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Naked in Nuhaka: Hunkering Down

Naked in Nuhaka
28.3.2003
By Leo Koziol

HUNKERING DOWN

OVER THE PAST WEEK I've been thinking a lot about what my first column would be like since Gulf War II broke out. I was out here in Nuhaka the day the proverbial hit the fan. Stopping at home briefly on the way out to Mahia to do a site visit, I flicked on CNN to find President Bush seriously enunciating about his advance towards war. I sat enraptured in the "moment" of history, before they flicked over to live shots from Baghdad.

Here, it was a beautiful crystalline Autumn day outside, the kind you get as the weather turns around the autumnal equinox. The cameras on Baghdad showed a similarly perfect day emerging. A dull light emerging over the city, the sound of birds in the morning. Looking at the screen, I could almost feel the cool chill of that Arabian morning. Recollections of the drowsy feeling one gets when awoken very early or has stayed up all night.

Awoken from this understandable distraction, I jumped into my car and drove out to Mahia to do my work. Driving along the barren Black's Beach coast, out to the empty beach resort subdivisions of Mahia Beach, the peninsula seemed so distant from the war-torn world of Iraq or the fear-ridden metropolises of America. My work done, I dropped in on my Aunty Huia for a chat and a cup of tea. Tea and company. She was watching the war, and we sat there bemused by it all, as the ocean sparkled outside. And the temerity of the events unfolding slowly sank in.

* * * *

In a couple of weeks, on April 11th, it will be exactly a year and a half since the World Trade Center terrorist attack. Last weekend, reminiscent of that time in 2001, I spent a similar autumnal weekend hunkered down in an attempt to distract myself as much as possible from the mess of the world outside.

Back in 2001, I caught the bus over the Golden Gate Bridge to stay with a friend in his flat in Mill Valley. The houses of the suburban streets were festooned with giant red and white American flags, a burst of July 4 summer patriotism out of sync with the orange and black of a pre-halloween fall. Scott and I spent the weekend smoking, drinking bourbon, playing gin rummy, and watching cable. I soon tired of the endless musing of pundits and the roll call of musical tributes on VH1, and was pleasantly surprised to find a Waltons marathon on USA Network which had "replaced the scheduled programming" for fear of insensitivity (accidental shots of the Twin Towers?).

The Waltons was a suitable salve in 2001, and this time I immersed myself once more in available audio-visual distractions. I drove with my son up to Gisborne, and rented a dozen DVDs. I watched Lantana, Amelie, Intimacy, Blow, Panic Room, and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. On Sunday afternoon, after returning all of the above, my son and I went to the movies: he to Whale Rider, I to Far From Heaven.

Watching Lantana, I thought about how Australia makes such a convincing America, Anthony LaPaglia dropping the yankee voice to display his genuine Aussie accent. Kiwi Kerry Fox played a more convincing role in this than in the dreadful Intimacy, and its meditation on the dangers of pent-up male anxieties seemed appropriate in a time when we're being driven in a high-tech testosterone crazed manner toward the possibility of armageddon.

Amelie was an expected delight, a lovely pairing to the similarly gorgeous and surreal Moulin Rouge. Watching tales of the unique universe that is Gay Paree, I did not let myself get distracted by either France's opposition to the Iraq war nor that nation's corrupt terrorist bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985. Instead, I wallowed appropriately and healthily in the silly romantic whimsy of the film.

Panic Room and Blow seemed an interesting double feature. The box office success of Panic Room in 2002 was in no small measure assisted by the atmosphere of fear and panic that US citizens now live in. Seeing Jodie Foster using duct-tape to keep out potentially flammable gas seemed suitably ironic (1). Blow was a surreal meditation on the growth of the drug industry in the Americas that was ultimately overblown and sentimental. Its highlight was seeing the swaggering Maori bravado of Cliff Curtis as Colombian "Il Padrino" Pablo Escobar (2).

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing was a "chaos theory" "butterfly flaps-volcano erupts" type meditation on the connectedness of things and the interrelatedness of our actions. I highly recommend it, particularly at a time where most people in the world need to become much more involved in effecting positive change in a time of such sudden danger. The theme of the film was generally that acts of smugness or cruel volition result ultimately in karmic "kick in the butt" returns. That once a line is crossed and life decisions are made, one can't go back -- and one often isn't fully aware of this fact when making the original decision.

