Saturday, 24 October 2020

PLAYING PING PONG ALL NIGHT LONG [266]


For what is both an exercise in nostalgia, and a way to continue exploiting old intellectual property, it is remarkable that the Atari Flashback series of games consoles, begun in 2003 by Atari themselves and continued under license by AtGames, has now lasted longer than the original production run of the Atari Video Computer System, later renamed the Atari 2600, on which it is based.

The original console was in production for a mere fifteen years (1977-92), withstanding numerous redesigns and cost-cutting, competition from far more advanced machines, an insatiable public demand for more complex and involved games, and the bankruptcy of its parent company.

But the games are amazing. Atari’s catalogue, along with games made for the console by other publishers – Pong, Breakout, Adventure, Battlezone, Centipede, Yars’ Revenge, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Pitfall! – form a canon that proved the viability of an industry. The Fairchild Channel F may have been the first games console with interchangeable cartridges, but the 2600’s games had the playability to put the technology under televisions in millions of living rooms.

I have previously written about the Atari 2600, and how difficult it is to program [link], and I have walked through my reasons for buying the Nintendo NES Classic Mini, recreating a console I never played before [link]. I also used the Nintendo GameBoy to explain how something cannot be “retro” if you never experienced it before [link]. But the 2600? We never had one at home, but we had something similar.

“Pong console” is a generic name for the glut of clones of Atari’s original Pong home console, moving elements around the screen to recreate different sports. We had one at home in the 1980s, probably imported into the UK under the Binatone or Grandstand name,  playing all games onto a green background, using orange joysticks hard-wired into a wood-laminated unit. The games were basic, but addictive. You did not require your imagination to get past the blocky screen resolution and rudimentary graphics – you are controlling only a short line on screen – because you have a clear objective: to get your pixel of a ball past your opponent’s line. A good game doesn’t need brilliant graphics.

The Atari Flashback X, the tenth in the line, is the first console in the series to closely replicate the original 2600 “Heavy Sixer” in miniature, previous versions being only similar in shape, their yellow buttons now replaced by more authentic silver switches for game select, game reset and difficulty levels – these options are on the control pads of newer consoles, but the Flashback uses that space on its player 1 joystick for further menu and game save features. The previous flashback model had an SD card slot to play extra games beyond the built-in games – a similar slot could have utilised the space replicating the 2600’s cartridge slot, but it is possible to update the firmware and play extra games via USB, if you’ve played through the 110 built-in games.

The games included speak for themselves – they have been endlessly released on every console going, even the latest PlayStation, X-Box and the Nintendo Switch, hilariously using high-power processors to recreate its “primitive” blocky graphics perfectly; they have been shoehorned into many hand-held and plug-and-play machines, and are baked into popular culture – even if you have never played “Adventure,” seeing the film “Ready Player One” knows you are playing a dot in a maze, sometimes carrying a key bigger than yourself. “Pong” is rote as far as video game history is concerned, although the 2600’s “Video Olympics” game, providing fifty-seven different variations on a theme, is played against a very pleasing Seventies brown background. However, the version of "Space Invaders" more closely resembles Taito's original arcade version than the 2600 version, thereby making it easier on the eyes, as the trickery required to produce the necessary bank of aliens on the 2600 produced an awful flicker on the screen.

Before spending £70 on my Flashback X, I had considered trying to emulate the games on my PC – the basic graphics should be very easy to replicate – but I realised that emulation throws everything into the ether. Unless you have something to touch that is identifiable as having come from the original, you are not playing the game as intended. The satisfaction of flipping the “Reset Game” switch on the Flashback X, ready to play again, won’t have been the same if I had to select a key on my keyboard, or use my mouse to select “Reset” from a menu. Apart from the modern menu to select the game, I am playing a 2600, and the inclusion of two classic joysticks completes the effect...

