Archives for December 2006

Ho Ho Ho

‘Tis the season to get rat-arsed…tra la la la la, la la la laaaa!

I’m signing off for a few days folks. Myself and the wife will be spending the festive season over in Bristol (or Brissle as it’s called by the locals) with the in-laws. I’ll be donning my gay apparel and scoffing copious amounts of figgy pudding while I’m there. Should be most merry.

A very Happy Christmas to you and yours.

F

“Do ya wanna party?”: Lost Classics Pt. 2

Following on from Tuesday’s post (and its discussion of The Observer,‘s “50 Lost Film Classics” list), I hereby offer my second “unduly neglected” 1980s gem for your consideration. Available in all decent DVD shops at knockdown prices, it’d make the prefect Christmas gift for those of you suffering last-minute panic. Honestly…

2. The Return of the Living Dead
Dan O’Bannon (1986)

Few things are as enjoyable (when successfully realised) as good horror comedies – the only problem being that there are so few of them around. List-compiling film buffs routinely cite the same three or four features as high points of the sub-genre: An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein etc. Rarely (outside of ‘fanboy’ circles) however, does one hear mention of Dan O’Bannon’s delightful and delirious Return of the Living Dead. Best known perhaps for being the film that introduced the classic zombie “Brrrraaaaaiiinnnsssss!!” refrain to cinema audiences, its ingredients – general daftness, a cast of fairly irritating teens etc – do not appear overly promising on paper.

What makes it memorable (and highly rewatchable…especially after a few pints) though, are three perfectly pitched performances from the senior male leads: James Karen (as the folksy and avuncular ‘Frank’), Clu Gulager (as his put-upon, pragmatic boss ‘Burt’), and Don Calfa (as the Nazi-loving mortician ‘Ernie’).

Add in a kicking soundtrack (from The Cramps et al), a 90 minute runtime that ensures the joke doesn’t become too strained, a winning affection for its (unabashed) ‘B-Movie’ aesthetic etc, and the result is a gooey, gory, hilarious treat. There may be one or two more important zombie films (Dawn of the Dead for example) but none are anything like this much fun.

[tags]Zombies, Living Dead, James Karen, Observer[/tags]

“How Do These Movies Get Made?”: Lost Classics Pt. 1

hitcher bear

While I generally avoid the plethora of lists and list-based TV shows that dominate the media during this festive season, I was rather impressed by Phillip French & Co’s “50 Lost Movie Classics” effort in Sunday’s Observer. First of all, they’ve wisely avoided asking the usual gang of celebrity idiots who dominate the TV versions of these affairs to contribute. Secondly, their manifesto (such as it is) is quite laudable:

This isn’t just another list of great movies. It’s a rallying cry for films that for a variety of reasons – fashion, perhaps, or the absence of an influential advocate, or just pure bad luck – have been unduly neglected and should be more widely available. You know that feeling when someone hasn’t heard of a film you’ve always loved and you want to show it to them?

It’s mightily refreshing to see a movie list that doesn’t have The Shawshank Redemption or (*shudder*) Gladiator in prominent positions…possibly because that other gang of idiots – the general public – have had no opportunity to vote on its contents [Mee...oww]. For those Jeff Bridges fans among you I draw your attention to two Bridges classics included in the 50 – John Huston’s Fat City (1972) and Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981). Mr. Bridges may have put himself back atop the “cult” pile with The Big Lebowski, but he’s every bit as fantastic in these two oft-neglected gems.

Anyway, the list has put me to thinking about what films in my own collection I’d consider “unduly neglected”, so over the next few days I’ll see if I can come up with a few suggestions (restricting myself to the 150 [or so] word limit of the Observer‘s entries). Without further ado…

1. The Hitcher
Robert Harmon (1986)

While the aesthetically similar Near Dark (another Eric Red penned flick) often garners plaudits from critics trying to prove their pop cultural grooviness, The Hitcher tends to end up lumped into the dreary mire of mid-80s stalker/exploitation shockers. A pity, as it’s easily one of the most satisfying and interesting “unstoppable psycho” films made during that decade. Given its hackneyed ingredients, it should be a typical, straight-to-video pile of cack – a fact slyly acknowledged by the title of a documentary on Momentum’s (excellent) Special Edition DVD: “How Do These Movies Get Made?” – yet its sustained tension and moody bleakness help set it far apart from its (forgettable) contemporaries. The complex and ambiguous relationship between prey and predator actually leads to something approaching intimacy by the end, while Rutger Hauer‘s murderous “spirit of the desert” subverts our genre expectations by displaying a clear, weary will to die – inviting his young foe/apprentice to relieve him of a “burden” he still can’t help but take pleasure in.

