Archive for January, 2010

Film Review: Permissive

January 29, 2010

I’ve recently gained possession of three DVDs from the BFIs Flipside series. Apparently the goal of Flipside is to rescue and restore unusual or cult British films from the cultural skip.

I’m a big fan of all things late sixties and groovy, and I can’t resist old footage of London so some of the films they’ve chosen have a lot of appeal to me. I’ll be reviewing the films over the next few days.

First up is Permissive. It’s a sexploitation movie from 1970 about groupies following a band who are on the bottom rung of the rock ladder.

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First let’s get the sexploitation aspect out of the way lest I be prevented from leaving the house without a grubby mac. This is a not an erotic movie. Certainly there is plenty of naked lady flesh but any frisson is quickly lost because a) they’re shagging ugly hairy hippies, b) all the scenes are liberally intercut with shots of dead people and c) everyone is utterly dead-eyed.

If, on the other hand, you can only reach a state of tumescence by seeing the naked, hairy arse of Alan from The Average White Band bobbing up and down: good news – I’ve found a film you’re going to love!

The excellent booklet that comes with the disc notes that the makers of sexploitation movies would often ensure that the sex scenes weren’t fun so they would be more likely to get past the censors. Nothing much has changed in this regard – every film in recent memory that has included explicit sex scenes has been an art house parade of misery. I’m not going to say that this is either a good or bad thing; after all if people want to see explicit sex scenes I understand that such things are available on the internet. However it’s hardly surprising that the British have such a dysfunctional attitude to sex when all on screen portrayals have to be served up with a heaping spoonful of bromide.

But I digress…

The movie begins with a brief flash forward and then we see our protagonist Suzy arrive in London wearing and carrying half of an army surplus store with her. Let’s just say she’s not dressed glamourously. We don’t know where she’s come from or why she’s there, only that she’s come to meet her old school friend. Suzy arrives in the bands hotel room only to find her friend shagging Alan from The Average White Band. A shock for any woman.

Predictably Suzy gets dragged into the bands orbit and becomes corrupted.

Permissive came out in 1970 and there’s no escape from the feeling that everyone in this film had partied through the psychedelic era only to end up the jaded and dislocated people in this movie. It’s as if everyone is tired and sleepwalking through their lives. The music is repetitive, the shots from the transit van are repetitive, the locations blur into one. Everything in this film portrays life on the road as monotonous.

Adding to the feeling of dislocation is the fact that every character in the film arrives with no back story and little in the way of personality. Have they always been this way or have years of touring turned them into this?

The film is unremittingly grimy, to the extent that it kind of clings to you after you watch it. It also contains an eye watering amount of cynicism.

In an odd way it feels like an extended version of those Public Information Films you used to see about not playing with electric pylons, or the importance of wearing a seat belt. Unlike those films, this is a warning on the dangers of being a groupie. PIFs don’t have a plot, back story or character development either. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Despite it’s numerous flaws, and there are many, Permissive is a single-minded film that perfectly captures a time and a atmosphere. Wether you want to be on the receiving end of such a grubby feeling is very much up to you. And if you don’t want to see the hairy arse of Alan from The Average White Band then you’d best avoid.

On the Trail of the Heavy Metal Umlaut

January 23, 2010

I was listening to the Word Podcast today and they had a very interesting guest: Phil Smee. Because I’m a lover of psychedelic rock I know Smee best as the owner of Bam Caruso records and the guy who compiled the fantastic Rubble compilations. I was also aware that he designed record sleeves.

What I didn’t know was that he’d designed the Motorhead logo.

If you want to hear him talk about it, you can download the podcast here. He starts talking about it after about five minutes.

Excitingly, he explains why he used the umlaut over the second O.

Back in those days you added fonts to your artwork by using Letraset. For those who don’t know, Letraset was basically a sheet of letters much like transfers. You put the plastic sheet of letters on your artwork and then rubbed a pen or pencil over it to transfer it to the paper.

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Phil Smee then describes how very often you’d run out of letters, usually vowels, and this stuff was expensive so you’d have little tricks to work around it. He would use the foreign characters and then scratch off the bits he didn’t need, such as the umlauts. On this occasion he transfered the umlaut, looked at it and thought that it looked pretty good so he left it there.

