Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bat to the Future

I believe as far as I can recall the earliest superhero I ever followed was Batman. I watched the repeated 1960s TV series with an increasing awareness with how silly it actually was, and courtesy of my friend Derek got to read the odd issue - Seventies Batman was different from the one on TV, but not too different sometimes.

Nevertheless, I was the Batman fan after that, while Derek was the Superman aficionado, knowing about all the different Kryptonites, the Earth Twos and whatnot, and even the bottle city of Kandor (see? I had to Google that one.) In time The Phantom and Marvel superheroes would arrive - Spiderman and Ghost Rider, but Batman was my first superhero. I had a Batman t-shirt (sadly not Googleable) with a cityscape, the hero and his floodlit signal behind him, and every time I wore it I thought I could be Batman. And one day at a school fair, I was him, complete with my Batbike! Oh, hey look - there's my t-shirt:
That all went by the wayside once Star Wars arrived, and 2000AD and my teens did the rest.

And yet, by my late teens the pendulum was swinging back. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns was one of the crucial Three/Four graphic novels of the decade, and Tim Burton's first Batman movie expunged the 60s cringe factor and remade batman as a moody, brooding hero of darkness. Of course, in another ten years the Batman movie franchise would be d.e.a.d after Joel Schumaker either followed through on one of the worst-calculated franchise installments of modern history, or in a broader sense the public's love affair with Batman was over again. It happens.

Still, in that time my interest was piqued again. I saw all four Batman movies at the theatre (one I even saw twice), I read Miller's opus, as well as The Killing Joke and, er, the Dredd crossover Judgment on Gotham (terrible). And I did the drawing at the top of this article. Coming back to it now, it's a look for Batman I like again.

Christopher Nolan's trilogy is now over. I didn't see any of his Batman movies in the cinema, and I won't be seeing The Dark Knight Rises there either, because I'm busy, really. The massacre in Aurora may be forgotten sooner than we think, and with luck it won't overshadow the Batman movies, because although Nolan's movies are violent and nihilistic and increasingly challenging to their heroes on a moral level, all of that is tangential to the unfolding story behind a lot of real world tragedy. Having said all of that I feel like I have to be careful saying anything more about a fictional superhero, but that's what I chose to write this blog about, so here goes. Will there be a future for Batman movies after Nolan's trilogy? Yes, there will. After Aurora? I can't see otherwise, although with a new production team and with an eye to recent world events I wouldn't be surprised or (even in my very very peripheral childhood enthusiasm for the character) offended if the next iteration of the Caped Crusader is closer to Clooney than Bale.

In the days leading up to TDKR's premiere I reacquainted myself with the last hiatus of Batmania at the movies, Schumaker's Batman and Robin. It's still awful, but it's a movie that has been re-cut for die-hard fans and reassessed by less than die-hard fans, with surprising and intriguing effect. I think we could agree that the Joker as a character is even less likely to make an appearance in the next movie than he was post-Heath Ledger's death, and if the idea of a loner dispensing vigilante justice from the shadows is still a troubling image, then Batman might not be alone. As a Doctor Who fan I learned over many years that the ridiculous can exist alongside the serious; Star Trek and Star Wars fans have each learned this bittersweet lesson as well with hiccups in their franchises, and so Batman fans may take note that what sustains a cult hero in lean times can be adaptation for public tastes. I see change in the next Batman movie - maybe a dramatic reboot. And it might not be a bad thing.

Friday, July 20, 2012

"Rebuild the Void with Flowers"

Manic Street Preachers - 'The Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours' (1998)

Cover story: Good album covers often capture a mood or a point in time, delivering the message of an artist’s latest work in a visual sense – for point of sale, perhaps, or to support the ideas contained within. Consider the cover for This is My Truth Tell Me Yours: the band walk along an empty beach, clad in pale greys and whites under cleansing sunlight. It speaks of solitude, purity, and of surrender to a moment of catharsis.

