10 September 2019

Belitsa Bear Sanctuary

On my recent Intrepid tour through Bulgaria one highlight was several hours spent at the Belitsa Bear Sanctuary on the edge of the Rila National Park, some two-and-a-half hours south of the capital Sofia. The charitable trust that established the sanctuary received support from veteran animal rights campaigner Brigitte Bardot, and has been housing rescued bears from across Eastern Europe as more countries ban the cruel practice of 'dancing' bears. Visitors are left with no illusions of how painful and inhumane the centuries-old training process is, thanks to an introductory video that is particularly hard to watch. But once you venture out onto the well-fenced mountainside bear habitat it's a relief to see these formerly imprisoned animals now have a safe and stimulating natural environment in which to live out their retirement.

The bears are sociable but not all bears get along, so there are several separate large enclosures in which groups can cohabit. There's an hourly tour with well-informed Bulgarian guides but you can also wander the trails yourself, which is what I did for most of the visit. This resulted in several wonderfully peaceful close encounters with the bears as little as five metres away through the thankfully sturdy fences. Irrespective of the heft of the barriers, the bears were not in the least bit interested in me as I took their picture. The video below shows one enclosure pair, with the second bear having been rescued after a fight with an aggressive male that resulted in the medical amputation of her forepaw. Despite this, she is able to get around the mountainside quite well, if not speedily, hunting down the food the keepers secrete around the enclosures to keep the occupants active and engaged.

08 September 2019

27 August 2019

The beneficent miracle of the postal service

Celebrated [19th century] writers gave a considerable amount of space in their letters on the subject of letters themselves - not least the early nineteenth-century debate over whether it was disrespectful to the Church to write on a Sunday (consensus: personal letters acceptable, business ones less so). And they were particularly interested in the vagaries of the postal service, and what likelihood their letters had of reaching their destination. In 1835 Thomas Carlyle sent a transatlantic letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he marvelled at the divine madness of the system. A letter from Emerson had taken two months to reach him, but still Carlyle felt grateful: 'As the Atlantic is so broad and deep, ought we not rather to esteem it a beneficent miracle that messages can arrive at all; that a little slip of paper will skim over all these weltering floods, and other inextricable confusions; and come at last, in the hand of the Twopenny Postman, safe to your lurking-place, like green leaf in the bill of Noah's Dove'.

In another letter to Emerson four months later, Carlyle bemoans the state of England; there is poverty everywhere, there is the threat of cholera, and worst of all, it seems, is all this newfangled technological progress, a comment we may hear echoes of today. 'What with railways, steamships, printing-presses, it has surely become a most monstrous "tissue" this life of ours'. Fortunately for him, it was still possible to defeat the technology of the postal service. Writing to his mother in 1836, he is delighted that the parliamentary summer recess is over, because, now that 'certain "honourable members" having got back to town again', he may once more obtain free postage by abusing their free franking privileges.

- Simon Garfield, To the Letter, Edinburgh, 2013, p222-3. 

See also:
HistoryEarly overland mails between Auckland & Wellington, 23 March 2019
BooksEmily Dickinson's postal book group, 2 September 2014
History: Posting the empire as the royal word, 9 January 2013

18 August 2019

Film festival roundup 2019

After a wintry final night of the Wellington film festival, the capital can now start the long process of preparing for NZIFF2020. Despite the depredations of the usual cavalcade of sweet-unwrappers, late arrivals and mid-film chatterers, it was a great fortnight of film-watching. Here's my brief rundown on the 20 films I experienced, in a rough order of personal preference.

Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller, USA, 2019, 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. 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.

Daguerréotypes (dir. Agnès Varda, France, 1976, trailer)
Perhaps when it was released Varda's homage to the shopkeepers of her beloved Rue Daguerre seemed rather esoteric, but its charm is immediately obvious, and its importance as an irreplaceable record of a now-vanished way of life makes it hugely valuable. The trust these varied shopkeepers seem to have for the small, peculiar filmmaker who squats in the corners of their shops, filming away and presumably inviting her subjects to pretend she's not really there, is a tremendous asset, because the small life stories she elicits from her subjects are a rich tapestry of Parisian life. Many seem to be migrants from rural France over a great span of decades, and all have a tale to tell, of personal heritage, professional ambition or romantic endeavour. By design the film recreates the retail documentary form of Eugene Atget's vital shop-front photography, but Varda also imbues the film with plenty of warm-hearted humour and sympathy for her cast of oddballs. A standout scene is the long sequence featuring a magician entertaining the locals, which seems unpromising but builds into a wonderful tribute to the art of prestidigitation and old-fashioned hocus-pocus.

Peterloo (dir. Mike Leigh, UK, 2018, trailer)
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.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (dir. Robert Hamer, UK, 1949)
Imagine the brutal indignity of a man of taste and breeding being compelled to live in Clapham! While the protagonist who cuts a swathe through the English aristocracy is ostensibly the focus of this blackest of black comedies, in practice it's the ludicrously entertaining star turn by the then-35-year-old Alec Guinness as eight different members of the ducal family being heartlessly offed that is the central attraction here. A great British comedy for the ages, now beautifully remastered for its 70th anniversary.

La Belle Époque (dir. Nicolas Bedos, France, 2019)
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 youtful 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 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, we're seeing it in New Zealand even before French audiences - it's not out there until November.

Capital in the 21st Century (dir. Justin Pemberton, NZ, 2019, trailer)
A sweeping history lesson providing insights into the profound impact the regressive power of institutionalised capital on democracy and society. Having regrettably not yet read Thomas Piketty's enormous 2013 book, it did come as a small surprise that so much of this film was historical context, but this is a valuable contribution to international economic debate in an environment in which certain orthodoxies are seldom questioned. Convincing storytelling with a blend of deftly-selected talking heads (from a more diverse background than usual), archival film and period music, reminding viewers that the taxes that are so often avoided by the wealthy are the membership fee for what most of us regard as a civilised society. Great use of Lorde's Royals, too.

2040 (dir. Damon Gameau, Australia, 2019, trailer)
I initially approached 2040 as a bit of frothy infotainment, a useful antidote to the understandably dire environmental prognostication of many other films that seek to wake up audiences to unsustainable politics and practices. And its use of the cute devices of having an actress playing a grown-up version of the director's 4-year-old in the 'future' sequences, and interspersing the globetrotting (but carbon-offset) ideas clips with voxpops of primary school kids from around the world giving their ideas for the future, initially suggested this would be entertaining, but perhaps a bit lightweight, like a feature-length episode of Beyond 2000. Luckily, director Damon Gameau (That Sugar Film) was on hand for a Q&A afterwards and was able to dispel some of my concerns about the scientific rigour. In many of his answers to detailed audience questions he referred to informative extra material shot for the long cut of the film, or ideas that will feature in the upcoming TV spinoff episodes, or in the supporting material for schools and other users on the What's Your 2040 website. There's a lot going on in this multi-platform movement, and I look forward to hearing about the impact it has when a 2-minute extract is screened to the world's leaders at the UN General Assembly in November.

