No Votes Behind the Left

The resignation of David Cunliffe as leader of the Labour Party yesterday means another full leadership contest will get under way in the coming weeks.

Resigning was apparently not Cunliffe’s preferred option for triggering such a fight. He wanted to force the Labour caucus to hold a vote of no-confidence in him — presumably to drive his enemies out into the open. Instead as has been well reported the caucus has not cooperated and has elected Chris Hipkins (a known Cunliffe critic), and Carmel Sepeloni as senior and junior whip respectively.

This indicates that the majority of caucus is not behind David Cunliffe, and the undisguised anger shown by David Shearer and David Parker is further proof of that. Labour is heading into its darkest and most painful period since the late 1980s. There is no avoiding a massive blood-letting, nor would it be desirable to avoid it. 

Opinions differ on who should go. If Cunliffe is re-elected he will swiftly purge the ABCs (Anyone But Cunliffe faction) which would spell the end for Trevor Mallard, Phil Goff, Annette King, and Clayton Cosgrove. The difficulty with those four is they are political survivors, Goff was first elected in 1981 and was a minister in the Lange/Palmer/Moore and Clark cabinets. Cosgrove has the most untenable position being a list MP, and he could be purged rather easily. Mallard, Goff, and King are long sitting electorate MPs who thus enjoy more job security. They’ve enjoyed it too long. Being an MP isn’t a job for life, and Labour desperately needs some new blood. They should be looking at who might be in a position to succeed them in 2017 (if not before) and grooming those candidates.

However, if Cunliffe wins back his crown it is not certain that the ABCs will cooperate in such fashion. Furthermore, I don’t believe that purging the party of David Cunliffe’s enemies will deliver an eventual Labour Government. There is no mass working class movement joined at the point of production that is big enough to be a serious force in politics. It died before most of my generation was born. The nostalgic remnants which characterize Labour under Cunliffe insisted on carting their baggage on the campaign trail. Dissent was disallowed. 

The dirty politics of the right has temporarily obscured the ruthless behaviour of the left. Offering an unorthodox view can lead to a torrent of abuse, or condescending dismissal of one’s point. I personally find the latter worse, which is why my foray as a student into VicLabour (the Victoria University branch of Young Labour) fizzled out after a few wretched meetings. I still get calls and emails from them, but often-times prefer the company of those on the right. A clash of opposites — the dialectical method — is what I seek.

I do not support David Cunliffe. I had argued that he could maintain his position in the face of defeat on September 20 if Labour got at least 30% of the party vote. It would be disingenuous to go back on that. But the Labour Party needs more than a leadership contest, it needs more than a debate over it’s future. Grant Robertson has announced that he will stand for the leadership. The media reported that he has promised to ‘stop the bleeding’. He shouldn’t try to plug a mortal wound. If he’s going to take the reigns the party as we know it has to die. He has the skills to build it anew, and ensure that it’s soul remains intact.

Having said that, there is merit in the statements by David Shearer that the leadership contest should be delayed until the Party has gone through a formal review of the general election. This would allow greater perspective to be gained with the passage of a little time. Blaming Kim Dotcom, or Nicky Hager, or the voters themselves for making the wrong choice is both petty and ridiculous. 

Take a leaf from Tony Blair?


Force Majeure, Review NZIFF

Yes, yes, this is two weeks late and the NZIFF was done with last Sunday, but here is one of my final reviews.

I saw In the Courtyard directly before this, but cannot bring myself to punch out a half decent review. It wasn’t bad, merely overshadowed by the raw power of Force Majeure.

‘Force majeure’ is a legal term describing ‘an act of God’. It refers to natural disasters and the like and is often a clause in contracts etc. 

A young married couple take their two children to a luxury ski resort in France, where the simple act of the father running away and abandoning his panicking family in the face of an avalanche. I am being savagely terse here, and I hope the reduction of the plot into a sentence doesn’t give the impression that there is little in the film. That is plainly wrong. Force Majeure explores what happens when the survival instinct forces the ego to temporarily disappear, and it takes it’s time to work through the implications.

