August 28, 2008

Ghostface killer

We can't ask Heath Ledger about it now, of course, but surely no Australian can have missed the strange overlap between the Joker's white face and scars and the face painting and scarification traditions of the Aboriginals? Ledger must have been aware of it, and the otherworldly possibilities it lent his no-name, no-background character. This, from an Aboriginal Art website:
The art of body decoration includes scarring, face and body painting for ritual, wearing of ornaments, and the transformation of the body using added texture and headdresses to form living images of ancestral beings. Scars were made on the body for many reasons, but mainly during ceremonies to mark age, initiation or to raise a person's status. Techniques varied from place to place, but scarification (or cicatrisation)usually involved cutting the skin with a sharp shell or rock, then rubbing irritating substances like ash into the cuts so that prominent keloid scars resulted. This process created raised, pigmented patterns on the chest, back, arms or legs of the initiate. Scarification is now rarely practised.
And then ...
Body painting continues as a strong and live part of contemporary Aboriginal culture, not only in traditional ceremonies but also as part of art and practices by urban people. Stephen Page, the artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, has commented about body painting that "There are no time constraints, no boundaries; there’s an apparent timelessness about the ritual." Djakapurra Munyarryun, a leading dancer with the company, says: "We never dance without ochre on ... because that’s what we have been doing for a long time, like a thousand years. Body paint for us is really important for our culture, for sharing with other people too. Some people don’t recognise me when I do painting, when I am performing. They can see when I am dancing, it’s like they thought I am an old old man. Because when I am there, it’s like my soul is very strong and I watch the audience. The paint makes me more older, older looking."

August 26, 2008

We haven't had that spirit here since 1969

“Onstage, they are all awkward, all except Brian. His face is almost feminine, pale and wide-lipped, but his hands are large, blocklike, and they handle the guitar like a shovel. He attacks the strings with wide up-and-down sweeps of the wrist, forms the chords with wide-stretched fingers, making his playing look more difficult than it is. He does this while standing still, not looking at the crowd, his face unaccountably stern.”
That quote comes from one of the best parts of Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a novel that maps that ever-popular topic, the death of 60s innocence. The decade was still innocent at that point, which was perhaps 1963, when Brian Jones was still the leader of the Rolling Stones, not yet cold-shouldered by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and when the 60s themselves had not really even started. Across the Atlantic, in New York, Kenneth Anger was also helping to invent the 60s by attaching his Crowleyite vision of a new Aquarian age to the outlaw imagery of a biker gang, transforming them into a story about the death drive, or “Thanatomania” (the film, of course, was Scorpio Rising). Six years later, the Hell’s Angels would act as security for the Stones at Hyde Park, London – a free concert that followed the death-by-drowning of Brian Jones – and then at Altamont Speedway in California, where the Angels, loaded on speed, LSD and beer, would kill an audience member, just after the Stones finished playing the song that Anger inspired them to write: “Sympathy for the Devil”. Only a few months before, there was a series of killings in LA – a pregnant movie star, her hairdresser, some others – and one of the killers was Bobby Beausoleil, a young man under the influence of Charles Manson. That same Beausoleil, a beautiful loser someone nicknamed Cupid, had once been cast in the title role in Anger’s next projected film, Lucifer Rising. By 1969, Anger was trying to talk Jagger into playing the part. When Jagger kept stalling, Anger turned what he had – some Beausoleil fragments, Stones footage, Vietnam war and hippie-occult imagery – into his most devastating film, Invocation of My Demon Brother (pictured above), an aggressive and hallucinatory collage that seems to get everything that's both attractive and repellent about those unendingly fascinating times into 11 startling minutes. And this novel Sway is either a close examination of the several threads of that film or an imaginative rewriting of this long paragraph.

