Altman’s thoughts on the American Dream, so fully realised in Nashville, are also central to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In their efforts to find fortune at the frontier, Beatty’s McCabe and Christie’s Mrs. Miller are two sides of the same flawed coin: one a projection of self-belief with few smarts to back it up, the other jaded (and drug-addicted) but knowledgeable and streetwise. Their manifest destinies lie not in ever-expanding fortunes but at the end of a gun wielded by a more ruthless and powerful man, and at the end of an opium pipe.
The American Dream theme goes beyond the business partnership at the film’s core. Sheehan, proprietor of the local tavern, is a committed small-timer, quick to cosy up to any man who acts a little bigger or smarter than he is. All the women in the film are ultimately objects, but within that limited scope of their possible lives, they find value in themselves and in each other. There’s even a moment in which the town’s only black residents, having just joined in a community effort to put out a fire, shuffle hastily away as raucous celebrations begin. Better not stick around in case things get ugly.
And as a whole, McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels cobbled together, as though Altman didn’t quite get all the shots he needed and had to improvise in the editing. But whatever limitations were imposed on his production — whether by the weather, the studio, or the disgruntled star — ultimately serve to improve the film as an artistic statement.
I recall being enchanted by this film when I first saw it, despite its deep sadness. And I found it just as enchanting on a second viewing — not only for the perfect marriage between Vilmos Zsigmond’s images and Leonard Cohen’s music, but also for the lighter touches. The town drunk dances sloppily on a frozen pond. The barman muses about how best to groom his beard. Everyone’s got to kill time somehow.
That’s the way it goes. You work and you kill time until your number’s up, and along the way, you try to find some beauty in it all. Some meaning. This film has both, in spades.
It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.
So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.
The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.
“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.
I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.
I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.
And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.
I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.
I have some admiration for films that push beyond the limits of human inquiry and try to depict what we cannot possibly know. The obvious yardstick is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its JUPITER AND BEYOND THE INFINITEsequence, which demonstrates that in the hands of a skilled auteur, the foundations of science can be used as a jumping-off point for a totally captivating flight of imagination.
Interstellar is the latest big-budget film to step outside the scientific canvas and into the realms of theory. The much-maligned ‘book thing in space’, as one friend called it, may be overly emotionally wrought but it is impressive for its commitment to its central ideas:
The event horizon of a singularity may conceal a five-dimensional tesseract in which the usual laws of the universe (as we understand them) do not apply.
Gravity can be harnessed as an instantaneous fifth-dimensional communication tool.
Because Nolan’s vision is founded on deeply researched scientific principles, rather than on a screenwriter’s rabbit from a hat, it is compelling enough to feel as though it might be true. It also needs strong visuals to bring it to life, which it has in spades given the budget — although the shots of the singularity before Cooper crosses it are considerably more impressive and kind of a shame to leave behind.
The other key ingredient is a lead actor who can sell something so fanciful. Fortunately, Nolan has Matthew McConaughey, one of the better A-list actors of our time (now that people are taking him seriously again). McConaughey — and the script — lay the ground work throughout the film for the broad emotional payoff in the tesseract as Cooper finally reconnects with his estranged daughter Murph in an entirely new medium. We have seen Cooper and Murph’s previously tight bond unravel in clearly defined stages over the course of Interstellar; after all that, you can feel Cooper’s desperation, and the tears streaming down McConaughey’s face feel wrought from deep psychological pain.
McConaughey has been there before, of course — well, he’s nearly been there. He played Palmer Joss, the love interest and theologian rival to Jodie Foster’s scientist lead Ellie Arroway, in the superior Contact. Zemeckis’ film is heavier on philosophical debate than Nolan’s more family-focused opus, though it is no less earnest. And when it finally takes a trip down the wormhole, it follows the same tack as Interstellar in using it to address the protagonist’s deepest psychological trauma — in Arroway’s case, the death of her father when she was a child.
