Monday, December 30, 2019


With so many end-of-year and end-of-decade lists scattered around, I decided to draw a line under the 2010s by recounting a couple of things that happened to me in 2019 that could not have been contemplated in 2010, and what that means for me in 2020.

The thought of starting a video version of “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers” had not entered my mind even at the start of 2019 but, starting with equipment I was using for other things, namely my iPhone, iPad, and a £10 tripod, I ended the year having already made seven videos – expect more of these in 2020, because bringing my words to life appears to be working out very well. Making semi-professional video as easy as possible to create was the iPad - introduced in 2010, was by no means the first tablet, but it was the one that eliminated the desktop PC from many homes. Using your fingers on a screen to correct colour levels in videos, when you have overlaid a picture of yourself onto a photograph via a green screen, now appears to be any old day of the week.

I also did not expect to end 2019 being blocked on Twitter by comedy writer Graham Linehan, he of “Father Ted,” “Black Books” and “The IT Crowd,” because he, presumably, did not like a joke. Linehan has achieved notoriety for being outspoken, mostly on Twitter, against transgender rights, particularly if it is seen to infringe on women’s rights. Far from a civilised, adult conversation, discourse on the subject a bunfight of labels, from “TERF” to “gender critical,” from “beard” to “trans natal male,” technical terms to alienate the other side, limiting both the scope and understanding of the conversation, rejecting identity politics while also embracing use of the labels created during the “culture war.”

On 23rd September 2019, when I saw that Linehan had decided to take a “Twitter holiday,” but carried on sending out messages, I turned a news story into a pointed joke: “Did Thomas Cook arrange your Twitter holiday or something?” The holiday company had collapsed that morning, and their management should remain ashamed of that. About three or four minutes later, my sole interaction with Graham Linehan led to him blocking me from ever doing so in future, his crusade carrying on in its enclosed bubble, or some other metaphor. The joke wasn’t even that good.

In the 2010s, online discourse became, to use a word employed across the British Commonwealth, knackered. The blame has been laid at the feet of postmodernism, but rejecting old narratives is not the same as believing whatever you like. Meanwhile, the immediacy of social media, once used to save cancelled TV shows, is now being used to “cancel” people deemed unfavourable like they were TV shows. Social media platforms have a responsibility to step in when the effect of offence outdoes the ability to ignore – I stopped looking at Donald Trump’s Twitter page because he became repetitive, but I await the day he becomes bored enough himself to stop tweeting.

I would expect a few more articles about politics from me in 2020, as the United Kingdom begins exiting the European Union, and as the United States has another Presidential Election, the current incumbent having started campaigning for it as soon as he won the first time. The 2020s may not truly start until those events are dealt with, leaving us with a clearer road ahead.

In the meantime, I have a lunchtime metaphor: at a café based where I work, I went in for a “Brexit” sandwich and a Coca-Cola. What I ordered turned out to be tomato relish with three different types of cheese, served in a fish and chip shop wrapping. I then found out I had enough money for the sandwich, but not the drink. I will review this not-even-a-joke in 2021, to see if I dropped the sandwich on the floor on the way out – in real life, I got what I paid for, and it made me feel ill.

Sunday, December 29, 2019


I first saw the 1955 film “The Big Combo” fifteen years ago, as part of my degree studies, so to find it a year ago in HMV, then newly released on Blu-ray, made it a no-brainer purchase. It is almost a stereotypical example of a film noir, with hard-boiled dialogue, hard-boiled actors and hard-boiled shadows. However, I was originally shown the film for the uncharacteristic degree of hopefulness that lied behind the film as it was being made.

“The Big Combo” is known as a “nervous A” picture, released by Allied Artists, which had been set up by the B-movie company Monogram as a unit for more lavish and interesting, but still cheaper, productions - it is this thinking that led Jean-Luc Godard to dedicate his first film, 1959’s “A Bout de Souffle” (known in English as “Breathless”) to Monogram. 

Therefore, “The Big Combo” was an example of a film where the use of low light to mark cheap sets, using fewer camera set-ups, and using a jazz-influenced score over a full orchestra, was hoped to be interpreted as style, rather than economy – the classic "Touch of Evil," made three years later in 1958, deployed the same techniques, but the style was instead signalled through having been directed by Orson Welles. Film noir is a genre made of stark contrasts of black and white, both in the morals of characters as well as on screen, and this film considered a solid, confident example of how those elements work.

The “combo” of “The Big Combo” is run by the sadistic Mr. Brown, who is being investigated by police lieutenant Diamond over what happened to a woman from his past, who has disappeared. Diamond is also obsessed over Brown’s current girlfriend, Susan, who he only meets for the first time when she turns up in hospital. The disappeared woman, Alicia, is thought to be in Sicily with Mr. Brown’s boss, but in reality, the boss was murdered, and used by Mr. Brown as a cover, while Alicia was placed in an asylum. Diamond, derided by Brown from the outset as a righteous man, with his $96.50 weekly salary used as an insult more than once, is unshakeable in his quest to jail Brown, whose increasingly frantic actions eventually leaves him cornered. In all, so much, so film noir. A sample line of dialogue: “I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.”

