Saturday, April 28, 2012

ANZAC day - a fictional narrative of nation building?

Well, ANZAC day has come and gone for another year and I'm left with an increasing sense of unease.
My unease has been growing for a number of years, concurrent with the increasing popularity of the day and its rituals, especially with the young. I'm not quite sure when I first started to hear, via the media, that New Zealand's  military involvement at  the slaughter that was Gallipoli symbolised the moment we  first became a nation, but it certainly wasn't considered that way when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s.

Many things disturb me about this claim,  not the least because it is based on a view that the ultimate arbiter of nationhood is the (male) experience of war, especially a battle and a war fought in someone else's country. I don't have any issue with people wishing to honour and respect the sacrifices their forebears have made, or with the desire to construct  meaningful narratives about who we were and are, or with debates about what constitutes the basis and nature of our citizenship. What concerns me is who and what are missing from this version, and, to use old-fashioned language, whose point of view is it and whose interests does it serve?

The idea that there is one narrative, and one moment, that defines a person's - let alone a nation's -  identity is ludicrous. Anyone who attempts to construct a narrative is immediately challenged by issues of point of view and perspective. And then there are issues of what to include and what to leave out, what emphasis to give actions or events, what to  hint at or make explicit, what is text and what is subtext.

Surely there are many different narratives that contribute to our sense of nationhood and national identity . One that springs to mind is Archibald Baxter's powerful story of being a conscientious objector in World War 1, We Will Not Cease. His story is as much about courage and sacrifice as are the individual stories of New Zealand and Australian soldiers sent to their deaths at Gallipoli. What a shame we don't have a day to celebrate his perspective.

Here is a link to a book review of We Will Not Cease.


Monday, April 23, 2012


I set myself a task over the summer to read a lot more popular fiction action thrillers. I did this with varying degrees of success. Among the works I read a couple of the very popular Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, including the first of the ongoing series, Killing Floor.

Lee Child's novels have become a sales phenomenon, and Child's ability to put a plot line together is an object lesson in managing rising tension and turning points. The character of Jack Reacher is an interesting study in the ways that popular fiction heroes work. There has been a trend in the last thirty years or so, following on from the anti-heroes of film noir and its literary equivalents, for characters to be portrayed as rebels. Reacher represents a popular variant on this type, and the concept of 'portrayed' is important here. He expresses and riffs off of fundamental but seemingly opposing forces. On the one hand he is ex military, which means he represents the father archetype so beloved of the old westerns and male fiction,(strength, honesty, integrity, physical competence, the ability to act - not just talk), and some wider and often murkier manifestations of this archetype (the system, government, power, control, might as the definition of right.) At the same time the 'ex' is crucial. He's not currently 'in' the military. That gives him the edge of the rebel, bucking up against the system. So he has it both ways, and that appeals to conflicting needs within his audience. The need to be part of something bigger, but the need to be individual. The system - vs the lone wolf. Within - without. It is a constant conflict that is intoxicating for readers who want to be both tribal and individualistic.

Books on film theory often call these characters the 'enigmatic outsider.' In general terms the enigmatic outsider isn't the protagonist, as the creation of a protagonist often comes with a need for exhaustive exposition, which kind of kills the enigmatic part. So Reacher is unusual in that respect and Lee Child cleverly keeps his background sketchy. His constant restlessness, and itinerant lifestyle is an effective device to maintain that tension between 'home' (represented by his military background) and the enigma.

There were early manifestations of these characters in the ubiquitous private detectives of noir fiction, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, for example. They were like the problem child kicked out of the nest (the system) but still trying to do the things the system was set up to do, if it had any god-dammed guts and honesty left (ie: find and bring justice.) Often they were given tragic, or at least dark pasts, conflicts they had to overcome within themselves to overcome the conflicts arising in the plot and relationship lines of the story. The noir P.I.s had an extra edge of unreliability, you never really knew or trusted their motives, or got a sense that they themselves knew. For all his power and decisiveness, Jack Reacher lacks this edge. He fills that gap with extreme violence, metered out to deserving candidates. And for all his scariness, he's really a Sherman tank version of the cosy promise that it'll be alright in the end. That good will win out.

A closer manifestation of the noir detective would be the Dave Robicheaux character from James Lee Burke's stories, but he's still a cop, after all the ruminations and conflicts about the role and meaning of power. Perhaps modern fiction has tipped the enigmatic characters of noir more clearly over to the 'other' side, in characters like Tony Soprano. Instead of a good man in constant conflict with (though using the muscle and lack of morality of ) the bad man inside him we have a bad man who's morality is moment by moment, entirely derived from each situation, each relationship. Constantly demanding we re-frame the whole argument and concept.

I find the hyper violence of the Reacher novels over the top and his all powerful physicality and ability to kill five bad guys without breaking a sweat veers too close to Superman mythology, for me. James Lee Burke's characters are less perfect and stronger for it.

