Posts from 5th August 2004

Aug 04

I went to London and all I got my parents was this nonexistent T-shirt

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I went to London and all I got my parents was this nonexistent T-shirt — my dad’s been to London a few times, mostly on Navy business (the Navy over here regarding the UK as generally speaking a brilliant if tragically immobile aircraft carrier), my mom only went the once in 1991, a trip she still enjoyed fantastically. She was my Anglophilic role model growing up, and if her tastes were more Rosamund Pilcher and P. D. James and less Mervyn Peake than mine, such are the differences in literary taste. So when I first went way back when, and ever since then whenever I’ve gone to London, she is always terribly jealous of me and asking for stories.

And she always, always asks if I’ve seen the sights. Not EVERY sight, mind you. But there’s some part of her that’s been quite astonished then and now over the fact that I would go to London, hang around for some days and in the midst of it all somehow not go to the Tower of London. Or Westminster Abbey. Or the Houses of Parliament. Or Hyde Park. Or Harrod’s. Or…

For me the ‘sights’ are not necessarily my sights. I don’t really know where I got the feeling that avoiding where the tourists all go to as well is so vitally important to me — and it’s not like I am going to pretend I haven’t seen some of The Typical Places around and about, about which more in a second. But my mother still wonders why literarily inclined me hasn’t gone to the Abbey to note all the dead poets (I much preferred randomly stumbling across the ‘Conversation with Oscar Wilde’ piece, that was great!) and why I haven’t just drowned in the pomp and circumstance of it all.

London I like for other reasons — I have friends there, I’ve gained many pleasant memories every time I’ve visited, I can find things there I can’t readily find anywhere else, an out of print book or a rare CD perhaps, and so forth. I don’t need to hit every museum or observe every “Dick Whittington Beat Up Boadicea and Shakespeare With Wat Tyler’s Left Leg Here in 1765” sign around. I have good faith that they are there. I’ve visited the British Museum once, and I think that was the most self-consciously touristy thing I’ve done in the city to my knowledge.

Well, except for one thing. So last year David at Suede’s old offices gave me directions to where I could pick up his spiffy bio of the band at the ICA, as the book was not yet ready for general sale. So I went over and wandered down the way to the ICA from the tube station, picked up the book and had some lunch and went outside and wondered where the heck the road went to. I had time so I wandered down the road, pondered as to the big building at the end of it, then realized I was in front of Buckingham Palace. So I took some photos for my mom. I figured she would appreciate it (and she did!).


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“KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNN!!!” — last night was the first night I ever saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in a theater, thanks to some bemusing local weekly film fest. Every other film I caught onscreen shortly after its release — and yes, that includes the first one in 1979, when I was eight and when despite what so many others said, I wasn’t bored but actually quite fascinated by the long, meditative stretches of film time Robert Wise and his editors spent on the nature of the huge alien ship confronted by Kirk and crew. It’s no less an indulgence than, say, Kubrick’s trip through the monolith in 2001, and to my mind captured the sense of how beautiful and weird the universe can be perfectly — I was already a massive astronomy buff, Star Wars had blown my mind at six years old, and somehow between the two balances of fantasy and fact was this movie. More fantasy, obviously, in the same way that Cosmos was much more fact, but like that TV series, the film helped codify a dream and desire of Whatever Is Out There that is still strong with me. NASA just launched its latest probe to Mercury, and I’m already impatiently awaiting the seven years to pass for its arrival.

But again, that was the first Trek film. Khan was an equal but different favorite for me, and as I noted was the one film I missed in the theaters at the time. My mom was an appreciative Trekkie of sorts from the days of the original show, so quite why she and I didn’t get around to seeing it in 1982 is unclear — I think it had to do with the two months or so revolving around a complicated and lengthy cross-country move that early summer eating up the family’s free time. But we had already grown to love cable and HBO in particular, so the following year when Khan appeared on TV I ate it up, watched it again and again and again — revelled in all those little details which at the time bespoke an impossible future but now happily stand revealed as limitations of computer desk technology or hairstyles of the time and place. I don’t mind them, they’re unavoidable, and the point still remains that for that place, that mindset, they were THE FUTURE — and that mattered more for me than anyone’s seemingly spurious complaints about how the characters were stilted and the acting dull or whatever.

