New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History Ed by Diane Pivac with Frank Stark and Lawrence McDonald
Te Papa Press in association with the New Zealand Film Archive $85
The thing about the movies that we've never got over is that they move. In doing so, they evoke a facsimile of life better than life itself. Even the "fractured flickers" of the early cinema commanded an instant suspension of disbelief. The story of the audience fleeing at the sight of a train coming towards them in an 1896 screening is surely an urban legend, but the fact is that, at a very primitive level, we continue to believe what we "see" on screen, regardless of its two-dimensional artifice.
A century of the movies has embedded that reality in human perception: 3D movies, no matter how thrilling, actually seem less, not more, realistic. It's been a long time since we marvelled at how real 2D looked; we just swallowed the illusion, greedily and whole.
The first exhibition of "moving pictures" in New Zealand, according to this exhaustive and authoritative new history, took place on November 29, 1895, in the photography studio of W.H. Bartlett at 322 Queen St (roughly opposite the present-day Borders bookstore).
A week later, the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, would stage the first public movie screening in a cafe near the Place de l'Opera in Paris, but the Auckland showing had no screen. The moving picture was watched, by an audience of one at a time, through the "peepshow" eyepiece of the Kinetoscope, a contraption invented by Thomas Edison.
People queued to pay a shilling (inflation-adjusted, that's $9) for a show that lasted barely a minute. The box-office tills have been ringing ever since and the death of cinema-going, widely predicted when television and later home video arrived, remains an exaggeration.
It is fitting that this history of New Zealand film stretches back to our earliest brushes with the technology that would create what the French call "the seventh art". It is an initiative of the Film Archive, two of whose staff members are among the two dozen contributors. And it reminds us that film-making did not begin here with Sleeping Dogs.
New Zealanders have always been enormously enthusiastic moviegoers. Gordon Mirams, the father of film reviewing in this country and an early censor, noted in his 1945 book, Speaking Candidly, that we had three times as many cinemas per head of population as the Americans. At that stage, of course, our cinematic diet was almost exclusively imported but this volume usefully and systematically catalogues our rich history of moving images.
Much of this has been informal and private but the book reminds us of the contribution made by government propaganda and by commercial sponsorship to fostering our earliest documentary-making.
New Zealand Film treads ground well-trodden though far from methodically picked over by previous books. Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa's Film in Aotearoa New Zealand (1992 and 1996), despite its inclusive-sounding title, took a more fanciful and imaginative than strictly documentary approach.
As a result, and because of its exhaustiveness, this book fills what has been a gaping hole in the market. But the reader pays the price in entertainment value.
There's an earnestness and diligence to the tone that favours recording everything that happened, a paragraph at a time, over taking the opportunity to step back, to assess and contextualise. Overarching observations tend to the obvious and too many sentences begin, or seem to begin, with the words: "Next came ..."
Likewise, there is not always a clear sense of who its audience is. If it has an eye on a posterity beyond these islands, then references like the one to "New Zealand cinema's perennial godwits theme" - a puzzling observation in any case - seem unnecessarily obscure.
It's perhaps a function of having a book written by archivists, historians and academics whose precision sometimes smothers their passion. This is a work of reference and history and not something you read in the bath.
A glaring casualty of the chronological rather than thematic approach is the marginalising of the Maori voice. It seems faintly ironic that the book can quote the late Barry Barclay as saying "a lot of the political struggle is to get through to Pakeha and Pakeha institutions" and yet reduce the Maori presence to passing references and a handful of 300-word sidebars. By contrast, Peter Jackson, who hasn't made a New Zealand film since the spoof Forgotten Silver in 1995, gets a whole chapter.
Admittedly that chapter, which covers the late 90s to 2005, is about "the Jackson effect", but it contains little that is not already familiar and it represents, it seems to me, a failure of nerve on the part of the editors. For more than 250 pages, the book has adhered to the idea of cinema as a expression of our culture but in the final analysis it seems dazzled by Tinseltown. The legitimacy conferred by Jackson's success makes stars of us all.
In the introduction, Roger Horrocks quotes the Film Commission's former marketing maven Lindsay Shelton, writing of a time when "we did not think of New Zealand as having any stories worth telling, or any places worth showing".
In the age of Whale Rider and The World's Fastest Indian, no one thinks that, but the biggest conundrum facing our filmmakers remains: how to tell New Zealand stories that will set alight imaginations around the world.
Ironically, the Jackson effect may make that harder. The danger is that pragmatic politicians will think that an industry that doesn't make gazillions of dollars in the Northern Hemisphere is not worth supporting. That would be bad news for the aspirations of an industry that seeks to be part not just of our economy, but of our culture - to do its bit in teaching us what Curnow called "the trick of standing upright here".
* Peter Calder is a film critic for TimeOut.
Disclosure: He contributed an essay to the second edition of Film in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Win with Canvas
Courtesy of Visa Entertainment, we have two copies to give away of New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History, published by Te Papa Press. To enter the draw, tell us what date the first exhibition of "moving pictures" took place at 322 Queen St, Auckland. Write the answer on the back of an envelope and send it to: NZ Film Contest, Canvas, NZ Herald, PO Box 3290, Auckland, to reach us by August 27.