Goodbye Pork Pie
(a.k.a. Goodbye Porkpie Hat)

Director:Geoff Murphy                             
Kelly Johnson, Tony Barry, Claire Oberman

Just what does "pork pie" mean in New Zealand? I ask, because the New Zealand movie Goodbye Pork Pie has a character wearing a yellow T-shirt with PORK PIE written in big black letters. It's got to mean something other than the literal meaning of those two words, but what? I couldn't figure it out. In fact, there were a few other things in the movie I couldn't figure out, or wasn't exactly sure of. Fortunately for me, these things were generally incidental moments along the movie's journey. And even when I was confused about parts of the actual plot, I was still able to enjoy the movie, which is one fast road trip with some nice stops along the way.

Still, there were times when I really wanted to know more. One of these is near the beginning of the movie, where Sue, the girlfriend of John (Barry), walks out on him, taking a flight to the southern island. We never find out why Sue left John, even when later in the movie, a friend of hers asks Sue why she left. The problem extends into John's next action, when he impulsively gets out of the house to (somehow) reach her in time with little money at hand. John is seen as a kind of wimp in his first scene, so it isn't clear what has suddenly made him take this drastic action, whether it is to prove her wrong on her unexplained reason for leaving, or not. There are vague hints that he may be taking this mission to prove to himself he's some kind of man, but this theory also isn't proven.

Waiting outside the bus station, John sees a policeman stopping young punk Gerry (Johnson) for not using his seat belt in his Mini. John, for a lark I guess (there's no proper explanation), helps Gerry by getting the policeman to forget writing a ticket. To show his appreciation, Gerry offers John a ride to the next town, which he accepts. What John doesn't know is that Gerry just minutes before stole the Mini, by using the credit card and I.D. from a lost wallet he found on the street at a car rental agency. After a misunderstanding at a gas station, the two of them soon find themselves on the run from the authorities. But instead of laying low, they decide they'll make a run for it to and through the southern island while avoiding the police.

And this decision brings up another unexplained thing - exactly why do they decide to do this. At least there seems to be some kind of explanation with why Gerry decides to keep going. He started the whole think, from the stealing of the car, as something to do to pass the time. But as time progresses, he starts relishing the fact that he's becoming a folk hero of sorts. He even rechristens himself into a new identity as a dashing bandit for the people. As for Barry's character, it was interesting that John, a man in his 40s, didn't mind teaming up with this youthful punk in his breaking of the law, and enjoys their adventures. But why is he all of a sudden risking jail time? Is his girlfriend really that important? Has the taste of power made him this way? It's not explained. He seems to be doing it because it can be done, like Barry Williams' character in Vanishing Point.

In fact, there is a definite influence of Vanishing Point in this movie. A confrontation near the end, though played out differently, seems to have been inspired from the one in the earlier movie. The drivers in each movie become folk heroes because of the media. Also, in both movies there's a scene where another car goes off the road, and the panicked speeders stop their car to see if the accident victim is okay. Goodbye Pork Pie does manage to put a Kiwi spin on many of its similarities with Vanishing Point. Of course, the countryside isn't desert here, but instead beautiful greenery, lakes, and mountains, extremely well photographed, with some awesome shots taken from helicopters. Kowalski met many interesting people during stops along his ride, and John and Gerry do as well. The New Zealanders the movie encounters are, for the most part, very friendly and likable, sometimes kooky enough to be hilarious. The scene between the policeman and the woman he stops speeding is the highlight, though the small cameo by Bruno Lawrence (an actor who seems to be in almost half the movies made in Australia and New Zealand) is almost as good.

The general attitude of Goodbye Pork Pie is also less intense than Vanishing Point's (I'm not saying Goodbye Pork Pie is better than Vanishing Point - it just does many things in different ways.) Both the heroes aren't racing non-stop, nor do they see the point of racing without stopping. During their journey, they hide the car overnight to rest several times. Also, their ingenious plan to cross from one island to another gives them the chance to sit back, relax, and talk. These scenes help to flesh out the characters somewhat, compensating for the fact we don't know everything that is driving them to go on. It's here that the underlying theme of them starting to understand they are becoming folk heroes, and reacting to this, breaks through, giving the movie a boost of energy. It's very infectious, so I ended up rooting for these people to make their goal, even though I wasn't exactly sure why. Along the way, there are a number of small moments that keep the energy up and make us forget the shortcomings of the script - fast and innovative chases, a nice travelogue of New Zealand, some N.Z. slang (I figured out "dunny" must mean "toilet"), interesting choices of music, and some serious moments that fit well with the overall light comic tone. It's no classic, and it's no first choice, but Goodbye Pork Pie is a nice little movie that's good for when you want something a little different, a little funny, and even a little strange.

