The Bird Is The Word

June 12, 2017

 

 

In 1963 a band called The Trashmen took a song called Surfin’ Bird  to the top reaches of the US charts. It was their only hit but the song endured and these days is best know for the phrase ‘The Birds the Word’ a line I happened across when I caught a segment of animated comedy show ‘Family Guy’ on YouTube recently.

It was revealed to be star character Peter Griffin’s fourth favourite song ever and for about half the episode (‘I Dream of Jesus’ Season 7 Episode 2) Peter drove everyone crazy with the question.

Peter: “Hey have you heard the word?”
Some Poor Sap: “What word?”
Peter: “The bird is the word.” 

But what does it mean? I had no idea until US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited NZ recently. I was driving around Hamilton when they started talking about it on the RNZ evening show. “Is the Bird impolite?” intoned the presenter “Well of course it is” he added fending off texts from the easily outraged, “I am simply asking the question to facilitate debate”.

This being public radio however it was mostly thoughtful people sending in considered opinion laced with witty asides and it was all very amusing but I had no idea why the ‘bird’ was being discussed. Maybe it was because I was in and out of the van and missed crucial bits like ‘Visiting US Secretary of State’ ‘motorcade’ ‘bemused American press’.

It all came clear the next day when I went online and there it was, a story about Wellingtonian’s letting the US Government know what they thought of its current policy direction. Besides the much-reported ‘bird’ there was the thumbs down, some jeering and a big Greenpeace banner hanging from a crane (yes, of course there was).

 

 

 

The story went global and was for a day or two something of a ‘hit’. Was there a better way to get under the thin orange skin of the Trump than to flick him or his representatives the ‘bird’ asked the ‘Fake News Media’? While some Kiwis were horrified by it all, (after all the US saved us from the Japanese during World War Two and didn’t we owe them some kind of respect?), most it seems were comfortable with using the ‘bird’ to express discontent.

 

For the last couple of hundred years the world has been coalescing in on itself and we have been forced to examine and reflect upon how we interact with each other in light of the harm that has been set loose by disparate cultures being thrust together so unevenly. It has been a hard and grievous journey but the last 50 odd years of endeavour has yielded results that could be described, by most standards, as positive and central to this process has been the USA.

With the recent and unexpected election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency (the worlds most powerful and influential leadership position) unified standards of human rights, environmental laws and a host of other measures designed to improve the way we interact with each other and the planet are suddenly under threat and it is unsettling many.

New Zealand has always been a world leader and lately I have been worried that we have forgotten our long tradition of social innovation and have fallen (somewhat) behind the frontlines of positive human endeavour but on the streets of Wellington the other day we witnessed ordinary Kiwi’s standing up and offering the world a potent new weapon with which to fight retrograde politics and this is how it goes:

Whenever a ranking member of he Trump Administration or the man himself is in town, take to the streets and flick them ‘the bird’. It’s a simple as that. Forget the Molotov cocktails, barricades and stone throwing; here is a non-violent way of making dissatisfaction clear. After all, nothing hurts a narcissist more than rejection and if we have learned anything about Trump over the last few months it’s that he is a textbook narcissist so dissenters lets hit him where it hurts the most, in the Ego.

 

As for the phrase itself The Urban Dictionary has this to say:

The Bird – To extend the middle finger and “flip someone off” is sign language for “Fuck you!”

The “Word” originated in U.S. Prisons. Original meaning was, “my word is my bond”, shortened to, “Word”, meaning to, “Speak the truth”.

Bird is the Word = Fuck You!

 

14 Films About New Zealand.

June 4, 2017

 Sam Neil, Sleeping Dogs (1977)

 

I tried to count all the feature films ever made in New Zealand but I have never been very good with numbers and got about halfway through the list before I lost my place. By the time I fumbled the third go I was over it so lets just say about 250 films have been made in New Zealand including television films and big screen feature films. This includes a handful of overseas productions that have been made entirely here and excludes dozens of others (mostly Hollywood and Bollywood) that have been partially made here.

The first feature was by Gaston Méliès brother of legendary pioneering French film director Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon 1902). The Méliès brothers were struggling financially and Gaston was sent out into the wider world in search of the exotic and hopefully a reversal of fortune. It didn’t work but Gaston managed to make three fictional narratives, one feature documentary and a series of documentary shorts.

The first of these was a film called Hinemoa (1913) of which no copies survive, but it’s the example that matters here. Gaston inspired the locals and in 1914 the first NZ film proper was made. This was also called Hinemoa and was based on the same story about a Maori princess and her lover. That we made any movies at all so early on is a miracle in itself considering the lack of population, resources and technology but that’s Kiwi’s for you – always keen to try new things using whatever is at hand.

It took until the 1980s for the industry to fully engage and another 20 years for it to build up a full head of steam. These days it is a major industry and is pumping out a regular diet of art, box office and blockbuster, some of it successful, some not.

As for the best of this New Zealand film, I am offering a subjective list that is mostly way off beam with the mainstream of thinking on the subject. A good friend, an authority in fact, thinks my Kiwi favourites are mostly ludicrous but to be fair, while his list is politically ‘correct’ it is also hard work as in “bloody hell, these films are difficult to watch.” We agree to disagree.

Except for Once Were Warriors nothing from the nations ‘go to’ agency – ‘New Zealand on Screen’ – is on my list. ‘New Zealand on Screen’ is a taxpayer-funded archive of all things film and television and the essential guide to New Zealand’s screen heritage.

 

NZ on Screen – List of Essential New Zealand Films:

 

Goodbye Pork Pie (1981)

Smash Palace (1981)

Utu (1983)

Vigil (1984)

The Piano (1993)

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Once Were Warriors (1994)

Whale Rider (2002)

 

 

 

14 Films About New Zealand.

 

Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1983).

Dairy farmer Arthur Allen Thomas is accused of murdering his neighbours Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. The police can’t prove it so fix the evidence and have Thomas put away. Years of re-trails and government commissions follow before Thomas is finally set free and richly compensated.

For almost a decade this story gripped the nation and the whole sordid affair is neatly summed up in a film renowned film critic Roger Ebert called “remarkable”. The case has never been solved.

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Blood (1982).

Dairy farmer Stanley Graham is under pressure. He snaps and starts shooting people. Seven bodies later and Graham’s rampage is over. Based on actual events from the summer of 1941 this economical portrait of a man being undone by paranoia is a triumph for both British director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Aussie actor Jack Thompson (Graham).

PS No accident that two of films on this list are set on dairy farms. Dairy is our biggest brand and the farm can be an interesting place. Worth a look is fantasy/romance The Price of Milk (2000) and sheep farming drama Mahana (2016). The latter features the endlessly reliable Temuera Morrison (Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors).

 

 

 

 

 

Out Of The Blue (2006)

In 1998 a man wrestling with demons and paranoia starts shooting the people of Aramoana. David Grey prowls about the village taking pot shots at pursuing police while locals hide as best they can.

Harrowing and intense, this ‘based on actual events’ thriller, is a formative example of ‘the cinema of unease’, a term coined by Kiwi film star Sam Neil to describe the nations brooding film style.

 

 

 

Once Were Warriors (1994).

‘Jake The Muss’ is disenfranchised and drinking heavily. His emotional state is precarious, his temper is explosive and his shell-shocked family is riding his chaotic wake, their heads barely above water.

We flocked to the cinema in our droves to see the worst of ourselves writ large on the big screen. It was huge success critically, culturally and financially. Director Lee Tamahori turned New Zealand cinema on its head and actor Temuera Morrison gave the performance of a lifetime. This is not just a great NZ film; this is great cinema.

 

 

 

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999)

Though not the cinematic powerhouse of Once Were Warriors, sequel What Become of the Broken Hearted has its moments. Jake has calmed down but still struggles with demons and misdemeanours. When his past stands up and slaps him in the face one day he finds himself at a turning point. On offer is opportunity for redemption and he is of two minds. Despite its occasional slide into predictability the film has enough heart to carry it through to a satisfying conclusion.

