Thursday, August 28, 2014

... I realise that the Dr Who post runs the risk of sounding deliberately out of sympathy with The Times - the sort of knee-jerk reaction to anything 'Now' with an It Was So Much Better Then. Hey! Chill out grandpa! So to refine the argument a little ...

My Dr Who watching years were mostly those of the Jon Pertwee & Tom Baker incarnations. I've been revisiting them with my younger daughter via the non-UK iPlayer (rip-off that it is ...). If anything they've gained in second viewing - the 50-year old self appreciating qualities missed by the child/adolescent self.

For me, what makes that era of Dr Who of interest is the utter lack of concern for popularity.* The programmes were not announced as 'cult' television. There were no pre-broadcast puffs. Blue Peter did not have items demystifying the special effects or a new creature. I sense that the people writing the series were drawing their inspiration from earlier Dr incarnations, the Sci-Fi genre as a whole & their own particular preoccupations & concerns. To put it another way, the creative energy was earthed. Not - as now - in television centre planning & strategy meetings (with that ever-ready eye to marketing).

Furthermore, the programmes were so obviously low budget. Watching now (2014) it is so evident how clunky the props, costumes & robots were. However - & this is the key point - this in no way impeded the imaginative & frightening power of the stories. Indeed, some of the most disturbing episodes were situated in 'real' suburban settings & the disjunction of ordinary & otherworldly was what proved so unsettling.

For me the whole catalogue of the Ghost Box label ...

... is proof of the continuing power of such an aesthetic. Limited means produce imaginative resources undreamed of by commissioning editors & CGI budgets. Plus, the visceral effect of texture. I've forgotten the name of the three-fingered Wayne Rooney lookalike in the Capaldi episode - about as disturbing as some Nintendo pixilated animation. Plastic through & through. Contrast this with the true ghastliness of a Cyberman, Sea Devil or Davros with his bulging veins & clawed hand. 

Or perhaps this is the real issue: Analogue versus Digital. Can a viewer brought up on digitised images respond to such material revulsions?** Or has whatever aspect of the brain-spine-heart wiring been deadened & now requires more blunt stimuli. (& I'm thinking here also of my loathing of Baz Luhrman's Gatsby, the pervasiveness of synth drumming, even the artificial ringtones, bleeps & cheeps that infest daily life. A colleague who teaches art laments the way that students find watercolour dull accustomed - as they are - to Adobe Photoshop screen brightness.)

Returning to that Capaldi first episode what potential lay there in embryo. Imagine a carefully built-up episode set - OK - in late Victorian London. Imagine various symptoms being detected amongst the population - strange skin defects, scaling ... Imagine unexplained fire debris, body parts, rooms completely gutted. Imagine a group of scientists setting to work in the underground sewers or cellars - the usual kind of scientific arrogance refusing to accept anything but a perfectly rational explanation. & then ... some kind of larvae ... a hatching ... but which (another key point) would NOT be shown but intimated - reaction shots ... sound effects ... & right when you think ... CUT! roll the title music & credits. Leave the innocent mind to spawn its own horrors until the next instalment.*** 

Instead of which we had the BIG EFFECT right from the off : a bloody great dinosaur lurching around the city. Question is: where the hell do you go from there? Top that! 

Pointless to ask what ....? how ...? but if .... then ... ? Internal logic has been sacrificed to the putative Audience Out There Who We Know Want ... But what about all those screaming at their screens No! No! No! ... & then, with a sigh, reaching for the off button. 

& of course this problem is not limited to Dr Who but runs right through mainstream broadcasting. 

Knock knock
Who's there?
Dr Who?
You - you've been doctored

The old joke - how unfunny ... but how very true. 


* My deep dislike of Friends was confirmed the day I learned that recordings of the show were constantly interrupted as scriptwriters asked the audience whether a joke was funny or not. What utter lack of courage & integrity. Could anyone imagine Monty Python emerging from such conditions? 

& by such a logic, how will we ever get anything truly new or surprising or life-transforming? 

** Although I lack the necessary technological know-how I'd even suggest the film resolution. Poorer quality television actually creates atmosphere & a sinister suggestiveness. Whereas cinemascope style clarity is the visual equivalent of vanilla ice cream. 

*** Anyone thought of commissioning Iain Sinclair to write a series? No, I thought not. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

... that the virtues of the magnet may be destroyed by rubbing it with garlic ...

(Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos - as stated in Jefferies' Field and Hedgerow

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dr Who?


I really, really wanted to give the new series my best shot but ... coming up to 9:30pm (8:30pm UK) I've had enough. More than enough.

It's hard to know where to begin the thing is so awful ... the lamentable dialogue, the CGI effects & plastified make-up, the lack of coherence & basic plausibility, and ... perhaps most galling ... the torture of watching Peter Capaldi grapple with his script (that awful sickening feeling when you see an actor far superior to his material).

The relationship between the Dr & his assistant is cheapened, there's clunky sexual innuendo, the Victorian novel has been burgled (spontaneous combustion, oh what an original idea), there's a smattering of psychobabble (veils & stuff) ... oh, & even Peter Capaldi's eyebrows threatening Scottish devolution. Not to mention a dinosaur looming over London (you thought the kitten in The Goodies was silly? ...) & yet the 'onest Londoners guv'nor is goin' abaht their biznis as though nothing much is out of the ordin'ry. I mean ... come on ... Basic rule of Sci-Fi: establish & maintain an internal realism.

One can only imagine the scriptwriting sessions: throw various focus group ideas into a bag & give it a shake. See how many presumed audience constituencies we can 'target' & let's not forget the sales to the US (no doubt a major factor in the 19thC period costume look).

