Thursday, March 31, 2005


(Dir Larry Parr, with Kate Elliot as Leeanne and Jared Turner as Brent)

By some curious coincidence, two of Maurice Gee's books were made into movies in 2004.
In My Father's Den is the best movie the New Zealand cinema industry has ever produced. Fracture is not quite at that level. It had a lot of potential - there's a darkness and freakiness to the story that in the right hands would have been brilliant. Unfortunately, I don't think the players were quite up to it.

Take two examples. There is this supposedly fearsome eccentric old lady who runs a fence operation from some junkyard - the junkyard itself was brilliantly realised, with its broken down old ferry-go-round and multiple levels of mysterious objects. But Brenda Kendall came across as a mere pastiche of the character she was supposedly playing. The central character, Brent, was worse, overdoing the haplessness. He has apparently always been wierd, spending a lot of his childhood hiding under houses and so on, and is now a small time burglar who gets out of his depth when he nearly kills a woman in his efforts to avoid being caught. The role required a lot of him, as we need to see the events closing in on him and his inability to do anything sensible. I just don't think Turner was up to it.

So, anyway, when Brent pushes Ulla down the stairs, that is the start of the various fractures suggested by the title. Within her family, there are a few fissures about to blow wide open, as it turns out that Gordon has been a naughty fellow and embezzled a couple of million from his employer. Brent's family is already on the rocks - his mother is a member of a very fundamentalist Christian sect, one which is totally unforgiving and uncompassionate. His father is not like that at all, and I'd say he was my favourite character. Brent's sister, Leeanne, is a single mom and is really great in her relationships with her wee boy, but otherwise not very convincing. As Brent gets weirder and weirder, she tries to help but has problems of her own, particularly Danny.

Now, Danny is Jodi's (Leeanne's flatmate) boyfriend but is a bit of a scarey character - we know that because he has a big bushy beard and wears singlets. Leanne tells Jodi to get rid of him but instead she flees - leading to very strange scenes in which Danny expects Leeanne to cook etc for him. He never quite rapes her, but there is this supposedly foreboding presence in the house which I had trouble taking seriously. Still, it was great when Leeanne's Dad, just a normal sort of fellow (played by the late Tim Lee) knocks Danny cold.

Back to Brent. He knows the cops are after him. Several days after the event, he realises he left his gloves behind at Ulla's house, which means his fingerprints are there too. So, what do you do to avoid being matched with those fingerprints? Naturally, you use a train to remove the tips of your fingers! I damn near laughed at the pathetic expression on his face as he holds up his decapitated hand! Probably not the intended effect. But the cops close in on him anyway (through the use of a clue that they really should not have had - Brent stole a pashmina which he gave to Leeanne: she had it in her house and then fled with nothing but what she was wearing to Brent's house, where the cops find the pashmina). That's not to say that they get their man.

Of course, the director may have out-smarted me. The gap between the acting and the story they had to carry may have been another form of fracture, but somehow I don't think so.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Easter has been a weekend of quiet pleasures, the kind of pleasures that make an extended period of solitude so important for me. Ironically enough, I spent so much time on Thursday night talking with people insisting upon allocating nicknames to me ("Bongo"!!!) among other pleasures that by the time I made it to the supermarket to stock up on food all I got was a "sorry bud, we've closed". Ah, so a Good Friday spent eating pot noodles was in store for me. Luckily it was not so bad: my local cafe was open and doing a rather nice smoked chicken and couscous in pita bread concoction, so that was lunch taken care of. The other stand-out food moment of the weekend was today's lunch - inspired by John Hawkesby's rant on National Radio about the need to buy good wine from small wine shops I went up the hill to Rhubarb, which everyone in Dunedin with any sort of taste and discernment must surely know about by now. There I was able to have a rather tasty curry with my coffee. Nice.

