Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Future, Mr. Gittes!

Wrapping things up and clearing things down here at Stately AKA Manor, just in time to kick 2010 out the door (that lousy bum!). But before I welcome in 2011 with a rakish grin on my face, I wanted to dig out one more thing before it gets consigned to the archive.

At the beginning of this year, I had a thin sliver of microfiction published in Icon magazine’s Fiction issue (cover dated February 2010 and numbered issue 80) in a section titled “Stories for the end of the decade”. The brief, in their words, was that “It had to be connected to architecture, design or urbanism, but otherwise writers were free to do what they liked.” And it had to come in at 100 words or less. For what it’s worth, mine was exactly 100 words. For posterity and your fleeting amusement, I present it here:

And with that, I’m gone for the year. Happy New Year, friends and readers! I’ll catch you on the other side.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Thirteen Days - The Roger Donaldson Interview

Seeing Anne Billson digging through her archives for some great vintage interviews to post on her blog MULTIGLOM (Go! Read them now! I’ll wait.) has inspired me to look back through my own cache of long-forgotten witterings to see if I can find anything blog-worthy. Here goes...

Back in the early months of 2001 I’d already been writing for the film website 6degrees for well over a year, but I was about to pop my interviewing cherry by sitting down with director Roger Donaldson who was in London to promote the release of Thirteen Days, a terrific film chronicling the terrifying moment in October 1962 when the world was teetering precariously on the brink of nuclear war. (Side note: I was one of the only reviewers who wasn’t given any access to the film’s star Kevin Costner, although he did brush past me in a corridor as I left.) It would be one of the last articles published on the site, just before it folded up and drifted away in the mass implosion of the first dotcom crash.

I’d been a huge fan of Donaldson’s No Way Out for years, so I was excited and nervous. About 80% nervous to 20% excited. I turned up at the Dorchester Hotel over an hour early and just paced around outside chain-smoking trying to get my head straight, worrying about whether the DAT recorder I’d borrowed would explode or how often I would mindlessly go “ummm” and “errr” (answer: a lot. They all disappeared thanks to the magic of transcription, along with a painful amount of my fatuous interjections.)

Before I switched on the DAT recorder, I told Mr. Donaldson that he was my first ever interview, so if he wanted to just talk freely if I stumbled, that would be fine with me. (I have no shame. None.) He was a gracious and charming interview subject, even though he’d been sitting there all day talking to journalists and he was saddled with me for his last interview of the day as we headed into the early evening. Looking back at the interview now, I can’t help noticing the section towards the end when he digresses to talk about starting out in a career, as if he’s talking directly to me.

One more thing to bear in mind. This interview took place in March 2001 - six months before the events of September 11th and a couple of years before Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, which makes this interview something of an interesting relic from a different time. Enough preamble - let’s get to it:


6degrees – The first thing that struck me about Thirteen Days is that it works on quite a few levels: there is the obvious epic scope of the whole thing and its global ramifications, then you have the relatively intimate portrayal of a group of men making incredibly hard decisions, and then you also have the relationship between the Kennedy brothers and Kenny O’Donnell. Which of these elements in particular attracted you to this film?

Roger Donaldson – Well I think, to be honest, before I read the script I thought I knew a lot about the event, and as I read the script I realized first of all how little I knew, and then secondly how dramatic and suspenseful this story was and how so many things went wrong it’s a wonder that it didn’t end badly, and as I turned every page I just wanted to know what happened next, and I thought that if I feel this way about the script, I’ve got to be able to make an exciting, thrilling movie about this. There were a number of other reasons, of course, that I was attracted to it, but the most basic thing was that I just really did feel like it was a good story that I could tell well.

6degrees - Did you know going in that you wanted to do it as a political thriller?

RD - Yeah. The movie was a political thriller, and the script was a political thriller, and I’ve always been interested in thrillers. In a way, every movie I make I think of as a thriller, whatever it is there’s always an element of tension and building suspense. Even a movie like Cocktail in its own way for me has got an element of that. I like movies that are about relationships and how they resolve themselves and how the politics of relationships play out, and in this particular case I just felt like, boy, this is a very tense story, the stakes were enormous, the characters were going into uncharted territory as these events played out, and I’ve got to be able to make a compelling story out of this material.

6degrees – Did you find that we were much closer to apocalypse than anybody could have possibly imagined? Do you think the people in that room were the only ones who really understood the implications of what was happening?

RD – Well, first of all the script made that point. But I was interested to know what the reality of it was with some of the people that had experienced it, and one of the things that I managed to do was to hunt down a lot of people who had been part of the real story. I managed to find the guy who had flown the first low-level photography runs over Cuba, I managed to find Ted Sorensen who was the speech writer for Kennedy, people like Robert McNamara are still alive who I spoke to and every one of these people reiterated that at the time they believed that it was going to happen, they really thought there was going to be a war, and they were convinced it was going to be a nuclear war, and they had this feeling of inevitability about it, accepting that there was nothing they could do to stop this thing happening, and you talk to someone like Robert McNamara now and he says “I don’t know how it didn’t happen”.

