Tuesday 21 December 2010

To mark National Short Story Day...

Today, apparently, is National Short Story Day - if you don't believe me, check out www.nationalshortstoryday.co.uk. See? Told you. To mark the occasion, here's a short story I wrote back in January. I should point out that it was, in part, inspired by a screenplay called The Zapruder Party by my friend, Mark K. Oh, and I know it needs a bit of a polish, but anyway, see what you think.

Near death experience

He watches the girl as she runs across the park.

She must be about eight or nine, he thinks – any older and she would not be towing the helium balloon along behind her in quite such a carefree manner. She’s still at that age when she is not self-conscious about being a child, or the trappings of childhood. In a year or two she would cringe if her school friends saw her running around in the park with a party balloon, but for now she is still a child.

Her hair is a black scrawl that suggests she doesn’t like having it brushed – that would change in a couple of years too. Her coat is a candy-pink confection with a fur-trimmed hood that bobs lightly as she runs. Her leggings are a little on the short side – she has nearly outgrown them. There are red LEDs on her trainers that flash with each footfall.

It doesn’t take long for him to locate the girl’s mother. She is walking some way behind, talking animatedly into the mobile phone that is clamped to her ear. Her other hand is thrust deep into the pocket of her heavy wool overcoat. Her hair is the same colour as her daughter’s, he notes, but unlike the girl’s it is immaculately groomed. The mother is walking slowly – sauntering, even – and is falling further behind the girl with every pace. Some maternal instinct surfaces enough to recognise this, and he watches as she pulls the mobile’s mouthpiece away enough to call after her daughter. He can’t hear what she says, but can guess. “Don’t go too far, darling,” perhaps. Or, “Wait when you get to the gate.” He doubts that the girl can hear her either.

He checks the clock – it’s almost time.

The mother’s phone conversation must have become more serious, he thinks, because she has stopped walking altogether now, her head dipped in thought. Then she begins to turn slowly on the spot, as if this will help her focus on the phone call in some way. He wonders if she will regret this later. Meanwhile, the little girl runs on, in loops and spirals, each stride she takes causing the balloon to lurch after her in a series of halting leaps; each stride she takes bringing her closer to the gate where she is supposed to wait, and closer to the road beyond it.

He pauses long enough to consider the chain of events that has brought the girl to this point, and to wonder – not for the first time – whether they might be random or somehow pre-ordained. Is there such a thing as fate, he thinks? Is the girl destined to slip on the muddy grass near the park gate, causing her to put out her hands as she falls forwards? Is it karma that she should let go of her balloon so near to a busy road? And is it some higher being’s divine will that causes all this to happen to the girl at an age when she stills care enough to chase after a stupid, silver balloon with Disney’s Little Mermaid on one side?

Or is it just bad luck?

He watches as the girl jumps up, unhurt, and, after giving her muddy hands a surprised look that is almost comic, looks up to see where her balloon is. It has been caught by the lightest of breezes and is drifting lazily away. Inevitably, it starts to gain height, but only slowly – its vaguely crumpled look suggests that the balloon has already lost a little helium. After a second’s consideration, the girl seems to decide that she can catch the balloon if she runs fast enough, jumps high enough. And so she sets off, her eyes fixed on the length of ribbon that dangles temptingly just out of her reach.

He looks back across the park, seeking out the mother. She is still deep in conversation; the previously pocketed hand is now out and making expressive gestures, despite the fact that the person on the other end of the mobile cannot see them. She is wearing black gloves with a fur trim around the cuff. Her long black boots say that she is a serious businesswoman, a hard-arsed, tough-nosed businesswoman that you just don’t mess with. He imagines the clip-clop that these boots would make as he watches her pivot one foot on a pin-heel. He watches as she throws her head back in apparent exasperation.

But back to the main action. The girl is running, arms out-stretched, eyes aloft, straight towards the gate. Her mother’s warning, even if she had heard it, is forgotten now. In a freeze-frame moment, he can see that she is smiling – laughing, probably – and that she looks optimistic; even as the balloon continues to rise, she somehow thinks that she can get it, if she can only run fast enough, jump high enough.

The car is a small, blue Ford. The registration plate suggests that it is a good deal older than the girl, and the flowers of rust that are blooming around its wheel-arches confirm this. The driver is young though, surely only in his late teens. He is wearing a baseball hat that proclaims his support of Manchester United, and sunglasses, even though it is not sunny. His window is wound down, presumably for the sole purpose of broadcasting the unfeasibly loud hip-hop he is listening to as he drives. He is speeding too, the tiny Ford’s engine revving enthusiastically. That and the hip-hop might have drowned out any shouts of warning, but there are none.

He watches the girl as she runs into the road.

There is a single precious moment of calm, between her sudden appearance in the road and the car’s impact. In that moment, the girl realises what she has done, perhaps hears the engine. In that instant, she turns her face sharply away from the balloon and just has time to look directly at the car. Adrenalin, speed and the vitality of her youth give her time to fling open her eyes impossibly wide, to open her mouth in a perfect O. But there is no time for her to scream.

The Ford hits her before the driver has even had time to brake. In slow-motion, the bonnet (barely crumpling) seems to sweep her off her feet, and then she is spinning, a pink and black cartwheel, up and over. Her head thumps into the windscreen, creating a perfect splintered bullseye in the glass where, later, strands of the girl’s bloodied hair will be found. As she tumbles over the roof of the car, she flattens its aerial. He watches it springs back up again as the Ford, fishtailing slightly as it screeches to a halt, deposits her in an unnatural heap.

At first glance, she doesn’t look hurt, her coat perhaps disguising the extent of her injuries. There is something unnatural about the angle of her right arm, the way it is bending like that, like someone has moved the elbow, and looking closely, he can see blood creeping around the girl’s hairline. Her mouth still forms an O but her eyes are half closed and without focus. She has lost one of her trainers – he sees it lying in the gutter further up the road, its red LEDs still flashing, and wonders what it must be like to be hit so hard it knocks you out of your shoes.

