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NEW IN THE SHOP: Middle Earth New Zealand calendar 2011 *** limited edition art prints ***
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- In this newsletter:
- *** Hobbit Squabbles
- *** News & Current projects
- *** Cool Things Friends Do: Starshipsofa.com
- *** Doctor What?
This newsletter was going to be some comtemplative musings about my life post-exhibition, spring in the Wairarapa, taking a break from being feverishly productive, and travelling to a parallel universe - but then came yet another money/power squabble over the long-delayed Hobbit movie. Casting for the movie now has officially begun, you see.
Article in the New Zealand Herald *** Another article in the New Zealand Herald *** Article by Gordon Campbell on Scoop *** Bruce Hopkins interviews Michael Regina, of TheOneRing.net *** Peter Jackson's views as published on TheOneRing.net
In a nutshell, the New Zealand Actor's Union, backed by their Australian counterpart, has made a stand against non-union New Zealand actors being signed on for The Hobbit on conditions which do not meet the minimum standards negotiated by the unions, and called actors to not accept work on the movies unless those conditions are met. They have gained the support of the international acting community, including several big name actors like Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett, who have threatened to boykott the movie.
Peter Jackson, who acts as Producer for the Hobbit (and has been cited as director in an article published by the LA Times today, not so surprizingly, after Guillermo del Toro jumped ship earlier this year) - responded by calling the Australian Union a bully boy, and voicing fears that New Zealand might loose the production to cheaper places in Eastern Europe.
While I'm not directly involved in any of this, I've been able to observe the proceedings that ensued from a strange vantage point. It all happens on my Facebook profile. Some of my friends on Facebook are working in the trenches, behind camera, and they get the brunt of the long hours and other unsavoury work conditions. Another Facebook friend is one of the New Zealand actors who was instrumental in getting the support of the Australian actor's union. A couple of people who are involved in the production on a somewhat more prominent level, have understandably been very silent. Then there is the community of fans, and the wider community of New Zealand film makers and artists. And they all have something to say about this.
It's been quite a storm in the water glass, though there have been undertones that made me wonder if this might not turn out a much larger issue than it looks on the outside. Two days later, as of the time of this writing, in characteristic New Zealand fashion, things have been hastily hushed up. One rather insightful and balanced blog article has disappeared from its original location and it seems to me, been edited after the fact (it's still available here). Then suddenly, there was an announcement today in the press that The Hobbit has "nearly" been greenlit (and how is that news?) - including the statement that Peter Jackson is to direct, "but only if the release date in 2012 can be met". Perhaps a timely reminder that is is hardly the unions who have been responsible for the continuing delays of this production.
One of the most often voiced statements in the New Zealand film community is that "it is a small industry" and "I don't want to burn any bridges" - followed by "I wish I hadn't opened my mouth" in those rare cases when someone has gotten up the gumption to point to a state of affairs which is less than ideal. God give that this country never gives birth to a Hitler.
The Peter Jackson franchise has grown out of an independent film making culture which thrived mainly on enthusiasm, and got amazing things done on less than a shoestring budget. Of course this requires that everyone chimes in without looking too hard at the clock or the money purse. That's all well and fine as long as you *do* work on a shoestring budget, but in compensation, are able to do your own thing and realize your own creative vision - and reap your own rewards in the end.
The trouble is the way this approach gets romanticized - which it does, very heavily, in all the publicity surrounding Lord of the Rings. All these tales about the little New Zealand film industry taking on this monster of a project and succeeding against the odds. Very much the tale of Frodo taking on the Dark Lord. Or at least, that's how the legend has been told, and that's definitely one of the things that give so much cohesion to the massive fan base those movies have, and which has inspired so many people working on the project to give their absolute all, and others to contribute with no regard to payment.
Things definitely look bit different once the Big Money arrives and the formerly Starving Geniuses suddenly find themselves helming a multimillion dollar venture with hundreds of people working on realizing someone else's creative vision (not to mention source of quite a large income), instead of their own. Then, it is time to chuck out the romanticism, and read up on Health & Safety and Union regulations, and other such boring issues. 16 hour days don't matter because we're all having so much fun? I'd call that a deluxe version of a sweat shop.
