May 30, 2013


Good news, this: Sheen of Gold, Simon Ogston’s doco on Skeptics – it was never “the” Skeptics, was it? – gets its first screenings at the New Zealand Film Festival in July (the trailer is here). All New Zealand rock documentaries are valuable as slices of vanished history – I wrote about the Shihad one back here, and missed the Exponents one that everyone liked, but the special and maybe difficult thing about Skeptics is that there must be very little existing footage of David D’Ath. The promo clips for Agitator and Affco, the Bob Sutton-shot live material – but what else? They were one of the least documented, most original, most singular of New Zealand post-punk bands, and there has not been a word about them since their end in 1990 and the $100-plus four-CD box that wrapped things up in 1992 (nerd point: I was working with Robin “Gun of Sod” Gauld at Student Job Search in Wellington when that came out, but I imagine he got his copy for free). No reunions, of course, no other histories. Just a handful of records, the memories of some incredible live shows and a couple of excellent pieces of writing that have lasted too. There was a D’Ath obit by Headless Chicken Chris Matthews:
The music was aggressive and unsettling but the focal point was David with his slight stature, his hooked nose and his deep-set eyes. He looked like some strange, punch drunk bird and the veins in his neck bulged as he forced mysterious words and noises from his throat.  
And Matthew Hyland – what a great rock writer he was. I haven’t forgotten this line in over … yes, it’s been 20 years:  
As if a bionic Sabbath or Swans was having an epileptic fit.  
Both are from pre-Internet age Rip it Up, held onto as clippings, retyped or scanned, copied. You have to acknowledge the unpaid archivists. Speaking of which, from a couple of days ago, a story on the Bob Sutton collection.

May 20, 2013

Uses of Lou Reed

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009): Is it the way things were or the way you wished things were? Or the point at which there stops being a difference? Featuring Kristen Stewart (who is right) and Jesse Eisenberg (who is sort of wrong). True enough about the use of music and the feeling of suburbia, and the feeling of nostalgia.

May 18, 2013

Godard should have directed a version of The Great Gatsby

Seriously. The voice-over that amplifies nostalgia, poignancy and artificiality; the grip of fantasy and the dread of reality; the famous dance scene that was used as a moment to investigate or explain character; the glamour of the city and its dreariness. All the talk, talk, talk. Pictured from left: Nick, Daisy, Gatsby. Bande a part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964).

May 16, 2013

Introduced and native

Lara Strongman was talking on the radio this morning about the new TV3 series Harry, which owes its seriousness, darkness and unremittingly “adult” quality (sex, violence, language) to the HBO tradition of The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and all that has followed – Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Killing, all the New Serious Television – and mostly, in my view, meets the standard it aims for, especially in its acting, writing and look, although the flashbacks are a clumsy and unsophisticated device. The point was: why shouldn’t this be television for export? Yes, it is deeply local – very connected to particular urban, suburban and industrial landscapes in Auckland – but it is no more local than, say, The Wire, Treme and Boss, which set out to map or redefine Baltimore, New Orleans and Chicago, in that order. They were maps of political life and social and cultural influence that bordered on the journalistic. And her point is a good one, especially as the recent Jane Campion/Garth Davis series Top of the Lake was even more perversely – gratuitously and maybe artificially – Kiwi than Harry, in its total embrace of Kiwi Gothic tendencies, images or clichés. And the series screened in the UK, US and Australia and at festivals in the US and Germany, although that has been on the back of the Campion association and reputation, largely.

Halfway through the series, I wrote a piece for Werewolf (here). Now I’ve seen the rest. When I did the Werewolf piece, I felt that the sprawling, even frustrating, storylines were coming together, and that the project was gaining some focus, but that was a trick of perspective – looking back from the end, you still see plenty of loose ends and red herrings (could we have lost the entire Holly Hunter in Paradise plot?). You see plenty of underused actors and wasted opportunities too. You also note – spoiler alert! – that it was more like Twin Peaks than you initially thought, not just because of the superficial similarities of setting and story but because, by the end, you see that the story has always been about a conspiracy of respectable middle-aged men running a sex abuse racket, just as they did in Twin Peaks. It wasn’t the crime lord, it wasn’t the cult guru – all along, it was the bent cop. But it didn’t have Twin Peaks’ all-enveloping horror, its deep personal tragedy and its supernatural dimension – thinking of Fire Walk With Me more than the series – and of course, it stepped back from the worst implications of its dark worldview with a happy ending: male monster(s) dead, girl freed and restored to childhood, heroine now making sense of her past and able to move forward. The characters and the place – an utterly gloomy version of Queenstown as the ultimate beautiful, remote and inhospitable Cinema of Unease setting (back here: an idea that Cinema of Unease really refers to the South Island) – are no longer stuck in the same dead moment. Time starts again. I’m not sure that the happy ending is cowardice either – instead, I take the entire series as some form of unwitting personal expression or the not entirely intended description of a hostile relationship between Campion and New Zealand. Between her and the New Zealand man, particularly, and acting also as a kind of love letter to the Antipodean woman, patchily impersonated here by Elisabeth Moss. (You can like the themes and ideas without really liking the series.) If the international cast sometimes made it feel placeless, there was also a way in which the actors’ obvious alienation – they came from Australia, the US, the UK as well as New Zealand – added to that Cinema of Unease sense. They were not at home, twice over. Really, has there been a more Cinema of Unease moment recently than Robin (Moss) and Johnno (Thomas M Wright) having sex in the New Zealand forest before being attacked by bogans with knives – an attack that leaves Johnno naked and bleeding? The Unease was compounded by the American Moss and the Australian Wright both playing New Zealanders who have been away. There was so much here and not here in the series, so much not belonging. And we haven’t even got to the sole Maori character – face-tattooed like Baines in The Piano – and the Maori mythology of the lake, introduced at the start and never (consciously) evoked again. At times, in the middle of the series especially, you feel like you were stranded in it – it was that dark and airless. A strange sensation. You know that trick where someone takes a pop song and slows it down so that it’s now a 40-minute long glacial drone? Top of the Lake occasionally felt as though someone had done that to an episode of Outrageous Fortune – guns, dogs, crime, sex, cars, and all the other Kiwiana signifiers, but joyless and endless.

