Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Why Toto got a good shunning in Return to Oz

You might remember the vast superiority that the film Return to Oz had over its prequel: that dark and foreboding atmosphere, all those heads, the psychedelic imagery of minerals and jewels that Dorothy cascades into at one point. You might also remember an odd absence of Dorothy’s compatriot from the first film, Toto. Not only was he missing for much of the narrative, but his role is usurped by a chicken, the irritating Billina.

For those familiar with the 1939 Wizard of Oz, but not of the 1985 sequel, allow me to contextualise the quandary for a moment. The sequel has Dorothy incarcerated in a hospital, an attempt to wash her mind of the memories of Oz, and when a flood hits the environs, she gets swept back to that magical kingdom. Oz is now desolate, ruined and under the rule of a pernicious monarch, named the Nome King.

But enough of that.

Toto appears at the beginning as Dorothy loiters about the farm, daydreaming about her whacky adventures with the Scarecrow, but before any notable time lapse, she is whisked off to the hospital of psychoanalytic nightmares, leaving her sidekick by the wayside on the farm. Granted, Toto does return at the climax, but his presence is purely negligible, and is quickly replaced by a streaming consortium of end credits.

Disgraceful as this bone fide shunning was, there are nevertheless reasons for the circumvention of Toto in the film. There is, in fact, a shady and murky subterranean to this story.

First we must trace events back to 1939, the year that was to be the catalyst of Toto’s downfall. Despite critical laudation for his performance, Toto’s relations with some of the other actors were at best, strained, at worst, openly hostile. His conversations with The Tin Man would frequently descend into fisticuffs - the precarious situation made all the worst with Toto’s notorious use of profanity. Toto’s dual lusts - alcohol and women - also created tension on the film-set; often he would get liquored up in Munchkinland, then go and sleaze on the makeup assistants. His alcoholism was given little attention - most of the crew were knee-deep in whiskey - but he was lambasted for an attempted-seduction of The Wicked Witch of the West.

From the film he took a fat pay cheque, but also a placement on the blacklist. Seemed his riotous ways were not going to be accepted by the Hollywood chiefs, who ostracised him, giving him the shove out the backdoor.

During the interval between both Oz movies, Toto was fairly active. He took up writing, penning a number of articles for Esquire and Vanity Fair. In 1958, his first novel was published. Entitled The Furrowed Sequence, it was for the most part made up of pointless and meaningless metaphors, for instance, at one stage he uses the phrase “a plank of freckles,” at another he describes a character as “holding on to a sled of exuberance.” Castigated from all corners, the book slid into obscurity, as did Toto’s literary career in general.

The next couple of decades saw Toto marry Psych-Out’s Susan Strasberg, take up cocaine, open a chain of erotic pet shops, divorce Psych-Out’s Susan Strasberg, nearly die in a bench-press competition at a local gym, marry Straw Dogs’ Susan George, take up heroin, file for bankruptcy, divorce Straw Dogs’ Susan George, and spend two months in a coma due to an intentional drug overdose.

It was in 1984 that Toto got the call. It was the lads down at Disney. Turns out they were proposing to produce a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Toto instantly knew to smile at that moment; the only thing good his agent ever did for him was to embed a clause in his Oz contract which stated that if a sequel were ever to be made, he would by rights have a role in it. And so, the once-shut doors of Hollywood, reopened themselves to the outcast.

Production began well. Cast and crew mingled favourably, no brawls had yet been reported. Toto was increasingly thankful for his second chance. However, his reasons for thankfulness were suddenly obliterated right in front of his eyes.

A freelance journalist, investigating high-level corruption in the State Department, came into contact with a confidential dossier that unveiled Toto’s grand secret in excruciatingly minute detail. Unsurprisingly, the journalist, sensing Joseph Pulitzer caressing his shoulders, went ahead and published a thorough composite of all that his research had unearthed. The next day, the headlines flashed scandal, their unambiguous words read: “Toto is a Fascist!”

The article delineated Toto’s connections to the Nazis, the subtle racism inherent in his writings, and then subsequently went on to join the lines between the Nixon administration and Toto’s unassuming, propagandistic sense of self-importance.

Sadly, so rigid was the Disney contract, that there was little the execs could do beyond demoting Toto to the bare minimum of screen time, stripping away huge portions of screenplay to reduce the role, and supplanting Toto with a chicken.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Opeth - Camden Roundhouse - 9th Nov 2006

A queue of vertical bodies trace the contours of Chalk Farm Road, curving around one obtuse angle, then another, a clear eagerness rising off the pates. Guys slouched, feeling the slight heaviness of prior alcohol consumption, brandishing unwashed Atheist t-shirts and talking about that time Nuclear Assault played a club nearby. Girls posed in the apparel of night-camouflage, harnessed by lace, awash with sultry gothic overtones, innate energies simmering just under the pale skin exterior, like a leather-studded cauldron imprinted with the icons of every beat blasted within a two mile radius.

