Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Why I'd rather visit Smithyland than Hobbiton



[NB: I've cut out the first half of this post, because it seemed, with its drawn-out - and, I still think, substantially accurate - criticisms of Peter Jackson's movies, to be taking attention away from the poet and the book I had intended mainly to discuss.]

Even some of John Key's more thoughtful supporters seem to be despairing of the effect that Key's favourite film-maker has had on New Zealand's image. In a plaintive opinion piece last weekend, the senior Herald staffer and confirmed right-winger John Roughan lamented the way that a 'robust rural community' like Matamata has been redefined by Jackson's movies as the abode of cheery little hobbits. Roughan expressed amazement that anyone could enjoy either Tolkien's books or Jackson's films, and expressed his hope that The Hobbit would have as 'little to do' with New Zealand 'as possible'.

Yet many New Zealanders disagree with Roughan. The overwhelmingly white crowds which turned out in Wellington and Auckland on Labour Weekend to support Jackson and his American corporate friends in their battle against orcish trade unionists were a sad but not unexpected spectacle. Apparently lacking any real identity and any real sense of their country's history, the members of those crowds were able to wield, in all seriousness, placards with slogans like 'New Zealand is Hobbiton' and 'Keep New Zealand Middle Earth'.

It is interesting to compare the response of many Kiwis to Jackson's Tolkien films and the reaction of the people of Kazakhstan to Sacha Baron Cohen's movie Borat, which caricatured that country in the same way Jackson caricatures New Zealand. Many of us want to rename this country Hobbiton, and our government and Tourist Board have rushed to embrace Jackson's films. In Kazakhstan, by contrast, the government and the people have condemned Cohen as a racist and repudiated the character of Borat.

A recently-released unauthorised sequel to Borat by a Kazakh director reanimates Cohen's character and turns him from a caricature into a real human being living in a real society. New Zealand's government and a section of its populace have cowered in the face of threats from Jackson's mates in Hollywood; Kazakhstan's government and its film industry have laughed off the threat of legal action from Cohen's corporate backers. Perhaps it's time we Kiwis stopped laughing at Kazakhstan, or at Cohen's parody of Kazakhstan, and looked at ourselves?

For the past few weeks I have spent much of my time in a country very different from Hobbiton. If Hobbiton is a place of cliched peoples, impoverished landscapes, and ponderous, hackneyed plots, then the place I have taken to calling 'Smithyland' is filled with strange characters, ever-changing landscapes, dense and diverse flora and flora, and unexpected happenings. It's a country which is at once familiar and surprising, ancient and new. Smithyland is New Zealand, filtered through the strange and fertile mind of one of our greatest poets. If he were still alive, Smithyman would probably be unimpressed by the anti-union hysteria that Jackson and the government have tried to stir up in recent weeks. Smithyman’s father was an activist in the Industrial Workers of the World and the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in the turbulent years before World War One, when workers’ militia and government paramilitaries fought gun battles in the streets, and the old radical sometimes blamed his politics for the trouble he had finding regular work in the 1920s and '30s.

Although he abandoned his early belief in ‘Communist philosophy’, claiming that it simplified reality too much, the mature Smithyman retained a sardonically sceptical attitude toward New Zealand's economic and political establishment and its overseas allies. The poems in Private Bestiary, which include passionate attacks on the treatment of rank and file soldiers during World War Two, mocking indictments of American economic and cultural imperialism, and cries of indignation about the treatment of Maori in mid-century New Zealand, underline Smithyman's status as a critic and conscience of Kiwi society.

Smithyman did not, however, specialise in what we might call protest poetry. Where his mate James K Baxter often wrote polemics against the aspects of New Zealand society he detested – the 1966 poem-sequence Pig Island Letters, for instance, examines and excoriates James K's homeland in coruscating detail – Smithyman usually focused on creating poems which embodied, in their language and their layers of meaning, alternatives to what is worst in our society.

Smithyman is, in other words, less concerned with taking a stand on one or another issue than he is with showing us a manner of thinking – a manner that is deeply historical, unpretentiously learned, and tolerant of ambiguity, of difference, and of disagreement – which can help us find our way out of the limitations of our present ways of life and thought, and help us to appreciate those parts of our surroundings that we usually either overlook or stereotype. When he was asked to sum up Smithyman's poetry a few years ago, the critic Gregory O'Brien replied 'it's the opposite of television'. O'Brien might have added that Smithyman's work was also the opposite of Peter Jackson's films. Where Jackson and his ilk simplify, Smithyman always complicates, in wonderfully entertaining and educational as well as occasionally baffling ways. Who else could find cosmic significance in the lives of his oddly-named cats, or leap from the North Shore to Sheffield and back in the space of a few well-chosen words?

