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Sport 28: Autumn 2002

Gregory O'Brien — No Dream But Life — : James K. Baxter's Spark to a Waiting Fuse and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings—a notebook, 19 December 2001

page 95

Gregory O'Brien

No Dream But Life
: James K. Baxter's Spark to a Waiting Fuse and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings—a notebook, 19 December 2001

‘Imagine that life could be “speeded up” like a motion-picture. We would see the forms of civilization crumble …’

James K. Baxter to Noel Ginn, 9 August 1942

‘For me New Zealand is, in essence, medieval.’

Rita Angus, 1947

Black and white picture of a "Lord of the Rings" party invitation.

page 96

Opening Night

By the end of the evening of 19 December 2001, we had seen women in formal evening attire clambering out a lavatory window on the first floor of a movie theatre on Courtenay Place. We had stood on a clump of lawn where a few months earlier a man in medieval costume with three arrows in his chest lay dying. Yellow and red petals had fallen soundlessly around us as, inside an encampment of silken tents, hobbit food was being served. Meanwhile, outside the Miramar studio, black-hooded riders wheeled around in a floodlit sea of dry ice before thundering off into the night.

Shortly before these events unfolded on one side of Wellington, across town a book was launched: Spark to a Waiting Fuse; James K. Baxter's correspondence with Noel Ginn 1942-46 (edited by Paul Millar, Victoria University Press). That afternoon I had made my way through the opening chapters of this compendious volume, aware that I would not be attending the launch of this rich concoction of literary production, annotation and explication because Jenny and I had been invited to the Australasian première of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Placing some entries in this notebook, I concluded, might be a way of attending both functions.

Black and white picture of a book cover, "Spark to a Waiting Fuse".

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Extending like a kilometre-long tongue from the mouth of the Embassy Theatre, a strip of red carpet had been laid half the length of Courtenay Place. The carpet was installed around lunchtime of the Big Day despite the fact that a strip of red carpet left in the open air, as any events organiser will tell you, only serves to attract clouds, torrential rain and other serious forms of weather. Mercifully, after an afternoon deluge, the rain thinned around five o'clock, by which time The Muttonbirds, installed on the balcony above a bar called Opera, were halfway through ‘Nature’.

A Piece of Middle Earth

Having made our way into the cinema, we found small black cardboard boxes awaiting us on our seats. Printed in black lettering on the black boxes was the inscription ‘A Piece of Middle Earth’. Inside was a chunk of stone extracted from the Southern Alps (which, for the purposes of the film project, had been redesignated ‘Middle Earth’). A small booklet accompanying the stone clarified its precise point of origin in a Meridean Energy tunnel some where between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound: This piece of gneiss rock is one of the oldest in New Zealand. Originally part of the sea floor sediment, it was metamorphosed into rock by great temperature and pressure during the Paleozoic Age 300 to 400 million years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed on the earth. Over the ages, through the process that formed the Southern Alps, the rock was uplifted towards the surface of the land. I have written elsewhere about a piece of rock which already sits on my writing desk, sometimes holding down pieces of paper, at other times obscured for long periods by those same sheets of paper. A few years ago Bill Manhire excavated a few such stones from the Matukituki Valley and bestowed them upon friends. This reddish grey stone soon page 98 became known about our household as the James K. Baxter Memorial Paperweight on account of Baxter's ‘Poem in the Matukituki Valley’ (1949), with its very Tolkien-esque exhortation to go beyond ‘the human daydream’, reaching for gothic heights:

the altar cloth of snow
On deathly summits laid; or avalanche
That shakes the rough moraine with giant laughter…

Just as, on the night in question, James K. Baxter and J.R.R. Tolkien shared the honours in the town of Wellington, amidst great revelry, celebration and the kind of atrocious weather which, in traditional Maori lore, is an omen of great things to come, I decided at once that my newly acquired piece of Middle Earth would soon be installed on my desktop beside the Baxter-stone.