The two action thrillers from my recent sample I found most rewarding were by Michael Connelly. Lost Light and City of Bones. Connelly's characters (including his protagonist, Harry Bosch) strike me as more real, with layers of strength AND vulnerability. There is a lot more ambiguity in his writing. You never know who to trust, and Harry Bosch is just trying to do the best he can in lousy situations - he's not an Old Testament bringer of vengeance. There's no real ambiguity in Harry, but there sure is in the world around him. Who can you trust, and why, and how far?

I could see myself inviting Harry Bosch to dinner and we'd shake our heads at the stuff that's out there. I'd invite Robicheaux, but lock the liquor cabinet. I'm not sure I can see Jack Reacher strongly enough as a real person to even invite him. Anyway, with his lifestyle, where would you send the invitation?

Conflicting emotions.

I recently went to see the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and came out with conflicting emotions. The best moments were excellent, but there were weaknesses too. The strengths ( some biting humour in the dialogue, some poignant performances, by Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Judi Dench.) Weaknesses: I thought the film suffered from too much need to present the quaint India of recent legend, chaotic but happy, personified by the lead Indian character Sonny, played by Dev Patel. I’m more than a little disquieted by indigenous characters acting in ‘type’. Sometimes I wonder if English letters and celluloid still struggles to leave behind Kipling’s cute but paternalistic and patronizing portrayals of natives. It reminds me of what Native Americans sometimes refer to as ‘Chiefing’, getting up in traditional garb, not as an intrinsic cultural statement, but to ham it up for the narrow perspectives of tourists. Sonny’s character and the triumph over odds plotline written for him never rose above stereotype.

That aside, the film is a masterclass in acting. I was reminded for the millionth time what an extraordinary actress Maggie Smith is, and how great actors can rise above limitations in film concepts and scripts. Smith has an ability to portray polar opposites of emotion simultaneously. In this film her words are bitter, cynical and prejudiced, but you can’t hate her because her eyes and her tiny facial gestures betray a terrible vulnerability and sadness that gives you insight into her character.
There is a poignant sequence in the film where she speaks to a hotel worker (as the worker is sweeping) not knowing the woman is an ‘untouchable.’ This plays on the painful dynamic of one prejudice (the Indian caste system) clashing with another (old fashioned racism and belief in racial superiority.) In the conversation though, Smith’s character (whose fear of difference informs her racism) lectures the worker on how to sweep, not so much out of prejudice but because she (Smith’s character) was a professional housekeeper all her life. She is then invited to the woman’s home to meet the family. Smith’s character is in a wheelchair much of the time, and she is aided into a chair inside to meet the family. In the scene’s pivotal moment she sees (through an open door) some of the teenagers in the Indian family playing with her wheelchair. She immediately thinks they are trying to steal it and in her terror and vulnerability (she’s lost without the wheelchair) verbally lashes out.  It all comes out. Her fear, her fragility and her racism (she automatically assumes the natives will steal the chair, of course they will.) Her realization that they are only curious is the film’s most painful moment, and her face is riddled with conflict and shame. Her uncompromising attitude as an actress to avoid soft options and warm, fuzzy ‘conversion’ moments gives her portrayal a searing authenticity.     

I was struck also by Judi Dench’s ability to enrich the physical space in a scene. You often hear comments like this: dominate the space, own the scene, which results in histrionics and ‘big acting’ (the lesser moments by Sean Penn or Keira Knightly, for example.) But Dench dominates her scenes with her gracefulness. She has a dancer’s ability to still the viewer’s eye, to not diminish the background but be in symmetry with it. She is able to do so partly because of her beauty, which is not born of some superficial concept of prettiness or niceness but because the authenticity and humanity in her face and movements carry a possibility that within all the crappy choices and consequences we’re faced with, maybe there is still just a sliver of daylight if we have the honesty and guts to search for it. That sliver of daylight, that tiny spark of hope, is what is beautiful, way beyond any airbrushed, market-researched but ultimately saccharine concept of beauty.  

Tom Wilkinson’s story arc is, in contrast to Sonny’s, handled with care and delicacy and devoid of cliché. He plays a gay man immersed in the world of traditional propriety (a high court judge) who ran away from a relationship with an Indian man forty years earlier and has come back to India to find him, to own up to his fear and betrayal. The scene where they meet is deliberately underplayed and totally lacking in syrupy melodrama and music. A small, delicate thing, allowed to play out mostly within the humanity in the audience, not in huge letters on screen. This is the script’s best realized plot and story line. 

So there were some false notes and weaknesses in concept and in the script, but the best of this film made it worthwhile. It struck as the work of film-makers hedging their bets, willing to have the acidic, but very real bone-dry honesty of a Mike Leigh film, but a little afraid to completely leave cosy cliché behind. 

I'm glad I saw it though, for the acting alone.To remind me of how the best acting is a finely honed study and application of craft, that looks accidental.