Vincent Ward: The Past Awaits—People, Images, Film

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

There are times when I question the necessary existence of certain things—art works (often), films (occasionally), music (obviously), and books (once in a while). Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, I feel that Vincent Ward: The Past Awaits—People, Images, Film (Craig Potton Publishing, NZ$70) doesn’t seem to know why it exists.

A couple of years ago Vincent Ward’s fellow ex-pat film director, Roger Donaldson, released a book of his photography which, while it didn’t captivate me, had definite purpose. The Past Awaits, however, is a messy jumble of autobiography and filmography, illustrated with frame grabs, film stills, other film related artworks, and the occasional old photo.

It is similar to the recent Paul Kelly book in that regard, but it doesn’t have the same flow or sense of interconnection. Where the central conceit of Kelly’s ‘memoir’ was a kind of stream of consciousness response to his own songs, leading to a full and personal, if incomplete, autobiography, The Past Awaits touches on autobiography, creativity, and experience, but doesn’t have the same depth of revelation or even personality that Kelly’s has.

It get the impression that Ward wanted to do a book about his film work, but couldn’t decide what sort of book it should be, so the result is a muddle of little pieces of technical info, family history, reconnections with cast and crew, and personal recollections that don’t always go anywhere or have anything much to say. Thrown in are a few seemingly disconnected (at least in terms of narrative structure) random memories, and the odd bit of gossip about (usually) unnamed Hollywood types.

Disappointingly, there is no coherency between texts for the various films. For the docu-drama Rain of the Children, we get an incomplete retelling of the story told in the film. For his early short film A State of Siege, two of the three paragraphs are devoted to the lead actress and her later suicide. As expected for River Queen, he discusses the numerous problems surrounding the filming, especially those concerning Samantha Morton, and follows this up with some post-release quotes from people involved in the production, which seem to act as necessary affirmations that the film was worth making, despite the setbacks.

Vigil is oddly introduced in the brief chapter on Ma Olsen, concluding a story that felt unfinished. While thematically this early introduction fits, its placement seems entirely out of context and the exact paragraphs could have been used a couple of pages later when we are actually into Vigil itself. Much of the text revolves around latter day conversations with lead actor Fiona Kay and the confusion that can become apparent in the “relationship between character, writer and actor”. While many apparently assume that Toss, the lead character in Vigil, was based on Ward, Kay feels that, “Toss was so close to me! I was that person in the film!”

Perhaps, predictably, I’m more interested in the few images of Ma Olsen from a 1977 photographic documentary Ward made of this woman with “rugged independence and surprising tenderness”. Where the other chapters act as vague advertisements for the films, these four photos show that Ward’s recurring themes of the outsider, the gothic, and strong women, started early in his career (or creative centre). These few pages feel like a taster and I suspect both visually and textually there is a bigger story to tell.

Maybe that is the crux of the confusion within the book—because the films exist, to retell those stories would arguably be unnecessary, while to deliver a memoir-style filmography would be the norm. Instead, in trying to do something less expected, we end up with disjointed thoughts that are neither one thing nor the other, but a combination of potential approaches.

The inclusion of both film stills and film grabs means that the imagery quality is rather variable. The slower shutter speeds of cinematic filming (around 1/25sec), means that action is generally not frozen the way it is with still photography, and the results are softer, blurred images. While there are brief captions at the rear of the book, there is usually no explanation as to why any of these particular images were chosen. As a large portion of the book is given over to the images, it does seem odd that their inclusion is largely inconsequential beyond the fact that relate to a specific project.

More interesting than the images from the films themselves may have been storyboards, location shots, etc., creating a kind of workbook for the various projects. But that would have been a different book, though equally suited to the text here.

While The Past Awaits is trying to be too many things at once, it isn’t without its share of intriguing comments and sections; it’s just that the overall inconsistency colours my enjoyment. There can be no denying that Ward has made many personal sacrifices for his creativity, and some of the stories here suggest that there may well be a decent, more traditional memoir in the offing. For instance, the passages where he catches up with some of the now-adult child actors who starred in his films are noteworthy, though, like much of the text, often feel incomplete.

There is no doubt that a superior book in Vincent Ward awaits. Sadly, The Past Awaits isn’t the compilation it could have been, though will still pique the interest of most: it compelled me go out and buy The Navigator and Vigil on DVD, and reminded me to rewatch Map of the Human Heart, a film I haven’t seen since its release in the early ’90s.