April 18, 2011

Bill Pearson goes to the pictures

Things I didn’t know: New Zealand writer Bill Pearson (1922-2002) was a first cousin of New Zealand International Film Festival director Bill Gosden; in fact, as Paul Millar’s excellent Pearson biography No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson (Auckland University Press, 2010) tells us, the younger Bill was named after the older one. “He would also become a close friend of his older namesake,” Millar writes. “They were both film buffs, and other shared interests quickly rendered any difference in age inconsequential.” Millar comes back to this point later: “In his final years, Bill’s closest relationship amongst the younger members of his family was with his cousin Nancy’s son, Bill Gosden, a lover of film whose passion had become his profession when he assumed the role of directing New Zealand’s International Film Festivals. Bill Pearson followed the festivals closely, taking Gosden’s advice on what to see, and attending screenings with Donald [Stenhouse] or on his own.”
And here is Bill Pearson as film buff, earlier in Millar’s narrative. The year is 1942 and Pearson is 20, teaching at Blackball School on the West Coast – and gathering impressions that would eventually become part of the novel Coal Flat (1963). In Coal Flat, the headmaster, Truman Heath, is a pompous traditionalist; the model for Heath seems to have been Blackball School’s headmaster, Morris Lyng. Millar writes that Pearson’s contempt for Lyng made it easy for him to skive off school “in order to see Orson Welles’ controversial new film Citizen Kane” when it screened at the Regent Theatre in Greymouth, a trip that required him to stay the night in Greymouth and miss the first half hour of school the next morning. Lyng would never have agreed to give Pearson the time off, but “he was to be away the following morning and the other teachers agreed to cover for me”, Pearson said.
Before seeing Citizen Kane, all Pearson knew was that it had upset William Randolph Hearst, and while most of the Regent's small midweek audience seemed “cheated of the sensations and comforts expected of the dream factory”, he took it as a profound experience that spoke directly to his ambitions as a writer:
For me the film was like John Dos Passos translated to the screen, like an experience of one of those brief expressive biographies that punctuate USA. It was a revelation of an alert and clear-sighted view of modern life that I would aim for in my fiction. Getting away from sentimentality and melodrama, from any kind of self-deception.