6degrees – And there are moments in the film where it’s so close.

RD – And that’s how he felt. He really thought that on that night when they delivered the ultimatum to the Russians and Bobby Kennedy goes off to speak to Dobrynin that there was no way the Russians were going to back down. They were painted into a corner because of this U2 being shot down, they felt like they had to take a pre-emptive strike against the missile sites and then all hell would have broken loose.

6degrees – Apart from the fact that the story is incredibly dramatic, do you also feel that it is incredibly relevant, in that this is something that could conceivably happen again?

RD – Well, things are different these days, and there’s one big difference, and that is that communications now are instant. Now, the President of the United States can get on the telephone and get through to Putin, and vice versa. So there is that instant communication. However, that doesn’t necessarily make resolving conflict any easier as we’ve seen.

6degrees – The film also seems to hammer home the fact that these massive events are dealt with by a select group of people, and these events succeed or fail on the merits of the key decision makers.

RD - Yeah. Look at how the Second and First World Wars got going, or the Bosnian War, or the wars that are happening right now in Africa. Take the Middle East, for example. There are a half dozen people calling all the shots, and you hope that there are some smart ones there! Because they’re not always that smart, and some of them just get there because they’re the most ambitious, but not necessarily the smartest.

6degrees – Another thing that struck me about the film was the fact that in recent years, and this is particularly relevant for younger audiences seeing this film, the name Kennedy is usually heard in association with Marilyn Monroe or Lee Harvey Oswald, and it’s refreshing to see Kennedy portrayed as a politician. Was this a side of him you consciously chose to put across?

RD – First of all, I made this movie for the young man I once was. I think that there is a lot of crap out there for young people, there are a lot of movies that speak down to them, that treat them like they’re stupid, as if all they care about is getting laid and going to dance clubs. Now, I was that kid too once, but there was also another side of me that was a serious person who cared about the world, who was idealistic, who cared about politics, and who felt that on the one hand, I was not really able to affect what happened in the world, but at the same time, realising that I was part of it.

At the time of the Vietnam War, I felt like I was a pawn in America’s plans and I got conscripted to go to Vietnam. I don’t know where I got it from, but ultimately I got this savvy and realized that this was not a bright idea, and as an 18 year old kid to get the courage to stand up to everybody, to all these adults who are going to put you in jail, or put you up against a wall and shoot you, or whatever, it takes a bit of courage to stand up and say “I’m not going to do what you tell me to do”. So I’ve always had that idealism and I remember that idealism that tends with age to pass you by a bit, and you get more of a realist about the world as you see the reality. I just think that there are a lot of issues now to do with nuclear weapons that young people should not just sit back and think everything is OK, because it’s not OK, and I would love this movie to be a focal point for examining the past and examining the present. I feel quite strongly about that. But the movie is entertainment too. I don’t think it’s a boring movie. It’s a history lesson, and you get your money’s worth.

6degrees – Are there any other historical moments that you would be particularly attracted to in terms of any future projects?

RD – History comes with baggage, unfortunately. And the further back you go the easier it becomes because people either don’t remember or they don’t care or it’s irrelevant. If you’re making something about Cleopatra, nobody even knows if she was Egyptian or if she was from Timbuktu, nobody really knows. I’m not a great history buff. The thing I would like to do is things that I’m passionate about, and I think this movie reminded me of that passion that I started my filmmaking career with and I don’t want to lose sight of that passion that I know I have. One of the great things about being young and getting out there and starting out your career is you have a passion and you know how hard it is to make headway. Your own ambition can take you a long way too, and you’re only as good as you know you are. The hardest person to convince is yourself, and it doesn’t get any easier as you get older. You still have to face the reality of your life, and how hard it is to get creative things happening, how tough it is to withstand the criticism that creativity always attracts, how single-minded you have to be, how prepared you have to be to sacrifice everything to get what you want, and yet, you’ve got to be a realist too, and you’ve got to make a living.

The movies that I want to make are the ones that I’m passionate about and where I feel that I’ve got something to say. Not in a preaching way, but just how I feel about whatever the movie is about. One of the most passionate movies that I ever made is a movie called Smash Palace, which I wrote, produced and directed myself, and its about a divorce, and it’s a gut-wrenching, up close and personal look at divorce but it’s also funny, entertaining, horrific and shocking, and it was a very successful movie for me and I keep remembering how hard it was to make, and how good I felt when I felt I’d made a movie I’d succeeded in, and I feel that way about Thirteen Days too. Thirteen Days was a very personal movie for me to make, even though it wasn’t my idea to make it. It was a very personal movie for me to be involved in because it was about issues that I have very strong opinions about, but it also embraced my strengths as a filmmaker who has succeeded in making some good thrillers.