For anyone studying film this is a brilliant example of psychoanalytical cinema, and a very accessible one. While I am sure a reading of Jaques Lacan (a French psychoanalyst who wrote extensively on film) would uncover so much more, thankfully Force Majeure proves that it isn’t necessary to be so high brow. I say that because I tried reading Lacan at University and couldn’t understand a bloody thing. French academics are renowned for being so opaque they can’t even read each other.

Film psychoanalysis is generally on the same wavelength as feminist film theory — my favourite mode of critique. Force Majeure investigates the masculine subconscious which is denied by the husband’s ego, so he denies that he fled his family in the face of the avalanche and that denial causes his wife to lose all faith in him. I haven’t written spoiler alert yet because I’m really only regurgitating the bits of narrative explained in the films marketing.

The setting is what you would expect of alpine France. Snow buried mountain peaks in the background of most shots, a conspicuously clean hotel which juxtaposes with the emotional chaos playing out within the characters. The avalanche was ‘controlled’, and though frightening for the characters it was ultimately harmless. Loud, rumbling booms sound frequently, obviously they are part of the system of provoking small avalanches to guard against the possibility of a big one sweeping over the resort. Metaphorical perhaps, symbolizing the vital safety valve required in relationships. Almost as frequent are the opening bars of Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The combination of these partnered with the stark silence that reigns over much of the rest of the film reminded me of The Shining. And the themes are linked, however the main difference is that the events of The Shining were very particular to the characters in that film. In Force Majeure there is the palpable sense that this could happen (and probably does) to any family.

Election 2014

After last nights result I realise that my pre-election day cartoon was off the mark, but perhaps amusingly naive. Palmerston North has re-elected Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway for the third time. On the party vote things were clear-cut. National’s slightly increased total vote is not a land-slide, and Labour’s depreciation from 27 to 24.5 percent hardly makes a rout. But the media are trumpeting superlatives and clichés, and TV3s Lisa Owen has kept on with her nasty barrage directed at Labour interviewees while paying no heed of what the are actually saying. She would merit an award for worst media journalism if their weren’t so many other claimants. (I watched TV3s coverage because I couldn’t stay on TVONE without swearing loudly at Mike Hosking, and my beloved Aunt was present.) 

Lisa Owen

Owen’s technique — though not just hers — is to ask a question of the interviewee and interrupt them mid-stream with a direct contradiction. The interviewee keeps their guard up because of that and Lisa gets nowhere in terms of informative answers to her ham-handed questions.  Overall, I think the atmosphere she creates is sour, and that is true for much of the NZ political journalists. But unlike Patrick Gower, the Espiner’s, Susan Wood, Duncan Garner, and even Paul Henry; Lisa doesn’t seem capable of turning it off — even for a little while.

It was sad to see Hone Harawira expelled from Te Tai Tokerau, and the Internet-MANA experiment fail so completely. But the hard lessons to learn must now be learned. Radical politics do not succeed in moving large sections of the electorate in a time of quiet stability. They have to be restrained; I don’t mean hidden, nor repudiated. They simply cannot be permitted to dominate the brand.

On the subject of branding it is crucial to get control over the message and guide its delivery via the media, and the internet. Yes I am referring to ‘spin’. Which is propaganda by another name. It is the foul smelling, shadowy environment of blogging, leaking, bending the truth, and acting without mercy. It is immoral, and reprehensible. John Key has managed with profound success to remain (at least in appearance) to be above his parties blunt overuse of vindictive propaganda. He is not in fact quite so angelic in his celebrated occupancy of some higher celestial plane, but he still only knows what he strictly needs to, rather than being at the centre of control.   

