28 May 2012

A story of the South Seas

I do enjoy going to Filmsoc on Monday nights. Sure, the Paramount is Wellington's least impressive city cinema, with a tiny screen, the seats up the back are mostly uncomfortable and quite wobbly, and the irritating lack of allocated seating means you have to queue half an hour before screening time to get a good seat.

But the film selection is generally top-notch, and you wouldn't otherwise get the chance to see many of these films on the big screen. Over the past two weeks, for example, we enjoyed Rainer Werner Fassbinder's impressive Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), the 1972 West German film that foreshadowed many of the mind-bendy questions about reality that The Matrix so successfully commercialised in the 1990s.

And tonight's offering was F.W. Murnau's sort-of-silent classic Tahitian tale from 1931, Tabu. It was a real treat to see the beautiful French Polynesian islands and soak up the simple yet affecting tale of star-cross'd lovers imperilled by sacred tradition.

Not only was Tabu a fascinating social document of island life at the time, albeit a fictionalised one, it also must surely have played a major role in popularising the use of the word taboo in the 20th century. Certainly, Sigmund Freud wrote about the concept of taboo in 1913 and the initial credit is due to Cook's first voyage to the Pacific, but you can't beat the moving pictures for spreading a word around. Particularly if the moving pictures contain pre-Code sultry dancing maidens with no tops on and handsome muscle-adorned Polynesian warriors similarly sans upper vestments. And might the fact that that peculiar American institution, the Tiki bar, first opened in 1933, two years after Tabu, be less than a coincidence?

Tabu is thoroughly enjoyable, but even for the time it's a slightly odd production. The Jazz Singer may have heralded the age of the talkies and musicals in 1927, but while Tabu's soundtrack benefited from excellent Polynesian choir singing (accompanied by an American-style jazz band) and pounding drumming, the film features neither audible dialogue or any dialogue intertitles. For the most part this is no impediment because the narrative is perfectly obvious, but on several occasions Murnau has to resort to clunky devices such as long correspondence-reading or diary-writing shots to explain developments.

It's also worth noting that to keep costs down Murnau and his two colleagues, Robert Flaherty, who made the ground-breaking Nanook of the North, and Floyd Crosby, who went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Tabu, were the only Western members of the film crew: they trained Bora Bora locals to fulfil all the other production roles during the island shoot.

I also mention the soundtrack for Tabu because this evening was another example of how ill-suited I am to cinema-going. A cinema should ideally be populated with quiet, attentive audiences who absorb the film, eat quietly and swiftly if they absolutely must, don't talk or fidget like a child, and generally just STFU and generally behave like a grown-up. A cinema holding Filmsoc members should ideally be doubly grown-up. I admit that I'm probably over-sensitive to disturbances when film-watching. But this evening it came in stereo.

First there was the young chap to my left, who munched and rustled his way through the first 20 minutes of the film eating a smelly Subway. To be clear: if you're going to eat something in a cinema, do it quietly and make sure it's not stinky. It's hardly rocket science.

And then there was the older chap to my right. In the second half of the film when the music is quieter, I noticed - and you'll probably think I'm being weird - that he was breathing REALLY LOUDLY. Like, it was hard to concentrate on the film - that's how loudly he was puffing away. Sure, now you've got me pegged for a prejudiced asthmaphobe.

The mighty whistling that emerged from this gentleman's proboscis brought back long-dormant memories. This will sound crazy, I know, but I think I've sat next to that guy before. Seven years ago. The lingering memory of this man's nose has haunted me since the last bloody decade. It was during the 2006 Film Festival here in Wellington, when I saw Terrence Malick's interesting The New Worldabout some of the earliest contacts between settlers and Native Americans on the eastern seaboard of what would become the United States. And all through that film I was distracted by the constant whistling of the loudest nose-breather you could ever possibly encounter.

Once per decade is still too much. So I have two options. One is to move seats if I find myself near him again. But this was the best seat in the cinema, so that's not an ideal option. The other, which might garner me a reputation as a prize eccentric - more so than posting this piece, even - is to bring earplugs to the cinema, just like a rock gig. Bright orange ones that everyone can see.

Come to think of it, Filmsoc tends to attract the weirdos anyway. Perhaps no-one will notice. So next time you're at the Paramount on a Monday night, don't be offended if I don't reply when you say hello - just blow your nose. It will be our little secret.
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