Sunday, 27 December 2020

I'M SO TIRED, MY MIND IS ON THE BLINK [275]


Autopsies of 2020 were complete long before the year’s end. Only war could have made it worse, then I remembered it began with the United States and Iran on the verge of open conflict, after a drone strike killed an Iranian general.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 has been detrimental to the extent the United Nations Development Programme, on Tuesday 15th December, said it threatened human progress, publishing a report detailing how a global lurch from one crisis to the next could reverse gains in health, education and social freedoms. There is nowhere left for us to go but upwards.

The signs are good. The United States will soon have a President who favours diplomacy over disruption, and while on its way out of the European Union, the United Kingdom has somehow managed to make a deal with the union on trade that was achieved using negotiation and compromise – the protectionism, nationalism and sovereignty ingrained in politics in the last few years has made the announcement of the Brexit deal more of a surprise than it really should have been.

The lesson I learnt from 2020 is that the truth is bigger than you are. This has come from the overwhelming number of times that opinions have had to change in the world due to uncovered, emerging and overriding opinion. You cannot ignore coronavirus, you cannot dispel climate change, and you cannot decide that evidence for either doesn’t exist just because you don’t personally believe it, or that a conspiracy theory puts those facts in a more acceptable order. You cannot wish away disease and death. (I am doing my best not to mention Donald Trump, but after all the rubbish he talked about coronavirus, I was just waiting for him  to contract it himself, and he did.)

In an already notorious speech given by Liz Truss, Minister for Women and Equalities on Thursday 17th December, she mischaracterised postmodernist philosophy as having led, in the 1980s, to Leeds City Council prioritising equality legislation in schools over learning to read and write: “These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy – pioneered by [Michel] Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours. In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative.”

Did Liz Truss intend to take what sounded like the truth, and present it as fact?

I describe myself is a postmodernist, because ideas about “grand narratives,” deconstruction and relativism prove useful in my processes for understanding the world, especially when it comes to writing about different subjects, but I don’t get out of bed in the morning because I feel like it. If I don’t do it, I won’t achieve anything, and I know this to be objectively true, even if saying this makes it sound like I had given something so obvious even a moment’s thought. My understanding of coronavirus has been shaped by the Government’s representation of scientific evidence, and I have taken their word on it because the information provided – the evidence - has proven to be reliable enough to prevent death. I have objectively chosen to live. No-one chooses to live on edge either.

I am tired of 2020 as you are. See you in 2021.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER [274]


The Ineos Grenadier is an off-road car to be released in 2022, following a six-year process where Sir Jim Ratcliffe pushed his chemicals company, most well-known as a sponsor of cycling and sailing teams, into car production to fulfil Ratcliffe’s dream of building a modern, rugged vehicle in the spirit of the original Land Rover of 1948...

...or, when Jaguar Land Rover declined to sell Ratcliffe the tooling and moulding for the previous model Land Rover Defender, which ended production in 2016, he decided to build a vehicle that looks so much like the original Defender that, if it drove past you, you could mistake it for one. Some edges have been smoothed off, and the front and rear lights are different, but apart from that, the Grenadier – named after the pub in which Ratcliffe and his team conceived the idea – appears to be for people that wanted the old Land Rover Defender, but didn’t want to buy second-hand.

In a September 2020 article for “Autocar” magazine [https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/new-cars/ineos-grenadier-2021], reporting on the 17,000 pre-orders received so far, designer Toby Ecuyer, usually known for his work on superyachts, appeared relaxed about the Grenadier’s resemblance to the Defender: “It has been fascinating, benchmarking all the cars we have. One thing I’ve learned is how little there is between cars. I mean, you only have to change a vehicle a little to make it look like something different. Shift the headlights a bit and you’ve suddenly made a Ford Bronco.” Fortunately, the rest of the interview suggests more passion than this one answer suggests.


(It should be noted that, in August 2020, Jaguar Land Rover lost in the litigation it brought against Ineos, when a judge upheld a decision by the Intellectual Property Office decided that the Defender’s design wasn’t distinctive enough to be trademarked, highlighting previous models of the Jeep Wrangler and Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen as examples of similar-looking designs [https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/industry/jaguar-land-rovers-trademark-court-case-testimonies-revealed].)

Looking on the Ineos Grenadier website [www.ineosgrenadier.com], it is made clear the purpose of the car defines the design: “We’re building on the legacy of classic 4x4s. A box-section ladder frame. Permanent four-wheel drive. Beam axles. And a boxy body that’s designed rather than styled.” The car is “a working tool. More angles than curves. Function dictates form, every time. It exists because Ratcliffe “identified a gap in the market for a stripped back, no-nonsense, utilitarian 4x4.”

Surely Land Rover filled this gap over seventy years ago? The only reason Sir Jim Ratcliffe could have perceived a gap was Jaguar Land Rover’s ending of the Defender’s production, but this was more a case of their hand being forced in January 2016 rather than choice. Safety and emissions regulations precluded the Defender from being sold in various parts of the world, and had been withdrawn from sale in North America back in 1997 when the car’s design, already heavily modified for the market, was unable to accommodate side airbags. The new 2020 model Defender, using a more standard aluminium unibody structure and air suspension as standard, was designed to meet safety standards worldwide, and if it results in a car perceived as more upmarket than its predecessor, that appears to have been the result of remaining vital and competitive.


Declining to allow Ratcliffe to buy the original Defender’s tooling does not mean that Land Rovers have previously been built, under license, by other companies. Much like the notorious Lada Riva was a Russian evolution of the original Fiat 124, and the Seat Alhambra was a modified Fiat Panda produced after Seat’s license to build the original expired, the Spanish manufacturer Santana moved from being a builder of Land Rover-supplied “complete knock-down kits” to making their own legally-distinguishable version when their license ended in 1983 – the final version of it was also sold in Italy by Fiat, as the Iveco Massif, before they merged with Chrysler and started importing Jeep vehicles instead. (Fiat appears to be the centre of derived car designs – add in variations made in Bulgaria, Egypt, Turkey, India and South Korea, and the Fiat 124 lays a claim to being the most popular car in the world.)

With pre-orders and a court case resolved, all Ineos have to do now is start building the Grenadier. Originally seen as being a leader of British manufacturing following Brexit, with a new factory to be built in Bridgend, there was disappointment when Ineos decided to instead buy the Daimler-Benz plant at Hambach, France, to be vacated when production of Smart car series moved to China. To be fair to them, they had not promised that the Grenadier would be built in the UK – the underlying ladder frame is being built in Austria, and the engines are being supplied by BMW. Then again, the new Land Rover Defender isn’t being made in the UK either: with the original space at the Jaguar Land Rover factory in Solihull filled by production of other sports utility vehicles, namely the Jaguar X-Pace and Range Rover Velar, the Defender is being made at a facility in Mitra, Slovakia, alongside the Land Rover Discovery.


