The Poetics of Empire

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The Poetics of Empire (Lewton Bus)
Pop quiz: In your typical James Bond movie, who is the protagonist? Seems like a strange, obvious question, right? It’s obviously Bond. He’s the hero. He’s played by the top-billed actor. The franchise is basically named after him. So, clearly, Bond is the protagonist. Right? Put a pin in that...

Bond, Thanos, Palpatine, Thespis

Pop quiz: In your typical James Bond movie, who is the protagonist?

Seems like a strange, obvious question, right? It’s obviously Bond. He’s the hero. He’s played by the top-billed actor. The franchise is basically named after him. So, clearly, Bond is the protagonist. Right?

Put a pin in that, and we’ll come back to it.

Now, here’s a similar question: In the new Avengers: Infinity War, who is the protagonist?

This article mirrors almost-exactly the conversation that Ruth and I had coming out of the cimena after seeing Infinity War the other week.

On This Day In 2004

Looking Back

On this day in 2004… Troma Night XXI took place at The Flat. Six people were in attendance: Claire, Paul, Kit, Bryn, (Strokey) Adam and I and, unusually – remember that the digital cameras in phones were still appalling – I took pictures of everybody who showed up.

Troma Night XXI Attendees - clockwise from top left: Dan, Claire, Paul, Adam, Bryn, Kit
Cue exclamations of “didn’t we all look young”, etc.

Troma Night was, of course, our weekly film night back in Aberystwyth (the RockMonkey wiki once described it as “fun”). Originally launched as a one-off and then a maybe-a-few-off event with a theme of watching films produced (or later: distributed) by Troma Entertainment, it quickly became a regular event with a remit to watch “all of the best and the worst films ever made”. Expanding into MST3K, the IMDb “bottom 250”, and once in a while a good film, we eventually spent somewhere over 300 nights on this activity (you can relive our 300th, if you like!) and somehow managed to retain a modicum of sanity.

Kit, Alec, Siân, (Strokey) Adam, Bryn, Paul, Mark, Claire and I consuming far too much alcohol at Troma Night V and Troma Night VI.
Copious quantities of alcohol might have been part of our survival strategy, as evidenced by these pictures from Troma Night V and Troma Night VI.

Starting out in Claire and I’s then-home, The Flat, Troma Night followed us to The Sharp and eventually to The Cottage, where – ignoring a few ‘tours’ to other people’s homes – it remained from then on. Fuelled by pizza, crisps, and beer, we made it through such terrible films as Manos: The Hands of Fate, the truly awful nightmare fuel that is Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy, and the so-bad-it’s funny action mess Carnosaur 3: Primal Species.

Troma Night XXI, captured on the Troma Night Webcam
Troma Night XXI was among those captured by the Troma Night Webcam, streamed out to the Internet in 1-megapixel, 4 frames per second glory (when it worked).

And what did we watch on this day 13 years ago? The Stendhal Syndrome, which turned out to be remarkably good, Beavis And Butthead Do America, which turned out to be remarkably unremarkable, and horror/sci-fi classic The Thing. But not until after a greater-than-usual amount of tidying up The Flat, I gather.

Looking Forward

In addition to running for over 300 weeks, Troma Night became, for many of us, a central facet of our social lives. The original attendees were all volunteers at Aberystwyth Nightline, but we were later joined by their friends, lovers, housemates… and by Liz‘s dates (who after meeting all of her friends, we usually never saw again). We quickly developed our own traditions and ideas, such as:

