Sunday, 13 January 2019

IF YOU’RE BLUE AND YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE TO GO TO [145]


My home town of Gosport, Hampshire has been in demand recently as a filming location: its 17th Century Village attraction was used for a recent episode of “Doctor Who;” some of the science fiction horror film “It Lives,” also known as “Twenty Twenty-Four,” was filmed at the Royal Naval Submarine Museum, while the Cold War submarine HMS Alliance, based at the museum, was used in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Reports included pictures people took of themselves with Jodie Whittaker, Sir Antony Hopkins, Mark Wahlberg, and Bumblebee...

What was not picked up in this reporting is how Gosport has no cinema. 11th April 2019 will mark twenty years since its last cinema, the Ritz, showed its final film, “LA Confidential.” Rescue attempts came and went, and the Ritz was demolished in August 2001. I began my degree in Film Studies the following month. How can someone like me, steeped in the history of film, come from a town with no cinema. 


The Ritz had only ten years to make its mark on me. The first film I remember seeing was seen there, and it was “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” in 1988. Five years later, I joined people queuing around the block to see “Jurassic Park”, and its sequel four years later. I saw “Titanic” there with my mother’s mother, who once worked there, and had an ice cream during the intermission that had, thankfully, been preserved by the cinema – we rejoined at the scene where the ship hit the iceberg. The final film I saw there, in 1997, was “Starship Troopers,” which made very good use of the sound system, as “Independence Day” and “Batman & Robin” had previously done.

With every single visit, overtures of film soundtrack music played as you found your seat, up to when the curtain opened – the Ritz promised you a special experience every time you visited, even if your film was to be prefaced with the same animated fairground advert for Cadbury’s Chrunchie bar every time, which they just about did. The Ritz also once accidentally ran the title of their matinee and evening performances together above the front door, creating “The Fox and the Hound Die Hard With a Vengeance.”


This period of time charted the evolution of blockbuster films into “tentpole” productions, as studios banked more money, and their success, on fewer key films. The first multiplex cinema opened in the UK in 1985, supplanting the single screen picture palace found in town centres. However, the Ritz, which seated around 1,200 people in its stalls and balcony, promoted itself as the biggest single screen on the South Coast, approaching the 48-foot screen found at the Odeon Leicester Square. The cinema could have been converted into two screens, across the balcony, and a dividing wall could have made it four, but by the time that sort of thing was considered, you could already get that experience out of town.

This is all right me saying this now, but I was still only fourteen years old when I saw “Starship Troopers” – the films were big, the sound was loud, and to this day, I have never sat before a bigger screen. It is difficult for that sort of experience to not have an effect on you, and for it to be so accessible – within half an hour’s walk from my house – I have been spoiled for every cinema experience I’ve had since, with every single visit to every single multiplex having been judged against it. I may have to move closer to Leicester Square.


However, my experience at the Ritz is tempered by how it became more and more run down over time. If it was ever renovated, it was before 1982, and the red carpets were sticky. The toilets were one level below the public toilets found outside, and if a seat was broken, it was removed, and never replaced. Some of the remaining seats felt like the foam had to be bolstered with cardboard, because they were. Eventually, the balcony closed. For this decline to happen, there had to be a chance of replacing the cinema altogether, and indeed there was.

For me, the only cinema in Gosport has been the Ritz, but when it opened on 11th March 1935 - with a showing of the MGM film “What Every Woman Knows” (based on the play by J.M. Barrie – yes, that one) - it was competing with three other cinemas: the Gosport Theatre in the High Street, the Olympia Picture House in Stoke Road, and the Criterion Cinema in Forton Road. All of these were opened between 1910 and 1912, when films only reached one or two reels in length, but were now shown in places with more comfortable seats than the old nickelodeons. Both the Gosport Theatre and the Olympia closed in 1938, but another new cinema, the Forum, opened just across from the Olympia in the following year. So, when the Ritz was bombed on 10th January 1941, there was no great clamour to reopen it straight away, as audiences went elsewhere.


