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

 

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

 

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.

 

The man who gave zombies brains

 

From www.denofgeek.com

 

There are few things I enjoy more than a good zombie movie.  Thus, since the death of Pittsburgh filmmaker George A. Romero on June 16th, I’ve been wearing a black armband – because Romero was the zombie auteur extraordinaire.

 

Romero’s 1968 debut was Night of the Living Dead, a movie that’s been stupendously influential in at least three ways.  Firstly, filmed during nights and weekends over a period of seven months for a paltry $114,000 – the famous opening sequence took place in Pittsburgh’s out-of-town Evans City Cemetery for the simple reason that Romero figured he could film there for free, on the quiet, without getting hassled by the police – its success became a lasting inspiration for low-budget filmmakers everywhere.  It showed that with enough ingenuity, determination and talent you could accomplish something out of next-to-nothing.  No doubt when things were getting tough during the shoots of landmark but ultra-cheap horror films like the $300,000-budget Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or the $350,000-budget Evil Dead (1981) or the $60,000-budget Blair Witch Project (1999), their respective directors Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez consoled themselves with the thought, “If old George could do it, so can I.”

 

Secondly, Night of the Living Dead wrestled horror movies away from the gothic costume dramas made by the likes of Hammer Films in Britain, Mario Bava in Italy and Roger Corman in the USA, which by the mid-1960s had become their comfort zone.  It dragged the genre into the present day and made it visceral, nihilistic and properly frightening.  The human characters having to cope with the horrible events in Night were ordinary Joes like those sitting watching them in the cinema audience.  This could happen to you, it was telling them.  And as none of those human characters got through the titular night alive, you really didn’t want it to happen to you.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

And thirdly, Night introduced the world to zombies as it knows them today.  And it knows zombies very well today.  Popular culture is swarming with them, not only in blockbuster Hollywood movies like World War Z (2013) but in other media like TV shows, computer games, books and comics.  Whereas before Night zombies had been depicted as poor, lost souls brought back to life by cruel, capitalist zombie-masters using the power of voodoo and put to work in flour-mills and tin-mines, as in Universal’s White Zombie (1932) and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies (1966), after Night they had a new template.  They became apocalyptic.  They rose from the dead in hundreds, then thousands, and then millions, and fed on living humanity – in scenes employing as much blood and gore as the movie-censors would allow.  If they bit you, you got infected, died and became a zombie yourself.  And the only way to stop the shambling, bite-y bastards was to “shoot ’em in the head”.

 

What I love about zombies of the Night of the Living Dead variety is that though they are mindless creatures, the movies themselves don’t have to be mindless.  Brilliantly, those shambling zombies can be a metaphor for all sorts of things – for proletarian workers, consumers, oppressed peoples, whatever – giving filmmakers endless opportunities for social comment.  Thus, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflects a modern Britain where anger is an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ have entered the popular vocabulary; its sequel Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007) is an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq; and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirises a twenty-something slacker generation who can’t tell if someone’s a zombie or just pissed, hungover or zonked out.  And again, Romero set the agenda with Night, which channels the fears of late-1960s America.  The country’s racial tensions are symbolised by the fate of the black hero (Duane Jones), who survives the zombie onslaught only to be mistaken for one himself and shot dead by a supposed rescue-posse of trigger-happy rednecks.  Meanwhile, the rednecks’ zombie-shooting / burning activities are not unlike things going on in Vietnam at the time.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

However, Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first George A. Romero film I saw.  That honour belongs to a movie he made five years later called The Crazies, which turned up on late-night British TV in the 1970s.  The Crazies has similarities to Night but isn’t a zombie movie because it features people turning into murderous lunatics rather than into murderous walking corpses.  The story of the US Army trying, and failing, to contain a virus that gradually infects the population of a small rural town and drives them insane, The Crazies is basically Romero giving the military a kicking.

 

It’s the army who’ve secretly developed the virus as a potential biological weapon; who accidentally let it escape into the town’s water supply; and who prove useless in trying to maintain order – this is a rural American community and there are a lot of guns, and before long it isn’t just the infected townspeople who are violently resisting the gas-masked, biohazard-suited soldiers.  The army also bring in scientists to try to develop a vaccine but give them hopeless facilities – the local school’s science lab – and when one of them accidentally does stumble across a vaccine, more military bungling leads to his death and the smashing of the vital test tubes.  At the film’s end, they even fail to do an immunity test on the hero, who by now is the only uninfected person left in the town.

 

© Cambist Films

 

The Crazies isn’t perfect – its low budget sometimes means there’s a visible gap between what Romero aspires to and what he achieves on screen – but to my 13-year-old mind its blend of anarchy, violence, rebelliousness and, yes, humour was astonishing.  I’ve never forgotten scenes like the one where a soldier bursts into a rural homestead and encounters a sweet old granny doing some knitting, who then stabs him to death with a knitting needle.  A remake appeared in 2010 and, while it has some good moments, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  This is largely because it focuses on the civilian characters and hardly shows anything of the military ones.  Of course, it’s the soldiers and their half-comical, half-horrifying ineptitude that makes the original so effective and enjoyable.

