Archives for the month of: December, 2013

New Zealand: Like Lord of the Rings

Bruce Bennett

One of the running gags in Flight of the Conchords, the sitcom about the eponymous ‘novelty music’ duo from New Zealand, who are trying to make it in New York, is that the office walls belonging to their manager Murray Hewitt, the deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand embassy, are decorated with  posters diffidently promoting tourism to the country with such captions as  ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE SCOTLAND BUT FURTHER’ and ‘NEW ZEALAND, ONLY 18 HOURS FROM NEW YORK’, and ‘NEW ZEALAND, WORTH A GO’; but one of the funniest is a mountain-scape with the caption, ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS’.

Visiting New Zealand six years later, it is clear that this similarity is a crucial promotional device. When you fly in to Wellington airport, for instance, one of the first things you see is the exterior of the terminal building, which is decked with a large banner proclaiming ‘Welcome to the Middle of Middle Earth’, while the interior of the terminal is dominated by impressive and beautifully detailed statues of Gollum catching fish underwater and Gandalf flying on the back of a giant eagle.

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These attest to the presence nearby of WETA digital, Peter Jackson’s visual effects facility, but travelling through New Zealand you are constantly reminded of the importance of these films to the country’s cotemporary cultural identity and international prominence. Bookshops across the country have stands dedicated to the second Hobbit film, and it is difficult to escape the various locations used for shooting the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as you move around the country – I jogged up Mount Victoria in Wellington one morning, passing the point where the hobbits hide from the black riders beneath a bank, and later took the ski-lift up the volcano, Mount Ruapehu, and walked around ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘Mead’s Wall’, the location for several scenes including the severing of Sauron’s hand.

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The neighbouring volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, meanwhile, also functions as Mount Doom in the films.

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On sale in almost every bookshop around the country is a Lord of the Rings location guide, newly updated to include The Hobbit trilogy, allowing tourists to plot a route around the country visiting the numerous locations. However, this project of over-writing the terrain of the country with a fantastic cinematic landscape goes into over-drive in the small town of Matamata, the dairy-farming and horse-breeding centre of the North island, Te Ika a-Maui, that is also the site of the set of the hobbits’ village, Hobbiton.

In the town centre a sign welcomes you to Hobbiton, and the adjacent tourist information centre is housed in a thatched hobbit house, while the windows and walls of local shops have been decorated with imagery from the films.

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The focus of a visit to Matamata is a 90-minute guided tour of the set. This was built as a temporary set on nearby farmland for the Lord of the Rings films with assistance from the NZ army who constructed a metalled road to the site – and the bus driver gave us a full account of the process by which the film-makers identified the location and negotiated with the fortunate land-owners, pointing out the famer’s house along the way, as well as his neighbour’s house which was commandeered by Jackson and his assistant as a production base for the shoot.

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After being partially dismantled on the films’ completion, it was rebuilt as a permanent set-cum-tourist attraction for the three Hobbit films and is now maintained by a team of staff. The company managing the site extended the set by constructing the ‘Green Dragon Inn’, which serves food and drinks at the end of the tour of the 44 hobbit holes, which are built to different scales to allow forced perspective staging (and only a handful of them have shallow interiors). It is an interesting  and popular tour – they were expecting 2000 visitors on boxing day but average around 1000 per day – and it is fascinating to see the amount of care with which the detailed sets were built, almost all of which is imperceptible in the films – such as the artificial oak tree above Bilbo’s house ‘Bag End’, or the apple tree that was changed to a plum tree (by art students who painstakingly replaced all the leaves), through to the artificial lichen covering the surface of the woodwork.

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The long-term value to New Zealand, and in particular, to film production in the country, of hosting these transnational super-productions is perhaps questionable. They offer a case study of how small national cinemas are occasionally invigorated by injections of US money due to tax breaks, comparatively high levels of privacy and extraordinary government support – it turns out, for example, that a 5,000 feet no-fly zone was established over the Hobbiton set to prevent paparazzi photographs, and, incredibly, one pilot who flew journalists over a location on the southern island was subsequently arrested and banned from flying in New Zealand.

