Friday, June 28, 2013

Utu 2?

In a little less than a month Geoff Murphy's Utu will be re-released (premiering here in Wellington) as a Redux version of its former self, digitised, remastered and re-edited by Murphy himself (with the help of Peter Jackson's impressive post-production facilities). It's kind of a big deal for me.

Stuff carries the news pretty well, and it's where I first heard about this. I was, rightly, too young to see the original on its theatrical release, and so my early understanding of the movie came about through a rather lurid photo storybook our school had in its library, and the small phenomenon it created domestically on its release. 1983 was only two years out from the Springbok Tour, and in the same year Murphy's future wife (who also appeared in Utu) the late Merata Mita had her fly on the wall documentary of the resulting protests and civil unrest Patu! screened. Utu seemed to the the one that got everyone's attention, locally and internationally.

Utu of course is not a film about the Springbok Tour, but in a way it fitted into the national consciousness in a way that Mita’s stark, un-narrated piece couldn’t have, by adding to our popular culture by way of, essentially, a pseudo-historical tale of revenge set in the turbulent years of the Land Wars. By accident or design Utu may have been given something of a pass domestically coming as it did from the creator of the hugely-successful Goodbye Pork Pie, and indeed the two movie share some DNA – most obviously some familiar cast members in Kelly Johnson, Bruno Lawrence and John Bach, but also some of the earlier movie’s daggish, blokey humour – a piano comes off second in one encounter with a marauding native militia, and two double-barreled shotguns get strung together to form an impractical weapon that assuredly provides a very loud noise if nothing else. And yet beyond those touches there’s a commitment to detail, whether historical or cultural, that anchors Utu in a real world, and achieves more than merely re-dressing the cinematic Western with fern trees and moko.  It made a star of its lead Anzac Wallace and carries itself with the confidence typical of that generation’s leading local filmmakers. It’s a shame that Murphy didn’t share the considerable success of his contemporary Roger Donaldson overseas, but that that this was never achieved is not to discount the enormous significance of this movie to local filmmakers and storytellers.

After its domestic release Utu as launched globally and,despite losing 15 minutes and a hefty re-edit, garnered some considerable praise. I had a 'director's cut', losing ten minutes of the original length some years ago, although the nae is a misnomer, as Murphy apparently had no say on the edit. This latest cut once again reduces the original's running, whihc may be no bad thing in an age of time bloat. Will modern new Zealand  audiences receive this story as well as they did thirty years ago, will they have more jaded eyes on viewing, or more forgiving? Film critic Nicholas Reid once suggested that "every major character in Utu [found] spiritual descendants in the New Zealand of the 1980s." Thirty years on, I'm as interested to see what has become of that audience as well. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Moria Cutaway: We Need to Talk About Balin

After what seems an interminable amount of time prepping and revising my Balin’s Tomb model, I’m racing down the good side of the hill, albeit around a month after I’d intended wrapping things up.

Extending the cardboard base

The cause of much of the delay has been, as with Bombur and Dain, getting the tone right. Balin’s Tomb as encountered in 'A Journey in the Dark' is easily described – set low in the hall of Mazarbul in Moria, it’s the centrepiece to a bone-strewn room littered with the mute remains of Khazad-Dum’s records and the doomed efforts by Balin’s surviving kin and retinue (among them Ori, the Book of Mazarbul’s last diarist) to defend the resting place of their fallen king. It’s a site of defeat, and speaks of Balin’s failure to reclaim the kingdom, another step in the demise of his people.

