Whose Laetie are You?

Source: Extracts from Rrekgetsi Chimeloane, Whose Laetie are You? My Sowetan Boyhood (Capetown: Kwela Books, 2001), pp. 31-34

Text: The day I saw my first Bruce Lee movie – Enter the Dragon – I understood why all the boys were running around with two bits of stick loosely bound together at one end by a chain. Kung fu hit the township in a big way and almost all the boys around my age were shrieking and screeching out like Bruce Lee: now me included.

[…]

I especially admired the boys who were going for karate and kung fu lessons all over the township. Every time I asked where I could go and sign up for classes, the other boys would look at me and say, “You think karate is for sissies like you? You wouldn’t even last a minute there.” There were boys who walked all the way to the Moravian Hall in Zone Five, about half an hour’s walk through different zones and territories, for lessons, and I wished I was among them. Then I would never again be afraid of any threats or obstacles.

But in the end I stayed with the movies and admired the art of acting. The two genres that had the most impact on me, not surprisingly, were martial arts and cowboys and Indians films. With the martial arts movies, not forgetting the special effects of actors performing the impossible, of great significance to me was the idea of seeing someone fighting bare-handed and defeating a bunch of people armed with a multitude of weapons. To me this was the answer to all the bullies who constantly threatened to beat me up with one weapon or another. The Hong Kong cinema presented me, in my mind anyway, with the possibility of turning myself from victim into victor. It showed me that you did not have to be big and strong to defeat your enemies, you just had to be quick and smart. Movies like Lady Whirlwind, with Angela Mao kicking all the bad guys from one end of the screen to the other, showed me that it did not even matter whether you were a boy or a girl.

[…]

Naturally enough, as young boys we all started adopting role models from the big screen. However, when one talks of the big screen, people should not think that we had a conventional cinema. It was a township school hall a makeshift movie house that existed on weekends only. What Bra Hohle did was to cover the windows with black plastic and throw a white sheet over the blackboard. That was our movie house, and since we had no other in the vicinity, that was fine with us.

Our first and foremost role model was Bruce Lee. As little boys we went crazy over Bruce Lee. What was strange, though, was that we could never remember even one of the names of the characters he played, To us, he was always simply known as Bruce Lee. Most of the other leading actors in the martial arts movies we gave names as we saw fit. We were around Sub B and Standard One and unable to remember or even properly pronounce their names, so we gave them names that seemed to suit their particular styles.

Take John Liu, for instance – due to his powerful kicking style, we called him Mr Ma-Kick. For some reason he was the only one ever afforded the respect of being called “Mr”. I knew for a face, because of the relatives we had living in the area, that in the Mabopane/Garankuwa district, north of Pretoria, he was called Chappies, after the bubble gum. Don’t ask me why. But to the kids in those areas the name somehow must have made sense.

Those we never gave names to were identified by their association with other actors and characters from the movies. It went something like, “He is the guy who was a friend of the starring who starred in the movie Eighteen Bronze Men.” By “staring” we meant the leading actor.

[…]

Another thing: we could not read the English subtitles at that age and were, anyway, not fast enough to follow the dialogue, but afterwards we could tell you exactly what the movie was about and what each character had said to each other.

What amazed me most, still amazes me as I look back, was how a movie you had missed was related back to you with intricacy, flair and style by those who had seen it. You would be told exactly who said what to whom and would get a full demonstration of the action. A second-hand film narration went something like this:

“After the starring fought with the other man … the one who was the villain in that other bioscope I told you about …”

“Which bioscope was that?”

“The one I told you about last time, man … about that man whose dark green punch sounded like a gun from the cowboy bioscope.”

“Is it the same one who rode on a reed on top of the water and always said ‘Buddha bless you’ in the other movie we saw, when they showed us a double feature and the film burnt halfway, and we had to come back the next day and watched that other movie about Shaolin?”

“Yes, but this time he did not have that green fist. In this bioscope he could crush your skull with his bare hands …”

“Yes, I remember that one …”

You really had to know your stuff about martial arts movies to follow a narration like that, or perhaps you just had to be as young, naïve and easily excited as we were about action movies and the big screen.

Comments: Rrekgetsi Chimeloane (born 1964) is a South African writer and novelist, whose memoirs describes his childhood in the South African township of Soweto under apartheid rule. ‘Laetie’ means little brother. ‘Bioscope’ is the South African term for cinema. The films mentioned are Enter the Dragon (Hong Kong 1973), Lady Whirlwind (aka Deep Thrust) (Hong Kong 1972) and The 18 Bronzemen (Hong Kong 1978).

