Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong.

I was listening this morning to Mark Kermode's movie podcast, in which he and Jack Howard were, in the wake of the recent The Rise of Skywalker, ranking The Nine in order from worst to best. This seemed like a fun and mildly diverting thing to do, so for the hell of it, here is my order:

9. The Phantom Menace
Mark and Jack were divided only as to whether this was the worst or the second to worst, and for me there is no real contest. I think perhaps it's the terrible disappointment that I felt on seeing it that has stayed with me. Is it the movie's longeurs, two people sitting around talking about taxes? Is it Jar-Jar Binks? An annoying kid who shouts "yippeeee!"? The 'comedy' Gungans in general - Boss Nass and all? Perhaps the fact that the villains are utterly non-villanous (and speak in racist cod-Japanese accents), with the army of robots with one 'off' switch (Trade Federation - clearly they contracted their military to the lowest bidder). Awful. Just awful. Darth Maul is quite cool, but he gets about five minutes of screen time.
By the way - this is worth a listen: the talented Peter Serafinowicz, who did the voice for Darth Maul, telling the hysterical story of his own involvement with the movie, and how we all felt when we saw it for the first time.

8. Revenge of the Sith
I was surprised how highly Mark Kermode rated this one. I can't agree, even if Anakin killing the younglings is a moment of genuine shock. This was a truly terrible end to a truly terrible series of movies. It is so bad that it almost falls into 'so bad it's good' territory. Lightsabre escalation (this one has six blades, to shave you even closer!), Jedi being idiots, a universe that can replace people's limbs with cybernetics but can't perform a c-section... it has a lot of stupid things, but worst of all are Natalie Portman and especially Hayden Christiansen as Amidala and Anakin. It's like watching two coffee tables. "I have the high ground!" You so don't. What can one say except: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

7. Attack of the Clones
Mark and Jack rated this lower than me, but only because I hated Revenge of the Sith more than them. This is tainted by all of the problems of the prequel trilogy - wooden acting, boring and meaningless dialogue, and - and this is a problem that isn't confined to the prequels - a complete nonsense of a plot. When the Clone Wars were mentioned in a throwaway line in A New Hope, they were a strange, mysterious thing that happened long in the past, and one could imagine almost anything. Lucas of course decided to remorselessly lay them out in front of us in the quest to build a new extension to Skywalker Ranch. But considering that they were just a word, think of the different directions he could have gone. How about senior politicians being replaced by cloned doppelgangers - infiltration agents from an insidious internal threat? No, instead we got an army of copies of Boba Fett's dad, fighting an army of robots - no tension, no emotional investment. And we had to sit through Amidala and Anakin's 'romance' (spare us!), and what the actual fuck was the factory sequence all about?
There were some good things - Christopher Lee, flying Yoda, some cool visuals. But it can't hide the emptiness at the heart of the movie and the trilogy. To those who say that Disney killed Star Wars - no, they didn't. George Lucas did.

6. The Rise of Skywalker
A month ago I might not have placed this quite so low, but the more I think about the movie, the less I like it. It's a theme park ride - exhilarating while you're sitting through it, but afterwards, you wonder why you did. Even though they had to rewrite because of Carrie Fisher's death, so much about the plot makes no sense whatsoever. A hidden planet that no-one can get to except via a flashing pyramid that can only be found using a serrated knife that only works from one vantage point, yet the planet has the largest - crewed - battle fleet in the galaxy and a stadium full of goths - how did they get there? There is no jeopardy - every time something exciting happens, it is narratively rewritten. Chewbacca is dead! - oh, no he isn't. C3PO's mind has beeen wiped! He got better. Poe's love interest sacrifices herself to save him! Lol no she's fine. And that rewriting is characteristic of the glaring flaw in the movie; it rewrites what happened in The Last Jedi. Now Rey is not everywoman, she is another of this bickering clan of space royalty. Bleah. What happened to Rose? What was Finn going to say? Why did Rey put Leia's lightsabre on Tattooine? Leia's only memory of the place was as the sex slave of a giant slug. A colossal missed opportunity, that feels like it was written by committee.

