Tag Archives: new zealand

John Key, the waitress, and ownership

John Key not sorry for being a man t-shirtIn case you’re not already aware, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has acknowledged apologising to an Auckland waitress for repeatedly pulling her hair on several visits to a local cafe, describing the incidents as “in the context of a bit of banter that was going on”. It is also however in the context of Key previously pulling this girl’s hair and this girl’s hair, and in the context of Key wearing the above t-shirt during the 2014 NZ election campaign — which was when the cafe hair-pulling incidents took place.

When you pay your $4.50 in a cafe, that gets you ownership of a frothy drink to consume, and temporary use of the vessel it’s served in. It doesn’t entitle you to any kind of hall pass to treat the cafe staff as you please. You don’t temporarily own them, or any part of their body.

When you’re elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, that gets you stewardship of the nation’s legislative system and representation of the nation’s people and interests on the global stage. It doesn’t entitle you to ownership of the nation, or any of its people. You cannot go about the place doing as you please just because you’re Prime Minister. You are a servant of the people, rather than having them in your power.

If you’re a man, you are the beneficiary of centuries of patriarchal dominance in society — especially if you’re a white man. Your experience of the world is different from that of women, who have been oppressed for centuries and continue to be oppressed in obvious and subtle ways. (Take a look outside the gender binary and the oppression gets even worse, as it also does for those who are not light-skinned.) A penis doesn’t allow you to treat women in a way you would not treat men, or to exert ownership over them in any way.

There’s a different kind of ownership. It entails owning up to your mistakes and vowing not to repeat them. It entails respect for yourself and for those you meet. It entails owning your masculinity consciously, even though centuries of patriarchal dominance mean you’re rarely reminded of it — certainly not in the way women are reminded of their oppression on a daily basis. It entails a responsible approach to one’s place in society, especially if you’re at the very top of the pyramid. And it entails taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

In New Zealand, John Key is now a central part of the narrative of ownership and entitlement by the rich, by the powerful, by white people, and by men. That narrative needs to change. I might once have said it needs to change from the ground up, that the culture of male entitlement and abuse of power is best addressed at home, at work, and — yes — in the local coffee shop. But perhaps a top-down approach is better, especially while the topic is hot. Some ownership of the issue by NZ’s most powerful man, and one of the most cultishly supported figures in NZ’s political history, would be welcome.

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Things of 2014

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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.

There was also the Football World Cup, which is always a joy. This was my favourite ‘fuck yeah’ moment.

Music

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.

Politics

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.

Film

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.

My favourite film of the year is tricky. There are quite a few contenders: BOYHOOD, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA, VOICES FROM THE LAND, and UNDER THE SKIN. The latter was particularly memorable, one of those rare films that’s so unsettling I couldn’t shake its sounds and visions for weeks. I also really liked NOAHTHE LUNCHBOX, THE DARK HORSE, and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.

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.

And then there were the losses, particularly Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose greatness is now a void in cinema. Neither of them will make any more films, and both cases but especially Hoffman’s, that is a great loss to the medium.

Tech

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.

Books

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.

Travel

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.

People

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.

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AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE: The Observer

(via nziff.co.nz)AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE
directed by Gerard Smyth
Interview on Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon, 23 July 2014

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.

Learn more about Karunai Illam — and, if you like, donate to the organisation — here.

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VOICES OF THE LAND: Calling on

NGĀ REO O TE WHENUA – VOICES OF THE LAND
directed by Paul Wolffram
Review: Cinema Aotearoa

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 Pakeha 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 Pakeha 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.

Read an interview with Richard Nunns here.
Read more about Taonga pūoro here.

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Things of 2013

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I’m now 29 and I have no kids. No property or other investments, either. I would like all of those things at some point in the future, but they aren’t my priority at the moment. I’m more interested in travel and pursuing new opportunities in my career. Round up a few other 29-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

Most of what follows is about me.

Music

The best twenty seconds of a song I heard this year were 3:10 to 3:30 of ‘The Red Wing’ by Fuck Buttons, from the album Slow Focus.

My music listening habits never really developed past the age of 16, when I got my first computer. I come across a new album and listen to it once or for months on repeat. Slow Focus was my favourite album of the ten or so new ones I heard this year. James Blake’s Overgrown would be next, and I also really liked Nothing Was The Same by Drake.

