Standing upright here, Hugh Roberts

Cinema of Unease 
Sam Neill and Judy Rymer
Top Shelf Productions, British Film Institute, New Zealand Film Commission … and other recent New Zealand film

The third and fourth generations

Begin to speak differently,

Suffering mutations,

Cannot help identity;

Nation’s their only sign

Meaning man and brother

Allen Curnow, “Island and Time” (1941)


Good news! We’ve grown up! New Zealanders have (at last) developed “a sense of where we are and who we are” after a century and a half of (pakeha) cultural immaturity. At once symbol, product and key evidence of this marvellous transformation is the “cultural renaissance” represented by our burgeoning film industry.

This, at least, is the central claim of Sam Neill’s and Judy Rymer’s quirky and entertaining new documentary, Cinema of Unease. Part history of New Zealand film, part autobiography, the film itself is a slightly uneasy generic mixture. Excerpts from a wide variety of New Zealand films are used to illustrate aspects of and incidents from Neill’s experience of growing up in New Zealand. His memory of a wild trip over the Christchurch Port Hills ‑ his first, frightening, taste of New Zealand upon arrival here from England as a boy ‑ is brought to life by a scene from Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures in which the Hulme family drive over the Port Hills on their way to a picnic. To blur the boundaries between art and life even more, we cut immediately from that scene to a shot of Neill, apparently sitting in the very car used in Heavenly Creatures, being driven over the same stretch of road. Art imitates art ‑ imitating life in order to imitate (another) life. Got that?

Scenes like this, and they are typical, undeniably lay the project open to complaints of self‑indulgence and even megalomania. All of New Zealand film, it appears, has unconsciously striven to tell the story of Neill’s life and now its hidden significance can be revealed: “New Zealand cinema, c’est moi”! But this would be an unfair and incorrect criticism. The film does give us the bare outline of Neill’s life, but this is not its primary concern. Indeed the film gives us remarkably few insights into Neill’s character. We get the external facts, but no account of motivations, private fears or hopes.

The film’s interest in Neill’s life is motivated not by star worship, but by the very opposite: Neill portrays himself as a kind of everyman whose life can be illustrated by scenes from so many New Zealand films because it is so typical of the generation who grew up to make the sudden flurry of local feature films in the late 1970s and 1980s which first gave us an indigenous film industry. Although he reserves his highest praise for the films of the 1990s (it is they which have brought about the “cultural renaissance”) it is on the subject of these earlier movies that Cinema of Unease has most to say and about which it is most astute and interesting.

Neill sees these films ‑ films like Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, Goodbye Pork Pie, Bad Blood ‑ as the predictable products of the generation of which he is a representative member. He dubs them, generically, “the boys’ film” ‑ speaking in terms of “New Zealand culture”, they represent an adolescent rebellion against a repressive childhood. Neill’s portrait of growing up in the New Zealand of the 1950s and 1960s is uncompromisingly bleak. He portrays a New Zealand which was “suffocatingly dull,” “paranoid” and “rigorously conformist”, a New Zealand where pakehas felt themselves to be “exiles of empire” isolated in an empty and “indifferent” landscape where they could not feel “at home”. Every element of “the boys’ film” can be traced back to a reaction against this oppressive cultural matrix.

The “bible” of the boys’ film was John Mulgan’s Man Alone (never mind that none of them had read it, as Neill astutely observes). The hero of the boys’ film was a loner, a misfit, rebelling instinctively and hopelessly against a stultifying and inadequate social order. In the boys’ film, all authority is seen as “violent, corrupt and foolish”. The quintessential image from the boys’ film is the empty New Zealand country road, a road that symbolises at once freedom (an escape from the repressive confines of the social world) and isolation (our inability to relate to a landscape and a world which we can only move through).

Indeed, the very choice of film as the medium in which to express this rebellion is determined by the childhood legacy. The “flicks” were one of only two ways in which an imaginative youth could escape, if only for the duration of the movie, the harsh world of 1950s New Zealand (cut to Heavenly Creatures again ‑ Hulme and Parker in raptures of horror after watching The Third Man): the other was madness. Hence, perhaps, the disproportionate number of New Zealand films which have been concerned with that area where social shades into mental alienation, from Smash Palace through The Scarecrow and Bad Blood to An Angel at my Table.