Amazing Grace (dirs. Alan Elliott & Sydney Pollack, USA, 2018, trailer)
As a filmed record of a singing performance this is far from ideal. The camerawork is frequently sloppy, out of focus and intrusive; there are umpteen cameramen but shots are frequently obstructed; Sydney Pollack's largely white crew seems intent on filming the interloping Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts rather than the exuberant audience; and so much of the performance is impinged upon by the mechanics of actually shooting the film. The church setting seems singularly ill-suited to such an intimate performance. And ultimately Pollack's catastrophic error of failing to use clapperboards on his 20-hour shoot meant it was impossible to sync the film with the audio recording, so the footage was never released at the time.

But of course the limitations of the setting are what makes this an utterly legendary concert performance. Without the emotional resonance of the gospel audience, Aretha's performance would merely be her usual excellence. But with that audience urging her on, with the Southern California Community Choir powering behind her, with James Cleveland MC-ing, hammering away at the keys and even seemingly rescuing Aretha from a wardrobe malfunction, the performance is elevated to the spectacular. And spectacular is seemingly insufficient to describe the range, power and emotion of Aretha's art here; at times it's a thrill just to watch the choir reacting to her seemingly impossible vocal feats.

Beats (dir. Brian Welsh, France/UK, 2019, trailer)
A cheerfully energetic evocation of the mid-'90s Scottish rave scene featuring two charismatic and convincing young actors, Beats pokes fun at the knee-jerk legislation that foolishly attempted to ban rave gatherings amidst a climate of misguided moral panic. The inevitable climactic rave scene is as joyous a celebration of the positive influence of the shared experience music as you're ever likely to see, and a fondness for the musical genre is by no means a prerequisite to garner the full emotional impact of this coming of age tale shot through with the rude energy of Glasgow youth. 

Andrei Rublev (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1966)
A quite spectacular technical achievement, flecked with touches of cinematic brilliance; a film about a painter that never shows the process of painting; another reminder that Russian history is a thousand-year tale of woe and degradation with the added bonus of a somewhat masochistic tendency amongst the locals. While this is by and large a defiantly bleak tale of a spiritual wilderness and the travails of the people who inhabit it, every bit of Andrei Rublev is memorable - even if, like me, you struggle at times to follow the moral lessons being imparted.

The Day Shall Come (dir. Chris Morris, UK/USA, 2019)
This traditional Chris Morris fare, with a screenplay by Morris and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Fresh Meat, Four Lions, In The Loop) sees Anna Kendrick working as an FBI operative monitoring a black activist who the agency is trying to entrap to meet its quota for terrorism charges, but who she is increasingly and justifiably convinced is a harmless nutjob. While The Day Shall Come doesn't reach the heights of In The Loop or Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin, its darkly satirical depiction of the amoral pursuit of fall guys irrespective of the tenets of justice is a wry, if bleak, hallmark of US politics in 2019. (I'd link the trailer but it reveals all the best jokes. Damn you, trailer editors everywhere!)

Bellbird (dir. Hamish Bennett, NZ, 2019, trailer)
A polished local production with the added USP of a director writing and directing a film set in his own hometown of Maungakaramea in Northland. A convincing script, talented cast and suitably low-key New Zealand humour underpin this increasingly rare beast, an actual New Zealand feature film drama. Particularly strong depicting the challenges of male communication in an intensely taciturn rural culture.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (dir. Midge Costin, USA, 2019)
A well-constructed and thorough survey of the history of sound in film and how the various aspects of the sonic palette are combined in the service of story-telling. An ideal companion to documentaries such as Christopher Kenneally's 2012 film-versus-digital debate Side By Side for those of a film nerd bend. Also, as an unexpected bonus, Making Waves' director and USC film academic Midge Costin attended the Wellington screening for an impromptu Q&A, having made her own way to New Zealand. Now that's commitment.

This Changes Everything (dir. Tom Donahue, USA, 2018, trailer)
It would be hard to edit the multitude of (justifiably mostly female) talking heads collected for This Changes Everything in a way that respects the contribution so many women have made to the often fruitless and thwarted drive to hold Hollywood to account for its decades-long ingrained sexism and flagrant breaches of human rights laws. There’s so much material and such a consistent message from the articulate, frustrated and legitimately angry women who have been shut out of the careers they deserve. Rather than the recap of the impact of the Me Too movement on the cinema industry that I was erroneously expecting, this is more a history lesson on Hollywood’s conscious eviction of women from leadership roles after the 1920s and its stubborn and disingenuous campaign to avoid its legal responsibilities to operate without discrimination. Geena Davis’ 15-year celebrated campaign through her Institute on Gender in Media understandably features prominently, but the film also sheds light on a range of other noble attempts to hold the studios to account over the decades, which have all been torpedoed by dark forces. The film also raises the serious chicken-or-egg question: is American entertainment sexist because America itself is sexist, or is America sexist because its entertainment is sexist? Certainly the deeply creepy way women and girls are portrayed in many forms of American media should be a concern for us all.

Koyaanisqatsi (dir. Godfrey Reggio, USA, 1982)
Imagine a world in which Americans actually build TVs and make blue jeans! But seriously, the urban day and night time lapse photography in the second half were particularly influential on '80s filmmakers and music video producers in particular, amplified by the arresting synth sculptures of soundtrack maestro Phillip Glass.

We Are Little Zombies (dir. Nagahisa Makoto, Japan, 2019)
A pleasingly unpredictable indie effort with little time for adult sensibilities and a nice line in disparaging dismissals from its pint-sized protagonists. Loser parents all dead in a variety of grisly fashions and you can't see the point of feeling sorry for yourself? Form a nihilistic punk-pop group and storm the charts. Or not, whatever: 'That's so emo'.

A White, White Day (dir. Hlynur Pálmason, Iceland, 2019)
Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur
Wildly implausible but commendably acted, A White, White Day's protagonist Ingimundur is more believable as an embodiment of an Icelandic revenge saga than of a 21st century grandad, but if you suspend belief sufficiently, there's plenty to savour, particularly the relationship with his 8-year-old granddaughter Salka, which has genuine warmth and colour. As usual, the Icelandic wilds provide a sumptuous, brutal backdrop.

Loro (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2018, trailer)
Worth the price of admission for two key scenes: one, in which Toni Servillo as a barely-fictionalised version of Silvio Berlusconi cold-calls a stranger late at night to sell her a fictional apartment to rediscover his huckster salesman's mojo, and a second in which he and Elena Sofia Ricci as wife Veronica engage in a legendary verbal fencing match as their marriage falls apart amidst the vulgar splendour of limitless wealth. If only the rest of the film, which is over-burdened with lavish ogling of a legion of bunga-bunga women, was this snappy and vital.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (dir. RaMell Moss, USA, 2018, trailer)
A commendable if unspectacular glimpse into the black communities of Alabama that cinema generally shuns, Hale County is a valuable social document, but lacks a compelling narrative to attract a broader audience. Makes a compelling point about the whiteness of the photographic medium, which this film helps to remedy.

High Life (dir. Claire Denis, UK, 2018)
You have to give her credit: the baby's method acting was unimpeachable. As for the rest, Claire Denis' first sci-fi attempt bears the hallmark of half-baked ideas and highly variable acting. Robert Pattinson and the afore-mentioned baby are highly watchable, however.

See also:
Blog: Film festival roundup 2018, 2017, 2016 part 1 / part 2, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009 

17 August 2019

The birth of Athena

Hephaestus, who would have approved of [the] rudimentary but effective metalworking, returned to the crowded beach carrying a huge axe, double-bladed in the Minoan style.

