Number 40 Winter 2008
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Home Sweet Home: Four Films by Martin Rumsby

Reviewed by Michael Brown

Martin Rumsby is one of the better known New Zealand filmmakers working in the experimental cinema field. From his involvement with the Alternative Cinema co-op in the early-1980s to service as a roving film programmer and writer, there are few New Zealanders who have given such lengthy service to the ‘experimental’ ideal. His own filmography stretches back some twenty-odd years and in March 2008 he presented four of his films at the New Zealand Film Archive theatre.

These four works were shown in chronological order and neatly bracketed Rumsby’s filmmaking career thus far. They also loosely traced Rumsby’s own personal journeys from New Zealand out to the world and back: American Sketchbook (2000, 2006) derives from footage shot while Rumsby toured ‘Invisible Cinema’ programmes through North America between 1985 and 1995; For Dots (2003) is a portion of a long-awaited feature documentary about homeless people in Chicago, mainly shot in the mid-1990s; Brown’s Barbeque (2003) documented a later encounter with the same Chicago community; while the fourth and most recent work, Landscapism (2007), emerged after Rumsby’s return to New Zealand.

Introducing the films, Rumsby mentioned four themes in his filmmaking: avant-garde American cinema of the 1960-90 period; experimental documentary; home movies; and landscape film. As the screening progressed these themes surfaced in different ways and I became particularly intrigued by the notion of ‘home movies’. None of these films were home movies as commonly understood: those where families record aspects of their lives and retain the footage as an archive of non-public, insider documents. But the term fitted somehow. Ideas about ‘home’ hovered in the background of all these works, whether as a central site of human existence, departure point or destination in life’s journey, or as a signifier of sentiment and identity. Rumsby also suggested several provocative alternative terms: ‘homeless movies’ or ‘home movies for the homeless’. These terms were most obviously applicable to the two Chicago films, but also resonated in the context of Rumsby’s travels between various homelands. The dynamic between what home and the wider world might personally represent for Rumsby gave an inner tension to all the films: a certain texture of feeling that pulled between intimacy and distance, identification and alienation, private and public worlds.

Opening the screening was American Sketchbook, perhaps the most straightforward work on offer. It is divided into three parts: the first combining views of a winter landscape from a moving train with orchestral music; the second, a teeming city-scape with disconnected telephone conversations; and the third, a flickering audiovisual mosaic of African-American popular culture. Overall, the film relies heavily on montage techniques, images in subdued colours being rapidly chalked up on the screen and erased by the next. In essence, Sketchbook conveys three components of an overwhelming first encounter with North America and its exoticisms of place, society and culture. The film was originally completed in 2000, but has since been unpicked and rewoven on digital technology, becoming shorter and denser, a compacted shockwave of memory.

If American Sketchbook pays homage to American experimental cinema, For Dots and Brown’s Barbeque are hybrids of the experimental and the ethnographic. Both films derive from a larger project about Afro-Americans living on and off the streets of Chicago. For Dots is a ten-minute excerpt of the main ‘storyline’ about Dots, a drug addict living mainly around Chicago’s Wicker Park area. Rumsby first encountered Dots in a local diner and on each subsequent visit to Chicago, he tracked her and her family down to see how things were going, gradually building up a documentary chronicle of survival and change. The one-on-one encounters with Dots at the heart of the film are warily private. Always sensitive to their carefully won rapport, Rumsby pursues conversations about how Dots had become homeless down through hypnotic lulls and silences. But then, unexpectedly, Dots begins to rap out her personal philosophy of life in rhyme and we get a sense of how vernacular belief systems help individuals endure the toughest predicaments. Interspersed among the domestic scenes of For Dots are images of sun swept cityscapes and scenes of street ensembles limbering up with loose jazz-blues numbers. These asides provide an expansive relief from the private, painful core of the film’s subject.

