Dominic Corry: The genius of Geoff Murphy

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Dominic Corry takes in the work of iconic Kiwi filmmaker Geoff Murphy.

Veteran filmmaker Geoff Murphy. Photo / Listener
Veteran filmmaker Geoff Murphy. Photo / Listener

South Island. A remote West Coast road. The very early '80s.

Two endearing larrikins in a stolen yellow Mini speed pass a parked police car containing an officer and a lady friend locked in an intimate embrace.

"Is that cop pulling out?" enquires one of the larrikins.

At the risk of appearing to focus on the puerile, that line has always represented my experience of legendary New Zealand filmmaker Geoff Murphy.

The joke was entirely lost on me when I first saw Goodbye Pork Pie. I was far too caught up in the non-stop popcorn thrills the film offered up. Plus I was nine-years-old.

In a sequence of events that applies to all of Murphy's major local works, I was only able to appreciate the splendidly lewd double entendre upon my second helping of Goodbye Pork Pie several years later, having matured enough to comprehend the delightful word play.

Kelly Johnson and Tony Barry in 'Good Bye Pork Pie'.
Kelly Johnson and Tony Barry in 'Good Bye Pork Pie'.

It was also while revisiting Goodbye Pork Pie (and indeed all his films) that I came to fully appreciate just what Murphy brought to New Zealand cinema (apart from dodgy sex puns): an ability to wholeheartedly and successfully embrace genre without compromising the New Zealand context in any way.

His New Zealand feature films are amongst the most entertaining we've ever produced, and they all hit identifiable genre beats, but none of them feel anything less than 100 per cent pure Kiwi.

This ability to consistently fuse commerical filmmaking instincts with uniquely New Zealand stories is unmatched in our industry. It's understandable that many Kiwi filmmakers reject traditional genre tropes in the name of telling a "New Zealand" story, but Murphy was always able to serve both ends at the expense of neither.

It is perhaps ironic that New Zealand's first commercially successful film director mastered the skill in a context born entirely out of a decidedly non-commercial impulse to cruise around the country in a big bus with a bunch of mates and play music, make short films and put on shows.

I am of course referring to Blerta - 'The Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition' - a collection of actors, filmmakers and musicians (usually all three at once) who went on to dance around the world and form the basis of the modern New Zealand film industry. From 1970 - 75, Murphy, Lawrence and many other notable friends fused music, live performance and film to the delight of audiences all around the country.

It's impossible not to draw a connection between this communal enterprise and the inherently collaborative nature of feature filmmaking. Plus the everyone-does-everything Blerta experience helped render Murphy a master of a huge variety of skills, both practical and artistic; a defining trait of the most assured directors.

A huge pile of the Monty Python-meets-Soul Train-meets-A Hard Days Night material can be seen in the relentlessly fascinating full-length compile, Blerta Revisited.

Further insight into the Blerta days can be found in this episode of '80s current affairs show Close Up.

Murphy's storytelling acumen can be easily identified in a notable pre-Blerta short, Tank Busters, a kind of proto-Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels effort from 1969 in which Murphy himself (looking like a handsomer George Harrison) commands the screen in a central role. Bruno Lawrence also appears of course. As 'Bruno'.

Going back even further, Lawrence, Murphy and co were clearly having a good time with the 1965 short film/music video Hurry Hurry Faster Faster. Lawrence incarnates 'Dr. Brunowski' and Murphy propels the action at a footloose pace (a baton later picked up by The Front Lawn in films like Walkshort).

Murphy's first directorial brush with a wide audience came with the stunning, rarely-seen TV drama Uenuku, now available to view by the wider public for the first time since it was first broadcast in 1974. This ground-breaking adaptation of the Maori legend was the first TV programme to be broadcast entirely in te reo.

It's a fascinating watch - Murphy ensures the storytelling sustains itself visually, and the whole enterprise (complete with vertiginous final?) has the quality of a Maori-specific episode of the original black and white The Twilight Zone. It's a spooky treasure.

Another often-overlooked bridge between the Blerta days and the firecracker that was to be Goodbye Pork Pie is the 1977 Murphy-directed Wild Man. The ramshackle pioneer tale full of familiar faces (check out John Clarke's accent!) can be viewed in its entirety here.

Geoff Steven, a contemporary of Murphy's who directed the 1978 feature Skin Deep, charts this fertile period through to the success of films like Sleeping Dogs; Smash Palace and of course Goodbye Pork Pie in his illuminating 1990 documentary Cowboys of Culture.

Sleeping Dogs got there first; Once Were Warriors got all the critical love and more people have seen Whale Rider, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue with the assertion that 1981's Goodbye Pork Pie is New Zealand's most iconic film.

