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Things of 2017

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A lot changed for me in 2017. I got married. I got my driver’s licence. I moved out of Wellington. I became a father. I had a brush with mortality. Each of these big changes begat dozens more smaller changes, and from the outside, it might seem my life has been upended and rewritten.

My inner life, however, is largely the same. I still like to read, write, and watch movies, albeit with less tolerance for violence and misery. I still dwell on things a bit more than I’d like. Bottle feeds at five a.m. are part of my life now, and the logistics of keeping the roof over our family – going to work, power bills, rubbish collections etc. – fall largely to me, but the piles of books on the floor and incomplete manuscripts on the computer (and dearth of new blog posts) show I am still fundamentally quite lazy.

Still, nothing ever stays exactly the same in your mind. I’m not sure if it was having kids, or just getting older, but I am quicker to anger than ever before. I have become far less tolerant and forgiving of unpleasant behaviour, and I’ve started to speak up more against it. I even began to relish the opportunity to tap into my ire, mostly on other motorists. Actually, this new tendency to anger may be solely attributable to my spending a lot of time – several days if you add it all up – behind the wheel of a car. But, with politics and #metoo and the intersection between them, there was plenty to get angry about in 2017.

It never lasts, though. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away. The constant shrinking and expanding of life abides.

Health

superficial spreading melanoma stage 1a breslow skin cancerAt the back end of 2016, two months before the wedding, I told Tara a mole on my left ankle had become itchy. Increasingly catastrophic discussion of maladies and death followed, at the end of which she set out an ultimatum: there would be no marriage unless I got a mole map before the wedding date. I’d meant to get one for years, but here at last was an effective motivator.

The session began with a quick brief on what the melanographer was looking for: asymmetry, jagged margins, six millimetres or more in diameter, different colours. “Down to your underwear and we’ll get started,” she said. It wasn’t that uncomfortable; I’m a lot less worried about other people seeing my body than I was at 16, when surgeons at Greenlane carved five ugly lumps out of my body and left unsightly scars behind, or at 19, when a consultant and six student doctors poked and prodded at me on a bed in Christchurch Hospital. On both of those occasions, the surgery and the skin check, it was all just a precaution. I assumed this time would be the same.

‘Possible melanoma’, said the words on the report, referring to a lesion on my inner left forearm. Tara used to call it my yin-yang mole because it had a dark part curled around a light part. We were both rather fond of it. Left unchecked, it could have killed me. Out it came: first in a tight excision, then with a 5mm margin, just to make sure it hadn’t spread deeper or wider. (The mole on my ankle — the one that sparked all this — was fine, unremarkable.)

I have a ten-centimetre scar where the yin-yang mole was, much bigger and more obtrusive than the original lesion. The skin around it is numb or hypersensitive depending on how it’s touched. I feel like a fraud even using the ‘c’ word, given how minimally it had invaded my body and how easily it was treated, but I did have cancer. It sat right there on my arm on hot summer days. Please, keep an eye on your skin, and get it checked if you are in any doubt.

**

All that was nothing compared to my wife’s pregnancy. She carried two babies (and two placentas and a whole lot of amniotic fluid and double her usual blood volume, a good 15-20 kilograms) for 38 weeks, suffered nausea throughout (don’t believe anyone who says it always stops at 14 weeks), lost all her fitness, and ultimately endured major surgery to bring them into the world. She assimilated knowledge of the many possible disasters that might befall her and the children along the way, and she managed these risks with regular adjustments to her behaviour and routine, even if it meant giving up something she loved.

It’s the most impressive physical feat I’ve ever observed up close. And then came the trials of breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, which she is bearing mostly with aplomb. I am in awe of her and her incredible body — forever changed, still recovering, but incredible above all.

Music

This year, I made an effort to hear a good amount of new music. I have this subscription to Spotify, which gives me access to more music than I could ever possibly listen to, and which includes virtually all new releases, even obscure ones. Keeping up with the latest has never been easier.

So, here’s a playlist of some of the best music I came across in 2017. A real mixture. You should be able to find at least one thing on here that you’ll like.

