Scorsese has put on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, and we're simply listening. It's an album of transcendence: transcendence of childhood fears, adult sins. "Madame George" comes on -- "That's the song," Scorsese murmurs. I can't help telling him he's picked my favourite record of all time, but he's way ahead of me. "I based the first 15 minutes of Taxi Driver on Astral Weeks," Scorsese says, "and that's a movie about a man who hates music." I mentally scurry to recover images of the film so I can figure out what Scorsese means; he must be talking about the sense of doom, or anyway fate, that Morrison insists on.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Sunday, May 22, 2011
-- Peter Jackson in “NZFX: The Films of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh”, by Jim and Mary Barr, Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (VUP, 1996).
“The story of Heavenly Creatures is a magnificent one. It required no additional fictionalising in terms of the drama, its inherent tragedy or the extraordinariness of the friendship between those two young women. It was all there.”
-- Fran Walsh in “NZFX: The Films of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh”, by Jim and Mary Barr.
Film history is littered with those what-ifs, the great unmade films. Perhaps the greatest film never made was Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, or maybe Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness, although a fanbase makes a case for Vincent Ward’s version of Alien3, which is really in a different category – the alternate version of an existing film. That’s what Angela Carter’s unmade The Christchurch Murder screenplay is – an alternate Heavenly Creatures.
And it wasn’t the only one. In his unauthorised Jackson biography, Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings (Random House, 2003), former Evening Post film critic Ian Pryor describes a kind of screenplay arms race in the late 1980s and early 90s as competing Parker-Hulme projects were shopped around. The best-known alternate version is Michelanne Forster’s stage play Daughters of Heaven, which premiered in Christchurch in 1991, before shooting even started on Heavenly Creatures, was published in 1992 and still gets performed occasionally.
But before that, Australian writer Louis Nowra wrote a version called Fallen Angels, completing it in 1987 – research took him to Christchurch and those with access to the National Library of Australia could seek it there. Nowra called the girls Juliet and Lisa and his script ended, so Pryor reports, with the girls in different jail cells, communicating via their imaginary/perhaps schizophrenic “fourth world”. Nice touch.
In the same year, British writer Angela Carter was commissioned to write a Parker-Hulme script. It was completed in 1988 and titled The Christchurch Murder. A little later, in the US, screenplay writer Wayne McDaniel wrote a version called Sugar and Spice that was said to have attracted the interest of Dustin Hoffman’s production company, with Hoffman even rumoured to have considered playing the chief prosecutor.
In 1992, Michelanne Forster submitted a TV script based on Daughters of Heaven to TVNZ. Between 1989 and 1992, Fiona Samuel also wrote a Parker-Hulme script, this time called The Pursuit of Happiness, with producer Bridget Ikin (Crush, An Angel at My Table) and then unknown director Niki Caro attached, but Jackson and Walsh’s Heavenly Creatures trumped them all and was the one anointed with Film Commission backing. And the rest is history.
But the unmade versions? While Nowra’s version is stashed in an Australian archive, Angela Carter’s The Christchurch Murder is more easily accessed; it was published in the posthumous collection of radio plays and scripts, The Curious Room (Chatto & Windus, 1996). Production notes in the book tell us that Andrew Brown of Euston Films commissioned the screenplay, but was unable to find a production company to make it. In his account, Pryor suggests that Auckland’s South Pacific Pictures had a hand in developing it with Euston but that Carter’s script “failed to satisfy all parties”.
So much for the business side, what about the art? Part of the reason this fascinates us is the possibilities of what a writer as brilliant as Carter would bring to it, knowing that she had both an original approach to fairy tales and mythologised stories – especially as metaphors for female experience – and knowing too that she had some appreciation of Hollywood’s dream factory, the lure of its saints, sirens and sinners. Both have some bearing on this story of teen-girl delusion and matricide (this Canterbury University thesis makes interesting connections between this Carter assignment and her famous book The Sadeian Woman). Of course, some things have to be present in any version of the Parker-Hulme story: the pair meeting at a Christchurch girls’ school; the intense and obsessive friendship with its fantasies of escaping to Hollywood and – emphasised by Jackson and Walsh in particular – a medieval kingdom of their own devising; finally, the murder of a mother in a park in the hills. But other elements of the story will appear and disappear depending on the version.
Carter called her girls Nerissa Locke (Juliet Hulme) and Lena Ball (Pauline Parker). At one point, Nerissa explains that her name comes from Shakespeare – but The Merchant of Venice not Romeo and Juliet. The descriptions still match: Nerissa is blonde and conventionally pretty; Lena is small and dark and walks with a limp (as in Heavenly Creatures, the girls bond over their histories of illness). But Lena is not unattractive: Carter describes her at one point as looking like “a desperately sexy witch”.
In its early pages, The Christchurch Murder even gives us the thrill of a Heavenly Creatures sequel, picking up where Jackson and Walsh left off. Their version ended on the moment of the murder, with the bloody shock of it jolting both the girls and the audience out of an increasingly feverish shared fantasy. They’re screaming, they’re covered in blood. Yet, one of the fascinating and awful things about the real story is that the girls were reported to have been in high spirits after the murder, when they were back at the Hulmes’ Ilam Homestead. In taking us into the immediate aftermath of the murder, Carter gives us some of that.
