Woodenhead

In the film The Waiting Place (Cristobal Araus Lobos, 2001), two escaped convicts make their way through the landscape of New Zealand’s North Island on their way to a rendezvous at a decommissioned psychiatric institution. This image is familiar at a deep, almost primal level for New Zealanders. The romantic idea of the New Zealand man in the wilderness, as a kind of feral survivalist or refugee from society, is nearly as old as the colonial nation itself, and it found popular expression in some early New Zealand novels – Man Alone (1939) by John Mulgan, who inadvertently gave the tendency a genre name; A Good Keen Man (1960) by Barry Crump – while its cinematic apotheosis is still Smash Palace (Roger Donaldson, 1981), in which Bruno Lawrence takes to the bush, after attracting the hostility of polite society – his wife, the police. A persistent anti-authoritarian strain in New Zealand’s psyche meant that such loners – violent and misogynistic, if not simply misanthropic – were viewed as heroes. One of the innovations that The Waiting Place‘s writers, Cristobal Araus Lobos with actors Dane Giraud and Dave Perrett, bring to the material is that their loner figures are seldom viewed sympathetically. They are presented as ugly and vicious, with none of the roguish charm or popular appeal of Bruno Lawrence; they sink into delusion and madness; their story begins in the bush where “man alone” stories usually end – it’s the “man alone” at the end of the road.

As part of a private arrangement, Lobos and his collaborators were careful, when the film was released in 2001, not to name the psychiatric facility that serves as the characters’ destination, but a scan of the credits would have made it clear to any New Zealander: as the film was shot around the towns of Bulls and Wanganui, the hospital must be the notorious Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital, which was decommissioned only five months before the filmmakers used it as a location (the shooting take place over four weeks in 2000). The character named Belmont (Perrett) was in prison for murdering his wife’s lover; he has arranged to meet his wife, Susie, at “the waiting place”, or the hospital. Ramsey (Giraud) is a younger, more violent criminal who escapes with him.

The Waiting Place

One of several New Zealand mental hospitals to have had a forbidding reputation for abuse – in the same year that The Waiting Place was released, 95 former child patients received more than NZ$6 million compensation for abuse suffered there during the 1970s – Lake Alice was a dream location for a low-budget filmmaker. Lobos’s cinematographer Paul Tomlins generates a landscape of psychological fear from the trashed rooms, the broken windows, the institutional corridors, the empty swimming pool. Lobos and his crew found the debris of patients scattered throughout the place, they improvised with it and did their best to invoke its dark resonances. Lobos names Roman Polanski’s impressionistic descent-into-madness classics Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) as influences, but the way that the environment and location comes to represent some disembodied source of horror also puts it near The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999). As in both of those films, especially the latter, a little subjective camera goes a long, suggestive way: who, or what, is observing? Another, somewhat cornier horror-movie tradition was invoked by the filmmakers in the media – the ever-popular something-really-weird-did-happen-on-set publicity angle. “It got very scary around the place”, producer Robert Rowe said. “Certain ghostly things started happening, voices around the buildings which I personally heard – and I am very sceptical about that sort of thing” (1).

Turned down by New Zealand’s funding bodies – not just the New Zealand Film Commission, which funds cinema, but Creative New Zealand, which funds art, including experimental film – Lobos and Rowe raised the money privately. They spent around NZ $60,000, which is typically the budget of a Commission-funded short film (previously, Lobos had made a ten-minute short for only NZ $300). Shooting digitally was the secret weapon, but while the production benefited from digital video’s affordability and portability, the film itself didn’t come with the (occasionally self-regarding) baggage and associations that digital filmmaking has attracted overseas. It seems to have been a budget choice rather than an aesthetic or Dogme-like political one – digital video was not used to contrive an air of documentary-like rawness and intimacy as in, for example, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002) and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (2002) (2).

