Tuesday, 30 April 2019

AND THE POWER YOU POSESS [168]

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



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


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


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


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


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

Sunday, 28 April 2019

NOW THE WORLD IS READY FOR YOU [167]


My local cinema multiplex is showing “Avengers: Endgame” thirty-six times today. Quite rightly, the reviews for the film, in its opening weekend, have remarked on the extraordinary achievement that has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how it ties up the eleven years of connected storylines that unfolded and weaved through large numbers of films and TV series, coming together for event storylines, and characters appearing in each other’s films.

I remember first hearing, in 2005, that Marvel Entertainment had secured a credit facility with Merrill Lynch to start making its own films, intending from the start to make a series of films that would come together, and I just thought, “they’re doing what now?” However, it has not been enough for me to invest the time in watching all these series, as while their characters and storylines were being introduced to the wider public, I had already been catching up on some of them for years.


The first superhero comic book I ever bought was “Robin,” issue 96, dated January 2002, which guest-starred the Blue Beetle. I had no idea what to expect – I didn’t yet know that this was the third Robin so far, and the second Blue Beetle, and I had no idea that “Oracle,” running information checks behind the scenes, used to be the original Batgirl. I didn’t know it was set after a particular crossover storyline, and it didn’t matter. It told a pretty good action-based story, and showed me that superhero stories can be told well, and provided a lesson in how you can arrange time on a printed page. I later picked up the great examples of superhero stories, like “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen,” and I have built up quite a collection of books in the years since.

So, here is my problem: why do I need to see a comic book film, when I read comic books? I felt this especially when “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was released in 2014, having already read the original comic, first printed back in 1981. Earlier, “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” sought to reproduce the look of the comic as exactly as it could, just as Channel 4’s version of Raymond Briggs’ “The Snowman” had directly used the original picture book as its storyboard. By then, comics using a more “decompressed” storytelling style, like “The Authority,” and Marvel’s Ultimate line of books, were providing a more cinematic and realistic style than before – “The Ultimates,” retelling the Avengers for the Ultimate line, presages the cinematic Avengers in its style, if not the storyline.

I do wonder if comic books could eventually be supplanted by comic book films. Marvel and DC are both owned by major film companies – Marvel has been owned by Disney since 2009, while Warner Bros. realised that year that they had downed DC Comics since 1967, and restructured it as a division of a new company, DC Entertainment, to take better advantage of the stories and characters that had been under their noses for so long. Comic books are essentially the Research & Development section for a film company, and will later serve to provide the tie-in books for their films. All the while, comic book films are the mass market version of a niche industry: “Avengers: Endgame” will be watched by tens of millions of people, but the latest issue of an “Avengers” comic will be bought by tens of thousands, from a specialist comic book shop. It almost doesn’t matter if those readers know what stories will make the films, because those readers number so few.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

I PUT A SPELL ON YOU [166]



Few films could ever get away with the explanation that extreme violence and imagery is required to tell its narrative correctly, and “Häxan” (Swedish for “The Witch,” and pronounced “haexen”), looking at the history of mysticism and the occult, is one of the rarer cases that invented a new type of film to do it. Introduced as “a presentation from a historical and cultural point of view, in 7 chapters of moving pictures,” “Häxan” is one of the first examples of documentary, one with historical reconstruction too, but the events retold were so horrifying it was heavily censored around the world, and was banned outright in the United States for many years.

I had always got the impression “Häxan” was a bit like “Nosferatu,” in that the producer was involved with the occult in some way - in fact, the money was provided by Svensk Filmindustri, later Ingmar Bergman’s employer, and still running today. The idea for the film did come from its maker, the film and stage actor/director Benjamin Christensen, buying a copy of the 15th century treatise on witchcraft “Malleus Maleficarum” (“Hammer of the Witches”), written by an expelled German Catholic clergyman, which provided the legal and theological basis for witch trials – the reconstructions in the film essentially dramatize what the “Malleus Maleficarum” said you should do with witches. However, there is no evidence that Christensen took this interest beyond it being a good subject for his film, although he would play the plum role of the Devil himself, horns and all.


