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Celebrating 75 years

david niven on set

by Caroline Garratt
In October 1945 Gordon Mirams, then widely known for his film criticism in the New Zealand Listener, placed an advertisement in the Evening Post inviting interested parties to a meeting to discuss the formation of a ‘Wellington Film Society’. Initially named the Wellington Film Institute, screenings officially began in 1946 and by July of that year membership was almost at 300. Seventy-five years later, the Wellington Film Society continues to take its members further into film, offering classics and films that may escape mainstream distribution.

By October of 1946, the Institute had held nine monthly meetings and showcased a total of 28 films. The Institute excitedly announced that it had secured three important classics from the British Film Institute for screening over the following months: Battleship Potemkin, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Last Laugh. It is extraordinary to reflect now that this would be the first ever screening of Eisenstein’s classic in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Committee member John O’Shea opined in a piece entitled On Waiting To See A Movie:

“We can now realise how frustrated a professional film critic must feel if he has not seen the Odessa Steps sequence, when we, mere dilettante moviegoers, count with envy the number of notable films that have not come our way. The next classic that awaits us is ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’…
How we are held in thrall by celluloid! How eagerly do we await the screening of the films that have for so many years baffled and thwarted our appreciation and estimation of the cinema! The process of waiting to see a cherished film can be most exciting. It assumes a multitude of guises, and, of course, is a common phenomenon, familiar to everybody.”

Running the Wellington Film Society does not come without challenges and it would be fair to say we’ve experienced a few in recent years, with a pandemic and venue closure.

In his 1946 Annual Report, our inaugural President Mirams lamented a dearth in venues in the central city that were affordable and large enough to accommodate the membership. This was one of the reasons for a proposed increase in subcription rates that year from 10 shillings to 15 shillings so that the screenings could be held in the Town Hall Concert Chamber. “My wish for future successors is that audiences still find value in what we deliver and their biggest hurdle is the odd film lost somewhere in transit.”

What do I think is the key to Wellington Film Society’s ongoing success? To me it is the people – he tangata, he tangata, he tangata. Firstly our members who continue to support us and marvel at our offerings together in a darkened room. Secondly – and I think most importantly – the volunteers behind the scenes.

In his report of 1946 Mirams paid tribute to his executive and singled out the Treasurer for specific praise: “and to Miss Rutter who is officially only the treasurer, but who has willingly undertaken almost every other executive function short of appearing on the platform and running the meetings.” The film society couldn’t continue without our Film Handler to safely deliver the films, the wise authority of our Treasurer, the exceptional customer service of our Membership Secretary, the weekly postings of our Facebook Editor and the many, many other tasks performed by our magnificent committee.

Here’s to raising a glass for 75 more splendid years.

Caroline Garratt is president of the Wellington Film Society

david and kim hunter

A special anniversary requires an extraordinary film and we think you’ll agree that our choice this week meets those requirements. Released in 1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death evolved in response to a request from Jack Beddington, head of film at the Ministry of Information, to produce a film to improve Anglo-American relations. This might seem odd when the two nations had successfully united to defeat the Axis powers, but the invasion of commonly gregarious natured American GIs hadn’t quite endeared them to reserved British sensibilities. The Archers (as the duo’s production company was called) would create one of their most audacious masterpieces, a sensuous blend of Technicolor and pearly black and white.

David Niven portrays Peter Carter, a British bomber pilot whose chances of survival seem remote as his damaged aircraft plummets to a watery grave in the English Channel. He radios in his final co-ordinates and an American radio operator called June (Kim Hunter) responds. The pair bond as they share what they believe are Carter’s final moments. Yet lost in thick fog, Peter escapes death, an anomaly that Conductor 71 is sent from the Afterlife to correct. Peter must now argue his case to live – as he has fallen in love with June. Whether Peter is hallucinating (perhaps PTSD) or is in fact on a spiritual quest for survival is left open.

staircase

Gorgeously shot by Powell and Pressburger’s regular cinematographer Jack Cardiff, audiences might find it somewhat counter-intuitive that the Archers chose to depict Earth in sumptuous, saturated colour and the Afterlife as monochromatic. Another renowned feature of the film is the ‘stairway to heaven’ – a celestial elevator that connects the two worlds. Nicknamed Ethel, the escalator was the brain child of production designer Alfred Junge. At 20 feet wide and 106 steps, the motorised staircase was an impressive construction – special-effects artist and film historian Craig Barron explains more about this engineering feat herehttps://www.criterion.com/current/posts/5830-across-the-great-divide-creating-powell-and-pressburger-s-stairway-to-heaven. Needless to say, the noise emanating from Ethel meant that the dialogue in these scenes was post-dubbed.

Michael Powell would later say that A Matter of Life and Death was the favourite of his films. This is somewhat impressive when one remembers the duo were also responsible for the sublime (and Martin Scorsese favourite) The Red Shoes. His widow – and renowned editor – Thelma Schoonmaker later explained:

“It was Michael’s favourite. That was very important to me and as I got to know more about him and saw the film more and more with people I really understood there’s something very deep about Michael in it. Michael felt strongly that love is about sacrifice and sacrifice is about love.”

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Monday July 12th, 6.15pm in the Embassy Grand
(Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK 1946)
PG adult themes
Film Society membership available at the Embassy

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