Pictures


A review by Peter Harcourt as given in 'Sequence', July 1983
Click for further information regarding 'Sequence'



By subtly contrasting opposing points of view PICTURES raises a number of very important questions. Official art - or individual art? Indigenous culture - or 'civilised' culture? Land for national development or national heritage? Native people as ignorant savages to be subdued for their own good and kept in their place, or as responsible people to be treated as equals? These are major issues central to our history and New Zealand identity.

The film may be set in the colonial days of late 19th century but no one could fail to recognise the fact that its subject matter is highly relevant in our own day and age. In fact, PICTURES is really asking if things have changed all that much. The Burton brothers' photographs were shamefully treated then, but they are not much better off today - 'decomposing', as an end title reminds us, in the care of the National Museum in Wellington.

New Zealand films, almost without exception, have exploited the majestic grandeur and rugged beauty of the country's natural backgrounds. Few have done so with such complete justification as PICTURES. By its very nature the film is bound to present mountain, fiord, bush and river, plain and coastline as an essential part of its texture. The two Burtons, Alfred and Walter, set out to make a pictorial record of the country and the people as they saw them. Walter's view was uncompromising. The country was being vandalised in the name of colonial progress, its people were being ill-treated and subjugated in the name of colonial justice. For his pains, he was given an official flea in his ear and left to drink himself to despair and suicide. Alfred, more conventional, more 'commercial', more flexible in his attitude to authority, went out to take pictures which earned him a medal for the Royal Geographic Society.

PICTURES sets the two men at odds, leaving us in no doubt which of them was probably the true artist but making a more ambiguous statement about which might have been the weaker man. Walter's gesture of defiance, alcoholically stimulated, is to put his banned pictures on display - to a reaction of hostility and stern disapproval. Alfred, less provocative, chooses to remain silent when he is expected to make a speech glorifying the colony's expansionist programme. But it is Alfred who deals the most telling blow to the Government's funding of only those artists whose work it finds acceptable. After Walter's death he abandons photography, devoting himself instead to the teaching of elocution. The deliberate perpetuation of English speech patterns among the people already acquiring a classless 'colonial' accent may sem to have been a supremely quixotic act.

In PICTURES the Government is symbolised by New Zealand Railway officials. That is entirely appropriate, since trains - the juggernauts of the 19th century - rushed headlong on their way along a fixed and rigid track. Here, the Government is shown as being intent on influenceing the sort of image they wish to see projected overseas. It must conform to a policy that will encourage immigration, investment and admiration. Hence, Alfred's spacious landscrapes are preferable to Walter's harsh personal vision. Incidently, the film makes a sardonic comment on fashionable representational art when it shows a society lady exclaiming over the quality of a painting she has ordered to be copied from one of Alfred's landscapes.

The people are symbolised by a crowd of unsmiling, formally dressed Dunedin citizens. Their attitude is expressed by dour head-shaking and glum rejection when they are confronted with evidence that their unsullied 'Britain of the South' might be a place of violence, degradation and racial disharmony. This is exactly the sort of 'God's Own Country" self-delusion that it took a Springbok tour to shatter.

If it is possible to admire the film's intention and much of its technical excellence (in particular the virtuoso photography of Rory O'Shea) it is less easy to comment some of its other aspects. For all the vividness of its images, PICTURES has an oddly disjointed an elliptical narrative style. That results in some awkward connections between one sequence and another, and (for me anyway) a sense of alienation. It is also guilty of showing almost to a standstill and indulging in some self- consciously beautiful camerawork at times - notably in the Wanganui River sequence.

The greatest weakness in PICTURES, however, is a fault it shares with nearly all New Zealand films. That is a lack of passion. The scenes are all played in a sort of low-key, undemonstrative style which suggests that director and players are holding back from any display of emotion. I am forced to wonder if this is not some local variation of the old, much-sbused 'British restraint' technique, which used to be admired as underplaying but now seems more likely to have been some kind of inhibition. Its consequence, unhappily, as fare as we are concerned, is an absence of climax and conflict, a steady forward movement unbroken by radpids, falls, whirlpools, and cataracts. Only in Roger Donaldson's SLEEPING DOGS and SMASH PALACE was there any outbeak of emotional fireworks. Time and again in other films the director and the editor (and perhaps the writers too) have chosen to cut away when emotion looks like getting too out of hand. If it is true that our films reflect our way of life, it may well be that we are a fairly stolid lot. But I doubt it.

Michael Black as diector must be seen as mainly responsible for the story's slow and fairly muted treatment, but his eye for framing, compositon and detail cannot be faulted. In that, he is translating Robert Lord and John O'Shea's screenplay into visual terms with skill and sympathy - a process aided considerably by Jan Preston's unobtrusive score. The actors, almost without exception, give good accounts of themselves and of roles that are largely symbolic. Coarse, crude materialism is represneted by the surveyor Rochfort (Terence Bayler, almost larger than life); official pomposity and philistinism by the Railway managers (Ken Blackburn, Ron Lynn); the native who has come to terms with colonisation by becoming a Maori guide (Matgiu Mateikura); Engish snobbery by Alfred's wife (Helen Moulder); honest art by Walter Burton (Peter Vere-Jones); popular art by Alfred Burton (Kevin J. Watson).

What UTU declares in bold rhetoric, PICTURES says in tones that are level and more quietly spoken. Between them they tell us much about ourselves that may be uncomfortable but nevertheless is salutary.





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