But my pleasures of the weekend have run through the three most important cultural activities I can think of. I've read a great book (Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, which I'll need to write more about later). I have watched some great TV/film. Saturday night, instead of seeking out company and the raucous joys of the Shocking Pinks, I went and saw Sideways, a really fabulous little movie. Among the dross playing on TV (repeats of NZIdol anyone?), I've watched the Gilmore Girls - the fifth series has just started. I love the sneer delivered by Lane. Some random chick has been raving about how she'd love to drop everything and spend the next three years, just reading. Lane's deadpan question: "which book?" Of course, that leads on to a whole enquiry into whether Lane might just be in love with the guy the random had been hanging off. This is one of my favourite TV programmes yet it seems that that is supposed to be a dirty secret - so many people love the show yet are afraid to share their love. Why? I'm not afraid of the fact that I'm about to buy the DVD of the first three series. Its not like Felicity - now that show has some serious problems. And what do you do if your show has problems retaining any kind of theme or viewership? Its obvious - you have your main character engage in time travel, and have her come back to re-claim Noel when she finds Ben has been cheating on her. Now - this has already happened to Felicity in her real time, yet she allows herself to be persuaded by Ben that he'd never do that to her. Its not Felicity who should be locked up, but those making this - back when she was a student it was actually an OK show, one I'd make a point of watching. Now that I've caught up with it again, I won't.

I've also, naturally, watched ER. But, along with bits of Rove Live and the Vicar of Dibley that's about it for TV viewing over the past few days, unless you count the DVD of Black Books. I bought this for a stupidly cheap price last weekend in Auckland, and have been rationing it out cautiously, because, well, its as valuable as water on Dune. So far, I've watched to the second episode - the one in which Bernard gives Manny a job. Hilarious. For tonight's viewing pleasure, I took advantage of the cheap DVD night and rented Fracture.

Musically, the big thing is that I dug out a functioning record player and a stack of records, including some that have turned up from random trademe transactions, bought because it sounded like a good idea at the time. So, last night, I was listening with half an ear to a Son Volt record, Straightaways, when one track simply arrested me in whatever I was doing - it was slower than the rest, had a beautiful harmonica, gloomed guitar and lovely vocal. I bought this because when Uncle Tupelo fell apart and Jeff Tweedy went on to form Wilco, his former partner Jay Farrar had formed Son Volt. Others I remember from last night's session include Gary Numan's I, Assassin; Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Acme. Earlier in the weekend, I'd had a bit of a Nick Cave and Tom Waits festival, and found myself blown away by the lyrics to Cave's Lyre of Orpheus. After a simple strum of the lyre kills his wife, Eurydice, Orpheus plays it so much that God gets so annoyed with him he kills him with a hammer. So, Orpheus and Eurydice are in hell:

Poor Orpheus woke up with a start
All amongst the rotting dead
His lyre tacked safe under his arm
His brains all down his head
O Mamma O Mamma

Eurydice appeared brindled in blood
And she said to Orpheus
If you play that fucking thing down here
I'll stick it up your orifice!
O Mamma O Mamma

An interesting reversal of the original, where music was his salvation!

Sunday, March 27, 2005


(Dir Alexander Payne; Thomas Hayden Church as Jack, Paul Giamatti as Miles, Virginia Madsen as Maya and Sandra Oh as Stephanie)

This is one of the two Oscar nominated best films I will be seeing this year (Finding Neverland is the other). I almost didn't see this one, as I had difficulty with the extremity of Payne's adaptation of the novel About Schmidt. I'm glad I didn't let that sway me, as I loved this movie. Yes, its slight and doesn't have any of the "big" characters involved in the other nominees or any stars - in fact, the only actor from this movie I recall ever seeing before is Thomas Hayden Church, as one of the two brothers running the little off-shore airline in Wings. D'oh! It has just been revealed to me that Giamatti was Harvey in American Splendour - it must be the beard that made him unrecognisable. All four of the central actors have been in a bunch of movies, most of them low-key - I see that Madsen played Princess Irulan way back in the original Dune movie, but if that was at all truthful to the book, she'd have been onscreen for a whole 5 minutes.

Anyway: Sideways. Its very slightness turned out to be a virtue - those who go in expecting something really big will be bound to come out disappointed, but treat it as an unusually small but perfectly formed movie and it will be fine - it is both tender and truthful. It also actually requires something of the audience, rather than letting them just sit there and have the sory wash over them. There are some beautiful in-jokes here - one involved a bottle of wine from the 1961 vintage, which was said to have finally hit its peak and had to be drunk now, before it started to fade. This focus on the date made me wonder about the male leads, as they both seemed to be about that age: sure enough, Church was born in 1961 and has finally made it into the big league - this film, Spanglish and Spiderman 3. Jack was in a sit-com 20 years earlier and has been marking time ever since, doing voice-overs for commercials so there's a bit of sly commentary on his actor's life there, I suspect.