The science behind the wormholes in Contact is mostly unexplained and far more speculative than that in Interstellar, and therefore less sound. The script, adapted from a Carl Sagan novel, seems content to leave Arroway — and the human race — as the unknowing beneficiary of alien intelligence. In some ways, this is better; rather than muddying our view with intangible theories and concepts, Zemeckis just presents the wormhole experience and lets it wash over you. However, it leaves you with less to mull over afterwards. (And fewer clickbait thinkpieces that attempt to explain what really happened.)
Where Contact‘s journey beyond the infinite surpasses Interstellar‘s is in its visuals, which are more striking and head-trippy even though they were completed nearly twenty years before, and in its lead actor. McConaughey portrays Cooper’s emotional crescendo just fine, but Foster throws herself into the green screen with all of her considerable acting might. The climax follows nearly two hours of build-up, during which we are invited to question whether we have more in common with Arroway’s dedication to empirical evidence or Joss’ religious conviction, and indeed, whether the difference between their respective faiths is so great. And when Arroway disappears beyond the void, she is frantic, sceptical, lost for words, and in rapture. She is caught between her relief of grasping what she had long yearned for and her desire for the experience not to end. She makes the unfathomable bright lights real.
The effects are wonderful, but it’s Foster that sells it — every moment of it. Later, she delivers a stunning monologue when trying to explain her experience to a Senate inquiry, holding the crowd (and viewer) spellbound regardless of whether or not they believe her. It goes to show that with good dialogue and a great actor, you can make almost anything seem possible.
As a child, I would often think about turning 20 in the year 2004, 30 in the year 2014, and so on. While 20 seemed within reach, I didn’t imagine I would ever actually turn 30; it seemed too distant and grown-up a number to attach to myself.
But now I am 30. I’ve breached the asymptote. And I’ve come out the other side feeling much the same. I constantly refer to myself as not being a ‘real grown-up’ or ‘proper person’ yet, perhaps because I still don’t have kids or a mortgage or a clear career path. And yet I am in my thirties, and a lot more of my thoughts are taken up with long-term planning. After all, I am sure I want kids, and a house, and a satisfying career. I just don’t feel quite ready for them yet. The itch to travel still tingles, and I expect I will scratch it before I embark wholeheartedly on any of the above legacies. Round up a few other 30-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.
A lot of what follows is about me, but for much of it, there’s someone important beside me.
Sports & Leisure
Indoor footy remained integral to my physical well-being in 2014, as it was in 2013 and 2012. But it became one of many athletic pursuits rather than my sole half hour of proper exercise each week.
Early in our relationship, Tara explained that she used to be just as sloth-like as me and passed endless wasted hours on Reddit. She wasn’t happy, so she started hiking, tramping, and scuba diving instead, replacing idleness with a thirst for new outdoor experiences.
When you spend so much time with someone who has so much energy, that thirst will become part of your life, too, and you have a choice to reject or embrace it. After a few weekends of farewelling Tara as she headed off on another expedition in her trademark yellow cap, I embraced it. I went tramping in the Tararua Range, hiking in the Orongorongo Valley, swimming at Titahi Bay, stand-up paddle boarding at Port Nicholson, and wire-walking at Porirua, all things I would have hesitated to even attempt in the past. Now I marvel at how much the world has to offer, and I occasionally wonder how much I’ve missed over the years.
It wasn’t that I was necessarily afraid of any of these things. It was just that it all seemed to take up so much time. But all I did with that time, sunny day or no, was sit on the computer and chastise myself for not doing any writing. I’m finding that as a general rule, it’s better to be outside.
On an international scale, the success of the Black Caps (New Zealand’s national cricket team) in 2014 has been a great source of joy and even made me shake my head in amazement at times. It began with a one-day series win in January and a glorious fightback to draw the Basin Reserve Test in February, both against India. I was there for the fifth one-dayer, and I watched nearly every ball of the Basin Test, including the one Brendon McCullum dispatched to the backward point boundary to reach his triple century. Those five days were probably my favourite five days of the year for they also encompassed a super Valentine’s Day out at Wellington Zoo, a successful and sunny dinner party on the deck with Tara’s family, and an Italian dinner with Tara to celebrate six silly months together.
