Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Watching Silent Movies

Before I ever took myself seriously as a writer my ambition was to be a filmmaker.  Or failing that, a film critic.  Spending all of my living days in a darkened theatre consumed by cinema’s magic seemed nirvana to me.  I did try my hand at filmmaking though didn’t get far with it.  Buried somewhere in the National Film and Sound Archive is some Standard 8 footage I shot of various Canberra Women’s Liberation activities.  It used to have a sound track but that unfortunately was lost.  And a 16mm short called Super Duper I directed on an experimental film fund grant and with the help of many others whose names are also lost to me now is deposited wherever the Sydney Film Cooperative’s films are stored.  They could be in the national archive as well but I’ve never bothered to check.  I also worked on a television series that bombed at the time but is now a cult classic, and penned five scripts for a miniseries based on my novel West Block, but for various reasons the project never got past pre-production. 

My second-choice dream of becoming a film critic also stalled.  The last and only film review I wrote was of, coincidentally enough, Last Tango in Paris.  It was printed in the Canberra Times under my maiden name because I was a public servant then and there were rules about not taking outside work.  I only wrote the review because the regular reviewer went on holiday, and he didn’t take kindly to my callow jokes about wishing he didn’t come back.  The closest I came then to writing on film was publishing my novel Schemetime about an Australian filmmaker who goes to Hollywood.  Though it’s my personal favourite, not many  share my enthusiasm and it didn’t sell many copies.  I started a collection of essays on Hollywood but only finished two of them.  From this late perspective, it does seem that my love affair with the movies was doomed from the start.

I don’t get out to films much now, largely because my partner isn’t as keen on them.  There’s the expense and also the inconvenient screening times.  We both grew up in an era when movies ran continuously, mornings, afternoons and nights.  You could enter a cinema at any time and stay as long as you liked, so if you missed the beginning of a film you could catch up on it after the reel had finished and started up again for the next screening, though you’d probably have to sit through the second feature.  God knows what that did to our narrative expectations (there may be a thesis in that) but what it clearly did do is facilitate attendance.  Maybe the cinemas could resume the practice.  It might save them money and prevent so many of them from closing.

Sadly, two of the cinemas closest to us have shut down.  There’s some excellent theatres further afield but distance is a disincentive.  What we have been doing, though, is availing ourselves of the DVD collection at our local library.  And though the range is commendable I’ve stumbled on yet another obstacle.

I’ve known for a while that my hearing isn’t what it should be, but until now it’s never been bad enough for me to resort to a hearing aid.  They’re expensive and except for the ones my daughter uses, which are stratospherically so, I’ve never come across anyone wearing them who’s happy with the experience.  They buzz, are too loud etc, etc.  So why go to the expense, I’ve periodically asked myself.  But resorting to DVDs, despite the excellent range, has forced me to revisit the issue.  The reason being that, though it’s variable, on many of them the sound can be truly awful.  Or maybe it’s me.  Whatever the cause, I’ve got used to watching without hearing much, and for all the annoyance, it’s made me more attentive, more observant of the medium’s fundamentals.  I’m more receptive to the actors’ movements and gestures and, while aware that I’m missing out on nuance in the dialogue, I find that I can follow the drift of the story pretty much without it.  The music I can hear well enough but music in any case, with its purpose to facilitate the creation of atmosphere and mood and alert you to trouble ahead, is subservient to everything else in film.  Or should be.  I’m much more aware of how the camera moves and the shots are set up; in short, what cineastes in their most lyrical moments call the language of film - how it actually works.  I attend to the lighting, to the pace of the editing, to the choice of colours if there are any, the tones if black and white.

The purists, of course, have always claimed that silence was the essence of the art.  Montage, jump-cuts, fade ins and fade outs, fades to black and so forth were the stock in trade of filmmakers, as they are today.  It’s interesting to speculate moreover on just how much a century and more of exposure to these techniques have influenced other art forms, literature for one, though such an enormous subject should be saved for another day.  The point to make here is that silence in this context is not the same as wordlessness – there were words in silent films only we didn’t hear them spoken, they were spelled out for us on the screen.  Nor were they were without musical accompaniment, if the accompanist was right there in the theatre instead of recorded on a sound stage.

