Oct 052015
 

Restricted media is everywhere in the 21st century and parents worry that their children will see something raunchy or violent on a computer but it was difficult for we pre-internet kids to see such material. In 1979 I was 15 years old, unable to get into an 18+ movie and envied schoolmates with older siblings who’d sneak them into the drive-in the boot of their car, to guzzle beer and watch the 1970s greats of Ozploitation; FANTASM, STONE, PATRICK, THE MAN FROM HONG KONG or the greatest drive-in movie of them all…

MAD MAX!

the Nightrider

“You listen bronze! I am the Nightrider! I’m a fuel injected suicide machine! I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller!”

I finally saw it in 1982 when I turned 18. Crudely made but with flashes of sheer brilliance, it was essentially George Miller‘s film school. His only formal film training was a brief film workshop (attended while in medical school in the early 1970s) where he met his creative collaborator and business partner, Byron Kennedy. Their first short film, VIOLENCE IN THE CINEMA: PART 1, was made in 1971 and their next step was to make a feature film. Although the Australian government was funding films, Kennedy & Miller knew that MAD MAX would be a tough sell,  so they sought private investors instead. Miller raised extra funds working as a mobile emergency doctor, with Kennedy as his driver, and the vehicular trauma they witnessed undoubtedly found its way into their film. Like another former medical student turned storyteller, J.G. Ballard (author of the novel, CRASH) Miller explores the fetishistic relationship between humans and their cars in MAD MAX. Miller’s medical background (and sense of humour) are evident in ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky being named for 19th century pathologist Carl von Rokitansky, (inventor of the procedure for removing internal organs in an autopsy).

The setting is ’a few years from now’ when society is in decline. MAX ROCKATANSKY is a lawman working for the MFP (the “Main Force Patrol”) operating out of a rundown “Hall Of Justice” (complete with its own BOM BOM BOM musical sting). Though representing the forces of  law & order, MFP officers look like either young leatherboys or archetypal degenerates circa 1955, clad in Lenny & Squiggy’s black leathers. Their boss is chief FIFI MACAFEE, though named like a burlesque dancer he looks like a circus strongman or a bouncer at a gay bar. Burly, bald, moustachioed, and constantly bare-chested in his black leather pants, Fifi tries to keep Max focussed on the MFP mission of controlling wild motorcycle gangs, while Max worries that he’s becoming brutishly like the goons he’s supposed to stop.

Max & Fifi

“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

Growing up in rural 1940s/1950s Australia and not going to film school meant that Miller wasn’t exposed to many filmmaking traditions (he’d never heard of Kurosawa until after making MAD MAX, for example) but he cites classic silent films and watching drive-in movies without sound as influences on his own cinematic grammar. MAD MAX was punk filmmaking, not just its gritty subject matter but its inventiveness. Full of raw energy, you can see the filmmakers learning their chords as they play. Need a stunt? Just head out somewhere remote and do it. When the director is a qualified ER doctor you deal with safety problems as they arise, and arise they did. Joanne Samuel got the role of Max’s wife, JESSIE, when the original actress broke her leg in a motorcycle accident (on her way TO the shoot, ironically) a crash that also injured and briefly sidelined Grant Page, the stunt coordinator. Miller’s bold vision was matched by the crew’s daring, and it wasn’t only the stuntmen who outdid themselves. Cinematographer David Eggby strapped himself to the back of a speeding motorbike to get a visceral hand-held POV shot of the 120kph rushing road and speedometer. These days, computers can deliver a shot from any angle the director imagines, but in 1977 it required a crew both inventive and bold enough to deliver.

A motorcycle gang wants to avenge one of their members, who died in a game of road ’chicken’ with Max. These Droogs on wheels are given to buffoonish-though-sinister antics, and led by the charismatic TOECUTTER (played with bug-eyed psychotic gusto by Hugh Keys-Byrne). Toecutter doesn’t actually have a villainous moustache to twirl, but to compensate, his lone eyebrow appears to twirl itself instead. To escape the stresses of dealing with this band of twerps-cum-perps, Max takes a holiday with his wife and infant son, but the vengeful gang, still mincing about like a wannabe Shakespeare troupe on peyote, finds Max’s family, as we knew they would.

Jessie & Sprog

“In the roar of an engine, he lost everything and became a shell of a man.”

Needing to cast and equip a bikie gang, legend has it that Kennedy & Miller simply got a real gang (The Vigilantes) and paid them in slabs of beer. I miss that 1970s-1980s era of cheap DIY cinematic invention, where the creativity of the director and resourcefulness of the producer were the best special effects in the budget. Miller has said that initially, setting the film “a few years from now” allowed for broader action that might be implausible in the real world, and setting the story in a decaying future society explained the shabby buildings and remote locations of the shoot, but later this became central to the MAD MAX series.

Partly inspired by actual riots during the 1970s Energy Crisis, Miller & Kennedy (and journalist turned screenwriter James McCausland) explored the idea of a society disrupted by global energy decline taken as far as it would go. Miller’s youth growing up in the 1940s/1950s car culture and wide open spaces of rural Queensland, and that several of his friends died in car accidents while young, were parts used in the assembly of MAD MAX’s distinctive chassis. The influence of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BULLIT and vigilante justice films of the 1970s, like DIRTY HARRY and DEATH WISH, became the narrative engine, and Miller’s flair for visual story-telling became the nitrous-oxide fuel for one of Australia’s first anamorphic wide-screen films, and Miller excelled at composing for this format, especially when the camera was moving.

The turning point comes when Max’s family is killed, and he becomes just as twisted as the road rabble he clashes with, exactly as he’d feared. While DIRTY HARRY merely flirted with the idea of a lawman crossing that line, MAD MAX goes all the way. In a climactic sequence that shows Miller’s genius for kinetic cinema, Max becomes a killer himself, hunting down the baddies one by one in his Black-on-Black super-charged V8 INTERCEPTOR.

Revenge

“I’m scared, Fif. You know why? It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it.”

Many critics deplored the vigilantism. Critic Phillip Adams made exploitation cinema himself (producing ‘THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY McKENZIE’) but preferred raunch over violence, and his review in The Bulletin entitled ‘The Dangerous Pornography of Death‘ called for Mad Max to be banned, saying that it had ‘all the emotional uplift of Mein Kampf‘. MAD MAX actually was banned in Sweden and New Zealand for fears of copycat violence by real life motorcycle gangs. For the American release, Australian voices were overdubbed (not restored till the 2002 DVD) and Tom Buckley of The New York Times called the film ‘ugly and incoherent’ but TIME’s Richard Corliss praised it in his review entitled ‘Poetic Car-nage’. While the Critics debated its merits, MAD MAX became a drive-in hit around the world. 1970s Australian cinema was a two-step of art house (THE LAST WAVE) and grind house (ALVIN PURPLE) culminating in MAD MAX as its biggest success at decade’s end. On a shoestring production budget of AU $350,000 it made US $100 million at the box office which till THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was the best budget to box office ratio in cinema history.

Some find MAD MAX too crudely made to enjoy (especially viewers who saw ROAD WARRIOR first) but apart from getting to see a brilliant director’s raw and inventive feature film debut, I appreciate seeing the last sad gasp of society before the gangs took over completely, and witnessing the last remnants of Max’s own normalcy before he became a ‘man with no name’ type. This chapter of the MAD MAX story can certainly be skipped, but there’s resonance in seeing the beginnings, before Max lost everything and he, and the world around him, went MAD.

In any vigilante justice flick the escalation of violence inevitably gets personal- after all, we bought a movie ticket to see MAX get MAD- but the price of vengeance is that Max himself becomes a hollow man. His decency and role in society gone, the only place left for him is with the wild marauders. A wandering lost soul, he heads off in his iconic black-on-black Interceptor.

The Road Warrior

“..A burnt-out desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland.”

Much of the editing of MAD MAX was done by George Miller himself and working around his own shooting mistakes during a one year editing process was a painful lesson, but one that would serve him well when the success of MAD MAX allowed him to make a sequel and try again. After MAD MAX broke internationally and was compared to other stories, Miller reflected that each culture has tales of wandering antiheroes and began to see Max as another version of that. With a copy of THE HERO’S JOURNEY under his arm, Miller and co-screenwriters Brian Hannant and Terry Hayes set about crafting a taught script of a post-apocalyptic wanderer, a ‘western on wheels’. After MAD MAX finished shooting in 1977, the car used as Max’s Interceptor (a 1973 Ford Falcon GT Coupe with a V8 engine and the front of a Ford Fairmont) became the property of the production mechanic, and Miller bought it back for the sequel. With a wily bunch of stuntmen, the great Dean Semler as his cinematographer and the red desert of Broken Hill as his canvas, Miller made a film firmly in the ’Outback Gothic’ tradition (of films like WAKE IN FRIGHT, WALKABOUT, and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK) but with a post-apocalyptic angle all its own.

ROAD WARRIOR
A montage about a global energy crisis leading to war is shown in black-and-white and mono sound, shifting to widescreen colour with a Dolby Stereo mix (the first ever in Australia) focused on the ROARING bonnet-mounted Supercharger on Max’s black Interceptor. The car is now weatherbeaten, as is Max himself, and he’s acquired a Blue Heeler copilot named DOG. An even more outlandish gang than the previous film confronts Max, but they get the worst of the vehicular altercation. Max slams on his brakes to sponge precious petrol from the wreckage with his hankie, and is hissed at by WEZ, an angry bloke with eyeliner, Mohawk, arseless chaps and twink boyfriend. They fang off on their Kwakka, popping a wheelie as they go. This opening sequence is Miller’s way of telling us that we are further down the descent to total societal ruin.

Wez

“YOU! You can RUN, but you can’t HIDE!”

MAD MAX 2 (as it is known in Australia) came out in December 1981, but I saw it in 1982 when I was 18 years old and working at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by artists and would sneak around the studio after hours, fascinated by their work. I loved seeing Brendan McCarthy‘s animation-layout sketches and personal doodles pinned on a wall and I’ve followed his comics work ever since. (I had no idea he’d eventually help shape the 4th film in the MAD MAX series over 30 years later but I’m sure a lot of the demented brilliance of FURY ROAD is his influence). He’s said in interviews that, like most people in Australia that year, he was thunderstruck by ROAD WARRIOR and it was for him the imaginative cinema moment that STAR WARS was for most people.

Seeing ROAD WARRIOR was a rush, and full-page advertisments in the Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed “It’s OUR Star Wars!” Nowadays, WOLVERINE, THOR and other characters in Hollywood productions are acted by Australians, but there was barely any Australian fantasy or Sci-Fi growing up in the 1970s. A cheesy TV show from around 1970 called PHOENIX FIVE and The Australian ‘Eagle pilot’ in SPACE 1999 were about it, and when the MAD MAX films burst onto screens in the late 1970s and early 1980s they had the OZ Sci-fi scene all to themselves. ROAD WARRIOR seemed uniquely Australian and established Mel Gibson as an international star (with only 16 lines of dialog) and George Miller as The Kurosawa of the carburettor, the David Lean of machines, and the John Ford of the chopped Ford; a visionary cinematic communicator.

In ROAD WARRIOR, towns are long-gone but there’s a vestigial community in a fortified oil refinery. This would’ve been a village of Japanese peasants in a Kurosawa film, a town of dusty frontier folk in a Leone western, or a cavalry fort encircled by Apaches in the John Ford version, but in Miller’s film it’s a community wearing white cheesecloth despite pumping oil all day. Their adversaries are post-apocalyptic banditos; musclemen driving souped-up V8s, and angry bondage bikies, (including Wez, he of baboon-arsed trousers and Kaja-Goo-Goo boyfriend that we met earlier). These MTV dudes are led by LORD HUMUNGUS, a body builder in a hockey mask, who vows to nick all the Goodies’ oil, but though they try repeatedly, his wasteland vermin can’t get at it. Likewise, the goodies led by PAPPAGALLO plan to take the fuel to the coast and start a new society, but are thwarted by the surrounding bondage-clothing convention and hotrod show. Stalemate. There’s much posturing and breast-beating, especially when Wez’s boyfriend is nailed in the noggin by a deadly razor-boomerang hurled by FERAL KID, a bloodthirsty urchin in rabbit furs and chainmail glove. Max is introduced to this inter-community standoff by the GYRO CAPTAIN, a gangly pilot with bad teeth.

Gyro Captain

“Look, we had a deal. I show you the gas, and you let me go!” “The arrangement was I wouldn’t kill you.”

Though outrageously broad, ROAD WARRIOR is a fantastic caricature of the way our society actually is; driving full-throttle to our own brink. For all the ingenious hot-rodding on display as the leather hordes encircle the cheesecloth compound, none of the mechanical invention has been applied to fuel efficiency and Wasteland barbarians have not yet figured out that driving souped-up gas-guzzlers to get the gas is a self defeating strategy. “Excuse me, Mr Barbarian guy, but why are you all blasting around in V8s?” “To get the guzzoline!” “Why do you need so much gasoline?For our thirsty V8s!” “But why-HeAdBuTt “No more talk!” Perhaps the meltdown of society somehow destroyed all the minivans, Honda Civics and sensible clothing? Or maybe just one sand dune over from Miller’s camera there actually is a posse of equally rabid wasteland dwellers who’ve fetishised sensible mall-wear and drive solar-powered cars and electric-hybrids?

