Sunday, August 12, 2012

Good Sports

The last few days I’ve been trying to think back to the point where it became apparent that sports and myself simply weren’t compatible. I used to think it went back to my time at the prep school, starting aged nine years old, where the games master was – not to put too fine a point on it – a fucking sadist. And Welsh. And the twice–weekly games classes were held at the end of the school day, after lessons had finished.

While that might have been fine for the boarders who would otherwise have been sitting in the hall doing their homework, the day boys just wanted to go home. Living on the edge of Dartmoor at the time, once out of my sports kit and changed back into the school uniform it was then a race to get the five o’clock bus. To miss that – which I did on numerous occasions when the Welsh martinent wasn’t keeping an eye on his watch – meant waiting around at the bus station for over an hour before I could finally start the journey home.

Before then it would be predominantly cricket during the summer term months, rugby during the winter and spring terms, with the odd sprinkling of swimming throughout – which was my favourite because the municipal pool was only a couple minutes walk to the bus station. Having been enrolled at the school after the beginning of the school year, I’d missed being shown how to play the games, if any explanation had been given. Maybe even at that young age we were expected to know how to play the games. As it was I hadn’t a clue. Cricket was easy to work out – you either tried to hit the ball or catch it depending on which side you were on, although I still don’t understand that whole thing of positioning the bat when you stand in front of the wickets.

Rugby, however, was a complete mystery, although I picked up a few quick tips the hard way. The first time I handled the ball I was suddenly mashed into the frozen ground of the sports field as the opposing players piled on top of me. After that, if the ball came my way I simply threw it to someone else, spending the rest of the lesson trying to look like I was involved while keeping as far away from the action as possible. Having as little to do with the annual sports day as I could, the nadir of my sporting participation at the school was when some little fucker in my class put my name down for the cross–country run as a joke.

When it came to my attention, rather than simply cross my name out, I pointed out to the games master that I hadn’t signed myself up and, if he looked carefully, he would see it wasn’t even my handwriting. The miserable Welsh bastard decreed that because my name was on the list I had to run. At the time I had quite severe asthma and struggled around the course that weaved through the city parks, wheezing and spluttering on that particular bone-chilling cold day to eventually finish 49th out of 50. The kid who came in last had worse asthma than I did, and what he was doing in the race remained a mystery to me, and probably him.

Before that, at a little village primary school, my introduction to football came about when I absently walked across the playground into the path of a kicked ball that I expertly deflected off my face and into the goalmouth painted on the brick wall. Then there was the piggyback race where the kid carrying me stumbled and I went down, sliding across the hot tarmac on my nose, so it was pretty evident why I’d prefer to be left alone to sit and read a book. Even during school holidays I wasn’t that safe. My aunt and uncle and cousins lived in Scotland, across the road from the Royal Troon Golf Club, so when they came down to visit the adults and elder children would play golf at a nearby course while us youngsters had to carry the clubs and keep quiet.

So long before I was sitting my O–levels at the grammar school I was pretty done with sport. During the games lessons I’d go swimming every chance I could, whether I was supposed to or not, and my attitude in the PE lessons was reflected in the repeated comment in my school report’s that read, “Must take this seriously!” Just over thirty years later, I’m still not that bothered. I’ve skied, taken a golf swing and given up looking for the ball after fifteen minutes, and worryingly found myself winning a game of pool in a hall on Sunset Boulevard against a one–armed, wild–eyed, near transient betting a can of tuna on the outcome. A few days later I’d be invited to take part in an upcoming croquet match in the grounds of Frank Lloyd Wright’s exquisitely beautiful Hollyhock House in The Barnsdall Art Park on Hollywood Blvd but would have to decline because I’d be in Seattle at the time.

In the end the only sports/pastimes I can safely say I enjoy are croquet and waterskiing, neither of which appear prominently in the television schedules. Watching sport on television, I don’t mind catching brief highlights that condense games or days of an ongoing event down to the important action, although I still don’t give a fig about football because it seems to be a game populated by predominantly sub–literate thugs and followed by fans even lower down the food chain. So when it came to the Olympics I figured I had a couple of weeks to get a lot of work done and maybe watch a DVD when it reached the point in the evening when I wanted to put my feet up.

For the first week I did just that: rarely turning on the television and, come the end of the days, watching the likes of Defence of the Realm, Iron Man, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and X-Men 2. Come Saturday morning I turned on the television to BBC One while eating breakfast and didn’t turn it off, or switch channels, until gone midnight after the end of the day wrap–up. The same thing happened on the Sunday, and from then on every day since I was hooked long before I found myself watching the late–night boxing – a sport I’ve never seen any merit in – and shouting, “Fucking hit him!” to the young British lad in the ring. I turned by nose up at the beginning because I couldn’t see anything of personal interest but it didn’t take long to be a convert. The staging of the games has been phenomenal. The achievements of the athletes have been phenomenal. And just as importantly, the BBC coverage has been phenomenal – even though I had to mute the volume during the daytime when I was transcribing hours of audio from recent interviews.

Living in the northern fringe of London, there had been so many Transport for London emails and other announcements ‘suggesting’ that I kept the hell away from the city because it was going to be rammed, which led to the city turning into something of a ghost town at the beginning when people heeded the warnings. Last Tuesday I had to cut through the city on my way down to Sussex for the day, getting the train down to St Pancras International and then transferring to the underground at King’s Cross. Though crowded there weren’t any delays or disruptions and everything ran smoothly, and it was just great to see all the passengers looking so happy and excited. At Victoria Station there were Games volunteers in their purple tracksuits giving people directions and there was just such a great vibe. Maybe during rush hour it’s a different matter but it was a surprising experience to use the city’s public transport and see everyone smiling.

Arriving back in London later in the day, rather than race back home on trains I took buses so I could see what was going on in the city, travelling up Park Lane to see all the activity in Hyde Park. On Friday I had to be back in town late in the afternoon for a brief get–together and the energy levels still hadn’t died down. Two days on the games are winding down, with the last remaining athletes aiming to snatch victory in the dying seconds, there’s just the Closing Ceremony. It looks like it’s going to be predominantly about pop music again above every other form of British culture. Having been astounded by the events of the past week, to be a good sport I suspect I’ll just have to grit my teeth and grin and bear it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Not The Laud Of The Rings

Over the weekend I caught the Olympic Opening Ceremony again on iPlayer. I also watched the BBC’s Live Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony Countdown, which I hadn’t bothered with on the night because, as what now seems to be the de rigueur preamble to televised ceremonies, I expected most pre-ceremony business to involve some complete clueless twerp from The One Show (or something of that ilk) loitering outside the stadium with a microphone, asking the arriving athletes who designed their outfits for the evening whilst being as informed of the upcoming event as the berks who attempted to preside over the recently broadcast Jubilee celebration.

As it was it didn’t take long for me to start moving the slider forward in five and then ten–minute intervals to get through the expected waffle. During the actual broadcast I’d been happily watching the Proms on BBC4, and revelling in The West–Eastern Divan Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony 8 when I got the message: ‘They’re just about to perform Nimrod in the stadium...’ So scrabbling for the remote, I flipped channels only to hear a very low key version of the ninth of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, made even less audible by the unwelcome blather from the BBC’s doughy–faced Welsh–wanker, Huw Edwards, a bewildering snatch of The Shipping Forecast, and the distraction of The Wurzels loitering in the background. 

The only surprise from the audible mêlée was the presence of Elgar, which had come from a previous discussion about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert back in early June, where HMQ had to grimace through a rambling selection of piss poor pop acts, no doubt wondering what she had done to deserve an almost incoherent Robbie Williams, Grace Jones with a hula hoop, and finally melty–faced Macca, who has somehow managed to convince most of the population that he is a national institution, much like inbreeding amongst the landed gentry and a weevil guaranteed in every ship’s biscuit. Where, I’d wondered, simply for the sake of tradition if nothing else, was Elgar, Vaughan Williams or Blake/Parry, aren’t they let out of the Royal Albert Hall to play anymore?

