Monday, August 31, 2009

The antique art of cinema.

Every time I’ve gone to the movies lately I’ve felt that I’m taking part in a ritual which is antique as opera. It’s something to do with the physical acitivity - going somewhere, the lobby, the ritual of an icecream. Taking your seat - these days carefully judging whether you’re going to be near someone who no longer understand the old rituals of cinema (ie they’ll chat all the way through, or flick open their cellphone and start texting.)

Then there’s the rattle of whatever opens the curtains. The physicality of the sound. There’s something actually mechanical involved. Something real, physical. It’s almost touching.

A convention centre in a praire town at 3am.

Except of course you’ll be sitting in some cruddy space which could be a convention centre in a praire town at 3am in the morning. And you’re in the last stages of  a hangover. Forget picture palace, forget cinema of illusions. You’re downtown in craptown.

And you’re trapped in the middle of a row... 

Once the film starts you enter into a time realm which is, effectively, limitless. Most films these days have bloated out to two and a half hours. You seem to enter a zone which I find increasingly galling. It’s almost like the lack of narrative interest or invention is multiplied by the irritation of having to sit still through endless cliches. 

Who said romance validates everything?

The last two films I’ve seen, Coco Avant Chanel and The Young Victoria have basically been love stories. I have nothing against love stories. Once I used to think they were fantastic. You wept in the dark. If you were gay, you yearned for the manly hero. You imagined it was your lips he was kissing.

But as I’ve got older, I find myself impatient with these narrative lies. Who said love is the point of existence? Who said romance is what validates everythng? 

It seems antique, a convention which is as dated as a man standing up when a woman entered the room. Worse, I really believe now as that the notion of love so fucked up my earlier life that it is a pernicious lie.

Of course people fall in love. But it’s not that great. And in many ways, it’s a willed delusion. Why celebrate it? Why not deconstruct it a little? And aren’t there other more interesting things to talk about.

A gust of impatience in the stale air...

Television drama seems to have surpassed cinema in the way it can tell contemporary stories. What recent film equalled the nuances of The Sopranoes? Or Mad Men for that matter? 

The whole trope of film seems wedded or somehow corrupted by the time scale. You have two to three hours of exclusive attention. But these big operatic film narratives, full of creaking convention, are then wheeled on. 

I sit there impatiently, half willing myself to be inside the beautiful illusion which is cinema. 

But increasingly a gust of impatience overtakes me. I want to to yell at the screen - that vacant, all seeing, all forgiving space: astonish me! Impress me! Reduce me to complete silence! Let me lose myself for several hours. That’s the most basic requirment of cinema. 

Oh look at that lampshade!

Instead, these days, I find myself thinking of other things: when is this movie going to end? Oh, look at that lampshade, that’s an interesting shape. I wonder what he’s like in bed. I must remember to get some tinned tomatoes. I could put them with some anchovies and....

Don’t get me wrong. I sort of enjoyed both the films I talk about above. It’s just I want cinema to be like I remember it being - a vivid swoon, a total romance, utter capitulation of the senses. 

Or has that time passed?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Coco Chanel Achtung!

I was sittiing in 'Coco Avant Chanel' thinking what a shit I was for not enjoying it more. It was pretty to look at, the heroine was engaging and I generally am a sucker for historical dramas. Maybe it was the fact that the film so skilfully got round the big problem in Coco Chanel’s past - her Nazi leanings. During World War Two she was a collaborator, shacked up at the Paris Ritz and did a roaring ragtrade with Nazi wives. She had a high ranking Nazi lover. After the war she had to leave France her reputation was so malodorous and live in Switzerland. 

Maybe you could see the beginnings of this, in the film, in the way she used the men she met. She was powerless and poor. They were rich and influential. I suppose when politics change and go very bad, you just find an influential male in the heirarchy and keep working. But somehow in my soul I doubt whether the orphanage Chanel was dumped in was as picturesque as in the film. Just as I doubt whether the soft-faced actress really was a good stand in for the hard faced bitch which Chanel appears to be in many photographs. 

It fascinated me that, as far as I could see, there was no acknowledgement of a biographical source. This is because a person’s life, once dead, is considered public property. But the best biogrpahy I’ve read on Chanel is Edmonde Charles-Roux’s Chanel (Collins Harvill, 1989). This broke a lot of the information that you see in the film, ie her look came from diverse sources such as the orphanage, sailor’s vests and English riding clothes. 

