Sunday, 26 January 2020

CAN’T DO A LITTLE ‘CAUSE HE CAN’T DO ENOUGH [219]


There is a great argument against putting eyes on inanimate objects, for this action is inviting you to take that object as having become an autonomous being, capable of emotion, making you feel guilty for disposing of it at the end of its useful life.



Then, there is Mayor McCheese, resident of, and remnant from McDonaldland, an advertising campaign introduced in 1970 to sell fast food to children, when that was still acceptable. Ronald McDonald, the Hamburglar and Grimace were all residents of McDonaldland until 2003, when McDonald’s dropped the use of it, but while those characters continue to be used, Mayor McCheese had been kicked out of town as long ago as 1985. 


Ultimately, the reason for this exile is obvious – Mayor McCheese is a humanoid with a burger for a head, a mayoral sash, and the voice like comedian Ed Wynn, who was the Mad Hatter in Disney’s animated “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), the perfect combination of “what was that about?” that makes for cutaway gags in episodes of “Family Guy.” However, that very combination of nightmare fuel was what ultimately tripped up Mayor McCheese and McDonald’s, when they were sued for copyright theft.


I don’t believe the children’s TV series “H.R. Pufnstuf,” shown in 1969, ever made it to the UK, but because “The Banana Splits,” also created by puppeteers Sid & Marty Krofft, did reach us, it is easy to extrapolate. The show was performed using large costumes and puppets, and was the story of a stranger in Living Island, where all inanimate objects could come alive, and were targeted by the witch Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo. The stranger, Jimmy, was played by Jack Wild, just nominated for an Oscar for playing the Artful Dodger in “Oliver!”


H.R. Pufnstuf was the name of the mayor of Living Island, and while he was a dragon, he was a humanoid character, with a very large head, a mayoral sash, and an odd voice, if not sounding like Ed Wynn – many other characters on the show, however, did parody Hollywood film stars. There are enough elements shared between H.R. Pufnstuf and Mayor McCheese to argue there was, at the very least, a coincidence, but it was one was big enough to question the character’s origins, which brought the rest of McDonaldland down with it.


As detailed in the lawsuit “Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions Inc. v. McDonald’s Corp.”, the Kroffts had been in contact with Needham, Harper & Steers, the advertising agency that created the McDonaldland campaign, about working with them. After a number of phone calls, the Kroffts were ultimately told the campaign had been cancelled, when in fact the agency was to proceed on their own -the first advertisements were created by former Krofft employees, while “H.R. Pufnstuf” voice actor Lennie Weinrib was also involved. The newer work became more popular than the Kroffts’ original show, causing them to lose licensing deals for toys and other products.


In the original case, the Kroffts won $50,000 in damages, deemed to be the value of their work that McDonald’s benefitted from – both sides appealed. Four years later, the Kroffts won over a million dollars in damages. What had changed was the case having established extrinsic and intrinsic tests for whether a work had violated copyright, moving beyond simply deciding if an idea had been copied, into comparing both the factual similarities between works, and whether “the man in the street” would consider the two works to be similar. A footnote in the case’s decision reads: “Both lands are governed by mayors who have disproportionately large round heads dominated by long wide mouths. They are assisted by ‘Keystone cop’ characters... It seems clear that such similarities go beyond merely that of the idea into the area of expression.” For the record, copyrights relating to the Keystone Cops expired some time beforehand.


McDonaldland continued in its original form until 1985, although McDonald’s would later advertise their evening opening times with the “Mac Tonight” advert, featuring a man at a piano, singing “Mack the Knife” – “now that Mac[k] is back in town” – with a crescent moon for a head, wearing sunglasses. Sid & Marty Krofft would later be sued by Paul Simon, as the theme for “H.R. Pufnstuf” sounded too close to the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” both extrinsically and intrinsically. No-one put eyes on a burger ever again.  

Sunday, 19 January 2020

THINGS THEY DO LOOK AWFUL COLD [218]



“My definition of a film director is the man who presides over accidents... Everywhere there are beautiful accidents. There’s a smell in the air, there’s a look that changes the whole resonance of what you expected.” – Alfred Hitchcock Orson Welles.


If 2018 could be remembered for anything good, it is because two of the most extreme examples of film development hell finally saw release: “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” directed by Terry Gilliam, and Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” released by Netflix thirty-three years after its creator’s death. Like Gilliam’s project, Welles’ film has its own behind-the-scenes documentary, daring to tell a more interesting story than the film itself.


