Sunday, 28 June 2020

I’LL DO ALL THAT I CAN [248]


I could easily have wondered why my family owned the “Rocky IV” soundtrack album, but the opening of James Brown’s “Living in America” answers that question very quickly. However, we also had a cassette named “The Power of Classic Rock,” and when that blinked back into my consciousness, I needed answers.

The track listing for this album befits the name “The Power of Classic Rock,” and its 1985 release date: “Drive,” by The Cars, “Purple Rain,” “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “The Power of Love” (by Jennifer Rush), and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” But this album is not a compilation of recent hits: it is a covers album, the “artist” is The London Symphony Orchestra, assisted by The Royal Choral Society, and was the seventh album in a series that began in 1978.

The premise is simple: the “Classic Rock” series recreates popular music in a classical, symphonic style. The record label that instigated the series, K-Tel – yes, them of the cheap, quiet and groove-crammed “20 Original Hits, Original Stars” albums – would later instigate an inverse series from 1981, “Hooked On Classics,” presenting a medley of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s usual repertoire against a Linn drum machine. From 1985, the “Classic Rock” series had moved to CBS Records, under Sony, beginning with “The Power of Classic Rock,” but The London Symphony Orchestra remained at Studio 1 at Abbey Road, having played the inaugural recordings there in 1931, when Sir Edward Elgar conducted them in performances of his compositions.

The judder in my memory of this album came from my having realised I first heard these songs on this album as a small child, only hearing the originals much later. Fortunately, there isn’t much of a jump from one version to another, as the “classical” adaptations of the songs simply amount to their being played by an orchestra, extrapolating the vocals, guitars and keyboards to brass, woodwind, strings and percussion like they were tracks on a mixing deck, with added choral and synthesiser sections when needed. No-one is trying to make Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” sound like Beethoven, or making Shostakovich out of Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” and there are few extraneous flourishes. There is a faint whiff of Muzak about the enterprise, and easy-listening LPs released by orchestras in the 1960s and 70s by the likes of James Last and Bert Kaempfert, but this time there is no intention of providing an experience that replaces the original songs: the integrity of the original compositions is preserved, and their original arrangement remains unchanged, just played on different instruments this time around.

For the record (literally), the most forceful performances on the album come from medleys of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and “Relax,” and Brice Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Both these medleys, and “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” were arranged for the album by the prolific composer and performer Richard Harvey, at the time responsible for the synthesised soundtrack for Gerry Anderson’s puppet series “Terrahawks,” and for having two of his library music pieces, “Water Course (a)” and “Exchange,” used to illustrate a “Sesame Street” film about how crayons are made. Harvey is a frequent collaborator on film scores with Hans Zimmer, and his 1984 classical piece “Reach for the Stars” has been used as the definitive heroic music used on everything from film trailers, TV shows, amusement park rides and adverts to “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Sunday, 21 June 2020

DON'T BE STUPID, BE A SMARTY [247]




"I hope you've got a sense of humour," advises the writer, director and animator Bill Plympton, introducing his film "Hitler's Folly." The 67-minute mockumentary, presenting an alternate history about Adolf Hitler's career as an animator, has been presented, for free, at www.plymptoons.com since its release in 2016, because Plympton surmised it was not the sort of film that Hollywood would wish to make.

However, even this film recognises that Hollywood already put the boot in to Hitler. When the director of the "documentary," relating the story provided by a conspiracy theorist murdered at the beginning of the film, says, "is this the biggest pile of horse crap you've ever heard," as if you needed reminding, rationalising its existence with "Mel Brooks did this kind of thing with 'The Producers,' and he is perfectly fine... to this day, perfectly fine." 

"Springtime for Hitler" is a complete piss-take that keeps its subject at arm's length, but "Hitler's Folly" invites you to identify with Hitler from the start, beginning with how, as a child, the saving an injured duck inspired Hitler to create "Downy Duck," a cartoon character that would become the flagship character of Hitlertoons, and the star of a four-hour animated retelling of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen. The evidence is presented as film fragments, drawings and photographs kept in a hoarded box by the conspiracy theorist, but in real life is Plympton's work, aping 1920s and 30s animation style, particularly Disney, of which Hitler is depicted as a fan, and doctoring photographs.

