Wednesday, July 29, 2015

For DOCTOR WHO Geeks Only

The Tenth Planet has a formidable reputation in Doctor Who history for just three reasons: First, it introduces the Cybermen to the series. Second, It marks the end of William Hartnell's three-year-plus tenure as The Doctor, and ushers in his replacement, Patrick Troughton. And third -- the fourth and final episode does not exist anymore in any form other than an audio soundtrack, which has made an official DVD release or even a television airing impossible.

Alas, when one finally gets to see it, it does not live up to its reputation. Not even a little bit.

It is bad. It is bad and it is not good. 

Its most dismal failure lies in its function as a send-off for Hartnell. Watching this and the previous serial, "The Smugglers," it is evident that Hartnell is by no means on his last legs ... and that he seems to be trying even harder than usual, as if he's gotten a whiff of a dangerous scent in the air.  This is all the proof I need of Hartnell's later statement that he did not leave the show willingly.

The show at that time had a new producer who was no doubt eager to "prove" himself and "make" his career. He would not be able to accomplish either of those things as long as Hartnell remained on the show. He wanted a change of direction, and he wanted it fast: Hartnell -- as was the same case with Tom Baker years later -- stood in the way of that.

How badly did they want to get rid of Hartnell?

Hartnell doesn't even appear in the third episode. Instead, a double shot only from behind passes out and spends the runtime of the show unconscious. 

This is actually only slightly worse than what they do to Hartnell in the first two episodes. In these, he is kept quite firmly on the sidelines while new companions Ben and Polly do their over-emoting thing. (Ben and Polly have an ignominiously short history on the show, serving only to bridge the two incarnations of The Doctor before being written out as swiftly as they were introduced... and no wonder -- they are bland puddings indeed). 

The story focuses almost entirely on the American military guy who is in command of a North Pole base with an objective that's never clearly stated, but involves astronauts and spacecraft somehow. For three episodes, we are treated to the actor's hackneyed blustering and shouting and bullying and chest-thuumping: and then the character's son goes up in a rocket, and it gets worse from there. 

With literally the fate of the ENTIRE PLANET at stake, this jerk-hole is more concerned about saving his son. And he never lets you forget it. "I'm gonna save my son!" he blusters and shouts again and again.

As for the Cybermen, who certainly do look and sound interesting, their only significant appearance is in episode two -- where they are defeated ridiculously easily and single-handedly by Ben: who beats them by shining a flashlight in their eyes and then picking up the cyber-weapen when it's dropped.

It is bad and it is not good.

Because it hasn't been restored, the whole thing is all the worse for its grainy kinoscope footage and a soundtrack that makes everyone sound like Charlie Brown's teacher.

I'll be watching the final episode tonight, in the form of a fan restoration made using still photos. And although I like and look forward to Pat Troughton's Doctor, and the show would not likely be around today without his taking over the role when he did, still I feel sad not only for the loss of Hartnell, but for the shabby way in which his leaving was accomplished -- on and off the screen.

-- Frede.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Soldiers Feared His Name....

For some, it’s Superman or Batman. Being an old Marvelmaniac, you’d think for me it would be Spider-Man or Doctor Strange or the Fantastic Four or even Howard the Duck — all of whom I love, don’t get me wrong.

But they are not my pick for First Among Pulp Heroes. Not even Popeye or Doc Savage gets that honor in my book. Nope. 

The very first superhero that I ever encountered, and the one that still stands as the Leader of Them All, is Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

His modus operandi, smuggling goods from France in order to benefit the poor families along England’s coast, was very much in vein of Robin Hood, but as you might expect The Scarecrow was a good deal spookier in an era where “dark heroes” weren’t a dime a dozen. He was doing the Batman thing long before Batman, doing the Shadow thing long before The Shadow. By day, Doctor Syn was a parish Vicar preaching the bible: by night he was a ruthless smuggler who terrified English soldiers in the guise of The Scarecrow, a devil astride a glowing, fiery horse.

You’d be forgiven to believe that, like Robin Hood, Dr. Syn was an actual folk legend. In fact he was created in 1915 by writer/actor Russell Thorndike — who made the rookie mistake of killing off his hero (in a way that left no room for fudging) in the first book. From then on, through a total of seven novels, Thorndike was limited to writing about Syn’s colorful past. Clearly, at least at the outset, Thorndike did not know what he had … something that also manifests itself in the oblique way that he brushes aside the adventure sequences that should have been his bread and butter. As a pulp novelist, Thorndike was a man with a lot to learn; but then, the whole genre was in its infancy. It would be two years before Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars.

I first learned about Dr. Syn on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Disney had wartime assets that were frozen in England: it was only natural and sensible that he use the money to make movies on British soil with British subjects and all-British cast and crew members. One of these was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, starring a young Patrick McGoohan in the title role. The Prisoner was not yet even a gleam in McGoohan’s eye.

It was the early sixties. I was no more than four years old. Even though my exposure to Dr. Syn was limited to three successive Sunday Nights in the late summer (and a single re-run a couple of years later) The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh was such exciting viewing that I was still drawing pictures of the character years later, during sixth-grade classes (in school, as elsewhere, I lived in my own little world, my own mental bubble) — long after I had learned about Superman and Batman.

McGoohan gave a robust and virile performance, as you might expect, taking real pleasure at stonewalling pompous officers in his role as the town vicar, then donning rags and an eerie mask and tearing through the night on horseback, cackling like a lunatic. 

It was delightful. 

