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DVD Review: Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977

Social history fascinates me: how people lived, the day to day life, the look and feel of a people and place, all of it is like pure crack to a brain like mine. Needless to say, a lot of my DVD budget goes towards the various releases from the British Film Institute’s documentary wing, as virtually all of them offer some form of appeal. Shadows of Progress is a behemoth of a boxset, looking at film (but not TV) documentaries, produced under various forms of sponsorship, from the early 1950’s through the late 1970’s, when video began overtaking film as the practical documentarian’s working format of choice.

The set contains 34 films, spread out over four discs, plus a bonus set of interviews with creators of the time. Each disc is thematically grouped, under ‘The Island’ (postwar austerity and rural life), ‘Return to Life’ (postwar social issues), ‘The Shadow of Progress’ (Industry), and ‘Today in Britain’ (New issues under the new system). Each disc then has its films arranged chronologically by release year.

The set is accompanied by a 90 page square-bound book, containing explanatory and contextual essays, interviews with filmmakers, and the like. If you’ve got any of the other BFI’s short film sets, e.g. the various COI collections, you’re looking at the same sort of thing here, but on a much larger scale. Unlike the COI collections, however, I would absolutely recommend reading the essays before watching the films, as the background information is what truly opens up the piece to the modern viewer, especially a foreign one like myself. A much larger book, with the same name, is also available, though I have not had a chance to finish my copy as of yet. Split into two parts, the first, smaller section, looks at the studios behind the documentary movement in the period and the nature of the sponsorship system and the demands of production and distribution. The second, significantly larger section, looks at individual filmmakers and their work, with most (though not all  – e.g. Geoffrey Jones) represented in the boxset.

That said, with so much material, it’s easy to get lost within the discs, step away to rest from it all, and come back, and I did just that, needing almost six months to clear all the material at hand. This isn’t because any of it’s bad – quite the opposite – but approaching the material from the right perspective requires being in the right mindset and giving it your full attention more often than not, something my schedule has not been making particularly easy these days.

Disc 1 was perhaps the hardest for me to get through, with its more languid, black and white works at a country coming to terms with itself amidst the end of empire and coming out morally victorious in a massive war but economically the big loser. That said, a couple of films shine through: ‘David’, the story of a Welsh amateur poet, is a reconstructed look at village life, and ‘To Be a Woman’ and ‘Foot and Mouth’ deal are direct, take no prisoners looks at wage disparities (still sadly relevant) and changing needs in farming practices as industrialised practices begin making the spread of disease that much easier. The highlight, however, is easily John Krish’s ‘The Elephant Will Never Forget’, about the final days of the London tram network. Mournfully shot and sentimental in its narration and score, the piece brings the organic nature of the city to life, and compared with the hustle and expansion we see later in the film, the death of a beloved icon can be hard to take. Krish is also represented on this disc with ‘They Took Us to the Sea’, a promo film for the NSPCC, but my least favourite of his available works.

Disc 2 comes out much stronger, by comparison, opening with the Oscar winning ‘Thursday’s Children’, followed by a trilogy of films about mental health (then very much a subject spoken of solely in hushed tones and never in public), including the British Epilepsy Foundation’s first film attempting to explain the disease and introducing a group of sufferers as normal people trying to make it through life amidst stigma, a film on projects for the mentally handicapped, and ending with a short on the need to diagnose depression, featuring a gruesome opening and sponsorship by Roche, a pharmaceutical manufacturer. John Krish returns again, with ‘Return to Life’, a look at Eastern European refugees attempting to start a new life in Britain, adjusting to the climate and the culture and struggling through their own internal difficulties. The story behind the film, profiled in the book, is as tragic as the story portrayed within, and I shan’t reveal it here.

Disc 3 deals extensively with labour issues, including ‘The Film that Never Was’, an optimistic and naïve look at worker-management relations, ‘From First to Last’, a musically charged step by step through a 60’s Ford factory, and ‘People, Productivity, and Change’, which at 45 minutes is far from the most entertaining film on the set, but one of the most vital in terms of understanding the culture which would lead to the new investment and Labour industrial policies (read: amalgamation) to come in the late 60’s and 70’s. We also get two lush visual pieces here, ‘Shellarama’ which follows the path of crude oil to petrol pump, and ‘Stone into Steel’, which the BFI’s booklet accurately recommends be watched on the biggest screen possible. This disc also has the set’s title film, BP’s ‘The Shadow of Progress’, a candid look at the ecological impact of industrial expansion.

