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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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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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Fears of a man who has just started running

1. Having barely exercised in the past ten years, and certainly not exercised regularly, am I a phony for starting up again now?

2. How long am I going to keep this up, and how much would I hate myself if I stopped? Only four weeks so far. Maybe I shouldn’t even be telling anyone.

3. I’m sure I breathe very loudly after the first 500 metres. I wonder if the people I pass as I run notice this and remark on it to their housemates when they get home. “This guy just ran past me, he was the loudest breather EVER, my God, ridiculous.”

4. Days spent in front of the computer screen used to pass with little notice for my limbs. Now they sit uneasily about the chair, like they’re suddenly aware that they could be doing something else. I may never again feel completely comfortable with 40 hours a week of office work (or 40 hours a week of lazing around on the Internet at home).

5. There must be a chance that my heart, which I have stuffed with saturated fats and rarely pushed beyond resting rate for years, will fold in on itself — probably when I am as far from any other human as possible.

6. I should really eat better.

Running

Running happens so much

7. Being forced to go running by seniors in high school was horrible, and now I’m an adult who is doing it by choice. I have become both a prefect and a third form runt. (Mind you, lots of things that were horrible about high school — socialising, looking in the mirror, talking — are a lot more comfortable now.)

8. If this goes on, I might become a Running Guy who could be caricatured by his friends as someone who goes running and talks about running and recommends other people go running.

9. I am probably going to roll my ankle at some point.

10. TJ told me all those years ago about running technique – straight neck, relaxed limbs — and Ed gave me the tip of looking out in front of me rather than focusing on where my feet fall. I try to do these things right, but how many hundreds of other things am I doing wrong?

11. Is everyone else’s nose as blocked up and demanding as mine? It had better not be like this in summer.

12. What about my stretches? I could look up proper pre-exercise stretches. I’m going to do that now.

13. Wow, some people don’t even stretch at all. I have to figure out what works best for me. That means quite a lot more running, and paying attention to various aspects of my running. I hope my brain gets better at figuring out what’s going on around my body.

14. Everyone who reads this has come to the end and decided that I am indeed a phony, and the word ‘phony’ will be burned into my brain the next time I go running, rattling in my head with every stride.

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The Hobbit: Roll Back The Red Carpet

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

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

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

Red Carpet | The Hobbit Premiere | Wellington | Courtenay Place

Exciting, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Film, New Zealand

Do Not Leave Your Homes, Everything Is Fine

A reminder that Wellington is a small city, and New Zealand is a small country.

I normally walk to work along Willis St, the busiest road in Wellington’s CBD, and today was no different. This morning, however, this street – usually full of courteous cars and pedestrians holding takeaway coffee mugs – was almost deserted. The following photo was taken at 8:15am:

There hasn’t been a massive earthquake, nor has there been a zombie apocalypse. (Zombies are fake and boring and stupid and no reason to clear the streets anyhow.) It’s just a public holiday – Labour Day, in fact.

Because my job involves multiple time zones and countries, I’ve got work to do. Meanwhile, @mishviews on Twitter (and presumably a lot more of Wellington’s population, given that the semester also wrapped at Victoria University on Friday) is still in bed.

Being one of those pompous asses who cannot help but compare everything at home to my Big OE, I look at these near-empty streets with some curiosity. In Tokyo, no matter how important and respectfully observed the public holiday might have been, streets would definitely be full of people by now. Job comes before anything else, a hangover from the post-war years of working double to try and return a shattered nation to its pre-war glory. And if for some reason you have a whole day away from work, you’d better make the most of it. A day trip to Hakone, a jaunt to Tokyo Disneyland, some crepes in Harajuku. Don’t waste any chance to work or play.

