Sunday, 27 October 2019

MAMA I’M SURE HARD TO HANDLE [204]


This is Part 3 of an apparent series about the 1970 film “Myra Breckinridge” – find part 1 here [link], and part 2 here [link]. In short, I think “Myra Breckinridge” is the worst film ever made because I needed it to be the best ever made, and it wasn’t – a statement I made so snappily in my notes, I didn’t realise I hadn’t used it in my first two thousand words on the subject. 


Having given myself time to recover, I can return to my study of “Myra Breckinridge” to discuss what happened next. To further understand my enemy, I have invested in my own copies of the sources of information that have most influenced the opinions made about the film, and one that even Gore Vidal’s original novel couldn’t do without. My intention is ultimately to refer to them when I eventually write the definitive book on “Myra Breckinridge” – I have already pointed out the rarity of a transgender film buff writing about a film whose protagonist is also a transgender film buff – but, in the meantime, I will share with you what they are, and what they say.


The best narrative account of the making of “Myra Breckinridge” is contained in the essay “Swinging Into Disaster,” by Steven Daly, published in the April 2001 issue of “Vanity Fair” magazine, and collected into the book “Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood,” published by Penguin in 2008. There are interviews with the film’s writer and director, Michael Sarne, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, and with the film’s star, Raquel Welch – Gore Vidal responded in writing, Farah Fawcett declined to be involved, and others are reflected through narrative and anecdotes. The essay does a great job of centring its story on Sarne, his becoming director, and his influence in creating a notoriously chaotic production, people being fired left and right, and scripts rewritten every day. The decision to use archive pieces of Laurel & Hardy and Shirley Temple came during the editing process after the film was completed, not when it was being written. The ultimate outcome is that no-one came away from the film unscathed, either by it becoming a blot in John Huston’s filmography, or Raquel Welch not being properly recognised as a comic actress until four years later, in Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers.” Sarne clearly had scores to settle, as later proved in his DVD commentary in 2004, in contrast to Welch’s bemusement on her own.


The film critic Rex Reed, playing the pre-transition Myron Breckinridge in a white suit, like an episode of “Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)” is often quoted in saying that, of “Myra Breckinridge,” “on this movie, everybody’s asking, ‘Who do you have to screw to get out of it?’” This comes from “Myra Goes Hollywood,” an essay for the August 1970 issue of “Playboy” magazine. Yes, I really did buy a copy of “Playboy” for the articles and, for the time, it reads like “The New Yorker” with soft-core pornography leavened into the mix. The advertisements are for alcohol, tobacco, and British Leyland – their page 3 pin-up is the MGB GT. The purpose of the article is for Reed to provide a more authoritative contemporary account of the chaotic production than the leaks could have suggested, played out as mostly juicy gossip, but the most telling part is how Reed details his agreeing to play  Myron, based on having script approval for his role – his not interested in playing a gay man who has a sex change, his eventual role as “a sort of carnal Jiminy Cricket to Raquel’s erotic Pinocchio” ultimately resulted from working around his demands. Reed does not state why he even agreed to be in the film, apart from making some reference to how critics should take the opportunity to learn the technical side of making a film.


The writing of the film critic Parker Tyler looms large in Myra Breckinridge’s mind, as she waxes lyrical about Hollywood dealing in myths, and in exclaiming that, “during the decade between 1935 and 1945, no unimportant film was made in the United States.” Parker’s 1947 book “Magic and Myth of the Movies,” a seminal work that applies psychoanalysis to then-recent films like “Mildred Pierce,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Seventh Veil,” at a time when films were only just doing that themselves, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945). However, the glow of the screen does better for Parker than the real life it reflects upon, and Myra also basks in that glow, as the new Hollywood of the 60s produces less effectual role models. 


Tyler initially complained that “Myra Breckinridge,” both the novel and film, defamed him and his work, but the attention led “Magic and Myth of the Movies” to be republished in 1971. My copy of the British reissue, with Rita Hayworth on the front cover, also features a new foreword by Tyler, where he deals with the ambiguous nature of the tribute the story gives him, as his ideas are even dropped by Myra upon the novel’s end.


Finally, the February 1971 issue of the British journal “Films and Filming” has an article by Michael Sarne, returning to the magazine for which he used to write reviews, titled “For Love of Myra.” Sarne plays the production as an affair between himself and the character of Myra. Photographic evidence was provided, also on the cover of the magazine, to prove Sarne did try to find a male actor to play both Myra and Myron, before opting for the baggage of Rex Reed. Sarne labelling his affair as “the ultimate love-hate relationship, the Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb of the ‘sixties, perhaps all that remains of our affair will be the things they say about us.” For certain, that is all Sarne has, as Myra returned in Gore Vidal’s sequel novel “Myron.”  