Further on he says he needed to make a similar economy when he got to the H. He’d run out of Hs so he used a small L and part of a W.

So I had to have a look at this and check out the improvised h.

Here is the original logo:

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Sure enough his description entirely matches up with the design.

From the next album onwards the logo looked like this:

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I’ve seen this logo a million times and never thought twice about it. Now I can’t stop looking at it. Look at how bloody wonky it is. The ‘h’ looks all weird, the ‘ead’ is pointing in a hundred different directions at once. What the hell is happening with that ‘a’? And the letters are meant to be on a curve but aren’t uniform at all.

What a bloody mess.

This got me looking at some of the Motorhead album covers and I was looking at Bomber when I saw this:

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Where the hell is Philthy Phil’s body meant to be? Are we to believe that Philthy Phil’s disembodied head is shooting Germans from that turret?

Anyway….

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a band whose name was altered by Letraset.

Apparently Therapy? got their question mark when the designer of their first record sleeve was using Letraset. He hadn’t spaced the characters properly which left a big gap at the end of the bands name. What else is a designer to do? He decided to add a question mark thereby changing the bands name.

Still, I don’t imagine we’ll be reading a wikipedia article about Heavy Metal Question Marks anytime soon.

The Persuasionists: Cut Short and Cut Up

January 17, 2010

I tried to watch BBC2s new sitcom The Persuasionists recently and I only made it through 18 minutes before I had to give up on it.  The last time I couldn’t finish watching a sitcom it was the recent remake of Reggie Perrin which is interesting because they share quite a bit of common ground.  Although to be honest RP just made me sad and depressed that David Nobbs would allow such a horrible thing to happen to his finest creation.  If the writer of Men Behaving Badly asked to piss on my cat I wouldn’t say yes wholly on the basis that I get to join in.

Anyway…

Rather than just slag off The Persuasionists as being crap I thought I’d share my inexpert opinions about why it doesn’t work.

Firstly, a quick summary

The Persuasionists is based at an advertising agency.  There’s a perma-angry Australian boss.  There’s a creative played by Iain Lee. There’s a guy who pitches campaigns played by Adam Buxton.  There’s a ditzy blonde who does, uh, something.  Finally there’s a character who is best described as “comedy foreigner” – imagine something like Latka from Taxi played by someone with only a thousandth of the talent.  During the show this team is expected to pitch a slogan for a product called Cockney Cheese.

Here’s the title sequence:

With that out of the way, here’s why it doesn’t work

1. Nobody likes a smartarse

One feature of poorly written sitcoms is what I think of as the smartarse setup.  It often goes like this: smartarse is in a room doing whatever it is they do when one of the wacky characters walks in and says something stupid; smartarse then delivers witty put down.  End of dialogue.

This is the comedy equivalent of a strawman.  You set up a strawman just so you can easily beat it up.  The problem with that is that it’s lazy and it’s boring to watch.

Let’s make a comparison.  Let’s look at Father Ted.  The character of Father Ted is really Mr Average; he’s not especially intelligent or witty, he’s just kind of average like the rest of us.  Dougal walks in the room and says something stupid.  What often happens next is Father Ted then tries to explain to Dougal why he’s being stupid.  Dougal and Ted then get involved in a conversation that often results in Father Ted being unable to win the argument against an idiot and the idiot being just as confused as he was previously.

Most importantly though there’s interaction between characters, there’s conflict, and that makes interesting viewing.

Now some folk might say that there’s nothing wrong with the smartarse setup.  Surely that’s the classic structure of a joke: setup/punch, setup/punch.  Yes it is and I’m not saying it’s always wrong but once a sitcom relies on that structure for the bulk of it’s jokes then clearly the writers are not developing characters or developing interesting situations.

And that’s boring.

2. Get off your fat arse

I think Iain Lee’s character is meant to be the central character, the one we identify with most.  I say this because all the other characters are wacky caricatures.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem to be very well defined that he’s the central character but to me it seemed that he was.  It’s a poorly written sitcom so how the fuck should I know.  Anyway.

