Saturday, 26 July 2014

A many-splendoured Thing

It's been very cold recently, so I thought I'd journey back to 1982 when 'Man was the warmest place to hide'...

Dum-dum... Dum-dum...

Have two chords ever sounded so sinster as they do on the soundtrack of John Carpenter's The Thing? Of course, Ennio Morricone is an undisputed genius and in this film his bleak minimalist composition heightens the isolation and sense of mounting dread perfectly.

The Thing is another eighties science-fiction which under-performed when released, built a cult following when re-released on VHS, and is now regarded as a classic of cinema (see also Blade Runner). This tale of a remote Antactic Base under seige from an otherwordly threat thawed from the polar ice was the second adaptation of John W Campbells' short story Who Goes there?, first filmed in 1952 by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World.

Carpenters version is far closer to the spirit of the novella, eschewing 1950s sci-fi trappings in favour of an exercise in creeping horror which not only ratchets the suspense to almost unbearable levels but also follows through by delivering truly-astonishing (and let's be honest, thoroughly revolting) sequences which remain unsurpassed today.

It's these phantasmagorical prosthetic effects by Rob Bottin which first blew my tiny teenage mind back in the eighties. The Thing's often interrupted attempts to assimilate it's prey and reform itself are the nightmarish visions of Francis Bacon and Hieronymous Bosch melted together and left to hiss and writhe in pools of gore and mucus.

That's not to suggest that these frenzied, visceral sequences have lost any of their impact: indeed the 2011 remake/prequel only showed that CGI can't touch what Bottin achieved with physical effects. But when I rewatch the Thing (and it stands up very well to repeat viewings, even if Kurt Russell's hair is bigger than Goldie's ever was) it's the quieter moments that impress, and creep me out the most:

The fly-by of the weird craft as it plummets towards our planet, hundreds of thousands of years in the past, before the film's title unforgettably burns into view. Back in 1982 my friends and I knew from that moment that we were about to see something very special.

The sly, cold intelligence of the unnervingly silent sled dog which the Norwegians fail to stop at the beginning of the film (could the whole story have been circumvented if it weren't for the language barrier?) It's stealthy padding around the base is so clearly a deliberate reconnaisance and yet human affinity for our furred companions still conflicts our feelings towards this most-deadly visitor.

 McCready's discovery of the vacated block of Ice at the decimated Norwegian base: an enormous empty sarcophagus which is somehow more terrifying then any depiction of what came out of it.

The awesome vista of the uncovered ship; the dead cold look which appears in the infected characters' eyes as they are exposed, and pretense of humanity falls quietly away; the unremarked-upon noose hanging behind the imprisoned Blair while he pleads his sanity... and of course the haunting, downbeat ending.

Against all odds there are even moments of wisely-judged and much-needed tension-draining humour in this film, my favourite being Donald Moffat's (has anyone ever seen him and James Cromwell in the same room?) initially measured and polite request to be released which rapidly escalates to a profane bellow of fear and frustration.

Apparently The Thing is regularly viewed by members of the winter crew at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station after the last flight has departed. That's one screening I'd love to have a ticket for.


Monday, 21 July 2014

Flight Suit

 Believe it or not... it's still quite good

It's a midweek evening in 1981 and I'm watching TV with my Dad. There's a pilot for a new American show screening, and it's probably the movie-quality effects work which catches my eye. A glowing, Close Encounters-style craft hovers over a stalled car in the dark, Californian desert - familiar iconography which easily hooks me, but is hardly my father's usual cup of tea. The story which unfolds takes this premise into a completely unexpected direction however, and my most lasting memory is of my Dad laughing. It might be our family's British parochialism, or a degree of Scots dourness, but he never laughed at American TV. Ever.

The science fiction tropes, comedy and instantly likeable leads ensured that this programme became a favourite of mine over the next year, and was often enthusiastically discussed the following day at school. It had to be good, but otherwise none of us would have gone anywhere near a programme called The Greatest American Hero.

Reagan was in the White House, the Cold War simmered, the Space Shuttle ruled the skies and we were all distinctly jaded about Uncle Sam. But not only did we lap this programme up but it's legacy continues today. A surprising amount of people remember it, the repellant Sheldon Cooper often wears the insignia on his T-Shirt in the Big Bang Theory, and plans for a feature film adaptation re-surface every few years or so.

I rewatched the original pilot recently to see if there was more to this brief early eighties phenomenon than a screaming William Katt plummeting through the air in red and black long-johns, and was somewhat relieved to find that there certainly was. Although still engaging today, the concept, effects and comedy have all dated somewhat, but what will always mark this programme out is the casting - a holy trinity of perfect on-screen chemistry.