The turd is ... sorry ... the Tardis has landed but I wish it would spin off again - only this time into oblivion. Rumours were that Capaldi would be the heir apparent to Tom Baker - why I was so eager to watch this first episode. Terrific actor as he is with a script like this he doesn't stand a chance.

What a missed opportunity.

If ever a volume of poems has been badly served by its cover then surely it is the Faber edition of Marianne Moore's Collected Poems. Reading the first twenty or so - absolutely smitten - I realise that the obstacle between me & her work has been ... that cover. Silly, I know. "Oh how superficial" I hear you say. Don't judge ... book ...  cover ... I know, I know. & yet...

How to reconcile the audacity of these texts, the woman who corresponded with - of all people - Joseph Cornell & this ghastly, bland, anodyne cover? That picture above all - the worst kind of photo derived portrait depicting someone who resembles some hideous laboratory fusion of Barbara Cartland, my grandmother & the Queen Mother. Agh!

Then I realised what was necessary - a bit of detournement. So I sprinted upstairs & ransacked the boxes of cuttings. Here's my slightly tweezed cover:


& here's the closing lines from MM's 'Picking and Crossing' -

Humming-bug, the candles are not wired for electricity.
Small dog, going over the lawn nipping the linen and saying 
that you have a badger - remember Xenophon;
only rudimentary behaviour is necessary to put us on the scent.
"A right good salvo of barks," a few strong wrinkles puckering
           the skin between the ears, is all we ask. 

Oh yes ... 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Page spreads from the Jarman & the Dickinson respectively.

Further additions to the library ...

1000 Sonnets & Petrarch by Tim Atkins
Echo's Bones by Samuel Beckett
Pataphysical Essays by Rene Daumal

The Gorgeous Nothings (Emily Dickinson fragments)
Not Nothing (Ray Johnson Selected Writings)
Sketchbooks by Derek Jarman

Sunday, August 17, 2014

We continue down to Folkestone, chuckling at the thought of all those zombies wandering aimlessly around the Eurotunnel terminal (just how fascinating can Duty Free & WH Smith be?), & head for the parking lot near the harbour. There's a stiff wind blowing but we're in luck. Bob's mate has been out in his boat & lugged home some mighty fine lobsters (two of which ended up with us to Brussels). A bottle of Sancerre, salad, some bread & Mme Waffle's dressing ... hits the spot.

Why, I wonder, doesn't Bob place a sign on the motorway just before the Tunnel exit? Then again, if he did, there might be fewer lobsters for us. So best to keep it a secret between ourselves, right?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Oddly enough Robin Williams had been on my mind yesterday while formulating ideas about my old English teacher. Dead Poets Society is that key Williams film & one I have refused to see - too many times I've been told "oh you must see it, you're an English teacher!" & worry that it will somehow cramp my style. Which might be why I don't feel today's news quite so keenly. Robin Williams, for me, has always been one of those litmus tests for US vs British humour (Jerry Lewis another). Perhaps I've never seen his best work & it's unfair to be prejudiced by obvious only-in-it-for-the-money link man jobs or - worse - the many students & colleagues who think they can 'do' Robin Williams (how it grates). No doubt people have winced as I have done Peter Cook or Python routines. Fair do's.

However, it is always sad when a clown passes. We need these Ambassadors of Mirth (now perhaps more than ever). In my version of an Enlightened society the statues in public places would be of famous clowns & comedians rather than the politicians, statesmen & war mongers. So over breakfast I drew up a Michael Lallyesque list of those artists of the funny bone - knowing that I'm blurring categories & bending the rules in places. Here goes, see what you think:

1. Stan Laurel (the greatest?)
2. Oliver Hardy (master of the double take)
3. Jacques Tati (that walk)
4. Chaplin (when not being maudlin)
5. Buster Keaton (up there with Stan)
6. Harold Lloyd (if only for the clock sequence)
7. WC Fields (of course)
8. Mae West (now & again - would she want it any other way?)
9. Groucho, Chico & Harpo (Groucho gets the accolades but he's in a lower gear without the others)
10. Peter Sellers (of the 1950s & Goon Shows after which things go downhill)
11. Spike Milligan (the Goon Shows alone confirm his genius)
12. Ken Dodd (for himself & everything he embodies of the British music hall tradition)
13. Tommy Cooper (he simply needed to walk on stage)
14. Philippe Noiret (master of the doleful expression)
15. Steve Wright (at times sublime)
16. Les Dawson (another master of knowing when not to do anything)
17. Martin Clunes (the name marks out his destiny - a man who seems to chuckle through life)
18. Max Wall (the little I have managed to see)
19. Frank Zappa (for the Dada spirit at the heart of his music)
20. Billy Jenkins (Tommy Cooper with guitar)
21. Woody Allen (the stand up years & up to the departure of Diane Keaton. After that ... the less said the better)
22. Anna Karina (in the early JLG films - utter joy & such beauty)
23. Giuletta Masina (La Strada)
24. Garbo (the face I see behind Stan Laurel's?)
25. Tony Hancock (that great put upon voice of 1950's Britain)

Hancock also killed himself - "too many things went wrong too many times" (or words to that effect) - in a hotel room in Australia. The story usually goes that he couldn't break into the big time like Sellers & was resentful of his co-stars (Sid James, Kenneth Williams) beginning to outshine him. Yet it's clear that Hancock had his personal demons & there's that joke that he held

especially dear:

A man goes into the doctor's and tells him that he has nothing to live for, his life has fallen apart. If the doctor can't help him, he'll take his own life.

No worries, says the doctor, there's the perfect solution to our problems. This week the circus has come into town. Grock, the greatest & funniest clown of them all, will perform every night. If you go along & see Grock you will laugh so hard you'll forget all your troubles.

To which the man replies: "Thank you doctor for your advice - but I am Grock".

Which might just be what Robin Williams was thinking.