Kennedy & Miller were able to raise ten times the budget for the sequel, though paltry by Hollywood standards this was the biggest Australian budget ever at the time. The added scope that this gave Miller, plus what he’d learned on MAD MAX and a great crew to support him, allowed his imagination to run free, in much the same way that Wez is let off the choke-chain by his boss, to somersault and headbutt goodies, hiss and run around with no pants. The clever production design of Graham ’Grace’ Walker and costumes of Norma Moriceau made for one of the most visually distinctive (and copied) films of the 1980s in a perfect marriage of concept and budget. In a desolate desert setting, second hand clothing is cleverly repurposed- punk rock wear and S&M gear mix with Cricket and Rugby padding- saving on sets and costumes while the Cargo Cult aesthetic is extraordinarily visually striking and true to the story of a society in decline.

Max’s attempts to go it alone leave him with a dead dog and a wrecked ride. The very definition of a reluctant hero but with no options left, Max helps the oil-pumping community with their escape (Mel Gibson saw Max as a “closet human being” trying NOT to do the right thing, remembering where heroics got him). Cue one of the most spectacular action climaxes ever put to film, that not only defined a post-apocalyptic aesthetic and genre, but established a template for ALL action films that would be strip-mined for years. While the townsfolk escape and their compound explodes (ROAD WARRIOR’s only set and the most expensive set ever for an Australian film) Max, Pappagallo, the gangly Gyro Captain and the delightful young brute with the killer boomerang distract the marauding loons as Max drives the tanker of gasoline out into the desert.

the shell

“YAHHH!”   “Get the shell!”

The 1980s was a golden era of movie stunt work when extraordinary martial arts prowess in Hong Kong films left me slack-jawed with amazement, but the Australian speciality was spectacular vehicular mayhem as seen in the MAD MAX films, and especially ROAD WARRIOR. Stunt supervisor Max Aspin and his team of stunt-grunts deserve much of the credit for making this movie as viscerally exciting as it is. Amazingly, nobody was killed, but there were some serious accidents. In one of the most memorable stunts, 21 year old stuntman Guy Norris, on his first movie gig playing one of the marauding bikies, hits a wrecked car and flies off his bike and launches through the air aiming for an off-screen pile of cardboard boxes. Instead, he on-screen smashes his legs against the car, and cartwheels towards the camera, causing a painful injury (a smashed femur) but the shot was left in the movie because it was so spectacular. Norris was on set doing work a few days later (with his broken leg just off-screen) and 34 years later he’d be the stunt supervisor on FURY ROAD.

Unlike the critical controversy over MAD MAX, reviews for ROAD WARRIOR hailed it as one of the best films of 1981. Richard Corliss, the first major critic to champion MAD MAX, was even more effusive in his review ‘Apocalypse POW‘ and others such as Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert followed suit. By 1982, I thought that #2 was the magic number, as STAR WARS, STAR TREK, JAMES BOND and MAD MAX had all turned in second films that were far better than the originals. ROAD WARRIOR’s influence rippled throughout the 1980s and beyond, in knock-off movies (such as EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000, THE NEW BARBARIANS, 1990 BRONX WARRIORS and EQUALIZER 2000), music videos, and comics. Over 30 years later it still holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as of May 13, 2015) and filmmakers such as James Cameron, David Fincher and Guillermo Del Toro have listed it as a film favourite.

At the very end of ROAD WARRIOR, Max finally smiles when he realises that he was part of a bait and switch- the tanker he drove was full of sand and NOT the gasoline, which was safe with the fleeing oil-pumping folk. We realise that the story is a reflection on long-ago events narrated by an old man; the brutish Feral Kid grown to be leader of his ‘tribe’. Clearly Max made huge impression on him long ago; a post-apocalyptic SHANE.

The Feral Kid

“In the fullness of time, I became the leader, the Chief of the Great Northern Tribe. And the Road Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now only in my memories.”

ROAD WARRIOR was intended to be the final chapter in Max’s story and George Miller turned to other things, including directing a segment for Steven Spielberg’s TWIGHLIGHT ZONE. Kennedy & Miller had planned to make a post-apocalyptic LORD OF THE FLIES film, when it was suggested that Max should be the adult who finds the children and it became the third MAD MAX instalment instead. In 1983, Byron Kennedy died in a helicopter crash while scouting locations and, understandably, Miller lost interest in directing it after the death of the friend who’d helped him create the franchise. So Miller’s friend George Ogilvie stepped in to help direct.

BEYOND THUNDERDOME
High above the outback we see a car pulled by a team of camels in the desert far below, and the driver atop this strange wagon is suddenly knocked out of his saddle by two flying con artists, one of whom looks like The Gyro Captain but is called JEBEDIAH and the other who’s obviously his child. The unseated wagon driver picks himself up, and we realise it’s Max, in Bon Jovi’s mullet. He runs off in pursuit of his stolen wagon, following a breadcrumb trail of junk tossed out the back by the monkey he’d nicked from Indiana Jones.

Jebediah

“Sayonara, sucker!”

The trail leads to BARTERTOWN, where a bloke gets fancy with some Benihana knives and Max says, ‘Oi, the monkey isn’t the only thing I nicked from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’ and BLAM, blasts the knife-wielding dude right in his busby with a sawn-off pumpy.

A mate of mine did storyboards on BEYOND THUNDERDOME and said that Warner Brothers were all over it from the very start, unlike the previous film where they’d merely handled distribution. Chasing a bigger audience for a return on their investment, Warner Brothers wanted a PG 13 rating and softened the humour, tone and action. In exchange for this compromise, there are more production values onscreen but not always to good effect. Maurice Jarre seems an ideal composer- after all, his score for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the classic soundtrack of the classic desert epic. However, his score for MAX OF AUSTRALIA, with full orchestra, vocal chorus, four grand pianos and a pipe organ, sounded like a romantic broadway show in parts, and the copious didgeridoo sounded like a 1980s QANTAS TV commercial in others, and had me pining for Brian May‘s melodramatic score for ROAD WARRIOR.

Max’s snazzy gunplay draws the attention of AUNTY ENTITY, the mayor of Bartertown whose job is providing plot exposition to an accompaniment of tootling 80s sax riffs provided by a blind dude in a nappy. Aunty ‘splains that Bartertown has moved beyond guzzoline to a fuel provided by pigs. METHANE production is monopolised by a symbiotic duo named MASTER/BLASTER; the hulking body is called ‘Blaster’ and ‘Master’, the brains of the duo, is a dwarf even more manipulative than Tyrion Lannister. Aunty wants to topple Master/Blaster and needs Max to challenge Blaster in the THUNDERDOME; a sort of post apocalyptic gladiatorial arena cum law-court, with a Vampire Gameshow Dude as referee.

The Thunderdome

“He’s the ball cracker, Death on foot. You know him, you love him; He’s BLASTER! The challenger, direct from out of the Wasteland. He’s bad. He’s beautiful, He’s crazy! It’s the MAN WITH NO NAME!”

Despite the added agility from bungee cords, Max has the bone marrow pounded out of him. Then, in the nick of time he defeats Blaster. The huge helmeted and previously terrifying baddie is unmasked and; ‘AW.. he’s a total sweetie under there!’ Signifying that the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK swipes (act 1) are over and that the RETURN OF THE JEDI swipes (act 2) have begun. THUNK! Blaster’s dead. Aunty & Gameshow Vampire Dude banish Mad Mullet from BarterTown, wearing a clown head and seated backwards on a mule..

Re-watching the opening sequences from BEYOND THUNDERDOME recently, I remembered my 1985 excitement that Max was set free from vehicular chases to be an action hero that could deal with various conflicts in a potentially unlimited number of different ways. BEYOND THUNDERDOME’s many great ideas that entered the cultural vernacular are all from this first part, such as the word ‘Thunderdome’ itself, meaning an intense throwdown (“Bro, my employee review was a total Thunderdome.” or “My girlfriend went Thunderdome on me at her sister’s wedding” etc). There’s been an actual  BEYOND THUNDERDOME inspired fight venue at BURNING MAN, and speaking of that, it’s hard to imagine Burning Man looking as it does today- or even existing at all -without this movie (Burning Man 2015 looks like a snapshot of Bartertown 1985). BEYOND THUNDERDOME has phrases that I still hear quoted today; “Two men enter, one man leaves” or “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, DYIN’ time is here!” and so on. Despite some patchiness here and there, the recent re-watching of the film was very entertaining until Max gets banished from Bartertown. Then I suddenly remembered.. “Oh no…”

The Lost Kids

“We’s heartful to you, Captain Walker. We’s ready now. Take us home!”

Max is found by an oasis of wholesome kids in blonde dreadlocks. The traditionally spare dialog of MAX movies is replaced with the constant jabber of Blonde Ewoks in a RIDDLEY WALKER pidgin, as the cute primitives mistake Max for their messianic saviour (IE: RETURN OF THE JEDI swipe #2). The leader of the Lost Children, SAVANNAH NIX, pouts when Max denies that he’s their saviour, and in frustration, she and fellow believers head into the desert looking for the promised land, obliging Max to follow, and they all end up back at Bartertown..

The idea of Max encountering a LORD OF THE FLIES Tribe of Lost Children might have worked if the kids had resembled the Feral Kid; wild yet appealing in a brutish way that never played for any sentimentality whatsoever. Unfortunately, the Tribe of Lost Children is straight out of PETER PAN- very wholesome very blonde and very boring. BEYOND THUNDERDOME lacks any charismatic villain like Toecutter or fantastic henchmen like Wez. Perhaps the film may have worked better starting with a classic MAD MAX vehicular chase that introduces Max to (a less annoying) band of kids and climaxes with the THUNDERDOME fight? With some editing, even the version we have could be made a lot better (I wonder if there’s a fan edit of this film?) As it stands, it is full of good bits but lacks the cohesion to be truly great and 1985’s BEYOND THUNDERDOME was a replay of the 1983 end-of-franchise souring of RETURN OF THE JEDI. Both trilogies started tasty, got even tastier, then ended with an undercooked third course.

Whether this was due to two overseeing-companies (Kennedy/Miller & Warner Brothers) or the merging of two storylines (MAD MAX & sci-fi LORD OF THE FLIES) or the merging of two Georges (Miller & Ogilvie) something was awry. It’s tempting to think that if Miller had directed the entire thing it would have worked, but George Miller himself credits Ogilvie as a mentor (they’d collaborated on several mini series BODYLINE, THE COWRA BREAKOUT, and THE DISMISSAL) and Miller claims that BEYOND THUNDERDOME is his favourite of the three 1980s Max films. Though it’s definitely the most ambitious and there’s a great movie in there struggling to get out, it is (for me) the least satisfying. However, I credit the 1980s MAD MAX films for trying something very different with each movie.

The MAD MAX franchise swipes from itself (Act 3) when in the last 15 minutes of BEYOND THUNDERDOME a ROAD WARRIOR-style truck chase is tacked-on for the climax. Having helped another group trying to build a viable community, Max is left behind yet again, as the annoying kids fly away with Jebediah to establish a colony in the nuked-out shell of Sydney. 

Sydney

“Most of all we ‘members the man who finded us, him that came the salvage, and we lights the city, not just for him but for all of them that are still out there.”

It seemed that the MAD MAX film series was complete, but after about 15 years, in the late 1990s/early 2000s a fourth film was rumoured, and I followed the on-again-off-again MAD MAX reboot saga; Mel is not interested, so a grown-up Feral Kid movie is planned, possibly starring Russell Crowe, but then Gladiator happens, Russell gets huge, and Russell is out. Mel is back in, but September 11th 2001 happens, which kills the US dollar and Max’s budget, and Mel is out. Heath Ledger is in, Heath is dead. Mel is back, Mel melts down, and Mel is out. Tom Hardy is in. The desert at Broken Hill is covered in wildflowers delaying production, for a year. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong and then some. Meanwhile, in that same 15 year period, many of the fantastic cinematic worlds of my youth were mauled by their original filmmakers; STAR WARS, ALIEN, INDIANA JONES. Although Max had owned the post-apocalyptic film genre back in the 1980s, now that we’ve had THE ROAD, the PLANET OF THE APES reboots, TERMINATOR reboots, the I AM LEGEND reboot, INTERSTELLAR, HUNGER GAMES and a horde of ZOMBIE movies, would he have anything fresh to offer? Consequently, I was both interested in, and afraid of being let down by FURY ROAD and tempered my enthusiasm right up until the theatre lights dimmed on opening weekend..

FURY ROAD
Film franchises are rebooted every few years, restating the ‘origin story’ each time, but not so with the first MAD MAX movie in three decades. George Miller allows us to briefly absorb a scene of Max and his iconic Interceptor; a two-headed lizard scurrying in a barren desert shows the effects of nuclear war, and Max stomping and EATING that same lizard shows how far he’s fallen since DiNKi-Di dog chow was his favourite food. Then the movie starts: anaemic marauders chase after Max, capture and take him to be enslaved in THE CITADEL; the crib of IMMORTAN JOE. He’s the meanest desert warlord since Jabba the Hutt, demonstrated vividly when Joe applies Trickle Down Economics on the desert-dwelling saps below. These are the random citizens we saw in the first MAD MAX movie, who now pick through the dust for scraps left by the muscle men in hotrods. There’s evidence of nuclear fallout in the the chronically sick WARBOYS, and the infertility/breeding obsessions of the villain. While tooting on an asthma inhaler (that he nicked from Darth Vader) Immortan Joe discovers that his 5 WIVES have been set free by one of his hench-lieutenants named FURIOSA, and they’ve escaped in her truck, called a WAR RIG.

Immortan Joe

“I want them back, they are my property!”

