Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Legend of Tarzan is in cinemas and I'm eager to write about it. But it occurred to me that this genuinely is a legendary character, and of sufficient stature to justify a post sketching some of his context and background. So we'll get to the movie next week.

Tarzan, along with Sherlock Holmes, is one of the universally recognised literary heroes. Famous all over the world for over a century, he is part of the fabric of life.  

Indeed, my father used to get irked if people mispronounced the name — Dad insisted on the stress on the first syllable:"TAR-zun".

Edgar Rice Burroughs may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists, but he was a genius. And he was by no means a one-hit wonder. His Martian adventure stories, starting with A Princess of Mars, were colourful, vigorous pulp science fiction and enormously successful.

But Tarzan is his finest and most enduring creation. Written under the influence of Rudyard Kipling and Jack London (and the legend of Romulus and Remus), Tarzan of the Apes nonetheless was unique and vividly original. 

It was first published in All Story Magazine in 1912, the same magazine and the same year as A Princess of Mars (what a year!).  Burroughs was paid $700 for it. 

An immediate hit with readers of the magazine, Tarzan didn't instantly command a wider audience. When Burroughs sent off copies of the story to book publishers, he was initially turned down flat.

I love the anecdote of what happened next. Burroughs promptly wrote a sequel, but the editor of All Story, Thomas Newell Metcalf, didn't think much of it. In fact, he rejected it. 

In a classic piece of meaningless editor-speak, he said the story "lacked balance". So Burroughs just turned around and sold it, without a word being changed, to another magazine for $1,000. Of course, it was a big success.

Burroughs then proceeded to play the magazines off against each other and thereby jack up his fee.
 
All writers love anecdotes like that. This one is true, and it's documented in John Taliaferro's Tarzan Forever, one of three books I have about Burroughs on my shelf (as opposed to the several dozen by Burroughs). The others are Edgar Rice Burroughs Master of Adventure by Richard Lupoff and Edgar Rice Burroughs The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges.
 
The Porges book is huge, big enough to stun an ox — or, if you're Tarzan, probably a rhino. And the Lupoff biography is beautifully illustrated. But I'd recommend the Taliaferro as the best introduction to the fascinating subject of Tarzan and his creator.

(Image credits: The beautifully stylish cover of the first edition, by Fred Arting, is from Wikipedia. The Taliaferro cover is from Simon & Schuster. The Porges is from Good Reads. The Lupoff green Frazetta cover is also from Good Reads. The earlier red Frazetta cover is from James Reasoner's blog.)

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn

If I mention the cannibalism and necrophilia I’m in danger of making this movie sound interesting... But it isn't, really. It's a boring, arty dud

(Before we go on I should perhaps issue a warning. This post contains spoilers. It also mentions some scenes you may prefer not to read about while eating your breakfast.)

I must confess, I saw a trailer for The Neon Demon and I was immediately hooked and eager to see it

The imagery looked stunning, like Nic Roeg at his most lush. You'll get a taste of what I mean from these posters.

Bu if I’d known it was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, I  would never have rushed to get a ticket. Certainly Refn's movie Drive was striking and memorable — although it fell apart at the end, in a foretaste of things to come. 

But his next film, Only God Forgives, certainly ranks as one of the worst I've ever seen. (Where the hell did that guy get the sword?)

Admittedly, Neon Demon is vastly better... but that still leaves a hell of a lot of room for it to be bad in. 

Neon Demon tells the story of Jesse (a plucky Elle Fanning), a teenage girl who comes to LA hoping to be a model. She has sudden and giddying success, but also makes some dangerous enemies... Again, this all makes it sound quite interesting. 

However, Refn is like Kubrick without the genius and Lynch without the madness. And he calls to mind Cronenberg at his worst. Indeed, it’s as if someone wanted to emulate Kubrick, Lynch and Cronenberg while adopting the approach of Lars Von Trier at his most pretentious and boring.

Have said all that, The Neon Demon has the occasional highly effective moment – Keanu Reeves is quite impressive and there’s a nice bit involving him and a mountain lion. (Which accounts for one of the posters here.)

Apart from the incomprehensible artiness which besets this film, though, Refn makes a fatal rookie mistake. He kills off Jesse, but he doesn't end the movie at that point. 

It grinds on for another 15 minutes or so, continuing long after it has stopped in the minds and the emotions of the audience.

