The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (NZ/USA, 2012)

Seen on Peter Jackson’s pet Embassy screen, with all mod cons: high frame rate, 3D, super surround sound speakers, etc.

It was groovy. Slower than it needed to be, but not so much as I’d feared. After the first half hour, it felt to me *very* similar in pacing to the LotR films. I’d give it 3.5 or 4 stars, against the 4.5 or 5 I’d throw down for the Lord of the Rings flicks.

It felt less like a coherent whole than any of the Rings films – the digressions (basically anything with no dwarves or hobbitses) really felt like digressions. This didn’t bother me in the least, though.

The big setpiece action sequence, dwarves vs goblins through mad tunnels and across wooden bridges, was too cartoony to feel of a piece with the more grittily choreographed LotR films – as if Legolas riding the shield was the default tone and not an unusual moment – but it was a fun romp and fully enjoyable to watch. (It also directly echoed, and far exceeded, the similar chase sequence in Tintin which was that film’s only memorable sequence.)

I liked it. What ya gonna do.

The HFR was *cool*. I really, really liked it. I can see why people don’t, of course, it’s definitely a different way of reading the screen, but it totally worked for me (and the 3D didn’t make my eyes tired, too, so I think it helped with that). I certainly don’t think it’s right for every film, there’s an effect of the “distance” of the traditional lower frame rate, but I can see myself looking forward to more films using HFR. I reckon Prometheus would’ve been more fun for me in HFR, for example.

Roll on part two.

Hobbit Premiere Day

My city is going bananas today. There’s a frenzy of excitement around the premiere of the first Hobbit movie, with the red carpet TV coverage due to begin in an hour or so. There’s also a frenzy of grump as long-simmering negativity finally boils up around such issues as the cultural worth of the movie, the government’s priorities, our tourism branding and sense of identity, and Peter Jackson’s reputation as a nice guy.

There’s also a lot of people who aren’t fussed either way, but you don’t hear much from them.

Me, I’m happy to sit with the positives. I have time for many of the grumpy-type issues (apparently there’s gonna be a book on the Hobbit labour dispute? would be good to read that and try and figure out if I had it right or if I was a victim of an effective spin machine) – but when I think about the Hobbit, mostly I think about the people I know who worked on it. There’s a lot of them. It’s a rare Wellingtonian who doesn’t know any, in fact, and that’s exactly the point. This is a creative cultural product that’s come out of our local film setup, drawing on the expertise of many friends and countless friends-of-friends. I like it when my friends and my community do cool stuff.

So bring it on. I’ll have the telly on for the coverage. I’ll be particularly looking forward to Sylvester McCoy’s jaunt down the red carpet, and Barry Humphries. And I’ll raise a glass in respect to my friends who’ve put love and labour into this project. Nice work, folks. I look forward to seeing the result.

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.

Te Hobbit

Hobbit stays in NZ. Situation complex. (Previously.)

NZ as a nation: keeps The Hobbit. Turns out this is of massive symbolic importance to us. Our national identity is bound up in these Middle Earth films now (or, perhaps, in the fact we showed we can make ’em). That’s cool.

Film bosses: got more tax breaks, plus happy Peter Jackson. They win.

NZ film industry workers: have a film to work on. Is good.

Dealmaker PM John Key emerges with great triumph. Never mind embarrassing spectacle of our political leader holding crisis meetings with film bosses; voters already forgotten that.

Legislative due process: sacrificed by John Key. Pushing through today legislation developed in meeting with US film bosses. Terrible behaviour, although if it is just limited to a review/clarification of the differences between an employee and a contractor I’ll be cool with it. Won’t know until it’s already been pushed through of course. Sickening.

Actors? Lord knows how they come out of this. Their position remains inscrutable. What did they want? What did they get? Who knows?

Unionism in NZ: wounded. The Actor’s Union acted with great strategic idiocy. CTU’s Helen Kelly came in and did not help, instead stirred things up further. Misinformation exposed, either lies or stupidity. Anti-union forces including hero of the hour John Key leap on opportunity to attack unions. Disastrous result. (I support strong unions, but only if they don’t act like idiots.)

