Thursday, December 2, 2010

Slashing Those Poppies

One of the reasons why Flight of the Conchords is such a cult success beyond its own boundaries is that it sends up the very notion of white New Zealandness.

Murray's obsession with bureaucratic form (roll calls for three), Jemaine's compressed yesses ("Yis") and Bret's inability to express his innate decency, except perhaps through song, seem to be Kiwi to the core. These three lovable miseries are not just characters but also national characteristics, which includes that obsession with our bigger, louder neighbour.

By the same token, the reason why Once Were Warriors was such a success was because it was as primal as, well, a haka. If it dealt with the universal theme of male abuse in the family, then it did so from an unashamedly Maori perspective. There was no liberal, politically correct white pussyfooting; it was the real thing, and it worked, it sold. It was also just one story.

The Insatiable Moon is another film that will transcend its own boundaries, in the sense that I could watch it as a South African and see it deal with a subject echoing that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in a way that is pertinent, witty and wise.

None of the above films or TV series has an overseas actor in a leading role, which is amazing.

But now we get to films like Matariki by Michael Bennett and Predicament by Jason Stutter. The former, made very much in the ensemble style of Short Cuts and Crash (the Oscar winner, not the more interesting Cronenburg one) in which various people's lives intersect, is set in South Auckland and features the lives and loves of quite a few people. Too many, in fact.

First, there is a pair of teenagers who have the kind of cringe-worthy dialogue of which Jemaine and Bret are acutely aware, some of it giving the impression that it's meant to shock more than necessarily be realistic or logical, let alone funny. This doesn't mean they aren't charming - they are -but we never really get to know why, for example, the Chinese girl doesn't like home: she just stays away.

Then there is Sara Wiseman playing a cop whose Maori husband spends most of his screen time in a coma. What is this very capable and watchable actress expected to do? Emote, and she does it very well, but who is she? All we can deduce is that she wants to be alone with her husband, which is understandable, to the exclusion of his family, which is problematic. She doesn't seem to be on bad terms with them, but that's about all we're going to learn about her.

Likewise, there's a young woman who looks about 11 months pregnant, but when the child does finally come the boyfriend skedaddles and she's not really interested in baba either. Why? Because her junkie man has left her? In the end she leaves both of them, but exactly what her motivations are is not entirely clear.

Matariki is not a "bad" film by any stretch of the imagination: the way a baby stirs a protective instinct in a gay man and how that white baby inveigles its way into a loving Maori family (another positive) that has to make the unenviable decision of turning off someone's life-support system, is profoundly moving.

But the film is trying to keep so many other balls in the air - of which I've only mentioned a few - that it cannot focus on and therefore thoroughly explore this one primal event.

In Predicament there is a man who has the wonderfully weird obsession of building a wooden tower in his back yard to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. His story arc ends (and I don't care what happened in the book) with him starting to talk to everyone around him again, and destroying his dream, his tall, hallucinogenic...poppy.

The film flopped at the box office.

Similarly, in Matariki there is a funky, catchy song called Look What Love Can Do. But it's featured smack bang in the middle of the movie, in a daytime market scene of a mostly night-time movie, and then again over the end titles.


The other thing it doesn't do is let rip, in a Jennifer Hudson kind of way. It really is a spill-your-guts kind of dance-floor number, which could have been a national hit. Did it ever make it to the radio? Did anyone ever push it that way or use it as a promotional tool in a TV spot? Nothing seems to have filtered through.

The long and the short of it is that Matariki and Predicament are similar in that they have a consensual, almost polite feeling about them, especially the latter. They don't seem to be driven by a central artistic vision - a tall poppy, if you will - and this is not entirely the relatively young directors' faults.

Put in another way, it looks as if those films' producers were administering epidurals instead of delivering those babies bloody, screaming and healthy on to our screens.

Neil Sonnekus

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