15 January 2020

The New Zealand Company's fierce dedication to profitability

The New Zealand Company has been showered with a great deal of blame for leaving a tangle of shoddy land deals with Maori in the 1840s, but how invasive was the company in 1839? Extremely, if the frenetic pace of its activities in England were anything to go by. The threat to Maori land had never been so far-reaching and premeditated. Instead of allowing themselves to be distracted by government interference, the company's directors - enticed by the vast profits that seemed to be tantalisingly close - expended their vigour on constructing an organisation that would harvest this wealth with the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. It was this determination to succeed, by a group of directors who saw their work as part business, part civic responsibility, which propelled the enterprise forward at breakneck speed.

A head office in London was fully staffed, subcommittees dealing with finance, shipping and emigration, land, and correspondence were set up and diligently attended, and agents were hired to both sell land shares and to entice eligible settlers to move to New Zealand. Within just a few months there were New Zealand Company agents operating in almost every major city in Britain, and even in Ireland. Public meetings, dinners, fetes and balls were organised by the company to drum up interest and subscriptions to its share issues, and to place a romantic glimmer on New Zealand and the possibilities that existed there.

For the most part, the company's staff were passionately dedicated to their work because they believed in the Utopian ideal that their organisation promised, but there is no denying that in some sectors higher up the company's echelons money was becoming the sole motive. Ironically, such was the ensuing success of this fierce dedication to profitability shown by some company leaders that the business could not prosper without destroying the philosophical goals on which Wakefield had built the organisation. As the potential for great riches captivated all involved, it was easy, or at least easier, to let the thought of systematic colonisation, reserves set aside for Maori, a reconstituted class system, and all the rest of Wakefield's theoretical baggage slip away.

- Paul Moon, Fatal Frontiers: A New History of New Zealand in the Decade Before the Treaty, Auckland, 2006, p.189

See also:
Blog: The last sight of old Plymouth, 6 April 2009
Blog: Wellington's first settler ship, 22 January 2014
History: An enemy whose hostility was to be unabated, 1 March 2017

11 January 2020

My top 10 films of 2019

Another bumper crop of films watched in 2019. With a rough and occasionally flexible regime of watching four films from Friday to Monday each week, I clocked up a record 208 films in the year, with the usual great assistance of the Wellington Film Society, the NZ International Film Festival, Wellington City Libraries, Aro Video, film streaming apps Kanopy and Beamafilm, and the odd title on Netflix. Here's my favourite 10 titles that I watched last year, with the usual proviso that it's when I saw it that counts, not when it was released - which basically means there may be 2018 releases included - and that film presentations of live stage productions such as those offered by NT Live are generally excellent but it feels like cheating to include them, so they're off-bounds.

From top to bottom:

1. Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Miller, US, trailer)

A grand technical achievement to capture a spectacular scientific achievement, this film illustrates the still vivid power of genuine photography over the art of CGI. It's a testament to the art of documentary-making that even though the end result of the lunar endeavour is obvious to every viewer, there is a palpable sense of excitement running throughout. So many scenes are shockingly beautiful in their realism, and the hitherto unseen IMAX-quality video footage of the Command Module capsule there and back show just how accurate Ron Howard's Apollo 13 actually was. A brilliant electronic score using only period instruments accentuates the high drama, and expert documentary photography, particularly at Cape Kennedy for the launch sequence, make this a thrilling visual experience. (Also highly recommended: Dr Kevin Fong's 12-part BBC World Service documentary made for the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, 13 Minutes To The Moon).

2. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

An audacious amalgam of classic screwball comedy and trenchant social satire with a brutal sting in its tail, Parasite sails on for most of its runtime as if it might turn out to be a legitimate contender for a place in the pantheon of classic Coen Brothers or David Mamet comedies. Its observations of the intersection between a hard-scrabble family of would-be con-artists and the vacuous, plush world of a wealthy family flirt with the broad appeal of classic situation comedies, and echo the spirit of last year's epic Burning by countryman Chang-dong Lee, or Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters. But director Bong Joon-ho has even more ambitious plans for his characters, and after a masterful comic crescendo and an apocalyptic vision he takes them in surprising, challenging directions for his memorable finale. A must-see, and not only for the Palme d'Or kudos.

3. Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taika Waititi, US)
Displaying Taika Waititi's previously-established gift for extracting great performances from child actors, a commendably Wes Anderson-inflected taste for judiciously-chosen art-pop, and the flair to turn his conventionally unconventional silly directorial eye on the most serious of subjects, Jojo Rabbit is every bit as entertaining as you might imagine, underpinned by looming tragedy around every corner in the dying days of the Third Reich. It's a positive sign that you emerge from the cinema wanting to see more of these engaging, deftly-portrayed characters, extracting humour and pathos from the grimmest situations as the world falls down around them. Above all, young Roman Griffin Davis is a born natural in the title role, ably supported by Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson.

4. Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach, US)

Of course the title is misleading; this is wholeheartedly a divorce story. But whatever tale is being told, it's expertly crafted and delicately balanced to give what feels like a realistic and even-handed depiction of two imperfect people whose marriage erodes. Summertime's often a good excuse for entertaining viewing, but I'd argue seeing two actors at the top of their game in a film about and for actual adults is the very definition of entertainment, even if the subject matter is poignant as two parents who love their child spiral from an amicable separation into something far more damaging. As much a critique of the brutal Californian legal system as an indictment on what she did or what he did, Marriage Story makes a good case for dual acting nominations for its leads Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, but I wouldn't be the least surprised if Laura Dern outdid them by receiving her third Oscar nomination for the supporting role as the wickedly talented divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw. When she winds up to pitch her big soliloquy on the sexism of the justice system you can see the Academy's eyes light up.

5. Peterloo (dir. Mike Leigh, UK)

If you're watching a film about the 1819 massacre at St Peter's Field, Manchester, by army troops of peaceful protesters calling for basic democratic rights for workers, you probably already know that this film isn't going to end well. One character in particular ambles through the film almost as if he has a gigantic target on his back. But the process of getting to the grim conclusion is expertly realised, with Leigh following the grass-roots campaigning in tavern back rooms, industrial break-rooms and disused country factories, as ordinary English workers join the campaign to demand rights equal to those of their privileged masters - well, for male voters anyway. It's a special thrill to see Pearce Quigley in a supporting dramatic role, having stood a mere metre away from him as a Globe groundling as he gave a hilarious performance as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor back in June. Rory Kinnear gives his traditional highly watchable performance as the mercurial, vain master orator Henry Hunt, who was the star attraction for the tens of thousands gathered at the St Peter's Fields. The massacre scene itself is gripping, and increasingly hard to watch as the chaos spirals out of control and the barbaric army forces, particularly those from the drunk yeomanry, wreak havoc upon the unarmed crowd. A finely honed study of the banality of institutionalised prejudice.

6. Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson, US)

Displaying the traditional audacious plot twists and narrative gimmicks of high-performance whodunnits from ages past, a solid and engaging ensemble cast (Daniel Craig's left-field casting as a Southern detective notwithstanding - although he's played a similar role in a previous film) and enough humour to keep casual observers engaged, this is a quality writer-director success from Rian Johnson that will see you emerging from the cinema satisfied and saluting the chutzpah of it all.

7. Monrovia, Indiana (dir. Frederick Wiseman, US)
A brilliant slice-of-life documentary without the usual trappings of the fly-on-the-wall director eager to discover local 'characters'. There are no interviews or to-camera monologues here, just polite eavesdropping on school lessons, church services, town council meetings and general shooting the breeze in this Indiana farming community. Simple, unfussy camera work and an open palate without overt editorialising (other than the judicious exclusion of any references whatsoever to national politics) allows the film to expand into a comprehensive and sympathetic picture of 21st century American rural life.

8. Spirits in the Forest (dir. Anton Corbijn, UK)
Aside from being a genuinely effective Depeche Mode concert film, this is a splendidly warm and engaging portrait of six devoted fans whose lives have been enhanced by their years-long devotion to the band. In lesser hands this material could be intensely mawkish, but Anton Corbijn delivers interviews with authentically lovely characters from around the world (the farthest-flung being from Mongolia), and we get to see both the origins of their musical dedication and their thrill at seeing the Berlin gig filmed for the documentary. A real big-hearted treat.