This is how it goes. In Victoria Park, there is birdsong and the constant sound of an axeman chopping wood. The girls rush into the tearoom, claiming that Lena’s mother has had a fall (“She cracked her head wide open”). Nerissa asks the proprietor of the tearoom to ring her father; importantly, it is actually her mother’s too-smooth boyfriend, Douggie Quinn (played by Peter Elliott as Bill Perry in Heavenly Creatures) who picks them up and drives them back through a recognisably 1950s Christchurch: “the long, straight road that leads from the Cashmere Hills into Christchurch”, past the Kiwi Bacon factory and onto Ilam Homestead, which “looms out of its lush garden like the witch’s house in ‘Hansel and Gretel’”. And if you’re counting witch references, it is only a page earlier that Quinn says to the girls, “Two hundred years ago, they would have burned you both for witches”. There is also a sense of complicity in this version: after the murder, Quinn helps the girls to burn their bloody clothes and neither Quinn nor Nerissa’s mother Mary seem too surprised at what happened.
On the night of the murder, the girls go back to Ilam Homestead, sleep in the same bed and wake in the morning when a police car arrives (“We must stick to the script whatever happens!”). Then, we flash back to Nerissa’s first day at school in Christchurch and move forward, chronologically, through the friendship towards the murder.
What else differs about the Carter version? For some characters at least, there is an idea of Christchurch as a provincial imitation, with desperate aspirations towards Englishness – “all the respectable citizens of Toy Town,” as Nerissa’s mother says. But at the same time, she finds it hard to believe that her daughter could be at the same school as the daughter of a fishmonger (“Christ. What an egalitarian place New Zealand is”).
There is also more family background – context, if you like. There is more about the affair between Walter/Bill/Dougie and Hilda/Mary and its effect on Juliet/Nerissa. More about the then-shocking fact that Pauline/Lena’s parents weren’t married. And there is the inclusion of Pauline/Lena’s institutionalised Downs Syndrome sibling (a younger brother in Carter’s screenplay, a younger sister in reality). Jackson has said that he steered clear of including this character as it seemed too “invasive”, but you can also argue that it compounds the tragedy of Honora and the Parker family to include him/her in the story. Lena sees her brother as something to be ashamed of, and part of the reason she was keen to join another family (“He’s the Monster of Glamis. He’s the dark secret of the Ball family. Mum must have done something dreadful to be saddled with him.”) All in all, family dynamics – or, more precisely, strained relations between mothers and daughters -- are more rounded and less cartoonish in the Carter version.
There are other powerful moments in the Carter screenplay. To raise money for their trip to Hollywood, Lena works as a prostitute on the banks of the Avon (“The willows become agitated. There is the sound of the man's harsh breathing, a whimper from Lena, the gurgle of the river”), based on an idea in Pauline’s diary. Their interest in Harry Lime – Orson Welles in The Third Man – is used more effectively here, to comment on their own amorality and nihilism (Nerissa: “I really liked Harry Lime. I liked his sense of innate superiority”) and Harry Lime’s big speech about the Borgias is even referred to when the girls plot to take their mother up to Cashmere (“So high up that the people look like ants”).
Hilariously, Christchurch’s A and P Show makes an appearance (Lena: “Hicktown in carnival mood”) with a very Carter-esque touch thrown in – a freak show tent, complete with alligator boy -- and a Third Man-ish Ferris Wheel. Overall, the Hollywood infatuation is stronger in the Carter version – references to the movie theatres and posters in Cathedral Square in the 1950s – but, crucially, there are no references at all to the part of the story that so fascinated Jackson: the girls’ imaginary medieval world of kings, queens and monsters. Not one reference. With that relatively childish element absent from the Carter screenplay, and obsession with movie star glamour emphasised, the girls seem colder, more calculating and less sympathetic – although, that might have become more complicated if actresses as good as Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet had been cast.Finally, descriptions of Christchurch in the published Angela Carter screenplay suggest that she came here at some point. I would be grateful if any reader knows anything about this – I have a feeling that she came to New Zealand during the 1980s for Wellington’s Writers and Readers Week. Sadly, Carter didn’t live to see the Jackson/Walsh version of the story on screen – she died of lung cancer in 1992, aged 51. If you have never read her, start with The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus.
PICTURE: Doublet (after Heavenly Creatures), by Ann Shelton (2001). More here, via the Christchurch Art Gallery.
ADDED, May 23 and May 28: Both Fergus Barrowman and the International Institute of Modern Letters remember Angela Carter as a visitor to Writers and Readers Week in Wellington in 1990, so any research trip to Christchurch -- if there was one -- must have been separate and earlier.
Novelist Rachael King remembers Carter giving a talk to a small group in the English Dept staff room at Auckland University, in 1990. "Was so sad when she died."
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Monday, May 9, 2011
Sunday, May 1, 2011
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 Café, 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.