It is the screech of brakes that attracts the mother. He watches as she turns to locate the noise and then, finally taking the mobile away from her ear, she is running as fast as she can in those boots, shouting something that might be the girl’s name but is hard to make out because it is becoming a scream.

The driver of the Ford is ashen-faced, staring blankly at the steering wheel, trying to comprehend what has just happened. Something – perhaps the mother’s scream – gets him going again and, after a moment in which he perhaps contemplates driving away, the Manchester United fan instead removes one shaking hand from the steering wheel and turns the ignition key back, silencing the engine.

He watches the girl as she dies in her mother’s arms.

Then he presses stop and ejects the tape. The hand-written label on its spine reads ‘RTC - CHILD’. He puts the tape carefully back into its slipcase, then files it neatly away on the shelf above his desk, where it sits in a long line of matching hand-written labels, between ‘LEVEL CROSSING CRASH’ and ‘AIR SHOW DISASTER’. When his hands have stopped shaking, he fishes the last Marlboro Light from the packet by the television, and sits back in his chair to smoke.

So... what do you think?

The quarterly review IV

Back in March I documented all the books I'd read during the first quarter of the year; in June I did the same thing for the second quarter and in September I did it again for Q3. Exciting, no? So exciting, in fact, that it's time to do it again for, you've guessed it, the last quarter of the year. Don't worry, I won't do all this again in 2011, I promise...

As before, you can hover over the thumbnails for my three-line reviews, should you be so inclined.

Friday 17 December 2010

Happy 40th birthday, The Man Of Cheese

Today is the 40th birthday of my oldest friend, The Man Of Cheese. To honour the occasion, let me play a bit of a musical tribute. Now there's no way I could package this up as a Clandestine Classic and I should probably point out, for the sake of my credibility and that of TMOC, this is in no way representative of our normal musical tastes. But it is a special song, and one that we still quote lyrics from to this day, more than twenty years later.

Happy birthday, mate. You can't play bass...

Wednesday 15 December 2010

On the shelf... but in a good way

Launch event poster for Unthology No. 1If you are one of the three Constant Readers of this blog, you'll probably already know that I have recently been published for the first time. In a real book, by a real publisher. I was quite excited about this, and remain so.

Anyway. Earlier this month I was feeling a bit down, and questioning the value of the blog, with its tiny readership and so-small-as-to-be-immeasurable impact on the wider world. But the always-readable Mark K over at Kilner-Jarred made the point that, being published, now was the time to ramp things up, not scale them down. And I guess he's right, so on we go. Mark also asked that I write about the book launch, and who am I to deny a Constant Reader?

The launch itself took place on the 2nd of December, in the upstairs function room of The York Tavern in Norwich. The original intention was to hold it at the excellent Norwich Arts Centre but they had double-booked themselves... a shame, I would like to have "played" such an established arts venue, but never mind, The York is a nice pub and besides, I used to live just around the corner from there, so it felt comfortable.

That's more than could be said for me, of course. Public speaking is not high on my list of favourite activities and before the event I was, in 1980s schoolboy parlance, bricking it. Pulling out was never an option though - after all, my name was on the poster (left)... even so, my nerves were not helped by the fact that the inclement weather (snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures, slippery roads and mirror-polished pavements) meant that, just minutes before the advertised start time there was no-one else there other than the organisers from Unthank Books and three of the other reading authors. So not only was I nervous in the extreme, I was also worried that the event would be a total flop.

As luck would have it, I needn't have worried. All of a sudden there was a sudden influx of people, all rosy-cheeked and swathed in coats hats, scarves and gloves. My personal mini-cheer-squad of friends and family arrived too and, whilst this was reassuring in some respects, they added the possibility that I could screw up royally in front of family and friends. Consider "it" comprehensively "bricked"...

I was third to read, after C.D. Rose and the wonderful Lora Stimson (more of whom later). The compere introduced me by saying that one of the objectives of the book was to give new writers a voice, and so it gave him great pleasure to welcome a previously unpublished author to the stage. The irrepressible paranoid spark at the back of my mind burned a little brighter at that - it felt a little like "ladies and gentlemen, please lower your expectations!" but that's just negative old me being me. It wasn't like that at all.

The first two readers gave little pre-ambles before their readings, so I decided to do the same. My anecdote, if that's not stretching things, concerned seeing Paul Torday give a reading a Latitude a couple of years ago, and specifically how he had looked petrified. I wondered why he had looked so nervous - after all, he is a very successful writer and must do this all the time, I thought. I gave the crowd now filling The York's function room what I hoped was a wry smile and delivered my "now I understand" punchline. This got a laugh, despite not being in the least funny. It was at that point I had the same Damascene revelation that Best Men must have been having for years as they begin their wedding reception speeches - at times like these, the audience wants you to do well. They want you to succeed. It's a nice feeling, and one that made the nerves subside... a bit...

I stood before the crowd, with only a microphone and speakers to hide behind, and read the first thousand words or so of my story. It's only a very short story, so that was about half of it, but if left the narrative at a nice mini-cliffhanger, and brought me in just on the "please only read for five minutes" deadline. Cue warm applause... and then, blessed relief, I was followed by the interval. A friend bought me a pint of bitter, and I could relax.

What happened next was the biggest and, in some ways, nicest, surprise of the night. People bought the book, and then asked me to sign it! I found myself saying things like "who should I make it out to?" and then realising that I had given no thought to what I would write should this eventuality occur. So it was that I found myself writing things like "To Anna, thanks for coming" and then scrawling half a signature. This didn't diminsh the weird and slightly heady thrill of signing books though - it's not something I had ever imagined would happen, so I enjoyed every second whilst it lasted.

