The list book. Who would want to give it a go? You’re pretty much setting yourself up to be shot down by the reader. Once you throw in the word ‘essential’, you’ll have to expect that others will entirely disagree with your selections. Still, Awa Press are taking on list making with three recent 100 Essential New Zealand… books (Golf Holes being the third) and they have at least a couple more in the pipeline.
Both Hamish McDouall and Nick Bollinger explore the history of their chosen media in this country. Bollinger starts in 1930 with The Tahiwis and concentrates on ‘pop’, openly admitting his avoidance of “single genre music” (country, jazz, blues, classical, etc.), picking albums that have stood the test of time—to coin a phrase. McDouall begins with a 45 second clip from 1900, and admits the inherent subjectivity of such lists, claiming that on any other day the list could be quite different.
Although both defined their own selection criteria, neither state how they interpreted ‘essential’. And this really is at the crux of these books. For whom are the chosen works essential? Are they albums/films every New Zealander should know/own/see/hear? Do they, in some way, define who we are as a people? Or are they merely good distractions for a rainy afternoon? Of course, we’ll all have our own idea of what essential is, and what is essential.
So that said, just what are the books like? Wisely, McDouall includes short films, feature films and documentaries. Wisely, because so many of the great films to come out of New Zealand have been short films, and we’ve been no slouches on the documentary front either, but also because limiting the list purely to feature films would no doubt see the inclusion of works that are far from essential. McDouall’s selections cover the range of subject matter and film genre, and surprisingly include one entry from the 48Hours filmmaking contest (though admittedly this contest has produced some terrific films). The text is largely descriptive, rarely making the claim for their essentialness.
Attempting to cover our entire movie history is a big ask, and clearly he’s pitting quite disparate films against one another. However McDouall does an admirable job and there are quite a number of films listed that I’ve never heard of, and lots more I’ve not yet seen. McDouall has opened my eyes to some material to be explored. Favourite film title: The Sadness of the Post-Intellectual Art Critic.
But naturally I do have issues with his choices. While the 1900 clip The Departure of the Second Contingent for the Boer War may be historically important as it was the first ‘movie’ shot in this country, I’m not sure I would call it essential. How did the recent low budget Little Bits of Light not make the list? Is Fracture (included) really more essential than Eagle vs Shark (not included)? As is to be expected, both books suffer attempting to fulfil the criteria. Once you’ve listed the obligatory, to make it to 100, the selection does seem somewhat more arbitrary.
Bollinger, having narrowed his selection to ‘pop’ music, arguably has an easier task than McDouall, but it does mean that some people who are elemental to New Zealand music outside of pop are ignored. Bollinger almost exclusively picks albums—one EP (because it was the only recording that particular band released), and no singles. He does say that there have been some cracker songs on rubbish albums, but he is only interested in albums that work as complete pieces, as an album, rather than being a collection of songs.
Bollinger clearly has extensive knowledge of music, having spent the last few decades both making and writing about it. Each entry reads like a review from his Radio New Zealand show, The Sampler, minus the musical excerpts. He gives some context to the album’s creation, the band’s history, and a description of the music. He doesn’t spell out the case for their essentialness, but he does hint at their value. What surprised me, though I’m not sure why, was the prevalence of commercial pop—lots of Dobbyn, Finn (Neil especially), McGlashan, plus Sharon O’Neill, The Mockers, Scribe and others. No trainspotter name-checking of bands only their mum’s have heard of, little that’s obscure or leftfield, though most of the important Flying Nun alumni do get a look in.
Of course I do have some disputes. There are a few albums whose inclusion surprises me, and some of the albums he has picked aren’t the ones I’d have chosen for those artists, and there is the odd mystifying omission—no The Bats, no Able Tasmans, no Bachelorette. But these are Nick Bollinger’s 100 Essential New Zealand Albums, not mine.
It’s really easy to pick holes in books like these, but in truth, regardless of what title they’re given—‘Essential’, ‘Must-see’, ‘to do before you die’, etc.—for the most part they are educated primers. Despite my qualms I have very much enjoyed dipping into Bollinger’s Albums, probably because it’s of greater personal interest, but while both these 100 Essential New Zealand books aren’t exactly essential, they are fine tasters of potentially good distractions for a rainy afternoon (or whenever), representing a decent place to start an exploration into New Zealand film and music.