RIP Max Von Sydow

As a child, my image of Max Von Sydow was from staring at pictures from The Exorcist, as at that point I was too young to watch it and it’d be at least 15 years before I did see it. I saw him as an old, frailish man.

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Yet when I saw him in Flash Gordon he was a relatively young man in all that film’s hot campy glory.

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Of course, it was a mix of Von Sydow’s wonderful acting and Dick Smith’s still astonishing makeup, and so for a while Max Von Sydow was my favourite actor. I’d eat up all his films when they landed on TV in those pre-digital, even pre VHS days so everything from The Seventh Seal to his still remarkable Jesus Christ (there’s something alien about his version of Christ I’ve never seen since) in The Greatest Story Ever Told, my favourite of the biblical epics with Ben Hur.

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There’s a ton of lost gems in Von Sydow’s C.V including the gloriously bizarre adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf which simply has to be seen, preferably while off your face on MDMA.

1980 and 1981 saw him in some of my favourite films, including the mental Escape to Victory and Death Watch, a great SF film filmed here in a post-industrial, but pre recovery Glasgow. It’s a film I’m always recommending because it simply is a lost gem.

If I sat down and wrote a list of my favourite films, Max Von Sydow’s name would pop up over and over and over again in the credits, from Dune, to Dreamscape, to Hannah and Her Sisters, to Until the End of the World, to What Dreams Will Come, and fuck, even Judge Dredd has some moments.

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A great actor not afraid to play in genre film as well as mainstream film, and one who was such a talent he made it look effortless, but it really wasn’t. Another one who’ll be missed.

RIP Andrew Weatherall

DJ, producer, writer, performer and musician Andrew Weatherall has died aged 56, which is far too young. Most folk will know him through his production of Primal Scream’s Loaded in 1990 but he wrote my life’s soundtrack for the early 90’s. I’ve touched upon this briefly before here.

I broke a tape replaying the first Sabres of Paradise album, Sabresonic, so much. The second one, Haunted Dancehall was the soundtrack to 1994 and of course Raise by Bocca Juniors in clubs in Bristol and London back in the day.

A Weatherall remix could earn you money, chart places and critical acclaim but for me the Weatherall project that welded itself to me was One Dove, their only album Morning Dove White and the song One Love.

I listen to that and I’m 20something walking into a club in Bristol hearing this shouting ‘WHO THE FUCK IS THIS?’ to a mate, who found out who it was, and that sparked me out in my mind as this was the sound in my head. Dot Allison’s vocals made everything perfect, while Weatherall’s guitar mix (he really was a great guitarist) is still a fucking tune and a half.

Weatherall mixed everything it seemed together to create glorious sounds, which as said, sometimes sounds exactly like what’s going on in my head. I could fill up pages and pages of his work but I’ll wrap up with a tune from Fuck Buttons, Surf Solar, which bizarrely ended up being used at the London Olympics in 2012. All those years dancing on the outskirts and suddenly his sounds are in the middle of one of the most establishment events out there.

Nobody will replace him. 56 is far too young and dear god, how badly will I miss his tunes…

Cancel culture and Contrapoints

This is going to involve a lot of backstory, so start at the top.

Cancel culture is a thing. To shorten it as much as possible, it’s described on Wikipedia as this;

cancel culture, describes a form of boycott in which someone (usually a celebrity) who has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion, or has had behavior in their past that is perceived to be either offensive or problematic called out on social media is “canceled“; they are completely boycotted

This has been around basically forever but in the age of social media where people live within their echo chambers where one has to be 100% pure ‘canceling’ someone can be weaponised to people even within their own community who’ve done incredible amount of work to make things better, or to make the case for these people. It’s one thing to say, cancel Harvey Weinstein and ostracise him, but it’s another to ‘cancel’ someone with a different opinion or opposing view. That’s where it becomes controlling, censorious and even cultish as the political and moral point being made is that a voice/opinion challenges their worldview so much the person must not just be expelled, but they, and even their friends, must be destroyed.

Which brings me to Contrapoints.

Contrapoints is a YouTube channel run by Natalie Wynn. It’s partly about her transition which has been very public, but it’s one of the few interesting leftish American YouTube channels as Wynn throws around ideas, and yes, sometimes finds the American left somewhat lacking. She also has spent most of her time online tacking the far right who have been attacking her pretty much constantly so she’s used to being attacked online, the pile-ons and all the usual crap one expects from the far right.

