About admin

Ian Smith was born in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, but at the age of 11 he moved with his family to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland. His family still lives there now. Since then, he has spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya and a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very much. At the moment, he is in Tunisia in northern Africa, working as an academic manager.

He writes, pseudonymously, short horror, fantasy and Scottish fiction. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from linguistic relativity to amateur-league Scottish football teams, to vampires. This blog will no doubt be as unstructured as everything else about him.

Pigeon Island

 

 

Pigeon Island might be more appropriately named ‘Smidgeon Island’ since it’s a tiny smidgeon of land about a kilometer into the Indian Ocean from the Nilaveli part of Sri Lanka’s east coast.

 

It’s famed for the coral reefs in the waters around it, although according my dog-eared copy of The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, the coral on its western side (i.e. facing the mainland) is dead now.  To see a living reef, you need to swim on the island’s far side.

 

Unrestricted fishing and tourism in the area did much damage to the coral in the past, but happily Pigeon Island is now a National Park and the authorities have tried to regulate the flow of human traffic to it, mainly by charging a sizeable admission price that has to be paid in addition to the hire-fee for a boat.

 

 

One morning my partner and I travelled out to Pigeon Island in a narrow, pointed fishing-boat powered by an antiquated-looking Suzuki outboard motor.  We were dropped at the island’s midpoint, which was so slight it resembled a wasp’s waist.  There, just a few yards of ground separated the western shore from the eastern one.

 

Nearly all the day’s visitors were congregated there, either in the adjacent water snorkeling and viewing the coral and fish – apparently the fish are abundant among the dead coral to the east as well as among the living stuff to the west – or on dry land preparing to go snorkeling.

 

I made a point of not snorkeling, however.  This was due to a traumatic snorkeling experience I had off the Malaysian coast in the early 1990s when I failed to apply enough sunscreen to my back, had huge stripes of skin burnt off it as a result, and ended up looking like a human raspberry ripple.  (On the same day, I also suffered excruciating food poisoning and I managed to lose all my travelers’ cheques.  Indeed, that day proved to be a configuration of separate but simultaneous disasters on par with Theresa May’s speech at this month’s Conservative Party Conference.)

 

So instead I tried exploring the island.  I didn’t get far towards its southern end.  After clambering over some rocks and past some low-hanging branches, I gave up when the terrain and undergrowth became impassible.  Besides, a flustered and very territorial crow kept pace with me, hopping from branch to branch just overhead, sending the unmistakable message that I should bugger off.

 

In contrast, it was easy enough to walk up to the island’s northern tip.  Despite the island’s tiny size and despite the considerable number of visitors on it, I got an unexpected feeling of solitude as soon as I’d left the snorkeling area behind me.

 

 

The ground was carpeted with small white pieces of dead coral.  This had penetrated right to the island’s centre and even in its most wooded parts, the stuff was clogged around the tree roots.  Most of the coral was tubular in shape but as I gazed down at it, I noticed increasingly strange forms – coral in the shape of fingers, bones, stirrups, hammers, chess-pieces, seahorses, stars and flowers.  One surreal fragment looked like the title character’s mask in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of The Phantom of the Opera.

 

Immediately off the northern tip of Pidgeon Island were a few yards of seawater and then a clutter of big vertical rocks – sandy-brown, grey and amber in their colours, with their edges and corners smoothed away so that they resembled giant stuffed sacks.  Bird-guano splattered their tops and a few crabs went scuttling about their sides.  I waded out to them, traversing water that was pristinely clear but, although just a foot or two deep, had a current whose strength was subtly menacing.  Then I sat on a lower rock and meditated for a while, watching tiny tadpole-like fish darting about the surrounding channels and listening both to the gentle lapping and rippling of the shallow water close by and to the crash and clatter of the waves further out.

 

 

On my way back, I noticed a vague path on the island’s eastern side that wound upwards.  This took me past a banyan tree that was so heavily tendrilled it resembled the face of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu; and then it emerged onto a high platform of broken stone and concrete overlooking the island’s northeastern corner that, according to a sign, was called PIGEON’S EYE OUTLOOK.  Some concrete pillars stood along its landward and seaward edges, topped with old, broken, metal screws, which suggested the platform had once sported a roof.  Now it looked almost like a brutalist, modernist re-imagining of an ancient Greek ruin.

 

 

From the north of the platform, I could look out over the clutter of rocks where I’d been sitting a few minutes earlier.  From its south side, I could see a cliff-face and a steep inlet that was choked up with boulders.  A couple of pigeons were flapping about the scene.  And I realized that unlike the other visitors present today, busy viewing the coral, I’d actually seen some pigeons on Pigeon Island.

 

 

Dare to dream of electric sheep

 

© Warner Bros / Sony Entertainment / Scott Free Productions

 

I’m afraid that over the years I’ve learned to distrust optimism and embrace pessimism.  I’ve gradually reached the conclusion that it’s better to fear the worst at all times and experience the occasional pleasant surprise when things don’t turn out as badly as expected; rather than to assume the best will happen and then be crushingly disappointed when it doesn’t.  (This may be the result of spending decades following the national Scottish football team, a masochistic pursuit that rarely, if ever, rewards hopefulness and optimism.  As was evidenced the other evening…)

 

Thus, when it was announced that, after 35 years, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s mighty 1982 science-fiction epic Blade Runner was in the works, I didn’t bother at all to exercise the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism.  No, I just assumed the sequel was going to be crass, brainless, 21st-century-Hollywood-style bollocks and I resolved to ignore its existence.

 

Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, means a lot to me.  I rate it alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as joint-best science-fiction movie ever made.  It’s also one of my favourite films of all time.  I remember when I first saw it at the age of 17.  Late in the summer of the film’s release, I travelled to Glasgow for a job interview.  I had a few hours to kill after the interview and I happened to wander past a Glaswegian cinema where Blade Runner was still playing.  On the spur of the moment, I decided to go in and watch it.  I had the auditorium almost to myself – the only other people there were two middle-aged Glaswegian ‘wifies’ who, half-an-hour into the film, with much head-shaking and muttering of incomprehension, left their seats and never came back.  I’m surprised I recall those two women leaving because by that point I was absolutely mesmerised by what I was seeing on the screen above me.  Bombarded by spectacle, special effects and emotional and  intellectual intensity, I found the Blade Runner experience awesome.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Blade Runner is a movie that’s difficult to talk about objectively these days.  When it first appeared, many critics disliked it – in Britain, the only newspaper critic I remember taking it seriously was the Observer’s Philip French.  It didn’t do much at the box office either, probably because 1982 cinema audiences, like those two ladies in Glasgow, wanted comfortable, feel-good science-fiction movies such as the same year’s ET and the second Star Trek movie.  Yet it’s proved massively influential.  Its depiction of a future Los Angeles as a dystopian, rain-drenched monster-metropolis, flavoured with the aesthetics of 1940s film-noir and of modern Tokyo, seems to have turned up again and again in a thousand science-fiction movies and rock videos made in the years since.

 

However, for all the impact of Blade Runner’s set design and visuals, its excellent cast ensures that the human (and artificial human) characters remain in the mind too.  This includes Harrison Ford as Deckard, the weary bounty hunter and titular ‘blade runner’ tasked with tracking down and executing runaway replicants, who are the artificially-created, super-strong humanoid slave labourers of the future.  Despite Ford’s presence, though, it’s really the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, leader of a gang of on-the-run replicants, who in modern parlance ‘totally owns’ the film.

 

Played by Hauer, Roy Batty is fascinatingly multi-faceted.  By turns he’s brutal, ruthless, terrifyingly physical, animalistic, child-like, icily intellectual, tender, melancholic and – when he finally shows mercy to Deckard and saves him from falling off the top of a vertiginous skyscraper – noble.  Indeed, he becomes more sympathetic than Deckard, whom we’ve seen in the course of his work blasting down two female replicants, played by Darryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy.  (The role of Deckard has never sat comfortably beside the other, straightforward-heroic roles Ford has played, like those of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.)