If film represented a lucid escape from a drab reality, it also confirmed our cultural immaturity. The near total absence of New Zealand images, actors and voices from the feature films of Neill’s childhood confirmed his generation’s sense of exile and alienation. New Zealand was not a place where dreams could be realised, it was where “nothing happened”. This, too, fed into the programme of the boys’ film. The boys’ film had a simple ideological agenda, itself typically adolescent. It wanted to say, “I am here” to a world in which its voice had not yet been heard.

Or if it had been heard, it had been heard only in what Neill bluntly calls the “propaganda” of the National Film Unit. Many of the boys’ film’s directors (including Neill) got their start in the industry working for the film unit turning out moving picture postcards of Our Beautiful Country. Neill notes the irony of the contrast between these relentlessly uplifting documentaries and their feature film forays into “the darker heart of the menacing land”. It is a typically adolescent irony that one can only attack authority with the very weapons it has taught you how to use: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.”

As generalisations of this type go, Neill’s and Rymer’s portrayal of “the boys’ film” is no worse than most and better than many. Certainly, anyone who, like me, went religiously to each new “New Zealand film” from 1977 to 1986 (when I left the country for seven years) will recognise its main attributes. It does help to account for the curious sameness of tone ‑ a kind of disenchanted realism ‑ which pervades so many of those movies. I have always wondered why our cinema of that period, although not unimaginative, is so rarely experimental, so little concerned with making us think about the nature of the medium. Neill’s answer is simply that the directors of the “boys’ film” wanted to make the kinds of films which shocked their parents, above all those of the American youth culture and road movie genres (he proposes Easy Rider and TwoLane Blacktop as models).

It is, moreover, true that much of the significance of these films ‑ at least in my own experience ‑ was that simple “adolescent” one of discovering that we could tell our own stories in a medium which had seemed beyond us. I was 14 when I saw Sleeping Dogs ‑ the first New Zealand feature film to have been released in my lifetime. I still remember my astonishment watching Goodbye Pork Pie. It had never occurred to me that New Zealand might be able to produce a movie I would think was “cool” without adding the familiar mental reservation “for something made in New Zealand”. These films, then, were an important part of my adolescent adjustment to learning to accept “where we are and who we are”. I cannot imagine watching many of them now except for such personal, nostalgic associations.

There is, however, a problem with Neill’s and Rymer’s thesis and it has to do with what is both the starting point and the ultimate destination of their film. The question they really want to answer is: why is New Zealand making such good films at the moment? The answer they give is the one stated at the beginning of this article: we’ve grown up. The extended exploration of our cultural adolescence turns out to be simply an explanation for our sudden accession to maturity. The 1980s laid the groundwork for the 1990s by producing a generation of New Zealand film‑makers who had never doubted being “at home” in this landscape, “marvellous children who had learnt the trick of standing upright here”.

Neill tells the story of seeing An Angel at my Table overseas. Here was something “miraculous” ‑ a “masterpiece” from his own country. Just as Goodbye Pork Pie had astounded me simply by not needing any special apologies, Angel astounded Neill by confidently taking its place alongside the best work that contemporary cinema can offer. A true “New Zealand cinema” had arrived.

And the world is sitting up and taking notice of New Zealand film. The ultimate proof of this is Cinema of Unease itself, produced as part of an international series of short films designed to mark 100 years of world cinema. If it wasn’t for Campion, Tamahori, Jackson, Preston, Ward and Wells, Neill’s and Rymer’s movie would not have been made. So in a very real sense it is this recent efflorescence of New Zealand film which is their documentary’s raison d’être, even if they have comparatively little to say about the content of these films.

The question, “why is New Zealand suddenly producing great movies?” is one which must have occurred to all of us of late, but it is a question fraught with inherent problems, problems which Neill’s and Rymer’s solution only aggravates. Can we even be sure that a phenomenon exists which requires special explanation? In the last four or five years, New Zealand‑born directors have made a handful of very good movies but it remains to be seen if this is more than a happy statistical fluke: just how many swallows do make a summer?

New Zealand’s film industry, even at its current heights, is fragile. Peter Jackson, despite currently building a special effects studio in the Wellington suburb of Miramar has on several occasions recently sounded warnings about the industry’s vulnerability. Neill and Rymer point out how dangerous the lure of Hollywood is to a fledgling industry such as ours. We will never be so rich in talent that we can afford to be harvested regularly of our best and brightest: will Jane Campion ever make another New Zealand‑based (let alone New Zealand funded) movie?

