Tuesday 7 November 2017

Colin Bennett - Reflections in the Dark - Film Writings 1952-1980 - Part Two - Critical Conditions

Colin Bennett (Photo: Bronwyn Murphy, NFSA)
Editor’s Note: On 16 October Peter Hourigan and I interviewed Colin Bennett on behalf of the National Film & Sound Archive’s Oral History Program. The interview took place at the NFSA office in Melbourne. It occurred after the publication on this blog of some memories recalling the contribution Colin made to Australian film culture.

Colin Bennett was a film critic based in Melbourne. During the interview Colin revealed he had written a memoir of his life in film. In this extract from that memoir he recalls the tribulations of his work for The Age, his broadcasting and television career and the beginning of his role as a Board Member and Chairman of the Australian Film Institute.

This is the second extract from that unpublished memoir, written in 1995 and titled Reflections in the Dark - Film Writings 1952-1980. A third and final extract will be published shortly. Part One can be found if you click here.

Special thanks to Sharon Caris for her assistance in both facilitating the NFSA interview and for her help in getting this material together.

PART TWO – Critical Conditions
For the first 10 years or so, the Age permitted me to devote only two days a week to the cinema. Newsmen considered it was a perk between important assignments such as reporting State Parliament. Literary page efforts each Saturday had to be written in my own time at home, during the previous weekend. Eventually, thanks to a new editor, Graham Perkin, I became the first full-time critic in Australia and even managed to make two world trips to film festivals.

Henri Langlois outside the then Cinematheque francaise
On my travels I kissed the Blarney Stone with film directors in Eire; discovered Georges Melies’ original camera-projector among the cobwebs of Henri Langlois’ Cinemathèque in Paris; observed, in a magical twilight, Luchino Visconti on a canal bridge, doubtless planning Death in Venice.

In Prague I succeeded in disrupting a film set by tripping over cables. In Hollywood I cruised through Universal City in Rock Hudson’s Cadillac (minus Rock). In an embarrassing ceremony in Moscow I was trapped into marching on stage with three other Australians to accept red roses from a Soviet girl guide: this was in honour of an Australian film, Storm Boy, that I had nothing to do with. 

Greg Rowe, David Gulpilil, Storm Boy
And in my penultimate week as a critic I found myself in the strange position of reviewing a student film in which I had acted as stunt man for the horse riding scenes. The film was a fantasy about Ned Kelly and I was made to ride encased in the uncomfortable suit of armour worn by Mick Jagger in the Tony Richardson film. The slit in the helmet allowed “pillarbox” vision only. I had to rely on my horse to take the right route and stop at the right spot. In vain I protested that Ned himself never rode in armour.

For a couple of years at the Age I doubled as theatre critic as well, reviewing everything from the premiere of My Fair Lady to Danny Kaye.  I also inherited ABC radio programs, reviewing weekly with Keith Manzie of the Argus and Newman Rosenthal of Melbourne University’s Audio-Visual Aids department. These critics’ shows continued in one form or another for 20 years, although I was never very comfortable with unscripted discussion. Some writers are just not cut out to be speakers. When, finally, I was persuaded to become Chairman of the Australian Film Institute, it was only on the condition that I did not have to chair any meetings!

When it came to solo talks on radio, I relaxed a little. “Imagine you’re in a pub,” said my producer helpfully. “You’re chatting intimately to one person across the bar. He’s your mate and his name’s Mike.” I tried this technique but when we played it back, my baritone still turned rapidly into a bass, somewhere deep in my boots.

Once the autocue system arrived, I was happy to appear on television -- and happier still when programs were no longer telecast live. Before that, the producer would rig up what looked like a rolling piece of lavatory paper for me to read. It was hardly satisfactory. Instead, I would learn my script word for word, a whole hour of it, then act it out for the camera as naturally as possible, as though it were off-the-cuff. I even laced the written words with ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and repetitions to make them sound impromptu.

Mike Todd (l), Shirley MacLaine, David Niven
One of the many premieres of
Around the World in Eighty Days
Critics were wooed by publicity people with all kinds of gimmicks. I recall eating python, possum and witchetty grubs at a Mike Todd party for Around the World in 80 Days. Invitations received included those that took the form of a splinter of wood (Bridge on the River Kwai), a spent bullet, a square of genuine mink, a green silk stocking and an envelope marked “Opened by the CIA”. We were asked to previews aboard ship and plane, on rooftop and underground. One invitation to a horror film insured my life for $20,000. Another was marked “Adults will only be admitted if accompanied by a child”.

I watched films absolutely alone in a 2000-seat cinema. Several times I had to squat in the aisle or stand at the back. Once I was turned away by the House Full sign.

Neville & Heather Shute (Norway)
Perhaps my worst faux pas was made at Alice Springs, at the premiere of the 1956 version of A Town Like Alice. I told a woman who had been introduced as Mrs. Norway what I thought of Nevil Shute, who had just delivered a speech about the film of his novel. Nobody had told me that Shute’s surname was Norway.

In one cinema I attended regularly, an old man was found dead in the back row; in the same stalls, another night, a baby was born. The score was even, and perhaps that says something about the relationship of reality to the illusion in which the cinema deals. I am not precisely sure what.

Hoyts Lyceum, Exterior, Bourke St Melbourne
( Thanks Michael Campi)
In Melbourne, when I began reviewing, there were no previews. Thursday and Friday mornings were spent freezing alone in the old Lyceum, DeLuxe, Majestic and other fleapits. Sometimes I forgot to bring a notebook and would search frantically for any scrap of paper in my pockets to jot down thoughts or dialogue. Once or twice I had to make do with a tram ticket. I would scribble around the edges of the ticket that were not already covered by print. All this was done in the dark, somehow or other. On one unforgettable occasion, in the cinema I called the Lice-eum, rats actually ran over my feet.
Hoyts Lyceum, Melbourne, Interior
(Thanks Brian Pearson)

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