  • Our own “drinking game” with rules relating to particular tropes of the films we were watching (an early version can be found here),
  • Pizzas like the Alec Special – a Hollywood Special (ham, pepperoni, beef, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, sweetcorn) but without the onions and with pineapple substituted in instead – and the Pepperoni Feast particularly enjoyed by our resident vegetarian,
Bryn, Paul, Claire, Liz, and Kit enjoy Hollywood Pizza at Troma Night VI.5.
For those who – like me – insist that our regular Hollywood Pizza got greasier over this years, these photos from Troma Night VI.5 are pretty damning. Maybe it’s just that our tastes changed.
  • Paul spontaneously throwing a sponge out of the window to mark the beginning of the evening’s activities,
  • Alec bringing exactly one more can of Grolsch than he’s capable of drinking and leaving the remainder in the fridge to be consumed by Kit at the start of the subsequent event,
  • A fight over the best (or in some cases only) seats in Claire and I’s various small (and cluttered) homes: we once got 21 people into the living room at The Flat, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant,
  • Becoming such a regular customer to Hollywood Pizza that they once phoned us when we hadn’t placed an order in a timely fashion, on another ocassion turned up with somebody else’s order because it “looked like the kind of thing we usually ordered”, and at least one time were persuaded to deliver the pizza directly up to the living room and to each recipient’s lap (you can’t get much better delivery service than that).
Troma Night 4, back when The Flat was in its original furniture configuration.
Decisions about how Claire and I would lay out our furniture were eventually influenced directly by maximising the efficiency of our seating plan. This picture, from Troma Night IV, makes it seem quite spacious and relaxed compared to later nights.

Perhaps the apogee of Troma Night’s success, for me at least, was when some of us got to meet Lloyd Kaufman himself, over a beer and a bowl of nachos, in 2007: prior to the UK premiere of the fabulous return-to-form Troma masterpiece Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. This resulted in much fangirling on the part of Claire and, let’s be honest, by pretty much all of us who got the be there.

And I still enjoy the occasional awful film. I finally got around to watching Sharknado the other month, and my RiffTrax account’s library grows year on year. One of my reward card accounts is still under the name of Mr. Troma Knight. So I suppose that Troma Night lives on in some the regulars, even if we don’t make ourselves suffer of a weekend in quite the same ways as we once did.

How I Became A Brony

To pre-empt any gatekeeping bronies in their generally-quite-nice society who want to tell me that I’m no “true” fan: save your breath, I already know. I’m not actually claiming any kinship with the brony community. But what’s certainly true is that I’ve gained a level of appreciation for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that certainly goes beyond that of most people who aren’t fans of the show (or else have children who are), and I thought I’d share it with you. (I can’t promise that it’s not just Stockholm syndrome, though…)

Dan and Annabel wearing My Little Pony headbands. Dan is also wearing a T-shirt that reads "Masculine as fuck", written in flowers, although he hadn't thought about that at the time.
Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash. Their friendship is magic, and yours can be too.

Ignoring the fact that I owned, at some point in the early 1980s, a “G1” pony toy (possibly Seashell) from the original, old-school My Little Pony, my first introduction to the modern series came in around 2010 when, hearing about the surprise pop culture appeal of the rebooted franchise, I watched the first two episodes, Friendship is Magic parts one and two: I’m aware that after I mentioned it to Claire, she went on to watch most of the first season (a pegasister in the making, perhaps?). Cool, I thought: this is way better than most of the crap cartoons that were on when I was a kid.

Pinkie Pie's friends learn about the Element of Laughter.
🎵 Chortle at the kooky… snortle at the spooky… 🎵

And then… I paid no mind whatsoever to the franchise until our little preschooler came home from the library, early in 2017, with a copy of an early reader/board book called Fluttershy and the Perfect Pet. This turns out to be a re-telling of the season 2 episode May The Best Pet Win!, although of course I only know that with hindsight. I casually mentioned to her that there was a TV series with these characters, too, and she seemed interested in giving it a go. Up until that point her favourite TV shows were probably PAW Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, but these quickly gave way to a new-found fandom of all things MLP.

A common sight on any flat surface around our house.
No ponies were harmed in the staging of this apparent massacre.

The bobbin’s now watched all seven seasons of Friendship is Magic plus the movie and so, by proxy – with a few exceptions where for example JTA was watching an episode with her – have I. And it’s these exceptions where I’d “missed” a few episodes that first lead to the discovery that I am, perhaps, a “closet Brony”. It came to me one night at the local pub that JTA and I favour that when we ended up, over our beers, “swapping notes” about the episodes that we’d each seen in order to try to make sense of it all. We’re each routinely roped into playing games for which we’re expected to adopt the role of particular ponies (and dragons, and changelings, and at least one centaur…), but we’d both ended up getting confused as to what we were supposed to be doing at some point or another on account of the episodes of the TV show we’d each “missed”. I’m not sure how we looked to the regulars – two 30-something men sitting by the dartboard discussing the internal politics and friendship dramas of a group of fictional ponies and working out how the plots were interconnected – but if anybody thought anything of it, they didn’t say so.