When I first heard about "Hitler's Folly," I thought Plympton would set up Downy Duck as being part of the Nazi Party’s propaganda campaign. What I was not prepared for, and what will test what people define as a joke, is how Downy Duck was Hitler's main plan all along. Hitler is depicted as setting up a film club, where the Nazi salute was a sign of community, and goose-stepping came from trying to walk on sticky cinema carpets. This led to the formation of "NACI," the National Animation Cinema Institute. Hitler then became Chancellor of Germany in order to secure funding for his Ring Cycle film, the deal hinging on President Hindenburg securing a drawing of Mickey Mouse from "Steamboat Willie." The mooted plans for a "Nazi Land," making too close a comparison with Disney, was where this film started to lose me, as the film tests when you will get fed up with it.

The conceit that the Second World War was to secure the rights to "territories" in which to release the film was bad enough, but the concentration camps are then described as artists' communes, where people "concentrated" on their work, and where people whose work wasn't good enough were taken away. A picture of the gate into Auschwitz was doctored to read "Arbeit Macht Frei - Ink & Paint Dept." Somehow, I watched this film to the end.

I guess Bill Plympton was relying on the absurdity of his tale bringing people through to the end - that it is so outrageous, it cannot possibly be taken seriously. Much about the Second World War that can be laughed at, but there remains much that cannot be, and those boundaries are maintained as a reminder to us all, with good reason. If "Hitler's Folly" was maintained as just that, a folly on the side, it would have been more palatable - to joke that a world war was waged to make a film, "conspiracy theory" or not, will remain in bad taste for a very long time.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

WE'RE LEAVING TOGETHER [246]


Taking a look at Twitter, I see Debbie Harry and Kate Bush are trending. The BBC had shown two episodes of “Top of the Pops” from 1989, repeating old performances they made. As ever, that was not why they were still trending from the night before: it was from people opening Twitter themselves, and expressing thanks that they hadn’t died, because seeing their names trending got them worried for a moment. Of course, writing their names out one more time feeds them back into the system, and the process continues. My sincere hope is that, one day, this will happen to Twitter itself, and no-one will have reason to care.


I have maintained a presence on Facebook and Twitter since 2009, initially to avoid being impersonated, and later just to keep up appearances, as more people made social media their primary form of communication. Today, these accounts are only used to promote my writing, along with an Instagram account I recently started, in order to keep a hand in there. (I should point out that most referrals to www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com are from searches on Google, far outstripping social media.) Outside of these, I have no reason to engage: Twitter is a place for people to shout the first thing that comes into their heads, usually about how what they said previously was taken out of context; and Facebook is for parents posting pictures of their children. Instagram is for selfies, but we knew that much already.


There will come a time when social media will end – sites will either be legislated out of existence, or people will get bored and wander off. Either extremism and fake news will be dealt with, or people will just have to learn how to speak to each other properly – which they have increasingly been doing via by video conferencing services, like Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Teams, instead of social media. This is much healthier than measuring your influence and wealth by how many followers you have. If you really need to let people know what you think about something, get a blog, or ask Google to resurrect GeoCities.


I have no answers on what would happen after social media is ended, because the next question would be what to do with the data that sites were allowed to collect. For as much use as it could have in anonymised form, identifying and targeting specific groups of people with only the services they could want, the data collected will immediately become outdated and irrelevant the moment that collection is stopped.  


There is precedence, in the form of Bebo and MySpace – just delete the data, put it beyond use, and move on. The former was a site that was founded after Facebook in Twitter, in 2005, and closed when it went bankrupt in 2013. Meanwhile, MySpace has remained in business since 2003, but use of the site had peaked by 2009, and what remains is ineffective. Bebo’s bankruptcy led to the announcement that user data would be deleted, although account holders were given the opportunity to download what they had entered first. MySpace, however, returned to public consciousness in 2019 when a server move led to their pre-2016 records being corrupted and lost, with a banner warning of this remaining on their front page – for those who were shocked into remembering they still had account, their data was now irretrievable.


Admittedly, I do not know where I am going with any of this, but I would just like to think of a time when there is no social media anymore. Everyone will be out of their respective bubbles, I have no obligation to maintain a presence there, and presidents will have one less way to bully their people.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

PRIVATE EYES, THEY’RE WATCHING YOU [245]




“Who is this man? You know we can’t afford any trouble.”


