Month: July 2014

A Pessimist’s Guide to some Fairly Famous Sayings

The life affirming quote and proverbial saying – Facebook is littered with them, Oprah built an empire on them, gift shop emporiums specialise in them……..’emporiums?’,  let’s be honest, I could just have typed gift shop here, but why use simple words when you can tag on long and unnecessarily obscure ones too.  I’m assuming I may have lost you right around  the word ‘specialise’  –  being that the attention span of the average internet user is a measly 8 seconds  If you have scarpered and are making a quick getaway to Cracked.com, then I recommend a fascinating article about the unintentional placement of male genitalia in great works of Art – I’m not making this up)

The life affirming quote and proverbial saying (I know;  I’m repeating myself) – their natural habitat used to be the homes of angst-ridden, middle class Americans but, like that other wildly successful American import – the high school prom – they’ve slowly invaded British culture.  No longer can we sit around bemoaning our rubbishy lives.  No longer can we complain endlessly about the weather, or wonder at the inexplicable fact that the pinnacle of UK television appears to be Emmerdale, EastEnders and Britain’s Got No Talent.  The Americans won’t let us.  Not content with world domination via social media, televisual media, all things filmic, and any other media you can think of, the Americans also want you to take on board the mantra that positive thinking will cure everything.  So, on with the positive thinking.

1  BE YOURSELF  

This is a good one isn’t it?  You and I know that this applies to us, after all we’re nice people aren’t we?  We wouldn’t hurt a fly.  We’re generally polite, nice to our friends and always buy a card on Mother’s Day.  But what about those other people – the OTHERS.  The Dr Crippen-like serial killers and the loony Dictators.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if they all just quit being themselves and got some counselling instead.  And what about that bad-mouthing co-worker, and the bloke who cut you up on the motorway, and the cold caller from hell, and those pop-up internet advertisers.  However, if your plans include unleashing the unedited version of yourself upon a waiting world, then don’t start with the all important job interview.

A McDonald’s branch (other food chains are available) somewhere in the city.

Interviewer

Why did you apply for this job?

Naive Young Person

Well I recently graduated in xxxxxx and I’m feeling pretty p***ed off I can tell you.  Back in those halcyon days, when I spent 30 arduous weeks a year studying and the other 22 asleep, I was told my course had a 90% employment success rate.  Great I thought, I’m well on my way to that dream job in advertising/media/films/scientific discovery.  What they failed to mention was that 90% of us would wind up successfully employed at McDonald’s, while we waited in vain for that dream job. I have nothing against McDonalds, but we’re not going to kid ourselves that I actually want to work here are we?  Between you and me I’d rather be travelling the world, or sitting at home writing the next great novel – or just sitting at home.  But my parents insisted that I get a job and, what’s more, they made me wear this ridiculous suit, which I’d never normally be seen dead in, and my mother made me get a haircut.  I also recently discovered that being gainfully employed means you only get to sleep in 25 days a year!  I’ve spoken to social welfare and apparently this doesn’t count as slave labour.  Did I mention I need the money?

A generic office somewhere in the city.

Interviewer

Why did you apply for this job?

Jaded Old Person

Well I gave up on my dream job 20 years ago and finally got something in Admin.   I developed a fake personality (after discovering that no-one wants you to be yourself) and became very enthusiastic about data entry, work emails and malicious office gossip.  I ended up in IT, inexplicably, and my current company kicked me out last week after 10 years of devoted service pretending to be fascinated by the inner workings of domestic appliances – and regularly cocking up their IT.  Did I mention I need the money.

Be yourself – but not if you’re Dr Crippen, Hitler or going for a job interview.

2  WHEN IT RAINS LOOK FOR RAINBOWS, WHEN IT’S DARK LOOK FOR STARS

This has some affinity with the song ‘ Somewhere over the Rainbow’ – but what did Judy Garland find when she got there?  A wicked witch, rabid monkeys, and her only friends were a scarecrow, a man made from tin, a very weird lion and a dog.  You can be fairly certain that Dorothy’s Facebook, MySpace and Twitter would have looked very strange indeed.  And really, what’s so bad about rain?  Without the rain there’d be nothing to complain about and we’d be living in a desert.