...but the original 2600 also came with two paddles, essential for games like “Pong,” “Atari Circus” and “Breakout.” Because the latter game is my favourite so far, I decided to buy a pair of paddles – the Flashback series is compatible with original 1970s and 80s Atari controllers. I attempted to play “Breakout” with the joystick, but you can only go left a bit, right a bit – it isn’t easy to get your line where you need it to bounce the pixel ball away. The paddles, however, are perfect – you can nudge yourself along very slowly, or swipe your line along in one jolt.

As someone that rarely played video games, before finding that the type I like were the shorter, simpler games that were made for the 2600, I find that Atari’s paddles are the best game controllers I have used, and something I wish could have been used more widely on other consoles – if I knew about this as a child, I might have played video games more often. Like the volume control knob on a radio, the paddle houses a potentiometer. The effect on voltage produced by the paddle is registered in the console as a value that happens to also be used for controlling the horizontal position of an on-screen sprite, so game programmers can simply copy that value onto the screen to move your game piece along the screen, without any extra code to interpret what is coming from the joystick. I feel more connected to the game than when using a joystick, or a D-pad.

In short, I like the Atari Flashback X, I enjoy playing the games, but definitely buy some paddles for it.



Sunday, 18 October 2020

HEAR ME, I’M GRAPHICALLY YOURS [265]


Once upon a time, staged plays were a staple of British television – plays originally performed on the stage, and plays written to be staged on television. A famous example is “Dial M for Murder,” first staged by the BBC in 1952, then in the West End the following year, and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock the year after that. An even more famous example is Nigel Kneale’s 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” whose violent visions of a fascist Britain prompted questions in Parliament, before the Duke of Edinburgh said he watched it with the Queen, and enjoyed it. At this time, plays were normally performed twice, and performed live – the distinguished audience of the first performance of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the only reason a telerecording was made of the second performance, preserving Peter Cushing as Winston Smith for posterity.

The history of British television plays is normally centred on socially conscious strands like BBC One’s “The Wednesday Play” and “Play for Today,” with famous productions like “Up the Junction,” “Cathy Come Home,” “Scum,” and “Abigail’s Party.” Meanwhile, in July 1968, on the more niche BBC Two, Nigel Kneale presented a polemical original story that was “sooner than you think,” an opening line that could easily now say, “I told you so.”

“The Year of the Sex Olympics,” starring Leonard Rossiter and Brian Cox, is like a counterculture version of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” befitting its production in psychedelic colour, for Europe’s only colour TV channel – unfortunately, it only exists as a black and white telerecording, the colour tape long gone, but the intention is clear that “the future” in science fiction is another version of “now.” This time, the masses are sated by giving them exactly what they want to watch on TV, all the time, to the point where they will not want to do anything else but continue to watch. TV programmes with titles such as "Foodshow," "Sportsex" and "Artsex," the last two being qualifying events for the Sex Olympics themselves, are deliberately as coarse in their intention as they sound, targeting the Freudian id of the audience. That everyone is seen taking their food-drink from a container looking not unlike a baby's pacifier dummy hits the message home.


To be clear, this is not like showing pornography to stimulate: this is showing pornography as a substitute for having sex, to the point where the drive to have sex is satisfied. As the play puts it, this is TV made by "high-drives" for an audience of "low-drives," observed for their every reaction, steering them towards the right sort of complacency. Lack of drive means no wars, no tension, and peace for all. The English spoken in "The Year of the Sex Olympics," a 1960s hippie-ish parade of stunted slogans, devoid of prepositions, is like the Newspeak of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," but instead of reducing the language by design, words instead lose their meaning when what they describe no longer exists - it's all aiming for the top, "big king style." The LSD-laced psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, and the hopes of expanding consciousness, are used to inevitably cynical ends to separate the elite from the rest.

However, standing behind the backdrop of the Arctic, as two high-drives do in one scene, doesn't mean you feel cold. All the above is failing, due to boredom - everything has now all been seen before, on the TV screen. The shrieks and laughs and joys when a protestor falls to their death at the Sex Olympics, trying to show their deliberately horrible art - anything for a reaction – prompts the creation of "The Live Life Show," showing a family attempting to survive on a remote island, climaxing when a psychopath is introduced to island and kills the family. "Something got to happen," apparently.