Naming Rights

For some days prior to the premier of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the City Gallery Wellington, where I work, had been renamed City Gallery Middle Earth as part of the civic embrace which, in the best tradition of the Hemi Baxter bear-hug, clenched itself around the Lord of the Rings project. The City Council also renamed the library and other civic buildings, the daily email newsletter to staff became the ‘Middle Earth Bulletin’, and the Evening Post bore on its masthead Middle Earth Post for most of the week.

The City Gallery Wellington had undergone a name change a few years earlier on account of the biculturalism which was sweeping through New Zealand society at the time: Te Whare Toi had been added to the English name. In contrast, the recent—and far more pervasive, albeit temporary—renaming of the gallery highlighted a less predictable direction—or possibly just a detour—on the part of the evolving National Identity.

These two exercises in cultural tagging—City Gallery Middle Earth and Te Whare Toi—and the ‘cultures’ they embody came together on the night in question, directly in front of the Embassy Theatre just page 99 after the Prime Minister had galloped along the red carpet. A spirited Maori party moved along the promenade in a flurry of taiaha and extended tongues, heading towards the Embassy where a ten metre tall figure loomed above the cinema entrance. Offering a Middle Earthern version of the Maori challenge, the mallet-wielding monster above the entranceway appeared to be a cross between King Kong, Alien and a giant slug. Beneath the impervious gaze of this god-awful creature, the Maori group proceeded briskly into the building where corks were already popping and excitement mounting.

Anyone watching television the previous night could have been forgiven for thinking that the cultural affairs of the nation were already in a state of subtle realignment. From behind an amorphous mass of white beard, the face of a dark-skinned Father Christmas appeared on an end-of-year television special hosted by Havoc and Newsboy. By the end of that programme, the beard had been peeled off and our erstwhile Santa turned out to be the Tuhoe land rights activist Tame Iti—quite possibly the first ever Santa with full-face moko. (The last time I had seen Tame Iti was at the City Gallery Wellington, where he had been flat on the gallery floor writing the names of contested land claim sites onto golf balls that were glued to the linoleum as part of his installation, Kohuru Tangata, a contribution to the ‘Parihaka’ exhibition.) Not surprisingly, before the programme was over Tame made a point of saying something about reclaiming what the Government had stolen from Maori, underlining his status as a sort of anti-Santa, intent on getting ‘gifts’ back over the festive season rather than handing them out.

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

page 101
Black and white picture of an ink drawing.

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

page 102

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.

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Imaginative Scale

Pondering the wave of cinema-adventure tourism which will inevitably follow on from the success of this film, an animator at the opening night party pointed out the problems that would arise when visitors who arrive in this country expecting to see the two towering figures on either side of the Middle Earthern river (see page 95) discover the statues are in reality eight feet tall and made of polystyrene. And when they find the elfin village was hand-painted over an expanse of Wellington harbour.

In Production

The unicorns and heavenly creatures of adolescence inhabit both Spark to a Waiting Fuse and The Lord of the Rings. Written during the early 1940s, when Baxter was still a teenager, Spark to a Waiting Fuse is, to use a filmic term, the poet in ‘pre-production’. Like Peter Jackson's orcs in make-up, he is being shaped, and it is a time-consuming, exacting task. This imaginative formation consumes over 400 pages of the book.

While the letters to and from the conscientious objector Noel Ginn reflect a passionate engagement with the World and the Word, Baxter's early poems (many of which are published for the first time in Spark) attach themselves rather more readily to the latter. Like Frodo Baggins scampering up a hillside, the Gifted One heads immediately for the high ground of the Western canon.