Sunday, 13 December 2020

BY THE SLEEPY LAGOON [273]


No-one builds stations like BBC Radio 4 anymore. With general, mass audiences for drama, comedy, news and magazine shows served mainly by television since the 1950s, radio is ever more divided up into individual stations providing either “music” or “talk,” either individually or in varying ratios, in an attempt to stop inspiring the listener to tune away. But Radio 4, with its roots through the original Home Service to the birth of the BBC in 1922, has always broadcast a mix of programmes like a TV channel. As befitting the more intimate and personal nature of radio listening, the days of its listeners are entwined with Radio 4 in a way that cannot be replicated by talk show phone-ins or a continuous stream of today’s greatest hits. No-one marched in the street when the presenter of the Radio 1 breakfast show changes, but if Radio 4 moves its furniture around...

I remember when, in 1998, new station controller James Boyle unleashed a swathe of changes to the station that caused uproar – long-running series ended, their replacements starting at different times of day, current affairs and Parliamentary coverage buried in the evening, and flimsy quiz shows at lunchtime, with “The World at One” shortened to accommodate them.

These changes made headline news, and enraged listeners continued to ask questions on Radio 4’s “Feedback” – renamed from “Disgruntled Tunbridge Wells” in 1979 – for the following year, by which point the programmed had, coincidentally, doubled in length to thirty minutes, and had taken over one of the quiz slots. As confirmed in David Hendy’s book “Life on Air: A History of Radio Four,” even when asserting that these changes were based on a year’s worth of listener surveys and analysis of each programme, the BBC were accused of following computerised data instead of their instinct. It sounded like people could not trust the BBC to arrange their shows properly.


And yet, the Radio 4 schedule in 2020 largely still follows the same pattern – comedy shows like “Just A Minute” and “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” at 6.30pm, “Woman’s Hour” at 10am, drama at 2pm, current affairs at 8pm, and science at 9pm. Some shows introduced in 1998, like the Sunday morning news programme “Broadcasting House,” evening arts review “Front Row,” and discussion show “In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg,” are still running. However, if anything has been moved, like replacing the lunchtime quiz shows with more news, it has been done gradually.

I later found that harsher changes had been implemented in 1977, proving to be so unpopular they were largely reversed within a year. The Radio 4 controller at this time, Ian McIntyre – dubbed “Mac the Knife” in the press – answered concerns about the quality of news programmes by cutting their length, and putting in more scripted talks to ensure the quality stayed high. The side effect was shown most clearly on Sundays, when programmes aiming to replicate magazines like “The New Yorker,” with titles like “Forget Tomorrow’s Monday,” and “Not Now, I’m Listening,” pushed the shows people were already listening in for, like the omnibus of “The Archers” or “Letter from America,” towards the evening, with no clear reasoning that this was what people actually wanted.

The symbol of the changes, and what annoyed everyone the most, both listeners and BBC employees, was cutting into the breakfast news of “Today” with a hodgepodge of sport, weather, newspaper reviews, entertainment and consumer items, and comedy recordings. The frustration was shared: on one edition, after trailing what was on other stations, announcer Peter Donaldson said, “but if you’re listening to Radio 4, I’m afraid you’re stuck with ‘Up to the Hour’.” McIntyre was later moved to Radio 3, and all that remains of the experiments are the investigative series “File on 4,” and a half-hour Six O’Clock News.


But what caused marching in the streets? As it turned out, it was existential threat. “BBC Radio 4 News FM” temporarily ran as a rolling news network during the first Gulf War in 1991, while the usual programmes continued on long wave, but its success in that time – it had gained the nickname “Scud FM” – brought several years of ruminating to a head on whether the BBC should start a twenty-four-hour news channel. The suggestion it should take the long wave channel, keeping Radio 4 on FM, led a teacher named Neil McKinnon to start a campaign of direct action named “Save Radio 4 Long Wave,” where he was interviewed in various newspapers, tore up his TV licence, and received thousands of letters, not unlike deliberately incendiary campaigns today like “Defund the BBC” on Twitter. This culminated in a march from Hyde Park to Broadcasting House in April 1993.

The existential threat was that any new network would take away Radio 4’s spine of breakfast, lunchtime and evening news – “Today,” “The World at One,” “PM” and “The World Tonight.” Finally, the decision was made to take Radio 5, a collection of sports, children’s and education programmes made to keep the medium wave frequencies of Radio 2, and turn it into Radio 5 Live, a 24-hour news AND sport network, with a tone and character different from Radio 4, with its own separate programmes.

Neil McKinnon later said he was making up his Radio 4 campaign as it was going along, but what it did was provide a face for the station’s listeners in a way that hadn’t happened for other stations, at least until social media came along, but what it had also done is set the pace of change at slow, and careful

Sunday, 6 December 2020

I'M RUNNING THROUGH THE WILD LANDS [272]

 



As I have previously talked about here, here, and here, I cannot leave the house without my Sony Walkman, and I still buy Compact Discs. I may still listen to music online, but if I find myself coming back to the same songs, either by MP3 or on YouTube, it is time to buy them on CD so I can hear them with better sound quality, preserving that in FLAC format on my Walkman without losing a single note – well, it makes sense to me anyway.

I have a number of CDs I need to transfer, and once that’s done, I can spend the rest of the day listening to them:



Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO): “Yellow Magic Orchestra” / “Solid State Survivor” / “X∞Multiplies” / “BGM” / “Technodelic” / “Naughty Boys”

After uncovering the story behind the song “Behind the Mask” [link], I continued listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra, and I have come to the conclusion that YMO may possibly be one of the greatest bands ever, and that the history of electronic pop music in the Western world cannot be properly understood without them. Their original self-titled album may have been intended as a one-off critique of Western interpretations of Eastern culture, but what they did to Martin Denny’s exotica piece “Firecracker” appears to have kick-started the use of sampling in hip-hop, while their second album, 1979’s “Solid State Survivor,” is a progenitor of both techno and the cyberpunk genre. When the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine was released in 1980, YMO used it first. Since coming across the band, I have been overcome by the sheer infectiousness of their use of electronic sounds, their driving bass, the tight rhythm, and relentless pace, and their humour: one song starts with what sounds like a rubber duck being squeezed, before the rhythm and a pub piano comes in, and it just happens to be called “Absolute Ego Dance” as well. Of course, I have bought their first six studio albums, because it was inevitable.



