Saturday, 24 August 2019

AND ALL I HAVE TO DO IS ACT NATURALLY [194]


For the life of me, I cannot remember how I tripped up on this cartoon, but here it is, it exists, and I must now deal with that fact: the Beatles had their own Saturday morning cartoon series in the United States, made from 1965 to 1967, and it looks bloody awful.


The idea for “The Beatles” came from Al Brodax, a TV producer with a track record of developing new programme formats who, in 1960, joined King Features Syndicate, a company which syndicates content to newspapers like columns, puzzles and games, and comic strips. “Popeye” was the first of their strips to get a new series on television, with Brodax overseeing 220 new shorts between 1960 and 1962 – these are the ones where Bluto was renamed “Brutus,” when they thought they didn’t own the character, but actually did. These were followed with a revival of “Krazy Kat,” “Beetle Bailey” and “Snuffy Smith,” but seeing The Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” defined the rest of Brodax’s career.


Unfortunately, the animation style of “The Beatles” is mired in the funk of limited animation that affected the reputation of Brodax’s productions of “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat.” The head of animation for the series, George Dunning, had experience in using limited animation to great stylistic effect when working for the famed animation company UPA - they of “Gerald McBoing-Boing” and “Mr. Magoo” - but their modernist ambitions were traded here for a more realist style that, in the face of the glut of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, looks cheap, jerky, and arguably unfinished.


The storylines themselves are, well, not really there: each half-hour show is built out of a number of 5-6 minutes shorts, again much like “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat,” and are animated around a song. The Beatles arrive somewhere, and things happen – John fights a bullfighter to “When I Saw Her Standing There,” while the band are shown where leprechauns keep their gold to “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Characterisation was also kept simple: John was the squared-jawed leader, Paul his pretty deputy, George is dry and witty (with a slightly Irish accent), and Ringo is as dopey as hell. Brian Epstein even made an appearance in one episode, but he was drawn to look like Al Brodax. 


The Beatles did not provide their voices: Paul Frees, of “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” voiced John and Paul, while the British comedy actor Lance Percival took George and Ringo. The band themselves originally disliked the series, but it appeared to grow on them later. What didn’t help was how the series froze them in time as lovable mop-tops in navy blue suits, especially as their music and style developed incredibly quickly: once reruns of the series had ended in 1969, “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The White Album” and “Abbey Road” had been released, and their early work is almost that of a different band. What is more, the network showing the cartoon, ABC, now had their own legally distinguishable version, named “The Monkees.”

Giving Al Brodax and George Dunning the last film of The Beatles’ contract with United Artists would have been admission that they simply did not care what was produced – good thing that, without the confines of TV animation, they delivered “Yellow Submarine” instead.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

I AM SOMETHING THAT YOU’LL NEVER UNDERSTAND [193]


At the time of writing, a week has passed since the animated special “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” was released on Netflix. To those that used their smartphones to whine and wail online about their childhood being ruined yet again, when the show revealed that the cane toad Ralph Bighead, creator of the show-within-a-show “The Fatheads,” had transitioned into Rachel in the intervening twenty years, they couldn’t have done that without the work of a transgender woman: Sophie Wilson, of Acorn Computers, developed the instruction set for the first ARM processor, and worked with colleague Steve Furber to produce the first chip. Be more like Rachel, Sophie and Steve.


I was happy to be reminded about the Dada-like nature of Rachel Bighead’s show: The Fatheads themselves, two green creatures hitting themselves over the head with parking meters, or being showered with pineapples, the smarmy narrator asking what will happen next, the line “did you eat another solicitor,” and a laugh track consisting of just one person, laughing really hard. However, what came to mind later was that one time someone tried to make a film that tried to earnestly portray the struggle of transgender people, but came across as more randomly batshit than an episode of “The Fatheads.”


“Snips and snails and puppy dog tails...”


Until "Manos: The Hands of Fate" was rediscovered, the worst film of all time was generally agreed to be "Glen or Glenda," written and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr, the “auteur” behind disaster works like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959) and “Bride of the Monster” (1955). In “Glen or Glenda,” Wood makes an earnest, but bizarrely explained, plea for understanding of transvestites, in a film half-disguised as an exploitation of the recent story of Christine Jorgensen, a soldier that underwent sex reassignment surgery in Europe.