I detailed the early construction of the model here, but left with the promise that I’d be tasking myself with also modelling the interior of Balin’s sarcophagus, and so here I am, nearly done. Lots of decisions to make, most of them about Balin. There’s no doubt that Balin cuts a tragic figure in the history of Middle Earth, but is distinct and quite different from the likes of Thorin. Balin is almost as old (and is already venerable in The Hobbit), a veteran of the Battle of Azanulbizar, and is a kind and gentle figure as far as we can tell from Bilbo’s story. That he then becomes a figure immortalised in The Lord of the Rings for his death in an ill-judged mission is remarkable. Certainly a few reader and scholars have sought to understand why one of the more sensible members of Thorin Oakenshield’s company would later mount such a hazardous quest – and at such an advanced age? Of all Dwarves Balin should have known better – he presumably witnessed the deaths of Thorin and his nephews in The Battle of Five Armies – a consequence of another ill-measured attempt to reclaim a Dwarven throne, and was present at Azanulbizar when his future king Dain shrank back from the gate of Moria, seeing for the first time the presence of Durin’s Bane – the Balrog that dwelled there. Was it pride, impatience or desperation that caused Balin, Oin, Ori and their companions to leave Erebor in pursuit of Moria’s treasures and throne? For what it’s worth, the early entries in the Book describe an early success to the mission. Balin’s company secure upper levels of the Mines, finding riches of mithril once more and repelling the goblin presence there. But there are early tragedies that prefigure their eventual fate as well – Oin is taken by the Watcher in the Water, and the creature seals the gates again, trapping the Dwarves. Balin falls overlooking the Mirrormere, Durin’s sacred lake. Rather deliberately on Tolkein’s part, Balin’s death is ignominious and far from the fate of kings – shot from behind a rock by a lone orc in an unguarded moment. After that, defeat and darkness.

Extended base with more detritus added
The Hall of Records is decorated and the defending dwarves slaughtered with only scant clues to their horrible fate. Balin’s tomb seems itself undisturbed, however. I drew a number of sketches in preparation for a model of Balin’s body (which were accidentally thrown away!) I kept coming back to The Hobbit’s version of Balin, though, and found that the more armour I put him in, the further away from that more sympathetic character he drifted. Oh, by the way, here’s Games Workshop’s LotR version of Balin of Moria:

Ultimately I had to decide how to depict the body of Balin, a fallen king, and in doing so try to imagine how he was at the time of his death. Was he fierce, grim, and powerful, or was he more like the humble and generous soul encountered and befriended by Bilbo? I decided he had to be more the latter, for sympathy’s sake as much as Bilbo’s version of his could be relied upon. Again, it’s not in battle that he meets his end but a moment of quiet contemplation. But he is, of course, the last king of Moria. Oughtn’t he then be clad in thick armour, a crown on his head and mighty axe in his hands? Well, perhaps. That’s for another post though.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Captain Cook: My Part in its History.

Tonight Dunedin’s Captain Cook Tavern closes its doors for quite possibly the final time as one of the longest running and most famous (and infamous) student drinking halls.

The Cook in 2006. It wasn't a Tui pub in my day.
 Nudging Otago University campus for decades, the Cook has in recent years been all but swallowed by the still-growing academic quarter. In recent years its fellow Scarfie pubs The Gardens and The Bowling Green (The Bowler) were in turn closed and purchased by the University, their sites put to better use than watering the throats of their respective student neighbours. I have no sentimental memories of either pubs, miserable boorish concrete booze barns that they were. Both claimed a student relevance that was questionable – The Gardens held its corner longer due to being in Castle Street, but its claim to a garden bar was laughable unless you liked prison yard chic, and The Bowler’s increasingly tragic attempts to mine the ‘Scarfie’ identity with further questionable themes ‘Wife-beater Wednesday’ and couch burning competitions. It earned no sympathy from me when that particular noisy dive was deep-sixed by the modern trend of pre-loading back at the flat. Good riddance.

The Cook was no blushing innocent of course, and at its age could never claim to be. Cookathons, Bladder-bursts, Drink the Pub Dry nights – all got a look in from time to time, and in my first year I’d grimly joke that the easiest way to find my way into town was to trace the puddles of vomit from my hall of residence to the Cook, then the blood spatters to the Hospital A + E before turning a quick right into Hanover Street. Sunday morning walks past would inevitably be met nodding g’day to the downstairs barman Big Merv from as he stood hose in hand, stoically washing down the car park walls from the night before (and in the mid-Nineties, the early mornings also.) I’d scoot past it on weekend nights, its jukebox blaring out the windows the leery ruggerhead anthems of Th’ Dudes, and The Exponents, as swaying ‘boys’ queued loosely outside to get in, prepping the car park wall for Norm the next morning while they waited. Not my tribe, mate, and I wouldn’t be seen dead in that queue.