Up in Gisborne, I sat with my son through the first 20 minutes of Whale Rider, and its rootedness to life here on the East Coast became apparent once again. Watching young Paikea running her hands along the etched yellow concrete wall exterior of her marae, I felt a tingling once again in my fingers that was rooted in deeply set childhood memories (3). I had another film to see, however, so I skipped out the door past the whale in the lobby and went up to the arthouse cinema "box" to see Far From Heaven.

I've been a great fan of queer filmmaker Todd Haynes ever since I saw Safe, which similarly starred Julianne Moore. Once again, I was not let down by the pairing. There was a dreadful review of Far From Heaven in North and South magazine, where the film critic called it overblown and campy, but the overseas press correctly reviewed it as the successfully melodramatic masterpiece that it is (4). Salon described it as a "stunning pastiche of postmodern pastiche and old-school Hollywood melodrama", and having now seen it I have to agree.

Far From Heaven is the story of a 1950s, upper-middle class American housewife, with a perfect life and perfect children, who finds her world falling apart when she falls in love with her Black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) and then discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual. The film was a picture perfect pastiche honouring the tradition of 1950s film-maker Douglas Sirk, and it recently swept the Independent Film Awards in LA (5). The theme of race, sexuality and the limitations of life in cloistered small towns seemed particularly relevant given my liberal attitudes and recent attempt to live a life back here in rural small town New Zealand.

As if all my movie-bingeing had not been suitably sated, Monday afternoon I took time off work and sat at home to watch the live Sky TV broadcast of a subdued wartime Oscars ceremony. I was pleasantly surprised to see the awards going to worthy candidates, including international recognition to Spirited Away for Animated Film, Pedro Almodovar for Original Screenplay, and (controversially) Best Director Roman Polanski for The Pianist (6). Eminem, who hadn't even bothered to show up (6), won best song for the brilliant Lose Yourself. Michael Moore played to role with his anti-Bush rant, and one couldn't help but think that perhaps most of those booing him were also his biggest supporters (they had just given him a standing ovation).

* * * *

Watching the news marathon one week ago, a number of images seared into my brain amidst the morass of media presented.

* The sham of Saddam Hussein going onscreen to state his anger and opposition to the war. The Michael Jackson weirdness of how he didn't quite look himself, he certainly wasn't the same person as on the 60 Minutes interview some weeks prior.

* An Iraqi Minister in his nation's parliamentary building, equivocally stating that his people will not surrender. The expansive hallway behind him looked so ordinary, red shag carpet, mundane looking like the lobby in a Marriott or Sheraton hotel. I thought of the drama yet to be played out in this space: the flicker of light as bombs explode outside; the noise and crash as windows break and the vacuumed cleanness becomes covered in dust; the faces of foreign soldiers as they move through and occupy the space.

* The face of Green MP Rod Donald at an Auckland protest, amidst an angry mob, the look in his eyes -- not anger, but despair. A look that clearly said: why has it come to this?

The images remain, and the thought remains: Why has it come to this?

NOTES: (1) Time Magazine, "A Nation on Edge", March 2003. http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101030224/nkids.html

(2) Unfortunately, Rachel Griffiths was dreadful as Johnny Depp's mother.

(3) My local marae, Kahungunu, was built by the same group of men as the one at Whangara, led by master carvers Pine and John Taiapa. See: http://user.chollian.net/~ucnet2001/ENGLISH-New%20Zealand-02-Maori.htm

(4) There's a brilliant article in this week's New York Times about melodrama in films. The key theory posited is that such "post-ironic" tilts have been possible since America got over the trivia of the 1990s following 911. See: "The Melodramatic Moment", by Daniel Mendelsohn. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/23MELODRAMA.html

(5) See: http://www.ifp.org/

(6) Now that would make a good double feature with The Piano.

(7) Apparently he was sleeping at the time.

************

ABOUT NAKED IN NUHAKA

Leo Koziol ( oshie@xtra.co.nz) writes weekly on identity, culture, and place in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century. Nuhaka is located on the East Coast of the North Island of NZ. Back issues available at: http://www.nuhaka.com/

All content (c) Leo Koziol & Rautaki Group Consultants2003.


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