Saturday, November 26, 2022

MY NAME IS MOK, THANKS A LOT [372]

Angel & Omar

There is nothing like getting yourself to watch a DVD copy of a film you haven’t watched yet, by telling yourself you are going to write about it.

“Rock & Rule”, a 1983 Canadian animated film that mixes a post-apocalyptic landscape, pop music and dog-like mutant humanoids, while being targeted at a more grown-up audience, has been covered as thoroughly online as another film I have talked about, “Animalympics” [link], creating enough furries from its audience for that term not to need inverted commas anymore. I am not a furry, but I love animated films, as apparently do the Germans – both DVDs I own of “Rock & Rule” and “Animalympics” are from Germany, having no UK release beyond VHS, although the BBFC gives “Rock & Rule” a PG rating, advising it “contains mild language and sex references”.

The plot involves a rock star supervillain, Mok, who retires to Ohmtown, a ravaged place whose power plant could help him secure immortality. From the opening crawl, “high in the hills above Ohmtown, Mok’s computers work at deciphering an ancient satanic code which could unlock a doorway between his world and a darker dimension while Mok himself searches for the last crucial component – a very special voice.” 

Mok

The correct voice will have just the right frequency for the plan to work, much like Ella Fitzgerald breaking a glass in the ads for Memorex tapes [link], but by this point, we have already been told the film features the voices of Cheap Trick, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Earth Wind & Fire... and Debbie Harry of Blondie. Unless they surprise me and Maurice White’s voice fits the plan, it will be Debbie Harry.

As it turns out, the voice is found in an Ohmtown band featuring Angel, their keyboard player, and Omar, its lead singer and guitarist. Angel’s voice is identified by an audition, leading to Mok kidnapping Angel and taking her to Nuke York by airship. Omar mistakes this for ambition being placed over their relationship, until he gets caught up in Mok’s machinations and sent home – by this point, it has become clear that another voice could disrupt Mok’s plan, but there is also no one that can be found to fit that description, until Omar makes his way back.

Unfortunately for me, the mutated humanoids – the film’s American release explained that humanity had been destroyed and replaced war – border on obnoxious most of the time. Angel, as the heroine, is spirited but bland in a “damsel in distress” manner, until she sings, and the English-accented Mok approaches a Disney-type villain, but many supporting characters are noisy and abrasive, and even Omar begins as such, making the film feel longer than its hour and twenty minutes.


The art direction, however, is impeccable. The ruined cityscape and street level grime are reminiscent of “Blade Runner”, not yet a classic, but far away from the run-down, unsafe 1980s New York – it is both fanciful and lived-in, with suitably muted colours. If rotoscoping was not used to exact the characters’ movements, I will be surprised.

Ohmtown, at night

Despite this, you may be here for the music more than the story. Just as with the soundtrack by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman on “Animalympics”, the songs in “Rock & Rule” were written by the performers, like Mok’s grandstanding numbers “My Name is Mok” by Lou Reed, and “Pain & Suffering” by Iggy Pop, just as Debbie Harry’s songs as Angel were co-written with Chris Stein of Blondie - both of Mok's songs are the highlights, of course, and are perfect examples of each artist's qualities being infused into one villain. Earth Wind & Fire’s “Dance Dance Dance”, essentially the background to a nightclub scene, was also written and recorded for the film. However, with the recording artists being signed to different labels, no soundtrack album was released, and only a few tracks have surfaced commercially, with the version of “Pain & Suffering” not being released until 2019.

“Rock & Rule” was produced by Nelvana, the studio that made a big splash by animating the introduction of Boba Fett in the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special”, later producing the series “Droids” and “Ewoks”. The failure of “Rock & Rule” at the box office, released on few screens with little publicity, nearly bankrupted Nelvana, but their subsequent concentration on children’s shows, most notably the “Care Bears” film series they instigated, built the company into the major force it remains today, although nothing as adult as “Rock & Rule” appears to have been attempted since then, which is a shame when considering the attention it has received since.



Sunday, November 20, 2022

THROW OUT THE HARDWARE [371]


Considering how often I have written here about the virtues of home media, and owning copies of films, music and TV and radio shows, I should have had much to say about the abrupt removal of shows and films from the HBO Max streaming service, plus the cancellation of upcoming projects. The reason I had not done so, apart from HBO Max not being available in the UK, was because I had already covered similar ground back in 2018 [link], when Netflix took down the 1978 film version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” - this led me to buy a Blu-ray copy, which has a higher-quality picture than the variable bit-rate of online streaming often delivers.

What has changed since then is that online streaming has slowly become the norm. HBO Max, Discovery+, Apple TV+, Paramount + and Peacock are among the services that launched since 2018, and Tesco and Sainsbury’s are among the supermarkets that have stopped selling DVDs.