The film begins by laying out its academic credentials: ““Benjamin Christiensen wrote the script and produced the film between the years of 1919 and 1921... My main sources are mentioned in the theatre’s playbill...” What does begin as a necessary lecture of lantern slides and woodcut pictures, dioramas where a wooden stick appears to point out details, and a lot of reading, even for a silent film, the action really picks up when all that cinema could do is then thrown at you: sumptuous Medieval sets; people dressed in animal costumes, having been transformed by the devil; cannibalism of human babies at night, the film stock tinted blue; cavorting nuns in a church; medieval jump scares as the Devil appears; reversing film as money disappears out of a room, to tempt someone to chase it; double exposure to show witches flying on broomsticks; and even very early stop-frame animation, portraying a tiny demon appearing through a wall.

As explained in the film, there are a great many contemporary accounts from women that can be drawn upon for how they thought they were possessed, and what happened in their minds, and the last part of “Häxan” explains this through the more “modern” and psychological understanding of hysteria, now known as conversion disorder. Modern instances of pyromania and shoplifting are deliberately reconstructed using the same actress from the medieval scenes, because we are told that is what and why they are doing it. A shot of a woman under a “temperate” shower at a clinic fades to a woman burning at a stake, highlighting an undercurrent in how the same illness has been dealt with, even by the film’s release in 1922.


Even if the United States would not show “Häxan,” Christensen would be in Hollywood within two years, directing films for MGM and Warner Bros., although he would be back in his native Denmark by 1930. His only other horror films were in a trilogy of short feature films co-written with Cornell Woolrich, two of which are now lost. Ironically, Christensen did work with Lon Chaney, but it was in a 1927 film about the Russian Revolution called “Mockery.”

“Häxan” would be reworked into “Witchcraft Through the Ages” in 1968, featuring a highly distracting jazz score, and narration by William Burroughs, the author of “Naked Lunch,” reworking Christensen’s intertitles, but Burroughs’ voice almost speaks of experience when, as a woodcut picture is shown, he says, “...whilst another old biddy has maliciously cast a spell on a man’s shoes.” She was then captured and taken to Interzone...

Sunday, 21 April 2019

HERE YOU COME AGAIN [165]




One month ago, the quiz show “Blockbusters” came back to British television, again. This time, it is on Comedy Central, hosted by Dara O Briain, and while all the elements that have lodged the show in our collective memory are there, it just doesn’t quite feel the same, just like the last few times it has been revived.

For the few left that don’t know, “Blockbusters” tests whether two heads are better than one, asking general knowledge questions to a solo player and a duo. Players pick questions from a 5 x 4 board of letters, with each letter beginning an answer. The team that can draw a line of correct answers across the board (vertical for the solo player, horizontally for the duo) wins the game, going on to play the Gold Run for a big prize.



Few general knowledge quizzes are also games of strategy: you are essentially playing Noughts and Crosses against your opponent, blocking them from making their line, forcing them to take the long way around. If you reached the Gold Run, which is against the clock and with more initials per answer, you could block your path with a wrong answer. (For the record, the French version of the show was named “Parcours d'enfer” – “Course of Hell”.) Add in the possibility that the show could run out of time half-way through a round, at a crucial moment in the game, and you add cliff-hangers into the mix, the host providing “the story so far” when the show returns next time.


“Blockbusters” began on American television in 1980, lasting only two years. Hosted by the amiable Bill Cullen, presenter of more game shows than anyone in TV history, and the duo playing as a “family pair” (the first episode had identical twins, with identical moustaches), it was less brash and immediate than “The Price is Right” or “Wheel of Fortune,” and the two-against-one format just looked unfair – when it returned for a short run in 1987, it was one-on-one instead.


However, “Blockbusters,” when remade by Central Television for ITV, became a hit on British television, like American formats “Call My Bluff” and “The Match Game” before it (the latter became “Blankety Blank,” which I have previously talked about here [https://www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com/2018/07/blankety-blank-blankety-blank.html]). It began in 1983 as the first British quiz show to play out five days a week, and the first to allow play to flow across episodes and create cliff-hangers, often used on American TV shows, but never here. Making the show into a “pre-University Challenge” by having sixth-form students as contestants, winning prizes for themselves and their school, and playing it after ITV’s afternoon children’s slot, built a loyal audience. The encouraging, authoritative hosting of the show by Bob Holness made the show solid and seamless from the start.

