Sunday, 29 September 2019

I AM ADDING AND SUBTRACTING, I'M CONTROLLING AND COMPOSING [200]



For article number 200, it is time for the first Dancing with the Gatekeepers video, about calculators, and the HP-12C in particular. 

A link to the video is also found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxR7UWcTiZ8

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

AND I SAID I DIDN’T LIKE THE WAY HE GOT THINGS DONE [199]


“I personally do not believe that you can tell if a movie is ‘good’ or bad’ when it comes out. All you can be sure of is this: Does it ‘work’ or not? For audiences.”


When William Goldman, one of the greatest screenwriters ever seen in Hollywood, died in November 2018, the hard job for reporters was to pick which film made the headline: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men,” “Misery,” “The Stepford Wives,” “Marathon Man,” and “The Princess Bride.” The first two scripts won Academy Awards for Goldman, and the last two were adapted from his own novels – the mastery and wide range of his craft, both literary and cinematic, are not in question.


However, what was also mentioned, in practically every report, was the work I mostly know Goldman for writing: a book, part-memoir, part-diatribe, part-screenwriting manual, that both defined and hindered his career in Hollywood, and defined Hollywood itself forever more. “Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting” was published in 1983, by which point Goldman’s scripts were either made into bad films, like a musical version of “Grand Hotel,” or were not made at all, like a version of “The Right Stuff.” The New Hollywood era that was ushered in alongside “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had also been killed off by the self-indulgent production of “Heaven’s Gate,” putting power back into the hands of producers.


“Adventures in the Screen Trade” lays bare Goldman’s cynicism about the Hollywood machine, through explaining how awards should be given for holding meetings, explaining the types of first pages that guarantee a script will never be read, and notably repeats a phrase used by production managers when calculating the cost of having a star in your film: “add one third for the shit.” However, the most enduring phrase from the book, a phrase Goldman later said he expected to be written on his gravestone, was “Nobody Knows Anything.” When it first appears, it is repeated for emphasis. The phrase refers to how nobody knows what film is going to be a success – the then-recently-released “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is mentioned, as every major studio passed on it except for Paramount, while the Julie Andrews musical “Star!” bombed when released, despite going over well in previews.


The middle section of the book recounts Goldman’s scripts one by one, success and failure. It is as valuable a passage to read as all the other scriptwriting manuals you can buy although, this time, the writer has a recognisable track record. The main lesson here is, also repeated for emphasis, “Screenplay is Structure,” regardless of having well-written scenes or dialogue – for example, “Back to the Future” is all structure, to the extent that the “Johnny B. Goode” performance scene was nearly cut by its writers for being technically superfluous. The last section of the book takes a detailed look at Goldman adapting “Da Vinci,” one of his own short stories. You are given the original story, and the finished script, which is then analysed by a production designer, an editor, a cinematographer, a composer, and a director, to give you a good idea of how your script is to be used – for all the creativity, a script is an instruction manual.


William Goldman would later write a sequel, titled “Which Lie Did I Tell?” in 2000, and titles his time around his writing of the first book as “The Leper”. “The Princess Bride” was still to come, a film that gained a cult following on home video, after doing less well in cinemas – in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. Crucially, his ex-wife had told him she realised the time alone was getting to him, and “the socialness of moviemaking” was what he missed. He ended the first book by wishing his readers, “...may all your scars be little ones...” He was right about his own.


Sunday, 22 September 2019

I DON’T THINK I’LL EVER MAKE IT ON TIME [198]


This new sitcom sounds promising: “When the governor of California gets into hot water for closing too many low-income high schools, he proposes they send the affected students to the highest performing schools in the state. The influx of new students gives the over privileged kids a much needed and hilarious dose of reality.” 



However, this description misses details I have removed: the governor’s name is “Zack Morris,” and the high-performing school named is “Bayside High.” So, after the original show, “The New Class,” “The College Years,” “Hawaiian Style” and the original prototype, “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” 2020 will herald the sixth version of the “Saved By The Bell” franchise, with original high school students Jesse Spano and A.C. Slater, still played by Elizabeth Berkley and Mario Lopez, now portrayed as parents. Mark-Paul Gosselaar didn’t know the show was happening, so may not appear as Zack, while Dennis Haskins presumably has his phone on permanent standby to reprise his role as Mr. Belding. It’s also missing other notable names like Dustin Diamond, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Lark Voorhies and Raphael-Bob Waksberg. (The last one is actually the creator of “BoJack Horseman.”)