Maybe that isn’t a fair comparison. Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, after all, and Wellington is the Coolest Little Capital In The World. But Varkala in the south Indian state of Kerala, a tourist town of about 40,000 people, was also a good deal busier than this at any time. So many people were in the midst of trying to be upwardly mobile that no matter the occasion, they needed to be out in the streets or opening the shop, seven days a week. Everything is in a constant state of development and transition and if you miss even one day, you might get left behind.

Here in socialist paradise New Zealand, as one US-based friend puts it, we are pretty comfortable and the city streets aren’t changing much. There’s no real worry of falling behind if you take a day off with everyone else, which isn’t that many people anyway. Things will be okay.

I think it’s really easy to forget this, because Wellington offers quite a lot to do and can seem like a bustling metropolis at times. When we decide to stop bustling, though, we generally can. And we’re very lucky for that.

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Filed under India, Japan, New Zealand

The Eagerness to Judge (or, One Of My Friends Is Gay)

Note: The bar discussed below is called [public.] but I’ve referred to them as ‘Public’ throughout for the sake of flow.

A friend of mine has been harshly judged and condemned by hundreds, possibly thousands of people for ‘lies’ which she did not tell. The abuse is frankly staggering, given that there is little evidence either way of the real truth.

I’ll run through the facts, then offer my thoughts.

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Last weekend Rebekah, who happens to be gay, had a negative experience in Public, a bar on Wellington’s Courtenay Place. As she kissed her girlfriend Jennie on the lips, a member of Public’s staff tapped them on the shoulder and asked them to leave. When Rebekah stated that “this wouldn’t happen if it were a straight couple,” the member of staff agreed and said, with a smirk, “I wish it could be different.” He suggested that the order to eject them had come from management.

Rebekah vented her initial frustration on Facebook, then on Sunday wrote an open letter to the management of Public, which she also posted on Facebook. Public management’s initial response, in comments posted to Facebook, was to state that they did not care about creed, colour, religion or sexual orientation. Their tone then became adversarial, stating they did care about Rebekah “slagging off their business”.

On Monday, the story took off in the mainstream media, with stories drawn from the Facebook discussions posted on the websites of The New Zealand Herald and Stuff.co.nz’s Dominion Post section by Monday afternoon. This was when Rebekah decided that she would go on the record for the media, having previously only considered it. The ‘gay kiss’ story led the 1pm news bulletin on Radio New Zealand and 3 News television reporters began work on a piece for their 6pm bulletin.

In those media reports, Public owner Gina Mills offered their version of events. Mills said that according to the staff member that ejected them, Rebekah and her girlfriend were dancing on a table and acting inappropriately. (They later said they were lying on the table.) Mills indicated that there was no CCTV footage of the incident, meaning it was the staff member’s words against the couple’s. In short, Mills said Rebekah’s complaint was a lie.

On Tuesday, Public produced CCTV footage for the media to view. It reportedly showed Rebekah and her girlfriend kissing and then moving out of CCTV coverage, before being escorted out of the bar by the staff member. (The footage was not released for general viewing, such as on YouTube, for obvious reasons.)

In the wake of the CCTV footage being shown to the media, and amidst intense public and media attention, Rebekah and her girlfriend withdrew their complaint against Public whilst maintaining their version of events. The Dominion Post reported this with the headline ‘Female couple withdraw complaint’; 3 News, which had interviewed Rebekah and her girlfriend for a story on Monday’s 6pm bulletin, reported with the headline ‘Lesbian kiss couple revoke complaint against bar’.

In their story, 3 News stated that Rebekah and her girlfriend had been “acting inappropriately” on the CCTV footage, which was the exact phrasing also used by the Public staff member and management. Unlike the Dominion Post, which gave a rundown of the events on the tape, 3 News limited their description of the events inside the bar to their opinion. “acting inappropriately”. Later, on the 6pm 3 News bulletin on Tuesday, newsreader Hilary Barry drew a line under the matter by suggesting that the complaint was withdrawn directly because of the CCTV footage release; she also used Twitter to express the same sentiment.

