Reviews and notes
By subtly contrasting opposing points of view PICTURES
raises a number of very important questions. Official art - or individual art? Indigenous culture - or 'civilised' culture? Land for national development or national heritage? Native people as ignorant savages to be subdued for their own good and kept in their place, or as responsible people to be treated as equals? These are major issues central to our history and New Zealand identity.
The film may be set in the colonial days of late 19th century but no one could fail to recognise the fact that its subject matter is still highly relevant in our own day and age. In fact, PICTURES
is really asking if things have changed all that much. The Burton brothers photographs were shamefully treated then, but they are not much better off today - 'decomposing', as an end title reminds us, in the care of the National Museum in Wellington.
New Zealand films, almost without exception, have exploited the majestic grandeur and rugged beauty of the country's natural backgrounds. Few have done so with such complete justification as PICTURES
. By its very nature the film is bound to present mountain and fiord, bush and river, plain and coastline as an essential part of its texture. The two Burtons, Alfred and Walter, set out to make a pictorial record of the country and the people as they saw them. Walter's view was uncompromising. The country was being vandalised in the name of colonial progress, its people were being ill-treated and subjugated in the name of colonial justice. For his pains, he was given an official flea in his ear and left to drink himself to despair and suicide. Alfred, more conventional, more 'commercial', more flexible in his attitude to authority, went out to take pictures which earned him a medal from the Royal Geographic Society.
sets the two men at odds, leaving us in no doubt which of them was probably the true artist but making a more ambiguous statement about which might have been the weaker man. Walter's gesture of defiance, alcoholically stimulated, is to put his banned pictures on display - to a reaction of hostility and stern disapproval. Alfred, less provocative, chooses to remain silent when he is expected to make a speech glorifying the colony's expansionist programme. But it is Alfred who deals the most telling blow to the Government's funding of only those artists whose work it finds acceptable. After Walter's death he abandons photography, devoting himself instead to the teaching of elocution. The deliberate perpetuation of English speech patterns among a people already acquiring a classless 'colonial' accent may seem to have been a supremely quixotic act.
the Government is symbolised by New Zealand Railway officials. That is entirely appropriate, since trains - the juggernauts of the 19th century - rushed headlong on their way along a fixed and rigid track. Here, the Government is shown as being intent on influencing the sort of image they wish to see projected overseas. It must conform to a policy that will encourage immigration, investment and admiration. Hence, Alfred's spacious landscapes are preferable to Walter's harsh personal vision. Incidentally, the film makes a sardonic comment on fashionable representational art when it shows a society lady exclaiming over the quality of a painting she has ordered to be copied from one of Alfred's landscapes.
The people are symbolised by a crowd of unsmiling, formally dressed Dunedin citizens. Their attitude is expressed by dour head-shaking and glum rejection when they are confronted with evidence that their unsullied 'Britain of the South' might be a place of violence, degradation and racial disharmony. That is exactly the sort of 'God's Own Country' self-delusion that it took a Springbok tour to shatter...
Michael Black as director must be seen as mainly responsible for the story's slow and fairly muted treatment, but his eye for framing, composition and detail cannot be faulted. In that, he is translating Robert Lord and John O'Shea's screenplay into visual terms with skill and sympathy - a process aided considerably by Jan Preston's unobtrusive score. The actors, almost without exception, give good accounts of themselves and of roles that are very largely symbolic. Coarse, crude materialism is represented by the surveyor Rochfort (Terence Bayler, almost larger than life); official pomposity and philistinism by the Railway managers (Ken Blackburn, Ron Lynn); the native who has come to terms with colonisation by a Maori guide (Matiu Mareikura); English snobbery by Alfred's wife (Helen Moulder); honest art by Walter Burton (Peter Vere-Jones), popular art by Alfred Burton (Kevin J.Wilson).
declares in bold rhetoric, PICTURES
says in tones that are level and more quietly spoken. Between them they tell us much about ourselves that may be uncomfortable but nevertheless is salutary.
-Peter Harcourt, Sequence, Wellington Film Society, July 1983.
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