 

In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the replicants have no capacity for human emotions and are presented purely as a threat.  In Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script for Blade Runner, however, they’re given a pre-programmed four-year lifespan that means their situation has a tragic, almost Milton-esque aspect.  They’re not simply running amok, but are searching for the corporation head who created them in the hope that he can extend their lifespans beyond four years.  And near the film’s end, we get one of cinema’s great lump-in-throat moments when Batty, after he’s rescued Deckard and before he dies, gives his famous tears-in-rain speech:  “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Everyone associated with Blade Runner – Ridley Scott, Hauer, Ford, Hannah, Cassidy and even Sean Young, who played the movie’s heroine Rachael but never fulfilled her potential in an erratic career afterwards – seems in my mind to possess an immense, if elegiac and dystopian, coolness.  This coolness extends to Greek prog-rock / ambient composer and musician Vangelis, whose haunting soundtrack for the movie is a career best.  It’s certainly miles better than the pompous theme he supplied for pompous British film Chariots of Fire the previous year.  For one Blade Runner track, Tales of the Future, Vangelis recruits the portly, kaftan-clad Greek warbler Demis Roussos, who’d always been a bit of a joke in Britain thanks to his being referenced in Mike Leigh’s stage and TV play Abigail’s Party (1977).  But hey, even Demis Roussos sounds spooky and unsettling and, yes, cool here.  That’s the transformative magic of Blade Runner for you.

 

So I was blown away by Blade Runner in 1982, even though the version of it I saw was the weakest one that’s been released.  This was the studio cut, where the film was tampered with at the last minute by frightened executives after they realised Ridley Scott hadn’t delivered the easy-on-the-brain Hollywood blockbuster they’d expected.  Their tampering included adding a redundant voiceover that explains what’s happening in the film for any morons who might be present in the audience; and the least-convincing happy ending in the history of the cinema.  Ten years later, Ridley Scott was allowed to release the version of the film that he’d wanted to put out originally, Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.  In it, both the voiceover and the happy ending are gone, thankfully, and a new dream sequence suggests that Deckard isn’t the simple cut-and-dried character he was in the original version.  Guess what he might really be?

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

As Blade Runner is set in 2019, which we’re only two years short of now, it’s fun to see how wide of the mark some of the film’s predictions have been.  We haven’t had replicants in the real world nor, alas, have we had flying cars.  And Western cities haven’t become heavily ‘East-Asian-fied’ in the manner of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, aside from acquiring a few hipster ramen and sushi joints.  Maybe this is because Japan’s bubble economy burst dramatically in the early 1990s and the country never quite became the world power that many in the 1980s had expected.  (William Gibson’s celebrated ‘cyberpunk’ trilogy of science-fiction novels, 1984’s Neuromancer, 1986’s Count Zero and 1988’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, rather overplay the Japanese influence in their future scenarios too.  Incidentally, Gibson is said to have walked out of Blade Runner after 15 minutes, because many of the ideas he’d been toying with for his then-nascent novels were already on the screen.  He didn’t want to get any more depressed.)

 

In addition, certain companies whose logos appear in the famous dazzling advertising displays of Blade Runner’s cityscape no longer exist, like Pan Am and Atari.  Well, Atari still does, barely, but not in the world-bestriding way that the filmmakers assumed it would.

 

The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was released in the UK four days ago.  Taking place 30 years on from the events of Blade Runner and starring Ryan Gosling as a new ‘runner’ called ‘K’, it brings back the now-craggy but still-personable Harrison Ford as Deckard.  To my utter surprise, the reviews have been excellent, with both critics I like (the BBC’s Mark Kermode) and ones I don’t like (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) calling it a five-star masterpiece.  Compare that with the original film, which had to wait years before the critics reappraised it and declared it a classic.  2049 has flopped at the US box office, admittedly, but then so did its predecessor; and the fact that Donald Trump-land doesn’t seem to like it might be a further indication of its quality.  It’s surely a good omen too that it’s directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who last year gave us the moving and thought-provoking science-fiction picture Arrival.

 

In fact, the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism is beginning to stir.  Rather than ignoring the existence of this sequel, I now find myself tempted to go and see it.  Yes, I’m daring to dream that Blade Runner 2049 might actually be good.  Let’s hope I’m not disappointed.

 

But at least it can’t be any worse than that bloody football match the other night.  Come on, world.  Hurry up and invent some real replicants – and then get eleven of them playing football for Scotland.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

The spy who tried something different

 

© Vintage Books

 

First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the ninth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and holds several records in the Bond literary canon.  It clocks in at 198 pages, which makes it the shortest Bond book.  It was also the last book to appear in a world that knew Bond as a literary and not a cinematic character, because its publication came just six months before the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  And it was the worst-received of the books.  The Daily Telegraph reacted to it with a despairing “Oh Dear Oh Dear Oh Dear!”, the Listener dismissed it as ‘unremittingly’ and ‘grindingly boring’ and the Observer demanded, “why can’t this cunning author write up a bit instead of down?”

 

As soon as the critics stuck in their knives, Fleming himself disowned the book.  He asked his publisher not to print a paperback edition of it, a request that they honoured until two years after his death.  He also stipulated that any movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me could never use the book’s plot, only its title.  (I’m sure that 15 years later when Cubby Broccoli got around to filming The Spy Who Loved Me, he must have been distraught about this.  “You mean,” lamented the cigar-puffing mogul, “I can’t just follow what happens in the book?  I have to put other stuff in my movie instead?  Like cars that travel underwater?  Giant oil-tankers that swallow nuclear submarines?  Indestructible henchmen with steel teeth?  Roger Moore with quizzical eyebrows?  No!  NO!”)

 

A few weeks ago, I finally read the original much-maligned The Spy Who Loved Me.  My initial reaction was Ian Fleming at least deserved credit for attempting something different.  Fans of his previous eight books were surely surprised when they started reading it in 1962 and discovered they were hearing a first-person narrative voice rather than Fleming’s usual, authoritative, third-person one.  “I was running away,” it begins.  “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, though I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.  In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”

 

The first-person voice is that of Viv Michel, a young French-Canadian woman who’s been left in charge of a closed-for-the-winter motel called The Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the mountains of northern New York State.  After a first chapter where Viv doesn’t cope well with a thunderstorm raging above the motel’s empty cabins, playground, swimming pool and golf range – she stupidly pulls an electrical switch at the same moment that a bolt of lightning lets rip, and the resultant electrical shock knocks her unconscious – she spends the next eighty pages explaining how she’s ended up in this situation.

 

She describes her early life in Canada; being sent to a finishing school in England where she “was made to suffer agonies” for her accent, for her table manners “which were considered uncouth”, for her “total lack of savoir-faire and, in general, for being a Canadian”; and finding work in London while suffering the afore-mentioned “sequence of untidy, unattractive love affairs”.  After the last affair results in her having an abortion in Switzerland, she returns to North America and resolves to search for some adventure and self-discovery and shake off the memories of the men who’ve used and abused her.  So she purchases a Vespa 150cc Gran Sport and sets off on a road trip.  It’s on the road that she comes across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where she gets offered employment; first as an end-of-season receptionist and then, when it closes for the winter, as a caretaker minding the premises until its owner, one Mr Sanguinetti, arrives to take possession of the keys.

 

Viv’s position at the Dreamy Pines feels a little like that of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and things soon go as badly for her as they did for the ill-fated Jack.  Two hoodlums with the nicknames Sluggsy and Horror show up at the motel in the middle of the night and take her prisoner.  It transpires that Sanguinetti is a gangster and the pair are henchmen tasked with burning the place to the ground as part of an insurance scam.  Viv, the only witness, looks likely to be torched along with the motel.

 

It’s here that we encounter the single detail of the book that makes it into the 1977 film ‘adaptation’ with Roger Moore.  Looking at Horror’s face, she notices “a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth,” indicating that “they had been cheaply capped with steel.”  Sound familiar?

 

© Eon Productions

 

By now we’re more than halfway into the book.  Back in 1962 at this point, readers must have been panicking: where the hell is Bond?  Well, he appears at The Dreamy Pines later that same night – Viv’s first impression of him is that he’s “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” with a scar that “showed whitely down his left cheek” – and he explains that his car has suffered a flat tyre on the road nearby and he’d like to get a room.  He soon wises up to the situation and joins forces with Viv.  The next seventy pages play more like a Mickey Spillane novel than a Fleming / Bond one, with considerable running, hiding and shooting before Sanguinetti’s scheme is thwarted and Sluggsy and Horror end up dead at the bottom of the local lake.  Then Viv and Bond indulge in some love-making and then, as abruptly and enigmatically as he arrived, Bond slips off again.  In the final pages, Viv muses: “He was just a man who had turned up at the right time and then gone on his way.”