Lobos and Rowe entered The Waiting Place into New Zealand’s International Film Festival, a multi-city event that is still the most prestigious arena for local and foreign films. In the 2001 programme, the Festival’s directors noted that while the Festival had been inundated with local films shot digitally, “most enthusiastically exploit the new technology to essentially frivolous ends”. The notion that digital filmmaking had, in some sense, fully arrived in New Zealand was confirmed when the New Zealand Film Awards added a category for digital films in the same year – an award that The Waiting Place won. But the digital revolution actually began earlier, and even further from the mainstream. Wellington filmmaker Campbell Walker debuted his first feature, Uncomfortable Comfortable (1999), at the 1999 International Film Festival (3). Intimate and domestic, dialogue-driven and often improvised, the film owed a debt to one of Walker’s influences, Jean Eustache (Walker has identified Eustache’s 1973 classic La Maman et la Putain as his favourite film), while the actor-based approach also reminded some of John Cassavetes. Walker, who is based in Aro Valley, Wellington’s bohemian precinct, has gone on to develop a small, enthusiastic community of like-minded filmmakers around him, for whom low-budget choices (4) are, again, a brutal necessity not an aesthetic choice – as such, one of the Aro Valley group dismissed the Dogme movement as “a rich kids’ game”, while the media came to love the image of these low-budget films being made only a few miles away from former low-budget filmmaker Peter Jackson’s mega-trilogy, Lord of the Rings (5). In the title of his first film, Walker made another meaningful connection clear to those who could pick up the clues: “Uncomfortable Comfortable” was a quote from a lyric by New Zealand musician Peter Jefferies, renowned for pioneering, along with the Dunedin “noise” band The Dead C, a lo-fi aesthetic. Like Walker, Jefferies and The Dead C took pride in how cheaply they could produce work that did the same job as the real thing, without any corporate control or any need to play the industry game (6).

Gregory King’s first feature, Christmas (2003), showed clear influences from the Campbell Walker school – Walker even edited it. In the plot, Keri (David Hornblow) returns to his family home for Christmas; the film simply charts the five days from December 21 to December 25, with each new day appearing on a title chart. This kind of austerity defines the film: I counted only two occasions on which the camera actually moves during a scene; mostly, the camera is completely stationary, positioned slightly above the television set in the corner of the lounge, so that the family depicted in the film face us, the audience watching them, or the camera is stationed in the toilet so that every family member is viewed on the toilet, or seen throwing up into it or passed out next to it. The toilet-cam almost acts like the “confessional” used in the reality-television format for candid revelations (Lars von Trier is said to have had a similar “confessional” going during the making of Dogville), accentuating a sense of detached, unjudgmental observation.

As with The Waiting Place, low-budget ingenuity became part of Christmas‘ story. The production budget was NZ$39,000 – the majority came from arts funding body Creative New Zealand, although around $4,000 was provided by the city council of Whangarei, a small city north of Auckland that most New Zealanders would have had some trouble identifying as a glamorous, movie-making capital. King, who is in his mid-30s, found a location that, for him, must have been every bit as emotionally charged and potentially traumatic as The Waiting Place‘s Lake Alice – that is, his family home in Whangarei’s working-class suburbs. He shot over a summer while his parents were on holiday, putting his cast of actors up in a local camping ground and giving them $10 per day each towards their catering. The cast is a mix of professional and unprofessional actors, but there does seem to be a palpable sense of emotional connection: this feels like a family, warts and all.

Christmas

Is Keri the stand-in for King himself? That’s an obvious way to read it. As in King’s own family, this fictional family – the Cooks – are a mix of indigenous Maori and Pakeha (“Pakeha” being the Maori word for European, adopted by all New Zealanders). As ever, the Christmas season is the occasion for buried stresses and disappointments to rise to the surface – “No wonder no woman will ever marry you!” shouts Keri’s mother (Darien Takle) at Keri, in a typically belligerent exchange. Besides the mother, Loma, and the father, Brian (Tony Waerea), there are three other siblings: Megan (Helen Pearse Otene), Donna (Kate Sullivan) and Richard (Czahn Armstrong). Megan has two children and a boyfriend, Brett (Matthew Sunderland). In a film in which people suffer in private and scrap in public, Loma is caught crying before Christmas services on television: her belief in Christmas is clear, even if the reality has failed her. Megan’s belief is largely intact, too: she wants to give her son “the best Christmas ever”. It is Keri who gets to speak for the filmmaker when he says, after revealing that he has brought no presents for anyone, that “I’m not really that into Christmas. I think it’s a big con”.

