Saturday, February 24, 2024

JOHNNY, REMEMBER ME [437]


There is no point in listing how the 1995 film “Johnny Mnemonic” incorrectly predicts the world of 2021 – CRT television screens, Concorde remaining in flight, 320 GB storage capacity being a large number – as not all science fiction is speculative fiction, although I was amused by Johnny (Keanu Reeves) explaining that the encryption code for the information downloaded to his mind should be sent by fax to its destination. My focus should be on it story, which is good, but I don’t think it is told well:

“Second decade of the 21st century. Corporations rule. The world is threatened by a new plague... its cause and cure unknown. The corporations are opposed by LoTeks, a resistance movement risen from the streets...The corporations defend themselves. They hire the Yakuza... But the LoTeks wait in their strongholds, in the old city cores, like rats in the walls of the world. The most valuable information must sometimes be entrusted to mnemonic couriers, elite agents who smuggle data in wet-wired brain implants.”

A sure-way to turn my attention off from a film is by starting with a text crawl setting the scene. The most egregious example I personally came across was “Broken Blossoms” a 1919 film written and directed by D.W. Griffith that, while a silent film, betrays the visual talent of someone known as the progenitor of much of the language of film we use to this day, the copious inter-title cards reading like chapters from a book, chapters I am required to read.

With “Blade Runner” having influenced the cyberpunk genre over a decade before the release of “Johnny Mnemonic” (1995), adapted by “Neuromancer” author William Gibson from his own short story, audiences would be familiar enough with this dystopian, corporation-run, neon-drenched world of rainy nights for it to be taken as written, but without needing to write it – everything else can be given its portrayal when we reach that stage in the plot.

There are more characters in this film than Gibson’s story, but it feels like this is to move Johnny, the central character but also the MacGuffin whose brain holds what everyone needs, around the film – more than once is it made clear that only his head is needed, and the intentionally robotic acting of Reeves doesn’t make him endearing, like his mention that he had to delete his childhood memories to have more, well, drive space, is to make him a tragic figure.

The film was originally to have been a lower-budgeted production in the vein of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”, a science-fiction film noir story set amongst contemporary Paris that I have talked about previously. The casting of Keanu Reeves, hot from the success of “Speed”, as Johnny gave it a higher profile, production budget and expectation, making it the blockbuster film it was never intended to be. Director Robert Longo since re-edited and released a version in black and white, bringing closer to his original intention, but the story could still be adapted again.

“Johnny Mnemonic” today seems to exist as the bridge between “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix” – indeed, the Wachowski sisters told the “New Yorker” magazine in 2012 that they used the film to sell their story, perhaps as shorthand for the cyberpunk genre that Sony, releasing the film through TriStar, hoped to capitalise on. For one thing, “The Matrix” had daylight at times...

Sunday, February 18, 2024

IF YOU’RE ALRIGHT, YOU CAN’T GO WRONG [436]

"I'm Alright", a novelty song that charted at number 40 in 1982

The outpouring of grief at the sudden death of Steve Wright on Monday 12th February speaks both to the intimate connection between the radio DJ and his audience, and to his professionalism. I shouldn’t have been surprised at my upset over the loss of such an engaging, friendly and funny personality, when that was all I knew of him. 

Media coverage of Wright’s death, coloured by a narrative that he “died of a broken heart” at the ending of his Radio 2 afternoon show by the BBC in 2022, later dispelled by his own brother, collides with his own lack of sentimentality about his career, having only taken over “Pick of the Pops” four months ago, with further projects to come.

Usually a straightforward and nostalgic chart rundown, Steve Wright turned “Pick of the Pops” into a Steve Wright show: engaging chat, meticulously researched facts, and massive current-sounding jingles firing off all over the place, the energy kept high throughout. He did cut off a few songs too early, but name a DJ that hasn’t done the same.

What makes a Steve Wright show can be tracked through an abundance of radio recordings, and listings in the “Radio Times”. Starting his professional broadcasting career at the launch of Radio 210 in Reading in 1976, presenting evening and weekend shows, he was interviewing Marc Bolan and his wife Gloria Jones within its opening fortnight. Wright’s confident and cheeky radio personality is already evident, with only the jingles and content telling you what year it is, despite having to give way to AA Roadwatch telling the audience that the car parks in Bracknell are filling up fast. He also displays the “gift of the gab” required at a time when there were still restrictions on playing records on UK radio.

After three years, a six-month stint at Radio Luxembourg had Wright reading the news bulletins during his own evening show – the peppering of news headlines, weather, showbiz stories and “Strange But True” features through an average Wright show, over and above the news already on BBC Radios 1 and 2, would be read in the same way, more conversational than authoritative, keeping the audience both engaged and informed – “infotainment” is an apt description for any of Wright’s shows.

