Tuesday 8 March 2022

Vale Colin Bennett - A final tribute from long time Melbourne cinephile Michael Campi

Colin Bennett at the Melbourne office of the NFSA, 2017

 As I am part of the generation which first engaged with the cinema in the early 1950s during primary and secondary school years, my first experience of Colin Bennett's writings on the cinema was in opening the Literary Supplement of The Age newspaper each Saturday to find Colin's column, imagining beforehand what the topic might be. Would we learn something about a contemporary film or filmmaker that would be more expansive than the regular weekday reviews? If it were around Easter time, there was the anticipation of discovery of what the next Melbourne Film Festival  might offer in June. 

I was too young to participate in the film festival for several more years, not until 1964 in fact. Sometimes Colin might provide news on new activities of special films for children and the specific bodies set up to make, distribute and exhibit them. There might be a tirade against censorship. Underlying each week's article was the understanding that the writer was a special kind of wordsmith who had thought deeply about the topic of the day before committing it to a final form. He had carefully developed an aesthetic of what mattered to him in cinematic expression, influenced, as others have written already, by his own formative years in London in the early part of the 1950s. For him there was a need for the cinema to open new windows and investigations of the complex lives and hopes of those who might be oppressed. 

The best contemporary cinema stories for him would have concerns for the betterment of the characters portrayed. Some have linked his concerns with the ideals of the British Film Institute and the journal Sight and Sound at the time.  This is not to imply that only dark and serious subjects might interest him. He might be equally engaged by a western directed unusually by George Cukor. Moreover I remember how fondly he greeted the hilarity of a Buster Keaton film during a screening one night when Colin visited my home with his family in the 1970s.

Colin's enthusiasm for local filmmaker practitioners, at a time when almost no Australian films appeared in regular commercial cinemas, was also felt to be most urgent. It was in his articles that I first learned there was a film society movement so that when such a society was established in my local area at the end of 1962, it was impossible not to become involved very deeply with it, and the Federation to which it belonged, for the next twenty years. 

My first conversations with Colin were probably hesitant exchanges at the Palais Theatre, St. Kilda, during the many years that the Melbourne Film Festival found its home there. As I was a regular on the information desk, Colin might drop by to collect an envelope of information or stills or leave something important for another audience member.  At the end of the 1960s, when I became involved in the Victorian branch of the newly formed National Film Theatre of Australia, Colin was of great help when he was very enthusiastic for commencement of some regular and frequent curated screening events, equivalent to the National Film Theatre in London which he had experienced first hand some years before. In his Saturday articles, he gave unstinting support. His enthusiasms might ensure full houses of 300 to 400 people in the weeks following. As the National Film Theatre screenings quickly became regular more than once a week events, Colin's enthusiasm for the programmes would be expressed in his Saturday and other columns. On occasion, if my memory is correct, he expressed politely his disappointment at a technical aspect of one regular venue. His letter to us expressing how he believed improvements could be achieved was passed to the provider of the venue. Well-judged suggestions from a figure of authority in Melbourne's film community brought about a quick improvement. 

In the the 1970s, apart from Colin's visits to NFTA screenings, I might see him at a festival screening or perhaps at a preview or another festival function of some kind. After a gap of some years, my daughter's enthusiasm for horse riding brought us to visiting Colin and his partner at their country property in Buxton to which we would drive on some Saturdays and enjoy lunch together before or after the riding instruction. Colin was passionate about horses and any filmmaker who depicted them being treated badly would probably suffer harshly in a later review.  

Following his departure from The Age newspaper, a topic which was silently off limits it seemed, Colin may have stopped seeing films, at least new releases.   During our Buxton visits in the later 1980s, he was always genuinely interested in new developments of expression in the world cinema, new regions of discovery or what was so and so doing now.  He was keen to know what I'd seen recently and what excited others internationally. I don't know if he continued to read regular journals and this was before the internet clamoured for attention.  

Through mutual friends I was heartened to learn that Colin kept well and  busy with other pursuits and that he'd returned to Melbourne at some point.  As I mentioned a few years ago, I believe my last time to chat with him at any length was when I found myself in an adjacent seat for many hours when I was flying to Vancouver film festival and he was about to start a vacation in Hawaii. 

It's over forty years since the regular Colin Bennett articles and reviews appeared in The Age newspaper. Let's hope there will be a publication of collections of his writings. 

A Celebration of Colin Bennett’s life will be held in the White Lady Brighton Chapel, 139 Marriage Road Brighton, on Friday 18th March 2022 commencing at 2.30pm.

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