Apart from the student contestants, everything that made the British “Blockbusters” truly memorable were in its presentation, including the various fuzzy gonk mascots on the contestants’ desks; the continuing use of hexagons as a motif, with more stuck to the set with every series; and the “hand jive” the audience did in time with the theme tune, the clapping and waving routine having been started by a bored contestant that was waiting for their turn.


Its opening title sequence, which I take pleasure in describing, was extremely memorable. The Central Television logo, a white disc shadowed by a rainbow, fades to the planet Earth, as seen from space. As Ed Welch’s theme tune builds, a solar eclipse forms behind Earth as two hexagons pass in front like alien ships, one falling into the next shot of a cityscape of hexagonal tower blocks. We fly alongside a hexagon ship through the cityscape, looking like “Blade Runner” without the rain. The theme tune is reminiscent of the da-da-da-dum of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, only more pumped up. After flying down “Broadway”, and after the flashing lights of the game board are seen on screen, three hexagon ships approach a citadel, which opens a portal in its side. Flying through an art gallery-like hall of landscapes, the ships smash through the game board at the end of the hall and into the neon-lit studio, where they fly towards stone pictures of famous mythical figures (and Albert Einstein), finally passing over a frieze of Zeus. Peter Tomlinson says, “and now, here’s the host of Blockbusters, Bob Holness,” the audience cheers wildly, and the greatest opening titles ever made for a television programme, designed by Graham Garside, come to an end.

The first incarnation of “Blockbusters” ended on ITV in 1993, but was picked up the following year by another channel, Sky One, with Bob Holness continuing as host, and everything else staying much the same, because there was no need to change what worked. Despite the gap, they started the first show by telling you what happened to the players from the previous episode – apparently, one had been offered a place at UCLA.


The show came back again in 1997, for BBC Two, with Michael Aspel hosting, more purple used on screen and on the set than blue, older contestants, and a different theme tune that sounded like the first one, but played with the wrong notes. This is the start of trying to replicate elements from the original show without paying the extra for the copyrighted originals. Sky One tried again in 2000, with a MIDI keyboard version of the original theme, the set of Aspel’s version, more blue, and Liza Tarbuck as host. Challenge TV, a game show channel that had been replaying the original, aired “All-New Blockbusters” with a CGI opening reminiscent of the tower blocks, and the theme now played on electric guitar. This year’s Comedy Central version returns to using students, but adds a sudden death round before the final Gold Run, making every episode self-contained, as if they cannot expect people to tune in more than once, and if they are doing the hand jive again, it is because they are nostalgic for it, and not because they are doing it ironically.

No version of “Blockbusters” has lasted longer than one series, apart from the original, which lasted for ten. Recreating what triggers the nostalgia for the original is difficult if the best version of those elements were in the original. If you want the original, you can watch the original, as playing the game was only part of the fun.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

CLIMB INSIDE A DOG, AND BEHEAD AN ESKIMO [164]


Later than you always should, you realise how responsible your parents are for the person you become. My dad’s renting a collection of “The Goon Show,” on cassette from the local library, sent me down a surreal road through British comedy, and I remember watching an episode of “Have I Got News for You” with my parents in 1993, when Roy Hattersley failed to appear, and was replaced with a tub of lard. However, I had finished watching the first episode of “The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer,” in 1994, thinking, “well, I don’t know what that was about.

After coming across episodes of the satirical puppet sketch show “Spitting Image” online, I remembered my parents taping this show, at 10pm on a Sunday night, for me to watch after school the following day. This first episode I saw turned out to be the first of the eleventh series, broadcast on 10th November 1991 - I was eight years old at the time.


“Spitting Image,” which ran from 1984 to 1996 really was the right show at the right time. Its sculpted latex costumes, each requiring two people to operate, numerous sets and army of writers meant it costed more to produce than a drama series. However, its unexpected home, the major mainstream network ITV, could afford to provide a place, in prime-time, for proper Hogarth-like satire. ITV has tried to capture the magic since, with “2DTV” (hand-drawn animation), “Headcases” (3D animation) and “Newzoids” (3D-printed hand puppets with CGI mouth movement) coming off as ever paler in comparison, lacking the bite of the original’s scripts. Mind you, "Spitting Image" was also the programme that decided to parody bad holiday songs in 1986, but "The Chicken Song" sounded so authentic, it backfired itself to number 1 in the charts for three weeks. 