The Kings Arms in Kidligton. Photo courtesy of User:Motacilla on Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons (attribution, sharealike) license.
JTA and I’s local is among the most distinctly “village pub”-like pubs I’ve ever visited.

By the time the movie was due to come out, I was actually a little excited about it, and not even just in a vicarious way (I would soon be disappointed, mind: the movie’s mediocre at best, but at the three-year-old I took to the cinema was impressed, at least, and the “proper” bronies – who brought cupcakes and costumes and sat at the back of the cinema – seemed to enjoy themselves, so maybe I just set my expectations too high). Clearly something in the TV show had sunk its hooks into me, at least in a minor way. It’s not that I’d ever watch an episode without the excuse of looking after a child who wanted to do so… but I also won’t deny that by the end of The Cutie Remark, Part One I wanted to make sure that I was the one to be around when the little ‘un watched the second part! How would Starlight Glimmer be defeated?

Box of cinema popcorn with My Little Pony advertising/branding on the side.
🎵 My little popcorn, my little popcorn… 🎵

At least part of the appeal is probably that the show is better than most other contemporary kids’ entertainment, and as anybody with young children knows, you end up exposed to plenty of it. Compare to PAW Patrol (the previous obsession in our household), for example. Here we have two shows that each use six animated animals to promote an ever-expanding toy line. But in Friendship is Magic the ponies are all distinct and (mostly) internally-consistent characters with their own individual identity, history, ambitions, likes and dislikes that build a coherent whole (and that uniquely contributes to the overall identity of the group). In PAW Patrol, the pups are almost-interchangeable in identity (and sometimes purpose), each with personality quirks that conveniently disappear when the plot demands it (Marshall suddenly and without announcement stops being afraid of heights when episodes are released to promote the new “air pup” toys, and Chase’s allergy to cats somehow only manifests itself some of the time and with some cats) and other characteristics that feel decidedly… forced. MLP‘s writing isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but compared to the other things I could be watching with the kids it’s spectacular!

PAW Patrol's Zuma
Seriously, Zuma: what are you FOR?

And compare the morality of the two shows. Friendship is Magic teaches us the values of friendship (duh), loyalty, trust, kindness, and respect, as well as carrying a strong feminist message that young women can grow up to be whatever the hell they want to be. Conversely, the most-lasting lesson I’ve taken from watching PAW Patrol (and I’ve seen a lot of that, too) is that police and spy agencies are functionally-interchangeable which very-much isn’t the message I want our children to take away from their screen time.

Rarity cries on the floor, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic S01E19
Not all lessons are good lessons. I’m talking to you, Rarity.

It’s not perfect, of course. The season one episode A Dog And Pony Show‘s enduring moral, in which unicorn pony Rarity is kidnapped by subterranean dogs and made to mine gemstones (she has a magical talent for divining for seams of them), seems to be that the best way for a woman to get her way over men is to make a show of whining incessantly until they submit, and to win arguments by deliberately misunderstanding their statements as something that she can take offence to. That’s not just a bad ethical message, it also reinforces a terrible stereotype and thoroughly undermines Rarity’s character! Thankfully, such issues are few and far between and on the whole the overwhelming message of My Little Pony is one of empowerment, equality, and fairness.

Mr. Labrador tells Mummy Pig that women are useless at archery.
If Mr. Labrador had a Twitter account, this episode of Peppa Pig would have put him at the receiving end of a whole Internetload of feminist complaints.

For the most part, Equestria is painted as a place where gender doesn’t and shouldn’t matter, which is fantastic! Compare to the Peppa Pig episode (and accompanying book) called Funfair in which Mummy Pig is goaded into participating in an archery competition by being told that “women are useless” at it, because it’s a “game of skill”. And while Mummy Pig does surprise the stallholder by winning, that’s the only rebuff: it’s still presented as absolutely acceptable to make skill judgements based on gender – all that is taught is that Mummy Pig is an outlier (which is stressed again when she wins at a hammer swing competition, later); no effort is made to show that it’s wrong to express prejudice over stereotypes. Peppa Pig is full of terrible lessons for children even if you choose to ignore the time the show told Australian kids to pick up and play with spiders.

