Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lost weekend

I'm told it's been a nice weekend; I wouldn't know. I've finally replaced the video facilities chez Musgrove. Which has prompted a few hours' rummaging about in the study, rooting out old tapes for a re-showing. The Captain Pugwash-athon was delerious; I've seen all the Inspector Hornleighs and I'm halfway through a mixed bag of Falcons, Lone Wolves and Saints - Tom Conway doing the debonair amateur sleuth by numbers. Oh, and a couple of Mister Motos. And some Warren William Perry Masons. And...

I've come up for air and a sanity check: I was just so far from embarking on a four-hour orgy of Magic Roundabout episodes. I shall save it for Friday night: I'll need all the Eric Thompson I can get by the end of this working week!

Monday, September 22, 2008

a reference to a friend

Sunday, September 21, 2008

My wings are like a ring of steel

Commuting across Manchester has been a nightmare this past week and is set to be worse this coming. And for why? The politicians have come to town. In this case it's what's left of the Labour Party but it could just be New Dave or The Dwellers In Foggy Bottom. It doesn't matter, all that matters is that the gentry of the Westminster Village be protected from the realities of their playthings. Cocooned from the real world they make decisions based on ignorance and imagine that we don't notice the cosy sinecures and media deals they're brokering for their retirement years. For instance, we're seeing post offices closing left, right and centre for 'commercial purposes' (since when was the infrastructure of the nation a profitable venture? Oh yes, that's right, and that's been such a successful model of sustainability). There are more post offices in the Palace of Westminster than there is in Manchester City Centre.

Which brings us back to the point. Since last Saturday, a week before the conference, the centre of Manchester has been a gated community with armed police and concrete road blocks. Monday morning I noticed a gaggle of neatly-clad youths in blazers. Closer inspection showed them actually to be middle-aged Gurkhas, each with the trademark self-effacing 'don't mess with me matey' body language of the breed. (Note to overseas readers: by all accounts, including my grandfathers' after two years with them in Burma, the Gurkhas are very nice, very polite people who you treat with respect if you have even half the sense that you're born with). Since then they've only been in evidence as solitary sentinals in odd doorways and potential flashpoints.

Traffic flow in the city centre is pretty dire at the best of times, in these circumstances it's catastrophic. On Thursday night it took forty minutes for my bus to travel all of two blocks down Portland Street. Unfortunately, it's not been possible to schedule a few days' working from home this week so I've more of the same to look forward to. Bastards.

I think one of the problems with our cloistered politicians these days, and a large contributing factor to their being almost universally despised by the public these days, is that they've never actually done anything. In the old days they'd have had years down t'pit, or run a factory, or made a million selling collar studs before entering parliament and they could bring that experience to the job. These days, they go to university and do student politics; then they get a job as a party gofer or a 'political researcher' or a lobbyist; then they go into parliament and pontificate about 'The Real World' to those of who have to endure it. I doubt that many of these First Class Brains would get junior positions under MacMillan or Attlee. I'm not sure they'd even have got to be junior whips under Lord North.

One slight consolation of the world's financial woes is that it might curtail a few of the cosy retirement packages for these bastard.

Ack! Fuck the lot of 'em.

How wrong can you be?

Your Blog Should Be Yellow

You're a cheerful, upbeat blogger who tends to make everyone laugh.

You are a great storyteller, and the first to post the latest funny link.

You're also friendly and welcoming to everyone who comments on your blog.

You Are Oscar the Grouch

Grumpy and grouchy, you aren't just pessimistic. You revel in your pessimism.

You are usually feeling: Unhappy. Unless it's rainy outside, and even then you know the foul weather won't last.

You are famous for: Being mean yet lovable. And you hate the lovable part.

How you life your life: As a slob. But it's not repelling as many people as you'd like!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ladies' bottoms

All the papers had pictures of one of this year's winners of the 'Rear of the year award,' awarded by some or other group of bottom-worshippers since time immemorial. True to form, the papers only showed pictures of the lady winner, which is quite right too as it doesn't do for any chap to get too vain about his bottom. And also true to form she stood in the standard A-frame tilted forward at forty-five degrees pose. And very nice too. I won't link to the news reports because you'll already have seen them.

One of my friends used to have an exceptionally nice bottom. She may still do, I've not checked it out recently but given the amount of Killer Attack Yoga she does I can't imagine it will have gone very much to seed. She held onto gawky teenager for an indecently-long time, well into her late thirties. Which, coupled with her habit of wearing leggings to work, could be very distracting. In the old days girls were instructed that ladies bend from the knee, but these days it seems anything goes.

