Sunday, May 15, 2022

MAKE ME HAPPY THROUGH THE YEARS [344]


So far, I have seen four versions of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction masterpiece “Metropolis”: the cut-down and censored film in circulation since the 1930s that muddled the original story, its reputation sustained by its imagery and ingenuity; the 1984 tinted version with songs written and produced by Giorgio Moroder; a 2001 release that scoured the world for any missing pieces, using German censorship records and still photographs to reconstruct the correct story;  and the latest version, using prints discovered in Argentina and New Zealand to present, as of 2010, the nearest we have to the film that premiered over eighty years earlier... bar two scenes still too damaged to include.

Film preservation is never a finished business. Reckoning with past decisions that destroyed and wiped art works before their worth was fully realised, everything new must now be preserved at all costs, for you cannot yet know what you may have on your hands.

This is a bar now raised by the BBC and Queen Mary University, London, which for seven years have gone beyond the definition of “painstaking” to recover the images from a reel of 16mm film discovered in the vault of Nigerian TV station RKTV. The effects of a hot climate and poor ventilation caused the acetate film stock to break down into an acid that will ultimately destroy it – the British Film Institute had recommended destroying the reel to avoid “infecting” other films archived alongside it. 

As explained by BBC Research & Development in 2017 [link], the silver nitrate present in the film raised the possibility of using X-rays to recover images from what had become a lump of plastic, made easier by laser-cutting it into small blocks, ironically destroying it after all. Remarkably, this process yielded enough frames to present a slideshow that refreshes once every second or two seconds, married to a soundtrack discovered separately in Australia. The BBC will release the results on DVD, on Monday 6th June. It is series 1, episode 2 of “The Morecambe & Wise Show”, from 1968.


The TV shows made by Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise have become so highly regarded in the UK that recovering a previously missing episode in this manner can be justified – there is an argument to be made that their 1971 Christmas special, featuring Shirley Bassey, Glenda Jackson, and the famous sketch of André Preview / Privet / Previn conducting Morecambe in “Grieg’s Piano Concerto by Grieg”, may be the single greatest piece of television the UK has made. Their shows for the BBC reached a such a high watermark of craft in TV comedy, aspiring to be like an MGM musical every week, that interest remains high in their shows and in how they were made. That this missing show comes from their first BBC series, before their classic formula had formed, makes it an invaluable study.

 

Ironically, the last episodes of their TV career, made for ITV from 1978-83, only just received a full release on DVD in 2021, their reputation as derivative re-treads of the BBC shows having kept them from visibility for so long – we knew where the episodes were, but few were interested. Having them at all to make the comparison is better than discarding them when their perceived worth ran out.

 

I expect to see a fifth, complete version of “Metropolis” in my lifetime.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

EVERYBODY’S A DREAMER AND EVERYBODY’S A STAR [343]


We open outside the Abbey Road recording studio in St. John’s Wood, London. Traffic is held up as people attempt to recreate the cover of The Beatles’ album named after its recording location. We cut to inside the building, looking through a window into Studio Two, used by the greatest rock bands of all times. We cut to inside the studio, looking up towards the ceiling, taking in both the scale of the space and the weight of its history. 

 

The camera pans across the studio, and fades to the door outside The Front Room, another Abbey Road studio that is far smaller, and far more affordable. Cut to inside, and an engineer, wearing headphones, sits at a large mixing desk, changing the levels on several tracks. An insert shot shows a call sheet on a clipboard, listing that the album being recorded is titled “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers”. 

 

The camera moves toward the door where, cutting to the other side of it, are three session musicians, two on keyboards and one on drums, and myself, singing “all they have are words” repeatedly into a microphone.

 

This is the dream that led to my original name for this website when it launched in 2016. What is more, this is pretty much how that dream presented itself to me, in a manner that is simple enough for anyone to understand: establishing shots, “camera” positions, cutting and fading between shots, building a narrative, and even the “camera” acting as a third-person narrator, as “I” look at “myself” in the dream. The Front Room did not open at Abbey Road until 2017, but the hypothetical small studio I thought they had in 2016 can now be substituted with a real location.

