Monday, 16 July 2012

Retcon artists.

When I first created this blog, like many people undertaking this sort of caper, my primary desire was simply to entertain, write regularly and enthusiastically on things in my life that I enjoy and things I hate — essentially, the spectrum of my ongoing involvement with Planet Earth, its denizens and what we share therein. It still is my raison d’écrire, and I can’t think of any worthier raisons.

Those who know me would also believe that a detailed Star Wars article would inevitably rear its multiple heads. However, I never thought that my first article on the subject would consist of an exposé on the provenance of a single, specific sound effect heard in one of the films (my last article) — I mean, that’s pretty nerdy. Nor did I think I’d follow it so hot-footedly with this one — which is going to be a bit of a moan about the franchise. I thought I’d at least start by writing something a trifle breathless on why I like it all so much — but I guess criticism is a more prolific mother of literary invention than mere praise. How negative of me.

I’ve never quite got to the bottom of my precise fascination with George Lucas’ epic space-fantasy, although the simplest explanation is that, like most chaps of my generation, it gave me lots of exciting Boy’s Stuff to look at and listen to at the exact age I needed it most, and as such its effect on me was formative. That’ll do for now. Unlike Doctor Who, the other great piece of ‘genre’ I love, Star Wars has already achieved a global appeal that has made the characters of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, R2-D2 et al into iconic images and individuals, introductions unnecessary, familiar to people who may not have seen the films for decades — if even at all. However, there are conditions, limits to my love for Star Wars and these are subtle and far-ranging, but I can pin most of them down to a single, sweeping statement: I dislike other Star Wars fans.

Now, before I go any further, I want to clear something up. Contrary to popular belief, I generally detest getting into detailed discussion of Star Wars. Writing about it, fine — because here I can quantify, evaluate and crystallise my thoughts on the matter without getting into a tiresome exchange. A Star Wars conversation with another fan only really ever goes one way: how well do you know Star Wars? How boring. There’s a terrier-like tenacity about their need, on learning you are also a fan, to blether on about the films, to offer up their knowledge of all aspects of the toys, the endless spin-off novelisations and the smallest snippet of news on the on-off TV series — as high marks of social distinction. As a reasonably intelligent and hopefully sophisticated individual, whose tastes can run from subtle all the way to gross, I would dearly wish not to be defined solely as ‘the Star Wars guy.’ To that end, I prefer not to bring up the films in casual conversation until I’m asked directly. Really — ask yourself the last time I mentioned them unsolicited. There are many more inclusive conversational gambits.

I can say with confidence that my interest in Star Wars runs to slightly more than casual. My degree thesis contained a great deal of recourse to the original trilogy of films, though it’s not something I’m particularly proud of — especially when you consider the fact that my dissertation claimed me the lowest mark of all work I undertook for my BA. Trust me, I can sing the first three Star Wars films like they’re opera but I have no desire to impress you by proving this. I know it isn’t impressive. Merely obsessive. And that rhymes, you know. Star Wars is the ne plus ultra of geek topics if you ask me — although for the most part, I’m as glad as you that you don’t. Better to keep the faith inwards, contemplative, loving, tranquil — and on a strictly need-to-know basis. Believe me, a Star Wars convention, rather than being a place to enjoy chewing the filmic fat with other like-minded Lucas freaks, is in actuality quite my idea of hell.

Speaking of conventions, my friend Brother JCC recently attended a Film and Comic convention and related gleefully his chance encounter with an actress guesting at the event: she had played a regular and memorably shapely character in a well-known and widely syndicated sci-fi TV series some years back. Additionally he asked me if I'd heard of a Star Wars actor who also attended. I hadn't, so suitably intrigued by this possible lacuna, I looked him up. It turned out he played an uncredited member of the entourage of the galactic slug-gangster Jabba the Hutt in Return Of The Jedi. 

For those of you who haven’t seen Return Of The Jedi, the final instalment of the Star Wars Saga, I’ll say this much with wagging finger aloft: seriously, if you’ve not seen it, I recommend you do so — it ill behoves anyone intelligent to affect lofty, studied ignorance of a phenomenon that’s impossible to neglect in any reasonable discourse on popular culture. People will just think you square, stubborn and possibly even smelly. The Star Wars Saga — particularly the three released between 1977 and 1983 — contain many stylistic, literary and visual tropes that are essential vocabulary in any conversation about the cinematic arts. Grab an opportunity to add the original trilogy of films to your discursive repertoire. Besides, Return Of The Jedi is, as I believe the Mods used to say in the early Sixties, a right flashkick of a flick, mostly — and it’s not even the best of the Saga.