My local was for most of my time The Oriental, on the other side of campus and opposite the Pink Flat. It was quieter, a little less student-filled, had a sort of old-days character, and was easier to get into on a Friday afternoon, which is invariably when I and my flatmates and fellow band members would gather, often staying for a solid steak meal before mounting the foot assault up half of North East Valley to my flat. Sometimes we stayed longer and we, and it, got rowdier. The ‘Ori’ was my bar of choice for three years, even after I’d moved to the other side of the Octagon, but that said, I regret to admit that I never played live there. There wasn’t much choice, truth be told, because it wasn’t a band venue, and I think I only saw two gigs there in my whole Uni years (although one was a particularly excellent Verlaines performance.) At the same time I can admit with some quiet pride that we did play The Cook, supporting Death Ray CafĂ© one summer evening in late 1990. It was probably a Thursday, the weekend nights being otherwise reserved for the jukebox and dance floor scene; but a gig’s a gig, and knowing that the host band had some Flying Nun pedigree (David Pine from Sneaky Feelings) and that this was the same pub that younger Chills, Bored Games and Verlaines members had set up deck chairs on the outside lawns over the road to hear early Enemy and Toy Love performances, just cemented the significance of what was otherwise a modest and short set. More importantly, it enabled me to catch up with an old school acquaintance, Jac, who was at first to connect us with another ex-schoolmate with a four-track studio, and then later to properly join the band.

 In the end for me The Cook’s best moments were those quiet times of fellowship. Meeting old friends, enjoying the wee miracle of the garden bar outside term time, wolfing down the occasional wet lunch on a weekday with a workmate before slipping tipsily back to work at the University Library for the afternoon (a trick I only attempted once or twice), and in my second to last year, frequenting its downstairs corner bar, where I discovered the Cook’s other open secret – a common place for Arts post-grads and die-hard ‘dependent’ staff that was quieter than the main and garden bars, and a little less salubrious than the staff club, but with a much better jukebox.

I hope that in whatever incarnation the Cook continues, there’s room at least for that sort of Scarfie tradition

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An Irregular Crusade...

As the Monkeybench slowly clears itself of Dwarf-based models and paints, I've had time to look again at the mysterious package of 28mm lead-alloy chess pieces given to me by a relation's late husband's estate. After posting a query on the Lead Adventure Forum a member suggested I check out Irregular Miniatures, as he thought the style looked like theirs. Eventually I contacted Irregulars' chief, Ian Kay who kindly confirmed to me our suspicions - that the set is indeed from Irregular.

 The set is a Crusades-themed collection, and is around twenty-five years old. Ian said they don't advertise the pieces on the main site as it's not a big seller. A shame, because I'm rather fond on these little guys. They are irresistibly Eighties in look and feel - there's no getting around it. There's no painting guide for them, and Ian suggested they could simply be painted in black and white, but I wonder whether there's a opportunity lost in doing that - and besides, in this day and age who'd stick their neck out and declare either side black or white from the get-go?

So with modern squeamish sensibilities in command, I'm going to figure out a palette for either side; maybe something two-tone and bold to separate them enough in play. There's no doubt in my mind that they need a paint job; they're old metal, and for their own protection should be sealed from air and oils. The metal is soft, and while there's been a bit of loss of detail either through moulding or age, there's not enough to make this a real challenge.

 Also, in looking at the set properly in the flesh, I noticed that as either side is themed there are some nice variations. Here are the two Queens for example:

And here are the pieces not covered by the pictures in the last post - a Vizier/Magus as Bishop, an (Abuyyid?) Pawn and a Crusader Rook

So, once Balin's Tomb is complete, I'm off to do some painting research!