Joseph H. Lewis, the film’s director, had been making up to seven films a year when his career began, until his talent led to longer shoots and higher budgets, but the set-up of some shots show his B-movie pedigree – long, almost uncomfortable shots of people reacting, or to allow the acting to breathe. John Alton, the film’s cinematographer - and writer of a book explaining his craft, titled “Painting with Light” - uses few lights, long shadows, and stark contrasts, leading to the film’s famous climax at an airport, looking a little like “Casablanca,” where Brown attempts to dodge a spotlight that finally leaves him no place to hide.

In one scene, Diamond is tied to a chair, tortured by being slapped, has alcohol forced into them, and has loud music played to them through a hearing aid belonging to McClure, Brown’s second in command. Quentin Tarantino acknowledged this scene was an inspiration for the similar, but more brutal, scene in “Reservoir Dogs” - hearing the lead villain referred to only as “Mr. Brown” must have suggested an idea too. However, the use of sound as torture was the bigger talking point at the time, not least when McClure, once Brown's boss, has his aid taken away as a compassionate measure, so he cannot hear the gunfire that will execute him - we don't hear it either.

Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace, as Diamond and Susan, happily upturned the unhealthy relationship they have in "The Big Combo," as they were already married for four years by the film's 1955 production, and the film was produced by their company, named Theodora - they later had a son, named Cornel Jr.

Sunday, December 22, 2019


For the benefit of anyone reading this in the years following the 2019 release of “Cats,” the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, there was actually quite a backlash at the time. Basically, an embargo on reviews of the film, led to a number of scathing reviews being released at the same time, disparaging the choices made in the adaptation, most notably for replacing stage costumes and make-up with computer-generated cat ears and fur, placing Edwardian London in the centre of the “Uncanny Valley.”

I decided to watch the film anyway, not put off by the reports of reviews, and mainly because I would rather make my mind up on such matters. It would be hypocritical for someone that writes about films to swear off a production based on what someone else wrote. I am so used to analysing films that I don’t much care if something is spoiled, because how those spoiled moments are reached may be just as interesting.

That said, “Cats” brings up an old British saying: “Oh my giddy aunt.” I need not describe one of the longest-running musicals of all time, only to say that the film version, directed by Tom Hooper of “Les Misérables,” presents exactly the adaptation you expected, with all that a film production can bring to it. The musical’s elements are all present, although the choreography is sometimes obscured by choppy film editing, and the performances are spectacular, because the best takes are included – Jennifer Hudson’s version of “Memory” is the highlight, of course, along with “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.” It is more naturally filmic in presentation, which was a relief after previously seeing the flat, stagey direction of “The Producers” musical as a film – the blueprint is there in Arthur Freed’s productions at MGM, and “Cats” runs in that direction, armed with its synthesiser-primed orchestral score.

The amendments made for the film are to be expected. More locations can be used, with punning names for places littering the background like an episode of “The Simpsons,” and the actors are rendered to scale for those locations - you were always going to end up with something that looked like a cat version of “The Borrowers.” The computer-generated imagery is only noticeable because of what it is being used to create, which is necessary to tell the story without just making it a photographed version of a stage performance - one of those was already made in 1998.

As someone that never previously saw the musical, having just not been interested enough, the character of Victoria, originally silent, is boosted to become the lynchpin for the viewer, with Francesca Hayward making an impressive film debut. This addition is not unusual: Grizabella the Glamour Cat is not present in T.S. Eliot’s original collection of poems, but was added for the stage, based on work previously rejected by Eliot. Victoria is not a protagonist, and there is no attempt to overlay a story to link the original collection of song performances, but the presence of a focal point to which the viewer can return, after each cat sings their song, is necessary in a medium that, unlike the stage, relies upon  the intimacy of closeups and mid-shots. Victoria’s new song, “Beautiful Ghosts,” by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, did not feel tacked on, particularly contemplating “Memory.”

The only reason I have not addressed the “uncanny valley” situation is because I, personally, do not think it is important, as suspension of disbelief is necessary when taking in any fictional story, regardless of how it is presented to you – rather than having to mentally reconcile human-cat hybrids, I mainly wanted to stop hearing the word “jellicle” over and over again. 

The concept of the “uncanny valley” is that, if a humanoid object imperfectly replicates an actual human being, it will provoke an unfavourable reaction, decreasing any possible affinity to the replica. However, because I was watching actual human beings throughout the film, the “uncanny valley” cannot exist in this case, unless you were expecting anatomically-correct real cats, with human voices. I prefer to think of it this way: Elton John, whose film “Rocketman” was written by “Cats” scriptwriter Lee Hall, performed what I think is the best version of his song “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)” at his Central Park concert in 1980, a performance so forceful and energetic that you forget he is wearing a Donald Duck costume – he clearly suspended his own disbelief at that one too.

Sunday, December 15, 2019


It is unlike me not to engage with politics, or to even follow it, as my writing here attests, but when it came to the 2019 General Election, and the inevitability of a Conservative win in order to end the deadlock over Brexit, I switched off very quickly. I received my postal vote nearly three weeks before the day of the election, and put the completed vote through my town hall’s letterbox hours before the Conservative Party announced their manifesto. Once the exit poll was declared at 10pm on Thursday 12thDecember, declaring a Tory victory by 80-plus seats, I lasted fifteen more minutes before needing to watch something else – I missed the election-night tradition of looking into the counting taking place at the UK’s enormous variety of sports halls.

