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Sport 28: Autumn 2002

Maps and Related Matters

Maps and Related Matters

Not only have we lately been offered a new, comprehensive map of the Wellington region, pinpointing where various film sets were constructed, but also a new map of the entire country, denoting sites where major sequences were shot. The Fellowship of the Ring provided a rare opportunity to sit back and observe the New Zealand landscape being used for fictional purposes rather than, as we are accustomed, nationalistic ones; and to observe the landscape being re-mythologised page 100 according to the scholarly medievalism of Tolkien, rather than the Maori cultural/spiritual model which has been such a prominent ingredient in this country's recent reinvention of itself.

If Jackson's imaginative project is unprecedented in its scale, it is not, however, without precedent in this country's visual and literary culture. A number of scenes in the film echo—consciously or not—Leo Bensemann's surreal landscapes with their luminous rocks and dark vegetative backdrops. In one sequence Frodo Baggins finds himself standing by a stone formation which could easily have been conjured by Bensemann. The Cantabrian artist's Dolomite Madonna is ‘A Piece of Middle Earth’ if ever there was one. (The painting is also very close in spirit to Baxter's ‘mountains stone-crested / Murmuring madness—leaning and silted Druid monoliths’.) In fact, Bensemann's Fantastica (1936) and Second Book (1952) might have served as style manuals for various characters in the film—his ink drawing of Prospero offering a blueprint for the Jackson/Tolkien co-production, Saruman.

Black and white picture of a painting.

Leo Bensemann, Dolomite Madonna (Mount Burnett), 1979

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Black and white picture of an ink drawing.

Leo Bensemann, Prospero, from A Second Book of Leo Bensemann's Work (Caxton, 1952)

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At various times in the film the Middle Earthern entourage trudge through archetypal settings, including an elfin glade incorporating native trees (a scene which would definitely have warmed the heart of New Zealand fairyland fantasist Trevor Lloyd or, more recently, Helm Ruifrock). Waterfalls came crashing down the cinema wall, summoning the energies of everyone from William Hodges to Petrus van der Velden to Colin McCahon. The high country settings hark back not only to Baxter but to the paintings of John Gully and Austen Deans.

A good percentage of the film takes place inside that archetypal Freudian/Jungian chamber, the subterranean mine or cave (which digs, drills and tunnels its way through New Zealand literature from Fairburn to Baxter and onwards towards Tim Corballis's novel Below (2001)). Tony Fomison could have designed not only the Gothic settings—these dark clefts and bluffs—but also produced character studies for many of the cast: the guardians and journeymen, hilltop watchers and malevolent jokers. As is the case with Bensemann, the visions of Fomison and Peter Jackson will be central in the long-overdue history of the Gothic in New Zealand art when it is finally written.

Black and white picture of a painting.

Tony Fomison, Hill Top Watcher, 1976

In a country with no actual medieval past or Dark Ages to draw upon, Jackson's Rings production is the latest imaginative grafting of such a past onto the New Zealand psyche. This line of fantasist reimaginings would include, alongside the aforementioned visual artworks and early Baxter poems, M.K. Joseph's medieval novel Kaspar's Journey (1988), Anne Kennedy's Musica Ficta (1993) and Vincent Ward's film The Navigator (1989), to name a few. Keri Hulme's the bone people may also belong, in part, to this tradition, as Mark Williams notes in Leaving the Highway, suggesting that Hulme's novel was directly influenced by Tolkien's trilogy.