Because he is interested in complicating our sense of ourselves and our society, Smithyman often uses his poems to champion awkward, unfashionable figures from both our past and our present: revolutionary ‘Red Fed’ trade unionists like his father, seditious Maori prophets like Papahurihia, Te Kooti, and Aperahama Taonui, the white whalers and sealers who rejected respectability to live amongst Maori in the nineteenth century, eccentric academics and autodidacts who study strange and strangely instructive subjects, indifferent to the amusement or bemusement of their friends and colleagues, and rank and file servicemen who quietly refuse to take the causes they are asked to fight for seriously. Above all, perhaps, Smithyman champions those residents of the unfashionable, isolated regions of New Zealand – places like the King Country, the East Coast of the North Island, the Chatham Islands, and, of course, his beloved Northland – who refuse the lure of distant metropolises, and insist instead on making lives for themselves in areas either despised or ignored by many of their wealthier and more influential countrymen and women.

Although he was critical of aspects of New Zealand society, Smithyman's poems offer evidence of his basic confidence in its members. In his early poem 'Walk Past Those Houses on a Sunday Morning', he turns the new working class Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier into a symbol of hope:

Walk past those houses on a Sunday morning
where pianos stumble in front rooms,
mechanics freed from tools take shears
to clip their hedges, talking politics...

Count them again, these things, the League ball
punted across the park, processional eighteen
footer sails, cold meat and salad at five.

Somewhere there’s value to them. As a piano stumbles
something comes into being. It will take shape in the end.


Smithyman had his weaknesses and his blind spots, and there is more to New Zealand than what we find in his poems. Even so, the 'Smithyland' they create is a place which most of us can recognise, even as we marvel at details and perspectives which are new to us. I'd certainly rather spend some time in Smithyland than in Hobbiton.

If you'd like either to discover or rediscover Smithyman's strange and yet strangely familiar world, then you're invited to the launch of Private Bestiary: selected unpublished poems 1944-1993 on Wednesday the 17th of November at the University of Auckland's Old Government House, from half-past five. If you're a Tolkien fan as well as a Smithyman fan, or a Tolkien fan who hasn't read Smithyman but would like to argue with my outrageous and simplistic arguments over a beer, then don't despair: you're very welcome, and you'll find that one of the speakers at the event, the distinguished Jack Ross, who has a handsome new edition of his own Smithyman book in the works, is very keen on Lord of the Rings indeed. As Smithyman himself always recognised, one of the great things about literature is the way it fosters endless argument, rather than sterile agreement.

47 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is smithyman afraid of in that photo?

8:14 am  
Blogger Carey said...

http://rainonthelens.blogspot.com/2010/11/for-scott.html

8:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

overwrought prose, the nauseous paeans to class-bound rural England, and the endless bloody elven singing...who wouldn't love LOTR?

8:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and LOTR...bordering on fascist myths of blood and soil? The whole recovery of myth in the 18th and 19th centuries as a viable category was predicated on the idea of the the ancient Volk. This is when you got the Aryan hypothesis, the arguments that myths told the story of earliest humanity – which for the Nazis began north of the arctic circle etc. Note that the BNP (British National Party) says its putting up for indigenous Britons.

8:29 am  
Blogger Bill said...

Long ago, in 1976, we (I & a handful of students who took all 3 English options offered at Stage 1 level at Victoria University) were tutored by one of Tolkiens' former students. If I remember correctly, her name was Winifred Hall. She impressed upon us the fact of his immense linguistic knowledge, and instilled in me (who have never really liked his narratives all that much) a great respect the man. Years later, it must have been around 1990 or so, found me leaning on the Downstage Bar. At the other end of it was Peter Jackson (his Wingnut Company was in the street adjacent - Wigan St?), and a little while later I suggested we work together on a script. He very politely declined the offer, saying that his partner (in Wingnut?) had just died and he added a couple of other reasons that did not hurt (nor pamper) my ego. Had he accepted my offer, I wonder if there would have been more of what Winifred Hall admired in Tolkien in Peter's work, or more media-cunning in mine.

8:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The anti-union mobs who gathered when Jackson clicked his fingers show us what hysteria can be created by a clever PR campaign and deep pockets. Shades of the American Tea Party? Confused angry people marching for the right of MNCs to screw them harder. Worrying to say the least. But poetry won't help them reconnect with reality. For that comedy John Stewart-style would be better. Or better still a real media network that told real news.

8:46 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I think your argument about Jackson gorging on American trash culture is exceedingly trite and frankly very poor. Are you going to ridicule popular culture now? Or indeed the notion that we some of us might produce popular artworks without specific local cultural markers? I also find it curious that you never seem inclined to acknowledge Jackson's role in creating a local film infrastructure. It is common for American films to be shot elsewhere, but far less common for so many value added aspects of a production to be handled locally. The Lord of the Rings in that respect was a truly extraordinary achievement, and one from which our capacity to tell our own stories in films wll benefit for some time.

This is not to say that I like his films or that I don't find the manner in which New Zealand gets associated with Middle Earth lamentable, but the issues are far broader: the country was branded to the international tourist as a scenic paradise that might as well have been Middle Earth well in advance of the films being made. The pas and all but the most non-threatening and uncomplicated aspects of Maori history and culture were already edited out of the guidebooks.