The story is quite simple: Jack is about to get married. Miles thinks it would be great if just the two of them could get away for the last week of freedom, to follow Miles' plan for a great time: being a wine geek in the Northern California vineyards and playing golf. Miles isn't doing so well with his life either: he's a Middle School English teacher, was divorced two years ago and has just submitted his third monster of a novel for publication; after the last two were rejected, it is not looking good. So, he's a bit depressive but he has standards. Jack, on the other hand, has other plans for their week: he wants to get laid and thinks that that will solve all of Miles' problems as well. So when they go to the Hitching Post for dinner, Jack is all keen for Miles to have a go at picking up Maya, because she's "hot" and "up for it" - not the way that Miles thinks at all.

It is this essential tension between their two characters that drives this movie to its rather improbable end - Jack is a larrikan, he casually picks Stephanie up and leads her to believe he's in love with her after a couple of days (about three days before his own marriage) whereas this provokes a moral crisis in Miles. When the thing with Stephanie comes to an end, Jack is all ready to move on the next woman he speaks to, a waitress in a bar who recognises him from his TV show 20 years earlier. This leads on to a couple of really funny scenes - they are totally unexpected in the context of this movie, so I'd not want to spoil anyone's fun by revealing what happens. They both had the whole theatre erupting in laughter. Not to say the movie as a whole lacks humour - but the sudden intrusion of a couple of slapstick moments into a story which had relied on a more subtle, even cerebral, form of humour adds to the fun.

Meanwhile - Miles. Like all good romances, he makes a good impression on Maya but then blows it completely. There's a brilliant scene at Stephanie's house - Miles and Maya are talking about wine, Maya explains why she's so into wine and ends with her hand on his. Poor Miles just sits there for a bit, then makes a dash out of the room. Returning to Maya, you can just see him standing there plotting what to do - not so much "will she let me kiss her" so much as "is that what is expected of me now", I suspect. Anyway, he goes for it, to get a nice hug and a "it was great to catch up" thing. As the movie came to an end, I was wondering if Payne was going to go out on a limb here and leave his central character in a worse position than at the start of the movie. After all, Jack's shenanigans had made it hard for him to face his friends in wine country and he learns not only that his ex wife is re-marrying but is also pregnant. And Maya is absolutely furious with him for not restraining Jack.

So, the movie is, in a sense, a meditation on friendship - Jack and Miles were college room-mates but, it seems, haven't been in close contact for a while, yet they decide to go away together in this week. Much is revealed about their differences, to the point you start to wonder why they actually spend any time together at all, as each makes the other furious. And yet, their friendship drags them back to each other.

One last point to make is about the dialogue - there was plenty of it, a lot of it was very smart, parts of it were very angry. In fact, I was reminded of Richard Linklater - not just his movie Tape, where the three central characters simply talk their way through the movie without ever leaving the room, but also his Before Sunrise and Sunset. One difference is that in those movies we actually get to see the characters talk their way into their relationship - Payne gets to a certain point and then fades away from the conversation. One key element to Miles and Maya's recognition of each other is their joint obsession over wine - they have "first bottle", "best grape" and other stories to share with each other. In fact, I did wonder if Miles' reason for his preference for the Pinot grape was a key to his character - he said it was such a difficult grape to get right, needed such special conditions to allow it to be fully majestic that anyone who grows it must really care about what they were doing - unlike Cabernet (Jack?) which could grow anywhere. Of course, they had other reasons to appeal to each other: both had been wounded in relationships recently, both were interested in avoiding fakery, both were edgy about getting involved ever again. The portrayal of their tentative appoach to each other was spot on and a nice contrast to Jack's immediate latching on to Sandra - within about an hour of them meeting, Miles and Maya are mutually embarassedly confronted with the sounds of them having sex.

Oh, and then there was his novel - people just don't want to read challenging books any more, so while it might be a fabulous work, it would be too hard to find a market for it (shades of Gaddis?).

