Blowing My Thought Wad
Friday, February 27, 2009
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Drama Out Of Crisis
I’m always being reminded of the drawback to the BBC’s iPlayer by forgetting there’s only a week to catch up on the television programmes and radio shows I missed first time around. Come Monday evening I remembered I still had the third episode of Moses Jones to watch and just managed to catch it, even if it meant the action was broken up by a half-hour interval for the final of University Challenge.
Even with that interruption it turned out to be a damn fine drama, with one of the most appalling acts of violence that was far more affecting than all the hack-and-slash Jack the Rip-off antics on the other side. That makes it more of a shame that only a fraction of the television audience watched Moses Jones compared to the millions who tuned in to the utterly farcical Whitechapel. Still, to be magnanimous for a change, the above average audience for the latter did at least boost the ailing ITV. The channels’ ratings success continued this week with Law & Order: UK.
This time around I didn’t bother watching more than the first couple of minutes. Not because I didn’t think this English adaptation was up to snuff, but because I’ve never been a fan of the original franchise. It wasn’t that the format didn’t work for me: dividing each episode between the investigation of a crime and the criminal prosecution. To fit everything into the episode running time meant not just paring the story down but omitting any real character development. Frankly that never did it for me, even if great character actors like the late Jerry Orbach were drafted in to make up for that fact and keep it interesting.
Maybe the thirteen episodes ordered by Laura Mackie, ITV’s Director of Drama, will go some way to helping ITV Drama claw its way back from the brink, but there’s still a long way to go. Where did it all go wrong for the channel? If you look back to the turn of the century the BBC’s drama output was seen as woefully lagging behind its competition’s output. How did ITV let that lead slip from its grasp? Was it down to the highly publicised “golden handcuffs” deals with actors like John Thaw, Robson Greene and Ross Kemp, mistakenly putting the onus on the stars rather than the quality of the material to carry it off?
I haven’t stuck around for an ongoing one-hour ITV drama since Cold Feet came to an end because there was nothing that had the same, smart writing. Everything since seemed to exist in quiet desperation between the somnambulistic nostalgia dramas like Heartbeat, which has finally, mercifully, been knocked on the head, or the over the top antics of tacky nonsense like Footballers’ Wives that were only culled long after they had become an embarrassment. Between the extremes everything seemed to be so... horribly mainstream.
Whatever made the channel fall behind, also everything they’ve commissioned since they went into decline appeared to be a frantic, and mainly futile, attempt to catch up with the competition, reaching a nadir with the totally dreadful Demons. Of course when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go – if you’re lucky – is up. Now that Peter Fincham has replaced Simon Shaps as ITV’s Director of Television, he’s made a start by commissioning new episodes of Anthony Horowitz’s ratings-winning drama Foyle’s War, which the idiot Shaps idiotically canned.
While bringing that back, should Fincham and ITV have the guts to let Midsomer Murders go when John Nettles finally retires from the role of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby in two years time? Horowitz, who initially adapted Caroline Graham’s crime novels for television back in the late 1990s, is being brought back to write the character’s swansong. Brian True-May, the show’s producer, believes the brand is strong enough for a new actor to successfully continue the investigations, but there’s always the nagging worry that it might become an equivalent of the wishy-washy, piss-poor Lewis that limps along in the footsteps of Inspector Morse.
Hoping that ITV does manages to pick itself up because all the channels need decent competition to keep them on their toes, it was worrying to read a comment from Lee Bartlett the Managing Director of ITV Global Content. Previously employed by FOX TV, which certainly has a spotty history when it comes to nurturing drama, Bartlett was in favour of ITV dropping a proposed adaptation of EM Forster’s A Passage to India even though they had shelled out £225,000 for the rights and ploughed a further hundreds of thousands of pounds on pre-production. His reason for knocking the lavish three-hour drama on the head: Costume dramas don’t sell well outside the UK.
Since the term “costume drama” is a little bit of a broad term, covering any number of genres, I hope he wasn’t using it in reference to literary adaptations. Because that would put A Passage to India in the company of The Jewel in the Crown, also set in the days of the Raj, or Brideshead Revisited or the Andrew Davies’ 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. I’m sure they managed to rake in a few pennies here and there from foreign sales.