One of the best reviews I’ve got was a review that said that the movie could be added to the fairly short list of great movies that have been made about the Cold War, movies like Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May, which are some of my favourite movies of all-time. So, sometime you get patted on the back and you go, Yep, you got it, and I feel like I got what I wanted to get, but I’m sure that there will be other reviews that won’t see it in the same light and they won’t see the relevance of it.

6degrees – I also thought it could be added to quite a select group of films that illustrate that men in rooms talking can be a phenomenally cinematic thing, films like Twelve Angry Men and Glengarry Glen Ross.

RD – And they don’t come along often. In some ways, it’s the hardest part of making movies, to make straight dialogue gripping and to get the audience listening. It’s hard. People aren’t used to listening for long periods of time.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Freaks Come Out At Night - VHS, video nasties and Trash Humpers


I remember watching The Exorcist for the first time decades ago on a murky VHS copy that must have been copied from tape-to-tape many times over before it got to me. It was virtually, but not quite, unwatchable. It was that borderline can’t-quite-see-it-properly feeling that made it so terrifying. In the wake of the Video Recordings Act 1984, Warner Brothers had decided not to submit The Exorcist to the BBFC for classification, and it remained legally unavailable in the UK until the theatrical re-release in 1998. If you weren’t lucky enough to own a pre-certification copy, the only way to see it was on copied tapes passed around amongst friends. It scared the shit out of me, and I wouldn’t watch it again until the sparkling new prints appeared in cinemas again.

When I saw if for the second time, it felt like a totally different film. On VHS, I was horrified by the staticy indistinct images on the degraded tape. By what I couldn’t see just as much as what I could. On a cinema screen, my fear was superseded with utter exhilaration at watching William Friedkin’s perfectly-realised vision of The Devil Comes To Georgetown. The Exorcist remains one of my favourite films of all time, but it has never scared me once since that first viewing. The horrors remained on that videocassette, as if it were only the moulded black plastic shell and magnetic tape themselves that contained the real terrors.

And now along comes Harmony Korine, putting the nasty back into video.

There is a moment relatively early on in Trash Humpers which shows a fat kid in a suit bludgeoning a toy baby doll’s head repeatedly with a hammer, laughing and saying “I told ya I’d kill her!” over and over again, the dull thwack of the hammer’s weight bouncing off the hard plastic, causing the doll to jump off the ground in a grotesque dance. Watching Trash Humpers feels a little bit like being the plastic doll, with Korine wielding the indiscriminate hammer straight at your head.

The title of the film is the only synopsis you need. It’s not an evocative metaphor like Reservoir Dogs or Chinatown. It really is about people who hump trash. If I’d hated it, this would be my opportunity to skewer the film by twisting the title into a two-word review: Fucking Rubbish.

There are two stock phrases that a depressingly large number of unimaginative writers wheel out to describe Harmony Korine: “enfant terrible” (which should really be retired now that he’s 37) and “agent provocateur”. But both of those phrases are just lazy critical shorthand that ultimately say nothing. It would be more accurate to say that Korine is Loki, the trickster of cinema, or maybe a carnival barker ready to parade his latest succession of freaks.

Presented as found footage (a discarded VHS cassette that plays like the home movies of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface and family) Trash Humpers is divorced from any kind of coherent narrative or context. And without either to hold on to as an anchor, it’s an unsettling succession of unconnected scenes that are stretched past the point where they become boring, and yet it is that very interminable repetition that makes it so disturbing, until the cumulative effect takes on a seductive, compelling quality. Some of the most interesting bits in Trash Humpers comes from the limitations of VHS, random unavoidable moments of picture distortion, colour saturation, static and screen-roll.

With a running time of only 78 minutes, Trash Humpers feels much longer, and I wriggled restlessly watching it all in one sitting. No matter how much you may dislike it whilst it plays out in front of your eyes, it has a way of getting under your skin and haunting you until you want to sit through it again. It’s a film that manages to repulse you whilst hypnotising you at the same time. I’m already toying with a second viewing just writing about it here.

Trash Humpers is available on DVD via Warp Films from 20th September and, this is the bit I really like, you can also pick it up on individually customised VHS tapes or even, if you have £7,500 to spare, on a 35mm film print. Click here for further details.

Friday, September 03, 2010

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

Warning: If you haven’t seen Toy Story 3 yet, Here Be SPOILERS.


I saw Toy Story when it came out fifteen years ago and fell madly in love with it straight away. That love has only increased with the passage of time.

