Things of 2016

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Crocodile stone

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I’ve never understood the need to ceremoniously dismiss a calendar year from sight. Every December you hear the same, from so many people: this year was shit and it can fuck off. Bring on next year. Bad things happen, and people grasp at the opportunity to sweep them aside, but I considered myself above raging against an arbitrary construct wholly unrelated to the actual sources of one’s bitterness. I thought myself level-headed when it came to apportioning my annual misgivings. And then came 2016.

There was a failed overseas adventure that ended in frustration and debt. There was an assault, one that I sort of saw coming but was no less upsetting for it in the aftermath. There was a shocking death in the family, and the grief and support that followed. These three shunts spun me around and brought unfamiliar feelings to the surface. There is a thrill in learning from new experiences, for sure, and I have learned a lot: about what is really important to me, what I want to do with my time, how I respond to trauma, and how capable I am of carrying others. But the negative effects of these events linger, regardless of what they have taught me.

I am being deliberately vague here. At this early stage, I can’t articulate all of the lessons and wounds and how I have changed, other than that I know want to have kids as soon as possible. A phrase I’ve returned to again and again in the last couple of years, both in relation to my own life and to global current events, is ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know’; perhaps this is how I sweep the bad things aside.

Then there were all the jolts in the obituary pages. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Prince. Anton Yelchin. Muhammad Ali. Leonard Cohen. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. Et cetera.

And, in June and November, the United Kingdom and the United States of America voted to turn the tide away from global citizenship and toward isolationism. They washed their hands of the various crises on their doorsteps and further afield in favour of looking out for number one — but with no clear or functional plan even to improve their own lot.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. It never is. I got a new job — after some months of trying — and so did Tara. We moved into a new flat two minutes’ walk from a Sunday fruit and veg market. I was in better touch with my parents than I have been years. Nothing was easy, but it could all have been a lot harder.

Still, as 2016 disappears over the horizon, I find myself filled with trepidation for the year to come. 2017 promises at least one great boon: I will get married. Pretty much everything else is up in the air, both at home and in the global sphere. Eighteen months ago, Tara and I upended our lives in the hope of improving them out of sight. It could be another eighteen before we manage to settle back down to Earth.

Sports & Leisure

Black Caps fan at the Basin last week. Here's hoping today's #nzvaus #cricket goes a bit better.

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There was a lot more watching than doing this year. No tramping. No indoor football. A few hikes. A few jogs, the longest stretching to an easy eight kilometres. A couple of hits at the beach with a cricket bat. I attended a full Australia vs New Zealand cricket Test and watched us get absolutely hammered. There was also the World Twenty20, which started so well and ended in disappointment. There was EURO 2016, which promised a surprise champion and delivered the worst surprise champion possible: Portugal, every neutral’s least favourite team.

The one thing I did more than any other year was swim in rivers. Around these parts, rivers are very cold in summer and icy cold in winter, and believe me, there is nothing quite like the rush of endorphins you get from immersing yourself in cold water. Back in July, at the end of the Five Mile Track south of the Wainuiomata, I swam in the Orongorongo River and it was so cold that I found myself literally unable to think after about ten seconds in the water. Survival instinct kicked in and I hauled myself back to the riverbank. There is video of this — I’m not going to show you — but I appear to have aged ten years between hitting the water and emerging from it.

Music

The solemn mood and darkly glorious lyrics made Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ my song of 2016. As a species, we did in fact seem to want it darker.

As a valedictory statement, You Want It Darker (the album) was as complete as they come, rich with memorable tunes and words to sum up Cohen’s life and the times in which he left us. I group it with David Bowie’s Blackstar, which was followed, two days later, by the artist’s death, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, so pregnant with the aftershocks of Cave’s son plummeting from a cliff on the South Coast of England. Mortality hung heavy over this year, and in confronting death head on, these three great musicians bestowed dark gifts.

The Field brought out a new record, The Follower, and I eventually fought past its repetitiveness — normally so comforting — to find the beauty within. He is a genius. Radiohead are geniuses, too: A Moon Shaped Pool was perhaps the most cohesive album they’ve ever done, but it was also their saddest, with Thom Yorke’s previously bitter voice stepping over into resignation.

Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a tight country masterpiece accessible even to the likes of me. Two easily digestible pop albums, Kaytranada’s 99.9% and Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite!, got me tapping my feet under the desk at work and dancing around the house. And Solange’s A Seat at the Table spoke brightly and angrily for black women in America, linking the past to the dire present but still finding joy in one’s skin. (I didn’t hear Lemonade but it sounds like Solange’s superstar older sister tackled similarly weighty issues in 2016.)

My biggest new discovery of the year was Angel Olsen, whose My Woman showcased an artist reaching the peak of her considerable powers. It isn’t just that she’s good; she knows she’s good, and if you are lucky enough to see her perform in the flesh, you get the feeling she could destroy or exalt any of you with a single look. With the backing of her outstanding, blue-suited band, Olsen delivered one of the best gigs I’ve seen.

But if there was one single musical highlight I had to pick out, it would be from WOMAD, where, after walking Cathy back to the motel at about 10pm, I bounded back down the hill to the sound of Calexico filling the valley with the sweet, wistful strains of ‘Falling from the Sky’. I was alone, but I was dashing toward the light, where I would be enveloped once more in the pleasure of performance — a performance that was everything I hoped it would be and more, but still not as special as the exquisite promise of being able to hear it before I could yet see it. It was like nostalgia in real time.

Film

Film posters of 2016 Film posters of 2016

Film holds less and less importance in my life with each passing year, which is to say that where film was once my brightest, fiercest passion, it is now an essential but occasional diversion from the everyday lists of tasks. In 2016, I managed to see about 40 films I hadn’t seen before, and a solid handful of new releases that impressed me. Here we go:

45 YEARS felt like a lesson in how not to go about my impending marriage, and its haunting final shot is worth all the attention it has received. THE BIG SHORT came from nowhere and demanded my attention and admiration by being terrifically entertaining and desperately depressing. Micro-budget Wellington pic CHRONESTHESIA offered a high-concept vehicle for well-written and performed character interactions, and was one of the more enjoyable films of 2016. I relished the brutal thrills of GREEN ROOM, roared at the Warriors reference in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, and jigged about in my seat at SING STREET, which did teenagers the service of presenting them as real people with real problems. SPOTLIGHT was a work of outstanding focus and importance, much like the work of the reporters it chronicled; in particular, Liev Schreiber’s performance as editor Marty Baron was perfect, laden with power and prestige but never showy. No film of 2016 was sadder than TONI ERDMANN, which was billed as a comedy and made me laugh (a lot) but not without horrible cringing at the deep cracks in its characters’ lives. And YOUR NAME allowed me to bask in the distinctly Japanese state of natsukashii, which is some untranslatable combination of cherishing and yearning.

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Now, you may not believe this, and I still have doubts myself, but I think ZOOTOPIA was my favourite film of 2016. I remember blundering around Queensgate Mall one day back in February or whatever and seeing a poster for another stupid computer-animated film in which animals walk on their hind legs and crack wise. Then I went and saw it, and I found it to be funny, touching, well-plotted, visually spectacular, and thematically rich. Its subplots of political puppetry and migration/segregation seem almost prophetic in hindsight. I can’t wait to see it again.

Books

Christmas off to a good start. Both of my chief needs met.

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The only new book I read in 2016 was Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young. Ashleigh is a friend but she also happens to be one of the best writers in New Zealand today, although I would say that. It’s been wonderful to see more people discover her writing, which broaches difficult subjects in a way that is gentle and curious but doesn’t flinch from the hard bits. She makes no excuse for the fact that she is still figuring all this stuff out, too.

Of the 45 other books I read over the 12 months, Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville and (in particular) Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen were a joy to after so many years of keeping meaning to getting around to reading Dylan Horrocks. Even more satisfying: I neared completion of Rupert Thomson’s oeuvre, knocking off Death of a Murderer, Katherine Carlyle, and This Party’s Got to Stop. Only The Five Gates of Hell remains unread. Thomson is my favourite author, an unclassifiable literary force whose work exists in a slightly off-kilter universe, both familiar and disorienting in the details. His talent for pithy description is pretty much unrivalled. I find myself often re-reading a sentence, looking up from the book to reflect on it, then carrying on.

