Hobbit land far from reality

19:05, Nov 26 2012

One hundred per cent Middle-earth. That's how the tourism industry has decided to promote New Zealand.

Our national airline has even contributed one of its airliners, emblazoned nose to tail with images from The Hobbit movie, to elevate the promotional cause.

This flying billboard will wow those attending the film's "red carpet" premiere with a low-level fly-past.

Asked by a local journalist for his response to Air New Zealand's generosity, an executive from the movie's maker, Warner Bros, didn't know whether to laugh out loud or titter.

His consternation is understandable. Few countries have been as willing to abase themselves quite so completely to the soft power of Hollywood as we deluded Kiwis.

Having successfully persuaded the New Zealand Government to reword its labour and immigration laws to industry specifications, increase its financial incentives and provide Warner Bros with millions of dollars of free publicity, the Hollywood moguls should be blushing with shame.


More likely, however, they are kicking themselves for not demanding more.

And considering what we've been willing to do unasked, who could blame them?

A friend of mine, returning from a trip to the United States, told me of his cringing embarrassment when he discovered that Air New Zealand's passenger safety instructional video now doubles as a trailer for The Hobbit, complete with the Gollum character crawling up the aisle in search of his "Presciouss" - presumably the nearest exit.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are we so quick to dismiss even the slightest criticism of the Middle-earth franchise? How has The Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson acquired such a powerful grip on the public's imagination and affection, and thus on the direction of Government policy?

What has caused a little nation in the South Pacific to expend so much time, energy and money transforming itself into a bucolic version of medieval England?

Perhaps, after nearly 40 years of official decolonisation, Jackson's masterful adaptation of J R R Tolkien's masterpieces has opened a long-locked door to the colonisers' cultural storehouse.

Most New Zealanders are, when all is said and done, English speakers and, as Maori have been telling us for nearly 40 years, culture and language are inextricably linked.

Transported halfway around the world, our ancestors lost little time in reshaping Aotearoa's natural landscape with flora and fauna appropriate to their vocabulary. Alongside the oaks and elms and sheep and cattle they introduced, they also constructed churches, schools, town halls and railway stations designed to make their young colony look old.

It's why the centre of Christchurch used to and the heart of Dunedin still does look as if it has stood there for centuries.

Two great waves of cultural change have laid much of this "Better Britain" flat. The first was the wave of brutal modernist architecture, which reduced the neo-classical and Gothic buildings of our Victorian forebears to rubble. As modernism flattened New Zealand's constructed landscape, so the second great wave - officially sanctioned biculturalism and assertive indigeneity - deconstructed its fondest cultural assumptions and undermined its intellectual confidence.

This great laying waste of the West's best stories, which goes by the name of post-modernism, is described by the social theorist Frederic Jameson as "the cultural logic of late-capitalism".

It's most devastating characteristic is its power to dissolve boundaries. High and popular culture mingle promiscuously in the post-modern societies of the 21st century, as do past and present, fact and fiction, science and religion.

Jackson floats freely in this post-modern world, as his mischievous 1995 faux documentary Forgotten Silver made very clear. Who better, then, to overlay Tolkien's Middle-earth upon a New Zealand landscape already transformed by the eco- imperialism of its Victorian colonisers?

The Lord of the Rings trilogy and now The Hobbit may be only movies, but that has not prevented them from turning Mt Ngaurahoe into Mt Doom and Matamata into Hobbiton.

Tolkein's writings may be fictional, but they possess a cultural power that is very real.

Thanks to the cinematographic skills of Jackson and the digital magic of Weta Workshops, Pakeha New Zealanders have been given reference points that owe nothing to their country's indigenous culture. In our post-modern world, where reality has taken on an alarmingly subjective quality, Middle-earth is a much more comfortable fit than Aotearoa.

It is more comfortable, too, for dwellers in a West beset with economic, political, environmental and cultural challenges, a West in whose eyes New Zealand stands as a refuge every bit as wholesome and protected as the Shire.

New Zealanders' desire for cultural reassurance and comfort is thus reinforced by an international audience desperate to escape the daunting challenges of multiculturalism and austerity.

No, the tourism industry and Air New Zealand should have little difficulty in filling those airliners, not while Middle-earth is so much more enjoyable than the real one.

The Press