TheFactFile.org states that: “Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a famous Greek philosopher born in Macedonian city of Satigara in Greece. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Aristotle was the first genuine scientist in history. His writings include – physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy.”
“Aristotle was the first person to study biology systematically,” Wikipedia continues, “he spent two years observing and describing the zoology of Lesbos and the surrounding seas, including in particular the Pyrrha lagoon in the centre of Lesbos. His data is assembled from his own observations, statements given by people with specialised knowledge such as beekeepers and fishermen, and less accurate accounts provided by travellers from overseas.”
Aristotle came to the conclusion that nature was like a household where everything had its place. He used the ancient Greek word for house “Oikos” and this is where the modern word ecology derives from. He went even further and settled on the ancient Greek word for information to describe nature, the ordering of things, which sounds like a precursor to modern-day genetics. He could not have known how close to the truth he was back then. Others took his conclusions further and did so with astonishing results that appear to reveal new things to us daily.
The main criticism of Aristotle comes from his “spontaneous generation” theory on the origin of some animals. It was not understood at the time how maggots suddenly appeared on rotting meat. Aristotle reasoned that these animals essentially conjured themselves up out of thin air. “In 1668, Francesco Redi challenged the idea that maggots arose spontaneously from rotting meat,” according to Wikipedia, “In the first major experiment to challenge spontaneous generation, he placed meat in a variety of sealed, open, and partially covered containers. Realising that the sealed containers were deprived of air, he used “fine Naples veil”, and observed no worm on the meat, but they appeared on the cloth. Redi used his experiments to support the preexistence theory put forth by the Church at that time, which maintained that living things originated from parents.” Maggots, as we know now, come from eggs laid by flies. With the meat covered, the flies had no access to lay the eggs, without it they did. Aristotle’s theory was in ruins and he gets an incredibly unfair rap from Science today because of it. Could those new theories have been arrived at without his work to react against? I think not.
We must always approach Aristotle’s observations with a retrospective kindness, appreciation and awe. He was working in a very limited geographical and technical area. He didn’t have microscopes, natural history museums, papers from other scientists to consult or patrons funding his work. His deductions relied on observations, crude dissections of living animals and probably the opinions and hearsay of locals.
Yes, Aristotle got it wrong, but is that such a shameful thing? A mistake is an experience, choice or concept it is necessary for us to have or make in order to evolve beyond it. All great achievements are the product of absorbing, blending and surpassing one’s influences. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the passing of the torch of inspiration from those who have gone before, however flawed they or their theories may be.
Aristotle took the then-logical step of circumventing gaps in knowledge with supposition. Today, with all the resources at our command, that would be scientifically unacceptable but that is a judgement born of our time, not from his 23 centuries ago.
Perfection is an illusion. Yet perfectionists demand it from others while being far from flawless themselves. The margin of error of the human condition is often our greatest area of excellence and discovery,
We must be totally fearless in our pursuit of new knowledge. The prospect of derision must never be a weapon to bludgeon the voyager seeking truth. Even if it is there, it can never be a consideration for the innovator. It is what makes me worried for the modern world with our narrow-minded right-fighters reminding us every second on social media that they, and only they, are correct. How can someone dare to develop new thoughts and ways of thinking in the face of such intellectual Luddites?
All that must be cast aside. You cannot second-guess the reaction to something you have created. You can never please everyone and it is impossible to try.
Tbe meaning of life is that great philosophical, existentialist and ethical question that mankind has preoccupied itself with since the birth of rational thought.
Once the human animal acquired conscious thought, it was going to start overthinking things. There had to be a reason for everything. Nothing was going to be left to chance from then on. This new logic thing in our brains couldn’t handle luck or randomness. Everything had to be explained step-by-step from our perspective.
It is a combination of man’s mental acuity and self-importance to try and attach any meaning to life. Why can’t we just be an extremely fortunate life form randomly hurtling through space on an ideally-positioned rock? If life has any meaning, it is the basic biological one of passing on our genes to the next generation before we die. However sophisticated we are or imagine we are, it really doesn’t get more complicated than that.
The first cave paintings were early man taking a step back from himself and seeing his world one step removed (we do this today with all forms of art). He was observing himself, seeing how his society operated, explaining what he could and posing new questions to himself that needed answers (some believe these paintings were the first attempts at speech by the human animal. They were also probably the first attempts at interior decorating too).
We set out to explore the world: a thirst for knowledge backed by a lust for domination, power, land and gold. It only threw up more questions – who were these alien peoples we encountered and how could God have created them? God, of course, was the perfect explanation that man sought. This deity ticked all the boxes. With a wave of his mighty hand, the world and humanity, the beings he made in his own image, were there.
Science then came along and upended the theology apple cart. It gave us evolution and natural selection, both structured adaptations to random scenarios. The dinosaurs lost the evolutionary lottery by getting wiped out by an Act of God. It could happen to humans too but that is too difficult for us to contemplate. We need information fed to us piecemeal to formulate opinions, Doomsday is too hasty for us. It isn’t logical.
Of course, we look for endless reasons for our existence – psychological, philosophical, theological. We even invented religions to explain our existence back to us (most of the world’s religions were founded as offshoots of another because of disagreements to the theological direction being taken. “All roads lead to God” as one quotations goes. “There are many roads in Monotheism” might be a better way of putting it).
Albert Einstein, the very figurehead of the concept of genius, had his say in 1935 on The Meaning of Life:
“What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.”
I’m not saying that life is meaningless but random – chaos theory, if you like (the problem is that some of us can’t see meaning without structure, the curse of that logical mind of ours). The Fractal Foundation defines Chaos Theory thus: “While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on.”
Talking Heads had a witty take on where we’re headed with their 1985 hit “Road to Nowhere.” It dares to suggest that we’re all just making it up as we go along and nobody really knows where we’re headed, even if they can’t or won’t admit it to themselves or others. Twist your melons around that, you overthinking homo sapiens!
Well, ladies and germs, I thought I’d update my blog on yesterday’s events in Rathfarnham in Dublin (next stop for Queen? Las Vegas! I know, different planets).
As I was heading down to Marlay Park, a butterfly flew into my face. (“My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies,” the line from Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” immediately came to mind. A heads-up from Freddie? Hmm, onward.)
The Darkness kicked off proceedings and their phenomenal, heavy, twin-guitar sound battered the audience for nigh on half an hour. Justin Hawkins was utterly hilarious throughout, displaying a Russell Brand-style comic wit and bludgeoning the audience for not cheering enough, faking singing, treating people as objects and using the word “pussy” in the wrong context (think “innocent creatures.”) All this while pitting one side of crowd against the other.
There was a jaw-dropping moment when Justin Hawkins did a headstand on the drum podium and, upside down, clapped in time to the beat WITH HIS LEGS!!! I shit you not. Tried to get some footage of it but the moment passed before I could.
Often the truth is said in jest and you could sense Justin’s frustration that The Darkness were bottom of the bill. They only had two real hits, a Christmas song, which they couldn’t perform in the middle of a record-breaking Irish heatwave (more on that later). The other hit was “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”, the song that kicked it all off for them and promised so much. It’s still one of the best songs of the noughties; euphoric, silly with some awesome Brian May-style axe solos going on all over the place. Strange how they were never really able to follow it up with more hits. The Darkness split soon after hitting big, reunited but the hits dried up and they were never the same again. That’s a pity. There’s definitely a feeling of unfinished business with The Darkness, here’s hoping they can catch lightning in a bottle once more. I wish them well.
Next it was Mouth Almighty, Sir Robert Geldof, aka Bobby Boomtown, informing us from backstage that his band “The Boomtown Rats” were the best band ever. It was good comic bluster to follow on from what Justin Hawkins had done. Geldof continued taking the audience down a peg or two, stating that he was from the Dublin borough of Dun Laoghaire and that nothing else good ever came from there. He also revealead that he was wearing “fuck off bell bottoms” while we, his audience, were wearing “Dunnes Stores shorts” (think Primark or Walmart if you’re outside Ireland), but that comment just demonstrated how long he has lived outside Ireland (he lives in London). Dunnes Stores was full of imported, bulk-bought tat back in the day but now it’s full of ridiculously-overpriced designer gear that most people can’t afford. Geldof did the hits (“Like Clockwork”, “Rattrap” and “I Don’t Like Mondays”, hey, I don’t either. On a side note, if you think US school shootings are a recent phenomenon “I Don’t Like Mondays” is a UK number one hit from 1978 on that very subject. The song was based on a true story. An American girl used her father’s rifle to fire into the school next door. When questioned about her motives, she simply said, you’ve guessed it: “I don’t like Mondays.” The song didn’t do well in America as they weren’t anywhere near ready to even consider gun control.) The songs still sound terrific and really got the crowd going.
For a man of nearly 67, Bob Geldof still has the moves like Jagger and was in fine voice with his whiny, pleading Dylan-esque delivery. There were many funny moments in his set like when he appeared to be casting out demons from his guitarist preacher-style and telling him to go with arms outstretched. Then he claimed someone had spiked his drink and, after pointing several accusatory fingers at every corner of the crowd, proceeded to moan, howl and roll about the stage feigning illness (reminiscent of James Brown when they’d bring out the cape and help him offstage). Then Bob was up on his feet working the crowd up to ninety again. A solid booking and good, old-fashioned entertainment.
Enter the main event: Queen + Adam Lambert. It was good to hear “Seven Seas of Rhye”, “Killer Queen” and “Play The Game” again.
It was a very warm night in Dublin and I think the heat got to Adam, Roger and Brian. Bri was struggling to move around the stage and had a pained expression on his face most of the time. He seemed a fraction late on his solos too. It got worse though as Brian’s Red Special guitar cut out at one stage when they were down the front. Luckily, it roared back into life soon after.
Roger struggled to hit the very high notes in “I’m In Love With My Car” for once and that was a shock. Maybe he was having trouble with his voice or struggled to breathe in the heat. He did have heavy jackets on strangely. Roger seemed very distant during the show and said very little. He was probably exhausted from all that travelling and touring in the last few weeks around Europe.
Adam messed up the lyrics on some of the songs, another surprise. It was the last night of their European tour. Had complacency set in? Or was their confidence knocked by not selling out the show at Marlay Park? Or was it their age (Adam excluded)? Or the heat? Or all of the above? (I did think their 3Arena show in Dublin last November was much tighter, but maybe I went in expecting too much after that flawless display) Whatever the reason, they have just under eight weeks before their Vegas residency to iron out these wrinkles.
Once again, Adam was desperately trying to win over resistant Queen fans by saying he wasn’t trying to fill Freddie Mercury’s shoes. Adam’s a lovely guy who craves the acceptance of Queen fans, but, if they don’t like him by now, they never will. He really needs to stop explaining himself and apologising for his existence. He is the lead singer of Queen and that is it. Accept it or don’t, it’s up to you.
There were several surreal moments. At one point I noticed a nine-foot tall banana-coloured object moving in my peripheral vision to the left. Turned out it was a crowd-surfing Freddie Mercury lookalike wearing Freddie’s iconic yellow military jacket from the 1986 Wembley concert. It happened during “I Want It All”, which really has taken on a life of its own live now, as Brian May always hoped it would.
The crowd seemed to consist of very small females complaining that they couldn’t see anything and giant males who were stopping anyone from seeing anything.
There were several beach balls bouncing around the tops of the crowd and one did strike me in the back of the head at one point. I looked around with a stunned expression on my face, as if to say “who threw that?” and the whole crowd laughed.
A blonde, tattooed, Eastern European chick with enough fake tan on to make her skin resemble leather was grinding on me during “Love of my Life.” It was like being mugged by an octopus and, yes, as she was a Sweaty Betty, there was a wet, slimy aspect to her. Funny, on one hand, on the other, we live in a #MeToo culture and it really was too much.
There was another blonde chick to my left with very long hair and a plait running down her back. Her wet, sweaty hair kept falling on my arm like a horse’s mane and I had to keep shrugging it off. Really, girls, in a heatwave at a concert, don’t tie your mother down, tie your hair up out of the way!
A guy in front of me was smoking weed with his girlfriend (plait girl with the sweaty hair, yep, her again) and anyone else who requested a puff. Huge clouds of smoke of dubious origin wafted up my nostrils. I don’t remember the rest of the show and I think I’m Australia now. Maybe. Woke up with a honking great migraine, a sore throat but many great ideas funnily enough. I may now know The Meaning of Life and The Secrets of The Universe, but that, dear reader, is for another blog on another day. This is what happens when you’re forced to confront the mystic ways of the East and take “The Inner Journey.”
The band built up a fine head of steam on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” got a thunderous reception from the crowd (the last time I heard a spontaneous feral roar like that at the finale of something was when Riverdance debuted at the Eurovision Song Contest, also in Dublin)
The confetti cannons fired at the end and some of it landed in my hair. I renamed it “Consweaty.” Then it got even weirder. A drunk, heavily-tattooed ginger guy with a sideline in clinging body odour had the nerve to elbow me to ask if he could get up on my shoulders. It was met with a curt ‘No’ by me (subtext: ‘F*** off’). Sorry, I don’t want some strange guy’s sweaty ball sack humping my neck, not with the state my knees are in right now.
I decided to exit the area before more bizarre requests were made of me. The long trek home began on stiff legs and aching feet. If there is another tour, I’d like it to be built around some new material, perhaps a new studio album with Adam or even the new James Bond theme tune which would be perfect for them (hard to believe Queen, that most British of bands, has never done a song for that spy on Her Majesty’s secret service. Could be one for The Bucket List). Maybe they could try some interesting cover versions on the next tour or bring on a few guest stars to freshen things up (other stars would probably shy away from competing with Adam’s awesome vocals though).
If that turns out to be the last time I see Queen live in my lifetime, I’d be happy with what I’ve seen. They were and are an amazing band and always will be. Long may they continue to reign.