After the interval, there were three more readings, from Deborah Arnander (who was lovely and, like me, very nervous), Melinda Moore and Ashley Stokes. And then the evening concluded with live music from Lora Stimson. Yes, the same Lora who'd read earlier! An accomplished writer and, it transpired, equally accomplished singer-songwriter. She played acoustic guitar and sang with the most amazing, soaring voice. It was a nice way to end the evening.... although there was just time to sign a couple more books before I left.

So all in all, it was a memorable occasion, if slightly surreal at times. It might never happen for me again (though there is talk of a London launch event, so you never know), so I'm pleased that I was able to enjoy it and, as you might have guessed, I'm happy to report that being asked to sign copies of your work is every bit as exciting as you might imagine. A couple of days later, the Eastern Daily Press (Britain's best-selling regional daily, no less) reviewed the Unthology; though it didn't give explicit mention to all the stories in the book (there are 17, after all), my little story, written in 24 hours just because I needed something, did get a mention. This is what it said:

...Waiting Room is an intriguing and mysterious Brave New World-type tale set in the near future which keeps the reader guessing right to the end...
Eastern Daily Press, 4th December 2010

That'll do for me.

Unthology No. 1 on the shelf in Waterstone's

Oh, and an epilogue for you: I went into Waterstone's last weekend, and there it was, Unthology No. 1, on their shelf. As I said before, this might never happen for me again... so I felt no embarrassment in taking a picture (right).

Right, I've got a taste for this now - anyone want to publish Drawn To The Deep End?

Friday 10 December 2010

More street art

More pointed street art/graffiti spotted on the walls of my adopted home town, this time on the outside of HSBC, appropriately enough. Other posts in this series can be found here, here and here.

Banks In Need

Sorry for the poor image quality. It was dark, and my camera phone isn't up to much...

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Comment away!

Hmm. I traced the problem to a PHP script that was working perfectly until yesterday, yet now does not work, despite throwing no errors and despite not being changed in any way. My web host protests its innocence. Whatever. In the meantime, I've added in a third-party solution to take my host out of the equation and guess what? It works perfectly...

Abnormal service resumed...

See that little "Comment" link beneath this post? Well, that takes you to a feedback form you can use to send me messages about these blog posts... except it's not working at the moment. It appears to - you get a nice message saying thanks for your feedback, and that I'll respond and everything... but I'm not getting your messages. I'm investigating, so watch this space. In the meantime, if you've commented this week (and I think that means YOU, Rol and The Man Of Cheese) sorry but I haven't received your words of wisdom.

I'll post again when I've fixed whatever the problem is.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Does there have to be a reason?

I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside.


Oh, and P.S. My web-stats tell me that on the 6th of December, at around 11.34am, someone sent me a comment on the post below, but I didn't get it, sorry; my over-zealous email program marked it as spam and the over-zealous me emptied the spam folder without checking. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Didn't want you to think I was being rude or anything. Please feel free to re-send, and I'll be a bit less zealous...

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Things I haven't blogged about

If you're one of the three people that regularly read this blog, you'll know that I haven't written anything here for very nearly three weeks. It's not that I haven't had things to say, far from it. Some of the things I nearly blogged about, but didn't, include:
  • The 30th anniversary of Children In Need, and the incredible fact that it has raised half a billion pounds in that time. More specifically, I almost blogged about my first Children In Need memory, from 1983, when Joanna Lumley's selfless act of charity had a profound effect on 13-year-old me.
  • I almost wrote about the tie-in between WeRead4You.com and The Big Issue whereby you can download a free audiobook of Lifeless by Mark Billingham. It's a pretty good crime story with a great lead character in Tom Thorne. And it's being given away free here because, as a story, it highlights homelessness very effectively.
  • Oh, and I was going to bring SoleCreator.com to your attention, since it enables you to design and then buy your own customised trainers. You can choose from Converse, Ethletic, Vans, Dunlop and more besides. It's a very cool idea, is it not?
So, I was going to write about all these things in the last three weeks but didn't, and do you want to know why? Because, with the exception of my three Constant Readers (step forward Mark K, Rol and The Man Of Cheese), no-one seems too bothered about what I have to say, regardless of how amusing, entertaining or thought-provoking I try to make it. So I've started to wonder... is blogging like this just a massive vanity project? The worst kind of self-publishing? A hopeless case, and a waste of my time and yours? Or is there some value?

More to the point, should I carry on with this PipSpeak blog? Or call time on the whole charade?

I'd really welcome your thoughts... though I'm willing to bet no more than three people comment.

Friday 12 November 2010

Clandestine Classic X - The Ground Below

The single was released at McCulloch's solo career's lowest ebbThe tenth 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 a B-side from Ian McCulloch's solo years. After he'd called time on Echo And The Bunnymen first time around, McCulloch set off on a solo career to mixed reviews. Most people seemed to want his old band back. By the time he released his second solo album, Mysterio, in 1992 things were not going so well - it limped to number 46 in the UK chart. It did, however, yield an interesting single in the form of a Leonard Cohen cover, Lover, Lover, Lover. Again, UK success was hardly staggering - it dragged itself to 47 in the charts. Conversely, it did give McCulloch one of his biggest US hits though, reaching number 9. Being in the UK, I picked it up for 99p in the bargain bin of a sadly now defunct record store - I'd never been a fan, and The Bunnymen had come along a bit too early for me, but I liked the artwork and the promised Cohen cover, so I chanced my quid. A good choice, as it turned out.

