21 January 2021

Busby's colonialism usurped by Hobson

[Sir Richard] Bourke's appointment of [William] Hobson to examine the 'difficult question' of New Zealand was set against the backdrop of a shift in the culture, policies and operations of the Colonial Office. In 1834, James Stephen, the Assistant Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, had drafted a minute that outlined his view on the construction of colonial governments. He was not at all concerned that they resemble the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy recognizing that a system of such intricacy, which was dependent on a large bureaucracy, was not often suited to the needs of fledgling colonies. Instead, he emphasized the pragmatic over the idealistic. Colonial administrations, he insisted, 'must be [a] matter of compromise and of adaptation to the particular conditions, character, wants and resources of the place'. In New Zealand's case, the Residency [of James Busby] had manifestly fallen short of adapting to the particular conditions of the country, and so a revised look at New Zealand's requirements was warranted.

The 'Stephen Doctrine' began to transform from proposition to policy in 1836, when he took over from Spring Rice to become Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies - a post he would hold for the next eleven years. The recommendations contained in Hobson's report were broadly in keeping with Stephen's insistence on accommodating the circumstances of a territory when considering further intervention. Stephen may also have been inclined to support Hobson's proposals because he had developed a distaste for the sort of approach to influencing policies that James [Busby] had employed. The Resident had previously relied on support from friendly politicians, and unannounced visitations to the Colonial Office, where he held casual discussions with officials about his plans. Stephen insisted that all communications be dealt with through a much more formal process, with full written records maintained of all meetings and decisions, and was disdainful of casual, private, and disordered contact of the sort James had depended on. Stephen was determined that the earlier Colonial Office culture, which was focussed mainly on the broad and vague sweep of colonial policy, would be replaced approach that paid much more attention to detail. It would henceforth concern itself with the smallest tart as well as the largest pie, as Dickens partially parodied it.

- Paul Moon, The Rise and Fall of James Busby, London, 2020, p.210-11.

See also:
Blog: Waitangi Day 1890, 6 February 2015
Blog: Forest lords & mission houses, 16 January 2009

15 January 2021

Affordable Tokyo studio living

The clip below from February 2019 is a fascinating example of how urban design choices can facilitate the type of independent living that New Zealand cities have long neglected. This Japanese-American chap's rent in the famously expensive Japanese capital is NZ$1308/mo, or NZ$300/wk. The Tokyo apartment is only 24sqm but it fits an awful lot in with clever design, including a small but decent balcony. I know older designs of New Zealand council bedsits are now deemed inappropriate accommodation, but I wonder if that's a factor of how outdated their design was, and our prejudices about the need for large living areas. If we can build loads of these sorts of studios for solo tenants wouldn’t that help to tackle the enormous demand backlog? And help loads of New Zealanders who want of need to live independently, rather than be subjected to ever-longer bouts of flat-sharing? Could we build twice as many 24sqm studios as 50sqm one-bedroom apartments for roughly the same amount, and thereby provide accommodation to twice as many people?

(Also, the toilet roll holder in the apartment in the video is, as this guy says, very clever. Trust the Japanese!)

It's noteworthy that a comparison of living costs between Japan and New Zealand reveals that despite what you might imagine, average monthly disposable salary in Japan is actually almost identical to New Zealand, and many Japanese cost-of-living prices are considerably lower than in New Zealand.

See also:
Blog: Housing documentary Push, 7 February 2020
Blog: An area of urban depravity, 29 June 2007

14 January 2021

My top 10 films of 2020

So perhaps the only silver lining of the dreadful year that was 2020 was that it provided plentiful opportunities for bulk film-watching, and I took every opportunity offered. It was a record year for me, clocking of 297 films at an average of 5.7 per week. It was certainly fortunate that we could enjoy something like a regular Film Festival in the winter months, in what must have been very difficult circumstances. We were even lucky enough to be able to see a few key films in person at the cinema, which was a real tonic.