FURY ROAD was utterly bonkers in the best possible way. Fever dream imagery strung on an action-narrative thread, where each action and shot were intricately choreographed like an insane diesel ballet. Emotions and themes were expressed in a dance of human bodies and auto bodies done with real vehicles and flesh-and-blood stunt crew, elevating it to another level of beauty and wonder. I’m often mystified by real dance, actual poetry, true opera and genuine ballet, but respond to poetic balletic and operatic qualities used elsewhere, such as this nutty masterpiece. George Miller once said that he wants to make pure-cinema films; understandable to foreign audiences even without subtitles, and that’s exactly what he’s done. MAD MAX’s post-apocalyptic world, where civilisation and humanity have been stripped bare and the protagonist is reduced to his monosyllabic basics, is a laboratory for Miller to explore the limits of non-verbal cinematic communication. Zach Snyder’s SUCKERPUNCH, or the Wachowskis’ SPEED RACER were praised by some as pure kinetic cinema, but left me utterly cold, and I suspect that Michael Bay has always strived to make a film like FURY ROAD, but all he can manage is a Michael Bay movie. What FURY ROAD has, that so many similar similar movies lack, is clear visual staging, superlative action choreography and inspired editing, resulting in a transcendent cinematic experience. Filmic visual language, and the boldest world-building since 1977’s STAR WARS, tell us all we need to know, and with hardly a word spoken.

In the 1970s-1980s MAD MAX movies, Max had witnessed the end of society and thus would’ve been of the same generation as Immortan Joe. Although Mel Gibson has fallen from grace in recent years, an older weatherbeaten Mad Mel would’ve been interesting to me and Mel’s recent rocky history might’ve added interesting shadings to this story of a broken man who redeems himself, but Tom Hardy was incredible and I quickly got used to his younger Max. In this reimagining, Max is the same age as Furiosa and thus couldn’t remember the time before the fall of society 30-40 years prior, so he may not be the same Max that I once knew. That Max was a  cop with a wife and toddler son but this Max’s flashbacks were of a 10 year old girl and a variety of other as-yet unknown characters. Various fan theories attempt to explain this, and other fan theories about those fan theories aside, the MAD MAX movies were never a ‘saga’ with a beginning middle and an end. To me, they seemed to be yarns about a wandering antihero, told by other characters touched by him. ROAD WARRIOR was narrated by the Feral Kid, and THUNDERDOME was narrated by Savannah, both having become community leaders via the long-ago assistance of Max. There was no narration in MAD MAX, but it may have been told from the point of view of Max’s boss, Fifi, remembering a gifted young man who fell to savagery, becoming a symbol of the lost potential of humanity. In FURY ROAD the narration is by Max himself, effectively denting my pet nerd-theory but the broader point still holds; looking for timeline continuity in the MAD MAX series is not what these films are all about. Miller may intend to change Max’s back story in this ‘reimagining’ and in typical Miller style, screen time isn’t wasted on jibber-jabber. We just need to trust Miller and hold on because his War Rig is already moving.

A cock-blocked Immortan Joe calls his Warboys to back him up as he chases his 5 Wives, who are high-tailing it to a promised land called THE GREEN PLACE. The most anaemic Warboy of all is NUX, who uses Max as a mobile blood-bag strapped to his ride. Although Immortan Joe has the management style of Joe Stalin, any warlord who has a blind guitarist and albino taiko drum crew on retainer as part of his war party has a lot of post apocalyptic panache. Meanwhile, the chase enters a cyclone and Max gets free, only to have a savage brawl with FURIOSA.

Max vs Furiosa

“Each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy… me, or everyone else.”

From the very beginning, Miller set his MAD MAX films at an unspecified point in the future so he was not bound by mere realism. They are broad, operatic and even cartoonish but within that neo-mythological framework, Miller explores real-world issues. Many viewers respond to feminist themes (clearly Max has come a long way since Phillip Adams accused him of being ‘a special favourite of rapists, sadists, child murderers and incipient Mansons‘ in 1979) while some male fans groan that their macho-male-movie-icon has been reduced to a supporting character in his own movie (and to women, no less). These angry boys in their “No Gurlz Allowed” treehouse forget that Max was always a passenger in stories driven by other characters’ goals; Max’s boss Fifi in the first film, Papagallo in the second, and Aunty Entity and Savannah (yes, women) in the third. I admit to an internal groan when Charlize Theron was cast, but in my case it was fear of Hollywood meddling, THUNDERDOME-style, and because I’d been soured by her role in PROMETHEUS, another franchise restart by a 1970s director-hero that was (for me anyway) a total clunker. I need not have worried because Charlize Theron was utterly fantastic in this movie. Using her dancer training she expressed so much in movement, and nuanced acting evoked the complex inner life of the marvellous character Furiosa, all with little dialog.

Some dismiss FURY ROAD as merely a ‘two hour chase sequence’, but watching two hours of complex action staging and never losing sight of what is actually happening is extraordinarily rare. In most action movies today, the objects moving through frame and the cameras themselves both flail in an attempt at dynamism, but create an incoherent mess. Batman enters, there’s a flurry of shaky-cam shots, and 10 baddies are suddenly on the floor. In FURY ROAD, Miller trusted us to figure out the details as we watched, and we could follow because he gave us the information to do so, visually. This craftsmanship alone would have left me in awe of FURY ROAD but it also had astonishing thematic and emotional weight embedded in its beautifully kinetic Busby Berkeley routine. In a standard action movie, the action is sandwiched between moments of character and plot development, but FURY ROAD attempts to advance character and plot through the action itself. This clearly doesn’t work for everyone, but for me this ‘two hour chase’ is brimming full with stories of human desperation and redemption, the healing power of empathy, and that to truly overcome oppression the answer is not escape but to change the status quo.

Max grudgingly becomes Furiosa’s ally and helps her and the 5 Wives fight off the BMX Bandits and the Spiky-Car Club. Cirque du Soleil collides with a mobile Monster Truck show, as every colourful kook in the outback is after them. Max, Furiosa and the 5 Wives finally escape from this rolling Burning Man and Survival Research Laboratory parade with some boy-howdy fancy shootin’ and Smokey and the Bandit style purty drivin’. They arrive at the fabled Green Place, but Furiosa is bummed to discover that it’s dry and shitty-looking as everywhere else. The consolation prize is meeting some really cool old bikie grannies called the VUVALINI. Max finds a lightbulb in the desert and holds it over his head; ‘Hey, Let’s turn around and storm Joe’s Citadel!’ 

Fury Road

“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!”

Internet articles cite ‘secrets’ that make FURY ROAD work (‘It’s the editing!’ or ‘It’s the framing!’) which is like saying that the secret to Gene Kelly’s tap dancing is his right foot. As with any complicated process it’s the coordination of many steps that creates cinema magic (a much less catchy title for a Vimeo video). FURY ROAD rises above other action movies due to clarity; its various pieces fit seamlessly together as a unified whole. The ‘secret’ to the flabbergasting Hong Kong films of Jackie Chan, versus his flatter Hollywood films, is that Chan was empowered to approach his Hong Kong films holistically; involved in direction, and stunt-coordination, and performing, and editing. Whereas in Hollywood he was simply an actor/stunt performer. The career of Buster Keaton too shows a contrast between amazing films where he was involved in the entire process, and his later MGM films where Keaton only had limited input. FURY ROAD works because George Miller’s vision was applied throughout all phases of production:

STORY: George Miller wrote FURY ROAD without a script but storyboards were the equivalent, allowing all elements to be planned visually long before photography began. Comics/storyboard artist Brendan McCarthy was credited as co-screenwriter because Miller appreciates visually-scripting for a visual medium, an approach dear to my heart. (Many animated projects I’ve worked on were largely written with visuals and, whatever the credits say, the script sometimes transcribed the storyboards, rather than the other way around). DESIGN: Production designer Colin Gibson and costume designer Jenny Beavan did amazing work that facilitates the fast cutting. The Warboys’ distinctively anaemic pallor not only works for the post-nuclear story but allows them to ‘read’ clearly as they leap about. Vehicles too each had a distinctive silhouette and this wasn’t simply about looking ‘cool’, but looking cool in service of clarity. Because cinema is images in time, design is important. The audience could visually process the fast-cutting action because of design choices as much as anything else.  STUNTS: The long production delays allowed stunt coordinator Guy Norris to run computer simulations to test safety and coordinate the weights of stunt performers and vehicles. Then those stunts were practised over and over again, before the beautiful butoh dance of human bodies was eventually caught on camera. CINEMATOGRAPHY: Miller knew that certain sequences would be edited incredibly rapidly, so traditional composition rules were broken to centre the action, because the human eye takes time to adjust to the composition of each new shot, and Cinematographer John Seale talked Miller into multiple secondary cameras to capture the action. Miller didn’t want yet another drab monochrome post-apocalyptic movie, so the only other place to go was supersaturated and the distinctive teal and orange colour palette of the movie is the work of Colorist Eric Whipp. EFFECTS: Having made action movies in the analog 1980s, and then worked in computer animation in the 2000s, Miller was supremely qualified to know how to use both digital and practical effects each to their best advantage. Digital effects were used to enhance the landscape, combine shots, remove stunt rigging and for greenscreening Charlize Theron’s prosthetic arm. Even the sequence which is obviously heavily CGI, the dust storm, was shot practically first. EDITING: Margaret Sixel‘s background is as a documentary editor, and her skill at sifting through loads of footage to find the ideal cut was used to great effect, when 480 hours of footage supplied by Seale and Miller were whittled down to 2 hours and 2700 shots.

Furiosa finally confiscates Immortan Joe’s asthma inhaler but she’s fading fast due to her accumulation of wounds. Then, in the most touching post-apocalyptic moment since WALL-E, Max heals her with his own blood. Furiosa returns to the Citadel a conquering hero, and waves goodbye to Max as he rides off into the sunset, like a YOJIMBO of the Wasteland. 

The Citadel

“I am the one that runs both from the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this wasteland, reduced to one instinct: survive.”

Max, Nux, Furiosa and the 5 Wives were tools of the system but inverted the roles they were exploited for. Nux was taught to sacrifice himself for Immortan Joe but used this Kamikaze role to thwart him instead. Furiosa was a lieutenant of the Citadel but used her trusted position to liberate its victims. Max was as a mere blood bag for the Warboys but used this role to nurture his former adversary Furiosa back to life. The implications for broad societal change are clear, but FURY ROAD can also be seen as a rebuke to Miller’s filmmaker colleagues. As if to say; “You may be working on a mere franchise movie, nevertheless you should imbue it with ingenuity and excitement, and some challenging themes as well.” Innovative films of the 1970s and 1980s became the template that Hollywood still regurgitates decades later but this sad trend could be exciting if even half those ‘blockbusters’ were made in the spirit of FURY ROAD.

When so many of my filmmaker heroes have made un-engaging films in recent years I’d wondered if directors inevitably lose their edge with age, but feared that the problem was actually my own jaded soul. However, in a gift from George Miller, I was immersed in wonder by a film at the age of 51, and learned that a 70 year old director can still give a masterclass in action filmmaking. Seeing this director who dazzled me in my teens do it again in my middle age is one of the many pleasures of FURY ROAD. Even though Phillip Adams still hates Max, most other critics are enthralled by George Miller’s film. After redefining action cinema in the 1980s, Miller went into animation and has not directed a live-action film since 1998. Now he proves that he’s still one of the great directors of his own generation and serves notice to the current generation too. It’s sad that George Miller says he only has two more movies left in him at his age but I eagerly wait to see what they’ll be, whether about pigs, penguins or ’pocalypse.

Jan 022015
 

As a follow up to some Star Trek TV sketching we did months ago, Julia and I did more sketch nights of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a favourite of Julia’s that I wasn’t so familiar with.

StarTrek_TNG_Picard

When Star Trek: TNG was first broadcast, in the late 1980s, I was working in Asia and Europe; countries where I couldn’t understand television anyway and therefore didn’t own a TV. By the time I’d moved to the USA and eventually got a TV of my own in the mid-90s, TNG was in reruns and I finally caught an episode or two, but I only watched it in earnest in this past year. It’s hard not to make comparisons between the original Star Trek and TNG, and the obvious differences between the two leading men. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is certainly not the Horn-dog hot-head that Captain James T. Kirk was. Picard’s style is more the thoughtful philosopher king than the wenching warrior king of Kirk’s day. Whereas Kirk would strip down to his red tights at a moment’s notice and flex his beefcake body tone to get hearts aflutter, if Picard works any magic on the ladies at all, it is with his thoughtful manner and deep Shakespearean toned voice.

StarTrek_KirkChair

Starfleet has become very PC since Kirk’s strutting rooster days in the 23rd century.. was it perhaps rocked by a sex scandal? Or was the Federation of Planets embroiled in the PC WARS of the early 24th century? While it’s fun to retcon the story itself, this change reflected a real-world attitude shift. By the late 1980s, tawdry sex scandals had become commonplace- there was Jimmy Swaggart’s shenanigans and Gary Hart’s, and the capper; Nelson Rockefeller dying on TOP of his assistant. Suddenly, the idea of a smug lover-boy leader was getting older than Ted Kennedy. Apparently, Roddenberry initially wanted an updated Kirk-type macho man to be the new Captain, but was persuaded to go in a different path for TNG, and just as well, because a few seasons after TNG was launched, Tail-Hook and the tawdry Clinton years meant that a Horn Dog in command was no longer appealing, and a charming rogue now seemed a shallow pig. Casting someone who projected integrity above all things was the right choice.

