Saturday 1 October 2016

Remembering Colin Bennett (and Tim Burstall) - Director, Critic and Editor Scott Murray recalls an eminent contributor to Australian film

As a teenager obsessed with European cinema, and kindly allowed to sneak into the Melbourne Film Festival under age by its wonderful director, Erwin Rado, I searched everywhere for intelligent and informative writing on film.

The main sources in those pre-Internet days were the British film journals Sight & Sound, then a quarterly, and Monthly Film Bulletin. They were the yardsticks if one wasn’t fluent in French and able to track down Cahiers du cinĂ©ma or Positif, or accept the sexploitation emphasis of the invaluable Continental Film Review. Tom Milne was the critic I admired most and he intensified my appreciation of many a great director, from Claude Chabrol to Georges Franju.

In Australia, there was very little serious writing on film and most of it was US-centric. Mainstream Hollywood still ruled the day.

An exception was Colin Bennett, who wrote for The Age in Melbourne. Unlike the times, which were distrustful of everything previously thought important, Colin was a traditionalist with a love of European art cinema, believing absolutely in its social, cultural and moral worth. He was influenced by the liberal-humanist school of film appreciation (as it was known) in England, inspired by Lindsay Anderson and others at Sequence.

In Melbourne, though, Colin was seen as too tied to the views of this strain of British film criticism (which flourished at Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin), that it was cruelly said that Colin never had anything to say about a film unless he had first read a review of it in Sight & Sound or Monthly Film Bulletin. The libel was that he prayed for the British reviews to arrive by airmail post before a film he needed to write about opened Down Under, which was often 6 months later or longer.

All of this was completely unfair and ignored the point that Colin’s tastes simply mirrored those of many others overseas (and in Australia). If you go back and examine Colin’s favourite films of any one year, or any particular film festival, few people will find anything to disagree with.

The same is true of the British critics of the time. I occasionally go back and examine the charts on the last page of Monthly Film Bulletin, which summarize the critics’ reviews of that month. These charts are of particular interest during the London Film Festival and Sight & Sound also ran them at times. During MFF, I and my friends followed suit, rating everything from 1 to 4 stars. I still have my ratings and there’s scarcely a one I disagree with now. The same with Colin’s ratings: what he believed were 4-star movies are generally seen today as classics of cinema.

I never believed Colin was just following fashion; his tastes simply mirrored the views of intelligent and erudite others. Yes, he was not at the forefront of the avant-garde or excitedly promoting new talent over old masters, but he also did not make the mistakes of many critics in seriously overrating anything a bit out of the norm and then having to back-track for decades to come.

In the terminology of the day, Colin wasn’t exciting or provocative, but he was sound. Where I differed with him was that I never believed in the Lindsay Anderson model of praising a film because of its political stance (that is, if it was left-wing humanist). I have never understood why a right-wing film can’t be as good as a communist one. To me, it is how well made it is; how convincingly it creates its own world; how intelligently it tells its story or deconstructs the process of storytelling. I know many argue that every artistic decision is political in some way; what I disagree with is a blanket rejection of films whose politics one doesn’t agree with.

I liked reading Colin, even when I disagreed with him. I also liked reading Ivan Hutchinson and Keith Connolly, and listening to Bill Collins rhapsodise about the Golden Years of Hollywood.

Where Colin got into trouble was being seen as too tough on the few and flawed examples of Australian films being made at the time. Most famously, he tore into Tim Burstall’s Two Thousand Weeks, which caused more than an outcry (especially at home, as my father was the film’s executive producer). Colin’s review in The Age was considered incendiary and undermining of all attempts to restart the local film industry. It created an outrage and a famous feud between Colin and Tim brewed. Colin became persona non grata in the industry itself.

A week or so later, The Age published a long letter denouncing Colin’s review. This was cheered from the battlements. But then an odd rumour began: that Colin had written the letter himself, as a sort of mea culpa, and had had it published with or without The Age’s connivance. (Select your own conspiracy theory.)

None of the attendant furore had any effect on the film itself, which lasted I recall 10 days. I have never believed Colin’s review was responsible for its box-office failure (though critics did have such influence then). I blamed its lack of commercial success on its being a terrible film.

This is a view I still hold, having tried to watch it several times since. I am still unable to find anything reassuring about it. The fact is Tim Burstall was a far better director on Petersen than on the arch, unconvincing and awkwardly acted Two Thousand Weeks. I largely agreed with Colin, even if he was a bit intemperate, and I think he argued his case well.

I can’t recall how long Colin continued as the film critic at The Age, but he was later replaced by journalist Neil Jillett, who seemed to believe a scathing putdown was what made criticism interesting. To me, there was never a discernible love for cinema; his acidic pen could have been applied to any topic or column in the newspaper.

(In the interests of of disclosure, Jillett’s review of my feature, Devil in the Flesh, was not kind. So, I followed in a long line of Australians who returned home from an overseas film festival and much acclaim – Devil was in the Official Selection at Cannes, and one of the top-rated films of the year’s festival according to the 1-4 star chart in Positif – and seen local critics scorn one’s efforts.)