Particular favourites included:

Bedouine – ethereal, Americana-tinged folk by a Syrian-born Armenian; an effortless listen
Blanck Mass – an old favourite, new album World Eater was billed as harsh and abrasive (and this being Blanck Mass, it often is), but it is less of a punch to the face than his previous record and contains many thrilling, spine-tingling moments of beauty
Charly Bliss – Pixies-esque, harsh-edged, incredibly addictive punk-pop that is rougher than the bubblegum bounce its vocals might initially suggest
Grizzly Bear – a five-year wait since the last album, and was it worth it? Well, they’re as tight as ever, but such perfection can feel cold at first; it took me a while to warm to this and once I did, it wouldn’t get out of my head
H. Hawkline – perhaps my album of the year, certainly my favourite discovery of 2017, catchy guitar pop in a crystal-clear Welsh accent, all sounds trimmed clean
Kendrick Lamar – finally listened to this guy and he is outstanding, a percussive and lyrically complex rap artist, in his element as a strong black voice in a year of necessary protest
Public Service Broadcasting – Every Valley, a concept piece about coal mining in Wales, is their best record yet
Slowdive – shoegaze is back with a dreamy new masterpiece from some old hands, I tended to restart this immediately after it finished

But if I had to pick one song, it would be ‘Big Enough’ by Kirin J. Callinan, featuring Alex Cameron, Molly Lewis, and Jimmy Barnes. Silly, earnest, and ridiculously catchy, with Barnesy delivering a best-ever scream, it’s like they made it just for me.

Finally, I got to see one of my favourite bands live this year, and that was Pixies. My expectations were not high; it’s a long time since their peak, Kim Deal isn’t part of the band any more, and their new songs are fine but have none of the thrill or menace of their old songs. But then they wandered out onto the stage and fired up with Gouge Away, one of my favourites, and blazed through a 30-song set with barely a five-second pause between each song. I was carried away.

Politics

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, stripesA lot happened in politics this year. We got a new government in New Zealand. Donald Trump became president of the United States. Both of these events were dramatic and surprising reversals of the status quo – perhaps not a complete upending of it, but the landscape is undoubtedly changed. And it was all many of us could talk about.

Me, I was personally struck by a couple of political things in 2017. First, during the interregnum, Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter went on Morning Report and explained she was not a party delegate so would not have a vote at the Greens’ conference to determine their approach to coalition negotiations. Genter is a prominent public face of the party; she’s been in Parliament since 2011, is third on the Greens list, speaks for the party on transport and women’s issues (among other portfolios), and has been touted as a potential future co-leader. She comes from a strong professional background in transportation planning. And yet, when the Greens meet behind closed doors, 180-odd delegates unknown to the public have a vote but she does not. This disenfranchisement of MPs within the party might be commonplace across the political spectrum, but that would only make a strange thing even stranger.

Second, I know a few people who refused to vote in this election because they did not feel any of the parties represented their interests. I’ve often defended those who don’t vote because I think it’s undemocratic to compel people to turn out at the polling booth, and I still believe this, but it has started to frustrate me. If you don’t vote because you want bigger change than any of the options on offer, and you aren’t standing for election yourself, how are you going to explain that to those in poverty? To their children? To mine? For all the talk you often hear about NZ politics being mild and samey compared to polarised places like the USA, there are tangible policy differences between parties (and independent candidates) on critical elements of our society: health and education, for example. Do these differences not matter to you? Is the long-term crusade worth some short-term pain?

Sport

I was largely inactive this year, apart from the odd game of beach cricket and a few runs. My appreciation of sport has turned back to the screen: football highlights every Sunday morning, and if there’s cricket happening, it’s on by default, especially if it’s night and Tara thinks she might struggle to get to sleep. “Is there any cricket on?” And if there isn’t, she sometimes asks me to tell her cricket stories, like a spoken word lullaby. “Tell me about Bradman.”

Fortunately, she doesn’t only find cricket soporific. Just the other day, she was disappointed there was no Super Smash on for us to watch together while we fed the kids. So, after four years together, my enthusiasm for cricket appears to have taken root in her.