Today's clandestine classic was the last of four tracks on that CD single, The Ground Below. It's a wonderfully stripped down affair, just vocals, acoustic guitars (two, I think) and some very sparse percussion. A deceptively simple track... but beguiling nonetheless. There are some beautiful lyrics in there too, notably the (sometimes annoyingly) catchy refrain:
Let me into your dreams
where all the darkest jewels glow.
You be the sky I've never seen,
I'll be the ground below.
I'd love to say that this song, or at least the CD from whence it came, turned me into a McCulloch fan, but it didn't. Sure, I bought Nothing Lasts Forever when Electrafixion gave way to a full and inevitable Bunnymen reunion. That's a good single too, but these remain the only two McCulloch offerings in my record collection. No, I prefer just to treasure my copy of Lover, Lover, Lover - all four songs on it are excellent, by the way, but for me The Ground Below is the pick of the crop. And at 2 minutes 45 seconds it was great for filling short gaps at the end of a side when making compilation tapes, back in the day...

You can find The Ground Below on the remastered and expanded double-CD of McCulloch's first two solo albums, Candleland and Mysterio, if you're so inclined. I couldn't find a dubious download of today's clandestine classic to offer you, but there's always YouTube. Enjoy.

If they can't keep up with themselves...

Like many web authors, I have a little hidden snippet of code on these pages that records information about visitors - what page they visited, what page they came from, what resolution their screen is, what operating system they use, that kind of thing. It's kind of interesting, and helps me design this and other websites for their target audience. If you limit your log size to the last 500 page views it's also free, courtesy of Statcounter.

Imagine my surprise, then, to see a visitor earlier today who appeared to be surfing from work... at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters. Nothing too surprising in itself - he or she was interested in The Blue Aeroplanes. No, what struck me was this - he or she was using Internet Explorer 7. Okay, so it would have been better still if they were using Firefox or Chrome, but even so, IE7? IE8 has been out for one year and eight months, by my reckoning, and a beta of IE9 is already available. Yet MS are still using IE7. With Javascript disabled. Worried about security loopholes, maybe?

Microsoft use old version of IE in-house

If Microsoft themselves can't keep up-to-date in the browser wars, what hope do the rest of us have? At least my Redmond reader was running Windows 7...

Thursday 11 November 2010

"Some more of me poetry..."

...is the title of an early collection by the inestimable Pam Ayres. It's also a reminder to myself that I had a spell, two to three years ago, when I wrote a lot of poetry too. I had quite a serious stab at it, and entered competitions and everything. Sadly, I wasn't much good, which is probably the main reason I haven't written a poem now for a long time.

This is probably the best of my efforts, and I'm publishing it here for no other reason than I finished writing it exactly two years ago today. At the time, my writing group found it too obtuse, and couldn't discern the meaning... though our tutor did. He seemed to quite like it. I hope he's not alone. Anyway, it's called Watching Them Go - see what you think. Personally, I think it's proof that I should stick to prose. I'd love to hear what you think it's about, though I feel I should make it clear, given today's date, that it is in no way about soliders going off to die in wars.
Watching them go
My children left home today.
I watched them go with a sad excitement
and nervous confidence,
out into the world to who knew what.
A world that listened as they spoke their names,
and watched their cautious black-booted progress.
A world that pointed rough sticks at
their tracks in the snow.
I love them without question.
Proud of their virtues, accepting their flaws
and ready to defend,
against a world of who knew what.
A world that judged them, found them all guilty,
and passed incomprehensible sentence.
A world that asked whose kids are these?
I denied them all.

Wednesday 3 November 2010


An actual, proper book. From an actual, proper publisher. With some of my words inside.I'm sort of in two minds about writing this - it feels far too much like flagrant, cheap self-promotion to be comfortable... but I'm going to do it anyway, having come to the conclusion that no-one else is going to make either a song or a dance about it, let alone both!

The picture on the left is of a new collection of short stories called Unthology No. 1, published by the quite splendid Unthank Books. It's the first in what will be a series of annual anthologies featuring established and emerging writers. And the reason I'm blathering on about it quite so much is that some words of mine will appear in it. Yes, really. I wrote a draft of a short story called Waiting Room last year; when I saw Unthank's calls for submissions earlier this year, I gave the story a quick tidy-up and sent it in. Next thing I know...

The book's publication date is the 1st of December (although, in some way that I haven't yet worked out, Amazon are already dispatching copies). There are going to be launch events and everything - I will even be reading an extract at one of these (and just how nervous will I be about that?).

So there we have it: an actual, proper book, from an actual, proper publisher (to whom I am in no other way related), with something that I've written inside, that you'll be able to go into Waterstones and buy (or at least order). I hope you can forgive the own-trumpet-blowing, but I'm a little bit excited about this.

If you're not already fed up with me wittering on about this - and I'm even starting to bore myself now - you can read a little more about Unthology No. 1 here.

I'll stop now, I promise...

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Normal service is resumed... and free, live Pixies...

For reasons best known to my web host, the last four posts I made during October disappeared for a while over the last couple of days. I won't moan too much though, they are a free host, after all. And of course being a good IT boy I had backups of everything, and October's posts are now restored to their former glory. I wondered why I wasn't getting many people reading my Halloween special on unsettling films... now I know.

And since I'm here, I might as well direct you to lalapixiesloveyou.com where, for the cost of your email address, you can download an entire Pixies live album. It's good too.

Friday 29 October 2010

Halloween special! Thirteen unsettling films

I've been inspired to write this by Rol's Top Twenty Horror Films (parts 1 and 2). I know that I'm not going to be able to say anything about some of these films that hasn't been said before (Mark has more to say on this) but one or two of my chart choices may surprise you, hopefully, and maybe you'll enjoy reading about those at least. And they're not all classified as horror films per sé; I'm going to talk about films that are unsettling or disturbing (alright then, scary too).

I tried to keep my list to a top ten, but couldn't. To save running up a top twenty, I managed to limit myself to a nice triskaidekaphobic top thirteen... but it could have been more. Those just bubbling under included such classics as The Innocents, Don't Look Now and The Haunting. Cronenberg's Goldblum-powered remake of The Fly almost made the cut, as did Mark Kermode's favourite, The Exorcist. Hey, I've even got a soft spot for The Sixth Sense. And 28 Days Later is excellent. You can see which films would have topped me up to the twenty, but no - there can only be thirteen. Ask me tomorrow and the list will have changed but for now, these are they.