When the Ritz reopened in 1958, trading its original restaurant for a Cinemascope screen (but kept the bar open), the success of television, which reached the South of England in 1954, ultimately closed the Forum, making way for a car showroom and petrol station, before being demolished to make way for a supermarket. The Criterion also closed in 1968, but remains open to this day as a bingo hall. Even when it stood alone, the Ritz closed for a time between 1982 and 1985, around the point when home video caused cinema audiences in the UK to reach an all-time low, and was sold to Gosport Borough Council, which later leased it to new operators. Applications were made to the council in 1991 and 1998 to replace the building with a new five-screen multiplex – the last of these was approved, but never built. When the Ritz was demolished, the application to build there was made by another supermarket, with a Job Centre built next door.

Today, the only cinema of any sort in Gosport is “The Ritz Cinema @ St Vincent,” a volunteer-run effort based out of a sixth-form college, running fortnightly screenings of recent films. The last attempt to open a permanent cinema was a rejected 2004-05 plan to convert a slaughterhouse in a former Royal Navy yard – yes, I did type that. The Ritz cinema is an experience not really done anymore, but here is the thing with that: from the all-time low of 1984, the number of admissions to UK cinemas in 2018 are around twenty per cent more than in 1999, reaching levels not seen since the early 1970s. People want to have an experience, and it may be time for someone to build a big, red, opulent picture palace once again, and if I ever win the lottery, I know just where I’ll build mine.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

WE’VE GOT TO HAVE SOME MUSIC ON THE NEW FRONTIER [144]





When it began in 1981, MTV had few videos to show. The first video, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” was already two years old by that point, and was played twice on the first day – Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” released earlier in the year, was played five times, as was “Just Between You and Me,” by Canadian hard rock band April Wine, and The Who’s “You Better You Bet.” Therefore, if you made a video for your song, no matter what type of video it was, and no matter what genre of pop music it was, it could end up in heavy rotation.

Meanwhile, Donald Fagen, of the jazz-rock duo Steely Dan, began the eight-month process of recording his first solo album, “The Nightfly.” It is a brilliant combination of fun and perfectionism – more bouncy, free and personal than Steely Dan, but still cut with a laser, and remains considered as one of the best engineered and recorded albums ever made. This success was down to Fagen’s persistence with recording his album entirely digitally, one of the first done so, while using the precision of a 16-bit version of “Wendel,” an electronic sampler and drum machine originally developed for Steely Dan by their producer, Roger Nichols, a former nuclear engineer who also patented the rubidium nuclear clock, to synchronise the digital studio equipment even more.


Two singles came from the album, both taking from Fagen’s childhood view of the future, as seen from the early 1960s: “I.G.Y.” – “What a beautiful world this’ll be / What a glorious time to be free” – and “New Frontier,” the latter of which had a video made for it. “New Frontier,” taking a phrase from John F. Kennedy’s speech accepting the US Presidency, is about a teenage boy inviting his girlfriend back home for a party in his family’s nuclear fallout shelter, the polar opposite to the “graphite and glitter” of “I.G.Y.”

The video for “New Frontier” was made by British animation company Cucumber Studios, run by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, before they created “Max Headroom” and directed “Super Mario Bros.” It combines live action footage, of the couple dancing in the shelter, with animation harking back to the early Cold War era... and then you remind yourself the Cold War was still going on at the time.




Jankel and Morton already demonstrated mastery of different animation styles with their videos for Elvis Costello’s “Accidents will Happen,” and Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” and therefore the animation for “New Frontier” is a giddy mix of styles, evoking Soviet propaganda posters, advertising, cartoons and album artwork, all evoking nostalgia in a point in history that, with hindsight, turns to horror. Fagen’s lyrics are by turns corny and sarcastic, both deliberately so – “She loves to limbo that much is clear / She’s got the right dynamic for the new frontier,” while also referencing, “the key word is survival,” and “prepare to meet the challenge.” Much of the imagery in the video is in time with the song’s lyrics, including Ambush fragrance and Dave Brubeck, and the brisk pace of the song is matched with the changes in imagery too.