As told in the Tim Burton / Johnny Depp biopic "Ed Wood" (1994), the film producer George Weiss, who in 1948 produced an exploitation film titled “Test Tube Babies” (also known as “Blessed Are They,” and “Sins of Love”) simply wanted to exploit the story, but after Jorgensen turned down offers from Weiss to star in a film, Wood used his own transvestism to persuade Weiss he was the best qualified to make the film – inevitably, Wood stars in the title role, under the pseudonym Lyle Talbot. 



“Glen or Glenda” a schizophrenic mix of melodrama and the supernatural, made in just four days, which is mostly about transvestism, with a transgender story stuck on the end, “Alan or Anne,” to meet the original request for a sex-change film. A dream sequence in which Glen has to decide to tell his fiancée about "Glenda," which is really all the plot is for the film, features both clamouring hands and a literal Devil. Some bondage scenes, unwittingly making their own commentary on gender roles, were added by the producer, mostly to pad out the running time to just over an hour. Throw in lots of asides about opinions on gender from different times, or people talking over stock footage, and pepper it further with Bela Lugosi, a perennial staple of Wood’s films, talking about being beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep, because he eats little boys.


"Glen or Glenda" comes from a man whose wish to tell a story is blighted by his actual ability, but succeeding in grabbing your attention, as portrayed by Depp in the biopic. But, when taken seriously, the film succeeds in attempting to discuss a complicated issue, even if it then talks about how tight hats make men bald, providing a motive for making women's clothing fit better for women, or something like that. What this film says turns out to be amazing. Bela Lugosi, as "The Scientist," plays an over-arching narrator, albeit one who sounds like he is in the wrong film: 


"Man's constant groping of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time, brings to light many startling things. Startling because they seem new...sudden...but most are not new to the signs of the ages. A life...is begun! People...all going somewhere. All with their own thoughts, their own ideas. All with their own personalities. One is wrong because he does right...one is right because he does wrong. Pull the strings! Dance to that, which one is created for. A new day is begun. A new life is begun. A life...is ended." 


Just like Glen has to cut through prejudice, you have to give "Glen or Glenda" the proper attention to see past the surface, and find something unexpectedly brilliant and brave. Just as Glen's sister said his brother's transvestism is hard to believe but, her co-worker tells her that it may just be hard for you to accept - it doesn't mean you choose not to understand. For the good of everyone, let's simply agree with Glen's fiancée, because it is the most human thing to say - "I don't fully understand this, but maybe together we can work it out."

Sunday, 11 August 2019

PLASTIC PALACE PEOPLE SING SILENT SONGS [192]


Most people do not plan a day of their holiday around visiting a shopping mall. Then again, the builders of the Trafford Centre, based along the Manchester ship canal, realised that building a shopping mall was not going to be enough. When I visited it, I was left making comparisons with the Palace of Versailles, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Alexandra Palace, and Crystal Palace. I was meant to be buying some shirts.

The Trafford Centre was first proposed in 1986, but a decade-long fight over planning permission meant it would not open until 1998. John Whittaker was chairman of Peel Holdings, which owned the land – originally used by Ford to open its first Model T car factory outside of North America – and he explanation, to the “Financial Times” in 2011, why the Trafford Centre isn’t a carbon copy of the Manchester Arndale, the existing centre based file miles away:

“When we first started the architects said, ‘you shouldn’t be doing all this and giving it all the razzmatazz and showbiz, leave that to the retailers. Make it plain, make it clinical, make it white and hospitalised and let them do the work’. So then we put in the paintings, we put in the real gold leaf, we put artefacts everywhere, paintings. It is the people’s palace. It is something to attract shoppers... to give them the Dallas effect.”

Starting with the most obvious differences, white Is the one colour I never really saw in the Trafford Centre, replaced by a minty green more often associated with the upscale London store Fortnum & Mason – if I did see white, it was because a shop used it. This is paired with terracotta-coloured marble-effect columns – that is, wood painted to look like marble, but is the only artifice found in the centre, apart from the unfeasibly tall fake palm trees. Brass railings and marble floors, both of which seemingly carry on for miles are found in most shopping centres of a certain vintage or, at least, you did – once mall near to me, the Cascades Shopping Centre in Portsmouth, was similarly decked out when it opened in 1989, but successive refits have left it literally lacking lustre.