Prometheus now persuaded Zeus that the only way to alleviate his agony was to take his hands away from his temples, kneel down and have faith. Zeus muttered something about the trouble with being the King of the Gods was that there was no-one higher to pray to, but he dropped obediently to his knees and awaited his fate. Hephaestus spat cheerfully and confidently on his hands, gripped the thick wooden haft and - as the hushed crowd looked on - brought it down in one swift swinging movement clean through the very centre of Zeus' skull, splitting it neatly in two.

There was a terrible silence as everyone stared in stunned horror. The stunned horror turned to wild disbelief and the wild disbelief to bewildered amazement as they now witnessed, rising up from inside Zeus' opened head, the tip of a spear. It was followed by the topmost plumes of a russet crest. The onlookers held their breaths as slowly there arose into view a female figure dressed in full armour. Zeus lowered his head - whether in pain, relief, submission or sheer awe nobody could be certain - and, as if his bowed head had been a ramp or gangway let down for her convenience - the glorious being stepped calmly onto the sand and turned to face him [...]


'Father!' she said, smiling gently in return.

- Stephen Fry, Mythos, London, 2017, p84-5.


12 August 2019

Johnston Hill

East- to southeast view from Karori the morning after a lightning storm, elev 350m, tripod-mounted panorama stitched in Photoshop Elements 14 from four RAW originals, f/6.3 1/250s ISO200.

02 August 2019

My road has been a little rocky on my way home

As a filmed record of a singing performance, Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace is far from ideal. The camerawork is frequently sloppy, out of focus and intrusive; there are umpteen cameramen but shots are frequently obstructed; Sydney Pollack's largely white crew seems intent on filming the interloping Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts rather than the exuberant audience; and so much of the performance is impinged upon by the mechanics of actually shooting the film. The church setting seems singularly ill-suited to such an intimate performance. And ultimately Pollack's catastrophic error of failing to use clapperboards on his 20-hour shoot meant it was impossible to sync the film with the audio recording, so the footage was never released at the time.

But of course the limitations of the setting are what makes this an utterly legendary concert performance, and one of the greatest achievements of Aretha's career. Without the emotional resonance of the gospel audience, Aretha's performance would merely be her usual peerless excellence. But with that audience urging her on, with the Southern California Community Choir powering behind her, with James Cleveland MCing, hammering away at the keys and even seemingly rescuing Aretha from a wardrobe malfunction, the performance is elevated to the spectacular. And spectacular is seemingly insufficient to describe the range, power and emotion of Aretha's art here; at times it's a thrill just to watch the choir reacting to her seemingly impossible vocal feats.

20 July 2019

Advice for omnibus passengers, 1836

Omnibus Law

1. Keep your feet off the seats.
2. Do not get into a snug corner yourself and then open the windows to admit a north-wester upon the neck of your neighbour.
3. Have your money ready when you desire to alight.
4. Sit with your limbs straight, and do not let your legs describe an angle of forty-five, thereby occupying the room of two persons.
5. Do not spit on the straw, you are not in a pig-sty but in an omnibus.
6. Behave respectfully to females, and put not an unprotected lass to the blush, because she cannot escape from your brutality.
7. Reserve bickerings and disputes for the open field, the sound of your own voice may be music to your own ears - not so, perhaps, to those of your companions.
8. Refrain from affectation and conceited airs. Remember you are riding a distance for sixpence, which if you made in a hackney coach, would cost you many shillings.

- The Times (1836), quoted in Ivan Sparkes, Stagecoaches & Carriages, Bourne End, Bucks., 1975, p.145-6.

05 July 2019

Iggy Pop's zombie grunge

The makeup is, they're hovering over you with these latex guns, shooting this weird latex all over your body. They would spray this cold spray to make it set and you'd shiver, and then you'd get hot because your skin can't breathe. They just cover the costume in grunge and filth, and there's filth in your hair, in your ears, giant contact lenses in your eyes. Because you're a flesh-eating zombie, there's guys constantly coming up between takes [to] squirt zombie grunge into your mouth and wipe it on your gums.

The first time that I had to get down on my knees and eat [another character's] guts [laughing], I did not want to do that. I wanted to do it intellectually, but I had a dry heave. After that, I got into it. 

And I did get a free William Murray golf shirt out of the experience. I don't play a lot of golf, but it's an amazing shirt, and I wear it around Miami here; I fit right in. It's polyester.

- Iggy Pop on Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die, in Melena Ryzik, 'An all-star zombie cast comes to life', New York Times, 12 June 2019 

04 July 2019

Film Festival 2019 lineup

Another year, another 20 films to relish in this highly promising 2019 Film Festival programme, which runs in Wellington from 26 July to 11 August. I'm most excited about seeing the peerless 1949 Alec Guinness comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets on the big screen for the first time, and while it ain't an IMAX the Grand is the next best place to see the eye-popping imagery of the 50th anniversary documentary Apollo 11, particularly given the thrill I experienced visiting NASA's Johnson Space Centre in Houston last year.

La Belle Époque (dir. Nicolas Bedos, France, 2019)
The latest in that never-ending quest to recapture the heyday of French film farce; the omens are positive as this time-travelling rom-com caper features both Daniel Auteuil and Fanny Ardant.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (dir. RaMell Moss, USA, 2018)
A fascinating glimpse into modern black communities in their own words, shining a light on an often-neglected facet of rural Alabama life.

Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller, USA, 2019)
Finally making great use of contemporary 65mm footage that has sat in film canisters for nearly a half-century, this promises to be a beautiful anniversary present for those of us still enthralled by the 1969 Moon landing.

Bellbird (dir. Hamish Bennett, NZ, 2019)
A local comedy-drama! This urban snob is looking forward to gaining a greater understanding of bucolic pastimes such as treading barefoot in cowpats on cold winter mornings, and the correct way to wear a Swanndri.

Capital in the 21st Century (dir. Justin Pemberton, NZ, 2019)
Ideal for those of us with good intentions but lacking the follow-through to actually read French economist Thomas Piketty's famous 2013 text.

2040 (dir. Damon Gameau, Australia, 2019)
Charting a course to a positive vision for future societies two decades hence, as an antidote to the grim environmental news we face today. 

Beats (dir. Brian Welsh, France/UK, 2019)
As ably promoted on Mark Kermode's MK3D live show, this affable black-and-white snapshot of Glasgow teen life in the mid-1990s follows two lads enthralled by rave culture, seeking the ultimate night out throwing shapes or whatever it is people who can dance do.

Daguerréotypes (dir. Agnès Varda, France, 1976)
A slice of life from Varda's own neighbourhood, delving into the lives and livelihoods of the many shopkeepers in the Rue Daguerre.

Amazing Grace (dirs. Alan Elliott & Sydney Pollack, USA, 2018)
Another great archive find, made possible by the restoration prowess of modern technology: a 1972 Aretha Franklin live concert film shot in Watts in the same year as the iconic Wattstax festival.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (dir. Robert Hamer, UK, 1949)
A comedic tour-de-force from Alec Guinness playing eight - count 'em - different roles in this murderous black comedy, here restored to pristine condition for its 70th anniversary.