I consider myself politically to be slightly left of the centre, meaning I usually vote for a different party with each election, but never the right-wing Conservatives. Then again, my home town has had a Conservative MP since at least 1835 – only three different MPs have represented the area in the last seventy years, and the latest one, coming up on their tenth anniversary, just increased their majority. My dissenting vote made as much difference as it would by eating it, or setting it on fire. 

At that point in the election campaign, the Conservatives had already put out a misleading social media ad, making it look like Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer could not answer a question on “Good Morning Britain,” and Conservative Central HQ’s Twitter page was renamed “Fact Check UK” during a TV debate. These sleights of hand are what you are used to looking out for on social media anyway, and have been part of election campaigns since the invention of posters, let alone radio or television. As a film scholar, I was particularly offended by the Starmer ad being described by James Cleverly, the unfortunately-named Conservative Party chairman as having been “edited” instead of “doctored,” as if I wasn’t reading it properly – I hope he has accidentally stepped on a Lego brick since then.

Having afforded myself the relative luxury at looking at the election campaign after having voted, I personally do not believe that the Conservatives won due to the ongoing Brexit issue, or on public services, or in comparison to how bad the Labour or Liberal Democrat campaigns went: it was because the Conservatives were so pervasive in the discourse of the election, and that came from everyone, not just the media. They ran the clearest, if least detailed campaign: “Get Brexit Done,” then some other things. They had the least robotic leader – Boris Johnson looks like a child’s drawing of his brother Jo. They had the least overlap between themselves and the other parties, with all parties in competition with them.

However, I am perturbed by the talk following the election about how Boris Johnson will now govern as Prime Minister. Yes, he will not have to pander to the right-wing of his party, or towards the centrist MPs that lost the party whip during the last Parliament, and now their seats. Having won so many seats in the north of England, traditionally Labour territory, what effect will this now have on decision making? Shouldn’t we have had more of an idea of Johnson’s attempt during the campaign, where he was seen as having evaded questions, mainly by evading his being interviewed? Perhaps, we have heard little since because he is still working it out. The certainty over Brexit appears to be over – the UK is leaving the European Union or not, regardless over whether I think the question should have been asked or now, but what happens after that is another question, when there really shouldn’t be a question.

Saturday, December 7, 2019


My Sony Walkman holds my CD collection of over twenty years, spanning hundreds of discs, and thousands of songs, with a few downloads squeezed in too... and yet, why do the same ten tracks swirl around in my mind? It’s time to look at what the algorithm is currently suggesting to me – not YouTube or Spotify’s algorithm, but the one in my head. Warning: contains Eighties and synthesisers.

1) HIP TO BE SQUARE – Huey Lewis and the News

Far from needing Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” to recommend it to you, the tight rock guitars, organ, brass and saxophone hides an often-missed ironic statement: Huey Lewis is not saying it’s hip to be square, he’s saying, “I can tell what’s going on” – the slick, professional, business-suited bands of the time were just another trend. Punchier than “The Power of Love,” “Hip to Be Square” has no quiet moments, and never lets up its pace – both its sound and message are timeless.

2) GOOD STUFF – The B52s

The Netflix special “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” reminded me that the original series’ theme (from the second series onwards) was performed by the B52s, while the incidental music was by then-current band member Pat Irwin, just as “Rugrats” was scored by members of Devo. “Good Stuff” has the energy of “Love Shack,” but with raunchier lyrics: “So let the people say we’re downright nasty / I just say we’re down right.” I nearly downloaded it, then realised it was on my B52s compilation CD, originally bought just for “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster” – greatest hits radio stations take note, play more songs per artist.


A significant brain fart in the Elton John & Bernie Taupin songbook, especially the line, “Girls, girls, girls, have pity on me,” Elton John considers this “pretty insubstantial” song to be the worst he ever recorded. The lead single from his 1986 album “Leather Jackets,” which has never been remastered, “Heartache All Over The World” is... better than I was led to believe. Despite lyrics that make it sound like an incel’s anthem – if the subject can’t get a girl, the whole world must be suffering – it is proof that Elton John on a bad day (he was “not a well budgie” at the time) is still more entertaining and interesting than most artists can hope to reach. As I listen to it, I like to work out how the synthesised Eighties production could be amped up to make the lyrics more ironic, especially the wah-wah-wah of the guitar in the middle-eight.

4) THE KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL – Prefab Sprout

A one-hit wonder of a song, about a singer only remembered for, and only called upon to sing, a one-hit wonder – “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque.” Deliberately written by Paddy McAloon to be as catchy and commercial as possible, as much of a non-sequitur to Prefab Sprout’s discography as its chorus is to everyone else, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a calculated risk, sounding like few other pop songs, and it paid off. Having just found out it was produced by Thomas Dolby, the bullfrog-sounding bass now makes a lot more sense.

5) OH YEAH - Yello

Like “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” only briefer, riskier, and funnier. Bom bom. Chika-chika.


The success of “Whip It” meant people just hearing about Devo missed the social commentary inherent in a song about using violence to solve your problems, so their follow-up album, 1981’s “New Traditionalists,” used a gritter, more serious sound, with fewer guitars. “Through Being Cool” answered their new-found popularity by saying, “time to clean some house / be a man or a mouse,” and “eliminate the ninnies and the twits.” That said, they do it with a smile on their face, even if it might still hurt.

