Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Hobbit: Roll Back The Red Carpet

Today The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its world premiere in Wellington – or Wellywood, as Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, and former Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast wanted us to be known. (I hope you’ll indulge me saying ‘us’ even though I’ve only lived in Wellington for a year. I’ve developed quite an attachment to the city and its people.)

This premiere is quite a big deal, mainly because it is a world premiere and will be attended by the film’s stars. They held the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in Wellington as well, and it was quite an occasion – the culmination of “the single biggest phenomenon ever to hit our humble little shores”, according to one TV news reporter in this clip. That was kind of how I felt at the time, too. The Return of the King premiere seemed like a celebration of our capacity as a small country to do big things in a humble way. A couple of weeks later, I was watching ROTK in Auckland’s Lido cinema and marvelling at what they could put on the screen nowadays, let alone the fact that the visual limits of cinema were being extended right here in little old New Zealand, and by New Zealanders.

So now, almost ten years later, we have another world premiere in Wellington as Jackson returns to the wizards and elves he knows best. After I came out of Killing Them Softly last night, I found Courtenay Place closed and the red carpet being rolled out:

Red Carpet | The Hobbit Premiere | Wellington | Courtenay Place

Exciting, huh?

No, not really. To be honest with you, I’ve written The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey off and almost certainly won’t see it in the cinema. The humility and pride of 2003 has been replaced with the political chest-beating and cynicism of 2012. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

At bottom, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit ought to be evaluated as a Peter Jackson film – because that’s what it is, much more than it is a cultural phenomenon or a Key Government policy. On these grounds, to say that I almost certainly won’t see it is kind of crazy. As much as the Lord of the Rings films were glorified time-pass, I actually quite enjoyed them while I was in the cinema. I forgot them all pretty quickly within days and definitely didn’t watch any of the extended editions, but for those 3+ hours each December, I was entertained and got my money’s worth. That’s all you can really ask for at the movies.

I also expected King Kong to be an awful, bombastic double-rehash of a past classic and the excess of the LOTR, but I actually enjoyed it a great deal. It was as big and loud as suspected but contained unexpected emotional depths. (It also contained a scene in which a giant gorilla pile-drives a dinosaur’s jaw into the ground. I mean, come on. Awesome.) Then there was The Adventures of Tintin, officially directed by Steven Spielberg but unofficially co-directed with producer Jackson, which I loved. Very entertaining and true to the spirit of the books. They even managed to improve the storyline – as I’ve written before, Tintin books are surprisingly full of plot holes.

Going back a bit further, I will also happily watch and re-watch The Frighteners, which I think pulls off the comedy-horror tone far better than a lot of people give it credit for. Heavenly Creatures, meanwhile, is an unforgettable piece of work. I saw it with my mother in Te Awamutu and remember that we hardly said a word to each other for about twenty minutes afterwards. It was probably the first time I was stunned into silence by a film, shocked and moved to a degree that I didn’t know what to say. Jackson’s splatter films aren’t really my thing, but they are certainly admirable for their ingenuity. However, Forgotten Silver, a brilliant one-hour TV film from 1995, is Jackson’s finest hour as a filmmaker and one of my all-time favourites.

So, given Jackson’s pedigree – just don’t mention The Lovely Bones – I should be queuing up for a ticket to The Hobbit with the rest of the country. Why, then, am I casting it aside?

For a start, the manner in which the production was kept here by the Key Government seems very morally suspect. New Zealand now has separate union laws regarding film industry employees, and Warner Bros got a tailor-made tax break not offered to other studios. It was a remarkably political play, led not by our Minister for the Arts, Culture and Heritage but by our Prime Minister (who is also our Minister for Tourism), to keep the production here in New Zealand, rather than see it escape to Eastern Europe or wherever.

And with that, the Key Government was all in. Having made some very specific tax concessions, and having rewritten labour laws for the production’s benefit, they needed The Hobbit to reap some tangible rewards for the country so that the people of New Zealand would accept it. As part of the deal with Warner Bros, NZ was given the right to use The Hobbit as a Middle-earth marketing crutch for the NZ tourism industry – but naturally, the Hollywood studio wore the pants in the relationship, not the small country in the South Pacific. Tourism NZ reportedly had to go to Warner Bros to ask about pretty much anything they wanted to do in their Middle-earth campaign.