I had wondered whether the dividing line between the sociopathic high-drives and mollified low-drives had followed an inciting incident, like a war, that rearranged society, as in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” but the degeneration from our current standpoint is what “The Year of the Sex Olympics” is designed to warn. When “The Live Life Show” started to appear on real-life television in 2000, as “Big Brother” on Channel 4, and the BBC’s own “Castaway 2000,” it initially appeared that the most we were going to get was rowdy behaviour, and Ben Fogle. What we should have looked out for was when the pressure of appearing on television leads to suicide after the cameras have stopped, as with ITV’s “Love Island” and “The Jeremy Kyle Show.”

Eventually, drama series and TV movies replaced the staged play, just as captive audiences for plays about potentially difficult subjects on one of only three British TV channels have now been scattered across hundreds of channels and streaming services - one-off plays are now either rare treats, or usually found on radio. Then again, there are the occasional stories on TV that implore you to just go outside and get a life.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

GIVE US A SIGN THAT WE’VE REACHED YOU [264]


It seems an odd point to make that people are more accepting of alien invasion than they used to be, as if there has been a real-life test of this theory, but the reason this came to my mind was from watching Frank Oz’s director’s cut of “Little Shop of Horrors,” which might take even more of an explanation. However, when there is still only one “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for every five films like “Independence Day,” or one “Arrival” for every ten “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” there is a case to be made that people are now more willing to see a vision of an alien invasion that results in the eradication of humanity. No longer do the only outcomes for audiences have to be “we come in peace,” or the vanquishing of a foreign force.

Since 2012, “Little Shop of Horrors” has been available in two versions: the original 1986 released version, where Rick Moranis’s Seymour and Ellen Greene’s Audrey marry and move to the suburbs, just as in Audrey’s earlier dream, the alien plant Audrey II having been vanquished in the face of  a merchandising deal that would have put the plant in every home; and the Director’s Cut, restoring the original off-Broadway musical’s ending where Audrey II was cultivated, sold, and promptly killed everyone in a glorious display of destruction that completely horrified the test audience that had grown to love the characters over the previous ninety minutes, which nearly caused Warner Bros. to shelve the film before a more acceptable ending was constructed. Frank Oz later lamented the loss of the original ending by pointing out how, on the stage, the actors come out for a curtain call at the end.

The original ending, costing twenty percent of the film’s $25 million budget, was considered lost until 2011, when producer David Geffen remembered he had a copy of it – a previous DVD release of “Little Shop of Horrors” that included black and white footage without sound and completed effects shots was withdrawn after being released in 1998 without Geffen’s knowledge. When screened at the 2012 New York Film Festival, audiences accepted Seymour’s and Audrey’s deaths with applause, and cheered at the intricate model shots of a city being eviscerated by giant Audrey IIs. Now that Audrey II was properly connected to the 1950s alien B-movies that were contemporaneous with the film’s period setting, people could look at the unfurling destruction with the post-ironic knowingness that allows you to enjoy your own demise.

This is not the only time the ending of an alien invasion film was changed to be more accepting to audiences. “Phase IV,” the 1974 science-fiction film about a group of scientists shielding against a super-intelligent colony of ants, was to have ended with a surreal sequence of images where humanity is incorporated into the now superior ant race as it rebuilds global society. It is an extremely effective sequence, especially with the knowledge that Saul Bass, the graphic designer and storyboard designer for the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” is the film’s director. However, this ending was too much for the distributor, and “Phase IV” is cut off at the point where the scientists await the ants’ instructions. Again, the proper ending wasn’t shown theatrically until 2012.

Even the original 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” lost its original ending after it was topped and tailed with scenes that made the whole film into a long flashback. Instead of the police finally accepting Dr Miles Bennell’s story of giant seed pods being scattered in a road, bound for a city to replace people, the original ending should have been Dr Bennell’s frantic screams that “They’re here already! You’re next!”

