February 28, 2011

Familiar and unfamiliar

1. I photographed the sign above on my phone in December. It's on Ryan Street, Linwood. The four interlocking NZs are a version, I guess, of the 1974 Commonwealth Games logo -- that year, the games were held in Christchurch -- and I wondered if the sign went up then, as part of a 70s beautification or civic pride project. It seemed like a trace of history in an ordinary suburban street.

To get to Ryan Street, you go along St Martins Road, through Opawa, over the railway tracks, along Ensors Road with that old railway land to your left and AMI Stadium in the distance, left into Ferry Road, past the Edmonds Factory Garden that marks the site of the long demolished Edmonds Factory, then take another left.

On Ryan Street last night, this pile of silt, three metres high:

They say that 30,000 tonnes of silt have been collected so far. There are estimates that 150,000 tonnes of it came up out of the ground last Tuesday. Some of it is muddy grey sludge. Some of it is turning into dust.

The drive back along Ferry Road:

Into Ensors Road:

Improvised signage on St Martins Road:

The story in Beckenham this morning is that two historic churches were pulled down overnight. I had never set foot in either, and indeed both were closed to the public since September and cordoned off, but they were landmarks for generations.

Beckenham was traditionally a lower middle-class suburb in south Christchurch that has gentrified over the past couple of decades. Gentrification is evident in the kinds of shops you see in the recently-opened Beckenham Central shopping centre on the corner of Tennyson Street and Colombo Street: a Pilates workshop, an organic grocer, a children's bookstore. Middle-class pursuits and tastes. The shops survived but the carpark needs work:

Across Colombo Street, a historic stretch of two-story brick shops was badly damaged in the September quake and pulled down more than a month ago. One of the historic stores that still stood took a bigger hit on Tuesday: that orange shape in the picture used to be a verandah on that shop, which has been unoccupied since September.

The first of the two churches to go was the Beckenham Baptist church. It was built in 1930 and had a heritage two listing with the Christchurch City Council (one being the most protected, four the least). It started coming down late yesterday afternoon.

This supermarket on Colombo Street was on fire on Tuesday night and remains closed:

There are makeshift water and supplies depots in carparks along Colombo Street:

The other church to go overnight was older, even more venerable. This intersection of Colombo Street and Brougham Street marks the southern edge of the central city cordon. That pile of rubble in the centre of the picture below used to be the Sydenham Methodist church, a stone gothic church built in 1878 and the heart of the community for close to 100 years (a school and a post office -- long since closed -- stood opposite). In September I wrote a story about how Sydenham, one of the oldest suburbs in Christchurch and long identified with railway workers and left-wing politics, was one of the neglected areas in the post-quake coverage. The Sydenham Heritage Trust was close to fully restoring this church which they had hoped to use as a community centre.

February 27, 2011

Five days later

1. I was talking yesterday about the ordinary business of daily life that goes on through and around disasters, taking my cue from Tim Wilson's Their Faces Were Shining. Few things are more ordinary than dropping your six-year-old off at a friend's house for a playdate. Few things are less ordinary than using the short trip to scan, half unconsciously, for signs of earthquake damage. Pictured: orderly piles of silt shovelled from backyards and driveways await collection on Croydon Street, Sydenham.

2. Another shot of the Ballardian swimming pool at Beckenham School, from Friday's outing.
3. The news this morning says that the old Girls High building on Cranmer Square has been cordoned off and there are fears it will collapse. Three days after the September 4 quake (the warm up for this one, the rehearsal), I walked around that part of town with a colleague and this is what Girls High looked like then. The damage looks ridiculously minor from this perspective. Ensuing aftershocks worsened it, and for a time there was scaffolding or wooden supports against this back wall of the building.

Some will know the building from Heavenly Creatures. Girls High had already shifted to a new site when Peter Jackson shot the film and he was able to use the old building as a location. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were at school here; Parker's mother ran a boarding house almost next door and Parker climbed the fence to get to school in the morning (a scene recreated for the film). Photos of the front of the Girls High building, seen from Cranmer Square, are in this impressively thorough online photo album of Heavenly Creatures locations.

