Monday, 29 June 2015

Altitude problem

"Love is like oxygen,
you get too much, you get too high
not enough and you're gonna die..."
(Sweet, 1977)

As I sat alone atop the second highest point on the planet which I'll probably ever reach, finally accustomed to the very thin air and breathing easily, I felt elated and invincible.  Chewing on a carefully rationed slice of yak cheese, I contemplated the valley floor far below and thought: "That doesn't look so far, I'll get back much more quickly if I go straight down..."

The effects of high altitude oxygen deprivation on your decision-making skills are well-documented. One symptom is euphoria, which combined with your reduced powers of reasoning can lead a climber to suffer delusions about their own abilities.
Which is a very good reason why no-one should climb alone.

I was clambering about by myself because we had already crested the highest point we'd ever reach a few days earlier, gasping in the oxygen depleted air as we gazed across at the world's highest mountain from 5545m in the sky. A side trip to a peak in a neighbouring valley offered an alternative view of 'the Great Mother Goddess' from a peak at its end, but having already seen the best; my wife wisely chose a rest morning instead.

While she read and sipped tea in the sun, I was happily lowering myself down from the safe path onto the steep, shingled upper flank of a mountain, my oxygen-starved brain still unable to comprehend that the reason I could see the valley floor so clearly was because it was at the distant foot of an almost sheer drop.

Something about being so high in those mountains makes surrounding geography seem utterly accessible. From your unaccustomed viewpoint looking across and down at peaks you feel a strange kinship - they don't seem so towering, or dangerous anymore. The sky was cloudless, the winter sun warmed my face and the whole world seemed to be easily within my reach. I'd soon be back at the camp, enthusing about how worthwhile, and easy, my little solo excursion was. I'd laugh and add that I didn't even need to stay on the path coming back.

A lone trekker, about to make a very silly mistake.
Then the ground shifted underneath me. The shingle hissed and I fell back against it, throwing my arms out for something stable to catch hold of. I wasn't laughing now. As I sent the first of many boulders cart-wheeling and crashing down towards the valley floor, my delusional inner-peace felt suddenly doused by a bucket load of icy mountain water.  What the bloody hell was I doing?
Lying back on far-too steep angle, my stomach churned as I tried not to move and work out what to do next. If I started rolling like the rocks I'd dislodged I'd never stop. My jump-started brain went straight into sharp self-recrimination mode: how could I let myself get into this situation, what had I been thinking - what an utterly stupid way to die.  The vast blue sky suddenly seemed impassive, immense and uncaring, and I was unimaginably tiny, pinned underneath it. I wanted to cry.

I remembered Cat Stevens recounting how he was swept far from shore by treacherous currents, and made the frantic vow which led to his famous Islamic conversion, if only higher powers would intervene and save him.  I wouldn't have declined some celestial intervention either. I was playing silly buggers in mountains deemed holy since the beginning of recorded history and was now receiving a sharp lesson in respect.

Just as it's difficult to understand how I got into this predicament, it's equally hard to say how I got out again. I remember sending more rocks tumbling every time I shifted but I knew I couldn't stay there.

If I tried to fight gravity and pull myself straight back up with nothing secure to hang onto, I knew I'd be joining those distant bouncing rocks which I could still glimpse on a rapid one-way journey in the opposite direction. With no other option available apart from becoming a permanent monument to stupidity, I tried inching sideways instead, like some weird alpine starfish. The scree underneath me miraculously held and I started to breathe again, dislodging less and less debris as I crept across the slope with horrible slowness. Crawling back towards a lower stretch of the path I'd abandoned seemingly hours ago, I gradually felt the angle beneath me begin to level out and the clawing downward pull recede.

I finally clambered back onto the path and dared to straighten up again, blood pumping in my ears and my breath shuddering. We had passed the tree-line many, many days ago, and the slight breeze had nothing to rustle through - the utter silence seemed to shout all around me.
The descent I then made was not quite as quick as my original, temporarily-insane plan would have been, but still extremely rapid.  I wanted to be away from there as fast as possible, where my over-familiarity with the mountains had bred their contempt, and my own negligible grasp of reason had let me down so badly.