Murphy's crowd-pleasing filmmaking instincts were finely honed by the time Goodbye Pork Pie hit. It easily functions as New Zealand's Bonnie & Clyde; New Zealand's Easy Rider; New Zealand's Jules et Jim; New Zealand's Smokey and the Bandit and New Zealand's Police Academy all rolled into one. But it's also got an enduring anarchic flavour of its own that defies specific articulation.

The gender politics may be a little, er ... dated, but the entertainment value has remained wholly intact in the three decades since it was released, as has the sheer fist-pump-inducing fervour of its anti-authoritarian message.

A trailer, excerpts and a wealth of interviews with people involved in the making of the film can be found on the Goodbye Pork Pie page, none more entertaining than Radio New Zealand film critic Simon Morris' brief talk with the director. After Morris introduces their interview by presenting his articulate but lengthy summation of how Goodbye Pork Pie's underlying message was initially overlooked by the filmgoing public, the eternally laconic Murphy patiently awaits his chance to talk, then responds with: "Well I'm very pleased you brought that up. What was it again?"

Murphy's follow-up to Pork Pie was the ambitious historical drama Utu, which has been getting a lot of attention lately thanks to the release of a re-edited and re-mastered version known as Utu Redux.

'Utu Redux' directed by Geoff Murphy.
'Utu Redux' directed by Geoff Murphy.

At the time, it was New Zealand's biggest ever local production, and the scale of the film can be easily discerned in Making Utu; a full-length look behind the scenes of the film from director Gaylene Preston (Mr Wrong; Perfect Strangers).

Future Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori can be seen as the first assistant director, while the awesomely low-key Murphy looks like someone who wandered in off the street to see what all the fuss was about.

Although Utu is often cited as his masterpiece, Murphy's subsequent film is his defining work in my eyes, and it currently stands as my all-time favourite New Zealand film. I'm talking about 1986's The Quiet Earth - an enduring sci-fi thriller with a reputation that continues to spread globally. There's even a reasonably popular sci-fi film website named after it.

No film better exemplifies Murphy's ability to tell propulsive, affecting genre stories within a New Zealand setting - this is a masterwork of its form in global terms; a haunting thriller that effectively harnessed the eeriness of going into central Auckland on a Sunday before 1990.

For an insight into how The Quiet Earth (and Murphy's other works) were viewed compared to contemporaneous films, check out this episode of Kaleidoscope from 1987 which looks at the boom in New Zealand filmmaking that followed 1977's Sleeping Dogs.

Murphy's next film would be his last in New Zealand for a while. 1988's Never Say Die was a valiant attempt to mount an American-style 80s action film in New Zealand. The Temuera Morrison movie isn't as well remembered as Murphy's other works, but I have a soft spot for Never Say Die, and I wish modern local filmmakers would attempt something with similar intentions. Along with 1985's Shaker Run, this comprises New Zealand Action Cinema's Golden Period.

Murphy's talents at this point took him to Hollywood, where he directed a string of efficient studio genre films, the best examples of which all had "two" in the title: Young Guns II, Fortress 2 and Under Siege II: Dark Territory - a criminally under-appreciated action thriller that stands as Steven Seagal's best ever film.

When Peter Jackson began mounting the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1999, he wasn't about to let someone with Murphy's skills go to waste, and Murphy was employed as a second unit director. He performed similar duties on the American action film xXx: The Next Level; returning the favour to Lee Tamahori (Murphy's first assistant director on Utu and The Quiet Earth).

But Murphy wasn't done mounting his own movies, and in 2004 released his most recent feature as director to date, Spooked. Officially a fictional tale, Spooked was inspired by events detailed in journalist Ian Wishart's book The Paradise Conspiracy. It's undeniable fun seeing conspiracy thriller tropes play out in a New Zealand context, and with its first person voice over, jazzy score and shady shenanigans, it's possibly the closest thing we've ever seen to an example of Kiwi film noir.

It's been gratifying seeing the attention Murphy has been getting thanks to the release of Utu Redux. Even within the context of New Zealand's persistently problematic relationships with its major artists, it's hard to shake the feeling he is underrated [notwithstanding his 2013 Arts Icon Award.

Murphy's major works effortlessly straddle a line that every Kiwi filmmaker struggles with, and with them he played the largest single role in establishing what passes for a New Zealand cinematic identity.

If I was forced to look beyond the 'commercial-instincts-infusing-New-Zealand-stories' dynamic and identify exactly why his films endure, I would say it's because they posed questions rather than provided answers. That kind of storytelling doesn't age.

It's an approach perfectly encapsulated by another (cleaner) quote from Goodbye Pork Pie, this one spoken by the immortal Bruno Lawrence as Mulvaney.

"There's only one sure thing in life Blondini, and that's doubt. I think."

Originally published at NZ On Screen.

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