Speaker by Various Artists

Extremely New Zealand films

by James Littlewood

So I got an email flyer about Woodenhead from someone who knew someone who obviously knew director Florian Habicht. “We can’t afford a big publicity campaign” ran the text “so tell your friends …”. The next thing I knew, I was flat out on the couch staring 10.30 Friday night in the face, so off I ran to the late night screening.

I arrived just in time for the speeches, which involved a punk ballerina doing the do on the cobbly area in front of the Library to the circus tunes of a portable CD player, itself doing the do on the subject of volume. Then Warwick Broadhead got up and attired himself in the drapery prior to its removal from in front of the screen. He thoughtfully advised us on those parts of the film we would do best to applaud (his bits), and then advised us to touch those parts of ourselves we love most. Something about humping. Something about chasing Florian as he ran off with the camera. A very good speech it was. It’s hard not to love Warwick.

For those on employer-provided Internet connections but with no time, here’s the short version: Woodenhead is a wonderful film. Literally, full of wonder. However, as every artist has always said of every bad review they ever got: this is only one person’s opinion. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me but here’s one for starters.

I hope someone reminds me I said that the next time I pan something.

For those who shell for it themselves and want bang for their buck: here’s the longer version.

Firstly, some films it made me think about:


The Price of Milk

Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and La Belle et la Bette


Well-cinematefied readers will observe that four of these five films are in black and white. Coincidence? I think not. No-one needs reminding that this is the colour scheme of choice for auteurswith a truly healthy, hands-on and rigorous grip of the unconscious.

More what it has in common with these films is a sense that actually, goddammit, we will reinvent the wheel, that films not only can be made by uniquely tailored production techniques, but that they ought to be, that (therefore) not all films need look or sound the same (nor should they, although most do), nor should audiences regard them as such. Little chance of that happening with a film as unique as this one.

Fortunately for Habicht, Woodenhead is nowhere near as tedious as the greater majority of Goddard’s footage. Well, no great achievement there of course (possible exception: Alphaville, in parts). But while he and cinematographer Christopher Pryor succeed in creating a mise en scene that is genuinely seductive, they simultaneously remind the audience that it knows what it is doing, that it too has a role to play in helping the imagery and the narrative stumble along, just as a good film helps us to stumble through and understand our own little imagined lives.


Call it magic realism (mythical colonial discourses from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Whale Rider). Call it fantasia (drug-psychoses-in-a-not-bad-way). Call it an oedipal sex romp (all roads lead to Rome, or at least Thebes). Young Pakeha artists – especially visual and literary artists – face an identity dilemma: to regard self as Pakeha or European. I’ll avoid getting into the fray when Michael King has done it so brilliantly, twice (or more). But the decision has to be made. Niki Caro and Harry Sinclair: Pakeha. Florian Habicht: European.

It’s not just that lots of his characters have Germanic names. The entirety of Woodenhead’s imagery and narrative logic is grounded in European traditions. For example:

Fairy tale (especially Hansel and Gretel)


Biblical imagery


The missionary position (yes)


The overall effect is one of a mythical New Zealand as German colony. And as with any decent colonial fairy tales, the colonised is absent. Which is a polite way of saying there are no Maoris in it. Nothing wrong with any of this. After all, Shakespeare himself only wrote one Jew and two or three black people into his 30-odd plays (thank God for Don Selwyn).

None of this is to say that Florian’s film is anything other than a New Zealand one. Nor that he’s not interested in New Zealand as a subject. It’s just that he has swum against the flooding tide of artists who seek out ever more specific examples – and samples, and specimens – of the New Zealand landscape (beneficiaries, pianists, warriors, whale gods and scarfies for example) and who then hold these aloft to the world stage as universal markers from afar.

This same tide obsessively teaches its young and hungry that the way to tell the big story is to tell the little story, that the way to tell the little story is through characterisation, that characters are comprised of verbs not adjectives, that voice-overs are cop-outs for flawed narratives, that you save your best ‘til last, enter the scene late and leave early, keep ahead of your audience and that if you follow these simple rules, you will then become rich and your dedicated audience will indulge your breaking of them; but if not … you’re on your own, kiddo.

Florian swims against this tide.

As media theorist Stephen Turner (watch this space) has suggested, the national identity project has wedged itself such a secure place in New Zealand’s screen production culture, that it has tended to eclipse other subject forms. Thus, Florian Habicht making a feature that floats poetically through the subject of unconscious sexual desires, that frees itself of current narrative conventions and polite ethnic considerations (particularly fashionable in the international funding circuit) constitutes a landmark of authorial integrity in New Zealand film making.

I suppose I should mention a few things about what you can expect to see in it.

The first thing you’ll notice is a highly engaging relationship between dialogue and image. Ironically, what makes it engaging is its level of disengagement – all the sound including dialogue was recorded before any film rolled. This creates a sort of disconnection between the only two senses that matter in film, and that allows you to both see and hear the film better than you can when the two are synchronised.

You’ll see two of my all-time favourite Auckland actors: Warwick Broadhead and Matthew Sunderland. I don’t know if Warwick will take this as a compliment or not (it’s meant as one), but his film character – a junk yard boss – somehow comes across as being surprisingly closely studied, detailed and naturalistic. You’ll still want to applaud his aria though. He saves his best until last.

Matt strikes me as New Zealand’s most dedicated and least compromising actor. The only thing he won’t – or can’t – do as an actor is tripe. From Inside Out’s Holy Sinner to last year’s Blasted at the Silo, Matt is one of the few performing artists who could truly be said to have the power of transformation. He embodies his characters down to their very viscera, and his as well. Relative newcomer to acting David Hornblow is another who puts his guts into his performance, quite visibly. Both are also stunning in Gregg King’s Christmas.

You’ll see Christopher Pryor’s cinematography, which is beautiful. Words like sublime and ethereal come to mind. Rich and deep in allegory. Combined with Teresa Peters’ detailed art direction (she also co-stars), the look glides effortlessly from psycho-erotic thriller to biblical metaphor to kitchen sink tub thumper to psychedelic encounters of the 3rd kind: everybody making music.

And you’ll hear Mark Chesterman’s music, as strange as God and as normal as a day at the beach. You’ll want to buy the original soundtrack afterwards, so it’s just as well you can.

And you’ll see Teresa Peters (who also art directs) and Nicholas Butler in the lead roles as the hapless, human innocents. How to describe their screen presence? Transcendent. Radiant. Rogers and Astaire, Di Capprio and Winslet, Houston and Costner, Curtis and Munroe, Cormack and Urban, Owen and Morrison, Harrelson and Lewis … all rolled into one. They dance. They talk. They sulk. They do crimes. They shag. They eat like there’s no Tampopo. You’ll see what I mean.

So, that was the long version. Bear in mind that the cinema will pull it as soon as the audience numbers drop off, and for New Zealand films (like the music in decades past) this tends to happen glumly fast. So if you wait to hear the reviews, you’ll probably miss it. But if you hurry and get down there, you’ll be encouraging the cinema to keep it open another day, and helping someone else to see it, and that in turn will help them sell it overseas. Remember, they don’t have a Hollywood-sized campaign budget to tell you in what way you’re supposed to like it.

PS: Thanks to those who wrote in about my earlier blogs. My formatting still slows me down a bit (sorry Russell) but I’m learning.