 

In 1978, Romero returned to bona-fide zombie moviemaking with Dawn of the Dead.  The shopping malls spreading across the American landscape at the time inspired him to revisit Night’s zombie apocalypse and film a more expensive and expansive sequel.  This has four survivors, led by a black SWAT officer (Ken Foree), taking refuge in an abandoned mall and fortifying it against the living dead.  Romero uses the setting to poke fun at both the sterility of consumerism – the foursome’s lives rapidly grow tedious despite their unlimited access to everything in the mall’s stores – and its idiocy, as more survivors show up and the two groups fight for possession of the building, though it contains enough supplies for everybody.  The zombies, meanwhile, become irrelevant.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

The shots of zombies shuffling mindlessly through the mall’s aisles and thoroughfares, staring with glazed eyes at the goods on display, is satire of the sledgehammer variety – but hey, it works.  Nearly forty years on, whenever I find myself in a shopping mall, I experience at least one uncomfortable moment where I imagine the shoppers around me not as human beings but as ambling cadavers.  Also, in keeping with its theme of excess, Dawn piles on the bloodletting, courtesy of Romero’s regular special-effects man Tom Savini.  In the opening minutes, Romero and Savini treat us to a close-up of an exploding head and the gore rarely relents after that.

 

Dawn has been remade too, with a Zack Snyder-directed Dawn of the Dead appearing in 2004.  It’s a film I have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, the first 25 minutes are terrific and I love the credits sequence, which shows a montage of clips of unfolding zombie carnage accompanied by Johnny Cash singing The Man Comes Around (2002).  On the other hand, the film is devoid of satire – the zombies spend nearly all the film not being in the mall, so there are none of those marvellous shopper-zombie juxtapositions – and you get a general impression of things being played safe.  It’s a shame, as Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation tract No Logo had been published a few years earlier and a big gory horror movie poking fun at brainless brand-hungry consumerism and mindless corporate greed would have been just the ticket.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

In 1986, Romero wrapped up his original zombie trilogy with Day of the Dead, which like The Crazies shows his utter contempt for the military – though by now his contempt for humanity generally seems intense too.  Day has the world overrun with zombies and focuses on an elite band of scientists and soldiers holed up in an underground nuclear missile silo, desperately trying to find a solution for the mayhem happening above.  Bitter arguments between the obsessed scientists and the brutish military eventually escalate into all-out warfare – so when the zombies swarm in at the end they seem the least mindless members of the cast.

 

Admittedly, Day has a couple of sympathetic humans, namely a philosophical Jamaican pilot played by Terry Alexander – Romero’s third black zombie-movie hero – and a slightly alcohol-pickled Irish radio operator (Jarlath Conroy), both of whom realise the battle has already been lost.  They just want to escape the silo, abandon the mainland and start afresh on a desert island.  However, the film’s most likeable character is actually a zombie, one nicknamed Bub (Sherman Howard) who’s been captured by the scientists and domesticated – sort of.  He can listen to music, pick up a phone and almost whisper a couple of words.  He has vague memories of his former life, when he was a soldier, because he knows how to salute and hold a gun.  He’s very fond of the scientist who looks after him and when that scientist is murdered by the repellent Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), he’s genuinely upset and you feel genuinely sorry for him.  And a climactic scene where Rhodes is torn apart by Bub’s zombie compadres while Bub looks on and gives him a farewell salute is one of the most satisfying moments in horror-film history.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

On a more intimate scale than Dawn, with more talk and less action, Day was regarded as a disappointment by Romero enthusiasts when it was first released.  However, over the years, its reputation has grown.  It’s my favourite Romero movie and one of my favourite horror movies generally.  Meanwhile – surprise! – a remake appeared in 2008.  Unlike the other remakes I’ve mentioned, this one is absolute shite.

 

After Zack Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead made a lot of cash in 2004, Romero got the go-ahead – and considerable studio money – to make his first zombie picture in nearly 20 years.  The result was 2005’s Land of the Dead which, although it received some decent reviews, was disdained by many hardcore horror-film fans who saw it as evidence that Romero had sold out and / or lost his touch.  I think that’s unfair as, to me, Land is three-quarters of a good movie.  Its opening sequence is grotesquely superb, showing an abandoned (by humans) suburb whose zombie inhabitants now potter around in the way they did when they were alive.  A zombie commuter lumbers out of his front door with a dusty briefcase, some zombie musicians abortively try to play their old instruments at the local bandstand and a zombie gas-station attendant shuffles dutifully to his pumps whenever something sets off the motion-sensor bell in his hut.

 

I also like the movie’s set-up.  Presumably taking place several years after Night, Dawn and Day, Land has Dennis Hopper as a megalomaniac who’s created a human sanctuary (bounded by a river and an electric fence) in the middle of a decaying city.  There, the rich and powerful humans live in a luxury apartment block called Fiddler’s Green while the less well-off live in Oliver Twist-like conditions in the streets below.  To keep his society going, Hopper regularly sends out a military force into the surrounding wasteland in a huge armoured vehicle called the Dead Reckoning, which is half-tank and half-truck, to scavenge for supplies.  Trouble is, the zombies inhabiting the wasteland are developing rudimentary powers of thought and self-organisation and, miffed at getting splattered by Hopper’s military expeditions, they start to march towards his little enclave.  (Their leader is none other than the petrol pump attendant, played by black actor Eugene Clark.  In a series where the hero has always been black, this suggests Romero has now totally sided with the zombies.)

 

© Atmosphere-Entertainment MM / Romero-Grunwald Productions

 

Parallels with America’s wealth inequalities, its oil-driven foreign adventures and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East during the noughties are no doubt fully intentional.  I’d assumed that the Dennis Hopper character in Land represented George Bush Jr.  However, as the critic Kim Newman pointed out in an obituary for Romero in Sight and Sound magazine, the character is actually a property developer.  So maybe Romero had a premonition of who’d be sitting in the Oval Office in 2017.