Shortly afterwards, the not-yet-Mrs. AKA bought me a Buzz Lightyear for my birthday - a gift that proudly sat on a shelf in my home office, occasionally taken down so that I could press the button which would allow him to call out to me. “This is an intergalactic emergency!“. “I am Buzz Lightyear. I come in peace”. “To Infinity And Beyond!”.

The fact that I was well into my twenties was irrelevant. I was Andy, and Buzz was my toy and everything was as it should be.

Four years later, I saw Toy Story 2 and my love for Andy’s toys continued to grow. (Although I flout conventional wisdom by maintaining that the first remains the finest in the series.)

Fast-forward. My daughter was not even two year’s old when she pulled my Toy Story DVD down off the shelf. It was the first film that she ever watched from beginning to end, riveted to the screen and falling in love with Woody, Buzz and the gang in the same way that I had a decade earlier. Soon after, she took the Buzz Lightyear down off my office shelf, and then toddled over to my desk to grab a black Sharpie and press it into my palm. She told me that she wanted me to write her name on the sole of one of Buzz’s feet, just like Andy did with his toys. My Buzz Lightyear was now her Buzz Lightyear.

As the years have passed, we’ve both seen the first two Toy Story movies so many times that we can quote whole reams of them verbatim. They are as exciting and funny and moving as they’ve always been, and we never tire of them. From a solitary Buzz Lightyear, her cache of toys has grown to include all the main players in the Toy Story saga. Woody is her favourite. She will plant his hat on his head at a suitably rakish angle, yank the pull-cord on his back and grin in delight as he tells her that “You’re my favourite deputy!”, before planting him on the back of his trusty steed Bullseye for a ride around the carpet.

Last month, we finally went to see Toy Story 3 together (in glorious 2D). I don’t know which one of us cried more. She was inconsolable as Andy finally said goodbye to his toys. I scooped her up into my arms to reassure her that this was a happy ending, that the toys were getting what they’d always wanted - someone who would love them and play with them. But as her little body trembled with sobs, I was choking back hard on my own emotions. Because I finally realised that I’d been wrong all along. I wasn’t Andy. I was Woody. And one day, my daughter will grow up and put away her childish things.

I’ll just hold on to what Woody tells Buzz at the end of Toy Story 2: “It’ll be fun while it lasts.”

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Thank you, Namaste and Goodbye


This should go without saying, but there are big, honking SPOILERS for the end of Lost in this post. This is your last and only warning.

Lost has been one of my enduring obsessions for the last six years, and that will sound like a staggering understatement to anybody who has ever met me. I'm sure that I've bored the shit out of everyone by talking about it endlessly. This isn't an apology. This is, however, intended to be my final public utterances about Lost. Time to open our eyes one last time...


The final episode of Lost absolutely worked for me, and as time passes, I appreciate it more and more. Whilst I accept and understand that it was never going to work for everybody (and I do have my own issues with some elements of the final season's FlashSideways strand) some of the more vitriolic responses I've read have puzzled me, in particular the hysterical screeds weighted with an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Writers have one duty only - to tell the story that they want to tell, not the story the audience wants to see. (And let's take it as read that you can't please all of the people all of the time.)

The dissatisfied segment of the audience seem to have one overriding complaint - that all of the questions and mysteries set up over the last six years weren't answered. Personally, I don't have a problem with that. I'm glad that everything wasn't answered. Lost wasn't a parlour game or a mathematical equation that needed solving. It was a story. Stories should entertain on some level without succumbing to lumpen piles of narrative-killing exposition. Stories aren't about answering questions. They are about asking questions. And one of the things that I loved about the Lost finale was that it was sufficiently ambiguous in places to allow room for the viewer's interpretation to seep in and fill the gaps. After all, did we really need a cast-iron scientific or even mystical explanation of the Island in painstaking detail?

If you don't believe me, then look at Heroes or FlashForward - shows that tried to emulate the multi-character narrative and mysteries that had worked for Lost and failed. Because they were so wrapped up in the mythology and the puzzles and the tricksy answers, that they short-changed the characters. And without the characters, you may as well just pack that shit up and go home.

But Lost knew that if you placed the characters front and centre, with convincing, compelling characters played by talented, well-cast actors, then the audience will follow you anywhere. It's no coincidence that the first season dwelt almost exclusively on the survivors of Oceanic 815 and their backstory before unleashing all the freakier elements. Because once you buy into the characters, you'll have less resistance to smoke monsters and four-toed statues and time travel. They just become additional elements woven into the story.

Cries of "They were making it up as they went along!" were inevitable. Specific character beats and details were undoubtedly shaped in the process of scripting, sure. All good writing evolves as it gets sculpted and crafted on the page. Why reject a new idea or insight or scene if it helps the story? But with hindsight, you can find evidence of the ending seeded throughout the show's past. After all, we were clearly told "All of this matters" and Jacob's answer is the clearest explanation of the ending: "It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress."