 

“Continuity editing”, or “Classical Hollywood editing”, is the name given to seamless film editing that is used to create narrative continuity, which became the dominant film style because of where and when it was developed. Continuity editing is so ingrained in our cultural memory, by way of Classical Hollywood films, and in moving pictures in general, that the language of film is a language everyone can read without needing to know how it is written – learning to "write" it is like learning French when everyone on Earth already lives in France.

 

With the notion of montage causing you to create meaning between different pictures, and persistence of vision making those pictures move, you do not need to know the process of establishing shots, close-up and insert shots, or how fading from one shot to another indicates the passage of time, or the sixty- or 180-degree rules are used to keep continuity of viewpoint between people in a space, but you have seen these used so often you have stopped seeing the joins.

 

When I was a small child, I did wonder why I could only look through my own eyes, and if that led me to a love of cinema, and my studying of film for my degree, then I may have only just recognised that while writing this sentence. But if dreams are meant to be cryptic notes from your unconscious mind, the meaning of mine couldn’t be clearer: my ambition is to record an album, but even in my own dream, I couldn’t afford to rent Studio Two.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

MY PRAYER FLIES LIKE A WORD ON A WING [342]


This last week has seen a constant stream of news stories following the announcement that Elon Musk, for whom “billionaire” is the most encapsulating description, is to buy Twitter for $44 billion, nearly a quarter of which appears to be his own money.

Amongst the acres of musing over what the “free speech absolutist” wants to do with the social media platform, especially given his frequently antagonistic use of it, one commitment Musk apparently made was to “making the algorithms open source to increase trust”. This move would address the concerns over the opacity of how content is promoted to people, especially when that content is questionable, but my interest came more from a different effect that algorithms can have.

The day after the announcement of Musk’s deal to buy Twitter, views to this website, for want of a better word, tanked. I would love to know why, because I can’t imagine that everyone finished reading at the same time – it made me wonder what I had apparently done. It’s a good thing I don’t write for a living, yet.

It is the sort of event that makes you wonder if algorithms can act as a godlike force, picking and choosing whose work is shared widely, making and breaking careers. I say this as someone who is aware of a force bigger than themselves, but concluded that this perception comes from myself – if there is a heaven after I die, then colour me surprised.

There is a definite difference between how “the algorithm” is talked about from the standpoint of a “content creator”, dropping your carefully-crafted bait into the fish pond, hoping something will eventually bite, without any ability to ask the fish what its dietary requirements are. 

This constant guesswork is maddening – you become as oblivious to what makes something popular as unpopular. You could just create for yourself, but not if you want to make it a career – waiting for likes and views is one thing, but insight into the process by which people are being shown your work is required, especially for people I have watched on YouTube talking about what “the algorithm” “seems to like”, or what “pleases” “the algorithm”.

I suspect that algorithms are what make the value of a social media platform as much as the content itself, as the effects of them dictate the content, encouraging particular subjects and themes. If Elon Musk insists on calling Twitter “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”, everyone must know the rules of engagement, then the platform’s rules of engagement. The most important algorithm, however, may be the one in a billionaire’s head.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

LISTEN TO ME, DON’T LISTEN TO ME [341]


Hearing the term “fear of missing out” or “FOMO” gives me no reason to fear. It sounds like a term invented to encourage you to “keep up with the Joneses” by tying that impulse to your quality of life, turning it into something too dangerous to get involved with. “FOMO” was first observed as a phenomenon by a marketing strategist, Dr Dan Herman, in 1996, reinforcing this thought for me.


I may have also dealt so often in nostalgia that I believe it is possible to return to everything. There is no fear of missing out on something because there is no way you can miss out, unless you limit its availability. This may be the result of the “Disney vault”, where The Walt Disney Company limited VHS releases of their classic films to keep them special and scarce, until DVD, Blu-ray and streaming video made this practice obsolete.


I thought the limited-edition Coca-Cola Intergalactic flavour, the first in a series of “Coca-Cola Creations”, was only to have been available in North America, but coming across it in my local supermarket was enough for me to try it. The Coke website stated that “we will collaborate to create new flavours, designs and experiences with CocaCola, reimagining our iconic product in time-limited edition flavours which take inspiration from relevant moments across culture, music and gaming”. In this case, Coca-Cola was the first soft drink launched into space, on the Space Shuttle Challenger on 12th July 1985, the day after the Coca-Cola Company announced they were returning from New Coke to the classic formula.