Monday, March 14, 2005

Cremaster Cycle 1 & 2 (Film Society Screening)

(Dir: Matthew Barney, with Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini, 2 Goodyear blimps and the Mormon Tabernacle Quoir as themselves.)

People came out of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive going "what the...?". Compared to the Cremaster Cycle, Lynch's effort was about as unclear as a Colgate toothpaste advert. I have absolutely no idea what #1 was about, although I do have some vague idea that #2 was about metamorphosis - we had Norman Mailer (!) telling us that when he wants to escape from somewhere, he goes through some sort of metamorphosis so that he becomes one with the padlock and can thus get himself out.

But start at the beginning - the only coherent thought I have about #1 was that it was 41 minutes long. What we had was a woman, dressed in skimpy underthings, lying underneath a pedestal table, it had a smallish shelf half way up the pedestal on which she could lie. Now this table was actually two tables, one in each of two Goodyear blimps: she was under both, they were side by side at the same time but there was only one woman. On the table was a tablecloth and a big pile of grapes - white in one blimp and red in the other. Around each table were four different air hostesses, very bored: they'd get up and steal a grape every so often, or have a smoke (in a blimp!). There were no apparent passengers.

The woman under the table cut her way through the table cloth to get some grapes, which spilled onto the floor under her in various patterns. Under the blimps, in an astroturphed stadium, were a number of very elegantly dressed dancers - they would form into the same pattern as the grapes formed. This went on for 41 minutes. The director explains himself thus:
Gliding in time to the musical score, the chorus girls delineate the contours of a still-androgynous gonadal structure, which echoes the shapes of the two blimps overhead, and symbolizes a state of pure potential.
It is possibly worth knowing that the title, cremaster, may refer to the muscle which suspends the testicles, or equally may refer to the appendage which suspends an insect's pupa. It is also possibly worth knowing that Mr Barney is a former quarterback, and has made this film in his home field: Boise, Idaho. I agree with the critic who says that the film makes no sense but looks intriguing with its repetitive shapes and colours.

The second film had lots of action and even some dialogue, but again there was a lack of connection between the scenes, well none I could see while I was watching the movie. There was Mr Mailer, as Harry Houdini, being incarcerated in a locked cabinet - while we didn't see it, over the course of the film he freed himself. There was some pretty graphic sex, with a prosthetic penis (the maker is named in the credits). There were lots of bees which, in an interesting morph, became heavy metal music - although there millions of bees on the singer as well. We then switch to a fellow listening to the music in his car, which is joined to another by some sort of tubing. They are parked on a forecourt. He moves around restlessly, trying to sleep. Eventually, he gives up, gets out, robs the service station attendant and shoots him in the back of the head. Twice. Lots of blood. We never see them again - instead, we get a lake, soldiers on horses in a corral, a prisoner riding a bull to death, bison... It is possible that they were all showing different ways of being a drone - there are lots of hexagonal beehive images, including a wonderfully sparkly glass hexagon coated saddle - and right at the end, the Queen Bee talks with Mr Houdini/Mailer about the drones. Ah - there is stuff on the Cremaster website that helps - the film is a kind of homage to Gary Gilmore, who took death by firing squad as punishment for robbing and shooting a forecourt attendant twice in the head, to whom Johnny Cash is reputed to have made a phone call on the day of his execution. Apparently, Gilmore was related to Houdini and is being portrayed as the classic drone. And Mailer wrote the book about Gilmore. Huh - if I'd known this BEFORE the movie, it might have helped. And a critic says this is the MOST plot-driven of all the 5 cremaster movies.

For some reason #3 is not being shown, although it is in the library - I might take a look before the other 2 come round. They feature, in turn, the Chrysler Building, the Isle of Man motorcycle race and a lyric opera in 19th century Budapest. Now that I know how to find clues before I go, I might even enjoy the next ones (and wish I could see #2 again - #1 I think I remember!).

