Sunday, 24 June 2018

Robert Williams: Mr Bitchin'

You're probably familiar with the extraordinary art of Robert Williams without even knowing it. His cover painting for Guns 'n' Roses Appetite for Destruction has been seen all over the world. 

The record has sold more that 14 million copies. A fact that Williams recalls with chagrin when recounting the minuscule payment he requested from the then-unknown band. 

 "When these people originally approached me they were unheard of and I considered them to be just another punk rock band."

Adding to the irritation, "They even used the name of the painting."

The image of a woman being assaulted by a robot (who is about to be dealt with by an avenging demon) was inevitably controversial. And it got Guns 'n' Roses into hot water, as Williams had warned them it would...

 "I gave them my best wishes, but I warned them that this was going to get them into a lot of trouble. And it got them into exactly the amount of trouble I thought it was going to get them into."

These and many other droll recollections are featured on a marvellous documentary available on DVD entitled Robert Williams: Mr Bitchin'. Incidentally, "bitchin' " is slang for great, cool, wonderful, the best....

I've been an ardent — and often astonished — fan of Williams's art since I first happened on it in the underground comics of my youth. So I was delighted to discover that someone had made a film about the man and his work.

It is a terrific, amusing and informative documentary which really brings Williams warmly to life as an engaging and sardonic — and hugely talented — figure.

He began his career doing hotrod art (custom cars are a passion he shares with his wife) and working with Big Daddy Roth. Roth created Rat Fink, an icon of my childhood...

Williams used to illustrate ads for Roth's merchandise, and his art was so extreme that magazines began to refuse to run them. 

But extremity is Williams's middle name. And that's one reason I love his stuff.

Then came the underground comics I mentioned, then Williams turned to concentrating on his astounding paintings. His work has always had a cult following, but now he is poised to assault the citadels of fine art, and may perhaps realise his ambition to be recognised as a "blue chip artist".

If after watching Mr Bitchin' you find you have an appetite not for destruction but for further exploration of his work, I urge you to buy one of the many books of his paintings which are available. (There is a merchandise page on his own website here.)

Oh, and one last anecdote from the documentary. Debbie Harry of Blondie is depicted in one of his paintings, which unusually for Williams, features no explicit nudity. 

"I had Miss Harry's dignity to think about," he says. Before adding mischievously, "I did have her keister showing."

Debbie Harry herself gamely remarks, "I really wouldn't have minded being portrayed sitting on a taco with no clothes on. But Robert is a gentleman."

(Image credits: the DVD cover is from Cinema Libre Studios. The Low Brow Art book cover is from Wim Words. The Zap cover is from Pinterest. The other images are from a very useful article in the the Guardian. Thank you, Guardian!)

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Boardwalk Empire by Terence Winter

This TV series is my current box-set addiction and I've just finished Season 2... which left me in a state of shock like nothing I've seen since Game of Thrones. 

I was initially attracted to Boardwalk Empire by the presence of Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot episode and is one of the producers.

But the crucial creative talent here is the writer Terence Winter who created the show. He also wrote Scorsese's best movie for many, many years — The Wolf of Wall Street. Before that he was one of the writers on The Sopranos, which makes absolute sense.

Like the Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire is a gangster epic, albeit a period one set in Atlantic City, the source of the boardwalks in the title. The period in question is the 1920s and the recently concluded mass slaughter of World War One hangs over everything.

One of the heroes of the show — though hero isn't quite the right word — is Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt), a soldier home from the hell of No Man's Land with a permanent limp. He can't quite shake off his wartime experiences. When he drinks a toast it is always "To the lost."

Jimmy is the protege of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. Nominally the treasurer of Atlantic City, Nucky actually runs the town and its criminal operations, which are funded by bootleg liquor. Jimmy is his enforcer, assisted by Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), another vet and a lethal sniper. Richard came home with only half a face and wears a grotesque mask to stop little kids screaming in the street.

Michael Pitt looks good in a hat, something which became evident in the movie Silk, where he was required to wear an ushanka — a silly Russian-style fur monstrosity. A hat, especially one like that, can obliterate the essential image of many a movie star (in Conspiracy Theory Mel Gibson never quite recovered from donning a modest watch cap).

But Boardwalk Empire is absolutely the era of the hat for men, and Pitt is in his element. Luckily Steve Buscemi looks good in one, too. And Huston. 