Headhunted by the BBC, Wright’s first two years on Radio 1 were essentially a bootcamp - if you weren’t a top-class national broadcaster by the end of this, no-one will be. His first Radio 1 show was on 5th January 1980, presenting Saturday evenings for three months. One month later, Wright presented “Top of the Pops” for the first time without a screen test. After covering the flagship breakfast show during April, and after taking May off, Sunday mornings became Wright’s main show in June - this month also had him present his first Radio 1 Roadshow from that year’s Lawnmower Grand Prix in Holt, Wiltshire. From June to August, he also presented a Saturday lunchtime hour titled “The Amazing Facts and Figures Show”: a “Radio Times” listing in July had Wright saying that “collecting useless but often fascinating bits of information has always been a thing of mine, and it’s surprising what you find out.” The “Strange But True” and “Factoids” features and spin-off books make perfect sense now, especially the one that stuck in my mind: if you unfurl a human brain, you can cover an ironing board with it.

Wright moved to Saturday mornings at the end of August while both frequently covering other presenters’ shows during the week, while acting as film reviewer for fellow host Andy Peebles. This continued until October 1981, when what became known as “Steve Wright in the Afternoon” began, although he continued reviewing films on other shows for the station. The lightly satirical characters like Mr Angry, Damien the social worker and local radio DJ Dave Doubledecks would start to appear, the meticulous preparations for each show becoming more apparent, inviting comparisons with Kenny Everett.

All this happened before you get to what people start with when they talk about Steve Wright: the “zoo radio” format, with lots of co-presenters, lots of features, big interviews replacing character sketches, lots of clapping and lots of “love the show, Steve!” from listeners’ messages. Hearing him speak on his Radio 1 show from May 1983 about spending a week in Los Angeles and New York, mostly listening to the radio and watching CNN and MTV, explains why his shows for the BBC right up to 2024 retained an energy not present on other British radio shows – it had to be imported. Scott Shannon innovated the “morning zoo” breakfast show on WRBQ-FM in Tampa, Florida, taking it to WHTZ in New York – Shannon did not continue with the zoo format upon leaving WHTZ in 1989, but the station continues to run a similar format at breakfast time today.

The major innovation Wright had upon the zoo format was to run it in a continent where, if people weren’t experiencing a lull in their day at 2pm, they were taking a nap. It was a second wind for its audience as much as an entertaining listen, augmented by bespoke jingles sourced from New York production houses. Ironically, when Wright moved to the Radio 1 breakfast show in 1994, carrying the existing format didn’t work, and his Radio 1 career ended the following year – perhaps it was a bit full-on for British audiences at that time of day. After a short break in television and at Talk Radio UK, Wright joined Radio 2 in 1996 for two weekend shows, resuming an updated afternoon show in 1999 that, while toned down a little, remained an outlier to how the rest of the station sounded.

I am not ready to talk about Steve Wright in the past tense, and listening to so much of his work from across his career only made me wonder what he could have done next. His public modesty about his own career is admirable, and while he never really got personal on air, you were always left with the impression that he was a thoroughly sincere and hard-working man, such as when he spoke to Simon Garfield for his book about BBC Radio 1, “The Nation’s Favourite”:

“Part of the success of the afternoon programme wasn’t the fact that we were postmodern and smart, it was that we were reliable and friendly. You could switch on wherever you were and be amused and have a friend. That sounds terribly pretentious, but it’s true: it’s comforting, it’s something nice, it’s upbeat, we tried only to reflect the good, the funny and the interesting... It's just a jobbing broadcaster doing a gig. When you do a show you can't think of the exact numbers of people tuning in and how it compares with the last figures - such thoughts are impostors. What people remember is the time you got them through their depression, or the time you helped them with their exams... Everything else is unimportant. At the end of the day it's just entertainment. Nobody has a disease.”

Sunday, February 11, 2024

ONE PILL MAKES YOU LARGER [435]


The Wachowski sisters’ film “The Matrix”, the wildly successful and thoughtful cyberpunk science fiction action blockbuster, was released in March 1999, long enough ago for my first copy of the film to be on VHS, bought from no less than Blockbuster Video. It was the widescreen release, reducing the picture resolution to only about a hundred lines – it was “letterboxed” as in like watching it through next door’s letterbox. No wonder I swapped it for a DVD at the first opportunity, and later a Blu-ray boxset of what had become a trilogy. 

 

I like “The Matrix” for the same reason I say that Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” is my favourite film: it has everything in it. It is visually vibrant and innovative, densely plotted, filled with action, and it stays with you after the end, withstanding repeated viewings. It was like the nature of what a blockbuster film could be had changed, something which didn’t bear fruit much beyond its own three sequels.  

 

The comparative box office failure of 2021’s fourth instalment, “The Matrix Resurrections”, may have put pay to the chances of the original film’s twenty-fifth anniversary being officially recognised, but it remains important to me. The anniversary cannot be marked by the US Library of Congress adding it to the National Film Registry for future preservation, because that already happened in 2012, when it was inducted alongside “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Dirty Harry” and “A Christmas Story”. 