Adam Lambert: “Velvet”

I was a fan of Adam Lambert before I heard him sing, but I prefer him singing his own songs than those of Queen. That said, UK radio never plays his songs, as far as I know, so I have only ever heard him on CD, and his latest album made this more difficult. “Velvet,” harking back to funk, rock and glam, was first released as an EP in September 2019, subtitled “Side A,” so I thought I would wait until “Side B,” or a whole album, came along. Six months later, it arrived, but so did Covid-19, and I forgot about it until August 2020. In short, the funkier sound on “Velvet,” and the more forthright lyrics, is what Lambert has needed: his voice now has the more mature, fully realised sound, and songs that no longer have to allude to anything.



The Edge of the 80s

This is another of those cheap £5 CD compilations that you find in a supermarket (which I previously talked about here) that turns out to have very good mastering, while also being another chance for me to mop up any new-wave and pop tunes I might be missing from my Walkman, like “I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses, “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo, and “Icing on the Cake” by Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy – I’m not likely to have come across these songs unless I already knew of them, so the ability to surprise ifs worth the cost of admission.



You Are Awful... (Showbiz Comedy Titbits of the 60s and 70s)

The only second-hand CD I have bought recently, I sought it initially for two songs seemingly only found here: “Freezin’ Cold in 89 Twoso” by Mike Reid (discussed when I talked about the “CheapShow” podcast [link]), and “Boiled Beef and Carrots” by Lenny Henry. Comedy songs are miscategorised as novelty songs these days, a fault that can be laid at the feet of Hilda Baker & Arthur Mullard’s version of “You’re the One That I Want,” but then there are songs that defy categorisation altogether, like “Dance with Me,” by the ITN newsreader Reginald Bosanquet.



All Time Greats: Quincy Jones / Bill Haley & His Comets

Universal Music have released a number of albums compiling 1950s and 60s artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Tommy Steele and Billy Fury, under the “His Master’s Voice” label. If I come across any of these, I will look for them, especially if they were as cheap as I found these collections - £5 for Quincy Jones, and only £3 for Bill Haley, perhaps a symptom of fewer people buying CDs, the comparative ease of releasing pressed pieces of plastic, and a need to keep making money from your back catalogue through a continuous process of remastering and rereleasing. The Bill Haley collection was worth buying for historical interest – they helped popularise rock and roll, but they were surpassed by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and many more – while Quincy Jones’s work as an arranger and producer is wide-ranging and does not disappoint, so the chance to hear more of his big-band recordings could not be missed. Jones was also the producer that alerted Michael Jackson to YMO’s “Behind the Mask,” which is where we came in.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

BECAUSE YOU'RE WORTH IT [271]


“We have a product that’s different from the competition, that invites you to be young, that invites you to be brave. If you’re brave, you’re free, I think.”

In 1988, General Augusto Pinochet had ruled over Chile for fifteen years, after heading a military coup. Under international pressure to legitimise his dictatorship, as if such a thing really can be done, a referendum was held to decide if the people would let Pincohet continue in power, “Si” or “No.” For the twenty-seven days of the campaign, each side had fifteen minutes of airtime on all TV networks to make their case, one side after the other – the “No” side went first.

This is a bit of a heavy subject for a comedy, but it works – the absurdity of the situation is clear, the stakes are set absurdly high, the battleground is set inside people’s homes, and the choice of weaponry is advertising. What is more, in charge of the campaigns are two people who work at the same agency: working for the “No” side is René Saavedra, played by Gael Garcia Bernal of “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mamá También,” who is portrayed as having done rather well out of the material wealth that the Pinochet regime helped create, a toy train set taking centre stage among VHS tapes, microwaves and a Renault Fuego coupé, but because his father was among those tortured by that regime, taking this assignment is worth the risk.

Some of the advertising created for the “No” campaign is very similar to the Coca-Cola and Pepsi campaigns you would see in the 1980s – all young types with white teeth, living life to the max, free to live according to their conscience, and free to say “no,” as evoked by the theme song. This is evoked by the real ad that begins the film, for the appropriately-named Free Cola, also a real product. A criticism of the film “No” was that it ignored the grass-roots support for the campaign in favour for concentrating on semiotics and symbology, and indeed the fight between highlighting past atrocities, against promoting the idea of a joyous future, is an early tension, mainly resulting in the old telling the young to go fuck themselves. However, the approaches of the advertising shown in the film, all archive footage from 1988 that is inserted into the story, shows the “Si” campaign forced into a literally reactionary position, attempting to use parody in a backfiring attempt to expose the other side.

“No” is not shot on film, but on U-Matic video tape, a format often used by television programmes in the 1970s and 80s, particularly in news reports. The lightly smudged colours create nan impressionistic look to the whole film, while allowing the reconstructions to blend seamlessly into archive footage. These large tapes also become a plot device, as all the “No” campaign leave their base with tapes in their hands, to prevent their latest ads from being intercepted – enough parked cars and shakedowns appear to confirm this is more than just a game.

“No” is worth seeking out, if you are looking for a story feels both true and out of nowhere – it makes you imagine what kind of film could be made of the gay marriage vote in Ireland, or of the Brexit referendum in the UK. When your future is at stake, and feelings are running high, comedy will be found.



Sunday, 22 November 2020

CAUSE YOU’RE NOT HERE [270]


The CBS radio network, just before 9pm on Sunday 30th October 1938:

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night... so we did the best next thing...”

Apparently, an executive at the network did not want Welles to add a disclaimer at the end of his theatre company’s radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel “The War of the Worlds,” just in case they could be held liable for anything, like causing mass panic. As the hour-long play ended, anyone still in the broadcaster’s studios were commandeered to answer phone calls from members of the public for reassurance the broadcast wasn’t serious, in what must be the first instance of a call centre. At 10.30pm, 11.30pm and midnight, CBS broadcast messages confirming that all they did was broadcast a modernised play of a fictional Victorian novel, swapping English place names for American ones. The following morning, a haggard Orson Welles appeared in front of reporters and newsreel cameras, saying none of his company thought it was going to cause mobs in the streets, block telephone lines and cause traffic jams. The people that chose instead to listen to the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen on NBC were none the wiser.

The recounting of this incident portrays Americans as having overreacted to a radio drama. Less remarked upon is how live radio news reports, of the type parodied by “The War of the Worlds,” really only began being heard regularly on US radio in 1938. Like the first cinema audience ducking from the Lumière brothers’ oncoming train in 1895, people were only just getting used to the concept, just as the gravity of world events increased their need, and demand, for breaking news.

“...We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C.B.S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business...”