7) STEPPIN’ OUT – Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson is from Portsmouth, and I was born there, which is where our similarities end, but “Steppin’ Out” is based on Jackson’s time in New York City, a city of wonder, energy and creativity that Portsmouth can only attempt to match with its history. It’s like taking a sideways step into another dimension, making yourself anew, with the glide of a synthesised celeste – I’m sorry, but you just can’t do that in Albert Road.

8) LOVE TO HATE YOU – Erasure

A forceful cross between “I Will Survive” and a Pet Shop Boys song, “Love To Hate You,” with another soaring vocal by Andy Bell, was originally written for that “Dick Tracy” film Warren Beatty made, where it presumably would have been given a different treatment, except another Erasure song, “Looking Glass Sea,” was used instead.


I originally heard this song in a YouTube video that tested an automatic record player – pausing to read the label on the coloured vinyl, I stumbled into the chaotic satire of Paul D. Millar, trading as Slugbug – what starts as wanting to get off a planet full of crappy things, full of too many people who don’t want to do anything, it swerves into: “I never thought that I would ever meet a man like Bee Caves / I never thought that I would need a jar of bee skulls / ba ba da, ba da, ba da ba...” Other Slugbug tracks touch on relationships with technology, work, and the truth – a Slugbug love song may only come once those problems are resolved. Also featured on the “Stupid Rock” EP is “Feelings”: “I’m gonna tell you where I parked using my feelings / withholding all locations based in empirical evidence / My feelings, my feelings, my feelings are important...”

10) WE ARE THE WORLD – U.S.A. for Africa

Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is known today as a charming, naff charity pop song, which Midge Ure admits sounds a bit like the theme from “Z-Cars.” Meanwhile, the song it inspired, written by Lionel Richie & Michael Jackson, is arrogantly bombastic from the moment you first hear its farty synthesised brass. The lyric “there’s a choice we’re making / we’re saving our own lives” sounds off when equating yourself with people for whom “the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life,” as Band Aid puts it. However, the relentless, overwrought unfolding of “We Are the World” over seven very long minutes makes its own satirical joke – stars upon stars, solo upon solo, capped by whenever Bruce Springsteen sings like he is in pain. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019


In the bad movie canon, because there is one, the 1966 film "Manos: The Hands of Fate" is dubiously cited as the worst film ever made, even over established dreck like "Plan 9 from Outer Space," “Troll 2,” and “Myra Breckinridge.” It is one thing for industry professionals to produce a film that ultimately fails, as the successes will write off their costs. However, the notoriety of “Manos,” a film mostly spoken about to highlight its mistakes, may have helped it to survive and, having watched it, the film’s ongoing story may now have brought closure to the people that made it.

“Manos: The Hands of Fate” is the very simple story of a family getting lost on their way to a holiday home, and stumbling upon the lair of a cult. All human life is here - the innocents, the "Master", his henchman, the followers / wives / concubines, and the guard dog. Add eerie imagery, darkness, a creepy portrait, and many images of hands – the title is literally “Hands: The Hands of Fate” - and that should be enough of a diversion at the cinema on a Friday night. It has everything you expect to find in a horror film, but it is not clear if the production knows why these elements form a genre, and why you would include them.

The film was made in Texas, by people outside of the industry... well, mostly. While Harold P. Warren, the writer / producer / director / star of "Manos," is often described primarily as a fertiliser salesman, he also appeared in bit parts on television shows like "Route 66," and the film's cast and crew came from the amateur dramatics group of which he was a part. Having a drink with Stirling Silliphant, the writer of "Route 66" and later the film “In the Heat of the Night,” Warren made a bet that he could make a horror film himself.

The actors’ names have now been saved for posterity, with Warren and Diane Mahree as Michael and Margaret, parents to daughter Debbie, played by Jackey Neyman, whose-real-life father Tom Neyman played “The Master,” and whose art direction for “Manos” utilised many sculptures of hands he had already created independently. However, it is John Reynolds, who sadly did not live to see the film’s release, who has been immortalised as the jittery, leery, Igor-like henchman Torgo, later “massaged” to death by the Master’s concubines - Torgo was meant to be a satyr, but his prosthetics were worn the wrong way around, giving his character gigantic knees.

While he clearly won the bet, Warren’s involvement in bigger productions would have made clear of the limitations in doing it yourself, that problems with the picture cannot be fixed "in the lab," that actors need clear direction, and that more time should have been spent editing the film into a coherent whole, papering over the very obvious cracks. Going beyond the usual complaints of  wooden acting and an incoherent script, there are shots that go on too long, particularly long driving shots that perhaps were meant to have the opening credits over them, but help the film to achieve feature length; few, if any, sound effects; actors that look like they are waiting to be directed; bad editing, symptomatic of an entire hour-plus film being assembled in only FOUR HOURS at a local TV station; the colour film stock not being suited to night shooting; shots being out of focus; HAIR BEING CAUGHT IN THE GATE OF THE CAMERA; the dubbing of all the characters by a group of three people, with one woman playing all the female parts, as no sound equipment was used during shooting...

However, the jazzy music, completely out of place for a horror film, is brilliant.