What I didn’t understand is why he’s so passive.  For the whole 18 mins he was sitting in a chair.

It really bothered me that the main character didn’t really move and all the other characters had to come to him. Think of the main characters in any other sitcoms and think about how much they move from place to place.  OK, The Royale Family are an exception.  Think about Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp, The Office.  Even Fletcher in Porridge moves about more and he’s in Prison.

It just seems all wrong to me.

3. Slogans are fun!

The writers have set the show in an advertising agency which gives them a tried and tested formula.  Several sitcoms have gone with a similar idea: Reggie Perrin had to work on marketing campaigns, Absolute Power had various PR shenanigans.  One of the irresistible things about this setup is that your characters can spout advertising slogans for fictional products.

This should be dead easy: create a product and then create a ridiculous slogan for it.

The writers mentioned three slogans in the eighteen minutes I saw and they were all unfunny.  The one that was the centrepiece of the show was a bit poor – Cockney Cheese – Leave it Aaaaat!!

Here’s some equally unfunny alternatives I came up with in about three minutes

Cockney Cheese – As old fashioned as being able to leave your front door open
Cockney Cheese – It’s rhyming slang for “that’s very nice”
Cockney Cheese – It’s rhyming slang for “Parkinson’s Disease” – which incidentally it also prevents
Cockney Cheese – Churned within the sound of cow bells
Cockney Cheese – duck and dive with some cheese and chive

Now all of those are shit.  But it only took me, a chronically stupid man, a few minutes to come up with those and I think they’re a tad more imaginative then “Leave it aaaaat!”  And let’s also remember that I didn’t suggest cockney cheese as potential comedy gold – the writers did and so you’d expect them to do better.  If they couldn’t come up with a funny slogan for cockney cheese then they could just come up with a different product.

Anyway, at one point the characters in the show are pushed to come up with an alternative slogan.  Maybe they came up with something hilarious later on in the show.  But during the eighteen minutes I watched they didn’t, Lee’s character suggested they just print it in a different font and put more exclamation marks after it.

Now that strikes me as a cop out because 1) the writers have dodged making another slogan and 2) we all know advertising doesn’t put loads of exclamation marks after a slogan which means that not only is it not funny but it doesn’t make any sense either.

4. Comedy Foreigner

There’s this character.  He has a foreign accent.  He is very loud.  He holds a very large pencil in his hand and suggests it’s like his cock.  He shouts suggestive things about sex.  He’s like a character from ‘Allo ‘Allo just without the existential angst.

If that sounds funny to you then you really don’t want to miss THE PERSUASIONISTS!

5. The Boss from hell

Sitcoms down the years are scattered with bosses from hell: David Brent, CJ from Reggie Perrin, Bishop Brennan from Father Ted, either Mr Reynholm from The IT Crowd, that dude with the moustache in Terry and June.  So this is another tried and tested formula it should be hard to get wrong.

Adam Buxton’s character is called in to the bosses office so he can roar at him.  The boss them roars at him.

And that’s it.

Once again this shows a tragic lack of imagination.  If he’s going to do demeaning things to his employees then why stop there.

He could demand that Buxton smear nutella round his face while singing I Should Be So Lucky.  He could ride Buxton like a pony while brushing his “mane” and calling him Doris.  He could get Buxton to clean a spill of his desk with his own shirt.  Again, these ideas are quite shit but that’s just what popped into my head just this minute and again that seems a wee bit more creative than what happened in the show.

Seriously, just think of this setup: boss calls character into his office and does something demeaning to him.

Now imagine something that could happen in that scene.  You’ve probably just thought of something funnier than “he roars in his face”

So that was pretty much where I decided that this show wasn’t going to go anywhere.  If you can’t think of something funny in that situation then you have no right considering yourself a professional comedy writer.

So…

Is it unfair of me to write off the show after 18 minutes?  Absolutely.  But then no one died and made me Judge Dredd.  I’m just a viewer and I don’t have to watch anything I don’t want to.  18 minutes was as much as I could stand and I’d thought I’d write about why that was.

I love sitcoms, it’s such a shame when they’re created in such an obviously slapdash manner.