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Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Remembering Colin Bennett - Peter Hourigan and I recall an eminent critic's contribution

I’m moved to write this note after my reading  and reviewing of David Bordwell's The Rhapsodes .

Sometime around 1981 Colin Bennett was eased out of his role as film critic for The Age, Melbourne’s quality broadsheet newspaper. He was replaced by Neil Jillett, until then the Arts page editor. Bennett seemed then to just disappear from the scene. There may have been private farewells for him but there was no public attention given to the man or his departure. The Melbourne Film Festival, of which I was then Director, made no effort at all to mark the passing of a critic who had supported the event for most if not all of its life. I don’t recall any discussion around the Organising Committee table at the time about anything being done. Not good form but things have changed quite a lot where it comes to farewells and retirements. There is much more celebration now.

But from a late teen age, when a copy of the Saturday edition of The Age was home delivered, Bennett occupied a singular place in what may only be seen as the infancy of Australian film culture. (The newspaper wasn’t ordered any other day of the week. The Sun and the afternoon broadsheet The Herald, both published by the mighty behemoth that was The Herald and Weekly Times empire now amalgamated into a single morning paper and owned by Rupert Murdoch, were the newspapers of choice.) But the Saturday edition of The Age was a different being. Packed with advertising for houses and cars it had an expansive remit to publish huge amounts of good writing. Essays, reviews, political roundups and more, the Saturday Age was top of the heap. Without knowing, I suspect its management and editors saw its only rival as being the similar edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, similarly bulky though entirely unread in Melbourne.

Colin Bennett reviewed the week’s new releases in the Friday and Monday editions of The Age. He was a hard taskmaster with a taste for art and for films that attacked tough subjects. His preferences were, and this is all from memory, for the classical dramatic directors Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Wajda, Bunuel. He loved and supported Truffaut (but not Godard) and the new Brit realists. He liked movies that aimed at targets.

Distributors hated him. They thought he was far too tough and far too disdainful of common or garden Hollywood movies. He was. But he supported certain things with a passion and that passion showed up for many years, (I wouldn’t know how many exactly), in a column he wrote, usually at least half a broadsheet page, every Saturday which appeared in the second section of the paper which was called the Literary Supplement.

In those essays Bennett might choose to write a long piece about the key film of the week or he might choose to address issues that affected film in Australia. He was a fearless opponent of film censorship and wrote unrelentingly about the need for change and reform. In those days censors such as the famously belligerent ex-serviceman Richard Prowse (“One-armed Dick” as he was known to the trade) terrorised distributors with demands for cuts and frequent bans. He wrote about the need for Australia to support its own film industry and when the time finally came got involved with work for the early Experimental Film Fund.   He supported the Melbourne Film Festival and for many years added to that support by presenting an annual preview of the event on ABC-TV. He wrote about and as well donated huge amounts of time to the establishment of the Australian Film Institute. He supported, in print, fledgling cinephilia such as the public seasons presented by the Melbourne University Film Society.

Colin Bennett’s Saturday essay was a weekly moment to be savoured even by the immature who thought he had too much authority and his views were too conservative. Colin was a Sight & Sound person and placed alongside the auteurist terrors who wanted him to acknowledge Don Siegel and Jerry Lewis he seemed a stick in the mud. He preferred Jacques Tati and the Italian neo-realists. Oh well. Matters of taste aside, it’s impossible to overestimate just how much he used his position at The Age to champion causes, support film as an art and defend it from the philistines.

I cant say I’m aware of anything that Colin Bennett has been up to since he left The Age. I couldn't find any words nor any pictures. He didn’t write a memoir or publish a collection though those Saturday essays begged for it way back then. Seems like he was just let go and more’s the pity. I understand he’s still alive and have in fact suggested that as a matter of urgency his name be added to those who must be interviewed by the National Film & Sound Archive’s Oral History Program. Something may be happening there though I am not privy to any details.

When I gave this some thought I got in touch with a few confreres from the days back when. Phillip Adams came back instantly: Well done GG.  Totally agree.  Tried to track Colin down decades years ago..heard that he'd retired to a little farm with horses..no luck ...remember when Tim Burstall was going to give him a knuckle sandwich ..was it over 2000 Weeks? 

It was indeed. Definitely a story worth telling by Colin himself.

In the meantime veteran cinephile Peter Hourigan dropped everything to send in the following very heartfelt response:
The first film critic I ever read would have been Colin Bennett in Melbourne’s The Age.  I was still in High School, and starting to realise that the pictures (we didn’t use words like movie or even film - and a Cinema was a word we only saw in English books and papers) were more than a Saturday afternoon serial, cartoon and Western.  I was reading about films that would never make it to the small independent chain that serviced the towns around where I lived in country Victoria.

Then I was at Melbourne University in the first half of the sixties, and involved with MUFS – Melbourne University Film Society.  Now, I can look back and see how important he was in creating a receptive climate for films that were not part of the main Hollywood stream of that time

I don’t know his biography in detail. He wasn’t a grand-standing person, but he was certainly proud of his grandfather, Sir John Monash the famous World War 1 commander, very much in public awareness at that time with the opening of Melbourne’s second university being named after him.