It was Halloween night, October 31st, 1975. Two parallel and seemingly unconnected events were about to take place in music history that wouldn’t cross streams until a decade later.
Queen were about to release their magnum opus “Bohemian Rhapsody. Written by Freddie Mercury, it would enter the UK chart at number 17 on November 15th 1975, reach number one on November 29th and held the top spot for nine weeks until January 24th 1976. Bo Rhap, as Queen fans call it for short, was taken from Queen’s album A Night at the Opera, the title of a Marx Brothers comedy classic movie. Appropriately, Bo Rhap would deny Laurel and Hardy’s tune “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” the number one spot and hold them at number two for two weeks.
Also that October 31st, an unknown singer and former music journalist named Bob Geldof made his debut at a Dublin school Halloween dance. His group The Boomtown Rats were rookies who knew nothing about set lists and ended up doing a three-hour performance of mostly dodgy cover versions. Geldof claims a girl approached him during the interval and offered to “give me one.” He said he knew he was in the right job there and then: “You try getting laid in Dublin in the 70’s!”
Geldof would make it big fast. Less than three years after that inauspicious debut, the Rats had their first UK top ten hit with “Like Clockwork” in the summer of 1978. Four months later in October 1978, they had their first number one single with “Rat Trap.” The Grease soundtrack had dominated the charts in 1978 and Geldof took great pleasure in hiding behind a John Travolta poster on Top of the Pops before ripping it in two to reveal his yawning face as he began to sing.
Queen celebrated Halloween night 1978 with one of the most infamous parties in rock history in New Orleans.
Those two seemingly disparate events in music history at Halloween 1975 would coalesce in Geldof’s Live Aid spectacular at Wembley Stadium on July 13th, 1985 and result in the greatest live performance of all-time. Geldof announced Queen’s participation in the event before they’d fully agreed to it along with many other big name acts like The Who and David Bowie.
Once their hand had been forced, Queen set about preparing their unforgettable set with military precision. The clocks in the orchestra pit of the theatre where they were rehearsing (put there by their roadie Ratty) were just the start. Queen’s sound designer Trip Khalaf took the limiters off the sound at Wembley Stadium meaning that Queen were automatically louder than every act who’d played before them that day. They moved the goalposts certainly but as I always say, no one remembers how you got a chance, they only remember what you did with it. Queen smacked this one out of the ballpark for the home run of home runs. Geldof reacted immediately to Queen’s sound: “I was actually upstairs in the Appeals box in Wembley Stadium, and suddenly I heard this sound. I thought, God, who’s got this sound together? and it was Queen.”
What was the first song in Queen’s set? “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from that long-forgotten Halloween night that launched Live Aid’s founder and gave the stars of his global jukebox their biggest-ever hit and opening number on the day.
Geldof was adamant in his praise of Queen and their astonishing rise to the occasion on his big day: “Queen were absolutely the best band of the day. They played the best, had the best sound, used their time to the full. They understood the idea exactly, that it was a global jukebox. They just went and smashed one hit after another. It was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world. And he could ponce about on stage doing ‘We Are the Champions’. How perfect could it get?”
Just over six years later, the great Freddie Mercury was taken from us by the dreaded AIDS virus. However, the band he founded with Brian May and Roger Taylor continued on in various guises without disgruntled bass player John Deacon.
In 2004, Queen began a collaboration (and released an album) with Free and Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers to mixed results. Rodgers exited the regal vehicle in 2009 and Queen faced the prospect of never touring again until fate favourably intervened yet again.
It is here that the paths of Bob Geldof and Queen cross yet again. Queen were no longer touring and, as usual, Bob was only too happy to offer his opinion. Since the turn of the century, Geldof had been suggesting that Brian May and Roger Taylor “find a kid with Freddie’s range.” There seemed no one around who fitted the bill at the time. Whether Geldof’s prophecy became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Queen or not is anyone’s guess, but luck would be more than a lady, it would be, as Brian May dubbed him – Madam Lambert to the rescue.
This was the era of reality TV shows like X-Factor and American Idol. While most of the contestants promised great things, precious few went on to have any career let alone a long one. On American Idol, a contestant named Adam Lambert with a unique voice and vocal range unleashed his extraordinary interpretation of Bohemian Rhapsody. Word got back to May and Taylor and they played with Lambert on the semi-finals of American Idol. An invitation to perform at the MTV Europe awards and the resultant ecstatic reaction and Adam Lambert became Queen’s new lead singer and the third (and final, Taylor says) incarnation of this mighty band was underway.
The Boomtown Rats didn’t play live from 1986 until 2013 when they surprised everyone by going back on the road for a UK and Ireland tour in support of their fifth greatest hits album “Back To Boomtown: Classic Rats Hits.”
Today, July 8th, 2018, the seemingly eternally-intertwined paths of Bob Geldof and Queen cross once more as The Boomtown Rats support Queen + Adam Lambert at Dublin’s Marlay Park. There is much grey hair in evidence in both camps with Bob Geldof turning 67 in October and Roger Taylor turning 70 next year and Brian May the eldest at 71. It is probably the end of the road for these two legendary bands and the era of rock they came from.
I saw Bob Geldof once in the street in Dalkey in Dublin in July 1988. He was (unsuccessfully) looking for the way in to The Queen’s pub on Castle Street. He tried to gain entrance through the graveyard and then peered myopically through dusty old windows as his entourage shouted “Bob! Bob!” at him. My friend at the time, for reasons best known to himself, shouted over “Bob Marley!” to add to the confusion. Little did I know that exactly 30 years later I’d be seeing Mr Geldof perform at Marlay Park. The feeling of fate and destiny being fulfilled appears to apply to me also as well as Queen and The Rats.
Beyonce has her Sasha Fierce alter ego, Bob Geldof has his Bobby Boomtown persona in his ubiquitous snakeskin jacket. His punky venom will get an airing later today. So let us revel in the majesty of Queen and The Boomtown Rats once more. We will never see their like again.
There’s a huge emphasis on being “strong” in today’s world, whatever that means. Strength can be many different things to many different people. Sometimes it’s a euphemism for egomania and control-freakery and bending others to our will. That’s not strength to me, that’s bullying. Asking for help when we’re vulnerable can be a sign of strength. Closing our mouths and listening can be another. Learning from mistakes and succeeding from it can be another.
We can confer strength on others and yet they may be silently suffering inside. Joe Kennedy, father of JFK and RFK, once told his boys: “It doesn’t matter what you are, it only matters what people THINK you are.” There’s a certain amount of truth in that.
People told me that I looked very confident giving the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. The truth is, I was mentally and emotionally drained and physically exhausted from the stress of her sudden loss. Looking back, I have no idea how I did that. We are stronger than we think we are. Some primitive force kicks in to get you through it.
We can tag people as unfriendly when they may be shy or depressed or have other worries. It’s important to remember when it comes to people that the visual and the actual are not the same thing. No one has an easy life. Everyone has problems, despite what we may feel about them or project upon them.
The Facebook public relations image that people put out is phoney. They only post pictures of themselves looking happy or successful, you won’t see photos of them at their lowest point. If you put stock in what you see on social media, you could believe that people are happier and more successful than you and beat yourself up about it when it’s not true.
That’s why it’s important not to stake our self-worth on this fluctuating human stock exchange. There will always be someone richer than you who has a bigger house and car than you, if you value such things. Someone may have found the love of their life or got a promotion when you didn’t. The thing is to be happy for them and not envious. They haven’t had good news to upset you. Your time will come. Wish them well and continue on your way to the things you need. You’d want them to do the same for you, right?
In 1964, the great movie director Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense, was interviewed by Huw Weldon of the BBC. Hitch was asked if he had “ever been tempted to make what is nowadays called a horror film.”
“Are you talking about visual horror like “Frankenstein” and that kind of thing?” Hitch asked, seeking clarification.
Weldon confirmed that was what he meant.
“No, they’re… they’re props. I believe in putting the horror in the mind of the audience and not necessarily on the screen.”
Hitch took the example of his own movie”Psycho.” “Now, this film had a horrible scene at the beginning with a girl being murdered in a shower. Well, I deliberately made that pretty rough, but as the film developed, I put less and less physical horror into it because I was leaving that in the mind of the audience and, as the film went on, there was less and less violence but the tension, in the mind of the viewer, was increased considerably. I was transferring it from the film into their minds. So, towards the end, I had no violence at all. But the audience by this time was screaming in agony.”
“One’s challenged by the audience. They’re saying to me “show us” and “I know what’s coming next”… and I say, “do you?” And therefore, that’s the avoidance of the cliché — automatically. They’re expecting a cliché and I have to say “we cannot have a cliché here”
So there was a clear differntial in Hitchcock’s mind between “visual horror” like “Frankenstein” and psychological horror like “Psycho” (yes, the dessicated corpse of Mrs Bates is clearly a prop too but only revealed in the last scene and not the basis for most of the horror that preceeded it.) Hitchcock meant that real horror is what you DON’T see, the theatre of the mind, if you will.
Horror works particularly well on radio, the original “theatre of the mind.” The listeners are given prompts by the narrator but have to construct the visuals in their mind. Audiobooks and podcasts would be the modern equivalent. My vampire short story “Nightfall” will be available in audiobook form in August and I’m very much looking forward to hearing the results.
Let’s take a look at a classic horror movie and its remake – “The Haunting” from 1963 and the Spielberg-backed remake in 1999. The original, directed by Robert Wise, got tremendous scares from the use of sound and suggestion. The remake was an orgy of CGI effects. Most people look on the original as a classic horror movie, few hold the remake in high regard. Why? The remake shows us too much too often. The original keeps its cards close to its chest and the result is the same story told in a much scarier way.
“The Exorcist” is regarded by many as the most frightening movie of all-time. It is a film where the Demon Pazuzu, the ultimate evil, possesses the body of a young girl, the ultimate symbol of innocence, and speaks and acts through her. You never see the demon itself, there is no easy resolution for the audience of bringing the creature out into the light before it is destroyed as in 1950s monster movies. There isn’t that closure. (My mother was so freaked out seeing “The Exorcist” in the cinema that she claimed she saw a red devil with the horns and the tail and everything. It appears to have been some stress-induced temporary psychosis or something.) There is only the theme of the transference of evil, a constant in the work of its director William Friedkin.
Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” benefitted greatly from the malfunctioning prop shark they had. It meant the director couldn’t show the shark early as he had planned to and had to be creative to hint at its presence (the excellent score by John Williams helped.) The result? A freaked-out audience made hyper-aware of the subconscious level of the ocean’s surface and the potential unseen horror lurking beneath it.
Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror. We don’t need to know that Dracula is seeking his long-lost love across the centuries. He’s an ancient predator at your window seeking your blood. That’s all that’s necessary to impart to an audience. We don’t need to know that Michael Myers in Halloween had a terrible home life that made him the unstoppable killer we know and fear. He’s an immortal bogeyman and he’s coming after you. Don’t give away your character’s mystique cheaply.
Horror is best when drip-fed in a subtle way and not in a deluge of computer effects dumped on the viewing public.
No matter how convincing CGI is, an audience inherently knows it’s not real and that they’re watching a gimmick. Maybe Hollywood will learn this lesson and we can have a new golden age of psychological horror.
Today is #WorldRefugeeDay. While I’ve never been a refugee, I have been an immigrant in two countries. I was born in the United States, the son of Irish immigrants. We moved back to Ireland when I was three years old and everyone called me “Yank.” So I’ve been an immigrant in both the countries that compose my nationality.
Being an immigrant is not a status but a state of mind. It doesn’t stop when you “assimiliate” or “integrate” or when you go from being an “outsider” to an “insider.” It is what you think of yourself. You only really stop being an immigrant when you reject other immigrants and try to slam the door in their faces when they try to emulate you.
People will always surprise you if you give them a chance. We’re too quick to impose limitations on ourselves and others based on age, gender, race, colour, creed or whatever. The list is endless. The potential of others is never immediately apparent to us and yet we leap to illogical conclusions repeatedly. Change is scary and immigrants and refugees are the personification of that change. It is easy for these newcomers to internalise the aggression shown towards them when it is not personal. They are not hated for who they are personally but for what they represent to the beholder, however incorrect or irrational that may be.
Irish Famine refugees, reduced to disease-ridden, illiterate peasants under brutal British occupation were despised on their arrival in the United States. Not only were they feared for the Third World diseases they carried but also for the Catholicism that the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants viewed with suspicion and disdain. Now, the Irish are fully integrated into American society. Approximately 44 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The St Patrick’s Day parades there are the biggest in the world. Irish-America has been an amazing success story and a PR bonanza. Those refugees changed America for the better and brought their traditions, music and humour and placed them at the heart of the American dream. Halloween was one of the many things that went from being an Irish tradition to an American one.
On World Refugee Day, let us remember the amazing capabilities of our fellow human beings and not the negative things that scare and divide us. Compassion must be at the heart of every decision made in their treatment. All human life originated in Africa, so we are all immigrants and refugees to everywhere else on earth really. The human animal is at its best when it helps its own kind to prosper and respects all others forms of life. For just as the immigrant and refugee has unrealised potential within them, so we, the guardians at the gate, have untapped potential for kindness and tolerance and acceptance within us too. If we’re not striving as they strive, we fail ourselves and them too. We need to come out from behind the flags and banners and start treating each other as human beings. Then, and only then, are we fulfilling the potential of those first humans who left the cradle of civilisation so very long ago.
The opinions of others are important. They are the yardstick by which we measure our perspective on the world. Even if those opinions are profoundly different or even reprehensible to us, we need to hear them so we know where we stand. Opinions clarify our position and give us the full picture of what is happening out there. Hearing others can make us form new opinions and beliefs and even question and/or change our existing ones.