Radio in the United States was originally seen by newspapers as a way of promoting themselves through a new medium, but once it became more established, newspapers saw how they could threaten their existence – the CBS and NBC radio networks established their own news divisions once wire services, like the Associated Press, stopped their work from being used for broadcasting. The Biltmore Agreement, named after the New York hotel where it was signed in 1933, restricted networks to two five-minute news bulletins a day, after 9.30am and after 9pm, to protect morning and evening newspapers – these bulletins could only use information supplied by newspapers, and no story could last more than thirty words. Because the agreement did not cover independent stations, or programmes featuring news commentators, this weird state of affairs died within two years, by which point newspapers started opening their own radio stations.

What proved the power of “live” radio news was Herbert Morrison exclaiming “oh the humanity” as he saw the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster unfold in May 1937. Chicago station WLS had no ability to complete outside broadcasts, but Morrison’s commentary, recorded onto disc at the scene of the disaster and played out later the same night, demonstrated the urgency of radio reporting, if not the immediacy. The first episode of “CBS World News Roundup,” broadcast on 13th March 1938, was a one-off live broadcast reporting of the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany the previous day. The broadcast experiment was repeated the next day, and once again later in the year before the deepening pre-war conflict in Europe created turned “Roundup” into a daily show.

In this light, it is curious that NBC were meanwhile broadcasting a weekly radio newsreel dramatisation of events into short sketches. “The March of Time,” started by and named after the news magazine, once featured Orson Welles on its staff of actors, portraying himself in 1936 when a production of “Macbeth” he directed opened in Harlem. The show began in 1931 as one of the first regular news programmes, but by the time it ended in 1945, regular news bulletins outmoded it entirely.

Orson Welles is reported as having said the approach of his company’s dramatization came from a British radio production. “Broadcasting the Barricades” was a 1926 talk by the Reverend Father Ronald Knox, was broadcast to all BBC stations from Edinburgh on Saturday 16th January 1926 at 7.40pm - the listing in the “Radio Times” has no description for the programme itself, but Knox was well-known as a detective novelist. The surviving script for the programme started with a BBC announcer interrupting an academic lecture from Oxford to announce that Communists had invaded London, followed by news that the Savoy hotel, next door to the BBC’s then headquarters, had been set on fire; Big Ben had been blown up; and the transport minister had been hung from a lamppost.

After twenty minutes, the show was over, and it was time for variety, probably from the Savoy Hotel. The BBC received 249 written complaints, and 2,307 written appreciations of the programme. This hoax did cause a minor panic, reported by newspapers in the United States, but if radio was still too new a technology to play with in 1938, it certainly was if regular broadcasts in Britain had only been running for three years.

With the expectation that live reporting was one hundred percent reliable was what made the approach used by Welles in “The War of the Worlds” work too well, especially if a listener tuned in after the drama began – to an audience only expecting to hear this type of radio in only one context, it could be argued that attempting to change or play with that context while the form was still, well, forming, has to be approached very carefully. It should therefore be taken that Welles, his theatre company, and CBS had assumed the intelligence of their audience when it decided to start playing.

“...So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian... It's Hallowe'en.”

Sunday, 15 November 2020

AND HERE ON THE THRESHOLD WE STAND [269]


Liminality is a concept associated with thresholds and rites of passage. As I understand it, a “liminal space” is a kind of transitional space: you have left one area, and you have not reached your destination, and you don’t know how to feel about where you are – even more, the destination may itself be unknown. Others may feel safe there, and you may come to feel safe with time, but until then, something feels a bit “off” about your experience.

I usually try to avoid places where I may feel unwelcome, but I have come to realise that one place I often walked through was, before it was demolished, almost a textbook definition of a liminal space, if not by design, then definitely in execution.

The Tricorn Centre was a shopping and entertainment complex opened in Portsmouth in 1965. It stood as a prime example of Brutalist architecture, and one of the first privately-built examples of its type built in Europe. Driving into Portsmouth city centre, it always came across as a grey carnival of living concrete, but its imposition on the landscape was not what prevented you from ultimately looking inside.

Looking closer exposed decades of neglect and missed chances, caused by missed opportunities that could have made it Portsmouth’s ultimate destination, and by unintentional difficulty to actually get to the place. The centre was ultimately demolished in 2005, the culmination of a city’s reckoning with itself over whether to keep and renovate a part of its landscape, or push away what had been left to become one of the ugliest buildings in Britain.

Designed by Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon - they of Trinity Square, Gateshead and Eros House, Catford - the Tricorn, standing on its triangular plot of land, was intended to incorporate a department store, a supermarket, a bazaar of smaller shops incorporated into a market square, a pub, a nightclub, warehouse units, and eight luxury apartments with views across Portsmouth.

HOWEVER – and this is a very large “however” – the department store, most likely Marks & Spencer, chose not to move in, leading to the space being used as a covered market for smaller vendors, and other big names choosing not to move to the other shops; the existing Charlotte Street market largely stayed outside; the apartments leaked and whistled with the wind, ultimately boarded up by 1980; some warehouse units were never leased, although lorries would have found navigating the spiral road to the rooftop car park extremely difficult; lack of revenue led to decay in the concrete, from rusted metal struts to the formation of stalactites; and the bazaar-type layout proving ideal for muggers.

Most of all, the road layout had not been changed to provide easy entrance to the Tricorn, and no thoroughfare was made to the centre from Commercial Road, the traditional shopping street in Portsmouth – even if it was a location for an early Virgin Megastore, you had to go out of your way to get there. When a thoroughfare finally appeared, in 1989, it was through the Cascades, a more modern, more traditionally-designed shopping centre built alongside one already deemed to have failed.

Most of the memories I have of the Tricorn were from its perimeter – “Charlotte’s Superstore,” the name given to the indoor market; Mr Clive, a suede and leatherware shop; a very large Laser Quest; and a covered area that I walked through as it was the quickest way to get from a nearby Sainsbury’s back to Commercial Road. Some of this last section still survives, as it forms a shop’s fire escape, but before the Tricorn was demolished in 2005, it was much darker and foreboding, flanked by a spiral car park ramp and a petrol station, creating a literal threshold between one area of Portsmouth and the other. If I ever walked through the centre of the complex, it must have been quickly, and with someone.

The Tricorn was demolished in 2005, by which time the liminality of the boarded-up, neglected but still (because of the car park) fully accessible centre was unfortunately associated with suicide. To this day, the levelled triangle plot has remained a car park while successive attempts to regenerate the area have been announced, reformulated, postponed, and thrown out, while Commercial Road is in danger of becoming a liminal space itself through the loss of retail – the only decision already made is to change the road layout.

