Sunday, 19 May 2019

YOU LITTLE WONDER, LITTLE WONDER YOU



Some time ago, I downloaded Tetris for my mobile phone, but I rarely play it. The compromises necessary to make the game work with touch-screen technology made it, for me, less playable: the choice is to swipe your “tetrominos” down the screen, or choose where you want it to fall. I want to be able to properly guide them down, and rotate them around – I need buttons, one for each thumb.

I took the obvious path: I now own a cheap Nintendo Game Boy, and a cartridge of the game that was, until Pokémon happened, its killer app – and it didn’t need a character, be they a plumber hedgehog or Pikachu. I need not mention how Tetris works, as everyone must have played it by now – thirty-five million copies of the original Game Boy game, introduced with the console in 1989, were sold, not counting further versions of it, both for the Game Boy and other systems. The game’s inventor, Sergei Pajitnov, has said the Game Boy version is his favourite, and I can see why, having not put it down since I picked it up: the controls are very responsive, I like trying to squeeze a tetromino into a tight spot, created when you are not getting the ones you want, and you have to put them somewhere. I also like the option of a “B-Game,” where you play until you have completed twenty-five lines, instead of continuing until the batteries in your Game Boy run out.

The squarewave music generated by the Game Boy is iconic - remixes of the Tetris “A-Type” music, by “Doctor Spin,” and the “Super Mario Land” theme reached the UK Singles Chart in 1992, and can be found on “Now That’s What I Call Music! 23”. However, why did I have a pang of nostalgia when I heard the sound made when I completed a line of tetrominos? If I ever played the game before, it would be too long ago for me to have remembered it, and it would have been on someone else’s system – I have never owned one before. I couldn’t find it in the remix. “Doctor Spin” turns out to be a pseudonym for record producer Nigel Wright, and some guy named Andrew Lloyd Webber – no, I don’t know what to do with that information either.
The Game Boy and Game & Watch range

I had originally considered buying a cheap Tetris LCD game, but now I have a Game Boy, I can cast my net wider, although the type of game I like are quick affairs like “Space Invaders” and “Lemmings.” Indeed, the Game Boy was conceived, by Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, as an upgrade to their existing “Game & Watch” LCD games. Yakoi had already set his toy maker employer down the electronic path when he developed a Love Tester game in 1969, a resistance meter that needed two people to work, and worked better when they kissed. Yakoi developed the Game & Watch series after seeing a commuter on a train, messing about with their calculator – the Game Boy is essentially a customisable Game & Watch, with an LCD screen that can create more intricate shapes, like Super Mario or Robocop.

A word on the Game Boy I bought. Mine is a blue Game Boy Pocket, from 1996, palm-sized instead of hand-sized, and half the weight of the original, especially once the batteries are installed – only two AAA batteries, instead of four AAs. The LCD screen is grey, instead of that pea-soup green that the original is famous for, but the playing time allowed by the batteries is down to ten hours – in other words, the level we are now used to having. I didn’t feel like I would need the extra capability that the Game Boy Color, Advance, or Advance SP have, but what I now know is, even if I was to buy one of the last Advance SPs, made in 2005, it will still play my original Tetris game from 1989, with no adaptor required. The first Nintendo DS can play Game Boy Advance cartridges, yet its design is influenced by the Game & Watch. I don't know if the Nintendo Switch has a Love Tester function.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

PEOPLE IN THE NIGHT AND PEOPLE UP ABOVE [173]




Everyone must watch “Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy.” If it doesn’t make sense, you are watching too closely, meaning you must watch it again.

Two years ago, when I first heard that Noel Fielding will be hosting “The Great British Bake Off” with Sandi Toksvig, I realised we missed the opportunity for Spike Milligan and Victoria Wood to have presented “Antiques Roadshow.”

However, what struck me as being uneasy was Fielding being placed into a predictable format. At the time, he was a contestant on “Taskmaster,” a genius game show built around comedians’ approaches to bizarre and silly tasks – a perfect place for a surrealist, Dadaist operator like Fielding. While other contestants hid behind objects to make themselves invisible, Fielding used a green screen to hide as a banana in a fruit bowl.

