Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Flame at last

Winter is breathing down our necks, so it's time to get close to the hearth...

Juno enjoys the wood burner - which is not a Juno (TM)
The colder, darker nights are drawing in and for some of us this means the annular return of that cosiest of rituals: the careful chopping and arranging of kindling, the primal sense of satisfaction as orange flames blossom amidst crackling twigs and pinecones, and the wonderful smoky aroma as warmth spreads from your fireplace. If you are among that species of modern human who uses a heat pump, flames, crackling sounds and smoke are far from a source of blissful satisfaction – whereas a traditional fireplace doesn’t simply warm your home – it warms your soul.

Since earliest recorded history, the hearth has been a focal point of gathering, the preparation and sharing of food, and a source of heat, light and protection. When Prometheus, as the legend goes, planned to steal fire from the Gods he needed a container to pull off this heist, and settled for a glass tube. Presumably humanity discovered the slightly more convenient fireplace shortly afterwards.

The first open fire I ever lived with was a formidable specimen – a baronial hearth fit for hounds the size of horses to sprawl in front of - in the reception hall of a Scottish castle. Commanding views of the eastern Highlands, these towers had long been converted into a Youth Hostel and part of my duties as Assistant Warden was to keep the fire stoked with appropriately-scaled sections of tree trunk. This fireplace was a natural gathering point for Hostellers who delighted in its perfect blend of atmosphere and comfort. International co-operation, new friendships and even brief romances often flourished in its warm, amber glow - until we were joined one night by a brave and presumably flame-resistant bat that suddenly flew down the chimney. Squeals of fright erupted from Mediterranean Lotharios and the rapt objects of their attentions as this small airborne rodent swooped around the panicking hall at head-height, until I managed to encourage it back outside with an energetically undignified display of arm-waving. All in a night’s work for the Scottish Youth Hostel Association.

We love the smell of woodsmoke in the morning...

Back in New Zealand we were delighted to have an open fire in the first home we ever bought – perched near the summit of Wellington’s Mount Victoria. Almost counting the days until the temperature dropped enough to light it, we were in for a hefty shock. Whenever the prevailing northerly wind blew, which was often, the shape of the hill seemed to direct the air straight down our chimney. Many a convivial evening was somewhat ruined by our living room slowly filling up with smoke until we could barely see each other. In frustration one night, I tipped a thickly smoking log onto a baking tray and carried it outside, only to almost lose my eyebrows when it spectacularly re-ignited as soon as the northerly gusts touched it. The other disadvantage we found was the tendency of certain varieties of burning wood to unexpectedly fire red hot wooden shrapnel and sparks into the room with a sound like a gunshot. This tended to be quite a long way from relaxing, as was the ensuing scramble to remove the smoldering projectile from the cushion, carpet or cat which it had landed on.

Moving to the country we found ourselves with enough space to have a winter bonfire with a difference. The 1974 horror film The Wicker Man featured an unforgettable climax involving a gigantic man-shaped wooden structure set alight as part of a pagan sacrifice. Deciding to forego the sacrifice part, we wove our own moderately impressive Wicker Man out of several metres of grapevine cuttings, stood him upright on a stout length of timber with a sturdy cross bar to support his ‘shoulders’, and then bolted the whole towering arrangement onto a deeply-buried house pile. Friends arrived, the night was still and clear and a perfect full moon even obliged us by rising just as we set our pagan idol alight. He blazed magnificently until the vine cuttings burnt away and we realised with horror that we were left with a giant burning cross! (see below)

Honest, Officer, it's not what it looks like!
Being fairly new to the district this was far from the impression we wanted to make on our new neighbours. Unfortunately, the structure was so robustly built that we could only wait in extreme and helpless embarrassment until it finally collapsed in a shower of sparks. This event has unsurprisingly proven to be a ‘one-off’, so far. We warm our current home with a large woodburner, so explosive projectiles of red-hot splinters, clouds of smoke and stray bats have all become things of the past. Happily, the arranging and lighting of kindling remains the same, with a window offering ample opportunity for contemplative ‘fire watching’. And who knows, one moonlit, mid-winter night, a giant burning figure may yet reappear – but definitely on a less-cruciform scaffold, this time.

Our Wicker Man (Edward Woodward not included)

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Queen’s Greatest Flicks

" So don't become some background noise, a backdrop for the girls and boys... " sang Queen in 1984. But their many appearances on movie soundtracks have sometimes even eclipsed the films themselves.

Original Flash Gordon serials screened on television in 1979, when science fiction was riding an unprecedented wave of popularity. Star Wars was still booming, and perhaps George Lucas’s much-quoted crediting of these serials as his inspiration convinced a canny television programmer to haul out this vintage fare.
Sure enough, each episode of Flash Gordon began with the introductory ‘crawl’ which Lucas pinched wholesale for his own film opening, and the accompanying music was ‘classical’ - a particularly heroic excerpt from Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes.