Worse for me, films I have watched at the cinema have not yet become available on a physical home video release in the UK, namely Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”, originally released in October 2021, and the Daniels’ “Everything Everywhere All At Once”, from April 2022. I have been so used to a 13-16 week between a cinema and home video release that I am seriously considering buying the German issue of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” over having to buy a download of it from Amazon Prime, which is subjected to digital rights management avoided by having a physical copy to use as you wish. Meanwhile, I could watch “The French Dispatch” by subscribing to Disney+, but I have already once chosen to buy a box set of a Disney TV show over subscribing to Disney+ - that show was “Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers”.

I have no answer to these problems, except that if physical home video is to become a niche pursuit, available for purchase through specialist stores or online, that having the ability to buy a physical release must become as easy as possible. The Warner Archive Collection has been a North American success I wish they would replicate in the UK, being an operation that produces DVD and Blu-ray copies of films on demand. If it means they need to have the money upfront before making a DVD of, for example, the 1931 pre-Hollywood Code release of “The Maltese Falcon”, it guarantees the availability of films for which there is less viability in producing a wider commercial release.

Likewise, it has been customary for other distributors to licence TV shows and films to release themselves. In the UK, I have Network Distributing Ltd to thank for releasing brilliant sitcoms like “Whoops Apocalypse” and “Hot Metal” on DVD, shows that broadcaster ITV, who own the rights, have not released themselves, like they did with “Inspector Morse” or “A Touch of Frost”. 

“The Strange World of Gurney Slade”, a surreal 1961 sitcom starring Anthony Newley that plays with reality in ways next seen in “The Prisoner”, was released by Network in 2011, which I bought on the back of knowing it was a major influence on David Bowie, before realising he could only have seen it at age 12 on its original airing, or on its single repeat run in 1963. TV used to be ephemeral until the advent of home video, but the shift to online streaming puts all the power back in the hands of rights holder to display or withdraw content as they wish – you can no longer grab a copy out of the air in the way that a VHS or DVD recorder provided to you.

If I return to this subject in another four years from now, I can only expect that the situation will have become worse – “home video” as a concept may be dead by then, and even The Criterion Collection may be online-only. Keep your DVDs.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

LIKE A DOG WITHOUT A BONE [370]

Rhodes MK8 with optional effects unit

It absolutely makes sense that I would covet an electric piano that costs from eight thousand pounds to buy. As much as the opening theme I composed for my YouTube channel, and my song “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You” [link] both use synth chords recreating the “E Piano 1” sound of the Yamaha DX7, what that sound is itself recreating is a kind of electric instrument holy grail – and one that no longer has to be bought second-hand.

Ray Manzarek’s piano line on The Doors’ song “Riders on the Storm” proves that “Rhodes” is an electric piano brand that evokes a certain mellow tone, almost like an electrified glockenspiel, especially on higher notes. Like a standard piano, Rhodes pianos are mechanical, its keys connected to hammers that hit thin metal rods connected to tuning-fork-shaped bars, the vibrations feeding to electric pick-ups. Used by The Doors, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock among many others, the Rhodes sound is highly prized, but with the original Rhodes factory having closed in 1987, outside of a short-run production in 2007, the older units have been kept running continuously, meaning few have experienced hearing one that hasn’t been “broken in” through years of use.

This is until the British sound design company Loopmasters bought the rights to the name, producing a new Rhodes MK 8 piano, based on the Mark I stage model introduced in 1970. I have watched a good few videos featuring it being put through detailed musical tests by people who could afford to buy their own, one of which had to remind themselves its keys were firmer than on previous Rhodes pianos because they were brand new.

I am naturally jealous that some people can afford to drop eight thousand pounds on a musical instrument, which approaches ten thousand once you add the extra effects unit with more digital options to shape the analogue sound, and once you want it in a colour other than black. It all depends on what you want, but when a Yamaha baby grand piano – a standard one with strings, not a sample-based electric CLP model – approaches that figure, your only concerns are what sound you want, and how much weight is your floor able to take.

Arguably, I already have the Rhodes sound with my Yamaha reface DX synthesiser, which cost one thirtieth the price of a base Rhodes MK 8, and I am very happy with it, but I know it is a copy of a copy. The original Yamaha DX7 of 1983 was much lighter and more versatile than a Rhodes with the sounds it creates, entirely by digital means that the owner doesn’t have to think about - the rise of similar synthesisers at the time will have hastened the end of their production. 

I guess it may be that you develop a taste for certain sounds over time, and once you have heard one sound being approximated so many times, or reproduced on online plugins that recorded samples from a Rhodes, you want to experience the real thing directly, being in the presence of its particular tonal quality that cannot be emulated owing to its mix of mechanical and electronic machinery. 

