Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tommy Doesn't Know What Day It Is...

Last night I revisited Ken Russell’s whack job of a movie version of Pete Townshend’s even wackier whack job of a Rock Opera called Tommy. It wasn’t one of my better entertainment choices.

I’ll get my cheapest shot out of the batting cage right at the outset: Ann-Margaret got a Best Supporting Actress Nomination for this? The nominations committee must have been desperate. She actually won the Golden Globe in the same category. All I can say is that there must have been a baked bean fetish going around Hollywood that year.

Tommy is Of My Time. I’m not sure what that says about My Time, but we’ll let it go at that. The movie was released in 1975, just six years after The Who unveiled this most ambitious project and three years after the London Symphony Orchestra recorded a smashing full-cast version of the piece. The LSO record was my entry point, and it’s still my favorite Tommy, although there’s something to be said for the (much toned down and cleaned up) Broadway version of the ‘90s.

There isn’t a single production of Tommy, including The Who’s original 1969 album, that isn’t flawed at some level, and sooner or later you have to realize that at least some of the flaws are built into the material. Tommy is neither deeply thought nor deeply felt by its author, and I don’t think that we remember it today for being a Great Work. We remember it for its top-to-bottom audacity in conception, content, and style. Townshend was the leader of a second-rate band that would be forgotten today if he hadn’t had the temerity to devise the whole concept of a “Rock Opera” and then actually write one that took a cynical look at the cult of personality, infused with pimps, perverts and pinball. Looking back, historians could almost be forgiven to think of Tommy as a dark, nasty parody of Jesus Christ Superstar -- if if didn’t pre-date Superstar by almost a year.

In its original form, Tommy is the musical equivalent of a long, cynical, dirty joke told by a resentful genius in the back room of a dive bar. Most of its audience didn’t get the joke. Ken Russell did -- but as a comedian, Russell has all the subtle comic timing of a Sherman Tank on a playground. To Robert Stigwood, it must have seemed like Russell, with his equally audacious screen career, was the perfect director for this material. At the time, not even the critics thought that he was wrong. But he was wrong, and in a big way.

In a purely structural sense, Russell did some good things with the material, shifting the action from WWI to WWII and seeing to it that it was the lover who killed Tommy’s dad and not the other way around. He devised two really spectacular visual sequences around a couple of the numbers (in the first, my favorite, arcade-style bombers flying in formation turn into crosses one by one as they are picked off by missiles). But beyond that, Russell’s approach to Tommy is almost unbelievably pedantic. Many are the times when his camera doggedly depicts, primer-like, just what the actors are “singing” about. Ironically, the only musical highlight of the film, “Pinball Wizard” as performed by Elton John, is also its worst-directed scene. This may not be fair, but it’s true: the rankest, least-experienced music-video director of today could do a more competent job directing that material with those performers than Russell managed.

Oddly, a scene that offended me on the film’s initial release is now, I find, about the only reason to watch the movie: in “Eyesight to the Blind” Eric Clapton plays an electric priest in a rock-and-roll church where supplicants worship at the feet of Marilyn Monroe and pills and booze are given as sacraments in the communion. In both its conception and execution, it’s the only sequence in the picture that stands the test of time and has just as profound an impact today as it did in ’75.

It doesn’t help that the movie of Tommy is accompanied by, hands down, the most execrable musical arrangement of this material that I’ve ever heard. “Pinball Wizard,” the sole standout here, is performed by Elton John, who did his own arrangement and brought his own band members along. The rest is all lumbering synthesizers plodding in the night. That Pete Townshend arranged the material himself just goes to show that an author is not always the best person to handle his own arrangements. As overbearing as the London Symphony Orchestra recording sometimes got, at least it had dramatic focus and weight. At least you could make out the melodies. For the movie, Townshend turned his own music into synthetic mud. 

Russell compounds this injury with outrage by casting the picture almost exclusively with non-singers. Jack Nicholson barely tries. He cocks his eyebrow for five minutes then grabs his paycheck and beats a hasty retreat, thank you very much. But Oliver Reed tries very hard indeed, and is very trying. Reed is a favorite of mine whom I would watch in almost anything (excepting only a certain other abominable Ken Russell movie that will go nameless here), but there’s a reason why the singing role of Bill Sykes in the film version of Oliver! was cut to, well, nothing. Ann-Margaret, on the other hand, normally can sing, but in Tommy she is so busy over-emoting and rolling around in waves of baked beans that she seems to have forgotten how. Even Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey and Townshend himself get their voices undercut in the final mix.

It’s almost as if, in post-production, Russell actively said: “Oh, this person can actually carry a tune. I’ll have to find a way to undermine that somehow.”