Some of Sway reads like notes jotted down during viewings of Gimme Shelter or Godard’s One plus One – two of the key Stones films – or Anger’s eventual Lucifer Rising, but at other times, as in the Brian Jones excerpt above or a horrific description of the killing of Gary Hinman by Manson followers, Lazar displays a strong visual sense. Indeed, it’s less a narrative than a collage and at its best has a near-hynoptic feeling – just like the films of you-know-who. He’s also good on the shifting dynamics and personal politics of the Rolling Stones. By 1969, they were finally Mick and Keith’s band. Richards still has some heart -- he takes Jones' phone calls and listens to him -- but who is this vampire they call Jagger? In the end, with his dilettantish cynicism – think, too, of the last shot of Gimme Shelter, that bored indifference as he watches footage from Altamont – and his money obsession, Jagger seems the closest to any meaningful definition of evil (what did Rolling Stone say about Altamont? It was the product of "diabolical egotism"). Yes, he’s a man of wealth and taste, or just someone who knew how to read the times and what they demanded of their entertainers, without having any real belief in any of it -- “The sly,sophisticated con man who ... was just a bewildering reflection of all the people who were looking at him," as Lazar says.

I soon realised that Lazar's adoption of a you-are-there journalistic style -- really, 60s New Journalism -- was reminding me of something else. Of course: it's Stanley Booth's classic The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which documented the 1969 US tour and described the horror of Altamont so brilliantly, and also flashed back to the origin of the band, making pilgrimages to their "quiet towns and near suburbs" as Lazar calls them. So, compare and contrast. First, from Booth:
"'This is our first contact with the cats whose music we've been playing,' Keith said. 'Watching Little Richard and Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers every night was the way we were drawn into the whole pop thing ... That was when Mick really started coming into his own.'"
And then, Lazar:
"They're suddenly matched up with American stars -- Bo Diddley, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers -- people they have idolized. It happens so quickly that the band doesn't have time to parse the implications of this mistake ... Already, Mick can see what's happening. He can see that no matter what he does he's about to become the focal point of the band."
In my view, Kenneth Anger is the most problematic character in Sway. This time the source is likely to have been Bill Landis’ gossipy biography Anger – a book dismissed by both Anger and his more recent biographer, Alice Hutchison. As drawn by Lazar, Anger becomes a sad, needy, slightly ridiculous figure, the same pop culture bit player we read about in Ed Sander’s famously unreliable Manson story The Family or Stephen Davis’s Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods or Marianne Faithfull's autobiography -- a lurid footnote about rock'n'roll's decadent phase. Maybe, as an outsider with an unusual belief system, he’s a tougher person for any author to get to grips with than Jones or Jagger (and Lazar wisely doesn’t try to get into Manson’s head), but surely Anger and his body of work are deserving of more respect than lines like this:
"He believed that his films were lasting works of art, but perhaps this idea was evasive. Perhaps it was a way to justify being thirty-five and living in a metal shed on someone else's roof."
One more complaint: the dialogue can be unusually clunky. The only line I really bought was the suddenly freaked Jagger at Altamont (“Everybody just cool out”) and only because we all watched him say it in Gimme Shelter. Lazar works better when he puts sketches against other sketches, building an impressionistic whole. An almost mythic quality comes out of this loosely-assembled history, a quality accentuated by the lack of tangible landmarks. No Stones songs are named other than their Chuck Berry cover “Carol”, and no lyrics are quoted, although the content of some – “Sympathy for the Devil” obviously, but also "Paint it Black" and "Under My Thumb" – is alluded to. Aleister Crowley also goes unnamed, and instead Lazar fabricates a Crowley-like occult book that passes into Anger’s hands and also gets the attention of Anita Pallenberg, the woman who left Jones for Richards during one of the book’s best long sequences, a stoned holiday in Marrakech, 1967. Lazar's Crowley pastiches are fine but his THY WILL BE DONE could never be a subsitute for Crowley’s motto DO WHAT THOU WILT, just as Lazar's Altamont passages could never compare to Booth's. Other scenes in Sway will only mean something to those who have done the same reading as Lazar (and he does name his sources, including the Booth and Landis books) – he has Anger and Beausoleil looking at San Francisco’s Powerhouse but he doesn’t tell his readers that Beausoleil then named his band the Magic Powerhouse of Oz. In the case of the unnamed Stones songs and the Crowley text, it’s possible that there are legal or copyright reasons, but the Anger films are all named and described. Perhaps Anger can’t call up an army of lawyers as easily.