There is a curious thing about buildings that are expected to fall: they stubbornly hold on. There was Manchester Courts after the last quake and we have spent how many days in a state of suspense, thinking that the Grand Chancellor hotel is going to drop at any moment.

4. Words of Comfort: Cantabrians of a certain age might remember Ray Comfort, a Christian evangelist who preached in Christchurch's Cathedral Square in the 1970s and 80s. He was an anti-drugs campaigner and a prolific publisher of small books about the evils of the hedonistic, post-counter cultural 70s (My Friends Were Dying was his first one, and apparently he did have ex-surfer friends who ODed). I suspect Ray Comfort was his real name. Alex Comfort was probably no relation.

When I interviewed him, a little over a year ago, he had been in California for more than 20 years, had done well out of a close association with sitcom star turned born again Christian Kirk Cameron and was devoting his energies to attacking atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins. His quixotic scheme was to republish Darwin's On the Origin of Species but with a Christian foreword and distribute it at American universities; he expected the Christian foreword, which he wrote himself, would disprove Darwin's original text. A few months later, I happened to interview Dawkins who found Comfort, and his plan, to be utterly ridiculous.

This morning, an email:
I hope you are okay.
The people of Christchurch have been in our thoughts and prayers.
Would you like me to write you an article on the U.S. perspective of the earthquake?
Best wishes,
I am yet to hear from Richard Dawkins.

February 26, 2011

Disaster fiction

About a month ago, I read Tim Wilson's novel, Their Faces Were Shining (VUP, 2010). Like a lot of other people, I was impressed -- but then I was expecting to be, thanks to Tim's great journalism in Metro and his television work as TVNZ's New York guy (in that capacity, he once interviewed my grandmother -- the clip was played at her funeral last year). Their Faces Were Shining is about the Rapture; specifically, one woman's experience of it. A Christian, Hope Paterson expects to be lifted up or carried away, but she isn't. So it's about her reconciliation with the ways in which she hasn't measured up to her belief system and it's about her marriage and it's about living through a catastrophic event and finding that it doesn't take too long before the abnormal becomes a new normal: how quickly you get used to your circumstances. "The world ends; the world carries on."

I read that Tim had drawn some of this from his experiences of covering disasters like Hurricane Katrina. How the world ends and the world carries on, disaster's ordinary, daily business: the power cuts and police cordons, the soldiers on the street, the addiction to news coverage, the conversations with strangers about the one event (where were you when?), the impatient crowds at supermarkets and gas stations, the concerns over water quality and expiration dates. Today, I pulled the novel out from one of the stacks of books that fell to the floor during the earthquake on Tuesday:
As we neared downtown, the streets betrayed the day's confusion. Tumbleweeds of discarded wrappers stumbled in the wind. Smashed soda and beer bottles littered the gutters, and the sidewalks too. An abandoned station wagon blocked the intersection of Sullivan and Anchor, hazard lights flashing, the doors jug-eared. A wheat truck had plowed into a liquor store, hemorrhaging its yellow cargo. The air smelled sugary, tipsy somehow. We passed a ShopRite, then a hardware store; every window in both was smashed. The glass fragments our tires crunched over resembled diamonds.
That was the disaster scene, moments after the Rapture. But this kind of thing, a page later, was closer to our Tuesday:
The house faucets released another gallon and a half into various containers. We schlepped them downstairs, and Rachel returned to her room. I sat at the kitchen table and, using as little water as possible, washed the soles of my feet. The quiet poured over me then, a corrosive, searching stillness. Zero cars on the street. No ringing phones. No television. A pure, agitating silence deprived even of the companionable hum that switched-off appliances make when plugged into live sockets.
This is Tim Wilson talking about the ordinariness of disaster in Stephen Jewell's story about the novel in the NZ Herald last year:
Taking his cue from the late JG Ballard, the dystopian future that Wilson envisions is distinctly humdrum. "He wrote sci-fi that was recognisable," he [Wilson] says. "It's the end of the world as seen from the kitchen sink. I wanted it to be low key, I didn't want it to be Hollywood sci-fi. It's a manageable apocalypse. The end of the world comes and the world keeps going. That's what I've seen when I've gone to these disaster zones. There's an earth-shattering event and then people get on with their lives. How do they do that? It's often very mundane things that concern you like how are my loved ones doing? Have I got some water and should I throw all the food out of the fridge?"