('Flash Gordon' begins at around 2:40).

When Dino de Laurentiis announced his Flash Gordon ‘remake’ shortly afterwards, I assumed Liszt would be joining Flash, Dale and Zarkov on the big screen; Les Preludes was the Flash theme, after all.

But whatever else the eventual film achieved (I remember disliking it at the time but have since well and truly joined the delirious party which I initially failed to realise this camp extravaganza is) that assumption was altered forever. Flash’s Theme is, now and always, the pounding bass rhythm, a lightning bolt sound effect accompanying the exclamation ‘Flash! Ah-ahhh…’ and Brian Blessed booming “Gordon’s Alive?!”

Queen’s first (and arguably only) movie soundtrack elevated de Laurentiis’s gaudy space pantomime to cultural icon status. The album is a riot of intentionally hilarious dialogue, retro sound effects (boasting a fully-fledged laser battle punctuated by Mr Blessed bellowing with murderous glee, including the prophetic line “Who wants to live forever?”) and towering, baroque instrumentals (only two tracks feature lyrics).

Perhaps because the chart-topping single and album contain so many easily-repeatable snatches of dialogue, an element of ‘audience participation’ has crept in, ensuring lasting popularity amongst we ‘pathetic earthlings’. But for every ‘Hail Flash; saviour of the universe’ there is a rich and evocative refrain, or an action score of pure electronic adrenaline.

Several years later, another fantasy film co-starring a James Bond was also elevated by music from Queen. But whereas Flash Gordon had all the publicity and hype which was de Laurentiis’s stock-in-trade behind it, Highlander snuck into cinemas in 1987.

Friends and I loved it at first sight, even if the rest of the world was slow to catch on – but, contrary to popular belief , Queen didn’t actually produce the soundtrack to Highlander.  The soundtrack is credited to composer Michael Kamen, and Queen only contributed songs – great songs.  It’s a kind of Magic became the unofficial Highlander theme, and the achingly beautiful Who wants to live forever? completely transcended it’s origin as a last minute addition to a film soundtrack (and a line shouted by Brian Blessed in a gold helmet and wings).
It's long, but worth it to see Mercury perform live,
and hear the now poignant remark he makes at the beginning.

Like Flash Gordon, Queen’s contribution to Highlander has surpassed the film the music was written for and taken on a life of its own. In the absence of an official soundtrack release, Queen released their songs for Highlander on the album A Kind of magic. Freddie Mercury’s typically barnstorming rendition of New York, New York sadly doesn’t feature, and the single Hammer to fall, also heard in the film, was from an earlier album The Works.
Connor MacLeod himself: French actor Christopher Lambert, has cited Queen’s music as a major factor in convincing him to take the role.
Queen’s enhancement of movie viewing experiences doesn’t end here. Since FM in 1978 (see here: http://fasmatodea.blogspot.co.nz/2013/12/stardust-memories.html), the ‘stamp-stamp-clap’ of We will Rock you has appeared on no less than eight film soundtracks, a total shared by We are the Champions (first heard in Revenge of the Nerds, 1984) and Under Pressure (most memorably in Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997).
There might never have been a better musically-choreographed scene than the use of Don’t stop me now in Shaun of the Dead (2004), where a jammed jukebox and some misappropriated pool cues make a zombie sorry he ever returned from the dead.

Often their songs are covered - Brittany Murphy’s exuberant rendition of Somebody to Love in Happy Feet, (2006) succeeds by sounding so completely different to Queen. But perhaps the ultimate Queen ‘cover’, (OK, ‘sing-along’) and most memorable use of their song in a film, ever, must go to Wayne, Garth and their most-excellent friends:

Saturday, 12 April 2014


Think you’ve had a hard day?  This book might just give you a new sense of perspective…

Unbroken is that rare species of book which, if it had been a work of fiction rather than a biography, would quickly be dismissed as utterly unbelievable.
Louis Zamperini, an American WWII airman and Berlin Olympic athlete, is simultaneously one of the most, and least, fortunate men in human history. Somehow surviving the lethal indifference of nature as a castaway, and then the repugnant excesses of human sadism as a captive, Zamperini found a superhuman ability to endure even while his torture and disease wracked body continued to deteriorate under unimaginable hardship. This is the story of an extraordinary man finding himself circumstances which tragically were all too ordinary for thousands of prisoners of Japan, and does not make for easy reading.

Zamperini (left) finishes his record-breaking final lap at the Berlin Olympics.
Growing up in California, Zamperini discovered a gift for running which not only pulled him back from a life of delinquency (which taught him how to make a quick getaway) but eventually saw him represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, meeting Adolf Hitler after finishing the final lap of his 5000m event in an unprecedented 56 seconds.  Many believed Zamperini had the ability to become the first sub-four minute mile runner in history until, like so many others, his aspirations were sidetracked by the outbreak of war.