We Are Little Zombies (dir. Nagahisa Makoto, Japan, 2019)
Must-see Japanese orphan teen pop musical extravaganza!

Andrei Rublev (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1966)
Perhaps a daunting prospect due to its unflinching depiction of medieval squalor and cruelty, this legendary, once-banned epic 15th-century epic biopic is still a drawcard.

The Day Shall Come (dir. Chris Morris, UK/USA, 2019)
A match made in heaven - the scabrous vitriol of director Chris Morris and the comedic talents of Anna Kendrick unite to satirise the war on terror.

A White, White Day (dir. Hlynur Pálmason, Iceland, 2019)
Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur
It wouldn't be a film festival without an Icelandic film, and this drama of an ex-policeman finding out too much about his dead wife's hidden life sounds intriguing.

This Changes Everything (dir. Tom Donahue, USA, 2018)
Film documentary capturing the spirit of reform demanding an end to the male-dominated boys-club Hollywood system of old.

High Life (dir. Claire Denis, UK, 2018)
French director Denis' English-language and sci-fi debut, featuring Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson on a convict vessel in the depths of space.

Koyaanisqatsi (dir. Godfrey Reggio, USA, 1982)
Hugely influential feature-length timelapse imagery with a famed Phillip Glass score.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (dir. Midge Costin, USA, 2019)
Another film doco, this time on the the audible craft of cinema, by a veteran film sound editor, illustrates the pivotal importance of how the sound of a movie defines our experience viewing it.

Peterloo (dir. Mike Leigh, UK, 2018)
A valuable historic document of the 1819 massacre in Manchester that claimed the lives of 18 demonstrators calling for democratic representation for workers.

Loro (dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2018)
Braving a second film in one day on the notoriously uncomfortable Soundings seats for Sorrentino's unmissable Berlusconi portrait.

24 May 2019

09 May 2019

2nd Sustainable Health Care in Aotearoa Forum

It was a useful & informative day at the Medical School in Newtown yesterday for the forum, and the organisers managed to cram 18 presentations and a ministerial address from the Associate Minister of Health, Hon Julie Anne Genter, into the day. This was particularly timely, given the introduction of the Zero Carbon Bill earlier in the day. A few notes from key presentations:

Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Director-General of Health: Opening address on the Zero Carbon Bill, upcoming Wellbeing Budget (which we believe will be world-leading), and the Government’s priority for environmental sustainability are now key drivers of health policy. Noted that hospital builds/rebuilds are a major opportunity to hard-wire environmental sustainability and promote wellness for the people who work in and use the facilities. Minister Genter is pressing him for progress and the Ministry of Health aims to deliver.

Mark McKenna, engineering consultant, Norman Disney & Young (Sydney): Designing & building health care facilities that thrive on natural light, with superb insulation, modern ergonomics and plentiful shared space is both environmentally sustainable but also encourages happier workforces who stay longer. Tying a building into its community and broadening the understanding of what a building is for. As always, stakeholder clarity is essential if expensive rework is to be avoided. Greenstar building ratings are a useful guide to the success of a sustainable build.

A/Prof Cassie Thiel, NYU-Wagner (via Zoom): life cycle assessment and principles of industrial ecology to analyse and improve the environmental performance of medical systems, hospital design, health care practice, and medical technologies. 10% of the US’ total emissions are derived from the health sector, and much US practice is excessively wasteful. Example of Aravind Eye Care System in India that adopts production-line and recyclable process that maximises re-use; tiny environmental impact at 1/10th the cost of US procedures. Also example of Fred Hollows Foundations’ new sustainable procurement strategy. (Probably unaware that Hollows was a NZer).

Dr Richard Jaine, Ministry of Health: Ministry’s sustainability team seems to consist of 1.2FTEs (mostly him). Genter asked MOH to survey DHB sustainability practice; 19 DHBs responded and 16 have a sustainability manager. (Based on the discussion in the room, it may be that these are the only sustainability employees in DHBs). DHB procurement practice highly variable, and none are actively considering measures to adapt to climate change. Only half of DHBs are measuring their carbon footprint. Discussed suggestions for a national sustainable health care unit and green health building standards.

Dr David Galler & sustainability officer Debbie Wilson, Counties Manukau Health: Innovative hospital food systems, Wiri Prison farm initiative, Manurewa High School farm.

Margriet Geesink, NDHB: Surveyed Northland’s decarbonisation efforts. Good progress on EVs and energy efficiency, but Whangarei hospital reliance on natural gas generator (cheap to run, bad for the environment) will be expensive to address. This is a problem across many hospitals. Their three other, smaller hospitals are all full-electric and have a much lower emissions profile.

Andrew Eagles, NZ Green Building Council: The NZ Building Code is drastically below international best practice and achieving change is hard in notoriously conservative industry. The health system can promote change by setting a good example. Healthy buildings are more productive and welcoming for patients and staff.

Ben Masters, BECA: Engineer working on Taranaki Base Hospital expansion. Relying on heat pump technology & hoping to take some other, older hospital buildings off the natural gas generator and switch to heat pumps too.

Johan Rockström & Walter Willett, EAT-Lancet Initiative launch (Youtube presentation, 27 min): ‘The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health brought together more than 30 world-leading scientists. Prof Walter Willett (Harvard University) and Prof Johan Rockström (Potsdam Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre) present the report at the EAT-Lancet Launch Lecture in the University of Oslo Aula, January 2019. The Commission delivered the first full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system, and which actions can support and speed up food system transformation’. How to build a Planetary Health Diet (hint: more fish, nuts and legumes).

Anna DeMello & Jono Drew, University of Otago: Medical students delivered detailed findings of the environmental impacts of different eating habits, which have a great potential to shape our carbon footprint. To be published later 2019, and created much excitement in the room.

Patrick Morgan, Cycling Action Network: Designing healthy streets and putting humans back at the centre of transport systems. Advocating cycling is about ‘not selling the ingredients, it’s selling the cake’: how good do people feel when they have safe cycling options? Parking allocations displace healthy transport options; streets are the biggest public space in all cities and we should be open about re-envisioning how they are used.

Hon Julie Anne Genter, Associate Minister of Health: Yes, she did cycle to the Med School. Zero Carbon Bill introduced today; urged participants to have their say. There will be major health co-benefits if we achieve zero carbon; we need to measure progress, incentivise positive and healthy behaviour, and stop waste. The Wellbeing Budget, Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Developing procurement guidelines and had initially wanted national leadership but MOH preferred to let DHBs innovate and see what works. Minister seemed to now be leaning towards pressing MOH to provide more leadership, because sufficient progress hadn’t been made.

Other notes:
  • The planned Q&A sessions were mostly ditched to catch up time when presenters ran over-long, which was fortunate, because the clinicians in the room were poor at asking questions. Instead they preferred long, rambling statements, even when questioning the Minister. NZers in general are poor at Q&As. Facilitators: always remember to pick a female questioner first (most of the air-time went to mouthy males) and specify that all contributions must be brief and all must be actual questions!
  • Used ‘Catch-Box’ soft cube remote mic that can be chucked quickly around the auditorium to pick up audio from the floor. Cool but super expensive.
  • Wholly vegetarian catering was a good idea, although you do emerge ravenous.

