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.