Alistair Fox explores the dynamics of the creative process involved in cinematic representation in the films of Jane Campion, one of the most highly regarded of contemporary filmmakers. Utilizing a wealth of new materialincluding interviews with Campion and her sister and personal writings of her motherFox traces the connections between the filmmaker’s complex background and the thematic preoccupations of her films, from her earliest short, Peel, to 2009’s Bright Star. He establishes how Campion’s deep investment in family relationships informs her aesthetic strategies, revealed in everything from the handling of shots and lighting, to the complex system of symbolic images repeated from one film to the next.
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About the Author
Alistair Fox is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Research on National Identity at the University of Otago.
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Authorship and Personal Cinema
By Alistair Fox
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2011 Alistair Fox
All rights reserved.
Origins of a Problematic: The Campion Family
1 Richard and Edith Campion, the parents of Jane Campion, came from very different backgrounds. Edith Hannah (whose "unpreferred name" was Beverley Georgette Hannah, according to the records of the Alexander Turnbull Library) was born in 1923, on the same day as Richard Campion, in the same town (Wellington, the capital of New Zealand). Edith was the only child of George and Jessie Hannah and the granddaughter of the industrialist Robert Hannah, the pioneer footwear manufacturer of Antrim House, whose shoe chain developed into one of the great dynasties of New Zealand retailing. The fortunate circumstances of her birth, however, were not to be matched by equal felicity in the years that followed. Edith's early life was marred by acute insecurity, caused by the fact that she had to spend her early childhood with a mother who was addicted to alcohol and who dragged the young child along with her on drinking binges. Her father, too, succumbed to alcoholism; both parents suffered early deaths.
Having been orphaned in 1933 at the age often, Edith became uncontrollable. Parentless and an heiress, she was sent away to boarding school at Nga Tawa, the Wellington Diocese's school for girls, located outside the township of Marton in the Rangitikei district of the North Island of New Zealand. Founded in 1891, Nga Tawa housed girls in grades nine to eleven in rooms of two to six, and it boasted an equestrian center with stables for up to forty horses, a dressage arena, a full-sized show-jumping arena, a canter track, and a full cross-country course. The school, which still exists, was also notable for its cultural activities, which included productions of musicals, and performances of speeches and scenes from Shakespeare. Students were encouraged to take speech and drama lessons.
Edith hated being at boarding school and escaped at the first opportunity — on a pony sold previously to her English teacher. Thereafter, she was put in the charge of governesses, which meant that she led a solitary childhood. Two things remained with her from her brief time at Nga Tawa, however: a love of literature and theater and a lifelong love of horses and horse riding. In due course, Edith would become the most acclaimed actress in New Zealand, especially renowned for her performance as St. Joan of Arc in Shaw's play of that name. She would also develop into a significant, though minor, writer of fiction and poetry, establishing connections with several of the most prominent writers in the country, including Frank Sargeson, and publishing her work in the leading New Zealand literary journals.
Richard Campion, one of eight children, had more humble origins, growing up on Mount Victoria in Wellington, where his father ran a butcher shop. Although he became interested in theater at school, his parents were members of the Exclusive Brethren, an extreme branch of the Christian evangelical movement also known as the Plymouth Brethren. Predictably, Richard's parents disapproved of his involvement in theater, believing that it "belonged to Satan" — meaning that, in Richard's words, he had "to sneak it in." According to Richard, he escaped religious confinement by becoming a paperboy for Wellington's Evening Post newspaper, buying a bicycle with the proceeds, and "seeing through the windows on his runs that not all non-Brethren houses were dens of iniquity." Richard records that his family never had any books at home, so he "used to sneak into the library," which was located near the headquarters of the newspaper. The Exclusive Brethren, however, are notorious for the severity of their discipline. In order to maintain a "separation from evil," if a member of the sect breaks a serious rule, the dissident is first shunned and then "put out." If the dissident does not repent, he is then "disfellowshipped" — excommunicated. This usually entails the breaking off of all communication with members of the person's former congregation, even family members.
According to Anna Campion, from the age of fourteen Richard Campion was no longer allowed to eat with his family, on account of his rebellion against the strictness of the Exclusive Brethren's rules, which had banned him from listening to the radio or reading books. This punitive cut-off meant that Richard, like Edith, was turned into an emotional orphan.
Despite the contrasting circumstances of their respective families, it is not surprising that Edith and Richard were drawn together, not only because of their shared interest in drama — they met in acting classes conducted by the Jewish actress Maria Dronke, who had escaped from Nazi Germany to Wellington — but also because of similarities in the formative experiences they had endured at a relatively young age. Both had suffered as the children of parents who had taken recourse to addictions as a means of self-soothing. In the case of Edith's parents, this had taken the form of addiction to alcohol; in the case of Richard's parents, it had taken the form of addiction to an extreme religion. Even more damagingly, both Edith and Richard had suffered the trauma of parental desertion and abandonment at crucially formative stages in their development — literally, through the premature death of Edith's parents, and metaphorically, through the emotional and literal cut-off imposed by Richard's parents. The combined impact on the children of the addictive behaviors and the abandonment of their parents must have been severe indeed.
