Some decades ago, after my dad and I had returned from an extended overseas trip, we were having dinner with some friends of my parents.
At some point one of the guests – perhaps annoyed we had been banging on about some interesting places we'd been – spoke up for the beauties of Auckland and said, “In what other city in the world can you be swimming in the beautiful sea in the morning and go skiing in the afternoon?”
My dad, quick as flash-lighting said, “Beirut”.
I was reminded of this when the kerfuffle blew up over The Hobbit and Peter Jackson said they'd just shift the whole production to Eastern Europe. It might have sounded petulant and a threat – but it is also the reality in the international world of film-making.
The union issue isn't my concern here – although I thought it howlingly funny that letter to the Herald in which some guy complained you couldn't support a family on what they pay for an extra.
I have been more inclined to think about our magnificent landscapes as seen in the Rings trilogy and how proud we are of them. On talkback radio people were saying it was unthinkable The Hobbit could filmed anywhere other than in our beautiful mountains.
I'm sure I heard one guy say “There's nothing like them anywhere else in the world” which rather overlooked their name: “The Southern Alps” which implies there are northern . . . Yep.
We are rightly attached to our Alps, Muriwai, the Hokianga and so forth – but just as the Japanese discovered when Taranaki stood in for Fuji, landscape is malleable in the lens and, frankly, it's everywhere.
No one should be in any doubt that while our country is gifted with beauties so are many other places. We aren't unique in that regard.
And they all scrub up on film.
Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey was on the radio the other day saying enthusiastically that West Auckland bush could be used as a stand in for . . . and then he listed some places (the Amazon? I forget.)
It's true – but I was lucky enough to spend some time on Kaua'i – the “garden island” in the Hawaii group – and that too stands in for just about everywhere. I took a four-wheel drive tour of various movie locations on that island not much bigger than Great Barrier and saw Jurassic Park, Vietnam, Cambodia, Tahiti, Australia, Africa and even Fantasy Island.
You also don't have to be too long in Vancouver, Canada before you stumble over a Hollywood crew.
This site lists over 200 films shot there and the city has stood in for Boston, the Bronx, Chicago, Washington DC . . .
The reason they are there? The lower Canadian dollar, proximity to LA, the infrastructure established and the support the city gives to film-makers.
And that, as well as the scenery, is pretty much why the Rings trilogy was filmed here – except for the proximity thing perhaps, but maybe distance was what Jackson also wanted.
But these days everywhere formerly remote can be in touch with the rest of the world. I visited a production studio in Auckland and basically they were e-mailing the day's cuts of various television series and movies shot in Auckland to the LA studio for overnight approval. (“A bit more red in the faces.”) Instant.
So the brutal truth is that Jackson may well go to Eastern Europe (these guys aren't talking small change after all) because landscapes there are perfectly suitable for filming.
And of course they probably aren't unionised . .. but that is a quite separate issue.
Sometimes I think people like Jackson,- and Neil Finn, in this instance, – are trying to wake us from sleepy complacency and self-satisfaction, but we immediately go off-message.
Our natural landscapes are undeniably breathtaking and beautiful, but we aren't unique in that regard.
What is unique is our response to our landscape – as unique as the Ethiopians, Spanish, Kurds and so on are to theirs.
In 1995 Simon Schama wrote a wonderful and provocative book Landscape and Memory about how we find meaning and myth, symbolism and metaphor in landscapes. Ours informs not just art and culture but how we define ourselves – and maybe how we wish to be seen by others.
In those towering mountains which gave character to the Rings trilogy we maybe wanted to see something of ourselves -- a rugged individualism perhaps, if you can make it there you make it anywhere. Think how we have mythologised the “Southern man” – or at least ad agencies have, and brewers and cheese-makers have done the rest. Oh, mate.
Great tracts of our landscape have a rough-hewn and imposing solidity which makes us ponder – even if just for an instant – the transitory and fragile nature of our brief existence. The Christchurch quake – along a fault-line no one seemed to know even existed – simply reinforces that feeling of uncertainty in these Shaky Isles.
We rightly brag about the part of the world we live in – it can take your breath away, even on film – but you can also swim in the sea and go skiing on the same day in many places.
And a Hobbiton – and this isn't a threatening or petulant observation, just an uncomfortable fact -- can be built anywhere.