As far as DVDs go, I’ve found the sound on the English productions better than on the American, which is interesting and must have an explanation but I haven’t yet unearthed it.  Two  American ones in which I found the sound particularly bad were 1973’s The Way We Were and the much later Capote, released in 2005 and for which the late and sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman won his Oscar.  Hoffman was such an inspired actor that he managed to make the offensive, morally compromised Truman Capote with the world’s most grating voice (that did come through but not with the sense of what he said) wholly sympathetic, and I was able to follow the development of his character and the devastating effect his involvement with the convicted murderer Perry Smith had on him just by charting the alterations in perception and mood registered on Hoffman’s face.   It helped too that I’d read the Gerald Clarke biography. 

I first watched The Way We Were the year it came out, in a cinema in Adelaide where I bawled my eyes out so much I could hardly see the ending for the tears.  Seeing it again after all this time I recognise it as an unmistakenly Hollywood offering just by the slick production values.  The sets, for example, though correct for the period, are too pretty, and there was no way that director Sidney Pollack was going to let Barbra Streisand really look like a poor 1930s student radical.  In other words, it is all too glamourous.  That said, it’s the kind of film that could only have been produced in a very short period in Hollywood’s history, towards the end of the Vietnam war to the advent of Reagan’s presidency. (Reagan, you recall, made his name in a string of schmaltzy Hollywood products before, for our pain, going into politics.)  This was the moment when communists could actually be portrayed sympathetically, and it was The Way We Were's dissection of class, ethnicity and cold war hysteria that moved me so in that Adelaide cinema, and notwithstanding the gloss and the poor sound on the DVD, it’s moved me again.

Even so, I’d like to get out to the movies more, and will when I get over this latest hurdle – a full hip replacement and weeks of rehabilitation and recovery.  I’m trusting the hospital has good tv, with lots of movies to see me through it, although it's never been anything but the next best thing to the magic of that darkened cinema, where I’ve never had the slightest trouble with my hearing.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Ivy Day at St Columba's?

Ivy Day at St Columba’s?

Pine Cone from Ngunnawal Country
Being an ignorant young American when I washed up on Australian shores in the late 1950s, I'd never read any James Joyce.  His masterpiece Ulysses had been banned for a while in the States and was lifted only after a protracted court case in which writers and artists testified as to the novel’s literary merits – a groundbreaking victory that served to dismantle the intricate federal censorship system run by the American post office.  It was banned in Australia in 1929, released in 1937. then banned again until the 1970s, but it somehow got on my course list at Sydney University.  And, blithely unaware of the controversy that split the English department and sent some of Joyce's younger champions into exile overseas, I was a Ulysses fan and have been ever since.  But I’m not about to write about Ulysses today but rather a story of his - “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” - said to be his personal favourite.  It was pretty impenetrable to me at the time but the older I get the more resonance it has for me, and echoes of it fairly ring in my ears.

I’ve just returned from a reunion of Canberra Women’s Liberation, which way back in 1970 exploded on the local Canberra scene, and Canberra being what it is, beyond the ACT.  More than forty years had gone by and we’d never had a reunion before, but this one was prompted by the serious illnesses of two of our members, and the sudden, sombre realisation that they (indeed, any of us) might soon be facing death.  We are old now, few of us under 70, and unfortunately the women who spurred us into coming together again were both too ill to attend.  There were others who were missing as well. But the lucky seventeen of us who turned up to St Columba’s church hall in the Canberra inner suburb of Braddon went for a ride on some exhilarating time bends, hurtling us back through the past, only to catapult us forward again into an increasingly unfathomable future.  

Joyce wrote his “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” from the perspective of disappointment, loss and betrayal.  Charles Parnell was dead, and Ireland was divided.  There’s no comparing a group of septuagenarian feminists gathering, among other things, to honour our dead, and Joyce’s sots who wandered into Dublin’s municipal chambers on the anniversary of Parnell’s death, but there is a  parallel.  Parnell’s enemies had smashed his reputation with the scandal of his adultery, and for all our successes, we feminists endured years of calumny and backlash. In both these cases, the glory days were at an end.  With the death of Parnell Irish nationalism subsided, and, for us, in spite of the strides women have made since the 1970s, there was the sense in the hall that the ascendancy of naked capitalism and the all-pervasiveness of its values have worked to pervert the true aims of feminism.  It's that hoary old saw of being careful of what you wish for - that your prayers will be answered but never in quite the way that you intend.    

