Monday, 30 December 2019

SINCE THE WORLD’S BEEN TURNING [214]




With so many end-of-year and end-of-decade lists scattered around, I decided to draw a line under the 2010s by recounting a couple of things that happened to me in 2019 that could not have been contemplated in 2010, and what that means for me in 2020.

The thought of starting a video version of “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers” had not entered my mind even at the start of 2019 but, starting with equipment I was using for other things, namely my iPhone, iPad, and a £10 tripod, I ended the year having already made seven videos – expect more of these in 2020, because bringing my words to life appears to be working out very well. Making semi-professional video as easy as possible to create was the iPad - introduced in 2010, was by no means the first tablet, but it was the one that eliminated the desktop PC from many homes. Using your fingers on a screen to correct colour levels in videos, when you have overlaid a picture of yourself onto a photograph via a green screen, now appears to be any old day of the week.

I also did not expect to end 2019 being blocked on Twitter by comedy writer Graham Linehan, he of “Father Ted,” “Black Books” and “The IT Crowd,” because he, presumably, did not like a joke. Linehan has achieved notoriety for being outspoken, mostly on Twitter, against transgender rights, particularly if it is seen to infringe on women’s rights. Far from a civilised, adult conversation, discourse on the subject a bunfight of labels, from “TERF” to “gender critical,” from “beard” to “trans natal male,” technical terms to alienate the other side, limiting both the scope and understanding of the conversation, rejecting identity politics while also embracing use of the labels created during the “culture war.”

On 23rd September 2019, when I saw that Linehan had decided to take a “Twitter holiday,” but carried on sending out messages, I turned a news story into a pointed joke: “Did Thomas Cook arrange your Twitter holiday or something?” The holiday company had collapsed that morning, and their management should remain ashamed of that. About three or four minutes later, my sole interaction with Graham Linehan led to him blocking me from ever doing so in future, his crusade carrying on in its enclosed bubble, or some other metaphor. The joke wasn’t even that good.

In the 2010s, online discourse became, to use a word employed across the British Commonwealth, knackered. The blame has been laid at the feet of postmodernism, but rejecting old narratives is not the same as believing whatever you like. Meanwhile, the immediacy of social media, once used to save cancelled TV shows, is now being used to “cancel” people deemed unfavourable like they were TV shows. Social media platforms have a responsibility to step in when the effect of offence outdoes the ability to ignore – I stopped looking at Donald Trump’s Twitter page because he became repetitive, but I await the day he becomes bored enough himself to stop tweeting.

I would expect a few more articles about politics from me in 2020, as the United Kingdom begins exiting the European Union, and as the United States has another Presidential Election, the current incumbent having started campaigning for it as soon as he won the first time. The 2020s may not truly start until those events are dealt with, leaving us with a clearer road ahead.

In the meantime, I have a lunchtime metaphor: at a café based where I work, I went in for a “Brexit” sandwich and a Coca-Cola. What I ordered turned out to be tomato relish with three different types of cheese, served in a fish and chip shop wrapping. I then found out I had enough money for the sandwich, but not the drink. I will review this not-even-a-joke in 2021, to see if I dropped the sandwich on the floor on the way out – in real life, I got what I paid for, and it made me feel ill.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

OUT OF SIGHT IN THE NIGHT [213]



I first saw the 1955 film “The Big Combo” fifteen years ago, as part of my degree studies, so to find it a year ago in HMV, then newly released on Blu-ray, made it a no-brainer purchase. It is almost a stereotypical example of a film noir, with hard-boiled dialogue, hard-boiled actors and hard-boiled shadows. However, I was originally shown the film for the uncharacteristic degree of hopefulness that lied behind the film as it was being made.


“The Big Combo” is known as a “nervous A” picture, released by Allied Artists, which had been set up by the B-movie company Monogram as a unit for more lavish and interesting, but still cheaper, productions - it is this thinking that led Jean-Luc Godard to dedicate his first film, 1959’s “A Bout de Souffle” (known in English as “Breathless”) to Monogram. 


Therefore, “The Big Combo” was an example of a film where the use of low light to mark cheap sets, using fewer camera set-ups, and using a jazz-influenced score over a full orchestra, was hoped to be interpreted as style, rather than economy – the classic "Touch of Evil," made three years later in 1958, deployed the same techniques, but the style was instead signalled through having been directed by Orson Welles. Film noir is a genre made of stark contrasts of black and white, both in the morals of characters as well as on screen, and this film considered a solid, confident example of how those elements work.