Despite the resulting near-calamity, that solitary exultant and transcendent feeling of looking down on creation, and being at nodding terms with the gargantuan, unimaginably-ancient peaks all about me is hard to forget. It may have been oxygen starvation doing the thinking, but I really was on top of the world.
Part of the panoramic view from five and a half thousand metres - the highest peak at the extreme left is Chomolungma to the Tibetans, Sagarmatha to the Nepalese, and (a little underwhelmingly) Everest to us.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

One Mega-bite memory

Even after four decades, what mid-seventies blockbuster glides into everyone's jittery subconscious, when you find that your feet are no longer touching the ocean floor..?

It's no exaggeration that John Williams grinding two-note refrain will always be with us when we take to the open water... but the box office predator of yesteryear has surfaced in a big way recently.  Firstly, Jaws is forty this month, an astonishing thought in itself.  Bruce the shark (named by Steven Spielberg after his lawyer) emerges from the same murky era as Abba and the Wombles, although neither of them scare us when we're swimming.

Personally, i ran into the shark unexpectedly in my last two posts.  While researching Christopher Lee, I found that he insisted on giving Spielberg's breakout film Duel the first prize when the actor appeared on a prestigious film festival judging panel.  Duel's success led directly to Jaws and fame for Spielberg, and indirectly to Lee's appearance in the grateful director's comedy 1941 (say what you want, I think this film is funny).

And then a flippant remark from Spielberg caught my attention when I was gathering information for the Jurassic World infographic, where he claimed that Jurassic Park was his attempt to make "a land-based sequel to Jaws."

Many facts have emerged , or at least been retold in the media to mark Jaw's birthday, but I had no idea that the film was so nearly a disaster.  The shark (s) almost never worked and one actually sunk to the bottom on its first test.  Robert Shaw's fondness of the bottle was problematic and he fought constantly with Richard Dreyfuss.  The film ran vastly over-budget and trebled it's allocated shooting time.  The director was a very worried, and harried, man.

Spielberg first emerged from the depths of despair at a test screening where he saw the entire audience jump with fright twice, and vowed to insert a new scene which would make it happen a third time.  The resulting moment, shot in the film editor's swimming pool and featuring a prosthetic head drifting out of a submerged porthole, still makes us scatter our jaffas all these years later.

The anecdotes could and no doubt have filled several books. But to have been ten years old and sitting in a cinema when the film was first released was very special.  We didn't have summer blockbusters in those days, and the cable-operated giant octopus attacking James Mason's Captain Nemo might have been the scariest deterent the sea had to offer up to this point. Jaws was a film that you were 'dared to see', promising on-screen viscera never glimpsed by a PG Audience before.  They got that right.

I'd never seen a naked woman on the big screen before either.  I'm not the only one: actress/stuntwoman Susan Backlinie fondly recounts that still has fans tell her she was their 'first', too.

Technical difficulties forced Spielberg to realise that what you don't see...

... is so much scarier than what you do
Box Office fame and studio glory became inextricably connected to what we might call 'genre films' these days: science fiction, horror (because that's what Jaws essentially is) and fantasy somehow over-took mainstream cinema to become the huge money earners - where once they were regarded as a niche market.

A delighted Universal poured an unprecedented amount of money into a marketing campaign after seeing the finished film - another hallmark of the new  'summer blockbuster' phenomenon which began with this film.

The following year's box office behemoth: Dino DeLaurentis' Kong remake, was unfairly dubbed a failure because it failed to out-gross Jaws, despite tripling it's own budget in takings.
 "Nobody cry when Jaws die", went De Laurentis's often-spoofed proclamation, "but everybody cry when Kong die!"
That may be so, but it took the year after that for Jawas to finally beat Jaws.