8:50 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:55 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Also, this:

A quick look at mainstream television in New Zealand, which is filled with fantastic yet drearily predictable 'reality' programmes, third-rate cop dramas shot in Los Angeles, and Z-grade Hollywood movies, shows the role that American culture - or, rather, the pretend American culture created by a few companies in a couple of American cities - has played as a tranquiliser for a generation of Pakeha unable or unwilling to create and sustain their own view of the world.

You have heard of Outrageous Fortune yes? Kaitangata Twitch? Can you kindly point me to a time in history when NZ made better or indeed more successful shows? Do you want to go back to Gliding On?

9:00 am  
Blogger maps said...

It's an admittedly broad brush argument which others are invited to dissent from or fill in if they want, Giovanni.

I don't buy this whole 'Jackson's stuff is crap, but let's wait and see, better stuff will come as a result of what he's set up line': I know the people who use it are well-intentioned and well-connected, but to me it sounds a bit too much like the sort of the sort of stagist 'untramelled capitalist growth is crap, but look at it in the long-term, the wealth will trickle down/we can co-opt/regulate it' argument often heard on the left. If the stuff is rubbish now, then let's say so loudly. Isn't it more patronising not to speak up for fear of being elitist than to assault something which is very popular but very bad frontally?

Personally, I'd love to see Kiwi directos getting away from any idea of acquiring big budgets and using elaborate special effects and getting back to the days of Runaway and Ngati. I'm probably hopelessly old-fashioned, though...

I disagree with you about there being no difference between New Zealand tourism pre and post-LOTR: I think our real history was getting a nose-in for a while but that it has been pushed back to the margins by the LOTR nonsense.
That's probably the biggest pity of all.

9:02 am  
Blogger maps said...

'Do you want to go back to Gliding On?'

Nope. I want to go back further, to the era before television!

9:04 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't buy this whole 'Jackson's stuff is crap, but let's wait and see, better stuff will come as a result of what he's set up line': I know the people who use it are well-intentioned and well-connected, but to me it sounds a bit too much like the sort of the sort of stagist 'untramelled capitalist growth is crap, but look at it in the long-term, the wealth will trickle down/we can co-opt/regulate it' argument often heard on the left. If the stuff is rubbish now, then let's say so loudly. Isn't it more patronising not to speak up for fear of being elitist than to assault something which is very popular but very bad frontally?

But it's such a vague, non reality-based argument. You want to go back to the time before television? Fine. In the Forties there were no local feature films made in New Zealand. In the Fifties, there was one. Ditto in the Sixties. You need an infrastructure and skilled workers to make films. Ngati was great, but it was a film of its time, a time when it was very hard to make films in the country, and frankly it shows. Now we have a funding framework and film schools and young filmmakers who work on a variety of budgets. And we tell a lot of local stories, more than we ever have. Demonstrably so. And the filmmaker who makes the next Ngati is going to have a much easier time distributing it than Barclay did. It's not trickle down, it's just how the industry works - it needs money and it needs skilled workers, and to retain skilled workers you need to have enough work for them to live from project to project. It seems extraoardinary to me that a Marxist would ignore these realities.

Finally, Jackson may need a big budget to make films, but so did Orson Wells. So did Fellini. So does Jane Campion. Down the line, so did neorealist films.

9:20 am  
Blogger maps said...

I suppose in a sense this post and the ones before it represent the two warring halves of my soul. On the one hand I can appreciate your arguments, Giovanni, about the jobs that even risible television and film projects can create, and I feel concerned about the idea that these workers might lose their jobs through the departure of someone like Jackson from these shores.

That's the socialist side of my soul, but the petty bourgeois aesthete side of my soul rebels at the sheer, astonishing awfulness of Jackson's films, particularly the big budget films, and is saddened to hear so many people with connections to the film industry or tourism saying things like "I don't like the films but, well, I don't want to rock the boat because the economic benefits/long-term cultural benefits..."

I can't agree that Ngati is in any way inferior to anything Jackson has done. Most of the films I like were made on small budgets, though there are of course exceptions - Fellini's Satyricon, for example. Would it be a tragedy, though, if films of that scale couldn't be made in New Zealand? No, the petty bourgeois aesthete side of my soul says, as long as the films that were made were good.

Is there a sense in which some intellectuals have trailed along in the wake of the growth of cetain new artforms and accepted them too uncritically, simply because they exist and are popular? I don't mean, of course, to say that film shouldn't be considered a valid artform, but I do wonder whether critics, even left-wing critics, have become habituated to finding something to like in big budget narrative films, without asking themselves: should this stuff even exist?

Slagging off The English Patient back in the '90s, Peter Greenaway made the radical argument (well, it seemed radical to me, anyway) that linear narrative didn't belong in films, and that flicks like Patient just did what the books they were based on did better, because they were books. Greenaway's argument is probably a bit fundamentalist, but it's food for thought.

Jonathan Franzen made the interesting and possibly related argument that the elevation of mainstream cinema to the status of 'art' by arbiters of taste in postwar America led to a calamitous decline in the reading of novels, because Americans felt that there was nothing in a novel they couldn't get from a film.