A few years back the Disney Company at last issued the entire three-part series (along with the recut theatrical movie version) on DVD, and this was one of those very rare occasions where something that I loved as a child not only lived up to my memories of it, but exceeded them. Despite a theme song that’s hokey by today’s standards, the show is pulp adventure at its very best. With its gorgeous (and authentic) locations, its clearly-delineated characters, exceptionally moody photography and top-notch performances all around, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh stakes a fair claim to being an unsung classic of the genre.

So naturally when I learned that there are two other film versions of Doctor Syn’s adventures, I had to track them down. Both are British made. The first, 1937’s Dr. Syn, featuring George Arliss in the title role, is truer to the details of Thorndike’s first novel (although it wisely leaves Syn among the living as the credits roll), but tepid in every other respect. Although it makes an attempt at creating a mood, Syn appears in Scarecrow drag just once, at a distance; meanwhile, the stakes seem remarkably low throughout. Arliss was an old man when he made the picture, which helps nothing. One gets the feeling that it played better in 1937 than it does today.

Hammer filmed the story again in 1962 as Captain Clegg (Night Creatures in the USA), with Peter Cushing as the bizarrely renamed “Doctor Blyss” — presumably this was done to distinguish their film from the Disney version, which was shooting at virtually the same time. The director, Peter Scott, appears to have watched the 1937 film closely, to have structured his version along the same lines and to have lifted its best bits, while inserting Hammer’s typical emphasis on sadism and sex.

It misses the mark by a wide margin. Syn takes an even more passive role in this version, leaving Oliver Reed to do all of the Night Riding, which again is sadly limited and under-played. When Cushing takes a harpoon to the back at the end of the picture (still milder than what happens to Syn in the book), it almost comes as a relief to know that there will be no sequels.

Say what you will about The Walt Disney Company and its many egregious sins against movie-making — but Walt Disney the man was a real showman who instinctively knew how to make pictures that would connect with an audience. He cast the best actors that he could find, employed the best art directors (his version of Syn is much more visually dynamic than any of the others), and was never above taking what worked from a book, and then chucking the rest — as witness Mary Poppins

The three Syn movies are inevitably of a piece: all recognizably the same, yet all wildly different from each other. That the Disney version actually shames the others may or may not prove anything. But by creating a straight-faced and straight-laced adventure yarn about a masked hero that took itself seriously and provided real thrills, Disney succeeded in a genre that defied Hollywood for decades before and since. 

— Freder. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Cine Round-Up

I like Giant Robots and I like Guillermo Del Toro, so I really wanted to like Pacific Rim; but there’s no getting around it, the movie is a god-awful piece of crap that can’t even be enjoyed on the level of a cartoon, because all of the Robot fights — every single one — take place at night in a monsoon and it’s impossible to see what the heck is going on. Del Toro should be ashamed of himself for getting involved in this thing — it is an astonishing waste of his talent. It does manage to hit Every Single Standard Hollywood Plot Point, and Every Single Tedious Cliche in the book, even giving us a happy romantic ending under conditions where such a thing should have been patently impossible. A couple of the actors — especially Idris Elba — make the best of some deeply hackneyed material, but that doesn’t give me back the two hours of my life that I wasted on this dreck.

On the other hand, Tim Burton (whose visual talent is typically only matched by his inability to tell a story) may have given us his best movie with Big Eyes. No doubt but that Burton has honed his skills since the early days, but I believe that working with a True Story has at last brought him down to earth and into the minds of his characters… at the very least, it’s forced him to reign in some, though not all, of his excesses. Amy Adams gives a supple performance while Cristolph Waltz, who amazed in Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, attacks his role with a knife, fork and relish. If, in the sixties and seventies, you just thought all those paintings of the big-eyed waifs were so tacky that they achieved a kind of greatness, you may be interested to learn that there is a fascinating story behind the art that plays on the themes of dominant and submissive personalities, self-esteem and self-worth, on identity and on the still-changing role of women in our culture. At the same time it plays into all of Burton’s strengths as a champion of pop-art. The final courtroom scene, which like the rest of the movie compresses reality without distorting it, is a triumph. Who would have thought that those tacky paintings would one day make you cheer?

Paperhouse is one of those dark-horse movies that builds its reputation over many years and becomes a classic on video and in the art houses. Today, it’s impossible to find a negative review of the film: I tried. Roger Ebert raved at the time, and now years later his voice is just part of the chorus. And yet, much as I wanted to like this picture with its stark design and its dream-world theme, I found my heart sinking the further I got into it. I did not like the big-eyed waif of a boy in the window of the house: not as a plot element nor as an actor. I did not like the mother. I did not like the script. I especially did not like the little girl in the lead role, who comes off as a brat and a pain in the ass, and who has none of the appeal of, say, Fairuza Balk in Return to Oz (she’s forty-one now? Are you fuckin’ kidding me?!). The “climax” of the movie consists of her running from one side of an island to a lighthouse at the other side… and running, and running, and running, and running, until I finally hit the fast-forward button (but not before shouting at the screen, “Fer crine out loud! Somebody take a pair of scissors to this thing!”). A movie about dreams and their impact on, and connection to reality should not be boring: and I found this to be a real yawner.

A lot of movies by Hayao Miyazaki have passed before my eyeballs in the past few weeks, with more to come, and all I really have to say about them is, “Doesn’t this guy ever make a bad movie?” I don’t think so. Arietty, closely based on Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers although re-set in contemporary Japan, is another gentle, lovely, remarkable picture, essentially co-directed by Miyazaki and his son. What’s especially pleasing about it is the ending, which avoids all the Hollywood cliches and leaves the characters with large and vital unanswered questions, though looking ahead with hopefulness. 

“The Crimson Pig” — Porco Rosso — is still his best movie, though. Just sayin’. It’s the Casablanca  of animated films. 