 

Though The Spy Who Loved Me wins kudos for bravely departing from the usual Bond formula, there are moments when seemingly Fleming remembers it’s still a Bond novel and is forced to compromise, with awkward results.   He wants Viv to be more believable than the average Bond girl, which is why we see her depicted as a working Londoner.  But on the other hand, as a Bond girl, she can’t be too ordinary so she also gets a French-Canadian back-story to make her appear more exotic – the overall effect of which feels contrived.  Also, while Fleming wants her to be feisty and independent, he needs her to have a vulnerable side too – to be a credible damsel-in-distress, for whom Bond rides to the rescue as a knight in shining armour.  That may explain the opening chapter where she panics during the storm and, quite honestly, comes across as something of a dolt.

 

And to make up for Bond’s late entrance into the plot, Fleming feels he has bring his readers up to speed on what Bond’s been doing in the meantime; so we get the telling of a previous Bond adventure.  In a twelve-page chapter entitled Bedtime Story, Bond explains to Viv in great detail why he was on the road that night – he was driving south after an operation in Toronto wherein he and the Canadian Mounties prevented the assassination of a Russian defector by both the KGB and SPECTRE.  By now, Bond and Viv know the extreme danger posed by Sluggsy and Horror, so you’d think they’d have other things to concentrate on besides telling stories.

 

One thing I found surprisingly impressive about The Spy Who Loved Me is Viv’s account of her love-life in London.  It’s as far removed as possible from the fantasy romance / sex scenes associated with the Bond novels.  Just out of school, she gets involved with a youth called Derek Mallaby, whose posh, confident veneer hides, temporarily, the fact that (a) he’s desperate for sex and (b) he’s clueless about how to have sex.  What follows is a painful tale set in the England of “drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia” that existed before the 1960s started to swing and the permissive era arrived.  The only privacy Viv and Derek can find for making love is in a small balcony-box at a cinema, “a meagre-looking place, showing two westerns, a cartoon and so-called ‘News’ that consisted of what the Queen had been doing a month ago.”  Their attempted lovemaking, on the floor with Derek on top “in a dreadful clumsy embrace”, is anything but sensual and it ends abruptly when a furious cinema manager bursts in on them: “Filthy little brats…!  I’ve a damned good mind to call the police.  Indecent exposure.  Disturbing the peace.”

 

Barely articulate about what they’re trying to do, relying on strained expressions like ‘doing it’ and ‘being a sport’, and not even knowing what a condom is called and having to describe it to a shop assistant as “one of those things for not having babies”, Viv and Derek are products of a repressed, joyless, monochrome Britain that the Bond novels, with their exotic glamour and glitzy hedonism, were supposed to give readers of the era an escape from.  No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me pissed so many of those readers off.

 

Once Viv and Derek have properly ‘done it’ a few times, Derek predictably proves to be a cad and dumps her.  She then gets into a second relationship with a German man called Kurt, which culminates in her getting pregnant, having an abortion and being dumped a second time.  (Kurt “had inherited strong views about mixed blood… and when he married, it would be into the Teutonic strain.”  Fleming’s well-known dislike of the Germans is on full display here.)

 

This part of the book is so interesting because it suggests Fleming, a writer not noted for his empathy with women, is trying to think outside his normal male-chauvinist box for once and identify with a female character having a hard time in a world populated with predatory, shitty men.

 

Alas, all this is rendered null and void later when Bond, hardly un-predatory and un-shitty himself, turns up and Viv promptly goes doe-eyed and weak-kneed at the sight of him; implying that Viv’s problem wasn’t men, it was just the absence of a fully-fledged alpha male like Bond to satisfy / tame her.

 

And, late on, Fleming truly sabotages his cause when Viv comes out with this jaw-dropping assertion: “All women love semi-rape.  They love to be taken.”  These ten words have rightly earned Fleming and The Spy Who Loved Me much opprobrium over the years – for example, here – and they undo whatever good work he did with his depiction of Viv earlier in the book.

 

In the end, I have no reason to disagree with the many people who label The Spy Who Loves Me the weakest of the Bond novels.  The contradiction at its heart, that it’s a Bond story and yet it wants to be something different from a Bond story, makes it uneven and inconsistent.  And it’s all over the place in its sexual politics – and, at worst, those politics are unspeakable.  But as I’ve said, it deserves a little respect trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, and thanks to Fleming’s always-amenable prose it’s an easy-enough read.  And, in parts, hints of a better book glimmer through.

 

© Penguin Books

 

Fake news UK

 

From pixabay.com

 

Looking back at the entries on this bog that I’ve filed in the category of ‘politics’, I realise that in many of them I haven’t actually written about politicians.

 

Instead, I’ve spent as much time writing about another profession, one that sets a large part of the political agenda, decides what issues of the day are brought to the public’s attention and helps create the prism through which those issues are viewed by the public.  In a word, journalists.

 

And regular readers of Blood and Porridge will know I’m not a great fan of journalists, newspapers and the mainstream media generally in the UK.  I’ve found the non-stop abuse doled out to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn over the past couple of years nauseating – the nadir coming on June 7th this year, just before the general election, when the Daily Mail devoted 13 pages to portraying Corbyn and his Labour Party associates as a bunch of foul, neo-Marxist, neo-Maoist, Jihadi-condoning, Gerry Adams-hugging, devil-worshipping, child-sacrificing, bloodsucking monsters.  Nor was I impressed by the barrage of nonsense that Britain’s newspapers published in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, when the Daily Express saw fit to warn Scots that independence would threaten the discovery of a cure for cancer and the Daily Record predicted that independence would trigger a 21st-century version of the Great Depression.

 

And of course, there was the absolute smorgasbord of bollocks that most of Britain’s newspapers served up before last year’s vote on the UK leaving the European Union.  (Funnily enough, the newspapers that were shrillest in denouncing the EU and urging British people to vote to leave it were the same newspapers that two years earlier had warned Scots that an independent Scotland would suffer because it’d lose its EU membership.)

 

However, at times in 2017, I’ve wondered if I’ve been on the wrong side.  Because this year the journalistic profession has been under sustained attack by Donald Trump, the large blobby orange lifeform that last autumn managed to get himself elected 45th president of the USA despite winning 2.9 million fewer votes than his rival Hillary Clinton.   Trump’s reaction to the media reporting any facts that might appear unflattering to him or his cause is to shriek “Fake news!” at it.

 

For example.  Those photographs suggesting that the crowd at his presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington DC was as sparse as the crowd you’d get in a pub hosting a Gary Glitter 1970s Nostalgia Night?  Fake news! barks the man with a face like a giant orange arse.  Those polls showing Trump’s approval ratings to be the lowest for a president since, well, approval ratings were invented?  Fake news! howls the man with a mouth as big and unappealing as an H.R. Giger-designed entrance-orifice for a derelict spaceship in an Alien movie.  Allegations that Vladimir Putin’s role in his election to office might have been a wee bit more proactive than one of detached, distant, neutral observer?  Fake news! screams the man who, if the Buddhists are right, is destined to be reincarnated in his next life as an Australian cane toad.  (That’s because cane toads are gross, poisonous and so stupid that they attempt to hump animal carcasses, including “dead salamanders, snakes, lizards, mice, anything,” which sounds perfectly attuned to Trump’s karma.)

 

From pixabay.com

 

With Trump ranting at them night and day, trying to discredit every bit of reporting critical of him by slapping a ‘fake news’ label on it, trying to neutralise every uncomplimentary fact that’s dug up about him by dismissing it as an ‘alternative’ fact, shouldn’t I be more sympathetic to journalists?  Surely, set against the slobbering horror-show that is Trump, the mainstream press and its journalists are on the side of the angels?

 

Well, no.  I don’t feel that way, at least not towards the bulk of the mainstream press in Britain.  And here’s why not.  Imagine how the situation would be if Donald Trump was British and not American, if he was UK prime minister instead of US president, if he was ensconced in Number 10 Downing Street rather than in the White House.  Imagine how Britain’s national newspapers – most of whom are owned by five right-wing millionaires / billionaires, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, the two Barclay Brothers and Jonathan Harmsworth, or 4th Viscount Rothermere as he likes to call himself – would react to a UK government headed by Prime Minister Trump.

 

I’m sure the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and Sun would totally love him, because his anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-tax, anti-environment, anti-universal-healthcare rhetoric would press all their xenophobic, reactionary buttons.  Meanwhile, those right-wing yobs whom Fraser Nelson keeps in the kennels over at the Spectator, like Rod Liddle and James Delingpole, would no doubt be writing adoring columns about what a great, bang-on bloke he was.

 

The BBC would be terrified that Prime Minister Trump might abolish the licence-fee and deprive them of funding so they’d pussy-foot around him – making sure, for example, that on every five-person Question Time panel there’d be two or three Trump devotees arguing that it’s perfectly okay for Prime Minister Trump to spend all his time playing golf up at Balmedie and Turnberry, and as for that business where he tried to grab the Number 10 tea-lady by the pussy, well, that was just him doing what all red-blooded alpha-males do, right?