The steady accumulation of layers and abrasions on ‘The Red Wing’ reaches a glorious, spine-tingling apex about halfway through. My second favourite twenty seconds of a song are also from ‘The Red Wing’ as it starts to devolve from 6:10 to 6:30. The album as a whole is relentlessly dark, loud, and repetitive; it calls to mind the twisted sensations of being off your face in a dark nightclub, or the sick emotion that accompanies losing something important you can never get back. It drags me through a 45-minute catharsis. My kind of music.

Oh, the best New Zealand album I heard this year was Anniversary Day by JP Young. It would be my favourite album of the year but it came out in 2012. I recommend you go and listen to (and maybe buy) it now, especially if you have any connection to Wellington. It is a genuinely great album, poetic and easy to get along with.

Politics

In my dictionary (the excellent WordWeb), the first definition of ‘politics’ is Social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power. No wonder it fills so many pages in the newspaper and minutes on the airwaves. Not here, though.

Sport

Wellington Indoor Sports Shed 1

From in front of that massive, stunted goal in Shed 1 – about waist-high and about a third of the width of the pitch – James rolled the ball out to me. I was just on our team’s side of the halfway line, the opposition goal about fifteen metres behind me. We were ahead, but we’d just conceded a goal and needed to regain control of the run of play.

I leaned back slightly as the ball reached me and tapped it with the outside of my right foot to MHS, who was over by the left sideline. As he put his foot on the ball and drew a defender, I spun round and sauntered into space a few metres downfield. Just as I was nearing the penalty spot, with no defender near me, MHS took a couple more touches and tapped the ball past his marker, into my path. In my peripheral vision, I sensed two things: one, the opposition goalkeeper was positioned slightly to the left of the centre of the goal, back near his line; two, an opposition defender was rushing at me from my right.

As the ball ran in front of me, I controlled it with one touch from my right foot and – judging that I had less than a second in which to act before I would be tackled – snapped a left-footed shot along the ground, past the oncoming defender, and into the bottom right corner of the opposition goal.

The exact same sequence of events could have happened a hundred years ago, albeit on grass rather than turf and with a plain leather ball rather than a bright yellow plastic one. I will remember it for decades, just as I remember my chipped goal from near halfway in a second XI match at high school and a perfectly timed flick off my pads for four from the first ball I faced in house cricket. Such moments in our sporting lives are timeless.

Film

I seem to be getting more bored with the movies. I went dozens of times this year, more than I have since about 2006, and I always enjoyed myself from start to finish, whether it was any good or whether the dude behind me provided a running commentary throughout (as happened in The Hunt and at least one other film I can’t remember). But I rarely left feeling inspired to talk about what I’d just seen, or to think about it a week later. The prime example of this was Hyde Park on Hudson, a film so bland I barely remember seeing it.

Good films I saw this year included 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing, Before Midnight, Fast & Furious 6, Gravity, The Hunt, Like Father, Like Son, Mr. Pip, Much Ado About Nothing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Wadjda, and (if I’m allowed this one) Lawrence of Arabia in glorious 4K at The Embassy. Despite its flaws – particularly a lack of balance between its three parts – The Place Beyond The Pines has stayed with me, proving that striking a resonant tone in film is less tangible than the technical combination of good characters, dialogue, cinematography, sound, and editing. The Place Beyond The Pines only had these things in patches, but I haven’t forgotten it.

Mia Farrow | Cloud Atlas

Casting a wide shadow over all my cinematic joys this year was the disappointment that Cloud Atlas was not released in cinemas in New Zealand. The distributor must have gotten cold feet at the prospect of selling Kiwi audiences on a three-hour epic with six ongoing storylines painted in broad archetypes, which seems like a fair decision when I look at that sentence, but Cloud Atlas somehow fulfils its extraordinary ambitions and offers a new kind of multi-layered spectacle in film. I watched it at home, alone on the couch wearing headphones, oblivious to a storm raging outside. It was the best new film I saw this year, and when a stranger says they also loved it, I feel like the film is recommending that person to me.