At some point I must have muttered that it was doubtful they’d be allowed near the Olympic Opening Ceremony either. Wasn’t it around that time that the bizarre design for the floor of the Olympic stadium on the night had been unveiled to the public? If the atrocity as we waved goodbye to Bejing, with the Transformer Routemaster bus, Beckham booting a football into an aghast audience, and the decidedly odd dance troupe fannying around was a Mitsubishi A6M7 Zero, armed with the atrocious 2012 logo and the bizarre penis mascots as ammunition, then this bizarre Teletubby–Hobbiton concoction was obviously the aircraft carrier flight deck it was scheduled to crash headfirst into. Tradition, which now seemed to be an ugly word that made people twitch and look away, didn’t seem familiar to either of the two. It would be fair to say that expectations weren’t high.

To cut to the chase, I found Friday night’s ceremony utterly jaw-dropping. That would be jaw–droppingly good and jaw–droppingly bad in almost equal measure. I didn’t expect the brilliant precision of China, and at some point I would have liked to see Boris in a cagoule being catapulted into the stadium saying, “Hello clouds, hello sky”, but I suppose you can’t have everything. Maybe it was on the table but dropped due to time constraints, because almost all of what we eventually saw certainly put the ‘Generally Bonkers’ into GB. Watching it again, it still felt – as it first had on Friday – that in the planning stage there was a decision made that the acts, if you want to call them that, had to be as far “out of the box” as possible as well as being well over to “left field”. If some ideas appeared to have been floated and voted in after one too many bottles of Prosecco, one or two had to be the result of a further ingestion of Class A’s.

I really loved most of the first half hour in the stadium, when the bucolic idyll filled with the hey nonny, nonnying pastel–dressed ladies, smiling croppers and the children maypoling while villagers having a bit of a kick about on the green were swiftly eradicated by the arrival of the “dark, satanic” Industrial Revolution, which led to the river of molten steel and the forging of the central fifth ring. And then having James Bond escort HMQ to the stadium was so bonkers it was brilliant. If they had finished it right there and started bringing in the athletes before the arrival of the well–travelled Olympic flame, then everyone in the stadium could have got off early, bought themselves an official Olympic Big Mac on the way out and strolled away into the night with a spring in their step and a smile on their face, rather than have to race to catch the last westbound Central Line train home. Meanwhile everyone at home could have settled down to a late film or retired for the night.

But even in those thirty–odd minutes the sequences ably highlighted the flaws repeated throughout the rest of the show, and I suspect the shoulders that the blame has to be squarely laid upon are those of the Artistic Director, Danny Boyle. I don’t care that he pretty much illustrated which box he ticks when he goes into the voting booth. Obviously some people immediately got in a right tizzy about the NHS getting bigged up, but if you aren’t happy to see the welfare state being celebrated at just about every opportunity then frankly you’re an utter bastard, in which case you should stop reading now and go fuck yourself! So ignoring his political leanings, I think it was his profession that let him down if it’s fair to say that a film director concentrates on the individual scenes whereas a theatre director might think about how the performance on stage connects to the live audience it's presented to.

The Bejing ceremony, as I recall, just had a natural flow to the proceedings, and from any seat in the Birds Nest stadium I would guess you could see (if not fully understand) what was going on at all times. For the audience in Stratford, when so many different things were happening at the same time, I wondered if they knew what the hell they were supposed to looking at next amongst the hubbub of activity unless they glanced up at the large monitors ringing the inner lip of the roof for guidance. And for that to have to happen during a live event, isn’t that a tiny bit of a failure? Further more, focusing on the monitors was obviously a basic requirement for the numerous VT inserts that sprang up during the evening’s performance as well, which begs the question: Since when did what is essentially theatre in the round require so many flat screen TVs to make it work?

Then we come to the content of the show, which could be written off as too many ideas, all over the place, that didn’t really gel. Unless it’s a little island territory like, for example, the Federated States of Micronesia, most countries have a rich and varied history, although saying that the FSoM might host the event some time in the future and really put on a show that surprises everyone. With a running time hopefully shorter than the average Academy Awards telecast it’s all about what gets left out as much as what gets put in. How do they decide that? They say all ideas start with a blank sheet of paper. I’d have thought that when it comes to devising an Olympic ceremony a white napkin would be preferable. That way you’d also have a handy blindfold when facing the firing squad afterwards if it goes spectacularly tits up. If Friday night’s phantasmagoria didn’t deserve a bullet then a knee–capping wouldn’t go amiss.

How do you exemplify nationalism to a multi–national audience and keep everyone happy? As a sign of British progress, without too much ballyhoo I wouldn’t have minded some recognition of the Royal Navy – circa the 17th and early 18th centuries – when it instigated a massive surge forward in this country’s economics, industry and even agriculture, and because we are, after all, an island nation. But I suppose it would be bad form to remind everyone that Britannia once ruled the waves and there were times when, to secure vital trade routes, our ships blew holes in the hulls of ship belonging to countries that weren’t on our Christmas card list at the time. So instead we got the Industrial Revolution, which worked a charm because it’s obviously fine to ravage your own countryside in the name of progress rather than doing the same to some other nation.

To add to the British achievements a shout out to Alan Turing might have been nice, but that would have brought up Bletchley Park and that would have been awkward however much they tried to jolly it up. Even if the announcer barked “MK3!”, I doubt they could have got the German Ambassador in the audience to play along and wearily reply, “You haff sunk my U-boat!” Meanwhile the British Empire would probably only ever have made an appearance if some blousy tart dressed up as Britannia was grilled by Paxman; naming a country that hadn’t come under British control before repeatedly demanding, “Did you threaten to rule them?” Even playing nice, which of course was the done thing to do – after all, the Chinese drummers never once took a timeout to clip a Tibetan monk around the lughole – the trick was to predominantly stick to cultural references and through them slip anything under the wire anything that could have been contentious. Whether that worked was another matter.

Sir Winston Churchill, voted the Greatest Briton a decade ago, made an appearance in the mad and mostly successful James Bond VT but only in the sense that his statue in Parliament Square was transformed into some frankly disturbing, gurning, liquid–liquorice character. Really, we could have done without that because it looked like the sort of bollocks Russell T Davies dreamt up when he was making an absolute hash of Doctor Who and distracted from the fact that it was HMQ (who looked like she was trying desperately not to giggle when she got up from her writing desk) and James–fucking–Bond! Whereas Winnie’s turn was brief and only in passing, the flummery that surrounded the tribute to the NHS seemed more problematic.

Starting with directions from The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, it was easy to see how they joined the dots from Peter Pan to J.M. Barrie leaving the rights to Great Ormond Street Hospital, to nursing, to the National Health Service. But shoe–horning it into a celebration of children’s literature let the whole thing run amuck. What was the idea here, that reading gives you nightmares? Or maybe I was still puzzled that with Mike Oldfield playing from Tubular Bells as the children lay in their beds, not one of the kiddies was impelled to rotate their head and spew bile green vomit everywhere. As Lord Voldemort inflated and the Child Catcher and his army of ninjas crashed the party it felt like the brains trust had got into an “and then... and then...” game of one–upmanship that ran riot until they decided a squadron of Mary Poppins should all float in to save the day and packed it in, never to return and refine the idea. And was two children having to share one hospital bed a specific dig or something else altogether?

Still, if that middle section was baggy at the seams, the final main set–piece was where it all came apart. Watching the pre-show – or at least the last fifteen minutes or so after skipping the blather – I’d happened across some plaid shirt–wearing band occupying the slopes of the Teletubby Glastonbury Tor. As always with all these sorts of earnest young tykes, the singer was enthusiastically spouting, “Who’d have thought that after all, something as simple as rock and roll will save us all” with the usual spectacularly naïve of performers not long in the music business. Yet watching the Opening Ceremony again I wondered if this wasn’t the key to the evening ahead.