Also under a fedora is Michael Shannon as a prohibition agent. He's tormented and priest-ridden, though not as priest-ridden as Kelly MacDonald, who is modelling headwear for the ladies. MacDonald first registered on screens as Ewan McGregor's schoolgirl paramour in Trainspotting. In Boardwalk Empire she's Nucky's love interest — and considerably more than that.
 
The influence of The Godfather is strongly felt here, and indeed Boardwalk Empire is the best example of that kind of gangster drama since The Godfather II.

The show has a strong, and richly researched, period feel. If the scripts are informed by the nihilistic aftermath of the Great War, the ravishing photography draws on sources like Maxfield Parrish paintings.

The music of the era, however — from a time before Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet made their mark on jazz — is accurately rendered and therefore pretty wretched. If you wanted something good from this period the thing to do would be to ignore popular music and go, instead, for Stravinsky or maybe Ravel. Although admittedly it's unlikely to be the sort of stuff these hoods would play at their parties.

(Image credits: The DVD covers are from Amazon. Kelly MacDonald is from USA Today. Pitt's pic is, appropriately enough, from a Gentleman's Gazette article about Jimmy Darmody's clothes. The posters are provided by good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Hot House by Brian Aldiss

Known in America as The Long Afternoon of Earth, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss was written originally as five (rather long) short stories and appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — probably my favourite sf magazine, by the way. 

This sequence of tales deservedly won Aldiss a Hugo award in 1962 and soon appeared as a book, more or less stitched together to form a continuous novel. I read it when I was a kid but I was prompted to pick it up again by a wonderful BBC radio adaptation, details archived here skilfully filleted by the writer Lu Kemp.

The thing that came across so forcefully in the radio version — and was no doubt responsible for the book winning its Hugo back in the 1960s — was the sheer richness of Aldiss's imagination and the strangeness of his vision.

In the far future the Earth is in a locked orbit, half the planet in freezing darkness, the other half permanently turned towards the sun, receiving the endless light and heat which accounts for both the American and British titles of this book.

In this hothouse world, vegetation dominates and indeed half the planet is pretty much occupied by one giant, interconnected banyan tree. In its branches are the remaining life forms, included the shrunken (and green-skinned!) descendants of humanity.

Animal life is scarce, though, and plants rule the world. And what plants. They are mobile, semi-intelligent (or at least sentient) and come in a breathtaking assortment of bizarre and dangerous forms. Particularly impressive are the zeppelin-sized traversers, sort of giant spiders who spin webs from the Earth to the (equally gravity locked ) Moon, as they move over the sky "like clouds".

Aldiss really excells in dreaming up lifeforms such as this. The bellyelm is a particularly brilliant creation; it's a two-part entity with its lure-and-decoy companion. And Aldiss also shows real flair in the naming of the flora and fauna of this weird new world. These names call to mind both James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. 

His depiction of the struggle to survive in this savage world — "green in tooth and claw"! — is quite unforgettable. The sequence where a downed the suckerbird tries desperately to escape the clutches of murderous seaweed is simply heartbreaking.

Aldiss often writes very well, as when he describes "the terrible silence of the forest" or "rain sizzling in cataracts off a great flat head" or vegetation that "rose as remorselessly as boiling milk" towards the endless light of the sun...

I was almost a third of the way through the book when I realised something terrifically obvious — it has its roots (!) in The Day of the Triffids. This dawned on me as I read how "gigantic nettles shook their bearded heads."

Like John Wyndham's novel of the Triffids, there's no doubt that Aldiss's book is a classic.

There are some problems with it, though. Not least the science. People have taken issue with the physics of the story, and I personally disliked Aldiss's story device of the devolved human beings having, deep in their brains, detailed racial memories of the past. There's some other basic biology which is also just plain wrong,

But this pales beside the real weakness of the book. Its central character Gren is an unpleasant self-centred bully. As I mentioned, Hothouse was written originally as five much shorter stories. In can see how in that format Gren wouldn't have outstayed his welcome with the reader. 

And I suspect Aldiss didn't realise just how intensely unsympathetic his protagonist would seem when these tales were joined back to back to form a novel.

Don't let that put you off, though. There is so much here to be enjoyed. This fascinating world is presented to us through a fast moving  adventure in the manner of the interplanetary novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (or, later, Michael Moorcock).

