Film

An Ode To The Silly, Loving Genius Of Taika Waititi

You have some great films to catch up on before 'Thor: Ragnarok'.

Even to aficionados of Taika Waititi’s unique brand of cinema, the announcement that he was to direct Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok was met with a fair few raised eyebrows. Waititi had made his name with some gleaming indie gems, and the closest he’d previously come to big-budget comic-book excesses was a small part in Martin Campbell’s astonishingly bad Green Lantern.

Then the trailers and posters hit — technicolor confections of wit and verve with highlights including Tessa Thompson as a complete badass, Jeff Goldblum at his campy best and Our Cate Blanchett in some of the most glorious cinematic headgear of all time. Suddenly the latest entry in Marvel’s most uneven franchise became one of the year’s most anticipated films — a story about the end of a world, brought about by a goddess of death, cut through with some lovingly asinine humour.

Waititi is the first director of colour to work on a Marvel film, and it’s nicely symbolic that it’s a Thor film he’s working on. The alt-right has been co-opting Norse mythology for some time, so this should give some very nasty people some very severe conniptions. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Waititi was tapped to handle a film with this much going on, with this many tones to play at once.

Of course he’s the perfect person to find the essential humanity in the Norse god of thunder and a radiation-swollen monster (yep, the Hulk is in this). It’s the sort of thing he’s done his entire career.

Two Cars, One Nap

Waititi’s 2004 Oscar-nominated short, Two Cars, One Night, is a testament to the director’s skill for a whole heap of reasons. It’s an 11-minute peek into the lives of two children waiting and waiting for their parents outside a pub, forming the type of instant bond that only children can, in the last days before this sort of interaction ferments into full-blown flirtation.

There’s enough melancholy in the setting that Waititi doesn’t have to delve into it. He’s more concerned with the inner lives of these characters, about how they make the most of the situation they’re in and how they make the most of each other. The leads are Polly and Romeo — him swollen with bashfulness and false bravado, her wiser and cooler in the way girls always are when you’re that age. They exchange insults and laugh and connect, with the occasional side-note contribution from Romeo’s brother, who has clearly had enough of his sibling’s bullshit and would very much like to just read for a while, thank you very much.

Waititi has a gift for reminding his audience that even the smallest roles, whether in his films or in our existence outside the cinema, are made up of human beings overflowing with their own hearts and minds and lives. Polly and Romeo are guest stars in their parents’ biopic, distractions confined to parked cars, in the same way that they’re guest stars in Romeo’s brother’s. There’s a wonderful generosity to the way Waititi realises his characters; they’re portrayed as people who will continue to thrive whether or not we’re paying attention. Waititi’s work looks to reinforce the point that periphery is a matter of perspective.

Not for nothing, but he’s also the same legend who goes to the Academy Awards and pretends to be asleep when his name is announced.

Eagles, Sharks And Boys

This kind of pathos — mostly imbued with studied irreverence, and an unabashed dedication to cultural causes or artifacts in a way most people would consider naff in these irony-addicted times — is a Waititi trademark. He mixes the proportions up a bit, but the ingredients are always there.

His first feature, Eagle vs Shark (2007), was dismissed as a Napoleon Dynamite clone when it was released, and it’s easy to see why. At first glance, it’s a hit of the same concentrated awkwardness. But there’s something more jagged about it, something ruined and desperate in Jemaine Clement’s performance that’s balanced by Loren Horsley’s wistful stout-heartedness. This isn’t a movie about overcoming the melancholy in a woman’s untethered attraction and a man’s obsession with revenge; it’s a movie about finding safe harbours in the most unlikely of places, when the world tells you the water is too rough.

Next came Boy (2010), the tale of a kid almost ready to let adulthood dissolve his fantasies, and a father clinging to them like a security blanket.

Waititi wrote and directed the film, starred as the delinquent dad, and shot it in his hometown of Waihau Bay. When I interviewed him at the time, Waititi said Maori people were usually portrayed in two ways, Once Were Warriors or Whale Rider, and that this was an opportunity to portray their funny, awkward side instead. By any measure, he succeeded; Boy was internationally acclaimed and broke box-office records in New Zealand.

In classic form, it’s funny and tough but never bleak; the sort of film that can draw on a history of Maori political and cultural activism but also be bursting at the seams with delightful references to ’80s touchstones like Thriller and Shogun

“Dead, But Delicious”

Waititi took his appreciation of lives and ecosystems thriving on the fringes to its logical zenith with What We Do In The Shadows (2014), a mockumentary about the Wellington vampire scene that he wrote and directed with Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement. It isn’t just flat-out hilarious, it’s also a genuinely red-blooded vampire film, paying loving homage to the rules and tropes enshrined in everything from Dracula to Twilight.

Shadows understands how a dandy born in 1635 would be fine with not being able to see his reflection before a night out, as long as he has friends. It appreciates that the most loyal companion to eternal life is a crushing, geological loneliness — the certainty that most people around you will wither and die as the accumulated weight of millennia presses down so hard that the inside of a coffin seems like the sweetest refuge. It’s that old adage about light and shadow, comedy and tragedy — it’s the contrast that makes both pop.

His most recent film, last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, took a somewhat different approach. It’s an uproarious and explicit rejection of mainstream, mundane society by two outsiders who have long abandoned the hope or pretence of fitting in. Sam Neill plays an illiterate ex-con who’s lost the person who is his whole world, and young Julian Dennison’s character is so scarred by the choice between foster care and juvie that he wants to watch the world burn. Both are truly excellent. Wilderpeople is as gentle as it is unflinching, unafraid to show the tenderness and the rough edges of its leads and their world.

With all this going on, it’s occasionally possible to overlook Waititi’s keen eye for visuals. Thankfully, his social media feeds are full of supporting evidence (so much so that it has taken a great deal of willpower not to turn this into an embed fest, or include more highlights from the rolling bonanza of cheerful lunacy that is the Thor: Ragnarok press tour).

In any case, here is exhibit A:

This rich vein of playfulness runs through all of Waititi’s work — it’s less a sense of humour than a sense of life. He has such a strong grasp of his characters’ basic humanity that it’s all too easy to start speaking the language of universalities, the reductive “here’s something for everyone” rhetoric that crops up far too often discussing the work of an artist of colour.

So how does he makes it so easy to understand and appreciate the specifics of juvenile delinquents and centuries-old vampires, of his Maori heritage and his comedic sensibilities? The key is empathy — a desperately rare commodity, but one Taikia Waititi has in spades.

Hari Raj has worked as a journalist and editor in Malaysia, China, and Australia. He tweets about pop-culture ephemera at @jarirah.