Going back to the opening VT that began at the source of the Thames then sped forward down the river into the heart of London, I expected to have heard, “Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song,” from Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion – later appropriated to an altogether different effect in The Waste Land by T.S Eliot – as well as seen some reference to the work of J.M.W. Turner. But apart from the fleeting, and crude, animation of Ratty and Mole on the water, both the Ceremony’s introduction and the night ahead was really just about the music. (In which case the omission of Spenser’s reference showed up not just the limitations of the theme but also the lack of any real effort).

So apparently – when it comes to British culture – theatre, musical theatre, art, poetry, literature, and film, whether comedic or dramatic, personal or profound, comes much lower on the list than pop music. Of there was the early nod to Shakespeare by having Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel quoting Prospero from The Tempest before going off to have his photograph taken, but only because “The isle is full of noises” was key to the night’s manifesto and if any branches of the arts got a look in they were simply relegated to adjunct status.

As the final section laboured its way through an extended Stars on 45 of British hit singles until it ended on a celebration of Sir Tim Berners–Lee – rightly lauded for the invention of the World Wide Web. If everything before had been about hiding something of worth within an existing tableau, this awkward shift from the sometime irreverent to the utterly irrelevant simply buried it under a mountain of shit. Whose idea was it that the best way to illustrate his technological revolution was to spend over a quarter of a hour segueing through Now That's What I Call British Popular Music volumes 1–5 on the back of phone–obsessed young urban youths being reunited with their mobile? That was the best they could come up with? So there you go Tim, all that work and it comes down to the kids of today downloading a bunch of tunes and their fucking apps! I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d curled up under the desk and stuck a gun in his mouth.

Even then it didn’t really make sense because I have a basic mobile that I can send texts on that doesn’t require internet connectivity. Or did I miss something? Because again the sequence required on–screen messaging graphics that worked well in something like Sherlock when you’re at home on the sofa looking at the television but most have been a bastard to make sense of on the distant monitors in the stadium itself. No wonder the audience – when they weren’t busy taking photos with their own fucking mobiles – tended to look bemused at what was going on.

And again the sequence required the vital VT, or at least clips projected onto that funny inflatable house, to illustrate this “romance” between the careless girl and the predatory boy, most of which left me confounded. Why, to illustrate the budding relationship, did we see snatches from Kes and Gregory’s Girl? Hasn’t anyone seen the ends of those films? The kestrel gets killed and Gregory ends up with a different girl to the one he chases. Then when the pair in the stadium finally get together we’re treated to clips from Hollywood movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Wall-E. Surely for Britain – in the continuing token attempt to celebrate British films – it should have been one of the final shots from Brief Encounter, the heartbreak of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton parting at the bus stop in The Remains of the Day, and James Donald walking on the sandbar muttering, “Madness!... Madness!”?! Or maybe I’m taking that last bit too personally.

Either way, by the time the Arctic Monkeys started their hooting and hollering it just felt like the whole enterprise had started well, stoked by the initial wheels of industry, but then immediately fizzled and died on its arse. Years ago during an extended stay in New York, one morning after a particularly wild night before I’d stumbled into the grocery store that stood across from the apartment on Lexington Ave and 70th Street. Perilously hung over and badly dehydrated, I found myself staring at the row of chiller cabinets stocked with all manner of different juices and sodas. “Too much choice, huh?!” observed one of the locals as he saw me standing there, paralysed by the sheer abundance of products on offer and unable to decide what I wanted. That’s how the Opening Ceremony felt: too much to choose from and not enough proper thought put into what flavours go together.

All that was left, once the players of the games had eventually trotted in and been politely kettled in the central staging area, was the lighting of the cauldron – and Thomas Heatherwick’s designed proved to be the absolute masterpiece of the night. Even then, the handover from the old to the new leaving us with the Young Olympians and the Cauldron of Fire, I had a feeling that good ideas like that had been senselessly marred by the cloying desire for the group of two letters hanging over the evening’s event to be not GB or UK but definitely PC. With the deaf drummer banging on her pots and pans, the choir of deaf and signing children warbling the national anthem in their jammies, the on–the–nose multiculturalism, and the need – right at the start – to interrupt the recital of Jerusalem with a burst of Danny Boy from the Causeway Coast and whatever the hell was being sung from Edinburgh Castle and a preternaturally sunny Welsh beach, there were times when the ceremony was so politically correct that it was stifling.

Still, basking in the reflective glow of the two hundred-odd lit petals once they had risen up and were pointing skyward there would have been a good chance to have let it all go if only they had held on such a satisfying image. But then some complete knob had decided we needed to finish the night with melty–faced Macca and another burst of bloody Hey Jude, which we really don’t ever need to hear again, which is fortunate in that he doesn’t seem able to sing it anymore. Although judging from the quick exits the athletes were making maybe he had simply been brought in to help clear the stadium.

If so it seemed to do the trick with some stands clearing as everyone got the fuck out of there, while those lingering in their seats were holding on in the hope that The Stig would jetpack in and drop that giant bell on the Scouse bell-end's head. Now that would be worth a medal in anyone’s book! 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What Happened...

It seemed like only a moment ago it was the beginning of January. Suddenly it’s the end of July. In today’s common parlance I suspect my initial reaction should be: WTF?!

I’d actually started writing a few posts during January, up to the end of February, but they were never finished and therefore remain unpublished – and scanning over the particularly bleak handful of paragraphs rattled out at the end of this Leap Year’s additional day, perhaps that’s for the best.

I’m not sure what to say about the last seven months other than the “day job” began to leach all the fun out of writing, so the last thing I wanted was come here and make some pithy observations once the evenings drew in. Then in early May, in the middle of the night, I found myself awake and bolt upright in bed a split second before a rather phenomenal display of projectile vomiting. That was the entrée to almost ten weeks of being unable to properly digest food, which was fun.

At first thinking it was another kidney stone announcing its unwelcome arrival, I reduced the diet to the tried and tested rice cakes, crackers and cranberry juice. But when anything of more substance, even kept simple rather than spicy, turned out to be like a clean bullet wound – a straight through and through, if you get my drift – I figured it was something else altogether.

By this point any right–minded individual would have scurried straight up to their GP, but I figured I’d try and sort it out myself before I had to slum it with sick people in the waiting room. That meant figuring out what I could and couldn’t eat, trying one new thing a day and hoping for the best. It turned out to be rather a hit and miss affair and would have carried on that way if I hadn’t dragged myself out of my “sick bed” and ventured south of the river to see The Divine Ashby perform with her band.

Happy to see each other, and having forgiven me for being such a lousy map–reader earlier in the year that I got us lost before we had even left London, soon she was on my back for having not seen a doctor by now. So I finally made an appointment and eventually found myself sitting across from a complete plum. Oddly enough, the day before I was due there my left foot became somewhat inflamed and especially tender where the metatarsus joined the tarsus. I wondered if elements of the limited intake had anything to do with it. He squeezed my metatarsals in a vice–like grip until I actually screamed, would only acknowledge that the skin was red after I’d taken my right shoe off to compare the two, and wrote me out a prescription for one hundred painkillers, which I wasn’t sure was the sort of thing to give someone who periodically struggles with depression.

As for the digestive disorder, his answer was to simply send me on my way with a bottle of Cyclizine (even though I’d only been sick that one time) and told me to eat a balanced diet, which was even less helpful. “When do you get the results back from the blood tests?” most people asked when I reported that I had seen the GP. No blood samples had been taken, I explained, which nobody was impressed by. The Divine Ashby’s email reply was short, not very sweet, and mostly written in upper case.