— Frede. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Cosby Show

For at least one white kid growing up in the 60's with undiagnosed Asperger’s (in fact the diagnosis did not even exist until the early 80’s), Bill Cosby was more than just a cultural phenomenon and one of the coolest guys on TV — he was also kind of a lifesaver.

Cosby was everywhere on TV in the sixties — on his own sitcom, on I SPY, on the Carson show and the Mike Douglas Show doing his stand-up routines — and just by being there, and by being the coolest guy in the room (especially on I SPY, where he was an equal co-star with Bob Culp, not Culp’s “sidekick”) he helped to shatter the cultural barriers that kept our culture lilly-white up to that time. 

He did it all well, but his stand-up was pure genius. When my dad brought home Cosby’s comedy albums in the late sixties, it was a kind of cultural bomb-burst. As a ten-year old kid I didn’t necessarily get all the jokes, or even understand all the words, but I knew it was funny, and I knew that funny opened doors.

It was when my father forced me to go to summer camp that Bill Cosby saved my life. As an Asperger’s kid, I couldn’t talk or interact with other kids the way that normal people do. But I had learned the Cosby routines by heart and I was a skilled mimic even in those days. Summer camp started out really, really bad — but in the end, Bill Cosby’s comedy made me a popular guy around the campfire. 

I knew Cosby was a Big Deal in popular culture, but for saving my life in summer camp, for that I loved him.

Later, as I grew into a young man, shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and stars like W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy and writers like Faulkner filled out my repertoire. But Cosby could always surface at any time: to this day, when I’m lost in some kind of social interaction, I’ll fall back on a quote from someone to express what I’m feeling. It can be that, or silence. 

So when all the rape accusations started coming out about Cosby… there were so many that they couldn’t be ignored, but I didn’t want to believe them. I never figured him as a saint (he was so very popular and so very cool in the sixties, and that kind of thing, feeling one’s oats in that kind of atmosphere, never results in Marital Fidelity), but still… you never want to believe that your favorite teacher when you were growing up was a child molester, and you never want to believe that your heroes are rapists.

Even as the evidence mounted against him, and he began to look more and more stoic in his public appearances, I just couldn’t believe it about him. It was easier to believe that this was just one more cultural lynching.

Cosby was a Great Man, and Great Men don’t do things like that.

But now it’s come out that he has confessed to it all. We have it from his own mouth. And I’m so sad. This is what he’s going to be remembered for: all of his accomplishments, the fact that he almost single-handedly integrated TV, all this is going to be wiped away. The fact that his comedy helped a white kid with Aspergers get along and get through in this world, it’s like that never even happened. And it can’t be any other way: we can’t excuse what he did, just because he was a “Great Man” in the other parts of his life. I still shake my head and push back the tears and wonder why? Why would he do it?

My Mom had it figured out years and years ago. She said, “Sometimes the smartest men in the world are also the most stupid men in the world when it comes to — some things.”

— Frede.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Doctor is In....

I now have in my Movie & TV library, in one form or another, every episode of the British television series Doctor Who, in its original format. I don’t mean just the hugely popular revived series, going on nine seasons now — no, I was a fan of Doctor Who before it became fashionable. I mean the whole shebang, including the original half-hour series that ran from 1963 through 1989, 813 episodes in all.

For the better part of two weeks, my computer worked 24/7 pulling it down, season by season, from the torrenty dark area of the interwebs. They’re out there, and they are not hard to find if you look in the right places. The season “sets” even include fan-made reconstructions of the missing episodes that were famously and stupidly burned by the BBC pre-1975.

Every. Single. Episode.

I do not feel guilty about getting the bulk of the series free in this way, because when it comes to Doctor Who, I gave at the office. The Beeb has always treated Who as a Cash Cow to be milked dry; on Home Video they have limited the releases (excepting only two seasons) to the individual stories, four to six episode blocks, at a minimum of $20 a pop. Vast swaths of Who can’t be bought at all, and the parts of it that can will put your credit card into the Intensive Care Unit.

My first exposure to the original series happened back in the mid-eighties, when local PBS stations began to air Who in the form of edited compilations, so-called “movie versions” that presented the stories in a way they were never meant to be shown.

You really had to be a fan to appreciate the show in that butchered format. These god-awful “movie versions” were never less than 90 minutes long; some ran in excess of two and a half hours. This had the effect of inflating all of the programme’s shortcomings to a gigantic scale. The cheap effects, the wobbly sets, the sometimes dodgy acting by the guest cast, and worst of all, the pacing… Doctor Who was conceived and structured as a half-hour serial. You wouldn’t take eight episodes of the original Dark Shadows, splice them together and call it a movie — but that’s exactly what the Beeb did to Doctor Who.

When something is presented to you as a movie, you expect it to live up to movie standards. Unlike the modern series, “classic” Doctor Who doesn’t.

It wasn’t until well into the advent of Home Video that I had the opportunity to see the show in its (immensely more digestible) original format — and because the Home Video releases have been so expensive, the greater bulk of Doctor Who is still only known to me from that one viewing, thirty years ago, of those wretched “movie versions.”

One exception to this was the fan-made “reconstructions” of destroyed or missing episodes. This era (happening something like fifteen years ago when VHS was still the standard for Home Video) didn’t last long, but was fun while it lasted.  

Shortly after the discovery that audio recordings and still photographs existed for all of the episodes that the BBC had foolishly destroyed, a number of die-hard Doctor Who fans, working separately and together, assembled new video presentations combining the stills and audio with every scrap of existing footage, some of which was gleaned from sources as interesting as the Australian TV censors! These same fans then put together a free distribution network for their product. You could send them a bunch of blank VHS tapes, and they would dupe their reconstructions onto your tapes and send them back to you. 