With 1991 seeing the end of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, continued conflict across the Middle East, and infighting within the Conservative Party at home, there was much to take in, and spew out again – “Spitting Image” kept me informed in ways we now rely on people like John Oliver, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to continue for us.

Watching it back, the episode I remember is a great crystallisation of where we thought we were at that particular time, so no wonder it’s also been released on DVD:

Starting this series, joke news stories, not unlike those in “The Two Ronnies” and “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” were delivered by a new puppet of “News at Ten” anchor Trevor McDonald ordering the now-retired Alistair Burnet out of his chair, having taken over the bulletin in real life. One sample line: “The newspaper world is reeling from the news that the millionaire publisher Rupert Murdoch is alive and well.”

John Major, recast in grey rubber after becoming Prime Minister, and his wife Norma, eating peas with their dinner, was as much a tonal shift as the move from the show’s masculine, aggressive Margaret Thatcher could cause, the Punch and Judy atmosphere being retained in the show’s opening titles. Meanwhile, the Government is so anonymous, they forgot which one of themselves was Malcolm Rifkind – John Major distinguishes himself by deciding to be the boring, anonymous one.


Elsewhere, new Labour MP Glenda Jackson is doing a drama therapy workshop with the Labour Party; the Queen plays a prank on Prince Charles, playing dead to make him think he has become King (“I always fall for that one”); and a reminder that anything crap becomes brilliant with a piece of lime stuck in it, like “Mex” lager, a used car, Jeffery Archer’s latest novel, London’s Docklands and, finally, “Spitting Image” itself. The “yeeeesss” of Jeremy Paxman is a big memory, and I now know the puppet’s voice was done by, at this point in time, Steve Coogan. There was also a line, from Chancellor Norman Lamont, where, “if you repeat something often enough, people will believe it,” repeated until John Major agrees with it – that sounds like a certain US president on Twitter to me.

Oh, and everywhere is now a legitimate Israeli settlement.

Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger sang a lament about how small his penis was in comparison to the rest of his body.

I definitely understood satire, “Spitting Image” and “Have I Got News for You,” before the more surrealist kind of comedy. At eleven years old, I was allowed to stay up until 10.30pm, and had “Shooting Stars,” “The Day Today,” Alan Partridge, “Brass Eye” and “The Fast Show” ahead of me.

British TV wasn’t half bad in the 1990s.  

Sunday, 14 April 2019

WE DO OUR BEST, WE TRY TO PLEASE [163]




Fifty years have now passed since the release of “Philosophy of the World,” the first album by The Shaggs. Fifty years have also passed since it started being described as one of the worst records ever made: the most often repeated critique, from a review in “Rolling Stone,” described the group of three sisters as sounding like “lobotomised Trapp family singers,” while their playing is described as amateur at best, incompetent at worst.

I first came across the album from a video online, describing it in terms of being “so bad it’s good.” With musical taste being entirely subjective, I needed to listen for myself. What I heard conjured up words like “naïve,” “nervous,” “charming,” “claustrophobic” and “insightful.” The Shaggs sound like a typical 1960s American garage band, but one that was caught on record before they were ready to play in public.

Discussing the music of The Shaggs in 2019 is entirely bound up with the story of the Wiggin family: Dorothy on vocals and lead guitar, Betty on vocals and rhythm guitar, Helen on drums, and Austin as the Svengali father that took them out of school, giving them music and singing lessons, because his mother, a palm reader, predicted he would marry a woman with strawberry blond hair, have two daughters before she died, and that his daughters would become a popular music group. The Shaggs, named after both shaggy dogs and the “Shag” hairstyle they were all given (later known as the “Rachel”), became a band because their father had a mission, not through their own ambition, and despite eventually achieving some success performing in the area around their town of Fremont, New Hampshire, they disbanded upon the death of Austin Wiggin in 1975, their claustrophobic career now able to end.