It’s not Russell’s fault that the final third of the story, the “Rise and Fall” of Tommy as a Cult Figure, is also its least interesting and most perfunctory section as originally composed by Townshend. Russell handles the nonsensical climax as well as anyone could have, and sandwiches his film with faux profound opening and closing shots of a figure against the sun. Like the rest of the movie, the Messiah sequence has moments of goodness, moments where it snaps into focus and promises to actually go somewhere and accomplish something... only to fall back on some bit of desperate excess that drowns the audience in ugliness, baked beans, and, ultimately, pointlessness.

No, most fun I had in watching Russell’s Tommy last night was in noticing how young everyone looked. Turning back the clock is the kindest thing that film can do. But seeing Tommy again for the first time in a whopping thirty-five years, I realized something: I didn’t like this movie then, and I like it even less now.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

My "Our Gang"

‘Ja ever make a Happy Discovery only to have it shot down a moment later — then find a little ray of hope about your discovery only to have that rug yanked out from under you? Just like a seesaw, as the facts reveal themselves they take you up, down, up, down; if you were a child reacting verbally to the situation, you’d be saying “YAY! — oh. YAY! — oh. YAY! — oh,” and so on, until you got tired of the suspense or until the Balance of Power shifted one way or the other...

It’s usually about small things, but things that would bring us Joy nonetheless. My latest “YAY! — oh” moment was centered around The Double Deckers. No, not the London-style bus. Well, yes, in a way, but... 

A long, long tome ago, Hal Roach put out a series of two-reel comedy shorts starring a loose-knit bunch of kids he called “Our Gang.” The gang was made up of iconic types you’d find in any neighborhood, and one of the many remarkable things about the series was that neither Mr. Roach nor his writers nor directors ever looked down from above at these kids: they got down on their knees and tried to make pictures right from a kid’s-eye point of view. 

The kids always had the greatest clubhouses loaded with makeshift gadgets (like a treehouse elevator powered by nanny-goat), got into the greatest adventures... and of course, the biggest messes. After many years, along with all the rest of Roach’s cinematic holdings (including Laurel & Hardy) the Gang was passed on to MGM, where they became known as The Little Rascals. Spanky and Alfalfa had already joined the group, but this was where they gained their transcendence, and the series effectively became the Alfalfa and Spanky Show. “I’m the BAR-BURRR of Suh-VEYULLL! FIIIIII-garoh! FIIIIII-garoh!” Calgon, take me away!

Fast forward to 1971. Somehow, an odd duck of a British kid’s TV show called Here Come the Double Deckers made it onto American TV, Saturday mornings on the ABC network. I was arguably getting a little old for the Saturday morning cartoon scene. But this was no cartoon. 

Beginning in 1968 as an actual theatrical movie series under the title The Magnificent Six and a Half and moving to TV in ’71 with a partially different cast, this followed Hal Roach’s recipe for the Our Gang comedies almost exactly: but the children were somewhat older, there were pop-style musical numbers, and the series was infused with (for me) that most wonderful of things, a very British comedy sensibility. 

By the time the series moved to television, the gang had made its headquarters in a heavily modified (not to say fortified with very clever gadgets!) retired Double Decker London bus parked in an urban scrapyard. Hence the name.

Because I had a Dad who grew up watching the original Our Gang comedies on the big screen, and because I grew up in the sixties, when Roach’s two-reelers were frequently syndicated and used as filler by local stations, The Double Deckers wasn’t my first exposure to this sort of thing. But it was my generation of Our Gang, my flavor of it, wholly modern in its time.

I have to stress in its time.

And I loved it. I was already an Anglophile and just about the age of the gang’s leader (Peter Firth, the only Double Decker who has stayed and thrived in the acting business... long before Daniel Radcliffe “grew up” onstage in Pater Schaeffer’s Equus, it was Firth who originated the part both in the West End and on Broadway). There wasn’t one single thing about this show that didn’t tickle me: the jolly design and all the useful detritus filling the scrapyard; the gadgets, the comedy, the music, the accents and “exotic” locales, and the kind of light adventure that didn’t pit Us Kids against adults so much as it proved that we could be Just As Clever.

Plus, I had a crush on Gillian Bailey, who played Billie, one of only two girls in the gang (and the other was Tiger, who was more a Mascot).

Well. Fast forward again to the digital age, and here I am a crusty old alcoholic in his fifties wanted by the law, and who on earth has heard of or remembers The Double Deckers? Fox holds the distribution rights, but would you give odds on an American DVD release of this thing?

I did actually write to them about it once. I know. Broken down Olde Farte, Windmills, believe me, I know. 

I mean, there wasn’t even a British DVD release, and it had an audience over there.

