Watching brief

Peter Calder at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland

All a blur

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Life goes on -  Oceans . Photo / Supplied
Life goes on - Oceans . Photo / Supplied

Well, what a disappointment Oceans was.

Don't get me wrong: the images were gobsmacking and delivered everything one might have hoped for. But I am not sure what infuriated me more: the banal, overwrought, grotesquely anthropomorphic commentary or the fact that the projectionist at the Civic couldn't get the bloody thing in focus.

In the end it has to be the latter. Crap commentary is par for the course for nature documentaries, in particular on the big screen, so it's no surprise that this one's unctuous voiceover (by Pierce Brosnan) was every bit as bad as the worst: an anemone is feminised, as fish hide "in her folds"; we get told that "life goes on" so often I wanted to scream; seals were described as playing, sharks as smiling playmates, narwhals as "the unicorns of the sea".

Nothing was left to be what it is. There was scarcely a sentence that did not drip with misguided assumptions about how animals feel (although I did like the kiss-off line: maybe we should stop asking what kind of place the ocean is and start asking what kind of creatures we are).

It made one long for Sir David Attenborough who never says anything that's not interesting, knows that he should shut up when he has nothing interesting to say and doesn't see the faintest resemblance between a penguin and a man in a dinner jacket or a dozing hippo and a fat uncle on the couch after Christmas dinner.

How much better would it be to see a nature documentary which had some simple information in brief intertitles and then left us to marvel at the visuals without swamping us with swelling music telling us what to think?

But even then, we would need to have the film in focus. I spent several years as a volunteer projectionist for the Auckland Film Society (I had the projectionist's certificate because I was a teacher and they gave me a free membership for my pains). I struggled with those cue marks - the little spot that flashes in the top right-hand corner of the screen every 15 minutes or so in a movie is not an imperfection; it's a sign to the projectionist to fire up the second projector for a reel change). But mostly I sort of nailed it .

Anyway, when I started, the projectors were behind a dark cloth screen in the middle of a hall near where the Classic Comedy Club is now. In my latter days we got a booth up the back and the first thing impressed on me was this: once you have started the film, step outside and see what it's like for the audience. Is it too loud (or quiet) and IS IT IN BLOODY FOCUS?

This may be a thing of the past. At a screening at the Rialto of the excellent Scheherazade Tell Me a Story we were forced to endure the entire (rather luscious) title sequence with the framing wrong so that the bottom third of the screen was black. My increasingly frantic remonstrations with the usher were assigned the urgency given to an archaeological discovery.

At the Oceans screening, I am told, the person whose job it is to monitor the projectionist's performance complained about the focus and was overruled. That's collective wisdom for you.

Maybe the film will come back. If so, I strongly suggest you go. Take noise-cancelling headphones, And pray for a projectionist not crippled by myopia.

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