It took a while to realise why this news came to me as being both predictable and depressing. Because the original “Saved By The Bell” now seems a thick slab of unironic Nineties kiddie schmaltz with attitude, a world untouched by the irony and cynicism that later characterised the decade, trying to bring it back feels like a cynical – as I hoped to make clear at the start, the new version’s concept could stand on its own, without the nostalgic decals.


“Saved By The Bell” itself began in 1989 as an attempt to try something new, reworking a failed Disney Channel sitcom, “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” into a more hip show focusing on the students, and placing it, as the sole live-action scripted show, among the Saturday morning cartoons playing to younger children on NBC. (The original show has been repeated as “Saved By The Bell: The Junior High Years,” although using the iconic, boisterous theme tune to introduce Disney stalwart Hayley Mills is really jarring.) 


By 1992, NBC had ditched the rest of the cartoons to target the teenage audience, with similar shows like “California Dreams,” “Hang Time,” “City Guys” and “One World.” This successful template has also served to displace cartoons at Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. NBC had its Must See TV on Thursday nights, led by “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Seinfeld” and “Will & Grace,” while “Saved By the Bell” led “TNBC” on Saturday mornings. Meanwhile, “Blossom,” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” were found on Monday nights, and cartoons were found well, elsewhere.  NBC reached a high-water mark in the 1990s with their shows, defining comedy on television to this day, especially if trying to revive “Friends” is your end goal in life.


Along with yet another version of “Battlestar Galactica,” and with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on securing the online rights to “The Office” and other shows, it feels like NBC’s new “Peacock” streaming service, and its new version of “Saved By The Bell,” is trying to capture the childhood of its target audience. It is only missing “Seinfeld,” which will be going to Netflix, which remade “Full House,” and started the recent trend in reviving old shows. 

I got through two episodes of the new “Will & Grace” before realising the moment in time that it captured between 1998 and 2006 – that particular presentation of gay people on TV that was new at the time – has moved on, leaving the new version to catch up to avoid a culture clash. All revivals appear to be based on that same premise, from “Murphy Brown” to “Roseanne,” which ultimately had to leave its star behind to become “The Conners.” 

I would talk about the one new drama series I did see will be launched on “Peacock,” except it is “Brave New World,” based on the Aldous Huxley novel. Too much money is being spent to risk staking even some of it on something new.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

I’M NOT YOUR STEPPING STONE [197]

Many short-lived TV shows are filed under, “it was a good idea at the time,” but “New Monkees,” broadcast in 1987, can also be found under, “needs more work… a LOT more work.” A very short-lived show, lasting for only thirteen episodes (reduced from the intended twenty-two), one album and one single, it was never, to my knowledge, shown in the UK… although we did get “The Munsters Today” and “California Dreams” instead, lucky us.


“New Monkees” was borne out of the wave of nostalgia for the original “The Monkees” TV series, which reached its twentieth anniversary in 1986: MTV’s marathon showing of “Monkees” episodes on 23rd February that year spurred a revival that kept the show on the air, drawing more attention to the band’s current 20th Anniversary tour. (Michael Nesmith was absent from the tour, but his media projects at the time, including a music video show for Nickelodeon in 1980, “PopClips,” gave him a claim to having invented MTV.)


Now that TV had caught up with the original show, with MTV, blue screen special effects, and a postmodernist mixing of styles, a remake of the show was begun, with a new band picked after auditioning over five thousand people. The group that appeared on screen were both actors and musicians from the start: Larry Saltis, Dino Kovas, Jared Chandler and Marty Ross, the last of which was already a musician with a band named The Wigs, before becoming a prolific composer for film and TV.