 

 

 

Forgotten Silver (1995)

Peter Jackson (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) is a force of nature but before the big Hollywood blockbusters came a whole other career that includes a couple of splatter films, a musical helmed by foul mouthed puppets and art-cinema classic Heavenly Creatures, based on another ‘true life’ Kiwi murder.

The killing narrative, it seems, is a right of passage in Kiwi film and Jackson’s done it twice. Controversial The Lovely Bones (2009) was poorly received but it has its defenders including me.

Documentary Forgotten Silver explores the life of pioneering Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie whose achievements included the invention colour and sound film. But there is more, so much more. McKenzie, it appears was a towering genius, confirming the unspoken truth about NZ, that we are indeed a special and blessed people.

It turned out to be a well-executed hoax that left many red-faced and others outraged. It is my favourite Jackson and joke aside, it is a well-made film.

 

 

 

The Locals (2003).

The Waikato is better known as the land that powers the nations behemoth Dairy Industry but it has also been the locale for two of the more interesting films made in this country. The regions capital serves as the backdrop for Geoff Murphy’s 1985 sci-fi mystery The Quiet Earth and the bucolic farmland is the canvas for Greg Page’s supernatural thriller The Locals.

Page migrated to the region from further South in his late youth and cut his teeth making music videos for Hamilton city bands. The Locals is the only feature film in his catalogue but sums up the regions landscape, atmosphere and culture with a clarity no one else has yet too match.

Page: “We wrapped the film and while we were in post-production I went off to see this new movie everyone was talking about and it had the same kind of twist ending as ‘The Locals’. I had been beaten to it.” He was talking about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.

The Locals is a smartly executed film full of ironic Kiwi sensibility. The soundtrack features superstar Waikato rockers The Datsuns and it flies by at a rapid rate of knots. Much like the Director himself. Criminally underrated it is well deserving of rediscovery and adulation.

 

 

 

The Devil Dared Me To (2007).

The dominant feature of Kiwi film humour is a strain of ironic absurdism not unlike that which you might find in Irish films and when you consider that some six hundred thousand out of a population of four and an half million claim Irish ancestry this seems a reasonable supposition.

As for the narrative: Stuntman Randy Campbell has a dream, he wants to become the world’s greatest stuntman by becoming the first person to leap across Cook on a motorcycle. Before his dream can be realised numerous obstacles have to overcome aka a classic hero’s quest. Base, absurdist, cheesy and surreal The Devil Dared Me Too is as warming as a petrol station pie on a cold day.

 

 

 

 

What We Do In The Shadows (2014).

Writer Director Taika Waititi has had a phenomenal run at the NZ box office and his films Boy (2010) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) are the two biggest ever-grossing NZ films respectively.

What we do in the Shadows, made in collaboration with Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), was also a big hit and possibly one of the best examples of the dry, ‘straight-faced’ style that dominates Kiwi humour. More cohesive and refined than The Devil Dared Me To it was an instant cult classic. Perhaps our best ‘cult’ product since Hamiltonian Richard O’Brien thought up The Rocky Horror Picture Show back in the late 1960s.

 

 

 

Desperate Remedies (1993).

This is not the kind of film I would choose to see off my own bat but when I asked Geoff Lealand (Associate Professor Film and Media Studies University of Waikato and all-round doyen of all thing cinematic in NZ) what his favourite Kiwi film was he said this.

A surreal psychodrama set in early colonial New Zealand it tastes like a ‘golden age’ MGM spectacular directed by Stanley Kubrick by way of Orson Welles with Ken Russell in as the production supervisor. The result is unique, imagine ‘splatter era’ Peter Jackson on opium. A grand testament to the tightly guarded madness lurking beneath the Kiwi facade.

 

 

 

Worlds Fastest Indian (2005).

Roger Donaldson was born in Australia and migrated to New Zealand (which is confusing in itself as the migration trend is mostly the other way around) and made two defining local films: Sleeping Dogs’ (1977) and Smash Palace (1981).

After a long Hollywood stint he returned to his adopted homeland for The World’s Fastest Indian’ in 2005. Invercargill Burt Munro’s and his Indian go to America and breaks’ a number of motorcycle speed records on the salt flats of Utah along the way. Welshman Anthony Hopkins manages a reasonable facsimile of the Kiwi accent while leading a charming Biopic that is as honest as the day is long.

 

 

 

Sleeping Dogs (1977).

Roger Donaldson’s first film arrived on the scene at the most opportune moment. New Zealand was in moving headlong into a period of social upheaval and many old values were being asked hard questions and found wanting. Authoritarian Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (the model for the PM in the film?) was leading the rear guard action and this usually peaceful and bucolic land was getting restless.

Smith (a somewhat startled looking Sam Neil in his first leading role) is a typically self-possessed Kiwi bloke reluctantly drawn into the fight against a dictatorial fascist government determined to maintain the hard line.

Based on C.K Stead’s 1971 novel Smith’s Dream, this is a parable that set the nation alight and allowed us to imagine ourselves in a different way. Paradigms shifted, new doors were cast wide open and the modern NZ Film Industry was born. What followed was beautiful chaos.

 

 

 

 

Angel At My Table (1993).

The strange life of NZ writer Janet Frame is explored with inventive flair by Kiwi acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano).

A critical and commercial success this biopic is a riveting portrait of an artist struggling to swim with the tide. Rather than go on, here is a poem by Frame written in the last years of her life. One of the better meditations I have encountered on the subject of ageing and death. The film maintains a narrative of similar quality.

 

When the Sun Shines More Years than Fear
– Janet Frame

When the sun shines more years than fear
when birds fly more miles than anger
when sky holds more bird
sails more cloud
shines more sun
than the palm of love carries hate,
even then shall I in this weary
seventy-year banquet say, Sunwaiter,
Birdwaiter, Skywaiter,
I have no hunger,
remove my plate.

 

 

 

 

Honourable Mention:

 

Came A Hot Friday (1985).

I was not taken by it at all when I saw it many decades ago but many of my peers rate it so out of respect for them and my love of all things Billy T James I have added to the list with the intention of watching it again soon. Based on a novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Came a Hot Friday concerns a couple of Grfiters getting up to all kinds of mischief in Taranaki.

Something of a rogue, Morrieson was not well considered in his Taranaki hometown of Hawera and after he died they pulled down his house to make way for a McDonald’s hoping to expunge his memory from the record. In reality all the locals managed was make Morrieson more famous. All four of Morrison’s novels have been adapted for film, as have two of his short stories.

The film features the late great Billy T James as The Tainuia Kid. According to legend James’s was the Tainuia kid from the moment he arrived on set and remained that way till the shoot was over. James’s ‘Prankster’ character is a testament to the man’s subversive comedic genius.

https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/came-a-hot-friday-1984

 

 

Billy T James as the Tainuia Kid

 

The Cake and The Rain (St. Martins 2017) written by Jimmy Webb – Book Review.

June 4, 2017

 

 

 

 

Didn’t We came to Jimmy Webb while he was out driving. It was the only time a song came to him unbidden and fully formed. He rushed home, transcribed it and started shopping it around. Aging pop star Tony Martin expressed an interest and called him in for a meeting at a theatre. Webb was told to wait in the ‘Green Room’. He took a chair and sat quietly so as not to disturb the elderly man asleep on a sofa.

The old man opens and eye and looking at the portfolio Webb was cradling asked him what he had there? Webb handed it over and the man pulled out Didn’t We and after a quick read through began humming it. Then he took a trumpet from a case and played it through. Louis Armstrong to Webb, “You got a special gift kid”.

It was Sinatra who turned it into a standard. “So you’re the kid who writes them like they used to?” he said to a startled Webb at their first meeting. Webb was given granted regular access to the Chairman who would listen while Webb played. Sinatra wanted first dibs on anything special. Webb, “He didn’t say so but you knew when the meeting was over.”

 

 

 

 

Webb’s mum and dad had hauled the kids to California in search of ‘opportunity’ but after the sudden death of his wife, Webb senior lost heart and decided to return to Oklahoma. “Dad, I’m not going”. The 17 year old had decided to stay and write songs. Dad was unconvinced but gave him forty dollars, “It’s all I have.”

