Self-identified “filmophile” Brian McFarlane opens his “touch of the memoirs” at age ten, reminiscing about reviewing films he had never seen – something he never let stand in his way. I must state, at the opening of this review, until reading Real and Reel: The Education of a Film Obsessive and Critic, I had encountered his name but never read the work of Brian McFarlane – but I dare not let that stand in my way either.
Brian McFarlane has had many titles: secondary school teacher, academic, amateur theatre director, celebrity interviewer and currently Adjunct Associate Professor, to name just few, but the one that permeates every aspect of his life is that of Film Obsessive. His encyclopaedic knowledge and experiences of and with cinema span from his first encounter with the “film that really changed [his] life” (p.27) – Lance Comfort’s Great Day (1945), a British pre-interval film on a 1947 double bill – all the way to blaring Johnny Cash on the car radio inspired by Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005), with countless B movies, biopics and British greats tightly packed in between.
Reel and Real does not set out to be a tell-all biography. It humbly aims to give insight, from a personal perspective, into how McFarlane turned an obsession into a profession. In his words, it is “an attempt to sort out my dealings with the movies.” (p. 1) In his book, McFarlane approaches his life story in the same manner he has approached film throughout his career: with a familiar tone, a constantly divergent train of thought and an eye for erratic and esoteric detail. He narrates his story from an authorial armchair by the fire, regaling his audience with stories that could safely start with an un-ironic “back in my day”. The sporadic images within the book further cement the idea that Real and Reel is a collection of memories rather than an all-encompassing autobiography. Newspaper clippings, copies of handwritten reviews and photos of old cinemas and cinema magazines are scattered throughout his life and throughout the pages. This leads to a scrapbooking effect that echoes the way his tale is told.
Tracing his journey from childhood in rural Victoria through to his most recent publications and research on British film, McFarlane tells his story in fits and starts but always with an informative yet warmly self-deprecating tone. For example, he describes his M.A. as “an uninspiring tract on aspects of Australian Fiction” (p. 128) and happily points out that his best ten films of 1963 were drawn from a total of 15 films he had seen that year – all of them before May. Both his tone and divergent narrative style add to the fireside manner of the book. Part of the book’s dedication is aimed at his grandchildren “who’ve looked to me for guidance in movie-going if not more character building pursuits” (p. iii). It is a safe conclusion that McFarlane hopes to – and succeeds in – sharing his movie guidance with his readers.
McFarlane regularly draws out one film-going escapade or teaching adventure to evoke the experience of dozens of similar ones, keeping his journey afloat with asides and anecdotes. As his (at times, meandering) memories bring him to a particular play he directed or, more commonly, a film he saw, he happily reels off the names of both big and small stars with ease. This habitual referencing of stars he has seen slowly morphs into lists of stars he has met. Though this leads to a significant amount of name-dropping, if I had met with Judi Dench at the cafeteria of the National Theatre or had Julie Christie call me at home (along with countless other luminaries of British stage and screen whose names fly over this reviewer’s head) I would be letting people know as well.
Though McFarlane seems to have amassed many notable acquaintances over the years, his origins are decidedly more humble. His obsession with film grew from the difficulty he had getting to the cinema in Victoria’s Wimmera district, where he grew up. McFarlane laconically chronicles his various strategies for convincing his parents to let him go to the Saturday night double bill, the only viewing opportunity in those early days. Looking back, he sees his childhood as one without deprivation, except of course for his limited access to cinema which he says “seemed cruelty of the highest order.” (p. 11) This adversity that McFarlane reflects on seems almost alien to myself, as a 21st-century filmophilic reviewer. In the age of synchronous international release, chain cinemas, video on demand, DVD and Pay TV, to have one’s access to film in any way limited seems almost impossible. However, McFarlane seems to have thrived on his “adversity”. He draws implicit connections between his initial restricted viewing and his overt cinematic passions – a longing for something that regularly evaded his grasp. With actual cinematic access so hard to come by, it was the surrounding paraphernalia – the magazines, the reviews – with which McFarlane managed to fill the gaps. This seems to be why he never desired to make films, just to write about them and why those writings were so vital to his film education. However, the change in scenery brought about by tertiary education certainly impacted his cinema intake.