 

Land’s main problem is that it’s anti-climactic.  The end scenes where the zombies penetrate the human enclave and then Fiddler’s Green are suitably gory and carnage-ridden.  But you’re waiting for the military force in the Dead Reckoning, led by Simon Baker and Asia Argento, to ride to the rescue and start kicking serious zombie ass.  When Baker, Argento and the gang finally arrive, though, all they do is blow up the electric fence to allow a few survivors to escape.  And, um, that’s it.

 

Still, Land is way better than the two zombie pictures Romero made subsequently.  2007’s Diary of the Dead has an interesting premise – it’s a found-footage movie about a group of young filmmakers who’re working far from home when a zombie apocalypse breaks out; and they decide to record their adventures on film, documentary-style, as they journey across an increasingly chaotic landscape.  What’s particularly interesting is how they intercut their own story with clips that people around the world are simultaneously uploading to the Internet – and this being Romero, those clips often show human beings taking advantage of the mayhem to act appallingly.  However, after a gripping opening section, the middle of the film becomes routine and predictable; and its final stretch is talky and ponderous to an extreme.

 

Survival of the Dead followed in 2009.  Set on an island off America’s northwest coast where a feud between two families escalates while society breaks down around them, it resembles a particularly scrappy episode of The Walking Dead TV show and is a sad final instalment in Romero’s zombie sextet.

 

In between zombies, Romero made other types of movies and a couple are very good indeed.  That said, I’m not a fan of his two collaborations with Stephen King, Creepshow (1982), an anthology film scripted by King in the style of the old EC horror comics, and The Dark Half (1993), an adaptation of one of King’s novels.  (Creepshow has its admirers and features an excellent cast – Adrienne Barbeau, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, Leslie Nielsen and Fritz Weaver – but I find it unnecessarily hokey and slightly wasteful of Romero’s talents.)

 

© Libra Films International

 

But Martin (1978) is excellent.  It’s about a modern-day American teenager (John Amplas) who, clearly mentally disturbed, believes himself to be an 84-year-old vampire.  He ends up living in the Pittsburgh suburbs with his great-uncle, an elderly Lithuanian immigrant who, steeped in the lore and superstitions of his old country, is only too happy to take him at his word.  A disorientating mixture of blood-spilling, dreaminess, humour and melancholia, Martin would be worth re-watching in 2017 as a tonic to those wimpy Twilight books and movies that have defined teenaged vampires for the last decade.

 

Also praiseworthy is Romero’s 1981 non-horror movie Knightriders, which has a young Ed Harris in charge of a travelling medieval-style fair where the central attraction is the re-enactment of knightly jousting tournaments.  The gimmick is that there isn’t a horse in sight – the knights doing the jousting are bikers riding (and regularly falling off) motorcycles.  Furthermore, Harris, who sees his fair not as a business but a community, tries to live according to a knightly code of virtue and honour.  This does him few favours as the fair suffers money problems and attracts unwelcome attention from bloodsucking promoters and talent scouts, sensationalist journalists, crooked cops, rival motorcycle gangs and redneck crowds who just want to see motorbikes getting smashed.

 

© Laurel Productions

 

Knightriders is overlong and meandering and has about 15 characters too many, and at times it’s sentimental, melodramatic and hippy-dippy; but it’s also endearingly high-minded and decent-hearted.  It again shows Romero’s disdain for materialism and mindless conformism, though this time in human rather than metaphorical terms.  And Harris’s struggles in Knightriders reflect Romero’s uncomfortable relationship with the wider film industry, an industry that was all-too-happy to ignore him, exploit him, mess him around and rip him off.

 

In closing, I’ll say this to the spirit of George A. Romero.  Sir, you were responsible for a half-dozen films – the original Dead trilogy, The Crazies, Martin and Knightriders – that are extra-special ones for me.  I salute you.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

I greatly admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006).  However, I hadn’t felt any overwhelming urge to read No Country for Old Men (2005) – another of McCarthy’s more famous works – because in 2007 I’d seen its Oscar-winning film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen and I’d heard that the film followed the book closely.

 

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, I already knew the characters and plot of No Country for Old Men.  Also, I found the film vaguely dissatisfying.  As I rather pretentiously explained to a friend in 2007, “It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster where Jean-Paul Sartre’s head is stitched onto Clint Eastwood’s body.”  What I meant was that for most of its running time the film is a lean, ruthless and nasty thriller, a gripping piece of modern western noir.  But then near the end, its remorseless storyline just stops.  And after that, there’s a protracted scene where Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell character visits an elderly relative and announces his intention to retire because, basically, the world is a terrible place and he can’t handle it any longer.  Thus, the film seems to peter out amid lamentations of angst and existentialism.

 

I’d assumed that, since it was supposedly a faithful adaptation of the book, the book would have a similarly dissatisfying ending.  Which admittedly is a bit unfair towards poor old Cormac McCarthy.

 

A while ago I was back in Scotland and I spotted a second-hand copy of No Country for Old Men, the book, on sale in a local charity shop.  And with that jolt of horror you get occasionally when you’re growing older and you realise how quickly time seems to be passing, it occurred to me that it’d been a whole decade since I’d seen the movie.  I’d also forgotten a lot of what’d happened in it.  This seemed, then, a good opportunity to buy the literary version of No Country for Old Men and acquaint myself with it.