The first time I remember watching an alien invasion film where humanity falls acceptably is “Mars Attacks!” What may have rendered this acceptable was the big names both in front and behind the camera: Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones and so on, and other names you may want to see killed in the name of entertainment. Perhaps the genre tropes of science fiction are so prevalent that humanity losing is somehow a new experience, meaning the time for what was going to be called “the Intended Cut” of “Little Shop of Horrors” has now come - I’m not sure I’ll be watching the original cut for that very reason. 

Saturday, 3 October 2020

LEAVE A LIGHT ON FOR ME [263]


[The script of this video is reproduced below.]

Hello there, I decided to return to The Bridge Shopping Centre in Portsmouth after a year away. On my first visit there, in 2017, it had been a dead shopping centre that had been reduced to a corridor between the main road and the Asda superstore that both overlooked it, and owned it. However, by 2019, some local businesses had begun reopening the spaces that national chains had left behind, and the atmosphere was slowly returning. All the while, I continued receiving messages asking about the centre, or sharing their memories of it.

To be honest, the video I shot inside The Bridge this time around is not very good, and the reason was because the centre was JUST TOO BUSY. More shops have opened, and more people are walking through. It’s easy to film the late Eighties design in an empty centre, when few people had a reason to walk through, other than the Asda of course, but this time, there were simply too many people to film around, and standing still being ready to film something looks arguably more suspicious than just walking around with a camera. However, what this meant is that we have a success story - this dead mall is no longer dead.

What I will do now is play you the footage I have, and I will be back with more in a moment.

[VIDEO]

...and that was that. As you can see, more shops have opened: an African food market, a further furniture outlet, a baby buggy shop and a barber shop. The Cubana Beach Club outside has now been replaced with one of those virtual reality escape room places. Asda has done a good job of enticing businesses back in but, as you can see, it is primarily local businesses that are responsible for the renewal of the centre, and with national chains continuing to close stores, it will be local businesses that will keep The Bridge open.

Once again, this is a dead mall success story.

Thank you for watching. As ever, the nostalgia culture crisis continues at www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com

Saturday, 26 September 2020

RISE, GO OUTSIDE BITCH [262]


My choice for the song that defines the year 2020 was decided very early on, by the end of March. Furthermore, it was was actually released on 20th December 2019, but reviews raved about it into the new year. “Sick & Panic” is the first release by the electronic music artist Ramona Xavier to use the pseudonym Macintosh Plus since the seminal 2011 album “Floral Shoppe,” a cornerstone of the vaporwave genre. Xavier usually releases under the name Vektroid, so the use of Macintosh Plus this time caused immense anticipation.

For the uninitiated, “Floral Shoppe” is a cut-up of mostly Eighties tracks already drenched in keyboard and saxophone, that are sped up, slowed down, looped and distorted, giving the impression that you have unearthed a cassette tape with no known history, and the tape itself is worn and ragged. The standout track is “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー" (“Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing”) – Japanese text is a big feature in vaporwave song titles and album design – which spins out the first ninety seconds of the Diana Ross album track “It’s Your Move” into a seven minute meditation on the idea that time is running out, with the line “I'm giving up on trying to sell you things that you ain't buying” rendered iconic. Vaporwave is a genre defined by hauntology, a longing for a future that never came, and wherever that future went, “Floral Shoppe” is what it left.

In comparison, “Sick & Panic,” released as the precursor to a new Macintosh Plus album later in 2020, is like playing the cassette found stuck inside an old Sony Walkman that was itself found in the back room of an abandoned branch of Currys, after they moved out of the town centre. It gets stuck, it stutters, it has snatches of lyrics, and some melody comes up that may sound familiar, but it is then distorted and enveloped back into itself. Classical vaporwave has to smash through modern EDM noise first. It could be dismissed as noise – twelve and a half minutes of noise, in the same way that The Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” is eight and a half minutes of noise.

