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.

Monday, 3 December 2018

MY FEET HAVE COME LOOSE FROM THEIR MOORINGS [138]


Words, don’t fail me now.

My intention here is to confirm that poststructuralism doesn’t mean you can say what you like. That is an easy thing to type.

To say I have spent hours trying to work out how to describe “poststructuralism” really does not describe how exasperating the whole experience has been. It really should be so easy, but trying to condense an entire school of thought into a small space risks missing the point of it entirely. Expect only bullet points here, but enough to suggest further reading.


The easiest analogy that has come to mind is “fake news.” This phrase feeds into the so-called “postmodern” landscape of truth and facts not counting for anything anymore, or at least that is how I have seen “postmodern” used in this loose way: are talking about everything that reacted to modernism, good or bad, from philosophy to art, or is it just the bits that relate to your hatred of a particular term? From there, is “fake news” meant to mean, “news that is deliberately incorrect,” or “news I don’t like”? Once you hear Don Backslide saying this is why he “invented” the word “fake” in a news interview, inspiring incredulity, there becomes a disconnect in the use of language.

This is the problem I have with trying to give a short answer to “poststructuralism,” about whether it is a reaction to structuralist thought, or a number of different things that have been grouped together by topic or time period. Structuralism is usually boiled down to the study of how language interconnects: the definition of a word depends on the definition of other words, building an ever-growing web, finding that which is universal.


Therefore, poststructuralism must take that and break it, to find out what is different, and that difference comes from different language systems, i.e. the different systems that allow us to access information, be they words, images or symbols. Nothing is as transparent as just simply meaning what they say, because a lot of agreement is needed for that to be the case.

This is where I can recommend a list of French writers, as poststructuralism is also known as the “French school”: you have Roland Barthes on the “death of the author,” as the use of “I” shifts from reader to reader; you have Claude Lévi-Strauss looking at anthropology and custom; Michel Foucault, looking at reason, truth and knowledge, and the power that has control over what those mean; Jacques Derrida, deconstructing meaning, seeing how the “other” invades the notion of the “self,” of objectivity always being subject to something; and Jean-François Lyotard’s incredulity to “grand narratives” that explain everything about the world, used as a way of defining postmodernism.

The reason you cannot say what you like is because, at some basic level, you have to agree on some level of understanding before you can say anything to anyone ever again. At least, that is my understanding of it: I have been looking at postmodern and poststructuralist theory on and off for fifteen years now, and I find it as brilliantly frustrating as ever – just don’t live your life by it, or expect everyone else to follow.