Monday, 23 December 2013

Condensing Grindhouse

The Grindhouse ventures- two films, the former by Robert Rodriguez, the latter by Quentin Tarantino- were an interesting revival of 70s schlock B-movie. They were all, in honesty, pretty shitty movies. But these films are worth watching just to see what the directors could have achieved, had they collaborated closer and put their storytelling abilities to better effect.

Grindhouse is comprised of two movies, Planet Terror and Death Proof. These movies also include a fake trailer for a movie called Machete, which Rodriguez later expanded into a full feature film and filmed in a similar style to the previous two.

Planet Terror (2007)
A go-go dancer and her ex-boyfriend lead a gang of stragglers through a zombie-populated night in a small Texas town.

Death Proof (2007)
Psycho stuntman murders girls in his protective stunt car in staged “accidents”. Heroine latches on to his plot and seeks revenge with her feminist girl-buddies.

Machete (2010)
Former Mexican Federal and general hard bastard Machete is still searching for the men who murdered his family three years ago. He's offered- or forced to take- a contract job on the head of the corrupt Texas Senator. When he's double-crossed and left for dead, he now has another enemy to seek vengeance on.

The first two of these films I thought were over-long. Machete, however, I thought could have been of a similar length but still could have portrayed a slightly deeper message.

The titular character is a bad man, a hired gun, an anti-hero who has sex with his enemies' wives and daughters, posting humiliating videos online and then murdering his enemies anyway. Some investigation into the Machete character would have rewarded the audience. He's a bad man. He knows it. Everyone else knows it when they meet him, whether they cross him or not. But he's a stereotype, an irredeemable violent gringo murdering his way through a cliché-ridden OTT revenge/action movie that doesn't add anything to the genre it nods towards.

Also, what are we supposed to feel about Machete and other characters being illegal immigrants? Are we supposed to sympathise with them? I suppose so. We're asked to share the perspective of many criminals when we watch certain movies. If it was a film about people trying to enter the UK illegally, however, I wouldn't want to sympathise with them. I wonder how American audiences reacted to this aspect of the movie, considering illegal immigration is the main catalyst for the story.

These films were all shot with a certain feel in mind, that of the grainy, low-quality budget image of 70s exploitation movies. It's an interesting deviation from the uber-high-quality image resolution that directors today usually prefer. The digital era has allowed film-makers to produce sharp, focussed photography. It's also allowed cinemas to use digital projectors that has left us with only faint memories of what 16mm prints look like. The Grindhouse movies are a throwback to the image and atmosphere of pre-digital cinemas.

I always thought, however, that the three movies above could all have been enjoyably shown with much less screen time. By the time Planet Terror came out, Tarantino's talky, steady style of exposition had already been adopted by a thousand copycat film-makers. Watching Death Proof's rambling, inconsequential opening we are no longer thrilled by watching characters in their natural habitat, unrestrained by narratives or dramatic need. Tarantino's work had started to become tedious, almost caricaturist when compared to his earlier offerings.

The directors, however, could have lifted the Grindhouse movies out of mediocrity with a collaboration and a very apt switching of format.

A grindhouse is an American term for a cinema that mainly shows low-budget exploitation films, the genre that the three films mentioned above attempted to emulate. As a pitch for an improved version of Grindhouse, picture this: The movie opens with a man running from the law. He darts, Oswald-like, into the Grindhouse theatre. There he hides, and the first movie trailer rolls. We watch this full-screen, like we are in the Grindhouse with him. Then the first movie starts: Planet Terror. The film runs for 20 minutes, with all the exposition crammed into quick-fire scenes. No old-hat waffling, no elongated lap dance musical numbers or torture- just fast, shocking plot.

Between the short films, we see the law close in on the protagonist. The theatre owner insists that the officers do not disturb the rest of the patrons. The police stop to watch the films, captivated by the stories. Whilst distracted, their suspect makes his getaway.

My Grindhouse pitch would have made a lot less money, being one single-standing film as opposed to a double-bill and a spin-off, but wouldn't it have been a more enjoyable and less tiresome feature?

Sunday, 22 December 2013


“A reporter is a man who has renounced everything in life but the world, the flesh and the devil.”
-David Murray, British reporter

I may not be a reporter but I'm developing a serious interest in the way information is passed from a tiny corner of the world, through the inverted funnel of the media and out into the public eye. That's what I've always wanted to do with this blog.

Whether I'm achieving that or not is questionable, but the Sunday Sport must think so: They're following me on Twitter. Here's me. Here's The Sport

If only I had their reach and prevalence. One day...

I've got 2 weeks off work over Christmas. It's like being at uni again. Only I'm not direction-less and wasting thousands of pounds and three years of my life. I'm making the most of the time seeing friends (Slug and Lettuce on Deansgate had some incredible old skool garage music last night) and family. I'm also reading as much as is practical

More to follow...

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Chemical Brothers at The Warehouse Project

On entry to Manchester's Warehouse Project the door staff took the pen knife off my keys. It's unsurprising, although I did take the same knife into the building for Hot Creations a yearago. (Strangely, I was wearing the same jeans.)

