May 16, 2013

Introduced and native

Lara Strongman was talking on the radio this morning about the new TV3 series Harry, which owes its seriousness, darkness and unremittingly “adult” quality (sex, violence, language) to the HBO tradition of The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and all that has followed – Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Killing, all the New Serious Television – and mostly, in my view, meets the standard it aims for, especially in its acting, writing and look, although the flashbacks are a clumsy and unsophisticated device. The point was: why shouldn’t this be television for export? Yes, it is deeply local – very connected to particular urban, suburban and industrial landscapes in Auckland – but it is no more local than, say, The Wire, Treme and Boss, which set out to map or redefine Baltimore, New Orleans and Chicago, in that order. They were maps of political life and social and cultural influence that bordered on the journalistic. And her point is a good one, especially as the recent Jane Campion/Garth Davis series Top of the Lake was even more perversely – gratuitously and maybe artificially – Kiwi than Harry, in its total embrace of Kiwi Gothic tendencies, images or clich├ęs. And the series screened in the UK, US and Australia and at festivals in the US and Germany, although that has been on the back of the Campion association and reputation, largely.

Halfway through the series, I wrote a piece for Werewolf (here). Now I’ve seen the rest. When I did the Werewolf piece, I felt that the sprawling, even frustrating, storylines were coming together, and that the project was gaining some focus, but that was a trick of perspective – looking back from the end, you still see plenty of loose ends and red herrings (could we have lost the entire Holly Hunter in Paradise plot?). You see plenty of underused actors and wasted opportunities too. You also note – spoiler alert! – that it was more like Twin Peaks than you initially thought, not just because of the superficial similarities of setting and story but because, by the end, you see that the story has always been about a conspiracy of respectable middle-aged men running a sex abuse racket, just as they did in Twin Peaks. It wasn’t the crime lord, it wasn’t the cult guru – all along, it was the bent cop. But it didn’t have Twin Peaks’ all-enveloping horror, its deep personal tragedy and its supernatural dimension – thinking of Fire Walk With Me more than the series – and of course, it stepped back from the worst implications of its dark worldview with a happy ending: male monster(s) dead, girl freed and restored to childhood, heroine now making sense of her past and able to move forward. The characters and the place – an utterly gloomy version of Queenstown as the ultimate beautiful, remote and inhospitable Cinema of Unease setting (back here: an idea that Cinema of Unease really refers to the South Island) – are no longer stuck in the same dead moment. Time starts again. I’m not sure that the happy ending is cowardice either – instead, I take the entire series as some form of unwitting personal expression or the not entirely intended description of a hostile relationship between Campion and New Zealand. Between her and the New Zealand man, particularly, and acting also as a kind of love letter to the Antipodean woman, patchily impersonated here by Elisabeth Moss. (You can like the themes and ideas without really liking the series.) If the international cast sometimes made it feel placeless, there was also a way in which the actors’ obvious alienation – they came from Australia, the US, the UK as well as New Zealand – added to that Cinema of Unease sense. They were not at home, twice over. Really, has there been a more Cinema of Unease moment recently than Robin (Moss) and Johnno (Thomas M Wright) having sex in the New Zealand forest before being attacked by bogans with knives – an attack that leaves Johnno naked and bleeding? The Unease was compounded by the American Moss and the Australian Wright both playing New Zealanders who have been away. There was so much here and not here in the series, so much not belonging. And we haven’t even got to the sole Maori character – face-tattooed like Baines in The Piano – and the Maori mythology of the lake, introduced at the start and never (consciously) evoked again. At times, in the middle of the series especially, you feel like you were stranded in it – it was that dark and airless. A strange sensation. You know that trick where someone takes a pop song and slows it down so that it’s now a 40-minute long glacial drone? Top of the Lake occasionally felt as though someone had done that to an episode of Outrageous Fortune – guns, dogs, crime, sex, cars, and all the other Kiwiana signifiers, but joyless and endless.