This wasn’t just a way to see whole swaths of Doctor Who that I had never seen before. It appealed to me because it was also pure “Our Gang” industry, just a bunch of amateurs doing something for the love of it, to please themselves and benefit other fans. 

Broadband internet and easy DVD creation should have helped these projects; instead they seem to have had the opposite effect. Last year when I tried to replace my VHS copies of the reconstructions, I found that I couldn’t. Perhaps the BBC had stepped in and squashed the effort — this wouldn’t be surprising. Regardless of the reasons, though, the reconstructions suddenly became lost to me again. 

That’s one of the things that changes right now. 

For the first time ever, I get to watch full seasons of the original series in its intended form. Taken in this way, the show is deeper; it sinks in to your subconscious and becomes a part of your life. For me, the William Hartnell years were little more than a blur on my radar: now, nearing the middle of his second season (I started watching with Season Two and plan to view a full season for each Doctor, one after the other, before going back to Hartnell), I see the depth of his performance: there is mystery here, and also a good deal of regret and sadness. The effects and settings sometimes do require you to mentally step back in time, but this is not a bad thing. The stories, though still leisurely by today’s standards, are better paced and have more impact when taken in twenty-four minute installments. And especially if you can successfully travel mentally in time back to 1964, the level of imagination and inventiveness that went into the show can be breathtaking. Was there anything else like it, anything else so imaginative in its day? No, and not even close. It’s easy for someone used to the technical aptitude of the modern Doctor Who series to go back and declare that these early shows look primitive: they do. But in 1963, where else could you find fantasy ideas so eloquent, or a character so rich? Not anywhere on television, certainly. Not anywhere in Time or Space.

— Freder.

Friday, June 26, 2015

One Less Avenger to Make Life Worthwhile...

The world lost two great men yesterday: because Patrick Macnee was John Steed and John Steed was Patrick Macnee.

The “espionage craze” of the sixties gave us Spies high and Spies low. It gave us James Bond of course, but it also gave us the Mission: Impossible team, John Drake, Matt Helm, our man Flint, Kelly Robinson & Alexander Scott, Solo & Kuriaken, Maxwell Smart, Boris Badinov, and a host of others. It was deep and far-reaching in our culture in a way that it has never been since. Those of us born in that era grew up with spies in our blood. 

For some of us, the greatest among all of these were The Avengers. If the name evokes images of star-spangled costumes and green-skinned behemoths, you are thinking of the wrong Avengers. That group took their name from a small team of British spies made up of both professional and amateur operatives: most often it was a team of two, sometimes as many as three or (rarely) four, but from the mid-1960s through the early 80’s the pivotal member of that little team was John Steed.

Steed has been characterized “the perfect British gentleman,” but for me that description falls far wide of the mark. It’s true that Steed had the polish of an English gentlemen, but English gentlemen do not go around hitting people over the head with bowler hats lined in steel. English gentlemen are often stuffy and conservative; Steed was neither of those things. Rather, John Steed was a man of the world, who knew how to enjoy life and how to get right down into it and play without ever mussing up his suit. 

It was this playfulness of spirit that marked Macnee and Steed. Other actors have portrayed Steed over the years, but have always ended up embarrassing themselves in a role that was never meant for them. Ralph Fiennes infamously played Steed in a disastrous “major motion picture” (opposite an equally miscast Uma Thurman and Sean Connery, whose portrayal of the villain pretty much consisted of trotting out his own worst personality defects for the world to see) that captured the quirks of the beloved TV series but missed its heart. Fiennes emphasized the “English Gentleman” bit and came off a right twat: never smiling, never enjoying himself.

The John Steed I knew (and the man who created him) was generous with his smile. He had a great, warm smile and he shared it even with his enemies. Like Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, his smile was disarming, and it might proceed a generous serving of champagne or a blow across the face. Life’s a game, after all, and what’s the point in playing it if you can’t enjoy yourself — whether you’re fighting an Evil Genius or sharing some well-earned downtime with your stunning partner in Avenging? 

The Avengers was a shining moment in television history, especially for the two seasons that featured Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel; and Patrick Macnee was its heart.

As an actor, Macnee did not have a broad range and was the first person to admit this. He was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, and in fact had given up acting entirely when the role of John Steed in The Avengers came along. Perhaps he knew instinctively that it suited him. Perhaps he thought of it as a lark. Certainly when the equally playful Diana Rigg joined the cast, the show became something akin to the games of espionage that we played in the long summers when school was out. This was where John Steed and Patrick Macnee became one — and the two became the most wonderful role model that any young man could have. 

For in the face of Great Evil, John Steed paused and raised a glass. He took the time to let his partner know how very much he enjoyed their company. Then and only then, armed with grace and Good Feeling, would he plunge into the fray.

— Freder.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Enter Mister Borgman

This past month has made a believer out of me: if the Moon can control the tides, who knows what effects the other planets can have on this, that and the other thing — and I am all too happy to blame this rotten past month, and all of the ways in which it has failed me and I have failed myself on the combined retrograde of both Mercury and Pluto. 

It’s been a vampire month. It’s been bed enough that I’d have been better off to just crawl under a rock and pull it in after me; as it is, the best time I’ve spent during these weeks has been in front of the telly.

To call the Dutch film Borgman a “vampire movie” would be to set up unreasonable expectations in prospective viewers. There are no fangs, no bloodsucking, no capes, none of the Hollywood tropes that people expect when they hear the word. Indeed, going into Borgman without knowing anything, it would be reasonable to believe, at first, that you were watching a plain psychological thriller about an oddly charismatic type worming his way into a well-to-do Dutch family; but that wouldn’t explain some of the oddnesses that run throughout the movie… and most of the negative reviews (in the minority) that I’ve seen about the picture seemed to have been written by people who failed to make the connection, who saw these oddities as just being weird for the sake of being weird.