The social media and blogger backlash was swift. Rebekah and her girlfriend had, in many people’s eyes, been exposed as liars. Rebekah and her girlfriend have been denigrated as ‘attention-seekers’, ‘whores’, ‘spoilt brats’, ‘silly little girls’ and more. The language adopted by many in the gay and lesbian community in Wellington was particularly bitter as they felt the episode would reflect poorly on them as a whole — for example, the popular gay issues website Aaron and Andy.

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Throughout this entire process, from the moment Rebekah first spoke up to right now, I really don’t think she or Jennie could have handled it any better. Her open letter is articulate and dignified, with anger carefully directed at the staff member involved and the management he invoked as he threw them out. She sought to resolve the issue with management until the story went big, at which point she spoke on the record without blaming anyone except the person who ejected them. When she and Jennie agreed to go before 3 News cameras, they came across as two confident, sensible young people; there was a notable lack of obvious exaggeration or overt bitterness towards Public in their words.

The only problem was that observers would not take them at their words. Most have formed their opinions on the basis of the CCTV footage — despite it being reported as inconclusive — and subsequent complaint withdrawal, a link which Hilary Barry and 3 News were happy to draw on air. The use of epithets like ‘whore’ suggest that for some, deeper prejudices played an equal part as they made up their minds.

Now, I wasn’t in Public when all this went down, and I don’t claim to have any knowledge beyond the facts I’ve laid out above. However, I do know Rebekah reasonably well. She is an intelligent woman, at times fiercely so, and marked by a capacity to talk and listen to pretty much anyone with confidence. She demonstrates, in big and small ways and on a daily basis, that she cares about the people in her life. She carries herself with confidence and self-respect; this episode is the first time since I’ve known her that I’ve seen her speak out about feeling victimised in any way.

As a result, I take Rebekah at her word. It helps that the story she and Jennie told has not once been altered, unlike Public’s, and that they were so grateful for the support they received in telling it.

Of course, no matter how strongly and vociferously I vouch for her integrity, I can’t expect anyone who doesn’t know Rebekah to feel the same. It isn’t surprising, or even unfair, that so many people have questioned her account. What is surprising is the willingness, even eagerness, to judge the couple as liars and condemn them so bitterly. It started well before the CCTV footage was shown to the media, and has completely taken over since.

I’m not sure what to make of all the outrage. Is it the remove of social media and fingers-at-the-keyboard that brings people to write off a person’s character? Is it the fact that one of New Zealand’s biggest news outlets, 3 News, ultimately took Public’s side, leading viewers to follow suit? Or is it more insidious: a number of deep-lying prejudices against women, youth and homosexuals, brought to the surface by a perceived slight against the rest of society? My suspicion is that all three factors have played a role across the spectrum of online opinion.

Conversely, this episode has actually enhanced my own acceptance and tolerance of homosexuality. I’ve never seen a gay couple on television look as natural and at ease with each other as Rebekah and Jennie did; at the time I took this to be a very good sign of the state of gay rights in Wellington, given that they felt comfortable enough in their sexuality with each other to appear as they did. Naively, I expected many others would feel the same.

It’s not at all surprising that Rebekah and Jennie have retreated from the backlash, and while I understand it completely and support their withdrawal, it’s not a good sign. Anyone who experiences similar treatment in future will think twice before speaking out about it. As public opinions of character go, ‘attention-seeking liar’ is about as bad as it can get for much of society. For the couple’s sake, then, I hope:

1) Rebekah and Jennie can get on with their lives in peace and put this behind them, as is their right, especially when they have not done a single thing wrong;

2) people who experience such treatment in future are able to judge their case on its merit, free of the context provided by this unfortunate saga. Ideally, media outlets and the public at large will have the presence of mind to judge them on their merit, too, and to keep to the known facts of the case before making any conclusions — if, indeed, conclusions can be drawn at all. (Is that too much to ask?)

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