The Left, slain by Bilbo

Aftermath of The Hobbit affair continues to rumble through the blogs and real-world conversations. In an almost ridiculous turn of fate, the disagreements over this film have split a seam in “the Left” in NZ, with much heat (and occasionally, light) in evidence. Right-oriented commentators are rubbing their hands with glee, or at the very least, rolling their eyes. (For the Left does love to schism, does it not?)

I’m going to characterize the dispute like this (beware of my own self-serving narrative). Those who subscribe to a more class-focused view of the left argue that the Actors Equity action deserved support, even if it was wrongheaded, because public dispute only plays into the hands of the boss classes. Those who do not acknowledge the primacy of class see opposition to Actors Equity as entirely justified by an analysis of the consequences. In general, both sides see the concessions and changes extracted by the movie studio as opportunism, but they tend to locate responsibility with the other side.

There’s more to it, but that’ll do as a starting point. And to nail my colours to the mast (and clarify my own bias), I’m firmly in the second chunk, seeing opposition to Actor’s Equity as entirely appropriate. In my view, NZ Actor’s Equity launched a mistargeted, over-reaching action without gaining a mandate from its members, without linking with other workers, without communicating effectively, and without understanding the consequences of this action.

So I’ve found it strange and depressing to read impassioned and ferocious pieces by writers I both like and respect (and, of course, many I don’t) attacking those holding my perspective, especially because we both agree on some fundamental values – the need to protect workers from exploitation, for example.

I’m not going to try and unpick all that here. Lew at Kiwipolitico I think comes more or less from the same perspective as me, and has been doing a great job of digging through the rhetoric for sense. Instead, I want to talk about the bigger picture, the frame in which these conversations are taking place.

Essentially, my point of dissent from the class-based analysis is that I am no longer convinced by the appropriateness of their metaphors. Starting with class itself – class is a metaphor, a symbolic way of talking about a large set of individuals who share certain circumstances to a greater or lesser degree. It doesn’t exist in isolation, but draws on a whole set of contingencies: capitalism of a particular kind, industry of a certain nature, normative social rules derived from these. When you talk about class, the word brings along a great deal of additional baggage.

I’m far from convinced the class metaphor makes sense in the 21st century western context of NZ. Many on the class-analysis left are disgusted that Labour Day, our day of celebrating worker’s rights and the successes of collective resistance to exploitation, saw protests nationwide supporting a multinational company’s will over that of Kiwi workers. But surely Occam’s Razor points away from this as evidence of a mass betrayal of the labour movement, or a lack of understanding of worker’s rights; surely the simplest and best explanation is that the metaphor of class no longer applies?

Consider the position of the independent contractor. Some on the class-analysis left see an employment relation as the only acceptable one, thanks to the hard-won rights to fair conditions and protections for employees in this country. I hope that most sensible analyses will see that an independent contractor relationship has a role to play as well, providing a freedom to engage that can suit both parties beautifully. The challenge, then, is where the distinction between the two is unclear and a worker under independent contract is treated poorly while deprived of the benefits and safety of employment.

None of this fits easily within the class metaphor. The vast majority of independent contractors seem to be quite happy with their status, or even feel quite privileged, all without any cost to employees. Empirical evidence makes it clear that these two separate models of worker-boss relations can run in parallel in a society quite happily. Yet the furore over The Hobbit dispute positioned independent contractors as the useful idiots, if not the outright enemy, of the workers. Isn’t this analysis ridiculous just on its face?

