Time once again for a brief round-up of writing I’ve done elsewhere on the internet recently, not that I don’t love the blogging for free but someone’s got to keep the cats in cat food…
Bird of the Year is one of New Zealand’s biggest social media events, with everyone weighing in on their fave avian, whether it’s the humble kiwi, the plucky penguin or the rocking ruru. I wrote a story over at Radio New Zealand about the contest and specifically about how we can help birds year-round by doing things like volunteering for Bird Rescue:
Can Nazis be funny? It’s not a question you expect to ask yourself when sitting down to watch a movie by New Zealand’s biggest name in Hollywood, but Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit forces you to ask it.
Jojo Rabbit seemed a pretty oddball project for Waititi to take on after the hits of Boy, Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, but it’s part of a long lineage of stories that mock the Nazis to make a point. It took in nearly $1.2 million at the New Zealand box office over Labour Weekend. But is a movie that imagines Hitler as a kind of cuddly imaginary friend for a young German boy during World War II in good taste or bad?
It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but critics are more mixed on it – The Chicago Sun-Times called it “irreverent, edgy, provocative envelope-pushing satire,” but the Los Angeles Times thought that “its so-called audacity smacks of calculation and emotional cowardice.”
So, are we allowed to make Nazis funny or not? Here’s the case for and against:
1. Hitler was kind of funny. Most dictator/authoritarian types are. Look at Kim Jong-un, with his beady stare and tossed-salad haircut, or that guy in the White House. Waititi – who’s of both Māori and Jewish descent – plays Hitler himself in Jojo Rabbit. To modern eyes, the preening, sweating moustached dictator can seem like a living cartoon character.
Mocking the Nazis goes all the way back to when Hitler was alive and ranting, with Charlie Chaplin’s send-up in The Great Dictator back in 1940 still one of the best attacks on the führer. Mel Brooks debuted The Producers more than 50 years ago, with its whole plot revolving around a tasteless satire of the Nazis that turns into an unexpected hit. Director Billy Wilder even made a POW camp funny in Stalag-17, which in turn inspired TV’s long-running Hogan’s Heroes.
The problem is that if you make Hitler too satirical, you run the risk of downplaying the very real carnage and horror committed in his name. Taika’s Hitler in Jojo Rabbit never feels truly authentic, peppering his talk with modern-day slang and gestures, but there’s a moment or two when he ramps up the ranting rage and you can see what people were afraid of.
Because he’s an imaginary friend in a broadly romantic fantasy of a movie, Jojo’s Hitler is kind of goofily cuddly, charming and supportive of Jojo’s ambitions – as long as Jojo sticks to the Nazi party line, of course. Jojo Rabbit ultimately portrays its title character’s interest in Nazis as a boy really just wanting to belong. “You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club,” Jojo is told at one point.
2. However, the Holocaust really isn’t funny.Jojo Rabbit skirts around the edges of the Holocaust without going too deep. The movie doesn’t stint on showing the human cost of the Nazi regime to Jewish people, but it also doesn’t take us to Auschwitz.
There have been a few movies that have tried to find the funny in genocide. The late Jerry Lewis directed a movie in 1972 called The Day The Clown Cried about a clown entertaining children in the death camps which was so legendarily misconceived that it was never released, locked away in a vault somewhere and only seen by a few hardy souls.
That didn’t stop others with similar stories, like Robin Williams at his most mawkish in 2002’s flop Jakob the Liar, or Roberto Benigni inexplicably winning an Oscar for best actor for 1997’s Life Is Beautiful, one of those films which just gets more cloying and baffling with time. Holocaust movies can start off with black humour, but they always have to end with tragedy.
An entire documentary, The Last Laugh, was made a few years back about whether the Holocaust could ever be funny. In it, director/actor Rob Reiner notes, “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But, survival, and what it takes to survive – there can be humour in that.”