From a Thomson profile a few years ago: “I do build quite a lot into the words and I’m often trying to slow the reader down”. 2016 was the year I started setting myself reading targets and greedily racing through pages with one eye on the tally, but Rupert Thomson’s writing is a reminder that the pleasures of reading are more numerous than just the numbers.

Politics

The work dishwasher has something to say about #yourmum

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After the 2014 New Zealand general election, in which the Greens and Labour got smashed by a surging, John Key-led National, I attempted to mitigate my shock by engaging the other side. I wrote a Facebook post inviting National voters to message me with their reasons for voting that way. The aim was to understand their perspective, whether I agreed with it or not, because the election had acutely demonstrated that I lived in an ideological bubble divorced from the concerns of the majority. The only response came in person, a friend, who was happy to elucidate his vote over beers. ‘Lack of a credible alternative’ was the key phrase he used. It was hard to argue with that, regardless of the whole Dirty Politics palaver.

After Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump, I decided I needed to go deeper down the conservative route. There was a whole world of media out there that I never gave a second thought because I didn’t believe it could offer genuine facts or considered opinion. Clearly, a lot of people found that appealing in 2016, so if I wanted to understand their side better, I had to engage more directly. I watched some panel discussions on Fox News, which were invariably confusing and boring, laden as they were with impenetrable policy speak, although at least people listened to one another. I read through the top stories on Breitbart, which included a heartfelt endorsement of Trump by prominent Dutch racist Geert Wilders. And I subscribed to The Weekly Standard Podcast, on which white, middle-class men put the boot into ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ and performed backflips to find the silver linings in Trump’s repurposing of the Republican Party as his own plaything.

This broadening of heard opinions has changed my thinking somewhat. I appreciate the messages Trump voters were sold, and I understand why they voted that way, if they believed what he was saying. And even if they didn’t believe him, their desperation (in many, if not all, cases) seemed a reasonable catalyst to vote for change. The folks that actually produce the hogwash they read, though — the titles listed above, but also the cynical opportunists parlaying credulity into clicks and cash — deserve fiery contempt. I mentally pick holes in their arguments as I listen/read, throwing in the occasional profanity, and hope for some cataclysm to jolt them out of their plush comfort zone.

All this turned John Key’s resignation into a bit of an anticlimax. After eight years of complaining about the guy, I’m almost going to miss him. But we have an election coming in New Zealand in 2017, with more potential for change, and for shit-throwing from all sides. National will do what it’s been doing for years — steady hand on the tiller, can’t trust the other mob — and they will probably win again, but not without some mad interference from your Dotcoms and Morgans and whoever else decides they’ve got what it takes to be the Kiwi Trump.

All I hope is that more people vote than last time. A lower vote count helps no one.

Tech

Millennium Falcon pancake

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still get angry at things. The hinges on my pleasing little Medion laptop gave way in a minor tantrum back in July; poor bugger didn’t deserve it. If I spend any time in the kitchen at all, I am best avoided as there is a likelihood of swearing and thumping on the bench. Funny, because I love cooking. And people think I’m so calm.

The other tech note is that my social media use declined further in 2016. I remember a time when I craved likes and retweets to the extent that they effectively sustained my continued existence. Nowadays, I post whatever I feel like whenever I feel like and am thrilled if even one person interacts with it. I live in a warm cocoon of my own nonsense.

Travel

In the queue for free hours at the Prado.

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Tara and I cut our European sojourn dramatically short at the six-month mark, hurrying back to New Zealand as our finances reached into the red just in time to avoid a student loan repayment. It was devastating to give up on the dream of living and working abroad, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had done it before and we had tried to do it together, and this obviously wasn’t the time. We had felt a pull back to NZ ever since we left, anyway. There’s so much to love about being here.

Best new travel discovery of 2016 was Castlepoint. More specifically, the $120-a-night bach ten minutes up the coast in Sandy Bay, with its big lawn, ocean views, and soothing quiet. I can’t wait to go there again.