(Note: Since putting up this review, a couple of readers have suggested that it's a reference to the song Goodbye Porkpie Hat by jazz composer Charlie Mingus. Well, that's one possible explanation, but I can't see why a teenage punk would wear a t-shirt making a reference to that song!)

UPDATE: Liz over at And You Call Yourself A Scientist! shone a little light over this pork pie confusion:

"I know what the phrase means, or rather how it's used (it's slang for "it's finished" or "it's all over", as in "If my wife finds out I've been fooling around with my secretary, it'll be goodbye, pork pie"), but even the people I know who use it don't seem to have any idea of its origin. I e-mailed a couple of linguistics sites, but no luck there, either. Sorry!

"By the way, a more common usage of the term "pork pies" is as rhyming slang for "lies", as in "telling porkies". I also had one person point out that among motorcycle gangs, "pork pie" is used as a fairly unpleasant sexual euphemism. But that's as far as I got."

UPDATE 2: "Monique", from New Zealand, finally gave me the answer to what "pork pie" means. She told me, "A pork pie is a lie. It originates from Cockney rhyming slang."

UPDATE 3: Colin Byford sent me his theory:

"It was set in 1981 which was the height of the Muldoon era. Some may say  "error". It was a very regulated and stifling time in New Zealand. Sir Robert Muldoon's nick name was "piggy". One company even produced a plastic money box in the shape of his head. The slogan was "The piggy bank, not just a pretty face".

"There were lot's of porcine puns around referring to him.

"I submit that Goodbye Pork Pie was a chaotic and unregulated journey that  raised a middle finger to the stifling Muldoon regime ( the metaphorical  'Pork Pie' )."

UPDATE 4: Michael Sheils sent this along:

"Love the site. Your take is excellent and your critiques illuminating. After reading your Goodbye Pork Pie review, I asked a friend who's worked in the NZ feature film scene for decades about the origins of the title. He informed me that the original title that director Geoff Murphy wanted was Meatballs, but obviously that one had already been grabbed by the time the NZ film was ready for release. The most probable answer to your query is the Mingus reference. Murphy is a talented musician (and jazz aficionado). In the 70's he and Bruno Lawrence were founders of BLERTA, a collective of drug-fuelled maniacs who toured the country's two islands in a bus performing improv music, absurdist theatre and filming their activities (such as blowing up outdoor toilets).

"Speaking personally, Goodbye Pork Pie is the only local film I can think of that accurately captures New Zealander's unique sense of humour- dry, laconic and staunchly anti-authoritarian . There's whispers about a remake, or an update. Anyway, keep up the great work"

UPDATE 5: Edsel Menzies sent along this trivia:

"This email is just to let you know the latest on the actor who played Blondini in Goodbye Pork Pie. Since making the film he has become a lawyer (it's very hard to make a living as an actor down here). Apparently when he goes to visit clients in prison all the prisoners call out "Blondini!" and ask him to steal them a mini. He's also just reprised the character for a music video for the dub band Rhombus's new song call Clav Dub (Dub Pie) in which the band steal the mini. At the end of the video he steals the mini back and yells out "I'm taking this thing all the way to Invercargil!" followed by the famous maniacal laugh. Keep up the good work. P.S. It's called the South Island, not the southern island."

UPDATE 6: "Lindsay" e-mailed this:

"I was just reading your review of Goodbye Pork Pie. It's kind of a classic Kiwi movie that really only Kiwis appreciate all the (lack-of) subtleties of. Bits like the TV show broadcasting the opening music of Close to Home, a soap opera that went for years is like a 20 tonne blast of nostalgia. The newsreader, too, was a genuine newsreader who was on the air for years when most of NZ only had one TV channel (can't remember if it was Phillip Sherry or Dougall Stevenson on the film, they were of equal cultural standing).

"Anyway, to answer a couple of questions in your review. First, why did Sue (the girlfriend) leave John (co-star). My understanding is that she thought his life (to catch the theme) was going nowhere. He was a writer who wasn't writing and his life was stagnating. Her decision to leave him and fly to her sister's in Invercargill (the other end of the country) proved the spark that made him prove to himself and to her that he could get off his ass and get his life moving again.

"As to why they became bandits on the run aiming to get to Invercargill? Well, the Kiwi culture has great respect for determination. If you can do something - even something stupid - which requires real determination, then you'll receive a certain level of admiration from the masses. (Classic examples being Charles Upham and Edmund Hillary). In the 70s, too, there was a real anti-authority feel to society, because there wasn't major crime. The country is still relatively young, but the late 60s and 70s could possibly best be described as the country's puberty. In fact one of the most common comments I heard from visiting Americans while growing up was: "It's just like America was 20 years ago". Possibly still is.

"Hope this all helps. Though doubt it actually does."

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See also: For Your Height Only, Lake Of Dracula, Oddball Hall