Tech

A couple of months ago, someone did a memorably recognisable impression of me. They held a smartphone close to their face, jabbed it with their index finger, and muttered, “Just… fucking… work!”

The way I treat the technology in my life has become a good indicator of my mood. The more accepting I am of my phone becoming unresponsive or my laptop shutting down unexpectedly, the better my overall frame of mind. If I’m already frustrated, I swear and click the mouse harder and bang my foot on the floor. I apologise to my colleagues for this.

The fact that my use of electronics can be seen as a barometer of my psychological state suggests how deeply I’ve involved these objects in my daily life. When you spend more than half of your waking hours with someone, or something, some irritation is inevitable. But if I lost them, it’d be like losing one of my senses.

Yellow shoes, walking

Books

In August I went to the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, putting one foot in the world that knows her as ‘Ellie’. She complimented me on my yellow shoes, and I asked her how she was feeling. “A bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” she replied, looking around at the faces and wine glasses packed tighter than ever into Unity Books. This was a couple of months before she won the Booker.

After the launch, Nik and Ant and I discussed what a positive occasion it was. A good person being celebrated for an amazing feat of creativity. I still haven’t finished reading the bloody thing because I am so terrible at reading books, but it really is great, and I will get there.

Travel

In September I went to Brisbane, and in December I went to Nelson. First holiday was alone, second was with a companion. The weather was great for both.

Walking at Anchorage, Abel Tasman National Park

People

I think it has to be Tara, four months in, as wonderful as my colleagues, friends, and family are. She plucks snails off the footpath and places them safely in the bushes. She attempts to identify each bird she sees: “Thrush? Female blackbird?” She is comfortable speaking to strangers on the phone. She writes good emails. She gives excellent gifts. Our conversations flow easily, weaving from meaning to silly madness and back. Perhaps I am overly observant, but she means a lot to me.

Also, the Internet has a slightly diminished role in my life right now but I was lucky enough to get to meet Charles, Dan, Kathleen, Isabel, Martyn, Naomi, Neha, Reena, and Sarah this year – all people I came to know about through Twitter, and who have all been teachers in some way or another. Each year brings more new connections, and some old ones rekindled. Many bleed happily from one medium into another: Twitter, then Facebook, then a coffee shop or a pub. There will no doubt be more new people in 2014 – more good people, and more effort not to spread myself so thinly.

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Thanks for coming and looking at this. The years are all arbitrary but regardless of what has happened in 2013, I hope 2014 is all right for you.

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Filed under 'Best Of' Lists, Film, Music, New Zealand

#NZFF: The [x] of [y]

2013 NZFF LogoI have never gotten so prepared for a film festival as I have for the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival in Wellington. Man, I don’t think I was this prepared before moving overseas for four years. I’ve booked leave from work, prepared a backpack of essentials (including water, fruit leather, and a range of medicaments to treat these bastard cold symptoms), and bought a hardcover notebook to jot down thoughts on a jittering knee.

That last point is a first for me. I’ve been attempting to write about film on here for years, but only after I get home and try to piece it all back together in my mind. Today’s initial trials indicate that I am less able to let go and be immersed in a film if I’m taking notes, but I remember a lot more and have a much more coherent understanding of it as I watch it. Seems like a reasonable trade-off: if I really like the film, as I did in both cases today, I can watch it again without the distraction of pen and paper in future.

My first two outings of NZFF 2013 both followed the same titling format: THE [x] OF [y]. Not a trend I’m particularly fond of, but here were two excellent, very different films that bore some surprising similarities. In the first instance, the title was entirely metaphorical and had nothing to do with the literal content of the film; in the second, it was an unvarnished description of the uniquely presented hell on earth it depicted.

The Weight of Elephants | Crystal Shrine

The Weight of Elephants was a perfect way to start my festival. It’s a serious film, but very beautiful and filled with room for interpretation. It’s also very much a New Zealand story, and in the Q&A afterwards, director Daniel Borgman stated his intentions to be true to small town NZ (Invercargill in this case). I think he succeeded admirably in telling a story set in a world I could easily link back to my own childhood in Tokoroa, as well as crafting another worthwhile feature in NZ’s small town canon: Whale Rider, In My Father’s Den, Out of the Blue (which also stars Matthew Sunderland) to name three. The toetoe I’d noticed in Aro Valley on my walk to the cinema showed up on screen, too, as a key symbol in a very beautiful opening sequence. “A Kiwi film,” I thought. Naturally, Tim Tams also made an appearance later on and were appropriately fussed over.