Even more threatening, perhaps, is the desire of many local bodies and business interests to cash in on selling New Zealand as a cheap and flexible location for making foreign movies. Titahi Bay has been serving as Cornwall for a New Zealand‑English co‑production of Enid Blyton adventures. No doubt in the future we can expect to see Mount Cook featuring in movies set in the Swiss Alps, and Milford Sound making a cameo appearance as a Norwegian fiord ‑ just as Temuera Morrison will have to be prepared to play Latinos (of Guatemalan extraction?) if he wants a career in Hollywood. This is “New Zealand content” after a fashion and it will ensure the continued livelihood of our film technicians and the walk-on actors who will swell the scenes of the imported foreign stars (hello, Michael J Fox) ‑ but in what sense will this be a New Zealand film industry?

Living for seven years in Canada, I became adept ‑ as most Canadians are ‑ at spotting Toronto landmarks in the “New York” streetscapes of American film and television. The Canadians have made a conscious effort to lure the American film industry north with cheaper location shooting; unless you’re a Canadian, you would be surprised how often an Iowa cornfield is actually in Saskatchewan, a Colorado mountainside actually in British Columbia. As a result, the Canadian film industry is very professional and very competent and brings lots of foreign investment into the country. It just doesn’t produce many films about Canada or Canadians.

Even if the New Zealand film industry survives and continues to make films set in and about New Zealand, there’s no guarantee they will continue to be of the high calibre of this recent crop. The limitations of the films of the 1980s don’t need to be explained away with theories of cultural adolescence. The wonder is that a country of 3.5 million people managed to produce a handful of films in a decade which were not all embarrassingly bad. This is not a colonial cringe, but a realistic appraisal of the difficulty of producing a movie. Film is a uniquely collaborative art, which means an improbably high number of circumstances need to be propitious for the end product to work. Or, to put it another way, there are innumerable ways for a film to be spoiled; only architecture approaches it for the number of potential pitfalls between conception and realisation. You might have a screenplay, a director, actors, a cinematographer, an art director, a costume designer and a sound engineer all of the highest calibre, but the film could still be ruined by dreadful editing ‑ and you won’t even have got that far unless you’ve mastered the intricate negotiations required to put together funding for the project.

Consequently, and I speak as a committed cinephile, most films are bad; or, at least, not as good as they could have been. If one were to take a representative selection ‑ a random sample ‑ of, say, 10 films from all the films produced in America in the 1980s, most would be the kind of direct‑to‑video bilge which television schedulers like to inflict on insomniacs. The “adolescent” products of the New Zealand film industry would look in comparison like the masterpieces of Fellini, Bergman and Renoir combined.

But if we might suspect this story of “arriving at maturity” from the “external” point of view of the available evidence, we should suspect it all the more on the “internal” basis of its conceptual coherence. My response to being told New Zealanders have grown up and developed a sense of where we are and who we are is not “At last!” but “What, again?” When are we going to be done with discovering that we are at home in this far‑pitched, perilous, hostile spot, not in narrow seas, where distance looks our way?

Neill and Rymer do give a nod to the generation of the 1930s and 1940s who most memorably posed these questions of when we would learn to “speak for ourselves”; their movie begins with this quotation from Charles Brasch: “A society can be said to have come of age when it begins to live by an imaginative order of its own.” This quotation, from the December Landfall of 1954 (where it reads “by the light of an imaginative order of its own”) continues “The creation of such an order is generally slow,” but I imagine New Zealand’s poets, novelists, playwrights and short story writers of the 1950s and 1960s would be surprised to learn it had taken until Britain’s entry into the Common Market for New Zealanders to throw off the mental fetters of colonialism and come to terms with their Pacific destiny. For this is the myth of origin for a distinct New Zealand identity which Neill and Rymer propose.