Still, while somebody gets Bartlett his coat, what can we look forward to if Law & Order: UK becomes a hit? Are we going to get British versions of American hit shows flooding the schedules as an easier option to taking a punt on something new and different and, perhaps, difficult? In which case, I’m looking forward to Magnum PI set on the Isle of Wight.
Monday, February 23, 2009
I was all set to have an early night, retiring with my copy of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon for what must be the fourth time around and therefore knowing I’d most probably end up reading close to one hundred pages before turning in. Then I made the foolish mistake of checking my email before logging off and discovering a note from Mister Mark that directed me to this article on TimesOnline.
I hadn’t heard of Songsmith before simply because it’s a piece-of-shit Microsoft package and there’s no doubting that Apple’s Garageband, which comes as part of their iLife software, runs rings around it. But damn, this is just so utterly wrong
Of course if you want to see something totally execrable, check the Songsmith promotional video at the end of the TimesOnline article. Everyone involved in the making of it should have strips of raw salmon stapled to their hides before they’re thrown to the hungry grizzly bears. I only managed to get about halfway through before wanting to spray acid into my eyes. God, I’m going to have nightmares!
Sunday, February 22, 2009
The past few evenings I decided it would be a good idea to catch up with films that I missed when they were on general release but are now available on shiny disc. At it turned out it wasn’t a good idea at all. Something lousy I can froth and foam at the mouth about but these were so utterly lousy that not only did I lose the will to blog about them but I very nearly lost the will to live.
Maybe I’ll mention them in passing after the mere thought of them makes me want to rub bleach into my eyeballs, or simply put out a short post that asks the question:
How many minutes into Tropic Thunder were you before realizing it was a completely useless pile of shit?
Should Ben Stiller be dubbed the new Mike Myers? (Obviously on the understanding that it isn’t anywhere near a compliment)
When will Jack Black crawl back under whatever rock he appeared from and simply die?
In the meantime, because it’s the big awards night tonight, and The Dead Guy is obviously going to win for his portrayal of The Joker, yesterday I tried watching The Dark Knight again. That didn’t go too well either. Before I eventually gave up and put on The Dambusters instead, two things sprang to mind. Now that we have that FAST campaign buying ad time here, there and everywhere, the first thing that struck me was: How long has Maggie Gyllenhaal looked like a stroke victim?
The second question knocking around my head was: What the fuck happened to Gotham City? I don’t mean the stupid gothic nonsense from the stupid Tim Burton movies or the candy-coloured crap from the Joel Schumacher sequels. Though Batman Begins dropped all the nasty stylization it still established Wayne Tower at the heart of the city and The Narrows across the river, home to Arkham Asylum. With The Dark Knight it looks like the Nolans simply decided, fuck it, let’s just shoot in Chicago.
This may be why the movie looks like a below-par Michael Mann crime drama rather than an above-average superhero film. Still, given that it has now taken over $1 billion at the box office The Dark Knight must be good, right? After all, punching past that milestone means it joins a select group that includes such masterpieces as Titanic and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Ah...
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
There must be an art to TV scheduling, however doubtful that appears. If so, it’s a shame that all the hours spent staring, furrow-browed, at the big board, inevitably feels like the decision making came down to the toss of a coin or use of a blindfold and pin once programme titles were pulled out of a hat, before everyone clears their desks for the day and pisses off to the pub.
In the broader scheme there’s always a sense that summer schedules are the dumping ground for the gormless tat nobody will admit to commissioning. After all, aren’t audiences expected to be away from the sets, out gambolling in the sunshine? Which means that for folk deciding not to huddle on a windswept south-coast beach, be stuck in a traffic jam, or link arms with the beer-bellied baldies stomping down a high street bellowing out the name of their favourite team, pickings on the box are slim at best.
With so many additional seasonal sporting fixtures also barging their way onto the screen to greedily suck up the oxygen of airtime, the schedules are as dried up as a Mother Superior’s snatch purse. In fact the only consolation comes during international events when newscasts show the soccer louts, miffed at seeing their team subjected to a good trouncing, being tear-gassed in some European capital for smashing up a sidestreet café.