As her videos rack up millions of views, Wynn makes a good amount of money from them. Not enough to retire, but enough to do what she wants so ‘canceling’ her hits her directly in the pocket, which is what the far-right have tried to do, but what would prompt those supposedly of the left to attack her, and attack her friends in a manner so viciously that she was driven off social media.

And this is where you need to go watch Wynn’s last video and watch til the end…

There’s a lot to take in there. The main facts are that Wynn said something which upset a section of supposed ‘progresives’, she apologised where appropiate but made their case because views aren’t illegal because you disagree with them. I disagree with a chunk of what Wynn says but at the same time I’ve learned from them because unless you’re an out and out Nazi you don’t get your opinions silenced because it might upset people.

And what’s remarkable is at the end of the video Wynn outlines what the reaction to her feature length essay will be almost perfectly. The reaction was vicious and to repeat, didn’t just target Wynn, but her friends but this is not uncommon as this happens to someone it seems daily at least as they’ve committed some thought-crime against a section of people who will not budge. We live in an age where everyone is policing someone, and acting as judge, jury and supposed executioner as some of the threats Wynn and people like her get are terrifying.

It is as David Baddiel says:

There are many types of trolls, but they fall into two basic (and much overlapping) types: those who hate from a position of hate and those who hate from a position of self-assumed goodness. We tend to think of them, in the caricature, mainly as the former, as basement-dwelling incels angrily spattering the internet with abuse for lolz, but it is actually the latter who are far more prevalent and significant. No one has ever been cancelled by the former; you can’t be erased and destroyed by punks, but you very much can by furies, mobilising to take you down in the name of right.

What happens is people pick a tribe, and rather try to seek solidarity with others or find commong ground by listening to others we have an urge for purity that’d scare anyone. Overwhelmingly it is women being subjected to this, though men and transwomen like Wynn suffer huge levels of abuse, doxing and worse thanks to how social media has weaponised politics, identity and culture in a way the days of the early internet where we interacted on moderated message boards. Now with nothing to stop us there’s unrestricted blind hate being spat out all the time at people followed by ‘cancelling’ people which means destroying as much of someone’s life as you can legally.

We live on a ‘planet of cops‘ in a world Orwell warned us about. Where someone can be ostracised partly by people within the same community as them but without any understanding of their positon or show of solidarity. It must be purity and if there’s no purity then people must be cleansed until there’s nobody left because the thing is with these people they will find ‘fault’ anywhere because one doesn’t find reason when we’re in a witchunt.

I have no idea where this ends but it won’t end well if we end up being ruled by people on hairtriggers policing your entire life online reducing privacy, free speech and debate to nothing. Because if they can come after someone like Natalie Wynn, they can come after anyone.

End of the decade

We’re nearly at the end of a decade many of us are glad to see the end of. It’s often said the second decade of a century marks how the rest of that century more or less goes, and if the last one is anything to go by then we won’t hit the end of this century, but after the relatively quiet 90’s and troubled 00’s we hit the decade where things start to solidify which means we’re in the middle of a dystopia what with Brexit, Trump, climate change, the destruction of modern culture, the death of facts and critical thinking and many, many more.

Take my pet topic, comics. A decade ago the comics industry in the UK was suffering thanks to the recession. The annual big convention in Bristol, London or anywhere had died and things looked bleak. The Marvel films kicked it all into overdrive though so that now a decade later the UK can’t move for ‘comic conventions’, which sadly most have nothing to do with comics.

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Yet comics are in a position of cultural dominance like never before as the culture of 2019 shows compared to 2009 where frankly, most of us were thinking mainly of keeping our jobs. Today we’re entering something new for a generation who’ve spent the last decade knowing things were the norm, but having lived through many a recession what comes next endangers every industry.

What I’m talking about is Brexit. We’re about to face what it’s like to be a small country outwith of all the planet’s huge trading blocs and hey, 99% of the world think we’re utterly fucking insane. We live in the era of the liar, the cheat,the strongman who never backs down even though they are horrifyingly wrong because they don’t want to look weak. Propelled by the internet which a decade ago was still mainly a curated space but is now open war encouraged by a handful of massive corporations who have turned our lives into tradeable commodities to sell to other massive corporations. Assuming the planet doesn’t fry or freeze we have no idea where the next decade ends but for many of us it’ll end badly.