I suppose the point in which I lost all sympathy for the film was when the actress went out to look at Boy Capel’s car which had overturned, killing him. This was a true ‘cinematic moment’ ie having nothing to do with truth but everything to do with evoking a moving moment. That it was absurd, ridiculous and stale as an old bottled fart as an artistic manoeuvre goes without saying. But the crowds loved the film. Yet as I watched the almost entirely female audience wend its way out, I could only imagine the caustic epiteths Chanel herself would have spat out about the way so many of them were oveloaded with ornament, clothes too tight for their bodies. Ironically they had all loved just what she hated - a meringue of a film.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

An empty space...

Mischka, the cat is no more. Douglas and I took her down to the vet last Saturday. She was very quiet. Feeble. There was another cat in the surgery, the vet’s cat. This cat was very glossy, full of curiosity and life. The cat observed us going into a room. The door closed. When we came out, I was weeping uncontrollably. Douglas was more stoic. The vet’s cat looked at us and knew something monumental had happened. She looked away.

We left Mischka behind to be cremated. We will bury her ashes in the garden - probably under the tree we bought last year, when we thought she was on her last legs. So Mischka the cat - aka Westy Scrag - surprised us all by living on for a full year. She wasn’t ready to die. But in the end it was like she just wound down. 

The tree we will plant her under is just coming into leaf.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A novelist's confession...

A novelist confesses: I don’t often read novels these days.

That’s quite some confession. Of course I’m also a nonfiction writer and both my current projects are nonfiction. Maybe the very fact I am reading so much nonfiction meant I suddenly had a hunger for a novel. This hunger was quite acute. It was the sort of hunger you have for a particular kind of food that you realise is missing from your diet. This food delivers a singular high, its own exact satisfaction. I’d developed a craving.

A craving answered. 

The novel I chose was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.

I did this on two grounds. I had read the plaudits in The New Yorker when it first came out. But then it said it was all about 9/11 and cricket, two of my least favourite subjects.  However when The Elegant Variation, a blog I trust, had the novel in its rather fascinating ‘Recommendedcolumn, I thought it would be a good novel to read.

(I’d already sampled another recommendation, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, dating from 1957, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed.)  

Happenstance and hurry.

Happenstance enters here: that happy concatenation of chance I’ve written about earlier - the way a book seems to present itself to you, almost magically, in the library. 

I was hurrying out of the Remuera Library when I spied a copy of Netherland on a table. It was a table set aside for books recommended by the librarians. I picked it up and did the classic inventory of a ‘do I want to read this book?’. (I looked at the plaudits on the back cover - “with echoes of The Great Gatsby...a resonant meditation on the American dream” (NY Times). I flicked it open. I read the first paragraph. I wouldn’t say I was drawn in completely. But then I wasn’t put off.

He had a body made for love making.

There is a whole thesis to be written on first lines. It took me three novels to realise you write the novel, then go back and rewrite the first part of the novel so it opens as you would like. I used to fret about this imponderable dilemma.

It wasn’t helped by a friend of mine  - from the 1970s, as it happens. He was gorgeous-looking, somewhere between Rudolf Nureyev and Jim Morrison of the Doors. He was also the person most likely, among all my friends, to write a great novel. He wore promise like an aureole. He was studying Wallace Stevens, which he did in-between taking mammoth amounts of acid. He was often beautifully half-naked and his body was lean, sinuous - made for lovemaking. He was a form of Dionysis, I see this now as I write.

But this friend spent the next twenty years refining, or trying to find, the perfect entrance to his novel. It was this, we finally understood, which   explained why he never produced the novel - the work of art - his whole life had been implicitly created to make.


It unsettled me, this search. I thought it was a very real thing, a kind of apprenticeship I, in my clumsy way, did not quite comprehend. It helped stall me - along with a thousand other insecurities peculiar to all people about to set off on a quest.

Walking round to the other side of a problem...

As it was, I became a novelist. And my friend, who I hardly see any more, never produced a book - a film - even a poem, as far as I am aware. 

He was right, of course. First lines, first paragraphs are incredibly important (thank you Tolstoy, thanks J Austen.) But it took me many years to comprehend how to get around this problem.

It seems to me, this is in the nature of all activities - learning to walk round to the other side of the problem, in order to seek a solution. It’s almost a matter of catching the problem unawares.

On retiring to bed early. 

I sank into the novel gratefully. I was staying with my aged mother so I could retire to bed in the evening and occupy what felt like vast plateaux of space and time. I was away from my partner too - so I did not have to negotiate the shared space, soundscape and magnetic fleshly attentions of a partner. I could luxuriate in - the strange phenomenon of little pieces of ink on paper luring me into a psychological landscape which was completely different, in its particularities, to any I was familiar with. And I could exult in the nicety of language.