Consider the nature of industry and capital. The class metaphor, and all the worker-boss relationships embedded within it, evisages a certain kind of industry – archetypally, the factory worker, with a large investment in plant and every incentive to exploit workers to generate more widgets more cheaply. Yet many things have changed. The globalisation of capital is well-known; capital flight happens when those factories get moved overseas, and it has been a threat levied against striking workers for decades. And yet that isn’t enough to make sense of the hyper-mobile short-term project that is a major Hollywood production. A better metaphor, and an appropriate one given the film, is that the project is like a dragon. It is huge, and wealthy, and incredibly selfish; and also temperamental, and even the spillage from its hoard is worth a fortune. If it decides it doesn’t like the conditions wherever it sits, it can easily leap up, and fly across to a different, more favorable land. The industry of making movies is very like coaxing a dragon to stay, and the question is how much you offer it before the wealth it will give stops being worthwhile. You don’t want to go so far as sacrificing your local virgins in tribute (because the dragon’ll take that if it gets offered), but you need to offer something juicy or the dragon won’t even land in the first place. Big-movie industry is about supplicating dragons. How does this metaphor fit within the class metaphor and all the baggage it contains? Short answer: it doesn’t. The dragon flies away.

Consider the notion of critical support that has been turning up in a lot of the class-analysis left discussions. One huge source of fury in this argument is that many voices on the left criticized the actors union for their actions, without embedding that criticism in support for their goals; many writers shorthand it to something like “criticism in private, solidarity in public”. But how can this approach survive in an environment where the difference between public and private conversations is massively eroded, and where engagement with ideas is a massive free-for-all? Of course people are going to criticise every aspect of a union action, including its goal; of course support is going to be withheld if the action doesn’t hold up. To do otherwise would be to abandon one’s own ability to think critically. How can a class metaphor account for a massive multiplicity of semi-public voices, except by excluding all those that do not come to the same conclusions as itself? How is that a strategy for any kind of success?

I’m in no way stepping away from the left here. I believe that a social analysis that starts with worker-boss relations contains profound truths that call to action. However, I also believe that received knowledge has accreted around these truths as a barrier, in some cases obscuring or distorting them.

And I write this lengthy ramble not as a cogent argument – it would take me much more time and energy than I wish to spend to interrogate all of this. Rather, this is an expression of unease with the whole foundation of the current disagreement. It seems to me that the heart of the matter is sitting unexamined and unexpressed. So I hope this points at least in the direction of that heart, despite whatever flaws and misrepresentations can be found in the paragraphs above. (No doubt there are plenty.)

The film-as-dragon metaphor, though – I’m quite pleased with that one.

16 thoughts on “The Left, slain by Bilbo”

  1. The dragon metaphor is great. And like you Morgue, you know well that I sit right out on the left as well. But unlike the people bashing out there, I’m also a pragmatist. The dragon is globalisation in the capitalist sense, and the class system when dealing with a flying dragon breaks down, because the workers in China….the billion or so workers in China are not part of that class. They simply don’t care. They are caught up in day to day survival and the ability to get any leaverage in the class is hugely restricted when dealing with flying dragons.

    People, this is the world. This is the way it works. Putting your head in the sand and denying it, or abusing those people who are actually on your side because you don’t like it is neither helpful nor conducive. Work through the issues and figure out where we come out in the end. Is joining an illegal war in the middle East worth our family silver? No. Is losing a strategic alliance with the US worth protecting ourselves and our environment from nuclear waste? Yes. Is fighting to give our actors and technicians the chance to work and show their brilliance and the magnificence of our country to the world, again, worth it? I would have thought so.

  2. This post is flat-out brilliant.

    I wonder though… does the NZ film industry have to be completely dependant on these dragons? Is there room for a decent home-grown industry that could make money on a smaller scale as well?

    I’ve often thought that a local genre-movie industry would make some sense. Rather than competing with the stars & the glitz, it would be competing with the direct-to-video schlock (where there is also money to be made).

    I might be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure that the most commercially-successful 100% NZ-funded movie was The Irrefutable Truth About Demons, which made its money simply by getting into American video stores.

    Or is the country too small to contain both?

    Much as I like the idea of these big movies being made here, I don’t like the idea that it would require the sacrifice of a truly local cinema. Especially as the big stuff seems mostly dependant on one person at the moment.

  3. Wow! It’s like you read my mind!

    Thanks Morgue, you’ve said it far more eloquently than I could (which has mostly been me yelling at my computer screen) …

    I think the model you mention, Pearce, is a good one and I do think the country can sustain both – it may just take a tenacious producer to find a way (and a never give up, never surrender sense of mind).

