Friday 30 October 2015

A belated vale to John Mackenzie - the man, the MFF and the Palais Theatre

Its one of those things that you pick up on late, but somehow while glancing at the Guardian's obituary for Maureen O'Hara, a link came up to another obituary by the estimable Ronald Bergan  which you can read here (Guardian obituary) about the Scottish film director John Mackenzie. I thought he must have just died but it turns out he shuffled off the mortal coil in 2011. Mackenzie had a solid career in both television and movies but, if you ask, most people will remember only one of his movies. The Long Good Friday (UK, 1980) is now regarded as a ‘classic’. It may be late but I'm inclined to finally tell this story. 

I was at what I think was the world premiere of The Long Good Friday at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1980. It was the only time I attended that event, one which at the time was a model I aspired to emulate in some way or other. It had a sense of cinephilia about it that was hardly rivalled and it attracted film-makers, critics and festival directors in some abundance. In 1980 it devoted a significant part of its program to a retrospective of the films of Joseph H Lewis and I sat near alone in a large cinema away from the main festival venue to watch a couple of them. Blazing Six Shooters, a Monogram western of almost no virtues beyond one memorable shot in the final confrontation between hero and villain is the only title I remember off the top of my head. Doing retrospectives  selected from down among the esoterica might make the festival, its director and the compiler of the booklet or program notes feel  good but it is not a path to wild popular support.

After the screening of The Long Good Friday, a press conference took place in the festival club room. It was chaired by Simon Perry, the festival’s press officer that year, and it featured Mackenzie, Bob Hoskins and the producer of the film Barry someone or other. Mackenzie instantly started to roar and rant at the audience about how he was one of those in the British film industry who was constantly hard done by, how the big companies were always trying to suppress honest little battlers like him and his colleagues, how they need the support of all the people in the room so that their film might get its chance. Hoskins joined him, not quite so noisily but with an almost equal number of expletives. The producer Barry someone or other more quietly explained the difficulty he was having convincing the distributors that they had made something saleable.

And so it went for maybe a good half hour or so, every question being used by Mackenzie to rant afresh, the language ever more fruity. It was all quite entertaining though I’m fairly certain the rants and raves and foul language had the effect of diminishing the film’s merits in my eyes. Mackenzie of course may have got himself, as they say in westerns, all lickered up. Some people when drunk do get a little aggressive. Some get a lot aggressive. I later had a quick word with Mackenzie and Hoskins and they asked my opinion. I said I thought that the film was a tad unbelievable, especially all that stuff about the IRA robbing banks. For this observation I got my own personal tirade from Mackenzie and Hoskins, something along the lines of ‘ Antipodean know nothing prat’, I seem to remember. Whatever, the film went out of my head after that and I certainly didn’t put it down on the shopping list for the 1981 Melbourne Film Festival.

Then around March 1981 I had a phone call from Philip Adams. “Do you have an Opening Night film?” “No , not yet”. “Well I have solved your problem. I’ve just seen a great movie called The Long Good Friday and I’ve talked Hoyts into giving it to you for the festival opener”.  Wow. The MFF had never had a film from Hoyts distribution arm. So hey, why not. “All you have to do is ring and say you want it!” said the great man. That was true and the deal was done.

Come opening night and added to the audience mix are a bunch of Hoyts executives, many of them attending the MFF for the first time. The film starts to roll, the ancient projectors in the Palais groan into action and shortly thereafter, on the first reel change, some part of one projector blows itself up and the image goes into fluttering blur. Undeterred the projection team decide they have no choice but to continue, every second reel fluttering in and out of focus. A disaster has happened, for the second year in a row. Two out of two on my watch.

One of the worst moments of my life was fronting the grim faced Hoyts executives after the show.  They were not happy and I silently vowed this has to be it, the festival has to be out of the Palais, a crumbling edifice, too large for the purpose, its ancient machinery failing at every step. So it came to be and the festival I think, neither MFF or MIFF has ever returned to that pile... John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (UK, 1980) with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren was the last opening night. Later, on closing night, Jackie Reynal won the prize for best short film and that caused more grief but it’s another story.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I can ever go back to any other place, after an experience like this. The Chicago venues were appropriate in a space that lends so much gravitas to events. The design is sharp and environment is unbelievably good.


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