We meet 11-year-old Adrian as his lice-riddled hair is shorn off by a grandmother who really only expresses her (very genuine) love with a ‘get over it’ attitude. Adrian has no say in the matter, and this appears to be his life in a nutshell: a powerless young boy trying to figure out where he fits, virtually always dictated to unless he’s on his own. His friendships are more like ongoing negotiations as he tests others out and — more often — they test him. He’s willing to kick a rugby ball at someone he cares about if it gets him kudos with the playground bullies, but could he kill a rabbit for the same reason? We really see the world through his eyes, and as Adrian’s concept of loyalty is constantly recalibrated with each personal challenge, it all rings dauntingly true.

The Weight of Elephants | Rabbit

Borgman shows a strong hand throughout The Weight of Elephants, keeping a consistent tone of uncertainty through a mix of straightforward cinematography and glorious slow motion. His decision not to rely too much on music — indeed, much of the film carries only incidental sound — also bears fruit when the score quietly builds in the final scene, adding to its emotional payoff. He’s pleasingly comfortable with silence, rarely the hallmark of a commercially sought-after director, but skilled enough to hopefully bring his talents to mainstream success.

He would no doubt be quick to acknowledge that this film would be nothing without its child performers, who are both naturalistic and captivating. As Adrian, Demos Murphy has few memorable lines but says it all with his wide eyes and smile, and he does well to cry so much without ever seeming forced. Of his three aimless neighbours, who are his age or younger but whose worldliness makes them seem like adults, I was particularly taken with Hannah Jones as Joely. The character is only six, and Jones can’t be much older, but in her small amount of screen time she is totally captivating — a playful cherub with an unspoken darkness. If you see it (and you should), watch for the moment when she’s asked, “What’s your name?” The look on her face is perfectly enigmatic.

Just as the development and display of power is a key theme in The Weight of Elephants, it’s central to The Act of Killing, which offers regular reminders of who has it and who doesn’t. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, which is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, is as much an exploration of how power corrupts as of the long-term effects of mass murder.

The Act of Killing | Herman Koto | Filming

Today, there are three million members in the Indonesian paramilitary organisation Pancasila Youth, which is headed by one of the most repellent people I’ve ever seen in a movie: a perpetually lewd, offensively charming bastard who doesn’t replace his divots at the golf course. Pancasila is as closely tied to governmental power now as it was in 1965-66, when it played a key role in Suharto’s military coup and helped kill somewhere between 500,000 and 3,000,000 alleged Communists and Chinese Indonesians. It’s an organisation synonymous with extortionist gangsters, who (according to this film) are seen as an integral element of Indonesian society and politics. They even find repeated justification for themselves in the original meaning for the Indonesian word for gangster, preman, which was ‘free man’; this seems a particular point of pride, with the unofficial theme song ‘Born Free’ providing one of the film’s most memorably off-putting scenes.

The main preman in The Act of Killing is Anwar Congo, who is estimated to have killed around 1000 people during the purge and appears to have been trying to justify it ever since. Either that, or he was getting drunk or high: “I’ve tried to forget all this,” he says as he details his preferred method of strangulation. This is the conceit of the film: Congo, and a few of his Pancasila contemporaries, are invited to re-enact their killings in a fictional film bearing the styles of the Hollywood favourites they used to exhibit in shady halls. He dresses as Pacino, Eastwood, and Gene Kelly; in his idle moments, he looks like a thinner, more drug-fucked Nelson Mandela. “There are many ghosts here,” he says as he gestures to a nondescript terrace floor, but it becomes ever more clear that the ghosts inhabit his mind. He certainly can’t escape them when he sleeps.

Act of Killing Ticket | A. O. K.