However, the second series of “Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy,” subtitled “Tales from Painted Hawaii,” infuriated me. Broadcast in 2014, two years after the first series, and only five episodes instead of seven, its sketches were no longer linked by Fielding in a fantasy painted treehouse, but he and his characters were now in a familiar sitcom-type set-up, based in a coffee shop. It felt like “The Goodies” – that is not a bad thing in any way, except it had already been done by, well, The Goodies. The first episode opens with Fielding, behind the shop’s counter, explaining the change of situation, before telling his friend Dolly that, “last time, a couple of people were confused.”

I felt like I had been told to fuck off for having loved the first series, as if Monty Python decided to play it straight to get more viewers – hell, you can no longer do a sketch with two people either side of a desk since “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” having rightly stretched convention out of shape. So, if I was to see any of Fielding’s inspired characters, they would have to be contained – constrained - in a story, no longer allowed to stand on their own. Lest we forget characters that, at least, were given a chance to stand by themselves, like:


-          Chefs Renny and Gaviskon, the latter of which has a pepper grinder for a nose.

-          Kite-Headed Brian Ferry and Brian Eno Frisbee.

-          The eyes-covered country music singer Silverback.

-          The animated adventures of Joey Ramone, Ice Cream Eyes, and Jeremy Beautiful Chest, the man who pays for everything that people get for free.

-          Daddy Push, who has a shell for a head, finds a remote control in the street, and drives away a box of fried chicken.

-          Dondylion, a deranged, encarcerated cross of Russell Brand and Tina Turner.

-          Doo Rag, assistant to the mashed potato-powered The Audience, imprisons, with the help of his brother Doo Cloth, the hedgehog Helen Daniels in a jail made of waffles.

-          Fantasy Man, riding through an 80s landscape in search of the Dream Tiger

I’ll never have enough space here to go through them all, only to say that the series is still available on DVD, although the painted artwork and carefully-made animation – the “Luxury” element of the title – could have done with a blu-ray release.

Both series of “Luxury Comedy” were stuck on E4, among panel shows, US imports of comedy shows and dramas, and “Hollyoaks.” If it was on the main Channel 4, where taking risks is expected, it might have worked better. Noel Fielding is there now, but he is presenting “Bake Off” instead.

In 2014, Fielding told “The Guardian,” in relation to the reaction to the first series: “People said, ‘You must be mad, or on drugs,’ which I found a bit disappointing. What about imagination? It reflects our time that people sooner assume you’re on drugs or mad, rather than free.” Could we all say we are ready now for a third series, or is it all the fault of Ice Cream Eyes again?

Sunday, 12 May 2019

GON BE A FREE MAN IN THE MORNING [172]


Towards the end of the film “A Face in the Crowd,” Marcia Jeffries realises she must take action to stop the star of the TV show she produces, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. She discovered Rhodes as a drunken drifter in a jail, when trying to find a voice for a radio item back home in Arkansas. His homespun humour and opinions, and his gravelly singing voice, made him a hit with his audience, but as soon as he saw how they responded to him, and how they could be mobilised, his career took off, to Memphis and New York, from radio to television to politics. He had his audience in his hand, he saw himself in them, and he saw how they could be controlled - ultimately, he thought they were his own flock of sheep. At the end of one show, Marcia fades up Rhodes’ microphone as the credits roll, letting his true opinions be heard by all. Switchboards at the TV station are immediately jammed with the fury of those whose trust he betrayed. His career was over before he left the studio.

For everyone that believes that “cancel culture” began with Twitter, seeing the same thing happen in a film made in 1957, and happen at the same speed, is strangely reassuring: replace telephones with social media, and the scene would have played out in exactly the same way. Indeed, the speed at which the BBC dismissed Danny Baker from his Radio 5 Live show last week, over his placement of an ill-judged picture on Twitter, is comparable to “A Face in the Crowd.”


The writer and director of the film, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, had already been on the receiving end of the power of television, before making a film that warned of that power. They were both witnesses to the House Un-American Activities Committee, under Senator Joseph McCarthy, hearings of which had been carried live on TV, and both had named names – they had been members of the American Communist Party in the 1930s, and sought to use their testimony to highlight the totalitarianism rooted in the ideology. Despite giving names already known to the Committee, Kazan would place an advertisement in “The New York Times” to declare that he was glad he appeared, and recommended that others do the same, earning the enmity of many within his industry. It did not ultimately stop Kazan and Schulberg’s careers – they would make “On the Waterfront” in 1954, before “A Face in the Crowd” – but those of many more were curtailed. McCarthy would also be ultimately undone by television, by the journalist Edward R. Murrow on the series "See It Now."

