Sunday, May 29, 2022

BUSTING UP MY BRAINS FOR THE WORDS [346]


The “darkest timeline” is not a way I would describe the world I live in, but I have seen other people use this term to describe the conflict and warfare that dominates the news and, by extension, the decisions that have led to this state. 

With the concept of multiverses now mainstream, from “Back to the Future Part II” to “Rick & Morty”, and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” to “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, using narrative devices to order the randomness of real life has its uses, but the “darkest timeline” is a pessimistic consensus to reach.

I was surprised to find that sitcoms are still watched by enough people to coin words and terms that enter general usage, but instead of coming from “Rick & Morty”, “darkest timeline” comes from creator Dan Harmon’s earlier show “Community”, a show I have also not really watched, perhaps due to an aversion to Chevy Chase. Its inclusion was as a joke: with one episode being based on the outcomes of rolling a six-sided die to determine who will pick up some pizza, each outcome is played out, including one featuring death and alcoholism and a felt beard to indicate an evil version of a character, referencing an episode of “Star Trek”. The “darkest timeline” was also used to describe a period when “Community” was off the air in 2012, again as a joke.

From my own perspective, multiverses are the fault of Gardner Fox, the comic book writer that reintroduced the original version of DC Comics’ The Flash, Jay Garrick, into the updated version’s comic in 1961’s “Flash of Two Worlds!” With “Earth-2” established, Fox wrote various “Crisis on Earth-x” stories in “Justice League of America”, a concept culminating in “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, a company-wide crossover story by Marv Wolfman & George Perez that folded the various earths together into one, including characters bought from other companies that were maintained as their own separate worlds. 

However, what was intended to make a streamlined story universe that was easier to understand has since been supplanted by other series blowing this back out into a multiverse of multiverses, an “omniverse”. No longer able to follow the thread, I long ago decided that the stories being told in the comics themselves are more important than in which world they are taking place.

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” has been the best version of a multiverse story I have seen in a while, although it is also insinuated that “real world” is also the “darkest timeline” by Evelyn, the laundromat owner at the centre of the story, is the worst possible version of themselves, capable of starting many things, but leaving them unfinished, their daughter capable of doing anything in any universe because nothing truly matters. Hope and happiness is what wins out, restoring balance in the film’s characters, let alone the multiverse itself.

It can’t be healthy to say, even as a joke, that we are living in the “darkest timeline”. It sounds like a coping strategy at best, and a deflection at worst.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

FA, A LONG, LONG WAY TO RUN [345]


In asking myself what a skill for life would be, learning a musical instrument was my immediate answer. There is a level of dedication and devotion implied by competently playing a melody, let alone being able to improvise one – that is the difference between knowing the right notes and learning your scales.

The latter of these has eluded because I have been so concentrated on the former, and the time has come for me to learn properly to play even better. However, like solving quadratic equations, learning what notes form the key of G major appears to be just something you must learn, with no shortcut or mnemonic.

To clarify, musical scales are predominant in Western music and culture, consisting of eight notes in sequence relating to the first, “tonic” note, the last note being the first when played one octave higher. To our ears, playing in the right key is the same as playing “in tune”, without “hitting the wrong note”. The names given to the two types of scale, “major” and “minor”, are based on importance and use. 

As it turns out, major keys are comparatively easy. C major is the one that everyone can do, because it has no sharp or flat notes - it only uses the white notes on a keyboard. Looking at a keyboard indicates how the major scale is formed: there are 12 notes from one C note to the next, known as semitones – skipping a black key implies a step of two semitones, or a whole tone. There are no black keys between the E and F key, or between B and C, and the gap between these is one semitone. 

Therefore, the gaps between the notes in C major are tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. Repeating this in G major requires you to use a black key, F sharp (F#), to fulfil the pattern, and to play “God Save the Queen”. Every major key follows this pattern: starting on E flat (Eb), you play Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb to make the key of Eb major, and the start of the “EastEnders” theme. Start on C#, and you can play my song “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You” [link].

When people talk about minor keys, it is generally the “natural” minor keys have their own pattern. A minor, like C major, only uses the white keys, but starts three semitones lower, making a pattern of tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone – likewise, the equivalent of G major is E minor. There are “melodic” and “harmonic” variations that developed to fit certain intentions, but I can get more information on these once I nail the fundamentals down.

This is as far as I reached before needing to understand Western diatonic scales and the “circle of fifths”, but even the above proves there are certain assumptions that must be made before you begin to learn something, and things that you just must learn. There is no such thing as a shortcut to learning, except for making the size of the task feel less huge.

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.