Of course, on MTV, it was in heavy rotation, but Donald Fagen, who is only seen on a poster in the video, did not tour his album, and did not release any further music for ten years, having fallen into depression and writer’s block after feeling he exposed too much of himself on “The Nightfly.” It remains a brilliant album, even if Fagen once claimed not to have heard it since he made it.


Sunday, 6 January 2019

I’LL SUSPEND YOUR DISBELIEF [143]

I don’t need an excuse to think about the “Back to the Future” films, but on 21st October 2015, everybody had one – we finally reached the day when Marty McFly arrived in his own future, to stop his son from being sent to prison. Every detail was pored over: from flying cars, drones and flat-screen televisions to hands-free computer games, hoverboards, and paying for items using your fingerprints. However, all the misses were also scrutinised: continued use of fax machines, hydrated food, self-drying jackets, and nineteen Jaws films. The makers of the film disliked films that tried to predict the future, but they knew they must have flying cars in their own. Time travel itself appears to have been a moot point.
Having reached 2019, it is now time to break out my copies of “Blade Runner” and “Akira,” both films set “this year,” not to compare with real life, or to compare with each other, but because a coincidence of their settings have made them timely. I am opposed to running any type of granular, futurological analysis of these films – that sort of scrutiny is reserved for Steven Spielberg’s version of “Minority Report,” which employed a think tank of futurologists, or “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with its script written by Arthur C. Clarke. Furthermore, any futuristic elements to artistic works like “Blade Runner” or “Akira” only exist to serve the story they have been made to tell.

What resonated for me is how current preoccupations turn out to be constant. Both films feature issues of identity mixed into resistance against established order, be they Replicants or members of teenage street gangs. The nature of the human body, and what it means to be human, is put under stress, and must be adapted to survive. Both films are set in concrete jungles, washed in neon and advertising, but while what hangs over the city of “Blade Runner” is the broken weather system caused by climate change, in the world of “Akira,” it is the history of nuclear warfare: the original manga, begun in 1982, imagine a third world war, and a nuclear blast on Tokyo, as imminent, given the Cold War climate and Japan’s proximity to the Soviet Union. Terrorism, however, remains as much of a threat as it ever was.
Watching these films today, it is clear they build their worlds extremely well: the background against which the stories of “Blade Runner” and “Akira” are told are entirely believable because they are evocative of our own. It also helps that Jean Giraud, the comic book artist also known as "Moebius," was counted as an influence when both films were made. Of course, you will also see company logos advertised everywhere, because we have them now: Kaneda’s motorcycle in “Akira” is emblazoned with logos for Citizen and Canon, while the now-anachronistic presence of Atari and Pan Am in “Blade Runner” has probably helped the longevity of those brands, Atari having passed through several hands, and Pan Am now being used as the name for an American regional train company.

The year 2019 is remarkable in having been used as a future year by two big films, but it comes as a result of picking a date one or two generations ahead of where you stand. However, if you choose a year to set your story, stick with it, and don’t change it if it didn’t work out. Philip K. Dick’s original story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was published in 1968, and set in 1992, but while it is clear that when it was filmed as “Blade Runner,” made in 1982, a sensible decision was made to set their story further away, later editions of Dick’s novel moved its year further back to 2021. Perhaps John Carpenter should change all the references to 1997 he made in “Escape to New York.”
I can understand why “Akira” had to be set in 2019, as a major part of the plot is it is set one year before Neo-Tokyo is due to host the XXXII Summer Olympic Games... I don’t know if that was why the city subsequently made, and won, a bid in 2013 to host that very games, but with both the manga and film being featured in marketing for the games, expect nostalgia for “Akira” to make it more prescient as time goes on.
[Olympic building site, Tokyo]


Sunday, 30 December 2018

JUST START THAT BRAND NEW STORY [142]