The “combo” of “The Big Combo” is run by the sadistic Mr. Brown, who is being investigated by police lieutenant Diamond over what happened to a woman from his past, who has disappeared. Diamond is also obsessed over Brown’s current girlfriend, Susan, who he only meets for the first time when she turns up in hospital. The disappeared woman, Alicia, is thought to be in Sicily with Mr. Brown’s boss, but in reality, the boss was murdered, and used by Mr. Brown as a cover, while Alicia was placed in an asylum. Diamond, derided by Brown from the outset as a righteous man, with his $96.50 weekly salary used as an insult more than once, is unshakeable in his quest to jail Brown, whose increasingly frantic actions eventually leaves him cornered. In all, so much, so film noir. A sample line of dialogue: “I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.”


Joseph H. Lewis, the film’s director, had been making up to seven films a year when his career began, until his talent led to longer shoots and higher budgets, but the set-up of some shots show his B-movie pedigree – long, almost uncomfortable shots of people reacting, or to allow the acting to breathe. John Alton, the film’s cinematographer - and writer of a book explaining his craft, titled “Painting with Light” - uses few lights, long shadows, and stark contrasts, leading to the film’s famous climax at an airport, looking a little like “Casablanca,” where Brown attempts to dodge a spotlight that finally leaves him no place to hide.



In one scene, Diamond is tied to a chair, tortured by being slapped, has alcohol forced into them, and has loud music played to them through a hearing aid belonging to McClure, Brown’s second in command. Quentin Tarantino acknowledged this scene was an inspiration for the similar, but more brutal, scene in “Reservoir Dogs” - hearing the lead villain referred to only as “Mr. Brown” must have suggested an idea too. However, the use of sound as torture was the bigger talking point at the time, not least when McClure, once Brown's boss, has his aid taken away as a compassionate measure, so he cannot hear the gunfire that will execute him - we don't hear it either.


Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace, as Diamond and Susan, happily upturned the unhealthy relationship they have in "The Big Combo," as they were already married for four years by the film's 1955 production, and the film was produced by their company, named Theodora - they later had a son, named Cornel Jr.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

SOMEONE MUTTERS AND THE STREETLAMP GUTTERS [212]



For the benefit of anyone reading this in the years following the 2019 release of “Cats,” the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, there was actually quite a backlash at the time. Basically, an embargo on reviews of the film, led to a number of scathing reviews being released at the same time, disparaging the choices made in the adaptation, most notably for replacing stage costumes and make-up with computer-generated cat ears and fur, placing Edwardian London in the centre of the “Uncanny Valley.”

I decided to watch the film anyway, not put off by the reports of reviews, and mainly because I would rather make my mind up on such matters. It would be hypocritical for someone that writes about films to swear off a production based on what someone else wrote. I am so used to analysing films that I don’t much care if something is spoiled, because how those spoiled moments are reached may be just as interesting.




That said, “Cats” brings up an old British saying: “Oh my giddy aunt.” I need not describe one of the longest-running musicals of all time, only to say that the film version, directed by Tom Hooper of “Les Misérables,” presents exactly the adaptation you expected, with all that a film production can bring to it. The musical’s elements are all present, although the choreography is sometimes obscured by choppy film editing, and the performances are spectacular, because the best takes are included – Jennifer Hudson’s version of “Memory” is the highlight, of course, along with “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.” It is more naturally filmic in presentation, which was a relief after previously seeing the flat, stagey direction of “The Producers” musical as a film – the blueprint is there in Arthur Freed’s productions at MGM, and “Cats” runs in that direction, armed with its synthesiser-primed orchestral score.

The amendments made for the film are to be expected. More locations can be used, with punning names for places littering the background like an episode of “The Simpsons,” and the actors are rendered to scale for those locations - you were always going to end up with something that looked like a cat version of “The Borrowers.” The computer-generated imagery is only noticeable because of what it is being used to create, which is necessary to tell the story without just making it a photographed version of a stage performance - one of those was already made in 1998.

As someone that never previously saw the musical, having just not been interested enough, the character of Victoria, originally silent, is boosted to become the lynchpin for the viewer, with Francesca Hayward making an impressive film debut. This addition is not unusual: Grizabella the Glamour Cat is not present in T.S. Eliot’s original collection of poems, but was added for the stage, based on work previously rejected by Eliot. Victoria is not a protagonist, and there is no attempt to overlay a story to link the original collection of song performances, but the presence of a focal point to which the viewer can return, after each cat sings their song, is necessary in a medium that, unlike the stage, relies upon  the intimacy of closeups and mid-shots. Victoria’s new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, did not feel tacked on, particularly contemplating “Memory.”




