Roger Horrocks has spent most of his adult life writing about and teaching film — much of it at Auckland University, where he launched New Zealand’s biggest film department. Belying the cliche that academics are often divorced from the rough and tumble of their topic, Horrocks has multiple screen credits of his own. He was also a trusted hand at the launch of NZ On Air, NZ On Screen, and writing organisation Script to Screen.
Horrocks' screen interests are wide-ranging. A founding member of filmmaking cooperative Alternative Cinema, he began analysing New Zealand television and film at a time when few took local screen culture seriously. Thanks to his books, films and behind the scenes work, he is largely responsible for making New Zealanders aware of multi-media artist Len Lye. He has championed local avant-garde film, written definitive pieces on local directors, and was one of the first scribes to note the talents of advertising legend Tony Williams.
Growing up in suburban Sandringham in the 1950s, Horrock's influences ranged from comics to existentialist Albert Camus. Films by European masters like Fellini and Godard had "a huge impact". But thanks to a culture that was still obsessed with mother England, Horrocks was almost 20 before he began to realise that New Zealand had creative talents of its own. He was surprised to discover that Kiwi authors dined at nearby restaurants.
Horrocks’ university studies eventually morphed into a major in English literature. In the mid 60s, partly inspired by his love of jazz and the beatnik movement, he engineered a transfer from Auckland University to the United States, and studied at the University of California - Berkeley. Berkeley is close to San Francisco, an epicentre for both the beatniks and the 60s hippy movement. It was on the campus that Horrocks first encountered the work of renowned film-maker Len Lye, after stumbling across one of his "amazing" kinetic (mechanised) sculptures.
Won over by the “astonishing sense of movement” in Lye’s films, Horrocks would later befriend the Christchurch-born artist, and spend a year working as his assistant in New York. In 2002 Horrocks' book Len Lye - A Biography was nominated for the National Book Award. He has also edited several collections of Lye's writings, rediscovered and helped restore some of his films, and had a long involvement in the creation of New Plymouth's Len Lye Centre.
After his "mindblowing" experience of the 60s counterculture at Berkeley, Horrocks got a job lecturing back at Auckland University. By now, new artistic influences were also filtering downunder. Keen to overturn a reading list dominated by writers who were English or dead, he launched a course in contemporary American literature.
In the same period, a new wave of local filmmakers were emerging. Many were drawn to "a wonderful ramshackle building" in Hobson Street, the home of Auckland filmmaking co-operative Alternative Cinema. Horrocks was a founding member, and edited Alternative Cinema's self-titled magazine for several years.
Although he was helping out on other people's film projects, by now Horrocks had realised the emerging screen industry would need "not only filmmakers, but public promoters, writers and teachers — so I put my main energy into that." He wrote about local and international filmmakers and film for schools, academia and the mainstream media, and in 1970 researched the concept of a local film commission with John O'Shea.
The previous year he'd been one of the founders of the Auckland Film Festival. Audiences swiftly grew. During the festival's first decade Horrocks helped pick and publicise titles, and battled censor Doug McIntosh, who banned Jean-Luc Godard's A Married Woman and "automatically cut any flashes of nakedness". Horrocks feels the festival "added energy" to the Kiwi film scene. He arranged for local films to screen, and for their directors to give talks.
Horrocks' efforts to teach film studies at Auckland University were initially stymied by academics, worried that film might seduce students away from 'serious' subjects. Instead Horrocks taught adult education courses on film history, and spent years arguing for the importance of media education in high schools. He also wrote two popular school textbooks (On Film 1 and 2), and co-founded what is now the National Association of Media Educators.
In 1976 he finally began teaching a course in film at Auckland University — at masters level, because his superiors felt that the mature students "were less likely to be led astray". Robin Scholes was the other teacher that first year. The course quickly became one of the most popular on campus in an age before DVD and the internet, where classic films were more difficult to access. Ultimately Horrocks would head the Department for Film, Television and Media Studies, the largest of its kind in Aotearoa. The long list to have studied under Horrocks includes directors David Blyth, Sam Pillsbury ,Vanessa Alexander, Lisa Reihana and Dan Salmon, and academics Trisha Dunleavy and Simon Sigley.
The growth in screen courses in the mid 70s coincided with a burst of local filmmaking. In 1977, alongside Piers Davies and Alternative Cinema mainstay Geoff Steven, Horrocks wrote movie Skin Deep. The trio used the idea of a small town massage parlour to examine ideas of Kiwi puritanism and hedonism.The Listener praised the result as a perceptive, "genuinely subtle local feature, which scores its points by parable and a sly, creeping wit".
Since retiring in 2004 (and becoming an Emeritus Professor), Horrocks has returned to filmmaking, and continued to write. In 2009 he directed short film Art that Moves, which aimed to get inside Lye’s mind. It won an award at the 2010 Amsterdam Film Festival — devoted to films that 'move audiences and change perceptions'. He went on to write the lyrics for Len Lye The Opera. Praising the “clever libretto”, William Dart called it "an arresting piece of musical theatre". In 2004 he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to film and television. In 2010 The NZ Writers Guild presented him with an Industry Mentor Award.
Since 2001 he has helped research and write many documentaries directed by his wife Shirley; together the couple run company Point of View Productions.
Horrocks was a founding board member of funding organisation NZ On Air (and of NZ On Screen). A key driver of strategy in NZ On Air’s early years, he proved a strong advocate for documentary and drama. Horrocks did 11 years with NZ On Air, five as Deputy Chairman, and was gratified in that time to see the birth of Shortland Street, plus a big rise in documentaries, and in the involvement of Māori and Pasifika talents. He has also spent time on the panel of Creative New Zealand, and played a hand in local film archiving policies.
Published on 30 April 2018
‘Roger Horrocks’ Point of View Productions website. Accessed 30 April 2018
‘Roger Horrocks’ (Video Interview) Cultural Icons website. Loaded March 2012. Accessed 30 April 2018
Roger Horrocks, Len Lye - a biography (Auckland University Press, 2001)
Roger Horrocks, ‘The First Film Festival - The Beginnings of the Auckland Film Festival’ New Zealand International Film Festival website. Loaded July 2008. Accessed 30 April 2018
Terry Bell, 'Getting Under The New Zealand Skin; - The Listener, 24 February 1979, page 20
William Dart, 'An arresting NZ work that deserves to live on' (Review of Len Lye The Opera) –The NZ Herald, 7 September 2012, page A10
Unknown writer, 'Skin Deep' (Review) - Variety, 31 December 1977
‘Interview: Film Maker Roger Horrocks On Len Lye’ (broken link) Flicks website. Loaded 24 July 2009
Unknown writer, 'Massage with a message' (Review of Skin Deep) - The Listener, 24 February 1979
Unknown writer, 'New Zealand film on Len Lye wins international award' Creative New Zealand website. Loaded 8 July 2010. Accessed 30 April 2018