May 1, 2011

Lost city: Christchurch on film

Driving north on Good Friday, finally able to go the full length of Montreal Street, you notice the first of the earthquake absences (more will follow). The Elmo’s Court apartments, whose form and colour had helped soften the concrete brutalism of the Christchurch City Council building, have gone. There is the sudden and surprising disappearance of the Strategy building. Between those two, the slowly disappearing form of the old, red-brick gothic Christchurch Girls High School building facing Cranmer Square. 
A fence had gone and a side of the building usually hidden from the street was exposed. As we drove past, my wife said, “That used to be my classroom”. How will we remember these places that have gone or are going? Photos and museum records, memories, references in literature (Kate De Goldi on Radio NZ some weeks back, in an emotional discussion of her city in fiction and poetry) and maybe in film too. What can cinema show us of the lost city? 
You have to start with Girls’ High, both setting and location for the best film ever shot in this city – actually, in strong contention for the best film ever shot in this country. Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), written with Fran Walsh, is a nearly-two-decades-on classic now, but it was probably more unlikely at the time than many realise – not least because there were some other Pauline Parker/Juliet Hulme film projects at different stages in the late 1980s/early 90s (in a future post, I’ll talk about one of the other, unmade screenplays – by British writer Angela Carter, no less) and neither Jackson nor Walsh had any prior associations with the city or with the story. Perhaps that helped. And Walsh hinted that she knew something about, or was at least sympathetic to, the intensity of the girls’ friendship. But there was another thing that made this unlikely: a full dramatic feature had never been shot in Christchurch before.
Jackson gives us the familiar story: 1950s Christchurch as frightfully stuffy (not so stuffy that a working-class girl like Pauline Parker and upper-middle class British import Juliet Hulme couldn’t meet and get along, but stuffy enough that everyone registered the class difference). “Christchurch, New Zealand’s City of the Plains,” declares a polished voice speaking over an old Pictorial Parade newsreel that opens the film, with footage of the near-mythical city: daffodils in Hagley Park, the Avon, trams, Cathedral Square, Manchester Courts, crowds of cyclists, the college site (now the Arts Centre). The city appears as “a genteel and orderly outpost of the British Empire,” in critic Helen Martin’s words. The polished voice is then overpowered by screams (“It’s Mummy! She’s terribly hurt!”), in an obvious summary of the key idea that the brutal murder of Honora Parker by her daughter and her daughter’s friend was somehow an irruption of something evil or repressed through the genteel surface of the Garden City. 
How class-conscious is this Christchurch? Juliet’s stature is such that a teacher (Liz Moody) licks her lips, virtually drooling as the well-bred girl is brought into her classroom. Later, another teacher says to Juliet: “A girl like you should be setting an example.” Later still, when her father, Henry Hulme, is gently let go by the college board that had hired him as Rector, he is told, “Surely a man of your calibre is needed back in England.” Class-consciousness and Anglophilia are inseparable. The very Englishness of the Girls High building and its Cranmer Square setting, lamp posts and all, is emphasised; at assembly, the girls sing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”, a gospel song now recast as an Anglican school hymn (it rhymes neatly with the closing song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the Mario Lanza version – Heavenly Creatures surely has Jackson’s smartest use of music). The garden at Ilam Homestead, the palatial Hulme home, is like a Home Counties paradise and, as imperious Juliet Hulme, Kate Winslet’s accent could cut glass.

Heavenly Creatures was filmed entirely on location in Canterbury over 11 weeks. In almost every case, the locations are the real ones, which is more unusual than you might think (see this fan pilgrimage website). Jackson’s timing was good: Girls High had shifted to a new location across Hagley Park by the time he came south to shoot, so he was able to talk the new tenants of the old building – the Women’s Embroidery Guild, possibly -- into letting him use it; the Victoria Tearooms in Cashmere, where the full gravity of the imminent murder suddenly dawns on the girls and us (Pauline urging her mother to “treat yourself” during the last tea stop), was pulled down soon after the film wrapped. The Theatre Royal on Gloucester Street appears in a couple of scenes, as a cinema where the girls see The Third Man and are then pursued by a phantom of Orson Welles (their fantasy world has turned on them). The jetty at Port Levy is still the jetty at Port Levy. Another New Zealand true-crime story, Out of the Blue (2006), didn’t have these advantages -- almost all of its Aramoana scenes were shot in a different settlement.