Norman? Yes Mother. Etc.13. Psycho
Groundbreaking when launched (and not just for killing off the lead actress less than half way through), Hitchcock's exercise in horror has become a benchmark against which others may measure suspense. It's got a pretty girl being knifed in the shower. It's got a nutter keeping his dead mother in the attic. It's got creepy taxidermy. And it's got a spyhole in a motel bedroom wall... is it just me that worries about this when checking into hotels now? I've even updated the paranoia by wondering about CCTV cameras hidden in smoke alarms... and it's all Hitchcock's fault. Oh, and besides being a horror masterpiece, it was revolutionary too - not just in killing off Janet Leigh's character so early, but in the way it handled plot threads (look, I know the preferred name for these is "arcs" but that sounds so American...) - for example, consider how the film sidesteps from the bank theft opening storyline into the psycho-killer story. And as if that wasn't enough, such is the film's significance that cultural references from it have entered into everyday parlance (witness the overuse almost to parody of shrieking violins ever since). It's a film my scaredycat sister still won't watch.

That's not a dog keeping you company in the frozen wasteland...12. The Thing
It was a toss-up for me whether to include this or another of John Carpenter's efforts from that era, The Fog. Whilst I love some of the visuals in the latter, The Thing gets the nod here - it's simply better. What makes it so scary? Well, like Alien (of which more later), The Thing takes the isolated haunted house concept and updates it to increase the sense of isolation and remoteness, in this case by locating the action in an Antarctic research station. Is it just me or does the all-male cast add to the claustrophobia? Also like Alien, The Thing demonstrates that extra-terrestrials can be every bit as scary as ghosts and demons. But Alien charts higher, and I'll explain why when we get there...

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise11. The Blair Witch Project
Yes, yes, yes, I know the whole Blair Witch franchise has its knockers (insert your own Carry On-/Benny Hill-style joke here) but forget the sequels, prequels, spin-offs and knock-offs and stick with the original. Made on a comparative shoestring, it's proof that you don't need a big budget to deliver big fear. Yes, it's just a bunch of American teens getting lost in the woods. But I have a theory, and it's this - if you went camping as a child, and laid awake at night listening to noises outside your tent that you couldn't identify or explain, then you're going to find this film scarier than if you were spoiled with the luxury of holidaying in hotels. Camping out can be scary. Unexplained noises are scary. Getting lost in the woods is scary. And finding your friend with his hands to the wall, standing in the corner of the basement of a spooky old house and surrounded by other hand prints... well, that's scary too, no matter when you grew up or how you holidayed.

There's more to this than Ripley offering the alien a couple of places to hang his coat at the end10. Alien
Alright then, so why does Ridley Scott's intelligent sci-fi shocker chart higher than Carpenter's Thing? Well, mostly because it came first and as a result, I would argue, paved the way for Carpenter's effort. No Alien, no Thing, simple as that. And certainly no Event Horizon (of which more later). Again, Alien updates (and extrapolates) the theme of an isolated haunted house by setting the action on a space ship, the Nostromo (a closed system if ever there was one). And it ratchets the fear up with excellent (and then innovative) visuals. I remember the first time I saw Alien, thinking I'd never seen anything like it. When Tom Skerritt is down in the tunnel, hunting, and his crewmates are telling him he must see the alien, it's right on top of him, and what little light there is is flickering rapidly, dark, light, dark, light, dark, alien! Awesome. And don't pretend you were as cool as a cucumber the first time you saw John Hurt's stomach go pop (like bits of Psycho, another scene that has entered our cultural lexicon).

Christ! Christ?09. The Wicker Man (1973)
I haven't seen the Noughties remake with Nicholas Cage and, frankly, why would I want to when the original is so good? Like many of the films on this list, The Wicker Man trades in isolation, both physical (a remote, Scottish island) and emotional (the chaste, religious policeman surrounded by far from chaste heathens). The real strength of this film though is in its sense of the uncanny, of the familiar being unfamiliar: there's a pub, a shop, a school... all familiar things, but all twisted out of the policeman's grasp by strange goings on and the whole island's denial of what happened to poor Rowan. The film's so good, we can even forgive the fact that a body double was used for Britt Ekland's nude dance (she was pregnant at the time, after all)... oh, and her dubbed accent too, whilst we're at it. Basically though, there's something undeniably eerie about adults in animal masks when it's obviously not being done for a joke, don't you think? And as for our hero's increasingly desperate and doubtful exhortations of "Christ!" at the end...

Enough with that crawling-out-of-the-TV-screen shit...08. The Ring (US)
I know, I'm going to upset some people here. I'm not choosing the Japanese original but the Hollywood remake. What a heathen, right? Well, maybe if I'd watched the original first I might have chosen that, but I didn't, sorry. So it's the American version that affected me and, perhaps, subsequently diluted the effect that its Japanese predecessor had on me. But watching Naomi Watts puzzle things out, late at night on my mate Cinders' big-screen TV, made a lasting impression on me. Not so much for the scary bits (and there are plenty) but for the unsettling sequences - actually watching the cursed video is chair-squirmingly unpleasant, as is the moment when the girl crawls out through the television screen. And as for the bit down in the well, it's all too easy to imagine putting your hand through the darkened waters and feeling the hair... sorry. Giving myself the heebie-jeebies. Time to move on.

In which 'the grade' acquires significance...07. Duel
Not an out and out horror film, this one, more of a suspenseful thriller. But then how do you define a horror movie anyway? There's plenty here to scare you: being relentlessly pursued, for starters; an unseen villain; motiveless attacks; isolation (again) in driving through deserted landscapes between dead-end towns; our reliance on the machinery of everyday life and how exposed we are when that fails us (in this case, with a leaky radiator hose); and I could go on. Denis Weaver gives a bravura performance as "man talking to himself", and Spielberg's direction has a tautness that points towards Duel's TV movie roots. In fact, I made myself choose between Jaws and Duel for inclusion in this list and, much as I love the former, I stuck with the latter - it's that good. And all the better for not offering an explanation at the end.

