Art That Should Never Be Lost

It might be said that film was born late in the 19th century, especially courtesy of the illustrious Lumiere brothers. Since then, many fine examples of its application have emerged, to the extent that film at its best is often regarded these days as an art form. Who would argue this point, given such wonderful films as (to name a few) City Lights, Duck Soup, The Third Man, Rashomon, The Manchurian Candidate, — all the way through to masterpieces of our present times such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Poor Things.

How did I come to be acquainted with film as art? It started when, on radio in the 1950s, I heard a well-known film critic describing what he had seen at the Melbourne Film Festival that year. One film he saw was the French film, The Wages of Fear, whose director was Henri Clouzot, and his description of this film fascinated me. It sounded nothing like the usual fare served up to us from Hollywood. It sounded like art.

I saw it myself a year or so later, at a dingy art-house in Melbourne called the Savoy. Indeed, it was nothing like the trite fare from Hollywood that prevailed in those days. It was so refreshingly different. I was hooked.

From this moment on, I was a frequent patron of the Savoy. I was entranced by cinematic masterpiece after cinematic masterpiece. I still remember the thrill of seeing Kurosawa’s Rashomon, surely one of the greatest films of all time, a film which puts the question so very succinctly, ‘What is truth?’. Or Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a surreal depiction of universal nightmare.

The Savoy was a dark dingy affair even when the lights were up. And a tad sleazy. It was a haunt of pedophiles, and many a time I had been groped by a shady figure in a heavy overcoat who chose to sit next to me. I always felt sorry for these poor guys, and didn’t change seat because I figured this would humiliate them. I was in no way traumatized by the experience, but my film viewing was spoiled that day and I had to sit through another screening at a later date.

At the Savoy, the magic really started when the lights went down, and the venue was plunged into total darkness. Then dreams began, amazing dreams, entrancing dreams. They were depicted on the silver screen in front of me. Dreams, say, of Cocteau or of Eisenstein or of Renais or of Clement. And was there ever a dream like Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis? OMG! Another of the greatest films of all time.

Sadly, the Savoy doesn’t exist anymore. But, over the years, I discovered many other venues – art houses you might call them – that served up essentially the same fare. They included the beautiful Capitol cinema, the venue from which the University of Melbourne Film Society screened its choices, and the Melbourne Film Festival itself, at which I was a regular attendee now on an annual basis.

At some of these latter-day venues, I saw films like Il Posto by director Ermanno Olmi. Barely an hour long, and a testament to the value of brevity in film, it is a harrowing depiction of the innocence of youth in conflict with forces that want to crush it. And, mon dieu, what about Dr Strangelove, surely one of the greatest film satires of all time, about that particular madness infecting world affairs, then and now, known as Mutually Assured Destruction.

And then there was television, starting to come into its own in the seventies and particularly the eighties. Troy Kennedy Martin’s series Edge of Darkness was a revelation, exposing in dramatic form with a beautiful touch of fantasy the dangers associated with the nuclear energy industry. The Australian series, Scales of Justice, showed viewers the corruption at all levels of administration within the NSW police force. The episodes in these series, and others at the time, became unmissable.

Who would like to see Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet lost to posterity, not to mention a host of lesser known examples of still art, written art, or spoken art? Yet there are some examples of film and television art that it might now be too late to save. Sadly, the touch of a button by an unfeeling bureaucrat in film and television archives, has the capacity to dispatch some of this art to oblivion.

What has happened, for example, to that wonderfully British television series of the seventies called Man of Straw, based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, in which a young Derek Jacobi plays superbly the detestable sycophant Diederich Hessling in Wilhelmine Germany. Yes, yes, it should have been rendered in German with English subtitles, but then we would not have had the wonder of Jacobi’s performance. This series for me was unmissable no matter what else was happening in the outside world. One episode I remember enduring through a violent thunderstorm just metres away from where I was seated.

And what of the eighties series The Old Men at the Zoo, another in the stable of Troy Kennedy Martin, and (I would argue) his best. I know of no better satire in film or television. Watch it if you can find it. I have a scratchy version transferred from broadcasts to tape and then to DVD. I guess I should be grateful. Could it be the only extant copy?

My final example: a 1965 film called Tri from the former Yugoslavia. I saw it at the Melbourne Film Festival around that time. I’ll remember it to my dying day. It consisted of three tales around the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia: (1) the panic that prevailed in the days leading up to the invasion, (2) the graphic details of a Yugoslav soldier being stalked by the pilot of a German fighter plane, and (3) the reprisals that happened after the Nazis had been sent packing.

There is no better anti-war film. Senseless slaughter abounds, slaughter often of one variety of Yugoslav by another variety of Yugoslav. During this film, I felt myself swallow my own heart, then regurgitate it, then swallow it again.

Please somebody tell me this superb example of film art is not lost to posterity.