Archive | May, 2014
Video

A Hollywood horror: the video behind America’s latest mass shooting

25 May

America’s latest mass-shooting atrocity has to be the strangest yet, by virtue of the seven-minute video left behind by the killer, Elliot Rodger. In it, he complains of the pain of being 22 and never yet kissed.

“You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you have never been attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime, because I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy… the supreme gentleman.”

Here’s a clue as to why: this “perfect guy” then went on a shooting spree that left seven dead, including himself. Which might just indicate that these girls have more taste and discernment than he realised.

There are so many strange things about all this, quite apart from the abject horror of his indiscriminate killing.

Foremost is Rodger’s laugh: several times in the clip he laughs in a very deliberate and stylised way, as though playing the part of a villain in a bad Hollywood movie. It is the most contrived and least honest-sounding cri de coeur I have heard. The only hint of real emotion comes at 1.30 mins, “it’s not fair”, though the emotion it conveys is petulance more than pain. [Update: it was announced more recently that he was diagnosed in childhood with Asperger’s, and he was being seen by “multiple professionals”.] His father, incidentally, is the Assistant Director of The Hunger Games, which gives a peculiarly Hollywood twist to the tragedy.

Second, Rodger is rather good-looking; not the usual image of the despised nerd or goth. Which, again, might indicate that the reason he struck out with the girls was less to do with looks than character. To reverse Mrs Merton, “What is it about this woman-hating spree-killing psycho that you find unattractive?”

Third is that he posted on PUAHate.com. This is a website devoted to people who have subscribed fruitlessly to an odious school of thought on how to pick up women using tricks such as “negging”, ie putting them down rather than complimenting them. Presumably Rodger was one its adherents, and we can only hope that this most spectacular and public failure of this peculiarly unpleasant discipline will put off other potential followers.

Other than that… I don’t much want to stray into another country’s politics, but surely, finally, yet again again again, America could listen to the heart-rending plea of Christopher Martinez, father of one of the dead, who in a highly emotional press conference blamed politicians and the NRA for the lack of gun control. “When will this insanity stop?” he raged. “We should say to ourselves, ‘not one more’.”

Footnote: Also on Saturday, it was announced that John Waszynski, from Connecticut, has been charged with murder after living for months with the rotting corpse of his strangled mother. Norman Bates, anyone?

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Comics Unmasked: Sunday Times plays supervillain

18 May

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On Saturday I went to the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK. It had its flaws, which I will come to, but the biggest flaw it highlights is that there has never before been such a large-scale exhibition on comics in the UK. Seriously? When the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood are powered by comic books, many of them heavily influenced by the revisionist approach of UK creators such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar?

Then today I read Waldemar Januszczak’s demolition job in the Sunday Times. He couldn’t believe the British Library had devoted so much space to such a “lurid and misguided” exhibition. The only thing he could find to admire in the whole thing, I kid you not, was a speech bubble at the start with a quotation from professional controversialist Julie Burchill (gawd love ‘er): “Comic books for adults is a complete contradiction in terms, as anyone who reads comics is not an adult and should have their voting rights removed ASAP.”

He picks holes in the scholarship: a) The exhibition opens with Punch who, as any fule kno, sprang from commedia dell’arte rather than comics. Does he seriously imagine co-curators Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning are unaware of this? The point is that it sets the tone for the “Art and Anarchy” sub-line, as well as referencing the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, who art-directed the exhibition. b) The catalogue,  Januszczak complains, “describes Sergeant (sic) Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as ‘the album that kicked off the ‘Swinging ’60s’, even though it came out in 1967”. That’s not too far off: the ‘60s only become known as swinging half-way through, and Sgt. Pepper’s was a defining moment. It’s certainly not worth point-scoring over.

More foolishly, Januszczak pillories the exhibition for its focus on Alan Moore, “who gets more namechecks here than Popeye had cans of spinach”, which is as ludicrous and, frankly, embarrassing a criticism as if the Sunday Times’s theatre critic had lamented that there were far too many productions of Shakespeare being staged.

Januszczak does hit on a couple of genuine problems. To pick a single spread from a comic, and mount it in a glass case, is like showing two seconds from a film: those unfamiliar with the comic will get little idea of why it is exceptional; and the brief accompanying captions are unequal to the task of explaining it. [Though that’s why iPads are also provided with complete comics loaded, albeit an unexceptional selection.]