Do you see? [Offers eyeballs] Do you?06. Event Horizon
I'm guessing this may be one of the surprises on the list? Okay, so it owes a lot to Alien, but that can be said about plenty of films. Oh, and the original Solaris too, come to think of it. And unusually for this list, there are some quite gory scenes (though not gratuitously so, not even when Sam Neill offers up his eyeballs). But despite being a bit derivative, and splashing the red stuff around a bit (which I don't find scary - Saw et al do nothing for me), it is a genuinely unsettling film. First up, there are the themes of isolation and enclosure (both recurrent in this list - wonder what that says about me?) that being in space engenders. Then there's a fear of a contagion - in this case, madness. Worst of all though are the unsettling apparitions that the crew members see, especially when one (Kathleen Quinlan's character, I think) starts seeing her dead son running around in the bowels of the ship. The review on Amazon thinks this is a bit of a B-movie but for me it's genuinely unsettling, and that's why it ranks so highly on this list. Amazon-schmamazon.

It's all for you, Damien05. The Omen
The devil - pretty scary dude, right? And those whispery chants of antichristus, antichristus aren't helping matters much either, are they? Plus proof that explicitly foreshadowing characters' deaths needn't diminish the power or scariness of those deaths (I'm talking about the photographs predicting the nanny hanging herself, Patrick Troughton's priest getting speared with a lightning conductor, and the decapitation with a sheet of glass). Plus this was the film that made Rottweilers scary, wasn't it? Above and beyond all this, though, is the power of circumstance; for me, the circumstance in which I first watched this is what gets it so high on this list. I was alone in the student house I shared with two friends. We hadn't lived there long, so it still felt a strange place to be. It was late on a wet and windy Autumn night, as I recall. I had been reading something by Stephen King during the evening (I think it was The Tommyknockers), then had sat up late in flickering lamplight to watch The Omen. Just as it was getting towards the end, I heard a terrific smashing and crashing of glass from the back of the house. My heart leapt out of my chest - someone (or something) was breaking in! I ran to my bedroom, turning on every light in the house as I went, and grabbed the thick half of my snooker cue to use as a club, then went (very) tentatively exploring. Amazing what a frenzied state the combination of being alone on a dark, wet, windy night, having read King and watched The Omen, could put me in. As to what caused the crash of breaking glass, so near it made me jump out of my skin... well, that's another story...

There's more to this than Jenny Agutter in the shower, hard though that is to believe04. An American Werewolf In London
Guess what? Films can be unsettling and funny too. American Werewolf In London is a great film, regardless of genre qualifications. Much has been written about the groundbreaking special effects. Much has been written about Jenny Agutter in the shower. And much has been written about the central London bloodbath dénouement, with bouncing decapitated heads, and such like. Not enough has been said about the humour though, the verbal sparring between David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Oh, and the dream sequence with its false ending is superbly done, providing a brilliant "jump" moment which I won't elaborate more on for fear of spoiling it for those that haven't seen it. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the Slaughtered Lamb yet, with Brian Glover and a young Rik Mayall. "You made me miss." Say no more. And tell me, doesn't being down in a tube station at midnight feel just a little bit scarier after watching this?

Insomnia has seldom been more appealing03. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
No, not the McCarthy-undertoned Fifties original, or this remake from 1993 and especially not this Kidman/Craig one from 2007. Donald Sutherland is excellent in the Seventies version, and Brooke Adams makes a fine heroine. Look out for a very young Jeff Goldblum too, and a very unsettling character portrayed by Leonard Nimoy in full "I am not Spock" mode. The whole film is underscored with little touches that build a sense of the uncanny; not just the oblique and unusual camera angles, or the perfect score, but little visual cues too. The way more and more people literally seem to be falling into line. The implied but unspoken communication that goes on. The dog with a man's face. The inhuman shriek that an invader gives out when spotting a human, especially at the end. Poor old Veronica Cartwright - she gets it in Alien too. Unsettling. I'm unsettled now, just thinking about everyone becoming different and unnatural... and then chasing me down the street... and not being able to sleep... shudder...

Keep those curtains closed!02. The Others
Like The Omen, The Others had such an effect on me because of the circumstances in which I watched it. Dispatched to the Big Smoke for a week to do a training course, my evenings in a soulless corporate hotel were boring beyond words. What better way to while away the evening than watching a movie on the old pay-per-view? After all, the company Amex was paying, right? Down went the lights and on went The Others... so it's late, it's dark, and I'm away from home, all alone, in unfamiliar surroundings. At one point, I had to get up and make a cup of tea to break the tension (you know the scene, it's when you think it's the little girl all dressed up under that veil). I had to put all the lights back on for the end, I was that unnerved. I know, almost as big a scaredycat as my sister. But not, because this film is unsettling in the extreme. What could be worse than laying awake in your darkened bedroom, only for unseen feet to thump across the floorboards and unseen hands to fling back the curtains? And Christ, how would it feel to realise all your hired help are dead? Not great, I'm guessing. Oh, and there's that scene where our heroine tries to escape into town only to be stopped by (quite brilliantly added digital) fog, and then she bumps into her long-absent husband... only he's not quite right, is he? And with good cause. I've tried to get my partner to watch this on a number of occasions, and she just won't. Tells you all need to know about the goosebump-inducing, dream-disrupting, lights-back-on-please qualities of this excellent chiller.

