Monday, November 19, 2012

Leaving Middle-earth

First it was rugby and the America’s Cup, and sometimes Katherine Mansfield and Jane Campion (thank you very much). Then The Lord of the Rings came along and it became the thing that people knew about New Zealand. That, and that it was a place of great natural beauty.

It’s funny what people know about other nations. ‘If they commit suicide and the king rides a bicycle, it’s Sweden.’ I think Alan Bennett said this. New Zealand is the kind of place that people seem to know two things about. Seldom less, seldom more.

Years ago a friend in the tourism business who specialised in South-East Asia and the South Pacific told me that she visited New Zealand as little as her role allowed her. There’s nothing to see there, she explained, nowhere you’d want to be. Too much nature, not enough culture. It was a one-way conversation as I had no direct knowledge on which to build a counter-argument at the time. I’m not even sure I could successfully muster one now – not when she could turn around, pick up a brochure from a shelf in her office and wave it triumphantly in my face.

Image from the Tourism New Zealand website
This is how the country markets itself at this time. The $10 million campaign goes by the name of 100% Middle-earth and its main vehicle is a 60-second ad created by TBWA ‘placed on TV and cinema in selected offshore markets’. At the end of the ad, which tracks a fellowship of tourists as they tramp and frolic through a series of scenic spots, we come to the hobbit burrow shown above. The tourists look at each other in delight and wonder. Cue the campaign slogan: ‘Traveller: your dreams are waiting.’

It’s not just awful, but a special kind of awful. The last place shown in the ad before getting to the hobbit village is a hilltop dotted with carved Māori pou (voiceover: ‘where you can play on mountains protected by the gods’). Thus a direct, seamless transition is set up between the true and fake indigeneity, allowing the traveller to grab one of each. This New Zealand without cities, this nation without culture, is open to such reinventions.

The recipe is a kind of colonial mille-feuille. New Zealand can stand in for Middle-earth not just because of the entrepreneurial genius of Peter Jackson and the capital supplied by Warner Brothers but also because its native landscape was remade by British settlers in the image of their (and JRR Tolkien’s) motherland: hence when the Tourism Board boasts that ‘the fantasy of Middle-earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand’, as opposed to manufactured in post-production, it glosses over the pre-production work carried out by generations of colonizers. Another delicious layer of the cake consists of the arrangements that made the films possible, and the remarkable contortions (and outright deception) that led Warner to secure significant tax breaks and have a direct hand in drafting our labour legislation. Which efforts in turn – and we’re getting to the cake’s crunchy base – were targeted not at supporting a national film industry but rather at increasing the flow of foreign tourists.

The New Zealand of 100% Middle-earth is thus – to borrow Irena Ateljevic and Stephen Doorne’s phrase – the perfect postcolonial consumer fantasy: pre-packaged via entertainment products that are already thought of as pieces of tourism marketing, then sold as pure experience, a vast empty signifier that is up to the traveller to fill. There is no indigenous meaning here, not even in the shape of the land. We stand before you, all nature and no culture, ready to be remade in your image.

A true New Zealand landscape
The trouble is that none of it is real. Not 100% Middle-earth, which is just stupid, nor 100% Pure, which is the slogan of the parent campaign and only marginally less dishonest. New Zealand is neither of those things, and our target audience has cottoned on to this, as evidenced by the strange spectacle of the Prime Minister being grilled on such claims on Hardtalk last year (‘I think for the most part, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are 100% pure,’ was his inspired response) or most recently by a New York Times article timed to coincide with the release of the first Hobbit film.

Nonetheless, if The Hobbit is even a moderate success I’m sure that we’ll register an increase in the number of tourists, and the stats will be crunched and it will be found that the investment was worth it, all of it, including auctioning off our labour laws to a Hollywood film studio, for the people came, and they went to the hobbit village at Matamata, and they weren’t bothered by the fact that those lovely hobbit houses have no inside – they are just pasted onto the side of the hill – nor did they go away thinking you know what, in a funny way the entire country is like that: not quite real, a bit of a trick. You open the door, and there’s nothing there.

With thanks to Anna Caro. She knows why.


Stephen said...

The trouble is that none of it is real. Not 100% Middle-earth, which is just stupid, nor 100% Pure, which is the slogan of the parent campaign and only marginally less dishonest.

I'd say that 100% Pure is more dishonest. The 100% Middle-earth slogan is, as you say, stupid, but it is also obviously a kind of gimmick. It would be seen, at best, as a bit of opportunistic playfulness even to those who think such a thing is a good idea. To the rest of us it is completely fatuous. Either way, I don’t think it is particularly deceptive in itself.

Whereas the wider official campaign is actually trying to sell the 100% Pure idea as essentially true to potential visitors (and maybe even to New Zealanders, I suspect). Supporters of the campaign might argue that there’s always a bit of hyperbole in marketing, but regardless, 100% Pure is about getting people to believe, rather than merely to suspend disbelief.