However, nothing could be bolder than what stood there before, and perhaps, like the new Elephant & Castle development, what may be built in its place will not generate as strong an opinion – although the intent of avoiding offence may cause its own alienation.


Sunday, 8 November 2020

SPANK THE PANK WHO TRY TO DRIVE YOU NUTS [268]


Joe Biden has been elected President of the United States of America, and the world can breathe again. The extraordinary scenes of a country biding its time for five days, agonising as it awaits the outcome of an exercise in both democracy and due process, won’t be seen again for decades. The American people won’t allow their national character to be decided by ballot ever again, and has elected a President that has regard both for himself and the people. With Biden having won both the popular vote and the Electoral College, the victory is that bit sweeter, and that bit more legitimate.

This is a victory for all those made to feel unwelcome in their own country by their leader: the black people brutalised by their police, the immigrants demonised for their otherness, the LGBT people nearly legislated out of existence, and the women objectified and abused by the people that think they are there for the taking. Kamala Harris is, symbolically and in reality, a more qualified Vice President than the moralising ignorance of Mike Pence, let alone a President that flouted and ridiculed his own administration’s advice on coronavirus, only to get it himself.

The vote counters in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Alaska deserve applause for their days of hard work in the light of the largest turnout in over a century, and the increased absentee ballots due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I once helped count the votes in a UK general election, for the Gosport constituency in 2005, which chose my Member of Parliament. I remember being told that you don’t have to answer the poll observers’ questions, as they stood over you, trying to tally who voted for their side, because your job is to make sure the count is done correctly – we recounted some batches of ballots if any inconsistency was found. Six hours later, and with over forty-three thousand votes counted, we could go home. If I’ve lost sleep just watching the US elections this time around, I couldn’t imagine having to wake up to go back to the convention centre to continue counting, but it just underscores how important the whole exercise of democracy is to be treated.

Joe Biden conducted himself the best following election day, guiding the tone for the country as it waited for the time when the result becomes final, and when he could legitimately claim to be the winner. I don’t know too much about Biden, apart from his serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, and for making occasional gaffes that reveal the regular guy under the politician exterior, but he proved himself as Vice President, and actually appears be human, which is enough. Living in the United Kingdom is no excuse for not following the US General Election results, especially when your country’s post-Brexit future may depend in part on what the winner is prepared to accept or offer, but I am assured that Joe Biden will consider what is best for everyone before making a deal with the UK, not only what is best for him personally.


Elsewhere Donald Trump, a man that makes gold look cheap, while looking and sounding like a drag queen version of his younger self, sequestered himself in the White House to feed from the conspiracy theories concocted about the count, attempting to convert them to fact by writing them out on Twitter, breaking their terms of service one more time. Perhaps his repeated claims of “fraud,” that Biden “stole” the election, votes being counted “illegally,” and the media deciding the election ahead of time, is all the nuance he can muster. With Twitter having decided to remove his “newsworthy individual” privileges the moment he stops being President, expect Trump's malicious and indiscriminate account to disappear very quickly, as he faces the world without Presidential immunity.

In November 2016 [link], I said that the holder of the office of President “cannot afford to be given the benefit of the doubt, especially when Trump has never appeared to need it before. He will be given the opportunity to govern in the way he sees fit, but he will be under constant scrutiny, for every single decision, for every public utterance, for the rest of his life.”

For Donald John Trump, that scrutiny will only intensify. What I had not expected is how half-arsed a leader he turned out to be. “Let’s Make America Great Again” was Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan in 1980, and later used in speeches by Bill Clinton in 1992, so it doesn’t take much imagination for the real estate heir, taking advantage of Reaganomics and tax breaks, to copy the words, remove the inclusivity of “let’s,” and make it into a catch-all dog whistle. Trusting only his decisions, there is no history to learn, no precedent to observe, no dignity worth honouring.

Meanwhile, the politicians and White House staff that aided and abetted him have been a revolving door of “Dick Tracy” villains that either ended up in jail or wrote a memoir. Perhaps your experience of life is tainted when the only people that come close to you will eventually sell you out for profit, but when you define your life by the deals you make, you can’t reasonably expect fealty from anyone.

Posted to the telephone cabinet at the end of my street in 2018... in the UK...

What I am most wary about, despite Biden’s victory, is that over seventy million Americans still voted for Trump. This has already been indicated as meaning that neither Trump, or Trumpism, is going away, and that his political conduct over the previous four years has effectively been endorsed - his associates, acolytes, or even his family, may try to replicate the same disregard for America’s institutions and rules, with the expectation of a similar level of success. Talk of the United States being as divided as during the Civil War may subside, but it may leave a new Confederacy-style grievance in place, if Trump's die-hard followers try to turn "America First" and "Make America Great Again" into a new "lost cause." The next four years will be difficult, but Joe Biden already knew that.

Between now and 20th January 2021, Trump and his staff will most likely continue to obfuscate the election results, spread disinformation, and use all the tricks they can to pull off the win that exists in his head. But there is a word for that, a Middle English word derived from the Old French “tromper” (“deceive”), and meaning either attractive articles of little value or use, or something that is showy or worthless: “trumpery.”

The news cycle will not quiet down yet, but it’s nice to know it could. But for now, Joe Biden won, and a lot of people are saying the big stupid low-energy bully Donald Trump (never met him) is a loser, and a nasty, terrible person, the likes of which you’ve never seen before - everybody’s talking about it, that’s just what I had heard, a lot of people tell me. It’s very sad - he just took no responsibility at all.

...and in 2020.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

SOME DUCKS AND SOME SWANS [267]

 


While I ready myself to write about the 2020 US Presidential Election (which will mainly be about Donald Trump, but what isn’t these days), please accept a video of some ducks and some swans, filmed a couple of weeks ago.


Sunday, 25 October 2020

PLAYING PING PONG ALL NIGHT LONG [266]


For what is both an exercise in nostalgia, and a way to continue exploiting old intellectual property, it is remarkable that the Atari Flashback series of games consoles, begun in 2003 by Atari themselves and continued under license by AtGames, has now lasted longer than the original production run of the Atari Video Computer System, later renamed the Atari 2600, on which it is based.

The original console was in production for a mere fifteen years (1977-92), withstanding numerous redesigns and cost-cutting, competition from far more advanced machines, an insatiable public demand for more complex and involved games, and the bankruptcy of its parent company.

But the games are amazing. Atari’s catalogue, along with games made for the console by other publishers – Pong, Breakout, Adventure, Battlezone, Centipede, Yars’ Revenge, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Pitfall! – form a canon that proved the viability of an industry. The Fairchild Channel F may have been the first games console with interchangeable cartridges, but the 2600’s games had the playability to put the technology under televisions in millions of living rooms.