When it rains you’re better off looking for:

MUDDY PUDDLES – unlesss you want to ruin your tights…
FLASH FLOODS – that’ll ruin your nice carpets…
LEAKS THROUGH YOUR CEILING LIGHTS
WHEN IT’S DARK  –   look for a torch…

3  THE JOURNEY OF A 1000 MILES BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP

Yes I get it.  Great achievements start out small and you need perseverance and courage to keep on going.  What if you’d prefer to sit down with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit though?  Who says you can’t achieve great things sitting in a comfy chair with your feet up – the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, that’s who.  However, some scholars believe that the great Lao Tzu (who founded Taoism, or didn’t, depending on your point of view) was just a made up person – like that’s never happened before – so, for all we know, this could have been the advertising slogan of some ancient Chinese shoe salesman.  Besides I can’t even step out the door to begin the journey of a 1000 feet to the local shops without negotiating broken glass, thrown by the yob who was just being himself the night before; without dodging the neighbour who wants to chat about the size of his begonias, and without stepping over the dog doodah because Toby’s owner thinks he has a right to be himself.

A journey of A 1000 miles may begin with a single step – but I’d stay at home if I was you.

4  YOU’RE ONE IN A MILLION

I recently put this to the test by typing myself into Google and found roughly 24 other me’s floating around the internet, and have you checked the local phone book?

5  SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO FORGET WHAT’S GONE, APPRECIATE WHAT STILL REMAINS AND LOOK FORWARD TO WHAT’S COMING NEXT

I was in dire need of this piece of psychobabblic wisdom recently.  The author is unknown – would you own up to this?  You see, we had a box of 12 Krispy Kreme doughnuts on the kitchen table.  Eight rapidly disappeared but, never mind I thought, I’ll forget that eight delicious doughnuts have already gone and appreciate the four that remain.  I had it all worked out – two for breakfast the next day (that’s not excessive is it?), one for lunch and a healthy apple, which scientifically cancels out the fact that I’d have stuffed myself with three dougnuts;  and one for tea.  So, there I was, really appreciating those remaining doughnuts and looking forward to eating them the next day, until I got up the following morning to find an empty box and a distinct lack of doughnuts  –  I may never get over it.

6  LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE

Tripping over your own two left feet, and falling headlong into the nearest lamp post is likely to cause widespread merriment; but the laughter of concerned onlookers is no cure for your fractured skull.  I’ll take notice of this one when they can prove that splitting your sides at the latest Simpsons is a cure for cancer.

7  BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF WIT

Right, I’ll keep this brief.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

It’s been ten long, hard winters since our introduction to Caesar, the intelligent ape, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Those ten years saw a genetically engineered Simian Flu decimate most of the human population and, as the electric lights slowly went out all over the planet, the ape fires began to burn.

Dawn opens with a mass ape hunting scene, as the evolving CGI simians go after a herd of magnificent CGI deer, with their ultimate weapon  –  the spear.  For all I know the forest they’re hunting in could be CGI too, but this doesn’t matter.  For what director Matt Reeves (of Cloverfield fame) and WETA are telling us is marvel at how real CGI is now.   Look, they are saying, you could be sitting at home watching a David Attenborough documentary about evolving apes right now, instead of this Sci-Fi spectacular, and we bet you can’t tell the difference.  And they’re right, we can’t tell the difference.  The special effects are STUNNING.  But I’m going to be honest here.  My expectations were high after all the universal critical acclaim for the sheer artistry of this film, for the compelling relationship dynamics, for the political commentary on important societal issues;  and, believe me, all that’s there and more, but I’ve got to say it, in fact I might just whisper it in your ear  –  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just a tad too l-o-n-g and a tad too serious,  in spite of all that technical wizardry and Motion Capture brilliance.

We spend a long time living with the tribal ape colony, in their fantastical forest home outside a stunning San Francisco in ruins;  and too much time reading subtitles at the bottom of the screen (difficult when you happen to be sitting behind a very tall man) because the apes use sign language.  This is all serious stuff and I get the reason why. When you’re asked to believe that chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas might one day get down to some serious monkey business and inherit the earth, then you’ve got to take that premise seriously, and this film definitely doesn’t disappoint in the this is serious stuff department.   And so we get to see the apes’ familial relationships (Caesar and his teenage son are in oddly typical human meltdown, and there’s another Caesar child on the way);  we see their primitive ‘cave’ paintings, and the fact that they have a school.  Memories of those 1968 damn dirty apes, with their rubber faces and monkey retro clothes are completely forgotten.

Dawn’s ape colony is led by Caesar – all hail Caesar – and his second in command Koba.  Caesar and Koba have history,  and so the stage if set for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.  The apes are living peacefully in their forest – their No 1 slogan being ‘ape does not kill ape’ – but that’s all about to change.

