Friday, August 13, 1999

Event: Eclipse - 1999's Damp Squib #2

Now this, may sound a bit harsh, because, yes, in certain places it did deliver all it was promised to be, but in London it was a damp squib. I had been told, by the media, by the half-baked scientists the media always wheels out when it doesn't understand what's going on, and by knowledgeable friends (who had read, seen and heard the media), that London was going to get a 95% eclipse. So I was expecting, near total darkness, people walking into man-holes, cars careering off the road, aeroplanes crashing into tall buildings. But it was not to be. In London, it went a tad darker for a bit - like it was late afternoon - and the sun changed shape. No calamities. No, end of the world because it's happening at 11:11 on the 11th day of the 8th month of 99th year of the second Millennium since 4 years before the boy who would put an end to Judaism's monopoly on monotheism was born. In short it was just another hugely hyped event that failed to deliver.

This follows only a few short weeks since, Nostradamus' prediction for the end of the world. Which, was quite well hyped, and again failed to deliver. There wasn't even a spate of plane crashes to mark the day. Not even an epidemic of measles. I mean, just an outbreak of sporadic falling over would have made the hype seem a little bit warranted. But, no. Nostradamus failed to deliver, as in London, the Eclipse failed in its attempt to be a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime, visual extravaganza. Quite frankly, it was the Phantom Menace of Solar Phenomenon.

What next? Well, we all know that damp squibs come in threes. And the next big, over-hyped event is going to be the changing over from the second to the third Millennium since 4 years before the boy who would put an end to Judaism's monopoly on monotheism was born. Now this is the biggy. This isn't just some French twat's cryptic suggestion that the world will be destroyed. This isn't some old chunk of Earth floating in front of our sun. This is an undisputed calendarial event. Many people believe the world will end. Many other people believe the boy who put an end to Judaism's monopoly on monotheism will return to finish the job he started. Many, many fear that much of the technology will rely upon will fail us, leaving us at the very least unable to record January 1st's edition of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and at worst with global nuclear destruction. Lots and lots of people, many of whom are included in the above, believe that whatever will happen, this is still the best excuse to party for 1000 years. Night-clubs, domes and fields are preparing themselves for huge organised parties.

And yet, what is going to happen? Very few people I have spoken to are venturing out that evening. It's a night, for celebrating with family or friends, not at some organised thing. It's a night for staying within easy reach of candles and solid tables under which to hide from nuclear fall-out. It's a night for staying in with the TV because it could well be the last chance for some time. It's a night for being somewhere where the playing of 1999 by Prince and Millennium by Robbie Williams are not compulsory.

Only time will tell if it is a damp squib or not. Or whether the 2nd Millennium ends with a bang of one sort or another.

But is it all bad? There was one good thing about the Eclipse, and that was watching London's rooftops and bridges fill with its people. it was kind of like the Dunkirk spirit, when hundreds of ordinary British folk sailed over to France to see the eclipse of our expeditionary force. And people in Devon and Cornwall did seem very enthralled that it went dark during the day. And in time we will remember this as the last eclipse ever seen from Earth thanks to an event mentioned later.

And Nostradamus' damp end of the world squib, did put the final nail in the coffin of the old French fraud.

So it is possible that on and after the 31st December 1999, the failure of the Earth to explode, the ability of electronic equipment to still function, the lack of arrival of divisive saviours, the fact we stayed in to party and not go to the Hippodrome... all of these could not be bad things at all.


Actually there is one event scheduled this year that will absolutely, without fail occur. This is the blowing away of the Moon from the Earth on September 9th 1999. This event will occur, because it has not been predicted by French nutters or religions groups. Because it has not been mercilessly hyped during its build-up. And because it has been foretold by someone of great supernatural (and indeed supermarionational) power. Jerry Anderson. As Prince once prophetically put it, "Tonight, I'm gonna party like it's Space 1999." And party I will.

At home, under the table, with a good supply of candles.


Eclipse Quote of the Year. (Supplied by Mr Norm McBride)

Two students in a University library: "Are you coming to see the eclipse?" "Where is it?"


(c) August (Space) 1999 (Party Like It's) Peter More.

