Time is kind to New Zealand films. Removed from the unforgiving glare of initial release, revisiting a Kiwi film some years after it came out can offer a more generous context. Certain elements take on a greater meaning. Others fade into the background.
I've been watching a whole bunch of New Zealand films recently as part of (Shameless Self-promotion Alert!) my new role presenting the Film Friday slot on TVNZ Heartland (Sky 017), kicking off tomorrow, May 3 at 7.30pm with Geoff Murphy's 1985 masterpiece, The Quiet Earth.
Here are some observations I noted while diving back into the Kiwi canon.
1. Bruno Lawrence was the greatest Kiwi actor ever
I've mentioned before that The Quiet Earth is my all-time favourite NZ film, so it's appropriate that it is the first film I am introducing for Film Friday. Watching it again for the segment reinforced my love of it, but also helped solidify another perspective: that Bruno Lawrence is unquestionably the greatest New Zealand actor who ever lived. His world class character actor face belied a leading-man presence and a potent charisma. The man clearly lived a full life, and that comes through in every gesture and utterance. All hail Bruno.
2. 'Little Bruno' was the second greatest
As great an actor as Lawrence was, he was often bouyed by a stellar supporting performance from his ever-present member. Seriously, this guy would make the perma-nude Ewan McGregor blush. 'Little Bruno' makes appearances in both The Quiet Earth and Smash Palace, which is playing on Film Friday in late May. It speaks to Lawrence's free-love background that he is so comfortable letting it all hang out, and New Zealand cinema has undoubtedly benefitted greatly.
3. People used to say the word 'bastard' a lot more than than they do now
If there's one word that always reminds me I'm watching an older New Zealand film, it's 'Bastard'. Classic New Zealand films are peppered with it. "Ya bastard!"; "Ya bloody bastard!"; "Ya f**kin' bastard". It's the quickest way to designate an antagonist. Hearing it come through so often in classic New Zealand films makes the word feel almost quaint. 'Bastard' is truly an analog insult.
4. We need to make more genre films
The Quiet Earth is irrefutable proof that we can make excellent sci-fi movies, so where are the rest? And the horrors? And the broad comedies? Glenn Strandring's 2006 oddity Perfect Creature (screening May 24th on Film Friday) is a step in the right direction. Set in an alternate reality New Zealand where vampires have taken on religious roles in society, the wildly disparate elements (steampunk design; revisionist vampire mythology; noir-ish mystery) don't necessarily cohere as well as they might've, but the film is brimming with ambition and offers the uniquely ridiculous sight of Robbie Magasiva in a bowler hat.
5. Auckland's Pacific soul is underutilised in cinema
Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world. Gentle films like Sione's Wedding and playright Toa Fraser's acclaimed directorial debut, the Mt. Roskill fable No. 2 (screening May 10th on Film Friday), build on this successfully. I'd like to see more films set in this world, but which have something of an edge. Thrillers. Horrors. Action. Good idea? Bad idea?
6. We love our passive males
Maybe it's down to our film culture being relatively new, or perhaps it's a result of our geographical isolation, but New Zealand films love to dwell on brooding, silent males who only act when the going gets extreme. Bruno Lawrence gives the greatest example of this in Smash Palace, but it's testament to the power of his acting that we are with him all the way. The Sharon O'Neill music doesn't hurt.
7. Jane Campion saved New Zealand cinema
Rewatching An Angel At My Table (screening May 17th), I was struck by just the degree to which it presents a 20th century New Zealand ripe with cinematic possiblities. In charting the life story of novelist Janet Frame (as told in her trilogy of autobiographies), Campion does an amazing job of showing how Frame's Kiwi upbringing shaped her creative sensibilities. The latter sections of the film which feature Frame's overseas adventures never lose sight of that. Although it was originally mounted as a mini-series, An Angel At My Table made its mark as a movie, and is one of the few New Zealand films that could honestly be described as 'epic'. Campion displays a confidence here that escapes many New Zealand directors, and it fed directly into her subsequent film, The Piano. Both works take meaning from the inherent power of our landscape and the psychological implications of our isolation, but in such a manner that suggests there is much more to be mined in this area.
8. Again, Bruno rules
In Smash Palace, when everything really turns pear-shaped and his beloved cars can no longer provide any respite, Bruno does a classically Kiwi thing - he goes bush. But Lawrence's performance is so empathetic, it kind of makes sense in the moment. In America, there are people like Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh and Gene Hackman. In New Zealand, there's Bruno Lawrence.
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, the context and meaning of every New Zealand film grows with every passing year, and it's endlessly fascinating to revisit them. So don't miss Film Friday, presented by yours truly, Fridays at 7.30pm on TVNZ Heartland.
Too shameless? Favourite New Zealand film? Agree or disagree with any of my observations above? Comment below!