On the other hand, at this time of year, when people are still paying off Christmas or stuck indoors because a couple feet of snow has brought the country to a virtual standstill, the schedules are absolutely groaning with damn good television. In some respect it’s a shame that they’ve all pretty much arrived at once rather than be strung out across the year so at least there will be something good on, even if it’s rationed to one show a week.
Generation Kill has passed the halfway mark and Battlestar Galactica really is now down to the final five. At least there’s the second season of Mad Men and the final year of The Shield to tide us over when they disappear from view. But once they’re gone, then what? What will be left when all the Norbert Bumhat’s crawl out of the woodwork, soiling their underwear as they gush over the genius of Doctor Who and Torchwood, not realizing that making such erroneous pronouncements instantly identifies them as total dickheads.
Still, such concerns are for a later date. No doubt that will really be the time to whinge. In the meantime it seems disingenuous to carp on about some measly godawful piece of rot when there are enough riches on offer. In fact, in this situation, the nonsensical dramas I’d usually be spewing bile at can be watched simply for a bit of a laugh. Which is why for the past three weeks I’ve watched ITV’s utterly nonsensical Whitechapel. At least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
It wasn’t that I watched it in favour of Moses Jones, which was on the other side for the same three Mondays. I caught the BBC2 drama on iPlayer, where I could sit and concentrate on the story. Whitechapel, it was quite easy to determine, was just more filler for dead air, playing in the background while I ate my dinner and tidied up around me. A modern-day Jack the Ripper, artfully recreating the murders from 1888, might have seemed like a half decent idea but once again it proved to be a concept in search of a story.
With history repeating itself, there was bound to be no resolution: The murderer would remain an enigmatic cipher, the mystery, once again, unsolved. Where’s the real fun in that? So instead the story turned out to be about the fast-tracked, OCD-inflicted new DI and his team of old school, deodorant-free detectives (obviously still smarting at failing the Life on Mars auditions), putting aside their prejudices and finally working together as a team.
When it comes down to the inspector and his sergeant bonding over koi carp and lager, you know you’re onto a wrong ‘un. With the final victim saved, the hairless “John Doe” killer chucked himself into the Thames as penance for his failure, the detectives gathered together and, with a bit of playful joshing, walked off into the night. It wouldn’t have surprised me if one of them remarked to the other, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” No wonder ITV is circling the drain.
From the outset I was trying to think of what Whitechapel could be compared to and to begin with the only thing I could come up with was a poodle squatting in a park on a blustery day, shaking as it bravely squeezed out a magnificent swirl of steaming dog toffee while it’s embarrassed owner looked away. In the end, the closest I could come up with was Messiah, based on Boris Starling’s novel, in which the police spend ages wracking their brains trying to figure out the link behind the series of ritualistic killings under investigation.
Even when the police eventually make the connection, all they have to go on is the name of the victim, his suggested profession and Saints Day date. In Whitechapel the contemporary of Abberline and his men are directed toward the pattern of killings pretty much from the get go yet, armed with the dates, locations, and description of the intended victims, these Keystone Cops still fail to stop further murders being committed during the next episode.
Whereas the camera in Messiah took in the sheer horror of the serial murders, the same scenes in Whitechapel looked like the Avid was commandeered by an epileptic during an earthquake. Was the staccato editing of the sodium yellow-drenched eviscerated bodies a stylistic device? Or, given the chirpy voiceover reminding viewers that ITV drama is sponsored by Sainbury’s, was the rapid jump-cutting simply a lame excuse for shying away from pushing the boundaries of taste?
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Boosted from Bill Martell’s site because at the moment I’m still too darned busy to try and make sense out of anything.
Given the choice between a hawked-up loogie like Slumdog Millionaire or this, I know which one I’d raid the piggy bank for.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
No Plan B
Well, that didn’t exactly go the way it was supposed to. If only I had crossed the room and started cleaning the DVD stacks yesterday morning, things might have gone a whole lot quicker. After all, that just involves clearing the shelves, dusting and polishing, sorting the various films and boxsets out, adding in any new arrivals piled up on the table and putting them all back in place.