Come and play with us. Forever.01. The Shining
Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) will know that I am a huge fan of both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick, so there was only ever going to be one film at the top of this list, even if King doesn't like what Kubrick did with his story. The film's minimal principal cast all provide sterling performances - Jack is unhinged, whilst Shelley Duvall gets so annoying that you'd want to bash her brains in too. Danny pulls all the right faces, whilst Scatman Crothers provides a nice turn as the false-dawn-rescuer (a neat plot trick that King reprised in Misery). Again, like so many of the films here, isolation and loneliness are key themes, caretaking the Overlook Hotel through a long, snowbound Winter - no Internet or email back then, and when the phone lines go down... well, poor Jack is left alone with his writer's block (another recurrent King theme) and his annoying wife. In a hotel that is soaked in the blood of past unpleasantness. A recipe for disaster, you'd think, and you'd be right. The film is very different from the book, and personally I prefer the celluloid ending to the paper one. What really gets me with this film though is the atmosphere, the mounting tension (which starts to spiral right from the outset and doesn't stop ascending once). The tingling score is used to great effect, as are Kubrick's trademark clinical sets and clean lighting, and of course the then-innovative use of steadicam for many of the roaming shots. Throw in the scene in room 237, the twins, the elevator, the maze, Lloyd the bartender and, why not, a man being fellated by someone in a bear costume... this is an unhinged, unsettling, un-everything film. I'll leave you with a scene from the movie in which Jack and his missus discuss baseball, and just to end this post on a lighter note, a scene from the best of all The Simpsons' Treehouse Of Horrors spoofs, The Shinning ("You mean Shining." "Shhh! You wanna get sued?"). Enjoy.

So those are my favourites (for now). How about yours?

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Richard Littlejohn should be called Dick. Discuss.

After his latest frankly unbelievable outpouring of splenetic bile (can bile be splenetic? Who knows. You get what I'm saying though, don't you?), I was going to write a diatribe about Richard Littlejohn. Unfortunately, I'm a bit pushed for time at the moment, and blogging has had to give. Fortunately for us both then that the often-excellent BitterWallet has already got it covered.

Monday 25 October 2010

Clandestine Classic IX - Save Me, I'm Yours (#keepingitpeel)

The ninth 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 a Peel session track by one of my favourite bands, Gene. I've raved about them before, most notably when I wrote a top ten gigs list a little while back. They were ace, and I'd wish they'd reform, but let's not digress... Today's offering has been especially chosen to tie in with the #keepingitpeel initiative started by Webbie. To avoid paraphrasing him, I'll just quote him directly:
There should be a web version of the John Peel Day, with this one being commemorated by all the bloggers, tweeters, LJ users and tumblr’s out there. If you are Facebook then please join in too. So on the 25th October 2010 I want everybody to post a Peel Session track by any of their favourite bands. If you are a Facebook user post a link to a You Tube video. If you are on Twitter then on October 25th post a tweet using the hashtag: #keepingitpeel and add a song/video clip, again from a Peel session.
So here's my contribution, in memory of the late, great DJ. Save Me, I'm Yours was recorded by Gene for a Peel Session on the 14th of December 1995, and beautifully showcases the band's many strengths. It also illustrates nicely how there was much more to them than the lazy Smiths comparisons they suffered (or enjoyed?) early in their career.

Gene split a long time ago. A couple of the members went on to form the also-quite-good Palace Fires, and you can read what Martin Rossiter's up to these days on Twitter and Facebook. If you just want to revel in the excellence of Gene though, you can find today's clandestine classic on the band's Peel Session double CD, whilst the original studio recording can be found on their 1997 album Drawn To The Deep End (from which my fiction blog unashamedly steals it name). Alternatively, naughty downloading boys and girls may be interested in this, but you didn't here that from me. Or, from YouTube, how about the Peel Session version and, for the sake of completeness, the studio version too. And remember, keep on #keepingitpeel...

Friday 22 October 2010

The good, the bad and the ugly II

No, I'm not going to write about Clint Eastwood films, or Sergio Leone. Instead, there are three unrelated matters that I want to draw to your attention, for very different reasons. I did G, B & U once before, here.

The good
My local independent art-house cinema is showing a series of scary films late on Fridays. It's already showed The Exorcist, which I had to miss unfortunately, and next month it's showing the original version of The Omen, which I'm going to try to make. Most exciting of all though is tonight's showing of Alien. This will be the first time I've seen Ridley Scott's masterpiece of intelligent science-fiction on the big screen and, frankly, I cannot wait. It's the director's cut too, so I will be looking out for any differences from the original theatrical release. All this makes me realise how lucky I am to have such an excellent cinema close by - it wasn't so long ago that I was enthusing about their special presentation of 2001, remember? In fact, it's so good, I'll give it a plug. Oh, and is this a good time to mention the (frankly sacreligious but strangely amusing) Bun-o-vision Alien parody...?

The bad
What kind of blithering idiot is Wayne Rooney? Not content on cheating on a woman who loved him before he was rich and famous (and when I say cheating, of course I mean throwing money at whores), he now claims he needs to leave Manchester United because he wants to win trophies... obvously Man U haven't won much in the last twenty years, have they? Yes, those words do stick in my throat, but it's the truth, so what can I do? Perhaps Man City are showing the ambition that Rooney apparently seeks. Oh, and coincidentally they may also show the sort of ludicrous wages that will keep him in whores for months. It's a very sorry saga. And then as soon as I write this, United announce that the ogre-faced, dirty little thug of a footballer has just signed a new five-year deal to keep him at Old Trafford. Tawdry lunacy...

The ugly
I know what you're thinking - surely Rooney should be The Ugly, right? But that would have been too easy, wouldn't it? No, The Ugly in this trio is represented by Vodafone and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The former owed the latter £6bn in back-taxes. That's right, six billion... not to labour the point or anything, but that's £6,000,000,000 (and before anyone contacts me about the number of zeroes there, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, British English has now "standardised" on the US definition of billion). So what does David Hartnett, HMRC permanent secretary, do, at a time of severe austerity measures and drastic cuts in just about every area of public spending? At a time when public sector employees face the very real prospect of real-terms pay cuts, increased pension contributions or even redundancy? He writes off the debt. No, seriously, he writes off £6bn that you, me and every other Joe Taxpayer are owed. Why? Who knows? Certainly not me, and I've Googled it to death. But whatever the reason, please can someone explain to me how this doesn't stink?