I have previously written about the Atari 2600, and how difficult it is to program [link], and I have walked through my reasons for buying the Nintendo NES Classic Mini, recreating a console I never played before [link]. I also used the Nintendo GameBoy to explain how something cannot be “retro” if you never experienced it before [link]. But the 2600? We never had one at home, but we had something similar.

“Pong console” is a generic name for the glut of clones of Atari’s original Pong home console, moving elements around the screen to recreate different sports. We had one at home in the 1980s, probably imported into the UK under the Binatone or Grandstand name,  playing all games onto a green background, using orange joysticks hard-wired into a wood-laminated unit. The games were basic, but addictive. You did not require your imagination to get past the blocky screen resolution and rudimentary graphics – you are controlling only a short line on screen – because you have a clear objective: to get your pixel of a ball past your opponent’s line. A good game doesn’t need brilliant graphics.

The Atari Flashback X, the tenth in the line, is the first console in the series to closely replicate the original 2600 “Heavy Sixer” in miniature, previous versions being only similar in shape, their yellow buttons now replaced by more authentic silver switches for game select, game reset and difficulty levels – these options are on the control pads of newer consoles, but the Flashback uses that space on its player 1 joystick for further menu and game save features. The previous flashback model had an SD card slot to play extra games beyond the built-in games – a similar slot could have utilised the space replicating the 2600’s cartridge slot, but it is possible to update the firmware and play extra games via USB, if you’ve played through the 110 built-in games.

The games included speak for themselves – they have been endlessly released on every console going, even the latest PlayStation, X-Box and the Nintendo Switch, hilariously using high-power processors to recreate its “primitive” blocky graphics perfectly; they have been shoehorned into many hand-held and plug-and-play machines, and are baked into popular culture – even if you have never played “Adventure,” seeing the film “Ready Player One” knows you are playing a dot in a maze, sometimes carrying a key bigger than yourself. “Pong” is rote as far as video game history is concerned, although the 2600’s “Video Olympics” game, providing fifty-seven different variations on a theme, is played against a very pleasing Seventies brown background. However, the version of "Space Invaders" more closely resembles Taito's original arcade version than the 2600 version, thereby making it easier on the eyes, as the trickery required to produce the necessary bank of aliens on the 2600 produced an awful flicker on the screen.

Before spending £70 on my Flashback X, I had considered trying to emulate the games on my PC – the basic graphics should be very easy to replicate – but I realised that emulation throws everything into the ether. Unless you have something to touch that is identifiable as having come from the original, you are not playing the game as intended. The satisfaction of flipping the “Reset Game” switch on the Flashback X, ready to play again, won’t have been the same if I had to select a key on my keyboard, or use my mouse to select “Reset” from a menu. Apart from the modern menu to select the game, I am playing a 2600, and the inclusion of two classic joysticks completes the effect...

...but the original 2600 also came with two paddles, essential for games like “Pong,” “Atari Circus” and “Breakout.” Because the latter game is my favourite so far, I decided to buy a pair of paddles – the Flashback series is compatible with original 1970s and 80s Atari controllers. I attempted to play “Breakout” with the joystick, but you can only go left a bit, right a bit – it isn’t easy to get your line where you need it to bounce the pixel ball away. The paddles, however, are perfect – you can nudge yourself along very slowly, or swipe your line along in one jolt.

As someone that rarely played video games, before finding that the type I like were the shorter, simpler games that were made for the 2600, I find that Atari’s paddles are the best game controllers I have used, and something I wish could have been used more widely on other consoles – if I knew about this as a child, I might have played video games more often. Like the volume control knob on a radio, the paddle houses a potentiometer. The effect on voltage produced by the paddle is registered in the console as a value that happens to also be used for controlling the horizontal position of an on-screen sprite, so game programmers can simply copy that value onto the screen to move your game piece along the screen, without any extra code to interpret what is coming from the joystick. I feel more connected to the game than when using a joystick, or a D-pad.

In short, I like the Atari Flashback X, I enjoy playing the games, but definitely buy some paddles for it.



Sunday, 18 October 2020

HEAR ME, I’M GRAPHICALLY YOURS [265]


Once upon a time, staged plays were a staple of British television – plays originally performed on the stage, and plays written to be staged on television. A famous example is “Dial M for Murder,” first staged by the BBC in 1952, then in the West End the following year, and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock the year after that. An even more famous example is Nigel Kneale’s 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” whose violent visions of a fascist Britain prompted questions in Parliament, before the Duke of Edinburgh said he watched it with the Queen, and enjoyed it. At this time, plays were normally performed twice, and performed live – the distinguished audience of the first performance of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the only reason a telerecording was made of the second performance, preserving Peter Cushing as Winston Smith for posterity.

The history of British television plays is normally centred on socially conscious strands like BBC One’s “The Wednesday Play” and “Play for Today,” with famous productions like “Up the Junction,” “Cathy Come Home,” “Scum,” and “Abigail’s Party.” Meanwhile, in July 1968, on the more niche BBC Two, Nigel Kneale presented a polemical original story that was “sooner than you think,” an opening line that could easily now say, “I told you so.”

“The Year of the Sex Olympics,” starring Leonard Rossiter and Brian Cox, is like a counterculture version of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” befitting its production in psychedelic colour, for Europe’s only colour TV channel – unfortunately, it only exists as a black and white telerecording, the colour tape long gone, but the intention is clear that “the future” in science fiction is another version of “now.” This time, the masses are sated by giving them exactly what they want to watch on TV, all the time, to the point where they will not want to do anything else but continue to watch. TV programmes with titles such as "Foodshow," "Sportsex" and "Artsex," the last two being qualifying events for the Sex Olympics themselves, are deliberately as coarse in their intention as they sound, targeting the Freudian id of the audience. That everyone is seen taking their food-drink from a container looking not unlike a baby's pacifier dummy hits the message home.


To be clear, this is not like showing pornography to stimulate: this is showing pornography as a substitute for having sex, to the point where the drive to have sex is satisfied. As the play puts it, this is TV made by "high-drives" for an audience of "low-drives," observed for their every reaction, steering them towards the right sort of complacency. Lack of drive means no wars, no tension, and peace for all. The English spoken in "The Year of the Sex Olympics," a 1960s hippie-ish parade of stunted slogans, devoid of prepositions, is like the Newspeak of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," but instead of reducing the language by design, words instead lose their meaning when what they describe no longer exists - it's all aiming for the top, "big king style." The LSD-laced psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, and the hopes of expanding consciousness, are used to inevitably cynical ends to separate the elite from the rest.

