From the Cinema of Poetry to the Cinema of Unease: Brad Mcgann's In My Father's Den
By Duncan Petrie
"For me the most powerful films are, and always will be, those of a singular gaze where the human eye can be felt, where it is allowed to go uninhibited, without question and without anyone second guessing its accuracy." (1)
Introduction: A Great New Zealand Film
In My Father’s Den met with almost universal acclaim when it was released last year, garnering enthusiastic praise from local critics and earning almost $1.3 million at the domestic box office, making it the seventh highest grossing New Zealand film in the home market. It has also gained admirers on the international festival circuit, opening the Sydney Film Festival and winning the prestigious international critics’ prize at Toronto, the Youth Jury Award at San Sebastian, the Special Jury Prize at Seattle and the award for best cinematography at Shanghai. Despite being an official New Zealand/United Kingdom co-production, In My Father’s Den remains a resolutely New Zealand film in terms of its story and cultural perspective. Yet it has resonated with audiences around the world, placing it among a small group of films including Vigil, The Piano, Once Were Warriors, Heavenly Creatures and Whale Rider that have defined New Zealand’s cinematic creativity in the international arena.
Adapted from Maurice Gee’s 1972 novel, McGann’s film begins with the return of Paul Prior to his South Island hometown after a 17 year absence, ostensibly to attend the funeral of his father. It quickly becomes apparent that Paul, who has made his career as a successful war photographer, is a withdrawn and emotionally damaged individual. Certain deep unresolved tensions also exist within the Prior family, as suggested by Paul’s brittle relationship with his brother Andrew. But slowly he begins to reconnect with the community and to his past, a process given particular resonance by the rediscovery of his father’s secret ‘den’, a place filled with books and music which had awakened his own desire for adventure and excitement as a child. Paul also begins to form a bond with a schoolgirl, Celia Steimer, the daughter of a former girlfriend, Jackie, and he begins to suspect that she may be his daughter. Celia is a promising writer who longs to break away and Paul’s interest in her is further fuelled by a strong sense of recognition of his own younger self. Half way through the film Celia mysteriously disappears and Paul immediately falls under suspicion as the police begin their investigations. The mood turns progressively darker as the narrative moves towards its devastatingly bleak denouement in which Celia’s body is found and the shameful secrets of the Prior family are revealed. It transpires that Paul witnessed both his father having sex with Jackie in the den and his mother’s subsequent suicide, a traumatic memory he had repressed. Celia is therefore revealed not as Paul’s daughter, but as his half sister. The web of secrets and lies is also implicated in the girl’s accidental death at the hands of Andrew’s wife Penny who, on finding photographs of a semi-naked Celia, concludes that he is having an affair. The images had actually been taken surreptitiously by their 13 year-old son Jonathan, a character with certain affinities to Paul who is already displaying signs of emotional damage as a consequence of the failure of the adults around him to communicate, trust and share intimacy with one another.
Brad McGann began his career at the Swinburne Film School in Melbourne where he wrote and directed his first film, A Home Away From Here (1989), a 30 minute black and white drama about a dysfunctional family. This was followed by two productions made for Australian television, Come As You Are (1995) a documentary co-directed by Emma-Kate Croghan, and It Never Rains (1996), a short fictional film exploring the relationship between a wayward boy and a down-at-heel adult. But McGann had ambitious to make more overtly cinematic work and the opportunity presented itself when he secured funding from the New Zealand Film Commission for Possum (1997), the short that would reunite McGann with his New Zealand roots and bring his work to a wider international audience.(3) Inspired in part by his experiences working with autistic children, Possum is a dark fable depicting the interactions of a trapper and his three children in their remote shack in the woods. The youngest child is a wild, feral creature who spends her time under the table gazing at pictures of animals in a book and imitating their calls. This causes great consternation to both her father and elder sister, but she finds a more compassionate and sensitive response in her twelve year old brother from whose perspective the story is told. In its poetic use of images (rendered in a yellow/brown monochrome by cinematographer Leon Narbey), ambiguous sense of temporal and spatial location and subjective narrative construction integrating elements of reality and fantasy, the film invokes direct comparisons with Vincent Ward’s Vigil. Such a consummate European art-house sensibility inspired film scholar Mette Hjort to identify McGann “as a quintessentially modern practitioner of tragic fiction.” (4)
The producer of Possum, Trevor Haysom, subsequently brought McGann’s attention to Maurice Gee’s novel In My Father’s Den, suggesting it as a possible one-hour television drama. McGann was looking for a more contemporary subject for his next film, but certain aspects of the book struck a deep chord within him and he began to rethink the possibilities of a more ambitious adaptation as a feature film. This entailed two major changes to the original, fundamentally transforming the material in the process. McGann updated the time frame of the novel (which moves from 1928-1969) to the present, with flashbacks to the mid 1980s and late 1970s. Secondly, he relocated the narrative from the fictional West Auckland suburb of Wadesville (a thinly disguised Henderson) to the brooding and desolate landscape of Central Otago he had become familiar with during his student days in Dunedin. The success of Possum made it comparatively easy for Haysom to raise development funding from the New Zealand Film Commission, allowing McGann to begin writing, assisted by the input of script editor, Caroline Grose, currently head of development at the NZFC who at the time was working for Fox/Icon in Australia.