But the most striking influence here is that of William Hope Hodgson. There's a sequence in Hothouse involving an unseen nightmare thing called the Black Mouth which lurks inside a dormant volcano. It emits an eerie siren song that summons all creatures in the vicinity into the volcano and to their doom.

Our heroes only survive because they manage to hold out until that "dreadful melody ceased in mid-note." They watch as "five terrible long fingers came to rest precisely together on the lip of the Black Mouth. Then one by one they were withdrawn, leaving Gren with a vision of some unimaginable monster picking its teeth after an obscene repast."

Our heroes hurry away, looking back over their shoulders "to make sure nothing came climbing out of the volcano after them."

This is strongly reminscent of William Hope Hodgson's visionary horror stories, especially that Carnacki the Ghost-Finder tale 'The Whistling Room'. It also calls to mind Hodgson's novel Nightland, though not as much as the next section does...

As Aldiss's heroes trek into the lands beyond the terminator into the "Nightside Mountains", the whole situation strongly evokes Hodgson's Nightland with its clouds, storms, lightning, and the final glimpses of the livid twisted sun which is slowly going nova.

There's also an extraordinary sequence where Gren glimpses a sort of interdimensional opening into an "impossible green universe of delight" which prefigures Alan Moore's Swamp Thing.

It seems a little wrong to conclude with this list of comparisons, because ultimately Brian Aldiss's Hothouse is a classic because it's unique.


(Image credits: The covers are from Goodreads. The original green Sphere edition is from a French ABE bookseller. The orange and white Faber hardcover is from an American ABE bookseller.)

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story by Kasdan & Kasdan

As you will be aware, unless you've spent the last few years in a fallout shelter (tempting, I know...) there are now two series of Star Wars movies running in parallel. 

Firstly we have the mainstream films, which continue to explore the core narrative, like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

And then there are what I suppose we might call the sidestream movies, which have the subtitle 'A Star Wars Story', I guess to make the point they are not part of the Star Wars story.

So far we've had of these two sidestream movies. The first was Rogue One, which I think is a disgracefully bad piece of film making. A lousy script and an utterly inept piece of storytelling. 

I say this knowing full well that tens of millions of people loved this movie, and you dear reader may be one of them.

If so I apologise, but I stand my ground. Rogue One was awful. Which makes it all the sweeter to report that the new sidestream movie is just plain splendid. I simply loved it and can't wait to see it again.

Solo: A Star Wars Story has the tremendous advantage of a script by Lawrence Kasdan, the best screenwriter every to be involved with the franchise, working in collaboration with his son, Jonathan.

It is, of course, a prequel which fills in the back story of Han Solo. Solo is played by Alden Ehrenreich (not an easy name to spell), who made such a favourable impression in the Coen brothers' Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! where he played a laconic 1950s cowboy star with a fantastic command of the lasso. (He was also excellent in Stoker and Beautiful Creatures.)

The Kasdan's have come up with a strong, simple and rather smart concept to motivate the young Solo: he's in love. And early in the movie circumstances force him to separate from his sweetheart Qi'ra (pronounced Keera), played by Emilia Clarke.

Fans of Game of Thrones will know Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen (another bloody difficult name to spell). Now, there is no bigger fan of Game of Thrones than me. But I didn't even recognise that the actress playing Qi'ra was the same one who played Daenerys — her appearance is so different in this film.

What I did recognise is that Clarke is terrific, and fantastically fetching, in Solo. Her costumes in the movie also often have a kind of cowgirl thing going on, which sort of carries on the Western theme introduced by Ehrenreich's prowess with the lasso.

But Solo doesn't draw on Westerns. It's basically a heist movie. Indeed it begins as a heist movie in the middle of a war, which suggests that the Kasdans might have fruitfully studied Troy Kennedy Martin's great script for Kelly's Heroes.

As he's drawn into the heist plot, Solo teams up with Beckett (at last an easy name), played by Woody Harrelson and Val (ditto) played by Thandie Newton, who gets to say lines like, “Viper droids headed your way.” 

Beckett and Val are kind of a Bonnie and Clyde setup — and there’s convincing chemistry when they kiss. Newton is gone all too soon from the picture.