Webb was a musically literate grafter. He searched them out, wrote them down and knocked on doors. He got to know the right people and his songs were passed about. Glen Campbell was L.A’s busiest sideman and was ambitious for a bigger career. By the Time I get to Phoenix provided him with the breakout hit he needed.

A melancholic song about a restless love affair, By The Time I Get To Phoenix is astonishing for its emotional maturity (Webb was barely18 when he wrote it). Campbell worked it up with legendary session band The Wrecking Crew and the result is so perfectly complete that none of the dozens of versions that followed have come close to achieving Campbell’s clarity of vision.

“Write me a song with a name in it,” demanded Campbell, perhaps thinking that place names were going to be his thing. Wichita Lineman took a few days and was missing a third verse but Campbell was so convinced he took it as was and detuned his guitar in order to mimic the vocal. The third verse became the home to one of ‘Middle Music’s’ most revered guitar lines.

Webb pumped out one more place name for Campbell, anti-Vietnamese War song Galveston. It was a sensation and cemented Campbell into superstardom but it was their last major hit together. Next Webb/Campbell single Where’s The Playground Susie broke the place name rule and the result was middling.

 

 

 

 

At the end of Webb’s book is a list (partial) of the artists that have recorded his songs. It is 12 pages long and among them is the unlikely figure of Irish Actor Richard Harris.

“You got any songs for me Jimmywebb?” Webb played him a few and Harris hummed and hawed until Webb played him a new one that had been written on commission for, then rejected by The Association (Cherish, Along Comes Mary).

Harris demanded Webb play it over and over, 12 times to be precise. By this point Webb’s fingers were bleeding and Harris was weeping uncontrollably. “I’ll turn it into number one for ya Jimmywebb” he sobbed, “A bloody number one”. He did. A genuine all purpose international sensation, the kind that makes people very rich.

Webb was on the phone to Paul McCartney a few weeks later when he let slip that MacArthur Park’s unconventionally long length meant that he was receiving three times the standard airplay royalties.

McCartney drops the phone. “Paul, Paul, are you there?” but he was gone and on his way to Abbey Road where he sets about tweaking the length of new Beatles single ‘Hey Jude’ so it could be suitably hitched to this wondrous new gravy train.

It was Webb’s only number one, a feat it managed twice when Donna Summer’s version took down the international top spot in 1978.

 

 

 

 

Webb was a genuine all purpose Wunderkind who wrote the kind of songs that made stars of singers and paid for a ‘Jet Setting’ lifestyle – Up and Up and Away as he explains in his most famous song. Mansions, fast cars, cocaine and women, (the later being the source of the angst in his music) followed. A lot of it is outrageous and some of it is crazed. Buddies Harry Nilsson and John Lennon come out of this looking a little crazed. Webb less so, wide-eyed and hanging on for dear life is more to the point. He regrets none of it.

Of all his work, most underrated are the songs he wrote for vocal group The 5th Dimension. “They were Black but didn’t make ‘Black’ music. They were more show tune style and while they were open to suggestions you could only go so far as Producer. They were a team and knew what they were doing.”

The record company were unenthusiastic about Up Up Away and let it loose without any promo or backup. It caught on regardless and by mid-1967 was sitting at number 7 in the US pop charts. The money poured in and Webb could write his own ticket.

A month after the Beatles released their ‘album as art statement’ the ground breaking Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The 5th Dimension released the Webb written and produced concept ‘art’ album The Magic Garden. And yes it has a sitar. And a Beatles song (Ticket To Ride as show tune) but as Webb explains, The Magic Garden is mostly inspired by Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds (1966).

 

 

 

 

His words run swift and lean and his tales about 60s pop stardom fill out some lesser know details of a much mythologized time and place. There is no judgement, recrimination or agenda just an honest memoir about a first three decades of a man’s life. Webb is 70 and has lived a lot of whole lot of other life since then. Of that he says nothing.

One of the more significant songwriter, producer, arrangers of the 20th Century, Webb’s memoir is made of readable prose whose invention does not get in the way of a goodtime. Music and shenanigans aside, Webb comes across as a centred mid-western boy who has revelled in the fruits of his ambition.

 

 

 

*The Details in this review may not necessarily coincide with the timeline in Webb’s book. I had to return it to the library and left my notes in it and the dates on the Internet conflict so fuck it. I just wrote it as I remember reading.

** BMI – Broadcast Music, Inc. is one of three United States performing rights organizations, along with ASCAP, Global Music Rights and SESAC

 

 

The Cheese Grater.

May 28, 2017

 

 

So it took me three years to get around to buying a cheese grater. Oh dear, it’s going to cost money. And where will I put it? I have no space for a cheese grater. Do I need a cheese grater anyway? Then I think about all the cool things I’d grate like beetroot.

Grate beetroot then cook it over a fast high heat with a little olive oil to moisten proceedings. Throw in some spice, a dash of sugar and some balsamic. Cook off the liquid, chill then eat. Goes well with crusty bread and a boiled egg.

A grater (also known as a shredder) is a kitchen utensil used to grate foods into fine pieces. Frenchman François Boullier invented the cheese grater in the 1540s to grate cheese, which is why we divide time into two epochs: Before Grated Cheese (BGC) and After Grated Cheese (AGC). Is it just me or does cooked grated cheese taste better than cooked slice cheese? I wonder if this is a thing. I am going to google it. Back soon and P.S: Microsoft Word, why are you urging me to capitalize google?

 

Toasting cheese in a toaster can be trouble but careful avoids that. The Internets favourite toaster cheese sandwiches are made from sliced bread but the goods are prone to run out the side and catch on the electricals, which is why I use Pita.

A Pita is a self-continued miracle of cooked bread dough that will hold a filling secure and stand up to a little heat. And you don’t have to tip the toaster sideways (to stop the filling running out of the bottom).“If toasters were meant to be used sidewise they would be ‘sideways toasters’ and not ‘upright toasters’” – Wise Chinese Sage. (Pita has a sealed bottom making it fine for upright toasting).

But first, why am I toasted cheese sandwiches in a toaster and not a toasted sandwich maker? Because I have toaster and I don’t have much space and the toaster and toasted sandwich maker together would push me out the door. Beside when you are frugal about money, a speciality machine for making toasted cheese sandwiches seems excessive.

 

Cheddar cheese (the most flavoursome of the cookable cheeses) is full of fat and leaks and burns and makes smoke and alarms go off. A low fat cheese like Edam avoids this. Likewise Mozzarella. NZ makes most of the Mozzarella used on Chinese pizza, which means this commodity is in demand, scarce and expensive. Hey I’m not complaining. Those exports pay for what is mostly a wonderfully carefree and relaxed Socialist Democratic paradise so the cheap flavourless Edam no one else wants will do just fine.

Grate cheese, mix in finely chopped onion, some diced olives, Kaitaia fire, pepper, herbs, smoked paprika whatever you want. Slice pita in half, stuff halves with cheese mix and toast on low heat (Pita is delicate around high heat). And don’t over fill the pita. It’ll stick and burn and make a mess. On the matter of cooked grated cheese Google/finecooking.com says:

Finely grating the cheese creates more surface area, allowing heat to permeate quickly for even melting. Large or irregular chunks of cheese melt at different rates, can melt first on the outside and then overcook, or become clumpy or oily before the inside of the chunk starts to flow.

 

The first time I heard the word google I thought it weird and unwieldy – clumsy and silly. When I realised what google could do the word became more meaningful. I got to like it but I never got to like U2. First time I heard that name I thought “dumb word play” and could never really take them seriously after that. This probably makes me a prat or a snob or some such. As for Google/google here is what Wikipedia has to say:

Search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google’.

It tells us that you can only goggle on Google. Little g is fine when using the word to describe a search on Google Corporations information gathering algorithm machine but a big G is in order for describing the auspicious company behind the brand. It is improper to say “I will just google that” on any search engine other than Google’s but you can ‘bing’ on Bing or ‘duckduckgo’ on Duckduckgo.

So anyways I got the damned cheese grater. It cost $3.00 at The Warehouse. If I had of known it was going to be that cheap I might have bought one years ago. Otherwise I have nowhere to put it except under the bed and that feels wrong.