And organising the exhibition thematically into sections such as sex, politics, society and altered states (I paraphrase their more elegant titles; see below) does work well on its own terms, but may leave comics neophytes such as Januszczak wanting a more explanatory overview.

But these are small criticisms. The curators have dug up a wealth of content, sourcing original artwork and scripts from comics creators, and delving into the British Library’s archive to uncover historical gems such as a Biblia Pauperum (poor person’s bible) from 1470 with an illustrated account of the Book of Revelations; a contemporary knock-off copy of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress with several panels on a single page, as a comic book might have; or serialised illustrated stories from the Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825, which Gravett says could be seen as the first true comic. And the whole thing is beautifully put together by Dave McKean, with a strikingly simple and clever 3D opening which I won’t spoil for you.

As Neil Gaiman said to me when I interviewed him for a feature in Where London magazine about Comics Unmasked, “When I was a young man I talked them into giving me a British Library Card so I could read rare books. It came in handy when Alan Moore needed a researcher on From Hell. The idea that one day the comics we were writing would be exhibited and displayed there, the idea that they would look up and realise and acknowledge that something unique had happened, was a pipe-dream of some far-off utopia. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

 

Paul GravettCurator Paul Gravett

If you want to know more about the exhibition, I also interviewed co-curator Paul Gravett (left) for the Where London feature. Some details will have changed since we spoke, a few weeks back, but these are the highlights of each section, in his own words:

Mirth and Mayhem: “This looks at the links between slapstick comedy and dark, nasty violence. Obviously that includes British humour comics like The Beano, and more recently Preacher. But it also goes back to the 50s, when there were a lot of scare stories about comics. Ironically, one of the campaigners against them was the Communist Party, who had their own reasons for not liking ‘capitalist’ American superheroes, but a lot of edgy, counter-cultural stuff got caught up in that too.”

To See Ourselves: “This is comics as a mirror – possibly a distorted, funhouse mirror – in which British society is reflected. We explore recent developments in autobiography: Spiral Cage, by Al Davison,  about his lifelong struggle with spina bifida; Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s semi-autobiographical comic about a kid who cross-dresses; and The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, which won the 2012 Costa biography award.”

Politics, Power and The People: “This starts with how leaders are depicted. It includes Tony & Me By Georg Bush, As Told to Dr Parsons, which is drawn like a five-year-old and full of spelling errors; a very funny satire of that ‘special relationship’.  There are two very interesting comics dealing with racism: one from the Young National Front, which explains to members what to do if they get into trouble with the police; and on the other side the Anti-Nazi League, whose Action Pact comic features a white guy and a black guy who get superpowers and defeat the National Front dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits. We end with V for Vendetta and the way its Guy Fawkes mask has become such a potent symbol for the Occupy movement.”

Let’s Talk About Sex: “This covers erotica right up to Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, in which a grown-up Wendy from Peter Pan, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Alice from Wonderland get up to all sorts of sexual discovery in a mountain resort on the eve of World War I. It also covers the two big obscenity trials of the ‘70s: of Oz magazine and Nasty Tales. The exhibition is not recommended for under-16s, and this section is slightly separate and clearly indicated so that parents can take any kids straight past to the superhero section.”

Hero With A Thousand Faces: “We could so easily have turned this into a superhero theme park, but its main focus is to look at the enormous impact of UK creators on American comics: writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Mark ‘Kick Ass’ Millar. As outsiders, they were able to challenge the conventions of the genre.”

Breakdowns: “This is quite a complex section that covers magic and drugs and altered states. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison both use magic to help in the creative process. We have John Dee’s book of spells, Aleister Crowley’s Tarot cards, Moore’s Promethea comics, and the underground comics of the ‘70s. We’re also not just talking about altered states of mind, here, but the altered state of comics – going into digital, or installations. Throughout the exhibition we provide iPads on which to view comics, and here we have a whole section on Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon music group Gorillaz. You really could spend the whole day in here!”

 

 

 

 

The magic of Miyazaki: new film The Wind Rises, and Picturehouse retrospective

14 May

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What a privilege it is to get one last great film from Hayao Miyazaki. My sons have grown up with his movies, so it wonderful to be able to take Sam, now 18, to what is Miyazaki’s most adult film. The Wind Rises tells in two hours the ten-year quest of Jiro Horikoshi to create the perfect airplane – albeit one that will be used to drive Japan’s war machine.

The deceptively simple animation, hand-drawn as ever, is achingly beautiful. Tiny details such as the patter of raindrops or the fall of snow leave you on the verge of tears, even before the love story at the film’s centre causes them to spill over.