I had intended to write here about how prescient “A Face in the Crowd” would become, as it had initially done poorly upon its release, as the monstrous and infectious performance of Andy Griffith was considered to be overkill, and the plot being seen as preposterous. Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign in 2015-16, let alone his actual Presidency, has Lonesome Rhodes written all over it, but we all now know that what real life can throw up can defy fiction altogether. In the film, Mel Miller, a writer on Rhodes’ show, is later writing a book that he hopes will expose the real Lonesome Rhodes – how many more can be released about Trump, and how much of him is left to expose?

Before writing this, I had seen “A Face in the Crowd” only once, about sixteen years ago, on my film degree course. The copy I saw was recorded off the television, and its first home video release in the UK came last week. Twitter did not exist when I last saw it, and “cancel culture” was not yet defined, but all the elements were there. What will it say next?

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD [171]


How is this for a career path: starting as a journalist in Southampton, John Boorman ran the newsroom of Southern Television, launching the evening news magazine “Day by Day,” a forerunner of the local news programmes seen across the UK. From there, he moved to Bristol, to make documentaries for the BBC. He was asked to make use of those documentary techniques to reproduce “A Hard Day’s Night,” except starring the Dave Clark Five. The resulting film, “Catch Us If You Can,” opened up an opportunity to direct a film in Hollywood, “Point Blank”, starring Lee Marvin. After the next film, “Leo the Lion,” was made back in the UK, Boorman’s next American film was “Deliverance.” In twelve years, Boorman made it to the Deep South, from the South of England.

So, by 1974, John Boorman could really make any film he wanted. However, because “Star Wars” was still three years away, there was no appetite for something on the scale of “Lord of the Rings,” which was his original plan. However, science fiction films involving big ideas, like “Silent Running,” “Soylent Green,” “The Omega Man,” and “Phase IV,” were in vogue. Meanwhile, Sean Connery was still in demand, but not on the same scale as when he was James Bond – Connery accepted the role of Zed in “Zardoz” after it was originally offered to Burt Reynolds and Richard Harris.


This set of circumstances made for a very odd, but prescient film. It is also a film that gives itself away with an opening narrative, not unlike the sort Universal Pictures did at the start of their “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” We are told we are watching a satire, based in the future, involving an immortal person masquerading as a God. We are told the film is “full of mystery and intrigue,” which is just as well, as a full hour is spent building the world of a futuristic, yet medieval caste system, of which Zed is an anomaly – a lower order that stumbled upon the truth.

“Zardoz” is a deeply layered fable that concerns the holders of knowledge and power, who have become immortal themselves in order to keep the old world going, but have become corrupt in itself, fencing themselves off, with a literal force field, from those left to work the land. In a situation like this, the “Eternals” are shown to have inevitably become corrupt, save for one that, like a trickster god, experiments to create a group of people that keep those outside at bay, but one would be led to discover the ultimate point of their existence, which is to destroy the higher order – this sis where Zed comes in, led by his maker to discover that Zardoz is a trick, inspired by a certain novel by L. Frank Baum.

Because it is ostensibly a mystery story, writing anything about “Zardoz” involves some kind of spoiler alert – I neglected to enter one for fear of writing nothing at all. Any story involving an immortal person reintroducing the idea of death is worth a look, not least for the bizarre costumes here, including Sean Connery’s loincloth. Few science fiction films are more eccentric than “Zardoz,” but really should be.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER [170]



There is much to say about “His Girl Friday,” but its super-fast dialogue made me buy a blu-ray copy of it recently. However, its reputation as a masterful screwball comedy, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, underpinned by the professional production and direction by Howard Hawks, lauded as much of an cinematic auteur as Alfred Hitchcock, is told and retold in scholarly circles as an archetypal example of the “Classical Hollywood film,” displaying the types of characters, story and production Hollywood most often showed between the mid-1920s and 1960, when “Psycho” swept it all away.

The play on which “His Girl Friday” is based, “The Front Page,” by Chicago journalists Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, made as big a splash in Broadway in 1928 as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller would make twenty years later. The story, in which journalist Hildy Johnson is due to marry and leave Chicago, but is schemed into staying where he works best by his editor, Walter Burns, featured crosstalk between characters only seen on the street, and not on the stage – dialogue is written to be spoken over.