Toy Princess Luna with a book on IT Governance
Princess Luna knows what I should have been doing instead of writing this post.

I probably know the words to most of the songs that’ve had album releases (we listen to them in the car a lot; unfortunately a voice from the backseat seems to request the detestable Christmas album more than any of the far-better ones). I’m probably the second-best person in my house at being able to identify characters, episodes, and plotlines from the series. I have… opinions on the portrayal of Twilight Sparkle’s character in the script of the movie.

Dan in Not Dogs wearing a Dune/MLP crossover t-shirt.
Also, it might be the case that I own more than one article of geeky My Little Pony-themed clothing.

I don’t describe myself as a Brony (not that there’d be anything wrong if I did!), but I can see how others might. I think I get an exemption for not having been to a convention or read any fanfiction or, y’know, watched any of it without a child present. I think that’s the key.

Right?

Movie Title Mash-Ups

I’ve got a new favourite game, this week: Movie Title Mash-Ups (with thanks to Cougar Town). Ruth and I sat up far too late last night, playing it. Here’s how you do it:

Cougar Town characters playing Penny Can.
Cougar Town characters playing… no, wait… this is that OTHER game they play.

Movie Title Mash-Ups

Take two movie titles which share a word (or several words, or just a syllable) at the end of one and at the beginning of the other. Shmoosh them together into a combined movie title, then describe the plot of that movie in a single sentence by borrowing elements from both component movies. See if anybody can guess what your mash-up movies were.

Here are some examples. The answers are ROT13-encoded, but if you’re reading this post directly on my blog, you can click on each of them to decode them (once you’ve given up!).

Zombies claw their way out of a graveyard, and Batman spends most of the film hiding in the attic.
Gur Qnex Xavtug bs gur Yvivat Qrnq

While trapped in an elevator at the end of October, a superficial man is hypnotised into murdering a bunch of high-school students with knife.
Funyybj Unyybjrra

A crazy professor and a kid travel back in time in a souped-up car, where local bully Biff cuts off the kid’s hand and tells him he’s his father.
Gur Rzcver Fgevxrf Onpx gb gur Shgher

Bill Murray has to live the same day over and over, until he can survive the zombie apocalypse by escaping to an island.
Tebhaqubt Qnl bs gur Qrnq

A pair of alcoholic, out-of-work actors stay at the countryside house of a Monty, dangerous robot who has learned to override his programming.
Jvguanvy naq V, Ebobg

An evil genie who maliciously manipulates words and misinterprets wishes opens a portal between Eternia and Earth, which He-Man and Skeletor come through.
Jvfuznfgref bs gur Havirefr

A bunch of outlawed vigilante superheroes fight shapeshifters and werewolves as they investigate a mystical curse which threatens to shatter the fragile cease-fire between Dark and Light forces in Russia.
Avtug Jngpuzra

Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer hold a seance to communicate with subterranean humans who worship a giant bomb.
Jung Yvrf Orarngu gur Cynarg bs gur Ncrf

A lion cub born to a royal family grows up, climbs the Empire State Building, and fights aeroplanes.
Gur Yvba Xvat Xbat

James Bond is sent to investigate the murder of three British MI6 agents, who turn out to have been killed using a military satellite that concentrates the sun’s rays into a powerful laser. (hint: both films are James Bond films)
Yvir naq Yrg Qvr Nabgure Qnl

Your turn!

So, what can you come up with?

A Three-Sentence Review Of Looper

Looper is a time travel movie of the “self-healing timeline” mechanic (a-la Back To The Future, although Looper “fixes” itself faster and changes to the time stream can be observed and remembered by everybody affected by them). As a result of this, and a few other issues, it suffers from a handful of plotholes and internal inconsistencies: however, it’s still an enormously fun film that I’d recommend that you see.

Looper.
Looper. The second-best film of its category. For a given definition of “category”.

Looper is the second-best of all three movies that feature Bruce Willis travelling back in time and encountering a younger version of himself – and now it’s going to bug you until you work out what the other two are.