My friends in the trenches think those actors are a bit big headed - what do *they* have to complain about, compared to their own contracts and work conditions? Well, I'd say, perhaps these people have gotten to that stage because they have learned to draw the line. Which is not to say that I attribute completely selfless motives to the people behind this union foray. There is very often quite a noxious undertone of protectionism, along the lines of "we have enough talent in New Zealand, and we don't want Foreigners to steal our jobs" - which, incidentally, is simply not true, much as the great achievements of "Young New Zealanders" are constantly being emphasized by some. Lord of the Rings could NEVER have been made without the contribution of a large number of overseas artists who were willing ot relocate for quite an extended period of time - from the lead actors, cinematographer and art department, all the way to the rank and file computer buffs at Weta Digital. Heck, they even created a whole new immigration policy to facilitate this!
But in this case, it seems to me, all the actor's union is asking is that New Zealand actors have their basic labour rights respected. I have great respect for the professional integrity of some of the people involved in this. Good on them I say - perhaps it will inspire some of the behind camera people to make a stand as well, one day.
Given the mythos he has created around him, Peter Jackson's heavy handed reply, and his refusal to even meet with the union actors, is not a good look. One thing, it seems to me, he and others have forgotten, in this chase to attract big overseas money to invest in New Zealand film productions, at any cost: What made Lord of the Rings the massive scale phenomenon it is, were not the overseas movie studios. It was not any financier or government tax break, or any of the Powers that Be which are now so assiduously being crawled up their butts "for the greater good of the New Zealand film industry".
It was the fans.
It was the people who got invested in the myth of this impossible seeming movie being made so well, in this small nook of the world, which somehow seemed to have found a better way of doing things. It was all those vastly creative people who worked on the movies, pooling together to make something that was bigger than the sum of its parts. It was the promise that talent and enthusiasm count more than which school you've been to, or the extend of your work experience. It was the people who went to see the movie 20 times while it screened in the cinemas, who started websites, who packed up and moved to New Zealand out of sheer enthusiasm. Since I myself fall squarely into that bracket, perhaps I can also say this, on behalf of others like me: I am now completely disenchanted.
Perhaps it is somehow weirdly appropriate that a story like The Hobbit, which has Greed as such a central theme, should be surrounded by the Vulture Culture which we've been witnessing for the last couple of years, with every party involved apparently only concerned with cutting out the biggest possible chunk of the pie for themselves.
Lord of the Rings has put New Zealand on the map as an attractive destination for creative people. There has been a massive chance to do something permanent for the New Zealand arts sector in general, and the film industry in particular, in that. But is the pool of talent from overseas, which these movies have attracted, being used to its best advantage?
I know one musician who got here on a fancy talent visa and has been forced to abandon her profession completely since. She has been left to her own devices by people whose job it is to offer help, and run into wall after wall, and made to feel that all the skills and knowledge and experience and international contacts she has to offer, which are not so readily available elsewhere in this country, are simply not appreciated, and not wanted. Because New Zealand "has enough talent of its own" or because "it is such a small industry" or because "New Zealand is too small to support professional artists" and therefore doesn't even try. Because people here have not the first clue just how much is expected of a professional musician, in terms of skills, knowledge and discipline, in places like Europe or America. Or because if it's not big money, it can't be important.
I hear these vibes from others as well. I recently made the acquaintance of an animator turned fantasy novelist, who, like myself, has lived in a variety of countries before settling down in New Zealand. She has just had her first novel published by Harper Collins, no less. She's been wondering out loud on Facebook if she will ever be allowed to call herself a "New Zealand artist". I know just exactly how she feels.
And people are leaving. A friend of mine who came over in 2003 with big dreams of a more creative life, has packed up and moved back to Portland a year or two ago. The small gang of visual artists from overseas, who used to run the little art gallery in Featherston when I first moved here, have all drifted away, back home, or over to Australia. Another, a friend of a friend and also a published writer, has just announced that she's off to the States. The American lady who has worked hard for about as long as I've been in New Zealand, on running up her own Meisner acting school in Wellington, so that New Zealand actors are able to learn some of the skills that might enable them to reach the standard that is expected in a big internatonal production, is shutting down, and going home.
