Friday, 20 August 2010

Clandestine Classic VII - Where I Find My Heaven

The seventh post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Today's offering is the commercial (yet still clandestine) highpoint for Potsdam's forgotten indie boys, the Gigolo Aunts. Although they formed in New York, the Aunts (who took their name from a Syd Barrett song) had a guitar-led sound that was more at home in the UK during their (admittedly rather low) peak in the mid 1990s. Their album Flippin' Out from 1994, on Fire Records, achieved mild chart success, and that's the record I bought to get today's clandestine classic. Because you see I'd already heard it elsewhere and was at the point where I'd buy anything to get a copy...

Where I Find My Heaven was released as a single in 1995 but passed me by. However, it was then used to soundtrack the BBC2 sitcom Game On, which I loved, and the excellence of which I will extol more fully in a dedicated blog post one day. Even the fact that this song was later used extensively in Jim Carrey crap-fest Dumb and Dumber does not diminish it. For Where I Find My Heaven is a perfect example of what happens when indie guitar jangle meets harmonies. It doesn't matter if the lyrical theme is a little on the simplistic and oft-repeated side (working week bad, weekend good), not when the vocals soar like this. For a long while I hoped the Game On patronage might mean that the Gigolo Aunts were from some provincial backwater of the UK (perhaps even "the mean streets of Herne Bay") but no. I should have known better for a band that sound like what would happen if the Everly Brothers had grown up in a post-Stone Roses world. But never mind - the song was, and remains, three and a half minutes of near perfection.

The first (and best) series of Game On starred Ben Chaplin, Samantha Janus and Matthew Cottle. Chaplin went on to make a decidedly average film about the perils of mail-order Russian brides with Nicole Kidman, before disappearing off to Hollywood and, presumably, up his own bottom. Janus spent several years plastered all over the lads mags of this world (and, back then, with good cause) before taking some time out (family break?), and is now to be found in Albert Square. Cottle went on to... well, I think he was a continuity announcer on Channel Five, or was it Four? Other than that, erm... And the Gigolo Aunts? They went on to eventually break up, I think, as is the way of undistinguished indie boys the world over. Their offical webpage has recently disappeared, though their Myspace persists. That their greatest hits compilation is called Where I Find My Heaven tells you everything you need to know about them. Jim Carrey's done alright for himself though...

You can still pick up a copy of Flippin' Out on Amazon. On the off-chance that you might just want today's classic the unscrupulous amongst you may find it here. And if you can bear the awful film snippets, there's always YouTube...

Thursday, 19 August 2010

2001 - beyond the infinite

The prehistoric man make-up team and actors were so good they were overlooked for awards, because some thought Kubrick had used real monkeys...So, let's recap. As you will know from my last post, I was all excited at the prospect of seeing a remastered print of one of my all-time favourite films on the big screen for the first time. Yes, 2001: A Space Odyssey was on at Cin City (my name for the cinema, not theirs). To add to my excitement, 2001 was to be introduced by Professor Peter Krämer, a senior lecturer in film studies at UEA and author of the recently-published BFI Film Classics book on 2001. On arriving (uncharacteristically early) at the cinema, I was even more excited to see that they'd be showing 2001 in Screen 1 - biggest screen, best sound, largest capacity. On taking my seat, I was pleased to see that Screen 1 was about two thirds full - a good crowd and, this being Cin City, not one made up of popcorn-chomping, wrapper-crinkling, giant-drink-guzzling buffoons but actual film fans. Aficionados, in many cases. A small wooden lectern stood to the left of the screen, ready for the Prof to do his bit. And, under the shadowy glim of the house lights, do his bit he certainly did.

Space Station V - just, you know, BETTER than the ISSPeter Krämer isn't quite the archetypal mad professor but, on Sunday's evidence, he's pleasingly close to it; let me present that evidence. For starters, he seemed to have the essential Doc Brown hair. Secondly, from where I was sitting his spectacles appeared to be made from the bottoms of old Coke bottles. Thirdly, he had a vague and, as yet, undefined European accent - not too strong but enough to mangle some words and stretch others to the limit. And finally, the clincher - every now and then he would burst out from behind the lectern and wave his arms around maniacally, à la Magnus Pyke, all the better to make his point. Brilliant! But what points did he make? Well I've been to a few of these "introduced" screenings at Cin City, and most of the talking heads only speak for about 10 minutes. Professor Krämer spoke for more like 25... but at no point did I find myself wishing that he'd get on with it, or that they'd just hurry up and show the film. Because, you see, I learnt new things about 2001 during the Prof's talk... and this is a film that I like to think I am already well versed in, and have seen more times than is probably healthy. Professor Krämer also gaves potted summaries of some of the main themes of his book, specifically his counter-arguments to three of the most popular misconceptions about 2001. But more about that later.