More tomorrow…

Update 20/12/06:
Well maybe not tomorrow…I mean today…em whatever…I’m tired and I need to hit the hay. More…er…shortly.

[tags]Hitcher, Rutger Hauer, Observer, Near Dark[/tags]

Scrunge and Un-Scrunge

Faceache

Though it’s hard to know whether the memories generated by Paul Gravett’s Great British Comics are anything other than fantasies conjured up by The Numskulls inside my own head, I’m still enjoying them.

One story whose outrageous brilliance I have been vividly reminded of is “Faceache” – drawn (with flamboyant gusto) by the mighty Ken Reid. For those who need their flaccid comic-remembering muscles exercised, Faceache was a boy with a “bendable bonce” who could (as he put it himself) “re-shuttle me atoms and distort meself”.

If you’re still scratching your own bonce…what that all meant was that he could contort his features (and occasionally his entire body) into all manner of monstrous shapes. Like a tubby, pre-teen Lon Chaney he was the “Boy of a Hundred (or often ‘Thousand’) Faces”, terrifying all and sundry with his ever more elaborate “scrunges”. Yes, that’s right…scrunges:

Faceache

‘Tis well I remember the satisfaction and pleasure that word provided me. “Scrunge”: a more perfect marriage of the visual and the verbal it’s hard to imagine. Faceache could both scrunge (verb) and un-scrunge (er…verb), but frequently used the word as a noun too – as in “I think I’ll do a mini-scrunge”.

When I was but a young fella (in striped jumper and short trousers) I harboured vague ambitions of being a cartoonist myself, and it was to the work of Ken Reid (though his name was unknown to me at the time) that I turned to for inspiration. By that I mean I copied it – repeatedly. For manic, demented energy, Ken’s grotesqueries were hard to beat – conjuring up wildly OTT worlds of mortarboards, canes, and everyday acts of sadism (long before The League of Gentlemen staked out similarly perverse “English” ground).

No less a figure than the Dark Lord Alan Moore had this to say:

More than just a great comic creator, Ken Reid was a great English fantasist, with a drawing style as accomplished as that of a Carl Barks or a Wally Wood. Reid created a fantasy world in his comic strips that had its own unique asylum atmosphere, where hilarity was dragged out to the point of gibbering dementia and the humour flirted shamelessly with the disturbing and the repulsive. In all the rich history of British children’s comics I can think of few artists who can equal Reid in their technical skill, and none who match him for sheer inventiveness or originality of vision. British comics have lost one of their greatest and most seriously overlooked craftsmen. I regret never having penned this tribute while he was alive to read it.

Speaking of Mr. Moore, I believe his daughter Leah has resuscitated Faceache (at least as a cameo) in the intriguing Albion (a copy of which I have yet to see). As to whether or not the immortal word “scrunge” lives on…we can but hope.

P.S: Peter Gray has reminded me that Ken Reid also illustrated a Numskulls-esque story called “The Nervs”: “blue-collar microbes working in the factory-condition innards of obese kid Fatty”BBC Cult Presents…2000AD and British Comics. Delightfully disgusting it is/was too.

Tread Softly, For you Tread on my Tackies

It’s often been said (by me at least) that nothing livens up a party quite like an etymology anecdote. With that truism in mind allow me to relate a tale that unfolded once upon a time (actually about 8 years ago) in an empty office building in Old London town.

It is night. The building is empty. Well not quite…for in one corner of it lurk two individuals – security guards – locked in bored (but cordial) conversation. One is an unnamed South African (or possibly Zimbabwean) , the other is fellow blagadóir and long-time pal Copernicus (of Midnight Court fame). They speak of this and that, wiling away the hours till day comes and they are freed from their several tasks.