The premiere was a disaster, with the cast leaving before the end, due to the gales of laughter at a horror film that was played straight. "Manos" did have a short run in local cinemas around El Paso, Texas, where it was made, before fading into obscurity, never having made back the $19,000 it cost to make, and it lapsed into the public domain, making it a very easy choice to be discussed in television and online, with no-one to answer for copyright, although the script is copyrighted and registered with the Library of Congress. Its reputation exploded when featured on the US comedy series "Mystery Science Theater 3000," where it was played in full, and mocked mercifully throughout. Finally, in 2011, the work print was discovered in a sale of film rolls bought on eBay by a cinematographer, leading to a restored print now available on Blu-Ray, featuring commentary and interviews with the surviving cast and crew. 

Watching my copy of the Blu-Ray, and the special features detailing its production, it is heartening to see that, behind the derision, there are actual human beings, that did the best job they could, and who are now getting proper recognition and recompense for what they did. They knew they were not getting paid back in 1966, as everyone involved was to share the (non-existent) profits but, unlike so many exploitation films lumped together with "Manos," the people that have been exploited are no longer those that are in it, with Jackey and Tom Neyman producing their own sequel, “Manos Returns,” which premiered in May 2018 - it is the happiest ending this saga could possibly have.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


Please see below for the script I used:

Hello there. It shouldn’t need this much effort, but even a gigantic piece of technology can still tell me that two plus two is four.

So, this is the Sports Direct giant calculator. For those outside the UK, Sports Direct is a sporting goods and fashion retailer, towards the cheaper end of the market, but they are also the owners of sporting labels like Slazenger, Everlast and Lonsdale. They are also in the business of selling giant novelty items with their logo plastered on them, like mugs, bowls, and calculators. It cost me all of four pounds to buy, and the cashier smiled when I asked for one – they were on a peg behind her, so I couldn’t just reach over and take one. You can buy similar calculators without the logo, but it’s one more thing with “Sports Direct” on it, and that’s why it exists. Nothing else about this says “sport,” does it?

Despite the size this is still a calculator, working like any other... to a point. You’ll notice that there are no memory functions, but that isn’t unusual. I have an old Sharp calculator, made in 1974, that doesn’t have them either. If you really needed it, you could always just write the number down. However, one thing isn’t quite right. You can usually enter more numbers than the screen can handle, but still add, subtract, multiply or divide the number on screen. On the Sports Direct giant calculator, if you enter too many numbers, an error message happens, and you can’t do anything more. You have to reset, and start again. Remember, no more than twelve digits, and you’ll be fine.

The packaging says the calculator is designed for people with a visual impairment. Nice try. More seriously-minded solutions use braille, or an electronic voice to read the display, while most smartphones can use voice activation without using a single button. Larger machines include teaching aids made for overhead projectors, to display a calculator on a wall, and while you can buy giant scientific calculators that can display graphs, the price may give you pause.

What surprised me most about this is its build quality. How does something that only cost four pounds need twenty screws? An A4-sized calculator can’t need the circuit board the size of a PC motherboard? Trust me for owning a screwdriver.

(While I do that, I should mention that, if you are selling an old calculator on eBay, it’s all fine saying it comes from a smoke-free home, but please also say if you are a smoke-filled home. I opened up this old Canon calculator to clean it, and the circuit board stank! Was someone smoking through it or something?)

(Just to say, I’ve nearly finished.)

(Oh, sorry.)

I was not expecting a piece of cardboard but, taking it out, you can see how it shields the contacts, which are printed onto a piece of paper. These connect up to a tiny central circuit board, to which the screen, battery and solar panel are attached. There are more elegant versions of this – this Casio fx-100d, for example, attaches its single chip to a piece of plastic, and that’s pretty much it. On the other hand, it also does a few more things.

Thank you for watching. As ever, the nostalgia culture crisis continues at [], and I shall now screw this back together.

Sunday, November 17, 2019


As I write, the latest “Star Wars” trilogy is due to end, with “The Rise of Skywalker.” I was not stirred when watching the trailer at the cinema – it was the same tropes, characters and references, in a different order, with all the finality of a “Friday the 13th” film’s ending. Mind you, the unsettling experience of watching the feature, “Joker,” perked me back up, using its own bag of intellectual property to create a powerful psychological portrait. 

No wonder a “Star Wars” parody appeals to me – forcing yourself to be original by approaching your source material from a different direction. Even better, "Spaceballs" is not just a good parody of "Star Wars," but a credible science fiction film in its own right, after I forgot I was watching a parody.

In 1987, the original "Star Wars" trilogy had been complete for four years, giving the pre-internet general public, not just hardcore fans, enough time to soak in the references that Mel Brooks would work against. However, the home rental video market helped out, as shown when Rick Moranis' Darth Vader clone, Dark Helmet, finds out where Princess Vespa is by renting a copy of the film he is in, and fast forwarding to a later scene. "Spaceballs" itself lived on in home video form, becoming as much of a cult as "Star Wars" appears to most people.

"Spaceballs" is a welcome contrast from the cynical, tired retread of the source material that the "Laugh It Up, Fuzzball" trilogy from "Family Guy" was, with jokes inserted in a way that does not distinguish itself from any other "Family Guy" episode. Like "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," and "High Anxiety," "Spaceballs" is a very Brooks-ian cross between a compendium of jokes, like "Airplane" and the then upcoming "Naked Gun" films, and a visually accurate parody. The production employed Apogee Inc., a visual effects company formed by ex-Industrial Light and Magic employees, lending credibility to all the pissing about going on around those effects, like Dark Helmet being surrounded by Assholes, the surname of the majority of the crew on his ship, and when a radar is jammed by launching a gigantic jar of jam at it.

