Bruce Beresford, author of The best film I never made, is of special interest to me for a couple of reasons, besides the fact that I’ve enjoyed many of his films over the years. One is that after a few years of taking (or, perhaps, “dragging” is more accurate) our then young son to various classic movie “experiences”, like, say, a silent movie accompanied by live theatre organ, we finally hit pay dirt with Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant. He loved it, and I’d say his love of film was born then. The other is that I’ve known for some time that Beresford has wanted to film his old university friend Madeleine St John’s novel The women in black (my review). I want to see that film! According to the brief bio opposite the title page, it is being made now. At last!
All this is to explain why I was keen to read Bruce Beresford’s collection of stories when I saw it appear in Text Publishing’s New Releases list. But, what does “collection of stories” mean in the context of non-fiction? These are not essays or even newspaper columns that have been published before, and, disappointingly, there’s no Introduction, Author’s Note or Afterword providing context. There is, though, in that aforementioned brief bio, the address for his website, and there I found a tab called “Articles”. So this is where they are published? Yes, some anyhow, including some in an earlier form, but not all. However, from this, and from their personal, rather chatty style, I’d liken these articles to blog posts, which in his case comprise musings on things relating to his film and opera directing career and his related cultural interests.
The best film I never made, then, is a collection of these blogpost-cum-stories, organised for the book into four parts: I Family, Journeys, Memories; II Making and Not Making Movies; III Behind the Screen; IV Operas, Painters, Writers. The stories are all dated, ranging from 2004 to 2017. Some have brief updates at the end. The 2010 piece on Jeffrey Smart, “Smart lessons”, for example, has a final annotation noting that Smart died in 2013. The stories are not presented chronologically.
And now, because this is not a book with a narrative structure that can be spoiled – though there is some logic nonetheless to the order – I’m going straight to the end. You’ll guess why when I tell you that the title of the last article is “Australian literature and film”, but that literature connection is not the only reason. Other reasons are that it provides a good introduction to the style and tone of the whole, and also to the way he imparts his experience and understanding of filmmaking.
The main point of this last article is to discuss the idea, put forward he says by the press, that “Australian films would benefit if more adaptations were made from acclaimed literary works. Comparisons are inevitably made with foreign films, particularly English and American …” Commenting that he can understand why writer-directors might want to tell their own stories, he admits that probably a majority of English-language films are adaptations of novels but suggests that many of these would be from popular fiction rather than “literary successes”. He unpicks why:
Many novels are famous for their prose style, various colourful characters, their themes and so on: factors which can obscure the fact that other useful ingredients – a coherent plot for example – may be absent. In film, most of the characteristics that distinguish a literary work – such as a striking prose style – are stripped away and this can reveal the lack of a well-constructed story, or convincing dialogue, and be fatal to the effectiveness of the film.
He then provides examples of English and American adaptations, about which, of course, every reader-filmgoer will have different opinions – but I think his principle stands. He comments for example about the difficult of transferring “the satire and dry cynicism” of Waugh to film, and says Patrick White is notoriously difficult “because his novels like Conrad’s, are psychological studies, intense and profound, and not easy to transfer to a film script”. (Interestingly, though, he suggests that Happy Valley, which I’ve reviewed, could be a good candidate because of its “more conventional narrative”.) Filmmakers do better he argues “to adapt novels which rely on a few strong characters and a compelling narrative” like, for example, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in fright (albeit “won no literary prizes”).
So, this article demonstrates Beresford’s grasp of filmmaking, which, unsurprisingly, runs throughout the book, but it also exemplifies his tone and style, including his willingness to share his own prejudices. He’s not a fan of Tim Winton, for example, describing his books “as bargain-basement Patrick White: stylistically derivative, they are far more savage, full of unpleasant characters, and weakly plotted”. And Christina Stead, he says, is “a turgid writer, in my worthless opinion”. This possibly false but not pompous self-deprecation is another feature of his tone. In the same paragraph as the Stead comment, he writes that he’d filmed Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, but that “critics did not share my admiration for the result”! (Other films of his, he agrees, aren’t the best.)
And finally, this chapter also reveals his ability to “tell-all” without being gossipy. He suggests that another reason why classic novels aren’t adapted in Australia (as they are in England) is that they are just not well-known, “certainly the word of their excellence has not reached all of those in charge of making financial decisions.” (The challenge of financing films is a theme running through the book, in fact.) Beresford wrote, he tells us, an adaptation of Henry Handel Richardson’s epic, The fortunes of Richard Mahony. He says he hadn’t expected potential investors to have read it, but he “did at least expect them to have heard of it – and her. But this was not the case.” Oh dear! He backs up this example of philistinism with another:
when I was planning a film about Mahler, a Hollywood executive said, ‘What I can’t understand is why you would want to make a film about a nonentity.’ I said nothing, but perhaps should have told him that one of the most gifted composers of all time could not accurately be described as a ‘nonentity’ – except by someone of overwhelming stupidity.
To his credit, Beresford does not name this person of “overwhelming stupidity”.
If you’ve enjoyed my discussion of this article, then you are likely to enjoy the book. I loved his discussion of the filmic qualities of the artist Caravaggio, and of his friendship with luminaries like Barry Humphries, Clive James, and the late Jeffrey Smart. His Behind the Scenes section provides fascinating insight into the role of cinematographers, composers and designers in the filmmaking process. And so on.
However, because this is a book of collected articles written over a decade or more, there is the occasional repetition, particularly in the first section about his personal life. And, he does come across somewhat as an unreconstructed male. There are several references to his chasing, or his friends’ marrying, beautiful women, which focus I find out-of-date (but that’s just my worthless opinion!)
The best film I never made is an enjoyable book. It’s more chatty and informative than reflective, but if you have followed Bruce Beresford’s films over the years – including Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Black Robe, Mao’s Last Dancer – and you are interested in the practice of filmmaking and in the arts more generally, this book has a lot to offer. And makes, methinks, a good summer read.
The best film I never made, and other stories about a life in the arts
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)