People

Christmas is better in the Hutt.

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2016 was the year Tara and I were engaged, all 366 days of it. We took two steps forward and one step back, over and over, in pretty much every aspect of our lives — except in our relationship. Together, we took on the enormous logistical challenge of planning a wedding, moved back to NZ, changed both of our careers, moved house, felt the earth shake, and grieved, but we kept talking and listening and hugging and have come out the other end with as strong a bond as ever. This time next year, we’ll be married. (Gosh, in a little over a month we’ll be married. Getting exciting now.)

Otherwise, apart from regular Skypes and lunch dates with my parents, and board game sessions with Tara’s family, I was more absent from the lives of those I care about it than I would prefer. Part of this is just drawing inward during a rough year. Part of it is the continued renegotiation of friendships as my live-in relationship takes precedence. Part of it is the cult of busyness, convincing myself I’m unable to go and meet people because I have too much on.

These are all excuses. I intend to be a better friend in 2017. If you’re reading this and thinking the same, let’s go for a beer sometime.

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Empathic pain response: Green Room (2015)

Green Room chessboard floor

Image by Angela Wolf (Flickr)

There are many more gruesome deaths in Green Room, but for some reason — I can’t explain why — the one that really got me was the machete to the throat. This poor sucker, whose red laces mark him out as a neo-Nazi redshirt, gets one shotgun blast away before being incapacitated by a mic stand. One of our heroes charges at him, blade in hand, and strikes one vicious blow to the left side of his neck. The shotgun falls to the floor, and as blood drains from the wound, his body follows.

A few seconds after the machete struck his flesh, I felt a pain in the exact same spot on my neck. Left side, about four inches across. The pain lingered through the rest of the film, through the drive home — through the rest of the night until I went to bed and fell asleep. As I write this, a full 24 hours after leaving the theatre, recollection of that scene brings the pain back. It’s the first time a film has provoked such a strong mirror neuron response in me.

But why that particular wounding? To a minor character, and in a comparatively minor fashion? I don’t know. That’s the sort of response Green Room wrings from you: visceral, unexpected, disorienting. It expertly builds and maintains tension, populates the screen with memorable and believable characters, and shows you the ‘how’ of what’s happening without muddying the waters with the ‘why’. It delivers the thrills you expect without pandering. It’s a genre classic.

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The greatest love of all: Toni Erdmann (2016)

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Image via jvc (Flickr)

I’m reminded of the efforts to sell The Death of Mr Lazarescu as a comedy because it didn’t fit into any other marketable box. Toni Erdmann is not a comedy, and the ‘prankster’ father present in every synopsis barely resembles the Winfried/Toni Erdmann we meet in the film. No, this is a deeply depressed and bitter film, filled with frustration at what market forces and globalisation are doing to people of all ages and at all levels of society.

As the father and daughter, Sinonischek and Huller give us two of the saddest characters of 21st Century film. The seams that hold their lives could tear at any moment, and they can keep from falling apart for a while, but the time will come when they realise there is no point trying any more and they might as well have a full breakdown. Winfried is a failed husband and failed father, blundering through one encounter after another, his alienation becoming his defining characteristic. Ines is an exceptionally competent business consultant, capable of turning her own blunders into leverage in a heartbeat, and the fact that she is so good at her job has stripped away everything else, turned her into an emotional husk, alternately raw and unfeeling. They both need a hug.

Thankfully, director Ade has a lot of warmth towards these characters. Perhaps it would have been more of a comedy if she didn’t. But she works so hard to make you care about them, and the actors give all they have, especially Huller. You so want them to connect with each other, or with anything, really, and it’s so hard to see them keep missing. It’s a better, more excruciating film for that warmth.

Did I say it wasn’t funny? Oh, no, it’s funny. It’s piss-funny in places, especially in the final hour. The situations are funny, expertly written and performed to get the laughs, but you’re relieved as much as amused. A few moments are profoundly moving and funny at the same time.

Will they be okay, though? Probably not. The world isn’t getting any friendlier. Toni Erdmann is a remarkable film for our times, one that I may one day call great.