Besides Girls High, Ilam Homestead, now owned by Canterbury University, was the other key location. After the earthquakes, the homestead is still standing. I went to have a look three weeks after the February 22 quake. Access was restricted and there was obvious cracking on one brick wall but it’s clear that the building will survive. No such luck, of course, for the old Girls High building memorialised by Jackson, who might, in the long run, have done the school that publicly opposed his decision to film this story a favour. If it is a record of a place and an age, both have vanished now.
The port scenes in Heavenly Creatures – the daydreams of the girls leaving New Zealand on a ship with Henry and Hilda Hulme – were shot over the hill in Lyttelton. Jackson returned there for The Frighteners (1996). Much of the film’s US anytown of Fairwater was represented by Lyttelton in outdoor shots, for no more than about 10 onscreen minutes (the crew was in Lyttelton for three weeks). In some shots, Lyttelton looks like it could be a town on the Pacific coast of the US, perhaps northern California; in others, it looks too gothic (maybe because the first long Lyttelton scene is a funeral). Other outdoor scenes were shot in Wellington, around Miramar or at the decommissioned Air Force base at Shelly Bay. “Make it look like Middle America,” producer Robert Zemeckis reportedly told Jackson.
A second, long Lyttelton scene gives us more of the town. Michael J Fox’s psychic investigator/conman Frank Bannister has left the fictional newspaper office, on the corner of Canterbury and London Streets and is crossing the road into London Street's retail area. Some buildings and signs were disguised by the production and some were not: there is the Volcano CafĂ©, only recently lost, and there is a plainly visible sign for Lyttelton Liquor. But two other, slightly sneakier things make The Frighteners a Christchurch film, in part at least. A black-and-white photo of the real Parker and Hulme appears on the cover of a fictional video called Psychopaths, consulted by one of the characters; and there are poltergeist scenes in which beds rattle suddenly and crockery shatters. Fifteen years later, that looks just like an earthquake. 
Another Christchurch. Like Heavenly Creatures, the Geoff Murphy film Goodbye Pork Pie (1980) used real locations. It also relied heavily on the generosity of New Zealand Railways. “Without [its] cooperation, the script would [have been] impossible to film,” Murphy says in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand (Victoria University Press, 1996). Murphy asked Railways for access to wagons, railway yards and so on in Wellington, Picton, Kaikoura, Christchurch and Greymouth, on 9 separate days, at no cost to the production; in return, Railways would get publicity when the film was released. To Murphy’s “astonishment”, Railways said yes. In the film’s closing credits “the people and cities of New Zealand” are thanked, but maybe it should really be New Zealand Railways (then owned by the people of New Zealand, though, so the difference might have been academic).

The film’s emblematic yellow mini doesn’t feature in the Christchurch scenes. Tony Barry, Kelly Johnson and Claire Oberman are riding in a freight container south from Picton, boxcar style. It pulls into Christchurch in the morning. The longer of the two cuts of the film gives us five minutes of downtime in the city before the train leaves again that night. From Sydenham’s old railway yards they cross an overbridge that is no longer there, from which the old Grosvenor pub on Moorhouse Ave is visible – now, coincidentally, to be the new home of Strategy Design since it lost the Montreal Street building. The now seriously damaged dome of Francis Petre’s glorious Catholic Basilica is still intact in the background. The three come through the old railway station, converted in the three decades since into a kids’ science centre and a multiplex (indeed, I was watching a movie there when the February 22 quake struck), and then there is a pan along Moorhouse Ave as a police car passes. They realise that they need disguises: the next scene is in an Arts Centre quadrant, the actors clowning around in costumes as a string quartet plays. Presumably, they have raided the costume department of a theatre. Then there is the tourist colour of the Wizard in Cathedral Square, and a scene inside a pub, with a punter reading a mocked-up edition of The Press (front page: “Police searching for mystery car thieves”). Then we’re back to the railyards and on a goods train at night, Christchurch idyll over.

Like Heavenly Creatures, Jonathan Cullinane’s We’re Here to Help (2007) is a Christchurch story – or a Christchurch myth. Property developer David Henderson’s account of battling the Inland Revenue for years, over its claims he owed tax, is retold as the story of an everyman against the sinister bureaucracy. The interiors – variations on tax department meeting rooms and suburban spaces – were shot in Auckland with a crew sent south to film Erik Thomson (who plays Henderson) interacting with recognisably Christchurch locations. Meaning that these inserts, the easy Christchurch shorthand, now adds up to a poignant map of the tourist city: a punt on the Avon river, the Arts Centre, the old council building (Our City Otautahi), the Provincial Chambers, the Robert Falcon Scott statue, and the decidedly untouristy – but very important to the Henderson story -- High Court. Exactly the parts of town that were most affected by the quake, rather than the suburban malls and residential streets of daily life.
There are facts and fictions. Gerald Black is clearly a version of Christchurch MP Gerry Brownlee, who was apparently no help to Henderson. The screen Henderson is blokier and more down to earth than the real thing (Thomson’s Henderson is forever being handed a beer while describing someone as “not a bad bloke”; by contrast, the real Henderson, according to the DVD commentary track he contributes to, likes to use words like “propitiative”). The number 17 to Bryndwr, on screen for seconds, turns out to be the same bus route Henderson took as a boy. And while Michael Hurst’s much-ballyhooed Rodney Hide act might be ridiculous (shaved head, fat suit and so on), actor Cameron Rhodes nails journalist Simon Carr, another of the right-wing forces that helped Henderson in his campaign.