Still, there is an upside. I’ve dropped three stone, spend a little more time exercising, and take the blood pressure meds regularly. I’m still wary of what I eat and airy remains problematic but I’ve widened my diet beyond the crackers and raw fruit and vegetables, and make sure I vary the cans of soup that constitute the evening meals. I’ve also figured out a way to sort out the thorny issues that have plagued this working environment that I’ve been tangled up in, so maybe the recent symptoms were stress related than something abdominal. Although the end is still not in sight, I’ve worked out a suitable exit strategy that will allow me to just walk away. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime I suppose there’s a whole lot to catch up on. Before that, how’s everyone else doing? And what in God's name happened to the blogger dashboard while I was off?

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Catch The Wrong One Out

Having realized over the past decade that going to the cinema had become a less than pleasant experience, at the beginning of last year I’d decided to give it all a miss. It didn’t seem to be a big deal now that the DVD release is usually in the shops well before, say, a hardback book becomes available in paperback. If I can wait to read a book I can certainly wait to watch a film. Equally weary of the ramped—up propaganda that goes into selling every new release, it was refreshing to catch up with it long after the attendant hullabaloo had died down, so I could watch each movie on its own terms without it being made out to be such a big deal.

It all worked out rather well. Worse than being lumped in amongst an unruly bunch of patrons that have lost the ability to sit still and pay attention, or having to cope with a sound system designed to favour whopping great explosions and other such nonsense over important things like dialogue, was the feeling of wasting so much time trekking off to the nearest cinema to watch some mediocre piece of nonsense. At least at home, if the film proved to be not up to much I could get on with the crossword, waiting for it to pick up, or leave it running in the background while I got back to work. But as we moved into the latter half of 2011 two movies appeared that intrigued me so much that I couldn’t wait to see how they had turned out. One experience was better than the other, in the cinema itself and on the screen, although neither film ticked both boxes. But then you can’t have everything.

It was during the BBC’s Big Read, years ago now, when lists started doing the rounds of the 100 books everyone should read. I suppose because the public had initially been asked to nominate their favourites that the likes of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rubbed shoulders with Anna Karenina and Jude the Obscure lagged behind The Da Vinci Code as Tolkien and Jane Austen battled it out for the top spot. Whenever I’d tot up my score of titles I’d read down the years it would invariably come in between a quarter and one third of the total listed simply because not only had the Russian contingent always defeated me but it appeared that I’d made the appalling mistake of opting for Henry Fielding when I obviously should have gone for Thackeray while my A—level syllabus had chosen the wrong Thomas Hardy novel all along.

The same was true for John le Carré because I hadn’t actually starting reading his books until the late 1990s, beginning with The Tailor of Panama, which meant I’d breezed right past his celebrated Cold War—set oeuvre, ignoring it completely. It was probably because I had been hooked on Len Deighton instead. I’ve always had it in my head to get around to reading the earlier books when I had the chance, but it hasn’t happened yet. Of course when you haven’t read a book, the cop—out explanation was always to say that you’re waiting for the movie to come along. Or, when it comes to any number of the classics, the BBC adaptation. Over the years they have certainly served Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, Thackeray and George Eliot well, and in fact the same can be said for le Carré’s classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, which made up the first and third part of his celebrated Karla trilogy.

Over three decades since their initial transmission, both titles remain exceptional examples of television drama at its finest. So when Working Title announced that it was making a film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I couldn’t quite see the point. Of course there’s no reason for them not to finally turn the book into a movie. A good number of le Carré’s novels have already been adapted for the screen, starting with Martin Ritt’s film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. But with any book—to—film adaptation there’s always the issue of just how much of the source material will fit into the movie’s running time and, perhaps more importantly, what has to be omitted and how that will affect the tone of the finished piece. The worry with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was that if it just came down to the spycatcher out to catch the spy, will little else, it would be no different from, say, a Mission: Impossible movie without all the flash bang, car chases and over the top stunts.

Still, I was further intrigued when it was announced that Tomas Alfredson had been brought on board to direct. Admittedly I still haven’t seen his well—received vampire movie Let The Right One In, but letting a foreign director bring an outsider’s perspective to a country and in particular its institutions can usually benefit an already intriguing story, as films like The Ipcress File and Point Blank have shown. Then a reasonably solid cast of character actors was signed up for the roles, and they’d even cajoled Kathy Burke out of retirement to play Connie Sachs, which suggested things were on the up. Finally, just prior to the film’s release came the series of ecstatic reviews that tumbled over each other to give it the full—on Jam Gush. So off I went, paid for the ticket and took my seat. Just over a couple of hours later, after the end credits had rolled, I headed home wondering if it had been worth all the effort to make, let alone go and watch.

Obviously having not read the book, all I could do was compare it to the BBC adaptation, which I’ll still find myself watching at least a couple of times a year when heavily—promoted new television drama turns out to be an utter disappointment. And when it comes to the two versions I think the comment Stephen Gallagher left a few posts back in relation to the original 219—minute cut of Heaven’s Gate and the bowdlerized studio version:

“...I’ve always thought [the full—length Heaven’s Gate] had a grandeur and a texture that the shortened cut lacked. Whatever it had going for it, those qualities largely vanished when just the story was pushed to the fore”

could just as easily be applied to comparing the seven—part BBC adaptation to Tomas Alfredson’s much shorter film. Maybe the glowing reviews held it in such high adoration because in the summer months, when the movies are usually filled with CGI—spectacle and all the other usual base nonsense, now retro—fitted for unwelcome 3—D, along came a movie appealing to a more adult sensibility. Unfortunately it was severely malnourished in terms of story and character. Even if an additional half hour (or more) had been added to the running time, which it certainly needed, the film would still only have been half the length of the seven—part BBC adaptation. And given some scenes that provided necessary narrative tissue had so few frames they were like strands of gossamer, quickly blown off screen, it showed.

There’s a scene midway through the television serial where Smiley and Peter Guillam stop for a meal during which Smiley recounts his sole encounter with the Russian master spy Karla. Sat down at the restaurant table, before he begins, Smiley stops the waiter from pouring their wine, instructing him to “let it breathe a little”. That I suppose is the real luxury of the television version. With a running time of five—and—one—quarter hours, it gives the labyrinthine story, punctuated by numerous flashbacks, the chance to breathe. Alfredson’s film, on the other hand, simply takes a series of big gulps. As a spy thriller the movie worked probably worked well enough for anyone with little or no knowledge of the source material, but with the much shorter running time short—changing every last character, there really wasn’t much meat left on the bone to make much of a feast for anyone who did.

It wasn’t a complete disaster. There were nice touches like Bill Haydon surreptitiously sliding his feet into his unlaced shoes at Smiley’s house, and the moment during the drunken revelry at the Circus Christmas party when, reminiscent of the submariners in Das Boot enthusiastically singing along to It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, the English spies break into a rousing rendition of the old Soviet national anthem. But aside from that there was little else going for it. The most egregious sin of all was just how much Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase – the quartet who make up the new regime once Control is ousted, one of which is suspected of selling the Circus out to the Russians – were relegated to the periphery to such a degree that their mere existence in the piece was virtually worthless. Their faces taped onto Control’s chess pieces may appear early on, but their designated codenames – “Tinker” Percy Alleline; “Tailor” Bill Haydon; “Soldier” Roy Bland; “Poorman” Toby Esterhase – were voiced so late in the day that they sounded like an afterthought rather than making up the actual title.

Back in 1979, watching the BBC adaptation, I had no idea which of the four men Smiley is sent to investigate was “Gerald”, the mole until the final denouement. They may not have appeared every step of the way but when they are on screen, especially in the flashbacks of Smiley’s initial enquiries into the Operation Testify debacle, they make their presence felt and leave a lasting impression. I’d say the opening scene of the BBC adaptation, lasting only a couple of minutes, tells you more about the pompous Alleline, devil—may—care Haydon, blustering, chain—smoking Bland, and finicky Esterhase that the film ever does.