To be honest, much as I am happy with my life in the Wairarapa, my little house and my veggie patch and all that, it has occurred to me to wonder if there really is a creative future for me here, in the long run. It's not just the lack of opportunities and financial support - it is the sheer dearth of likeminded people. As of last week, I am eligible to apply for New Zealand citizenship. Seven years ago, I thought this would be one of the greatest moments in my life. Now, I don't know if I even want to.
There is one thing, it strikes me, which oh so many people involved in the arts sector in New Zealand completely fail to understand: Art, creativity, a flourishing culture, is not a thing you can buy with money. It requires people who are not afraid to live their dreams.
News & Current Projects
Since I am now officially an exhibited artist, I've decided that it was about time I took my art education more seriously. A Facebook friend (what would I do without my Facebook friends) pointed me to the London Art College and their distance learning programme. What's even better, they offer a course in Science Fiction and Fantasy Art! This, obviously, being very much up my alley, it didn't take me long to make up my mind and sign up. The course materials arrived last week - I'm looking forward to making a start with it next month. Watch this space for progress reports and course assignments!
Thankfully, after a rather prolongued dry spell, I'm now in paid employment again - still freelance, don't worry! But does it ever feel good. According to the old saying that it never rains but it pours, I've just finished work on a website for the Wellington Yoga Centre, and have another project lined up for a client overseas, which I expect to start working on next week. I was a little worried that after the creative flights I have been able to take for the last few months, this might feel like a bit of a come-down, but am surprised at just how satisfying it feels to do this work - these are exactly the kind of clients whom I was hoping I would be able to do work for. And I'm now seriously getting my head around coding! The image gallery on the Yogacentre website is a php script which I've written from scratch.
The "Online Promotion for Everyone" talks are going to start up again at the Featherston Community Centre, this time in a new format - a block course of six evening classes, starting on 18 October, Monday nights from 7.30 to 8.30 pm. The cost is $ 72 for booking all six classes in advance, or $ 15 per individual session. Please contact me to book your place - there will be a minimum attendance requirement for the course to go forward. Sign up, and tell your friends!
Painting has been taking a bit of a back seat this month - I suppose I needed the break, after cranking out all those paintings a hight speed for the exhibition - but I'm looking forward to wielding my brushes again next month, complete the last two of the Earthsea paintings, and then start with something fresh. I'll also be looking for opportunities to exhibit here in the Wairarapa, or maybe you will spot me at one or other art market, now that we're heading up to Christmas.
Oh yes, and there also was an earthquake. Down in Christchurch. Since some people have asked, I would like to assure you that it didn't affect us here in the Wairarapa at all - nor did it do damage in Wellington. The destruction it wrought in Christchurch was not pretty, and quite a few people had their houses and businesses damaged - but no one died, which for a quake of that scale, is really something to be very grateful for.
Cool Things Friends Do: Starshipsofa.com
Diane Severson is a good friend and fellow musician, whom I know from way back when we studied together at the Academy for Early Music in Bremen. We recently caught up again on Facebook, and it turns out that Diane is also quite a sci-fi buff! She narrates podcasts for fantasy and sci-fi related sites like Podcastle, and the excellent Starshipsofa.com, which just won a Hugo Award for best Fanzine! I'm told that this is the first time a podcast has won this award. Funny to think that I must have met a number of the people who would have been present at this year's Hugo Awards ceremony at the World Science Fiction convention in Melbourne, which took place just a week after Wellington's own Au Contraire - quite a few people travelling from overseas had taken the opportunity to attend both conventions!
Ok, I've got a confession to make. The "project" I spent the most time on this last month was catching up with a major sci-fi classic: the BBC's Doctor Who. I suppose, now that I have signed up for those classes in Science Fiction and Fantasy art, I can count it as course work... right?