He does this because he wants to include a grisly gag about the two super models who helped to kill, and eat, poor Jesse. They are at a photo shoot when one of them gets up an upset stomach. She regurgitates one of Jesse's eyes. The other super model promptly pops it in her mouth and eats it.

So you can see we're not exactly talking about Citizen Kane here.

You'll also notice the prominence of Drive on these posters. That's because it's the only movie which Refn's directed that anyone would want to see. 

So far.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards.) 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trouble Spot by Lawrence and Horak

In my last post about the James Bond comic strips I said I was going to go looking for all the ones drawn by Yaroslav Horak, and this represents the first fruits of that search. The title story of the volume is Trouble Spot, but Isle of Condors is my favourite in the collection.

As with The Spy Who Loved Me, which I discussed last time, all these adventures are written by Jim Lawrence and his scripts are excellent — sexy, arresting, exotic, colourful and featuring excellent use of locations with real place names and scraps of foreign dialogue, all of which lend a sense of reality to the crazy fantasies

The research that underpins these stories, and the breezy thrills they project, remind me of Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise comics — in other words, the absolute cream of British (or even international) newspaper strip writing.

(Interestingly, the useful checklist at the back of the book reveals the fact that O'Donnell himself briefly worked on the Bond strip he did the Dr No adaptation.)

Another intriguing feature of these stories is the growing racial diversity of the cast. With the appearance of British private eye Crystal Kelly we see Horak getting the hang of using shading to depict a black (indeed, blacksploitation) character. 

The blacksploitation continues in Die With My Boots On which features the wincingly named Smoky Turpin. 

Luckily Turpin is better than his name, though. A resourceful and highly proficient secondary good guy, he is former Royal Navy and correctly refers to 007 as "Commander Bond."

There are other interesting characters, mostly villains, of course, like the Greek tycoon, Xerxes Xenophanos — known as "Double Cross" because his initials are XX. Unfortunately, Bond's battle on his yacht sees some of Lawrence's least successful writing.

There's no way 007 would be allow to triumph today by draining the yacht's fuel tanks and creating a huge oil slick on the ocean — what an eco bastard. We move from lack of political correctness to lack of plausibility when Bond expects to set the slick on fire by throwing a Molotov cocktail into it — unlikely and for this fire to then set off a nuclear warhead on the ship impossible.

Never mind. Besides being beautifully drawn and generally well written, these newspaper strip asre agreeably prurient and kinky in the best Bond tradition

And the checklist in the back of the book suggests a couple other volumes to search out with pleasurable anticipation — Peter O'Donnell's adaptation of Doctor No and Jim Lawrence's take on the Kingsley Amis Bond pastiche Colonel Sun.
 
(Image credits: "Unhampered by clothing" and "Olga you may proceed" are from Adventures in Poor Taste. All the other images are from Popoptiq, which features an interesting article on the series.)

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Word Processors: Mac Pages vs Microsoft Word

Although I mostly blog here about the books I read and the movies I see, as a professional writer I also occasionally discuss the tools of my trade.  

In fact one of my earliest posts was about my beloved laptop writing table, Dave.  (I'm not actually crazy enough to name my furniture. Ikea called it Dave.) Indeed, it's so important to me I wrote about it again.

Which brings us to this current discussion of word processors. I recently replaced my ancient (almost ten years old) Mac laptop with a wonderful new MacBook Air. I love this new computer almost embarrassingly. But when I got it, there were a few teething problems...

Microsoft, the treacherous blackguards, had introduced a destructive revised update of their Word software which created a new file format (.docx versus the old .doc) which no longer worked on the old version of Word. 

So I was stuck with this out-of-date software. I looked into getting the new version of Word to go on my lovely MacBook Air. But it was pricey — well north of £100. And then my friend the computer expert said "Why bother with Word? The Mac comes with a word processor called Pages."

Well, I've been using Pages for over six months now and I have discovered precisely why I should bother with Word...

Pages has a nice, clean, inviting user interface and some helpful features. But in the final analysis it is badly designed and madly flaky. 

For a start, you woud frequently, and I mean frequently, end up with non-curly apostrophes and quotation marks instead of the real thing. By deleting and typing again you could generally, eventually, get real apostrophes and quotation marks instead of these straight fakes... because what a busy user needs is to repeatedly retype things...

Also, one of the most important features of a word processor, if you type as quickly and carelessly as I do, it to fix misspellings on the fly. In Word this function is called Auto Correct. 

Well Pages did the same thing, sort of... But its guesses about what a mistyped word should really be were often insane. For instance, "iriginal"  instead of "original" results in this guess: “irisinal” — and as far as my research can determine, this isn’t even a word...