Sunday, July 18, 1999

Film: Star Wars - The Phantom Menace

In a galaxy far, far away, a huge Publicity Department set about devising a way to sell work produced by the vast Special Effect Department. The Plot Department was happy, their week's work had been done. In fact most of it had been done 20 years ago. All they had to do was include all of the references made in the original. Hell, they wouldn't even have to make up any major character or planet names. Their only real work was shoe-horning in two very popular characters from the original film, that really had no place to be there. But that did not matter as the Genre Department had decided it was to be pure kids sci-fi adventure. The Characterisation Department had the biggest laugh of all. No character had enough screen time (not including battle scenes) to really warrant anything beyond a one line description. Even the character misguidedly given (what seems like) the most screen time, Jar Jar Binks (so called because he jars twice as much as any other character ever seen before), has a simple description: Clumsy and irritating. The Comedy Department, chuckled to himself because two paperclips had fallen onto the floor. Two paperclips! Why is that so funny? he asked himself. He was proud of his work on the film.

After the hype. After the pre-release merchandise. After the queues. Then there came the film. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The prequel to begin all prequels.

The film is a looker. If you saw it propped up against a bar, you'd possibly admire it from across the room, maybe you'd even go over and engage it in small talk, but you know there would be little point in brining up Noam Chomsky or the thawing in US-Soviet relations.

It looks very good in places. Of course, it has that strange, faint, not-altogether unpleasant odour that computer-generated images produce. But, every year, with every film, the smell reduces. And sometimes, it is impossible to tell.

With all these special effects, all you need is a decent story, and a solid set of characters. Had George Lucus wanted I would have gladly sold him my screenplay: 'Star Wars Episode 1: The Panting Princess'. He could have saved a fortune on sets, special effects, and would only have needed to employ a handful of the cast: Ewan McGregor, The Princess, and her hand maidens. But, he didn't.

So, what's in the film? It has a couple of silly in-jokes, and a few sub-spaceballs spoofs. (A two-headed alien sports commentator, bantering with itself, is a great concept, but comes across as irritating.) In fact a few things in the film are nothing more than irritating. The boy who will one day wear all black and develop the voice of James Earl Jones, is an irritating little brat. And he gets up to some 'Flight of the Navigator' spaceship mishaps, which are, of course, irritating. These mishaps, naturally, save the day.

Prescription Required
Who the Phantom Menace of the title is, is not clear. It's either the holographic form behind the dastardly invasion of the planet Greebo, or whatever it's called; or it's the evil Syph Knight with the Chessington-zoo-style face-painting. The Syph are dark Jedi knights, or rather they are Jedi Knights who have caught the Syph, and failed to take the penicillin in time. They are bad karma, and they fight with two light-sabres cellotaped together. But this knight of the Syph (I remember it well) was not really a menace. He came along, did a bit of fighting, killed someone who from what you knew of the future, had to die anyway, and then was dispatched by Obi Wan. Obi Wan then dropped his light-sabre down a murky toilet and dived in to get it. Hang on, I'm getting confused here.

The one good thing in these silly stories is The Force. The Force allows things to happen in these films which in other films would be a ridiculous coincidence or unbelievable piece of fate, to have been ordained by the force. They also allow the heroes to have much better reflexes than anyone else. The Force is not only all of this, but it is the glue that holds the plot, and indeed, the series, together.

Hence Obi Wan's rant at the beginning of the next film choosing the force, choosing Jedi training, choosing double-edged light-sabres, and how he chose not to choose the force, he chose the dark side. Hang on, I'm getting confused here.

It is the force that draws the Jedi to Manikin Skywalker, the Jedi subsequently known as Darth Vader. And it is the force that allows Jedis to survive battles against huge odds. Young Manikin was readily accepted as having the force, but he was not the only non-Jedi in the film who displayed very high degree of Forceness. One other character was drawn to the Jedi by fate. One other character survived a battle where the odds were very high, and killed many, many enemy without seeming to try. One other character starts off an unwanted loner and at the end is lauded as a hero. Ladies and Gentlemen, hate him or detest him, loath him or despise, there is no denying the facts: "Jar Jar Binks sun has the Force huge big in him." Let's hope he gets his own animated series.