Britpop is dead, and the future awaits as the movement's survivors look to ways to reinvent themselves for the coming millennium. Now nearing their second decade, Manic Street Preachers have the affirmation of a multi award-winning album behind them. What's their next move? Is it really more of the same? This is a crucial time for the band, and This is My Truth in light of the new line-up may as well be the Manics' sophomore effort, with all the usual caveats and risks pertaining thereof. Its working title, maybe something of an indicator, was simply Manic Street Preachers. Within a tracks about the Spanish Civil War (If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next) and the Silent Twins (Tsunami), Nicky Wire lyrics that wouldn't have been out of place among the works of Richey James; but This Is My Truth is the first full album not to feature any of James' words, and that matters too.

To me, This is My Truth is simultaneously more of the same (delivered with Everything Must Go) and a moving forward. Mike Hedges is once again the producer, offering even more space to the band’s sound with a contemplative use of volume, reverb and instrumentation. Sound-wise not a lot has changed, although things have moved on - The Everlasting and If You Tolerate This open with shimmering guitar, an instrument that has in the past dominated the Manics' albums, yet here is mixed further back, sharing the space with other instruments - orchestral sections for some parts. It's a mature approach, and gives the album a real cohesion. As the band's output goes it's in most places an opposite to the darkness of The Holy Bible (which isn't to say there aren't dark moment in this album), but overall it shares its predecessor's sense of continuity. At the time I bought this, almost unheard up to that point, the album was a new sound, and it got played a lot as background music – no criticism, but it was a good mood-enhancer for a heavy year study-wise. Reflecting back on it now the album’s sense of space and mood strikes me as something like a post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd piece – all the notes are there and a similar message, but overall it’s smoother, less frenetic, less overwrought. Richey’s gone, and this is a big part of the new sound of the future of the Manic Street Preachers.

Which isn’t to say the album isn’t dynamic – it is where it matters, and it’s not an entirely ‘up’ work – there are definite moments of melancholy, particularly around the middle (My Little Empire, I’m Not Working, Ready for Drowning, not to mention the aching and sparse Born a Girl); but overall the whole work seems more crafted, leaps about less in its direction, and only really reclaims Bradfield's guitar and lets rip towards the end with the Richey-dedicated Nobody Loved You and the ill-wrought Hillsborough-derived S.Y.M.M. The latter song aside, the album works because it’s so well balanced. I’m avoiding use of the term ‘middle of the road’, although some might not – it’s radio-friendly, and built on the success of its predecessor with more top ten hits and a second consecutive Best Album award at the Brits, but deservedly so. This is My Truth’s success is that in all of this reception the message has not been lost or confused as it arguably was with A Design for Life.

Though it occupies a moment in the band's life - the halfway mark as I write this, and captures a lingering euphoria post-Everything Must Go, I think that This Is My Truth merits contention as one of the most important manic Street Preachers albums. if the band were still in any way following their initial;ly-stated masterplan of chart success, then they had it here for the second time around, and their next number one would be just around the corner. The curious thing though, is that as far as the Manics are concerned, they are fortune's playthings. The fickle tastes of the record-buying public do not rest well with grandiose statements by the likes of Nicky Wire - infamous for his often ill-chosen proclamations and outbursts, not to mention steering of the band's sound. As the next bracket of albums will show, This Is My Truth is a high water mark for Manic Street Preachers, where message and reception are in harmony. The road ahead from this desolate Black Rock Sands beach of the album's cover is about to get a fair bit rockier.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Year of the Dwarf.