The problem is that differing opinions are being silenced online and in reality. Today’s kids have been dubbed the Snowflake Generation. According to Wikipedia: “Generation Snowflake, or Snowflake Generation, is a neologistic term used to characterize the young adults of the 2010s as being more prone to taking offence and less resilient than previous generations, or as being too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own.“ It must be a problem in their parenting, where they are told that they are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around them. So they develop monstrous egos. They not only have to silence dissenters, they have to go after them, gang up on them, threaten them and, in some cases, financially ruin them by contacting their employers and demanding that they are fired. It even goes as far as digging up dirt on people, spreading malicious gossip and passing it on to their bosses. (Allegations not proof are all it takes to destroy someone’s reputation now. All from the safety of anonymous social media profiles. It is nasty, cowardly stuff).
This is called the “echo chamber effect.” Wikipedia defines it as “In news media, echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system. … Another emerging term for this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism.” It demonstrates the deeply conformist nature of today’s young people. Say or do anything outrageous and you will be attacked. This conformity struck me recently when I noticed how many young girls looked like clones of one another. They had the exact same hairdos, clothing and their peers looked identical to them. As I always say, “you don’t get great art by playing it safe.” In fact, you don’t get great anything by playing it safe. You must take chances that go against common beliefs and peer pressure.
Rebellion is the first step on the path to originality. That’s why geniuses are not normal, if they were, we’d all be one. Genius is controversy personified as it challenges old orders and ideas, breaks new ground and forges its own path. Even if they play the game later on, that moment where they questioned given knowledge brought new thoughts into our world. Where are today’s rebels and their daring new ideas? I see none.
John Cleese has a theory that there is very little creativity out there now because of constant interruptions from smart phones. It certainly fragments the creative process and the mind itself. “The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen,” Cleese said, “The feeling that whatever happens, it’s OK. So you cannot be playful if you’re frightened that moving in some direction will be “wrong”—something you “shouldn’t have done”… You’ve got to risk saying things that are silly and illogical and wrong.” It’s the very antithesis to the echo chamber effect and political correctness.
Fake news and misinformation are also distorting the viewpoints of young people online. Nearly two-thirds of our youth get their news from social media which can just be the tip of the distorted online iceberg. So the opinions they are savagely reinforcing may be entirely inaccurate and false to begin with. The Matrix is alive and well, folks. Our kids are living in it and not questioning what they are being fed. It is all they have ever known, so they are unable to fight for a reality they have never had. What is reality now? Does anyone know?
Then there is pressure exerted through social media. It’s been said that the Watergate investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post newspaper would have collapsed from social media pressure had it existed in the early 1970s. There was a point in the story when Woodward and Bernstein published some facts that were incorrect. The howls of derision would have been deafening from social media and the pressure on The Washington Post to halt the investigation enormous. In all probability, today, they would give in and the story would grind to a halt. US President Richard Nixon would receive a free pass to continue spying on his political opponents instead of being forced to resign. Imagine the devastating consequences that social media pressure could have on world history and, even scarier, the future of our world. That’s the world we are living in right now. Is it really that important to prove yourself right all the time?
Privacy is thought of now as a historical concept. It doesn’t exist anymore. Freedom of expression, debate and discussion seem to be going the same way. The amazing communications tool that is the internet is being used as a weapon to bludgeon us all into stunned silence and isolation. It’s time to fight back while we still have time. Or is that opinion upsetting you? Hmm, think about it.
On June 3rd, 1986, “A Kind Of Magic”, the twelfth studio album from Queen was released. The European Magic Tour supporting the album began four days later at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden.
It was the first Queen album I’d purchased as a Queen fan, the others being purchased after Live Aid and after this album (by early ’87, I had all Queen’s albums on vinyl and still do.)
With Queen contributing many songs from this album to epic fantasy film Highlander, there was a sort of return to thematic elements of Queen’s early albums minus the quirky, Tolkienesque lyrics about ogres, titans and fairy fellers. This was Queen doing a concept album 80s-style with syths and Highlander’s immortality theme playing into the tragic reality about to engulf Freddie and the band.
Highlander star Christopher Lambert explains how Queen’s involvement grew:
“Highlander coming out was a very exciting time for me. What was also very interesting is that Queen were meant to do only one track – it was the opening credits, ‘Princes Of The Universe’, that was the deal. So they sat down for a private screening for them in a movie theatre and Freddie Mercury when he came out, he said all excited: “I’m doing the whole fucking album! This movie is too fucking great!”. They went and wrote the songs in four weeks and went into the studio and it was one of the biggest selling albums of their career. So you know it’s strange, it’s like nobody ever thought that Highlander was gonna be, thirty years later, still a cult movie, music included. About Freddie… there are many good singers, but to be really great it’s not enough just to sing correctly. You have to do it with the heart and he is the best at it.”
Although it was hard to imagine during Queen’s post-Live Aid second wind, “A Kind of Magic” would be the end of an era for them in many ways. It would be the final album before Freddie’s HIV diagnosis in April 1987 (“Innuendo” would be recorded under time constraints and Freddie’s increasing availability issues due to illness). The Magic Tour would be Freddie’s last with the band.
It was also the last time they worked with German producer Reinhold Mack. Mack first worked with Queen on “The Game” album in 1979 at Musicland Studios in Munich. He had produced some of Queen’s biggest hits including “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites The Dust”, “Under Pressure”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “I Want To Break Free” and “One Vision.” Brian May said that Mack had been “quite a find” for the band. He was responsible for a different, stripped-back Queen sound, the antithesis of the elaborate, complex sound of previous Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. With Baker, Queen played every track in the studio until the take was perfect. Mack said they didn’t have to do that and that he could drop in snippets of different takes. This surprised the band and saved them a lot of time. Mack even persuaded Brian to drop his Red Special and play a Fender Stratocaster belonging to Roger on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
“A Kind of Magic” would also be the last time Queen would do several songs for a movie (here’s hoping the James Bond producers giver Queen + Adam Lambert a shot at the next theme tune).
“A Kind of Magic” is a very listenable album. I can listen to it all the way through unlike some of the late seventies albums which were a smattering of big hits and filler. As with Queen’s concerts on The Magic Tour, the album kicks off with the extended version of “One Vision” which teases out the intro superbly until Freddie’s ethereal vocal cry echoes across the synths just before Brian’s euphoric riff kicks in. “A Kind of Magic” the single follows.
A John Deacon song “One Year of Love is next and it’s the kind of classy, smoky ballad that Sade did so well at the time (saxophone courtesy of the guy who played on “Careless Whisper.”) “Pain Is So Close To Pleasure” is a rare sojourn into Motown stylings for Freddie Mercury (“Cool Cat” on “Hot Space” and B-side “Soul Brother” would probably be the closest tracks to this).
“Friends Will Be Friends” ends side one. Even though it’s a self-conscious attempt to repeat “We Are The Champions” and didn’t make the UK top ten, I still like it as a song.
Brian’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” starts side two and, from here on in, it’s all songs from the Highlander soundtrack. Seal and Ronan Keating said this song made them cry the first time they heard it and it is a very beautiful song with lush orchestral accompaniment. It worked well live on The Magic Tour too, although it was still “a new song” as Freddie said and hadn’t found its place among their other hits with the audience yet.
Brian Blessed’s Vulcan says “who wants to live forever?” in the battle scene near the end of “Flash Gordon,” Queen’s last big fantasy soundtrack outing. It’s possible Brian unconsciously remembered that line from the previous film but it’s a perfect iteration of Highlander’s themes.
Brian’s rip-snorting “Gimme The Prize” erupts with a cascading Brian May solo, it reaches a crescendo and a sound clip from the film Highlander kicks in (a news reporter comments on one of the many decapitated bodies in the film: “A head, which at this time, has no name.” Clancy Brown’s Kurgen responds with “I KNOW HIS NAME!”). “Here I am!” Freddie declares, “I’m the master of your destiny” (one reviewer at the time compared him to Alice Cooper on this).
Roger’s unsurprisingly drum-heavy “Don’t Lose Your Head” pounds in. It began life as the B-side to the single “A Kind of Magic” under the working title “A Dozen Red Roses For My Darling.” Some thought this was filler (black singer Joan Armatrading pops up to say “Don’t Lose Your Head” over and over for no apparent reason, maybe an attempt by the band to counter negative publicity over their Sun City shows in Apartheid-era South Africa around that time.) It does get a little repetitive but I don’t hate it.
Then we come to the final track on the album – “Princes of the Universe.” It’s Freddie’s only solo writing credit on the album (almost hard to believe considering he wrote most of Queen’s early albums single-handedly). The title is outrageously camp but the song builds up an incredible head of steam. With Princes, “One Vision” and “Gimme The Prize”, “A Kind of Magic” is probably the closest version to a heavy metal version of Queen we ever got. The single of “Princes of the Universe” was released in America and the video featured Highlander star Christopher Lambert crossing swords and sawn-off microphone stand with Freddie.
It would be three years before the next Queen album was released, the longest gap there had ever been between albums up to that point. There followed a frenzied period of activity to get new Queen material out before Freddie’s inevitable demise. So “A Kind of Magic” is a demarcation point between what went before and the beginning of the end of Queen Mach 1 (two more would follow with Paul Rodgers and now with Adam Lambert.)
“You can go onto that stage every night, and it’s always the equivalent of going onto the topmost diving board, and you don’t know if there’s any water in the pool” – Glenda Jackson
Stage fright occurs when a knowledge of the work being performed is replaced with a self-conscious awareness of the staring crowd and their expectations. Once it supersedes a performer’s confidence, it is difficult if not impossible for them to perform live again. Then the crippling flight response we’re all aware of comes into play.
Many celebrities suffer from it. After forgetting the lyrics to a song during a 1967 performance in Central Park, Barbara Streisand didn’t perform to a paying crowd for 27 years.
Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac said this:
Abba’s Agnetha Faltskog also had a tough time with the dreaded performance anxiety.
Even Adele, the biggest star in the world, has had her problems with it.
“I’m scared of audiences,” Adele revealed to Rolling Stone magazine. “One show in Amsterdam I was so nervous, I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.”
So what causes stage fright?
The infographic above begins with “inadequate preparation”, so it’s blaming the performer from the off. That’s unfair, even the most meticulously-prepared performer can forget lines and seize up in the glare of the spotlight. The mind goes blank and recall disappears through no fault of their own.
What the list really misses out on is the prime cause, I believe: a lapse in concentration. That’s all it takes, it may just be for a split-second. That’s when the displacement of focus takes place from the internal memorised words to the external presence and demands of the audience. Essentially, the performer has become a mountaineer who is suddenly aware of how high up they are and, crucially, how far they are capable of falling at that moment.
So, while the fear begins in a rational fear of failure and embarrassing yourself in public, the fear itself can become the irrational focus which can lead to panic attacks, sleepless nights and the problem becomes a clinical condition.
Perhaps we should leave the final word to William Shakespeare, himself an actor:
I’ve come up with some parody lyrics for Queen’s classic song (and soon to be movie of the same name) “Bohemian Rhapsody.” See what you think.
Bohemian Bap-seedy by Stewart Stafford
Is this just food hype?
Is this a granary?
Come on this snack ride,
No escape from the culinary
Open your eyes,
Look at what’s baked with me,
I should avoid carbs, this is what’s wrong with me,
My weight is easy come, easy go,
Blood sugar high, blood sugar low,
Non-food sales at Waitrose, don’t really matter to me, to me.
Mama, bought a sliced pan,
Got the knife just like she said,
Put the butter on the bread.
Mama, you had one cream bun,
But now I’ve gone and scoffed it all away.
Didn’t mean to be so sly,
I’ll get you another one by this time tomorrow,
And if not, and if not, well I guess it doesn’t matter.
Too late, my hunger has come,
Was going to order food online,
Stomach’s rumbling all the time.
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got some dough,
Gotta leave you all behind and bake some bread.
Mama, ooh (anywhere your wind blows),
I don’t want diabetes,
I sometimes wish I had a gastric band and all.
I see a little cornetto/choc-au-pain,
Swiss rolls, Swiss rolls, will you get me Focaccia?
Vienna rolls with piping,
Very, very frightening me.
(Petit Gateau) Petit Gateau,
(Petit Gateau) Petit Gateau,
Petit Gateau and Fig rolls
I’m just a foodie, nobody loves me.
He’s just a foodie from a foodie family,
Spare him his life from this pomposity.
Tell me yes, tell me no, who made the dough?
The miller! No, he did not make the dough. (Make the dough!)
The miller! He crushed the wheat like so. (Crushed it so!)
Vanilla! We love that flavoured dough. (Flavoured dough!)
Love that flavoured dough. (Flavoured dough!)
Never eat that dough (Never, never, never, never eat that dough!)
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh, Ciabatta, Ciabatta (Ciabatta’s running low.)
The baker man has some goodies set aside for me, for free, for free.
So you think you can bribe me with slices of Rye?
So you think I’ll forsake bread and eat up some pie?
Oh, baby, this is never a maybe,
Just go and get out, just go and get right outta here.
(Ooooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah)
The oven needs some batter,
That’s all I can see,
The oven needs some batter,
The oven needs some batter for me.
The featured image above shows a quote from Picasso being “appropriated” or stolen by Banksy in an ironic demonstration of the efficacy of the quote.
Israel won the Eurovision Song Contest last weekend and there were howls of derision. The spectre of “cultural appropriation” raised its ugly head again. Israeli singer Netta Barzilai had the temerity to wear a Japanese kimono on stage during her performance of the song “Toy” and that was enough. The internet went into meltdown about it referring to it as “yellowface.” (Some would instead baulk at the idea of culture being used in association with the Eurovision but let’s park that one there for now.)
