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