Starting with Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, Intergalactic turned its dark caramel colour to red, its ingredients including carrot and blackcurrant from concentrates, while the taste is much like the existing vanilla Coke, with a slightly chocolate aftertaste, at least to me. It tasted fine, but not to dissimilar to a Coke flavour I can continue to drink after Intergalactic is withdrawn.


Meanwhile, I have only just started playing Wordle, a daily online word game so successful upon its launch in 2021 that it was bought by “The New York Times” for a substantial sum. Up to now, I had only seen the yellow and green grids posted on Twitter by other players, showing how well they did in guessing what letters made up that day’s five-letter word, and where that letter was placed, although the abstract nature of just seeing the letter-less grid meant it took until an idle moment on approximately day 290 of the game’s history for me to even think of trying the game. I have since concluded the first of my six attempts to guess the word should always be “quiet”, covering two vowels and the first row of my keyboard.


Wordle is a “special edition” word game in the sense that everyone is given the same word to guess in each twenty-four hour period. With no ability to go back to previous games, and with “The New York Times” issuing cease-and-desist orders on copycat websites where you can play previous days’ games, or multiple games a day, you must make a daily appointment to play, or risk missing a game on which you can never catch up. This becomes particularly frustrating if you failed to guess the word that day, or continuously failing to get the rest of a word when you got the second half fairly easily. All word games lead me to think my vocabulary is too small, so that might just be my problem.

The abbreviation “FOMO” was coined by Patrick J McGinnis in 2004, in the Harvard Business School magazine “The Harbus”, but alongside it was “FOBO”, for “fear of a better option”, the act of not making a choice because you are waiting for a better opportunity.

To me, Coca-Cola Intergalactic and Wordle are impacted by “FOBO”. One is a further dilution of the original Coke formula that had no variations until the launch of Diet Coke, but while soft drink manufacturers are fighting to hold attention, the Coca-Cola Company itself took a bolder decision by acquiring Costa Coffee in 2019 to catch where some consumers were going. While “The New York Times” may have avoided its own fear of missing out on the next big thing by buying Wordle, closing down unauthorised copies, without offering what made them so popular as an alternative to their own product, makes me think that eliminating other options for diversifying the game was needed over providing those options themselves, especially to keep the “FOMO” factor of the standard Wordle format. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

YOU’RE RELEASED BUT YOUR CUSTODY CALLS [340]


The ubiquity and longevity of “Doctor Who” makes it impossible not to have a favourite Doctor, no matter how little of the show you have seen. Your choice will most likely the actor playing the role when you grew up, which makes mine, Jon Pertwee, an anomaly, being a Doctor of my parents’ generation.

I was six years old when the BBC cancelled its original run in 1989, its diehard fanbase still smaller than the audience for “Coronation Street”. The adventures continued in licensed and unlicensed novels, magazines, audio dramas and straight-to-video films, but save for Paul McGann’s turn in 1996’s unsuccessful pilot for a new series, “Doctor Who” existed in repeats only until 2005. 

BBC Two showed selected stories from 1992 to 1994, allowing me to watch and compare stories from each of the seven Doctors to that point. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, who appeared for four years from 1970, and the first to appear in colour, may have stuck in my mind as his stories were shown the most, particularly when they were shown again from 1999 to 2000, and when BBC One showed 1973’s “Planet of the Daleks” to mark the show’s thirtieth anniversary in 1993.

But the nostalgia of my parents’ generation meant that I was watching “Doctor Who” alongside episodes of “Thunderbirds”, “Stingray”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Star Trek” on BBC Two, while Channel 4 were making their way through “The Avengers”, “The Saint” and Adam West as “Batman”. All these shows had colourful characters and action-packed, thrilling stories, and I enjoyed them as much as those watching for the second time. Like “Doctor Who”, they lacked the budget, sophistication and special effects of new shows at the time like “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Babylon 5”, but charm and goodwill kept them alive.