The best film I've seen this year is Nicolas Philibert's Back to Normandy, which departs from non-linear narrative and was apparently made on a very small budget with a tiny crew. A model for Kiwi films in the twenty-first century? Not if you're a worker in that industry, and not for the socialist side of my soul. But the other side of my soul screams 'Yes!, down with special effects and big crews and budgets!'

9:50 am  
Blogger maps said...

PS Carey: I'm reporting you to the central committee of the CPGB-PCC for petty bourgeois ideological deviations!

9:53 am  
Blogger Carey said...

So I'm guessing you're not a fan of this - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md_vO0-rAP0

Flight of the Conchords is an interesting example; presumably you would class Brett and Jermaine as examples of these decultured young pakeha?

I think the extent to which local cultural signifiers play a part in the production of worthwhile art or contribute to the intellectual health of a culture is a very contestable matter. Similar arguments about the importation of American 'trash' culture into Britain have raged for at least three generations, and you could certainly put together a convincing argument that young people today are disorientated, missing a vision of the land, and ignorant of some of the most basic facts of their heritage and history. But on the other hand there is really nothing to suggest that any of those things are a precondition for articulating a critical or creative response to the world. In fact that sort of alienation has spawned some incredible art; punk music ("yeah yeah industrial estate"), Joy Division, acid house, rave culture, grime etc. And there has always been scaremongering about young people's habits from the older generation - finger-wagging at the 'MTV generation' or tut-tutting about the amount of time teenagers spend on the internet - and mostly they just add up to little more than an excuse to villify young people. Not that I think that's what you're doing, but I think you're missing the point that the problem of people being adrift in society is much bigger.


I would stop short of calling it parochialism, but I sometimes detect a suspicion of international influence in your thinking. But the tranmission of culture across the globe can be a great thing. As far back as the 50s and 60s there were people on the left who argued that the fixation British bands had with American rhythm and blues was infantile and the sign of an insiduous colonisation, preferring to listen to abstract jazz and other such 'difficult' music. But it produced the Beatles and the Stones. So in retrospect, were they perhaps being a bit silly? Without America we'd still be listening to George Fornby strum his cheeky banjo and eating drizzled bread.

I think Flight of the Conchords is an interesting example. A classic case of what you're describing; two people who are obviously far more versed in the subleties and humour of a 'foreign' culture than their own (not to mention the rather dim view of their homeland - "New Zealand - like Scotland, but further.") But if you watch it there's masses of subtext, in-jokes, ironies, and little subversions - much of which is pretty inconsequential, I admit, but isn't the fact that it can appeal to a huge and diverse global audience, all of whom 'get it', quite impressive?

9:57 am  
Blogger Carey said...

p.s. In mitigation, I didn't take the tour!

10:05 am  
Blogger maps said...

I'm probably just digging myself in deeper and deeper here - Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books, has just sent through an admonitory e mail - but I must confess that I can't stand the Flight of the Conchords. It seems to me to exemplify the mindset of a layer of Generation XYers who have made a detached irony - and a very shallow detached irony, at that - into a way of responding to every feature of their world, and who think that anything resembling passion is somehow obscene.

The Conchords would have fitted in well at the recent scoff-fest organised in Washington DC by Stewart and other American hipsters who would never do anything as vulgar as take a strong public stand on an issue. I guess I prefer the youth culture of the '60s or the '70s: back then it seemed to be cool to protest, or at least to have an opinion about something. But I may be becoming a grumpy old man...

I completely agree with you about international influence.

10:07 am  
Blogger maps said...

One of the great things about Smithyman is that he seems (to me anyway) to sidestep that hoary and difficult argument about the local vs the international which you mention, Carey. He does it by developing his oft-misunderstood concept of regionalism, which doesn't mean anything as silly as just worrying about your own little neck of the woods.

Here's an excerpt from the intro to Bestiary where I try to talk about this stuff (apologies for any typos, it's off an old doc):

'From Allen Tate, Smithyman took the concept of regionalism, which became crucial to his practice as a poet and to the view of New Zealand literature and society he put forward in his 1965 book of essays A Way of Saying. In his 1945 essay ‘The New Provincialism’ Tate had argued that in the modern era the West had lost touch with its history and its cultural traditions, and had therefore become ‘provincial’. The ‘provincial man’ was arrogant, Tate had said, because he believed that nobody had had his experiences before. In opposition to the shallow, ahistorical ‘world provincialism’ that had taken over the great cultural centres of the West, Tate argued that writers should base themselves in a region and seek to understand that region in terms, not of contemporary fashions, but of humanity’s rich and diverse cultural history. Regionalist literature would be limited by space, but not by time...