They didn't, however, find the bottle of amyl nitrate I'd secured under my balls. Poppers- a legal high popular in the club scene- are really the only thing you can do if you're driving as once the effect of inhaling wears off, the head-rush, the floaty, chesty lift- after ten minutes or so- you're back to normal again.

Friday was Bugged Out, headlined by dance duo The Chemical Brothers. I've been a fan of the hit music producers since I was maybe 13. I think Setting Sun was the second or third single I ever bought. I shot a few videos but the lights and lasers made everything out of focus and unwatchable. Same goes for a lot of stills I took.

Here are a few videos shot by other people, who seem to have had similar problems

This video won't embed.

Brilliant music, atmosphere and company.

I got my ticket as soon as I found out about the night. The bigger the headlining act, the faster the tickets sell out, so if you're planning to visit The Warehouse Project, don't leave it 'til the last minute. The WHP season usually runs from September to the New Year. There are still some tickets available at the time of writing, including the NYE party.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Book Month

Over the last three years I've been to an array of book signings and met a number of authors and celebrities who've released books. Most of these encounters I've blogged about on this site. I picked up signed copies of these books at these events and now have a pretty heavy pile of unread novels and autobiographies stuffed into storage boxes, along with other books that I've found at Oxfam and the like.

I'm running out of space for these books, and fast. My unread books are in one cupboard, my read books in another to avoid confusion. So, for the next month, I'm going to attempt to read as many short books as possible- partly because I love reading, and partly to free up some space.

I'll make this a “finishing line” project, and keep my nose buried until 3rd January.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Meeting Jeremy Paxman

“There were some terrible generals in the First World War,” says Jeremy Paxman. “But the idea that generals would send men to their deaths... I don't believe it.”

It's Friday 29th November and tonight, in St. Anne's Church Manchester, the TV journalist and author is here to discuss his new book, Great Britain's Great War. As unaccustomed to standing in the pulpit as he claims to be, he commands his audience well as he describes how his great uncle Charlie, a soldier in World War One, was always a presence in his and his family's lives despite dying five years before his mother was born. This interest in his family history became more amorphous, and he started to find experiences and artifacts relating to past events, like interviewing a 105-year-old (now dead) who had survived German shelling, and some intriguing photographs taken during the outbreak of the war, which he shares with us tonight.

The collection of vintage photos starts with a peaceful scenes of ladies enjoying the beach in 1914, seemingly unaware of the placard advertising the war that they were now a part of, and would be for the next four years. Another was of a young man photographed outside his home who, like millions of others, had never left their county until the war. Then they died on the other side of Europe.

“Most wars had been fought a long way away,” he says, “and didn't particularly affect us. In 1914, it did. Most of our troops got sent to France and were badly outnumbered by the Germans. So the MoD need to recruit more people.”

That's where the UK used the iconic image of Horatio Herbert Kitchener.

“I personally don't like him,” says Paxman, “but he did say that the war would be won by the last million men, and he was staggeringly spot-on. But then, he did hate politicians almost as much as he hated journalists...”

The recruitment campaign, Paxman explains, used Kitchener's face, but the head of censorship wrote and organised all the advertising. This drive saw a huge surge of volunteers, but the MoD formed the battalions based on the neighbourhoods they were from. The drawback of this is that if in war, if a battalion fell under attack killing all the troops, an entire British village would be wiped out. The knock-on effect of this was that postmen were resigning, not able to take being the bearer of so much bad news.

It was easy to join the army in 1914, but incredibly hard to leave. What barred entry into the forces, however, was bad teeth- resulting in lots of poor people failing the tests. This infuriated a lot of largely patriotic members of the public. “What are we supposed to do?” quotes Paxman. “Bite the Germans?”

The recruitment general would advise them, “Come back tomorrow,” with a knowing wink. Or he'd say, “Come back when you're 'older'”, practically encouraging young men to apply underage.

They signed up partly out of patriotism, partly out of following the crowd- the rest of their mates were doing it- and partly out of excitement. They got that excitement, but maybe not the type they were expecting.

But the soldiers still tried to keep the experience homely. The trenches were nicknamed in sections, after British places, like 'Piccadilly Circus'. As homely as the tried to make the trenches, they just couldn't tell their families how bad they actually were. Zigzagged to prevent invading troops from firing down the trench and killing many, the trenches were filthy.

“There was shit everywhere,” Paxman says, and he recites a poo-themed rhyming poem by AP Herbert, getting a few laughs. “I bet it's the first time a poem has been recited from the pulpit,” he muses.

“If your friend goes over the top and into the battlefield, he may get shot. But you can't go out and bring him back. You can hear him screaming.”

The church is dead silent.

“Eventually he dies. And when you do steal a glance over the top of the trench, the body is moving. What you're looking at is the rats that have gotten between his uniform and his body.

“To come through that, to not be mentally stressed by it... it's quite an achievement.”