Because the depth of the stacks mean the DVDs are two rows deep on each shelf there may be titles in back I haven’t seen for a while so there’s always the temptation to put one on, maybe switch on a commentary that I haven’t heard for a while or maybe haven’t gotten around to listening to yet. Either way, I can still carry on while that’s playing out onscreen. With the bookshelves that’s a different matter.
Sure I pretty much see the row upon row of spines every day, whether I properly take note of them or not, but taking the books from each shelf down in turn and piling them up on the desk to be able to polish the wood, meant I got to look at the covers. An interesting title or cover artwork is never something that can easily be cast aside. Whether it was the shelves of hardback or paperback books, fiction or non-fiction, every one of them stirred up memories, either from the story on the pages or the time and place I read it.
There are the books re-read on numerous occasions and some I still haven’t gotten around to like Gitta Sereny’s biography of Albert Speer. There are books bought for reference where only relevant passages were pored over or some that were simply abandoned. Going out with The One that Got Away, I was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Undressing for bed, she saw it on the nightstand and commented that some of her school friends nicknamed her Nicole because she had reminded them so much of Dick Diver’s wife. The bookmark still remains on page 159 where I stopped reading that very night.
While I can re-read Neal Stephenson’s excellent Cryptonomicon until well after the cows come home, I gave up on Quicksilver, his next book, after reading just over 300 of the 900+ pages because I couldn’t see where the hell he was going with it. Not every author gets a free pass. A Prayer for Owen Meany may be a favourite but the row of John Irving novels stop with a signed hardback of A Widow for One Year and go no further.
From shelf to shelf, Ian Fleming and Len Deighton, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child sit within reach of Melville and Dumas, Mark Twain and Jules Verne, Kerouac and Clarkson. There are authors I’m only beginning to discover after set texts for O- and A-level courses put me off them for years, although I could never penetrate the Russian classics. Still, there are always the books that the Delightful LA Actress bought for me while I was picking out titles for her, ones that I probably never would have gotten for myself.
Taking the books off the shelves, many were difficult to put down. So instead of racing through the chores and getting everything squared away on time, by Saturday evening I was still flicking through the pages of Carol Hill’s wonderfully bonkers Amanda & the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, having previously dipped into The Handbook of Folklore by Charlotte Sophia Burne, Carl Hiaasen’s scathing Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World, and the trade paperback of Dan Brereton’s Nocturnals: Black Planet.
Today I promised to put my back into it and get everything finished by lunchtime but after breakfast and the Sunday papers, I rediscovered Bill Watterson’s The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes and Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother books, which hampered proceedings considerably. Just when I thought everything was back on track, there, between The Hammer Story and Mike Mignola’s The Art of Hellboy was The Ultimate Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch. There went the afternoon.
Still, the bookcases are now refilled. The wood gleams. Even the spines look more colourful. Rather than cross the room and take apart the six shelves filled exclusively with various editions of Harlan Ellison books, from paperback reading copies to slipcased limited editions, with some hours still on the clock I started on the DVDs, which are now filled up on the sofa and the floor. Is it too late to watch a movie?
Friday, February 13, 2009
What Do You Know?
Gone quiet this past week as I’ve been busy, dividing the time between writing and initiating a massive clear out. Combining the two is usually not ideal, although the latter is certainly helping the former, especially when I not only tracked down the printed notes I had recently been looking for but, more embarrassingly, discovered a tape that had yet to be transcribed.
Sorting through file boxes, separating material that needs to go back into the cabinets while binning hard copies no longer required, and tossing the irrelevant post-its, record cards and scraps of paper that gradually accumulated over time, it’s amazing to have so much desk space back. Being ruthless when it comes to disposal, rather than simply shifting things around, even the shelves behind me have been cleared of all the clutter dumped in front of the books, leaving just the usual couple of souvenir baseballs and hockey pucks.
So, feeling faintly nauseous from the lemon-scented aerosol spray used to clean the stacks, working my way out from the corner of the room, shelf by shelf, between working at the computer, I should have them and the further book and DVD-filled shelves across the room done by sometime tomorrow. After that comes the rest of the flat until I reach the nightmare scenario: finally tackling all twelve drawers of the filing cabinets.
