October 8, 2012

A road with too few drivers (Snakeskin)

More than a year ago, I did a films-from-Christchurch post here. But I missed a fairly significant one – Gillian Ashurst’s Snakeskin (2001). First, my review from the Listener, which ran on November 3, 2001:
Directed by Gillian Ashurst; R16, contains violence, offensive language, drug use and sex scenes.

Blatant derivativeness seems to be the entire point of Christchurch director Gillian Ashurst’s first feature, Snakeskin. The film extends from a manifesto in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart – “This snakeskin jacket symbolises my individuality and belief in personal freedom,” hollered Nicolas Cage’s Sailor, a cartoon Elvis freshly sprung from jail, to his girl Lula and anyone else who would listen. It’s a trash aesthetic that Ashurst is entirely at home with – Snakeskin’s road-movie narrative is a mythic quest in which the hero seeks to “earn the right to wear snakeskin”.

But before you can call her film derivative, Ashurst beats you to it. This opens with a slow examination of the pop-culture artefacts lovingly arranged by Alice (a kittenish Melanie Lynskey). Pictures of Clint Eastwood and his Magnum, Thelma and Louise, Elvis and Marilyn. “I had lived my life on a diet of television and magazines,” she says, as though this is unusual. What she means is that everything is framed by her taste for Tarantino-flavoured Americana; New Zealand “seemed to me like the safest f---ing country in the world and I hated it”.

Looking for adventure, or whatever comes her way, she collects Craig, the Lula to her Sailor (gender reversal is one of Ashurst’s innovations). Passive and played by Dean O’Gorman, Craig would rather be known as Johnny. “Ever hear of a hero called Craig?” he asks, maintaining the coy knowingness that will come to seem like babes-in-the-wood naivete. Craig is too sweet for Alice – what she really wants is some authentic American badness and it miraculously appears at a gas station wearing denims and a cowboy hat and named Seth (US import Boyd Kestner). The three take a road trip – and an acid trip – west, across the Canterbury Plains and towards the Alps along a road that could be dubbed Route 666.

Or is it Fear and Loathing in Methven? Call this a journey into a heart of darkness that mirrors the tripartite structure of Easy Rider or maybe the drug experience itself: a prosaic opening, moments of idyllic bliss in the middle, a twisted conclusion. Part of that conclusion, in what is either a sarcastic gesture towards Canterbury’s proud agricultural heritage or a quote from every second horror movie, takes place amongst frozen corpses in an abattoir. Otherwise, apart from a stop-over in a grand country pub and a psychedelic rave in the middle of nowhere, the image is of a South Island empty but for marauding skinheads, drug dealers and one or two bemused tourists.

Lining the highways are the ubiquitous white crosses, from which Ashurst is keen to extract every last ounce of portentous gothic symbolism, when her camera isn’t giddy over the meaningful snake tattooed on Seth’s arm. But for all these intimations of darkness, nothing here is as memorable or inspired as the more deranged moments of Wild at Heart or Natural Born Killers. In its cartoonish images and air of camp self-consciousness, it more closely resembles the Tarantino cast-off True Romance. Only Lynskey comes away looking good – charismatic and engaging enough for this to work as the star vehicle she has been owed since Heavenly Creatures.
Christchurch wasn’t named as a location in the review and it isn’t actually named in the film. But Snakeskin comes out of Christchurch and not just geographically. Sure, the road trip starts somewhere in Christchurch suburbia, heads west across the Plains and up and down over the mountains. Christchurch is Alice’s safe boring place.

But viewed now, 12 years on, Snakeskin recorded another Christchurch, one that was probably starting to disappear by then. At roughly the mid-way point, the road trip stops at a pub – possibly at Otira – and the Christchurch band Space Dust is playing. That’s incongruous, maybe, but by this stage, acid is rendering all sorts of things possible. A stage is done up as though this could be Lyttelton’s Wunderbar shifted to the Alps. Space Dust has Ritchie Venus – a kind of an alt Elvis impersonator who haunted Christchurch forever – guesting on vocals, with Violet Faigan, doing a sleazoid version of “Some Velvet Morning” (before Snakeskin, Gillian Ashurst made this doco about Ritchie Venus). Beyond that theme song, there is a general air of 80s and 90s druggy South Island-ness on the soundtrack – King Loser, the Renderers, Brother Love, Shaft – that comes from the same place as the drugginess on screen.

Local and imported counter-cultures and mythologies collide on the Plains. Alice and Johnny are wrapped up, like the review said, in Americana. Seth is a projection or a bad spirit, and he is not just their problem: the marauding skinheads – another particularly South Island phenomenon – have their issues with Seth, as do two drug-dealing ravers (Taika Waititi, billed as Taika Cohen then, and Jodie Rimmer) driving a “Mr Trippy” van on their way to a Mushroom Ball in the mountains.

Alice and Johnny are Kiwi innocents. It’s apt that one of the artefacts in Alice’s room is a paperback of On the Road: the over-sexed and over-here Seth is a Neal Cassady to their Sal Paradise and Marylou. Out on the road, everyone runs into a Japanese hitch-hiker who is on a cultural expedition of his own, searching the Plains for Goodbye Pork Pie’s yellow mini. There is an intimation of the future too: when Oliver Driver’s twisted skinhead Speed terrorises the Japanese tourist with a baseball bat and the line that “You should have stayed in your own fuckin’ country”, you might start to think of the all-too-real story of the killing of a South Korean tourist by skinheads on the West Coast in 2003.

These are bad roads, it turns out. A Maori woman in the kiwiana tearooms early on suggests that they might even be cursed (does she have a kind of “Magical Negro” function?). But bad things happen for all kinds of reasons – it’s also, a raver says, Samhain (a pagan Halloween), and seven years since five people died in a terrible crash. If the city is safety, the empty landscape is the danger that Alice craved and found, which lands us deep in Cinema of Unease territory. Cinema of Unease was really a South Island idea, and Ashurst expands on her version of it in this quote, from the Film Commission site:
“It’s also about corruption, about loss of innocence. On the surface everything seems so perfect in this place ... but underneath it’s a different story ... There’s this famous New Zealand postcard – it’s a couple of spring lambs playing amongst the daffodils. Looks so beautiful. Except we forget where those lambs must inevitably end up. Snakeskin is a journey to the flipside of that postcard.”
That might remind you of something. At Canterbury University, Patrick Evans would argue that “New Zealand literary culture so far”, even “everything about our presence” here, can be explained by “the choice between paradise and the meatworks, Arcadia and Utopia” (in The Long Forgetting, 2007). The South Island of Snakeskin is picturesque by day and terrifying by night – a road with too few drivers.

One last Christchurch thing. During a rural home invasion, the skinheads read a teenage girl’s diary – in it, she confesses to seeing an older man. At the Otira pub, as Space Dust play, someone’s point of view hallucinates the girl and the man dancing. The man is played by … future Christchurch mayor Bob Parker. Really. He’s billed as “dancing man” in the credits. If you find that hard to believe, pause the “Some Velvet Morning” clip at about 2.10: