12th January 2008 | Other items by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen
As part of developing Taxi Art Films projects at David Krut Pubishing, we have brought on board Revel Fox, a filmmaker from Cape Town who has worked in film and television in South Africa and the UK for the last twenty-five years. He is perhaps best known to South Africans as the director of the award-winning film about a young trapeze artist, The Flyer. We have invited Revie to submit some of his thoughts on films, filmmaking and film watching and he has done so in the form of a film diary.
A FILM DIARY: I
People often say that I see the world as a film. When discussing politics or philosophy, history, human behavior or anything you can think of, I always come up with some movie or other as an example of how people are. I am embarrassed at this view people have of me but I have to admit there is an element of truth to it. Movies, for as long as I can remember, have overpowered me and engulfed me. They have inspired me. Movies have followed me through each year of my life and marked my path like arrows. Some films I remember vividly. Some I instantly forget. I have found myself sitting in front of the television, late on a Sunday, watching a movie that rouses my interest. I concentrate and settle in and soon I begin to sense that the faces look familiar. The story seems familiar. I find I can predict exactly what will happen next. Then it dawns on me: I have seen this movie before. It also dawns on me that I’ll see it once more and will forget it just as I did before. I have to admit too, that many films can be predicted right to the end, even if one has never seen them.
But there are also films I remember as clearly as houses I have lived in. They are like the rooms and corridors I knew so well. They are like the walls and floors. They hold me up and they shelter me from storms. Movies have been my escape from reality.
Why did films have this hold on me? When did it all begin? Why has my fascination continued?
A small child pushes a heavy curtain aside and faces the darkness. Sounds, music, voices echo through the space. Above him a beam of light seems to whirl and dance. The light is silver and he sees shapes moving around in it. He sees smoke snaking through it. He follows the beam down through the darkness and it grows and grows. He hears the sounds of stampeding hooves getting louder and suddenly a herd of buffalo thunder towards him. In the swirling dust and noise, he sees racing men on horseback whooping and waving their arms. The cowboys.
The first movies I can remember were American films. One of these was called How the West Was Won. It was a Cinerama movie, an experiment that did not last very long, with a wide screen that seemed to wrap around the theatre walls and had one craning one’s neck to see either the Cowboys chasing the Indians or the Indians chasing the Cowboys, depending how far into the story you were.
At that stage I never tried to understand why I was so drawn to films. I simply took any opportunity to see them. We lived at a place called Clifton. Our house looked onto a rocky beach and the Atlantic Ocean. On hot summer days, my father expected me to be down on the beach, surfing. But I wasn’t always there. I used to sneak off to the Adelphi Cinema in Sea Point. Somehow, I discovered a way to get in without paying. Perhaps I found a side door that was never locked. The ushers had their own problems so my entrances were never challenged. Again and again, I found myself pushing those heavy curtains aside and then like a true professional, I would wait for my eyes to get used to the darkness. Before me, the rows of empty seats would begin to take shape. Beach towns have no need for films on sunny days.
I shared those films with illicit lovers and lonely people. There were also old people. I saw the lights of the film dancing on their faces. In their gleaming eyes, brimming with tears, I saw the memories of their action years coming alive. Films like magic can conjure events long forgotten. They can inspire feelings best forgotten. They can recreate passions that can break the heart.
I think there is a movie for each and every person. There are unpopular and hated films that will somehow grab hold of one of us. This particular film miraculously shines a light into a deeply personal experience in our lives and recognizes it. The reawakening of a sleeping memory hums and vibrates like a bow across the string of a cello. Once this has happened, the film becomes a lifelong ally, a keeper of secrets.
One of the most vivid memories I have comes from a film I saw when I was about nine years old. It is called Northwest Frontier, starring Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. J. Lee Thompson directed it in 1959. I remember only one scene, which has stayed with me for the rest of my life, probably because it carried a symbolic resonance, deeply important to me. The film is the story of the British in India in 1905. The story involves a train journey and a young prince being escorted by British troops through a country threatened by rebels. The scene I remember, is of a boy in a carriage with a group of grown ups. Through the window he sees a light flashing on a mountain.
It looks like a signal: a mirror being turned to the sun. The boy tries to warn the adults around him, but every time he points towards the light, it mysteriously vanishes. The adults quickly grow tired of the game and ignore the boy. The train is then attacked and most of the people on board are massacred. I suppose I identified with a boy trying to get the adults to take him seriously.
The scene also aroused my interest in those small moments to be found in movies. They are like secrets, which seem to belong to oneself alone, but are in fact for everyone. Years later, I saw a Czech film called Closely Observed Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel. Menzel became a tutor at my film school the year after I graduated and I missed the opportunity to meet him. His film is set during the Second World War and is about a boy who gets his first job at the village station. There are many intimate moments. I remember one scene, where the boy is standing on the platform, and he hears a strange scraping noise.
He explores down a long corridor and in the darkness finds an old lady pulling the feathers off a goose resting on her lap. This is one of those moments most scriptwriters, readers, directors and producers would get rid of, because for them it impedes the narrative flow of the story. But for me, and the English film critic, Derek Malcolm, moments like these are remembered for always: they are the stuff of poetry. I can’t put my finger on why it affects me so, I only know it does. Such films prove to me that cinema is an art that can stand alongside literature, theatre and painting.
Jiri Menzel’s film came much further down my track. There were still thousands of cowboy films and B-movies to see before I would discover the world of European films. For now there would be Hayley Mills in Whistle Down The Wind. And my favorite dog in Old Yellow. When Yellow catches rabies and has to be shot, I felt my world collapse. I am sure this film helped to prepare me for life.
The trigger in Open Ground owes itself to Northwest Frontier. A man appears on a roof and shines a mirror through a window into the eyes of the man sitting in his room. He is blinded for a moment and then he is spurred into action. I am not keen to see Northwest Frontier again. I am sure the film would mean very little to me now. I would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. I am also sure the boy in the train who sees the light, will mean exactly the same.
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