Dave and Frank forget that if HAL can see then maybe he can lip-read. Bugger.After the Prof had enjoyed his well-deserved applause (and shamelessly plugged his book a few times) the film presentation began. And I say presentation, because 2001 was shown as it would have been on its inital premium release in the US (minus the curved Cinerama screen though): that is to say, it began with a three-minute overture ("Atmospheres" accompanied by a blank screen), then the film was shown in two halves with a ten-minute intermission, then the presentation concluded with a four-minute reprise of "The Blue Danube", again with a blank screen. The intermission came right after the scene shown, left, in which Dave and Frank discuss the possibility of HAL making an error, and the need to shut him down if that error were realised. It was the perfect moment for a break, a mini-cliffhanger and a neat way of prolonging the tension, even if, like me, you've seen the film dozens of times and know what happens next. Oh, and during the intermission the background noise from interior Discovery scenes was played (again with blank screen) to give the impression that things were still moving on, even whilst the assembled masses ran to the loo or headed for the bar. Me, I went out into the lounge and bought Professor Krämer's book, which he signed (in obligatory mad-prof-scrawl) "From one 2001 fan to another. Enjoy the trip!" Another thing that I learnt from the Prof was that films were shown like this in the States in an attempt to make the movie-going experience comparable to a night at the opera; I don't know if that worked for these so-called premium showings back in the Sixties but it made a nice change on Sunday.

The pod checks inBut what of the remastered film? Well, you all know the plot and, from my previous eulogy, you all know my thoughts on it, so I'll just focus on this new print. There are no extra scenes, and nothing has been removed. This is not a retooled director's cut, after all. Having said that, Kubrick's first pre-release cut of the film was four hours long, so there's clearly plenty of unused material out there somewhere... but really, that would be a bad idea. You don't mess with the classics. No, the remastery here is all to do with sound and picture quality. The former is pin-sharp, yet with great depth, whilst the latter.... quite apart from the obvious cleaning up the problems of Sixties matting (you know, when you'd get a rectangle of slightly-less-black black around a spaceship as it moves across the screen), everything just looked so crystal clear - I could even read the instructions for the zero-gravity toilet! This newly remastered print looks like a film made in 2010, not the late Sixties, and in some ways even better becauase the newly-sharp models look more convincing, simply more real than a lot of modern CGI. As for the lingering landscapes in the Dawn Of Man section of the film - these are simply stunning. And what of the Prof's book? Well, I've only read the intro and first four chapters so far, but that's enough to be able to give you an opinion. I'm not going to pretend you'll be seduced by his scintillating prose style but this is a book worth reading. Firstly, you'll learn things about the film's genesis, development, production and release that you didn't already know - Krämer has clearly done his homework and this book is stuffed with archive references. Secondly, the author's inherent 2001 fandom shines through, and that is exciting to read if you're a fan too, and probably contagious if you're not (yet). And most importantly, the Prof puts forward original thoughts about Kubrick and his film, and makes cogent arguments to disabuse us of commonly-held misconceptions about 2001, notably that: it was a commercial failure on first release (not true - it was a hit from day one); it was so avant-garde that it was only watched by potheads as a "trip" (not true - it was conceived and delivered as a blockbuster); and it was Kubrick's pessimistic view of man's future (not true - arguably it was an optimistic counterpoint to the doom of Dr Strangelove). So the book is good and certainly worthy of your time. As for the film... well, I've got a couple of hours of uninterrupted sofa time this evening and a Kubrick box-set sitting by the DVD player... I might just turn out the lights and watch 2001 again...

All the links you need to better your life with 2001-ness: The film | The novel | The soundtrack | Professor Krämer's BFI Film Classics book | The essential Kubrick boxset | Internet Resource Archive (nice fan site)

Friday, 13 August 2010

Stars in my eyes

I am genuinely very excited. Why? Because a beautiful remastered print of 2001: A Space Odyssey is doing the rounds, and my local arthouse cinema is showing it on Sunday evening. Complete with an introduction from a film studies prof who's just written a BFI book on the film!