The enthusiasm felt by McFarlane on moving to Melbourne to attend university jumps off the page. He recounts the various cinemas he attended and, when mentioning films by name, he commonly recalls where or when he saw them. The film-going experience seems to have been as intrinsic to McFarlane’s film education as the images on the screen themselves. He proudly describes his first academic year as “deeply undistinguished… a result offset by the fact that I did see 104 films that year” (p. 39). This is an achievement that raised a smile, since my first year of university strived for a similar cinematic tally. Though his story is not only about celluloid, it does manage to creep into most aspects of his life. When McFarlane makes reference to his parents or his children, it is as film-going obstacles and film education targets respectively. Geraldine, his wife, features more prominently, though her defining narrative characteristic is a striking resemblance to Merle Oberon, a starlet McFarlane states “established for [him] a standard of female beauty that has stayed with [him]” (p. 15). Memories of Vienna include two important details: firstly, he tried to recreate the climax of The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) while there and, almost as a side note, it is where he bought Geraldine’s engagement ring.
Admittedly, after graduating from university, his life story – or the parts that appear within Real and Reel – does set film a little to the side. His time teaching in Terang in the late 1950s leads to recollections of the self-started dramatic society that had regular meetings and readings in the living room of his two-bedroom flat. Details of who played who at each reading are included, as well as a review from the Terang Express. His habit of mentioning both maiden and married names of all his female friends furthers his grandfatherly tone – sharing details that may seem innocuous to the reader but vital to McFarlane’s recollections. His experiences as Head of English at Trinity Grammar School are peppered with tales of having children, more amateur theatre and a very vocal dislike of all things associated with administrative duties – something with which most readers would empathise. As his life moves to London, theatre reviews and the stars on stage dominate his attentions, and the connection between the British stage and screen lets him take the natural path back to his first true love.
Once his narrative settles into a more regular engagement with film academia and film criticism, so does Real to Reel. McFarlane relishes in revisiting favourite interviews with stars almost as much as recounting his seeing them on the screen. Though obviously greatly helped by his countless diaries, reviews, notes and writings, his memory of esoteric detail constantly impresses. His eventual meeting with his boyhood crush, Merle Oberon, highlights the blend of self-deprecation, star worship and reflective distance that textures the better part of his mini-memoir. He recounts that this visit was conducted alone because his wife “generously, if sardonically, felt “‘A man’s gotta dream’” (p. 118), and he details with great affection the three hours spent in Oberon’s company. This is the story of a man whose love for cinema and its stars partners neatly with his love of writing about both. Initially, it seemed McFarlane included excessive detail concerning how he wrote his book of interviews with British stars and then his encyclopaedia of British film. However, I then recognised that it was fitting and informative for him to dedicate so much time to writing about writing about film, since it is a practice central to his world-view.
It is hard to read McFarlane’s reflections without performing a little self-reflection in the process, which is something I suspect McFarlane hopes to achieve in Real and Reel. The personal manner in which he explores his film education leads the reader to compare McFarlane’s journey to their own. Though the surrounding world and the experiences contained within have changed between his time and mine, the flickering images on the silver screen remain as enticing as ever. McFarlane’s memoir reflects the blurring of lines between the real and the reel that has coloured and given voice to his world-view. It is only fair that in reviewing such a work, the lines blur even further. I cannot help but take McFarlane’s story as advice handed down from one generation of film obsessive to the next. The erratic, affectionate and nostalgic journey he recounts with a dry wit in these pages leads him to the conclusion “it is good to no longer have to feel guilty about an obsession with the cinema.”(p. 187) In reading Real and Reel, I am led to the conclusion that, thanks to people like Brian McFarlane, I will never have to feel guilty about my own obsession with the silver screen.
Real and Reel: The Education of a Film Obsessive and Critic, by Brian McFarlane, Sid Harta Publishers, Glen Waverley, 2010.