Blogs vs mainstream media: got most of my news on this from the Public Address thread of doom, which (uniquely as far as I can tell) put a real emphasis on sourcing documents and establishing facts. On the other hand, the big announcement was on live TV so old media still has the power.

Conspiracy theorists: in their element. This outcome was foreseen.

Opposition leader Phil Goff: this is bad for Phil Goff. Everything that happens is always bad for Phil Goff.

Hobbit Trouble

@publicaddress: TrendsMap over Wellington tonight

So the word from those in the biz is that filming on The Hobbit has already been lost to NZ. The decision has been made to take it elsewhere – 3News said Ireland. This afternoon and evening the local film industry types, summonsed to a meeting by Richard Taylor himself, decided to get their voice heard about the risk to the NZ film industry.

The source of the trouble is an NZ actor’s union dispute. It is, to be frank, too complex for me to understand, let alone summarize. (Theatreview has a big set of links tracking the whole thing, and Steve Hickey tries to make sense of it all.) In fact, my impression is that the actor/union side of the dispute is incoherent. I haven’t seen a concise statement of the problem anywhere. There are claims that it’s an Aussie union, perhaps backed by a US union, trying to get NZ on to the same playing field.

But it’s safe to say that losing The Hobbit wasn’t the goal of the actors who came in on the union side. Especially because if that goes, then it’s hard to see any other major shooting jobs coming here in future. NZs film industry would wither, fast, reduced to digital effects and post-production work.

So what the heck has gone wrong? This has got much bigger, with much more at stake, than anyone expected. My take, for whatever it’s worth, is that the entire NZ scene has become pawns in a bigger game. The actors (who I’m sure have real concerns) have been pulled into a unionisation debate by overseas agencies which have clear incentives to bring NZ into line with their approach, regardless of the outcome for NZ. This dispute has then fed opposition within the studio to filming in NZ as opposed to other, cheaper locations – it is a pretext for running the numbers again and forcing a move elsewhere. The big players are international. The NZ scene is almost a sideshow in its own story.

This is a bit of a harsh critique in that it denies real agency to the local actors. Am I really justified in seeing the actors’ demands as problematic because they haven’t issued a clear public statement of their goals? If so, it doesn’t speak well of the capacity of actors to manage their own affairs.

That said, I think it’s undeniable that the actors have demonstrated no strategic leadership throughout this affair. The lack of public communication is one aspect, but even simply making a clear case has been a challenge.

And I should also emphasize that I’m sympathetic to the aims of a union. Unions are important tools for social equity – that’s clearcut.

My concern is that this union dispute, at this time, on this issue, is surely having consequences that those caught up in it did not intend. Sitting back and saying the decision to go to Ireland was driven by WB wanting to save money and not by the actors’ demands – well, it might make you feel better, but it doesn’t change the fact that the industry’s gone. The truth is, obviously, that the film industry globally is a haven for exploitative practices. There are good reasons why contracting is the default here in Wgtn and wider NZ, and yes that contracting will sometimes lead to exploitation, but the situation is complex enough that simplistic “workers need a union” claims won’t necessarily turn out to be appropriate. These complex reasons need to be addressed. This would be suggested by pragmatism, and also by awareness of the large interrelated nature of the film industry – if part of it goes, it all goes.

There are many other aspects of this sad tale that could be addressed – the dearth of leadership from the Beehive, for example. But I’m going to go to sleep instead, for I am tired and my eyes are droopy. Here’s hoping that the film can get tied down in this country after all.

EDITED TO ADD: a big post from industry worker Dan on this stuff.

ALSO: Radio NZ interviews with Fran Walsh, Pip Boyens, Helen Kelly, Dave Brown

Robyn Malcolm interview audio in the sidebar on the Stuff story

Russell Brown pulls the threads together: Anatomy of a Shambles

EDITED 5.50pm: Helen Kelly comments on Russell’s post, and Russell replies with exactly the right question.

Dan, of that link just above, was interviewed on bFM midday or so. I thought he did very well indeed. His post has been generating lots of discussion and comment.

(I wrote this post just after midnight last night. I think it stands up pretty well after a long day of charged conversation and reportage. Still no idea what’s going to happen to “Wellywood”…)

EDITED 9pm: via Jack of TallPoppy, some people who were there claim the “Robyn Malcolm abused/police escort needed” story is a fabrication