5. The Force Awakens
Possibly controversial to put this one so low (Solo?), but as with The Phantom Menace, I think it's about the disappointment I felt when I saw this at the cinema. There are some great bits. Seeing Han and Chewie and the Falcon again felt great. Luke throwing away the lightsabre at the end was a great ending. Rey, Finn and Poe are engaging characters. But. I don't share the love for Kylo Ren. He's a whiny teenager in a Darth Vader mask. And most of all - if you're going to make a Star Wars film, don't just remake the original. I mean, blowing up a Death Star? (Starkiller base, whatevs). FFS - haven't we done this to death already? I also find your lack of explanation disturbing. Who are the New Order - what happened to the New Republic? Can you really destroy a galactic Federation just by taking out half a dozen planets? WHAT IS GOING ON IN THIS MOVIE? What are the stakes? Is this the Empire reborn, or just a fascist insurgency? Tell us for God's sake!

4. Return of the Jedi
Everyone agrees that this is the weakest of the original trilogy, the only real question is - how bad is it compared to the sequel trilogy? It shows Lucas' descent into trying to capture a younger audience, that eventually reached its nadir in The Phantom Menace. Compared to that, the Ewoks are not too bad, but they are still annoying (we shall pass over Caravan of Courage and never speak of it again). The Force Awakens makes more narrative sense, but it doesn't have Leia in a slave girl outfit. Look, I was 17, okay?

3. The Last Jedi
I wanted to place this movie higher, because I really like what it did with the mythology. I won't hear the fanboy whingeing about Mary Poppins - Leia is Darth Vader's fucking daughter, for Chrissake - you think she can't do some Force tricks in extremis? The Rey plot arc is excellent. I love the fact that she is no-one and everyone - the Force wasn't supposed to be about monarchist bloodlines. It's in everyone and everything. Mark Hamil is great in this, especially at the ending, which is just brilliant. I like Benicio del Toro. Unfortunately, the Stupid is also quite strong in this. Why isn't Poe supposed to sacrifice himself to save the Rebellion? Why does the Empire need to bring a fucking big cannon down to the planet anyway? What's with the Casino scene? And Admiral Holdo's plan is crap, and she inspires a mutiny by refusing to tell anyone what it is, but Rose and Finn's isn't much better. Even so, Kylo Ren is much better in this film, and in general I think it's pretty good.

2. The Empire Strikes Back
This is a good movie - that's pretty well agreed upon, but is it the best? I can't quite say that, for two reasons. The first is the Dagobah training sequence, which feels too long and slows the action down. But the second is just that I love the first movie so much. Which of course brings me to...

1. A New Hope
I know that there are all kinds of flaws with this movie. Its pacing feels quite relaxed these days, which I think is what kills it for a younger generation; well it was made in 1976, I guess. But I was 11 when I watched it at Walsall ABC, and the initial shot of the star destroyer rumbling across the screen made myself and my friend Paul look at each other wide-eyed and literally go: "wow!" I know that my nostalgia clings to my memories of the film and perhaps stops me from examining it too closely. I know that it's a mashup of Hidden Fortress with the ending from 633 Squadron (those who say it is the Dambusters are simply wrong). I know it's Buck Rogers with a side order of samurai and space cowboys, and I don't care. It's still perfect and I can watch it over and over again. In spite of the name change that Lucas forced on it in 1981 when the obscene profits from this made him decide that there was going to be a trilogy of trilogies, for me it was and will always be... Star Wars.

For reference:
         My rating                                   Mark Kermode                        Jack Howard                     
1.      A New Hope                              The Last Jedi                          The Empire Strikes Back
2       The Empire Strikes Back           The Empire Strikes Back       The Last Jedi
3       The Last Jedi                              The Force Awakens               The Force Awakens
4       Return of the Jedi                       A New Hope                           A New Hope
5       The Force Awakens                    Revenge of the Sith                Return of the Jedi
6       The Rise of Skywalker               Return of the Jedi                   The Rise of Skywalker
7       Attack of the Clones                   The Rise of Skywalker           Revenge of the Sith
8       Revenge of the Sith                    The Phantom Menace             Attack of the Clones
9       The Phantom Menace                 Attack of the Clones               The Phantom Menace

Monday, 20 August 2018

You've Got To Fight For What You Want

Do you remember The Flashing Blade? You'd need to be of a certain age, I guess, and to have grown up in the UK, but basically it was the background music to every long, six week school holiday in the 1970s. As soon as the holidays rolled around, the BBC would wheel out a children's TV schedule for the weekdays to keep the little horrors entertained. And it was always the same schedule, it seemed. It would consist of seemingly endless loops of Why Don't You?, Robinson Crusoe, White Horses and of course The Flashing Blade.
Most of the others didn't interest me much, but a swashbuckling action series with swords and explosions and lots of riding around for no good reason? Sign me up! I used to love The Flashing Blade, and can still recite the lyrics to the theme tune word perfect to this day:
You've got to fight for what you want
For all that you believe.