Knowing The Shaggs’ backstory makes listening to “Philosophy of the World,” made because Austin decided it was time for them to record an album, more difficult than it should be. It is not possible to recreate the conditions under which the album first became known. Only a thousand copies were printed, before the label owner absconded with nine hundred copies and the money paid to him, leaving the rest to be picked up as, essentially, found objects, with no other context than the record sleeve, picturing the band in front of a green curtain, and liner notes (written by Austin) proclaiming the band are “real, pure, and unaffected by outside influences.” Noted fans include Frank Zappa, Terry Adams of the band NRBQ, and Kurt Cobain.

After discussing the album’s reputation, I can finally enjoy the music by itself. All twelve tracks were written by Dorothy Wiggin, and their titles reveal a kind of teenage grasping for meaning: “Philosophy of the World,” “Things I Wonder,” “Why Do I Feel?,” “What Should I Do?” and “Who Are Parents?” The lyrics themselves are simple and straightforward: “There are many things I wonder / There are many things I don’t / It seems as though the things I wonder most / Are the things I never find out.” This does not mean that the lyrics can’t also be playful: “My companion is with me / Wherever I go, it goes too / My Companion is with me / No matter what I do.” There can be frivolous songs, about Halloween or a sports car, but another will aim for depth: “But then there’s times when you are very different / I just don’t understand / How a minute you can be so mean / The next minute so grand.”

The music written to these lyrics is jangly, played in a similar style across all twelve tracks. Dorothy and Betty almost always sing the same melody, with no harmonising, and Helen’s drumming either leads or follows the guitars. The band plays in time, but the time varies. Regardless, the rhythm is there, the melody is there, the chords are there. There is also a knowing eye fixed straight on their father: while “Who Are Parents?” states, “Parents are the ones who really care... Parents are the ones who are always there,” the title track also makes clear, “There will always be someone who disagrees / We do our best, we try to please / But we’re like the rest, we are never at ease.”


Pop music is so formulaic as a concept – two guitars, bass and drums, three chords, two verses, chorus, middle-eight and so on – that it is not no surprising that anyone can do it, whether the result is polished or not. Its presentation as an album, with printed vinyl, cover and liner notes, is using the form to add credibility, owing to Austin Wiggin paying to access the record-making process. If The Shaggs had appeared in 2019, the process would be so much easier: YouTube videos, an account on Bandcamp, self-releasing their songs via iTunes. If it was fifteen years before, they would have a MySpace page. If it was 1976, the year after the band broke up, they could have looked on as the punk aesthetic led to people picking up instruments and performing even quicker than they could ever have done, had they wanted to in the first place.

I cannot say that “Philosophy of the World” is a bad album, or even a technically inept album. Enough of the pop music formula is broken by The Shaggs that you are compelled to stay with them. Alright, other people can perform better, or write better songs, but they made an album, and you have not, even if it is far easier for you to make one than it had been for them.

 The following fifty years redeemed the band – a 1982 release of later recordings, titled “Shaggs’ Own Thing,” was less successful, because their continued improvement as a band, and their sounding more confident, made them sound more conventional than before. The master recordings of “Philosophy of the World” were rediscovered by Dorothy Wiggin in 1988, leading to their re-release by a major record label, RCA. Dorothy released an album of new songs in 2013, titled “Ready! Get! Go!” – “Banana Bike” is a particularly good song. The Dot Wiggin Band, which continues to this day, also performs Shaggs covers from the original sheet music, idiosyncratic drums, jangly guitars and all – of course they knew what they were doing.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

THE ANTS GO MARCHING ONE BY ONE [162]


In “Un Chien Andalou,” the 1929 surrealist short film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, there is a shot of ants crawling out of a hole in the palm of someone’s hand. Having watched, as a child, ants working on small dead animals, Dali used ants in his work to symbolise decay, the ephemeral, and decadence.

In “Phase IV,” a 1974 feature film by Saul Bass, a cosmic event causes a colony of ants to undergo rapid evolution, creating hive minds, and colonising the world. Dali did not write the script, but he might as well have.

This film is often considered to be bad, or difficult to understand, and was one of the first films to be “riffed” on the series “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” when it was still on local television in Minneapolis. It was a good indication of what the show would become once it was seen on national TV, when it was given the resources needed to find the very worst films, but when you are working with what exists in the library of a local TV station, you are given the unintended impression that a difficult film is as easy to mock as an outright bad one. For “MST3K” fans, “Phase IV” is not as obvious film to riff as “Manos: The Hands of Fate” and “Pumaman.”


