Sunday, July 29, 2007

1984, the BBC version

Screened the BBC television production of "1984" over the weekend. Sourced from a kinescope, this is the only surviving record of a live, two-hour television adaption of the novel from 1954 that stars Peter Cushing.

The acting by Cushing and the cast is first rate. It was an ambitious production, consiting of 28 sets, several filmed inserts to "open up" the story or bridge scenes, and a live orchestra playing the score in a nearby studio. The intimacy of the production, with minimalist sets and lots of close-ups, adds to the claustrophobic feeling of the story and allows you to concentrate fully on Cushing's disheartening transformation to a man crushed by Big Brother.

The British had considerable experience with fairly elaborate dramatic productions all the way back in the 1930's in the early days of electronic television, so it's no surprise that they were able to pull off "1984" so well - it was light years ahead of US television at the time. The only detraction was the flimsy cardboard set used for Winston Smith's apartment; it just wasn't convincing and briefly broke the "spell" of watching the drama unfold.

Too bad there's not more early British television that has survived and is in circulation.

entry at Wikipedia on the 1954 BBC production of "1984"

Also, the other day, I listened to the "Goon Show"'s parody of the BBC's "1984" telecast; the Goons version is called "1985" and has Seagoon battling the Big Brother Corporation by joining the Independent Television Army. It includes, as a motif, constant announcements from the telescreens such as "Attention! Attention! Lunch is now being served in the BBC cafeteria! Doctors are standing by!" When Seagoon's torturned in room 101, he's subjected to recordings of then-popular BBC radio shows. Peter Sellers, who always does several characters on the Goons, plays both Winston Seagoon's love interest and the Big Brother Corporation torturer at the end.

The Devils

Last night, I watched Ken Russell's "The Devils" with some friends. This was a grey market DVD (okay, a bootleg) of the complete cut of the film, sourced from a UK television broadcast.

The reviews in the small group were mixed; one of my friends, from a Catholic Italian family, thought it was just over the top and too relentless in trying to shock; another thoroughly enjoyed the outrageousness.

For those that haven't seen it, "The Devils" is based on a true event - nuns in a convent are drawn into ruining a politically active priest in France and accuse him of being in league with Satan. The political mechanizations in the film are a little simplistic, in some ways, with the "bad guys" being portrayed in a thoroughly nasty fashion. The film, in its uncut version, is an assault on the senses, with copious amounts of vomit, blood, violence and sex involving holy implements.

It's the work of a young filmmaker with a lot of pent up energy and plenty to say. It's shocking to the point of being ridiculous at times, but that's the price you pay for a unique vision bursting on the screen.

What really makes the thing work is the scripting of the priest's character and Oliver Reed's portrayal - Russell presents him as a kind of "lost soul", facing doubts about his religion, but holding on to what's right.

The bootleg DVD makes me wish Warner Brothers would give this a proper release with a good transfer - the set and costume designs by Derek Jarman are quite effective and Russell makes full use of the 2.35:1 frame.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Like throwing writers to the lions

The New York Times has a nice little piece about a strange little Hollywood ritual, Pitchfest.

The idea is that aspiring writers pay about $400 to show up in a large convention hall to give a seven minute pitch for their screenplay or series idea to producers.

It's a wonderfully giddy and frightening experience; I went through a similar gauntlet at a screenwriter's confab in Los Angeles a few years ago.

article at NY Times

essay on my own experience at the Screenwriter's Expo

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The most fascinating writer you've never heard of

I stumbled on to a web site devoted to Harry Stephen Keeler, a unique mystery writer that probably deserves a closer look.

Keeler developed his own style, writing mystery and science fiction in the 1930s. He was pretty widely published, but publishers and readers weren't quite sure what to make of him. His novels, based on a complicated "webworks" structure, violate all the rules of conventional storytelling - plots move solely on coincidence, his characters are broad and comical and his works are so bizarre and often badly written, it's difficult to tell if he was a brilliant satirist or an insane literary Ed Wood.

An overview of Keeler's life and work

Harry Stephen Keeler Society

Some etexts of Keelor's works

Article by Keeler on his "webworks" method of plotting novels (including convoluted illustrations)

A trip to Columbia University to investigate Keeler's papers and unpublished works

Ramble House reprints of Keeler's novels and related material

Monday, July 16, 2007

Until the End of the World

It was a real movie marathon this weekend. Another film I screened was the full five-hour director's cut of Wim Wenders's "Until the End of the World".

The story follows a cast of characters on a trip around the world, wandering from continent to continent, trying to find their purpose in life. It begins as a meditation on love and our place in the world and winds up being a story about the nature of dreams and our own psyche.

I greatly enjoyed the two-hour American cut of the film; the director's cut (which is actually three feature-length films) doesn't significantly change the story, but adds more depth to the different stories. It only starts dragging in Part Three, after the troupe gets stuck in Australia, isolated from the rest of the world due to a nuclear explosion in space set off by the US government (don't ask) - he doesn't seem to have much to do with the minor characters in this part of the movie. (Watching the five-hour version of the movie reminds me of what it was like to see the miniseries version of Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" after seeing the feature length version a couple of times.)

