Sunday, 24 November 2019

EVERYONE SEEMS TO KNOW THE SCORE [208]


Please see below for the script I used:

Hello there. It shouldn’t need this much effort, but even a gigantic piece of technology can still tell me that two plus two is four.


So, this is the Sports Direct giant calculator. For those outside the UK, Sports Direct is a sporting goods and fashion retailer, towards the cheaper end of the market, but they are also the owners of sporting labels like Slazenger, Everlast and Lonsdale. They are also in the business of selling giant novelty items with their logo plastered on them, like mugs, bowls, and calculators. It cost me all of four pounds to buy, and the cashier smiled when I asked for one – they were on a peg behind her, so I couldn’t just reach over and take one. You can buy similar calculators without the logo, but it’s one more thing with “Sports Direct” on it, and that’s why it exists. Nothing else about this says “sport,” does it?


Despite the size this is still a calculator, working like any other... to a point. You’ll notice that there are no memory functions, but that isn’t unusual. I have an old Sharp calculator, made in 1974, that doesn’t have them either. If you really needed it, you could always just write the number down. However, one thing isn’t quite right. You can usually enter more numbers than the screen can handle, but still add, subtract, multiply or divide the number on screen. On the Sports Direct giant calculator, if you enter too many numbers, an error message happens, and you can’t do anything more. You have to reset, and start again. Remember, no more than twelve digits, and you’ll be fine.


The packaging says the calculator is designed for people with a visual impairment. Nice try. More seriously-minded solutions use braille, or an electronic voice to read the display, while most smartphones can use voice activation without using a single button. Larger machines include teaching aids made for overhead projectors, to display a calculator on a wall, and while you can buy giant scientific calculators that can display graphs, the price may give you pause.


What surprised me most about this is its build quality. How does something that only cost four pounds need twenty screws? An A4-sized calculator can’t need the circuit board the size of a PC motherboard? Trust me for owning a screwdriver.


(While I do that, I should mention that, if you are selling an old calculator on eBay, it’s all fine saying it comes from a smoke-free home, but please also say if you are a smoke-filled home. I opened up this old Canon calculator to clean it, and the circuit board stank! Was someone smoking through it or something?)


(Just to say, I’ve nearly finished.)


(Oh, sorry.)


I was not expecting a piece of cardboard but, taking it out, you can see how it shields the contacts, which are printed onto a piece of paper. These connect up to a tiny central circuit board, to which the screen, battery and solar panel are attached. There are more elegant versions of this – this Casio fx-100d, for example, attaches its single chip to a piece of plastic, and that’s pretty much it. On the other hand, it also does a few more things.


Thank you for watching. As ever, the nostalgia culture crisis continues at www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com, and I shall now screw this back together.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

WE’RE THE MASTERS OF SPACE [207]


As I write, the latest “Star Wars” trilogy is due to end, with “The Rise of Skywalker.” I was not stirred when watching the trailer at the cinema – it was the same tropes, characters and references, in a different order, with all the finality of a “Friday the 13th” film’s ending. Mind you, the unsettling experience of watching the feature, “Joker,” perked me back up, using its own bag of intellectual property to create a powerful psychological portrait. 


No wonder a “Star Wars” parody appeals to me – forcing yourself to be original by approaching your source material from a different direction. Even better, "Spaceballs" is not just a good parody of "Star Wars," but a credible science fiction film in its own right, after I forgot I was watching a parody.


In 1987, the original "Star Wars" trilogy had been complete for four years, giving the pre-internet general public, not just hardcore fans, enough time to soak in the references that Mel Brooks would work against. However, the home rental video market helped out, as shown when Rick Moranis' Darth Vader clone, Dark Helmet, finds out where Princess Vespa is by renting a copy of the film he is in, and fast forwarding to a later scene. "Spaceballs" itself lived on in home video form, becoming as much of a cult as "Star Wars" appears to most people.


"Spaceballs" is a welcome contrast from the cynical, tired retread of the source material that the "Laugh It Up, Fuzzball" trilogy from "Family Guy" was, with jokes inserted in a way that does not distinguish itself from any other "Family Guy" episode. Like "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," and "High Anxiety," "Spaceballs" is a very Brooks-ian cross between a compendium of jokes, like "Airplane" and the then upcoming "Naked Gun" films, and a visually accurate parody. The production employed Apogee Inc., a visual effects company formed by ex-Industrial Light and Magic employees, lending credibility to all the pissing about going on around those effects, like Dark Helmet being surrounded by Assholes, the surname of the majority of the crew on his ship, and when a radar is jammed by launching a gigantic jar of jam at it.