The year 1987 also meant that "Spaceballs" was in a prime position to pick timely references from what turned out to be a golden period for Hollywood. Rick Moranis had already starred in "Ghostbusters," while Bull Pullman's Han Solo analogue, Lone Starr, is also suitably close to Indiana Jones. Like "Ghostbusters," "Spaceballs" also has its own cheesy tie-in song, when the ship Spaceball One, a very long ship first introduced in a very long shot, is about to self-destruct.

The most daring parody of "Star Wars" is how Mel Brooks, as Yogurt - no need for explanation there - and his "Ewoks" make their money from merchandising, an idea that rose from George Lucas requesting that, in allowing "Spaceballs" to be made, there would be no merchandising, as it would look too similar to the "real thing." "Spaceballs" merchandise, from bedspreads to toilet roll, is randomly seen throughout the rest of the film, including a scene where Dark Helmet plays action figures of himself and Princess Vespa. The turning of Spaceball One into a "mega-maid," to suck up the air that the Spaceballs need from Princess Vespa's home planet - a suitably mad sci-fi plot - prompts the timely line, "it's not just a spaceship, it's a Transformer."

Parody is very carefully detailed for maximum effect. The majestic theme by John Morris, minus the zapping sounds, could have been by John Williams, while the explanatory scrolling introduction is ended by a line that appears in the distance: "If you can read this, you don't need glasses." After a long exposition of the plot, Dark Helmet looks at the audience to ask, "everybody got that?" Instead of the main characters being captured by the "stormtroopers," their stunt doubles are caught by accident, and when one is zapped in the behind by a gun, his leap is accompanied by the "Wilhelm scream" that "Star Wars" sound editor Ben Burtt has shoehorned into every film he made. Even when it is not "Star Wars," the chest-bursting scene from "Alien" can only be properly parodied if you get someone that looks like John Hurt, so what you do is get the actual John Hurt, exclaiming, "Oh no, not again!"

The success of "Spaceballs" as a good a work of comedy and science-fiction can even be expressed in numbers. "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," the final film with Christopher Reeve in the starring role, was released in Christmas 1987, with "Spaceballs" released earlier in the summer. However, what was intentionally a serious piece of work was let down by the woolly anti-nuclear plot, and the poor special effects caused by Cannon Films' financial troubles producing a reduced budget. "Superman IV" cost $17 million to make, while "Spaceballs" was Mel Brooks' most expensive film at $22.7 million, but with all the money on screen. The final box office results were $15.6 million for "Superman IV," and $38.1 million for "Spaceballs" - this is when taking comedy seriously has results.

Sunday, November 10, 2019


“Deliberately scarifying and highly commercial shocker with little but its art direction to commend it to connoisseurs.”

With Halloween over, we are approaching that time to be thankful again and, for lovers of films, Christmas roots you to your sofa, with the biggest TV premières saved for the festive period. You may also be given a book or two as a present, a popular choice being books with curated, “definitive” lists, with titles like “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” – ironically, updated versions of that book come out each year, so anyone who saw a film displaced by new entries for the 2019 edition, like “Sorry to Bother You” and “The Favourite,” may have to reassess their options.

The above quote, for Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” (1979), came from “Halliwell’s Film Guide,” an originator of the annual film guides that forced their ways into homes each Christmas, from magazine publishers like “Radio Times, “Empire” and “Time Out,” and from critics like Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert. Originally published in 1964, the last “Halliwell’s” edition came in 2008, long after Leslie Halliwell death in 1989, and after other authors took over to rewrite his original opinions – my copy of the 2008 edition kept the first half of Halliwell’s original “Alien” review but, diplomatically, stated the art direction was “on its own terms,” before deeming it a “classic,” which had already been decided elsewhere by then.

Leslie Halliwell was not a film critic, but more people depended on his verdicts than those from critics, because they often determined what films you could watch. Originally the manager of a cinema in Cambridge, and later a publicist for the Rank Organisation, his encyclopaedic knowledge of film made him indispensable in the growing television industry. In 1959, Halliwell joined Granada, a part of the ITV network that grew from a chain of cinemas. By 1964, his initial personal assistant job had been swapped for buying foreign programmes (read: United States) for Granada, and in 1968, Halliwell became the “Head Buyer” for the whole ITV network. For UK audiences, Halliwell is the reason you have really only seen the James Bond and Star Wars films on ITV, along with classic TV series like “Murder, She Wrote,” “The A-Team,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” cementing the good reputation of US TV by keeping the crap away.

When Channel 4 began in 1982, Halliwell also started buying up films and TV shows for them, helping to establish the channel as the place to go for more off-beat stuff, like “Raging Bull,” “Last Tango in Paris,” and “Hill Street Blues,” too offbeat to be shown on the mainstream ITV – in fact, the growth of TV movies and mini-series in the 1970s, like “Columbo,” was the new Hollywood’s answer to needing product that people like Halliwell could actually show to families in the early evening.

