June 27, 2012

New messages

Christchurch, June 27. This morning I noticed that Michael Parekowhai's bronze bulls and pianos, so carefully shifted by cranes yesterday, were now in place. By afternoon, word was getting around. The one-way early evening traffic slowed to a crawl as Madras Street narrowed: a drive-by art preview before the show opens on the weekend. On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer was in Venice, then Paris, now Christchurch. Yesterday, I was told that a security guard would be stationed near the work full time. He was there this morning with a dog. They could have just got one of these.  

But as more official art appears, the informal, unofficial, unlicensed art of the post-earthquake city seems to be disappearing. The earthquake's folk art. Yarnbombing was a big thing after the more benign September 2010 quake: knitted words like LOVE, HOPE and KIA KAHA appeared on fences. Lampposts and trees wore knitwear. There was a manifesto online that suggested the yarnbombing had a Christian angle. A yarnbombed tree still survives in Latimer Square. For more than a year, it was inside the red zone, cordoned off from the public.

On the corner of Madras Street and Cashel Street, behind two wire fences, there is a white plastic chair with various scattered offerings (cans, bottles, and so on). It's close to the site of the CTV building, where 115 died, so you assume it's a memorial, or maybe there's a connection to the 185 white chairs that appeared at the cleared site of the Oxford Tce Baptist Church exactly a year after the February 22, 2011 quake, set up as though they had only just been vacated by the 185 victims of the quake, or are waiting for the general resurrection of the dead. Below, flowers opposite the CTV site, hung through a wire fence, with a date of 22.2.2012 -- again, a year on.

Across Madras Street, on the cleared site of St Paul's Trinity Presbyterian Church, there is ... again, what is it? It acts as a frame for words that are yarnbombed and also signposted on the wire fence in the distance: FAITH, HOPE. Maybe the garlands of plastic flowers nod to the Pasifika congregations of St Paul's. Maybe it was once something more, or maybe it's on its way to becoming something else.

June 26, 2012

Messages on the walk home

Christchurch, June 25 and 26. Not strictly chronological. The two pictures that do not feature signs -- that, instead, feature cranes and pianos -- are of the installation of Michael Parekowhai's On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer, on vacant land on Madras Street.

June 22, 2012

Glacial and empty

Michel Houellebecq in HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life:
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition towards chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure "Victorian fictions". All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact and radiant.
And then:
It is possible, in fact, that beyond the narrow range of our perception, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts and other minds. Amongst these entities some are probably far superior to us in intelligence and in knowledge. But this is not necessarily good news ... It is ridiculous to imagine that at the edge of the cosmos, other well-intentioned and wise beings await to guide us towards some sort of harmony. In order to imagine how they might treat us were we to come into contact with them, it might be best to recall how we treat "inferior intelligences" such as rabbits and frogs. In the best of cases they serve as food for us; sometimes also, often in fact, we kill them for the sheer pleasure of killing. This, Lovecraft warned, would be the true picture of our future relationship to those other intelligent beings.
It's well-established that, among the stew of influences that make up Prometheus, Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness is an important one. It's basically the plot of Ridley Scott's movie and word is that Guillermo del Toro abandoned his film of the Lovecraft story once news leaked about Prometheus. But does Prometheus have the radical pessimism that Houellebecq is talking about or are Scott and writer Damon Lindelof trying to have it both ways? The Prometheus sequel will surely have Noomi Rapace's Liz Shaw and the robot-head-in-a-bag confronting the Engineers on their own planet. At that point, the tension in the current film, between the pessimism of Lovecraft and the more benign cosmic view of Erich Von Daniken, the other big influence on Prometheus, will have to be resolved.