I am sure there will be a Rhodes MK 9 by the time I can afford a MK 8, but when it comes, I will take one in pink, thank you.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

AND THIS BIRD YOU CANNOT CHANGE [369]


You shouldn’t “punch down” if you can help it, but when we are all below Elon Musk, and he has just bought the online home of “punching down”, the rest of us have nowhere to go but up, or away altogether.

I had already decided I was going to write about Twitter’s “blue tick” verification before its new owner started firing half the company’s staff, triggering lawsuits, recriminations and an exodus of both users and advertisers, so whether I decide to take Musk’s offer of a “blue tick” Twitter Blue account, for $7.99 per month, depends if Twitter remains long enough in its current form to be of any use, let alone whether the subscription cost goes on improving the experience of using the site, or paying off debt loaded onto it through Musk’s buyout.

The question that remains for me, in case it remains a proposition on Twitter or elsewhere, is this: if I do not have the influence or following on a social media account to earn a “blue tick” verification, should I just buy one if the opportunity presents itself?

I have Twitter and Instagram accounts using the handle @msleighspence, and both have follower accounts in the tens because I only use them “for work”, posting links to these articles, and re-Tweeting the “CheapShow” podcast and occasional other thinks I like. Right now, using these accounts more would count as “work”, meaning I perhaps do not use them enough to justify any clarification from the sites that I am the person named “Leigh Spence” on them.

Until now, account verification is something awarded when it is earned, in the case of YouTube’s unlocking of features once subscriber thresholds are achieved, or when it is needed: both Instagram and Twitter (up to now) verify accounts featured in various news sources, with the user needing to provide proof demonstrating you are well-known public name that people are willing to seek out, bringing traffic to the site involved. The verification is then in the interest of the site as much as of the individual.

Now, I was thinking that buying a “blue tick” for my Twitter would act as the cheapest form of paid advertising I have come across – yes, I use Twitter and Instagram for advertising, but verifying one account would improve its visibility, and if that increases the number of people viewing these articles, then that is money well spent, so long as that is the only outcome. Increased exposure cuts both ways, and if reducing or eliminating your presence on the site becomes the better option, then being verified that you are yourself, and all the money you spent, is a waste of time – no wonder people like to be anonymous if they can.

I have still to make up my mind about opening a Twitter subscription in order to have a verified account, as Elon Musk’s plans for the site are currently changing like the weather, or whether Stephen King objects to them, his opposition to a $20 per month cost for his “blue tick” prompting Musk to offer $8 instead – all King needs to do now is two write Musk into his next novel as either revenge or as a warning. 

What I am currently anticipating is YouTube introducing social media-like “handles” for its users, at no cost, which may find my videos easier to find, at no cost – when that goes live, I will be at @leighspence there.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

DANCING IN THE NIGHT [368]


Coming up, I take advantage of the eternal popularity of Halloween to stitch together slow-motion footage of the bats circling the back garden.

Thank you for watching, if you would like to see more videos like this, please like, comment and subscribe, and as ever the nostalgia culture crisis continues at www.leighspence.net, the home of dancing with the gatekeepers.

Monday, October 24, 2022

AND IT’S NO GAME [367]


Official photo issued during Johnson campaign

The problem with writing about politics is that events often travel at break-neck speed, so I am not surprised at having eschewed politics as a subject for discussion at all. Give me postmodernism, pens and cars any day, along with any subject that remains evergreen, or slow-moving enough to pin down.

What rendered my previous article about the latest Conservative Party leadership election having been rendered out of date later the same day [link] was the announcement by one candidate that they were withdrawing from a race they never actually said they were standing in, like they had shown up to run the London Marathon with a hand-drawn number, withdrawing after realising whatever time they placed would never be counted.

The assumption made by Boris Johnson, returning from his holiday in the Dominican Republic to pick up from the point he had left in July, speaks of a man who hasn’t been in the country much at all in the intervening time. That he could ask the other two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, to stand aside for him, is spectacularly arrogant – Sunak’s meeting with Johnson ended without agreement, while Mordaunt perhaps won some respect by asking Johnson to step aside for her. It also didn't help that the two photographs taken and issued on Twitter by supporter Lee Anderson MP, of Johnson calling MPs on the phone to secure their support, shows him looking like he is lacking sleep, visibly jet-lagged, or having been hit in the face by a football.

Then the statement he made on Sunday night – the first and last time during the weekend that someone did not speak for him – was delusional: “I have been attracted because I led our party into a massive election victory less than three years ago - and I believe I am therefore uniquely placed to avert a general election now... I believe I am well placed to deliver a Conservative victory in 2024 - and tonight I can confirm that I have cleared the very high hurdle of 102 nominations... and I could put my nomination in tomorrow... There is a very good chance that I would be successful in the election with Conservative Party members - and that I could indeed be back in Downing Street on Friday.”