Read this way, Leslie Halliwell appears to be the Father Christmas of British television, influencing choices still made today, but some reviews in his guides, like his summary of “Alien,” are indicative of a snobbery that don’t work as helpful criticism – “abysmal apologia for loutish teenage behaviour” does not help you to decide whether “The Breakfast Club” or not, as it does not tell you enough what the film itself is like, while “a feast of hardware and noisy music; not much story,” does not tell you why people still watch “Top Gun.” In fact, my copy of the 2008 guide was solely to check cast and crew details, and awards won – the reviews were the least of it. Perhaps, the rewriting was to help make it more, well, helpful.

Since the last Halliwell’s guide was published, the reference books do appear to have been replaced by “definitive list” books, and by cloud-sourced websites like the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia. No new guides from “Time Out,” “Empire” or “Total Film,” and while “Radio Times” published a guide for 2019, no 2020 edition has so far materialised. It seems the criticism of the films themselves has been replaced with making lists.

Sunday, November 3, 2019


The story of enterprising and ribald comedian Rudy Ray Moore, and how he made the outrageous blaxploitation comedy “Dolemite,” is worth retelling for how Moore inhabited a character far larger than life and tastes could allow, recording explicit stand-up albums, leading to films, all forced into life by sheer force of Dolemite’s will, and Moore’s determination. “Dolemite” could never have been a studio project, but popular culture pierced itself on it very quickly once Moore made it himself. The Netflix comedy “Dolemite Is My Name,” stars Eddie Murphy as one of his heroes, with a script by the writers of Tim Burton’s film “Ed Wood,” in a passion project that took fifteen years to complete.

(How is this for six degrees of separation: Rudy Ray Moore starred in “Dolemite,” whose cinematographer, then U.C.L.A. film student Nicholas von Sternberg, was the son of director Josef von Sternberg, who directed Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” - Dietrich appeared in “Touch of Evil” with Orson Welles, who voiced Unicron in “Transformers: The Movie” alongside Roger Carmel, who appeared in “Myra Breckinridge,” a film less dignified than “Dolemite.”)

I saw “Dolemite Is My Name” and loved it, but the “Ed Wood” story made me wary of one thing. “Dolemite” is as scrappy and rough as its hero, but is also as charming. However, it is also known for a very notorious technical issue, namely the boom microphone wandering into shot from either the top or bottom of the frame. “Dolemite” is known almost as much for its boom mic as for Moore himself, but this is a very unfair slight on Nicholas von Sternberg’s skills as a cinematographer, because if you can see the boom mic at all (or, in a couple of shots, the operator holding the boom), you are not seeing the film as intended.

Much like the “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park” trilogies, “Titanic,” “Top Gun,” and many other Hollywood films, “Dolemite” was shot using the “open matte” process, by which you will shoot your film first, using the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1, and make it widescreen later by blocking out the top and bottom of the frame. While “Dolemite” will have done this in 1974 to save the expense of anamorphic lenses, to squeeze a widescreen picture into the square film frame, open matte would be used in the 1980s and 1990s for when films were shown at home on old-style, non-widescreen televisions – instead of having a “letterboxed” picture, and instead of choosing what parts of the widescreen picture you could see (known as “pan and scan”), you could just show the original film without masking any of it. 

The advent of widescreen televisions did away with all of these problems, but open matte was also used to re-present films for different cinema experiences, like IMAX, but it explains TV shows shot on film, like “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Cheers,” are now available in widescreen after twenty to thirty years – this time, the picture is just being masked vertically, instead of horizontally. Meanwhile, I do remember grumbles some years ago about not being able to see all the picture on the “Back to the Future” Blu-Ray, in comparison with VHS, but as far as I can see, the version available is the correct one.

So, when “Dolemite” was first released for home video in the 1980s, it should really have been in a “pan and scan” version, and not full screen. There should not have been the opportunity to create drinking games from how often the boom mic could be seen, and while the film isn’t the best ever made, its reputation suffered from not being viewed on its own terms. “Dolemite” is now available on Blu-Ray, in a restored widescreen version – a full-screen “Boom Mic Edition” is an optional extra on the disc. 

Sunday, October 27, 2019


This is Part 3 of an apparent series about the 1970 film “Myra Breckinridge” – find part 1 here [link], and part 2 here [link]. In short, I think “Myra Breckinridge” is the worst film ever made because I needed it to be the best ever made, and it wasn’t – a statement I made so snappily in my notes, I didn’t realise I hadn’t used it in my first two thousand words on the subject. 

Having given myself time to recover, I can return to my study of “Myra Breckinridge” to discuss what happened next. To further understand my enemy, I have invested in my own copies of the sources of information that have most influenced the opinions made about the film, and one that even Gore Vidal’s original novel couldn’t do without. My intention is ultimately to refer to them when I eventually write the definitive book on “Myra Breckinridge” – I have already pointed out the rarity of a transgender film buff writing about a film whose protagonist is also a transgender film buff – but, in the meantime, I will share with you what they are, and what they say.

The best narrative account of the making of “Myra Breckinridge” is contained in the essay “Swinging Into Disaster,” by Steven Daly, published in the April 2001 issue of “Vanity Fair” magazine, and collected into the book “Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood,” published by Penguin in 2008. There are interviews with the film’s writer and director, Michael Sarne, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, and with the film’s star, Raquel Welch – Gore Vidal responded in writing, Farah Fawcett declined to be involved, and others are reflected through narrative and anecdotes. The essay does a great job of centring its story on Sarne, his becoming director, and his influence in creating a notoriously chaotic production, people being fired left and right, and scripts rewritten every day. The decision to use archive pieces of Laurel & Hardy and Shirley Temple came during the editing process after the film was completed, not when it was being written. The ultimate outcome is that no-one came away from the film unscathed, either by it becoming a blot in John Huston’s filmography, or Raquel Welch not being properly recognised as a comic actress until four years later, in Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers.” Sarne clearly had scores to settle, as later proved in his DVD commentary in 2004, in contrast to Welch’s bemusement on her own.