I have a point to make coming up, don’t worry, but please allow me to digress briefly and precis the first half hour or so of Return Of The Jedi as crisply as I can. It concerns the heroic, wisecracking hotshot pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) — last seen in the previous film in dire peril, frozen in suspended animation and delivered as a macabre prize to the villainous, oleaginous and aforementioned Jabba the Hutt — and the stealthy, measured plan by Solo’s friends to rescue  him. To this end, they infiltrate the gangster’s compound and inveigle their way by any means available into the complacency of his entourage. This done, they unfreeze and retrieve the hapless Han Solo and proceed to unleash hell upon the slimy crime-lord and his cronies at the precise moment our heroes appear to be in greatest danger — being dangled above the doom-laden jaws of a giant monster mouth, no less. They then get the hell outta Dodge sans ado, destroying everyone and everything around them in the process with considerable panache, just to be certain. Jabba the who? We’ll say no more about him. They really do pack in a lot in under thirty-five minutes.

So it transpired that the actor Brother JCC saw was a background extra in the closing minutes of this first act. He had no speaking part and his face and body were hidden under piles of latex, foam rubber and fake hair. Furthermore he has done no other film work of note to date and thus you would pass him in the street and never know. I’m certainly not begrudging this gentleman’s right to be at the convention, nor the pleasure his presence must have given to many people — for there’s no denying his involvement in the film — but I'm willing to bet his character wouldn't be remembered by anyone but for two facts:

a) the majority of his scene was cut from the film, but the stills survived to generate fannish speculation and lend mystique.
b) the action figure made of his character is highly collectable and commands huge sums of money due to it being made in smaller quantities than its counterparts.

Fan fiction and spin-off novelisation has often retroactively imbued such characters with character, furnishing them with a name and an impressive backstory. It’s called retroactive continuity, or ‘retconning‘ — the act of lending some detail or person in a series a degree of significance it never had at the time of production, usually due to subsequent plotlines increasing fan interest in the character or event for some reason.

In the case of Return Of The Jedi, a short story anthology was published several years later called Tales From Jabba’s Palace, and featured the fictional accounts of numerous alien persons seen in the films as background extras. I’ll spare you the need to read this risible publication — all the stories end pretty much the same way: that nondescript green-skinned critter onscreen for five seconds turns out to be some master criminal who absconds with some money/important documents/etc when Jabba’s little enterprise goes bye-bye 35 minutes into Return Of The Jedi. It’s all crap. Every scar has to tell a rousing story. Every character has to have amazing lineage — or grew up witnessing all sorts of key moments in the narrative history, like a veritable army of George Lucas’ very own Zeligs. It all really annoys me. It seems that no-one in the Star Wars universe could ever simply be called Colin and work in a garage or something. No-one is allowed the right to be unremarkable, to be prosaic. Remember that mission: get inside the lair, rescue the good guy, serve the bad guys with a writ of pure whup-ass and get the melonfarming flip out of there. Job done. So did anyone really die in the huge explosion in the closing seconds? It seemed pretty fatal, fiery and final to me — but apparently no — they all live out their deeply interesting and interconnected lives according to Tales From Jabba's Palace. Did Luke's plan fail? Cheapened in fact, just so someone could write up a poor story about that kewl-looking critter in one shot who wibbles about in the middle background? To quote the villain in The Incredibles again: when everyone’s super…no-one will be.

The trouble with all of this, I find, is that while it can be trivial and playful on the surface, it betrays a deeper, sad and somewhat pathetic aspect of the human condition: that some people simply can’t accept sometimes the stark truth that when certain things go, they’re gone. Gone forever. No coming back. When did we start assuming we always have a say in the matter? Sometimes, thats just the way the real world works. It’s tough, it’s harsh, sure, but sometimes…that can also be all right.

Anyway, speaking sidewards, there I was the other day, discussing forthcoming films and such with Mr Hickey — he who writes the marvellous blog Hickey’s House Of Horrors, which you must visit — and he mentioned several proposed TV series, spinning off from well-known feature films. The Bates Motel was one such mooted title — I’m imagining a kind of creepy, sadistic, ultra-violent Fawlty Towers week in, week out — obviously set long before Janet Leigh checked in with a suitcase full of hot cash and a pressing need to freshen up. Also, Mr Hickey spoke of a show concerning the earlier career of FBI Agent Clarice Starling, the plucky and dogged heroine of Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal fame, and still another featuring the younger, saner, less anthropophagous days of Dr Hannibal Lecter himself — working alongside his future nemesis, Will Graham.