The opposition parties (I refuse to call them a left bloc because that is both disingenuous and a cliché) need to get dirty. By this I mean that if the Green Party wants to become the main opposition party then they need to build a stronger propaganda machine. Crucially this has to be kept apart from caucus, and especially the party leadership. It should not be a clone of National’s arrangement with Whale Oil, Kiwiblog, various lobbyists, journalists, and bloggers. That system has flaws which are starting to be exploited. But the Greens should start brainstorming. 

Labour badly needs to put more crackle and fizz into its machine — but first should deal with the matter of what it stands for. Is it the party of new-left progressives like David Cunliffe, or of quasi-conservative realists like Kelvin Davis? An arrangement to better represent the divergent factions of the party — ideally behind a leader who is not of any particular — could work. If the wider party membership can get on board too then a stable foundation will have been laid. A big problem in the last six years has been that Phil Goff, David Shearer, and David Cunliffe had to keep looking over their shoulders. But to be honest I think it would be more efficient for Cunliffe to remain leader while presiding over the building of a robust spin machine. That way it would be entirely separated from a new leader. 

The challenge for National is outliving John Key, and the ongoing ramifications from the skirt being lifted on their spin machine. The worst propaganda is the stuff that is easily recognised, and they’ll be in trouble if they don’t adapt their strategy. As of today they can expect 61 seats out of 121 in the next parliament with 48 percent of the party vote. Hardly the absolute majority the Sunday Star-Times was honking on about (absolute majority implies a majority of actual votes cast) — it is a bare majority of seats that could disappear with the special votes. I do not wish to appear a sore loser, and I say that National have had a stunning victory. I just mean that it is a weakness if the feeling of supremacy overwhelms the hawkish minds in caucus.  


A last bleat

There should never be such a thing as a free lunch for a political leader. Shorten the leash New Zealand.

Well my goal for seeing twenty films at the film festival has not quite been matched by reality as the festival finishes on Sunday and so far I have only seen seven. That is what happens when such things clash with an election campaign clashing with the screenings, but I have another couple of reviews to post tomorrow, and will manage a few more this weekend.

The New Zealand general election is a day away, while the Scottish independence referendum is unfolding as I write. On the latter topic I have sympathy for the historical significance for the United Kingdom, but I cannot quite satisfy myself that that is reason enough to vote no. Independence is a leap into the unknown, and although there has been much in the way of scaremongering I do believe the Scots are more than capable of standing apart.

The NZ election is the reason for my hurried scribbling right now because we are in that existential zone of quiet inertia before the fall. Where we are going to land is not certain, although the impact will hurt regardless. 

The newspapers continue to batter round their clichés of how this election has been the dirtiest and messiest in memory (seriously, can no-one recall 1996, 2002, 2005?), genuine concern about the capabilities and practices of spy agencies in NZ get dismissed with vaguely racist and clearly second-hand bather about the ‘imposturous’ Kim Dotcom. 

Meanwhile the political press appears to have largely given up on the real possibility of a change in government for the sake of conveniently being able to claim that they were right. Whenever I am asked ‘who is going to win?’ I don’t feel buoyed by the invitation to give my soothsayers opinion from observing the entrails of politics, rather I feel a bit disheartened that so many people have missed the point. You decide who wins. By taking part in the hard won franchise and affirming the perhaps laughable principle that the sovereign power of parliament is transferred from the people by means of voting — you step beyond cynicism and towards a better society.

My conclusion from this campaign is that while we always need better politicians, first we need to be better citizens. Revelations of ministerial collusion in underhand political attacks should enrage everyone. A proposal put forward by GCSB to allow them to tap the undersea internet cable while the government pushes through legislation to clarify their powers should never have been suppressed, and when it was finally admitted the citizenry should have torn at the system and demanded the resignation of the PM. Instead I see swathes of the public tucked up ready to go back to sleep as the balloons fall on Saturday night. 