But the Kasdan's expert story has already propelled us to a new and engrossing situation as Solo finds his lost love — only to discover that she's the captive plaything of a genuinely nasty villain, Dryden Vos (great name), played by the outstanding Paul Bettany.

Which is not to suggest that Qi'ra is some kind of passive ornament. Indeed, she's basically a kickass film noir femme fatale. 

Although, as leading lady, she has some serious competition from the fabulous L3-37, a (literally) rebellious female droid unforgettably brought to life by Phoebe Waller-Bridge a British actor, comedian and writer best known for Fleabag.

To say any more would be to spoil the fun for you. But I will just remark that this is a really standout cast, making great use of a peerless script in which all the icons and tropes and characters we associate with Han Solo (Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon, Lando Calrissian) are skilfully and joyfully introduced.

The movie is directed by Ron Howard. He took over from the team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), reportedly because they were taking too many liberties with the Kasdans' script. 

If so, they deserved to go.

Anyway, this is Ron Howard's best film to date — certainly his best since The Missing. It also has excellent music by John Powell.

Oh — and Chewbacca's hair looks great.

(Image credits: all the posters are from Imp Awards where, I kid you not, there are 45 to choose from. Even so, Thandie Newton as Val is scandalously under-represented.)

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Red Sparrow, the novel by Jason Matthews

What a superb book, and what a pleasure to discover it. Red Sparrow is a topnotch spy thriller. 

When I learned the author was a former CIA agent, I expected it to be authentic and well researched but clumsily written. 

On the contrary, Jason Matthews writes superbly. He has learned a lot from another bestselling author with rather an ordinary name, Thomas Harris. 

Indeed, in many ways, Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow is the best popular novel I've read since Thomas Harris (and Hannibal Lecter) made their own first big hit with another red creature, Red Dragon, published back in 1981.

There are several distinct characteristics which distinguish Jason Matthews's prose. He likes to use animal imagery, which he deploys deftly. "Through the pines, the slate-black river was furrowed by the talons of dusk-feeding ospreys."

In particular he likes to use animal analogies, as when the heroine's heartless spymaster of an uncle takes her to lunch. "He was staring at her as he ate, his dead eye unblinking, just as a wolf watches even while drinking at a brook."

Or when describing the state's reaction to the suicide of one of her classmates at spy school: "The bear sniffed at the body, then turned its back."

Our heroine is Dominika Egorova, played in the recent film of Red Sparrow, by Jennifer Lawrence. Dominika becomes a spy for Russia after her promising ballet career is abruptly terminated. Her evil uncle wants her trained as a 'sparrow' — a kind of espionage prostitute.  

She is sent to the sparrow academy to be indoctrinated in "an Upper Volga Kama Sutra". But Dominika resists this "colossal indignity". She has other plans. 

She is seething with anger and wants revenge against her uncle and against the state. Dominika carefully conceals this secret plan in "the hurricane room inside her."
 
Matthews writes brilliantly, and with welcome humour. A couple of CIA operatives out in the sticks in Connecticut are "like two Bulgarian swineherds in Sofia for the weekend." 

A formidable attacker goes after them like an "unstoppable serial killer at a lakeside summer camp."

And later, after another, equally formidable, adversary is finally felled one of our heroes mutters, "let's seriously consider sawing his head off just to be safe".
 
Matthews is also cheeky — he includes a recipe at the end of each chapter, even the most harrowing.

His sources of influence are very interesting indeed. Beside Thomas Harris I detect Ian Fleming — of course.

 Indeed Matthews seems to be mischievously referencing James Bond's creator whenever he mentions a "firm dry handshake" (a Fleming obsession).

And when a character is described as having "eyes, the whites bluish with health" he seems to be channeling the great John D. MacDonald. 

But probably the most intriguing inspiration is Patrick O'Brian. When Matthews speaks of a "toad-eater" (a sycophantic lackey) that's O'Brian. Or when he says of Dominika, "How she longed to wipe the eye of the beast" — meaning to give it a good beating — again we hear O'Brian's voice. 

The only reason I read this book is because of the film of it, which I loved. But I love the book even more and I can't recommend it you highly enough.

I intended to compare the book and the film in this blog. However they are so vastly different — and that difference throws up so many issues — that I intend to discuss them in a separate post all on its own.

Stay tuned.

(Image credits: book covers from Good Reads.)