I usually find it easy -- too easy -- to write bad reviews. After all, I'm a big believer in Sturgeon's Law that "ninety percent of everything is crap."
So why is this two days late, and a damn sight less vicious than the first five drafts or so? Because, Gentle Readers, instead of an inner child your humble culture vulture has an inner patriot. I want all New Zealand television and film to be awesome. Call it political correctness gone mad, but I want to see GLBT characters who are fucked up and flawed without being psycho dykes/killer queens, every hag fag's favourite accessory or (my personal favourite) the gay parachuted in so we call all learn a very important lesson from their corpses. And don't even get me started on the shit-storm of condescending pseudo-"tolerance" that is Glee. Seriously, I'm this close to confiscating Ryan Murphy's toaster-oven.
I really wanted Nights in the Gardens of Spain to be good, even if only on the dizzy level of po-faced camp attained by Witi Ihimaera's rather dated 1995 novel (which went into its fourth edition last year), which is neatly summed up by the blurb on my copy:
David Munro has everything a man could wish for -- a beautiful wife, two adoring daughters, a top academic position and a circle of devoted friends. But he also has another life - lived mainly at night and frequently in what he comes to know as 'The Gardens of Spain', the places where gay and bisexual men meet. Now he must choose which of his two lives to follow...
On the way from page to screen, David becomes Kawa -- a "corporate high-flyer" who sits at the Business Brown Table, is heir apparent to the leadership of his tribe, loses one of the irritatingly cute daughters and picks up an even more irritatingly sullen teenage son (who's screwing an evil white devil bimbo who escaped from a bad parody of Go Girls).
Other reviews -- like Gay NZ's David Herkt -- greeted the liberal application of brownwash with a hearty WTF. But I'm kind of surprised David is surprised when this feature ran on GayNZ a week before transmission.
The film is the result of a creative collaboration between two production companies owned by Māori women - Nicole Hoey's Cinco Cine Films and Christina Milligan's Conbrio Media.
Hoey says they initially met with Ihimaera to talk about how they might do it for television. "One of the things we talked about was taking it away from the gay coming out story set in the context of AIDS and set it in 2010. We also wanted to make it more about the husband and wife and to give it a Māori base, because the book is not set in the Māori world," she says."
"And once you do that, you change his whole environment. He might be working in a corporate environment in the city, but when you change everything about his nature, you change everything about who the other characters in the drama are going to be. His whānau and his place within that become very important."
Let's cut the crap and get to the real problem with Night in the Garden of Pain. I've no problems with film adaptations that radically deviate from the source material -- I doubt any cinephile would mark Hitchcock down for his liberties with the sources of classics like Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho. And the new angle on the adaptation was done with Ihimaera's knowledge and assent, which isn't surp[rising given his own changing views on his role and nature as a Maori writer. (Whether his revisions of his own work have been successful is another question for another time.)
But it was simply embarrasing watching fine actors like George Henare and Vicky Haughton trying to do something, anything with the thankless parts of the homophobic parents who eventually come around. Nor are Nathalie Boltt (as Kawa's wife Annabelle) and Dean O'Gorman (the other man) well-served. She snivels a lot, when she's not throwing up. It's hard to see why either of them care so much, because Calvin Tuteao's performance seems to involve recovering sense memories of being constipated. In the background, the little girls oozes sacharine from every pore -- even when she's almost getting herself killed so everyone else can come to their senses -- while the boy sulks. A lot. Even getting stoned with a cuzzie bro doesn't relieve the dour pout.
As for the actual gayness, the sauna resembles an runway show where Karen Walker is unveiling a new line in designer bathtowels and the one implied blow-job looks painful. (Yes, nobody's cum-face is attractive. But this is acting, and looking like your knob is being chewed off has unfortunate implications.)
For all the talk about giving the project a "Maori base", but endless subtitled dialogue of tooth-grinding banality and adorable moppets at kapa haka doesn't change the tedious reality that the characters are barely human. It would be tempting to put the blame on credited writer Kate McDermott, but a lot of what doesn't work comes staraight from the novel. And director Katie Wolfe had no feel for dialogue or performance.
As I said up top, I want to support local drama (especially when it's made by women and Maori creatives) and gay representation. It does matter. But the cultural cringe inverted (with healthy lashings of straight white guilt), is a pass I'm not willing to write anymore. It's a brutal reality that New Zealand can't match the sheer volume of production in the United States and Britian where people have the freedom to fall on their arses, and learn their craft while doing do.
All that granted, Outrageous Fortune proved that Kiwi drama doesn't need any special pleading -- and I'd still say the first series took a long time to get right the show's delicate tonal balance between farce and tragedy. If I'm hard on things like Nights in the Gardens of Spain, it's because we have the talent to do better. To tell our own stories about complex characters with passion, committment and trust in the audience's intelligence. GLBT and Maori communities deserve nothing less. We all do.