In contrast to Neil, Colin was a true film critic, an advocate who loved cinema, who wanted others to share his passion for what it could achieve at its best, even if there was also a desire to have others analyse and adjudicate in the same way he did. That desire merely reflected the time.

After Colin left The Age, he went to raise horses in the Yarra Valley with his new love (invariably referred to as his ‘nymphet’, Australia being a dreadful place for ready condemnation of any hint of age-difference between partners). She was a lovely woman.

To most of us, Colin simply disappeared. Though I had only seen him at the MFF and film screenings, and he never gave the impression of being the biggest fan of Cinema Papers, which I had co-founded and -edited, now I didn’t see him at all. And I didn’t know anyone who did.

That changed in the mid-to-late 2000s (the precise date I can’t immediately recall). Gordon Glenn, a film director and producer (and a mate from university), one day suggested we make a film together about the famous feud between Colin and Tim Burstall over Two Thousand Weeks. We would interview them both, scrutinise the legend of whether Colin had written the letter ‘correcting’ his review and so on. It sounded like a fun idea.

Gordon tracked down Colin to his unit in Brighton, Melbourne. We drove there and had a lovely few hours discussing the ‘feud’ (all had been resolved) and his life post-The Age. Colin was a little wary of the idea at first, and of me - he thought I hated him and I thought he hated Cinema Papers; it was all so stupid - but Colin soon realised Gordon and I wanted to do a warm and loving account of an important cultural moment.

It should be said here that Tim and I had also had our dramas, Once, at an Australian Film Commission party at Cannes, Tim announced to all and sundry that he was going to crucify me upside down with nails hammered through my balls. But that very night, when I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment and discovered all Cannes’ hotels were full, he sweetly offered to let me sleep in the spare bed at his hotel. He was drunk and sound asleep, and thus unable to open the door when I turned up. (I was later found feeling most sorry for myself by John Duigan, who sweetly loaned me a spare room he had booked at a hotel straight out of Le Cercle Rouge. I didn’t sleep for a second, convinced I would be murdered.)

But back to Tim: he was impossible and wonderful at the same time, and his critics should just shut up. He was a major pioneer of the film revival and he made Petersen for heaven’s sake (and several other interesting films to boot).

I felt it was kind of cute that Tim and Colin had been so wary of each other for so long, ageing lions warily eyeing each other off on the scorched tundra of Australian film culture.

Sir John Monash
What Colin, Gordon and I also talked about at length that day (over a lovely afternoon tea kindly prepared by Colin) was General Sir John Monash, who was Colin’s grandfather.

Gordon and I were then in the pre-production stages of a feature documentary on Monash, whom we both consider to be a massively underappreciated man and figure in Australian history. His first command, at the battle of Hamel, was the first Allied victory in 18 months, and his success was so unexpected and overwhelming that the Allies never lost a foot of ground from them on. If that weren’t enough, Monash was of Polish-German heritage, Jewish, wrote pornography in his old age and read the Koran every morning.

Colin was a fount of information on Monash and kept dashing off to find another book or article in his library. We left with quite a stack and a promise to let Colin read the final script for his comments and suggestions.

Gordon and I had secured funded from Film Australia (it was minuted by the Board as an approved project), but then internal politics came to play and the new British CEO decided to make a Monash film himself (and not well). The CEO left soon after to return to the UK, with his calling card of an Aussie taxpayer-funded Monash doco under his arm. Such is life in the film industry.

Anyway, I now needed to return all the books to Colin, but Gordon had outrageously misplaced his phone number and address. As Colin was not listed in the phone book, I contacted The Age three times, but on each occasion they refused to divulge any information, even I though I was writing for The Age then (and still am).

I resorted to driving around the streets of Brighton whenever I was in the area, but was unable to find the street or the unit again – shades of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes.

I then had to go overseas and left all the books at home with instructions for the house-sitter to deliver them immediately should Colin ever call. Well, he didn’t, but his sister did. Unfortunately, it was agreed delivery of the books could wait till I returned. Unfortunately, by then the address and number were well lost.

So, I started the search all over again ...

Fortunately, the sister contacted me again and I was able to return everything except a copy of Searle’s Monash biog, which had gone walkabout. By way of recompense and apology, I tracked down on the Net a signed first edition of Searle.

That was the final coda in the Monash story, my connection with Colin and the hope of a film about the Two Thousand Weeks saga. Tim Burstall had also died, inconveniently scuttling the project. Tim was always a challenge!

In movies, stories tend to end neatly. In life, they are more likely to drift away into nothingness.

But at least there remain fond memories and a much-welcomed resolve, which has sprung up unexpectedly, to remember and deservedly honour Colin Bennett.

1 comment:

  1. Onya, Scott. Colin had a 28mm film projector that had belonged to Monash, really a historic object. Where is it now?!
    Colin was a founding board member ('Governor' in the style of the day) of the Australian Film Institute and a sensible person for those of us who made the trek to Melbourne. He would have been highly influential in early days of AFI Awards.


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