[N.B. This article appears at both Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers and His & Hers Movie Reviews.]
After five and a half years, this is my one hundred and seventy-fourth and final article for His & Hers Movie Reviews. Thank you to Richee & Layla for inviting me to write for them back in 2013, for all their support since, and for never wanting a single word or subject in advance. I also thank you all for being along for the ride, as even I often didn’t know what I’d be writing about next.
I will continue to publish new articles, on a variety of subjects, every Sunday at the home of “nostalgia culture crisis since 2016,” Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers, where updated versions will also appear of articles from “The Leigh Spence Moment,” and “L.J. Spence’s Starting Points.”
There comes a time when you want to put theory into practice. For me, that was when you can treat writing an essay like it’s a creative writing exercise, and when learning about a subject creates its own narrative – how else would I explain what logarithms are, the face-off between Dadaist performance art and alt-right political commentators, or the help given to people who wish to identify as Range Rover drivers. My work has improved once I realised, I am in a position where I can safely take a risk, and move my work forward.

Sixty years ago, Jean-Luc Godard – and I will compare myself to him here, because we will never cross paths – also moved from film theory to film practice, as his first feature film, “A Bout de Souffle,” marked the arrival of the French New Wave. At the magazine “Cahiers du Cinéma,” Godard helped to canonise the Classical Hollywood Cinema, and its auteur directors like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, then spent his career as a film director actively challenging the artform, and the industry, he had placed on a pedestal. Between Godard’s tributes to Hollywood, like “A Bout de Souffle” and “Bande à Part,” and the assaults on narrative like “Week-End” and his version of “King Lear,” sits “Alphaville,” a science fiction film noir comic satire that came fifteen years ahead of “Blade Runner,” and fifty years ahead of themes that pervade current online discourse, and my website.

The plot of “Alphaville” concerns a secret agent, posing as a journalist, entering the city of Alphaville to find a fellow agent, kill the city’s creator, and destroy the computer that runs the city. Anyone found acting illogically is eliminated, and dictionaries are replaced when words begin describing emotions – the computer is confused when poetry is read to it, and destroyed when Anna Karina finally understands she is an individual, autonomous human being, rather than an automatic one.
The intellectual chess game between the secret agent, Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine, reprising his hard-boiled role from a separate series of films) and the computer, Alpha 60, puts the film’s themes in the forefront: “Do you know what illuminates the night? – Poetry.” “What do you love above all? - Gold and women.” “What is your religion? - I believe in the inspirations of conscience.” “I shall calculate so that failure is impossible. - I shall fight so that failure is possible.”

After “Alphaville,” Godard’s films would become more political, and his films would be used to explore these ideas, and the artifice of film would be made clear to the audience: even in his next film, “Pierrot le Fou,” the bourgeoisie is criticised, while characters break the fourth wall, with the later “Week-End” adding cannibalism into the mix – anything to serve the idea you have.
The ability to tell a story, to help your understanding of the world, is a wonderful – the ability to take the piss while in full command of the facts is just as great. But does writing shape the truth, or is writing, well, truth? Writing is writing, my dear.

Monday, 24 December 2018

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT TILL IT’S GONE [141]


It has only been a few months since my visit to the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre in London [link], but things have moved on a bit in that time. In fact, they have become terminal: in October 2018, Historic England announced they had rejected the application to list the centre as a protected structure, and the final approval to demolish the centre was given by the Greater London Authority on Monday 10th December.

So, that appears to be the end of that then. Historic England made it pretty clear: "although the shopping centre originally had architectural interest due to the quality of its design, this has been eroded by a series of incremental changes over the years so that it does not resemble its original appearance... the shopping centre was one of the first two, and is now the earliest surviving building of this type in England, but it has been greatly changed from its original layout and appearance".

I am not sure what to make of this – you could protect the building, and require renovations to be made to it. What happened to the oldest building of this type? Should it be assumed that certain types of buildings are transitory enough in their nature that they do not require preservation?

On Saturday 8th December, I went back to Elephant & Castle – I did not know the final decision on its future was due the following Monday. The place is still fine and, more importantly, the place was busy. For a centre due to close by the end of March, there was only one store, running a closing down sale. Like there was three months ago, one empty shop is being used to house displays explaining the redevelopment of the area and, like three months ago, it is only open a few afternoons per week, and never at the weekend. There are examples of where the building shows its wear: Tesco’s linoleum tiles have worn away in places, revealing the original floor underneath, and one escalator is cordoned off, with a sign saying it is awaiting repair – if it is planning to close by the end of March 2019, I don’t imagine that will happen. However, the large escalator that leads to the bingo hall and bowling alley really will only start up once they have opened for the day.