Modern psychoanalytic theory tells us that children who develop under such circumstances are likely to suffer acute damage to their sense of personal identity:
Recognition of oneself as a separate and unique being is sought by the infant's avid gazing at his reflection in his mother's eyes — a reflection destined to give him not only his mirror image, but also what he represents for his mother. Only thus may he hope to recognize himself as having a privileged place and a personal value in the eyes of this Other who looks at him and talks to him.
If anything occurs to impede the construction of a positive self-representation through this mirroring process — such as the diversion of the mother's intensity of feeling or attention away from the child — then the image of oneself is likely to be "a fragile and fleeting reflection," creating a narcissistic wound that needs to be repaired. The drive to attain a feeling of personal identity is "a primordial need in the individual's psychic life — equal in intensity and importance to the instinct of preservation in relation to biological life — an unending struggle against psychic death."
In the case of Jane Campion's parents, the attempt to repair whatever wounds they might have suffered as a result of their family circumstances seems to have taken the form of an engagement with the theater so intense as to verge upon obsession. This is not surprising for, as many actors will confirm, to immerse oneself within the mindset of a dramatic character is a powerful way of gaining, and deepening, a sense of one's own personal identity. Empathic identification with a dramatized character also enables the vicarious release of feelings, thoughts, and emotions that palliate psychic pain which, in ordinary life, one dare not allow oneself to experience directly. Contemporary object-relations theory offers an explanation of this phenomenon. As Christopher Bollas puts it:
We are forever finding objects that disperse the objectifying self into elaborating subjectivities, where the many "parts of the self" momentarily express discrete sexual urges, ideas, memories, and feelings in unconscious actions, before condensing into a transcendental dialectic, occasioned by a force of dissemination that moves us to places beyond thinking.
Often, when a person suffers from painful affects, it is difficult for him or her even to admit their existence. The release of intense emotions through theatrical performance allows for the temporary evacuation of such affects and, in so doing, enables the actor to gain a fleeting sensation of actually existing as a coherent self. The search for such release and self-realization is what one can observe, I surmise, in the theatrical and literary careers pursued by the Campion parents.
Having married in 1945, Edith and Richard joined a circle of theater devotees, including Nola Millar, Margaret Turnbull, and Robert and Elizabeth Stead, all of whom were active in Wellington's Unity Theatre — originally an agitprop antifascist theater established in 1942, that had been inspired by the radical ideas of Group Theater in New York and Unity in London. As members of Unity, Richard joined the executive committee, played opposite Nola Millar as a knight in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, and directed an "inspiring" production of King Lear, while Edith performed in a number of roles, including Mary Boyle in Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. In 1949, the Campions left for London by flying boat to further their theatrical careers by studying at the Old Vic Theatre School. During this time, Richard took an advanced production course with Michel Saint-Denis and served as the stage director for the touring Young Vic in England and on the Continent. Sadly, the son that was born to the Campions in London in early 1949 died soon after birth.
Following their return to New Zealand in 1951, using the money from Edith's inheritance, the two Campions approached Nola Millar, a local director, with a proposal to set up a national theater. As a result of this initiative, the first professional theater company in New Zealand, the New Zealand Players, was established. As Richard Campion later explained, drawing an analogy with the national rugby team, the All Blacks, this professional company was meant to be an "all black" theater by and for New Zealanders that would unify the country as the All Blacks did through rugby. The new company was launched in 1953 (the year after Anna Campion's birth and the year before Jane's birth), supported by a sum of £20,000 sterling from Edith's legacy (a huge amount in those days), with two productions: The Young Elizabeth by Jeanette Dowling and Pinero's Dandy Dick. Thereafter, the company toured six plays around the country each year during its brief life, eventually offering thirty plays, five of them by New Zealand playwrights, to an average attendance of 50,000 per production, and giving employment to more than a hundred actors. Plays performed included Saint Joan, A Unicorn for Christmas, Twelfth Night, The Solid Gold Cadillac, and The Mousetrap.
By 1960, however, the New Zealand Players had collapsed. As Jane Campion recalls, "My parents lived an unreal life. For example, the need to make money was, for them, a complete mystery." Even though the Players were given a tremendous welcome wherever they appeared, the cost of touring was inordinate, with the company incurring a huge loss of about £700 per week on its first national tour. Although this loss halved during the next season, the company proved not to be financially viable; it was a fantasy that not even Edith's inheritance could support.