 

“Do you have a cheese grater?” she asks.

 

“Yeah. Right there, under the bed,” he says pointing.

 

“Oh…… really?” She says raising an eyebrow at the thought.

 

‘Google it/on Bing/Fuck the Man/The thing is/I am a maverick/I keep my cheese grater under the bed/Bing/Bang/Boing/Take that bitch’!

“I’m a Rapper,” he tells her but she has already gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Pissing In Public.

May 28, 2017

 

 

I have no problem with pissing outside. I grew up on farm where the whole world is your toilet (you are 5km from any kind of civilisation so you just do as needs require. Besides, there is no one about so who is too care?). The only time you might use an actual toilet is when you are at home and even then its easier to go outside and give the ‘gift that matters’ to the lemon and feijoa tree where it will do some good rather than the rigmarole of toilets and seats and back splash and hand washing.

I remember suggesting to my newly minted 8-year-old stepson that he pee outside. “It’s easier and much more fun”. A well schooled town boy, he was visibly upset by the idea but he got used to it and hasn’t looked back. “Yes, it is convenient” he announced when he was about 10. The problem was getting him to stop pissing onto the one spot, that’s where excess piss had killed a good few square feet of lawn. “You gotta spread it around boy. It is potent stuff”.

Different rules apply when you pee outside. Hand washing is not always possible and you have to compromise standards a little. Otherwise piss is sterile and you can learn to hang your ‘willy’ out and do the job without touching anything. If you really have to wash, dewy grass is a good start.

The toilet is good for storms and impossibly cold nights but otherwise outside is easiest. Or in bucket. At one time the whole family peed in buckets and in the morning I would collect it, dilute it down with water and chuck it on the lawn. Visitors would kick off their shoes and walk about the grass marvelling at the velvety softness underfoot. “It was piss that did that,” I never told anyone.

The worst part about pissing is getting up in the night but a bucket close by makes it simple, comfortable and easy. ‘Easy’ unless you knock the bucket over which is why I switched to the bottle. I learned my lessons about peeing in bottles a few years back when I was stuck in traffic.

It was an emergency. I had no choice. I unzipped and let rip. It was one huge error of judgement. I jammed the head of my cock into the head of a bottle and forgot to leave room for air displacement. There was an explosion of urine and I was a bloody mess and the car was a bloody mess. “Fuck you Auckland Traffic,” I screamed helplessly to no one.

Growing up on a dairy farm gets one used to being pissed on and in the end its only “grass and water” (or in my case chocolate and coffee) grandpa would remind me when I was still getting used to this ‘fact of cowshed life’. After a while you stop thinking about it. Even shit becomes a mundane thing. “Grass and water, grass and water.”

I got caught short up on K-Rd the other week and damn did I not regret using the toilet at the café I left five minutes back. Three km’s till home and the pressure is building. In the end I ducked off the footpath and into a byway running through the University of Auckland and let loose against a tree. Jesus it felt good.

I finished and turned around to find a dozen people staring at me out a window, a mix of emotions on display. Some looked vaguely shocked, some offended and others amused. I waved and bowed and mouthed my gratitude for their kind attention. If you are going to do it in the daylight and in public do it fast and without hesitation and if you get caught, be gracious about it. It’ll confuse them while you make your getaway.

Piss is a miracle thing. Lawns, tress, and shrubs (including fruit trees) will benefit from its judicious application. It can be added to compost to invigorate proceedings (the nitrogen in urine is mana from heaven to the bacteria working at breaking down the waste) and used to fertilise commercial food crops. You can do a lot of positive things with urine.

We should not be afraid of piss but we are and for good reason. Historically we discovered that having a whole lot of people pissing on everything in built up areas is no good for anyone (it stinks for a start) so we developed some pretty firm strictures about the ‘where and when and how’ of pissing in places.

But when you gotta go you gotta go. Even on the verge of a busy road in the middle of the day. People are going to toot and point. Ignore them; they know not what they do. A full bladder can be distracting to a driver. Better to be safe than sorry.

I know this woman who can lift her skirt and point her stream as efficiently as any man. She’s a farm girl who does it with practiced amusement and god help anyone who takes offence: “It’s only bloody piss. Get over it”. Ah Kiwi women. Gotta love them.

 

The Strip Club.

May 12, 2017

 

 

So far I had managed to politely wangle my way out of every social invitation that first week on the job (I don’t like going out if I can help it) but it was Friday and my new boss was insistent. “I can’t afford it,” I said meekly. “You have already used that one” he shot back “and I am paying so come on, the Uber is waiting downstairs and we gotta go”.

Uber I wondered? I was only just up from a small provincial town and still adjusting to the ways of the big city and had no idea what Uber was. Turns out it was a car with a driver, like a taxi. “Where are we going?” I ask the boss. “You’ll see” he grinned and ten minutes later the Uber pulls up outside a strip club. I had never been to a strip club and wasn’t about to start, or so I imagined.

“It’s looks a bit flash and there is no way they are going to let me in,” I say indicating my jeans with holes in the knees.“ Ah, but I have this ” he says waving a wad of cash at me, “Opens every door every time”. And sure enough the blank stare on the huge Polynesian guy guarding the door quickly turns into a beatific smile at the sight and he waves us in. Damn.

Dimly lit, read velvet, cut glass mirrors and shimmering gold. Then there is the stage and the silver poles and a guy staring at a naked dancer the way a biologist might stare at a rare specimen. It was a lot to take in at a glance and feeling nervous I turn my attention toward the action at the bar.

“Four tequila shots” thunders the boss at the young woman making the drinks. “Are we expecting guests?” I wonder as the shots appear before us. He pushes two at me and watches to see that I knock them back before ordering the beers. “Two beers,” then “No”. He pauses dramatically then winks, “make that four beers.” So that I was how it was going down tonight.

The alcohol tickles my senses making everything shimmer more brightly. The young woman serving behind the bar carries a thick Italian accent and the kind of dusky Romanesque features I have long considered the epitome of female beauty. I could have happily sat back and watched her do her thing all night long when an arm falls about my waist. I had not been touched by another person for sometime and the sensation causes me to start. “Relax,” whispers an accent that turns out to be Hungarian, Budapest to be precise. She is tall, and by tall I mean very tall. I am tall, very tall, and she is looking me directly in the eye.

“Do you know so-and-so?” I ask blurting out the name of a friend from the same city. Her response is to ask if I want to go upstairs. I follow her eyes toward a stairwell off to the side. “She wants to know if you would like a fuck,” whispers the boss into my ear pressing something into my left hand. “It’s strip club currency,” he whispers and then in a voice that is now no longer a whisper says “To pay for it.” “No” I blurt out at him and at her and just like that she is gone and for the first time I see her in perspective as she hones in on another man who is not tall at all.

The thong about her waist is but a suggestion and I tick off every question I might ever have about what a very tall women might look like naked. It’s all very positive. Two more tequila’s appear in front of me. “From your friend” says the Italian girl indicating that I might tip her with the strip club cash if I so desire. I desire and she smiles beatifically.

The boss was nowhere to be seen and with the alcohol fuelling my confidence I sit down and consider the naked young women swinging about the poles. “We have to wipe them down a lot” says a voice off to the side, “With all that pussy action they start smelling a little ripe after a time”. The speaker is a smartly dressed young woman with a tray. “Can I get you another drink?” I pass her some currency and she returns with another beer. That she is world-weary is obvious and I ask her to sit and talk. She sits and talks.

She is half-Maori and half-Portuguese which explains her exotic looks. She is also a student and appreciates the money if not the clientele. We are watching two well-dressed business types rubbing their crotches as they watch the girls polish the silver. “Welcome to my world.” Her grimace says it all.

I ask her if she dances and she says yes but tonight she is on the bar. We chat a while longer and she unloads a bit then touching my arm asks me to stay put before rushing of backstage. A while later she walks onstage and does a strip routine and some pole dancing. She knows her stuff. Later she reappears and asks me if I enjoyed it? I shove the wad of ‘strip cash’ at her but she politely demurs pushing it back with a blush. “I have to go,” she says, “study then sleep”. Then says “Thanks for listening.” It is my turn to blush.