Attempting to end things on a lighter note, Disc 4 gives us ‘Portrait of Queenie’, which shadows an East End pub landlady and singer, ‘Education for the Future’, a Labour party commission on the new system of charter schools, and ‘The Shetland Experience’, which contrasts the nature of the Shetlands with an incoming pipeline, and how the oil company and the locals have brokered a deal to ensure minimal disruption and maximum benefit to the residents. Darker corners lurk within as well, however, between another Krish, the powerful ‘I Think They Call Him John’, on the isolation of the elderly in the new tower block system, and ‘Time of Terror’, a Met Police film warning the public to look out for IRA bombs. Neither film holds back, and each lands an intense hit on the viwer in opposing ways: ‘John’ with its quiet confinement in a tiny flat, shot in black and white, and ‘Terror’ with its explosions, sirens, and bloody shots of bomb victims. Britain may have never had it so good, but the Winter of Discontent would be a mere two years away from the final film on the set, and we see the seeds going all the way back to the 1960’s.

Analysing this set properly would require, well… It’s already printed, sitting on my floor, and mentioned above. The films presented give the modern viewer a chance to take in so much of the times represented: class (count the number of non-RP speakers before the 70’s – and the Welsh don’t count), the workplace and household, industrial modernisation, and the changing faces of the village, city, and neighbourhood as a result. While you won’t find direct references to the really big events on this set (e.g. Bloody Sunday, the 3 Day Weeks), you’re also looking in the wrong place. Rather than attempt to analyse the period itself, ‘Shadows of Progress’ brings us the culture of the era through its own speakers, the people who not only captured their sponsored subjects, but the clues to an era at large, one where we can read between the lines and see the period for ourselves.

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REVIEW: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Moore Theatre, Seattle

I love Hedwig and the Angry Inch. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s tale of an East German glam/punk rocker who underwent a botched sex change to escape the Wall and find love is a favourite, a story of a lost soul full of barbed dialogue and a blistering score, one of the best examples of true rock in the theatre. The film is good, but seeing the show live is another experience, an intimate affair where we see someone at rock bottom trying to claw her way out without any guarantee of success.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. I really wanted to like love this production going in. I liked starring actor Jerrick Hoffer as Angel in the 5th Avenue’s production of RENT, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about Balagan Theatre’s work, and hey – the material’s a no-brainer for me. So where did it all go wrong?

Well, first off, it didn’t all go wrong. and there’s actually a lot to recommend here, starting with the band, led by David Russell, playing the score loud and hard like it’s supposed to be. Erin Stewart is also a quality Yitzhak, and Hoffer’s acting and audience banter are at the high level one would expect after honing on the drag scene. He also knows how to work it on stage, and when the score calls for big, intense numbers, he’s on the money, even if his voice is on the thinner side than some and his accent increasingly wavers as the show goes on.

Unfortunately, he was as flat as Tommy Gnosis’s chest during two of the three key ballads, the original performance and reprise of ‘Wicked Little Town’, wherein Hedwig bemoans her fate of being lost and alone in the middle of Kansas, and again when her protege confirms her value in his life. Try though he might to hit the emotion, the notes and the singing weren’t there, a double loss because the Reprise is by far my favourite number in the show and so much of the resolution hinges on it being a simple tune rendered as a tour de fource.

Hoffer also wasn’t helped by Ian Bell’s inconsistent and in-your-face direction. While Hedwig is raw, 18+ fare, it benefits greatly from subtlty and letting the audience work through the jokes. Here, every double entendre has a gesture to highlight it, and little is said if it can be shouted or punched through. Bell’s handling of Yitzha, Hedwig’s abused spouse, is also flawed, and outright contradictory with the text in places. In opening number ‘Tear Me Down’ and others, Yitzhak and Hedwig are sharing the spotlight – an act which runs contradictory to the running themes of power and control and Hedwig’s desire to rule over someone’s life when her own is such a wreck. The banter between the two also feels rehearsed, like a performing team long into their routine. No sign of long term hell or breakdown or misery, just a bickering couple taking it up a notch.

