Writing (and watching) under the big, black cloud

Janet Frame's house

Janet Frame’s childhood home at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru. Although Frame’s mental health has overshadowed her life, she recalled a happy childhood here.

Recently I visited the town of Oamaru, about three hours’ drive south of Christchurch on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Among other things, I visited the childhood home of Janet Frame, in Eden St. An ordinary little house on an ordinary street running down towards the sea – this was where one of the country’s greatest and most prolific authors lived from the age of seven, along with her parents and four siblings. Born in 1924, Frame grew up during the Depression and although the family was poor, her father’s job as a railway fireman kept food on the table. Hers was a life marred by tragedy though – her twin had failed to develop properly in utero, so she was perhaps always missing a part of herself. The middle child of five, she lost both an older and a younger sister to drowning in two separate accidents, and her brother George suffered from epileptic seizures. Her early adult life was dogged by mental illness and she spent years in and out of institutions in New Zealand as well as at the Maudsley in London. She was famously spared a lobotomy because, only days before it was scheduled to take place, her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, won a prestigious literary award. She was variously diagnosed as suffering from acute depression and schizophrenia and it has been suggested since her death in 2004 that she may have been on the autistic spectrum.

Colin McCahon, oil on canvas 1951, Auckland Art Gallery

Colin McCahon, oil on canvas 1951, Auckland Art Gallery

The bleakness of those periods of her life are the images that stayed with me after watching Jane Campion’s dramatized version of her life, An Angel at my Table, based on Frame’s own autobiographical trilogy – To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City. Watching this caused me reflect on the fact that, by and large, the creative output of Aotearoa-New Zealand is fairly dark. Our art and literature are strewn with brooding, melancholic themes that have migrated seamlessly onto the screen.  Think of Colin McCahon’s work and what springs to mind? Bleak, uneasy landscapes.  

 Selecting a New Zealand author at random, I come up with Keri Hulme, the controversial winner of the Booker Prize for 1985 with her novel the bone people, an overwhelmingly worrisome tale of three lonely people living dysfunctional lives miles from anywhere on the West Coast of the South Island. Major themes of the narrative are isolation and violence.   Off the top of my head I can list the following, ultimately depressing, New Zealand films: Once Were WarriorsThe PianoSmash PalaceHeavenly CreaturesThe River QueenIn My Father’s DenThe Strength of WaterAfter the Waterfall 

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin from a scene in Jane Campion's 1993 film 'The Piano'

Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin from a scene in Jane Campion’s 1993 film ‘The Piano’

Referring to these movies as ‘depressing’ is not to say that they are not good, or even beautiful, films – many of them have been critically acclaimed and won awards, been lauded at international film festivals. It’s just that their themes are so grim. Against stunning backdrops of snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes and waves swirling across deserted beaches, the protagonists kill or abuse each other; they drown (sometimes referred to as a ‘national pastime’), suffer depression, struggle with alcohol, drugs or both; there is racial discrimination, rape, domestic violence, poverty and neglect.  Such films will barely have barely got going before the weather turns wet and the characters are slogging around in rain and mud up to their knees, hair slicked to their faces and blood on their hands. Children will die, family members will have turned against each other and there will be bottles of beer smashing into cold, empty grates. At some point, a native bird will startle from a dripping bough. A woman will be sobbing behind a door while a man in a singlet sets fire to some outbuildings before taking off in a battered car with a gun on the back seat (or, if it’s a period piece, into the bush with a sack and a knife). 

There will be a dead goat in the creek and, in urban scenes, seven-year-olds kicking aerosol cans around abandoned buildings saying things like “My Dad says the cops don’t know their arses from their elbows, that’s why my uncle’s in Paremoremo, but we’re gonna move to Sydney when he gets parole and can look after our Nana”.  At the end, there will be mournful music, toi toi bending in the wind and someone in a shapeless brown sweater walking towards the horizon. At least half of the cast will be dead, on the run or mentally scarred for life. Then it will be time for the viewer to sit in numbed silence for a couple of minutes before switching off the TV, getting up, stretching and saying “Gosh, that was a bit depressing, wasn’t it?” and wandering off, shellshocked, to put on the kettle.

Is New Zealand's landscape part of the reason our art is often so grim? (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2015)

Is New Zealand’s landscape part of the reason our art is often so grim? (Photo ©Tanya Lunn 2015)

Over the years, the question has been asked, again and again, why is our art so forbidding? No-one, it seems, has really come up with an answer, though in one article that I read in the Otago Daily Times, a man living on the Central Plateau, near the place where Smash Palace was filmed, postulated that it’s because these themes typify life for many New Zealanders, saying it’s ‘really good, home-grown stuff that people can relate to.’  If you type the words ‘Why are New Zealand films’ into Google, it will offer you ‘Why are New Zealand films so depressing?’ Even our comedies are black – Scarfies and Two Little Boys spring to mind; and clearly, we are not living in the land of the classic rom-com as Eagle vs Shark is described as being a ‘romantic comedy’ despite having as its main protagonists two socially inept people from severely dysfunctional backgrounds.  Both Whale Rider, based on the novel of the same name by Witi Ihimaera, and Taika Waititi’s brilliant  Boy, while award-winning films, are set in isolated Maori communities focusing on the lives of children whose mothers are dead, fathers either in prison or emotionally disconnected and whose day-to-day lives seem precarious at best.  For light relief, though, there’s always What We Do In The Shadows – a 2014 vampire ‘mockumentary’ set in contemporary Wellington.  Maybe I found it light relief because we all know that there aren’t really vampires living in Wellington these days.  Are there?

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One thought on “Writing (and watching) under the big, black cloud

  1. It sounds beyond depressing. But think of Morvern Callar, the most depressing Scottish book and film I’ve read, set in the Scottish West highlands. Or Trainspotting. Or Christopher Brookmyre’s novels. Scotland does dark, too, as well as the comedic Tartan Noir novels.

    Liked by 1 person

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