Lyndon said...

Two things, from Mark Twain:

All people think that New Zealand is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge.

Following the Equator by Mark Twain: Chapter 26

Bill said...

I was shocked to find, when I went overseas for the first time, that other places have natural scenery as well. Was totally duped as a kid into thinking we had it all.

Let's be honest, our main attribute is that we have f-all people. Which to me, seems like a marketable attribute. But then maybe that's why I live here.

marco said...

First, Janet Frame.
After that, a host of Indienoisepop groups ranging from the relatively famous (say, Chills) to the utterly obscure (This Kind of Punishment or Jean Paul Sartre Experience).
Then M K Joseph, author of The Hole in the Zero, the Haka, Whale Rider, and, finally, the fact that New Zealand resembles an upside-down Italy without the isles.

Ben Wilson said...

The irony in the context of the LOTR stories is that culturally, NZ is not Middle Earth, it is the Shire only. The obscure place that no-one else has heard of, populated by odd little people, some of whom do great things, so long as they leave the country to do them. The rest are blissfully ignorant. Their history is tiny, their culture bucolic. Their origin is in a giant migration, sanctioned by a long since passed major world power. The culture is mostly rural British. Their military is pathetic, and military security mostly done by others, of whom they are ignorant.

The Maori are the only ones not fitting the narrative - Tolkien's historical movements are as artificial as the terrain that they happen in, tribes of people moving in large dramatic sweeps to empty territory. Or if the land is occupied, their nobility alone being enough to convince the original inhabitants that their influx is a good thing. All of the military game conducted over thousands of year without any change in technology leading to sudden total dominance. Racial divisions remaining static for the entire time.

Jolisa said...

Ooh, Ben, I love that we simultaneously posted on the terra nullius issue! Well done.

Jolisa said...

Following on from Ben's observation that NZ is just the Shire, small, bucolic, clannish, a little xenophobic... Also, notably, the hobbits who go and come back can never quite fit in again.

I read the LOTR films, only half satirically, as an expat tragedy. That final scene in the pub, just before Frodo breaks down and says "SCREW THIS. When's the next boat for the west?" -- you know, when the returnees are quietly sipping their beer and expecting at least a few questions about the world beyond and some welcome-home excitement, and the local hobbits are all "Ooh, look at my giant pumpkin!"...?


Ben Wilson said...


That was a poignant scene for me, too. Returning to NZ meant far more to me than it meant to anyone else. I should really have expected that, but somehow, I didn't. Are you feeling that at the moment?

I don't think NZ is unique in that one, though. Tolkien was channeling something, probably about how soldiers felt when they came back from either World War. I expect he'd felt it himself.

Ben Wilson said...

Gah, I should clarify. My return to NZ meant far more to me than my return meant to anyone else.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, wonderful. I was hoping somebody would stop by with the chops for an old fashioned textual analysis - it's a while since I read my Tolkien.

Along the lines of that New Zealand Company imagery, this is the reason why I'm looking forward to Christmas this year.

"That hillside with the pou. Where is it??"

I know! I mean, I don't know. I'd like to know.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(My own preparation to coming here were Keri Hulme, Janet Frame, Katherine Mansfield and nearly every feature film and short ever made in the country up to the year 1994 - which was still not that many - thanks to an excellent festival organised by the Film Commission that played to big audiences in Milan. The overall picture was complicated enough but Justine complicated it further by bringing back to Italy after a visit a videocassette with some of the regular TVNZ programming. I think to this day that Immigration New Zealand could cut down on those waiting lists simply by showing the six o'clock news to its applicants.)

B'art Homme said...

It's also the sickening politics... Weta staff ordered to hikoi to parliament to ensure they could be better fleeced by these new NEWLINE Hollywood laws. Faux Scandanavian mythology - precised by Jackson's weak drama, over shot, over use of moving camera styled direction. Very weak-character based high techno crap film making... and what do we get? zillions of hours of WORK - making faux faux images of somewhere else... what ever happened to a culture investing its zillions of hours of work making life demonstrably better for the majority? This "wealth" through the films, staff incmoes and tourism - is hollow-wood money - hollow. It does not build homes, it actively holds hands with the other wonderfully extractive industries - that screwed our real wealth - our mowed down gondwanaland forests... now feeding the cows. A friend recently and meekly told me he has only ever gotten one job from Jackson... making the - wait for it - TWELVE toilet seats for his home... 12 toilets. I say it again... 12 toilets. Now that's a whole lot of shit! If it's not the Sforsas and Da Vinci - it's Jackson/Taylor (and spouses/Boyens)mob ruling with 12 toilet power and fecal greed. We once had a real respect for our cathedrals of ancient forests... now we bow down in digital dark caves trying to warm our hands on faux flames light. 12 toilets!

