Saturday, June 23, 2012

Here Comes the Judge

Well, here we go again: a Judge Dredd movie, but this time in 3-D, featuring a Kiwi actor (Invercargill represent - woo!), and carrying the creator's seal of approval. Here's Dredd.

We've been here before, of course. In 1994 the buzz surrounding Danny Cannon's forthcoming movie grew. A movie was announced, hype was duly spread, and a star was revealed. here, I think, is the issue of 2000AD it started in. I distinctly recall the slump I felt when I picked it up. naturally, being at the other end of the world, the news had already broken in newspapers and more local media, so the frisson of this particular 'prog' was dampened before it even reached these shores, and I wasn't mad on the casting. In combination, my order of DWM arrived on nthe same day at the local comic shop, Bag End Books, so I had the doubled leaden news of the cancellation of the Doctor Who 30th anniversary story to read about, too, three months after the fact, thanks to surface freight. It's hype-timing issues like these and box office bombs like Judge Dredd, Godzilla and Independence Day (not a bomb, of course, but distinctly bobbins) that killed my regular purchases of SFX magazine as well.

On reflection the resulting movie isn't bad. It's not Judge Dredd, of course, and the fact that Robocop so blatantly beat a Dredd movie to the punch in look, mood and black humour still gives me the grumbles. Despite it all Stallone allegedly did get the comic, but the studio steadfastly didn't, and the chapter in David Bishop's Thrillpower Overload tells a sad story of misunderstandings, clashing egoes and creative frustration. In the end, Judge Dredd 1995 is an action movie, a Stallone vehicle, and in places its imagery and attempts to bring Mega City One to life are stunning. And the casting is pretty damned good.

I was a crestfallen fan when it came out though, and elected not to see it on the big screen (shame). The whole thing for me was summed up in the gossip pages of Woman's Day when in a caption under a shot of Stallone opening another of his Planet Hollywood branches, the news was breathlessly reported that he was about to go to London "to shoot his new movie, Judge Threadbare." It must have been a bad phone line. The Dredd hoverbike eventually made its way to the short-lived Planet Hollywood in Auckland, and I got a look at it hanging quietly in the window before the whole thing was closed down. It was a cool model, but again demonstrated to me some of the misunderstanding of some of the movie: Mega City One is a multi-level sprawl of a city - the last thing you want to show is people flying easily through its open spaces.

 In the intervening years I think the movie's clawed a little understanding back from fans, if not necessarily respect. On the 2000ADOnline forum you can find a variety of gifs and avatars based on Stallone's various and curious facial tics, and some 'interesting' YouTube clips have surfaced, too, including this video for Manic Street Preachers' unused song for the official soundtrack:
I have medium to high hopes for Urban's Dredd. It seems to have gone out of its way to look different and tell a different story - smaller, more claustrophobic, less futuristic. It's more The Raid, District 9, Die Hard, and less Blade Runner, Demolition Man and the Dredd dynasty. Who knows, we might even get a decent Blu ray of the Stallone version as a result?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ray Bradbury and the Chills

Like a few 'retiring' readers f my generation I suspect, much of my horror genre education came from a hefty reading of Stephen King's Danse Macabre, a great introduction to the genre. As a big hero of King's, Ray Bradbury features a lot as I recall. From that reading I sought out Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was, it turned out, a very good choice. I was completely enveloped in Bradbury's world of twilight fairgrounds, lightning rod salesmen and boys in the threshhold of adulthood, yet not fully escaping the mysteries of childhood. A few years later the Disney adaptation was put on TV, and i was pretty good, too: Despite that, my exposure to Bradbury's fiction is really limited. I read A Sound of Thunder at school (though after a few years of 2000AD's Time Twisters its effect was somwhat diminished - still a great story though), and watched ray Bradbury Theater (they weren't his stories though, were they?) and that's it. Weird. That's not to say his writing and my cultural pursuits didn't cease to intersect, however. I may not have read ray Bradbury widely, but Martin Phillipps did, and so Bradbury's work ends up in a couple of the songs from their debut album Brave Words. here's Dan Destiny and the Silver Dawn: Something of a favourite in the Monkeyhouse, that one. dark carnival, from the same album, shares its title with Bradbury's short story collection, but in doing so shares less of a specific connection. Still a cool song, though. I have Fahrenheit 451 on an audio file, so that will start me off. There's plenty more to come. Any recommendations?