Our glory days were set out on tables around the hall's perimeter: prints of our posters, photos of the street theatre we'd performed in Canberra’s Petrie Plaza.  There were journals, minutes of our meetings and, creepily enough, snippets from ASIO files.  Seated in a circle surrounded by these, we each recounted our subsequent lives and how those early days had changed us.  Not many marriages survived them, and there was no little heartache involved.  Yet it was easy enough to pinpoint the ways in which society had radically changed for the better because of us. 

In 1970 there was not a single woman in the house of representatives, let alone a female prime minister.  You never saw a woman driving a bus, let alone an airplane.  Nor was it a woman’s voice delivering the news, or a woman’s face bringing it to us on the tv screen.  We women were invisible then, kept in our place, whether that was in the home, the lower ranks of teaching, nursing, the public service or academia, or in the ghettoised newspaper social sections.  So-called "women’s issues" such as discrimination or child care or rape or sexual abuse rarely made the front pages, unless sensationalised to increase circulation.  Women dressed to disguise their pregnancies instead of proudly displaying them as they do today.  A famous English model was excoriated for bearing her knees at the Melbourne Cup, and women were refused entry into restaurants and clubs for wearing trousers or slacks, not to mention jeans.  As for the public bars, we weren’t allowed in them at all.  We talk about women’s oppression in countries like Saudi Arabia but back in the fifties and sixties it wasn’t much better here. We didn’t go around in burkahs, but rape was legally countenanced in marriage and next to impossible to prove outside it.  Jobs were rigidly segregated and positions were advertised in gendered classified ads.  Differential pay was enshrined in industrial law.  We couldn't take out loans without a male guarantor, and our very bodies were circumscribed by a tax on contraceptives, dangerous backyard abortions and raids on the proper doctors who dared to flout the law and safely perform them.       

The press was a bugbear, much as social media can be now.  There were two pernicious consequences of media attention – the first and most obvious was how Women’s Lib was pilloried,  In vicious representations we were uniformly depicted as burly, hairy and man-hating.  But also middle-class, privileged, neurotic, sexless yet nymphomaniac - you name it.  Males on the left and right tried to contain us, with a range of tactics betraying their desperation.  Personally, I was amazed that anyone could consider me a threat, and yet we were threatening, even if we didn’t yet understand to what extent.  All this was scarifying, but we withstood it by recognising that we were not alone, and that history and numbers were on our side.  There’s a lot of talk about misogyny these days and it certainly does exist, but not in the openly consensual way it was manifested back then.

An equally damaging result of the media attention was its inevitable focus on ‘stars’.  We resisted having leaders and the stance may have been naïve, but its purpose was to allow as many women as possible to develop skills and confidence by sharing leadership’s responsibilities and rewards.  We were resolutely anti-hierarchical.  But because of the media, many were left believing that it was Germaine Greer, for example, who kicked the women's movement off.  She played her part, of course, but it was not a pivotal one – Women's Liberation was a grass-roots movement predating her book by several years, and there were many other women thinkers who contributed their ideas and helped to develop what became a body of feminist theory.  Shulamith Firestone was one of the most influential; it was she who argued that we should adopt the name 'feminism' so as to celebrate the generations of brave women who preceded us. 

Now we are history too, and while over the two days we met we retrieved many memories, the future seemed more challenging than any time in the past.  We couldn’t even describe to anyone's satisfaction just exactly what feminism is, though it was easy to agree on what it isn’t.  It isn’t equality or equal opportunity, though they are clearly part of it.  It isn’t about women gaining more influence and power, though that’s a part of it too.  Nor is it simply having certain issues of immediate concern to us like, say, reproductive rights, taken seriously.  All we could be sure about on leaving St Columba’s was the need to do an awful lot more thinking.    

Instead of Parnell's ivy that one of Joyce's characters sported in his lapel, we each took away a souvenir of the Canberra's Ngunnawal landscape - pine cones and feathers and leaves, some from native trees, some from introduced ones.  That was something that changed for us too, acknowledging the ancient and ongoing Indigenous presence, the women's especially, but not at all exclusively.  Nor did we overlook the difficulties men confront in a society that values material success above all, or dismiss the idea that the feminism we were trying to define may prove to be the necessary counter to the lunacy of unfettered capitalism and its host of harmful consequences.   I speak for myself alone, but mulling it over after those moving two days, I’ve come to see that feminism may be most about taking ourselves that seriously, and having the courage to lend our insights towards making the world a safer, less violent, less unjust, less inequitable place. 
A big ask, that.  But the times do seem to demand it.