Jack was always meant to be the one who killed the Smoke Monster. All of his experiences since the plane crash were leading him towards that final moment, and he needed all of those experiences and relationships to get there. Likewise, Hurley was always going to be Jacob's true replacement for the same reasons. (And I never bought into Jack as the Candidate. He could never have been the Candidate, because he was meant to literally be the Shepherd).

On the subject of the Smoke Monster, I can't call him the Man in Black or Jacob's brother. Riven with guilt and grief and warped by his adoptive mother, Jacob made the mistake of treating the monster as his brother, even though I think Across the Sea shows that it was not his brother, it was just a skin for the monster to wear. It wasn't Jacob's brother, just as it wasn't John Locke or Christian Shephard or Alex Rousseau. In the Season 3 episode The Cost of Living, the Smoke Monster as Yemi, just before he deals the death blow to Mr. Eko, says: "You speak to me as if I were your brother!", a subtle bit of foreshadowing that wasn't destined to pay-off for another three years.

Or, if we are trawling through a backlog of 121 episodes for pointers to the ending, how about Penny's letter to Desmond tucked away in his copy of Our Mutual Friend way back in the Season 2 finale Live Together, Die Alone? In particular, I'm thinking of the line "Because all we really need to survive is one person who truly loves us."

And how about the Dharma Initiative's greeting of "Namaste", which ties in to both the glowing light in the heart of the Island and the environment of the FlashSideways, because any Yoga practitioner will be able to tell you that "Namaste" translates from Sanskrit as "The light in me sees the light in you". If anyone has an issue with the spiritual overtones of the finale, it may be worth pointing out that Lost has always been peppered with religious markers along the way from Christian Shephard (and I'm stunned that so many viewers seem to have missed the connotations of that name. Names have always been significant in the Lost universe) to "God loves you as He loved Jacob" and Eko's Jesus Stick inscribed with "Lift up your eyes and look north John 3:05". And that's barely scratching the surface.

So fuck the naysayers. I liked it a lot. I loved the reappearance of Frank Goddamn Lapidus. I never believed for a second that he had died in the submarine explosion. The Island had tried to pull him there three times (once as the pilot of Oceanic 815; once on Widmore's freighter and finally as the pilot of the Ajira flight.) After all that effort to get Lapidus there, he wasn't going to be killed off so easily. Everyone brought to the Island was there for a reason (John Locke was right) and, never forget, you don't get to die or escape if "The Island isn't done with you yet."

Then there is the perfect yin and yang of Hurley and Ben taking over as the Island's protectors, a double-act of the one with the sweetest, most incorruptible nature reaching out to the one with the most blood-stained, tainted soul to forge a new way forward, breaking the centuries-old cycle driven by Jacob's dysfunction and Mommy issues and free from the destructive powers of the Smoke Monster.

The Ajira plane takes off as the Island is finally done with our survivors. Richard is finally ready to live (his first grey hair was just one of many killer moments in the finale). Claire is finally ready to be a mother (as she was told way back in the first season "It is crucial that you yourself raise this child."). Kate has finally allowed herself to love unselfishly. Miles and Sawyer are finally ready to star in the wisecracking buddy-cop spinoff LaFleur. (Oh how I wish that last one were true).

And how beautiful it was that the plane carrying his friends home was the last thing that Jack saw before he was allowed to die. The Island was done with him, and Jack had finally done what he had been trying and failing to do over and over and over again since the beginning. He fixed everything. And, damn, if I didn't get a little misty-eyed when Vincent came loping out of the bamboo cane to lie down next to Jack. They had all learned to Live Together, so Jack didn't have to Die Alone.

And now one of the most literate, erudite, thought-provoking, ambitious, densely-layered, exciting and sometimes infuriating mainstream shows in recent memory is over. Where else are you going to find a show where the world is saved by the combined forces of true love and duct tape? But now it's time for me to shut the fuck up about Lost once and for all. What happened, happened. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Face/Off


I deleted my Facebook account a couple of weeks ago. I probably should have mentioned that before, I suppose, but I've been kinda busy.

As timesucks go, for me Facebook was by far the most useless. I never really "got" it (and believe me, I tried).

Like a lot of people, I was concerned with the labyrinthine counter-intuitive privacy settings, but that wasn't the thing that made me delete my account.

And I was fed up of the endless stream of invites to events in different fucking timezones that I was never going to go to, and the frivolous "Which mould spore are you?" quizzes, and the invites to "friend" people I met once at a bus stop in 1987. But none of those things were the spur I needed to delete my account.

No, the decisive push which made me finally press the "Sayonara Bye Bye" button was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg referring to his user base as "dumb fucks". That statement needs no further editorialising from me does it? No, I didn't think so.

So, that's one crusty barnacle I've managed to scrape from my online presence, and I have no regrets whatsoever.