"That's a bad outfit, Jim!"

(An outpatient in the psychiatric ward which Ralph is taken to after his first 'flight' and subsequent arrest greets him with this line, lifted almost wholesale from Superman the Movie. Warner Brothers' attempts to sue The Greatest American Hero for breach of copyright lasted well into the programme's second series before being finally dismissed).

William Katt as recently divorced teacher Ralph Hinkley is miles away from the buffoonish depiction which superhero spoofs generally give us. In the inverse of Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, Hinkley is played absolutely straight - a recently-separated teacher, struggling to juggle custody of his young son, controlling a class of 'Sweathogs: the next generation' (complete with young Travolta-alike Michael Pare), and a new relationship with his divorce attorney. Being chosen to save the world is the last thing he needs or wants.

The trademark hysteria he displays when taking to the skies or having point-blank range guns fired at him is amusing, but can surely also be viewed as a perfectly realistic and justifiable reaction.

"At least sit on the cape!"

(Attorney Pam Davidson, still unconvinced of the suit's powers, exasperatedly asks Ralph to do
something about the wildly flapping accessory as she drives him from the hospital in her convertible.)

Said attorney is played by the beautiful Connie Sellecca, on her way to becoming a mainstay of 80's television. As talented actresses are finding all too true now, playing the superheroes girlfriend is an unrewarding role. Sellecca's Pam Davidson is no damsel in distress, having a wonderful scene where she forces Ralph out of her car and refuses to take him any further until he prove his ridiculous story. She then pratfalls with the best of them as Ralph embarrassedly picks the car up, causing her to pass out with shock.

"If you're looking for trouble, you've just come across
 the West Coast distributor."

Inside the car at the time is the shaken but irrepressible Bill Maxwell, played by veteran actor Robert Culp.
An FBI agent who witnesses the alien ship and subsequent gift of the suit to Ralph, Maxwell is completely unable to comprehend why it has been given to a hapless school teacher and not him. He loses no time in outlining his plan for Ralph to fly to Russia and single-handedly end the cold war, labelling 'Counsellor' Pam as "something of a feminist" (he never uses her name, and their salty relationship is one of the best features of the series) and christening the suit 'the red jammies'.
A grudging mutual respect has grown beyween the three of them by the end of the pilot, but Maxwell will forever remain an irreverant, curmudgeonly, but bluntly effective relic of less-sensitive times - and only an actor of the late, great Culp's calibre could make him so loveable.

The pilot was a smash hit when it aired in America, spawning a three-year series and an unaired TV movie revival in 1985. Stephen Cannell, the series creator, fought for stories where Ralph tackled real-life issues, but the network wanted more basic superhero outings. I have to admit, these more generic stories are the ones which stick with me: Ralph becoming a hapless human magnet after encountering an electrical creature on board a crashing space shuttle, or discovering a portal to a supernatural dimension where the suit cannot protect him.

But one episode also featured the return of the aliens, who take Ralph up into Earth orbit and show him just how much trouble our world is in, and why he needs to take his responsibilities seriously and try harder. A downbeat and thought-provoking story, it prefigured many similar storylines for 'more serious' superheroes in the years to come.

This series brightened many a midweek night in the early 80s, before the suit was put away for the last time (still without the instruction book) and presumably Ralph's class finally graduated. These days we are surrounded by caped avengers, but they all seem to take themselves rather too seriously at times and I for one miss the whimsy which Ralph and Co brought to the small screen. To quote no less a figure than Batman, (from a cartoon which Ralph's young son watches and proves instrumental in our hero's decision to accept his new role): "We need one more Superfriend who can fly!"

Thursday, 10 July 2014

War of the Words

One hundred years ago, international tension was fermenting, about to erupt into our first global conflict.

The 28th of this month marks the 100th anniversary of Austro-Hungary's declaration of war against Serbia, in response to the notorious assassination of the Heir to their throne in Saravejo.
What could have been yet another minor European un-neighbourly squabble quickly escalated as heavyweights Russia, Germany, France and Britain took sides according to which treaties were in place at the time. As the great powers' dominions and colonies joined the fray, even the United States eventually stepping into the ring in 1917, the cataclysm known as the first Great War raged for four years and claimed approximately 17 million lives.
It's a complex and tragic series of events which are still being unravelled today. Humour is an unexpectedly powerful learning tool which the BBC is no stranger to. Even the brilliant Black Adder Goes Forth made sharp and lasting observations about the Great War, not the least being the closing moments of the series.