Why is wearing the national dress of another country automatically seen as negative? It is possible that the person involved is honouring the culture and traditions of that country and is not mocking or “stealing” them.
We even see cultural appropriation in the casting of movies today. It is now being demanded that only ethnically-accurate actors are cast in roles.
Scotsman Sean Connery won his only Oscar for playing an Irish cop in “The Untouchables” and he was terrific in it. As an Irishman, I’m not offended by his performance in the slightest (even though we all know that non-Irish people attemping Irish accents can be a crime against humanity sometimes.) Connery culturally appropriated again when he played a Russian submarine commander (with a Scottish accent) in “The Hunt for Red October.” Just as well he can’t “appropriate” any longer as he’s been in retirment since 2004.
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee said something similar about Quentin Tarantino. At the time of the release of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” it was pointed out that he had virtually heisted the plot of Hong Kong film “City on Fire” (sometimes even shot-for-shot scenes) in his crime film. Perhaps that’s true about great artists doing that but copyright infringement, the intentional stealing of other people’s ideas for your own glorification and remuneration, is shabby behaviour. I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and especially when it comes to writers who put so much into their work for usually very little return (don’t even get me started on those leeches who offer copyrighted works for free and take food out of the mouths of writers’ kids.)
“Cultural appropriation” or cultural stealing is something different. There is no copyright on culture. Those ideas have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and the people who originated them are long gone. There are many examples of artists taking elements of other cultures and fusing them together to form something radically new. That is how culture refreshes and revitalizes itself as it brings new interest in old ideas.
Shakespeare borrowed from all over the place. Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet? They’re set in Italy. Hamlet? That’s Danish. Macbeth? That’s Scottish. If Shakespeare had not culturally appropriated and only written about England, we’d have missed out on some of the greatest works in the English language. It goes even further than that…
The BBC described David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as “one of the most iconic creations in pop history.” Bowie based the look of Ziggy on the make-up of the Japanese Kabuki theatre.
If Bowie was launching that character in the 21st century, he would be bombarded by negative social media posts about cultural appropriation. As many do, he would probably give in to the pressure and drop the character and we would miss out on all that amazing imagery and music.
George Lucas borrowed liberally when he wrote and directed “Star Wars” (1977). His Jedi knights were echoes of England’s Knights of the Round Table from Arthurian legend.
Darth Vader’s helmet was meant to resemble that of a Japanese Samurai warrior (indeed, “Star Wars” apes Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” by telling the story from the viewpoint of droids C3PO and R2D2, the lowest characters in the story).
“May The Force Be With You” is very similar to “The Lord Be With You” from Christianity which began in the Holy Land. Again, would we want to miss out on a cultural phenomenon and all that has followed from it because of cultural appropriation?
Marlon Brando once described Hollywood as “a cultural boneyard.” I fear that the whole world has become a cultural boneyard of our own making now. Conformity is king. Try anything different and you’ll attacked for it by faceless, anonymous keyboard warriors out there in the dark on social media. I noticed this recently while out walking. Every gang of young girls that I passed were clones of each other. They all had the same hairdos, same clothes. They’re afraid to take chances because of peer pressure not to. That is happening in every aspect of our lives. As I’ve said before, you don’t get great art by playing it safe.
So who are these people who cry cultural appropriation at the drop of a hat? They’re a generation of “right-fighters.” FamilyResource.com defines it thus: “A right-fighter is someone who gets overly emotional or angry when people do not agree with them and their opinions or beliefs. A right-fighter is someone who insists on having the last word in an argument or refuses to back down no matter what.”
TV guru Dr Phil McGraw elaborates further that a right -fighter is “one of those people who spend far too much energy convincing the rest of the world that they’re right. They’re right as parents, they’re right at work, they’re right in their relationships, they’re right about politics — and they are all too ready to fight about just how right they are. These insecure people are too fragile to ask themselves how things are working for them, because they might not like the answer one bit. It might mean making a change or admitting they’ve been (dare I say it?) wrong.” Do we really want an army of right-fighters dictating what is culturally acceptable and what isn’t for the rest of us? I think not.
It’s the “echo chamber” idea, that if you only hear opinions that concur with yours, you never have your opinions challenged or hear new ideas and so don’t grow and change.
I saw a white girl get slapped with the “cultural appropriation” label in a tweet recently for having dreadlocks. This is the height of absurdity and it’s only getting worse.
Would you really want to miss out on the works of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Ziggy Stardust, Harry Potter and countless other great works only to gain the pyrrhic victory of being self-righteous? I know I wouldn’t. In the final analysis, the hysteria over cultural appropriation is a politically-correct strait-jacket that is stunting our growth in ways we can’t even measure fully.
I’ll leave you on a laugh. This humourous tweet sums up the fallacy of cultural appropriation perfectly.
Today, April 21st 2018, is Record Store Day. The astonishing resurgence of vinyl will be celebrated worldwide in record shops with special releases from major artists.
The bounce in sales of vinyl is astonishing. According to Statista.com, “in 2007, there were roughly 210 thousand new vinyl albums sold in the UK. Last year, 4.1 million were picked up by eager buyers – an increase of 1,852 percent.” These figures are reflected in most countries.
So what is it about vinyl that is making young people such huge fans of an old format? I talked to Vinny of Golden Discs in Dun Laoghaire about it: “It’s the fact that it’s for, especially the younger generation, a complete new thing. It’s not new to [older people] but for [young buyers], this is a novelty and, I’d say, that’s the driving force behind most of the sales.”
Before the 1990s, vinyl was the main way most people enjoyed their music. It was almost a form of ritual to begin opening the physical copy of an album. There was the trek to the music store to physically purchase the album, the anticipatory journey home wondering how the record would sound and how the artwork would look. Once home, there was the race to the record player for what would now be termed “unboxing” and the sensual ritual would begin: the crinkly tearing of the plastic covering, the wonderful smell inside, the sliding out of the record for a first peek and the careful positioning of the platter on the musical altar of the record player. Then the needle dropped.
“The vinyl is a different thing, because it’s an experience,” Vinny said, “at least that’s how it was for me when I was growing up. I still have my collection. It was the artwork, laying down on the couch while you’re listening to it, opening the gatefold, following the lyrics. It’s a different experience.”
Audiophiles believe that long-playing vinyl records are the only true way to experience music now and they’re prepared to pay double or triple what they would pay for a CD or download to enjoy it. “The sound is fuller,” Vinny agreed, “it’s more organic because it’s not compressed as CDs are.”
So is the vinyl revival going to last or is it a passing trend?
“I would like to believe it’s here to stay,” Vinny said in conclusion, “but it’s hard to control how those things go, especially the market. The market fluctuates heavily but at the very least it seems to be cyclical.”
Only time will tell if sales will continue to rise but the fact is that vinyl is with us for the foreseeable future.
Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a continuation of the monstrous themes Del Toro has pursued in his previous films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, Blade II and both Hellboy movies. The story concerns a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) who works at a secret US government facility where she meets and develops feelings for an aquatic creature that has been captured in South America and brought there for research.
It’s another Beauty and the Beast tale in the style of The Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and The Hunchback of Notre Dame that Hollywood is so fond of.
If there is one central, recurring theme in American movies, I believe it is this: individual righteousness is more important than the group ethic. “The Shape of Water” is set before America has put a man on the moon. It is mentioned that the structure of the creature’s lungs could be used as a model for a prototype breathing system for an astronaut in space. They try to x-ray the creature, but its density prevents anything being seen. So, it’s proposed to end its life and perform an autopsy to study it properly. Now if she was following the group ethic, she would say that the creature must die for the common good, but she chooses not to do that. Her individual righteousness supersedes the group ethic and she decides to rescue him from certain death. You see this theme in everything from “Serpico” to the Jason Bourne movies and “Dances with Wolves” to “Avatar.” Is it any wonder that whistleblowing is so widespread when the whisteblowers themselves are consciously or subconsciously absorbing this theme from the time they watch their first American movie?
“The Shape of Water” is only the second fantasy film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, the other being “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” If you’re doing fantasy correctly, you can have all the fantastical surface elements but get in some subtle social commentary underneath and this movie does it beautifully.
The heroes are all minority underdogs; the creature is being tortured and experimented on because of the way he was born, the heroine is has a disability and can’t speak, she’s friends with a black woman and there’s a scene showing the civil rights struggle on an old black and white TV, the heroine is also friends with a gay man and he is going through his own struggles. It even plays into the whole #MeToo thing with a scene of sexual harassment. The film is set in the 1960s, but it is made for an audience of today and cleverly comments on issues of equality and diversity that we’re still struggling with now.
Guillermo del Toro won the Best Director Oscar at the 2018 Academy Awards, but his victory was clouded in controversy after claims that “The Shape of Water” was plagiarised from another work.
The backlash first began on social media with some people tweeting about glaring similarities between “The Shape of Water” and a 1969 one-act play titled “Let Me Hear You Whisper” by the late Paul Zindel. Then the comparisons really began and it was alleged that there were 61 similarities between the play and the film. Paul Zindel’s family became aware of the allegations and filed a lawsuit. “We are shocked that a major studio could make a film so obviously derived from my late father’s work without anyone recognizing it and coming to us for the rights,” David Zindel, the author’s son said.
Del Toro has denied all claims of plagiarism directed towards his film, but the film did lose out at the Writer’s Guild Awards and didn’t get the Oscar for Best Screenplay, probably due to the negative publicity.
“I have been at this 25 years and have an unimpeachable reputation,” the director said in his defence.
Universal Studios own the rights to “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and they’ve recently tried to reboot their horror characters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man) in something called The Dark Universe. Their stated goal was to make their remakes as big as Marvel is, unfortunately there’s no great demand for these old characters at the box office. The first film in the Dark Universe, “The Mummy” with Tom Cruise, flopped badly and it looks like the other planned films have been shelved for now. Del Toro actually pitched “The Shape of Water” to Universal as a remake of “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” They were initially interested until Del Toro said that the girl was mute and Universal thought it was a crazy idea and passed. So Del Toro took his idea to Fox Searchlight, had a huge, Oscar-winning and the rest is history. Universal must have been kicking themselves that they passed on it. The rest is history while the while lawsuits rumble on.
The Business Dictionary defines self-interest as a “focus on actions or activities that are advantageous to an individual or organization. For a business or individual to survive and grow, a degree of self-interest is necessary. When there is too much focus on self-interest the benefits of the group at large diminishes.”
The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote two books “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) (considered “the bible of capitalism”). He proposed a theory that capitalism was essentially fuelled by the self-interest of people: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
John Forbes Nash Jr. was an American mathematician whose life story was told in Ron Howard’s 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. Nash updated Smith’s theory with some of his own ideas. He reasoned that the individual could get what they wanted yet still benefit the group they belonged to. This film clip of Nash and his classmates in a bar neatly explains Nash’s theory.
Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994 in Mathematics for his equilibrium theory. John Moriarty of Manchester University describes the theory as “the ability to analyse situations of conflict and co-operation and produce predictions about how people will behave.” He goes on to say that Nash’s equilibrium is “perhaps the most important idea in economic analysis.” So why hasn’t Nash’s equilibrium been adopted more by the mainstream?
Firstly, you can’t quantify human nature. It is not fixed but fluid and unpredictable. It’s not like Cambridge Mathematician Alan Turing’s “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” where he could explain the markings and patterns on animals with an equation. That was rooted in genetics and evolution is a mighty slow thing. Human nature is extremely fast, just look how it changes day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute on the internet. It can be contradictory and even illogical at times. Applying logic to potentially illogical behaviour is to construct a house on shifting foundations. The structure will inevitably collapse. That’s the first problematic element of Nash’s theory but I propose an even bigger flaw that’s prevented it from being embraced in a wider context.
The human condition is one variable but a bigger one is the group itself. In the film clip with the blonde, Nash’s theory might work when he’s with a group of friends. They presumably know and trust each other and should therefore support one another for the common good. Again, it should work for a family, they too should presumably know and trust each other and have common goals (but human beings are complex creatures and there is no guarantee that the family isn’t dysfunctional and operating in a counter-productive way.) Assuming that these smaller groups want to progress along the same path together, we can expand the theory outwards to a community of people. Here the theory begins to fall apart. A community of people might not know or trust one another or have common goals. That possibility lessens even further when you expand the theory to a city or a country or a conflict between two countries. So the more you expand Nash’s theory outwards, the less chance it has of succeeding.
Nash was also schizophrenic: “I was disturbed in this way for a very long period of time, like 25 years.” It affected his marriage and he and his wife Alicia divorced in 1962. His condition improved in the 80s and they remarried in 2001. Sadly the couple were killed in May 2015 when the taxi they were passengers in crashed in New Jersey. A sad loss of a great man. Life is not predictable.
In September 1990, George Michael released “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”, the follow-up to the global monster that was his debut solo album “Faith.” My brother, a devoted George Michael fan for many years by that stage, bought the vinyl LP with its black-and-white cover shot of a crowd of immigrants. Brave move number one, where was that famous face?
I had bought the album “Faith” as a Christmas present for my brother several years previously and I decided to check out the new one. The needle dropped down on the record, the crackling began and I sat back to hear what I assumed was going to be Faith 2.
The first track was his single release of the previous month, the anthemic “Praying for Time.” It was a good if unexpected song, but he didn’t appear in the video for it which hurt its sales. It has this sixty-ish horn section on it that indicates that this first single and first track on the album are going in a very different direction to “Faith.”
In a new documentary both Elton John and Liam Gallagher agree (yes, George Michael’s music reaches and unites such disparate musical figures as those) that “Praying for Time” sounds like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” George admitted listening to Beatles albums at the time like “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.” Lyrically, the song echoes Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” and its socially-conscious struggle with rich white guilt. George was a very generous man during his lifetime, donating sometimes astronomical fees to charities in private which is true altruism. He clearly felt guilty about the immense wealth he attained and tried to do something to redress the balance. “And the wounded skies above” George sings in a beautiful poetic flourish that Sting would counterpoint in “Fields of Gold” with the line “we’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky.”