Even with this all going on I could have found time to post if there was something that really got my goat. But having kept away from the newspapers and only watched the few hours of drama that I actually wanted to watch, nothing has really raised my hackles this past week. It feels rather odd. Could this be a new beginning for the old dog? I very much doubt it. Before I come back foaming at the mouth, here’s something quirky for the weekend: A headstrong character who knows where they’re going...
Monday, February 09, 2009
The Three-Step Program
Watching the BAFTA awards last night the question that almost immediately sprang to mind was: Have awards ceremonies always been so utterly goddamned dull? Obviously, barring the odd “upset”, this late in the season the winners and losers have pretty much been worked out, but the repeated process of presenter-announcement-winner’s speech with no diversions only made it seem even more tedious than usual.
I’m not saying they should mix it up with some bonkers assault course from the nonsensical Total Wipeout that the nominees have to negotiate to get their paws on the winner’s statuette, or simply make the losers sit in a pan of meat gravy and then let a pack of rabid dogs loose on the floor of the Royal Opera House, but something could have done to liven it up. Thinking back over the past couple of years, the real entertainment came from Stephen Fry’s typically witty presentation.
Last year was tragic enough with Fry bowing out and Jonathan Ross taking his place, especially with the broadcast sound going completely to cock at the outset. But now that he’s emasculated himself so as not to forsake his BBC salary, become just another bland, light entertainment mouthpiece, they might as well have gone with a smiley face drawn on a sheet of brown cardboard with a black marker or a grey-coloured sock puppet.
Then come the winners’ speeches, divided their name checking between the personal and professional so that there’s hot sex that night and another job the next morning. But it’s only when someone goes off script and says either something utterly outrageous or totally heartfelt that it rises above the soporific lifting the audience there or at home from their glassy-eyed daze. Since we know pretty much who is going to win and pretty much what they’re going to say, the only interesting part of the ceremony is the final award: the annual BAFTA fellowship.
This is the highest accolade bestowed upon anyone by the Academy, given in acknowledgement of an outstanding contribution to film. This year’s was presented to Terry Gilliam who has produced an utterly remarkable body of visually creative work, from the Monty Python animations to Jabberwocky, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and 12 Monkeys. For someone who likes to work outside of the studio system it would have been interesting to see what he had to say about becoming part of the establishment.
Except of course, because the BBC had only allotted a certain amount of time in the schedules for the ceremony and it was almost up, his actual speech was slashed to ribbons for broadcast. As for the clip reel screened before he was brought up on stage, what the hell happened there? I emailed a friend who was at the ceremony last night to see if it was shown there in that same mangled form but she hasn’t got back to me yet.
Otherwise it was the fault of whatever twonk was slicing away in the edit suite. Even if they were battling a strict deadline it was still pretty poor stuff. If the BBC has to split the ceremony over two channels – three if you count the pre-show crap they’ve started to screen – because they don’t want to move the donkey dick of a costume drama that is Lark Rise to Candleford from its regular slot, what are they showing the BAFTA awards for anyway?
For one night a year can’t they shunt the whole thing to BBC2, or BBC3 if they have to, schedule some piece of shit film that everyone has seen before immediately afterward so if it runs long nobody gives a damn, and just play the whole thing from beginning to end? At least that way the animation wins, along with a couple other categories that are obviously deemed unimportant by whatever fucktard was in charge. wouldn’t be squeezed in at the end as a backdrop for the credit roll.
Thursday, February 05, 2009
After a weekend of great movies it was a rude-fucking-awakening to be thrown, face-first, back into the dirt of UK television. If it wasn’t for the new seasons of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, the arrival of Generation Kill, QI and a selection of half-decent repeats, I’d have crawled under the sink to gulp down a cocktail of bleach and oven cleaner before the snow had finally settled.
I know there are people perfectly happy with utter cobblers like Doctor Who, Merlin, Robin Hood, Demons, Casualty and whatever load of old flannel is on ITV: They’re easy to spot because their meals are always puréed and spoon-fed to them between the basket weaving. But for the few of us who can differentiate between our right and left shoes, the current schedules leave us wanting. Luckily, the word seems to be getting out to those more open-minded that things simply aren’t what they used to be.