StarTrek_TNG_Worf

The go-go boots, mini skirts and beehive hairdos of classic 1960s Star Trek have been replaced in TNG by unisex jumpsuits and a starship interior that is cool and slick, yet somehow reminds me of the Burbank Marriott. Some of the old Starfleet rules seem to have changed too. I thought a starship captain wore a gold tunic, but Picard wears red. Perhaps you wear the colour of your background speciality; blue for sciences, gold for helm/navigation and red for operations? Whereas Kirk was promoted to Captain from being a helmsman, was Picard was once a security red-shirt? As we all know, the life expectancy of any red-shirt is very brief, so Picard was clearly a badass to have survived many an away-team long enough to go bald. Perhaps he was simply given his own starship captaincy as the first ever red-shirt to live past the age of 55.

StarTrek_Kirk_v_Andorian

The character that typifies TNG is Counsellor Troi. While Kirk was the quintessential Space Captain as imagined by cold war 1960s writers, Counsellor Troi is the definitive feel-good alien tea-leaf psychic cum human resources lady as imagined by writers in the PC 1980s. Troi is a “Betazoid empath”; a being with the psychic ability to intuit something clearly obvious from the action you’ve already seen;  “I sense great anger in the leader of the alien vessel that just opened fire, Captain.” (Psychic characters sound interesting but suck the fun out of stories if they really have power, and inevitably, Obi-Wan/Gandalf are killed off, so that Luke/Frodo have stuff to actually do. OR, as with Troi, their powers must be limited.) Half-baked though her powers may be, apparently they’re very important in the 24th century, as Troi gets her own chair on the bridge right next to the Captain. Or perhaps Starfleet has placed her there to keep an eye on Picard and other authority figures, like a Zampolit political officer in the Soviet Army? From her post on the bridge, Troi ensures that the officers behave themselves and the holo-deck is always used appropriately; for 3D reenactments of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and not holo-porn.

StarTrek_TNG_EvilData

Each Star Trek spinoff series has a character that is not human, but who the show writers use as a foil to explore human-ness. In classic 1960s Star Trek this role was filled by Spock, and In TNG it is Data, an android with a Pinocchio complex who is fascinated by humans. He is an amazing piece of tech; a synthetic human designed with an astonishing attention to detail in some areas and not in others. While Data’s designers took great care to give him lifelike human eye-bags, they thought that giving him the pasty pallor of a corpse was near-enough good-enough. Each of the various Star Trek shows also has a crew member who represents the ’enemy’ of the show prior. Borg-babe 7-of-9 is a crew member of Star Trek: Voyager even though the Borg were Starfleet’s enemies in TNG. Lieutenant Worf is a crew member in TNG even though Klingons were Jim Kirk’s deadly enemies previously. Pavel Chekov was a crew member on the original Enterprise, even though the audience at home in the mid 1960s feared the Russians more than anything else. This idea, that our enemies of yesterday will become our friends tomorrow, may be a likeable notion, though I don’t really know if it is true. Will there ever be an Al Quaeda or ISIS officer on the bridge of future Star Trek Spinoffs? We shall have to wait and see..

StarTrek_The_Cage

Back in the 23rd century, Captain Kirk travelled that part of the galaxy with toga-wearing aliens and intelligent gas clouds from end to end, and in the 24th century Captain Picard explores that further quadrant of space where everyone has a lumpy forehead. It turns out that wherever Starfleet goes, everyone speaks English already. In the 23rd century, Pavel Chekov had a Russian accent (of sorts) but by the 24th century, Jean-Luc Picard has no French accent at all. Supposedly, it’s because the French language has died out by then. This is where the optimism of Star Trek becomes something else; the smug idea that in time, everyone will inevitably become just like us. It turns out that we can assimilate just as implacably and efficiently as the Borg.

Sep 012014
 

DrWho_Hartnell

Old plot details (and fan-enthusiasm!) refreshed by a Netflix marathon, we recently watched the theatrical big screen debut of the 12th (or is it 13th?) actor to play DOCTOR WHO– that alien space/time traveller in the big blue box. As with last year’s 50th Birthday episode, likewise screened in movie theatres worldwide, this feature-length episode, entitled ‘Deep Breath’, was a major event in the worldwide WHO nerdiverse. >SNORT< Will people respond to Peter Capaldi’s Prickly Scottish Alien take on the iconic character? Based on the history of the 50 year history of the show my guess is ‘yes’.

The very first version of The Doctor, William Hartnell’s Crotchety Alien Wizard, had left the role before Doctor Who entered my awareness at about 3 or 4 years old though I’ve seen clips of him since. Initially developed as an educational show for children there was incredible innovation in Sydney Newman & Donald Wilson’s concept of a wanderer who can go anywhere or anytime in his blue box. He was conceived to teach; visit the past to teach history and the future to teach science, but producer Verity Lambert quickly saw the more fantastical opportunities of the concept and by the time I met The Doctor just a few years later, he favoured science fiction, with an emphasis on the fiction. The Doctor faced daily danger- saving the world and dealing with monsters & villains– but unlike other action heroes he overcame problems with his wits and intellect, rather than his fists and a gun. No longer an educator perhaps but 50 years later The Doctor is still a hero of the mind. In the world of Doctor Who there’s no shame in being bookish or the smartest person in the room. Nor the nerdiest either; The Doctor may wear fezzes, tartan trousers, overlong scarfs, and other twee, uncool eccentricities, yet somehow manages to be cool anyway. Well, mostly. But even at his most cloying whimsy worst, I like the character on principle because he’s a celebration of positivity, eccentricity and intelligence. Einstien as action hero.

The Doctor is a Whimsical Merlin in a magician’s disappearing box complete with a lovely assistant, and his stage is all of space and time if it were British. Growing up in Australia I was exposed to both American and British TV shows in equal measure (plus Australian stuff too). The American shows went for ‘slick’ the British shows owned ‘quaint’ (and the Aussie stuff settled for whatever vibe it could pull-off). When American Heroes get a time machine it looks like a slick silvery Delorean sports car but when a British hero gets a time machine it looks like a blue Porta-Potty, but the joy of NAFF is one of the things I respond to in British pop culture. There’s an appreciation for the charm of quirky things, and the joy of the un-obvious. That a spaceship does not have lasers and missiles, is not designed to look ‘cool’, and is just a nondescript blue box, is actually very cool. The opposite of awesome can, in fact, be perversely rather AWESOME.

DrWho_Troughton

The first Doctor I saw was the 2nd; Patrick Troughton’s Cosmic Hobo, who held the role till I was 5 years old. A bumbling figure, sometimes cranky, but very likeable, Doctor Two sticks in my memory partly for having a Scottish companion, and my family often highlighted this (“Look! His name is Jamie, and he was born in Scotland too!”) Doctor Two defined the UN-obvious qualities of The Doctor for me: seemingly absent minded but undeniably brilliant. Frustrated with the foibles of humans despite his deep affection for them. Seemingly cowardly, yet brave. Old, yet childlike. Acting the fool, while thwarting baddies with his genius. I have haunting memories of watching Doctor Two battle monsters that terrified me as a wee kid. The doll-like faces of the Cybermen most scared (and scarred) the 5 year old me, though their 1960s design seems hilarious today. My first sight of those trigger happy fascist pepper pots, The Daleks, was when they battled Doctor Two. Back then, the visual of their gunfire was a simple polarisation of the video (“Exterminate!” NEGATIVE-positive-NEGATIVE “Aieeee!”) yet the weirdness of that cheap effect unsettled me. Created in 1963 by Terry Nation, and designed by Raymond Cusick, Daleks are fundamenally unchanged 50 years later; the VW Beetle of monster design. Sadly, I cannot refresh all my childhood memories of Doctor Two on YouTube, as many of his episodes were lost by the BBC, but thankfully his opening titles DO survive. This uniquely weird sequence set a tone of otherworldly creepiness for 5 year old me that I carry still. Delia Derbyshire has finally been acknowledged for her innovative realisation of the Doctor Who theme music (creating the sound of synthesisers, long before they even existed, by painstakingly splicing tape recordings). But Ron Grainer’s haunting melody asserts itself, whatever the instrumentation, as unmistakably WHO.

Like any wizard, The Doctor has his own magic wand and his fabled Sonic Screwdriver first appeared in the tenure of Doctor Two. It was a simple tool at first, but over the next few decades it evolved into the spaceman’s multitool we have today. The format of Doctor Who allowed budget necessities to be easily written into the stories and, to improve ratings and cut costs, producer Derrick Sherwin used more real-world (i.e.: cheap) locations by bringing the Doctor to Earth. I remember watching Doctor Two’s final adventure as a 5 year old, utterly agog at the climax where we learned, for very first time, that The Doctor is a ‘Timelord’ and he’d stolen his famous time machine, The Tardis. A stern Timelord tribunal forced his regeneration and banished him to Earth, and to 5 year old me the notion that this fantastical space/time wizard could be tried, punished and exiled, like me being scolded, spanked, and sent to my room, was a revelation. This scene still fascinates me in that this iconic character had been broadcast since 1963 but not till 1969 was his ‘backstory’ explained. These days every character vomits out their ‘origin’ immediately (bitten by a radioactive spider, coming from a broken home, etc) because it’s often the only thing interesting about them. No sooner is it explained, than the franchise ‘reboots’ and we hear it all again (“I know Batman, you’re damaged. I get it.”) Whereas, for 50 years, Doctor Who reinvented itself while maintaining forward momentum without the rehash cycle; the unique cleverness of Doctor Who is that actor-changes are explained by the mythology of The Doctor- his alien body regenerates- allowing continuity from 1963, with no narrative restarts.

DrWho_Pertwee

Doctor Three was a departure. He was a physical man of action who’d occasionally bust out ‘Venusian Aikido’ moves throwing baddies across the room, and he wore natty velvet suits, ruffled shirts and satin-capes that Austin Powers would reject as too garish. Jon Pertwee’s Judo Space Dandy was the Doctor for my earliest clearly-remembered episodes. His first adventure featured the Nestene Consciousness, a disembodied alien entity that could inhabit plastic, and the store dummies that came to life as a result, The Autons, scared me absolutely silly. The idea that true horror could be hidden in the everyday made a lasting impression; scenes of the props of daily life coming to life absolutely terrified me. I remember an utterly gruesome scene of a man consumed by his own chair, but a look online proves that what I remember as pure horror is closer to a Benny Hill comedy shtick (complete with 1970s groovy-but-uncomfortable vinyl seat, and farty-synth music) and the REAL reason for showcasing ‘the terror of the everyday’ was that it was cheap. (Perhaps the previous Doctor benefits from his lost episodes, in that cherished childhood memories of him cannot be refuted?) Cheesiness not withstanding, at around 6 years of age, I learned to watch Dr Who while sitting on the couch with a cushion nonchalantly in my lap. Just for comfort, you understand. The cushion could be whipped up in front of my eyes to hide the shonky terror-du-jour, thus saving a fresh stain on the couch.

Under Barry Letts’ supervision an X-Files/Spy-Fi format developed, with the earthbound Doctor working with the ’United Nations Intelligence Task-force’ to investigate otherworldly mysteries, and U.N.I.T. became the defining feature of Doctor Three’s era. He could still be relied upon to encounter aliens, just cheap aliens, and many’s the time I wolfed my dinner in time to see which one he met next. In the tenure of Doctor Three we met The Doctor’s very own personal Moriarty, The Master, an oily wannabe Dracula in a Nehru jacket, who didn’t actually twirl his moustache and laugh maniacally “Mu-ha-hargh” though he did everything else but. Also vampire-like were his attempts to cheat death, including at least one story where he was portrayed as a withered corpse. The show must have eventually hit the BBC’s ratings and budget targets, as the Timelord punishment finally ended and Doctor Three again took to the stars, as befits a rogue Timelord with a wonky Tardis. He had some memorable space/time adventures, including the first Doctor Who story with anachronistic juxtapositions of futuristic Sci-Fi with history. This became part of Doctor Who’s distinctive recipe and is a common feature of the show today but started with Doctor Three, when he stopped aliens invading Medieval Britain. This adventure was also the first time we heard the name of the Doctor’s home world; Gallifrey.

DrWho_TomBaker

Any nerd growing up watching 1970s Doctor Who has a special place their heart for Doctor Four and that includes me. Tom Baker’s Bohemian Astro Boffin held the role from 1974 till 1981, and defined the character for many viewers of that era. He was both the Roger Moore and the Sean Connery of the classic Dr Who years, winning the ‘longevity prize’ and nabbing the ‘most iconic’ trophy too. His distinctive booming voice, his bug eyed manic intensity, his obsession with Jelly Babies, the famous scarf, his felt hat, and baggy Annie Hall wardrobe. Carrying himself like an eccentric college professor, Doctor Four wandered the universe exploring planets that resembled British quarries, and visited a myriad of alien space-stations that just happened to look like the insides of British refineries or the basement boiler-room at the BBC. Doctor Four had the highest viewership of the classic Dr Who era, especially in his early seasons when producer Philip Hinchcliffe and great writers like Robert Holmes took the show into darker territory, and their cocktail of Hammer Horror with a sci-fi garnish expanded the Doctor Who mythos. In this golden era we met the evil creator of The Daleks, Davros, a maniacal scientist with Josef Mengele’s twisted mind and Stephen Hawking’s ravishing good looks. And we finally saw Gallifrey and its society! >GASP!< Back then, Doctor Who was screened every week night in a serial format with a daily cliff hanger, whereby the Doctor or his sidekick was sure to be cornered by a googly-eyed menace just before the nightly ABC news. TV programming often clashed with Mum’s coveted vision of The Family eating a civilised meal together at the table, because 5pm-7pm we kids were fixated on fun stuff (Battle of The Planets, Kimba, Speed Racer, The Goodies, F-Troop and Dr Who) and 7pm onward, grownups wanted to watch their shows too (All Creatures Great and Small, Barnaby Jones, Upstairs Downstairs, etc) so dinner was often crammed in where it fit best.