Because they get so little screen time in Alfredson’s film, if the actual mole hadn’t appeared slightly less often than the other suspects, the writers could just as well have casually plucked one of them names out of a hat as they were gearing up for the last dozen pages and pinned the blame on them. Certainly when Guillam bursts into the safe house to discover who the traitor neither he nor Smiley seemed particularly bothered by the revelation. It was if everyone in the film had been dosed up on more than their fair share of horse tranquilers.

One of the things I liked best in the television version, which comes up in some of le Carré’s later books and usually gets a mention in the odd documentary on the author, is the correlation he makes between the working of the secret service and public school. On more than one occasion the controllers of both the Circus and Moscow Centre are referred to as “Head Boy”, and when Alleline takes over from Control, Haydon, Bland and Esterhase certainly act like prefects. So by design, once repatriated and let go by the Circus, Prideaux disappears to teach at a minor prep school in the Westcountry. Spotting Mendel loitering outside the school grounds while teaching his charges to drive in his old Alvis, he gathers the boys together, warning them to watch out for “ju—ju men wandering around” who had broken in to the “last place” he was at and cleared the place out. Setting up his own spy network, it’s the chubby young Roach, the outsider, who he relies on most. “Best watcher in the unit, ‘Jumbo’ Roach. As long as he keeps his specs clean,” Prideaux declares, and even the dimmest viewer, mystified by the serpentine plot should know of whom he is talking about.

I can’t recall if Smiley ever stopped to clean his glasses once during the movie. On television, one of the delights was watching him patiently listening to everyone tell their tales and questioning them with just a look. If the BBC came up with a special DVD that added extra footage of Alec Guinness simply watching, listening, and quietly processing the facts, I’d snap that up in a jiffy. In the film, there certainly wasn’t time for any of that, nor to make use proper use of Smiley, the great inquisitor and a solid operator in his professional life wrestling with an even greater deception on the domestic front. “Have you noticed Peter that when I really trouble one of our acquaintances with my questions, he’ll raise the matter of my failure as a husband to confound me,“ the cuckolded Smiley observes in the television adaptation, and throughout the seven episodes the most loaded remark was the oft repeated “Give my love to Ann!” An otherwise innocuous remark under different circumstances, but used to try and bring Smiley down a peg or two or throw him off the scent.

The film was bereft of those marvellously acidic mentions of Ann, and her appearance were only fleeting: briefly seen from behind during the Christmas party where at one point the camera lingers on her behind, groped as she’s in a clinch with her Circus lover which might be its most fatal flaw. If the television adaptation had pulled that trick she would have only been one step removed from joining the ranks of harridans like Captain Mainwaring’s wife or Maris Crane in Frasier. Whether it is taken from the book or not, Arthur Hopcraft’s script wisely introduces her in the final scene of the BBC adaptation, affording Siân Phillips to land the absolute killer blow with her piteous: “Poor George. Life’s such a puzzle to you, isn’t it?” All Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay gives us is Julio Iglesias’ rendition of La Mer. Merde, more like!

Stripped of so many of the relationships, both private and professional, past and present, that bound the narrative together on television, leaving just the spycatcher out to catch the spy, the film is like a once—healthy animal gutted and hung in a butcher’s shop leaving just the flesh on view. Obviously Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was going to be no different from the film version’s of Paul Abbott’s State of Play or Troy Kennedy Martin’s classic Edge of Darkness, with whole chunks of the story reduced or radically altered to squeeze it into a far reduced running time. Here the new angle was about Moscow Centre using the Circus to get its hands on US intelligence. But what made it so infuriating this time around was to hear fragments of le Carré’s familiar dialogue, displaced and isolated, as if the novel and BBC scripts had both been shredded and the film’s writers had half—heartedly scrambled to tape them back together before giving up and pissing off to the pub.

I suppose I could say more but it would mean giving the game away and revealing the identity of “Gerald”, which is a bit rotten. Although it’s a shame that whoever designed the film poster didn’t think along the same lines. What a muppet!

And if there was a quote that needed to go on the poster I can think of nothing better than the tweet from author Anthony Horowitz:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Why

Friday, December 23, 2011

One Of Those Days...

While I was “away” there was a whole lot of work to do that had faltered somewhat, to the extent that there came a day where I actually sat down and wondered whether it was worth carrying on. But then so much research had already been done, together with what was already written, that it seemed silly not to keep going. And anyway, when progress was being made it was actually good fun especially when, based on my browsing and buying history, Amazon would recommend DVDs like the double-bill of Gorilla at Large & Mystery on Monster Island. I still can’t figure out what that’s about.

At the end of last week, having seen an unexpected curio at the BFI Southbank that turned out to be a real benefit, I received a phone call that confirmed we were on for “next Thursday”. At that point I had to ask, on for what? Then early yesterday afternoon I was bundled into a cab that sped off towards Holland Park. Inside the house, the housekeeper led us to the day room. I sat down on the sofa, admiring the sculptures of King Kong grappling with the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Sinbad sword fighting with the statue of Kali, checking out the row of awards that included a BAFTA mask and Academy Award statuette. We heard the voice first, coming down the stairs. Then into the room, leaning on his cane, walked Ray Harryhausen.

He settled into his chair, his daughter brought coffee and some of her excellent home—made mince pies and we chatted and I listened to his amazing stories. For a while, when it was the two of us, somehow we went well off topic. I think it was around the time he mentioned meeting Hal Roach. The subject of Laurel and Hardy came up and I remarked that my favourite scene of theirs was the pair trying to shift a piano: Not up the flights of steps in The Music Box, but across the rope bridge in Swiss Miss where they tangle with an escaped gorilla. He chuckled at the memory then after we threw out a few more titles and memories, I looked across and Mr Harryhausen was doing Stan Laurel’s thumb trick from The Bohemian Girl. And as I started to crack up he tipped his head back and roared with laughter.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Saur Point

When did dinosaurs stop being exciting? This was the query that started rattling around my head in the early hours, the week before last, during the tail end of an egregious bout of insomnia. I should add that it wasn’t just a purely random thought that had popped up while I paced around, fretting over whether the lack of sleep would leave me too insensible to get any decent work done during the few daylight hours we now have each day. Instead I’d been sat at the computer, whiling away the time watching The Land That Time Forgot – Animus Productions’ cheap and cheerful adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel – in its entirety on YouTube.

It was a shame that I was catching it out of kilter because it would have made a perfectly good Sunday afternoon matinee. Co—written by Michael Moorcock, the film sticks reasonably close to the source material as the crew of a U—boat and the survivors of a recently torpedoed merchant ship – led by that big slab of heroic 1970s beefcake, Doug McClure – face the twin perils of aggressive, barely—evolved humans and carnivorous dinosaurs when, dangerously low on fuel and rations, they chance upon the lost sub—continent of Caprona. Watching it I wondered if the film would now only entertain young kiddies who haven’t seen better or people of a certain age who remember being enthralled by The Land That Time Forgot upon its release back in 1975.

Shown to a generation of slightly older children used to things being slick and shiny, would they complain about the back—projection, the scenes that looked like they had been shot in a local park, and – more importantly – the puppet dinosaurs? Would the gliding pterodactyls bring howls of protest, especially since the wires on the full–scale models and the harness on the actor that ends up in one of the creature’s mouth are clearly visible on screen. Or wouldn’t that matter to them? Would they just enjoy the film for what it was? All these years later The Land That Time Forgot is still great fun. After all, this is a film in which a Triceratops takes a round from the U–boat’s deck gun in the face. What’s not to like?

The next night, still awake, and knowing that watching movies wasn’t going to help, I decided to find a book to read that would help get me to sleep. Rooting around in a box in the bedroom cupboard, filled with the paperbacks there wasn’t room for in the bookcase shelves, I happened across Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I’d read it just the once when it was first published in 1991 and with dinosaurs still on my mind decided to give it another go. And it did the trick! A couple of chapters and I had nodded right off. Having hidden this book away for the better part of twenty years, I’d forgotten how absolutely rotten Crichton was at writing fiction. The characters are perfunctory at best and show no emotion throughout what is supposed to be quite an ordeal. Instead of conversations between individuals they just give lectures on their field of expertise.