There's a lady on the train I get each morning who has been gifted with a delightful bottom. I'm not sure how old she is: her neck says late forties, her eyes say early fifties (though that could be too much sun and cigarettes). However old she actually is, her bottom is considerably younger. I'm still undecided as to whether this is all down to providence or artfully-selected trouser suits; decency prevents my making a thorough investigation. One of the laments of this modern age is that I feel so damned ungrateful. In a sane and just world I should be able to thank her for making the morning commuter hell a brighter place without her having to worry that I might want to act upon designs on her body (a lad can dream but ambition needs to be grounded in reason). As it is, it's the ingratitude that's so shaming.

The queen's coinage

50p coinI've sort-of gotten used to some of the oddly abstract designs you see on the back of fifty pence pieces these days. I liked the D-Day design, the public libraries one was OK and I thought the Victoria Cross one was nicely-done. Today, though, I was puzzled. I had a 50p in my hand and could not for the life of me think what the picture was, nor even if the coin was genuine. The coin, as depicted, was a tad worn, but still had enough detail to be mind-boggling as it appeared to be depicting two members of the Village People in an act of sexual congress back-lit by disco lights.

I didn't proffer this to the young girls on the coffee stall: they're at an impressionable age. Besides, I recalled the episode of 'Bottom' with the pornographic counterfeit notes and didn't want to be duffed up by some unfeasibly-named ruffian.

It turns out that I needn't have worried. I think. According to The Royal Mint, this is a variant cover of the Victoria Cross coin, depicting "a soldier carrying a wounded comrade with an outline of the Victoria Cross surrounded by a sunburst effect in the background." It's so obvious once they say it.

Still don't think I'd have used it at the coffee stall, though.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Uncle Kevin's Film Festival: fit the third

Third and final round. The theme's pretty simple this time: the rules are that there are no rules.

Outside, countess. As long as they've got sidewalks you've got a job.

aerial shot of the By A Waterfall scene Having established the pattern in the last session, let's transition gently into "Footlight Parade." We couldn't possibly explore the disruption of The Natural Order Of Things without having mad majesty of a Busby Berkeley musical.

And by jingo! we won't.

Why this one when there's 'The Gold Diggers of 1935' with its maniacally-massed piano number, or 'Dames' wherein a crowd of girls turn into a portrait of Ruby Keeler to the tune of 'I Only Have Eyes For You'? Well, in this film the choreography for "By A Waterfall" alone beggars belief, with hundreds of beautiful girls; dreamily arbitary shifts of perspective; and unreality piled onto unreality, ending with the girls stacked high on a three-story tall fountain. And that's just one of the numbers. (A realistic note for those of us who use public transport: The girls change into their bathing suits on a crowded bus speeding through Times Square, with all its lights on. Happens every day in Tadcaster.)

It's an acid trip in monochrome with Jimmy Cagney, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler. Who cares about the plot?

film poster: Hellzapoppin
I though they'd burnt that...

Next along is "Hellzapoppin" a rambling mess of a film wherein Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson are making a film but have problems getting it sorted whilst also helping their friends put on a musical revue in the garden and love's in the air and common sense isn't and Mischa Auer is a Russian count and Martha Raye isn't and Elisha Cook Jr. is the writer who's going to write this film and... well the plot falls to pieces somewhere in the first ten minutes and after that you just have to go with the flow, wherever it's going. It's a wildfire gagfest, many of which miss entirely, some of which are hilarious.

The musical interludes include some excellent stuff, too, and some pretty damned impressive dancing, including an absolutely brilliant Lindy Hop.

I've chosen this film because it neatly breaks a lot of the usual boundaries: the third wall's broken by characters' talking directly to the audience and there's a pile of movie in-jokes to enjoy (the quote above is from Johnson as he picks up a sledge labelled 'Rosebud').

Oh, and Stinky Miller: go home your mum wants you.

Thirdly, a silent. The world divides into people who love Chaplin and people who love Keaton. I enjoy Chaplin's Essanay films and I do like 'The Gold Rush' but most of his work I find too maudlin for my tastes. I once read a biography of Abbot & Costello which referred to Lou Costello's fatal decline caused by 'Chaplin's Disease' leading him to search for pathos in his work and finding only bathos.

We are lost! He is sending for the world's greatest detective!Buster Keaton about to climb into the cinema screen

As you might guess, I'm a Keaton fan.

"Sherlock Jr." is another breathless canter across (and through!) the silver screen, with Keaton as a lovelorn projectionist dreaming of becoming a great detective and getting his chance when he climbs into the film and becomes one of the characters.