While reflecting on how he plans to spend the following day the South African mentions that he hopes to go to Camden (or somewhere) to buy himself a new pair of “tackies”. On hearing this, Copernicus is seen to gulp repeatedly like a startled fish while his eyes leap excitedly from their parent sockets.

“Did you say ‘tackies’?” he asks incredulously.

“Yeah” replies his colleague.

“And what did you mean by that?”

“Tackies…you know…running shoes”

Such was the story I heard retold a few days later and I must admit I did a fair bit of gulping and eye leaping myself. Why? Well…to the best of our knowledge before that point the term “tackies” was only used to describe sneakers/trainers /running shoes (call ‘em what you like) in Limerick and its environs. In fact, so “Limerick” did we suppose the word to be that we’d readily have offered it as a pure, unadulterated example of Limerick slang.

Yet somehow this (apparently) most local of words had managed to establish itself in South Africa to such an extent that the various large dictionaries we consulted listed it as an exclusively South African term. Take Encarta for example:

noun South Africa

2. takk·ie (plural takk·ies) or tac·kie (plural tac·kies) sneaker: a sports shoe often worn with casual clothes.

That’s the tackie we know and…er…love. A sports shoe very widely worn in Limerick, usually accompanied by very casual clothing. In the 1980s (during a particularly fierce brand war) one’s status in secondary school could be entirely decided on the class of tackie one wore. Sporting a pair of Nikes ensured jealous approval. Strolling around in St. Bernard or Primark cheapies guaranteed only scorn or pity. To really turn heads, though, the ambitious young man knew that “boot tackies” were the only way to go.

Anyway, getting back to etymology, despite a relatively intensive search I haven’t been able to find anyone able to explain the genesis and history of the word. Did it come from “tacky” (as in “vulgar”), or did it begin as a reference to the “tacky” (i.e “sticky”) nature of rubber-soled shoes exposed to too hot a sun?

Did it travel from S. Afr to here (possibly brought back by a missionary or emigrant) or vice versa? Given the nature of the item in question I’d guess it originated in sunnier climes (tackies aren’t the greatest in the wet), but how did it come to pass that in all the world it has only found a home (as far as I know) in two such geographically distant places?

To the interested etymologist dictionary definitions all answer (very unsatisfactorily) “origin obscure/unkown”. As for the publications on Hiberno-English in my library – Diarmaid O Muirithe’s Words We Use, T. P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-EnglishAlthough there’s a mention on the accompanying website, and Bernard Share’s Slanguage – no reference appears.

The useful “Charlie’s Sneaker Page” acknowledges the joint usage but makes no mention (unsurprisingly) of the word’s specificity within Ireland:

A term used in South Africa for either sneakers or tires (spelled “tyres” in South Africa). Therefore, your “tackies” can either be on your feet or on your Ford. Also used in Ireland for sneakers; they also call sneakers “runners” in Ireland.

It’s answers on a postcard time people. What’s the story? I feel there are the makings of a “charming” (Oirish) light comedy in all of this…

Of Free Will and Suggestion Boxes

Numskulls

I’m currently working my way through Paul Gravett’sDirector of the recent Comica in London’s ICA recently-published (and much-needed) Great British Comics, and enjoying the numerous memories it has been stirring up.

For instance…as I lay in bed the other night, lost in that half-asleep/half-awake reverie in which ‘odd’ thoughts often form, what should pop unexpectedly (and vividly) into my head but a vision of “The Numskulls”.

For those who don’t remember them (or don’t remember that they remember them) “The Numskulls” were large-headed, thin-limbed homunculi who lived in the head of a central human character known (to them, and us) as “Our Man”. Each ‘section’ of the head – Ears, Nose, Mouth, Eyes, Brain – was controlled/maintained by an individual numskull,with the various ‘departments’ communicating through (I kid you not) an intercom system.