Sunday, 20 October 2019

WHEN YOU TELL ME WHAT WILL BE [203]


I don’t like being given opportunities to feel old, especially as I am still in my thirties, but the inevitability of progress in technology, working against my human stubbornness to adapt to a new way of working, will provide more situations to reflect on where that progress leaves you.


What am I talking about? It’s more that I don’t expect my devices to talk back at me, mainly because I turned off their ability to talk. Even more, I have turned off their ability to evaluate my commands.


Before I make myself sound even more paranoid, this is based on the principle of knowing that, if I want something, I will ask for it. I will not say “Alexa...” or “Hey Siri,” “Hey Google,” “Hey Cortana” – I’m not really a “hey” kind of person – and expect the artificial intelligence based on previous interactions to throw up what it thinks is the right answer, or what is the first answer, or the answer most accessed by others. 


The only virtual assistant I do use is Siri, on my Apple TV box, purely to speak the name or title I want to search on YouTube, Vimeo or the BBC iPlayer, an expediency over just typing it, which is the final resort when it doesn’t accept how I’ve pronounced a vowel.


While the debate over the application of virtual assistants is currently focussed on the microphone – your voice being recorded and analysed, even when you are not using it – my concern is on its ability to act as a bridge in human thought, making evaluations over the answer it thinks I will need, without informing me on how it came to that decision. There is an implication of trust on my part, which turns into a lack of trust in practice.


If so, why am I happy using a search engine like Google? Is it the trust gained over twenty years of usage, that virtual assistants need to demonstrate? (Siri, the oldest of them, began in 2011.) Is it having a screen to view the answers of the search engine providing the illusion of choice? Is it that the algorithms that influence the search results are more well-known? (For Google, PageRank evaluates the links to pages, and between pages, Panda promotes higher-quality sites, while Hummingbird emphasises natural writing over forced keywords – how am I doing so far?)


Perhaps, I am still looking at virtual assistants as being in their infancy, as having pretensions over previous voice-activated units that acted as glorified hands-free switches. It comes back to trust over the answers I would expect them to give, if I tried to use them. I just need something to explain how they came to their decisions, like a screen, and something to choose and edit the answer, like a keyboard.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

I’M GIVING UP ON TRYING TO SELL YOU THINGS THAT YOU AIN’T BUYING [202]




A direct link to the video is here:

Below is the script for the video: 

Hello there, this is Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers, I’m Leigh Spence, and this is Fratton Road, one of the main shopping streets in Portsmouth, on a rainy, windy morning in October 2019 - my umbrella had already broken by this point. It was quite early, and most shops hadn’t opened yet. This video will look around a shopping mall I made a video about two years ago, mostly because I kept getting requests to film an update, and because people like watching videos about dead malls over videos about calculators. 


Incidentally, my video about the INTERESTING HP-12C calculator is available on this channel.


Fratton Road is receiving money from a Government fund to revitalise high streets, provide better transport links, and find new uses for vacant buildings. However, I don’t see much of a future for the former Troxy cinema, a building so derelict that the porthole windows have been filled in with deckchairs.


Anyway, in July 2017, I made a video about The Bridge Shopping Centre, a mall I knew was pretty empty, left acting as a, well, bridge, between Fratton Road and the giant Asda supermarket. And when I say giant, I do mean giant. A Co-Op department store used to stand on this site, before the Co-Op replaced it with a more modern supermarket and shopping mall, opening in 1989. Asda took over both in 2001. I really do like this travelling shot, so I’ll just keep it going a bit longer.


Asda continue to own The Bridge, but apart from it acting as another entrance for themselves, the feeling I got two years ago was that the mall was done, the bigger brands having moved on, or gone out of business themselves. Sure, some stores were left, but even they couldn’t last much longer. I wish they would put back the neon sign they used to have outside.


Here is some of the original video I shot two years ago. According to the foundation stone, this mall was built back when people still made time capsules.


I believe the pet shop closed about a year later. Fashion stores that used to be on the left-hand side were Select, New Look and Ethel Austin. The jewellery store has seemingly always been here. You will find I like the red tiling and glass roof in this place, very Eighties indeed. The Savers chain of budget health stores is owned by Superdrug, and that store used to be a Superdrug. The flickering light suggests some level of decline, but the place was still kept clean. This central platform was used as seating for the café, last known as Rebecca’s Pantry. When the Co-Op was here they also had a travel agent and a shoe shop, Shoefayre, in the mall. You do get the feeling that, if the café had remained open, this place wouldn’t feel half as dead. I don’t know why I didn’t go through these barriers, only myself was there to stop me. And there is the entrance to Asda.