The year 1987 also meant that "Spaceballs" was in a prime position to pick timely references from what turned out to be a golden period for Hollywood. Rick Moranis had already starred in "Ghostbusters," while Bull Pullman's Han Solo analogue, Lone Starr, is also suitably close to Indiana Jones. Like "Ghostbusters," "Spaceballs" also has its own cheesy tie-in song, when the ship Spaceball One, a very long ship first introduced in a very long shot, is about to self-destruct.



The most daring parody of "Star Wars" is how Mel Brooks, as Yogurt - no need for explanation there - and his "Ewoks" make their money from merchandising, an idea that rose from George Lucas requesting that, in allowing "Spaceballs" to be made, there would be no merchandising, as it would look too similar to the "real thing." "Spaceballs" merchandise, from bedspreads to toilet roll, is randomly seen throughout the rest of the film, including a scene where Dark Helmet plays action figures of himself and Princess Vespa. The turning of Spaceball One into a "mega-maid," to suck up the air that the Spaceballs need from Princess Vespa's home planet - a suitably mad sci-fi plot - prompts the timely line, "it's not just a spaceship, it's a Transformer."




Parody is very carefully detailed for maximum effect. The majestic theme by John Morris, minus the zapping sounds, could have been by John Williams, while the explanatory scrolling introduction is ended by a line that appears in the distance: "If you can read this, you don't need glasses." After a long exposition of the plot, Dark Helmet looks at the audience to ask, "everybody got that?" Instead of the main characters being captured by the "stormtroopers," their stunt doubles are caught by accident, and when one is zapped in the behind by a gun, his leap is accompanied by the "Wilhelm scream" that "Star Wars" sound editor Ben Burtt has shoehorned into every film he made. Even when it is not "Star Wars," the chest-bursting scene from "Alien" can only be properly parodied if you get someone that looks like John Hurt, so what you do is get the actual John Hurt, exclaiming, "Oh no, not again!"



The success of "Spaceballs" as a good a work of comedy and science-fiction can even be expressed in numbers. "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," the final film with Christopher Reeve in the starring role, was released in Christmas 1987, with "Spaceballs" released earlier in the summer. However, what was intentionally a serious piece of work was let down by the woolly anti-nuclear plot, and the poor special effects caused by Cannon Films' financial troubles producing a reduced budget. "Superman IV" cost $17 million to make, while "Spaceballs" was Mel Brooks' most expensive film at $22.7 million, but with all the money on screen. The final box office results were $15.6 million for "Superman IV," and $38.1 million for "Spaceballs" - this is when taking comedy seriously has results.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

I SEE IT ALL, IT HAS NO GLORY [206]


“Deliberately scarifying and highly commercial shocker with little but its art direction to commend it to connoisseurs.”


With Halloween over, we are approaching that time to be thankful again and, for lovers of films, Christmas roots you to your sofa, with the biggest TV premières saved for the festive period. You may also be given a book or two as a present, a popular choice being books with curated, “definitive” lists, with titles like “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” – ironically, updated versions of that book come out each year, so anyone who saw a film displaced by new entries for the 2019 edition, like “Sorry to Bother You” and “The Favourite,” may have to reassess their options.


The above quote, for Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” (1979), came from “Halliwell’s Film Guide,” an originator of the annual film guides that forced their ways into homes each Christmas, from magazine publishers like “Radio Times, “Empire” and “Time Out,” and from critics like Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert. Originally published in 1964, the last “Halliwell’s” edition came in 2008, long after Leslie Halliwell death in 1989, and after other authors took over to rewrite his original opinions – my copy of the 2008 edition kept the first half of Halliwell’s original “Alien” review but, diplomatically, stated the art direction was “on its own terms,” before deeming it a “classic,” which had already been decided elsewhere by then.


Leslie Halliwell was not a film critic, but more people depended on his verdicts than those from critics, because they often determined what films you could watch. Originally the manager of a cinema in Cambridge, and later a publicist for the Rank Organisation, his encyclopaedic knowledge of film made him indispensable in the growing television industry. In 1959, Halliwell joined Granada, a part of the ITV network that grew from a chain of cinemas. By 1964, his initial personal assistant job had been swapped for buying foreign programmes (read: United States) for Granada, and in 1968, Halliwell became the “Head Buyer” for the whole ITV network. For UK audiences, Halliwell is the reason you have really only seen the James Bond and Star Wars films on ITV, along with classic TV series like “Murder, She Wrote,” “The A-Team,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” cementing the good reputation of US TV by keeping the crap away.