07 April 2019

Honour & glory are excellent things, but so are silver & gold

[The Cruisers & Convoys Act 1708, which concerned naval prize money, and which was still in force during the Napoleonic Wars] laid down the proportions into which the value of the prize was to be divided. There were certain Droits of the Crown, but these were kept in reserve; in general, the full value of the prize, ship and cargo, went to the captors, as follows: the captain had three-eighths, of which he gave one to the flag officer under whom he served; the other officers, down to sergeant of Marines, had three-eighths, in three categories which ensured that the more senior had the bigger share; and the remaining two-eighths went to the rest of the crew, again shared according to seniority. Nor was this all: in the case of warships captured or destroyed, Admiralty paid head-money at the rate of £5 per head of the enemy crew at the commencement  of the engagement. This was to encourage doubtful captains to engage warships rather than seek the easier and more lucrative merchant prizes; moreover, a successful engagement with a warship meant probable promotion, which never rewarded captors of merchantmen [...]

[As a result of the October 1796 action in which the frigate HMS Naiad captured the treasure-laden Spanish frigates Santa Brigida and Thetis late of Vera Cruz, the prize money granted was lavish]. Besides a cargo of valuable commodities such as cochineal and indigo, the two ships had between them about a thousand boxes each containing 5000 silver dollars, besides odd bags and kegs and some gold. There can have been few literate persons in the squadron who were not doing pleasing little sums during the short voyage to Plymouth, where they arrived on the 21st November. The treasure was conveyed in sixty-three wagons to the citadel of Plymouth, and thence to London. The prize-money was divided thus:

Each Captain: £40,730
Each Lieutenant: £5091
Warrant-Officers: £2468
Midshipmen, etc.: £791
Each Seaman & Marine: £182

One has to consider that the rate of pay per annum did not exceed £150 for a frigate captain, £75 for a lieutenant, and £12 for an ordinary seaman. A captain would have to serve for 250 years to earn the money he picked up in a couple of easy days; and even the humblest seaman could set himself up in a cosy pub. It was very wise of the Admiralty to allot these astounding prizes; it was like the football pools and the lotteries: I know that the chance is remote, but all the same, people have in fact won such prizes, and why should the next one not be me? Honour and glory are excellent things, but so are silver and gold; and if all are to be had in the same engagement, let us go heartily about it!

- James Henderson, The Frigates, London, 1970, p.119-121

See also:
HistoryIn fear of the Tsar's navy, 5 November 2011
History: Chatham Historic Dockyards, 5 August 2010
History: Nauticalia in Portsmouth, 12 April 2007

23 March 2019

Early overland mails between Auckland & Wellington

During the [eighteen-] forties the Post Office first attempted a mail route overland between Auckland and Wellington. The only feasible route was by the west coast, where foot messengers could avoid the dense bush and tangled undergrowth that covered most of the central parts of the island. The path went from the Waikato Heads to Kawhia Habour, and thence by way of Mokau to New Plymouth. From Wellington the messenger would take mail to Wanganui and on to New Plymouth by way of Hawera (then called Waimate). The Government Gazette makes mention, in September 1843, of the intended monthly service from Auckland to Kawhia Harbour. It was to start on 15 September 1843. Nothing more is heard of it. In 1844 Felton Mathew, then Acting Deputy Postmaster-General, advertised that a fortnightly mail would commence on this route in August of that year. We know a Thomas Scott of Rangitikei (now Bulls) was carrying mail between Wellington and Wanganui for nine months in 1844-45, but it is not clear how much of this overland route was in use at that time. This earliest use of the overland route between Wellington and Auckland did not last long; it had ceased when the British Commissioners visited New Zealand in 1846.

The Wellington-Wanganui section was reopened in 1849. Thomas Scott answered the call for tenders by promising to carry the mail by horsed postmen. They were to go from each end and exchange mail at Ohau "which is as near as possible halfway". A mail was to traverse the whole distance in three and a half days. Thomas Scott's bid was regarded as too high, and the government decided to use police instead.

The whole route between Auckland and Wellington seems to have been put to use by 1856, for Henry King of New Plymouth reported that the mails were arriving and departing "with much regularity". It was a long and difficult journey to go the whole length of the route. If a mail, for example, left Wellington on a Wednesday, it reached Wanganui on Saturday, arriving in New Plymouth the next Friday, reached Mokau the following Monday, and arrived in Auckland, all being well, on Saturday - two and a half weeks after leaving Wellington! One reason for the long schedule was the refusal of the Maoris [sic.], who had become professed Christians, to carry mail on Sunday. It was a day of rest.

- Howard Robinson, A History of the Post Office in New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1964, p.57-8.  

See also:
Blog: NZ postal rates 1936, 1 January 2018
Blog: Writing to the New Plymouth colony, 28 November 2015 
Blog: The arrival of an English mail in 1853, 26 January 2015
Blog: Posting the empire as the royal word, 9 January 2013

11 March 2019

So hold me, Mom, in your electronic arms

Laurie Anderson's 2015 film Heart of a Dog was tonight's Filmsoc selection. Presumably unconnected to the 1925 Mikhail Bulgakov novel of the same name, which I read a few years back. Anyway, it's as good an excuse as any to play this wonderful slice of avant-garde video performance art from 1981. 'O Superman' sounded like the future of music then, and it probably still does today. Despite how esoteric and adventurous this is the single version still reached #2 in the UK pop charts, which is a pleasing reminder that the record-buying public don't always go for the cheap thrills of MOR... just *most* of the time. (Incidentally, 'O Superman' was kept off the UK number 1 spot in October 1981 by either Altered Images' 'Happy Birthday' or Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin's cover of 'It's My Party', neither of which has indisputably stood the test of time).

02 March 2019

28 February 2019

Jane Austen flies to London

[By 1814] Jane was now considered by her brothers to be worldly-wise enough to travel to London by stagecoach alone rather than having to wait about until a male relative was ready to accompany her. 'I have explained my views,' she wrote, when her escort was in doubt, 'I can take care of myself'.

In 1814, she went up in Collyer's Flying Machine, with four people alongside her in the vehicle, and a further fifteen clinging onto the roof. One crossed one's fingers for small, quiet co-passengers, and this time Jane was lucky: 'I had a very good Journey, not crouded', because two of her companions were 'Children, and the others of a reasonable size; & they were all very quiet and civil'. She was luckier than the traveller who once found his personal space invaded by an 'overgrown female', 'puffing and panting as if she had not half an hour to live'. He and his companion 'screw'd ourselves up in each corner and allowed her to take the middle when she sat or rather fell down with the grunt of a rhinoceros and remained a fixture for the whole journey'.

The coaches from Hampshire disgorged their passengers in Ludgate Hill, while those serving the west of England terminated at the White Horse Cellar in Piccadilly. Such coaching yards were full of whooping as vehicles arrived or moved off, 'the coachy's "all right - ya-hip!" and the sounding of the bugle by the guard ... the journey to most minds commences with pleasure and delight'. Upon arrival came the challenge of rooting out your own luggage 'from all the other Trunks & Baskets in the World', while the bouncing of the coach - a 'long Jumble' - left you extremely tired.

It really was more comfortable to travel in a private carriage, if you could, and sometimes [Jane's brother] Henry gave Jane a lift. In 1813, he carried her from Chawton to his home in Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, a distance of about fifty miles. It took all day, much longer than the stagecoach. As they weren't swapping horses every few miles, they had to allow Henry's hard-working animals to take rests. 'A 12 hours Business', Jane wrote. 'I was very tired too, & very glad to get to bed early'.

- Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home, 2017, p.278

See also:
HistoryMail coaches - London departure points, 24 September 2015
BlogDe Quincey's phobia of public conveyances, 10 September 2015
History: Nelly Weeton at the Windermere foot-race, 27 August 2015
BooksThis great ebbing surging traffic of London, 12 August 2015
History: I cannot say much for this monarch's sense, 6 March 2014
HistoryCoach travel from London in 1658 & 1739, 4 October 2013

17 February 2019

Measure For Measure

Photos from Saturday night's performance of Measure For Measure at the Pop-up Globe, Ellerslie, Auckland. A zesty cast in fine voice, playing a pleasingly un-Bowdlerised script.  

Matu Ngaropo as the Provost

Rebecca Rogers as Isabella

14 February 2019

Rich pickings at the Boston Tea Party

As a child of the 1970s who later developed a fascination with the music of the '60s, the signature tunes of my youth ran the gamut from Remember You're A Womble to Marrakesh Express - the latter offering the rich irony of an innocent New Zealand youth singing along with an admittedly catchy tune about hippies taking a train down to Morocco to score masses of hashish. My only liability was entering my years of musical maturity in a period of lamentable poverty for popular music. My later teenage years in the late 1980s occurred during the nadir of Italo House and the dirge- and nihilism-laden grunge era. I'd never even heard of the wonderful Stone Roses; instead, Stock Aitken Waterman sprayed the charts with their insipid clones and endless boy-bands crooned and preened.

Once I finally discovered a broader palate of musical choices beyond the commercial radio many of my classmates listened to after school (and in Onehunga this usually meant either listening to 89FM or 91FM, which were largely identical) I never looked back at the charts until the Britpop boom in the UK restored melodic songwriting to the public consciousness for a few years. Starting with the Beatles and moving to Bowie and Northern Soul, I quickly learned that there were rich pickings on offer in the back catalogues of the American and British artists inspired by the British beat explosion.

The only problem was, I came along too late to see most of these artists perform in their prime. I was lucky to see Paul McCartney twice, in Auckland on 27 March 1993 and in Hyde Park for Hard Rock Calling on 27 June 2010. At the latter all-day event I was delighted to see Crosby, Stills & Nash. David Bowie also played a notoriously drenched Stadium in Wellington on 14 February 2004, and it was a thrill to see him, even if he was miles away and the sound quality was poor thanks to the wafting downpour.

Bob in Waikanae, December 2018
However, one person who has seen some other legendary artists is my former workmate Bob Bunch. Now happily retired on the Kapiti Coast, Bob grew up in Boston and was able to see many key artists from the late '60s and early '70s playing gigs in Boston, New York and San Francisco before he emigrated to New Zealand in 1972. Bob cites the happy memory of the centrality of music in American youth culture, and has fond memories of the bands he enjoyed live in the era in which anyone over the advanced age of 30 was viewed with the deepest suspicion. There were rich pickings on offer for committed gig-goers. When Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone came out on 20 July 1965 it had a major impact on Bob's Boston high-school circle - everyone realised they were living in exciting times for music. A precocious friend caught the Rolling Stones with a scant few hundred others in Lynn, Massachusetts in June 1966 - a concert that was disrupted by a riot and police teargas.

Boston had its own vibrant music scene - The Standells' 1966 local hit, the Stones-alike Dirty Water, is still played at Red Sox matches - and Bob was studying at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, 'which was for the kids who couldn't afford Amherst'. Bob and his friends used to visit the Unicorn at 825 Boylston St (now the site of a gleaming corporate Apple Store) to see folk artist Phil Ochs and gird their courage to perform at the Monday night open mic session. Another venue he frequented, Club Mount Auburn 47 (Club 47 for short), was discussed way back in 1963 by Joseph Boyd in the Harvard Crimson, who said it 'provides folk music of generally high quality and variety by both local and out-of-town performers. For a basic door charge of $1.00 you can listen to good music without being pestered to buy expensive food and drink'. Bob says that Club 47 was where Harvard Square folkies, and college and high school kids could hang out and hear their favourite artists perform at close quarters.

Bob also took advantage of family ties, journeying to Manhattan in the summer of 1967 to stay with his sister in an East Village tenement, where a traditional meal was New York-style pizza that could easily be obtained at 4.45am. He saw the Doors just after Light My Fire first came out and twice saw the Yardbirds. The first time was when Jeff Beck was in the group and their hit song Shape of Things was out. The second time, approximately a year later, he saw the group sans Beck playing to a half empty house, thereby demonstrating the truth of 'fleeting fame'.

The soon-to-be-legendary Fillmore East rock venue in the Lower East Side, which promoter Bill Graham opened in March 1968, was a Mecca for such music lovers. In its first year it featured an opening night performance by Big Brother & the Holding Company, Tim Buckley and Albert King, and on 10 May 1968 featured what must have been a spectacular double-bill of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. (See the end of this post for some Fillmore & Tea Party clips)

Boston also hosted a famous gig by the Velvet Underground at the Boston Tea Party club, which was housed in an old church. The allure of the place was sealed by the widely-believed rumour that its opening night on 20 January 1967 featured a clandestine appearance in the crowd by none other than John Lennon. (Which was unfortunately a myth - on that day John was with the other Beatles at Abbey Rd recording A Day in the Life for Sgt Pepper's). On 12 December 1968 Bob saw the Velvets at the Tea Party with his then girlfriend, who would later become his first wife. Her ex-boyfriend happened to be Hans Onsager, the Velvets' road manager, and Bob and Vicki used to hang out and play chess with him. Young Doug Yule, who joined the Velvets to replace John Cale, got his 'in' to the group by being Onsager's tenant in Boston.

The Tea Party hosted a wide array of amazing performances in its time. It was a hallmark of Boston's cutting edge taste in music that the Tea Party would have a larger crowd for the Velvets than for the Doors, whose national popularity was at its peak. Bob was always impressed with the hypnotic inventiveness of the Velvets' performances and recordings, and noted that it wasn't all rock 'n roll excess: their then drummer, Maureen 'Moe' Tucker would attend church every Sunday.

In 1967, having moved to the West Coast, Bob also saw the Velvets play the Fillmore West, the precursor of the Fillmore East, and other clubs like The Matrix. Hans took Bob and his girlfriend back stage after a show where they caught up with Doug Yule again, and met Stirling Morrison and Maureen Tucker as they were packing their gear (Lou wasn't there). The Velvets injected an air of East Coast danger and otherness into the City of Brotherly Love. Alex Abramovich in the New Yorker writes of those 1969 West Coast Velvets gigs:

By 1969, the Velvets had shaded lighter. Warhol, Nico, and Cale were all gone. (Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, was a talented but conventional rock and roller from Boston, barely out of his teens.) For their third album, V.U.’s frontman, Lou Reed, had written exquisite songs—“Pale Blue Eyes,” “Jesus,” and “Candy Says,” which Yule was given to sing—in which the paranoia that marked his earlier ballads, like “Sunday Morning,” had given way to something softer, more searching and spiritual. The Velvets had always contained musical extremes: loud and soft, melodic and dissonant, avant-garde and primitive. By the end of the sixties, their emotional repertoire had become just as broad.