It's right to fight for what you want
To live the way you please.
As long as we have done our best
Then no-one can do more.
And life and love and happiness
Are well worth fighting for.

I was vaguely aware at the time that it was dubbed and that it seemed to be set in some obscure war that we were never taught at school, where the French were fighting the Spanish and the French were, amazingly, the good guys, but not much else.

So in a fit of nostalgia a week or so ago I went and ordered the two-set DVD of the series from Amazon. It consists of 12 episodes, the last of which the BBC never showed for some reason, and which consequently is in French with English subtitles. It was of course a French TV series - Le Chevalier TempĂȘte - the Storm Knight, I guess? - made in 1967. For the uninitiated it concerns the siege of a fortress - Casale - by the Spanish, and the attempts of the French Chevalier de Recci, the Knight of the title, to get through Spanish lines to organise a relief force. It is in the tradition of Dumas and the Three Musketeers, with lots of swashbucking action.

I had thought that I remembered a lot about the series - the dashing raid into the Spanish lines, the escape disguised as lepers, the beautiful Lady Isabella and the villainous Don Alonzo, the fall into the river that the Chevalier recovers from, but re-watching it has been an interesting experience, as I clearly only understood about one third - maybe not even that much - of what was going on. What - they were captured by a Croatian bandit called The Voivode? I didn't remember that. It was all about a peace conference involving the Abbe (later to become Cardinal) Mazarin? It was set in northern Italy? The Chevalier disguised himself as Harlequin in a Commedia dell'Arte troupe? Wow.
The plot was much more involved than I remembered, and even as an adult I needed my wits about me to keep up - no wonder so little had registered on the 10-year old me. There is politics, double-dealing, intrigue, romance... it is clearly intended as a fairly adult series. I'm not quite sure what the BBC were thinking, scheduling it for children. Presumably it was cheap, and maybe bought as a job lot with Robinson Crusoe, which was also French.
As an amateur historian, more interesting for me was that much of the historical backdrop was reasonably real. In fact the siege of Casale Monferrato (in the series they actually use the beautiful and impressive Chateau Gaillard in Normandy as a stand-in for the besieged fortress) was a real event and part of the War of the Mantuan Succession, one of the myriad sub-conflicts that formed part of the larger Thirty Years War in Europe. It ran from 1628-1631 and was indeed ended by a peace brokered by Mazarin, at the time a Papal envoy, and guaranteed by the Duchy of Savoy, where most of the action in the series takes place.
Mazarin is an interesting character. He was later the replacement for Cardinal Richelieu as the Chief Minister of France, and is the foil of the last Musketeers novels - Twenty Years Later and The Viscount of Bracelonne. But in fact he was an Italian, studied as a Jesuit but never joined, became a lawyer, and had a brief career as an infantry captain with Montferrat in the War of the Mantuan Succession before ending up as a Papal envoy. He is portrayed in the series, as he probably was in real life, as an admirer of Richelieu and French supporter.
The series is also very good at portraying the dilemma of the small state (here Savoy) caught between two, or perhaps three superpowers - France, Spain, and the Papacy. The equivocating of the Count de Sospel - in the series Savoy's chancellor - is very well caught.
And also - it took me a while, but I eventually most definitely started to get this vibe - the series also features French agents hiding people in barns and smuggling them past the black-clad Spanish troops, secret rendezvouses, betrayals... it's essentially a little play on the French Resistance, told only 20 years after the real thing. There's a bit in Episode 9 where the Maquis are basically delaying the Wehrmacht to let the British agents get to safety. It was at that point that the penny dropped. Of course, in the spirit of the nascent European Union, the actual Germans in the series are represented by a heroic mercenary captain, Kleist, who is on the French side, and who dies a noble death fighting for them.