And why would it change “wrestln" to “wrestleg”? — again, there is no such word. Instead of changing “despote” to “despite" it changes it to “despotte." Another non-word. 

And wouldn’t “struggle" be a better guess for “stuggle" than “stagele”? 

These are just a few of dozens of examples that cropped up every week. As I said in a vexed tweet on the subject, it's more a Lewis Carrol poem than a word processor.

Anyway, I've now given in and bought Word instead. And the new Word has some useful features. For instance, search and replace is now local to each document, which means every document remembers what you were looking for last time, instead of it being imported from whatever other document you used recently.

On the other hand, Word lacks some really useful features from Pages... I used to love the way Pages would open a document and return me to the exact point where I was typing last time I left it. Word, which doesn't even have the memory of a goldfish, always reverts to the beginning.

And in Pages I used to be able to move to the top or bottom of a long document with a couple of simple keystrokes. In Word it's such a lengthy and error prone process you might as well forget about it. 

Perhaps worst of all, while Word is smart enough to automatically make corrections like changing "thikn" to "think", any more complex error defeats it. So if I type "iriginal" it just highlights the mistake, then gives up in bafflement. At least Pages tried. It was crazy, but it tried...

Oh well, maybe someday someone will invent a word processor which can actually process words.  

(Image credits: I wasn't sure how to illustrate such an abstract discussion, so as you can see I went retro with these typewriter shots. Most of the pics of sirens typing — non-tinted — were obtained from OzTypewriters; the really vintage shot, which I used as my header, is from BoingBoing; the pink typewriter is from Etsy; the blue one is from My Typewriter, and if you hurry you can actually buy it.)

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Bix: Singing the Blues by Robert Forrest

Bix Beiderbeck's life was a classic jazz tale: young, brilliant, talented and doomed. His story was the inspiration for the 1938 novel and 1950 movie Young Man With a Horn — a title which is likely to give rise to profane mirth in the UK (see definition 3.5 here).

Beiderbeck played the cornet, which was sort of the forerunner of the trumpet. It was much played in jazz circles, until Louis Armstrong switched to trumpet, and everybody followed suit. Bix was the only contemporary player who could begin to hold a candle to Armstrong — indeed Armstrong professed his admiration for the young white man.

Bix Beiderbeck never got the chance to be anything other than young, drinking himself to death at the age of 28. But he had a unique and lovely sound which was the forerunner of cool jazz and was an influence on the likes of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. So although Bix's life was wasted, his music very definitely lives on...

A point which seems utterly lost on the Radio 3 drama Bix: Singing the Blues by Robert Forrest. Now, Forrest is a distinguished dramatist, and he has written some terrific stuff. His adaptation of The Exorcist, for example, was a knockout. And his credentials, which include a version of The Great Gatsby, suggest that he should have a good handle on the period — 1928 here.

In the event Bix: Singing the Blues is pretty far off the mark in terms of period accuracy. It basically tells the story of an (imaginary) encounter between Beiderbeck and Louis Armstrong. (The two did indeed meet, but not like this.) And Armstrong is all wrong. His dialogue is way too modern. He uses terms such as "cool" — a piece of slang which, like so many others, was coined by Lester Young, who wouldn't be on the scene until the next decade.

But the basic problem is that the play depicts Bix as a whining, damaged, pitiful little pudding of pathos. There is absolutely nothing of his genius or his music in evidence (a brief snatch of his music fades out at the end of the play). This is not only depressing and monotonous, it simply ain't true.

The only reason Forrest is writing a play about Bix Beiderbeck, and the only reason people will be drawn to listen, is because of Bix's greatness as a musician. If only some of that had been evident in this drama then it would have made it both more accurate and more enjoyable.

The play also asserts that Bix was a depraved sexual predator. Now, for all I know, this might be true. But there was no whisper of it in Richard Sudhalter's excellent biography of Bix.

The BBC production is topped and tailed with some fine documentary material about Bix and his music (presumably to explain to listeners why the hell they should be interested — since nothing in the play addresses that issue).

My advice is to listen to the documentary snippets and then go and play some of Bix's classic recordings (and indeed some of Louis Armstrong's). Hearing the drama itself is strictly optional. But if you would like to, you can find it here for the next couple of weeks.

