August 6, 2008

I'm a stranger here myself: Vincent Ward, part two

One hopes that when the great dissertation on Vincent Ward is written, attention is paid to the films he wrote or conceived but didn't direct. Alien 3 seems easy to place -- its original vision of a monastery in space connects to the Andrei Rubylev-influenced medievalism of The Navigator and Vigil (or, "Tarkovsky in Taranaki"-- mud and cowls, remote valleys and moody weather). But The Last Samurai, which he also devised, is germane to any discussion of In Spring One Plants Alone. The 21-year-old arts student who made In Spring wasn't a cynical, fly-in, fly-out doco producer. Co-producer Tainui Stephens is quoted as follows in the Rain of the Children press kit:
“One of the things I felt in the course of making the film was that Vince’s relationship with the people was very much a long-term one. I came across people quite often who were down that way in those years, who remember Vince and would say ‘Oh I remember when this skinny Pakeha fella was here’, and so he was very much a part of the scene. He was very sensitive to the fact that he had an ongoing relationship and he felt the depth of it because one of his children is named after someone from there.
“The people of the valley and the elders all wanted to take part because of Puhi and what they remembered of her and also the fact that Vince and the crew were very upfront and sincere about what we wanted to do. Also, there was no time pressures because it was done in a very modular way and it was very much a co-venture with the tribe.”
And among those who remembered Ward making In Spring were schoolteachers Helen and Toka Te Wara, who told researcher Lynette Read that “Vincent was a lovely chap. We believed he did a good job, a professional job, he was a real genuine guy.” He was “a real strange bod” who lived it rough in a little shack and blended in with the locals. He used the shower at the school and washed his big old overcoat in the copper. “He was different because he was prepared to live rough.”

The researcher Lynette Read is the author of an excellent doctoral thesis on Ward, available here. It's worth reading; this excerpt is particularly relevant:
"He is quoted in Alternative Cinema as saying: 'I think there are a lot of good things in resurgence in the Maori culture. I wanted to learn about it. I’d grown up in the Wairarapa but never heard Maori spoken. I was interested in seeing another part of the country where the traditions were much stronger. The film grew out of my desire to learn about something else.' He also admits that he was drawn to the world of the Tuhoe because it was 'a world of mysteries', which his Catholic upbringing made him receptive to and that in seeking to understand that world, he was also seeking to learn more about himself."
We're not so far from The Last Samurai's Nathan Algren, who adopts the ways of a disappearing Japanese culture in the late 19th century, but by the time this project passed to star Tom Cruise and director Edward Zwick, it had crossed over into soft new-age fantasies about pre-modern life, all Shire-like waterwheels and flute music, cherry blossoms and noble warriors. The film-maker as ethnographer or anthropologist definitely walks a fine line. From my Last Samurai review:
"The film is a celebration of a pre-modern, religiously driven warrior mindset. In the press notes, Cruise and the other film-makers pontificate about the romantic Samurai values of honour and sacrifice, which is easy to do when the subject is as historically remote and neutral as ancient Japan. They aren’t values that Americans such as Cruise and Zwick tend to admire in more contemporary settings, though – in their religious hang-ups, their fanatical warrior drive, their cult of suicide, their 'honour and sacrifice', their loathing of America, even their terrorism, these Samurai resemble nothing so much as al-Qaeda, if not the Taliban, with Nathan Algren as the 19th century’s equivalent of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban convert. If you can imagine that Cruise and Zwick intended to make such a subversive parallel, then you should probably applaud their audacity and see this film, but it’s highly doubtful."