On to track two and straight into the superbly catchy “Freedom ’90.” Freedom was a constant theme in George Michael’s work and he’d already had a number one hit titled “Freedom” with Wham! in 1984. Freedom ’90 reevaluates what fame means to a more mature pop icon. It’s a seven-minute epic slab of funk that lays the ethos of the album bare for all to see:”Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way/Think I’m gonna get myself happy.” Once again, George would not the play media game by appearing in the video for this song. It instead featured the new wave of “supermodels” (the Kardashians of their day) – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, etc. Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Alien 3), it is difficult to hear this song now without seeing that iconic 1990 video in your head.
In the video for Freedom ’90, George continues the violent deconstruction of his “Faith” image by blowing up his guitar, jukebox and setting fire to the BSA leather jacket he wore in the “Faith” video. It was reminiscent of the way David Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, it reached a crescendo of popularity and hysteria with fans and then Bowie bravely abandoned the image and created another one. Great artists do that though. They don’t want to become stale by pumping out the same stuff. They force audiences to grow and change with them by trying new things. The Beatles were the masters of that, of course.
“They Won’t Go When I Go”, a live recording of a Stevie Wonder song, is the third song on the album. If you want to hear a singer totally in control of his gift, then this is it. I had never heard the original tune, so I was literally listening without prejudice and I was blown away by it. It has the feel of an old spiritual song from the southern United States with that hymnal weariness seeping out of every groove in the vinyl. George’s voice goes crazily deep into bass territory and then right up to the top of his range and it is startling to hear it. It’s got a kind of Old Testament warning on the dangers of moral decay in the lyrics: “Unclean minds mislead the pure.” George covered many Stevie Wonder songs in his career and always made them his own. Stevie was like his spiritual and musical godfather. George had that quality that Elvis possessed of being a supreme interpreter of other people’s songs. Like The King, I thought every cover version he ever did was superior to the original and that’s a rare gift.
There’s some inevitable filler on the album like “Something to Save” and “Soul Free” but even they’re not bad. “Mother’s Pride” is an anti-war song that has its moments. George heard Don McLean’s achingly elegiac anti-war song “The Grave” as a child and it stuck with him (he recorded it in 2003 as war in Iraq loomed.) “Mother’s Pride” has the line “his country’s eyes” and it made me wonder if he’d based it on the poster for “Born on the Fourth of July”, also from 1990.
“Heal the Pain” is a gorgeous folky ballad that George claimed was influenced by Paul McCartney. Paul doesn’t feature on the 1990 version of the song but he did record a duet version of it with George in 2005: Listen here
George had received criticism from black artists like Gladys Knight and Public Enemy for winning prizes at black awards shows at the expense of black artists. It wasn’t his fault that these organisations deemed him worthy of inclusion and victory but George seemed to make a conscious effort with “Listen Without Prejudice” to veer towards the white influences of his youth. He even quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on “Waiting For That Day”, which resulted in a co-writing credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
“Faith” displayed a wide variety of influences with urban RnB (“I Want Your Sex), Elvis-style 50’s rockabilly with a twist of country (the title track “Faith”) and even some Sinatra-style swing on “Kissing A Fool.” The production was super-slick and it became a monster George had created that he happily put to the sword on the follow-up. “Listen Without Prejudice” has a variety of influences too but the production isn’t geared towards the top 40 and multi-million album sales. George had gone up and up in that hot air balloon before and it terrified him. “Prejudice” is more mature and complex than “Faith.” It is more experimental and biographical. George has self-conscious things to say about fame and what it does to someone. He’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain that some of us might prefer to ignore and just hear the hits.
I didn’t like “Listen Without Prejudice” on first hearing it. A month later, after repeated listening, I thought and still think that it’s George Michael’s best album. It wasn’t the obvious sequel to “Faith” that I and a lot of other people were expecting. It challenged its audience to listen without prejudging what they assumed they were going to get. Now, in 2017, almost a year after George’s untimely and still shocking death, “Listen Without Prejudice” has a second coming in a deluxe remastered box set on October 20th. I will be getting it and reliving those shivery moments that George laid down so expertly for us. “”I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations,” George said prophetically in the 80s . Indeed he did. The man was a true original and, yes, to use that overused word – a genius. We lost too many of those in 2016 – George, Bowie, Prince, etc.
I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform live in concert in Dublin twice on one of his last tours. He had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Like his idol Freddie Mercury, the songs George wrote were extremely high-pitched and difficult to sing live but he was note-perfect in the four hours in which I saw him. “I never heard him sing a bad note,” his pal Elton John said recently. I concur.
I worry for the future of music but it is a relief to know that no one can ever take away my memories of the great sounds of the past. “Listen Without Prejudice” happens to be one of them. Catch up with it now if you missed it the first time, kids. It’s a reminder of a time when albums were king, music meant something and creativity counted. Knock yourselves out.
“He was without doubt one of the greatest songwriters this country ever produced and certainly one of the best vocalists ever” – Elton John
Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived in cinemas in the summer of 1991. Its main competitor was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner (remember him?). I went to see T2 twice at the cinema back then. By the time of the second viewing, I was watching the Soviet Union collapse live on TV news. (There was nervous laughter in the cinema when John Connor said the line about the Russians: “Aren’t they our friends now?”) The film dealt with Cold War fears. Looking at it again in 2017, it was difficult not to think of the current North Korean standoff as images of nuclear destruction flashed up on the screen repeatedly. So, the film’s themes are still relevant.
Just as the film is about time travel, so the film itself now functions like a time machine, taking us back to a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest movie star on the planet. That’s not the case now. He’s been replaced by a bunch of anonymous superheroes who dominate the box office (James Cameron was an early champion of CGI effects and T2 was the first film to use them extensively and effectively. You could argue that it created the tools necessary to bring all these comic book universes to life. Other films like Jurassic Park (1993) and The Mask (1994) consolidated the wow factor of CGI and proved it was here to stay. It reached its creative nadir with George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels which were like expensive cartoons.) Since Arnold’s return from politics, he seems to have lost that cocky charisma of old and looks bored and weary in movies now. He has also struggled to find decent vehicles to star in. Only Escape Plan with pal Sylvester Stallone hinted at a possible new direction for Mr. Schwarzenegger when he got a chance to speak German in a movie for the first time.
Terminator 2 has none of those problems. Arnold is in his 90s prime and the film has been impressively upgraded to 4k and 3D by Jim Cameron.
Knowing his technical expertise and perfectionist nature, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill restoration and it isn’t. The sound is incredible with thunderous gunfire and explosions (my ears are still ringing the morning after) and Brad Fiedel’s score gains a new lease of life in the mix. Glaring continuity errors have been corrected by Cameron with great subtlety. Some of the in-camera effects have dated, particularly the puppetry effects but Cameron has wisely allowed them to remain so as not to alter the heart of the film. It is a film from 1991 after all and he clearly didn’t want to get into endless nit-picking of his former work like Mr Lucas did with the Star Wars special editions (Greedo shot first, anyone?).
Cameron got the casting spot-on too. Robert Patrick is a fantastic villain as the liquid metal T-1000. (Cameron didn’t have the money or the CGI to introduce this character in the first Terminator in 1984 and his inclusion makes this sequel one of the best.) Patrick’s wiry physicality and short stature give a David-and-Goliath look to his epic confrontations with the hulking Schwarzenegger.
Edward Furlong in his first film role is a revelation as the troubled, thieving tearaway John Connor. (A big difference from the Messianic future leader we’d heard so much about in the first movie.) His genial interplay with Schwarzenegger is the heart of this movie. Sadly, Furlong got into drugs and missed out on the third Terminator movie because of it and his absence from the series, along with Jim Cameron and Linda Hamilton, was a huge loss (some would say the series has never recovered from that.)
T2 is at its weakest when it strains for significance, some of it coming across as cloying and the ticking of emotional boxes (Titanic struggled with some of the same issues). Some of the sequences are derivative, particularly the Cyberdyne building sequence which is clearly influenced by Die Hard. Still, Cameron is able to rise above his influences to create something memorable.
If your only reference point for the Terminator franchise is the woeful mess that was Terminator Genisys, I suggest you see Terminator 2 4k 3D on the big screen while you can. It still feels remarkably fresh and original (not hard in a time of comic book movie overload and lazy remakes). The humour hasn’t dated either with the audience laughing throughout at the gentle puncturing of Arnold’s tough image (it’s funnier than any of Schwarzenegger’s so-called comedies.)
Cameron is hoping to re-release Aliens in 4k 3D, his other “best sequel ever made” and that would be most welcome from what I’ve seen here. He’s also returning to the Terminator franchise to produce a new trilogy of films starring Schwarzenegger (hopefully with Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong back in the mix too to reunite the dream team). Shooting begins on the new movie in early 2018 with the director of Deadpool at the helm. He’ll be back, oh yes, he’ll be back.
“Everyone who ever made a low-budget film was influenced by Night of the Living Dead,” – John Carpenter
George A. Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie genre, has passed away at the age of 77. A good time to take a look back on his significant contribution to movies and the horror genre.
Indie movies didn’t really exist when Romero and some pals clubbed together cash and equipment to make Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Taking inspiration from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novel, Romero took what could have been an exploitation splatter film and turned it into a snapshot of where America was going with the Vietnam war and civil rights. It’s difficult now to separate Romero’s nightmarish imagery from the horrific news footage spilling out of Vietnam around then.
The casting of black actor Duane Jones as Ben the male lead was groundbreaking but Romero brushed it off by saying he was the best actor available and nothing more. Black men and boys were lynched for whistling at white women in the recent past yet here was a black hero defending a white female onscreen (the implication being that they will begin a relationship if they survive as humanity is almost extinct). Ben even punches out a white male character for trying to tell him what to do (a far cry from any submissive expectations where he would stand there and be called “boy.”). This was an empowered, dominant black male, virtually unheard of at the time and not really seen again until the Blaxploitation genre of the early 70s (it could be argued Romero influenced that too).
Ben’s fate at the hands of a redneck posse at the denouement prefigured the disaster movies and downbeat endings of films in the 1970s. The zombie horror is replaced with a more realistic, some would say more horrific, human kind. Hollywood even made a movie of NOTLD’s inspiration “I Am Legend” when Charlton Heston took on a Mansonesque group of mutants as the last vestige of gun-toting masculinity in “The Omega Man” in 1971.
“At first I didn’t think of them as zombies,” Romero said, “I thought of them as flesh-eaters or ghouls and never called them zombies in the first film. Then people started to write about them, calling them zombies, and all of a sudden that’s what they were: the new zombies. I guess I invented a few rules, like kill the brain and you kill the ghoul, and eventually I surrendered to the idea and called them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), but it was never that important to me what they were. Just that they existed.”
The critical reviews of “Night of the Living Dead” were among the first to take the horror genre seriously. Hitchcock’s Psycho was probably the first one that wasn’t written off as a shlocky B-movie. If the respected Master of Suspense was tackling the genre, there must be something more there.
Somehow a copyright symbol was left off finished prints of “Night of the Living Dead” and it instantly fell into the public domain, a disastrous setback for everyone involved when it came to reaping any profits from it. It perhaps explained the genesis of the sequels, this time they’d make sure that didn’t happen and get paid properly.
So into the 1970s Romero went and, 1972 saw him write and direct “Season of the Witch” a.k.a. Hungry Wives about a housewife caught up in witchcraft and murder. (John Carpenter would pinch the title for Halloween III: Season of the Witch ten years later.)
Romero even made a 1974 documentary about O.J. Simpson called “Juice On The Loose” (!). Again, he was way ahead of the pack with that title.
“The Crazies” came along in 1973, a frightening bio-horror movie, even more realistic than “Night of the Living Dead.” A forgettable remake appeared in 2010.
1978 brought a double-whammy of classics from Romero. Having invented the zombie movie genre, Romero sought to revitalize another one. His vampire movie Martin dealt with a boy who or may not be a centuries-old vampire. It’s in this grey area that the movie poses some real questions and becomes complex and interesting. Is Martin really a vampire or a disturbed kid acting out his fantasies and delusions on innocent people? Again, Romero was way ahead of everyone here touching on vampire culture and people “identifying” as vampires, things that wouldn’t become mainstream until recently. John Amplas is excellent as Martin, bringing great pathos to a difficult role. If you haven’t seen Martin, you should check it out soon. It’ll probably be screened in tribute to Romero and I hope this obscure movie finds some new fans now.
The sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead” came next. Romero hooked up with make-up virtuoso Tom Savini to do the zombie make-up. This time our heroes weren’t holed up in a house but in a shopping mall, giving Romero the chance to send up modern consumers as mindless zombies shuffling along to insipid muzak (he could almost have been predicting the internet age). At two-and-a-half-hours long, the film was ambitious and is beloved by fans to this day.
(They despised Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake for not having the satire. This may be sacrilege, but I believe Snyder’s movie is better. The satire wasn’t all that clever or funny in the first place and the 1977 zombie make-up looks like they got a bulk discount on grey paint. Snyder’s film is faster, funnier – “Shoot Burt Reynolds!” – and tighter.)
Just as Richard Matheson had influenced Romero, his “Night of the Living Dead” was in turn exerting an influence on popular culture with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Director John Landis rightfully paid homage to Romero’s classic.
Romero made several Stephen King adaptations including the memorable anthology “Creepshow” in 1982, “Creepshow 2” in 1987 and “The Dark Half” in 1993.
“Day of the Dead” appeared in 1985 and, for me, it’s the grimmest and most intense of the dead movies. Bub the domesticated zombie is a great character, brilliantly portrayed by actor Howard Sherman. It’s up there with Karloff’s Frankenstein for me and a real horror icon.