Profit is all very well, but it's not lightsabre wounds I secretly fear when I'm swimming out beyond the fountain in Oriental Bay - but the swift unseen lunge from the depths, a speeding fin cutting the waves and those dread two notes inexorably churning through the decades.
Happy Birthday Jaws.

Bruce carries Steven to success.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Parks and Re-creation

How many times can the story of a group of humans trapped on an island with genetically restored dinosaurs be told?  Surely less than four...

In the 22 years since Jurassic Park we might have become a little blase about about dinosaurs and the magic which brought them back to life.

Cunningly, Jurassic World seems only too aware of this and the first half of the film is permeated with a sense of ennui about these wonderful animals. It's a metatextual observation on the potential mind-set of the cinema audience: sitting thinking they've seen it all before, watching theme park attendees sitting thinking they've seen it all before... and so on. Perhaps it works a little too well, because I started to believe it.  Bryce Dallas Howard's character makes the observation that in the space of 20 years children look at a triceratops the same way they would a circus elephant, and it cuts deep.

The film's second half needs to pick up the pace, show us something new and even make us care about the human characters.  It's a tall order, but certainly succeeds with the first two.  If the 'lead mammals' grow on you or not will be a matter of personal preference, but I was on the side of the dinosaurs from start to finish.  Indeed a most unlikely but deeply appropriate hero emerges to save the day at the very end, and it's wonderful to see him rightfully restored as the true emblem of this franchise (as has always been the case in the branding).

The climax is truely exciting, and ultimately very satisfying, showing last year's limp Godzilla how a 'monster-off' should be done (with 'more teeth').  Another smart decision is to realise that John William's famous music score cannot be improved upon - so to not even try.

Like the scripted genetic procedure for revivifying the saurians, once so fresh and engaging at the dawn of the 1990s, we have now grown accustomed to the digital wizardry which brings them to the screen.  Anything imagined can be put on film with high definition photo-realism, (and ubiquitous 3-D), making it almost impossible for film-makers to recreate the sense of wonder which we all shared with Sam Neill and Laura Dern back in 1993.

Jurassic World samples the preserved DNA of the original film (there are many deft and loving references), and splices it with the chromosomal material of contemporary cinema and technological innovation. And unlike the Park's new star attraction - it works.

This review is blog-spliced with an early Simian ancestor:
and En - kylosaurus:

This infographic ran last week  - 'click to embiggen', as they say...

Friday, 12 June 2015

Count to the end

The last great horror star has died, and with him the modern world's final living link to a magical cinematic past.

Sir Christopher Lee's career is measured in numbers of decades, not years... and his films literally in hundreds. With a career so vast, it's a mistake to try and review it before attempting to write about what his passing means  - the facts, dates, accolades and achievements can drown you.  Even I, who have his autobiography and own documentaries about his career, have been bombarded today by new insights into his life and work which I never knew.

I recently finished reviewing all of Lee's Hammer Dracula films on this blog, and in my heart he'll always be the lean and thirsty Count. But it made me smile today to hear the younger people I work with talking about Saruman and even Dooku  - they all know Christopher Lee, but a different aspect to me.

In actual fact, I also came to his films when his Hammer days were behind him, and to me Christopher Lee was triple-nippled Scaramanga, the sinister Nazi in 1941, Cardinal Richelieu in the Musketeers films...  I knew he was Dracula of course, I believe my mother might have unnecessarily reminded me of the fact every time he appeared on screen, but it took a long time before I saw his unforgettable interpretation for myself (thank you yet again TV2 and the Sunday Horrors).

But he brought infinitely more to British screen, before leaving for American shores in the mid seventies.  The genially implacable Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder's stab at the canon of Conan Doyle, and the entire back catalogue of screen monsters from Frankenstein's creature, to the Mummy to Mr Hyde (sort of).  He gave each interpretation so much more than the films often deserved , a quality he shared with his friend Peter Cushing.

International directors who'd grown up on his films gave Lee his unexpected late resurgence - Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton cast him in memorable cameos, while George Lucas and Peter Jackson elevated him once again to super-villain status.