You may start to pick out patterns, because that is how the mind works, but that is only so you can find a hook, an anchor, something to hold. The choppy lyrics, like “Face, face, don't, face” and “Goes, goes get you,” will suddenly make a whole sentence: “I don’t need my body anymore” and “go outside bitch.” The song’s cover art, which sends flying the Apollonian bust from the original “Floral Shoppe” cover, reads, “Rise From Your Grave.” When the drum machine and MIDI sampled keyboard kick in at the half-way mark, it is almost comforting, but the cosy nostalgia that vaporwave hopes to evoke is quickly snatched away again, but this is not the time for that.

Why “Sick & Panic” sounds the way it does may not truly make perfect sense until the rest of the album is released, but it sounds like something unknown is about to burst, and you are being implored to fight its effects. The two-word description of the track on Xavier’s Bandcamp page (https://vektroid.bandcamp.com) is “NO WAR” – from your perspective, you have either not seen the war coming, or you have to start picking which battle to fight. This is vaporwave designed to agitate.

It would have been easy enough to choose “Sick & Panic” as my song of 2020 based solely on the title, but when 2020 is finally talked about in the past tense, it will be as a difficult year to have lived through, the world itself having changed, and with the future having finally arrived. Making sense of the noise is like brushing your teeth these days.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

WHO CARES WHAT PICTURE YOU SEE [261]


On the evening of 16th March 2020, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced the start of the lockdown that would attempt to suppress the outbreak of Covid-19, of which one measure was the closure of cinemas across the country, to prevent people coming into close contact within a closed space.

Two days later, my bank sent me six free cinema tickets, to use at my local multiplex. The current account I have with my bank allows me to choose an extra perk from a list each year, like a magazine subscription, or money off in restaurants, but every March, when the bank asks me what I want next, I always choose the cinema tickets.

On 19th September 2020, I see a film in a cinema for what was the first time since 23rd February – that film was “Greed,” the comedy satirising the clothes shop magnates that squeeze sweatshops for profit, starring Steve Coogan as a Sir Philip Green analogue that builds a plywood Colosseum using migrant labour to celebrate their birthday. It was a good film, if earnest at putting its point across, but I only remembered I saw it after realising that watching “Cats” (a film I still like) in a cinema was such an overpowering experience, it obliterated the following two months of film-watching memory – either that, or 2020 has been as long a year as everyone else has said.

Cinemas in the UK were allowed to reopen from 4th July, but my local cinema reopened on 7th August, having been postponed from 10th July. My local chain is Vue, a British chain partly owned by a Canadian pension fund. However, the gap between its reopening and my finally walking through the door was entirely mine, as I deliberated what to see next – the future of local government employees in Ontario depended on my decision.

The canary in the cinema coalmine, used to gauge how quickly people would return, was Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” but I did not want to watch another large film, with a large story, with large ideas, and a large cast – I am not usually one for blockbuster tentpole films anyway. I had considered watching the rerelease of an older film, namely “The Empire Strikes Back,” but I didn’t care enough about Star Wars to watch what has been turned into the middle film in a middle trilogy. I certainly wouldn’t wait until November to watch “No Time to Die,” but when it comes to series that define how Britain is portrayed in film, I am more likely to choose a Carry On film over James Bond.

So, childhood nostalgia it is – I’m seeing “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” itself postponed from 21st August, 14th August, and 28th August, finally arriving on screens on 16th September. The film itself was great, but you will get more out of it if you have seen the other two films. Oddly, it felt like it was made by fans of the first two films, even when you know it was the original team.

As long as it took for me to choose a film to watch, the bigger problem was at the cinema itself. The capacity of the screen showing “Bill & Ted” was 422 seats, the biggest in the fourteen-screen multiplex. The number of people in the audience was FIVE. It may have been 10:10 on a Saturday morning, but before the lockdown, showing ANY film would get a bigger audience than five.