The Mule, Review NZIFF

Directed by Angus Sampson, and Tony Mahony, The Mule is an Australian film set in 1983. It follows Ray Jenkins(played by Angus Sampson), a simple minded television repairman living with his blue collar parents in Melbourne.

To tersely summarize (and thus avoid spoilers) he is hoodwinked to act as a drugs mule carrying a kilogram of heroin divided into twenty condoms — which he swallows. Due to his nerves and bizarre behaviour at the airport he is stopped and questioned by customs officials.

The two federal police officers (one played brilliantly by Hugo Weaving) take him away on suspicion of transporting narcotics. He refuses to allow doctors to perform an x-ray of his stomach and the police take him to a hotel. By law they can keep him for twelve days without charge in order to recover the drugs once nature has taken its course. Ray is stubborn though — and made further obstinate when the offices teat him roughly. His bowels do not move.

The meat of the film is the struggle between Ray and the officers which takes place in the hotel room. They try to induce him to defecate by applying the good cop bad cop routine, until it proves fruitless (or should I say shitless?) Ray refuses to excrete the globs of heroin bubbling away in his guts, and gets increasingly sicker as a result. On his side is a pretty young blond female lawyer — who is appalled at the tactics employed by the police and fights for Ray despite knowing that he is indeed guilty of drugs trafficking. 

Her role is somewhat superfluous beyond providing a voice of conscience in a chorus of the corrupt. She is also one of two female supporting characters –the other being Ray’s mother — and is the only young female character. Perhaps she represents Australia’s bright future, certainly in this light her remarks on the arbitrary/ironic nature of the yachting craze that has gripped the nation (and the male characters) are vindicated in the present time (Australian yachting? Dreaming).

In a film that deals with the criminal bowels of suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, shit is of course used as a motif. It is used viscerally in the hotel scene where Ray has to decide what to do with the messy drug globs once they have started circumventing his will and pop out automatically. That scene is grotesque, frighteningly realistic (at least I think so), and provides the narrative turn where Ray starts to exert himself. 

Certainly The Mule is at its heart a story about standing up for yourself. Ray is simple minded and trusting, but he has an iron will that others see and often try to break — which they did up until Ray made a simple decision for himself. I can’t say that this is my favourite film of the festival so far, but it certainly made me think and it re-established Australia in my mind as masters of black comedy. I could go on and write about the other characters and actors and perhaps I should, but since this is a review and not a piece of film criticism (there is a big difference) I will leave it there. If you get a chance to see The Mule I do recommend it, just be careful what you eat during it.

‘Two Days, One Night — Review NZIFF

‘Two Days, One Night’ or ‘Deux Jours, une nuit’ in French, stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, an employee at a solar panel manufacturing company who is fighting to keep her job. The basic plotline is (spoiler alert) that Sandra had a depressive breakdown sometime previously, now she has returned to work only for her boss to have scheduled a vote by her colleagues to choose between their annual bonuses and Sandra being layed off. 

The Friday vote went in favour of the bonuses and the film starts with Sandra reacting at home. Due to the efforts of a supportive co-worker the executive manager agrees to schedule another vote — this time by secret ballot — on Monday, noting that the supervisor (his specific position is never made clear) Jean-Marc may have been intimidating the employees into voting against Sandra. The stage is thus set for the struggle between Sandra, the hearts and minds of her co-workers, and her own fragile mental state. She remains reliant on anti-depressants.

Two Days, One Night is full of ironies. First there is the fact that Sandra is quite honestly terrified of losing her job because it would mean having to go on welfare. There is never a hint that the family would be out on the street in abject poverty. The safety net is there and yet not a comfort — Sandra would literally rather die than be on the dole. A second irony is the way bonuses are spoken about. Repeatedly when asked to support Sandra the co-workers say “I can’t lose my bonus!” As if you can lose something before having attained it. The bonuses seem to affect people personally, they have built an expectation that says they shall get that extra money and they’ve already spent it long before getting it. In a sense this sounds a bit like the criticisms of banking on credit. Spending money you don’t have today restricts you tomorrow. 