Back to October 2019, and not much has changed outside, apart from the weather. There is a new tenant on the right, Cubano Beach Club, which hosts children’s birthday parties and other events.


Making my way across the road, I see a new games arcade, including virtual reality and escape rooms, both growing areas at the moment. The pet shop has a replacement too. Like I said, I wish they would put the neon back.


The automatic doors have obviously seen me coming today. I’m still coming in... and in we go. There isn’t much difference to begin, except for more signs. The time capsule is obviously still there. If you want to rent this space, ring the number on your screen. They were playing music in here two years ago, but I’ve never heard it this loud – perhaps they’ve bought new speakers. The jewellers, will always be there. Ethel Austin closed down in 2006, by the way.


Now this is something I wish happened more often – using vacant store space for showing art works, like this former New Look store. This one here is provided by the Aspex gallery in Portsmouth, and was made by an established artist along with local residents. Here is display on the store front, and you can visit the gallery’s website for more information.


Savers and Iceland will always be here, by the looks of things. This former charity shop is now being used to sell home brewing kits. They’ve also fixed the light. The travel agent is now a beauty store – “People will stare, make it worth their while.” And, crucially, the café is back open, which gave the mall its atmosphere back, and is enticing more businesses to set up here again. The former Asda photo store is now operated by Max Spielmann, with a Timpsons sharing the space. An Olan Mills studio once operated in the mall, if anyone remembers them. Asda have also opened an opticians next to the post office.


Yes, there is still space to fill, but there is more hope now than there was two years ago. It’s a good place to come in, not least to keep you out of the rain. Give it another two years, and The Bridge may have left its dead mall past far behind.


Thank you for watching. As ever, the nostalgia culture crisis continues at www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com .

Saturday, 5 October 2019

SOMETHING GOING ON THAT’S NOT QUITE CLEAR [201]



From Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze to Michael Bay and David Fincher, many film directors began their careers working on music videos. However, it was not the opening of MTV, in 1981, that legitimised the form of music videos, but rather when established directors began to be invited to direct: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” by John Landis, and “Bad” by Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” by Brian De Palma, and Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” by, of all people, Sam Peckinpah.


Therefore, it isn’t that surprising that Lionel Richie - someone whose music, to me, is the line painted down the middle of the road - would seek out Stanley Donen to direct a video for him. Donen, whose name is attached, three times as co-director alongside Gene Kelly, to classic MGM musicals like “On the Town,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “It’s Always Fair Weather” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Donen later directed Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in “Charade,” Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in “Bedazzled,” and the science fiction film “Saturn 3.” In 1986, Donen would produce the Academy Awards broadcast, direct Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in a musical segment for their TV show, “Moonlighting,” and recreate one of his most celebrated film scenes for a pop music video. The only problem was that Lionel Richie was not Fred Astaire.


Released in 1951, “Royal Wedding” starred Fred Astaire and Jane Powell as a song and dance duo performing in London when the future Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip. Astaire’s character expresses how he falls in love by singing, and dancing to, “You’re All the World to Me,” when he jumps onto a chair, almost loses his balance, which he regains by jumping onto the wall, and continues dancing onto the ceiling... 


For all the mechanics of constructing the scene, using a room constructed in a barrel, filled with stiff, immovable props, the scene only works because Astaire, who conceived it, moved with graceful, light steps, making his defiance of gravity believable. You have the initial surprise of Astaire landing on the wall, but this turns to joy with how effortless he makes it look, made still clearer by the extended length of the shots, the camera fixed on Astaire, making it clear no trick photography was used at any stage... other than it moving level with the room.


In engaging Stanley Donen, the hope is for the prestige of Classical Hollywood to be bestowed on your own production, or at least to prove the effect has been done properly because they have the original director, but by 1986, the barrel room concept had been refined: “2001: A Space Odyssey” used the multiple times, most notably as actor Gary Lockwood jogs around the inside of the Space Station V. The notorious musical film “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” features Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, playing the less impressive-sounding Toby “Turbo” Ainsley, dancing inside a shed, using a set previously used by “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. Even a Dr. Pepper advertisement had used the effect by then.


As for the “Dancing on the Ceiling” video itself? Lionel Richie, coming back from a performance, is the life of the party, and everyone is dancing... on the ceiling. Richie is the first to complete a circuit of the room, then others join in, dancing any which way. There is no copying of Astaire’s routine from “Royal Wedding” – these people are dancing because they find it hard to keep their feet on the ground, and the more rapid cutting between shots makes that clear. The video ends with a random cameo from Rodney Dangerfield at the end, saying he should not have eaten that upside-down cake. That’s entertainment.