The story first appeared in The Beezer, where “Our Man” was depicted as a balding, moustachioed, single worker living in a terraced house (or some such). It was here that my encounters with the strip began and ended though apparently – following the folding of The Beezer (1990) and its merger with The Beano – “Our Man” became “Our Boy”, and thus it remains to this day.

Since The Beezer generally concerned itself – like most of its competitors – with stories detailing mischief-making, the eating of “slap up feeds”, and the beating of children with tartan slippers – “The Numskulls” stood out (even to this child’s eyes) as something of an oddity. The curious appeal of the story is hinted at by its Wikipedia entry, which details a typical “Numskulls” story.In this case “An Alarm clock gives them a shock” which appeared in The Beezer Book 1980.

“Our Man” is pictured asleep in the first panel and in the second we see Luggy in the Ear Dept. awoken by the sound of the alarm clock next to “our Man’s” bed. Using an intercom system Luggy sends a message to Brainy that the alarm clock is ringing. Brainy, in turn uses his intercom system to wake up all the other numskulls and feeds the written message “SWITCH OFF ALARM!” into the suggestion box. We then see “our Man” thinking “Noisy alarm! I’ll switch it off. Where is it?” In the following panel we see Luggy informing Brainy that the alarm is still ringing whilst Brainy reads a print-out from the computer “WHERE IS IT?”.

It transpires that Blinky, who is in charge of the man’s eyes, has neglected his duty by staying in bed. The other two numskulls burst into his department and force him out of bed. Grumbling, Blinky opens the man’s eyes with a hand-crank whilst Brainy and Luggy stow his bedding in cabinets under the eyes. In the last panel we see “Our Man” reflecting that he couldn’t open his eyes this morning and now he has bags under them (caused by the bedding).

The philosophical mileage which could readily be…er…extractedCan one extract mileage? from a strip in which tiny creatures control a character’s every thought and deed by inserting messages into a “Suggestion Box” (a sort of fax machine-cum-tissue boxI do realise I’ve just said the words “cum tissue box” by the way…) remains curiously untapped. Nowhere in the course of my three undergraduate years studying philosophy in Galway (under the tutelage of Markus Worner, Joe Mahon, Paschal O’Gorman et al) was any mention made of “The Numskulls” and their importance in regard to debates about free will, mind/body dualism etc., etc. Something of an oversight on UCG/NUIG‘s part I’m sure you’ll agree.

Numskulls

Let us return to Wikipedia once more:

The above description is typical of the Numskull’s formula. The Man (who represents ‘us’) is totally determined by the decisions and actions of the numskulls. He has the freedom only to reflect on what has occurred, all his decisions are made by Brainy [The numskull in charge of the "brain department"]. As all the thoughts sent from Brainy’s ‘suggestion box’ appear to “our Man” as his own he little suspects the existence of the numskulls. Much of what he reflects on is actually a consequence of the Numskulls’ free will, rather than his own.

All of this seemed to suggest that the numskulls were the true instigators of human action and desire, but an obvious question raises itself…as noted on daily chump.org:

The thing that used to really bug me was whether the numskulls were operated by their own, smaller, numskulls, and so ad infinitum.

The mind boggles. If, like Russian dolls, there is always a smaller numskull within a numskull then where does the trail end? If Aristotle had read “The Numskulls” (and ’tis a pity for him that he didn’t) then I’m sure he’d have suggested his “Prime Mover” (the universal numskull) as an answer.

Finally, for you comic nerds out there, I should add that it was Malcolm Judge who (memorably) illustrated the story in its heyday. His other most notable creation was “Billy Whizz” – a super-fast poster child for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. In Grant Morrison’s splendid “Zenith” (2000 AD) a nod is given to Billy in the shape of “Jimmy Quick”, a character brutally slain (like so many of his ‘classic comic’ colleagues) by the trans-dimensional, demonic ‘Lloigor’.

Nice.

P.S: Many thanks to Peter Gray for sending me the ‘head cross-section’ image seen above. Peter also mentioned a Numskulls-esque story that appeared in The Sparky: “The Wonderful World Inside Ma Kelly’s Telly”. Had never heard of it before but it’s a bizarre concept. Check out one of Peter’s scans here for further details.