I am, of course, still babbling uncontrollably over on Twitter. See you there, muchachos!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

And Then There Were Four


The ranks of the AKA Army have grown by one.

My son was born at 2.07am this morning. He weighed 7 pounds and 14 ounces. At least, I think he did. Does. I'm a little bit addled from sleep-deprivation. I've only had two hours sleep since I woke up at 6am on Tuesday morning. I should probably do something about that...

Also: Longest. Labour. Ever.

I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly thank him for waiting until after the Lost finale before arriving. Thanks, son! I'll never forget this.

He doesn't have a name yet...we're still working on it. I'll add it to the ToDo list.

Mother and baby are doing well. Mrs. AKA was a goddamn warrior and impressed the shit out of me. Gritted teeth never looked so sexy. My daughter is adapting to a new little brother. She seems to enjoy singing to him. He seems to enjoy listening to her sing. This is gonna work out just fine.

That's enough for now. My duvet, it calls to me.

(Above picture is an artist's respresentation only. Not actual baby).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Cat on the Mantelpiece


Last week, despite my general disdain for remakes in general and horror remakes in particular, I watched Breck Eisner's new iteration of George A. Romero's The Crazies. There seems to be something sufficiently sturdy and robust about Romero's stories and ideas that means that his work tends to withstand a reheating at the hands of others. And The Crazies 2010 proved that - it was pretty good fun and it moves. But I can never just sit and enjoy a horror movie without trying to pick it apart and see how all the pieces fit together, examining what works and what doesn't. So this is me musing out loud about the mechanics of horror movies.

I have a pet phrase I use when talking about horror movies called "the cat on the mantelpiece". It means a cheap, fake-out jump scare. For example: a character apprehensively walks into an empty room and, without warning, a cat jumps off the mantelpiece and makes them (and the audience) jump. Or someone suddenly reaches into the frame from off-screen and grabs a character's arm. There's no other context or anything specifically scary about these moments. It's just a cheap jump. I'm not overly fond of them, but they do have their uses. For a start, it puts your audience on edge and sets up a feeling of unease. You can have one or two of these towards the beginning of a movie and that's fine. When it comes to setting the tone, any trick is fair game.

But if you overuse them (and The Crazies came dangerously close to overdoing it with "cat on the mantelpiece" gags, but just about got away with it), or if you are still using them deep into your running time, I lose patience pretty quickly. Anyone can do a "cat on the mantelpiece" gag. It's the equivalent of a fart in a comedy. Cheap, easy, effective but lazy. By the time you are deep into the story, you should be furnishing the audience with real scares driven by the tone, the situation, the story, the characters, the monsters, whatever. Not extraneous jumpy things because you haven't figured out another, better way to provide scares.

(Sidenote: Sam Raimi is a master of "cat on the mantelpiece" gags, and Drag Me To Hell is chock full of great ones. But most filmmakers aren't Sam Raimi and don't possess his judgment and sense of pace and timing for these things. Raimi knows when to use them and how to use them, giving Drag Me To Hell an infectious sense of fun.)

But thinking about the "cat on the mantelpiece" also leads me to thinking about framing in general. In horror movies, if I ever see a character framed to the side, I'm never looking at them (regardless of the intention of the director). My eye is always drawn to the dead space to their left or right, because I'm expecting something to happen over there. And even if nothing happens and if it has still served to unsettle me somewhat, then that's fine. The importance of tone in horror can't be underestimated.

I'm particularly fond of frames within frames: TV sets, windows, open doorways - because they can either serve as a separate focal point, or can somehow emphasise the action happening in the wider frame. One of my favourite frame-within-a-frame moments works beautifully for both horror and comedic purposes - the moment in Shaun of the Dead when Shaun is fiddling with the fusebox at the Winchester and inadvertently switches on an outside light briefly, even though he himself misses it:


Also? Hazmat suits. Hazmat suits are inherently creepy and are probably under-utilised in The Crazies. Whenever you can't see someone's face or eyes, when they are wrapped in gas masks and shapeless, creaking plastic, it serves to dehumanise them and makes them something to be feared. Interestingly, the absence of a visible face doesn't apply to superhero movies, but that's because an invisible face is supposed to unsettle other characters in the story, not the audience. Spider-Man isn't scary to us, because we've already seen nerdy Peter Parker before the mask goes on. Going back to Raimi again for a second, he has to resort to tricks that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko never had to worry about. In Spider-Man comics, it's perfectly acceptable for entire comics to show Spider-Man masked. But in movies, the problem is that masks don't emote (with the possible exception of V for Vendetta, where Hugo Weaving managed to convey so much with tilts of the head and other little bits and pieces of subtle body language). You can't see fear or anger or tears through a mask. And you can't see the face of the leading actor who has been paid so much to wear the iconic spandex. (Or their bloody tears. What is it about modern storytelling that demands that the protagonists get all weepy-eyed all the time? Lazy, lazy storytelling shorthand. Yes, Doctor Who. Yes, Lost. As much as I love you, you are both so guilty of this.)