 

Obviously, left-wing publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman would strongly disagree with Prime Minister Trump in all matters.  Well, in almost all matters.  They would support him in his opposition to Scottish independence.  Indeed, both publications would occasionally commission the likes of David Torrance or Chris Deerin to pen opinion pieces with titles along the lines of DONALD TRUMP IS WRONG ON MANY THINGS BUT ON SCOTLAND HE’S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.

 

© NPR

 

Hangdog cool

 

© Road Movies / Filmproduktion GmbH / Argos Films S.A

 

So far, the number of celebrity deaths in 2017 hasn’t been as astronomical as it was in 2016.  However, this year has taken its toll on a certain type of male American character actor.  I’m thinking of guys who made their names with supporting roles in films in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and who could be relied up to steal a scene, or indeed steal the whole show, in sweaty, hardboiled action-thrillers directed by the likes of John Milius, Paul Verhoeven, Walter Hill, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.

 

2017 has already seen the demise of Miguel Ferrer, Bill Paxton, Michael Parks and Powers Boothe.  To that list we must now add the great Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away on September 15th.  Whatever movie he was in, Stanton would project a glorious hangdog, laconic and slightly-disreputable cool without seeming to break sweat.

 

He acted from the 1950s, initially doing a lot of television and, on the big screen, turning up in many Westerns like Revolt at Fort Laramie (1956), Tomahawk Trail (1957), The Proud Rebel (1958), The Jayhawkers (1959), How the West was Won (1962), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and Day of the Evil Gun (1968).  Indeed, latterly, there was something of the ageing cowboy about him and it’s no wonder he appeared in music videos for country-and-western and Americana stars like Dwight Yoakam and Ry Cooder.

 

By the late 1960s he was getting minor roles in prestigious fare like In the Heat of the Night and Cool Hand Luke (both 1967) but his career really started to take off in the 1970s when he played tough guys, never-do-wells and oddballs in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), John Milius’s Dillinger (1973), Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974) and John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979).  I suspect, though, that for many people of my age and disposition Stanton first appeared on the radar with his performance as Brett, the disgruntled blue-collar crew-member of the giant space freighter the Nostromo, in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

 

© 20th Century Fox / Brandywine-Ronald Shushett Productions

 

As Brett, Stanton should be a disposable and anonymous character.  He gets little in the way of dialogue and he’s the second person to get killed – he tries to catch Jones, the spaceship cat, and the irresponsible feline leads him into a dark engine room and right into the alien’s scaly claws.  Yet thanks to Stanton’s terse and grizzled presence, he’s strangely memorable.  It’s telling to compare him with the characters in this year’s Ridley Scott movie Alien Covenant, where half-a-dozen of them got killed off before I started to figure out who was who.

 

During the 1980s those hangdog Stanton features became awfully familiar in the cinema.  Bernard Tavernier cast him in the offbeat Glasgow-set sci-fi movie Death Watch (1980) and John Carpenter cast him in the overrated Escape from New York (1981) and the underrated Christine (1983).  Best of all, Alex Cox gave him the role of Bud, car-repossession kingpin and mentor to Emilio Estevez’s street-punk Otto, in his scuzzy sci-fi / satirical comedy Repo Man (1984).  Alternatively seamy and anarchic, Stanton gets many of Repo Man’s best lines: “The life of a repo man is always intense.”  “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”  “Goddamn dipshit Rodriguez gypsy dildo punks.  I’ll get your ass!”  And his mission statement: “Look at these assholes.  Ordinary f*cking people.  I hate ’em!”

 

© Edge City / Universal Pictures

 

In the same year as Repo Man, at the age of 58, Stanton finally got to be a leading man in Wim Wenders’ melancholic Western / road movie Paris Texas.  A film with impeccable credentials – a script by Sam Shepherd (who’s been another casualty of 2017, unfortunately), a score by Ry Cooder – Paris, Texas is famous for this scene with Stanton and Nastassja Kinski, which I suspect has had a lot of hits on YouTube over the past few days.

 

Apparently, two years after Paris, Texas, he won even more fans when he played Molly Ringwald’s father in John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink (1986).  But I’ve never seen the film, so I can’t comment on it.

 

Stanton was as prolific as ever during the 1990s and into the 21st century.  Quality control couldn’t keep up with his work-rate and he inevitably featured in some tat, though no doubt he appreciated the opportunity to appear in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999) and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (2012).   Thankfully, during this later period in his career, he forged a bond with the weird and wonderful David Lynch and as part of Lynch’s repertory he had roles in Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006).

 

A sprightly and wits-still-about-him nonagenarian, Harry Dean Stanton played trailer-park manager Carl Rodd in Lynch’s long-awaited third season of his legendary TV show Twin Peaks, whose final episode aired only a few weeks ago.  Rodd wasn’t a huge component of the show, appearing in five out of 18 episodes, but the scenes he got were memorable.  There was a simultaneously vicious, eerie and affecting one where Rodd witnesses the death of a child in a hit-and-run accident and sees a weird light – an untethered soul? – rise from the child’s body; and then, alone among the traumatised onlookers, he shambles forward to try and comfort the child’s grieving mother.  There was a scene that said a lot about life on the breadline in 2017 America where he dissuades an ailing and hard-pressed trailer-park resident from selling his blood at the hospital by cancelling his next rent-payment.

 

And there was a scene where he gets to chill, strum his guitar and sing the old country number Red River Valley.  Which was a charming reminder that the gaunt, gnarly figure of Harry Dean Stanton – a musician and singer as well as an actor, who’d performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel and Kris Kristofferson – was also blessed with the voice of a troubadour.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Nilaveli Beach

 

 

Nothing very blog-worthy has happened to me recently so here are a few photographs taken when my partner and I holidayed in Nilaveli a little while ago.  Nilaveli is about 15 kilometres north of the town of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast and our hotel – a collection of semi-detached wooden cabins acting as hotel rooms, plus a reception building, restaurant building and lounge building – stood on the edge of the beach there.

 

 

The hotel encroached on the beach with rows of sun-recliners and sunshades – the surfaces of the sun-recliners sometimes streaked with white shit thanks to the local, naughty population of crows.  And at night, the beach seemed ablaze when coils of fluorescent tubing wrapped around the trunks of the hotel’s palm trees lit up and made them look like giant sticks of stripy confectionary.  However, the beach was simultaneously a working one.  Every day, just beyond the last of the sun-recliners, gangs of fishermen ranging in age from wrinkly fellows in straw hats to lanky youths in Rastafarian bonnets would assemble and pull nets out of the sea.  Each team was about seven strong.  They’d form a line, grip a rope and slowly retreat up the beach with it, taking short, synchronised steps.  The person at the back would reach a certain point and relinquish the rope, move down to the surf at the front of the line and take up the rope again.  And so it continued while more of the rope came in.

 

 

Then a string of white floats – round white chunks of Styrofoam – approached on the silvery blue surface of the sea, signalling that the nets were getting near.  How surreal it would be, I thought, if eventually they towed the far end of the rope out of the water and there emerged another team of seven guys clinging onto it, trying to pull it in the opposite direction.

 

Later, the nets would be strewn across the sand while the fishermen hunkered down and transferred the landed fish into hemispherical baskets.  Flocks of crows would alight and watch the baskets hopefully.

 

 

On the beach north of our hotel were two groups of fishermen’s huts, about a hundred metres of sand between them.  When I walked past them one evening, most of those huts were in darkness, with only a couple of larger ones lit by electrical lights.  One of the unlit huts had a fire burning on the floor just inside its entrance, glowing in the dark like a permanent orange flare.  Some guys were in the process of setting out to sea, heading for their nocturnal fishing grounds.  Later, their boat-lamps would form a necklace of white specks across the distant, black water.

 

There are a few hotels at Nilaveli, but ours seemed to be the most northerly one and it was separated from its nearest neighbour by a twenty-minute walk along the beach.  When I explored the intervening section of beach, I discovered that not everything there was picture-perfect.  Parts of it – away from the hotels and the fishing huts – were depressingly dirty, littered with washed-up plastic water bottles, glass arrack bottles, tin cans, flip-flops, rubber shoe-soles (the leather bits having presumably rotted away) and dried-up and fly-ridden husks of fish that’d been gutted and thrown back in the sea.