Some of the gore is literally stomach-churning. A soldier is disemboweled on camera while a zombie rises from a slab to spill its guts all over the mortuary floor. Savini’s effects were making quantum leaps but it made me feel numb. We don’t really need to see that.
A colour remake of “Night of the Living Dead” appeared in 1990, directed by make-up whiz Tom Savini. Romero rewrote his own screenplay, dropping in the hole in the ozone layer as a possible reason for the dead rising. It wasn’t as influential or groundbreaking as the original, what could be, but as remakes go, it’s pretty good and stands up to repeated viewings.
Post 9/11, zombie movies came back in vogue with Danny Boyle’s savage “28 Days Later” and the aforementioned remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” These zombies weren’t stiff from rigor mortis, they sprinted like Usain Bolt but Romero kept his walking dead moving slowly in subsequent zombie flicks.
By the time of Romero’s “Land of The Dead” in 2005, the social commentary was becoming forced and self-conscious. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” Dennis Hopper’s villainous mogul pompously says at one point, an obvious dig at George W. Bush. Even so, the film was a good sequel and is still very watchable today.
“I don’t try to answer any questions or preach,” Romero said, “My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, ‘Ooo, I’ll talk about that, and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!’ You know, it’s kind of my ticket to ride.”
“Diary of the Dead (2007)” and “Survival of the Dead (2009)” (Romero’s last film as director) followed and, even though Romero was still being innovative, there was the feeling that he’d already said what he wanted to say in that genre as others were overtaking him.
George A. Romero’s legacy and reputation are assured as the outpouring of grief on Twitter has proven today. Max Landis, son of Thriller director John Landis, tweeted: “George Romero was an icon who created a cinematic universe of loosely-affiliated sequels forty years before that was a thing. RIP to a genius.” May he rest in peace. Finally.
Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.
Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)
Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.
The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.
It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.
Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)
As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.
Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.
In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.
That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.
(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)
I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.
Originally posted on Novel Writing Festival: PITCH: Title: The Vorbing Written by: Stewart Stafford Type: Novel Genre: Fantasy/Horror Logline: The Vorbing is a fantasy/horror concerning Vlad Ingisbohr’s struggle to free his village from the reign of terror of vampires and avenge his father’s death at their hands. Interested in this logline, please email us at…
“The most popular movie I’ve ever made is Scarface (1983), all over the world. It’s amazing to me. It’s wonderful. We sometimes forget that it was Oliver Stone who wrote it. He is a political creature, and I think that is an undercurrent in the movie. And the combination of him and Brian De Palma made for this kind of fusion or explosion. It worked.”
– Al Pacino
Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name.
It was a fictionalised version of the life of real-life Chicago gangster Al Capone whose nickname was Scarface. (Tony Montana has an unhealthy obsession with stopping his sister being with other men. It’s possible screenwriter Oliver Stone based this character trait on the brother in the Capone story below, directly connecting it back to the origin of the nickname Scarface.)
By the early 1980s, Universal started to revisit the works of Howard Hawks to remake them. John Carpenter’s The Thing was first out of the gate in 1982 and was hated by critics and died a death at the box office.
Scarface was next on the agenda. Pacino had seen the 1932 original in a cinema a few years previously and was amazed at Paul Muni’s performance as Tony Camonte, the Scarface of the title. He went outside, called producer Martin Bregman and told him he wanted to star in a remake. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had also planned a Scarface remake but Pacino got there first. So the wheels of production started. (Four years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma would tackle the real-life Scarface’s story with Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (1987).)
Scarface is quite Shakespearean, something Pacino, a stage-trained actor and renowned aficionado of The Bard, must have noticed. Tony Montana murders his way to the top of the Miami underworld just as Macbeth murders his way to the Scottish throne and both men pay dearly for their immoral actions. As in Hamlet, everyone dies in the end (imagine how many bodies would litter the stage at the denouement if Scarface were a play!).
The over-the-top nature of the film and its characters has been called “operatic” and I believe this is the correct way to look at its excesses (particularly that ending where a cocaine-fuelled Montana raves and rants while being shot to pieces from all angles by a hit squad like he’s demonically-possessed). Opera gets away with it though as its arty, Scarface with its gaudiness, drugs, f-words and blue collar aspirations was given none of that slack. (It’s surprising that nobody has thought of doing Scarface as an opera yet, I can see it now.) It was attacked by everyone. Critics found the ultra-violence deplorable, particularly the chainsaw lobotomy scene in the shower during the botched drug deal. In the film’s defence, Colombian cartels did use chainsaws to savagely dispose of enemies and rivals. So Oliver Stone was merely holding a mirror up to society and reflecting back an uncomfortable modern truth that he discovered in his extensive research. Cubans took the depiction of Montana as a slur on their people and the director and producer of Scarface began getting death threats and switched the shooting schedule from Miami to Los Angeles.
Pacino outlined how he prepared to take on the role of Tony Montana: “I worked with an expert in knife combat, with a physical education guy who helped me get the kind of body I wanted for the part. I used the boxer Roberto Durán a little bit. There was an aspect of Durán , a certain lion in him that I responded to in this character. And I was very inspired by Meryl Streep’s work in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). I thought that her way of involving herself in playing someone who is from another country and another world was particularly fine and committed and… courageous.”
Like Brando’s Godfather, Pacino disappears inside his character in a way he rarely has before or since (he mostly plays thinly-disguised versions of himself with big, shouty moments.) Like Brando’s Vito Corleone, his Tony Montana has instantly recognisable lines (his “Say hello to my little friend!” is up there with “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”) and mannerisms (do an impression of Scarface or The Godfather and people know virtually straight away who it is, even if they haven’t seen the movies each character comes from.) Both Vito Corleone and Tony Montana are immigrants to the United States who set about establishing crime empires on the east coast (Corleone in New York, Montana down south in Miami, Florida). Both endure assassination attempts and both fight back ruthlessly against their enemies to retain control. The Godfather belongs to a timeless, monolithic, mythic storytelling tradition, Scarface was compared to a spaghetti western by critic Pauline Kael, she called it “hot and raw.” With its 1980 fashions, hairstyles and Giorgio Moroder disco score, Scarface seems more dated than The Godfather, even though it was made eleven years later.
Al Pacino remembered the shell-shocked reaction to Scarface after its premiere: “We couldn’t show our faces after it opened. I was at a party after a screening at Sardi’s. I walked in and the faces looked like those in a wax museum. People were sitting so still. Liza Minnelli was there. She hadn’t seen the movie. She came up to me and said: ‘What did you do to these people?’ And yet it survived.”
Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, another Howard Hawks remake that was mauled, Scarface eventually found an audience on home video and a cult reputation began to emerge. Eventually, it became a part of popular culture, even being referenced in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective by Jim Carrey. The black rap community took Scarface to their hearts (you’d be hard-pressed to find an episode of MTV Cribs featuring a rapper who didn’t flash a DVD of Scarface at the camera as it went through their home.) Universal even wanted to release a remixed version of Pacino’s Scarface with a new rap soundtrack at one point but director Brian de Palma refused to allow it.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a western that was a remake of a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai (1954). Recently, we had the remake of the remake with the studio recycling the old cowboy movie again instead of having, say, seven mercenaries protecting a village from a Taliban warlord or ISIS. Pacino’s Scarface was a remake of the old Howard Hawks 1932 film. Now we’re getting the remake of the remake again and it appears they’re just going to recycle the 80s Cuban druglord story again instead of, say, having Montana be a criminal mingling in with the Syrian refugees flooding the world now. (Sure, you’d have the PC brigade down on you for that but so did Pacino and Co. in the 80s. They took risks that paid off spectacularly. They took an old story, updated it and made it ultra-relevant again. Studios now only want safe bets. You won’t see them taking huge risks on new stories and talent as they did in the 70s now.)
Diego Luna has been cast as the new Tony Montana and he has his work cut out for him already having to go up against Pacino’s monstrous Tony. I don’t know how you could top or even match that performance. It’s epic scenery-chewing.
I give every remake the benefit of the doubt. Nobody liked Pacino’s Scarface, but it’s now looked on as a classic. They’ll release new versions of the 1983 Scarface to coincide with the release of the remake too, it will probably get a 4k scan and new extras on disc. Another reason to welcome the remake, even if it seems unnecessary. The world is and always will be Tony Montana’s, whoever plays him.
The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”
After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.
“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.
It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.
The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.
He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.
His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”
“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.
The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.
In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.
His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.
Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.
He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”
Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”
His daughter and two sons also became writers.
Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.
I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.
The sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey was the big Valentine’s weekend movie for 2017. In it, billionaire Christian Grey renews his S&M relationship with Anastasia Steele. I wasn’t a fan of the first movie. It was a huge missed opportunity. James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross, has replaced the original director and his steadier hand makes for a better movie. There’s a new screenwriter also and it feels dramatically tighter, funnier and just a better movie overall.
The first Fifty Shades film should have been the Basic Instinct of its generation but it completely wimped out to get a cash-friendly lower age rating. In one scene, Anastasia says to Christian: “Show me how bad it can be” (or words to that effect). He smacks her six times really hard on the ass (anyone who has been near an internet connection in the past two decades will know that that is very, very far from the worst it can get). Ms Steele’s face contorts into floods of tears. “Never do that to me again!” she howls. (She just told him to do it to her! Idiot.) Although this is based on a trilogy of books and they might have needed to pace the franchise. If they had gone full-on in the first one, there’d be little wiggle room left for the sequels.
Despite being dubbed “mummy porn” by the British press, Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction. Christian Grey began life on the page as Edward Cullen the vampire. There are flashes of Grey’s dark vampire origins in Fifty Shades Darker. A damaged former submissive of his starts jealously stalking Anastasia Steele, a paradigm of what the future could hold for her if she continues exploring Grey’s “kinky fuckery” with him, as Ms Steele calls it. Grey appears to be an energy vampire, sucking the life out of females that cross his path, destroying them and discarding them. That was good writing there.
There is inconsistency in the writing of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker. On the one hand, she’s this ordinary girl who is out of her depth in a naughty relationship with this rich chap. On the other, she’s this ravishing beauty that a billionaire and her boss fight over (Grey even buys the publishing house she works for. Helen of Troy she ain’t), while everyone else tells her she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. So which is it? Is she a struggling ingénue or this beautiful girl used to such attention all her life? That doesn’t make sense. Then again, the whole thing is a female fantasy and not a documentary. If you’re looking for logic, put on the Discovery Channel.
E.L. James gives her heroine a job in a publishing house. There’s a handy movie job for ya. No research needed there, James already knows the publishing world well. Even so, that whole section isn’t very convincing. It’s lazy writing.
Fifty Shades peddles a similarly dangerous Pretty Woman notion in that it suggests that getting involved in degrading sex will lead girls to their rich Prince Charming.
(Kim Basinger appears in Fifty Shades Darker as the baddie. She was also in 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke in the 80s; arguably the spiritual movie grandparent of Fifty Shades. That was about a similar kinky relationship and showed the reality of the situation – bondage only leads to more numbing bondage. The woman doesn’t get to change the guy into a vanilla version of his pervy self as happens in Fifty Shades Darker. Strangely, after Christian Grey tones down his act, Anastasia suddenly announces “take me to the Red Room!”, Grey’s whips-and-chains dungeon. This chick doesn’t know what she wants other than wanting to have her cake and eat it too like E.L. James)
On the other hand, it’s an anti-feminist message to acknowledge that some women enjoy bondage and letting men take control sometimes (some men enjoy it too). To deny it or repress it is censorship and a denial of freedom.
The sex scenes while they are well shot, lit and blocked out, feel perfunctory like the actors are just going through the motions. There’s little eroticism in them, that frisson that elevates the whole thing. Writing sex in books and for the screen can be difficult to do, you’re always going close to the line of humour; too much and it’s a laugh riot, not enough and it’s no good.
So, yes, I’d just about watch a third Fifty Shades movie, but let’s hope there’s not a fourth. We need to stop playing around in the grey areas…
“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…”
– John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack & Diane
“Thou shalt not be middle-aged” could almost be the theme of every review written about the sequel to Trainspotting. The critics moaned that Renton & Co. have gone “mainstream” with “Dad rock anthems” on the soundtrack.
Like when The Young Ones started singing with Cliff Richard for charity (forgetting that their sitcom started life on the BBC, the very heart of establishment Britain). All the stars of Trainspotting have taken the Hollywood shilling decades ago (Ewan McGregor has done three Star Wars films, Robert Carlyle was a Bond villain, Ewan Bremner will be in the new Wonder Woman movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, most actors are out of work and fair play to any of them that can make a living at it, but these critics are making moot points.
It’s like a Sex Pistols reunion; same band, same music, same (older) faces but the heart doesn’t pump as angrily as it used to. It can’t really. Johnny Rotten has done butter commercials but we all conform and sell out as we get older as we have more to lose and life’s too damn short. The cold isolation of youth rebellion loses its allure as we crave acceptance and, yes, easy cash (sorry to drop that nugget of reality on ya). Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s leader, that’s the way it always has gone and always will go in the future.
“I’m 46 and I’m fucked,” Ewan McGregor says at one point in T2. A brave statement, as middle-aged men are meant to be invisible and consigned to life’s scrap heap to await the slow death of retirement. It’s wrong, especially when older men have so much life experience to bring to the table. But nope, ageism is rife in our society, just ask all those talented older guys who can’t get hired because of a number beyond their control. Not only are men of 46 meant to be ignored, movies aren’t meant to be made for them either. You can feel the hostility of the younger critics reviewing the movie towards these older characters and men of that age in general. They almost feel that it would have been better not to have made the movie at all. Films can only be about teens with superpowers for spotty teens with no power at all. That’s your demographic now.