And I'm done. I leave you now with a shot of possibly the finest "cat on the mantelpiece" scare of all time, a rare one which actually does pay off from a character and storytelling perspective. Take it away, Bruce.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Stray Rounds

There is a persistent bit of received wisdom that you will repeatedly hear from writers - a mantra that states you must write every day. Here's an example:

“To be a successful writer, write every single day whether you feel like it or not.” -- Alex Haley

It's a perfectly sound bit of advice. But, as with all tidy little homilies, it doesn't quite tell the whole story. Sometimes you need to take a step back. Sometimes you need to stop staring into the heart of the sun or you're just going to go blind. I'd been banging away at a few things for the last couple of weeks, and no matter how hard I hammered away at the square pegs, the motherfuckers were never going to fit into the round holes. And then I had one of those Eureka moments where I realised that the problem wasn't how I was writing. The problem was what I was writing. It was never going to work to my satisfaction, largely because I'm not a "content provider", I'm a writer. I'm not very good at hacking out anodyne text-based wallpaper for websites, because I just can't get excited about it. Sure, I can do it, but I'd rather not. Fortunately, I don't depend on writing gigs to pay the bills, so I can just bow out of those jobs and leave it to those better suited to that particular brand of soul-destroying drudge work. But the process left me antsy and irritable, and I needed to step away from the keyboard for a couple of weeks to sluice out my polluted brainpan.

And one of the things you don't hear so often when writers are banging on with all their "I'm a writer. I write every day. Yes I do. Write write write." is that sometimes you just need to turn off the output and ramp up the input instead. Writing isn't purely about putting one word in front of another endlessly, regardless of quality or reflection or passion. Sometimes you need to go outside and get on with the gloriously messy business of life to remember why you write in the first place. Which is a convoluted way of saying that I've been stoking the furnace for a few weeks to get myself fired up again. And it worked. Here's a random sampling of the pop-cultural delights that have tweaked my amygdala during my brief self-imposed sabbatical:

Ode to Kirihito


Groundbreaking mangaka Osamu Tezuka is still best known in the west for the family-friendly adventures of his robot Pinocchio Astro Boy, but this hefty 832-page graphic novel from the early 70s shows off his flair for formal experimentation in a sprawling picaresque tale of body horror that is impossible to reduce to a synopsis, defying easy genre classification as it bounces around from medical and political thriller to freakshow weirdness. (I'm particularly fond of the Human Tempura. Don't ask - just buy.)

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


Andy Serkis plays Ian Dury. Really, you don't need much more of a pitch than that to get me hooked. One of London's finest ever lyricists and a genuine one-off, with the light touch of Ogden Nash seasoned with a generous splash of bloody-minded piss and vinegar. And Serkis just nails it. I seriously doubt I'll see a performance that good for the rest of the year. Plus, those songs performed with the actual Blockheads. I loved every minute of it and reeled out of the cinema grinning like an idiot. Je t'adore, ich liebe dich, hit me, hit me, hit me...



Me Cheeta


I picked this up on a whim and I didn't regret it. Part satire on the glut of bloated self-serving celebrity memoirs choking the shelves of a dwindling number of bookshops, part marvellously filthy tome full of salacious gossip (after all, no animal has ever been successfully sued for libel), part serious reflection on the mistreatment of animals in the service of entertainment and, best of all, a beautiful valentine to the mighty Johnny Weissmuller, the greatest Tarzan of all time. I wasn't sure what to make of it until a couple of pages in and then I hit this line, sat back and enjoyed the ride:

"Rex Harrison was an absolutely irredeemable cunt who tried to murder me — but still, you have to try to forgive people, no matter what. Otherwise we’d be back in the jungle."


Leverage

The fantastic con-of-the-week show about a crew of specialists pulling a Robin Hood and ripping off the Man to help out the little people. Or, as neatly encapsulated by master thief Parker's off-the-cuff line: “Sometimes bad guys are the only good guys you get.” Leverage really sings not only because of its exuberant sense of fun and the superlative swiss-watch machinations of the plot, but it manages to succeed with something that so many other shows get wrong - it marries five perfectly-cast actors with five brilliantly-written roles. These aren't the bland cookie-cutter cyphers of the CSI franchise. And the fun train never stops.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This is Aleph


Already three weeks into the new decade, and it occurs to me that it's been a while since I last set out my online stall and pointed everybody at the various locations where I stink up the Internet like a virtual hobo. I know that the sidebar points to most of these places, but then the people who visit the blog via an RSS reader don't see that stuff, do they? OK, here we go.

