Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Scarfies, Dunedin Gothic, and the Spirit of Capitalism1

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Scarfies, Dunedin Gothic, and the Spirit of Capitalism1

Article excerpt

Reviewing Robert Sarkies' first feature film Scarfies (1995), Philip Matthews remarks upon the urban setting: 'In the Dunedin of the imagination, it is forever the mid-80s, the Clean are still playing at the Captain Cook [Tavern] and it's always bloody cold'.2 The film revels in the grunge sub-culture developed by students at the University of Otago: the woolly hat and eponymous scarf, rugby mania, the grotty flat of the kind memorialised in James K. Baxter's 'A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting', the squeaky bedsprings, the thrashy pub band, the hangover puke in the old Holden.3 However, Matthews quickly adds that 'Dunedin is actually fairly incidental to the story', and that 'the soundtrack, the setting, all the paraphernalia, is about sending a love letter to the city, to all it meant' (p. 39). The innocence of that 'Dunedin vibe' has to be 'abandoned at the end like history or a strange memory, something that has been overcome' (p. 39). The shaping of the narrative as a descent into, and return from, 'strange memory' reinforces Matthews' view: the narrative's opening sequence, showing fledgling student Emma (Willa O'Neill) busing into Dunedin through the northern hill suburbs, is reversed in the closing scene as she returns home chastened by knowledge of her own corruption.

At least since R. H. Morrieson's adolescent romp through the perversions of provincial Taranaki in The Scarecrow (1963), Kiwi gothic has tended to engage with regional phantasms. By 'regional' here I mean settings which are named in the diegesis, or recognisable through visual or verbal description to someone familiar with New Zealand geography. Although Desperate Remedies (1993) is set in the fictional colonial town of Hope, to take an example from recent New Zealand film, it conveys the mercantile bustle of Auckland - reduced to the tyranny of the lawnmower in the city's lonely outer suburbs of the 1970s in Christine Parker's Channeling Baby (1999). Christchurch is haunted by the class-ridden anglophilia marking Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994), while The Irrefutable Truth about Demons (2000), Glenn Standring's horror film about the paranoid obsessions of an anthropology lecturer, conveys the selfabsorptive cerebrations of Wellington's intelligentsia. As the title of New Zealand's most recent gothic-horror production suggests, those who transgress boundaries of geography, class, or sexual propriety in this country have most to fear from The Locals (Greg Page, 2003).4

Given Scarfies' intensely local focus, might it serve as a test case in articulating the regional and the gothic in the New Zealand context? To the extent that regionalism is 'limited in space but not in time', to use Allen Tate's definition, it is consonant with gothicism's vertical space-time configuration.5 In gothic temporality the past does not dissolve itself smoothly as the present takes its place. Instead, traces of the past remain active, rebounding upon, clawing back, interrupting, exposing, and even mocking the actions and intentions of today. Thus as David Punter asserts, gothic 'has always functioned as a way of viewing the past', for 'if Gothic deals in the shapes of dream, then it has to do also with the day's residues, with the ways in which history - the history of the present as well as the past sifts itself down to us'.6 Gothic meets regionalism when pathological or corrupt historical residues are located, not in a rotten patrilineage or a family secret, but rather in a community mentality, 'that consciousness or that habit of men in a given locality which influences them to certain patterns of thought and conduct handed to them by their ancestors' (Tate, p. 286).

Notwithstanding Matthews' 'ungothic' reading of Scarfies, in which he relegates the urban setting to the incidental, Dunedin's historical and geographical circumstances make it ripe for gothic appropriation. The city's character derives from a combination of religious protest, colonial idealism, commercial wealth, and subsequent slow decline. …

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