Maybe one of the reasons Hurst’s Hide seems so ridiculous now is that, like Henderson, Hide has been humiliated since. Set in the mid-90s, the film has Hide as a new MP looking for a crusade that will make his name; 15 years and plenty of contradictions later, the political career appears to be finished. The film’s postscript says that “Dave Henderson is now back on his feet”. That was true when the film was released in late 2007, slightly less true when it was released on DVD in March 2008, and not true at all as of November 2008 – when the Christchurch City Council made the controversial decision to bail him out. And since then, he has been placed in bankruptcy a second time

Even further down the credits there is this peculiar disclaimer: “This film does not purport to be an accurate account of the events involving Mr Henderson and the IRD.” Perhaps that’s a way of getting around the fact that some characters are composites and some are invented but it points you to something else, an entire dimension that this lightweight film misses. We are told that Henderson knew Hide some years earlier, before he called on the MP for help, but we are not told that they share a far-right, Randian, anti-tax philosophy. It’s one thing to take on the tax department because one of them insulted your girlfriend (as in the movie, and perhaps real life), but was there another reason Henderson fought so doggedly against the taxman? Journalist Bruce Ansley asked the question and Henderson replied: “The philosophic issue – I need to be careful here because the IRD will probably misquote whatever I say – is that I believe taxation is theft.” Yet nothing of Henderson’s far-right libertarianism made it into the film of his life. I wonder why? 
Henderson’s form of property development was possibly a fleeting historical moment, too – one that, his second bankruptcy aside, the post-earthquake city might find hard to sustain. It was about urban gentrification, turning the abandoned brick warehouses of the post-industrial city into high-end living and leisure spaces (see the Manchester chapter in Owen Hatherley’s The New Ruins of Great Britain for a better description of this fashion than I could manage). As Henderson says on the DVD commentary track: “I look for opportunities and add value. I’m particularly passionate about old buildings … We’ve got the largest collection of heritage buildings in the South Island of New Zealand.” All that’s past tense now, for several reasons. Indeed, his cornerstore development – South of Lichfield – was already failing before the September quake. 
Other strands: in his chapter on experimental film in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, Roger Horrocks writes that an Alternative Cinema co-op was established in Christchurch in 1973. And Vincent Ward was an art student at Canterbury University when he made early films The Cave (1976), “based on Plato’s famous image of human beings as cave-dwellers who mistake shadows for reality”, the 20-minute video work Void (1977) and the Janet Frame adaptation, A State of Siege (1978), the latter produced by another Canterbury arts student, Tim White (who, years later, would return to New Zealand to produce Out of the Blue).
Documentaries, too: some scenes in Patu! (1983) were shot in Christchurch, where the railyards meets the rugby grounds; all of Russell Campbell’s low-budget video doco Rebels in Retrospect (1991) was shot in Christchurch, during a reunion of the New Left-style 1960s/70s protest group Progressive Youth Movement, at the home of activist Murray Horton.

There are other films about the lost city. The city’s hosting of the 1974 Commonwealth Games was the subject of the National Film Unit documentary Games ’74 (1974), credited to John King, Sam Pillsbury, Paul Maunder and Arthur Everard. In his account in New Zealand Film: 1912-1996 (Oxford University Press, 1997), Sam Edwards writes that the documentary skips the usual cultural-nationalist preamble of “sparkling mountains and pristine valleys” and takes us straight to QE2 stadium and the “military planning and precision” of the opening ceremony. Russell Campbell puts it more strongly in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, saying that the “deglamourised” film “violated conventional publicity-film expectations” and “provoked howls of outrage from the public”. And in the New Zealand Film Archive, there is – unseen by me – film pioneer Rudall Hayward’s 20-minute-long A Daughter of Christchurch (1928), one of a series of at least 23 such location-specific films Hayward made between 1928 and 1930, with titles like Natalie of Napier, Tilly of Te Aroha and Winifred of Wanganui. From the looks of things, Cathedral Square and the Botanic Gardens were key locations. And some lines from the intertitles give you the view of the city from outside: “Christchurch - fairest of the four Queen Cities of the Dominion"; "When a man is run over by a bicycle in Christchurch they call it ‘death from natural causes’”; and – this is good -- "A Really Progressive Little Town - Always Forward in Going Backwards". In December, the grassroots Gap Filler initiative ran that film in an empty lot on Colombo Street. The "progressive little town", more than 80 years on.

PICTURES: Scenes from Heavenly Creatures, shot in Victoria Park and Ilam. My own photos of the Ilam Homestead in March 2011 (note some minor cracking in the red brick wall), and the bridge over the river. The real Dave Henderson poses with the poster of the film of (a version of) his life. The real Rodney Hide meets his unconvincing impostor.