When The Doctor got his robot dog, K-9, I loved it, being only 13 years old, but recognised a forced attempt at a R2D2-esque character especially ‘for the kiddies’. There was a shift in tone away from the darker sci-fi of a few years prior, due to (A) Tom Baker’s increasingly campy delivery and (B) a battle over dark themes in childrens’ media being won by Mary Whitehouse, who’d targeted Doctor Who’s ‘monster of the week’ format in particular. Morality crusaders like her and Fredric Wertham (the anti-comics killjoy) sure sucked the fun out of being a kid, and they’d not paid attention anyway; Myths, Fairy Tales and Legends had always spelunked the subconscious human murk (and should, if they are to resonate.) Producers Graham Williams (and later, John Nathan-Turner) were assigned to oversee a milder Doctor Who, but couldn’t control the scenery-chewing Tom Baker. Despite good writers (such as Douglas Adams) the show devolved into camp and never again attained its earlier high ratings in the classic era. I was older and, with a few exceptions, Doctor Who no longer chilled nor thrilled me. The Who-viewing sofa cushion had passed to my younger siblings, and when Tom Baker left in 1981 I lost interest. He’d become Doctor Four when I was 10 years old, and hung up his scarf in my final year of high school.

DrWho_Davison_CBaker_McCoy_McGann

Next thing you know, the real world needle-scratched my life when my mother got terminal cancer and died. I left home, moved to the big city (where I was too broke to have a TV) and started working. Then I left Australia and was overseas travelling in Asia and Europe till the end of the decade. I was dimly aware that there’d been some New Whos; the Young Doctor (with question mark jacket and celery boutonniere) a Cranky Harlequin Doctor (in multi-coloured jacket) and a Sad Clown Doctor (covered in question marks). Then the show ended (or so we thought) after an unbroken broadcast history of 26 years; 1963-1989, and I’d been MIA as an active Doctor Who fan for almost the entire 1980s. I moved to the USA, and settled in San Francisco in 1991. Then in 1996 there was a NEW Doctor Who; a dreamy Steampunk Heart-Throb Doctor (in Edwardian threads and retro Tardis) with his own TV movie. Even though I’d been a childhood fan, and the New Who was set in the city where I was living myself at the time, I still missed the film and most other people did too. It failed to connect with the American audience that the relaunch had aimed for, and Doctor Who went away as soon as he’d returned.

Then in 2005, Doctor Who was back with a new TV series 9 years after he was last broadcast. Without pinning all the hopes for success on the US market this time, the relaunched Doctor would succeed or fail based on the reception in Britain. Everything in the recipe got a teeny tweak. In keeping with the original series’ clever rationalisation of logistical necessities, a retconned reason for The Doctor’s long absence from the media was written into the show; he’d been busy fighting, and ending, the universe-spanning Time War. This grim development, not to mention the long hiatus since the fan base had seen him, gave the writers justification for a changed Doctor besides. The 21st century relaunch of the show was lovingly done by people who grew up on the classic series and had a fan’s reverence for the material, while making plenty of bold choices. Russel T. Davies wisely dispensed with the cliff hanger serial format that made the classic series inaccessible to many (catching just the 4th episode of a 6 episode serial on PBS was a recipe for alienation) making each New Who episode much more self-explanatory.

DrWho_Eccleston

21st century Doctor Who dispensed with whimsy. Doctor Nine had no twee wardrobe; just a black leather jacket, dark shirt and jeans. No fixations on Jelly Babies or other kiddie treats. Even the Doctor’s traditional shock of unruly hair was gone, close cropped into a fighter’s cut, befitting a character who’d destroyed his foes and had been forced to erase his own civilisation as well. Christopher Eccleston’s Damaged Alien Loner had already been in a brawl of cosmic proportions and was ready to head-butt any alien oik that gave him any more shit (“OI!” BONK “Stitch that!”) Despite his lanky intensity, Doctor Nine brought more than enough warmth and humour for audiences to connect with and the relaunch was a worldwide hit. It rekindled the 9 year old Dr Who fan inside of me and I wish all reboots, re-imaginings and relaunches were done with such care and boldness. People who’d never watched classic Doctor Who, and  longtime fans who’d gobbled that old cheese platter (like me) both loved it. Russel T. Davies proved he understood Doctor Who’s malt blend of naff and cool by how he handled The Daleks. Traditionally, these robo-Nazis had menaced the universe with the twin horrors of (A) a gun and (B) a toilet plunger, but better yet, the new slicker production kept it that way and made it work. Most Sci-Fi/fantasy reboots betray a deep embarrassment at the material (“Do the X-Men have to wear the garish costumes?” “Can Thor lose the helmet?”) and it’s a certainty that in other hands, the Daleks would have lost the plumber’s helper.

Having Doctor Nine’s very first adventure feature those childhood terrors of mine, The Nestene Consciousness & The Autons, makes me wonder if a 7 year old Russell T. Davies likewise cringed in terror on his family couch as a kid. He and Christopher Ecclestone brought The Doctor back from the dead and not predictably, but by adding complex shadings that we’d never seen before. The Doctor’s new companion, Rose, brought a new dimension to the show, not only in her relationship with The Doctor but her relationship to others. There’d been many companions in the history of Dr Who, but I don’t remember meeting a companion’s family before and The Doctor being embroiled in their lives too. Sadly, Christopher Eccleston became the George Lazenby of the Doctor Who series, when he decided to leave the show. Like Lazenby (whose James Bond interpretation I happen to like) I’m made to wonder what might have been, had Eccleston continued for a few more seasons and fleshed-out his wonderful Doctor Nine characterisation, but after only one season The Doctor was forced to regenerate. This time it wasn’t a Dalek or Cyberman raygun blast that got him, but a lethal dose of production politics.

DrWho_Tennant

Doctor Ten had big shoes to fill, and they were not simply another pair of the previous guy’s combat boots but something new; the sneakers of David Tennant’s Supernatural Boyfriend take on The Doctor. Teen crushes used to be the speciality of David Cassidy, Ricky Martin, Justin Bieber and other wholesome pop stars, yearned-for from afar by undies-wetting teen girls. But the 21st century trend is for other-worldly dreamboats to tantalise the teeny boppers. Like the sparkly-skinned immortal vampires of Twilight- oh so dreamy, yet oh so far away. The Who Crew saw their moment, and repurposed The Doctor as the near-immortal 900 year old crush that could never be, and boy did that idea find traction, making Doctor Ten unimaginably more popular than any Doctor before; The Doctor as Beatle. Doctor Ten is the iconic character-defining role for the relaunched series. He’s dreamy, fast talking, cocky, dreamy, swaggering, egotistical, dreamy, charming, fierce, and DREAMY. My inner 9 year old says “Ptooey! Yuck!”, noting that mushy-stuff, repressed or otherwise, was never part of the Doctor’s interactions with his companions, but the post-relaunch relationships work because they’re not only about romance and include more sophistication than the classic series ever did. We meet the companions’ families, and are made to think about the consequences of travelling through time and space with an ageless alien. In the classic show, the entrance of the Tardis was a revolving door and the companions merely came and went, but in the new series we meet an older Sarah Jane Smith, the most popular companion of the classic era, and realise how devastated she was when The Doctor moved on. She’s grown older by 40 years while, tragically, the Doctor seems younger.

The romantic relationship between Doctor Ten and his companion, Rose, gave added depth not only to the stories but also to the experience of enjoying the show itself. Watching Doctor Who with my girlfriend (who enjoyed it as much as I) was a new and enjoyable experience for a lifelong Who-nerd and inspired me to re-watch episodes of classic Doctor Who, eager to cherry-pick the good ones and watch them together. After several days of sitting through dodgy video production values, foam-core sets, polystyrene monsters and padded scripts, I thought better of it.. As much as I love those old episodes, they are often better in the retelling than the re-watching.. Meanwhile in the relaunched Who, Doctor Ten’s main squeeze, Rose, departed and he was forlorn. After several hundred years of space-celibacy he’d finally found a neat girlfriend and she gets stranded in another universe. Bummer. Poor heartsbroken Doctor Ten found himself a new companion but gave her the ‘let’s be friends’ treatment, and Martha personified that romantic yearning that defined the era of Doctor Ten; quivering with unrequited passion in nearly every scene, she was a stand-in for millions of females around planet Earth. With his next companion, Donna, there were no romantic undercurrents at all, and Doctor Ten seemed to unravel at the lack of lady-vibes, getting more manic and desperate as his episodes wore on. Until, in his farewell story he finally says, plaintively; “I don’t want to go!” But you have to go, bro. You can’t work that hot smouldering romance angle too often, or The Doctor would become a time traveling Casanova. Doctor Who: Space Horndog. We’d zigged, and now it was time to zag.

DrWho_Smith

The previous two incarnations of The Doctor downplayed eccentricities, but Matt Smith’s Captain Quirk brought back the whimsicalities that defined the character when I was a child. Doctors Nine and Ten dressed ‘cool’, but Doctor Eleven favoured fezzes or bow ties, and had a childlike obsession with eating ‘Jammy Dodgers ’. Instead of intense brooding, or a swaggering bravado, he had a gangly whimsy and a geeky romantic-awkwardness that resonated with my inner 9 year old. He was nerdy, energetic, eccentric, warm, funny and, being most like my fave Doctors of the classic era, Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, I liked him right away. Steven Moffat had written some of my favourite recent episodes of Dr Who (’The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’ ’Blink’ and ’The Girl In The Fireplace’) and his scripts used TIME in particularly clever ways. Now my fave writer was running the series, with my fave post-relaunch Doctor at the controls of the Tardis, and I liked the idea of him traveling with a married couple. So I settled down to enjoy the shit out of the show.. but liked the ingredients more than the pie that was actually baked.

It was hard to figure out why.. Maybe it was a case of idea-rrhea? Too many clever ideas per episode, too many characters being whimsical all at once, each speaking incredibly clever lines, incredibly quickly, so that 90 minutes of ideas could be jammed into 45 minutes? Or was it The Ponds? I enjoyed the episodes where they were downplayed, only one of them was present, or they were absent altogether. They’re very popular, that Too-cute Two, but maybe their charms just didn’t work on me? That’s OK, there have been many companions in 50 years, and nobody loves ALL of them, so I waited for their inevitable goodbye episode. The pregnant Amy episode? No. The Pond wedding? No. The domestic bliss episode? No. The Ponds became one of the longest running companions in the new series. Sigh. But as soon as they finally did leave, and Clara showed up, I enjoyed Doctor Eleven’s shows as much as I’d liked Matt Smith from day one with a great run of stuff leading up to 2013’s theatrically screened 50th birthday episode.

DrWho_Hurt

A wonderful ‘multiple Doctor’ episode marked the 50 years since Dr Who first launched in 1963, reminding me of a similar episode of my childhood, The Three Doctors, though the 50th birthday was more cleverly done than the 10th. The surprise was John Hurt’s War Doctor, a previously unknown regeneration of The Doctor blamed for wiping out The Daleks and the Timelords in the Time War. John Hurt was marvelous but I would’ve enjoyed the story even more if Doctor Nine had been the one burdened with firing the shot that wiped out his enemies but at the cost of destroying his own people too. This was the intention, but Eccleston didn’t want to party, more’s the pity. After the anniversary it was back to the regular episodes and, like all versions of The Docor, Doctor Eleven had to regenerate and turn into someone else. It happened just as his episodes were really hitting their stride, but this is actually the best way to do it.

When your trusted doctor retires and a new MD joins the practice it’s always stressful, and for we nerds, adjusting to a new Doctor Who is no different. Initially, you don’t know what to make of the new guy. Who is he? And is he WHO? Then you learn to trust him. Love him even, and look forward to your get-togethers. Then he leaves, and you go through it all again. Twelve times. Peter Capaldi’s Intense Alien Ranter version of the Doctor replaces the whimsical warmth of the previous version with a new slant on the character. Doctor Twelve is hard to get a bead on after only one episode, but seemed emotionally detached from his companions. He swung from being distant, to a vulnerable intensity, but he was always entertaining to watch, and I am eager to see where this new exploration of the character goes.

DrWho_Capaldi

That other ‘eccentric genius’ iconic hero, Sherlock Holmes, is written as being coldly alien in his intellect, whereas The Doctor, who IS an alien intellectual, is mostly portrayed as warmly humane. Will a weirdly cold and alien Doctor simply morph into a Space Sherlock? With Steven Moffat at the helm of both franchises, it’s a distinct possibility; there’s a danger in having one clever creative do everything. Likewise, when JJ Abrams does both Star Wars and Star Trek, will Lucas’ sword-and-sorcery pulp space fantasy and Roddenberry’s futurist utopian world merge into one big bowl of generic sci-fi gruel? (We nerds agonise over such quandaries.) Doctor Twelve may seem strange to new fans who’ve never seen the classic series but the first Doctor was cranky, and the second was distracted and at times irritable too. Doctor Twelve’s clothes remind me of the Third Doctor, and like Capaldi, all of the first three actors to play the character were in their 50s. It seems that show-runner Steven Moffat is tacking back towards the Doctors from the early years of the show, that he (like me) grew up with in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Adjusting to a new Doctor is often tricky, sometimes it takes a while, but inevitably you end up liking them all, and the extra shadings that each brings to the role. The contrasts between the different incarnations of the Doctor keep the character alive and moving forward, and he’s been growing and expanding for 50 years. Now that the show is a worldwide success it’s bold to shift focus again, allowing for even broader interpretations in future. The great thing about The Doctor is how he can be many things at once and still be identifiably himself. However if, for whatever reason you do not like the New Who, take comfort in the fact that you’ll only have to wait as long as it takes to make a new Ironman movie till there’s another, altogether different, yet still recognisable, WHO.