 Zamperini served as a bombardier based at Oahu, Hawaii and saw plenty of action until a tragic series of miscalculations onboard an unreliable B24 bomber resulted in a fatal crash into the Pacific.  Despite being entangled in wreckage, he became one of only three men to survive, living on rain water and anything they were able to catch, while the sun and sharks constantly assailed them, a Japanese Zero strafed their raft and they drifted ever deeper into enemy territory.
Covering two thousand miles in a hellish 47 days, this account of the survivor’s ingenuity and determination would make an astonishing book on its own.  Unfortunately for Zamperini, this unparalleled feat of endurance was to be a mere prelude to what awaited him after his immediate Japanese capture.

Zamperini inspects one of the 594 holes left in his plane after a bombing raid.
 To attempt to summarise his experiences here would reduce them to a mere list of brutalities, leaving no room for the moments of quiet and ingenious defiance, unexpected humanity on both sides and strength of spirit beyond all imagination. It can’t be trivialised or barely even described – Hillenbrand’s sensitive but unflinching account deserves and demands to be read in full – but be prepared for a harrowing time.
Zamperini was to suffer 27 months of abuse and deprivation before the two most deadly mushrooms in history finally brought the war to an end.

‘Hospital-hopping’ his way back to America, his former athletes body gradually recovers, but like so many returned servicemen Zamperini finds that the most lasting damage is psychological. His brief happiness and recent ‘story-book’ marriage begin to disintegrate as he realises that his ordeal is far from over - the final, hardest part of his struggle must be against himself.

Like all great stories, Unbroken is a triumph against unimaginable odds and you may even find yourself re-evaluating your own life and assumptions, after having briefly walked in Louis Zamperini’s shoes through this thoroughly engrossing, and ultimately uplifting book.
Not so bad in the end?  Zamperini's story is currently being filmed by Angelina Jolie,
for release at the end of this year.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Alpha Tales

Tonight we’re going to partake of 1999

Tensions flare on Moonbase Alpha.

Space 1999 was a programme I hadn’t feel a particular need to revisit, especially the po-faced first series.  However, when a friend loaned me the series 1 boxset, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go back to the future of 1975 and see how it measured up against my memories.

I had much fonder recollections of the ‘pulpier’ second series, with Catherine Schell’s wonderful shape-changing Maya (though even at the age of ten I had to wonder why anyone would possibly want to shift from Schell’s own shape).  But I wasn’t getting that here.  This was the very genesis of a series which was originally going to be a continuation of the Anderson’s first live-action project: UFO.
We see the Moon blasted out of Earth’s orbit by the colossal explosion of nuclear waste dumps on the lunar dark side, to begin its tour of a universe steeped in Seventies Sci-Fi silliness at a staggering velocity.
Like everyone else we felt smug spotting this paradox which undermines the entire series – the dark side of the moon always faces away from Earth, so the moon should actually have only given us the mother-of-all-head-butts. But what does that really matter in a programme starring our natural satellite zipping around undiscovered solar systems, as if the stalwart inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are on the equivalent of a coach trip through Europe.

Barry Morse's (right) trademark 'twinkle' is evident in this lovely Brian Bolland artwork.
 I did recall that I loved the character whom Maya essentially replaced: Professor Victor Bergman, (not to be confused with Danish comedian Victor Borge), played with barely suppressed mirth by the late Barry Morse. And he was just as good as I remembered. Even at the time I could tell that the twinkle in his eye meant that he was roaring with laughter internally at some of the lines he was forced to deliver, while still giving by far the most charismatic and endearing performance.  Or perhaps it was the costumes – beige, flared jump suits with enormous zips running down the left arm (leading my long-suffering co-viewer to wonder if the cast climbed into their uniforms through the arm).

"Who's a cardboard cut-out?"
 Martin Landau shows scant indication of ever winning an Oscar one day, and his Commander Koenig is also disturbingly tactile with his crew members in ' well- meaning hand-on-shoulder' ways that might have got him into trouble even in the real 1999.
Barbara Bain, meanwhile, is the prettiest piece of wood to ever appear in a science fiction series, as hapless Medical Officer Helena Russell. Perhaps this is unfair: like elephant’s vocal communication taking place at a pitch below our auditory range, Bain’s emoting possibly exists on a wavelength invisible to humans.