The billiard game is a treat (the baddy's included an exploding ball, just to make things interesting). And there's a wonderful motorbike ride without the benefit of a driver. (Silent films, like cartoons, work on the basis that you're safe from harm until you realise that you're not safe from harm, then things happen).

Finally, we come to "The Black Cat." Yes, I know I said no horror films, but I also said that there were no rules.

film poster: The Black Cat
And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago?

"The Black Cat" is one of my favourites from Universal's thirties horror films. "Suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe," it bears no resemblance to that story save the title. It stands on its own two feet well enough: this is a powerful story told as much by restraint as by anything else. The plot? Honeymoon couple travelling in Hungary get caught in the crossfire between Hjalmar Poelzig and Dr. Vitus Werdegast, men with dark history between them. Oh, and Poelzig's a satanist who's taken Werdegast's wife and daughter (both senses of the word) while the latter was languishing in a military prison.

Boris Karloff is another actor who tends to be judged by his films rather than his performance. In "Frankenstein" he was brilliant. In "The Black Cat" he not only delivers a performance of utterly-repressed violence he brings out the actor in Bela Lugosi who, stripped of his penchant for melodrama, turns in a surprisingly moving and powerful performance and actually succeeds in becoming the strongest character in the film.

The sets and the lighting are what you would expect from Universal at the time: heavily influenced by European emigrés and full of Futurist and Deco detailing. Darkly beautiful, as is the finale where Werdegast tries to save the young girl by playing a chess 'game of death.'

We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.

As is traditional, I must pass the baton on. I'm inviting the following to give us their lists of films:

  • Library Lizzie (to take her mind off yet another library exhibition);
  • Can Bass 1 (to take his mind off BBC choir contests);
  • The Webrarian (another habitué of the gaslit end of the reserve shelf stacks); and
  • The Topiary Cow (who's just back from holiday and needs to be distracted from the hurricanes)

Have fun all, I look forward to seeing your lists posted on your blogs.

God that was fun. Can we do it again some day?

Thoughts from abroad

Just killing time while my hosts do things a guest shouldn't be privy to...

It's a funny thing, the thing that's irritating me most about the two-people-divided-by-a-common-language thing is this keyboard. Why " and @ are swapped around between the UK and US keyboards I do not know but it annoys the hell out of me when I'm touch-typing.

It won't surprise you that being in the States requires a lot of car journeys. It does surprise me just how much roadkill there is on the verges compared to English roads. I suppose it's noticeable because they've still got some animals bigger than a rabbit that aren't fenced in by farmers. Today I've spotted badger, raccoon and a couple of armadillos. The armadillos are particularly noteworthy because they look very, very rude: for one thing they're naked, for another they're fleshy pink, and for a last they're ribbed for added pleasure.

As we were driving back to Fort Baxter I noticed a truck pull into the verge (these trucks are about the size of a terrace of houses). A burly trucker got out and gently lifted out two small pug dogs which then wandered off for a natural break.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Uncle Kevin's Film Festival: part the second

Back again. This time we're going to explore the corridor of uncertainty created when you can't be sure whose side anybody's on because the reds and the greens have buried the hatchet in pursuit of a common foe, even if the enemy is themselves.

Three movies picked themselves but I had trouble with the fourth because I'm trying to avoid including any spy movies, which meant that my first choice -- the Robert Donat version of "The 39 Steps" -- couldn't be included. I almost included it anyway as the idea of being handcuffed to the young Madeline Carroll for the night isn't unpleasing. Then I realised that one of the candidates for the last of the triptych could act as the second act closer.

When you think of Ealing Comedies, what do you think of? Usually the term's meant to convey the idea of a rather twee, old-fashioned, almost complacent, gentle English humour. And boy are they wrong! The Ealing Comedies canon includes some of the most gloriously black of English comedies (you might want to do the body count in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets'). 'The Titchfield Thunderbolt' is the only one that really deserves the twee label (I suspect it's down to Stanley Holloway: 'Meet Mr. Lucifer' isn't much to write home about and there are times when 'Passport To Pimlico' gets a bit close to the bar).

film poster: The Man In The White Suit

What about my bit of washing when there's no washing to do?