And really, all that type of complaint holds up less well than the similar ones which can be aimed at Star Wars, say. Set aside The ShatnerBot and the various non-roles most of the rest play — not to mention some dumbass performances from the supporting crew (that one surfer dude who is Khan’s assistant/bootlicker, please) — and actually just about everyone has at least one really good moment if not more. Kelley gets in plenty of dry zingers for McCoy, Koenig burbles a bit but actually captures a sense of horror and fear near the start worthy of the setup — those ear-invading creatures freaked me out then and the scene is still squirmworthy now, a bit of Alien-style body disruption in miniature, Doohan gives his bluff character a brief but agonized sense of loss given the death of a young assistant (though in the stupidest editing move EVER the literally five-second snippet that was filmed which indicated said assistant was also his young nephew — and which would have perfectly explained the anguish Scott felt — was left out of the theatrical release, only restored later for video), Takei and Nichols are far more secondary but still are there, at least.

And credit to Bibi Besch, playing an old flame — and more — of Kirk’s. She and Shatner nail it in their all-too-brief scene together on their own, two middle-aged adults contemplating what did and didn’t happen in the past, and totally avoiding what nowadays would have been some sort of excuse for reconciliation or more — the two have their own lives and one nice thing about the following movies was that they continued to lead them separately, without regrets.

And if Shatner chews the scenery, well, Ricardo Montalban is right there with him — an interesting acting job when you think about it, he essentially had to step back into a literal one-off of an acting job in character and make said character work both for those who knew the backstory cold and for those like me who didn’t — I hadn’t seen the original episode at the time (and it’s to the scriptwriters’ credit they disposed of the needed information in a smart, quick manner). Montalban’s character is supposed to be an arrogant, cruel SOB with charisma and by god, that’s what you get — he may be in love with his own voice and intellect but there’s no reason for him NOT to be (and when he tones things down, unsurprisingly he’s actually more chilling).

Shatner himself actually gets more than a few moments where director Nick Meyer clearly told him, “Look, you can talk quietly and not declaim, and it will still work.” And it does — reflections on mortality and futility and regret that may not be stunningly original in content or delivery but which suit the character and the situations just right, soliloquys at points less directed at the invisible audience Shatner always seems to aiming at than at himself, a character brought up short and now trying to fight back. It’s to Shatner’s credit that he can actually make the conclusion of his eulogy to Spock a quick, perfect study of someone on the verge of collapse, emotion bursting out in fits and starts but without turning into a grotesque.

While the advantage of Spock is that you can autopilot it nicely enough with the right sense of underplayed acting and good scripting, the luck of Nimoy, of course, is that he ended up with The Death Scene, one that still works because a simple device — two friends who are literally separated by a clear wall of minimal thickness, only one is unavoidably going to die. All Nimoy had to do was stay in character and deliver those lines on the nose, and damned if he didn’t. In many ways the rest of the films that followed shouldn’t have — all entertaining in their own ways (the fifth one unintentionally so, of course), but while money and demand and that same sense of pleasurable comfort that similarly informs the James Bond cycle made certain their existence, in retrospect Khan would have been a fine way to bow out, and had it been the only film of them all would have allowed the original franchise to end on a particularly bold note.

So it was a fine evening, a good way to finally say I’ve seen them all in the theater, a little geek trophy to myself but also an object lesson as to how and why the movies can work beyond their trappings. But that all said:

…some things still defy explanation.


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From the Hip

I’ve had Section 25 CDs for a while now but it was only with the purchase of the Deus Ex Machina collection that I felt properly prompted to give everything an ear, disc by disc (at least the way LTM has them released). And it has to be said that the first couple of CDs — Always Now, The Key of Dreams — are, even for my murky/dour early eighties loving self, a bit hard going on the first listen. I think they’ll work for me much more in the future, but there’s little of the weirdly compelling atmosphere of Crispy Ambulance from the same period.

From the Hip is something else again, though — with help from the Be Music crew (aka New Order in some shape or form), on their third album Section 25 suddenly step from mono to polychrome. Thankfully without simply retracing the path that their producers took, there’s a shift into ‘dance’ music however one wants to describe it, but of a more slippery and moody sort, something beautifully textured on the one hand and on the other aiming for a dancefloor in your head rather than through your feet. That may defeat the purpose for some ears but for me it’s a chance to come to grips with what the mid-eighties had to offer technologically and musically on a group’s own particular terms, which won’t be for everyone’s. The interchange of male and female vocals provides further range that wasn’t there before, sliding between the textures and demi-motorik/psych drones and pulses. From the hip indeed, but not necessarily of the hip or by it.

“Looking From a Hilltop” was the single, a cult fave in some corners, turning up on the disc in three separate mixes. Peter Saville’s cover art for the album is actually less cryptic on this point that it is for so many other efforts — it’s a hilltop somewhere, colored poles stretched out in a pattern that immediately suggests the work of Christo, his umbrella installations in Japan and California say. Then again, we’re looking at the hilltop as opposed to from it, and in the same way what it is an overtly club-friendly single at the same time is perfect for a solitary zone, a strange balance.