Trainspotting 2 has flaws, sure; director Danny Boyle unwisely uses too many flashbacks of the first movie that begs for comparisons, almost as if he’s desperate to make people like the second one as much. There are snatches of Iggy Pop from the first movie and remixes of other songs from that classic soundtrack, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. There’s even a new riff on McGregor’s classic “choose life” voice-over from the first film. Okay, it doesn’t have the same scathing, anarchic, raging tone and has a mid-life crisis feel about it but it is surreal hearing that same voice addressing things happening now (even if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been with us for most of the last decade, so it’s not that new.) The George Best references seem out-of-place (Archie Gemmill’s orgasmic goal seems to have lost its allure) along with that “where did it all go wrong?” story Best told on Parkinson donkey’s years ago (see my ageism creeping in reader? Stop it!) It also lacks that razor-sharp, documentary-style deconstruction of detox and the surreal sequences that peppered the original. However, the characters have grown up and gotten over their addictions, even seemingly Spud (we do get a scene of Renton and Sick Boy suddenly shooting up for no apparent reason, again that should’ve been cut but Boyle loses his nerve a little there, giving the audience what they want).
The most unbelievable thing is the cameo by Kelly McDonald. She played the underage nymphomaniac who went drinking on a school night and slept with Renton minutes after meeting him. We’re supposed to believe that she’s now a convenient, plot point lawyer instead of the mum-of-three on welfare that she almost certainly would’ve been. Still, fans of the original will skip over that and enjoy her appearance.
This isn’t Trainspotting: The Male Menopause Years, though. On the plus side, it’s very, very funny (the audience I saw it with laughed throughout); Renton’s improvised song in a Loyalist club about no Catholics being left after the Battle of the Boyne is probably the best scene in the movie (that, along with the George Best scenes, make it seem more like a Northern Irish film at times).
As for the characters having lost their balls, Robert Carlyle’s escaped convict Begbie is, if anything, a beast even more fierce now. With a head like a flaming football, Begbie tears through the film like a Celtic Joe Pesci, annihilating anyone and everything that gets in his way (he’s even made out to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when he smashes through to where Renton is hiding, sticks his head through the hole and roars at him.) There was a picture of De Niro in Taxi Driver in the first one and the style of Boyle’s flick was pure Marty Scorsese with narration, freeze-frames and classic rock on the soundtrack. In T2, we get a parody of Raging Bull called Raging Spud.
Ewan Bremner’s ne’er-do-well Spud is the vulnerable heart of the film and, while Bremner sometimes overdoes Spud’s child-like glare, his character perhaps shows the most progress going from a lonely, suicidal addict at the start to a blossoming man of letters.
Jonny Lee Miller’s bleach blond Sick Boy returns and, as he’s a bigger star now than he was in 1996, he’s given a lot more to do. He seems to leech off a bit of Begbie’s violent, bullying energy in shouty, showy scenes, maybe they rewrote some of Begbie’s schtick to satisfy his agent.
Queen’s Radio Ga Ga makes a sudden, loud appearance during a trippy scene and this is probably what annoyed those young critics the most. Freddie and the boys are rock royalty and not the edgy, druggy types like Iggy and Lou Reed, but who cares? It’s a great rousing scene. It’s fun. What’s wrong with that?
The script also takes piquant pops at the EU; Renton is greeted on his return to Edinburgh after 20 years away by a Slovenian girl handing out leaflets, Sick Boy is running a blackmail scam with a Bulgarian hooker and the boys get involved in trying to hook up with a £100k EU grant scam. Brexit is the unmentioned ghost at the feast.
Sequels are delicate balancing acts; you have the give the audience something similar to the first one but in a new way. Rehash everything from the first film and the audience will get bored, but go in a totally new direction and it won’t feel like a real, true follow-up. Trainspotting 2 does move the characters on and tries to do something different with them. It updates them while giving us echoes of their past selves and, in that, screenwriter John Hodge does a solid job. It was always going to be a near-impossible task catching lightning in a bottle twice. Danny Boyle acquits himself admirably. He’s too talented a filmmaker to just phone it in.
There’s talk of a Trainspotting 3, and, as I thoroughly enjoyed Trainspotting 2, I’d love to see it happen. The pressure will be off in the threequel and they can wrap things up by making the Trainspotting franchise into a trilogy. I can almost hear those young, angry critics groaning; but that’s life, kids. Choose life.
The 1990s really didn’t kick into gear until 1996. Stock, Aitken & Waterman had dominated the pop charts in the late 80s; by the early 90s they were gone. So was Freddie Mercury and the great Queen hit machine as we knew it. Into this power vacuum flooded a lot of anonymous house music, “rubbishy old dance” records as Cliff Richard dubbed them. The emergence of Take That and East 17 promised a return to steadier pop hits, but I still remember how bad the pop charts got in 1993 and 1994. Things improved in 1995 and then 1996 hit and, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening again.
There was the retro Britpop war between Oasis and Blur with Pulp and Suede thrown in for good measure. The Spice Girls burst out of nowhere and George Michael returned with his excellent Older album and two number one hits. Take That were splitting up but Robbie Williams did get his first solo single out (a cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90) and, despite this inauspicious start, he would confound his critics, pick up the fallen pop star banner and churn out some incredible hits later in the decade. Even Queen released the last singles recorded with Freddie Mercury in ‘96.
Into this mix landed Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. Based on Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel of the same name, it was the movie of the year that everyone was talking about and was voted the best British movie of the last 60 years in a 2012 HMV poll. The title, taken from that old, nerdy British pastime of standing beside train tracks for hours collecting the numbers of trains as they pass, risked putting off potential viewers but it was subversively deceptive. This film crackled with energy from the first second it appeared on screen. It was anything but boring.
It had that iconic orange poster campaign and that song “Born Slippy” by Underworld that instantly time-stamped it and still does. It captured a mood, a moment and the zeitgeist in a way that films like Fight Club and The Matrix would do later in the 90s. You remember exactly where you were when you saw it. It had the amoral Kubrickian tone of A Clockwork Orange, the freeze-frames and druggy juggernaut pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another classic from 1990) and perhaps the best narration of any film since Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Although it was written and mostly completed before the whole Britpop thing, Trainspotting played right into it as if it were planned. Britain momentarily got its balls back (some would argue they are doing so again with Brexit; an appropriate time for the Trainspotting sequel to appear). It was a case of the Brits saying “anything thing you can do, I can do better” to Hollywood and the US pop charts. Empire magazine looked down on the film in a very British way for this “shameful” aspiration by writing that the film had “its nose pressed up against the glass of Hollywood, desperate for a piece of the action.” (That would come later in the 90s when Ewan McGregor was cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and when Danny Boyle directed Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, a casting decision that split up the McGregor/Boyle dream team until 2017 with the release of Trainspotting’s sequel T2, a cheeky nod to Terminator 2, another 90s classic).
Like The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, another Brit youth culture movie that perfectly captured the time it was made, Trainspotting explodes into action with a breathless street chase on foot (to the pounding drums of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. The inclusion of this and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” later, both produced by David Bowie, and the film’s subject matter of drugs, appears to use Bowie’s Berlin period as the film’s spiritual talisman for the themes of death, rebirth and hope Bowie went through both creatively and in his life then. Danny Boyle directed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featured a clip of Bowie singing “Heroes”, again from his Berlin period. It’s something Boyle revisits again and again in his work.) All the while, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton mouths the film’s nihilistic, punky mission statement in the voice-over as our outlaw protagonists flee from store detectives as they drop most of their stolen items on the ground…
Thereafter, Renton, despite the use of humour and surrealism, begins the long, depressing slide into heroin addiction. The film pulls no punches. Anyone aspiring to this rebellious lifestyle is left in no doubt about the hellish dangers that await them. There are horrifying cold turkey hallucinations about Sick Boy’s dead baby (whether the model of the baby is meant to look deliberately fake or not is unclear) and the desperately sad way he is dumped in the street alone by his dealer to await the taxi to the hospital when he overdoses. All his so-called “friends” in the gang retreat back into their murky world to save themselves. (There is no honour among thieves here but crime does pay inevitably, two clichés nicely undercut there.) It makes Renton’s determination to save himself at the end understandable and sets up his character arc for the sequel.
It was reported that Tom Cruise leapt to his feet during a private screening of Trainspotting shouting “this film rocks!” Praise from Caesar which kept the box office fever going, no doubt. Cruise would kick off his Mission: Impossible franchise that summer and the fourth sequel will be with us soon. It seems to be the 1990s all over again suddenly. (It just shows the problem with movies today: they’re all remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations of old TV shows and/or comic book movies. Studios are playing it safe which is boring. Would Trainspotting get the green light to go into production today? Probably not. It’s the reason the 1970s is the best movie decade and always will be. New stories and new talent were given their head and the results were astonishing; The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon and on and on. Those mature, morally-complex classics with their anti-heroes and downbeat endings would be too dark and confusing for foreign markets and gamer kids now. It’s all reheated, dumbed-down, hyperactively-edited drivel. Film companies aren’t prepared to take risks on new ideas unless they come pre-packaged with a built-in audience from a TV show or comic book. Ridley Scott bucked the trend by adapting the self-published novel The Martian into the movie with Matt Damon. This is what Hollywood should be doing to recapture the Golden Age again. Find those great writers and stories that are hidden out there and back them up with financing.
I was in the middle of my two-year acting course in 1996 and Trainspotting confirmed how exciting the art form I had chosen as a possible career was becoming. I would act with two of Trainspotting’s stars; Robert Carlyle (aka Begbie) in Angela’s Ashes and Jonny Lee Miller (aks Sick Boy) in The Escapist, both of which were shot in Dublin. I was doing a scene in Angela’s Ashes where Robert Carlyle is going to England looking for work. Unbeknownst to me, they had put Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson behind me in the train queue. I was having an animated discussion with someone and looked around to see those two familiar faces staring at me and I was struck dumb (as I usually am when I meet stars.) Jonny Lee Miller kept to himself all day on the set of The Escapist in Mountjoy Prison as he stayed in character. I played a prison officer, my one and only acting credit to date (more to come on that in 2017 with speaking parts in the ITV courtroom drama Innocent and TV3 show Assassins.) It was my little brush with Trainspotting and now the sequel is with us.
Will it capture the mood of the time again? Doubtful, but a lot of middle-aged young pups from the 90s will be showing up at the cinema to try and recapture their youth and the cherry high of the first film.
If it doesn’t have a cape and superpowers, today’s kids ain’t interested. They’re hungrily waiting for the next string of sausages from the Marvel machine, not some edgy junkie movie from Edinburgh. It’s their loss.
If I ever have grandchildren, I’m sure I’ll tell them about the time a newspaper did an article about me. “What’s a newspaper, granddad?” they’ll ask with genuine wonder.
Traditional or “legacy” media (a term which already appears to have consigned television, radio and newspapers to history’s dustbin) forms are struggling to survive in the 21st century. Newspapers, in particular, are seeing sales drop at an alarming rate which, in turn, reduces advertising revenue and only older, die-hard brand loyalists are happy to pay to access content on newspaper websites. It tries to roll with the times to stay afloat by hiring bloggers and sourcing stories from hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”, if you will).
The problem is that the newspaper business model is dying and the purveyors of the new business model are not only deciding what crumbs to feed the press, they’re naming their price too.
There is now a timescale for the demise of newspapers in most countries. It is comparable to how self-publishing challenged the dominance of printed books. Reports of the end of hardback and paperback books have been prematurely announced many times in the last decade. Then sales of ebooks dropped and the electronic takeover didn’t happen. It turns out that people like the feel and smell of a real book. Technology has an annoying habit of losing power or breaking down. Recharging is not always possible but printed books never need that just a light source to read from.
The internet had a similar affect on music too. The mp3 file appeared to have trumped vinyl records which were in a similar decline. Now vinyl sections of record stores are growing as are sales. There’s life in the old analogue dog yet.
Could print media stage a similar comeback? It’s probably wishful thinking as news or rather the information itself is freely available from endless sources. If newspapers charge for content, people can get it somewhere else for free. Citizen journalists don’t have the resources of a major newspaper or that Pulitzer cachet, but they do have that most precious modern commodity in abundance – time. Printed newspapers report yesterday’s news, by which stage a newer story has broken online. Yes, the papers can update their websites but the loyalty is to the information and whoever breaks it first now and not the brand. Even if a newspaper gets a scoop, it can be repackaged by news aggregrator sites and the reader may not even know who originally broke it. In the frenzy to get likes and shares and the kudos of being first with news, the basic courtesy of a hat tip to the originator of a story also appears to be endangered.
So it appears the newspaper is terminal decline. It was a remarkable phenomenon while it lasted but, sadly, it seems to be going or have already gone the way of the Dodo.
“Star Wars is the fairy story and I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction,” said director Ridley Scott aboutAlien (1979).
There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger titledNecronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style with pages and pages ofgrey, suffocating, biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.
The creature collapses many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth with two sets of jaws that recalled thevagina dentata(the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in subtle, subconscious ways.
The alien has a life cycle straight out of a biology book. The creature begins life as one of the many eggsKane (John Hurt) finds on the alien planet, the face-hugger leaps out ofthe egg, wraps itself around his head and implants its seed inside his throat (the first of several oral rapes in the film; Ash the android later malfunctions and tries to shove a rolled-up porn magazine into the mouth of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley). The writers apparently based this on a species of African wasp which lays its eggs underneath the skin of humans. The alien “foetus” grows inside Kane until it explodes out of him as the chest-burster and hides out in the ventilation shafts of the vast Nostromo spacecraft. The alien rapidly sheds its skin like a snake and grows in size to become the eight-foot tall adult.