June 21, 2012

June 20, 2012

Gods, humans, flies etc: notes on Prometheus and The Avengers

PROMETHEUS (Ridley Scott): As though the father of the modern blockbuster was Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (pretentious, expensive, symbolic) not, as usually assumed, Star Wars (cheaper, retro). When did I last really enjoy a Ridley Scott film? Too far back to remember. Best actor by miles: a man playing a robot playing a man, a la Blade Runner (Michael Fassbender). Worst idea: too many to list. The Alien universe is a haunted house and this is deader than the rest: we're on a death-haunted graveyard planet, largely minus the defining body horror -- as this says, the movie has a location not a plot. Also, this reading is more fun than the movie (essentially, Prometheus as intergalactic Fisher King myth) and it's free and won't take you two hours. Perhaps Prometheus is what you should expect from a Lost writer (or simply, a lost writer). Also: if you want to cultivate an air of mystery, best to keep your mouth shut. Prometheus may have generated acres of internet coverage and speculative criticism, but that doesn't mean that in 50 years it will be considered 2001 or Last Year at Marienbad.

THE AVENGERS (Joss Whedon): It wasn't until I read this that I figured out why I felt like I had walked in halfway through -- it's because I actually had. Think of it as Watchmen "for real", or Watchmen minus end-of-genre heaviness (thus, meaning). Your expectations are that it's like a 70s supergroup with solos pressure: give everyone a go and before you know it, you've got a triple live Yes album, but Whedon keeps it under control -- maybe too much control. Best actors by miles: the actual actors (Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo). Rare human moment: Ruffalo and Harry Dean Stanton in the ruined building. I haven't followed the Whedon cult -- is this largely impersonal thing what it comes to? Or is Cabin in the Woods the personal film? As in Prometheus, the gods (still) want to kill us. Also, why always New York? The 9/11-al Qaeda parallel is too obvious to bring to the surface, but the fascism one struck the writers as a brainwave (for no other reason, Stuttgart!). Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury as Obama -- drone wars? Maybe not that. Liked the Hulk, though. Didn't everyone?

June 19, 2012

A visitor from Christchurch

The fog hadn't lifted by 1pm. It would stay nearly all day, closing the airport and stranding some people who are understandably desperate to leave. We wouldn't see the hills at all until later, maybe 4.30pm, and within another half an hour, it would be dark again. At 1pm, the temperature outside was only just above freezing.

From the sixth floor of the new Press House, we saw people making use of the new route through the city, the re-opened Gloucester Street. We saw people with cameras, dog walkers, tourists in their own city. For me, this route along Gloucester Street was one of several routes I took more or less daily, before the quakes closed the city, to the library, the bus stop and, further, the Christchurch Art Gallery. It's a short walk to Cambridge Terrace, just across the river.

With almost everything around it gone, Price Waterhouse Coopers building looks larger than ever, a monolith with its head in the clouds.

A couple of days after the September 4, 2010, quake I texted my brother, something like: "Weird to see the army in the city, like a scene from 28 Days Later." He wrote back: "They're probably pleased to have something to do." Twenty-eight days later? They're still here 21 months later ...

Once these buildings were just anonymous slabs; so many of them have stories now. The Price Waterhouse Coopers building is to be demolished. The Forsyth Barr building, the monolith to its left in the picture above, is to stay. On February 22 last year, the stairs collapsed ("they completely disappeared") and people were stuck up there for hours. Some abseiled down.


Everything behind wire fences in these pictures is still inside the red zone. That word "zone": sure, you think of Stalker, but you also think, or I do, of the first Planet of the Apes films. The forbidden zone, radioactive. The only trace of any new or recent life in the zone are the signs for demolition firms and contractors, promoting themselves on sites and on the sides of trucks. Words like Nikau, Simon, Naylor Love. From the sixth floor of Press House you can see the demolition trucks go back and forth inside the red zone. It's like sitting on Mt Victoria in Auckland, watching ferries cross Waitemata Harbour.

Above, the boarded-up entrance to the Central Library. Slightly further along, another contractor sign says "authorised personnel only, this is a dangerous workplace." How often is a library a dangerous workplace? Chancery Lane is just across the road from the library. The short cut back to the Square took you past the Holy Cross Chapel, hidden away. It seemed odd to me, a tiny chapel in there, in a city of large churches. Now, the only story you remember is this strange one, from the chaotic days after. 