2012 is the year of the Dwarf. It has to be - besides Jackson's The Hobbit kicking off in December we've also had TWO versions of Snow White and the Seven (or so) Dwarfs, and meanwhile on the small screen HBO's biggest series has at its core an Emmy and Golden Globe-winning dwarf actor playing a (non-fantasy) dwarf. Dwarfs are everywhere this year! With that in mind then it's a good time to also look at how various films of recent years have tackled the issue of portraying your actual fantasy Dwarf. Most have elected to follow the Tolkienesque, Norse-inspired Dwarf. The Lord of the Rings kicked things off, and was followed quickly by Walden Media's short-lived stab at the Narnia books. Dwarfs here are portrayed by Kiran Shah, Peter Dinklage, Chris Cruikshank, and Warwick Davis respectively.
Source-wise there's not much to be said for the Dwarfs of Narnia. Lewis' creatures are brought in bulk from myth - largely Classical with some European inclusions, but he's scant on detail and world-building for his imports. Centaurs are centaurs, Minotuars the same, and Dwarfs, though they come in various 'colours' (temperaments), behave like fairy tale Dwarfs. They can be noble, duplicitous, loyal, fallible... but there's no sense of a great history or culture as far as I can see. They're world-filling rather than world-inhabiting. When WETA Workshop took o the task of providing the designs of Narnia for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they tellingly took in a great deal of Lewis' Twentieth-Century world as well, including the Pre-Raphaelite artists, the Arts and Crafts movement, and contemporary artists. The result is a triumph of style over substance, a well-executed and well-planned extrapolation. But it's clear, too, in its planning and labour; Lewis' fellow Inkling Tolkien was far more descriptive, and while WETA took great liberties with their treatment of his work as well, the results speak as something more derivative of the author's own imagination. As for this year's other cinematic dwarfs, the two versions of Snow White offer the same choices the makers of Tolkien's and Lewis' movies had: cast using actual dwarf actors (Mirror Mirror), or cast normal-sized actors and use camera tricks to play with scale (Snow White and the Huntsman). Here are Mirror Mirror's dwarfs:
I haven't seen the movie, but from the stills it's clear Disney went against type: no beards, no hoods - the style they utilised with their first animated feature, and the movie that popularised the original fairy tale. It's fair enough - bold, even. It suits the whimsical nature of the film as far as I can tell, and if the Dwarfs here don't 'look' Dwarfen, then I really can't complain. The story is so old that it should be able to tolerate this kind of multi-cultural reimagining. If I squint I can even imagine something of Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits dwarfs in there as well.
Snow White and the Huntsman takes things more traditionally. It's not a family-friendly retelling of the tale, but something more 'teen', or eben 'adult'. It's darker, and has battles and death. It casts big name actors in its small roles: Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Brian Gleeson, Nick Frost. Almost as much in 'bigging-up' the original story, there are EIGHT Dwarfs here:
So what does this tell us? Well, clearly there's still some latitude for variety in your cinematic Dwarf, and though the rule appears to be that the more fight there is in a Dwarf, the more likely he will have a beard seems to apply, there's no reason for the filmmaker of 2012 to stick to the well-worn silhouette and appearance of the fantasy Dwarf of the past thirty to fifty years. It's a broad church, which is of some consolation going into the look that the new Hobbit movies have given Thorin Oakenshield's company.
To Be Continued...

The Future of the Fourth- er, Force

By which I mean the police force, armed forces, judiciary and legislature. Anybody looking at the title above expecting something to do with George Lucas should quickly move on. Today is July 4th, so what better date than to present another hastily-scribbled Judge from the world of Dredd? This time it's the daddy state of them all, Mega City One.
I’m currently re-reading Judge Dredd: America, a mid-era (circa 1990) miniseries that launched the magazine and provided a reboot to the idea of Joe Dredd as a force of implacable justice, administered brutally and dispassionately. In its first three pages it reminds the reader twice that America is dead, and Mega City One is all that remains. Such was the premise of the first episode of Judge Dredd back in 2000AD Prog 2. It wasn’t long before we heard about a Mega City Two (stretching across the opposite West Coast of the continent), a smaller Texas City (nee Mega City Three, before its secession), before a global network of city states small and large were introduced in the series. Most have a Judge and justice system paralleling that of MC-1’s, and many of the uniforms are clear adaptations (the notable exception being that of future Japan, Hondo City, which retains the silhouette but somehow looks far more visible and practical.) It’s an odd quirk of the strip, because the Mega City One Judge uniform is a strange thing indeed. Modelled in part after the character of Frankenstein in Death Race 2000 (a Pat Mills ingredient, I assume), but designed by a European (Catalan) artist, the mighty Carlos Ezquerra, it’s notable for eschewing many of the trappings of other international Judge uniforms. First, it’s really not that nationalistic: eagles are an American symbol, but not uniquely so, and the stars and stripes are largely kept to the badges (breast, belt buckle – very early strips toyed with a trio of stars at the edge of one shoulder pad); there’s red, but no white or blue. Compare that to the Emerald Isle judge, effectively wearing a tricolor, or Brit-Cit’s quasi-Carnaby Street-meets-Trafalgar Square ensemble and it’s positively muted. Which isn’t to say various artists haven’t upped the ante of outrageous proportions and scales over the years – especially the wonderful Mike McMahon, who opted for a lean Dredd inside improbably large pads and boots to impress the scale. It worked. The makers of the new Dredd movie have opted for a more realistic look, something we could expect from what appears to be a ‘twenty minutes into the future’ setting (the original strip opted for two hundred years). It’s less imposing, but bulkier and looks harder. It’s matte instead of shiny – even the badges look dulled, and Dredd’s own helmet looks battle worn. It harkens back to the Frankenstein look, or that of a motorcycle cop, or a riot policeman. In short, it’s a real world take as opposed to a heightened gladiatorial look, the same played on and emphasised in 1995 by the Judge Dredd movie costume design by that most lurid of designers, Gianni Versace. Like Dredd's creator John Wagner I’ve warmed to the new look. It’ll be great for the big screen, allowing a lot of speed and movement, with no shoulder pads to get stuck in doorways, slow down bike pursuits, and no great chain to give feisty perps something to hang onto. I like it’s practicality and functionality, and I like the silhouette. So here it is – a re-booted vision for the future.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Do Tangerines Dream of Electric Beats?