So... what to make of The Flashing Blade? For all of its cheap 60s production values, it was clearly a fairly serious series, with French-Canadian, Belgian and Swiss money involved as well as French. It can easily hold its head up alongside offerings like the BBC's more recent Musketeers. It certainly didn't belong as children's holiday viewing, but instead, re-watching it, I was surprised how good it actually was. Maybe something of that impinged itself on my young mind. I'm certainly glad to have made its reacquaintance.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Bad Books

Someone on Twitter asked today: "What is the worst book you have ever finished?"

I found that quite an interesting question, as I am not one of those people who feels duty bound to plod through every single page of a book they are not enjoying. I decide the book isn't for me, put it to one side, and feel no guilt whatsoever. Very occasionally a book has surprised me and got much better as it went on, but more often than not the first 100 pages is quite enough to realise that what you are holding is garbage. So for that reason, there are many many bad books I've never finished. In my 20s, I tried, out of some sense of completing an unfinished education, to read books like Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, but quickly gave up. Marx is like reading a badly translated textbook on the dullest subject imaginable, and Hitler is like being trapped next to the person on the bus who won't stop going on about immigrants - if Rudolf Hess had edited it, I'd hate to have seen the original. Likewise fiction: L Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth is probably the worst written book I have ever read, but I felt no compunction to slog through all 1,050 pages to make completely sure of that, and James Joyce's Ulysses may be a breakthrough work of modernist literature, but I have to agree with Virginia Woolf's verdict: "never did any book so bore me", and like her, I quit around page 200. By the by - some books that often make it into people's 'most hated', like Moby-Dick, I actually quite enjoyed. I guess you just have to find the technical stuff about whaling interesting.

So for me to finish a book, it has to have held my attention somehow, and surely that means that by at least one definition, it can't be that bad a book? The Da Vinci Code springs immediately to mind; like Jeffrey Archer, with whom he has a lot in common, Dan Brown writes terrible prose, but both authors have the saving grace that they can do plotting and pacing, like a lot of pulp fiction writers, and so they carry you along to the end in spite of themselves. For sheer incoherent muddle it's hard to beat the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, whose career with pulp imprint Badger Books spanned dozens of pseudonyms and literally hundreds of books, 'written' at the rate of one per week, actually dictated into tapes sent off to be typed up by little old ladies, who might call back to say he was approaching his word limit, leaving him to wrap up the story in about two incredibly confused pages of deus ex machina. His Galaxy 666 (written as 'Pel Torro') is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of pulp SF, but like that film it enters into 'so bad it's good' territory, as Fanthorpe desperately tries to pad his word count with thesaurus dumps or spends three pages describing the colour of grey, pink and white rocks. He's also a lovely man in person by the way.

I had to wrack my brains to think of the worst book I had actually finished. Full disclosure - I read a lot of very bad pulp SF and horror in my youth. Frederick Dunstan's Habitation One? A derivative SF tale of a post-apocalyptic society in a huge closed city that aims for JG Ballard via Logan's Run, but falls horrifyingly short. The entire corpus of Guy N Smith, sub-James Herbert low rent British horror writer, a kind of real world Garth Marenghi, with his tales of killer crabs and the seven plagues of Egypt unleashed upon Birmingham? Getting warmer. The Splatterpunk Anthology, an unremitingly disgusting feast of shock-lit that wanted to be Bret Easton Ellis when it grew up (or at least Clive Barker)? Certainly in the bottom ten. Incidentally - do not attempt to read any of these books. Really. To paraphrase the warning they used to give after Captain Scarlet - Sub-Editor is Indestructible - You Are Not.