3. Then again, New Zealanders are pretty funny. There’s something that just works about dropping the deadpan, laconic kiwi sense of humour into unusual situations. Whether it’s Jemaine and Bret struggling in New York City in Flight of the Conchords or Taika himself as a laid-back giant rock dude in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s funny as when that chur, bro accent pops up in an unusual place.
A lot of kiwi humour is about subtly undermining expectations, and taking a look at the world from unexpected angles. Combining that sensibility with a satire of Nazism is a gamble, and whether or not it works in Jojo Rabbit comes down a lot to personal preference. Archie Yates as Jojo’s bumbling childhood mate Yorki is that vaguely absurdist kiwi voice in Jojo Rabbit, with lines like “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”
Can we make fun of the Nazis? Sure, but you’re not guaranteed that everybody will laugh at it. You can make fun of the Nazis, but for many people even doing so undercuts their very real evil. You laugh at Waititi’s intentionally broad Hitler, but you might feel a bit cringe doing so. That might just be the point.
You don’t have to go far on the internet to find outrage boiling away these days. Satire can defuse outrage, but in a world where the far right is on the rise, it doesn’t always feel like hip internet memes are doing much to dispel their allure for some people.
Yet the alternative to satire is either rage or silence. Satire can’t always knock down walls. But it can knock a few holes in them. Jojo Rabbit is a movie you’re meant to wrestle over. A quote by the poet Rilke appears at a pivotal moment in Jojo Rabbit, perhaps guiding us on how to navigate humour and evil – “Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
I like birds, especially New Zealand birds. They’re beautiful and strange and adaptable creatures.
I’m also just a little tiny bit scared of birds. Blame it on the junior high teacher who showed us Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in class. There’s something unpredictable about how birds react and all the beaks and pecking and fluttering that freaked me out a bit. I’ve reached a venerable middle age in life and yet I don’t think I’ve held a bird more than a few times. I’ve always been a little scared to. They’re not like cats or dogs (or even rats, which I had a brief flirtation with having as a pet when I was an angsty teenager).
But I love birds more than I’m scared of ‘em, so I was pretty happy to start doing some weekly volunteering at the NZ Bird Rescue Centre last week. It’s just down the road from my house, and does amazing work rehabilitating and rehoming injured birds, including many of NZ’s native species. It’s a very cool place and I’m really happy to be doing my part there, feeding them, cleaning cages, et cetera.
Of course, one of the major requirements of working in such a place is being able to pick up a bird. In the course of training there last week I went from being twitchy about the notion of picking up a bird to … well, I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near an expert, but I can do it, now.
I started with fairly docile doves and adorable baby ducklings, learning the art of handling them. Picking up a bird requires speed, strength and gentleness all at the same time. Too hard, you have a dead bird, too soft, and you’ve got an escaped bird. Holding a baby duckling – all fluff and undulating neck, pubescent winglets fidgeting and flippers gyrating – will teach you the art of gentle firm care.
Over the course of a few days, I moved up the ranks, to feral pigeons (smelly, noisy and bugeyed), adult ducks (surprisingly strong) and one of my personal favourites, New Zealand’s wood pigeon the kererū, which can be the size of a small cat. These are hefty, solid birds, who make a hypnotic whoosh whoosh sound as they bounce around the trees by our house looking for berries to chow down on.
Picking a kererū up requires all one’s gestational bird handling skills. Control the wings, because otherwise it’s like holding a rapidly exploding kite. Hands firm and not shaking. Control the kererū, and you control something deep within yourself. Feel the fluttering feathers, the gentle tremors of something that can fly up into the treetops, in your hands. It’s zen and the art of avian maintenance.
There’s other birds I’m nowhere near handling yet – long-legged herons, NZ’s punk-rock chicken the pukeko, who boast massive feet that look like they’ll rip you to shreds, compact kingfishers, gorgeous yet dangerous native owls – but in my first few days at bird rescue, I picked up birds.