This in particular struck me. O’Neill occasionally has a clumsy usage almost peculiar to non-English speakers - he was brought up in Holland. But more often, he has a Nabokiovian ability to refresh English usage, to shake it down, make it new.

It is a real blessing to read language like this. We live in such a brutalised epoch in terms of language. I am aware of the decay in my own use of grammar and syntax in speech. (I was made horrendously aware of this when an interview with me was recently transcribed and presented back to me to edit. I thought I had spoken well, with insight. Instead I perceived a slather, a mess, a pottage of hanging clauses, unfinished sentences which set off, like a camel train in search of some oasis - instead finding itself whited out by a storm of inconsequential side diversions. It was humiliating.)

A kind of blessing....

And since we all live in a digital ever-present, which even the past has trouble piercing, this kind of decay in language - in specificity - is all around us. Does it point to a decay in thought? Possibly. 

A fine sentence is a way of redressing the imbalance of the world. O’Neill’s insights into relationships, time, city life are often beautifully expressed. At times I felt the novel was unexpectedly jerky and uneven in its verbal textures: yet every so often a magnificent sentence hoved into view - with all the grandeur of a vast ocean-going liner, I felt, sliding into New York harbour - seeming to bring with it something eternal - a kind of blessing - a jubilation - an elation of the mind.

This is why I still read novels. 

In fact O’Neill mentioned in passing ‘reverie’s sacred space’. And I thought, yes, that’s what reading is all about. 

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hawke's Bay handshake - neanderthal alert.

The Hawke’s Bay handshake.

I know I’m a fag an’ all but really, the bone-crushing male handshake lives on in Hawke’s Bay in all its macho desperation. I held my hand out to an ordinary seeming bloke and was met by a nerve-pinching clutch which snavelled my knuckles together and ground them back and forth remorcelessly. And this is meant to be a sign of friendship.... (Traditionally a sign you weren’t carrying a hidden sword...)

You can tell a lot about a man from his handshake...

Of course I’m a writer so my hands, my fingers are kind of like ballet dancer’s toes. They’re precious to me. They’re what I work with. I’d thought this horrible male competitiveness had died away. 

It was alive in my youth. 

I was tutored from early on you can tell a lot about a man from his handshake.

What, I used to ask myself? What? As an apprentice pouf, I knew exactly what the code was. Someone could diagnose your terrible secret from the fact you weren’t locked into an internecine arm wrestle from the word go.

Now bromance has shamelessly announced itself to the world.

These days, of course there’s the male hug. Bromance has shamelessly announced itself to the world. But if you watch two straight men hugging, watch for the hand on the back which is like a hugometer. Only too soon the hugometer hand will start pounding up and down on the ‘mate’s’ back. It’s as automatic as an old fashioned railway signal. This is code for: don’t go in too deep. Don’t have too much body contact. Come awake! Come awake! 

Another way of seeing this is the terror of having an erection, in this situation. Or worse still, a kiss.

The only thing different is penetration.

Of course kisses, patting, frottage are allowed in certain areas set aside as sacrosanct male-only domains - like the football field. Here you see as much male-male body contact as you would see in the average gay sex club. The only thing different is penetration. But you could see the physical mauling of male on male contact on the football field as either a substitute or displacement activity. The violence could be seen as pent up frustration. The ball through the goal....

I never for a moment suspected the ordinary seeming bloke of not being macho enough. 

But in the provinces this kind of male tic - the crippling handshake  - lives on. It strikes me as sadly desperate - and completely unnecessary. I never for a moment suspected the ordinary seeming bloke of not being macho enough. Maybe he suspected me though? 

It’s kind of like living under the Iron Curtain down here sometimes, or 1950s America, when everybody suspected everyone else of being not who they’re pretending to be.

Cross dressing is big.

I can tell you this though: there is a raging demand for crossdressers in this town. Cross dressing is big. And I bet when you meet up for a bit of jiggyjiggy, out would come the paw of Queen Elizabeth in a white kid glove but the moment you shook hands - there it would be - that desperate need to persuade you that you had met a real bloke.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Biographer's Doubt...

At times I do ask myself that unnerving question for the biographer: would he have liked me?

It fascinates me that people hold such strong views on the missionary William Colenso (1811-1889). Phil Parkinson (Turnbull Library) called him a ‘disagreeable, prolix lucubrator’ (trans - raver with a grudge.) And today when I went to see Peter Bloomer, an elderly Canadian gentleman, an ex-lawyer who specialises in Hawke’s Bay research, he wheeled round in his kitchen and challenged me: ‘What did I make of C’s personality?’ 

I murmured a little weakly that I found him ‘fascinating’. 