Later a kid of no more than 18 and wearing something akin to bare flesh eyes up the ‘strip cash’ and asks me if I would like a lap dance. I say no and she takes this as a challenge and offers to throw in something extra. I ask her where she is from. “Guess” she says and I guess Rotorua. “How did you know that?” she laughs. “Your accent” I reply. She gives up with the lap dance thing and I give her some currency regardless. She gets me a beer. “On the house” she winks. The boss reappears and I tell him I have had enough and say I am off home but he is not listening. The girl from Rotorua has caught his attention.

 

 

 

Depression Is Not What People Say It Is.

May 10, 2017

 

 

When I was in my late teens my dad said to me, “You were such a happy kid. What happened to you?” I had no idea he even noticed me in that way and this deeply personal query came as a surprise and caused me to pause and consider.

The events that lead him to this question might have arisen from the sudden death of my sister in an accident in 1972. Ten months separated us and we were close. That was a bruising shock that came at the end of rather excellent day.

I remember thinking that this must be how it works – bad things follow good things. It took me decades to shake that feeling but it is problematic blaming all of life’s quirks and complications on one thing when there are probably other factors at play.

I also my remember dad saying once or twice that I was overly sensitive. I felt a bit punch-drunk a lot of the time and my emotions were like a wild beast that I was seldom able to contain. Those words were representative of the kind of reception I was becoming used to. It made me feel nervous about who I was underneath, deep down and within.

 

 

I spent a lot of time with Cath and Bob (my maternal grandparents) as a kid and while he was off at work she stayed in bed, often until early afternoon. I learned to move silently as she hated and kind of disturbance, especially noise. Otherwise the most she ever said to me was “move” or “shift” if I was in her way and I tried not to be. I didn’t feel good around her.

That she was depressed is obvious now especially in light of my own mother who was of similar disposition. Their rage was the worst of it and indicative of their deeper suffering. From the lofty position of age, wisdom and experience I can see the clear line of accession but there is more.

That would be my Dad. His two sisters described him as a moody sibling, one prone to silence and isolation. I worked for him for many years and learned he was obsessive and obstructive (though not without redeeming qualities). He was beset of complexities that when combined with mums have made for interesting genetic outcomes.

 

 

When people talk about depression they wax lyrical about ‘the darkness’ and ‘hopelessness’ and ‘the void’ and ‘the black hole swallowing you up’. I guess that’s why I never recognised it. Knowing what I know now I would say depression is also emotional pain, anger, confusion, lack of equilibrium, grinding physical and mental exhaustion, apathy, helplessness and abiding unhappiness.

There might also be some obsessiveness and anxiety as well as some of the poetical ‘black hole’ stuff and an uncomfortable sensitivity to outside stimuli especially noise. I just knew it as an unbidden thing that would rise up out of nowhere take a hold of my psyche and shake me about until I didn’t know if I was Arthur or Martha. Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind.

 

 

 

Mum and I were out in Hamilton in a department store called DIC one morning. She handed me some clothes and told me to go and try them on. The attendant took me down to the changing rooms in the basement and I shut the door and suddenly there I was alone in this silent and dimly lit cubicle and it felt good, really good. I wondered what it might be like to stay here forever.

From then on I sought out dark quiet places. It was here away from people and noise that I was able to experience some sort of liberty. As the years passed I finagled ways and means to live like this but always felt the pull of the outside world – I needed to make a living of course and I felt compelled to join in, for the usual reasons of wanting to fit in and belong. It was exhausting and behind my façade I felt like a drowning man. Still do.

 

 

 

 

I overcompensated like Cath and my Mum who by all appearances were otherwise gregarious and charismatic. I turned it on in order to appear normal and suffered acutely from the effort. Eventually I just gave up on that as I gave up trying to explain myself. I have grown wary of the uninformed and well meaning and out of self-respect have learned to keep myself to myself. This is why I never spoke about the ‘eating thing’ until 2015.

I stopped eating normally when I was fifteen after seeing my naked torso reflected in the bathroom mirror at boarding school. It was a distorted reflection and typical of the way visual messages were scrambled as they travelled between my eye and brain (as I learned later). I felt something had to be done and decided on a course of weight loss even though I was a skinny as a rake.

This was long before anorexia was on the radar. When the word finally entered my lexicon it was as a female complaint and I felt doubly stupid about the mess I had gotten myself into. After twenty-five odd years of struggle I eventually I found a way out though you never fully recover it seems.

Sometime during 2015 I was preparing to interview a big pop star. During the research I learned that he had been treated for anorexia. He clammed up at the very mention. Realising the sensitivity of the line I had just crossed I took a deep breath I told what I had never told anyone, that I suffered from it too.

Relaxing somewhat he explained that his public confession had resulted in a lot of negative commentary and he was now guarded on the subject. He went onto say that for him it became a way of having some control in a life that was otherwise out of control. I had never thought of it like that and I decided that same explanation could work for me but realised eventually that there was more to it than that.

Sometimes things were good, really, really good, then too good then the like lightening ‘good’ feeling would be gone and I’d be a castaway on a barren and bereft shore suitably gasping for breath. What had happened, what had gone wrong, how did I get to here from there?

I was seeking out ritual acts that might make it right and I took it all a wee bit too far is all, like eating only the things I ate when I was feeling good This and lots of other repetitive and compulsive stuff that went around and around and around. This is OCD at work and anorexia is part of that family. So is anxiety.

Anxiety is: A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about life.

Anxiety is: Worry, concern, apprehension, consternation, unease, fear, disquietude, perturbation, fretfulness, agitation and angst. It is nervousness, tension, stress, misgiving and foreboding.

Anxiety is: overwhelming, exhausting, depressing and isolating. Acute anxiety immobilises, suffocates and drowns the afflicted. So does depression and OCD.

 

 

 

 

I have loved Glen Campbell’s music since I first heard his mega-hit Try A Little Kindness ringing out of over Dad’s little transistor radio in 1970. We were out the back by the garage and he was washing the car and I was dicking about with the hose and I stopped and listened, really listened.

You got to try a little kindness/yes show a little kindness/shine your light for everyone to see/and if you try a little kindness/then you’ll overlook the blindness/of the narrow-minded people/walking narrow- minded streets.

It struck a chord and in later years I could have used a little more kindness and broad mindedness but I don’t think anyone really realised what was going on except for mum. She figured it out but and did what she could but dealing with these things is not easy. Not for anyone.

I have to ask myself if I was kind enough to her and others? Sometimes I was but mostly I wasn’t. I had lost sight of myself in my own plight. Key to finding a way out I learned, was to give of yourself, just like the song said. Little things like a smile or a heartfelt compliment, some words of encouragement, an act of generosity. To lift others is to lift ones self. It is a self-serving but effective method that cures nothing but it does make life sparkle a little more.

 

 

 

We were driving along the Hautapu Straight and were stuck behind a meandering tractor. “Gah” said Dad in frustration, “Look at this bugger driving all about the road like a lost soul.” It hit me like a sledgehammer. That was what I was. Lost. I felt all at once shame, confusion and wonderment that the truth should be that obvious. Later I thought of myself as a ghost, a shadow, a passing cloud and wondered why I was and what purpose I served.

Later I concluded that life in its truest sense was meaningless, a by-product of a blind creative process called nature of whose origins we know nothing. All is a mystery yet here we are and like all in nature we are profuse and diverse. In order for species to flourish multiplicity is required and variety in brain function is especially important to a species success.

Sometimes that genetic quest for distinctive minds that might enable the group in unusual ways throws up failures and dead ends. This is how it goes and I came to the conclusion that it was less a case of ‘why me’ and more a case of ‘why not me’.

Dyslexic, depressed, anxious, and obsessed – my wiring is skewiff and I have given up trying to fix it. Anti-Depressants help a little but are not a panacea, unlike the meds for OCD. They worked a treat though I gave them up after five years. I felt it was time to go it alone and an unexpected and difficult with-drawl followed.

 

Prescription pills can be can be addictive too. One must approach the conclusion with care and consideration. Since I stopped I have never looked back. These meds did their job well.