Of course things might improve but not before something awful happens on a massive scale until then let’s raise a glass to the decade which set up the horrors of the forthcoming one and hope there’s something good coming at us…

What I thought of Doomsday Clock

Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, is the best example we’ll ever get of how much corporate comics treat creators as only money generating units even though that creator is firm that their work was never meant to be exploited as it has been with this 12-issue mess designed only to weld parts of the Watchmen story onto the main DC Universe.

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The problem lies in the fact that Geoff Johns has never actually read and understood Watchmen. Sure, he’s read it, but these 12 issues show he’s read it purely at a superficial level. All the stuff about the comics industry, creativity and humanity has been replaced by cold, hard cynicism and the need to drive forward with Big Event Comics to increase sales rather than do anything which advances the medium.

For Johns, Watchmen is just a story about a plot to kill superheroes and how that developed. It’s an entirely superficial reading of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons book. Johns fills each issue with typical superheroic violence but Watchmen violence is used sparingly, so when it is used the effect is shocking. Here, Johns and Frank just throw it around so it becomes meaningless which is exactly the opposite message Watchmen sends out.

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Here the message is ”how cool is it we’ve got Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan fighting Batman and Superman?” and that ultimately is the only premise behind the book. The plot, as it is, exists only to drive things towards a climactic meeting of Dr. Manhattan and Superman. In effect, Doomsday Clock is a device to revamp Superman in the image of Geoff Johns regardless of what current writer Brian Bendis thinks. Same goes with Batman, where here Alfred plays a crucial part in the story but in the series, he’s been murdered by Bane so he is very dead. Of course, superhero comic death isn’t real death but the fact is that Dr. Manhattan in this comic is analogous to Geoff Johns casually waving his hand and changing things as he wants.

The irony here is that Johns places the blame for ‘dark, grim and gritty’ comics at the feet of Alan Moore, but the reason those comics gained traction was because of people like Geoff Johns who neither had the talent to ape people like Moore, or the inclination to do something different so much of his work seems nostalgic but its nostalgia dipped in the grim cynicism of the dark and gritty phase of comics. In short, he’s trying to have his cake and eat it but trying to blame the disaster of things like The New 52 (DC’s short-lived attempt to gritty up all their line) on anyone but themselves.

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Ultimately all this was designed to do was to use Alan Moore’s name to give this project a legitimacy it never deserved as reducing a work which stands as one of the best mainstream comics ever made to just a product to exploit for new content to keep fans happy because they care more about Superman and Dr. Manhattan fight than the creative rights of Alan Moore or indeed, any other creator who have been shafted over the decades. These fans have all the stuff back. Multiple Earths are back, the Legion of Super-Heroes are back, the JSA are back and so is the New 52 because DC just can’t let go of failed ideas so they’ve dug up Grant Morrison’s old concept of Hypertime and rebranded it for a new generation.

So there it is. DC’s latest roll of the dice, even if it wiped its collective arse with the concept of creative rights and the kick is that the comic builds in future crossovers to prolong the Big Event Comic for the decade ahead and creator wishes be damned because there’s no solidarity among most fans or creators. As long as they get their toys to play with and the content to read they don’t care and that ultimately was all Doomsday Clock was. Content that does nothing for the medium of comics, and doesn’t even care if it does.

Hunting down the video nasties

I blogged years ago about the hunt to find comic books as a kid, and that back in the day could be a nightmare, but when I was older the hunt for horror films surpassed it mainly because you could be imprisoned for owning some of these films. After the insanity of the Video Nasty moral crackdown, owning a copy of say, Zombie Flesh Eaters could get you thrown in prison.

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So people found ways to get past the censors, and the police which meant an underground network sprung up of bootleggers who’d supply you with dodgy copies of videos which were as clear as being in the middle of a foggy thunderstorm, but still had enough there to give you an idea of the gory antics going on. Here I highly recommend Jake West’s excellent documentary, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, for more about the times in the 80’s and 90’s pre Labour’s post 1997 liberalisation of British society.

As an aside, it is worth praising Tony Blair’s government for that brief period from 1997 to around 2001 when censorship was rolled back, which coming after decades of often extreme censorship at a state level it seemed like a new beginning. Sadly that wasn’t to last long after 9/11 but I digress…

That period in the 80s and 90s saw fanzines spring up which featured small ad listings in the back, as well as swaps, and although I got some films that way the main way I managed to get my uncut sex, gore and violence was through comic marts in London. As I was working these events I managed to get first dibs on some quality gore, not to mention the holy grail of bootlegs; the laserdisc copy. This meant uncut pristine clear copies of classics like Canibal Holocaust.