Friday, June 8, 2012

"Freed from the Memory, Escape from our History"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Everything Must Go' (1996)
As indicated in an earlier post, Everything Must Go was my real entry point into the work of Manic Street Preachers, which is somewhat appropriate given the efforts and intention behind the album. Four discs in and nearly ten years after their debut, Everything is their most accessible album to date; big, broad in sound (helped immensely by the production of Mike Hedges, the first in a long line of collaborations) and popular appeal, it's in many ways album of redemption. It's also by accident a very British album, and perhaps owes much of its great critical and chart success to its timing amid a groundswell of popular British cultural identity. What could be more British, after all, than a hankering to escape the trials of British life for the idealised empty space of Australia? And yet this wish for distance underpins much of the album's genesis and mood. It's a different work from its predecessor from its less-dense lyrics, greater melody and broader range of instruments (including of all things, a harp). Like the song's protagonist, Everything Must Go is yearning to breathe again, and it succeeds here, and is for all of that a success.

There could never be another Holy Bible, and retrospectively it's quite apparent that Bradfield, Wire and Moore had no intention to repeat the exercise. Instead, Everything is a deliberate push forward, a maturing of sound which reaped the group the rewards it had been chasing for nearly ten years, and which had seemed so elusive while they were a four-piece.It was, as such projects often are, a make or break scenario - Bible's success had been more critical than commercial, and the band were in torpor following James' disappearance, and so one more release and stab at the big time was a not small gambles. four singles released in the UK, each making the top 10, with A Design for Life reaching number 2. It is, simply put, four minutes and twenty-two seconds of triumph. At the same time it's a neat (unintended?) parallel - a working class anthem delivered in the midst of Britpop, whose zeitgeist made the idea of class loyalty something ironic, as much a part of Britain's pop culture re-branding as Union Jack guitars and retreads of The Kinks and The Beatles. Crucially, Design, arriving as it did mid-Britpop could only through its success be absorbed by the culture's obsessions, which also incorporated a significant degree of Loaded-era New Laddishness; hence "We don't talk about love / We only wanna get drunk" was taken completely at face value and without irony, an anthem not just for the Brit Awards closing, but to be sung from the terraces as well (c.f. Underworld's Born Slippy). Such are the bargains one makes when one courts the popular ear (personally they had me at the opening line: "Libraries gave us power"), and maybe it's this wholesale adoption by the masses that led some formerly die-hard Manics fans away from the band, as much as the album's clear indication that it would not seek to follow the path of its predecessor, nor departed creator. In that respect, Everything's title track is less an address to the departed Richey (as I had thought at the time) and is instead an address to the band's fans.

Not that Richey is absent from the album, of course, but for every one of Edwards' works (Elvis Impersonator Blackpool Promenade, Kevin Carter, No Surface All Feeling, the sorrowful and beautiful Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky) it seems there's an answer immediately following - a more strident, focused alternative reading of the band's manifesto (Design, Everything Must Go etc). The past isn't being erased nor rewritten, but it is being contained and, I'd argue, put somewhat in its place. Despite threads of Edwards' presence running through the work, it's a credit to the album that it's not a memorial nor a facsimile, doesn't take the easier route to garner fan loyalty or public sympathy, but is a stronger work for looking to the future.

Cover Story: Now we are three. The remaining band gaze out of the sleeve and regard one another - vulnerable, leaner, paler (I suspect Mister Photoshop may have been visiting) and stripped back. Significantly, this is the first release that features the band themselves as the cover image (the singles are anonymous affairs though, presumably presenting Bradfield, Wire and Moore as matter-of-fact, pretense aside. For that it's their most effective album cover, and they've never looked better. Inside, the band cut into detail - fingers, hair, the back of a neck, a nipple - the shelves are deliberately kept bare.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