Otherwise I like a little codeine. It makes me feel warm and alive. Pot is also nice in a similar way. I have also tried micro dosing with LSD after reading about the benefits. I can confirm that it helped though I did not much like the effect. I would prefer to be ‘fine as I am’ but that is not going to happen.

 

There is a kind of beauty that comes with ageing and its mostly about ‘coming to terms’ with ones self (if you are lucky –some never do). I know my limits and accept that certain proclivities will ever stalk me like a bad night without reprieve.

These days I live in a tiny room. Buried deep with a concrete high rise it has no window and is otherwise deathly silent. I leave it only as necessary and in the silence I have discovered equilibrium and the art of maintaining it.

* I wrote all this down not to glean sympathy or ask for understanding but for someone who is of similar disposition and is just setting out on the path of life and in the reading I hope she might benefit from knowing that she is not alone. Some of us are just made this way though you can be sure that those who aren’t will assure you it is all a matter of attitude. Be careful of these folk for they know not what what they say.

 

On Coffee, Tobacco and Steve McQueen.

May 6, 2017

 

 

Some people think Decaf is coffee. I am not so sure. Tea has caffeine but is not coffee and neither is beer, though it might as well be. Give me sunshine or coffee? I’ll take the latter – Roma style, (that’s ‘very dark roast’). Sun cannot outshine that. It’s the flavour the Decaf kids tell me, “It’s about the flavour!”

 

On Saturday at boarding school we were herded into the gymnasium to watch a movie inadequately displayed on a white canvas screen (home video was still a decade away). They asked me to choose the films once. It was supposed to be for the year it lasted a month.

I was picking stuff I’d been reading about in the newspaper but I didn’t take into account the whole censorship thing and after a few screenings the Brothers decided I was a liability and stripped me of my status as the film guy. I missed the weekly trip into the city to select the films from the warehouse and I missed the kudos that came with the job.

Later I became the music guy. Otherwise ‘persona non grata’ I was well read and if anyone wanted to know anything about a song or artist I was the guy. Once a kid sidled up to me and said, “I know its uncool but I like Abba. I reckon they are pretty good. Is that alright do you think?” I said yes but we both knew better than to say it out loud.

I remember Joe Cocker raging his away across the ill lit canvas in a concert flick called Mad Dogs and Englishman. I was thirteen years old and none of it made much sense. The supervising Brother spent a lot time with his hand over the projector lens during The Godfather. I had picked that film. I thought the horse head in the bed scene quite shocking and never quite got over it. He was more interested in protecting us from the sight of ‘sexy ladies’.

The best gym moment ever was Steve McQueen driving over the horizon in his big American beast car towing a horse trailer. He stops at a diner at the edge of a desert and refills on coffee and cigarettes while thinking about the next paying gig. I was a loner myself  and decided Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner was a loner worth emulating.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah Junior Bonner was not one of his usual things. Peckinpah was the shot em up king. No, more than that, he was an artist and his violence was beauteously studied. Junior Bonner was a character flick and quite a departure for the man. Of its failure to fire at the box office Peckinpah said, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”

In the Documentary film I am Steve McQueen (2014) Steve is painted as a restless soul, an intelligent self-involved Renaissance man with a destructive bent, McQueen did it his way or not at all. The establishment accepted that about him because he was box office gold. Lesser personalities would not have been able to get away with half as much I imagine.

I wanted to be just like him for longer than necessary. I rode my motorcycle hard and fast like he did and I drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes like Junior Bonner and dreamt of the wealth that came with great fame. I equated wealth with freedom. Many years later I realised that freedom was mostly a state of mind. A little cash helps but too much and that house of cards becomes a prison. My favourite ever Steve McQueen is Papillon (1973), a harrowing film that explores the harsh French prison system as it was for a time. McQueen is relentless in the lead role.

 

Back in 1960 -70s New Zealand it seemed that everyone smoked except my Dad. Our house was dominated by women and for ever so long I thought that smoking was a female thing until one day we were out in the car and passed by a farmer herding sheep, a smoke dangling from his lips. “Look Dad” I said excitedly, “that man is smoking”. Noel then explained that men smoked too. I found that hard to accept.

Second hand smoke from Mum, Aunties and Grandmothers – I loved it. I would inhale it and exalt in the heady rush but mostly I would stare at the blue plumes drifting up and about the car, the living room or wherever it was we were. The smoke shifting in the tidal air currents was a kind of artistry as was the way the cigarettes were held, waved about and stubbed. Everyone had a method and my mothers mannerisms were especially stylish I thought.

Of course I took it up as soon as I could and by age twenty I was a seasoned smoker. It was my bulwark against a cruel and confusing world for which I was little enabled and with that cigarette sitting between me and everyone else I felt safe. I promised to love tobacco forever. Forever lasted until six months ago when I just stopped and that was that. It was easy really and I have only looked back twice when I caged a couple of rollies off a mate just to see. Yes they were delicious but I had lost the love. Where did it go? I have no idea.

Smoking looks glamorous in the movies but in reality it stinks, clinging to clothes and breath in the most ungainly way and the people who smoke heavily don’t look great. One of my favourite film stars Humphrey Bogart died from a smoking related cancer, and painfully so it is told. Over the years you can see this chain-smoking matinee star loose his lustre as his skin dried up and puckered.

Happened to a whole slew of generations who smoked themselves to death. Long before the authorities got in on the act people intuitively knew it wasn’t great. ‘Smoke Smoke that Cigarette’ goes a hit song from 1947 – ‘Puff, puff, puff and smoke yourself to death/Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate/That you hates to make him wait/You’ve gotta have another cigarette’.

But that’s what cigars are for, a taste from time to time. God help you though if you get a ‘real liking’ for those bastards. True, you can’t draw the strong smoke down into your lungs, which is why people think they’re the ‘safe option’, but puffing causes cancer too. Sadly.

My grandmother’s cousin Old Kamali died when he was ninety-five. He grew his own tobacco in an allotment on the outskirts of Suva and after curing rolled it into cigars that he chain-smoked from his perch under the eaves of his house. My grandmother, died in her late eighties. A lifetime smoker of cigarettes she was a ‘puffer’ like Kamali. So was I.

I had my lungs checked a while back and they were clean. I was both surprised and pleased but this had nothing to do with my giving it away. They both might have lived longer had they not been smokers someone once suggested to me. I thought that an odd statement given their overall longevity.

 

 

I like my coffee ‘very dark roast’. That’s a certain variety of bean burned and then finely ground (not all beans can stand up to a heavy roast). Get the espresso grind. The filter grind does about as good a job as ‘tits on a bull’ as a friend used to say. The finer the grind the more intense the end result.

I use a one-cup drip filter device, a two-dollar plastic thing that fits over the top of a mug. Place a filter paper into device, add some coffee, pour in some boiling water and as soon as the top of the heat has drifted off, it’s ready for sipping (the brew needs to cool a little for the myriad flavours to become fully apparent). No milk, nor sugar – these things ruin it.

My brand of choice is Robert Harris (a big commercial roaster), their bold Italian and Roma styles being a perfect fit for my sensibilities. ‘Very dark roast’ coffee has none of the astringency of lighter roasts. I am not a fan of this ‘astringent’ quality but many are. I like it bold and gold, angst and man, burnt caramel and bitter carbon. Many don’t.

Food is our medicine it is said and I medicate readily. Eating is a game as much about pleasure as it is about nutrition. Sometime part of the pleasure of eating is knowing that you are looking after yourself. Sometimes you can’t help yourself and that is pleasurable also.

Tobacco, beer and coffee: Only one of these is bad for you. Spent coffee grounds should go to the compost. Plants, earthworms, beneficial fungi and bacteria love em. Got no garden? Then feed the compost to a public tree or shrub somewhere. Caffeine is essential so if you ever see me drinking Decaff then you’ll know the decline has set in. Life without narcotics is a life half lived and flavour is only part of the equation.

 

TV Review: In the Line of Duty.

May 4, 2017

In the Line of Duty.