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Things were good if you were a fan and could get to these events, but this was still Tory Britain so at various shows you’d see customs and/or the police going round tables busting dealers and seizing tapes. Some dealers were prosecuted and a few served time for selling videos, with tabloids leaping on the ‘video nasties sold to kids’ angle, which actually never existed as these dealers weren’t that stupid. Thing was there was no way legally to see these films outwith of the odd private showing, or film festivals like Shock Around the Clock. That involved going to Kings Cross which in the early 90’s was a dark place if you went down the wrong streets, but if you knew the right places it really was home to the best fun you can have. Now it’s all Harry Potter tours and tourists getting the Eurostar.

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But a scene emerged though that time which has went on to bigger things. Not to mention that post 97 many of these films people could have been prosecuted for were now becoming legal. I can now pick up a copy of Last House on the Left without fear of prosecution easily or in the age of the internet, I can download a copy in seconds without heaving my fat arse off my couch. This is all great but I miss the hunt, and I miss the thrill of doing something illegal which stuck a knife in the eye of censors who were out purely to blame something for the problems they caused in society.

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And now in 2019 we’re on the verge of another wave of censorship with hard/far right wing authoritarian strongmen/women eying up what they can to control the public, or at least, blame Thing A for the fact that they’ve fucked everything up. You’d think we’d learn but hey ho…

However I miss those days. They were fun, you got to meet interesting people and saw great (and awful) horror films in places you really probably shouldn’t have been, but dear me, it was fun and we don’t get that sort of fun much anymore.

In praise of John Byrne’s Superman

If you talk to most comics fans they’ll reel off the big turning points of comics in the 80’s. Watchmen, Dark Knight, Maus will be first out the block. Maybe Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, possibly Love and Rockets, maybe even Crisis on Infinite Earths which did kick DC Comics back to life. Few will mention John Byrne’s run on Superman from 1986 to 1988 which is a pity as this showed not only to handle Superman, but how to revamp a character by bringing in newer, updated elements while staying faithful to the roots. Not an Alan Moore style total reimagining,  but something fresh and old at the same time.

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And it is forgotten how huge Byrne’s Superman was. The mainstream media picked up on it which helped turn Superman from a comic which barely registered on most people’s radar to the essential purchase if you were a superhero comic reader, or indeed, just a reader of comics.

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See, for most people in 1986, Superman was one of four, maybe five superheroes (the others being Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk and Wonder Woman) the general public knew on sight. Everyone knew who Superman was, and the idea John Byrne was revamping him so that anyone could jump on board from Man of Steel #1 and get what was going on. Which they did. And it sold bucketloads. True, shops did over-order and you can spot how long a dealer has been in business by how many copies of Superman #1 they’re selling cheap, but the fact Superman titles were selling was extraordinary.

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Byrne played it right. He seriously depowered Superman so he could be beaten in a fight but a villian who wasn’t as powerful as a God, plus he made Clark Kent likeable and interesting. Byrne also slowly bled in the scale of the DC Universe, so eventually crossovers happened and Superman became a Big Thing in DC’s titles again.

For a few years Byrne crafted some great little superhero tales,  and for me it’s his run on Action Comics that show off how to do the team-up book (I’ll skim over the dreadful Big Barda issue) while keeping it always accessible but editoralstarted making clear demands of him which came to a head over a stoyline where Superman had to kill General Zod; a decision which split the readership apart.

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Reading this 30 years later all of it seems odd as superheroes now kill all the time, but this was a Big Deal. To be honest, Byrne had written himself into a quandry so killing Zod was the only option, but it was his last big contribution to Superman that still lingers on today.

After this Byrne’s time was past anyhow, Sure, things like Next Men sold, and his Spider-Man run for Marvel later in the 90s was fun,  but he wasn’t as box-office as he was. The industry had moved on and he was no longer the sales draw he was as tends to happen to many a creator. However his Superman run changed things. It showed how Superman could, and possibly should be done, while making readable comics which brought in tens of thousands of new readers who had a few years of fun before Superman slowly became over-powered and what he was again. But it was still Byrne’s character. That mix of Christopher Reeve and Byrne’s idea of what a superhero should be never really changed even to today, where the version of Superman (although long since bastardised) is still drawing upon what Byrne did for a few years in the 80’s.

So give it a try and the credit it deserves.