James Cameron has just announced that three sequels to Avatar will be produced in New Zealand after negotiating a controversial increase of the tax rebate from 15 to 20% with a possible further 5% increase. Among the conditions of the deal are that the DVD and Bluray releases include a documentary focusing upon New Zealand’s importance as a base for the film’s production. The rationale for this deal is that the production will bring up to NZ$500 into the economy and may boost NZ film production more generally. While the long-term value of such mega-productions to the New Zealand film industry may be disputable, what is clear is that New Zealand has been made-over by Peter Jackson’s films into a quite different place, its landscape and architecture having become fused with the fictional mise-en-scène of the films. Once you are sensitised to it by the barrage of publicity, you begin to see the film’s scenography everywhere in the rolling pastoral hills and mountainous, volcanic skylines. Like the poster says in Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand is like Lord of the Rings.

Everyday pleasures: cinema-going

Bruce Bennett

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As the term ‘cinema-going’ suggests, one of the historical pleasures of watching films has been visiting the structures in which they are screened. In An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, Annette Kuhn’s study of people’s memories of cinema-going in the 1930s, she found that for many of the people she interviewed, the cinemas themselves, the groups of friends they went with, or particular occasions on which they went to the pictures were at least as strong a memory as the actual films they saw. Cinema-going is, however, a vanishing pleasure since most of the films and audio-visual material we watch is viewed at home on TV screens and computer monitors, while the experience of watching a film at a multiplex is so expensive and alienating it can feel like undergoing a polite mugging. This is captured nicely in the episode of the sitcom Black Books when the protagonist, Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) pays a rare and reluctant visit to the local multiplex cinema after being locked out of his bookshop:

BB: ‘Excuse me. There seems to be some sort of mistake. I bought a drink and some popcorn and now I have no money left.’

Cashier: ‘That’s how much it costs.’

BB: ‘Why? Is it special popcorn? Does it produce some kind of dizzying high?’

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By contrast, the community cinema on Waiheke Island is a rare exception of a cinema that it is a pleasure to visit. It is in the basement of the community art gallery in the island’s main town of Oneroa and was staffed by volunteers on the occasions I visited. It screens first-run commercial films as well as ‘arthouse’ films and local productions, and has a good surround sound system and digital projector, however watching a film there felt like going to a cinema in another period. It was recommended to us by a volunteer who worked at the local recycling centre who said it reminded her husband of watching films in barracks rooms when he was in the army. The room is decorated with film posters, reels of film, miscellaneous bits of projection equipment and an old 35mm projector, while the ceiling is dotted with stars and crescents. One of the most pleasurable aspects of it is that in place of rows of cinema seats, the room is filled with a varied collection of sofas.

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It seemed appropriate to watch the new Peter Jackson film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in New Zealand for various reasons, but while I would like to have watched it in 3D and HFR, Waiheke community cinema seemed like the most suitable venue.

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Reference:

Annette Kuhn (2002). An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, London: IB Tauris.

 Perfect and ephemeral: Chaplin as cinematic sign

Bruce Bennett

Driving back and forth past this outhouse on the small island of Waiheke in New Zealand/Aotearoa over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by the incongruity of finding this image of Charlie Chaplin at what feels like, from a Eurocentric perspective, the edge of the world. The figure of Chaplin dressed in the costume of his most familiar character, the tramp (or ‘the little fellow’ as Chaplin called him), must surely be one of the most universally recognisable individuals ever to have existed. Like portraits of Che Guevara or Bob Marley, this has become a free-floating signifier that is detached from its original context and is familiar to people who’ve never seen the films.