With McGann still a relatively unknown quantity as a director, Haysom waited until the script was at a reasonably advanced stage before setting out to raise the production finance. The Film Commission provided some advance funding to allow the casting process to begin, with the lead character of Paul written for a British actor, something motivated by the story, which required Paul to return as a marked ‘outsider’, but also fortuitous in allowing the possibility of co-finance opportunities to be explored. After considering Mark Rylance and Christopher Eccleston, the part went to Matthew Macfadyen, who had impressed McGann with his performance in the television film Warriors (Peter Kominsky, 1999) in which he played a young man traumatised by his experiences as a UN peace keeper in Bosnia. The key break came when Haysom secured access to CineMart, the international co-production market attached to the Rotterdam International Film Festival where he made connection with the Dublin-based production company Little Bird, paving the way for a co-production strategy. This was to push the budget up from the initial estimate of $5 million to $7 million, but Haysom and his co-producer Dixie Linder were able to raise the money from a range of sources including: the New Zealand Film Commission (who provided $2.5 million); New Zealand On Air; the UK Film Council; the London-based financier Visionview, a sale and leaseback deal to access British tax incentives; and presale deals to Optimum Releasing in the UK and Icon in Australia. The sheer complexity of the various contractual arrangements slowed progress, placing the September 2003 start date in jeopardy; this was essential in order to allow the production to capture three seasons over an eight-week shoot. But Haysom summoned the courage to forge ahead and the film had actually been in production for two weeks before the contracts were finally signed off.
Economics and Institutions: The Local and the Global
The relevance of this to In My Father’s Den lies primarily in the implications that flowed from the co-production deal, which stipulated that 30% of the budget had to be spent in Britain on personnel and/or services. Moreover, the involvement of the UK Film Council and the other British investors, while essential for the film to be made on the kind of level that would allow it to gain access to international markets, also generated tensions which Brad McGann describes in terms of a situation where “marketability and authenticity began to compete against one another”. (6) For Trevor Haysom, the problem arose out of a fundamental cultural difference between the British and the New Zealand financiers. (7) In a nutshell, the UK Film Council is guided far more by a market-oriented imperative than the New Zealand Film Commission. In 2002, in a speech on “Building a Sustainable UK Film Industry”, the Chairman of the UK Film Council, Sir Alan Parker, even called for a redefinition of a ‘British film’ in order to facilitate greater international collaboration, primarily through British producers strengthening their links with the Americans. (8) As filmmaker Alex Cox subsequently pointed out in a blistering attack on Parker’s proposals, this would allow a film like Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, to qualify for British lottery funding. (9) In comparison, the New Zealand Film Commission remains a funding organisation still laudably committed to a cultural remit, albeit one that is increasingly cognisant of market conditions.
The UK Film Council was initially keen to cast up the film, particularly given that this was the feature debut of an unknown New Zealand filmmaker, insisting on established international actors for the roles of Celia, Andrew and Jackie. This was strongly resisted by McGann, who with the support of Haysom and the New Zealand Film Commission was ultimately able to secure local actors in these key parts, retaining the all-important authenticity he felt the film required. In addition to Matthew Macfadyen, the only other non-New Zealander cast was Australian Miranda Otto, in the role of Andrew’s agoraphobic wife Penny. Key to the process was the invaluable expertise of Di Rowland, the doyenne of New Zealand casting directors, whose previous ‘discoveries’ included Anna Paquin and Keisha Castle Hughes. Rowland found 18 year-old Aucklander Emily Barclay for the pivotal part of Celia and her performance alongside Macfadyen gives the film much of its power and depth. However, the pressure remained on McGann throughout the shoot to ‘feminise’ Barclay, who was clearly perceived by some of the investors as insufficiently sexy for a teenage female lead in a major feature film. The co-production deal also had a major influence on the composition of the crew, with the director of photography, the production designer and the composer all being British nationals and the processing of the film and the construction of the soundtrack using London facilities and technicians. A stroke of luck allowed acclaimed cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, Once Were Warriors) to qualify by virtue of having a British passport, bringing him home to shoot his first New Zealand film in a decade. Dryburgh’s wealth of experience, artistic sensitivity and technical skills were to prove invaluable. The tight schedule provided only two weeks preparation time, which the director decided to use for intensive rehearsals with his actors, leaving Dryburgh and the first assistant director to recce the South Island locations in advance of shooting. While this provided some initial problems of integrating the two sides into a single unit working in harmony, it demonstrated the importance of collaboration and trust. Consequently Dryburgh took on a great deal of responsibility for the visuals, allowing McGann to concentrate on the performances which were to drive the film.