I'm glad I saw it, but don't think I'll watch it again soon.

A Matter of Life and Death ... and Technicolor

I screened Powell and Pressburger's "A Matter of Life and Death" over the weekend.

Thoroughly amazed - every time I see one of their films for the first time, I find myself saying, "I've never seen anything quite like that before".

The plot involves an RAF flyer, played by David Niven, who bails from his crippled airplane without a parachute and cheats death. The whole balance sheet in Heaven is thrown off and he appeals his case in order to stay on earth with an American woman (Kim Novak) that he's fallen in love with.

Real life is shown in glorious Technicolor while Heaven is depicted in shades of monochrome - a nice touch, considering the bureaucratic nature of paradise that Powell and Pressburger show.

I wonder when this is going to get an official release in Region 1 - Columbia, which owns the US distribution rights, either announced or briefly released it on DVD, but it was quickly withdrawn for some reason.

Highly recommended if you can track it down.

The Tulse Luper annoyance

Well, about half-way through watching Greenaway's "The Tulse Luper Suitcases", I'm thoroughly in the realm of having an intense migraine.

This is the first feature film (2+ hours) in a proposed series of sixteen feature films about the contents of suitcases that belonged to one Tulse Luper. We get to see the contents of each suitcase, one by one. (Number eight, if you're interested, contains frogs. Another - I lost count - contains fish.) He also shows us, one by one, "92 Objects That Represent the World" (number sixty-six is a clock).

It's "The Falls" meets "The Pillow Book" - a long, drawn out shaggy dog story that doesn't seem to have very much of a point except in Mr. Greenaway's little head somewhere.

It has something to do with Mormons, Uranium, sex with cherries, sex with guns, big boobs, full frontal nudity, eating ice cream, dentists, water, spies, Belgian stenographers and Nazis. And clean hands. And lots of people who say "Good morning Mr. Luper" and dialogue that repeats... repeats... repeats... repeats... repeats.....

Greenaway has made the first three films of the series and the second one is available.

I don't think I'll bother.

Greenaway is a mentally ill man with sado-masochistic tendencies towards librarianship. I'm surprised he didn't show each suitcase with its Dewey Decimal classification number.

After an hour of this movie, I'm ready to scream.

Update: Just finished watching it. Just like "The Falls", "Tulse Luper" is a two-hour shaggy dog story. How annoying....

Friday, July 6, 2007

Memo to Bill Gates: You've just wasted $26 million

The gay blogs are abuzz with the news that a capital investment firm headed by Bill Gates has rushed in to save PlanetOut, the first publicly traded LGBT media company. PlanetOut was on the verge of shutting down and the $26 million invested by Gates and Company will allow it to survive through 2008.

There was a lot of buzz about PlanetOut during the dot com boom, with optimistic talk about how the company would reach the large and lucrative Gay demographic. These days, as the company's revenue for personal ads sinks and subsidaries like "The Advocate" and their Gay cruises are tanking, they're still referring to themselves as the "go to" destination for advertisers and marketers to reach LGBT Americans.

It seems the company is still deluded with its own hype. Companies and media outlets, both big and small, that claim to have cracked the Gay demographic seem to come and go on a regular basis. I've not seen any that really "gets it".

The LGBT market is probably the most diverse on the planet - it's politically conservative, moderate, and very liberal; it's education levels are all over the map; it comes from most every profession known on the planet; it lives everywhere from big cities to small towns to isolated rural areas.

Most LGBT marketers make the mistake of trying to appeal to a fairly narrow view of what LGBT's are and are interested in, dividing the demographic into the party crowd, the suburban white picket fence relationship crowd and the political junkies. So, sites or Gay publications give LGBT's gay related political news, music and clothing that appeals to an "out proud" urban audience and lots of talk about relationships.

The sites and publications present a kind of tightly controlled LGBT community - there's not a lot of debate, there's a certain amount of apathy about the outside world and culture, and features of LGBT focuses sites are aimed at the hard sell of LGBT fashion, music, movies and the "lifestyle". There's a certain shallowness about it all - a hefty amount of downright bad writing, music and movies are foisted on LGBTs; it's material that has no distinctive qualities or interest beyond that fact that it's gay-themed. ("Brokeback Mountain" has been such a hit in the gay community simply because it's the only decently scripted, acted and directed gay-themed movie to come out in several years.)

Most LGBTs don't buy into this whole world. They might congregate in a Yahoo group around a common identity, like Bears, Leathermen or FTMs, but they're just as likely to pop up on sports forums, sites devoted to gardening, or what have you; sites that allow networking for common interests and affinities are thriving while PlanetOut is much the same as it was almost a decade ago.

I think there's potential for an enterprising start-up out there to really tap the LGBT market with a very different approach, using the social networking model as a basic structure. With my own varied interests, I keep running into people who are on several different personals or community sites from different companies or small start-ups, each focusing on a different little niche among LGBTs - there's money to be made for someone that sets up a basic structure for the LGBT demographic to express itself organically at a single site that has features that focus on its needs and interests, rather than the interests of some PlanetOut investors or marketing firms.