I have no doubt all of these ventures will work a reductive spell on the original source material, retconning them into something so much less than the promise it had before it was forced into existence. Again, undisciplined fanboy over-thinking is what causes everything to have a prequel or a sequel now. Whatever happened to ‘happily ever after’ — or better still:  ‘never to be seen again’? 

I quote my friend Mr Hickey again: “It's probably especially true when it comes to horror. Horror is scary because you don’t really know everything. Fear of the unknown is the most potent. So telling us where Freddy [Krueger] bought the knives for his glove and what grade he got in metalwork just diminishes his air of menace.”

Don’t you wish I could have put it that succinctly?


Currently listening:
100% (Ginger Wildheart, 2012)
Everything by the Neil Cowley Trio. 

Currently watching:
The Alien ‘Quadrilogy’ — hideous branding neologism hides an entertaining — albeit variable in quality — collection of films.
The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) — accept no substitute.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Rain and revelations. But mostly rain.

Good day to you.

“Oh, is it? Is it?” I hear you reply wearily — possibly over-theatrically, but with feeling, I get you. Is it, indeed. If you’re reading this in the UK, I feel I can speak for all when I say — albeit with varying degrees of understatement depending on where exactly — that we’ve had quite enough of this summer’s weather. Since my last posting, typed ruefully from a rain-lashed caravan on a wild and windswept stretch of East Anglian coastline during the washed-out Jubilee week, I have seen approximately two days of splendid, sun-blest skies. The Scots have a word to describe depressingly wet, cold, endless and pitiless days: ‘dreich’ — such a pungent, original word, instinctively conveying to me all the dour, sodden meaning of ‘dreary’, ‘drab’ and ‘drench distilled into one crisp, poetic-yet-monosyllabic word — and it even contains ‘reich’ if we’re talking about unrelenting oppression.

Now, far be it from me to revert to that Greatest of British clichés and discuss the inclement climate in further detail (although clearly I’m not above using hoary and hackneyed phrases like ‘far be it from me’, so don’t quote me on that. Oh, look, there’s another one!) but it truly is amazing how far an unrelenting and lengthy bout of dismal, dreich days can go towards wearing away the old humour, as surely as sea water on sandstone. I’m warning you now that I have an article prepared on the Olympics in the dank recesses of my mind to post up in the coming weeks and it’s going to be a bit of a ranter. I’m saving my best nature for brighter days in the autumn at this rate.

Perversely, I have plenty to be happy about right now. I would not consider myself to be unreliable, but there is a certain waywardness to my nature that would preclude absolute, guaranteed consistency in most of my dealings with the world. However, I’ve been keeping myself busy and of happy use to others in the past weeks with that most honourable of endeavours: making music. The results of my work(s), and my fruitful collaboration with other quite brilliant and creative conspirators, will make itself known and heard before too long. But for now, I’m going to let you in on something I think may, in certain (admittedly rareifed) circles, rival the twin discoveries of the Higgs Boson and dark matter in its sheer sublimity of revelation. I won’t waste your time any longer in building this up: it’s a piece of Star Wars trivia. I await whatever passes in cyberspace for the clatter of shifted chairs that accompanies the mass exodus of a dissident faction from the lecture hall.

OK, if the rest of you would like to close up the circle and move a little nearer to me… I have something marvellous to impart unto the pair of you. In fact, let’s have a new title and a bit of a drumroll...

The voice of the Imperial Probe Droid - solved.

Those who know what I'm on about love it — the weird chattering language of the Imperial Probe Droid, or ‘Probot’ — the first ‘character’ seen in the original Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. It makes a literal impression upon first arrival. A meteorite slices through the atmosphere and into the electric blue skies of a cold, ice world. It strikes ground, sending up a tall flurry of snow — and from within the steaming, blackened heart of the impact crater, the Probot emerges: a mechanical spider-squid device, floating like an ironclad Art Deco jellyfish over the frozen wastes. Later in the film we hear it speak. Here's a sample of it for those that need reminding (please ignore the idiot who starts chipping in!)

