A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Matthew Bannister’s goal [is] to go beyond merely celebrating/adoring its subject. Cheeky title notwithstanding, this book is no puff piece.”
I’d only seen two Taika Waititi films – What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – before picking up Matthew Bannister’s Eye of the Taika (Wayne State University Press). In retrospect, these two examples illustrate what many have come to see as an unfortunate shift in the writer-director-actor’s persona: from low-fi New Zealand prankster, to Hollywood gun-for-hire. But regardless of what audiences – be they local or global – may think of his work, there’s more to his identity than this simplified distinction implies, and Bannister does an admirable (if somewhat flavorless) job navigating the artist’s intersecting cultural, ethnic, and artistic backgrounds.
Despite their vast differences in scale, Waititi’s films share the obvious through line of being primarily comedic. It’s fitting, then, that Bannister’s introductory chapter is subtitled, “What is Funny?” They say the best way to ruin a good joke is to explain it, so some readers may find their eyes crossing when confronted with observations like the following: “Incongruity is not wholly separate from superiority insofar as hierarchical social relations often give rise to anomalies, but it has also been argued to be inherent in the form of a joke, which relies on a perceived disparity between two elements” (8). Nevertheless, the introduction is essential in that it establishes Bannister’s goal to go beyond merely celebrating/adoring its subject. Cheeky title notwithstanding, this book is no puff piece.
Eye of the Taika is split nearly down the middle between chapters about Waititi’s early career in the New Zealand comedy scene, and those which address each one of his feature-length films. The former section will appeal to any reader interested in the history of so-called “Kiwi Comedy.” Bannister explores the lesser-known influences behind the likes of Flight of the Conchords; for example, performer Billy T. James, the Howard Morrison Quartet, and the Topp Twins. Like Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement – the latter with whom Waititi often collaborates – such “acts work in a hybrid form – combining music and comedy in a succession of short items, interacting with the audience, ad-libbing, with the aim of producing an entertaining performance” (74).
Most revealingly, Bannister addresses Waititi’s complex cultural and ethnic background: His mother is Jewish, his father Māori – that is, a descendant of New Zealand’s original Polynesian settlers (19, 21). Waititi’s discomfort with being labeled a “New Zealand filmmaker,” or a “Jewish filmmaker,” or a “Māori filmmaker” speaks to an artist who doesn’t want to be “too categorical about labeling ourselves and others” (19). His narratives similarly feature not only ethnic ambiguity, but also gender and age ambiguity (30, 32). This sense of play has its benefits, but Bannister’s most rewarding chapter, “On/Off-Color,” challenges this evasiveness by comparing his subject’s career trajectory with those of other artists of color: “In his stand-up act, Waititi plays down his Māori ethnicity, adopting instead a generalized ‘ethnic’ persona, a ‘substitutable other’” (110). Black comedians, Bannister acknowledges, typically have no such luxury.
Most revealingly, Bannister addresses Waititi’s complex cultural and ethnic background: His mother is Jewish, his father Māori – that is, a descendant of New Zealand’s original Polynesian settlers.”
The text’s unofficial “Part II” – the film-by-film analysis – begins with “Quirks and Nerds: Eagle vs Shark.” Although the 2007 sleeper is sometimes thought of as little more than a Napoleon Dynamite (2004) knockoff – both incorporate characters awkwardly staring into the camera, “quirky” soundtracks, and other elements of nerd or cringe comedy – Bannister notes how the debut “is the only Waititi film in which the central character is female” (136) and stands out further for its inclusion of a non-white, Māori love interest (played by Clement). Eagle vs Shark, in this sense, laid the groundwork for 2010’s Boy, in which Waititi enacted a similar “Māori geek ‘comedian’ character” (139). The latter project, however, added “a distinctive indigenous twist” (160), which may account for its immense popularity in New Zealand. Other chapters similarly focus on marginalized peoples and their struggles against modernity, be they the droll vampires assimilating to contemporary society in What We Do in the Shadows, or the “different kind of minority – New Zealanders marginalized by their own culture” (176) in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016).
Reactions to “Waititi’s Hollywood sojourn” (225) have been far more mixed, and Bannister acknowledges the justified arguments of both the filmmaker’s supporters and detractors. Traces of his multicultural approach may be found in Thor: Ragnarok – “the force Thor assembles against [villain] Hela is mainly nonwhite…the main protector of the Asgardian people, Heimdall (Idris Elba), is also nonwhite” (209) – but it still fits quite comfortably within Marvel’s carefully-curated canon. Jojo Rabbit (2019) may have helped usher in “a new era of Hollywood recognition for ethnic diversity” (213), but it’s still easily-digestible schmaltz; indeed, those who cringed at the notorious tagline, “an anti-hate satire,” will appreciate Bannister’s erudite explanation of how Jojo is pretty much anything but a satire.
So, will Taika Waititi use his increasing power and influence to help transform the studio landscape?…we can at least hope for something slightly different under his tutelage.”
As recent announcements illustrate, Waititi’s adventures in Hollywood may be less a sojourn than an indefinite relocation. And while he keeps one foot planted in his indie roots – the wonderful Reservation Dogs (2021) being a prime example, though he has written only one of its nine episodes – his eyes are clearly on bigger game. Upcoming projects include Thor: Love and Thunder, The Tower of Terror (yes, as in the Disney theme park ride), and a mysterious Star Wars film.
So, will Taika Waititi use his increasing power and influence to help transform the studio landscape, or will he settle for making unique sandcastles in the Hollywood sandbox? Either way, I suppose blockbuster films are better off. If we must have more Thor movies (or a live-action remake of Akira, or another Flash Gordon, to name but a few of his many gestating projects), then we can at least hope for something slightly different under his tutelage.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.