My favourite album of the year was Morning Phase by Beck — great song after great song — and my favourite 90 seconds of a song this year was the final 90 seconds of closer ‘Waking Light’.
Those 90 seconds feel like the meandering calm of Morning Phase finally breaking the shackles and bursting out into triumph — but it’s still tinged with all the uncertainty that preceded it. Morning Phase seemed dark and depressed to me at first, but with each listen, I found it more and more beautiful, even as an underlying sadness remained. Beck seems to aim for ambivalence rather than assuredness with this album. I think that’s why I like it so much.
I also enjoyed Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs and rediscovered Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise. I didn’t give Syro or a whole lot of other new albums enough of a go. There was a lot of music I missed, largely because I now live with someone who has different tastes in music. And music is one of many areas of life subject to renegotiation when someone moves in with you.
In 2014, Tara introduced me to songs by Auditorium, Cloud Cult, Avalanche City, Sam Cooke, Semisonic, Disney heroes and heroines, the a cappella stars of Pitch Perfect, Hanson, and some Mutton Birds albums I hadn’t previously heard. I’ve liked some of these songs, and she’s liked some of the ones I’ve played for her. Our shared command of Spotify has been an interesting and enjoyable challenge. Rewards have included butchered harmonies and spontaneous living room dancing.
We played board games while watching the NZ general election results roll in on TV, the sound muted. We shook our heads and swore repeatedly, and once the frustration faded, a week or two of disbelief set in: how are we so out of touch? I thought the Greens might bump up to 15% of the vote, and in the wake of Dirty Politics and Key’s relentless jiving, I assumed National’s vote would decrease. Instead, National romped to the biggest party vote since the start of the MMP era, and we on the left are still sitting down and having a think about it all.
My opinion is that in New Zealand, as in Australia and maybe in other parts of the world, people want strong leadership more than they want strong policy. In other words, voters want someone who will get things done, regardless of what those things are and whether they are in the voter’s own interest. The left in NZ didn’t seem to offer that.
As the dust settled, I made a vow to broaden my horizons outside the white liberal bubble of central Wellington so I have a more accurate picture of New Zealanders’ overall political sentiment. I haven’t done much about that, but I hope the Labor and Green parties have.
The only film I saw twice in 2014 was GONE GIRL, largely because it was such a phenomenon that I knew multiple people who wanted to see it. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the film; I really enjoyed it, and in some respects — especially the ending — it worked a lot better than the book. It was interesting to read the book after seeing the trailer, then watch the full film after reading the book, meaning I had the actors in my head as I read but didn’t know what was going to happen. My conclusion is that Ben Affleck was perfect for the role and Rosamund Pike, who actually had to act, outshone him. And Carrie Coon outshone them both.
But I have to go with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, which left me buzzing with ideas and appreciation of cinematic craft. I hadn’t liked the Jim Jarmusch films I’d seen previously — they seemed too self-consciously aloof to let me in — but this was a delight in every way, from Tom Hiddleston’s centuries-old ennui to the incredible music, most of it by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. I didn’t think it was possible to get me engaged in a story about vampires, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE did it by grounding them in the real world: what it would it really be like to live for hundreds of years? How would you survive? What would you learn about life on Earth? This film answered those questions, and asked a few more. I loved it.
I bought a new phone in 2014, a Motorola Moto G. It’s pretty good so far. And my main computer keeps overheating and powering off, which sometimes makes me very angry. I still get angry at inanimate objects, technology more than anything else, and it’s still embarrassing to the point of making me feel like a spoilt little kid every time.