The filmography of Orson Welles is usually split into two categories: “Citizen Kane,” and everything else. While two more films, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “It’s All True,” were made under Welles’s contract with RKO, only “Citizen Kane” was made the way he wanted, and finished and released as he intended. There remains only one version of “Citizen Kane,” and that is the vision of its director, co-writer and star. 


This distinction is critical when discussing Welles’s films, as in most cases, especially 1955’s “Mr Arkadin,” you must clarify which version you watched. A French-Spanish production, filmed across Western Europe, “Mr Arkadin” was taken out of Welles’s control by the producer when the original release date was missed – after four months of editing, only the first third of the film had been pieced together. There now exists about five different versions that are available to view, cut together in vastly different ways, and the version I watched had a different name, “Confidential Report.”



The story is the same across all versions: played by Welles, Gergory Arkadin is a billionaire businessman and socialite, who claims to have amnesia, with no memory of his life before 1927. Arkadin hires a man named Guy Van Stratten to produce a confidential report that fills in the missing time, except each person Van Stratten consults winds up dead, as Arkadin ties up the loose ends of his former life as a gangster in the years following the First World War – a race to Spain ensues as Van Stratten becomes the last target. If it sounds like the search for Charles Foster Kane mixed with “The Third Man,” it is because it was based on a script Welles wrote for a Harry Lime radio series.


Welles took so long to edit “Mr Arkadin” was because he wanted the story to jump around in time, as Van Stratten discovered new information. Non-linear plots were less common in 1955, but Welles was also trying to alienate the viewer from the characters – instead of easily allowing the audience to identify emotionally with the characters, the performances, direction and editing are intended to make you look at everything more critically. However, what worked for this effect’s originator, Bertolt Brecht, didn’t work so well for Welles – all the characters are spiky and unlikeable, even Van Stratten, the nominative hero. Even worse, the dubbing work found in the film, mainly to rewrite lines, sounds more convincing in a cheap ninja action flick, mainly down to the small budget Welles was working with.




“Confidential Report” was the name given to “Mr Arkadin” when it first premiered in London in 1955. The more well-known title came when it was eventually given a US release in 1961 – there had been legal action between Welles and the producer, but the film was not copyrighted properly, meaning US law counts the film as existing in the public domain. A couple of versions begin with an unexplained dead body on a beach, as Welles intended - the version I saw put that shot in the middle. I got voiceovers from Van Patten explaining what his intentions are, which other versions do not have. My version had the credits at the beginning – they should be at the end. My version had events presented out of order, which varies in intensity and editing between versions - the most common public domain version was recut for television and home video, presenting everything in chronological order. You may have to watch more than one version of “Mr Arkadin” to get the full story, which is fitting for the story it tries to tell, but not very helpful if you want to be satisfied at the end.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

TOUCH MY BUMPER, HEY, LET’S MAKE A DEAL [244]



Between 1984 and 1989, Billy Ocean could do no wrong, topping the charts in both the UK and US with punchy electric rock songs: “Caribbean Queen,” “Loverboy,” “When The going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going,” and the outlier ballad “Suddenly”.  Audiences in the UK saw the beginnings of this force through “Love Really Hurts Without You” and “Red Light Spells Danger,” but Ocean’s voice has a rich tone that he can project effectively, like asking Lionel Richie to go hard or go home.


What made Ocean’s 1980s songs particularly memorable were the videos, in particular how “When the Going Gets Tough...” features Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito on “backing vocals,” the song having been used by their film “Romancing the Stone.” The video made for “Loverboy,” a fantasy filmed at Durdle Door in Dorset that evokes Jim Henson productions like “The Dark Crystal” or “Labyrinth,” make you want to see the whole film, until you realise that this was one Ocean song that was not used for a soundtrack.


The reason the video for Ocean’s 1988 song, “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” – also used in a film soundtrack, for the Corey Haim and Corey Feldman vehicle “License to Drive” - sticks in my mind even more than that of “Loverboy” is that it is so entirely of its time, from the synthesisers used in the song, to the choice of colours used in the video, and the animation – the video had to have been made in 1987, and at no other time. It is possible to make fun of the choices made in its production now, and call it the most Eighties thing to have ever Eighties-ed, but it was made in the Eighties.