My Letterboxd annual statistics reveal that I only managed to see 16 releases from calendar 2020, but that's no great surprise given how many films were held over by the studios. The twin influences of the Wellington Film Society and the Mubi film-streaming app can be seen in my top directors watched for the year, which had a definite French emphasis: Louis Malle (7 films), Jean-Pierre Melville (6), Eric Rohmer (6), and Sacha Guitry, Billy Wilder, F.W. Murnau and Joel Coen all on four. I particularly enjoyed watching the six films in Rohmer's 1980s 'Comedies et Proverbes' series featuring delectable young Parisians angsting about romance and cheating on their partners, generally whilst windsurfing.

In any case, here's my top 10 for the year just gone, with my favourite film listed first. Usual rules apply: films seen by me in 2020, which may include some new releases from 2019 that didn't make it to New Zealand until 2020. National Theatre films of stage productions are excluded, because while they're brilliant, they're not feature films.

1. The Personal History of David Copperfield (dir. Armando Iannucci, UK, trailer)

Seen in the Roxy cinema in Miramar back before the first lockdown in March, with impressive gaffer-taped seats demarcating an exclusion zone around all viewers, which is probably how film-watching should have always been arranged. And it's excellent, with a particularly delightful cast led by Dev Patel in the title role. His gentle, wide-eyed optimist grown-up David is nicely presaged by the talented Jairaj Varsani as young David in the early scenes. Peter Capaldi and Morfydd Clark are both splendid as Micawber and Dora, and the star pairing of Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie are perfectly charming as the odd couple of Betsey Trotwood and Mr Dick. This is a real crowd-pleasing, effervescent treat in these difficult times; I hope more people get to see it. The film's sense of family-where-you-find-it and the broadest possible appeal of its expertly-selected ensemble are both compelling drawcards, as is the generosity and warmth of its comedic spirit. 

2. Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig, US)

While I'm afraid I haven't read Alcott's much-loved book so can't tell how faithful it is to the original, this film adaptation by Greta Gerwig is a standout achievement harking back to the best cinematic treatments of classic literature. Strong echoes of the Austen and Bronte-depicted dependence 19th-century women had on an advantageous marriage or a lucky inheritance come to the fore in Gerwig's playful tweaks to the narrative, and the film is particularly strong in illustrating the close-knit bonds of isolated female-dominated families existing on the fringes of respectable financial straits, as in Elizabeth Gaskell's 1853 novel Cranford. Cinematically Little Women is sumptuous, with some splendid New England cinematography and only a few trivial editing niggles in Jo and Beth's beach conversation to suggest a hint of rough edges. The intentional jumping chronology is noticeable and occasionally disorienting, but audiences are resourceful and on balance constant interruptions of intertitles would have been more of a distraction. The superb cast is deftly handled, and Saoirse Ronan in particular richly deserved her Academy nomination for the dream role of Jo March. Ronan really can't put a foot wrong in any production, and her talents continue to grow. Florence Pugh is also a star of increasing renown, and I wasn't the least bit surprised when she was nominated for her missish Amy March too. Now American acting teachers just need to ask themselves why in this most wonderfully American of stories are three of the four main roles played - brilliantly, that is - by Irish or British actors.

3. Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan, US)

I do not (will not) understand this film that I saw (will see) at the Embassy in August, but do I (will I) care? No! (No!) The time-bending jiggery-pokery only needs to make sense to Christopher Nolan, and that's all. The fact that it's (will be) mindboggling is a plus not a minus, and the film's sheer berserk energy and commitment to its preposterous temporal premise is an absolute rush. John David Washington is suitably steely as the implacable lead, and is nicely supported by Robert Pattinson, returning to blockbuster territory after several years in indie experimentation. I'll probably need to see this film three times to make proper sense of it, and as with Interstellar the audio mix for the dialogue track is quite mushy in the way that Nolan so clearly prefers, so the often-masked actors are tricky to understand, but I must re-emphasise that this doesn't (won't) matter a jot. Tenet is a must-see on the big screen if (when) you get the chance, or you'll regret missing it in the past, present and future. I'll just have to wait until I can buy the Blu-ray and watch it with English subtitles on. 