While the performances may have been memorable, the relationship with the promoter wasn't always plain sailing. This 2014 New York Post article reports a testy atmosphere between the Velvets and Bill Graham:

After Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground mocked Fillmore West’s minimal setup, Graham snarls at the band, just as they were to take the stage, “You motherf—ers! I hope you bomb,” remembers Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison. That led Lou Reed to smash the house drum kit on stage, cutting himself with a cymbal in the process. When an enraged Graham stormed to Reed’s dressing room for a dress down, he saw the bleeding man and relented — though only for insurance purposes, the Velvets claim.
What I wouldn't give to have seen some of these amazing gigs! In the meantime, there's always a world of archival clips to peruse endlessly and somewhat obsessively:

Fillmore East

Albert King - Blues Power (1970)
The Who - My Way / C'Mon Everybody (1968)
Sly & the Family Stone - Music Lover (1968)
Jimi Hendrix - Live at the Fillmore East (1968)

Fillmore West

Led Zeppelin - Live at the Fillmore West (1969)
Aretha Franklin - Respect (1971)

Boston Tea Party

Velvet Underground - White Light / White Heat (1968, film by Andy Warhol, featuring Edie Sedgwick)

See also:
Music: A Chickasaw County Child, 5 February 2018
Music: Keith Moon's brandy breakfasts, 4 August 2017
MusicThe last time Paul saw John, 20 September 2015

04 February 2019

The second-oldest submarine in the world?

John Bisset reports that the town of Middlemarch is raising funds to house a derelict submarine, the Platypus. The article notes:

The 150-year-old submarine is thought to be one of only two of its vintage still in existence. "In the history of submarines it's quite amazing and would certainly be the only one ever built in New Zealand," museum curator Dawn Coburn said.
- Stuff, 3 February 2019
Another way of putting it could be to say that the Platypus might be the second-oldest submarine in the world. There's a Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley, which sank in Charleston harbour in 1864 along with its target, the US Navy steam sloop USS Housatonic, after a torpedo-ramming run. The Hunley was salvaged in 2000 and currently awaits refurbishment in South Carolina. The Platypus is a mere 10 years younger.

The ODT reported at length on the Platypus' early testing in Otago Harbour in the summer of 1873:

A few venturous individuals were launched with the craft, and loudly their cheers rang out when she took the water fairly and did not turn turtle, but on the contrary, floated as buoyantly and as upright as a dish. The assemblage on shore also cheered, and so did the crew of the Peninsula, which steamer had been engaged to tow the Platypus to Stuart street jetty, where it is to be finished off, and afterwards submitted to its first trial of submergence.
- Otago Daily Times, 24 December 1873

02 February 2019

King Offa covers his bases

When the British chieftains started commissioning their own coins they continued the practice of retaining the original elements of Continental coins, while reflecting their own artistic sensibilities at the same time. It must have been a tricky business. On the one hand individual leaders wanted unique coins; but on the other they had to pass muster in the wider world. The practice of copying coins from elsewhere - particularly those regarded as trusted currency - was one that would continue for centuries. A gold coin made during the reign of the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon King Offa has 'OFFA REX' on one side and the inscription 'THERE IS NO GOD BUT ALLAH ALONE' on the other. For a while it was claimed by some as evidence that Offa had converted to Islam - until it was identified as a copy of an Arabic coin. Islamic gold coins of the Abbasid dynasty were the most trusted in the Mediterranean world at the time and Offa's coin-makers were simply giving their own output the best chance of being accepted as credible tender.

- Neil Oliver, A History of Ancient Britain, 2011

See also:
HistoryThe reputation of Queen Aelfthryth, 4 March 2014
Blog: A sunny day on Dartmoor, 29 April 2011
History: Treasures of Mercia, 17 December 2009

15 January 2019

Straight outta Gonville

Wistful bedsit-electro-pop purveyor, rail history aficionado and Whanganui resident Anthonie Tonnon playing the Gardens Magic outdoor concert at the Soundshell in the Wellington Botanical Gardens, 12 January 2019. Tonnon's excellent set was followed by veteran Ontario singer-songwriter Jane Siberry, who had just flown in from touring in Japan.

05 January 2019

My top 10 films of 2018

I took in 206 movies in 2018, which equals a bumper year for film-watching. Probably the most I've ever managed. Of the total, I saw 89 at the cinema, or 43 percent. The Film Society and the Film Festival were, as always, reliably excellent sources of great film artistry. I also experimented with the Australian documentary streaming site Docplay (definitely worth a look), the ever-interesting French Film Festival, and for the first time I also ventured into the daunting realm of that omnipresent sideshow barker, Netflix. In 2019 I'm probably going to give the movie streaming site Mubi a go too.

While it's challenging to select a mere 10 titles from a year of viewing, the ones below stayed with me the most. As usual, the criteria is new films I've seen for the first time in 2018, so the list will include some titles released in more important countries in the dim and distant era known as 2017. But simply because it feels out of place, I'm sadly omitting the wonderful Armando Iannucci black comedy, The Death of Stalin, which is a must-watch in anyone's book - and which gets a mention just below! While it was released in the UK on 20 October 2017, I didn't see it on cinematic release here in New Zealand until 20 March 2018. You should definitely see it, but it just doesn't feel right in a list of 2018 films. There are a couple of other 2017 features in here, but the gap in time between release and viewing didn't feel as exaggerated for those.

So from top to bottom, here's my favourite 10 films I saw in 2018:

1. Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, trailer)
Cuarón's Roma ranks alongside Iannucci's The Death of Stalin as a recent film with the stamp of genius. Every frame is expertly conjured, beautifully shot and sensitively written by Cuarón himself, and the attention to detail in conveying the Mexico of 1970-1 is breathtaking. What a thrill it must be to people who are personally familiar with the era to see it realised so convincingly on screen. And the heart of the film, the hard-toiling and gentle housekeeper Cleo, illustrates the simple truth that ordinary lives abound in stories that befit cinematic attention, if they are handled delicately. Key crowd scenes are spectacularly ambitious and hugely memorable, but in its many quieter moments illustrating family life and the love the tireless Cleo offers and receives from her employers and their children, Roma also shines every bit as much as Richard Linklater's Boyhood or Carla Simón's Estiu 1993. While many will experience this film on Netflix, thereby bringing it a wide audience, its sumptuous cinematic spectacle justifies the effort of seeing it on a proper theatre screen - you won't regret it.

2. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Another classic modern drama from longstanding favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda, charting a year in the life of an atypical family unit living on the semi-legal fringe of Japanese society - a society that takes great exception to grifters who don't pull their weight and toe the line. Encountering a charming five-year-old girl, Yuri, who is living with abusive parents, the father Osamu 'adopts' her (which could be characterised as a voluntary abduction), taking her into the initially wary but ultimately loving and caring ramshackle household. Yuri's new 'older brother' Shota takes her under his wing and finds an able accomplice in his regular shoplifting forays; these scenes are superbly handled, being both poignant and utterly charming. As Yuri encounters love and affection for the first time she brings the family closer together, but ultimately the real world invariably intrudes. Shoplifters bears all the traditional hallmarks of Kore-eda's productions - absolutely winning performances from child actors, a genuinely powerful evocation of familial affection and the power of companionship and kindness, and a wry humour for the challenges of modern life. But in its conclusion Shoplifters takes the examination of family bonds further than in any of his previous films. With a bravura plot twist he pulls the rug out from what was already a compelling and warm family drama and turns it into a searching and even haunting moral quandary. Like his other films, Shoplifters asks 'what is family?', but this film also asks some troubling questions about society's expectations, surviving modern poverty and the nature of parenthood itself.

3. Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik, USA)
A very fine depiction of a close father-daughter relationship, which benefits from accomplished and naturalistic lead performances from Ben Foster and the teenaged Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie who flew half-way across the world from little old Wellington to the US Pacific Northwest. The off-the-grid wilderness life the two live out is largely driven by the father's PTSD, but when they are involuntarily returned to life within the bounds of conventional society it becomes increasingly clear that despite their love, father and daughter may not want precisely the same way of life. There are no bad guys here, and it's so pleasing to see an American film that avoids the easy route of establishing an antagonist as a villain to unite against; the social services and random strangers the pair encounter all display the unfailing generosity of spirit that Americans often exhibit. The acting never descends into melodrama or milks what could easily turn into histrionics - rather, the quiet struggle of these very real characters is allowed to evolve organically without showboating. It was a real treat to have director Debra Granik (Winter's Bone) and hometown co-star McKenzie at the Embassy for a film festival Q&A session, in which both offered generous explanations of their film-making process and the spirit of the film. Like recent films Captain Fantastic and Walking Out, Leave No Trace portrays family bonds purified by nature, but while the former two films are solid and appealing portrayals, Leave No Trace is an even more enduring artistic achievement.

4. Paddington 2 (dir. Paul King, Nationality: Very British)
It should not detract from the enjoyment of this charming, big-hearted film that I saw it on a plane: while I relished it on almost the smallest screen possible, I would champion this film as a must-see on any screen, at any time, by almost any audience. I hadn't seen the original Paddington film when I chose this sequel, but I have watched it since, and can report that it's every bit as lovely, warm and funny as this one. It's so refreshing to see an animated cinematic hero whose super powers are politeness and good manners, and the film's celebration of British fellowship and multiculturalism that is clearly a dig at Brexiteering xenophobia is delivered with the lightest of touches, preferring as the film does to focus on the most positive aspects of both humanity and ursinity. While children will relish the tale of Michael Bond's resourceful bear, grown-ups of all ages would be foolish to miss it, if only for Hugh Grant's splendid turn - a real career highlight - as nefarious thespian Phoenix Buchanan.

5. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, USA)
A top-flight directorial debut and a highly engaging lead performance by Saoirse Ronan are the core assets of this big-hearted coming-of-age tale that, like the films of Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda, features no villains, just flawed humans in all their glory. The teenage drama it's most akin to is Marielle Heller's Diary of a Teenage Girl, in which the flaws of the lead character are conventional and everyday in nature. Chief amongst these is the deftly-drawn and perpetually thorny relationship with the self-named Lady Bird's long-suffering and demanding mother (Laurie Metcalf), which sees two quite unreasonable women pitting themselves against each other, to no-one's benefit. The cumulative effect of a long run of winning scenes between the two, and between Lady Bird and her school friends, eternally patient Catholic school teachers, and her first boyfriends, elevates the film above other more pedestrian stories, and its semi-autobiographical nature is nothing but an asset. By its close, Lady Bird feels as if it's achieved just what its creator, Greta Gerwig, sought to achieve - a positive, emotionally engaging vision of a young woman's life, to stand rightfully alongside the pantheon of all the many, many similar films Hollywood has made about young men.

6. They Shall Not Grow Old (dir. Peter Jackson, UK/NZ)
A vital antidote to the depiction of war movie heroism, in which the most convincing advocates for peace - the soldiers themselves - provide the entire narrative. Peter Jackson's film gives a real sense of the endurance and shell-shocked numbness that were required to survive the WW1 trenches with sanity intact. As a technical achievement it's remarkably convincing. The century-old silent film footage is patched, cleaned and edited to a naturalistic tempo, and in the early stages the subtle 3D works wonders with the silent black-and-white footage of Britain's war preparations and the journey to the front line. But then the technical magic really kicks in, with the stunning transition to expertly colourised film with full recreated audio tracks, giving the film a memorable visual impact. Essential viewing for anyone who has remotely romantic notions about the dirty, unforgiving business of war.

7. Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
It's a delight to see a film devoted to allowing its narrative to develop in such an unhurried yet purposeful way as this Korean drama/thriller. I'm so glad I managed to avoid trailers and preview articles because I'm guessing they'd reveal elements of the plot that are better left discovered on the big screen. The investment of time makes the film's desperate, shocking conclusion exponentially more powerful and memorable. With skilled direction, unshowy performances, a top score and restrained yet beautiful cinematography, Burning is a subtle, languid gem.

8. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, US/UK)
An intriguing, surprising offering from Anderson, with valuable performances from its three main players (Day-Lewis, Krieps and Manville) and a courageously obscure milieu to focus on - high fashion London couture in the first half of the '50s. The subtle intricacies are played out between a young amanuensis Alma entering the life of a gifted, obsessively habitual and much older dress designer Woodcock, and 'Cyril', the daunting, controlling sister of the designer, who hitherto has provided all the female attention the 'incurable bachelor' Woodcock has ever needed. The period detail and reverence for the rituals of fashion are compelling, and while I confess to being mildly perplexed with the direction Anderson takes the characters, it's never less than convincing and always expertly crafted. Also, does this make the lovely Vicky Krieps the world's most famous Luxembourger?

9. Woman At War (dir. Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland)
Benedikt Erlingsson's deft comedy-drama shows his growing skill and confidence as a director, and offers a superb central performance from the very game Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as unstoppable environmental saboteur Halla and her yoga instructor twin sister Asa. The film benefits from the playful inventiveness of its director, with plenty of tricks to keep the audience guessing, particularly in a masterful Icelandic wilderness chase scene in which the 49-year-old Halla evades her would-be captors using her splendid ingenuity. While I didn't relish it as much as the rest of the audience, Erlingsson's choice to have incidental music provided by an on-screen trio of Icelandic musicians and three Ukrainians folk-singers is suitably Scandi-quirky. Also featuring the return of the Spanish cycle tourist from Of Horses & Men (Juan Estrada) to provide light comic relief, Woman At War is both a great deal of fun and a successful exemplar of how to depict environmental activism both sympathetically and honestly.

10. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Greece)
A great cast of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, and superb staging in the little-filmed 18th century provides a rich palate for Yorgos Lanthimos to emulate the costume black comedies of Stanley Kubrick and Peter Greenaway. It's pleasing that the dandified, titivated males take a back seat amidst the ruthless machinations of supremely ambitious women in this depiction of the tragic Queen Anne's court of the early 18th century, and the comic prowess of all three leads is in fine form. Lanthimos' fondness for fisheye lenses is perhaps a trifle overdone, given it distracts from the acting and makes it harder to frame a shot, and one early dance number is broadly ridiculous as if it were from a Mel Brooks farce. But altogether this is a highly entertaining game of courtly oneupwomanship, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't win Colman another Bafta.

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