Deno started a book club in 2014, and because I like Deno and want to read more books, I joined up. So far we’ve read some interesting books and repeatedly pushed back our deadlines, which I assume is what most book clubs do.
For the first time since 2006, I spent none of the calendar year outside of New Zealand. Instead, I got to know new parts of my country — Paraparaumu, Porirua, the Rimutakas, Taranaki, the Tararuas, and more — and revisited old favourites like West Auckland’s beaches.
Travel experiences became more about the adventure itself than the destination, and more about the company than the sights (although the sights were often exceptional). Tara witnessed just about everything I witnessed, and she usually instigated the trip. She is the lead explorer in our relationship and pushes us steadily on to the next adventure as soon as the last one is over. Her family call her the Labrador, partly because she goes a bit crazy if she doesn’t go for a walk each day.
As I am now 30, more and more of my friends are getting married. I was even best man at a wedding — that of my oldest friend Stephen, who married Cayley in March. That was a good day.
More and more of my friends are having kids, too. I’m watching them grow up photograph by photograph, video by video, nearly always smiling and happy. Their childhoods are being edited into a selective stream of joyous firsts and daily moments of delight. That sounds a little cynical, but I think it’s a privilege to be able to see those kids at all. I would rather see them all a lot more often and get to know them as people, rather than as two-dimensional flashes of colour, but my Facebook feed is the next best thing. And their parents — my friends — are changing too. A little more weight behind their eyes, a little more openness in their smiles.
I already had a family, but in 2014, I gained another family. Cathy, Jeff, Richard, Ruth, and Kazu have all become an integral part of my life in a very short space of time. We play a lot of board games — preferably ones that involve protracted arguing and shouting, like The Resistance — and we go on walks, picnics, tramps, swims, and holidays. Here I thought you weren’t supposed to get on with your in-laws. I fear these positive relationships in a new area of my life come at the cost of my relationships with family and friends; that the time and energy I’ve used to forge new bonds is limited and needs to be doled out more carefully. Finding a better balance of time spent with people important to me is the biggest thing I have to work on in 2015.
Through it all is Tara, there at my side — or stopped behind me, more likely, to run her hands through long grass or shift a snail from the pavement to the bushes. She adds so much colour to my world and somehow lightens each of my steps — into cold river water, into the vicious slope of another hill, or into the woods with twenty kilograms on my back. She is the constant source of love and intellectual stimulation that sustains me. With Tara, more than in any other part of my life, I am lucky.
The film opens with Jean Watson, eighty, her face creased with river-like wrinkles, wandering around the streets of Kanyakumari and lowering herself into the ocean as dozens of young Indian boys (and a camera) look on. My first thought — I couldn’t help myself — was ‘I’ve swum in that ocean!’ And I had, a strange trip in 2009 during which my then-girlfriend was groped repeatedly and I lacerated my feet on sharp underwater rocks. It’s a beautiful location, revered by many as the point where three seas meet, but my memories of it aren’t entirely positive. No such problems for Jean Aunty, though, who wanders through it all with the same inscrutable expression on her face, and who emerges from the water cleansed and energised, ready for the next challenge.
I hadn’t heard of Jean Watson before seeing AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE, and I expect many New Zealanders won’t have heard of her either, despite her many published novels, her long romance with Barry Crump, and her considerable humanitarian work in India. Watson is one of life’s observers, regularly found at the extreme right or left of group photographs, peering into the camera with the same watchful eye she casts over her surroundings. She is an intrepid, self-effacing realist, moving through life without fanfare; even in a South Indian village, where any foreigner is met with prolonged stares and chatter, she seems capable of blending into the background. Her decades of involvement in improving young boys’ and girls’ lives in India prove that you don’t need to be romantic to be idealistic; she sees the world as it is, not for what it could be, and tries to make it better.