“They’ll love me when I’m dead” may well be something Orson Welles said, but that was not true in the New Hollywood of the 1970s – the old one kicked him out for making uncommercial or downbeat films, leaving him to scrape together funds for his work in Europe by resorting to cameos and commercials. Welles had the reputation of “Citizen Kane” loom over him for the forty-five years from its release to his death, especially when the film students and scholars that rose up in that time lionised his craft as a cinematic auteur. He still couldn’t get his films made – the ones that did were the scholars, like Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Spielberg. In this environment, the only option for Welles was, effectively, to make a student film.



When it eventually appeared, “The Other Side of the Wind” could not be more of a self-portrait: an old-time director, played by old-time director John Huston, is making a film that attempts to evoke the vogue of atmospheric European productions by directors like Michelangelo Antonioni (and starring Oja Kodar, the film's co-writer and Welles' lover), while being followed around by journalists with tape recorders, forever asking about his life and his work, because there can be no difference between them. The film is shot like a documentary – point-and-shoot, get as much footage as you can, and make sense of it later. The film within the film itself is wordless, arty, impenetrable, and unfinished - the fictional director also ran out of funds.


“They’ll Love Me When I Dead” is linked by Alan Cumming, who appears to be turning into James Mason, and while it tells the story of a man that could never finish his films due to circumstance, you get the feeling that Welles probably deserved it: the unplanned nature of the production, with a constantly rewritten script, is as chaotic as the outtakes show. The money was scraped together from various sources - Welles would use an American Film Institute ceremony, held in 1975 in his honour, to unsuccessfully make a bid for funds to complete the project. One source of funds was a son-in-law of the Shah of Iran, which ultimately led to the film being impounded by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. Peter Bogdanovich, a defender of Welles’ reputation, later cast in the film as a confidante of Huston, later had Welles living out of his house for two years, filling his rooms with cigar smoke and Fudgsicles. The director of photography, Gary Graver, spent fifteen years answering to Welles every day, but was not paid by him, and resorted to camerawork on over a hundred porn films, to make ends meet, most notably for the notorious Ed Wood – Graver would later spend eighteen months carrying around Welles’ ashes in the boot of his car. 



The documentary ends with a reminder of other Welles projects that went unfinished including, appropriately enough, a version of “Don Quixote,” as if to prove that anyone attempting to film that story must be quixotic in their own way. As much as Orson Welles left behind, his reputation means what was left behind will come to light: with “They’ll Love Me When I Dead” focusing squarely on Welles, we do not get the story of how it took until 2014 for the litigation around “The Other Side of the Wind” to finally end, and how it was eventually completed – that needs its own documentary. What we do get, however, is an idea of the Orson Welles that was drawn upon to finish the film, the Welles that put into the mouth of John Huston: “We can borrow from each other, but what we must never do is borrow from ourselves.”


Wednesday, 15 January 2020

AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS [217]


With its future in limbo, I visit the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, and find that it’s business as usual - a dead mall wouldn’t have working escalators.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

TAKE ON ME, TAKE ME ON [216]


A question has been plaguing me for weeks: should I buy a Yamaha reface DX? 


One new year’s resolution for me is to make more music. I can read music, and play the piano a bit, but there Is much space for improvement. Music is just one of those things it feels like I should be able to do. But when a particular idea plants itself, one that will require a substantial commitment from me, in terms of time and financial outlay, in order to justify itself, it is a decision I could not take lightly – it has been in the back of my mind for months.


The Yamaha reface DX is one of a series of four music keyboards, released in 2015, that aims to replicate other keyboards in Yamaha’s history and, like the Sega Mega Drive Mini and Nintendo NES Classic Mini, give users the experience of using the original hardware, with authentic knobs, switches and sliders – the CP is an electric piano, the YC a combo organ, and the CS is a synthesiser representing the late 1970s / early 1980s period when sounds where carefully shaped through adjusting many different levels, meaning it is the only keyboard in the range with no sound presets.