 

Here’s my opinion and, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead both for the book and for the film.

 

My main impression after reading No Country for Old Men was that, yes, for the most part, the Coen Brothers were remarkably faithful to the original when they made their movie.  As the story unfolds – a hunter and Vietnam vet called Llewellyn Moss stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-wrong on the remote Texas / Mexico border, lifts a satchel full of money and makes a run for it, only to be pursued by a gang of vengeful drug-dealing gangsters, as well as by a certain Anton Chigurh, a hitman so relentless, merciless and fearsome he makes the Terminator look like Bambi – I found near-identical scenes from the movie returning to my memory after ten years.

 

One difference between the book and the film that I noticed early on was when Moss, having scarpered with the money, nobly but foolishly decides to return to the scene of the massacre because he’d left behind one survivor, a badly-injured gangster who was begging for water.  When he comes back with some water for that survivor, the survivor is surviving no longer; and one of the gangs involved has sent along some new hoodlums to find out what’s happened to their drugs and money.  There follows a nail-biting chase across the desert, climaxing with Moss flinging himself into a river to escape the hoodlums.  In the film, the Coen Brothers ratchet up the suspense yet further by introducing a big attack dog that doesn’t appear in the book.  Even the river doesn’t deter the beast in its pursuit of Moss because it swims as fast as it runs.  Indeed, the dog is a crafty metaphorical foreshadowing of Anton Chigurh, who is soon pursuing Moss too.  If there’s one thing you want following you even less than a big attack dog, it’s him.

 

The book also has more of Sheriff Bell, the ageing lawman trying to find and save Moss whilst also keeping tabs on Carla Jean, Moss’s young wife.  At regular intervals, there are short chapters representing Bell’s stream-of-consciousness while he ruminates on existence and the general state of things.  “My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth…” he says at one point.  “And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it.”  This makes him a likeable and sympathetic character, but not too much so.  Later, as we hear more of his musings, we realise some of his views are quite reactionary and probably if he was still around in 2016 – the story is set in the 1980s – he’d have voted for Donald Trump.  These interludes also prepare us for the gloomy philosophical ending, in a way that we weren’t prepared for it whilst watching the film.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

For much of the book and film, the plot is an increasingly desperate and vicious cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, while various cannon-fodder Mexican gangsters turn up and get blown away.  McCarthy describes it all in his admirably economical and deceptively simple-looking prose, though lovers of punctuation will cringe at his brutal disregard for apostrophes and inverted commas.

 

It helps too that McCarthy seems au fait with the macho, rural and violent world he’s writing about: its gangland machinations, its police procedures, its vehicles, its guns: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot towards him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him…  Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest.  When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before.  It took the 150-grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that.”  I know little about McCarthy’s background – he’s very reclusive – and I’ve no idea if he’s really the man’s man, the rugged Hemmingway type, that he comes across as here.  But the fact that he does come across like that gives the telling of the story an extra conviction.

 

I felt apprehensive as I approached the novel’s end.  Would the main storyline finish as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as it did in the film – which had Bell arriving at a motel for a rendezvous with Moss, only to discover that Moss has just been killed (offscreen) by some Mexicans?  Leaving only the scene where Bell decides to call it quits, plus one where Chigurh pays a visit to the now-widowed Carla Jean?  (In the film, it’s implied that he executes her.  In the book, it’s spelt out more clearly.)  I assume that by ending it like this the Coen Brothers believed they were making a statement about the fickleness of fate and the randomness of life and death – and by this late moment in the story, Moss had surely used up all of his nine lives.  But having spent the most of two hours rooting for him, I wanted something more than a brief, flippant reference to him dying.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have liked a little more closure with the character.

 

In the book, Moss dies with an equal sense of arbitrariness – Bell gets to the motel and finds out that his man has just been assassinated.  However, there’s more.  The Coen Brothers, it transpires, had made a major break with this section of the book because they left out a character, a female teenage runaway.  McCarthy has Moss pick the girl up while she’s hitchhiking and while he’s making the fateful journey to the motel.  To be honest, the girl isn’t much of a character, being a think-she-knows-everything teenage brat.  As someone who was once a thought-I-knew-everything teenage brat myself, I can speak with authority here.  But at least her naivete provides some context for Moss, who by now is feeling as old, jaded and world-weary as Bell.  (Later, at the motel, she offers to sleep with Moss, but wanting to stay faithful to Carla Jean he turns her down.)

 

When Moss finally shows up, yes, the Mexicans have intervened and Moss is dead, as was the case in the film.  However, the book has a deputy tell Bell what happened from the eyewitness reports: “…the Mexican started it.  Says he drug the woman out of her room and the other man (Moss) came out with a gun but when he seen the Mexican had a gun pointed at the woman’s head he laid his own piece down.  And whenever he done that the Mexican shoved the woman away and shot her and then turned and shot him….  Shot em with a goddamned machinegun.  Accordin to this witness the old boy fell down the steps and then he picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican.  Which I dont see how he done it.  He was shot all to pieces.”  So at least Moss dies making an honourable (if futile) self-sacrifice to save the teenager, and he goes down with guns blazing, taking out one last bad guy.  That’s more like the closure I was looking for.