Also, as it's about music, Lazar has a book-related playlist here. There’s a lot of Stones, plus Neil Young’s Manson-inspired “Revolution Blues” and Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69”, the last coming from that strange moment of post-punk identification with the Manson Family. So there are other songs you could add: Psychic TV’s touching Brian Jones tribute “Godstar”, Current 93’s “Beausoleil” and Coil’s “Solar Lodge”, and maybe even something like “Cease to Exist” from that Manson album that used to circulate as Lie. Why were we all so fascinated by it? I guess that’s the question that Lazar’s been trying to answer.

One last thing: the Rolling Stones stopped playing “Sympathy for the Devil” after Altamont. The ban lasted for about five years. But when I saw them at Western Springs, Auckland, in 1995, they played it and I think Jagger even wore a top hat, the look he took from Beausoleil via Kenneth Anger, just like he did in 1969. Nothing sinister happened, no one died. It's all part of the act now, just simulation – the Stones impersonating their history, just as the grinning and drunk Keith Richards impersonates himself every night. In 1969 they became the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world and Brian Jones was only one of the casualties. As Booth says, at the end of his book, "I spent time with the Stones on later tours, and they were always good, but there never seemed to be so much at stake."

August 18, 2008

Makes you stranger

I’m not sure which superhero movie finally killed off any lingering interest in the genre for me – the first Hulk, the third Spider-man, who can keep count? So I resisted The Dark Knight for a while, figuring it’s a movie better to read about than see. But I gave in. And while it goes on too long and it’s confusingly plotted in parts, I'd agree that it’s the high-water mark of a superhero genre that goes back 30 years to Richard Donner’s Superman. And it’s largely because of the way that Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote it, and co-star Heath Ledger perceive the Joker. One of the persistent problems of these movies has been the need to cram in origin stories as a corny form of motivation: how that accident made this villain. None of that with the Joker. He’s simply an agent of chaos, with no real name, no back story, no fingerprint or DNA matches, no particular beef with society, no wish for revenge; he mocks motivation or back story every time he invents a new "how I got my scars" story. He is the mask, or the surface; he’s paper-thin and there’s no interior to him – and that’s why he’s a match for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. Since his homicidal mannequin Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Bale has specialised in these men who are only their faces, only what they show the world, who have no discernible inner life. When trauma happens to a Bale character – as in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn – it happens to his body, not to anything inside him. And despite there being crazies on the loose all over, his Batman is easily the craziest thing in this film – he’s an apparition, a phantom, constantly materialising and dematerialising at the edge of your vision. “That which does not kill you makes you stranger,” says the Joker early on, a mangled quote that could easily double as Batman’s personal slogan, and also Patrick Bateman's. So the real reason this is the best superhero movie in 30 years? It's both the most serious and the least in thrall to its hero. In other words, there are times when you suspect that the Nolan brothers are ashamed of who or what their story is officially about.

Dreams of freedom

Dreams of freedom: it comes about 35 minutes in as Mark (Mark Frechette) soars over Los Angeles in his stolen plane. Antonioni has emphasised the city as all babble, or Babel – constant noise, radio talk, the drone of commerce, tightly-framed faces, the choking grid of motorways, all these words on billboards, literally a media landscape. Where Mark is heading is the complete opposite: the empty desert, the wordless state. Everyone comes with identifying words: the name of the radio station on the reporter's car, the American states on the tourist's van. When Mark flies the plane back to LA, it’s painted in psychedelic colours, with this great phrase on one side: “No words”. The failure of language to do anything but entrap us is why the dialogue can seem banal and unmemorable in this film. “I just wanted to get off the ground,” Mark says, a ponderous pun that strikes him as clever. Or: “I always knew that it would be like this. The desert.”

So one of the best things you can say about this visionary film – both sad and marvellous, optimistic and nihilistic -- is that its language is inadequate. Antonioni wanted to end it with an airplane writing a slogan in the sky -- “Fuck you, America” – but he was funded by MGM. Even without that, America hated it. Who is this foreigner to mock us? Just like the attack on Lars Von Trier’s Dogville more than 30 years later. In 1973, Frechette was arrested in a bank robbery, of which he said, "It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death”. Two years later he died in prison. And when I think about the tense and dangerous Los Angeles in this film, I also think about the last days of the ill-fated Symbionese Liberation Army, who headed south from San Francisco looking for somewhere safe, only to end up in a shoot-out. They were the last gasp of the armed student radicals Antonioni went looking for in the US, the late comers.