Watson is the chief benefactor of Karunai Illam, which was set up in the late 1980s and which offers orphaned children the value of routine. Rather than being left to scratch around the streets on their own, or bounced from orphanage to orphanage, Karunai Illam gets them out of bed and brushing their teeth at the same time every day before filling them up with a hot meal and sending them off to school. These are children for whom deceased parents are merely a fact of life. But they look healthy, and happy, and show an abundance of curiosity about the world.
In fact, given their aspirations to become doctors and engineers, it’s slightly frustrating that so many of director Gerard Smyth’s questions to the girls revolve around marriage. This feels like a missed opportunity to gain more insight into their deeper thoughts. But marriage and reproduction are also a huge factor in the kids’ lives, an inevitability for many, and probably at a young age; it’s understandable that it might be at the forefront of their minds. And apart from this, Smyth does a fine job of taking us inside Watson’s two worlds: her anonymous writer’s life in Wellington and her status as life-changer for hundreds of children in Nilakkottai.
Apart from Watson and the kids, the other person seen most often in AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE is Joy Cowley, an old friend of Watson’s and — through her innumerable and widely popular children’s books — a friend to almost every New Zealander. Where Watson’s insights are plain-spoken and straightforward, Cowley’s are effortlessly elegant and warm. She has a gift for language and, apparently, great reserves of empathy and generosity. She is a joy to spend a little time with. I can’t wait for the film about her.
A group of children, each aged somewhere between five and ten, call in unison to a toddler. They have just bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Takenoko’ (Li’l Bamboo) because of her freakishly rapid growth. “Takenoko! Takenoko!” they shout, and she starts wandering away from the front porch of the house where she lives and over to them, a grin on their face.
Her father notices her straying from home, so he calls after her with his own nickname: “Hime!” (Princess!)
She pauses halfway between the children and her father. The children shout louder. “Takenoko! Takenoko!”
It’s cute. There’s no danger; the kids, bred with the collectivist values of countryside life, pose no real threat to Kaguya. She is clearly not in any distress, just caught between two human forces eager for her attention.
The grin drops from her face as she looks from one group to the other in confusion. The calls grow and grow until they drown out the chatter of birds and rustle of nearby trees. The children point their heads to the sky and yell as loud as they can. Her father cranes his neck towards her and screams, his eyes closed and his cheeks red with effort. Finally, the smile returns and she starts toddling back to her father. The children give up and stop their bellowing.
You’d expect the father’s protective tension to dissipate, having won the vocal battle for his daughter’s affections. But it doesn’t. He yells even louder. He starts to cry. He can’t bear even to wait a few more seconds for his little princess to come to him, so he gets up from the porch and runs to her, taking her in his arms as tears stream down his face. It takes several seconds before the embrace starts to calm him down. His love consumes and overwhelms him to the point of delusion and toxicity, leading him — and her — into a mirage of happiness. It blinds him from the truth of his life.
This is just one scene from THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA, which is sad, contemplative, surprising, and indescribably beautiful. It’s also a bit longer than its thin story deserves, but that feels unfair in the face of such visual brilliance, which was a joy to behold from first minute to last. The animation resembles watercolours and charcoal drawings, and if ever there was a film from which you could print any frame and stick it on your wall, this is it.
I expected all that — just watch the trailer, for goodness’ sake — but I didn’t expect the story, and scenes like the one described above, to stay with me for so long afterwards. It touches on ecology, family relationships, parenting, and the folly of blindly following tradition. It reminds you to be true to yourself. A simple message, but one worth repeating — especially with such inspiration and beauty.
I laid my head down on the pillow and heard Mica Levi’s discordant, grinding score. It whirled inside my head, intercut with the most striking images from UNDER THE SKIN — particularly the 2001-esque pre-credits creation sequence — just as it had for the previous five hours since the film ended. The following night it was the same. There was no escape. I didn’t particularly mind; I like a film that makes me feel something.