Colin had spent time in Britain, I imagine as a journalist and in the period after World War II.  By the mid- to late-fifties, he’d returned to - Melbourne and became its Film Critic. (The request to put these notes together has stirred my curiosity – I’d love to know more about the paper’s coverage of film before Colin.)

You knew that there would new reviews every Friday and Monday. I guess there were no advance screenings for critics in those days,so every Thursday he (and some of Melbourne’s other critics of the time including Keith Connelly for the Herald) would attend commercial screenings on release days and put his review together for the Friday edition, with more reviews early the following week of releases that couldn’t fit in on Friday.

His time in Britain may have developed a strong “Paul Rotha” streak in his approach to films. He valued highly those films that seemed to have overt cultural cachet or tackled social themes. I think I often disagreed with him about films with ‘big’ themes but low on real film-making talent. Think Stanley Kramer.  He was also a keen animal lover, especially horses.  His disapproval was palpable for  any Western where it was clear that horses were being subjected to mistreatment especially in the use of trip-wires to make them stumble and fall.

The films of the British ‘kitchen sink’ were particularly highly praised – films like Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or early Lindsay Anderson.  Or the early films of David Lean. He’d be more likely to like a British film than an American.  And he was sympathetic to most of the films getting releases at the two ‘continental theatres’ of the time, the Savoy and the Australia.

Saturday’s paper had the Literary Supplement.  The forerunner of the culture and life-style supplements in today’s weekend papers, this was mainly book reviews. But Colin had a regular, substantial space. He’d write about a range of things here.  It might be a more detailed review of a release, one with more background. Perhaps a director biography.  He might react to some event in wider film circles. He was very outspoken on censorship, with some strong articles at the time when the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals were banned from showing the Swedish I Love You Love.

In these Saturday articles he also did what he could to advance the almost completely non-existent Australian film industry.  I remember a number of long articles about Giorgio Mangiamele an Italian- Australian photographer who, against massive odds including overwhelming lack of  local interest did succeed in making several feature films in the late 50s and early 60s.

He’d also support the activities of various film groups around Melbourne.  These would include the significant pioneer community screenings of documentary programmes organised by Edwin Schefferle at the State Film Centre.  And here he was a wonderful friend to MUFS – Melbourne University Film Society.

In the early sixties, MUFS had campus screenings on set weekdays during term for the student body. But twice a year – during the Autumn and Spring Vacations when the Union Theatre was not need for student theatre productions, and before the non-academic year period when the fledgling Union Theatre Company (the starting point of the current Melbourne Theatre Company used the theatre) used the theatre under John Sumner - MUFS held a Night Season.
For us, a night season was two weeks of evening screenings, promoted not just to fellow undergraduates, but to the Melbourne community at large. Programmes were built around a theme.  In the fifties, they’d been some very much in Colin Bennett’s comfort zone. One had been on British Cinema.  There had also been rare public screenings of the newly available Ivan the Terrible (both parts) by Sergei Eisenstein which no commercial theatre would show.

But at this time, we young Turks at Melbourne University were coming under the influence of Cahiers du Cinema and Movie. We weren’t so keen on these British social conscience dramas - our heroes were Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford – quite a challenge to the then Sight and Sound line.  We were programming Nicholas Ray and films like Party Girl. Or Hitchcock – at a time when the British line was that he was just a good entertainer. 

Unsurprisingly  Colin didn’t agree with our Cahiers/Movie approach – but that didn’t stop him supporting us.  He’d give us a complete Saturday article, publicity we could never have afforded.  It wouldn’t be a bland puff piece, either.  He would clearly express his differences, but never in a smart, demeaning way.

I remember one time I called on Colin for help.  We had screened The Damned  by someone we didn’t know much about called Joseph Losey.  But we’d really liked the film – really, really liked it. And were curious about the director.  We wanted to know if he’d made anything else we could perhaps screen.  There was no IMDB or Wikipedia in those days, and the handful of film books any of us had access to didn’t mention him.So I went down to Colin’s office in the Age building in Collins St. It was a very pleasant chat, and he gave me a few titles – though he told me they weren’t very good.   Concrete Jungle. Or Time Without Pity.   Quick exploitation titles!  I did have a quiet smile to myself several years later when Accident came out, and had a glowing review from him.  Our prescience was vindicated!

I also had the privilege of serving with him on the panel judging the short films in the Melbourne Film Festival for two years.  He was certainly the presence that steered the group through many harmonious screenings and discussions.  One of our chosen winners was The Inheritance¸ a documentary history of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. (director:  Harold Mayer).  Certainly the subject and its clear pro-union, pro-workers stance was in line to his approach to the cinema.  (But it was a damned good film anyway.  I’d love to see it again. I can still remember the song used throughout it.)

I don’t know all the details about the end of Colin’s period at the Age.  There were stories that his successor Neil Jillett had something to do with it, but I don’t know.  I do know though, that when he left his warmth, his integrity, his depth of cinema knowledge was lost.

When he left, he also left the world of film.  I understand he ‘went up country’ with his new partner and was raising horses – show horses, not race horses.  I saw him again once probably about twenty years ago, at a screening of a silent film. (I don’t remember which.)  He was then seemingly only really interested in old films.  I hope he’s still enjoying being around horses.

To be continued. Contributions welcome. Send them to filmalert101@gmail.com 

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