In becoming like the above shows, the ”Doctor Who” of 1970 was very different to its own previous series. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor had been forced into exile on present-day Earth, their TARDIS disabled, and their appearance forcibly changed – Troughton didn’t turn into Pertwee on-screen, as the latter hadn’t been hired yet. Under the name Dr John Smith, the Doctor is a scientific advisor for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT, not U.N.C.L.E.), a military version of the “Men in Black” that justified the continued appearance of extra-terrestrial beings in the show without having to change time or location. 


Dressed in a smoking jacket and cape, driver of various vehicles and master of “Venusian Aikido”, Pertwee’s Doctor is like an all-ages version of Jason King, the writer and playboy played by Peter Wyngarde in the ITV spy series “Department S” and “Jason King”. Episodes were more action-oriented by necessity, and perhaps also by budget, but out of this period came the Doctor’s “shadow”, the Master. 


Time and space travel were restored to the show in 1973, following a story where the first three Doctors all appeared on screen to save the Time Lords, in time for Tom Baker to whimsically take off into space the following year. As thrilling as the set-up of Pertwee’s run as the Doctor may have been, it was based on using exile as punishment, so a return to the original status quo was to be expected.

 

(Oddly enough, DC Comics had simultaneously completed a similar revamp to the “Wonder Woman” comic book, with writer and artist Mike Sekowsky placing the Amazons in another dimension, leaving Princess Diana powerless on Earth, and reinventing her as Diana Prince, an “Avengers” Emma Peel-type martial arts expert in spy and adventure plots. These changes were introduced in 1968, but were also reversed in 1973.)

 

It is true that I appear to like “Doctor Who” when it is least like itself, but it is also true that, for escapist drama, it had great company in the 1960s and 70s. As for science fiction, the end of “Doctor Who” overlapped with the beginning of “Red Dwarf”, a sitcom that suits my sensibilities even more closely.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

I’VE GOT TO FIND IT, GET ME BEHIND IT [339]


Like “Myra Breckinridge”, a film I have written about three times without its charms ever growing on me [link] [link] [link], “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is an X-rated film released in June 1970 by 20th Century Studios, when it was still named 20th Century-Fox. 

Both films satirise the new Hollywood evolving from the implosion of both the Classical Hollywood era of cinema, and the 1960s in general, both films making good use of their rating, plunging into subject matter, nudity, language and violence brought in from the fringes of the film industry, when mainstream studios need to make money. The films are also closely linked due to their often being paired as a double bill both in cinemas and in subsequent discussions, having been released within a week of each other.

It has been remiss of me not to take “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” into account when considering “Myra Breckinridge”, especially when its reputation has made it much easier to find: my DVD of “Myra Breckinridge” was a lucky eBay purchase of an out-of-print release from 2005, while “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was a prestige Blu-ray release from Arrow Films, a UK release including extras used by The Criterion Collection.

Watching the film was by turn bewildering, overwhelming and exhausting, perhaps on purpose, as a kind of drug trip. You either remain on edge for every moment for fear of missing something, or you just need to have the film wash over you. All the time, there is a sense of dread hanging over the hedonism throughout, beginning, as the film does, with a shooting inspired by, and reminiscent of, the killing of Sharon Tate, star of the original “Valley of the Dolls”, perhaps the only time a film’s climax is shown in the opening credits.

“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is successful in its having been made by a confident filmmaker, with rapid editing, and humorous music by Stu Phillips, holding the film together. This is a marked contrast with “Myra Breckinridge”, its use of clips from Classical Hollywood films having turned from a motif to a sticking plaster during the production. Sex and nudity are also used much more freely and naturally, although this is because the maker of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was well-versed in their use in cinema.

The film was co-written, produced and directed for 20th Century-Fox by Russ Meyer, the usually independent maker of small-budgeted sexploitation films like “Supervixens” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” Marketed on Meyer’s name, it stars a cast of unknowns, although Charles Napier, Harrison Page and Pam Grier, an extra in a party scene, went on to have long careers. 

The other writer was the film critic Roger Ebert, a frequent collaborator with Meyer who turned out to be best placed to satirise Hollywood. With Meyer having originally been hired to direct a straightforward sequel to 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls”, Ebert and Meyer took only its framework of three women coming to Hollywood to find fame and fortune, but only finding sex, drugs and violence, and stretching it as far “Beyond” it as possible. 