 

 

Also, a sizable area of beach was polka-dotted with shrivelled, sandy cowpats.  Eventually, the culprits came into view – a herd of cattle that were mooching about on or lying on the sand, almost within reach of the breakers.  They seemed totally nonchalant about their surroundings, unfazed by the rumbling and frothing seawater, the occasional wandering beach-dogs, the crows that hopped around them and even perched on top of them, and the tourists from the nearby hotel who were snapping photos of them.

 

 

One other thing I noticed as I ventured south from our hotel was a huddle of gutted concrete ruins standing in the scrub and woodland just off the back of the beach.  Weirdly, their outer walls were decorated with psychedelic murals of, for example, a red Cyclopean octopus-thing and a yellow-skinned, blue-eyed face.  I suspect that back in the 1970s or 1980s some aspiring local entrepreneur built this place, believing he or she could fashion a seaside retreat for the sort of Western hippies who used to flock to Goa in India.  But fate intervened in some form or other – the Sri Lankan Civil War, perhaps? – and those buildings were abandoned to disuse and decay.

 

 

Lynch mob

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

I’ve now spent a week trying to digest the third season of Twin Peaks, which ended its eighteen-episode run on September 3rd.

 

It would be an understatement to call this third season long-awaited.  Fans of Twin Peaks, the always oddball, sometimes barmy, occasionally confounding TV crime series (when it wasn’t being a soap opera, or comedy, or horror story, or science-fiction drama) have spent a quarter-century desperately waiting for it.  Twin Peaks originally aired in 1990 and 1991, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost and sporadically directed by Lynch.  For this 2017 revival, Lynch directed all the episodes himself.

 

One phrase that’s appeared in many reviews of Twin Peaks 3 has been “like nothing else on television.”  And for once I find myself in agreement with the critics.  This new season has been different from anything else you’ve seen on your TV or are likely to see on it – except, perhaps, when that TV is showing a movie by David Lynch.

 

Here is a list of reasons why Twin Peaks 3 has been so remarkable.  If you haven’t seen the show, I should warn you that many spoilers lie ahead.  Mind you, if you haven’t seen it, you also won’t understand a word I’m talking about.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Evolution of the Arm

Part of the weird flora and fauna of the Black Lodge – the Twin Peaks netherworld – the Evolution of the Arm is a tree that crackles with electricity, has a talking brain-like bulb at the top and barks unilluminating things like “253, time and time again!” and “Non-existent!” at Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who’s trapped in the Lodge.  Later, after Coop returns to the human world, the Arm sprouts up from a pavement to help him fight off diminutive assassin Ike the Spike (Christophe Zajac-Denek) and gives more coherent advice: “Squeeze his hand off!  Squeeze his hand off!”

 

The thing in the glass box

In an early indication that Twin Peaks 3 was going to be less cosy than the original TV series – and closer to the visceral tone of the movie-cum-prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – the first two episodes feature a strange experiment involving a big glass box and a mass of surveillance equipment that eventually conjures up a phantom thing.  Unfortunately for the guy monitoring the experiment – who’s inopportunely chosen this moment to have it off with his girlfriend – the thing is apparently equipped with kitchen-blender fingers.  It proceeds to reduce their heads to bloody confetti.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The giant tin can in space

Episode three sees Coop out of the Black Lodge and in pursuit of his evil doppelganger, Bad Coop, who’s back on earth.  But it begins with a phantasmagorical, dialogue-free twenty-minute sequence where he ends up in what appears to be a giant tin can floating through space.  Crewing the tin can is a strange Asian lady who doesn’t have any eyes; and later someone called the American Girl, played by Phoebe Augustine, who was Ronette Pulanski in the original series.  The Girl holds up her watch to show it’s 2:53, which sheds light – not a lot of light, admittedly – on that statement by the Evolution of the Arm.

 

Mr Jackpots

It transpires that there’s a third version of Coop on the go, Dougie Jones, who’s a replica created by Bad Coop (presumably as a decoy to throw people off his scent).  Good Coop replaces Dougie when he arrives back on earth and the replacement process is so traumatic that Coop / Dougie subsequently spends several episodes with his brain practically wiped clean.  The scene where he shambles into a casino and, thanks to some lingering Black Lodge voodoo, wins jackpot after jackpot on the fruit machines whilst shouting the one word of human language he’s retained – “Hellooo!” – is hilarious.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Deputy Hawk and the Log Lady

In a season where most of the old Twin Peaks cast seem embittered, enfeebled or unhinged, the still wise and resolute Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) is a reassuring presence.  It’s fitting that Lynch and Frost use him in the scenes featuring actress Catherine Coulson, who passed away early in the season’s production.  As the ailing Margaret Lanterman, aka the Log Lady, she phones him several times to relay some last messages from her trusty log.  Hawk’s words at the end of their final conversation – a simple “Goodbye, Margaret” – are quietly heart-breaking.

 

Dr Jacoby’s shovels

Dr Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) is now a shock jock broadcasting nightly rants from his caravan to an audience of, well, two – crazy one-eyed Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robey) and permanently-stoned Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly).  When not ranting, Jacoby advertises gold-painted shovels which can be yours for $29.99 and are ideal for shovelling yourself “out of the shit and into the truth.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Janey-E

Janey-E is the wife of Dougie Jones.  Amusingly, when Good Coop replaces Dougie and becomes catatonic, Janey-E – played by the marvellous Naomi Watts – seems not to notice anything wrong with her husband.  Or she simply turns a blind to eye to it, since the almost-magical aura of goodness surrounding Coop and the powers of the Black Lodge cause money to pour into her household for the first time ever.  And unlike virtually everyone else, she gets closure at the end of Twin Peaks 3 because Good Coop thoughtfully makes another copy of himself and sends him to be Janey-E’s beau for good.

 

The Mitchum Brothers and Candie, Mandie and Sandie

Good Coop’s superhuman decency also manages to rub off on brutal / comical mobsters Bradley and Rodney Mitchum (Robert Knepper and Jim Belushi).  The casino-owning pair start off wanting to murder his ass – see ‘Mr Jackpots’ above – but end up totally enamoured with him, treating him like their long-lost third brother.  Further hilarity is provided by their trio of pink-clad molls Candie, Mandie and Sandie, who are always on hand – even after a holocaustic face-off between good and evil – to serve up platters of expensive finger-food.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The Nine Inch Nails

As a diversion from the narrative weirdness, Lynch and Frost have the Roadhouse, the bar / concert venue in the town of Twin Peaks, host a musical act late in every episode.  Given its remote location, the place attracts some unfeasibly big names: Julee Cruise, the Cactus Blossoms, Rebekah Del Rio (who has Moby on guitar) and one Edward Louis Severson – Eddie Vedder to you and me.  Best of all is the performance in Episode 8 by fearsome electro-metal juggernaut Nine Inch Nails, who are introduced by the MC as the Nine Inch Nails, no less.

 

The puking zombie car-passenger

Deputy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) tries to calm a hysterical woman at the wheel of a stalled car and a convulsing, vomiting zombie-like creature slowly rises out of the seat beside her.  This is never explained and never referred to again.  A perfect Lynchian moment in other words.

 

Harry Dean Stanton sings

Well, he does.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

David Bowie is now a teapot

Yes.  David Bowie is now a teapot.  Those are six words I never thought I’d find myself writing.

 

Wally Brando

Modelling himself on Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), the motorbiking, leather-clad and free-spirited Wally Brando (Michael Cera) is the offspring of lovable dolts Andy and Lucy Brennan (Harry Goaz and Kimmy Robertson).  Wally’s utterances about life on the road are not as profound as he thinks they are.  “My shadow is always with me.  Sometimes ahead.  Sometimes behind.  Sometimes to the left.  Sometimes to the right.  Except on cloudy days.  And at night.”

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Audrey’s dance

Once young and sultry, now middle-aged and deeply unhappy, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) is glimpsed in several episodes pleading with her strange husband to be taken to the Roadhouse.  When they finally get there, in Episode 16, there’s a sublimely eerie scene where the crowd clears from the floor, an orchestra break into the spooky Audrey’s Dance from the original series and Audrey, appropriately, starts dancing to it…  What happens next is, shall we say, mysterious.

 

Freddie versus Bob

Only in Twin Peaks could you see a cataclysmic battle between good and evil where a Cockney ragamuffin called Freddie (Jake Wardle), wearing a strength-enhancing green gardening glove, has a slugfest with a giant bubble containing the demonic spirit of Killer Bob (Frank Silva).  It’s not exactly Thor versus Loki or Superman versus General Zod.  But that’s probably the point.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

The long bits where nothing much happens

Whole minutes pass while Good Coop / Dougie does nothing but draw ladders and zigzags on a sheet of paper…  Or while a Roadhouse staff-member does nothing but sweep the floor…  Or while Dr Jacoby does nothing but spray-paint his shovels.  In this modern era where everything on film and TV has to move fast, where narratives have to be urgent, where audiences’ attention spans are assumed to be tiny, this seems like heresy.  But in fact, it feels oddly soothing.