Coming the year after “The Jazz Singer,” “The Front Page” began to be seen as an ideal for how dialogue should be filmed, instead of the stagey way that accommodated the sound equipment, in addition to inspiring the new screwball comedy and gangster film genres. Despite this, the 1931 film of “The Front Page,” directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by Howard Hughes, was considered fast-paced for its time, but now appears normal, because we are so used to it.

By the 1940 release of “His Girl Friday,” Howard Hawks, who had directed the original 1932 film of “Scarface” for Hughes, had gained a reputation as a master of crosstalk, in screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” and “Twentieth Century,” the latter also originally a Hecht & MacArthur play. He originally intended to just remake “The Front Page,” only faster, but when his secretary was reading Hildy Johnson’s part at auditions, Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded, and changed the part to a female one, without changing the name. Rosalind Russell, apparently not even the sixth choice to play Johnson, confronted Hawks when she felt he was treating her like an also-ran, ironically proving she was perfect in the role. Meanwhile Cary Grant, cast from the start as Burns, used his innate charm to glide his manipulative bastard of a character through the film without losing sympathy, proving the characters were made for each other, romantically or not.


The dialogue in “His Girl Friday” has been timed at an average of 240 words per minute, almost twice that of regular speech. Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht’s protégé, also from Chicago, was tasked with writing additional dialogue, having written the screenplay of “The Front Page.” If it feels like dialogue is too quick to follow, or if there is too much talking over each other, it is because some of this crosstalk was written with the expectation that it could not be heard, with the important bits left clear. Sound mixing was still not yet possible, meaning live switching between off-screen microphones up to thirty-five times per scene was required. Ad-libbing was also encouraged, although Rosalind Russell employed her own writer to ensure she could compete.

“His Girl Friday” bears repeated viewings because everyone talks quicker than anyone can take in in a single sitting, fitting entire images into speech that would have been done away with if spoken more slowly: a favourite is how Burns sent out a plane with a banner saying, “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter,” which delayed the divorce by twenty minutes when the judge went out to have a look – Burns then points out that his dimple is still there, and in the same place.

(In case you wondered, the term “girl Friday” is not found anywhere before 1940, so many will have this film to thank for making their own words sound that bit wittier.)

Thursday, 2 May 2019

AND THEN THE CAT CREPT IN [169]


I had not expected myself, having finished watching “Cat People,” to be comparing it to “Get Out,” but both films, in their time, challenged expectations of what a horror film can be, and Jordan Peele caused as much surprise with his debut feature film as Val Lewton had done with his.

The horror in “Cat People” is implied, and psychological in nature. Like the other films Lewton made as a producer at RKO Radio Pictures, the story didn’t necessarily need to be told as a horror film – it is grounded in our reality, and the characters are relatable, even being shown at work. In fact, the horror comes when it is needed, not just because the audience needs to be jolted in their seats.

The story concerns someone who, like Lewton, was born in Eastern Europe – Irena, a fashion designer, who is haunted by the stories of devil worship and witchcraft from her ancestors’ village, which turned them into cat people. She believes she will turn into a panther if she gives in to passion and becomes aroused. All of this is foreshadowed in the opening scene, based in a zoo, where Irena discards sketches she made, but didn’t like, of a panther, which attracts a man, Oliver, who begins to talk to her - one sketch has a sword put through the panther.

The psychology and reason of the “new world” is played against the myth and tradition of the world, as Oliver, who goes on to marry Irena, his co-worker Alice, and a psychiatrist, all believe Irena is letting these stories control herself, but the reactions she gets from pets brought by Oliver for her, and being called “my sister” by a woman in a restaurant, remarked upon for looking like a cat, only convinces Irena further. As the others begin to suspect what they are seeing and hearing themselves, the threat of what they dismissed becomes more and more real.


“Cat People” begins and ends with quotes that allude to good and evil existing in the same place, and with a main character that embodies a kind of inevitability in their turning to darkness – a kind that even marriage cannot solve – you find that what was meant to have been a straightforward horror film actually contains very mature themes for the time. The shadows and fog of “Cat People” coincided with the birth of film noir, with RKO’s 1940 film “Stranger on the Third Floor” seen as the first of the genre, continuing into 1947’s “Out of the Past,” a masterwork by “Cat People’s” director, Jacques Tourneur. All three films have the same cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, whose use of light defined the genre.