Myths of origin are probably hard to resist in the colonial context. In the same Landfall piece from which Neill’s and Rymer’s epigraph is taken, Brasch laments the fate of the writers of a “raw colonial society” who “have to create order for the first time, in a wilderness that is without form and very nearly void”. The writers of the 1930s and 1940s who self‑consciously struggled to forge a national literature all have moments of slipping into self‑congratulatory awareness of the heroic dimensions of their task, simply by sailing in a new direction, they were enlarging the (literary) world. But before you can have a national literature you need a national consciousness for it to embody and therefore you need a prior myth of the birth of a national identity. These have not been hard to find. Before Britain entered the Common Market, it abandoned the defence of Singapore in World War II. In its day, that too was seen as cutting the colonial apron strings. Of course, they’d been cut in the previous world war: didn’t New Zealand become a nation on the shores of Chunuk Bair? Keith Sinclair suggests in A Destiny Apart that New Zealand’s intelligentsia lagged badly behind popular sentiment in its discovery of a distinctive New Zealand identity. He argues it emerged during the Boer war as we followed the fortunes of “our boys” in that conflict. And so on and so on. We keep chopping the apron strings, but somebody must tie them up again when we’re not looking.

Allen Curnow, who did his own share of myth‑making back in the 1930s and 1940s proposed, in the poem from which I borrowed the epigraph to this article, a model for how a colonial society arrives at a new and different identity which seems to me far more convincing than these heroic mythemes. We simply “cannot help identity”, the parent culture(s) “suffer mutations” as the “third and fourth generations / Begin to speak differently”. I don’t think a culture or a society can be said to “grow up” ‑ or indeed to go through an adolescence. Were Ursula Bethell, Frank Sargeson, Allen Curnow and Robin Hyde ‑ to pluck some names at random ‑ childish? But if cultures don’t grow up, they can grow apart. The mythic “founding moments” of New Zealand identity keep recurring because in fact these are not moments which bring about our alienation from our European legacy, they are moments which mark our realisation of how different we have already become.

So if the question “why is New Zealand producing such good films?” cannot be answered with anything more useful than “luck”, this doesn’t mean that we can’t ask what these “good films” tell us about the current state of New Zealand culture. We may not have grown up, but we have changed and we should consider how we’ve changed. There is an amusing moment in Cinema of Unease when Neill says that you leave New Zealand because it drives you crazy that things never change; and then when you return it is the changes which drive you crazy. When you live in a place, the “mutations” it suffers happen, most of the time, too slowly, too piecemeal, for you to realise how much it is changing.

This struck a chord with me, because, like Neill, I had been distressed to return in 1993 to a New Zealand which had savaged its welfare state and abandoned its political culture to the ideologues of the new right. But, also like Neill, I had been struck by how vibrant and exciting the local arts scene was. We had moved from a Close to Home culture to a Shortland Street one. Cinema of Unease illustrates this change well by contrasting the god‑awful Beehive with Wellington’s dynamic new Civic Square, a fun, hip, inviting urban space in a city which had always seemed to make a virtue of drab and dingy utilitarianism. Wellingtonians used to use their city as if it were an adult book store, we entered it furtively, did our business and left as quickly as we could ‑ behaving as if it had nothing to do with us. Now, suddenly, the city is our playground, as a visit to Courtenay place in the evening will convince anyone. It is becoming de rigeur to sneer at the new cafe culture and the yuppies it caters to but it does represent a sea‑change in our self-conception. An easy accommodation to urban living used to be one of the things New Zealanders undertook their OE in order to experience, now we have it on our doorsteps.

There seems to me to be a real analogy here with what has happened in recent New Zealand film. If the films of the 1970s and 1980s felt their “New Zealandness” as a burden, an identity to be painstakingly assembled and stridently asserted, these recent films bear that burden so much more lightly. The New Zealand identity is now something you can play with, or play within. It is taken for granted, just as, now, the complexity and richness of the urban environment is taken for granted. Perhaps the best example of this is Desperate Remedies, a film which teases us with (amongst other things) the indeterminacy of its historical referents. We are clearly in some kind of colonial situation, but it is never quite clear what we are supposed to make of this. One can’t imagine Desperate Remedies being made 10 years earlier for a number of reasons, but one of the most telling is that this playful indeterminacy would have made us too uncomfortable. The “colonial condition” was too serious a problem for operatic extravagance.