 

I know people who’ve objected to both versions of No Country for Old Men because of another disappearing plotline, the one involving Anton Chigurh – who in the film was memorably played by Javier Bardem.  Both the book and film end with him still on the loose, presumably being unspeakably evil and continuing to kill people.  But I don’t mind that loose thread so much.  I find it appropriate that McCarthy wraps up the story with Bell lamenting about the darkness of the world; while Chigurh still lurks in that darkness as a symbolic bogeyman.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

And my overall verdict?  I’d give McCarthy’s novel an impressive 9 out of 10, compared with a less impressive but still decent 7 out of 10 for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation – a couple of points being deducted on account of its ending.

 

Cinematically stoned

 

© Omni Zoetrope / United Artists

 

In my previous post I wrote about the late Anita Pallenberg and her finest cinematic moment, the dark and twisted 1968 crime / rock movie Performance.  This also starred Mick Jagger, fellow Rolling Stone and best buddy of Pallenberg’s then lover, Keith Richards.

 

Performance’s cocktail of rock stars, gangsters, drugs, decadence and debauchery was seen as representative of the culture surrounding the Stones in the late 1960s; and this, along with Pallenberg and Jagger’s participation, surely means it can be classed as a ‘Rolling Stones movie’.  Which begs the questions, “Are there other Rolling Stones movies?  And if so, what?”

 

After all, there’s been plenty of Beatles movies over the years: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968), Let It Be (1970), I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Birth of the Beatles (1979), Give my Regards to Broad Street (1984), The Hours and Times (1991), Backbeat (1994), Two of Us (2000), even The Rutles (1978).  But what of the Liverpudlian moptops’ less wholesome London rivals?  What’s been their contribution to cinema?

 

On the face of it, there isn’t a lot.  That is, if you don’t count the various documentaries made about them like Charlie is my Darling (1966), Jean Luc Godard’s oddball Sympathy for the Devil (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), a chronicle of their 1969 American tour that ended bloodily with Hells Angels-inspired carnage at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival.   And if you don’t count their many concert movies like The Stones in the Park (1969), Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982), Julien Temple’s The Stones at the Max (1991) (the first feature-length movie to be filmed in IMAX – because what you really want to see is a 100-feet-tall close-up of Keith Richards’ face, right?), The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1996) (plug your ears for the bit with Yoko Ono) and the Martin Scorsese-directed Shine a Light (2008), which provided the gruesome spectacle of leathery 60-something Jagger duetting with 20-something pop-moppet Christina Aguilera and prowling around her like a camp velociraptor.

 

There’s been little effort to film key events in the history of the Rolling Stones.  Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is the little-known Stoned (2005), about the possible circumstances of Brian Jones’s death.  And as for movies featuring Stones-members as actors, well, there’s just a couple of items with Mick Jagger – epics such as Ned Kelly (1970) and Freejack (1992).  Ouch and double-ouch.

 

© Walt Disney Productions / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Actually, you could make a case for the Pirates of the Caribbean series being Rolling Stones films as their star Johnny Depp famously based the voice, mannerisms and swagger of his Captain Jack Sparrow character on Keith Richards.  I thought Depp-playing-Keith-playing-a-pirate was a rib-tickling gimmick that elevated the first Pirates of the Caribbean instalment, back in 2003, from being a middling film to being an entertaining one.  Alas, Captain Jack / Johnny / Keith has gradually lost his novelty value as the sequels have become ever-more convoluted, repetitious and tedious.  For the third in the franchise, At World’s End (2007), the filmmakers had the bright idea of bringing in the real Keith Richards to cameo as Captain Jack’s pirate dad.  You can see his cameo here on Youtube, which saves you the ordeal of sitting through the whole poxy movie waiting for him to show up.

 

However, there’s one thing you can say about the Rolling Stones and celluloid.  In the right film, blasting over the soundtrack at the right moment, a Stones song can help create a splendid musical, visual and dramatic alchemy, turning a good cinematic scene into one that’s truly awesome.  Here are my all-time favourite uses of Rolling Stones songs in the movies.

 

© Taplin-Perry-Scorsese Productions / Warner Bros

 

Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets (1973)

Wow.  Martin Scorsese really likes the Rolling Stones.  Not only has he made a concert movie about them, the above-mentioned Shine a Light, but he’s used their music in umpteen films: Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006) and the one that first put him on the map, 1973’s Mean Streets.  Even today, more than 40 years later, the scene in Mean Streets where a young Robert De Niro comes swaggering through a bar, in slow motion, towards a pensive Harvey Keitel, while Jagger hollers in the background about being “born in a cross-fire hurricane”, is a great synthesis of rock ‘n’ roll music and rock ‘n’ roll cinema.  Indeed, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a fitting accompaniment for the arrival in popular consciousness of De Niro, who’d spend the rest of the 20th century showing Hollywood how to do proper acting.  (The 21st century, containing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Little Fockers (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011) and Dirty Grandpa (2016), is a different matter.)

 

Satisfaction in Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Stones’ early, primordial and still potent stomper Satisfaction gets a brief but memorable airing in Francis Ford Coppola’s baroque Vietnam War masterpiece, playing on the radio while Captain Martin Sheen and his not-exactly-fighting-fit crew go cruising up the Nùng River in search of Marlon Brando.  Cue some funky on-deck dance moves by a frighteningly young-looking Laurence Fishburne and some funny / cringeworthy water-skiing moves by Sam Bottoms that knock various Vietnamese people out of their fishing boats.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Alien Nation (1988)

Graham Baker’s sci-fi / cop movie Alien Nation isn’t very good.  Its premise of an alien community getting stranded on earth and having to integrate as best as they can with the curmudgeonly human natives was handled much better in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009).  But I do like a woozy, hypnotic scene in it where alien-loathing cop James Caan enters a sleazy alien bar while a lady-alien performs an erotic dance to the strains of Sympathy for the Devil.  Not the original Stones song, but a correspondingly woozy, hypnotic cover-version of it by the great Jane’s Addiction.  I can’t find a film-clip of the scene, but here’s the Jane’s Addiction cover.