It’s obviously an intensely personal story for Miyazaki. His father owned a factory that designed airplanes for the Second World War. But he is also a life-long pacifist who saw at first hand the devastation of war: he has recalled how, aged four, he and his family fled their burning city, with his uncle kicking away poor refugees who tried to board their truck.

He was inspired in making it by a quote of Horikoshi’s: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” It’s not hard to see in Horikoshi’s quest for perfection in engineering an echo of Miyazaki’s own exacting standards in animation. And in the end, both dream of flight; though Miyazaki’s is one of imagination.

“Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” says Horikoshi’s hero, the Italian aeronautical pioneer Count Caproni; “engineers turn them into reality.” Substitute “films” for “airplanes” and “animators” for “engineers”, and it’s about as perfect a distillation of Miyazaki’s career as you could wish for.

Picturehouse cinemas are running a We Heart Miyazaki retrospective season this month and next. Here’s the roll-call, with my own rating:

ImageMy Neighbour Totoro (1988): magical coming-of-age drama in which a young girl befriends the woodland spirits. As in later Miyazaki movies, the protagonists express little surprise to find that there is a spirit world moving alongside the “real” world, such that it comes to seem quite natural to the viewer, too. *****

ImagePorco Rosso (1992): Apart from being set amongst pilots, and starring a flying anthropomorphic pig, this is the least “Miyazaki” of his movies. It’s light, it’s funny, it’s silly, and the animation is nothing special. ***

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Princess Mononoke (1997): The ecological issues first explored in Nausicaä Of The Valley of Wind (1994) are given full rein, adding depth to a gripping supernatural samurai drama. Miyazaki even bested US distributor Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein, who asked as usual for a re-edit, and received instead a katana sword with the message, “No cuts”. *****

ImageSpirited Away (2001): This will stand as Miyazaki’s masterpiece. As in My Neighbour Totoro it’s a world where the magical and the real co-exist, where hungry demons stalk and dragons fly through the skies. But it’s also a very human drama about a ten-year-old girl learning to make her own way in life. *****

ImageHowl’s Moving Castle (2004): I didn’t get this one. Maybe it’s because it is based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones rather than being an original Miyazaki story, but it seems to me nothing coheres: it’s like a parody of Miyazaki tropes, of witches and monsters and magical happenings, but without a clear identity. ****

ImagePonyo (2008): This one I haven’t seen – it was pitched too young for my kids by then. But it’s apparently a beautifully animated, sweet and simple story loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid. ****

Before Gotham: interview with original TV Batman Adam West

6 May

Fox announced yesterday that it had commissioned Gotham (click on the image above to watch the trailer), a TV series which will tell the childhood origins of Batman, along with The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin. Alfred will be played by Sean Pertwee, son of Jon Pertwee, who played Doctor Who in the early ‘70s, which makes Gotham feel like some Hadron Collidor of primal geek forces. It will air next year, nearly half a century after the TV series played with the new spread of colour TV sets to produce a hallucinatorily vivid show inspired by pop art.

It’s also more than a quarter of a century since I interviewed its star, the original TV Batman, Adam West. Having been obsessed with the show as a small kid growing up in Canada, it was unbelievably weird to hear him drawling my name, “Dahminic”. Let alone to hear him say ‘f**k’.

There’s a whole generation out there who know the 85-year-old actor only as the voice of Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. So for those newbies, and the old guard like me who watched it (nearly) first time around, I’ve rescued my 1988 interview with Adam West from the vaults. It appeared as a two-page feature in Time Out magazine, where I had recently started work as a sub-editor:

Having devoted half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I tell him I am interviewing him for Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when Batman folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, f**k it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood!’

Modest though he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on Night Network and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

Adam West and Frank Miller's Dark Knight comic -- how the interview first appeared in Time Out

Adam West and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comic — how the interview appeared in Time Out

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, Return of the Dark Knight. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

Ah, the Batman movie. Ever since Dark Knight appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to Batman, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of Return of the Dark Knight, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of The Killing Joke, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo Wild Bunch. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!’

But West isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: Doing Time On Planet Earth, an off-the-wall comedy; Mad About You, a romantic comedy; and Return Fire, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run (the show was produced and directed by John Gore, now a major producer and CEO of Key Brand Entertainment). West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of Dark Knight nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like Star Trek and Man From UNCLE. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the Dark Knight era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’