May 11, 2013

Second chances

Cinema can resurrect the dead: Solaris, Vertigo, both love stories and fantasies. In the John Carpenter film Starman (1984), an alien crash lands in Wisconsin and assumes the form of Jenny Hayden’s (Karen Allen) dead husband, Scott. This is a shock; is it even a dream? The alien, naked, is played by Jeff Bridges, whose face as a younger man was harder and less friendly than now; he plays a naïve being rapidly schooled in the ways of being human as he and Jenny travel to Arizona by car for his alien rendezvous, via Las Vegas (which is only one of the ways in which it resembles Rain Man). The moment this got me: the alien sees a dead deer strapped to a car as he and Jenny enter a restaurant; later, a shot from inside the restaurant towards the carpark has the alien bringing the deer back to life and setting it free. In the 1980s, Starman – with its gentle alien pursued by an aggressive military – was taken as a post-ET film, but I see it as closer to an alternate version of another sci-fi film from the same year, James Cameron’s The Terminator. Like Sarah Connor in that film, pregnant with John Connor, Jenny is pregnant at the end of Starman, aware that she is carrying a child who will have an important role. Messianic Christian imagery overlays it all – how many JCs are floating around? – but The Terminator anticipates war while Starman has a more romantic vision. This is also a genuinely touching love story in which the grieving Jenny’s second chance lets her say the things that were unsaid.

May 8, 2013

Primal moment

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (Sam Wanamaker, 1977), seen sometime in the late 1970s in a long since demolished cinema in Christchurch. RIP Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), who said, “If you make fantasy too real, it loses the quality of a dream”.

May 7, 2013

Brad Dourif, 2002

Actual moment: December 15, 2002. The internet can tell you anything, including the exact day you stood in Los Angeles on the sidelines of a red carpet at the (LA) premiere of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, as one of the last moments of a short Tourism NZ media trip trailing Helen Clark as she promoted an adventure tourism special for the Discovery Channel. We were background noise and the benign audience for the first round of Hobbit tourism hype, but there were jittery currents too. We were in New York first. Some, opportunistically, thought that the war industry and entertainment industry were coinciding – as in, just how fortuitous was that “two towers” subtitle? Could the movie’s threatened humans be an analogy for “us” – Americans? But some read it the other way round. Viggo Mortensen, to me, at that LA red carpet, after greeting with “kia ora”, said: “The people under siege in Helm’s Deep have more in common with those on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Other insights. Andy Serkis said that he played Gollum as a heroin addict, desperate and pitifully needy. Billy Boyd had just done a movie with Russell Crowe: “He was a lovely guy. I don’t know where that stuff comes from.” I represented the Listener and I stood with people representing Netgroupie, E! Online, Tolkien Online, W, Teen People and Network 10 Australia. Are all of those still extant? More important media had already talked to these people in New York and on junkets. We were third division. I was only going through the motions except that I did want to talk to Brad Dourif. The actual Brad Dourif. For whatever reason, I never wrote my Dourif interview up and only found the notes a little while ago, as an attachment in an old email. On that late afternoon that stretched towards evening, no one else seemed to know who Dourif was – no one was asking him to pose for their photos or speak into their microphones. But I wanted to talk to him. His career highlights at that point, for me: Dourif as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood; as one of Dennis Hopper’s gang of perverts in Blue Velvet (there’s always less of him in that movie than you remember); and a really good bit as a serial killer in a genuinely spooky X-Files episode called “Beyond the Sea”. These were sad, eccentric, damaged characters. In person, Dourif had curly hair and a handlebar moustache; he was quiet and polite and probably struck others as intense; he seemed utterly removed or detached from the hyped-up, excitable young actors making the most of their big breaks (he was 52). He was dressed in black (the picture above was taken at that premiere, by Jarrod Felix, for the One Ring site). He gave me a few moments in the lobby of the cinema – somewhere in Hollywood, near Amoeba Records (the internet could probably tell me the name of the cinema) – and I took notes for the piece I never wrote. I had prepared no questions and had nothing to record his answers with.