But all fiction, no matter how bad, still has something to it - that human desire to tell stories and entertain. I think to really plumb the depths you have to consider factual (or notionally factual) writing. Below the 1421 - China Discovers the World and Holy Blood, Holy Grails of this world are reams of poorly thought-out works of pseudo-history and pseudo-archaeology to make the blood of any rational individual boil with their cavalier disdain for 'evidence' and 'facts'. And then we come to self-help books. And then we come to those that try to combine them all with cod philosophy and act as a cheap way of cashing in on people's insecurities. I'd love to place Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health in here, but unfortunately that's another one that I never finished. So my own prize for the worst book I have ever finished goes to a piece of garbage I was given as a going away present to university by my eccentric aunt, herself a devotee of transcendental meditation, reflexology and various other forms of bullshit. Behold the wonder that is: Bring Out The Magic In Your Mind, by 'Al Koran'. To quote Angel Heart: "even your name is a dime store joke." 'Al' - I think we can assume this is not his real name - to quote the blurb, tells you how his incredible discovery of "Personal Electricity Within You" gives you "Magnetic Powers". With these you can "Learn How To... Send Out Dynamic Thought-Wishes, Silent Messages That Influence People To Like You, Trust You, And Help You." Boiled down to its roots, his thesis is - if you wish hard enough for something, it will happen. Naturally these wishes must be essentially selfish - a new car, an attractive girlfriend, a private plane. All is within your grasp, if you will it. Go through the world bending lesser mortals to your mighty will.

I didn't know then, but have since discovered, that Al was born in the rather more prosaic surroundings of Clapton in 1917 as Edward Doe, and after giving up his career as a hairdresser, he became a magician and "mentalist" in the 1950s and 60s, and he wrote the book in 1964 at the height of his 'fame', before he went to the US. You can see him performing in a very grainy recording of the Ed Sullivan Show here. He reminds me a bit of a proto-Yuri Geller, in that like him, he was clearly a talented stage magician who had decided to pretend he was a genuine psychic because it brought in bigger bucks, and I'm half certain that he was Geller's inspiration. The book was ghost written for him, and was clearly just a cheap cash-in. Looking back on it now, it seems one of many similar such things, and I'm not sure why it annoys me so much that it has become my Worst Book Ever, but I think chiefly it's not just how terribly written it is (and by God it is), but the lazy cynicism at the heart of it. At least Jehovah's Witnesses believe the rubbish they're spouting. Al Koran clearly didn't, and just wanted to squeeze some more moolah from some gullible marks, and I think it annoys me most that my aunt was one of them.

Anyway, that's mine. What's yours?

Friday, 18 May 2018

Homeward Bound

"There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same."
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Return of the King.

I watched Peter Jackson's concluding part of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King again last weekend, and it set me thinking about the book, and what Tolkien was really driving at. I have always liked but never really loved Lord of the Rings, even when I first read it as a teenager. To me it had a strange, bloodless, rarified quality; oddly stilted, like a pre-Raphaelite painting brought to life, full of Solemn Councils and Chaste Maidens. The descriptions of scenery seemed to go on forever, and what was it with all of the bloody songs and poems? Get on with it already! I skimmed a lot of that.

Yes, I know, I know - it's supposed to be A Mythology for England, Anglo-Saxon epic mixed with Arthurian Romance, and all that, but it always felt to me more like the last dying gasp of English Romanticism, and I freely confess that I'm constitutionally more at home with the dirtier, lustier worlds of Swords & Sorcery - Robert E Howard and Fritz Lieber, and that High Fantasy has always somehow alienated me - it never felt like it was about real people with real drives and emotions. Nevertheless, I did very much enjoy Peter Jackson's films (at least, the LOTR trilogy, not the Hobbit films, which are, let's face it, the Star Wars Prequels of the piece) - incredibly long as they were - because they managed to avoid most of the problems I had had with the original books. Jackson did this by compressing and focusing the narrative; instead of the three page descriptions of mountains, now the sweeping vistas of scenery spoke for themselves, and the songs and poems were wisely mostly chopped away - especially Tom Bombadil, who I know some people think of with kindness, but who only ever irritated me. The ending of the final film could have benefitted from some judicious editing, but generally they were as a good a version as we're likely to see. With one exception.

Everyone has their pet gripe with the films, I know, but for me there was one area where I felt they had seriously mis-stepped, and that was by cutting out one of my favourite bits of the books; The Scouring of the Shire. This final reckoning with Saruman and Wormtongue was presumably cut from the films to allow them to kill Saruman at the end of the second film in order to provide an artificial kind of ending/closure there that it would otherwise lack, and perhaps because it would have been too anti-climactic a scene to end with after the struggle at Mount Doom, but I personally missed it being where it should be. It's the completion of the Hero's Journey; the return of the four hobbits to the Shire that they left at the start, and the realisation that they are not the same people that they were when they left, and that they can no longer simply just slot back into the roles they once filled. It's almost like the Trilogy's 'Deer Hunter' moment. It shows that they have been forged in a crucible of war, and now are unafraid to tackle the petty tyrants and bullies that Saruman's pint-sized police state represents. But it also brings home to the four how out of kilter they are with what was once their homeland - it is only via corruption and collusion within elements of the existing hobbit power structure that Saruman has come to power, after all.