Having seen the first episode of “New Monkees” in a very soft-pictured, off-broadcast VHS copy posted to YouTube – the show has never been released on home video in any format – I can see it is as “Eighties” as “The Monkees” was “Sixties.” Bits of it play out like you are watching MTV, with the band name, song name and record company appearing in one corner of the screen when each song begins. There is an odd scene where the band talks about how they were inspired by The Monkees, but it feels like they were being interviewed for “Entertainment Tonight.” Old out-of-context black and white film clips are played for comic effect. The band lives in a giant pastel-coloured house that looks like a hi-fi system. They have a crusty English butler, and a computer that runs the house that is almost like Holly from “Red Dwarf,” but looks like the lips from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” then crossed with “Max Headroom.”


While the plot of the first episode was as inconsequential as the original show – it looked to be like they were trying to get rid of miniature clouds that were raining in the house (which is, by the way, a house they never seem to leave) – the main cause of the show feels like building a fanbase, then selling albums to it although, with only the first episode to go on, this may not have been how it eventually played out on screen. However, if the original Monkees borrowed from The Beatles, the New Monkees appeared to go with Mr. Mister and, even then, more like “Kyrie” than “Broken Wings.” You wonder why they used the name “Monkees,” except to achieve success through brand associated – it would be like S Club 7 calling themselves The New Bay City Rollers.


As it turned out, the “Monkees” name sunk the whole “New Monkees” project, as it resulted in a court case with the original band, but by the time that was settled out of court, the nostalgia train had moved on for both bands. With little media available for the band, their subsequent appearances have been in nostalgic meet-and-greets from those that still remember their short run – their first live performance would not be until 2007, with another ten years later. Their latest concert, in February 2019, was held the Pig ‘n Whistle restaurant in Los Angeles, alongside original Monkee Micky Dolenz, enough water having flowed under the bridge. However, if another episode of “New Monkees” appears online, it may only be of historical interest, just like the nostalgia that gave birth to it.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

I NEVER LIED TO YOU, I’VE ALWAYS BEEN COOL [196]


It is Friday 6th September, and Sky News is handed a leaked Government memo. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister since Wednesday 24th July, is “proroguing” Parliament (discontinuing the session without dissolving it) for five weeks, and is seen as a move to disrupt efforts to ensure the United Kingdom leaves the European Union with a deal on trade and other matters. 


The memo, in Johnson’s handwriting, had been presented the day before, in redacted form, during a court case aimed at stopping the prorogation, and stated that, “the whole September session is a rigmarole [REDATCTED] to show the public that MPs were earning that crust.” 


Just as Donald Trump had been defending the use of a Sharpie pen to draw around the state of Alabama on a map indicating the path of a hurricane, indicating it had been forecast to hit it, but won’t anymore – breathe in, breath out – the redaction was to hide something embarrassing, rather than sensitive: “girly swot Cameron,” referring to the Prime Minister before the last one. David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and Johnson’s brother Jo, all attended Oxford University, and because Boris Johnson “only” achieved a 2:1, while the other two have firsts, they are “girly swots,” a remark made in 2013, while Johnson was mayor of London.


Two days earlier, on Wednesday 4th September, Johnson shouted across the floor of the House of Commons, at Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition, “call an election, you great big girl’s blouse.” Corbyn was among those calling for one previously, as one way of resolving the deadlock in Parliament over Brexit, but when it became clear that Johnson could call one for after the current Friday 31st October date for exiting the EU, the withdrawal of that support became a further way to frustrate the Prime Minister...


...not that Boris Johnson couldn’t do that by himself. On Tuesday 3rd September, the first day Johnson spoke in Parliament as Prime Minister, twenty-one Conservative MPs were effectively kicked out of the party for voting against the Government for a bill aimed at preventing the UK leaving the EU without a deal - these included Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, and former Chancellors of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke. Earlier the same day, another Tory MP, Phillip Lee, walked across the Commons floor to join another party, wiping out the Government’s one-seat majority before the vote even happened. On Thursday 5th September, the aforementioned Jo Johnson, also an MP, resigned from the Cabinet, writing on Twitter that, “in recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest – it’s an unresolvable tension and time for others to take on my roles as MP & minister.” On Saturday 7th September, the Work and Pensions Secretary resigns as both a Cabinet member and a Conservative - Amber Rudd described what happened to her colleagues as an act of political vandalism.