The production value also brings to mind many odd questions: Would a band like the Angry Inch really be able to afford a lighting rig and backline as luxurious as the rather visible one they have? Why bother having an entire rack of wigs flown in for only 90 seconds during the major crowd pleasing song which everybody knows and doesn’t need it? (And again, how would the characters justify such a luxury or expense?) Why put a show designed for 300 seat venues in a barn like the Moore when Balagan have the lease on a perfectly sized space which would allow for cheaper tickets? Why put it somewhere that nice? Sure, a contradiction between a pretty space and grime onstage can reiterate visible poverty (see the Stratford East and West End runs of The Harder They Come), but Hedwig benefits from being in a bit of a dump (though not a poser dump like Re-Bar). It’s tricky, but vital.

So should you see this run? If you like Hedwig or only know it from the film, yes. Absolutely. It’s a good production, but it’s not the life-changer it could (or should) be when done at its best.

Stuff for sale

I have too much stuff. Some of it may be worth money, some of it is just cluttering up my boxes and needs to go to a good home. If you want anything, leave a comment with a twitter ID or email so I can get ahold of you. Prices do NOT include shipping.

DVD:

Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus 134th+135th Edition DVDs – $14

Manga:

Berserk vol 1-10 (Japanese Edition) – $25 (Books in VG/Ex condition)

Sexy Commando Gaiden Sugoiyo Masaru-san vol 1-6 (Japanese Edition) – $6

Eden vol 1 (Dark Horse) – $5 (VG)

Initial D Vol 1 (TOKYOPOP) – $20 (EX, First printing w/ the Japanese names, not the nicknames!)

Light Novels:

Vampire Hunter D Vol 1 (Dark Horse) – $10 (Hardcover, NM)

New Kindaichi Case Files NOVEL (Kodansha English Library) – $15 (Good, RARE)

European/US Comics

Sandman Midnight Theatre – $3 (G/VG)

Asterix in Britain (ENGLISH) – $7 (NM)

Barbarella: The Moon Child (ENGLISH) – $25 (VG)

Doctor Who Magazine #276 (April 1999, Planet of the Spiders) – $3 (VG)

Doctor Who Magazine #315 (April 2002, Peter Cushing) – $3 (VG)

Also considering selling my complete collection of Doctor Who New Adventures #1-30 (Quality varies significantly) for a reasonable offer.

Writer’s Block, Depression, and Why I Hate You All

Most people would argue that there’s no point in having a blog if nobody’s reading it – the point of writing such a thing is, after all, to be writing for an audience, or else we’d all just have private locked livejournals where audience is irrelevant. But sometimes, sometimes you just want to scream to the world, to vent, to let frustration out, and to know that nobody’s going to see it, but it’s out there and that counts for something. Or not. Maybe it just makes you look like a twat when someone pulls it up three years later. Who knows.

The point is, posting something random and useless like this would lose most people readers. I don’t have any readers to lose.

And so, I sit here on a banged up, hideous 70’s-looking free-from-craigslist-couch in my living room where the temperature is significantly higher than in my recessed, shaded, south-facing office, because writing in the office is netting me a big fat nil. Yes, it’s the inevitable curse of all who work in this godforsaken profession, writer’s block.

But you’re writing now? No, this is ranting. This is not producing a useful, productive piece of work for publication. This is attempting to get the empty rattlings in my head out in some form so that I can try and refill with something worth actually committing to my work.

It doesn’t help either that I’m depressed. Not your mopey, ‘oh woe is me’ depressed, but the proper ‘been on meds for almost three years, been on a higher than usual dose to get through seasonal issues and now that the sun is out it’s still not helping’ depressed. Oh, and add ‘my doctor is on holiday and I can’t get my meds adjusted but no doubt I’ll be going from one prescription to two or three soon and boy I hope they’re covered by the state generics programme or else I’m fucked’ depressed.

Now, sometimes, depression is great for creativity and being productive. Music, visual arts, fiction, scriptwriting, of these are great, fantastic ways for misery and a messed up brain to fuel the pen and produce something fantastic for the world to see, something to balance the days, weeks, months, or years of inner loathing with a jewel of an expression.