Ten years after The Sopranos premiered, Tuesday’s edition of The Culture Show featured a segment with Greg Dyke scooting off to LA to discover what was going wrong over here. Starting on Sunset Blvd and ending his journey high above the city on Mulholland Drive deftly illustrated that documentary filmmakers from these parts still fall back on cliché as the easy option. Given the superficial nature of the programme it was being dropped into, the piece wasn’t going to be an in-depth attempt at investigative reportage, but at least it was a start.
“British television used to be known as the best in the world but in the last decade HBO has helped America quietly steal our crown,” Dyke announces at the beginning of the segment before swanning off to the Golden Globes and the channel’s after-show party to find out why we were getting television drama so wrong over here. There the brief soundbites from actors in past and present HBO shows said it all: HBO takes risks; HBO leaves the creatives alone; HBO takes bold decisions; before Paul Giamatti, clutching the award he rightly deserved for playing John Adams, rounded off the sequence by declaring, “They’ve got a lot of balls, I’ll tell you that much.”
After that it was time for Dyke to sit down with HBO’s Co-President, Richard Plepler, and Michael Lombardo to pretty much cover the same ground. Funded by subscriptions rather than advertising, the pair’s explanations boiled down to the fact that the channel took risks in the service of the creative narrative, looked for people who had something to say and let them get on with it, and judged the success of a show by its level of quality rather than ratings. Then Alan Ball and Ed Burns chipped in, talking about how the company had helped bring Six Feet Under and The Wire to the screen.
That was all well and good, but with such an uncritical element of mutual backslapping I’m surprised that there wasn’t jelly and cake for everyone afterwards. I got that the piece was trying to position the BBC against HBO, the former getting £3 billion a year from the “public purse”, while the latter annually collects £2 billion from subscribers to pay for programming. But there was no mention that American television had already taken the crown from Britain when it came to quality drama and HBO’s contribution, including The Sopranos and The Wire, just helped keep it well out of reach.
Bigging up HBO’s successes, Dyke failed to consider that shows like the Depression-era Carnivàle, Deadwood, Rome and John From Cincinnati had been cancelled prematurely. Or that HBO’s big successes had occurred under the watch of Chris Albrecht, the company’s CEO who was eventually shown the door in 2007 after a drunken brawl in Las Vegas made the headlines. Since his departure, with the end of The Wire only Big Love and the recently arrived True Blood remained in terms of the channel’s ongoing drama, while more cutting edge and critically acclaimed dramas Breaking Bad and Mad Men had sprouted up on America’s basic cable channels.
Still, the whole venture did give Dyke the opportunity to stand in the sunlight with Los Angeles spread out behind him and declare:
“If British broadcasters want to recapture some of the lustre lost in recent years, and in particular the BBC because they’re not funded by advertisers, they must be willing to take more risks. And maybe it’s time they stopped the scattergun approach to programming and put more money into bigger projects. And in the process, maybe it’s time they give more power to the creatives – to the producers, to the directors, to the writers – because what we’ve discovered from HBO is that’s the way to make the best programmes in the world.”
Even if the piece ultimately came across as a superficial skate over the issue, now was as good a time as any to be broadcast. How can British drama be shown to take risks in the week that ITV coughed up the police drama Whitechapel and Five resurrected Minder for a new, obviously stupid, generation? Boy, did the two of them stink the place out.
I suppose there might have been a good point for making the former but I couldn’t see it, especially since Whitechapel appeared to be more about the fast-tracked, by-the-book DI in charge of the investigation dealing with a station filled with reject cops from Life on Mars than the Jack the Ripper copycat they were after. The latter meanwhile, which I watched up until the first commercial break, got it so completely wrong on every count that it was simply astonishing.
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
In previous posts I’ve banged on about the wonderful film seasons the BBC used to show before the proliferation of television and movie channels meant they couldn’t obtain the rights as easily or some bright spark behind a desk decided to spend the money allocated on shoddy lifestyle programmes to grab audiences. Frankly it’s a shame, and not simply because they delivered so much entertainment.
