GARY STEEL missed the recent NZ International Film Festival but he did get to take his 4-year-old to her first movie.
While my Auckland friends were participating in the annual orgy of amazing and enriching cinema that’s the New Zealand International Film Festival, I got to take my 4-year-old to her first ever movie: The Secret Life Of Pets 2.
The art form isn’t entirely new to her. She has a small but perfectly formed collection of Miyazaki anime, Disney classics and the obligatory Frozen and Moana on DVD and/or Blu-ray disc, and is a seasoned viewer of streaming services Lightbox, Neon and Netflix, but she’d never experienced the thrill of the giant cinema screen or the indulgence of scoffing a too-large box of salty popcorn.
Me? I stopped going to movies many years ago. Cinema was for many years my second love after music, and I was an ardent member of the Film Society from the age of 15. In my 20s in Wellington, when the NZIFF was in its infancy, it seemed imperative that I see as many of the films as I could physically accommodate, and I would emerge like a vampire at the end of the festival, bloodshot of eyes and often heading towards a week in bed nursing the flu. (Packed cinemas in winter are wonderful nurseries for transmissible illnesses).
Many of the films then-NZIFF director Bill Gosden wrote about in glowing terms in the festival programme in the early days ended up being either deadly dull, insufferably pretentious or simply baffling. It was always difficult to decide what to see, and as the festival grew (and the number of films blossomed) the blurbs seemed to get ever-more flowery so that it was almost worth ignoring them entirely and choosing films randomly based on your own availability at the time of a particular session. This approach worked for me as often as not, and meant that I ended up seeing some life-changing films that I would never have bothered with if I’d chosen them based on the hyperbole-laden blurbs.
The lesson for me was that you can’t necessarily choose a film based on its actors or directors or whether it’s a subject matter that interests you. A great film is a great film, end of story. Outside of these considerations, watching films from all around the world was a rare opportunity to see into the lives of cultures that are marginalised by English-speaking media. It’s worth dwelling on the fact that even today, news bulletins and TV shows are rarely about people in countries outside of our comfort zones, or ease-of-understanding.
As someone who had grown up in racially biased 1960s Hamilton I had certain preconceptions, especially about people of colour. Attending Film Society screenings blew my mind, and exploded those preconceptions. I remember watching a season of the work of legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray and literally seeing the characters get whiter and whiter; stereotypes becoming people, and then individuals, and slowly figuring out for myself that people are pretty much the same everywhere.
I was an ardent film fan for decades and would watch just about anything, because it felt like even a crappy movie could inform me in some way. Friends would walk out of a film they weren’t enjoying but I’d cling on to the bitter end, even sitting through the credits at the end searching for tidbits of info that might be useful.
But I got older and life got busier and eventually, I moved away from Auckland, where I’d made my home for 20 years. These days I live in a small coastal community not far from the bustling metropolis of Dargaville (weak joke). Most of the time I love it here, but when a really promising music gig or an annual event like the film festival comes up, somewhere inside I do feel a pang.
The Secret Life Of Pets 2 doesn’t really pass muster as a film festival replacement. The 4-year-old saw the first one on DVD and seemed to enjoy it but never expressed interest in repeating the experience. I watched it but a couple of years later can’t even remember the storyline, which is fairly consistent with the way my head processes popcorn entertainment. But we didn’t go to its sequel for the movie, really. We went because the local cinema was celebrating its fourth anniversary by offering $4 tickets, and because my wife had the bright idea that it might be good father-daughter time as well as a novel experience for someone who has never entered the twilight world of the cinema before.
The movie was just okay. The animation was great, and some of the characters were well drawn (so to speak), but given the amount of cash poured into such projects and the sophisticated ways they have these days of figuring out what works and what doesn’t, I found it perplexing that there was so much not to like about it.
It was common in my youth for the villains in films to be foreigners, often Asians or Russians, but I thought we were past that. It seems not. In The Secret Life Of Pets 2, the despicable villain is a particularly ugly and unsavoury, animal-torturing, circus-owning Russian sadist. It was also common in my youth for cartoons to be full of violence. Thankfully, this has dissipated hugely in recent years. Unfortunately, the writers of The Secret Life Of Pets 2 seem to think that it’s okay to kill the bad guys in any manner of horrible ways. I guess that sometime in the future, this movie may be seen as emblematic of Trump’s reign.
More generally, as a film The Secret Life Of Pets 2 does what most American animated movies do: it never shuts the fuck up. Some of the best children’s television is surprisingly minimalist, and my daughter loves programmes like Sarah & Duck and Puffin Rock where the simplicity doesn’t mean the same thing as stupid. The characters in American animated movies have generally got verbal diarrhoea, and what I noticed at this session was that during these supposedly hilarious monologues, the kids in the theatre were rustling their chip packets, chatting amongst themselves and generally getting restless. Added to the problem is the fact that there’s an assumption by the writers of these monologues that little children understand and care about the references to which they refer. Maybe they’re trying to build in elements of interest that will entertain the adults who are accompanying their children, but it’s a technique that doesn’t work. And while I’m at it, I might as well point out that having two storylines occurring at the same time – most of the movie flipped back and forth between them – was disengaging.
For all that, the movie was watchable enough. But what made the experience was the cinema itself. Auckland cinemas tend to be soulless places, and there’s no sense that their employees care about or love movies. Dargaville’s community-owned ANZAC Theatre, on the other hand, is clearly a project that’s been willed into life by a few people with a huge amount of passion and it feels like it. The manager works in the combined ticket office/sweet shop, so he greets and chats to people as they arrive. The popcorn machine is a bit slow, so he spends half the movie periodically popping (ha) into the auditorium to personally deliver the salty treat. The room itself is much bigger than I had expected, given the 4000 population of Dargaville, and it’s nicely appointed, with huge, comfy chairs. The theatre is fundraising for a new projector at the moment, but on the day that I visited, both the picture on screen and the sound quality were excellent.
But what of the 4-year-old’s first cinematic experience? She loved it, although when it ended she did expect another film to come on straight away, just like it might on YouTube. Although her attention drifted a little during the aforementioned monologues, she was generally enraptured, captivated by the large screen and the big sound and buzzing with the sense of it being some kind of event, because it was a room full of people watching the same thing. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a darkened room and forgetting yourself for awhile, even if the reason you’re forgetting yourself isn’t top class cinema.
And the film festival? Well, despite the revolution in streaming, the NZ International Film Festival 2019 was its most successful year, ever. Yay.