More listens of this one from me are definitely in the offing — I wonder what I’ll think next time around.

FT Top 100 Films 48: TIME BANDITS

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FT Top 100 Films

Okay. Confession time. I stole the Time Bandits script from Borehamwood library. It was a nice big hardback which had the entire script with plenty of on set photo’s and scrawlings on by Gilliam, including production designs which proved that Gilliam really does know what he is after when he does designs. He also knows how to get it (unfortunately as his career has progressed this has also turned out to cost a fair bit of cash). I still have it, it sits on my film book shelf, towering over script books of The Searchers and Get Carter (Sight And Sound like punting these books out). Somehow its giganticism represents much of the film too, the giant in the film coming out of the ocean, but also the huge personalities of Gilliam’s six dwarves.

What is nice about Time Bandits is its free wheeling approach to storytelling, mythology and history. On paper it is little more than a string of historical sketches, heres a funny robin Hood bit, Sean Connery as Agammenon (Brian Cox eat your heart out). But tying it around the adventures of a boy and these six very stupid dwarves it suddenly resolves into the best kind of childrens storytelling. Dark (Kevin’s parents die, teh universe is nearly destroyed), silly and pretty much the kind of thing a lonely kid with too many mismatched toys could invent on his bedroom carpet. In the final battle, where cowboys, death rays and Sherman tanks all vie for attention, it is still the human drama of the death of one of the protagonists that sucks us in. No-one tells stories quite like Terry Gilliam, often because no-one thinks of stories like Terry Gilliam.

Which brings me to What’s Up Doc. This was a Saturday morning kids show, up against the BBC behemoth of Going Live, way back in 1988. The usual second hand Looney Tunes cartoons and pop bands. And one week, Terry Gilliam. Looking a bit sheepish, he waved around a few video copies of Time Bandits. Andy Crane, interviewing him, seemed unclear on what questions to ask – so he kept reiterating how great the film is. Halfway through the conversation it became clear why Gilliam was there. The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen had gone tits up, they had run out of money and all Gilliam could do was hawk his old videos to try and get extra pennies.

Now there’s a devoted film-maker. And that is why I have always had a soft spot for Time Bandits.


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LA LIGA – “Out In London (Breaks Mix)”: A track which actually has some resonance. It doesn’t manage to evoke anything of the gleeful stumble of London nightlife but its boxy, taut breaks and wriggling bleeps do suggest a tube station at rush hour or Oxford Street on a Saturday: the aggressive Booleian motion of people stuck in a crowd.

VARIETY LAB – “London In The Rain”: Rain again? Well I never. Parisian chicmongers Variety Lab say they like it, though judging by the sound this rain transmutes into glimmer and stardust as soon as it reaches the rooftops. I do not like London in the rain, unless I’m snug and cosy and inside: London after it’s been raining is another story, but nobody ever sings about that.

PATRICK WOLF – “London”: London as a fickle lover who must be abandoned. “I taste the Thames with my cycle lights”. Romanticising London usually fails, I think – the place is just too big to be objectified, why care about something that can never care about you? Though the mournful chimes and lonesome strings here have a definite corny appeal.

Quiet here today innit?

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Quiet here today innit? However I’m writing like mad about music in lots of other places: Popular inches on and I’ve been writing about songs which may or may not be about London at Blog Seven (our new ‘thing’). I’ve also been writing about the early 90s at Fluxblog – posts on Europop, Alternative, Cartoon Rave and Baggy, with Britpop and, er, Crusty to follow tomorrow and Saturday.

The Quill

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The Quill
Tom’s blog took me back to my Spectrum childhood. I can see the overlap appeal of RPG and adventure based computer games (I was a Level 9 aficionado) but to me they were entirely separate entities. Sit me in front of a screen and I would do battle with goblins, trolls, Zardok the Unyielding, whoever was blocking my rubber keyed progress. But board games, dice and what have you? Never considered it.

Perhaps this shows a lack of imagination on my part. Perhaps I wanted pre-populated worlds rather than conjure my own. That theory was probably true until along came The Quill.

“Write your own adventure games” was its selling point. Basically you invented a world, input basic criteria, “Troll can only be killed with Lida’s knife” and you were away. I researched the market and found a gap; adventure game set inside the human body (I guess in retrospect it was based on Inner Space or its predecessor). I described impenetrable walls of earwax, fiddly intestine mazes and a baddie who was busily trepanning the skull (for reasons I’ve forgotten).