Strangely enough, I'd never seen any of the old Doctor Who series, which started back in the '60s and has been running regularly until the '80s, then picked up again in 2005. I had a peripheral awareness of it, mostly because various people of my acquaintance absolutely raved about it, but didn't even have a clear idea where to start watching. In the end I just went by video shop availability, and picked up series two of the new Doctor Who - the first season featuring David Tennant as the Doctor, opposite the equally marvelous Billie Piper as his companion Rose Tyler.
Where to start? Should I rave about David Tennant's acting, which kept me glued to the screen for hours on end, at the expense of quite a number of nights of healthy sleep, because I simply could not stop watching the fellow? Or what a joy it is to see the two lead actors, who clearly got along very well off camera, transcend their easygoing fondness of each other's company so convincingly into their onscreen relationship, that the payoff at the end of the season turns into a completely believable and utterly gut wrenching emotional experience ? And this is a sci-fi soap about time travel and alien monsters, mind you - not a genre that is usually famous for its emotional veracity.
Or should I talk about the script, which makes a point of questioning some of the premises of the original series - particularly the role of the companions, and the emotional consequences of traveling with the Doctor - and in doing so, somehow manages to turn the limitations imposed by actor's availabilities and casting policies, into an opportunity to examine a whole range of human relationships which do not usually find a place in your standard romantic plot? Some of those episodes go to some genuinely dark and scary places. Some exploit the mind-bending complexities of the idea of time travel in ways that are usually only found way way off the mainstream in experimental cinema - and this is prime time tv. And still, the humour and keen sense for the absurd, which seems to be such a British thing, never gets lost.
It is a long time since I've had so much joy in watching anything on screen. These days, most ot the time the feminist in me can't help wincing at one or other dumb characterization or stereotypical plot turn - but none of that here. Which is rather astonishing, given the premise of the Super Doctor travelling around with a variety of mostly young and female Companions. How easy would it have been for Billie Piper's Rose to fall into the pattern of the sexy but somewhat infantile blonde? Yet she never does, not for one moment. That takes some strength of personality on the side of the actress, and some sensitive directing, over and above the material offered by the script.
I might have to save a proper considered essay for another newsletter, in the interest of getting this one out anytime near September (and in the interest of not sounding like an overexcited fan girl), but just to finish off, here are my two favourite episodes in season two:
The Girl in the Fireplace, for its splendid portrait of Madame de Pompadour (played by Sophia Myles). How many script writers might have portrayed her as a power crazed slut? Here, she is shown as radiant not just with beauty but intelligence - and fearless. If I had to pick a single favourite episode, this would be the one. It is, at the same time, so out there in terms of its concept, and so finely wrought and carefully balanced - just like its clockwork monsters. At the same time self-contained, and illuminating and weaving together the larger themes, like a good piece of music. Besides, I don't think anything beats the Doctor on a white horse, crashing through a mirror from another millenium, to save the day. :D
I think what I like best about season two is that in comparison to the first season, the series has clearly found its stride, but is less reliant on spectacle and big effects than the following seasons. There just isn't a weak episode, or indeed a weak moment - and everything that happens ultimately feeds into the larger story arc about the Doctor and Rose.
The double episode The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit is a fine example of this. It is one of the darkest episodes in the entire run, and puts the Doctor and Rose in what is perhaps the most dangerous and hopeless situation they ever encounter - they find themselves without the TARDIS in an outlying space station on an "impossible planet" which defies the laws of physics by remaining in orbit around a Black Hole.
Unlike the big season finales, which crank up the odds with a lot of fighting and explosions and Daleks and Cybermen and all manner of monsters, this double episode is so very quiet - almost meditative. And how evocative of desolation and despair, and of going "over the edge" into dangerous and forbidden territory. Is there a stronger image than the Doctor dangling down a line into a bottomless black pit, where he finds himself finally confronting the full extend of his feelings for Rose? Then he lets himself fall, and calls it an act of faith. He never quite gets himself to tell her that he loves her, but down there in the pit, instead of trying to protect her by shying away from doing what he knows is the right thing to do, he realises that he can completely trust her to take care of herself: "Of all the things in the universe, if there's one thing I believe in, it is her." What a statement. Me myself, I'd take that over an "I love you" any day.
Arohanui, from Asni