But once you have accepted the fact that Borgman is all about a strain of vampirism that we have not seen on the screen before, it all makes perfect, horrible sense. As the movie opens, the titular character — a wildly hairy yet fascinating hermit-type played by Jan Bijvoet (the resemblance to Charles Manson is no doubt intentional) — is being hunted by a priest with dogs and stakes. His lair is concealed in the forest, underground, with escape tunnels dug under the roots of trees. None of this is explained; nor is anything explained that follows, including the silent dogs that let themselves into people’s houses at night, or the mysterious scars on the backs of Borgman and his “family” of murderers. That Borgman possesses some overt supernatural ability is expressly stated: sitting nude astride a sleeping woman, he affects her dreams with the power of his thought. He moves silently, swiftly, and unseen when he wishes it. And yet when the time comes for murder, Borgman’s crew use altogether conventional methods. 

Its most horrifying moments occur in the plain light of day, under dreamily sunny skies. Few words are spoken. By the time we realize that Borgman is not psychological suspense, but in fact a full-on Horror Movie, it’s too late: we are in the vampire’s spell right along with the doomed family. Gradually, we realize that he is not interested in the adults, but only working through them to get at the children of the house. Fresh blood is what his family seeks. The final scenes play out in almost complete silence, and are as quietly chilling as anything you will have ever seen onscreen.

As such I think it’s the best modern horror movie in many a moon; destined, if it can find its audience, to become a classic of the genre. It has both the sense of cunning playfulness and the visual restraint that all really good horror movies must have (its single most graphic moment occurs in a dream); and it presents a very old monster in a strikingly fresh and modern way; Borgman himself has the weight of a Great Cult Figure in the making.

Borgman is unrated in this country, but would probably be a soft R or a strong PG-13. It has some mild sexuality, more than one usage of the word “fuck,” some intense and unnerving scenes, and one very brief flash of bloody violence.

— Freder.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Brave New World

If you come around here often enough, you’ll know that I’ve already made a couple of posts about Peter Jackson’s trilogy of movies based on The Hobbit. Here’s one more, one last post, in which New Developments emerge from the corners of Fandom to change everything. Even if you don’t like Tolkien or movies based on his books, read on — something interesting is happening here.

I think of Jackson as a talented, driven, hard-working man who has no sense of self-control and never knows when to stop. For The Lord of The Rings, New Line was very hands-on with its investment and insisted on Jackson working with a team of producers who somehow kept his excesses under tight control. Since the success of those movies, he has been given carte blanche on every picture he’s made; and in all that time he has failed to produce a single movie that wasn’t bloated beyond the capacity of any sensible audience to endure.

Mister King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the world, isn’t even introduced in Jackson’s movie about him until about nine hours into the runtime. He then spends about fifteen hours fighting dinosaurs, five hours trashing depression-era Manhattan, and I know he spent around three hours staring lovingly into Naomi Watts’s eyes before finally dropping from the Empire State Building. As I recall, it takes a half-hour for him to hit the ground. And that’s in the theatrical release! God only knows how many hours those bugs chomp on Andy Sirkis’s head in the extended version.

Well… I’d better cut to the chase myself.

Turns out there are other people out there who agree with me that three long movies are more than a little bit excessive to adapt Tolkien’s 300 page novel to the screen — and some of them are doing something about it.

For someone of my generation (mostly grown up before the VCR came along and began radically altering our culture), it’s nothing short of a revelation to learn that the technology we have today, available to everyone, is now so powerful that anyone with the Will and the time on their hands can make their own re-cut of Jackson’s movies — and post it online in full high-definition video and sound.

That’s right — there are a few fans out there who have re-cut Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy into a single three-hour movie. And they haven’t just shortened it: they have re-arranged some scenes, restructured others, and basically shaped their own unique movie out of the piles of footage that Jackson so thoughtfully provided them.

I’ve downloaded one of these versions, watched most of it — and am amazed at what one fan can accomplish. All the bloat is gone, all the sub-plots are gone, all the fart and belch jokes are gone; at last we have a movie that  can stand side-by-side with the Rings Trilogy, occupying its proper proportions to those films… and here’s what’s even more jaw-dropping: it looks and sounds just as good as the theatrical release! 

The first hour of Jackson’s An Unexpected Journey is compressed neatly into 25 minutes, with no sense that we as viewers are missing anything. Beyond that point, Underhill Editor has mainly lopped out all of Jackson’s CGI Action excesses: the barrel ride down the river, which lasts an eternity in Jackson’s version and features orcs and elves flying around shooting arrows all over the screen, now lasts a few seconds and plays out just as it does in the books: the dwarves simply float down the river to safety. It is an absolute joy to watch. 

A few transitions are slightly awkward, and in the final reels the editor is forced to get quite ruthless (he solves the problem of The Battle of Five Armies simply by having Bilbo unconscious for most of it) — but what’s amazing is that the thing isn’t choppier than it is: the editor has even worked on the music cues so that the soundtrack flows smoothly. 

It is brisk, and sometimes, it must be admitted, too brisk. If Jackson had followed his original plan and given us just two Hobbit movies it might not even have been necessary. I know that there will be times when I actually do want some extra flourishes, times when I actually will re-visit Jackson’s films in their entirety… but I now regard them as “The Extended Version;” while for me the Definitive Cut, the one that I will watch every other year in conjunction with the Rings trilogy, is the one created by the Masked Man (or woman) known as “Underhill Editor.”

