Thursday, August 12, 2010

Par For the Not So Coarse



It is the ex-proofreader and subeditor's ultimate nightmare: a grammatical error or typo in his or her precious text, let alone a headline. Up to last week, alas, there was at least one gremlin in each of my blog posts.

But last week was perfect. Not a single mistake I could see - until I looked at the page a few nights later to see whether I had garnered yet more fans. Imagine my horror when I discovered what my astute friends and learned readers were clearly too polite to point out. A whole paragraph was missing!

I'm talking, of course, about the slight lapse in logic between pars two and three in my The Men Who Stare at Goats review, for which I offer my profound apologies. Here, for those hordes of you just dying to stitch it all together retrospectively, it is:

"Sending up the whole notion of New Age and Hollywood B-grade coincidence, we have Bob going to report on the war in Iraq to mend his broken heart and meeting the very man he's looking for, Lyn Cassady, at a hotel."

There, that feels much better. And I had gained a new reader, whom I suspect is South African. Dabulamanzi had read the review and asked me to take a look at the video Enter the Ninja by Die Antwoord (The Answer in Afrikaans) on YouTube. All I can say, sir, is that your wish is my command and the review follows hereafter in a post that deals with things South African and Oceanic. That is, race and rugby.

Further good news is that the "books" part of landofthelongwhitelight has gone active this week with a guest review by Melissa de Villiers, whom I haven't seen in the flesh for, oh, over two decades. And not only is she not living in London, as I'd thought, but in Singapore. It's a whole new eastern cyber axis we're inhabiting, underlined by a review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

And if that book is set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, then the Hong Kong Film Festival opened here in Auckland last night with a lavish cocktail party and a screening of City Under Siege. Expect more on that and more, because service is my middle name, typos and all.

White Trash Burning

The official version of Enter the Ninja has had almost six million hits on YouTube, so it's obviously struck some kind of beat. But is it any good? Well, yes. White working-class frustration usually manifests itself as neo-Nazi and racist, but Die Antwoord is way too smart (or zeph) to take that route.

They know the struggle in South Africa is not about race anymore, if it ever was. It's about class. It's about the haves with their rainbow notions of being funky, like a pair of underpants - to use Die Antwoord's memorable image - that has been worn for days on end.

As for the have-nots, they may not be conventionally pretty or talk fancy, but they have their own fire, their own sharp satire, which is usually the birth of something new. So up yours, like. The class wars have begun.

Skinned Alive

Anthony Fabian's debut feature, Skin, starts off with the almost mandatory foreword explaining apartheid, even though the action and dialogue throughout the film make it implicitly but abundantly clear what that abomination was all about. Another cliche is that you have a woman's anguished voice wailing over the landscape, shot with director of photography Dewald Aukema's usual chiaroscuro perfectionism. But at least this time that voice has a thematic relevance to the story, which is its greatest strength.

Sandra Laing was a genetic "throwback", a "coloured" child born to white parents at a time when the colour of your skin mattered in South Africa (as it still does today - it's just that no one mentions it when they do or don't give you a job, depending). Her parents were staunch but loving Afrikaners who isolated themselves on a farm, away from prying, prejudiced eyes. But Sandra had to go to school, of course, and that's where all the trouble would start. The film portrays the cruelty of - in this case white - school pupils to a T.

Another strength is that it manages to portray Afrikaans men of the time as hard but not unsympathetic (even though someone like the poet Ingrid Jonker's MP father completely disowned her). This is a breakthrough for a movie that is clearly correct enough to obtain some funding from the National Film and Video Foundation. Sam Neill's portrayal of Abraham Laing is almost too textured and Alice Krige's Sannie gets ever better as she becomes a broken old lady towards the end. About halfway through the film she seems almost more loving towards her daughter than at the end, which could be a textual problem, but her visual transformation is remarkable.

Furthermore, by sticking to the story the film manages to portray a black man of the time as someone who can still be sexily human, regardless of the fact that he lives within the milieu of a particular brand of viciousness. Tony Kgoroge, playing Petrus Zwane, manages (and is allowed) to surpass the white, guilt-afflicted liberal projection of victimhood as something which automatically obliterates all signs of character. There's also a nice little irony in the fact that his "Christian" name, of course, is Afrikaans and the Laings' English.