As Ebert wrote for “Film Comment” magazine in 1980, the film was as intended to feel as much of a fictionalised exposé or real people as the original, but without having personally encountered such types, becoming “…an essay on our generic expectations. It’s an anthology of stock situations, characters, clichés and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it’s cause and effect, a wind-up machine to operate emotions.” At the same time, the story was made up as Ebert and Meyer went along, to use existing studio sets, “which makes subsequent analysis a little tricky”, like making Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, a music originally based on Phil Spector, into a woman in drag by the end, without any indication of this earlier in the film.

“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” was very much a Russ Meyer film with a larger budget, featuring much sex and nudity in line with his films’ recurring use of these to satirise and subvert the conservative attitudes of older generations to them. Having said that, Meyer shot X-rated and R-rated versions of scenes, expecting to need to meet the R rating usually required by a major studio... except that 1970 was the year that the Academy Award for Best Picture was won by an X-rated film, “Midnight Cowboy”. Having received an X rating, which could have been reduced to an R with only a few cuts, Meyer wanted to add in more X-rated versions of scenes to take advantage of having the rating, but the rushing of 20th Century-Fox to release the film prevented this. Meanwhile, “Myra Breckinridge” received an X for both sex and sex changes, but it was resubmitted in 1978 and changed to R with a few cuts – “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” remains both uncut, and rated X, now NC-17.

What came to mind when watching “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is how it appears to be about the “degenerates” that are in the background of “Myra Breckinridge” – the people that came in from outside to usurp Classical Hollywood, sweeping it away, and making new types of films more relevant for their time, like “Midnight Cowboy”, “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie & Clyde”. Both “Myra Breckinridge” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” are films of their times, but the latter is more successful in reflecting its time, because the former hates it.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU [338]


BBC One launched a new ident package on Friday 1st April and, having covered the launch of the previous “Oneness” set in 2017, devised and filmed by the photographer Martin Parr [link], it only made sense for me to continue considering television idents and branding like it is public art. From the Channel 4 logo and the “2” used by BBC Two from 1991 to 2018, to the “ITV Creates” initiative employing artists to rebrand ITV channel every week since 2019, few get the chance to create in a space seen so often by so many people, even multiple times in the same evening.

A production of BBC Creative and Man vs. Machine, a visual arts group that has created idents for More4, Film4 and 4seven, in addition to advertisements for KFC, Nike and Apple, the new BBC One idents pan the camera around spaces, seen through a lens to different times of day: a hall hosts children trampolining in one moment, but we see glimpses of a meeting, and preparations for a disco; a field hosts a festival at night, then ramblers, and later sheep herding; a street corner hosts a market stall, then a garage worker’s tea break, followed by a street sweeper; and a brickwork basement hosts skateboarding, with glimpses of a later photo shoot and a rave. 

These are great ideas by themselves, depicting spaces that bring people together, instead of Parr’s “Oneness” idents that just showed people appearing in a space, but each glimpse of a space also has a full ident that will show glimpses of the others within the lens, creating a moment of recognition in the viewer as the idents are repeated, while being a conceit that keeps the idents fresh as new ones are added into the mix.


The ”lens” idents were meant to have been introduced in October 2021, alongside the kinetic BBC blocks logo [link], which left the red circle motif placed between programme trailers as the only clue to their eventual form. BBC One’s idents have used the motif of a circle through the years to symbolise an all-encompassing inclusivity, most literally when a globe of the Earth was the channel’s ident for forty years to 2002, rendered through mechanical models, computer graphics, and as a hot air balloon. 

 

When your symbol has been that all-encompassing, “picture postcard” films of people in spaces doing things, such as the “Oneness” set, and ITV’s idents during before 2019, are merely holding a mirror to its audience. Fortunately, the focus is back on the channels themselves: BBC One, as Britain’s most popular channel, is reflecting how it is a space where people gather for its programmes, and the “ITV Creates” initiative is intended to emphasise the creative heart of the broadcasting business.

 

It will be interesting to see how much of an impact BBC One’s glimpses of life through a lens will be, for branding remains key: when BBC Two introduced its “2” logo in 1991, a symbol made into a blade, a rubber duck, a toy car, a garden display, a Dalek and so on, ratings for the channel improved. The programmes had not changed.