I smiled when I read an interview with Samuel L Jackson who shares a brief scene with Lee in the second Star Wars prequel.  He admits to being star struck, barely able to get his line out because of an impulse to break into a grin and exclaim "How you doin' , Mr Lee?"

There's surely nothing more tragic than a middle -aged horror fan fighting an unswallow-able lump in his throat and oddly prickly tear ducts over the passing of a 93 year old actor he's never met.  But I've spent many, many happy hours in Christopher Lee's company (although he never knew it, of course), and like the hordes of mourners all over the world today, I feel his loss acutely.

 I watched a documentary recently, where the man himself takes us on  guided tour through some of his own film memorabilia, and recounts anecdotes about each.  The last items he shares are two framed photographs: in each he is laughing in the company of a very special friend. He only gives their first names; Vincent and Peter, and talks about how much he misses them.

Sir Christopher, thank you for all the thrills and chills - and I know the three of you are enjoying  a wonderful reunion.

Chris, Vincent and Peter with John Carradine (bottom left).

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Bear Pits

When is an unemployed graphic designer NOT an unemployed graphic designer?

Answer: When he's a freelancer.
I spent my first couple of years in Scotland in the recession-ravaged early 90s scraping together a living as a self-employed illustrator/artist.  Times were tough and it was hard, but I gradually built up a network of clients who would never make me rich, but supplied me with steady-ish work.

Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when I did land a prestigious agency job; like buses to better opportunities two or three seemed to arrive at the same time, and I could never give each the time and attention they demanded. I never invested in equipment, charged enough or tried to come up with anything approaching a business plan. I just alternated between worrying about not having enough work to worrying about getting it all done when commissions did come in.
As a result work suddenly dried up towards the end of 1992, just at the time when we needed funds more than ever for our much looked-forward-to visit to New Zealand at Christmas-time.

It was a desperate situation requiring desperate measures and I had no alternative but to swallow what was left of my pride. I contacted one of my clients, an Events and Promotions company who I knew were busy with festive engagements requiring unskilled labour and told them that I'd do anything.

I wouldn't have imagined this would lead to me prancing about in a bear costume handing out balloons in some of Glasgow's roughest Shopping Malls, but I was grateful for the money. Bear- baiting had been outlawed in Britain centuries ago but the evil mall rats I encountered obviously didn't know this. A costume gives you welcome anonymity, but I found it also removes your normal human boundaries and respect.  You become an object, and a target for foot-stamping, zipper-yanking pre-pubescent thugs.  This bear found that the law of the jungle reigns in shopping malls, but you can barely see your attackers through the giant smiling head, never mind defend yourself.

Desperately wading back to the store-room for more balloons, dragging four or five jeering primary school hard-men hanging onto my tail, I decided enough was enough.  I pulled myself through a set of double doors and then heaved them shut behind me with all my strength.  With a sudden chorus of surprised squeaks and grunts the weight on my costume immediately vanished, as did my attackers for the rest of that day. Not into ambulances hopefully, but as I say, 'law of the jungle'.

The worst invasion of my personal space was by a couple of grandmothers who decided the bear needed his 'tummy' rubbed (urgh), but it wasn't all bad. During  gig as the Easter Bunny the following year I was mobbed by a group of young Irish women who had their picture taken pawing me in an altogether far more pleasant way by the Mall security camera. I met a brilliant group of people who opened my eyes to a more down-to-earth side of Glasgow than I'd encountered before - and speaking in squeaky voices after a gulp of balloon helium was a joke which never got old. As I say, I was bringing in money (and Easter eggs).

I made the best of it, but there was no denying that this was the nadir of my career. However, I couldn't know that a dream job leading to full-time employment as a designer lay just around the corner, and I'd soon never have to 'suit up' again.  But I'll always be grateful to John, Pearl and Anne at J&B Promotions, who gave me a role to perform and a warm fur coat to wear when I was at my lowest ebb.