Consider, too, the difference between Mike Newell’s Bad Blood (1981) and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Both films about famous New Zealand murders, they could hardly be more dissimilar. Stanley Graham’s story is presented as classic “boys’ film” man‑alone‑ism, the movie’s tone is grimly realistic, its subject portentously symbolic. Graham becomes a representative of some dark, repressed part of the kiwi consciousness. It would have been easy to use the Parker‑Hulme story for this type of mythologising (nation loses innocence, decent kiwi girl has head turned by pretentious Poms, kills mum). Peter Jackson chose to make a film which explores the permeability of the boundaries between fantasy and reality by dissolving those boundaries for the viewer. Insofar as he is a New Zealander telling New Zealand stories he is still fulfilling the mission of the “boys’ film” directors, but the “New Zealandness” of Jackson’s story is entirely unproblematic for him. It’s not that he denies it in an overt attempt to “universalise” the movie’s message; the film could hardly be more redolent of its place and period. The point is that the story’s indigeneity is no longer something which needs to be consciously asserted as one of the movie’s aims. Once you have “learnt the trick of standing upright here”, and accepted “New Zealand” as a cultural and conceptual space from which stories inevitably emerge, you can start to play within that space rather than aggressively stake out its boundaries, just as we now play within our urban spaces.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in The Piano, which plays in a very serious way with the issue of our colonial inheritance. Campion has a marvellous ability to construct symbolic systems in her movies which still leave the viewer imaginative room to use in different ways or even to refuse to read symbolically. Consider, for example, the hoop‑skirt tent or the plank walkways over the mud; symbols of the fragility of colonial society superimposed on an alien land. Chief among these symbols is, of course, the piano itself. I could not help but see it as representing the “superfluous” refinements of western civilisation, which are of necessity “left behind” on the shore in the early stages of the colonial experience. The awkwardness, the sheer physical effort of lugging the piano from coast to cottage seemed to me to speak of the difficulty of recreating the parent culture in the colonial context and of the disturbing discovery that that parent culture looks so vividly alien and out of place in the new land ‑ like the desperately inconvenient clothes of the Europeans. Ada’s bond with the piano and her muteness seemed to me to incorporate her into this symbolism. She is mute because her piano ‑ or what it represents ‑ is mute in this new land and she can only learn to speak, or choose to speak, when she accepts that familiar colonial bargain. The price ‑ the reward ‑ of “speaking for ourselves” is “speak[ing] differently / Suffering mutations.” The mutations here represented by the key removed from the piano, and the finger chopped off Ada’s hand, the metal finger clicking on the keyboard.

I have insisted throughout this brief account on this being my own response to this symbolism not because I think it aberrant or willed on my part but because I am aware that these symbols operate quite differently for many viewers ‑ and that is one of the great strengths of this film. No overseas review that I have read has seen this possible significance ‑ and yet the film has had more success overseas than any other from New Zealand. It is perfectly possible to read Ada’s relationship to the piano strictly in terms of her personal identity, as part of a wider reading of the movie as being about gender relations. I would contend that the “correct” reading is the one which accepts as many different valuations as possible.

I am reminded of a point Curnow made back in the 1950s and 1960s in the debates at that time over whether New Zealand literature should be “nationalist” or deliberately “universal”. He argued that in order for New Zealand writers “to write poems that transcend time and place, they must achieve a correct vision of their own time and place” and that this “terribly difficult” task was “the only way they will ever become original or interesting; the only way they will ever contribute to a literature worthy of consideration under the title of ‘New Zealand’ or any other”.

Whatever one thinks of this as a general proposition, it does seem to be true of our recent cinema. Stories like The Piano, Heavenly Creatures and, above al1, Once Were Warriors have not had to sacrifice their “New Zealandness” for international success.

I believe that it is only because these films start from an acceptance of their New Zealandness rather than trying to end up there that these films can be so readily accepted by an international audience who inevitably use them to think about quite other issues than their specifically New Zealand ones.

I was re‑visiting Montreal in 1994 when Once Were Warriors claimed the top prize at their local film festival ‑ big news in a film‑mad city. I read all the long and very enthusiastic local reviews of the movie and was struck by the fact that not one reviewer had responded to the racial issues in the film. For them, this was a film solely about domestic abuse. At first I found this disturbing, but when you think about it, this is what a rich literature or cinema does. It offers itself up for multiple interpretations; it has a complexity, a superfluity of significance which allows different readers and viewers to use in it what they can. It is this richness and complexity which has been the most rewarding feature of contemporary New Zealand cinema. Let us hope that Cinema of Unease is right and that having begun to speak differently we shall continue to do so with increasing confidence.

Hugh Roberts teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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