But PB was vehemently against him. (His hair in a halo round his head, nose running, one pupil seeming to be rheumy. He wore slippers, was passionate about his subject matter, jumped from subject to subject while I sat there bewildered. Then I remembered. With the elderly, you have to sit and wait. They approach the subject tangentially, startled into a whole ricochet of memory.) 

‘What did I think of all the land Colenso ended up with?’

PB sided ‘with the Maoris’, he said (still using the unfashionable and even faintly politically incorrect plural - and nowhere is political correctness more a la mode than with anything to do with Maori.) 

Colenso had nothing as a missionary, PB reasoned, but he ended up wealthy. Ergo, he was corrupt.

This only makes me like him more. 

This anger against C is often quite visceral, as if he were still alive. Of course this only makes me like him more. At times I do ask myself that unnerving question for the biographer: would he have liked me? And would I have liked him? Generally speaking I find powerful males either ludicrous or impossible to get along with. I react really badly. C’s moralising, when he was an evangelist, would have made him a bitter enemy. But there’s something in his fall from grace, some awakening to a wider consciousness which I find fascinating. He was a remarkable eyewitness at a moment of dangerously fast transition for Maori. He remained aware. And of course he wrote endlessly, daily. Words were his friends. As they are mine. 

One of the worst things for a researcher is ending up with a subject which draws a continual blank.

I also reason thus: if someone provokes a hot wire of feeling, you are onto a good thing. One of the worst things for a researcher is ending up with a subject which draws a continual blank. Colenso doesn’t fire off blanks. His bullets are loaded. Hence people are still dodging them. And he remains a hot target.

It's strange being on the wrong side of history. 

We were sitting in the original house of Robert Holt, a man who became a magnate in Hawke’s Bay. He had employed my greatgrandfather in the early days, before my ancestor set himself up in business. Maybe he got the idea from Robert Holt. My ancestor's house was further down the same convoluted lane, a smaller house but still picturesque.

I’ve come to accept the familiarity - yet unusualness to me - of the concept I live in a geographic space occupied by the descendants who took part in various historical dramas. 

(One of the other Colenso researchers is Ian St George who must be related to the Cpt St George who led some men disastrously in pursuit of Te Kooti. St George's men were surprised drying out their clothes after getting soaked. They were stark naked and Te Kooti's followers appeared - the Pakeha soldiers were mown down to a man - the only one to escape ran naked for twenty miles, over rough pumice. He must have been in accelerated shock after seeing his mates shot down. He ruined his feet forever. Cpt St George has a very lovely memorial down the road, in the old colonial cemetery.

Sometimes it feels like the Old South..

Of course I am a descendant of the barrack master (65th Regiment)of the Fort on top of Napier Hill - and everywhere are the descendants  - both Maori and Pakeha - who have stayed in this relatively isolated province, some never shifting and some, like me, returning after the absence of a generation. 

Sometimes it feels like the old South in the America, with its faintly inbred families, its white trash and those who definitely consider themselves aristocrats (both Maori and Pakeha.) 

It’s strange being on the wrong side of history.

And Mischka the cat stands, looking into the spring wind...

After talking to the old gent who was extraordinarily gracious in offering to share his research with me, I met up with a friend at the old colonial cemetery. We’ve been planting wildflowers there. We started off last summer, when it was very dry. We took waterbuckets along, ensuring the plants stayed alive. There are three of us who do it and we doit  voluntarily. I can’t tell you how peaceful it is - how incredibly good for the soul - to be in this silent place, where the only sound is that of the birds in trees, wind and distant voices - kids walking home from school. There’s even a beautiful jaguar-like cat who’s made the warm concrete of the tombstones into his home. Tuis race through the air, exhilerated by space. Yesterday we saw wood pigeons too, with their noisy wings.

Last year when I did a project on this old colonial graveyard I fell in love with the place. Yet it was neglected  - in one way quite beautiful in its monotonal colourings - greys, browns, whites, cream, green. A group of elderly men kept the weeds in check and clipped everything so it looked like a suburban front garden. We decided to floriferise. But in our enthusiasm we started planting perennial plants. The cemetery became an exciting landscape to explore and imagine planted. We started buying and planting old roses.

But there’s a problem. We only had permission to plant wildflowers, which are relatively transitory. Now we are moving into a municipal zone and we have to talk to the manager of parks reserves so that things aren’t sprayed with poison. It’s a potential collision course. Imagination and passion against local council bylaws. Watch this space.

But it feels good to be planting things at the moment. Mischka the cat edges closer and closer to the edge. I caught her yesterday just standing in the late afternoon sunlight and wind. She was standing there, as if testing the waters for some more absolute and final draft. Besides, it’s early spring...and the world is suddenly alive again with smells...