 

Cyberpunk was a subculture still current in 1999, but also nearly twenty years old, and the combination in “The Matrix” of technology, music and fashion, with added martial arts and gunfire, may have redefined that term in the mainstream, the nature of “the matrix” as a simulation and distraction of the real world of the film prepared its audience for when the World Wide Web would become exactly that. The Wachowski sisters’ innovation of “bullet time”, freezing action to move around it before continuing, has been copied endlessly, as has the “digital rain” of phosphorous green code and text on a black background, itself inspired by the 1995 anime “Ghost in the Shell”.

 

Much was made at the time of the use of postmodernist philosophy in the story of “The Matrix”, either to put the film above the action-fare characterised as mindless, or to say that it was too complicated for audiences to understand. The Wachowskis issued copies of postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 book “Simulacra & Simulation” to the cast and crew. Baudrillard himself said the film had nothing to do with this work, which was more about the breakdown of distinctions between reality and simulation until the latter takes precedence, but then again, it is also about the implosion of meaning in the media... well, at least that sentence appears in my copy of his book.

 

I will admit I had problems following “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” when they were in cinemas, but the epic nature of the story allowed you to get lost in it. Having already been used to the layering of references and meaning in “The Simpsons”, to be uncovered as your knowledge increased, I thought “The Matrix” will be the same. Only in August 2020, when Lilly Wachowski said that she and Lana had written and directed a trilogy with implicit transgender themes, my thoughts were, in order, (a) I wish they said that at the time, (b) how did I miss that, (c) 1999 may have been too early to say explicitly, and (d) that makes the films so much easier to understand, what with Keanu Reeves’ character Neo being alerted to their true nature, as well as that of the world around them, along with the villain Agent Smith only referring to Neo by the name the Matrix gave them –this would also apply to Trinity, Morpheus and so on.

 

When I saw “The Matrix Resurrections”, I took issue with criticisms of its internal commentary, and replaying of scenes from the original film: “To make a new ‘Matrix’ film is to comment on what has happened to our representation of the world in the last eighteen years, because that is the only acceptable way to do it.” It is my favourite film of the now-tetralogy, just as my favourite film of the “Back to the Future” trilogy is the second one.

 

We are now at a point where cyberpunk may now be understood as a historical period in popular culture, just as the dystopian worlds depicted in its literature and films resemble reality greater than they ever did. With “the matrix” now being misappropriated for personal gain by whoever Andrew Tate thinks he is, and “taking the red pill” being used as by right-wing groups as a term for “freeing” themselves from what they believe is a simulation of the world created by liberal ideology, a celebration of “The Matrix”, and what it really is about, couldn’t be timelier.

 

I now need to square how a previous film that also starred Keanu Reeves, the critically derided “Johnny Mnemonic”, came to influence “The Matrix”.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

DON’T EVER CHANGE, NEVER CHANGE [434]


The Isle of Man is part of the British Isles, but not part of the UK. It is a self-governing Crown Dependency, but the UK government is responsible for its defence and representing its interests abroad. The British monarch is the Isle of Man’s head of state, and their head appears on their currency, the value of the Manx pound being tied to the British Pound.

The Isle of Man government has said it will no longer produce their own 1p and 2p coins, as they cost more to produce than their face value. Businesses on the island have been asked to start rounding prices to the nearest 5p, in preparation for shortages of the lower value coins in the coming years.

This is old news to many people. Six countries that have the Euro as their currency have not used one- and two-cent coins since 2013, something I hardly noticed when I visited the Republic of Ireland in 2016. The policy there is also to round up the final amount to pay to the nearest five cents, a policy introduced in Sweden in 1972 when they began a similar process with the krona – the öre still exists as one hundredth of a krona, but the one-krona coin has been the smallest unit of physical currency since 2010.

The last item I bought for a penny was a few years ago, a second-hand book obtained through Amazon, although the cost of postage must have made up for any shortfall. I remember being able to buy penny sweets individually, but that was in the 1990s.

The time is now ticking on the practicality of the British penny, despite the protestations of coin collectors. My own coin collection exists mainly to have examples of old coins, like the old pre-decimal farthing, one quarter of a penny when 240 pennies made a pound, itself withdrawn in 1960. I also own three unopened rolls of decimal half-penny coins, withdrawn in 1984 when dividing a pound into more than a hundred units became useless. Few coin-operated payment machines in the UK now accept coins under 10p in value – by the way, one Swedish krona happens to be worth between seven and eight pence. I usually only carry coins in an emergency, anticipating if a car park is only accepting cash, or if a card payment machine in a shop is broken, otherwise only paying in coins to get rid of the weight received as change from using banknotes. I would be fine with the “shilling” being the lowest value British coin, as the five pence coin is smaller in size than a penny.

Coins don’t wear away that fast, so coin collectors will be fine for some time to come – this group is the reason I rarely see a fifty pence coin in my change, as they are usually issued these days as special editions. A new set of standard, “definitive” coins will be introduced by the Royal Mint, with a dormouse and red squirrel on the 1p and 2p respectively, so they will remain for some time yet. The penny could eventually become a commemorative coin, having been pure silver until the switch to copper in 1796, before bronze and copper-coated steel followed – this will allow the usually-commemorative crown coin, valued at £5, to finally replace the £5 note.