This is a deadly accurate, if relentlessly downbeat, picture of hostility, envy and apathy in the New Zealand nuclear family. As a comedy, it is very, very black indeed and many – especially women – find it difficult to enjoy, but, equally, it’s hard not to admire the way that it makes the casual violence of New Zealand social life so clear, without framing itself overtly as an “issues” movie. In an interview, King said:

It takes a slice of life that sums up what I think of a lot of New Zealanders are and how they live – a stodgy, depressed, angry Anglo-Saxon culture. Look at our mental health statistics, at our suicide rates, there’s a lot of tension, conflict and violence in our society. We don’t see it in public life, but the contrast between that and what is actually going on is quite startling. It’s all there in their rituals, how they talk to each other, but I don’t show it in an overt way (7).

Christmas and Florian Habicht’s Woodenhead (2003) both debuted at the International Film Festivals in 2003 and immediately developed a life beyond it. Christmas was selected for festivals in Melbourne, Toronto, Edinburgh and Locarno, while Woodenhead sold out its Auckland festival screenings – more had to be hastily arranged – and was also invited to play in Melbourne as well as the Sitges International Film Festival in Spain. In February 2004, Woodenhead even had a well-attended theatrical release, running at Auckland’s arthouse cinema, the Academy. Funded again by Creative New Zealand with a budget of around NZ$30,000, Woodenhead had an unusual genesis, one that befits not just Creative New Zealand’s mission to fund “experimental” film work but Habicht’s training as an artist rather than a filmmaker. The story that Habicht loves to tell is that disgraced lip-synching pop duo Milli Vanilli appeared to him in a dream and told him to make a film in which actors lip-synched. Whatever the truth of that, Habicht and his collaborator, sound designer Marc Chesterman, recorded Woodenhead‘s dialogue and soundtrack ahead of shooting, meaning that they had something that resembled a radio play – with songs, narration and dialogue – to shoot against, like an aural storyboard. There seem to be no prior examples of this working method outside of animated films, although, in an interview with me, Habicht cited Derek Jarman’s soundtrack-and-blue-screen film Blue (1993) as a possible antecedent.

As the actors who appear onscreen in Habicht’s film are not – in most cases – those who contribute to the soundtrack, and as the dialogue often appears out of synch, the effect is oddly hallucinatory. On some occasions, the actors communicate their dialogue without being seen to open their mouths – for Habicht, they are communicating telepathically. Habicht was also able to cast his friends for their vivid and interesting faces, rather than their acting ability. It is a film of strange, sometimes jarring sensations: a circus-and-fairytale ambience and a Hansel and Gretel-like plotline is subverted by a surreal sense of menace, achieved by a trick as simple as having its kindly-voiced narrator read lines that are more innocent or innocuous than the pictures. Shot in black and white by Christopher Pryor, it looks beautiful for a digital film – it does feel truly cinematic, with its sensualised New Zealand landscapes appearing sometimes in dim, dream-like light. You could argue that while The Waiting Place and Christmas adapt themselves to low-budget filmmaking’s limits, through the use of one primary location in each case, Woodenhead transcends those limits.

Woodenhead

In the plot, Gert (Nicholas Butler) is assigned by Hugo (veteran Auckland eccentric Warwick Broadhead) to escort Hugo’s daughter Plum (Teresa Peters) to her wedding. He is told not to lay a hand on her. They encounter circuses, magic beans, accordion players, a cottage hidden in the woods – spillage from the Grimm tales. They meet Goerdel (Tony Bishop), a barnyard maniac with a face like a cartoon drawing of Quasimodo, and Gustav the Strongman (Matthew Sunderland). Born in Berlin but resident in New Zealand since childhood, Habicht traced his own love of Germanic kitsch to his German background, including repeated viewings of The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff, 1979). As Woodenhead‘s arrival was like an alien landing in New Zealand, critics scrambled about for foreign, generally European predecessors. Although Habicht often appears like something of a gifted ingénue, he owned up to a liking for Fassbinder and some knowledge of Herzog (8). Such Guy Maddin films as the camp, delirious pseudo-Nordic fantasy Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) might have seemed influential, but Habicht had never seen Maddin’s films. Béla Tarr and Jan Svankmajer were also cited. The greatest influence on Woodenhead, however, turned out to be Lars von Trier, specifically his Dancer in the Dark (2000) where scenes of outrageous musical fantasy erupt from the banality and frustration of everyday life (9). Like much recent von Trier, Woodenhead is also about the trials suffered by the innocent and naïve.