Saul Bass only directed one feature film in his career, mainly because “Phase IV” disappointed at the box office, but he is best known for designing title sequences and posters for many films, most notably for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho,” while also storyboarding the shower scene for “Psycho.” By the time “Phase IV” came around, he had also begun designing logos for company logos for Minolta, Warner Bros, Kleenex, United Airlines, AT&T, Exxon and so on.

By “Phase IV,” Hollywood had already produced science fiction films that  were paranoid about the fate of humanity, including “Planet of the Apes,” “Soylent Green,” and “The Omega Man,” but this film deploys imagery similar to, and not seen since, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” from the monolith-like ant hills, to Ken Middleham’s micro-photography of ant farms, working the movements of the now sentient ants into a narrative, all mixed to ether with more psychedelic imagery, overlaying various shots.


The story and plot are told more through imagery and sound, rather than using straight action, requiring you to think more about what you are being made to see – for those that find ants creepy, seeing one fill an entire screen may be more than enough. The story is broken up into the “phases” under which the ants transform, only giving us the title “Phase IV” at the end. There are only three main human protagonists in the film – a scientist that wants to communicate with the ants, then reason with them; another scientist that goes to war with them, and a young woman who believes they enraged them. Only at the end do they realise that supremacy wasn’t the aim, but the integration of humanity with the ants’ world: “I’d still like to believe that, given time, we could have come to an understanding.”

Despite the trippy imagery, the film was not successful upon its release, mainly because it was not straightforward enough – being made to watch a literal ant funeral on screen, with the electronic musical score guiding you emotionally through it, will either be profound or preposterous. However, the film has gained a cult following, and Saul Bass continued in design, before returning to film titles in the late 1980s, notably for Martin Scorcese’s films “Casino,” “Cape Fear” and “GoodFellas.”

Saturday, 6 April 2019

A GREEN PLASTIC WATERING CAN [161]


Arriving at the checkout in my local Ikea, waiting to pay for a wooden stool and some paper drinking straws, I looked to my left in disbelief. The area had been piled high with one impulse purchase, like you would find chocolate bars when you pay at a supermarket. However, what Ikea had was a giant cube, packed with tiny plastic potted Jurassic succulent plants, in tiny plastic pots, with a layer of fake plastic soil, for only 95p each.

I laughed, because that was all I could do, apart from buy one and take it home. Some weeks later, I found another of these things sticking out from an array of real plants, perhaps the result of a customer realising what they were doing, and buying a proper one. It stuck out badly – something looking more life-like would cost far more, organic or not. I bought that one as well. They are now both at work, taking the place of a real Jurassic plant I thought had died, but thrived once I had put it away in a drawer, the deprivation of water and light forcing it to grow like rhubarb. That plant is still alive, while its replacements never were.


The Ikea plant is part of a range that uses the name “Fejka,” the Swedish word for “fake,” perhaps the most straightforward name they have ever used. The demonstration photographs on their website show it taking up space in a bathroom, and on a shelf, much like the “serving suggestion” picture on a microwave meal pack means “on a plate.”

Why does this plastic plant exist? We are slowly moving away from single-use plastic, hence my buying the paper straws, but this plant is so small, and so cheap, it approaches disposability, costing less than a bottle of Diet Coke. They are almost made of the same kinds of plastic, although ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA), used to give the plant its rubbery texture, is more likely to be used in shoes and household appliances. The plant can be recycled, but not a single part of it is biodegradable, requiring more energy to make something else from it. The idea should not be to make it easy for the owner to throw the plant away if they don’t need or want it anymore, especially when its small size (14 cm tall, with a 6 cm diameter pot), indicates this is a plant that cannot get any bigger.