In a similar, but catchier vein, the BBC commissioned a Rap Battle from Balista Media, with key players present their points of view in Hip Hop style, as part of the WW1 100th Anniversary programming.

Daniel Page as Serbian assassin Gavrillo Princip and Morrison Thomas
as Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.

The over-worked writer eventually needed exploratory surgery when his larynx swelled to twice its size as a result of all the shouting into microphones he did while putting the tracks together. And on the shooting day military buttons pinged through the air as the performers aggressive gesticulations stressed the historically accurate uniforms.
The result, however, is genius: a masterclass application of music and humour to relate a complex and important story. But don't take my word for it:

(With thanks to Gary for bringing this, yo.)

Friday, 4 July 2014

Afflicted with a Medley

The early 1980s resounded with a Segue of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Louis Clark conducts the Royal Philharmonic orchestra - from a promotional video
for the 30th Anniversary concert of Hooked on Classics in 2013.
 It's too easy to be cynical about the early eighties - I strongly suspect that there is a strong core of affection and longing for the past beneath every 'run with the pack' sneer directed at this bygone age.  I learned recently that the much-overused term nostalgia actually means a painful recollection (nost(os): 'return home', algia: pain), and this means that using it here is going to be very appropriate.
I can't offer any meaningful social commentary about the year of 1981 as I was young and stupid. But I do recall having a mid-week lunch with my parents at home (College was just a short walk from my house) and first hearing a 'mash-up' of Beatles tracks on the radio.  A few lines of each song strung together and overlaid with a dance beat which somehow unified this patchwork of Lennon/McCartney mimicry.  We were listening to Dutch studio group 'Stars on 45' ; and the age of the medley had arrived.

Abandon hope all ye who click here

This single, also called Stars on 45 was a huge hit, reaching number 2 in the UK and knocking Kim Carne's Bette Davis Eyes out of the US number 1 slot for a week. Even my parents bought Stars on 45, on 45.  I dimly recall that similar pop blends were to follow featuring The Hollies and The Beach Boys.
In fact, there was something of a deluge of these records.  Stars on 45, (the group), released at least two more (including a Stevie Wonder medley!) while elsewhere even Presley and Hendrix were given the 'happy clappy' treatment.
My friends took their music very seriously: some clung to punk and the emerging new wave; others had taken piano lessons since they were foetuses and were prone to spontaneously combust at any hint of musical bastardisation.  One of these pubescent pianists might have felt a tiny bit conflicted when Hooked on Classics was released later that year.  On the surface it was more crass and vulgar than could be imagined in the worst nightmares - treasured classics from the great Composers disinterred, dismembered, stitched together like some musical Frankenstein's monster and then forced to cavort and stumble about to a disco-esque drum beat.  Oh, the horror, the horror...

It's exactly this kind of image which gives the whole thing a bad name...
Except... Hooked on Classics wasn't simply stitched together, it was meticulously arranged by one Louis Clark, who had done the same for the Electric Light Orchestra, a group which was much beloved by that same classically-trained friend, and probably remembered with at least affection by most if us.
 I had no musical knowledge whatsoever and literally didn't know any better, but I also knew what I liked.  In order to trigger what has been labelled 'disco-fied nostalgia', Clark had cherry picked the most recognisable phrases from a plethora of classical pieces and wove them together, and even I recognised key snatches of Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

The cassettes of Hooked on Classics volumes one and two became the highlights of my Christmas stocking haul for the next two years.  Friends recoiled as if I'd just happily admitted to pouring distilled excrement into my ears (in fact, that's exactly what they thought), but these two albums were educating me.  Under the beat track were brief samples of beauty and genius, glimpsed peaks of human artistic achievement and I wanted more.  The deceptively subtle and accomplished suture-work of Mr. Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra became my index for exploring the great composers, and by the time I'd finished with volume 2, I was adding real Symphonies, Sonatas and Concertos to my record collection.  That airbrushed musical clef/fish-hook and I went our separate ways, and the Hooked On series continued for many years, most recently resurfacing for a thirtieth year anniversary concert.
Who, what and why I bought and listened to afterwards is a discussion for another time, but my introduction into this glorious world of classical music didn’t come from an inspiring teacher or a formative concert experience. And certainly not from any effort to learn an instrument: but thanks instead to a sequin-strewn, disco-frequenting pop tart with one overly made-up eye fixed lasciviously on the top of the music charts.  I'm happy to have been hooked.

Go on, click: you know you want to! Take it away Mr Clark...