  4. Great post; Morgue.

    Sort of a sidebar, but personally been very disappointed by some bloggers on the left over this issue. I’m tempted to name names, but I won’t, not here. Suffice to say that some of the bloggers linked on the left of this site have unfortunately revealed themselves to either incapable of, or even opposed to reasoned debate, critical thinking, not to mention seeming unable to accept any outside information (be it fact or opinion) if it doesn’t align with their pre-position on the issue.

    I think the worst came on the day the legislation was passed; there, in pixels on the screen, was *exactly* what the law change did, and didn’t do. But immediately some left bloggers were screaming about Weta employees losing their jobs and being forced into contracts, or employees generally losing their protections. And, of course, the law enabled neither of those things.

    But, no, that didn’t play into the pre-conceived narrative, so it was ignored.

  5. #Pearce — you need work for the technical people. There are a number of ways for that to happen — there can be a mandate (and funding) for local content, or there can be a thirst for local stories (as has happened in some parts of Africa), or there can be overseas work. Mostly, NZ seems to be sustained by overseas work — not just blockbusters, but bread-and-butter stuff (Power Rangers, Xena, 3D anim for nature docos, whatever).

    You might be right that we could sustain a genre-focused industry. But I don’t see that we’ve got any advantage in that department over any other country; and the perennial problem for industry, any industry in NZ, is lack of capital (or so I’m told by economist friends).

  6. The union dispute was a sideshow, one that both the government and film industry found useful to blame, but actually had nothing to do with whether the film would be filmed here or not. Gordon Campbell provides all the evidence one needs to understand this, and many other informed commentators have said the same recently, but people still keep swallowing the bull that the flim0makesr and the government are spewing.

    As to your metaphor, it only works IF New Line/WB were going to take the film off of Peter Jackson and his production company, but that’s not what was happening, the argument was only over where the film would be shot. The only time that NZ was really likely to lose all the money was back when New Line was refusing to let PJ or his production companies film it due to PJ suing them for not paying for the LoTR films.

    I prefer a purely financial analysis which indicates that losing the filming overseas really would not have been such a big deal.

    I could post a more detailed analysis with references to back up thee figures. but if you assume that $700m was to be spent on both films, then as production (filming ) costs in effects heavy productions such as this are always less than a third of the budget total (sometimes significantly less than a third), the loss of filming overseas would have meant a loss of at most $233m to NZ, assuming maximum likely production cost percentage and that all the production costs would have were spent in NZ anyway.

    Jobs at Weta would have been as safe as they normally are regardless of where the film was shot. Did anyone complain when the shooting of “The Lovely Bones” went overseas (as planned) ? Did we lose the majority of the money spend in that production because of that? The answer to both questions is a clear “No.”

    So in fact, we’re only talking about a loss to NZ of up to $233m, which really is a pittance for all the fuss it caused. How much a day does the government spend on social welfare again? About $65m a day last I heard the figure mentioned. So for just over three DAYS worth of social welfare spend, film industry workers lost the job protections they used to enjoy.

    What’s most annoying about it, is that they marched on Labour Day to remove the sort of protections that Labour Day was celebrating, which the National Government no doubt found hilarious. Either the cynicism of the organizers of those marches was astounding, or they were such complete fools they didn’t even realize what they were doing.

  7. Mundens, don’t be so quick to use the “film industry workers lost the job protections they used to enjoy” line.

    This presents an understanding of the previous status of film production workers that is incorrect.

    Bryson versus 3 Foot 6 hasn’t been tested further; film production workers were contractors before Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill 229-1 (2010) was passed, and are still so afterwards.

    And all that act, all that outcome of this ‘class war’ some would like to put this forward, was adding a clause to the Employment Relations Act that says “film production workers are not employees unless they are employees.” Really.

    So nothing has been lost by film production workers by this change, they can still seek an employment agreement if they want to (and, like anywhere else an employer can choose to not employee them).

    Which speaks volumes as to what was the meta-narrative the Government and WB were selling during this issue; but the change to the ERA isn’t the big bugbear some woul have it; certainly isn’t a crushing blow in the class war.