 

The final episode

I had a suspicion that Twin Peaks 3 was going to end on a downer and, yip, Lynch and Frost rose – or descended – to the occasion.  I didn’t massively enjoy the way it finished, with Coop going back in time to right the original terrible wrong at the heart of the Twin Peaks universe and prevent the killing of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), only to find himself trapped with an older, careworn and apparently murderous version of Laura in some chilly alternative universe where people aren’t who they’re supposed to be.  But with its air of existential sadness and clammy menace, I certainly won’t forget it for a long time.  Another result for David Lynch, then.

 

© Lynch / Frost Productions

 

Lanka Comic-Con 2017

 

 

The annual Lanka Comic-Con convention was held on the weekend of August 26th and 27th at the Exhibition and Conference Centre by Lake Beira in downtown Colombo.  I slouched in late in the afternoon of the 26th, mainly because a live-music session had been organised from five to seven o’clock to round off the convention’s first day.  One of the three bands lined up to perform was the Sri Lankan heavy metal outfit Stigmata, whom I’d heard a lot about and was keen to hear.

 

I felt less interested in Comic-Con’s main focus, i.e. comic-books and other popular media of the science-fiction and fantasy variety.  I like comics, but I’ve become jaded at how so many of them have metamorphised lately – like Bruce Banner swelling up into the Incredible Hulk – into lumbering multi-media franchises whose main strands are blockbuster movies: movies that I find simplistic and unsatisfying compared to the comic-book originals.  And neither am I a massive fan of most of the non-comics sci-fi / fantasy franchises that feature heavily at such conventions the world over, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, etc.

 

 

That said, I was glad I arrived a while before the music kicked off because it was worth taking in the event’s atmosphere.  The Conference and Exhibition Centre isn’t the most prepossessing of venues, consisting of a long room with a low ceiling, bunker-like slits of windows at the tops of its walls and worn blue matting on the floor, but the organisers did their best with it.  One thoroughfare of stalls was called ‘Artists’ Alley’ and featured a number of local artists selling samples of their work.  Most of them, it must be said, were depictions of Western popular-culture icons like Darth Vader, the Joker and Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.   I hope those artists draw the Western stuff to pay their rents whilst getting a chance in their free time to work on their own, possibly more Sri Lanka-centric material.

 

And I had to applaud the many Sri Lankan attendees who arrived in intricately, and ingeniously, devised costumes to cosplay their favourite comic-book, TV and movie characters.  In fact, at about half-past-four, a stage at the end of the hall hosted a weird and wonderful cosplayer fashion show.  We got a guy dressed as Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies who turned up with a skateboard and insisted on skateboarding across the stage; a hulking and credible-looking portrayal of the red-skinned Ron Perlman character from the Hellboy movies; a World of Warcraft character so heavily armoured and spiked he resembled a humanoid horned-lizard-cum-armadillo; a young lady dressed (or bandaged) as the French-Algerian actress Sofia Boutella in this year’s Tom Cruise film remake of The Mummy – from all accounts a terrible movie, but this cosplay mummy looked really good; and a familiar-looking piratical character whom the cosplay-show compere welcomed onstage with the declaration, “And now the hero of every tuk-tuk driver in Sri Lanka…  Captain Jack Sparrow!”  Actually, Captain Jack got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.   Maybe there were a lot of off-duty tuk-tuk drivers among the audience.

 

The oddest moment came when no fewer than seven cosplayers beetled onstage dressed as the title-character of the comic-book and 2016 movie Deadpool.  The bemused compere suggested that the seven of them perform a dance, which they did.  Disconcertingly, the one at the end wore a black-and-red-striped sweater and a fedora and was apparently a Deadpool-Freddy Krueger hybrid.   Meanwhile, the moment I found most depressing was when a Sri Lankan guy marched onstage dressed as ‘Old Logan’ from this year’s final instalment in the X-Men movies and I realised that Old Logan looked young enough for me to qualify as Old Logan’s dad.  (If I ever had to cosplay myself, I guess the only options open to me would either be Saruman from the Lord of the Rings movies or Stan Lee as he is now, all 94 years of him.)

 

 

A lovely moment occurred when a Sri Lankan lady came on as Wonder Woman – one of two Wonder Women present at the convention – and someone informed the crowd that it was her birthday.  Immediately, everybody started singing, “Happy birthday to you…  Happy birthday to you…  Happy birthday, dear Wonder Woman…”  There was a major sequel to this, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

 

 

And finally, on to the live music, which took place on a different stage along one of the room’s sidewalls.  A sudden rash of Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Scorpions and AC/DC T-shirts had appeared among the crowd there, suggesting I wasn’t the only person turning up for the music rather than the standard Comic-Con stuff.  However, before Stigmata, two other bands performed.  Number one was an outfit called Ursula and the Odyssey, blessed with two excellent singers – a lady (Ursula, presumably) and a bloke.  They did a splendid version of Where did you Sleep Last Night, the old Leadbelly song that Nirvana covered memorably on their 1994 Unplugged album.  The second band was a young, brisk, poppy-punk one called the Fallen boys who sounded fine but suffered a painful indignity.  Just as they came onstage, someone announced over the PA system that prizes were being given out to the best cosplayers at the other stage, at the top end of the hall.  And suddenly, about two-thirds of the Fallen Boys’ audience evaporated.

 

 

I had no complaints about the music of Stigmata, when they did their set.  They generated a pleasing noise that combined the best of Iron Maiden and Sepultura.  However, between songs, their vocalist Suresh De Silva did tend to talk… and talk… and talk.  Now I realise Sri Lankans enjoy a good natter (totally unlike the Irish), but seeing as there wasn’t a lot of time allotted to their slot I would have liked fewer anecdotes and jokes and less mucking around; and more in the way of actual songs.   Then again, admission to Comic-Con that day was only a hundred rupees and that included the live-music session.  Which meant I was seeing one of the country’s top metal bands for the equivalent of about 50 pence…  So I can’t really complain.

 

I said there was a sequel to Wonder Woman’s appearance at the convention.  A week later, international news and cultural outlets like the BBC and the New Musical Express were reporting how the birthday girl who attended the convention cosplaying Wonder Woman, Amaya Suriyapperuma, and her friend Seshani Cooray, who’d also turned up dressed as Wonder Woman, had been subjected to masses of abuse, insults and trolling from online scumbags after they’d posted photos of themselves in costume on Facebook.

 

From Mathisha‏ @Pasan_Mathisha

 

Happily though, Amaya and Seshani subsequently received backing from some unexpected and powerful quarters.  Word of the abuse they’d received reached Hollywood; and both the star and director of this year’s Wonder Woman movie, actress Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins, were moved to tweet their support to the Sri Lankan duo.

 

I shall briefly add Blood and Porridge’s tuppence-worth to the incident.  Amaya and Sesahani, pay no attention to those online dickheads.  The pair of you looked great.   And any Internet wanker who claims otherwise isn’t fit to kiss your stripy Wonder Woman boots.

 

Literary things

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

I reckon John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of the best horror films ever.  Its story of a shape-shifting alien organism that infiltrates a base in Antarctica, absorbing and assuming the forms of more and more of the base’s human (and canine) personnel, is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia and all-round scariness.

 

And its special effects, courtesy of make-up / effects genius Rob Bottin, massively raised the bar for what was achievable in horror movies at the time.  During those moments when it reveals itself, Bottin’s alien thingy is a hellish, glistening, squirming, tentacled nightmare made of bits and pieces of all the Earth creatures it’s consumed already.  It resembles a canvas painted / splattered simultaneously by Hieronymus Bosch and Jackson Pollock.

 

What makes Bottin’s work all the more remarkable – and believable – is that it consists of real, solid, practical effects.  For The Thing was made in the days was before digital technology took over and filmmakers went crazy using cartoonish and insubstantial-looking computer-generated imagery.  (That’s the reason why I’ve never bothered watching Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie, also called The Thing.  Although practical special effects had been used during the prequel’s shooting, craven studio executives had CGI superimposed over those practical effects in post-production.)