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Dellburgoes (with the Dukes)

(Bodega, Sat 5 March)

Many moons ago, the night after the Dead Moon gig in Barrytown(1), I went to a Tadpole gig in Greymouth because, well, there wasn't much else to do. Supporting them was a band called Deluxeboy who were so stupefyingly boring in their lack of investment in their sound and their play by numbers style that window shopping, in a wet and cold Greymouth on a Sunday night, suddenly seemed an attractive option. So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I learnt that half of Deluxeboy has become half of the Dukes, a band that proclaims itself as a rock'n'roll "revue" band. The first song didn't shake off my fears, but things did get better. Their performance was pretty together, and they did in fact pay attention to the performance aspect of the gig. Most importantly, they themselves seemed to believe in and actually enjoy what they were doing. I don't think they'll ever be my favourite band or anything, because they're not really to my taste, but I have to acknowledge that the Dukes are not bad at what they do - a pop MOR style of rock that would go down a treat in many a pub around the country. Thinking that made me think "hey, these guys would do well as support for the Viloent Femmes" and then I remembered that that's exactly what they had planned for Sunday. They claim to be strongly influenced by the Rolling Stones but there were only a couple of songs, particularly the third one in with its "re-cog-ni-shin" that I saw it.

The Dellburgoes were a different kettle of fish - main man Rex Bourke has been around for a while now, he used to be in the Strangeloves (the other members of which, oddly enough, became one version of David Kilgour's backing band - and Taane Tokona is still a Heavy Eight). These guys I could listen to forever. Sure, they don't break any new ground; in fact the only boundary they seem to cross is the time barrier - most of what they do would sit nicely in the 1950's (although with louder, faster equipment and better mixing). Their most obvious influence is Chuck Berry, with a cover of Maybelline and another I can't remember in the mix. Apparently, their sound is reeperbahn rock. While I know that the reeperbahn was a rock club in Hamburg in the late 50's, I was never there so don't know what the prevailing sound was. What I do know is that in among the covers from that era and the two longish surf-rock instrumentals, the Dellburgoes have managed to incorporate their own compositions to construct a seamless web (except perhaps for their newest songs, which tend to go off in a more garage sound). One of these days, I really must buy their CD.

(1) It is so cool to have a whole town named after me - I just had to go there. Even better to find out that the only thing in town is a pub.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Twenty Steps to A Great Weekend in Wellington
  1. Get offside with someone at home to the point you just have to leave.
  2. Make increasingly panicky phone calls to Wellington trying to find accomodation, to be told that there's nothing, the place is chocka. Give up on going. Have brainwave and book rental car simply to sleep in.
  3. Drive own vehicle to Christchurch and abandon on road outside airport. Paying $48 for parking is for suckers. Pray to patron saint of vehicles that yours will still be there when you return.
  4. Pay Avis $20 and be given a shiny dark blue and brand new long wheelbase Toyota Landcruiser to drive to Picton.
  5. Have a village style chilli chicken meal and beer (but not too much or you won't be able to drive) at Thai Thai in Colombo Street.
  6. Sort out soundtrack for drive - Lucid3, SJD, Lambchop and Nic Cave (I so love his latest CD). Set stereo to loud and drive. Don't stop.
  7. Get off ferry at 8:50 so there's just a few minutes to wait for Astoria to open and pig out on their breakfast.
  8. Only go to the best cafes, because life is too short for shit coffee. Deluxe and Midnight Espresso will do fine.
  9. Hang out in Slowboat, Real Groovy, any CD shop that's doing a $25 or less deal, Unity, Arty Bees. Even better if they can supply the book you need that no library has been able to come up with.
  10. Avoid foodcourt food at all costs - it is substandard and there's no need for it. At all. Maybe if they stayed open all night, they would have a point. But they don't.
  11. Have dinner at the busiest (but not one so busy they can't feed you) Satay whatever Malaysian cafes around the place. Satay Kingdom will do.
  12. Forego Paselode and the Fanatics when you realise that NZ's best old skool rock'n'roll band, the Dellburgoes, is playing at Bodega. They have better beer there than Indigo anyway.
  13. Sleep in said rental car. Special thanks to the nice security guard who didn't come to throw you off the Massey campus (old habits die hard) but just to make sure you were OK. Nice.
  14. Sunday afternoon is for relaxing. Hanging out in the YHA reading is as good a way to do this as any - the Deluxe is just across the road.
  15. Have dinner at Chow. They're good.
  16. Go and see the bands you actually came to Wellington for - Ghostplane, David Kilgour and Lambchop. All three are fabulous.
  17. Panic when you take a coffee break from Indigo and see fire engines pouring a huge amount of water into Valve. Feel relieved when you realise its the building next door that's on fire.
  18. Enjoy Indigo. Its a good bar.
  19. Don't worry too much about the fallout when you get home. That will only spoil your trip.
  20. Don't worry if there's only 19 steps - 20 was a nice round number.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