Ben Wilson said...

Oh, wonderful. I was hoping somebody would stop by with the chops for an old fashioned textual analysis - it's a while since I read my Tolkien.

That's sarcasm, right? I honestly can't be sure.

Giovanni Tiso said...

No, I'm perfectly serious.

Anonymous said...

Some info about the hillside with the pou is at:

Giovanni Tiso said...

Excellent, thank you very much.

Ben Wilson said...

I'm still not sure :-)

It's been a while since I read my Tolkien too, in long form. I read the Hobbit graphic novel to my boys a couple of months ago. They both really liked it, and curiously, they liked the movies too. I thought they'd be far too long. I should probably watch the cartoon version of the Hobbit as prep for the movie, but the chops aren't there any more :-)

Unknown said...

Sweet Home Matamata

Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the southland
I miss matamaty once again
And I think its a sin, yes

Andrew said...

"Justine complicated it further by bringing back to Italy after a visit a videocassette with some of the regular TVNZ programming. I think to this day that Immigration New Zealand could cut down on those waiting lists simply by showing the six o'clock news to its applicants."

Indeed. I can remember when I arrived almost 9 years ago and saw my first six o'clock news on the telly. One of the main stories in this national news broadcast was about a horse stuck in a ditch. I kid you not. Must have been a slow news day, right?

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't mind the horse stuck in a ditch story per se, more the small-mindedness and sensationalism of the broadcasts. It's a whole other topic, though. Let's just say that I'd love for the makers of Te Kāea to have a prolonged crack at making the national news. That I'd watch.

Ben Wilson said...

Would people thinking of immigrating really see the kind of thing that happens on our crime shows, like cops telling some guy to blow on the pie in all earnest, as worse than the comparable thing in, say, the US, where they have serious crime in every episode?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, that's a tricky path to go down. Because what we also do have is shocking social inequality statistics - but of course not on Middle-earth. Nor on our newspapers or televisions.

Megan Clayton said...

The bells, the bells rang down,
then came down, a silken single
movement that no amount of rope-
wrangling could have taught a
ringer. The library fell with them,
and the peal boards too, and broke,
and broke their fall. Chipped,
cracked, but not shattered, unlike,
I presume, the framed photo of Tom
Biddle, young unfortunate master of
the bells who drowned at a picnic in
190-, becoming, for abundance of
water and lack of air, part of
History. I think of those thirteen
mouths downcast and falling,
unexpected and unwanted voice to
old peals and old ringers, my own
godmother the librarian so recently
dead and my father not in the tower
but abroad - the ghostly text
messages, the phone calls gone to
voice mail, the dust and screams and
oh my god the tower has gone -
this isn't what you want, is it?
This isn't what you meant. Go
around or go ahead, go to the other
story, go, go, go, look to,
treble's going, treble's gone.

Brett D said...

"100% pure" is a tautology, "compared with the rest of the world we are a !00%" is an oxymoron." It takes a rare genius to combine the two.

Anonymous said...

Too much nature, not enough culture. That sums it up. And infantile glee in pretending its not

Anonymous said...

Who expects advertising to be honest? Thats as childish as the pride the average NZer feels for Peter Jacksons films, asif his reputation somehow rubs off on them . Absolutely pathetic and Key knows this horrible truth about NZers who stoicly ignore the law changes and grovelling at the feet of Hollywood etc

Tim Barlow said...

Also in NZ becoming middle-earth, the entire country has become a film-set, with the associated labour market and mythic manipulations. So not only has hollywood manipulated labour market deregulation for cheap labour, but the actual content of the film vis a vis NZ nationalism. By this I mean the Hobbits themes of the pastoral 'little guys' taking on the evil of the world and being DIY clever bunnies was cleverly integrated into the real world of film technicians work. It has been a truly horrifying spectacle that is still being played out, the Hobbit is not just a piece of entertainment

Anonymous said...

As a migrant from the USA, I am amused how Kiwis love to bash themselves ("We have the worst drivers" they say... umm try the 8A/E65 on the Peloponnese in Greece which ostensibly is still a first world country).

Is NZ 100% pure. No of course not. But to bash it is pure masochism. In the East Coast acid rain has been falling for over a century. In China the sky is brown, the water is fouled, the land contaminated. Europe is cleaning up its act, but it is far from clean. NZ is clean because it never had an industrial revolution, because it has a low population and because its people are at least somewhat careful. But it is clean. Not pristine waters thanks to dairy, but no dead zones like the Gulf of Mexico.

The Hobbit thing is hardly noticed except when flying Air New Zealand. Not that many people fly, compared to the number of people who live in its heartland.

It is a good country, and it has become far more sophisticated in the past decade or two. At the same time, much of the rest of the world has become a more hostile place to live. We read about it, but only when we visit such places do we appreciate what NZ has to offer.