Worse, or better, Kgoroge's Petrus not only shows just how corrupting that viciousness was, but it also gives us a little foretaste of how the arrogant side of his nature could have come to full, self-destructive bloom, as it has with the African National Congress. In fact, if ever there was a time for a film to be made about one of their greatest bugbears, Stephen Bantu Biko as an intellectual in his own right, that time is now. And not only does Kgoroge look the part, he is ready to step into leading-man status. One time.

As for Sandra, around whom the whole story revolves, she is the open, walking wound of this film and Sophie Okonedo manages everything from acute shyness to extreme emotional pain to female certainty with a light, effective touch. Maybe, through no fault of hers, she could have got angry, really angry, just once.

If Skin is sometimes awkward, has that irritating habit of English people throwing in seemingly random Afrikaans word and flashes to the subject of a biopic - a la everything from Schindler's List to Catch a Fire - then it still manages to convey all the cruelties and contradictions of that country in a single scene, let alone an entire story:

Neill as Laing is trying to listen to a radio broadcast which states that the government will now accept "coloured" children of white parents as white. But his black maid is trying to tell him something and he shushes her. How much more to the point can one get?

So if you want a clear idea of what apartheid did to ordinary people - from the issue of race to that of forced removals - you need look no further than Skin.

* If you want to know what it was like under Nelson Mandela look at Invictus, reviewed hereafter, and if you want to know what it's like now, see Disgrace and the vibey, cynical Jerusalema. Mysteriously, the latter two got no local funding.

"We Need Inspiration, Francois"

It's difficult to understand why New Zealanders would want to see this film, which didn't do all that well at cinemas but is doing solid business down at the DVD shop. After all, the Kiwis lost the 1995 World Cup final upon which Invictus is (very) loosely based.

So could it be because it features Nelson Mandela, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman? Or maybe that it's made by probably the most solid filmmaker around, Clint Eastwood? Or is it because it stars Matt Damon as a somewhat less camp Springbok captain Francois Pienaar?

Possibly. But maybe it's because Kiwis are just so damned decent, loyal and enthusiastic about film that they will support anything that might smack of intelligent entertainment, a notion I have warned them/us against in the review following this one.

As a sport drama Invictus is almost laughable. "Joel Stransky" kicks the ball like a ballet dancer. In the final "Jonah Lomu" gets the ball and is tackled all the time, when Springbok strategy saw to it that he barely smelled the ball. (I have a Samoan relative who is still mourning the "forward pass" the big winger got with an open field ahead of him).

But as a drama of ideas, and particularly as a lesson in leadership, it's a completely different matter. Freeman finally starts showing some hints of the great man towards the end, and Eastwood's detailed study of Madiba's security politics is deeply endearing, with Tony Kgoroge once again showing he deserves much more than a second lead.

The sad part, of course, is that the inspiration Mandela provided has vanished.

* You might want to take a look at Goodbye Bafana (also known as The Colour of Freedom) by Bille August, in which Dennis Haysbert gives a truly dignified performance as the younger Nelson Mandela.

You Gotta Start Lying

Next year, of course, the Rugby World Cup is coming to New Zealand. The tournament started here in 1987, which is the last time the All Blacks won the cup. My ex-colleague, Sim Xabanisa at The Times in Johannesburg, wrote that the All Blacks are the best team in the world - between world cups. Ouch.

The You Gotta Be There TV commercial is a typical, testosterone-filled sports ad, showing powerful flashes of the previous World Cup in France. But in terms of pure propaganda it shoots itself in the foot. Why? Because it ends with a shot of the Springboks having won the last cup in 2007.

In other words, it's just too damn nice and gracious towards the previous victors. You don't win the World Cup by being nice, New Zealand, even though it's ultimately more important to be good than nasty. But to win you have to be cunning and utterly barbaric, like the South Africans. You have been warned.

Neil Sonnekus

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