Now as you might have guessed, all of this Highly Illegal. I just can’t even imagine how many copyright laws this violates. So I’m not going to give you any links, you’ll have to find it on your own. “Underhill Editor” is a kind of creative Robin Hood doing all of us fans a great service; it’s my hope that the Copyright Police of Nottingham never manage to pin him or her down.

In order to get my greedy hands on a copy, I had to learn about something that was completely new to me: Bit-Torrenting. 

The sound you hear is that of Doors Opening. And all I have to say is, “Oh, my.”

That, and perhaps the same thing that the recut Hobbit makes me say: “Ain’t technology wundafil?” 

Yeah, I’ll probably be commenting on more movies in the near future.

— Freder

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Zircus in Action!

This is just one of several YouTube videos created by Rach Jardine, TarotNinja, showing my Zirkus Mägi tarot deck in action. Take it away, Rach! -- and when you're done, why not head over to my commercial site, Tarot by Duck Soup?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ticking... Ticking...

It occurred to me this morning, with some sadness, that my Grandparents on both sides of the family have been dead and out of my life for longer than they were ever in it. On my Dad’s side, both of his parents have been gone for damn near forty years. First his mother to dementia, then, while I was still in high school, his father — who was mowed down in the street by a young dunderhead driving with a girl in his lap.

My mother’s parents died in the mid-eighties: first her dad, who went quite suddenly one morning while he was getting dressed, and then her mother, who lived on several more years in decreasing health and increasing grief and bitterness.

It pains me to think that the mid-eighties are now thirty years gone. They’ve been gone more than half of my life.

It’s true that my grandparents live on in my memory, and that they were of such great importance to my youth that their impact is still felt by me today, all out of proportion to the amount of time I actually had with them. I miss them very much. That I am relatively safe and secure today (although that could always change in a flash: life has a bad habit of doing that to you) is entirely due to the efforts of my Grandpa Claude. I wish that I possessed an ounce of his sense.

Now my mother has been gone for five years, and to a great extent those five years have whooshed by in a blur worthy of Quicksilver or The Flash. I hope and trust and am pretty well sure that I will not live long enough to be able to say the same thing about her that I can now say about my grandparents.

I can pretty much guarantee that most people of my generation do not think of ourselves as being old: although we see increasing signs of it on the horizon, and young people seem to go out of their way to make us feel ancient. But we are not living in the world of our present anymore. As my friend BC pointed out to me recently, we are living in those decades and years that we used to look ahead on with awe, wondering what it would all be like and if we would have our flying cars by then. We are living in the future. 

Which makes me think, “Damn, enough of this chain of thought. Shake a leg. You have work to do.”

— Frede.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"GO" Already. Just GO!

In a fit of boredom the other night, I signed up for HBO-GO, the new service from the company created to support people with AppleTVs or Amazon Fires or suchlike similar devices. Not more than an hour later, my seven-day free trial came to a premature end when I logged into iTunes and cancelled the thing.

It wasn’t (really, it wasn’t) that I’d been promised access to the complete HBO library, whereas what was really on offer was maybe less than half of what I presume their library to contain (no Tales from the Crypt, for instance). No, what really prompted me to git outta town while the gittin’ was good was simply this: everything that HBO has ever made makes me feel Icky.

I knew that I wasn’t going to like Game of Thrones, the series that everybody and her second cousin is raving about. I am just not a fan of the genre, that sort of mediaeval royal intrigue where the whole show involves everyone just plotting against everyone else, everyone just waiting for their opportunity to slide a knife between the next person’s shoulder blades. This is just simply Too Much Like Real Life to interest me. I got enough of it working at the Waterville Morning Sentinel and at Colby College and other places: since the real world is so very much like that, why would I want to spend my free time watching TV shows about it? My impression of Game of Thrones, never having seen a frame of the show or read a word of the books, was that it was just More of The Same, only with tits and gore.

I didn’t expect it to be shoddily made as well. And yet, right there in the first five minutes of episode one, there were obvious tire tracks in the snow when the riders went out to… do whatever they were going to do. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, this is just crap workmanship. Then, after a bit, it seemed like something scary or gory was going to happen, so I hit the fast-forward button: and yes, right there in the first five minutes, off goes someone’s head and plop! into the snow. 

Ick. This is just Not for Me. I backed out and tried Deadwood instead.

Well. The thing about Deadwood is that you can IMMEDIATELY tell it’s an HBO show because everyone says “fuck” and “cocksucker” every other word. Other than the shock value, this adds absolutely zero to the story; and “shock value” seems to be the main thing that interests HBO. In the first five minutes of episode one, we get an extremely unpleasant and hands-on hanging; in the first ten minutes someone has been graphically shot through the head, and Brad Dourif, acting even crazier than usual, gets to run a steel rod into the wound, straight through the head and out the other side — the side facing us. 

And yes, Ian McShane is as knock-down brilliant as you would expect playing Al Swearengen, the barkeep and de facto owner of the town. But — this is the lead character. The lead character is supposed to have at least some likable or redeeming quality: Swearengen has none. I just don’t want to invest even a tiny part of my life in a show about people as reprehensible as this.

At this point I did not feel up to sampling The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. I was already feeling covered in Ick. I did skate through the selection of soft-core porn that HBO also offers, and even this was bad: how freakin’ long can you watch a massage?

I said, out loud, “That’s it.”

And went on to spend a lovely two hours with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Maytime from 1937. Much, much more my speed. Y’all can keep your Icky HBO modern world. I will confine myself to entertainment that doesn’t punch me on the nose or try to shock me every five minutes. My new motto: “Life is too short to include HBO.” But, hey — at least the “B.O.” constitutes Truth in Advertising. 

