Friday 3 July 2020

The Dextrols Touch - A Memoir in which Barrie Pattison remembers the glory days of random alternates in Sydney cinema going. (Part One)

At different peaks Melbourne had five theaters running Italian films full time, a determined film goer could see ten Chinese movies a week in Sydney, with Jackie Chan (above) once having three running simultaneously downtown. Clint Eastwood never managed that. Perth had a cinema showing Italian, Greek, Chinese and Yugoslav films on different nights. They had committed to running the Telecom Italian ad. which meant that the Chinese audience got to be exhorted by Barbara Streisand doing “The Way We Were” to call momma in Rome. 

Dinos Dimopoulos' 
Oi ehthroi/The Enemies  1963,
screening in Port Kembla
There were Arab and Jewish showings - Indian, Turkish, Spanish, Filipino, Russian and Polish. The screenings had an importance as great as ethnic radio though it never had the lobby that institution still has. Over a forty-year period, we were offered an unprecedented access to World Film. My own interest was in seeing titles for the most part not accessible through traditional distribution, not just individual films but whole schools of production, occasionally the output of whole national industries. This became one of the most involving things I’ve done. It revealed the clear limitations of a lot of accepted wisdom and also showed the way information is transmitted and standards set.

In Australia “ethnic cinema”, (called “Race Films” in the States where they outnumbered conventional foreign language releases) probably goes back pre WW1 and it has not come to a full halt yet. (I don’t have subsidised interns digging information out of dog eared newspaper files and suspect “oral histories” to investigate that.) What I can do is describe my own fragmentary experience over forty years when the country was dotted with dedicated venues playing to non-English speaking audiences.

This activity had a fairly distinct beginning when TV decimated movie attendance in the fifties and Greek and Italian community entrepreneurs - travel agents and real estate operators - maybe a baker - among others ran week end shows and began importing, putting what had been a haphazard process on a stable, regular basis. They moved into the old closed picture palaces with their circles and crying rooms abandoned by the circuits in neighborhoods with large migrant populations. The sign outside Sydney’s Enmore Theatre,  which used to read Hoyts, was replaced with one reading Finos, the name of the dominant Greek production house. 

This business preserved a lot of the historic suburban cinemas and there was also a steady up-grading of facilities. Duplex cinemas appeared in Chinatowns to house the Shaw brothers spectacles. The ill fated AZ-Twin in Sydney's Annandale, purpose built to show Italian films, was well on the way to being the best designed complex in the country. When this foundered and, after a period of Turkish movies upstairs and Spanish down, the process reversed and it went to multiplex movie double bills. It was heart breaking to see all its innovative European features being stripped out one by one - wraparound screen masking, tickets colour coded to match the carpet that led to their auditoria -. One auditorium was twinned so that the perfect sight lines were impaired by an aisle running diagonally. It’s now apartments.

The earliest showings were usually simple minded material - Hellenic gentlemen in skirts dancing round trees for an unedited reel, tubby Luciano Tajoli (below) piping up a tune for young Giulietta Masina. A few of these old favourites lingered on the first halves of double features with later hits.

The Greek cinema was for years the biggest ethic chain in Australia, a country where Melbourne was considered the third largest Greek city in the world. Most of what was on show was disappointingly unsophisticated. Some blame the late development of the Greek film industry, with the first feature films not made until the mid twenties, or the country’s unbending censorship. The forties and fifties material they circulated is pretty much un-documented in English language literature, which talks about a neo-realist influence totally absent from the films shown in Australia. 