I’ve been busy lately writing a few pieces for publication elsewhere in the media biosphere. Here’s a few:
This was a difficult one to write, and more personal than I typically get, but it’s an important topic. About 18 months ago I got waylaid by a shock health diagnosis and it sent me on pretty intense personal journey. Both Radio New Zealand and NZ’s biggest news website Stuff have kindly published this one:
It’s World Thrombosis Day on Sunday, and I wrote this to tie in to that important awareness day. There’s been some great commentary and feedback about my piece by people on these sites’ Facebook pages sharing their own stories, which really gratifies me and makes the effort of writing this one worthwhile.
In less dramatic writing, I also had a very fun feature printed in the New Zealand Herald‘s weekend Canvas magazine the other week about a boom in Auckland cinemas showing revivals of classic films. It’s part of their paywalled content but if you’re a Herald member it’s worth a read!
Lastly, this one was actually published a little while back over at Radio New Zealand but I might as well link to it as well here, because the issue of America and guns certainly hasn’t changed much since I wrote it. I wrote about it from the perspective of an American who’s lived abroad for more than a decade. I often get asked about America’s mass shootings. Wish I had an answer, but for now this is what I had to say:
It takes a lot to shush up an Auckland Saturday night crowd with a single look. But Aldous Harding was able to do that with a mere glance at the sold-out Powerstation gig celebrating our home-grown songwriter’s success.
Harding is one of the more unique voices sprouting from New Zealand’s fertile music scene these last few years. At just 29, she’s crafting the kind of edgy crossover career that wins lifelong fans while never sounding like anything other than herself. She’s mysterious and strange, sometimes sounding like an alien come down to earth, with a voice that moves from angelic highs to booming lows with ease, and song lyrics that defy easy interpretation. There’s hints of Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush in her work, but it’s all dipped in an antipodean magic all its own. Her “Horizon” is one my favourite singles of the last few years, and her latest album “Designer” is one of 2019’s best.
Dressed something like an extra in a 1990s Beastie Boys video, Harding took the stage alone, with a single guitar, and rather daringly played two of her most hushed, intimate numbers at the very start of the show. The crowd at the bar shushed; you couldn’t even hear glasses jingle, nothing but Harding’s chameleon voice echoing around the Powerstation. It was a masterful entrance by a performer who already clearly knows how to hold attention, and when the slower songs gave way to the full band joining her on the joyously bouncy “Designer,” it was a powerful burst of catharsis and exhaled breaths.
Harding has developed a reputation for her striking performance style, sometimes gurning and contorting her features in confrontational ways. She was less trippy last night than some of her performances I’ve seen, but she still has a gift for upsetting audience expectations with an unexpected twist of her lips, roll of her eyes, or a kabuki-like set of gestures.The show moved between quieter numbers and ecstatic jigs by her excellent band – there’s definitely a more pop sensibility in the songs of “Designer,” and a song like “The Barrel” is an anthem that still remains distinctly its own thing, with lyrics like “The wave of love is a transient hunt / Water’s the shell and we are the nut” rattling around your brain.
I’ve been to shows at the Powerstation before for similarly stark, intimate shows and left annoyed by the singer being overwhelmed by the crash of beer bottles and the yammering of the audience. That wasn’t a problem tonight. On a cold August night, Harding felt like the hottest thing in town, something new and old at the same time blooming with an energy all its own. She closed with a magnificent, aching cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line” and terrific new song, “Old Peel,” that left me with no doubt about her future.
She wasn’t much for banter, but she gave us a glimpse of her self as she sighed with a tight smile at the encore, “What a life, eh?” Whatever strange roads Aldous Harding takes to in the future, I’ll be there.
A good film festival is like a church for its acolytes – a place to find solace and enlightenment, to forget your troubles and to imagine exciting new possibilities in life.
I’ve been going to the New Zealand International Film Festival every late July and August for more than a decade now, and every year, it’s a highlight of our rainy grey winters. I’m a mere amateur compared to some of the festivalgoers who manage 12, 15, 25 or 30 of the nearly 150 movies that unspool over two weeks or so. This year I’m managing eight, and it’s a spectrum of images and ideas, enough to make me close my eyes at night and dream of red curtains parting to see white screens.