Dr Who

May 022014
 

Here are some left-handed drawings from recent TV sketch nights drawing Star Trek. The bright colours and simple shapes, not to mention the broad characters and melodramatic action of James T. Kirk and his iconic space-faring crew can be quite fun to draw.

StarTrek_Bridge

I remember the very first time I ever saw Star Trek; it was 1974, I was 10 years old and my family had just moved to England where we had, for the very first time, a colour TV. One of the first colour shows I ever remember seeing was Star Trek, which I’d never seen before, even in black and white. The bright primary colour scheme is obviously designed for the primitive colour TVs of the 60s/70s. Subtle it was not, but the comic book palette, hammy lighting, and the spaceships and aliens, made a vivid impression when I was used to black-and-white and only 10 years old. I was inspired to build a crude model of the starship Enterprise, using bits of junk around the house: 2 aluminium pie-tins as the saucer, some ’Smarties’ tubes as the nacelles, and a paper-towel roll as the fuselage, all connected with Icy pole sticks. Despite the hilariously naff image you must now have in your mind’s eye as a result of that description, the Pie-Tin Enterprise was the sleekest and fastest starship in the TeeveeRoom quadrant of the OurHouse galaxy.

The first episode of Star Trek I ever saw has the memorable image of the starship Enterprise being menaced by a giant HAND in space. The hand is attached to none other than the Greek god Apollo, who was merely another alien for captain Kirk to clash wills with. I credit this episode for a ’Chariots Of The Gods’ fixation that kept me reading cheesy paperback theories about aliens building the ancient world, from ages 10-13 (to the amused disgust of my father, the classical humanist). Of course, I’d missed the point; the message of Star Trek is that we HUMANS are capable of big things, and in this very episode we learn that no trumped-up Greek God is a match for James T. Kirk and the humanism of Star Trek. Despite his pompous posturings, Apollo gets a regulation Starfleet boot up his Olympian toga.

StarTrek_Me_Jo

Starfleet encountered a lot of robe-and-sandal wearing aliens influenced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, when captain Kirk swaggered about the galaxy in the Enterprise. In fact, many aliens and locales encountered by the human race in the 23rd century looked coincidentally very much like whatever the Desilu/Paramount prop department already had lying around from old shows in the mid 1960s. Kirk and crew warp away to the Turkish-harem planet.. Then teleport down to the Medieval-castle planet, visit the 1940s Nazi planet, or drop in on the Cowboy planet, Or the 1930s-Chicago-Gangster planet.. ..well, you get the idea.

In the 1960s, the most famous Star Trek alien villains, the Klingons, were just swarthy, ambiguously-ethnic dudes with Fu Manchu moustaches. In the later movies and spinoff TV series from the 1980s and 1990s, Kirk’s nemeses were made to look properly alien, and had their own language and customs, but in the 1960s show, Klingons were merely a race of nefarious ‘Ming the Merciless’ types. This had long been the formula for baddies since the beginning of pulp literature; make them remind the audience of non-specific foreigners, and you’re done. This may have been budget limitations, as such lazy xenophobia is at odds with the inclusive casting of the crew of the Enterprise, who represent many races and nationalities. This was quite forward-thinking in a 1960s America which had not long ago been in a World war, was currently in a both a hot AND a cold war abroad, and wrestling with civil rights conflicts at home.

StarTrek_Gorn

Leading the Enterprise crew is none other than James T. Kirk, sitting in his Starfleet captain’s chair like a smirking king upon his high-tech throne. I imagine a ‘real’ starship captain would never leave his command post, and would control things from afar, like modern commanders do, but like any good warrior king, captain James T. Kirk spends as much time on the battlefield as in the throne room. He accompanies many an away-team mission, where the red-shirts inevitably get charbroiled, while Kirk’s tunic gets torn in pec-revealing two-fisted judo action. My friend Steve once made the hilarious observation that captain James T. Kirk was essentially President John F. Kennedy in outer-space. Perhaps J.T.K’s strutting-rooster showdowns with Klingons, and slap-and-tickle sessions with green alien babes were indeed inspired by J.F.K shagging Marilyn Monroe while playing games of nuclear-chicken with Kruschev.

That same cocktail of political tensions, machismo and sex created James Bond too, so it must have been a 1960s thing. (Apparently, Ian Fleming was President Kennedy’s favourite fiction author, and it’s a scary thought that Fleming’s overblown and undercooked James Bond novels of the 1950s influenced real-world 1960s politics, by way of an avid fan becoming the US President.) James T. Kirk would have undoubtedly approved of John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Well played, Jack.” “Thanks, Jim.” Then the two of them could have met James Bond at the Playboy club on StarBase Alpha for some 3-dimensional Venusian Baccarat and zero-G hanky-panky with Orion cocktail waitresses.

StarTrek_SpockUhura

In a few episodes, we see that some women have joined Starfleet just to bring James T. Kirk coffee in his captain’s chair. This show is set in the 23rd century, but we are often reminded that the writers themselves lived in the 1960s; the era of Mad Men. Female Enterprise crew rarely have leadership roles, mostly being nurses rather than doctors, and assistants rather than department heads. Lieutenant Uhura is indeed a Starfleet officer, and I am told that it was revolutionary at the time to have an African American female bridge officer as a main character. Yet, in the 1960s, even the imaginative powers of science fiction writers could not envision a 23rd century female Starfleet officer as doing anything more useful than essentially answering the phone and operating the switchboard. But, I have to remind myself, for a 1960s audience the fact that there were women AT ALL on a military vessel was progressive; the US Navy did not have a ship with a mixed male-female crew till 1972.

The Star Trek pilot from 1966; ‘The Cage’ can now be viewed on Netflix or DVD. It was never broadcast in this form, though re-cut as the 2-part ’Menagerie’ episode from season 1. The original ’Number One’, the Enterprise’s first officer, was envisaged by series creator Gene Roddenberry, as a capable and logical woman; a wise, captain’s counsel role, not unlike that which ultimately went to Spock. (Interestingly though, the original captain was a goon). The original female Starfleet uniforms were closer to the more practical unisex style of the later Star Trek spinoffs, and it’s clear that earlier than 1966, Roddenberry wanted not just a racially integrated show but with an attempt at progressive gender roles too. But the network (or perhaps mid 1960s focus groups) wanted this changed. So we have bee hive hairdos, go-go boots and mini skirts, and this decision to make the show more ‘hip’ to the standards of 1966 makes the portrayal of females the most dated element of Star Trek by far.

StarTrek_transporter

In Star Trek episodes, it is often mentioned in passing that 23rd century Earth has defeated poverty and racism. That would seem more of an achievement than the Star Trek adventures themselves. I would certainly like to see the solutions to these problems that have beset the human race since day one. In fact, it is remarkable how little about Earth we actually know, given how many episodes of Star Trek and its various spinoffs there have been over the almost 50 years since it first aired. Future Earth is apparently ‘fixed’, but we only see that world through the eyes of a regimented military organisation patrolling the fringes of human interstellar civilisation. Ultimately, which political solution worked? For obvious reasons, they kept the details vague, in the TV show at least.

Star Trek gives me nostalgia for an old idea of the future. I have an unmistakable affection for this show, despite, or perhaps because of, all its cheeseball budgetary limitations, and its dated vision of quaint, retro-futuristic optimism. There’s a strange blend of forward-thinking, and old-fashioned, cold war, bone-headed, machismo. Starfleet is ostensibly out there in space, to learn from the universe, but smugly bustles about the galaxy telling aliens what to do and bashing heads with them if they don’t see things our way. “Prime Directive” PC cultural sensitivities rarely hampered James T. Kirk from cockily brawling his way from one end of the galaxy to the other, and shagging his way back again. Yet, there’s an underlying likeable quality, a confidence that the human race will prevail, and we’ll eventually solve our problems with rationalism. There’s no problem we can’t fix with a technological dingus, no alien so powerful we can’t lick, or better yet, make friends with.

StarTrek_Spock

And if the manifest-destiny of Starfleet eventually meets THAT God a few galaxies over, and discovers that it too is an alien, will it be Yahweh or the highway for our favourite starshipful of ‘boldy-going’, busy-body humanists? Stay tuned for next week’s thrilling episode!

Jan 072014
 

It’s difficult to preserve memory when your older-self’s revised view constantly overwrites the original impression. How do you file a loving memory of someone you no-longer like? Or childhood memories of wonder, but of things now uncool? Do you owe it to your earlier-self to keep that first impression alive?

SW_yard

One such moment, is a memory of awe and fascination from a lazy summer day in my home town; Boxing Day 1977. The day before, we’d opened presents under our Christmas tree, which was a eucalypt decorated with ornaments and lights (snaffling an Australian-themed Christmas tree was Dad’s own personal tradition). Then we’d had a sunny Christmas lunch outside, under a crabapple tree humming with cicadas. Now Christmas was over, the salvageable wrapping paper was already put away by Mum, and it would be another year before we’d see sweat-soaked Santas in the Australian summer sun, Dad would be complaining about rampant Christmas commercialism again, and the cycle would begin anew.

Hakuna Matata.

My pal Stephen and I sat in my family kitchen thinking of what to do now that Christmas was behind us and we’d “rounded the horn” of the Summer Holidays. As I picked holiday fruitcake out of my braces, Stephen read a movie synopsis from the newspaper about a farmhand from outer-space. I was not like the sophisticated, eyeball-rolling 13 year-olds of today, yet even to me “Luke Skywalker” was the dumbest name I’d ever heard, but a movie with my mates was the best idea I’d heard on that particular Boxing Day, so off we went to watch a new film called STAR WARS.

SW_paper

In 1977, there weren’t world-wide simultaneous movie releases, and film-prints just crawled from cinema to cinema around the planet, taking 7 months for a mid-year American release to reach my home town. Amazingly, I knew nothing about the cinema sensation of the year, when Stephen and I entered a packed theatre to watch it. First, there was a documentary (an Australian content-quota meant countless naff documentaries) and that night it was about auto-racing and was extra boring, but thankfully the screen went dark when a blown fuse threw the theatre into chaos. We threw lollies at our pal John in the dark, and he lobbed them back at us, while everyone played the fool, rolled Jaffas down the aisle, and called out silly names. After what seemed forever, the power was restored, the audience settled down, the documentary was shelved, and the feature-attraction finally began.

A NEW HOPE
Immediately, I sat up and took notice because Star Wars was way more spectacular than anything I’d ever seen. Without messing about with credits, we were dropped into a budget-blowing opening sequence of battling spaceships, gun fights and robots. I was used to waiting an hour to see anything half as spectacular as the opening shot of this movie. True, Bond films started with action, and that same year, SPY WHO LOVED ME opened with a stuntman skiing off a cliff under a UNION JACK parachute. But first, I’d had to watch Roger Moore’s smirking eyebrow-dance, his alpine snog-sesh, then a cheesy rear-projected ski chase I’d seen before. Star Wars on the other hand, had an opening sequence unlike anything I’d seen, plus aliens and robots, and had the show-stoppingest, climactic action sequence of the year (with Roger Moore’s wrinkly chest nowhere to be seen.)

Seeing Star Wars for the first time at the age of 13 put me in the demographic sweet-spot it was made for, but I remember how much I did not understand in 1977. For example, the movie starts on two robots, then white-armoured troopers arrive, who I thought were robots too. They were led by (I thought) another black-clad robot, using robot-strength to lift a goodie off the deck and bust his neck. I don’t remember when I learned who was a robot and who was human (from a novelisation, I expect) but I watched the movie that first time none the wiser. Unspectacular details also blew my mind in 1977: Aunt Beru serving Luke’s space-lunch with BLUE MILK (Bantha milk perhaps?) WOW. And when Luke slouches off for his teenage-sulk, he stares at a view of not one but two setting suns. WOAH. (I did teen-sulks that year too, but only had the view of Dad’s compost heap at the bottom of our vegetable garden to pose wistfully with.)

SW_memories_1

I was floored by Star Wars at 13 years old, but I didn’t see it again before finishing its 1977 run, and in the pre-video age I couldn’t see it whenever I wanted. Thus, for many years, the power of this movie was that it existed largely in my mind, and my life as a day-dreaming fan was under way. I ordered the “Art of Star Wars” book (which eventually fell apart from re-reading) and though I’d already decided on a career in animation, I considered being a movie concept-designer, and drew spaceships and robots in addition to the cartoons I’d drawn for years.

I was too young for 1960s “Beatlemania” (only becoming aware of The Beatles many years after they’d disbanded and John already looked like the Unabomber) but was at ground-zero for its 1970s equivalent; the Star Wars phenomenon. I doubt that a movie will ever have that impact again, simply because the scale of its success was not anticipated. The media-blitz IS anticipated now, and in fact planned for whether we want it or not, and is an attempt to artificially recreate the run-away explosion of interest in (and subsequent consumer purchasing of) Star Wars. Thanks to the media frenzy, there were interviews, behind-the-scenes articles, cultural-theorisings, novelisations, and comics and magazines like never before, and of course, unprecedented merchandising. (That alone left me uninterested. Though I carry the NERD gene, it’s a mutation that leaves me immune to toys).