In dreaming his European images and stories into an empty, gently melancholy New Zealand landscape, Habicht has done something else as well, something he may not have anticipated: he has somehow removed the angst of New Zealand self-consciousness (10). Ever since New Zealand’s arts came of age – sometime after the middle of the 20th century – the nation’s artistic output has been anxiously examined and re-examined for what it “says about New Zealand”. Even those who purport to stand outside the mainstream of New Zealand cultural life – figures such as Gregory King – can’t help themselves. For those who stand inside the mainstream, the self-consciousness is often paralysing, and it isn’t unconnected with the realities of getting work funded in New Zealand – that is, having to apply to a panel of cultural experts in the nation’s capital, Wellington. The sheer, idiosyncratic strangeness of Woodenhead probably disqualifies it as a model for others to follow, but its appearance in New Zealand’s national cinema is welcome, if not vital.

Endnotes

  1. Russell Baillie, “Throwback to the dark era”, New Zealand Herald, July 11, 2001.
  2. In both of these cases, the film was improved by its relationship to documentary styles – particularly the hidden cameras in Winterbottom’s film – but in other instances, such as the entirely unremarkable domestic drama Pieces of April (Peter Hedges, 2003), the use of digital video might seem to be a stab at artistic credibility, where “raw” and grainy equals “authentic”.
  3. In personally championing Cambell Walker and, later, Gregory King and Florian Habicht, as well as the makers of The Waiting Place, the Festival’s director, Bill Gosden, has had a major, positive influence on low-budget filmmaking in New Zealand.
  4. Walker’s latest film, Why Can’t I Stop This Uncontrollable Dancing? (2003), was made for NZ $2,500. “I gave the actors enough money to cover their rent for the week of shooting, I own a third share in a G4 and did all of the editing on that – going straight from G4 to DVD – and had the sound mix done for free”. (Interviewed in Take, the magazine of the Screen Directors Guild of New Zealand, July 2003).
  5. “By now, it has become a Wellington cliché that Peter Jackson is making his multi-million-dollar exercises in epic fantasy – while across town in the Aro Valley, the next creative wave of local filmmakers are making movies of minimalist realism, on shoestring budgets” – Gordon Campbell, NZ Listener, August 9, 2003.
  6. “Uncomfortable/comfortable” is a refrain in the Peter Jefferies song “Just Nothing”, from the album Electricity (Ajax Records, 1994). Like Walker’s film, the song takes a strong, albeit petulant anti-romantic stand: “I don’t care about love anymore/It makes me feel like I’m just nothing”.
  7. Interviewed in Take, July 2003.
  8. I put the Herzog comparison to Habicht. It seemed to me that his casting of his friends for their unusual or eccentric appearance was similar to Herzog’s famous use of schizophrenic street musician Bruno S in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1976), while the peculiar blend of fact and fiction in some of Habicht’s earlier films seemed close to Herzog’s fictionalised documentaries: Herzog made one called The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1973), while Habicht made one about the eccentric musician Killer Ray, titled Liebestraume: The Absurd Dreams of Killer Ray (2000).
  9. “We love a gritty, raw reality and a contrived one at the same time”, Teresa Peters said in my interview with her and Habicht (NZ Listener, July 19, 2003).
  10. This point is well made in “Extremely New Zealand Films”, an enjoyable weblog review of Woodenhead by James Littlewood.

About The Author

Philip Matthews is a film reviewer with the NZ Listener magazine.