I am still minded to believe the redevelopers and the council have talked themselves into demolishing the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, but I look at the new high-rise buildings around it, and further down into the City of London – steel, sheet glass, big-name architects – and I realised this really is a case of, if it ain’t broke, break it: the Elephant & Castle doesn’t fit the area anymore, because they changed the area. Once the replacement towers are finished, what will still tell me I am in Elephant & Castle? Most likely, just the name about the entrance to the Underground.

Monday, 17 December 2018

IT’S AUTOMATIC, IT’S SYSTEMATIC, IT’S HYDROMATIC [140]


So many ways have been used to get music, TV and films into the home over the years, but there is a reason I am going to talk about Sony’s U-Matic here, apart from it being the world’s first video cassette: it is the nexus point of all that has been, and all that remains, in the last fifty years of audio-visual formats, and that isn’t hyperbole either.

U-Matic, named after how the tape was threaded around a large chrome cylinder that contained the record and playback heads, was first shown off as a prototype in October 1969, and went on sale to the public in 1971, beating Philips’ VCR (Video Cassette Recording, also known as N1500) and Avco’s Cartrivision by a year. Home video recorders were already on sale for nearly ten years by then, but these were open-reel devices, not unlike reel-to-reel audio recorders – U-Matic simply encased the tape in an anti-static cassette, making it easier to handle. Like the EIAJ standard agreed among open-reel machine manufacturers, Sony also persuaded other companies, like Panasonic and JVC, to agree to make their own U-Matic machines.

However, for all the ease the format gave the general user, they were still ruinously expensive to buy, approaching the price of a small family car. However, businesses, schools and colleges could afford them, which caused Sony to move their efforts towards them – the “VO” prefix on the machines’ model numbers already stood for “Video Office.” The failure to get U-Matic into homes led Sony to develop the smaller Betamax format, and much has already been written about the format war between it and VHS, ironically developed by JVC, with help from their owner at the time, Panasonic.

Holding a U-Matic tape in your hands defines “industrial.” While a smaller E-180 (3-hour) VHS tape weighs 195g, a 60-minute U-Matic tape weighs 505g, and that is mostly the tape: while VHS runs at a maximum of 1.3 inches per second (PAL region, Short Play), using tape half an inch wide, U-Matic’s three-quarter-inch tape runs at 3.75 inches per second – 60 minutes is all you can get into the case, unless you make the tape itself thinner. However, more tape per second means higher quality, and rather than people at home using them to record TV programmes, the programme makers themselves were using them instead.

Until U-Matic, if you wanted to go out and record a news report, you needed to take a 16 mm film camera with you, which would have to be developed before you could edit it and show it to anyone. This had begun to change slowly – Sony had developed a “Portapak” system that used open-reel tape, but once the U-Matic S Type (for “small”) cassette was developed, Electronic News Gathering (ENG) took off in the United States from the mid-1970s. It did not matter if the picture was less detailed than film, it did not matter if U-Matic had a problem with making the colour red too saturated, and it did not matter if the S Type cassette only held 20 minutes at most – making the news became easier and faster, and did not need as many people to make it work. It took another ten years for ENG to become commonplace in the UK, as unions argued it put too many jobs at risk – the BBC took a film developing unit to the Falklands War – but technology was moving on.

As UK TV news began using ENG, other formats were becoming available, and even Sony had a replacement for U-Matic: while the cheaper and more convenient VHS beat out the technically superior Betamax, Sony simply reworked their second cassette for the professional sector as well, creating Betacam (later Betacam SP, later DigiBeta). While these became the industry standard, Sony still supported U-Matic, because companies still used it: there is evidence that films like “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005), and the Studio Ghibli film “Ponyo” (2008) had clips issues to TV stations in the US using U-Matic tapes. I couldn’t find the date for when Sony stopped supporting U-Matic but, considering they only stopped making Betamax cassettes in March 2016, it can’t have been that long ago.