(Dir Michael Hurst, with Cliff Curtis as Billy, Theresa Healey as Pauline, Kevin Smith as Max and Hori Ahipene as Potu; 2000)

Anyone who has spent any time at all in rural New Zealand will see a lot of home in this movie. It is set in a small town, where everyone has no work, has lost hope. Something is needed to bring some life to town. The celebration of its jubilee seems doomed when the organiser dies, thanks to being crushed by a bull she's extracting semen from and the only guy up for the job of replacing her refuses to have any booze at the biggest party this town has ever seen. So Billy, who everyone knows can't succeed, because he's never done anything with his life, Billy steps up to the plate and takes on organising.

While he's busy running round in circles getting nowhere, getting increasingly panicky over the lack of cash (he can only run to one beer per head, which is hardly an advance on his predecessor's effort), his wife Pauline is all a-twitter because her first and only love, former All Black Max, is coming to town. Its not till good old bro Potu sits Billy down and tells him that he's crap at doing things, but great at inspiring people to do, that things start to get cracking on the party front. There's some trick he plays with money I didn't fully get, but he's flush for a while until Pauline starts spending his stash on furniture. Billy puts about a million dollars worth of party things, including the biggest possible marquee, on tick and brings in a bunch of sulky white bikies as hired labour.

Of course, the party happens in good old kiwi style - a hangi, singing, a big punch up, a showdown over the girl. I don't think anyone would claim that this movie is of any great stature, but as a gentle homage to a very kiwi way of life, its just fine. And just for once, there was no attempt to buy into the New Zealand "cinema of unease" idea.

Hotel World, by Ali Smith (2001)

I really do not know what to make of this book, which I had to read for my Booker group. It starts off with quite a few challenges. There's a similar level of bad language to that which put some people off Vernon God Little. There's not only a dead narrator pining the loss of her ability to experience physical reality (she dies by squeezing herself into a dumbwaiter on the fourth floor of a London hotel, which causes the ropes to snap and her subsequent plummet) but the fact that she can somehow go back to her corpse and have a conversation with whatever element of the corpse might have stayed behind. There's the sudden falling for another woman. There's the possibility that there are some lascivious thoughts for her own - certainly that's how the sister seems to have interpreted her. So many taboos being skewered in just the prologue.

But it doesn't seem to go very far in succeeding sections. We meet four other women, all of whom have some sort of connection although they don't really know each other. Else is homeless, and has her patch outside the hotel, where she watches this young girl across the road: she doesn't even need to beg:
She doesn't look hard up. Her clothes change. She has more than one coat. She looks like a runaway, but a brand-new, just-arrived-today one. So she gets money easily, of course she does, she looks like the stupefied baby animals looked on the front of the kind of chocolate box that you used to be able to get years ago, if you compared them to a real cat or dog. The only thing about her is that she looks miserable, she looks greyed. She's the colour of ice that's been smashed in over a puddle. Else feels quite sorry for her.
Not enough to stop her going over and stealing the 30 or so pound that people leave her each day, however. Not that it matters to the girl, because she's there on a vigil for her dead sister, rather than to beg. Else has a great imagination, even if it does run away into obscurity: she's thinking that her lungs are outmoded:
Like if someone arrived carrying the the telephone wires all waiting to be connected up, got out of his van and found himself standing outside some fucking great castle wall with thin slits in it instead of windows, and it was in the fifteenth century and there was no such thing as electricity.

Think of him, Telephone Man, standing like something over-evolved out of Darwin, post-Neanderthal in his overalls with his wires in coils on his arms and his van full of great rolls of wire behind him and there he is scratching his head like a monkey because there's no metal grate in the ground he can lift to do the job, and a lady in a wimple peeking out at him through the slit like he's a martian come in a spaceship because its the fifteenth century and there's no such thing as vans.
So - she has these great flights of fancy, which I liked from her section, but the novel was pretty much downhill from there for me. Else is given a room in the hotel for the night by the receptionist, Lise: hers is the next section of the book, and its mostly about her attempts to fill in a disability allowance application form and flashing back to the night she helped Else. Then there's Penny, a journalist trying to write a piece about the hotel on that same night. Finally, in a very annoying section, because there's no punctuation, there is the sister of the dead girl.