Losing access to cinemas for a period of time has run the risk of upending the idea of films altogether in a way I wouldn’t have thought. We are now so used to home video releases of films coming only a matter of weeks after their cinema release, that it becomes ever easier to skip the cinema release altogether: the Tom Hanks film “Greyhound,” made for $50 million, was released online in July 2020 after the lockdown made its cinema release impossible. What was meant to have been a Columbia Pictures Release became a success for Apple TV+ instead. “Trolls World Tour” made a $30 on-demand cost for one film justifiable, later copied by Disney with the live-action “Mulan,” making the audience being a Disney+ subscriber a pre-requisite before paying any more. If it is made any easier for film companies to do this instead, there will be no more need for cinemas.

I prefer to think of cinema as the medium rather than the film – films are made to be watched in a cinema. Watching a film in any other circumstance takes away from the singular focus on the screen. All TV screens, and especially all mobile phone screens, are too small for cinema, too inadequate to deal with intimate detail and expansive views. Both the sound and vision of cinema do not have to complete with that is happening outside where the film is playing, but once it leaves, that is all that ever happens – films can be shown on television, and films can be posted to YouTube, but films are not television, and films are not YouTube.

I have five free tickets left – my cinema will have these well before next March.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

BUCKAROO BANZAI IS NOT JUST A MOVIE [260]


Very rarely do American blockbuster films try to defy explanation, but films with titles like “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!” appear to be designed to do just that. It defies pigeon-holing, but because it defied the efforts of some to explain it, the film was only promoted to fans of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” at the time of its release.

The film is based in a world where the celebrity of a polymath is unquestioned, for Buckaroo Banzai is a neurosurgeon, scientist and rock star, leading the band Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, its members also sidekick scientists that work for his institute. Banzai has mastered inter-dimensional travel, something that drove a previous scientist to insanity, but cracking entry to the 8th dimension reveals it has been used as a prison by an alien race, the Red Lectroids, which remains in conflict with another race, the Black Lectroids from the same planet, and wants to set off a nuclear explosion to annihilate them once and for all. The earth is, quite literally, at stake.

(Having seen “Buckaroo Banzai” some years ago, seeing how the Red Lectroids “successfully” hid themselves humanoids on Earth by all calling themselves John – “John Parker,” “John Emdall,” “John Small Berries” – led me to fill a database I was testing at work with fictional people named Jeff – “Jeff Muggs,” “Jeff Miggs,” “Jeff Over,” “Jeff Under,” and so on. A major problem was identified in the database when the majority of the Jeffs had disappeared overnight.)


The plot of this film is exactly what you expect from a 1980s blockbuster, still bathing in the radioactivity of the first “Star Wars” trilogy, but “Buckaroo Banzai” has a postmodern knowingness to it that is a little difficult to follow on a first viewing,  apart from the consciously artificial special effects. The world the film creates is fully realised and detailed, but not explained, because it doesn’t feel the need for it. All you have to do is accept the lead character is a man whose time is fragmented across many different abilities, sometimes within the same scene, and even the opening narration that explains this is someone who is destined to live his life “in all directions” is not enough to prepare you for that – no wonder he has his own comic book series, and that everyone knows who he is. That this is the case, not just for Banzai but for his “band,” which only becomes apparent as you go along. Everything you need to help you understand the film is there, on the surface, with character also explained though costume, but the surface is a tough one to crack.

The rich character histories and personalities come from an understandable process: Earl Mac Rauch first conceived the title character in 1974, but never finished many of the “Banzai” scripts – the final script, written over an eighteen-month period, folded in many of the remnants. Knowing this makes little scenes about why a watermelon is held in a vice in one room (“I’ll tell you later”), or Banzai coming across the long-lost twin of his ex-wife – hints at a larger story outside of the film, presaging the Marvel Universe, but without having the films to fill in the backstory. Likewise, trying to write something cohesive about this film is proving difficult to me, as there is so much to cover, except to say that only the villains act over the top, especially Christopher Lloyd and a “3rd Rock from the Sun”-level John Lithgow, and Jeff Goldblum is practically playing himself too. That is enough for most, but the film, to bridge the narrative gaps in the background, requires something of its audience not often found in American mainstream cinema: work.