This downbeat, melancholy ending was excised from the films because it is quite at odds with the epic quest that has gone beforehand, but to me it feels like the mask slipping from the upright world of elves and High Magic, and instead giving us a glimpse into the soul of Lieutenant John Tolkien of the Lancashire Fusiliers, a veteran of the Somme, and the feelings he had when he came back from Flanders. If The Shire is a bucolic fantasy of rural England, and the blasted, lifeless, ash-strewn wastes of Mordor are the horror of the trenches (yes yes, Tolkien's dislike of the Industrial Revolution, but come on...), then the Scouring of the Shire is what it feels like to come back to that rural idyll after four years of slaughter, and find that nothing is quite as you remembered it. Although the final book of The Lord of the Rings was not completed until 1949, Tolkien always strenuously denied that it was anything to do with World War II, that Sauron was not Hitler, and that the Ring was not the Atomic Bomb, and I believe him. Rather, I think it was very much to do with WWI and his experiences of it - with the passing of the Victorian/Edwardian world of his youth, diminshing and passing into the West, where the new rising power of the USA lay, and the birth of the new world of the 20th Century, and I think that leaving out that final chapter diminishes the whole.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Routine retirement of a replicant

"The report would be: 'Routine Retirement of a Replicant', which didn't make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back."
Blade Runner - original voice-over

This is a kind of follow-on to the previous post about directors not being able to source the music they want for films and having to improvise instead. This time, rather than Blue Velvet, the film in question is Blade Runner. There's a scene where, after 'retiring' the replicant Zora - the source of the quote above - Deckard heads to a one-eyed street vendor and buys himself a bottle of whiskey, intending to head home and drown his sorrows. In the background, a radio is playing an old-fashioned sounding tune. It is, in fact, 'One More Kiss, Dear', co-written by Vangelis (music) and Peter Skellern (lyrics), and performed by Don Percival.

Now, while the incidental music of the film is all high tech synthesised twiddling by Vangelis, this song is an oddity on the Blade Runner soundtrack. It is clearly intended to evoke something of the 30s and 40s Noir that the film takes as its visual inspiration (so much so that Ridley Scott even re-used the Bradbury Apartments in Los Angeles for the climax of the film, first glimpsed in 1949 noir classic D.O.A.). Indeed, it sounds particularly like 1930s black harmony group The Ink Spots (that name, yeah... well, it was the 30s I guess), and especially their 1939 hit 'If I Didn't Care', with its spoken part (about 2:02 onwards). It turns out this is far from accidental, as Scott originally had in mind to use If I Didn't Care for that scene, and indeed, the original theatrical trailer actually uses the Ink Spots' song (from 2:12 onwards). However, it seems that, as with David Lynch and This Mortal Coil, Ridley Scott either wasn't able to secure the rights to If I Didn't Care, or else found them too expensive, and he came up with the same solution: get your soundtrack composer to write something that sounds similar enough that it will work, but different enough that you won't get sued.

Vangelis in turn seems to have looked to Noel Coward-esque singer songwriter Peter Skellern to help out, and the two of them have clearly taken another 1930s crooner, Jessie Matthews as their starting point, as there are uncanny similarities to her 1932 song 'One More Kiss, Then Goodnight'. But the thing that really left me blinking in surprise was the discovery that Demis Roussos was originally down to sing 'One More Kiss', until Ridley heard the demo version, which had been voiced as an interim measure by music impressario Don Percival, and decided that he liked it so much that it could stay as it is.

By such happy accidents are great things made, and even trends begun - in this case using the carefree 30s sound of the Ink Spots as a soundtrack for dystopian fiction, as this rather wonderful blog post notes, including video games Fallout and Bioshock, and the TV series The Walking Dead. Blade Runner was an incredibly influential film, and sometimes its influences are subtle but far reaching.

"Drink some for me, huh, pal?"