    The amended law does, it is true, mean another Bryson vs. 3 Foot 6 wouldn’t succeed; but that another case of this nature hasn’t been pursued since that decision (which the judge was very clear to note was a one-off, case specific decision, not an precedent-setting one) would seem that issue had passed. Or had it?

  8. mundens: I have much, much disagreement.

    I just do not accept that the union dispute was a sideshow. I don’t think the evidence stacks up like that. I’ve read all Campbell’s pieces – I love the guy’s journalism, particularly on film matters, but his Hobbit articles did not impress me at all.

    The union dispute definitely *became* a sideshow – the actors issues were resolved but WB still wanted to sit down and be convinced – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the initial kicker. Campbell is particularly unconvincing on this score: “Logically, why would the mere prospect of such an agreement in New Zealand be sufficient to derail the project here, when the signing of one in Ireland has apparently turned Ireland into a more attractive destination?” This is a weak argument. Russell Brown has written several times on the key difference between the Irish agreement and what happened here. Elsewhere he writes about the small sums involved with the actors, following Robyn Malcolm’s comment that the actors’ demands don’t amount to more than the coffee budget. Also a weak argument. It isn’t about the dollar value.

    The key is stability and risk management. An actor boycott based on a request for an illegal negotiation, with no clear communication lines and no obvious resolution process, would hardly give WB an investor’s confidence, not when there were safer bets elsewhere. The release timetable is already set, and unresolved actor trouble would put those dates at risk.

    Its been long speculated that there’s been constant pressure on Jackson to take his big post-LOTR projects out of NZ for better $$$. It’s easy to see how the actor boycott might tip the studio against Jackson’s desire to stay in NZ.

    All of this is speculation – it has to be. It’s impossible to know what decisions are being made behind closed doors, what backroom deals are in place, and what intentions were. But the record is clear: there was no talk of moving overseas until the actor’s boycott; when the boycott happened, overseas filming became an option; when the boycott was resolved, WB did not let the matter end. Only when NZ promised more $$$ and extras was settlement reached. I don’t think any of those facts are in dispute, and I think they point clearly to my take.

    I also disagree with your claim that losing the shoot isn’t a big deal. Comparisons to Lovely Bones particularly don’t resonate; very different projects. Lots of people in Miramar work on production services, and losing the shoot would be a huge hit to their bottom lines; they barely make ends meet as it is. It’s more than just Weta we’re talking about here.

    You argument builds up to this: “What’s most annoying about it, is that they marched on Labour Day to remove the sort of protections that Labour Day was celebrating… Either the cynicism of the organizers of those marches was astounding, or they were such complete fools they didn’t even realize what they were doing.” No. No-one marched on Labour Day to remove protections. They marched to preserve their jobs (and some probably marched due to identification with the films as NZ’s symbolic property). The protections being lost were *nothing to do with the Labour Day marches*. That was something cooked up by WB and John Key in negotiations, unexpectedly, because it certainly didn’t have anything to do with the actor’s dispute or the goals of the Labour Day marches.

    As far as I can tell, the narrative you’re proposing just doesn’t fit the data. Not at all convinced.

  9. Everyone else: I would love to see a genre cinema grow in NZ. We could totally own that subgenre. I have my pitch ready: “MARCH… OR DIE!” About small-town NZ marching girls who engage in marching contests to the death with their rival small towns.

  10. Brilliant narrative Morgue. Excellent follow up Pearce. Agree with you both all the way.

  11. Great! Apart from wanting a moratorium on zombie movies (I have participated in a doco on zombie movies that demonstrated that there are way too many unfinished NZ zombie movies already – sadly including said doco), those Escalator projects sound sorta like the kinds of things I’d like to see more of from here.

    My “NZ goes genre” thought was originally prompted by a local art movie I saw years ago, which was well made and loaded to the brim with talent. It was about a foley artist, Victorian prostitutes with syphillis, and people drowning themselves, and it took itself very seriously.

    I remember thinking, “Who the hell is the audience for this?” That was probably the most extreme example, but I’ve had similar thoughts in too many other NZ movies.

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