Three Films I’d Watch (if anybody made them)

Here are three ideas I’ve had for movies recently. If only the movie studios would stop making pap like Dredd 3D (or as I call it, Judge Dreddful) and take on some of my ideas, perhaps I’d find myself at the cinema more often.

So here are my three pitches:

Knights of the Living Dead

A twist on the Arthurian legends. With zombies.

King Arthur’s trusted White Knight (Lancelot) on a “routine” quest to oust Brandin, a corrupt ruler of a nearby township, who is accused of evil sorcery. Lancelot rallies the townpeople but Brandin escapes to his lair in a cursed cemetery. Lancelot slays Brandin, but – an an effort to decode a riddle Brandin made about the source of his power – lifts an enormous metal plate over a mysterious tomb, exposing the world to a dangerous plague that turns those affected into monstrous zombies.

Knights of the Living Dead
Knights of the Living Dead

Under instruction from the Church, Arthur and his knights set out to find the Holy Grail, which has the power to defeat the curse, questing through zombie-infected lands. There’s lots of hacking and slashing and eating of brains, Lancelot shags Guinevere, Arthur dies a heroic death to let the others escape (hinting at the time that he knows about the affair and wants them to be happy together), and ultimately the knights use the Grail to save the world from the zombie plague.

My Daughter’s Hand

A tale of love, homophobia, and the meaning of family, inspired by a true story.

In the news this week, a Hong Kong businessman has offered the equivalent of £40M to the man who can woo and marry his daughter. The problem? She’s a lesbian, and is already married (although same-sex unions are not recognised in Hong Kong) to her girlfriend of many years.

My first thought when I heard this news story was that she should find a man who’s willing to “marry” her, and split the money between the two of them. Hell: for £20M, I’d fly to Hong Kong and marry her for a fortnight. Where’s my plane ticket.

Hong Kong corporation heiress Gigi Chao (right) with her wife Sean Eav.
Hong Kong corporation heiress Gigi Chao (right) with her wife Sean Eav.

But then I thought of an even better variant on the story. In my version, a (disowned, unless she recants and marries a man) lesbian daughter has her partner dress as a man and pretend to be a suitor. There are slight overtones of the story of Hua Mulan, a legendary Chinese heroine who pretended to be a man in order to take her aged father’s place in the army, during a conscription drive.

In any case, the partner, disguised as a man, succeeds in impressing the father, and the father eventually comes to admire this young “man” and gives his blessing to marry his daugher. But as the wedding approaches, their secret is exposed when they’re caught having sex. However: after much soul-searching the father sees that he liked his daughter’s partner as a person when he believed that she was a man, and so he agrees to accept her into his family as a woman, too.

It’s a story about combating homophobia with deception, I guess.

The Bone Wars

Back when Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell  and were rocking up the early British palæontology scene, in the late 19th Century, their USA contemporaries Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh were embroiled in a bitter rivalry of dinosaur proportions.

Marsh and Cope.
Marsh and Cope.

These gentlemen were in such a rush to get the fame of collecting the most dinosaur bones, that they resorted to ludicrous (and somewhat shocking) measures: using dynamite to blow away hillsides (probably destroying many fossils as they went), spying on one another (to such an extent that they would sometimes operate through fake companies to try to evade each other’s spies), and bribing people to keep quiet about the locations of big finds.

Their rushed efforts led to some ludicrous mistakes. Cope – a neo-Lamarckist – famously assembled his Elasmosaurus skeleton backwards, with the head on the “tail” end, among other mistakes (Wikipedia even has a tag to label naive Victorian-era drawings of dinosaurs, I recently discovered).

I have a vision for a film in the style of A Dangerous Method, which I enjoyed earlier this year, telling the dramatised story of these men and their rivalry. There’s already been a comic book and even a board game about them: isn’t it time for a movie, too?

What do you think? Would you watch these movies?

Quiet On Set

Before I started working for the Bodleian, I’d never worked somewhere where there was a significant risk of a film crew coming between me and my office. But since then, it seems to happen with a startling regularity.

This morning, I was almost late for work as I fought my way past a film crew shooting The Quiet Ones, some variety of supernatural thriller B-movie.

This guy. That bridge. Listen.
This guy. That bridge. Listen.

