It's New Year's Day in upstate New York, and there's the sleety beginnings of an ice-storm outside, washing away the remains of the foot of snow that made for a genuine White Christmas a week ago. Sure, the song says "just like the ones I used to know," but actual snow on the day itself is rarer than you'd think, and waking up to a snow-cloaked world is an incomparably magical way to celebrate the day -- especially if you have a fourteen-month-old on the premises who's never gone sledding before. What with the snow and the two bouncy dogs (whom he refers to as "dodgies," entirely appropriate in light of the Axis of Extreme Mischief the three of them formed within minutes of meeting each other), this house-sitting gig has been a dream holiday for a certain small boy.
In between the dreaded lergies mentioned last time, we managed to have several kinds of seasonal fun. Sledding, of course. And then there was the Christmas party that featured the very best of over-the-top American decorating skills: strings of fairylights and illuminated candy canes led us up the garden path, and inside it was even more spectacular: twenty-eight Santas arrayed about the house, seasonally appropriate cushions on the couch and Yule-themed pictures on the wall, no fewer than three separate nativity scenes, a small model village arranged neatly on a wodge of fake snow, and at the centre of it all, a ten foot tall revolving tree lit up like…well, like a Christmas tree, really. It was pretty special, and I think we can all safely continue buying stock in the alarming style guru Martha Stewart for years to come.
Then there was the much-anticipated second instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. My friend Gil affectionately (and accurately) described the first film as "three hours of bad '70s hair." Frodo Comes Alive, sort of thing. I can tell you that The Two Towers, by contrast, is all about the whiskers. Maybe it was just that we were sitting eye-crossingly close to the screen, but ooh, those bristly chinny-chin-chins! I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that each individual hair on Karl Urban's phiz (under the ill-advised Kariotahi surfer bleach job) was computer-generated to prickle with personality by the same wizards who turned Andy Serkis into the extraordinarily life-like and sympathetic Gollum/Smeagol. (Incidentally, for this new mum's money, Serkis turned in as good a rendition of the wild and unpredictable weather of toddler mood-swings as has ever been seen on the big screen).
Will the roughly-trimmed hairy chin be this season's facial fashion statement? With knee-length beards for the older gent (and something with birds in it, perhaps, for the older Ent)? I don't know -- by about the fiftieth extreme close-up on Aragorn's bewhiskered mouche I was feeling a little itchy, and not in a nice way. But lo, what magical elf-powers are these, that make for a miraculous absence of beard-rash on Arwen's alabaster chin? (And for that matter, readers alert to homoerotic subplots might wish to check out the equally unsullied cheek of nimble Legolas, he of the exceptionally well-stocked quiver…)
Pursuit of the hirsute aside, The Two Towers is an extraordinarily elemental film and I found it affecting in the extreme. This time last year we watched the first film in the company of three other New Zealanders and an eight-week-old baby. The former laughed at all the in-jokes and the latter slept through the noisy bits and woke up in order to nurse with piglet-like gusto during the quiet hobbity scenes. I'm glad I didn't sneak a child into this film, though. The preparations for the defense of Helm's Deep, with beardless youths and old men thrust into armour while mothers and babies are bundled off to shelter reminded me of the grim cut-and-thrust of the Iliad. And Frodo's haunted pallor brought to mind the woeful underfed child-heroes of Dickens, with a nice touch of rock'n'roll heroics -- a Jim Morrison or a Jeff Buckley burning the candle at both ends for our salvation. It's really no contest: I'll take the soulful saucer-eyed hobbit with the hollow cheeks over that spotty bespectacled try-hard boy wizard any day.
New Zealand was looking bloody good, too. Thanks to Peter Jackson, I'm thinking Tourism New Zealand can pretty much pack up shop and retire (although they might want to send a clue-telegram to the woman next to us, who, while the credits rolled, insisted loudly that large chunks of the movie were actually filmed in Peru, because she'd been there and she knew what it looked like). The travel section of the Sunday New York Times a couple of weeks ago had several articles by brave writers who'd traveled all the way across the world to Aotearoa to see if it was worth it. Their conclusion: it is. But you know that, or you wouldn't be reading this. (I had to take issue with one headline, though: "If New Zealand is Colorado thirty years ago, Queenstown is Aspen" … bollocks! I happen to have been to Aspen, just this summer – lovely tiny little mountain town, with a confusingly large number of Gucci and Prada outlets – and it rather reminded me of Queenstown fifteen years ago).
Meanwhile, on the stereo: a swag of lovely sounds from home thanks to my siblings. Bic Runga's newest, Beautiful Collision is one of those albums that really grows on you. It sounded smooth almost to the point of blandness at first, but now I'm all over it, especially the sleeper song about tripping round New York: "Impeccably dressed in your secondhand best, we were waiting for the taxi to come…" As the chorus goes, "I do believe I might be having fun." Word, Bic! And True from Trinity Roots has to be one of the most gorgeous CDs I've seen in a long time. The music's delicious, ambient and evocative, but kudos to the packaging designers for imagery that conjures up fingerprints, moko, maps, and navigational instruments. I can't stop looking at it. Another album that delivers equal treats for eyes and ears is Pine's more-Britpop-than-Dunedin-sound LongPlayer, which comes in a delicately inked transparent liner. I'd love to tell you who designed it, but I can't find a credit anywhere.
Then there's Marshmallow which consists of tunes by Alan Gregg, played by Gregg, fellow Muttonbird Dave Long and quite a few guests. In the Muttonbirds, Gregg was George Harrison to Don McGlashan’s Lennon&McCartney, penning musically inoffensive three-chord tunes with lyrics that rhyme tidily, in contrast to McGlashan's ominous, disjunctive and uncanny anthems of Pakeha paranoia. Gregg’s song-writing approach works for sing-along classics like "I Wish I Was in Wellington," but I’m not as keen on the bad-girlfriend songs – "Esther," for example, which might as well be called "Esther, ya troll!" In any case, Marshmallow lives up to its name, with a couple of tunes so cloyingly sweet that they made my teeth ache (take "Scooter Girl, scooter girl, did you ever see a cuter girl" – take it, please), in amongst other songs as deliciously fluffy and nostalgic as the home-made marshmallow Mum used to make, best eaten still damp and freshly rolled in coconut.
How to describe the Folk the World Tour album from artlessly brilliant folk-comedy duo The Flight of the Conchords (Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, possibly the best-known extra in The Fellowship of the Ring)? These guys take me back to the first time I saw the Front Lawn, in the Auckland Town Hall in nineteen eighty something (thanks Dad, for buying the tickets and driving us all the way in from Papatoetoe!). The bus driver's song is sublime; I can't stop thinking about David Bowie's nipples; and my friend Alice nearly drove off the road listening to the one about the racist dragon; but the throwaway track about watching the hotties on Cuba Mall… damn, that one broke my heart and I can't explain why. And because I listened to this album before going to see The Two Towers, I had the Conchords' inspired alternative theme-tune –"Frodo, don't wear the ring!" -- running through my head the whole time. Those of you who've heard the album will know exactly what I mean; everyone else will just have to rush out and buy it now.