 

© Légende Entreprises / Universal Pictures

 

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? in Casino (1995)

While Martin Scorsese serenades Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel with Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets, he employs the 1971 Stones song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? for another of his regulars, Joe Pesci, in Casino.  Remarkably, Scorsese plays all seven minutes of the Santana-esque Can’t You… as an accompaniment to a lengthy sequence showing how Pesci’s Casino character Nicky Santoro gets established in Las Vegas.  Predictably, the sequence has Pesci doing what Pesci usually does in Scorsese movies: being a psychotic shit, barking orders at hoodlum sidekicks twice his size, eating in restaurants, ingratiating himself with fellow Mafiosi, being a psychotic shit, cursing and swearing, getting a blow-job, being a psychotic shit, talking about food, knocking off jewellery stores, acting the loving family man with his non-criminal relatives… and being a psychotic shit.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Interview with the Vampire (1995)

It’s Sympathy for the Devil again.  And again, this isn’t the Rolling Stones original but a cover version, this time by Guns n’ Roses.  It’s as ramshackle, shonky and (for me) enjoyable as Guns n’ Roses’ other covers, which include ones of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Wings’ Live and Let Die.  In Interview with the Vampire, Sympathy… kicks in during the final scene when, to nobody’s great surprise, the supposedly-vanquished vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) reappears and takes a bite out of reporter Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater).

 

© Strike Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

Ruby Tuesday in Children of Men (2006)

Wistful Stones ballad Ruby Tuesday features briefly on the soundtrack of Alfonso Cuarón’s gruellingly pessimistic science-fiction thriller Children of Men.  It’s another cover, sung by Franco Battiato.  We hear it during one of the movie’s calmer moments when Theo (Clive Owen) is visiting his mate Jasper (Michael Caine), whose home provides a small pocket of sanity amid the unfolding dystopian grimness.  Amusingly, Caine, well known in real life for being a right-wing old grump given to moaning about his tax-bill, here plays a left-wing old hippy given to smoking super-strong pot.

 

© Plan B Entertainment / Warner Bros

 

Gimme Shelter in The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese loves the Rolling Stones and he loves their apocalyptic 1969 number Gimme Shelter in particular.  By my count he’s used it in three movies: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.  It’s best deployed at the beginning of The Departed, rumbling in the background while gangland thug Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) expounds his philosophy.  “I don’t want to be a part of my environment,” he intones, imbuing his words with that leery, languid menace that only Nicholson is capable of.  “I want my environment to be a part of me.”  Strangely, in Scorsese’s Shine a Light two years later, Gimme Shelter was one of the songs the Stones didn’t perform on stage.  So Marty missed a trick there.

 

Street Fighting Man in Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Director Wes Anderson also sticks Rolling Stones songs into his movies, but so far I haven’t mentioned him because I find most of his work insufferably smug and pretentious.  (Play with Fire figures prominently in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, an Anderson movie so twee it’s the cinematic equivalent of being force-fed with chocolate cake-mix.)  However, I like the scene in his stop-motion-animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox where, to the sound of the rabblerousing late-1960s Stones anthem Street Fighting Man, Farmers Bean, Boggis and Bunce use three diggers to tear up the den of the titular Mr Fox; forcing the den’s inhabitants to frantically dig an escape-route.  As Keith Richards might say: “We’re the Stones – you dig?”

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Farewell, Black Queen

 

© Dino de Laurentiis / Paramount Pictures

 

A word that frequently came up in tributes to the Italian model and actress Anita Pallenberg, who passed away last week, was ‘muse’ – i.e. muse to the Rolling Stones, a couple of whose members she was involved with during the 1960s and 1970s.  She started off as girlfriend to Brian Jones, was Keith Richards’ partner for more than a decade and was rumoured to have had a fling with Mick Jagger, though this rumour she always denied.

 

It was no doubt frustrating for Pallenberg to have her life defined almost entirely by the Rolling Stones, even though she was only associated with them for 15 years.  I read somewhere that she abandoned a project to write an autobiography because the publisher kept demanding that she put more in it about the Stones.

 

Still, if you’re a Stones fan, as I am, you should be toasting Pallenberg’s memory just now because she was with them during a period when they were truly on fire and deserving of the moniker ‘the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ – from the Beggar’s Banquet album (1968), through Let It Bleed (1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971), to Exile on Main Street (1972) – and her influence surely played a part in the band’s greatness at the time.  It’s said that once Beggar’s Banquet was in the can, Jagger took her advice and remixed the tracks; and she provided backing vocals for the album’s most famous and notorious song, Sympathy for the Devil.  The Stones’ then bodyguard and drugs procurer Tony Sanchez claimed that Pallenberg was into the occult and would carry around garlic and holy water to ward off evil, and I like to think her esoteric interests contributed to the spooky vibe that Sympathy is famous for.

 

Years later, when her relationship with Keith Richards was on its last legs, she at least provided the inspiration for Richards’ song All About You, one of the few good things on that duff Stones album Emotional Rescue (1980).