This writhing line of subjects are waiting for the gates of the Camden Roundhouse to be unshackled and thrown open, giving them entrance to the venue hosting tonight’s gig, a duo of Opeth and special guests Paradise Lost. The Camden Roundhouse, nestled neatly north of the drug-addled high street of Camden in London’s north, recently refurbished, promises to be an exemplary terrain for the Swedish headliners. The preamble to the event made all the more electrifying with the news that the show is to be filmed for a possible DVD release. How those neck-hairs stood erect at the gospel!

With the chimes of 7pm oscillating between disparate inner-ears, the entrance was unblocked and in marched the hordes. Tripping over zealous youths mounting an attack on the merchandise stall, we punctured our way into the main arena, a mighty, circular room, already accumulating residents at both bar and stage.

A thirty minute period of pre-show set-up and galvanised anticipation and Paradise Lost hit the stage.

I’ll have to admit to not being too familiar with the British doom/goth band, the varied peaks and troughs of their career, from early-to-mid-90s acclaim to subsequent criticism in the following years concerning musical direction. However, this provided me the opportunity to sample their tonalities, and in a loud and social environment, hopefully resulting in being finally able to resist aligning them with My Dying Bride as one and the same.

Playing for approximately an hour, Paradise Lost enthusiastically strode atop the stage like the veterans they are (their debut album, the wittily titled Lost Paradise, was released in 1990). Animated and tight, they threw out their songs with little ostentatious bravura, allowing for the occasional word or two as a song intro. Pilfering knowledge from the head of my accomplice, I learned that much of the set was made up of early material – the aforementioned lauded music. A large emphasis on synth atmosphere and mid-paced riffery meant that the adrenaline glands of much of the audience remained restrained, heads contented in subdued nodding.

Course, most of these patrons are only here for one band.

A ten to fifteen minute gap between bands allowed for the outbreak of numerous chants of “Opeth, Opeth, Opeth…” An electrifying spectre was floating over the masses, causing expectations to reach an acme as the seconds cascaded away. And then, the quintet ambled up into the worshipping gaze of the few thousand fans.

The band flew straight into a rousing rendition of ‘When’. Its clean section segues replicated with full accuracy, and the bludgeoning force of an intense mid-section syncopation even more potent than the recorded original. Following its denouement, frontman Mikael Akerfeldt welcomed the anonymous fists and hairy spheres to the proceedings and then introduced the next track, the opener of last years Ghost Reveries, ‘Ghost of Perdition’. Those down-tuned weighty riffs and staccato-phrasing sure ignited much vacillation in the audience, but, alas, this was to be the only song from that most recent of Opeth albums, meaning that they were not to play what is undoubtedly the finest track on that album, ‘The Baying of the Hounds’.

Taking us on a trip through the entire discography of the band, Opeth regressed as far back as 95’s debut, the melodious Orchid. ‘Under a Weeping Moon’ was prefaced by some wonderful self-deprecatory commentary from Akerfeldt, something to the effect of: “the lyrics to this song are total black metal nonsense.” Ah, how they are, and how we laughed!

The performance of Morningrise’s ‘The Night and the Silent Water’ was also annotated by remarks expressing a droll self-deprecation: information on how lutes were to have played a part in the recording of said song, and how pretentious they once were. Obviously the highlight of this song was the amazing outro that builds up from an acoustic passage into a full-on density of heaviness, hypnotizing the aural passageways. This section, given the live treatment, exceeded even the high standard set down on the recording.

Still Life and Blackwater Park received recognition via a double bill of ‘Face of Melinda’ and 'Bleak', both maintaining the chaotic reverberations of the crowd. It may have been a freezing November eve outside, but inside the undulations and ululations of the closely-congregated bulk of humanity created a swelter, with an almost-visible heat dissipating into the dark void above the throng. In fact, clothed in a heavy winter coat, I was staring into the abyss of the broil at times; luckily a trio of peppy girls were frenetically headbanging in front of me, creating a very agreeable wind-tunnel effect. Worth all the strewn hair heaved at ones face in the world!

‘Windowpane’ eased things off slightly.