9/10 Stars

(Police Thriller)

Capsule Comment: Police thriller Line of Duty follows the work of AC-12, the Anti-Corruption Unit of the East Midlands Police Force in old Blighty, and after week we are treated to dense story lines that twist and turn like a Sunday afternoon on ‘shrooms’ as Superintendent Ted Hastings and his team root out the ‘bad eggs’ perverting the course of justice from within. Ok, sometimes the series stretches the limits of credibility but never at the cost of its overall sense of authenticity. Long after the mounting piles of the deceased and disgraced are filed away in AC-12’s archives this show will live on as a streaming staple and is sure to be as influential as it is popular. Thrilling and exciting, Line of Duty is an absolute winner.

 

From the moment it hit the screen back in 2012 Line Of Duty has been star performer for the BBC and it’s easy to see why. This show is explosive from the get go and from seasons one through four the pace never lets up.

From the pen of wunderkind writer (and ex-RAF man) Jed Mercurio Line of Duty is police thriller based around AC-12, the Anti-Corruption unit of the East Midlands Police Force (The East Midlands is one of nine official administrative regions of England). The premise is lifted directly from landmark 2002 Hong King film Internal Affairs (directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, remade in 2006 by Martin Scorsese as The Departed) and seasons one though three follow a groomed copper manipulating things from the inside for a nefarious criminal organisation, an unresolved story arc that is still ongoing in the latest season, 2017s four.

DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cotton (Craig Parkinson) nicknamed after an iconic character from Coronation Street was recruited into a shady criminal organisation as a kid and later joined the police as per instructions and has risen up through the ranks. He provides information back to his masters, destroys evidence and makes the appropriate payoffs. It’s a delicate and dangerous business but his triumphant recruitment in to AC-12 means he now has the ability to manipulate the system as never before. Watching Dot undermine his colleagues is narrative gold and makes for riveting TV. As for the man himself he is beautifully written as both tragic and sinister and later, as his life is revealed in more detail, pitiful.

DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) is a whistle blower, a former specialist anti-terrorist copper who refused to keep his silence on a mission gone wrong and found himself ostracized. AC-12 offered him a new start. Like the man who recruited him (Ted Hastings) he is absolute in his pursuit of justice but unlike Hastings he is prepared to push the envelope to get the evidence he needs to prove his case. Steve is all white-hot intensity on a humid summers day.

Police Superintendant Ted Hastings’s (Adrian Dunbar) is probably the surprise package of the series, a square portrait of integrity whose virtuous world-view is almost a moral crusade. For Hastings’s victimised women are ‘poor wee girls’ and the men that hurt them are ‘now you listen to me fella’. Says season four AC-12 recruit DC Jamie Desford to a colleague “It’s Jamie not James. How do I get him to call me by my proper name?” The reply sums up the Hastings’s method succinctly: “It’s hard to turn that freighter around once it has set sail”.

When the lawyer representing a suspect suggests he pull back on the Paisleyism’s (Ted is Northern Irish) he response is typically “You think this is a joke fella?” Hastings is as solid as solid can be and his manner is one of those oddly eccentric methods that help make this a series as special as it is.

“I can’t be seen alone with a pretty young lassie like her,” he tells DS Arnott after he turns down an invitation for a drink at the pub from DS Kate Fleming who is putting herself forward for a promotion. This proprietary is mostly mistaken for gender bias and is often used against him. Otherwise Dunbar’s lines are an endless seam of gold and with each episode comes the expectation of some new fantastical Hastingsism to mull over.

Season ones Detective Inspector Tong Gates (Lennie James) is black and Birmingham’s most successful detective or as Hastings is thinking: too successful.

Hastings “No one is that successful.”

Gates “If you are black you have to work twice as hard as they next man.”

Hastings “I am a Catholic from Northern Ireland so don’t you go telling me about being black. No ones blacker than me and I got where I am the right way.”

 

DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure – This is England and Broadchurch) is the team’s undercover operative/specialist whose job it is to get close to suspects and observe them closely feeding necessary information back to AC-12. Ambitious and career focused (her drive has cost her a marriage and relationship with her son); her steady and thoughtful manner is the perfect foil for Steve Arnott’s more aggressive headlong tendencies.

Her turn hunting down Dot with a high powered rifle at the end of season three is as intense as it is it outlandish and might just be a classic in the making, like something right out of The Professionals (1977-83) with a splash of Get Carter (1971) for that extra bit of madness but that’s Line of Duty for you. It stretches the limits of credibility (like when Steve Arnott is beating with a baseball bat in season four and is thrown down three flights of stairs and is back to work a couple of days later albeit in a wheelchair– hmmm) but never seems to loose its authenticity. It certainly makes the East Midland look a lot more exciting than it probably is.

To say that AC-12 is not well regarded by their colleagues is an understatement. Viewed with suspicion and treated with callous mistrust these coppers are to the general force as the Stasi was to the people of East Germany – an all pervasive system of spying and authoritarian overreach that undermines the ability of the force to properly conduct its business. Of course Ted Hastings argues the point quite differently: “There’s a line. It’s called right and wrong and I know on which side my duty lies.” 

While AC-12’s main objective is ensuring that police conduct is above board and beyond reproach as leads are followed up so are stones overturned and all kinds of cellar dwelling shenanigans exposed, paedophile rings and the like included (season three is mostly a critical analysis of real life paedophile investigation Operation Yewtree) and week after week we are treated to dense story lines that twist and turn like a Sunday afternoon on ‘shrooms’ and not an episode goes by without your expectations being turned inside out and upside down.

While Line of Duty is a thoroughly contemporary police thriller that pays due homage to the BBC’s social mandate (gender parity and multiculturalism) its also pays fair reverence to what has gone before. Classic police shows like The Professionals and The Sweeny are often referenced, both in style and tone. Mercurio really knows his stuff and it’s this kind of loving craftsmanship that help make Line of Duty as good as it is.

One of shows great strengths is this attention to detail. Every character is richly coloured making it hard not to become emotionally invested in the proceedings. These are desperate people trying to stay ahead of events spiralling out of their control, good and bad guys both and as for those bad guys – they are never quite as black and white as many shows would paint them.

It is never clear if disgraced detective DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes – seasons two and three) is guilty of the crimes AC-12 has nailed her for and while we are that on that subject, what a superbly drawn character this woman is. Cue the scene when she has had about all she can take of her neighbours loud music and hefting a wine bottle proceeds to haul said neighbour into line with a nicely placed blow to the head before adjusting the volume.

Is this the action of a corrupt officer or that of a person under duress? She is all shades of grey and a brilliant with it and as for her final scene, well my-oh-my, what a dazzling piece of television that was.

As for the leader of an armed Police unit, the deeply wounded Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays – season three), he is as much a victim as the perpetrator, a case that could also be made for Dot Cotton though Danny’s crimes turn out to be understandable whereas Dot eschews each and every redemptive possibility out of fear and a misguided sense of loyalty to the wrong people. DCI Roz Huntley however (Thandie Newton – Westworld), season four, may just be the best villain yet.

A manipulator extraordinaire she is misguided in her judgements and seriously unhinged with it (but gets away with thanks to a her sexually smitten senior whose own questionable integrity is a another swelling pile of steaming shit) and her calculating wit is turning out to be a swamp for everyone who dares venture there including Hastings and co. Even season ones bent detective Tony Gates was worthy of some empathy but it could be that there is nothing redemptive about Roz in anyway at all. Or is there? One can never tell with this series and this is a rare and wonderful thing. As for season four, ok I have a few quibbles with some of the scripting but damned shame it was over so quickly. A sly hint about Ted Hastings was also dropped at the last moment……. or was it? I guess we will have to wait and see.

Line of Duty is sharp, subversive, bonkers and action packed and if not for some incredulous narrative leaps, it is almost perfect. Long after the records of the deceased and disgraced are filed away in AC-12’s archives will this show continue on as a streaming staple and is sure to be as influential as it is popular.

 

 

 

TV Review: The Handmaids Tale (2017).