Along with other defenestrated MPs like Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve and Rory Stewart, Johnson had effectively removed the more moderate voices from his Parliamentary party, pushing the Conservatives further to the right. Perhaps it will render Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party obsolete, but it could make the Conservatives obsolete before then – on Thursday 5th September, Johnson made a speech stating he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit, leading to questions about why officers from West Yorkshire Police were being used as a backdrop, especially when one stood behind the Prime Minister needed to sit down.


As a girly swot, a big girl’s blouse, and someone politically slightly left of centre, who doesn’t consider themselves a Leaver or Remainer because they didn’t want the entire poorly-executed mess of Brexit in the first place, mainly because it served to answer existential questions within the Conservative Party rather than in the wider United Kingdom, this last week has been especially hard. I can’t be as laid back as Jacob Rees-Mogg about it – in the moment that picture was captured of him slouching across the Commons front bench, he looked like he was waiting to be painted, but only as a fool. The only reason I have felt the need to recount the last week is to make it clear to myself that it happened. Future school children will be taught Brexit in history class, by which time more sense will have been made about what happened, due to the one thing I currently cannot have: hindsight.


The last week in British politics will ultimately prove that Boris Johnson’s most satisfying performance will have been as a guest presenter of “Have I Got News for You” – he was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Entertainment Performance in 2004, alongside Stephen Fry and Paul Merton, ultimately losing out to Jonathan Ross.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

YOU MADE ME FORGET MYSELF [195]


It turns out that my drug of choice is music.


This has not come as a result of a testing process – a supplement that came with “The Observer” newspaper in around 2001, about the culture of drugs, demystified how recreational drugs worked so effectively that I have never felt the need to seek them out. It is why I tend to associate the effects of LSD with lack of sleep – I am aware the brain’s synapses are compromised in both cases.


The supplement made no mention of music, but why would it? To even be considered as a kind of drug, music would have to be lined up alongside food, sex and caffeine, and other things where they become problematic in their overuse. Like caffeine, I may use music as a tool – it wouldn’t be a surprise that I may be listening to my Walkman as I write this because, in this particular moment, it is helping me concentrate on the task at hand.


What has brought on this thought? Like all confrontational moments, it was a slice in time. In my case, it was leaving home for work in haste, and forgetting my headphones. With no music to help me continue to wake up, and relax ahead of a gruelling work day, the bus journey I almost missed was conducted in total silence, giving my mind time to learn how to deal with the problem I had created. I attempted to rationalise the lack of background sound, presenting it to myself as an opportunity to undertake my day in a different way, but by the mid-point of the journey, I began feeling sweaty – I was not used to the silence, not used to feeling without access to music. 


I had to buy lunch from a supermarket once I was off the bus – I could buy another pair of headphones from there. Once inside, and before picking up said lunch, I stood in front of rows of pegs, with different sets of headphones for sale, mostly in-ear versions that block outside noise – I still need to hear where I am going, I am not a complete animal. However, the problem I created for myself begat further problems – which ones to buy, how much to pay to fix my problem (as in buying a cheap pair to used once, or spend more on headphones like I usually use), and then factoring in the cost of a pair of scissors to open the plastic packaging.


As naturally as could be expected, I left for the last walk to work with the worst possible outcome – a cheap pair of in-ear headphones, a third of what I spent on a proper pair, and with a third of the volume. Half my remaining journey to work was spent walking along a busy road – I could not hear the first minute of the song I was playing. In that moment, doing nothing would have been an easier option, but I did what I knew would be best for me, no matter how expedient it turned out. 


Was there a need for me to tell you any of this? It’s good to share, and it’s good to make sense of the path down which your actions will lead you. I could have augmented this with music theory, and how music is used to lead people into feeling certain emotions, for example during films, and how people may not listen to music because of this – the philosopher and composer Theodor Adorno would have been good for this, but he hated jazz, so I don’t care. Not having mentioned any songs or artists by name, just needing MUSIC, says a lot – my taste is good, but I still hate silence.