This is another post from the archive pile, first drafted in June 2011, but rewoken in honour of Disasteradio's awesome new single Drop The Bomb...

Recently in the Monkeyhouse while watching Tron Legacy (courtesy of Al - cheers!), I turned to Mrs Simian and said "Is it wrong that I'm enjoying the music so much?" Of course it wasn't, she said. Daft Punk were an inspired and logical match for the movie, and of course it didn't take me long to recall that the combination was naturally appealing to me, because friends - deep within the recesses of the Simian brain is an Eighties techno fan.

As a teenager interested in movies and Sci-Fi and comics the desire to look for a musical genre that would naturally accompany these was strong. Electronic music chose me in the end, courtesy of TVSF. For a while I collected Jean Michel Jarre albums, then any synthesised soundtracks I could get my hands on - mainly dubbed tapes from friends (Manhunter, Blade Runner, and I seem to recall liking Toto's soundtrack to Dune a fair bit). But the most eclectic cassette I had was this one - the 'Jive Electro'  Disc Drive sampler. Check out that blue neon Vitruvian Man!:

Lots of Tangerine Dream was on there, which was pretty cool, as I'd thought they were just hippies before that. And I really dug Mark Shreeve, who had based some of his compositions around Stephen King's The Stand (which I was also reading at the time), so that got an easy pass. Here he is playing live in the UK. Apologies for the Eighties-ness - it's time travel, dude.

I still like a bit of retro futurism, and the media I consume as a fan these days confirms that each iteration has formed its own SF subgenre in a way. Every decade has its own version of the future, and in every example I can think of I find there's more to explore and enjoy in the 'retro' version than the future we might predict today. I can't fully explain why. Is it because it's a safe blending of nostalgia and optimism? Naive motifs unsullied by modern science and the reality of life in the twenty-teens? I do know I get more pleasure (guilty and genuine) out of seeing how we imagine the future than seeing how we do now, even if it's an Eighties vibe which has, to my mind, a lot more to do with post-apocalyptic ruin and nihilism than before. The Seventies and Sixties both predicted worlds shattered by nuclear warfare, but usually one in which the nuclear threat was the closing act of humanity - the Eighties, whether in the Mad Max movies, Terminator series or even our own little knock-off Battletruck , saw a way past the bomb and a chaotic, macho world beyond - a new barbarism. Its soundtrack was unrelentingly synthesised, anticipating perhaps the world's future to not be that of men and women, but machines. Any sufficiently advanced music suite could therefore be indistinguishable from your better-than-average video game backing track down at your local arcade.

This marriage of pulp Eighties SF kitsch and synthesised music is a strong element of Disasteradio's music, and while Gravy Rainbow will likely haunt alter ego Luke Rowell until his dying day, there's a shared aesthetic in his videos for Visions, No Pulse and Drop the Bomb that show Eighties retro futurism is alive and well and sounding pretty cool. I may have traded in Disc Drive over twenty years ago at Records Records in Dunedin for the beginnings of my Flying Nun collection, but it's very good to have this stuff (and Daft Punk's End of Line) around as well.