November 20, 2009

This New Zealand custom

A typically superb post by Reading the Maps on Kiwi Gothic and "the Silent Land". The South Island is indeed another country; I used to be critical of Sam Neill's Cinema of Unease theory until I moved here and understood that it was a South Island idea that couldn't necessarily translate to the north. Films that have fit the canon since have been South Island-set: Brad McGann's adaptation of In My Father's Den, which relocated the action from Maurice Gee's West Auckland to Otago presumably because West Auckland is no longer rural, remote or spooky enough; Glenn Standring's Perfect Creature, vampire steampunk shot in the heritage districts of Dunedin and Oamaru; the careful adaptation of the Aramoana killings in Out of the Blue (pictured). But it would seem that the Waikato has some of this dark quality too, caught in Greg Page's The Locals, with its ghosts of colonialism.
I'm not sure I understood what Laurence Aberhart photos were about until I got here either: something to do with the persistence of the past into the present, the preservation of it, the inescapability of the early, founding histories of these town and cities. Anyway, a few months into my time here, I had a go at pinning this South Island Gothic down. To talk about the ways in which it become has a cliche and the ways in which the cliche might be useful. This is the bit about Cinema of Unease. The opening line about the killer's crib refers to the way that the endings of both Bad Blood and Out of the Blue -- the filmed stories of Stanley Graham and David Gray -- end with the killer's dwelling destroyed by fire (Lynley Hood: "I remember someone from overseas being horrified at this New Zealand custom. It's certainly got all sorts of mythological overtones. It implies the existence of evil in the place and a purification by fire.") Of course it had an update in Christchurch recently when someone tried to torch the so-called "House of Horrors" in Aranui.
The killer's crib burning into the night? That's South Island Gothic, an idea that was most famously taken for a spin in the Sam Neill and Judy Rymer documentary Cinema of Unease. That title has become a kind of shorthand now -- it says, all our films are dark and, therefore, so are we. It's not quite as simple as that. The reality is that cinema of unease is a South Island idea. The film was subtitled "A personal journey through New Zealand film" and the emphasis was on the word personal -- a lot of it had to do with Neill's complicated feelings about emigrating to Christchurch as a boy. The Neills sailed from Britain to this unknown spot on the map where they discovered that someone had built a simulation of an English provincial city on the Canterbury Plains.
But there was something not quite right about it. Something uneasy. So we have Neill interpreting Christchurch's Gothic revival architecture as "the buildings of exile". We have Neill feeling carsick on the Port Hills, intercut with scenes from Heavenly Creatures of the murderers Parker and Hulme swimming at Port Levy. We have Neill risking psychic contagion as he cycles past Sunnyside Hospital. We have Neill wondering if blood stays in the soil of Aramoana.
That was in 1995. About a decade later, Christchurch Art Gallery curator Felicity Milburn developed the idea and built an art show around it, named for Owen Marshall's short story Coming Home in the Dark. The opening lines of the associated text could have come from Neill's tele-prompter: "Lurking behind the South Island's legendary picture-postcard views and the stoic jaw of the Southern Man is a dark side -- a Gothic underbelly of paranoia, alienation and unease."