However, standing behind the backdrop of the Arctic, as two high-drives do in one scene, doesn't mean you feel cold. All the above is failing, due to boredom - everything has now all been seen before, on the TV screen. The shrieks and laughs and joys when a protestor falls to their death at the Sex Olympics, trying to show their deliberately horrible art - anything for a reaction – prompts the creation of "The Live Life Show," showing a family attempting to survive on a remote island, climaxing when a psychopath is introduced to island and kills the family. "Something got to happen," apparently.

I had wondered whether the dividing line between the sociopathic high-drives and mollified low-drives had followed an inciting incident, like a war, that rearranged society, as in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” but the degeneration from our current standpoint is what “The Year of the Sex Olympics” is designed to warn. When “The Live Life Show” started to appear on real-life television in 2000, as “Big Brother” on Channel 4, and the BBC’s own “Castaway 2000,” it initially appeared that the most we were going to get was rowdy behaviour, and Ben Fogle. What we should have looked out for was when the pressure of appearing on television leads to suicide after the cameras have stopped, as with ITV’s “Love Island” and “The Jeremy Kyle Show.”

Eventually, drama series and TV movies replaced the staged play, just as captive audiences for plays about potentially difficult subjects on one of only three British TV channels have now been scattered across hundreds of channels and streaming services - one-off plays are now either rare treats, or usually found on radio. Then again, there are the occasional stories on TV that implore you to just go outside and get a life.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

GIVE US A SIGN THAT WE’VE REACHED YOU [264]


It seems an odd point to make that people are more accepting of alien invasion than they used to be, as if there has been a real-life test of this theory, but the reason this came to my mind was from watching Frank Oz’s director’s cut of “Little Shop of Horrors,” which might take even more of an explanation. However, when there is still only one “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for every five films like “Independence Day,” or one “Arrival” for every ten “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” there is a case to be made that people are now more willing to see a vision of an alien invasion that results in the eradication of humanity. No longer do the only outcomes for audiences have to be “we come in peace,” or the vanquishing of a foreign force.

Since 2012, “Little Shop of Horrors” has been available in two versions: the original 1986 released version, where Rick Moranis’s Seymour and Ellen Greene’s Audrey marry and move to the suburbs, just as in Audrey’s earlier dream, the alien plant Audrey II having been vanquished in the face of  a merchandising deal that would have put the plant in every home; and the Director’s Cut, restoring the original off-Broadway musical’s ending where Audrey II was cultivated, sold, and promptly killed everyone in a glorious display of destruction that completely horrified the test audience that had grown to love the characters over the previous ninety minutes, which nearly caused Warner Bros. to shelve the film before a more acceptable ending was constructed. Frank Oz later lamented the loss of the original ending by pointing out how, on the stage, the actors come out for a curtain call at the end.

The original ending, costing twenty percent of the film’s $25 million budget, was considered lost until 2011, when producer David Geffen remembered he had a copy of it – a previous DVD release of “Little Shop of Horrors” that included black and white footage without sound and completed effects shots was withdrawn after being released in 1998 without Geffen’s knowledge. When screened at the 2012 New York Film Festival, audiences accepted Seymour’s and Audrey’s deaths with applause, and cheered at the intricate model shots of a city being eviscerated by giant Audrey IIs. Now that Audrey II was properly connected to the 1950s alien B-movies that were contemporaneous with the film’s period setting, people could look at the unfurling destruction with the post-ironic knowingness that allows you to enjoy your own demise.

This is not the only time the ending of an alien invasion film was changed to be more accepting to audiences. “Phase IV,” the 1974 science-fiction film about a group of scientists shielding against a super-intelligent colony of ants, was to have ended with a surreal sequence of images where humanity is incorporated into the now superior ant race as it rebuilds global society. It is an extremely effective sequence, especially with the knowledge that Saul Bass, the graphic designer and storyboard designer for the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” is the film’s director. However, this ending was too much for the distributor, and “Phase IV” is cut off at the point where the scientists await the ants’ instructions. Again, the proper ending wasn’t shown theatrically until 2012.

Even the original 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” lost its original ending after it was topped and tailed with scenes that made the whole film into a long flashback. Instead of the police finally accepting Dr Miles Bennell’s story of giant seed pods being scattered in a road, bound for a city to replace people, the original ending should have been Dr Bennell’s frantic screams that “They’re here already! You’re next!”

The first time I remember watching an alien invasion film where humanity falls acceptably is “Mars Attacks!” What may have rendered this acceptable was the big names both in front and behind the camera: Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones and so on, and other names you may want to see killed in the name of entertainment. Perhaps the genre tropes of science fiction are so prevalent that humanity losing is somehow a new experience, meaning the time for what was going to be called “the Intended Cut” of “Little Shop of Horrors” has now come - I’m not sure I’ll be watching the original cut for that very reason. 

Sunday, 4 October 2020

LEAVE A LIGHT ON FOR ME [263]


[The script of this video is reproduced below.]

Hello there, I decided to return to The Bridge Shopping Centre in Portsmouth after a year away. On my first visit there, in 2017, it had been a dead shopping centre that had been reduced to a corridor between the main road and the Asda superstore that both overlooked it, and owned it. However, by 2019, some local businesses had begun reopening the spaces that national chains had left behind, and the atmosphere was slowly returning. All the while, I continued receiving messages asking about the centre, or sharing their memories of it.

To be honest, the video I shot inside The Bridge this time around is not very good, and the reason was because the centre was JUST TOO BUSY. More shops have opened, and more people are walking through. It’s easy to film the late Eighties design in an empty centre, when few people had a reason to walk through, other than the Asda of course, but this time, there were simply too many people to film around, and standing still being ready to film something looks arguably more suspicious than just walking around with a camera. However, what this meant is that we have a success story - this dead mall is no longer dead.

What I will do now is play you the footage I have, and I will be back with more in a moment.

[VIDEO]

...and that was that. As you can see, more shops have opened: an African food market, a further furniture outlet, a baby buggy shop and a barber shop. The Cubana Beach Club outside has now been replaced with one of those virtual reality escape room places. Asda has done a good job of enticing businesses back in but, as you can see, it is primarily local businesses that are responsible for the renewal of the centre, and with national chains continuing to close stores, it will be local businesses that will keep The Bridge open.

Once again, this is a dead mall success story.