The only reason I have not addressed the “uncanny valley” situation is because I, personally, do not think it is important, as suspension of disbelief is necessary when taking in any fictional story, regardless of how it is presented to you – rather than having to mentally reconcile human-cat hybrids, I mainly wanted to stop hearing the word “jellicle” over and over again. 

The concept of the “uncanny valley” is that, if a humanoid object imperfectly replicates an actual human being, it will provoke an unfavourable reaction, decreasing any possible affinity to the replica. However, because I was watching actual human beings throughout the film, the “uncanny valley” cannot exist in this case, unless you were expecting anatomically-correct real cats, with human voices. I prefer to think of it this way: Elton John, whose film “Rocketman” was written by “Cats” scriptwriter Lee Hall, performed what I think is the best version of his song “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)” at his Central Park concert in 1980, a performance so forceful and energetic that you forget he is wearing a Donald Duck costume – he clearly suspended his own disbelief at that one too.


Sunday, 15 December 2019

WE’RE ALL GONNA ROCK TO THE RULES THAT I MAKE [211]


It is unlike me not to engage with politics, or to even follow it, as my writing here attests, but when it came to the 2019 General Election, and the inevitability of a Conservative win in order to end the deadlock over Brexit, I switched off very quickly. I received my postal vote nearly three weeks before the day of the election, and put the completed vote through my town hall’s letterbox hours before the Conservative Party announced their manifesto. Once the exit poll was declared at 10pm on Thursday 12th December, declaring a Tory victory by 80-plus seats, I lasted fifteen more minutes before needing to watch something else – I missed the election-night tradition of looking into the counting taking place at the UK’s enormous variety of sports halls.


I consider myself politically to be slightly left of the centre, meaning I usually vote for a different party with each election, but never the right-wing Conservatives. Then again, my home town has had a Conservative MP since at least 1835 – only three different MPs have represented the area in the last seventy years, and the latest one, coming up on their tenth anniversary, just increased their majority. My dissenting vote made as much difference as it would by eating it, or setting it on fire. 


At that point in the election campaign, the Conservatives had already put out a misleading social media ad, making it look like Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer could not answer a question on “Good Morning Britain,” and Conservative Central HQ’s Twitter page was renamed “Fact Check UK” during a TV debate. These sleights of hand are what you are used to looking out for on social media anyway, and have been part of election campaigns since the invention of posters, let alone radio or television. As a film scholar, I was particularly offended by the Starmer ad being described by James Cleverly, the unfortunately-named Conservative Party chairman as having been “edited” instead of “doctored,” as if I wasn’t reading it properly – I hope he has accidentally stepped on a Lego brick since then.


Having afforded myself the relative luxury at looking at the election campaign after having voted, I personally do not believe that the Conservatives won due to the ongoing Brexit issue, or on public services, or in comparison to how bad the Labour or Liberal Democrat campaigns went: it was because the Conservatives were so pervasive in the discourse of the election, and that came from everyone, not just the media. They ran the clearest, if least detailed campaign: “Get Brexit Done,” then some other things. They had the least robotic leader – Boris Johnson looks like a child’s drawing of his brother Jo. They had the least overlap between themselves and the other parties, with all parties in competition with them.


However, I am perturbed by the talk following the election about how Boris Johnson will now govern as Prime Minister. Yes, he will not have to pander to the right-wing of his party, or towards the centrist MPs that lost the party whip during the last Parliament, and now their seats. Having won so many seats in the north of England, traditionally Labour territory, what effect will this now have on decision making? Shouldn’t we have had more of an idea of Johnson’s attempt during the campaign, where he was seen as having evaded questions, mainly by evading his being interviewed? Perhaps, we have heard little since because he is still working it out. The certainty over Brexit appears to be over – the UK is leaving the European Union or not, regardless over whether I think the question should have been asked or now, but what happens after that is another question, when there really shouldn’t be a question.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

TAKE ME DOWN WHERE THE GOOD STUFF GROWS [210]



My Sony Walkman holds my CD collection of over twenty years, spanning hundreds of discs, and thousands of songs, with a few downloads squeezed in too... and yet, why do the same ten tracks swirl around in my mind? It’s time to look at what the algorithm is currently suggesting to me – not YouTube or Spotify’s algorithm, but the one in my head. Warning: contains Eighties and synthesisers.



1) HIP TO BE SQUARE – Huey Lewis and the News

Far from needing Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” to recommend it to you, the tight rock guitars, organ, brass and saxophone hides an often missed ironic statement: Huey Lewis is not saying it’s hip to be square, he’s saying, “I can tell what’s going on” – the slick, professional, business-suited bands of the time were just another trend. Punchier than “The Power of Love,” “Hip to Be Square” has no quiet moments, and never lets up its pace – both its sound and message are timeless.