So, when you end up watching it: wait until you get to the scene where this guy walks under the Hertford Bridge, and listen carefully for the sound of somebody walking across gravel just off camera. That’s me, putting my bike away having finally squeezed my way past all of the cameras and equipment on the way to my office.

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 2

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. An earlier blog post talked about the second of the two trips: this is about the first.

You know what – 2012 has been a pretty shit year, so far. We’ve had death (my father’s), more death (my partner’s grandmother’s), illness (my sister’s horrific face infection), and injury (a friend of mine lost her leg to a train, a few weeks ago, under very tragic circumstances). We’ve had breakups (a wonderful couple I know suddenly separated) and busy-ness (a cavalcade of day-job work, Three Rings work, course work, and endless bureaucracy as executor of my dad’s will).

But it gets worse:

Piranha 3DD. Twice the terror. Double the D's.
Of all the things that have gone horribly, tragically wrong so far this year… going to the cinema to watch this film was the worst.

On Friday night, I went out with my family to watch Piranha 3DD.

This is one of those bad films that falls into the gap of mediocrity between films that are bad but watchable and films that are so bad that they wrap right around to being enjoyable again (you know, the “so bad they’re good” kind of movies). To summarise:

[one_half]

The Good

  • Lots of nudity, all presented in 3D. If there’ll ever be anything that convinces me that 3D films are a good idea, porn will probably be it. Boobs boobs boobs.
  • Fun cameos from Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown!), David Hasselhoff, and Ving Rhames, along with enjoyable accompanying pop culture references.

[/one_half]

[one_half_last]

The Bad

  • 3D films remain a pointless gimmick, still spending most of their time playing up the fact that they’re 3D (lots of long objects, like broom handles, pointing towards the camera, etc.), and still kinda blurry and headache-inducing. Plus: beams of light (e.g. from a torch) in 3D space don’t look like that. The compositor should be fired.
  • The cameos mostly serve to show off exactly how unpolished the acting is of the less well-known actors.
  • Plenty of less-enjoyable pop culture references: if you’re not going to do the “false leg is actually a gun” thing even remotely as well at Planet Terror, don’t even try – it’s like trying to show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie, but not even managing to do that.
  • Unlikeable, unmemorable characters who spend most of their time engaging in unremarkable teen drama bullshit. Same old sex joke repeated as many times as they think they can get away with. And then a couple of times more.
  • Lackluster special effects: mangled bodies that don’t look much like bodies, vicious fish don’t look remotely like fish (and, for some reason, growl at people), and CGI that would look dated on a straight-to-video release.

[/one_half_last]

So yeah: give that one a miss.

Worst Weekend Of Cinema – Part 1

This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. This blog post is about the second of the two trips.

Avengers Assemble.
Man, this movie looks good. Wish I was watching it and not, say, a black screen.

The less-awful of the two trips happened on Saturday. Ruth, JTA and I turned up for the 20:10 showing of Avengers Assemble at Oxford Vue. We were quite surprised, entering the cinema right on time, to find that they weren’t already showing adverts and trailers – the screen was completely dark – but we found our way to our seats and sat down anyway.

A little over 20 minutes later, nothing had happened, so I went out to where the ticket collectors were doing their thing, down the corridor, and asked if they were planning on showing a film in screen six at some point this evening. “There’s a technical problem with the projector,” I was informed, “We’re trying to fix it now.”

“When were you planning on telling the audience who are all just sat there in the dark?” I asked. There were mumbles of concern, but they were half-hearted: these people were paid primarily to tear tickets, not to deal with irate customers. The stub collector apologised, and I returned to the cinema to feed back to the others. Sensing the dissatisfaction of the other audience members, I briefly considered making an announcement to them all: “Ladies and gentlemen: I regret to inform you that Vue Cinemas doesn’t care about you enough as human beings to tell you themselves, but there’s a technical fault and they’re working on repairing it.” Instead, I grumbled to myself in a British fashion and took my seat.

“I could have downloaded a pirated copy by now,” I joked, “But then I wouldn’t be getting the real cinema experience.”

“For example, it’d start when you pressed the play button,” replied JTA.