Creativity and Aesthetics: The Cinema of Poetry
But the narrative point of view and structure are also transformed in crucial ways to give McGann’s version of In My Father’s Den its distinctive cinematic qualities. The novel is written in the first person, but cinema has no effective corollary to first person literary narration as demonstrated by the failed experiment of The Lady in the Lake (1946), shot entirely from the direct point of view of the protagonist. Rather, McGann’s interest in “subjective story-telling, idiosyncratic view points and how the world can change from person to person” leads him to structure a narrative that corresponds with the emotional perspective of Paul Prior. This can be understood in relation to the Italian filmmaker and theorist Pier Paolo Pasolini’s concept of a “cinema of poetry”, an engagement with the neo-modernist experiments of the 1960s, characterised by the elaboration of a new narrative technique of free indirect subjectivity. For Pasolini, the free indirect point-of-view shot served to free cinema from the constraints of traditional narrative convention, “through a sort of return to the origins until the original oneiric, barbaric, irregular, aggressive, visionary quality of cinema is found through its technical devices.” (11) The “cinema of poetry” operates on a kind of double register, combining the dominant psychological perspective of the protagonist/ narrative with the stylistic expression of the filmmaker. McGann has acknowledged the influence of Pasolini’s compatriot Bernardo Bertolucci, whose own approach to film form has been described in terms of the perfection of “an intricate relationship between the perceptions of the character within the fiction and the perceptions of the viewer observing the fiction…Bertolucci… makes perceptual interplay a major element of both the form and the subject of his major work.” (12)
While employing a more immediately naturalistic mise-en-scène, this comparison provides a useful insight into McGann’s preoccupations with the subjectivity, the motivations and emotional landscapes of Paul Prior – “I work from the back story, everything comes back to this”. While placing great demands on his leading actor to effectively convey an essentially damaged personality that simultaneously engages audience empathy while maintaining a distance, this also necessitates a particular approach to visual construction. The largely unobtrusive shooting style contains a number of resonant, lingering shots on Matthew Macfadyen’s face – the mental images McGann had formed most vividly before shooting were primarily of Paul alone, engrossed in his thoughts. While this keeps the audience at a distance from Paul, the use of flashbacks directly motivated by his memories, which become more prominent as the narrative progresses, serve to align the film’s narration with Paul’s subjectivity. Like his namesake in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Paul is a profoundly damaged individual. His psychic scarring is revealed through his detached and cold demeanour with others, particularly his brother, the diffidence he shows when addressing the school about his experiences photographing war, and more graphically in his recourse to auto-erotic asphyxiation during sex with a young woman and drug taking when he crushes and smokes his father’s morphine pills. His predicament is brilliantly crystallised in the scene at the beginning of the film where he is unable to enter the church where his father’s funeral service is taking place. His lonely face is framed in close up on a slight angle, the door of the church forming the shape of a cross that bars him physically and psychologically. Paul’s alienation is profoundly reinforced by the sermon – “Part of our grief may be regret for things done or left undone. Words said or words never said.” It is Celia who helps him to confront and come to terms with his past, through directly challenging him – “is that why you push people away?” – and providing an opportunity for intimacy and meaningful human connection. This is why the confirmation of her death – which had come at an earlier stage in the script – is yoked to the revelation of Paul’s father’s transgression and his mother’s suicide. This excess of tragedy and grief, knowledge and memory, provides the necessary catharsis AND allows Paul to finally cry: for Celia, for his mother and crucially for himself.