This is where things start to get a bit messy, and my head starts to hurt. Tourism NZ has been using a similarly morally suspect marketing strategy for some time, based around the inaccurate slogan ‘100% Pure’. For the release of The Hobbit, particularly the period of months either side of its Wellington world premiere and subsequent global release, that slogan has been transmuted to ‘100% Middle-earth’ (also untrue). In turn, our humility has been buried under the language of advertising, pasted on in slick, shallow layers. (Giovanni Tiso has an excellent post up about all this on his blog Bat, Bean, Beam called Leaving Middle-earth, which I highly recommend reading.)

More than anything else, though, I’m just so tired of the endless Middle-earth advertising. It’s everywhere: on lampposts in the streets, in internet banner ads, on TV, and all over Wellington’s buildings. The film, the city, and the country are all being sold in the same way, an unavoidable triple threat birthed from the one fantastic seed that is The Hobbit. Here I thought The Lord of the Rings was in-your-face with its advertising campaign but I swear it wasn’t as pervasive as The Hobbit has been. Worse still, it’ll happen all over again for the next two Decembers as Jackson stretches a 300-page book into three movies.

It’s like a formerly decent TV show has been renewed for another three seasons after jumping the shark – except as Wellingtonians, the Hobbit show is our lives, and there’s nothing we can do to keep the cameras away.

In the film The Corporation, commodities broker Carlton Brown commented that in our world today, only that which is commodified gains meaning. He said this is in relation to environmental conditions, which are not yet capable of being traded on the open market and therefore of little importance to the richest and most powerful people on the planet. This speaks to the overwhelmingly consumer-driven nature of the society we have constructed: anything and everything can be a product, as long as you can get people to buy it.

I’m no less susceptible to commodifying my surroundings than anyone else, but where that commodification is so excessive as to become blatantly intrusive, I instinctively recoil. And The Hobbit, it seems, is very much a commodity in the eyes of the New Zealand Government, to be bought and sold for as long as it is profitable. When the hype dies down and Tourism NZ/the Key Government move on and The Hobbit stops being a commodity, probably several years from now, maybe I’ll be able to enjoy it.

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Grizzly Bear Live: Keeping It Up

I have now seen Grizzly Bear perform live. I would show you a photo taken by me of the band performing but the venue bastards were particularly vigilant about NO PHOTOGRAPHY PLEASE SIR THERE’S NO PHOTOGRAPHY, so here’s a photo of their set list by Ollie Labone (via Blog On The Tracks):

Photo by Ollie Labone

So how was the gig? It was INCREDIBLE. Never seen anything like it.

Most bands set themselves up on stage so that each member has a clearly defined space. Drummer up the back, singer up the front, guitars either side is the norm – a kind of diamond shape, or maybe in New Zealand a Southern Cross shape. It can give a sense that each band member is keeping their own part of the sound afloat, rather than working consciously with the rest of the group. With the kinds of songs most bands play, this is okay.

Grizzly Bear line up across the front of the stage to share the performance equally. Even Chris Bear, who is an astoundingly good drummer, is up front. (Admittedly, tour keyboardist Aaron Arntz hangs out up the back, but he at least got to sprint around the Opera House during ‘While You Wait For The Others’). You can see each of them, and everything they do, clearly. It’s like being shown all the angles and all the secrets of a magic trick. Their music certainly seems magic to me – all unusual time signatures, multi-part harmonies, and deft instrumental touches, cohering into a majestic whole.