Seven minutes of reflective acoustic lament later and things were to accelerate once again. Unfortunately the next song was labelled as the final of the night, but nevertheless a barnstorming ‘Blackwater Park’ jettisoned out of the PA, giving everyone cue for the most uninhibited of bodily reaction imaginable.

As with convention, this was not actually the final moment of the gig, but simply the penultimate one. For the band returned for an encore after allowing a long enough period of time for another “Opeth” chant to commence. The closing song? As I interjected to a nearby citizen’s attempt to hypothesise the situation, it was very clearly going to be arch-fan favourite ‘Demon of the Fall’. And it was. And fair enough, it stands as a high watermark in the history of the band, and was the song that introduced me to the majesties of the Scandinavian fellows. Few better songs could have brought the evening to an end.

Two hours passed in what seemed like two minutes, a setlist of what couldn’t have been more than nine songs, and a downside to Opeth live that I had had an inkling about beforehand presents itself. With such lengthy compositions, Opeth can fill a two hour time allotment with ease, and without playing a hell of a lot of songs. It’ll always be an area of contention, but one can’t help but mourn the omission of certain songs, and I feel I’m perfectly in my right at complaining about the lack of songs from 2002’s Deliverance, i.e. a grand sum of none. Watching the title track and ‘Master’s Apprentice’ played in full-force on the Lamentations DVD beforehand, I was ensconced in eager anticipation for either of those songs, but sadly it was not to be. And such long, pummelling songs as those are, are perfect for the live setting. Well, maybe next time.

Slight gripes notwithstanding, it was an excellent show. Opeth show that they can effortlessly transpose their epic soundscapes into the world of stage-lighting and smoke-machines. And now I must go and rest my neck.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Iceland Iconography

Certain requirements emerge when one enters an independent existence; when one leaves behind the psychological bubble-wrap of the parental protectorate to live by ones own means. One of these is the indelible task of shopping.

Before long, a person living in the swarm of an identical hunger-based hysteria learns of particular insights, wisdom splintered off the timber of lore by peers more eager to engage the kernels of urgency than yours truly. Like a microcosmic pandemic, the swirls of info are ingested by minds not quite yet tyrannised by sleep patterns contrapuntally perverted into unrecognisable, unpalatable and pointless shadows of a former logic. An open mind can quickly become aware of the error autocratically reigning over that very mind. With haste, the subject is, at once, disgusted and relieved, the fresh knowledge now enabling a progression forward.

How many wasted pennies massacred amongst the beeping cacophony of a Tesco checkout? Too many, to be sure.

How many minutes annihilated under the glow of Tesco aisle-lighting? Cumulative line graphs weep over it.

How many motor neurons raped by suggestive product placement? Fuck Tesco!

Correct, a change was on the horizon. Rather than frequent the gigantic corporate clout of Tesco, the gaze was shifted to the average corporate clout of Iceland.

[It’s important to note here, to potential readers outside the sphere of the British grocery market, that Iceland is a middle-sized player in the well-saturated field of food retail. Akin to Wall-Mart in style, generic to the very core.]

Iceland’s angst-ridden automatic doors welcome the passive consumer into its threshold, infra-red sensors scorned by years of humble drudgery sometimes choosing a puerile attempt to make the entering individual affronted by a refusal to submit to its predestined act. And what are the aural strains to envelope the ear-drums at soon as structural penetration is accomplished? It’s nothing other than a fine collage of mid-90s boy-bands, sprinkled down from the ceiling-affixed speakers like a perverse tribute to Zyklon-B.

If those insulting melodies weren’t nauseating enough, there’s the visual bombardment of special offers to overwhelm an already-dejected disposition. Their prominent display of ones and twos may please a concealed wallet, but what lies behind those placards are bound to displease even the most impoverished digestive system. Vibrant billboards singing scripture from the manuals of Marketing 101, the most perfunctory of buzzwords and easily-recognised branding, a slice of idealistic imagery on a poster and a scoop of basic signifiers employing the primary colours are its gist. It’s a hyperbolic depiction of what Guy Debord termed ‘the spectacle’, a superficial covering draped over everything by capitalism. This is undoubtedly a full actualisation of that analysis, one that, were this a better world, would be considered a caricature, but, alas, a degenerate sincerity is in play here.

Stacks of bright-coloured products lace the shop-layout, forever being destroyed and resurrected elsewhere, in another corner perhaps, a cycle with no end. A store-manager scuttling in black soles towards a misplaced tube of edible factory sludge, then off to crown a mountain of soft-drinks littered with hard-Cs, finally to retire to a back room for five minutes to eat a homemade ham sandwich. Life never got more fulfilling!