Boyhood

Source: J.M. Coetzee, Boyhood: scenes from provincial life (London: Secker & Warburg, 1997), p. 45

Text: Though he goes to the bioscope every Saturday afternoon, films no longer have the hold on him that they had in Cape Town, when he had nightmares of being crushed under elevators or falling from cliffs like the heroes in the serials. He does not see why Errol Flynn, who looks just the same whether he is playing Robin Hood or Ali Baba, is supposed to be a great actor. He is tired of horseback chases, which are all the same. The Three Stooges have begun to seem silly. And it is hard to believe in Tarzan when the man who plays Tarzan keeps changing. The only film that makes an impression on him is one in which Ingrid Bergman gets into a train carriage that is infected with smallpox and dies. Ingrid Bergman is his Mother’s favourite actress. Is life like that: could his mother die at any moment just by failing to read a sign in a window?

Comments: John Maxwell Coetzee (born 1940) is a South African novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Boyhood is a fictionalised memoir of his childhood. At the time recalled here (late 1940s) his family was living in Worcester, Western Cape, South Africa. Bioscope is the term used for a cinema in South Africa. Ingrid Bergman does not die of smallpox in any of her films – possibly the film recollected may be Letter from an Unknown Woman (USA 1948), starring Joan Fontaine (who dies of typhus). My thanks to Lucie Dee for suggesting this.

Long Walk to Freedom

Source: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), pp. 596-597

Text: In keeping with the increased openness on the island, we now had our own cinema. Almost every week we watched films on a sheet in a large room adjacent to our corridor. Later, we had a proper screen. The films were a wonderful diversion, a vivid escape from the bleakness of prison life.

The first films we saw were silent, black-and-white Hollywood action movies and Westerns that were made even before my time. I recall one of the first ones was The Mark of Zorro, with the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, a move that was made in 1920. The authorities seemed to have a weakness for historical films, particularly ones with a stern moral message. Among the early films we saw – now in colour, with dialogue – were The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses, The King and I with Yul Brynner and Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

We were intrigued by The King and I, for to us it depicted the clash between the values of East and West, and seemed to suggest that the West had much to learn from the East. Cleopatra proved controversial; many of my comrades took exception to the fact that the queen of Egypt was depicted by a raven-haired, violet-eyed American actress, however beautiful. The detractors asserted that the movie was an example of Western propaganda that sought to erase the fact that Cleopatra was an African woman. I related how on my trip to Egypt I had seen a splendid sculpture of a young ebony-skinned Cleopatra.

Later, we also saw local South African films with black stars whom we all knew from the old days. On those nights, our little makeshift theatre echoed with the shouts, whistles and cheers that greeted the appearance of an old friend on screen. Later, we were permitted to select documentaries – a form that I preferred – and I began to skip the conventional films. (Although I would never miss a movie with Sophia Loren in it.) The documentaries were ordered from the state library and usually selected by Ahmed Kathrada, who was our section’s librarian. I was particularly affected by a documentary we saw about the great naval battles of the Second World War, which showed newsreel footage of the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales by the Japanese. What moved me most was a brief image of Winston Churchill weeping after he heard the news of the loss of the British vessel. The image stayed in my memory a long time, and demonstrated to me that there are times when a leader can show sorrow in public, and that it will not diminish him in the eyes of his people.

Comments: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and president of South Africa 1995-1999. He served twenty-seven years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the state, chiefly serving his time at Robben Island, location for the above anecdote which dates from the 1970s, when his prison conditions had begun to improve. Ahmed Kathrada was imprisoned at the same time as Mandela, following the Rivonia Trial in 1964. Elizabeth Taylor was British, not American. HMS Prince of Wales was sunk in the Pacific in 1941. I have not found any record of film showing Churchill weeping at this news (or any other occasion).

Down Second Avenue

Source: Es’kia Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue (New York: Penguin, 2013 – orig. pub. 1959), pp. 48-49

Text: Soon, however, we forgot our hunger, weariness, everything else, lost in the exciting moments of the movies. We always had a large bill for fourpence. Often they showed four pictures and a serial chapter on one programme. Those were the days of silent films: the days of Hoot Gibson, Tom Tyler, Frankie Darro, Buck Jones, Tex Maynard, Tim McCoy; the days of funny actors like Harold Lloyd, Richard Talmadge, Larry Simon [sic i.e. Semon], Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and a host of others.

We stood on chairs to cheer our screen heroes. A piano played a medley of noisy tunes which, however, made superb background music. The other boys relied on me to read the dialogue and titles on the screen aloud so that they might all follow the story. I felt really big and important and useful because I could read fast – as fast as the slow tempo of life in those years made it necessary.

