Arachne. No. 2
The Gleaming Lens
The Gleaming Lens
Anything that May Help to Hold civilization together a little longer is probably a good thing. Risen concretc factories and toppling incredible churches seem to have blown the world wider open than any belated bomb, and over enormous areas, industrial and primitive, people are hungry and angry. When priests appear to them irrelevant and art either obsolete or private, what do people live by? Food, marriage, and friendship are fundamentals, but after that the answer, in New Zealand anyway, seems to be a mixed grill of gambling, football, beer, and cinemas, of which the last appears (if we leave out Tibet and Antarctica) to be an International Common Factor, for film distributors know no boundary but the stratosphere, 16mm projectors go where even Coca-Cola is unknown, sight and non-linguistic sound convey some intelligence to almost every human. And so to alert politicians a film studio is a dump of high explosive, and among the arts the gleaming lens, more powerful than any printing-press, is at bottom an ape and an unbred democrat. A kind of horror fills us that those fascinating cans of coiled celluloid are prototypes of collective art in a Brave New Whirlpool of suicidal undifferentiation. Even to-day and in our agricultural country cinema shows are as inevitable as bars, and a pretty large number of people are psychologically motored by the stirring shadow of Clark Gable.
At the century's end it is possible that 16mm cameras may be as common as portable typewriters and the main rules of editing as widely diffused as shorthand. To-day the crude aesthetic absurdities of industrialization only add to the immeasurable power of commercial film. And that enormous power rests, it seems to me, on the fact that the basic appeal of the projected shadow—irrespective of the sound welling out of enveloping darkness—is purely visceral, and intellect then plays no part at all beyond the page 33 elementary ordering of perception. Apart from the prevalent dollar-spinner of the photo-play ('Edward My Son ', 'Mourning Becomes Electra ', most comedies) the highs in all good (meaning 'effective') film are deliberately intended to club you over the head, drag you down the aisle, and cast you out into the foyer, in Montreal, Mombasa, or Magnetogorsk, a semi-hypnotized hysteric. To quote Scott Fitzgerald's tragic producer in 'The Last Tycoon ', the target is your guts. A hit there winds us all.
In New Zealand ninety-nine point nine recurring per cent of the staple cultural diet in our population centres, film, comes from more important parts of the world, but a few private companies caper nimbly on the skinny 16mm string of private industry, and a Government wisely awake in war to film's political significance was persuaded to turn a travelogue agency into the simply equipped National Film Unit. This is the centre of what cinema work we do. The Unit is a queer fish in the Public Service net and in these piping times of peace it keeps itself in countenance with the Government by making Departmental films, travelogues, and a not unreasonably propagandist newsreel, all of a continually high technical standard. But nobody in their senses would confine a broadcasting service to such a treadmill, or expect the State Literary Fund to finance nothing but parochial histories. There is room inside and outside the Unit for a hundred per cent more vigour, imagination, and, above all, experiment. Financial conditions, thank heavens, completely bar feature film production, but there's room for the production of twenty minute documentaries on a hundred subjects. And in this connection the Unit could well assist and be assisted by the more intelligent and earthy members of film societies, drama groups, and broadcasting studios. It has already shown itself able to hit and hold a good simple aesthetic standard ('The Coaster', 'Oranges ', 'Maori School', 'Railway Worker', etc.) and with a little more sophistication it could surely, such is the key position of film now and in the years ahead, become the front window of New Zealand and earn internationalpage 34
repute for the country, the Government, and itself. A first step towards this is the regular despatch of members of the Unit overseas to keep in immediate touch with the constantly changing set-up in cinematic centres.
But another and much more urgent step is necessary outside the Unit, the slow creation and organization of a body of people knowledgeably conversant with the basic theory and practice of film. Through them or from them would come most New Zealand recruits to the film world anywhere, and they would constitute a body of undoubtedly conservative but at least authoritative opinion, as opposed to the existing anarchy of ignorance. A first step towards this would be the co-operation, if practicable, of the Film Unit, the National Film Library, the Film Institute, film societies, adult education, drama groups, community centres, and anyone else the reader can think of, in the purchase of one or two 16mm cameras, the loan of a couple of portable projectors, and the establishment of yet another Summer School. This is a simple, unambitious, and practical move, and one pretty necessary, for the monthly flicks of the film societies and their bulletins of press clippings can hardly hope to cope now with the rolling cameras of the world's studio floors.
Three pamphlets which the courtesy of the French Legation has permitted me to borrow illustrate the last point. One is last year's synopsis of twenty-nine lectures on film at the Sorbonne Faculty of Arts. They are inevitably sketchy but nevertheless discuss most aspects from psycho-analysis via trade unions to optics. The second is the brochure of the state-controlled 'Ecole Technique de Photographic et de Cinematographic', which outlines gruelling two and three year courses for cameramen and technicians. The third is the forty-eight page prospectus of the Parisian 'Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinemato-graphiques', an establishment of full-blown University rank providing courses of from one to three years for script-writers, directors, assistant directors, producers, studio managers, camera directors, cameramen, assistant cameramen, sound operators in all branches, art directors, editors, continuity girls, and (douce France !) 'dessinateurs-createurs de costumes'.page 35
Before entering the Institut students have to pass a stiff written and oral examination demanding a standard of education higher than that necessary to enter any New Zealand university, specifically orientated towards cinema and the cinematic talents, and subject to rigid restrictions on age that differ with each course, but range between eighteen and twenty-seven. The training is admitted to be only basic. The terse introduction says this. '... If there is a Conservatory to teach the technicalities of music and the stage, a School of Fine Arts for future architects, the cinematographer must also have his University. . . . To substitute order for hazard, to encourage vocation, to broaden the field of film knowledge, such is the goal of the I.D.H.E.C.'
In these narrow islands it is likely to be some time before anyone can take a course in camerawork at a Technical College or issue from a bewildered University as a Bachelor of Cinema, but such a Summer School is an excellent interim arrangement for those who are worried about the world, those who, like Grierson, 'want their drama in terms of some cross-section of reality which will reveal the essentially co-operative or mass nature of society, leaving the individual to find his honours in the swoop of creative social forces', those who know too well why Lenin said' for us, the most important of all arts is the cinema those who think like Eisenstein 'the perspectives of the possibilities of the film are unlimited. And I am convinced that we have barely touched the possibilities', and those who like moving pictures.