Although one character on the page gets so scared they wet themselves, the rest blithely blather on with their oral dissertations on genetics or paleontology or chaos theory even in the face of what any normal person would consider the most appalling danger. It’s like Westworld only the visitors are the robots. If Crichton couldn’t write female characters – sidelining the paleobotanist through most of the book – he sure as shit couldn’t write credible children. The kids in the book were so clueless and irritating that every time they appeared I wished someone would hurl them into the gaping jaws of the nearest predatory beast. When the only ticking—clock drama was that the supply boat had to be stopped from docking at the mainland because, for the whole voyage, the crew were obviously too stupid to notice there were escaped dinosaurs on board, I wished I had some Burroughs in my hands. But that would have defeated the exercise and kept me awake. Instead, night after night, Crichton’s novel helped put me to sleep.

Although I honestly can’t remember what I thought of the book when it first came out, rereading it I’ve newfound respect for the screenwriter David Koepp. Credited with the scripts for the first Mission Impossible movie and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I’ve never been a big fan of his work, but you have to hand it to him for having managed to fashion a half decent script for the film adaptation of Jurassic Park. I can remember the night I saw the movie in the West End. Everyone had to see the movie, simply because it had dinosaurs in it. But after seeing the dinosaurs there really wasn’t much else. For me the saving grace was the casting of the still much—missed Bob Peck as the game warden, Robert Muldoon, livening up every scene he was in. And I laughed heartily when the Velociraptor peered through the circular glass in the kitchen door, mirroring the scene where the no—nonsense Nurse Murch looks in on Gordo Cooper during one of the more bizarre tests at the Lovelace Clinic in The Right Stuff. Although nobody else in the audience seemed to get the joke.

For all the pixel power involved in rendering the computer—generated dinosaurs, the more satisfying scenes involved a hefty dose of animatronics from Stan Winston Studios. And even then, the best part of the set piece involving the Tyrannosaurus attacking the cars on the park tour was the ripples in the glass of water, foreshadowing the arrival of the weighty T—Rex. Although the fact that it would later tippy-toe into the visitor centre, much to everyone’s surprise, to chew up the raptors made nonsense of that earlier sequence. But by then I guess nobody cared. Dinosaurs were the new big thing. By the end of the decade, because there was an audience for it, we had the six—part quasi—natural history documentary Walking with Dinosaurs. That led to a whole number of Walking with... documentary series, which, all combined, covered life on Earth from the Early Precambrian period up to the Late Pleistocene.

Just as I mentioned in the previous post how the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars robbed the planet of its mystery once it began sending back images of the surface, the problem I found with this sort of “factual” programming was it made dinosaurs ordinary. Built in a computer, no doubt with any number of drab scientific advisors peering over the shoulders of the animators and digital artists explaining every last little boring detail, the creatures created for these series may have been anatomically correct and attributed the behavioural patterns best surmised by the experts in the field, but this surfeit of data reduced them to carnivores and herbivores of that era, no different than the beasts that roam the planet today. Where’s the fun in that?

A couple months back I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Julie Harris who had been the costume designer on the likes of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, Carry on Cleo, the 1960’s spoof of Casino Royale, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Darling – for which she won the Academy Award – and The Land That Time Forgot. Utterly charming and still sharp as a tack, during our chat she mentioned that when it came to working on period dramas, although she would diligently research the clothing of the time, for the costume designs she would create a fashion for the era because historical accuracy would only go so far and audiences expect a lot more.

Though computer animators can now feel very proud for being able to create the perfect Tyrannosaurus, the end results still sadly lack the imagination of the dinosaurs that dazzled audiences in the original King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million Years B.C. or The Valley of Gwangi. There stop motion animators like Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen – the absolute masters of their profession – not just brought those creatures to life but, more importantly, imbued them with some personality traits that went towards defining their character. And that’s what seems to have been lost amongst the vast numbers of pixels and hours of render—time, when animators only get their hands on a keyboard and Wacom tablet and not the dinosaur itself.

Even if the animation is done well it still requires lighting and shading to integrate it into the scenes and if one of those stages isn’t up to snuff the whole thing looks utterly phoney when it is composited into the live action footage. A couple of months ago I caught the first couple episodes of Terra Nova. Remember that dreadful BBC drama Outcasts? It’s like that, but worse. Because instead of useless colonists sent to a distant planet, the bozos in Terra Nova are sent back in time to the late Cretaceous period, which means dinosaurs. And not just any dinosaurs but badly animated and horrendously composited dinosaurs that looked utterly out of place in every scene they appeared in.

At the moment critics are falling over themselves to praise The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film shot in black and white. Hopefully sometime soon stop motion animation will make a comeback. Because in recent years the only computer generated dinosaur I can think of that has come close to recapturing the true character of that wonderful earlier work is Rex, the over—excited plastic T—Rex with an inferiority complex from the three Toy Story films. Everything else I’ve seen of late just makes my heart sink as I yearn for those simpler, yet more exciting, days. And that’s not right.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Red Is Dead

The story goes that back in the mid–1980s, at some point between the end of post—production and eventual theatrical release of Michael Mann’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to ditch the title and replace it with the uninspiring Manhunter in the grounds that the original shared a word with Year of the Dragon, one of his earlier movies that had come out the previous year and tanked at the box—office. Now, while it’s abundantly clear that there’s no exact science when it comes to a business where financial success depends wholly on the general public, who can be a fickle bunch of bastards at the best of times, surely basing that sort of decision—making on such superstitious tomfoolery can only best be described as pure idiocy.

I can understand Year of the Dragon being rejected by audiences and going straight into the crapper. I’d caught it when the film first opened here, going along because I’d found The Deer Hunter tedious, really loved the original 219—minute cut of Heaven’s Gate, and wondered what director Michael Cimino would do next. As it turned out, he’d made a crime drama, co—written by Oliver Stone during his cocaine years, featuring a self—righteous fascistic bully steamrollering his way through a retched miasma of overt racism, sexism and xenophobia. By the time I saw Michael Mann’s film, in which Brian Cox’s understated portrayal of Hannibal Lecter was far more chilling than Anthony Hopkins’ pantomime psycho turn, Year of the Dragon was just a distant ugly memory. With the original title would it have been more successful? Or would folk have pitched up at their local cinema expecting some Russian kung—fu flick?

Was De Laurentiis’ meddling down to his inability to recognize, let alone concede, that the previous content was at fault or his own personal messed—up Hollywood hoodoo to ward off failure? This was, after all, the showman who still ballyhooed the elaborate and expensive animatronics used in his remake of King Kong even though they’d had to resort to a man in a monkey suit during filming because the mechanics didn’t work. Though when he decided to ditch the “Red Dragon” title it’s a shame there hadn’t been somebody on hand to throw De Laurentiis into a quandary by reminding him that just a few years before John Milius had made an absolute killing with Red Dawn, in which Colorado high school students fought a guerrilla war against invading Soviet paratroopers. Torn between the one word brimming with success and the other tainted with the stain of wretched failure he probably would have had a seizure on the spot.

A quarter century on, it would be good to think this sort of corporate witchcraft had been laid to rest, but apparently old habits still die hard. Maybe it’s just another unexplained side effect of the Santa Ana winds, periodically turning the suits in the San Fernando Valley and over the hills in the Los Angeles basin into bigger arses than usual. Except this time its “Red” that’s leaving executives off—colour, or more precisely, the Red Planet. For Hollywood, Mars has always been troublesome. Although to begin with the fact that it was bad was good for the studios as invaders from Mars (and any other hostile planet for that matter) made for good metaphors of the pervading Communist threat in the great science fiction films of the 1950s, in much the same way that those pesky Martians, first landing on Horsell Common, in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds were seen as an allegory of British Imperialism.