The narrative implications of For Dots clearly overrun the ten-minute excerpt we saw, but the second of the two Chicago films, Brown’s Barbeque, is a self-contained gem. Documenting a communal gathering of Dots’s extended family in an urban cul-de-sac for an afternoon party and feast, Rumsby’s camera gets drawn into the game play of the children as they tease each other, play jump rope and flirt with the camera itself. Nothing seemingly happens in this world of play, but Rumsby catches something pure going on below the radar of the adults: a supple interaction of eye, body and speech: a feast of intuitive fun making.

The Chicago films succeed, I feel, because Rumsby moulds his filmic aesthetics to the rapping, verbal arts, games and street music he documents. Essentially this is an ethnographic approach, a way of rendering or allegorising field data by way of insider categories and metaphors (and it comes as no surprise to learn that Rumsby majored in Anthropology at the University of Auckland in the late-1970s). Both these films make one hungry for more, although it seems uncertain when Rumsby will complete or release the next excerpt. When asked from the audience “when is the feature coming out?” he responded by saying that he was still searching for a final form that Dots and the other people involved will approve of. Here is a hint of the ethnographer’s dilemma. The fate of the For Dots project demonstrates how documentary can be a complicated journey for filmmaker as much as for the subject. In retrospect, has the footage become the chronicle of an achieved intimacy one might not be inclined to offer up to a public audience - a true ‘home movie’?

The final and longest film, Landscapism, could be taken as Rumsby’s response to returning home to New Zealand after two decades of travel. Where American Sketchbook charted a journey into the unknown, Landscapism is a rediscovery of the known, Rumsby’s home patch of Auckland. Unsurprisingly, landscapes dominate the film, particularly the volcanic cones of the Auckland isthmus. These slouching protuberances are wonderful snags for the eye and compelling markers of place. Yet as the camera scans contemporary Auckland, with its sludgy traffic jams and industrial parks, Rumsby brings a more critical eye to bear. Panning from the swooping slopes of Rangitoto, the camera discovers rashes of ‘McMansions’ breaking out on nearby coastlines. Such juxtapositions bring to mind British filmmaker Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Space (2000), with its traditional English countrysides being smothered in public works and private developments. Rumsby does observe the locals too, if only from a distance. In a drab shopping mall, window shoppers shuffle around while two men fiddle with an ATM, as if trying to work out what function this strange object performs. It is somehow fitting that the most individualised locals - two homeless Polynesians who daily inhabit a street bench outside the mall - hide their faces whenever the camera swings in their direction and steadfastly refuse to make conversation.

There is something a little raw in what I interpret is Rumsby’s hometown portrait, something that reminded me of Denis Glover’s poem “Returning from Overseas”, how “home-coming elation / feels an old strangulation”. Although, like the Chicago films, Landscapism invokes both the experimental and the documentary, the combination is less skilful and poised. Rumsby’s visual survey of the landscape is certainly accomplished, but the unflattering portrait of human life in Landscapism presents a stark contrast to the ethnographic sympathies of the Chicago works. The South Aucklanders here are not discovered as individuals, but rather observed as ciphers of the postcolonial metropolis. Ironically, the only real human gesture recorded in Landscapism is the bench-sitter’s mischievous dedication to avoiding Rumsby’s camera.

Discussing Landscapism, Rumsby mentioned the latent possibilities of a landscape tradition of art filmmaking in New Zealand and how this could be linked to the concerns of painters like Colin McCahon. After viewing Landscapism, I must admit some ambivalence about this proposal. Such an approach suggests the self-righteous ‘landscapism’ that runs through a great deal of New Zealand painting, a tradition which has produced innumerable images of unpeopled hills, valleys and plains, and so very few images of our social worlds. Instead, the greatest potentiality Rumsby’s cinema presents for New Zealand filmmaking, from where I stand, is in the direction of fostering sensitive ethnography rather than ‘landscapism’. Because it certainly isn’t the case that South Auckland (or anywhere else in New Zealand for that matter) is lacking in local culture and vernacular detail; nor is it short of compelling individuals at the grassroots-and-cracked-asphalt level, as Sandor Lau recently proved with his documentary Squeegee Bandit (2005). One day I hope we get to see not only the feature-length For Dots, but a South Auckland For Dots.