Smithyman’s opposition to nationalism did not make him amenable to the rather sanguine internationalism of Louis Johnson and his followers. As we have seen, Smithyman was less than impressed with the state of Western culture outside New Zealand, and he was wary of the way that imported fashions could blind writers to their own surroundings and history. In A Way of Saying Smithyman argued that nationalism and internationalism were, in reality, two sides of the same coin: both the nationalists, with their myth of an empty land outside history, and the internationalists, with their jejune confidence in modernity, were victims of the ideology of ‘world provincialism’. By rooting himself in regional realities, yet making use of the rich storehouse of Western and world history and culture, Smithyman attempted to avoid the mistakes of both the nationalists and the internationalists...'

10:19 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:49 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I can't agree that Ngati is in any way inferior to anything Jackson has done.

Ngati is in fact superior to anything that Jackson has done, but you can't keep remaking Ngati forever. Neorealism evolved, it simply had to. If for no other reason that the people who learnt the trade working on those films for little or no pay rightly demanded to be properly compensated. And the more skilled they became, the more polished and mannered the films became. So too in Ngati the static camerawork had to do with the fact that the actors couldn't walk and speak their lines at the same time. It had a 'first film' aesthetic that you cannot infinitely reproduce, if not by devaluing the skills that are learned in the process, or insisting to only employ amateurs (an actors' union might have something to say about that).

Most of the films I like were made on small budgets, though there are of course exceptions - Fellini's Satyricon, for example. Would it be a tragedy, though, if films of that scale couldn't be made in New Zealand? No, the petty bourgeois aesthete side of my soul says, as long as the films that were made were good.

Your argument - if you even have one - seems to me to be all over the place. Do you want films made in NZ at all, or would you rather we all read novels? And which novels, the ones that were written before television, or today's novels, that are influenced by film and popular culture? What kind of music should we be listening to? Is listening to 'American trash' in the form of hip hop corrupting the Polynesian youth of Auckland? And back the film: how exactly, in what way would the disappearance of big budget films help directors on a low budget to make and distribuite theirs? And what does linear or non-linear narrative have to do with big budgets anyway? Peter Greenaway's own films cost a lot of money to make.

10:58 am  
Blogger maps said...

As I said, I'm a man with a divided soul. No wonder I'm all over the place...

I really only offered Franzen's and Greenaway's statements as food for thought. I'll always go for books over movies, but I do enjoy movies which seem to me to offer something books can't, rather than plodding recapitaulations of books, and I am prejudiced in favour of small-scale film making devoid of too much technical trickery (I can't stand Greenaway's fancy feature films, but love his early short films, which were made very simply but are extremely imagnative). I can understand why such prejudices might not endear me to people who have to scrape a living out of the film industry.

I really do think that Smithyman's concept of regionalism can help us to deal, as individual artists and/or writers on art, with the question of which trends, both national and international, we want to take on board and which we want to reject.

I agree with Smithyman's assessment of the world of capitalist modernity (he was in all probability referring to the Eastern bloc too) as characterised by a forgetfulness about history, an arrogant attitude towards nature,a contempt for the local and the grassroots, and other disfiguring traits.

By rooting ourselves in a real place and community, or communities, as opposed to the imagined places and communities of modern bourgeois culture (the term is highly imprecise - apologies) and interpreting that piece of reality with reference to the cultural traditions that are marginalised or repressed by ahistorical 'world provincialism', we can escape the limits which our age seeks to impose on art. We can be limited in space, but not in time, to use a phrase Smithyman liked.

I consider the Crostopi Manifesto (I know you're familiar with it Giovanni but others may not have seen it) my manifesto for a twenty-first century regionalism:

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2009/08/against-space-and-time-crostopi.html

I'm sure Hamish Dewe, who co-wrote it, will disagree, but I consdier this a prototypical CROSTOPI/regionalist poem:

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/06/kawhia-canto.html

It could hardly be called realist!
Freedom in time and in the imagination through discipline and training in space...

I don't, of course, want to make this sort of regionalism into a rule for everyone. I love some art which is utterly non-specific in geographical and social terms: the paintings of Milan Mrkusich, who grew up at about the same time as Smithyman in Dargaville (what a contrast between the oeuvres of the two men!), for instance.

But I'm interested in publicising the regionalist perspective I've described so briefly and inadequately, and that perspective underlies some of my rejection of the likes of Jackson (not to mention et al...).

11:21 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I'll always go for books over movies, but I do enjoy movies which seem to me to offer something books can't, rather than plodding recapitaulations of books

That seems to me to be much closer to the mark with regard to what is wrong with the LOTR: they are horrible, and horribly pedestrian, films.

11:28 am  
Blogger maps said...

'they are horrible, and horribly pedestrian, films'

We are agreed about that. But don't you think that this quality of the LOTR films has something to do with the disappearance of a sense of the past, of community, and of place for a large number of Pakeha Kiwis over the last quarter century?

I don't mean to idealise pre-1980s Pakeha popular culture too much, as it was in many ways very unsatisfactory, but at least it oriented those who carried it in time and space, with its localism and its cult of the farm and its legends of the war and the 'pioneering' days and its myth of a unitary New Zealand identity and so on.

