no more striking example though of such audience manipulation than that exercised by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. Before his Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), he advises the audience that the film is terrible, that they've already wasted their money, but there's no need to waste their time as well and that they'd be much better off to skip the movie and join him in the bar.

Before the film began the Finnish contingent (all male) carried a coffin into the cinema and placed it on the stage. There's a running joke in the film about this coffin which the band carry across America on their roof-rack. It contains their frozen bass guitarist and an apparently endless supply of beer. At the end of the movie, Aki and his retainers reappeared, picked up the coffin and left the theatre followed by half the audience. It was five hours before the beer ran out, the party ended and Leningrad Cowboys was invited to at least ten more festivals, where they're probably partying to this day. These guys would be a publicists dream except that they're spending more on beer than they're taking in ticket sales.

Publicists are paid to meddle with your responses to films and it's alarming just how successful some of them are. The best of them have the knack for winning the confidence of each critic or buyer on a very personal individual level and letting slip some potent scrap of information almost casually. In Australia I recently witnessed the launch of a rather incoherent film called Baxter (1989) which purports to represent a dog's vision of several families who adopt him. At breakfast before the screening I hear the publicist confiding in one of the newspaper critics that the film, for all its surface comedy, is actually a disturbing study of the psychological roots of facism. Two days later out comes the review saying pretty much the same thing.

Compiling Festival programme notes we see just how successfully publicists have fertilised the minds of critics. Neil Jillett was perversely aware of this. Key phrases from the presskits turn up again and again all over the world. It was recently noted in Sight & Sound that Pauline Kael, arguably the world's best film critic, always attends public screenings. This always seems to be the best way to see films, although not in New Zealand where there are intervals and sub-standard projection and audiences who think they're at home watching television.

A growing number of critics these days prefer to watch films on video, which may help avoid the publicists, but it's a dangerous trend. Increasingly I'm watching films on tape myself. I'm sure you can make mistakes. No Time for Tears (1984, Der Fall Bachmeier), the German film about Marianne Bachmeier who walked into a courtroom and shot the murderer of her small daughter was one example. On tape this film seemed white hot. On the big screen the fury didn't look a lot different from a television disease of the week. There are a few video experiences I remember vividly; sitting in the basement of the old Sydney Filmmakers Coop watching The Evil Dead (1981) and more recently sitting in the busy Frameline office in San Francisco watching Common Threads (1989), a film about AIDS, and choking back the tears as around me the Frameline staff answered the phone, made photocopies, chatted to couriers and life went on.

I'm often in much closer contact with the film's producers or owners. Watching a film in a small screening room with the director present is, generally speaking, something to avoid. I haven't had to do it too often but I did do it the first time I went to Japan.

My initial contact in Japan was anxious to further the career in the West of a young director she particularly admired. It was my birthday. She, the director, a translator and I sat in a tiny projection room and watched what I initially took to be my first Japanese gay movie. About the stage when the young protagonist began masturbating into envelopes and addressing the envelopes to his pop star idol, I began to detect a satirical edge to the work. By the time the two central characters had bitten off each other's dicks and writhed for ten minutes on the bloodied floor, I knew this was a gay movie the way Norm Jones was a gay bikie. As the house lights came up three pairs of eyes looked my way. “Why did you make this movie?” I asked. Director and translator conferred and then came the considered reply: “To tell queers to keep away from me.” His wishes were respected.

Jane McKenzie told me the story of Tony Rayns, the well-known British critic who exercises considerable influence on what Asian films are seen in the West, fleeing from the same man in the same screening room, crying, “I refuse to be in the same building as this fascist.”

Young directors with short films who come seeking advice are a difficult breed. Criticism, no matter how gentle, can go down very badly, and I've ended more than one session hearing that I'm a talentless, envious parasite intent on destroying the truly creative.

One of my most alarming close encounters with a filmmaker while watching his or her film came when I had the misfortune to walk into a producer's office three days before her first release-print on a brand new film was due from the lab. Perfect, she said, you can be the first person outside the film to see it. I shall be extremely interested in your reactions. This turned out to be a major understatement. In the large viewing theatre she sat next to me and monitored my reactions as closely as those of the wired-up Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971). And she was good. She sensed every flinch. She knew which bits I found boring and she knew which bits I found totally implausible. She knew which bits I simply hated. And she knew why. If she ever needs a job she could ghost write for lazy film critics by simply sitting beside them and interpreting their reactions.

Another barrier to be negotiated in professional film-watching is, of course, translation. We're all familiar with inadequate subtitles. Simultaneous translation can be even more hair-raising. The translator gets the pages out of order, loses his or her place, the sound system fails. The worst I've heard was for one of Godard's Dolby stereo exercises in which layers of overlapping snatches of dialogue were all translated by the same monotonous British voice. The cacophony was intolerable and I fled.

In Japan from time to time I've attended public screenings and I've relied on friends to whisper simultaneous translation in my ear. On one recent occasion my friend became so exasperated with the wimpy characters on screen that his translations began to break down into such lines as, “No, I'm sorry, this is ridiculous. I refuse to translate this.” and, “God, I don't believe it.” until eventually he was saying, “Believe me, they do not want this film in New Zealand.”

I think it would be interesting to hear this kind of story from the filmmaker's point of view. It's very tempting to be evasive when forced into a quick opinion. But, as you see, its not always possible.

Of course, when the films that somehow survive all this interference are playing here in our own Festivals, I'm not so much watching movies as monitoring the projection. Elsewhere in the world this is considered a legitimate occupation for the employees of film festivals. Most have a direct phone link to the projection box from the auditorium. In Cannes, at the competition, the phone is in the hands of the film's director. In New Zealand things are a bit different and watching a movie becomes exercise as I sprint up and down the stairs.

So why do I insist on sitting in the front row? I guess it's because I like the unimpeded view and the lack of distraction. I guess it's because I've never got tired of watching movies.

In fact, one Sunday last year at the Wellington Film Festival I darted back and forth from one venue to another and caught four excellent films. The fourth of these was a piece of programming I particularly liked: Kitchen Sink (1989) and Dead Ringers (1988). The picture was perfect. The audience couldn't have been more appreciative. I hadn't had so much fun in a long time. No doubt about it. It was exhilarating.

 

Bill Gosden (1953-2020) was the director of the New Zealand International Film Festival for almost 40 years, a hard-working and committed cultural figure and a great writer.  The commemorative book of his time at the film festival, The Gosden Years, is now available.

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