Sunday, 27 January 2019

THIS PROGRAM IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN LIVING COLOR [148]



Nowadays, colourising black and white films are normally encountered in programmes with names like “The Second World War in Colour,” or “Hitler in Colour,” but the first time I encountered this practice was a VHS copy of a Laurel & Hardy - a version of their feature film “Way Out West,” the one where they sing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Now I have a DVD that includes both this and the original black & white version, I will watch the original, because I am older, and know better.

Unless you were actually there as these films were being made, or if you have done exhaustive research on the production design, looking for sources that may no longer exist, your choices for how a black & white film would look in colour may as well be informed guesswork.


Regardless of the original claims made in the 1980s, when this act was prevalent, of providing films that young people were more likely to watch or, even worse, that they would have been made in colour if the option was available at the time, wilfully changing the work of someone else to make money is very circumspect. The worst example I can think of is that 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” was colourised without the input of its director, John Huston, who was still alive at the time: when interviewed for “Entertainment Tonight” in 1986, Huston said, “I think it is a desecration, it’s an absurdity, it’s a demonstration of the will to corrupt the taste of the multitude.” If you’re going to be pissed off, do it properly.

Turner Entertainment owned many of the films that were colourised in the 1980s - Ted Turner himself stated, "The last time I checked, I owned the films that we're in the process of colourising… I can do whatever I want with them, and if they're going to be shown on television, they're going to be in colour.” Turner Entertainment would actually colourise the last reel of “Citizen Kane” as a test, mainly as a result of the outcry when Ted Turner said he was considering it – “It’s a Wonderful Life” had already been “done” by then. Thankfully taste, and probably also the estate of Orson Welles, stopped the experiment – a fragment of this was shown by the BBC in 1991, as part of the “Arena” documentary “The World of Orson Welles,” and it is a pastel-coloured nightmare.


The worst example of colourising that I have come across was a situation that left you unable to see the original film. Turner owned the original black & white “Popeye” shorts made by Max & Dave Fleischer’s studio for Paramount, and did appear to be the only cartoons I could find that were colourised, until I found out that some early Merrie Melodies cartoons were also colourised, and even some Mickey Mouse films were “done” by Disney. In the case of “Popeye,” Turner sent the films to South Korea, where the film was traced by hand, inked, and coloured. This meant the three-dimensional backgrounds used by the Fleischers were no longer seen. Even worse, the films were originally animated “on ones,” with a drawing every frame for more fluid moment, especially in the limbs of Olive Oyl – the tracing was only made on every other frame, or “on twos,” rendering the action jerky and like a flip book, the resulting twelve frames a second being right on the point where the persistence of vision in your eye turns stationary objects into moving ones. 


[This looks like a piss-take at how badly these were redrawn, but this is just one example.]
[From "A Clean Shaven Man" - I watched the remake to check this was actually true. Wow.]



Fortunately, what came out of this was a mandatory disclaimer stating the film you were watching was modified from its original version. Unbelievably, Frank Capra did sign a deal for “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be colourised, but because the film was then believed to be in the public domain, Capra’s original investment in the process was returned to him, and he joined John Huston’s side. Luckily, this all appears as ancient history now, because once I realised I was not watching “Way Out West” as originally intended, I lost all interest, and found the original version instead.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

I HAVE MY BOOKS, AND MY POETRY TO PROTECT ME [147]


Books are the most subjective of objects. For all the facts they contain, for all the journeys their stories can take you, your books are your own, and your bookshelf is a reflection of yourself. To be without books is like being without music - incomprehensible.

The act of parting with a book is a sacred process – it is deliberated, decided, and is given away or sold. Throwing a book away? That’s just not something a civilised person would do, worse than burning a flag. That book could have been for someone, if it wasn’t right for you. I began this year by providing a dozen books to a lending library-type station at my father’s work – half-way through the week, half of them had already been picked up. Good luck to their readers.

When the minimalism guru Marie Kondo, in both her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying,” and her Netflix series “Tidying Up,” recommended you should keep only thirty books as, “in the end, you are going to read very few of your books again.” When this number was repeated on BBC Radio 4’s “The News Quiz” recently, the audience surprised themselves with the seething sound they produced – a line was crossed. Kondo later clarified that thirty books was her personal preference, and not a target for everyone else, but the very thought of the subject hit a nerve.


For me, a story about burning books came to mind, even if it was the film version of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451,” co-written and directed by François Truffaut in 1966. Bradbury had written the original novel in 1953, perturbed by the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Joseph McCarthy, and how they could lead to the burning of books – the title is derived from the temperature at which paper should start to ignite and burn, reflecting the political climate at that time.

The novel has been subjected to censorship, over both its themes and use of swear words, leading to suppression in a few schools. The unthinking irony of an expurgated version being printed, only stopped when Bradbury was informed it had become the only version available, was not lost on the author, who considered himself to be a “preventer of the future,” instead of a predictor.

Having a film made of “Fahrenheit 451” is in itself an irony, except when it is co-written and directed by a French New Wave director that set out to challenge the staid, literary nature of films made in the 1940s and 50s. It was the film critic François Truffaut, writing about the “certain tendency in French cinema,” that turned into Truffaut the “auteur,” his artistic vision in this film expressing itself on top of Bradbury’s story base. Despite this, Truffaut was a lover of books, and this film, where bettering yourself through books is a theme, was also about bettering his craft of filmmaking.