My plot had a twist. I’d suggest it was a mans body, but it really belonged to a woman and the unfolding task would concern saving the person. Eventually you would twig the sex (I think you got into the pupils and looked down to see a pair of bazookas*), but then, double twist Mikey would throw in another element, the woman was pregnant and you had to save the unborn child. I think this would have been the means of escape too, zooming out with the afterbirth. Even at the age of 13 I realised the market for this sort of thing was narrow.

*Bazookas was my favourite teenage word. Now, of course, I call them Boobies.

It appears there is nothing The Onion likes more than summer movie season.

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It appears there is nothing The Onion likes more than summer movie season.


I still think it will be a touchstone of badness by the time the year is over, but I am open to the idea that it might only be among the worst films of the year. (There is almost certainly an important critical point hidden in the heart of this article by the way.)

How interested are artists in art?

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How interested are artists in art? I would venture that a lot of them are not all that interested at all. After all, if you are constantly dragging round the galleries you won’t have time for your own work, and what about all those dangerous ideas you are accidentally nicking. Is emersion in art good or bad for originality.

I suppose this question came to me whilst I was wandering around the Artists Favourite exhibition at the ICA. Its an interesting trawl but what doe sit tell us about the current art scene? The catalogue trumps up some spurious difference between best and favourite (some of the artists take this to task) and that the exhibition is a chance for artists to play at curator, as gatekeeper. Most of the artists stumble, not because they pick lousy art, but the context of it being their favourite is not enough to structure the exhibition. At least Martic Creed is honest with his pick of an Andy Warhol – what he really wanted was a Robert Rauschenberg Black painting but they couldn’t get one. How true is this for the rest of the exhibition. Second favourites, ones which were obtainable or would fit in the area (I’ll have Anish Kapoor’s giant ear trumpet please).

With very few exceptions the choices make little reference to the choosers own art, and has little intersection. Who is going to claim to have as a favourite an artist you ripped off. Only janet Cardiff’s choice of La Jetee seems to fit perfectly with her own work (even if her film stuff is generally her weakest). The exhibition means the ICa has a number of important and well know artists on display, but the exhibition itself is a let down. Certainly break free from the curatorial hegemony, but I did not get any new perspectives fitting artists into that box instead. Why should artists like art?

I Was A Goblin: Sever The Gonchong’s Proboscis

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My 1973 birthdate put me right on the frontline of the most revolutionary development in kids’ leisure time since TV had been invented. Arcade games started appearing in the UK in 1978, and two or three years later home computer games machines showed up. A little before I got my first D&D set I went to a friend’s house and played my first computer game on a Texas Instruments computer – “Wumpus”, a “you are in a cave” monster hunt, primitive but totally gripping. Nobody my age had any idea of whether a game was sophisticated, or complex or even predictable: our minds and aesthetics were wide open for videogames.

That same computer also dialled up to a network, Prestel I think, and you could play adventure games via that too: we were only allowed to play for a handful of minutes because of the phone bill, but it was enough. The graphics were so alive, so colourful, and the sense of possibility so vast: I can still half-remember a vivid green and yellow screen with a series of numbered choices, each one a door which I was never allowed to open. “Dad, can we-?” I asked when I got home. “No” – my friend’s father worked in telecoms, he got deals on the equipment, for anyone else it was a prohibitive luxury.

Videogames absorbed and killed tabletop gaming in the end, as soon as their processors could simulate an RPG ruleset: the tradeoff between social interaction and cool graphics was no tradeoff at all. In return the structure, worldview and concepts of RPGs have thoroughly infected videogaming. The infection began early: the original text Adventure game is steeped in the same trad-fantasy trappings (thieves, dungeons, ogres) as D&D. In 1982, home videogames were one of two developments that turned my desire to get my friends roleplaying from weird to acceptable.

The other was Fighting Fantasy, the series of interactive gamebooks (starting with The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain) that became a major craze at school. The gamebooks were a hugely successful try at translating D&D’s attractions (heroic ‘lets pretend’ adventures governed by a fair ruleset) into a solo format: they also provided the descriptive and plot depth that early computer games promised but couldn’t deliver. I loved them, and I loved that my friends loved them, because it made D&D into an easy sell-through: a few gamebooks and they knew all about goblins and spells and dragons. So Fighting Fantasy sparked the interest and videogaming provided the motive.

Parents were suspicious of computer games – they had no redeeming value and would send us all blind. But six of us getting together on a Saturday afternoon to play other games – even if they were strange ones that no Mother understood – was surely better. Of course within an hour of sitting down to play D&D somebody would have plugged the ZX Spectrum in and it would be Atic Atac all the way. Everyone apart from me approved of this: I would have liked more roleplaying. But some was better than none.