The formal strategies associated with the “cinema of poetry’ also have a major bearing on the temporal structure of In My Father’s Den. The novel begins with a newspaper report of the discovery of Celia’s body and then subsequently alternates between the present of the investigation and episodes from Paul’s past. McGann also utilises flashback but in a more precise and complex way. The first half of the film is narrated in a chronological present tense, concentrating on Paul’s re-immersion into the community. But the opening shots are the dream-like images of a hand making a print in a book and a flying hawk, and Paul’s subjective perspective is established early on through the use of flashback memories of his childhood and youth. The rediscovery of the den powerfully erases the boundary of time by mixing present experience and past memory in a 360-degree pan of the interior, invoking the wonderment of the first time he set foot in this place that would both awaken his sense of adventure and wonderment and ultimately feature in the trauma that would drive him away. 52 minutes into the 126-minute film, the camera cranes away from Paul and Celia in the orchard outside the den before fading to black. This marks a temporal shift forward, a transition from summer to winter marred by the contrast between the orchard in bloom and the bleak images of bare, wet trees. The emotional tone has also been transformed, with the news that Celia has gone missing. The narrative structure subsequently becomes more complex, weaving between the present of the investigation in which Paul is being treated as a prime suspect, his recollections of Celia and the blossoming of a meaningful relationship between the two, and further teenage memories of the relationship with Jackie, culminating in the devastating revelations concerning his father and mother. Practically every scene is structured from Paul’s viewpoint, as direct experience or memory, intensifying the free indirect subjectivity of the structure. This process also entails an effective counterpoint with Paul’s emotions slowly thawing, as the narrative and the weather turn progressively colder and darker.
The sonic landscapes of In My Father’s Den also play a major role in the construction of the film with sound and music used to provide a further means of bridging past and present through a blurring of the usually clear distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The distinctive vocals and music of Patti Smith are particularly relevant here and her 1975 album Horses provide Paul’s first direct link back to his relationship with Jackie and in one flashback she mimes to the repetitive and increasingly frenetic “Horses” section of “Land”. The more melancholic track ‘Free Money” is used at the point when Paul confronts Jackie with the photograph of baby Celia, continuing over a series of shots before an image of the record playing on the turn-table, abruptly terminated when Paul wrenches at the stylus arm. The same track is reprised in the film’s coda, the final flashback to the moment when Celia says goodbye to Paul and walks off down the road to her death. Despite the tragedy that is to occur, the scene contains a germ of hope and redemption in Paul’s quiet and sad farewell that confirms his deep connection to the girl. Also noteworthy is the use of Kiri te Kanawa’s aria from Cantelaube’s”Chants d’Auvergne” – recalling a classic moment from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West – in linking the enchantment of Paul’s discovery of the den and Celia’s own construction of a magical space when she leads Paul into the orchard illuminated by candles in the trees celebration of his birthday. The soundtrack of In My Father’s Den contains another important element. The first images of the film are accompanied by Celia’s voiceover, which subsequently punctuates the narrative at three further pivotal plot points. While this initially sets up an alternative subjectivity to that of Paul, her words are revealed as the story she has written for a local newspaper competition. This is being read by Paul and therefore mediated through his consciousness. Celia’s story, about the disappearance of the ocean and the effects this had on the people who had come to take it for granted, takes on a poignant association in relation her own fate, suggesting an uncanny sense of prophecy, but also her continued existence in Paul’s memory.
Coda: A Return to the Cinema of Unease
In My Father’s Den chimes with this ‘structure of feeling’ both visually and thematically. While the Paul Prior of Gee’s novel is a cerebral version of the archetypal ‘man alone’, McGann relocates him into a lonely landscape that immediately resonates with Neill and Rymer’s images. The opening shot of Celia lying on the rail track - recalling the climax of Smash Palace, another archetypal ‘man alone’ film - pans up to reveal the mountain range that functions as a kind of natural wall, keeping the community in its place, a small rural town cut off from the world. In Gee’s novel the fictional small town of Wadesville becomes an anonymous suburb of Auckland as the city sprawls in a direct swipe at modernity, the loss of the orchards and creeks mirroring Paul’s own loss of innocence. But the Otago landscape of the film affords a different kind of reflection of the interior landscape of the characters, emphasising a perennial loneliness. To underscore this McGann even has Paul’s father recite James K. Baxter’s High Country Weather, a poem celebrating the virtues of isolation:
Alone we are born
Upon the upland road
But this invocation of the familiar New Zealand trope of the egocentric loner is not an affirmation as Paul’s neurotic predicament painfully demonstrates. (14) Moreover, the emotional detachment that characterises most of the adults in McGann’s film is clearly an undesirable state of affairs, retarding human potential and destroying young lives.
Thanks to Laurence Simmons and Rebecca Russell for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.