In 1915 questions rose regarding the ethics of conscription. Most of the accounts of people finding exemptions were mysteriously destroyed, but the records Paxman found relating to those seeking exemptions from service are hilarious. Bathing machine operators were successful. A man trying to put off service until after his course of hair restoration was not so. Not a single person was shot for cowardice, though- 16 were sentenced to death, but no executions were carried out and all were commuted

By 1917 there was a crisis of supply. German U-boats were sinking ships providing us with goods, hence rationing started. On 16th December, 3 German battle cruisers opened fire on Hartlepool. During research for the book, one of Paxman's interviewees- a 105-year-old who experienced the shelling as a child- described to him hearing the bangs, and mistakenly took it for a neighbour beating carpets. She walked out of her house and saw people fleeing the shoreline, pushing prams, being cut down in the street.

As the bombs continue to fall throughout the country, the nation becomes familiar with the sight of disabled people. After the war, when the soldiers have returned, the surgeons face a huge surge of workload. The Somme left 2000 men with serious facial wounds. Many surgeons realised that facial scars were a different type of injury to any other- that when a man loses his face, he loses his identity. So, in many of the hospitals mirrors were banned. Many patients never left the hospital, taking jobs as porters. Their own children feared them. They found work as cinema projectionists and any type of work that didn't need a great deal of public contact. And this led to the development of plastic surgery.

“Now plastic surgery is cosmetic,” Paxman says. “Then it was groundbreaking. It was something that... saved men, really. It helped them keep faith.”

The Q and A section begins. The first question relates to Syria.

“I was in Lebanon last month,” Paxman admits. “What's happening to children out there is heartbreaking. We should be helping. How precisely you help by firing a cruise missile I don't know. The vote was probably the right one, but I don't want to see Syria dominated by Islamist headbangers.”

A girl next to me asks to confirm whether Hitler sent people to leave mice and snakes in cinemas to stop people watching anti-nazi propaganda movies, and asks about soldiers' connection to wildlife.

“It's absolutely true that men really relished the sight of butterflies and birds, and admired their freedom. Away from the front line, they'd grow daffodils and acorns. When the soldiers stormed the German trenches, they found them in a better state than ours- lined with concrete and hung with tapestries. The Germans also had the luxury of choosing where they served.”

Question: Was the general public told enough information about the war at the time, through the media?

“There was no fierce scrutiny, but people cannot have been unaware of what was happening. Many people would return home to their wives and tell them their stories. But they endured until the end. Maybe the government should have an easy ride for taking the decision to go to war.”

The next question: How do we make World War One relevant to today's society?

“I discovered that schoolteachers are using Blackadder as if it were fact. Others are doing a better job.

“If you go to the memorials, the stories you will find portray a profound empathy. It's a very good way of reading a document archive. There's plenty of letters from the front to home, but not many going the other way. When you do find these letters, their banality is incredible. The contrast between these and the soldiers' letters is remarkable. It's amazing, and painfully moving.”

Question: I was wondering if you had thought about what you would have done.

“I have thought about it. As I was at that age, I would have gone. I was lucky enough to go to a school that had officer training- whether I'd have been lucky or unlucky I don't know. But we owe these men a memory. What these people did forged the society we know. There were some clever people, and some idiots, but that's human nature!"

The signing was held over at the Deansgate Waterstones branch. Mr. Paxman himself came across as a surprisingly friendly bloke, dropping his hard-nosed hack image for his fans. I'm going to give the book as a Christmas present. He picked up on that without me telling him, and he left a Yuletide message next to his signature.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Reading on a Step Machine: Take 2

I made one last attempt at combining these two activities this week, after trying it out a year ago.

This week’s text: Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, a novel blending fact, fiction and hypothesis and focusing on the man seen jumping from the towers of The World Trade Center on 11th September, 2001.

From the third or so of the book that I managed to read, It's a bleak but typically magnificent book from the New York novelist. Out of the smoke and ashes emerges a man carrying a briefcase that isn't his, picked up in a moment of confusion and fear. While he searches for the owner, a terror cell is planning another horrendous attack...

This time, I took breaks to work the stomach for 5 or 10 minutes between chapters, to let the legs rest and cool, which would increase stamina. I’m not sure this set-up was as successful as previous attempts: concentrating on the story was harder than ever, and I tried the exercise with this book on two separate days. Day 1 I managed just over 2 hours. Day 2, just under 2. The main problems were mental fatigue and muscle fatigue, the seizing up of the brain and legs. I think the movement of stepping isn’t as fluid as walking, and definitely not cycling, so keeping your eyes focussed on a moving page is a real struggle. The first 2 chapters took 20 minutes a piece, but the third I stopped 35 minutes in. Starting the next day I polished the chapter off in a further 12 minutes. The more I read, the more tired I got and the more I found myself rereading and trying harder to picture what DeLillo was conveying.

In short, it’s not the best way of combining exercise and literature due to the movement. I recommend cycling for mixing reading and exercise, particularly if the bike has a seat with a back so that your upper torso is in a reasonably fixed position.

Proper Falling Man review to follow in the next few weeks.