May 4, 2017

 

The Handmaid’s Tale. (Dystopian Thriller)

9.5/10

Capsule Review: In 2004 the odious Brian Tamaki rallied his Destiny congregation for a march on Parliament to oppose Civil Unions. Some two thousand Evangelicals turned up (he had promised ten thousand) and dressed in black t-shirts pumped their fists in the air and chanted, “Enough is Enough”. Somewhat emboldened Tamaki predicted the Church’s political arm would triumph in the following years general election and turn New Zealand onto gods path. Want some idea of how that might have turned out? The Handmaid’s Tale will tell you all you need to know. One of the most potent and important stories ever conceived about the dangers of ideological theocracy (a system of government in which the religious rule in the name of a god) it has been turned into a TV series and the result is gut wrenching. Essential viewing for those concerned with liberty, freedom and justice. Otherwise The Handmaid’s Tale is brutal dystopian drama of the first order.

 

 

I didn’t want to watch this because knew what was in store: a horror of epic proportions (I have not read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel but I have seen the very excellent 1990 film twice). Psychopaths, sadists and bestial violence – yes that and more, all of which I am pretty loath to tackle these days (as I get older I am discovering that I am les able to cope with the stress) but it is important, I told myself, to be reminded now and again of just how badly things can go wrong given the right set of circumstances.

The most glaring example of how a society can be hijacked by psychopathy is Hitler’s Germany but this is only one example out of the recent past that includes Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Hoxa’s Albania and Ceaușescu’s Romania. Then there is Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the reign of the Argentinean Generals, Pinochet’s Chile and apartheid era South Africa to name a few worthy contenders not to forget the subjection and genocide of the American Indian and the brutal slave system in the American South………. but I digress.

In a future that is only moments removed from now, America’s second Civil War is set in motion by an infertility crisis and with the exception of Alaska and a bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Union is in ruins. A fundamentalist Biblical religious movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ have managed a successful coup and have renamed the USA ‘The Republic of Gilead’ achieving something very similar to what we saw the Taliban enable in Afghanistan for a time and what ISIS is trying to facilitate with its ‘pure’ Islamist Caliphate in parts of the Middle East at this very moment.

The result is a nightmare for women and male non-believers as the Constitution is suspended and a new ‘moral code’ is enacted. The ‘Eyes’, a secretive police force charged with enforcing the strict new laws based on old Testament biblical morality, are everywhere (akin to Iran’s Gasht-e Ershad – Moral Police) and brutal with it. People are hauled off the street for minor and serious infringements and punishments ranging from eye removal to arbitrary hangings are now normal.

The judicial system could easily be compared with the Nazi’s ‘People’s Court’ where the accused are formally charged and penalties are handed out with no right of redress. Otherwise society is confined to a series of strange and perverse rituals designed to appease god for the moral waywardness that has resulted in the fertility crisis. The Handmaid’s of the title are those few women still able to conceive and thus blessed are set aside for mating with high-ranking officials. They are both treasured and jealously despised. They are also slaves.

Of course this society is immensely sadistic, punitive and corrupt as all extremist ideologies are and those at the top of the hierarchy pay due tribute to the law but behind closed doors they live as they please. The philosophy of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is well-examined, reinforcing age-old warnings about those who flaunt their piety. These sort are often not pious at all, more like opportunists in search of the main chance. Images of American Republican notables like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruise on their knees and praying in public outside the White House come to mind.

 

We first met actress Elizabeth Moss in the groundbreaking TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) a few years back and latterly she has appeared in hit Kiwi mini-series Top Of The Lake (Directed by Jane Campion -2013). In The Handmaids Tale she tackles the complex lead role of June (later renamed Offred), a woman struggling under a kind of duress that is almost impossible to fathom.

A student, wife and mother with a job, she is a fairly standard representation of the modern American woman and through a series of flashbacks we examine her life in the ‘time before the fall’. An especially chilling scene is early on in the piece when June’s credit card is declined. “But I have four thousand dollars in my account” she says.

Yes she does, except the new laws enacted that day restrict a woman’s right to an independent life and require that a close male relative manage her finances. Besides “We don’t serve sluts here” she is incredulously informed. The next day all female employees at her work place are laid off and sent home ‘where they belong’. This brave new world is a man’s one and you conform or die. Simple as that.

She is now a slave womb in servitude to one of the most powerful men in Gilead the powerful and high-ranking Commander Waterford and through her eyes we examine the ritual, process and fear that makes up the machinery of the Handmaid system. The Commander and his infertile wife are counting on Offred to provide them with the child they need to bolster their social position and salve their precarious emotional state.

Besides Moss’s contained and deeply nuanced portrayal of Offred (whose head is being kept above water out of hope she might find her confiscated daughter) the talented cast includes Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Enemy at the Gates, American Horror Story) as the Commander, Yvonne Strahovski (Dexter, Chuck) as Serena Joy the Commander’s bitter wife and Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) as Ofglen, Offred’s Handmaid shopping partner (shopping for the ‘families’ food is part of a Handmaid’s duties).

Her real name is Emily and she is a ‘gender traitor’, the new term for gay people, and when she is discovered having an affair with a ‘Martha’ (a lowly infertile female household servant) her punishment is genital mutilation. (Her life is otherwise spared because she is fertile – not so lucky the ‘Martha’) but the after Moss, the standout performer is Ann Dowd (a instantly recognizable character actor of roles to numerous to mention) as Aunt Lydia, instructor and guardian of the Handmaids.

Margaret Atwood talked to RNZ Broadcaster Kim Hill recently and in a wide-ranging interview shared her thoughts and feelings about The Handmaids Tale. A child of the 1930s she was born under the shadow of totalitarian regimes of various stripes including fascism and communism. She describes how these regimes happen as well as the personality types that make them work – from the complaint though to the sadistic and Aunt Lydia is nothing if not sadistic. In fact Aunt Lydia is exactly the type who made the Nazi extermination camps work as efficiently as they did.

 

I don’t usually review a TV series until I have seen the first season at least. It’s for reasons of clarity – making sure that I have seen enough so I can provide as substantive review as possible and besides, it hardly matters if you are a bit behind as streaming has changed the when and whys of viewing. A decent series is going to be just as potent in two years from now as it will be tomorrow so there is no real rush but there are exceptions and The Handmaids Tale is one of those because it is such an important and prescient story in light of the ‘populist’ politics at work in the world today.

Here I am thinking of Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines, and Erdogan’s Turkey among others and while the series sticks close to Atwood’s sharply drawn premise it manages some decent commentary on the current state of the USA and the growing influence of Evangelical politicians.

 

This is a skillfully conceived production and the attention to detail is astonishing. The camera work in particular needs special mention with every frame being a minor miracle of composition (often like something out of a Vermeer painting) and an example to all about how the lens can be used but so often isn’t. My only quibble is with Moss’s voice over which veers from commentary to diarist. When it is the former it works superbly. When it is the latter, not so much. Here it seeks to explain unnecessarily what the visuals are already describing aptly. In this context it is irritating.

Otherwise this is a gut-wrenching affair. I began this review by calling it a ‘Horror’ and that is what it is and the beast under the spotlight is not something exterior, but something from within – a monster created by the psyche and cast into life by social dysfunction. This is the greatest terror of all, man’s inhumanity to man by way of extremist devotion to belief and Atwood’s story reminds us that that this beast lurks behind every heartbeat waiting for the right moment to appear. This is why The Handmaid’s Tale is so important; because it reminds of how easily social cohesion can be undermined in times of stress and confusion. Beware, be wary and be warned.

 

Check out Kim Hill’s interview with Margaret Atwood here: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/201841216/margaret-atwood-the-resurgence-of-the-handmaid’s-tale

 

Other notable works exploring dystopian political themes include:

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (The 1966 film version was directed by French film master François Truffaut and is a lot better than many critics would have you believe)

The Children of Men by P.D James (The 2006 film is well on its way to ‘revered cult’ status)

Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison (the very excellent film version is called Soylent Green)

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin (Like Orwell’s Animal Farm this work puts the ideologies of communism and capitalism under the spotlight and finds both wanting)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Giver by Louis Lowry

The Trial by Franz Kafka (The great film director Orson Welles’s 1962 film version is hard work but visually stunning)

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (The brilliantly conceived TV series is well worth a visit)