On Oamaru being the Steampunk Capital of NZ

This Queen's Birthday Weekend is the now annual Steampunk Festival in my hometown of Oamaru. It's a recent movement - by my reckoning a couple of years old now, but one which has really taken hold down south. Oamaru has been lucky to have a new identity stamped on it in this way, even for a movement potentially as short-lived as Steampunk may be (I have mixed feelings myself, but have to applaud the efforts and talents of those in Whitestone City for what they've achieved to date)

When I left town in the last scratchings of the 1980s Oamaru was in a slump. High unemployment during Rogernomics, with a dwindling agricultural economy following a downturn in lamb prices and a reliable (but poorly planned for) cycle of floods and droughts that shifted the town's reliance on the land. New ideas were needed, and besides the town hiring its southern Victorian end out for cheap period filming for TV and film, even that idea was not sustainable. Fortunately, the town's anonymity proved its advantage. Unlike Dunedin, the Eighties hadn't seen significant development in the town's commercial heart, and so its old buildings were largely left unscathed, especially in the Harbour St/Tyne Street areas. The grand old half-empty hotels and grain stories which had doubled for working types in such movies as Pictures and Starlight Hotel also began to feature in advertisements and TV shows (the recognizable old Bank of New South Wales was co opted by a series of National Bank ads at the time.)
As half-used as they were, for some in the local arts community, the available space was cheap, airy, and sizeable. The local musos club, the Penguin Club, started in 1991 in that area, and a few years later past Wearable Arts winner Donna Demente moved from Dunedin to Oamaru and the Grainstore Gallery was established, a co-op of its own with a circle of local and regional artists pitching in something a little more Bohemian and baroque. Taking their cues from the ruined grandeur of Oamaru's Friendly Bay Harbour the Grainstore artists incorporated elements of buildings and port with a deliberate Victorian aesthetic, hosting an annual Masquerade Ball and, along with a local printer and bookbinder, pushing a new identity that genuinely brought tour buses to town to see, alongside the blue penguin colony and viewing site (a battle also fought and won by 'outsiders' and which continues to bring money to a previously skeptical community) and the excellent local cheesemakers.  Victorian Week is now a staple of Oamaru's attractions, and is well-covered elsewhere, but the Steampunk aspect has successfully broken away from the Week to carve its own identity - and fair enough, too. 

Steampunk may have had its outsider blessing when Glenn Standring filmed his vampire film Perfect Creature in the historic precinct, but the style has doggedly stayed, and its peculiar Victorian-ness now exists symbiotically with the larger historical attraction of the south end of Thames Street. Council money and private ventures have poured money into loving restoration, and far from the crumbling austerity of the Eighties, I return home from time to time and feel a lot happier about how my old haunts look, and where they're going. We really dodged a bullet - it's a matter of historical record that for a while the penguin thing was seen to be such a drawcard someone petitioned the council to carve a giant flood-lit bird into Cape Wanbrow's basalt quarry face, like Mount Rushmore but (at best) a little more Mountains of Madness. Or maybe just madness.

So what of Oamaru's Steampunk aesthetic? As I say above, the town has been lucky; other neighbours could have claimed the crown with more resources - Dunedin, for one, might have scooped it into its basket of touchstones, an editorial in the Timaru Herald last January cheekily suggested there might be some piggy-backing opportunities to be had, and there was (allegedly) a degree of rumbling from Christchurch's steampunk community when the little town started publicising its newfound identity. The Garden City might well have had its way, but two years on from the earthquake a somewhat unscathed and, again, fortunate Oamaru soldiers on unchallenged. Good on them.  

What you have in Oamaru is a wonderful mishmash of styles. There's the 'brass goggles' set of course, and the Grainstore collective, but among them are other local sculptors, filmmakers and artists who have turned local ephemera into Steampunk art; rather than yearning for a fictional imaginative British past, there's an element of an Antipodean identity there - what Standring named 'Nouvelle Zelande' in his movie, suffused with some of North Otago's agricultural past of ploughshares, tractors and traction engines - call it 'Farmpunk.' 

In this way I feel as though Oamaru's past has genuinely sprung back to life, and that can only be a good thing, for however long or short a time it lasts. Steampunk is as much about preservation as it is about reinvention, and these are two things that Oamaru has needed, and will do well to continue to have around.