The moral struggle is evident. One co-worker bursts into tears as soon as Sandra asks for his support and assures her that he will give it. She was kind to him when he first started in the job and is distraught that their boss pressured him to vote no. I don’t want to go to far in describing these things for fear of ruining your experience, but I think my point is made.

Ultimately a major theme of this film is the power that people have to overcome the dehumanising effects of capitalism by seeing each other with the redeeming gaze of empathy. Some co-workers try to avoid Sandra when they know she is coming. They are on guard because they know their conscience will get the better of their greed if they allow themselves to see Sandra as she is. For her part Sandra does give up a few times, and is constantly plagued with doubt. Her resolution (spoiler alert again) is in managing to get eight of the sixteen employees to vote in her favour. Then, as she required a majority, she rejects the managers offer to bring her back in return for not renewing the fixed contract of one of the guys that voted for her. She walks out with her head held high, secure in the knowledge that she did all she could to keep the job. 

A fine film, and critically acclaimed it recently received the Sydney Film Prize at the Sydney Film Festival this year. I do find it a little odd that in France/Belgium (they aren’t ever specific about where the film is set) an employment dispute is negotiated without the slightest hint of a workers union. It really could have saved Sandra a lot of bother, but then I suppose she would not have come out the other side quite so emotionally galvanized and ready to find a new job. I definitely recommend this film, and for everyone 13+. There are so scares, thrills, or moments of gratuitous violence; but neither is there much in the way of romantic activity. So seeing this with mothers-in-law or sainted aunts will not be an embarrassing experience. 

20,000 Days on Earth, Review NZIFF

This Saturday evening I saw the 97 minute cinematic insight into Nick Cave. I honestly don’t know how to specifically define this film, except to say that it is a discussion of life, the universe, and everything. 

A memorable phrase uttered by Cave near the end (in voice-over) goes something like; acting on a bad decision is better than not acting at all. This is not to say that the ethos of the film is hedonistic, but more a recognition of the value of experience refracted through memory. Cave wonders aloud what matters to him now, what seemed to matter before, and what his friends think.

 Some of the friends who join him as passengers in his car (they appear and disappear giving the impression that the conversation is occurring in Nick’s head) like Ray Winston, and Kylie Minogue reflect on the good old times, the importance of self-confidence, and the realities of age. Minogue talks briefly of her fears of being forgotten by ‘people’. 

Although the film is centred on Nick Cave and he carries plenty of the aloof self-importance of a rock star (yes I know ‘rock’ is not adequate a term to apply to Cave’s style but I am way out of my depth here so please bear with me) he is self-deprecating, and clearly does not take himself entirely seriously. It would be agony to watch this film otherwise.

Rotten Tomatoes has given 20.000 Days on Earth 95%, an extremely high level of acclaim, and a fact I was made aware of imediately prior to the screening. An expectations boost did not disadvantage the film, and although I consider myself musically illiterate the world of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds kept me enthralled throughout. I had to resist the temptation to applaud at the end of one of his songs delivered at a live show — after my coughing fit I didn’t want to annoy my fellow movie-goers any further.

This is certainly a film worth taking note of and seeing if at all possible. Especially if like me you will be seeing Nick Cave perform live at the end of the year and as yet know nothing about the man. Conversely, if you already are a fan and perhaps have some musical knowledge, I have no doubt you will see things in this film that went completely over my head.


NZIFF ‘Locke’, Review

A terrific start to the festival! Locke is a 2013 British film written and directed by Steven Knight, and starring Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke. Ivan is a workaholic concrete construction supervisor working on a large project in Birmingham. The movie begins with him leaving the building site in his car having received word from the pregnant woman he had a one night stand with the previous year has gone into labour in a London hospital. Ivan has been married for fifteen years and has two sons. He has been a faithful husband all but once — as his wife eventually makes clear; once is enough.