 

This summer I’d wanted to write something about The Thing on this blog to commemorate the fact that a quarter-century had now passed since it was released in the middle of 1982.  Then the other day I realised that 1982 was not a quarter-century ago.  It was actually 35 years ago and I’m a decade older than I thought I was.  Oh dear…

 

But rather than write about the movie itself, as countless film critics, commentators and enthusiasts have over the years, I thought I’d look instead at its literary roots.  Because The Thing is an adaptation (scripted by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt) of a novella called Who Goes There?, written by science-fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell and published in 1938.

 

Who Goes There? had already been filmed in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  The 1951 version keeps the story’s basic premise of the crew of a polar camp (though here at the North rather than the South Pole) coming up against a malevolent alien.  But instead of depicting it as a shape-shifting beastie, which would have been difficult to do convincingly in 1951, the Hawks / Nyby film merely depicts it as a lumbering, pasty-skinned, dome-headed, spiky-fingered muscle-man played by none other than James Arness, later to star in the 1950s-1970s Western TV show Gunsmoke.   Howard Hawks’s trademark no-nonsense directorial style and brisk, punchy dialogue are much in evidence in The Thing from Another World and it’s often been speculated that he shot most of the film himself rather than Nyby.

 

© Winchester Pictures Corporation / RKO

 

John Carpenter was a well-known admirer of Howard Hawks and his 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 in particular shows a big Hawksian influence.  So when Carpenter’s version of The Thing was announced, I suspect many critics assumed it’d be a straightforward remake of the 1951 movie.  And I suspect that’s why it got such a hostile reception when it was released in 1982 – for although the movie has since been reappraised and is now regarded as a sci-fi / horror classic, it initially earned Carpenter some of the worst reviews of his career.  (I seem to remember the Observer slamming it under the headline JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER.)  Those 1982 critics got something very different from what they were expecting and didn’t react well.

 

What they got, in fact, was a film capturing the shape-shifting concept of the alien in the real source material, the 1938 story by John W. Campbell – a story most of those critics were probably unfamiliar with.

 

I recently came across and read Who Goes There? online.  What did I think of it?

 

Well, what I immediately thought after reading it was “Phew!”  Experienced in 2017, with its dollops of torturous pose and pages upon pages of dialogue-framed exposition, Campbell’s story is hard going indeed.

 

© Rocket Ride Books

 

It’s fun to see so many character-names that crop up in Carpenter’s film – McReady, Blair, Copper, Garry, Norris, Clark, Benning – but the descriptions of those characters are madly overwrought.  The hero, McReady, is likened by Campbell to “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked.  Six-feet-four inches he stood…  And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it.  The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing on the table planks were bronze.  Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath the heavy brows were bronze.”  This Wagnerian, and bronze, version of McReady is far removed from the morose, tetchy git played by Kurt Russell in the film.

 

The scientist Blair, meanwhile, is described with this peculiar sentence: “His little birdlike motions of suppressed eagerness danced his shadow across the fringe of dingy grey underwear hanging from the low ceiling, the equatorial quiff of stiff, greying hair around his naked skull a comical halo about the shadow’s head.”  At least he sounds more like his cinematic incarnation (who’s played by the character actor Wilfred Brimley).

 

How the characters discover and bring into their camp their soon-to-be-unwelcome visitor is related in three pages of conversational backstory, which includes such unlikely pieces of dialogue as: “Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has dammed back the ice creeping from the south.”   Later, as the Thing starts to imitate the base’s inhabitants, there are many talky pages where people speculate on its biology, its capabilities and how it can be detected; and also where they start to crack up with paranoia.  “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images,” exclaims one man while his colleagues regard him suspiciously.  “You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got.  They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table.  They wink and blink and stare and whisper things.”

 

There are moments when Campbell’s prose does convey the bleakness of the situation, recording how the Antarctic wind created an “uneasy, malicious gurgling in the pipe of the galley stove” and how “the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp”.  But overall, as far as its writing is concerned, Who Goes There? is a work to be endured rather than enjoyed.   It isn’t a patch on that other famous 1930s tale of Antarctica-set horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936).

 

I was surprised, then, and a little relieved that there’s less of Who Goes There? in John Carpenter’s The Thing than I’d expected.  That said, the story does provide the film with its most celebrated scene, the ‘blood-test’ one wherein McReady hits on a method of identifying who’s-been-got and who’s not.  Though while John W. Campbell has McReady laboriously testing the blood of some 35 base-members, in the movie John Carpenter wisely waits until there’s only half-a-dozen men left standing.  As a result, his enactment of the scene is much more intense, focused and suspenseful.

 

© Classics Illustrated

 

And to be fair to Campbell, his story clarifies the Thing’s modus operandi more than the film, which at times is hazy about just what McReady and the rest are up against.  For example, watching The Thing, I was initially puzzled by the idea that the intruder could take the form of more than one victim at a time.  In the story, it’s made clear that when it absorbs an organism it adds the organism’s body mass to its own; and when the organism is replaced, it hives off again with the original’s massMeanwhile, the original Thing goes back to its original bulk too, free to absorb and replicate something else.

 

Then there’s the sub-plot with Blair.  In both the novella and film, Blair loses his mind as the horror unfolds and is locked up for his own (and everyone else’s) safety.  It later becomes apparent that he’s part of the Thing too, has its alien intelligence, and has spent his time in captivity assembling a mysterious machine.  The novella describes how he’s imprisoned in an equipment storeroom, where he uses pieces of the equipment to fashion a small anti-gravity device that’ll transport him from Antarctica to a populated continent where he can start replicating.  The film is murkier about what he’s up to.  There’s a glimpse of some sort of capsule, like a mini-flying saucer, but that’s all.  I was left with the impression that Blair had somehow managed to construct a spacecraft out of empty soup cans and pieces of string.

 

Finally, I should point out that Who Goes There? isn’t the only literary work connected with the scary world of The Thing.  In 2010, Clarkesworld Magazine published a short story called The Things, written by Peter Watts, which retells the events of Carpenter’s movie through the eyes – if that’s the word – of the Thing itself.

 

Here, the Thing isn’t such a bad old thing.  It genuinely believes it’s doing the humans a favour by taking them over, which it describes as an act of ‘communion’.  It views their biology as ‘ill-adapted’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘disabled’ and wants to ‘fix’ them.  At times, it’s repulsed by their physical circumstances, calling their brains ‘tumours’ and their bodies ‘bony caverns’.  No wonder it’s upset when the humans respond to its kindness by using flamethrowers on it.

 

A thought-provoking and bleakly-amusing take on John Carpenter’s movie from the very last character in it you’d expect, Peter Watts’ The Things can be read on this webpage.  Meanwhile, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is available for reading here.  The 2010 story is 7,000 words long while the 1938 one clocks in at a hefty 30,000 words; and comparing them, I have to say I agree with the old adage that the best Things come in small packages.

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

No call to get snippy with Fargo

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

If I had one problem with Fargo (1996), the crime / thriller / comedy / drama movie written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, it was that it was over too soon.  Fargo creates a strange, mesmerizing world that’s set amid the white winter wastes of North Dakota and Minnesota and that rings with the music of the inhabitants’ whimsical speech patterns (“Yah, you betcha!”).  It’s a bleak and cruel world where a hapless shmuck with no aptitude for criminality (William H. Macy) tries his hand at criminality anyway and gets mercilessly punished for it, with bad luck and his own incompetence landing him in an ever-deepening morass of violence and bloodshed.  But it’s simultaneously a cozy and life-affirming world where the whole vicious mess is sorted out by a resourceful and heavily pregnant policewoman (Francis McDormand) whose most aggressive line is a schoolmarm-ish “You’ve no call to get snippy with me!”

 

I found Fargo’s world so captivating that I felt disappointed when after 98 minutes it ended – though admittedly it ended spectacularly, with Steve Buscemi being force-fed into a wood-chipping machine.

 

When it was announced a few years ago that author, screenwriter and producer Noah Hawley was masterminding a ten-episode, ten-hour TV version of Fargo, I should’ve been pleased at the prospect of getting six times the dose of Fargo-the-movie.  But I felt wary.  For one thing, I thought, surely even the best TV programme-maker in the world would struggle to capture the peculiar spirit of a Coen Brothers movie.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

And I had mixed feelings when I watched the first episodes of the first season of Fargo in 2014.  It was enjoyable, yes, but I was dissatisfied at how it took key character-types from the movie – the bungling loser becoming a criminal (Martin Freeman instead of Macy), the shrewd but gentle-natured police-lady (Allison Tolman instead of McDormand) – and simply tweaked their situations a bit.  Hence, Freeman goes through the same vortex of panic and misery that Macy goes through, but unlike his movie counterpart he apparently emerges from it stronger and richer; while Tolman isn’t pregnant, but the wife of one of her police colleagues is.  The show wasn’t a carbon-copy of the original, then, but it felt like a considerable imitation.