Plastic plants feel a step too far now, as if Dr. Seuss had never written “The Lorax,” and Sir David Attenborough never returned to making nature programmes – he used to be controller of BBC Two, creating programme strands such as “Horizon” and “The Natural World.” This is even before you consider its position as postmodern simulacra – do you buy the fake plant to replace the experience of owning the real thing, or could you just not be bothered to take care of a real one? It would have been simple enough to spend £2 to buy a real plant, and remember to take care of it, like owning a goldfish. Here is my problem: I have never owned a pet, I thought my real plant had died, and I have added to the plastic problem that we all have. I guess I am stuck with my two Fejkas, unless they somehow start absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen - oh yeah, no fake photosynthesis, as even the soil is fake.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

I WANT YOUR PSYCHO, YOUR VERTIGO SHTICK [160]



Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is regarded as the ur-text of the American horror genre, but its three sequels have proved harder to find, because of their being perceived as both inferior to the original, and, and as an obvious and poor answer to the rise of slasher film franchises like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”. However, Arrow Video have released “Psycho II” on DVD and Blu-ray, under licence from Universal Pictures, so I braced myself, and handed over some money.

As much as Hitchcock did not like the idea of sequels to his own films - although he had remade his British film “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in Hollywood, with James Stewart and Doris Day - “Psycho II” was always going to be out of his hands, especially by his dying three years before its 1983 release. Hitchcock had sold the rights to “Psycho” and his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV series to Universal in 1968, with the film having already made $18 million at the box office – not bad for having spent $800,000 of your own money in the first place. Hitchcock became the third largest shareholder in Universal, which had been bought by his agent, Lew Wasserman, and his company MCA in 1953. As inevitable as a “Psycho II” was going to be by 1983, it was the perfect opportunity to both commemorate and capitalise on Hitchcock’s work.


I am happy to say that this is a sequel worth watching. I was worried that “Psycho II” was either going to be some hackneyed, by-the-numbers horror flick, even though its director, Richard Franklin, had studied Hitchcock’s work, and had met with him during the making of “Topaz” (1969). Fortunately, it is also not the academic exercise of remaking the original that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 “Psycho” is known for being – just because you can now do the opening aerial shot of Phoenix, Arizona, that Hitchcock could not in 1960, due to technical constraints, doesn’t mean you should, whether you can do it in colour or not. Instead, what we have is a story that makes good use of the twenty-year gap in both the film’s events and of the public’s knowledge, while learning Hitchcock’s lessons in filmmaking without just copying them (although starting the film by replaying the original’s shower scene is a bit on the nose for me).

After twenty-two years in a mental facility, Norman Bates is deemed to be fit and well, and is released, against the wishes of Marion Crane’s sister Lila, who cannot believe that a murderer is not imprisoned for life – it is pointed out from the start that he was found to be insane, not a murderer. Initially working at a diner, he befriends and helps out Mary, who was thrown out of her boyfriend’s place. Norman and Mary take up residence back at his mother’s house and Bates Motel – the sleazy manager, played to greasy perfection by Dennis Franz, is first to die, at the same point as in the first film (after about forty minutes).


As the murders occur, Norman begins to see his mother again, which Mary sees as being part of his mental illness, something that could not make him a murderer. What is worse, Mary knows who is framing Norman: Lila, her mother, who wants him put into jail, using a “mother” costume secreted in the house. The climax of the film is that those who are implicated in the murders are those that have been shown to have been cool and calculating all along, and not the one shown to be almost incapable – fortunately, Norman is shown at the very end to have regained his equilibrium, and his mother, with the use of a spade, though not in the way you might think. As much as you think that “Psycho II” might be playing with notions of mental illness, the definition of what is “sane” is also shown to be different for everyone - as Norman Bates says in the original film, “we all go a little mad sometimes.”

The older Anthony Perkins seen in this film looks perpetually haunted, and this is to his advantage here, which is also the case for the returning Vera Miles as Lila Loomis, née Crane – his father is said to have died, presumably in an explosion with Michael Myers at the end of “Halloween II.” As Mary, Meg Tilly is the audience’s point of identification, but she is, and we are, ultimately proved wrong in the end, setting up 1986’s “Psycho III,” directed by Perkins himself.

The black and white of the original “Psycho,” and the stark string soundtrack, are traded for full colour and a lush orchestra, which could be seen as a way of muddying the waters. At the end of the first “Psycho” we got a nice summary of how Norman Bates took over his role as his own mother, but we don’t get anything so easy to understand here... but it sets up a sequel rather well.