— Frede.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An ISBN for the Zirkus

It's official -- the First Edition of my Tarot of the Zirkus Magi is now available on Amazon: In order to make that happen, I had to assign an ISBN to the deck. That number is 978-0-9884140-5-1 -- so now, theoretically at least, it can be ordered by and from brick-and-mortar bookstores everywhere.

-- But the fact is that you can get it cheaper and with less fuss and with more options direct from my site. It's available right here in the sidebar, or you can go to and see all the other decks I have on offer. From Fortune Telling Playing Cards to Lenormand to oracle decks to tarot, there's an awful lot to see, with more on the way! Why buy a crappy mass-produced deck from the likes of U.S. Games Systems when you can get something unique direct from the artist? 'Nuff said!

-- Frede

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Light and Dark and Off the Beaten Track

It goes without saying that Hollywood no longer knows how to make movies. What may be news is that it doesn’t even know how to distribute or market the good movies being made in other countries.

Miss Minoes is a charming children’s move from the Netherlands about a cat that’s transformed into a young woman. If you’re concerned about the how or why of that, this is not your movie. However, if you just accept the premise, and if you enjoy such things in a children’s picture as: good performances (especially from the mesmerizing Carice van Houton in the title role); a child lead who is not offensively precocious; a gentle, humorous adventure in which  justice prevails and an unlikely romance blooms; and if you prefer a children’s movie that doesn’t hit you over the head with some insipid “message” about friendship or self-empowerment, then Miss Minoes should be right up your alley, cat.

The movie was made fourteen years ago, and released in America for about five minutes under the misguided and not very enticing title Undercover Kitty. Hollywood seems to have done everything in its power to bury the thing. Hollywood does this, frequently, to movies that it does not understand (does anyone remember Bamboozled?) or that threaten to outperform its own product. I found it on iTunes. Glory be to this science-fictional, content-on-demand world that we now live in, in which almost nothing stays dead and buried forever so long as the rights issues can be sorted out.

Emotions that have stayed buried for too long are the subject of the Australian horror movie, The Babadook. If you are one of those Icky people who actually enjoys the kind of blood-soaked, gore-laden exercises in cruelty that Hollywood is currently passing off as “horror movies,” (horrible movies would be the better description) then again this is not your movie. 

Unrated in this country, it deserves a PG-13 but would probably be given an R by our nonsensical MPAA system that can’t even come up with a list of standards that makes sense to itself. There is minimal blood, no gore, and the only person who dies in the whole picture did so some years before the story begins. So-called “jump scares” are nonexistent in the picture, which favors dread and suspense over shock value. That said, the emotions run very high indeed, and lead actress Essie Davis deserves a medal of honor for a performance that goes for broke and leaves nothing at the gate.

The monster of the movie’s title is seen only in shadow: but it is as dynamic as any movie monster and carries more impact than most. Without, hopefully, spoiling too much of the plot, this is a real-life monster that we must all meet, and deal with, sooner or later. The people who don’t appreciate this movie’s denouement are either too thick to “get” what the filmmaker is saying — or else they have never yet experienced the thing that the monster represents; which is to say that they have lived a blessed, merciful life so far, and cannot be faulted for their good fortune. For the rest of us, The Babadook offers a powerful release of negative emotion, feelings that we never asked for, but which inevitably take up residence in our emotional closets, ready to pounce when we are least able to face them.

— Frede

Friday, May 15, 2015

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963

image from The Zirkus Lenormand
It’s taken me almost as long to recover from having guests as it took me to have them. It may end up taking longer. “Getting” your groove back and “got” it are not the same, and I’m still in the category of “getting.”

I have no fresh, eye-opening insights about the trial of guests coming to stay. It’s hard, and that’s all. When the guests are family, it’s even more of a trial. When one is your parent and the other thinks she is your parent — that’s the worst of all. 

My father and I, as you already know if you go back a while with this blog, have not been on good terms for most of my life; so to have that relationship Mostly Functioning, even after an event like this, is a triumph and a miracle. Sure, it would have been easier to spend the same amount of time with him if we could have spread it out over a couple of months — but that’s not an option for us anymore. Gone are the days when we could meet for lunch and go our separate ways. We have entered the era where any visit amounts to a Home Invasion.

Of course parents never stop being your parents, even when you are in your fifties and thought you had attained, at long last, a hard-won Independence. It’s worse when you have a basically submissive personality, as I do whenever I am not sitting at the word-processor keyboard.

For a solid week I walked around feeling four feet tall, feeling like I had no authority in my own house. Dad alone I could have handled: but his wife is an out-of-control, runaway steam engine, and the two of them together completely overwhelmed me. 

On her own terms and turf, she is who she is and that is fine. I accept her as my father’s wife, as someone who is important to him; but there is a line that cannot be crossed, and I will not accept her as my “step-anything.” I had one mother. She was enough. This woman’s position as my Dad’s wife buys my respect for her in that position… and that is all.

So to have this steam-engine, this whirlwind, swoop into my life and begin "fixing" everything from my upstairs toilet to my home mortgage was a mind-numbing-event, an imposition of staggering proportions. 

“That’s just the way she is,” Dad says, in the process putting up with behavior that he would not have tolerated for an instant from my mother. “You just have to take her as she is.”

She is a woman who has clearly never asked herself the question, “How would I feel if a guest came to my house and behaved as I am behaving?” This is a woman who has never heard of the Golden Rule and would brush it aside if anyone confronted her with it. 