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A nightingale

I'm not quite sure where to begin with this one. But basically it revolves around David Lynch. I've been watching his new, third season of Twin Peaks, and just caught up with episode 9. It was a return to normal, in a way, after the astonishing piece of avant garde art that was episode 8 - one of the strangest and most disturbing hours of television you are ever likely to see. But at the end it played out with one of Lynch's ethereal, synth and female voice kind of bands. They turned out to be Au Revoir Simone, with something called A Violent Yet Flammable World, which was nice, but it set me wondering about Julee Cruise, who was their floaty angelic precursor throughout the whole Twin Peaks season 1 and 2 era. And I discovered something which I found interesting enough to drive me to write this.

Back in 1986, Lynch was writing and directing Blue Velvet, which was, let's face it, the spiritual predecessor of Twin Peaks. It had mobsters and kinky sex behind the facade of a really 'nice' northwestern small town - and Kyle MacLachlan as well. Twin Peaks bears the same relationship to Blue Velvet that Fargo the TV series does to Fargo the movie. Anyway, Lynch had decided that for incidental music he wanted to use Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil. Or rather, originally by Tim Buckley, but covered in the 80s by This Mortal Coil. I discovered This Mortal Coil in 1984, when I lived next door to a Scots music student at York University. In addition to the Gregorian chant and fucking awful accordion music he subjected me to through the wall between our rooms, he played their first album, It'll End In Tears over and over and over again, and my God, listening to Elizabeth Fraser's haunting voice still sends shivers down my spine, just like it did back then. For the uninitiated, This Mortal Coil were a kind of Scots Indie supergroup, made up of people I'd only ever heard of in passing when occasionally listening to John Peel - Xmal Deutschland, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Metal Box, and of course most famously The Cocteau Twins. I'd vaguely noticed The Cocteau Twins, but never been convinced, but Fraser's songs on It'll End In Tears - especially Another Day and Song To The Siren, were like something from another planet, and I was instantly hooked.

Well, clearly David Lynch thought so too, as he wanted to use Song To The Siren on Blue Velvet. Unfortunately, the publishers were asking more than he was prepared to pay, so he got Angelo Badalamenti to write something similar, and Badalamenti roped in a singer from New York he thought could achieve the same purity of note and ethereal quality that Fraser had managed. Enter Julee Cruise, and this ersatz This Mortal Coil song became Mysteries of Love. It's interesting to listen to it now and compare and contrast. The rest is history, as they say. Lynch and Badalamenti wrote Cruise's first album, Floating Into The Night, all of it comprised of songs which had been used as incidental music in Twin Peaks, including the title track, Falling. Julee herself even appeared as a singer at the Bang Bang bar in Season 2 prior to a spooky appearance by The Giant. Apparently she's scheduled to make a reappearance in Season 3, and I'm certainly looking forward to that. In the meantime, she'll always be the nightingale. But it's interesting to me that the whole tenor of the music of Twin Peaks is basically a conscious attempt to reproduce the sound of a band I loved even before I discovered Lynch World.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Aliens on a Train

So apparently there is a Horror Channel on Freeview - channel 70, if you're interested. I'd not encountered it before, and assumed it was one of those 'timeshare' channels, but it turns out they broadcast for almost all of the day. On Saturday night I came across it while channel flipping, just in time to see the start of a movie called 'Horror Express', and once I saw that it starred not only Christopher Lee but also Peter Cushing, I knew that I was on board for the long haul on this one.

Given the presence of Lee and Cushing, I initially assumed that it was a Hammer Films production - it's from 1972 and has that same brightly saturated Technicolor look to it, especially the vivid red substance they used for blood (I believe jokily known as 'Kensington Gore'). But in fact it turns out to be an Anglo-Spanish co-production, filmed in Madrid on a very tight budget with a Spanish director and largely Spanish cast - much cheaper at the time than filming in the UK. Yes, it's in effect a Spaghetti (or Paella) Horror movie.