 

However, what makes a difference in season one of Fargo, from the off, is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Lorne Malvo.  A fearsome hitman, Malvo doesn’t just kill folk.  He also enjoys manipulating and corrupting people whom he comes across, as he does early on with Lester Nygaard, Freeman’s character.  It’s no surprise when at one point he mentions himself being in the Garden of Eden.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

In fact, after a few episodes Fargo season one seemed to escape from the shadow of its cinematic predecessor.  It became unafraid to take risks and do its own thing and generally grew more confident and rewarding.  I particularly liked how in episode 8 it suddenly hopped forward a year or so from its original setting of 2006 and the characters and their circumstances were suddenly transformed – Tolman’s character, Molly, becoming a wife and expectant mother, Lester Nygaard ceasing to be a sniveling weasel and morphing into a successful salesman who seems to have it made.  Though inevitably, fate intervenes when Nygaard pops off to a Las Vegas awards ceremony to pick up a prize and inadvertently crosses paths with Malvo again.

 

Fargo season one became pretty good, then, but it was never perfect.  As the cringing Nygaard, Freeman met the bill physically but faltered somewhat with the Minnesota accent.  Also, the script’s fondness for introducing character duos – not only a pair of other hitmen called Mr Wrench and Mr Numbers, but also a pair of bumbling FBI agents called Agent Pepper and Agent Budge – made me wonder what other duos might appear before the show was over.  Maybe Mr Kidd and Mr Wint from Diamonds are Forever (1971)?

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Season one was boosted by the presence of Keith Carradine in the role of Lou, Molly’s dad and a former policeman.  In one scene, he describes a violent case he experienced in 1979 where there were dead bodies “one after another… probably if you stacked ’em high, you could’ve climbed to the second floor.”  Fargo season two, shown in 2015, tells the story of that case with Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of Lou.  The reason for the multitude of corpses is that 1979 sees gang warfare break out in North Dakota, triggered when the Kansas City syndicate decides to muscle in on a gangster family who’ve been running Fargo city’s underworld for generations.  In a typical twist, these gangsters aren’t Italian in origin but German.  They’re the Gerhardts, fond of eating schnitzel and reminiscing about their forefathers’ exploits on the losing side in World War I.

 

The Gerhardts contain wise heads (Jean Smart, Angus Sampson) and less wise heads (Jeffrey Donovan, Kieran Culkan), though predictably it’s the less wise heads who have the biggest influence on events and bullets are soon flying.  Complicating the situation is a giddy beautician called Peggy, played by Kirsten Dunst – this season’s variation on the hapless-schmuck-getting-mired-in-criminality-and-chaos.  She accidentally smashes her car into a key member of the Gerhardt family one night and instead of driving to the nearest hospital drives home with his bloodied body still sprawled across the bonnet.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

While the first season poked fun at the American Dream, thanks to Lester Nygaard going from zero to hero in his profession after he’s murdered one person and been an accomplice in the murder of a couple of others, season two is explicit in its satirical target.  It’s set at the dawn of the Reagan era, when big corporate businesses got carte blanche to stomp the life out of their smaller competitors, something symbolized by the unequal battle between the Kansas City syndicate and Fargo’s Gerhardts.  Underlining the satire is an appearance in episode 5 by the soon-to-be president Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell – yay!) who’s campaigning in the neighbourhood.  Lou, who’s a Vietnam veteran, is assigned to Reagan’s security detail and the pair of them start chatting and swapping war memories, though Lou soon realizes that his befuddled charge is talking about the war movies he made as an actor.

 

While the ruthless, corporate way the world is heading sounds the death-knell for the Gerhardts, Fargo season two is not without optimism.  Hope for the future is embodied in Lou’s family unit – his ailing but loving wife (Cristin Milioti), his kindly father-in-law (Ted Danson) and his little daughter, whom we know will grow up to be the heroine of season one.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Fargo’s second season is splendid television – as good as Hannibal (2013-15), True Detective (2014-15) or anything else I’ve seen in recent years.  It’s not, I should say, a straightforward gangster thriller because it’s peppered with strange Coen-esque moments.  Along the way we’re treated to black-and-white clips from fictional Ronald Reagan movies and – in a nod to that late-1970s blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – a giant UFO that appears at crucial moments in the plot.  If you love the whacked-out whimsy of the Coen-verse, as I do, you’ll find the visitations of this UFO delightful.  If you don’t, you may feel like putting your foot through your TV set.

 

Season three of Fargo aired earlier this year and I’ve just finished watching a box-set of it.  Obviously, it had a lot to live up to.  Noah Hawley bravely doesn’t try to emulate the slap-bang action of the previous season and dials things down – even when mass bloodshed occurs in season three, it largely does so offscreen.  The result is a lower-key variation on the Fargo formula, with more bleakness and ambiguity and a suggestion that even the very best characters may not be living happily ever after.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Set in 2010, the third season starts with two business partners, Emmit (Ewan McGregor, whose Minnesota accent is more convincing than Martin Freeman’s) and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), discovering that the contract they signed with a shady company that lent them money and bailed them out during the economic crisis two years earlier has some troubling small-print.  One day, an emissary from the shady company called V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) turns up out of the blue and informs them that he’s their new partner.  He’ll be making changes to their operations and expanding them into some new and unorthodox areas.

 

Emmit also has to deal with his brother Ray, who’s played too by McGregor.  Jacob-and-Esau-style, Ray blames Emmit for cheating him out of his birthright (a collection of valuable stamps) and dooming him to a deadbeat existence as a parole officer.   Ray is urged on in this sibling quarrel by his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-felon who’s actually one of his parolees.  When the embittered Ray blackmails another of his parolees into burgling Emmit’s house for him, we enter that now-familiar Fargo territory where Things Start to Go Wrong.

 

There are some hilarious early scenes where Emmit and Sy watch helplessly while their company is taken over by the mysterious but clearly criminal Varga – whom Thewlis basically plays as the devil, though a devil with the manner of a world-weary, disheveled schoolmaster who’s constantly having to explain things in very simple terms to very stupid schoolchildren.  But the humour rapidly sours.  Although they’re a pair of self-satisfied and not-very-bright shysters, neither Emmit nor Sy are that bad and neither of them deserve the tribulations that are soon visited upon them, Job-like.  Sy, a Coen-esque character with the demeanor (and effectiveness) of an angry chihuahua, is touchingly loyal to Emmit and you feel quite upset at his eventual fate.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Similar ambiguity exists elsewhere.  Ray is an oaf whose petulant actions result in misery and death, but he at least shows genuine love for Nikki.  Meanwhile, Nikki is capable of resorting to murder to have her way, but when Varga gets forcefully involved in the Ray-Emmit feud and she declares war against him – she even enlists the help of the hitman Mr Wrench from season one – we find ourselves cheering her on.

 

Representing the forces of goodness this time is Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle.  Compared with Alison Tolman and Patrick Wilson in the previous seasons, she has a smaller support base – a 13-year-old son and a policewoman buddy (Olivia Sandoval) and that’s about it.  Her husband has left her and her stepfather is dead before the end of episode one.  And what she’s up against is frightening.  While the Kansas City syndicate in season two represented big business, Thewlis’s Varga, a man apparently without identity or history but able to commandeer computers and the Internet to do whatever he wants, is symbolic of the vast, practically-omnipotent multinationals that exist today and are richer and more powerful than most countries.

 

Hawley pushes the envelope with season three.  One episode contains animated segments involving a wandering robot – Gloria discovers that her late stepfather once wrote science-fiction stories under another name, belatedly reads one of his novels and visualises its plot in cartoon form.  At other points, the show approaches the supernatural weirdness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) with Ray Wise (who was in Twin Peaks) turning up as a character who might be God to David Thewlis’s devil.  In this morally-unstable universe, however, God’s appearances are less frequent and consistent than those of his adversary.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

The early episodes of Fargo season three suffer from pacing problems, when more could be happening and happening more quickly.  But it does build to a suspenseful climax and the scene where Gloria and Varga finally come face to face is quietly brilliant.  It’s not as great as season two, but it’s great in parts.

 

And near the end of the final episode, after so many hours of Fargo-related TV, when Jeff Russo’s melancholic but majestic theme music swirled up on the soundtrack, do you know what?  I thought, shit.  It’s still over too soon.