“Cat People” is the definitive Val Lewton film. Lewton began as a journalist and pulp novelist, before becoming a script editor for producer David O Selznick, apparently telling him that “Gone with the Wind” was unfilmable. However, Selznick’s MGM production of “Anna Karenina” was influenced by Lewton’s grasp on detail as an amateur historian. When RKO approached him to head up a unit making cheap horror films to compete against Universal’s monsters, it was Selznick that negotiated his contract there, seeing the chance he should be given. Despite the terms - make films using titles suggested by the studio, lasting 75 minutes or less for under $150,000 (now only over $2 million with inflation), Lewton could make his films however he liked – to that end, despite using the staircase from Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” more than once, all the psychological intrigue, and even the way the shadows fall on his characters, were written into the script. “Cat People” made $4 million at the US box office over the next two years for RKO, twice what “Citizen Kane” and “Ambersons” had made put together at the time, saving the studio.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

AND THE POWER YOU POSESS [168]

After I bemoaned the reduction of comic books to R&D for blockbuster film franchises, I felt I should share some of the comics I like the most. This is not a definitive list of what I personally believe are the greatest books ever created, but rather a list of books that, if I wanted something to read, I would gladly pick them up again and again.



1) The Invisibles (1994-2000): This is the kind of book you want to come across in a library: a teenager joins a cell of freedom fighters that use magic, meditation and time travel as much as their fists, because their enemies also use psychic violence. “The Invisibles” is an exhilarating, psychedelic, existentialist odyssey, flinging new ideas all over the place, in the vein of William Burroughs, waiting for you to keep up. It made the name of Grant Morrison, its Glasgow-based writer, who adopted the bald head and clothing of “Invisibles” character King Mob, as the writing of the book changed his life through the chaos magic he practised in real life. Later series “The Filth” acts as a comparison series, but any Morrison book is well worth the trip.


2) Watchmen (1986-87): The presence of superheroes would leave our world changed, so the grim, alternative history of “Watchmen” is the antithesis to the primary-coloured hope of Superman, a world that would outlaw the heroes that once saved it. This is a series of introspection, of angst, of fear, and of nostalgia. In its collected form, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ book legitimised the graphic novel as a literary art form in the US, before manga asked someone to hold their beer. DC Comics have since made “Watchmen” part of the same world as Superman, Batman and so on... no, just no.


3) Any Batman book published between about 1970 and 1985: The “Bronze Age” of comic books is when stories and characters became more socially aware, but not self-aware – as hailed as works like “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” and “Crisis on Infinite Works” might be, they are predicated on upturning the myths of their heroes, or doing some housekeeping with the continuity of your universe, “everything old is new again” and so on. With Robin mostly away in separate book “Teen Titans,” the Bronze Age of Batman books burst from the campy froth of the Adam West TV series into a more confident, more baroque style – witness the sweeping capes by artists like Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers, Jim Aparo and Gene Colan. New villans like Ra’s Al Ghul and Man-Bat appeared, and writers like Dennis O’Neil and Frank Robbins remembered the Joker was meant to be a psychopath. Expect lots of night, and lots of shadows.


4) Savage Dragon (1992 onwards): Erik Larsen created this character as a child and, after working on others’ books, and leaving to help start Image Comics, began his own book as the story of a green amnesiac man, with a fin on his head, found burning in a field, who later becomes a police officer. The story has unfolded in real time, and Savage Dragon’s son Malcolm is now the lead character, and every permutation of primary-colour superheroics have taken place in that time. Issue number 243 of “Savage Dragon” was published this month, and Erik Larsen has, uniquely for a superhero book, written and drawn every single issue, a situation you wish a primary influence of his, Jack Kirby, had been given.


5) Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth (1972-78) After Jack Kirby had a major hand in creating the Marvel Comics Universe, along with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, he began the 1970s at DC Comics with the “Fourth World” books, and a property inspired by “Planet of the Apes.” However, what distances “Kamandi” from Charlton Heston is that he is not the sole human on Earth, but he has been spared the effects of the “Great Disaster” that made animals articulate, and degenerated humans into savage. Kamandi is the last of what came before, or the first of what comes next.