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

Sunday, 27 September 2020

RISE, GO OUTSIDE BITCH [262]


My choice for the song that defines the year 2020 was decided very early on, by the end of March. Furthermore, it was was actually released on 20th December 2019, but reviews raved about it into the new year. “Sick & Panic” is the first release by the electronic music artist Ramona Xavier to use the pseudonym Macintosh Plus since the seminal 2011 album “Floral Shoppe,” a cornerstone of the vaporwave genre. Xavier usually releases under the name Vektroid, so the use of Macintosh Plus this time caused immense anticipation.

For the uninitiated, “Floral Shoppe” is a cut-up of mostly Eighties tracks already drenched in keyboard and saxophone, that are sped up, slowed down, looped and distorted, giving the impression that you have unearthed a cassette tape with no known history, and the tape itself is worn and ragged. The standout track is “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー" (“Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing”) – Japanese text is a big feature in vaporwave song titles and album design – which spins out the first ninety seconds of the Diana Ross album track “It’s Your Move” into a seven minute meditation on the idea that time is running out, with the line “I'm giving up on trying to sell you things that you ain't buying” rendered iconic. Vaporwave is a genre defined by hauntology, a longing for a future that never came, and wherever that future went, “Floral Shoppe” is what it left.

In comparison, “Sick & Panic,” released as the precursor to a new Macintosh Plus album later in 2020, is like playing the cassette found stuck inside an old Sony Walkman that was itself found in the back room of an abandoned branch of Currys, after they moved out of the town centre. It gets stuck, it stutters, it has snatches of lyrics, and some melody comes up that may sound familiar, but it is then distorted and enveloped back into itself. Classical vaporwave has to smash through modern EDM noise first. It could be dismissed as noise – twelve and a half minutes of noise, in the same way that The Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” is eight and a half minutes of noise.

You may start to pick out patterns, because that is how the mind works, but that is only so you can find a hook, an anchor, something to hold. The choppy lyrics, like “Face, face, don't, face” and “Goes, goes get you,” will suddenly make a whole sentence: “I don’t need my body anymore” and “go outside bitch.” The song’s cover art, which sends flying the Apollonian bust from the original “Floral Shoppe” cover, reads, “Rise From Your Grave.” When the drum machine and MIDI sampled keyboard kick in at the half-way mark, it is almost comforting, but the cosy nostalgia that vaporwave hopes to evoke is quickly snatched away again, but this is not the time for that.

Why “Sick & Panic” sounds the way it does may not truly make perfect sense until the rest of the album is released, but it sounds like something unknown is about to burst, and you are being implored to fight its effects. The two-word description of the track on Xavier’s Bandcamp page (https://vektroid.bandcamp.com) is “NO WAR” – from your perspective, you have either not seen the war coming, or you have to start picking which battle to fight. This is vaporwave designed to agitate.

It would have been easy enough to choose “Sick & Panic” as my song of 2020 based solely on the title, but when 2020 is finally talked about in the past tense, it will be as a difficult year to have lived through, the world itself having changed, and with the future having finally arrived. Making sense of the noise is like brushing your teeth these days.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

WHO CARES WHAT PICTURE YOU SEE [261]


On the evening of 16th March 2020, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced the start of the lockdown that would attempt to suppress the outbreak of Covid-19, of which one measure was the closure of cinemas across the country, to prevent people coming into close contact within a closed space.

Two days later, my bank sent me six free cinema tickets, to use at my local multiplex. The current account I have with my bank allows me to choose an extra perk from a list each year, like a magazine subscription, or money off in restaurants, but every March, when the bank asks me what I want next, I always choose the cinema tickets.

On 19th September 2020, I see a film in a cinema for what was the first time since 23rd February – that film was “Greed,” the comedy satirising the clothes shop magnates that squeeze sweatshops for profit, starring Steve Coogan as a Sir Philip Green analogue that builds a plywood Colosseum using migrant labour to celebrate their birthday. It was a good film, if earnest at putting its point across, but I only remembered I saw it after realising that watching “Cats” (a film I still like) in a cinema was such an overpowering experience, it obliterated the following two months of film-watching memory – either that, or 2020 has been as long a year as everyone else has said.

Cinemas in the UK were allowed to reopen from 4th July, but my local cinema reopened on 7th August, having been postponed from 10th July. My local chain is Vue, a British chain partly owned by a Canadian pension fund. However, the gap between its reopening and my finally walking through the door was entirely mine, as I deliberated what to see next – the future of local government employees in Ontario depended on my decision.

The canary in the cinema coalmine, used to gauge how quickly people would return, was Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” but I did not want to watch another large film, with a large story, with large ideas, and a large cast – I am not usually one for blockbuster tentpole films anyway. I had considered watching the rerelease of an older film, namely “The Empire Strikes Back,” but I didn’t care enough about Star Wars to watch what has been turned into the middle film in a middle trilogy. I certainly wouldn’t wait until November to watch “No Time to Die,” but when it comes to series that define how Britain is portrayed in film, I am more likely to choose a Carry On film over James Bond.

So, childhood nostalgia it is – I’m seeing “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” itself postponed from 21st August, 14th August, and 28th August, finally arriving on screens on 16th September. The film itself was great, but you will get more out of it if you have seen the other two films. Oddly, it felt like it was made by fans of the first two films, even when you know it was the original team.

As long as it took for me to choose a film to watch, the bigger problem was at the cinema itself. The capacity of the screen showing “Bill & Ted” was 422 seats, the biggest in the fourteen-screen multiplex. The number of people in the audience was FIVE. It may have been 10:10 on a Saturday morning, but before the lockdown, showing ANY film would get a bigger audience than five.

Losing access to cinemas for a period of time has run the risk of upending the idea of films altogether in a way I wouldn’t have thought. We are now so used to home video releases of films coming only a matter of weeks after their cinema release, that it becomes ever easier to skip the cinema release altogether: the Tom Hanks film “Greyhound,” made for $50 million, was released online in July 2020 after the lockdown made its cinema release impossible. What was meant to have been a Columbia Pictures Release became a success for Apple TV+ instead. “Trolls World Tour” made a $30 on-demand cost for one film justifiable, later copied by Disney with the live-action “Mulan,” making the audience being a Disney+ subscriber a pre-requisite before paying any more. If it is made any easier for film companies to do this instead, there will be no more need for cinemas.

I prefer to think of cinema as the medium rather than the film – films are made to be watched in a cinema. Watching a film in any other circumstance takes away from the singular focus on the screen. All TV screens, and especially all mobile phone screens, are too small for cinema, too inadequate to deal with intimate detail and expansive views. Both the sound and vision of cinema do not have to complete with that is happening outside where the film is playing, but once it leaves, that is all that ever happens – films can be shown on television, and films can be posted to YouTube, but films are not television, and films are not YouTube.

I have five free tickets left – my cinema will have these well before next March.