Saturday, November 11, 2017

The best revenge

Ten years ago, Bruce Beresford published a gem of a memoir called Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This. Written in diary form, the book chronicled a year or two of Beresford’s life in the trenches of the modern film industry. Ideally, of course, Beresford’s job is to direct movies. And his CV is thick with garlanded pictures: Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy, Mao’s Last Dancer. But as his first book gorily demonstrated, even a film-maker as successful as he is must spend an ungodly proportion of his time developing projects that go nowhere slowly. 

Fortunately for him, and for his readers, Beresford has a keen sense of the absurd. This was on show straight away, in the first two words of his book’s title. At the time, the actor Josh Hartnett was at the zenith of his unremarkable career. Professing interest in a project to which Beresford was reluctantly attached, Hartnett attended meetings at which he spoke at length about his seriousness of purpose. Beresford did a lot of patient listening, followed by a lot of patient script revision. Hartnett never committed. Finally he reiterated his notional interest in the project – on the proviso that Beresford be dumped from it. 

A decade later, Hartnett’s career seems to have flamed out. Beresford, on the other hand, is still around. Now 77, he has directed more than forty movies and TV projects. He is a stayer. His sanity and sense of humour clearly have something to do with this. And now he has found a delicious new outlet for these virtues, in his late-flowering career as a memoirist. Poetry, said Wordsworth, is emotion recollected in tranquillity. Beresford’s movie writings do something like the reverse. Patient and phlegmatic while doing his day job, he turns wickedly acerbic, and sometimes bridge-burningly indiscreet, when recalling his successes and fiascos in prose.

Beresford’s new book is more diffuse than his debut effort, but no less funny or trenchant. It’s a memoir made up of fragments, some of which have previously been published in newspapers and magazines.  Some of these reflect on his professional life, while others serve up memories of old friends, old cinemas, even old cars. 

The book begins with an evocation of his late father. The old man seems to have been a bit of a trial. But here, as elsewhere, Beresford displays his gift for converting frustration into laughter. “He favoured coats without lapels, a fashion he was convinced would be adopted worldwide. It has yet to catch on.” In his declining years the senior Beresford had trouble walking but “imperiously refused the use of a cane to help his balance, preferring to fall over regularly.”

On radio and TV, Beresford has always been a trusty raconteur, whose knack for being amusing seems to stem from a boundless capacity to be amused. Fans of his sardonic, self-deprecating drawl will be happy to hear that his prose uncannily catches the tone of his speaking voice. “He was friendly and talked very quickly,” he writes of a dodgy producer, “though it was curiously hard to catch his eye.” Beresford’s style resembles the action of a veteran wrist-spinner. His technique looks loose, even effortless. His sentences drift along genially for a while, then suddenly bite the pitch and turn.

In the 70s, when Beresford helped to engineer the golden age of Australian cinema, film was at the height of its trajectory as a director’s medium. These days, Beresford ruefully records, the director faces competition from all sides. For a start there are the actors and their agents, who have long “held the whip hand” in Hollywood, and currently have the power to sink a project at whim.  

Then you have the producers and financial types. As Beresford illuminatingly explains, the rise of digital technology means that even the most junior of investors can now look over a director’s shoulder on an almost hourly basis. “They can then make some complaint, invariably referred to as an ‘observation’.” 

Beresford’s response to this is typically unpretentious. He acknowledges that the money people have a right to their views. But he explains precisely why the director’s views matter more. Directors, if they are doing their jobs right, will have “an image of the completed film” in their heads, whereas “people watching the work in progress, which is almost never filmed in sequence, have no such concept.”

The meddlers, you’d think, would get the point, when it is put so pragmatically. But somehow Hollywood just can’t shake its fundamental disrespect for the artist. To survive in such an environment, you clearly must have an extremely healthy sense of irony, or else no sense of irony at all. 

Beresford has one, which gives his film writings a dimension that those of American insiders, even the smartest ones, crucially lack. The screenwriter William Goldman, for example, gets a lot of praise for his wised-up memoirs about the trade. But next to Beresford’s, Goldman’s prose sounds compromised, imperfectly liberated from Hollywood assumptions. At some level, Goldman still buys all that macho shit about meeting-taking and deal-making.

Beresford, in contrast, is utterly disinclined to romanticise the film business. He isn’t merely smart by Hollywood standards. He is smart by any standard. He knows about a lot of things besides movies. He is therefore able to write about them in an unusually cultivated and sceptical way. At one point he recalls that the script for his 1986 film, Crimes of the Heart, was almost killed off by anonymous readers’ reports – which tend to be written, he says, “by the scantily educated and deeply insensitive, a notably formidable combination.” 

The way Beresford uses the word “insensitive” here says a lot about the seriousness of his aesthetic. He doesn’t mean that such types are insensitive to other people. He means they are insensitive in a far deeper way – insensitive to art, to nuance, to the human feelings that films are supposed to be about. 

In a context in which such people call the shots, it seems almost touchingly old-fashioned of Beresford to mention the concept of education. But he is eminently well-qualified to do so. He is not just an educated man in the formal sense. He has, far more importantly, never ceased teaching himself about the arts. The pieces in this book cover a rich assortment of enthusiasms: opera, music, literature, painting. There are pen portraits of artistic friends and heroes, including Clive James, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart, Barry Humphries.

If one were forced to voice a lone quibble, it would be that Beresford’s prose, when he is paying tribute to such figures, loses some of its usual vigour. He sounds distinctly livelier when he is registering irritation than when he is dishing out praise. Then again, it’s a rare writer who can’t be convicted of that tendency.

Otherwise, one’s only complaint about this book is really a compliment. In places it’s too skeletal. You keep wanting to hear more, much more. When Beresford writes, without elaboration, “I went back to England and directed a lamentable rock musical,” you find yourself thinking: hang on. What rock musical? Who wrote it? Who was in it? In what respect was it lamentable? You want Beresford’s affable but mordant voice to settle in for the long haul. 

And let’s hope this will still happen, in due time, when Beresford feels that his movie work is done. The world needs the full and methodical Bruce autobiography, in which he will put juicier flesh on his skimpier anecdotes, and apply glorious quantities of flame to all the remaining bridges. In the meantime, the current book offers a welcome infusion of his bracing tone. In a world rife with philistines, he demonstrates that the best revenge is laughter, and living and working well.

Originally published in The Australian