Rather than battling zombies or some other fantastical creature, Hope has more trivial concerns, including her rapidly diminishing bank balance, something that rings true in Wilson's experience.

"Money is important," he says. "When I was driving around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I was fortunate because I had a credit card that worked, so I was able to buy gas. There was one point where all these people were fighting for petrol at a petrol station and because I had a funny accent, the attendants said that I could have some. That's the kind of stuff that matters, the struggle for electricity, for water, all the things that we take for granted. I was able to do that through my job and I was able to write about it."

February 25, 2011

Three days later

To walk to Beckenham School from our place, you have to cross the Heathcote River, using either a busy vehicle bridge running between Tennyson Street and Burnbrae Street or a footbridge. On their scooters in the mornings, the school-age girls -- Isla (6) and Vita (7) -- prefer the footbridge, which only gets used by other kids on scooters and bikes, but three days after the February 22 earthquake, I don't entirely trust it. Not that the vehicle bridge is looking so good either. Those cracks are new, entirely attributable to the quake three days ago; we had none after the larger, but more distant September 4 quake or its aftershocks. Within an hour, or maybe less, of the quake -- which struck at 12.51pm -- makeshift signs urging people to slow down on this bridge were put up. Roads were closed.

Isla is doing the school walk with me, on a day without school, as an exercise in seeing the local quake damage. When the quake struck, I was off work -- for which I'm thankful, reading these accounts from people I work with -- and watching a movie (True Grit), in a post-war railway station converted into a multiplex. The structure is solid but it has a unstable clocktower. The room shook, the screen went black, the lights came up, people shrieked, no one seemed to move. Was this different to other aftershocks? I tried to walk and the floor seemed to tilt; I had to hold myself up against the walls. The corridor was dark. Had audiences from the other seven cinemas already got out? People walked slowly and someone behind shouted, "For F---'s sake, run!"

The glass doors to the car park had smashed so we had to go the other way to the car park, onto Moorhouse Avenue. I saw buckled concrete on the footpath; no other aftershock had done that, or even the original quake. I looked north, up Manchester Street, and saw -- or thought I saw -- a white cloud rising up from the city. I wasn't sure whether I was imagining it; the day was overcast; the cloud looked like a special effect. When I came across this now famous photo two days later, I knew I had really seen it.

In the car, on the radio, a RNZ reporter talked about seeing the church opposite her office collapse. That would be the Durham Street Methodist Church and that would make this aftershock -- if it was that -- a very, very big one. Traffic lights were out and roads were congested. Short drives were taking a long time. At home, Rebecca was under the dining room table with Matilda (4) and her friend, Te Toa (3). The damage was much worse than on September 4. A heavy bookcase and a flat-screen TV were on the floor; either could have knocked out a small child. The kitchen cupboards were empty and bottles and cans were across the kitchen floor, covered in vinegar and soy sauce. Broken glass on the carpet. Books everywhere. Bookcases down in other rooms. Pictures down.

I left them there and got back in the car to get the girls from school. There was deep brown water across Eastern Terrace. Someone said that the far end of the street was closed, so I reversed back; then the other end was closed. The far end was open. You had to avoid the holes. The road had become narrow. Someone else said all the school children were on the field.

I ran through the school. Water was coming up out of the ground in places. On the big field at Beckenham Park, used by the school and by local cricket and football clubs, all the red-uniformed kids were sitting in orderly groups. Springs of muddy grey water were coming up out of the field at random -- liquefaction. Mothers were more distressed than children. One I know was as white as a sheet and shaking; another was sobbing. Teachers had clipboards of children's names, ticking off those who had been collected. We left a friend of Isla's crying. We tried to walk back through the school to get schoolbags and umbrellas but we couldn't, as the water had already become much deeper. We went home and spent three more hours under the dining room table. At 9pm the power came back on. Two days later, we had running water. As we listened to the radio on the first day, as the death toll grew, we knew we were lucky. The house rattles more than it used to, and the roof leaks, but we still know we're lucky. Last time, all of Christchurch was lucky, really -- but not this time.