Perhaps because Ridley Scott is British, there’s a class element to the hierarchy on board the Nostromo spacecraft. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says Scott uses “step–down imagery” in the living quarters to make it seem blue-collar; mementoes like the shot glass with the toy bird pecking in it and family photographs show us a crew of interstellar truck drivers light years from home, missing loved ones and complaining about pay and conditions.
It has been said that Alien, like the slasher movies that were popular around the same time, stole the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians where a group of characters are confined in one place and get bumped off one by one. Where the slasher movies and Alien inverted that structure was a plot device called The Final Girl – the female survivor who outlives her peer group and kills the monster or appears to. Ripley is the final girl in Alien. The key difference is that slasher films are set on earthwith friends, family, neighbours or the police to call on for help. Ripley is totally alone in the depths of space and working for a company who think she’s expendable. There are no humans around for millions of miles and no one to hear her scream, which made it infinitely scarier.
Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is credited with creating the genre of science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The feminist theme of that book is that when men create life, they create monsters and Alien essentially has the same theme as the creature is born of man. So Alien is a very clever reworking and reinvention of basic horror and sci-fi themes for a modern audience.
Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.
With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)
Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)
Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.
Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:
Hero – Luke Skywalker
Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.
Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids
Princess – Leia
Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.
Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.
For me, the structure is this;
Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers
Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)
Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)
George Michael died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016 of suspected heart failure. I always associated him with Christmas because of his classic 1984 hit Last Christmas (written, produced and recorded by him when he was 21 years old, amazing) and to a lesser extent with December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas), one of his last releases in 2009. Now the anniversary of his death will always be December 25th, tying him to the festive season permanently and in a much bigger way.
So many of the 80s generation of stars I grew up listening to are gone now; George, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston. And so many musicians have died this year including the great David Bowie (the first anniversary of his passing is in a fortnight), Prince, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo earlier this week (who sang on the Band Aid record with George) and now poor old George Michael is added to that tragic list.
The body of work of stars like those become the yardstick by which we measure our lives. Hearing a hit of theirs immediately transports you back to an earlier time in your life. George Michael had a 34-year career, but his legacy was really assured after about two decades. He was controversial, getting into legal battles with his record company, releasing songs like ‘I Want Your Sex’ in the era of the AIDS epidemic, being arrested for lewd conduct in a toilet in California, a string of car crashes, one of which lead to him spending time in jail and a series of health scares including an emergency tracheotomy to save his life when he got pneumonia on tour in Austria.
Last Christmas is a classic for me as it captures the bittersweet feeling of the festive season. I’ve had Christmases of great joy and extreme sadness in my life. You just approach each one thinking ‘let’s hope it’s a good one’ like John Lennon cautiously wrote and sang in his Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over).’ The song ‘Last Christmas’; and its memorable snowy video, deals with the trials and tribulations of young love and all the heartache and happiness that’s a part of it. It’s not automatically happy clappy, there’s a sadness there that echoes George’s own life.
I’ve heard ‘Last Christmas’ four times in the past few days before news of George’s death was reported. The pilot of a plane I was a passenger on played it on the plane’s sound system as we landed in London, I heard it again half an hour later in Heathrow airport itself and twice more on a CD in a car I was travelling in, including Christmas Day 2016, just hours before his death. Little did I know its creator was about to leave us. There have been over 395 cover versions of Last Christmas and, no doubt, that will only grow and grow in the wake of George’s death.
George remembered Christmas as a child: ”I do love Christmas. I always have loved it, ever since I was a child. When I was young both my parents used to work so hard and they always seemed quite stressed to me. But at Christmas everyone would calm down and be nice to each other for a few days, and that used to make me feel very safe. It’s Frank Sinatra who reminds me of Christmas. During the school holidays, when I was a kid, I used to work behind the bar of my dad’s restaurant in Edgware [North London], and he’d always play Sinatra records for the customers. So that association is very strong for me. Why doesn’t it snow at the right time anymore, like it did in the ’60s? If it could snow on Christmas Eve or something that would be perfect.”
George nearly died of pneumonia at Christmas 2011 and he recalled how much he appreciated things that year: ”Best Christmas I can remember, surrounded by the people I love. And knowing that Christmas could have been very different this year for everyone at that table. As it was we stuffed and laughed ourselves silly. I’m such a lucky man! I hope you all had a great one.”
Sadly, he didn’t survive Christmas 2016.
I was lucky enough to see George in concert twice in Dublin within six months on his 25 Live tour. The first one in what’s now called the 3Arena was my favourite. He hadn’t toured extensively and his voice was still in great condition. At one stage, all the girls in the audience screamed simultaneously and a soundwave went right through my head, rocking me a bit. It was a little taste of what Beatlemania must have been like with that wall of screams filling the concert venue. The second gig was outdoors at Dublin’s RDS in the showjumping arena where I’d seen Prince fifteen years before (everyone I see in concert seems to die, I might bar myself from future shows to save lives.)
We need our musicians, the way we need all creative people to try and make sense of our lives and the world around us through their work. When they die, part of us dies with them. George Michael really was a genius. He was a huge fan of Queen and sang with them at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, but he achieved what they did alone. There were four songwriters, producers and musicians in Queen. So George is more like Bowie in that respect, but George was producing his own songs by himself from his early 20s, whereas Bowie always had a co-producer helping him, so George’s achievements are even more impressive in light of that.
Wham! were even starting to enjoy an ironic mini-comeback thanks to the year’s big hit movie Deadpool where the hero keeps mentioning them to comic effect throughout the movie. Sad that he won’t get the chance to take advantage of that as there are some great songs there. Predictably though, there will be an inevitable huge surge in sales of George Michael and Wham! songs in the coming days, weeks and months.
I was going to bed on Christmas night and checked my messages to see if British Airways had traced my missing luggage for my wedding (they haven’t!). That’s when I saw George had died and my heart sank. Then I reminded myself of his self-destructive nature and that we were lucky to have had him as long as we did. In this age of karaoke X-Factor wannabes stealing their 15 minutes of fame by parroting old songs, he was a true original. We really will never see another like him. Rest in peace, George.
A nightmare inspired Stephen King to write The Shining novel:
“In late September of 1974, [my wife] and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley. We were the only guests as it turned out, the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect – maybe the archetypal – setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming.”
“Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. He hates his son. In the hotel, at the mercy of its powerful evil, he is quickly ready to fulfil his dark role.” – Stanley Kubrick
The Shining (1980) begins with epic, sweeping helicopter shots of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family driving through the Rocky Mountains. Its director and co-screenwriter, Stanley Kubrick, was scared of flying and sent his second unit to get the shots. The shots become important later when some of the local legends about Native American burial grounds and the cannibals of the Donner Party are brought into play. They also serve to begin the story wide open before venturing into the interiors of the Overlook Hotel and the minds of Jack Torrance and his psychic son Danny. The epic vistas could be made to seem exciting but the ominous, creepy music lets us know we are entering dark territory.
The Shining at heart is a traditional haunted house movie. However, it defies genre conventions by raising uncomfortable social issues like domestic violence, child abuse and racism, issues which were only starting to be publicly discussed in 1980. This further unsettles the audience. Plus, it has the ghosts interacting physically with the human characters, like when a spirit unlocks the pantry where Wendy has locked Jack and sets him free (some people I saw the film with found that hard to believe and that they were unable to suspend disbelief beyond that point).
Then there is the scene where Jack goes to the forbidden room 237. He sees an attractive, naked young woman emerge from the bathtub and they embrace, only for her to turn into a cackling crone and witch-like figure with a decomposing body. There Kubrick appears to be playing with the psychology of dreams and ageing nightmares.
“I think The Shining uses a…kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.” – Stanley Kubrick
There was a recent documentary about The Shining appropriately titled Room 237. In voice-over, people we never see expound on their theories as to what Kubrick’s The Shining is really about. One person thinks it’s a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans by white settlers. Another believes it to be about the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews of Europe. Someone else sees the Apollo 11 jumper Jack’s son Danny is wearing as proof that Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landings for NASA in 1969 in a television studio. There is a fascinating section of the documentary that explains that Kubrick was getting very interested in subliminal imagery at the time and that The Shining is loaded with signifiers of this type. A movie that began as a novelist’s nightmare and that is presented in such a consistently surreal fashion is, like a dream itself, open to many interpretations.
There was always dark humour running through the work of Stanley Kubrick, most notably in Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick also loved his actors to improvise and these elements came together in the The Shining when Jack Nicholson came up with the line: “Here’s Johnny!” A wicked parody of the line that introduced Johnny Carson on his chat show, it became the most famous line in the movie, was used as the poster image and is one of the most famous lines in film history.
When Jack Torrance is waiting for his interview in the reception area of the Overlook Hotel at the start of the film, he’s reading an issue of Playgirl magazine that has an article about incest in it. The Shining could be seen as an Oedipal tale with the son killing the father (Danny traps his father in the maze where he gets lost and freezes to death, Danny carefully retraces his footsteps and saves himself) so he can have his mother all to himself in their new life together.
The death penalty question has been dragged kicking and screaming into the headlines again this week after the execution of a man in Alabama who appeared to be still conscious during his execution. It was reported that he “coughed” “heaved” and clenched his fists as the authorities began administering lethal injections to end his life. He had been convicted of the murder of a man during a robbery in 1994. The jury gave him a life sentence which was overruled by the judge who imposed the death penalty as judges in Alabama are allowed to do. The execution has prompted 101 lawyers and legal professors in Alabama to call for the removal of 34 inmates from death row who were put there by a judge overruling a jury’s verdict.
So let us take a look at the history of the death penalty.
“Since 1976, 1,348 people have been executed in the US, but in that time 136 people have been exonerated from death row on the grounds that they categorically could not have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death. In other words, for every ten people on death row who are executed, at least one person on death row is innocent.” – Dr Bharat Malkani, Birmingham Law School
There is no way back from an execution. Like any of man’s constructs, the death penalty is fallible. Innocent people have been executed throughout history. No amount of compensation can replace a human life.
The Guildford Four were three innocent Irishmen and an Englishwoman found guilty of carrying out the IRA pub bombings in Guildford in England in 1974. As he sentenced them, the judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, lamented the fact that he was unable to impose a death sentence on them as capital punishment had been abolished in England in 1965. He said he would have no hesitation in having them executed. (The judge even asked the home secretary why they weren’t charged with treason as that was the only way he could have them put to death) Imagine how those innocent people felt hearing those chilling words. The Guildford Four were exonerated and released from prison in 1989. Their story was told in the movie In The Name of the Father starring Daniel Day Lewis.
Even though the rate of capital and non-capital murder offences increased after the abolition of the death penalty in England, Scotland and Wales in 1965, it’s arguable that those figures would have risen anyway given the more permissive attitudes of the late 1960s and the proliferation of gun use in British criminal circles starting with the headline-grabbing Kray and Richardson gangs.
New forensic methods and tools are becoming available all the time now, things unavailable in the past when death sentences were decided and handed down. Cold cases are being solved, convictions quashed and people are being set free. What future developments will arrive to challenge the evidential certainties of today?
The death sentence happens all over the world with China heading up Amnesty International’s league chart for having the most executions. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States take up the next four positions.
The death penalty in Western countries has been around for centuries and would appear to have moral backing. The Bible calls for “an eye for an eye” or the law of retaliation. Leviticus 24:20 says: “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” As Gandhi succinctly put it, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” BBC Learning interpreted and expanded on this quote: “This famous quote refers to an Old Testament reference regarding the legal penalties for violence. Gandhi rejected violence as a means to change, and only engaged in peaceful ways of protest. A version of this quote was in fact also used by Dr Martin Luther King Jr during the struggle for civil rights and equality in the USA. Both men were proponents of the power of the people and their peaceful methods carried great weight and helped bring about social change.”
If you wanted to take a pro-Christian view of the death penalty, you could argue that Jesus was an innocent man put to death for nothing. Even Pontius Pilate stated that he could see no wrongdoing on the part of Christ. Nevertheless, the execution went ahead to placate the baying mob, the local elders and to maintain peace in the region. So it is not simply a case of innocence or guilt, the death penalty, as almost happened in the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, can be abused as a political tool with sacrificial scapegoats slaughtered because someone wants blood.
Prejudice plays a part in executions too. If a person belongs to a socially-reviled group, race or social class, there probably won’t be a big effort to save them either.
The families of some victims are against the death penalty, some for humanitarian reasons, some because they think execution is a quick, easy escape from what the offender has done to their loved ones. They want them to spend the rest of their lives rotting in prison and contemplating their actions. The execution of the focus of their rage may not bring the closure they hoped for. It can prove anti-climactic when people get what they think they want.
It is very expensive to keep people in prison for decades. And, in countries with huge prison populations like the United States and China, there is chronic overcrowding. So, to use horrific Holocaust economics, the death penalty is cost effective and recycles occupied space. No politician will publicly admit this but these are the decisions being taken in countries with the capital punishment on their statute books.
Whatever heinous act someone has committed, the “life” they are allowed on death row is non-existent. In the United States, death row prisoners can wait many years before their execution, with no hope for the future. They appeal and appeal and appeal and go back and forth to courtrooms endlessly. Depression is common among death row inmates but they are placed on suicide watch to prolong their psychological torture. When all legal options have been exhausted, a date of execution is set. There have even been stories of men sitting in the death chamber getting last-minute reprieves and being taken back to their cells on death row (essentially a mock execution). That is mental cruelty of the highest order. Even worse are the stories of executions going wrong with inmates suffering agonising injuries and/or a slow death. (Saddam Hussein’s half-brother was accidentally decapitated during a botched hanging in Iraq in 2007.) A state that retains such a barbaric system loses something of itself that it can never recover.
Yes, there are some people who are beyond rehabilitation and will always be a threat to society. The solution is not to put them down like animals. We have surely evolved beyond the sadistic public executions of the Middle Ages.