In short, the Star Wars series is best not viewed as dynastic space soap opera. It is best not viewed as a multi-volume children's fantasy adventure yarn. It is actually best viewed as something akin to the series of 1940's Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour "Road To..." movies with CGI. Bob Hope is C3PO, Bing Crosby is R2D2, and Dorothy Lamour is the backdrop.

Well, that's what I think, anyway.

Preventative Medicine
For those of you who haven't seen it, I'm going to spoil it for you: At the end of the film, Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda and the boy who will be Darth are all still alive.

© 1999 Peter More.

Wednesday, July 07, 1999

Film: The Matrix. Ted's Bogus Sci-Fi Adventure

I find it very hard to see Keanu Reeves and not think of the Bill and Ted movies. I don't think Keanu can either. Whenever he delivers a line, you sit there waiting for him to add a 'dude' to the end of it. At one point in The Matrix, Keanu very nearly does. Upon seeing Lawrence Fishburne jump from one sky-scraper to another he says "Woah," and then only just stops himself from adding the epithet.

It's not this that stops you taking him seriously. Well, okay it is. But it is also the fact that he does like his thrillers silly. Speed was hokum, but very well done hokum. The Matrix is hokum, and would be called a triumph for video techniques over content, except that it is not a triumph. I was expecting silly, but stylish and enjoyable sci-fi in the mode of The Fifth Element, but although The Matrix had some style imposed on it, and there were elements that were enjoyable, there weren’t nearly so many as five.

It’s not just his films that are not so good. Keanu has his own band, and I was privileged to hear them live just over a week ago from the luxury of my tent. They aren’t very good. All I could think was, I’d much rather be listening to Bill and Ted’s band, Wild Stallions. They weren’t much good, but they were entertainingly bad. Anyway, that’s an aside.

The central idea of The Matrix is a sturdy old sci-fi reliable, that is common in books and in the imaginations of paranoid teenagers, but that rarely gets seen on the big screen. Life as we are experiencing it is not really life at all, but a computer-generated illusion fed into our brains by computers bent on world domination. Or in this case, who have already achieved it.

Keanu is selected and woken up into the real world. The transfer from artificial world to real world (and vice versa) has to be via a telephone line. At both ends. In other words, telephone lines in the artificial world are more than a computer-generated concept, but are physically or mysteriously or even magically connected to those in the real world. I should not really analyse it, but it's the kind of superficial logic you would ignore if it weren’t for the films pretensions.

In the real world, Keanu is seen as 'The One.' A saviour figure who can rescue us all in the computer-generated recreation of the world circa 1999. A Jesus in the machine. Sound like hokum, yet? He can save us because he can bend the rules in a way the computers who built and run the network can't. I never really saw how something the machines created not be subtly adapted to suit their needs. They already broke some rules when it suited them, why not others? It seemed the kind of bad planning machines wouldn’t do, but humans would.

If a film is going to make you question things, then it should a) answer most of the questions it raises about it’s own world, b) ask you questions about yours. In the first category there are many unanswered questions. In the second there are two questions that you ask yourself: 1) Is life really just a figment of our imagination in the way the film suggests or another? (A question I used to ask myself when watching Carry On… films.) 2) If it is, does it really matter given that as portrayed in the film, what we see as life, is actually pretty darn good compared with the real world which is all, about living in a dark, dank, cramped hovership with a bunch of geeks and hiding from killer androids? It doesn't take you long to realise the central idea is only there to serve some state of the art video techniques.

These same video techniques have already seen the light of day, to brilliant effect, in a Schmirnoff advert. And what's more they worked better in the advert because in it they were justified by the plot, or at least the cuts. In The Matrix they serve solely to stylise it. And after a while, you found yourself going, "yeah, yeah, a slow motion camera twist as the guy flies through the air, what about some conflict other than the obvious (a) fighting and (b) "Oh, my god, one of them is a traitor. Who'd have thought it in a film like this." Actually, the most original thing in this film is that you know that the traitor is going to be as such the moment you lay eyes on him. The Matrix isn't about shock plot twists.