The film starts with the discovery of a strange humanoid creature frozen in the ice in the Himalaya by a team of western explorers - more on this later - then quickly shifts to 1906 'Peking', where the usual mixed bag of characters are joining the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow. Among them is Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee), who has a mysterious crate he will not allow inspection of. A thief tries to break into the crate as it sits on the platform, and then is found dead, his eyes completely whited over. Dun-dun-duuuuun! Saxton's fellow travellers include British scientist Dr Wells (Cushing) and his bluestocking assistant Miss Jones; Count Marian Petrovsky and the beautiful Countess Irina - Petrovsky has invented some new kind of steel "harder than diamond"; a Rasputin-like Orthodox priest, Father Pujardov (who pronounces that the crate is 'evil'); and Natasha, a beautiful thief with her eyes on the Countess' jewellery. And so the stage is set for some Orient Express-style shenanigans on a train, but with a horror slant. Once the train is on the move, Cushing is curious about the box, and bribes a porter to break into it, and said man is also found dead with white eyes. The creature inside, bizarrely, picks the lock and gets out (there is a good reason for this - bear with me), and an inspector - who is on the train following thief Natasha - takes charge of the investigation.

And here is where the film segues from horror into science fiction, albeit hokey, bullshit, horror movie SF. An autopsy on the porter reveals his brain is completely smooth. Somehow the creature is draining people's brains (hence it gaining the ability to pick locks from the thief at the start). Also - it leaves somethng imprinted at the back of the eye - the last thing the person saw - this was a popular medieval trope, here there's a sort-of reason for it. When the creature is apparently shot dead by the police inspector, vistas of prehistoric Earth and even the Earth seen from space are seen etched on its retinas - as my companion sagely noted, the latter was something that would very much be in the public eye in the early 70s due to the Apollo moonshots. The old priest of course is convinced that this is Lucifer, not an alien, but that still doesn't quite explain why he throws his lot in with the creature. Meanwhile, after seeming to be dead, the creature swaps bodies - possessing the police inspector, and more running around ensues. The Count, Miss Jones and the beautiful thief all meet their various ends. And more - we come to start to understand the creature. It seems to be just trying to get home - in the guise of the Inspector it quizzes Lee about rocketry, it steals the secret of the hardened steel by absorbing the Count's mind, eventually it even tries to persuade Lee to help it, in return for advanced knowledge it can give him.

And then suddenly, Telly Savalas randomly appears as a comedy Cossack leader, boarding the train with his men, possibly because someone has telegraphed ahead, but the point is not made terribly clear. He drinks, he wenches, he chews the scenery and generally steals his scenes, and then within about five minutes he is swiftly killed by the creature and turned into a zombie (as are all of the other dead people - they really have thrown the kitchen sink at this plot). There's an ending involving decoupling the car with the survivors in and sending the train plummeting over a convenient gorge, but frankly after Telly dies, it's all anti-climax.

So how to sum up this unexpected discovery? It's not that bad - hokey at times but entertainingly watchable in a late night horror movie kind of way - exactly right for the slot the Horror Channel put it in. The beautiful countess and femme fatale are beautiful, Cushing and Lee play it completely straight as always and are their usual impeccable selves, and aside from some bad dubbing over the Spanish extras and the random Telly Savalas cameo, it could basically be any Hammer film of the 60s and 70s. Savalas was here at the height of his bankability; just post- his major film roles like 'Kelly's Heroes' and 'The Dirty Dozen', but just pre-Kojak, so quite a big name to have secured, albeit for a bit part. Both Savalas and the locomotive and train car set were, it seems, borrowed from 'Pancho Villa', which was just about to start shooting at the same studio.

But what really interested me was the whole 'alien dug out of the ice, goes on a rampage but is actually trying to get home' element. This plotline first appeared in 1931 in the pioneering novella by SF-horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft: 'At The Mountains of Madness'. This then led pulp writer John W. Campbell to write his own 'alien spacecraft trapped in the ice' story 'Who Goes There?' in 1938, which became filmed in 1951 at the height of American UFO panic as 'The Thing From Another World', and which itself was then remade in 1982 as 'The Thing', directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. Ridley Scott's 2012 Prometheus is also arguably based on the same ur-plotline (it was cited by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro as the reason he abandoned his own simultaneous attempt to film At The Mountains of Madness). That there should have been another movie inspired, albeit obliquely, by the same plot, is a delightful find. The fact that the horror has a scientific element to it in Horror Express makes the film more interesting than just a simple revenant on a train, and that science element is reminiscent of a couple of other Hammer films like the 1967 oddity Night of the Big Heat (also starring Lee and  Cushing). All told, it's an interesting curio, and worth watching if it ever comes by again.