Monday, June 14, 2010

Notes on seeing Taika Waititi's "Boy"

This is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Boy (James Rolleston) is a kid growing up in a rural town. When his grandmother sets off to attend a tangi for a few days, Boy is entrusted with the task of looking after his siblings (and cousins, I think). Quite unexpectedly, his father Alamein (played very effectively by Waititi himself), who has just spent some time in jail for robbery, shows up at their house with the rest of his goofy three-man gang, the Crazy Horses. Boy is elated at having a parent again, since his mother died years ago, but we already know by now that Alamein can’t be up to much good. Boy spends much of the movie trying to act like the sort of man he thinks Alamein would approve of, basically apeing his wayward father… and it all comes to a head one night...

Boy has very funny moments from beginning to end but what lingers is sadness. Having said that, it’s not a downer of a movie at all – in fact, it ends on a very joyous note with the much-talked-about Poi E/Thriller mashup that is reminiscent of the dance numbers at the end of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi.

The director as actor

Waititi is a fine director and he’s equally competent as an actor. Playing a role in his own film must not only be cost effective, but according to Waititi, it gave him more control over the project:

Waititi ended up casting himself as Boy’s wayward father Alamein, a flighty yet charming parental figure with more than a few schemes up his sleeve. “I auditioned lots and lots of people for the role, and it wasn’t quite what I wanted,” Waititi remembers. “The character’s based on a couple of relations of mine, and there were specific things that I really wanted, little character things. I wasn’t getting it, so I thought it just made sense for me to do it.”

And ultimately, that helped Waititi to better direct Rolleston and his fellow young thespians. “It helped to be acting opposite them and engaging with them while we were doing stuff,” says Waititi. “We’d just change lines or change the meanings of lines, which would change the performance. I could sort of micromanage that way.”

-       In With The NEW by Sarah Kuhn, Backstage, Feb 4-10 2010

Besides the logistical convenience of it, I think that a director who assumes key roles in his own films is bound to encourage more conceptual readings of his work, too. What follows then is my take on the significance of Waititi’s dual role as director-actor.

Absence and presence in Taika Waititi’s films

Interestingly, Waititi plays absent characters in both his feature films.  For a director to do this creates a couple of paradoxes. In Eagle Vs Shark, he plays the more successful older brother Gordon who inexplicably commits suicide (no, that was not a spoiler). In Boy, he plays the prodigal father Alamein who returns to his family after a stint in jail.  Although Alamein comes back into the family fold, he had missed his sons’ formative years and remains emotionally incompetent and distant, and therefore still absent in a way.

First of all, absence only creates another kind of presence, if not a more pronounced one.  Gordon and Alamein, by detaching themselves from their families in their respective ways, become emblems of loss; they are the void that the other characters circle around. Similarly, a director is somebody around whom everyone on set revolves. He is not an emblem of loss but an object of desire in that everybody working on the film, presumably, strives to serve his vision. Even without acting in his own film, the director is the very definition of presence because his unique sensibility is stamped all over the product.

Secondly, for the director to be playing a largely absent character is hugely ironic because we can’t help but recognize him as director of the film; it interrupts the viewer’s suspension of disbelief that the character truly is ‘lost’ to us. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I just think it’s interesting that this director places himself smack in the middle of that void.

Loss upon loss

In both of Waititi’s feature films, there is also –dare I call it a theme? – a narrative about loss upon loss. The loser younger brother in Eagle Vs Shark had already lost his parents’ favour even before his elder brother killed himself. Boy had already lost his mother when she died giving birth to his brother Rocky (again, not a spoiler) only to endure the loss of a father to prison life.

Enough with the Wes Anderson comparisons, already!

Waititi has more emotional depth. And he’s funnier. A common Anderson theme is the selfish parent who wreaks emotional havoc on their offspring. By contrast, how does Waititi handle this material? Where Anderson uses deadpan ‘humour’ to mask deep-seated emotional pain, Waititi has Boy displaying real disillusionment and loss. Anderson’s characters are stuck in a juvenile state of mind. Waititi’s characters experience true catharsis. It’s true, I dislike Wes Anderson films.

I didn’t want to mention the obvious, but

I think much has been said about New Zealand films moving away from its ‘cinema of unease’ aka ‘antipodean gothic’. At the recent Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, publisher Fergus Barrowman (who is married to writer Elizabeth Knox) picked out a scene from Boy to illustrate this point. SPOILER (roll over white text to read): When Alamein angrily grabs his jacket off Boy in public, notice how Boy’s friends crowd around him to comfort him. If this film had been given a darker treatment, the camera would have zoomed away from the boy standing alone on the road, betrayed by his father. Instead, Waititi has his Boy supported by his community, and then marching forward determinedly. This might be indicative of a sense that New Zealanders are shifting away from a ‘man alone’ mindset and into a more social mindset.

With young exciting filmmakers like Florian Habicht and Taika Waititi, we’re seeing some really joyous stuff on our big screens.

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