2001 has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it nearly thirty years ago. To my mind it is still one of so very few films that make space travel look like space travel ought to. Quite apart from the beautiful silence (no engines roar as the Discovery glides across our screens), everything looks graceful and that's how I'd want it to be, even if it wasn't. Add the god-like genius of Kubrick to the mix, with his understated direction, beautiful lighting and aseptic set-design, a timeless classical soundtrack, a story that still has the power to both amaze and bewilder, and one of the all-time great movie characters in HAL and you have all the ingredients for what is still regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, more than four decades after its original cinema release. A masterpiece that I've never seen on the big screen: I've owned the film on laser-disc, VHS and two separate DVDs, but I've never had the 2001 cinematic experience until now... so yes - I'm very excited.

And in a pleasing and entirely serendipitous moment of synchronicity, I went out into the back garden last night to watch the Perseids. My God, it's full of stars...

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Comment is free

Inspired by the likes of Blogger, I finally have an RSS feed for the comments made on this blog, in addition to the standard feed for my posts. Not that this will much to many people, since so few of you leave comments (hint, hint). But if you ever have, and were wondering what happened to them (and my replies, for that matter), you can now subscribe to the comments RSS feed here. Go on - you know you want to.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

This is how my mind works

Last night, whilst cleaning my teeth before falling into bed at the witching hour, I suddenly and for no apparent reason thought about Letraset. Now if you're under 25 there's a very real chance you won't know what that is, so let me explain. These days, with computers, decent cheap printers and 1,001 fonts, it's easy for any Tom, Dick or Harry to knock up a professional-looking piece of print. Desktop publishing, they call it. But back when I was a kid, if you wanted to produce something that looked better than the best your handwriting could be with a felt-tip pen, you (or at least I) used Letraset. The idea was simple - you'd buy sets of letters printed on flimsy plastic sheets and transfer them to paper by rubbing the sheet with a pencil. It was brilliant - not only did the finished product look good, it was also laborious in a very satisfying way. I imagined that the silicon revolution would have done for Letraset in the same way it has for the typewriter (I used to have one of those too - for the very young amongst you, these devices had ribbons, jammed a lot and made everything look like Courier... but now I'm just being facetious). But no - Letraset lives on, against all odds...

But then this is how my mind works... that thought, against all odds, made me think of the Phil Collins song of the same name. Yes, Phil Collins, much derided, memorably duped by Chris Morris ("I'm talking nonce sense"). But Against All Odds is a decent song of its genre, probably a solo career high watermark for Phil. And he was a good drummer for Genesis, especially in the early years when he didn't have to worry about vocal duties - some of his playing on, for example, Watcher Of The Skies sounds very much like the cymbal-clattering of Stewart Copeland in his Police heyday, yet pre-dated Copeland by five or more years. I thought all this and more, just from a random thought about Letraset.

I should have gone to bed at this point, except... that thought, all this and more, made me think of the early recording of the same name by Leeds' finest, the always-excellent Wedding Present (it's on George Best). Which made me think of the time I gave one of my best friends a meat cleaver for a wedding present. Which made me think of Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones's Diary. Which made me think of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾. Which made me think of what the HTML entity name for that three quarters character would be (since you ask, it's ¾). Which made me think of entity-relationship diagrams... relationship history... browser history... eyebrows... Denis Healey... the Healey Frog-Eyed Sprite... Kermit the Frog... Alberto Frog... Alberto Balsam shampoo... balsa wood...

In my defence, it was late and I was tired. But this is how my mind works sometimes. Be grateful you are not me.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Kiva: costs nothing, feels good

I've been meaning to blog about Kiva for ages. This is a website that allows you to repeatedly loan the same $25 (yes, it's all done in American currency, but don't let that put you off) over and over again to small businesses in the developing world.

It really couldn't be simpler - you credit your account with the $25 (and given that the pound is at a six-month high against the dollar, this only equates to about £16), then browse through the ad's to find a small business somewhere in the world that's struggling to get going. You lend them your $25. Note that this may form part of a larger fundraising target for the business, and they won't start paying you back until all the money has been raised. But as and when they get up and running, they do pay you back... and when your account balance is back up to $25 you can lend it out again. Brilliant, isn't it?

I suppose technically it doesn't cost absolutely nothing - I could get all economicsy, and say that there is the opportunity cost of not using the money for something else. Or you could put your £16 in the building society and get 16p interest on it in a year... but that would, of course, make you a miserable git. I've been Kiva-ing for just over two years and, in that time, have lent the same $25 to a Samoan farmer, a Ghanaian fruit and veg seller and a Philippino laundry collective. The latter is 95% repaid now, and when the other 5% arrives I'll be lending to someone else.

So, let's recap: a Kiva micro-loan helps someone less privileged than you, is ridiculously easy to do and costs nothing, unless you are an unbelievably miserable git. So go on, why not give Kiva a try? Trust me, it feels good...