Mairi Hronopoulou 
We did get English subtitles on Finos’ simple minded mother love melodramas with bouzouki band interludes and knockabouts with fat men comedians like Thanasis Veggos  or Nikos Rizos, all filmed in unconvincing small studio decors - titles like Yiorgos Tzavellas To soferaki /The Taxi Driver (Greece, 1953), Alekos Sakellarios O Ilias tou 16ou/ Policeman of the 16th District (Greece, 1959) or  Kostas Doukas   Despo (Greece, 1962). At this point the films of Mihalis Kakogiannis become Michael Cacoyannis displayed a level of sophistication previously unknown in the Greek industry. The subtitles on the copies brought to Australia went, probably after disinterest from the US market, but old style Finos productions continued and some of Cacoyannis’ personnel worked on them.

Most interesting was Giorgos Foundas, Melina Mercouri’s footballer lover in Stella (Michael Cacoyannis, Greece, 1955) or the father who cuts Irene Papas’ throat in Zorba the Greek (Cacoyannis, Greece/UK, 1964, above). His virile leads stood out in routine melodramas like Nikos Koundouros Magiki polis/The Magic City  (Greece,1954) Vasilis Georgiadis Ta kokkina fanaria/The Red Lanterns (Greece, 1963) or Kostas Andritsos Kravgi  (Greece, 1964). 

Though lacking English subtitles, the miming style of playing rendered them largely
unnecessary. To suggest that the heroine is studying too hard we fade in on her frowning
at the stack of books she is working with and, to indicate mum thinks she needs a break,
we have her handing the girl’s shawl to her and pushing her to the door. In Kravgi,
Foundas is an architect, which we can tell because he spreads blue prints on the work
bench and elegant Mairi Hronopoulou  shows interest in him by examining the company accreditation on them and pointing enquiringly in the direction of Foundas’ receding figure.

One departure from the more simple minded productions was the O Psarogiannos/
Fish-Kettle John (Greece, 1966, poster above from 
1966 at the Elizabethan, Sydney) one of the two films directed by Vassilis Mariolis and not well received on its home turf. In this one Foundas is the patriarch raising his family on an isolated island. The son of his first marriage shows up and no one is sure whether he is looking for reunion or revenge. Like the last Boetticher ‘Scope westerns, this is shot on location without lights. In these films, meals are eaten on tables set in front of the home. The demonstrative style of staging comes into its own here. Without clergy, Foundas celebrated his current marriage by leaping through the fire with his bride and now his daughter shows up blistered, not to be outdone. Rowing past his cliff face ledge, Foundas asks the newcomer how he survives and the boy shoves a hand full of white gull feathers off the edge. The film was remarkably effective and deserved (deserves) wider

... and O Psarogiannos did arrive with sub-titles and such sub-titles! At the final father
son confrontation Foundas and the boy face off on the beach and Giorgos asks nervously
about the boy’s mother. His son replies “She was always hopping to see you” irresistibly
conjuring up the image of a little black shawled woman jumping up and down looking for

 Aliki Vougiouklaki
The most enduring star of Greek popular cinema was however blonde singer Aliki Vougiouklaki,  who survived her days as a teenage pop singer celebrated in Rudolph Maté’s English language Aliki My Love (Greece, 1963) her career remarkable for a Salonaiika actress in an Athenian industry.  A popular runaway heiress musical vehicle like Dinos Dimopoulos  I arhontissa ki o alitis  (Greece, 1968) could have been made any time in her near fifty year career. She also made a  Johnny Belinda rip-off  Giannis Dalianidis I Maria tis siopis (Greece 1973) in the most unlikely wardrobe ever provided for a mute Greek peasant waif goat herd. She starred in a drama filmed by Walter Lassally and appeared opposite Foundas in Marios Adamis’ I zavoliara (Greece, 1979)

During this period, the way to see Mehboob Khan’s  Mother India (India, 1957) and  Son of India, (India, 1962)  mega hits for the Hindi film industry was to troop out to the Greek cinemas which were showing them with Greek sub titles. Indian films continued to get intermittent release but  the great days of  Bollywood, of Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2001) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, India, 1995) (the same team’s Mohabetein (Aditya Chopra, India, 2000) is better) would come decades later, when screening this material had moved to the multiplexes. 
(To be continued)

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