Act of Killing. Not really ok

I experienced a new kind of desensitisation to violence while watching The Act of Killing. Congo and the others described killing so often, and in such detail, even before any filmic re-enactments were shown, that I found myself nodding more and recoiling less. The killing seems mostly incidental to them in light of the far more important achievement of overthrowing Communism; indeed, most of the paramilitary guys, and ALL of the politicians, are obsessed with appearing powerful and successful. “For massacres, I usually wore jeans,” says Congo, focusing on how he ought to be attired for a particular shot. Herman, a big man who is both lovable and terrifying, blunders into politics as a means to gaining greater wealth and status. Congo’s compadre Adi sees a bigger picture — how Oppenheimer’s film could reflect badly on all of them — but even in full awareness of his own past atrocities, he’s happy to argue at length the negligible difference between cruelty and sadism.

“It’s not about fear. It’s about image,” says Adi. “The legacy.” He’s happy to go on trial for war crimes in The Hague if it brings him fame, and he says all this not as a naive pawn in a grander scheme but as a clear-eyed believer who has thought all of this through and justified his horrific actions as an absolute necessity.

It isn’t so easy for Congo, whose mind and body are slowly failing him. Confronted with what he has done, and invited to act out both parts, he sees how hollow his “relative morality” is. In a key scene, he invites his grandchildren to bear witness to his on-screen suffering, and in the same moment gains piercing insight into his victims’ plight. Here is a man who, upon reaching the twilight of his life, is literally given pause as he looks back over his deeds.

Act of Killing | Strangling technique

In The Act of Killing, expensive crystal sits behind locked glass as a grotesque monument to power and ego. In the more humble Invercargill homes of The Weight of Elephants, a wet finger run along the rim of a crystal glass sings — until it’s smashed. Here are two films that pick the crystal shards off the floor of human experience and place them before us as uncut diamonds.

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Filed under Film, New Zealand

Wore a Kanye West t-shirt to the ballet

I have no qualifications for writing about Swan Lake performed by The Royal New Zealand Ballet with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, other than that I saw it and was wearing this t-shirt:

SWAG t-shirt and lollies

(File Photo)

Like many others, perhaps including a majority of men about Natalie Portman’s age, I became interested in ballet — particularly Swan Lake — after seeing Black Swan. As much as I love that epically unhinged film, Tchaikovsky’s music is what has sustained my interest in the years since. I must’ve listened to the whole score a hundred times; in particular, it provided a surreal soundtrack to my daily train commute in South India, clarinet and strings waving in sync with the branches of coconut palms.

From our seats, we were lucky enough to be able to see into the orchestra pit.

St James | Wellington | NZSO | Swan Lake

St James Theatre, Wellington

And when the lights dimmed, and that familiar musical phrase opened the performance, I already had my money’s worth.

Up went the curtain, and the best dancers in the country moved their perfectly toned, muscular bodies with transcendent grace. Between the music and the movement, I wasn’t really sure where to look. My tendency in describing art to others, especially visual art, is to focus on a particularly memorable aspect or moment and let that speak for my overall impression. This is very hard to do with a consummate performance featuring the life’s work of two dozen dancers, world-class choreographers, designers of three-storey sets and 20kg costumes, and an entire orchestra. How can I omit the flautist’s precise notes, the ornate headdress at stage left, the way liquid nitrogen ripples beneath Qi Huan’s feet? If I don’t mention that heartbreaking key change in the final scene, or Odile’s 32 fouettes, can I even say I’ve seen Swan Lake?

One dancer stood out. My companion later told me that she’d earned 100% on a Royal Academy of Dance exam when they were in the same teenage class in Tauranga. Her name is Katherine Grange and she danced in such a way that I could imagine her succeeding in any chosen passion; she just happened to choose dance. As much as anyone else on stage, her performance showed me something I hadn’t previously realised: ballet is a genuine feat of acting, and facial expression is a key element. The feet and arms need to be technically exceptional, but it’s the emotion in the way they move that carries the audience along.

Some of my favourite films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lost In Translation, make a point of telling the story (or long stretches of it, at least) with images and music rather than words. In ballet, I think I’ve found an art which is based entirely on this principle. “Would you like to go to the ballet again?” asked my friend as we debriefed over a beer. My eyes widened. “Absolutely.” If the human species had three hours to demonstrate our capabilities to visiting alien dignitaries, a full performance of Swan Lake would do the trick.

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Filed under Music, New Zealand