The demise of such easy access to earlier movies means there’s probably more than a generation of bright young things who have absolutely no fucking clue of film history, confirmed by the fact that on a recent edition of University Challenge none of the contestants could identify James Stewart. Of course in the scheme of things something so utterly dumbfounding isn’t exactly that a big deal. Young fans of, say, Blue Velvet probably don’t give a shit that Hitchcock had explored the same dark underbelly of suburbia more than forty years earlier in the far superior Shadow of a Doubt. Hell, they probably don’t know or care who Hitchcock is anyway.
Where problems arise is when the little bozos either weasel their way into the industry or clamour around the door scratching to get in. What can we expect them to deliver if, for instance, their knowledge of film comedy comes from Judd Apatow and, God help us, the Farrelly brothers because they simply have no familiarity of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch? The spate of thoroughly unpleasant horror movies we’ve been subjected to these past years specialise in graphic violence simply because without it they cannot conjure up the sheer terror brought to the screen by the likes of FW Murnau, Tod Browning or producer Val Lewton who let the power of suggestion scare their audiences witless.
I’m not saying that older films are always better, although based on recent evidence they certainly have the edge. Because I had mentioned how BBC used to screen collections of terrific science fiction movies from the 1950s and 1960s like Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Mister Mark, who also been entranced by them in his younger days, hatched a cunning plan: pick a weekend, set out the chips and dips, and put on a screening of our own. A vital component was to invite a bunch of mates over to watch them with us. The inherent danger of course was that the movies wouldn’t be as good as we once thought. So if our memories were playing tricks on us at least we could have a good laugh together while each drama unfolded.
To get us started we broke the rules by watching The Amazing Screw-On Head, only a couple of years old and based on the one-shot comic from Mike Mignola. Described as a “hilarious send-up of Lovecraftian horror and steampunk adventure”, the half-hour animated short was produced for the Sci-Fi Channel with the possibility of becoming a series. That didn’t happen, leaving us with this sole adventure of President Lincoln’s top secret agent battling vampires, werewolves and a monkey with a machine gun as he tries to stop his arch-nemesis, Emperor Zombie from unleashing an ancient evil that will threaten America and the world.
If it sounds utterly bonkers that’s because it is utterly bonkers, and absolute genius. The reason for prefacing the older films with this was to put everyone in the right mood for what was to come in case it all went pear-shaped. As it was we didn’t have to worry because next up was Forbidden Planet. Double genius! In the run-up to the weekend I’d mentioned that some of the older films could be ropey when it got to the science parts. Amazingly, Cyril Hume’s screenplay got it right when it came to the physics and the remastered DVD looked even better than when we first saw it on television all those years ago.
Watching this stone-cold classic, I reminded the room that Gene Roddenberry once remarked that Forbidden Planet had been an inspiration for Star Trek. By the time the United Planets Cruiser C-57D disappeared into the depths of space, we decided that “wholesale theft” might have been a more accurate description. Still, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. As the discs were changed around and drinks replenished, I snuck out into the garden with our pal Idris, who had scooted all the way over from Wales to join us, for a quick gasper.
Because there were so many films stacked up to watch, the only way we would have got through them all would be to mainline caffeine and where would be the enjoyment in catching up with the past if we were frazzled? In advance Mister Mark had written the film titles down in strips of paper, folded each one up and placed them in a hat. We went around the room, picking one out in turn to determine the running order. Next up was George Pal’s The Time Machine. Here there was no science part. Rod Taylor’ time traveller demonstrated how the machine moved through time to his close circle of friends, but nothing was mentioned of how he had come to engineer it.
Remarkably, without the blather of bullshit technobabble we’ve come to expect from contemporary films that try to sell us an outlandish notion, it worked. The film remained aloft on just our suspension of disbelief because we were ready to accept the idea. The only time we had to pause the film and skip back to the beginning of a scene was when the time traveller reaches the 1960s and we double-checked that the air raid wardens were indeed wearing the costumes from Forbidden Planet.
