Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Nightshift Director


Time: Three ten on a Saturday afternoon. Location: a ward on the fifth floor of St. Vincent's Hospital, a million dollar view across Melbourne's north-west towards the Great Dividing Range is the long shot.
The close up is a bed where a brave soul will soon breathe his last.
The gentle intake of air becomes the silence of a breath held for a long time. Is this the end friends and family are expecting? No. The lungs jerk back into action. They exhale, then take another sip of precious air, savouring it. Will sir be having more?
Cat's cradle fashion the hands rise up. For two, ten, then fifteen seconds they tremble. First the wings of a hovering butterfly, then those of a plummeting moth, those hands drop back to the sheets. If there was a breath out who discerned it?
So often the end is small gestures, barely caught sound effects.
This is game over for Lindzee Smith, a freeze frame on a mouth held wide open, parched lips stretched across a rim of denture above, gum and tongue below. The mouth is uncannily like the entrance to Luna Park, but of late not much to do with L. Smith has been 'just for fun'.
Following an operation conducted ten days earlier, on Saturday February 24, aged 66, this actor-director and dedicated avant gardist died of post-operative infection. An above the knee amputation had come five months into a long-running hospital drama. Smith's much compromised immune system fought to heal the mess and slough of gangrenous leg ulcers made worse by the side-effects of diabetes and Cortisone, the latter regularly taken for the Lupus Smith first woke to thirty years ago.
When the town loses a player there's consternation in the arts jungle. In this case the nicknames tell a tale of stature.
In dying, or rather in looking like he'd survive this latest in a string of health crises, the St. Vincent's staff took to calling Lindzee 'Catman'. It was their take on how many lives he seemed to have.
Just so, first treading the boards in a 1966 production of CRIMES AND CRIMES, Lindzee bore the tag 'Ironman' (having once won a Bellarine Peninsula Mr Geelong style endurance event).
The Strindberg play featured other giants. His co-star was Lindy Davies. Direction was by Richard Murphett. Both have since proved critical to the life of the VCA Drama School but back then the emergence of La Mama was all the go and they, with Lindzee, and the likes of Max Gillies, Peter Cummins, Bruce Spence, Sue Ingleton, Evelyn Krape, Jane Clifton et al, were soon to board that underground flagship, the Pram Factory.
If the company you keep is a measure of your worth, Smith as an actor-director had the knack of befriending notables. Based in 1990s New York he wined dined and spawned projects with James Purdy, the aging Tennessee Williams, Gregory Corso. The likes of Sam Shephard had been, and Jimmy Jarmush was, a fan.
In 60s and 70s Melbourne the Australian writers Smith championed included Alex Buzo (NORM AND AHMED); Jack Hibberd (WHO and WHITE WITH WIRE WHEELS); John Romeril (CHICAGO CHICAGO, THE GOLDEN HOLDEN, THE FLOATING WORLD); Daniel Keene (THE FIGHTER, ISLE OF SWANS, THE HOUR BEFORE MY BROTHER DIES).
With Lindzee in the director's chair and Phil Motherwell on words (THE FITZROY YANK, DREAMERS OF THE ABSOLUTE), Nightshift emerged as an ensemble within, then going on to outlive the Pram Factory. It also made its mark in Sydney, Perth and New York, only bowing out (SMACK HAPPY) in 2004.
A dedicated internationalist, wherever he lived, Smith revisited his past productions, continuing to net royalties for such scribes as Orton, Brenton, Hare, Mueller, Fassbinder, Handke, Kroetz, Arrabal, Maria Irene Fornes. Nor did the classic repertoire escape his attentions. Brecht, Ibsen, Eugene Oneill, Sophocles, the CV is testament to a saavy director constantly at work.
The dominant urge however, from go to woe, was a taste for new form. It triggered collaborations with video and performance artists such as Mike Mullins, Tim Burns, Joan Jonas and the love of underground filmies like the Cantrills. Accolades and support came from photographers Rod McNichol and Ponch Hawkes. The painter Rob Hunter was a long term friend. The designer and architect Peter Corrigan a key colleague. Smith mort? Merde! Many will miss and mourn the passing of this artistic titan from Geelong.

By John Romeril

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