While awaiting the Star Wars sequel, I sought out director George Lucas’ influences, with mixed results. After wading through LORD OF THE RINGS, a book thicker than our telephone directory, I was outraged to realise by the last chapters that the insufferable band of bloody hobbits, wretched wizards and mincing elves had essentially just decided to do something, and got nowhere near blasted Mordor by the end of the first book. (Structurally the equivalent of Luke Skywalker getting to Mos Eisley; The End.) I hurled the book against the wall in frustration, and never knew what happened next till Peter Jackson ‘read’ the trilogy for me.

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
When the Star Wars sequel came out a few Christmases later I was 16 years old and a textbook example of a teenage nerd. Reader of comics? CHECK. Animation Aficionado? OF COURSE. Lousy at sports? GUILTY. Lover of sci-fi movies? MAIS OUI. Obsessed with Star Wars? DOUBLE CHECK. Terminally celibate? CHECK and MATE! (Minus the mating part). I’d often imagined what Mr Lucas might do with his next Star Wars film (snort) but EMPIRE STRIKES BACK surpassed all my expectations, and delivered perhaps THE surprise twist of my cinema going life (“His father?! Wha!!”)

SW_duel

By 1980, I was old enough to baby-sit my siblings and urged Mum & Dad to see the sequel, assuring them it was a masterpiece. While they wasted their date-night seeing MY obsession, we boys teased my 5 year old sister Victoria that she could not be Princess Leia in our Star Wars game (“Aw! I don’t wanna be an Ugnaught!”) Later, the kids were in bed and Mum & Dad retuned. Far from being awestruck, they appeared to give substantially less than even one shit about the movie. When pressed, Mum said, “Well… It’s a bit… LURID, isn’t it, dear.” I was aghast at this tepid reaction, and more so after checking a dictionary;

LURID- Adj: very vivid in color, especially so as to create an unpleasantly harsh or unnatural effect.

What the?! My parents grew up on the serials that inspired Star Wars, but interestingly, the 1970s redo of their childhoods did nothing for them.

Around this time, I learned of a Sydney animation studio and set my sights on getting a job there, gravitating back to my first love of drawing cartoons, but my brain still marinated in a brine of Star Wars, and the obsession strangely broadened my horizons. I read about director George Lucas’ film-maker heroes; about Kurosawa, about John Ford (and others) and when I moved to Sydney to start work, I was finally able to track down their films at art-house and repertory theatres, and learned a lot about cinema history and filmic language. This exciting period is the closest thing I had to film school.

RETURN OF THE JEDI
Christmas of 1983, I was working at Hanna Barbera when RETURN OF THE JEDI arrived in Sydney theatres. I was excited to see how the Star Wars saga wrapped up, and after the previous instalment, my expectations were unbelievably high. Perhaps inevitably, the film itself was anticlimactic. Maybe it was that the Star Wars series was finally (I thought) over? Or was it the failings of the film itself; the unblinking Space Teddy Bears and so on? Perhaps it was because I’d recently been through a lot (Mum died around the previous Christmas). Or simply that I was too old, at the age of 19, and could now see the movie ‘strings and wires’?

SW_jedi

I work within an industry that makes stories for children, and my colleagues and I were called to this life as an extension of our own childhood awe at similar films. In fact, many friends are working on those exact film-series that they loved as children, including Star Wars. “The circle is now complete” (as a certain trouble-maker once said). We Pro-nerds started as child-fans but now make the mind-candy. That must be cool, right? Well, yes and no. We love the process but are now part of the artifice, and no longer feel the magic of these things. Sometimes we must work hard at keeping our pro-present from twisting the feelings of our fan-past.

After a few more years working in Sydney studios in the mid-1980s- a time when it honestly felt that the animation industry was dwindling, and would be dead within 10 years- I travelled while pondering my plan-B career options. I worked for various studios, first in Asia, then in Europe, then the USA, arriving in the very city where the Star Wars movies were made in time for an animation renaissance that revitalised the industry. Before long, I actually worked for George Lucas’ company itself, while he made the first of the Star Wars prequels. I was 35 and despite myself, excited to see what Mr Lucas would do with Star Wars next..

REVENGE OF THE PHANTOM CLONES
..until I saw the movie, that is. While it is very true that STAR WARS changed my life, the PHANTOM MENACE changed it back again, which is perhaps for the best. They are, after all, only movies. A fact that Mr Lucas himself may have forgotten. In 1970s interviews after his Star Wars success, Mr Lucas cited a fun blend of movie serials, comics, and pulp magazines as its foundation. The Joseph Campbell theorising came later, initially offered by others, and George may have gotten drunk on it. When you see yourself as the modern myth-maker laureate, instead of a modern maker of pulp-serials, it’s not surprising that you might forget the essential ingredient of FUN.

Imagine the 1977 Star Wars without Han Solo. Instead, Luke & Obi-Wan are helped by another pontificating Jedi-dude in his spaceship. Structurally, the story would be the same, and I would’ve still loved that version at the age of 13 because, well, I was 13. However, without Han Solo taking the piss out of The Force and the rest of it, anyone older would’ve only had a whiny kid or a pair of ponderous old gits to connect with. To a general audience, Star Wars would’ve been insufferable without Han Solo (and to some extent, The Princess) as the ‘way in’ to the Jedi malarkey. This is essentially what we have in the Star Wars prequels; they are very dour (Yoda used to be a cheeky trickster, remember?) and the only character not bound to Jedi mumbo jumbo is a CGI Rasta duck/rabbit. 13 year olds love it (I would’ve too at that age) but without a likable adult foil the prequels are a ponderous tale about a cult of bearded virgins taking themselves very seriously, and well, if I’d wanted to see that I’d just buy a ticket to Comic Con.

THE NERD APOCALYPSE
Many original-trilogy Star Wars fans have theories about the prequels, and Mr Lucas’ missteps that led him there, and I’m no different. But perhaps the more interesting thing to think about is that WE too lost our perspective? The Phantom Menace is the best value for money ever spent on a movie ticket, because people are still talking about it. What other movie of 1999, or other year for that matter, has given that return on an $8 investment? I myself have participated in many fun geek-out discussions about it, but worry that ‘hating movies’ is the new ‘loving movies’. Fan-love is strong, but has a bitter taste when it curdles, and in the crazy hyperbole of The Internet, many fans even claimed that George Lucas had raped their childhoods.

It was as if the Beatles reformed, but as a polka band, much to the horror of their old fans, who were aghast when the Re-Beatles’ POLKA album found new fans and went triple platinum anyway. The fact that Lucas himself directed the prequels made the anger more intense, and rabid Star Wars fans forgot that these were movies, not holy scriptures, and were supposed to be FUN. Fans complaining that Mr Lucas ruined their childhoods, should relax. If what we fondly remember is a moment in time, and what it meant to us back then, then we still have it.

SW_poster

I saw Star Wars once in 1977 and not again until 1983, and never had a scene-for-scene memory of it, the way some fans do. Yet I had the film indelibly stored inside me anyway, as a collection of memories, feelings and impressions. This, along with photos from magazines, novelisations and comics, became my own personal “Special Edition”, existing only in my head. But if you fetishise the object itself, you are at the mercy of the Nerd/Media complex; that relationship between fans and the companies that own the intellectual properties. When a nerd cherishes an adolescent moment of wonder, the company does too if it centres on a THING that can be sold (and resold) to the nerd.
Q: But what happens if the company (even the original filmmaker) messes with the fetishised object, changing the context of things?
A: Lo, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth that will echo all down the numerous vales of the Internet.

In an old interview with Mr Lucas, he talked of the movie serials he loved as a child, and how surprised he was to later discover that they were actually shoddily made, when he saw them again at film school. For this disconnect to happen, not constantly re-watching the original was a key element in its growth into something else in his mind. As a pro-nerd himself, Mr Lucas processed his disappointment by making something that captured the MEMORY of his beloved serials, but was better made, and STAR WARS was born. For my generation Star Wars was new, and made a huge impression, but my parents saw Star Wars for the slick rehash that it was. Now that I’m middle-aged myself, and neck-deep in rehash after redo, homage after rip-off, ad infinitum, of things I grew up on, I finally understand why Mum & Dad were unimpressed when they saw Empire Strikes Back in 1980. (Verily, I forgive you now, Mum & Dad.)

Keep your cherished childhood impressions free of bitterness by remembering that it’s not only the object (film, book, record or whatever) that you love, but also how old you were, who you were with, the entire place and time itself and your relationship to it. This can never be recreated when simply re-watching that same movie, over and over, but happily, is always part of your internal world, and thus not at the mercy of corporate “re-imaginings” or director’s “re-edits”. Just as Mr Lucas found inspiration for Star Wars in a moment of disappointment with serials from his childhood, hopefully LOADS of material is gestating in the minds of disappointed fans who saw the Star Wars prequels, maybe even a couple that are truly original creations. Cherishing a moment of wonder but then fetishising the film that inspired it is a dead end, but using that feeling to inspire the creation of something new, keeps the flame alive.

If my 13 year old self knew that the two Nerd-Gods of my adolescent world; Walt Disney and George Lucas, would one day be in bed together, my 13 year old brain would be aquiver in febrile anticipation. Now, having been an eager Storm-trooper for both their companies, I’m not so sure. Creatively, it could go either way; bring STAR WARS back to life? Or flog the dead horse into glue? But the fact that Lucasfilm was an Indie film studio, hugely successful yes, but working outside of Hollywood as an independent, means that I was saddened by the Lucas/Disney marriage and to see Lucasfilm consumed.

Hakuna Matata

There are strange moments in Star Wars, viewed now as an adult. If it was intended for children, Luke finding his Aunt and Uncle cooked into beef jerky by Imperial troopers (the only time they ever hit what they aimed at) is a very unsettling image. It was for me, anyway. On the other hand, if it was for grown ups, then Princess Leia’s emotional life is hard to read; she sees her planet and everyone she loved, destroyed, and the next that we see her, she cooly sasses Luke Skywalker for being too short. Smart-arse sociopath? Or still stoned after her visit from the Pusher-Droidâ„¢ with the syringe? Her forgetting of Chewie’s Victory Medal (which I was peeved about at 13) could be anti-Wookie racism, but maybe we should give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk it ALL up to her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.. (Verily, I forgive you now, Princess). Seen today, the disco hair in Star Wars roots it firmly in the era of Donna Summer and the special effects that floored a generation no longer seem so special. In fact, how long before Disney reboots the series altogether? Probably as soon as they have episodes 7, 8, and 9 in the can. I hope they tread carefully, lest they start the unholy rehash-backlash Nerd-Apocalypse II. (I might just sit that one out.)

It’s difficult to make sense of a lifetime of impressions of such an iconic and over-watched movie. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the very first time with the wide-eyed awe of a child, and also with the eyes of an adult who’s seen it umpteen times and aware of its limitations. This constant layering of memory- not just of this movie but of everything in our experience- means that, inevitably, we are ALL Lucas-like in our heads; constantly tinkering with the edits of our lives. So how to sum it all up? Maybe the trick to memory is to hold on to multiple versions simultaneously; the current view AND the younger view… By all means have a REVISED edition, and as many alternate versions as you like, but unlike Mr Lucas, don’t make the mistake of ever taking that original CLASSIC version out of circulation.

———

SW_walk

I have kept alight within me many memories of childhood wonder, trying to hold onto them lightly lest they break, or worse, become twisted. In one of them, it is always Boxing Day 1977 and I am just walking out of the Capitol Theatre with my friends Stephen and John, into an Australian summer evening. Like many people, I’m agog at what I just saw up on that movie-screen, but maybe a little more agog than most. With the perspective of time (and a little self-knowledge) I see why that particular 13 year old kid identifies with the story of a dweeb from a small town in the middle of nowhere and his quest for adventure. Of course I was primed to love this movie of fantasy and escapism, and was on the hook from the first frame till the last, and always will be.

Luke Skywalker whined about not going to Toshi Station to pickup those tasty power-converters, and meanwhile, a few galaxies away, 13 year old me whines that I’ll never fly a spaceship, meet a robot or make friends with a giant alien ape. Walking home, I mention to Stephen what a bummer it is that real life is never going to live up to that movie. I say good night, go inside my house, and sit on the couch. A career in animation is a few years away, adventures around the world are further away, and working for George Lucas himself is even further away and, as my mind joyfully races through the galaxies, I stare at the tinfoil STAR over the shedding Christmas tree…

SW_couch

Oct 012013
 

As a child, going to the cinema was special. Seeing even a crummy movie back then was somehow way more fun than seeing an absolutely amazing movie is for me today. Of course, my childhood was in the pre-video era, when perhaps the anticipation of a movie and the fond memories of it afterward were greater than they are now, even though the movies themselves were less spectacular by far. Having no video, I could not replay the movies I liked whenever I wanted. I saw them only once and then they were gone, continuing only in my mind where they often grew over time into something much more fascinating than the movie that inspired them.

These days, we guzzle at the media-trough, day-in day-out, and forget those leaner times. Compared with the children of today I was media malnourished; we didn’t have an X-Box, 100 TV channels or a library of streaming video to choose from at home. There were only two TV channels in my home town, and one of those didn’t broadcast till after lunch, when you’d get hours of boring cricket, and even that would be in black and white. (Australia didn’t get colour TV till about 1975 and my family not till years after that).

So, for colour movie entertainment, there were really only two ways to go. My very earliest memories of movie-going are of the Drive-In, in a car packed with crying younger siblings. Or, for a more refined viewing experience, there was the Cinema, where on special occasions, Dad would take me on a lad’s night out. In my home town, the movie palace was the old 1920s CAPITOL THEATRE, where my Dad watched films when he was growing up, and I experienced a lot of my own great movie memories too, including seeing my first JAMES BOND film. My vivid memories of cinema-going start with a viewing of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER with my Dad at the age of 7. I had not seen anything like it.