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this voice has fascinated and puzzled me for over thirty years. That it is a human voice, processed in several different ways I hope is clear to you — as it was to me aged nine upon first hearing it. When I was old enough to gain more of an interest and appreciation into how sound is designed and realised for film, I always thought it was a sample from another film — possibly a resonant line of dialogue best known to the sound engineer. In this case, like all the sounds in the Star Wars saga, the Probot voice was a product of sound designer Ben Burtt. Mr Burtt has won several Academy Awards — among other well-deserved plaudits — for his outstanding, resounding and astounding work on the Star Wars saga. He brings considerable musicality and organic rhythm to his soundscapes, often creating sonic ‘events’ to visual set-pieces that are tantamout to an alternative, musique concrete movie score.

Oddly, Ben Burtt has been cagey on the source of the voice sample (and by ‘sample’ may I make myself quite clear when I mean something that has been lifted (and in this case looped) from elsewhere, as opposed to the more modern idea of ‘digital sampling’ which did not exist for Burtt to use in 1980 — his work was largely confined to analogue recording and manipulation). The 2010 book The Sounds Of Star Wars comes complete with a sound card of over 250 effects created by Burtt for George Lucas’ franchise, from which the actual ‘voice’ of the beastie is conspicuously and curiously absent. Burtt claims it comes from a recording his grandfather, a radio ham enthusiast, made of a transmission. I don’t doubt this — but what transmission?

I’ll come to that, but may I digress for a moment? Charles Manson famously cited The Beatles 1968 album (the ‘White Album’) as a source of hidden messages that instructed him and his ‘Family’ to embark on their bloody, notorious killing spree at the close of the Sixties. Like the rest of the right-minded world, I can detect no correlation between Manson’s claims of darkness, insurrection and destruction, and the delightfully varied splendour, the musical joy, that I find upon hearing the White Album. However, I once   experienced a nightmare in which a friend and I decided to try playing the White Album backwards to see if we could hear the sonic sedition Manson heard in it in 1969 — and we did. I awoke feeling I’d never feel truly happy again. Thank goodness it really was only a bad dream.

I mention this because the other day I was listening to a piece of music and…something happened. An inner moment of immense portent, gravid with significance. All right, all right, I may falute most highly, but you know that passing, chill realisation that hits you momentarily when you learn that someone famous who you like has died? Not dissimilar to that it was, it really was. The music in question was ‘The Motorcade Sped On’, by Steinski & The Mass Media‚ a cut-and-paste classic of urban dance music from the mid/late-Eighties. The closer students of 20th Century history will recognise the subject matter from the song title, culled — as are the rest of the quotes laid in voiceover on the track — from newsreel footage on the 1963 Kennedy assassination.

Yes, I think the Imperial Probe Droid's voice is in reality that of Ike Pappas, the reporter who was live on-the-spot when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot — and taken from that moment. Pappas entered US broadcasting history when his outside broadcast account of Oswald’s transfer from the holding pen became the second recorded assassination event in as many days. Regard the famous picture of Oswald’s intense, pained reaction to Jack Ruby’s point-blank bullet: see there, the figure on the right with the Brylcreemed hair and dark suit, left hand raised to his mouth, right hand outstretched, holding a mic obscured by Jack Ruby himself — that’s Ike Pappas.

“Now the prisoner…wearing a…black sweater — he’s changed from his t-shirt — is being moved out toward an armored car… Being led out by… Captain Fritz [HORN BEEP]… Here is the prisoner... Do you have anything to say in your defence? [BANG - someone howls as if winded]…there was a shot… Oswald has been shot! Oswald has been shot!”

Listen again to the Probot sample. The first part is Pappas remarking “Here is the prisoner…” as Oswald is brought out and the second part is his next line, delivered directly to Oswald: “Do you have anything to say...” right up to just before the shot is heard (at 47-51secs on the link above) . It’s a little sped up (it is a sampled loop on a tape reel after all), but the rhythm works: “Here is the have anything to say… Here is the have anything to say…”

Now, you can appreciate that Ben Burtt wouldn't consider this a trivia point to throw casually into conversation! Nonetheless, I'm certain this is where it's from. As far as I can tell, there's nothing about it on the Internet anywhere. Seriously, I've not seen anyone else mention this.

Mr Burtt, if you're reading this — love your work — could you elucidate, please?


Currently listening:
Captain Swing 1, 2 & 3 - spooky spoken word fiction by the writer Cathi Unsworth, with music by yours truly, available as free downloads on Cathi’s website.
Everything by the Neil Cowley Trio.
Everything by Morphine.
Alt (Van der Graaf Generator, 2012)
Symphonies 2, 7, & 12 by Henk Badings.

Currently watching:
Ealing comedies! Lots of Ealing comedies! Alec Guinness! Joan Greenwood! Stanley Holloway!