Monday 11 October 2010

Is there a name for graffiti that is also art?

Is there a name for graffiti that is also art? Maybe a compound or hybrid name? I tried to come up with one but "graffarti" just doesn't sound right, does it? A shame, but there you go. I guess we'll just have to stick with calling it "art", plain and simple. Anyway, here's the latest example of street art (hey, that's a bit catchier) to be spotted on the walls of my adopted home town (more here and here).

Friday 8 October 2010

Clandestine Classic VIII - Nanny In Manhattan

The eighth 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 jeans-ad-driven one-hit wonder from New York retroists Lilys. If you've heard this before then maybe you're old enough to remember the 1998 Levi's ad for (I think) silver tab jeans that a snippet of this song was used to soundtrack. Back then, being used on a Levi's ad was a passport to immediate singles chart success. With that song, at least... after all, didn't I just say thay Lilys were one-hit wonders over here? From what I can glean from their Wikipedia page, they haven't enjoyed that much more chart success in their home country either but, frankly, who cares?

I've written before about the perils and pitfalls of music that is used for adverts, but happily Nanny In Manhattan is another of the exceptions that prove the rule. It is a joyous thing to behold - a perfect retro pop-nugget, less than two minutes in length, that recalls 1966 Beatles, early Monkees (i.e. when their songs were written by other people), a bit of the Kinks, hey, maybe even a pinch of some Yardbirds. It's almost a pastiche... but it's one that has been so carefully crafted, and clearly by someone who loves, respects and (crucially) understands the working of music from that era, that it works so well. The only ever-present member of Lilys is Kurt Heasley; he described how Levi's came to use this track by saying "they wanted something kitschy and retro, but didn't want to pay for a Small Faces' tune" and that just about sums it up.

As a teen in the Eighties, I devoured Sixties music in parallel with my love for The Jam, The Smiths, The Wedding Present and The Stone Roses. Songs that were recorded before I was born became engrained in me, and still are. Maybe that's why I loved this song so much when I heard it on the jeans ad, enough to be one of the many who propelled the single to #16 in the UK singles chart. Certainly that's why I still love it enough for it to be today's clandestine classic. You can still pick it up on Lilys' 1997 debut album Better Can't Make Your Life Better, which apparently is so good that I've just added it to my Amazon Wish List. If you just want to listen (and watch), then check out the original promo for the song below, courtesy of YouTube. Is it just me that watches this and thinks of the Monkees TV show...? No, thought not. Enjoy.

Friday 1 October 2010

Free, legal MP3s... interested?

It may be stating the obvious, and maybe you all know this already... but since Amazon starting selling music downloads they have a small selection of free, legal MP3s that you can "buy" for the princely sum of zero pence. Yes, you still have to go through their checkout rigmarole, but they cost you nothing and they're legit, so who cares?

Exactly which tracks you'll find there change (very) frequently, so you'll have to chance you arm. Oh, and check back often. But unlike some other companies' free offerings, Amazon at least features some artists you'll have heard of. So here's the link - bookmark it!

Thursday 30 September 2010

The quarterly review III

Back in March I documented all the books I'd read during the first quarter of the year, and in June I did the same thing for the second quarter. Exciting, no? So exciting, in fact, that it's time to do it again for, you've guessed it, the third quarter. And whilst I haven't read as much as I would like recently, one of the books was a 900-page brick, so it's not like I haven't been putting in at least some time. Anyway, here goes - sorry for the brevity and, for non-fans, that it's a bit of a King-fest. As before, hover over the book covers for my 255-character reviews...

Tuesday 21 September 2010

If you only buy one DVD box-set this year...

...make it this one...

Television just doesn't get any better than Our Friends In The North, at least not television of a serious-adult-drama nature. Impressive in breadth and scale (it covers more than thirty years in the lives of four friends) it was, in my view, the making of its stars - Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong, Daniel Craig and the ever-wonderful Gina McKee (who won a best-actress BAFTA for her role). And I don't even feel slightly miffed that this is being released (on the 27th, but you can pre-order it now) just a couple of months after I had spent hours painstakingly transcribing an old begged/borrowed/stolen VHS copy onto DVD... because of course that gave me an excuse to watch the whole glorious thing again...

They don't make TV like this any more... a pity...

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Turn your home town into a wilderness

My internal jury is still out on Arcade Fire - some days I think they sound too interesting for words, yet on others I tire very quickly of their rambly noodling.

Having said that, they, together with "some friends from Google" and film-maker Chris Milk are responsible for one of the coolest and most interesting mash-ups I think I've ever seen. Their interactive film The Wilderness Downtown, featuring We Used To Wait, is available to watch online - being a Google co-production you'll need Chrome to get the full effect. I'll warn you, you'll need a fastish PC and a decent Internet connection too. But the video - sorry, interactive film - is worth it. Using Google Maps' satellite imagery and StreetView pictures, your home town (which you have to specify at the outset - it isn't that clever) becomes the backdrop for the film. So simple in concept, yet staggeringly effective and, for this boy at least, genuinely entrancing. A real showcase for HTML5 too.

When the movie ends you get prompted to write a postcard message to your younger self, the self that resided in that home town. If you do, there's a chance your message may be used in future Arcade Fire stage backdrops or video material. Plus there's a chance that people may respond to your postcard message, so hang on to the "responses" link they give you at the end.

Go on, have a look. You don't have to register, or anything so annoying, and you get to see your home town starring in a music video. How cool is that?

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 gave 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 initial 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 because 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...