Next up came my turn to pick from the hat and I came up trumps with It Came from Outer Space. In any season of SF films you have to have some Jack Arnold. If we had more time beyond the weekend we would have gotten around to Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man. As it was this had to suffice. With the escalation of the Cold War in the 1950s, many of the films from the time are remembered as thinly-veiled allegories, warning people of the encroaching Red Menace and appealing them to remain vigilant.
Based on a story by Ray Bradbury, It Came from Outer Space stoutly refutes that xenophobic hysteria. Though the residents of a small Arizona town are gradually taken over by aliens after their spacecraft crashes in the desert, it isn’t what everyone expects. If that was the only surprise of the film it would certainly have been enough, but we were also treated to gorgeous black and white photography from Clifford Stine and wonderful direction from Arnold. Perhaps more remarkable for me is that while I didn’t remember ever seeing this film before, I was still hooked from the beginning.
Three films down and next up was This Island Earth. Within the first couple of minutes we all decided we wanted to be Cal Meacham. As a scientist, he rocked! He could fly jet fighters and the journalists loved him. He was 1950s’ “Captain Awesome.” This Island Earth is always remembered for the iconic pincer-handed mutant from the planet Metaluna, even if the character only appears in the final sequences. Instead the bulk of the narrative is taken up with the alien Exeter recruiting a group of scientists to help save his people from extinction. What makes the story all the more remarkable is that ultimately his plan fails, which seemed like an absolutely shocking turn of events.
After a break for Mister Mark’s wonderful homemade stew, the last film of the day plucked from the hat was another of the great influential science fiction films of the 1950s and the second from HG Wells: George Pal’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. A damned sight better than Spielberg’s recent load of nonsense, the disc contained a wonderful print of the film. In fact it was so crisp and clear that wires on the Martian war machines started to show up on occasion. But really that was no matter. Even if wires or matte lines appeared in any of the films we watched, none of them would have been vastly improved by the CGI we have today. In fact the limitations of the time, while hardly a distraction, only led to the sequences becoming more inventive in their execution.
Come Sunday we were down by one as David had to return home and running late because I was the last to rise. Stoked with toast and coffee we continued with First Men in the Moon. Our third movie of the weekend based on the science fiction novels of Wells, it was a fitting tribute to producer Charles H. Schneer. Produced in “Dynamation – The Miracle of the Screen”, it was made just years after John F Kennedy announced his goal of landing a man on the moon in 1961 and then famously reiterated the statement a year later at Rice University with: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Obviously it played fast and loose with scientific facts – the Victorian adventurers wear old diving suits to protect them from the vacuum but don’t bother with any gloves – but who cares? As Mister Mark pointed out, Lionel Jeffries wonderful turn as an obsessed scientist was an early prototype for Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown in Back to the Future, the script, co-written by Nigel Kneale, deftly illustrated that the stout-hearted men of the British Empire could be mindless thugs when encountering a new civilisation, and Ray Harryhausen’s animation and effects were simply marvellous. I don’t actually ever remember seeing this film as a kid and it was an absolute joy.
After that Idris had to make the long trek home leaving just the pair of us to round off the afternoon with one final movie. There was still When Worlds Collide, The Thing from Another World, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as those two further Jack Arnold-directed movies to watch. Instead the last title pulled out of the hat was Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still. Oh frabjous joy! What better film was there to round off the weekend? There are few films that you can keep throwing superlatives at until you run out of breath. The Day The Earth Stood Still is one of them and once again, the print on the disc was just astonishing.
It looked better than when I first watched it all those years ago, staring goggle-eyed at the TV as Klaatu and then Gort appear before the astonished crowds in Washington DC. Many of the films of the time conveyed the public’s fear of the Cold War or a suspicion of the emerging Atomic Age. Here the two elements dovetail perfectly, even throwing in a religious metaphor for good measure as Klaatu, having taken on the guise of Mr Carpenter to observe human life firsthand, is resurrected by Gort after being shot dead by the soldiers sent to track him down. Yet at no time does Wise set aside the drama to preach to the audience, which is why it stands up to this day. However decided this needed a remake should be smacked with a shovel and dumped face down in a ditch.
Too quickly the weekend was over, leaving just as many films unwatched as watched. It’s not something I usually say, but our very own film season deserves a sequel.