What marks out the Trafford Centre the most is the bigger design elements, quoting from rococo, Art Deco, Baroque, Egyptian Revival and Art Nouveau. This postmodern free-for-all is entirely appropriate, playing up to the flourishes found across shipping warehouses in Manchester, although played to absurd levels – marble statues of animals, painted ceilings depicting the local area, an indoor fountain that can spit water up two floors in height, murals that could have been found on a wall in Pompeii, various sculptures of people both inside and outside, along the rooftops, and golden eagles disguising drainage pipes. The central glass dome is said to be bigger than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

In the Trafford Centre, you cannot move for some element of art, some decision made. Even when I stopped for lunch, I was sat across from an almighty golden chandelier, which I passed while descending a marble staircase, having walked through a food court designed like an ocean liner, which was attached to a New Orleans street scene. I was everywhere at once – no wonder I needed to sit down.

The scale of the structure reminded me of Alexandra Palace in London, a Victorian recreational centre currently home to an ice rink, concert venue and exhibition centre. Like Crystal Palace, originally built for the 1851 Great Exhibition, and destroyed by fire in 1936, Alexandra Palace has constantly had to find new uses for itself. The Trafford Centre is big enough to include play areas, a cinema, a video game arcade and an aquarium among its shops, but what if retail begins to retreat like it has at other, less fortunate shopping malls? There were a few empty shop fronts, disguised very well – my eyes were distracted enough – but it did beg the question of what use the building would have otherwise.

If I had only wanted to look around the shops, the Arndale would have been enough during my trip to Manchester. The city of Manchester has faith in its continued success as an ultimate destination, as its Metrolink tram service is building a new line which terminates outside it. John Whittaker wanted to build a people’s palace, and that is how to view the Trafford Centre. I forgot to buy those shirts.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

GET INTO THE GROOVE [191]




I stand in front of a painting of two figures - one hand a hole in their torso, and is being used as a hula hoop by the other. Their outlines are painted in white acrylic, within a white outline, on red tarpaulin (not canvas – the metal eyelets have been used to fix it to the wall), and all the remaining space within the outline is filled in with short black-lines, zig-zagging and curving around each other. I look closer. It is not hard to see the artist’s brush strokes, as the lines are roughly an inch wide, but the light in the gallery shows up both the thickness of the paint, and the speed with which it was applied – the drip marks either mark moments of consideration for the artist, or the failure of the paint to keep up with them.

I first discovered the art of Keith Haring around fifteen years ago. Already used to the primary colours and thick outlines of Matt Groening’s creations like “Life in Hell,” “The Simpsons” and “Futurama,” Haring’s works appeared superficially similar and iconic, adding the same bright colours to reoccurring elements like the “Radiant Baby,” flying saucers, coyotes, televisions, computers. However, Haring fused painting with performance art – most of his work appeared outside of gallery spaces, first as graffiti, then as murals, becoming events. The scale of some Haring works, filling whole walls and sides of buildings – locations varying from a tenement in Philadelphia, to the Church of San’Antonio in Rome, and the Berlin Wall - and the sheer numbers of figures and icons compacted together, is overwhelming and bewildering. Think “The Simpsons,” then Hieronymus Bosch, followed by acid house, whose colourful aesthetic he inspired.


An exhibition of Haring’s work, titled simply “Keith Haring,” opened at Tate Liverpool in June 2019, the first UK retrospective of his work. I had to go: I have seen so many of his pictures, but only in books, or online. I could find out what size the pictures were, or the materials used, but I would have no sense of the scale, or the pace at which they were made. I already knew the vast majority of his works are labelled as “Untitled,” the work’s meaning coming only from within itself, and I knew that an art gallery was not the right context for this work – from sticking fragments of art to lampposts and door handles around New York, to sketching onto the paper used to blank expired artwork on the Subway, his artwork is best when it is active, just appearing to you, instead of being held in a vacuum. Regardless, these pictures buzz and excite.

Haring was not given enough time to produce his work – he would die of AIDS-related complications in 1990, aged only 31, and his knowledge of his condition only caused him to work faster and bigger still, while supporting gay and AIDS activist groups, posters for which appeared at the exhibition. I wish he could have lived to have seen the rise of emoji – he left the meaning of his own iconography to his audience, and I imagine he would have got a kick out of everyone now doing the same themselves.


Keith Haring wrote in 1978, the year he arrived in New York, “I am not making pictures anymore... My paintings, themselves, are not as important as the interaction between people who see them and the ideas that they take with them after they leave the presence of my painting.” Within a couple of years, he became a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, whose work first inspired Haring to become a painter. What do I do next?

* “Keith Haring” continues at Tate Liverpool until 10th November 2019, moving to the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels from 6th December to 19th April 2020, and finally, from 22nd May to 20th September 2020, the Museum Folkwang in Essen.