August 6, 2008

I'm a stranger here myself: Vincent Ward, part two

One hopes that when the great dissertation on Vincent Ward is written, attention is paid to the films he wrote or conceived but didn't direct. Alien 3 seems easy to place -- its original vision of a monastery in space connects to the Andrei Rubylev-influenced medievalism of The Navigator and Vigil (or, "Tarkovsky in Taranaki"-- mud and cowls, remote valleys and moody weather). But The Last Samurai, which he also devised, is germane to any discussion of In Spring One Plants Alone. The 21-year-old arts student who made In Spring wasn't a cynical, fly-in, fly-out doco producer. Co-producer Tainui Stephens is quoted as follows in the Rain of the Children press kit:
“One of the things I felt in the course of making the film was that Vince’s relationship with the people was very much a long-term one. I came across people quite often who were down that way in those years, who remember Vince and would say ‘Oh I remember when this skinny Pakeha fella was here’, and so he was very much a part of the scene. He was very sensitive to the fact that he had an ongoing relationship and he felt the depth of it because one of his children is named after someone from there.
“The people of the valley and the elders all wanted to take part because of Puhi and what they remembered of her and also the fact that Vince and the crew were very upfront and sincere about what we wanted to do. Also, there was no time pressures because it was done in a very modular way and it was very much a co-venture with the tribe.”
And among those who remembered Ward making In Spring were schoolteachers Helen and Toka Te Wara, who told researcher Lynette Read that “Vincent was a lovely chap. We believed he did a good job, a professional job, he was a real genuine guy.” He was “a real strange bod” who lived it rough in a little shack and blended in with the locals. He used the shower at the school and washed his big old overcoat in the copper. “He was different because he was prepared to live rough.”

The researcher Lynette Read is the author of an excellent doctoral thesis on Ward, available here. It's worth reading; this excerpt is particularly relevant:
"He is quoted in Alternative Cinema as saying: 'I think there are a lot of good things in resurgence in the Maori culture. I wanted to learn about it. I’d grown up in the Wairarapa but never heard Maori spoken. I was interested in seeing another part of the country where the traditions were much stronger. The film grew out of my desire to learn about something else.' He also admits that he was drawn to the world of the Tuhoe because it was 'a world of mysteries', which his Catholic upbringing made him receptive to and that in seeking to understand that world, he was also seeking to learn more about himself."
We're not so far from The Last Samurai's Nathan Algren, who adopts the ways of a disappearing Japanese culture in the late 19th century, but by the time this project passed to star Tom Cruise and director Edward Zwick, it had crossed over into soft new-age fantasies about pre-modern life, all Shire-like waterwheels and flute music, cherry blossoms and noble warriors. The film-maker as ethnographer or anthropologist definitely walks a fine line. From my Last Samurai review:
"The film is a celebration of a pre-modern, religiously driven warrior mindset. In the press notes, Cruise and the other film-makers pontificate about the romantic Samurai values of honour and sacrifice, which is easy to do when the subject is as historically remote and neutral as ancient Japan. They aren’t values that Americans such as Cruise and Zwick tend to admire in more contemporary settings, though – in their religious hang-ups, their fanatical warrior drive, their cult of suicide, their 'honour and sacrifice', their loathing of America, even their terrorism, these Samurai resemble nothing so much as al-Qaeda, if not the Taliban, with Nathan Algren as the 19th century’s equivalent of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban convert. If you can imagine that Cruise and Zwick intended to make such a subversive parallel, then you should probably applaud their audacity and see this film, but it’s highly doubtful."