Sometimes it is easiest to say what you see. The video is set at night, and all the artificial light is switched to pastel shades as Ocean drives his Porsche through a car wash, which cycles through becoming a Jeep, a Volvo 740 and a Renault 5. After passing through, the car fills with animated water, and a fish swims by, singing the backing vocals. Rolling down the window to let the water out, an animated duck speeds past, wearing green and pink clothes, and carrying a boom box. The car wash workers dance around the car – there is a 1950s style to the set, and to the costumes, evoking nostalgia for the childhoods of the people making the video. With his date, Ocean stops at a petrol station, where the old-style petrol pumps sprout eyes and lips, again to sing backing vocals. People are literally dancing in the street, and Ocean appears to be chasing the duck from earlier. They arrive at a drive-in cinema, and Ocean watches himself appear on the stage as the song key’s changes, dancing alongside the duck, that had been playing along to Vernon Jeffrey Smith’s saxophone solo.


Music videos only need to grab your eye as it gives you the song, so making sense is a secondary concern. The animation is a surprise: with a release date of January 1988, “Get Outta My Dreams...” came five months before “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, although stacking animation alongside live-action is used here for pure visual effect, and for no reason of narrative. The pastel colours and 1950s American setting are playing off the sunny, bouncy energy generated by the song, and presage the choices made now when evoking the 1980s itself.


The video was directed by Terence Bulley, who was cinematographer for David Mallet’s video of David Bowie & Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street” – yes, that video – alongside other projects for Queen, Culture Club, Cliff Richard, The Cure, the Style Council, and many others, seemingly responsible for developing a more filmic look for music videos that helped them be taken more seriously. Bulley is also director of aerial photography for “Eddie the Eagle” and “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi,” but he still made Billy Ocean dance with an animated duck.


Wednesday, 3 June 2020

HURRY UP IT’S HALLOWEEN [243]



“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” has been around long enough to be reappraised as an enjoyable cult horror film, successfully separated from the eternally rebooted Michael Myers roadshow - indeed, the first “Halloween” film is treated as a fictional work, with a trailer appearing on TV before one of the incessant Silver Shamrock ads. 


However, because people were apparently expecting to see The Shape again, it was the least successful “Halloween” film at the time, dooming the idea of an anthology series – it may have been released in the US in time for Halloween 1982, but when it ran out of steam, it took until 9th June 1983 for it to reach UK cinemas. “Halloween III” remains my favourite film in the series, only because it is the one I actually wanted to watch.




The plot is essentially an anti-consumerist retelling of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” even based in a carefully controlled named Santa Mira, this time overrun by the Silver Shamrock Novelties mask factory, instead of alien plant spores. A man, later established as a toy shop owner, is admitted to hospital, saying “they’ll kill us all” – when he is himself killed, his doctor, and the patient’s daughter, travel to Santa Mira. What unfurls is a tale of watching men in suits, androids, microchips that activate swarms of insects, witchcraft and Stonehenge, all brought together to wipe out large numbers of people, upon activation of a signal embedded in that bloody advertising jingle – corniness is both catchy and deadly.


“Halloween III” has the feel of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits,” the latter especially evoked by the TV interference and lines creating a pumpkin in the opening credits. Producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill would only make a third “Halloween” film if they could tell a different story, and future films in the intended anthology would evoke the same mood. The music, with an electronic score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth that sounds as if they had a chat with both Philip Glass and Brian Eno first.



The connection with the older TV series is reinforced by the script having been written by one of John Carpenter’s heroes, Nigel Kneale, best known for creating the 1954 live BBC adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” starring Vincent Price and Donald Pleasence, and the “Quatermass” series, last seen in 1979 and starring John Mills. “Halloween III” is not horror for horror’s sake, and is reminiscent of the tone and feel found in Kneale’s other work, especially the “Quatermass” series and “The Stone Tape,” which is more along the lines of psychological horror.  


Kneale had his name removed from the credits when some gore and nudity was added to the script by the director, Tommy Lee Wallace, at the behest of a producer, ending Kneale’s only time working in Hollywood. When the producers wanted to change direction back to Michael Myers, John Carpenter and Debra Hill sold their rights to the “Halloween” films to them. Meanwhile Wallace, also heard in “Halloween II” as the cheesy voiceover for the Silver Shamrock mask ads, would next direct episodes of the “Twilight Zone” TV revival series, and write “Big Trouble in Little China” for Carpenter. None of them had anything to do with “Halloween” again until Carpenter co-wrote the music for the 2018 “Halloween” revival, of a revival, of a sequel.