“Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” muttered Laurence Fishburne in 1999, proffering a pill-toting hand to lead us through the impending eschaton. Another decade, another looming ontological singularity, and whose palm are we to grasp? A glance down Courtenay Place offers the obvious answer: beckoning on the threshold, a towering Gandalf with more storeys than stories, uncanny-valley sheen outgleaming even Auckland’s notorious finger-waggling Santa Claus. There and back again indeed.
Meanwhile, catty-corner to McKellan’s beckoning hole, a rather cattier but perhaps more unexpected journey is already unfolding Downstage: the quixotic quest of the intrepid Richard Meros (here taking the form of familiar surrogate Arthur Meek) into New Zealand’s mythologized heartland in search of that most elusive national treasure, the Southern Man. And with the apocalypse once again breathing down our necks — no more money, no more room, no more environment and precious little time — surely someone’s got to extend a craggy hand. With all our wizened old mentors dead, dying or testing their welcome, Meros’ quarry may be our last best hope.
In Tibet, they venerate their Old Men of the Mountains, scalps preserved in rarefied monastery air awaiting DNA verification; for traces of Meros’ even more elusive figure, you’d be better off holing up under the Film Archive with tapes of Crumpy’s old Hilux commercials. But Meros, two strikes down — not Helen Clark’s lover, still as male as ever — has nothing but time to his name, so it’s off Down South and into the Otago hills in search of the Southern Man. A pseudonym trudging rebranded (middle) earth in search of a myth: the desert of the real, indeed. Even if this one’s studded with sagebrush and never too far from a Speight’s backdrop.
When Guy Ballard went into the desert and up the mountain, he returned with publishing clout and a fledgling belief system; Alejandro Jodorowsky took audiences to the summit and left them with a multi-disc box set. It’s these footholds which Meros grasps in his own ascent, but his boon is as contemporarily concrete as Moses’ own granite post-its: not just the PowerPoint to end all PowersPoint, but a PowerPoint so endlessly inventive it might just justify the trip.
For buried within this Pandora’s .Ppt are bounties limitless. Here is Southern Man as a looming colossus to dwarf Hercules or Gilgamesh; here the Enkidu of the Swandri grasps in a weathered hand the reins of worldly renewal, would he but flick a wrist and set the bugger to galloping. Here Olympus stands with Daumal’s Mount Analogue and Petrarch’s Mont Ventoux as just one more Bastard ripe for the Knocking-Off.
Fishburne and McKellan’s mentor-figures have shown their true stature long ago: corralled into endless dances of diminishing returns, they pontificate emptily on the world’s LARGEST TURBO XXXTREME-SCREENS alongside the Dumbledores and Obis-Wan and miscellaneous Anthony Hopkins afterthoughts. And meanwhile Meros’ wizened gatekeeper — too large for the screen, too hard for the world, too rough even for Southern plains planed chemical-peel smooth for their closeup — shivers in the dark night of all our souls, pulling one more dog close as the embers of his bonfire glimmer in the timeless Otago dreamtime.
Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man, at Downstage until 1 Dec