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Respect: Tower (2016)

tower.jpg

Image via wattsbw2004 (Flickr)

I spent a lot of the running time of Tower wondering: why make this film? A terrible mass murder happened 50 years ago, and in the reporting of the outstanding Texas Monthly journalist Pamela Colloff, definitive records of the events already exist. So why film one of those pieces? And why animate it? And why drag the survivors through it one more time?

In retrospect, I can put a lot of those questions to the side. My suspicion of director Maitland and his team has given way to a kind of grudging respect. Though his treatment of this dreadful subject is a little showy, the extended animated sequences make it seem far more real than straight re-enactments would have, and he takes you inside a mass shooting in a way that no other film I’ve seen has. (The obvious comparison is with Elephant, which is a lesser film by comparison.)

Most importantly, Maitland’s focus is squarely on the survivors. The ultimate point is the correct number of times for this story to be told — Colloff or not — is however many times the survivors are willing to tell it. This film witnesses their suffering and bravery, something they were largely denied at the time. That alone makes it worthwhile.

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No budget, no genre, no problem: Chronesthesia (2016)

Chronesthesia

Image by glix (Flickr)

I found lots to like about Chronesthesia.

The high-concept premise seems like a gimmick at first, but it earns its big climax and all the editing trickery along the way. The ‘mental time travel’ idea is both a way into the story and an effective means of pushing it forward.

The characters are well-realised people, from youngest to oldest, and their conversations feel authentic, whether they’re meeting cute or arguing, whether or not they’re generations apart. You really feel an emotional investment by actor/director/editor/writer Weal in all of them, even in the smaller supporting roles, and he deserves extra credit for that, especially as he is the star of the film and in nearly every scene. It could so easily have been a straight-up vanity project. Perhaps he realised the quality of the talent opposite him and decided to give them room to do their thing.

Wellington looks marvellous. We already knew that, but Duncombe’s cinematography shows it off in style. Because this is a no-budget film, I also have to mention the sound quality, which is impeccable.

This is a rare film that takes mental illness seriously, to the point that large chunks of dialogue explore its effects on and place in society. A character with mental illness is treated with consistent respect, despite at times being a potential danger to the people around him. Not just a plot device after all!

The only thing I would change is the title. Being a New Zealand film, and hence a product of British English, it should be ‘Chronaesthesia’. But I’ll give them a pass if it gets them an American distribution deal.

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The audacity of hope: Tanna (2015)

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Photo by sydneydawg2006 (Flickr)

The Romeo and Juliet comparison is obligatory, so let’s get that out of the way.

But no, really, Tanna is a lot like Romeo and Juliet. Except it’s set in tribal lands in Vanuatu, where residents have rejected money, Christianity, democracy, and t-shirts, instead choosing a traditional life. And this story really happened, only a few decades ago.

And instead of going all in with the tragedy, it ends with hope — the hope that if you look at the consequences of certain customs, and see how tragic they can be, you can find another way. The hope of charismatic and thoughtful leadership, with speeches backed by action. The hope that minds can change.

It’s so easy to be cynical about such sentiments. You hear them so often from politicians and they so rarely amount to anything tangible. But that’s truly how Tanna made me feel! I would never want to live the way the Yakel do, but I think we can all learn something from them, or at least be reminded of how we are capable of learning.

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Desert island dudes: The Red Turtle (2016)

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Image by chaitanyak (Flickr)

A very interesting test.

Here is a film that looks stunning, boldly limits itself (there is no dialogue) but still succeeds narratively and thematically, and tells a moving and memorable story.

A quarter of the way through, the protagonist flies into a rage and commits a surprisingly cruel act of violence. The other characters in the film forgive him for this, and he attempts to atone for what he has done.

But can you, the audience member, forgive him? Can you accept that act, or put it to the side, and enjoy the rest of the film on its own terms? Can you look at him go on living and loving without shaking your head and tutting?

I’m kind of on the fence, which probably means no, I can’t forgive him. Even though it’s all a fantasy, and even though I was genuinely touched by the lifelong love at the film’s core.

You should forget all this and just see it. It’s worth seeing. Then let me know what you think.

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