Where I can be found online in 2010:

Sucker Punch - This place. My own personal Nexus of All Realities and the central hub of all my online activity. Internet years are like dog years, and in a few short months Sucker Punch is going to be six years old. By my rudimentary calculations, that means the blog is on the verge of a mid-life crisis. And yet, I still feel like I'm just getting warmed up. The focus of the blog has always bounced all over the damn place from shapeless rambling and little peeks at slivers of my life, to focused pieces on specific topics or as an outlet for thinking out-loud just to clarify things in my own mind. For someone as intensely private as I am with a persistent habit of compartmentalising my life, I seem to talk an awful lot. A few of my friends have said things to me recently that have made me take another look at my online persona. Some are surprised at how little I write about myself or my life, and some wish I would write more about things I know, things I think or things that are worth sharing - basically, the stuff I tend to say to people when I'm sitting opposite them. So I'm thinking that 2010 is the year where I pull back the curtain just that little bit more in the hope that I don't scare the living shit out of everyone. Let's find out how well that works out together.

Shrapnel - My tumblelog. The strapline "Jagged shards of popular culture eviscerating the flabby guts of the Internet" says it all. I use it as a bottomless all-purpose bucket where I chuck images, video and all sorts of other crap I unearth whilst trawling the murky corners of the Internet. Sometimes research material, but mostly just stuff that amuses me.

Last.fm - The vast majority of my aural input is catalogued here. If I'm trying to concentrate on something and I need to drown out potential distractions, the "Recently Played" chart will rapidly fill up with the background noise of really bad jazz or soundtracks to old exploitation movies. If I'm just listening for pleasure, you'll see it jump the rails to a stream of funk, soul and hip-hop, or what my daughter refers to as "Daddy's Old Skool".

Occasionally, I'll mess about on Blip.Fm, purely because it plugs into Twitter easily, which seamlessly brings me to...

Twitter - My daily, rolling spewings in 140-characters nuggets. Having been on Twitter for nigh on three years now, I've looked on with some amusement at how this has exploded into the mainstream over the last year or so as if it was something new. You pesky kids! I was chatting shit on Twitter before you were even an itch in your daddy's pants!

Flickr - I see things, I point the camera on my N95 8GB at them, I click, I upload them to my Flickr page. What more do you need to know? Have a look at the pictures - apparently they're worth more than a thousand words.

Del.icio.us - Still indispensable for me, although it does seem to have fallen out of favour somewhat. I frequently need to capture urls on the move, and I find it more useful to find relevant search results here than on Google, due to the folksonomy of hivemind tagging. A mixture of research material and pages of bookmarks that reflect my preoccupations and enduring obsessions.

Facebook and LinkedIn (or "Corporate Facebook") - Feel free to Friend me or make a Connection with me or whatever the bloody jargon is this week. Don't Poke me. I only like poking when there's some kind of Happy Ending.

How to contact me - I've resisted sticking an email address here, mostly because when I've tried it seems to attract spam and, occasionally, hate mail. If you don't already have my email address, then the best ways to contact me are via Twitter, in the comments section anywhere here or via Facebook.

Now you know where I am, let's spend the rest of the year figuring out where I'm going.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Eat Lead, Slackers!


And we're back. At last.

Took me a little longer than expected to get myself up to 88mph this year. Last week was almost a total write-off. I was all ready to hit the ground running hard and fast, only to discover that the ground was covered with ice and snow and I was slip-sliding all over the damn place. Last week morphed into a binary existence of either slowly traveling across ice and snow or trying to stay inside away from the ice and snow, so I treated the week with the contempt that it deserved - as a hangover from the end of 2009. Also: I'm a fucking mammal, so the inclement weather made me want to either sleep or eat instead of prodding the brainmeat into action.

So, as far as I'm concerned, 2010 started yesterday. Works for me. There's a helluva lot I want to do this year, and the words aren't going to write themselves. My To-Do list may be a vicious, unwieldy bastard sometimes, but I wouldn't want it any other way. I feel like I'm off to a good start anyway. Bring it!


Hype Alert! Noticed yesterday that I have a piece of microfiction in the current issue of Icon magazine, which pleased me hugely as I wasn't expecting it. Whilst I wouldn't expect anyone to buy the magazine on the strength of my minor contribution alone, it is worth noting that the current issue is a special all-fiction issue, featuring work from Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow and Will Self amongst many others, and it's bloody good. Whilst magazines are withering on the shelves and coughing up bloody ink-flecked chunks of pulpy matter as they die off one by one, publications like Icon magazine are luxurious objects of beauty, crafted by people who realise that content, form and aesthetics are inextricably linked. Icon magazine invites you to stroke the cover lovingly every month before wrapping your brains around the text. Buy it!

That's all for now. There is work to be done...