Two phrases rang in my head as I settled into my seat way down the front of the Embassy Theatre. One: “it’s pretty visually intense”, spoken in warning by an usher as I tramped down to the front rows so I would be closer to the screen. Two: “misogynist”, a word David Larsen used speculatively in his brief review for The Listener (scroll down to Day Six). On reflection, I think that neither phrase applies — although a subjective case could be made for both. There’s little objective truth in UNDER THE SKIN, except perhaps the strikingly unsettling nature of Levi’s score. Scotland is as beautiful or desolate as you prefer to see it; there is a total absence of humour, or several chuckles of the blackest kind; bodies of liquid can be either vitally restorative or a death sentence. My own opinion on each of these questions changes from moment to moment.
There’s one scene where a character is introduced with the obvious intention of drawing a laugh from the audience. Glazer then flips that around with later scenes involving this character, providing — for me at least — the film’s most unspeakable horror. Despite its Kubrickian artfulness, UNDER THE SKIN seems to have been made in a sort of ramshackle, cobbled-together fashion, so it’s difficult to say whether this bait-and-switch was intentional. It’s that kind of thing, though, that makes it such a remarkable and unnverving work of art. Just like Scarlett Johansson’s appropriately blank character, haltingly drawing men into her van of doom, it hooks you in one way then smacks you around the head in another.
I have a lot of other notes from the screening, scribbled anxiously but legibly as I tried to make sense of it all. Samples:
So delicate that under a light touch, it shrinks to nothing. I went to LILTING for two reasons:
Ben Whishaw, the brilliant and honest young actor from CLOUD ATLAS and BRIGHT STAR, whose performance in this film was described in the NZIFF program as one of ‘exquisite sympathetic imagination’;
The focus on cross-cultural communication, a particular interest of mine.
Whishaw is just fine, as always, as is the rest of the cast. And the cross-cultural communication is reasonably realistically portrayed, if rather stagy. But this turns out to be one of the film’s biggest flaws.
The vast majority of its runtime is taken up by scenes involving Whishaw’s character, the prickly mother of his deceased partner (Pei-Pei Cheng), and a Mandarin-English interpreter (Naomi Christie), meaning we get each line of dialogue twice: once in English, once in Mandarin. These conversations-by-proxy may be realistic, but they aren’t particularly thrilling or dramatic, nor do they illuminate much about the characters’ struggle to connect. The differences between Whishaw and Cheng are immediately apparent — progressive, young, gay British man, and traditional, old, straight Chinese-Cambodian woman — and the way those differences are overcome ultimately has little to do with spoken language. More than anything else, the three-way dialogue scenes make for a film that’s at least one-and-a-half times longer than it needed to be.
Apart from all that, I was left with way more questions than answers. Not questions of philosophical import about the nature of communucation, as I’d hoped for, but vexing questions about the plot: what does Whishaw’s character do for a living, given that he’s able to live in that massive flat but we never see him work? Why does he want Cheng to stay romantically involved with a fellow retirement home resident? Suddenly, he and the interpreter — a woman — seem very close; how and when did that happen?
Khaou’s frustrating tendency in LILTING is to linger way too long on scenes of little consequence, then skim over the moments that actually catch the attention. He even turns up the score — the cloying, manipulative, ‘feel something you dicks’ score — to the point that it obscures what may have been some of the most tantalising pieces of dialogue, if we’d been able to hear them. It’s ironic that a film about overcoming the limits of our communicative abilities is itself spoiled by an over-reliance on withholding information from the audience.
The quirks of nziff.com’s online seat allocation mean that nerdy early bookers like me are almost always put in the middle of a full row, regardless of the overall house size. When I staggered into VOICES OF THE LAND, heaving after me a plastic bag filled with hardcover library books, I stared down that ancient social experiment: shuffle past two already-seated patrons and hope they don’t hate you forever. Fortunately for me, the two women — I’d guess they were in their seventies — stood with a smile. I still apologised for existing, as one must.
