10 Jan 2022

Book Review: The Gosden Years

From Widescreen, 3:37 pm on 10 January 2022

Dan Slevin salutes a book surveying the late film festival director’s erudite and gracious programme notes and introductions and pays tribute to a life dedicated to bringing audiences to great movies.

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Photo: VUP

The dirty little secret of running film festivals is that sometimes you have to take a film you don’t want in order to get one that you do want. And then you have to write (or commission) a blurb that will bring the public to it. For the last decade or so of Bill Gosden’s leadership of the New Zealand International Film Festival he and his team did this exceptionally well, so much so that Gosden’s Member of the Order of New Zealand Merit gong could have been for services to marketing as much as to cinema.

One of the great revelations of VUP’s The Gosden Years – the handsome book celebrating Bill’s contribution to the festival he was synonymous with – is that it was not always thus. Bill had started his film writing career as a critic at Critic and several of the early pieces in this survey of his favourite programme notes and introductions from nearly 40 years of festivals betray that steely critic’s eye.

His 1984 note that “If this year’s line-up lacks a straight up masterpiece, it’s because I didn’t encounter any” is an arresting admission from someone who always made plain how vital ticket sales were to the enterprise. In 1986 he describes Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man as “a truly jaded piece of showing off, a Disneyland of outrageous behaviour, brazen and cunning by turns” and while that sentence is among the best in a book full of great ones, audiences might have been forgiven for wondering whether that meant the film was actually going to be any good or not.

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Photo: VUP

Bill reserved some of his stronger views for the mainstream programming his festival replaced for 16 days each year: “insultingly careless formula packages” was how he described commercial cinema in 1985. As the festival grew – along with its reliance on corporate exhibitor partners like Pacer Kerridge and Amalgamated – his language became much more diplomatic but one of the joys of the book is reading Bill’s brief and pithy reminiscences of past festivals, unencumbered by any need to spare sensitivities – least of all his own. “Our opening night screenings of The Unbearable Lightness of Being are legendary for the unbearable coldness of the vast cinemas for the film’s three-hour duration” (1988) and “A year packed with substantial films opens with one of the least grounded in reality, the unforgivably popular Cinema Paradiso” (1990) are snippets indicative that Bill’s elegant prose remained with him until almost the very end.

The book is a collection of Bill’s writing for the festival, from the essential souvenir programmes (until the internet eventually made them redundant) and the well-thumbed festival marketing brochures. (Did everyone else pick up three? One to get the highlighter treatment, one for the tidied-up version of the highlighter treatment and one to remain pristine on the bookshelf.) During production he was well enough only to contribute the aforementioned brief introductions, select some highlights from the programme notes for each year (“I have avoided films that have been written about extensively elsewhere, favoured New Zealand films, and included several that I personally did not care for at all.” See if you can tell which ones those were, folks!) and contribute a few hundred words of introduction. Anyone who ever heard his speeches at festival events – or his regular media appearances to promote the festival – will be able to hear his voice once again, in their mind’s eye.

International Film Festival Director Bill Gosden in the RNZ Wellington studios.

International Film Festival Director Bill Gosden in the RNZ Wellington studios. Photo: RNZ/Shaun D Wilson

Especially useful is editor Tim Wong’s excellent Foreword – a characteristically able contextualisation of the historical content as well as a potted history of the festival that will be useful for scholars and enthusiasts for years to come.

He points out some of Bill’s common themes. Censorship battles were a particular bugbear but the campaigns to save the picture palaces where his programming was showcased gets quite a few column inches, and then there was the gracious way he managed to find new ways every year to thank his collaborators, sponsors, venues and crews. He wrote so many of these it is only natural that he recycled a great line about “finding a smaller, even more fascinating festival with your name on it” for three years in a row from 2008 to 2010.

But the great frustration that dogged him every year – and that he addresses in some form in most of his introduction pieces – was the audience’s complacent idea that ‘the good ones always come back’. It drove him mad and he gets the last laugh in The Gosden Years. By my count there are 87 films that have Bill’s festival programme note reproduced and you’d be hard put to find a way to watch more than about thirty percent of them locally now.

Yoshimitsu’s The Family Game (1983), Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), the 1988 Cuban comedy Plaff!, Jane Campion’s first theatrical feature Sweetie (1989), Uminchu: The Old Man and the East China Sea (1990), Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992), the brilliantly funny Aussie political documentary Rats in the Ranks (1996), Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008) are not available on local online services (maybe an elderly DVD copy lurks in one of the few remaining DVD stores). Anthony McCarten’s 1998 debut feature Via Satellite isn’t even available on the otherwise excellent NZ Film Commission video-on-demand site.

The programme notes continue to do the job for which they were intended – making you want to see the film – but in these days of streaming services prioritising anything but classic, arthouse, archive or Kiwi cinema, something is being lost and Bill's point – that you should never waste an opportunity to see an interesting film – stands to this day.

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Photo: Supplied by Michael Jeong

The Gosden Years (edited by Tim Wong and Gaylene Preston) is published by Victoria University Press (now known as Te Herenga Waka University Press from Jan 2022 onwards) and is available through all good bookshops. R.R.P. is $50.00 and the ISBN is 9781776564354.