At least there was a structure, a sense of a past and a community within to think, and (potentially) to kick against. You could reinterpret the meaning of the wars memorialised everywhere, you could complicate and question the idea Pakeha and Maori were one big happy family, and so on.

I remember my old supervisor Ian Carter saying that in the small working class town in Britain where he grew up everyone was stuffed full of the Bible and local and national history. This was rather tedious, but it did give him and some of his fellow lefties a framework, however imperfect, to think about the world. They could reinterpret the Bible in a subversive way ala the young Terry Eagleton, before replacing it with something better, like secular social theory. They could reinterpret history, identify with outsiders and rebels in the historical narrative they shared with the rest of their community. Could you do either of those things now? Ian asked, if I remember rightly. It was a good question.

I think that LOTR is so ponderous and one-dimensional, in spite of all those special effects, partly because Jackson, as a member of the lost generation, has no way of reinterpreting Tolkien (and Tolkien's book is probably hard enough to reinterpret anyway). Reinterpeting means cutting some things out, ephasising certain things and not others. All Jackson can do is cling desperately to the plot. And his fans luxuriate in the movies, again and again, because the movies' very basic linear direction and over-detailed setting provide a simulacrum of place and history and, therefore, of meaning.

11:57 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

We are agreed about that. But don't you think that this quality of the LOTR films has something to do with the disappearance of a sense of the past, of community, and of place for a large number of Pakeha Kiwis over the last quarter century?

No. I think it has everything to do with Jackson having to make a commercially successful film and being terrified of taking any creative risks. I think an imaginative adaptation of LOTR (and, even more so, The Hobbbit) could actually transcend the limited appeal of the source. I really can't stretch this set of circumstances enough to include my usual obsession with cultural amnesia.

12:04 pm  
Blogger Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

"a tranquiliser for a generation of Pakeha unable or unwilling to create and sustain their own view of the world."

The yoof of today you mean? Naughty people with no appreciation of the finer things in life? Throwing their money and the sad remains of their brains at projects and pastimes which do not bow down in respect to university intellectualism? Oh dear, wicked indeed.

Separately to some concern about your horror for popular culture Maps, I am still thinking about regionalism. The West Coast does take a grip on consciousness, stamp challenges which I wrestle with though I rarely get anything written beyond a page or two. Here is a reflection on Bill Pearson and Coal Flat, a man who grew up in the small town I now call home.
http://lettersfromwetville.blogspot.com/2010/06/whose-life-in-print.html

This is my review of Paul Millar's biography of Pearson, also considering the regional factor.
http://lettersfromwetville.blogspot.com/2010/06/life-of-bill-pearson.html

12:05 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Me? Out of touch? I'm all for youth culture and being down with the kids - I mean, I love Gilbert and Sullivan, Hancock's Half Hour, and Dan Boone! I just don't like some of the uglier manifestations of today's youth: those nasty Teddy Boys, for example, or those bodgies that hang around milk bars...

Thanks for the link Sandra: there's a beautfiful letter that Bill Pearson sent to Smithyman near the end of his life which I'll track down and post here when I get the chance.

12:15 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

You had me until the anti-postmodernism rant, Sandra

12:15 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'I think it [the plodding, excessively faithful quality of LOTR] has everything to do with Jackson having to make a commercially successful film and being terrified of taking any creative risks.'

But even if this is true, it only begs the question: why is such a bad film so commercially successful? I think the answer lies in the loss of orientation I mentioned and the desire not for art but for a infantile form of substitute reality on the part of many of those who feel dislocated and disconnected. The things that make LOTR so bad - its pointless length and detail, its painfully predictable narrative - are precisely what make it successful. It's not a trilogy; it's a tranquiliser.

The popular art, including the popular movies, of many previous periods in history was far superior to LOTR and many of the smash hits of our day. I was watching the 1939 version of that blockbuster The Four Feathers last night: the jingoistic British imperialism seems ancient and unbelievable, but the dialogue is almost Shakespearean compared to the fare of many modern hit films.

12:57 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Congratulations, you're now the 10,000th person with whom I've had this conversation: have a balloon.

It's a little hard to keep up with your sweeping generalisations, but I'll point out that the LOTR wasn't any more successful in New Zealand than it was abroad. Are worldwide audiences also losing touch with their Pakeha identity? Secondly, you cannot handpick this or that film in history versus this or that contemporary film if you want to seriously put forward the contention that today's commercial movies are worse. Is Lord of the Rings worse than Ben Hur, My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly? I don't think so. One of the most successful and transformative films of all times is Birth of a Nation, and it glorified the KKK. How do you fit that bit of information in the continuum of popular culture sedating us and making us forgetful of history?

A more reasonable proposition would be that the studio system is not appreciably any more stifling now than it has been since the late Seventies. And let's not forget that we owe that decade of high cinema to the failure of high-budget productions like My Fair Lady and Hello Dolly in the late Sixties. The reality at the moment, as Jackson himself pointed out in an interview to James Cameron on Slate earlier this year, it's that it's impossible for a blockbuster to fail in the current climate. That could change. Maybe the Hobbit films will bankrupt WB, in which case the studios will scramble in search of new ideas, and some of those ideas might be good.