August 5, 2008

No miracles, only curses

Vincent Ward’s marvellous and involving Rain of the Children is an essay film in which Ward is in conversation with the work of his younger self – the precocious, talented, long-haired and too-serious fine arts student who, three decades ago, spent 18 months living in a remote Maori settlement in the Ureweras with an 80-year-old woman and her schizophrenic adult son. They became the subjects of his documentary In Spring One Plants Alone (pictured), his last film before the international critical breakthrough that was Vigil. The woman’s name was Puhi and her son was Niki; both are dead now, but Ward wants to know who they were. The premise of this film is that he missed something – indeed, it seems he wasn’t really aware of the troubled history of her tribe, Tuhoe, but that’s understandable. In the late 1970s, few in the Pakeha world had much knowledge of individual iwi; that came later, with the Treaty settlements of the 80s and 90s. In this sense, then, Ward’s timing for his In Spring Redux is impeccable – not only did last year’s terror raids strike many as an uncanny replay of one of the darker chapters in Tuhoe history, one which naturally gets illustrated here, but the iwi is in the middle of its own settlement, as are the equally marginalised Moriori (Tuhoe and Moriori were the only tribes not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi – but for very different reasons).

But Tuhoe history isn’t what Ward says he missed in 1978, or not directly. He’s been wondering about his old footage of Puhi, wondering why she prayed to herself constantly, as a steady muttering under her breath. He learns that she believed that she suffered under a curse, and to find out why we have to rewind back to the start of the 20th century when Tuhoe were at their most threatened, initially by European diseases such as tuberculosis. A messianic movement came out of this cultural turmoil, led by the prophet Rua Kenana, who styled himself along Old Testament lines – and this use of Christian apocalyptic imagery by an endangered indigenous people had remarkable similarities to the Ghost Dance movement among Native Americans, which was another desperate act to keep the culture alive. Tuhoe were believers in signs, wonders, omens, portents, curses, miracles – they made Zion the name of their spiritual base and understood that Rua was communicating with the Christian angel St Michael. But when Rua ruled that Tuhoe could no longer sell land to the New Zealand government, that was too much: the police devised a pretext to raid the Tuhoe community.Where does Puhi fit into this? She was married – and pregnant – at 14 to a son of the prophet. That child was the first of many and we soon learn that there’s a vast, tragic backstory to the hunched old woman of In Spring One Plants Alone; a story that Ward weaves with great care and sensitivity, seamlessly blending live action recreations (including Rena Owen as an adult Puhi), archival photos, interviews with Tuhoe historians, pieces-to-camera and clips from the original documentary without ever, as in his last film, River Queen, overburdening it.

To look at In Spring now – and Vigil – is to see a sparse, elemental poetry to Ward’s film-making that disappeared around the time of Map of the Human Heart; he hasn’t quite gone back to that earlier simplicity, but there’s a humility and emotional directness about this film that seems touching and genuine. When I reviewed River Queen, I worried that its worst excesses confirmed Ward as a “diehard sentimentalist” and that “the famously kitsch scenes in the last two films – sex atop a hot-air balloon in Map of the Human Heart, the drippy new-age afterlife of What Dreams May Come – are not the anomalies we hoped they were at the time, but the norm; Vigil and The Navigator now look like the anomalies." On the basis of this film, I can step back from that. Here there’s only a couple of quick shots that seem like kitsch heart-tuggers – a child’s doll sinking in the mud when the Pakeha police raid the Tuhoe village, a boy's face splattered with blood when a horse is killed – but mostly Ward has control over what seemed like his worst impulses.

At one point, Rua Kenana is played by Temuera Morrison, which connects the new film back to River Queen – was his doomed, omen-seeing prophet Te Kai Po in that film modelled on this historical original? And where does Ward stand on the supernatural material in this story anyway? I think he’s more ambivalent than he once might have been. “The Ward worldview is a romantic and superstitious model: signs and omens, icons and loaded dreams.” I wrote that about The Navigator, a story which only works if you take its apocalyptic-supernatural logic at face value (also, I’m still pretty sure it’s Ward’s best film), but Ward doesn’t swallow the Tuhoe view about curses – to accept it would be to believe that an incidence of mental illness in one generation follows the sins of an earlier one. But he can accept that the Tuhoe have felt cursed, and forsaken, that they struggled to understand why so many of their tribe died so quickly after European contact, and he can see that the barrier between the material world and the ghost world seems to be that much thinner in the Ureweras than elsewhere, which means that some later scenes with Niki make very poignant use of that eerie Tuhoe mythology about patupaiarehe, the laughing, fairy-like people who live deep in the forests and still seem to scare any Tuhoe who think for too long about them. The Tuhoe were always a people apart – it’s to Ward’s credit that this very moving film now brings them that much closer.