Eastern Terrace, Beckenham. On February 22, the river -- which is clear when it hasn't rained for days or is brown if it has rained -- was an unusual metallic grey, the colour of the sandy or silty water that comes up out of the ground. There are piles of grey silt on the sides of roads, dug out of lawns and driveways. The colour of the Christchurch earthquake in the suburbs, the substance of it. Grey silt and dust.

Eastern Terrace takes you between the river and the park, with the duck ponds to your right. When it floods, the river and the ponds try to meet on the road. This is swampy land, drained for farms more than a century ago, but not entirely tamed. Once the rivers were full of eels and fish and the swamps were full of birds. Maori called the river Opawaho; the fish, eels and birds' eggs were a food source, on a route between Banks Peninsula and Kaiapoi.

At Beckenham School, the swimming pool. It was full of water before the quake. The drained swimming pool was one of JG Ballard's favourite post-apocalyptic images; drawn from his childhood in Shanghai after the Japanese invaded, it became a wider symbol of societal breakdown. But abandoned schools in general have a post-apocalyptic ambience. Remember that lovely moment in the film Children of Men? The deer walking through the empty school, reminiscent of photos of Chernobyl, where nature has reclaimed the ruins ("As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices."). This eerie, empty school three days after the quake had some of that: bags still on pegs, coats on chairs, pens and books on tables; everything left just as it was.

Two days after the quake, you heard stories of long queues at the six schools used as water distribution sites. Three days after, more sites were added -- including Beckenham School -- but where were the queues? I told the driver that a lot of people in this area had got out of town. There are no lights on in the houses, few cars on the roads.

February 19, 2011

Hello Janis, hello Dennis, Elvis, and all my brand new friends

"They were now keepers of the music-art-literature flame even as, in the culture at large, that flame seemed to grow dimmer with each passing year." -- David Browne, from Goodbye 20th Century: Sonic Youth and the Rise of the Alternative Nation (Piatkus/Da Capo, 2008).

Because I notice this kind of thing, a list of the movie titles that appear in David Browne's Sonic Youth book:

Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002), Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), Backbeat (Iain Softley, 1994), Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999), Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), The Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol, 1966), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002), Desperate Teenage Lovedolls (David Markey, 1984), End of Days (Peter Hyams, 1999), EVOL (Tony Oursler, 1984), Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002), The Godfather Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990), Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997), A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964), I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007), Judgment Night (Stephen Hopkins, 1993), Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005), Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007), Kids (Larry Clark, 1995), Lick the Star (Sofia Coppola, 1998), Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003), Lou Believers (David Markey, 1989), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller, 1985), Made in USA (Ken Friedman, 1987), Madonna: Truth or Dare (Alek Keshishian, 1991), Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant, 1986), Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006), Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964), Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981), My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991), 1991: The Year Punk Broke (David Markey, 1992), One Plus One (Jean-Luc Godard, 1968), The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961), Rap Damage (David Markey, 1991), Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994), The Right Side of My Brain (Richard Kern, 1985), Rock My Religion (Dan Graham, 1984), Rust Never Sleeps (Neil Young, 1979), Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995), Sir Drone (Raymond Pettibon, 1989), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), The Song Remains the Same (Peter Clifton and Joe Massot, 1976), Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951), The Strawberry Statement (Stuart Hagmann, 1970), Submit to Me (Richard Kern, 1985), SubUrbia (Richard Linklater, 1996), Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1988), Things Behind the Sun (Allison Anders, 2001), True Believer (Joseph Ruben, 1989), Video Days (Spike Jonze, 1991), The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999).

And that would be by no means exhaustive: there were tons of soundtrack appearances in the 90s, everything from Pump Up the Volume to Gun Crazy to -- hard to believe -- The Frighteners. And then you get Kim Gordon in Gus Van Sant's Kurt Cobain daydream Last Days (pictured above), flashing back to ten years prior when Sonic Youth toured with Nirvana and, in Browne's words, "Gordon had become a maternal figure to indie rock boys, always interested in hearing what troubled them and listening as they opened up about their music and lives". But this out-of-nowhere appearance of "Kool Thing" in Hal Hartley's Simple Men is hard to beat:

February 11, 2011

As the future bleeds into the present

Title from the Independent's obituary for Daphne du Maurier, April 1989.