The problem here is that I’m not writing something directly out of my head. That would be comparatively easy. That could be shat out in a couple weeks and turned into a best seller if it had sex and vampires and bad prose – prose like the sort I’m writing now. I mean hell, it’s worked for how many dozen YA and Harlequin authors over the decades?

No, what I’m writing is academic. It’s hardcore nonfiction where everything has to answer questions and be properly cited, and where supposedly important people (or at least important in the sense of they determine whether you’re worthy or not to be put in their journal) critique your work, turn back pages and pages of feedback, and smugly know that it’s not their careers on the line if you can’t make the deadline they fail to make public in advance and can’t get an article out in time. And it usually reads like this:

“There’s no focus, no questions being answered. It’s dull and reads like a thesis. Why should I care about any of this beyond its own existence? That said, don’t be dispirited – it’s great that the author is diving into fascinating material like this and no doubt they can easily turn something around.”

Great, my overweight arse.

For those who don’t know, what led me down this path was a three-fold decision: One, I had an interest in the material I’m researching. I still do, but I hit burnout along the way and still haven’t fully recovered. When I couldn’t deal anymore, I submitted what I had, which in my book, was already as polished as I could get what with not having reliable beta readers and revising what I had in place.

Second, I’m a whore for credits and bylines. It’s nice to see your name in print even if you do wonder why anybody would waste their time reading it and by the time it does see print, you’ve forgotten all about the details and cringe at the monstrosity you’ve created and wish you could do it over with the benefit of hindsight and a very stiff drink.

Third, I needed a project to keep me sane. This, dear friends, is irony. I wanted something to throw myself into when leaving my beloved London, and diving head-first into a massive undertaking that I knew would require weeks of serious archive digging and months of processing and writing seemed like a good idea at the time. What I didn’t anticipate is that it would cause my most recent breakdown/episode. Way to fucking go.

In other news, this couch really isn’t all that comfortable when trying to lay down on it. in a writer-friendly position, even with pillows. Bollocks.

So anyways, here’s what we have if you’ve made it this far and been completely lost:

1. Massive project one step away from being rejected, told to completely overhaul, rewrite, and resubmit. Deadline to see print in 2012? Mid/late May, and the later in May, the less chance of actually making it.

2. Massive brain fail to go with it. Depression, lack of energy. Two naps a day for a week plus 8-10 hours of sleep at night. Inability to focus on watching TV more challenging than shows for five year-olds. Increased irritability. Lack of desire to deal with people outside of bare necessities. Increased pressure from paying jobs.

Yes, paying jobs. They may pay poorly, but I have them.

This writing project? Doesn’t. Pay. A. Penny. I also have to sign over my IP on the article itself, so I won’t see anything from reprints, digital sales, leasing to full-text aggregators, etc. Of course, I could buy open access for 750 quid, but that still means not actually owning the work: it’s simply put out there for free and I continue to see nothing from it past having been granted access to the archives (to be fair, the payoff seemed worth it at the time and through the initial submission.)

So as a result, the project that I took on to keep me sane has instead left me with severe writer’s block (the best analogy I can make is that I feel like I’m running head-on into the line of attack rather than following it through some clean revisions), lethargy, a desire to be left the goddamn hell alone by anybody who is not specifically talking about work or a long-time personal friend (some people seem hell-bent on breaking this, here’s a hint – don’t), and I am faced with an inability to produce the key to escape the trap that is this nightmare of my own creation. Tiny violins and all.

To be honest, I wish I’d just been rejected outright. Then I could have gone in, done a hack and slash, and offered the piece largely as-written to a commercial enterprise and at least known I’d see publication (if not possibly a small cheque with it). Instead, I’m likely to have wasted an entire year on this thing with no results, no advancement, no byline, and when it does hit print, no readers and no interest.

What a fucking waste.

Book: I Want My MTV

As close (and not so close) friends can tell you, I’m a pretty die-hard fan of the 1980’s. An era of bright colour, changing technology, the right blend of fear and hope, and extremes on all sides, there’s just something so lively and urgent about the period – and especially its media – that I find it endlessly fascinating.

And one of the biggest players in the cultural market? Music Television (yes, that’s what MTV really stands for in case you forgot between episodes of 16 and Pregnant and Jersey Shore). The 80’s represented the zenith in pop music production: slick tracks, heavily layered arrangements, and the spawn of the visual hook in the new artform of Music Video, aka what MTV was created to play.