When you think of Ealing you might not think about a biting satire about the impact of unthinking technological progress on the socio-economic machine. "The Man In The White Suit" is such a thing. A brilliant chemist discovers a textile that is not only resistant to wear and tear but actively repels dirt. So what happens? Pretty much the urban myth about the everlasting lightbulb. The author was against the casting of Alec Guinness as the protagonist as he didn't feel that he could bring over the ruthless single-mindedness of the character. What a good job he wasn't the casting director: Guinness captures the blinkered naivete of the worst type of research scientist perfectly (I've lived and worked with the buggers and once had aspirations to be one myself). You know the type: "I only invented the gas that melts people's lungs in trench warfare, I don't have any say in what people do with it."

An indestructible, self-cleaning textile is a good thing, right? Well, yes, so long as you factor in the social consequences of unemployment in the textile, chemical and laundry trades and the economic consequences therefrom. Capital (including Cecil Parker, always a treat, and Ernest Thesinger nearly as barmy as in 'Bride of Frankenstein') and labour join forces to try to destroy the new invention. It all leads up to a long chase through the darkened streets of the northern town, scientist Sidney constantly betrayed by his bright white suit's glowing in the dark. Nothing cosy about this: the hunt is on, the mob is baying like foxhounds and surely a lynching is in the offing? Not quite, but something almost worse.

It's one of those unpleasant ironies of history that all the vested interests would be thwarted in time. Thirty years later, the industry, the mills, and the bit of washing, were already history. And we still don't have that textile, even though it pops up as an occasional promise in the news in briefs.

It's me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself!
But it's impossible. I can't escape

scene from the film M: a shadow falls over a reward poster

Having softened you up with a jolly bit of Englishness, lets have a look at something German. It's inevitable that something by Fritz Lang should appear in this list somewhere. His films generally have disturbing edges and his use of crowds as almost-unthinking engines of destruction in 'Metropolis' and 'Fury' is superb. Which is one reason for choosing "M" as my next film: in this case the unthinking mob becomes a dangerously rational animal. "M" is a film about a child murderer terrorising Berlin in the early thirties. It's surprising just how many modern resonances there are in the terror and paranoia (the typeface may be Franken and the pages broadsheet but the shock-horror is pure tabloid). The time comes when the hysteria starts to impede police and underworld both and the hunt is on, leading to a quasi-judicial trial of the murderer by the underworld.

This film is a joy: it was a very early German talkie so there's lots of reliance on light and shadow to create mood and it really is possible to make complete sense of nearly all of it with the sound off (you'll want the sound on for the final scene, even if, like me, you have to read the English subtitles!) Echoes of Expressionism give the whole film an edgy feel. The acting is superb: we tend to forget just how good an actor Peter Lorre really was. The supporting cast is good, too, especially Otto Wernicke as the cynical and world-weary Inspector Lohmann.

Siggy Schmoltz and his drill find themselves made redundant by Scotland Yard Our third film continues the blurring of the legal and illegal establishments. "The Wrong Arm of the Law" is one of the treasures from the last black-and-white flowerings of English film comedy. Written by Galton and Simpson. Starring Peter Sellers, Lionel Jeffries and Bernard Cribbens, and with a stellar cast of supporting comic actors including Davy Kaye, Bill Kerr, John Junkin and John Le Mesurier. Nanette Newman does glamour without doing the washing up (well, except for the shower scene). Talking about supporting casts: am I the only one who perks up when he sees Mario Fabrizi and Johnny Vyvvyan in a film? (Johnny Vyvvyan used to be able to make Des O'Connor corpse just by looking at him)

Give me me watch back, you thieving nit!

The plot's pretty simple: a gang of Australian crooks impersonate policemen so as to steal from Pearly Gates' gang. The ensuing confusion disrupts the usual rules of conduct between police and underworld and they join forces to foil the "IPO" mob. One of my friends had just written a paper on the jurispridence of "M" when we watched this together. Until then I hadn't realised the parallels between the council of war in this film and that in "M." Don't get too bogged down, though, just enjoy the ride, which includes one of my favourite scenes in cinema: a petty crook, unable to cope with the new uncertainties, bursts into tears and has to be comforted by Nosey Parker.

And, of course, Siggy Schmoltz continues the German theme.

Finally tonight another slice of Ealing. I'd intended to have this in the next session but it fits in here just fine, with its dark comedy, high body count and ambiguous moralities. Yes, it's "The Ladykillers." The real one, not the Tom Hanks thing. This is the one with Alec Guinness and his outrageous twitch.

group photo of Mrs Wilberforce and the string quintet

What can I say that wouldn't be redundant? Not seen it? Hunt it, buy it, watch it with the lights out and no distractions.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Uncle Kevin's Film Festival: part the first

Every festival needs a theme so, after next to no thought whatsoever, I thought it might be interesting to use a few movies to explore the disruption of The Natural Order Of Things. This theme's commonly enough explored or exploited in horror, science-fiction and spy movies — these are all dependent on the paranoia lurking in our souls to work, after all — so I thought I'd approach it from a more typically-mainstream point of view, just to demonstrate that the world is a more uncertain place than we hope.