Once he had placed himself on a pedestal, Johnson paints the portrait: “But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do. You can't govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament. And though I have reached out to both Rishi [Sunak] and Penny [Mordaunt] - because I hoped that we could come together in the national interest - we have sadly not been able to work out a way of doing this. Therefore I am afraid the best thing is that I do not allow my nomination to go forward and commit my support to whoever succeeds. I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”

The other official photo issued

What we have now is a way for Johnson to say, further down the line, “don’t say I didn’t warn you, I’m afraid”, while also still saying he is the only person that can unite the country, based on the General Election result of 2019, before so many other things happened. 

Marina Hyde, writing for “The Guardian”, had pointed out that Cincinnatus, the Roman emperor referenced by Johnson in his resignation speech who returned to his plough, and referenced because he came back and governed again, had only ruled for three more weeks before stepping down, once a plot to usurp power in Rome had been dealt with – his rule being a dictatorship is a fact that will just have to sit there.

Still, the situation means that the spectre of Boris Johnson hangs over the Conservative Party like a bad smell. Rishi Sunak was elected leader on Monday 24th October, after Penny Mordaunt withdrew her candidacy at the last minute, leaving Sunak as the last one standing, and as someone who had only sent out two messages on Twitter during the race, both in reference to Johnson dropping out.

Now that we have the fifth Prime Minister in the last six years, they have to pull their party together before they can hope to pull the country together, and whether the Conservative Party can do the first one, or is they are even willing by this point, is the next question. Popularity polls suggest that calling a General Election would currently be a death wish for the Conservative Party, but it has two years left before one has to be declared anyway. 

I resolve to myself that the General Election, whenever that may be, will be the next time I talk about politics.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

KEEP ME RUNNING, RUNNING SCARED [366]


My mother said I shouldn’t write about politics, for fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention. But what if politics is all anyone is talking about, again, because it is all we are given to talk about, again?

The extremely short version of the last week is this: Liz Truss, the fourth Prime Minister since this website began in May 2016, resigned on Thursday 20th October, having only become leader on Tuesday 6th September. In that time, her free-market, low-tax, high-growth economic policy was trashed both by the world markets, leading to higher interest rates, a weaker Pound and higher government borrowing costs, and by the replacement Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed by Truss, the rejection of her policy making her position untenable.

I had already decided I had written enough about Liz Truss by the time she became Prime Minister, like that matters much now: when she mischaracterised postmodernist philosophy as having no space for evidence [link]; when that speech began my own series on postmodernism’s continued relevance [link], how another speech railed against “ludicrous debates about language, statues and pronouns” [link]; and questioning what the “post-Elizabethan age” will be under King Charles III and a Prime Minister Truss [link].

I am tired of being told we are living in unprecedented times. Boris Johnson was still Prime Minister as late as July, when anxiety already running high over the cost of living and energy prices, but the Conservative Party since then appear to have expended more energy on keeping itself together. Even if the current week-long leadership contest is a recognition that two months was too long for the last one, especially when it didn’t produce a satisfactory result, the course of events are still up in the air: either one person gets more than one hundred MPs supporting them to be a candidate by 14:00 on Monday 24th October, making them Prime minister immediately, or we could have as many as three candidates, who then need to be voted on by the same Party members that elected Liz Truss.

This doesn’t reduce the outrage at having to go through the process again. In order just to follow the news, which feels like it is changing with every moment, you are reduced to the “doomscrolling” of live news feeds reporting every event as it breaks, watching the government being contradicted in real time on Thursday 21st October: everything is fine; Truss has called a meeting; no speech is planned; they’ve got the lectern out....

I had already reduced the amount of news I watch on television by the time Boris Johnson resigned as Prime minister in July 2022, although that was easy in the week of this event as my TV had broken [link], but the continued rumbling of unease about, well, the national situation, has not subsided despite trying not to take as much notice of it. I don’t know how long it can go on, or when it will end.

The Conservative Party assume they can keep thinking they can fix their own mistakes, and Boris Johnson, having flown back from his third holiday since being thrown out, appears to think his old job is his for the taking again, without acknowledging that he is Boris Johnson, and that name comes with baggage.

Even as I write, I am sure this won’t be the end of it. We can’t guarantee at this point that whoever is elected as the next Prime Minister can hold their party together, only because that questions was not answered by the last PM.

My objections to the Conservative Party right now are moral, not ideological, resulting from the situation they have created. These people are not my betters, and they do not command my respect. This isn’t even about wanting another party in charge, this is just about wanting stability, and if they cannot do that, then they need to give the people the chance to decide who can.