As musicians, Grizzly Bear are like jugglers, with a number of song elements in the air at any given time. Chris Bear sends up kick & snare drum hits, which come down a Chris Taylor bassline. The bassline is built upon by Dan Rossen’s guitar, and Rossen’s voice is joined in harmony by Ed Droste (and, quite often, by the rest of the band). Taylor switches from guitar to brass to woodwind, Bear from sticks to brushes, while Rossen’s and Droste’s subtly distinctive voices interchangeably pick up and pass on vocal melodies. Grizzly Bear work space into their songs, and give each other space to move in them. Their careful placement of different sounds into that shared space seems so natural and intuitive, but I’m sure they must work extremely hard to figure the songs out in the first place, let alone be able to perform them so perfectly.

Unlike with some other bands, I felt like every member of Grizzly Bear played always for the song and never for themselves. Their songs are so rich and layered that if they hold anything back, the performance won’t work. Somehow, through their consummate individual skills and a four-part hive mind, it all stays aloft.

… I’ve made a Grizzly Bear concert sound like maths. It was, but it was so much more. They appear to take real joy from the art of performance, and I think we in the audience all felt that joy too.

They were also surprisingly relaxed between such moody and complex songs. “Who’s going to Boyz II Men? You guys don’t know about that? Boyz II Men on this very stage. There’s only three of ’em, but still, Boyz II Men. I’d fuckin’ see that. You guys should go along, tell me how it is.” And into ‘Cheerleader‘: “God let it go, it doesn’t mean a thing / Chance and sow, nothing changing…” And afterwards: “That was our cover of ‘End of the Road’ by Boyz II Men.”

They rocked, too, and most of the crowd at least bobbed around in their seats throughout. I bobbed particularly hard to ‘Yet Again’, a current favourite:

and pre-encore closer ‘Sun In Your Eyes’, just spectacular:

Two weeks ago, I saw Radiohead live, and that was a moment of completion in my life. But I can’t remember seeing a better or more complete musical performance than Grizzly Bear at the Wellington Opera House.

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Opening My Eyes Further: Graphic Novels, Comics, and Me

Upon Ed’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels lately – or comics, I’m not sure which. They’ve all been non-fiction, so are they still graphic novels? I’m gonna go with graphic novels because of their long-form nature – when I see the word ‘comic’, I think first of strips in the newspaper, like Peanuts and Garfield.

They’ve been quite a revelation, these graphic novels. My reading hasn’t just been changed by the addition of this bright new medium; it’s been broadened and given new life. I hope you’ll bear with me while I cast my eye back a little to illustrate how this new enthusiasm fits into the context of my life.

L-R: Sad, Unfunny

It’s funny that I should associate Peanuts and Garfield with the newspaper, because when I was a kid, I borrowed and read all the Peanuts and Garfield books in Tokoroa Public Library several times over. I never read them in the newspaper. I even bought a few cheap Peanuts collections with my allowance, books that are now long gone. (I never bought any Garfield, and I’m glad now that I didn’t because reading Garfield as an adult has been one of the most jarring revisitations to childhood I’ve had. Like, did I really used to laugh at this?)

More than Peanuts and Garfield, I read Tintin and Asterix. I think Tintin was my first exposure to comics. On about my seventh or eighth birthday, a compendium of the three Tintin books – Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and The Blue Lotus – was given to me by parents, and I was soon reading each of the stories over and over. I already loved reading, and read voraciously, but Tintin allowed me to escape into a world I could literally see, not just imagine.

The following year, I was given another compendium containing The Calculus Affair, The Red Sea Sharks, and Tintin in Tibet. I remember being moved by Tintin’s relationship with Chang, the Chinese boy he saves from the river in The Blue Lotus, and their tearful reunion in Tintin in Tibet. Because I read them all so many times – possibly into the hundreds – I can also a remember a number of specific images, like Haddock’s curled-up beard when Calculus lights his microfilms on Haddock’s pipe, or the final ‘shot’ of Tintin in Tibet, in which the yeti looks longingly across the plain at the departing travellers.

Tintin in Tibet | Tintin au Tibet | Yeti | Himalayas

Tintin is like a series of shots, a storyboard for a film. I still haven’t seen anyone convey movement in a static image as well as Hergé could. The stories are often as full of plot holes as the dumbest Hollywood blockbusters, but the drawings themselves are so memorable. Pretty good cast of characters, too.