 

As an actress, Pallenberg’s filmography included the Marco Ferreri-directed Dillinger is Dead (1967) and the Marlon Brando film Candy (1968), but for sheer iconic-ness it’s her role as the villainous Black Queen in Roger Vadim’s sex-comedy-sci-fi-fantasy movie Barbarella (1968) that she’ll be remembered for.  Sporting a piratical eye-patch, Pallenberg doesn’t really have to do much acting in Barbarella, since her voice is dubbed by veteran actress Joan Greenwood.  But she looks great.  I have to say that for me she’s the only reason to watch Barbarella, as I’ve always found it annoyingly smug and leery and – worst of all – totally not funny.  Then again, I don’t think there’s any ‘swinging 1960s’ comedy movies that I like.  Yip, Help! (1965), What’s New Pussycat? (1965), Casino Royale (1967), The Magic Christian (1969), even The Italian Job (1969) – I hate them all.

 

© Goodtime Enterprises / Warner Bros

 

Pallenberg also appears, of course, in Performance (1968) – the famous and psychedelically weird crime-rock movie co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, which tells the story of an on-the-run gangster (James Fox) who holes up in a mansion belonging to a burnt-out rock star (Mick Jagger) and gets involved in some mind-bendingly druggy goings-on.  Pallenberg plays one of the mansion’s female inhabitants – she memorably welcomes Fox when he rings the doorbell by saying over the intercom, “Please leave a message after the beep.  Beep, beep, BEEP!”  Performance neatly captures the dark, dangerous aura that was popularly associated with the Stones at the time and it did the film’s scary reputation no harm that afterwards Fox underwent a ‘crisis’, dropped out of acting for a decade-and-a-half and became an evangelical Christian.  When I first saw the film as an impressionable teenager, it certainly blew my socks off.

 

Talking of socks…  Keith Richards had and still has a deep-rooted aversion to the film, thanks to the sexual shenanigans that Pallenberg supposedly got up to with Jagger during filming.  He believed these shenanigans were orchestrated by Donald Cammell, presumably as a way of getting Pallenberg and Jagger further ‘in character’.  In his autobiography Life, Richards describes Cammell as “the most destructive little turd I have ever met.”  But actually, if you’re to believe Life, old Keith didn’t have that much to complain about.  He claims that he got his revenge on Mick Jagger during the filming of Performance by nipping around to the house of Jagger’s then girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, and getting up to some ‘hot and sweaty’ hi-jinks with her.  Supposedly, while they were in the middle of this, Jagger unexpectedly arrived home – which led to Richards having to shin his way down the drainpipe from Faithfull’s bedroom window.  He was in such a hurry that he forgot to put his socks back on and left them lying on the floor.  However, Jagger, who was obviously a bit of a slob, didn’t think there was anything amiss about a pair of rogue socks littering Faithfull’s bedroom and suspected nothing.

 

Thanks to Richards’ loathing of Performance, one Jagger-Richards song that’s never been played at Rolling Stones gigs and is unlikely to ever be played at future ones is Memo from Turner, which soundtracks a particularly strange sequence at the movie’s climax.  On the Performance recording of the song, Jagger is the only Stone involved, doing vocal duties, while Ry Cooder plays slide-guitar (wonderfully) and Randy Newman plays piano.  It’s a shame that we’ll never hear a live Stones version of it as it’s a belter.  (I’m also partial to this cover of it by forgotten 1980s retro-rockers Diesel Park West.)

 

Then again, I guess the omission of Memo from Turner from Stones concert set-lists is another example of the lasting influence that the late Anita Pallenberg had over a band who, for a few heady years at least, really were the best in the world.

 

The boys are back in (the Auld and New) Town

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Finally, nearly five months after it went on cinematic release in the UK and just before it goes on sale there on DVD, I’ve been able to catch up with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting 2 in Sri Lanka.

 

It is, of course, the long-awaited sequel to Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), which somehow caught the zeitgeist of mid-1990s Britain, obsessed with Britpop and all things Cool Britannia.  How long ago that seems now…

 

To be honest, it annoyed me that the original Trainspotting got lumped in with the Britpop / Cool Britannia thing, even if the filmmakers opportunistically loaded its soundtrack with music by bands of the time such as Pulp, Sleeper, Elastica, Leftfield and Underworld.  (Ironically, the song that became the film’s signature tune, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, had nothing to do with 1990s Britain.)

 

To me Trainspotting sprang from an earlier, darker and less glamorous era than the one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark, Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress and Blur-versus-Oasis – namely, the mid-to-late 1980s, when a boom in heroin use and a subsequent, resultant HIV / AIDS epidemic in Edinburgh led to the city being dubbed ‘the AIDS capital of Europe’.  This became material for the book that inspired the film, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993), which is an altogether bleaker and rougher-edged work than Boyle’s cinematic version.  Though of course the film isn’t without its bleak or rough-edged moments either.  The worst toilet in Scotland, anyone?

 

Not that I’m complaining.  I think both Trainspotting the book and Trainspotting the movie are great and are classics in their respective fields, 1990s Scottish literature and 1990s British cinema.  So here’s what I thought of the new movie.  A word of warning – there will be spoilers ahead.