Iceland’s enclosed corridors, with their overbearing high-shelves, are oppressive to the nonchalant customer, one simply visiting to buy a loaf of bread and a pint of milk. Surely a contrast must be made to the colossal floor-plan of the big Tesco up the road – pumped-in oxygen, white and spacious, is this not a utopia if anything?

It is not. Each oppresses in its own right. This must represent a duality of distinct neuroses, Iceland’s tight and absolutist-shelving topography, and Tesco’s pale warehouse chic; it’s a combination of parallel disorders: a mix of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Both deal in the business of pernicion and the bastardisation of the human subject. Minor differences in means of doing so do not mask a blatant truth.

A trip to Iceland ends in the marvellous and inevitable confrontation with the checkout staff. Sometimes, admittedly rarely, a jovial greeting and/or smile can mark the collision. More often, contempt is poorly shrouded; a situation barely a notch away from open hostility. If being forced to watch a coveted container of eggs get violently flung from one metallic surface to another isn’t enough, the terse temerity of monetary demands will certainly complete the thrill-ride and satisfy those adrenalin glands for another week.

This policy of belligerence shoves the contented consumer out the very doors he passed just ten minutes ago, an entrance now metamorphosed into an exit. Standing on the pavement, it arrayed with trampled chewing-gum and quickly-congealing spittle, only one question looms on the mind: is there enough cash for me to go in again?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sunrise: A Song of Two Riccis

It might be the manifestation of a lack - one that galvanises spores of guilt over a literary drought - or a nostalgia for that time I explicated Chomsky’s (apparent) appearance in anime Vampire Hunter D, but at present an observation requires exorcism from the mind.

It was upon viewing F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans that a notification penetrated my senses, like a razor-tipped Post-It note lacerating the brain. In-between Murnau’s dreamy exteriorisations of character emotion and shots of drunken swine (that is, in the zoological sense, as opposed to the Hunter S. Thompson one), a modest romantic melodrama unfolds, one featuring the usual constituents of heterosexuality. In this relationship, it was the character of The Wife that caught my attention (yes, her male opposite is credited as The Man, not The Husband, but this was made 79 years ago, so we’ll forgive that deficit of egalitarianism). But it was not for the obvious reasons that her form captured my attention. No, for an uncanniness was to extemporise itself right there and then.

As the acute reader will no doubt already have gleaned (from preceding implications, plus a fastidiously created visual accompaniment), this lady bore a noticeable resemblance to someone not her. This lady, monikered Janet Gaynor at some point post-puberty, exhibited the facial signifiers of one Christina Ricci.

The likeness led to some deep cogitations on my part - at times almost causing me to miss either a wealth of superimpositions, or the Movietone sonority waltzing over the expressionistic imagery. I was backed into an alley located under a large marquee stating the blunt proclamation of Reason. What am I to do? Decipher an already-convulsed contradiction? Take some inchoate thoughts and extend them to encompass the perimeters necessary to satisfy a solution?

Well, I did consider iniquitously appropriating the already-erroneous conception of time traversal. Like, perhaps, Ricci emancipated herself from the ever-unrolling present and torpedoed herself back to 20s Hollywood to work with a German director just off the train from the Rhineland.

Frankly, the idea of Chomsky perforating the edges of a dichotomous divide between animation and reality seemed more plausible to me. But this is where the truth tumbles from its haphazardly-concealed hole.

The superficial sheets - porous from the start – can be pulled back to see what were the contents it belied so incompetently. For is it not simply an authorial requisite that has turned arbitrary pointlessness into something desultory with form?

Why, it is indeed.

Nothing beyond an obligation to project some line of thought is in play here, as bereft of content as that may be (a grievance which has many precursors). Some instinctual wants, developed out of routine, can be blamed for this.

So overwhelming is the want for metaphor. And now here is one.

Urge is carried along in a rickshaw, forever alert, and accumulating titbits of information. Piloting this vehicle are the twin monoliths of Time and Energy. They propel the contraption almost perpetually, providing little opportunity for Urge to dismount and go about his business. Occasionally both components of this thrusting force ease up just enough for Urge to escape his innate imprisonment and frolic around like a free jazz medley.

The dualistic tugging machine has just interrupted the incessant ambulation for a moment’s rest. But soon it will resume the journey - like a glacial pendulum shattered by apathy, recess dies quickly.

As for the Ricci phenomenon, lets again attribute to it mystical qualities catalysed in the core of the human mind, just this once. As for what they are exactly, I leave that up to the imagination of the spectator.