Much like the seemingly unstoppable three—legged fighting machines that emerged from the cylinders, laying waste to England before being routed by common bacteria, the end of the Cold War meant that Hollywood had no need to use the red planet as a threat to hang over us, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a cough in the face of forthcoming alien invaders. But anyway, by then science fiction had already been infantilized in distant galaxies. When the Martians tried their luck to take over our world again it was in Mars Attacks!, which, typical of a Tim Burton film, looked pretty in places, had a rambling plot that went nowhere, and failed to recoup its budget. While in the recent War of the Worlds – Spielberg’s definite article—less take on HG Wells – Martians weren’t even mentioned and the agonizing clarion call of the tripods, sounding before they unleashed their vaporizing heat–rays, was a welcome relief from the continual screaming and yelling from Dakota Fanning’s brattish character.

When Hollywood looked to Mars as the setting for dramas, the results were as successful as most NASA missions to the planet. Though Total Recall made money by taking Philip K Dick’s story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and beefing it up with brutish, cartoon violence, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars was a pallid retread of the director’s Assault on Precinct 13, while Doom – quite possibly the nadir of the video game–to–movie adaptations – was so sickeningly awful it shouldn’t ever be brought up in conversation again. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars aimed for some kind of 2001 profundity but missed the target. Nobbled by characters that had the bland stuff, shortly after their mission began I wished Joseph Cavor was in charge to liven things up. The only thing noteworthy about Red Planet was it was even more scientifically inaccurate than the old George Pal movies with those wonderful Chesley Bonstell matte paintings. When NASA – who opened their doors to the makers of Armageddon – refused to get involved, they pretty much declared it was a film to stay well downwind of.

So the only logical way forward would be to go back to the pre-Mariner 4 days when Mars still remained an enigma, allowing writers to conjure up tales set on a planet filled with mystique and exoticism. Back then we could have The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s utterly astonishing collection of linked short stories that begins with Rocket Summer, set in 1999, where the heat from the take–off of the first rocket to Mars has startling effects on the surrounding Ohio landscape, and carries on through the next quarter century and more to finish with The Million-Year Picnic – oddly enough one of the first of the stories to be published in the pulp magazines of the time – that brought the narrative to a remarkably poetic close. But The Martian Chronicles had already come to television in the form of a three part miniseries, broadcast thirty years after the book’s publication. Written by Richard Matheson, it tried its best but, like much all screen adaptations of Ray Bradbury’s work, it lost the beautiful lyricism of his prose in the translation from page to screen.

Before Bradbury there was Burroughs, the grandfather of Mars–based fiction, whose own series of Martian chronicles, set on the world the native multi–coloured oviparous races call Barsoom, feature John Carter, a one–time Confederate Captain in the American Civil War transported to Mars via astral projection, the Martian princess Dejah Thoris, and their eventual descendents. Though the English–born author Edwin Lester Arnold may have got there first with Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His Vacation, published in 1905 and later known as Gulliver of Mars, it’s Burroughs the readers of fantasy fiction remember. A Chicago native and the son of a Major who fought in the American Civil War, Edgar Rice Burroughs served with the 7th Cavalry before being invalided out on medical grounds. Eventually working as a pencil sharpener salesman, he first started writing to see if he could come up with better stories than the ones appearing in the pulp magazines he was advertising his business in.

Yet if Burroughs is familiar to cinema audiences it’s as the creator of Tarzan instead. Although Tarzan of the Apes was published months after the first John Carter adventure appeared in the pulp fiction magazine All—Story – spread over six instalments under the title Under the Moons of Mars before eventually being published as A Princess of Mars – Hollywood obviously found it easier to bring his Lord of the Jungle to the screen than the many wonders of Barsoom, where studio—shot scenes could simply be intercut with stock footage of animals in the wild, omitting the need to venture out on location. Although of course any jungle adventures would still involve a far larger wardrobe budget than what would be required for Mars. While Tarzan went through numerous incarnations in film and on television, played by a succession of actors that included the great Johnny Weissmüller, Buster Crabbe, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott and Ron Ely, John Carter languished in print.

For a long time the closest John Carter came to the screen was in the early 1930s when Bob Clampett, the legendary Warner Bros. animator, drew up test scenes for an animated adventure. In the end all we got out of it was Marvin the Martian joining the Looney Tunes roster of characters. Twenty years later Ray Harryhausen’s interest in the property came to naught. In the 1970s, Amicus brought out adaptations of a trio of Burroughs’ novels, with At the Earth’s Core, the first book in the Pellucidar series, sandwiched between The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot from Burroughs’ Caspak trilogy, but still there was no interest in Barsoom until a decade on when Walt Disney Pictures were looking to go ahead with a film written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the screenwriting stalwarts who would later bring all four Pirates of the Caribbean films to the masses, then rewritten by Bob Gale. But again, the project fizzled out and it looked like we were only going to see Barsoom in pictures from fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta (up above) or, more recently, Frank Cho (below).

Luckily, come the turn of the century, interest in John Carter renewed. Maybe after the three stinky Star Wars prequels some studio executives decided to treat the audience to some spectacle that had a decent story for a change. Although for a while the film rights were in the hands of Paramount Pictures who were happy to put Robert Rodriguez, another purveyor of piss—poor movies, behind the camera with a script that began with Carter as the captain of an elite special forces unit, taking out unsavoury rebels in Central Africa before being transported to Barsoom from inside a cave adorned with red fire-gem crystals. After a switch in directors the studio lost interest, allowing Disney to regain the rights and finally go ahead with the project. Obviously this was a cause for celebration. Michael Chabon was brought in to work on the script. Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall–E and one of the original members of the Pixar Brain Trust, was on board to direct. The film, based on the first novel would be released on the centenary of the publication of A Princess of Mars. At last everything was looking up!

If there was a downside it was that in the hundred years since the book saw print it, and the further novels in the series, had influenced or inspired countless science fiction or fantasy films, from the early film serials from Universal Pictures featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, down the line to Star Wars and Avatar, where to say that Lucas and James Cameron were “influenced” by the Barsoom novels is actually an incredibly polite way of putting it. So there’s always the danger that some illiterate little twerp watching the movie will see a Thoat, one of the eight–legged Martian horses, and think the filmmakers have ripped off Avatar, not knowing that when Cameron wasn’t basing his designs on 1970s prog–rock album covers he was shamelessly plundering from Burroughs. Of course if that was the only downside, I guess it could be considered a win because what Stanton and everyone else involved didn’t know when they started production at the end of 2009 and how spectacularly Robert Zemekis would shaft them.

There was a time when Bob Zemekis made pretty decent movies. But then he became captivated by performance capture, which would have been no bad thing if only the end results hadn’t looked so bloody awful. Ranging from the odd to the downright disturbing, the characters in his first outing, The Polar Express, looked like something out of a kiddie’s worst nightmare with their lifeless eyes and strange facial movements. Carrying on the process through Beowulf and his take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol there was little sign of improvement as the staff working at his company ImageMovers, by then acquired by Disney, seemed to be caught up in the details rather than understanding that the basic principle of animation was to bring something to life. They still hadn’t figured it out by the time Mars Needs Moms, based on the children’s book by the cartoonist Berkeley Breathed rolled around, which was a shame because Mars Needs Moms was pretty much the Beagle 2 of Mars movies.