You are a cult actor, I said. Will this change your profile? “That kind of thing is really impossible for me to say.” It will be seen by more people. “That much is different,” he agreed. Serkis had talked about sympathy for Gollum, but there is none to be had for Dourif’s vile character, Grima Wormtongue, I suggested. “I think there is,” he said, “I disagree. He can’t be a really sympathetic character, but I think that you can identify with him. He can’t have what he wants. He is human, corrupted by Saruman. He’s evil, but Chucky, for instance, just enjoys his work. Chucky is crazy about murder and mayhem, but there’s also a dark and serious side, where he’s frightened by mortality. He’s looking for a way out from death. But this is about trying to move people. Because he’s the only human being who has turned evil, there is a lot that the audience can identify with and feel.” Dourif voiced Chucky in the Child’s Play films, and one suspects he has spent a lot of time thinking about evil and how it is represented. He said that the Tolkien books are about the battle of good and evil, how people are corrupted and tempted by evil. He said that he spent just a couple of months in New Zealand all up, not the long acclimatising stretches of the other actors. “Wormtongue’s a coward, so he stays clear of battles.” Meaning, battles take all the filming time. He knew the books? “I had only read The Hobbit, but not the Lord of the Rings.” Did he? “Oh yeah. Immediately.” He auditioned and didn’t get the part at first and then the other actor pulled out. Also: why the moustache? He said he had grown it for a part in a TV pilot called Deadwood. In 2002, this needed explaining: the show is set in a goldrush town in South Dakota, Indian land, he said, where Wild Bill Hickok was, not far from Little Big Horn. I took all this down but remember a vague sense of, why would anybody be doing television? He hoped it would be picked up as a series. I asked about career highlights. “I’m not a movie star. Brad Dourif is … I don’t put that question to myself. I try not to have a stamp. I want people to get involved in the story and my character as part of a story.” As far being a star goes, though, “there’s nothing wrong with that”. He went on: “Cuckoo’s Nest, I did a good job in that. Grim Prairie Tales.” He gave a lot of thought to the question about whether Two Towers was a war allegory for the US in late 2002. “This is a different idea of evil. This is the classical idea of evil which came about 2000 years ago. It developed into this religious/political idea that the Devil had somehow infused people. It’s a very political notion. It dehumanises the individual – you’re killing a force, not a person. In the book, there is a force of evil which is Sauron. The book is about heroism and good versus evil. The individual makes a difference. It focuses on how we stand up to threat. We are all afraid. We all go through life confronting our fears. Although it has a huge scope, it really focuses on the struggles inside a human being. But I don’t like the political or religious idea of good and evil. I believe in God, but I don’t believe in evil as a force. People just do horrible, horrible things to each other. People give in to fear and behave abominably.” There is a Shakespearean quality to it, he thought: “These people are tragic. It is a history. The books are written as a history.” And his rating of Peter Jackson as a director? “As good as any. As good as John Huston, David Lynch, as good as Milos Forman. They’re all amazing and all bent a certain way.” I think he said “bent” – that’s what I wrote down. In the end, Two Towers didn’t make a great deal of difference to Dourif’s profile but Deadwood did. Who was to know of the cultural impact and new seriousness of television in 2002? Later that decade, too – but not even on the horizon then – there was his bit as Werner Herzog’s paranoid stranded alien in Wild Blue Yonder, and roles in two other American Herzog films (deranged versions of genre crime dramas). Looking back, and from my very peripheral viewpoint, Hollywood then seemed ebullient. Money was being made; only the music business was bothered by piracy; the young actors on the red carpet taking photos of themselves and each other on digital cameras – this was before smart phones – must have thought they had big careers ahead of them. Amidst all that excitement, Dourif’s scepticism about the value of wide exposure seemed a little perverse or even negative, but maybe he was the wise one – it must have been the cautiousness of experience.

May 2, 2013

Death dream double bill

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe, 2010) and Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). And it would run best in that order: Noe’s druggy Buddhist nihilism before Malick’s sentimental Christian optimism, but both as death meditations that try – and succeed, in different ways – to return the viewer to the immediate state of childhood consciousness, remembered as paradise in Malick and (largely) trauma in Noe. Both with their adored lost mothers, both with their under-the-breath narration, full of doubt. Both also taking us to a beginning: cosmic in Malick, simply biological and painful in Noe.