Just as his correspondent Noel Ginn was captive to both his ardently held pacifist ideals and to the New Zealand Government who imprisoned him on account of those beliefs, Baxter was, around this time, captive to a Romantic view of poetry and life. Here he is in full-flight, seventeen years old and rattling the cage:

Dost see yonder the angel-Archer stand?
Frail-veined twig in hand
By blinding sky fire-tipped he doth bear:
Fire-feathered arrow-thought to set new sun on flare
Brave djin and monster, green again the land.

page 104 Forget about modernism, in the meantime the young Baxter is all about a return to poetry as mythic utterance, a stroll across Elysian Fields. The River Road to Hiruharama would have to wait a while longer.

Like the young Baxter in his poetry, Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood, whose name embodies both the film's prophetic and Green tendencies) seems as overwhelmed by all the symbolism he finds himself embroiled in as by events themselves. His lily-white pallor and fine, almost feminine features are troubled not only by the manifest Evil afoot in the world but by the sheer profusion of symbols and portents. In the echo chamber of the New Zealand landscape, Frodo frets and goes pale, is twisted and turned, skewered and rode off with (by Liv Tyler). At once child and man, he is the embodiment, too, of the young poet in whose ‘Groved ruined tomb; sword-winds of Ossian / Hurtle and moan …’ (as Baxter intones in ‘Cry Mourn’).

The boy-hobbit and the hirsute elder, Gandalf, suggest two poles often associated with James K. Baxter—the ‘two Baxters’ Patrick Lawlor wrote of and Margaret Lawlor Bartlett drew for a book cover illustration. Publicity for The Lord of the Rings unconsciously, but instructively, echoed that drawing.

Black and white drawing of two versions of James K. Baxter. Black and white photograph of two "Lord of the Rings" actors.

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Apart from being launched on the same night, the productions of Jackson/Tolkien and Baxter/Ginn share certain points of origin and, perhaps, have a common destination in mind. The imaginative plateau—this particularly ‘high country’—on which the mythologisers James K. Baxter and Peter Jackson find themselves suggests that maybe all roads do lead to Middle Earth Aotearoa—a place which Baxter would come to via the ‘high road’ of Milton, Shakespeare and Blake, whereas Jackson would come by the ‘low road’ of afternoon television, matiness, splatter movies and trash culture. Differing routes aside, there is definitely some shared pre-history to both productions. Greek mythology and Arthurian legend (and their reinvention through literature and, more recently, film) permeate the work of both poet and filmmaker. It's easy to imagine both artists in their youth gravitating towards Blake, Dante, maybe even Chaucer. Jackson's dark satanic mills under Saruman's tower could have been lifted from Blake's Industrial Revolution London or at a stretch Baxter's ‘Stonegut Sugarworks’—only in this latest rendition the dehumanising of the workers is complete and the slaves are indeed no longer human.

In comparison to the Baxter/Jackson vision of industrialised hell, Peter Jackson's Hobbiton (filmed in the Matamata district) is the arcadia of remembered childhood as encapsulated in Blake's ‘Songs of Innocence’. It is the archetypal Eden threatened from outside by the forces of environmental ruin. From this sanctuary our various heroes venture forth into Baxter's ‘implacable grey forests of the world’ and the ‘iron wood’. At a further remove the child-like company could be seen to be heading in the direction of what Baxter, in a letter to Noel Ginn, calls ‘the authentic and terrible grey rock desert of adolescence’.

Barefoot and Bearded Men

At one point during the film, with the hobbits and entourage traipsing along an upper ridge of the Southern Alps, I was almost waiting for the voice-over to break into a stirring recitation of Baxter's ‘High Country Weather’ (with some Lilburn-esque strings welling beneath).

Alongside the lilywhite Frodo-Baggins-esque youthful Baxter, the later, bearded Baxter would be equally at home in the Jackson/Tolkien page 106 rendition of New Zealand, with its moral imperatives, its mystical highs and subterranean, industrialist lows. The barefoot, journeyman hobbits setting off across rugged terrain bring to mind barefoot Baxter c.1970 striding up the River Road to Hiruharama via Koriniti. (Infact, Peter Jackson shares the poet's famous predilection for bare feet, and insisted on directing much of the filming barefooted—which led to the cast nicknaming him ‘the Hobbit’.)