Released earlier this year, it hit the ground with a dull thud and just lay there, making less than $7m on its opening weekend from a $150m budget. By the time Mars Needs Moms was sluiced out of cinemas and the air freshener was pumped in, the film had the distinction of already being the fifth biggest box–office flop in cinema history. There was even talk that its failure would bring the fad of showing every damned thing in 3D to an abrupt end, which might not have been a bad thing. What did happen though was that two months after Zemekis sent his torrent of shit flooding through uncanny valley, John Carter of Mars had suddenly become John Carter. How about that?! Of course Disney strenuously denied that the stinking great turd Zemekis had recently dropped had absolutely nothing to do with the suddenly truncated title but it still felt as if the spirit of Dino De Laurentiis was merrily roaming the corridors was Burbank.

When the first teaser trailer for John Carter came out in mid-July the most puzzling, and disappointing aspect was that it lacked any of the “wow factor” Burroughs fans expected. Frankly it was dull. With the London FX houses Double negative, Cinesite and nvisible knuckling down to get the film finished, luckily nobody blamed the omission of some expected eye—popping spectacular down to those scenes being incomplete. Nearly twenty—five years ago, when I was working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit departments were advised well in advance which scenes had to be fast—tracked for inclusion in the trailer, and that was long before kit like Pre—Viz made it easier to sort and select the requisite material. So the creeping suspicion that followed in the wake of this remarkably bland teaser was that it had been slapped together (perhaps having been taken apart beforehand) by a perturbed marketing department that suddenly had no confidence in knowing how to sell the movie.

For a while everyone laid low, hoping any controversy over the truncated title would die down, but then in the following months excuses for the title started coming out. Mark Strong, who plays Matai Shang, leader of the Holy Therns, took a stab at it back in the summer by explaining:

“The reason is that he has to earn that title. Again, it’s a franchise or a number of books; a series of books that people may or may not know, but if you call him John Carter of Mars, I think at the very beginning, all the work’s been done and what Andrew wants to do, I think, is introduce people to this first film, and by the end of it, he becomes John Carter of Mars, but not at the beginning. In the beginning he’s John Carter, but by the end of the first film, he’s John Carter of Mars; so he’s earned that title to take it off should it want to go to further storytelling.”

I suppose that’s one way of looking at it, especially with a franchise in mind, but then they could have made the point even clearer by checking back through the opening pages of A Princess of Mars and calling the film Captain Jack Carter of Virginia. That would hammer home the fact that he was an Earthman and everyone else wasn’t. Then finally the time came for Andrew Stanton, who obviously knew that he had a responsibility to the studio that had invested north of $250 million in his latest movie, to step up and just recently announce:

“Here’s the real truth of it. I’d already changed it from A Princess Of Mars to John Carter Of Mars. I don’t like to get fixated on it, but I changed Princess Of Mars because not a single boy would go. And then the other truth is, no girl would go to see John Carter Of Mars. So I said, “I don’t won’t to do anything out of fear, I hate doing things out of fear, but I can’t ignore that truth.

“All the time we were making this big character story which just so happens to be in this big, spectacular new environment. But it’s not about the spectacle, it’s about the investment. I thought, I’ve really worked hard to make all of this an origin story. It’s about a guy becoming John Carter. So I’m not misrepresenting what this movie is, it’s John Carter. ‘Mars’ is going to stick on any other film in the series. But by then, it won’t have a stigma to it.”

To begin with it sounds like the sort of mealy—mouthed misdirection that tumbles from the lips of some weaselly politico eager to hold on to his job, where starting off by saying, “Here’s the real truth,” immediately sends up warning signals because everyone has come to expect that whatever comes next is a whole world away from the real truth. Since his words came on the heels of the first proper trailer, released at the beginning of this month, it didn’t exactly chime with the new on—screen content that suddenly seems to be all about the spectacle. So it was disappointing that someone of Stanton’s standing was playing the game he was obliged to play. But I guess we should have known that someone who had enjoyed the years of freedom up in Emeryville wasn’t going to be completely held in check by the machinations of Hollywood. When he wrapped up his statement by acknowledging that ‘Mars’ did have a stigma attached to it, I wonder how well that went down in Burbank?

Or maybe Mars wasn’t as big an issue any more. Show the audience something big and shiny and they’ll soon forget what stunk up the place a day, a week, or a month ago. With the trailer the publicity department had got back on their feet by showing the goods but not naming any names. If you watch the teaser again, have a look and see what’s missing from the new trailer. Here’s a clue: Back in the summer Universal released a very expensive movie called Cowboys & Aliens. I didn’t see it. I don’t feel any real urgency to see it when it comes out on shiny disc in a week or so. But I do know it cost $163 million and only made just shy of $175 million worldwide, which in anyone’s book labels it a flop. Is it a coincidence that all the footage set in the Old West from the John Carter teaser hasn’t made it to the trailer?

So Mars is bad, a combination of the Old West and aliens are bad, and the first poster is just lousy. Difficult circumstances dictate that it’ll be an uphill struggle to give this film the recognition it deserves. It’s one of the few films that I’m actually looking forward to seeing next year. Hopefully Disney doesn’t bottle it, John Carter finds an audience and there are more films in the series to come. If they have some backbone and believe in the movie all the studio really has to worry about are the fans of medical dramas thinking it’s a film about that nice student doctor from e.r. But if it doesn’t work out I can always go back to Burroughs’ text. All I have to do is remember the words:

‘With my back against a golden throne, I fought once again for Dejah Thoris’

and I’m in another world...

For those who haven’t read the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which I hope is just a simple oversight, Sterling Publishing in New York have begun reprinting the Barsoom and Tarzan series, with stories from the Pellucidar and Caspak series coming out next year. All titles can be obtained through Amazon and if you place your right order now they should arrive in time for Christmas. Having seen the double–issue Radio Times, there’s pretty much fuck all on as usual. Rather than getting stuck in the company of annoying relatives, find a comfy chair, grab a nearby box of chocolates, and get stuck in to some Burroughs. You’ll thank me later.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Second Act In A Blogger's Life

So, I’m back. Thank Stephen Gallagher, or blame Stephen Gallagher, which ever you see fit. I bumped into him the weekend before last and during the all too brief time we had to chat he urged me to resurrect this blog. Oddly enough, the following day a delightful and enchanting actress who I had been keeping entertained during her first time back in England since a shattering family bereavement, told me I was a wonderful teller of tales – and no, she hadn’t been drinking! Having already found myself toying with the idea of coming back for another go around. So those encounters were, I suppose, the final impetus I needed.

Truth be told, after the way things had turned out last year I really did need the time away to get things back in order. Taking these online ramblings out of the equation also allowed me to focus on the work currently at hand. As it happened, a short while after having the apartment to myself again, boxes were brought out of storage and transferred here so I could sort through an accumulation of annotated scripts, contracts, call sheets, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, and publicity material. We may not be fully up to speed because time management is proving to be an alien concept to the person I’m partnered with – which occasionally infuriates me because we should have gotten much further ahead by now – but we’ve certainly made progress.

Those concerns aside, through the changing seasons I’ve rooted through files in the British Library, scoured the British Library’s Newspaper Library, and got to talk to the director Robert Fuest, the writer Brian Clemens (either side of a new Blu-Ray commentary he was participating in), the remarkably forthright Academy Award–winning costumer designer Julie Harris, and John Humphreys, the designer/sculptor who created Max Headroom. Hopefully the momentum will build, but for the time being I’m managing to push the project forward, discovering numerous truths that will eventually dispel the long–held legends that have previously seen print.

With all that on my plate, returning to the blog may seem like an utterly insane thing to do because I doubt I’ll be able to post as regularly as before. But when there are days when I come back from Colindale Newspaper Library – thankfully only a short bus ride away – having spun through reels of microfilm or leafed through bound volumes of periodicals looking to find the information that will fill some of the numerous gaps in the narrative and returned home with little or nothing of value, it’s good to have something to write at the end of the day.

They may not run to the same length as previous entries – some of which clocked in at over 6,000 words – but rest assured that short doesn’t always mean sweet. Having been on my best behaviour and seen where that got me... Well, if you’ve been here before you’ll know just what to expect.