August 2, 2008

He's not there

“People don’t deserve to know,” says Kurt Cobain not long after the start of About a Son, before he goes on to tell the people everything. That's only one of many contradictions about this Kurt, caught between sincerity and sarcasm and wise to his own contrarian nature (he wanted to be part of a scene, then hated the scene, time and time again). The disembodied Kurt of this film is shaped from some 25 hours of audio interviews by journalist Michael Azerrad, from about a year before the suicide.

There’s no Nirvana music or footage or video interviews, and no Kurt Cobain images at all until a series of powerful black-and-white stills in the closing seconds. Director AJ Schnack is charged with finding environmental images to match the audio – a lot of slow pans, a lot of time-lapse, summing up the three places that shaped him: the working-class logging town of Aberdeen, the bohemian colony of Olympia and the big city that he originally feared and resented, Seattle. High school alienation scenes in Aberdeen evoke the Gus Van Sant of Elephant – and in a curious way, this is also a neat fit with Van Sant’s Last Days. In that film, we got a Kurt who was seen and not heard; here, the reverse.

You might be right to have felt sceptical. The idea of shaping a rock bio-doco around old interview tapes is the kind of barrel-scraping exercise you expect from, say, the Jim Morrison estate. But this works marvellously: it's a private tour of his musical and environmental influences, a touching and intimate portrait. Julian Temple did a similar thing in his Joe Strummer film, The Future is Unwritten, but he also crammed in fresh interviews, archival footage and so on and on; that was a dense, hyper-active collage where this is more meditative. It suits the subject. And so much for his legendary truculence: this Kurt Cobain is honest, revealing, earnest, self-aware, even responsible. It helps that, in early 1993, Azerrad found him in a good mood – he was toying with canning Nirvana, and his life had come down to a gang of three: him, Courtney and the baby, which is about as big a scene as he ever wanted to stick with. Only one thing really stirs him: the impact of fame, fame, fatal fame. A persecution-by-media speech rivals the paranoia of I’m Not There’s hunted Dylan or lines from "The Ballad of John and Yoko". He says, “We’re not going to survive this. Everyone wants to see us die.”

Well, hindsight's easy. Azerrad, also a producer on the film, is alert to a greater theme: Cobain as the fan who crossed over to the other side. I never read Azerrad's Come as You Are, the Nirvana book that followed these interviews, but I did read Our Band Could Be Your Life, his excellent study of the cultish dedication that surrounded 80s American post-punk and hardcore bands. Cobain was a student of that era and he would have been happy with that level of success, to have been a Butthole Surfers or a Scratch Acid. But he also rejected the style limitations of Olympia's insular indie scene and even Sub Pop. He wanted to be the Beatles and Black Sabbath, pop and noise and everything in between. And at the same time, he didn't.

August 1, 2008

In My Father's Den

Two things sent me back to this In My Father's Den review (originally in the NZ Listener, October 9, 2004). First the news that Maurice Gee's much-loved kids' fantasy book Under the Mountain is getting the remake treatment, courtesy of Black Sheep auteur Jonathan King -- and presumably effects-by-Weta is again a selling point as NZ tries to position itself as the film world's boutique fantasy exporter -- but, more important, a fresh re-reading of Gee's classic 1978 novel Plumb. That book is widely taken as Gee's finest hour -- indeed, Bill Manhire regularly describes it as the best NZ novel ever written -- but what was particularly interesting this time around, apart from Gee's metaphorical language of Plumb as straightness and recurring, Biblical images of fruit and barren-ness, was Gee's ambivalent relationship with Protestant religiosity. We admire the stands that George Plumb takes -- WWI-era pacifism, radical free-thinking -- but we can see how his near-messianic self-belief damages the lives of his wife and children, and we can see the contradictions that the man himself cannot see, particularly when he scoffs at the guru his son has chosen to follow -- really just another man with unconventional religious views. For Gee, strong religious belief usually comes with an equally strong sense of intolerance -- which is something that matters in In My Father's Den.