I guess I just didn't get this novel. It was Booker shortlisted, but I think I go along with the Complete Review summary that it is a "varied, clever novel, with some excellent flashes". Apparently, the night where the lives all interconnect in the hotel is the last night on earth of the girl ghost, but quite what the significance of it all was is lost on me. Perhaps the Independent
review is worth noting, since they gave this novel an A+:
Those who complain that new writers are not coming to terms with the present day should read Ali Smith. She's bang up to now without kowtowing to fashion, and catches the zeitgeist in a completely individual way.

The lunacy of bureaucracy becomes a weird sort of poetry; a slack shift at the hotel makes of job boredom a Zen-like meander through the moment, as the minutiae of life takes on existential resonance. Smith's work is tough and frank yet gentle, full of love though not in the least sentimental. The humour arises from razor-sharp observation but is never cruel.

Underlying all are grand themes of death, ultimate meaning and time. And of love. "Ah, love," as one of the simple refrains of the book goes. "Remember you must live," is another.
Ah well, maybe by the time my group has spent March chattering about it, I'll get more from this book.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

In Praise of Small Wine Festivals

I've been to one of the biggest New Zealand has to offer - Ellerslie - and another failry big one, Wellington. Yes, they have a lot of different wines to try, far more than anyone could sensibly try and still hope to leave under his own volition. And yes, they have lots of interesting and exotic foods, things you don't ordinarily see other than at places for serious food geeks. But there is a price. For a start, you have to queue for a mile to get the wine you want because, it seems, you only want the wine that everyone else does. And then, when you do get your wine - where do you go? There isn't anywhere to avoid the jostling crowds, no quiet space in which you can sit and sip quietly, maybe reading your book or listening to your music if you happen to be by yourself. Don't get me started on the toilets. And so your wine festival turns into a tension-creating monster, so that sooner rather than later all you want to do is flee.

But there is an alternative. The best wine festival I went to wasn't even a wine festival - it was a story-telling and poetry festival that just happened to be associated with a winery, and they'd invited a few of their wine making friends to bring along some of their product as well. And so we could be captivated by Kapka Kassabova, or Kate Camp, or Brian Turner as we sampled the vintner's skill. Heaven. Then there was the Masterton wine festival, a festival that isn't on the circuit in the same way, say, Martinborough or Marlborough is but actually has a big enough selection of wine to get you into a state that you can no longer move. And, lets face it, the reality is that for most people a wine festival is simply an opportunity to get out into the sun and spend a relaxing afternoon sipping wine, it doesn't really matter what wine except to those with specialised tastes.

Which brings me to Sunday. I doubt that many people out of the Otago region would be aware that there is a North Otago Wine and Food Festival, yet it is in its seventh year. In fact I was not aware of it until about a month ago. Central Otago, well yes, everyone knows there's an emerging wine scene there but NORTH Otago? That's Oamaru for the unitiated - they have a lovely public garden, albeit a bit too narrow at the highway end, so that you're never quite out of sight of a street, but go up the back and things widen out. And it was there that the North Otago Wine and Food Festival happens. The food part was not great - some Whitestone cheeses, some local breads, a bunch of local cafes whose most exotic food was rogan jhosh, a fellow from the polytech showing you how to cook a butterflied leg of lamb on the barbecue, a supplier of venison sandwiches and another of chicken and coriander sausages. There were maybe 8 different wineries, the local brewers supply store and Robson's brewery from Timaru, so not exactly an overwhelming choice when it came to wines.

But it was enough, more than enough for someone who had to drive. I could sit quite peacefully, enjoying Edding's Belgarian, getting up occasionally to replenish my supply of wine, or try out the venison sandwich. Or I could listen to the music, which was utterly classic for that sort of event - Run Around Sue, Mustang Sally and the like - done by a couple of guys (the VagueAs Brothers, who, according to their website, are "
Australasia’s Cabaret superstars") who were all about entertainment. Kids under 8 and adults over 63 danced to them, the rest sang along. Nice. What more do you need?