The first four films I've chosen sort-of explore the nature of identity, personal and/or social, but I'm not going to belabour the idea.

And naturally enough, I'll start my exploration of the disruption of The Natural Order Of Things with "The Philadelphia Story," a movie which you might justifiably think of as a celebration of the status quo...

Title credit: The Philadelphia Story

This is the Voice of Doom calling.
Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son

I won't reprise the plot: it's a classic film; it's on TCM often enough; you can go to your local library and look it up in Halliwell's and it's readily available on DVD at reasonable prices. If you haven't seen it, I envy you the treat of first experience. It's stylish, smart, lovingly-tooled, lavishly set and has a wonderful soundtrack. The script is matched by the cast and choosing only one choice moment is like deciding which is your favourite child. All this and Katherine Hepburn in a wet swimming costume.

Just as much as this is a story about Tracy Lord 'beginning to find out the truth about herself,' it's the story of Macaulay ("Mike") Connor's finding that some blue-bloods have some good in the after all. Which would sort of fit with the theme. But the clincher is the film itself: by 1940 the format of the screwball comedy had been pretty much well-established: random variable enters complacent environment and, after much upset and tumult, the new order emergeth. The random variable was generally either "the little guy" or else some lovely but dizzy female who pitches some lifelong batchelor on his ear*. If Mike got the girl in the end then this would be an example of a good screwball comedy. If the "working man made good" got the girl then it would be a typical Hollywood social comedy. But neither do.

The screwball comedy pattern is subverted: a third random element enters the complacent environment and, after much upset and tumult, the old order emergeth. A turn-up for the books.

poster: After The Thin ManAre you packing?
Yes dear, I'm putting away this liquor

Our next treat is "After The Thin Man," wherein Nick and Nora again solve a series of murders whilst sinking enough alcohol to give George Best and Oliver Reed pause. The Thin Man series is a joy (even the embarassingly hip "Song of the Thin Man" has much to commend it). "The Thin Man" is the better film, "Son of the Thin Man" is enormous fun, but "After the Thin Man" fits our theme best and is a good watch, too. You'll notice that Nora's more comfortable with Nick's lowlife friends than Nick is with Nora's family (but then again, you can choose your friends).

I hadn't intended to have a Jimmy Stewart leitmotif going on in here but here he is. And he's important to the theme. And I'm not going to spoil the film by telling you how.

What sort of sailor doesn't know his starboard from his portside?

Alistair Sim and Gordon HarkerAnd so to "Inspector Hornleigh On Holiday." What? Who? Inspector Hornleigh was the star of a radio series in the 1930s, translated to the silver screen thrice in the form of the great Gordon Harker. These films are better than "quota quickies" but aren't really the big-deal British Feature Film. And like many other films in this grey area they have much to commend them: a good cast of light character actors, an economy of plot and script and unobstrusively good camera work. They have no more intention than to provide and hour-and-a-half's entertainment, which is nice.
Gordon Harker can usually be seen cast in supporting rôles as surly, but generally comic, low-life burglars, pickpockets and the like. Casting him as the keenly-intelligent star detective is a great move, especially as he's teamed up with the wonderful Alistair Sim as bumbling Sergeant Bingham. The interplay between them is superb, especially in the opening scenes which is all too evocative of the traditional English seaside boarding house (with use of cruet extra).

Yes, of course the plot's implausible. Yes of course the whole thing's unrealistic. That's the whole point, God damn it: it's not bloody Tolstoy.

Finally, as a change of pace and a lead-up to the next session, a chase movie, "Bimbo's Initiation".

Wanna be a member?

Bimbo terrorised by initiatesBimbo's the strange dog-like figure who featured in Fleischer Studio cartoons, displacing Koko the clown (star of the "Out of the Inkwell" series) and destined to be displaced himself by Betty Boop. This is a terrifying cartoon as Bimbo desperately tries to escape the clutches of a sinsiter gang of bizzarely-dressed ruffians. The perspective shifts, the instability of situations; nothing can be trusted, not even your shadow. All you can do is run...

Luckily this is the session with the happy endings.

* Note to lovely but dizzy females: I am on the market. Not very marketable, mind, but I can cook a bit.