Disclaimer: this is entirely unresearched and is based solely on my unreflective impressions of watching a film.
When I was at high school—back in the 80s—my English teacher pinned a whole lot of Listener magazine covers on the wall above the blackboard. I guess they were intended as quiet edification for us learners.
(This was, by the way, back in the days when the Listener didn’t totally suck, meaning my classroom wall wasn’t simply papered in endless headlines about retirement investments, vitamin supplements, anti-ageing treatments, childhood autism, and binge drinking.)
One of the headlines that I remember was “Bruno Lawrence: Wild Man Tamed”, accompanying a head-shot of that memorable baldie staring me down with his soft but unmovable eyes.
It was a slightly weird headline for me because as far as I knew, Bruno Lawrence was just that guy who was in pretty much everything on tv that came from New Zealand—and I’d also see him when I stayed up to watch late-night screenings of movies like Smash Palace (only vaguely comprehending them) while my peers were all going out to discos and having sex and smoking cigarettes.
Now, searching online for that actual headline, I discover that it was a clever reference to the 1977 film Wild Man, starring Lawrence—fragments of which I saw tonight when I watched Blerta Revisited (2001), screened by the ever-charming folks at the Canterbury Film Society.
What I learned tonight—really looking at the 1970s Lawrence for the first time—was what that Listener reference to him as a “Wild Man” was all about.
The guy was a menacing genius. This languid, sultry dude, he looks like he would charm your mother just a bit too much, then take your dad on a hunting trip and talk to him gently, late into the night, about the need to show a bit more consideration around the house, as well as in the bedroom.
Then he’d saunter back into town, clap you on the shoulder, stick a billowing joint between your teeth and tell you that he’d see you next time, mate. And he’d ride away while you tried to ignore the craven tightening in your chest.
There must be some stories out there about the guy.
Some of the Blerta stuff is hysterical. Some of it’s pretty dated.
The whole German thing, for example, really doesn’t fly—and it’s funny how when something’s not funny anymore, well, it’s really just not funny. (I think other-culture jokes are just not funny anymore.)
And the other performers—it has to be said—pale a bit compared to Lawrence. Whether he’s singing about bags of drugs, or about how much his lady loves his ten-inch … record, there’s this intense glow about the man. A humanity that is completely magnetic, along with a soft-spoken potential for unknowable transgressions. He seems to take a quiet, detached delight in discomfiting, but almost by accident.
His absurd, Chaplin-esque performances—as the banker subject of Beaver’s sexy-ridiculous beach song; as the Wild Man; as an escaped lunatic taunting the cops; as a runaway All Black—are all tinged with this maverick grace, where he’s granted by the entertainment gods a precious extra moment and in it he casts towards the camera a crazed eye, or he cranes his neck at some monstrous angle that is all at once unbelievable, terrifying, and as pure as the unconscious gesture of a child.
My point, I guess, is that the revelation I had during the film was that New Zealanders who had been adults in the 70s had been exposed to a very different Lawrence from the one I knew as a ubiquitous screen actor in the 80s. To them, he really was a Wild Man—irreverent, charming, hostile—capable, seemingly, of committing unimaginable offences against decency.
I am sure he would have scared the hell out of people.
The Blerta material—viewed today—seems most fresh when it satirises Pākehā New Zealand culture: the television arts show, for example, called Identity, which the beret-wearing, goatee-sporting host introduces as a “searching look for—sorry, at—the artistic culture of this country.”
And having been up to see Parekowhai’s piano-bulls last week (which, incidentally, look far far better on the grey, stone-and-concrete, post-quake desolation of a Madras St lot than they ever seemed to in the over-fecund jungle of that Venetian palazzo), I paid particular attention to the number of pianos that get destroyed throughout Blerta Revisited. One crashes down onto a truck, just glancing the cab, and it’s played and replayed and played again, getting funnier every time.
There seems to be something about the postcolonial project that inevitably involves irreverent treatment of pianos—though it’s somehow telling that the Pākehā mavericks hiff them out of windows while the cerebral Māori artist saturates and improves them with modern whakairo.
The only mention, incidentally, that the indigenes get in Blerta Revisited is in a skit where Lawrence is an American tourist and he asks where the Māoris are (it may even have been the “Māori corpses”). “The coons are upstairs”, I’m pretty sure is how the evil German mad scientist replies.
Bloody hell, Trev.