The next thing is to grow my daughters into White Ferns. To live vicariously through the achievements of my children. To go full Sports Dad. I’m sure that’ll go down well.

Film

I didn’t see many new films in 2017, but I did watch on in thrilled, appalled shock as a succession of sacred relics was picked off for their transgressions. First, Harvey Weinstein’s victims; then Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Singer, and more. It was a familiar story, usually ignored, but this time it stuck. It had everyone — every man, at least — trawling their memory for instances of assault or harassment. I hope it means things are never the same again. (See also: my post on whether you can separate the art from the artist.)

Okay, but what new films did I see? Just these ones, with order of preference in brackets. (Connect with me on Letterboxd to follow my film-watching in real time.)

SILENCE (1)
BEYOND THE KNOWN WORLD (7)
GET OUT (2)
LOGAN (8)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (5)
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (9)
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (6)
WONDER WOMAN (4)
MOTHER! (3)

Tech

2018TechWith every year that passes, I get further behind the tech curve, safe in my Luddite haven. There are four computers in our house but the newest is from 2012. There are two smartphones, both cheap and a couple of years out of date. There is one television and its projection is via cathode ray tube. There are two cars in the driveway: one from 2000, the other from 1991. Still, I sit on Facebook and Twitter a lot more than I’d like to.

Tangentially related: I have finally come to understand that Silicon Valley innovations, and those of startup culture generally, are not necessarily good for society. Sitting on Facebook and Twitter is the obvious one, especially Facebook, with its unholy quest to capture as much of the global population’s attention as it can. If Uber (a company that will never have me as a customer, for the awfully unimaginative name as much as the dodgy business practices and toxic work culture) reaches its goal of a fleet of ultra-safe, self-driving cars, the roads will become a funnel for capital to Uber shareholders, and they will have the power to shut them down any time they like. So, for that matter, will hackers. Such ideas are presented as a logical next step for our species, an evolution; we all need to pay attention and speak out, with words and dollars, when we see that it isn’t as simple as that.

Books

2018BooksThis year, I undertook a new project: prioritise reading books from years ending in 7. I put together a master reading list of books from 1917, 1927, 1937 etc., aiming for a variety of voices (i.e. female, people of colour) in there, and hoped the jumping around in time wouldn’t be too taxing on my rather comfortable reading mind.

I managed 45 books in the end, most from this project. You can browse them here (and please, add me as a friend on Goodreads if you haven’t already!). The highlights:

‘Summer’ by Edith Wharton (1917)
‘Oil!’ by Upton Sinclair (1927)
‘Trout Fishing in America’ by Richard Brautigan (1967)
‘Consider Phlebas’ by Iain M. Banks (1987)
‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo (1997)
‘Then We Came To The End’ by Joshua Ferris (2007)
‘Rants in the Dark’ by Emily Writes (2017)
‘The Whole Intimate Mess’ by Holly Walker (2017)
‘The New Animals’ by Pip Adam (2017)

And a few major disappointments:

‘Death on the Nile’ by Agatha Christie (1937)
‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac (1957)
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom (1997)

The same project will go for 2018, and 2019, and so on until I get bored of it. It’s the best time travel we’ve got.

Travel

2018TravelOn the fourth day of our honeymoon, Tara and I hired a two-person sailboat and tacked out to the middle of Muri Lagoon. Neither of us had ever sailed before. “It’s not that hard,” said the incredibly laconic, shirtless man who had drawn some basic diagrams in the sand and sent us on our way.

That first leg was tense. If we weren’t shouting half-baked instructions at each other, we were crouching in uncertain silence. Then we came to the buoy we had pointed ourselves at, and I announced I would try to manoeuvre us around it, so I gently leant on the tiller.

In no time at all, we were whipped around in the breeze, picking up pace as we turned. I panicked and strained to pull the rudder back to a more neutral position. The boat started to list, Tara screamed, and we plunged into the water.