Locke entirely takes place in Ivan’s car as he drives from Birmingham to London, making and receiving phone calls via blutooth. Tom Hardy is the only person seen, with the entire supporting cast only present in voice form. The film is an examination of what it is for a successful, intelligent, and capable life to come utterly undone in a short space of time. Hardy is brilliant at conveying the introspective obsessiveness of Ivan Locke, his desperation to re-exert control over the events in progress, and his bitter emotional struggle with the ghost of his father — himself an unfaithful husband and absent parent.

There is much I could go into but better to be terse (since I am going to do a lot of these over the next few weeks). What really sticks in my mind and made a huge impression early on is Tim Hardy’s voice. No laconic south England accent like he had in Inception, nor a distorted garble like in The Dark Knight Rises (thank goodness). His voice strongly channels Sir Anthony Hopkins, albeit a much younger version; the accent is a rich Welsh. 

Locke is highly critically acclaimed with a rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, any many critics have declared Hardy’s performance as a career best. This is a film that displays the curious ability of cinema that is so rarely indulged in — the ability to be micro. In contrast to live theatre it is the well populated province of film to be big, to cut dramatically from one scene to the next, to do the physically impossible and take audiences anywhere and everywhere. Locke is just a guy in a car driving on a motorway — and I was captivated for every moment. The slightest expression, the growing hollowness in Hardy’s eyes, it is all examined over the two hours of the film. Locke is dark, and intimate, and cold. But the effect is leaves behind is not one of desolate sorrow, but of hope. A new life has been born, Ivan’s sons still want him home despite his wife throwing him out, and the all important construction project beginning in the morning (that he has been coordinating from the car despite having been fired) will go ahead according to plan.

Ultimately I think the message is that life goes from managed stability to sheer chaos in a heartbeat, sometimes as an effect of the honest compulsion to do the right thing. Ivan could have left the emotionally rattled, and unstable Bethan to have her child alone in hospital while he went home to his waiting wife and sons. His family and his job would have remained intact. But his own father had abandoned him in a similar fashion only to return as a pathetic waste of a man when Ivan was in his twenties. He feels so compelled to do the right thing and take responsibility for his mistake that he will wreck his entire life. What an impressive morality play in a film so simple.

Without doubt this is a highlight of the festival, and if ever you have the chance to see it I strongly advise you do so.

Not a time for Politics?

I did not intend to write this, I was writing a piece on what I am learning as I interview more people. But I have to put that temporarily aside.

As I write today the Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett is flying to Ashburton following a shooting which occurred this morning at the Work and Income offices. Two people are confirmed to have been shot dead. Another is in a critical condition. Armed Police have locked down the town and sealed off the WINZ premises, I understand too that the WINZ and ACC branches in Christchurch and Timaru have been closed.

A manhunt for the alleged killer, 48 year old John Henry Tully, is unfolding right now (1:02pm).

This does not feel like New Zealand. Right wing bloggers backed by shady money-men shovelling filth over a democracy and stacking candidate selections to filter out moderates — welcome to the antipodean Tea Party. A shooting and manhunt in progress — welcome to the constant back and forth of the USA. Fear.

Glancing at the Whale Oil post on the Ashburton shooting, and in particular the comments, already the bloated trolls are criticising (that’s actually a much kinder word for what they are doing) a tweet from Sue Bradford connecting this event to the policies of the National-led government.

I’m just waiting for someone to say something to the effect of; “This is not a time for politics”. Unfortunately this is often said right when the speaker attempts to do some free political points scoring. We are staring an election in the teeth, and are about to try to decide on the course for this country as ‘the people’, not individuals. This is a time to care, it is a time to grieve for the WINZ staffers who got up this morning and went to work to try and make New Zealand better. Will we let them down by switching off? Or do we still give a damn?