February 9, 2011

When the poster is nearly as good as the movie

A poster for the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul). The poster is by Chris Ware, author of the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth which I'm pretty sure -- and I really should look this up -- was Chris Knox's choice of all-time favourite book on that Emily Perkins book show, The Good Word. As usual, Knox wasn't wrong ...

February 6, 2011

The secret lives of dancers

“I was always turned on by the idea of reinventing the werewolf movie with a were-swan film, turning Natalie Portman into some sort of creature.”
– Darren Aronofsky interviewed by Nick James, Sight and Sound, February 2011.

“The origins of Nina’s war of identities aren’t clear, and this is the movie’s greatest strength: it doesn’t explain what doesn’t need to be. I don’t want to know if she’s actually schizophrenic or in fact a strange magic being that really does grow feathers. Why does Nina scratch? When did it start? Where is her dad? How old is she? Her relationship with her mother is clearly perverse, but one we can’t exactly finger.”
-- Kartina Richardson, "Black Swan and Bathrooms", Mirror, January 3, 2011.

A man probably wouldn’t have picked up on that which Kartina Richardson discusses so thoroughly in the post noted above, or at least this man didn’t – the importance of bathrooms in Black Swan, especially in relation to Nina’s identity/identities. Bathrooms as the site where important switches happen or selves appear. One of the remarkable things about Black Swan – almost the most remarkable thing – is that a male director (Aronofsky) and three male screenplay writers (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin) have produced a film that, as Sight and Sound critic Lisa Mullen put it, “speaks to the abiding concerns of all ‘women’s pictures’: bodily imperfection, impossible male expectation and the terror of old age.” Yes, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher got into some of these areas too, but that came from a woman’s story -- a novel by Elfriede Jelinek.
Of course, one – possibly even two – of those concerns were also in Aronofsky’s last picture, The Wrestler. The superficial comparison is that both films are a vehicle for a big, faultless performance from a star playing a performer, one on a comeback and one an ingĂ©nue, just as the actors (Mickey Rourke, Natalie Portman) themselves are. There are several levels of identification going on: Mickey Rourke is Robin Ramzinski is Randy “The Ram” Robinson; Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers is Odette and Odile. A difference: the wrestling world seems to be one of casual, easy camaraderie, even between guys who have to pummel each other in the ring, while the ballet world of Black Swan seems viciously competitive (at least according to Nina’s subjectivity, which isn’t exactly reliable). A deeper similarity is that in both stories, a choice is made to sacrifice everything else about life to the greater cause of performance – or art, if you can call wrestling art. In The Wrestler, there is the razor blade moment – Rourke’s fighter slicing his own forehead in the ring for dramatic effect; in Black Swan, starvation, obsessive scratching and other forms of self-harming, which take on a delusional quality (are feathers growing out of my back?). Aronofsky has been working in this field since day one: his first film, Pi (1998), is about a place where psychotic individualism meets paranoid genius.
The were-swan theme Aronofsky refers to in the Sight and Sound interview is only literal for seconds but it’s within the film from start to finish: metamorphosis. We know how Odette’s metamorphosis comes about in Swan Lake, the ballet at the centre of the story – there is a sorcerer with a spell – but not Nina’s metamorphosis. I think Kartina Richardson is right to say that this lack of explanation is actually one of Black Swan’s strengths, especially in an entertainment culture that tends to over explain. We are wrong-footed: Nina looks to be in her twenties but lives like a 12-year-old, infantilised and trapped by mother, with the scenario calling up a range of gothic arrested-development stories from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to Carrie. That said, the film is not quite horror and not quite camp; more an oppressive, phantasmagorical melodrama that blends both (here, props must be given to the great Barbara Hershey as the terrifying/terrified mother). It is oppressive in its almost constant use of hand-held close-ups in underlit rooms – a nocturnal New York of apartment, rehearsal studio and, for light relief, a bar – with a sound design that plays all manner of tricks on us. The Wrestler was ultimately within a realist tradition, which the hand-held style is associated with (the behind-the-shoulder following shots come straight out of the Dardennes) – but in the stranger, riskier, more unpredictable Black Swan, the same style becomes just one more expression of an anxious, unstable, unexplained subjectivity.

February 5, 2011

Hypnagogic cinema

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007); Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947); Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977).