I thought Tara might be freaked out by this, but instead, she roared with laughter. I was confused and distracted for a moment, then I started laughing too. We righted the boat, hauled ourselves up into it, and headed back in the other direction — with Tara at the tiller this time. “My turn! I want a go!”

We must have capsized another six or seven times in the next two hours as we hurtled back and forth across the lagoon. Every time, Tara’s amusement would ring out across the water, drawing stares from sunbathers on the beach. We got terrifically sunburnt and drank a litre of saltwater each, and there was the food and the snorkelling and the cheery hospitality, but that mad sailing experiment was the most fun we had on our holiday.

People

I was a family of one for many years, intermittently linking with brothers and parents but still very much a loner. And then Tara came along and became my family.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, beard and outdoor

We were married in February on a day that drove us mad in the planning but is increasingly golden in our memories. Friends and family came and smiled with us in the sun, and if we don’t get to see them much now, at least we got to see them that day. It helps that Meeko & Redge captured such perfect images for us: romantic but not idealised, formal but not constrained. Their photos show our best selves, loving and joyous and a bit messy.

Soon after – thank you, Rarotonga – we found out our family was growing inside Tara’s belly. Soon after that, at the 12-week scan, two blobs on the monitor indicated we would be a family of four. Just like that! And so 2017 became, more than anything, the year of pregnancy: bearing it, managing it, supporting it.

Nora and June were born in November. Because they are my babies, and I therefore see them for several hours a day, observing their subtle developments and interacting with them more and more, they are the most interesting babies in the history of the universe. Their enormous eyes, deep blue and alive, stare out at me (or at least the wall behind me) for several hours a day. Their limbs flail about haphazardly when I plonk them on the change table, or under the play gym, or in the bouncer by the window. The work of caring for them is long and repetitive, but never boring: their continuous development and discovery forces us into the moment.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, baby and hat

My dad told me in the lead-up that once they’re out, everything changes. He was right, but not in the way I expected. In Lost In Translation, Bill Murray’s character says at the moment of your child’s birth, “your life as you know it is gone, never to return”. Instead, I feel a great expansion of possibility for all four of us. Easy for me to say as the dad who goes off to work each day and gets barely ten per cent of the social pressure of parenthood, right? But Tara is in the most meaningful ways the same Tara, just like I am the same Barns – valuing the same ideals, preoccupied with the same thoughts, distracted by the same distractions – but with bigger, fuller hearts (and perpetual bags under our eyes). The thought of what lies ahead has never been so exciting.

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The art or the artist, that is the question

Queensboro Bridge New York City, featured in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN

New York’s Queensboro Bridge Photo by Fraser Mummery

Woody Allen’s 1979 film MANHATTAN is an elegant rhapsody; a cinematic wonder of jazzy dialogue, lush black-and-white photography, and profound immaturity regarding girls and women. The artist, whose character in MANHATTAN falls in full-hearted love with an adolescent, would later have an affair with and marry his wife’s adopted daughter. He would also be accused of sexual abuse by another adopted daughter, who was also an adolescent at the time of the alleged abuse.

Allen is usually the first example of the ‘art vs artist’ debate, which comes down to the following question: can the misdeeds of the artist be separated from the art they make? Roman Polanski raped a 12-year-old, but he also made the classic thriller REPULSION. Louis C.K. masturbated in front of several women without their consent, but he also made the consistently sharp and insightful sitcom ‘Louie’. R. Kelly had sex with underage women and married one when she was 15, but he also made the unique hip-hop opus ‘Trapped In The Closet’, hot and fresh out the kitchen.

In the post-Weinstein era, now that no one can ignore their conscience while turning a blind eye to sexual harassment, there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on. History is full of people who did abhorrent things and made great (or at least memorable) art. What are we to do?

The question is actually a lot simpler than writers of prevaricating thinkpieces would have us believe. Instead of getting hung up on the scales of justice — on one hand this but on the other hand that — let’s focus on one of the key issues here.

A good number of our social norms are designed to limit harm. Sexually harassing a colleague is frowned upon socially because it might negatively affect the victim’s professional and personal life. Having sex with an underage child is frowned upon socially because the underdeveloped brain and body of the child may not be able to cope with or comprehend the intensity of the act, and the power imbalance inherent in any adult-child relationship is problematic. Murder is frowned upon socially because wilfully ending another person’s life is an affront to the very idea of society.