Dr Helena Russell in another emotionally-charged scene.
So that’s our ‘trinity’, Commanding Officer, Scientist and Medic at the head of a multi-national crew – sound familiar?
And also like the previous decade’s ‘wagon train to the stars’ series, Space 1999 mixes space-bound action (with top-notch model effects by some of the best technicians in the industry) with big metaphysical questions and dilemmas about the nature of humanity and higher states of existence. This often involves a lot of psychedelic camera work featuring coloured perspex and shiny PVC.
However, with production values higher than anything else on television at the time, this was prime-time viewing on its first screening here, around 7.30 on a Saturday night. It got big-name guest stars as well, even Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – in separate episodes but apparently sporting the same wig.

Barry Morse struggles bravely against the emotion dampening effects of a beige overload.
 Big changes were ahead for the second series, which I recall feeling were for the better but suspect age might change that opinion. It will be interesting to test this one day. But the best thing about Space 1999 will always be the Eagles.  One of the coolest and most practical spaceship designs ever – even if those careless Alphans did go through them at an alarming rate.  If only NASA had gone with these instead of those silly Space Shuttles, we might be out among the stars now… in flares.
Three things which look like Space 1999 Eagles:
  1. A dachshund puppy
  2. An axolotl
  3. The Tantive IV (otherwise known as princess Leia’s Rebel Blockade Runner from the opening scenes of Star Wars).  Famously originally designed to be the Millennium Falcon, this model was relegated to ‘extra’ status when the decision was made that it resembled the Moonbase Alpha Eagles too strongly.  It did , however, become the only ship from the original films to feature significantly in the prequels)

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Coming 'round the Fountain

I’m just swimming on the top of the Bay...

I have a somewhat selfish life, able to enjoy freedoms and choices which many my age, with young families, might find more difficult.  No doubt they enjoy other benefits, and I can still enjoy time with their kids; so I assume it will all even out one day.
However, two and a half hours of my every working day are taken up by a commute which, although I’ve learned to make the most of, does equate to an awful lot of time spent sitting on one of the bodies’ most powerful muscles.

So I try to make the most of lunch-breaks when I can get them, and in the warmer months this means swimming. 
An hour allows me to get down to Oriental Bay, quickly swim out to one of the rafts anchored there, and then be back at my desk, generally feeling somewhat revitalised, if a little salt-encrusted.  As predicted by many, we are enjoying a very late summer and the weather since mid February, especially recently, has become settled and often hot.  But now that April has begun I felt that my swimming days must surely be coming to a close until next summer, and I was keen to end on a high note.

When I first lived in Wellington, I recall that swimming out to Carter’s Fountain was the thing to do (possibly the rafts didn’t exist then) and, although all these years later I felt daunted by the extra distance, this was to be my goal.
Choppy seas and maintenance on the fountain thwarted my first attempts, and the only opportunity left was going to be straight after an appointment for some major dental work - which was hardly ideal.
The Oriental Bay raft can be seen to the left of the fountain.
Numb-faced and invoice-shocked I turned up at the beach to discover impossibly perfect conditions. A complete lack of breeze and cloud left the entire harbour mirror smooth and sparkling, while a very low tide exposed more golden sand than usual.  It had to be a good omen and I wasted no time in wading into the surprisingly warm water, able to cover some distance on foot before submerging.

I should mention that although I love any kind of water, I am not a technically proficient swimmer.  I can sustain a reasonably strong and regular stroke, but never really learned the correct ‘head turning breathing’ and tend to swim comfortably with my head above the water.  With little body mass, I’m very buoyant and aren’t looking to break any records, so have never felt the need to do otherwise.

I also have a very active imagination, so sometimes when I feel far from shore with an unknown watery void beneath me… my mind creates pictures like this:
Eyeless, glistening black things with mouths like icicle ringed-cave entrances; slime draped lampreys writhing, fastening and burrowing into guts; the sudden, searing lash of  stingray tail; a shark punching a jagged, red hollow in your body before even being seen…

Obviously, it’s best not to conjure these images when you feel as if you’re in the middle of the harbour.  The water went suddenly cold and I realised that I’d reached the shadow of the plume straight jetting upwards from the fountain, completely vertical due to the lack of breeze.  Circling around its base and back into the sunlight I felt elated and confident, so instead of returning to the shore, I struck out towards the nearby raft.  This was one of those rare times when an intimidating physical challenge turns out to be far easier than expected.

The raft was reached and I continued towards the shore, my arms seemingly keeping rhythm of their own accord.  And it was at this height of my self-satisfaction that I glimpsed the large black shape moving underneath me, and all my nightmarish images came crashing back.  I halted suddenly, and so did it.
The day was so unusually still and the water so clear that my own shadow was cast perfectly onto the sandy bottom below me – I had literally terrified myself.
On my way back to shore, I was trailed by a sinister, dark shape in the water below.
A brief contended wallow in the shallows allowed me to sooth my jangled nerves, and then I was trotting back along the sand towards work. Oriental Bay had never looked so beautiful.