In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum have compiled what may very well be the definitive tome on the early days of MTV and the excesses of the Music Video era (1981-1992). While the book lacks a traditional narrative, aiming instead for a chronological presentation of oral histories with side-steps into anecdote (e.g. the making of Billy Squier’s ‘Rock Me Tonight’, widely considered the worst video ever made) and chapters rarely go over 10-15 pages. The format works well for the book, making it an easy yet informative read, one that feels more like casually watching a documentary than diving into an academic text. Indeed, the greatest challenge here is holding up the 600 page hardcover edition without the reader’s hands getting sore.

That said, there’s a lot to recommend here: the choice of subjects is excellent, ranging from MTV executives to musicians, directors, and on-screen talent, and the authors make a point to include conflicting points of view when memories and official stories don’t line up. There are some obvious exclusions in terms of performers discussing the era (Madonna, Bon Jovi, and Guns n Roses are talked about at length but don’t contribute; Michael Jackson died before the book was compiled), but it’s a safer guess that said people didn’t respond versus not being approached.

Recommended? Yes, especially from the library. I Want My MTV is a fun, fast read and sure to become a go-to quotation bible for anybody doing academic work on 80’s pop and music video in general, but casual readers are unlikely to find themselves revisiting it enough to justify a hardcover outlay.

Blog neglect and Akikan

I need to write more here. Yay for depression, not getting out enough, and questioning whether anyone actually cares about what I’m watching/seeing/reading.

Anyhow, someone on twitter requested this so here goes with some background. Back in 2008, the first episode of Akikan! was streamed in Japan and fansubbed before legal streaming became a normal thing. Anyhow, a friend of mine had seen the first episode and, knowing my tastes and passion for snark, demanded I watch it. Since the DVD just got reviewed over at ANN’s Shelf Life and is getting all kinds of WTF-ery on the forums (Erin’s taste is eclectic, and she’s always able to justify her opinion so I’m not WTF’ing myself), but yeah. I loathed the episode I saw of this and, as motivation to get through it, posted a timecoded live-blog against the first episode. As the comments state, you’ll need to add 1:30 to all timecodes as there were no OP/ED on the version I saw, but this should give you an idea of what it’s like to experience episode 1 of one of the worst shows in the last five years of anime.

Read more…

Theatre: Dina Martina Christmas Show 2011

While the UK provides a wealth of opportunities for Christmas theatre, pickings in Seattle are a bit slimmer – only two pantomimes (and only one that’s bus accessible), lots of stuff that looks to be trying too hard to be fringe for its own good, and a family musical or two. Oh and Dina Martina, Seattle’s top drag queen doing what is at least her fourth annual Christmas show at the Re-Bar.

When looking at drag acts, there are basically two choices: the glamour queen and the trash queen. The queens in La Cage Aux Folles are the former. Divine and Dina Martina are the latter. That’s not to say that Martina is as crude as most trash queens, though, particularly in this show full of good spirits, silliness, and lyrically maimed carols. The character may be more vulgar in normal performances, but the Christmas show is good (mostly) clean fun with only one shock moment towards the end which is a gem of the show and worth keeping as a surprise.

As far as the rest of the show, it’s almost…well…childish. Not in the simplistic and sappy sense (though it’s not taxing either), but more in the Charlie Brown-inspired sense of innocence. Dina’s lyrical mishaps are the sort the sharper kids sing at school, all while making the occasionally barbed comment (“I felt so bad for those students, shivering with their pumpkin lattes”) in the most innocent tone possible. As a result, the humour is always good natured, never caustic, a cocoa with schnapps and not a hot toddy.

That said, at $20/ticket (or $25 if you can get a return ticket on the door), something more substantive would be rather nice. Yes, it’s funny and consistent, but if based in London (and possibly even New York – I’m not familiar enough with the scene to say), Dina Martina would be doing the 1AM cabaret circuit and not headlining a show for five weeks if this is representative of the material. It’s good, but not that good. I’m interested to see DM’s next show this spring to compare and see if that’s a better indicator of what all the fuss is about.

That or I should have had more than one beer.