When Channel 4 began in 1982, Halliwell also started buying up films and TV shows for them, helping to establish the channel as the place to go for more off-beat stuff, like “Raging Bull,” “Last Tango in Paris,” and “Hill Street Blues,” too offbeat to be shown on the mainstream ITV – in fact, the growth of TV movies and mini-series in the 1970s, like “Columbo,” was the new Hollywood’s answer to needing product that people like Halliwell could actually show to families in the early evening.


Read this way, Leslie Halliwell appears to be the Father Christmas of British television, influencing choices still made today, but some reviews in his guides, like his summary of “Alien,” are indicative of a snobbery that don’t work as helpful criticism – “abysmal apologia for loutish teenage behaviour” does not help you to decide whether “The Breakfast Club” or not, as it does not tell you enough what the film itself is like, while “a feast of hardware and noisy music; not much story,” does not tell you why people still watch “Top Gun.” In fact, my copy of the 2008 guide was solely to check cast and crew details, and awards won – the reviews were the least of it. Perhaps, the rewriting was to help make it more, well, helpful.


Since the last Halliwell’s guide was published, the reference books do appear to have been replaced by “definitive list” books, and by cloud-sourced websites like the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia. No new guides from “Time Out,” “Empire” or “Total Film,” and while “Radio Times” published a guide for 2019, no 2020 edition has so far materialised. It seems the criticism of the films themselves has been replaced with making lists.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

AND SCREW YOUR WIG ON TIGHT [205]


The story of enterprising and ribald comedian Rudy Ray Moore, and how he made the outrageous blaxploitation comedy “Dolemite,” is worth retelling for how Moore inhabited a character far larger than life and tastes could allow, recording explicit stand-up albums, leading to films, all forced into life by sheer force of Dolemite’s will, and Moore’s determination. “Dolemite” could never have been a studio project, but popular culture pierced itself on it very quickly once Moore made it himself. The Netflix comedy “Dolemite Is My Name,” stars Eddie Murphy as one of his heroes, with a script by the writers of Tim Burton’s film “Ed Wood,” in a passion project that took fifteen years to complete.


(How is this for six degrees of separation: Rudy Ray Moore starred in “Dolemite,” whose cinematographer, then U.C.L.A. film student Nicholas von Sternberg, was the son of director Josef von Sternberg, who directed Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” - Dietrich appeared in “Touch of Evil” with Orson Welles, who voiced Unicron in “Transformers: The Movie” alongside Roger Carmel, who appeared in “Myra Breckinridge,” a film less dignified than “Dolemite.”)


I saw “Dolemite Is My Name” and loved it, but the “Ed Wood” story made me wary of one thing. “Dolemite” is as scrappy and rough as its hero, but is also as charming. However, it is also known for a very notorious technical issue, namely the boom microphone wandering into shot from either the top or bottom of the frame. “Dolemite” is known almost as much for its boom mic as for Moore himself, but this is a very unfair slight on Nicholas von Sternberg’s skills as a cinematographer, because if you can see the boom mic at all (or, in a couple of shots, the operator holding the boom), you are not seeing the film as intended.

Much like the “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park” trilogies, “Titanic,” “Top Gun,” and many other Hollywood films, “Dolemite” was shot using the “open matte” process, by which you will shoot your film first, using the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1, and make it widescreen later by blocking out the top and bottom of the frame. While “Dolemite” will have done this in 1974 to save the expense of anamorphic lenses, to squeeze a widescreen picture into the square film frame, open matte would be used in the 1980s and 1990s for when films were shown at home on old-style, non-widescreen televisions – instead of having a “letterboxed” picture, and instead of choosing what parts of the widescreen picture you could see (known as “pan and scan”), you could just show the original film without masking any of it. 


The advent of widescreen televisions did away with all of these problems, but open matte was also used to re-present films for different cinema experiences, like IMAX, but it explains TV shows shot on film, like “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Cheers,” are now available in widescreen after twenty to thirty years – this time, the picture is just being masked vertically, instead of horizontally. Meanwhile, I do remember grumbles some years ago about not being able to see all the picture on the “Back to the Future” Blu-Ray, in comparison with VHS, but as far as I can see, the version available is the correct one.


So, when “Dolemite” was first released for home video in the 1980s, it should really have been in a “pan and scan” version, and not full screen. There should not have been the opportunity to create drinking games from how often the boom mic could be seen, and while the film isn’t the best ever made, its reputation suffered from not being viewed on its own terms. “Dolemite” is now available on Blu-Ray, in a restored widescreen version – a full-screen “Boom Mic Edition” is an optional extra on the disc.