(Image credits: The purple image, which I've doctored considerably, comes from the Radio Times. The green image, also monkeyed with by yours truly, is from the Wikipedia page on Bix. The Young Man with the Horn poster is from the Wikipedia page about the movie and the book cover is from, you guessed it. The Sudhalter et al cover is from Bid or Buy.) 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Kraken Wakes by Wyndham and McDermid

I've always enjoyed and admired the minatory science fiction of John Wyndham, particularly The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos. But I never read The Kraken Wakes. 

The Kraken is a mythical sea monster, a kind of giant squid, and I always assumed this is what Wyndham's book was about. Which is one reason I never got around to it. The giant squid notion just didn't appeal. But the title is misleading. It's basically a poetic parallel.

The Kraken Wakes is actually about aliens who send space craft into the deepest parts of the Earth's oceans, where their unseen activity eventually gives rise to lethal battle vehicles — "tanks" — which crawl onshore and begin to obliterate humanity.

But more than that, the aliens (dubbed "xenobaths") initiate a deadly climate war against the human race by melting the ice caps. Sea levels begin to rise, like global warming turned up to eleven.

I know all this only because of the superb Radio 4 adaptation of Wyndham's book, sharply scripted by the bestselling Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. This is a really wonderful piece of radio drama with outstanding music by Alan Edward Williams, played by the BBC Philharmonic live during the recording. 

Williams's music deliberately evokes the great scary science fiction classics of the 1950s, such as Bernard Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it adds immeasurably to the impact of this production.

This is a genuinely frightening portrait of what happens to the human race when the seas rise. I had no idea, for instance, that we would lose almost all of the land we need for growing crops. Or that rising sea water would ignite dormant volcanoes which would shroud the planet in a deadly ash cloud.

Chilling, thought provoking, wonderful stuff. Listen while you can — I'm not talking about doomsday here — the BBC radio production is only available for a week! After that, like me, you will need to check out Wyndham's original novel.

(Image credits: The somewhat misleading image of the attacked ocean liner is from the Radio 4 Twitter feed. The more accurate depiction is from Skull in the Stars. The main illustration is from another Twitter link. The cover with the alternate title is from a very useful post by Gotterdammerung, which shows I was not alone in being confused by the Kraken title. )

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Nice Guys by Black & Bagarozzi

Shane Black is a huge favourite of mine. He wrote The Long Kiss Goodnight and wrote as well as directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a bit of an oscular theme going on here) not to mention Iron Man 3. All films I love. Black is one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. 

And also one of the most highly paid. "That big paycheck," he recalls, "— on two occasions bigger than anybody had received for screenwriting in history — was a curse that ended up taking me out for a few years."

But during those years Black wasn't idle and cowrote a classic detective story with Anthony Bagarozzi. Now that script has finally seen the light of day under the title The Nice Guys. It's a dark buddy movie set in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The period setting is a boon, in all sorts of way. "First off," says Black astutely, "in suspense movies you lose cell phones, which is always great."

Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a guy who is paid to beat people up. He wears a very cool blue leather jacket. Ryan Gosling is Holland March (these are great names), a successful private eye on a self destructive trajectory. Healy is a reformed alcoholic. March is an unreformed one. Both have reasons to drink, and we learn both involve women.

These guys have issues with the female sex. For instance, March falls for a woman who is trying to kill him (Yaya Dacosta).

So far, so standard-noir. But in a stroke of genius, March has been given a 13 year old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). She's a terrific character and gets some of the best lines. Plus she provides moments of riveting jeopardy.

Crowe looks genuinely battered and gone to seed, which adds immensely to his characterisation. Gosling shows an exhilarating, unexpected comic genius. March and Healy team up to investigate the case of a missing porn star (Margaret Qualley). When Black and Bagarozzi researched the seventies they found "this horrible combination of smog and porn, which had sort of assailed the city."

The smog comes into it, too. As does a hitman who is named after John Boy in the Waltons (Matt Bomer). The Nice Guys is a taut, beautifully structured script which is also very funny. Describing an old woman with poor vision, March says, "She's as blind as a bat. If you painted a moustache on a Volkswagen she'd say, 'Boy that Omar Sharif runs fast!' "

The Nice Guys is a wonderful film — crazily hilarious and utterly engrossing. It filled me with joy from the opening titles onwards. Save for a very dodgy Nixon prosthetic, it would be perfect. Its ending is breathtakingly dark — Healy starts drinking again and March joins him in a bar — but also uplifting, since it hints at a sequel.

It's also, like everything else in the movie, very funny.

Not to be missed.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards.)