No wonder I can’t stop thinking about movies. It’s a kaleidoscope of cinema every year – in past years I’ve seen grand revivals of Sergio Leone movies, silent classics like “Nosferatu” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic, enigmatic Russian epics which demand to be seen on a gaping big screen.
And always something new or novel. Always something that just sounds like it might be interesting, whether it’s a documentary on tea in China or about the band Bikini Kill or a sprawling sci-fi epic or a thriller about zombies taking over a small New Zealand town.
Festivals like this remind me of why I’m so ambivalent about streaming. There’s great things about it, but I hate how it’s slowly eclipsing all other forms of cinema with what feels like an endless flood of cookie-cutter corporate “content.” Try finding more than a few token movies made before 1980 on Netflix. It’s much easier to sit and binge your brain on 12 episodes of some forgettable new show than it is to hunt down and figure out how to watch the greatest hits of a Billy Wilder or Robert Altman.
And while I’m down with the superheroes and the blockbusters there’s something special about gathering in the dark with a film festival crowd, whether it’s a bunch of twisted gorehounds cackling at gruesomely hilarious violence in one movie or an audience full of Tongans roaring at the quirks and jokes of their own closeknit culture.
Film festivals are the bestivals, every year a window into dozens of different worlds all flickering to life on the vast white screen.
Timpson’s a national treasure for NZ film geeks, having run the Incredibly Strange Film Festivalfor 25 years, the 48Hours film contest and produced such slices of taboo-poking kiwi-fried film strangeness as “Deathgasm,” “Housebound” and “Turbo Kid”. Now he’s finally directed his first film, “Come To Daddy” starring Elijah Wood.
Wood is Norval, a gawky man-child returning to visit his estranged father for the first time in decades. Dad (Stephen McHattie) lives in a surreal house on the edge of the sea, an alcoholic loner who apparently asked his son to visit but then batters and harasses him almost from the moment he arrives. “Come To Daddy” shapes up as an epic, tense battle of the wills between twitchy Norval and loathsome Dad, but then it takes a turn into stranger territory entirely.
It’s hard to review “Come To Daddy,” a shapeshifter of a movie that boasts wild shifts in tone from melancholy to bitingly nasty wit to grind house horror. This frenzied energy will likely make it a midnight-movie perennial, but it also means it’s the kind of movie that will really appeal most to those who like to get a bit battered by their cinema. The anything-goes craziness reminds me of Peter Jackson’s earliest gorehound work before he settled down to Middle Earth’s tranquil blandness.
Timpson’s got a very confident director’s eye as “Daddy” fluidly shifts its tone. He sets the stage with lots of languid shots of beaches and trees and Wood’s endlessly fascinating face, all rounded curves and rabbity energy. There’s some shots that manage a grotesque beauty out of the ugliest moments. Some of the secondary characters aren’t as well developed as Wood and McHattie’s, and unfortunately a pivotal character introduced halfway through seems more of a sketch than a fully-rounded human being. But amidst all the chaos that unfolds on screen, “Daddy” manages to say something touching and universal about the meaning of fatherhood.
Wood is the MVP of “Daddy” and the entire movie falls apart without his committed performance. This ain’t no Frodo Baggins. His career has been driven by his extraordinarily expressive deer-in-the-headlight eyes, which “Daddy” uses to terrific effects as Norval wrestles with his anger and guilt over his relationship with his father. His Norval is dressed in awkwardly hanging hipster’s clothes, a strangelysculptural haircut and topped off with a scribbly moustache that suggests facial hair hibernating for the winter.
Like alot of Ant Timpson-produced films there are scenes that will have you going OHMIGODNONONO as you cringe from the screen, guiltily chuckling all the way. There’s no better way to see them than in a crowded theatre with dozens of like-minded twisted souls. It’s the kind of defiantly original movie film festivals are made to celebrate, and I hope Timpson doesn’t wait too long to direct another film.