From the startling opening title sequence, the written word is absent: after zooming pictures of TV aerials accompany the spoken opening credits, Truffaut’s camera is left free to document the insidious nature of the Firemen’s tasks in burning the books, from uncovering shelves from behind a TV screen, to setting up a brazier, to rehearsing the use of flame-throwers, and indiscriminately upturning people’s belongings in a park. This is a world where fireman Montag, the lead character, can say, “books disturb people – they make them antisocial.” When one person may be implicated, Bernard Hermann’s music takes a characteristically dramatic turn, and the screen size closes in on them, but when it is realised it is a false alarm, the techniques retreat. Truffaut also reverses the film to show one fireman putting on his fireproof clothes, as if to show how alien his job is about to become. In a couple of scenes, Montag is shown reading a wordless comic strip – images can still form an idea, but the absence of written language prevents full expression, with all possible means.

The most impactful scene is at the house of a book collector, where their entire house, contents and all, is to be burned – with the advent of fire-proof houses, firemen can only start fires. We go through the motions of the throwing of books into a pile, then being prepared to be burned. Their owner, given a count to ten to leave before the burning starts, will not leave. On “9,” she takes out a box of matches. The firemen’s leader has already said that everyone must all be alike, so they must burn all the books – the best thought is no thought. I can’t imagine a human being thinking that.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

MAKIN’ FLIPPY FLOPPY, TRYIN’ TO DO MY BEST [146]




So, there I was, looking at the post-Christmas clearance shelves in WHSmith, when it stood out like a sore thumb, that had then been hit by a hammer, a pack of ten 3.5-inch floppy discs, brand new, for £1.99.

The Proustian nostalgia took over: in the days before broadband internet, and when I was studying for my degree, I would download articles from the internet, or more often only the text of a web page, then take a pile of floppy discs home and read them there. I also discovered the Pop Art painter Keith Haring at this time, and still have low-resolution GIF files of his pictures saved from sixteen to seventeen years ago. However, my first encounter with the floppy disc was as part of moving from an 8-bit computer like the Acorn Electron, requiring you to learn BASIC commands to load programmes from cassette tape, to 16-bit models like Commodore’s Amiga line where, once the disc was inserted, the computer knew what to do, and got on with it.

Since then, the nature of computing has changed again, and the achievable ability of a floppy disc, with its maximum 1.44 Mb capacity, was left behind in another decade. Incomprehensible levels of data are flung through the air for every conceivable use. Picture and sound quality for video, music, photographs and apps have dictated the everyday levels of data we expect to have in our grasp – it doesn’t take many lines of code to make an app, but the level of graphics we expect is what takes up the space. If anything is using a floppy disc today, it is something that still has a use, despite something newer being available – something like an old word processer or oscilloscope - or because it is something completely outdated that people want to keep going, much like a Commodore Amiga, or one of those Sony Mavica cameras that had a disc drive inside them.


Of course, I bought the box of discs from WHSmith. I hadn’t seen one in all this time, mainly because I didn’t think they were still being made, but someone must be buying them. I could not find any evidence online that Verbatim, the brand on the box, had made these discs since 2016, which explains why some sellers on Amazon, eBay and the like think they could get away with selling the same box for £20 or more. Other sellers list the discs on their sites as “product unavailable,” most likely not because they no longer offer them, but after having realised they still were.

Now the discs are home, what use can I make of them? Almost none. Saving any picture or sound file to a 1.44 Mb space means you have to take something away from it to make it smaller. Saving a video is a complete non-starter. I took a picture of a disc for this article, and even after cropping it, it was still 2.7 Mb – the picture quality, not just the size, would have to be sacrificed.

Making a song fit a floppy disc was a crushing experience. I chose the one song that everyone appears to like, Toto’s “Africa,” which lasts 4 minutes 55 seconds in its album version. The FLAC version I have of the song, saved from CD without any loss of information, is 34.6 Mb in size – the bitrate is variable, but reaches a maximum of 983 kilobits per second (kbps). This is as good as you are likely to hear “Africa,” without paying extra for a new high-definition master released last year. To reduce it down to an MP3 file of only 1.12 Mb, but while keeping it in stereo, and keeping the same 44.1 kHz sampling rate as the CD, that 983 kbps is reduced to only 32 kbps – the result sounds like you have been placed on hold while on a phone call to your broadband supplier. Saving music to floppy disc is achievable, but at the expense of wanting to listen to the result. In fact, the version of “Africa” I created by converting it to MP3 loses so much of the original, I may be able to claim it as a derivative work, separate from the original.

In truth, only document files can realistically fit on floppy discs – a Microsoft Word document (.docx format) takes up thirteen kilobytes before you add a single word, but you could still fit an average-sized novel before space runs out – “Les Misérables” might need a second disc. In fact, saving a document of your passwords to floppy disc might be a useful encryption tool – who else will be able to read it? Just don’t save it to a format an Amiga can read.

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]