On their first night, as we passed the bathroom, I showed them the towel rack. I said, quite clearly: “This is the hand towel. That hanging over the shower is my towel that I dried off with this afternoon. These hanging here are clean towels for you.

They weren’t listening to me. I could tell. And the next morning, sure enough, the two towels they had used to shower with were the hand towel and mine. The two nice clean towels I had set out for them were ignored. It’s just perfectly symbolic of the whole week: they didn’t think they had to listen to me about anything.

She re-arranged my refrigerator, so that I couldn’t find my milk or my eggs. When I put it all back the way that I wanted it, she re-arranged the fucking thing again.

She roared through my gardens and imposed her cyclonic will upon them, not stopping at ripping up trees that I had planted with my own two hands. I am trying to cultivate a gothic look: this was not part of her agenda, and not to be respected.

She “fixed” my upstairs toilet (although I am pleased to say that this was a failure: it’s as bad now as it ever was) and re-caulked my bathroom tub. 

The food that I bought to feed us all for a week is now sitting in the freezer, because she made it impossible for me to plan a single meal: she doesn’t like the way I cook things, which is as they should be cooked. I use real butter, not margarine (which even microbes don’t recognize as food), and sea-salt — a substance forbidden in her house. I cook things in the oven and on the grill and in pots and pans. She cooks absolutely everything in the fucking microwave — even meat. My hero Gordon Ramsay would take her apart in nothing flat, and I desperately needed Gordo to swing by the house and yell at her.

She left coffee mugs and spoons and shit sitting out in my cooking space, and then used the area meant to handle the run-off from drying dishes as her cooking space. My cats walk there. It’s not a sanitary cooking space. But you can’t tell this woman anything. Try to tell this woman anything and she will yammer you to death in her high-pitched pigeon English.

She even tried to re-arrange my basic finances, by proposing to buy my mortgage from the bank — and then giving me just 24 hours to make the decision. 

I’m a person who can’t decide what to have for dinner in that amount of time. In the end, out of sheer frustration at not being given enough time to think about it, I turned her down: and only now, more than a week later, do I appreciate the wisdom of that decision. 

I could not work, on anything, the whole time that they were here. I could not even meditate to clear my head or emotions. Technically, I had the time  to do the latter: but only at the end of the day, when I was too shagged out and emotionally exhausted to do anything more than check my email and then drag myself to bed. 

Tougher than any of this was having to watch the two of them together. Nothing is simple with them: even the smallest decisions they make have to be negotiated. I saw a different man from the one I grew up with. I saw him being careful and considerate and affectionate. He never treated my mother with even the tiniest fraction of respect that accords this woman. Seeing this side of him now, and knowing that he broke my mother’s heart, that he turned her into what she became… I had to turn away to hide my tears. 

They literally drove me to drink. As soon as they left on Saturday morning, I went to the stupor-market and bought myself a big bottle of vodka. It turned out not to be as bad a lapse as it could have been, because at some point I was able to say to myself: “Don’t let them do this to you. Don’t let them have this effect on you. You have work to do. Get on with it.” And so — a little the worse for wear, I did.

It wasn’t all bad. Dad and I were able to “make some memories.” I enjoyed much of the time that I was able to spend with him. We did some things together, we talked a lot, we had some fun. It’s a reminder, I guess, that nothing good comes cheap.

— Frede

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Announcing the tip of an Iceberg:

For many years before and after World War II, both in her native Estonia and in America, Mme. Loviise MÄGI plied her trade as part-time aerialist and full-time fortune teller with the little family-owned ZIRKUS MÄGI *. Upon her death in October  1968 at the age of 72, among her effects was found a strange hand-made divination deck, purportedly created at least one hundred and fifty years earlier by her great grandmother, the cartomancer KATRIN LAINE KALLASTE. Indeed, Mme. Loviise’s only child, Mirjam Vargas, remembered the deck well, and confirmed that her mother used it only for personal and family readings. 

From the early 1800s until her death at a relatively young age late in 1832, at approximately the same time when a certain Mlle. LENORMAND was making such a name for herself in and around Paris, Mme. Kallaste plied her trade among the Balkan nobility and visiting Russian heads of state, gaining a notable reputation as a seer of outstanding ability, using a system of her own creation. Upon her sudden death under mysterious circumstances, however, both her name and the system that she created — widely believed by all who had been exposed to it to be more effective by far than that created and used by Mlle. Lenormand — sank into obscurity. It is believed that she had made a specific enemy of a certain German Nobleman, who enlisted the cooperation of the Lutheran Church to destroy Mme. Kallaste’s reputation and suppress all memory of her system. 

Now in 2015, with the support of the Mägi estate and its executor Annunciata Katrin Vargas, Duck Soup Productions is proud to re-introduce this “scorned oracle” to the world, which we will be doing in two editions. The first is a straightforward reproduction of the hand-made deck from the family collection, in the original Estonian, with notes jotted into the margins of the cards by Mme. Katrin Laine Kallaste herself. The second is a completely modern version, in English, created with charming vintage photographs and Mme. Kallaste’s notes translated into English-language keywords.

 Click the images to enlarge.

Both versions will be available in the final quarter of the year. Stay tuned for more details as this large project nears completion.

Any history of Mme. Kallaste reads like an adventure novel. We hope to announce more projects surrounding her life and works in the coming months. 

— Doug Thornsjo, Creative Director, Duck Soup Productions.

*An incomplete history of the family and their Circus can be found in the nonfiction volume See Them Dance, published by Duck Soup Productions last year. The Divination deck created by Mme. Loviise herself in the early 1930s is also available from Duck Soup Productions in both a facsimile edition and a more compact "Roadshow Edition," under the name Tarot of the Zirkus Mägi. 
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