The reface DX aims to capture a very specific period in pop music that was defined by the original Yamaha DX7, known as an “FM synth,” as Frequency Modulation Synthesis, in the most basic sense, involves using the frequency of a sound wave to alter the sound of another one. The programming of a DX7, which could use up to six operating frequencies at once, was notoriously difficult, meaning most musical artists and groups stuck to the original thirty-two preset “patches” it came with. Therefore, from the DX7’s release in 1983 to the end of 1980s, by which point keyboards became more sample-based, the carefully-shaped sounds of pianos, bass and tubular bells could be heard in songs by A-Ha, Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, Jan Hammer, Genesis, Supertramp, Steve Winwood, Vangelis, Toto, Elton John, Queen, Level 42, Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder, U2, Donald Fagen, Yes, Jean-Michel Jarre and Dire Straits – the last one is mainly the opening bit to “Money for Nothing.” Brian Eno used the DX7 extensively, but unlike most people, he mastered the programming.

Why wouldn’t I like to join that list buy buying a reface DX? The nostalgia from that period in music is intoxicating, because it sounds unlike anything that came both before and after it, as sampling slowly returned a more natural sound into the 1990s. The FM Synth sound is something to which people keep returning, both because it evokes a particular setting, or time period, as much as being part of a musical palette. I would like to do something with that.



Justifying the cost is one thing when you both consider its deliberately smaller form figure, made to accompany bigger set-ups for performing artists, makes it look like a toy keyboard. Korg also make the Volca FM, one of their series of portable synthesisers, but it was too complex for me – the reface DX uses touch-sensitive sliders and USB downloading for programming its sounds, making them far easier to contemplate than the original DX7. Most of all, the ability to emulate any old sound using computer programs and apps make the idea of spending a single penny sound pointless.


What could I do? Over the last few months, I have read countless articles, and watched numerous videos, from people talking about the reface DX, going over every possible subject from what samples have been included – the link to more recent drum ‘n’ bass and EDM music has been made as much as 80s pop – to what happens If you run a factory reset. I know I will need to make space at home for the new keyboard, and I will make time every day to practice making music on it. Even as part of making a trip to London, I looked in at Yamaha’s showroom in Wardour Street to try playing one...


Yes, of course I bought one. As soon as I hit an “F” note using the Tubular Bell preset, that was it. I may have committed to this like I was owning a pet for the first time, but I know I am going to enjoy using it.


Sunday, 5 January 2020

ALWAYS READ THE LABEL [215]


One morning, getting ready to go out for a walk, I was asked to buy some antihistamines. I knew what type was needed, so I checked: “is that the Benadryl, in the yellow box?” Since there are so many types – cetirizine, loratadine, acrivastine and so on – once someone has finally come across the one that finally works, you must follow their instructions very closely.


In my nearest Asda – if you’re American, read Walmart, because Asda is owned by them - there was only one box of the correct medicine on the shelves: Benadryl’s One-a-Day cetirizine, and it was in a box of thirty tablets for £9.50. I seriously considered walking to the next store to try there, but I then saw Asda’s own-brand cetirizine, again a box of thirty, with exactly the same dose per tablet, for £2.50.


The story should have ended there, but I did think that, if I explained why this different box would be just as good as the branded product, it will make sense. However, I compared the descriptions: the full name of the medicine in Asda’s box was cetirizine hydrochloride – C21H25ClN2O3, a combination of carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, nitrogen and oxygen atoms – while Benadryl One-a-Day was cetirizine dihydrochloride, with an extra chlorine and hydrogen atom attached to it. 


I made a snap decision, probably one that Johnson & Johnson, owners of Benadryl, wanted me to make – there was slightly more to the Benadryl than the supermarket’s own-brand product, and that, plus I didn’t have to walk any further than I originally planned. I bought wat I was asked to buy, and made for home.


Naturally, I still wanted to know how effective cetirizine dihydrochloride is in comparison to the other kind, so I looked it up and... none has been detected. It is quite possible that Johnson & Johnson made a very slight change to the existing molecular structure of cetirizine in order to register a patent, but I have no evidence to confirm that a common practice in medicine happened in this particular case.


Quite obviously, the power of advertising worked. Fruit and vegetables are the same from one place to the next, but the more particular you can make something, the more exclusive and individual it can be, and the more essential you can make it, the more you can charge - being cynical is a two-way street as far as advertising goes, because it still works no matter how educated you are of its effects, and how dismissive of it you are as a result. 


Arriving home, I handed over the Benadryl, saying not to worry about the extra cost for the tablets, as I had been given material for an article – I wait to see if, next time, I will be asked about buying the antihistamines in the yellow box.