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Although all the extant material is available on DVD now, Chaplin’s films are rarely screened in cinemas or on TV, and so it is odd that he remains such a familiar figure  that even children who’ve  never seen any of his films  are nevertheless able to imitate his splayed-feet walk. The insistent after-life of this mute cinematic figure may have something to do with the effectiveness of the films; whenever I have taught Chaplin’s satirical and sentimental feature film, City Lights (Chaplin, 1931), the finely judged ending always leaves one or two of my worldly undergraduate students with tears in their eyes, and I’ve watched my children in tears of laughter at some of the early Keystone comedies. However, it’s also a testament to the perfect construction of this cinematic persona, which reduces a character to a few disconnected, reproducible (and easily imitated) visual elements – the dandyish cane, bowler and jacket with tails, outsized trousers and clown shoes, and pedantic moustache (as borrowed later by Oliver Hardy and, to Chaplin’s intense irritation, Hitler).

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The costume was first used in the brilliantly simple Keystone production, Kid Auto Races in Venice (Lerhman, 1914) – the first film in which Chaplin appears – a short commentary upon performance and celebrity, in which the tramp, noticing that cameramen are filming the go-cart races on Venice beach, tries nonchalantly to insert himself into every shot, sidling into the frame as if he hasn’t noticed the camera. Although he wears normal shoes in this film, the costume is more or less fully-formed and is used with little variation thereafter in different narrative contexts so that Chaplin’s character stands apart visually from those around him, emphasizing his (self-) importance.

Writing about Great Garbo’s icon-like face (or face-object) in the Hollywood film, Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), Roland Barthes suggested that,  ‘In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn, but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once, perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance’. This captures very well the contradictory quality of Chaplin’s image – smooth, flour-white, fragile, perfect, totemic. It is not an image of an individual – and, indeed, in photographs of Chaplin out of costume and not wearing make-up he can be hard to recognise – but of an individual rendered as a pure cinematic sign.

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Reference:

Roland Barthes, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Mythologies

Semiotic ghosts: Dubai’s architectural hallucinations

Bruce Bennett

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Travelling from the UK to New Zealand recently we stopped for two days in Dubai in order to make the long journey more manageable. Even allowing for the dislocating effect of flying across time zones and two sleepless nights since the hotel we were staying in was packed with raucous teams competing in the international women’s Rugby Sevens tournament, Dubai seems a jarringly strange city.

It is the materialization of a defiantly aspirational vision of the future that predates and disregards anxieties about peak oil and catastrophic climate change. The combination of high-rise office blocks and hotels, luxury gated communities and freeways presupposes an economically stable future in which oil continues to flow freely from the ground, and we continue to travel by car and jet plane. It is a city under construction and new buildings appear so frequently that, one taxi driver told us, he and his colleagues sometimes struggle to find their way around the financial centre.

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Driving into the centre of Dubai on the 14-lane freeway what I was most strongly reminded of was William Gibson’s brilliantly economical short story,’The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981). In that story, while driving through present-day California, a photographer working on an assignment on futuristic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s has visions of an alternative present that resembles the future as it was imagined in films, architectural designs, visual art and the illustrations and cover art of pulp science fiction journals and novels from that period (such as those published by Hugo Gernsback through magazines such as Amazing Stories).

“Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming  ziggurat steps  that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick  with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one  of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the  dance), mile-long  blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters…”

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One of the photographer’s friends reassures him what he’s seen are “semiotic ghosts”: “bits  of  deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken  on a life of their own, like the Jules Verne airships that those  old Kansas farmers were  always seeing”. This term captures very well the phantasmatic bricolage of Dubai’s spectacular architecture. Deceptively compact, viewed through the filters of a windscreen, exhaust smoke and the haze of the desert sky, these buildings could have been a painted backdrop or a hallucination. They are a striking collision of old and new forms, a point made particularly evident by the building that copies (and scales up) the clock tower on Westminster Palace. The illusion that Dubai is a future city irrupting from the past like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was completed by the little prop-driven plane that took off repeatedly and circled over the shoreline, ejecting parachutists competing in the International Parachuting Competition.

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All buildings present us with a symbolic representation of the future – they are designed and built in anticipation of possible future uses and contexts and so they are necessarily anachronistic; they show us the future as it was imagined in the past. What is so striking about Dubai is that these coastal cities are so new and yet still they appear to imagine the future in spatial and architectural terms that are at least a century old. The future will be more of the same.

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