Above, another altmusic poster from before the quakes. Below, the yellow-and-black signage on the side of the Christchurch Art Gallery is a work visible in full here. Kay Rosen's Steeple-People ... it points in the direction of the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, still the most controversial threatened building in the city. Once, the symbol of a city; now, an unintended symbol of its discontent and divisiveness. In front of the work, a digger pulls at the remains of a ruined building. The sign will become more visible soon from Cambridge Terrace.

June 9, 2012

And then he phones himself

"The beauty in Lost Highway is at war with its absurdity, and the beauty wins," writes Greil Marcus in his essay on Lost Highway, "American Berserk: Bill Pullman's Face" in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (2006). He's right. Each time you watch Lost Highway, it seems to me, the beauty matters more, and the absurdity matters less. This one needed time, and from this distance – 15 years now – it's hard to figure out why it was so reviled (not as reviled as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me a few years earlier, but still).
I remember watching the film, and I remember when the review ran in the Listener, and I remember the stills we used (not these ones, but stills that made it look more conventional – although maybe I'm just remembering things my way), but I don't remember what the review said and I don't have a copy of it. But in the years that followed I was boiling my 800-word reviews down into capsules when films ran on television. At some point last decade, Lost Highway:
Lost Highway
David Lynch’s Lost Highway is even darker than usual – if your idea of “usual” is Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. The first third takes place in the quiet, creepy, dimly-lit nightmare world that is the decaying marriage of characters played by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette – much of the terror in this sequence comes from subliminal sources, such as askew framing and ominous drones on the soundtrack. Pullman is afflicted by jealousy; he may murder his wife, but he can’t remember; in prison, he mysteriously morphs into another, younger man (Balthazar Getty), a mechanic who becomes involved with Arquette’s double. Like Mulholland Drive, this makes no sense as a conventional narrative but has an uncanny psychological truth and gets to a feeling of dread that more conventional horror movies seldom reach. A typically uncanny moment: Pullman meets a demonic, white-faced man (Robert Blake) at a party. The little man – the kind of death figure that recurs in Lynch movies – tells Pullman that he has been to his house. In fact, he is there at this very moment. And then he phones himself to prove it. Baffling and impressive. (1997)
Marcus' Lost Highway essay mostly riffs around the meaning of the American open road and the film's debt to the old noir Detour, and is thus more convincing than the Fire Walk with Me essay that follows it, which attempts an explanation of the Twin Peaks prequel/coda that refuses to accept the supernatural dimension ("there is mumbo jumbo all through Fire Walk with Me, just as there was when Twin Peaks was running through the woods on TV"). One valuable part of the Marcus essay is a long quote in a footnote from Lost Highway co-writer Barry Gifford, explaining some of the story's origins:
David [Lynch] had optioned for film my novel Night People, and we had talked for a year or more about how that could be done, but nothing happened. He fell in love with a couple of sentences in the book in particular, one of which was when one woman says to another, "We're just a couple of Apaches ridin' wild on the lost highway." What did it mean? he wanted to know. What was the deeper meaning of the phrase "lost highway"? He had an idea for a story. What if one day a person woke up and he was another person? An entirely different person from the person he had been the day before. OK, I said, that's Kafka, The Metamorphosis. But we did not want this person to turn into an insect. So that's what we had to start with: a title, Lost Highway; a sentence from close to the end of the book Night People ("You and me, mister, we can really out-ugly the sumbitches, can't we?"); the notion of irrefutable change; and a vision Dave had about someone receiving videotapes of his life from an unknown source, something he had thought of following the wrap of the shooting of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Now all we had to do was make a coherent story out of this.
The beautiful-sounding phrase "psychogenic fugue" became the official explanation for the Fred Madison/Pete Dayton switch in Lost Highway but there is another source, one I'd never considered, one which seems obvious now given the timing (a mid-90s production, a 1997 release). The endless road, the car chase and police sirens, the homicidal jealousy, the murdered girl and her shady friends ... this was a rare instance of Lynch topicality, of stories ripped from headlines. In a 2005 interview included on the new Lost Highway DVD (Madman release), Lynch says:
I had a fixation on OJ Simpson. I think some of this grew out of OJ Simpson. What does the mind do after such an horrific experience? How does the mind protect itself from that knowledge and go on?