(for those of you who know the story of his employment there, you might be unsurprised to hear that this was the very Vue cinema at which Paul worked, very briefly)

An audience falling asleep.
"Is the film on yet?" / "Nope; still just a black screen."

A little while later – still with no announcement from staff, we got sick of the whole thing and went and demanded a refund. The manager – when we finally got to see him (apparently he’s also the guy who was fixing the projector: I guess the cinema must be run on a skeleton staff) – was suitably apologetic, offering us free passes for our next visit as well as giving us a full refund. Another staff member apologised for the delay in sorting out the refund, explaining that “it always gets busy, especially on Orange Wednesdays.” I’m not sure why he told us this, given that it was now Saturday. Perhaps there were still patrons from the previous Wednesday, also still waiting to see their film, too.

As we explained to the manager, it wasn’t the wait that bothered us so much as the lack of information about the reason (or an estimate of the duration) of the delay. All it would have taken would have been a staff member to turn up at five or ten minutes, apologise, and explain, and we’d have understood: things break sometimes. All we wanted was a little respect.

Star Wars – Machete Order

This weekend, Ruth, JTA and I watched the Star Wars films in a single sitting, in Machete Order. What’s Machete Order, you ask? Well, assuming that you’re too busy to click the link and find out, the short summary is that you:

Machete Order. The way Star Wars should be enjoyed.
Machete Order. The way Star Wars should be enjoyed.

This is a remarkable and unusual order in which to watch the films, but it’s not without its merits, especially compared to the two most-common alternatives: Release Order and Episode Order:

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Spoiler Alert! The remainder of this article contains extensive spoilers about the Star Wars universe. If you haven’t seen the films yet, go watch them in the order specified above and then come back. It’ll only take you about 11 hours; I’ll wait.[/spb_message]

  • Release Order – IV, V, VI, I, II, III – has the problem that you either watch the original cut of Return of the Jedi, and see Sebastian Shaw playing the ghost of the “unmasked” Darth Vader at the end (and then go “that doesn’t look anything like him!” when you get to Attack of the Clones), or you watch the 2004 edit of Return of the Jedi, in which they inserted Hayden Christensen in his place, and you go “who’s that guy? we’ve never seen him before!”, because he hasn’t been introduced until the next film that you’ll watch.
  • Episode Order – I, II, III, IV, V, VI – should fix that problem, but it introduces an even worse problem: it completely ruins the surprise that Luke’s father is Darth Vader (and as a result, also ruins the surprise that Leia is Luke’s sister, and results in more “eww” moments when we see them kiss in The Empire Strikes Back).

Machete Order fixes those problems. The new films become a “flashback” in a longer ongoing narrative, and the timing couldn’t be better. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke has just learned that Darth Vader is his father, and so we zip back by about 20 years and see the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. You couldn’t plan it better.

Darth Vader
Darth Vader. You probably knew that already.

You lose The Phantom Menace, but seriously, you’re not missing much (and you can always go back and watch it later): a surprisingly dull podrace, an incredibly annoying alien, “midichlorians”… all of these are dropped. You get to start and end with the strongest movies. And the continuity is actually pretty beautiful, seeing Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as a flashback rather than a series in their own right.

JTA tweets about Star Wars: Machete Order
JTA tweets from the front lines about Star Wars: Machete Order

So what did we learn:

  • This is absolutely the way to watch Star Wars. If I ever come across somebody who’s never seen any of them films, this is the order that I’ll recommend that they watch them.
  • It takes a surprising amount of energy to sit and watch 11 hours of a story in a single sitting. Make sure you’ve got plenty of booze and snacks lined-up, and are ready to sacrifice a day, if you want to do this in one stretch. It wasn’t quite as hard as when we watched all of the Lord of the Rings movies (Directors’ Cuts, no less) back to back at a Troma Night many years ago, but it was still a bit of a marathon.
  • The model shots (IV, V, VI) have aged, but they still look okay. The CGI effects (II, III) have aged, and they look awful. Watching a mixture of old and new films in this way exaggerates this.

If you’d like to learn more about why this is such a great way to watch these films, I’d highly recommend that you read the original article that inspired us. And then – whether you’ve seen the films before or not – you should totally go and do this too.

The Artist

Ruth and I went out to the cinema last night and saw The Artist, and I’m inclined to agree with the critics: this film is spectacular.