The plastic bag crashed into the second woman’s leg as I sat down next to her. “You’re quite the reader, aren’t you?” she said. I admitted the books had been borrowed by my girlfriend and that I hadn’t read a word of them. The woman segued seamlessly into a discussion of a book she recently read and was fascinated by. It went in one ear and out the other, but I nodded an acknowledgement and proceeded to tell her what I was reading: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, which concerns a Dutch man living in New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center. His marriage steadily disintegrates thereafter, and the rest of his life devolves into meaninglessness. The man’s only solace is cricket, which he played often as a boy and is surprised to find in baseball-mad NYC.
The woman nodded back, then said her son was in New York on September 11 as well. She noted that his marriage had also fallen apart over the ensuing couple of years, and that he and his then-wife ultimately divorced. My brief description of Netherland must have sounded uneasily familiar, and I was struck by the reminder of how directly fiction can echo reality. But if the eerieness of the coincidence bothered her, she didn’t show it. In any case, it didn’t seem like the time or place to delve deeper, and I felt embarrassed at having unwittingly called to mind her son’s past trials, so I simply said “That’s no good” and asked what else she was seeing in the film festival. We went on to talk about our expectations of VOICES OF THE LAND and its subject, the brilliant Richard Nunns, a Pākehā who learned how to play Taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) in dreams. Then the film started.
Nunns has Parkinson’s disease, and as you watch him shuffle with a stooped gait along forest paths and stony beaches with protégé Horomona Horo, it’s as if the Earth is slowly pulling him back down to it. His connection with the land is greater than most, comparable to almost any Māori. Over his seven decades, he has accumulated an unequalled volume of experience and knowledge regarding Taonga pūoro, and that flows into a wealth of other insights: about divine inspiration, about why Pākehā often fail to connect with Māori, about the nature of sound and its value to us, and about his own influence. He shares these insights in his own inimitable, rhythmic language: “these are the ways in which our sonic environment is subsumed.” As much as the land may be calling him back, Richard Nunns’ abundance of knowledge — and his awareness that it is held by remarkably few — may be weighing him down.
So he’s passing it on to Horo, an affable and deferent man with a hulking figure and a long ponytail. Through this film collaboration with Paul Wolffram, he’s also passing some of it on to us. Ninety minutes in Nunns’ company could never compare to the lifetime of looking and listening it’s taken to get him to this level of understanding, and Horo is clearly the next master of Taonga pūoro, but there is so much for an audience — especially in New Zealand — to take away from VOICES OF THE LAND. Take the headphones out of your ears next time you go for a walk. Allow yourself to experience the sound waves moving through you. Pay attention to where those sounds are coming from. Respect their sources, and remember that the river or the forest have been around a lot longer than you have. A lot of Nunns’ work with Horo, and previously with the late, great Hirini Melbourne, involves playing to the land: taking their instruments out to some barely touched forest or foreshore scene, usually by request, and following their sonic inspiration. Their mastery is not so much of the instruments but of their connection with them, and by extension the land itself.
Throughout VOICES OF THE LAND, I couldn’t help being reminded of my dad, who I sometimes feel I am slowly becoming. Like Nunns, he has an array of artifacts displayed around his house, including several creaking bookshelves bearing cherished works; like Nunns, he has a story for each of them, and for pretty much everything else in his sphere of orbit. Among the artifacts are some instruments, some of which bear some resemblance to Taonga pūoro. My dad was once in the Scratch Orchestra, a collective led by Phil Dadson that performed a combination of music and sonic experimentation. The one I always remember is the repeated scrunching up of a page of newspaper into a ball then reopening it, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Try this, if you have a newspaper handy, and notice how the sound and feel of the newsprint changes. It’s this kind of mindfulness towards the objects and sounds in one’s environment that Nunns has spent his whole life promoting.