4. Mank (dir. David Fincher, US)

Taken in a November outing to the Roxy, in that brief window our Netflix overlords permit we mere cinema-goers to go see cinema in the cinema so it can qualify for Oscar competition, is David Fincher's film of his father's script, depicting Herman Mankiewicz's 1940 travails writing the screenplay for what would become the greatest film of the 20th century, Citizen Kane. (The greatest film of the 21st century is, of course, Paddington 2). I don't know about you, but I'm absolutely gaga for depictions of Golden Age Hollywood, and this is a prime example. Gary Oldman is wonderful in the lead role, although it's a bit disconcerting for a 62-year-old to be playing the then-43-year-old Mank. But let's face it, the man was definitely not in good shape, and Oldman is note-perfect as the combustible, endlessly inspired writer. It's also a treat to see Charles Dance and Amanda Seyfried as the plutocratic William Randolph Hearst and his wry muse, the comic actress Marion Davies. Also, it was nice to see Joseph Gordon Levitt at the cinema, encouraging people to come to the screening to support his pal who acted in the movie (Arliss Howard, I think).

5. David Byrne's American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee, US)

A joyous carnival of art-pop garnished with intricate choreography and a talented, charming band of musicians and in particular the skills of dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. David Byrne is in splendidly avuncular form as the barefoot ringmaster, sprinkling stone-cold Talking Heads numbers amidst intriguing and appealing material both new and old. Spike Lee excels in bringing this musical excitement to the screen, and as with the legendary Stop Making Sense by Jonathan Demme, injects enough variety and surprises into proceedings to craft an expert emotional journey through the song catalogue. An emphatic illustration of the power of live performance to connect with an audience, and the gift of sharing that live performance through the cinematic medium. 

6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman, US)

A solid and at times raw depiction of the emotional and practical hurdles a teenager must go through to get an abortion without parental approval. Fleeing the state-mandated religious dogma of her home in Pennsylvania, Autumn (the compelling Sidney Flanagan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) take the coach to New York with, inevitably, way too little money and having never been to the big city. The film's at its most powerful in the Pennsylvania clinic, with its gruesome anti-abortion propaganda, and in the titular scene in its woman-centred equivalent in Manhattan, in which the clinician runs through the emotional wellbeing checklist that almost breaks Autumn. A film that will have you valuing public health and empathising with American women, so many of whom have to submit themselves to this institutionalised persecution to get an essential medical procedure. The age of the actors is another string to the film's bow - unlike late-period Happy Days, these actors actually look the age of their characters, which is frighteningly young to be dealing with these life-and-death decisions.

7. The Kingmaker (dir. Lauren Greenfield, US)

An object lesson in a documentarian's restraint, as Imelda Marcos displays all of the messianic pretensions that were the hallmark of the dictatorial regime she was at the head of along with her husband Ferdinand Marcos, and seeks to perpetuate through their children. Said Marcos offspring still hold sway and contest for political power despite the family's legacy of vast corruption and thousands of extrajudicial killings during the eight years of ' martial law decree. And what with the increasingly autocratic regime in Manila, Lauren Greenfield's (The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth) documentary might well be the defining record of the end of three decades of Philippine democracy and the return to ruthless, kleptocratic autocracy.