2) GOOD STUFF – The B52s

The Netflix special “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” reminded me that the original series’ theme (from the second series onwards) was performed by the B52s, while the incidental music was by then-current band member Pat Irwin, just as “Rugrats” was scored by members of Devo. “Good Stuff” has the energy of “Love Shack,” but with raunchier lyrics: “So let the people say we’re downright nasty / I just say we’re down right.” I nearly downloaded it, then realised it was on my B52s compilation CD, originally bought just for “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster” – greatest hits radio stations take note, play more songs per artist.




3) HEARTACHE ALL OVER THE WORLD – Elton John

A significant brain fart in the Elton John & Bernie Taupin songbook, especially the line, “Girls, girls, girls, have pity on me,” Elton John considers this “pretty insubstantial” song to be the worst he ever recorded. The lead single from his 1986 album “Leather Jackets,” which has never been remastered, “Heartache All Over The World” is... better than I was led to believe. Despite lyrics that make it sound like an incel’s anthem – if the subject can’t get a girl, the whole world must be suffering – it is proof that Elton John on a bad day (he was “not a well budgie” at the time) is still more entertaining and interesting than most artists can hope to reach. As I listen to it, I like to work out how the synthesised Eighties production could be amped up to make the lyrics more ironic, especially the wah-wah-wah of the guitar in the middle-eight.



4) THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL – Prefab Sprout

A one-hit wonder of a song, about a singer only remembered for, and only called upon to sing, a one-hit wonder – “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque.” Deliberately written by Paddy McAloon to be as catchy and commercial as possible, as much of a non-sequitur to Prefab Sprout’s discography as its chorus is to everyone else, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a calculated risk, sounding like few other pop songs, and it paid off. Having just found out it was produced by Thomas Dolby, the bullfrog-sounding bass now makes a lot more sense.



5) OH YEAH - Yello

Like “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” only briefer, riskier, and funnier. Bom bom. Chika-chika.




6) THROUGH BEING COOL – Devo

The success of “Whip It” meant people just hearing about Devo missed the social commentary inherent in a song about using violence to solve your problems, so their follow-up album, 1981’s “New Traditionalists,” used a gritter, more serious sound, with fewer guitars. “Through Being Cool” answered their new-found popularity by saying, “time to clean some house / be a man or a mouse,” and “eliminate the ninnies and the twits.” That said, they do it with a smile on their face, even if it might still hurt.



7) STEPPIN’ OUT – Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson is from Portsmouth, and I was born there, which is where our similarities end, but “Steppin’ Out” is based on Jackson’s time in New York City, a city of wonder, energy and creativity that Portsmouth can only attempt to match with its history. It’s like taking a sideways step into another dimension, making yourself anew, with the glide of a synthesised celeste – I’m sorry, but you just can’t do that in Albert Road.



8) LOVE TO HATE YOU – Erasure

A forceful cross between “I Will Survive” and a Pet Shop Boys song, “Love To Hate You,” with another soaring vocal by Andy Bell, was originally written for that “Dick Tracy” film Warren Beatty made, where it presumably would have been given a different treatment, except another Erasure song, “Looking Glass Sea,” was used instead.




9) STUPID ROCK / BEE CAVES - Slugbug

I originally heard this song in a YouTube video that tested an automatic record player – pausing to read the label on the coloured vinyl, I stumbled into the chaotic satire of Paul D. Millar, trading as Slugbug – what starts as wanting to get off a planet full of crappy things, full of too many people who don’t want to do anything, it swerves into: “I never thought that I would ever meet a man like Bee Caves / I never thought that I would need a jar of bee skulls / ba ba da, ba da, ba da ba...” Other Slugbug tracks touch on relationships with technology, work, and the truth – a Slugbug love song may only come once those problems are resolved. Also featured on the “Stupid Rock” EP is “Feelings”: “I’m gonna tell you where I parked using my feelings / withholding all locations based in empirical evidence / My feelings, my feelings, my feelings are important...”



10) WE ARE THE WORLD – U.S.A. for Africa

Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is known today as a charming, naff charity pop song, which Midge Ure admits sounds a bit like the theme from “Z-Cars.” Meanwhile, the song it inspired, written by Lionel Richie & Michael Jackson, is arrogantly bombastic from the moment you first hear its farty synthesised brass. The lyric “there’s a choice we’re making / we’re saving our own lives” sounds off when equating yourself with people for whom “the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life,” as Band Aid puts it. However, the relentless, overwrought unfolding of “We Are the World” over seven very long minutes makes its own satirical joke – stars upon stars, solo upon solo, capped by whenever Bruce Springsteen sings like he is in pain. 