I was lucky enough to see Melbourne and Nunns perform once, at WOMAD in Auckland in 1999. They took over the Auckland Town Hall for an hour and held everyone in their thrall as they moved between various instruments that had been placed on the stage. This music was like nothing I’d heard before: sparse, not particularly tuneful, but possessed of a seemingly inherent gravity that captivated me. (By the way, you probably already know this sound if you’ve seen any New Zealand film since ONCE WERE WARRIORS, but if you’re drawing a blank, have a listen here.) My dad was sitting beside me that day; he’d bought my ticket. Later, I was too embarrassed — too fourteen and pimply — to dance to Pacific Island fusion group Te Vaka out in Aotea Square, but my dad was shuffling away with a smile on his face in his huge black-and-blue jandals. At one point he gently admonished me for folding my arms and refusing to give in. “Can’t you just let it take you over eventually, just let it move your feet for you?” I remained coiled, and he carried on dancing.
VOICES OF THE LAND closes with one of the best final shots I’ve seen: a moment of dazzling, patient, inevitable simplicity, a reminder of the wonder in something that happens perpetually. It left me feeling inspired and moved. The woman asked me what I thought as we stood up and left the cinema, and I told her that I loved the film but felt embarrassed that I’d seen (and heard) so little of New Zealand. “Oh, you must,” she said. “Why haven’t you seen much? Are you not from here?”
I replied that I grew up in the Waikato and have since lived in Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington; that I’d visited beautiful locations such as Cape Reinga, Mahia, the Tararuas, Abel Tasman National Park, and Castle Basin in the Southern Alps. And as I spoke, I realised that I have seen quite a lot of New Zealand. I’ve only seen the Tararuas and Abel Tasman thanks to my girlfriend, who is as filled with fascination in nature as anyone I’ve met. But I owe the rest — and many others — to my parents, especially my dad. We had so many week-long driving holidays when I was a kid, sleeping in tents and living on Rice Risotto as we took in the many sights of the North Island. My dad was obsessed with taking the back roads instead of the state highways, carsickness be damned, just to see something different. He lived for some years on the edge of bush in the Waitakere Range, west of Auckland, and he still feels its pull. Whatever connection I have to the land, I owe a huge part of it to him.
I spent three hours covered in black-and-white mud and shit at HARD TO BE A GOD. Should’ve walked out after one.
It’s based on a 1964 novel that sounds fascinating and philosophically rich. “The novel follows Anton, an undercover operative from the future planet Earth, in his mission on an alien planet, that is populated by human beings, whose society has not advanced beyond the Middle Ages. The novel’s core idea is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be effective tools of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment.” (Wikipedia) Anton, known in the alien world as Don Rumata, comes to realise that although his advanced understanding of society accords him godlike qualities, he is hamstrung by the low beliefs of those around him. What a quandary: to know how to alleviate people’s suffering, to feel obliged to intervene, but to know any intervention can only at best offer temporary relief. The struggle for knowledge and improvement will rage on, punctuated by faeces and entrails, and you are powerless to do anything but watch.
If only the film had stuck more closely to these lines! Instead, the philosophy is virtually absent as German insists on keeping his camera at the level of the sodden, shit-stained dirt. Scenes unfold incoherently as Don Rumata staggers from one set of filthy, snot-ridden characters to another, none of whom is meaningfully distinct from the others — at least, as far as I could tell. German’s shooting style relies heavily on long, unchoreographed takes and features wavering focus, an insistence on close-up rather than wide angle cinematography, and regular, indistinct intrusions into the foreground of the frame by otherwise unseen characters and objects. At no point are any concessions made to an audience’s expectation for plot or character development; it is all base elements, mud and bodily functions and weapons. For three hours, and in black and white for good measure, lest anything capture our attention or imagination.
The point may be that we, the 21st Century audience, are equally powerless observers to the horrors of history. A good point, if so. And I’ll never feel more like I’ve spent three hours in the unenlightened Middle Ages, nor more appreciative of modern conveniences. But the point is laboured, and every element of the film remains out of most viewers’ grasp. The society Don Rumata inhabits is called Arkanar; fitting, as HARD TO BE A GOD is arcane in the extreme.