The apes believe that humans are extinct, but it becomes clear that a group of genetically immune humans are living in the desolate ruins of San Francisco (some fine Concept Art work here), and are rapidly running out of the means to electrically power their settlement.  Their only solution is a dam which happens to be right within the ape colony.

The two leading lights in the human colony are Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke.)  Our hero, Malcolm, is part of a family unit that mirrors Caesar’s own, and we are constantly reminded of how similar the distrusting apes and humans actually are.  After apes and humans discover that they are co-existing on the planet, both Malcolm and Caesar attempt an uneasy truce between the factions.  This is made difficult for two reasons – Carver and Koba.  Carver is an ape-hating human, who nearly destroys the relationship Malcolm is building with Caesar.  Caesar allows access to the all important dam, only if Malcolm and his team give up their weapons.  Carver hides his gun and, when this is found, things rapidly begin to go downhill.  Koba is a human-hating ape (having been the subject of numerous experiments in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and enters the human colony to find out just how well armed they are – making off with a few automatics whilst he’s at it.

Koba’s difficult relationship with Caesar eventually breaks down, due to idealogical differences, as does Caesar’s relationship with his son.  Koba decides to initiate war between the apes and humans shooting Caesar (Et Tu Koba?) from afar and blaming it on the humans, thereby unleashing ape fury.

Guns play a significant role in this film, highlighted by the scene that received so many complaints in the advertising break during the World Cup.  This scene is just as shocking in the cinema the second time around.  The final epic battle sequence, as Koba, and his fully armed apes on horseback, bring Armageddon to the human colony, shows just what the invention of firepower has done to our civilisation, as these war mongering apes aim those guns right back at us;  fully turning the tables when they trap the humans in a cage.

Our human heroes later find Caesar alive and, after a quick surgical repair (Malcolm’s girlfriend is conveniently a doctor), Caesar and Koba fight it out for supremacy.  Caesar wins the day, but we must surely spare a thought for the beleaguered, half mad Koba.  Wouldn’t you have revenge on your mind if you’d spent your early life trapped in a cage to be used as a permanent laboratory experiment?

As always reviews are subjective.  Go see this film.  Yes it’s over-long, but it had the difficult task of setting up all the complexities of the ape relationships and ape hierarchy, when most of its subjects are dumb, and just beginning to evolve spoken language.

Go see it for the amazing Motion Capture technology, and see if you can spot Andy Serkis lurking beneath all that CGI.

Go see it for the post-apocalyptic settings, the apes’ forest home and a wondrously overgrown, still majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Most of all, go see it to become acquainted with an ape called Caesar;  because this simian Emperor has his eyes on you, and pretty soon he’s going to rule the world.

Richard Matheson – February 20th 1926 – June 23rd 2013

Richard Matheson died just over a year ago at the age of 87.  I’m always playing catch-up when it comes to news worthy events – late to the party as it were.  That’s not a good analogy.   Matheson’s death was obviously not a cause for celebration;  his fictional works, however, are a good enough reason to throw a party and celebrate.

The Horror and Science Fiction genres are two of my favourite ways to escape the drag of everyday life.  Let me qualify what I mean by Horror (capital H.)  I’m not talking mindless violence, or the blood and guts fury of some of the gratuitous media of today.  It’s more about intelligent, thought provoking stories; often dealing with the supernatural, and where the Horror is almost incidental.  Richard Matheson is one of a select few who helped re-shape these genres, whilst remaining just outside the popular writers’ hall of fame.  This, in part, explains the lack of media ‘fanfare’ when he died, and my late arrival to the wake.  His is not an isolated case of course.  There are many talented people in their fields, who are not fully appreciated during their lifetime.  It has often taken other, more well known writers to bring Richard Matheson’s name to the attention of the wider public.  He was, in a sense, a writer’s writer.

Matheson was paradoxically uneasy about the label ‘Horror writer’, stating in one interview that ‘I never liked Horror in the first place.’   Like Stephen King,  Matheson considered himself a writer who just happened upon Horror/SF as a means of exploring the universal human condition.  The scary writing was something he did as a young man, when he could laugh at such things before age, and a growing family, brought responsibility and a growing anxiety about what Horror stories could do to the mind.  In his later years he instead began to focus on stories that dealt with human spirituality and the power of enduring love – about as close to the heart of the human condition as you can get.