Another factor may have contributed to its demise. In 1953, Nola Millar, who had played a crucial role in the formation of the company, had resigned — an event which enfeebled the Players by removing one of the company's most enthusiastic and experienced mainstays. The reason she offered to Richard Campion was her concern about the finances and particularly about the company's ability to support the costs of touring. For his part, Richard believed that she wanted to get back into directing. According to her biographer, however, the actual reason for Nola Millar's resignation was her disenchantment with the sexual conduct of Richard Campion himself:
It was concerning Dick's personal conduct that Nola's regard had decidedly cooled by the end 1953, and he must have been in no doubt about how she felt. Some thought he was rather afraid of her; certainly he had reason to be wary, if only of meeting her knowing eye. The daughter of Frank Millar was still the puritan regarding adultery, and his affairs, including one with Margaret Turnbull (her marriage having finally disintegrated) and others with his players, appalled her. Nola felt the betrayals professionally and personally, and her own loyalties were compromised, especially her friendship with Edith.
Here, then, was another major factor that would influence the emotional lives of the Campion children, in addition to the effects of the emotional deprivation suffered by each of the parents: the extramarital adventures of their father, which, judging by statements made by Anna Campion, may have been the manifestation of a sexual addiction. In Anna's words, Richard Campion was "a bit of a Ted Hughes figure" — not only in his artistic inclinations, but in his proclivity for relationships with other women. The existence of a half sister from one of these affairs, unknown to Jane until relatively late in her career, was a family secret that would have a profound effect on the filmmaker. The impact of this revelation is registered by the accusatory reference to a love child that Ruth hurls at her father in Holy Smoke and by the inclusion of a half sister, Pauline, in In the Cut, for which no hint exists in the source novel by Susanna Moore upon which the film was based.
Without Nola Millar, the viability of the New Zealand Players was weakened. Several years later, in 1957, Richard Campion resigned from the Players, and he joined the staff of Wellington College in 1958. After this, the romantic fantasy that had united Edith and Richard Campion began to unwind. Their first daughter, Anna, whose "unpreferred birth name" (according to the Turnbull Library's catalog) is "Dianna Margaret," had been born in 1952, while their second daughter, Jane, whose "unpreferred birth name" is recorded as "Elizabeth Jane," was born on 30 April 1954. A son, Michael, would be born in 1961. Around this time, Jane Campion recalls, "My mother gave up acting and after a while we kind of [saw] that that wasn't a good decision. It didn't help her. My father only did what he wanted to do, and of course, he enjoyed it."
What Richard Campion occupied himself with — after having mounted a number of productions with the boys at Wellington College, including Henry IV, Henry V, and Anton Vogt's Kiwi in Crete — was the establishment in the early 1960s of a stationary group of players, the New Zealand Theatre Trust, located in Wellington? Richard's new theater company, of which he was artistic director, survived only two productions before it, too, collapsed.
In 1962, Richard headed off to Sydney for a short time. After his return to New Zealand, he worked with an all-Maori company that was committed to presenting indigenous culture and produced an epic about the settling of New Zealand: Green Are the Islands. Richard also turned to the world of opera, directing productions of Strauss's Die Fledermaus in 1966 and Bizet's Carmen in 1969 (with the young Kiri Te Kanawa) for the New Zealand Opera Company, and then a series of productions for regional companies, including La Traviata in 1988 and La Boheme in 1990 for the Hawke's Bay Opera Trust, and Donizetti's bel canto opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1988 and Bizet's The Pearl Fishers in 1993 for the Wellington City Opera. In 1986, he wrote a docudrama, Waitangi — "I Was There" based on the missionary William Colenso's eyewitness account of the signing of the historic Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori tribes and the colonial British government in 1840, which was performed to great acclaim at the first International Arts Festival in Wellington.
Excerpted from Jane Campion by Alistair Fox. Copyright © 2011 Alistair Fox. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Authorship, Creativity, and Personal Cinema 1
1 Origins of a Problematic: The Campion Family 25
2 The "Tragic Underbelly" of the Family: Fantasies of Transgression in the Early Films 48
3 Living in the Shadow of the Family Tree: Sweetie 69
4 "How painful it is to have a family member with a problem like that": Authorship as Creative Adaptation in An Angel at My Table 88
5 Traumas of Separation and the Encounter with the Phallic Other: The Piano 107
6 The Misfortunes of an Heiress: The Portrait of a Lady 133
7 Exacting Revenge on "Cunt Men": Holy Smoke as Sexual Fantasy 154
8 "That which terrifies and attracts simultaneously": Killing Daddy in In the Cut 177
9 Lighting a Lamp: Loss, Art, and Transcendence in The Water Diary and Bright Star 201
Conclusion: Theorizing the Personal Component of Authorship 215
Works Cited 249
What People are Saying About This
Alistair Fox offers an impressively rich and thoroughly documented reading of Jane Campion's films. . . . [He] persuasively interprets them as working through the traumas of the artist's life. . . . Fox succeeds in resuscitating the biological author, giving us Jane Campion without the qualification of quotation marks around her name.