8. A Hidden Life (dir. Terrence Malick, US / Germany)

A lyrical, powerful emotional achievement graced with cinematography of stunning beauty and gifted, naturalistic acting, A Hidden Life is a compelling story with an uncompromising drive to illustrate moral courage and perseverance in the face of ultimate pressure as Franz (August Diehl) persists in his conscientious objection in the face of the Nazi regime. Its depiction of the Austrian Alps and the simple, rural village life is sumptuously realised, and its cast, both leads and supporting, is expertly chosen and delivers an entirely believable and naturalistic performance, down to the last beautiful Austrian child actor or village extra. Surprisingly, the decision to cast bilingual German-speakers works perfectly, with key exposition delivered in English alongside other scenes of village life delivered in German. As a result, the narrative flows seamlessly. My only concern is that in emphasising the suffering of righteous, brave Franz and his stoic, unstoppable wife Fanny in such elaborate, lengthy detail, Malick runs the risk of losing viewers' attention, having already made his point amply. As much as it pains me to say it, there's probably a perfect two-hour film within this 174-minute epic - and that's from a viewer who relished the extended 150-minute director's cut of The New World. A film such as 13 Minutes / Elser by Oliver Hirschbiegel, for example, may lack Malick's genius cinematic flair, but tells its story more effectively.

9. Echo / Bergmál (dir. Rúnar Rúnarsson, Iceland, trailer)

A deftly composed series of fixed-camera vignettes of life in Iceland, roughly spanning the week between Christmas and New Year, from the birthing unit to preparations for a funeral, with everything in between. Fair portions of humour and pathos are augmented by expertly-crafted and strikingly-lit images of the unsurprisingly stunning Icelandic environment, providing what feels like a sweeping snapshot of an island nation and its people in just an hour and a quarter.

10. Bait (dir. Mark Jenkin, UK, trailer)

An idiosyncratic yet pleasingly even-handed examination of a tiny Cornish fishing village evolving as moneyed Londoners buy into the community that struggles to make a living from traditional means, and in particular the financially strapped Martin (Edward Rowe), a fisherman without a boat. Filmed in the lo-fi style of a 1960s kitchen sink drama in gritty black-and-white with post-sync dialogue, with flashes of humour amidst the strain of radically different worlds colliding.

See also:
Blog: My top 10 films of 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

13 January 2021

Matthew Modine's theory of stardom

Walk uptown to Central Park [with Matthew Modine]. Expounds his theory on what makes a movie actor into a STAR. He argues that if your character can kill people and still keep the audience on your side, then you've made the transition - murder as a career move. 'Take Bruce Willis - unless he's shooting people nobody wants to know. Same goes for Arnie and Sly, Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise'. To my 'Yes, but -' he retorts, 'It's been the formula since the first film about the Great Train Robbery. Gary Cooper finally cracked the Oscar when he killed people in High Noon. Gable, Grant, Bogart, Connery, Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Newman, Redford, and now it's Anthony Hopkins for eating people in Silence of the Lambs, Jeremy Irons for injecting insulin into Glenn Close.' 

I think he is talking a load of nonsense at first and laugh at him, saying, 'This is exactly the sort of insane theorizing that actors get into when not working', but Matthew is serious about this idea and there's no talking him out of it. He is convinced that if you can be sexually attractive, heroic and kill people, you move over into a kind of real secure stardom. 'Look at the career of Al Pacino. When he's doing a nice guy nobody wants to know. He may be a great actor doing that, but when he was in The Godfather trilogy he was untouchable. Mesmerizing. Because you saw him kill.

'So how many people have you popped off, Matthew?' 

'Clearly not enough! How about you?' 

'I haven't killed anybody, except Julian Sands - and that doesn't really count'.

- Richard E Grant, recounting a conversation with Matthew Modine in With Nails: The film diaries of Richard E Grant, 1996, p.271

See also:

Movies: Parker Posey on working with Christopher Guest, 31 August 2020
MoviesBrian Blessed on Katharine Hepburn, 2 October 2017
MoviesTowering Inferno, 14 November 2015

06 January 2021

So what do you think of my school, guys?

Tonight's viewing, Rock 'n Roll High School, the bargain-basement Ramones pop pic from 1979, featuring their traditional lyrical complexity. Executive Producer Roger Corman originally wanted Cheap Trick (who might've worked) or Todd Rundgren (who I love but would have been completely wrong for the role) but they were both unavailable. In the end Paul Bartel, one of the film's actors, suggested the Ramones and the rest is history. You can see Bartel in this clip as the formerly-square, bald music teacher rocking out in his white Ramones t-shirt. I love how scuzzy the band are, which is absolutely impossible to disguise, particularly when they're juxtaposed with the shiny shiny actors playing the highschoolers. The movie's cinematographer Dean Cundey went on to film Escape from New York, Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), and a couple of little films called Jurassic Park and Apollo 13. 