Sunday, 1 December 2019

FORGETTING YOU IS A THING THAT I CANNOT DO [209]




In the bad movie canon, because there is one, the 1966 film "Manos: The Hands of Fate" is a dubiously cited as the worst film ever made, even over established dreck like "Plan 9 from Outer Space," “Troll 2,” and “Myra Breckinridge.” It is one thing for industry professionals to produce a film that ultimately fails, as the successes will write off their costs. However, the notoriety of “Manos,” a film mostly spoken about to highlight its mistakes, may have helped it to survive and, having watched it, the film’s ongoing story may now have brought closure to the people that made it.



“Manos: The Hands of Fate” is the very simple story of a family getting lost on their way to a holiday home, and stumbling upon the lair of a cult. All human life is here - the innocents, the "Master", his henchman, the followers / wives / concubines, and the guard dog. Add eerie imagery, darkness, a creepy portrait, and many images of hands – the title is literally “Hands: The Hands of Fate” - and that should be enough of a diversion at the cinema on a Friday night. It has everything you expect to find in a horror film, but it is not clear if the production knows why these elements form a genre, and why you would include them.




The film was made in Texas, by people outside of the industry... well, mostly. While Harold P. Warren, the writer / producer / director / star of "Manos," is often described primarily as a fertiliser salesman, he also appeared in bit parts on television shows like "Route 66," and the film's cast and crew came from the amateur dramatics group of which he was a part. Having a drink with Stirling Silliphant, the writer of "Route 66" and later the film “In the Heat of the Night,” Warren made a bet that he could make a horror film himself.



The actors’ names have now been saved for posterity, with Warren and Diane Mahree as Michael and Margaret, parents to daughter Debbie, played by Jackey Neyman, whose-real-life father Tom Neyman played “The Master,” and whose art direction for “Manos” utilised many sculptures of hands he had already created independently. However, it is John Reynolds, who sadly did not live to see the film’s release, who has been immortalised as the jittery, leery, Igor-like henchman Torgo, later “massaged” to death by the Master’s concubines - Torgo was meant to be a satyr, but his prosthetics were worn the wrong way around, giving his character gigantic knees.




While he clearly won the bet, Warren’s involvement in bigger productions would have made clear of the limitations in doing it yourself, that problems with the picture cannot be fixed "in the lab," that actors need clear direction, and that more time should have been spent editing the film into a coherent whole, papering over the very obvious cracks. Going beyond the usual complaints of  wooden acting and an incoherent script, there are shots that go on too long, particularly long driving shots that perhaps were meant to have the opening credits over them, but help the film to achieve feature length; few, if any, sound effects; actors that look like they are waiting to be directed; bad editing, symptomatic of an entire hour-plus film being assembled in only FOUR HOURS at a local TV station; the colour film stock not being suited to night shooting; shots being out of focus; HAIR BEING CAUGHT IN THE GATE OF THE CAMERA; the dubbing of all the characters by a group of three people, with one woman playing all the female parts, as no sound equipment was used during shooting...



However, the jazzy music, completely out of place for a horror film, is brilliant.




The premiere was a disaster, with the cast leaving before the end, due to the gales of laughter at a horror film that was played straight. "Manos" did have a short run in local cinemas around El Paso, Texas, where it was made, before fading into obscurity, never having made back the $19,000 it cost to make, and it lapsed into the public domain, making it a very easy choice to be discussed in television and online, with no-one to answer for copyright, although the script is copyrighted and registered with the Library of Congress. Its reputation exploded when featured on the US comedy series "Mystery Science Theater 3000," where it was played in full, and mocked mercifully throughout. Finally, in 2011, the work print was discovered in a sale of film rolls bought on eBay by a cinematographer, leading to a restored print now available on Blu-Ray, featuring commentary and interviews with the surviving cast and crew. 


Watching my copy of the Blu-Ray, and the special features detailing its production, it is heartening to see that, behind the derision, there are actual human beings, that did the best job they could, and who are now getting proper recognition and recompense for what they did. They knew they were not getting paid back in 1966, as everyone involved was to share the (non-existent) profits but, unlike so many exploitation films lumped together with "Manos," the people that have been exploited are no longer those that are in it, with Jackey and Tom Neyman producing their own sequel, “Manos Returns,” which premiered in May 2018 - it is the happiest ending this saga could possibly have.