9. La Belle Époque (dir. Nicolas Bedos, France)
Care to recapture your lost youth and rekindle the spark of a decaying marriage? La Belle Époque is a confident French comedy with broad, inter-generational appeal, featuring a delightful cast and enough genuine humour to keep audiences engaged throughout. With its blend of bittersweet nostalgic reminiscence and youthful infatuation, and a convincing dual relationship between the aged Daniel Auteuil pretending to be a young, 1974 version of himself and the radiant Doria Tillier portraying both the youthful incarnation of Fanny Ardant's character and the unlucky-in-love actress who plays the role, the film charts a delicate and rewarding course between sheer daft fantasy and droll farce. It's interesting to note that this fond remembrance of mid-'70s France is soundtracked almost exclusively by music from English-speaking countries - apart from the suitably saucy Yes Sir, I Can Boogie by Baccara. (Which is from 1977, but hey, who's counting?). Notably, Wellington film festival audiences saw it in New Zealand long before French audiences - it wasn't released there until November.

10. Wild Rose (dir. Tom Harper, UK)
Wild Rose is another recommendation of critic Mark Kermode, and by crikey he's right about Irish star Jessie Buckley. Not only does she perform all the vocals for her character, a Scottish solo mum whose dreams of country stardom in Nashville are complicated by her home detention bracelet, but her voice is legitimately stunning. There's a scene in Wild Rose where they send off a solo, unaccompanied vocal audition to BBC Radio legend Whispering Bob Harris for advice, and normally the viewer will take such scenes with a pinch of salt, but definitely not in Buckley's case: the vocal performance is spine-tinglingly immaculate. (Here's an example from one of her many TV live performances to promote the film). And Buckley hadn't even known a thing about country before taking the role! The rest of the film aside from the singing is solid, particularly Julie Walters as Rose's frustrated mum. Wild Rose exhibits much kinship with Stephen Merchant's recent lady wrasslin' pic Fighting With My Family, in that a hard-scrabble working-class British trier idolises the American fame dream. It's definitely worth seeing just for Buckley's super performance alone.

See also:
Blog: My top 10 films of 20182017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

01 January 2020

27 December 2019

Mansfield on Joyce

In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement (23-30 August 2019 edition), John Barnie of Aberystwyth draws attention to the draft letter Katherine Mansfield wrote and included in her 1922 journal, on James Joyce's Ulysses, which had been published in February of that year.

I must reply about Ulysses. I have been wondering what people are saying in England. It took me about a fortnight to wade through, but on the whole I'm dead against it. I suppose it was worth doing if everything is worth doing ... but that is certainly not what I want from literature. Of course, there are amazingly fine things in it, but I prefer to go without them than to pay that price. Not because I am shocked (though I am fearfully shocked, but that's "personal"; I suppose it's unfair to judge the book by that) but because I simply don't believe ... [and there the draft breaks off].

16 December 2019

How the information revolution bypassed democracy

Across the world [in the 19th century], wherever industrial technology advanced there were strikes, riots and reform because the technology of the industrial revolution connected people, empowered them and, through all this upheaval, catalysed the process of democratic politics itself.

But in the revolution of the new information age over the past 25 years, democracy has been noticeable only by its absence as elected leaders have largely disengaged from issues that will determine the future of their countries and their citizens: the use of new technology; the regulation of the internet; the ownership of information.

Gargantuan corporations, larger than any the world has ever seen - Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Apple - shake the ground on which nation states were built, cutting across borders and challenging governments' capacity to raise tax. They are accused of re-wiring our brains, corrupting our children, providing a safe haven for paedophiles and extremists, spawning terrorism, trashing our privacy and, of course, harvesting for free the most valuable asset of all - our data - usually without our knowledge.

Governments have allowed private firms to extract information - the oil of the digital economy - worth hundreds of billions of pounds. This time, it has not been pumped out of the ground but out of citizens. Worse still, this vast transfer of wealth and power has happened without touching the sides of democratic debate, until it is perhaps too late to stop it.

'The new grooves of how people live, how we do business, how we do everything,' as the tech writer Jaron Lanier put it, have been carved into the future by private corporations in the pursuit of vast profit without, for the most part, proper political debate or legislation.

- Tom Baldwin, Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy, London, 2018, p.234-5.