Trekkers, and those like myself whose faith lapsed over the years, are enjoying the current umpteenth Star Trek re-boot.  Richard Matheson was there in the beginning, writing one of the best episodes of the original Star Trek series – The Enemy Within.  During the ’50s and ’60s he wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Lawman.  His talents weren’t confined to the emerging medium of television during this time; he also wrote novels, screenplays and short stories.  One of his short stories, Duel, was transformed into a highly successful feature film in 1971.  It marked the cinematic debut of the then young director Stephen Spielberg.  Spielberg had been working in television, desperate to make the jump to directing feature films, and he credits this Matheson short story with helping him make that leap.

There have been several  film adaptations of Matheson’s books – The Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, Stir of Echoes and, of course, I am Legend;  but none come close I think to Duel.  If you haven’t seen Duel then it’s worth taking a look at this compelling, drawn-out example of road rage.  A mysterious truck driver plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with a lone driver on the open roads, and we never know why.  Matheson himself was ‘tailgated’ by a truck for miles, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, and this unnerving experience led to this story.

Duel was originally made for TV and then, due to its unexpected success, given a cinema release.  This film is all the more powerful for its lack of special effects (if that term can be used with regard to cinema in the ’70s) and the small size of its less than stellar cast.   Spielberg’s film is simple and straightforward.  The horror of the situation the driver finds himself in unfolds gradually, and we feel his mounting paranoia as Spielberg juxtaposes everyday life against the threatening behaviour of the largely invisible driver of the truck.  For Spielberg Duel was, in a way, a precursor to Jaws and Jurassic Park.  The large, sinister truck tracking down a helpless man became a large, sinister shark and, later, an even bigger and more terrifying T Rex.

If it isn’t enough that Matheson helped launch the career of one of the most well known and gifted directors of his generation, then consider his influence on one of the best and most prolific authors of his time – Stephen King.  In King’s own words:

‘When people talk about genre, I guess they mention my name first, but without Richard Matheson, I wouldn’t be around.  He is as much my father as Bessie Smith was Elvis Presley’s mother.’

 

For King, Matheson ‘came like a bolt of pure ozone lightning’, regenerating the Horror/SF genres, and became ‘the author who influenced me the most as a writer.’

For Richard Matheson, Horror moved into your street and took up residence in the house next door.  Stephen King later took this idea and ran with it.  Matheson’s books centre around ordinary people, living ordinary lives until the worst possible thing happens, which brings me to I am Legend, Matheson’s signature work.

Whilst watching Dracula (1931 version),  Matheson’s mind had wandered and he states, in an American Archive of Television interview, that the thought came to him,  ‘If one vampire is scary, what if the whole world is full of vampires.‘   This ‘what if’ thought later became I am Legend.

I am Legend was published in 1954.  Its hell is right here on earth scenario made possible Night of the Living DeadDawn of the Dead, the comedic Shawn of the Dead and The World’s End and, more recently, World War Z, and the just released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  Matheson almost single handedly invented the narrative of the lone survivor/survivors living in a post-apocalyptic world.  He did this by recycling the vampire stories from long ago and adding the then modern day science of 1954.

The vampires in  I am Legend are the victims of a worldwide plague that changes their physiology.  They are not supernatural beings.  There is a scientific, medical cause for their vampirism, and the killer idea was this – what if one man happened to be immune?  Robert Neville, the sole survivor, sets out to discover how he can fight back, using educated guess work and what little hope and faith he has left.  Richard Matheson details the horror and utter isolation of that one man, as he tries to endure life without the loved ones he’s lost to a living death.  This is not horror for horror’s sake.  We are told that Neville carves out wooden stakes, and that he leaves the house carrying a large number, returning empty handed; but we are spared any graphic descriptions of stakes through the heart.  Neville’s work to kill the vampires is largely implied  What lifts this book above what used to be called pulp fiction (and Matheson came at the tail end of the pulp fiction movement, perhaps explaining the lack of recognition accorded him by the literati), is its exploration of human fears, of the mechanisms upon which societies are run, of revolution and a new order.

Part 1:  January 1976

Chapter 1

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

Apart from the shock realisation that Matheson’s future of 1976 is already the distant past for us, you can’t read those lines without wanting to know more can you?

In a Christ-like death at the end of the novel, Neville becomes a legend to a new, evolving society and I’ll end this belated tribute to Richard Matheson by using an obvious comparison.  To the world of Science Fiction, Horror and Thriller writing, Richard Matheson is Legend.