‘But how do you read so fast?’ Moloi would ask me.

‘Just like that’ I would answer, smiling mysteriously.

‘No use asking you anything,’ he would say, genuinely disgusted.

The truth of it was that I used to pick up any piece of printed paper to read, whatever it was. It became a mania with me. I couldn’t let printed matter pass. I felt inferior to most of my class at school. I was pretty poor in English, which was the medium of instruction. I read, and read, till it hurt. But I also got a good deal of pleasure out of it. And I felt proud because I was overcoming my backwardness.

Often I didn’t have money for the movies. Then one of the boys would pay for me, just so that I should read for them. I managed to be heard above all the din from the audience accompanied by the klonk-onk of the piano, which was constantly playing during the performance.

Comments: Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008) was a black South African writer and activist, one of the leading figures in modern African literature. At the time of this anecdote (1920s) from his 1959 memoir he was living in Pretoria. Hoot Gibson, Tom Tyler et al were stars of American westerns.

Mrs Bathurst

Source: Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mrs Bathurst’, The Windsor Magazine, September 1904, pp. 376-386, collected in Traffics and Discoveries (London: Macmillan, 1904), pp. 337-365

Text: “Yes,” said Pyecroft. “I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts, but as we get older we get more accommodatin’. The cylinders work easier, I suppose … Were you in Cape Town last December when Phyllis’s Circus came?”

“No – up country,” said Hooper, a little nettled at the change of venue.

“I ask because they had a new turn of a scientific nature called ‘Home and Friends for a Tickey.'”

“Oh, you mean the cinematograph – the pictures of prize-fights and steamers. I’ve seen ’em up country.”

“Biograph or cinematograph was what I was alludin’ to. London Bridge with the omnibuses – a troopship goin’ to the war – marines on parade at Portsmouth an’ the Plymouth Express arrivin’ at Paddin’ton.”

“Seen ’em all. Seen ’em all,” said Hooper impatiently.

“We Hierophants came in just before Christmas week an’ leaf was easy.”

“I think a man gets fed up with Cape Town quicker than anywhere else on the station. Why, even Durban’s more like Nature. We was there for Christmas,” Pritchard put in.

“Not bein’ a devotee of Indian peeris, as our Doctor said to the Pusser, I can’t exactly say. Phyllis’s was good enough after musketry practice at Mozambique. I couldn’t get off the first two or three nights on account of what you might call an imbroglio with our Torpedo Lieutenant in the submerged flat, where some pride of the West country had sugared up a gyroscope; but I remember Vickery went ashore with our Carpenter Rigdon – old Crocus we called him. As a general rule Crocus never left ‘is ship unless an’ until he was ‘oisted out with a winch, but when ‘e went ‘e would return noddin’ like a lily gemmed with dew. We smothered him down below that night, but the things ‘e said about Vickery as a fittin’ playmate for a Warrant Officer of ‘is cubic capacity, before we got him quiet, was what I should call pointed.”

“I’ve been with Crocus – in the Redoubtable,” said the Sergeant. “He’s a character if there is one.”

“Next night I went into Cape Town with Dawson and Pratt; but just at the door of the Circus I came across Vickery. ‘Oh!’ he says, ‘you’re the man I’m looking for. Come and sit next me. This way to the shillin’ places!’ I went astern at once, protestin’ because tickey seats better suited my so-called finances. ‘Come on,’ says Vickery, ‘I’m payin’.’ Naturally I abandoned Pratt and Dawson in anticipation o’ drinks to match the seats. ‘No,’ he says, when this was ‘inted -‘not now. Not now. As many as you please afterwards, but I want you sober for the occasion.’ I caught ‘is face under a lamp just then, an’ the appearance of it quite cured me of my thirsts. Don’t mistake. It didn’t frighten me. It made me anxious. I can’t tell you what it was like, but that was the effect which it ‘ad on me. If you want to know, it reminded me of those things in bottles in those herbalistic shops at Plymouth – preserved in spirits of wine. White an’ crumply things – previous to birth as you might say.”

“You ‘ave a beastial mind, Pye,” said the Sergeant, relighting his pipe.

“Perhaps. We were in the front row, an’ ‘Home an’ Friends’ came on early. Vickery touched me on the knee when the number went up. ‘If you see anything that strikes you,’ he says, ‘drop me a hint’; then he went on clicking. We saw London Bridge an’ so forth an’ so on, an’ it was most interestin’. I’d never seen it before. You ‘eard a little dynamo like buzzin’, but the pictures were the real thing – alive an’ movin’.”

“I’ve seen ’em,” said Hooper. “Of course they are taken from the very thing itself – you see.”