While U-Matic was central to the development of video, it was to audio as well: before the Compact Disc, video tape was the only way of recording music digitally, and U-Matic was often used for mastering music this way in the 1970s and 80s, once connected to early PCM adaptors. Because the digital signal would be encoded using the number of lines in a TV signal, a combination of the number of lines that make up the picture, and the number of audio samples made up one line, meant that a total of 44,100 samples could be recorded per second, otherwise known as 44.1 kHz – CDs use the same rate for this reason, and practically everything else has since.

Monday, 10 December 2018

YOU MAY BE HOMELY IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD [139]

[1978]

Seeing pictures, taken in the 1970s, of the Hollywood sign in a state of dereliction and disrepair, are confusing and disconcerting. Seeing pictures of the building of Tower Bridge, or the Eiffel Tower, bring up similar feelings: haven’t they always been there, and why was there a time when they didn’t exist? All three structures define, influence and symbolise the ideals of the areas around them, which brings me back to the Hollywood sign: what is it about Hollywood that left it to fall apart?

Pretty much everyone knows the sign was originally built in 1923 to read as “Hollywoodland,” to advertise the new (whites-only) neighbourhood built further down Mount Lee, in the Hollywood Hills area: the houses imitate the design of Mediterranean villas, particularly from France, Spain and Italy. The builders of the estate, among which included the founder of West Hollywood, and the owner of the “Los Angeles Times,” owned the land on which the sign stood, but signed it and the remaining undeveloped land to the City of Los Angeles in 1944, which was added to Griffith Park, home to the observatory and Los Angeles Zoo. The sign was nearly removed in 1949, but enough of an outcry led to it remaining, minus the last four letters, and with some renovation.
[the building of Wolf Lair Castle, Transylv… Hollywoodland]

However, with upkeep now coming from the public purse, the sign was left to deteriorate. The four thousand lightbulbs that lit up the sign were not replaced – mainly because of the cost of electricity, but the originals had been stolen by then – and if parts of it fell over, or were subjected to arson, then so be it: the only replacement of a letter in its first fifty years happened in the early 1940s was when the sign’s caretaker lost control of their car, and took the “H” down the hill with it.


The state of Hollywood in the 1970s is often used to describe the comparative state of the sign from when it was built in 1923, not least because it no longer spelt “Hollywood”: it became more like “Hullywod” or, by 1978, “Ilywod.” With the old studio system of the previous half-century broken, Paramount Pictures remains the only major studio to be based in the Hollywood area, but many of the others left far earlier: Warner Bros and The Walt Disney Company are based in Burbank, on the other side of Mount Lee, separated from the bottom of it by the Ventura Freeway, with the others spread across Culver City, Studio City and, obviously, Universal City. Yes, the film industry sprang up in the Hollywood area over a hundred years ago to escape the enforcement of patents owned by Thomas Edison – a subject that needs its own article – but once they arrived, the scenery of California, and all it could be made to represent, film companies spread themselves around to take advantage of their surroundings.

However, the Hollywood sign made enough appearances in the backgrounds of films to become a unifying shorthand for the industry itself, as brash and brand new as the buildings around it, and the technology that brought in the money to build them. Fittingly, it was the figures of New Hollywood, with some of the old, that formed a trust in 1978 to rebuilt and look after the symbol that marked where they came together. The $250,000 cost of the new sign was split across nine donors: Hugh Hefner, head of the trust, paid for another new “H,” Alice Cooper donated the third “O” in memory of Groucho Marx, and Cooper’s record label, Warner Bros. Records, paid for the “O” next to it.

The Hollywood Sign Trust continues today as a non-profit organisation, working on behalf of the people of California, and contributions can be made to the upkeep and preservation of the sign at hollywoodsign.org – none of the money goes to illuminating the sign at night, because it has remained unlit since the bulbs were nicked.