It is not a bad film. It's diverting. If you got rid of the attempt at clever sci-fi and just had lots of super-human fighting, it would, ironically, be a much better film. There are one or two really good bits. There's a helicopter set-piece that is pretty darn spectacular. But I'd say, wait for it on 'Hollywood's Greatest Stunts' or, rather, 'Hollywood's Greatest Video Effects.'

The best characters are the Computer's Sentinel programs, who appear as Men in Black. They dress identically, but the computer has made their faces different for some reason. The character of their leader is great, whilst still being essentially a robot. Yes, it's sad to say Keanu was out-acted by an android, but so he was in the second Bill and Ted film.

So who does the film appeal to? Well Spods for one. The central message of The Matrix is this: as the world as we know it is not real, so neither are the names people use in it. Therefore the names people use on the Internet, through which our Keanu discovers the existence of the real world, are actually our names in this real world. Thus, in the real world, 25 percent of us are named after characters from fiction written in the artificial world. The film’s pre-climax line says it all, "Call me Bilbo!"

In short, don’t go and see this film. Get a video tape and record on it the following items: The introductory dialog to Plan Nine From Outer Space (For the silly sci-fi element); 20 minutes of frenetic Kung-Fu fighting from any Jackie Chan film (Just to see it for real, and not all done with computer techniques); Ten minutes of a gun battle from any John Woo film; and the whole of that Schmirnoff advert. Pad the whole thing out with assorted bits from the Die Hard / Lethal Weapon series, and half way through slip in a short clip from THX 1147. Watch this instead. Once you’re done, wipe it all and watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but just those bits where they’re flying through time in a phone box. After all, that is essential what the Matrix is all about.

Friday, June 04, 1999

Event: Eurovision Song Contest 1999

As someone desperate to rediscover that big lost part of his life called his youth, I feel compelled to catch any up-to-the-minute, groovy, funky 'ewef' music program that I can. To that end, I sat with a bottle Sunny D. and a packet of cheesy Wotsits, to watch this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

Eurovision is the French for a specific type of cheese that never quite matures.

Last year, the contest was won by a woman who was not born a woman, by a country that is not actually in Europe. I was looking forward to this year's prize being taken by Tit Cock Too, Thailand's premier lady-boy, singing "Three Times a Lady, Four Times a Bloke." Thailand is still too far outside of Europe to enter.

This year's event was a night of surprises, none the less. What was not a surprise was the winning by the Abbaesque Swedish entry by Baaps, or whatever they were called. What wads a surprise, was the German entry. They looked highly Arabic and sang in Arabic (or other similarly rooted language) about returning to Jerusalem (where the event was being held). They were so very not German in a deliberate and obvious way. But then, I expect the Germans, when selecting their representatives in the event, were conscious of their country's standing in Israel. Four strapping, young, blond men, chanting "Deutschland Über Alles" would not have won any prises for tact. In fact, the German entry was far more a peace offering than it was a serious attempt to enter the event. They came third.

The surprise at the end was the return of last year's winner, the intergendered, intercontinental Ms Dana International. She came on to hand over the prize behaving for all her worth like a drag queen, which someone should tell her she no longer is, she's a woman now. But the pièce de résistance was when she fell head-over-heals, over her heals. My first thought was, "Oh my god, she's been shot by religious fundamentalists opposed to the programme's (a) rehearsals occurring on the Sabbath, (b) irreligious frivolity, or (c) innate papness.

But, no, she had just fallen over in her high-healed shoes. We should not scoff, she has had less time to perfect the difficult task in them. Most women have from the time they reach their teens onwards, Dana was a boy during hers and thus could only practice high-heal wearing in his own time. The Sabbath, probably, but then I know of know holy tenet against heal-wearing amongst men on this day.

She got up again, tarted around the stage for a bit more before she was ushered off having probably done as much for Israel's political standing in the world as she had done for her own standing on that stage.

One thing did impress me, and that was that Israel has really gone for the angle that Eurovision, here in the UK at least, has a real gay following. The program has a camp kitsch about it that is hard to fake. Last year Israel fielded a Transsexual, this year they proffered a boy band that was comprised of four men that, if they were not gay, definitely had some other connection with the media. Next year, they will be entering two butch dykes.

Which brings me to the Irish entry.