Brad McGann’s brilliant, involving and ultimately devastating version of In My Father’s Den was that rare type of adaptation: one that doesn’t just successfully translate a great book (although that’s rare enough), but just as successfully updates it and refreshes it, finding new ways into its difficult emotions, amplifying and renewing its themes. The key to Gee’s novel – and this film – is that great New Zealand urge: the need to get away, to get out, to make something of yourself somewhere else. The corollary of that is another typical New Zealand feeling: the fear or disappointment faced when coming back, an abiding sense of personal failure.

The familiar publicity image from the film is of teenage Celia (Emily Barclay) lying meditatively on train tracks, which is less about suicidal tendencies – she has none of those – or the anticipation of a coffin, than a fairly immediate metaphor for really, really wanting to leave. “I’d rather be a no one somewhere than a someone nowhere,” she says. Her dream destination is Spain. You can also go away without leaving, which is escapism or imagination. In the novel, Paul Prior, who as a teacher becomes a sort of father figure to the intellectual outcast Celia, escaped into books as a teenager: Gee uses Paul’s reading of Dostoevsky to signal his wilful opposition to dreary New Zealand conformism and the religious fundamentalism of his mother, a tragic figure in both book and film. McGann’s innovation is to replace Dostoevsky with Patti Smith, whose best music has all the romantic defiance and yearning of teenagers who want to be anywhere but here – and, heard again as an adult, the same songs are suggestive of dreams that weren’t fulfilled, promises that weren’t kept (the songs are “Free Money” and “Land” from Horses). Paul’s teenage girlfriend, Celia’s mother, even scrawled the important message on the back of the Patti Smith LP: “In case we ever forget who we are.”

She stayed, and forgot, and became a butcher in the small Otago town that replaces Gee’s West Auckland (the feeling is that West Auckland is too suburbanised now, lacking that vital sense of rural dread, which puts this film squarely in the "Cinema of Unease" tradition, as Duncan Petrie has noted). Paul left New Zealand, becoming a photojournalist who specialises in war atrocities, which suggests that he is already wearing a bulletproof suit of emotional reserve long before he returns to Otago, to bury his father and face his past. In the subtle, exceptionally capable British actor Matthew Macfadyen, McGann found a soulful and charismatic Paul to set against a stiff and dangerously repressed Andrew (Colin Moy), Paul’s brother, who has inherited their mother’s world-hating religious temperament (in the novel, she burns a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to demonstrate her opposition to all things sensual) and married her replica, played by Australian actress Miranda Otto as a kind of mute, depressed captive. But Paul has more of his father in him, and the den of the title was another way to escape without leaving: Paul’s father stocked a small, secret room with books and music. In the film, a generation on, Celia finds the den and makes it her own, which identifies her as having the same outsider strain.

Both novel and film are flashback-heavy, but neither feels complicated. McGann lays it out painstakingly, and the film is slow to start with, before it shifts gears into a disappearance story – Celia goes missing, after visiting Paul one Sunday – that has a gripping and unnerving tension. There are secret rooms and then there are secrets within secrets and it’s unlikely that any viewer – even, or maybe especially, those briefed by a quick re-read of the novel – will be prepared for what follows and the way that the story eventually untangles. In outdoor shots, Otago looks like being on the cusp between winter and spring, but McGann and his cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), favour dark colours and damp textures. At times, the film can feel like a slow nightmare played out underwater, as McGann even adapts Patti Smith’s horses-and-sea imagery from “Land” to give the film a whole other interpretational level (this review’s original title, The Sea's the Possibility, came from that song). Grafting Smith’s Horses onto Gee’s novel was hugely inspired – a creative risk that really paid off – and I’d love to know how McGann came up with the idea. His film was one seriously impressive achievement.

The sad postscript to that achievement is that Brad McGann died in May 2007, after a battle with cancer. He was 43. He never got to make a second feature.