 

Trainspotting 2 also has its roots in an Irvine Welsh book, 2003’s Porno.  This reunited the four main characters of Trainspotting, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie, who in the original film were memorably played by Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle – actors who, in various stages of menopausal gnarliness, are also excellent in the sequel.  Porno was about their efforts to illegally raise money to fund a blockbuster porn movie called Seven Rides for Seven Brothers, which Sick Boy intended to film in the back rooms of the pub he’d just inherited from an aunt.  Its sub-plots included Spud trying to escape his heroin addiction by writing a book and a just-out-of-prison Begbie vowing to get bloody revenge on Renton, who at the end of Trainspotting (book and film) had run off with the all the money they’d made on a drugs deal.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Trainspotting 2 scriptwriter John Hodge retains these basic elements from Porno, but determinedly does his own thing with them.  Sick Boy owns a pub, but instead of wanting to shoot a porn movie on the premises he wants to turn it into a bordello.  Begbie breaks out of prison – in the novel he’s simply released – and first crosses paths with the hated Renton halfway through the movie.  This differs from the book, where Renton and Begbie’s first and last confrontation is saved for the climax.  And Spud, who in the book was attempting a write a history of his hometown Leith, here decides to use his past adventures, good and bad (though mostly bad), as the basis for a novel.  When you see him writing its opening line – “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy” – you realise what he’s doing.  He’s writing the original novel of Trainspotting.

 

I almost expected Trainspotting 2 to end with Spud’s completed manuscript falling through a time warp and ending up in 1993, where it arrives in the hands of Irvine Welsh, who sneakily passes it off as his own work.  Alas, that doesn’t happen.

 

One element of Porno that I’d expected Hodge and Boyle to dump, because it’d be too mysterious for cinema audiences who weren’t Scottish or Irish, surprisingly turns up in Trainspotting 2.  That’s the scam perpetrated by Renton and Sick Boy, whereby they break into and loot the bank accounts of various West-of-Scotland / Loyalist / anti-Catholic Glasgow Rangers supporters because they know what the four-number pin-codes are likely to be: 1690, the year of the Battle of the Boyne, when King William of Orange (King Billy to his fans) defeated the Catholic forces of James II and saved the countries of Britain for Protestantism.

 

In Trainspotting 2 this is compressed into a single sequence where Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a Rangers club in Glasgow to steal bank cards.  When their presence is noticed and they’re asked to entertain the punters with a song, they have to improvise like crazy to save their hides – and if you’re familiar with the culture that Boyle, Hodge and co. are poking fun  at, the result is hilarious.  In fact, I don’t expect to see a funnier scene in a film this year.

 

The great advantage that Trainspotting 2 has over the book Porno is timing.  Taking place in the early noughties, Porno’s characters were starting to realise that they wouldn’t stay young and reckless forever; but they could still act that way.  Set more than a dozen years later, Trainspotting 2 – whose making was delayed for a long time because of a rift between Boyle and Ewan McGregor – sees Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie firmly in the throes of middle age and reacting to it, for the most part, badly.

 

Renton and Sick Boy, when pissed and stoned, tend to retreat into a rosy, nostalgia-distorted version of their pasts where everything was, you know, better.  (This smartly allows Boyle and Hodge to duck the accusation that they’ve made Trainspotting 2 out of nostalgia for the 1990s.  No, they can argue, they’ve made a movie about nostalgia.)  It’s telling that in one scene they start obsessing about the legendary but ill-fated Northern Irish footballer George Best.  When the 40-something Renton recounts the famous ‘George, where did it all go wrong?’ anecdote, it seems he’s rewriting history for his own comfort.  No, he’s arguing, Best didn’t lose it as was commonly assumed.  He still had it – just as Renton himself believes he still has it.

 

Spud relates rather better to the past and his lost youth – he uses them creatively, as material for his writing.   Begbie, a psychopathic dinosaur, seems unable to grasp the concept of time, let alone the fact that it changes.  But even he’s starting to notice that he’s no longer the force he once was, something emphasised by a scene where he nicks a packet of Viagra.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

One difference between Trainspotting and Trainspotting 2 is that the new film makes much more of its Edinburgh setting.  The Royal Mile, the Grassmarket, the Cowgate, Cockburn Street, Harvey Nichols, the Scottish Parliament, the tram system, the Forth Road Bridge and Salisbury Crags are all used to good visual effect and even Edinburgh Bargain Stores and Edinburgh Castle Terrace Car Park look sexy during the movie’s comic and action set-pieces.  Indeed, the Scottish capital has rarely appeared so glamorous and exciting.  The days when ultra-Conservative Edinburgh councillor Moira Knox used to fulminate against Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting phenomenon for giving the city a bad name are long gone.

 

Like James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) – a sequel with which it shares an abbreviated nickname, T2Trainspotting 2 is immensely enjoyable but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original.  It can’t reach them.   The original Trainspotting (like 1984’s The Terminator) was iconically of its time and place and the ideas driving it, by virtue of being fresh and new, gave it a momentum that any follow-up simply can’t manage.  Nonetheless, Boyle and Hodge deserve kudos for resisting the temptation to just rehash the original and for exploring new territory with the characters, even if that territory is more ruminative and melancholic and less cinematically in-your-face exciting.

 

Trainspotting 2 isn’t the classic that its predecessor was, then, but it’s as good a sequel as I could’ve hoped for.  I think the adventures of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie should end here, though.  Just as the Terminator franchise ran out of steam after the second movie, I fear another entry in the Trainspotting franchise would be a sequel too far.  Yes, a Trainspotting 3: Rise of the Machines would probably be shite.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films