Still, from time to time, when I was in the kind of mood to prove to myself that the Universe and I will Never See Eye to Eye, I would search a certain Evil Spiderlike Interwebs Retail Entity for it... and, you guessed it, just about a month back, there, quite unexpectedly, was my YAY! moment. An actual real DVD release of Here Come The Double Deckers!

I was all set to hit the BUY button when I saw it: — oh. British release. Won’t play on American TVs. But I looked closer. Hmm. It appeared to be a Region 1 disk, meaning that I could play it. YAY! Took a risk and bought a used copy for ten bucks. Turned out that it wasn’t a Region 1 disk after all. — oh. So sorry, the gang will not be coming out to play after all. Had a look on the interwebs. Seems that there are ways to bypass region coding. YAY! Waitaminnit ... the disk is British PAL format, my set and DVD player are both NTSC. — oh. Dang. Still no soap. There were more “YAY! — oh” moments ahead of me, and they were all heading me in the direction of Ultimate Failure.

But wait -- 

Folks, I’m here today to tell you about a nifty little free program for both Mac and PC called simply VLC. Google it. It’s a miracle worker. It’s a tiny little program. With no muss, no fuss, it automagically strips away the barriers that Evil Corporate Broadcasters put into place when they sought to divide the nation’s Creative Types. Just insert the disk, drag one icon onto another, and in moments you’re viewing content previously forbidden to you by the DVD Gods.

‘Course that means I have to watch my Double Deckers DVDs on my computer rather than my TV -- but at least I get to watch them.

...and suddenly, like stepping through Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, it is 1971 again, I am only just barely a teenager, and Here Come The Double Deckers once more.

Does the show hold up?

Quite astonishingly, I think it does. Once you accept that it’s as dated now as the Our Gang comedies were in 1971, the idea behind this doesn’t change. It never changed. It never will change. I assume that kids still knock about together and get into trouble. I assume that kids still like gadgets. I assume that kids still like music and want to make movies and do grown-up things their own way. That’s what this is all about. The cast is still charming. They mug and overdo it just the way that Roach’s Rascals used to. Their problems have more to do with hovercraft and invisibility and tramp pop stars than they do with anything real. It’s very very British despite the presence of a Token American Kid. It’s well-executed. The songs are bouncy. It is oh so Seventies in its flavor, which is a plus if you grew up right around then.

Not your cup of fur? *shug* Then we won’t let you into our club. So there. On the other hand, if you like this sort of thing (and I still love it), this is a real Tonic. For me... after forty years away from my old gang, it feels like I’ve come all this distance, and now all of a sudden I’ve rounded a corner and there they are, just the same, a million years ago, and just like yesterday.

Oh, and filming in Fast Motion pretty much does make anything funny.


Away, away, I’ve been away from the blog for too long, and not all the reasons have been unhappy ones. Work on the new “remastered,” revisited and heavily revised edition of Persephone’s Torch continues at a good pace, and we should have news for you concerning that title, and more, soon. Watch the skies. Not for news about my stuff, silly: because you can see a lot of interesting formations up there.

-- Freder

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Am I a Real Boy? That is, am I a writer/cartoonist/designer or am I just unemployed? The jury is still out on that (remind me to stop using that expression. It raises the ugly memory of recurrent nightmares as October approaches, dragging my court date along with it); either way, the overwhelming fact of life right now is that my body gets to make its own schedule without any interference from Morning People, the outside world, or even my own better judgement -- something it has been longing to do for years and years.

And so I was up until after three AM again for who knows how many days in a row; when I woke at eight this morning, it was just after the middle of the night for me. Still, pussycats must be fed and antidepressants must be taken on their usual schedule or Bad Things Will Happen to me. And so, bleary-eyed, I pushed my feet into the rotten pair of slippers that trip me up every few yards, marched downstairs to do my chores, then marched right back to bed and crawled between the sheets. The rain and humidity had made everything clammy. Still, Honey joined me and curled up between my chin and shoulder.

It wasn’t so much a dream that I had as just a picture. I saw, quite clearly, my ex-cat Pooky sleeping in my bed, right in my spot, all curled up, the way that she used to all the time, on the sneak, when she thought I wasn’t looking, when I was asleep or when I was out of the house.

When I woke again the image stayed with me, and I remembered that it is now almost exactly a year since she died. Maybe not a year to the day, but certainly a year to the week.

Another reminder of the strangeness of all things.

And of how quickly time passes.

That cat made my life a misery with her incontinence; it wasn’t her fault, but she dribbled and dripped excrement absolutely everywhere all over the house, and the places that she slept became toilets, including my bed. I had to cover every piece of furniture with towels and newspapers. I was always chasing her out of my bed. When I got home from work, she howled and yowled at me like a harpy until I got her food down.