As a kid, when talking with friends, I was adamant that Tintin was not a ‘comic’ but a ‘cartoon’, which to me implied its status as serious art. There began my prejudice against comics in general, or what I narrowmindedly thought of as comics.

Asterix, meanwhile, has followed me into adult life more than anything else I read in childhood. I liked Asterix in those days but preferred the fast-paced action and earnestness of the Tintin books. When I read through the entire Asterix series as an adult, however, I marvelled constantly at all the wordplay that had flown way over my head years before. What’s more, all this wordplay was developed twice – once in French by Goscinny, and again in English by those translation wizards Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. I’ve never read the French editions of Asterix but someday, if my French ever gets good enough, I’d love to do so.

Obelix speeds up the works | Asterix in SwitzerlandI do remember the images of Asterix well, too, especially Uderzo’s broadly demonstrative facial expressions. The bit where the major-domo tastes Asterix and Obelix’s stew in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath ALWAYS cracks me up, as does the bit in Asterix in Switzerland where Obelix tries to ‘speed up the works, by Toutatis’ and immediately gets wasted drunk. No doubt there are others out there who can recall it in an instant too.

After going through Asterix again – this was about five years ago – I didn’t seek out any more comics. The term ‘graphic novel’, which came up with relative frequency in conversation with various friends and family members, was still off-putting to me: it conjured visions of dark sci-fi drawings with lots of blood and exclamation marks. No real reason for that, of course. It was my way of closing my mind off to them, perhaps so I could keep the world a little more manageable. It’s bad enough thinking of all the films you want to someday see, let alone all the books you want to read.

I also saw the film version of Watchmen and hated it. After hearing so much about the supposed genius of the graphic novel, the terribleness of the film seemed to validate my preconceptions.

120 Days of Simon | Simon GardenforsThen, a few months ago, Ed got The 120 Days of Simon out from the library. It was really quite vacuous: a man I would hate in real life travels around Sweden having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs, then tells his story through cartoonish illustrations and unexceptional (though relatable) dialogue. To my surprise, I raced through it in an hour, thoroughly entertained. I guess I’m as voyeuristic as the next guy.

Afterwards, the sense of satisfaction at reading a 400-plus-page book in such a short space of time was something I hadn’t felt before. It was a minor epiphany: graphic novels are a way of reading many books without using up all my waking hours! I decided to seek out more.

Next, Ed recommended the work of Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator who has written graphic novel travelogues about his time in various unusual locations around the world. I started with Shenzhen, which was very good, and then went on to Pyongyang, which was not as good but fascinating just for the fact that it was about the everyday life of a foreigner in North Korea.

Shenzhen | Guy Delisle | Comics | Graphic Novel from China

When I look back on reading those two Delisle books, I can’t remember many of the images. My brain is wired for language, it seems, so I focused on the dialogue and narration much more than the pictures. Not surprisingly, the drawings I remember most clearly are the ones that were unaccompanied by English words, such as a hilarious scene in which a Chinese man gets into a lift with Delisle and bellows into his ringing phone before realising he hasn’t pressed the button to answer it. I wonder if this means my brain can only properly process one form of input at a time, in this case either pictures or words. I’ll bet it’s possible to train your brain to do both.

Delisle has done quite a bit more than those two books, including some well-reviewed work on Burma and Jerusalem, but I wanted to get into some classics of the genre first. A little research brought two titles quickly to the surface: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman. Persepolis is the story of the artist – an Iranian woman – growing up in her post-revolution homeland, while Maus is the story of the artist’s father surviving the Holocaust in Poland and Germany. Both are widely hailed as exceptional works of art in any genre – Maus won a Pulitzer – and as essential reading for any graphic novel enthusiast.

I decided to start with Persepolis because I’ve been very interested in Iran lately. I want to get a broader picture of Iran than what we get from most news reports, which show virtually nothing beyond a tyrannical government and a faceless, obedient proletariat. Persepolis was perfect because Satrapi was a woman (i.e. not a man with a beard) from a well-off but somewhat dissident family, which couldn’t be much further from the fundamentalist Islamists I had previously pictured when I thought of Iran.