Many of these social norms are applied into law. If you’re going to have sex with a child, the courts will incarcerate you and put you on a list for the rest of your life. It’s a simple, inarguable outcome of an act that contravenes the values of basically every society.

To say that art can be separated from the artist is to say that in the creation and presentation of art, social norms are not relevant. Let us not talk of Rachel Weisz’s horror at having her breast groped, unscripted, by Dustin Hoffman in CONFIDENCE; let us instead consider the genuine shock conjured by Hoffman with an ad lib. Let us not talk of Maria Schneider’s appalled feelings of violation at an unscripted rape scene in LAST TANGO IN PARIS; let us instead isolate the depth of emotion Bernardo Bertolucci manufactured when he sprung it on her.

The question, again: can you separate the art from the artist? Does a great piece of art take precedence over its maker’s violation of social norms?

Well. If your response is ‘the art matters more’, I have a question for you: are you kidding me? Anthony Rapp has lived through decades of confusion and trauma after Kevin Spacey tried to force himself on him when Rapp was 14 years old, but you’d rather not talk about it because you really liked Spacey in THE USUAL SUSPECTS? Lana Clarkson had her life snuffed out by Phil Spector’s gun-wielding hand, but can’t we just focus on the genius of the Wall of Sound?

It need not be a zero-sum game. All art is filtered through the context in which we absorb it: our own life and experience, our mental state at the time, the news of the day, the other works referenced by the art, and the deeds of the artist.

It’s similar to the ‘politics should not interfere in sport’ argument. Our world would be pleasantly stuffy and genteel if athletes could compete solely within the confines of their chosen field, freed from the burdens of political trivialities like nuclear threats and institutional torture. But athletes do not cease to belong to society the moment they step across the white line. They know it, and so do those watching. Ask Serena Williams if context matters, or Caster Semenya, or Henry Olonga. Just as politics intrudes on the field of play, the artist’s sins are bundled with the art they produce.

Why, then, do so many people struggle with this question? Why are our social media feeds littered with good folks agonising over whether they should hide their precious DVD of CHINATOWN? The answer is that it’s hard – hard to reconcile one’s admiration for the work with one’s revulsion for the artist. MANHATTAN seems an easy one: where I once found Isaac’s attraction to Tracy – sweet, young, unimpeachable Tracy – understandable and even worthy, I now find it an unpleasant fever dream of a man with an unhealthy fascination for teenage girls. But what about DOGVILLE, which I find so bleakly insightful about the human condition, and so aesthetically inspired, but whose director has consistently subjected leading women to traumatic on-set conditions? What about ENDER’S GAME, a fascinating and morally confronting book, royalties from which support the author’s crusade against gay marriage? One side of you is saying ‘can’t we just appreciate a great piece of art?’ And the other is saying, ‘oh, so child sexual abuse is okay now?’

We are complex beings, capable of holding many things in our minds at once. You can watch [x] knowing that [y] did [z]. Absolutely, you can. But you’re lying to yourself if you think the deeds of the artist have no bearing on the art. They should sit uncomfortably alongside the work, elbowing their way into your thoughts. Go ahead and praise LAST TANGO IN PARIS if you must, but be ready to have a conversation about how Bertolucci traumatised Schneider in his pursuit of artistic ecstasy. The art can still be great, whatever the context, but a person still made it, and they bring all their baggage to it. There is no separation.

Still feeling uneasy? There are other things you can do. Watch films directed by women. Read books by first-time authors. Pay attention to artists who use their celebrity to speak out against injustice and seek out their work. Their art won’t all be as memorable as ANNIE HALL, but some of it will stick with you for good reasons, and some of it will be as great as anything caveated by its maker’s transgressions. There is gold this side of the moral horizon.

 

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Things of 2016

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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

 

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.

films-of-2016-3

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

 

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

 

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

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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

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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

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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)

corp.jpg

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

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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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