28 December 2020

Pioneer 51

Prospecting for yttrium in the Ploi Thua sector

For several years I couldn't play Elite Dangerous at all, what with my ISP being incompatible with the Frontier server requirements. A few months ago my street finally got fibre installed and I switched to a different provider, and could therefore play the game I've spent over a thousand hours in once more. As always, it's been a process of relearning the game mechanics, with an added dose of the traditional Elite Dangerous chore of resetting all the keybinds the game seems to wipe every so often, thereby bringing you back to square one. At first I reacquainted myself with the combat gameplay, and then taught myself the asteroid mining mechanics that were introduced a few years back. 

Then it was time to delve into another new gameplay area - the revamped exploration system. The old system involved a discovery scanner 'honk' on first emerging from witchspace into a new system to reveal the bodies orbiting the star, followed by approaching planetary bodies of interest close enough for a detailed scan. The updated exploration system is now more complex, but it's an interesting complexity. A commander entering a new system still triggers a powerful scanner burst on jumping adjacent to the main system star, which reveals all the system's stars plus the number of planetary bodies in the orbital plane. Then after travelling a short distance from the main star to gain a clearer sightline, the Full Spectrum System Scanner reveals the trace signals of all the different planetary bodies, and the commander can tune the scanner to identify each body, locking on to the correct frequency for each body and zooming in and out to complete the scan. It's a fiddly process but ultimately quite satisfying, and the FSS' ability to identify particular planetary types allows a commander in a hurry to just latch onto particular bodies, such as water worlds and Earth-likes, while ignoring the less lucrative icy bodies. 

Once I'd got the hang of this new skill I decided to head out of the civilised bubble for my first exploratory expedition in years. I rigged my Anaconda-class, Cahokia, with a compact power plant and distributor, lightweight engines and an enormous 28MCr fuel scoop, a minimal shield to protect from bumpy landings, and an SRV bay to explore planetary surfaces. All the Cahokia's weaponry was sent to storage to reduce weight, and ultimately this bare-bones approach boosted the ship's maximum jump range to a smidgen over 54 light-years, without the benefit of fancy Guardian jump booster technology.

Commander Totinges departed from Arrhenius Terminal in the Bard system, 150 lightyears from Sol and home of the Cosmic Caretakers Corporation, and headed rimwards through the Oochost and Hegeia sectors. The first major find of the journey was in the Hegeia sector, where the Cahokia came across a remarkable system (Hegeia ZS-U D2-48) with two water-worlds and a beautiful earth-like world. Further afield, Commander Totinges found a system with twin water-worlds (Gludgoi IH-D D12-50), and another with an earth-like and a water-world (Hypou Ain LY-2 D13-32). The furthest extent of the journey was at Hypou Ain JG-V C16-9, 5536 light-years rimward of Bard, and the point at which the Cahokia turned back towards civilised space so as to reach a settled system in time for Christmas! After 106 jumps the final destination on the trip was Hiyya Orbital in the Arjung system, which has long been a popular destination for Commander Totinges on his travels about the galaxy. 

The successful exploration mission took Totinges' exploration rank to Pioneer 51 (up 20 rank points), netted 40MCr for the bank balance, and set a new record for highest total system scan payout, at 7.8MCr. Next step will be to hop into Totinges' Krait Mk.2 and read up on how to unlock the Guardian frame shift drive booster to make the next exploration expedition even speedier.

See also:

Blog: Rares trader, 13 April 2020
Blog: 1000 hours of Elite Dangerous, 25 June 2017
Blog: Intrigue in Bastanien, 5 February 2017
Blog: Ranger 27, 13 April 2016