Persepolis | Marjane Satrapi

It was a brilliant memoir, full of internal conflict as Satrapi wrestled with her love for a homeland that felt less and less like home. She illustrated the dynamics in her family clearly, and with admirable and honest empathy for all the times she drove her parents crazy. She also didn’t shy away from her passionate views on human rights, the veil, censorship – the kinds of things that artists in Iran have been jailed for. I was entertained by her sense of humour and enlightened by her bitter insights. Persepolis enriched me as a person. It also got me the email address of a PhD architecture candidate from Iran, who was handing out questionnaires in Civic Square one afternoon and saw me reading it. A golden coincidence.

As it was with Delisle, I don’t remember many of Satrapi’s images. Most of the time I would skim across the top of each frame, where the majority of the dialogue and narration was placed, and more or less ignore the illustrations. Perhaps the skill of taking both text and images in at once will develop with experience – or perhaps it’s just that those details you missed can be revealed on subsequent readings, just like with any other book.

The Complete Maus cover | Art Speigelman | Maus CD-ROM

Then came Maus, which is the reason for writing all this. Maus is purely extraordinary. Schindler’s List used to be the work of art I would immediately think of when moved to consider the Holocaust for one reason or another; henceforth, it shall be Maus. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The central character is compelling. He’s racist, cantankerous, and miserly, as well as being chivalrous, resourceful, and very intelligent. He speaks in a grammatically imperfect English – “one of the boys what we were in the attic together, talked over to the guard” – which builds up a distinctive voice in your head as you read it. He loves and loses almost everything.
  • Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from the most horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. He illustrates so many ways to die in just the level of detail that you won’t be put off reading any further but won’t forget any of it, either.
  • With Maus, I DID remember a lot of the images afterwards. In fact, I’d seen some of them before: in a third form social studies exam, more than half of my life ago, we were asked to read a page from Maus and then answer questions about it. (I had no idea what it was at the time, of course.) When I came to that page in the book, I recognised it immediately. I think this is a testament to Spiegelman’s straightforward approach to detail in his drawings, which aims to tell the story without too many lines getting in the way. He also employs the simple visual metaphor of drawing each race as a different animal – Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, Germans as cats – to help embed those images.
  • The story is fundamentally about one man’s experience, but that narrower focus allows for a richness in detail that broader works wouldn’t have time for. In sticking to his dad’s story in this way, Spiegelman ends up speaking directly to people’s individual experience of the Holocaust, which is much easier to relate to than a history lesson. The fact that his dad’s life intersected with so many others helps, too, as they move in and out of the narrative. You get a sense of the staggering numbers of lives involved – on all sides.

On the back cover of this edition of Maus, there was a quote from the Washington Post: “impossible to describe accurately, and impossible to achieve in any medium but comics”. The latter part seems very true to me: it’s a perfect marriage of illustration and language, both of which are essential to the way the story is told. The narration allows you into the characters’ heads so you can see the illustrations on the page from their perspective as well as your own. And because it’s a printed page, rather than a moving image on a screen for example, you can linger on a particularly compelling image for as long as you wish.

Maus | Reality vs Comics | Art Spiegelman

As for the ‘impossible to describe accurately’ part, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but I think the point is that it’s considerably more valuable to read Maus in its entirety than it is to skim over its Wikipedia page. It was, for me, an incredibly moving and inspiring experience, and I cried a little as I read the last page. It’s good to know I’m not so caught up in my own scattered thoughts that I can’t be moved to tears any more.

I notice that something common to all the graphic novels I’ve read so far is that they are memoirs, so maybe my enthusiasm is just as much for the confessional nature of memoir writing as it is for the fact that they’re in illustrated form. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that I’ve long felt a deeper affinity with film than with words on the page, and I hardly watch films nowadays compared to the amount I read, and the graphic novel is a happy middle ground between the two that I find doubly satisfying. Maybe graphic novels remind me of the exhilaration I once felt reading Tintin, how I could blast through a book and be entertained for half an hour – a kind of Freudian link to some of the most purely content moments of my childhood.