In the best Baxterian tradition, Peter Jackson on opening night in Wellington arrived at the far end of the red rain-drenched carpet dressed casually, his hair and beard in characteristic disarray. And so he appeared on the front page of the following morning's Dominion—this darker version of Santa who, as is now well-known, in recent months employed around 2400 elves in his Wellington studio, injected many millions of dollars into the local economy and was now about to bestow his biggest present on the population just one week before Christmas: The Fellowship of the Ring.

If Baxter strove to be a ‘man of the people’, Jackson inadvertently and graciously walked into that role—in purple shirt and black trousers, ambling towards the Embassy. And so it was at the Paramount Theatre a hundred metres back along Courtenay Place (where the guests that couldn't fit into the Embassy were seated) that elegantly dressed women started climbing out the toilet window to glimpse this bowing, bearded figure as he moved slowly theatre-wards, handing out signatures like Christmas gifts to the whooping, cheering, generally ecstatic populace.

While Jackson was expected to accelerate down that runway to cheers, screams, applause, then whisk his way smartly into the theatre, instead he took forever shaking hands along the roadside, oblivious to the timetable that would have the projector flick into action at 7 p.m. If it was a question of allegiance, you could only think Jackson's were with the crowd on Courtenay Place rather than the besuited punters who waited an hour and a half for him in the Embassy and Paramount theatres.

page 107
Black and white photograph of Peter Jackson.

Evening post

Undisclosed Destination

Chartered buses were waiting outside the theatre at 11 p.m. to bear invited guests off into the night, heading towards the official opening-night party, its tables laden with hobbit party-food and a sample hobbit house for guests to explore. Security around the undisclosed destination—Jackson's Miramar film studio—was almost military in its organisation, hoopla befitting a function confidently labelled ‘the party of the year’ by the New Zealand Herald the following morning. Although even here the feeling lingered that the film didn't exist for the crowd page 108 at the screening. Rather, it existed for those out on the street, in the wind and rain, all the teenagers in their baggy shorts and hooded jackets; Baxter's nga tamariki, those happily rained upon and kept waiting and overjoyed in spite of it all. It was the women in evening gowns, remember, who were climbing out the theatre window to be with them—not the other way around.

And so a long night merged into a long morning. 19 and 20 December 2001. A book was launched, a film began its journey from the projector lens to the expectant screen at the other end of the theatre. Both were works of the imagination and spirit, the difference, in the end, being one of scale and process. While the young Baxter disappeared into his solitary place to create: ‘I, in my fuggy room at the top of the stairs, / A thirteen-year-old schizophrene, / Write poems, wish to die …’, Peter Jackson choppered from location to location, assisted by a crew of thousands and with $600,000,000 of someone else's money to float the boat.

And while the young Baxter worried that his poems lacked ‘the kernel of actual experiential knowledge [and] revealed no life but dream’, Peter Jackson managed to create a universe that was, at once, a life as it might be dreamt and a dream lived. Exploiting the hyperproduction values that typify Hollywood, the Rings production team enlisted all manner of special effects as a means of delivering their imaginative world to its audience. In a remarkably similar fashion, the Western literary canon was the young Baxter's ‘Hollywood’, with its studio/workshop crammed full of devices, special effects and virtuosic techniques. The difference is that this phantasmagoria of beasts and mythical figures, arcane symbols and heightened language—Baxter's ‘special effects’—only serve to remove the production from its audience (or so it feels in the present era). The kind of excess the film industry thrives on, poetry can only suffer beneath. However, as any reading through Baxter's Collected Poems makes clear, the quarter century of poetic output that followed the years of the Baxter-Ginn correspondence could be considered a triumphant exercise in the removal of such effects, a reduction to essence.

Waihi Beach, 22 December 2001