For the benefit of anybody who hasn’t come out of hibernation yet, The Artist is a modern film whose production is heavily influenced by the cinematographic style and technology of the late 1920s movie industry. It’s shot in black and white and is, almost without exception, silent apart from the musical soundtrack. Title cards provide explanation of plot-critical dialogue, but for the most part the story is told through the (excellent) visual performance of the actors.

But there’s a warning – this is not a happy film. To go in expecting something dramatic-but-fun, as I did, then you’re in for a shock. This film is deeply tragic, incredibly sad and moving. On at least two occasions during the more despair-ridden parts of the story, I found myself begging the movie to find the twist and lighten up… and on both occasions it responded only by becoming more doleful still.

Beautiful, mournful, sometimes meta and fourth-wall-breaking, and a testament to the writer/director’s ability to work with the incredibly challenging constraints imposed by a now-archaic medium… well worth a look: in the cinema, if you get the chance.

On This Day In 1999

Looking Back

On this day in 1999 I sent out the twelfth of my Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth e-mails. I wasn’t blogging at the time, although I did have a blog previously, but I felt that it would be nice to do something to help keep in touch with my friends and family “back home”, so I came up with Cool Thing Of The Day To Do In Aberystwyth. I’ve written about it a little in a previous On This Day post.

On this particular day, I’d just finished downloading a copy of The Matrix, that fantastic cyber/action movie that spawned a huge string of memes and won the love and praise of geeks and action-flick junkies everywhere. The movie remains a pinnacle of great filmmaking, with its’ adventurous direction (remember when bullet time was still new and exciting?), funky soundtrack, and cleverer-than-average twists… for a film full of guns.

I’d not been at the University long, and I was making the most of the huge amount of bandwidth that seemed to be available: for the first time ever, I was able to download music (of a appreciable bitrate) faster than I could listen to it (the boundary at which “streaming” becomes feasible). Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet splashed out on new hardware, so downloading a 1.4GB film quickly became a drain on my hard drive, which will have probably been in the region of about 20GB total. But it didn’t matter, because it was cool. “Look at me, I’m a l33t haxxor like Neo!” I never actually uttered those words, but I might as well have.

I soon went and bought a copy of The Matrix – one of the first DVDs I owned – if only to save on hard drive space. I also burned my second ever student loan cheque on a beefy new computer of a specification so high that nobody I knew had even seen such a thing before: including a massive 500MHz processor (or as we’d call it nowadays, a “half-gigahertz”).

Later, friends and coursemates Rory, Huw, John, Dom would join me in producing a 15-minute spoof of The Matrix as part of our entry for the University of Wales, Aberystwyth’s Student Skills Competition. We won best presentation. This in gave me the opportunity to help out with the Student Skills Competition and networked me to the person who eventually introduced me to the guy who would eventually become my boss at SmartData. It’s amazing how these little things link together, isn’t it?

Looking Forward

Later still, no sequels were made to The Matrix, thankfully. You heard me: no sequels were made. Especially not Reloaded. Okay, okay: they made The Animatrix. But they certainly didn’t make any video games.

Nowadays, I keep a little over 2TB of storage space in my primary computer, but I still manage to fill it somehow – one of my drives ended up with only 5GB of free space just the other month, and needed a big tidy-up. Or, as they’ll call it in another twelve years: 0.00005PB.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

First Class Film

Last week, I saw X-Men: First Class at the cinema with Ruth. The film was… pretty mediocre, I’m afraid… but another part of the cinemagoing experience was quite remarkable:

There’s a bit in the film where Xavier, then writing his thesis at Oxford University, and a CIA agent are talking. As they talk, they walk right through the middle of the Bodleian Library, right past my office. It’s not just Morse and Lewis and the Harry Potter films that make use of the Library (at great expense, I gather) for filming purposes! “That’s my office!” I squee’d, pointing excitedly at the screen.

Needless to say, the student-heavy audience cheered loudly at the presence of parts of Oxford that they recognised, too. It’s been a while since I was in a cinema where people actually cheered at what was going on. In fact, the last time will have been in the Commodore Cinema in Aberystwyth. But cinema-culture in Aberystwyth’s strange anyway.