Or, maybe I’ve just lucked into beginning the genre with its most broadly appealing work. Whatever the case, graphic novels – comics – cartoons – whatever – are a legitimate art form and I am thrilled to have finally discovered them.

As mentioned before, graphic novels are not eating into any of my other reading. They’ve simply added more time and more discernment to my reading habits. I’ve learned that my brain can switch from one printed story to another, just as it can switch from longform journalism article to another, or from one music album to another, or from one internal monologue to another. What graphic novels are eating into is my time spent watching Youtube videos and liking things on Facebook, and I’m not complaining about that.

Marjane Satrapi on Facebook

Next will be the work of Joe Sacco, who was once featured in The Caravan and has been widely acclaimed for graphic novels about turmoil-stricken places like Palestine and Bosnia. After that, maybe I’ll try and break down another the wall to another consciously overlooked writing genre. Poetry, probably.

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Radiohead (Live) (Life)

I have now seen Radiohead perform live. Just look at how close I was!

This was the fulfilment of a long-held dream. I liked Radiohead through my childhood (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer), wore them like a protective layer through my adolescence (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief), and evolved along with the Radiohead sound as an adult (In Rainbows, The King of Limbs). No other band has been as important to me in my life as Radiohead, and no other musician or group of musicians has consistently held my attention for so long. I’ve relied upon them to enthral, inspire and motivate me for as long as I’ve needed them. Their music is a comfort zone in my life.

To see them perform live, as I did last night, was something I never imagined would actually happen. I almost had a chance in Japan in 2008 but skipped off to India instead, and as much as the band’s members have spoke positively about New Zealand, they hadn’t been here to play since the OK Computer tour of 1998.

But then, in the final encore, there was Thom Yorke singing ‘Idioteque’ right in front of me – this is really happening, happening – and it was happening, and it had happened, finally.

They didn’t play ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, or ‘Karma Police’, or ‘House of Cards’, which I was kind of hoping they would. They didn’t play anything at all from either Pablo Honey or The Bends. But they DID play ‘Separator’ and ‘Reckoner’ back to back – probably my two favourite Radiohead songs – and finished up with stellar renditions of ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘Idioteque’. Other highlights included ‘Kid A’, ‘Airbag’ and ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’. ‘Myxomatosis’ (dedicated to “Mitt fucking Romney”) and ‘Feral’ were also surprisingly good.

The point is that there are so many good Radiohead songs that it doesn’t really matter if they missed a couple of your favourites. And to see them actually playing in front of you, as tight and professional as you can imagine for a group that uses a lot of guitar noise and computer input, was like having these songs assembled before your eyes and ears. Which is incredible, because to me – and most of the audience, it seemed – Radiohead’s songs are more than just familiar; they’re part of who I am.

I loved seeing all the little things you don’t get from a recording. The way Ed O’Brien would look at other members of the band and smile at seeing them lose themselves in the music. The twisting, hopping dance moves of Thom Yorke. Jonny Greenwood’s fringe flailing along with his rangy arms, running up and down a guitar like Hendrix. Phil Selway’s serene face as he executed complicated drum manoeuvres. Colin Greenwood hanging out up the back with Selway, quietly doing his thing.

It seemed like everyone was very happy to be there. We smiled and gave each other space. The whole crowd sang along to Paranoid Android. Security guards passed water along the front line. You hear a lot about good vibes but it’s rare to actually sense them; at this Radiohead concert, the arena was filled with our collective excitement at seeing some of the great musical minds of our time.

A Twitter person said (1 2 3) that she lost her ticket outside before the concert. Beginning to panic, she hunted around for an hour to no avail. Then she checked the ticket counter… and someone had handed it in. I imagine that person finding a ticket on the ground, considering how gutted they would feel if they lost their Radiohead ticket right before the show, and immediately taking it to arena staff.

I also imagine that person gained some of their empathy from listening to Radiohead songs. I know I did.

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