The film critic Rex Reed, playing the pre-transition Myron Breckinridge in a white suit, like an episode of “Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)” is often quoted in saying that, of “Myra Breckinridge,” “on this movie, everybody’s asking, ‘Who do you have to screw to get out of it?’” This comes from “Myra Goes Hollywood,” an essay for the August 1970 issue of “Playboy” magazine. Yes, I really did buy a copy of “Playboy” for the articles and, for the time, it reads like “The New Yorker” with soft-core pornography leavened into the mix. The advertisements are for alcohol, tobacco, and British Leyland – their page 3 pin-up is the MGB GT. The purpose of the article is for Reed to provide a more authoritative contemporary account of the chaotic production than the leaks could have suggested, played out as mostly juicy gossip, but the most telling part is how Reed details his agreeing to play  Myron, based on having script approval for his role – his not interested in playing a gay man who has a sex change, his eventual role as “a sort of carnal Jiminy Cricket to Raquel’s erotic Pinocchio” ultimately resulted from working around his demands. Reed does not state why he even agreed to be in the film, apart from making some reference to how critics should take the opportunity to learn the technical side of making a film.

The writing of the film critic Parker Tyler looms large in Myra Breckinridge’s mind, as she waxes lyrical about Hollywood dealing in myths, and in exclaiming that, “during the decade between 1935 and 1945, no unimportant film was made in the United States.” Parker’s 1947 book “Magic and Myth of the Movies,” a seminal work that applies psychoanalysis to then-recent films like “Mildred Pierce,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Seventh Veil,” at a time when films were only just doing that themselves, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945). However, the glow of the screen does better for Parker than the real life it reflects upon, and Myra also basks in that glow, as the new Hollywood of the 60s produces less effectual role models. 

Tyler initially complained that “Myra Breckinridge,” both the novel and film, defamed him and his work, but the attention led “Magic and Myth of the Movies” to be republished in 1971. My copy of the British reissue, with Rita Hayworth on the front cover, also features a new foreword by Tyler, where he deals with the ambiguous nature of the tribute the story gives him, as his ideas are even dropped by Myra upon the novel’s end.

Finally, the February 1971 issue of the British journal “Films and Filming” has an article by Michael Sarne, returning to the magazine for which he used to write reviews, titled “For Love of Myra.” Sarne plays the production as an affair between himself and the character of Myra. Photographic evidence was provided, also on the cover of the magazine, to prove Sarne did try to find a male actor to play both Myra and Myron, before opting for the baggage of Rex Reed. Sarne labelling his affair as “the ultimate love-hate relationship, the Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb of the ‘sixties, perhaps all that remains of our affair will be the things they say about us.” For certain, that is all Sarne has, as Myra returned in Gore Vidal’s sequel novel “Myron.”  

Sunday, October 20, 2019


I don’t like being given opportunities to feel old, especially as I am still in my thirties, but the inevitability of progress in technology, working against my human stubbornness to adapt to a new way of working, will provide more situations to reflect on where that progress leaves you.

What am I talking about? It’s more that I don’t expect my devices to talk back at me, mainly because I turned off their ability to talk. Even more, I have turned off their ability to evaluate my commands.

Before I make myself sound even more paranoid, this is based on the principle of knowing that, if I want something, I will ask for it. I will not say “Alexa...” or “Hey Siri,” “Hey Google,” “Hey Cortana” – I’m not really a “hey” kind of person – and expect the artificial intelligence based on previous interactions to throw up what it thinks is the right answer, or what is the first answer, or the answer most accessed by others. 

The only virtual assistant I do use is Siri, on my Apple TV box, purely to speak the name or title I want to search on YouTube, Vimeo or the BBC iPlayer, an expediency over just typing it, which is the final resort when it doesn’t accept how I’ve pronounced a vowel.

While the debate over the application of virtual assistants is currently focussed on the microphone – your voice being recorded and analysed, even when you are not using it – my concern is on its ability to act as a bridge in human thought, making evaluations over the answer it thinks I will need, without informing me on how it came to that decision. There is an implication of trust on my part, which turns into a lack of trust in practice.

If so, why am I happy using a search engine like Google? Is it the trust gained over twenty years of usage, that virtual assistants need to demonstrate? (Siri, the oldest of them, began in 2011.) Is it having a screen to view the answers of the search engine providing the illusion of choice? Is it that the algorithms that influence the search results are more well-known? (For Google, PageRank evaluates the links to pages, and between pages, Panda promotes higher-quality sites, while Hummingbird emphasises natural writing over forced keywords – how am I doing so far?)

Perhaps, I am still looking at virtual assistants as being in their infancy, as having pretensions over previous voice-activated units that acted as glorified hands-free switches. It comes back to trust over the answers I would expect them to give, if I tried to use them. I just need something to explain how they came to their decisions, like a screen, and something to choose and edit the answer, like a keyboard.