DAF_poster

I remember we walked the few blocks to the “THE PICTURES” one summer evening, probably in early 1972. Dad bought our Maltesers, Jaffas and Fantales, we took our seats and when the house lights went down, we watched the cartoon. I get my love of cartoons, which ultimately led me to working in animation myself, from my Dad. My Mum never “got” cartoons. (I am reminded of the time Dad and I laughed so hard at a BUGS BUNNY cartoon on the Telly, that Mum stomped out of the kitchen, mixing bowl still in hand, to see what the hilarity was about. After alternately staring blank-faced at the cartoon, and watching us kack ourselves with laughter, she sighed in resignation to this mystery and went away none the wiser.) Anyway, it saddens me that nowadays cinemas show commercials instead of cartoons, but they were still dependably shown at the cinema when I was little, to our great enjoyment. With any luck the cartoon that day would have been by WARNER BROTHERS (maybe even the beloved Bunny) then after some brief COMING SOON info, the movie itself finally began. I leaned forward to watch…

CRASH! A judo guy is hurled through a window. BASH! A man in dark glasses is choked and gruffly interrogated by a mystery man. Wait, now there’s a pretty lady in a bikini. We finally meet the mystery man; an intense-looking bloke with cranky eyebrows in a polyester safari suit, who inexplicably strangles the friendly bikini lady with her own bikini top. (!?) In the next scene, eyebrows-man is confronted by the bloke he seeks; a smug-looking man flanked by henchmen, their guns understandably leveled at violent eyebrow-man, who suddenly steams fiercely about the place, stabbing the henchmen; THUNK! THUNK! Then, in a scene I remember most vividly, he tosses smug-man into a vat of molten mud. (Wow.) And all of this before the opening titles, which featured a diamond encrusted cat and silhouettes of cavorting and bejeweled naked ladies.

DAF_Bond

That was a lot to process for someone more used to DOCTOR DOLITTLE (seen on a previous boys’ movie night). Amazingly to me at the time, I soon discovered that the cranky guy with the eyebrows, who single-handedly provoked this non-stop sequence of unexplained violence, was the “goodie” of this movie; James Bond. He was a “real” person but capable of unloading just as much cartoon violence as Bugs Bunny and, unlike the rabbit, when he despatched his foes in cartoonishly outrageous ways, they bled and stayed very dead. This was a new idea.

I’m not even sure if Dad himself knew what was in store for us when he bought our tickets. Had he ever seen a Bond movie before? Perhaps not. I seem to remember him squirming uncomfortably in his seat as James Bond did his all baddie-murdering and lady-strangling. This must have been a racier evening than Dad had planned for his 7 year old son, who was transfixed in goggle-eyed amazement nevertheless. I had absolutely no idea what it was all about, but unlike DOCTOR DOLITTLE, which has almost evaporated from my memory completely, I sat at the very edge of my seat engrossed in finding out what this naughty Bond fellow got up to next. It was some grownup code that needed deciphering, especially the scenes with pretty ladies that had, to my 7 year old brain, a weird undefinable something extra that I could not fathom..

DAF_BambiThumper

A much later viewing in my adulthood identified this mystery element as a cheesy, nudge-nudge-wink-wink 1970s kitsch-eroticism, only one notch up the bogus-innuendo scale from Benny Hill. In the early 2000s, myself and my friend ROBERT had decided to watch all the Bond movies in order over several days, with the easy review-ability of LAZER DISC. We both had dim, fond memories of seeing a few of these films in our childhoods, and watching them ALL seemed a grand idea. However, like an all-you-can-eat challenge at the neighborhood Hof Brau, that once-grand idea soon fills you with regret and nausea when you are at half way, and will ultimately break you completely. Fond memories or not, we simply could not chew our way through all the pap. (For the record, Roger Moore was the greasy plate of macaroni and beef that sent us scuttling to the lavatory).

Seeing these Bond movies again was a revelation. Some were cheesy-but-good, one or two were actually good-good, but the vast majority were just plain silly. As for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, it was revealed to be the most lackluster of Sean Connery’s Bond movies by far. He was beyond his sleek, 1960s, dangerous-panther phase, and had not yet reached his later, 1980s, silver-fox phase. It was those awkward in-between years; his 1970s, bored, toupee-and-girdle phase. The film had little of the danger I had remembered, and was actually tame compared to what children watch today, almost AUSTIN POWERS.DAF_BondGun

I rather preferred the deadliness of the film I had carried around in my head since childhood, and perhaps that’s the secret to the Bond Franchise’s success? Maybe this film series lives so vividly because we’ve EACH selected our favourite dishes from the Bond buffet table– the best baddie, best helicopter chase, most vivacious babe, snazziest theme song, most bruising brawl, scariest henchman, most exciting car chase, greatest gizmo and the best Bond-actor– and assembled in our minds a custom-made, mega-meta-movie platter all along? We each remember an absolutely awesome Bond movie that perhaps never really existed.

In fact, this may be the case with many of the films that I love, especially those that impressed me as a child. The versions of those films that I hold in my mind were merely inspired by the actual films, and what I love was only ever in my imagination. After all, foods, wines and whiskeys often gain more flavour by being allowed to age undisturbed in a cellar, and perhaps this true of film as well. Is the human mind the oak-barrel aging room of media? If so, perhaps our relationship to film has fundamentally changed in the post-video age, when we can instantly call up any scene from any movie that we wish on YouTube or streaming video. Easy access to the originals doesn’t allow for the distortions and amplifications of memory.

DAF_car

So rather than overwrite that old memory of being enthralled by DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER at the age of 7, with the unimpeachable evidence that the film is actually pretty shoddy, with a puffy lead actor who barely performs above a yawn, I prefer to keep the thrilling memory of the movie experience I’ve had in my head all those years: Me at the age of 7, with my Dad on a boys night out to see a great movie! Vividly-remembered scenes of James Bond brawling in a swimming pool with not one but TWO kung fu bikini girls, WOW! And that deadly fight in a lift, COOL! What about that stunt with a car going though a skinny alleyway? YEAH! And what’s going on with those two very creepy assassin guys? Hey Dad, maybe we shouldn’t talk about it too much, because Mum wouldn’t “get it”, don’t you think?

It’s the stuff that a cuddly childhood memory is made of.

Jun 202012
 

PROMETHEUS, the much anticipated follow-up to the Alien franchise, directed by franchise-creator, Ridley Scott, is a feast for the eyes in 3D, but I wasn’t sure what to make of the story.

Prometheus_2012

Wanting answers to my nagging doubts about what appeared to be suspiciously like plot holes, bad writing and flimsy character portrayals, I went online where I found a wealth of forum-threads devoted to discussing the film’s deep, hidden meanings, symbolism and clever, though subtle, clues as to what is going on. I’d not heard such passionately tortuous theories to justify a movie since the early days of the Phantom Menace, before the credulity damn broke, and old-school Star Wars fans realised that they actually hated it. But, taking my cue from these online Prometheus discussions, I realised that SYMBOLISM is the key to enjoying Prometheus:

Peter Weyland, the old wrinkly dude on the starship, represents Ridley Scott; on a quest for meaning at the end of his career/life. He wants to reconnect with his fanbase, represented by the sleeping giant “Engineers”, and ask them if they still love him. David, the android, represents Damon Lindelhof, the screenwriter and Ridley Scott’s sidekick; helping him on this quest. After an arduous and expensive journey on the starship Prometheus, (which represents the cost and technical challenges of The Film itself) they awaken the long-dormant fanbase, (represented by the SLEEPING GIANT they find on the alien starship). When Ridley/Weyland prompts David/Lindelhoff to ask “do you still love us? (i.e: What do you think of our new FILM?)” The angry FANBASE tears off Lindelhoff’s head and beats Ridley Scott to death with it. But it isn’t over yet; later, the Giant/Fan is head-raped by MEMORIES of the film, and what has become of the Alien franchise, represented by the giant face-hugger attack at the end of the movie. After further gut-wrenching conflict, a xenomorph (a new, tortuous-symbolism-fan) steps from the dead body of the old Alien fanbase.

Ridley Scott rhymes with Diddly Squat. Coincidence? Symbolism? You decide. Indiana Jones and the Temple Of The Crystal Skull

Jun 122008
 

How often had you heard that Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford, had all wanted to do another Indiana Jones movie, but were looking for the right story? Many years went by. Then, when they finally began filming, my expectation was that the script was pretty impressive.

crystalskull

I finally saw INDY 4 recently, with my brother and his family… and I was led to think ‘This was the script they had been waiting 20 years for?’ Even my two nephews (8 and 10) were disappointed, proclaiming it “stupid” and “dumb” respectively.  However, for someone who once knew a Russian femme fatale, Cate Blanchett’s performance and accent were both excellent (and the scene of her eyeballs melting was strangely cathartic).

Unlike many others, I was initially excited about the Area-51/Roswell, angle… Space-aliens plus archeology isn’t a weird stretch if you were into Chariots of the Gods as much as I was when I was 11 years old. In fact, when I heard that the movie was going to be set in the late 1950s, I’d hoped they were going in that direction. But what a cock-up they made of it all….

But that nerdy stuff aside, the biggest disappointment was the character Indiana Jones himself. In the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was one of the more human action heroes; far from invincible, he got knocked on his arse, time and time again, and we knew he felt pain. He also showed fear, not just of snakes but of other things too. Indy was heroic and yet not bullet proof, and that was one of the likeable things about him. 20 years on, continuing that human quality to its logical conclusion as the character ages, I’d hoped Indiana Jones would deal with not being able to do the physical things he did in his 40s. Imagine if Harrison Ford could have brought to this role some of the sprightliness that Sean Connery showed in playing Indy’s father at a similar age? In Last Crusade, Henry Jones senior brought down a Nazi warplane with a thoughtful popping open of his umbrella… and so, THE actor that defined all subsequent cinema action heroes, back in the 1960s, was shown to have aged, gracefully and wittily, 20 years on. Not to allow 65 year old Indy to adapt to his old age in a similar way was a real missed opportunity, and once again, George Lucas overlooks the great ideas that he himself has already had…

Instead, at the age of 65, Indy ridiculously trades relentless body blows with men less than half his age. While Indy the character seemed strangely superhuman, Harrison Ford the actor had never looked so tired and lifeless, perhaps because he was largely CGI (computer enhancement is Hollywood’s new plastic surgery). Ford used to be able to convey charm, and could play scenes with a twinkle in his eye, but these days, he is just dour and stolid. PLUS, what was up with what my 8 year old nephew called “those special effect prairie dogs” ?

Thankfully, due to my super-power of reading the hidden signs (that are not really there) I just found a new way to look at the INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL and redeem the time spent watching it and rekindle my love for the character. In my reading of the film, Indiana Jones actually died in the nuclear bomb blast, early in the film. When he pathetically hid in the fridge, he was resigned to dying, and die he did; horribly, and alone. Everything that follows that event, in the film that we see, is an addled fantasy passing through the cooking brain of a sad and elderly lonely man, dying in a radioactive blast. In those few time-dilated seconds, we, the audience, are privy to Indiana Jones’ vision of the life he might have had; connecting with an old flame, a woman he loved, and finding out that he actually has a son with her (but it’s Shia LeBouf: even in fantasy, there is horror). However, after that nuclear bomb blast, Indiana Jones was in purgatory for the rest of the movie.

I know I was.Prometheus. Ridley Scott

Jul 012007
 

When I was a child, my Grandma let me stay up past my normal bedtime when she baby-sat me one night. I saw an episode of THE AVENGERS, and fell in love with EMMA PEEL.

I was absolutely fascinated by this pretty lady, clad in catsuits and leather, who bashed the bone-marrow out of all the bad-guys. Did girls really fight like that? I had never seen anybody like her before and I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she was on-screen. At the age of 3 or 4, I had a strange feeling watching Mrs. Peel, that would take me years to understand. Emma Peel was my first ever crush, many years before I was old enough to have any idea of what a crush even was. Supposedly, I made a huge fuss on subsequent nights when my standard bedtime was enforced by my parents, and I wasn’t allowed to stay up late enough to see that nice lady kicking arse any more. Oh, what a hullabaloo. Poor Grandma tried to make amends by helping me write a letter to Emma Peel, asking her to put her TV show on earlier, before my bedtime, so I could watch her. I doubt very much that the letter was ever sent… but a few years later I was old enough to stay up late and watch the re-runs, anyway.

This 1960s TV series, starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, is a snap-shot of that time when everything coming out of Britain was automatically seen as being cool. The Avengers still plays well today, if partly undermined by other shows that have come along since, including many that this show inspired in the first place. The martial arts fights that I found so exciting as a child are hopelessly naff by today’s standards. We are now accustomed to seeing well choreographed action, and women in fight sequences aren’t a novelty any more, either; television has a different battle-babe for each night of the week. That wasn’t the case when Emma Peel hit the screen for the first time; she was a revolutionary character.

Though her “Karate Chop” style of fighting may look cheesy to some modern viewers, the character herself is every bit as charming as she ever was. Even 40 years after Emma Peel first appeared on TV, there aren’t many characters to match her easy confidence, strength, book smarts, wry humour and sense of style. The playfully platonic relationship between Emma Peel and John Steed holds up particularly well. It is still unusual, even today, for a man and a woman to have a long running screen partnership that doesn’t inevitably end in a romantic entanglement. I should also mention that Emma Peel, as played by the incomparable Diana Rigg, is every bit as beautiful as I had remembered her, maybe even moreso.