And yet I cared for her and considered it my duty to do so in the wake of my mother’s death, and as she was dying I sat beside her in the porch doorway and stroked her fur. I do still think of her from time to time, and somehow, against all reason, I do sometimes miss her. But how odd to have that picture in my head, out of the blue on this particular morning.


I sat up in bed and opened my tablet to make a note of the thing in my journal, and the little program that generates daily Creative Visualization thoughts made its alert sound at me. When I clicked on the program, this is what it said:

“The pleasantest things in the world are pleasant thoughts: and the great art of life is to have as many of them as possible.” — Montaigne

I thought, Gosh I’m not off to a terribly good start this morning!

On the other hand, Pooky had looked comfortable in the little image that had come to me when I was half asleep. Her incontinence was gone, her body weight was healthy and fullish, not that paperweight Auschwitz Cat that she had looked towards the end. Her manner had been relaxed and peaceful. 

I don’t believe in the Christian afterlife, in part because I refuse to accept Hell and its master, refuse to accept a God made in Man’s image, refuse to believe that Death is just like this only Nicer. I believe that we come out of The Nothing and go back into The Nothing. Elsewhere on the blog, I invoke Robertson Davies and his Great Theater of Life. We step onto the stage, and then off of it, and that’s all.

But the thought of Pooky comfortable at last; that was pleasant enough.

I buried her out in my back garden, wrapped in one of the towels that I’d used to cover the furniture. Her grave is marked with one of the painted wooden flowers that formerly belonged to my mother. I went out there just now.  The weeds had grown up so thick that it was completely invisible even when I was standing right over the spot.

I fixed that.

-- Freder.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Back in the Strato-sled Again

It’s here! It’s here!

Well, not here. I haven’t seen my copy yet. But it’s out. It’s published. And aside from being A Good Thing on general principles, it has a profound personal significance for me.

The Library of American Comics’ Definitive Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim Volume 2 is a gigantic, lose-yourself-in-its-pages volume that reprints Alex Raymond’s space fantasy classic along with its brother strip just as they originally appeared in the Sunday pages of the Hearst family of newspapers back in the distant world of the ‘30s, all those years ago.

If you’ve ever seen even one of the LOAC books, you know that these folks do it up right, and then some: vintage newspaper comics have never looked so good, or been such a tactile pleasure to read. I’ve waxed enthusiastic about their Little Orphan Annie and especially their King Aroo volumes here on this blog, but Dick Tracy and Bringing Up Father are also notable favorites, and if you visit their website you’ll find that this just scratches the surface. I can personally testify that Mullaney, Canwell and Co. have been busy. 

But I’m especially excited about this release. Why? Because I’m in it! 

Yes indeedy do. After a publication hiatus that is far longer than I care to think about, I am Back in the Saddle Again, thanks to a friend who thought of me when he could have gone to dozens of equally, if not better qualified writers. Not to mention writers who would have come with a lot less Personal Drama.

I was offered the gig to fashion a piece about Universal’s great Flash Gordon movie serials as part of the introductory material for this volume, and although I’m sure that Associate Editor Bruce Canwell would tell you differently (yeah, he would), from my particular angle of repose I needed relatively little coaxing before I was all over that assignment. OK, I turned it down at first, but I turn everything down at least once. 

For Flash, Bruce hardly had to twist my arm at all. In fact, I got carried away, ran way over the allotted word count, and Bruce had to jump in heroically, Flashlike, and wrestle the Octosac, I mean the piece, back into line.

I’m told that it was cut even further before the publication; oh, well. I wear many hats as a writer/cartoonist/designer, but when it comes to my enthusiasm for the Flash Gordon serials I am a writer first; plus we were able to dig up some interesting material for the piece, much more than i expected. So, not being paid by the word, my hope was to provide LOAC with as much bang for their buck as I possibly could.

On the other hand, I do understand the needs of the production line, having spent many years working in production-focussed design jobs. When it comes to packaging the books, Editor and Designer Dean Mullaney  is a designer first. I mean that in the larger sense, really: The Library of American Comics definitely has a Grand Design and Lofty Goals, and it’s the larger picture that matters here, not my ego or my silly little piece, which I had fun writing anyhow, and which still exists as I wrote it here on my hard drive. 

So however it looks when the stork lays it down on my doorstep, it’s still my baby and it still has my name on it and I’m still excited to have a byline again after Tao knows how long. 

How excited am I? Well -- this borders on being an inside joke, but I’m so excited I can hear Freddie Mercury in my head yowling “FLASH! AH-AHHHHH!!!”

-- Freder.
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