And whilst I might agree that on the whole the current crop of high-end commercial films - children films excepted - is somewhat below the historical mean in terms of quality or relevance, we're also at a time in history when the distribution and availability of independent films and films produced outside of the United States is at an all time high. You can live in Dargaville and keep up with the most recent developments in minor Finnish cinema these days. So that's something.

2:02 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'Congratulations, you're now the 10,000th person with whom I've had this conversation'

Perhaps because the very unoriginal observation I'm making is so obvious? And what is obvious is not always worth refraining from mentioning and discussing.

'Are worldwide audiences also losing touch with their Pakeha identity?'

Of course: see Smithyman's concept of world provincialism as the characteristic state of advanced societies. A culture which is shallow in time spreads out across space as capitalism develops. I think the effect was contained somewhat by the Keynesian compact in societies like New Zealand before the 1980s, but since then...

You make a fair point about the need for systematic comparison. Franzen had a fascinating crack at an argument for the decline of literary culture, which he argued was linked to the rise of a certain attitude to film, in his essay 'How to Be Alone' back in the '90s. He hauled out a lot of data, but I think he may have since backed away from his essay's claims.

Believe it or not, Smithyman claimed in one of his poems to have watched a foreign art film in Dargy's little cinema in the '20s...

2:19 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:35 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Perhaps because the very unoriginal observation I'm making is so obvious? And what is obvious is not always worth refraining from mentioning and discussing.

It's an argument that has literally been made since Greek antiquity. Formulated in the same broad, sweeping terms, without much by way of actual content or analysis beyond "Peter Jackson - ain't he loathsome?", it's not terribly compelling, no.

Of course: see Smithyman's concept of world provincialism as the characteristic state of advanced societies. A culture which is shallow in time spreads out across space as capitalism develops. I think the effect was contained somewhat by the Keynesian compact in societies like New Zealand before the 1980s, but since then...

Except given that the phenomenon supposedly started in the 4th century BC, by now we should all be this one bloke called Dave. Which we are not. And are New Zealanders culturally shallower than they were in, say, 1960? I'd like you to show it rather than just say it.

2:36 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

(Also, by your tenuous logic American culture should be improving all the time, since it feeds on its own regional cultural products.)

2:39 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Auto-optimism is as bad as inveterate pessimism. I blogged about some of the research about declines in 'deep reading' and other literary skills here:

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2010/03/why-sun-is-afraid-of-poetry.html

You've probably read it, but I enjoyed the Nicholas Carr essay 'Is Google Making Us Dumb?' mentioned in that post, as well as the Franzen essay I mentioned earlier.

2:54 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Here's that Smithyman poem. I guess 'art movie' isn't quite the right term:

NORSEMEN

No one’s ever heard it, I can’t have
invented, an early colour film, experimental.
Was there a sound track?
I doubt it, although this was
about the time when sound arrived.
Well, when sound arrived in Dargaville.

I don’t remember anything except
a monk walking in a garden reading
in a book.
The monk’s habit was brown,
the book’s pages were cream. The garden is
vague.
Somebody drew a bow and fired an arrow.
We looked over the monk’s shoulder?
Perhaps we did.
On the cream page against
brown cloth fell more than a drop, a splash
of blood.
I almost feel the theatre half-dark
assuringly about me. I do not feel
any frisson, fright, or horror.
Only, how beautiful

colour of blood on a cream page against
a religious brown habit.

2:56 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah, see, our opinion of Mr. Carr's work is wildly divergent. I'm waiting for the book before getting properly stuck in though.

3:21 pm  
Blogger HORansome said...

Once again, I'm with Gio; this "Modern culture is rubbish/dumbing us down" argument does back nearly 5,000 years and it is, quite frankly, just as unwarranted now as it was then.

I think you're engaging in a nostalgia for a past that never really existed. It's a kind of category error; the "good literature" of the past survives and the bad does not, so it always seems like our ancestors had it better, media-wise, than we do now.

Which is not to say that Jackson will be recognised as a genius in the future (although, I must say, "Bad Taste" is a beautifully New Zealand film), but his popularity now doesn't mean that popular culture now is any richer or poorer than the popular culture of fifty or three thousand years ago.

Anyway, I'm glad to see you've changed your tune about "The Lost Tribe." A year ago you were worried that it was a bit crap.

4:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

U B CHANNELING DA BIG C:

'And that is the extent of the intellectual and moral corruption which a quarter-of-a-century of neoliberalism has wrought upon the New Zealand character. And it is the young who have fared the worst – for they have nothing against which they can compare the society of selfishness into which they’ve been cast adrift. The spokespersons for their "wired" generation, utterly enthralled to the cult of individualism, had nothing to tell them.'
http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com/2010/10/mean-things.html

5:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo, when youse starts agreeing wiv da trotter,

yuva probably lost da plotta!

time 4 a new rap, mista maps!

5:44 pm  
Blogger Danielle said...