“Then the Western Mail came in to Paddin’ton on the big magic lantern sheet. First we saw the platform empty an’ the porters standin’ by. Then the engine come in, head on, an’ the women in the front row jumped: she headed so straight. Then the doors opened and the passengers came out and the porters got the luggage – just like life. Only – only when any one came down too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out o’ the picture, so to speak. I was ‘ighly interested, I can tell you. So were all of us. I watched an old man with a rug ‘oo’d dropped a book an’ was tryin’ to pick it up, when quite slowly, from be’ind two porters – carryin’ a little reticule an’ lookin’ from side to side – comes out Mrs. Bathurst. There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand. She come forward – right forward – she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of – he picture – like – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the ticky seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! There’s Mrs. B.!'”

Hooper swallowed his spittle and leaned forward intently.

“Vickery touched me on the knee again. He was clickin’ his four false teeth with his jaw down like an enteric at the last kick. ‘Are you sure?’ says he. ‘Sure,’ I says, ‘didn’t you ‘ear Dawson give tongue? Why, it’s the woman herself.’ ‘I was sure before,’ he says, ‘but I brought you to make sure. Will you come again with me to-morrow?’

“‘Willingly,’ I says, ‘it’s like meetin’ old friends.’

“‘Yes,’ he says, openin’ his watch, ‘very like. It will be four-and-twenty hours less four minutes before I see her again. Come and have a drink,’ he says. ‘It may amuse you, but it’s no sort of earthly use to me.’ He went out shaking his head an’ stumblin’ over people’s feet as if he was drunk already. I anticipated a swift drink an’ a speedy return, because I wanted to see the performin’ elephants. Instead o’ which Vickery began to navigate the town at the rate o’ knots, lookin’ in at a bar every three minutes approximate Greenwich time. I’m not a drinkin’ man, though there are those present” – he cocked his unforgettable eye at me–“who may have seen me more or less imbued with the fragrant spirit. None the less, when I drink I like to do it at anchor an’ not at an average speed of eighteen knots on the measured mile. There’s a tank as you might say at the back o’ that big hotel up the hill – what do they call it?”

“The Molteno Reservoir,” I suggested, and Hooper nodded.

“That was his limit o’ drift. We walked there an’ we come down through the Gardens – there was a South-Easter blowin’ – an’ we finished up by the Docks. Then we bore up the road to Salt River, and wherever there was a pub Vickery put in sweatin’. He didn’t look at what he drunk – he didn’t look at the change. He walked an’ he drunk an’ he perspired in rivers. I understood why old Crocus ‘ad come back in the condition ‘e did, because Vickery an’ I ‘ad two an’ a half hours o’ this gipsy manoeuvre an’ when we got back to the station there wasn’t a dry atom on or in me.”

“Did he say anything?” Pritchard asked.

“The sum total of ‘is conversation from 7.45 P.M. till 11.15 P.M. was ‘Let’s have another.’ Thus the mornin’ an’ the evenin’ were the first day, as Scripture says … To abbreviate a lengthy narrative, I went into Cape Town for five consecutive nights with Master Vickery, and in that time I must ‘ave logged about fifty knots over the ground an’ taken in two gallon o’ all the worst spirits south the Equator. The evolution never varied. Two shilling seats for us two; five minutes o’ the pictures, an’ perhaps forty-five seconds o’ Mrs. B. walking down towards us with that blindish look in her eyes an’ the reticule in her hand. Then out walk – and drink till train time.”

Text: Rudyard Kipling’s mysterious short story ‘Mrs Bathurst’, from which the above is an extract, features a conversation between four men – Pycroft, Pritchard, Hooper and the narrator – the first two of whom are in the navy. Collectively they relate the story of Vickery, a warrant officer, and Mrs Bathurst, with whom it is implied he has had an affair. While stationed in South Africa Vickery sees Mrs Bathurst on an actuality film screened as part of a circus entertainment, something which affects deeply as he returns to see the film several times. Vickery apparently deserts and later a charred corpse matching his description is found, and with it a second, unidentified charred corpse. The significance of the story in an early cinema context is discussed by Tom Gunning in Andrew Shail, Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2010) which also reproduces Kipling’s text in full. A tickey was a South African threepence coin. ‘Phyllis’s circus’ is a reference to Frank Fillis, a South African showman whose ‘Savage South Africa’ troupe was filmed when it visited Britain in 1899-1900. The story suggests that the film element of Fillis’ show lasted for five minutes, just before the elephants. As Gunning points out, the reference to the “dynamo like buzzin'” not only suggests the sound of the projector but implies that there was no musical accompaniment. The film itself bears a strong affinity with the many train arrival films common in the 1890s.