I don't mean to idealise pre-1980s Pakeha popular culture too much, as it was in many ways very unsatisfactory, but at least it oriented those who carried it in time and space, with its localism and its cult of the farm and its legends of the war and the 'pioneering' days and its myth of a unitary New Zealand identity and so on.

You mean, I assume, that pre-1980 Pakeha culture which still referred to Great Britain as "home". Oh yes, very locally-oriented.

6:35 pm  
Blogger maps said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:55 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'American culture should be improving all the time, since it feeds on its own regional cultural products'

For Smithyman, a local culture is not necessarily the same as a regionalism. An artist or group of artists can't create regional work just by reflecting local colour or customs. They have to set up links between their place and time and wider patterns of human culture which are obscured by the modern world's ahistorical philistinism - its 'world provincialism'.

Smithyman considered William Faulkner a great regionalist writer. Faulkner's texts give us an extraordinarily vivid picture of Oxford County in America's deep souyth, as well as the phantasmagoric world of their author's imagination, but they also send out signals to the distant past. A story like As I Lay Dying is shot through with Greek mythology, as well as southern Gothic fantasy and sociological realism.

Most crucially, perhaps, Faulkner's magisterial, labyrinthine sentences were intended to lay paths out of the poverty of American modernity to other times and cultures. Faulkner said that his sentences were so long, and so often had the periodic form, because he wanted to introduce every action he described by linking it to every action that had preceded it in the whole of world history.

7:05 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'pre-1980 Pakeha culture which still referred to Great Britain as "home". Oh yes, very locally-oriented.'

Not necessarily a contradiction, Danielle: Pakeha often defined themselves, as Belich shows, as the citizens of a new, better Britain, thereby affirming both their link to the 'homeland' and their localism. And there were many regions of New Zealand where Britain wasn't home in any real sense for Pakeha: heavily Catholic areas, for example.

7:08 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

thereby affirming both their link to the 'homeland' and their localism

Kind of like a Pakeha director setting in a digitally enhanced New Zealand landscape a fantasy novel whose own setting is a pastoral Britain, if you think about it.

8:19 pm  
Blogger maps said...

It's an example of people taking a set of myths and reinterpreting them to suit their needs and express their circumstances: precisely the thing that Jackson doesn't dare do/doesn't know how to do!

Let's remember that the 'new Britain' myth, like (say) the Norman Yoke idea, sometimes had some progressive content. Citizens of 'New Britain' would sometimes kick up a stink about employers and claim indignantly that this sort of stuff shouldn't happen in the 'New Britain', which was supposed to be free of the terrible class system of the old country...

9:06 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

It's an example of people taking a set of myths and reinterpreting them to suit their needs and express their circumstances: precisely the thing that Jackson doesn't dare do/doesn't know how to do!

According to you. I wouldn't be so quick to declare that Jackson is completely blind to the cultural implications of setting Middle Earth in New Zealand, nor that those implications aren't interesting or meaningful.

You insists to take a bulldozer to the conversation, but the subject is far more nuanced than you seem to be willing to acknowledge.

9:16 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - agree in principle and of course I want a copy of that book...but LOTRs - the films - (not interested at first) I got into it as my son had all three films -in my opinion it is a great film cycle. Cliched and perhaps simplistic but entertaining...

I also think Heavenly Creatures is an excellent film. His only really good movie in my view.

But yes there were more important issues of NZ history...

[But the film ('The World's fastest Indian') about Burt Monroe is my favourite NZ film, and I also think that the film of the David Gray massacre 'Out of the Blue' is more to the point, and also a major movie. Jackson fails to = those two...]

I don't like Jackson's other films.

Smithyman would have been interested in Jackson's films as he was interested in everything.

It isn't an either or thing...sure the political aspects and the current debate about the anti Union attack make us all feel rather bitter about Jackson right now but his movies are great - sure there are other (and probably much better) NZ film makers.

Smithyman though - I agree is fact the more interesting creator or "maker" - although he was not (you may not have noticed) a film maker! So again you wave the wrong coloured flags... No one of the intelligentsia or who is a poet or artist and has any sensitivity or insight thinks that LOTRs is to be taken seriously as High Art as Smithyman's work is - entertaining as it is or can be...

Announce your book and extol Smithyman but don't get Jack upset again - he mightn't turn up!! Italian book of poems or not! (Of course he knew Smithyman quite well).

(BTW Who is that brilliant poet who asked Jack about his favourite writer? be good to see more off his stuff in Brief)

But look - Smithyman addressed real issues and history etc in NZ but he was so wide in his outlook - he was also interested in dreams, and in fact movies, maps, and the problems or paradoxes of place an space etc, memory, art, poetics, philosophy,love; and some of his poems are nearly surreal...he is (as you know) NOT simply a realist as it almost seems by your post...

Of course the hysteria about Hobbiton etc is absurd...good points there but not really consonant with your up coming book of Smithymania...

Great to see you have achieved such a book though! people should certainly buy it. Smithyman was possibly our greatest writer.

12:17 am  

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